Chapter 10: A dark stranger

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Recap: Four of Camlin's sentries were lost to the jungle the first night. The Connarii press on through the red jungle with no sign of an enemy the next day, but the people grow tired of journeying. Camlin seizes the opportunity to gain a following, promoting a settlement in opposition to Toryn's leadership. Aislynn is swept up in another vision and predicts mass deaths in their future.

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A wave of heat peaked in contrast to the slowly lowering sun, tangible only as a deepening of shadows as the day's march progressed through the afternoon. The dense, leafy canopy, layer upon layer, sucked down and held the warmth of the sun while filtering most of the light above. The very earth seemed to sweat.

Toryn sped up in search of Edana, more than ready to call a halt for the day. Apparently she'd gone on ahead of the main body of her troops to check in with her scouts. Camlin burst through the trees to his right in a clatter of swishing leaves and snapping branches.

"There's something out there!" Camlin barreled ahead, flanked by two wild-eyed guards. "Form a perimeter! Ready yourselves!"

Toryn was not at all impressed by the boy's urgency. Camlin had been overreaching lately, gaining too much authority among his peers. He might be a useful foil for Edana and a skilled fighter, but Toryn had had enough of his overeager social aspirations. Time to bring him to heel.

"You've seen wild animals before, Camlin." Toryn wiped his face, peering down his nose at the boy. He had to tilt his head back a bit to do it. "What exactly is it that has caused a captain of my guard to make such a spectacle of himself?"

"It- I..." Camlin wetted his bottom lip and swallowed, caught off-balance. "There – there's something out there! It's horrible, a monster- a demon! That creature that killed my sentries is coming back for more! Get your spears; get your swords. Whatever it was, it's coming after us. Look!"

Toryn felt his hair lift as the boy pointed. It might have been the wrong moment to address Camlin's insubordination, now that he thought of it. He clamped down the temptation to whip around in a panic and turned with magnificent self-possession to stare into the thick underbrush between a close-growing patch of trees.

Toryn's pulse jumped as he peered through the shifting rust-dark shadows, following the line of Camlin's outflung arm. There! A deeper darkness, too large and too still for comfort, loomed ten feet above the ground, wedged between two trees. Several feet higher than that, two patches of pure black flanked the larger shadow. A black tail hung down from one, twitching. A low rumble swelled out of the darkness. Toryn's knees trembled as he drew his sword.

Toryn's focus snapped back down to the original shadow as a hand extended from the darkness, dirt-stained palm out. Then the leaves rustled and a very tall, very tanned man flipped out of a tree and landed on all fours directly in front of Toryn, knocking the sword out of the Connari chieftain's hand with a bare foot, before slithering backwards a couple steps. The black shadows leaped from their perches to land lightly beside the stranger, and Camlin raised a spear over his head, his guards falling over themselves to draw. Edana skidded out of the bushes directly behind the stranger and his beasts, poised to attack. She yelled and the creatures – enormous black wildcats, or something much like – howled and spat, whirling to face her.

"Stop!" Toryn flung a hand up in command.

The stranger gazed at Toryn with round eyes, apparently unconcerned with the arsenal pointed in his direction, his gaze open and curious as straightened. He towered at least a foot taller than any of the Connarii men, his intimidatingly muscled and scarred physique entirely and unselfconsciously on display. He stood stone still, watching without fear as Camlin begrudgingly lowered his spear, the other scouts following his lead.

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