Twenty-Three

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The boy's foot had regrown completely and it wasn't tender to walk on anymore. He was making much better progress now. He had nearly lost them in the night, but now that dawn had come, he was gaining on them. Their scent was getting stronger and more distinct. He also came across the occasional smear of blood; some tasted like Prag's, others were unfamiliar.

As the day went on, the landscape changed. The jungle gave way to a rocky canyon. A deep, cold river tumbled between wide, sandy banks flanked by great vertical walls of soft yellowish stone. The trail was easy to follow now in the sand and he gained quickly on the slow-moving group.

He slowed as he heard the trudging ahead and snuck up cautiously, stalking them like a hunting cat as Kish had shown him. It was a troublesome sight. There were men with bows, angry dogs, that magic man and his young partner that he'd seen before and four of the big metal bug things. He wanted to rescue all of his friends, but he knew that he couldn't. The arrows would fly and someone would die. He needed someone better at this than him to be free. Prag would be the best, but he didn't look like he could even walk right now. Kish would be good but she would never leave Cariolta and Cariolta was struggling to keep up. She was still too tired. Kazé then. Kazé still looked strong, he was fast and he could probably climb the rocks and escape if there was a path.

He sat for a while in thought. Then he did something new for him. It was uncomfortable and he felt a lack of confidence for the first time in his memory. He made a plan.

He bounded to the top of the cliffs and ran ahead of his quarry until he found a spot that was to his liking. There he waited. He watched from above as they approached. He felt the rhythm of the marching steps. He readied himself and he leaped. He came crashing down on top of an unprepared machine which crumpled beneath him. He locked eyes with the old wolf for a moment and then, with a glance, showed the route that he hoped Kazé would take to escape. The uncrushed bug things were already moving and, as he had hoped, the machines were nothing if not predictable. They moved to surround him with unnatural speed as the human guards fumbled to take aim. One machine charged and the other two waited to intercept the retreat. Just as he had planned, he threw his sword at the approaching metal terror. The machine easily moved its blade-hands to deflect the flying sword but the sheer mass of the blade was not calculated for and the machine went hurtling backwards as the boy followed.

He plucked the sword from the creature before it even landed and slid to a stop beside Kazé. The two nearest guards were dropping their bows and reaching for swords at the relatively leisurely pace of panicked humans. Following the motions that he'd learned from Kish, he gracefully spun and swung in a wide arc from sand to sky, splitting the first soldier in two. Twirling again around Kazé to face his other guard, he sliced back down, severing the enemy's hand at the wrist and a leg at the hip. With his free hand, he drew and threw the damaged soldier's blade at the first of the dogs that had been loosed at him just like he imagined Prag would.

He pulled his gleaming silver sword high again as he cut the snout off of the next dog as it approached. His back, though, had been exposed too long. The two metal monsters had regrouped and he felt four blades slide through his chest. He threw his own sword down to the sand with all of his strength. It crashed down and he flew up, removing the scything blades from their owner's arms, but not from his torso. Sand flew high into the sky from the impact of the blade, obscuring all vision.

The boy smiled weakly as the dust slowly cleared and he crashed back to the earth. His plan had worked almost as he had wanted. Each stroke of his blade had sliced through one of Kazé's shackles unnoticed as he cut down his enemies. The final throw cut the last shackle and put up a screen of dust through which Kazé could escape unnoticed.

The old wolf was half way up the cliffs before anyone noticed him missing. A few poorly placed shots were all that the soldiers could get off before the wolf was out of sight. The machines were too set on their initial prey to take notice or give chase. The boy smiled slightly as things went dark and cold. He thought that Prag might be proud and that Kazé might be able to make everyone safe and that maybe now he wouldn't be so very hungry.

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