(Part 22) For the rest of this series, please go here.
Aerissa’s ears were filled with the sound of her rapid heartbeat. She was not sure where Locke was or what happened to him. But losing the connection, their link, from her mind was not a good sign. Her mind raced with horrific images of how she might find her faithful and loyal companion. Giving her head a violent shake, she willed herself to think positively.
He’ll be ok. I just have to get to him…and quickly. Hold on, Locke. Just…hold on! she pleaded within her mind.
As Aerissa darted through the woods, following the drops of blood along the ground, she felt an intermittent tug at her mind. She assumed it was Locke, trying to reach out to her. The tug felt stronger the further she went into the woods. Aerissa paused to catch her breath, eying the ground. She crouched down, rubbing her hand over the black dirt. The blood drops had ended, but there were several large paw prints present.
Looking upwards, she realized she had crossed back into the Blackened Woods. A chill ran up her spine as she continued to examine the tracks. As far as she could tell, there appeared to be two distinct sets of paw prints, but they were all over the place. Some seemed to circle about each other, others were grouped in an indiscernible mess of prints upon prints. She tried to follow them, moving along while still crouched low to the ground. She noticed one set broke off to the east. This set weaved back and forth, with a few tracks looking as though the great feline who created them had tripped or slipped.
Aerissa lowered her hand, hovering just above the print. She felt a strong tug at her mind, then heard a mournful yowl. It was so real and loud in her mind, she winced. Standing up slowly, she dusted off her pants and intended to follow the tracks east. Locke yowled again, pure pain emitting from his throat. Aerissa’s breath caught in her throat when she realized she was actually hearing him with her ears, not her mind.
Sprinting forward, she reached him momentarily. Aerissa could barely believe her eyes. Locke laid on his side, holding one bloodied paw in the air, which was bent awkwardly. His face and sides were scratched, dirty and covered with a mixture of dried and fresh blood. Patches of his fur were missing. He tried to lay still, panting hard. His eye moved rapidly, the white of his eye showing as he strained to look all around him. The look was that of a frightened, cornered animal.
Aerissa dropped to her knees beside him, holding her hand out over him, but not touching him. “Sshh, shh, relax, Locke. I’m here now. I’m here…” She did her best to choke back emotion and remain calm. His injuries looked bad, but she had no idea the full extent of them yet.
Locke whimpered, his ears flattened against his head. He licked at his nose, which was covered with dirt and blood. With each lick his body seemed to flinch and twitch. Aerissa rummaged through her pack, pulling out a skin of water and cloth.
“This might hurt a bit…” she said softly as she poured water over a piece of cloth. After wetting it, she squeezed the excess water off, then began gingerly patting at his wounds. Locke didn’t make much noise, but his breathing became increasingly ragged. He tried to stay still, but continued to flinch reflexively. Aerissa did her best to wash out his wounds, her heart sinking as each piece of cloth turned red.
The thought was strained and weak in her mind.
“Shh, Locke, don’t exert yourself. Save your strength.” Aerissa’s fears were finally being contained in the back of her mind. Her fingers began to work more nimbly and confidently at his wounds as she worked to mend what she could.
It took some time, but Aerissa eventually stopped the bleeding and bandaged all the open wounds she could see. As she searched the ground for a sturdy stick to use as a splint for his front leg, Locke tried to stand up. He whined as his legs flailed, trying to roll off his side and spring up onto his feet.
“Locke! Don’t strain yourse-” Aerissa’s jaw dropped, no further sounds escaping her lips, as she stared at two large glowing cat eyes. She blinked, looking down at Locke. When she looked back up, the eyes appeared to lower to the ground, then quickly sprung upward and forward. Straight towards her.
Aerissa fumbled for her bow, frantically trying to notch an arrow as this other Lynx leaped through the air, snarling at her. He looked mean and hungry. His eyes narrowed in on her, his prey. Although he had a frame like Locke, his coat was dull and patchy and his ribs showed through. But there was something about his eyes. They were different from Locke’s.
Finally the arrow notched onto her bowstring. She drew it back as the skeletal Lynx descended upon her, but he was too close. As she reached for her dagger instead, a blood curdling cry pierced the heavy silence of the dark woods. Locke had mustered the last of his strength to leap up, colliding with the Lynx, knocking him off course several yards from Aerissa. The Lynx landed hard, his feet unable to keep his balance. Aerissa took advantage of this opportunity by springing to her feet and firing off several arrows in rapid succession.
Locke fell to the ground, panting hard, his tongue dragging in the dirt. He rolled to his side, his eyes fluttering closed. Aerissa stood over the skeletal Lynx a moment longer, ensuring that he was no longer a threat to them.
“We did good, Locke,” she stated triumphantly over her shoulder at him. His lifeless body seen out of the corner of her eye.
“Locke?” Aerissa turned, rushing to him, but there was no response. “Locke?” Kneeling beside him, she prodded him gently, asking with urgency in her voice.
Wringing her hands, she looked around the woods and up at the sky. “Oh Locke,” she murmured, “we’ve got to get you to Tranquillien. Fast.”
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