Puck ran. Through the fetid swamps and razored thorns of the Blightbark estate, he ran. He ran past branches that clawed like fingers and fingers that twisted from the ground like putrid roots. He ran through brambles that left oozing welts and scratches in their wake. He ran until his lungs were fire in his chest and his legs felt like dead stumps. He ran, but the hounds stayed close behind.
Their throaty howls sounded more like people screaming than dogs, but the hounds were bestial, fast, and totally at home in the forest. Dead leaves and gnarled branches caressed their hides as they moved through the wood, and not a single vine or blade of grass got in their way. Like shadows, Puck would see them out of the corner of his eye—twisted nightmare shapes that were playing with him, herding him someplace, Wylde only knows where.
One hound was big, muscular, and almost completely hairless. Its toned, obsidian skin bubbled and oozed with a sickening combination of pus and acidic sap. Long strings of drool dripped from its jaws, and everywhere the drool landed, weeds blackened and smoked. The other hound was long and sinewy. Clearly undead, all the flesh had been peeled back from its face until only the skull remained. Wicked teeth jabbed in every direction from its bleached skull, and the embers of its eyes shone balefully through the night. This hound had kept at least some of its fur, but other parts were as flayed as its face—bare bones and stinking meat squelching in the thick, swampy air.
Puck raised his flute in an effort to call for help yet again, but his shaking fingers and the damp fog swallowed his notes whole. Already weakened, his wild magic sputtered and failed, and as more energy uselessly drained from his limbs, the hounds struck. Growling savagely, they tore and tore and tore at Puck’s legs, teeth sinking into his ankles with a sickening crack. Tendons snapped and bones fractured; Puck fell screaming to his knees. His cloven feet flopped uselessly as he pulled himself desperately forward with one hand and swung his flute blindly with the other until it shattered, pattering harmlessly off the bony hound’s bare skull.
“Plague, Famine. Heel.” Lord Blightbark’s commanding voice cut through the night, halting the dogs in their tracks. Snarling, they stepped back, blood glistening on their teeth and claws. “Have you seen the error of your ways now, laggard?” The ghost of Blightbark’s illness threaded through his words, a dark edge to the elf’s rich baritone. Puck only whimpered, clutching at his wounds, too out of breath to beg.
“Youth, health, and for what? To spend your days drinking? Carousing?” Blightbark spat. Though his limbs were weak, threaded with age and black rot, the regal elf moved confidently through the forest, supported by a host of twisted vines. He leaned close to whisper in Puck’s ear. “You could have been faster, stronger.” He stuck a finger in one of Pucks scratches, eliciting a strangled cry. “You might even have prevented this,” he mused, rubbing Puck’s blood between his fingers. “No matter, the great cycle has a use for everything.” He smiled. “I think you will make excellent fertilizer.”
Pale arms circled Lord Blightbark’s shoulders as the hounds closed in and began to crunch and tear once more. Puck’s wailing screams streamed thick through the foggy wood. “Did you enjoy your present?” Lady Violet purred. She smelled of blood and night-blooming flowers.
“It was lovely, dear.” The screams stopped. “I always feel refreshed after a good hunt.” He turned and cupped her face, running one gentle finger across her fangs and lips before leaning in for a kiss.
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