The woods were full of little noises, from the creaking of trees to the drip, drip, dripping of melting snow, as well as the sudden, quick noises of small animals moving just out of sight, startled by the passing of the two young men. Terra walked in front, his eyes on the trail of devastation left by whatever beast had attacked the woodcutter, while Kota trailed behind, gazing up and around at the tall, dark trees and the patches of sky between the bare, reaching branches.
The gray sky became night, and a few stars managed to appear among the masses of clouds drifting overhead, but still they followed the trail. It was not hard to follow, and the stars provided enough light that Terra insisted on waiting to bring out a light until they were tripping over rocks and roots and Kota nearly walked into a tree.
“Fine, there should be one in the pack,” Terra said, making Kota turn around so that he could open the one on his back. After some rummaging around, he passed Kota something and then turned on a tube that, after some adjusting, shot out a dim, greenish light. “Mage device. At this setting it shouldn’t affect our night vision too bad if we need to turn it off.”
“A knife?” Kota asked, looking at the thin blade Terra had given him.
“Just in case.” Terra closed the pack and slapped Kota on the back. “Erin would kill me if I let anything happen to you, right?”
Kota did not know how to answer that, so he silently turned the blade over a few times before sticking it in his belt. He knew he would never use it, but figured it would make Terra feel better knowing he had it.
“What do you think attacked the woodcutter?” Terra asked as they continued walking.
“You don’t think it was the wolf?”
“Does this really look like a wolf’s doing?” Terra pointed at the wide trail. “Even if there was more than one, I doubt they would run this close together for so long. This was one creature, that clearly isn’t trying to stay hidden.”
“Or is too scared to care about anything following it.”
Terra looked at Kota again, who rubbed the back of his head and looked away. The hunter waved the light over the ground and said, “It attacked someone.”
“But didn’t kill him,” Kota said without thinking and flinched.
Terra froze, and Kota thought that he was thinking of a response to that, but when the hunter spoke he said, “Do you hear that?”
Kota strained his ears, and just barely made out the crackling of twigs and a rough, heavy breathing. He nodded at Terra, and the hunter moved closer so that he could whisper, “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and get a look at this thing, and, no offense, but you’re going to get in that tree there and wait for me. Got it?”
Kota looked at the tree and back at Terra to see if he was serious. When the hunter failed to crack a smile, Kota shrugged and grabbed the lowest branch of the tree before swinging himself up with hardly a noise.
Terra nodded and tossed the light up to Kota before drawing an arrow to his bow and continuing on, his eyes searching this way and that. Kota leaned as far as he could and watched until Terra disappeared out of sight before sitting back against the trunk with a sigh. He supposed it was a good sign that the hunter thought so little of him, but it did little to soothe him as he shivered and pulled the jacket up to his ears to block out the sharp wind tugging at the tree.
Kota tilted his head, listening hard to hear the ragged breaths over the wind, but after a minute or so he was sure that it was getting closer every second. Even worse, it now seemed to be coming from the wrong direction. He tried to tell himself that it was just a trick of the wind, but he could not blame the wind for the silver silhouette that crashed through the brush underneath the tree.
“Oh, God,” Kota murmured. He shifted his weight and watched the beast stagger over its own trail, noting the dark line over its long, arched neck.
Terra called from up ahead, his exact words drowned out by the noise below. Kota supposed he must have found where the trail circled around, but all of his attention was on the creature, which turned its head at the noise and pawed the ground with one of its bright, shining hooves.
Kota shouted at the same moment that the hunter came into sight, but the unicorn lowered its head and charged, ignoring the distraction. An arrow hit the trunk of the tree just as Kota swung himself to the ground, but he saw Terra hit the ground and roll out of the way of the trampling hooves.
The unicorn turned without slowing in its step, and Kota shouted and waved his arms until it went for him instead of the prone figure on the ground. He swallowed and waited until the last possible second before dodging and running alongside the unicorn, an easy task as the beast was flagging now, its breath coming in increasingly harsher gasps.
On the other side of the clearing, Terra sat up and saw Kota pull his knife out of his belt and grab something on the unicorn’s neck without slowing his step. The beast ran on, dragging the young man in its wake as it tossed its head and tried to gore him with its long, pointed horn or throw him to the ground.
Terra glanced at his broken bow, swore, and pulled an arrow out of his quiver as he ran to Kota’s aid. By the time he got there, the young man fell away and hit the ground without moving. The unicorn continued on for a few more steps before stopping and turning to look back at them. While its chest heaved, the ragged, hoarse breathing had stopped, and the eyes had lost the mad, panicked look from just before it tried to kill him.
When it failed to charge again, Terra dropped to one knee beside Kota, the arrow still ready as a last ditch weapon. “Kota?”
“Sorry,” Kota murmured. He opened his raw and bleeding hands to reveal Terra’s knife and a length of rusted barb wire. “I think I ruined your knife.”
“You….That was on it?”
Kota pointed at his neck, and now that Terra looked he could see the red line around the unicorn’s neck, in profile now as it slowly walked past them, one eye trained on the pair until it passed and continued on, deeper into the forest.
“Pain, couldn’t breathe,” Kota said, in between his own gasps, and Terra nodded. They both could imagine the unicorn’s attempts to rid itself of the wire, only to drive it further in.
“And scared animals lash out,” Terra finished for him, and Kota sighed. Upon closer inspection, he found that Kota had actually passed out. “Here we go, give me your pack.”
He pulled the pack off of Kota and, after digging some strips of cloth out, put it on his own back, adjusting the quiver so that he could carry both. He tied the cloth around Kota’s hands to stop the bleeding and heaved the young man onto the shoulder opposite the quiver with a grunt.
“Guess I owe you for saving my life,” he muttered, and knew he would keep reminding himself of that on the long walk back to the inn. He looked up and saw that the clouds had cleared. With the sun due to come up any time now, at least it would be a beautiful day.