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Strength

Rin held her breath, her small hands pressed over her mouth. In her chest, her heart beat a thousand times per minute, threatening to burst free with each palpitation. Tears brought on by terror and despair welled at her eyes. Around her cold darkness coiled, twisting closer and closer.

They cowered, as the town around them rioted in the screams of agony and chaos. As the monsters stalked the streets and drenched the cobble in blood. As the endless painfilled cries quieted to dying whimpers and silent gasps of unspent breath. As the monsters pacing and scratching and howling became the life of the little town.

The only warmth in her world was a rough hand on her shoulder. It radiated strength, though the arm it was attached to trembled.

They hid between the stove and the back wall, hidden in the darkest shadow her sister had been able to find. Her sister crouched beside her, one hand on Rin’s shoulder, one hand on the hilt of her sword. She watched what remained of the doorway with unflinching eyes. She was Rin’s last defender.

Silently, they prayed that they would go unnoticed in the chaos. Silently, they prayed that the beasts beyond their fragile hiding place would leave without finding them. Silently, they prayed that the creatures would fill themselves on others.

Silently, a shadow loomed in the doorway.

Her sister clutched her close. A desperate prayer that the shadow would move on without them. A forlorn farewell if it did not.

A black snout passed over the boundary of the room with a primal snort, followed by the pad of claws on wood.

Her sister pushed her away slowly, putting a finger to her lips, a valiant sadness in her eyes.

The beast, stalked forward, eyeless sockets glowing a ghastly green. Its body had the basic form of a hound, if a hound was to be five feet tall at the shoulder. Its legs were elongated like a spider’s and its back arched like a stretching cat. Its skull was like a jackal’s, its lips parted in a perpetual smile, revealing ebony teeth glistening in the moonlight.

Her sister crept forward, to the absolute edge of their cover, as the creature approached.

Don’t come. Don’t see us. Don’t find us. Don’t come.

It came. One foot after the next. Further and further into the room.

Her sister glanced over her shoulder one last time, her face silhouetted by the moon’s light. Was there fear in her eyes? Did she bite her lip as she leaped from their hiding place? Was there hesitation in her mad rush toward the beast?

Rin didn’t see it if there was. She could only clench her hands over her mouth as she bit back an anguished scream. Could only bite back tears that could only become gasping sobs. Could barely control herself as she watched her sister drive her sword forward.

The beast lunged forward to meet the swordswoman, maw wide, claws extended. Like a dancer on the stage, she twisted between the incoming blows, driving her sword into its chest. Shouting the name of her familiar, a plume of fire exploded out the back of the beast coalescing into a fox.

The monster howled, its voice relighting the cacophony of the night. Around them more beastly screams filled the night, all of them growing closer by the second. The sound raked at Rin’s soul, grating at her ears, promising pain unending. In vain, she pressed her hands to her ears, hoping for some respite.

Even Rin’s sister was unable to stand in the wake of the monstrous call. She fell to her knees, one hand pressed to an ear, the other clasping the hilt of her sword with all the strength she could muster. Her teeth clenched in pain, she held even as the creature thrashed under her blade.

Her familiar’s name crossed her lips again. Barely a whisper. Completely drowned out under the howl of the beasts.

The fox darted into the creature, becoming a flaming arrow as it connected with its body. The arrow burned straight through the beast, carving a hole through its lung.

The creature’s howl became a strangled, gurgling scream, jerking away from her, wrenching her sword from its body as it pulled away.

Rin’s sister struggled to her feet, her face pale from the expenditure of magic required in empowering her familiar as she had. She held her sword in both hands, its tip raised between herself and the creature. Her fox flitted to her shoulder, enveloping her like a cape of fire, its ruby eyes meeting the monster’s green even as her own head hung in exhaustion.

Pushing past her exhaustion, willing herself through the soul-crushing howls closing in on her, dodging between the dagger-sharp claws that swiped just over her skin, she drove her blade into the beast’s flesh again and again. Words of magic coated her sword in flames, burning through the rotting muscle and unholy sinew.

But she could only dodge for so long before a lucky swipe sunk into her shoulder. She could only push for so long before exhaustion slowed her sword and dampened her strikes. Will alone could only inflict so much damage on the near-immortal beast before her before its pack closed in on her.

Under the crescent moon, she stood over the broken and ichor-oozing monster. Around her, in every direction, in the doorway, looming on the precipice of the broken roof, balanced with alien grace upon the ruined walls, more of them stood. Their eyeless gaze bore in on her, as she pulled her blade from the first monster’s heart.

Blood dripped down her side and her arm. It ran in crimson streams, hissing as it ran near her flaming familiar. It oozed from her forehead, from her shoulder, from her thigh. It covered her hands, her tunic, her boots—mixing with the blue-black ichor of her subjugated foe.

For a moment, as they all looked down on her, the night was silent. Only the wind, carrying the dying cries of distant victims, echoed in the dark.

And the moment passed.

All of them were on her.

Claws slashed at her. The first dodged, the second knocked to the side by her blade, the third burned to ash by her familiar.

Jaws snapped at her. The first evaded, the second choking on her blade, the third biting only flames.

But there were far more than four.

And she was only human.

She screamed as one clamped down on her shoulder. Tears poured from her eyes as another ripped off a leg. Madness was all she could be left with as they devoured her alive.

But she did not succumb to madness. Through her agony, she called out to her familiar one last time. In one last tortured scream, she released everything she had left and anything she might have ever had.

And the flames answered.

It was their turn to devour.

Rin did not know how long she watched the fire. Did not know if it took a minute or several hours for the flames to consume all trace of the beasts and her sister. Did not know if the ash she found herself covered in was the remains of humans, beasts, or buildings. Did not know if the inferno she had stumbled through was the result of her sister’s fire unrestrained or of the preceding chaos.

She would never know how she managed to find her way to the village entrance. Would never remember collapsing there in the ashen snow. Could never say how she had managed to retrieve her sister’s sword.

But she would remember the fire. The indomitable heat. The scorching air. The smoke that consumed her lungs.

And she would remember her sister’s expression as she unleashed her final, suicidal blast. Eyes unbroken, despite tears. Mouth curled in a pained smile as they howled the sacred name of her familiar.

She would remember what strength looked like.

And her own crippling weakness.

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