Geneviève Gauthier marched toward the paddock with her rifle at the ready, a conjure light at her hip, and her dog, Hugo, glued to her side. He had alerted her to an intruder, one that had given her the slip three nights running.
Her sheep huddled at the edge of their enclosure, as far from the trees as possible. The barn doors, which she had secured earlier, hung open. Spirits had given her trouble in the past and she might blame them if not for the steady, unchanged glow of the warding charms.
A dark shape ambled toward Geneviève. She swiveled, catching the creature in the sphere of lantern light. One of the sheep squinted at her from the wrong side of the fence.
Geneviève huffed. “How did you get out?”
Hugo tensed against her, pressing so closed that his low growl rumbled up her leg. He pointed his nose at a spot out by the tree line.
She cursed her old eyes and the wan light. “Keep ‘em in your sight, Hugo.” She trusted his senses more than her own, anyway.
Geneviève ushered the rogue ewe along the edge of the fence. A small breeze caught the open gate, making it creak. She’d secured the latch when she’d put the sheep away for the evening, just as she’d done with the barn. Just as she did every night.
She pushed the ewe into the safety of the enclosure, shut the gate, and tested it. It held.
A hush rested over the surrounding forest. The intruder waited out there, watching, no doubt. Geneviève made for the trees, but Hugo caught her sleeve in his teeth and whined. She disentangled herself from his mouth and, with a soft whistle, jerked her head towards the forest. Hugo hesitated, but padded alongside her.
They crept along the outside of the fence, coming in close to the trees. Hugo’s hackles rose beneath her hand.
Her boot squelched in something and skidded over the grass. She threw out an arm to catch herself on the fence, and Hugo pressed his weight into her legs to steady her. She thanked him with a pat on his rump.
Geneviève lifted her boot. Wet matter clung to the treads. She angled her hip, and the faint lantern light shone off a bloody slip of skin and wool that sported a partial imprint of her boot. She gagged into her sleeve.
A wet snap cut the night air, startling Geneviève. She fumbled for the light, killing it and leaving her eyes to adjust to the moonlight. Hugo growled beside her.
Geneviève took three slow crouching steps towards the sound. Halfway between the fence and the trees, a hulking mass of shadow hunched over something. The hump of its massive shoulders hitched with every crunch.
She’d imagined the intruder as a prankster, one of the village miscreants. Not this creature. Pulse pounding in her ears, Geneviève clicked a stunner round into place and prayed to Tepith it’d be enough.
The shape’s pointed ears stood at attention, and its chewing stilled. Moonlight reflected off the glowing disc of the creature’s eye and glistened on the pulpy strings of meat dangling from its sharp teeth.
Geneviève’s heart thumped and her throat went dry, even as moisture pooled in her palms and slickened her grip on the gun. She couldn’t cry out and she didn’t dare run. Hugo stayed pressed against her, just as frozen.
The creature rocked back, breaking the spell, and rose onto its hind legs. It released the remains of the poor creature clutched in its claws, letting wet flesh slap against the dried grass.
The smell of fresh death hit Geneviève, churned her stomach and weakened her knees. The moon-like lamps of the creature’s eyes bore into her. Its long tail twitched. Hugo twitched in response.
Geneviève raised her gun. The creature bolted. She got off one shot, and another, but both projectiles struck bark.
Hugo snarled and launched after the creature
“Hugo! Stop!” Geneviève grabbed for his collar, but he slipped past her. He, too, disappeared into the trees, where a deep growl answered his own.
He yipped, then silence. Geneviève croaked out his name.
She trotted forward, numb. Had the forest gone silent, or was her thundering pulse washing out all other sound? She cranked her conjure light and scanned the trees for any sign of Hugo. Instead, she stumbled on the mangled remains of the sheep.
The beast had torn out its throat, leaving a wound so deep that its head barely remained attached.
Heat rose behind Geneviève’s eyes, and she scrubbed away the prickle of tears with her sleeve. Hugo, that idiot dog. He’d lived too long and too well to meet a fate like this now.
The undergrowth rustled, sending her exhausted heart racing anew. She aimed the gun at where she guessed the beast’s chest would appear.
Hugo limped out of the trees. Geneviève dropped to her knees, dizzy with relief. She set the gun down and welcomed him into her arms.
Four nasty gashes streaked his side, and he flinched at her touch
“Oh, Hugo,” she said softly. He licked her chin and nuzzled her hand. “Let’s get inside and patch you up.”
A thin wail quavered through the trees. It sent a shiver through Geneviève, and Hugo’s panting breath thinned into a whine. They trotted side by side, back to the farmhouse and the hope of safety.