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Song Suggestion: Welcome Home (Unplugged) by Break of Reality
The creature who now stood between the Grim Hunt and Tomas was not a man, headless or otherwise, no matter that he looked the part. The Bargheist, people called him. And though no child Tomas had ever spoken to had seen him, their parents always told the young ones to hold tight to their stuffed bears, for the Bargheist, once a spirit of the wood, was now a guardian of the village. He would always come when he was needed, but it was children he protected best.
All the children outgrew their belief and, eventually, their bears were tucked away in chests or wardrobes, forgotten by all until their own children had need of them. Only Nicolas had still believed it, Tomas realized, and he was glad of that, even though he might have laughed at his friend only a few hours before.
Nico tugged at Tomas’ arm, pulling him back, out of the ring, close to the Bargheist’s horse. The creature did not smell bad, but around him hung a scent like burning wood on the hearth. There was heat rolling off him, as though, beneath his black, glimmering hide, there was fire rather than flesh. The riders shifted, wicked eyes turning to mark the boys. But the Bargheist’s beast struck at the cobbles, snorting. Sparks burst from his hoof and the Dorchashee danced away, ears flattened and sharp teeth bared. Tomas did not want to think what sort of devil might frighten a night mare.
The Huntsman struck at the Bargheist without warning, swinging his long, heavy sword as though it weighed no more than a feather. But he did not catch the Bargheist unaware. Sword met sword in a resounding clang and shower of bright sparks. Tomas jumped and yanked Nicolas through the gap the Bargheist’s horse had cut through the Hunt, running for his house. He simply could not stay there; between the night mares, which carried terror with them like a cloak, and the sword fight; his nerve had broken and he could not bear to stand there any longer. He knew they would not make it, that they were safer with the protective spirit that had come to them and that he had let panic ruin them, but he could not stop himself. Later, he might be ashamed of that terror fueled flight, but, in that moment, he was only a boy who was nowhere near the man his father thought he ought to be and he desperately wanted the safety of his own bed.
The Bargheist’s horse went with them, but the Hunt, in seeing their prey take flight while their master fought, had forgotten their fear of the beast and chased after. Arrows rained down, shattering like icicles on the cobbles. Spears whistled past and fell with a clatter. The hounds began to bay and Tomas could smell their hot, stinking breath. Nico grabbed him and jerked him sideways hard enough that he nearly fell as a hound’s jaws, full of jagged teeth that stuck like splinters from a twisted maw, snapped shut where his leg had just been. Nicolas kept dragging him sideways and Tomas saw why; there was an open door filled with bright, golden light close by. He realized it was the furnace of the smithy, lit and stoked until it was hellishly bright. Marisola stood, bathed in the brilliant gold, beckoning to them, her face pinched and white.
Tomas glanced behind and saw that the Hunt was too close. Two riders had strung a net between them. Hounds rippled out of the fog, snapping at the Bargheist’s horse. They were tall and thick, their fur matted with something that looked like blood. The fur along their back spiked up like bones. Their wicked eyes flared with green hell-light and their twisted muzzles were long and sharp. The horse snorted at them and some skittered away, but others, crazed with the hunt, ran forward. The horse did not run. Its eyes blazed and it struck out with teeth and hoof, crushing the hounds as they swarmed. But more came, circling the horse. They were between the boys and the their only protection. The net swept across the cobbles as the rest of the Hunt raced toward them, shouting and laughing with the excitement of closing on their quarry.