In the middle of the night, I awoke to a low growl. Confused, I groggily fought my way up through thick layers of sleep to realize it was Misha. Fully awake now, I shushed him and listened. Faint footfalls crunched outside. Whoever it was, they weren’t on top of us yet, but they weren’t far away. I shook Pip awake and held a finger to my lips as she blinked up at me. Misha growled again, making Pip sit straight up in her sleeping bag.
“Get the gun,” I whispered. “And hold onto him,” I gestured at Misha, who stared intently at the tent flap. I dug my large hunting knife out of my bag and unsheathed it. “And don’t shoot me,” I added.
“Don’t go out there!” Pip hissed.
“It’ll be ok,” I said. “You remember how to use that, right?”
“Yes, but I still don’t think you should go.”
“It’ll be ok,” I repeated, as much for myself as for her. I unzipped the flap as quietly as I could.
Misha twitched behind me, but Pip held him tightly in the crook of her left arm. In her right hand, she clutched the gun, her finger loosely on the trigger. “Be right back,” I whispered. “If you see anyone who isn’t me, shoot them.” I slipped out before she could answer, leaving the flap open in my wake.
Holding my knife in front of me, I crept away from the tent, every muscle in my body tense with anticipation. The clouds had dissipated, leaving a clear, moonlit night. I didn’t see anyone in the immediate area. Our fire had gone out. I crouched low and made my way around the smoldering pit to the check on the horses.
Dancer huffed and regarded me with huge, calm brown eyes, his scruffy coat in desperate need of brushing. I gave him a good scratch. Blitzen shook her head and whinnied, shoving her nose at me to be stroked too. They didn’t seem upset. Perhaps what we’d heard were simply sounds of the winter forest settling for the night.
Just as I had the thought, a huge arm covered in stinking fur grabbed me around my neck and a grimy hand clamped roughly over my mouth. I sputtered and backed up into what felt like a brick wall. Without thinking, I stomped down hard with my right boot and shoved my butt out as far as I could, surprising him and breaking his hold on me. I whirled around and got low, grunting like an animal and diving for his knees. I didn’t manage to knock him over, but I drove my knife deep into his inner thigh just above his knee. When I heard the solid wet ‘thock’ of its hilt hitting his flesh, I jerked it up all the way up to his groin, severing his femoral artery.He didn’t so much fall as crumble to a sitting position on the snow. He grabbed at his leg and looked at me. I scuttled backward on my butt like a crab, putting a couple more feet between us even though I was pretty sure he was bleeding out. “Demon,” he hissed. “I know you.” I crept forward again, my bloody knife held before me like an offering. “Get away from me,” he said.“You’re dying,” I said back. “How many of you are there?”
“All of us. We’re coming for you.”
“Yes, but how far away?” I asked, exasperated. We didn’t have time for this. I was absolutely sure he was part of a group.
“We’re everywhere,” he said, fading. The blood beneath him was turning black, growing like a cartoon shadow. “You and your little girlfriend are going to die.”
“Not before you,” I said, rising. I looked around in the gloom. The horses huffed and stomped their feet. Was it possible he’d been alone? Maybe just a scout?
As I turned to go back to the tent a single gunshot shattered the stillness of the night. I broke into a run, skidding through muddy snow, sliding to a stop just beyond the fire pit. A body lay in a heap outside the tent. It was too large to be Pip. Cautiously I approached and leaned over. I could tell it was a man, or formerly a man, but that was all. His face had been completely obliterated from the point-blank shot. I peered into the tent, saw a smoking barrel, and Pip’s pale face beyond. “Are you ok?” I asked her.
“Misha’s gone!” she cried, pushing her way out of the tent. “He ran away when I fired the gun!”
“We’ve got to go, Pip. Others are coming.” I began throwing things into my pack and stuffing them down. Gently I took the gun from Pip. Her hands were shaking.
“We can’t leave Misha!” she yelled at me.
“Pip, we have to go. They’ll kill us, or worse. Get your stuff now!”She rolled up her sleeping bag quickly and secured it to her pack, zipping up her parka. Mine was already done and strapped to my pack. “I’ll get the horses. You stay here,” I ordered.