The sun set slowly—its lingering light giving a bloody hue to the underbellies of plump purple clouds. In the opposite sky, ebony and indigo hues ruled Katja’s eyes, punctuated by the pale piercing of night’s first star. Somewhere in the distance, a dove called mournfully upon the soft breeze. The sun was half a paw’s width above the dark landscape. Shadows already stretched across the ground and the wind was winding in cool whispers through the tangled trees surrounding the river. Katja traced the long shadows with her eyes and then turned to look at the northern length of the river. There, she felt rather then saw the canyon wall that was the barrier to her haven. She smelled water chafe against stone and lush green growth and heard the rushing flow of swirling water suddenly cascade into a long forgotten chasm.
As the werecat recognized these sensations, it seemed as if a painted veil was suddenly ripped away from her sight to reveal that the forest a spruce-score away from her position was nothing more than an artful illusion. What she now saw was not endless forest but the majesty of the ancients’ Crown Canyon. The rough-hewn granite towered above her, a gray colossus of jagged stone walls. Its height breached the clouds as if it wished to touch all the stars in the heavens.
Katja shuddered back from that immensity and squinted at the river. It swept down into the canyon mouth after straining through a series of rapids and then dropped sharply to fill the lake below with its frothy contents.
“Creator, give me strength!” Katja whispered to the night.
She carefully rose onto all four paws. She swayed, feeling the heavy ache of weariness grip her bones and muddy her wits. Raw determination proved the only way she kept alert and moving.
She crawled along a stout branch that twisted across another tree’s bough and then laboriously hauled herself onto that bough. She followed the bough to the tree’s crown and then hopped onto another neighboring limb. She bounded from limb to limb and tree to tree following the tangled pattern of living wood toward the steep cliff walls. She dared not touch the ground again, lest one of Curqak’s minions sniff out her scent trail and catch her. Even so the water dripping off of her fur and her rucksack onto the leaves far below made her sick with worry.
Roughly half of a spruce-length away from the cliff’s base, Katja discovered an odd break in the entangled trees. At close inspection, she noticed that any branch growing near the break curled away from a certain spot as if flinching away from an invisible barrier. That barrier seemed to completely encircle the entire canyon, rising up between the grass blades and penetrating high into the dark dome of the night sky.
Katja crawled the length of a limb close to the barrier and cautiously reached out one clawed forepaw. Her paw touched something seemingly solid. She jerked her arm back and stared at the place her paw had touched. The print of her paw was outlined in rainbow hues swirling through midair. She watched the shimmering outline grow larger. The circle broke as if it was merely an iridescent bubble and a circular opening formed in the barrier large enough for her to walk through. What had existed as the center of the gap now streamed toward Katja as an iridescent walkway floating high above the ground.
Katja hesitated a moment. What if she fell? She was three body-lengths above the ground and this pathway smelled highly irregular. On the other paw, Katja knew that the deadwalkers were still hunting her and would find her soon if she stayed here. So she must either step across this threshold of faith or stay here to fight and die alone.
A hackle-raising groan came from somewhere behind her and its sound sealed her decision. Katja’s hind paw touched the surface of the pathway and found it to be soft but resilient. Quickly she stepped onto the path with her other hind paw to try to steady the first. Once she’d regained her balance, the werecat moved quickly across the gap and onto the outstretched limb of a tree hugging the base of the canyon wall on the other side of the Ring Spells’ wall.
Katja turned to see the walkway dissolve back into the iridescent opening and fill the breach in the barrier. An audible pop signaled the barrier’s invincibility once more. It closed not a moment too soon. A moment later, a deadly shadow crawled up the tree she had just vacated on the other side of the Ring Spells.
The deadwalker shifted its head from side to side snuffling the air. The little werecat sat frozen in fear. Could he see her? She should be in perfect view from its perch in the tree. But as Katja watched its thoughtless eyes shift in their decrepit sockets, she realized that they seemed to slide off the barrier to look toward the forest on either side.
Katja watched the monster that was once a living being. This deadwalker’s skin looked more like a tattered cloak covering bare bones and oozing organs. Its eyes were milky with barely a trace of rounded black pupil and none of the dangerous intelligence she seen in the ghoul Curqak’s eyes. This fiend seemed to possess neither wit nor will, and, as it shifted its body, Katja saw in horror that it possessed only misery. The deadwalker’s back was covered with deep claw-marks, whiplashes, and bites.
The brute finally gave up and slowly clambered out of the tree to drop heavily onto the ground far below it. Katja cringed at its awkward landing; the same jump would have earned her several broken bones. The deadwalker, however, seemed to feel no pain as it loped easily away in the direction of the river.
“Rathfe,” she whispered the Felis word for slave in utter shock.
This was no ordinary rathfe either. It was a rathfe ol sere—a soul-slave, or zombie as humans called them. So the clan tales were true; the deadwalkers did enslave their own depraved kind.
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