“I told you nobody needs that many books,” Pan said as he stood up to push a branch aside. He let the branch go just as Yosha walked behind him, but she was rubbing her face and didn’t notice. Rex rushed over and caught it before it could smack into her. The powdery snow exploded all over her, though, undoing all the work she had done cleaning herself.
“Sorry, my lady,” Pan muttered.
Yosha started to speak, but suddenly her eyes went wide. “Watch out!” she barked, over and over. Rex drew his sword with a crackle of power while Pan nocked an arrow, and they both looked around, sniffing the air.
“More dogs coming,” Rex rumbled. “Nothing to worry about.”
“No, I agree with Yosha,” Pan said, as he crouched in the snow. “Something’s wrong.”
Picassa knelt down next to the terrified pug, stroking Yosha’s fur. “I hear nothing,” she murmured. “Are you sure…?”
There was a soft crunching sound in the snow. Rex turned fast, swinging his sword into a guard position in front of him. Out from the shadows of the trees, a large dog with brown, mangy fur snarled at Rex, holding a rusty blade in front of her. He watched the blade as he spoke. “We mean you no harm, pariah, but I will end your life if you endanger my companions.”
Pan spun and pointed his arrow at another dog coming out of the woods from a different direction—smaller, with mangy brindle fur and an ugly cleaver. “They’re surrounding us,” he said, his eyes darting between the brindle dog and the shadows.
“Let me talk to them,” Picassa said, stepping between Rex and the brown snarling dog. “Pariah, I am Sister Picassa Collie of Pugmire, and we….”
The brown dog swung her blade, but Rex was faster. The two swords clashed just inches from Picassa’s muzzle, and the shepherd fell back in surprise. Rex kicked his opponent in the stomach, and the brown dog fell to her knees. “Stay down, cur,” Rex growled, holding the point of his sword inches from the dog’s throat.
Pan didn’t look back at the conflict, watching the brindle dog slowly raise his cleaver. “Something’s definitely wrong, Rex,” he said over his shoulder. “They’re being too aggressive and obvious. We should….”
“Help me!” Yosha screamed as a hulking dog came out of the shadows between two trees and grabbed her. His black fur was even more scabrous than the other two dogs, covered in weeping sores and patches of exposed, bloody skin. He picked the young pug up and held her against his body. She tried to bite at him, but the black dog was too strong, and she couldn’t reach anything.
Rex turned to help Yosha, but the brown pariah grabbed his leg and pulled him down. His sword fell out of his hands, half-buried in the snow. The brown dog stood up, raising her blade over Rex’s head. Pan swore in the language of the cats and spun around, his arrow flying into the hand of the brown dog. The pariah howled in pain and clutched at her paw, giving Rex the opportunity to swing his leg around, knocking the dog back to the ground. He picked his sword up and turned for another blow.
The hulking black dog’s voice rumbled, as heavy and crisp as the snow around them. Rex and the brown pariah eyed each other while Pan nocked another arrow, looking for the brindle dog he had lost in the trees. Even Yosha stopped squirming, whimpering a little against the massive pariah’s chest.
Picassa stood up from the snow, her paws open in a gesture of peace. “We only wish to be on our way to the Weather Tower.” She took a step toward the pariah and his captive, but he only squeezed the pug tighter. Yosha yipped, and Picassa stopped. “I ask only what Man asks of us, to be a Good Dog and bite only those that endanger us. We can part as friends, and no blood needs to be shed.”
“No.” The word was definite and resolute. Rex and Pan watched the dogs, ready for an attack.
The shepherd sighed. “What can we do to be left alone?”
The black dog stared at Picassa, his dark eyes boring into hers. Again he uttered a single word, foam flecking his lips as he spoke. “Die.”
Picassa contorted her paws into a secret sign known only to the shepherds and muttered a prayer under her breath. She pointed at the pariah opposite her, and the air between them twisted, as if something dark and incredibly fast passed between them. The black dog’s eyes widened in shock before falling to his knees. Yosha fell from his grip, and the pug scampered away on all fours as she gasped for breath.
Rex snarled as he spun to stab at the brown dog, but she was gone. A deep impression in the snow was all that was left, along with some heavy paw prints leading into the woods. He called out to Pan. “Be careful. They may try again.”
Pan shook his head, looking down another arrow. “I don’t think so. They….”
The black dog stood up, snarling again. Pan’s arrow shot into the pariah’s eye, and the corpse fell on the snow with a heavy thud.
“As I was saying,” Pan continued, “I think they ran off when the big one there got zapped by the shepherd.”
Picassa dusted the snow off of her robes before going to check on Yosha. “I have learned the ancient prayers, and the Word of Man gives us strength,” she said, as she rubbed snow from Yosha’s nose and checked her breathing. “A shepherd does not ‘zap’ anything.”
Pan muttered something while Rex sheathed his sword and walked over to Yosha. “Milady, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Yosha said between breaths. “Just a little winded.” She laid down on the ground and rested her head on her paws. “Who were they?” she asked.
“Filthy pariahs,” Rex spat.
“Souls who have lost their way,” Picassa added.
“You’re both wrong,” Pan said. “Did you see their fur? Something’s wrong with them.”
“What’s wrong is that they refused to follow the Code,” Rex said, crossing his arms over his chest. “And Man has punished them for their hubris.”
The hunter snorted. “Stop thinking with your tail, you Man-damned lunk. I know pariahs. This is something else.”
Yosha stood up, ignoring the shepherd’s concern. “He’s right! I sensed something right before they attacked.”
Picassa frowned at the pug’s exuberance but stood and dusted the snow off her robes. “What did you sense, milady?”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “But my father said all the pugs in my family can smell the Enemy.”
“Man preserve us,” Rex whispered. “They were possessed by demons.”
Yosha looked at Pan. “I’m sorry. This might be worse than badgers.”