The Peryton

Akril 6-25-08

It all started that one night at the tavern. Cyril and his friend Dorcas had been drinking together long into the night when Dorcas excused himself from his companion's table and stepped outside. When he didn't return for some time, Cyril walked to the tavern's door and peered out. After a few seconds of squinting into the darkness through inebriated eyes, he saw a body sprawled in the middle of the street. Kneeling beside the body was a young man with fair hair, and standing nearby was a large horse, its reins clasped in the man's hand.

For a moment, Cyril stood stupefied in the doorway. Then he glanced at the body in the street and saw that the garments it was wearing were identical to Dorcas'. Cyril madly rushed out of the tavern. The fair-haired man kneeling by the body looked up. When he saw Cyril approaching, he bolted to his feet, swung himself into the horse's saddle and urged it to a gallop. By the time Cyril had reached the body, the horse had rounded a corner and was gone.

Cyril bent down and discovered that the body was indeed that of Dorcas. He was alive, but unconscious. When Cyril and several other men carried Dorcas into the tavern, they found that Dorcas had been injured badly, and after hearing Cyril's account of what he had seen, hypothesized that Dorcas had passed out in the street and the fair-haired man's horse had trampled him.

Despite Cyril's best efforts to help his friend, Dorcas was dead by the following morning. Cyril had nearly gone mad with grief, and most men in his position would have spent several months in mourning before accepting the death and moving on -- but Cyril was not like most men. He had always been a somewhat eccentric, ill-natured creature, and Dorcas' death seemed to twist him even more. Cyril vowed to find the fair-haired man who was responsible for what happened to Dorcas and kill that man himself.

This was the story that one of the tavern's regular patrons related to Liam several days later. Liam was a young man who had recently left his home to learn a trade and had become an apprentice to the town carpenter. He was also the only fair-haired man in the entire town.

"But I've never even been to this tavern before," Liam protested. "And I've never even ridden a horse."

"Be that as it may," said the older man who had told Liam what had happened to Dorcas, "The only thing we know for certain is that Cyril believes that you killed his friend, and is hell-bent on avenging his death at any cost. We've all told the poor fool not to go through with this, but we might as well be speaking to him in another language, for all the attention he gives us."

Liam nodded and sighed, remembering the day he had first met Cyril. There had been a knock on the shop's door and since Liam's employer was busy, Liam had answered it to find a short, stout man with bristly dark hair and narrow eyes glaring up at him. The man stood there, quivering and breathing heavily for several seconds. When Liam cautiously opened his mouth to speak, the man launched into a cacophonous diatribe that everyone on Liam's street must have heard, calling Liam a cowardly murderer that deserved to die in the same way his victim did. Every question Liam asked the stranger was ignored, and the man eventually finished his tirade with the promise that he would find a way to kill Liam, no matter how long it took, no matter what lengths he would have to go to. With that, he turned and walked away.

Liam was perplexed at first, then began to suspect that somebody was playing some sort of joke on him. Yet in the days that followed, he would sometimes see that man in the streets of the village, and whenever their eyes met, the man would give him a cold, penetrating stare that seemed to shoot straight through Liam's eyes and pierce his mind. He didn't see how a short, broad-faced man could unsettle him so much, yet as time passed, Liam began to grow increasingly nervous.

He contemplated what he could possibly do to escape the stranger's wrath, and eventually decided to go to the tavern that the stranger had mentioned in his outburst, hoping that the people there might be able to shed some light on who the stranger was and why he thought Liam had killed his friend. Liam also surmised that this action might somehow convince the stranger that he was innocent -- after all, why would a murderer revisit the place where he had been caught in the act?

Liam's visit to the tavern proved to be only partially successful: several of the people there knew about the stranger, and by the way they spoke about him, they seemed to agree that he was just as mad as Liam thought he was. However, the very next day Liam encountered Cyril again, and this time Cyril walked right up to him and scowled at him.

"Don't think I haven't forgotten about you," he snarled. "Enjoy your days while you can, murderer, for this one might just be your last."

He then turned and walked off before Liam could come up with a suitable reply. Liam was filled with anxiety in the days that followed, unsure whether to be truly afraid for his life or brush off Cyril's threats merely as feeble attempts to frighten him. Liam began growing so anxious that after the carpenter closed up the shop for the day, Liam would walk to the tavern and spend as much as he could afford on the cheapest ale the place had to offer. The drink was able to keep his worries at bay, even if it was only for a short while.

One night, as Liam stood leaning against the outside wall of the tavern with his usual mug of ale in his hand, he heard a feeble voice pipe up from a few feet away:

"Say, lad, could you see it in your heart to give this poor, impoverished soul a copper or two?"

Liam turned to see a cloaked figure sitting hunched in a chair close by. It was impossible to tell whether the figure was a man or a woman because of the looseness of the cloak, but its voice had revealed that it was indeed the latter.

"I'm afraid I haven't any coins with me now," Liam replied.

"Then could you please share some of that sweet nectar with me, son?"

Liam stared into his half-empty mug and thought for a moment. Then he held it out to the figure, which delicately took it from him with both hands and lifted it to her shadowed face. She tipped the mug back and gulped its contents for several seconds. When she finally handed it back to Liam, it was completely empty.

"Thank you so very much, my son," the old woman said. "May good luck and fortune forever smile upon you for such generosity."

"I doubt good luck or good fortune will do me much good," Liam muttered gloomily.

"Oh?" the woman asked. "What is the matter?"

Liam proceeded to tell the woman the whole story about how Dorcas was accidentally killed and how Cyril had become fixated on the idea of avenging Dorcas' death by murdering Liam, even though Liam had been nowhere near the tavern when Dorcas had been trampled.

"Dearie me," the woman said once Liam had finished. "How unfortunate that you should find yourself caught up in such a predicament. And what a shame that this poor little man should let his obsession eat away at him like this."

"Do you really think he means to kill me?" Liam asked.

"I am certain that he wants to kill you," the woman said, "But whether he has the ability to, that I cannot say."

Liam sighed and stared at the cobblestone street that ran past the tavern, idly tossing his empty mug between his hands.

"Oh my," the woman suddenly cried. "Where are my manners?"

She turned to Liam and attempted a curtsey while remaining in her seat, making herself look like a chicken settling onto its eggs. As she looked up at Liam, he could see under her hood for the first time. Despite her apparent frailty, her face looked surprisingly young, and though her hair was silver, she had braided it into two plaits that hung down behind her ears.

"My name is Nerissa," she said with a broad smile. "May I ask your name, young man?"

Liam met Nerissa in the same place the next night he visited the tavern, and the night after as well. They would talk about what had happened during the day and what tomorrow might bring, and sometimes Liam was able to purchase a mug of ale for both of them. Nerissa asked him questions about his past, which Liam obligingly answered. However, all the questions he asked Nerissa about her past received vague, meandering responses that often failed to completely answer the questions. It was all just idle chatter, but Liam wasn't about to reject anything that made him forget about Cyril even more. It was like having a wise old grandmother to talk to, even though Liam had never known his grandparents.

As time went on, however, Liam began to wonder about Nerissa. Nobody else in the tavern seemed to know her name, and Liam never saw her anywhere in the town but the tavern. There was also the matter of her oddly youthful face, her peculiar behavior, her never-changing garb and refusal to talk about her past. Liam kept his curiosity to himself for as long as he could until one night he couldn't bear to any longer.

"Nerissa," he whispered to her, "You're not a witch, are you?"

In reply, Nerissa slowly turned and smiled mysteriously at Liam. Then she dipped one of her fingers in the mug of ale that Liam had bought her. Liam watched in stunned silence as the level of the ale in the glass slowly dropped almost an inch. Then Nerissa swallowed loudly and licked her lips.

"You're quite a perceptive lad, Liam," she said. "But you've got much to learn about subtlety."

She guffawed loudly and Liam recoiled slightly. If there was one drawback to talking with Nerissa, it was the constant need to stay at least three feet away from her mouth, for her breath had the most foul, overpowering odor that Liam had ever had the misfortune to get a whiff of.

"But don't you worry," Nerissa said softly. "I'm not the kind that blights crops or turns people into toads. In fact, these days I've barely got enough magic to keep this old body alive and well."

"So you really can do magic?" Liam asked. Though he was considerably surprised at learning this, there was enough ale in him to keep him to keep his shock to a minimum.

"Indeed, I can," said Nerissa. "That is, I could when I was younger. It takes too much energy to do much more than a few simple tricks."

"Simple tricks?" Liam repeated. "Like what?"

Nerissa thought for a moment.

"Well," she said, "I can do this..."

She bent down, picked up a dry twig from the ground and held it between her thumb and forefinger. The tip of the twig erupted into a bluish white flame and burned steadily for a moment until Nerissa blew it out.

"Or this..."

She clenched the twig tightly between her fingers, and soon Liam could see buds starting to sprout from its end, then open into tiny green leaves.

"Or even this..."

She dropped the twig to the ground, where it turned into a slender grasshopper.

"I suppose I could even steal a mug of ale from this tavern and be through with it before anyone was the wiser."

"You could?" Liam asked. "If you really could do something like that, why do you sit out here begging?"

"I don't steal unless I have no other alternative," Nerissa said huffily. "I may be a witch, but I'm no criminal."

She paused, then spoke again in a much softer voice.

"And neither are you. I like you, Liam, and if I were one of those witches that everyone tells you to fear, I would gladly get rid of this Cyril character for you. But like I said, I'm no criminal."

During the next few weeks, Liam rarely saw Cyril at all, and began to think that the man had finally given up on his misdirected revenge scheme. However, when Liam was having one of his nightly talks with Nerissa, he put his mug down and left to pass water in the alley beside the tavern. When he returned, he picked up his mug and was about to drink from it when Nerissa suddenly barked, "Don't!"

Liam nearly dropped the mug in surprise.

"What do you mean, ‘don't?'" he asked.

"Smell it...but delicately," Nerissa warned.

Liam cautiously sniffed the ale and noticed a curious underlying, bitter aroma to it. In fact, the more he smelled it, the more prominent it became. He lowered the mug and stared at Nerissa.

"He was here," she said quietly.


"Who else?" muttered Nerissa. "I've sensed him lurking nearby for the last few nights, waiting for a chance to strike. When you left, I made it appear as if I left too, though in actuality I remained sitting here. He crept up to your mug and poured something from a small vial into it -- I don't know what kind of poison it was, but I knew without a doubt that it was poison."

Liam stared at his mug, shuddered and slowly upended it, letting its dark gold contents spill onto the ground. He had grown so used to seeing Cyril's threats as a mere nuisance, but now it seemed that Liam had greatly underestimated the little man with the huge desire for vengeance.

"Don't worry, though," Nerissa said. "Since this plan has failed, he's not going to try it again, and he'll probably spend a long time formulating another."

"But what happens once he has come up with another plan?" Liam asked nervously.

Nerissa smiled.

"Don't worry," she repeated. "Old Nerissa will keep you safe."

Nerissa was more than true to her word. Nearly a month later, she warned Liam that Cyril was going to sneak into the carpenter's shop in the middle of the night and place a box containing a deadly snake outside the door of Liam's room. Sure enough, the following morning, a small, crudely fashioned wooden box was sitting in that very spot. Liam carefully carried the box out of the shop and threw it into the river that ran alongside the village.

Several similar attempts on Liam's life were made in the following weeks, but every time, Nerissa was able to warn Liam about them before they happened. One night, however, Nerissa's warning was so odd that Liam forgot about it by the time he returned to the carpenter's shop. Luckily for him, the only thing that Cyril had done on that occasion was put something in his bed that caused itchy reddish welts to appear all over his body by the next morning. Fortunately, Nerissa was able to provide Liam with a potion that would eventually get rid of the welts.

"This certainly wasn't one of Cyril's deadlier plans," Liam muttered as he scratched at a welt on his lower arm.

"Don't do that or it will take longer to heal," Nerissa said.

Liam sullenly put his hands in his lap.

"And I think that without that potion, those things would eventually become so numerous that that you would die from them," Nerissa continued. "That Cyril seems to be getting more creative with his schemes."

Liam sighed, lifted his hand to start scratching his arm again, then forcibly put it back down.

"Poor dear," Nerissa said with genuine sympathy. "Haven't you considered leaving this town? Perhaps that madman might give up then."

"Even if I had enough money to make it to the next town, I just know Cyril would follow me. He said he would kill me, no matter what."

"I could come with you," Nerissa offered. "I've only lived here for a short while, and I wouldn't mind..."

"No," Liam said sharply. "I can't have you watching over me every day for the rest of my life."

Nerissa bit her lip and stared at the ground. Liam angrily stared at it as well, cursing his poor choice of words. He told himself that he should consider himself lucky -- after all, things could be a lot worse. Even though he had a determined enemy to worry about, he also had a true friend that not only sympathized with his plight, but was able to protect him from his foe. Liam had grown so used to Cyril's murder attempts that they had become just as bothersome as his threats had been. Still, Liam was worried that one day Nerissa would forget to warn him of an impending danger, and Cyril would finally avenge Dorcas' death in the only way he thought was just.

Despite this fear, Liam's life began to return to normal, and there were frequently days when the thought of Cyril never crossed his mind. He hardly ever saw Cyril in the town anymore, and on the rare occasions when he did, Liam's blood didn't grow chilly at the sight of him. Weeks passed without even a mention of Cyril from Nerissa, and things were as good as they had ever been for Liam...

...but that was before he saw the deer.

Liam thought it was a deer at first -- after all, it was standing where he had seen many deer before, in the large field that lay between the village and the forest. It also had the same legs, body, head, and antlers of a deer...but as Liam stared at it, he realized that it wasn't a deer, and wondered how he could have been so foolish as to mistake it for one.

It wasn't the cold, piercing eyes staring menacingly from beneath the cruelly pointed antlers that made Liam's heart pound and his legs grow weak, nor was it the ragged, tawny feathered wings that sprouted from the creature's shoulders and lay folded upon its muscular back, which, like the rest of its body, was covered with shaggy feathers. It was the shadow that the creature cast.

Since the sun was low when Liam saw the creature, he could clearly see its shadow, looking like an elongated black void burned into the field. But the shadow was not that of the creature's body, but the shadow of a man. Liam gaped at the shadow and blinked his eyes, thinking it was a trick of the light or a shadow cast by another object -- but no. The shadow was indeed that of the creature, and seeing it seemed to trigger a long-dormant instinct in Liam, which screamed at every muscle in his body to move him away from the ominous feathered deer as quickly as possible.

And this is precisely what Liam did. He raced back to the village, not stopping until he had reached his room in the back of the carpenter's shop and had collapsed into his bed, trembling violently. He lay there until the sun had set, then cautiously left the shop and made his way to the tavern, where he fell into a chair across from Nerissa, who immediately demanded to know what had happened. Liam told her everything.

"Hmm," Nerissa said thoughtfully. "A winged deer..."

"It wasn't a deer," said Liam. "It couldn't have been. I've never seen a deer look at me like this one did, let alone one with feathers and wings and a man's shadow."

"Yes...yes..." Nerissa said, deaf to what Liam had just said. "I think...Ah-hah!"

This last triumphant exclamation sent a cloud of vile-smelling breath in Liam's direction. He grimaced, wondering whether having such foul breath was the price Nerissa had to pay for becoming a witch.

"What is it?" Liam asked.

"I recall reading about such a beast many years ago," Nerissa said. "And believe me, Liam, you were indeed lucky to have seen it and survived."

Liam said nothing, so Nerissa continued.

"The beast is called a Peryton," she said. "They are said to have come from a prosperous island far to the south that sunk into the sea many years ago. They are fierce and bloodthirsty, and are mortal enemies of man -- but each Peryton can only kill one man in its lifetime."

"But why did the one I saw cast a man's shadow?" Liam asked.

"I was just getting to that," Nerissa said. "A Peryton will cast a man's shadow until it kills a man. After that, its shadow becomes that of its own body."

Liam slumped forward in his chair and buried his face in his hands.

"Like I said," Nerissa added, "You were lucky."

A few days later, Liam saw the Peryton again near the edge of the forest, then again near the river the following week. Its presence filled Liam with a fear that lurked constantly in the back of his mind. To make matters worse, Nerissa reported that Cyril was planning to attack Liam in his room using a small flock of birds.

"Birds?" Liam asked. "How in the world does he plan to do that?"

Nerissa glanced nervously to one side and shifted her weight in her chair.

"Well," she said slowly, "I'm afraid Cyril has apparently been learning how to use magic."

Liam groaned and rubbed his forehead with his hand.

"Don't worry," Nerissa said. "He's an amateur, I'm an expert."

She held out a small, intricately carved stone.

"Keep this with you," she said. "It will protect you from his magic for a while. If he starts using some more powerful spells, we'll have to take some extra steps to keep you safe, but we shouldn't have to concern ourselves with that for a while."

Liam nodded mutely and took the stone from her.

"Why are you doing all this for me?" he muttered. "All I ever did for you was buy you some drinks."

"I'm doing it because I like you," Nerissa said simply. "And I'm not going to let you die for a crime you didn't commit. I promise you that."

She paused, then put a finger to her chin.

"You might want to make sure your shutters are bolted tonight, just in case."

Cyril's magical attack -- which thankfully was unsuccessful -- was followed by another magical attack, and then another. In between the attacks, Liam continued glimpsing the Peryton, whose shadow was still that of a man. The creature would be in a different place each day, and unless Liam's eyes deceived him, it was slowly growing closer to the village. Liam began staying as far from the town's outskirts as he could during the day, and during the night, his sleep was troubled and restless, and he would often be so tired in the daytime that he could barely work in the carpenter's shop.

During one restless night, a wild thought suddenly struck him: what if Cyril had somehow sent the Peryton after Liam, like he had done with the birds? Could a man actually control such a monstrous creature?

"A murderous mortal enemy of humanity, obeying a mere mortal like a dog?" Nerissa scoffed. "You could control a full-grown dragon more easily than a Peryton."

"But what if someone had an extensive knowledge of magic?" Liam asked. "Wouldn't they be able to bend a Peryton to their will that way?"

"I sincerely doubt it," Nerissa said. "And if you actually think that that Cyril has somehow tamed a Peryton...Well, he may be learning a few tricks, but at his current level of expertise, I doubt he could conjure a belch after drinking three mugs of ale."

As reassuring as Nerissa's words were, Liam still wasn't completely convinced that Cyril wasn't responsible for the Peryton's appearance. It had showed up only a day before Cyril had used magic to attack Liam for the first time. What if Nerissa was wrong about the Peryton being untamable? Was Liam's knowledge of magic truly much greater than the simplicity of his tricks made him seem, and had he actually captured a Peryton? Or perhaps the Peryton was just an illusion designed to unnerve Liam enough to make him vulnerable to future attacks...though it had certainly seemed real to him the first and only time he had seen it up close.

Liam wished he could talk to someone else regarding his problem, but the only other person in the village with a fair knowledge of magic seemed to be Cyril, and he was the last person in the world that Liam wanted to strike up a conversation of any sort with. Still, it seemed that directly confronting Cyril was the only way to determine whether the Peryton's presence was his doing or not.

Liam spotted Cyril late one afternoon, just as the merchants were packing up their goods and closing their stalls. He shouted out to Cyril and boldly strode towards him, and the stout man turned and grinned sickeningly at Liam as he approached.

"Hello, murderer," Cyril said sweetly.

Liam frowned down at him, determined not to show any fear towards the man who had been repeatedly trying to kill him.

"No time for salutations, Cyril," Liam said. "I just want to ask one question of you, and you'd better be truthful with your answer."

"Then, by all means, ask," purred Cyril.

"Are you responsible for the Peryton that's been appearing outside the village?"

Cyril's grin faded. He stared quizzically at Liam.

"The what?" he asked.

"The Peryton," Liam repeated. "Huge winged deer covered with feathers, casts a man's shadow until it kills one."

Realization dawned on Cyril's face, then his smile returned.

"Oh yes, of course," he chucked. "Those things. Quite nasty, I hear. Antlers and hooves like knives, and teeth that are equally deadly. I've heard that they kill their victims as slowly as possible, then bathe in their blood until it's all soaked into the ground. They certainly make that one killing in their lifetimes worth the wait!"

Liam's throat was tightening, but he refused to let Cyril's words unseat him.

"I don't want to hear about their killing habits," he said coldly. "I want to know whether you -- "

"Of course, every once in a while, a human will kill a Peryton," Cyril continued. "In fact, my dear old father -- God rest his soul -- had a run-in with a couple of those hell-beasts once in his youth. One didn't have antlers, so it must have been a doe. My father killed that one and made a deep slice in the other's face with his dagger -- at least, that's what he tells me."

"I didn't come here to hear tales about your family's history, either," Liam said angrily. "All I want is the answer to my question."

"Oh," said Cyril in an utterly unconvincing show of innocence. "Could you kindly repeat it?"

"Did you send that Peryton after me?" Liam snarled.

Cyril smiled at him again and half-closed his eyes.

"I regret to say that the appearance of this Peryton of yours was not my doing," he said quietly. "If I possessed the power and the inspiration to do such a thing, I would do so without a second thought. But I'm afraid that that creature's presence has nothing to do with me."

"How do I know you're not lying?" Liam said, leaning closer to Cyril.

Cyril's grin grew impossibly wider.

"Unlike a certain fair-haired murderer," he said, "I never lie when the truth is demanded of me."

Liam was unable to decide whether Cyril was being honest with him or not, and neither was Nerissa when Liam told her about the encounter that evening. In the days that followed, however, Cyril once again began to fade from Liam and Nerissa's conversations. Liam was kept busy working for the carpenter, and the Peryton mercifully ceased appearing outside the town.

But one night when Liam went to the tavern, Nerissa wasn't sitting in her usual spot outside. He entered the tavern but couldn't find her anywhere, and no one he spoke to recalled seeing a cloaked granddame with oddly youthful features any time that evening. Puzzled, Liam purchased his usual mug of ale and waited outside for some time, but Nerissa never showed up.

He couldn't help but worry about her absence as he returned to the carpenter's shop. Ever since the first night they had met, Nerissa had been at the tavern every single night that Liam visited it. Of course, there was the possibility that she had taken ill, but what if something direr had happened to her? What if she had been unmasked as a witch and taken away to a prison in one of the nearby cities, or even killed?

These anxieties continued to plague Liam well into the following day. As the sun grew low, he decided to leave the shop early and head for the tavern, hoping that Nerissa would be there that evening. When he left the shop, the sky had turned a hazy gold and the shadows had grown long and dark. Liam made his way through the maze of dirt streets, so troubled by his thoughts that he nearly lost his way more than once.

After walking down an unfamiliar street, then turning and preparing to retrace his steps, he suddenly froze in his tracks. He sensed that a pair of eyes was fixed upon him, a feeling that fixed him in place like a statue and made him fearful of moving a muscle. He slowly turned his head to look down a shadowy side street, where the strange, penetrating stare seemed to emanate from.

He saw it almost immediately: a dark, four-legged shaggy form standing nearly three feet tall, with two luminous eyes glaring directly at him. It was too heavily built to be a wolf, but too small to be a bear. It had a long snout and powerful jaws, and its legs, stocky as they were, looked equally powerful. Liam didn't know what the beast was, but that didn't concern him. What he did know was that he didn't want to be in its presence a moment longer.

He took off up the street and around the corner, everything aside from his instinct to run pushed out of his mind by sheer terror. Almost immediately, Liam heard the sound of heavy footfalls pounding behind him and he knew that the beast was pursuing him. He raced brazenly through the town, not knowing where he was going or how he could possibly evade the monster. Fear washed over him in cold sheets and pain knifed into his side as he sped through the empty streets. Before he knew it, he had reached the outskirts of the town. Liam ran west towards the forest, the sun almost blinding him with its blazing fire. The high grasses of the field hissed around his legs and impeded his progress, and he could hear the beast's heavy panting as it grew closer and closer.

Suddenly, a shadow fell across his path. Something was blocking the sun. Liam glanced up and would have screamed if his lungs weren't starved for air. A great, winged creature with gleaming, sharp-tipped antlers; dark, cruel eyes and a body covered with feathers that cast the shadow of a man was swiftly swooping in his direction.

The next thing Liam knew, he was lying on his back in the tall grass. It wasn't until much later that he realized that he had fainted. There was a horrible, shrieking sound filling his ears, and it seemed to be coming from close by. He leapt to his feet and nearly fell down again at the sight of what lay before him.

The black beast that had chased him out of the village was lying in the grass a few feet away, and straddling it was the Peryton. The feathered deer was swiftly and savagely wounding it in every way possible, tearing at it with its teeth, goring it with its antlers and stabbing at it with its hooves. The beast howled with every blow, its cries of rage quickly giving way to shrill screams of pain and misery. Liam turned away in horror and disgust, too weak and terrified to flee.

The shrieks made by the beast soon lessened and eventually stopped. Trembling, Liam turned to see the Peryton standing over the shaggy body, its feathers splattered with blood. The feathered deer turned its black eyes towards him, and Liam suddenly realized how foolish he had been to remain there. He knew that he wouldn't escape death this time. The Peryton still had yet to kill a man, and --

Liam froze. The winged beast's shadow streamed out behind it, dark and elongated. But it was not the same shadow Liam had seen when the creature had appeared in the sky. No longer was it the shadow of a man, but a shadow of a Peryton. Liam stared at the Peryton, which stood motionless over its victim. Then he stared at the beast.

Suddenly, in the blink of an eye it was gone, and lying in its place was the mangled, naked corpse of Cyril.

Liam didn't make it to the tavern until hours later. Nerissa was waiting for him there, and she lifted herself out of her seat and ran to meet him.

"Liam!" she cried. "Liam! Thank the stars, you're alive!"

Still mute from shock, Liam nodded and walked with Nerissa to their usual seats outside the tavern. After they sat down, Nerissa leaned closely towards Liam, who was so shaken that he barely even noticed the odor of Nerissa's breath.

"What happened?" she whispered. "What became of Cyril?"

"Dead," Liam mumbled.

"Dead?" Nerissa echoed, puzzled. "How?"

Liam told her everything that had happened that evening. Nerissa seemed strangely unsurprised when Liam described how the beast had turned out to be Cyril, and when Liam asked her why this was, she glanced at the ground for a moment, then replied:

"I knew that he had gained knowledge of some truly dark, powerful magic and was planning to pursue you in the guise of a beast. That's why I wasn't here the night before -- I was trying to stop him."

Liam slumped back in his chair.

"I knew that warning you would do little good, and defending oneself against a monstrosity like that is nigh impossible...I'm sorry I failed you, Liam."

Liam said nothing. He didn't know why Nerissa was apologizing now, when the Peryton had finally claimed its sole victim and he no longer had to worry about being killed for a crime he hadn't committed. He stared silently at the tavern wall, his thoughts mere swirling fragments within his skull. After a long silence, Nerissa spoke again:

"What I don't understand is why the Peryton didn't kill you...and even if it somehow saw that beast for what it truly was, why did it attack Cyril when you were right in front of it?"

"I think I know why," Liam said dully.

He retold what had happened just after Cyril's body had reverted back to its original shape. His mind had reeled and he forced himself to stare at the Peryton again. As deadly and bloodthirsty a monster as it was, there was a strange beauty and grace to it as well. Liam gazed at its antlers, which now glowed red in the fading light of day; the wide, wolf-like mouth and the large, delicately feathered ears. Then, for the first time, he noticed a deep, wide scar running down the Peryton's face...a scar made by the same man that had killed its mate many years before. Liam then related the story that Cyril told about his father the last time Liam and Cyril had met, and Nerissa's eyes grew wide with astonishment.

"My goodness," she gasped. "I...I've never heard of such a thing."

Liam shrugged.

"It looks as if men aren't the only creatures who take a long time to carry out revenge," he said.