Alicia stood up. “We can look at the scroll later,” she said. “The answers I seek are with that kobold, and she is getting away.” Luke frowned. “But the scroll contains much knowledge ...” He started to unroll it, showing off the fancy (and entirely made-up) script he had concocted for it. “I want to check on her,” Alicia hissed. “That didn't seem pretty dramatic to you?” Luke shrugged. “She's your cousin. Is she not normally like that?” “No! Come on.” “This is why we don't have actual children with us,” groused Collin. “I don't know, she's a better actor than any of you,” rejoined Joe. “Freaked me out.” They went outside with Alicia in the lead, and she saw a small figure dart around the corner of the barn. “She's right there.” “Great,” said Luke. “She gets it.” He raised his voice. “Somewhere in this lonesome land lurks that dangerous creature. We must capture it and bring it to justice.” “And help it and heal it if we can,” followed Alicia. “It may be of predatory nature, but it is the evil influence upon it that has drived its hunger.” “Still, we must be careful. The scroll says that if killed, it will only return stronger and more dangerous than before.” Thus began the inevitable side-quest, which involved obtaining a charm from a shaman (also played by Alicia, with a quick costume change and a witch voice), defeating several bandits who had stolen said charm (allowing them to swing their swords around and Collin to knock the others to the ground with his shield). In all this time, though Alicia assumed her cousin was still just playing around the barn, she didn't actually see her, and finally, worried, she called a pause. “Let's take a break, I'm going to check on Clara.” In a few minutes she returned. “I can't find her.” Collin shrugged. “She's probably playing hide-and-seek. That's kind of the point, right?” “She's six years old. I should have been watching her.” “Where's she going to go?” Joe said lazily, waving a chocolate bar around the valley. “She didn't pass us, so I don't think she's in the woods. She's probably in the barn, hiding in the hay.” “Get up, help me find her.” “That's fine, it's where the story's going anyway,” said Luke. “When we capture the kobold, we must place the amulet around her neck,” – he held up a bird's skull on a cord – “then join hands and recite the sacred words: 'Elaseer ser pirith.' Then the possessing spirit will leave her.” “Let's find this bitch,” Collin growled. “Spread out.” First they looked carefully around the barn, kicking gently through the hay, climbing into the loft. They widened their search in expanding circles, checking behind some rocky outcroppings and in an old shed nearby, but Clara was nowhere to be found. “I really thought she was just in the barn,” Alicia said, clearly worried. “I mean, she's got to be around here, right?” Joe said, perplexed. “There's not, like, an old well or something she could have fallen into?” “She probably ran into the woods when we went up to the barn,” said Collin. “Clara!” she called out. “Clara, it's time to come out now. We need to go home soon. You win, it's time to come out!” They circled the fields, looking behind every boulder and tree, but the grass in the meadow was low and offered no cover for someone hiding. Inevitably they ended up in the woods by the creek, but if Clara was down there, she didn't answer their calls; and there were far too many hiding places to scour. Alicia tried to hold back her tears, but when Joe suggested checking his grandparents' house, with the sun nearing the mountains, she burst out sobbing. “What if she's hurt? Where is she?” “I'll check the barn again,” Collin said. “You guys check the house.” The barn had turned gloomy, its emptiness unnerving. He passed through it half-heartedly, kicking at the straw with his boots, thinking of how they might have to call a search party. Stupid kid. Alicia shouldn't have – Something dropped on him from above, knocking him to his knees. Then it was on him, clawing at his back, grasping his head. He swore, trying to toss the beast off, and it bit his ear with teeth that were sharp as knives, biting his ear off with a terrible pain of ripping flesh. He screamed, and with great force flung the creature off him and to the ground. It somehow landed on all fours, eyes gleaming yellow in the gloom, fangs glittering as it hissed. It leapt. Unthinking, he swung with his wooden shield with all his force. With a cracking sound his attacker was flung four feet and lay unmoving. After a stunned moment standing over that small body, he fell to his ass in the straw, clutching his torn ear (most of which – but not all – still remained), swearing and crying. When he was able to focus at all, he looked with terror at the small body before him, seeing the blue jeans and sweater, the soles of her cheap sneakers. Finally he got up and went out. He briefly considered getting in his truck and driving off, but he could not be blamed for what happened; his ear proved the matter. He met the others returning halfway between house and barn. “She attacked me,” he said, their eyes widening at the blood streaming between his fingers. “She was like an animal. She bit my ear.” “What did you do?” Alicia asked, shaking. “Where is she?” “In the barn. She attacked me.” Alicia ran, and the others followed. Collin had not yet caught up with them when she burst out from the barn. “Where is she?” she yelled again. “What did you do to her?” “She's in the barn,” he repeated, helplessly. “She attacked me, I swear. It was crazy.” “She's not in the barn! What did you do to her?!” “I didn't move her. She's there ...” He stumbled inside. Clara's body was gone. He had been certain she was dead, morally certain. “She was here. She was ...” He stopped short of saying it. “I'm telling you, she was like an animal, not – not human.” “What did you do?” He stumbled out of that suffocating space, seeing again the yellow eyes, the prominent fangs. The mask ... the mask had changed her. And the mask wouldn't let her die. Without another word, he rushed toward his truck, thinking only of flight, the others trailing in his wake. Behind him, like a giant's shadow, chased a fierce hunger.

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