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Chapter 1


It was not going well.

         Erik sprinted through the forest. Trees blurred by as he ran. Branches slapped his face. Despite his reckless speed, the crashing grew louder behind him. He wasn’t going to outrun what was chasing him. Not in a straight line. That gave Erik an idea. He transferred the handle of the broken pitchfork to his left hand and reached out with his right, grabbing the trunk of a sapling and pivoting around it to change direction.

“Aaaauuuuuuggghh!” he screamed as the pain in his side lanced up and down his whole body. He’d forgotten about his ribs. They felt bad, possibly broken bad. Erik forced himself to breathe shallowly, and the pain in his chest eased enough for him to think about getting to his feet. When had he fallen? And where was the...

With a crash, the boar’s face was inches from his: long tusks, beady eyes, and breath like truffles and death baked in a pastry and left in the sun.

Erik blinked at it. It snorted back…nothing happened. Erik was helpless, sprawled on his back, looking up at the beast, but the boar wasn’t goring him or trampling him or…biting his head off—did boars do that? It only stood there, looking at him and panting, its head bobbing up and down in an odd manner. Erik was so surprised at the lack of instant death that he could think of nothing else to do but stare back at the beast, trying to gauge its intent. He and the boar made eye contact for what seemed like a long time. Then, looking deeper into the creature’s beady eyes, Erik felt a connection. Like he and the boar somehow understood each other on a spiritual level. He’d always had an affinity with animals but until this day had never met a wild one. That was the moment Erik realized he was a Beastmaster.

 With an awestruck smile, he raised his hand, trying to radiate calm through their mental link. Both man and beast watched the hand as it moved slowly toward the boar’s head. The forest seemed to hush with anticipation. But the moment Erik’s fingers touched the bristly fur on the side of the creature’s face there was a change: the boar stopped moving its head up and down and instead, with a bellowing squeal, writhed and snapped at him.

Erik fell back, just managing to get his fingers out from the beast’s jaws before they closed, and as he backpedaled through the leaves, he saw behind the boar’s head for the first time. It was trapped, wedged between two saplings. It hadn’t stopped, it was stuck, and the curious up and down motion of the boar’s head had been the effort of pushing its way forward, trying to reach Erik and, presumably, kill him.

Sooo, no, not a Beastmaster, Erik thought, realizing that he should have been using this time to get as far from the boar as he could. The beast thrashed and pushed forward a little more. Erik decided to run as far away as possible with the time he had left. But, oh Blight, his ribs. The best he could manage was a wheezing hobble. Still, it would have been much worse if I didn’t have the handle of the pitchfork to use as a cane, Erik thought bitterly as he crested a small hill, leaving the boar behind him.

As he slowly fled, the sound of angry squealing followed him through the forest. Erik knew he didn’t have long. Outrunning the beast wasn’t going to work, as he’d already proven, so he cast about for a hiding spot. Up ahead, Erik saw a large boulder, protruding from the hillside. Over the ages it had split right down the middle, forming a deep cleft, and a tree had fallen across the opening, leaving a small gap below the trunk. There was just enough room for him to hide in the rock cleft, but the squeeze under the tree was tight.

Erik tentatively tested his ribs and winced in agony. He began casting about for another place to hide when the sound of saplings breaking echoed through the forest, accompanied by a primal squeal of rage. It was coming. In an instant, Erik was squeezing through the gap, ribs screaming in protest. He pulled himself in fully and tucked his legs up, barely able to breathe with the agony. When the astounding pain ebbed and his vision cleared, he looked around the small space, listening for the boar and hoping it would give up the chase.

How had his day gone so wrong? And how long had it been? Surely not long...

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