The carriage tore through the woods, drawn by a terrified pair of horses.
Boggins had clambored up on top of its roof. Arden counted three, possibly four; it was hard to say. The bogginfolk were mishapen, hairy ape-like men full of hunger and malice--it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began.
"Faster, Tulip," Arden said, urging his horse on. He felt Desmond give a start behind him.
"You named your horse Tulip?"
"Just shoot your arrows," Arden said.
They closed in on the carriage. Desmond took aim. He released an arrow a moment later, only to watch it glance harmlessly off the charcoal paneling. Desmond cursed.
"Too bumpy," he said.
"For love of--take the reins," Arden shouted. "Around my waist!"
Desmond slung his bow over one shoulder and wound both arms around Arden's waist, gripping the reins. Tulip neighed in protest, but steadied when Arden squeezed her with his legs. He drew out his own bow, nocked an arrow, and narrowed his eyes.
One of the bogginfolk stopped attacking the carriage's rooftop long enough to notice the two riders approaching. It turned to them and produced a howl of rage; its chalk-white face was full of broken teeth and spittle.
Arden released the arrow. The shaft plunged into the space between its eyes, driving six inches of wood directly into its brain.
The boggin went slack and tumbled from the wagon. The others turned and produced shrieks of their own.
Arden nocked another arrow. One of the boggin leapt off the wagon, its claw-like fingers extended for Arden's throat.
Tulip reacted instantly; the horse swerved to the right, leaving the boggin to tumble down to the overgrown brickwork below. Arden and Desmond caught a quick glimpse of claws and fangs before the boggin's body was rolling, dashed against the ancient stone.
"We won't kill them fast enough this way," Desmond hollered. "Shoot the horses!"
"But--they're horses!" Arden said.
"Shoot them, god damn you!"
Arden whispered a prayer for forgiveness and turned his arrow to the right-most mare. He let loose the shaft, striking the beast at the point where its neck and skull met; it produced a shrill cry of surprise before it tumbled head-first into the road, and then fell directly beneath the carriage's path.
The entire carriage jumped to the left with a mighty crash. Timber splintered as it slammed across the ground and spun; boggins were thrown from left to right, their shrieks cut off with a series of brutal cracks. The last horse was dragged beneath the wreckage, where it met its violent but quick end.
Arden slowed Tulip down while the carriage tumbled ahead. He hopped down, followed by Desmond. Both of them nocked fresh arrows and began to slay the fallen boggins.
It was a gruesome job, but they made quick work of what few boggins remained.
"I'll check on the boggin that fell from the wagon--make sure it's dead," Desmond said. "You check to see if anyone's hurt in the carriage."
"Right," Arden said. As soon as he thought Desmond was out of earshot, he turned to Tulip.
"Now," he said, "I hope you don't think poorly of me for that, Tulip. It was entirely necessary--"
"And don't apologize to your horse!" Desmond hollered back.
Arden threw him a glare, but then quickly turned back to the carriage. As he approached, he could see that it had cracked beneath the pressure like an egg--its upper half had buckled and snapped open, leaving its contents partially exposed. The interior was luxurious, choked with silk and leather; much of it had been torn asunder, sending clouds of down feathers tumbling through the air.
"Hello?" Arden called out. He nocked another arrow out of habit; a boggin could have already made its way into the carriage. "Anyone alive in there?"
"Yes," a man's voice, weak and frail, replied. "Yes, I rather think I am."
Arden flipped the arrow between his fingers and slid it back within his quiver. He leapt up on top of the carriage, crouched low, and peered in. "Not hurt too bad, are you?"
The old man inside wore a long black coat with a raised collar, trimmed with gold lace. At his hip sat a sheathed straight-edged sword with a polished bone hilt.
A fresh spout of blood flowed from his stomach, where one of the boggins had scored a deep belly wound.
"Damn," Arden said. He slipped into the carriage and crouched besides the fallen man. He then drew his dagger and started to slice strips of leather from the padded seats to dress the wound.
"Don't bother," the old man said. "I've seen enough wounds in my time to know a fatal one."
Arden hesitated, then slowly put his knife back in its sheath. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked.
"Yes, actually," the old man whispered. And then he reached his hand out and grabbed Arden's arm.
Although his fingers had grown bone-white, his grip remained as tight as steel. He pulled Arden close as he seized hold of his arm, and whispered words--words that crawled down Arden's spine like a horde of frozen centipedes.
At once, the place where the old man's hand touched Arden's skin started to burn. The boy yelled in surprise, then screamed--but when he tried to pull away, the old man only squeezed tighter.
"I'm sorry," the old man said. "It's the only way. Deliver this to Delilah. In Winifred. Then and only then will you be free of it."
His hand fell down. Arden jumped back, hitting the far side of the carriage interior. When he looked down at his arm, he could see what looked like a blackened burn mark, shaped into some sort of complex symbol.
"What the hell is this?" Arden asked. "What did you--"
With a reluctant sigh, the old man laid his head back and fell silent. After a few moments, Arden realized he wasn't breathing.
He looked back down at the mark that the old man had burned into his skin.
At its center was what appeared to be a perched crow.