Justus tore through the black undergrowth as a fire of panic welled up in his body, goading his limbs to stay in pursuit, enabling him to ignore the nightmarish fear that threatened to strip his mind of sanity. Coarse ferns claimed the skin on his legs as he panted at a near-sprint. Heedless of pain, he struggled to avoid collision with the surrounding pines. To Justus, the pine-stand was a familiar place, but darkness and terror jeered at his senses as a mob might jeer at a man condemned to die. His only guide in the dark wood was a single, sputtering point of red light, some dozens of yards ahead, he guessed. If he could only manage to reach it, he would reach Marion.
Justus fled from the question as doggedly as he now sped towards danger. He found himself wishing desperately he were like his papa. Big, strong, fearless.
How could papa have abandoned us? He wondered frantically, bewildered.
How could he die?
Justus screamed Marion’s name at the top of his lungs and nearly lost his feet. In the darkness ahead, he could hear mirthless laughter; the sound of it confirmed to him that his world was become a nightmare.
He was gaining though.
Justus seized this one hope as a drowning man seizes a lifeline. From it, he summoned some strength, some focus, and slowed his pace, coming to a brisk lope. He tried to hide himself among the tall ferns as the torchlight’s glow became warmer, for torchlight it was. A good stone’s throw away, Justus could see a sinewy centaur, treading casually. Underneath his right arm the centaur gripped a helpless young girl who sobbed uncontrollably. In his left hand, he carried a wicked partisan-spear, stained red. Justus advanced cautiously, trying to conceal his presence, going numb with fear. Almost imperceptibly, the centaur tilted his head back and, after a brief pause, grunted a soft chuckle.
The boy’s legs nearly failed him.
Yet amongst all his panic, terror, and dread, a band of resilient, internal-qualities fought to keep their life. They flickered defiantly against the darkness, kept him on his feet, and provided hope. He begged his resolve from this defiant, seemingly insignificant little band: from devotion, from love; from the desire to protect. Suddenly the centaur dropped Marion to the ground and turned about.
“Come out little boy!” he sneered into the darkness, adding just the hint of a laugh. “Come out and watch your sister die.”
Without hesitation, he spun the partisan, gripped it firmly, and held it above the quivering form of Marion. Justus fixed his eyes on the centaur, taking him in as a bowman fixates on his quarry. Wrath cascaded into his young heart. His resolve, his sense of duty, his devotion, his anger, his love, all joined as one, forming a spearhead, answering his summons! He glanced to Marion, his sister, then glanced to the deadly point held tauntingly above her. In a hot rage Justus burst from hiding.
“Marion! I will protect you!” He bellowed, charging the dread-centaur as urgently as his young legs would carry him.
A wicked grin overtook the villain’s face. It was just as the boy’s fury drew near that the centaur spun violently and drove his rear hoof into the boy’s skull.
The cold earth received a limp form.
As consciousness began to slip from him, a single thought occupied the boy’s mind.
“Marion, I will protect you.”