This is all your fault, you know?
AsaHi grumbled to herself as she shifted the weight of the traveling pack on her shoulders. Her feet stung and her body ached from the many hours of walking. While she was used to traveling long days, this journey was different — it was more pressing, more exhausting and more terrifying. Every sound on the road sent her scampering to hide. Every shift of the air made her glance over her shoulder in fear.
The silence was just as bad. It allowed her thoughts to creep in and guilt to play through her mind.
What’s going to happen to Aunt SaRa if they find out that she helped me? What’s going to happen to SoYa if I’m not there to take the blame?
She stumbled along the path, head drooping in a long stream of white hair that hung loose around her shoulders. So many days she was alone and left to mull over her crime. She came to regret more and more not thinking about the consequences of challenging the truth of the Dreigiau.
If I knew it would end up like this… that I would have to leave my home… my Promised… everything. If I had known…
AsaHi found the nearest tree and leaned against it to catch a moment’s rest.
Would I have still done it?
She dropped her forehead against the rough bark, drawing in a tired breath.
Now all I have left is what I carry on my back and a sketchy map that’s supposed to take me to a place I’ve never heard of.
The girl closed her eyes, letting her pack slide down over her shoulder to rest on the ground.
What have I gotten myself into?
For a time, the world turned around her in pale silence. The sun was going down for yet another day, and now more than ever she missed her home. Still, she knew there was nothing she could do except continue forward. AsaHi gave a somber sigh, reaching to gather her pack. That’s when she realized that it was gone.
The girl turned quickly, looking at the spot where she placed her bag. Though it was getting harder to see as the night shadows drew long, the pack was too large to overlook. It was nowhere.
She heard the sound of soft footsteps on the path only seconds before the voice came, “So, are you having second thoughts yet, AsaHi?”
A woman stood there, dangling the travelling pack from one hand. AsaHi wasn’t very knowledgeable about all the officials of Nefol, but this woman’s face was familiar, perhaps even a member of the Council itself.
AsaHi felt a lump catch in her throat – something about the woman felt wrong, “What do you want?”
“TsuYa sent me to bring you back to Nefol,” the woman answered, eyes direct and unblinking. She fingered the sleek bone-blade that was strapped at her hip. It was obviously very old and darkened by the lifeblood of many fallen enemies. “I don’t expect any trouble out of you.”
“TsuYa?” AsaHi asked, stricken. “Why would he…”
“We’re not going to hurt you. Our orders are simply to return you home,” the woman told her, coaxing softly.
It was a calmness that didn’t touch her eyes. Instead, there was a cold light there, concealed, and frightening. As the moon broke from the passing clouds, her hair was almost translucent. It might have been a trick of the light, but AsaHi thought she saw the hint of strange symbols glowing just beneath the skin along the woman’s arms.
As she approached, AsaHi heard the sound of more footsteps from the surrounding brush. Others appeared out of the looming shadows, all hooded, with faces concealed. AsaHi shook her head and turned in a full circle. While she was bemoaning her situation, they had taken the opportunity to completely surround her.
“You do want to go home, don’t you?” one of them asked.
The girl watched them, her mind leaping from fear, to thought, to courage, to plea, to hopelessness. Her eyes flashed for a moment before her shoulders hunched slightly. Then her stance drooped, and with misery written on her face, the girl took a slow, docile step towards them, “Yes… I really do.”
“That’s it. We’ll have you home before you know it,” the nearest robed figure said quietly, reaching out to take her by the arm.
Though mostly concealed, AsaHi could see a similar sheen of ghostly light ripple under the flesh of his hand. Her hair prickled on end, a feeling of warning washing through her. Despite the soft words, the girl knew she didn’t want that strange hand to come anywhere close to touching her.
With a sudden shout, AsaHi slammed down on the man’s foot and threw her whole weight straight into his unprotected stomach. As her elbow slid deep into his gut, he buckled over with a shocked grunt. With a final shove, the girl darted around him and made a dash for the darkness of the forest.
“What are you doing?!” the woman’s voice barked, all gentleness gone. “Stop her!”
A moment later, AsaHi could hear it – the sound of fleet footfalls following her into the shadows. The trees raked and tore at her from every side as she made a blind dash forward. Already exhausted from the long day’s journey, one of her ankles began to throb, her stride wobbling as she ran. The girl knew it would only be a matter of time before the men would catch up to her.
Keep going, AsaHi! Don’t stop now!
Just as her breath threatened to tear through her lungs, a rumbling thunder echoed from the darkness of the forest. Her assailants froze in mid-stride as the sound swelled through the creaking trees and grew into a terrible roar.
“What was that?” one of them hissed.
The footsteps didn’t move forward. Whatever made that sound had given her a moment to catch her breath. AsaHi stumbled and caught herself, hiding within the folds of a large, gnarled tree. One hand clamped over her mouth, she fought to cover her gasping breath, afraid that it would give her position away.
“Something’s out there — something big! Can you feel it?” she could hear their uneasy footsteps.
“I have no fear of forest creatures!” the woman demanded sharply.
“M’lady XaNi,” answered another in a shivering voice, “This doesn’t feel like a regular forest creature!”
For a brief moment, the only sound was their hissing breath and shifting feet. AsaHi’s eyes darted in every direction, her gaze finding nothing but the darkness. She couldn’t hear or feel anything, but it was apparent that the rest of them could. The tension in the air was tremendous.
A low, throaty growl came from every direction all at once, vibrating through the very fiber of her soul. Something about the sound was unnatural, unlike any animal she had ever heard. Squinting into the darkness, AsaHi could make out a pair of slitted teal eyes reflecting from within the branches of the very tree where she hid. She could see the eyes focus down on her, her body freezing as she stared with terror into the unearthly glow.
Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!
The growl grew louder, thundering into a soul-freezing roar. AsaHi heard her own scream rip through the night as she flung her arms up to protect her head. She could see the motion of the creature stalking closer. And then…
In complete astonishment, the girl watched the blurring shadow leap from obscurity, straight over her, to land among her attackers. As their shouts mingled with animalistic snarls, she managed to gather enough sense to run again.
AsaHi fled, stumbling over the rocky hill sides, dodging through trees and bushes in the darkness. The night shifted and reeled at her feet, closing thickly again behind her. She could hardly make out the ground as it rolled before her and sent her tumbling down steep inclines, terror riding her every step.
Taking a wrong turn on a narrow ledge, she suddenly found herself without footing. AsaHi’s body met air as she cartwheeled and fell, landing on a mossy rock outcropping below. There she sat dazed and exhausted, trying to catch her breath. A welling of fearful discouragement rose in her heart. She was still alive, but that was the only good news she had at the moment.
I’ve lost my packs… my food… my map. It’s all gone… and I have no idea where I am!
AsaHi’s body ached fiercely as she pushed herself up, daring to peer around. Not too far away, she saw a sheltering shelf of stone in the rocky hillside with a narrow crawling space tucked underneath. Her hands and knees were raw and scratched, but she crawled forward, knowing she couldn’t remain out in the open.
Just before she reached it, she heard the low-throated growl from above. She hefted herself forward into the crawling space and froze as the sound vibrated down into the little hollow. To her horror, the pair of teal eyes reappeared and focused on her. Whatever it was, it knew that she was there and she was cornered.
Much to her surprise, the creature did not move. The eyes simply watched from the shadows. As time began to pass, a strange sensation swept over her, as if something was trying to coax her to sleep. Too exhausted to fight the feeling, numbness crept over her body. Then her eyes closed and AsaHi was swept into a deep, soundless slumber.