My lungs were ablaze in my chest. My whole body was on fire, and I was sure my legs would collapse beneath me at any moment. But I couldn’t stop. If I stopped, they would catch me, and then everything would be lost.
Already, the blue glow of their search lamps suffused the dark forest around me. I pushed my aching limbs faster, pumping my arms and ignoring the throbbing ache in my hip. They had tried to cripple me once, but I had bested them, their efforts no more effective than a childhood injury. Would I be able to beat them again?
I forced the thought from my mind, focusing instead on the sharp pain of my lungs tearing themselves apart. I had to get away. There was no other option.
Zigzagging through the trees, I flashed through the shadows, avoiding the light as best I could. Noise was of no concern now. Their strange vehicles were smashing through the underbrush with all the care of a wild stampede. They would never hear my footfalls or the whipping of the branches as they slashed at my exposed skin. It was the light that was my enemy. If they saw me, it would all be over.
Ahead, an enormous fallen tree lay across the only dark path. I couldn’t risk the time it would take to slide through the narrow gap between the earth and the belly of the tree, but, I had been running so long, I didn’t think I would make the jump with my waning strength. I had to think quickly. It was hard to tell with the cacophony of desperate shouts and tearing trees, but it sounded like the predatory army behind me was closing the distance.
The beam of a search lamp lanced through a gap in the surrounding branches to wash the fallen giant with blue light before swinging off into the distance. As terrifyingly close as that had been, I was grateful for the moment’s brightness. It had shown me the way over.
A few paces before the tree, I launched myself up onto the boulder that was all but invisible in its shadow. The rock got me halfway up the width of the enormous trunk. My muscles screamed as though they were about to snap, but still they carried me to the top of the trunk. I catapulted myself off the other side, hitting the ground hard even as I rolled to absorb the impact. There was a loud snap and pain like a whip’s crack shot from my right ankle up my leg, wracking my entire body. Biting my hand to keep from screaming, I tried to wiggle my toes. I felt nothing but pain, and the tip of my boot remained still. It was broken.
I grabbed a small stick off the ground and shoved it into my mouth like a horse’s bridle, biting down hard to keep from cursing aloud. The sound of footfalls and breathing may blend with the sounds of their army, but they would surely hone in on the sound of my voice. Two more sticks were snatched from the forest floor, these ones thicker and longer, and the bottom of my shirt was torn away to make a long strip of a bandage. Soon, my broken ankle was splinted as best as I could hope for. But I had wasted too much time. They were closer now. Too close. I forced myself to my feet and continued to run, the splint the only thing keeping my ankle from collapsing and sending me sprawling into the dirt. Maybe not a waste of time. But they were getting even closer.
I had just stumbled into a new line of trees when I heard one of their things tear through the trunk that had broken my ankle. Sharp blue light pierced the darkness beside me, and I found myself thanking the colossal evergreen at my back, its shadow keeping me hidden for precious few moments longer. I would never escape them alive. That hope was now lost, but I had one more course of action. One last way to thwart them. They could create new weapons by studying my body if they found me already dead, but the destruction and sheer horror they would sow if they took me alive was unfathomable.
I sank to my knees, pulling my dagger from my splint-free boot and running my thumb over the hawk’s head carved into the hilt.
“I’m so sorry, Cassie. I’m so sorry I couldn’t come for you. If there is an afterlife, I’ll wait for you there. I love you always.”
The tip of the dagger cut through my jacket and sank into my left breast, ready to be thrust between my ribs and into my heart. I gripped the end of the hilt with my right hand, covering the hawk’s eyes as if, somehow, Cassandra could use them to watch me. I knew it was impossible, but, in my last moments, I gave in to superstition. I couldn’t bear the idea of her watching me die, wherever she was. I closed my eyes.
There was a sickening crunch as a hole was punched through my chest to make room for a blade. I opened my eyes. My dagger was still poised for the kill, its point barely cutting my flesh. There was a thick, scaly spear protruding from my ribcage, a sickly grey glow pulsing from the cracks in its surface. My vision darkened until all I could see was my blood glistening in the unnatural light. Then, even that was gone.
I was too late. Everything was lost. I had failed.