One - Attempted Escape
The wind swirled through the leaves of the trees as Catania scampered over the forest floor below. It was the warmest night in memory, and every breath was dry and sharp in her throat. She hadn’t been so far north in a long time, not since she had been forced to leave her son and his father, and she had forgotten just how hot the forest could be.
When Catania came to a halt, she could still hear the thundering approach of the King’s men through the trees. Their menacing shouts and rattling armour were loud enough to stifle the sound of her thumping heart, and her panic was so intense it hurt. Her senses were sharp – she could feel beads of sweat gathering on her face, taste smoke on the earthy air, and see tiny, glowing insects fluttering from bush to bush. But she was still too weak to outrun the men. She was no longer a Rider, only Human.
She continued to retreat from the danger and made her winding escape through the thickening trees. Her pale skin was cut and scratched as she waded through the dense shrubbery that impeded her path, and the uneven ground caused her to stumble clumsily with every other step.
The moonlight showered her as she tumbled heavily into a small clearing. She fumbled momentarily with the dirt beneath her before staggering to unsteady feet. She stood alone and uncertain, with blonde hair flowing wildly over her beautiful face, and her white linen dress badly ripped and soiled. Only the intimidating silhouettes of the trees and the taunting echoes of her enemy’s shouts revealed themselves. Catania knew she must flee, but fear held her in place. She was exhausted, and her chest tremored painfully with every breath she inhaled.
An inevitable slither of orange light appeared from within the trees and Catania knew the end was near. She was surely gasping her last few breaths of life. She whimpered with despair as her incredible life flashed vividly before her eyes – she remembered her time in the two cities she had once called home, the turbulent relationship she had shared with her father, the short time she had spent with her baby son before leaving him, the majestic Lavorians of the land, and the superpowers that those Lavorians gifted their Riders.
Dropping to her knees, Catania accepted defeat as the yelling men and their lights drew nearer. The men were visible now, the flames of their torches licking at their armoured bodies, and their swords unsheathed and ready to cut at her delicate body. These men were soldiers of the King, both vicious and cruel. They approached her with ridiculing smiles on their faces; her terror was their delight.
Catania scurried away from them until her back pressed against the gnarled trunk of a tree. She tried to hold back her sobs, but uncontrollable tears trickled down her cheeks. She was helpless and frightened, and she prayed that her death would be a quick and painless one. But with the way the shadows danced over the demonic faces of the soldiers, she knew it would be slow and agonising instead.
It seemed impossible that anything could save her now, but when a menacing growl was carried into the clearing upon the wind, the soldiers faltered, and Catania’s hopes rose. From within the trees, there was a scampering of paws followed by an enraged howl that could make blood curdle. A wonderful silence had swept over the soldiers as they squinted with uncertainty into the darkness around them. They edged closer together, forming a tight group, and they all held their torches aloft and their swords out in front of them.
From out of the trees to Catania’s left, a wolf padded delicately into the clearing. It was more than twice the size of an ordinary wolf and its fur was as white as snow. It came to a halt between Catania and her attackers, protecting her from harm.
“Alticon!” Catania whimpered with relief. “You came!”
The wolf’s tail twitched in response, but its eyes, which were glimmering with the reflection of the flaming torches, never left the soldiers.
For a short time, Catania thought the sudden appearance of Alticon might force the soldiers to flee. In the past, they would have, but Alticon was no longer a Lavorian, just as Catania was no longer a Rider. He had been stripped of his armour, Catania had been stripped of her powers, and together they had been stripped of their incredible telepathic bond. Had it been the past, the soldiers would already be dead, but Alticon was vulnerable now and the soldiers knew it. Glancing at each other, they found the courage to approach him with their swords still raised.
As they neared, Alticon clawed at the nearest man and dropped him to the ground in a flash. The second soldier succumbed to the same fate. As did the third. But the fourth to confront Alticon swung his fiery torch and sprinkled sparks at the wolf’s feet. The embers of the torch set alight the dry forest floor and a wave of heat rose with the flames. Alticon stepped back with a snarl, and the soldiers willingly seized the advantage, pressing through the flames and aiming their blades at the wolf’s face and body.
In moments, Alticon’s flawless white fur was marked with crimson stains. As he withdrew from the soldiers, he seemed smaller and less fierce. Only six of the men remained, but with the swelling fire aiding them, it was unlikely that Alticon would defeat them. Then inevitably, with the men continuing to bear down on him, he fell with a whine of pain beneath their swords.
Catania jumped to her feet and prepared to defend her rescuer. But without a weapon of her own, she was easily overpowered by one of the soldiers and took a heavy blow to the head. Abruptly, she was on the ground again, now with warm blood oozing from her head and the dark forest spinning around her. Smoke from the fire hampered her breathing and she could hear nothing but crackling flames and the sadistic, triumphant shouts of the soldiers.
In her final moments of consciousness, Catania wished to call out to Alticon and tell him everything would be okay. But her voice failed her. And as her sight focused for the last time, she saw the blade of a sword disappear into the wolf’s chest. A defeated howl echoed around the clearing, and then silence fell.