18 YEARS AGO
Cold creek water splashed as Natalia sunk her knees into it. Staggering, she adjusted herself and the bundle she was clutching to her chest. Her long, gray wool coat soaked up the moister making it hard to wad through the shallow water. So, she forced her tired legs to work double as the frigid water reached up to her mid thighs, struggling towards the other side of the creek.
The rocky bank was slippery as she dragged herself across it, careful not to twist her ankles. Getting injured now was not something she could afford.
Shivering, panting, her breath visible in the crisp September air, she forced her burning muscles to move faster, climbing the small slope to reach the tree line. She slipped a few times, but ultimately succeeded. Heaving a deep breath, she blew a few wayward strands of her chestnut hair that fell out from her now loose chignon.
She needed to run.
They weren’t safe yet.
Her ruse would be figured out soon enough. The spell would get weaker the further she was from the casting space. They would break through it. She was just hoping to be near the town when they do.
Twigs cracked, the leaves rustled. Those and the sound of her labored breathing and her feet squelching in her wet leather boots were the only sounds echoing through the shadowy, wooded area. It was past midnight, and through the naked treetops, a full moon was visible, emitting an ominous red glow. An ill omen.
Blood chilling howls sounded in the distance.
Her heart leaped to her throat at the sound, and she pumped her legs faster.
An unintentional sob escaped her lips. There was no time to grieve now, she reminded herself as she bit hard on her lip to smother the oncoming onslaught of tears.
Everything went wrong tonight.
It was to be a simple mission.
High Council’s inside contact assured them that the plan was a go, the meeting place and time decided. Natalia and two of her coven sisters were dispatched.
But their contact and the asset were late.
“It’s past the meeting time,” Anilla, a tall brunette, said as she paced the clearing in the forest they were waiting at, her dark green coat billowing around her feet. It was the young witch’s first mission. The jitters and angst were obvious in each step she took, as her gray eyes darted over the shadows of surrounding forest.
“They will be here. The terrain is slowing them down,” Natalia reassured her. Even as the words left her mouth, a slight heaviness settled in her stomach. The uncomfortable feeling made her shift on her feet and readjust her posture. She tightened her coat around herself as a chill breeze swept through the clearing.
Natalia shouldn’t even have been on this mission. For Ishaba’s sake, she was nearing fifty. She was ready to let the fledglings deal with these types of ventures. But Katarina, her long-time friend and mentor, requested it. Stating the utmost importance she should be in the lead, and Natalia could never say no to her friend. If Katarina was that insistent, she must have seen something no one else did. Though highly volatile and hard to interpret, Katarina’s gift of divination was among the strongest anyone has seen in centuries, which landed her a place on the High Council at the young age of twenty-five.
“I don’t like this. The forest is too quiet,” Yullia, a stout, raven haired woman in her mid-thirties, said, as her dark eyes scanned the surroundings. And indeed, the woods seemed awfully silent. Eerily so.
Natalia had the pleasure of working with the young witch on two other occasions, and her intuition proved sharp as the blade’s edge.
Yullia’s eyes settled on Natalia. “Something is wrong.” A shiver slid down Natalia’s spine at her words, and the steady beat of her heart quickened.
Rustling broke the silence and all three of them snapped their eyes at the source, alert, as two figures stepped out of the shroud of darkness.
A slim, willowy figure with long blond hair, Natalia recognized immediately as Violetta, their contact. The woman was clutching her side and dragging her feet; her face was a mask of white. Anilla rushed to steady her, as the big, dark red stain spanning from her side down her thighs became visible.
“Run,” Violetta whispered, all her strength sapped away. She fell, a pool of blood drenched the Earth underneath her.
Crouching next to her, her hands shaky, mouth agape in horror, Anilla placed her trembling fingers on Violetta’s pulse. “She’s gone…” Anilla croaked.
Behind her the asset, a young woman, no older than twenty-three, clothing disheveled, dirty, covered in bruises, and gashes clutched a red blanket to her chest. Her eyes, wide in terror, peered through a curtain of dark hair.
“They knew. We are not safe,” the woman said as she hobbled towards Natalia. “Take her...” she said, handing the red bundle to Natalia with shaky hands. The bundle moved and Natalia saw a tiny sleeping face of a newborn swaddled inside the blanket. The woman came closer to the baby, her eyes brimming with tears as she placed a kiss on the top of the child’s head. “I love you Sweet Pea,” she whispered.
A bloodcurdling scream sounded, and they whipped their heads to the source. Natalia sucked in a sharp breath.
Anilla, who was scouting the edge of the woods, clutched her abdomen as the blood pooled at her feet, jaw slack, her gray eyes glazed over.
A massive wolf shifter stood in front of her, his claws dripping blood as his cold, glowing blue eyes snapped to the three of them.
Natalia’s heart sunk, fear nestled itself in every bone in her body.
Her mind was racing as she took a step back. How in Ishaba’s name didn’t they hear him attack? The woman next to her suddenly moved in front of Natalia as she clutched the babe harder to her chest.
“Go! Run!” the woman urged, a pained expression on her face before she took a step towards the werewolf. Air swirled around her form, and her green eyes turned white.
Natalia froze, her feet refused to move. She hesitated. They should be the ones leaving. She was older, their senior. She should protect them, not the other way around.
Growling, the werewolf lunged at the woman but before he could reach her the current of electricity struck him as a white eyed Yullia stepped in front of him. Her hands still pulsed, crackled, preparing the next charge.
“Natalia run! Get the baby out of here!” Yullia yelled, clearly seeing Natalia’s turmoil.
The werewolf roared in pain, tumbling down, scratching the ground and snarling, snapping his jaws as he tried to rid himself of the sensation and get up, but failing, so, he howled.
Moments later, the whole forest seemed to echo with the responding ones.
Yullia zapped the damn dog again. He grunted in pain, but this time, he pushed through it. Already the bastard adjusted. The damn beast swiped at her. Blood sprayed. She fell to the ground, but not before she zapped the bastard again. This time with higher voltage. The damn thing’s eyes rolled back in his skull as he fell.
The moment his body plopped down with a thud, howls sounded closer this time.
“Go!” Yullia yelled as she stumbled to her feet, clutching her shoulder as blood spilled over.
“Leave now, we will hold them off,” the woman said, her eyes traced the red blanket in Natalia’s arms as if caressing it for the last time, “Promise me you won’t ever let him get his hands on her, please,” she pleaded, her voice soft, as a tear spilled down her cheek.
Natalia just nodded in loss for words, and the woman gave her an approving smile before her eyes hardened and she started a quiet chant.
Natalia’s eyes widened in trepidation as she recognized the melody and the words of it, “You can’t seriously be doing…” she started, but Yullia’s shriek interrupted, “Leave!”
The forest wasn’t quiet anymore as more howls and the cracking of the branches sounded somewhere nearby. Taking in a shuddering breath, Natalia turned on her heel and finally ran, heeding their pleas.
Her heart pounded in her ears as her feet ate up the ground, taking her further away from the clearing and deeper into the dark forest. Muffled growling sounded, followed by crackles of electricity, whimpers and yelps, before the forest shone bright golden at her back, chasing the shadows away. Earth vibrated, throbbed as if it had a pulse of a beating heart within it and Natalia lost her balance, but quickly caught herself on a trunk of a tree. Ear splintering roars and screams followed before a deadly silence fell, and she looked back as the light dimmed, before she pushed off the trunk and continued onward at a slower pace.
Then she heard it. Grunting and panting, the padding of heavy feet.
Her gut lurched forward, then dropped.
She had to pick up the pace.
Gods, how many were there? She was sure that the bulk of them just perished moments ago. Some must have slipped through. She uttered a few more juicy cuss words under her breath.
Natalia cursed Katarina and her insistence that she come along. Her heart ached for the young lives they lost tonight. Guilt settling around her like a ritual shroud, heavy, oppressive. And heavy was the burden now laying solely on her shoulders.
She couldn’t fail.
Focusing on her energy, she brought her thumb to her mouth and bit hard on it. When she tasted iron she let the blood spill down, mixing with the wisps of fog that hovered over ground. Her eyes turned white, as the fog thickened and spread out wide as new figures whirled up from the ground on the spots where the drops of blood have landed. The figures moved in the same way as she did. All of them a copy of her, down to the red blanket she held. The clones each went their own way.
Concentrating more, she stretched herself thin as she depleted every bit of her mana to thicken and imbue the fog with it, to confuse and disorient her pursuers in as wide of an area as possible. It diminished their senses and played tricks on their minds, hopefully till she gets to the extraction point. Illusion magic was, after all, her forte.
And here she was now, soaked, freezing, still running, as the wolves almost broke through the spell. She could feel the loose threads of it snapping, one by one. There was still a chance. She would not let the deaths of her sisters and the child’s mother be in vain. She won’t let anything happen to the sweet baby sleeping soundly while under a spell in her arms. Stumbling over the fallen branches, heaving, aching all over, she pushed forward with renewed vigor.
She was close.
The trees thinned out. In a few more moments, she broke out. Stepping at the edge of the woods on a hilltop, she looked down at twinkling lights of a town. A sense of relief washed over her. Heart pumping wildly, hands clutching the baby closer to her, she released a shaky breath and made haste down hill. A car will be waiting at the edge of the town.
The run was over. The wolves won’t get to them now.
But her thoughts ran wild and dark. How did the High Council’s carefully constructed plan fail so miserably? Was there a leak? Was there someone false they gave their trust to? Questions swirled in her mind, almost making her dizzy, but they’ll have to wait till she reached the High Council’s headquarters.
The baby stirred in her arms but didn’t wake. Natalia smiled. She loved kids, but she wasn’t lucky to have any of her own. Her chest tightened for the poor child, now motherless, and a new resolve settled over her as she stared down at the baby’s rosy, plump cheeks and tiny hands.
“Sweet dreams, little one.” Natalia brushed her fingers over the baby’s dark curls. “I’ll protect you from all the monsters in this world. With my life, I promise you this,” she whispered an oath, placing a kiss atop the baby’s head, making her way to the black vehicle waiting.