Kari trudged through the forest, crunching through leaves and snapping twigs, hopping over rocks and fallen trees. She was too tired to care that she was making so much noise. Too tired even to think properly. That’s what happens with no fucking sleep.
She’d left the horse a few miles back, allowing it to gallop ahead without her; there was no use for it when it made such distinctive tracks on the road. She needed to ditch it before reaching the next town, assuming she could get to the next town in one piece. So tired. She stared at her feet as they kicked through the yellowed leaves.
The sun was slowly setting over the forest, creating darker shadows which pooled under outstretched branches. A wind whistled faintly through the trees, causing Kari to shiver and wrap her coat more firmly around herself as she stuck her hands under her armpits. If she was lucky, it would take her only another day to get to her next location.
That’s when she heard the noise. It was a sharp, cracking sound; the sound of a branch breaking, the sound of someone else in the forest. Kari spun around, her eyes scanning the dimly lit trees. Nothing. She took a few steps forward, drawing her knife from her belt. I hope it was just an animal. Tattoo guy is definitely not the person I need right now.
There it was again, closer this time. It was the sound of crunching leaves and crackling twigs, the sound of someone or something shuffling across the forest floor. Then there was a rattling hiss, the sound of indrawn breath into sick lungs. Kari felt her blood run cold as her heart began to hammer. There was only one thought that shot through her mind: run.
She stumbled away from the noise, sprinting through the forest. Damnit. I should have known. She nearly tripped over a rock, catching herself at the last instant as she raced on. Behind her she could hear more shuffling, more footsteps, the sound of wolves when they’ve scented their prey. Where’s Tattoo guy when you need him?
Kari had outrun them before. She didn’t get to where she was without having a strong pair of legs. But if they’d surrounded her without her noticing…Shit.
There was a moaning sound coming from right in front of her. A pale face appeared from behind a tree, its bloodshot eyes gleaming at her over a gaping mouth. Kari held back a scream and darted away from it, her heart hammering. She needed a safe place, somewhere to hide. The cold air burned her lungs and nose, stinging her face and numbing her fingers. She needed an escape. Just my luck.
She continued to sprint, her vision fading as true darkness descended. The moaning seemed to come from all around her now, shuffling ever closer even as she ran. Then the first rays of moonlight filtered through the trees, silvering the ground and leaves with frost. Something glinted in front of her, a cold metallic shine in the darkness. What the hell is that thing?
Kari beelined toward it. She didn’t have a choice at this point; she could only hope that it was something useful. Please let it be a gun. As she got closer, though, she saw it was far larger than she thought at first. An old vehicle, perhaps? Some wayward equipment? Maybe she could hide inside it until morning—or at least until the moon rose high enough so she could see.
She skidded to a halt in front of it and stared. It was a door—a metal door set into the side of a small hill within the woods. She glanced over her shoulder hurriedly; her eyes could barely make out the pale shapes that stumbled through the woods behind her. There was no handle, so Kari began to pound on the door with both fists, fighting down the urge to scream for whoever was inside to let her in. The noise will only attract more of them.
Was it three minutes? Half an hour? Kari didn’t know. Suddenly, the door flew open with a blast of warm air. Kari cried out in relief as she stumbled inside. The door slammed shut behind her, blocking out the sounds of the restless.
The first thing she noticed about the place was that it was dark—almost darker than it was outside. A dim, red light filled the room with barely enough to see by. Kari could scarcely make out the outlines of a table and two chairs, a metal grate that was still faintly smoking. Cans and wooden crates were stacked against one wall, and a small door looked as if it led off into another room.
Kari abruptly turned her attention to the person who had let her in. She tossed her head back, brushing a few strands of hair out of her face with one hand, “What can I say? My luck is fabulous.” It was hard to see exactly what her hostess looked like. She was small: that was obvious. Kari would have put her around fourteen at first glance, but she had a feeling that the girl was merely suffering from malnutrition rather than young age. She was bundled in layers of cloth and smelled unwashed. A pale face looked out from under a hood, two dark eyes gleaming at her from beneath of mop of stringy, brown hair.
Kari cleared her throat slightly. It didn’t look like the girl was going to respond. Not much of a conversationalist, apparently. “So may I ask the name of my heroine?”
The girl seemed to tense, one hand moving toward her sleeve for an instant before it dropped to her side, “It’s Danielle.”
“Well, Danielle, I can honestly say that it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Kari offered what she hoped looked like a friendly smile. If she thought that Danielle would respond, though, she was going to be disappointed. Not very social, either. Kari’s smile slowly faded, “My name is Alicia.” No reason to give her a real name.
Danielle nodded and turned quickly, stalking toward the table and sitting down in the chair. Kari watched as she used one finger to trace out a dark stain on the table. Odd girl.
“You can stay here as long as you like. Eat what you need. I won’t stop you. There’s a bed in the other room you can sleep in.” Danielle continued to trace her finger along the table as Kari watched. It seemed to be the end of the conversation, though. Kari nodded and slowly backed into the other room, leaving Danielle to her table.
Kari woke to the sound of voices, hushed whispers that obviously didn’t want to be heard. She quickly sat up, staring through the darkness toward the other room. How long was I out? It was impossible to tell without the luxury of windows.
She pushed herself off of the bed, creeping toward the opposite room. It was time to leave, but she should at least thank her hostess first. Something about the whispering gave her pause, though; she stopped, putting her ear against the crack between doorframe and door. She could hear them—barely. It sounded like the girl from before and a man. Kari’s lips curved into a frown; she had thought Danielle lived alone.
“I have it under control. She’s sleeping now.”
“Her sleeping is having it under control? Danny, you let her in. Worse, you let her in alive. What if she’s armed? You should have dealt with her first thing.”
“I’m sorry, Rak.”
Kari felt her blood run cold. She could hear someone pacing around the room, their feet clanging faintly against the metal.
“She’ll be out until morning, do you think?”
“I can’t be sure, but…”
“Make sure. Bang her over the head if you need to. Terk and Dur are finishing up the delivery, and I need to meet up with them. We’ll deal with her in the morning.”
There was silence for a moment. Kari strained her ears, wondering if Rak had left. Then Danielle spoke, a softer whisper, “At least we’ll have breakfast. I thought you’d be happy.”
There was a sigh, the sound of shuffling footsteps, “It’s good you thought of that, Danny. But don’t take this risk again when you’re alone.”
Kari pushed herself away from the door, her thoughts reeling. Shit, shit, shit. Why do I always end up in these messes? Her eyes flickered around the room, taking in her surroundings; it didn’t look like there was another way out. Everything had been sealed off—no windows, no grates, no hidden passages. Kari bit her lip, chewing on it thoughtfully. The only escape was the front door, and that was currently blocked. She unsheathed her knife and pressed her ear to the door again. This Rak person said he was leaving; she could probably overpower Danielle by herself—at least long enough to get out of the door. It was her only chance. And if they are what I think they are, I have a little surprise in store.
She waited as she heard Rak say good-bye, as she heard the sound of the outer door opening and closing, as she heard the scraping sound of a chair being pulled back into position. She waited until she was sure that Rak was far away and couldn’t interfere.
Kari closed her eyes briefly and then shoved the door open, bursting into the outer room.
A fire had been lit in the grate, casting more light through the room. Danielle was still in the same position as before—curled up on the wooden chair. Her hood was down now, though, flung back to show features that Kari wished she hadn’t seen. A pale, thin face whipped around to stare at her with completely black eyes. A half-blood. Damnit, I hope this still works.
Kari charged toward the door, concealing her knife at her side; she didn’t want to put Danielle on guard immediately. It was a pity that Danielle seemed to be perpetually on guard. The girl vaulted out of her chair. Her hand went to her sleeve and she withdrew a knife of her own, putting herself between Kari and her escape.
Kari danced backward as Danielle struck out with her knife, barely missing her stomach. Kari held up her blade in turn, watching her opponent, “Thank you so much for your hospitality, but I’m afraid it’s awfully late. You’ll have to excuse me…I have a long way to travel.”
Danielle remained silent, her black eyes reflecting the firelight like two marbles. Kari waited for a moment before speaking again, “So if you’ll just move aside, I’ll be going.”
Danielle drew her lips back to reveal surprisingly white teeth, a grimace that made Kari even more wary, “You’re not going anywhere.”
Danielle lunged forward. Kari was barely able to get her knife up in time to block her. The sound of two steel blades colliding filled the metal room. Kari ducked and rolled as Danielle attacked again, nearly slitting her throat. She’s good.
Kari turned just in time to jump out of the way as Danielle’s blade came arcing toward her. Too good. She backed toward the table, edging around it as Danielle screamed, attacking again and again. One of her strikes sliced through the sleeve of her jacket. Kari winced as she felt the sharp sting of an open wound meeting air. Just a little further.
Kari blocked another one of Danielle’s attacks and then held up one hand, breathing hard. The girl stood back, her face emotionless, “Give up, Alicia, you’re not going anywhere. Go back to bed.”
Kari raised her head with a grin, ignoring the pain in her left arm, “I would, but I’m the one closer to the door now. That doesn’t leave you with many options.”
Danielle’s small mouth curled into a frown, “I’m faster than you. I’d kill you before you opened it.”
Kari nodded, “Oh, that may very well be. But I know what you are now, or at least half of what you are.” She allowed herself a smile as she withdrew another small cylinder from her jacket, sheathing her knife as she struck a match. “Enjoy.”
She had the satisfaction of seeing Danielle’s eyes widen and her mouth curl into a small “o” before the resulting flash of light. Kari was temporarily blinded, a slight pain she could deal with. Danielle, on the other hand…
Her wails filled the metal house, bouncing off the walls and magnifying themselves as they went on and on. Kari grabbed the metal bar that sealed the door, throwing it aside and ducking outside into the cold.