Artwork by jakejk

Chapter One

A flash of purple lightning split the sky above, followed by a roar of thunder so powerful it shook the ground. Anzien vaulted over a fallen log as she sprinted through the forest. Fat raindrops fell from the sky, penetrating the canopy above and soaking the hood of her dark green cloak. Masada’s war horns blared once again, temporarily drowning out the faint sounds of steel clashing, and soldiers dying. She had run through the night, driven more by fear than a desire to fight. Even still, she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d made it in time. If Simmy isn’t hiding, I am going to skin him alive.

Wet leaves brushed against her face as she ducked under a low bough, then leapt over a large, moss covered rock. Her heart pounded in her chest, and adrenaline filled her veins, obliterating her fatigue. After a long exhausting night, she was finally close. Close enough to smell the smoke, though she still couldn’t see it. She burst from the trees into a small clearing, and glanced up at the sky as she sprinted through it. Should be morning by now. Ominous clouds blotted out the sunrise, casting the forest in perpetual night. A drawn out, bloodcurdling death-cry came from up ahead, and she instinctively drew her blades. The dagger at her side, and the short-sword sheathed on her back were standard issue for Ko’Jin Runners. Her training kicked in, and she kept her head low as she ran quietly toward the chilling sound.

Motion—up ahead. She ducked behind a tree. Peering out, she saw a hairless, gray-headed creature crouched over a body. Its arms jerked violently as it worried at the fresh corpse. She moved in closer. Its head suddenly popped up, cocked to one side. Anzien held her breath and waited. After a moment, it went back to its kill, carelessly discarding unwanted organs and bones over its shoulder.

Anzien leaned her back against the tree, breathing rapidly. You’ve been trained for this. Trust your instincts. She tried to talk herself down, but was unable to unravel the knot in her belly. At least my hands have stopped shaking. She took a deep breath, readied her weapons, and charged out from behind the tree.

She froze. It’s gone. Only the mutilated corpse remained. Fear gripped her. Your training…remember your training! She glanced around nervously. The trees! Hasai hide in the trees! A crash of thunder cracked the sky, and she looked up to see the bloodied gray creature falling silently toward her from the branches above. She raised her dagger and deflected its black blade, then rolled away and rose to face it. A flurry of guttural whispers filled her head, threatening to drown out all thought. The creature’s black mouth moved in a blur, and its eye sockets were grown over with sinewy spotted flesh. She was easily a head taller, but she knew that its size was no indication of strength. How many times had she imagined this very moment? Easily more than a thousand, yet nothing could have prepared her for the real thing.

It bobbed its head twice, then launched at her. Anzien defended, using both weapons to block the flurry of attacks. So fast. It was all she could do to keep its claws and blade from her flesh. She sidestepped and deflected a blow, then swung her short-sword toward its exposed flank. The creature easily dodged it, leapt up, and brought its blade down toward Anzien’s head with both hands. She realized her mistake and raised her dagger to defend, but it was too late. The black blade slid off her dagger and slashed across her cheek as she jerked her head away. Warm blood streamed down her face and pooled in the neckline of her cloak. She leapt back, resisting the urge to drop her weapon and clutch the wound.

The hasai made a throaty, clicking sound, excited by the sight of her blood. Anzien steeled herself. She would not die here. Not while Simeon still needed her. She flicked her wrists, re-gripping her blades so they pointed toward the ground. “You’re going to regret that,” she growled, and charged with a scream. She feigned high, then spun low deflecting an attack overhead. Using the momentum from her spin, she kicked the savage creature in the ribs. It flew sideways into a tree, and bounced off onto the ground. Before it could recover, she leapt, driving both her blades into it—one in the chest, and the other into its sword arm. The hasai was pinned, but far from dead. It writhed beneath her, its free arm raking a fresh wound down her neck. She grunted from the pain and grasped it by the wrist, slamming it down. She wrenched her short sword free from its chest, and drove the blade down into the fleshy eye socket of the feral creature.

The whispers faded as its black mouth went slack, and the arm she had pinned was no longer fighting for her throat. Anzien’s chest rose and fell as she stared at the dead hasai. I did it, she thought. She should have felt relief, but there was a nagging worry at the back of her mind. Suddenly she remembered, Away! She snapped out of her shocked state and leapt off the creature, just as a low boom assaulted her eardrums. She landed roughly on the forest floor, a pointed rock jabbing into her ribs. Stupid girl! she chided herself, Still acting as green as the first day of training! She rolled off the rock and gently touched the wound on her cheek. The blood appeared to be clotting. She’d been lucky it wasn’t deeper.

Anzien sat up. Her eyes grew wide at the stasis sphere surrounding the dead hasai. Small motes of dust and leaves were frozen in mid-air, and rain drops had begun to accumulate on the outer edges. Her heart sank. There, still embedded in the dead hasai, were her short sword and dagger. They would be stuck like that for days, along with anything else that entered the sphere. Her Preceptor would not be pleased. The sounds of fighting coming from Masada again drew her attention. She took a deep breath and crept toward it as quietly as possible. Skirting wide around another skirmish, she eventually arrived at the tree line marking where the forest gave way to the town of Masada. What she saw robbed the breath from her lungs.


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