Prologue

This story is dedicated to Kelli/Bleeding Air/Hate to Hope.

Embers were smoldering around her. It was thick, like a heavy, impermeable blanket, and her eyes were stinging, the flames clawing higher and higher at the air.

Another surge of coughing spread through her, bringing her to her knees. Her arms encompassed her heavy stomach as her singed hair fanned across her legs, shielding her face from the onslaught of billowing smoke.

Distantly, she could hear the sound of voices, far-off shouts just beyond the village. New hope rose within her, and she continued on, her bare feet skipping clumsily to avoid the blankets of burning leaves that covered the path.

Houses that had just hours before brimmed with life, now were unrecognizable mounds of charred wood, spitting smoke into the air. A tease of wind ghosted across her cheek, pulling her forward, towards the end of the village. It's not far, she assured herself, massaging her sore stomach muscles.

Words came to her lips, healing, soothing words, and she willed herself to keep walking, to head toward the voices. Her knees and feet ached, and she had to stop to steady herself several times. She wrapped her hair around her mouth in an attempt to keep out the smoke, but it still managed to find its way into her lungs, leaving her dizzy and breathless.

Stumbling forward, she at last recognized a clearing ahead; one untouched by the thinning smoke. The voices were louder, more noticeable now than before. Renewed energy had her walking faster, shuffling across the dry, uneven ground. She blinked furiously, trying to adjust to the sudden light, peering around for the villagers.

Instead, she saw them. Her heart stopped for a moment, a wave of nausea passing through her. At the same moment, they turned to look at her, their expressions mocking, arrogant.

Letting out a strangled cry, she collapsed on her knees, her hands flying to her face. No, her mind screamed. The strength dwindled slowly from her limbs, and she stared unseeingly as several of them stepped towards her.