Timara says: Helllllo out there. I'd like to thank my fellow fictionpress author eyes-of-a-hawk for the inspiration for this story. Here I go: Thanks, eyes. One more thing. Chuggur is my cat...and, sometimes, my co-author. Don't ask. Just thought I'd tell you. Any comments she makes are translated for your enjoyment. Okay, now the story.

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Prologue

Mikhal paused at noon to rest. He had fled all through the day and the previous night, headed southward, ever south.

He was tired and hungry and thirsty and dirty and bleeding heavily from the days-old gash in his right forearm. He had no doubt he was leaving a blatant trail for the hounds to follow, but none of that mattered. He leaned heavily against a mighty oak, gasping in huge breaths.

The man strove desperately to control his heaving lungs and thundering heart. His muscles quivered with the effort of merely holding up his weight. His head spun with fatigue, loss of blood, and lack of sustenance. If he did not get moving now, he would collapse, right then and there on the narrow forest path. Mikhal staggered on, leaving a bloody handprint in his wake, and headed southward, ever south.

The sun reached its zenith and began to fall toward the distant horizon to Mikhal's right. And still, he headed southward, ever south.

The growing darkness made it near impossible to pick out the trail before him. It did not matter. One foot in front of the other. Mikhal closed his eyes as he stumbled on, headed southward, ever south.

The hounds began baying in the distance. They were gaining on him. He would never make it. It did not matter. He continued on, pushing himself far past his mortal limits, headed southward. Ever south.

South.

Yes. Mikhal's breath, what little he managed to gasp in through his parched mouth, came in ragged, irregular bursts. Silky-smooth blood seeped from his wound, running down his ragged trousers to pool in his boots and leave distinct footprints in the dust of the trail. His muscles screeched in protest, on the verge of mutiny. His mind reeled with shock and exhaustion, demanding an explanation while simultaneously rejecting the one provided.

None of that matter. If Mikhal could reach the border before his pursuers, none of that would matter. One foot in front of the other…It didn't matter which one…So long as it pointed southward, ever south.

He needed water badly. He required food. He had to piss, damn it!

The hounds were closer now. Mikhal blocked them from his mind, focusing every fiber of his being to the task at hand: one foot forward, then the next…headed southward, ever south.

The first of the hounds broke through the brush just then, drawn to the scent of fresh blood. Mikhal's deadened senses hardly even registered the vicious fangs that latched onto his already mangled limb. The agony shuddered through him, then faded into the dull ache that permeated even the farthest reaches of his abused body. He dragged the beast along with him, headed southward, ever south.

A second hunting dog latched onto Mikhal's leg, shaking its head with malicious pleasure. The man lurched unsteadily, then toppled into the dust and began to crawl, inching his way along, headed southward, ever south.

Blissful nothingness beckoned, and Mikhal forced back the involuntary impulse to embrace it. He focused even harder, placing one elbow in front of the other and pulling himself forward, headed southward, ever south.

A third dog leapt from the brush nearby and onto Mikhal's back, effectively pinning him down, grinding his face into the dirt and shooting bolts of fiery agony along his shoulders, abused as they were by some unspoken ordeal. For the first time in a long time, Mikhal was not able to bite back the pained howl that rose in his throat. And just his luck, too, that his one outburst would come out as a strangled groan and gain him nothing but a mouthful of grit.

Suddenly, the weight was torn from his back. The dog's snarls morphed into yelps before subsiding into whimpers. It took Mikhal a moment to realize that the hounds on his arm and leg were gone, too, cast off of him by some phantom force that he neither recognized nor understood. All he knew was that he was now capable of rising, of continuing down the trail, headed southward, ever south.

But as the man moved to do so, his vision swam, and he fell back to earth. Confused by the lack of response from his heretofore-faithful body, Mikhal worked a hand—his good one—beneath him and pushed himself up. His arm shook uncontrollably, buckled, and collapsed like a wet noodle beneath a brick. The darkness inched nearer, but Mikhal fought it back. He had to press on, headed southward, ever south…

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Timara says: I think he wants to go south.

Chuggur says: Shut up and pet me.