War was in the air. I could smell it. It was in the drops of sweat that gathered on my brow, every bead that trickled down my spine. The fear. Nauseating dread that strangled my voice, my muscles. I was rooted to the spot, one more tree in a forest.
This forest. I had known it once. But that seemed like so long ago. It had changed. Nothing noticeable. Nothing could move the trees, the rocks, the trenches, the river. Yet it was all suddenly unfamiliar. Something had shifted, and I couldn't understand what. Except that war was in the air.
"We shouldn't linger." Lizzie's claws gripped my shoulder, cutting through my shirt. "We'll give them five more minutes…" Her words, laced with fear, belied the determination with which she spoke. Even if I hadn't heard it, I could smell it, like smoke; thick and acidic. "But we shouldn't linger."
It had been the same ten minutes ago. Fifteen. Twenty. Still, her mantra continued. To stop would be admitting defeat. To stop would be admitting they weren't coming. If we fled now it would be the same as saying they were dead. I listened to her litany, holding to it as if it were a prayer.
The moon was a crescent in the sky. Pale light glinted off the shallow creek twisting along the foot of the hill. The drought had kept the waters low through the summer. I could see fallen branches half submerged, reaching up like grasping arms. Like corpses. I didn't want to think about corpses.
Lizzie took my arm, forcing me to the ground. A rock bit into the back of my thigh, but I couldn't move. Her hands kept me low, out of sight. "You shouldn't be here…shouldn't…" Lizzie muttered.
We listened. The faintest sound would give us reason to hope, but even the nighttime noises of the forest were eerily hushed. A breeze whispered through the boughs. That was it. I couldn't decide which was more terrifying: the silence, or the wind's murmurings. Sitting on the hard packed sod I just wanted to hug Lizzie's legs and weep. This wasn't supposed to have happened.
A howl sounded in the night. Beside me Lizzie tensed, and we both cocked our heads to hear. It lifted alone, twisting into the night at its apex, before trickling off. Lizzie's hand clutched my shoulder. When her claws drew blood I covered her fingers with mine, whether to pry her loose or hold her hand I wasn't sure. But the small contact of skin on skin was comforting.
"Lucien?" Lizzie whispered.
"No," I answered, though she knew the truth already. She knew my brother's voice as well as I. And she shouldn't have hoped it was him. I recognized the voice, though. The call that echoed through my mind sent shivers down my spine despite the heat. It had sounded like a death keen. His name whispered out in childish fear. "…Uriel…"
Lizzie heard. With a strangled sob she covered her mouth. "Goddess, give us strength," she murmured. Curling both her hands into fists she pressed them to her lips.
I looked at Lizzie, as if for the first time. She hovered above me, balanced on the balls of her feet, swaying gently back and forth as her lips moved in further prayer. The long hair that hung around her face was damp with sweat. It clung in brown clumps to her cheeks until she brushed it away. There was a sudden scent to her, like the smell of piss, though I knew she hadn't soiled herself. It was terror. She was terrified.
It occurred to me, then, that there was a chasm between fear and terror. A leap I hadn't made until a moment ago. Being afraid was easy. Terror, though, only came when there was no hope. Staring at Lizzie I realized she had understood this long before me. And I was paying for only understanding it now.
When she grabbed my arm, hauling me to my feet, Lizzie was still choking back tears. "I have to get you out of here," she said.
My heels scrambled along the dirt as I struggled to stand, unbalanced by the jerkiness of her motion. It was an effort to twist my arm away from her. "No! I'm not leaving!"
"There's nothing you can do!" She insisted.
She was right. I knew it. But I couldn't believe it. This was all wrong. What had possessed me to run from Renee and the caravan? I could have been safe, well on my way to Eirisburg. Safe. While my family was dying. There was no way I could stand it.
"I know these woods," I said. It came out like a plea. "I can help."
Lizzie took both my shoulders and shook me once, sharply. "You are twelve years old!" She reminded me. "You shouldn't even be here!"
"But I am here!" I snapped. Twisting free I pushed her back. "And I'm not running!" When she made another grab for me I backpedaled.
And then fell.
"Vesper…" Lizzie gasped as I rolled down the hill.
I came out of it on my feet somehow, hop-skipping as I kicked my shoes away. Lizzie was calling my name as loud as she dared as I slipped down the bank of the creek. The water was cold, even through my socks, splashing up around me and cooling the fire of my skin. Under my leggings my pelt was prickling over my flesh. I cast a glance back at Lizzie, about to shove the pants from my hips, when I turned again, smacking face first into a tree.
Sweat and blood smeared across my cheek. As strong hands grabbed me I realized what I took for a tree trunk was really a man.
"Vesper!" Lizzie screamed, no longer cautious.
I struggled. "Let go," I cried, biting the hand that held me.
"What the hell are you doing here?" A voice snarled. My brother's voice.
His blood was on my tongue, like film across my teeth. I couldn't seem to swallow it as my legs gave way. Lucien let me sink to the ground and I caught a dazed glimpse of gashes and claw marks. Blood. It trickled down his side with languid ease. I watched it as he shifted, speaking over me.
"Lucien…" Lizzie began.
"Why is she here?" He demanded. The growl rumbled through his chest, into his voice.
Lizzie drew up short. "I…she slipped away from Renee…" Her voice was stilted, hesitant as she fought to answer my brother's anger. "…there was no time…the caravan was already…"
"No time?" Lucien's lips drew back from his fangs. "No time?"
"I…" Lizzie shook her head. "I couldn't leave knowing you were still out here."
His blood was collecting in a puddle by his feet. It contoured to the leaves and twigs under his heel, drowning the grass in red. The smell was too strong. Too close. I was going to vomit. Pressing the back of my hand to my mouth I recoiled from him.
Lucien made as if to grab my arm. "Idiot," he snarled under his breath.
I yanked my arm away. "It wasn't her fault," I snapped. This wasn't my brother. He didn't speak this way to me. To Lizzie.
"Get up," He ordered.
"What's happened?" Lizzie asked. "Where are the others?"
"Where's Papa?" Lucien looked away. I stumbled to my feet, shoving him out of the way. He barely moved, but I could see the tree line behind him. "Papa!" There was no one to answer me. "Mama?" The muscles of my brother's neck corded. "Where are they?"
"We must flee," Lucien said, lowly. "We are betrayed."
"I don't understand. Where's Papa?"
Lizzie grabbed Lucien's arm. "Where are the others?"
"Dead…fleeing…! I don't know!" He snapped. "Kire has set Hunters against us!"
"Papa!" I screamed, lurching forward.
Lucien's familiar arms gripped my waist. He hauled me back as I kicked and screamed, until his hand fell across my mouth. When we whirled I caught a glimpse of Lizzie's face as she ducked smoothly to Lucien's side.
"Hunters? How?" She demanded. Her voice was high with nerves, like a shriek.
I reached behind me, trying to claw Lucien's face. "You liar!" I screamed. He was being cruel. That was all. Just cruelty. "Let me go!"
"Stop it, Vesper," Lucien growled, shaking me once. "They're dead…they're…they're dead…" His voice trailed off.
"Let me go." Each word was an indistinct sob.
Released, I hit the ground, falling on my knees, my fingers curling in the dirt. Dead? I rocked forward, as if chasing the breath that ghosted past my lips. A pressure built in my chest, expanding. Dead? It couldn't be true. I had misunderstood.
"No," Lizzie said. She was my voice when I couldn't find it.
My fingers clenched in my hair. I couldn't breath. "I want Papa," I murmured. Lizzie knelt beside me. The scent of Lucien's anger and blood had grown her claws again, and I felt their touch. "Get off of me!" I screamed.
Lucien's voice was tight and controlled through a storm of rage. "He's dead!" He spat.
"Lucien!" Lizzie snapped. "Stop it."
Finally I let her hold me. But there was no time for grief. I was sobbing into her shoulder when Lucien whirled, facing some noise in the forest. Lizzie put a hand to the back of my head, muffling my cries against her.
"What was that?" She whispered.
"We have to get out of here," Lucien replied. "They're hunting me…us."
"What about the pack?"
"If they're alive," Lucien said, "They'll be heading for Eirisburg." He came closer. "We should move. Now."
I wanted my father, my mother. I wanted them to yell at me for being stupid. So stupid. I shouldn't have run from the caravan. They would ground me. No doubt. I wanted them to. I wanted my father to hold me, not Lizzie. I would do anything they wanted, anything at all. They could lock me in my room until I was thirty. Anything. I just wanted them.
But they weren't coming. Ever again.
"…Uriel," I murmured, wiping my nose across the piece of Lizzie's shirt I had scrunched in my hand. "We heard him. Where is he? He promised to come back."
Lucien nearly roared. "Never…!" I rocked backwards in shock, knocking Lizzie off balance. The fury in his gaze was only overshadowed by the hurt. "Do not speak that name to me!" Lucien snarled. He chopped the air and a spattering of his blood speckled my cheeks. With a grimace he pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can't…"
"Lucien…?" Lizzie questioned.
"He's dead!" Lucien shouted. His fangs flashed white in the darkness. "Goddess take him, he's dead!" His invocation was spat like a curse. "And I can't ever…"
My jaw dropped with renewed tears. This had to be a dream. Had to be. It was all too much to be real. I screwed my eyes shut, willing it all away. But Lucien's claws digging into my arm as he hauled me to my feet were the truth. So were the blood, and the sweat, and the acrid, sharp scent of fear. I slipped down to my knees again and threw up.
Lizzie drew circles on my back, humming a nonsense melody, as with her other hand she pulled my hair from my face. I felt Lucien leave my side as I rocked back on my heels, drawing my lower lip between my teeth, swallowing the taste of bile and vomit. Near the tree line my brother stalked, listening to the quiet. I wiped my mouth on the hem of my shirt, looking up to find him changed. His brindle pelt mixed well with the shadows as he stood watch.
"Come on," Lizzie whispered. "Get up." Somehow she got me to my feet. I reached to undress, but she grabbed my wrist. "Not now. Not here. We have to go."
Lucien came back, bumping my hip and I tottered into Lizzie. She caught my shoulder, before her hand slid down to mine. Her grip wasn't sure when she finally took off after Lucien, and I lost her hand for a moment. Though I could see her my fingers still groped frantically for hers, until our palms slapped clumsily back together. Her insistent touch was the only thing forcing me to move.
I kept my other hand in front of my face, batting away the branches that sought to claw me. Lucien was swifter on four paws and I ached for the change. The muscles of my legs cramped, begging for me to give in. My stomach tied itself in knots as I forced back my pelt, and I thought I would be sick again.
The sound of crashing feet rose up out of the silent woods. Voices followed, alarmingly close, and Lucien slid to a halt. I smacked into him, with only Lizzie's grip to keep me on my feet. They might have thought they were stealthy, but I could hear the Hunters' passage as if it were thunder. My eyes widened in terror and my lungs filled to scream. Horrorstruck, Lizzie clapped a hand over my mouth, swinging me around as she did. Lucien took off again. Lizzie and I struggled to follow.
But the Hunters had caught us. They were in the woods, everywhere. I could hear their breathing. My heart was racing a mile a minute, but my feet couldn't keep the same pace. "Hurry…hurry…" Lizzie was whispering beside me. I was trying, but my thin legs were tiring; if only I could change. But there was no time. And Lizzie's fingers were digging into my wrist.
The ground suddenly gave way beneath my feet. My wrist was torn from Lizzie's grasp as I rolled down into the creek bed. My head struck a rock, drawing a stream of blood that splattered across the bed of leaves at the brook's bottom. Lizzie screamed my name as I pushed myself up. There was a crack and a bullet shot by my ear. Gathering my breath I…