PROLOGUE

The wounds and gashes that cover my skin are nothing – they will heal quickly, but that does not mean they do not hinder me. They feel as if someone is stabbing my whole body over and over again with a white hot poker. But they are the least of my worries as I run; I cannot escape that which is chasing me.

I cannot see its monstrous shadow nor smell its stinking breath but I can hear it crashing after me. The sound of branching breaking and logs snapping under its weight, the sound of greenery being torn and strewn away as if it weighs nothing – it does not slow the beast down. Despite all of this, I can still hear them laughing as if they were still behind me after they watched me squirm free and run for my life from the beast they sent after me.

Whatever they set on me is closing in, its noisy path getting louder, no matter how fast I run and how much distance I try to put between us it is no use. It's getting closer.

There is nothing worse than the unknown. If you know what is chasing you, you can be rational and think of something, a way to escape but when it is unknown your imagination comes into play – and imagination is most powerful. It can conjure up creatures far worse than anything truly real and can confuse your mind and convince you of the impossible. It is your greatest weapon, but right now it is also my greatest flaw.

I trip and stumble as I run, trying to jump over roots in my way but my muscles don't react fast enough. Adrenaline pumps through my body and gives me the strength to keep going. I think of ways to evade the creature but as I do not know what it is, my mind counters my thoughts reminding me of creatures that each of my tricks will not work on.

I keep going, the minor cuts now closed but my blood still flows out from the larger lacerations of my legs, only ceasing slightly. I don't think about it. I don't think about the creature. I concentrate on running as fast as I can and as far as I can. A cheetah's speed would be useful round about now but I am no cheetah. The grace of a gazelle would also be quite handy for dodging all of the forest's obstacles, every one of them seeming to be in my path, but I am no gazelle either.

My goal is still far off but my immediate danger does not compare to the consequences of not reaching the goal, ending my search and seeing my loved ones.

It gets closer still. I weigh up my options. I can keep running, I could hide or I could turn and fight. Running, knowing I will run out of energy eventually; hiding, hoping it cannot smell me out; or fighting, guessing that I am better than the beast. I have to take my chances; do I have greater stamina or am I smarter or am I stronger than it. All seems impossible but I cannot give up.

I choose to keep running. The beast must be huge; if I find a small and sturdy hiding place out of its reach I may be safe. I won't have an escape route either so I need to choose carefully. In between the roots of a giant tree? No, I will be torn apart. In a cave? It has to be small enough and I will have trapped myself – I am very hungry, it could easily wait me out. My mind races through possibilities as I run; I divide my attention between the obstacles in my path, the oncoming creature and possible hiding spots.

I come to a river. I cannot swim. I run up stream hoping it will get narrower but it does not. I'm running out of options. The water is not moving very fast so I may have a chance if I leap as far as I can and attempt to reach the other side.

I jump and land about two thirds of the way across the river, I'm standing and the water reaches halfway up my chest, freezing my lungs. It's not nearly as deep as I initially thought. I struggle slowly to the other side one step at a time. When I get there, the bank is a good half a metre above water level. I grab onto some nearby roots and start to haul myself up onto dry land. It is difficult, really difficult. I can barely drag up my own body weight but I am soaked through and the extra weight of the water makes my climb tough so I have to drag myself up a little at a time using rocks jutting out of the bank underwater as footholds.

I lie under the waxy leafed branches of the tree for a moment regaining my breath. It doesn't last for long. I'm roused from my daze by the sound of huge splashes coming from down downstream. I get up and walk back into the cover of the trees, my injuries have all healed so moving is easier but the water's chill still binds my lungs. To my surprise the splashing sound has stopped and no other noise follows it, it is silent; no animals move, no birds sing.

I am relieved but I run further into the trees anyway, my hair snags on a branch, releasing it from its tight bun and it streams out behind me. I stop again, still no sound of pursuit, still no sound at all. Then, the rain falls; it scorches my skin, vapour escapes wherever it lands. My skin is now dotted pink from where the raindrops have fallen. I was so absorbed in running away that I missed all the signs – no sound and slow moving water. The waxiness of the trees' leaves prevent the acid rain from singing them, they provide protection.

I hide out until the rainstorm is over, clutching my gold locket in burning hands. It will be okay. I will see them again. They have not forgotten me. We will be a family once more. So I will reach the target, I have to, for them.