CHAPTER FOUR

The air was nearly impossible to breathe; it felt as though Ylorra's throat and lungs filled with ash with each inhalation. Black smoke so thick it blocked her vision completely. She took careful steps atop a stone floor; the heels of her shoes clicking lightly and echoing throughout a room of unknowable size. Though she couldn't see where she was, the atmosphere felt somewhat familiar.

Ylorra made her way to a wall, hot to the touch. She gently pressed just her fingertips to the wall to guide her along her way. It was steadily becoming harder and harder to breathe, and the air was growing hotter and hotter. She could feel the sweat cascading down her skin. She dropped to her knees, unable to continue, and that was when she felt the touch of metal against her ankle.

"There you are, pretty thing!," growled a voice from behind her.

Ylorra spun around, but could see nothing through the smog. Nothing, save for two glowing red orbs near her ensnared foot. She kicked at the orbs with her free leg, but that too was caught. She was flung onto her back.

"You're not getting away this time," the voice growled. It moved its hands slowly and tightly up her calves; she could feel the metal cutting into her flesh. "Not this time."

Struggling fiercely, she clawed at the stone floor. Fear had grabbed hold of her heart and squeezed it tightly, it ached with its rapid pace and adrenaline.

The demon tugged at the hem of her gown, slowly snapping the seams. A low chuckle rose from somewhere in the smog at her legs.

"Stop! Let me go, Demon!," she yelled. She clutched at her gown, trying to preserve her modesty, but to no avail; she felt the thick, cotton fabric fall away. "No, please," she cried out.

"No one to save you in here, little girl," the demon laughed. He licked her exposed thigh with a long, slimy tongue.

Ylorra's skin crawled. She slapped at the demon's head, hitting the hot steel of his helmet.

The demon jumped up on top of her, breathing heavily on her face. "You're going to feel all the pain in this one," he whispered like a snake into her ear, licking at her earlobe. He forced her legs open with his own powerful legs, slowly crushing her pelvis with his.

Ylorra screamed. She could feel the sharp points of his armor pierce her skin. She thrashed and fought the best she could, but the smoke entered her lungs more and more the more she gasped and cried. She was weakening, and she could feel the armored demon's strength increasing. As the demon ripped away her undergarments, she sobbed, "Declan…Declan, please."

"Ylorra!," Declan shouted, shaking the priestess. "Ylorra, wake up!"

With a shout and wild fit of coughing, Ylorra jumped awake, staring straight into the concerned face of Declan. His ocean-blue eyes were wide with fear for her.

"You were thrashing in your sleep, Ylorra," he explained, brushing her sweaty hair out of her face. "You were shouting, and it took me the longest time to wake you. Ylorra, what happened?"

Ylorra shook her head, brushing his hand away and sitting up. "I'm sorry, Declan."

Declan's face did not look any more relieved. "Didn't seem like nothing. It seemed almost as if you were experiencing something physical."

She shuddered. It certainly felt real. Right down to the…she shook her head again and forced a feeble smile. "Really, Declan, it's nothing. Please, don't worry about it."

"Alright." Declan changed the subject, "I managed to find some food nearby. Nothing I can cook, but I found berries and some mushrooms, if you're interested."

Suddenly, she noticed she was quite hungry. She had Declan showcase his find, and she quickly ate her fill. She felt as though she hadn't eaten in days; her appetite had increased greatly.

Declan couldn't help but laugh. He handed her a handkerchief from his pocket and motioned to little spots on his face.

Ylorra blushed and wiped her face. "Declan?"

"Yes?," Declan asked between bites of berries and mushrooms.

"Where exactly are you taking me?"

"Oh," Declan said, "To the High Fortress, far on the Northern side of the country. That's where the Souls' Guard's main headquarters is. The only place you'll truly be safe from the hands of the Blood Seekers."

Nodding, Ylorra pressed, "How long will it take us to reach the High Fortress?"

"On the horse, about three weeks. Much longer if we were on foot."

"I see." Ylorra fell silent. Her eyes lowered to the forest floor, covered with damp leaves and tiny twigs. Three weeks felt like forever. She touched her right hand to her left side, feeling the swell of the Mark.

Declan quickly pointed out, "I'll be with you every step of the way, my lady! I will protect you with my life. I swear to you, Ylorra, that no harm will fall upon you."

Ylorra felt comforted by his words. She expressed a small grin and looked up at him. "Thank you, Declan, truly.

He patted her knee, instantly noticing the cringe of pain. Furrowing his brow, he pulled up her heavily soiled skirt to just above her knee, exposing a series of tiny punctures and scratches on her legs. "Ylorra!," he gasped.

Ylorra pulled her skirt down and scuffled away from Declan. Fearful tears filled up her eyes. She tried to blink them away, but they only escaped down her cheeks.

"What, what is that?," he demanded.

"I don't know!," Ylorra answered pleadingly.

"Those weren't there at the infirmary, Ylorra. What happened, let me see."

"No!"

"Ylorra." Declan's voice may have been firm, but it was also soothing, reassuring.

"Declan, please…" she whined.

Declan moved next to Ylorra and examined her legs, being careful not to harm or expose too much of her. He saw the scratches, the marks. As if they were done by sharp fingernails or small metal spikes. "What is this?," he whispered.

"I'm not safe from them," Ylorra whispered in response. "Not even in my dreams, Declan. They will haunt me until I can no longer run…then they will take me."

"No!," blurted Declan. His voice echoed through the forest. "They will not take you, Ylorra. I will fight until my very last breath to ensure you make it to the High Fortress."

Ylorra was terrified. She felt nothing but hopelessness, but something in Declan's eyes gave her a small glimmer of hope. She nodded, biting her bottom lip hard to keep from crying further. She had never asked for what happened; she was chosen through the elimination of thousands of innocent people. If she died, or if her enemies got hold of her, then countless more would die soon after her death. She had no choice but to live, to run, to fight. She just wanted to hide away in the darkness and waste slowly away.

Declan could sense her despair, see it written all over face. He, too, felt the bite of despair. He was one man, set against an army of mages? Being an Overseer, he held an advantage to mages, but the mages he faced counted in the hundreds. Could he really protect her from all of them?