Those are the breaths that I allow myself as I lean against the tree.
"No more. It can hear them." I tell myself as I clutch my side, resisting the urge to whimper as the bandages keeping my intestines in shift, fresh blood flowing down my belly and staining my pants.
I can barely see the blankets of snow covering the forest out of my right eye, a vicious gash running from my forehead across it to my cheek.
However, it doesn't block my vision so much that I don't see the edge of the hills a short distance away. The sound of rushing, frigid water is the only music that permeates the silence amidst the trees.
Though I sit in silence, I know that I am not alone. Somewhere in the trees, something awaits my next move with patience. It knows I'm bleeding out, it has all the time in the world.
I clutch my last weapon, a steel dagger, at my side.
"It's my only chance." Drowning or freezing to death in the Regis River was very likely, assuming I didn't pass out from the blood loss and my injuries trying to get there. But anything was better than facing death at the hands of what was hunting me.
I take in my last breath of air as I arch my back, ready to make a break for it. I wait to exhale, for I know it will hear them.
"Now!" I lunge forward, the warm mist of air escaping my lips as I cry out in pain, my injuries strained by the movement as a ear-piercing screech echoes through the forest.
Even as I pass every tree trunk, my hand clutching my side as I desperately pull myself through the snow, I hear it behind me, drawing closer.
I feel the thin, featherlight throwing knives enter my back, ripping into my flesh, as I reach the edge, and I finally let out a scream of pain as I whip my body around, blindly throwing my dagger in the direction of my attacker.
As I fall from the cliff, blood pouring from my mouth, I see the slender, white-clad figure catch my dagger with ease, silently staring back as I fall into the unimaginably frigid waters below.
However, it was not disappointment or hatred I saw in those cold, unfeeling eyes, concealed behind a faceless mask and hood. It was a glint of enjoyment, the mirthful, intense stare of a predator who had just taken part in a sporting hunt…one that had yet to conclude.
I was unusual whether it was my injuries or the freezing water that dimmed my vision so quickly, but even as my body was flung along the currents, I knew it no longer mattered.
"You'll have to work to get your trophy, monster." I took that small pride in my end, knowing that my last adversary would have to spend no small amount of time combing the Regis for my remains.
It was not the death I'd hoped for…but one I could accept.
"Good job, boy. There you go, keep reeling it in." Locke smiled as he watched his son pull in the net, somewhat clumsily but satisfactory. Patting Castor on the back, the ranger pulled himself to his feet. "In a few years, you'll be fishing like a pro."
"You think so, father?" His son beamed, laughing as Locke tousled his brown hair.
"I know so. Looks like we got a good haul, too." Examining the contents of the net, an impressive pile of wriggling trout caught amidst the rope, he rubbed his chin. "I imagine Heather could serve all of this at the lodge. I know Mikael's been dying for fish."
Looking out at the evening horizon, Locke took in a deep breath of air, content after a long day's work.
"The hooks are secured, father!" Castor spoke, finishing the last of the bindings that kept the net together. Lifting the sack of fish, Locke nodded approvingly at his son.
"Alright, let's get going before we freeze out here." Patting his son on the back, Locke turned towards the end of the pier, where a path led back to the lodge overlooking the river. However, as Castor skipped ahead of him, something caught Locke's eye at the riverbank.
"…Hm?" Stepping carefully over a mound of snow to get closer, his eyes widened as he realized what the curious object was.
"Castor! Get your mother, right now!" He called out urgently, throwing aside the bag of fish as his son ran up the path. "This one is still alive…"
Pulling the comatose woman from the banks, his face tightened at the sight of the wounds on her body, along with the knives still embedded in her back.
"…What in the blazes happened to you?"
Story credit goes to CrossPaladin