Chapter 1: Killing Desperation

The second book of a fantasy serial-in-progress. Surviving the wild is hard. Surviving wild magic is harder.

Svara woke with a start. They were close again, she was certain.

She was surprised she got any rest at all. These woods were a terrifying place. It was so dark that her eyes couldn’t adjust, even after spending days inside. She occasionally caught breaths with traces of the beasts that lived here, and those breaths were a testament to the terrifying rumors that circulated through each surrounding nation. These monsters were her last hope, the only threat credible enough to endanger her pursuers. As she feared, her final hope wasn’t going to last much longer.

She pushed herself up. Her shoulder ached from being pressed against the mossy rock so long, and the arm below it was numb, but at least she slept. Those chasing her had probably not taken that liberty, and were it not for the fact that they’d caught up again, she’d find solace in their fatigue.

Orientation was a vague memory. Without the sun, without a horizon, without the stars, Svara had no idea where she was going. Still, by the same wind that brought tale of her enemy, she knew which direction was most wrong. She could only hope that meant the opposite way was best.

Svara breathed deep and felt the aches subside. Her art improved her endurance and quickened recovery, but that meant little when her enemies were also artists. Better ones, even. If she hadn’t been given a head start, she’d be dead by now.

The woods were dark, but she could feel the path in her breath. The air had been here for ages, didn’t like to travel far. It knew the land well enough to guide her feet, and it knew the enormous trees even better. She could run without risking injury, but again, so could her pursuers.

This was getting tiresome. It wasn’t physical exhaustion or even fear anymore. The task was just too difficult. She’d tried everything she could think of and still couldn’t lose them long enough to erase her trail. She didn’t have any allies, at least none that could protect her from this enemy. There was nowhere to run, and the only reason she was still running was because she knew she was supposed to. She wasn’t sure why, anymore. It just felt correct, only barely; if she succumbed to the quick relief her enemies offered, she would have failed somebody important.

The wind shifted for the first time since she entered. How long had that been; a few days? Weeks? Whatever the case, it came strong and at an angle to the old current. It was fresh, from outside the Dawnless Woods! Most importantly, it came with heavy traces of people on it.

Who would settle so close to this cursed land? Surely they weren’t inside the forest, were they? They’d have to be desperate or insane. Regardless, they wouldn’t be far from the light, which meant she’d found a way out.

She skidded to a stop, then sprang to her left. Her feet had been faster and lighter than a regular athlete’s before, but now they were infused with purpose. Her new path might put these strangers at risk, even if she never made contact with them. All the same, she wanted to see the sun before she died. She hoped they would forgive her.

It seemed like she’d scarcely changed course before her heels were digging into the forest floor again. She barely managed to stop before colliding with a collection of glowing green lines, a swirling pattern floating in the black.

She stared at it in silence for several seconds as she failed to comprehend what she was looking at.

“Oi,” it finally said in a man’s voice.

“O-oi,” she replied. A person? She breathed deep; yes, definitely a person. What culture used that greeting?

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked casually.

“Running for my life.” Svara wondered for one insane moment if he believed her. What else would anyone be doing out here? “What are you doing?”

“Huntin’ ” he replied. She was sure now, he was insane. “Whatcha runnin’ from? I think ya may have lost it, there’s nothin’ nearby.”

“Good. I’d like to keep it that way.” Svara brushed past him and was back to full sprint in three steps. She called back: “Was nice meeting you, sir.”

For several seconds, she thought she’d never hear him again. He eventually shouted a strange farewell, however: “Aaay-UP!”

The headwind was still coming, which made the blind pathfinding easier. Her pace increased accordingly. The sunlight wouldn’t bring any new advantages, but she was still desperate to feel it again.

In a few short minutes, she suddenly found herself bathed in it. The forest ended without warning, and her eyes stung from the unexpected brightness. She’d assumed there’d be glimmers in the distance as she approached the edge, that there’d be some kind of cue. Considering her experiences inside, she supposed that expectation had been naive.

For a moment, she contemplated the mystery, how she might use this information if she ever needed to go back inside. Then she remembered she wouldn’t live long enough to need an answer. She opted to enjoy the sunlight as much as she could.

“Ye’re pretty quick.”

Svara’s heart jumped at the sound. She whirled around to find a man ambling towards her from the monolithic blackness of the forest.

She almost asked him how he’d kept up, but a quick inspection gave her the answer. A normal athlete couldn’t compete with her art, but an exceptional one might. The scars, the beasthide clothing, the rippling muscles, the arbitrary mix of weaponry; this man clearly lived a life that demanded an exceptional athlete.

“Why’d you follow me?” Svara demanded.

“Hm?” his eyebrows twitched at the question. “Hm. I ‘unno. Never met no strangers’n there before, got me curious.”

Svara frowned. Their trail had entangled briefly before, but now they were even more likely to mistake him for her ally. Maybe her concern was misplaced, though; he didn’t look like someone who would help her.

“Wha’s yer name, lass?” he asked.

“Svara,” she said curtly. She didn’t feel inclined to share her surname. “Yours?”

“I’m Evan.” His tone was disarmingly casual. “Me family’s camped nearby. Wha’ brought ya way out ‘ere?”

“You need to get back to your family, Evan.” Svara warned.

“I do?” he raised an eyebrow.

“Yes.” she insisted. “I’m being followed.”

“Evan!” A woman shouted from inside the black. “Wha’s the problem? Why ya move so much after callin’?”

“I ‘unno,” he called back. “We moved ‘cause she decided to. Don’t whine, ya foun’ me trail, di’n’t ya?”

Svara was already certain Evan was insane, and now she believed him an idiot. If the face of the woman emerging from the forest was any indication, Svara wasn’t the only one.

“Who’s ‘she,’ Evan?” Once she was in the light, the woman’s eyes turned to Svara. “Ah, pardon lass, ya must be who ‘e’s blabbin’ about.”

“Svara, Nuray,” Evan introduced. “Nuray, Svara. I met ‘er in th’ woods.”

“For real?” Nuray sounded dubious. “Tha’ true, lass?”

“Yes,” Svara said impatiently. “Listen, you’re both in danger. You need to get away from me.”

The strangers looked at one another in disbelief. Nuray broke the gaze first. “Ain’t nothin’ close, lass. Ye’re safe now.”

“Why do you think I went in there in the first place?!” Svara was becoming desperate; the wind was wrong, she could no longer tell how close the enemy was. They could arrive any second now. “It’s because it was the only place that might be dangerous enough to threaten the people chasing me! They aren’t the dumb beasts you’re used to, they have ways of tracking me…”

“There be more strangers ‘n there?” Evan shielded his eyes and looked into the black, as if it might help him see inside. “This’s a weird day.”

“Didja miss somebody, Evan?” Nuray asked with a hint of condescension. “Ya gettin’ dull on us? We needa keep ya in camp now?”

“Awh c’mon,” Evan rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “If they ‘alf as quiet as she was, ya can’t ‘spect me ta know they there. People can be quiet, tha’s why hunters started wearin’ th’ lummush in the first place.”

“Wait, even she found ya ‘fore you noticed ‘er?” Nuray grinned. “It really might be time ta turn ya in! Won’ be so bad, ya still good fer seed.”

“I’m tellin’ ya, she’s good!” Evan defended. “Nothin’ wrong wit’ me!”

“Ya sure? If a city lass can get th’ better o’ ya, can we really let ya keep huntin’ knowin’ ya won’t be quicker’n…”

A shadow dripped out of the forest and bolted behind Evan. Svara’s eyes went wide; it was certainly one of her assassins. In the split-second it would take him to reach her, Svara was thankful her killer wasn’t interested in dispatching Evan as it passed.

Svara blinked, and by the time her eyes opened, Evan had grabbed the attacker’s cloak with his right hand. The assassin’s weight wasn’t enough to bring the hunter off-balance; his legs ran out from under him and he fell on his back.

“...whatever monster ya might run ’nto.” Nuray’s eyes went wide as she finished.

Evan’s confusion was written all over his face as he turned to look at his catch. He didn’t seem to believe he’d managed it. It didn’t take him long to recognize an opportunity, though.

“Wha’s that, Nuray?” Evan turned to her with a cocky grin. “Ya worried about me?”

Nuray’s shock faded quickly. Svara was startled to detect an air of affection about the lady hunter. “Nah, not no more. ‘twas a good catch, I gotta give it to ya.”

Svara inspected the fallen assassin. He was struggling for breath, and didn’t seem to have any interest in returning to his feet. She felt a brief twinge of sympathy; he probably hadn’t slept in days.

Seven more shadows appeared from the black. Now that the hunters were on their guard, the newcomers approached with caution. Svara gulped and prepared for the worst as the leader stepped forward.

“What have you done to him?” He asked.

Evan shrugged. “Nothin’ much, ‘e startled me so I grabbed ‘is cape.” He turned to the fallen assassin. “Oi, you alright?”

“More or less,” he managed between labored breaths. “Mind if I stay down for a minute or two, sergeant?”

“I do.” His superior sounded firm but sympathetic. “Come on, we’re almost done.”

The subordinate sighed and began to rise. From a crouch, he slipped free of his cloak and sprang towards Svara. Somehow, Nuray was quick enough to tackle him out of his leap. They crashed to the ground and the assassin groaned in defeat.

“Oi, enough o’ that,” Nuray scolded. “Ya need ta tell us why ya wanna do tha’ before we’ll let ya.”

A chorus of scraping metal accompanied the unsheathing of the other assassins’ scimitars. Svara doubted they cared much for Nuray’s assessment. Evan’s smile shrank a little as he turned to face the aggressors, but he didn’t draw any of his own weapons.

“Them’s some curvy steel,” he observed. “Why ya make ‘em that way?”

Nuray released the first assassin, but was careful to keep herself between him and Svara as she returned to Evan’s side. The twice-embarrassed man rose and brushed himself off before returning to his comrades.

“What is all this?!” The shout came from the woods, above and behind Svara’s pursuers. There was a rush of air and a rustling sound, then another savage-looking woman came stomping out of the black. She had a bow in one hand and wore a full quiver on her back, and had more scars than Evan and Nuray combined. “Why’d ya stray so far from where ya called, Evan?!”

Evan retreated a few steps back, ironically more terrified of his kin. “Kirana! I’m sorry, things ‘appened quick!”

Kirana strode straight through the assassins without hesitation. Their grips tightened on their weapon hilts, but none of them tried to stop her.

“Ferget that,” Kirana growled. “Tell me wha’s happenin’, now. Ya in danger or not?!”

Svara didn’t blame Evan for his newfound anxiety. This woman’s scowl would put anyone on the back foot.

“I’m still tryin’ ta figure that out,” Evan’s hand found its way to the back of his head. “I found this lass, the one behin’ me, in th’ woods. She ran off, an’ that’s when I called. I thought it was weird enough ta…”

“Evan.” Kirana arrived in front of him, and her expression somehow became even sharper. Nuray chuckled as she watched. “Are ya in danger, right now?”

“Mebbe?” Evan squeaked.

Kirana thrust the knuckle on her middle finger into Evan’s forehead. He took another step back and rubbed at the sore spot, prompting a guffaw from Nuray. Kirana didn’t seem amused as she turned back to the assassins.

“You lot,” she called. “Why ya here?”

“We just need the girl,” the leader answered, trying to sound diplomatic. “Step aside, we’ll be done with it, and then we’ll be gone.”

“Girl,” Kirana turned her scowl on Svara. “Why they need you?”

“They mean to kill me.” Svara knew she should have run. These hunters had given her a huge opportunity to do so, but somehow, she didn’t feel like that had ever been a real option.

“Why?” Kirana was asking either side.

“Orders.” The sergeant would say no more. Svara knew that doing so would betray their purpose.

“Because of the family I was born into.” Svara couldn’t think of a better way to summarize the matter.

“Not good enough,” Kirana concluded. “You. Murderers. Begone. Your side is wrong.”

“That’s not an option, friend.” The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “Step aside, or we’ll kill you too.”

“Try.” Kirana commanded.

As the assassins of Svara’s homeland sprang forward, she bit her lower lip and let her tears flow. Why? There were only three of these primitive people against eight of the raja’s elite soldiers. It would be a massacre, the exact kind that Svara had known she’d cause when she switched course. Why couldn’t they have just asked her if she wanted help?

Evan met one assassin’s charge with a thrown axe. Sand and water splashed from the wound on his forehead; the shock of a fatal wound always returned some of the flesh to its basic elements. Nuray leapt into the enemy while Kirana managed to plant an arrow into one woman’s heart.

As the dead fell, Svara admired these savages and their valor, but despaired their independence. None seemed to be acting with the other two in mind. Two more fell from Nuray’s blades, but Svara knew better than to hope. She’d been schooled in history, and knew a disciplined military would always triumph over a horde, even against unfavorable numbers.

Eight against three had become four to three, but the gap had been closed. Breathers excelled in close combat; their speed was unmatched, and these men were practiced at severing arteries without their victims even knowing they’d been cut.

Kirana was beset by two of these killers, and she managed to prolong her life by abandoning a dagger between one man’s ribs. The other clove her bow in two when she used it to guard, however. The sergeant had set his eyes on Evan, and the final enemy had just drawn blood from Nuray.

“I’m sorry,” Svara whimpered. She doubted they could hear her over the melee. Her voice was meek from sorrow and fatigue, but she still needed to make her peace with those she’d doomed. “I’m so sorry.”

Svara was still despairing as the sergeant fell flat at Evan’s feet. Kirana had gotten behind her opponent and was strangling the woman with the string of her broken bow, and Nuray’s victim collapsed into her after a fresh wound to the belly.

Dumb eyes stared at the three hunters standing among the corpses of the eight assassins. Svara had abandoned hope, so she found it difficult to process the scene before her. She was convinced she wouldn’t exist this long, so she was unprepared for the prospect of a future.

“What a waste.” Evan rubbed the back of his head and sighed. “Why’d they have ta force war? They was good, but somethin’ was wrong with ‘em. What made ‘em so desp’rate?”

“They was tired, you could tell,” Nuray explained. “Musta made themselves crazy chasin’ her.”

“They were wrong,” Kirana insisted. “And now they’re gone. Don’ overthink it. C’mon, we needa tell Cas - nah, the elder - about this.”

They turned in unison and noticed that Svara was still there. Nuray chuckled when she saw the blank look on her face.

“Get on back ta yer family, girlie.” Kirana suggested. “These’nes can’t hurt ya no more.”

“I can’t,” Svara managed. She had no idea where she was, or where they were. Besides, their situation had been even worse than hers when they parted. “They’re dead.”

“Come meet ours, then.” Kirana shrugged. “Take a nap there, ya look like ya need one.”

The three hunters walked past, not waiting to see whether she’d follow. Despite her stupor, Svara’s legs moved to follow them. After months of pure desperation, she no longer remembered what life was like without it.

She closed her eyes and lifted her head as she walked. The sun felt nice.

 -CUT-

1.) Each book in a serial needs to be able to stand on its own, despite being part of a series. With that in mind, how was this for a first chapter? It's supposed to be fast and furious, but was this too abrupt?

2.) Any trouble with the dialogue? If you've read the first episode, you're probably accustomed to the rough language, so this question is for newcomers.

3.  Any problems with descriptions or settings? I'm the type that likes to be extremely sparse on physical descriptions, so let me know if that's a problem.

Extra credit: the meta-critique

A.) Remember book one? Any trouble easing in to book two? Evan and Nuray are the only recurring characters so far, though Elder Inga and Matron Cascata are referenced. Anyhoo. Ya alright with picking things up here?

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