The sun made its presence known as a distant pale glow in the sky, drowned beneath a veil of thick gray clouds. She'd slain the rare small animal with the combat knife over the three day hike, and now the sick and sour of her turning stomach made her slow down. Between hunger and dysentery she chose to believe that the former was the cause of her upset stomach.
Kael closed her eyes when she had the meals, washed her mouth in the river and pulled strips of raw meat between her teeth. She forged forward nonetheless, until finally she came upon a log-jammed fork in the river.
For a moment she gazed at her own reflection in the rushing stream, wild eyes haunting every shadow. She'd taken a pale gaunt so quickly, weary and every limb sore to the bone after restless nights in the lashing winter rain.
There had been no sign of the enemy over the last two days, and Kael at first took it as mutual exhaustion and the simple inability to wage warfare between herself and the Ghost. When longest night fell she quickly learned that rather than engage her on open ground, perhaps due to a mutual lack of munitions, the hunter had first elected to wage warfare against her mind and spirit.
Kael continued toward the rally point, paranoid, swinging her gaze this way and that.
Winter’s wrath had flayed the scattered trees to the heartwood. The sun was no longer warm as she marched across a strip of neck high grass--pale and stiff, as the cold of night encroached. Kael spotted an ancient tree at the far end of the field. There, she climbed a height to her lodge and slept.
Her rest, however, proved to be shallow.
She still heard the vicious blasts of cold air rush through the stark, leafless branches, and at frustratingly unpredictable intervals heard twigs snap in the howling dark that shot her wide awake. She gripped her combat knife tight, the rest of her limbs curled about a mighty arm of oak.
There were no dreams, only what she perceived as a brief period of darkness.
A sharp, crisp breeze shredded the thick mist that hung through the Taenarum in tattered rags. The sun was rising, and day threatened the black sky above her into a cold grey and pale indigo. Kael looked down to the foot of the tree, saw the wild rabbit.
The rabbit saw her and ran.
The wicked knife found the rabbit in an instant, at the snap of her wrist. Before the wet smack of the stab reached her ears, she scanned the surrounding grassy field as she saw yet another movement. The frozen strands parted as something big prowled through them with speed.
The wolf emerged from the grass as a dark streak, menacing. It closed on the impaled rabbit, halting a cautious distance before the morsel. It stood from its prowling stance, craned its head up and sniffed at the air. He was mature, this wolf, and his ears perked up as he caught the scent of peril.
Kael swung underneath the branch, took the perilous drop to the ground. Cold lightning erupted through her legs, buckling them beneath her. The dull pain set her to a limp, but it meant nothing compared to the whirlwind of glass in her empty stomach.
The wolf’s gaze fixed her, yellow eyes stark against the wane light of dawn.
Kael glared back at the wolf, feeling vaguely foolish.
Its bristling hide resembled steel needles more than it did fur. With a spine-tingling snarl it’s lips pulled away, almost a smile, and bared a maw filled with white teeth, dripping wet.
In an that instant, the wolf was on her; it cannoned forth--a furious midnight streak of claw and fang. The beast slammed into her with all its weight, jaws agape, knocked her to the ground. White teeth snapped millimeters from her neck, spittle flew across her face.
With a split-second reaction she caught it by the neck on the way down, and Kael struggled against the beast as it thrashed in her grip and threatened to break free. She pushed, lifted--and crashed the sole of her boot into its abdomen.
The wolf slid back into the dry grass, and Kael began to rise--but the thing's speed proved as terrifying as its strength. Before she even had a knee to the ground, it sprang forth, maw agape. All she had time for was to cross a forearm on her neck and brace.
The wolf thudded into her. Frozen stalactites bedded deeply; red splashed into the wolf's mouth, mingled with saliva and foamed out the corners of its lips. For precisely one second the wolf hung there, flailed to wrench away meat--
Then Kael's solid fist found the free floating ribs.
The loud report sounded through the grassy field, echoed among the trees. The wolf tumbled end-for-end then hit the ground with a wet pulpy smack. It thrashed soundlessly--jaw snapping for air--then laid motionless in a pool of blood.
Breath hitching in her lungs, she stared at the crimson spectacle, eyes wide with disbelief, then stared at her own forearm. She saw torn skin, flesh as rags against twin spars of bone. It should hurt...shouldn't it?
She took nine steps away from the wolf--then froze.
An oppressive headlock closed about her neck. Between the hunger, sleep deprivation and blood loss from the bite and the untreated injuries from the firefight two days ago, the ambush happened faster than her dulled senses could detect. Eight inches of her own brutal tungsten-carbide pierced the tattered rags of her bulletproof jumpsuit, slid deep between her ribs in a flash--cool and quiet.
The faintest whimper escaped Kael's lips, and tears welled in her eyes as her limbs fell slack.
She never expected the enemy to play fair, yet couldn't help but wonder how someone could be so cruel. Kael felt the knife turn between her ribs, the sick grate of the blade's teeth against bone before it was violently wrenched out.
Kael fell to her knees; a bare hand caught a fist-full of her raven hair, tore out clumps and made her face the twilight morning stars. The blooded knife twirled deftly in expert hands; the point flew down to hammer into the soft flesh between the junction of her collar bones.
Then, Kael's body began to move--not quite on its own.
This time she noticed her mind unhinge, at first slowly then rapidly.
She felt her body cool as a numbness washed away all agony and sensation throughout her body--took her fear, molded it with panicked strength to a calculated bloodlust aimed at the only direct thread in the immediate vicinity.
Kael's hand snapped up in the blink of an eye, like an iron filing to magnet--faster than the knife. The clap of her armored palm against bare wrist came simultaneously with the sinister melody of shattered bone; the knife clattered to the dirt.
A shocked voice cried--female, just under thirty, hoarse with anguish as the armored grip wrenched her forward. In the moment of panicked strength, Kael singlehandedly wheeled the Ghost overhead as if she weighed nothing--instantly whipped her prone into the dirt.
Then Kael's fist flew for the assassin's head.
The woman rolled away at the last moment; dirt, mud and grass exploded from the impact, snapped twigs from the nearby tree, showered both combatants.
A wise ten feet away, the Ghost sprang to her feet, still screaming as the fast-drying inertia dampening gels formed a lumpy splint at her broken wrist. She injected the pain killer from the field meds canisters on her hip--then charged.
Kael's mind was already locked in self-preservation mode; she noticed the Ghost wore a patchwork of antiquated combat suits, with Therrite plates that didn't quite interlock and left the ragged bulletproof jumpsuit on the midsection exposed.
In one fluid motion Kael rolled and grabbed the nearby knife, lunged forward to run the assassin through.
Injured as she was, the Ghost was still faster; the woman spun from the lancing strike, grabbed Kael's wrist and then crashed the corner of a steel elbow into Kael's head.
Kael sprung up, knife still in hand and guarded her center line--then collapsed to one knee as the strength, malice and vigor rapidly waned, poured out through the bleeding gash in her side. She was still at terrible disadvantage; the punctured lung made her breath shallow, and she fought the sensation of drowning.
Kael tried to stand, but by then the assassin was already upon her and folded her into submission, the arm with the knife forced upward to agonizing range between her shoulder blades. Ligaments should've torn and the shoulder should have dislocated, but it hadn't.
Instead, Kael lashed out with her free elbow; the blow jarred the assassin from the grip, staggered her backwards--then Kael spun with all her weight and lashed out with a straight fist. The blow struck the Ghost dead center into the midsection with all of Kael's strength that remained behind it.
The assassin flew from the impact as cracks spidered across the Therrite plates. A horrid scream shot past the woman's lips, and for a moment she curled into a ball and rolled with agony, one hand firm at the abdomen, and with a despairing wail staggered to her feet.
Kael's vision swam to a blur; she was bleeding out, and had no idea where the opponent was as the assasin went on the offense in a desperate bid to save herself. Kael heard the opponent close in, boots striking the ground with such force that she felt them thud into her feet.
She closed her eyes and braced.
The open-handed strike into her chin hit with enough force to tear Kael off the ground. The assassin let Kael fall, then with a spin shot out her right leg; the solid boot crashed into Kael's injured ribs before she hit the ground--pitched her clear across the grassy field.
The explosive impact smashed the wind out of her, left her unable to move, yet she clung at the verge of unconsciousness, eyes still wide open. Didn't expect a fight, did you? She cruelly thought as the world faded to black. I've got nothing left, but at least I'll take you down with me.
The assassin stared right back, not understanding, then groaned, stumbled this way and that in a drunken stupor, blood like tiny rivers at the corners of her lips as she brought out an old emergency beacon, then took the nearby knife and ambled closer.
Two seconds later, the assassin collapsed.