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Each breath burned in her throat, leaving fiery trails of pain that radiated throughout the rest of her body. Zhanna could hear her own gasping inhalations, distant and seeming to come from another body.
Focus. She needed to focus.
Struggling to stay upright, the young witch staggered under the combined burden of two unconscious bodies. She had no time for worry, no time to give in to the desperate fear that she could feel battering against her defenses. Mikhail and her Familiar, her beloved Dascha, just had to be all right.
At least she could hear Dascha’s breathing, could feel an occasional twitch of the cat’s tail or leg. She had the comfort of the active Familiar bond, although it was a faint and pale shadow of its normal robust energy and presence. It told her with every step and with every beat of her own heart that Dascha was alive.
There was no such reassurance about Mikhail. His body was a deadweight over her left shoulder, an immense burden for the small Witch. Unable to control his arms, Zhanna could feel his right hand occasionally slap against her leg as she stumbled on through the woods. The loose flapping only frightened her more. It meant that there was no control over his muscles. The choices then were that he was deeply unconscious or dead.
Please! Let him be just unconscious, she thought to herself.
It was getting harder to see the small path in the dimming light. Zhanna knew that she had to find a safe place to stop, and soon. Unfortunately, this forest was totally unknown. She had no map and no sense of the lay of the land. There was no luxury of time to explore.
The young Witch had pushed her body far beyond what she had any right to expect from it. Only the conditioning and training that she had continued after her visit to the Badger Hole Bar and the conflicts there had enabled her to make it this far.
Catching her foot on an unseen rootlet, Zhanna crashed to the ground with a jarring thump that rattled her teeth and brought stars to her vision. Stunned, she froze for a moment trying to marshal her energies to continue. Get up and get moving! she told herself. Drawing a deep on her reservoirs of determination, the young woman tried to get to her feet. Her body betrayed her, and she sank back to the ground.
Pozhaluysta bogi, please gods, I’m not sure I can get him up on my back again. But I have to move him, or he’s dead. Trying desperately to rise to her feet, Zhanna sobbed with effort. Unwilling to abandon Mikhail, she struggled against his greater weight with trembling legs and shaking arms.
“Psst! Psst! Over here!”
Startled by the presence of a voice that she had no expectation of hearing, Zhanna looked to the side of the path and into the shadows beneath a group of low-growing bushes. Two pairs of eyes stared out at her, one brown and glowing with a soft golden light, the other bright red. The young Witch had no energy to be frightened. Her terror was focused on the bigger threat that was behind her. Opening her mouth, mind searching for the perfect question, all that came out was a semi-articulate, “What?”
Luckily for Zhanna, her question appeared to be enough.
Out from the shadows crept one of the Hidden Folk, a small creature that looked vaguely like a little boy with pointed ears and gnarled root-like fingers. Dressed in garments of brown and green, he merged into the surrounding undergrowth and fooled the eye. Hesitantly, advancing in fits and starts, he finally got close enough to reach out one of his little hands and grabbed Zhanna’s sleeve.
Tugging at her clothing urgently, his small voice could barely be heard over the harshness of the Witch’s breathing and the pounding of her heart.
“Come this way. We are too small to stop the big bad thing, too few to stop those that come with that monster. But we found a place for you to hide. Come, and we will cover where you have walked and where you have fallen. We can remove the traces of your sweat and the other scents the demon dogs would smell and follow.”
All the Zhanna could do was to nod her head in agreement. What choice did she have? She couldn’t outrun her pursuers, and her exhaustion was burying her deeply under a blanket that could not be shrugged off easily. The last attack had pulled much of her magic from her, and there had been no ability to recharge.
Although she had managed to shield their presence for the first mile, her limited energy had meant a choice between fleeing or hiding under the cover that the shield provided. With the overwhelming forces of the other side, hiding had been too risky.
Frantic and confused, Zhanna had taken the better option and fled, taking Mikhail and Dascha with her. As she had run, she saw that Ivan and Jorg were making their escape in a different direction. She prayed that they would be safe, but she only had the energy to try to save those within reach.
Shakily, the young Witch climbed to her feet. Taking a couple of deep breaths, she managed to respond to the Hidden Folk, saying, “Thank you. Please lead, and I will follow.”
As the tiny forest creature turned to lead her away, Zhanna reached down to grab Mikhail’s arms. Hopefully, she could drag him the rest of the way to the hiding place since she was positive that she couldn’t carry him another single step.
“No, Isza will bring other man.” The little brown creature was emphatic, pointing first to his companion still under the bush and then gesturing at Zhanna to follow.
Zhanna didn’t understand. Her mind was reeling because she had not seen anything capable of carrying Mikhail and she wasn’t going to leave him behind. His horrific injuries would have to be tended soon. Before she could see if he was still alive, they had to get to a safe place.
If she did not dress his wounds and injuries soon, she was going to lose him too. The Witch had already suffered too much loss this day to even consider that. Whatever it takes to save him, I will do! she vowed to herself.
A faint wrestling noise from the side of the path drew Zhanna’s attention. Slithering out from the underbrush was the bearer of the red eyes. A new factor was entering the picture, and the young woman was unable to process what this meant through the stuttering of her mind. Her thoughts trapped by a wall of blank incomprehension, the impact of what she saw exploded in her head and echoed through her entire being. Alternating between hot fire and cold splashes, Zhanna stared.
The creature that she could now see was a fantasy of power and elaboration. The serpentine body and massive muscles were displayed in the dim light, seeming to glow with their own illumination. The distinctive tail and appendages looked like something out of the books that Blagogarsk had made available to Zhanna. She remembered a page in an ancient text that was still as pristine as the day that it was first created. Her trained memory pulled that page up in front of her eyes, alive with elaborate colors and detailed lists of the creature’s abilities and dangers.
The visual appearance was enough to stun Zhanna. Its powers were enough to awe her. However, the memory that caused the Witch a serious mental collision was the section in which that page had resided in the book. The section titled “Extinct Creatures.”