I opened my eyes and screamed.
But the scream wasn’t right.
Lord, but it felt like I had been screaming for ages. It felt like my throat should be torn and bleeding. But the scream was new and fresh and liberating – just released from unknown restraints.
I just panted when it finally stopped. I hurt. A lot. I wanted to scream again, but forced it down. I couldn’t do it again. Not in front of her.
I looked around.
Where did she go?
I breathed harder just thinking about her, and the rage pushed acid into my throat where the scream had cleared a path.
Something felt wrong.
My arms and legs wouldn’t move. It was all I could do twist my head to search for her.
She wasn’t here.
I looked down.
Then I gaped and gave in and screamed again.
A thick shaft of wood was buried in my chest.
She staked me to the damned tree!?
Through the heart!
Through the heart?
I should be dead.
For a moment confusion and fear subsumed my anger.
I breathed harder, struggling against whatever bound my arms and legs, but they refused to listen. With a growl and shout I managed to pull my head away from the tree trunk. The movement made strange, slow popping and cracking sounds, like someone stomping on bundles of sticks. Slowly, I examined my body.
Only it wasn’t my body anymore.
If I had breath left to scream, I would have happily done so again.
I wasn’t staked to the tree. I was part of it.
The tree was a massive oak. Something of a local landmark, and even the subject of a few myths with the locals. Some of them claimed that it housed dead spirits that refused to depart the land.
Well, it certainly did now.
What did she do? The crazy witch! What did she do to me!?
Panic threatened to overtake me, but I let my anger push it out of the way and take the reins.
She did this! By my favorite level of Hell, she would undo it!
I didn’t scream again. I let the rage push out a bellow of challenge that shook the trees and rebounded off the hills.
It didn’t fix my situation, but at least I could breath a little easier. That meant I could take the obligatory deep breath that came with taking stock of the situation.
I knew my strength. I thought I knew hers. She shouldn’t have been able to bind me like this. She had some talent, everyone knew that, but this kind of magick should have been beyond her.
I didn’t know how long I’d been out, but it was enough for her and her lack-wit villagers to leave the area.
Stop, I told myself. Concentrate. Are you sure she’s gone?
I closed my eyes and let my senses extend as far as they could go.
No. There she was. I could feel her out there. She’d gone a ways, but… she’d doubled back? Was she coming back for me?
She was running hard, too. This wasn’t right. She was running from something.
I tried to shake my head at the very thought, but the tree was already reasserting its hold.
She’d killed chimera far more powerful than whatever was out there. Why was she running?
My energy was draining. The tree was trying to pull me back in, put out my consciousness once more. I could even feel the stake twisting deeper into my chest.
She shot me.
I had almost gotten away. I should have been free and clear. It should have been mine. She had no right to keep it from after what she did.
I had the jewel and no one in the town could possibly catch me. None of them had a weapon that could even hurt me.
Then she shouted my name.
“Shouted” wasn’t the right word, though.
Even through the red haze that had completely covered my senses, I could hear the desperate emotion in her voice. She was mad, frustrated, and ready to kill – that much was obvious, and maybe even deserved. But there was a lot more in that single word. It was as if everything in our history was balled up in that shout, and she shot it at me as precisely as she did the lead ball.
Had anyone else fired the rifle, it would have meant nothing. But she wasn’t anyone else. I remember the ball hitting me in the shoulder, spinning me back against the oak. Before I could regain my balance she was in my face – the look of pure hatred and despair boiling from her eyes – and without another word she drove the sharp spear of wood home.
So why did it all suddenly seem like such a long time ago?
It happened just a moment ago, but it was like the misplaced scream. It felt like a memory that had been sealed away for years and only recently released.
Mortimer. She drove home a whole different kind of spike with that name. She knew exactly how much I hate that name.
She always refused to call me Nox. Not even Hart. I have three names, all of them comparatively stupid, but she used the one that I truly despised.
And now she was coming back.
I took a deep breath through my nose. Then I felt like a fool. Why focus on breathing with a hand-crafted spear through my chest? Still, it did make me feel a little better. I don’t know what she did to my body, but at least the pain was subsiding into the background.
She was getting closer.
I could hear her screaming.
She wasn’t screaming my name this time.
She was scared. I could practically taste her fear.
The tree tried harder to pull me back in. It yanked at my consciousness like it didn’t want me to see her.
She was close now, and I somehow knew it was that same scream of terror that woke me up in the first place.
What’s going on? Why doesn’t she just kill the thing and be done with it?
She didn’t have any problem shooting me, after all.
Where was all this fear coming from?
I took another deep breath. It helped to fight the tree’s pull. I focused on her smell – on her feel. She was getting closer, and I was determined to be awake when she arrived.
I squinted my eyes and stared at the path she was on, and suddenly something else seemed wrong about the area. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, though. Something about the trees looked strange.
I put it out of my mind. When it came right down to it, my mind couldn’t really be trusted right now anyway – what with a tree trying to rob me of it.
She was close. She was running hard.
The chimera was right behind her. I could hear the howls and screams that didn’t usually come from a human throat.
And there she was.
The rage filled my chest with fire, and I couldn’t even make my mouth work.
She was… different. She wasn’t wearing the long dress anymore. She had changed into some kind of strange trousers that let her run surprisingly fast. They didn’t seem to help her with balance, though, because she tripped and fell face-first onto the ground near the base of my tree.
I shook my head and finally found some words. There was enough venom in them that if there was any justice in the world she should have been fatally poisoned just from hearing them.
“Something wrong, Rachel? Not having any troubles are you?”
She looked up at me, confusion and fear painting her expression. I couldn’t hear the words, but her mouth formed the shape of: “It speaks?”