The last month of my life began with a cold, foreboding chill down my spine and a soft, mocking whisper across my eardrums.
I release the bowstring from my now cold fingertips, my arrow flying far from my mark. It lands in the grass somewhere behind the target unceremoniously. I frown, looking around me for whatever could have caused such a violent reaction in me. My eyes rake over other archers, who are having much better luck hitting their marks than I am, and a group of pre-teens huddled in the grass learning how to harness and control powers gifted to them by gods long gone. Over the sound of arrows thudding against the brightly painted bulls-eyes, my ears pick up the teacher's voice telling the story I'd heard billion times before; "Long ago, when gods and monsters still roamed the earth a small group of the truest, most pure believers of the gods were gifted earthly affinities in return for their faith. These powers ranged from the ability to make flowers bloom to the art of dreamwalking. We are the descendants of these gifted believers."
I stop listening to the instructor, tuning out the story of our origins as I continue my search for whatever caused my sudden unease. I gloss over my cousin Tabitha, who's sparring with a man twice her size -and winning, focusing instead on a glance of black fabric fluttering in the wind I catch out of the corner of my eye. I whirl around, peering into the dense forest but find nothing but trees and a squirrel racing up one of the thick trunks.
I blow out a breath. Come on, Ashalyn, I think exasperatedly, get it together. Turning back to my target, I pluck another arrow from my quiver and try to clear my mind. The hair on the back of my neck stands on end, but I shake the unease away. My thumb brushes my cheek as I draw the bowstring once more, still cold and clammy with irrational fear. My hands begin to tremble slightly, causing my next arrow to fly even further off mark than the last one.
Cursing, I sling my bow across my back and march past the target to find my arrows. I'll be damned if I'm going to waste two perfectly good arrows on shots as bad as those. I pass the target and make my way into the woods as I search, wondering how I'm ever going to convince my aunt and uncle that I'm good enough to be our home's head of defense when I let a little chill throw off my aim. My boots shift through the dead leaves and twigs that litter the forest floor, uncovering one of the arrows I'd launched here. As I bend down to pick it up, a flutter of black material once again catches my eye. I look up sharply, finding that the offending material hasn't disappeared this time. A hooded figure stands in the trees with shadowed eyes that I know are staring straight at me.
For one long moment, I freeze like a deer in the headlights with confusion and panic clouding all rational thoughts. Through the fog, I distantly hear sirens sounding and, with a pang of fear, I realize what they mean -invaders have forced their way into my home. I let out a shuddering breath, and find that the temperature has dropped so much as to let me see my own breath.
I reach for the dagger I usually keep in my waistband for close combat but my fingers meet nothing but denim. Of course I left it in my room, I groan internally. Straightening up, I take a step backward and find the motion mirrored by the hooded figure before me. He's following me. The arrow slips from my fingertips as I turn on my heel and do the only thing I can think of at the moment: run.
Jumping over rocks and dodging low-hanging branches, I race back to the courtyard like hell is at my heels. I look behind me, finding the shadowed intruder following me with calm, sure steps. Somehow, the fact that he's walking rather than chasing me makes the experience so much more terrifying.
Whipping my head back around, I crash head-on into Tabitha, who'd been running from her own hooded assailant. I meet her curiously lavender eyes filled with terror and find the same question in them that I have: What the hell is going on? Turning my back to her and the two other unfamiliar girls that had ended up trapped by the mysterious intruders as I had, I face the man from the forest with a pounding heart.