Chapter Five

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Slender legs paced as swiftly as they ever had, feet pounding the ground with such urgency that even the bones within were fearful of danger. As much as the lungs wanted to collapse, they strained themselves to go on, circulating air. The heart pounded and there was pain throughout, but it did not stop. Arms pumping, the woman ran.

Puffs of white cloud exited her open mouth as she tore through the crowd of dying trees. The branches seemed to stretch themselves further toward her as she propelled herself harder over the uneven ground.

Must reach the caves... This was the only thing she could focus on.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to go into the woods—of course it was; such a thing was always a mistake—but it was the path to where she and her companions were going, and it was the only way they could manage it. On top of that, the trek was much like a test. If they could reach their destination alive, they would have earned the right of passage.

The woman of faultless appearance was conscious of footfalls nearby to her right. One friend was close by, struggling against the night as she was. She could not hear the running feet of her other companion. He was further behind her, it seemed. Simply knowing that they were with her let her feel hope that would have been absent otherwise. They had to reach their endpoint. She could not die before that.

In normal circumstances, it was best to battle the creature that crossed your path or die, for running would only mean alerting other beasts of an unwelcome presence in their territory. Then, the hope of escape would become even more futile. In this specific patch of northern forest, however, the odds were known to the travelers before they'd entered. The monsters that had made themselves a home there were few, but great in size and hunger. They were guardians of this forest, and if the travelers had hoped to be unnoticed, they were very foolish indeed.

They had gained distance on the beast it seemed, but how could they afford to slow? Feelings of confidence must be hastily shut away. If they could pass out of the beast's territory—out of the darkness of the trees it craved—only then would they be free.

It was her concentration on Blue's footsteps that allowed her to hear the sound of his collapse—the sound of a human body falling to hands and knees in the leaves. The woman stopped, turning her dirty face back to the companion that was still with her. The youth with blue-black hair was on the ground gasping for breath, his head hanging forward as if he did not have the strength to hold it up. Without having to think the matter over, the woman moved to him swiftly.

"Blue," she said, calling for his attention. The young man looked to her face as if just recalling that she was there at all.

"Cornelia..."

His voice had nearly left him. It was true that they'd been struggling to escape—fleeing from the thing that had found them—but halting in this strenuous endeavor was the worst choice they could make. The faired-haired woman knelt down and took hold of his arm to hoist him up.

"I won't let you quit on me," she said with firmness that commanded respect. "Get up!"

He was a simple farm boy, but he had been just as loyal to her as any knight could have been. She would not lose him to a moment of weak-mindedness. They could not help that the monster had seen them, but it was their responsibility to get away. Cornelia looked into the trees in the direction they'd come as if expecting to find something there.

"Where is Glenn?"

On his feet, supported by the woman nearly as much as his own shaky legs, Blue seemed reluctant. Unfortunately for him, there was no way to avoid giving her an answer.

"He stopped to fight."

"What!"

Cornelia's actions were predictable, turning back to aid the one who'd parted from them. Blue knew her well enough that he was able to grip her arm before she'd even taken a step.

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