Chapter Ten

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Aidan's thirst was driving them mad. For a full night and day, their captors had refused any water. They felt weak, and weakness terrified them more than anything. All through the night, they had stretched against the bonds that held them bound. Slowly the ropes were loosening, but Aidan knew their spirit would break soon. Already the pain and hunger were pushing them toward a sinking blackness from which there would be no return.

Aidan forced open their eyes. For a moment, they were disoriented by the dark of night. With awkward movements, they pushed themself up with their elbows. The blood that had been pooling in their head rushed away, and the dizziness that followed nearly caused them to pass out. Aidan focused their breath, ignoring the searing pain in their ribs with a honed mind.

Makda and Blaine were asleep. The fire had dimmed to a dull glow around a small pile of embers. Nearby a pair of wolves also rested, their wide barrel bodies rising and falling in slow breaths. Aidan took another steadying gulp of air. The hilt of their blade glinted at them in the moonlight. They drew their knees up to their chest. The ropes that bound their ankles were caked in blood and dirt, much like the rest of them.

Aidan leaned back against the tree, their hands scraping against the rough bark. With trembling fingers, they took their right thumb in the width of their left hand. Aidan could feel the muscles of their arm straining against the motion. They hissed in a breath and bent the thumb backward. Aidan bit into their lip so hard it broke the skin. They sucked down a whimper and moved their throbbing hand through the hoop of their bound wrists. With their arms now free, they worked at the ropes that bound their feet.

One of the wolves huffed in its sleep, and Aidan paused, their eyes fixed warily upon the beast. When it did not stir, they continued. Soon the ropes unraveled, and Aidan stretched out their legs with a grateful sigh. In a moment, they were on their feet and nearing the fire, barely allowing any breath in the quiet of the night. With measured movements, they lifted their blade and began to step toward the shadow of the trees. A low growl broke the stillness.

Aidan turned slowly. One of the wolves rose to its haunches, long white teeth bared. Their eyes widened as the other wolf, too, stirred. In tandem, the animals moved toward Aidan.

The druid slowly pushed the scabbard from their blade. As the sheath fell to the ground, a wolf sprang at them with a savage sound. The hot mass of fur pushed them to the hard ground. They rolled as they hit the earth, a new wave of pain crashing over them. The second wolf went for their back, catching what was left of Aidan's tunic in its jaws. Aidan cried out. The wolf forced them down, teeth tearing at the flesh of their back. Their body had moved past pain into the dull determination of survival.

Aidan tore away from the embrace of the second wolf as the other lunged for their throat.

Blaine was awake now, commanding the beasts to stop. The druid appeared next to them, pulling at the wolves' collars.

Aidan took the opportunity to run.

Makda cried out, following swiftly behind them. Aidan dared not look back as they bolted through the trees. Makda was fast. Aidan was faster. Their long thin legs loped over fallen logs and tangling brush. They heard Makda struggling to keep up. Aidan changed direction several times, hoping to lose their hunter. It failed. Aidan could not escape the strain of the past few days as exhaustion began to overtake them. They would not win this race.

Aidan halted and turned, their blade drawn before them in their uninjured hand, steady and gleaming in the light of the full moon. Makda halted, a long spear glinted menacingly in their fists.

"Giving up so soon?" Makda panted.

Aidan smirked despite their pain. "I never miss a good fight, you know me."

"I thought I did." The softness of Makda's voice took Aidan by surprise, and they dropped their guard for a moment. Makda took the opportunity and thrust their spear toward Aidan's shoulder. They easily deflected and took a step back.

"Let me go, Makda."

Makda gave a cruel laugh.

"No." The word cracked Aidan's heart in two. "No. Not again."

"Very well," Aidan said, drawing their blade up toward their head as Makda attacked again.

The wolves were growing near, howling for blood. Aidan took a side step, dragging their sword in a circular motion around Makda's body, who caught the blade on their spear awkwardly. Aidan's sword nicked their wrist, sending a thin stream of blood over Makda's dark hand. The other druid let out a yelp and struggled to keep a grip on their weapon as Aidan danced around them. Then, finally, the rush of metal that meant Aidan had disarmed them. Makda knelt, their eyes brimming with unshed tears.

"Kill me then." Aidan heard the waver of anger in Makda's voice.

Aidan's knees were beginning to tremble. "Not today, my love."

The druid held them in a hate-filled stare. "Why are you doing this?" they hissed.

Aidan took in a breath. "This is a debt I must pay," they said. At that moment, Aidan brought the butt of their blade down upon the back of Makda's skull.

They slumped forward and lay still.

Aidan turned and ran. Soon the sound of the wolves grew distant, and Aidan dared to slow their pace. Their lungs were a vice, constricting their chest with every breath. Still, they pushed onward. They could feel the heavy hand of death hovering over them with every step. Aidan stumbled and met the earth without breaking their fall. A wavering groan passed through their lips.

Aidan was unsure of how long they had been lying still. The air around them was cold, colder than a night in Maius ought to be. They knew what that meant. With a shallow breath, they let their head loll to one side. The white caps of the mushrooms that surrounded them gleamed in the moonlight. Somehow they had found A Fairy Circle.

Riona.

Their mind recalled an image of her, sharp features with pale grey eyes so appraising, calculating, but somehow not cold or indifferent. Aidan wondered if she was still alive. They didn't have much time left now. The warmth of their own blood was seeping into the earth below them, soaked up eagerly by the soft moss of the circle. Aidan's wounds were too numerous for them to heal in this state. It was taking all they had left to remain conscious. Still...it was not a bad place to die.

Just as Aidan's vision began to blacken, two sets of hands lifted them into the air.

"Not this time, my friend," said a low voluminous voice.

Aidan tried to laugh in surprise, but it came out as a wracking cough. They tasted iron against their tongue. "Took you long enough, Ibrahim."

"You can blame our ever careful friend, Orfeo, for that." The broad dark face looming over Aidan split into a beaming smile.

Aidan managed to crane their neck to identify who was carrying their lower half. "You wanted me dead, admit it," Aidan croaked.

The slim, olive-skinned Orfeo gazed back at them, inscrutable as always." When do I admit to anything?" Orfeo said in a smooth mannered purr.

Ibrahim gave a booming laugh.

"Not to worry, I'm sure Ibrahim's inability to take anything seriously will bring your enemies down upon us, and I'll have one more chance to watch you die."

Aidan thought that comment might not be wholly in jest.

"Let them come," said Ibrahim more darkly.

"M-makda." Aidan felt their consciousness being overwhelmed finally. "Mak-kda."

Ibrahim's usual soft expression twisted slightly at that, their ebon eyes two dark pools of worry. It was the last thing Aidan saw before blacking out.

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