Chapter 2: Dalnushka Bound

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Cramps tore through Jane's side; her chest ached with pain; her hair and clothes looked like an ice bucket challenge gone horribly wrong. The air chafed her lungs as she drew ragged breaths. Her boots squelched on the soggy earth.

The deepening twilight bathed the forest in shadow. Jane forced herself to keep going, under marsh vines, over logs, past a thrust of granite boulders that marked the edge of their campsite. Her feet pounded the earth as she ran—heart thudding, legs screaming in agony, shoes squishing over moss that lined the riverbank. Branches stung her face and arms.

Behind her, approaching footfalls told Jane that her stronger, leaner opponent was catching up to her. Jane reached into herself, grabbed for the first thing that came to mind—a concealment charm—and wrapped herself in its shroud. Then she darted left, in the direction opposite the river, slid through the trees, and went still.

Her pursuer's footsteps paused, and then resumed again. To Jane's dismay, she seemed unimpressed by Jane's attempt at throwing her off track. Her steps drew steadily closer.

Harnessing the last of her energy, Jane ducked beneath a fallen log and changed course, crashing away from the river and into the underbrush. But it was no use; her pursuer was too close, and Jane heard her change course to follow.

Desperately, Jane spun and hurled a ball of magefire at her pursuer. It missed the woman by inches. Jane scrabbled for the kladenet at her side, but her attacker's foot connected with her hand. A second later, the remaining air whooshed from her lungs as her pursuer knocked her to the ground by a well-placed blow to her sternum.

Jane closed her eyes and pressed her forehead to the damp leaves, chest heaving as she sucked in air.

"Well," said her pursuer cheerfully, "that wasn't quite as embarrassing as last time."

Shaking with adrenaline, Jane raised her head. General Nadja stood above her, smirking as she offered her pupil a hand. Unlike Jane, the General looked flawless. Her Rider's garb—practical cloth pants and a plain leather tunic with the Riders' insignia—hung in elegant folds down her stocky frame. Her spiky hair gleamed in the twilight. Somehow, she had dodged the lashing branches, and her face was free of scratches. The pursuit had barely made her break into a sweat.

Jane closed her eyes again, ignoring Nadja's outstretched hand in favor of slumping to the ground. "You—huff—still—huff—caught me."

"Well, from what Olesya tells me, two months ago you would've collapsed after running a fraction of the distance. You're making progress! I'm sure the commander will be pleased when she gets back from scouting."

Decaying leaves and clots of dirt tumbled to the ground as Nadja pulled Jane to her feet. The general straightened Jane's rumpled tunic and shoved a flask of water at her face. Shakily, Jane grasped the canteen. The water tasted stale but fabulous against her parched throat.

"Come." Nadja tossed an arm around Jane's shoulders. "Let's eat before your legs stiffen up."

Jane's legs were already stiffening as she followed Nadja toward the campfire. The sweat was starting to dry, and the chilly evening air brought out goosebumps along her arms. The other Riders shot her hopeful or curious looks before turning back to their conversations. Jane tried to ignore them. She made a beeline for the log on which sat Drazan, Olesya's second-in-command.

"How'd you do?" asked Drazan.

"Horribly." Jane plopped down on the nearest log. "I'm starting to think I have some sort of mental block against holding a sword right."

"Your azdaja's been in a right state," said Drazan. "Coiling and hissing ever since you left. I think she thought Nadja was going to do you in."

"She's not fond of the basket." Jane swung the wicker top open and patted her lap. The winged snake looked up at her, scales glinting coppery in the firelight.

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