Winter, Year 1, Red Ages
It’s getting closer. Bolder. It’s been tracking me for three days now. I run as swiftly through the forest as my starved body can, holding wee Sorcha tightly in the sling wrapped about my torso. Low-hanging branches and brush tear into my forearms, but I pay no mind as I roughly push them aside.
I glance back and don’t see the beast. But I know it’s there. Invisible, and silent, it stalks us. My mind’s eye sees many things my real vision cannot. Flashes of images that make me shudder. Hungry eyes watching, waiting. Fangs descending.
A bird squawks at my intrusion, and I stumble in exhaustion. Fear rips through me as I remember how Shaina’s fall ensured her death. An injury to me now would do the same. But I catch myself. My years of running over the moors as a youth have served me well.
The Sea Caves must be within one day’s travel from here, perhaps less. I’m so tired, but I dare not rest. This morning I awoke to the vision of the man-creature leaning over me while I slept. His fangs were extended as he stroked my hair and stared hungrily at my neck. No, I cannot sleep again. Not tonight, for tonight he may not walk away.
With resolve, I push through branches and shrubs, following the river to the sea. I stop for a moment at the bank and scoop handfuls of water into my parched mouth. Then, tenderly, I expose Sorcha’s little mouth and dribble water onto her tongue, hoping desperately that it will keep her alive.
Her sweet, round face lolls pathetically in the crook of my arm, a pale ghost of the rosy baby she had been just a few days prior. Her eyes remain lifeless, and my heart clenches. If I don’t reach the Sea Caves soon, her chances will be ended. The sinister chill of the wind wraps around us, trying to claim her, and I have no more warmth to offer than my own body. With grim determination, I set off again at an exhausted trot.
Darkness falls, and the moon hangs high and bright atop a shield of mist. The glowing orb is ambivalent to my worry about being easier to track, but at least it gives light to walk by. The fog thickens with each passing hour as I move steadily toward the sea. Serpent-like, it twists and writhes, then billows up in alarming gusts, enveloping us in its pearly, biting embrace. Despite my chattering teeth, I take solace in the icy wind because it means we must be getting closer.
I see a nearly imperceptible movement from the corner of my eye. A dark shadow hovers on a tree limb high above, out of place in the misty forest. Then the fog shifts, and the shadow disappears in a smear of white like the rest of the world. But I know what it is.
So this is it, then. I have come so far, but the beast will get me before I reach safety. The fear and panic that have been building within me for days have finally driven me to my wit’s end. I will stop this now.
“Show yourself!” I shout. “Let me look upon the face that will end my life and the life of this innocent child.”
The shadow leaps from the trees above me, and the man—no, the beast who used to be a man—stands before me now. Tall and powerful with long fangs cutting into his lip. Dirty and ragged, the tattered remnants of clothes hanging off him. Then he speaks, and his voice is that of a man. “I have no wish to harm you. I’ve seen what happens to those who kill to ease their craving.”
His sharp eyes pierce me.
I don’t believe him, and though I tremble in fear, I bite back. “Then why do you stand over me while I sleep and gaze at my neck with longing? Why, even now, do your eyes flit to the lifeblood pulsing there?”
He turns away in shame. “Because I hunger. I have not yet eaten since I was turned. The pain is nearly unbearable.”
“Why do you stalk me, then?”
He moves in close and grips my arms, fingernails digging into my gaunt shoulder blades. I gasp at the shock of his touch.
“Because your blood calls to me,” he snarls in frustration.
“Is it my blood you want, or my flesh?”
His brow wrinkles in confusion. Then he drags his nose over my neck, inhaling the scent of my skin. Fear racks my body, but I stand frozen in place, trembling beneath his hands. He gives my jaw one long lick. The baby hangs silently between us.
“It is your blood I hunger for.”
Then, in a flash, he’s ten feet away, where the mist is thick and his features indistinguishable.
“How long?” I ask.
His voice travels softly through the silvery haze. “What do you mean?”
“How long before you give in to the hunger and slay me?”
“I don’t know. Soon, I fear.”
The stark honesty of his reply shakes me to my bones. My knees collapse beneath me and I sprawl backwards on the damp earth, clutching Sorcha to my breast. “Must you end my life? Can’t you take some blood, enough to ease your pain, but leave enough for me to live? I must get this child to the Sea Caves, to the Dragon tribe. She’s ill and starving. She hasn’t woken once today. Already, I fear it’s too late for her.”
He moves forward and regards Sorcha with concern. “You think I could stop? None of the others did.”
“Did they try?”
The question hangs heavy in the air between us while his eyes dart from my neck to the motionless baby pressed to my breast and back again.
Suddenly steel bands grasp my shoulders, sharp daggers pierce my neck, and my body arches in an instinctual scream that’s absorbed by the unsympathetic forest. His mouth undulates relentlessly, like a baby at a teat. I feel my lifeblood flowing inexorably toward his mouth, but surprisingly, the pain is minimal. Before I can struggle against his strength, I’m overcome by a profound exhaustion, heavy as a leaden blanket, which forces me against the earth. My vision grows dim as it tunnels ever narrower. Then the last prick of light blinks out.