Her eyes stared blankly at the ceiling of the small makeshift tent. A thin layer of white frost lined the inside of the rough canvas fabric, though she didn’t pay it much attention. Tonight, Emma’s mind was wandering far from any such concern. The darkness of the early morning swirled about her; the fire had died hours ago, and the rest of her newfound companions had long since gone to sleep. But here she was, wide awake. Despite the exhaustion that weighed her down, she found herself unable to find any rest herself.
The sudden disappearance of Ann had left Emma shaken to her very core. Only a few others were decent enough to help in searching for the missing girl, but their efforts would prove fruitless. The truth was, there was no sign of Ann to be had. All the more worrying was that there was no sign of where she had gone. The surrounding forest remained quiet. None of the leaves on the ground seemed out of place, none of the tree branches were twisted or broken, and the path leading out of the site looked like it hadn’t been properly used since the day before. There were no tracks, no signs of a struggle, and all of Ann’s gear was still at her tent. The search party eventually concluded that if she had any intentions of leaving, she had done so without making any sort of preparations. Sadly, that was the only conclusion they had come to before retiring to their tents and leaving Emma alone to her thoughts, surrounded by the dark forest that had mysteriously managed to claim the one person she had been sent here to investigate. Indeed, it had seemed that Ann had simply disappeared into thin air. This only added to Emma’s sense of unease about her reason for being here in the first place. She was beginning to wonder what Jeames really knew and what he wasn’t telling her. He must have had some idea that something unusual was going on here.
Her eyes shifted slightly when her ears detected a faint tapping coming from above her – the rain began to hit the outside of the frosted canvas that sheltered her. Slowly, the tapping noise grew louder, and louder, until it became a steady drum that was almost musical and chaotic all in one. Rain! Always rain these days. It didn’t help. When she was a child, the sound of rain would often lull her to sleep, but she was no longer that child, and the rain would offer her no comfort tonight. Her wide-open eyes shifted back as she continued that blank stare at the ceiling. Emma was lost in thought, unmoving, even as the frost fell upon her, shaken from the force of the rain that continued to pelt the thin canvas that shielded her. No matter how much she tried, her eyes would not close, nor would her mind quiet. Every muscle in her body was aching, cold, and damp. She sighed. Sleep would not come easy to her, and she knew it. Once again, doubt crossed her mind and spread like a plague upon her. Her life was so much different than she had imagined it would be.
Emma remembered when she had first joined the Keepers nearly four years ago, she thought she was in for a life of adventure. She would be able to explore the wilderness, meet strange new people, see the ruins and lands that she had only ever been able to read about in books back home. Her parents did not approve of course, but they hadn’t make much of an attempt to stop her either. They believed it was beneath her, but Emmaline Sirona Aubell had her mind made up, and they knew better than to try and argue with her. Emma knew the consequences of her decision, and she accepted them without fear or hesitation. She missed being that girl. Four long years of training with the Keepers, learning survival skills, navigation, stealth, observation, and patience. It was hard work, but she had made it through every challenge they had thrown at her, her old life of privilege in the city of Nadorah all but forgotten. Finally, the council had given her her first assignment, with a mentor named Jeames. She was excited. She was honoured. She was…stupid. What did she have to show for any of it? Emma had been trying to track her so-called mentor down for weeks. In exchange, she got to run around the countryside aimlessly, hear strange and unfamiliar things in the woods, see the smouldering ruins of an inn she can only assume she had barely managed to escape from, and have the one task she was assigned to mysteriously disappear on her. What luck. And now she was stuck here with a group of recruits who couldn’t even answer who Ann really was. In fact, they knew very little of the strange girl who largely kept to herself.
As Emma thought of her meeting with Ann, she remembered the lost look in the girl’s eyes, the tense sound of her voice, and the strange glow in the fire. The whole encounter seemed surreal, almost as if she had lived a feverish dream, and she shuddered as her mind went over every single detail over and over. The fire…there was something about the fire. Wasn’t there? It couldn’t have simply been her imagination.
The rain was letting up now, and the drumming on the roof of the tent was starting to soften. Emma took a slow, deep breath, then exhaled, hoping that sleep would finally come to her, but a different noise suddenly pulled at her attention. It was hard to hear at first, being largely drowned out from the sound of the relentless rain, but as that slowly dimmed, a soft rustling noise could now be heard. She held her breath and listened. The sound continued, growing progressively louder and closer. Footsteps! The sound of someone walking through the leaves. Maybe Ann had gotten lost and managed to find her way back. She stayed still, with held breath and continued to listen. Closer and closer, the rustling continued. Whoever it was was moving slowly and purposefully. Soon they would be inside the camp. Emma had a mind to get up and investigate, but it was still dark out. Morning light would be here soon enough, and something, she wasn’t sure exactly what, compelled her to stay put. The noise had stopped now. She listened closely, but there was nothing to be heard. Not the rain, not the drumming, not the footsteps. Just silence. She slowly let out another breath. And that’s when she saw it.
Looming above her was a figure hidden by a cloak, silhouetted by the dim grey morning light that slowly pushed back at the unforgiving darkness of the night before. A man she thought, though it was hard to see through the early dawn with any such clarity. Her heart quickened. What was he doing in her tent? Standing completely still, he looked down on her, and she felt a fear she had never experienced before. She was frozen, unable to move at the sight of him. Slowly, she made out a few more features of the unwelcome intruder as the morning light continued to slowly and steadily illuminate the scene in front of her. The man appeared to have long, scraggly black hair and a terrible attempt at short, stubbly beard, which she could see despite the hood of his cloak covering much of his face. A faint grin suddenly lined his lips, and she saw a quick flash to her right. Emma rolled out of the way instinctively. As she looked back to the spot where she had been laying on her bedroll, she noticed the man had buried a long knife half into the ground. He quickly pulled the knife back up, turned his head, and made another lunge for her. Emma grunted as he collided with her, her hands tightly grasping both of his arms, frantically pushing against his forceful advances as the knife hovered mere inches from her face. She was losing. He was stronger than her, and they both knew it. The glistening blade slowly got closer and closer as beads of sweat dripped from her attacker’s face onto her reddening cheeks. He still had not spoken. He had made no demands of her. But his intention was clear. Emma was not to survive this night.
Despite all her efforts, she knew she would not be able to stop him. Tears began to pour down her cold cheeks as she tried to cry out for help, but no sound was able to escape from her lips as he suddenly pulled his one arm free to cover her mouth. Emma’s eyes grew wide in shock, and the reality of the situation set in. She was going to die.
The cloaked man once again renewed his efforts with his knife hand, pushing with more intensity and strength than before. She couldn’t resist any longer. Her strength faded, and she tried to roll to the right just as the knife plunged down, narrowly grazing her cheek, and burying itself deep into her left shoulder. She cried out as the blade effortlessly cut through flesh and wedged itself into the bone. Blood quickly poured from the wound, and stars suddenly blurred her vision as the pain overwhelmed her. Her shoulder felt as if it were on fire. A grin once again crossed the man’s lips, and he continued to stare at her, without emotion, without sound. Her vision slowly dimmed, but she fought with every bit of her being to remain conscious. Barely aware of what she was doing, Emma suddenly felt herself shifting with her free hand and she brought her arm up to meet her attacker in one final act of defiance. The hit was weak, and she heard the man let out a groan. His smile got wider. This was it. She couldn’t fight it any longer. A few more beads of sweat dripped down on her from the man’s neck, but he still hadn’t moved. Slowly, Emma felt more and more drips coming from the man. Warm drips. Her would-be assassin suddenly let out a low, strained gurgling noise, and he watched as his own blood poured from his still grinning lips down onto his intended victim. The small knife Emma kept on her belt now stuck out carelessly from the side of his throat. With what little strength she had left, Emma pushed the man off of her, and he collapsed on the floor of the small, rain-soaked tent, his eyes frantically darting back and forth as if looking for something only he could see. The blood continued to pool on the ground, and Emma watched silently as the man’s eyes slowly grew more and more still until she was finally sure he was dead.
Emma began crying, though she tried to fight back the tears. Her whole body was trembling, and she found herself covered in blood. Her blood. His blood. She wasn’t sure. She looked down at her once white linen shirt, now torn and stained in various shades of brown and red. A confused giggle escaped her lip as tears continued to well around her eyes, and her chin quivered uncontrollably. An effort to push some of the wet, matted hair from her face, was suddenly met with a sharp, unberable pain and her left arm rapidly fell to her side. Looking over at her wounded shoulder, Emma noticed the knife still sticking from where the man had stabbed her. She stared at it for a while, without giving it a thought, before reaching up with her right hand and yanking it from where the blade had nested itself. Emma screamed as the knife dropped to the ground, and blood began to ooze freely from throbbing deep wound. After a few deep breaths, Emma collected what strength she had left and stumbled out of tent flaps, leaving her attacker on the ground where he had fallen. Why had nobody come to help her?
Emma shielded her sore, reddened eyes from the gray autumn light that surrounded her, slowly adjusting to the scene that lay before her. The camp was empty. There were no tents. No companions. She was the only one there. As she processed what she was seeing, she felt an uncontrollable cold sweep over her. She let out a soft sigh as her vision dimmed, and she fell to the ground. Emma took one last look at the canopy of trees above as everything slowly grew dark, and the sleep she had been seeking through the night finally took hold of her.
To be continued…
Image credit: tnounsy