The climb was growing steeper, and the burden Isha carried heavier with each step.
She shivered. Her ragged robe gave little protection against the cold of approaching winter. She pulled the mud caked jacket closer about her. Many storms and months of battling through thick forest undergrowth had taken its toll.
She needed to rest. She stopped a moment to catch her breath. The night was slipping in, bringing with it both the dangers that lurked in the black hours and the comforting cloak of invisibility.
A towering tree loomed up just ahead of her. It stood guard at the edge of a grass covered clearing. Lowering herself down beside its broad trunk she leant back against the bark. She could feel its rough ridges pressing into her skin. The faint perfume of pine and earth floated in the darkening air.
Silence wrapped itself around her, broken only by her strained breathing. She felt the baby squirm, like a ripple in a pond. She knew it would be a boy, strong and fine like his father. She must keep him safe until he was ready to be born.
It was almost time.
What powers would he have? Hers had decreased as the child had grown within her. Now even trying to move a nearby twig towards her was an effort. She focused her thoughts of fire on a small pile of dried leaves next to her but although it gave off a faint curl of smoke, no flame appeared.
How much of Rathos would be in this child of his? She tasted once again her bitter anger against those who had helped in his defeat. But time was on her side. Her son, this infant yet unborn, would get back the power they had stripped from his father.
A distant sound of something moving through the trees caught her attention. She could hear voices. The language was not one she recognised at first – it was guttural and peppered with hissing sounds.
They were moving closer.
She must hide.
She crept as well as her swollen belly would let her beneath the leaves of a dense shrub nearby, praying it would conceal her. Her hand reached instinctively for the dagger hidden in her boot strap. It was a singular weapon, the nacre handle carved with strange symbols inlaid with amethysts, garnets and gold. A very pretty piece. It had been with her from the beginning of her memories on Lagos, but she had no idea where it had come from. Now she gained courage from wrapping her fingers about its rough cool handle.
The voices came ever closer. At last she recognised the tongue. Jackras!
Through the leafy screen of her hide she watched them approaching. She counted four, their firm, well-muscled bodies peppered with tufts of grey and brown fur.
Her Wavemaster powers were so weakened that she couldn’t hope to gain control of even a small part of their primitive minds. She prayed they wouldn’t catch her scent. If they did, only her own physical strength and the sharpness of her dagger might save her and the child from becoming their evening meal.
The approaching Jackras were well armed. She could just make out the gold that decorated their many weapons. It shone like yellow ice in the remnants of the day’s waning light. They stopped a few feet from her, their stunted noses lifted to the air, sniffing, amber eyes scanning the silent forest.
She felt a wave of nausea as their unique perfume reached her nostrils. It was an odour that lay somewhere between rotting flesh and foul excrement.
“Smell meat!” said one Jackra.
The others nodded.
Her heartbeat faltered.
Suddenly the one in front lunged forward and swept aside her cover. Four pairs of eyes gazed at her with cold curiosity. One of the Jackras grabbed her arm and dragged her into the clearing. There was immense power in the grip.
“It is Valdene woman!”
They peered at her in the gloom. “What do you here?”
Then they noticed her swollen belly and began prodding it with their clawed hands.
“You have baby?” one of them asked in a sibilant lisp.
She stared back at them in silence, keeping the dagger concealed behind her back
“Baby makes sweet meat,” one of the others hissed, a crooked grin exposing his razor like fangs.
His companions smiled and nodded in agreement. They gathered more closely around her, naked hunger now burning in their eyes.
Isha had many failings, but being a coward was not one of them. If she and her child had to die at the hands of these foul smelling beasts she would take some of them with her.
Her dagger firmly in her grasp, she sprang forward and sank it into the chest of the closest Jackra. She felt it slide smoothly into his unresisting flesh. The wounded Jackra grunted in surprise then stumbled away, clutching his chest from which dark purple blood was now seeping.
The other three were momentarily stunned, but it was only a matter of seconds before each grabbed at one of the various weapons suspended from their belts and moved towards her. Their yellow eyes gleaming, their breath loud and malodourous, and in their raised hands were the instruments of her destruction.
The light was fading fast and a pale darkness surrounded them, but Isha needed no light to know where her attackers were. She could smell them. As she struck out at one of them, another one behind her launched an attack. A sharp pain shot through her side. She staggered and hit out at him, feeling her knife sink deep into his soft flesh. As the wounded Jackra fell away another one of their knives penetrated her back. The weight of the child made her movements slow and difficult. She knew now that her blood was flowing fast, she could feel the weakness of its loss creep through her body.
The child moved sharply within her, as if sensing the danger.
With the last of her failing strength Isha sank her dagger once more into her closest attacker. She saw him fall but the other two were coming back, determined to extinguish her life force no matter what the cost.
She had no strength left to fight on. All her WaveMaster powers were gone.
Her blood was flowing into the cold earth and her baby and her desire for revenge would end with the last sweet drop of it. Not even the comfort of death’s oblivion would be hers.
The Death Laws would prevail and she would enter the state of the living dead for all time.
She had failed in her quest and Rathos had sacrificed himself for nothing.
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