The world breathes in.
And I breathe out.
I come to the startling realization that I am in fact still alive very slowly, blaming it on the pounding ache in my head. A list of to-do's starts forming in my head, starting with finding a way to escape, then killing the Mask that's currently dragging me by my feet. The later only comes in second by a close margin.
I blink my eyes open slowly, catching quick glimpses of greenery and spots of grey. They are marching us through the forest. Correction; they are dragging us through the forest. I keep my body still, lest I alert them I'm awake and loose my one upper hand. The Mask, whose clammy hands are holding my ankles, pauses making quick chat with the other. At least they had the consideration to carry Laia rather than drag her through the muddy leaves, unlike me. The one with clammy hands glances back and I shut my eyes again.
"How much farther," Clammy hands asks. He has a coarse voice as if he spends more time swearing and drinking than anything else.
A pause, then a response, "Not much."They're hesitant, I suspect. I consider that fact, wondering if I may have just gotten another upper hand. If they don't know where they are going they may drop their guard.
Laia groans and my eyes fly open, completely forgetting they may be watching. Thankfully the two Masks have turned back to examine the path ahead. Laia's eyelashes flicker and I pray under my breath she doesn't move.
Laia lets out another small groan then settles back, hopefully still asleep. The dragging starts again and I curse silently as a branch smacks me across the face.
They drag us for hours through thick brush, and each step I pray Laia stays asleep. At the very least if she's asleep they won't try and get information out of her. I long to reach out to her, just to feel her presence so I can believe, if only for a brief moment, that we will be okay. But I know the consequences of my actions, I knew what I was doing when I ran and I got too careless; I got caught. Helene promised to protect me that one last time but now we're enemies, now she's loyal to Marcus (or as loyal as she can be), and so the Mask's drag Laia and I to our enemy, to our death.
They didn't have to tell me Helene was leading the search, it was obvious. We both knew Marcus would send her out to track me down; his special form of fun and punishment. I wonder to myself if Faris and Dex are with her. A part of me hopes they are there for her, that she's not facing Marcus alone, but the other half of me hopes they're back in the city far away from here so they don't see me weak like this. That is what I am, I think; weak. I got caught, I got us caught. I risked Laia's life and for what? We never even made it half way.
Clammy hands stops, dropping my ankles so forcefully my whole body rattles and says, "We set up camp." The other one, I have yet to come up with a good name for yet, look's befuddled
"Why," he asks, a tinge of annoyance brought out on the single word.
"It's getting dark, and cold," Clammy hands mutters as if the other has no real brain cells and needs everything spelt out. "And I'm damn tired of walking."
"We need to get back to camp."
"Screw that," Clammy hands scowls. "They won't be thinking of anything but our rewards when we drag these two into camp."
"After the Blood Shrike notices we disobeyed orders and left on our own?" It's a sarcastic remake if I have ever heard one. My eyes crack open. Clammy hands has deposited me next to a tree and Laia to my right while they stand in a clearing of trees, arguing like children.
"Didn't you hear me? We are bringing back the prize," he throws out an arm and points, at what I assume is supposed to be out location by the tree, but misses by a long shot. "We won't be punished, we will be rewarded!"
The other shakes off Clammy hands touch on his shoulder while muttering under his breath something about getting firewood. That leaves us alone with Clammy hands himself. Time to get busy.
I realize as I start to stand a few critical things; (a) I have no weapons, (b) there is chain on my ankles and wrists, and (c) Laia is still knocked out. The later, however, has the potential to work in my favour if I play this right. She won't get hurt, at least. Clammy hands looks up at me from cleaning dirt under his finger nails with a blade, a wicked grin plastered on his face.
"Have a nice nap," he asks sarcastically. I don't bother responding; instead I step out and swing the first punch. The chains, being poorly designed, allow for a lot of movement, however not enough to fully get any force behind the throw without raise my other hand along with it. And that hand needs to be down at my side prepared for when he throws a punch at my stomach, which is just what he does.
I have the benefit of catching him off guard. Clammy hands, though big and bulky, isn't very graceful. After the first empty punch his balance waivers. I knew I've found my way in when he throws another poorly aimed punch and nearly trips over his feet. I start to wonder how he ever became a Mask when his right hook catches me across the face and I stumble backwards; certain he shattered a few bones.
Blood pools immediately in my mouth, the copper tang filling my throat. I dart away just in time to miss another blow to the head. "Traitor," he snarls, before throwing another punch to my stomach this one I can't avoid, by take the opportunity of his bent position to twist my hands over his head, securing the chain connecting my wrists around his throat. With raspy breaths I pull tight, his back to my chest. He gurgles and fights, stomping on my feet and waving his fists behind him in a madman's fury. It's over quickly. The Mask sags against the chains, and I push him off with my now aching feet, but not before muttering a few choice curse words into his ear. I'm staring down at the sad remains of him when a fist catches me across the cheek.
I fly through the air, certain that I've crushed entire limbs upon landing. The other Mask looms over me with a sinister snarl. In one hand he holds a long branch off a tree with multiple spikes jetting out, the perfect instrument for breaking bones. He lets out a low growl like a predator tracking a prey. I manage to pull myself up while he throws a glance over at the corpse of a man who was just so recently arguing with him.
A growl echoes through the woods, the only warning to another incoming attack. My legs react quicker than my brain and I manage to dodge the first blow, but the second lands square in my chest. I stumble back, the chains around my ankles catching on a tree root, and I almost fall again. He has the front of my shirt in a fist, pulling me forward.
"You killed him," He snarls, moist breathe infesting my breathing air.
I sputter out a response, despite his choking hold on my airway, "And your next."
The Mask, Bad breath I decide, snarls again. "I'm going to kill you slowly, painfully. Then," he paused, casting me an almost humorous grin, "I'm going to kill her." Laia.
Another nasty smiles forms on his lips, then I'm watching his head jerk to the side and his face go slack. His hold releases and he stumbles. Beyond all odds, Laia is standing in Bad breath's spot, an equally grotesque looking branch in her hands. The chains hang heavy against her wrists, but if they bother her she doesn't let on.
"No you won't," Laia pants, blowing a stray piece of hair out of her face, then she meets my eyes. Her eyes are calm while I imagine mine are swirling riptides, ready to drown and destroy anything they met. She gaps (or maybe she's just breathing heavy?) for a few moments before seemingly regaining composure and stumbling through a string of words. "We should go."
It's a statement but she poses it like a question. "We should," I agree, avoiding her careful, examining eyes. I don't want to see the pity in them when she finally comes to her senses and realizes what I did. I might not feel remorse about it, but she's still good, and she will.
I step over the unconscious body of the Mask, making sure to land a well aimed kick to the groin. Laia's eyes pierce by back as I rummage through Clammy hand's jacket to find the keys to the chains.
"Here," I toss her the key after I've unlocked my own chains. They drop with empty weight and I rub the raw skin along my wrists. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. Her matted hair hangs over one shoulder while she struggles to unlock the chains. I could turn back around, pretend I never saw her struggling, she didn't ask for help anyway. But I don't.
"Let me." I rest my hand on her wrist and take the key, clicking the lock with an easy twist of the key. The chains on her wrists drop and her posture straightens at the lost weight.
"I can do the rest," she mumbles, taking the key back. I don't remember letting her hand go but I know it feels strange not to feel her reassuring presence. The last of the chains hit the forest floor with a soft thud. "We need to go."
Laia marches past as if her ankles aren't bloody and raw like mine. She stops at the Mask's fallen body, the corpse of Clammy hands, to scoop up his pack then carries on back the way they dragged us. I snatch the second pack off Bad breath and pause for a moment, considering if we should hide the bodies, but decide against it. The wolves will clean up for us anyway.
She's several paces ahead when I catch up to her. We walk in silence for a while, more due to the fact she doesn't look in the spirit for conversation, not that I can find anything to say. I finally settle on, "It will be dark soon."
She doesn't spare me a glance. "So?"
"We should make camp." I cringe at sounding just like that Mask.
"We should keep moving, make up for lost time."
I grab her hand, suddenly wondering if there is more to her words. "Laia."
"We're wasting time!" She looks crazed, and for a split second I think its fear.
"And we'll be wasting more time if darkness comes and we end up wandering in the wrong direction," I respond. We've seen enough weird things in the day, who knows what comes out at night, but I don't tell her that.
Laia assess me the way an instructor used to at Blackcliff. Unnerving chills tingle down my spine. She talks quietly, calmly, "How did they catch you?"
"How did they catch you," she repeats like I have less than three brain cells. Lately, I've been feeling like that might be true.
"They snuck up on me, that's all. I never saw them coming -."
"You always see them coming," she mutters, then pauses and looks up at me like I'm some undiscovered creature from a foreign world. "You're lying."
"You always see them coming. I knew it didn't add up but," she pauses taking a breath and it occurs to me how close we could to be to the Mask's camp. Are they close enough to hear us now? It also occurs to me how close we are but I decide to try and ignore that. I fail. "I didn't think you were the kind to sell me out."
I take a blade to the chest.
"I would never sell you out," I sputter; astonished she could think anything of the sort.
"Then how did they catch you," she asks, emphasizing every word.
"I was distracted!"
I catch her off guard with my response. She looks up through hair, confused. "Distracted?"
"Yeah, Laia," I mutter, rubbing the back of my neck. "Distracted."
"What was distracting -." I see it the moment she figures it out. Her pupils widen and she looks like she wants to shrink so small the world could shallow her whole. I didn't need to say anything, she knew. I thought she had known before, but maybe we are on much different pages than I had ever thought.
"Elias," she whispers. She's shaking her head.
"I'm sorry," I mutter wanting to reach out for her hand, her arm, anything to reassure her I never wanted to harm her.
"We're wasting time," she repeats.
I mistake the meaning of her words, thinking she's gone back to the subject of keeping moving. "I know you think so, but its best to set up camp."
"No, Elias. We are wasting time."
"We are wasting time." The sun disappears as she walks away, her back to me.
The blade twists in to my heart.