A/N: Another chapter! And the last one for a while, unfortunately. Enjoy!
"All right!" my breaths come out in huffs but I don't care. At the breakneck speed I've been traveling, I finally reached the point where my path diverges with the forest's trail.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes, pleased with how far I'd managed to travel before noon. I'd woken up as soon as the sun's first rays had broken through the forest's branches and set off immediately.
Yawning tiredly, I sat down, just off the trail. I felt my calves go limp with relief. The ground was much more comfortable than the branch I had slept on last night. Even without the white wolf's nighttime concert, I hadn't planned on getting much sleep. My back was stiff and aching from the branch digging into my spine.
Determined to find a way shorter than the route I'd originally planned, I laid out the map on the ground and examined it.
Tracing various routes with my finger, I contemplated my choices carefully, refusing to see what was right in front of me.
Sighing exasperatedly, I put the map away. There was a shorter way all right but I almost would rather travel through the pits of hell than this.
I glanced up at the stand of trees in front of me, darker than the others. An unnatural fog surrounded them. The tree's shadows seemed to move by themselves. The silence there was somehow more malevolent.
It was known as the Hellhole to travelers. Anyone who had dared to use it disappeared.
This was my shortcut.
I sighed again, cursing Dr. Stein's paranoia. The reason he'd left Death's Reaping had never been properly explained by my papa, who knew more about it than I did. When I'd dared to ask Lord Death, he'd vaguely said Stein chose "to go on extended holiday leave."
Right. That's exactly why he, Lord Death's personal doctor, chose to build his vacation home just beyond the boundary of the Hellhole and hadn't shown his face in Death's Reaping for the last five years.
But why exactly Dr. Stein decided to leave wasn't really any of my business. What was of my concern was getting to Dr. Stein as quickly as possible and it appeared I didn't have much of a choice if I wanted to make it to Stein's house today.
I got up from the ground, stretching my sore muscles. I eyed the Hellhole warily. Naturally, I wouldn't have listened travelers' superstitions but seeing how the stories about the white wolf had been true, I wasn't so quick to dismiss them.
I groaned as a new thought occurred to me. What would I do if I ran into the white wolf in the Hellhole? I gnawed on my bottom lip nervously.
Tightening my grip around my pack, I peered in the Hellhole. If I listened closely, it felt like the shadows were whispering. It sent shivers down my spine.
I gave myself a little shake. I'd overcome too many obstacles to back out now. Anyways, once I committed to something, I saw it through to the end. That's who I was.
Narrowing my eyes determinedly, I walked into the darkness.
Navigating through the Hellhole was much harder than I thought it was going to be.
Not only were the trees nearly crushed together but because of that, seeing where I was going was all but impossible.
I didn't get worried until the light from outside of the Hellhole faded completely, plunging me into total darkness. I squinted ahead of me but it wasn't of any use. I couldn't see a thing.
Luckily I had planned for this as well. From my pack, I took out a box of matches, a cotton rag and a small bottle of kerosene. I felt the ground around me for a suitably sized branch. Once I found one, I swiftly wrapped the rag around one end. I doused it with kerosene, making sure not to use too much since I had no idea how long it'd take to get out of the Hellhole.
With a strike of a match, the torch lit up the area around me. I sighed in relief. I wasn't particularly afraid of the dark but traveling here in the pitch black would have been impossible.
Moving through the Hellhole was still a pain-overgrown tree roots threatened my balance with every step- but at least I could see. I tried moving in as straight a line as I could. I just had to make it out to the other side.
The silence as I walked was a tense one. It wasn't anything I could justify with my five senses but it felt like something was out there.
Unbidden, the white wolf's face popped in my mind. I dismissed it. His presence had felt different-more human. This one felt evil.
Keep your eye on the goal, I told myself sternly. Having a panic attack here of all places would not help things.
For the next couple minutes, I walked, keeping my eyes focused on the ground and not falling.
I wasn't sure if I heard it or sensed it but a deep rumble emanated from somewhere behind me. Cold fear crept down my back, locking my knees in place. The air became deathly still, as if waiting for something.
A growl from the right of me nearly caused me to drop the torch. I swallowed hard as my heart beat loud enough to give away my location. I swept the torchlight in a circle around me, peering into the trees.
Brown eyes surrounded by blonde fur glinted in the light. I yelled in fright, dropping the torch this time.
It hit the ground and went out with a hiss, plunging the wolf and I into darkness. I wheeled around and ran in the opposite direction I'd seen the wolf.
Another one, my mind screamed at me, another one! I shushed myself and pushed myself faster but I couldn't help seeing how much bigger and fierce this wolf was than the white wolf.
A tree root snagged my boot and I fell hard on my knees. I scrambled to my feet, feeling for my pack to make sure Stein's package hadn't broken. Then I was off and running again.
From time to time, I thought I heard a snarl or the sound of padded feet behind me. Terror clenched around my heart but I didn't dare push myself faster unless I wanted to trip again. Keep going, just a little further, I lied to myself.
A dim light from beyond the trees glimmered. For the first time since I saw the blonde wolf, I hoped. I let caution go to the wind and pumped my legs as fast as I could.
I broke through the boundary of the Hellhole with a cheer. I made it and could see Stein's house in the distance, hidden among the trees.
I sensed his presence before I saw him. Somehow I felt he was waiting for me. His white fur was matted in blood-his or someone else's, I didn't know. I was close enough to see the wind ruffle his fur.
We stared at each other for a minute. His tail swung, relaxed and his ears were half-cocked, as if curious. It seemed like a good sign.
I smiled hesitantly.
In an instant, his ears flattened back and he crouched low. Reflexively, I threw my pack to the side to protect the package. And with one smooth motion, he attacked.
One second, I was standing and then I was on the ground, his jaws clamped around my side. I jammed my fingers into his eyes.
He released me with a pained snarl, backing up. I rolled onto my side, away from him.
I let out a shuddering breath, feeling the wound on my side.
My hand came back into my wavering vision filled with blood.
I felt a shadow loom over me. This is it, I thought. And I was so close.
I braced myself, waiting. And waiting. I lifted my head, braving a peek.
He stood over me, not moving except for a twitchy tail. We locked eyes for a moment or two. Then I struggled to my feet. I waited for another second.
His red eyes, the color of my blood dripping onto the ground, bore into mine. My breaths come out in shaking puffs.
He was completely still.
Go, my mind whispered, GO.
I ran in the direction Stein's house was in. I didn't look behind me to see if he was following.
The forest was dead silent, save for my gasps.
And then there it was. Maybe, just maybe I could make it to Stein's house.
I didn't hear the other wolf so much as feel it collide with my body, knocking me off my feet and into the air. I landed onto my wounded side with a yelp.
Squinting my eyes open, I saw straw-colored fur and bared teeth circle me. The blonde wolf from the Hellhole. I shut my eyes closed. This one wouldn't hesitate where the white wolf did-I knew it.
Is this how you're going to die?! a voice screamed in my mind. Lying broken on the ground in submission? You're not lost yet!
My eyes flew open. "Get up," I whispered.
I pushed myself up onto shaking legs. The wolf paused, growling, getting ready to attack.
A howl somewhere behind both of us rent the air.
Run, the voice in my head ordered.
I came alive again. I couldn't feel my legs as I ran into the house, slamming the wooden door shut. It bounced back on broken hinges.
With a grunt, I shoved a table from its place in a kitchen and in front of the door, blood dripping freely from my side. I let out a hollow laugh, like that would hold back monsters like the two wolves for more than a second.
The ground rushed toward my face as I sank to my knees with a groan. I could feel the blood seeping out from my side. "Out of ideas," I muttered. There was a violent thud on the door, almost like a knock, except I knew better. "Out of time, too."
I watched my blood mix with the dust of the floor. This wasn't how I expected to die. My eyes swam with tears as I saw Mama and Papa dance in the living room of our house when I was little. Black*Star and Tsubaki sneaking sweets to me when I had the chickenpox. Kid counting to exactly eighty-eight as Patti, Liz and I looked for a hiding spot in Death Manor.
A tear rolled down my face. I was never going to see them again. The knocking grew louder.
My hands at my side clenched into fists. But now the question was how would I die, I thought, as a coward or a fighter?
I staggered to my feet. "No."
My vision wavered as the blood loss took its toll. Everything happened in fragments.
Knocking interrupted with a crack.
Stumbled into the kitchen. "No." Scratches and snarls against the door.
Bottle of wine. Felt cool in my hand. "Fight." Squeal of table being pushed back.
Gripped it tighter. Raised it over my head. Slammed it down.
Broken edges gleamed with red liquid. "I will fight." Deafening growls as Blondie bared his teeth.
"I will fight!"
Blood. Not mine. Screams of pain. Also not mine. And more howls.
Curious, I mused as the darkness took over.