Chapter 1

I shivered in the cold as I pushed my way through the thick underbrush toward the outskirts of my small town. The tangled trees that surrounded me blocked my path time and time again, and I had to struggle around them, making my own path that only lasted a moment before the forest overtook it once more. I pulled my cloak tighter around my small frame and I blew on my hands to warm them up before I continued.

I scanned the small clearing in front of me in fear. I had been taught to fear the forest, to fear the night ... and yet I had not heeded the warning of the elders on this dark evening. I had not even listened to the small voice in my head that grew louder with each step I took forward that told me to turn back. There were unmentionable dangers that fill the black void around me, and any second any of them could come flying at me.

As if the earth could hear my thoughts an eerie low howl drifted through the air to me sending a cold chill up my back, my hair standing on end. No, no I begged the earth. Please no. Not them ... Anything but the-

Another howl sounded from behind me, closer this time, seeming to call my name as I looked about in horror. There was nothing I could do. I was going to die; this was as sure as the sun would rise. A shudder crawled through my body as I saw a movement to my right, a long dark gray muzzle propped open sniffing my fear like one smells the wafting scent of a delicious meal set at the table in front of them.

Though the moon was hardly shining I could see the glimmer of the razor sharp fangs within the muzzle that poked out of the undergrowth, the fangs that would rip through me as if I wasn't there. I could already feel the bone crushing jaws closing around my neck. I was theirs and they knew it and basked in the knowledge. I could hear the pack circling around me; unafraid of my power, smug and thirsting for hot blood. I caught a glimpse of the glowing red eyes I knew were lurking about and slowly let out the breath I had been holding.

So this was it. It came down to a game between the hunter and hunted, though I knew I was the hunted instead of the hunter in this game. Maybe if it had been ten years ago I would still be the hunter, but the intelligence of animals never ceases to amaze the flamboyantly self assured. When these creatures, what in my town we call mashante, realized that a single hunter stood no chance against our magic they sent out pairs. When pairs failed them they sent out reinforcements to their hunters, and so every defeated pack of mashante added more and more force. Before we knew what awaited us the creatures had learned from their mistakes and took out our hunters with ease, celebrating victory with blood. Thus we strayed from hunting at night when the mashante roam the forest, and hunt only in the sunlight when they turn their weary eyes from the sun that blinds them and sleep.

And yet despite all my knowledge of the danger I stood in the midsts of I ventured forth from safety and stood now in this death trap with no reason for my insanity except love. It is said that one may do strange things for love. I never believed that would entail becoming a meal until this second, but in my mind Will was worth it. Will, my poor beloved that I was going to meet, will never know my fate. It may have all been worth it if I could walk away from this and live with him, but that feat was impossible now.

I closed my eyes and listened with all of my being to my surroundings. I could feel my heart thumping spastically in my chest, an odd offset to my calm breaths and the equally calm way I formulated an attack to my last breath. I could hear them getting closer, closing the last little bit of the gap that kept me from them. Before I knew what I was doing I was sprinting as fast as I could through the thick underbrush, my cloak catching on the brambles as I ran, choking me every time it caught on a low hanging branch. I struggled with the tie as I ran, my insides screaming in fear as my lungs begged for breath.

What was I doing? The sudden realization that I was leading them toward Will had my desperate sprint slowing to a jog, then a trot, then a walk until I came to a dead stop. I planted my feet on the ground and closed my eyes. My acute hearing picked up the angry howls of the pack as they came closer to me. I felt moisture form on my lashes and roll down my cheeks as I opened my eyes, my slender hand snapping up to my face to wipe away the tears. I hated to cry. It made me feel like a weakling, unable to control my emotions. I was a warrior for the town, I couldn't be this week on the inside when I was so strong on the outside. It just didn't make sense!

Suddenly the trees around me glowed red in the night as the mashante gathered about me, their hungry eyes staring at me.

"Come on!" I shouted at them, turning around in a circle to address all of them. "Come get me!" The red eyes blinked in surprise at my voice. They weren't used to anyone or anything standing up against them. As I turned in another circle I took in the number of them and my heart nearly stopped as it caught in my throat. What had I just gotten myself into? There were at least twenty members to this pack, a number unheard of in any pack. They were growing faster than we had feared, and there was no way I could warn anyone back home.

The tension that surrounded me in this moment was so thick I could cut it with a knife. I turned in another circle and finally saw what I knew was coming. A particularly large mashante was slowly climbing down the tree, edging closer and closer to me, trying his hardest to look like he wasn't moving. I let out a quick breath and mustered my strength. If I was going out, I was going out with a bang. My fists turned into bright balls of cerise light, my matching eyes lighting up as the energy poured through my body to my hands, ticking my nose and tingling my ears. The pink energy pulsed wildly in my clenched hands, wanting out as he mashante closed in on me, more now following the leader down the trees to take me.

I opened my hands and the brilliant light shone through the forest. I turned to the closest mashante and pushed my hand out at him, willing the energy mass to hit him as the brilliant ball went flying from my hand to his chest, hitting him and disappearing as it delved deep into his skin, stopping his heart as he slammed into the base of a tree where he laid limp. I turned around the circle again in time to see that it was no longer a slow creep they made toward me but a fierce run. In the millisecond it took me to see this they were on me. I shot out at least five more blasts of energy, cursing myself for not being more careful for not doing my meditations before leaving. I was weak, and they overtook me easily.

I fought with all my will, begging my magic to come to me even as I could feel it slipping through my fingers and settling back down in my pathetic body. Now I would die, cheated by my own weak body. I could feel them all over me, covering me like a swarm, some jumping on my back and pulling my hair and other climbing up my front. My chest heaved as I could feel my lungs being crushed. At least there was no one here to witness my weakness. I fell to the ground, my body instantly being covered by the mashante. I couldn't breath. I was smothered by them, suffocating on their rust and salt stench from their blood soaked fur. My vision grew blurry as i struggled against them for all I was worth. Why was I still fighting? I hadn't cared if I died before, but now that it came to this I did not wish to part with my life. My vision finally faded, and I sucked in my last breath as I laid on the ground, my long immortal life slipping out of my fragile body like water slipping through one's fingers. Why this? Why now? Why me?

Suddenly I heard a noise from somewhere around me.It felt like a weight was lifted from my throat, and I took in another breath, life rushing back into my body. My muscles tightened, and my arms and legs began thrashing wildly, trying to get the rest of the mashante off of me. Yelps echoed around me as mashante were thrown around wildly. I tried to catch a glimpse of whomever might be helping me, but his face was obscured by the continuous attack of the mashante.

Anger pushed its way through me, and my cerise energy reformed in my hands, pulsing between cerise and magenta in the center. Bursts of light came from my hands, killing the mashante around me. I saw green bursts of energy come from the other being as he, too, killed some mashante.

The few remaining mashante ran off into the darkness, knowing they were beat. Slowly the energy was absorbed by my body, dissipating the energy in my hands.

My whole body was shaking as I stood looking at my savior. His back was turned to me as he ran his fingers through his hair. As I watched him, my vision went blurry again and I fell to the ground. When I opened my eyes my savior was standing over me. I turned my head towards him to see who he was, and groaned in pain. I clenched my teeth together and continued until I could see him. My head began throbbing as I looked at him, but I ignored the pain and tried to sit up. I pulled myself into an upright position, and daggers of pain shot through my skull, leaving a trail of fire where they passed through my brain. The fire spread until I couldn't take it any more and had to lay down again and close my eyes.

"You know, it's such a pain to protect you sometimes, Jaina."

I bolted upright at the sound of my rescuer's voice. I had expected it to be my boyfriend, Will, but instead it was a stranger.

"Who are you?" I asked, grabbing at my head as an explosion rocketed through my skull. "And how do you know my name?"

"I've been watching you for some time now Jaina, and I -" He stopped mid-sentence and chuckled.

He's been watching me for some time now? What the heck? This night has been far from normal. First I run away from home to meet Will, then I get chased by a pack of twenty mashante, and now this guy knows me, and has been watching me, strange.

"Telling someone you've been watching them isn't usually the way to start a normal conversation," I said, and stared oddly at the stranger. "Normally a conversation starts with a greeting, and then each side states their names, and then they talk about normal things with each other. So, cold you tell me your name?" I asked, and stood up.

The stranger was about my height, and inch or two taller than me, perhaps a little taller, and had brilliant green eyes that seemed to see right into my soul.

"No, I will not tell you my name. Why would you need to know it any ways? You're running away with," he paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully. "With what's-his-name-"

"Will," I said grumpily to the stranger.

"Yes, Will, and you will never see me again, so, why are names that important?" he finished, and raised his eyebrows at me. I rolled my eyes in return, and crossed my arms angrily.

"They just are, I said, and let out an exasperated sigh. His bright green eyes looked me over as I stood there. "Fine. Be all secretish. If you'll excuse me, I have someone I must meet." I walked off quickly, looking over my shoulder several times to my rescuer. He stood as still as a statue where I left him, his long brown hair rustling in the wind.

I ran through the forest, scanning the area for Will. My sharp eyes could see every leaf in the dark, but caught no sign of him. I stopped running suddenly, sensing Will's presence.

"I was beginning to think you weren't coming, Jaina," he said as he stepped out of the shadows towards me. I sighed in relief, and ran to him, falling into his arms.

"Will," I cried, and snuggled into his warm embrace. "I'm so glad you're here, that you waited."

He gently grabbed my shoulders and pushed me away from him, his brown eyes searching my face carefully. His thumb rubbed across a scratch on my forehead and his brow furrowed.

"What happened to you?" he asked as he touched my cheek with his fingertips. I grabbed both of his large hands in my own small ones, and out fingers intertwined.

"Nothing happened," I lied, and put his right hand against my cheek.

He frowned and grabbed my chin, turning my downcast gaze up to his face.

"Really," I insisted. "Nothing happened Will."

"Jaina, you know I don't like it when you lie to me," Will said, looking into my eyes.

"It wasn't important. I'm fine now, that's all that matters," I said looking down to his feet again. Once again he lifted my head.

"Jaina ... please," he said simply to me. "I want to know."

"All that happened was that I was attacked by a group of mashante, and-" I stopped there, afraid to mention the stranger. One look at Will's face, though, told me what I needed to do. "And a stranger saved my life." I conveniently skipped over the part about the stranger telling me he had been watching me, afraid of what Will would think if it was mentioned.

"Is that all?" he asked me slowly. "Do you know who this elf is?"

"No, he wouldn't tell me his name. He said I didn't need to know."

"Ok. We're late already," Will said then and started to walk away.

"Wait," I said softly. He stopped mid-step and turned to me. "We shouldn't run away. At least not tonight. I want to find out who this strange elf is, and why he saved my life."

Will frowned and walked back over to me. He grabbed my hand, and bent his head down to whisper in my ear.

"As you wish," he said, and we walked back to town hand in hand.

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