Settling on a sturdy branch within sight of the path, I leaned back on the tree’s trunk, rested and ate my lunch while deciding where to go next. After a while, the soothing noises from the forest almost lulled me to sleep.
“See anything?” A male voice beneath me disrupted the quiet.
Startled, I grabbed the branch to keep from falling. Caught, I froze in shock.
“No. All clear,” another man’s voice replied from a distance. His tone was rough with annoyance.
There had been no barking to alert me; it must be the other team. I had been so worried about the dogs that I had forgotten about the smaller team. Too cocky, I thought. I deserved to be caught early.
I waited for them to order me down, but they remained quiet. Looking below, I searched the forest but couldn’t locate them. Maybe they hadn’t seen me after all. After a bit of rustling, two men emerged from the dense underbrush. They, too, wore green and brown camouflage, although their snug overalls and face paint were more professional than my glued-together ensemble.
“Stupid idea, coming east. She’s probably at the southern border by now,” Rough Voice grumbled to his partner.
“That’s what the dog boys figured, even though the hounds lost her scent,” said the second man.
I smiled. I’d outsmarted the dogs. At least I had managed to accomplish that much.
“I don’t know if I follow the logic of going east,” Rough Voice said.
The other man sighed. “You’re not supposed to follow the logic. The Captain ordered us east; we go east. He seems to think she’ll head deeper into MD–5. Familiar territory for her.”
“Well, what if she doesn’t come back? Another stupid idea, using the food taster,” Rough Voice complained. “She’s a criminal.”
“That’s not our concern. That’s Valek’s problem. I’m sure if she got away he would take care of her.”
I wondered if Valek was listening. We both knew he wouldn’t need to hunt me down; all he had to do was wait the poison out. I found the conversation helpful, especially the fact that it wasn’t common knowledge that I’d been poisoned.
“Let’s go. We’re supposed to rendezvous with the Captain at the lake. Oh, and try to keep the noise down. You sound like a panicked moose crashing through the woods,” the smarter man chided.
“Oh yeah. Like you could hear me over your specially trained ‘woodland-animal footsteps,’” Rough Voice countered. “It was like listening to two deer humping each other.”
The men laughed and in a wink disappeared into the underbrush, one on each side of the path. I strained to hear them moving but couldn’t tell if they were gone. I waited until I couldn’t bear the inactivity. The men had decided my next move. The lake was to the east. Climbing through the trees, I headed south.
As I worked my way along, an odd, creepy feeling burrowed its way into my mind. Somehow I became convinced that the men I had seen on the path were following me, hunting me. An uncontrollable urge to move fast pushed on me like a strong hand on the back of my neck, propelling me forward. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I threw all precautions of keeping hidden and quiet aside. I dropped to the ground and bolted.
When I burst into a small clearing in the trees, I stopped. The overpowering feeling of panic had disappeared. My sides stitched with pain. Dropping my pack, I collapsed onto the ground, gasping for breath. I cursed myself for such panicky behavior.
“Nice outfit,” a familiar voice said. Dread and fear gave me the energy to jump to my feet.
No one in sight. Yet. I ripped open my backpack and pulled the knife. My heart performed somersaults in my chest. I turned in slow circles as I scanned the forest, searching for the voice of death.
Laughter surrounded me. “your weapon won’t do you any good. i could easily convince you that it was your heart you want to plunge that knife into instead of mine.”
I spotted her across the clearing. Clad in a loose, green camouflage shirt cinched tight at the waist and identical colored pants, the southern magician lounged against a tree with her arms crossed in front of her, her posture casual.
Expecting the southern magician’s goons to attack me from the forest, I kept the knife out in front of me, turning in circles.
“Relax,” the magician said. “We’re alone.”
I stopped circling but retained a firm grip on my weapon. “Why should I trust you? Last time we met, you ordered me killed. Even supplied that handy little strap.” The sudden realization that she hadn’t needed her thugs at all leaped into my mind. I began reciting poison names in my head.
The magician laughed like someone amused by a small child. “That won’t help you. The only reason reciting worked at the festival was because Valek was there.”
She stepped closer. I waved the knife in a threatening gesture.
“Yelena, relax. I projected into your mind to guide you here. If I wanted you dead, I would have pushed you from the trees. Accidents are less trouble than murders in Ixia. A fact you’re well aware of.”
I ignored her jibe. “Why didn’t I have an ‘accident’ at the festival? Or at another time?”
“I need to be close to you. It takes a lot of energy to kill someone; I’d rather use mundane methods if possible. The festival was the first time I could get close to you without Valek nearby, or so I thought.” She shook her head in frustration.
“Why didn’t you kill Valek with your magic at the festival?” I asked. “Then I would have been easy prey.”