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Meet Ana & Zarek
I remember the day when it all started. I was fourteen, and Zarek came to the inn where I had been living and working since my grandmother died. Of course, I would rather have met him under better circumstances. He’d come to warn me that Shekkar demons were tracking me. We ran. What other choice was there?
Zarek was my protector and guide, and quickly became my friend. When he promised he would defend me with his life, I knew he meant it. But I never realized that he would keep his word so completely. Only the healing power of the ring had a chance to save his life.
And I had to reach him in time.
Finally, Zarek saw the top of the mountain. It was a sharp wall of rocks with a narrow fissure between them. The passage barely allowed room for a person to slip through.
Zarek heard a sound in the stillness. Shekkar.
No. Not now.
He needed to get Ana through the passage. Zarek looked down the hill. He could see the black shapes against the patches of snow. He had hoped the cold would hide their scent more. The demons appeared to avoid the snow, and maybe it slowed them down, but now they were coming fast.
Zarek reached the edge of the fissure and gripped Ana’s shoulder. He pointed through the crack. “Go through. Find somewhere to hide on the other side.”
“No!” she protested. “We’re both going through.”
“If we do, the demons will catch us. I can hold them back here. Go. Now. Run!”
He could tell she wanted to argue, but she obeyed. She ran through the narrow pass and disappeared.
He’d done everything he could for Ana.
Run. Hide. Don’t let them catch you.
Zarek took a deep breath, wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, and gripped his dagger. It cast a faint green glow, as he stood in the cleft between the rocks, watching the Shekkar run up the slope toward him. At least they wouldn’t be able to surround him, and he could hold them off for a while. How many were there? A dozen?
Shrieking in triumph when they spotted him, the demons rushed forward. When the first one reached Zarek, it screamed when the knife bit and toppled over. Heedless of their fallen comrade, the other demons leapt across the crumpled form to attack. Zarek held them back as they snarled and snapped at him and tried to reach him in the narrow space. But there were too many.
Their attack drove him deeper into the passageway. Black claws slashed at him, and he blocked them with the blade, only to feel burning pain as a second blow ripped the flesh of his arm and shoulder. He struck at them.
Shekkar claws raked across his face. His head burned like fire, and he could no longer see properly. Searing pain took over as poisonous claws tore into his chest, and he heard himself scream. It sounded like it came from a great distance.
Dimly, he heard a demon shriek as if it had discovered something. Ana’s trail?
Zarek lay on the ground. Quiet surrounded him, and he was alone. He closed his hand, futilely searching for his dagger. He had to get up, to go after them. They were hunting Ana, and she had no one to help her.
But it was too late. His limbs twitched when he tried to move, but that was all. His body throbbed with scorching pain, except where it touched the chilling stone and snow. He could feel his warm blood escaping from many wounds. It wouldn’t be long now. With one eye, Zarek could see the white stars in the black sky. He would have screamed from the pain, but he didn’t have the breath or energy. He passed in and out of consciousness.
The periods of unconsciousness granted a blessed relief from the agony. How many times would he wake back up? The stars faded.
When he woke again, he saw morning sunlight, and the thin clear sky of the mountains. The only sound came from the wind whistling in the passage between the rocks.
At dawn, Ana left the tree where she had hidden and stumbled back up the hill as fast as her tired legs would go. Reaching the passage, she started through it. Just beyond the opening, she could see Zarek, and her stomach twisted into a knot. She couldn’t breathe.
“Zarek!” She ran and knelt beside him. When she saw what they had done to him, her empty belly heaved. Blood covered him. Demon claws had slashed his face and throat, raking across his nose and destroying one eye, but she couldn’t look away from the long gaping wound in his chest. She sensed the agony of his broken body.
No. That was impossible. He could not still be alive. But she could sense his pain. Ana touched his forehead.
A flash of green light came from the ring, and for a moment, she became him. She was Zarek. Her flesh and skin shredded, her ribs ripped out of place. She felt searing pain from the wounds. There was no hope of surviving. No hope of recovering. The damage was too severe.
It could not be. The part of them that was Ana bent all her will on taking the pain away. Zarek must live. Zarek must be whole and happy. He must smile and be full of energy and ready to do anything.
Zarek must live.
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