The sound of her feet pounding into the hard ground and the fight to get air into tortured lungs filled her world as Aris plunged down yet another woodland path. She had now been running hard for over an hour, the quarry of a Balaatan hunting party. Two of the trackers were dead — she had shot both of them — which would hold the pursuit team for a while, but it wouldn’t be long before they closed in again. Ahead the trees began to thin into a clearing. Two hundred yards away, surrounded by a rusty mesh fence, was a group of derelict buildings. It looked like an Old World college campus, long abandoned by its students. Not perfect, but at least she could hole up there while she got some energy back.
Breaking from the treeline she realised that she was now in the open. This was no training exercise like she’d been through hundreds of times in the City Special Operations division. This was for real, life or death. Rules went out of the window. The perimeter fence, constructed from chain link wire and posts was already down in a few places. She made for one of the gaps and sprinted the rest of the way across the cracked concrete yard towards the building, her senses stretched and ready to snap at any movement. Panting, she had just reached the doorway when a grenade round hit to the side of her. The rotten brickwork exploded with the heat, a piece of shrapnel cutting her face as she threw herself to the ground. Now what? She had not bargained on them catching up with her so fast. She knew that it would only be the remaining trackers together with a few runners at the moment, but she didn’t know how many there were and she had not prepared a defensive position in the building yet. Getting to her feet again, she ran along the corridor and into the main building’s hall. Other corridors led off to the right and left and she could see staircases rising to higher floors. No, she thought, go up and I’ll be trapped for sure; my only chance is to reach the other end of the buildings first and make a run for the woods on the other side. With luck they’ll tire first.
Her feet echoed on the tiled floors and kicked up little clouds of dust and debris as she ran, her breath now ragged and catching in her throat. Soon the main entrance doors were ahead. She slowed a little to check for traps, but it seemed clear enough. Even so, it would be madness to rush straight out into the open. She checked her ammunition and with a shock realised that she was running very low. Now she was going to have to make every shot count.
Out of the doorway she could see tall square columns holding up the front facade. A good mixture of shadows and light. Cautiously she moved out of the building to one of the columns. A bullet hit the ground in front of her. It had come from the direction of the roof of what she assumed had once been the gymnasium, which meant that she was exposed where she stood. Taking a chance, she edged out and dived behind another of the pillars. A hiss of heated air next to her cheek told her that the guy up there was a good shot—too good for her just to make a run for it. And soon someone else would be coming up behind her; she didn’t really have time to play a waiting game.
Something caught her eye to the right. Another man now stood on the roof of the main building’s annex, the sun glinting off the metal armour-plates on his shoulders, his eyes searching the shadows below. Shit, with two of them, she couldn’t hide; she’d have to take at least one of them out now. It was possible, even with only four bullets left but she knew her chances of escape still remained pretty low.
The second man must have been alerted to her position by the first, for his eyes suddenly found her and he brought his gun up to aim through his sights.
Aris didn’t have time for sights. She just pointed her own weapon and hoped. Her shot hit first, knocking him backwards before he had time to fire. Deciding to risk it, she dodged around the corner and aimed at the man on the gymnasium roof. Again, her aim was more intuition than skill, but he, too, fell backwards, the left-hand side of his head exploding away from the rest. Easy enough. Maybe she did still have a chance.
There were now running footsteps coming up the corridor behind her. Slinging her almost useless weapon over her back, Aris began to run for the perimeter gate, aware that more of Pock’s soldiers would now be in the grounds. But it was do or die and she’d rather die than be taken prisoner. Her legs pumping but her mind focused on the gate in front of her, she made a break out into the open.
A shout from behind told her that her escape had been seen and she pushed herself even harder as a hiss of air sounded off to the right. Another hiss and then a singeing pain flared across her right thigh. Looking down she saw that a round had sliced through the outer part of her thigh. At least it had missed the bone. Running now on adrenaline and closing her mind to the pain, she forced herself on, beginning to get out of range of her pursuers. She reached the open gate and sprinted up the grassy track into the woodland beyond. She was sure she had at least killed the front-men — the fastest trackers and runners in the patrol, which meant that their hunt would now have to become a little harder. But she would still have to put more ground between them before she stopped. She tried to run faster, the stinging in her leg becoming a throb as the damaged muscle began to stop working. It wouldn’t carry her much further. Gasping for breath, she stopped and saw a break in the undergrowth to the side of the track. A wood-rat trail ... it would do. Trying to block out the pain, she dropped to her hands and knees and crawled through the tunnel, exposed skin being stung by needle-wort and lacerated by the thorn-brush. Her progress was slow, but careful; Pock’s soldiers may not have been wonderful shots, but his trackers were some of the best in the Outlands. Her only hope was that they wouldn’t be expecting her to hide so close to the path.
The tunnel opened up into a small clearing with a wood-rat burrow on the one side and a thorn-covered thicket on the other. Gritting her teeth against the spines, she pushed her way into the clear centre of the bush. Waiting for the party to pass by, she checked her wound through the torn material of her trousers. It was more than a flesh wound but not as bad as she had feared. Even so, if she didn’t find a way of treating it soon, infection would set in and she would surely die a slow and agonising death.
Running feet alerted her to the first of Pock’s soldiers coming down the track in pursuit. They ran past, obviously thinking that she was still ahead of them. A few minutes later and the sound of more feet, this time slower, walking, stopping now and again.
Aris held perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe as they approached the wood-rat track, but they walked on past, apparently not noticing anything amiss. Behind the trackers came the bodyguards, and in their midst, Pock, Balaat’s mutant-human leader. Maybe she should have felt honoured that such an important personage was present for her intended death but she had heard that his participation in such entertainment was common: he had a predilection for watching fear and death. In himself, he was repulsive enough, with his over-muscled torso, his grey hide-like skin and his strange, musky smell. But what he had with him shocked Aris even more, for attached to a chain wrapped around his one fist was what was obviously his latest pet: a naked woman, her body disfigured by bites and bruises, her face tear-stained and her eyes that of a madwoman. So the stories were true.
The mismatched couple passed within a few feet of where Aris was hiding and she had to exert strong self-control not to draw back out of repulsion. She still had one shot left in her weapon and at this range she could certainly seriously injure him, if not kill him, but she suppressed that urge too. Her common sense told her that to escape without further incident was the most sensible of options.
The whole entourage passed by and finally disappeared up the track. Aris took a deep breath and exhaled with relief. Her leg screaming pain, she began to crawl out of the thicket to the clearing with the wood-rat sett. Once out in the open, she shakily tried to stand up.
Her arms were immediately grabbed and pinioned to her side and a knife blade was pressed against her throat. ‘About time,’ said a low, cracked voice at her ear. ‘Lord Pock is anxiously awaiting to meet the one who nearly escaped his best hunters.’