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By: Katie Cowley

Thud. Her footsteps echoed throughout the forest, the only thing that rivaled the sound of her heavy, labored breathing. I have to keep running, she told herself. She did not know how long she had been dashing through the thick copse of cedars, only that she had to keep going for fear of capture. In and out, she thought. Four seconds breathe in, hold four seconds, out four seconds, hold. Her vision swam. Aching with suppressed sleep, desperate to relieve the stitch in her side, her speed began to flag. In the dim light of the moon, she missed the viciously cut branch in front of her and ran full tilt into it! Boom! Her vision exploded in a deluge of red haze, pain the only thing left in her mind. Crouching down and softly moaning, her hands on her knees, she rested for a moment, refusing to let tears flow down her scratched, bloody face. I will not let them take me, she thought. I am the last hope, the Firebird. And indeed, as she shakily rose to her feet, she had a new fire kindling in her eyes, brighter than before. She began to sprint once again, her vigor renewed as wolf-like howls rent the air behind her. The chase went on like this for some time, with one gaining ground as the other sped up, and so on. Breathe. The unknown beasts behind her gained ground. One more step. Her heartbeat was faster than a hummingbird's wing flap. One more dash. She ran, trailing the hopes and dreams of a broken world behind her. One last chance. The creatures were almost on her, so close she could smell their foul, putrid breath and hear their slavering snarls. And then, it was over. Knowing the end was near, the girl grabbed hold of an overhead tree branch, pulled herself up with inhuman reflexes, and clambered up the trunk, not risking another breath. The beasts bolted past her with breathtaking speed, howling in pleasure and triumph- they had won! But as she climbed higher, letting the icy wind dig its talons into her, stealing her scent away, the blood-chilling howls turned into ones of sorrow and mourning. They had lost the scent. Letting out a sigh of relief she didn't know she held inside, she climbed higher and spent the night on a limb there, too alert and nervous to fully rest. When the dawn broke, distilling the frosty fog the night had embraced, she carefully climbed down, where she made her way to a rendezvous point her people had used many years ago. The view took her breath away, and as she looked down at the sun rising behind the mountains, a small castle framed in the work of art, she felt a small sense of accomplishment and peace. Only now, when she was truly alone, her thick brown hair streaming in a banner of triumph behind her, could she fully relax. I have made it, she thought. Four more years are you safe, my sweet. And with these words, a weight lifted off her chest. Complete silence stole over her, taking any notion or mote of sound from the serene, tranquil setting. It was bliss. And yet, there was something there that shouldn't be -a sinister feeling- lurking, the breeze carrying a warning on its breath. No birds were singing or insects chirping. Quickly, she whipped around, only to feel frigid ironclad hands encircle her mouth and waist. “Don't move,” the light voice whispered as she was pulled into the darkness.