Outskirts of Austerian Territory
The forest was disconcertingly… normal.
It felt like somehow there should be an indicator that the world had gone wrong, but none existed. Sunlight played through trees. A clearing here and a sapling there. Birds sang saccharine melodies in the pale green treetops while the floor of the forest stretched on and on and on, so far she could not see the end of it, the whole world painted gold and green and mottled with greener shadows over gold light; it felt endless and smelled of the green life-smell of eternity.
Angelica felt like an ant in comparison. And an ant she was. Easily crushed, an ugly unwanted pest-of-a-creature, she had failed to even keep up with her brother. Hope glowed in her still, but it would be difficult to catch up to him, and she couldn’t even say for sure that she was headed in the right direction. In the chaos, her memory of his panicked retreat was muddled and little more than a collection of shapes. It might have been a left instead of a right, or he could have gone west instead of east.
By Vae’a, she just wanted a footprint! One freaking footprint and she'd be happy, one trace that she wasn’t alone in the forest and going to be lost forever, one hint! One hint that the pursuers, the terrible things with their terrible teeth and terrible claws and terrible awful faces, weren’t going to catch her and eat her up here in the forest and leave her only as ivory bones on the floor of the woods.
Which brought the doe into another train of thought. They were behind her, slinking slimy and dark in hot pursuit. She’d known since she set out that the shadows would hunt her, but hadn’t known how terrible it would feel. She winced every time her bad leg dragged against a twig or a rock, hating herself for drawing attention with the scraping sound.
All Angel needed was a footprint. One footprint. A single sign, anything to bolster her spirits and make her feel less like a terrified rabbit hiding in the undergrowth.
Time seemed to be slower than its typical pace, but her heartbeat was at stroke-inducing rates. She needed to get out. Frantically, she cycled through all the stories Theodore had told her of other herds. There were great predator-sorts in the mountains, a friendly type of dwarfs in the foothills, peaceful swimmers out on the coast, and a race of winged tyrants who were to be avoided at every cost. Any of them would be better than the corrupted mess of her homeland.
Just a footprint.
Her voice echoed in the open spaces, and she flinched- she’d said that aloud. The Shadows would hear it. Stupid, stupid, that was a stupid mistake and Theo would be angry with her. Though it sent bright and burning pain up through her leg, she picked up the pace, ignoring her injury in the face of another bout of panic. Behind her, she felt a movement with some archaic prey instinct, and felt the adrenaline rush through her veins.
It continued like that for an undefined length of time. Sun being obscured, it was incredibly difficult for her to tell time, except for how the pursuers were slowly gaining on her. They were clearly toying with her, seeing as they could have easily taken her down by now if they wanted.
One of them was now occupying a small corner of her peripheral vision, just a dark smudge in the foliage. She refused to turn her head to look at them.
A cursory glance at the undergrowth-
Every nerve in Angel’s body sang. There, indeed, was a hoofprint in a patch of dark mud, and she froze immediately, forgetting everything to stare at it.
Hope rose up in her. She was going the right way, after all! She just had to pick up the pace and she could catch up to them. Surely Theodore would be relieved to see her, and she could meet the princess, and the other two. It would be perfect.
Angel raised her head to continue in the right direction, spirits bolstered, and stared straight into a pair of yellow eyes.
Before she could think, she was rearing up, teetering on her legs as all the muscle pain from the journey rushed back, the whites of her eyes moon-wide. The Shadows were upon her in an instant, and she could see that there were three of them, all foreboding giants who could likely crush her without a second thought. Yellow-Eyes reared up as well, a blur of darkness and scales, and sunk claws into her shoulders. It was just enough to knock her backwards.
The doe managed to twist and avoid knocking her spine on a log, but the fall still took all of the wind out of her. Yellow-Eyes had taken the opportunity and positioned themselves over her, giving her the opportunity to survey their pointed antlers and sharp fangs. Behind them were the other two Shadows, one a hulking pale Scybilline and the other a spindly Austerian with a massive rack. She couldn’t take them, not in her wildest dreams.
Angel’s breath was escaping her in heavy pants now, and every bit of her was smarting from pain. Feebly, she kicked up at Yellow-Eyes, but they only danced out of the way. The Scybilline stalked around to her head, jaws open and dripping with what appeared to be a sort of silver venom; Yellow-Eyes advanced with a victorious smirk, hissing low in their throat, and trailed one clawed foot along her jawline.
“Gotcha.” She squirmed away from the touch, but they only adjusted to keep the pointed claws pressed to her throat instead. “Hussshh dearest fawn, we’re not planning to hurt you. Our Queen requestsss you alive.” Every ‘s’ seemed to be drawn open like a snake’s hiss and every vowel clipped, an effect that should rightfully have seemed stupid but only served to frighten.
“I ssaid hussh!” A pinprick of red blood rose from her throat as Yellow-Eyes applied further pressure, and she choked back her words, panicked. “Much better. You’re awfully pretty, when you shut your mouth.”
For a second, she let the words rattle around in her head, and then it sunk in. Hot anger bubbled in her. Without warning, she kicked up with her back legs at the same time as she drove her head forwards, scoring a line into the would-be flirt’s face with her antler. Yellow-Eyes reared up again, clicking in pain, and Angel rolled over onto her feet, ready to run.
Not far enough away, though. The Austerian stepped in front of her, face stony, and the Scybilline bit into her leg as she attempted to flee, immobilizing her as the burn of venom started up. Yellow-Eyes struggled to their feet in her peripheral vision, an eye half-closed where the antler had scored over their face.
“H, h-hah! Not so fast,” a heavy breath, “princess.” They tried to move forward, but stumbled, eyelid twitching. “You’re going to come with us, and you’re going to tell us what you know about the location of dearesst Caddie and her palss, yes?”
From the direction of the pale Scybilline, she felt a strange warmth emanating into her head, but very shortly she could not even consider the fact that it felt very wrong. No, said the warmth in her mind, you don’t want to struggle.
Slowly, looking up at Yellow-Eyes with the glassy face of a doe possessed, Angelica nodded, though every bone in her body longed to fight or to flee.
She rose to her feet, and the Shadows began the process of bringing her to the place that was no longer her home. Her brain incapacitated, she went willingly.