Gotta run, keep running, don't stop, don't look back...
It was like a chase dream, Lila thought, more than a bit deliriously. You just kept running and running because something worse than anything was right on your heels and there was no way to lose it.
Except that, for her, right now, it was real.
She hadn't been in this city all that long, but she was sure she remembered a park, one with small hills and groves of trees, a block from here if she turned right at the next corner. The change of direction made her stumble, but she caught herself, got her long steady stride again. Sunset, the sun was going down, if she could just stay out of reach a few minutes longer she could have the night to rest as best she could. All that mattered was staying free just a little longer.
Once, when she'd been small, she'd been invited to join a game of touch-tag at school. Such invitations were rare for the perpetual new kid, the one who moved from city to city every few months. She'd come home excited to tell her mother; to her bewilderment, her mother had cut her off harshly and forbidden her ever to play the game again. Not until much later had she begun to understand.
The ground under her running feet changed from grey pavement to black asphalt, one of the paths that meandered through the park. It wasn't large, but it did offer places to duck out of sight, and each of those could buy her just a few more minutes. Lila circled around to the back of a great weeping tree of some sort, and slipped through the curtain of branches, crouching behind the trunk and praying the shadows would hide her.
Footsteps, slow and deliberate, along the path. Two sets, Lila knew, from having looked back once. A man and a woman, in casual military, denim and camo. She flattened her back against the tree, with it between her and them, as the hunters paused in front of the tree.
“Shall we end for tonight?” the man said. “I could use a break and some supper.”
“But what if she gets away from us in the night?” the woman asked, in mocking horror. The comment elicited laughter from the man, and she joined in; there was no joy in it, but a cold kind of amusement that made Lila wish she could melt into the tree trunk.
“Let's go,” the woman said. “It's not like we can't pick up her trail in the morning. I'm looking forward to supper, I hear your cousin's a good cook.”
“Quit rubbing it in.”
The hunters walked away.
Lila didn't move immediately. The hunters made their own rules, there was no reason at all why they couldn't suddenly double back, except that it would be less entertaining. The sounds of voices and laughter gradually faded into the distance.
Only after long moments of silence did she relax. One more night of freedom.
Fatigue had taken hold, even in the short rest; it took all the willpower she had to force herself to her feet. Near the centre of the park she remembered a water fountain as part of a memorial. It wasn't much to fill her growling stomach, but it would be something.
The fountain could have been cleaner, but she was long past caring. She reminded herself to sip it slowly, but it was hard not to gulp it as fast as she could, after the long day of constant running.
Wearily, she returned to the shelter of the weeping tree. Fall and spring, those were the danger times when the hunters appeared. Not in the winter, when their prey was likely to die of hypothermia, nor in the summer when heat-stroke and dehydration threatened. They wanted their prey alive.
This was the former. The height of summer was well past, the nights cool, but that only felt good after the exertion of the day. She curled up under the tree, and tried to think of tactics for tomorrow. Tactics that wouldn't actually save her, of course, but might amuse the hunters enough to make them prolong the hunt a little longer. Sometimes she lost her train of thought, probably sliding in and out of shallow sleep; that had been happening at night.
There was little moon, and the nearest of the park's lamp-posts was some distance away. So even had she been fully awake, she couldn't have been expected to see the shadow outside the curtain of branches. As for sound, well, the park was full of those, even with the squirrels and most of the birds settled for the night.
“Oh, there you are.” A female voice, probably young, and very gentle.
Lila bolted back to some version of alertness, and scrambled to a crouch. There was no sense she could name that let each side identify each other, but instinct somehow always knew. “Mage,” she hissed. She could run... maybe, if she could get her rubbery muscles to hold her up a little longer... but where to? She'd trip over something, running headlong through the park in the darkness, and that would hardly keep her free.
The owner of the voice sighed. “Unfortunately. But I'm here to help.”
“Yeah, right,” Lila said acidly. “Mages only help mages.”
Another sigh. “Watch your eyes.”
The trunk of the tree began to glow with a faint luminescence, not unlike moonlight, which gradually strengthened to a comfortable, if dim, level. Lila drew away from it mistrustfully, but the light seemed to be nothing but light.
The newcomer settled herself on the rough ground in a graceful sweep of skirts—Lila couldn't quite make out colour in the odd light—and laced her hands together in her lap. “My name is Catherine. I came looking for you because I wanted to offer you a place to hide.”
“There's never anywhere to hide,” Lila said bitterly. “You make sure of that. We can't go to the police for help, you control them. Being arrested means being turned over to you. We can't go to hospitals without being flagged as sensitives. Or homeless shelters. Or anywhere. You control all of them.”
“I don't,” Catherine said, without a trace of annoyance. “I control very little, including much of my own life. But the one place they will never look for you is with me.”
“I knew it. It's just a new kind of trap.”
“It isn't a trap. I don't use sensitives. Not all mages do.”
“I ain't going anywhere,” Lila said stubbornly.
Catherine shifted position—slowly, as if trying not to startle Lila—and rested her elbows on her knees, her chin on her laced hands. “I'm curious to hear what your other options are that are so much better it isn't worth the gamble.”
Lila considered those options, which essentially extended to nights of sleeping in parks and days of running until she fell down. The only uncertainty at this point lay in how long it would take the hunters to close in. And she was so very tired and hungry... How many days had it been, of heart-thumping terror and scant food and even less true rest on top of never dropping below a walk between sunrise and sunset? Three days? Four? She couldn't distinguish separate sources of pain any more, they all blurred together into a single ache.
“I suppose what it boils down to is that I can't run much farther before I collapse, so I haven't got anything to lose,” Lila said heavily. She'd wondered what it would be like, the moment when she finally and absolutely lost her freedom. Handing it over on a crazy risk hadn't been one of the possibilities she'd thought of.
Catherine nodded briskly. “There are no other mages around, I checked. Why don't you wait in the middle of the park where the paths meet? You don't need to try to stay out of sight, I promise you the hunters are asleep in their beds right now. I'll be there in a few minutes.”
“Why?” Lila asked mistrustfully.
“Because to keep them from picking up the trail in the morning I need to use magic, and I thought you might feel safer with some distance.” Lila hadn't noticed the strap that crossed Catherine's chest until now; the mage unslung a small dark rectangular bag from her shoulder, and set it on the ground before standing up—still slowly—and moving as far away as she could without leaving the canopy of branches. “I also thought something to eat might make the wait less long, and the walk to where I live easier.”
Lila inched closer, never taking her eyes off Catherine, and scooped up the bag. “In the middle, where the paths meet,” she repeated.
“Exactly. I won't take any longer than I have to, but it won't do any good if they just follow you.”
“True.” The bag was fairly heavy; Lila slung it on one shoulder, and retreated from the weeping tree.
Back in the direction of the memorial, in the heart of the park, half a dozen paths joined into a star-shaped nexus. She sank down on the knee-high stone wall that mostly surrounded the statue pedestal and the fountain, and fumbled with the buckles on the bag, flipped the top open. Nothing elaborate, just a bottle of Gatorade and a sealed box that proclaimed itself, after a little squinting, to hold marshmallow-chocolate chip granola bars. The seal on the Gatorade was intact, too, although whether that meant anything when dealing with a mage, Lila had no idea.
Even if she'd had reason to believe the food drugged, Lila lacked the willpower at this point to refuse it. She tore one bar open with hands that shook. So hard, to remind herself to take small bites.
She wasn't sure how long it took before Catherine joined her. Lila blinked, thought for a second that the mage looked unsteady on her feet, but that had to be imagination.
“It's about a fifteen minute walk,” Catherine said. “Will you be able to make it?”
Lila sighed, got up. “You do what you have to. Fifteen minutes of walking I can do.” She didn't add that she probably couldn't do much more. Why else the insane chance of believing a mage? It was like walking into a lion's den and expecting not to be eaten.
It took no conscious thought to keep distance between her and Catherine; the mage seemed to be, on her part, trying to maintain that same distance. Not worth thinking about right now. The snack helped, but it couldn't do anything about the intense fatigue, and it was an effort of will to keep moving after so little rest. Catherine walked a little ahead, out of reach but where Lila could see her, with frequent worried checks that Lila was still there.
Catherine paused in front of a massive limestone house, and gestured. “This one. Come on.” She led the way along the driveway and around to the side. “Wait here, I need to be sure no one's around.” She unlocked the door, slipped inside, and returned in seconds to beckon to Lila, holding a finger to her lips for silence.
Warily, Lila stepped into a large, clean, and obviously expensive kitchen. Catherine gave her no time to look around at the unaccustomed luxury, but indicated a steep, narrow flight of stairs in the corner, and pointed upwards. Lila stifled a groan, but Catherine was already on her way up, her long skirt gathered neatly in one hand.
One last trial, Lila reminded herself. They were in a mage's house, but so far she was okay, and Catherine had said she'd be safe... hadn't she? Hard to recall exactly what had been said. She started up the stairs, slowed by the effort and the need to be quiet, but finally reached the top.
Crowded, was her first thought, as she stepped into a small hallway that was nothing more than an access point for a quartet of doors, all of them ahead or to the right. Catherine waited outside the farthest one.
“In this one,” Catherine said, at a normal volume. “You can get some sleep, and I'll bring you some better food tomorrow. The bathroom is the one there,” she waved in the direction of one of the middle doors. “Please, don't go downstairs, or you'll get caught and I'll get in trouble. If you want to leave, tell me, and I'll get you out without your being seen.” Catherine moved out of the way, into the other middle room, to let Lila pass. Just as well, because there'd be no way to get by her to the indicated room without contact, in the confined space.
The room held a single brass bed, one of the odd ones that was between double and twin, three-quarter she thought it was called. In fact, that was all it held, all there was space for.
Lila ventured to the bathroom—there was no sign of Catherine, maybe she'd gone down to the kitchen—and returned. She felt her muscles finally give out as her brain registered the meaning of the bed.
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