Take a step, I thought. You can do it. Now another. Now another.
The road was rising in a steady incline, but I could see the lights of town just over the next hill. I had almost made it.
A powerful wind ripped through the forest, shaking the trees and nearly throwing me off my feet. I paused for a few seconds to shield my face from the blast of frozen air, but it didn't do much good. My hands, feet, and face were all numb. My coat may have been thick, but it could only do so much in these conditions.
I had been hiking for more than three hours, according to my watch, although it was getting a little hard to read it through the layer of ice that had formed over it. Three hours of hiking through snow that came up past my knees, with the wind doing its best to blow me straight to Oz. Fresh snow wasn't falling, but the way the wind kicked it up made it feel like I was in the middle of a blizzard. Was this still Majestic's doing? I was going to tear Ed's face off next time I saw him. Or Dex's, or Victor's. I wasn't feeling particularly picky right then.
All I felt was really, really freaking cold.
The wind blew again, making the trees on my left shake, and I flinched at the sound and spun to look. Nothing. I took a few calming breaths, and continued on my way. Since the moment I stepped out the door, I'd been jumping at shadows and flinching at any sound louder than my own breathing. I wanted to tell myself I was being paranoid, but how could I after what had happened the other night? Stark had promised me that Becky wouldn't do anything if I stayed on the road, but what if he was wrong? She could be in any of those shadows, waiting, biding her time, getting ready to pounce...
No! I scolded myself. I couldn't let my fear get the best of me. I was almost to town. It was too late to turn back now. If I could just get to those lights, I'd be in the clear. Alone or not, that oversized hyena wouldn't dare try anything where people might see her. Just keep putting one foot... in front of... the other...
My head began to spin, and in my dizziness I almost fell face first in the snow.
"Oh no," I groaned. "Not again."
I knew I should stop and wait for the dizzy spell to pass, but I forced myself to keep going. I hadn't been lying when I'd told Mom and Stark that I was feeling better, but the longer I hiked and the more the weather took its toll, the more obvious it was getting that my fever hadn't gone away completely. Leaving the house had been a mistake, but it wasn't like I’d had a choice. Kimberly might have turned into a giant monster wolf and tried to kill me, but I wasn't about to let her waste away in bed for it.
With a gasp, I came to the top of the hill and fell to my knees on the snow covered sidewalk. I stayed there for a few minutes, trying to catch my breath, until the dizziness finally subsided. I was pushing myself too hard, but I wasn't done yet. I'd finally gotten to town. Now I just had to reach Dr. Munse's office. I stood up on jellylike legs, having to lean on the wall next to me, and set off again. As luck would have it, Dr. Munse's office was located on the opposite end of town from the road that led to Stark's cabin. That by itself could take me another two hours of walking. The roads and sidewalks around the buildings had been cleared of snow, but the wind was hard at work blowing it all back where it came from, so my boots still sank down to my ankles with every step.
Screw this, I thought. Stark had told me to take a bus or taxi once I got to town, and that was exactly what I was going to do. It was past midnight, so there weren't many cars braving the icy roads. One cool thing about my town, though, is that we have a bus system that runs twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I've always thought it was a stupid idea for a place this small to have a night bus, but when I flopped down on the bus stop bench, the clear glass walls protecting me from the wind, I was ready to kiss the first driver to let me hop aboard his rolling hunk of metal and warmth.
As I sat there waiting, I had to fight off the urge to fall asleep. It was the middle of the night, I had just hiked almost fifteen miles, and I was sick. A nap sounded like heaven right then, but I forced myself to stay awake. In this weather, with my clothes soaked like they were, falling asleep might be all it took for me to freeze to death.
The minutes passed silently, the only sounds of traffic coming from far away, and I realized I hadn't had anything to drink since I'd left. It was cold enough that I wasn't sweating, even with my coat on, but I didn't doubt for a minute that my sickly body had managed to become dehydrated on the hike up here. With nothing else to do, I reached down and scooped a handful of snow off the ground.
"Not yellow," I said to myself, turning the snowball around in my hand. Satisfied, I shoved the whole thing in my mouth and swallowed it. An uncomfortable chill ran down my spine, but I ignored it. I couldn't get this far and then collapse from dehydration, of all things.
Once the chill had passed, I settled back on the bench again and surveyed the street on the other side of the glass. There was a man there I hadn't noticed before. I sat up a little straighter. His coat was long enough to touch his ankles, and as black as the night sky, so it was no wonder I didn't see him. He blended in with the darkness like an Oreo in a bath tub full of chocolate syrup.
A bath tub full of chocolate syrup? I thought, and chuckled. I must be loopier than I thought.
When I looked again, the man hadn't moved, though he seemed to be watching me pretty intently. I looked away, not wanting to be rude, but I could still feel his eyes on me.
Could that be another one of Hendricks' minions? I wondered. I had only ever met Becky and the Octopus, but that didn't mean he didn't have more. In fact, I'd be surprised to find out a big, bad crime boss like him only had two people serving him.
I gave my observer another quick glance, but he still hadn't moved. His skin was white, a startling contrast to both his coat and his bushy, bright red beard. I shook my head. Now I really was just being paranoid, seeing Hendricks in every dark corner. He was probably just some homeless guy hoping I'd throw him some change. He was certainly thin enough. Too bad for him. The only money I had on me was what Stark had given me to pay for the medicine, plus a couple twenties to pay for bus and taxi fare.
Then again, his coat looked pretty nice.
As soon as I thought that, he started across the street. I drew myself up, my muscles suddenly tense, even though I didn't know why. Then, before he was even halfway across the street, my view of him was suddenly blocked by a giant blue wall. I looked up, startled, to see that the night bus had finally arrived. I jumped up and ran to the door, bouncing on the balls of my feet as it hissed and lazily slid open, and then charged inside, barely looking as a threw a twenty into the fare box.
"Uh, ma'am?" the driver said, turning around in his seat to look at me. "That's way more than you need to pay!"
"Just keep the change," I said, sitting down in one of the long seats that ran parallel with the side of the bus. "I'm in a hurry."
Without any further argument, the bus driver shut the door and floored the pedal, making the wheels spin on the icy ground for a few seconds before we started moving. I looked out the window, hoping to catch another glimpse of the man in the coat, but it was too dark to see much through the tinted windows. We pulled away from the bus stop, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The bus’s heater was on full blast, and I gleefully let the hot air run over me. It would be another thirty minutes or so before we got to my stop, so maybe I could catch a quick nap and—
Eyes on me.
My head snapped around, searching frantically for the man in the black coat. How had he gotten on the bus so fast, without me noticing? What was he going to...
He wasn't on here. In fact, the only other person on the bus was a man sitting almost directly opposite me. He was wearing worn out jeans and a sweater jacket with the hood up. The hood shadowed the top part of his face, but I could still tell he was looking at me. Brown hands came out of the sleeves of his jacket, and equally brown feet came out of his pant legs...
Wait a minute. This guy wasn't wearing shoes?
I looked back up at his face again, just in time to see his eyes light up bright blue. Suddenly his entire face was visible under his hood— and his scowl didn't look friendly.
"This is my stop!" I yelled, springing from my seat before the driver even had a chance to touch the brakes. The bus slid to a stop, and I had to grab hold of the rail to keep from being thrown into the windshield.
"Lady, you're gonna get me fired!" the bus driver hollered.
I ignored him, grabbed the lever that opened the door, and jumped back out into the frigid winter air. My feet slid a little on the ice beneath me, but I managed to keep my balance and spun around to look just as my glowy-eyed stalker stood up as well. Too bad, because the bus driver seemed to have had enough of unexpected stops, and floored the gas pedal again, carrying the hooded creep away.
I took a deep breath to calm myself. Now that had to have been one of Hendricks' goons. Why else would a clearly magical... thing… be following me around at night? Well, I'd given him the slip, at least for now. I didn't doubt that he'd be back once he got the bus driver to stop, though. That meant I needed to hightail it to Dr. Munse's office before he caught back up to me.
I turned to dash down the street, but instead ended up running face first into somebody.
"Oh, dang, I'm sorry," I said, backing up. "I wasn't watching where I was—"
It was the man in the black coat.
There were two others with him.
And they all had weapons.
NEXT TIME: Somebody start the music! It’s time for a Scooby Doo chase montage! Who are the guys? Who are the working for? And what do they… actually, since they’re carrying weapons, we can probably guess what they want. Amber’s still sick, and tired too. Will she run or fight? And how will she get away?