My perfunctory onward march was suddenly broken as my left foot landed in a swelling puddle of muck. Pulling it out slowly, I examined the clump of soggy earth that clung to my shoe. I turned to wipe it off on a nearby rock, dragging the sole along the jagged edge. I was already tired, hungry and emotionally drained. I didn’t need anything else to slow me down.
I glanced up, an apology for the delay forming in my throat, but instead of seeing Ren, impatiently standing by, I saw nothing but trees and an empty path.
“Ren?” I called out. I jogged a few paces in the direction we’d been headed, certain he’d just kept walking, but my heart began to race as each step revealed more of the same—an expanse of dense forest, but no trace of Ren.
Something was very wrong. There was no way Ren could have ventured that far ahead, unless he’d spontaneously booked it, which, of course, he wouldn’t have—would he?
I called his name a second time, my voice sounding strained. But even if he’d replied, I’m not sure I’d have heard it over the roar of driving rain.
I spun around to check behind me. I was beginning to feel disoriented, unsure if I’d gone the right way. I turned back and tried to recognize the path, searching for the rock I’d wiped my shoe on, but the rain must’ve already washed it clean because I couldn’t distinguish it from other rocks nearby.
Trying not to panic, I continued in the direction I’d originally thought to be correct. The ground sloped upward slightly, which I figured was a beneficial thing, correct path or not. It fleetingly occurred to me this might be some sick joke Ren was playing, as revenge for what I’d done, but then immediately decided against it. Ren wasn’t cruel or petty like that. And even if he did hate me right now, he’d never mess around with something as serious as the culling. He was angry; he didn’t want me dead.
Like a crowd being hushed, the rain suddenly died down and I stopped in my tracks to listen.
“Ren, where are you?” I called out, taking advantage of the quiet. I heard a branch snap in the woods to my right and spun around to face the direction the noise had come from. It was too dark to see a thing.
“Ren?” I took a step toward the woods, then heard another rustle, like someone adjusting their position. “Ren, this isn’t funny.”
And then I heard them—voices, hushed amongst the trees. I strained to hear what they were saying, but quickly realized it was impossible to distinguish a single word. It sounded like dozens of people whispering all at once.
Either I was imagining things or…those were not my friends.
I hastened to get away, tripping over a fallen trunk that sent me flying backward. I looked up to see something moving in the shadows—something that flung the surrounding tree branches aside like they were matchsticks.
A scream cracked in my throat as I scrambled to get up. The whispers surged, hitting a crescendo before stopping abruptly. I paused, unable to breathe. Everything had gone still.
Then a raspy voice growled, “Run.”
I tore a path through the trees, no longer caring where I was headed. I ran as fast as my feet would carry me across the sodden ground, dodging over obstacles and occasionally sliding in the mud as I turned sharply along the path.
The whispers were getting louder again. I could hear them all around me, flooding my senses. Something in their tone sounded betrayed. Angry. As though I’d taken something that belonged to them and they desperately wanted it back.
“Ren!” I screamed, praying he’d somehow miraculously appear and save the day. Praying I wasn’t, in fact, completely alone.
My mind was racing, searching for any kind of escape. I felt as though my weakened body couldn’t possibly contain the fear coursing through my veins. Surely, my heart would burst, exploding into shrapnel that would scatter, easily finishing me off.
The culling wasn’t a test, it was a fox hunt. Compulsory elimination masquerading as opportunity. Anything more would involve some element of direction, encouragement, but here there was none. The hope wasn’t that we’d get out, it was that nobody on the outside would realize we weren’t meant to.
I spotted a hollowed out tree trunk that had slumped sideways, half sunken into the base of another and frantically clambered to duck inside the cleft of decaying wood.
I listened with every ounce of patience I could muster. The whispers had subsided, and for a moment, it seemed as if the forest around me had returned to normal. Perfectly calm. Perfectly safe. But it was a little too quiet. Absent were the sounds of birds and other forest creatures. It was as though they’d vanished. As though something had scared them away…
Then through the thin shelter of the dying trunk, came the unmistakable rasp of snarling, hungry breath. Before I could react, there was a bang and my hiding place exploded into shards of fraying bark that threatened to bury me. I shielded my head from falling debris, struggling to get my feet moving again, not caring where I was headed, just knowing I had to run.
Whatever was after me, it wasn’t something I could hide from. I would run until I collapsed or it caught me, whichever came first.
But before I could contemplate the horror of either fate, I rounded a corner and slammed face first into something large, yet yielding, like a giant slab of meat, and I felt my stomach churn as I realized what it was—a body, hanging limp and lifeless before me.