Her breath was loud in her ears as she sprinted across the clearing on Donald’s heels. The laughter continued to issue from the woods as the birds above them screeched and flew higher into the sky. She would have given anything to be one of those birds, to be able to take flight and flee the laughter that would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life. Her heart hammered in her chest, her feet were moving so fast that she nearly tripped over them as they plunged into the forest.
She’d thought that the shadows of the trees, and the thick trunks that provided them some cover would make her feel better. They did nothing to ease the terror pulsing through her veins though. Leaves and pine needles kicked up from underneath him as Donald skidded to a halt and grabbed his backpack from where he had left it.
“Go!” he panted when she hesitated to wait for him.
She didn’t need any more encouragement as she turned and fled into the woods. She was trying to be as quiet as possible but it was impossible with the leaves and sticks crunching beneath her feet and the tree branches slapping at her hands and face. Al was trying his best to keep the branches from hitting her but there were too many for him to keep them all away.
A branch slipped from his grasp, she threw up her hand to try and deflect it but it was too late. It slapped across her face with a resounding thwack. Her hand flew to her face as she took a staggering step back and tripped over a tree stump. Her arms pinwheeled but they did nothing to help her keep her balance. Sprawling inelegantly to the ground, the breath rushed out of her as she fell on her ass. It wasn’t the lack of breath that caused her panic to escalate though, but the fact that her gun had been knocked from her hand when it had caught the side of a fallen oak.
Struggling to catch her breath, she rolled to the side to search for the weapon that she desperately needed. She could already feel a welt forming across her face but that was the least of her worries as she continued to come up with nothing. She’d managed to close her eye in time to keep it mostly protected from the branch but it had caught the corner of her lid and it was already swelling. The hindrance to her vision was making her search even more difficult.
Donald knelt at her side, grabbed hold of her arm and helped to lift her to her feet. “My gun,” she panted.
He glanced quickly around before leaning over to grab something from under a pile of pine needles and leaves. She caught a flash of metal before he wrapped her fingers around the cool butt of her gun. Relief filled her but she knew it wouldn’t last long; it couldn’t when those things were in the woods with them.
Donald wrapped his hand around her elbow as he propelled her forward. He threw out his hand to push back the branch that had caught her in the face and shoved it out of the way as they ran forward. Mary Ellen was having a difficult time seeing from the increased swelling and the sweat that ran down into her good eye. It didn’t matter, she’d run blindly through these woods as long as it was in the opposite direction of them.
Looking over her shoulder though, she realized that they weren’t running in the opposite direction of the sick ones. The laughter had trailed off but birds were still rising from the trees behind them, they were flying in the same direction that they were running in. She didn’t think those things knew where they were but it felt like they were being pursued. Except now the birds were fleeing the trees closer to them.
Her lungs burned as her heart lumbered and her fear rose to higher levels. She wiped at her eyes again in a poor attempt to ease the sweat clogging her lashes. “We’re leading them back to the cabin,” she gasped.
“They’re not following us, they’re just moving,” Donald said breathlessly from beside her. “They’d be on us already if they knew we were here.”
Al came to an abrupt halt before a tree; he grabbed hold of Mary Ellen’s free arm and pulled her up against the tree. She could barely see the boards in front of her. It took her a minute to understand what it was that she was looking at as he hissed in her ear. “Climb.”
“They climb too,” she protested.
“Even if they’re in the trees the height will give us an advantage and we’re not going to outrun them. Climb Mary Ellen,” he commanded.
She tucked her gun into her waistband, grabbed hold of a board, and began to pull herself up the tree. She glanced up at the stand above her but she could barely see it amongst the thick leaves and branches of the tree. Blinking back the sweat in her eyes, she focused on the boards in front of her as she climbed steadily higher into the massive oak. Reaching above her, she placed her hands on either side of the hole in the stand and lifted herself onto the platform.
Pressing her back against the trunk of the tree, she reached up to wipe away the sweat rolling down her face again. She blinked in surprise at the blood that coated the back of her forearm when she pulled it away. The branch hadn’t just caused her skin to swell up but had also split it open. Donald climbed through the hole behind her and dropped the backpack onto the wooden platform.
Kneeling at the edge of the platform, he dug into the bag as Al joined them on the stand. It was cramped with the three of them up there, but there was still at least a foot on each side for them to move around a little. Her gaze went to the wood beneath her feet, she didn’t see any cracks or rot in it, but that didn’t mean that it was safe. She doubted that the person that had built it had done so with the intention of having three people standing on it.
“Get against the tree,” Al commanded.
“Are we going to shoot at them?” she whispered.
Al stared at the two of them before shaking his head. “You’ve both gotten better with a gun but we don’t know how many of them there are. We can’t risk being overrun or even worse drawing more of them here.”
Mary Ellen shuddered at the thought and glanced at the ground below them again. “Only fire if it becomes necessary,” Al whispered.
“Ok,” she agreed tremulously.
Donald pulled something from the bag, rose to his feet and approached her. She didn’t know what he intended until he wiped the blood away with a cloth. With the blood gone she was able to see better though her eye was still half swollen shut.
“It’s not deep,” he whispered as he tied the cloth around her head and knotted it tightly. Her hand went up to it, she tried to figure out what it was that he had used as her fingers ran over the material and knot. “Bandana.”
Mary Ellen nodded but she didn’t dare speak as a burst of eerie laughter echoed through the trees around them. A loud cry from above caused her head to tilt back as a squirrel leapt from the tree beside them into the leafy bowers over her head. Its tail curled over its back, it screeched its displeasure again before running from one branch to another. Mary Ellen wanted to tell it to be quiet but that would be like telling the wind not to blow.
With the blood wiped away she could see better but her eye was still swollen. She pulled her gun from her jeans and tried to catch her breath. She’d let her guard down these past couple of weeks, she’d mistakenly begun to think that perhaps they could be safe here. Now she knew that she’d been wrong and though she was terrified, she was also furious.
They’d started to make a home here and these insane, rotten and inhuman things had intruded upon her illusion and completely destroyed it.
She was so focused on her anger that she hadn’t realized that the laughter had stopped. Her muscles tensed, she straightened away from the tree as she gripped the gun so forcefully before her that she was sure it left an imprint on her palm. Her teeth ground together as she counted the seconds and braced herself for the people she knew would be appearing beneath them any moment now.
Al turned in a tight circle on the stand; his eyes searched the tops of the trees surrounding them. The hair on her neck stood up as she turned to survey the trees around them too. The leaves were so thick she wasn’t sure she’d be able to see something approaching them until it was too late. Until their attackers were leaping through the trees and coming straight at them with the intention of ripping their skin away and devouring them.
She couldn’t think of anything more horrific and all she could picture was a spider reeling back on its hind legs before launching itself at her. She’d never actually seen a spider do that before but she’d seen the videos of the spiders that could do it and they terrified her. A shudder ran down her back, her gaze remained pinned on the tree across from them as she became even more certain that those things were going to come from the trees.
Her arms began to shake; it was taking everything she had not to start firing at the leaves across from them as they blew in the slight breeze tickling her hair. The leaves rustled, her finger tightened on the trigger as she focused on an area where the leaves began to shake more forcefully. Those things were there, she was certain of it. Right there, waiting, watching, and silently laughing as they prepared to launch their attack. Time seemed to slow as her vision became pinpointed upon that area and the shaking leaves.
Her breath froze in her lungs as the leaves finally parted and a chipmunk darted out. The small creature froze when it spotted her; its blown out cheeks worked as it chomped on whatever it had in its mouth. Surprise seemed to register on its tiny face before it turned and scurried back into the leaves.
Mary Ellen didn’t know if she wanted to laugh or cry as her trembling arms dropped down. The relief that filled her was short lived though as the loud crack of a branch snapping beneath them reached her. Unwilling to turn her back on the tree behind her, she glanced down as four of the sick humans stepped into view.
She became completely rigid, unable to even breathe as she watched them move. They had stopped running and seemed now to be on the hunt for something. A sinking sensation slid through her as she recalled the cut on her head. Could they smell her blood, were they tracking them through her?
Her gaze briefly met Donald’s as more of them crept into view. She should have stayed on the ground, she should have run in a different direction, if they were following her blood it was only a matter of time…
Donald’s eyes narrowed on her face, he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head at her. She glanced at the blood still smeared across the back of her forearm. If they were following her scent though, wouldn’t they have already spotted them huddled on the stand as close to the tree as they could get?
Her attention returned to the tree behind them. She was certain she was going to see a rotting face, surrounded by leaves poking out at her. In her head she could clearly picture the deformed and rotten face leering back at her before it decided to pounce. Not even the chipmunk had reappeared though. Another loud crack drew her attention below her again as six more of them appeared.
There were so many of them. She was glad that Al had insisted that they climb into a more advantageous position; it may be the only way they’d be able to shoot all of them if it became necessary. Her heart rate skyrocketed as the people beneath them swept through the area below them. The look of them reminded her of a corpse in various stages of decomposition, but they couldn’t be decomposing, it was impossible. She knew that they were all still alive. A leper was still alive too, she reminded herself. But a leper was also sane, or at least she thought they were, she wasn’t exactly an expert on the disease and she’d certainly never met anyone with it.
There were clumps of hair missing from a few of the people beneath them; the rest had only tufts of hair left. She could see the skull on two of them, and one man was completely naked to reveal the sickly grayish hue that covered him from head to toe. There were pieces of skin missing from some of their faces, dried blood was caked on a few of them, and one was missing half of its left foot so that it hobbled awkwardly as it walked.
Watching the hobbled one, she realized that more than whatever illness was running rampant through the person was affecting its movement. Its leg wasn’t grayish, it was an ugly red color that suffused its entire foot and ran up to the middle of its swollen thigh before disappearing beneath the tattered and stained denim shorts it wore. A massive infection was also working its way through that one, she realized. Its ungainly movement caused it to trip and sprawl face down on the forest floor.
The one on the ground pushed itself into a sitting position but it didn’t move any further. Its back heaved with the breaths it took as its head bowed down. Pity filled her for it. It would eat her in a heartbeat but it had once been a human being and she realized now that it was dying. The infection from its severe wound and the sickness had taken their toll on its body. This one wouldn’t be going any further anymore. Its cohorts seemed to realize the same thing as their heads swiveled toward their downed companion.
A sick feeling rolled through her stomach as the others began to close in on their sick friend. She knew what was coming and yet she couldn’t bring herself to look away as they began to circle the downed one. This was what the weaker embryos of the sand tiger shark felt like in the womb, she realized as she helplessly watched the healthier ones close in on their weaker member. The extremely sick on didn’t seem to realize what they were doing though as it didn’t lift its head to look up at them and it didn’t attempt to get up again.
The others moved so fast that she didn’t have time to close her eyes before they were on top of it. She wanted to lift her hand to cover her mouth as vomit surged up her throat but she didn’t dare move. She closed her eyes but the crunching sounds of the slaughter filled her ears. There was nothing she could do to drown out the pain filled squeals of the one they attacked. Nothing she could do to muffle the sounds of fists against flesh, of a ripping sound that brought forth images of intestines and limbs being torn from the body. Images she knew she would never be able to shake.
It seemed like hours but was probably only minutes before the cries of the one they had turned on faded away. She didn’t know why but tears began to slide down her face. It wasn’t until the sounds of the murder blessedly stopped that she finally opened her eyes again. The sun was lower in the sky as it filtered through the leaves and warmed her face and tears in a soothing way; it was a sensation that was completely out of place after the horror that had just unfolded and it only made her want to cry harder.
Bracing herself, she looked toward the remains sprawled across the forest floor. The other sick ones had retreated away from what was left of the bloody carcass. They were covered in blood but the amount of flesh and bone strewn across the forest floor, and their flat stomachs made her realize that they hadn’t eaten their fallen.
She frowned over that realization as she tried to ponder why they’d left his flesh behind. They’d eat every healthy person, they’d eat The Lost Souls, but they wouldn’t eat the ones that shared the same illness as them. It was good to know even they had their standards, she thought with wry amusement.
She exchanged a look with Al and Donald as the sick humans grouped together. She didn’t hear words coming from them but there seemed to be some sort of communication as they gestured at the woods. She didn’t dare move but now that they had stopped to regroup beneath them, she was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that she was exhausted. Her legs were trembling from exertion, her feet throbbed, but she remained as still as stone as the sun continued its descent in the sky.
She had no idea what they were going to do if those things didn’t move away and they were forced to stay up here all night. There was no way they could stay up here without eventually drawing attention to themselves. Donald had food and water in his backpack, but she was already beginning to feel a growing pressure in her bladder. For the first time since she was six, she may actually pee her pants again, but that was a problem for later. Now she was more worried that one of them would tilt their heads back and focus upon them.
That worry was short lived though as they finally seemed to decide what they were going to do next and began to move into the trees. Mary Ellen remained completely still as she watched their backs fade away in to the trees. A flock of birds took flight but this one was smaller than before as night had begun to settle in.
Mary Ellen wanted to find relief in it but her heart was beginning to race as she lifted her eyes to the trees in front of her. She couldn’t see the cabin from here, not through the foliage, but she knew where it was.
And that was directly where the pack was heading toward.