Lake Of Sins: Escape

 

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Lake of Sins: Escape is Lord of the Rings meets The Island of Dr. Moreau where Dr. Moreau’s creations hunt and eat the Hobbits.

“I haven’t been this hooked on a story since The Hunger Games.”  M. Cassidy

After the Great Death wiped out almost all life on earth, those who survived had to rebuild. They created the world of the Lake of Sins.  A society of human-animal hybrids where pure humans hold all the power and class distinction means the difference between life and death.

Hundreds of years later, Trinity has little knowledge of the earth of the past. She is a Producer and they are responsible for growing all the food for the other classes.  Harvest is over and that means that it’s time for the less-than-perfect teens to be removed from camp.  Trinity is far from perfect, but that’s okay.  Being taken is just another stage of a Producer’s life.  Her fear lies in her inability to make friends.

She’s not like the other Producers. She’s hidden her differences her entire life, but even though they’ve never seen her fangs or claws, the others sense her strangeness.   She concocts a plan to sneak into the forest and discover where the teenagers are taken every year.  Once she learns that secret, the other kids will be dying to talk to her and once they do they’ll see that inside she’s just like them.

Escaping into the forest is simple; she’s done it before, but at night the forest is different and so is the feeling that she’s being followed. After discovering a strange, human-fish creature dying on the river bank, her adventure spirals out of her control.

The ruling classes’ Guards catch her scent and are on the hunt. While evading them she’s captured by a predator long thought to be extinct.  An unlikely friendship forms and when she discovers the horrible fate of the teenage Producers she must choose between betraying her new friends and saving her mother and those who never accepted her.

 CHAPTER 1:

TRINITY BRUSHED THE DIRT OFF HER HANDS and stretched, exposing her claws and giving the small of her back a good scratch. She was the last to finish preparing her fields for winter.  Everyone else was gone, hiding in their huts.  Producers did not like the night, but being half House Servant she didn’t mind it.  When she was alone or in the dark, she didn’t have to hide her claws or fangs.  Still, she retracted her nails as she bent to pick up the spade and hand trowel.  It was habit now.  She’d learned as a child that either she concealed her differences or her parents would.  She ran her tongue over her large sharp canines, so different from the Producers’ flat teeth.  Mom and Dad had filed her fangs down only a couple of times before she’d learned to smile with her lips closed.

She tucked the tools under her arms and took a moment to memorize this view of her home. The Producer village sat in a valley.  On the north and where she stood in the west were the fields, fallow now and waiting for winter.  Dirt trails ran down the hill and into the camp, most leading to the pine cabins huddled together in the center of town with fires burning in pyres outside each hut.  A few paths broke free and escaped to the edge of town where smaller, older cottages like hers sat.  Other trails led to Shadow Lake, fed from the Elavital River which flowed from the thick, lush forest on the south and east side of the valley.

She sighed and headed down a trail toward home. She’d miss the freedom of the forest once she was gone.  Although, it wasn’t as much fun sneaking into the woods alone as it had been with Travis.  The two of them used to talk about what the earth might have been like before the Great Death brought extinction to all animals larger than twenty pounds and death to most humans.  She’d learned about the event in some of the books that her dad had borrowed from his master’s house.  Producers weren’t supposed to read, but Dad had taught her and her mom.  According to one book, the Almightys were the last descendants of the human race.  She’d searched every book she had but there was no mention of the ancestry of the other classes.

She stopped at the storage shed and put her tools away. She wouldn’t need them again, ever.  Within a couple of weeks, she’d be taken just like Travis had been last year.  She turned onto the path that led through town.  There was no doubt in her mind that her name would be on the Harvest List.  The Almightys only chose the finest examples of Producers to stay and breed.  The males were always the tallest and strongest, averaging seven to eight feet in height and almost as wide.  The females were at least six-feet tall and had to have large, wide hips and big breasts.  She glanced down at her less-than-curvy shape.  After the Terrible Sickness had killed her brothers and sisters nine years ago, her mom had switched her name with her younger sister, hoping to give her time to fill out.  That hadn’t happened.  At almost seventeen, she was over three years older than the other girls up for the Harvest List but still only five foot eight and less endowed.  She shook her head.  She was definitely a Lister.

“Hey, look who it is,” Clarabelle said, shoving Randy toward her.

Clarabelle and her group of friends stood near some huts along the path. She groaned, glancing down at her filthy clothes.  It was just her luck that Randy would see her like this.  If she hadn’t been so tired she might have remembered that the teenagers who were up for the Harvest List often hung around outside the huts well into the night.  Sometimes, they even mated with each other.  It was forbidden but the Lead Producers didn’t enforce the rule; they too had once been teenage Producers dreading their List year.

She stopped. Experience had taught her that it was easier to let Clarabelle have her say.  She kept her eyes down.  She made the others nervous when she stared at them.  It had something to do with her not blinking enough.  It was one more gift from her House Servant father.

Clarabelle stepped up alongside Randy so that the two of them blocked her path. Well, they thought that they did.  She could zip around them in a flash.  She’d love to do it too, but she wasn’t allowed.  Producers weren’t slow, but it took them awhile to get going, unlike her.

“Have you finished my fields?” Clarabelle asked.

“What do you mean by that?” She glanced up at the other girl, her eyes narrowing.  Her fields were the best yielding; they had to be in order for her and her mom to survive.  The first five acres that a family farmed, the Almightys took ninety-five percent of the output.  The percentage went down every five acres but not by much.

“Oh, you poor thing. You don’t know.”  Clarabelle feigned sympathy.

“Know what?” she asked in a bored tone. Now, Clarabelle would tease her about being on the Harvest List, like she didn’t know that already.  She wasn’t blind or stupid.

“Your mother is going to be retired this year and it’s obvious that you’re a Lister.” Clarabelle quit trying to look sad, her eyes gleaming.

She raised her head and stared directly at the other girl. Her mom wasn’t that old.  There was no way that she was being retired.  She clenched her jaw, trying to calm herself.  She didn’t care what Clarabelle thought of her, but many of the others would be taken with her.  She didn’t want them to have any reason to hate her once Clarabelle was out of the picture.  She took a deep breath.  “The Retirement List hasn’t been read yet.” That actually sounded pleasant.

She stepped aside and started to walk away but Clarabelle blocked her path. That was it.  That one simple motion and her temper flared to life.  “Neither has the Harvest List.  You may not get to stay.  Mirabelle didn’t.”  As soon as the words were out of her mouth she froze.  She’d gone too far.  Mirabelle was the first one in Clarabelle’s family to make the List.

“How dare you, freak.” Clarabelle shoved her.  “Don’t ever say my sister’s name again.”

She flinched. They called her names behind her back, but never to her face.  It hurt more for some reason.

“Do you hear me, freak?” Clarabelle shoved her again and she stumbled backward.

She was either going to cry or strike back; she refused to cry. “Mirabelle.  Mirabelle was taken.  Mirabelle has one leg shorter than the other.”

The others gasped. No one spoke about the deformity.

Her hands curled into fists at her sides. Clarabelle’s face paled and then turned a raging red.  This was not a good sign.  The others moved in, surrounding her.  She glanced around, looking for an opening.  There was none.  She was going to get it now.  She couldn’t even defend herself for fear of her claws or teeth being seen.  If that happened, her mom and Remy would be in trouble too.

“Hey, you kids. Break it up,” shouted an adult male.

The group of Producers eased back a little. She exhaled in relief.  Troy was heading their way.

Clarabelle grabbed her arm, tight. “By this time next year, I’ll be eating crops grown from your soil and nursing Stuart’s baby and you’ll be gone.  I hope they have something horrible planned for you.”

Randy’s jaw tightened at the mention of Stuart. He shot Clarabelle an angry, desperate look and walked away.

She jerked free from Clarabelle’s hold. It wasn’t fair.  Stuart was Travis’s brother.  He deserved better than Clarabelle.  “Stuart will hate you before long.  Your big boobs and fat butt won’t keep him happy not when you’re so mean and nasty.”

“Back up, back up.” Troy pushed through the group, using his club instead of his hand.  “What’s going on here?  Trinity?  Clarabelle?”

The hatred and anger slid off Clarabelle’s features as she turned toward Troy. She shook her head, making her long hair flow.

Trinity choked back a laugh. Clarabelle’s charms wouldn’t work on Troy but his attraction to other males was a well-guarded secret.

“She was teasing me about”—Clarabelle wiped at her eyes—“Mirabelle.”

“Is that true?” Troy turned toward her, frowning.

“Not…”

“Yes,” replied a female from the group.

The worst part was that she did feel bad about bringing up Mirabelle. The other girl had been nice to her.  Mirabelle hadn’t been a friend, but she had been a kind face in the crowd.  “It wasn’t like that.  I mean…”

“It wasn’t nice,” said Troy. “Tell her you’re sorry.”

She looked up at him. He wasn’t kidding.  He was a Lead Producer.  She had to obey but not without a fight.  “She said my mother is being retired and I’m a Lister.”

Troy’s face softened. He smiled at her as if she amused him.  “It sounds like you should apologize to each other.”

Her eyes met Clarabelle’s. For once they were in agreement.  That was not going to happen.

“I don’t want her apology,” Clarabelle said.

“That’s fine, but Trinity may still want yours.” Troy’s eyes narrowed.

“You can’t be serious?” Clarabelle’s face was ashen.

“Oh, but I am,” said Troy.

She tried not to smile but couldn’t quite stop her lips from turning up at the corners. This was a dream come true.  Sometimes, she really loved Troy.  He understood her.  He’d been born poor and had risen to the ranks of Lead Producer.  He didn’t care for Clarabelle’s family any more than she did, but he did demand respect.  Clarabelle was truly caught now.

“Trinity, do you want an apology?”

She inhaled, savoring the moment. If she went through with this, Clarabelle would get her revenge.  The smart thing would be to say that she didn’t want the apology, but she did.  Oh, how she did.  She straightened and met Clarabelle’s glare.  “Yes, I do.”

“I will get you for this,” Clarabelle said under her breath.

“That sounded like a threat,” Troy said.

Clarabelle’s face whitened. Threats were not tolerated.  In reality they happened all the time, but no one was stupid enough to issue one right in front of a Lead Producer.

“I’m sorry, Troy. I didn’t mean it.”

“Apologize to Trinity,” he said.

“Sorry,” snapped Clarabelle.

“That didn’t sound sincere.” Troy smirked.

Clarabelle exhaled through her teeth, making a noise like a hissing snake. “I’m sorry, Trinity.”

It was the worst apology she’d ever heard.

“Do you accept?” asked Troy, his eyes bright with amusement.

She’d love to make Clarabelle say it again, but as it was, she was going to have to hide in her house for a few days, maybe weeks. Clarabelle would be watching for any opportunity to seek revenge.  “Yes.  It’s fine.”

Troy clapped his hands. “Well, that’s done then.  All of you need to head home.  I won’t be patrolling again tonight.”

Was that a warning to her, or a message to the others that they could sneak off together without being caught? She couldn’t tell by his face.

“Trinity, I’m going your way. Let me see you home,” he said.

She nodded, relieved. Her house sat on the outskirts of the encampment.  She didn’t think Clarabelle would come after her tonight, but she wasn’t positive.  They headed toward her home, walking in silence.  The quiet seemed to unnerve him.

“You shouldn’t let yourself get caught up by that group. They could hurt you.  Rem…your father would kill me if anything happened to you.”

“I know. It won’t happen again.  Thanks for…well, saving me.”

He patted her shoulder. “No problem.  Why were you out so late?  Working the fields?”

She was covered in dirt. What did he think she’d been doing?  But he’d been nice to her and Remy would be mad if she were snotty.  “Yeah.”

The automated light hummed to life, illuminating part of the perimeter and the area right outside the encampment. It penetrated a bit into the forest, but not much, the vegetation was too dense.

“Looks like I’m going to be late for work,” he said, more to himself than her.

The guard shack was only a few yards away. It was Troy’s first evening on duty in a month, so he and Remy would spend most of the night together.  The Almightys were very strict about same-sex mating.  If Troy and Remy were caught, they would be publicly executed.  She prayed that wouldn’t happen.  Remy was like a father to her.  Actually, he was supposed to be her father.  He was her mother’s assigned mate and in a lot of ways was a better dad than her real one.  At least he was around.

“You don’t have to walk me all the way home,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Excitement shone in his eyes.

It wasn’t too far to her house, but between here and there was the maze. All the crops that were harvested were packed in wooden boxes, waiting to be carted away by Benedictine’s, the Almighty who ran their encampment, Guards and distributed to the other classes.  There were hundreds of crates, stacked several feet high.  Once you were in the maze, you couldn’t be seen from the outside.  It was a bit spooky in the dark, but she’d hurry through them.  “I’ll be fine.”

Troy patted her shoulder again and hurried to the guard shack. She took a deep breath and darted into the maze.  She was about halfway through when Randy stepped out of the shadows.  Her heart picked up pace as she looked for an escape.  She was boxed in, the large crates essentially making a hallway.  Her only options were to go back or to go past him.

“Don’t be scared,” he said.

She hesitated. She wasn’t sure why, but there was something in his tone that reminded her of the old Randy, the little boy who had been her first friend.

At five, Randy had caught an inflammation of the lungs and the other Producers’ parents refused to let their offspring near him. Her mom was a healer so he was at their house a lot.  He had been a quiet, kind boy often helping her to find and care for injured animals.  A few years later he was healthy and he grew, fast.  He started hanging around with the other kids and forgot about her, but she’d never forgotten about him.

Randy moved closer. If he reached out he could touch her.  She took a step back.

He stopped. “Sorry about earlier.”  He lowered his gaze.  “Sometimes when I’m around Clarabelle, I do things…”  He shrugged, giving her a shy smile.

Why was he being nice to her? Usually, he ignored her.

“We’re all a little nervous about the announcement. My family has a fifty percent List rate.”

This was more like Randy, always thinking about himself. Her family had a one hundred percent List rate.

“I’m sorry. I mean, fifty percent must sound pretty good to you.”  His shoulders sagged.

She glared at him. It was true, but he didn’t need to point it out.  His brown eyes were soft and sad.  Maybe, he hadn’t meant it to be mean.  The announcement did put everyone on edge.

“Clarabelle shouldn’t have said what she did about your mom.”

“Thank you.” She studied him.

He smiled, his teeth a quick flash of white in the darkness. “I was worried that you’d refuse to talk to me.  I wouldn’t blame you.  Not after the way I’ve treated you.”  He glanced around.  “It’s really dark.  I can barely see you.”

He took a couple of steps forward; she didn’t move back.

“Do you remember Chirps? I swear I still see him around sometimes.”

She smiled. Chirps had been a baby crow that had lost its parents.  They’d raised him, years ago.  “I see him, especially in the spring.”

He gently touched her cheek, his fingers rough from working the fields. “You’re pretty dirty,” he said, a smile in his tone.

“Yeah.” Really, what else was there to say?

“You have the most gorgeous eyes.” He ran his thumb over her cheek.

She stiffened. Her physical appearance was a sore subject for her.  She was almost a perfect blend of both House Servant and Producer which meant she didn’t belong with either class.  Her features weren’t as delicate as a House Servant’s or as strong as a Producer’s.  Her nose was either too large or not big enough and her eyes were the wrong color.  House Servants’ eyes varied in hues but they were always vibrant, never a dull brown like a Producer’s.  Hers were neither vibrant nor brown; they were gold.  “Everyone hates my eyes.  You tell…”

“That’s because Clarabelle is jealous.”

She turned her face away and he dropped his hand. Was that true?  Did Clarabelle hate her because she was jealous?  More important, did he really like her eyes?

He reached out again, but this time he grasped a strand of her hair that had come free from the band that held it back. “She especially hates your hair.  I wish there was light so I could see the other colors.  It’s beautiful with the reds and gold mixed in with the brown.”  He pulled her hairband down, freeing her long locks.  “Beautiful.  So, soft.”

She should step away. He’d ignored her all these years, but she’d liked him for so long.  Was it that impossible to believe that he might like her too?  They had been best friends once.

He moved a little closer. Was he going to kiss her?  She waited.  His breath intermingled with hers.

“I don’t want to be taken,” he said.

“Me either.” That was the expected reply and she meant it, kind of.  If she could have someone here, someone for her, then she’d like to stay, but if everyone were going to continue to hate her then maybe being taken would be better, leaving certainly would be.

“A lot of the others have been…mating. You know.  I mean, I may never get to try it if I’m taken.  Even if I stay, I may be assigned to some gross, old Producer and never get to do it with someone I like.”  His hand moved from her hair to her neck, massaging gently.

She stiffened a bit. Did she want this?  It might be her only chance too.

“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “No one really cares if we do this.”

He was right. Even if a Lead Producer caught them, there wasn’t much of a punishment.  As long as it was close to the time of the reading of the Harvest List, they’d pass off any pregnancies as the product of the assigned mating.  The problem was that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to do this with him.  She liked him, a lot, but she didn’t trust him.  Too many years had passed since they’d been friends.  Still, she didn’t want to this moment to end.

He pulled her closer. She could feel the warmth of his skin through his shirt.  He lowered his head.  This was her first kiss.  His lips were warm and soft.  It was nice.  She ran her hands up his chest and around his neck, leaning into him.  He groaned and ran his tongue across her bottom lip. That’s weird.  She tried to pull away but he held her tight.

“Relax. You’ll like it.  I promise.”

What did he mean by that? The females never discussed this with their offspring until they were assigned a mate.  Maybe, it was only the daughters who were kept in the dark about mating.  Randy seemed to know what he was doing.

He pushed his tongue into her mouth. It wasn’t unpleasant.  Actually, it was kind of nice.  Then she froze.  What if he touched her fangs?  She struggled to end the kiss.

“Ouch, you bit me.” He pulled back, touching the side of his tongue.

A soft giggle came from behind a stack of crates.

She stumbled backward, her breath leaving her body as if she’d been punched. She was a fool.  This had all been a game.  Clarabelle’s revenge.

He gazed at her, his eyes cloudy and a bit unfocused. She had to get out of here.  She moved around him and started down the path.

“Where are you going? It didn’t hurt that bad.”  He asked, clearly shocked.

“Home,” she snapped.

He caught up to her and grabbed her arm, turning her around. “It’s okay.  I’ll teach you how to kiss.”

“Clarabelle, you can come out now. I heard you.”  She pulled free from his grasp, crossing her arms over her chest.

His mouth dropped open and then he glanced away, unable to meet her eyes. He knew.  It was written all over his face.  Her chest ached.  He hadn’t meant any of it.

“Don’t be such a baby.” Clarabelle stepped out from behind some crates.

Trinity gritted her teeth, hurt churning into anger. She would not yank out the other girl’s hair and she would definitely not claw the smirk off Clarabelle’s face.  She would not.  “I’m leaving.”

“Don’t,” said Randy.

She wasn’t sure if he was talking to her or Clarabelle.

“I was only thinking of you,” Clarabelle said. “I felt bad because no one wanted to mate with you.  So, I told Randy that if he wanted me, he’d have to practice on you.”

Her face heated. Was she really that desperate?  Obviously, she was.  Tears welled in her eyes, but she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.  She turned and ran away.

“Trinity, wait,” Randy yelled. “It wasn’t like that.”

Footsteps behind her made her move faster and then there was a waft of air at her back. He was going to grab her.  She could sense it.  She spun around and before she could think twice she caught his arm, letting her claws come out just enough to leave hair-thin slices though his skin.

He pulled free from her grasp. “You cut me!”

“And I’ll do it again, if you come any closer.” She ran the rest of the way home and stopped at the front door of her hut, resting her head against the wood.  Tears ran down her face, hot in the cool night air.  All she wanted was a relationship like her parents had, like Troy and Remy had.  Was it too much to ask for someone who she could love and who would love her too?  Obviously, it was for a freak like her.  She straightened, wiping the tears off her cheeks.  She had to get control of herself before she saw her parents.  She could not handle questions right now.  She took a deep breath and opened the door.

The kitchen was empty. There was a bowl of stew on the table and some bread.  She stepped inside.  Harsh whispering was coming from Mom and Dad’s room.  They were fighting again.  She was her mom’s last child and Mom was sure that something bad happened to them when they were taken.  Of course, Dad was positive that the teenagers were moved to another camp.

She sat at the table and took a bite of the vegetable stew. It burnt a path down her throat.  Clarabelle had crossed the line this time.  She pushed the dish away and walked into her bedroom, shutting the door.  She flopped on her bed.  How was she going to show her face around camp?  She’d kissed Randy and she’d cut him.  Clarabelle would not keep quiet about what had happened tonight.  She didn’t want to hide in her house for the next couple of weeks.  She sat up.  She didn’t have to.  She could escape into the forest and track down the previous year’s Harvest Listers.

She and Travis had started sneaking out of the camp and searching the woods over three years ago, after the Almightys had taken their baby brothers for a Special List. Since everything needed water, they’d followed the Elavital River through the forest.  At some point, they’d given up, but the other month when she was wandering through the brush she’d discovered that the river forked and headed back toward her encampment.  She’d climbed a tree and she’d seen smoke not too far in the distance.  It might have been Guards or Almightys hunting, but it could have been the other camp.  It was close to home.  It should only take a couple of days, a week at the most, to find out if it was another encampment.

She stood. She refused to spend her last days at home hiding in her house.  She wrote a note for her parents, explaining what she was going to do and that she’d be back in a week, and placed it on her bed.  She washed, changed her clothes and packed her backpack with everything she might need for a couple of days in the woods: extra clothes, water, a blanket, rope and some food.  She slung the backpack over one shoulder and slipped out the back door.

She walked to the corner of the cabin, staying in the shadows. The perimeter of the camp had brick columns with fires burning every fifty to seventy-five feet, but that wasn’t a problem.  Producers’ night vision was so poor that these were only for show, to make everyone feel safe.  It was the automatic light installed by the Almightys that she had to avoid.  It lit up the area like daylight.  She stopped on the side of her house nearest the fence, waiting until the light passed.  The Lead Producers on guard focused mainly on the forest not inside the camp but she wasn’t taking any chances.  The light was getting closer.  A few more minutes and she could make one quick dash and be in Troy’s section.  By now, he’d be too busy with Remy to be actually working.

The light moved steadily from one section to another in a precise, automated glide. The sounds from the forest fell silent only to come alive as darkness once again took over.  When it had passed the house, she waited a few seconds and then darted to the fence.  She stayed behind the light until she came to the opening.  She crawled around a bush and dropped to her knees, shrugging off her backpack.  She wriggled through the hole beneath the chain link.  Then she pulled her pack under the fence and raced up the hill into the forest.  The air was crisp and smelled like rain.  She’d save time by cutting through the thicker brush.  She adjusted the backpack on her shoulders and began walking.

The farther she went the denser it became. A rustle in the weeds made her quicken her pace.  She hadn’t been frightened out here in years, but she’d never been this deep in the forest so late at night.  She hesitated.  The vegetation loomed thick and dark in front of her.  Childhood tales of the creatures that inhabited the forest raced through her mind.  She took a deep breath.  She had to control her imagination.  She’d never seen anything bigger than a fox out here, at least not in the wild.

A drop of rain hit her head. Then another one plopped on her face.  She shoved into the denser brush as the sky opened and the rain fell, pelting her like stones.  She kept moving.  She had to find somewhere dry to wait out the storm.  There was a copse of bushes to her right, but she couldn’t just crawl inside.  Something else might have already made this shelter its home for the night.  She picked up a large stick and poked it into the bushes.  There was a slight rustle from above in the tree, but then everything fell silent.  This was the best she was going to get.  She ducked inside.

The ground was dry, protected by the thick brush, but she was soaked. She pulled the extra clothes and blanket out of her backpack and changed, setting the wet clothes off to the side.  She was still shivering, so she wrapped herself in the blanket and huddled in a tight ball, preserving her body heat.  She hugged the backpack to her chest, inhaling the lemony scent of home.

The rain pattered all around and she struggled to keep her eyes open. She had to leave as soon as the storm passed.  She couldn’t wait to return home and tell everyone what happened to those who were taken.  The other kids would have to talk to her if they wanted to hear her stories and Producers loved stories.  Once they got to know her, they’d realize that she wasn’t that different from them.  Not on the inside where it mattered.

 

Trinity awoke to birds chirping and the chatter of squirrels. She stretched, her hands hitting a branch.  Her eyes flew open.  Sunlight filtered through thick foliage.  It was daylight!  She had to get moving.  She climbed out of the bushes, dragging the backpack and her wet clothes behind her.  The blanket was mostly dry so she stuffed that into her sack.  Her clothes were still damp.  If she put them away like that everything would mold.  She picked up the stick that she’d used last night and tied her shirt and pants around it to dry.

She grabbed her canteen and took a long swallow, quenching her thirst. She slid its strap over her shoulder.  Her stomach rumbled.  She pulled an apple from her bag.  She’d have to eat and walk.  She’d lost a lot of time by falling asleep.

After trudging along for what seemed like forever, she stopped, wiping the sweat off her forehead. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been traveling.  The sun barely penetrated this area so she had no idea what time it was.  It might be faster to go back and follow the river.  There was a slight rustling of leaves behind her.  She slowly turned around.  Nothing.  She unzipped the backpack, stuck her damp clothes inside and then held the stick like a club.  She waited but nothing moved.  It was her imagination.  That was all.  She started walking again.  It was all those stupid stories her parents had told her about the creatures in the exhibit that inhabited the woods, but she knew the forest.  The only creatures around were the birds and squirrels.  All small.  All harmless.  Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched.  She picked up her pace.  The sooner she got out of underbrush and into the open the better.

She continued moving as fast as the terrain would allow. Time seemed to lengthen.  She could almost believe that she’d been traveling through this brush for days.  She stumbled along, sweat dripping down her back.  There was a quiet snap above her head.  The leaves moved slightly.  Was it from the wind or something else?  She strained to pick up any sound.  Was that the murmur of water?  She forged forward, tearing the flesh on her arms as she shoved through thorns.  She had to get out of the underbrush before she went mad.  The sunlight shone through the branches.  The river was up ahead.  She should wait to make sure that no one was around.  Guards and Almightys sometimes hunted out here, but she couldn’t stop her feet from racing for the river.  She burst into the clearing, glad to be free, in the open where her imagination wouldn’t run so wild.

She took a long drink of water, enjoying the cool breeze on her face. By the position of the sun, it was near noon.  It was earlier than she’d thought.  She continued following the river.  It grew larger and stronger, the rushing of the water drowning out every other sound.  She stilled.  That wasn’t right.  The river was not that loud.  The forest had quieted.  No chirp or chatter, only the water and the wind through the trees.  The hair on her neck stood on end.  Had something really been watching her in the brush and was it still following her?  She moved cautiously, all senses on alert.  A leaf fell and she jumped, holding the stick in front of her as a weapon.  Nothing moved.  The sunlight shone in her eyes, so she shaded them with her free hand.  Was there something in the branches or just a shadow?  If it was a creature, she shouldn’t be standing there waiting for it to pounce.  She slowly backed away.  It was time to travel a little closer to the water.

She waited at the edge where the forest ended and the river began. The trees thinned; they were no match for the rocky land forged by the rushing water.  The river itself was wide and blue.  Everything looked normal.  She cautiously stepped into the clearing.  If something was stalking her from the forest, it would have to come out in the open.  She could always run into the water.  She didn’t want to get wet, but she knew how to swim.

It was a harder trip on the uneven ground and the day dragged on. The sun’s strong rays blinded her as she walked and her feet ached.  Her stomach rumbled.  She’d eat when she stopped for the night.  Hunger was nothing new to her.  She shifted the backpack on her shoulders and trudged around a bend.  A flash caught her eye.  Something silver glistened on the rocks, sparkling like ice crystals in the sunshine.  It was partially submerged in the water.  She cautiously approached, ready to run into the forest at any sign of danger.  It was similar to her in size and shape except instead of feet and hands this creature had flippers and a long, thick tail.  Its skin was silver-gray and scaly.  It was hairless and lying on its side with its head in the water.  There were four slits along its rib cage.

“Hey, are you all right?” She took a couple of steps back in case it was just sleeping.

The creature didn’t move. She should just go.  She didn’t have time for this, but she’d never seen anything like it.  She crept closer, her heart beating faster with each step.  Her feet were in the water now.  She was only a few feet away.  She nudged it with the bottom of the stick and jumped back.  It remained still, lifeless.  She moved farther into the water and poked it again, harder this time.  There was still no reaction.  It was dead. Poor, ugly thing.  What had happened to it?  Had it drowned?  It kind of looked like a fish.  Maybe, it suffocated, stuck on the rocks and unable to get to the water.  That would be sad, being that close to what it needed to live and unable to reach it.

She bent and peered at its face. It certainly was gross.  Its large black eyes stared straight ahead.  She jerked back.  She could have sworn its eyes had adjusted but there were no whites just pupil so it was hard to tell.  She stood still for several minutes but the creature didn’t move.  It must have been her imagination; it was certainly running wild today.  She leaned in closer.  Its mouth was wide open and filled with rows of long, sharp teeth.  It smelled briny like the lake.  Its lips quivered slightly and she jerked upright, stumbling backward and falling right next to it, within reach of its long arms.

She dropped the stick as she scrambled backward out of the water and sat panting on shore. It was alive.  She was such an idiot to get so close.  It lay half-in and half-out of the water, its head angled in an uncomfortable looking position.  Was it in pain?  She shook her head.  What did that matter?  She needed to go and this thing was not her problem. She stood and started to walk away.  She sighed.  If it was a bird or squirrel, even a mouse or rat, she’d help it without thinking twice.  It wasn’t the creature’s fault that it was hairless and nasty looking and stinky.

She turned around and trudged over to it. If it were going to attack her it would have done it by now.  She studied it closely.  Two of the four slits on its side were moving a little.  It was more of a slight tremble than an actual movement.  The other two were stuck firmly together.  As the side slits shivered, the creature’s bottom jaw moved forward and back.  It was like the face Adam, her baby brother, had made once when he’d swallowed too much bread.  That was it!  The creature was choking.  She quickly filled her bottle from the river.  A fish couldn’t breathe air.  She dumped the water over its head and chest.

The fish-man made a slight coughing sound. She jerked upright but forced herself to stay put.  It still was not moving.  She wasn’t in any danger.  She filled up her jug again and poured it on the creature.  It made another gasping sound.

She had to get it back into the water. She wrinkled her nose and placed both hands on its torso and shoved, trying to push it into the river without going any deeper into the water herself.  It was cold to the touch and heavy.  She tried again but it didn’t budge.  Maybe, she could give it enough water so that it could get a deep breath and move itself.  She filled up her bottle again, emptying the contents over the gills.  She continued this for several minutes, but the creature remained still.  This obviously wasn’t working.

The creature raised its arm, hitting her thigh. She flew out of the water, screeching.  She shivered as she stood on the shore wiping at her leg to remove the memory of its clammy touch.  Then its arm flapped again landing on its neck.  Her face heated in embarrassment.  It hadn’t been reaching for her.  She straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and tromped back into the river.  No matter what, she was going to help this thing.

The hand that had landed on its neck moved in a grasping fashion. She bit her lip and cautiously lifted the flipper between the tips of her fingers and moved it out of the way.  There were two slashes on the creature’s neck.  They looked like the ones on its side except these were clogged full of…something.  She grimaced as she dug her finger into a slit, pulling out mud and gunk.  The foul stench of rotten vegetation and feces seeped out from the slime.  She flung it into the water.  She turned her head to the side, took a deep breath and held it.  She dug into the second slit.  When it was cleared a sharp intake of raspy breath came from the fish-man and then another.

She frowned. It was breathing air, but that didn’t make sense.  Fish breathed underwater.  She dumped water on the two slits that she’d cleared.  The creature choked and gasped.  It rolled away from her and clambered onto its knees.  It seemed larger and more dangerous now that it was mobile.  She scurried back to the safety of the shore.  The fish-man took several deep breaths and then slowly dragged itself back into the water, disappearing under the waves.

She stared at the surface, her heart racing. There was no sign of it.  The river flowed without a ripple of disturbance aside from the motion of the water itself.  The fish-man was gone.  She smiled and began to walk again, her step a little lighter.  She had saved its life.  She glanced warily back at the water.  She and Travis used to play in the river.  She wouldn’t be doing that again.  If there were one of those things in there, there were more.

There was a slight rustle in the brush to her left. She jumped, turning to face the forest when a splash from the river drew her gaze.  A flipper dipped under the water.  Her shoulders sagged.  Great. Now, I’m being hunted by land and sea.  She moved a little away from the river but not too close to the forest.  It was the best that she could do.

She continued on for another hour without a sound from the river or forest, which was encouraging. It was getting late.  She was going to have to find somewhere to camp for the night.  She shaded her eyes from the setting sun and groaned.  She was an idiot.  She’d been heading west.  She should have been heading east.  She must have gotten turned around in the thick underbrush.  She started back the way she’d come.  All this time had been wasted.  An entire day was gone.

A mournful howling broke the silence of the forest. A shiver danced down her spine, raising the hair on her back.  A cacophony of screeches and chirps echoed from the brush.  Then there was silence, not a chirp or rustle to be heard.  She swallowed around a lump in her throat.  Whatever made that sound was close.

There was no movement or eyes shining back at her from the brush. She hurried along.  A sharp yell pierced the air.  She stumbled to a halt, tipping her head to better catch the sound.  There was another shout. Guards on scent.  Had the Almightys discovered her escape?  No, that was impossible.  It was probably just some Guards out hunting, but that didn’t solve her problem.  If she were caught, she would be in deep trouble.

She had to get out of there, but which way? To her left was the river.  She swallowed.  She hadn’t seen the fish-man for a while, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t lurking nearby.  To her right were the woods.  If something were following her, it was hiding in there.  She glanced back and forth, undecided.  The Guards might scare away the forest predator.  She bolted into the trees.  There was no way she was going to outrun them, so she had to hide.

She ran blindly away from the sound of the Guards, her backpack slamming against her spine with each stride. If they catch my scent, they will find me.  She skidded to a stop.  The forest had ended.  A rock wall loomed in front of her, stretching to both sides as far as she could see.  Little crevices and divots peppered the wall, but it was too steep to climb.  She had to make a choice.  The wrong one would cost her freedom, maybe her life.

The trees rustled behind her. Too late. They found me.  This had all been for nothing.  Now, the best she could hope for was to be taken with the others.  Her chest tightened.  She had to make sure that her mom and Remy weren’t punished because she escaped.  She raised her hands to her shoulders and slowly turned.  Her breath caught in her throat.  A Tracker, the deadliest of predators, stood on its back two legs, towering above her, front legs hanging down like arms.  Brindle fur covered its body and its eyes glowed yellow in the shadowed forest.  Its tongue lolled out the side of its mouth, exposing a row of sharp teeth on the other side. Someone should tell it that they no longer exist in the wild.

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