Authors: Jennifer Martucci,Christopher Martucci
Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Literature & Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Science Fiction, #Survival Stories, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Dystopian, #Children's eBooks, #Science Fiction; Fantasy & Scary Stories, #Fantasy & Magic, #Paranormal & Urban
Her words do not register in my brain right away. I am dumbfounded by what I have just heard. “What?” I ask
and hope I was wrong, that I did not just hear her say she and her family plan to risk their lives and stay where they are with Urthmen afoot.
“We are not going with you,” Asher says and I feel as if I have just been punched in the gut. “We are safe here.”
His face is so smooth, so calm, as if what I’ve just told him is so absurd, he cannot not even react to it. But it is true. Two Urthmen had been close to their camp, too close. I want to shake each of them and shout in their faces that they are being ridiculous, that they will be found and killed. But if I did that, it would solidify any ideas they already have about me. The best thing I can do now is walk away and put Kate, Asher, Oliver, Riley, and Will out of my thoughts.
“I see,” I say
, and do not mask my disappointment and shock. “I hope you are heavily armed.”
I stalk off toward the woods. Scalding tears stream down my cheeks. I know their names, I have met them, but I wish I
hadn’t. Now I know more people who will die.
I am just pas
t the area where I hid behind the bush when a voice calls out to me.
“Avery! Hey Avery, wait up!” Will exclaims.
“Quiet!” I hiss. “Do you want to announce where you are?” I ask heatedly.
His features rumple and he stops walking for a moment.
“What do you want, Will? Did you come to mock me as I leave?” I do not hide my frustration.
“No,” he says. “Nothing like that. I just want to talk to you.”
He stops an arm’s length from me. This close, I can see every detail of his face, the brilliant blue-green of his pale eyes, the dip of his upper lip just below his straight nose, and the smooth, even quality of his skin. It looks as if it would feel like a rose petal. Still, I am angry that he and his family treated me like a liar, and chose to stay and face certain death rather than listen to me.
“What do yo
u want to talk to me about?” I huff. “Didn’t you and your parents say everything that needed to be said back there?”
“Why did you run from me yester
day? Why did you run away?”
I want to tell him I was afraid, that the thought of talking to him made me so nervous my legs froze, that I am still nervous, but the words die on my lips.
“Turns out it was the right thing to do,” I say. “I should never have come back.”
pang of hurt flickers in his eyes. I regret being so harsh. I open my mouth to tell him I am sorry, but he speaks first.
“I am sorry about how my parents were, how I was, back there,” he says.
I am too surprised by what he has said to respond right away. My mouth is agape and an uncomfortable silence fills the space between us. I consider bolting out of sight, but my legs are leaden once again.
“You are?” I mumble.
“Yes, I am,” he says and reaches out. His fingertips graze my forearm and send a euphoric shock of bliss racing straight up my arm and down my back. “You put yourself in grave danger to do the right thing, to come back here and warn us.”
“So you believe me?” I
am mesmerized by the pastel azure and emerald in his eyes that undulate like waves in water.
“I do,” he says and holds me with his gaze.
“Then you need to talk to them. You need to get them to leave as soon as possible. It is not safe here. The Urthmen I killed were here, just past where we are now, in broad daylight. And if they were here, others know about the area, they know about you.”
A crease forms between Will’s brows as the weight of
my words settle on him. A small muscle by his jaw flexes.
“Please,” I continue. “Get you
r family out of here.”
“I will. I will convince them,” he says. “I do not want to be like the others we’ve met over the years.
“Yes, the other humans we have met.”
“You have met other humans?” I feel my eyebrows rocket toward my hairline.
“Yes, we traveled for a long time before we settled here and saw many like us, colonies, in f
act. But the ones we found hid and kept to themselves for the most part. They are killed off regularly.” Will frowned. “I think that’s why my parents are so hesitant about leaving. This is the first real home we’ve had, and it’s close to the river and lake. We have everything we need here. It’s much better than what most have.”
“I understand,” I say. I want to tell him about the village I lived in,
about my mother and father, about June. There is so much I want to say, but time is ticking. I need to hurry back before night falls. My journey is long. I wish I could stay here for hours, gazing at Will, and exchanging stories. But I can’t. “I have to leave. I have to get home before the sun sets.”
Will’s shoulders sag. I would have missed it if I weren’t so focused on everyt
hing about him. I saw the small change in his posture. I wonder whether he is disappointed that I am leaving. The idea makes my insides teem like a full beehive.
Will says. “So this is it? This is the end of our, uh, you know, meeting each other?” he says nervously.
“No,” I say and surprise both of us. “
I will come back tomorrow. I’ll see if you’ve convinced them to go. If they decide to come with me, they will need me to lead the way to the cave I share with my sister.”
Will’s lips collapse to form a hard line. “Is it safe for you to come back?”
“According to your family, yes, it is,” I say bitterly, and as soon as the words leave my mouth, I regret them.
tares at his feet then, he glances at me through a thick fringe of dark lashes.
“I will be as cautious as I was today,” I say. “I am always careful. My sister is young. She needs me. I am all she has.”
“And you risked yourself to come here and warn us.” His voice is thick with apology.
“Yes,” I say honestly. “I did.
” My words hang in the air between us for several beats. “I must go.” I tell him again.
I turn and
begin to walk away from Will.
“What is her name?”
“Who?” I twist and ask.
“Your sister, what is your sister’s name?”
“June. Her name’s June and she is about the same age as Riley,” I say with a half-smile.
Will’s face brightens. “Tell June I say hello, okay?”
“I will,” I reply.
I turn and resume walking.
I sense Will’s eyes on me and feel my cheeks flush. My trip was not a success by the standards I set forth when I left, but I am pleased, nevertheless. In fact, I smile so broadly my cheeks hurt. I replay every word he spoke, how he looked when he talked, and most importantly, the moment when he touched my arm. Though brief, the contact was like lightning bolting beneath my skin, exhilarating and delightful. My entire body shivers like leaves in the wind. I have no recollection of ever being touched by another human who was not related to me. Will was the first. I wonder what it would feel like to touch him back, to run my fingers over the lean cords of muscle that twine up his forearm. I hope to find out, and that hope twists in my chest.
Hope is dangerous. Humans are an endangered species. Still, I find myself indulging in it, imagining a
future, a life with Will in it. Even if my hope is futile, I enjoy it while I walk. The distance seems smaller and time passes quicker as a result. I have not prepared for how I will tell June about the family’s rejection of my offer. I do not know what I will say or how I will tell her that I plan to go back there for a fourth day in a row, knowing fully that Urthmen have infiltrated our safety. I am certain of only two things: I will pass along Will’s message; I will share his greeting with her. And I will go back to him in the morning.
I walk along and feel as if my feet are barely touching the earth as I make my way back to the cave to June. A smile continually tugs at the corners of my mouth. I keep picturing Will, the way his eyes glowed against his tan skin and nearly black eyelashes, the way his lips moved when he spoke. Just remembering the sound of his voice sends a wave of tingles from my scalp straight down my neck to my arms. Goose bumps appear on my skin though the midday sun is sweltering. I am happy in a way I have never been before. I cannot wait to return to the lake, to Will, in the morning.
Despite my happiness, though, I remain vigilant. My eyes continue to scan the surrounding woods. And the sensation that I am being watched returns.
Only this time, it is more than just a paranoid concern. I
eyes on me. Someone or something is drilling their gaze right into me. I am sure of it. The realization drains any excitement I’ve been feeling.
I slow my pace and examine the area before me. I see nothing, not even the slightest movement stirs the leaves. I turn and look toward the direction I just came from. I study the dense bushes for any sign of disturbance, but again, I see nothing. Everything looks as it did. I begin to wonder whether I am imagining things. For a moment, I try to convince myself that I am, that my overwhelming excitement has sent my senses into overdrive. But no matter how hard I try to tell myself that, I still have the feel
ing, the heaviness of being a target. I feel as if I am being stalked.
Awareness slinks down the length of my limbs and the fine hairs on my body
stand up at attention. I am being hunted.
My hand reaches behind me slowly.
The rustle and swish of branches causes me to grip the hilt of my sword. I stop walking and listen. Above the caw of birds and the chirp and scurry of chipmunks, I hear heavy footfalls. I silently unsheathe my sword and hold it out in front of me, gripping it with both hands.
My heart is banging against my ribs and a rivulet of sweat trickles between my shoulder blades and slips down to the small of my waist as I wait for whatever or whoever has been
tracking me to make an appearance.
“Come out!” I shout as the stress of waiting to be confronted takes its toll on me. “Come out and face me! I know you’re there!”
I do not get a verbal response, but hear a throaty huff instead, and every cell in my body floods with adrenaline. I am under attack. Urthmen are undoubtedly positioned and poised to ambush me at any given moment.
I squeeze the handle of my sword. Every muscle in my body is tense. I tak
e two wary steps on the path I’ve been on, but halt when the sound of crunching twigs echoes through the ether. I stiffen and look in the direction of the sound. Low-growing bushes part. Prickly fronds shift, and I move in for a closer look.
Cautiously, I approach the cluster of spiny plants.
As I do, I see a large snout jutting among the tangled mess of branches. The snout is connected to a boart, but not just any boart. This one looks familiar. I saw it just a day earlier, the one I assumed was the boartling’s mother, the boartling June had killed. I recognize the unmistakable swath of black fur that interrupts the otherwise all-brown coat.
set eyes glare at me, and saliva drips from its wide mouth, over pointed tusks that protrude like deadly spikes. A bristly tuft of fur at its nape stands on end and quivers like quills and it grunts first then emits a sound that can only be described as a wail. The sound freezes the blood in my veins and I clutch my sword, ready to act. The boart bursts from the brush, charging at full speed. I do not have time to stab it so I take the only other option I am left with. I dive out of the way, narrowly avoiding being gored by her lethal teeth.
I nearly lose my sword when my body meets with the hard ground. I roll to my side and scramble onto my hands and knees then spring to my feet.
The boart stops abruptly and turns. Her eyes lock on me and suddenly, the feeling I had earlier and then again a moment ago gels. I was not being hunted by Urthmen. I was being stalked by an angry mother boart. She is avenging the death of the boartling,
, June killed yesterday. Though the notion seems farfetched, it is the only likely one. Boarts do not simply attack unprovoked. At least they never have before. I also thought that rabbits did not attack. Apparently, I know less than I thought about the new, ever-evolving animal kingdom.
The boart rotates her bulky shoulders and scuff
s her hoof against the earth. Her eyes narrow to gashes, and then she lets out a guttural cry and charges me again.
sheathe my sword just before I turn and put my head down and take off. I push my legs as hard as I can, demanding they run faster than ever before. Thin branches whip my face and thorny vines lash my legs. But I do not care. A boart is after me, hoping to impale me with its massive tusks.
I glance over my shoulder and see her hefty form barreling down on me. Her back is almost as tall as I am
, and her tusks match the length of my arm from elbow to wrist. If she sticks me with one of them, I am dead.
The terrifying reality of my predicament propels me forward. But my
speed is no match for the boart. She is faster, stronger. Out of desperation, I dip behind a tree and watch her blaze past me. But the moment she becomes aware of what I have done, she skids to stop. I do not waste a second of precious time and bolt in a different direction. I attempt to dart through thick, interlocked growth, but the patch is closely packed and makes running difficult.
I hear the grunt of the boart and see that she is tearing after me, plowing a path through the solid foliage.
I cannot fight the boart as it charges me. Even if I stab it, I will be hit and killed for sure. Without any other choice, I run from her.
My feet slap
against the dirt as I sprint, but my effort is useless. She is gaining on me. A quick glance over my shoulder confirms as much. And when my gaze returns to the path I am headed on, I see I am at the top of a steep ridge. I do not remember climbing a hill as I traveled to the lake. But then I also did not have a boart that probably quadrupled my weight and nearly matched my height on my heels. I try to turn and avoid the sharp descent, as well as getting hopelessly lost in the forest, when my foot snags on an exposed root that pokes out from the soil. I stumble and find myself tumbling down the embankment full speed.
erupts across my flesh, blasting against my body like hot coals, as I plunge faster and faster. My left side topples over a sharp stone. I scream, unable to harness the agony in my ribs, and still, I am falling. I clutch my head in my hands to protect it and feel my forearms being shredded by rocks and sharp branches. At the base of the mound, the terrain lips and hurls me into the air. I expect to smash into a boulder or tree trunk and break every bone in my body, but I am surprised when I land against a spongy surface that absorbs my weight and rebounds it so that I bounce, springy and in midair.
k up, grateful that I did not crash into a boulder or tree trunk, only to see the boart careening down the ridge. It is heading right for me. Suddenly, I think I would have been better off having my bones shattered by the boulder or the tree rather than being demolished by the largest boart I have ever seen. I squeeze my eyes shut and grit my teeth, bracing for the impact. All the while, images of June and Will and the life I would miss flash in my mind’s eye.
I am shocked when the boart lands just a leg’s length from me. It sticks to the flexible material I
’m leaning against, hovering above the ground. It squeals and flails and appears to be stuck, but I can barely hear or see its tantrum. I am panting and crying and mumbling all at once, tears blurring my vision. I try to move my hand to my face to rub my eyes, but feel resistance. My skin is being tugged. My arm is stuck. I wriggle and twist, trying to free my arm, but my entire body is stuck to the squishy net-like structure that prevented me from launching into the woods. I feel my sword sliding around at my back. I want to be still but can’t stop the panicked squirming of my body. I attempt to kick my legs and use my heels to free myself, but my movements are a waste of time. A loud clang, the distinct sound of metal clashing with rock, and the immediate loss of weight at my back means my sword has dropped to the ground below. Held by the gummy meshwork and stripped of my sword, I am frightened. I frantically search all around me. My head is not connected to the tacky substance, so I am able to look beneath me and above me.
Sunlight filters through treetops and
illuminates the odd pearlescent threads that crisscross intricately between two sizable trees. When it does, it reveals I am trapped in a net of some sort, a web. Overhead, I see bones, many bones arranged neatly, that resemble the skeleton of a boart.
My mind struggles to think of what could have created the sticky snare I am caught in.
Urthmen come to mind. Perhaps they’d fashioned this to capture humans. Maybe this is what the two I killed yesterday built and I just caught them as they were leaving. Thoughts spin in my brain, burrowing into murkiness faster than a grub burrowing into soil. If that is true, if Urthmen built the web, then June is in danger. My eyes are wild as they roam the web for weakness. But the terrified glimpse of the complexity involved in its construction makes me think the Urthmen would not be intelligent enough to make something so elaborate.
I curl my torso forward and pull with all my might, trying to separate from the sticky mesh. But a
ll that happens is the skin on my back stretches and pulls, hopelessly stuck. I cannot budge. Angry shrieks and protests from the boart remind me that it is also trapped. It flails and fights but is not strong enough to free itself. It is a powerful beast, much tougher and much stronger than I am. Yet it, too, is ensnared. My situation is far worse than I ever dreamed possible. I will either die at the hands of whatever has me trapped, or I will die at the hands of a Lurker. Either way, I will die this day. And what’s worse is June will not be able to roll the boulder in place and cover the opening of the cave to secure herself. She will be wide open, a midnight treat for Lurkers. She has been issued a death sentence.
Tears rain from my eyes and stream down my cheeks. I canno
t bear the thought of June being butchered by a Lurker. I twist and pull again, and this time it is not the boart’s cry that pierces the forest. It is mine.
bound to the web until the sun sags low in the sky. One arm has lost feeling. It has been perched over my head since I first landed here. The rest of my body aches from the fall and holding my awkward position. But none of that even matters now. If I make it out of the web alive by some stroke of luck, I will never make it back by nightfall. I will be dead before sunrise one way or another. I allow my chin to fall to my chest and close my eyes, when a quiver on one of the strands I am stuck to vibrates. I see something moving at the base of the web. The bushes shimmy. I strain my eyes to see what is coming, to finally meet my awful fate, and when I do, I learn that nothing I have seen in either reality or my worst nightmares has prepared me for the sight before me. Shock prevents my gaze from leaving the creature that slowly scuttles onto the lowest fiber of the web.
Armed with eight leathery looking legs with prominent joints that bend and flex as it creeps
, and a fleshy body sectioned into two defined segments, both coated in tawny fur, the being makes its way up the silken thread. The closer it looms, the clearer my vision of it becomes. An insect face with five amber, feline eyes watches the boart. Its body is as long as mine only much thicker. Bulky, pronounced muscles flex as it walks. I want to scream, but the sound is smothered by my heart firmly wedged in my throat. I am thankful for that, because the boart is shrieking and carrying on. All the sound and motion seems to be encouraging the beast.
The spindly legs of the creature reach the lower half of the boar
t. The enormous boart thrashes again, but like me, it is attached solidly. All the while it cries and screeches as the creature reaches its head. The creature perches its colossal form atop the boart and rears the upper sector of its body. Each of its five eyes is a bottomless pit of doom. Its mouth opens and two huge fangs, glistening with a thick, iridescent substance, extend from the roof of its mouth. It lowers its mouth to the boart’s neck, then in one lightning-fast motion, it buries its fangs into the boarts throat.
The boart yelps and cries. It is the most awful
, anguished sound I have ever heard an animal make. I am sickened as small whimpers pass through my lips. The boart is in agony. But the more the boart howls, the longer the creature’s fangs seem to grow. My eyes widen in horror when I see their tips poke through the other side of the boart’s neck coated in red. The boart stops moving, and the fangs retract suddenly. The creature backs up slowly. Its golden eyes are now on me. It scurries off the boart unhurriedly, watching me with the eyes of a skilled predator. It takes every bit of restraint I have to keep from screaming. I know screaming will not help me any more than the boart’s cries helped it. Instead, I feverishly try to free myself.