The dank air clamped its chilling grip onto Rayanna’s raw arms. She cast furtive glances into the rustling forest. And at him. He maintained a lead of no more than ten feet, every step of his boot hitting the earth with sure footing. Her own soles slid on the undulating, narrow path.
The man paused and only twisted his chin halfway to his shoulder, not looking directly back at her. With a gruff command, he adusted his grip on the rifle at his side. “Keep up.”
She parted her lips, but could not think of anything to reply before he trekked onward. She hustled to follow.
But what am I hurrying toward?
His finger itched near the trigger as he hiked.
“You asked my name, but who are–”
“Shht!” He hissed.
“I feel like I should know–”
The whiskered stranger whipped his head to glower at her. The lantern beside his face cast eerie hollows around his clouded-gray glare. His leathery, grizzled features contorted into a fierce scowl. “Do you want to die?”
She bit her lips together and shook her head.
With a huff, he resumed his stomp toward an end she couldn’t guess. His shoulders hunched a bit, as if from ages of hunkering onto the mountainside.
A chorus of howls swept through the forest. The gray-brown path of rock and earth and dead leaves zoomed in and out of her view, as if the planet shuddered at her presence. The stranger quickened his pace. She stumbled after him, her head swimming from fatigue. And terror.
The lantern floated beyond a screen of brush and disappeared. Her ears clogged with throb of her pulse. Surrounding noise muffled, as if she were sinking into a watery abyss. A knock resounded in the distance ahead. The sound repeated–not a knock. Clomping footfalls.
Then a flash pierced the night. And another shot cracked the forest air.
She hurtled herself through a screen of bristly limbs. Needles and twigs clawed at her burn wounds. She winced aloud, despite the man’s threat. Her next step caught on a stone. She tripped headlong onto a set of weatherbeaten steps.
A calloused grip seized her by the arm and jerked her onto the stoop. She groaned at the pain. Weak moonlight offered a dim view of the figure holding his gun, but not the lantern. He shuffled with her across the creaky floorboards of a porch. Rayanna looked desperately back toward the trees, huddled within spitting distance of the shack. The door gave a shuddering moan as he opened it. The man shoved her into the center of an inky void. She fell onto a soft, hairy surface. A slam shook the floor beneath her hip. Then a clack and thump resounded.
“Now we’re all locked in.” The lantern’s glow reappeared beneath the stranger’s chin. Green light and shadow flickered into the canyons of his errant features. “Whether you wanted to die or not.”
*** TO BE CONTINUED ***