No matter how fast I went, I couldn’t shake Trace off my trail. He stayed below me on the ground, just a step behind. He didn’t have enough time to climb up to my height in the trees, but I wasn’t in any better position, since my MP was dropping steadily. And I didn’t know how far I was from Emma.
“If you’re looking for the rest of the team, you’re going to be disappointed,” Trace mocked from below. His obnoxious words were breathy and his face was wet with sweat. “Every Hunter knows it's pointless to go after lost people.”
“Shut up!” I snarled.
“What? It’s just survival of the fittest. And that doesn’t include you.” His hand flashed out.
I felt the threat coming and tilted my body. Another one of those damn daggers shot right past my shoulder. Good hell, how many of those did he have? I wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine so badly.
My foot slipped on the smooth silvery bark and I tipped to the side. I swore and reached for a thick green vine that stretched between the trees. My fingers latched onto the rough plant and I used it to swing a ninety degree turn. With a small kick, I landed on a thick branch. Trace turned mid-step and skidded across the ground.
As he gained his balance, I twisted and threw my kindjal at him. He dodged, but not good enough. My short sword impaled his shoulder, all the way to the hilt. He yelled and dropped to one knee. He tipped his head back until he could see me, murder in his eyes.
“Feels great, huh? Too bad it doesn’t have a gut hook, right?” I sneered and kept jumping. Two trees later, the kindjal appeared back in my hand.
“The hell kinda sword is that?” Trace snarled behind me.
“It’s not a dagger, that’s for sure,” I tossed over my shoulder and kept going. That sharp turn to take a shot at Trace had led me from the Serpent’s trail. I needed a route back to the bloody trail, quick.
Then I saw a tunnel coated made out of thick, white webbing hung between a cluster of trees. I nearly paused, but momentum forced me onward. My god, there were more of them. My insides tightened painfully at the sight of the caterpillar tunnel, instinct warning me to keep away. But I turned in the treetops and started to leap for the tunnel. As I got closer, I shuddered in repulsion.
What I felt didn’t matter. It was Trace or me — and it wasn’t going to be me.
I kicked off the side of a branch and landed on the rich ground. By now I was able to put a little distance between us, but he remained doggily on my tail. I glanced at him over my shoulder then bolted into the white tunnel. I never thought I’d ever voluntarily go in one of these again. But since I couldn’t beat him by myself, desperate times called for desperate measures.
The System went off as expected, the only indication that there was even a problem. [Anomaly detected. Auto-immunity activated.]
The tunnel was about sixty feet long, and just as eerie feeling as the last one. As I ran, I kept an eye out for any rainbow shimmers. There weren’t any, nor could I feel any monsters in the white webbing, but I knew they were there. I skidded to a stop on the far end of the tunnel and turned back to Trace.
He’d stopped just outside of the webbing and eyed it with distrust. Obviously he’d been a Hunter long enough to know not to enter such a strange place. He looked at me and licked his lips, clearly debating. As it was, there was no way he could get to me unless he came after me.
I lifted my chin. “I don’t recommend you come in here. I don’t think you could handle it.” There was a challenge in my tone, as if he would be a wimp if he didn’t.
He glared at me. “You really like pissing people off, don’t you? I’m surprised someone hasn’t killed you already.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Seriously, he had no idea. The saddest part was that I didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve any of it. I mean, take right now for example. All I’d done was talk to a guy, and now I have my own personal hitman. Where was the logic in that?
“So, Bethany Wil—”
“You are not worthy to speak her name!” He screamed, his eyes suddenly manic. “You should be ground into dust for even attempting to tarnish her name with your lowly lips.”
My eyebrows rose high on my forehead. Well, that was a little extreme, but whatever floats his boat. I opened my arms. “I’m waiting.”
Waiting for him to come in and get himself turned into a monster. I almost hoped he’d walk away. My conscience chimed in. How is this any different from pre-meditated murder? No. I couldn’t think of it that way. This wasn’t murder, this was survival. And he really could walk away.
“But you really should just walk away,” I warned.
He took a breath and glanced around the webbed tunnel again. He flipped the dagger in his hand, around and around, obviously thinking. I was a little surprised that he hadn’t thrown it at me yet. Was it his last one?
He lunged forward, sprinting at me full speed.
My eyes narrowed, torn between disappointment at his stupidity and relief that he just made things a lot easier for me. Whether or not he died, I could use this to catch a rainbow caterpillar to show the Council. Then I could just run away while he wandered the Vale as a monster for the rest of his life.
Ten feet in, Trace dropped to the ground like a piece of lead and skidded face down to a stop.
I bolted toward him. Gotta get to him before he transforms. If I could find the caterpillar, I could put it in my empty water bottle and take it back to the Hunter Council. It could be the solid proof that I need to show my previous reports weren’t crazy rants. They wouldn’t be able to turn me away again if they watched a human become a monster with their own eyes.
Mere feet from him, his whole body lit up, just like Reina’s did right before she’d transformed. I skid to a stop. My eyes widened. No! That was too fast! Had the caterpillar started on his chest?
Suddenly, his level increased from 41 to 42 and his whole body twitched uncontrollably.
Oh crud! I gasped and ran, closing the gap between us, my kindjal out. Forget catching the caterpillar now, I had to deal with him before he turned all the way into a monster. Once he woke up, I wouldn’t have a chance.
His arms and the legs shrunk as he began turning into a moth monster, just like the last time I was in a tunnel. Two huge bulges grew on his back. I lunged to his side, ready to stab down on his neck with all I had. Wings erupted from his back. They smacked into me, as hard as steel, and sent me flying back through the air. I gasped in pain and landed against the tunnel wall.
White webbing clung to me, holding me in place as I struggled. I thrashed and lashed at the strings. The kindjal cut through them like warm butter, but there were so many, that it didn’t feel as productive as it should.
A screech rang through the air and I looked back at Trace.
He — it — lifted its head, the movement causing the last of the hair that clung to the black, bulbous scalp to fall away. Its face was a grotesque mix of human and bug features, with huge red insect eyes and a tiny mouth full of mandibles and fangs. It focused on me and screeched again. Its wings beat the air and it wobbled a little, slowly hovering off the ground
My gut twisted and I started to struggle more in the webbing. Not to climb out of it, but to cut through it to the other side. With one final slash, a gap opened behind me. I twisted and jerked myself through, ripping at the white tentacles that still latched onto me. Just as the last string let go, Moth-Monster Trace landed on the other side of the webbing. Its two arms on the right side of its body reached through the opening and clawed at me, but it couldn’t fit its body through the hole with its wings.
I jerked back, just out of reach.
Two explosions happened at the same time. The biggest one was in the distance, somewhere maybe east? It was enough that the ground shook and I stumbled over the rolling dirt before I caught my balance against a tree. The smaller explosion came from the opposite direction — west? — and it was a lot closer.
I didn’t know what caused them, but I did know that they were Hunter made. Which meant that somewhere close, there was someone that could help me kill this moth monster.
I activated Stealth and watched my MP flash red in warning. I didn’t want to use it, but I was desperate. Then I turned on my heel and Feather Stepped sprinted towards the smaller explosion.
Behind me, I could hear the moth monster shrieking and sounds of thrashing wings. I peeked over my shoulder just enough to see the moth monster breaking out of the tunnel. All at once, the white tunnel started to evaporate. Just like last time — it had turned someone into a monster, mission accomplished, then disappeared. So frustrating.
But not nearly as terrifying as seeing the moth monster rise into the air and fly after me. Even though I was using Stealth, its buggy eyes stayed locked on me. I gasped and put every bit of power I could into my legs. When was the running going to end today? First it was Trace, then it was Trace-Monster. Was he trying to run me to death?
I could hear the moth’s wafting wings getting closer, as if I was slowing down, not speeding up.
The sound of humans talking reached my ears and I perked up. I was getting closer to a group of Hunters. Tell me I was getting closer. I couldn’t understand their words yet, but I knew that someone — anyone — was on the other side of the trees.
The bottom of my boots skidded on the ground as I made a sharp turn and ducked at the same time. The monster sailed right over me, close enough that I could feel the wind under its wings. Then I jumped through the bushes, diving for all I was worth.
The group of Hunters came into view.
I stumbled to a stop and gaped at them, horrified.
There were nearly a hundred Hunters in this jungle and I ran into Blake and his team two days in a row. Seriously, it could have been anyone else, but no, it had to be that bastard. First my plan for Trace flopped and now I had to deal with Blake. What luck was that?
Most of his team was bunched together, laughing and talking like they were on vacation, while a few Hunters skinned a large monster on the other side of a violently formed — and obviously recently made — clearing. I bet the open space had something to do with the explosion I’d heard moments earlier.
When I came out of the brush, Blake’s crew turned and looked at the wildly shuttering leaves. Some scowled but didn’t move, while a few others stood up with their weapons at the ready. But it was obvious that they couldn’t see through the invisibility of my Stealth.
I glanced over my shoulder at the moth monster circling through the air. It angled its body, dipped downward and soared right for me. What the hell! I sprinted right at the Hunters, Blake or not.
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I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
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