Your breath comes in ragged gasps, your throat stinging with every intake. Sweat beads from your forehead, streaming freely to mingle seamlessly with the hot tears from your tired eyes. You sob and spit ceaselessly, no longer caring about your appearance. You are the most desperate, exhausted and terrified you have ever been in your entire life or ever will.
Every process inside your body has been sublimated to the overweening, urgent need to force oxygen down your throat through your lungs to your screaming muscles. Your pulse knocks at your ears; in between all you can hear is the roar of the ocean in a seashell. Your vision swims drunkenly as you steal a glance behind. Even so, it's unmistakable.
Three at least. Maybe more.
They have been following you for some time now. How long you are not exactly sure. A few days and nights at least. They probably picked up your trail at the river. They probably wait to see what shows up.
Two nights out from the river was when you first heard it. A series of ululating clicks and whistles. They are letting each other know where they are. They are letting you know where they are. That there's no escape. But they don't attack. They wait.
You sit with your back to the fire; bolt awake and alert all night. Even so, the dawn reveals one of them crept in close during the night and left you a present hanging from a tree. There is no sight nor sound of them about.
You know you are in mortal danger, that your only hope lies in escape. You have to try to throw the trail. You know this is probably futile.
Even so, you have to try.
Your course winds haphazardly for many tens of miles. It leads through dense brush and doubles back along streams. Several times, you bolt suddenly, then silently slip aside and hide yourself. You spend several hours lying down in the undergrowth. Not moving, hardly daring to breathe. Just listening. You cannot hear a thing.
A bird calls sharply. Was it disturbed? It does not call again.
Night lengthens, and you must seek shelter. You cautiously unfold yourself from your hiding place and make for the base of a cliff you know to be nearby. You know you could be cornered there, but it also offers your best defense against encirclement. While you still have strength to fight, at least.
You prop your back against solid rock and do not risk a fire. The sounds and smells of the night roll over like a wave. It's as deep as the ocean. On the brink of dozing, cold reality returns to snatch away your rest. Click click click. Click click click. An answering whistle. The whole forest is breathing. There must be so many of them.
The calls have a strange melodious quality to them. Individual voices tend to get bound up together and lost to the whole. You force yourself to listen carefully.
How many are there?
It's difficult to penetrate; misleading, perhaps intentionally so. A lot of the calls chase their own tails, or answer themselves. Painstakingly, you separate out individual voices by timbre, tone and range. It only confuses you further. You'll hear a call from one direction, and then another that sounds exactly alike from a completely different direction answering it. Nevertheless, you notice that when the calls rise together in sudden, unpredictable crescendo, there is a binding, constant voice that leads them. You grip your flint so tightly your hand bleeds.
Dawn breaks on your final chance. Forced march and no rest or food have taken a terrible toll on your strength. You will not be able to defend yourself for very much longer. And that's when they'll come. They would probably prefer to continue this tiring game of running and hiding.
The hell with that.
The gradient increases, and your tired legs give silent protest. You grit your teeth and follow the line of the ridge. You have been climbing steadily for an hour now, and the slope here is somewhat sparser. There is no truly open country around here for hundreds of miles. There is also no sign of them, although only a fool would think they weren't nearby. You hurry, worried they will see your mind and move to stop you.
The ridge rises, and tapers to a promontory where it meets the narrow gorge. Sheet white water echoes beneath. You hesitate on the brink. Below seems certain death.
Certain death behind you for sure.
You shut your eyes and plunge down, a needle in the funnel. As you fall, the forest erupts into song.