Night of the Hunters
The farm itself was a terrible place to hold off a siege. There were no doors, windows, roof… it would be nearly impossible to defend. Besides, Sam needed some goal to push toward throughout the afternoon, while she waited for night to fall.
As her memory returned, she recalled a place… an old hunting cabin she had visited with her father. It had been tucked away in the foothills of the nearest mountain range, roughly ten miles away. The cabin she remembered had been thick, sturdy, something she could barricade herself in.
Sam downed a bottle of water, then checked her phone: zero reception. Not a surprise, given the relative isolation of the countryside. Besides, who would she call? No one was coming to rescue her. She was well and truly on her own. If she was to survive this, she would do so without any outside help… just as she had when she was ten years old.
There was a shoulder harness and a gun belt inside the trunk. Sam put on both and holstered four handguns. She put the claymore and another water bottle into a small backpack; she donned her jacket and the pack, and slung the two rifles, one over each shoulder; she put the grenade in one pocket and extra ammo in others and she carried the shotgun.
Fully geared up, Sam took one last look at where the sun was hovering, halfway to the horizon now, and she set off.
After the first four miles the air started to turn cool. Sam had stopped a few times to stretch, to reposition her gear and to sip some water. This time, when she replaced the water into the pack and loaded up to move out, she looked over her shoulder…
And a few miles away, on a dirt road between two fields, she saw the van. Next to it was a beat-up old Bronco. Kronin and his “dog soldiers.” Watching. Waiting.
Sam set out a faster pace.
The air’s chill deepened with sunset, as Sam came within a mile of the treeline that marked the end of the flatlands and the gradual onset of the mountain forest. Sam stopped once again for water, and once again she looked back.
The van and Bronco had followed and were closer now, less than a mile away; stopped and waiting. They had been joined by a dusty station wagon and a 70s Buick.
Sam thought of the gathering she had attended and the one she had witnessed; of the number of followers in present. How many of them had Kronin recruited?
With one last glance over her shoulder Sam made for the forest’s edge.
The sky, glimpsed through open patches in the forest canopy, had begun to darken. Sam’s breath misted as she climbed up the steep ascent of another foothill. There was a sharp crack and Sam stopped, listening. Then she heard them—sounds, all around her; shuffling, rustling, the noise of footfalls. In the midst of the woods it was difficult to pinpoint their origin but there was no mistaking the fact that they were on all sides of her.
How much further? Sam tried to remember. It should be another mile or two at most. But now that the sun was down moonrise would not be far behind. And then…
Sam pushed the thought out of her mind and pressed on.
Another twenty minutes passed; a dense fog had now settled over the forest floor, extending upward to the low limbs of the trees. The haze made navigation difficult, and Sam still wasn’t sure how close she was to the cabin. The chill was cutting to the bone and the noises were growing more frequent, louder.
Sam was looking to one side, where she briefly glimpsed a shadow in the mist, when her foot slipped off a large root and she rolled her ankle. She went down hard, the heavy equipment she carried adding to the jarring impact of her fall. Trying to regain control of her breath, she maneuvered her body and sat against the tree, leaning her head back against the bark.
Where the hell was the cabin? What if she couldn’t find it? What if she had to make her final stand out here, surrounded on all sides by the beasts, just waiting for them to close in, knowing she couldn’t shoot every one of them if they all attacked at once? Kronin would have his final revenge.
What if this was the end? What if her plan was just a pipe dream? What the hell had she been thinking, anyway?
And then she heard it: a voice inside her head. Calm, confident and soothing, something like what she imagined the voice of an angel would be, and perhaps in a way it was; it was a voice she hadn’t heard since she was ten years old…
It was the voice of her father.
You can do this, baby girl. I believe in you. I always believed in you. You’re strong and smart and capable and you will live through this. Now get up and get moving!
Yes. He was right. Sitting here wallowing in self-pity would do no good. The cabin was close, she knew it was. She had to keep going; fight through the pain and keep going no matter what. With all that Kronin had taken from her, one thing he could never take was her will to live.
Sam got up, testing the ankle. It sent small jolts of pain up her leg but she would just have to push through.
And push through she did, higher up into the deepening forest and the thick fog, until she came at last to a barely distinguishable trail. This was it; she was sure of it. This was the trail she had found with her dad, that they had followed to the cabin and later to the old salt mines. The cabin would be just up the path. She set foot on the trail, ignoring the pain in her right ankle, ignoring the increasingly louder sounds in the fog; the barely-glimpsed shapes moving at the edges of her vision…
Suddenly, the noises stopped. Her pursuers, as far as she could tell, were not moving. Why wouldn’ t they be…
And then it struck her. She looked up and through the canopy she glimpsed the upper arc of a large silver disc.
The moon was rising.
Then the sounds resumed; different noises now: cracking, popping, stretching… echoing through the misty timber.
Her first reaction was terror. But then, a thought came to her. This was an opportunity. Setting her jaw, Sam hefted the shotgun… and stepped off the path.
Zeroing in on the closest sounds of transformation she limped until she saw a shape through the fog, writhing on the forest floor. It was a man, but judging by the clothing nearby and the complexion of his skin, it was not Kronin. He was naked, on all fours, body halfway through the change, spine arching and popping…
She lowered the shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, blasting a slug of pure silver through his cranium in mid-shift. The skull came apart like a watermelon struck by a sledgehammer.
Sam’s ears rang, making it difficult to pinpoint the next noise-source… but at least she had reduced their numbers by one. It was a start. Sam hobbled her way back to the path and began rushing as quickly as her injury would allow, up the path, through the parting fog, ascending, knowing that the transformations taking place around here were nearing their completion and when those shiftings were complete…
She would be out of time.