Hide and Hunt

A Fantasy Short Story Written By Susan Oke

Hide and Hunt

by Susan Oke

Susan Oke’s short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, magazines and have been performed via podcasts, such as Cast of Wonders. When not writing, she teaches English Language, English Literature and Creative Writing. Her short story ‘Best Case Scenario’ won a recent Readers’ Award in the Amazing Stories online magazine. You can find more details about her writing on her blog: Loving Life in the Rain

https://susanmayoke.com/

I press my back against the wide bole of the tree and try not to breathe. But my body won’t behave and gulps ragged lungful’s of air. I squeeze my eyes shut. Any moment now the Hunter will find me, and it will all be over.

Beyond the rasp of my breath, the forest is silent. I can’t stand it any longer. My eyes snap open and I stare wildly around at the twisted trunks of ancient trees, each one harbouring its own collection of shadows. Stubborn tussocks of grass and patches of frozen mud pattern the uneven ground. Above, stark boughs net the sky, some threatening to bud, others still dusted with snow.

Father’s voice echoes in my memory. Useless. Weakling. My shoulders hunch and I bite my lip. He’s right. It’s my fault I got separated from Tara. The Hunter got between us and I panicked. Now he can pick us off one at a time. I dig my nails deeper into the crumbling bark. I have to get back to Tara, somehow. The makeshift bond that exists between us is only good over short distances. I’m too far away to sense more than the rough direction I need to travel, like a faint magnetic pull. She’s somewhere in the northwest quadrant, third maybe fourth circle.

I narrow my eyes and inspect every straggly bush for twitching branches, ears straining for the faintest rustle of leaves. The silence is unnerving. I take a deep breath—the air still has the after-bite of winter—and my chest spasms. I have to cover my mouth with both hands to stifle the cough. The shadows remain stubbornly empty. Perhaps I really am alone out here.

Only one way to be sure.

I step away from the tree and into a mottled patch of sunlight. Nothing happens. No telekinetic punch to send me sprawling to the ground, no smothering net of tykae energy to leave me bound and helpless. I jump back behind the bulk of the tree, sweating and cursing. The Hunter must have doubled back. I’ve got to warn Tara!

Sending a broadband telepathic call across half the forest is easy, but setting up a private link is a lot trickier, especially if you don’t want anyone else to know you’re doing it. Eyes closed, I picture a glowing strand of energy following that magnetic pull; I stretch it thin as gossamer and then give it a mirror sheen. That should be enough, I hope, to deflect any scans and keep our conversation secret. All I have to do now is maintain the focus. Not as easy as it sounds. Face screwed up in concentration I reach as far as I can… Tara grabs my questing link, strengthens it and makes it secure.

<Alden! What are you doing?>

I can feel how angry she is. She’s bound to be, given the risk I’m taking. If the Hunter catches even a hint of our t-talk, he’ll be able to pinpoint our location.

<Tara, the Hunter––>

<Shut it. You need to move. Now.>

Through our link I can feel her crouched by the granite shelf that marks the northwest edge of the fourth circle. <But—>

<Idiot, you can’t hide at the Lightning Tree, it’s one of the first places the Hunter will look.>

Oh, yeah.

The lightning tree has a huge gash in it from, you guessed it, a lightning strike. It’s a great place to hide. Or would be, if the Hunter didn’t know about it too. I flinch as the buzz of a tykae scan rakes the far side of the tree.

<Too late. He’s here.>

My legs tremble with the need to run. Frantically, I strengthen my defensive shield; it will deflect the Hunter’s scan, at least while my strength holds out, but it can’t hide me from plain sight. And pretty soon the Hunter will be right on top of me. My chest feels tight and there’s a scream building in my throat. I press my lips together to stop it getting out.

I’ll have to make a break for it. I crouch, ready to run.

A telepathic scream reverberates across the forest. It’s Tara. She’s in trouble. I risk a glimpse around the bole of the tree and catch sight of the masked Hunter as he turns and lopes off westwards.

Tara’s telepathic whisper tickles and is gone. <Run! Meet me in an hour. Third circle, south-east quadrant.>

I’m already running as the link breaks, terrified and grinning at the same time. Tara is drawing the Hunter away from my position. She’s giving me a chance. I head east, dodging through the trees, senses straining for any hint of pursuit. A low hanging branch dumps old snow on my head as I scramble past, thorns hook and claw at clothes and exposed skin.

At first light, when the six Prey had scattered into the forest arena, I’d revelled in the sense of adventure. Tara had to tell me to stop bounding around. ‘It’s like being out with a puppy,’ she’d said, scowling. Now the light feels treacherous, like it’s pointing me out: Here he is. Come and get him.

I slow to catch my breath. Most of the snow has melted, though stubborn pockets lurk in shaded dells and amongst the thicker copses. If I’m going to survive this, I’ve got to be smart. I fight off a sinking feeling in my gut—my older brother, Zand, never tires of telling me how pathetic my tykae skills are. Focus on practicalities: my canteen is almost empty. I drain the last mouthful and come up with a plan.

It’s hard work balancing speed and stealth, but I make good time cutting south through the forest. Relief makes my legs feel a bit wobbly when I finally spot the Lovers’ tree, named for the way its trunk, split into two at the base, twines around itself. Its roots hump and snake into the stream, forming a perch for me to balance on as I refill my canteen. I drink greedily and then glance up through the branches; from this angle they seem to claw at each other as they struggle to catch the pale spring sun, making the whole look more like a fight to the death than an embrace.

This is as good a place as any to rest up. From here I can cut southwest towards the rendezvous point. I sit with my back to the trunk, feet braced on the thick roots and listen to the gurgle and chatter of the stream. A faint splash and pop sets my heart racing. It’s just a stupid fish.

Master Tomak’s dry rasp replays in my memory: A warrior’s mind is clear. A warrior’s mind is focussed. Only then can he effectively command the tykae energy that resides within him. Only then can he win!

Without thinking, I pull my lucky stone from my pocket and roll it in the palm of my hand. Its surface is perfectly smooth, except for a crease that forms a streak of purple across the bottom two thirds of its length. At every fifth turn I trace the crease with my thumb and then start the count again. My heart slows to a trot and then a steady walk. With a frown of concentration, I set the stone turning slowly in the air, using a whisper of tykae to both support its weight and control its spin.

Hey look, it’s the noik.’ The low-voiced call comes from behind me.

I grab my stone from the air and scramble to my feet. Dyl is half-hidden by a spiky evergreen. He’s a year older than me, tall and skinny with whipcord muscles.

Where’s Tara?’ Dyl asks as he pushes his way out of the bushes. ‘Let me guess. She’s sent you to hide out here, while she takes on the run for Home Rock by herself.’

Home Rock is the final goal for all the Prey. It is a man-high fist of granite set into a clearing and surrounded by seven roughly concentric circles mapped out across the forest. Home Rock stands in the centre of the first circle and marks the finish point of the game.

No. We’re meeting up at—’ I snap my mouth shut, feeling stupid. Of the three teams fighting for victory against the Hunter, only one can win. The less they know about our plans the better. I straighten up, trying to look casual. ‘So, where’s your partner then?’

Right behind you,’ Mika says. She gives a snort of contempt. ‘Don’t know why you were selected to play. Anyone can see that you’re useless.’ Mika is fifteen, just like Tara, with the same blue eyes and braided snow-white hair.

I’ve got a place because Father pushed for it. And what Father wants, he gets. Zand said I’d be lucky to survive the first hour, and Father’s face had twisted into that half-frustrated, half-disgusted expression that’s always hovering behind his eyes whenever he looks at me. I decided, there and then, that this time I was going to prove them wrong.

I back away from Mika, face flushed, not trusting my voice, but not able to keep quiet either.

I’m old enough.’

I turned thirteen two days ago, so yes, I am old enough, just. But that isn’t what Mika means. She’s talking about my off template looks: blond hair instead of white, grey eyes instead of blue, more stocky than skinny. Like that makes any difference. I’m just as good as the rest of them—that’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

Mika closes the distance between us. ‘What? You think you can come anywhere near your sib’s score? Zand must’ve laughed himself sick when you got a place.’

Dyl moves to my right, bracketing me between them. ‘Must be hard having a wimp like you for a sib.’

You’re on the run, aren’t you?’ Mika says. ‘I bet the Hunter has already taken Tara out and you’re just looking for a place to hide, maybe earn a couple of survivor points.’

No, he hasn’t! If anyone can beat the Hunter, it’s Tara.’

She already has two wins under her belt; one more and she’ll be raised to the rank of Hunter herself. And anyway, I’d feel it if Tara was taken. From the look on their faces, I’ve just told them exactly what they want to know.

Poor little noik, did you get lost then? Or have you given up already?’ Dyl is smiling that sickly smile of his, buckteeth jutting between pale lips. I flash my own perfect teeth back at him. A small victory.

We’re pretty close to the seventh circle that marks the outer boundary of the game, if you step beyond that it’s an automatic forfeit. Not that anyone would. Better to be dragged out broken and bleeding than be branded a coward.

I’m not a noik.’ The words are out before I can stop them. Taunts like that have followed me all my life, but today the barbs sink deep. After all, here I am, the genetic throwback, running and hiding while Tara takes all the risks.

Mika shuts Dyl down before he can say the obvious. ‘That’s enough.’

She pulls up her vest and I watch, open-mouthed, as Mika unwinds a length of rope from around her waist. That’s against the rules! Prey are supposed to use just their wits and natural talents to defeat the Hunter. That’s the whole point.

We need to make our move. See if Tara’s opened up a gap for us to slip through.’

Dyl pounces. And I go down hard, lucky stone knocked from my hand. Mika wraps me in a vice-like telekinetic grip, while Dyl trusses me up good: hands behind my back, feet hobbled.

You’re wasting time,’ I gasp. I can taste blood. ‘I bet Nyki’s team is already closing in on Home Rock.’

Nah, the Hunter took them out an hour ago. It’s just us and Tara now.’ Mika looks pleased with herself.

Dyl grins and draws back his foot for a kick, but I’m ready for him. He yelps as a loop of tykae catches his foot in mid-air. I tighten my grip and watch as he hops and curses, arms swinging wildly for balance. Mika laughs and grabs him around the waist before he lands flat on his face. She holds onto him until he stops fighting to reach me.

No wonder Zand’s so mean,’ Mika says, looking me straight in the eyes. ‘Having the likes of you as a sib would screw anyone up.’

Yeah,’ Dyl spits. ‘No one wants a noik in their bloodline.’

I want to scream at them both. I want to take the memories of all the things that Zand has done and shove them into their heads. But instead I just lie there, trembling and blinking. It’s my secret. I can’t let anyone else see what my life is really like.

Mika clamps my ankles in a painful telekinetic grip and starts to drag me across the uneven ground. I grit my teeth, determined not to cry out. There’s no point in struggling. I’ve got no chance against the two of them.

Here’s a good spot,’ she says. They dump me in a bank of snow. I shake my head and blink away ice crystals. ‘That should keep you busy until Tara comes looking.’

Feel free to call for help,’ Dyl says over his shoulder. They both laugh.

A surge of anger sets me struggling, but the rope just bites tighter. I stop when I start to slide downhill, my legs disappearing into a much deeper drift. I can feel slope where the ground dips sharply beneath me. Instinct sets me pulling up tykae energy, ready to create a cocoon of warmth to snuggle in. I stop myself. That’s what they want me to do. Use up all my strength fighting the cold, leaving Tara to face the Hunter alone.

A numbing ache spreads through shoulders and hips where they press against the cold ground. I use a sliver of tykae to try and lever myself into a sitting position, but instead end up chest deep in snow. There’s a layer of solid ice under the drift and the combination of body heat and weight is enough to create a slide that, at any other time, would have been fun.

Hey! You can’t leave me here.’ Panic forces the words out. I slide a little deeper. Keep still. Calm down. I need my lucky stone. Where…? I remember the jolt as I hit the ground, Dyl busy punching while Mika consolidated her telekinetic hold, and the stone spinning away from me. I launch a low-level scan, testing for its familiar resonance in the surrounding bushes.

Nothing.

My stomach clenches. Maybe Dyl or Mika picked it up. The thought of someone else touching my lucky stone kindles a furious determination. I close my eyes—trying to ignore the ache building in fingertips and toes, and the cold squelch of snow that’s found its way up one trouser leg—and send delicate tendrils of tykae energy to investigate the binding securing my hands. It’s a complex twisting pattern of knots that I haven’t come across before. My heart sinks. It’ll take too long. My priority has to be Tara. I’ve got to warn her about Mika and Dyl. It means admitting that I let myself be captured. But what’s new there? It’s what they’re all expecting.

This time I’m too far away to sense her presence. I’ll have to fish for her. Digging deep, I fashion a dart, needle sharp and just as bright, one end trailing a gossamer thread of energy linked directly to my well of tykae.

I focus on the dart, imbuing it with part of my awareness. With a pulse of energy, I reach blindly: third circle, southeast quadrant. It’s too far and I know it. Still, I’ve got to try. I push harder probing, probing… Come on, Tara. You have my telepathic signature. Please be looking out for me, just in case the runt you got saddled with has got himself into trouble.

The thread flickers. Collapses. With a gasp I let it go. It would have been too easy to find her on the first cast. I shift the angle, more south than east, and try again. I can feel myself unravelling, energy spooling into grey nothingness.

<Tara, please.>

It’s a whisper, tightly wound around the thread that defines me. It hurts. Like I’m being scraped out by a rusty blade, bleeding what’s left of my energy into the void of not-Tara. I can feel myself falling, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

A shudder runs through me and I open my eyes. For long seconds nothing makes sense; the world is dim and grey and cold. I try to shift position. Suddenly I really need to pee.

Not now!

All I can see is dirty snow. My shoulders must’ve carved a hole as I slipped further down the slope, leaving me with space to breathe, but little else. No choice now. I’ve got to get out of here. My thoughts are as sluggish as my body, and at first I can’t get a grip on what tykae energy remains to me. It’s hard, tracing the intricate tangle of knots that bind my wrists. Once I’ve got the whole thing pictured in my mind, I’ll be able to figure out where to pull…

the ache in my bladder spikes…

NO! I will not be found tied-up and soaked in pee. Father will never forgive me and Zand will crow about it forever. I blink away tears, telling myself it’s anger and not panic that’s blurring the world. Come on, this isn’t so different from all those times Zand left me locked in the cellar. Over the years, I’ve learnt to ignore hunger and thirst, and yes, the need to pee. I call it my daydream strategy. I invoke it now, even though I know it will waste valuable time. But what choice do I have?

I’m seven years old. Zand grins as he hands me the Box. It doesn’t feel too bad at first, just a warm buzzing in my fingers. The sensation gradually turns into a burning itch that worms its way into my hands and then, as tears begin to prick, winds crimson bands of pain around my wrists. I drop the Box, rubbing at my hands and trying hard not to cry.

Zand laughs. ‘I knew you couldn’t do it.’ He sneers at my snuffling attempts to hide the pain. ‘You’re such a baby.’ The taunt hurts. Master Tomak doesn’t blame Zand when he drops the Box.

I can hear the Master’s dry, patient voice whispering the lesson over and over. ‘Close your mind to the pain. Focus only on the task.’

I pick the Box up, slot my fingers into the holes and trigger the test again. The mechanism inside the box is tricky; you have to find the switch to turn it off. Closing my eyes, I stretch out my senses, feeling my way through the twists and turns of miniature cogs, gears and levers: looking for the right sequence of pull, push, twist and turn that will release the switch and stop the pain. I’m sweating; my fingers and hands feel like they’re on fire. But Zand is watching, so I can’t give up. I stifle a gasp as pain lances up my arms. Zand is saying something, but I can’t hear him. Tangled in the intricacies of the Box my mind can’t spare a second’s attention for anything else.

Click.

A small cube rises from the centre of the Box; the subliminal hum cuts off, the pain stops. I open my eyes to find that I’m on my knees.

Zand pries the Box from my numb fingers and silently examines it, turning it over and over. He’s frowning. I can feel the question at the front of his mind. How did you do that? But he doesn’t ask. Instead, he turns his back on me and walks out.

I come back to myself with a loud sniff. My wrists are on fire and there’s an awful pricking in my fingertips. It takes me a moment to realise that my hands are free. I force numb fingers to deal with the less complicated knot that hobbles my feet and kick my way out of the snowdrift. Stumbling like a drunkard, I relieve myself against the nearest tree. Only then do I try and figure out what happened.

There’s no way that Tara could have got back to me in time, even if she knew where I was. I examine the rope; it hasn’t been cut. Did I actually work myself free?

I stumble through the forest, defensive weave wrapped tight. The sun is overhead. For a moment I’m glad of its almost-warmth. Then it hits me: I’m late. A twisted root catches my foot and suddenly I’m on my hands and knees on the ice-hard ground. I want to let go and just lie there. I want it to be over. But the game will go on until all the Prey have been captured, or someone gets past the Hunter and touches Home Rock. I remember the look on Father’s face and push myself to my feet.

Third circle is a fat circular strip of land thick with broadleaved trees. As I step through the gap between two gnarled trunks an arm clamps around my chest, its strength augmented by a crushing band of tykae. A hand slaps across my mouth.

‘It’s me,’ Tara whispers, her voice hoarse. ‘Stop struggling.’

I go limp and we both end up in a tangle of limbs on the forest floor.

She pushes me away, frowning. ‘You’re soaked through. What happened to you?’

‘Mika and Dyl,’ I say.

Tara snorts. ‘That bitch. Thinks she can sneak a win by taking out my partner? Well, she’s in for a surprise.’

Tara smiles and I smile back. I can’t quite believe it. The exhaustion sloughs away, though I still feel dizzy when I get to my feet. I don’t think she notices.

‘No sign of the Hunter,’ Tara says. ‘Chances are he’s busy bagging Mika and Dyl. Now’s our chance.’

I do my best to mimic the careful prowl of her movements as we cut straight across second circle and close in on Home Rock.

<I’m going to make the run.> Tara’s about ten strides south of my position, hidden amongst the trees.

<Wait. We still don’t know where the Hunter is.>

<C’mon Alden, we can win this!>

Her excitement is infectious. I can’t help grinning.

<I’m closer. I’ll do it.>

<I’m the fastest.> Exasperation stripes Tara’s words. Her tone softens. <Get ready to distract and defend.>

Tara sprints like a deer flushed from cover. In five thundering heartbeats she covers more than half the distance to Home Rock. I want to yell with excitement. There’s a flicker of movement to my right.

<Tara!> Too late. The force of the tykae strike lifts Tara into the air before sending her sprawling face down on the rough, pebble-strewn ground.

A sharp barking laugh cuts the sudden silence. The Hunter steps out of green shadow into the sunlight dappled edge of the clearing: a tall stringy adolescent, snow-white hair coming loose from the single braid down his back, face masked by the likeness of a ravening wolf.

Come out. Come out. Wherever you are.’

The sound of his voice is like a slap. I drop to my belly, heart hammering. It can’t be Zand. It just can’t. Instinct kicks in and I pour every last drop of tykae energy into my defensive shield. Over the years I’ve perfected the art of concealment, an act of simple survival growing up with an older brother like Zand. I feel his scan slipstream over my shield and skip beyond my position.

Right now, the best tactic is to abandon Tara, circle round and wait it out. I might get another opportunity when Mika’s team makes their run. After all, only one member of a team has to touch Home Rock to win.

It’s what Tara would do.

But I can’t move. I watch, transfixed, as Tara struggles to rise. Blood darkens one side of her face; thick, slow-motion drops spatter the ground as she raises her head and rolls onto her side. I yearn to reach out and touch her mind, but that’s what Zand is waiting for. He can use an active link to backtrack my location. Tara starts to push herself up into a sitting position.

Last chance,’ Zand says, too loud in the green-gold stillness.

Zand has that look on his face. The familiar paralysis takes hold and I bury my head in my arms. Hunters are not allowed to step inside the first circle, but Zand doesn’t need to. Tara yelps as she’s dragged across the clearing, her ankles bound in a savage telekinetic grip. It’s against the rules to use excessive force to subdue the Prey, but Zand doesn’t care about the rules. He just cares about winning.

My brother gives the treeline one last raking look, and then leans over to place his hand on Tara’s scratched and bleeding leg. Skin-to-skin contact, that’s all Zand needs to inflict his punishments. I know what comes next, my body trembles with remembered agony.

All choices flee when Tara begins to scream.

I cower under the bushes, trying to block out the sounds tearing the air. I can almost feel the needles of tykae energy piercing my body. Zand is laughing, the way he always does when he’s got me trapped and thrashing at his feet.

The screams cut off. I peer through the bushes. Tara is curled into a ball, her body shuddering. She draws a breath and lets out a wracking sob.

What’s it to be? You or the girl?’ Zand shouts across the clearing.

I feel sick. Tara’s hands scrabble weakly at the pebbles as she tries to crawl away. Her whimpered ‘please’ tears something inside me. I step into the clearing.

I knew it.’ Zand’s face twists with disgust. He stabs a finger at me. ‘You should’ve run or stayed hidden. You might still have had a chance to get past me.’

A mountain of anger and hurt lodges in my throat, damming the words that I’ve practiced night after night for this moment. Instead, I weave my fury into the lattice of my defensive shield.

At least Tara is quiet now.

I want to thank you,’ Zand says. ‘For leading me to Tara. I would never have found her without you.’

Suddenly I’m cold all over. I glance across at Tara, furtive and guilty. She’s curled in a ball, not moving.

Tara’s good. I’ll give her that. It was a smart move, drawing me away from you. Almost worked too.’

You doubled back,’ I say flatly.

Yeah,’ Zand smirks. ‘Found you pissing up a tree.’

The last word is half-shouted as Zand thrusts out a hand. The energy strike sends me staggering backwards, but I keep my feet and my silence. Zand never stops until you beg, and sometimes not even then. I retreat, drawing Zand as far away from Tara as I can. He swipes at the branches blocking his path as he skirts the edge of the clearing, but I know he won’t risk automatic disqualification by stepping into the first circle itself. That’s the one rule he won’t break.

Zand’s grin is all teeth. He pulls something from his pocket and tosses it up into the air. I flinch away and then realise what it is. The stone—my stone—catches the light as it twists and falls. With a cry I reach for it. The instant of relief as my telekinetic fingers close around its smooth surface is blasted away by a roar of white agony. The ground leaps up to smack me in the face. I squint at a world reduced to a smear of blue-white edged with a creeping darkness.

I have to get up. I have to face him.

Gasping, one hand cradling my ribs, I struggle to rise. It’s my brother’s harsh laughter that finally gives me the strength to lock my knees and stand.

You’re not…’ It’s hard to get my breath; my chest hurts. ‘Not going to win. Not this time.’

Zand just glares at me. I can feel his fury beating against my faltering shield. ‘You’re done,’ he hisses between clenched teeth. ‘This time tomorrow you’ll wake up in the dorms and I won’t have to look at your face ever again.’

So that was why Father pushed me into the game: one final test before consigning his faulty offspring to the dorms where all the unwanted end up. The betrayal threatens to swallow me whole. I clench my fist and feel the hard shape of the stone press into my palm.

You won’t get rid of me that easily,’ I spit back at him.

I know that Mika’s team is still out there; if I can distract Zand for long enough they might have a chance. I don’t want to win anymore. I just want Zand to lose. My brother raises both fists. I can’t keep him out for much longer; pretty soon it’ll be me screaming.

The click of scattered pebbles fills the clearing. I stare, eyes wide with surprise. Zand turns in time to see Tara slap her bloodied palm against Home Rock.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*


2 × five =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.