Home > The Hunt (The Hunt #1)(13)

The Hunt (The Hunt #1)(13)
Author: Andrew Fukuda

An escort walks in, stoic faced, and hands each of us a pair of shades. “Lights will be turned up in a moment,” he murmurs, “so the heper can see.” He checks each of our straps, spending the most time on Gaunt Man, whose straps are way too loose. Gaunt Man objects, raising his arm; as he does so, his shirt becomes untucked and he quickly reaches down to tuck it back in.

But not before I see it. A dul glint coming from his belt, curved and long like a dagger's blade.

An uneasy feeling touches the back of my neck. When the escort checks on my straps, it's on the tip of my tongue to say something.

But the escort walks off before I can speak. He stops at the very center of the arena and says, “Welcome to the Introduction, ladies and gentlemen.” Before walking out, he stamps his boot heavily on the circular door three times, a deep boom sounding. The lights inside the arena turn brighter. We throw on our shades.

And wait.

A mechanical whirring sounds from the circular door in the ground, fol owed by a series of robotic beeps. The door opens, just a crack. And then, just as swiftly, it drops shut, coughing up a puff of dust. Heads c*ck to the side. Then the door opens not a second later, a little wider this time.

Enough to see the outline of a head.

The twin dots of eyes peering out.

all the hunters explode toward the heper. Almost in unison, bodies snap against the restraints, fl ip in the air, and fal to the ground.

The door, again, fal s shut.

In a blink, everyone is upright and lurching against the restraints.

I pul against my mine, frothing at the mouth as I swing my head wildly to and fro. My shades fl y off.

I blink at the sudden brightness of the arena, now awash in vivid, keen colors. I see the hunters with a clarity that seems to enliven them. They are animals, bestial and overtaken with heper lust. Phys Ed and Crimson Lips have given to scratching their necks, leaving long white etches where their nails rake into skin. Their mouths gape wide, then snap shut like a steel trap, the harsh, rocky sound of teeth gnashing against teeth fi l ing the fetid air.

The trapdoor opens again; a ful y extended arm holds up the door. A head emerges from underneath, peering around like a peri-scope. Apparently assured, it steps out, leaving the door opened, all the better for a quick escape.

For a moment, all is quiet. The sloshing of saliva ceases; the crack of necks and knuckles and spines stop. We study the heper with an almost innocent curiosity, as if we don't mean to pil age its intestines and suck its blood and gorge it at the drop of a hat.

It is the same heper as the one on TV, frail and wispy. It blinks, surveys the piles of morsels distributed around it.

Then Ashley June lets loose a horrifi c scream of desire into the air. Within seconds, we're all yowling and mewling.

The heper is unmoved by the cacophony as it walks to the fi rst pile of food. Two loaves of bread, placed in front of Crimson Lips' post. The heper picks up a loaf, rams it into its mouth, and tears off a mouthful. It moves effi ciently, businesslike, as it grabs the other loaf and tosses it into the open door without so much as a glance at the hissing Crimson Lips. It's done this before. It shuffl es over to the next pile, bottles of water.

It twists open a cap, hoists the bottle upside down, and guzzles down water. Doesn't linger. Cradling the remaining bottles in the crook of its arm, it carries them over to the open door and drops them in. Then it is up and moving to another pile, the candy. all the while, even with snarls and screams about it, the heper never looks up. It is cool y minding its own business.

The heper moves past a stack of notebooks in front of Gaunt Man and toward the candy. My eyes catch a glimmer of stale light from Gaunt Man's waist. The dagger; Gaunt Man is taking it out now. White veins in his bony hand bulge out like sickly squirming worms as he grips the dagger and starts fi ling away at the leather strap. He knows he has to move fast: the heper isn't exactly laying out a picnic mat to dine in our midst. It's simply going to throw all the food and drinks and notebooks into its chamber and then dis-THE HUNT 101 appear. It'l be gone in less than a minute. A rage fi l s the arena, an explosion of frustration at the feeling of being cheated. Ashley June gives another bloodcurdling scream.

She strains against the straps, a desperation attending her desire.

Gaunt Man attacks the straps with extra fervor. He pul s taut the strap tethered to his left wrist while his right arm pistons back and forth, sawing away.

And just like that, the strap fal s in two. He stares stupidly at it dangling in half. Then it hits him; I see his body go erect.

Fantasy is now a dusking reality. And he's hunched over again, fi ling away at the straps tied to his legs, his right arm a blizzard of speed.

The heper has no idea. It is standing over the pile of candy.

It's unwrapping a candy, sucking on it, oblivious to what's going on behind him.

Gaunt Man has sliced through the two leg straps. He switches hands, starts sawing away at the fi nal strap on his right wrist.

The heper pauses, lifting its head into the air like a dog catching a scent.

Then it bends down and picks up another piece of candy.

The last strap is giving Gaunt Man some trouble. Perhaps in his excitement he's not focusing, or perhaps it's on account of having to use his left arm. But he's slower, and it's frustrating him. He lets out a scream of frustration that knifes into my ear drums.

The heper winces, then spins around. It sees Gaunt Man, the sliced straps dangling from his left arm and ankles, and it understands the situation immediately. In a blink, it spins, dropping the candy, its legs already pumping to the door in the ground. Just fi ve paces to get there.

At that very moment, Gaunt Man slices through the fi nal strap.

He spins around. He is twenty paces from the trapdoor. The heper is fl ying toward it, now only three paces away.

Before the heper takes another step, it is tackled by Gaunt Man.

They rol in the dirt, Gaunt Man's tackle carry ing them ten yards. They separate briefl y: the heper leaps to its feet, lunges for the trapdoor.

Gaunt Man sideswipes it, sends it back down to the dirt.

The heper scrabbles against the ground like a rabid crab; Gaunt Man leaps atop it. They're about the same size, but it's no match. Not even close. Gaunt Man's fi ngers sink sickeningly into the heper's back; blood quickly spreads on its shirt.

The sight of heper blood so close, the smel of it rushing into the air, sends the other hunters into hyperdelirium. The screams rip into my ear drums, threatening to shatter them.

Don't cover your ears! Don't cover your ears! I do the only thing I can: I raise my head, look to the raf ters, and scream.

At the pain, at the horror I know is taking place. My scream joins the others around me. For a few moments, it is my scream that fi l s my ears, covers over all the jackal-and hyena- like howls around me. That is all I want. For just a few moments to be free of their screams.

Then, for the fi rst time, the heper makes a sound. A scream, so different from the screams of desire and hunger around it. This is a cry of horror and a burrowed resignation. It haunts me. It is the amplifi cation of what has lived in my own bones for years.

I hear the sound of bone crunched and then snapped.

Gaunt Man has broken one of the heper's legs. He's toying with it, like a cat with an injured mouse, biding his time. And he's doing it to nettle the other hunters as wel , teasing us with the prize that is so out of reach for us but so inevitable for him. The heper crawls now on its two arms and one leg, its left leg dragging in the dirt, its eyes delirious with unimaginable pain.

“Throw me the knife!” Abs shouts. She is looking at Crimson Lips, who has recovered the knife that Gaunt Man tossed away.

Crimson Lips is a blur; nobody's noticed until now that she's been sawing away at the straps.

“Throw me the knife!”

“The knife— listen to me, throw me the knife!” someone else yel s.

Gaunt Man's head snaps up, takes in what is happening.

He can't take his time anymore. Within seconds, Crimson Lips is going to cut through her restraints, will be charging toward the heper.

With a cry of anger, he leaps on the heper and sinks his fangs into the back of its neck.

Abs cuts through her fourth strap; even as it is fal ing away, she is already spinning around, leaping in one cheetahlike pounce to the heper. Her aim is off; she ends up upending Gaunt Man, and the two of them bounce away from the suddenly freed heper.

The heper scuttles on hands and foot, blood trailing behind it, frantical y trying to fi nd the door opening. Its eyes are pools of fevered dread and pain. It is disoriented, blinded by the blood pouring into its eyes. In its confusion, it is coming right at me.

Abs and Gaunt Man are on their feet, pouncing toward the heper. They land on it at exactly the same time, knocking it off its feet. Right into me.

Its head knocks into my shoulder a split second before its body slams into mine. Weirdly, it embraces me, its arms encircling my waist. Instinctual y, my arms swing around its body. I am holding it up, Abs and Gaunt Man right behind it, their nails sinking into its skin, their fangs bared and a second away from slashing downward and into it.

It looks up, and for one dreadful moment, our eyes meet. I wil never know if its eyes suddenly widened because of the fl ood of pain surging through its body or because of recognition. Of another heper.

Eventual y, when it is all over, the hunters are released. A staffer, speaking gravely, instructs us to return to our rooms for the remainder of the night. By then, there is hardly anything left of the heper, just its shredded clothes. Its blood has been licked off where it splattered; even the dirt, coagulated with the heper's spil ed blood, has been dug up, stuffed into mouths, chewed, and sucked on.

My escort is waiting outside the Introduction. “Go put on a change of clothes,” he tel s me, his nostrils twitching. “I smel heper all over you.”

The openness of the Vast is what I relish. After I climb the endless fl ight of stairs, lagging far behind everyone else, I fi nal y reach the ground fl oor. The others move on up to their quarters. I walk out into the open, the night sky fi l ed with stars. An easterly breeze blows, bil owing my clothes, wafting through my hair. I stagger toward the library, grateful to be able to get away, to be alone. Grains of sand blow against my face, but I barely notice.

Halfway back, I col apse to the ground.

I am so sapped of strength, I can't get up. I lay my head back down on the bricked walkway. It's the lack of water.

My desiccated brain lies shriveled in my skul , a sour plum.

Grayness takes over.

Minutes later— or is it hours?— I come to. I feel better, strength returned to my limbs. The sky is less dark, the stars fewer in num-ber and dimmer. I glance back at the Institute. Nobody has noticed me.

Even though I know it's futile, I do another walk- through the library, hoping to fi nd something to drink. A half hour later, I col apse on the lounge chair, body feeling like a crisp autumn twig, not a molecule of moisture within. My heart hammers away in alarm as if it knows what I'm trying to deny. That my situation is desperate. I won't last another night. They'l come for me after dusk when I don't show up and fi nd me fl opped on the fl oor. It'l be over moments later.

A metal ic click rings through the library, then a soft churning sound. The shutters. Pul ing down darkness, like my eyelids slowly closing. In the blackness, the air grows chil y. My body odor rises to my nose, a sickening stench of heper. I lift my arms, smel my pits.

Ripe. Tomorrow, after the sun sets and the moon rises, I'm a dead man.

A dead heper.

A dead heper.

Images of the heper's death fi l my sleep: feverish reinterpretations, the screams louder, the colors sharper. In my nightmare, the heper leaps into my arms, its blood running over my cheekbones, down my cheeks. In my thirst, my pasty- dried tongue reaches out refl ex-ively, dabbing at the blood. I suck on the blood, letting it soak into my tongue like mountain spring water into a dry sponge, then draw it down my parched throat, feeling its energy ripple through my sapped body. As my body begins to tingle warmer, the heper screams louder— until I realize the scream is coming not from the heper, but from the other hunters, all of them stil tied to their posts, pointing at me, screaming, as I kneel bent over the dead heper in my arms, its skin pasty and blotchy blue.

I shudder awake, the backs of my dry eyelids scraping against my eyebal s.

It is still the middle of the day. The beam of sunlight has returned, streaming across the library again, an il uminated tightrope from one end to the other. It is even brighter and thicker than I remember it.

I'm too tired to do anything but watch it. My thoughts scatter in haphazard, incoherent penumbras. It's all I can do, just mind-lessly watch the beam of light. So I do that, for minutes (hours?).

The beam shifts ever so with the passing time, traveling in a diagonal fashion along the far wal of the library.

Then something interesting happens. As the beam moves along the wal , it suddenly hits something that causes it to bounce off at an angle; the beam is refl ected diagonal y to the adjacent wal . At fi rst, I think it's just my mind playing tricks on me. I blink. It's still there, only more obvious now.

The original beam shooting across to the far wal and now the shorter, refl ected beam, bounced to the right wal .

It's enough to rouse me out of the lounge chair. I make my way to the far wal , my painful knees churning in sockets like cactus scraping on concrete. Where the beam hits the far wal is a smal circular mirror, no bigger than the palm of my hand, nailed to the wal . It is angled slightly, refl ecting the beam off to the side wal .

As I make my way to that side wal , it happens again. That second refl ected beam is in turn refl ected: now there are three sunbeams bouncing around the room. The third beam is weak and momentary. It grows brighter for about ten seconds, then fades. As it does, I hurry to the spot it is shining at, a faint dot of il umination on the spine of a book. I walk over and hook out the book. Feel its leathery feel in my hand, smooth and worn. I carry it to the fi rst beam of sunlight, the second beam itself now fading away. I hold the book to the light, fl ip it around to the front cover.

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