I was standing in front of one of those massive buttress-rooted trees common in Amazonia, focused on a two inch long horned beetle in the moss at my feet. I was taking a piss when I felt it. Something small, cool, and hard was pressing between my shoulder blades through the damp T-shirt. A man's voice accompanied the touch, speaking words I recognized as Spanish but did not understand, having brushed up only on essential phrases when preparing for my trip.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak much Spanish," I said without turning, cock still in hand. "Habla Ingles?" My polite response was automatic; my brain hadn't caught up with the situation. Perhaps I imagined that if I didn't turn and look, then this couldn't really be happening.
"Si, I speak a little English. I said 'don't move or I'll shoot you'." The man's accent was the rolling Hispanic lilt of the area, but he spoke my language without any trouble.
"Okay, I'm not moving," I jabbered.
I was acutely aware of my dick still protruding from the zipper of my cargo pants. There was a man behind me, pressing into my flesh what I had to assume was a gun, and I had no idea what he wanted. We were in Ecuador, for crying out loud. One of the safest places in South America. It was supposed to be nothing like the mugging and murder hotspots of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez or the People's Army's abduction zone in Colombia. Ecuador was a haven for eco travelers like me. My group—eight tourists, the rep of the travel company, and the local guide—were just ahead on the trail. We had been looking for somewhere to stop for a snack on our way to an afternoon canoeing on a lagoon, and I thought it a good idea to take a leak before we settle down to eat.
Instead, I was standing there with my arms flapping at my sides, and I wasn't sure how I even ended up in this position. I'd reacted the way you'd expect in some movie hold-up when a bad guy sneaks up behind someone and shouts "hands up!" But I feared the gun was no prop, and I knew I was no action hero. I was shaking, in fact. The sweat remaining on my skin after the walk through steaming vegetation had gone cold despite the ninety-degree heat. I gulped and found my voice, but it came out as a croaked whisper, "Who are you? What do you want?"
"My name is Alvaro Ramirez, of the Socialist Movement for the Liberation of Ecuador. And I want to know who you are, and what you are doing here. But first, I want to take you somewhere we can question you in safety. Place your hands behind your back."
It felt like the contents of my innards had liquefied. The muscles in my arms froze in place. "Wh—what?"
"I said, 'place your hands behind your back.' And if I have to repeat myself again, I may just shoot you instead. I cannot let you go now that I have told you my name. You will no doubt prove to be a worthless tourist, but we would like to make sure you have no other purpose here. Now do what I say."
I considered trying to fight him. Grab the gun and run. We've all seen it in those action movies. James Bond. Jason Bourne. Bruce Willis. You swing round so fast you knock the gun aside before he can pull the trigger. Then, you punch him in the face and snatch the weapon at the same time.
They make it look so easy in the movies, but I was no stuntman. I was an architecture grad from Birmingham, England.
I moved my shaking arms down and behind my back.
The man was holding the point of that gun perfectly steady in the middle of my back as he closed cold metal around my left wrist. My gaze followed the beetle's slow creep up the tree trunk. It had green spots on its back. Somewhere at the back of my mind, a part of my brain that was still functioning properly murmured, "This is your last chance. Last chance to make a break for it before he has you cuffed and helpless."
Heart racing, gut wrenching terror.
It was the sort of terror that either froze you in place or sent you running for your life. Fight wasn't an option. There was only flight. I'd been running so long everything looked the same, all the trees, the rocks, the fallen logs, everything melting together into a single never ending hell. But I couldn't stop. They'd find me if I did.
I knew what They were capable of.
I couldn't stop running despite my harsh, heavy breathing. My muscles ached, and the raw burning of my dry throat made breathing even more painful. A soft breeze sent a shiver across my skin. The rustling intensified my need to get away. What if it was Them and not the wind? I'd been on the run for what seemed forever, but I didn't know how true that was.
Something snapped somewhere in the dense brush. Fear surged, sending me further into the unknown. I tripped on something and landed with a hard thud, a tree's gnarly roots attracted my site. I was sure the fall hurt but the physical pain I already felt muted anything brought on by it. Dead leaves crinkled under my weight, and an irrational fear of the leaves alerting the Ones hunting me took over. After all, I was sure the leaves were quieter than my running. But I couldn't help it. They were close.
Another twig snapped, the sound terrifyingly similar to crunching bone. The gnarly tree roots melted away into the catalyst of this hunt.
Bones snapped and crunched under the pressure of the two monstrous creatures' jaws. It wasn't something I ever heard before, but oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, I thought it a pretty sound. The night did little to hide the massive horse like creatures eating my former friend, at least I thought he was my friend. The two fought loudly and fiercely over the body like warring tigers. What exactly they were fighting for, I didn't know.
The horse-like creatures were larger than any horse I had ever seen. That was saying something, since my cousin bred Clydesdales, the big draft horses in the Budweiser commercials. The thin moonlight caught Their shimmering eyes. The cream-colored, almost light blond, one watched me more closely than the other darker one. Almost every move I made was tracked by dead, emotionless light blue eyes. This creature was already hunting me, and I hadn't even begun to run.
Their coats should've been soft but instead looked like high polished stone. Manes that should've been flowing were hard and stood on end like Mohawks. Their tails moved, fused together with what seemed minds of their own, lashing and cutting anything that happened to stand in its path with a terrifying spear-like end. Long curved horns protruded just above their eyes.
Another snap of something urged me into a dead run. I couldn't stop, not now. They'd rip me apart alive like they had him. He screamed and cried, probably in pain. and most certainly fear. As much as death fascinated me, I was not interested in becoming the prey. I picked myself up and rushed forward, dodging imposing trees and jumping holes that I imagined wanted to suck me down for Them. Rustling leaves sent me darting to the side. I fell into the hollowed out embrace of an old dead tree. The smell of dirt and pine was inviting and gave a sense of comfort. Just maybe this would hide my scent from Them.
My mind wanted to keep running, but my body just wouldn't let me. I relaxed and released a breath I didn't know I was holding. All of a sudden, the full extent of my exhaustion settled in, weighing me down. Something splattered on my hand. I blinked several times at the bright red dot, not really seeing it for what it was, and my lip stung. More red on my fingers confused me until I finally realized my lip was cracked and bleeding. It was then I finally realized just how thirsty I was. I should've grabbed a bottle of water from the car before I started running. Other aches and pains made themselves known, and I couldn't bring myself to move, not anymore.
The hollow tree seemed like the perfect place to hide, but it was a lie. There was no safe place to hide. A bush obscured the entrance, and the tight space gave me a sense of security. I toyed with the idea of checking for Them, but it wouldn't do any good. Besides, it wasn't like I could actually do anything if they were out there except to accept my inevitable death.
Micah stared at the trees around him in wonder. Six years. Six long, desolate, green-less years he'd been in prison. And now, because of some fluke, some questionable skill, he was being offered his freedom. They'd told him the rules were simple: if he managed to avoid being captured for a full day cycle, he would have his freedom back. No more rotting in a cell, running from guards and prisoners alike, being driven to the brink of madness by the siren call of the sun, the whisper of a breeze that could do no more for him than carry the scent of green things on it.
He shivered. The two things he was best at—running and hiding—would be the ones to save him this time. He could do this. It didn't matter that he faced off against all of the nobility, that they were all trained for this. He could manage. Just a simple day cycle, he'd hidden and run for longer stretches of time before.
A small beeping noise drew Micah's attention to the hand-sized hover-screen on a rock that the judges of the hunt had left for him. A map appeared, showing where Micah was and where the nobility would be starting. He only had a bit of time to memorize where certain key landmarks were, such as the three water sources that would provide him with something to drink if he couldn't find any plants that produced any liquid.
It had been a while since Micah had been able to use clean water to bathe, but it was a luxury that he couldn't afford at the moment. Once he was free though... Another beep drew his mind back from daydreaming, and he watched as a little countdown timer appeared in place of the map, letting him know when the containment shield would be erected and the hunt would start.
Breaking out into a nervous sweat, Micah tried to remember everything he'd been taught. Remembered curling up in his cell, a small knife stolen from the kitchens tucked beneath his pillow, barely any sleep coming as every creak of metal startled him into fear and panic. He couldn't go back to that.
A breeze rustled through the trees, caressing Micah's exposed arms as he was finally allowed to submerge himself in his family's gift of dealing with wind. It calmed him, though he'd have preferred his own attire to the outfit they'd put him in. A beacon, that's what the clothes were. His first step would be to cover the maroon red of the shirt, or ditch it, and make the pants more brown than black.
The soft buzz of the containment shield being activated had him running. He decided to go for the furthest body of water in hopes that he'd find mud to cover himself and his clothes in. It might be a bit of a long shot, but he'd been in stranger circumstances.
The air pumping into his lungs felt divine. It was clean, filled with nature instead of the decaying scent of lost humanity and stale sex. It reminded him of his origins, that he should now be among the lesser nobility, sent out an hour after the true nobility had been released. But his mother had angered someone of high status, someone with a lot of power, someone who found joy in crushing their family name. It was because of that woman that Micah had ended up in prison, though she would never find her missing jewels.
Micah grinned, holding back a whoop of triumph. Everything he'd had to endure for the last six years was worth it. Seeing that face twist into such an ugly scowl, seeing the damage that woman did to herself in front of a crowded ballroom that held at least two of the five princes...Micah would do it all again.
The sound of leaves rustling despite lack of movement in the air had Micah dropping to the ground and crawling into a small space between tree roots he could barely squeeze through. His heart thudded, and the elation he'd felt moments ago was gone, replaced by cold terror. There was no way anyone could have been able to catch up with him, not from the starting points. Not unless someone was cheating.
Micah listened, ears straining, breath coming in soft and jagged gasps. Drawing in air, such a simple, unconscious act, yet it was the cause for many captures. It had been one of the first lessons Micah had learned from his mentor, a man who had fallen in love with the broken flower that was Micah's mother. The second had been to never fall for someone who'd been raised in a station so far above yours that they would see you as nothing but trash.
The memories helped Micah focus, to dredge up training drilled into him by one of the best thieves in the lower districts. He couldn't hear any more rustling, but it could be a waiting game. That had been lesson number five, and Micah was good at patiently staying still. To distract himself from the creeping boredom, Micah allowed his eyes to drift. His senses opened up, catching a gust of air as it slid in beside him, telling him the surrounding area's secrets. A rabbit carcass buried beneath a fallen log from a recent storm, a nest whose chicks had recently left, and prey creeping away from a new predator.