Ella sucked in a deep breath as she ran through the forest. She bent forward to duck under a fallen log before straightening again. Her heart pounded with fear, making it difficult to catch her breath. The Others were in the forest. That meant danger. The sound of one of their metal machines could be heard in the distance. Jayden, her best friend and fellow hunter, ran beside her. Ella knew the other girl was just as frightened as she was, but she didn’t let it show.
They turned to the left and ran down a narrow animal trail. Ella moved ahead of Jayden when it became too difficult to run side by side. Bounding over another log, a harsh cry escaped them both when the ground suddenly gave way from under their feet and they fell into a deep pit. When Ella landed, pain exploded in her ankle after Jayden fell on top of it, twisting it at an odd angle.
Ella groaned, rolling onto her side until the pain receded enough for her to draw in a shaky breath. She pushed up from the soft ground and glanced at Jayden. The young girl had jumped to her feet and was glancing wildly around the pit.
“Ella, we’re trapped!” Jayden exclaimed in a horrified whisper. “The Others! They will catch us. We have to get out of here.”
Ella gritted her teeth and reached for her lance. Using it for support, she pulled herself up using the tree roots exposed by whoever had dug the hole. She paled when she tried to put pressure on her foot. Something was broken. She could actually feel the bone moving.
“I’ll help you get out,” Ella said in a strained voice filled with pain. “You can go for help.”
Jayden turned and looked at Ella with a frown. “If I can get out, I can pull you out,” she said.
Ella shook her head, fighting back the nausea threatening to overwhelm her. Her ankle was already beginning to swell and turn black and blue. She wouldn’t have much time before it would be too difficult to help Jayden escape.
“My ankle is broken,” Ella replied, fighting back tears. “You’ll have to go alone.”
“But… What if the Others come back?” Jayden whispered in horror.
“Then I will die,” Ella replied in a quiet voice filled with resignation. “Come, you must escape. Hopefully, they will not come to check the trap soon. There is a storm coming. Perhaps it will keep them from venturing out. I’ll brace myself against the side. You can get up onto my shoulders, and use the roots to make it the rest of the way up. It should be enough to get you out of here.”
Jayden bit her lip and nodded, glancing up at the edge of the pit. Ella carefully turned, using the lance to balance herself, and grabbed several of the roots. While Ella braced herself as stiffly as she could, Jayden placed one foot on the upper thigh of Ella’s good leg, then climbed up until she was standing on Ella’s shoulders.
Ella trembled, gritting her teeth until her jaw hurt in an effort not to cry out at the pain while she straightened up as much as she could. Panting with the exertion, she extended one arm so Jayden could use her hand as a step. Ella stared at the dark dirt until the pressure of Jayden’s weight was removed.
Ella blinked her eyes to clear them before looking up at Jayden. A soft, sad smile curved Ella’s lips at the look of sorrow in her friend’s eyes. She drew in a deep breath, before releasing it.
“Go, Jayden,” Ella whispered. “If I’m not here when you get back, know I’ve gone on to the next life and we will meet again one day.”
“I’ll hurry, Ella,” Jayden swore. “Don’t give up.”
“I won’t, little sister,” Ella said, hopping backwards.
Jayden gave her one last smile before she disappeared. Ella steadied the lance to slide down until she was sitting on the ground, crying out when she jarred her injured foot against the dirt floor. Thunder echoed through the thick forest and a soft, steady rain began to fall. Ella laid down and stared up at the canopy of trees that acted like an umbrella, protecting her from most of the rain. A shiver ran through her and she sniffed.
The hunters, beasts, the Others – there were many names for the ones that ruled the world outside of the forest that was her home. For centuries, her people had avoided them. As time passed, the survival of Ella’s people had become more myth than sure fact to the rest of the world. But remaining completely unseen had become more difficult with each generation as the Others continued to expand further into the forested areas.
Ella and Jayden were part of a small clan that lived in harmony with the forest. They were humans, beings with a single, constant form. The Others were the beast-people, beings who could shift into many different forms. A long, long time ago, humans and the Others had fought. The Others had won, almost wiping out the humans. Only a few humans had survived throughout the world.
Over time, the humans had disappeared altogether, or so the Others thought. In truth, the humans had created a haven for themselves deep in the forests, the mountains, and the frozen areas of the world, existing unnoticed by the Others.
Ella had never met any other humans besides those in her village like her father and the other elders had before her time. She wasn’t even sure that any survived outside her dying clan. Without fresh blood and a permanent living area, their chances of surviving another generation or more was growing slimmer. Closing her eyes, her hot tears mixed with the cold rain. She thought of what the Others would do if they found her before her people could rescue her. If she was lucky, they would kill her quickly. At worst, they would take their time, cutting her up and studying her before killing her. Either way, she was dead.
“Please, if Jayden does not return in time, please have mercy and let me die swiftly,” she whispered to the forest.
Ty Bearclaw slid out of his truck. Shaking his head, he grimaced as cold rain slipped inside the collar of his shirt. He reached over and grabbed the wide brimmed hat off the passenger seat. He placed it on his head for protection from the rain.
“I just needed one more hour,” he growled to himself. “Just one more hour of no rain, but no, the clouds had to start pissing the moment I turned onto the road.”
Ty reached behind the seat and pulled out his rifle. He probably wouldn’t need it, but he had learned that it was better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. His job as curator at the Washington State Animal Sanctuary, Research, and Observation Center—WSASROC—took him to all kinds of places. This time, it was a four hour drive from home. A local resident had complained that some type of animal had been getting into his storage shed.