So this is my first post on FictionPress, although I use FanFiction a lot under the same username. I'm not sure how I feel about this story - it's very depressing and includes some pretty grotesque stuff. I can't really say what because it'll give too much away, but I'll up the rating soon just in case. If you don't like it - you have been warned - DON'T READ! Stuff like non-con (not graphic, don't worry) and implications of sexism are also included. This is not the worst stuff. If you feel easily sick - again, DON'T READ!
Otherwise, enjoy the story! I appreciate all reviews unless they're mean and then I'll just curl up in a ball and sob for a while. But I'd really love to know what you guys think. This is supposed to be a teenage story but it's quite graphic in parts... All shall be revealed...
I really don't know what else to say because I've never really had anyone read one of my personal stories before, and this one currently isn't finished, but I have written quite a lot of it, and if you like it I'll be really encouraged to write more! Oh, and I just realised that I don't need to write a disclaimer since it's my own stuff. That makes me REALLY happy.
My heart pounds, my pulse races, and my breath curls out in front of me as I sprint as fast as my legs will carry me down the path that has been created by thousands of feet before mine, trampling the bracken and leaves down to form a makeshift track. My sneakers slide in the mud, thorns and nettles rip at my bare ankles, at my already-torn jeans. I can't breathe properly. The only coherent thought is 'they are coming'.
I race down the familiar sloping hill that will lead me to the riverbank, nearly lose my balance as I turn the corner at the bottom, but manage to avoid the murky water. If I fall now, I will be killed for sure. I don't know how long I've been running for now – it feels like days, but it is more likely that only a few hours have passed. My lungs scream for air, but I don't stop long enough to gather any. Instead, I force my legs, numb from the cold and the mud caking them up to my knees, to move onward, faster and faster, my muscles burning and my hair streaming out behind me.
I know I will not be seen down by the riverbank, but the realisation doesn't bring me any comfort. They will seek me out still, pinpoint me with their flashlights and track me on their computers as a last resort. They are the hunters, and we are their prey. Running, for them, is a sport, a game. For us, it is a choice between life and death.
My tracking chip burns my forearm as soon as I remember its presence. They won't track me unless I don't hear the siren to signal that the running period is over, but it will prevent me from getting too far away. Tracking their subjects takes the fun out of it for the hunters. I don't want to get on their bad side, so I stick close to the river and keep moving. There is no time to stop and rest, even for a few seconds, because sometimes they appear to materialise out of nowhere. That's how they caught me off guard the one time, when Gabriel grabbed me around the waist as I leaned against a tree. I didn't see him coming, and I certainly didn't see the glint of the knife he held in his left hand as he swung me around and pressed the blade to my cheek. I managed to loosen his grip and fled in the direction of the darkness, bleeding and in pain but still alive. I still have the scar the wound made, and instead of regarding it as a flaw, it helps to remind me how careful I need to be.
The darkness presses in on me now. With only the pale moonlight to guide me through the rough maze of the forest, it's difficult to see where I'm going, and I stumble more than a few times. At one point I'm certain I hear a gunshot somewhere above me, back on the main path, and I sprint faster. Someone is dead, I'm sure of it. Usually, there are around three kills per run, but there can be up to six per night, if the hunters are lucky. I don't let myself get attached to anyone here – we'll all die eventually. I'm just holding onto the hope that I'll make it out of here before my day arrives.
Another half hour passes of flat-out running before the siren finally wails, startling me. I immediately turn around and jog back up the bank, away from the river. It takes me a good few minutes to rejoin the path, but when I finally manage it, I wish I hadn't. The place is littered with bodies – this must be a new record for the hunters. I recognise a few of the faces but can't put names to them until I've walked at least a mile, and then I almost trip over Peri's corpse. She lies on the ground with her eyes wide open, the wound in her chest still gaping. She's been ripped apart by a shotgun at close range – her body is almost clean in half. Her blood stains the ground beneath me, her small intestine snaking out of the flaying skin. The sight makes me sick, but I still lean down to close her eyes. That's what people do, isn't it? Close the eyes of the dead. I don't know why I bother with the useless custom, but it makes me feel better now that Peri isn't staring at me anymore.
I don't care about anyone here, but if I had to choose one person to ally myself with, it would have been Peri. I feel numb as I trudge back along the curving path that leads to the house. I've had time to catch my breath now, but my legs ache and it hurts to carry on. I can only imagine Peri's face, white and cold with death. I wonder who killed her. I want to tear their throats out. She was too young to die like that. I can only thank whoever is up there that she didn't suffer a painful death – she would have passed away almost immediately after she was shot.
The house looms ahead of me suddenly, casting a shadow over the gravel driveway. The trees fade away into the background as I make my way back up to the front door, my sneakers crunching on the gravel as I enter. The house is a large Victorian structure, with two separate attics and four chimneys on the roof. There are terrible draughts at night, and the hunters are constantly watching us, but it's the only place I know to call home since they took away my memories.
There are a few others coming up the drive, sweat pouring off them, some still panting slightly, all of them dazed. Two girls cling to each other for comfort, or out of exhaustion, or both. I stand alone in the hallway, a little way away from everybody else, while Gabriel steps out of the kitchen to count us before we're allowed back to bed. One of the girls is crying. I don't cry. I stand, rigid, with my back pressed against the radiator, cold all over despite the rigorous running session. Gabriel regards us all with his icy stare before he works through the checklist – as I predicted, a record has been broken. Ten kills in one night. He is jovial as he congratulates us on surviving the run, although Valencia has blood pouring from her right leg and Farah is clutching her arm to her chest. There are always injuries in the forest – I'm just lucky tonight.
"Standards are slipping. I don't expect it to be that easy next time, you understand?" Gabriel threatens as soon as the endorphins have died down. I flinch at his sharp tone, remembering Peri's face in the woods, and wonder if he was the one to pull the trigger.
"Yes, sir," we chorus. As soon as he dismisses us I race up the stairs to the attic with Farah and Ellen. Ellen has no visible injuries whatsoever, and falls asleep almost immediately without bothering to remove the make-up she applied this morning. She's the only one that makes an effort around here, and it serves her well – she spends every Friday evening curled up in Daemon's arms, safe and sound. Even while we're running, none of the hunters dare to break her beautiful face, purely out of fear of what Daemon will do to them. She doesn't help around the house at all – she's perfectly justified in sitting around painting her nails. She earned her place in the attic out of sexual favours instead of hard graft like the rest of us.
Farah spends a few minutes binding her arm with a belt, fashioning a sling for herself, before she turns out the light and the attic room is plunged into darkness. I can sense Peri's empty cot across from me, and I curse Ellen for being here when she's not. Eventually, I close my eyes, shift into a more comfortable position, and fall into a restless slumber.
Running is all I ever dream about anymore. I can't escape it, and I suppose I shouldn't strive to.
The next morning, I wake to sunshine. It pours in through the window, erasing the dew from the grass and drying the mud from last night. As I drag myself up out of bed, I realise that I've been sleeping in my clothes, and dry dirt has been sprinkled all over my mattress. Our cots are small, two against each wall, and we're only allowed to change the covers every month. I try my best to brush the sheet down, strip down to my underwear while everyone else sleeps, and sneak through to the communal bathroom to shower before they wake.
I remember my stay in the dormitory, before I was moved into the attic. The cots down there were uncomfortable, and lined up in neat rows, about twenty of them in the single room. Boys and girls slept in the same room, but nobody minded because everyone was always so tired. The four leading males now sleep in the attic across from ours, which can be reached via the conjoining doors or the separate staircases that lead upstairs from the second level of the old house, and the leading girls sleep across from them. We're the ones who have been here the longest, survived for years here. Running is all I remember. I live and breathe it. Sometimes I think it's a blessing, not being able to remember my family or my old home, but in some short bursts, I wish I could conjure up memories to help me carry on. I picture a woman's face and pretend that she is my mother, but it always feels false. The memory serum they injected into us when we first got here can be considered a small mercy, or a curse.
My shower doesn't take long, and pretty soon I've towelled myself dry and changed into fresh clothes – a plain grey t-shirt and black jeans. Camouflage serves us well here – all I want is to blend in.
I make sure that I leave the bathroom in pristine condition, and head downstairs, where a few of the others are already up, sitting on the couch with pale faces and hollow eyes, grieving for the lost ones, praying for the ones who remain. The breakfast table is deadly silent when I take my place. Kit glances up from the bowl in front of him, but we don't exchange words.
While West serves me a bowl of oatmeal, I try to register the lost as I stare around the table. Peri is gone, obviously, and a girl who I think was called Shea. A guy whose name was Cruz. The twins, Morgan and April. Mercy. The other four I have never spoken to, and their names don't come to me even as I picture their faces.
I eat quickly, shovelling the food down my throat so quickly it burns. Oliver and Gabriel march into the dining room soon after, and bark at me and a few others to get back into the forest to collect the bodies. Ellen is among the group, so we set off in a pair, leaving the house as soon as we have dragged shoes onto our feet.
We walk out together without saying anything. Corpse collection is one of the worst assignments you can possibly get, and I feel as if my breakfast will be making an encore as I feel the familiar gravel crunch beneath my feet. At least the forest is brighter in the daylight. At least we don't have to run.
"I know what you're thinking, Asha," Ellen announces as we head through the trees. I frown.
"What am I thinking?" I whisper, afraid to hear the answer. The woods grow denser, closing in around us. I focus on Ellen's face as she powers ahead.
"You're thinking that it should have been me instead of Peri."
"No, I'm not," I lie almost immediately. We're close now. I can smell death on the horizon.
"It's okay. I don't mind. I think so too," she admits, flinching as her leg scrapes a ragged branch, "I don't want to die, though. I guess I'm scared. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a coward."
I don't say anything. Nobody has ever opened up to me like this before. I'm not sure whether I like that she trusts me or not.
"I think he'll get bored of me soon enough, though. Daemon, I mean. He's been showing signs of it for months now, but he hasn't let them touch me yet." She sighs, scraping her dark hair back into a ponytail, "If he dumps me now, I won't last a second. I can't run like you guys can," a harsh laugh, "Oh, well. I suppose I deserve it, after all this time. I suppose... It's time. My turn."
"Don't talk about yourself like that," I snap suddenly, "You're worth more than he takes you for, Ellen. You need to trust yourself. Don't let him make you feel worthless."
"Don't you see, Asha? We're just pawns to them. You think we mean something? They want to kill us for fun, for the thrill of the chase. We are worthless."
"We don't mean anything to them, I know," I mutter as we carry on through the trees, "But we can mean something to others, if we try."
"Do you honestly think we'll get out of here one day?"
Not you, I think to myself sourly, as I observe her perfectly manicured nails and done-up hair, but that isn't what comes out of my mouth, "I don't know. Maybe. I hope so."
Ellen is silent for a while. We pass a few corpses, but we both know which one we're looking for. We want to make sure Peri looks respectable in death.
"If you were next... how would you want it to happen? How would you want them to kill you?" Ellen wonders as we turn the final corner. I can see Peri's body out of the corner of my eye, but I keep my gaze averted to the ground.
"I'd like to be shot," I tell her. She makes a face.
"I think I'd prefer Daemon to do it. Look into my eyes and tell me he loved me before he slit my throat," she muses, looking slightly wistful. She cares for him, I know. If only he could say the same for her.
"That's macabre," I mumble. We're at the body now. I force myself to stare at Peri's face instead of the wound, but it's difficult. There are flies all over the infected area now – we have to bat them away before we can scoop up the body. The wound and rotting areas will be cleared away back at the house, cut off and discarded, before the body is cooked.
It takes the two of us to balance and steady Peri in our arms, and we start back to the house with her carried between us. Bugs still plague the body despite our efforts to get rid of them, and I can feel something crawling up my arm. No time to worry about that now – I'm too busy concentrating on lugging the corpse across the drive.
We leave Peri in the prep room, grudgingly, with Oliver, who readies his knife. Gabriel is absent from the house, and I guess Daemon is downstairs somewhere, because we don't encounter him as we go through to the lounge. The other hunters, Tate, Caleb and Wren, the only female, don't usually show their faces upstairs at all, unless we're about to go on a run. I'm glad of that.
Ellen folds herself on the couch and flicks the television on, while I take a seat by the window and open a book. The house isn't exactly known for its leisure activities, so we have to amuse ourselves. Sometimes I train out in the back yard, other times in the forest, planning a route and sticking to it, testing my own stamina. Today I don't feel like doing much of anything, so I remain in my armchair until the afternoon, when Gabriel returns from his outing.
The hunters have cars. Three of them, in fact. The cars are locked up most of the time, and we have absolutely no access to them. We're not allowed into the outside world anymore. I don't know what's out there, or how far away we are from civilisation. We're trapped here all the time. The house and the forest surrounding it has become my world. I have never known anything apart from it. Gabriel emerges from his vehicle now, opens the door to the trunk and drags something out of it, slings it over his shoulder, and locks the car up again. As he nears the door, I realise that the something is a teenage boy. Our latest recruit.
The front door opens and slams shut again. The sound of Gabriel's keys hitting the ledge echoes through the whole hallway. He grunts at one of the girls in the kitchen to brew him a coffee, and marches straight through to the cellar with the boy.
I know where he is going. The boy will be injected with the serum, a tracking chip implanted into his forearm, and when he regains consciousness, he will be branded with the Runner symbol. The same thing happened to me when I arrived here.
I was twelve years old. I woke to a dimly lit room, with three people gathered around me, none of whom were familiar to me. My arm ached. I remember looking down and seeing a strange lump close to my wrist, Gabriel's gentle voice as he told me that it was just a necessity. I didn't remember anything other than my name – Asha. I had a jumbled recollection of walking somewhere and rough hands on my shoulders, a cloth being pressed to my face, but that was all I was able to muster. Wren was preparing something that was just out of my line of vision, shielded by her petite frame, and Gabriel stroked my hair as I struggled against my bonds. Thick leather straps bound me to the chair I was secured into, digging into my stomach and my ribs. There was no escape. I glimpsed the branding iron and the hot orange glow that encased it, and then it was brought down heavily right over the tracking chip in my arm.
I remember screaming so loudly the chair shook. I remember Gabriel's soothing words. I remember Wren's casual smile as she pressed the burning iron into my flesh and removed it, which was somehow more painful. I remember ice being applied to the wound. I remember fiery pain. After that, I passed out, and woke in the dormitory, still sore and bruised but unfortunately not dead yet.