White Sands - Alpha Read 2
The party members were all gathered together, that is, except for Joanne who lay dead before them. John and Victor were summarily gathered with the rest of the group, their hands tied behind their backs. The remaining henchmen were gathering the bodies of their fallen friends, but refrained from touching or even going near Joanne's body.
"I know you're scared, as you should be, but this is a very simple process." Beltram was pacing back and forth in front of the captives as he spoke. "I have two options for you. Option one, you swear allegiance to me, and only me. You are untied, we give you a fancy black cloak, and you get to be one of us. Well, there is some training involved, but you will have access to all of our powers and influence throughout the world. You are guaranteed a place in our ranks, which is not something that you will be guaranteed in the future if you decide to go with option two.
"Option two is you refuse. You refuse and we leave you here, tied up, without food or water or direction. I'd give you maybe four days before you expire from fatigue, starvation, or the elements. Did I mention there are dangerous animals in this forest?"
"Why wouldn't you just kill us?" Someone asked, Victor didn't catch who it was.
"Because that would be far too easy," Beltram said. "And besides, you need some incentive for joining us, aside from the very obvious benefits."
He took a few more steps, surveying the crowd, and finally settling on Victor. "You. You want to be part of the winning side, right?"
Victor found that he couldn't breathe. He was sweating. Why was it so hot?
"I can see it in your eyes. You have intuition, and it's telling you that you want to be with us, not against us."
Victor struggled for a breath. He couldn't focus on Beltram, or anything else. When relief came, he was briefly worried that he had relented under the pressure. He didn't know why, but he knew that joining Beltram was the wrong choice.
Beltram was smiling over him. "Excellent choice." He turned to one of the henchmen nearby. "Free the new recruit."
Victor's heart was pounding. He didn't want to join Beltram. This was a mistake. How could he back out? Could he even back out? Was it too late?
The henchmen approached him, walked behind him, and produced a small shadow blade. A rope was cut, but it was not Victor's. It was the girl that had been kneeling next to him. He could see that she was crying, her now free hands wiping the tears from her eyes. Victor's breath returned to normal. He hadn't relented.
Beltram approached the girl and threw a black cloak over her shoulders. "Welcome," he said, smiling.
The girl hugged the cloak around her and hesitantly joined the group of henchmen standing off to the side. Her face was unsure, scared, but relieved to be out of danger. The black cloak seemed to reform her appearance, paling her skin and darkening the once white tunic she had been wearing. Her hair remained as blonde as ever, contrasting against her dark raiment.
After the first relent, several more followed before encouragement had to be applied again. Victor held strong, along with only a few of the other attendees. He knew it wasn't right to join them, but he didn't know why he knew that. Something deep inside him didn't trust Beltram, and even though most of them probably didn't trust Beltram, Victor's mistrust ran even deeper. Being on the winning side was enticing, and to many it would seem that they were in fact making the right decision, and that their new master was indeed merciful for leaving them alive. Victor saw through all of that, he just couldn't vocalize it for some reason.
He tuned out the rest of the encounter, only picking his senses back up after Beltram turned from the severely reduced group and led his new recruits off into the woods.
"And to the rest of you," Beltram called out just before entering the underbrush. "I wish you a good night. We are camped about an hour's walk in this direction if any of you change your mind. You will, of course, be welcomed with open arms, if you survive." With that, he slipped into the darkness of the trees.
Crowd behavior is a strange thing. When multiple people are placed in a group together, the majority tend to look to what everyone else is doing for confirmation. In that sense, when you are part of a crowd you will act differently than you would if you were just by yourself. So, when Beltram got his first recruit, it was much easier for him to get his second, and third, and so on until he hit a critical mass. The ones who were predisposed to join had already joined, having seen the social proof, and those who were predisposed to stay still had enough of a group staying to do so.
That's when the second phase of the plan kicked in. Victor saw it happen. The complaining started.
They had relatively quickly broken out of their bonds, and set about looking around the area for any left over food that hadn't been scorched, trying to figure out how to get clean water, and salvaging some of the pavilion wood to build a fire.
Victor thought it brilliant that Beltram had placed his camp far enough away to make it difficult to reach, especially in unfamiliar territory at night, but still close enough to be a viable fall back option for those not cut out for life in the wilderness. Their group had already been cut by over half, and now they were split in half once more; half were working, gathering, exploring, and the other half were huddled around the earliest attempts at a fire.
He didn't know their names, but he knew them by their faces. The strange familiarity he had felt before was slowly waning with the fading light.
"This is crazy. They're only an hour into the woods. We can make that walk if enough of us go."
"They probably have food and water too."
"Yeah, and at least their leader knows what's going on."
"Maybe we could get some answers."
It was all moving too quickly. Victor was sitting with this group, he was there in body but not in mind or spirit. He still held that it was the wrong decision. None of them were thinking about what was happening, about where they were. They were only living in that terrifying moment, facing down death once more.
"It doesn't feel right, going with him," Victor said. He was ignored.
"I can't stay out here without protection. Maybe we'll survive, but it's darn near a sure thing if we joined those black-hooded guys."
A chorus of assent surrounded the fire. The others were too busy working on surviving to notice the group organize, grab a few of the supplies, and head into the woods. Only when they were gone did John walk back to the fire to find Victor alone.
"Where is everyone?" He asked, dumping a load of firewood and kindling to the ground.
Victor just shook his head.
"This was all supposed to be different," John said as he poked at the ashes with a long stick, stirring up a shower of sparks that rose with the heated air and settled out in the smoke. "This isn't what I signed up for."
No one said anything. They just sat in their crude circle, gazing into the flickering flames of a fire hastily built after their captors left.
There were only five of them sitting there, of the hundred or so that originally stood under the pavilion. Victor and John had held firm, and along with them three others that introduced themselves as Kent, Lynne, and Ashley. The rest had turned over to the black cloaks and were long gone, the last few disappearing here and there, fleeing into the woods after the larger group.
John threw down his poking stick and stood up. "Seriously, I thought we were on the right side of this thing. I thought we were winning!" He turned and looked out into the dark forest. "This was supposed to be paradise, right? We've been lied to!"
Victor stood to approach the man, but Lynne beat him to it.
"John, none of us knew what was going to happen. For all we knew, this is exactly what was waiting for us on the other side."
"No, it's not possible."
"Then how do you explain what's happening right now? What are we? Where are we?"
"I don't know," John kicked at the dirt, "I don't know anything."
"That's why we have to get to the city that Joanne mentioned," Victor said. "They'll have answers. They have to know what's going on here."
"How can we know that?" John asked. "And who put you in charge?"
Ashley covered her ears, "Stop it! Why do you guys have to know everything? We don't need all the answers, we don't need any answers right now. All we need to do right now is make it through the night."
"Ashley's right," Lynne said, returning to her seat, "let's all just focus on the present and worry about the big questions later. We know we are alive, but we also know that being alive isn't a given here." She looked out over the trees. "That's enough to keep our attention for the moment."
That seemed to calm John down enough to get him to take his seat, and the visible tension died down to a gentle stirring. Victor took comfort in the breeze that blew in from the forest, carrying with it the fresh scent of pine and hardwoods. The stars overhead were more brilliant than he had ever seen before, untainted by light pollution.
The sights and sounds were still profoundly beautiful to him, though marred by their situation. There was just one thing that stuck out as strange to him. He couldn't put his finger on it.
"Does anyone else smell something strange?" Victor asked.
Kent smiled, "You mean other than John?"
A clump of dirt sailed over the fire and exploded on Kent's chest, staining his tunic and sending him to the ground.
Everyone else chuckled and shook their heads.
"It might be the..." Lynne paused and gestured to where the skirmish had taken place earlier, "over there."
Victor stood. He couldn't just leave her body there. He had seen the black cloaks take away their fallen, but they hadn't touched Joanne. She had done her best to save them and deserved a proper burial. Only, when he ran over to where she should have been, he no longer saw the body lying there in the small patch of grass. The small battlefield was bordered by trees and heavy underbrush, and it was very much empty.
"What? She was right here," he mumbled, then yelled the news back to the rest. "She's not here anymore. Did anyone move her?"
The others shook their heads and returned their attention to the fire. Victor poked around a bit more, scratching at the back of his head, before giving up and guessing that the black cloaks had, in fact, taken away the body. The smell is what gave him pause. It was disgusting, and it reminded him of rotting flesh. It must be the body, or some kind of body, so he decided to search around near the bushes.
Just as he turned to head back to the fire, one of the bushes next to him rustled, stopping him in his tracks. The smell was definitely back and stronger than ever. Whatever it was, it was coming from that bush.
"Hey, I think there's..." he didn't know how to describe it, "something out here."
No one responded, so he repeated it a bit louder. John grunted as he stood and walked over to where Victor was standing. Emboldened by the presence of someone else, Victor approached the bush and heard another loud rustling and then nothing. Whatever had been in the bush must have taken off back into the woods.
"Weird," John said.
"Yeah, I guess whatever it was must have--"
Victor didn't have time to finish as a dark shape launched out of the bush and tackled him. He hit the ground hard, driving all the air from his lungs and causing him to gasp uncontrollably. Whatever attacked him was on top of him. Pain exploded in his shoulder, and he shoved hard at the beast as he rolled in an attempt to get away.
Victor was dimly aware of John screaming for help from the others, his mind was focused on his attacker. He was on his feet but the beast, or whatever it was, jumped again and sent him back down to the dirt, this time sinking its razor teeth into the meat of his upper arm. He couldn't do anything except try to fend the thing away from his head and cry out in pain.
He'd never really feared death before, never been in a position where he would be brutally killed, until now. Now all he could think was that he had no idea where he was and what was going on, and he was going to be killed by this thing.
The beast backed from his arm and began another lunge for Victor's body. Before it could reach him, it yelped and was sent flying over him. It rolled a few times on the ground, then ran into the woods whimpering.
"Victor!" Lynne bent over Victor, concern and confusion on her face. He could tell she wanted to help but had no idea what to do.
Eventually, Ashley pushed her aside and began tearing away at Victor's clothes where the bite marks were. She wasn't built for fighting, he could tell that much, but she seemed to know what she was doing here. She tore fresh strips of linen from Victor's tunic, around the knees where it leave the garment functional.
"You're welcome, by the way," John said.
Victor only then noticed that John was wielding a rather large and charred piece of timber. It looked like it could have been a crossbeam from the pavilion. He must have rushed back there during the struggle, found the first thing that looked like a weapon, and smashed the creature with it.
"What was that thing?" Victor asked. He winced as Ashley worked at crudely cleaning and wrapping his wounds. She had Kent fetching water from the ocean, which hurt almost worse than the wound itself when applied.
"I don't know. Looked like some kind of big dog."
"Bigger than any dog I've ever seen," Kent said. "Fast too."
"Stop struggling, Victor," Ashley placed both hands on his injured shoulder. "You've lost some blood, and I don't have any good way to treat an infection. These need to be cleaned."
Victor nodded and relaxed back to the ground. They made their way back to the fire when his wounds had been cleaned. He was relieved to hear that Ashley wouldn't have to attempt to cauterize anything. They sat in silence for a long time, their eyes constantly watching the treeline, ears tuned to anything more than the soft crackling of wood on the fire. John had taken up patrol, hefting the large piece of wood over his shoulder, head tracking back and forth as he walked.
Victor was suddenly very tired. The day had been long, crazy, unexpected. He was on his death bed not twelve hours ago, and now he was who knows where, fighting off sleep so that he could fight off whatever had attacked him. There were too many questions and his mind was starting to shut down.
He didn't know how long it was since he closed his eyes, but he woke to that same rustling noise. It was dark, the fire was almost dead, reduced to a few orange embers holding on for dear life. The others around the fire were fast asleep, all except for Kent who was standing and staring in the direction of the noise.
"Did you hear that?"
"Yeah," Victor said, standing up as well, fighting against the pain in his left shoulder and right arm. "Better wake John up."
Victor's mind raced. He quickly gathered some loose kindling and threw it on the dying fire to produce a flame. He was waking the others when he heard the rustling again, this time accompanied by a voice.
John was the first to speak up, "Who's there?"
"I should be asking you the same question," the voice said. A man, older looking than them but not by much, stepped out of the brush carrying a small torch and machete. His face and skin were worn from hard work, and he was wearing a simple brown tunic that tied at the waist, along with leather shoes and bracers. He had the appearance of a farmer.
"Ah, my apologies," he said, lowering the machete and approaching the fire, stopping just shy of striking distance in case John got excited. "I didn't realize you were new arrivals."
"New arrivals?" John asked. "Who are you?" He took a few steps toward the man, hefting the beam he was carrying.
The man raised his hand in submission, "Hold on there, I mean no harm. My name's Char, I just saw the smoke and thought I would investigate." He looked around at the ragtag team huddled around the fire. "Usually isn't anyone out here, especially not this late."
There were too many questions to ask that no one could say anything. They just sat, staring at Char.
John lowered his weapon. "Listen, we don't know where we are, or what's going on," he said.
"Yeah, usually is that way, except there's usually more of you. Where's your leader? Did you get separated?"
"She's dead," John said, after a pause. No one really wanted to admit what had happened, after all, they didn't realize what was going on in the first place.
Char let out a soft hum and shifted on his feet. "And the others?"
"Gone with that Beltram fellow."
At this, Char's eyes went wide. "Did you say Beltram?"
"Yeah," Victor said, stepping forward, "you know him?"
"You could say that."
Victor looked at John, then back at Char. "He's the one that killed Joanne, our leader."
Char's face fell. His eyes searched the small group of survivors. "Did he hurt anyone else?"
"No," Victor said, looking down at his wounds, "this was from some kind of dog-thing."
"Was it big and brown with black stripes?"
"I'm not sure we--"
"Yeah, just like that," John said, interrupting Victor. "It was dark, but I remember those features now."
"All right, you'd better follow me. This place isn't safe anymore." Char turned and motioned with his hand for the group to follow him back into the forest. He paused at the underbrush to hold branches back to let the others through. "We'll go to my cabin, I can sort you out from there."
Thanks for reading! Look for the continuation next week, and feel free to post comments and other feedback!