I lie there in the middle of the forest, not seeing the dueling lightning flashing high above the trees, not feeling the drenching rain that continues to pour down on my still form.
A voice cuts through my mind.
So tired. Just want to lay here. Ignore it.
“Michael, you must listen. There isn’t much time.”
Go away. Just a voice in my head. Leave me alone.
“Events are in motion. The storm is only the beginning. They sent it for you, hoped it would kill you. They know you have a role, but they can’t know how important you are or they wouldn’t have stopped there.“
They? Who… what are you?
“Quiet, there’s no time! We have to… wait. Oh. Oh no. Michael, you need to get up. You need to get up and get the hell out of there. It’s coming!”
My eyes flutter open. Disoriented. Can’t tell how long I’ve been out. The storm still thrashes crazily around me. I ease myself into a sitting position and gingerly assess myself for injuries. There’s a large lump raised above my left eyebrow, and I can feel a sizable gash running along my scalp, although it doesn’t seem too deep. I won’t be able to tell if I need stitches until I can get to a mirror. A sharp stab of pain beams directly to my brain as my fingers probe the wound, so I quickly stop. Various cuts and scratches from my fall are spread sporadically over my arms and hands in addition to a particularly nasty one along my left shin. My shoulder still throbs, not the blinding agony that sent me sprawling earlier, but a dull ache emanating from deep inside the tissue.
Was I struck by lightning? Don’t remember hearing any thunder, so what the hell…
My head snaps up as a deep, inhuman roar rises above the fury of the storm, reverberating over and again through the trees. The ache in my shoulder flares sharply. I suddenly remember the words of the disembodied voice in my head. Still dazed I uneasily stagger to my feet. Concussion based hallucination or not, getting the hell out of here seems like an excellent suggestion.
I manage to find the path and haltingly begin to make my way back towards the athletic facility. The storm continues unabated, bathtubs of freezing rain continue to drench my shivering body, shearing winds carry the chill deep into the marrow of my bones. Lightning flashes periodically, lighting up the pitch sky as brightly as midday. Dizzy, my foot hits a rock in the path. The whole world lurches as I barely manage to catch myself, the throbbing wound on my scalp making my head feel like an abused bass drum.
I stumble along as fast as I am able, occasionally pausing to glance behind me. If they weren’t soaked through, the hairs on the back of my neck would be standing at full attention. Impossible to see or hear anything over the fury of the storm, some primal sense held over from my caveman ancestors blares a warning at me that I am not alone out here in the dark. The savage roar I heard shortly after waking doesn’t repeat itself, but in truth I don’t know if that disturbs me more or less. If I hear it again, that means whatever made the sound exists and is somewhere in the woods with me, but at least I would have an idea where. As it stands I can hope the unworldly sound was just another delusion brought on by my head injury, but can’t manage to shake the chilling feeling that the beast is simply remaining silent, hunting me.
At last, after an eternity of fleeting glances and barely avoided falls, I finally emerge from the woods along the path, the school stadium lying before me. The electric lights of the gymnasium several hundred yards down the paved walkway burn cheerfully, oblivious to the violent events of the night. I urge my wooden legs to greater efforts and blessedly make it to my destination, throwing open the door and tumbling inside. I sit there sprawled in the facility entryway, trembling from the cold and fear, watching the storm rage outside.
After what must be several minutes, I manage to gather the will to painfully regain my feet and work my way through the building and down the long corridor to the faculty locker room. The building is deserted, the silence making the noises of my struggling movements seem all the louder. For a moment I wonder at the complete lack of people before remembering virtually all sports practices have been canceled in lieu of the pending week of vacation for the Thanksgiving holiday. Gaining access, I immediately move to the row of sinks and the mirror to get a better assessment of my injuries. The bump above my eye is considerably swollen and will soon turn into an ugly looking bruise. On the plus side, the cut on my scalp is actually more of a scrape and doesn’t appear to require stitches. The cuts on my arms, hands and shin are superficial, but will hurt and itch like crazy while they heal. Suddenly seeing past the painful details, I struggle to recognize the haggard, beaten looking figure returning my stare from the glass.
You’ve had worse. God knows, you’ve had worse. That time… that was a lot worse.
I grimace, my reflection perfectly duplicating the motion. Turning on the faucet I grab a handful of paper towels and begin to carefully daub at the dried blood and dirt around my cuts, not wanting to inadvertently open them again. Satisfied that they have closed up well enough to allow it, I strip off my sodden workout clothes, throw them into one of the dryers, and step into the shower. I set the water to scalding. I stand under the steaming water trying to rub the kinks out of my neck. A small throb in my shoulder reminds me of the incredible pain that first sent me on the way to my current condition.
Reluctantly turning off the shower head, I dry myself, wrap the towel around my waist and return to the mirror. Although certainly cleaner and free of the caked dirt and blood that previously clung to me, I still paint a terrible picture. The cut on my scalp shines red just below my hairline, and an enormous purple bruise has now begun to complement the generous swelling above my eye. I turn my back to the mirror and move my head so that I can observe my shoulder in the reflection to see the scars located there.
Three long marks extend the length of my shoulder blade; the lines are jagged due to the poor nature of the canvas they were inscribed upon. Aside from the nightmares, they are the only proof I have of the reality of the most horrifying experience in my life; the terror and bloodshed that occurred in a Middle Eastern cave three years ago. Tonight the marks are inflamed and wet, as if I had just received them instead of having worn them for so long. Had I not just showered, I’m sure fresh blood would still be oozing from them, though all of my other cuts and scrapes are closed and dried by this point. As if listening to my thoughts, tiny red beads slowly begin to well along their length as I watch in the mirror. Without warning, an intense pain radiates outward from the center of the marks.
At that moment two things happen simultaneously. First, all the lights in the locker room go out leaving me in absolute darkness. Second, I hear the unmistakable sound of the main entry door closing and the slow steps of someone or something entering the building, the otherwise utter silence serving to augment the noise.
The emergency generator kicks in, backup lights humming to life and bathing the room in a weak amber glow. I run to my locker and hurriedly dress, almost tripping myself on my pants, taking care to loosen the Glock in its holster once I have it strapped to my ankle. I throw my coat on, twinging at the pain now continuously radiating from the scars, and grab my valet. The whole process only takes me about thirty seconds, a holdover from years of uniform drills in the army where soldiers who don’t make the time limit are met with insidiously creative punishments.
I creep silently over to the locker room door and gently ease it open just a crack, feeling slightly foolish; odds are the noise I heard is just a student, or maybe a guard Gabe sent to check on the facility. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that whatever is now occupying the athletic wing with me is somehow connected to the bizarre events that have already occurred this evening. Its arrival and the loss of power to the building seem too timely to be mere coincidence. I peer out and down the dimly lit hallway through the slit in the door. At first I don’t see the thing, not until its eyes catch the light, gleaming a sinister shade of red. My breath catches in my throat as a wave of pure terror thunders through my suddenly rigid body. My shoulder screams, almost as badly as in the woods. My mind is struck dumb, crazed gibbering crowds out all rational thought.
God, my God, it’s just like that time just like the last time got to be a dream got to be can’t really be happening I’m still unconscious on the trail from hitting my head that’s it but this seems to be so real what if it’s not a dream then I have to move have to do something why the f**k does this keep happening to me…
I’m only frozen for a single long moment until my brain unconsciously kicks into analysis mode. This feeling of unreality is disturbingly familiar, but other than the fantastic nature of my subject, it’s not so different from some reconnaissance missions I’ve been on. Twenty yards down the hall, the creature stands on two legs and appears to be about eight feet tall. Definitely not a student. Not a guard either, unless Gabe decided to try out some biomedical mutants in the rotation. Other than its immense size, I can’t determine any further details about the entity because of the way the shadows seem to bend around it; almost as if light is absorbed once it gets within about a yard of the creature. As I watch, it raises its head as if sniffing the air. A chill runs down my spine as I realize that’s probably exactly what it’s doing. Its head snaps forward, its incredible blood-red eyes fixed directly on the door concealing me. Ever so slowly it begins silently stalking down the hallway, hunched into a hunting posture, moving with the powerful grace of a natural predator.
My fight or flight response frantically initiates. Logically, I have no knowledge of the identity of the creature, and the Glock only holds seven bullets. Something that size, it’s possible the gun would be empty before successfully incapacitating it. The military doctrine drilled into me stresses only committing to a fight when possessing knowledge of the enemy, initiative, and a decisive advantage. At this point, I lack all of those. I reach the conclusion to conduct a tactical withdrawal; to say I’m retreating sounds so much more cowardly. Fortunately, Haverbrook has equipped all its locker rooms with multiple exits for use in the case of an emergency, although I hardly think my current situation was considered in their plans.
As smoothly and quietly as I’m able, I gently close the door and throw the deadbolt, locking it from the inside. I have little hope that the flimsy metal will impede the monster for more than a couple seconds, but I’ll take any opportunity to up my odds for survival. Wounds throbbing uncomfortably, I hobble to the far side of the locker room to the emergency exit as quickly as I can and push through it emerging into a utility hallway. No alarm sounds; the electricians must have foolishly attached the warning system to the primary power grid, though it’s not as if help would be able to reach me in time anyway. I break into a limping run towards the shining red exit sign that seems impossibly far away. Just as I reach it I hear what can only be the sound of a rudely abused deadbolt shearing in two and the locker room door being thrown inward off its hinges.
I shove the exit door open, finally reaching the outside of the facility. To my relief, the storm has abated, though in its wake an unnaturally thick and viscous fog has crept in, sinuously enveloping the world in an incredibly dense cloud of white and reducing visibility to little better than nothing. I consider my options. I could try to hide somewhere nearby, but it seems the creature is tracking me by smell or some other method and would likely find me fairly quickly. That means my best bet is to try and put as much distance between me and it as fast as possible. I glance at my watch and see that it is just now a quarter past six. If I push myself, I may be able to make the six twenty back towards Overbrook. I make my decision. Pain and exhaustion slowly overcoming my rush of adrenaline, I stagger forward towards the station. I really hope the bloody train is on time.