Sarah Grace awoke to the feel of wind brushing across her cheeks, grass prickling her arms, and a single voice beckoning her to get up. Slowly, as if emerging from a dream, she came to and blinked. Moonlight streamed down and that’s when Grace noticed that something was wrong. The air didn’t smell like salt and old wood, the ground didn’t gently sway beneath her, and there was grass beneath her arms. Wherever she was, she wasn’t on the Sangue-Padre.
She sat upright without warning, smacking her forehead into Elena’s jaw with enough force to leave bruises. Both young women recoiled sharply, Grace uttering curses and apologies while Elena opened and closed her mouth, testing her jaw. Finally, though, she turned and faced Grace, her face wiped of emotion but her eyes glassy and shining. Pain pounded in Grace’s head, both from smacking into Elena but also from something else, like she’d had too much to drink and had a handover. Elena waited patiently while Grace shoved her thoughts in order and spoke around the pain throbbing in her skull. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know.” She replied sharply, shoving a lock of hair out of her face. The movement caught Grace’s attention. Elena’s hair was down. She wasn’t used to it like that. Reaching back, she felt that her own hair wasn’t tied back – something she definitely wouldn’t have done. “Now get up. There are…things in the woods.” Elena’s voice was tinged with just the faintest touch of anxiety and that note sent Grace scrambling to her feet and looking around. The moon was full and cast down silvery light to see the landscape around. They were in a tiny clearing, surrounded by a forest filled with impenetrable shadows. Her headache pounded before ebbing, and then she heard the noises – low grunts, faraway calls. Grace noticed a knife sheath tied to her thigh, the sheath reaching halfway to her knee. She made to take the knife out and examine it, but her hand never made it that far.
A piercing scream ripped through the forest, shattering the silence. The unfamiliar voice was twisted into a ragged wail, echoed by howling barks and a terrible ripping sound. Grace, her hand halfway to the knife, stood transfixed with her face turned towards the noise. Elena, seeing that she hadn’t moved, snatched the collar of Grace’s shirt and started dragging her away. “Come on!” She called, stepping into the dark forest and crashing through the underbrush.
They took off, running for far longer than Grace had ever had to before, long after her legs started cramping and her lungs burned for air. When they finally stopped, she collapsed, landing hard in the soft dirt and clutching her side. “What – happened?” She huffed out, glancing up at Elena, who was equally winded.
Elena shook her head, her scarred lips drawn into a thin line. They stood there, hunched over, trying to breathe. There was another scream, this one closer, and Grace motioned to a tree. “Climb!” She called over her shoulder. Only when she leaped and swung her legs up did she notice that she was wearing clothes that weren’t her own. She’d been stripped of her normal clothes and dressed in a pair of cotton trousers and a loose tunic that hung from her shoulders like a dress, getting caught on the bark as she climbed.
Perching precariously on the first branch, Grace took the hem of her shirt between her teeth and ripped the fabric until the shirt only came to her navel. Wrapping the strip of fabric round and round her wrist, she tied it and continued climbing. Her muscles, already sore, screamed curses for her to stop, aching and burning as she pushed them beyond anything they’d had to do recently. She climbed and climbed until the branches creaked and threatened to snap beneath her and she gazed down.
From the forest, a great beast stepped forward, so dark that she could only make out its enormity. It was easily double the size of their friend Borris, but shaped like something akin to a large cat. Standing near eight feet tall at the shoulder, it lumbered around, something dangling from its mouth. When it stepped into the moonlight, Grace slapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp – a body lay limp between the beast’s jaws, blood trailing down its face in rivulets. The beast stopped and sniffed the air before, with a noise of something like annoyance, it padded off.
Grace and Elena remained still and silent for a long time before Elena, finally, crawled between the trees. When they were just feet apart, Grace turned terrified eyes to her friend. “Was that…”
“I didn’t recognize her.” Elena was turned towards where the beast had gone. “I don’t think she was alive.”
There was a long stretch of silence, broken only when the animals slowly came back to life around them – normal animal life, not the monstrosity that had forced them into silence.
“Do you think we’re the only ones here, or are the others in here as well?” Grace inquired.
“I don’t know. You’re the only person I’ve seen that hasn’t tried to kill me.”
“How many people have you seen?”
“Three, but they took one look at me and charged. I barely escaped the last one. I was tired and he was quick.” She showed a nasty-looking gash that cut through the fabric of her pants. Looking close, though, Grace saw that the wound looked bad but the actual wound was fairly shallow and, though filthy, didn’t look too bad. It was fresh though, and still oozed blood. She had, however, found a tiny knapsack with a skin of water inside, the contents sloshing around.
“That’ll have to be cleaned.” Grace commented and remembered the cloth around her wrist. “Roll that pants leg up.” She said, tearing a small square from her strip of cloth and looking to Elena, who stared at her. “I had to tear my shirt to climb and this is as good a bandage as you’re likely to get up in this tree.”
Elena hesitated for a moment before standing. The cut was on her thigh and her trousers fit much better than Grace’s, making it impossible for her to roll the leg up high enough to tend to the wound. When the pants were off, Elena made comment that her undergarments were still the same. That little bit of information left Grace feeling better. She suspected that, were she to check, her own undergarments were her own as well. That meant whoever had changed their clothes hadn’t seen anything exceptionally private.
Settling down, Elena watched as Grace wet the square of cloth with a tiny bit of water from the skin and went to work cleaning the wound. It took only a few minutes, ten at most, before the dry blood and dirt had been wiped away. The young head officer then took the strip of cloth, wrapped it around Elena’s thigh and tied it at the back in hopes that the knot stayed in place better back there, where her pants hung more loosely, held up, Grace was sure, only by the sheath tied to her leg.
“I’ve only been awake for an hour or so.” Elena said, tugging her pants back on. “When I came to, I was…scared. I don’t even know why. But something told me to get away, to find something. I’ll bet my last dollar that, wherever we are, it isn’t for some game.” Her eyes darted around, anxious.
“What have you seen?”
Elena quickly skimmed over what little she’d seen – three boys about their age, each one desperate and trying to kill her, and trees as far as the eye could see. She’d found Grace not long after getting attacked by the last boy, and hadn’t even heard any animals until the beast they’d escaped from. Finally, she finished, and they fell silent, listening for anything around them.
After what felt like an eternity, Grace noticed the edge of the horizon was a dark, dark grey. The sun was coming, she knew. She leaned forward and poked Elena, getting to her feet to look towards the east. “The sun should be up soon.”
“We should look for the others. Any others.” She said, though her voice hinted of a fear that Grace shared – what if there were no others? Sure there were the people trying to kill them, for whatever reason. But what about the other pirates? Names flashed through Grace’s brain, the names of her closest friends. She didn’t want any of them in this forest. But if they were here, she wanted to find them, make sure they were save before someone – or one of those creatures – found them.
Finally, like the embodiment of hope, the sun’s first rays peeked over the tops of the trees, shining full on in Grace’s face. She was blinded at first, but relished in the heat of day. She thought to cover her eyes, knew she probably should, but couldn’t bear to hide any part of her from those beautiful rays. Elena’s head popped up and she, too, stood stock still, closing her eyes and tipping her head back. They stayed like that, high in the tree, just enjoying the warmth.
Eventually though, reality returned and they wordlessly began to climb down. Elena was beneath Grace, climbing a little bit faster, ready to shout for them to return to the safety near the treetops. They made it to the forest floor without incident, though, and Grace fell quite unceremoniously, her knees buckling and sending her sprawling on her back, a burble of laughter coming out before she could stop it. Elena was staring at her almost worriedly. “I think they drugged us. Yours must not have worn off completely, yet.” Her eyebrows were raised, as if she was unnerved by Grace’s behavior.
“Sorry,” Grace said, the laughter dying on her lips as she got up and brushed her butt off.
“We should get moving, look for the others but stay as quiet as possible. The trees are close enough that, if we have to, we can travel through them. One thing we know for sure, it isn’t safe to be on the ground after nightfall.”
With that, the two girls started east, following the sun as it rose steadily higher above them. They didn’t encounter anything – no people, no animals, and, thankfully, no monsters. They came across a small stream and took the opportunity to wash the dirt and grime away from their arms and face. Grace finally took that opportunity to examine the blade, having almost completely forgotten about it.
Sliding out the knife, she was reassured by the weight of it in her hand. It was a little under twelve inches long, with a double-edged tip. It curved ever so slightly, in a perfect arc. The silver blade glittered in the early morning light, and the hilt was smooth, wrapped with plain leather. She returned the blade to its sheath and ripped another, much smaller strip from her shirt. She ran her fingers through her hair – which, by the way, hurt – and braided it very quickly, tying it as tightly with the knot as she could manage. It wasn’t perfect, but it would do for the time being. Elena, watching her actions, did the same.
They set off once again but, as the sun hit midday, they stopped for a rest. As they settled down, their stomachs gave an almost identical grumble of emptiness. They chuckled – actually laughed – and Grace glanced around. They could probably set up some traps and catch something to eat. It probably wouldn’t be much, but it’d certainly be better than nothing.
Just as Sarah Grace made to propose the idea, a scream, much like the one from the night before, sliced through the forest. Grace and Elena hopped to their feet, their heads snapping in the same direction. Elena glanced at Grace, her eyes wide and brows furrowed. “That was-”
Grace tore off, crashing through the underbrush. Elena shouted something before following. Both girls threw aside branches, ducked beneath low limbs, and swerved to avoid thickets of thorns. Though Elena ran with all she had, distance was growing between the girls. But no matter how their stiff and injured bodies protested, they kept running.
They knew that voice, knew that scream. They crashed into a clearing, nearly falling flat on their faces when the obstacles suddenly vanished, like a horse running all out towards a hurtle only to have it disappear at the last second, or to run up a flight of stairs and make to climb a step that wasn’t there. The two pirates straightened and took in the scene before them.
It was like the beast from before, twice the size of Borris but feline and dark as an abyss, standing at the mouth of a cave, a figure hanging from its mouth, pounding frantically at whatever it could reach. Someone shouted and the beast turned, the figure in its mouth looking back in desperation. Grace realized she had yelled, drawn the beast’s attention. It caught her and Elena in its gaze, black eyes burning with amusement, looking at them like two terrified little mice.
“Get out of here!” The form in its mouth croaked, bloodstained hands trying to pry its jaws open. The figure, nothing more than a girl barely into her teens, looked to them with wide, anxious eyes. She cried out when the beast repositioned her in its mouth, its teeth digging into her body with ease.
Sarah Grace and Elena stood rooted, staring at the figure ahead. They knew her, would’ve known her anywhere.
It was Infinity.