People disappear all the time, especially in the woods, never to be seen again by humans.
Mary heard voices whispering outside and opened her eyes. A dull ache ran through her body as she shifted on the makeshift bed, pushing back a blanket and propping herself up on an elbow. What time is it? She wondered. She strained to hear what was being said, but the voices were too faint to make out words. Reaching forward, she unzipped her small tent and looked around.
A male voice came from her right and looking over, she saw the group sitting around the small campfire. The whispers seemed frantic. Something had happened. Opening the tent further, she stepped out and headed towards the campfire, cautiously looking around the group and then up towards the forest surrounding them.
“What happened? What’s going on?” She asked.
The group fell silent, looking at each other, trying to decide who would answer her. The doe-eyed young woman finally spoke up.
“We heard noises again, all around. They’re watching us.” She said, her eyes darting about.
"Calm down, we’ve made it this far, haven’t we?” Mary said, looking about the group. The other members, a mixture of men and women, looked at each other before nodding slowly.
“They don’t appear to attack groups; instead, they wait until someone wanders off or falls behind. As long as we stay together, we will be okay.”
“How do we know how many there are? They could have us surrounded, and we wouldn’t even know it! What if they are tricking us? Making us think they don’t attack groups so we will let our guard down?” the young woman asked.
The rest of the group murmured in response, agreeing with her concerns, yet not speaking up individually. Mary watched the interaction between them and felt the hair on the back of her neck and arms stand up. Her skin felt hot and electric. Panic started at the base of her spine and crawled up her neck. Last week, when Mary counted, there were nine. Now there were ten. They had a fresh addition to the group, yet nobody seemed to notice which caused Mary’s stomach to turn on itself, as she couldn’t pinpoint who it was.
It had been nearly two months since The Hunt, as they referred to it, began. Before news broadcasts ceased, there was a debate among astrobiologists about if the creatures were extraterrestrial or not and if so, about what provoked their arrival. Zoologists, however, suggested that the creatures were an undiscovered predator that has been waiting for the right time to strike. The first attacks were unremarkable. An animal of some sort randomly attacked hikers across the United States on trails.
The descriptions from those that survived varied. Some said they were attacked by a fur-covered bipedal creature with long claws, a mouth full of thin jagged teeth, and a back covered in spines, while others described something that moved on four limbs as a dog would. Others still described an upright being they thought was another hiker out on the trail with them before it changed. The news broadcasts cut out shortly after that. Any information gained now was from the few lucky survivors encountered along their journey.
The plan had been to go down to Fort Benning, but as the group had gotten closer; they met two soldiers going in the opposite direction. Fort Benning was no longer safe. One of the soldiers, the younger of the two, spoke up beyond the flames.
“Before it forced us out, we learned more about the creature’s tactics. It appears they have shape-shifting capabilities and can shift into human form.”
“Well, that’s just great! How are we supposed to protect ourselves against that?” the young woman asked.
“That I don’t know yet. Before we could get any more information about them, they overtook the fort.”
Mary looked around the campfire, counting the group members once, twice, three times in case she was wrong. There were definitely ten people now. Somebody did not belong, but who? Thinking back, last week before the group had encountered the two soldiers, there had been seven, including herself. Why could she not recognize the odd one out? Why did nobody else seem to recognize them, either?
“Well then, how do we know you’re not them?” a man asked accusingly towards the soldiers.
Mary followed the voice to the man they called Wizard because of his chest-length white beard and thick black eyebrows.
“Why would we sit around wasting time if we were them? If that was the case, don’t you think we would have overpowered you by now? What match would a small group be against something that took out a military base as large as Fort Benning?” the older soldier spoke up. His upper lip curled into a sneer and he raised his brow, waiting for a response.
“How do we know you’re even from Fort Benning? How do we know anything you say is true? You said they could change form. Who’s to say you didn’t kill two soldiers and take their form?” Wizard asked, his voice growing louder, more defiant. The others in the group murmured and shift uneasily. This was not good. The last thing everyone needed was suspicion and paranoia.
“Hey, everybody calm down,” Mary said. Ten pairs of eyes looked at her as if only just now remembering she was there. “We cannot turn against each other. That is what these creatures would want.” Mary paused and took a deep breath, for what she was going to say could negate her previous statement.
“There is one more among us.”
Ten pairs of eyes continued to look at her, now blankly. Slowly her statement sunk in and the eyes started shifting from one to another frantically.
“Guys, last week when I counted there were only nine of us after the soldiers joined us, seven before that. Maybe I miscounted. Perhaps someone had wandered off to use the bathroom or collect wood, but last week I got nine and tonight there is ten.”
“That must be it then,” the young woman said. “You miscounted. Nobody here is different and surely we would have noticed a new member.”
“I certainly hope so, even so, I need you to stay on your guard and work together as a team. We cannot go off the rails now.” Mary said.
“That was one of the things we learned about their tactics before Fort Benning was overrun. These creatures seem to have the ability to alter people’s memories.” The younger soldier whispered. Heads turned towards him, waiting for him to continue.
“They seem to have ways of overriding our memories and implanting new ones. If that is the case, it wouldn’t be hard for them to implant a memory into our heads where one of them has been part of the group all along.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do then?!” Wizard’s voice rumbled.
“We don’t know. It attacked us shortly after we got the intel.” The older soldier said.
“That’s real convenient, don’t ya think?” Wizard said, now standing.
“Wizard, please stop!” The young woman pleaded, reaching up to his arm, which he jerked away.
The soldiers both stood as well.
It listened to the sounds of slumber around it, the soft snores, the occasional tossing and turning, the otherwise unremarkable silence of the night. Before tossing its clothing into the night campfire, it stood quietly, carefully, and deftly. It had yet to gain the preference for clothing. It was so restrictive that it felt smothered in them. No matter, soon it would not matter. Soon, none of their banalities would matter.
Turning from the fire and feeling the warmth on its back, it bents down on all fours and glided between the tents and slumbering camp mates. If only they knew the abject terror around them, waiting patiently in the dark. If only they knew; they would not sleep so soundly right now.
The delicate flesh covering its body ached and throb as it shifted below it. The skin tore with a sensation of sweet relief as it was freed from its shackles. Moving silently through the woods, it stopped once the glow of the fire faded into the distance. Its lips curled joyously as it arched upwards and let its head tilt up before opening its jaws and calling the others forth.
A piercing shriek ripped Mary from her sleep. She sat up as if electrified, feeling her heart pulsate in her throat and her stomach flop about itself. A quick look at her watch told her it was 3:48 a.m., less than an hour after everyone had retired to their tents or sleeping bags. Another shriek sounded, followed by a growl so loud she felt it rumble throughout her bones.
Another shriek. No, this was a scream, a very human, visceral scream. As quickly as it started, it ended and the sickening crunch of bones breaking invaded her ears. The campfire was still going, smaller now, but enough to cast an amber glow against the flimsy side of her tent. She jumped as gunfire and yelling from the soldiers filled the night.
The younger soldier screamed before another round sounded, drowning out all others. Mary grasped her large hunting knife, a gift from her husband, from under her sleeping bag, then froze as she saw a silhouette walking by her tent. Not upright but on four limbs, its legs were bent backward and she could just make out a large clawed foot as it lifted, then set it down for its next step. It looked huge with long thin spines covering its back that shook with each movement.
Moving towards the tent flap, Mary’s hands shook as she fought with the zipper. Her ears wouldn’t stop ringing, the gunfire, the screams, the shrieks, oh God, the shrieks! She burst from the tent in a rush, her blade in front of her ready to slash whatever the hell that creature was, and heard another unearthly noise. Wait, that was her. She had made that low, jagged cry. Blood was everywhere. Their campfire, once contained, had spread to a nearby tent and brush and was snaking its way towards the surrounding trees.
Lifeless doe-eyes stared at her from her right as a creature crouched over her supine body and Mary backed away as quietly as possible. The creature was less than 20 feet away from her and she had put another five feet between them before her foot landed on a dry twig. The creature stopped what it was doing and she could see its left ear, long, thin and pointed cock in her direction. Its misshapen legs straightened and its massive thick head lifted high on its shoulders.
“Shit.” Mary whispered.
As it turned towards her, another round of bullets flew at it and a hand clamped over her mouth while another grasped her arm with the knife.
“Let’s go!” Wizard’s voice sounded in her right ear.
The creature turned its attention to the gun and let out a roar before launching towards it. As Mary turned to follow Wizard deeper into the woods, the sound of crunching interrupted another scream. The gunfire stopped. She didn’t dare stop moving despite the smell of smoke burning her nose, lungs, and eyes. Despite the overwhelming fear trying to root her where she was. The shrieking back at the burning camp urged her forward, running alongside Wizard clasping his hand.
A roar in front of her stopped both her and Wizard in their tracks. Branches broke to their left, then their right. A growl behind her caused her to whip around, blade raised. The creature was now five feet from her and she could make out the thin, pointed, and bloodied teeth as its lips peeled back in a snarl on its long muzzle.
Their burning camp illuminated the forest around them and, looking about, she saw three other creatures surrounding them. The creature’s black eyes reflected her in them and as it took a step towards her, she closed hers. She thought about how she would see her husband again soon as the shrieks and roars filled her ears.