Excerpt from Sunset Empire, Chapter 1, The Storm:
If they’d stayed on the logging road, the hikers might have been okay. Now they were going to die, and there wasn’t a single thing the hunter could do about it.
Peering through the branches, the hunter could see them. The hikers wound their way along a primitive game trail, headed south down the hill, marching over sword ferns and logs sprouting fungi. Around them the forest pressed ever closer, towering conifers encrusted in lichen and verdant moss. Many of the trees had branches that were broken off, making them look like candelabras. The spruce serving as the hunter’s perch was intact. It had a massive trunk and thick, low branches. Easy to climb, and perfect for staying out of sight. That’s why he’d chosen it.
By the look of their clothes, the hikers weren’t locals—probably a professional couple from Portland, here for a weekend on the coast. Both looked young enough to get carded ordering a drink at the Fort George Brewery. The soft-shell jackets they wore looked expensive, and bright as cardinals in the dim forest light, the man in red and the woman in fuchsia. Jackets like that were great for keeping the rain off, but the colors would attract too much attention.
But that wasn’t the biggest mistake the hikers were making.
No, the biggest mistake—the thing that would get them killed—was the noise.
The young man had a heavy step. He tramped doggedly through the brush. The woman trudged behind him, glancing about nervously, like she knew something about these woods was amiss. She wasn’t wrong about that.
“Are you sure we’re allowed to be here?” she asked. “I don’t want to get arrested for trespassing.”
The man rolled his eyes. “We’re not going to get arrested.”
“But the sign on the gate said—”
“Forget the sign,” the man snapped. “Logging companies put up a fence, think they have a right to keep people out—but they don’t. This is public land. We have just as much right to be here as they do.” He stopped, retrieved an aluminum water bottle hanging from a steel carabiner attached to his backpack, and took a long swig. He capped the bottle and slipped it into a mesh pocket on the side of his pack, the carabiner hanging loose from the bottle’s cap. “Sorry,” he said, wiping his mouth. “I don’t want to argue. I just want to make it to the reservoir before it gets dark so we can set up the tent.”
“Maybe we should’ve taken the road,” the woman said, looking back at the way they had come. She adjusted the straps on her backpack, redistributing the weight.
“You saw the map,” the man said. “This way’s shorter.” He smiled and held out his hand. “Come on. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
Tentatively, the young woman took his hand. Together they made their way through the undergrowth.
Clink, clang, clang. Clink, clang, clang. The hunter cringed as he heard the carabiner hit the side of the water bottle with every step the man took. It sounded like the ringing of a dinner bell.
Too much noise. If the hikers hadn’t already captured the attention of the creatures, they sure had now.
The hunter could sense the forest waking up. A breeze stirred, moving the branches around him. They were coming. He could smell their foul scent in the air.
The creatures, unlike the hikers, were silent, and almost invisible in the way they blended with the shadows. The couple wouldn’t see them until it was too late. No one ever did.
The hunter was tempted to call out, to warn them, and thought better of it. He couldn’t afford to call attention to himself. The air was thick with the stench of death, and it was much too late for the hikers to run. Their fate had been sealed the moment they climbed over the steel gate barring access to this part of the woods. The hunter steadied himself against the trunk of his tree, squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and waited for it to be over.
He didn’t have to wait long.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016