The compound lay just beyond the trees, nestled between two slopes in the mountain. A jewel tucked in the claw of a dragon. A fortress.
Night gave the beach a lunar quality. White sand glowing like moon dust. Our feet left silent tracks that we didn't bother to cover up.
"Looks easy so far." A voice behind me. Trini.
"Don't trust everything you see." Intel had the compound heavily guarded. Sentries reaching out to the beach. Defenses like tree roots spread throughout the island.
I could feel it the second we hit the tree line. Dread. I should've been happy. Cover provided by the trees was our best friend and yet, standing at the entrance to the forest I couldn't move my feet. Something in the woods pinning my feet to the dirt.
"Losing nerve?" Trini again.
I turned to her and the look she shot me said enough.
Darren rushed between us, cutting into the woods without a second more hesitation. The smart move. The longer we stood out in the open the more likely it was we'd be caught.
I held back and watched the forest swallow them all. One after another they disappeared into the abyss of tree, the little sound they made drifting off into the night until it too was subsumed by the island. Crickets and other night creatures screeching and skittering. Strangling our existence.
Darkness held us. Here and there light broke through, pinpricks in the canopy's shroud, but it did little to light our way or ease the fear growing inside us.
No one spoke. Ragged, desperate breathes marked our passing. The terrain was rough, but no where near strenuous enough to draw the volume of struggle out of us that it did. It was as if a pair of hands was playing us all like flesh accordions. Squeezing and pulling us apart, forcing us to groan under the strain.
Kaylen stumbled first. A tree root caught him by the toe and sent him smashing to the ground like a slammed door. Someone moved to help him but in the stress and panic of the moment I failed to see who.
That's when I heard it. A swooshing sound like someone had whipped their coat past my ear. Then nothing. Leaves shook. A branch trembled. And whoever had been by my side was gone.
Another swoosh. This time past the opposite ear. Kaylen was there, his arm still in his benefactor's hand. Mitchum, I concluded. But they were no longer focused on Kaylen or his nasty spill. Someone else had been taken. They held their guns ready. Though, there was a hesitancy in their stance. As if they weren't sure they should be holding them at all.
A third swoosh, this just off my right side and in front of me. A gasp, cut the sound short and soon the night was ablaze in gunfire. Bullets ripped the night. In the muzzle flash I could see their faces. Fear, blind and absolute. Carving out everything that made them who they are until all that was left was a husk.
And in my panic, I joined them.
Feet, legs, body, back. All went numb. The only sensation still in my body that I was conscious of were my arms. They trembled under the weight of gunfire, tensing with every recoil. I'd been firing guns since I was a kid. Twelve years old firing rifles off the back porch. Only now did I wonder if my arms would fall off from the shock of the blows.
Another sound. This one from behind me. Not a swoosh, but a rush of frantic movement, hurried but coordinated. Then the scream. What it was, it screamed first. Like someone had torn a piece of sheet metal like paper. My mind struggled to categorize it. Animal, certainly, but none that I had ever heard. While I tried to piece it together, my concentration was annihilated when Mitchum added his voice to the chorus.
A raw, terrified scream. Human. I had no trouble placing it.
Kaylen whirled around and drained the rest of his clip into the darkness. Buzzed by the blaring white of his fire, my eyes struggled to make sense of what they had seen. Something large, but with an oddly graceful gait. Lumbering yet lithe. Like nothing I had never seen before.
More screaming kept me from investigating further. Another man, gone. And another. Guns continued to scream as their brothers fell to the floor, abandoned by their owners as if the very forest had come alive and stolen them away.
Rushing to my side, I eyed a rifle and prepared to scoop it up. Muscles tensed, focus tightened. If I could keep moving; keep my legs shuffling,