“Faster!” Susan shouted. “Bruce! Drive faster!”
The vehicle lurched as Bruce drove between two tall trees. George had given chase, and he was right behind them. As he approached the thick trunks he slowed, allowing Bruce to put some distance between the two.
“Don’t slow down!” Kevin barked. “Jeez, Bruce! Keep going!”
Thick rain drops pelted the windshield, the water spreading out and blurring their already hindered nighttime view of the woods around them. Bruce was going fast, faster than he should, and he could feel the cold sweat that coated his skin and soaked his outfit.
“Turn off the lights,” Justice added from the back. “George is attracted to them!”
“If I turn off the lights, I won’t be able to see!”
“If you don’t, we might—”
George rushed in from the left, his mouth agape as he closed in. The impact sent their vehicle spinning across the rain slicked forest floor. Bruce tried to regain control and tried to stop them from rolling. Thankfully, the vehicle stayed flat. He was careful about the accelerator. He didn’t want to get them stuck. The car slowed forward, then picked up speed, and Bruce continued onward. No one saw George out there. The darkness, the rain, and the thick trees already obscured everything. Bruce believed Justice about the lights, but they couldn’t turn them off without crashing.
He continued to drive, weaving in and out of trees, underbrush, through a few small streams, anything and everything he felt like might put some distance between himself and George. By now the rain was coming down in sheets, and he could barely see. He started to slow, much to Kevin’s displeasure, but he couldn’t risk a head on crash, either.
“Where are we?” Tamara asked from the back. “Are we going the right way?”
“No idea,” Kevin answered. “To be honest, we don’t care. As long as we’re not wherever that monster is, we’re good.”
While his friends talked, Bruce kept an eye on the path ahead. He had slowed considerably, but with the rain coming down this thick, he assumed the monster… George… wouldn’t be in a rush either. This was the longest since they’d fled the hilltop that they hadn’t been attacked. Bruce wanted to believe they’d finally lost their attacker, but he didn’t dare propose that thought aloud, for fear it would result in an instant attack.
“So we’re lost, out here alone, with a dinosaur chasing us!?” Susan piped up. “Is anyone even going to talk about Ted? He could be alive! Hurt!”
“No,” Justice said, sounding frustrated. “George got him, Susan. You saw it. We all saw it. There isn’t anything we can do for Ted.”
Bruce stayed silent. He wished he had Ted here to help them now. He knew next to nothing about navigation. Not to mention they knew nothing of this place. Ted had been the one that did most of Kevin’s preparations for this whole trip. Now they would be alone in planning their trip back, and that was devastating.
Bruce noticed something ahead. It was like the light from the vehicle seemed to just… disappear up ahead. How could that be unless… He realized it too late.
“Oh sh—” he groaned, slamming the brakes so hard that the vehicle’s tires locked up, sliding across the wet leaves and underbrush, barely slowing, and not nearly enough to prevent the inevitable. They weren’t going to make it.
The camper was going to plummet over a steep drop. Bruce didn’t know if it was ten feet, or a hundred. He saw a tree near the edge of the drop, firmly planted there, and he felt it was their only chance. “We’re going to crash!” he shouted.
Kevin and others were starting to understand their situation, as the looming darkness of the dropoff ate up more of their view.
Bruce released the brake and turned the car so it rolled in the right direction. The tires held their grip, the vehicle veered just enough, and a moment later the camper slammed into the tree against the right side of the vehicle’s front. The camper was moving fast enough to dislodge the tree, and the momentum lifted the back of their vehicle, spinning them around, then slamming them down again. In the back, Bruce saw Justice, who was not strapped in, as she flew upward, slamming against the roof, then slamming back down against her seat. Kevin held fast, but he hit his head against the side of the vehicle when it whipped around the tree.
The camper spun in a few circles before it stopped. There was a long moment of silence from everyone, then Susan screamed. Bruce stumbled out of the vehicle, having almost been thrown free moments before.
“Shut up!” Kevin shouted. “Susan! That thing is out there!”
“Justice’s face is all busted up!” she spat back.
“Is she breathing?” Bruce asked, trying to look through the window at them. They were stopped now, and it had been a while since their pursuer had shown itself. As he finished looking around, he heeded Justice’s advice and leaned in the driver door to turn off the vehicle’s lights.
“I think she’s… yeah, she’s breathing,” Kevin answered at last. “I think her leg is broken too.”
“Okay,” Bruce said, trying to think, trying to take the lead. “We’ll go slow. We just need—”
The vehicle moved, then started to slowly roll backward. Bruce looked around and realized they’d spun around so the cliff was behind them, and that was the direction the camper was beginning to roll.
He scrambled back into the driver’s seat and pressed the brake pedal, but it offered no help. He shifted the camper’s gear into park, but that didn’t work either. They were about fifteen feet from the edge now.
“Kevin. We have to stop the car,” Bruce said.
“You can’t be serious?” Kevin scoffed.
Bruce didn’t reply. The car was starting to roll faster as he scrambled to the back and pushed against it as hard as he could. He slowed the roll, but he couldn’t stop it. The ground was slick and sloped. Gravity was going to win the battle. Even as Kevin appeared at his side to help, the best they could do was prolong the inevitable.
“Everyone get out!” Bruce shouted. “Come help us!”
Kevin’s foot slipped, and he released his hold. Bruce, unprepared, was pushed by the added weight of the vehicle, and he felt a sharp pain in his ankle as it twisted sideways. He grimaced as the camper started to roll faster, gaining momentum.
“Nevermind,” Bruce shouted, still trying to hold it back. “Get our gear, get Justice out!”
“Her leg is pinned under one of the seats,” Tamara shouted. “She’s having trouble breathing! Bruce! What do we do!?”
The vehicle was moving too fast.
“We can’t… we… leave her!” Bruce shouted.
“Do it! Grab our supplies!”
“No! Kevin, come help me get Justice out of here!”
Kevin had already abandoned Bruce, rushing to the back to try and slow the vehicle again.
Bruce stood to help and his ankle exploded in pain.
Kevin’s feet hit a particularly muddy spot, and his legs slid out from under him. He fell flat on the ground, and a moment later, the large vehicle rolled over him.
Tamara jumped from the vehicle at the last second, landing hard in the mud as the camper fell over the side. They heard cracking branches, shattering glass, and the groan of bending metal as the vehicle made its way down, ending with a loud smash.
“JUSTICE!” Tamara screamed, crawling over to the edge to see over.
“Stop!” Kevin called after her, then followed enough to grab her foot and start pulling her back. “With this rain you’ll slip off!”
“Oh no! She’s dead! She has to be dead!”
“Tamara,” Kevin shouted again. “Stop! Stop. The monster is still out there. Remember?!”
She went quiet, but she looked like she was struggling to contain the pain.
“I’m so sorry,” Bruce said.
Bruce rested on the ground for a long time, his ankle in agony, his mind a blur. The rain patted down on his forehead in a dull rhythm. No one said anything. No one dared to acknowledge the nightmare they’d been thrust into tonight.
“Did we get our supplies?” he finally asked aloud.
“You heartless jerk,” Kevin answered without delay. “Justice is dead.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Bruce added. “But we need supplies.”
“I grabbed three backpacks,” Susan replied. “I did what you said.”
“Good, thank you, Susan,” Bruce said, sitting up and trying to search for the packs in the dark. His ankle couldn’t take any weight at the moment, so he slid over to the first pack and ripped it open.
There were a few rations, climbing gear, and a flashlight. That was Kevin’s pack.
He slid further, grabbing the second pack and ripping it open too.
It had two books, first editions of Doctor Julio Jones on the study of lifeforms in the Garden. There was a magnifying glass, a few pieces of turkey jerky, and some anti-itch cream. Bruce winced. This was Justice’s bag. He grabbed the third one and found it full of toiletries.
None of them had medical supplies or major food rations.
That, assuming it survived the fall, was at the bottom of the cliff.
“Kevin. I’ve got a flashlight. I need your help.”
“With what?” Kevin asked.
“We have some of your climbing gear. We need to get down the cliff.”
“What?” Susan asked, looking up at him.
“If George shows up, we’re safer down there than we are up here. Meanwhile, I need a brace for my ankle, we all need food, and shelter, and we can get most of that, if not all of it, down there. We need… we need to check on Justice too.”
“Right,” Kevin said, seeming to reclaim his composure. “Yeah, I agree.”
“Well, I don’t,” Susan said. “I’m not going down there.”
“I’d rather we not split up,” Bruce said, sliding Kevin’s backpack over to him. “We can’t bring our supplies up the rope, so we’re going to have to go down to them.”
“I’ll wait here.”
“Susan, this isn’t really a choice. You won’t be safe up here.”
“Okay, maybe she can be a lookout?” Tamara suggested, joining the discussion. “She can be a lookout.”
Bruce didn’t like it. He said as much, but no one else seemed interested, so he agreed. Kevin went to the tree and sized it up, making sure it was still rooted enough from the crash to hold their weight. It had a deep gouge at the base from the vehicle’s frame, but otherwise looked sturdy enough. He quickly started tying his climbing rope around the trunk before turning to Bruce and gesturing to his pack. “There are safety clips and two light harnesses in there. You two can use those. Get to the base, tie them on, then I’ll pull them up and get Susan down with us.”
Bruce nodded, realizing that Kevin agreed with his concern, even if he didn’t say it.
Once the rope was in place, Kevin dropped it over the edge and used the flashlight to verify that it reached the bottom. He pulled himself back from the slope and nodded to the others as he approached. “We’re good. It’s probably only about forty feet.”
“Okay then,” Bruce said. “Tamara and I can go down first.”
After all the things they had experienced that evening, sliding down a rope in a harness wasn’t all that scary. Tamara had been rappelling before, so she quickly slid down to the ground below and removed her harness before Bruce had even reached the halfway point. He took slow and deliberate steps, until he was only a few feet off the ground. He removed his own harness, secured both his own and Tamara’s to the rope, then pulled on it to signal Kevin. A moment later the rope started going up.
“Okay,” Bruce said, turning the flashlight on and looking around. “We need to find—”
They didn’t have to look far. The crumpled mess of the camper was no more than ten feet from the cliff. It had broken through several branches on the way down, slowing the fall a bit, and it was now resting upside down with the roof crushed in and parts littered all around.
“Tamara, check around the camper for a minute. I’m going to find Justice.”
“No, we are going to find her.”
The pair approached the vehicle, Tamara drifting to the shattered back windshield while Bruce began to wrench the driver’s side door open. He eventually gave up on that, instead forcing himself in through the shattered window. With his flashlight in hand, he looked through the cabin, but Justice… Justice was gone.
He shone his light to the back, where Tamara was pulling out several bags of supplies.
“Where is she?” Tamara asked, looking up at him.
“I don’t know,” Bruce replied. “Did she fall out of the camper on the way down?”
He shone the light around, worming into the back of the vehicle. He had assumed that poor Justice’s body had simply been crushed, or thrown free during the fall. He reached the seat, and he found a lot of blood, but not Justice. He used the flashlight to look around, looking for any sign of her.
By now, Tamara was looking hopeful. “She’s gone? Did she get out?”
“Yeah,” Bruce replied. “It looks like… I think she went this way.”
Tamara came over to the far side of the vehicle where Bruce was shining his light. She saw what he was talking about… a streak of blood and disturbed leaves, like someone had been dragging themselves across the ground.
“What is that?” Kevin’s voice split the silence and Tamara screamed while Bruce twisted around to shine the flashlight directly in their friend’s eyes.
“Come on, man!” Bruce growled. “You nearly scared us to death!”
“Jeez, sorry guys. I didn’t want to talk too loudly.”
“She’s up there,” Kevin said, pointing. “I put her in a harness, but she still refused to come down. She said she’s going to wait for rescue.”
Bruce winced. “They don’t even know we’re out here,” he said, looking up at the cliff. “She needs to come down here before—”
A loud roar echoed from above.
A scream followed. Susan.
“Susan!” Bruce shouted. “Climb down! Quick!”
There were thundering footsteps above. Bruce pointed his flashlight upward and spotted Susan. She had her harness on, and she was frantically attempting to hook it to the rope. They couldn’t tell how close the monster was, and Bruce stood frozen, watching as she tried, hands shaking, to secure her escape.
“Hurry!” Kevin shouted. “Hurry up!”
Susan looked away from her task, back toward the woods above. She screamed again and cowered in fear. Then, they all saw it. George loomed over Susan as she sat frozen with terror. George seemed to take in what it was looking at. The monster tilted its head ever so slightly. The moment only lasted a second, but it felt like an eternity. Then, George struck with shocking speed, grabbing Susan in its mouth and twisting away from the cliff face, disappearing out of sight.
“No!” Tamara screamed at the top of her lungs. “Oh no! NO! No no no no!”
The thundering footsteps echoed above them a few more times, along with other unsavory sounds that made Bruce’s stomach churn with nausea.
“We have to move,” Kevin spoke up, talking loudly to deafen the sounds above. “We don’t know if that thing has a way down here. Standing here waiting for it to come get us isn’t doing anyone any good.”
“We should try to find Justice,” Tamara said, tears streaming down her face. “She’s hurt.”
“He can’t have gotten far crawling like that,” Bruce added. “Let’s go.”
The three friends rushed through the woods, using the flashlight to follow the trail of Justice’s blood. Along the way, Bruce had started to think about the sheer amount of blood that he had seen so far. Justice had been severely wounded. It was surprising to think that she could make it this far without bleeding out entirely.
“Guys,” Tamara said, squatting down and waving an arm for them to do the same. “Look!”
Bruce looked up from the bloody path for the first time in a while, and in front of him he saw a clearing, with a few small lights that illuminated… a house?!
No, not a house. A mansion.
They walked into the clearing to get a better look. There was a tall stone tower, with a large telescope and observation room on one end. It also appeared to have some kind of protective perimeter, and a large metal gate that was currently half open, with Justice’s bloody trail leading right inside.
“Where did this come from?” Bruce asked. “I thought they said no one has explored this far into the Garden?”
“Does it matter?” Kevin countered. “Clearly Justice is inside. Let’s go. Better to hide in there in case the monster comes back. We’ve got supplies. We can hunker down.”
The house seemed odd, but Kevin was right. There was no reason not to use the house as a refuge. Hopefully, George wouldn’t follow them this far.
The group passed through the main gate, and Bruce took the time to close the metal door, securing it as best as he could. If the creature did come after them, it would be better to have more obstacles in the way. He waved the flashlight around, only now taking into account that the rain had stopped. The courtyard was lifeless, and as he moved across the area, his light caught the glint of a metal door. It had bars, like a prison cell, and he stopped there for a moment, looking at what he was seeing to be sure it was real.
“That’s… not good,” Tamara said. “Why are there cages out here?”
“Wildlife,” Bruce said, trying to explain what he saw. “In case the owner captures something in the wilderness and wants to… save it…”
There was a loud creak from the front porch of the mansion that caused the three of them to jump. Bruce spun the flashlight around to see a shadowy figure standing at the doorway. He couldn’t quite make out who it was.
“Guys,” Justice spoke, her voice quiet, strained. “Is that you?”
“Thank goodness!” Tamara said, stepping toward the door. “We were so worried about you. Are you okay?”
“I am okay,” Justice responded. Bruce noticed right away that Justice’s voice sounded cold… tired… like how someone would sound if they had forced all of the air out of their lungs, then tried to give a speech. It sounded… pained. Of course, all the blood loss and injuries could do that to someone.
“Come inside,” Justice said. “Follow me. Quickly.”
The door opened more, and the shadowy form of Justice receded.
Tamara rushed onto the porch. “Justice! Don’t go! We’re coming!”
“Tamara! Wait!” Bruce shouted. “We need to stick together!”
Kevin was right behind Bruce as they chased Tamara onto the porch. She had already gone inside by the time they reached the wooden planks outside. Bruce felt a wave of cold air blow from within the home, and by the time he reached the door Tamara was gone.
“Damn,” he said, panic welling up inside. “Kevin. I don’t know—”
Kevin was only a few steps behind. He had nearly reached the doorway as well when the porch cracked and splintered beneath his feet. Kevin fell through the opening, and Bruce grabbed him at the last second. Kevin didn’t look half as terrified as Bruce felt. He grimaced, looking down to see that a small piece of the porch lumber had pierced Kevin’s side.
“That sucks,” Kevin groaned, getting a better grip on Bruce’s arm. “Help me out of this.”
“Yeah,” Bruce replied. “Okay. Yeah.”
Kevin was starting to pull himself up when his eyes went wide. He looked at Bruce, the color draining from his face. “Something’s down there,” he managed to whisper. “It’s wrapping around my leg!”
Suddenly, Kevin was pulled. He slid deeper into the hole, which forced the lumber piece deeper into his side. He grimaced, cursed, and tightened his grip on Bruce’s arm as whatever was down there pulled fiercely on his leg.
“Don’t let go,” Kevin begged. “Help me.”
“I am,” Bruce said, feeling suddenly determined. “I won’t let go. I won’t.”
He heaved with all his might, and Kevin lifted up enough to get his waist above the porch. The wood that had stabbed him came out, and Bruce took a moment to kick it away so that it wasn’t a danger any longer.
“I got you,” Bruce said. “It’s working.”
Kevin shook his head. “No. It’s… oh no.”
Bruce saw something move. Inky black tendrils started to emerge from the hole around Kevin. At first Bruce thought they might be some kind of vine, but then he realized it was a fairly translucent thing… he could see through it, though only slightly. One of the tendrils reached Bruce’s foot, and despite his thick camping shoes, when it touched him, he felt an icy cold stinging his feet. He felt his heart pounding in his chest, but he pulled on Kevin even harder, throwing his energy into not acknowledging whatever monster lurked below.
“It’s got me,” Kevin said, his face completely ashen. “Let go, Bruce.”
“Bruce. You have to let go or it’ll get you too. Go save Tamara and Justice. Get away from this place.”
Bruce shook his head. “No. I won’t go.”
Kevin grimaced again. He looked to his side to see one of the tendrils was poking around his wound. It hesitated for a moment, then suddenly forced its way under his flesh. Kevin jerked at the pain and released his grip on Bruce. The darkness heaved against Bruce’s last bit of strength, and Kevin, wide-eyed with horror and pain, vanished beneath the porch. Bruce scrambled to his flashlight, which he had dropped in the chaos, and he quickly pointed it down the hole, but as the darkness retreated from his light, he saw nothing. Kevin was gone.
Bruce stood there, peering down, but then from the edge of the flashlight’s beam, he saw the tendrils stirring, moving and undulating beyond the light’s reach. He moved his flashlight and the darkness would retreat, but it would simply close in where the beam had been before. He stood up, looking around, and realized the tendrils were creeping up between the wooden planks of the porch. They were nearly on top of him. He waved the flashlight around wildly, which appeared to keep the tendrils at bay long enough for him to jump through the front door of the mansion and slam it shut behind him.