Halloween Special 2022: A Night in the Woods (Part 1)

          “Well, they were most certainly out here.”

          Brecken Cairns was busy winding the wench on the front of a red pickup truck, complete with an attached camper, that they had borrowed from a campsite at the edge of the explored area of the Garden. As Brecken was built like a tank, he’d been assigned to handle most of the physical labor. Meanwhile, along for the ride was Willa Jones, who was responsible for the scouting, and Timothy Hill, who was their navigation expert.

          The team had been helping organize missions for the Explorer’s Group in the Garden, but they’d been contacted by Elsie Lamarr and Flynn Brickshelm about a group of six refugees that might have gone missing in the Garden.

          A camper had vanished around the same time, and a drone at the farthest reaches of scouted territory had gone offline the very next day. In other words, Flynn had started to establish a timeline around the disappearance and he wanted more information.

          So, the three of them had been put to task, packed their things, and headed out to the far reaches to find more information.

          Now, Willa Jones was standing next to the drone they’d been sent to find, and she was holding a piece of tarp in her hands. The fabric was worn and torn, and the color faded over time. She held it up for the others to see. “This pattern and color match the tent that came with the missing camper. Whoever took the camper definitely came here.”

          Brecken finished winding the wench and went to have a closer look. Willa was the youngest of the Explorers in the Garden, but she was also a native of this World Ship. That meant she’d technically been here longer than the other two and held a higher position than them both. She didn’t see it that way, and Brecken was glad for it, but all across the World Ship, this topic had become a sticking point. Her lack of enthusiasm had caused her trouble in the main branch of the Explorer’s Group, so she’d come to the Garden to get away from the drama. She happily let Brecken take the lead whenever serious matters like this one came up.

          “This is part of the tent from the camper,” he agreed as he held the fabric. “So, where is the camper itself?”

          “More importantly,” Timothy Hill, the older man in the group, spoke up. “What happened to this poor drone?”

          The three looked at the vehicle. It had safely landed here ages ago, and the last images of it had been in fairly good condition, but what they found here was nothing more than a mangled mess of metal and wires.

          “So they came here to camp, that much we know. After all, when the drone had landed here, there were all kinds of talk from adventure-seeking campers that they were going to go and put their signatures on the drone to prove they’d made the trek.”

          “So what happened next?” Brecken asked.

          “Isn’t it obvious?” Willa asked, gesturing to the mangled drone. “George showed up and had a midnight snack.”

          “If that’s the case, where’s the camper?” Timothy countered. “If George attacked while they were camping, wouldn’t it still be here?”

          “Maybe some of them got away?”

          “Okay, but then why not just drive back to civilization?”

          “If it was in the middle of the night, they could have been disoriented or overwhelmed,” Willa proposed, stepping toward an embankment a short way from the group. “They might have driven deeper into the forest rather than out of it.”

          They waited as she stepped down, then saw her reach down and pick up a large piece of weathered plastic and metal that had a faded yellow coat of paint still visible on parts of the surface. The missing camper had been painted yellow and blue.

          “Looks like a bumper,” Brecken said. “So we can confirm that much, at least.”

          “This area slopes down to several steep edges,” Timothy said, gesturing further down the embankment. “If they were fleeing in the vehicle, it would have felt natural to go in this direction. They might have driven right off the edge in a panic. We should—”

The sound of a snapping twig silenced Timothy. He and the others turned to the disturbance, expecting to see a predator or some other wild animal, but instead found a woman standing not far from them, frozen in place. Her arms were raised, as though she’d been trying to balance herself before ultimately stepping on the now-broken twig.

          She turned to look at them and her face fell in disappointment.

          “Darn,” she said. “I had hoped to slip by without drawing your attention.”

          “I’m sorry,” Brecken said, stepping forward as if he was shielding the others. “Who might you be?”

          “Me? My name is Kaellax.”

          The woman seemed incredibly out of place. She was wearing a tightly fitted cloth robe with a deep v-neck and a low-cut bodice underneath. She had leather bracers and boots, and a leather belt cinched at her waist with a sheathed dagger to the side. The cloth was dyed with an inky black color, which matched her equally dark hair. Her eyes were shockingly unique, as they were deep purple, with an almost glow to their appearance. Her appearance was mildly off-putting, but also somehow entrancing.

          “What has brought you out this far into the Garden?” Timothy asked.

          “I borrowed a vehicle,” she said, straightening her stance and placing a hand on her left hip, the same side where the dagger was currently sheathed. “I ran out of fuel. To be honest, I was going to take some of yours. Your vehicle seems well-maintained. I figured you might have some to spare.”

          Brecken’s eyes narrowed. “You were trying to sneak past us so you could steal fuel?”

          “That’s right,” Kaellax responded, smiling. “Just enough to get where I need to go.”

Brecken huffed.

          “I’m not dangerous,” she added. “Not to you, anyway.”

          “Citizens should be reporting to Town,” Timothy said in a relaxed tone, trying to help dispel the tension that had mounted between Brecken and the woman. “We can offer you some fuel to get back that way.”

          “No,” Kaellax said flatly. “I need to head on a short way. I wonder if we’re both looking for the same thing. Tell me, adventurers, what has brought you this far out?”

          “Missing refugees,” Willa said. “Six people went missing out here almost a year ago.”

          “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” Brecken asked.

          “No,” Kaellax answered. “Unless of course, they had a yellow and blue camper?”

          The group was frozen with anxiety. Brecken had been concerned about the woman when they’d first met, but now his mind was running wild with theories. She was out here, all alone, and she’d managed to get the drop on them with ease. If she had done the same with the campers that came out here before…

          “I found a wrecked camper not far from here,” Kaellax explained, clearly attempting to dispel the anxiety that had built between them. “It’s empty, but I was curious about it. It’s hard not to take note of something like that out here. I can show you, if you want.”

          The three of them huddled together, Brecken not once taking his eyes off the woman.

          “Is she one of the missing six?” Willa asked. “That accent is new to me.”

          “I’ve never heard it either,” Timothy replied. “I’ve seen photos and sketches of the missing campers. She’s definitely not one of them.”

          “How do we know she’s not the reason they went missing?”

          “If she can show us the camper, we should let her,” Brecken said. “Worst case she’s trying to trap us or lure us into something. We keep our guard up and we’ll be good to go.”

          “Until she stabs one of us with that knife,” Willa pressed.

          “It’s a dagger, actually,” Kaellax spoke up. “Sorry. I can’t pretend not to hear you.”

Brecken groaned.

          “I didn’t hurt anyone on this World Ship,” Kaellax added, trying to sound cheerful while she beckoned the group. “Look, young woman, come here.”

          “My name is Willa.”

          “Good. Right. Willa, here. I give my dagger to you willingly.” Kaellax untied the sheath from her leather belt and held the covered blade out toward her. “We can consider it a sign of my goodwill. You can hold it until I need it.”

          Willa took a few steps over, then reached out and snatched the dagger from her.

          “Happy?” Kaellax asked.

          “Yes,” Brecken confirmed. “Now, if you’ll show us the camper?”

          “Perfect. Yes,” she said excitedly. “We’ll need your vehicle, though. It’s a short drive.”

          The pickup truck, once freed from the camper, was still a fairly large vehicle. It held the four of them inside without issue. Willa sat in the back with Kaellax, keeping an untrusting eye on her the entire way down the embankment to the steeper drops.

          Brecken drove slowly, heading in the direction the woman suggested and correcting his course ever so often when she spoke up to tell him he’d veered off the intended course.

          He had just finished his last adjustment at her request when she finally decided to try and have a conversation. “So uh, Kaellax, huh? That’s a unique name.”

          “It’s Norsh,” she answered. “I got it from my traditionalist parents in my homeland.”

          “So you are from another World Ship?”

          “That’s right. I’m from World Ship 2006. Most inhabitants call it Azirim.”

          “I have never heard of that one,” Timothy spoke up from the passenger seat.

          “I’m confident I’m the only one from there to make their way here,” she replied. “It’s a rather long distance, and unless you’re seeking this place, it’s hard to find.”

          “So why come here?” Willa asked, her own interest piqued. “Why this place?”

          “I’m a hunter,” Kaellax replied. “Your World Ship has my prey.”

          “Oh?” Willa asked, suddenly feeling uncomfortable again.

          “Not you,” Kaellax assured her, still smiling. “I hunt a much more dangerous creature.”

          “What creature?” Timothy asked. “George?”


          “Right. That’s what folks here call him… or her… anyway, it’s a big reptilian animal that has been known to wander the Garden. We’ve had several run-ins with it over the years.”

          “Ah, no. I’m afraid I hunt… oh, there,” she said, stopping herself. “See the broken tree ahead? It’s straight down from there.”

          The group pulled up beside the tree, which was visibly damaged, though it looked to have healed as best it could over the last year. It became clear almost immediately that the camper had come through here, hitting the tree at a fast pace, then eventually sliding or rolling down over the edge of the cliff. They looked down to see the undercarriage of the camper resting below.

          Everyone on the team was comfortable with rock climbing, including their mysterious addition, so rappelling down to the crashed vehicle was a piece of cake. They gathered supplies for the night, assuming they wouldn’t be climbing back up right away, and quickly slid down after making sure they had a secured anchor that would be there for them when it was time to return.

          At the base of the cliff, they found the missing camper was utterly demolished.

          Time had taken a toll on the wreckage, but it was clear that the camper had been heavily damaged by the time it fell here. There was no sign of anyone, alive or not, nor any indicators of where they might have gone if they had survived the fall.

          “Surely there would be something?” Willa asked as she looked around the site. “Bones or something? Clothes? Shoes?”

          “Maybe. Maybe not,” Brecken answered. “For all we know this place flooded out and washed anything like that away.”

          “Well,” Brecken said, pulling his flashlight out. “It’s getting dark out here. We might consider settling down here for the night. The leaves and sticks are undisturbed, so animals don’t frequent this place.”

          As he was talking, his flashlight fell across Kaellax. For a brief moment, he thought he saw her shadow move. He blinked, and everything looked normal again. He held the light on her for a long moment, waiting for something more to happen, but there was nothing. Finally, she turned to look at him, seemingly annoyed, and he moved the light away with a quick apology.

          She smiled, despite that moment, and seemed like she was going to accept the apology, but then her face went still. She looked off into the distance, and Brecken saw her jaw clench.

          “Hey, you okay?” he asked.

          A terrifying sound echoed in the darkness far away. It sounded like a high-pitch scream laced with the sound of glass shattering into a million pieces. It chilled Brecken to the bone, but Kaellax’s face relaxed. The smile returned.

          “There it is,” she said calmly, turning to the team with a now determined look.

          “There what is?” Timothy asked.

          “The real reason we’re all out here,” she replied. “The Yunai.”

To Be Continued…

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