A blinding flash of light suddenly flickered, lighting up the sky for an instant, before dying out amidst the dark clouds that covered the gloomy ash-colored mantle beyond it. The only sign that it ever existed was the distant rumble that followed its brief appearance. And not long after, thundering sounds reverberated, disrupting the eerie silence of the landscape beneath. The whistling wind became more lively, carrying with it the first droplets of water that soon turned into a torrential downpour that mercilessly clashed onto the ground and the surrounding forest.
In that stretch of forest, rainstorms were a daily occurrence, but to the unfamiliar guests that were sprawled on the muddy soil, it was a different matter. As soon as the rain got heavier, one of the unconscious people – a handsome young man, to be precise – shifted restlessly before his eyes slowly fluttered open.
Stephen grunted in pain, his hands subconsciously rubbing his face to get rid of the sleepiness. His head was a mess, the splitting headache that was hammering his skull blurred his senses, but it couldn’t camouflage the wet feeling of the water trailing down his body, nor the vexatious sensation of his clothes sticking to his skin.
“What the…” his eyes splayed wide open before his body shot up from the supine position he was perched in. What welcomed his vision were towering trees and thick underbrush, the dense leafage blocking his sight to go any further. He was in a forest, but he couldn’t understand why he was there, or how he had even reached this place. The mystery befuddled his mind, and it scared him. The foremost thought that crossed his mind was the probability of him being kidnapped.
“This… who are you?” a masculine voice broke his thoughts.
Stephen spun his head around, meeting the gaze of a potbellied middle-aged man who sported a business suit, his head was bald aside from sideways chunks of grayish black hair. The man was looking at him with a mix of cautiousness and confusion while trying to uselessly shield himself from the rain with his briefcase. From the looks of it, the man didn’t seem to be aware of the odd circumstance they were knotted in.
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“The name’s Stephen, I presume you have no idea why we’re here, right?”
The man shook his head plaintively, upholding his blooming suspicions, but he held his distance anyway, for now, it was best not to trust him. Silence ensued, breached only by the pitter-patter sound of the rain. It was only after a while that both of them noticed the rest of the people on the ground stirring awake.
A beautiful young woman was the first one to groggily stand up. Her long black hair tumbled over her shoulders down to her back, her hazel eyes scampering left and right vigilantly, gasping in surprise when she caught sight the unfamiliar environment.
She was soon followed by another two females, a middle-aged lady and a juvenile young girl with short blonde hair, the latter had a frightened expression etched on her delicate face. Meanwhile, the last member of the group clambered back to his feet too. He was a burly and dark-skinned man with curly maroon hair, his attire was average, but his eyes spoke otherwise. He calmly and coldly scanned their location before addressing everyone.
“What is going on?”
“No idea,” Stephen replied with a drawn-out sigh, “And I doubt the ladies over there know anything as well.” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, right where the only females of their small crew stood. At that point, it was clear that they were all in the same boat, but he knew better than to put his guard down because of it. He needed more time and information to elaborate a more accurate judgment.
“Ehm…” the potbellied man chimed in, his tone dripping with hesitation, “So… nobody knows anything, correct?” he queried whilst looking at them, hellbent on detecting any sign of deceit. He was jittery and frightened, but he willed himself into appearing relaxed.
“Not at all.” the middle-aged lady affirmed as she tucked a chock of red hair behind her ear, “I don’t know how I got to this place, the last thing I remember was getting back home, and then utter emptiness. I literally can’t recall what happened in that time frame.”
“M-me too…” the youngest of the girls timidly exclaimed.
Everyone seemed to have experienced the same thing if the look on their face was anything to go by, but it wasn’t enough to instill trust among each other. They were strangers in an unknown land, after all.
Stephen could hardly support the pregnant silence that followed right after the young girl spoke. Everybody held up their expressionless facade aside the blonde girl whose face was currently scrunching up in fear.
“I believe introductions are at the top of the list, I’m Natasha, pleased to make your acquaintance!” the middle-aged lady gave a warm smile as she took a step forward.
“Frank here, the pleasure is mine.” the potbellied man winked at the red-haired beauty, earning him a displeased frown.
“John.” was the dark-skinned man’s curt reply.
“I’m Sarah, hello!” the now cheerful blondie waved her shivering hand.
“Stephen.” he nodded at them, “Well then… should we stick with each other, or each on his own?”
The question was met with different reactions, mostly because they were not confident to survive in a foreign place, and the weather was not favorable either. Whoever had put them in that place could and likely was, still around. So, despite their hesitation, it was unanimously decided that the best step to take was to stay together, figure out who was the perpetrator behind this, get him back in the ass if they could, then go back home. Six heads were better than one.
Of course, there was the chance that the one who placed them there was hiding among them, something that was not missed when the decision was made. But threading through a dark forest alone was certainly something they didn’t want to partake in if they could. However, if there was more than one plotting against them then surviving was a laughable joke from the start. Might as well stake everything on the off probability that they were all victims. The situation was already grim as it was.
“We should secure ourselves a place for the night. I don’t think we’ll be getting out of here soon anyway,” Natasha offered, the biting cold was seeping into her bones, and her body could hardly stop from trembling.
Everyone nodded in agreement, as drenched as they were, it was not intelligent staying there any longer.
“Good, but before that,” Stephen started inquisitively, drawing the group’s attention, “I believe we should empty our pockets to make sure we’re all clean. I’ll start first.” he put his hands in his black tight-fitting slacks’ pockets and drew out a phone, headphones, keys, and a wallet. However, as soon as he took out his phone his eyes light up in wisdom.
“Right, the phone!” he quickly turned it on, “What… no signal?”
“No signal?” Frank blurted out in panic before taking his own and controlling, “He’s right… there’s no signal…” his mumble was almost a whisper, but it was still heard by the rest of the group.
“Maybe there’s no signal in this area, that or someone is jamming it.” John cleverly offered, but it did little to nothing to appease Sarah and Frank’s rising restlessness. They were in a forest god knows where, with someone that wanted them there for some uncanny reason, with creatures lurking around, and to top it off no food or shelter.
“N-no… I wanna go back home…” Sarah broke down in hiccups, tears streaming down her cheeks as she took out her own phone, hoping for a miracle that didn’t come. After the adrenaline rush cooled down, she felt all of the distress suddenly crashing upon her.
“There there…” Natasha’s motherly instincts kicked in as she cooed the crying girl. “Everything’s gonna be alright.” her promise wasn’t convincing, however.
Daphne stayed silent the whole time, something that didn’t bypass Stephen and Jonh’s eyes. She was unreasonably withdrawn and quiet, but then again she might have been faking it. Either way, it was best to keep an eye on her.
“Ehm… let’s do as Stephen said,” Frank sighed low-spiritedly before taking out his own belongings which consisted of rudimentary stuff; a lighter, cigarettes, a wallet, tissues, sans his telephone which was still in his hand. He even opened his briefcase, inside were papers, folders, and various documents. Nothing off-putting.
Natasha decided to be the next one, but the content she had was very little, and it was mostly the same as Stephen and Frank. Sarah had a small pinkish bag with her, so to respect her privacy Natasha and Daphne were the ones to sort through her stuff, which resulted in nothing worrisome, just girlish trinkets such as lipstick, perfume, and… a condom. Nobody commented on that last article, Sarah was already deeply embarrassed, there was no need to make a big deal out of it.
“…” Daphne averted her gaze when she noticed the group staring at her, “I have nothing with me…” she uttered in an almost inaudible voice.
“That’s for us to decide.” Stephen was unforgiving to her excuses, “We need to make sure you’re not a danger to us.” he looked at Natasha who nodded in understanding as she approached the ever so slowly recoiling black-haired young woman.
Daphne gritted her teeth, her wet hair framing her pale and beautiful face. She felt wronged and angry, but complied nonetheless. Reaching for the pocket of her jeans, she extracted a yellow thing with a blade within. And if someone bothered to look closer they’d have noticed a bit of dried blood on its edge.
“A box cutter?” Natasha draped a hand over her mouth, surprise evident on her face.
“Happy now?” Daphne gave the older woman a Cheshire grin, “Please, stay away from me…” it was hard not to notice the sad look that flashed by her eyes.
“Daphne… relax, it’s okay…”
“No, it’s not!”
Natasha was at a loss. She looked around for help, but the way the situation unfolded was not received gladly. Frank and Sarah had gasped in surprise, waltzing a few steps back. But what worried her the most was Stephen and John’s reaction. Their eyes narrowed while their body tensed, ready to take action at a moment’s notice. She believed that Daphne meant no harm, yes, the fact that a small knife was among her possessions was alarming, but her sixth sense told her that the young woman in question didn’t have a blithe backstory.
“Guys, calm down… Daphne, please, put away that blade… we’re not gonna question you about it, everyone has dirty stains in their past…”
The hand holding the box-cutter started quivering as tears welled up in Daphne’s eyes before gliding down onto her cheeks, she felt so small and cornered, and although she appreciated Natasha’s attempts to placate her outburst, she was still afraid. She was not as emotionally strong as the others, her social anxiety made it almost impossible to properly convey her thoughts, thus she tended to behave in weird ways when put in a difficult spot. Natasha was right, everyone had dirty stains. In a world made of appearances, looking the tiniest bit different was a free ticket to instantly become an outcast, forcing people to wear a mask to avoid such outcome.
“Fine…” she chewed her bottom lip, pocketing back the blade, her expression was swapped with a sad visage, “I’m sorry…” her apology didn’t sound much sincere, but it was a start.
Natasha smiled, happy that she had managed to soothe her. Looking at the others she noticed that albeit they were still wary, their hostility dispersed, at least.
“Now…” she clapped her hands to switch the group’s attention upon her, “John, it’s your turn, isn’–” her words were hastily cut off for the ground had suddenly started shaking.
And then it happened, something that froze their minds. It was not apparent if it was a roar or a shrill, but the sheer might behind that roar traveled in every direction, a seemingly transparent wave of air trailing alongside the sound as it strode through the shell-shocked group, leaving behind only chills in their spine.
With no time to think, only their instincts pumping more blood through their veins, harshly warning them to flee. Whatever was the source of that beastly shriek must have been a colossus, and they were not interested in finding it out. Picking up a random direction, they set off in a maddening rush, their legs dogged into scurrying away from that place that pledged only forthcoming nightmares.