Former army grunt Jonah Browne was vacationing in Germany years ago, when the Molting began. Today, he’s a man tempered by his determination to keep his family safe from Molters, spending every waking moment defending against the bloodthirsty creatures.
But now, a new threat lurks near the cabin.
A community perseveres in those same German mountains. Desperate to survive, they are willing to sacrifice anyone - and often do. Their methods are barbaric, but the alternative means falling to the Molter horde.
Release date: July 22, 2019
Publisher: C.A. Gleason
Print pages: 239
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All the guns typically kept most from running away. When the Draw happened, they were encouraged to urinate or squat over a shithole. It seemed loose bowels were the most common reaction to having been chosen, but thankfully Otto had already gone both a few hours earlier. Sometimes it was difficult to do one without going the other.
Their way of doing things was arrogant, and thankfully—for him—the routine needed revamping. Guns were for killing, except they needed them alive. That was a major flaw, probably because their system was relatively new—and had been carried out for only a few years. It was a mistake, and exploiting it was his only chance for survival. The choice was an easy one: it was either risk being shot while escaping or die anyway. He didn’t know anyone who survived once they were put in a cell.
Even though his situation was a truth he couldn’t escape from, he still wanted to talk to them first. Try to talk them out of it. Remind them of the good times, like when he made them laugh. They always laughed at him. When the huddle of men broke up to seemingly go about their assigned duties, finishing their conversations as if Otto couldn’t hear them and readying their weapons, he made the attempt while the others were out of earshot, pissing or shitting but most likely also praying.
It was painful to do, to hear what was coming out of his mouth, how it shouldn’t be him but someone else, how he contributed too much to be considered, and how well liked others considered him to be. Half of what he said was a lie; others did some of the things he was claiming to have done, but not everyone was aware of every role. Within those minutes of his bogus explanation, it was possible to sway at least one of them. Long enough to disappear later by violating that trust instead of outright fleeing right in front of them.
Unfortunately they were far too determined. Archard’s underlings had one job once the Draw was active: follow through with his orders. They must have thought his silence after his spiel was accepted defeat. Callousness was necessary for how they survived, but he knew they wouldn’t kill him yet. They were spaced enough so he had a slim chance, so when they aimed their guns and told him to get in the back of the pickup truck, he ran. Ironically—and for a split second—he almost wished they had shot him because he knew what it meant if they caught him.
The scary part, even more frightening than the monsters that were always present and hunting them, was what was required for their system to work. What was strange was it had never been him on the losing end. It was others, people he didn’t know very well or even care about. Now he had been chosen as its most integral element. He didn’t want to think about it. Doing so practically dredged up nausea. The truth of what went on was why he fled in the first place, and as he did, he wasn’t surprised with the direction he took; it was an unfamiliar one.
Maybe he should have headed for another camp. It wasn’t as if he needed to reach his own. Archard kept everyone regimented enough so that almost everything was in a designated place, which meant there were supplies he could find quickly to steal. He would need to grab only the basics: a canteen, packaged food, a weapon of some sort, preferably a knife.
What else? he thought.
Except almost everyone knew him or would at least recognize him. Newcomers were a curiosity and knowing their history a necessity, for the safety of the others. They were practically paraded in front of everyone as if they were trophies before a role could be assigned. He had no choice but to abandon his belongings at his own camp—no doubt word had already spread there by radio—but he wished he could have grabbed something of use before they went after him.
They probably believed he would head to his camp, which was why he was going in the opposite direction. He wished it would have occurred to him earlier that the danger was possible even for him, but he honestly hadn’t believed it. He was a newcomer, but he did know some of them well enough to call them friends—at least he thought so—and although he wasn’t armed, someone around where he lay his head at night might have helped him escape. Too late for that now. Instead, he was going where the land was unfamiliar.
Although he’d lived there his whole life, other than a few summers in France during his early twenties, and especially because of what happened since the Molting—it wasn’t as if the airlines were up and running with tubes filled with people flying overhead—he wasn’t familiar with this area of Deutschland. Now and then, being a local was a hindrance. He didn’t know his own country well enough.
Escaping was a momentary decision anyway. Fight or flee and he had fled because he didn’t have anything to fight with except his fists, and he hardly ever used those. Not since he was a child and that probably didn’t even count. If he raised his hands up in a threatening manner as an adult, he had no idea what would happen. Even if he were a boxing champion, there was no way he could threaten a group of armed men.
Hard to know if his instincts were taking him in a safe direction either. That could be known only once the next undetermined decision presented itself and he made it. Currently he was correct because he was still alive, and they wouldn’t know where he was going because he didn’t either. The only problem with traveling an unfamiliar path was that it required him to go slower than a familiar one would. That made it possible for them to catch up.
It was strange, but he wasn’t concerned with the ones that would drain him on sight or the big ones that fed on the drainers once they cocooned and were ripe, because the surrounding territory had been, relatively, under control. At least during the day. It was his fellow man he was afraid of at the moment, and unfortunately they were right behind him. He could hear a commotion, the organized kind that was readying for a pursuit, but he couldn’t see them. Presently, he was focused only on the snowy woods in front of him.
When he summoned up the courage to steal a look behind him, they didn’t seem to be as close as he imagined they were. Plus, Otto wasn’t the only one they were dealing with. Others who had been chosen took advantage of his chaotic escape and ran for their lives, too, feeling compelled to attempt to save themselves.
What did Archard’s men think would happen? They would all just agree to be a working part of their system, to die as the others had before them? It was preposterous. Everyone knew what would happen. Especially now. He would be surprised if anyone went along willingly in the future because the way they did things wasn’t going to end any time soon.
Not that he was innocent in all of it. He had done his part, well, hadn’t obstructed what he knew was wrong. Self-preservation kicks in when in the proximity of a possible death, and when they had taken him in, he was just thankful to be alive. Before today he had started to believe he needed to fear only the monsters. If they caught him, they would put him in one of those cells, and then he would know what fear really felt like.
The captures always happened where people believed they were safe, but many had seen it happen in those same places, and for a minority of the some, it eventually happened to them. The way they used to assure those who were chosen would no longer work. They were lies, and those who were the instruments of the Draw were in denial. Denial was a frame of mind, a mental illness that infected the desperate, and these were desperate times.
His lungs were already burning. Why didn’t he exercise more? Difficult to do with snow everywhere. The mountains weren’t the best location to escape a blanket of white, no matter the time of year. The snow was so deep in places it looked like hillsides were covered in icing from a white cake. The thought of cake made his mouth water. And what kind of lunatic would go jogging in the snow?
Another funny thought occurred to him because what mystified him most of all was that he didn’t hate the men who were after him. Sure, they had done terrible things and planned on doing a lot more of the same, but it was only out of necessity. They were practically forced, and Otto actually agreed with the way they did things. The Draw kept others safe. He just never thought he would be on the death end of it.
Not that it mattered how he felt about it anymore or how he felt about the people he knew, or thought he knew, well enough to consider friends. All of it had changed, and Archard’s men were coming for him. Somehow, somewhere deep within him, he found some extra energy.
That was what it was. It made him faster than he ever thought he was capable of, even though he was dealing with a problem that would slow down an athlete in his prime: boots that needed replacing. It didn’t help that the snow was past his ankles. It wasn’t as if he had the time to bury his tracks or go in a false direction, to backtrack, and then go a different way either. In order to locate him, all they had to do was follow his boot prints. Except they had to deal with the snow too.
Their yelling and revving engines and gunshots in the air were intended to intimidate him, trip him up, scare him into making a mistake or giving up altogether so they could grab him more easily. It was so strange. Only days ago he honestly cared about his pursuers. So much could change quickly. They were being nowhere near friendly toward him anymore and doing a fine job of getting that message across. He briefly wondered if they were holding back in their pursuit and making a game of it because they hadn’t caught up to him yet.
There were definitely some of them who were in better shape than he was; he’d seen them with their shirts off, and sometimes tracking down their fellow man was their job, after all, but a desperate man was likely capable of above-average foot speed no matter the terrain. In this case, it was simply that his life was in danger, and he was going faster than those who were pursuing him.
Plus their job, under the circumstances, was to round up the chosen. What difference did it make how long it took? As long as there was still daylight, there was no time limit, Archard’s annoyance level notwithstanding. Otto was probably making it easier on them, running as fast as he could and exhausting himself. They only needed him alive.
Why the hell am I so important? They have others. He had a sinking feeling as he realized the answer. Not many of us left.
Dismissing the terrible thought—and involuntary reaction about reality and their intent—to attempt to calm himself down for his own sanity didn’t replace it with anything better. For brief moments, he actually thought he recognized where he was, at least the other side of where was familiar to him, but it was probably only misgivings because of his desperation. Recognition was what he desired, hoping to spot something familiar.
Instead he ended up trudging through a swamp, or what had been a swamp during a previous summer. Now it was a precarious, snowy stretch of dark, its clear ice easily giving way to—thankfully—shallow mud beneath, nothing deep, with each hurried step. When he first set foot on it, he thought the ice would crack and he’d fall through and be submerged in water that was somehow as deep as the sea.
The men stalking him weren’t all born there as he was, but they navigated the land expertly, as if they had been. They drove trucks, had maps and one another. If he just kept to the other side of where was familiar, the land he knew well enough, he thought he would eventually recognize a landmark, mountain, or a town, anything that might lead him to a hiding place or a better means of escape than his own two shoddily booted feet. Any vehicle would do.
A vehicle of his own would certainly help, but it wasn’t as if any he came across would happen to have the keys conveniently inserted in the ignition and the door unlocked. And he didn’t know how to hotwire a vehicle. All he knew was that if he didn’t evade them and find shelter and food and soon, he would die from exposure within a few days.
And there were always much worse dangers skulking around the woods at night, looking to feed, ones that would have no trouble killing a weak, starving, thirsty, exhausted, and desperate human within seconds.
It was difficult to keep up the pace, to get substantial distance because they drove trucks—unfortunately for him, there were main roads and back roads scattered everywhere—and Otto was unaware of them and on foot. He could just imagine the look on the faces in the truck beds, the anxious anticipation of obtaining their prey so they could return to whichever camp and rest.
Resting was the only thing he wanted to do. That and eat. The only reason they hadn’t caught him yet was because they didn’t know where he was, just as he didn’t know, either, but they obviously knew the land better than he did because they were still very close. Close enough that his heart felt like it was going to explode.
Otto was, essentially, a treed animal, and they were hounds, and he couldn’t stop pondering how he had gotten himself into the situation. No matter how hard he tried to force it out of his mind, it was back in his head as quickly as he tried to think of something else. Shame was unavoidable when you were being hunted like an animal, and the situation was so far from something the person he’d thought he was would experience that he still had trouble believing it was happening.
Losing everyone he cared about and everything he owned made the situation unavoidable, he supposed, and that was by literally and figuratively venturing onward. The pursuers were just in his way and hopefully only terrorizing him for the time being. He was only one man after all. There were the others. If he caused them enough trouble, they would likely give up the hunt.
It had to occur to them that they weren’t the only hunters out there. Eventually they would appear, but knowing how well Archard and his men exterminated the territory, Otto was confident he could stay on the current path. Still, a hungry pack of them was the last thing he hoped to encounter, excluding his pursuers. He didn’t have a gun. If one of them got its claws or teeth into him, he was dead.
Adrenaline could carry someone only so far before limitations kicked in. They were gaining on him, and he was really beginning to tire. Maybe that was their plan all along.
No. They didn’t know I would escape. And they didn’t know where I would go.
Regardless of his review of matters, he’d never had to run so hard in his life, so it wasn’t a surprise when his lungs abruptly gave out, his breathing becoming forceful gasps that he imagined only an old man sounded like. It felt like he was attempting to breathe through a straw. Even if he had somehow foreseen having to flee for his life and had trained for it, he still wouldn’t be in shape enough to run forever.
That he was limited physically was just something he’d known about himself ever since he’d been a boy. He could hardly ever keep up with his peers and in more ways than one. He was never the fastest sprinter or even close to being able to hold his own with those who were. He was closer to the slowest joggers growing up. His burning lungs reminded him of that.
The fear of dying sapped his strength as well. He fantasized about where he would sleep tonight, but if he stopped for too long, they would catch him, so he decided he wouldn’t sleep at all. Not until morning. Instead, he would afford himself only the briefest of rests when absolutely necessary—like now, so his lungs didn’t explode—but nothing more than that.
All he needed to do was make it to some random shelter that was off their grid. If there was such a place, he could rest even longer and gain his strength, especially if they lost his trail. Then he could decide which direction to go in and hopefully choose a path to get to somewhere familiar that didn’t run him right smack into them again. He just needed to get there. Determining where there was would have to wait. He would know a safe place when he found it. Somewhere that didn’t make him afraid. He just hoped a place like that existed.
Until then he would go for as long as he could, no matter the physical pain he was in because he had no choice. He’d had blisters on his feet even before he fled for his life, and after trudging through a swamp, his feet felt especially painful. Cold and mushy, maybe even bloody. He had no time to inspect his sore feet.
Thankfully, he was warm enough and luckily wearing appropriate clothing for fleeing for one’s life in the middle of winter in the Bavarian mountains. He was nearly hot, his body coated with sticky sweat that already wafted off him as steam. Water could be drunk off cliffs when he was thirsty, which he now was, and he could go without food for a few more days.
Actually he wouldn’t need to eat for weeks according to what he’d heard. He sure didn’t feel that way. He wished he’d eaten before he learned the truth about his fate, before he decided to escape. Having something in his stomach would sure help. Instead there was nothing inside it but a rolling knot of worry that growled with protest.
Chaos was on his side, though. Anticipating trouble hardly ever seemed to work out for those in power. Especially right after it happened. That was in his favor. Though a contingency plan was often set up, things still often went wrong for the planners. Otto had learned that by being employed, by having a regular job before the Molting. He was the chaos that they were trying to control, to eliminate, in order to maintain their way of doing things. But what if he encountered one of them?
There are trackers on your footsteps, and if the other threat presents itself, you’ll know what to do.
His sudden thought could be considered brave, and it was as if it belonged to someone else. It surprised him, and he was looking forward to telling one of his closest friends about it. If he was still alive. He couldn’t know if they’d all been captured. He pretended they hadn’t been. No sense in making up his mind about something he couldn’t know. Still, he looked forward to the possibility. He always enjoyed an engaging debate, especially with someone he cared about, and convincing someone who would think otherwise he was brave was something he would look forward to very much.
He realized what was actually happening to him. He was absorbed in a battle, the battle of his life, one that not only challenged his wits but also every part of him—his body, what strength he still had, his mind, and his will—more so than any peril he’d ever encountered. As a result of the preceding events, he felt as if he were already a different person. Tougher. Stronger.
That was when he heard a bang, and the trees above snapped in a hundred places at once. It sounded like a rifle shot, and there was shouting right afterward. Although he couldn’t hear the voice clearly, it was definitely a threat to shoot again. They were shooting at him? Thankfully, they didn’t know where he was.
The gunfire had to be only a tactic, their continuance of attempting to coerce him into showing himself and giving up. He wasn’t stupid, and it made him angry that they believed him to be. He needed to remember if they were OK with him being dead, they wouldn’t be searching for him. They simply would have killed him already or let him escape.
It was quite sad that it took a perilous predicament to strengthen him, Otto thought. Maybe that was how it always worked. How it was supposed to be, not just for him but for others too. Danger exposed weaknesses, and the common result was growth and strength. He may have been in danger, but there was a certain thrill to it also, similar to a debate. It was probably the unknown aspects of it and uncertainty of what might happen next. Of course it was difficult for that thrill to sustain. It revolved around his life.
A familiar noise suddenly came out of nowhere, as if it were behind a wall, so he headed toward it. That was when he saw a mountain that looked somewhat familiar in the distance. The situation was looking up, literally. If there was any more trouble along the path, he could deviate and find a different one that headed toward it. As long as he didn’t encounter the men who were tracking him.
The sudden sound transformed into a splashing trickle, a stream, and melting snow had helped fill it. No matter how cold it might be, it was a welcome sight. He was already on all fours, scooping water into his mouth. The icy water instantly cleared his mind and gave him a burst of energy. The multiple handfuls even temporarily tricked his stomach into feeling full.
After quenching his thirst to the point where he thought it might all come back up, and trying not to choke as he was breathing heavily at the same time, he stopped and got ahold of himself. Thankfully every ounce of refreshing liquid remained in his stomach. Staring at the surging stream, he briefly considered hiding under its surface, but that would be a useful tactic only if his pursuers appeared and only long enough for them to pass him by.
Upon further inspection, he realized the stream was probably too shallow and far too cold. If he waded into it, it would probably come up only to his waist, and if he submerged himself completely, he might still be visible and also might burst back up almost immediately, sputtering, regretful, and miserable, because of the stream’s temperature. Envisioning going through with it almost made him laugh out loud. He may be running for his life, but at least he still had his sense of humor.
If the pain of the icy water didn’t cause him to rethink the hiding place, then actually going through with it and holding his breath surely would. How ridiculous would he seem to his pursuers if he gave himself away by exploding up out of the water, coughing. Otto wouldn’t be the only one with a sense of humor. They would easily subdue him and laugh at him while they dragged him away.
Following the stream had initially seemed like a good idea until frustration overwhelmed him when he realized the end of it was a waterfall. When he carefully leaned over the ledge to assess the cliff’s height, he realized the bottom was a long way down. A hundred feet at least. Hearing what was going on behind him somewhere in the wood, the callous traipsing and angry voices, assured Otto that the men would appear soon. He could even almost make out who was speaking.
Panic of a sudden decision overwhelmed him—what to do, which decision would be correct—and he briefly considered backtracking, what he’d thought of doing before, but that could mean getting spotted if he weren’t fast enough. He didn’t know the area. Never set foot there. He only knew it generally from looking at a map and that had been only briefly. The only places he was familiar enough with to navigate were the main roads, and he was far from them. He had no choice. He would have to attempt the cliff next to the waterfall.
Will they follow me? He hoped not.
Descending too close to the waterfall itself meant he might slip, so he trudged far enough away from it so its current wouldn’t trip him up. The final leg of his escape would be absorbed by the loud volume of rushing water.
Peering over the edge made him feel dizzy. He’d never cared for heights, so he decided to focus only on what was directly in front of him. That would be his plan, and it made the most sense for him to remain calm. Bushes jutted out an angle that was slight but looked gradual enough to maintain a grip and sure footing on, as if the cliff itself were shaped like an abandoned ski slalom. Because there were brush and bushes to hold on to, it was possible to climb downward. Even though his hands were in gloves, the kind that kept hands very warm during winter, he suspected he could still maintain a grip, despite the fact that everything was covered in snow. Thankfully today the world wasn’t completely frozen.
Archard’s men would probably search for a way around so they didn’t have to attempt a descent so precarious. The probability of finding another way down and then locating him was minimal, so he wasn’t sure what they’d do. If they couldn’t find him, they might even forget about him, especially with night fast approaching. No matter how tough they believed themselves to be, nighttime was often filled with teeth and claws, and that would chip away at anyone’s confidence.
Once on the ground, he would run even faster than before, and then he would be safe, free, and the next group he joined . . . He would be much more cautious. Getting ahead of himself was easy for him to do, and he heard them again, their approach edging closer, actual sight of them looming, and his positive outlook was only wishful. It wasn’t realistic. If he didn’t act now, they would take him.
His voice sounded like it belonged to a stranger, a man who was prepared for all this, and it prompted him to head over the side of the cliff without any more hesitation. The bush handholds were sporadic but close enough for him to grasp for stability. He did his best not to look down, was afraid of heights actually, but his new inner person was not. Still, the majority of him that was still Otto noticed just how high up he was but did his best to see that only out of the corner of his eye.
A clump of shrubs snapped, and his foot slipped, forcing him to grab an improvised handhold but also involuntarily look down. His heart attempted to beat out of his chest, and he tried to blur out the bottom as if it were only directly below him and not a hundred feet down and just focus on what he hoped was a sure grip. He forced himself to calm down. Once he did that, he kept on.
There turned out to be plenty of branches, outcroppings, and flat rocks to grasp and hold on to the farther he lowered himself down. The chilly morning wind actually felt rather nice and cooled him with its forceful gusts, coaxing his exertion into something close to pleasant exercise. Even though it was winter everywhere, he had been growing rather hot. He was sweating quite profusely and steam poured off him continuously now.
Stealing a glance upward to where he’d begun, he saw he had already climbed down quite a distance. At least thirty feet. That was when a face appeared. A man whose name he couldn’t recall. The one who was good at capturing monsters and also tracking people. He didn’t look angry, or concerned, or anything really. It was a blank expression. It was as if he weren’t seeing Otto as a person, as if he were like any other animal that needed to be hunted down. That really made him panic. Others had obviously linked up with them, probably from the firing line or Fort Perry.
Otto had been wrong about his assumptions of what they would be willing to do. They were all coming after him the same way he was climbing down. Thankfully, he’d already climbed far enough to be well ahead of them. Not far enough, though.
Other than the one slip, the brush grew deep in the dirt and remained sturdy with each handhold, so he sped up his descent. They definitely didn’t want him dead, a persistent worry, because one of them could have shot him already. The cliff wasn’t as steep as he’d initially thought when he’d first peered over. Different from his current angle. It was probably why there was no hesitation in the pursuers above.
A sharp odor suddenly filled his nostrils, and he wondered if cliffs were also a place the monsters made their nests. He relaxed when he saw an animal stick its rear end out of its burrow for a morning excrement, and the steaming clumps of waste tumbled down the cliffside to disappear among some snow-dusted green leaves. He memorized where it was so he didn’t accidentally grasp a pile of slippery shit and tumble down the cliff to his death. Another funny thought, and more proof of his sense of humor, but not so funny that he heard his own laughter. Better to remember the spot all the same.
He didn’t know what kind of critter it was by seeing only its rear end. A raccoon or something? There were plenty of them in Deutschland. He couldn’t think of anything else that looked like a raccoon, so he thought that was what it must be. The raccoon, or whatever it was, then disappeared back inside its den, oblivious to the descending stranger.
There were only so many things to hold on to, so Otto had no choice but to scale right over where the animal had appeared. Hopefully it was still turned around, and it wouldn’t be facing outward, ready to scurry forth and bite him. He was directly in front of the hole, and he must have startled the animal because it let out a steady growl as loud as a bear as he passed, as if it were afraid Otto might take its home for himself. He didn’t know the animals were so aggressive. The Molting hadn’t changed only human behavior.
As he passed it by, he didn’t bother to look. If it bit him, he would deal with it, but if he could just get by unscathed . . .
It was what they both wanted, he was sure. He probably could have reached in, grabbed it, and thrown it off the cliff, but there was no doubt it had teeth ready to use. Most animals just wanted to be left alone. He was no different. Best to ignore its display of ferocity, so he moved steadily but as quickly as he could, trying to make himself the least threat possible.
Having cleared the den, something that seemed to take an eternity, he resumed his hurried handholds. Navigating the animal’s home had slowed him down a lot longer than he would have liked, and it happened inopportunely. The men were climbing after him as if it were a race. In a way it was. Them being anywhere close to him was already too close for comfort.
Hand under hand, and fast as he could without looking up for fear of wasting precious seconds of escape and distance, he heard one of them yell. Not words, it was hollering, which caused him to glance upward long enough to smile before resuming the descent. The animal had clearly bit one of them based on the cursing that followed. It was just the distraction Otto needed.
When his boots finally hit the ground, he landed hard and realized just how exhausted he was from the climb. That but also all the running before the cliff, which was thankfully now behind him. Glancing over where the waterfall filled, he was impressed by the depth of the runoff. Finally at the bottom, on solid ground, he was ready to conclude his escape. Except he felt so strange.
Weak all of the sudden but not the kind of exhaustion caused by arduous activities such as running and climbing. And it felt as if somebody was pinching the skin of his shoulder. He reached as he marched away and felt that something had penetrated through his jacket. Plucking the thing out of him, he saw it was a dart. A tranquilizer.
As he felt the rush of unconsciousness quickly approaching, he looked behind him and up at the top of the cliff to see a man with a rifle. It was obviously one that fired such a dart. He could have shot Otto sooner but obviously didn’t want him to fall. They needed him alive for what was planned, not dead. At least not yet.
Others had climbed halfway down the cliffside. In minutes, they would be on the ground where he was. Imagining being forced in a cell spurred him to gather what strength he had left and start running again. But he stumbled, and then he was on the ground and couldn’t get up.
Otto heard someone groan but realized the voice he heard was his own and then noticed the boots of Archard’s men—in far better condition than his—had already surrounded him.
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