It was a foggy, late fall day, and it was the last ordinary day Oren Hart would ever spend in New Arcadia. Deep within the colony’s residential ring, tiny dew droplets formed on the worn playground equipment in Periculum Park. The area was all but deserted, and the late day sun did little to burn off the strange fog hovering amidst the trees.
Oren collapsed into a swing. Its rusty chains squeaked as he pushed off gently with his feet. The low lying mist seemed out of place, but then it wasn’t unusual to have odd weather this time of year. The atmospheric generators could only do so much, and keeping crops alive in the outer ring was a priority for obvious reasons.
“I’m so nervous, Clem. It feels like I’ve already frozen up, and I’m not even in the exam room yet.” Oren shook his head and pushed the curly hair out of his eyes. He was tall for his age, bearing the lanky frame of an adolescent still fumbling through the final stages of puberty. “Seven days until vocats. There’s no way I’m going to be ready.”
“It’s not that bad,” Clementine said from the swing beside him. “Worst-case scenario, you end up cleaning toilets for the Ministry.” She grinned mischievously and jabbed a finger into his ribs. The smile brought an amber glow to her cheeks. She wore her raven-black hair the same as usual: pulled back into a ponytail, bangs swept across her forehead. The fact that Oren was two years her senior did little to dissuade her from teasing him. He buried his face in his hands and groaned.
“Come on dummy. I’m only joking. You’re going to do fine. Look at your father—big brains run in your family.”
“Says the girl who skipped two grades,” he muttered.
“My father…” Oren ran a hand through his hair.
“When he finds out I’ve failed he’s going to ship me off to the quarries. Clem, I’ll have to haul rocks all day…” He waited for a response, but none came. “Clem?”
“Did you see that?” she asked. “Something moved out there.” She pointed to the forested edge of the park, toward the setting sun.
“Are you even listening to me?” Oren squinted in the direction she was pointing. “There’s nothing there.”
“I saw something moving. I’m going to check it out.”
Before he could object, she was on her feet jogging toward the trees.
“Clem! Hey! Wait up!” Oren leapt out of his swing and ran to catch up. I hate it when she does that.
“Shhh.” She motioned for quiet and slowed to a walk as they passed into the wood. Oren strained to see deeper into the fog, muttering under his breath.
“There!” she whispered, pointing ahead. Something was definitely moving. Clem crept forward and crouched behind some thorn bushes. Anxiety settled like a stone in the pit of Oren’s stomach, and he ducked behind the thick trunk of a nearby cedar. Peering around it, he could see a faint gray figure, crouching next to a small stream up ahead. Probably just some animal taking a drink, Oren thought. Clementine crept closer to get a better look.
“Clem wait,” Oren whispered. “It could be dangerous. We should go back…it’s getting dark.”
She ignored him and continued forward.
Why do I even bother?
She took three silent steps and froze.
“What is it?” Oren asked quietly. She reached back and covered his mouth. Seconds later, five dark, hooded forms leapt from tree to tree up ahead. They jumped down silently, forming a half-circle behind the oblivious gray figure and froze. Without warning, they pounced in perfect unison. Before their victim could turn around, she was pinned to the ground, struggling
They stood her up, holding out her arms. One of the attackers stood behind her and roughly gripped her head, forcing her to face forward.“What are they doing to her?” Oren whispered. The forest grew darker, and a deep, throbbing vibration permeated the air. Oren felt nauseous. Whatever it was, it tugged him forward, producing an unsettling sense of vertigo. He looked down at his feet and realized he had been unconsciously leaning back to maintain his balance. He grimaced, and held tightly to the cedar he had hidden behind.
As if from the darkness itself, a human form melded into view from between the trees. It glided effortlessly toward the woman and slowed to a stop before her. Oren glimpsed an ashen white face, staring out from beneath the hood of a long black cloak. The creature pushed its hood back with gnarled bony hands, and Oren gasped. It wasn’t the pallid skin stretched thin across its skull that struck fear into his heart, nor was it the nearly non-existent nose, marked by two ragged
holes in the center of its face. It was the overly large, rippling white eyes peering out at the helpless woman, ensnared in its trap.
“Your time is up, recreant” Its voice was deep, hollow…guttural. Oren could see crimson, blood-stained teeth when it spoke. He reminded himself to breathe.
The woman’s captors lifted her up off the ground, and her dangling legs were pulled toward the terrifying creature. She tried to turn her head away, but it was roughly jerked forward by the hooded figure behind her.
The creature waved a hand dismissively, and they set the woman down, stepping back. She bolted for the stream, but her body jerked to a stop mid-stride with one foot touching the ground. A solitary second passed, and she was violently spun around through the air until she was face to face with the white-eyed horror. She writhed as it spoke, inches from her face.
“Who—helped—you?” Each word dissolved into the next.
The woman’s back arched. Her arms and legs were pulled back, and the air behind her began to ripple. “You will tell us what you know of the Ko’jin.”
She tried again to turn her head. Her interrogator casually held out a hand, palm up, and slowly curled its fingers. The rippling bubble of air behind her contracted and her back arched further, eliciting several loud pops. She screamed in agony.