Someone ran down the trail towards me from the direction I’d chosen, shooting over their shoulder. I bent forward over the back of the Vanquisher, pulling it tightly into my shoulder. Two pulls on the trigger and I splattered water into one spot on his shirt. Four steps forward and the person he was shooting at came into view, also sprinting down the path. I strode forward, sidestepping and shooting. Two more shots, and they too were out. I amped up the pace, sprinting down the path. Tall, steep, greenery covered hill on the right, wire-fenced vegetable gardens at the bottom of the steep hill on the left.
A quick glance around showed me a few more features of the landscape: a squat yellow church at the top of the hill on the left, much further down that ridge was a little gazebo. The top of the hill on the right was dominated by a wooden pavilion. Weird lights glowed around it. The way the plantlife grew, I could tell there was another path cut into the side of the hill about half the way up.
The end of the path I was on arrived, again with a left or right decision. Keith skidded to a stop beside me. “Right. Get up on that ridge, it’ll give you a serious tactical advantage. Cover, concealment and elevation. If you’re gonna make a stand, that’s the place.” It was like he’d read my mind.
I pumped the gun back to full pressure as I made a slow sprint to the right. The path was picturesque, winding through gardens of lawn ornaments, even passing through a vine-covered bridge. Through a thin treeline we entered another section of garden, much more sculpted. To the left was a set of playground equipment, and what looked like a small maze of hedges. A small series of ponds and streams was set into rock-lined basins along the edge of the play area.
The view to the left was magical. Like something from Neverland, but with neither weird cats nor allegedly pedophilic aging popstars. The landscape was a rather steep grade climbing to the top of the hill, but pebbled, flower-lined paths were cut into the ground, twisting and serpentining alongside and occasionally over a quietly babbling brook. The main area of the garden was open, but trees along the path created a low roof of branches.
At the base of the hill sat a massive, roofless, three-walled stone house, like the garden visitor had stumbled onto some long-forgotten, decaying arboretum, a place time and people alike had forgotten.
The full moon bathed the scene in bright white light, and small candles were set into the ground in stone holders, twinkling merrily. Through the low-hanging tree branches I could see the pavilion – its supports were set with lit torches, and it appeared that the stone retaining wall that protected its visitors from a painful drop was lined with candles.
Unless you stepped off the path, the only way up to the top of the hill was through the house. Someone was filling at a blue barrel in the corner, and when I shot them in the back, they turned around looking positively wrathful. I suspected that wasn’t very sporting. I didn’t care.
I dunked both the rifle and the pistol in the barrel, and screwed the caps back on, then started climbing the hill. Despite the grade, the cut of the paths made the trek quite easy. The gravel crunched under my boots like I was walking on cereal, and the stream clicked happily as it shimmered over rocks that looked way too new to be that perfectly round and worn.
The pavilion on the ridge was definitely a meeting place of some sort. Not only was it set into slab of concrete instead of just dirt, but a few yards away, the retaining wall looped around to create a semi-private seating area filled with benches. The wall was brick, and lined with candles in hurricane glasses. I tried to move one. Glued down. Good deal too, candles out here could cause a fire. A refilling barrel sat in the exact center of the slab.
I set my guns down on a section of wall unoccupied by candles and pulled the little Vortex spotting scope from my bag. I moved the illuminated reticule down the hill – over the path about ten feet straight down below us – to the path at the bottom of the valley, and slid it left, back where I’d come from. Had Allison run pell-mell after me? Had she been delayed by other contestants? Was she stalking deliberately and methodically after me like a Terminator?
I played the Vortex up and down the floor of the valley, looking for her. Across the valley – in the main gardens – I could see small shadowed figures moving at high speed, sprinting and dodging and shooting.
“There.” Keith nudged my arm, and I focused in on one of the vegetable gardens far below. A figure crouched in the dirt, scanning her surroundings through a long, thick tube.
I ducked below the level of the fence. “Dammit!”
“What?” he asked, seemingly puzzled.
“Bitch is using FLIR,” I murmured. I couldn’t believe it. My little spotting monocular had cost a few hundred bucks. FLIR cost thousands.
“I think I told you,” Keith said, “She’s kinda like you. Little on the crazy side.”
FLIR scopes look for heat signatures and there was a chance that surrounded as we were by small fires that her spotting scope wouldn’t work, or would mask our presence. I stood and found her again through the scope, took it away from my eye, and found her again without it – a small, indistinct shape moving methodically through the dark valley.
“I’m gonna take the shot,” I told Keith.
“You don’t have the range. All you’ll do is alert her.”
“If I elevate the nozzle, the range will increase, I should have enough to arc it out over the valley, catch her in a rainstorm.”
He rolled his eyes. “You got a plan for if it doesn’t work?”
I glanced around, taking in the variables, plugging them into my calculations. “Now I do.”
I pulled the Vanquisher to my shoulder and angled the nozzle upwards, all the while looking downwards. Putting this kind of elevation on it made aiming worthless, and it’d be better to watch and see where I hit, adjust on the fly.
I took a breath, let it out, and pulsed the trigger a few times.
“Shrubbery,” Keith said quietly. “Didn’t even make it off the hill.”
I tilted the gun a little more skyward and held down the trigger, washing the valley below with water.
“Edge of the path,” Keith announced. “And you got her attention.”
I let the Vanquisher fall on its sling and grabbed up the spotting scope. Allison still knelt in the gardens along the bottom of the far hill, and now she looked right at me through her own scope. As I watched, she raised a hand and waggled her fingers at me in a wave.
I dropped back down below the level of the wall. “You’ve got two minutes before she’s coming up this hill,” Keith stated. “What was that other plan?”
Time to move.
I ran to the barrel and submerged the Vanquisher, pumping as I did so. I wanted a full load of water onboard for this.
I hadn’t shot much, and it took just a quick dunk to refill. I screwed the cap on and ran to the edge of the ridge looking back down the hill we’d climbed. Illuminated as the garden was, Allison didn’t have a chance in hell of sneaking up.
At the edge my hearing, I noticed voices, the crunch of shoes on woodchips or rocks. More people in the area. The back of the hill was wild, nobody was coming up that way. I’d have to deal with these newcomers as I saw them.
A figure appeared down below, running like a madwoman up to the bottom of the hill and then ducking into the stone house.
“Come out from behind that wall and I got you,” I whispered. “I got you.”
The violence, speed, and grace with which she attacked my position astonished me. One moment she was covered behind a wall, and the next she’d shot, run forward, shot again, moving off the “X” with each shot. Each blast that splattered around me was quickly aimed and quickly fired, arriving less as a collection of individual comets of water and rather as an indistinguishable storm.
Kneeling at the crest of the hill, I fired rapidly, pivoting like a sentry turret as I tracked her insanely quick bounds around the trails below, quickly approaching.
“Dammit!” I hissed, and rose, sprinting back to the wall. “Time to go,” I told Keith.
I swung a leg over the wall, then the other, and paused a moment to shoot the two combatants jogging the path below. Four quick shots connected me to them, and I attempted to walk down the nearly vertical hill, digging my heels in to arrest my descent through the vine-y groundcover. It didn’t work very well, and I went over, falling five or six feet to land on my side with a thud. Ow.
Keith dropped beside me with cat-like grace a moment later, landing in a crouch with one hand pressed to the dirt. Looked like Superman before take-off.
“Where to now?” he inquired.
I rose painfully. “Now we run.”
Water spattered around us like massive drops of rain, and I blindly returned fire as we sprinted away down the trail, deep into the forest.
Unless Allison wanted to take the crazy, pain-filled, straight-down-drop way off the hill, she had to take time coming back around to get onto this path. I didn’t trust her not to take the crazy way.
We didn’t stop our full out sprint for probably half a mile. We stopped at the far corner of a rather square looking artificial lake. I bent double, coughing tackiness out of my throat, chest heaving, trying to gasp down a breath. My clothes were as wet with sweat as I would’ve been if I’d let Allison hose me down, and as if to purposefully add insult to injury, every flying insect imaginable seemed drawn to the perspiration and body heat.
I hadn’t been this miserable since I’d stood on the shore of Renard Island in my underwear and puked up probably-toxic riverwater.
“The hard way,” I muttered.
I straightened. “Let’s keep going.”
“Samantha?” A shout from back the way we’d run dragged my head around. “You can stop running any time!”
The trail we were on dead-ended in a marsh and led off to the left – around the lake – and the right – back to the visitor center I guessed. Flashlights shown down the trail to the right, bouncing wildly. There weren’t any candles or bonfires out here this far, but the between the flashlights and moonlight, I could see about half a dozen people running down the trail.
Shoot it out with them with Allison at my back? Turn and face her? Take the trail back around the lake?
For a moment, real panic gripped me.
This was about to end.
I hadn’t been good enough.
Left. Right. Back. Or…I strained to see straight ahead into the swamp. Wooden pylons. Like a…dock…? There was definitely a platform there, about six feet off the path, raised about four feet off the fetid water, hidden by the ten foot tall weeds.
I pushed off into a sprint. “Where…?” I heard Keith say, but I was already past him.
At the bank of the marsh, I JUMPED. Drew my legs up in the air. This would either end with a thud or a splash.
I hit the dock in something like a crouch, shaking the wood like an earthquake, and stumbled forward to spill onto the platform. I looked up. Not a dock. An elevated walkway leading through the marsh. A few feet ahead was a “No admittance” sign strung between the railings on a chain. That would explain why it had been disconnected from the path…
I rose with a groan and ran farther down the walkway, deep enough in that no one with a flashlight could see me. I didn’t know much about FLIR, but it was safe to assume it had a maximum effective distance. I intended to put myself well beyond it.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and I spun, setting myself in a shooting stance. Keith materialized out of the gloom. “They’re really going at it back there.”
The thick weeds around us blocked out much of the noise, but it did sound like there was quite an epic battle going on. It also could’ve been drowned out by the whine of the mosquitoes in my ears. I ducked and slapped at my neck, thankful for the long-sleeved t-shirt. “Let’s get moving.”
The walkway continued forward a few dozen yards, and then turned right. The wood was soft under my feet, and I was constantly thinking it might give way. I kept a hand on the railing. We moved fast, trying to escape the clouds of biting insects and the oppressively still air that was held close in by the thick and towering weeds on either side.
I guesstimated the distance we’d traveled at maybe a hundred yards before the walkway turned right again and led us back to the main trail. There was a rusty chain fencing off the disconnected dock from the bank six feet away, and I kicked it down before I could jump over.
Then we were sprinting back to the main building. The heavy satchel slapping against my leg had long ago stopped annoying me, as had my now-sticky clothes. Everything except the trail and what was on it had simply ceased to be a consideration.
The visitor’s center came into view through the trees, as did the hill we’d originally climbed, the one wrapped with paths and riddled with clearings.
Someone emerged from a vine-draped wooden archway, and it required no conscious thought to raise the Vanquisher and drill them in the chest with a stream of water. “I’m out already,” the guy complained. “Can’t you see that?”
The man that came running out behind him apparently was still in the game, because he raised his own soaker at me. I’d moved diagonally left towards him before he pulled the trigger, and while his own shot splashed down into the grass, my first streaked across his chest while my second erupted into mist off his neck.
Keith and I sprinted further up the hill, and I turned right onto the sunken pathway where Allison had first shot at us. I dropped down into a crouch below the level of the embankment and tried to get my breathing under control. My legs felt like they were made of hot cloth, and my ears were full of the sound of pounding blood.
I’m in great shape, but the past eight hours had pushed me farther than I’d ever gone, for longer than I’d thought possible. My body simply didn’t want to do this anymore.