His arms broke through the branches, almost but not quite protecting his face as he tore through the network of tangled tree limbs. A burning sensation crawled past his face as a long, angry red line was drawn along his cheekbone. The burn faded into stinging pain; he could feel blood dripping down his cheek, and he blinked back tears.
He couldn’t stop. He could feel them coming.
His foot hit something soft, and he fell, squeezing his eyes shut out of instinct. Hesitantly, he opened them, and he almost screamed.
He was nose to nose with a human. A young adult sprawled on her back, her eyes half open but glassy. Something, presumably one of the things hunting him, had killed her by tearing out her throat and leaving her to suffocate in her own blood. The blood was still trickling, and her body was still slightly warm, but she was dead. She had died recently.
He picked himself up and continued running, biting his lower lip hard.
Just a day ago, he was a simple boy in the middle of the Big Apple, playing video games day and night while munching on chips and ordering takeout. A fairly popular streamer, he was excited when for the first time, a game company reached out to him and requested him to act as a critic to their new live action game.
It had been called the Game of Survival, and the ad had promised an exciting, action-filled experience.
The Game of Survival is an experience like none other. Humans, perched comfortably on the top of the food chain as reigning champion, have the opportunity to feel what it would be like to be Prey, to be the Hunted. The Hunter draws close.
He thought it would be fun, and had accepted the offer within twelve hours of receiving it.
There was just one problem.
Nobody told him that he would pay with his life if he lost.
* * *
PLEASE ENTER YOUR USERNAME AND PASSWORD.
DO YOU AGREE TO THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS?
Yes, I agree to the Terms and Conditions.
Here2Stay, or H2S as most viewers abbreviated his name to, never read the Terms and Conditions. Actually, most people don’t. The Terms and Conditions always said something along the same general lines, and was in a tiny, cramped font in a small scroll-down box. Who would read those?
However, it was unfortunate that H2S did not read the Terms and Conditions, because if he did, he would have seen, in small fine text:
By agreeing to the Terms and Conditions listed above, the user agrees their lives are forfeit when Game Over. The company will not be responsible for any accusations or charges directed to them regarding the disappearance of the user.
And perhaps, if he saw that, he wouldn’t have logged in and began playing.
* * *
He tripped and fell again, this time tumbling down a slope. His T-shirt caught on the broken branches strewn on the ground, ripping and tearing, and he bit down on his left knuckles to muffle a scream of pain when he finally came to a stop as his knees knocked harshly against a boulder. He doubled over, sprawled on the boulder, his chest heaving.
They’re not broken, right?
They weren’t, but they were badly bruised, and pain shot up his thighs as he tried to stand back up.
Well, at this point, he hurt everywhere, so did it really matter?
A ear-splitting howl caused the hair at the back of his neck to rise. The Hunters were drawing closer. More accurately, the pawns of THE Hunter were drawing closer. He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain that flared up his side as his bruised ribs protested, before carefully taking a step, testing his weakened legs.
He didn’t know how to label those creatures that pursued him relentlessly. They were built something like a wolf, with a howl to match, and were hunting cooperatively in a pack. They could track his scent, like a bloodhound with the aggressiveness of an angry chihuahua, but had the intense stare of a feline stalking across the land, whose hardwired predatory instincts had been stimulated by the sound and sight of the moving Prey.
Run. He had to run.
How long had he been running?
The leaves rustled, and he barely saw a blur of dark fur before liquid fire was running down his left calf. A strangled wail left his throat as he, in a demonstration of pure adrenaline, uprooted the boulder that had stopped his tumble down the slope and smashed it down on the creature blindly. There was a crunch, and a snap, and the creature’s weight dropped, dragging its sharp teeth down his calf from where they sank.
Ah… Is it dead?
It had been mostly luck, but he wasn’t going to complain. He had crushed the vertebrae where the skull and spine joined; if the creature wasn’t already dead, it would die soon. Gingerly, he grasped the jaws of the creature, pulling with all his might. Blood spurted as he struggled to release his leg from the powerful jaw lock, but when he finally did, the pain renewed, and he wanted to bawl.
His leg was more or less mangled. The creature may be dead, but he had only two legs, and there were a dozen of those things on his trail. He had no supplies to treat his leg so it wouldn’t become infected, and he was already beginning to feel woozy from blood loss.
The game was actually very simple on paper. The creatures served the Hunter, and the Hunter was the “final boss”. It was not a long game, but he could see why.
Players weren’t expected to ever get to the final boss.
He could imagine the Hunter reclining by the fireplace with a glass of fine champagne, laughing at his and every other struggling player’s misery.
Were the players all in this one universe? They had to be if he had found the corpse of that one unfortunate player who hadn’t lasted as long as he did. That meant that the creatures after him were also chasing the other players, and the Hunter was truly singular. With some luck, maybe the other players had managed to take out some of those creatures.
The Hunter was the final boss, the King on the board. He was waiting for them, and unless he was killed, the game wasn’t completed. The Hunter, though, was also surrounded by a dozen Queens, each dangerous and loyal. The Hunter had complete faith in them to take down the players.
But he had won against one of the Queens. They weren’t invincible.
His hands searched blindly on the ground for wood, envisioning the splint he was about to make out of his tattered shirt. It gave him something to focus on, distracting the rest of his senses from the horrible throbbing of his still bleeding calf.
A scowl tugged the corners of his lips downward.
The Hunter was only one being.
It wasn’t Game Over yet.