Asleep in the jungle, dense canopy almost filling that primordial need for darkness while sleeping, Rachel dreamed of a girl she had never met--a girl with gray eyes, brown skin, and curly hair in which a human could lose track of all light and sound.
She awoke to the smell of rotting fish and moldy wool. It was a stark contrast with the sweet aromas of flowers, fruits she had never before seen, and the moisture in the dirt, all of which had carried her to an unusually comfortable sleep the preceding night. Although she had heard a teeming world of insects and frogs at night, that morning there were no sounds except her own motions to quickly rise from rest, tugging the blankets and bedroll to her face just to avoid throwing up.
It was easy to forget that night and morning were effectively the same due to the immutable sun. Something had silenced the jungle. That something, as near as Rachel could guess, was the source of that wretched stench.
When she managed to stand up, the odor, or something emanating off of it, forced her eyes to water and her nose to burn. It was a sensation not unlike stumbling into a restaurant just as the chef was prepping a day's worth of chopped onions, except that this new scent made Rachel never want to eat again.
She dressed quickly, unable to see or breathe while exposed to that noxious stench. Just as she finished pulling on trousers and a fresh shirt, she hazarded a glance towards the direction from which she perceived the odor to be travelling. There, a mountain of soggy fibers twice her height and many times that in width lay not twenty feet from where she had slept.
"What in the hell?" Rachel said through her blanket. Even though she was sure that it would be a few hours already before she could stomach the small breakfast of boiled egg and crusty bread that she had prepared, she decided to get closer to heap to investigate.
The fibers were longer than her arm and thicker than grass. Beyond the slick and sheen of some kind of mucous spread across and through the pile, each fiber was black or white with occasional stripes of brown and orange. Rachel could not fathom touching it to get a sense of the texture, as it was dripping a white fluid that looked and sounded sticky.
"Do you want to know who did this?" the jungle whispered. Rachel fell backwards from the surprise, twisting her ankle. Two eyes shined in the dark trees beyond the heap; the eyes had a vertical slit surrounded by brilliantly reflective , pale green irises.
I need to run, Rachel decided, grabbing all of her remaining belongings and sprinting away from the pile.
It wasn't until later, hours after finally recovering from the stench of the fiber heap, that Rachel gave any ground to the idea that she should have stopped to talk to those green eyes in the trees. Her legs began to hurt from her flight. Her right ankle, in particular, was starting to turn purple from twisting and running.
The progress through the jungle was slow as well. Of her knives, the chef knife had possessed the best cutting capability… when she had departed from Coburntown the previous day. Now, with various saps coating it from slicing through the jungle, the knife was about as dull as a butter knife. It required several attempts to cut the tougher vines in her path, and Rachel was becoming weary.
"Are you tired?" the jungle softly asked. Rachel stopped, slowly looking around while her skin urged her to continue walking. She couldn't see any eyes this time, but Rachel knew that she was being watched. Without knowing where the entity was and suffering from the last escape, Rachel decided to talk to the voice.
"Yes, I'm tired," she cautiously replied.
"The path is long. The overgrowth is thick. The jungle is dark. Why does a woman travel this way?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't feel like sharing that information with you."
"You don't know me, therefore you do not trust me," the voice responded. "Did you know that Rammon is stalking you? He means to make you his dinner."
Rachel tensed her muscles in expectation.
"Oh no, I'm not Rammon. I have no love of the hunt. If I wanted to eat you, I would simply eat you," the voice reacted.
Something is different here, Rachel thought. This voice sounds like a woman, while the voice this morning sounded like a man. "What does Rammon look like, so that I may know him?" Rachel asked.
Then, directly in front of her vegetation strewn path, a pair of eyes began to shine. These eyes were blue, like the sky east of Coburntown and reptilian in shape. "You have seen Rammon already," the voice stated. "His eyes are green. He sat over you all night long, staring at your body with hunger until his stomach could no longer take it."
The pile, Rachel guessed. She felt lucky to have escaped so easily, even if it cost her a little pain. "Why didn't he just eat me?"
"Rammon likes to hunt. I would like to help you escape from him, if possible. Do you permit me to assist you?" the voice asked.
"Can you? Please?" Rachel remained suspicious, but the voice was offering her help and she would be a fool not to take it.
A quick gust of wind tugged through the forest, causing Rachel to wince involuntarily. When she opened her eyes, the path before her lay bare, severed vines scattered across the dirt for as far as she could see. "Hurry now. Move quickly or he'll catch you yet."
Rachel headed down the shredded vine passage with a slight itch of apprehension nagging at her mind. Her leg pained her greatly as she picked up her pace. Somewhere behind her, the barely audible sound of licking made her move a little faster.
Scarcely an hour later, the jungle--darker than before--began to close around Rachel again. She had to reach into her pack and retrieve her second largest knife just to make a little more headway on the walls of foliage surrounding her.
"Foolish woman, where are you going?" asked a voice similar to the first one she had heard that morning. Rachel turned around to look behind her, and saw green eyes closing in on her trail. Firmly gripping her knife, she prepared to defend herself. "Why do you travel this way?"
"I was told that Rammon is chasing me. Rammon is going to eat me. I will fight if I must."
The trees began to quiver and then shake with a reverberating sound. Rachel realized that the creature was laughing. "I am Rammon. I am not here to eat you, child. You must have spoken to Balas."
"Is that the one with blue eyes?" Rachel asked.
"Yes, and a rather dangerous one. She will try to trick you, oh yes she will. This morning, I scared her off just before she could attack you. I must have upset her stomach in the process, as she left a terrible mess behind," the voice explained.
"She told me that you like to hunt your prey. And here you are, following me. Why should I trust you?"
"I am no hunter. Would a hunter take time to chat with a human? I would simply eat you if I needed a meal. Regardless, I dislike Balas too much to allow her even a meatless human such as yourself."
The last part of what Rammon said seemed particularly dubious--bakers were not often known for being thin, and Rachel knew she was no exception. "What do you intend to do then?" Rachel asked.
"I will clear the way for you. Are you going to Namirus?"
"Yes, I am."
"Then you have been led astray. Namirus is almost directly behind you, at this point. Allow me." With less than a blink, the path behind Rachel was exposed again, veering away from the passage she had taken. This time, however, Rachel noticed trenches through the dirt and clay on the jungle floor. Three parallel marks existed where whatever had sliced the vines and also raked the ground.
"I am going. Please do not follow me again," Rachel warned.
"As you wish."
Not one hour later, Rachel once again found herself entangled in vines. The beasts! In frustration, Rachel slashed harder than ever, desperately pushing the possibility of being eaten by one of the two stalkers from her mind.
"I will eat at least the body. You can have the head," a voice said.
Clearly, there wasn't much she could do to focus on clearing the path. Rachel knelt down to listen, rapidly deciding how to escape.
"Fool. I watched the prey, I redirected the prey. I gave the chase. You would have me skimp on the tasty bits just to satisfy your pride and age!" Balas retorted.
"Little Balas, the head is the sweetest part. All else is savory. Young ones such as yourself long for the savory, but old beasts such as I have no tooth for it," Rammon explained.
Rachel could see them through the thick of trees. The beasts circled each other, never blinking. Lizard-like eyes punctuated hairy bodies with long threads coming from around their noses, sticking out all directions. Both creatures were magnitudes larger than Rachel could possibly hope to handle with any tool she had available. The smaller of the two beasts--Balas, Rachel presumed--had the same black and white fur mixed with orange patches that Rachel had seen in the morning. Rammon wore a deep black coat of fur accented by white patches.
"If you ate heads more often, maybe you would not have spent so long ogling my waste this morning. We could have caught this one hours ago, but you dawdled!" Balas screamed, drawing black lips back to reveal teeth that could shred Rachel in seconds.
Rammon made a sharp sound, like many knives scraping together. Rachel had to grip the legs of her trousers to avoid falling backwards into the leaves. "You'll take what I give you!" he roared, lifting one leg to swipe at Balas. Razors the size of Rachel's head whistled through the air, connecting with Balas' head with noisy thwack.
Balas simply shook her head, tucked her pointy ears back, and reared back as if she intended to leap on Rammon.
Rachel decided that she had seen enough and bolted in the other direction. Balas and Rammon began to crash through trees behind her, rolling on top of each other with force enough to collapse the canopy around their heads. I could die here without them even eating me, Rachel realized.
In spite of her aching ankle, Rachel found it remarkably easy to run for her life. Easy enough that she failed to notice a curly haired girl sitting gleefully on one of the downed jungle trees, clapping her hands while the two furry monstrosities wrestled over the body of a gigantic mantis. Rachel ran without hesitation and without looking back, until she no longer felt ground beneath her feet, tumbling wildly down a steep dirt cliff towards a river.
Admittedly, Rachel had slept better. Her feet were shoeless and half submerged in fast moving, warm waters.
"Are you alright?" a blurry face inquired.
"Am I alive? I mean, did I die?" Rachel asked.
"I don't believe so."
"Did you rescue me?"
"Yes." The rescuer was a young man with straight black hair and compassionate eyes--or so Rachel thought. Her head was throbbing. "Welcome to Namirus," he beckoned, motioning to the huts and fences behind him.
"This is Namirus? I made it!" she cried.
"You actually wanted to come here?" he replied, aghast.
"Yes! I'm looking for a young woman, in her twenties. Her name is Tabitha. She lives here with her daughter Cathy. Have you seen them?" Rachel pried, grabbing on to the young man's sandy tunic.
"Does she have a husband?"
"Not apparently. Her husband, Thomsen, disappeared shortly after she came here five years ago."
"She never lived here, I can tell you that." The man crossed his arms.
"We have no unmarried women living here except Amana, and she's far too old to have a five year old daughter."
Rachel was quickly becoming accustomed to misdirection. She knew his lie, and she withheld her reaction to observe further. This time, Rachel would be the stalker.
Even if she needed to stalk all of Namirus to find the family she sought.