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Danielle peered at the surfacer from behind a tree, careful to make sure that he was looking the other way before she did. He was large, larger than Robin; and it wasn’t all fat, either. Danielle could see the hardened muscles flexing beneath the patchwork of leather and cloth that he wore. His meaty hands were gloved, but Danielle didn’t like the idea of a fist that size swinging at her. A gun hung from a strap that crossed his chest, and a knife was belted at his side.
He shifted his head slightly, enough for Danielle to see his face. It was melted on one side, the result of leaving plastic too close to the steam vents in the tunnels. The corner of his eye drooped to one side, his mouth twisted unnaturally, his nose was a stub of warped flesh. Danielle stared at him, fascinated.
His head turned toward her and she ducked behind the tree. Her hand slowly went toward her sleeve, gripping the knife and unsheathing it. Robin had told her to lead him astray, but he was a threat. Rak had always taught her to eliminate threats.
“I saw you, girl! Come out!”
Danielle slowly slid her knife away, staring at the bark in front of her. It was greyish brown, the color of stained pipes. An insect crawled from beneath one segment, crossing over her line of vision to the other side.
“I said come out! Don’t make me ask you again!”
Danielle stepped from behind the tree, her eyes fixing on the man in front of her. He had taken his gun into his hands and was now pointing it at her. The barrel glinted slightly, catching the light even though it was a cloudy day. It melded into the wood of the gun, engraved with a design that she couldn’t quite see.
“Who are you and why the fuck are you following me? Answer me quick or I’ll shoot your fucking brains out.”
Danielle slowly lifted her eyes from the barrel of the gun to the man’s face. His mouth was curved back into a sneer, warping his face further. She stared.
“What the fuck are you looking at?”
Danielle lowered her eyes to the ground, staring at his feet. They were booted, splattered with mud. One of the soles had come loose slightly, leaving a hole where the damp and cold could seep in, “I was watching you.”
Danielle lifted her eyes again. Her hand slowly reached toward her sleeve as she spoke, “Because you look interesting.”
The surfacer scowled. After a few moments, he lowered his gun and walked toward her. Danielle took a step away, quickly unhooking the release to the sheathe on her wrist.
He held up one hand, “I’m not going to hurt you, girlie. Just tell me why you’re out here.”
Danielle remained silent, her eyes trailing from his lowered gun he’d tucked beneath his armpit to his gloved hands. Now that he was closer, she could see that they were studded with metal spikes on the knuckles.
“If you don’t tell me, I’m going to have to make sure you can’t follow me.”
Danielle could feel the hilt of her knife, the smooth way it fit into the palm of her hand, the firm grip that guaranteed it wouldn’t fall from her grasp. The surfacer took a few more steps toward her.
“I mean it, girlie. I’ll have to…”
Danielle unsheathed her blade and lunged, slicing at his middle. A bright line of crimson appeared as fabric tore. It should have been deadly. His guts should have spilled on the ground, dark against the bright leaves. They should have glistened faintly in the light as the surfacer fell to his knees, breathing his last.
Instead, he had moved; so quickly that Danielle had trouble following him. In an instant, he had grabbed her arms and had slammed her against a tree. She saw spots as her head bounced against the hard surface. Her hand slipped on her knife. He slammed her against the tree again and she dropped it.
The surfacer picked her up as she struggled weakly, moving his face inches from hers. Spittle flew from his mouth into her face as he screamed at her, obscenities that she hardly understood. Her head thrummed and the world tunneled. All she could see was the marbled flesh of his face, stretching and moving, writhing like a live thing. He slammed her against the tree again. Everything went dark.
Danielle woke to a sharp pain in her wrists, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as her head. It pounded, relentless. She let out a faint whimper as she opened her eyes, trying to make sense of her surroundings. She wasn’t dead: that was good. Rak said that you could always get out of a bad situation as long as you were alive. She was tied to a tree, though, and she didn’t see her knife anywhere nearby: that was bad.
Danielle carefully tried to move her limbs, wincing at new bruises: nothing broken. The rope that bound her wrists stretched her arms behind her and around the tree. She tested it, straining against it—it held. She closed her eyes; everything hurt.
Robin was counting on her.
She opened her eyes and strained against the rope again, rubbing it against the bark. It chafed her wrists, burning them, but she continued. The sound of the rope scraping against bark and flesh echoed through the woods. Danielle felt something warm and sticky trickle down toward her fingers, coating them as she continued to work the rope against the bark.
Finally, there was a snapping noise; her hands were suddenly free. She jerked them in front of her, letting a low moan escape her as the burning in her wrists worsened, wounds and blood exposed to fresh, cold air. She grabbed a leaf, hastily wiping the worst of the blood away before standing.
She almost fell over again as a wave of dizziness overcame her. She staggered slightly, then found her balance. Her eyes scanned the forest floor, the yellow and brown leaves. There was the slight glint of metal about twenty feet away. She walked over, kicking the leaves aside as she picked up her knife, cradling it in her bloody hands.
Then she began to run. Her feet flew over branches and leaves as she slid between the trees. Her eyes focused on the path ahead, unwavering. The light was different now, dimmer. Darkness was creeping in, but she didn’t mind; it was a relief to have some of the pain go away.
She heard the sound of voices, yelling, demands. She skidded to a halt just outside the range of their vision, though she could see them with perfect clarity. The surfacer was pointing a gun at Robin and Alicia. He was shouting, his voice echoing through the silence.
The silence. Danielle jerked her head around, almost expecting to see them. She’d only heard silence this complete, this profound, once before. She tightened the grip on her dagger, her eyes scanning the forest as she took one step closer toward the surfacer, then another, and another. Quiet, silent. A cold wind blew through the trees as white flakes began to drift downward.
The surfacer turned. His eyes narrowed as he opened his mouth to say something. Danielle didn’t wait to hear it. Instead, she lunged, knocking the man backward. He stumbled a few paces as she thrust her dagger deep into his chest. Blood blossomed between her fingers, a fountain that rained across her hands and flowed down his chest.
The gun went off.