The Host (Chapter 32: Ambushed)
My few clothes were still in Jamie and Jared's room. I snuck in, glad that I knew where Jared was.
Jamie was sound asleep, curled into a tight ball in the top corner of the mattress. He didn't usually sleep so compactly, but he had good reason to at the moment. Ian was sprawled across the rest of the space, his feet and hands hanging off the edges, one appendage to each of the four sides.
For some reason, this was hysterical to me. I had to put my fist in my mouth to choke back the laughter as I quickly snatched up my old dirt-dyed T-shirt and shorts. I hurried into the hall, still stifling the giggles.
You're slaphappy, Melanie told me. You need some sleep.
I'll sleep later. When… I couldn't finish the thought. It sobered me instantaneously, and everything was quiet again.
I was still rushing as I headed for the bathing room. I trusted Doc, but… Maybe he would change his mind. Maybe Jared would argue against what I wanted. I couldn't be all day.
I thought I heard something behind me when I reached the octopus-like juncture where all the sleeping halls met. I looked back, but I couldn't see anyone in the dim cave. People were beginning to stir. Soon it would be time for breakfast and another day of work. If they'd finished with the stalks, the ground in the east fields would need to be turned. Maybe I would have time to help… later…
I followed the familiar path to the underground rivers, my mind in a million other places. I couldn't seem to concentrate on anything in particular. Every time I tried to focus on a subject-Walter, Jared, breakfast, chores, baths-some other thought would pull my head away in seconds. Melanie was right; I needed to sleep. She was just as muddled. Her thoughts all spun around Jared, but she could make nothing coherent of them, either.
I'd gotten used to the bathing room. The utter blackness of it didn't bother me anymore. So many places were black here. Half my daylight hours were lived in darkness. And I'd been here too many times. There was never anything lurking under the water's surface, waiting to pull me under.
I knew I didn't have time to soak, though. Others would be up soon, and some people liked to start their day clean. I got to work, washing myself first, then moving on to my clothes. I scrubbed at my shirt fiercely, wishing I could scrub out my memory of the past two nights.
My hands were stinging when I was done, the dry cracks on my knuckles burning worst of all. I rinsed them in the water, but it made no noticeable difference. I sighed and climbed out to get dressed.
I'd left my dry clothes on the loose rocks in the back corner. I kicked a stone by accident, hard enough to hurt my bare foot, and it clattered loudly across the room, bouncing off the wall and landing with a plunk and a gurgle in the pool. The sound made me jump, though it wasn't all that loud next to the roar of the hot river in the outer room.
I was just shoving my feet into my scruffy tennis shoes when my turn was up.
"Knock, knock," a familiar voice called from the dark entry.
"Good morning, Ian," I said. "I'm just done. Did you sleep well?"
"Ian's still sleeping," Ian's voice answered. "I'm sure that won't last forever, though, so we'd best get on with this."
Splinters of ice pinned my joints in place. I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe.
I'd noticed it before, and then forgotten it in the long weeks of Kyle's absence: not only did Ian and his brother look very much alike, but-when Kyle spoke at a normal volume, which so rarely happened-they also had exactly the same voice.
There was no air. I was trapped in this black hole with Kyle at the door. There was no way out.
Keep quiet! Melanie shrieked in my head.
I could do that. There was no air to scream with.
I did as I was told, trying to focus in spite of the fear that stabbed through my head like a million slender spears of ice.
I couldn't hear anything. Was Kyle waiting for a response? Was he sneaking around the room in silence? I listened harder, but the rush of the river covered any sounds.
Quick, grab a rock! Melanie ordered.
I saw myself crashing a rough stone against Kyle's head.
I can't do it!
Then we're going to die! she screamed back at me. I can do it! Let me!
There has to be another way, I moaned, but I forced my ice-locked knees to bend. My hands searched the darkness and came up with a large, jagged rock and a handful of pebbles.
Fight or flight.
In desperation, I tried to unlock Melanie, to let her out. I couldn't find the door-my hands were still my own, clutched uselessly around the objects I could never make into weapons.
A noise. A tiny splash as something entered the stream that drained the pool into the latrine room. Only a few yards away.
Give me my hands!
I don't know how! Take them!
I started to creep away, close to the wall, toward the exit. Melanie struggled to find her way out of my head, but she couldn't find the door from her side, either.
Another sound. Not by the far stream. A breath, by the exit. I froze where I was.
Where is he?
I don't know!
Again, I could hear nothing but the river. Was Kyle alone? Was someone waiting by the door to catch me when he herded me around the pool? How close was Kyle now?
I felt the hairs on my arms and legs standing on end. There was some kind of pressure in the air, as though I could feel his silent movements. The door. I half turned, easing back in the direction I'd come, away from where I'd heard the breath.
He couldn't wait forever. The little he'd said told me he was in a hurry. Someone could come at any time. Odds were on his side, though. There were fewer who would be inclined to stop him than there were who might think this was for the best. And of those inclined to stop him, even fewer who'd have much of a chance of doing that. Only Jeb and his gun would make a difference. Jared was at least as strong as Kyle, but Kyle was more motivated. Jared would probably not fight him now.
Another noise. Was that a footstep by the door? Or just my imagination? How long had this silent standoff lasted? I couldn't guess how many seconds or minutes had passed.
Get ready. Melanie knew that the stalling would soon be at an end. She wanted me to clench the rock tighter.
But I would give flight a chance first. I would not be an effective fighter, even if I could bring myself to try. Kyle was probably twice my weight, and he had a much longer reach.
I raised the hand with the pebbles and aimed them toward the back passage to the latrine. Maybe I could make him think that I was going to hide and hope for rescue. I threw the handful of small stones and shied away from the noise when they clattered against the rock wall.
The breath at the door again, the sound of a light footfall headed toward my decoy. I edged as quietly along the wall as I could.
What if there are two?
I don't know.
I was almost to the exit. If I could just make the tunnel, I thought I could outrun him. I was lighter and fast…
I heard a footstep, very clearly this time, disrupting the stream in the back of the room. I crept faster.
A gigantic splash shattered the tense standoff. Water pelted my skin, making me gasp. It spattered against the wall in a wave of wet sound.
He's coming through the pool! Run!
I hesitated just a second too long. Big fingers clutched at my calf, my ankle. I yanked against the pull, lurching forward. I stumbled, and the momentum that threw me down to the floor made his fingers slip. He caught my sneaker. I kicked it off, leaving it in his hand.
I was down, but he was down, too. It gave me enough time to scramble forward, ripping my knees against the rough stone.
Kyle grunted, and his hand clutched at my naked heel. There was nothing to catch hold of; I slid free again. I wrenched myself forward, pulling to my feet with my head still down, every second in danger of falling again because my body was moving almost parallel to the floor. I kept my balance through sheer force of will.
There was no one else. No one to catch me at the exit to the outer room. I sprinted forward, hope and adrenaline surging in my veins. I burst into the river room at full speed, my only thought to reach the tunnel. I could hear Kyle's heavy breath close behind but not close enough. With each step, I pushed harder against the ground, throwing myself ahead of him.
Pain lanced through my leg, crumpling it.
Over the babble of the river, I heard two heavy stones hit the ground and roll-the one I'd been clutching and the one he'd thrown to cripple me. My leg twisted under me, spinning me backward to the ground, and in the same second he was on top of me.
His weight knocked my head against the rock in a ringing blow and pinned me flat against the floor. No leverage.
The air blew out of me in a siren of sound that surprised us all. My wordless shriek was more than I'd hoped for-surely someone would hear it. Please let that someone be Jeb. Please let him have the gun.
"Uhng!" Kyle protested. His hand was big enough to cover most of my face. His palm mashed against my mouth, cutting off my scream.
He rolled then, and the motion so took me by surprise that I had no time to try to find an advantage in it. He pulled me swiftly over and under and over his body. I was dizzy and confused, my head still spinning, but I understood as soon as my face hit the water.
His hand locked on the back of my neck, forcing my face into the shallow stream of cooler water that wound its way into the bathing pool. It was too late to hold my breath. I'd already inhaled a mouthful of water.
My body panicked when the water hit my lungs. Its flailing was stronger than he'd expected. My limbs all jerked and thrashed in different directions, and his grip on my neck slipped. He tried to get a better hold, and some instinct made me pull myself into him rather than away, as he was expecting. I only pulled half a foot closer to him, but that got my chin out of the stream, and enough of my mouth to choke some of the water back out and drag in a breath.
He fought to push me back into the stream, but I wriggled and wedged myself under him so that his own weight was working against his goal. I was still reacting to the water in my lungs, coughing and spasming out of control.
"Enough!" Kyle growled.
He pulled himself off me, and I tried to drag myself away.
"Oh, no, you don't!" he spit through his teeth.
It was over, and I knew it.
There was something wrong with my injured leg. It felt numb, and I couldn't make it do what I wanted. I could only push myself along the floor with my arms and my good leg. I was coughing too hard to do even that well. Too hard to scream again.
Kyle grabbed my wrist and yanked me up from the floor. The weight of my body made my leg buckle, and I slumped into him.
He got both my wrists in one hand and wrapped the other arm around my waist. He pulled me off the floor and into his side, like an awkward bag of flour. I twisted, and my good leg kicked against the empty air.
"Let's get this over with."
He jumped over the smaller stream with a bound and carried me toward the closest sinkhole. The steam from the hot spring washed my face.
He was going to throw me into the dark, hot hole and let the boiling water pull me into the ground as it burned me.
"No, no!" I shouted, my voice too hoarse and low to carry.
I writhed frantically. My knee knocked against one of the ropy rock columns, and I hooked my foot around it, trying to yank myself out of his grip. He jerked me free with an impatient grunt.
At least that loosened his hold enough that I could make one more move. It had worked before, so I tried it again. Instead of trying to free myself, I twisted in and wrapped my legs around his waist, locking the good ankle around the bad, trying to ignore the pain so that I could get a good hold there.
"Get off me, you -" He fought to knock me loose, and I jerked one of my wrists free. I wrapped that arm around his neck and grabbed his thick hair. If I was going into the black river, so was he.
Kyle hissed and stopped prying at my leg long enough to punch my side.
I gasped in pain but got my other hand into his hair.
He wrapped both arms around me, as if we were embracing rather than locked in a killing struggle. Then he grabbed my waist from both sides and heaved with all his strength against my hold.
His hair started to come out in my hands, but he just grunted and pulled harder.
I could hear the steaming water rushing close by, right below me, it seemed. The steam billowed up in a thick cloud, and for a minute I couldn't see anything but Kyle's face, twisted with rage into something beastlike and merciless.
I felt my bad leg giving. I tried to pull myself closer to him, but his brute strength was winning against my desperation. He would have me free in a moment, and I would fall into the hissing steam and disappear.
Jared! Jamie! The thought, the agony, belonged to both Melanie and me. They would never know what had happened to me. Ian. Jeb. Doc. Walter. No goodbyes.
Kyle abruptly jumped into the air and came down with a thud. The jarring impact had the effect he wanted: my legs came loose.
But before he could take advantage, there was another result.
The cracking sound was deafening. I thought the whole cave was coming down. The floor shuddered beneath us.
Kyle gasped and jumped back, taking me-hands still locked in his hair-with him. The rock under his feet, with more cracking and groaning, began to crumble away.
Our combined weight had broken the brittle lip of the hole. As Kyle stumbled away, the crumbling followed his heavy steps. It was faster than he was.
A piece of the floor disappeared from under his heel, and he went down with a thud. My weight pushed him back hard, and his head smacked sharply against a stone pillar. His arms fell away from me, limp.
The cracking of the floor settled into a sustained groan. I could feel it shiver beneath Kyle's body.
I was on his chest. Our legs dangled above empty space, the steam condensing into a million drops on our skin.
There was no answer.
I was afraid to move.
You've got to get off him. You're too heavy together. Carefully-use the pillar. Pull away from the hole.
Whimpering in fear, too terrified to think for myself, I did as Melanie ordered. I freed my fingers from Kyle's hair and climbed gingerly over his unconscious form, using the pillar as an anchor to pull myself forward. It felt steady enough, but the floor still moaned under us.
I pulled myself past the pillar and onto the ground beyond it. This ground stayed firm under my hands and knees, but I scrambled farther away, toward the safety of the exit tunnel.
There was another crack, and I glanced back. One of Kyle's legs drooped farther down as a rock fell from beneath it. I heard the splash this time as the chunk of stone met the river below. The ground shuddered under his weight.
He's going to fall, I realized.
Good, Melanie snarled.
If he falls, he can't kill us, Wanda. If he doesn't fall, he will.
I can't just…
Yes, you can. Walk away. Don't you want to live?
I did. I wanted to live.
Kyle could disappear. And if he did, there was a chance that no one would ever hurt me again. At least not among the people here. There was still the Seeker to consider, but maybe she would give up someday, and then I could stay here indefinitely with the humans I loved…
My leg throbbed, pain replacing some of the numbness. Warm fluid trickled down my lips. I tasted the moisture without thinking and realized it was my blood.
Walk away, Wanderer. I want to live. I want a choice, too.
I could feel the tremors from where I stood. Another piece of floor splashed into the river. Kyle's weight shifted, and he slid an inch toward the hole.
Let him go.
Melanie knew better than I what she was talking about. This was her world. Her rules.
I stared at the face of the man who was about to die-the man who wanted me dead. With him unconscious, Kyle's face was no longer that of an angry animal. It was relaxed, almost peaceful.
The resemblance to his brother was very apparent.
No! Melanie protested.
I crawled back to him on my hands and knees-slowly, feeling the ground with care before each inch I moved. I was too afraid to go beyond the pillar, so I hooked my good leg around it, an anchor again, and leaned around to wedge my hands under Kyle's arms and over his chest.
I heaved so hard I nearly pulled my arms from their sockets, but he didn't move. I heard a sound like the trickle of sand through an hourglass as the floor continued to dissolve into tiny pieces.
I yanked again, but the only result was that the trickle sped up. Shifting his weight was breaking the floor faster.
Just as I thought that, a large chunk of rock plummeted into the river, and Kyle's precarious balance was overthrown. He began to fall.
"No!" I screamed, the siren bursting from my throat again. I flattened myself against the column and managed to pin him to the other side, locking my hands around his wide chest. My arms ached.
"Help me!" I shrieked. "Somebody! Help!"