The Hunt - Chapter 18

My frostbitten hands struggle to grasp the rope, sliding as ice forms in the seconds between each grip. My stomach falls two hundred feet as I look down, past Michaels, to the frozen lake we just crossed.

“Stop looking down, Jake. Focus on getting your ass up there,” shouts Michaels, ten feet under me. ‘My ass is dependent on yours. You fall, I fall!”

I shiver, the thought of plummeting through the glacial air chilling my mind and body, faster than the sub-zero temperatures ever could. I place one frosted hand after another onto the rope, edging closer and closer to the safety of the ridge above.

“Only a few more metres, mate,” says Mullineaux overhead, a vapour cloud veiling his mouth.

I force my stiff muscles up the last ascent and lie atop the snow-tipped iceberg, the snow melting with my haggard breathes.

"On your feet,” says Mullineaux, grabbing my right hand.

I pull it away and curl up into a ball, like a baby polar bear.

“No, I’m staying here. I need to rest. You guys g-g-g-g-go on. I’ll catch up,” I say, opening one eye to survey their response.

“Get up, ya eedjit, they’ll be on our asses any second. Move, or I’ll push you over the edge,” Mullineaux jokes, his teeth chattering. He extends his hand.

This time I take it, hoping the next zone is a warm one. His hand feels like a five pronged thermos. He gives me a funny look when I don’t let go.

“Aye, Cartwright, I know I’m a good looking man, but now’s not the time.”

“Sorry, it’s just so warm,” I judder, letting my hands drop to my side.

“It’s ok, hopefully it’s a Caribbean island, next,” he says, winking and crawling through the igloo style door.

A deep, orange glow emanates from the tiny door and I follow Mullineaux eagerly, accepting the warm waves wafting from within.

The room we enter is vaguely familiar; a large log-fire, burning brightly, on the left, my squashy, red armchair sitting at the correct angle on the right, and my single-malt whiskey, with ice, on the varnished oak side-table.

My leg beeps.

“Is it working again, yet?” asks Michaels, kneeling next to the fire and rubbing his hands.

“Yeah, finally got the temperature up high enough. Just as well, it’s like dragging a sledge behind you when it’s not working,” I reply, joining him at the blaze, wondering why the hell my living room is part of the Hunt. It is freaking me the hell out, but I guess that’s what they’re wanting.

“We should move,” says Mullineaux, breaking the radiant silence. “This feels like it’s designed to slow us down, to make us comfortable. We have to go.”

“Chill out, Mulls. That ice quake will have slowed them down. We have time,” Michaels says, pulling a cushion down from the couch and lying on his back.

“No, we need to move, now. It’s just isn’t right. Do you not agree, Jake?”

“I agree. It is weird, but not because of the fire, or the warmth, or the comfort. It’s the fact that this is my house, that is weirding me out,” I say, standing and taking in the details. Memories are revolving round my head. The memory of that night at the forefront. I can’t get it out.

“What do you mean, ‘your house’?” says Michaels, sitting up.

“I mean, this is exactly like my old house. Before… well… before I came in here.”

“But how can that be? How could the zone designers possibly know what your house is like? And why would they make a zone out of it?” asks Mullineaux, now standing inches from my face, a small bead of sweat sliding down his.

“I feel dizzy,” I say, feeling for the armchair.

They help me into the chair, and then stand over me, discussing it.

“Maybe they are trying to mess with him? You know, maybe this is a Psychology zone. We’ve not had one of them, yet,” suggests Michaels.

“Yeah, but why would they design it specifically for him?”

“I guess maybe they want him next.”

“Possibly. Well, whatever the reason, we need to get him and us, out of here. He’s clearly not dealing with it, too good.”

I feel them lift me and help me towards the front door.

“None of the other zone doors have been locked,” says Mullineaux, trying the handle several times.

“It’s Psychological, we need to overcome a mental barrier to find the way out,” I suggest, beginning to focus a little better away from the heat of the fire.

“What barrier?” asks Michaels.

“The death of Jocelyn,” I say, feeling a sudden clarity of thought. “The bedroom.” I sprint down the hall, my leg thumping on the wooden floor.

I bang open the door, and there she is, lying in a pool of blood, her white, lifeless face staring blankly at the high ceiling. A twisted wire of raw emotion tightens round me, I’m suffocating in the remembered pain. I can’t do this again. A note lies on her chest, smeared in red.

 

The key to the next zone lies inside me.

 

“Jake, you alright? Oh, shit…” says Mulls, turning away and covering his mouth. “That’s sick.”

“What is it?” asks Michaels, pushing past Mullineaux.

“There is a key and we need to find it, quickly,” I say.

“Jake? Is that her? Is that Jocelyn?” asks Mullineaux, placing a hand on my shoulder.

“No. It looks like her, but it’s not. She was cremated. They’ve made this poor girl up to look like Jocelyn, but it’s definitely not her,” I say, turning away from the face of yet another person, murdered at the hands of the Economy and all in the name of the Hunt.

“So where is this key, then?” asks Michaels.

“It’s in her. Find it and let’s get the hell away from this place,” I say. The chill of the ice zone has finally gone, replaced by a burning inferno of rage.

 

Stuart White