Saying that she had a “headache” would have been the understatement of the century. “Feeling like a boulder had fallen onto her head multiple times” may have served to be a slightly more apt comparison.
She clenched her eyes shut, hoping sheer will alone would cast away the terrible ache spreading through her entire body. She brought a hand to her face. It came away sticky and slightly wet. Moving down to the nape of her neck, she flinched as a damp, almost pulpy texture met her fingers. Pain. Nausea roiled through her, squeezing at her stomach and throat. She tried to sit up, but collapsed back down weakly as a new wave of dizziness crashed into her head.
What in the world had happened to her?
She swallowed. Her saliva, thick and sticky in her mouth, got stuck in her throat. She coughed, then moaned as the action sent several more pangs of agony through her temples. Her eyes. She had to open her eyes. How else would she see where she was? How else could she get herself out of here?
“You are awake.”
It was a statement, not a question. At least Randi wasn’t so out of it that she couldn’t understand that. She opened her eyes, then instantly regret it as her surroundings smeared into a spinning mess of gray, black, and brown. A raspy moan slipped out of her again. When was the last time she’d had something to drink? Her throat and mouth felt like sandpaper, and her lips were cracking. And her stomach may as well have been a hollow nutshell within her, it felt like so long since she’d last eaten.
Mustering all the strength she could, she forced herself into a sitting position, clenching her eyes shut to temper the feeling that everything was spinning around her. “Where— where’m I?” she slurred.
“You are in a cellar, the last remains of an abandoned building. I had to find some sort of shelter to protect you from the elements.”
An… abandoned building? She hadn’t seen any signs of human life in all her days here. She tried opening her eyes again. In the few seconds she had them open, she could see that it wasn’t night— it was dark, but not dark enough that she couldn’t see anything, and a sliver of light shone through what looked like a hole in the… the wall? The ceiling? She didn’t know. It was higher up than she was, but not directly above her. Something was blocking the sunlight. Randi couldn’t feel the wind or the warmth from the sun, either. She had to be in some sort of enclosure. But… there weren’t any buildings in the Outskirts. Were there?
Randi coughed again. “Am I— still in the Outskirts?”
“Yes, you are. Quite deep into it, in fact.”
The voice was feminine and mature, that of a young woman’s perhaps. Randi should have been scared, but the sound of a human voice that wasn’t hers for the first time in days dispelled any worry she would have been feeling otherwise.
She planted one of her hands onto the dusty floor, forcing herself into a sitting position. There was a wall behind her she could prop herself on, thank goodness. “How long’ve I been out?” she asked, scrubbing her face with her palm.
“You have been unconscious for approximately a day and a half now.”
A day and a half? No wonder she felt like garbage. She turned her head toward the source of the voice, squinting her eyes open. She tried to get to her feet. The ground felt especially hard underneath her as she collapsed back down again. Her skull began to throb with a newfound anger, and she screwed up her face with a groan.
“Don’t try to stand up. You’ll only hurt yourself. Here.” There was some shuffling around. Something cool and hard pressed against Randi’s lips, and then water— pure, sweet, delicious water!— was rushing down her throat. She grabbed the bottle for herself and tipped it back further, coughing as some of the liquid spilled out of her mouth and into her lungs.
“That’s enough, now.”
The bottle was cruelly ripped away from her grasp. She coughed a few more times, expelling the water she had gotten into her lungs. Her body was already starting to rejuvenate itself, the pounding in her cranium rising away slightly. It didn’t hurt to have her eyes open anymore, and her throat was no longer painfully dry. Randi wiped her face, blinking away the blurriness that still remained. She looked up, and then paused. The woman was sitting a few feet away from her, now. She was scrubbing something, something made of cloth— her clothes!
Randi gasped and threw her arms around her bare torso. The woman paused, looking up with an expression of baffled innocence. That pale blonde hair, her freakishly pale skin… the last thing Randi had seen before she’d been knocked unconscious…
The gears clicked into place. “You’re… you’re the one who knocked me out and brought me here.”
Randi clenched her fists. “That’s all you have to say? Yes?”
“I… don’t understand what you’re—”
“Shut up!” She tried to force herself to her feet again, but only got to her knees before growing too lightheaded to go any further. She compensated by squaring her shoulders, trying to look as large as she possibly could. “Do you have any idea how much that hurt? What I was even trying to do out here?” She closed her eyes and took in a few shaky breaths, trying to calm herself down. It didn’t work very well. “You bust my head open, you dragged me into some sort of abandoned building, you stripped me naked, and for what? For what?”
The woman didn’t respond. Randi felt a punch in her gut as a horrifying, alien feeling settled into her. She tried to back into the wall, gasping for air that never seemed to come. “What… what did you do to me? What did you do? T-tell me!”
Realization flickered across the woman’s face. She stood, reaching a white hand out to Randi. “You have to believe me— whatever you’re thinking, I didn’t—”
“Don’t touch me!”
The woman shrunk back, cradling a spot on her arm that had suddenly turned red. Randi’s hand was flung out in front of her. She pulled it back to her body, drawing her knees to her chest. “D-don’t touch me…” her stomach heaved and she keeled forward. There was nothing to come up but water and acrid-smelling air. Randi spat a sour glob at the woman’s feet. Her headache was getting worse again.
The woman sputtered. “M-miss, you have to believe that I—”
“Why should I believe you?” Randi’s voice cracked. “Why should I believe the person who attacked me, knocked me out and trapped me in… in this place?”
No response. The only thing Randi could hear was her heavy breathing and the rustling of trees just outside. She looked to the small opening in the wall behind. If she could somehow be fast enough and strong enough to fight off the woman…
“You do not have to believe what I am saying, but I assure you that I am telling the truth.” She shuffled back to the entrance. “I did not have any intentions of harming you more than what was necessary.”
Randi let out a harsh, barking laugh. “Sure, you didn’t. What is that supposed to even mean?”
“It means whatever you wish to make of it.”
“Stop it with the obscure answers!”
The woman looked back toward her. For the first time, a hint of annoyance was creased onto her sickly-pale face. Huh. Served her right. “If you truly must know,” she said, “you were a threat to my well-being. Mine, and yours as well.”
Randi’s mind almost shut down as a coping mechanism against the complete and utter stupidity it had just been forced to witness. “What?”
“The… fire that you made. It had the potential of attracting some… unwanted people.”
Randi narrowed her eyes. “Unwanted people? You and I are the only people here besides…” she quickly shut her mouth, setting her jaw. “Y-you aren’t making any sense at all.”
“I just told you. There isn’t anyone in the Outskirts! We— I’m the only one here besides you. Everyone else is living in the City!”
A dark shadow flit over the woman’s face. “I can assure you that that isn’t true.”
“How? What other people are here?” She couldn’t have gotten Blake and Avery, could have she? Randi swallowed, ignoring the sweat beading on her brow. “What… what other people have you seen?”
“You are the first living person I have seen here in the last twelve years. But I can say with certainty that you are wrong in your assumptions.”
Randi opened her mouth, then closed it. Opened it again. Closed it again. She shook her head. This woman couldn’t be for real. She just couldn’t.
“Do you have any more questions for me?” The woman stood, silently folding her hands at her hips.
“Yeah. Can I leave?”
“No. Do you have any more questions?”
“Why not? Why can’t I leave?” Randi couldn’t hide the panic growing in her chest any longer. “L-look. I didn’t want to get into trouble with you or anything— I didn’t even know that you existed, until now. Just let me leave, and I won’t bother you again. I won’t light any fires anymore or anything. Please.” She wrapped her arms around her bare body again, screwing her face up when the woman didn’t respond. “Please. Just let me go! Why can’t I leave?”
“Because I said so. You are in no condition to be travelling on your own with the extent of your injuries. You can barely stand as it is. Why should I let you put yourself in danger? I’ve already done enough harm to you as it is.” The woman picked up the water bottle and placed it by Randi. “Here.”
Randi picked up the water bottle, her fingers twitching around it. At least the woman had admit that everything she had done to her was for no real reason at all. She risked looking away for a split second to scan the room. Twenty paces could have taken her across the whole perimeter. The walls looked like they were made out of concrete, or stone even. And the ground… the ground was covered in dust and dirt and who knew what else. Randi cringed. She looked up at the woman, who had turned to the thin square of light above them. “W-wait.”
The woman looked back. “Yes?”
“My… my bag. Where’s my bag?”
The woman pointed to one of the corners of the room. Randi squinted at it. There it was… the black color of the fabric must have been blending in with the shadows. She swallowed, putting her arms around her chest again. “O-oh. You didn’t take anything out of it, did you?”
“Anything I did, I put back. Except for your canteen, of course.”
“You— you can’t just go through other people’s property like that!”
“I only did so I could ensure that you didn’t have anything that would put you or me in danger.” The woman put her foot up and rested it on a ledge— there were stairs leading up to the light, back into the open forest. “Now, I am going to find you something to eat.”
Randi’s jaw fell open. “No! Wait!”
The woman stopped, but did not look back at Randi. “Yes?”
“You can’t leave me in here all by myself. There may be animals outside or something, a-and…”
“Don’t be foolish. If you have more than an ounce of intelligence, you’ll know not to sneak outside in the condition you’re in. Nothing will happen to you if you just stay in here. I will be back.” She climbed the stairs, pushing the center of the lit square outline. It opened— it was a trapdoor, Randi realized. Before she could react, the woman had climbed through to the outside and closed the door again. Randi was plunged into darkness once again.
Okay. Okay. Deep breath. Randi closed her eyes, trying to ignore her strengthening migraine. Deep breath… this was her opportunity to escape. She just had to wait until the woman had walked away far enough. Then she could sneak away. She could do this. She just had to be fast and quiet.
She couldn’t forget her bag. Randi crawled over to it, zipping it open. Her blanket, the leftover cans of food, the crumpled bags… it seemed like everything she had left in there was still in there. At least the woman couldn’t be faulted for being dishonest. Randi picked up the bag and lugged it over her shoulder— it felt so much heavier than she’d anticipated.
She stared up at the door, her heartbeat palpitating. The woman had to have gone far enough by now, right? Randi had to play it safe. This was her only chance. But… she couldn’t wait for much longer. It felt like the walls were closing in on her, the room growing darker and smaller with every second that passed by. The woman had to have gone far enough. And if she hadn’t… well, perhaps the resulting adrenaline rush would be able to get Randi away fast enough.
She shuffled over to the stairs, placing her hand on the first one. It was steep, and crumbling. She didn’t have any other choice, nor did she have any more time to wait. Randi looked over her shoulder for a moment. There was nothing there, of course. The wall was in the same place it had always been in. She shook her head exasperatedly. Mustering up all the strength she could, she started climbing up the stairs. Her knees hurt against the rough concrete, and the pads of her fingers stung as they pressed into the stairs. It would be worth it. It would.
She reached the top of the stairs. Her hand trembled as she held it out, testing the door above her. It gave. She slowly pushed it open— it didn’t creak at all, to her surprise— and pushed her upper body out. Her pupils constricted at the sudden light. It was still morning, or perhaps early afternoon. More time to get away from this place, find Blake and Avery, and never leave their sides again. Randi started to bring the rest of her body out. Her left leg was almost in the open— and then a white-hot fire lanced up her shoulder.
She collapsed onto the grass and brought her hand to her arm. It had been just fine before. Why was it acting up now? Nothing was wrong with it— at least, she hadn’t known that there was anything wrong with it. It had been just fine before. Randi squeezed her eyes shut and sucked air sharply through her teeth, clenching the muscles in her shoulder. It barely helped.
“I figured you may have tried something like this.”
Randi opened her eyes. Strong arms grasped her by the shoulders, hoisting her up from the ground. She was unceremoniously shoved back into the cellar. Randi had to throw her arms against the wall to keep from falling down the stairs. Squeezing her shoulder, she stumbled down the first few steps and glared up at the woman, who was climbing back outside. She knew it. She knew she should have waited. But the woman herself had been waiting, right at the entrance, hadn’t she? Perhaps this had been a doomed mission from the start.
“I didn’t want to do this, but since you refuse to cooperate I’ll have to put this here.”
A low rumbling sound cut through the air. The light coming into the den began to fade. Randi ignored the pain in her tricep long enough to look up. Her breath hitched in her throat.
It was a… a slab of something— stone, metal, she couldn’t tell. But it was obscuring the opening of the den. It was going to trap her inside.
“No!” She leapt to her feet and sprinted up the stairs, trying to force herself through the ever-shrinking opening. It was no use. Not even her arm could fit through it now. “No!” she screamed again. “No, don’t! Please— I’m sorry! I won’t try to escape again! I promise!”
“Sorry.” And then she was enveloped in darkness.
Randi stood at the top of the stairs, her entire body trembling. Already the air was being sucked out of the room because of her breathing, which was getting shallower and faster by the second. She was getting lightheaded. The walls were closing in on her. The shadows were choking her, wrapping her in their complete and utter silence. She was going to be buried alive. She was going to be buried alive, and the only response her body had to that was pure, unbridled fear.
She threw herself against the door, screaming when it didn’t even budge. She slammed her body against it, pushed it, punched it, scratched it, screeched at it. The noises only bounced against the stone walls and ravaged her eardrums further. Randi continued thrashing herself against the blocked opening until there was a crack. The crack hadn’t come from the door.
Pain like she had never felt before shot down her arm, as well as a warm and thick liquid. She pushed past the pain and continued beating her hands against the door, sobbing. This was it. She had been through so much and this was going to be how she was lost to the world.
Randi curled up on the stairs, tears streaming down her face. Or maybe it was sweat. She didn’t know. Was the room getting hotter? Her shoulder was on fire and her heartbeat pounded in her ears, drowning out ragged breathing. What had she done to deserve this? She was going to disappear and nobody would know where she had went. Would they still know who she was? Or would they forget about her, barely remembering at her at all? Just like… like…
She vomited on the stairs, her head flaring up in excruciating pain. She was screaming again, maybe. Something else. She had to think about something else. Blake and Avery. She had scared them away, hadn’t she? She had been impulsive, violent, selfish… Was this her punishment for that? Maybe they hadn’t been able to deal with the Outskirts, and now their spirits were coming back for revenge against her. Randi’s stomach flipped inside out. “Blake… Avery,” she choked. “Blake! Avery!”
“Were those two your friends?”
Light flooded back into the den. Randi somehow managed to look up, blinking away her tears. The woman was kneeling in the entrance-way, sunlight casting a halo around her silhouette.
A violent sob burst out of Randi, her already damaged throat flaring with pain. “Don’t— don’t do that again! Don’t you ever do that to me again!” She curled up even tighter and dug her fingernails into her face. Guttural howls heaved from her body, giving her no time to breathe.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry. I never would have done that to you had I known you were claustrophobic.”
A cool hand rested on Randi’s forehead. She tried to pull away, but the grip was too stubborn for her to do anything. Fingers brushed over her hurt shoulder. She whimpered.
“You’ve dislocated your shoulder and broken the skin on your arm. I’m going to have to fix that for you, alright?”
“Don’t… don’t touch me.”
“I have to, or else your shoulder will become infected, or even break. I’m sure you do not want that to happen.” The grip on Randi tightened. “This may hurt a little bit…”
Pain flared up Randi’s shoulder and back. The sudden trauma made her entire body seize up, losing control of its organs. She lurched forward and threw up again. Before the scream lodged in her throat could tear itself out, her limbs turned to jelly and her vision yielded to cool, merciful darkness.
~ * ~
A damp sensation on her forehead eased her back into consciousness. She groaned, twitching each of her fingers one by one. Something tight was wrapped around the base of her arm. She reached over to touch it— realizing her knuckles were covered in bloody bandages while she was at it— and flinched at the pain as she pressed down on her shoulder. The acrid smell of smoke poisoned the air, and flickering orange lights danced across the walls.
“Hush. Don’t move, or else your wounds will reopen.”
Everything came rushing back.
Randi shook her head, trying to pull away, but her captor wasn’t having any of it. The water bottle was raised to her lips, and Randi couldn’t push away her basic bodily needs no matter how much she wanted to. After she had finished drinking, something warm and pungent-smelling was pressed to her lips.
“Try eating this. Chew slowly. I don’t want you to choke or throw up again.” One of her hands was cradling the back of her head while the other held the nugget.
Randi wanted to refuse, but she was just so hungry… “What—” she stopped to cough— “what is it?”
“Just eat it. You need the nutrients. I assure you, it isn’t poisoned or anything.”
Randi tried to turn away, but an aggressive growl from her stomach convinced her to take the morsel into her mouth. Whatever it was, it was tough, stringy, and tasted like nothing she had ever eaten before, though it was still quite bland. It took nearly a minute for her to chew and swallow the thing. Her stomach begged for more the minute she got it down, and she ate as quickly as the woman allowed her to. When she swallowed the last of it she groaned, her insides twisting. “Water… give me water…”
“Of course. Can you hold the bottle?”
Randi took the bottle and tilted it all the way back at her lips. Water rushed over her face and down her neck, but she ignored it until the container was all but empty.
The woman took it away from her again. “I’ll go and fill this back up for you… when you go to sleep.”
She handed Randi her clothes, cleaned of their dirt and grime. The shirt was missing parts of its sleeves. That had probably been what the woman used to bandage her injuries. Randi had almost forgotten that she was almost naked, with everything she had been through. She raised a weakened hand to cover her most vulnerable parts, failing rather miserably.
The woman pointedly looked away from her. “I’ll be by the entrance if you need me,” she said. “Get some more rest, alright?”
Randi didn’t really know how to react. Somehow, though, she managed to nod, swallowing the odd taste the food had left on her tongue. “Okay.”
The woman nodded and turned away. She sauntered back to the staircase, sitting down on the first step. Randi stared at her for a while, watching her eyes slide shut. Any trace thoughts she had of escaping were swiftly and thoroughly squashed, but it didn’t make her action of turning away and curling back into the fetal position any less reluctant.
It was more than clear to her now that this woman— her captor— was dangerous. It should have been clear the second she had been ambushed and knocked out. Staying with her would be nothing short of self-destructive. She had to find a way to escape somehow. She would have to build up enough strength to fight back, break out, something. She had to leave, find Blake and Avery, get back to the City, and try to live a normal life again. But for that to happen, she had to get herself out of this mess. Somehow. And soon.
It was going to be a long next couple of days.