Six years later...
I slink into the shadows, not letting my back leave the wall. Without the shadows to conceal me my cover will be blown. That’s the biggest mistake I can make. My breathing slows as time passes. It’s only a few minutes before I hear leaves crunching under footsteps.
“Where the hell did she go?” I’d recognize that voice anywhere. It belongs to Colton Frell. “I’m not about to chase her around much longer.”
“She can’t be far. We saw her back there. No way she could’ve escaped that quickly.” Jordin responds. My breath catches in my throat. I knew that Colton wasn’t working alone – none of us were – but I never would’ve guessed that he’d paired up with Jordin. The two of them never spoke, never got along. But they both hate me. If they teamed up together it can only be for one reason: to take me out.
Colton grumbles something and walks a bit lighter. There’s less noise coming from their direction, but I know they haven’t passed by yet. All I can do is wait. Maybe if they get closer I can attack. It would be a risk, but one worth taking.
Not for the first time, I wish that Merith was still with me. She had been captured a while ago. If they’re hurting her I don’t know what I’ll do to myself. She’s my best friend. I refuse to let anything happen to her.
“Bryn. Hey. You there?” A voice crackles in my ear. My hand instinctively jumps to the earpiece. I’ve never been so relieved to hear Will’s voice. I’m just about to respond when I realize I can’t. Any noise I make will travel and Colton and Jordin will be on me before I can even raise my fists.
Will was silent for a moment before trying again. “Hello? I know you’re there. I can see you on the monitor. Why are you just standing there? Time’s running out and you need to—" He stops suddenly. The next time he speaks I can hear his voice tense. “They found you didn’t they? Shoot. Um, alright. I need information from you and you need it from me. Click your tongue once for yes, twice for no. Do they know where you are?”
Two clicks. It’s possible that they know where I am, but I highly doubt it. If they knew they’d be here already.
“Okay, let me readjust my angle here so I can give you their exact location. Maybe Merith will show up too.” Will says the last part with a slight annoyance. I understand his frustration. Sharna is back at Command with him. She’s supposed to be keeping track of Merith, but we’ve gotten no information. For only the seven hundredth time, I wish that Merith had applied for another comms partner. Comms are supposed to be there for us, to keep us out of danger. Sharna has done nothing but put Merith in danger and keep her there.
Sharna’s voice suddenly pierces my eardrum. “I’m here too you know. I can help.”
I know that I’m supposed to be quiet, but I can’t stop myself from snapping at her. “Help by finding your partner. You know that we have to be together to win. I can’t do this by myself.”
I hear her huff into her microphone. “I know where she is. The problem is getting her to you.”
“Then get her there,” Will says before I can respond. “We’re wasting time arguing. No one’s reached the end yet, but I’m sure there are teams that are close.” Of course they are. Just because I haven’t figured out the clues doesn’t mean no one else has.
I tell Will to keep an eye out for anyone coming my way and to remind Sharna who’s boss. She doesn’t like my comment and lets me know in a variety of well placed insults. One of these days she’s going to regret everything she’s ever said to me.
With a quick check of the area behind me, I step away from the wall. With or without Merith, I have to move. I’m at the left edge of the property. If I keep going I’ll hit the far wall and have to head right. If I head out away from the wall, I’ll be in a more conspicuous area and have a higher chance of others finding me. The towering trees on the left edge are a great cover. Once I emerge from behind them, I’m fair game. There are small hiding places scattered across the rest of the property, large boulders, dilapidated shacks, the occasional trench, but that’ll be where everyone else is. Our objective isn’t to fight against each other, but I wouldn’t put it past some of my classmates. They’re just as desperate as I am. The difference is I know how to hide it.
I keep my left hand against the wall as I continue. With all the sticks and freshly fallen leaves on the ground I have to be extra careful. I can tell that Colton and Jordin are still behind me. They have yet to master walking with complete silence. They’re making less noise than before, but still enough that I can clearly identify where they are. I’m at least a good fifty steps ahead of them. Plenty of distance for me.
As I continue on I hear more and more voices. Everyone must’ve come to the far wall first thinking that would be the least searched area. I scoff at the thought. You can’t just take the simplest idea and run with it. This is all about planning and careful thinking. The answer is hidden deep beneath the surface. The code we all received is a lot harder to crack than I would’ve imagined. I knew I wouldn’t be able to solve it in the blink of an eye, but I didn’t think I’d need Merith so desperately.
It doesn’t take me long to reach the far wall. There are still trees shading it so I have an advantage for now. But I don’t dare relax. I have to be prepared for a run-in with someone else. Tensions always run high during exercises. You never know what someone might feel desperate enough to do.
I listen carefully for anyone behind me. My enemy tag team seems to have lost their way. I don’t hear any of their enormous feet pounding this way. I hope they’ve given up trailing me. They’re not very good at it.
In a moment of lapsed judgment I decide to get a better look at the activity beyond the trees. It’s already been half an hour. Someone has to have some kind of lead. And if I can catch them following it, then I might not even need Merith.
Despite this possibility, I really hope that she can find her way back. We got separated at the very start of the exercise thanks to one of the professor’s tricks. She’s had plenty of time to find me. The fact that we haven’t been reunited yet scares me. What if something happened to her?
I’m only a few paces away from the wall when Will hisses in my ear. “What do you think you’re doing? There are a million kids just outside of the tree line! No way this is the best idea you have.”
“Calm down,” I whisper back. “I’m not going out there. I just want to look around.”
“That’s the same thing,” he argues. “You’ll be seen.”
I shush him and continue on. He rambles on about this danger and the next, but I’m not paying attention. The only thing I’m interested in is finding this stupid treasure and getting back to school. I need a good recommendation on this training exercise if I’m going to make it into the agency after graduation, which is only eight months away. That’s not much time at all. If I don’t get high recommendations on my training exercises I can kiss any chance I had of becoming an agent goodbye. I’m not any professor’s star student. I don’t even make the bottom of that list.
My cover loses its effect as the trees become less abundant. I eventually reach the point where I have to dart from one to another just to make sure I’m not seen. This takes a lot more effort and extra focus to keep from making noise while I run. If someone is going to find me, it’ll be on my terms. No way I’m going to be found by such an idiotic mistake as making too much noise.
I reach a fairly large tree that’s at the edge of the forest and decide to hide behind it. This is going to have to be good enough. There’s still a lot of trees in front of me, but I can’t risk it. I’m far enough that I can see out into the main area of the property and that’s all that matters.
There are kids everywhere; first levels mixed with third levels and dominating fifth levels tracking them down. It’s a school wide exercise, one of only four that will happen all year. I’m really missing those intense fifth level exercises right about now. Everyone younger than me just seems like they’re plodding along. No one is taking this seriously. Even the fourth levels look like they don’t know what to do. They should know better. Last year I started treating these exercises like they’re a job interview. Really, they could be. You never know when Vido will send recruiters to the school.