The Follower

Cedar lives in a post-civilized, Earthlike world set two thousand years after a series of events that led to humanity’s rapid decline and near extinction. Nature has reasserted its dominance in mankind’s absence and time has erased all but the most densely packed, sprawling networks of structures erected by old-world humans. Huge predators now rule the landscape, having evolved from ordinary animals into fearsome beasts. Ruins of the old world contain treasures of the past along with records that may unlock the mystery of how humanity fell from dominance.

“Everything changes at night.” This is the pertinent lesson Cedar learns while traveling the short distance to her village. She has explored every corner of her surroundings starting from the time she had just begun sprouting into womanhood. But she has never ventured out into the Hinterlands after nightfall. Obscured by blackness or distorted by deceiving shadows cast from a pale moon, the landmarks she has etched into her mind are nowhere to be found. Dread creeps across her back and shoulders causing the hairs on her neck to stand erect as she comes to terms with the fact that she is lost.

She is unsure how far she has traveled or in which direction. Her attention had initially been drawn to something outside the vehicle at a distance. The large mass began moving parallel to the vehicle while keeping its distance in the cover of trees and undergrowth. It has been able to keep pace at a slow cruising speed; a rate much faster than any human would be able to reach, let alone sustain. Its size and shape are impossible to estimate in the absence of daylight. Cedar has lost all sense of time while focusing on the follower. It is still nearby, as she occasionally catches glimpses of its eyes reflecting the vehicle’s exterior lighting.

A sharp gasp of surprise escapes her lips when the vehicle shudders slightly then jerks and sways while leveling its horizontal suspension. A sense of apprehension consumes Cedar. The only uneven ground capable of throwing off the vehicle’s traction exists within the badlands. Cedar takes a pause to assess her surroundings. Judging by the size of nearby trees and dense foliage, she has entered the dense forest directionally north and farther east, well past the village. Not only has she misjudged the direction, but she has also overshot the village by a long distance. Stopping now and waiting until daylight would be wise. Her best option will be to retrace her tracks out of the badlands in the morning and then follow familiar landmarks home.

Cedar operates controls that will place the vehicle into a self-charging state. Doing so will render the machine inoperable until it is either it is fuelled to capacity or interrupted by manual intervention. The risk of draining the vehicle while they are lost outweighs any danger posed by remaining here until morning, despite the lurking unknown thing that is undoubtedly still nearby. Lights dim to nothing as the machine enters its regenerative mode. Small vents open at various locations around the hull, allowing sounds of the badlands to creep into the cabin. A deep, calm, and masculine voice emerges from the rear of the cabin. Activating a small torch for light, Cedar proceeds to climb out of the pilot’s seat and quietly approach him. He is sitting upright but favoring his right side.

“You’re awake.” She says gently while attempting to feign confidence. The effort is unconvincing, even to herself. She continues after regaining her composure, “Can you tell me who you are or where you came from?”

Cedar reaches toward the man’s injured side but he raises his hand in caution, shaking his head casually and gesturing gingerly toward his shell encased injury using the other hand. He speaks then breathes out in frustration. She looks away, embarrassed by her inability to communicate. After a moment, he utters a single word, “Neh…”, most likely to gain her attention. Assuming this to be his intent she answers quietly while making eye contact with him, “Hmm?”

He gestures toward her mid-section, right around the area of her ribs. He puts his two fists together side by side and then makes a soft breaking motion. Cedar’s face contorts unconsciously with empathy as she exclaims, “Oh, ouch!”

His response is a hearty chuckle followed immediately by a sharp inhale through gritted teeth and a distressing cringe of pain. Cedar reaches for the only part of his body not covered by the white shell and rustles his hair, “You need to be careful. Internal wounds require many days to heal. Yours may require an entire season.”

After several moments of quiet, Cedar fails in her fight against an irresistible yawn. Today was exhausting and arduous, beginning at daybreak with no respite until now. Though he is injured and likely to be more hindrance than help in the event of an actual emergency, having the stranger nearby eases her anxiety. She allows her body to relax as the fog of sleep begins to swirl around her. Retreating into her inner space, Cedar spreads her awareness outward as though she were casting a net. She is not able to see the follower with her eyes but perhaps she can observe it with her other senses.

Numerous hunters prowl nearby transmitting their hunger and primal instinct to kill. Countless more prey scurry about from place to place in fear, seeking food, a mate, or someplace to hide. It is the same wilderness she has become familiar with in the hinterlands, though it is amplified many times and colored with a deeper, more primordial hue. The man sitting next to her drowns out most everything else. He is afraid, confused, and deeply troubled by some manner of treachery. Presently, he is unsure whether to consider Cedar a friend or foe. And then there is “it”. A powerful presence that goes where it wants, when it wants. It is supremely confident, manifested from nature, but not entirely wild. And now that it has been altered to her probing, it has become infinitely more curious.

Having been flicked away like a beetle, Cedar surfaces from her inner space with a start. The man is regarding her while wearing a concerned expression. He speaks a question, most likely asking if she’d experienced a bad dream. Too mentally exhausted to respond, Cedar smiles sleepily and nods without speaking. Within moments she is gone again into a dense and dreamless sleep.

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