The warm water feels like heaven on Dawn and Kara’s aching muscles after days of traveling. Using puffy flowers that grow on the shore, they scrub the dirt from their skin and wince as old scabs are torn off. A numbing nectar from the makeshift loofahs helps to ease their pain, which is a godsend when the pair begin searching each other for splinters. Sharing a set of rusty tweezers, they do their best to remove the tiny shards that are reminds of a tree-shattering storm from two days ago. Neither are clear on how they survived the maelstrom with no shelter, especially when they witnessed other travelers get shredded and thrown into the distance. The horrific sight has caused Kara to always stay within reach of Dawn, the girl’s steely nerves having gradually eroded. Even now, the sight of other people makes her anxious, so her eyes scan the large lake that is being used by a few caravans. A quick glance at her friend’s face shows that they share the same worrisome thoughts and a suspicion that trouble is following them closely. As if on cue, two men are yanked under the water and fired at a truck like living torpedoes. Only a few people scream in fright, but the rest simply look up and shrug at the unexpected deaths.
“I think the flowers are making everyone mellow,” Dawn whispers as she settles into a massaging current. Touching the bottom with her feet, she feels tiny worms wriggle around her toes. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say those things are eating the blisters and corns. This is a really strange place. Soothing and blissful, but kind of bizarre. Are you feeling any better? I know getting kicked out of the Grand Caravan was hard. There’s only so many times I can apologize before it rings hollow, but I’ll do it again if you want.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Kara replies before dunking her head underwater. She notices tiny fish with sucker-like mouths fringed with feathers and returns to the surface when one darts forward to touch her cheek. “These are healing my sunburns. I should keep going under because my scalp hurts. Where do you think we should go?”
“This haven sounds as good a destination as any,” the woman admits with a smirk. Sinking further, she leaves on her face exposed and runs her hands through her knotted hair. “If I’m right then the Grand Caravan is following a spiral that started at the south pole. I know the approximate route, so we can match it to reach the same destination. If there are rumors of this haven then there should be people there already. They won’t let anything happen to us if we arrive on their doorstep. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. This is the best idea I can come up with besides going back to my forest.”
The girl tries to mimic Dawn, but she ends up floating due to her height and the depth of the lake. “Maybe that’s a better plan. The monsters won’t bother us back there. Out here, they can keep coming after us. Nobody says there has to be one haven in the world. People can find smaller ones if they’re together, right? That’s what it used to be like. My parents told me there were houses that didn’t eat people who tried to go inside. I had a book that showed a picture of one and it looked pretty.”
Dawn is about to answer when she sees a mother and child get turned into statues of salt on the far shore. People run away from them as a herd of deer arrive to lick the frozen travelers until only the feet are left. An old man who tried to swim across the lake shouts an instance before a lily pad sprouts from his mouth. He continues floating with the plant growing to the size of a small car. Frogs hop out of the water and eat at the flies that are attracted to the steadily rotting corpse. The central flower blooms to release a poisonous cloud that is blown towards the other travelers, who run away or dive into the lake. The surface wriggles with movement as cloth eels emerge from the seabed and wrap around the people. Lacking teeth, the strange creatures drag their prey beneath the surface and plunge them into the sticky muck where they wait for the flesh to rot. Leaving gear and vehicles behind, the surviving travelers run into the wilderness, their screams echoing for several minutes.
“And yet we remain untouched,” Dawn says as she gets out of the lake. She hears a plop of water and fears that Kara has been attacked, but finds that the girl is only splashing herself in the face. “Their game has changed and I’m a part of it. Going back to the forest will only result in that place being destroyed. For all I know, my old home was wiped out the moment it fell below the horizon. That means we can only go forward. Maybe it will be this haven or another place where we can be safe. Then again, I have Ian and Addison actively hunting for me. Really wish you could have stayed with Melissa.”
“But then you would be alone,” Kara points out. She hurries to get her towel and is surprised by how warm it feels. “I spent a lot of time by myself just like you. Only I’m a kid, so I know I need adults for certain things. That makes it easy for me to work with people that I meet, but I never felt safe like I do now. Not since I was with my parents. You’re so strong and smart, which means you can survive. Yet, I’m sure even someone like you feels lonely. Nobody in this world should feel like that.”
“Very wise for a kid,” she replies, her eyebrow twitching. A snapped branch draws her attention to a bear that lumbers over the lake for a drink and pays no attention to the two naked humans. “I never thought about being alone before. Probably because I was created as you see me and ran away immediately. Being born an adult meant I never had to depend on anyone else, so I didn’t know what I was missing. Can’t say it hasn’t been nice traveling with you. Being able to converse with another person instead of animals or yourself helps remind me that I’m the sane one. Anyway, this is pointless talk. We need to get moving before one of these threats decides to attack us.”
“But all of the dangerous animals have avoided us for days.”
“That’s what has me so nervous.”