The van continued bumping along in the dark, shifting this way and that as they turned and then righted themselves again. Riley's leg bounced up and down with nervous tension, realizing that wherever they were going, it was out of range of the earpieces that the DedSec members had. How far into the forest were they going? Surely they couldn't be going that fast? How long had they been driving? Seemed like she was on her own for the rest of this. That didn't quite sit well with her, but she'd been adamant that she'd be fine.
It suddenly occurred to her then that Wrench had asked her to stay over for a movie earlier in the week, before she got the call from the sorority offices informing her of the acceptance. Dammit, that was supposed to be tonight. She'd have to explain why she'd missed their date, and what she'd been doing. But Josh didn't want her saying anything about the mission. If this van kept going any further, she'd never make it back in time. When had he wanted her over? Midnight? And now she didn't have any way of reaching him. Would he worry, not being able to get ahold of her? Fuck.
Her thoughts were cut short when the van lurched to a halt. The brakes squeaked something unpleasant, and she winced. The blonde girl threw the vehicle into park and got out the driver's door. They heard footsteps outside, until the back two doors of the van swung open, casting a bright light filtered in from behind her.
"Alright, ladies. Up and at'em!" The blonde girl said. Huh. Come to think of it, she'd never given her name, despite wanting to 'bring everyone closer together.' Suspicious.
Everyone started getting out of the van. When it came her turn, the brunette hopped down onto the grass, seeing a big campfire surrounded by wooden chairs, a small wooden shack in the background. Was this a sanctioned site for the sorority? A place they owned? Riley panned around the location, trying to discern where in the forest she was.
"Everyone pick a chair and get comfy, because we're going to start with some bonding exercises!"
Riley held back the groan. More of these bonding exercises, really? How close was she supposed to be to these people? Riley picked a seat at random and sat, watching as the others took their own leisurely, talking quietly amongst themselves. The black-haired girl picked the one right beside her. Hmm…
With the campfire illuminating the area a bit better, she panned her vision around, recording with the glasses to get a feel for the location. It was open, clean, and nondescript. Besides the shack and the ring of chairs there was no other defining features to pick it out from the rest of the forest. Just great. Where in the hell were they?
All of the girls took their seats, and the blonde girl sat in her own at the 'head' of the group. There really wasn't a 'head' spot in a circle, but she somehow managed it. She clapped her hands once and rubbed them together. "Ok, let's get started. We're going to go around the group and introduce ourselves first. Tell us a snippet or two about you! I'll go first to start us off. My name is Natalie, and I'm an undergrad in Forensics. I'll be graduating next year."
Forensics, huh? Not a strange degree choice outright, but for the circumstances, Riley immediately had a warning bell going off. That must play a part somehow…she had a feeling.
Then the girl sitting beside her went next. Then the next. Riley was glad Josh had picked a random, false name for her student documentation, because she wouldn't feel comfortable using her real one in an undercover situation like this. Smart thinking on his part.
Spacing out most of the time, Riley watched as each girl introduced themselves and spouted a random fact about them. Most were regarding the program they were studying for, but some included a personal feat or sport that they played. Boring, small-talk stuff. Blegh. Riley hated it.
The black-haired girl beside her was up next, and the brunette's curiosity about her was piqued enough to at least give it a genuine listen.
She waved awkwardly to the group. "Uh, hi. I'm Bailey. I moved here from Washington to attend this school…and…I like to paint in my free time?" She shrugged, not quite sure what else to say about herself. She and the rest of the group turned to Riley, who was up next.
"I'm Sarah, I have three dogs and a cat at home. And I love walking along the beach." She said quickly, wanting to get all this unwelcome attention off her. She hated lying in front of large groups of people. Surely someone could tell you weren't telling the whole truth?
Luckily, no one said anything, and attention was turned to the next gal.
Once everyone had said their bit, Natalie stood from her chair and addressed the group again. "Alright, as you all know, our goal here is to bring about strong and lasting connections to our fellow sisters. But we all still are holding a bit of ourselves back. It's natural," she explained with a charming smile, "we all do it in the presence of strangers. We all feel like we'll be judged for how we look or speak or just are. But we at Sigma Delta Tau want to break those first impressions and get to know the people on the inside."
So saying, the girl reached down and took off her shirt in the company of all of the females. Her red bra underneath covered everything important, but Riley looked away awkwardly. Oh fuck. She was going to have to strip, wasn't she?
"What I want everyone to do it shed off your pre-conceived notions, shed off the barriers holding you back from connecting with those sitting around you," Natalie reached down and started unbuttoning her pants now, "shed off the fears and the worries, and give everyone a chance here to get to know the real you."
At first no one really moved, just squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, but eventually the females began undressing themselves. Riley felt totally awkward, stripping down to her bare essentials with all these strangers around, but in order to get the evidence, she'd have to experience this hazing first-hand. Fuck.
She just so happened to catch Bailey's eye, and they shared a grimace. Guess Riley wasn't the only one with doubts. Despite the hesitation, they both slowly took off their garments and placed them on the ground in front of their chairs. Thankfully the fire pit was keeping her warm against the chilly wind that blew, and they got to keep their shoes at the very least.
"See? Doesn't that feel just a bit freeing?" Natalie asked, still smiling that cheery smile Riley was beginning to hate more and more. "We can really begin from here, now that we no longer have those hypothetical walls built up around us. Let go and be yourself."
She lead them in a few thought-provoking discussions, mostly tailored around current events and controversial issues. Natalie encouraged free-sharing of anyone's opinion, healthy debate, and zero-judgement. Easier said than done, but they all tried their best. Riley continued to just look around, getting all the video evidence she could. Hopefully Josh hadn't given up in raising her earpiece. Maybe he could extend the reach of the network somehow? It was a long shot, but she had to keep her hopes up.
So far, besides stripping nearly naked of course, the group hadn't done anything worthy of suspicion. Everything seemed in line with a 'get-to-know-you' retreat. Nothing outwardly illegal or harmful. She still didn't trust anyone here, she couldn't afford to.
Who was actually the ring leader? Was it Natalie? She'd certainly been in charge of all of the group activities and the whole trip in general, but was she the one with the idea, or just the one to carry it out? Hopefully the perpetrator was here with them tonight, because Riley would want to get their face on tape.
And then things changed. Not obviously if you weren't looking for it, but because Riley was so on edge, she could tell the subtle shift in mood from the senior members. Hidden, little devious smiles. Secret whispering. And Natalie kept glancing back at the others, as if reminding them to wait for a cue or something. Hopefully, even at the distance she was from Natalie, it would all come out on the tapes from her glasses.
One of the philosophical discussions trailed off, no one really sure of what else to say, when Natalie suddenly stood up. "Awesome, we've explored our minds a bit more, gotten to know our thoughts and feelings, what makes us who we are. I hope you've all learned something new about the ladies around you."
There was a murmur of agreement, and it seemed that the others were beginning to open up. Smiling shyly, and relaxed more into their seats. "Now we focus on another aspect of our personalities." She exclaimed, though not specifying what aspect that actually was.
"Since Halloween isn't too far away," she continued, "I thought we could do something fun. With a scary twist." That damned smile. Ugh.
Natalie pointed back at the shack a bit of a ways from the fire pit. "See that little house right there? Lots of people say it's haunted."
"Haunted?" One of the girls asked reluctantly. "Ghosts aren't real."
"So you may say, but how do you know for sure?" Natalie asked, and the girl didn't seem to have an answer for that one. She turned to the rest of the girls. "I'm a firm believer that the ghost of the woman who was murdered there still remains to this day."
Riley kept her glasses' focus on the group of senior members, watching their expressions for any sign of what will happen next.
Natalie turned to the random girl in question who'd asked. "They say many years ago, back when California was in it's gold rush days, there was a gold miner and his wife who lived there. He'd go out everyday and look for gold while she stayed home and kept up the house.
"She'd get lonely everyday while he was out of the house. But there was always a letter delivery man who'd come by the house with news from her family. They started an affair, meeting at the house when the miner left to find gold."
Natalie smiled and peered around at everyone. "One day the miner came home early, and caught his wife being unfaithful. He took his pickaxe and murdered her right inside that shack, but the letter man got away, ran off and was never seen from again. Legend has it that he buried her under the outhouse, but it was destroyed a long time ago, so know one knows where it was exactly."
There was an eerie silence as the wind blew through the trees around them. Some of the girls looked behind their backs out of slight fear, but Riley kept her gaze on Natalie, wondering what she was getting at.
"So, we have a challenge for you!" She stood, gesturing to the shack. "We're going to lock ourselves in the shack for one hour and see if the ghost is real or not. A test of our bravery!"
The girls in attendance didn't like the sound of that, but not many of them were apparently brave enough to say anything in opposition to Natalie's plan. Sheeple indeed, Riley thought to herself, borrowing one of Wrench's favorite words. It certainly applied here.
She smiled again. "There's plenty of room for all of us in there, so feel free to spread out."
They started to stand and cautiously walk over to the shack. One of the senior members held open the door kindly, ushering them all inside. Riley noticed the senior members didn't move to go with them, just stood outside the little building while the new girls went inside. Alarm bells were going off in her head.
She kept calm, however, even as she passed through the doorway of the decrepit, old, wooden shack. It was probably full of spiders and other creepy crawlies, which made her skin itch, but she bore it for the sake of getting the evidence she needed. It was only for an hour right?
Once all of the new recruit were inside, Natalie stood at the doorway holding up a thick lock. "Ok, here's how it goes. You'll be locked in here for one hour." Another senior member handed her a large timer alarm clock and she held that up too. "This is set to go off right at midnight. Once it rings, you can come out. After that, we'll have another surprise game for your to play, but we won't tell you the rules until you complete this challenge!"
Natalie placed the timer on one of the old dressers, then addressed the others with yet another smile. "Try to get to know your fellow sisters a bit more. Adrenaline can really help you bond with others. Don't disappoint us, and you'll be that much closer to becoming a Sigma Delta Tau sister!"
So saying, Natalie turned around and shut the door. The light from the bonfire that had filtered from behind her was instantly cut off, and they heard the thick lock click into place on the other side of the door. It was old and worn too, but she was sure the lock was sound.
They still could see vestiges of light from the windows on the side, but even those died out when the senior members put out the bonfire just outside the door. Riley wandered over to the door and placed her ear against it, trying to listen for any talking she could. But it was too muffled and far away to make out any individual words.
Some of the girls in the shack began muttering to themselves, crossing their arms across their chests to try keeping warm. Being halfway naked didn't help the cold, and just made things a little awkward on the inside.
Several minutes passed by, the sound of people walking around and moving things, before the van doors shut. Riley narrowed her eyes, hearing the sound of their engines start up. They were leaving them here. Alone. This was looking worse and worse.
The van circled the shack once, then drove off somewhere in front of them, but Riley couldn't be sure if that was the direction of the city. Being unable to see out the van when they'd arrived had shot her sense of direction. And the darkness made any tracking nearly impossible, especially without flashlights.
The sound of the vans slowly died away, until only the wind against the shack remained. The board creaked eerily, and one of the girl gasped in fright at a particularly loud and sudden pop from one of the chairs.
The shack was dark, but you could tell vaguely shaped black objects around the room. A dresser-shaped thing on the wall closest to her, and what appeared to be a bed over in the corner. As time went by her night vision improved, and she was able to make out details.
The interior furniture was certainly not up-to-date modern, but it was impossible for it to be as old as Natalie had claimed this shack to be. Most likely, it was a hunter's cabin during the big game hunting months, or during the winter. It was definitely dusty, but not from a build-up of years and years. It had probably been cleaned several months ago. Riley was also beginning to doubt the validity of the legend entirely. She didn't believe in ghosts anyway.
It was difficult to tell how much time had passed since the group left them. Maybe 10 minutes? Maybe 30? They'd taken any and all watches too, so it was impossible to tell. Talking would have passed the time, but there wasn't much desire for discussion in the shack. Before Bailey shifted in place and cleared her throat.
"Maybe we should leave early?" She proposed, putting it out in the air for others to consider. Several seconds of silence, before another girl spoke.
"But that might be considered cheating. They'll kick you out for it."
"We're gonna freeze in here from hypothermia if we don't do something." She reasoned.
"I agree." Riley supported her. "Is it really safe to continue with this?"
Surely someone would agree with that line of thinking, but now others were joining in to take the other side.
"I've applied for this house three semesters in a row, and this is the first time they've considered my application. It's supposed to be the best house for boosting up a resume or college application. And I'm not giving up a spot in medical school for cold hands and feet." One girl adamantly argued. "We're staying the full hour. All of us."
Riley could see that Bailey was outnumbered, despite personally agreeing with her. At this rate, in the cold and without clothes, they wouldn't last long. Late September chill could catch up with you quickly.
The black-haired girl shook her head with a sigh, but didn't say anything. So they waited some more.
When the alarm finally went off, all of the girls gasped or jumped in place, not expecting such a loud and sudden sound cutting through the darkness. Bailey was closest and shut it off quickly. They all held hands at their chests or stood slowly from their spots around the shack. A few stared at the door, still not moving to open it.
"Do we…wait for them to open it?" One asked no one in particular. Nobody had an answer, so nobody responded.
Riley was closest to the door and tried the knob, unsurprised that the lock held securely. The door had a bit of give, but that was just because it was so old and didn't fit in the doorframe properly anymore.
"They didn't say we had to wait for them to let us out. They just said we could come out." She told them, yanking back and forth to try loosening it. "But they neglected to unlock it, so I don't know."
"How are we supposed to get out?" One girl started to panic. "I haven't eaten for hours, 'cause I thought there was gonna be food here."
"Has anyone seen a key? Maybe they left it in here."
A tense search for a key in the darkness commenced, but Riley continued trying to jimmy the door. She doubted they'd be so kind as to give them the means to escape the whole time. Not even a note with more instructions.
"Maybe they're running late?"
"Maybe we're actually supposed to spend the night here?"
"God, I couldn't do that! I'm starving, and there's nowhere to sleep here."
The sound level began to raise as people started to panic. Some girls tried grabbing at the windows, but they were stuck shut. Riley was getting frustrated, hearing all this frantic panicking behind her, while struggling to fix the door. Fucking Christ, could they all just shut up?
Riley turned her attention to Bailey, who stood there looking around at everyone. No one had anticipated such loud yelling in the small space. She looked stern, but not angry. "We can't start panicking now. It isn't helping. So let's all just calm down and think about ideas on how to get out."
Well, Riley had one. She let go of the doorknob and backed up a few steps. Thankfully she'd worn her good tennis shoes here, so there was plenty of protection for her feet as she planted her shoe squarely into the wood. Letting out a strained grunt, the door stuck, but rattled dangerously close to giving way.
"That's way one, I guess." Someone said behind her. She backed up and tried again, this time a small piece of the wood flying off in some direction behind her. Thankfully the door itself was so old it didn't matter how good of a lock held it closed. It would break far earlier than they could get the lock open.
Riley stepped back and grabbed the nearest edge of the dresser for leverage. With the last kick to the door, it swung open on its hinges, a large piece of the door flying outwards towards the clearing. Riley stumbled forward from a lack of resistance.
"Yes!" One of the girls said, and they all began to file outside.
They all looked around, but there was nothing. No evidence of the Sigma Delta Tau girls who'd brought them here. No evidence of where their electronic items and clothing had gone. And no sign of what direction the city was.
"They just left us here?"
"This must be a test."
"I don't like this."
"The woods are pretty scary at night. It's so dark…"
"Shit, it's cold."
The others began to walk around the clearing, obviously looking for their clothes or something else, but Riley glanced around the shack, wondering if there was any clues there. They said there's be a surprise game after they got out. So…
She spotted a paper pinned beside the door, fluttering with the wind. She grabbed it and squinted her eyes. It was difficult to read in the dark, but the moon did provide some light to the darkness. Thankfully they weren't in the New Moon phase, otherwise it would have been impossible without a flashlight.
"What's it say?"
Riley looked up and saw Bailey, holding her arms across her chest protectively, but she nodded at the paper. The brunette tried reading it again.
"It's hard to make out, but…"
"What's that?" One of the other girls asked out loud, attracting the attention of the rest, and they gathered around the two girls by the shack.
"I'm pretty sure it's the instructions for the surprise game." Riley said, still peering down at it to decipher the words. "I'll try to read it…it says…"
"Congrats on…making it outside the shack! But don't get…ahead…of yourself, the game…has just begun. Your task now is…to make it back to the…bus stop we came…from by 6 am. We've…provided…you one flashlight, below this…paper, but that is all."
Bailey stooped to pick up the flashlight, giving it to Riley so she could read it much easier. No need to pause on the words she couldn't immediately recognize.
"Doesn't sound that hard, right? Well, here's the catch. You aren't alone in these woods. Several groups of 'hunters' are out there somewhere, wandering around in random spots. They know these woods like the back of their hands, so there's nowhere to hide. Get caught, and suffer the punishment. Not to mention, you'll be rejected from the house, and we won't reconsider any future applications. This is your one shot to prove to us you're strong and brave enough to be in our sorority. We don't take weaklings or cowards.
"What's more, if you're not at the bus stop by 6 am, that's an automatic fail of the game, and you will not be a recognized member of the house either. Plus, all of your phones are there, so if you want them back, you'll have to finish the game. There are several ways to fail, but only one way to win. Trust no one. Don't fuck it up."
The other girls began to panic again, but this time it was at the possibility of them not getting their spot in the sorority. None of them seemed concerned for the task they had to accomplish, rather that they wouldn't be a recognized member after all was said and done. Were people that blinded by titles and positions to care about their safety? Bailey shook her head, perhaps feeling the same way.
Riley felt that now was a good time to take charge. She was technically everyone's best bet to get back, even if they weren't aware of it. She had hidden resources they didn't. Now, if she could only get back within range of the signal, then things would be a bit better.
"Alright, I think we should all stick together." She said, gaining everyone attention. She pointed off towards the direction she thought the city was. If the position of the shack was anything to go by, and how the van was parked when they had unloaded, it was probably that direction. "Going this way is probably our best bet-"
"Who put you in charge?" One girl asked critically.
Riley tripped up on her words, before recovering. "Uh…well, I mean nobody, but I really think we should go this way. That's where we-"
"The note said not to trust anyone. Maybe they planted a mole in the group to try leading us astray." Another chimed in, and with that one idea out in the open, suddenly no one in the group would believe her. Nods and 'yes'es of agreement were all she could see and hear. Incredible, the power of suggestive thinking. And bandwagoning too. What a great mix.
"Both of you don't seem to take this as seriously as the rest of us do. We're here to get into the sorority but you've both been trying to bend the rules." One of them said, stepping forward and snatching the flashlight from Riley's hand. "We're going the way we want to go, and you go the way you want to go. If we fail, fine. It'll be our own fault. But I'm not listening to someone who's been pessimistic about this group since she got here."
"We should probably split up, anyway. A big group is a much easier target to find, and there are those hunters looking for us."
The others agreed to that too. Fucking. Great. Riley really didn't know what to say to that, and opted not to say anything at all. She'd tried to help, but if they refused it, there wasn't much to be done.
The girls all went as their own small groups, off in the general direction that Riley was certain wasn't the right way. Several fought over the flashlight, while others just started walking in a direction, off into the darkness. This was madness. Riley knew it.
The brunette turned to Bailey, who was the only one to stay with her at the shack. They held gazes for a moment, before Riley stuck out her hand.
"I guess it's you and me."
"Guess so." She agreed, shaking her hand pleasantly.
She smiled. "Well, since we're gonna be dealing with this together, it's better if you know what's going on. My real name is Riley. I'm here looking into the hazing practices of this sorority."
"Oh, I'd heard about that happening, but just figured it was all rumors." Bailey admitted, and they started walking in the direction Riley had suggested. "Just goes to show what I know."
Riley shrugged. "At least with this, I'll have all the evidence I need to prove the hazing is real." She waved the instructions that were pinned to the shack and folded it a few times, tucking the paper into her bra for the time being. Best not to accidentally lose it.
"Smart. I knew it was a good idea to follow your lead." Bailey complimented, turning her attention to the direction they were headed. It was pitch blackness as far as they could see, with blurry, indistinct shapes of trees around them. "And I think you're right, about going this way. The wind around here always comes from the Northwest, so as long as we follow with the wind to our backs, we should reach the city without a problem."
"How do you know?" Riley questioned, peering at her face in the darkness.
"I'm a meteorology undergrad. It's kinda my thing."
"How long have you been in San Francisco?"
"A couple months. Moved here from Seattle to live with my sister." Bailey responded, teeth chattering slightly from the cold. Both girls were shivering in full, but at least their feet were somewhat warm and covered. It would have been hell to walk on all these rocks and twigs in the dark with nothing but their bare feet.
"Oh yeah? How are you liking it so far?" Riley asked.
Bailey gave an amused huff. "Well, ask me tomorrow morning and I might have a different answer."
"No worries." They tromped on for a bit longer, sticking close together just in case. In the darkness you could lose your way so easily. "But so far, I'd say this place isn't half bad. I like the people, the places. A bit more…cultural than Seattle ever was."
"San Fran has an identity all it's own." Riley agreed with a nod.
There was another round of silence. They conversation tended to follow a pattern. A short question, one that required little more than a few sentences of answer, before another silence, and then another question a few minutes later. It saved energy by not constantly talking, but they still got to know one another over time. Riley was finding that despite the awful conditions, she was still bonding with Bailey as they tried finding their way home. Huh. Maybe Natalie hadn't been altogether wrong.
"What about you?" The black-haired girl questioned after another moment. "Are you from around here?"
"No. New York."
"That's pretty far."
"Yeah, but I was looking for as much change as possible back then." Riley said cryptically. She wasn't about to go talking about her parents. That was a touchy subject.
Bailey seemed to understand not disclosing everything, and didn't press. "So you've been around here awhile?"
"Mmm…about a year. Maybe a year and a half." She reasoned. She stepped over a fallen log, looking forward to what lay ahead of them, but there wasn't much break in the same scenery in these woods. And who knew how long they'd already been walking for?
"Well, I hope you found the change you were looking for." She said, and Riley smiled back. Memories of DedSec and Wrench and Pants flashed through her mind. A lot of good ones. Some bad. All worth the experience.
"I did, actually."
"That's good to hear." Bailey shared the gesture, and they continued walking.
"…I just couldn't understand why she wanted me to live with her, honestly. I hadn't seen my sister for like four years. And we were never all that close." Bailey continued, teeth full on chattering between words.
Riley was feeling the same cold, but they continued on as best they could. Still keeping with the wind to their backs, they were hopeful that before long they'd be back to the edge of the city, and they could put all this behind them.
"And when she recommend I look around at Sororities? Something was up." Bailey finished.
"Why weren't you close? Falling out?" Riley guessed, but Bailey shook her head.
"Nah. Age gap. I'm 6 years younger than her."
Riley shrugged. "Well, maybe she just wanted to get to know her little sister, you know?"
Bailey's breath came out in white puffs, barely visible in the darkness. "Yeah, maybe. It just seemed weird. Maybe my family is too disconnected. Not as…reliant on each other as other families."
"I feel you there." Riley said, knowing it to be true. She had an experience of her own with estranged family.
"Maybe I'm being too harsh on her." Bailey said, almost sounding regretful. "I've always been a bit pessimistic when it comes to those things."
"You don't seem that way." The brunette looked at her again. "You just come off as…to yourself. Private. Quiet."
"That's a nice way of calling me a hermit." The girl laughed, and Riley joined in.
"Oh, please. I don't get out much for myself either."
"Then maybe the two of us can hang out sometime, be hermits together."
Huh…Have a friend outside of DedSec? Wouldn't that be something. Riley hadn't had a friend like that in years. It seemed almost unimportant, but from her standpoint it certainly had appeal. Man, just how much different would Riley's life had been if she'd actually let people in to get to know her, and take the effort to get to know others?
"You know what? I'm down." Riley replied enthusiastically. Maybe it would give her a reason to check out the new shopping mall they were building over in Marin.
Bailey huffed out another laugh, shaking her head. "God, Natalie was all about 'connecting with others,'" she finger quoted, "and I was dismissing it all. I hate admitting that bitch was right about anything."
"Ok, you're mirroring my own thoughts now, so stop that. It's scary." Riley grinned, and they laughed again.
"Wait." The brunette held up a hand, having heard something close by.
Bailey stopped in place, though still shivering despite her best effort to remain still. It wasn't controllable now. They stood there in the darkness, listening over the sound of the trees and the wind. There! Voices.
"It could mean we're close by the city." Bailey whispered, but Riley shook her head.
"Maybe. But it could also be the hunters they mentioned."
"Better to play it safe, then." The black-haired girl agreed.
The only problem was, they couldn't tell which direction the noise was coming from. The darkness and the wind were really disorienting, and left them clueless as to which direction the danger may come from. So, they proceeded with much caution going forward, trying to keep the noise of their footsteps to a minimum.
"Look what I found!" A female called out close by, and the two girls whipped around frantically, trying to spot who had seen them. A pair of flashlights illuminated them in the darkness, ruining their night-vision and blinding them temporarily.
"Shit!" Bailey swore, and the both of them took off as fast as they could. But they were running blind, barely able to tell the dark shapes of trees to the rest of the forest.
"Don't bother running, we've already caught you two!" They called from behind, followed by laughter of several people. The thunderous sound of their running was frightening, especially as Riley realized they would never be able to outrun the pack of hunters. The girls were much too cold and exhausted mentally to be able to keep going like this. Their capture was inevitable.
But they tried for as long as they could, running the risk of twisting an ankle or hitting a tree at the speed they were going. Their mad dash through the forest was causing an uproar of noise, but all Riley could hear now was the pounding of her own heart in her ears, the blood muffling anything else, and the harsh in-and-out of her heavy breathing.
Bailey was lagging behind, only slightly, and Riley grabbed her wrist, urging her faster, pushing her in front of Riley so she wasn't the one closest to the pursuers. Maybe if Riley got caught Bailey could escape. But they hadn't realized how much distance the group had gained to them until it was too late.
Riley's ponytail was yanked backwards, throwing her off balance and completely off guard, sending her tumbling onto the rocks and underbrush of the forest. Her glasses slipped off her face, landing somewhere in the dirt. Riley panicked, knowing she needed those to bring back to the hackerspace for evidence. A heavy body sat itself on her back, pinning her to the ground before she could try looking for them.
Bailey's hesitation, seeing her companion caught, cost her the few more seconds of time she could have used to try getting away. A second hunter practically tackled her to the ground, but Riley's face was shoved into the dirt and she couldn't see what happened after.
The brunette grit her teeth and tried wiggling out of the female's grasp, but her arms were just twisted behind her and held tightly, a warning.
"Woo, you two put up a better fight than most of the others do." The strong female above the brunette huffed out, panting from running so hard. "I'm impressed." Funny, her tone was telling Riley the exact opposite.
There were several seconds of harsh panting, both from the hunters and the hunted, until they'd finally gained enough back to speak properly. "Alright, you guys know the drill. You're out of the bid for house membership, and you need to be punished."
"Punished how?" Riley dared to ask, and the girl above her laughed.
"Ever been paddled before?"
She gulped. Great. Not totally life threatening, as long as they didn't aim for the head, but still. This was going to hurt like a motherfucker.
The next instant, her eyes were wrapped and covered with a cloth, rendering her blind. Riley tried struggling again, but the girl sitting on her just dug her knee further into her back. "Fuck!" She gasped out.
"Stop squirming!" Another girl said, further away. Bailey grunted from pain. Shit. Was this was Josh's cousin had to endure? Had she been caught? No wonder she was traumatized. There was a possibility she'd wandered along through the forest, in the dark, being hunted by her fellow college students. Only to be beaten with a paddle while blindfolded. To anyone, that would seem hellish.
"Where should we start?" A girl asked, and another responded immediately.
"Let's get her feet. That'll stop her from running away so fast." There was a chorus of chuckles, and Bailey whimpered.
And then Riley had to endure the sound of her crying and the flat slaps of wood against her flesh. Being unable to see was almost worse, because her mind had to come up with the image for her. "Stop it! Let her go!" She cried out. If anyone was going to be hurt, Riley would take it. She'd had much worse. Bailey didn't deserve this.
"Relax, brat, you'll have your turn." The girl sitting on her said, all the while Bailey was screeching in the background. Riley winced behind the blindfold, unable to plug her ears from the noise because her arms were held behind her back.
Twigs and rocks and dirt duck into her skin at painful angles, the pressure and weight of the girl on top of her doing no favors. Riley was hyperventilating, wanting to do something about this, but unable to. Fucking…fuck. Fuck this! Fuck this fucking sorority house! She started up her struggling again, this time a bit more harshly and violently. She wasn't going down like this without a fight.
The girl holding her hadn't anticipated this, and the brunette managed to slip one arm out of her hold. "Hey!" The girl cried out. Riley used the limb to push herself off of her stomach, the momentum tossing the girl off of her back.
"Fuck, hold her down!" Someone said, and two more pairs of hands grabbed at her limbs. But Riley wasn't about to just give up. She flailed and snarled for them to let go, striking someone in the face with her foot once. Good. That felt good.
"For fuck's sake just hit her already!" Riley heard, just before a flat wooden object struck against her temple. It left her dazed, and a pain radiated out from there. A second blow followed, no gentler than the last.
Her attempts at struggling slowed, and they were able to get a better grip on her limbs. The hunters hit her head a few more times, leaving the brunette dazed, and nearly unconscious. A warm stream of what she assumed to be blood trickled down her cheek. Riley refused to pass out, though. Who knew what they'd do to Bailey while she was out?
Thankfully, she couldn't hear the other girl crying out in pain anymore. They'd stopped, instead opting to switch their sights onto Riley now. That was good, too. Bailey wouldn't get the brunt of the attack.
Her legs and stomach were the target of most of their blows, stinging and radiating so much pain. She couldn't help the cries of agony as the onslaught continued. Until finally they'd had their fun. Their laughter was loud, too loud, in her ears, but they eventually moved away from the two beaten girls, deciding to go off and hunt someone else who apparently 'deserved it.'
Riley and Bailey lay there for awhile, still blindfolded, waiting for the pain to stop.
"Has anybody fucking heard from Riley?" Wrench asked breathlessly in the comm channel. "She hasn't answered her phone in hours."
Josh tensed, knowing he'd have to explain what was going on in order to appease the anarchist. They'd always had a friendly but somewhat tense relationship. He was sure this wouldn't go very well.
"No, when's the last time you saw her?" Marcus asked over the comm.
"Last night. We planned to watch a movie at my place tonight but she hasn't called or anything."
"Fuck, this can't be another Bratva situation…" Sitara worried.
Josh cleared his throat. He could already hear the string of expletives Wrench was sure to send his way. "She's…on a mission right now."
"What fucking mission?" Was his accusatory question. Josh swallowed.
"I asked Riley to help me look into hazing at Stanford University. It was a request from a supporter. I thought we should have stuck with surveillance, but she insisted on going to get the evidence herself and I couldn't convince her to-"
"Yo, man, calm down." Marcus tried to reason. "We've gone over this. She can take care of herself. Quit freaking out."
"Then why hasn't she answered a single text? Even if she were on a mission, she would have responded to let me know she's ok. Where the hell is she?" Wrench wasn't calming down. In fact, Josh doubted he would be calm until Riley came back and was standing directly in front of him.
"I don't know exactly where she is." He had to admit. "The group gathered at the edge of the woods, before heading further in. They take all electronics before entering, and she's out of range for the comms."
The sound of something heavy or metal smashing against something else was earsplitting across the comms, and Josh winced. "Fuck!" Wrench shouted.
"Dammit, Wrench. Quit it! She'll be fine! It's just a bunch of college students, and she's survived much worse!" Sitara tried getting him under control, but the sound of destruction continued.
"Have a little faith in your girl." Marcus advised. But Wrench disconnected before they could say anything else.
Riley was shaken back into reality by Bailey. It was still dark, but she could hear her sniffling somewhere close by in the darkness. It was too cold to just lay there all night. They'd freeze. The blood on her face had already crusted and dried. And judging by the damage to her head, she probably had a concussion. No sleeping for several hours. Great. Still, they had to keep moving.
Riley painfully pushed herself up to sit, finally reaching upwards to take off the blindfold wrapped around her eyes. God, all of her muscles were on fire. Tossing the fabric away, she searched around the area with her hands, trying to find the fake glasses with the hidden camera. They had to be close by. Hopefully those hunters hadn't stepped on them. Or taken them just to add insult to injury. Her heart sagged with relief when her fingers found the plastic edge of the frames, and she clutched them to her chest before putting them back on.
Having found her evidence again, Riley crawled over to Bailey, grabbing her shoulder gently.
"We have to keep going." She urged in a harsh whisper. it wasn't going to be a pleasant time, but they couldn't afford to be stuck out here any longer. Bailey looked up at her, tears barely visible in the darkness rolling down her cheeks, but she nodded.
"Can you walk?" Riley asked, seeing the way she was keeping the bottom of her feet off the ground at all costs.
"I…don't know." She replied. Tentatively, the black-haired girl tried putting weight on the balls of her feet, but she recoiled and gasped in immediate pain. The brunette sighed, knowing there was only one alternative.
"I'll have to carry you then." She reasoned, already moving to stand up. Thankfully her own feet had been spared any damage, so there was no pain from standing, but the muscles everywhere else were on fire. They'd really done a number on her. Nothing showed except bruises, but they hurt like a son of a bitch. It was going to be a painful walk the rest of the way.
"Are you sure?" The black-haired girl asked with a sob. "We don't know how much farther we have to go."
"I'm not leaving you here." She shook her head, bewildered Bailey would even suggest such a thing. "I'm not just gonna let you die of cold in this forest. It doesn't matter if it hurts. At least I'll have tried."
She eventually nodded. "Ok."
It was a painstaking effort to get Bailey up high enough on her back without her feet touching the ground. Riley's legs were on fire with bent knees, but it was the only way to stoop low enough to heft Bailey up enough so she could hoist herself up.
"Ugh!" Riley grunted out, finally straightening up with Bailey on her back. Now that her knees weren't bent all the way, it wasn't so bad, but she could tell after a while her back would hurt something terrible.
"Thank you for doing this." Bailey whispered, and Riley shook her head. It was beginning to go dizzy and light. Maybe her concussion was worse than she thought.
"Don't even mention it. Now, let's get going. Which way?" She asked, double checking with the meteorologist undergrad, since she probably knew best. The last thing they needed was for Riley to steer them in the wrong direction in her dazed state.
Hours, perhaps. That was Riley's best guess as to how long they'd been out in these damn woods. No way to tell, though. The sky was beginning to somewhat brighten, but even then, it was a far cry from actual sunlight. And there wouldn't be legit sunlight for several hours at least.
Her head hung low, Riley trooped on, Bailey hanging on tightly to her back. This concussion wasn't helping. A pounding head and the kind of exhaustion that leeching adrenaline and hours of activity could give you. She'd nearly fallen a few times, but Riley was quick and kept her balance, hoisting the girl up before her feet could touch the ground.
"You can take a break if you want." Bailey had told her before, but Riley shook her head slowly. Too fast and it would only hurt worse.
"I want out of this damn forest." And that was that.
They hadn't said much to each other since being attacked, but there wasn't much to say. The good mood from before was gone, replaced only by pain now. Their only goal was getting to the city before they collapsed from exhaustion.
"…-ey…Ri-…" She heard in her ear, the first noise coming from the earpiece since she had arrived in this forest. Her head perked up. The first sign of life since being taken into this goddamn forest.
"Josh?" She tried asking, catching Bailey's attention.
"Fuck, thank god…" She sighed in relief, nearly dropping the girl on her back again. "Josh, you're starting to come through. Are you there?"
There was several moments of silence, but Riley kept trekking on. She'd have to get closer to hear him clearly. They were right on the cusp of the bluetooth's range. Several hundred more feet and he was much less static-sounding than before.
"Riley?" His voice came in loud and clear.
"Josh, you have no idea how good it is to hear your voice." She said. Bailey tapped her on the shoulder.
"Who are you talking to?" Maybe she was concerned she was going crazy or hallucinating people. It caused her to laugh.
"He's my friend. I snuck in a bluetooth headset out here, and we're getting back into range now."
"Ok, now I'm super glad I stuck with you." Bailey said, and Riley nodded.
"Yeah. Josh, do you have any idea where we are?" First things first. How much farther did they have to go?
"1.5 miles Northwest of where you originally met with the group." He said. Then, after a pause. "Are you ok?"
"Yeah, just…shaken up. And really cold." She summed up. It wasn't something she really wanted to discuss right now. "But I got all the evidence we need to bring down this damn house."
"That's good, but-" Riley cut him off before he could ask what she knew he wanted to ask.
"I'm fine, Josh. Some bruises that'll take some time to heal but I'm otherwise ok. We'll still need a ride to the hospital though. Bailey's not in the best of shape."
"Another student. She can't walk right now, so I'm carrying her." Riley explained.
"I can meet you at the drop off point and drive you there." He offered.
"And if you wouldn't mind grabbing both of us some clothes? We're…kind of exposed right now."
"You're a life saver." She said in a huff, running out of breath by talking so much. Another thought came to mind, and she winced. "Could you tell Wrench I'm ok? I'm sure he's worried."
"He's not very happy with me right now. Or you."
"Yeah, well he can get pissy about it and beat my ass later, but I need a nap first. And you tell him it was all my idea and he's got no reason to get mad at you."
"I did. He didn't seem to care."
"Well, he can fuck off right now. I'll deal with him later." She wasn't in the mood to worry about how Wrench was feeling. It wasn't his damn business anyway, and she handled it just fine. Wrench wasn't her fucking babysitter. She appreciated his worry about her wellbeing and everything, but sometimes he was a bit suffocating.
She meant that with love, of course.
If Bailey was confused at all, she wisely didn't bring anything up. It would be a long confusing story that she probably wouldn't want to hear anyway. Riley wasn't sure if she already suspected she was in DedSec, but better not to give her solid evidence of it. Best to leave her wondering.
It was an hour later, light beginning to brighten the sky up by the time Riley saw the edge of the tree line. She smiled in relief, and found some more energy to make it the rest of the way without stumbling.
Josh was parked along the side of the road, standing there holding a stack of clothes for them. Riley probably would have been embarrassed that she was half naked in front of one of her colleagues, but right now she could care less. Nothing was more beautiful than the sight of civilization and a warm set of clothes. Josh had even thought to bring blankets, which be produced from the back when they'd dressed themselves.
Bailey was helped into the backseat, wrapped in several blankets to keep her warm, while Riley took the passenger seat beside Josh, who drove them straight to the hospital. Both girls didn't say much, but Bailey did thank them both profusely, saying she'd return the favor one day when she was able.
They both helped her into the emergency room, ensuring she was fine. Riley tried leaving the with Josh, just he stopped her at the door.
"You have a concussion." He stated simply.
She shrugged. "It's alright. I'll just take some pain pills and sleep it off at home."
He wasn't backing down, though. "Riley, stay and see a doctor."
She sighed heavily and stared him down. "You're not gonna let this one go, are you?"
He silently shook his head, looking just as serious as he always did, but there was a hint of worry in his eyes. They both knew that if she really wanted to force her way past him and back to the car, there wasn't much he could do to stop her. But that would be rude, and he was genuinely concerned for her. The last thing she wanted to do was throw that concern back into his face.
"Alright, alright…" She muttered in defeat, taking a seat on one of the uncomfortable waiting room chairs. Josh gave a small smile, glad she had given in, and went to talk to one of the admitting staff.
The pair hadn't talked about the mission while in Bailey's company, since they didn't want her knowing they were a part of DedSec, but started up once they returned to the car. Riley was sent home on the doctor's approval that she wouldn't suffer any adverse effects from her injury. Of course, that was after much convincing on her part, begging the doctors to let her go back home rather than stay and be monitored. The doctor hadn't advised it clinically, but was positive she wouldn't regress and understood her desire to leave a medical facility.
"It would have been wiser to stay overnight." Josh advised evenly as he drove her, but she shrugged.
"Yeah, well. I'd much rather crash on a comfy bed I'm familiar with than be strapped to a dozen tubes with a constant beeping in my ear."
He sighed, shaking his head. "Wrench is going to kill me when he sees you got hurt."
Riley only laughed. "Maybe he's just rubbing off on me a bit too much. And at least I got the evidence, right?" She gestured to the glasses sitting on the dash of the car. She was glad to not have to wear them any longer. They were annoying and wouldn't stay in place for a long period of time.
Then, remembering the paper in her bra, she pulled it out and unfolded it. It was still intact, thankfully. "Here. That's probably the best proof we could hope for. Plus whatever the video shows. It was so dark though, you'll have to do a lot of editing to make anything out."
"I'll bring them back to the hackerspace and put together a data package. The university shouldn't be able to just play this one off." He promised both her and himself. This house was doing too many illegal things for them to be able to get away with it. And especially after both his own cousin, and a close friend of his got hurt, he wasn't going to let this continue.
"Good. Now," she yawned noisily, "I'm gonna take a nap. Tell me when we get there."
Josh winced. It was never wise to sleep with a new concussion. "Are you sure you should be-"
"Shh, I'm too tired to argue with you but leave me be." She begged, eyes closed and bundled up in her blanket. He knew she was exhausted, and even though it was common knowledge to keep concussion patients awake as long as possible, he didn't have the heart to keep her from sleeping any longer. She'd had a long night.
But he didn't feel she should be alone. So Josh changed his course and started back towards the middle of the city.
Riley had been fast asleep in the passenger seat for about 20 minutes now. Which was good, because Wrench wasn't in the best of moods when Josh pulled up to the garage. In fact, he was already walking up to the car before the hacker could get out, anger displayed very blatantly on his mask. He knew this was coming, and didn't resist much when the masked hacker grabbed the front of his hoodie and pushed him into the side of the car.
"Tell me she didn't fucking get hurt." Wrench growled, angry slants glaring brightly. There wasn't much of a height difference between the two of them, but the way he carried himself made it seem like he was several inches taller. Josh had always been wary around him, knowing that they could sometimes clash. Plus he didn't like his aggressive behavior.
"I made sure the clinic checked her out." He replied evenly. "Some bruising and a mild concussion." Before he could even finish Wrench shook his head and swore under his breath, pushing Josh back into the car and wandering a few feet away. "The doctor said it should all clear up in a few days."
"God damn it…"
"She'll be alright." Josh pressed, but Wrench swung around to glare at him again.
"It doesn't matter, that's not the point. Riley shouldn't have to endure any more pain because of us. That's the fucking point." He must have noticed Riley asleep in the car, because he made sure to keep his voice down.
"I agree." Josh admitted, eyes downcast to the ground. What, did Wrench think he specifically asked Riley to put herself in danger for his own agenda? How selfish did he think he was? "I tried telling her there were other alternatives, but she didn't listen. She wanted to get the evidence for herself, even if that meant putting herself at risk."
Josh looked back up at Wrench, who's arms were crossed in irritation and his mask flashing three dots on either side, as if trying to gauge if he were lying. But he wasn't. He wouldn't lie about this. "I didn't ask her to do that."
Wrench's head shook, X's now replacing the dots, and he kicked the nearest building in a small fit of anger. "I fucking know…" He muttered. "I'm starting to rub off on her too much…"
"She said the same thing." Josh added helpfully, finally seeing the anger begin to fade. Wrench's default emotion to stress was anger, and Josh didn't blame him. Everyone responded differently to stressful situations. Wrench's reaction was just more…destructive, than most.
Wrench finally moved to open the passenger door, and leaned in to pick her up by the legs and back. She stirred but didn't wake, and he easily lifted her up into his arms, blanket and all. Josh shut the door after her, watching him walk back towards the door to his garage. He stopped, looking back over his shoulder.
"Thanks for bringing her back."
And with that he went back inside. Josh sighed, getting back into the car and backing out of the alleyway. There wasn't much traffic at this hour, so he easily made his way back over to the hackerspace.
"That went…better than expected." He said out loud, feeling like he'd somehow gotten lucky by avoiding getting punched.ns 18.104.22.168da2