by Paul K

Hanging naked from a tree branch by her ankles, Rachel had plenty of time to think about how she had got there. It was, of course, too late for regrets.

Just a college prank, wasn't it? A game of dares gone too far. Of course, they'd all thought about doing it, the same way you think about swimming with sharks or going to Mars.

They'd all written down the various challenges on bits of card. Rachel had written "Dive naked into the pool where they train the killer whales." She thought she could do that if she lost, and if she drew her own card, it was risky but not likely to be fatal.

Neither was being hunted, though it was a lot scarier. Most volunteers who played quarry in the hunt survived, or nobody but the insane or the suicidal would do it. The odds favoured the hunted by - what was it? She couldn't remember. Statistics weren't very comforting when you came off with the short end of the stick. From her vantage, she could see her hunter preparing the fire she'd be cooked on. She had rather hoped she would be let off, it seemed unbelievable that she'd really have to go through with it. It's supposed to be a game, she wanted to say. It would have been pointless to say it, not to this particular hunter. When had it all gone wrong?

Probably when she agreed to the game in the first place. Like most disasters it all started with a small step. Her mind drifted back.

"Oh come on, Rache, it'll be fun!"

"Jeez, Tim it's, stupid. We're graduates now, not kids playing strip poker."

"Oh, for God's sake let your hair down for once."

"Maybe we should stick to strip poker," Liz put in dubiously.

"Scaredy cat," Ellen teased. "Look, it can't get too dangerous, we all stand a chance of drawing our own dares if we lose."

Eight of them, thought Rachel. One chance in eight of losing, one chance in eight of drawing your own card if you do. That meant odds of sixty four to one against having to face your own challenge if you played. Tempting odds for a bunch of half stoned students to try something really silly. She shuddered as if touched by a premonition, but then she chided herself. Years of study must have ossified her sense of fun, she thought. What's life without a few risks?

"I don't know..." she said, but she was wavering.

"You're only young once," Charlie smirked. That did it, she was tired of being called prematurely middle aged. It wasn't true, but it stung.

So they played the game, a round of "cheat". Guess who was last out?

Wearing the traditional quarry's costume was a good move, everyone assured her. No matter that she felt self conscious in it, who wouldn't? Rachel kept a towel on until it was time to start the run.

"Why?" she had asked. "It's a bit...er...extreme, isn't it."

The outfitter at the lodge smiled and shook his head knowingly. "Haven't you read up on this? The sense of vulnerability puts you in the right frame of mind. People aren't used to thinking like prey. You'd better start getting into it if you want the best chance of getting through it alive."

The costume consisted of a doeskin top, sleeves reaching to mid forearm, cut upward from the waist in an inverted vee to expose the belly. That and moccasins. There was nothing between the waist and the feet. Rachel had to agree, she'd certainly feel vulnerable dressed like that. In fact, when she tried them on the moccasins were less primitive than they appeared. The soles were cushioned and resilient as those of running shoes and when laced up they fit her feet comfortably. She could run in these or walk all day. She thought she'd like to buy a pair after all this was over. Finally, she was allowed a light field backpack containing dried rations, a water bottle, a map and compass, and a bowie knife in a shoulder sheath. The pack and knife, like the clothes, were optional. Runners were allowed to defend themselves if they wanted to.

"Of course, you can run in your street clothes if you prefer. You can run in a full suit of armour if you've got one. I wouldn't recommend it, though."

Privately, Rachel suspected he just wanted to see her with her pants off. Well, couldn't blame him, she thought. "What do the men wear, then," she wondered.

"Some of them wear a pouch, some don't. Keeps things from dangling." He grinned. "Seriously, Miss, the ones who wear less survive more often than the others."

"I'll take the gear," she said. She still intended to change in private.

"Wise choice," he said. "Good luck, Miss."

When the time came to start, she was signed out by a dour middle aged woman who looked as if she'd seen it all. "I have to ask, do you know and understand the rules?" she asked as if reading from cue cards.

"I think so."

"You get one hour's start. All you have to do is evade capture until nightfall. If you can get back to the lodge any time after seven pm, you're home free. If you're still out there after ten, you can come back openly, the hunter can't catch you after that. If you're caught..."

"I can be killed and the hunter can do what he likes with me."

"Including eat you." The woman stared at her. "They sometimes do, you know."

If she was going to be killed, Rachel didn't see much point worrying what happened after that. "I know," she said.

"Do you know who your hunter is?" the woman asked.

"I didn't ask."

"Do you want to know?"

There hadn't been time for it to matter. Rachel didn't know anything about the techniques of individual hunters, though some sports fans talked of little else. "Why not?" she shrugged.

"It's Amanda Blake."

Oh, great. Lose the game, fine. Pick the worst forfeit, wonderful. Now she just had to have drawn one of the few hunters who sometimes actually caught people. "Great," she echoed hollowly.

"You're allowed to use the knife in self defense," the woman continued, "and you can kill the hunter if you can. That's an alternative to escaping, if you kill or injure her you can return when you like. Can I give you some advice?"

"Why not," said Rachel, still feeling shaken.

"One of her runners tried that. Figured a bow was no use at close quarters so he ambushed her. She walked into it, he probably thought she didn't know."

"Didn't work, huh?"

"Had his balls for supper. No offense. Use the knife as a last resort, don't confront her if you can possibly avoid it. Try to stay out of sight and don't get cocky, ever. You still have a damned good chance, even against her, if you don't get silly." The woman's expression softened as she took in Rachel's pale, pretty face. "I've got a daughter about your age. Don't let the big bitch get you."

"Somebody mention me?" came a cheery voice. Rachel turned and knew at once who it was. Tall, almost six feet, red hair, green eyes and built like a Gladiator or one of those sword and sandal heroines. Red Sonja by Boris Vallejo, but not so shy and timid. She strode forward and held out a lean, strong hand. "I'm Amanda. You're Rachel Jones, aren't you? My quarry? Pleased to meet you."

Rachel shook hands. Amanda's grip was strong but not crushing. She didn't play that sort of game, Rachel noted. It was not a reassuring thought. "Yes, I am. Charmed, I'm sure."

Amanda appraised her frankly. Slender but fit looking, short dark hair, warm brown eyes in a face that was pretty without being vapid. "Nice," she said. "Good legs. You're not going to run with that towel round your waist are you?"

Rachel removed it without a word and put it on the checkout desk.

"Much better. Let the dog see the rabbit, hey? Well, good luck." She grinned. "I'll be seeing you shortly, I hope."

"Not if I see you first," responded Rachel automatically. "No offense."

Amanda laughed and strode off again. Probably to get her Valkyrie costume and six foot broadsword, Rachel thought. In fact she could have a sword if she wanted to but it seemed unlikely. Not very easy to carry. Hunters had to go on foot, just like the quarry, and were not permitted powered weapons or any tracking technology more complex than a compass and a watch. Bow and long knife, Rachel guessed. It was the usual kit and the usual got that way for good reasons.

"Better get a move on," the woman said. The clock had just passed the hour. "Your lead starts now. Get going, and good luck."

"Thanks," said Rachel and left. She wished they wouldn't keep saying that.

Once outside, she paused for a good look around. She had had a few days to study the map - it was part of the lodge's advertising kit - and she'd done her best to familiarise herself with the topography of the hunting ground, an irregular piece of varied terrain no more than three miles across. That was still plenty of space to hide in, given tree cover, and there was plenty of that. The nearest trees were a few hundred yards away across a field, slightly upslope. She set off at a steady walk, not rushing. She'd be there in ten minutes, it would be stupid to strain herself to gain two minutes. Either way she'd be a long way out of direct line of sight before Amanda even started. The woman watching her go nodded approval.

If only she hadn't signed the bloody release, Rachel was thinking. For all of the waiting and the journey here, it could still have been called off until she put pen to paper and committed herself. Silly bitch, she told herself. No, sillier bitch for wasting time with what ifs. She was here now and if she spent time and effort whining she might not get out alive. So, concentrate. Visualise the territory. Make some distance, get your bearings and keep your eyes open, girl. She'd only studied the area, Amanda had hunted it. Against that, she had the quarry's advantage. As in a court case, the prosecution had to make the running. Her hunter had to make contact, and under winning conditions. A no show was a win for her. Plus, Amanda would be carrying a heavier weapon. Fat chance that would slow that bloody Amazon down much, she thought, but it all helped. And she'd have to nock, draw and aim it while in range and line of sight to use it. All she, Rachel, had to do was avoid her with as little effort as possible and get ready to run like hell if she had to break cover. Not even a good archer could guarantee to hit a running target in a wood.

Of course, she'd been over this a thousand times in her head.

By the time she reached the trees she was perspiring slightly. It was a warm and sunny day, and the walk had been just enough to get her heart beating strongly. She was not winded or shaky, she noted with pride and relief. Under the trees it was instantly cooler and she picked up the pace just a little. There should be a path about here. Where was it? Her heart started thudding but it was only a few minutes until she found it. Distances are deceptive in a wood, she reminded herself, and you can be ten feet from a trail and not see it. Now she could make some distance before she went "off road". It would be silly, of course, to go crashing through the underbrush all the way, she'd tire herself out and leave a trail a novice could follow. There were plenty of paths, taking this one wouldn't tell Amanda anything.

The odd thing was that she felt perfectly comfortable in her outfit, now she was out in the open. It did feel a little odd being bare below the waist, but you couldn't fault the freedom of movement. Nothing impeded her stride. The doeskin top was as supple as the second skin it more or less was, it supported her breasts but didn't bind her ribs or shoulders. Ideal evening wear for the clubs, she thought, and giggled.

Stop that, she thought. Pay attention to where you are. Anything you see might help. She moved on purposefully.

Amanda was having a quiet drink in the lodge's spacious lounge when a fellow hunter dropped into a comfortable chair nearby.

"You lucky cow," was his opening gambit.

Amanda raised an eyebrow and sipped her tea. "Hello, Dave."

"I've seen her. She's gorgeous. Your quarry?" He made a face. "Why can't I ever pull one like that? And it's a live hunt. All I ever get is practice runs."

"So are most of mine, as you well know," said Amanda mildly. They both spent more time chasing volunteers for practice stalks than on real blood hunts, for obvious reasons. Any number of people were willing to do it for fun, or, failing that, a small fee. Far fewer went for the real thing.

"You get more live ones than I do."

"I hunt more than you do."

"Yes, but you sometimes actually catch them," Dave grumbled. "And now you get THAT one. Lucky cow."

"You're getting redundant."

"Sorry." He made an apologetic gesture indicating dismissal of his envy. "Think you'll get her?"

Amanda stared into space, evaluating. "Probably not. I've got a good chance, but the odds are with her." She shrugged. "Either way, it'll be fun."

"That little thing against you?" Dave stared pointedly at Amanda's physique and aped comic disbelief.

"Don't be sillier than you must. This," she indicated her body, "doesn't mean much against a woman."

"Oh, sure..."

Amanda sighed and adopted a patient tone. "If it comes to a one on one, she's already lost, unless she's Modesty Blaise in disguise. The muscle's fine against a man, they might try to fight me. It's been tried. She won't unless she has to, she's not stupid. It doesn't matter whether I outmatch her a little or a lot, she can only lose once. The trick is to catch her."

"And you merely the hunter with the highest kill ratio ever. Staunch my bleeding heart."

"Am I?" Amanda's tone was incurious.

"You know you are."

"Could be true. I don't know and I don't care. Statistics don't matter."

"Oh, right, the purity of the hunt, yes?"

Amanda gazed at him. It was a bit like being regarded by a big cat, he realised. She didn't look hostile, but you didn't want to risk anything.

"Ever read any Crowley?" she asked, her tone still mild. "I did once. Got into that occult stuff as a kid. One thing I read stuck with me, I didn't understand it then. Something about working without lust of result. I don't do this for statistics, I don't keep score. This isn't darts and I'm not a football player."

"Lust of result? Like you don't want to catch that gorgeous wench? Pull the other one."

"You're missing the point," said Amanda seriously. "In here I can think about what happens when I catch her, if I do. When I'm out there, I hunt. I am what I do, I don't think about what will happen if. If I win, if I don't, if whatever. It doesn't matter. Ifs are for now and later. If she wins I'll shake her hand. When I go out I'm going out to catch her, that's all."

"How can she possibly match that?" Dave murmured, trying for irony. It was wasted, Amanda was in analytic mode.

"She's clever," she said as if thinking aloud. "I met her. Nice girl, I like her. I don't know why she's here, a bet or a dare or something. Not suicide, no. She wants to survive. I wanted to get her scent, but now she's got mine too. She was watching me. She'll play it cool. She's scared but not panicky. She's fit, good legs..."

"I noticed."

Amanda frowned. "What?"

"What will you do if you catch her?"

Amanda smiled dreamily. "I'll eat her, of course." Her gaze wandered and passed over Dave and focussed as if she'd only just noticed he was there. He shuddered.

She glanced away, at the clock. "Nearly time," she said. Her tone was pragmatic, down to earth. "I'd better get kitted out. Nice talking." She rose and left.

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