At 4:57 in the morning, I hit a stranger with my car.
Thirty minutes earlier, my best friend Morgan called me in a panic. She ran out of gas and was stranded on her way back from her family's annual Fourth of July party at their cabin up the canyon.
My boyfriend, Kenny, and I had been at a friend's house for fireworks, but there was a massive summer storm that came out of nowhere, so we went back to his house for some drinks instead. Even though I felt buzzed when Morgan called me, I reasoned that I was good enough to drive. She needed our help. Plus, it’s not like anyone would be on the road at that time anyway. Kenny insisted on coming. He was worried I’d fall asleep if I didn’t have anyone with me, which was a good point, so we put on our shoes and set out to save our friend.
The rain was finally letting up as we left his place. The drive to the gas station took less than 15 minutes, but that was enough time for Kenny to pass out beside me. The parking lot was nearly flooded, but it still took me just a few minutes to buy a can of gas and then fill it up.
Kenny was still asleep when I was finished, so I turned the radio on low and lit a cigarette to keep myself awake as I climbed the mountain road.
My headlights illuminated the pine trees surrounding us. A thick fog clung to them, making it difficult to see more than 100 feet ahead of us. Water ran down the road in small streams. Some spots became more intense than others, with streaks of mud running across the road. My anxiety grew as my driving slowed and I suddenly felt like this had been a very bad idea.
Ten minutes passed since entering the canyon when the radio started fading out. We’d lost all service. I played with the dial to see if I’d pick up on anything new to fill the quiet.
I looked up from the radio and saw a huge mud pile I was about to drive into. I gasped and tried to swerve out of the way, but I knew I’d hit it anyway. I just hoped it wouldn’t make the car start sliding across the road.
Instead of sliding through the mud, however, the front end of my car jumped, the shocks barely absorbing the impact. I slammed on my brakes before my back tires could do the same.
I sat there for a moment, breathing heavily. I looked over at Kenny, who, miraculously, was still asleep. So much for keeping me company, then. I probably hit an animal, but I didn’t want to wake him up in case it wasn’t a big deal.
Leaving the car on, I stepped outside to assess the damage. The water stopped running in this spot, but the road was still slick with mud. I grabbed my phone from my pocket and turned the flashlight on. I pointed it under the car and knelt to investigate.
My stomach turned to ice when I saw a pair of boots.
I jumped back, dropping my phone in the mud.
“Shit,” I whimpered.
It was a person.
I sat there shaking, my heart pounding. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath to steady my nerves.
I had to get up and look. I ran over a person. I had to look at what I’d done.
I opened my eyes and got to my knees to reach for my phone. The light was shining on my front tire; the rim was now touching the ground. As I moved closer, something reflective caught my eye.
A throwing knife punctured the tire wall.
My brows furrowed in confusion as I whispered, “What the fuck?”
I grabbed my phone and frantically stood up to run to the other side of the car. The top of a man's head stuck out below the passenger side, and I screamed.
He seemed to be in his early thirties, but his face was so bruised and bloody it was hard to tell. The several beers I had at Kenny’s resurfaced all at once, and I vomited against the car’s hood.
Wiping my chin, I looked closer to see if he was still alive. I already knew it was pointless. He wasn’t breathing, but I felt desperate. I was a good person, and good people don’t run other people over. When I knelt to check his pulse, I saw more of his body and gasped.
Three more throwing knives were embedded into his chest.
I felt the hair on my arms rise and I swallowed, backing away from the body.
“He was already dead,” I whispered.
Suddenly, I felt like I was being watched. My eyes wide, I scanned the trees around me looking for any movement. When I was sure there was nothing, I jumped to my feet and ran back inside the car. I slammed the door, finally startling Kenny from his sleep, and immediately put the car in drive. The car moved maybe a foot before the tires got stuck in the mud, turning uselessly. Between the mud and the flat, we were stuck.
“Fuck!” I screamed, hitting the steering wheel.
“What the hell is going on?” Kenny demanded.
“We’re not safe here,” I said, my voice feeble and urgent. “There was a man in the road. I think he’s dead. I ran him over. I thought he was just some mud but I was wrong it was just so dark -”
Kenny cut me off, “You killed him?” He yelled, eyes wide and completely sober.
“No! No, I didn’t kill him! When I went to see what I ran over, I saw him. But, he had knives stuck in his chest,” I was hyperventilating. “Somebody killed him, but it wasn’t me. He was already -”
My window shattered behind me the same instant a throwing knife sunk into Kenny’s right eye socket.
Horrified, I screamed and ducked down, staring at Kenny’s frozen face. Blood ran down his cheek and his left eye stared lifelessly at the spot my head occupied a split second earlier.
I scrambled for my phone. I didn’t dare move my head to look out the window. With shaky fingers, I used the camera to see who had attacked us. It took a second for the grainy image to focus, but once it did, I lost all my breath.
Amidst the fog and the trees stood a massive, skeletal figure.
Mounted atop its exposed frame was the skull of an antelope with its dark, twisted antlers disappearing into the night. A leather bandolier of knives lay across its chest and over that lay its robes reaching all the way down to the forest floor, made out of human faces, their mouths agape in perpetual screams.
A mix of horror and reverence engulfed me as I stared at my screen. Even without eyes, I knew it was watching me.
I took a photo, knowing I’d need proof if I’d survive this, if only for my own sanity. But looking at the creature, I knew that it would be the only evidence of what happened when they recovered my body.
I was going to die here.
There was no way I could kill this thing, so my only chance of survival was to run. Slowly, I lowered my phone and inched backward across Kenny’s bloody lap, keeping my head low. When my head touched the passenger door, I carefully opened it and slipped out onto the road below. I lowered myself into a sludge of mud and the dead man’s blood and I covered my mouth to hold back a sob. Disgusted with myself, I knew I had to camouflage myself, so I scooped up the mixture and smeared it all over my clothes and face.
Before sneaking away, I had thought that maybe, the creature's knives could be used against it. It was better than my current plan, so I crawled under the car to take the knife stuck in my tire. I was almost there when I heard slow, heavy footsteps coming toward me.
Emerging from the edge of the road were two dirty, skeletal feet. Behind them, the robe of faces caught and tore on twigs and rocks upon their approach.
I couldn’t run now. Even if I wanted to, I was frozen in fear. The temperature dropped at a supernatural rate now that it was a few feet away from me. The exhaust from the car became visible, along with my breath, and I covered my mouth to keep my location secret.
It was next to the car when it stopped and stood motionless for a few seconds. Then, with a terrible sound of metal on metal, it pried the driver's door from its hinges and tossed it to the side. One foot lifted from the road and the weight in the car pushed down on top of me.
After about 30 seconds, the foot returned to the ground and the car began to jerk around above me. The feet took a few steps back and Kenny’s body fell to the ground in their place; His skinless face and one eyeball landing right in front of me.
Tears streamed down my face as I looked into the unrecognizable face of my dead boyfriend. After a second, the feet moved to the rear of the car, circling to the other side to steal the stranger's face.
I had to move now.
Knowing this might be my only opportunity to run, I grabbed the knife from the tire and army-crawled past Kenny and out from below the car. Staying low, I ran to the nearest tree and crouched behind it before peeking back at the creature.
When I looked back, the creature and both of its victims had vanished.
I looked all around me, trying to spot it, but it was impossible to see anything in the fog. Then, out of pure luck, my eye caught the headlight's reflection on one of its knives.
It knew I was here, but it was playing with me. I was its prey, and it was hunting me.
Without any real plan, I ran back to my car and jumped inside the driver's seat, my face landing in the cupholders in the center console. I looked down, saw my lighter and cigarettes, and grabbed them. I was going to have one final smoke before this thing killed me. As I stuck a cigarette in my mouth, a knife sailed through the air and landed in the back of my lower thigh.
A primitive scream escaped me and the cigarette fell from my lips. Pushing through the pain with pure adrenaline, I pulled myself onto the floor in the back seat.
I cut a strip of my shirt with the knife in my hand and tied it firmly around my thigh. I didn’t know much about first aid, but I knew this was the type of injury you could bleed out from and you had to stop the blood flow to the wound. Once it was tied tight, I wasted no time and took one breath in, steeling my hand around the knife's hilt, then exhaled and pulled it from my thigh.
It was a miracle I didn’t pass out right then. I felt faint and lightheaded as I looked up and saw the antelope head and antlers come into view through the window. Panicking, I looked around and noticed the gas can in the back seat and next to it, a box of sparklers that Kenny and I never got the chance to use.
Without hesitation, I grabbed the sparklers with one hand and stabbed the side of the plastic jug with the other. Gasoline poured onto the seat and I opened the door behind me to escape the monster. It was at the other door now, pulling it off its hinges just like before.
I grabbed the gas can and fell backward out the door. My head hit the pavement upon impact and the creature began the laugh. It sounded like it was coming from every direction.
“Running is pointless,” Its deep voice said, both inside my head and all around me.
“What the fuck are you?!” I screamed at it, fumbling with the box of sparklers. I got them out of the box and held all of them to my lighter.
“I am The Collector,” It declared, reaching a hand toward its bandolier.
The fire took and the sparklers were ablaze.
“Burn in Hell!” I shouted as I threw my makeshift torch into the gas-soaked backseat of my car, sending it up in flames. An instant later, I hurled the gas can directly through the open backseat and watched as a small explosion engulfed The Collector in flames.
I grabbed my head as it shrieked from within me. It only lasted for a moment before my still-running car exploded, launching me backward into a tree.
Everything went black.
Photo Credit: Free League Publishing Ruins of Symbaroum 5E - Player's Guide