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Author's Chapter Notes:

To kick off I think it makes sense to share the opening of the serial running at the time of posting! So here's the start of THE LOST TOUR GROUP, a contemporary shrinking adventure with potential for riotous growth later. This opens as a fairly light romp with a group of backbackers exploring an untouched patch of Australian rainforest. Where things obviously escalate, and they find themselves terrorised by the least responsible member of their group...

“We should wait for her,” Jamie said with concern, trotting to keep up with the rest of the group. She was torn between hanging back to make sure Abi caught up, and the fear of getting separated from the others herself. Deep in the rain forest, with barely a path to follow and animals making all sorts of weird noises nearby, this wasn’t somewhere you wanted to be alone. Jamie didn’t even know half the things they might find out here, except that, being Australia, everything was probably deadly.

At the back of the group, a little way further up the path, the German guy, Hansel, glanced back, but his apologetic smile said they’d best keep moving. Cliff was continuing through the undergrowth, impatiently snapping his way through branches that got in the way, as they sought out the legendary Scarlet Pool. Everyone saw the green lakes and the bright blue lakes and the perfect white sand of Fraser Island, but a rare few found the tiny purple waters of Scarlet Pool. And adventure was the whole point of such a tour, Cliff had insisted from the start. They had been grouped together in one big jeep for three days on the world’s largest sand island, to explore its dense forests and weird natural phenomena. Three couples and Abi, a lone traveller who’d immediately clashed with super-organised Cliff when she’d joked about where the best pubs on the island were. They’d all brought alcohol, but she was drinking more than anyone, and – to Cliff’s greatest anguish – slowing them down.

The trip to Scarlet Pool meant a long hike with the jeep left behind, and it required a lot of focused navigation. It took half the day to find the lay-by that fed into the (supposed) path, and Cliff had been worried about making it to the pool and back before dark. Some of them, Jamie included, were worried about finding the pool at all, given that the directions were gathered by mouth from different, unreliable travellers. So when, after about twenty minutes or so of walking, Abi realised she’d left her beers behind, tensions were already high. No one stood up for her when Cliff gave his ultimatum: leave the beers or go get them alone. They wouldn’t wait.

Of course, Abi refused to leave the beers. There was no chance she was going to, after the way he spoke to her. But she smiled to irritate Cliff that little bit more, and insisted she’d catch up shortly. That had been almost an hour ago, and Jamie couldn’t help imagining the worst. Dingoes hunting her down, deadly spider bites, rabid monkeys, who knew?

And it didn’t help Jamie’s unease that there was no obvious way of telling if they were even on the right track. Cliff marched stubbornly on as if he knew what he was doing, because that was his manner; tall, handsome Cliff, showing off muscles in his sleeveless top and short shorts, his head shaved smooth. The sort of guy you could easily follow, never mind that he was being a bit of an arse. His friend Drew, broader but a little shorter, with a head of auburn hair swept to one side, did a good job of keeping everyone calm with subtle reassurances. Then there were the German couple, Hansel, short and round featured, and his wife Elke, taller and angular with curly dark hair; they didn’t say much, happy to go along with it all. Leona, Jamie’s travelling partner from back in the UK, was too smitten with Cliff to kick up a fuss, leaving only Jamie to complain. Jamie, short and a bit stumpy, plain-looking with hair that fell flat in this heat, had a hard time getting anyone’s attention. So, typically, when she worried about Abi, no one cared.

Sighing down her concern, Jamie picked up her pace and considered checking if Cliff was alright navigating. She heard him huffing annoyance ahead as he clambered through a dense bit of foliage, and decided to leave him be. Hopefully they were leaving a messy enough path for Abi to follow, but with luck the boys would give up and turn back soon. It was only a purple pool, after all.

“Ah ha!” Cliff pronounced though and Jamie raced to see what he’d found. “This. Yes. I’m sure this is the right way.”

She slowed again, realising that he had not found the pool.

“Through here, everyone. Gregor said something about twin rocks, didn’t he?”

Jamie followed Hansel out from the trees to see the rock wall that Cliff had found. He was beaming as though he’d found the pool itself, instead of an obstacle tangled with vines. Thankfully, there was a gap, about shoulder-width wide, creating a dark passage they could squeeze through.

Drew leant into it, and his voice echoed inside when he said, “I don’t know if I’d call these twin rocks. And didn’t Gregor say we’d see them to the left when we came off the road?”

“Gregor was high as fuck, what’s it matter?” Cliff said, even though he’d been the one to bring up the Dutch backpacker who’d provided the supposed directions. “This is it, definitely.”

He was doubling down on his confidence to make up for not knowing where the hell they were, Jamie was sure. They’d probably creep into that passage and get tangled in poisonous spider web or something. She said, “Well if we’re that close maybe this would be a good place to stop for Abi. She could easily miss this.”

Cliff’s face went stony at the mention of her name, making Jamie regret speaking. Leona, at his side, shook her head. She’d already had a word with Jamie the night before, when Cliff and Abi had almost got in a fight: not our problem, Leona had insisted, meaning don’t upset Cliff more. Her expression said the same thing now. But Jamie quite liked Abi; the girl, an Australian, was loud, but also funny, relaxed, and beautiful. Cliff was way too serious and Abi alone had been calling him up on it. This was a holiday, after all – it was supposed to be fun.

But Jamie didn’t want to upset Leona, either, and if that meant keeping Cliff calm until they found this pool, or letting him give up on his own steam, then so be it. She sighed. “I mean. Yeah she’ll probably see we came this way.”

“I will mark the rock,” Hansel said, and found a stone on the ground.

“Do the honours?” Drew suggested to Cliff, gesturing into the gap. Cliff smiled, smugly, and ducked inside. It was a tight fit for him, and even tighter for Drew, who followed Leona in. Elke muttered something to Hansel as he scraped an arrow marker by the entrance, then she went in with her arms folded. Jamie gave a last look back through the trees, not sure exactly which way they’d come from now. No signs of movement behind her.

“She will catch up,” Hansel promised. “I am sure she is not far away.”

Jamie gave him a grateful smile and he gestured for her to go ahead, so she entered the rocks too. It was strangely chilly inside, though not an actual cave. She followed Elke’s shape, squinting through the dark to make out the exit. Quite a way off, it seemed, but an opening nonetheless. Cliff’s voice echoed around them, instructing the others on getting out. Jamie felt it get even cooler and shivered a little, rubbing her arms. The rock walls got further apart, and taller. She craned her head back, appreciating just how high they went – good thing they hadn’t had to climb over. Footsteps came alongside her and Hansel walked past with a wink, to meet Elke, and Jamie noticed just how big the passage had become – wide enough for him to pass her. The stones were massive; there would’ve been no chance of climbing them. If this really was the way to the Scarlet Pool, and it was the only way through, then it was no wonder so few people found it.

“It’s incredible,” Leona said, lifting Jamie’s spirits at last. They’d found something! This had been worth it. She moved quicker, but realised the opening ahead was further off than she’d first expected. The Germans slowed down by Leona, all looking up, and Jamie followed their gaze as she reached them. The trees were bigger on this side of the rocks. Much bigger. Like, sequoia big, if not more – only also covered in the oversized lively madness of rain forest vines and weirdly shaped leaves. The canopy had to be hundreds of feet high, maybe more.

“There’s a ledge by you Hansel,” Drew called up, and Jamie spotted him below them – a long way down. The passage didn’t open up at ground level, but onto a small cliff face, about thirty feet up. It hadn’t felt like they’d climbed at all, and she noticed too that there were great fallen tree branches near Drew, thick as logs, leaves you could cover a car with. How was everything so big here? The others weren’t stopping to ask, with Hansel helping Elke down the rocks following Drew’s instructions. Leona gave Jamie’s hand a light squeeze and smiled to say this was all going to be okay. Worth it. Then she followed them, and Jamie distantly fell in behind.

“This is perfect,” Cliff announced. He was walking through a clearing, a wide space of forest floor between impossibly thick tree trunks. “It’s just like Anton told us, isn’t it? You can’t miss the final approach.”

Jamie frowned. No one had said anything about giant trees or climbing cliffs, and this was a liberal interpretation of an unmistakable final approach. For one, despite its size, the woodland ahead looked no more navigable than what they’d passed before. Definitely no sign of water. But she focused on climbing down, not to be left behind again. When she reached the ground, Drew held out a hand and gave a charming smile. Jamie patted herself down, smiling back awkwardly. They wandered into the clearing together, necks bent far back to appreciate the scale of this part of the forest.

“I had no idea Fraser Island was this big,” Drew commented, and Cliff tutted back at him.

“K’gari is full of wonders.” He said it like this was exactly what he’d expected, even throwing in the correct name to sound more convincing. That was a good sign, though; Abi had corrected them all on the island’s real name a few times, and Cliff wouldn’t concede to using it, to spite her. If he was saying it now, even with her not around, his mood must’ve improved. “Now, I reckon we keep going this –”

Leona screamed with shrill terror that froze Jamie’s blood. It pierced the trees, echoed down the passage, and sent a bird violently squawking. Drew and Elke gasped and Cliff swore loudly as the others spotted what she’d seen, before a movement revealed it to Jamie: ahead of Cliff, coming around a tree trunk, was an actual damn monster. She shrieked and moved back, hitting the rocks, as Cliff fell on his arse and kicked away from it through dirt and leaves. Hansel darted forward, spreading his arms to shield everyone else, saying, “Back, get back!”

Drew pulled Leona alongside Jamie and they watched with shock.

The creature was the size of a horse. Kind of. It had thin, angular limbs, lanky and moving with mechanical, alien motions. It almost blended in with the bark of the tree, like a stack of logs and branches had come to life, except for two long antennae bouncing about ahead of it. Cliff froze where he was as Drew hissed at him to run.

The thing scuttled around the tree, its long legs clicking against the bark. It blended in, motionless beside the antennae twitching, testing the air. It didn’t seem to be interested in them, coming no closer. But it was terrifying all the same – bigger and more monstrous than anything Jamie had seen. Only, there was something vaguely familiar about it. Something she’d seen earlier in the week, outside a hostel in a different rainforest. The idea brought with it the adjective harmless. It didn’t look harmless. It looked like it could pull them apart, or at the least carry them away. But she whispered it out loud: “Stick insect?”

“What?” Drew replied.

Jamie shrugged. It was Australia, anything was possible with the insects here. Though . . . not ones that grew six feet long. Someone would’ve warned them about that, surely?

Cliff squeaked in fear and scrambled over the floor as the creature moved again, but they all watched it skitter up the tree. It moved with frightening speed and power, climbing twenty feet then running around the side of the tree, out of view. For a moment, the group stared in collective shock at the space it had occupied. Cliff slowly sat up, his dark-skinned face about as pale as it could go, eyes bulging.

“That . . .” he said, shakily, “was . . .”

“Incredible,” Drew suggested.

This put a smile on Cliff’s face and he jumped up, nodding vigorously. “Hell yeah it was! I have never seen anything like that.” He pointed at the others. “None of you have! What’d I tell you? I knew this would be worth it.”

With his growing elation, fear translated to excitement, Leona and Drew laughed and joined in too, commenting how scarily big it was, how they almost shat themselves. Jamie smiled weakly, thinking it might be too soon to celebrate whatever the hell they’d seen. She had a really bad feeling about this.

Hansel edged away, watching the tree. He said, “I think we should turn back.”

“What?” Cliff cut off the laughter abruptly. “Are you serious?”

“We do not know what that was. Or how dangerous it was. This does not feel safe.”

“I agree,” Elke said. “We have seen enough.”

Cliff glanced back towards the insect’s tree. He looked torn between being macho and pushing for them to go on, and admitting to his fear that had been evident minutes before. With forced reluctance, he said, “Well. If you guys are worried, I suppose . . .”

“I want to see the pool,” Leona blurted. Jamie could’ve slapped her. But she had a wicked, challenging smile on her face, the same she used when encouraging Jamie to talk to boys at bars or go skinny dipping. “This could be our craziest day yet.”

“It already is,” Hansel said. “But it is fine. You can carry on to the purple water. We will meet you at the truck.” He glanced at Jamie to suggest she was welcome to come.

“We shouldn’t split up,” Cliff said. The surprise probably seemed like an easy way out of admitting he was lost. “Leona. If they’re worried –”

“Oh we can handle ourselves,” Hansel said. Bless his frank nature; Jamie was definitely leaving with them.

“I’m curious what else is ahead,” Drew said, though. “I mean, we just saw a freaking beast. That’s what we’re here for, right?”

“The next one might not be so friendly,” Elke warned.

“Ah, give over. You know the bigger these things are, the less dangerous, right? It’s the tiny insects that are most poisonous.”

“Explain crocodiles,” Elke replied.

“Well, I’d be less scared of a crocodile ten times the usual size,” Drew said, obviously.

“What?” Jamie frowned, trying to follow his logic. Would a giant crocodile be more scary or easier to avoid? Drew grinned, enjoying the tease, and looked like he had more to say, probably something crude. He didn’t get to say it, as something massive hit the ground nearby.

The rocks shook slightly and Elke and Hansel moved away from them, looking up with surprise. Jamie joined them in shifting into the clearing, with the other three closing in to reform the group. The sound came again and again, getting closer, louder, like something truly enormous was stomping through the forest. They looked in its direction, unable to see it through the trees. Were there huge machines at work out here? Or worse? Jamie wondered if the others were picturing a giant crocodile. Had Drew’s suggestion invited it into this unreal space and made it real?

“Guys, are you here?” Abi’s voice came through the trees. From the direction of the massive thumps.

Jamie surged forward, fear propelling her, and shouted, “Abi over here! What the hell is that sound?”

But as the booms continued, Abi’s voice came again, louder, high up. “Come on you arseholes, quit hiding!”

“What’s going on?” Leona demanded shrilly. The ground quaked, the thumping now crunching through nearby leaves, branches. They were unmistakably giant, unstoppable footsteps, and a vast shape thicker than the trees came into view. Humanoid.

Jamie understood completely, all at once, and imagined the others did too, but they all they stared in mute, shocked denial as they watched the giant approach. The forest shook around them from the monster’s huge movements.

“Back! Move!” Hansel shouted, just before it arrived, and they stumbled back against the cliff. Just in time, as the thumping reached their position and the monster stepped into full view. A tower of a person, with thick, bare legs stretching into the sky – where they disappeared into denim cut-offs. A foot landed near the group and Leona screamed again, everyone huddling together. Jamie was wrapped in Drew’s strong arms as they looked up together.

It was human, a foot bigger than their jeep with boulder-sized toes on show, though relatively slender, in flip-flops. Thongs, Jamie thought, unbidden. Abi called them thongs. Bright blue sandals with a strap between the big and second toe. The sole, a centimetre or less on a regular flip-flop, was at least a foot high.

What did that make Abi? Jamie asked herself, trying to take in the titan of a woman. Because that’s who it was. Irresponsible, shunned Abi, caught up at last, but in an unimaginable scale. Over a hundred feet tall? No, Jamie corrected herself. With the huge trees around them, the big leaves, that monstrous stick insect, the reality was much worse. Abi wasn’t a giant.

They had shrunk.

And the problem was compounded when Abi’s big voice announced she had spotted them: “Ho-ly fuck.”

Chapter End Notes:

That's it for now on this one – sorry it just touches the surface of what's to come! It's only available as a serial right now, here https://www.patreon.com/posts/lost-tour-group-103030005, but the full book will be out once I've finished it.

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