I was still dreaming when they came for us. Groggy and sleepy-eyed when I heard that awful sound, that screeching, biting, gnawing noise that rings in the darkest depths of my memories. Every time it rang through our homeland we knew that death would soon follow, Every time that piercing cry erupted through the trees and fields I knew that I would lose a brother, or a sister, or a daughter or a son.
After the noise, came the birds, rushing out of the nearby woods with panicked haste, a jarring contrast to the harmonious melodies that usually filled the air. Despite my encumbered state, my instincts did not fail me. I knew we had mere seconds before they were upon us. Thankfully, the rest of my family were already awake, I was able to hastily usher them out of our home. I knew that we were going to lose someone, we always did. Once outside we made our way across the fields outside our home. We scattered into the woods nearby, no point in sticking together now, just means they’ll kill more of us.
As I race through the trees, my mind races through possibilities and frantically forms potential scenarios with a cumbersome haste. I think about the loved ones I’ve already lost, snatched in the darkness, never to be seen again. Some of us say that they are going to a better place, to paradise, where they will never want for food in their bellies or shelter from the storm again. It would be tempting to believe such fanciful notions, but we all hear the screams for help, the wailing, the unearthly, guttural cries of the great beast’s descending on their quarry.
As long as I can remember it’s been this way, since before the eldest were born it’s been this way, a constant of our existence, like the rising of the sun and the struggle of the winter. Every year they come, every year they take another few. Usually it’s the adolescents, either through lack of expertise and seasoning or some foolish youthful notion that they can hold the line and fight back. Elders only get to be elders by surviving after all, but every now and then their cunning and experience gives out to weariness and the passage of time. Those are the deaths that hit us hardest, as we rely on their guidance and wisdom to make it through.
I think about my beloved. And how strong he always seemed, leading the escape whenever that terrible sound rang through the woods. How I always felt a sense of safety and comfort in his presence, no matter what horrors fate visited upon us, together we could make it through. Last time they chose him, I can still hear him begging for mercy.
I think about my children, every time they come for us I feel a stinging, lingering guilt. I’m their mother, and I cannot protect them. I’m so utterly powerless, I can’t even cry out when they take one of my sons or daughters in case they find me too. No matter how much I want to help my babies, I have to remember that if I die, they’ll all perish. I have to press on; I have to survive, for them.
I come to a clearing, my heart is racing and my breath is shallow, I take a moment to collect myself when I notice something I should have noticed minutes ago…
Slithering up my nostrils, that awful, putrid, stench. It was an odor of death, and rage, and malice. I know it well, I know what it means, I know what comes next. I resign myself to turning around, and that’s when I see it.
One of them was less than thirty feet away, staring straight at me. An unknowable look in its empty black eyes. In the pregnant pause before the inevitable I have a mild epiphany. It looks like us, but wrong. Like some, wretched, shallow mockery of it’s quarries form. It’s skin sags loosely over a face that is at once familiar, yet wholly unrecognizable and unfathomable in its origins. Its eyes are impossible to read, I can only guess at the perverse fantasies and desires that such a creature could conjure.
Any ambiguity as to the creature’s intent vanishes immediately as a twisted smile stretches across its gaping, treacherous looking mouth. I catch a glimpse of sharp, vicious looking teeth, the flesh of its last meal hanging limply from between the jagged edges.
The beast emits a low, harsh growl, as if to warn me of its plans for me. In that seemingly endless instant I decided to make a choice. I will not let this monster take me, I will live on, I will survive.
I rush into the woods, and it signals it’s compatriots with short sharp bursts of some strange, simplistic, guttural mockery of our language. Suddenly the sound is joined by others like it, first two, then three, then more than a dozen, all at varying distances.
Despite the beast giving me a head start, it soon becomes clear that I’m being toyed with. Every moment I feel it coming closer and closer, it’s fellows not far behind it. I have little hope of outrunning them, but I might just be able to evade them.
Suddenly something occurs to me. Now that I’ve got their full attention I can make sure they don’t harm my children. If I lead them across the river then I can slip away. No one has to die.
These are my woods; I grew up playing in them, every tree, every branch, and every pathway as familiar as the memory of my beloveds smile. I know every inch of this forest. I’m sure that I can lose them. I have to lose them. For my Babies.
I come to the edge of the river and dive in, I fully submerge myself to mask my scent, and swim to the shoreline on the other side, I spot a great bush growing in the shade of a tree that seems like it should be adequate cover and clamber underneath, the sound of the Beasts growing ever closer. they soon arrive, seemingly perplexed by the disappearance of my scent. A few cross the river, while others remain behind and retrace their steps, dispersing into the woods and disappearing from sight…
…All but one, the first.
He lingers nearby, skulking, sniffing, it was hard to tell, but I could swear that he knew I was nearby. I weigh up my options. If I wait, there’s a chance he won’t spot me and move on, then I’m in the clear. I could make a run for it, but there’s a good chance they’ll just run me down. Either way, my babies should be safe by now…
I decide to play it safe, there’s no point in getting myself killed pointlessly. The Beast is still lurking near the bank, his murderous eyes darting around with steadily rising aggravation.
He disappears from sight, but I can still smell him, still hear his panting and grunting. I weigh up whether or not it’d be worth trying my luck when he reappears right in front of me. I stifle the urge to cry out in fear. It’s hard to tell whether he’s toying with me again or simply hasn’t noticed me. He sniffs at the edge of the bush briefly, then turns around and ambles off, disappearing amongst the trees.
I wait another couple of minutes, my mind racing from subject to subject. What if he’s just toying with me and waiting to pounce? what would my beloved do? are my babies okay? is he watching me right now?
With considerable caution, I take a step out of the bush. I look around, nothing.
I sniff the air, I can smell them all around, the air is thick with them, but I can’t see them anywhere. I take another step.
I can hear birdsong again, the air has grown still after the chaos of the chase. I have to find my babies. I make my way towards the river, thinking about those ridiculous stories about the beasts taking my brothers and sisters to a better place. Anything to escape the truth, anything to avoid the uncomfortable reality of our existence. We fancy ourselves free as the birds above us, but we’re just playthings…
My train of thought was approaching a conclusion when I felt a sharp pain in my side. Suddenly I find myself forced to the ground. In my moment of reflection the beast had snuck up on me, sinking it’s fangs into my side and clamping it’s jaw shut. By some miracle I muster the strength to push it off, and dive into the river.
I swim for dear life, moving with the current and heading downstream as far as I could, away from that monster. I do everything I can to ignore the pain as my wound makes every stroke absolutely agonizing. I was losing a lot of blood. I needed to get out of the Water, now.
I somehow managed to drag myself back on to the riverside. I fight the urge to collapse from the pain and exhaustion, not yet, I needed to make sure that my Babies were safe first.
I make my way through the woods, they seem to be completely peaceful now, the birdsong is ringing out almost defiantly now, rapturous in the return of peace to the forest, and with barely any blood spilled. for the first time in a long time, we’d all escaped.
I make my way through the forest when I hear a familiar voice cry out to me, one of my Babies! I run up to my child and embrace her, and feverishly ask where her siblings are, she says she doesn’t know, so I decide that we should find them together. We are about to set off when the noise rings through the forest, clashing discordantly with the panicked screams of the Birds as they take off into the safety of the sky again.
The gnashing, gnawing, biting sound is soon followed by another, the unmistakable cry of the beasts, even more of them than before, and growing steadily louder.
As the Noise rang out again I heard a third sound, the one sound in this world that filled me with more dread than the other two combined. A harsh, cacophonous rumbling that shook the very ground as it approached.
I realized then and there that I wasn’t getting out of this, they could smell the trail of blood from my wound, and were coming this way. Fast. I tell my Daughter to hide somewhere and close her eyes until the noise stops. I then brace myself, and start to run.
If I’m going to die, I’m not going to make it easy.
My feet pound away at the dirt beneath me as I push myself as far as my battered body will take me. I run through ditches and thorny bushes, cutting myself further, doesn’t matter, I won’t give them the satisfaction of a pretty corpse. I can hear the panicked yelps of the monsters, caught in the thorns, falling on top of each other as they try to rush over the ditch. I have to admit; hearing them cry out gave me a sense of satisfaction, if I keep this up I might even-
I feel a searing pain in my leg. Something incredibly hot and incredibly quick just burned a hole in it. I fall to the ground, and immediately every cut, every scrape, and the crushing weight of fatigue hits me all at once. I can’t move, I can barely breathe, and they are closing in.
The Beasts circle around me, flashing their teeth mockingly and taunting incessantly. I just want them to hurry up and do it. End it now, yet still they toy with
me. At the end of it all, I am just a plaything.
Suddenly the noise rings out, one final time. The beasts directly in front of me disperse. As the architect of the third noise made itself known.
A great, strange creature, with many legs, and many heads, shifting amorphously as it drew close. Eventually it stopped in front of me and spread out around, far and wide, expanding until it totally surrounded me in a sea of brown, red, black and white.
The heads chattered to each other in some strange tongue I couldn’t comprehend, immeasurably complex and nuanced. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew that they were mocking me.
One of the lesser Beast’s apparently decided that they had waited long enough to sate their bloodlust, and lunged at me, one of the heads harshly scolded it, and it backed away, cowed into submission by it’s master.
It was then that I saw the reality of my situation.
I thought I had reached some grand epiphany, that my kind were playthings for the beast’s amusement, now I see that the truth is so much worse. The beast’s that we had been raised to fear and revere, whose transgressions formed the foundation of our very culture were little more than playthings themselves. Set against us by the true masters of our destiny.
As my eyes slowly close, and the spark of life departs my broken body, it all becomes clear, at the end, in my final moments I am more awake, more alert, more aware than I ever have been.
I am just another Fox, and this is just another hunt.
By R.R. Molyneux