Monday, October 12, 2015

The Hunting Grounds

Hello! Karin here with our second installment for FRIGHT FEST 2015.

It's kind of tough following in the footsteps of our very own Mistress of Noir, Cybelle Greenlaw. She kicked off this event with a super-creepy story about death and reanimation. If you haven't read it yet, check out last Friday's post. You won't regret it. (Unless, of course, you'd like to get some sleep tonight.)

Here's my feeble attempt at meeting the bar. It's from a new work in progress, an urban fantasy called The Hunting Grounds. Everything's still a little rough around the edges here, but I hope that doesn't keep you from enjoying the scary stuff.

Trick or Treat!

The Hunting Grounds


A sallow-faced man catches my wrist and yanks me toward him. His skin hangs on tired bones. His hair is thinning and white. He looks starved and weak, but his grip hurts.

“What is this?” Pressing a dirty fingernail along my forearm, he opens a stinging scratch from elbow to wrist. The welt fills with blood. His gaze snaps back to my face.

“Let go!” Shadows seem to swallow my voice. There is no force in my lungs. I don’t know where I am or how I got here.

“You bleed!” Cradling one arm, he rocks back and forth, raking nails down his arm and whimpering.

“Look,” he says. “Look.”

I watched riveted, unable to turn away while he shreds his skin. Pieces of flesh spool like ribbons from his arm.

“Don’t,” I beg.

He weeps without tears. “It hurts, but it does not bleed!”

I kneel next to him, put a tentative hand on his emaciated shoulder.

He flinches and pins me with a hollow-eyed gaze. “You aren’t one of us. Are you one of them?”

Fear wells in my heart like a sulfur-hued mist. “One of who?”

A low hum pulses through the ground. The man pushes his flesh back into place. Wild eyes dart from side to side.

“What is it?” I ask. “What’s that noise?”

“Run.” He scuttles off, voice squeaking through the shadows. “Run and hide.”

I stand up, straining to see into the dark. Drums reverberate through my body. My hands tighten into fists. The nails bite my palms.

I would not feel pain if this were a dream.

A presence descends upon the night, one malevolent force held in a thousand unseen faces. Wolves howl. Paws scuffle against dirt. Growls, yips, and snapping jaws unite in a savage chorus. Thunder bellows through the ground.

I crouch in fear. A rush of hot wind blows into my face. Though I see nothing, I know a predator flies overhead and circles to return.

Shadows shift. People melt out of the dark, young and old, naked like me, harrowed expressions on their faces. They lift their eyes to the sky, but the heavens are cast in shadows.

I call to a woman nearby, about my age with dark eyes and platinum hair. “What’s happening?”

She starts and shakes her head. Then she puts her fingers to her lips.

A blistering gust rolls across the plain. Massive claws descend from the sky. The woman’s screams tear through the night as she is lifted off the ground. Blackness swallows her whole.

Panic overtakes me. I become one with a stampede of mindless prey, thrust forward on a wave of terror. Monsters swoop down in our midst. People disappear, bodies broken by flashing talons. Predators leap out of the shadows: lions with faces of wolves, dragons without wings, giant centipedes that snake across the plain. They scramble after us, pounce on the fallen, snap necks and poison bodies with powerful jaws.

In all this carnage I see no blood.

Ahead of me the cries grow deeper, louder, more tortured. I fight to turn back, but it is impossible to resist the herd’s momentum. Beneath us, people have been trampled into a mat of dry flesh.

Suddenly the ground gives way.

For a moment I float, suspended over a deep chasm. Ghostly bodies drift around me like falling snow.

Then my weight returns and I descend toward the abyss.

Winged creatures soar and swoop, picking us off like sparrows. Still I plummet, deeper and deeper. I hide my face in hopes they will not see me. I pray my existence will end on the jagged rocks below.

Starting out of sleep, I choke back a sob. Tears wet my cheeks. Fear hangs fresh on my tongue.

It was just a dream.

My breath comes in harsh gasps, but my pulse begins to slow.

A dream.

Outside my window, insects murmur songs of early autumn. Leaves rustle under a soft breeze. It smells like home, of vanilla candles and fresh sage.

I sit up and reach for the water on my nightstand.

My cup is not there.

It’s just as well. I need more than water to recover from that dream. I need peppermint tea. And chocolate cake.

I walk to the kitchen in the dark. I’ve always liked the shadows of my home, the sense of confidence they give me. My fingers pass over wooden masks hung along the hall, from Ethiopia and Kenya, Brazil and Costa Rica, Sumatra and Vietnam. As their familiar twisted faces greet my touch, coherent thoughts return.

I’ll have to tell Jonie about the dream tomorrow.

Maybe I should call her now.

Flipping on the light over the sink, I fill the teapot and put it on the stove. When I opened the fridge to retrieve my cake, a knot catches in my throat. Empty trays sit in the shiny white interior. They stare at me as if I’m a stranger. Where are my fruits and vegetables? My butter and eggs? My leftover spaghetti and homemade stew?

Dread seeps into my heart.

I close the fridge and look around. One by one I open the cabinets, but I find nothing. No plates, no pots or pans, no flour or sugar or baking powder, none of my endless collection of herbal teas. With each barren cabinet my panic grows.

At last it occurs to me to look for a knife, but that drawer is empty too. I slam it shut.

Wake up.

My throat goes dry. My heart pounds inside my chest.

Wake up!

Sinuous movement breaks from the shadows. A snake slithers into the light. I recognize its dark gray scales adorned with thin black lines. This is the silent king of the tropical forest. Cascabel muda. Bushmaster.

This snake does not belong here and yet there it lays, stretched seven feet across my hardwood floor. Its muscles tense. Its giant head lifts toward me.

I sidle along the edge of the kitchen.

Bushmaster follows. Something ominous shines in its smoky black eyes. Hunger. Perversion. Death.

Helen.

I spin around but see no one. When I turn back, the bushmaster lays coiled at my feet.

Was it my name I heard, or the slither of its body against the polished floor?

The air takes on a strange liquid quality. A man steps into the light. He is tall and well built, with dark hair and opaque eyes. I recognize him from somewhere, a dream or a myth.

Before I connect image to memory, the bushmaster lances forward. Its beauty captivates me: the elegant arc of its muscled back, the precise tilt of its head, the stunning spread of its jaws. With perfect synchronicity, two ivory daggers puncture my skin. I feel the serpent’s breath against my leg, the hard ridge of jawbone behind soft gums. Its jaw contracts.

Stunned, I stumble and fall to the ground.

Fire courses through my leg. The bite turns tender and dark as venom dissolves flesh. Blisters form and bloat with blood. Tears sting my eyes.

“It’s only a dream.” I choke on the impossibility of this situation. No snake behaves like that, the deliberate approach, the unprovoked strike.

My pounding head seeks the wooden floor. Muscles twist and cramp. I cling to the aroma of polished oak as if it might hold the antidote to my pain.

The man approaches and kneels beside me. He has an odd manner of saying my name, the way he forces the H, how his tongue lingers on the N.

“Helen,” he says. “Call to me.”

The serpent snaps and hisses.

The man responds in a harsh language unknown to me. His face hovers over mine like a mist. I bat my hand to drive him away.

“Say my name,” he insists

“I don’t know you.” My tongue feels numb.

“Relax, Helen. Breathe.”

I force air into my lungs and tell my convulsing heart to steady, but the venom is fast draining me of awareness.

Remember, Helen.

I close my eyes. For one blessed moment, the world goes still. Death’s cloak wraps around my shoulders, and I find comfort in its dark finality.

His name returns in a whisper, beginning where mine ends. There is an H, the purr of an R, a hum between my lips. His face comes back into focus.

"Again," he says. Is that relief in his eyes, or triumph?

The bushmaster lunges. With impossible speed, the man catches the serpent mid-strike. He severs its head with an unseen blade. Blood sprays everywhere.

They are of the same kind, I realize. That serpent and this man.

The snake’s body wraps around its head. Together the severed pieces retreat and heave in silence.

I wanted to drag myself away too, but my limbs do not respond.

“My name, Helen.” He takes my face in his hands. “Say it.”

But I am afraid of him now. I bite my lip and shake my head. Venom rips through my gut with the precision of a blunt blade, making me cry out in agony.

“My name, and the pain will stop.”

Tears stream down my cheeks. I force a hollow breath through my lips. The taste of bitter herbs and wild honey settles on my tongue.  

“That’s it.” His hand rests on my fingers. “Now, say it again. Once more.”

Again I exhale, crafting his name with my lips. My heart winds to a stop. His face blurs and slips away. 

Nothing remains but the void. 


3 comments:

Cybelle Greenlaw said...

Great story--I love the imagery!

Louise Turner said...

Brilliant! And horrible! Sounds like a fascinating project - can't wait to see how it pans out.

Karin Gastreich said...

Thanks, Cybelle and Louise! Glad you enjoyed it. :)