So Jemma acted, because although this mysterious man filled her with increasing dread, she couldn’t deny that he lived the life that she desired. He was peaceful and calm all day, tending to the garden and cooking meals for the group. Whereas the monsters would pester others for food and special treatments, Jemma never saw any of the animals approach the man.
They didn’t dare. That was the only conclusion Jemma could come to.
Slowly, the man nodded, and beckoned Jemma closer. Abruptly, Jemma realized that they were within the group, and everyone was watching, and she had just volunteered for an activity that was being criticized. Even the monsters seemed interested, the 10 monsters in the inner circle (now that the crimson eagle arrived) opening one eye to regard her coolly.
But she couldn’t stop now. So, blushing furiously, Jemma walked carefully over to the man’s side. He offered her the basket, and Jemma took it with a grunt. Very quickly her eyes widened as her body, with a Strength she had raised to 19, became unable to support the basket. Huffing, Jemma did her best to control her fall to the ground, but almost instantly the man moved, his hand flashing into the basket. Abruptly, it was much lighter, and Jemma sighed with relief.
Still, it confirmed her opinion on the cook. His emerald eyes hinted at it, but he was definitely much more powerful than he let on.
What remained in the basket were 10 fruits, some long and skinny, others squat and fat. Some seemed almost like a large banana, while another was just a spiky ball that Jemma was slightly intimidated to touch.
“Are you just going to let this happen?” Kirk asked, his expression annoyed, as he turned to Lally.
The tired woman just shrugged, causing both Kirk and Heather to frown and regard Jemma and the cook with barely veiled fury.
In a very small voice, Jemma asked. “Which is for…?”
The 10 fruits seemed to glitter. Even Jemma could tell that they all were unordinary, even the spike ball. But the cook just smiled and shrugged, and pushed her forward. After a brief stumble, and a glance over her shoulder to confirm that the cook was coming with her, Jemma trotted up to the giant sheep, which was the least intimidating of the monsters.
Jemma hadn’t been close enough to see which fruit went to which animal, so she felt quite a lot of pressure to start. For a sheep…?
Very quickly she ruled out the spiky one, and the banana. Hesitantly, Jemma touched one that seemed unassuming, and immediately pulled her hand back. The fruit was warm, like the head of a child with a fever, which threw her for a loop. Not that one either, then…?
Finally, Jemma settled on a large fruit that seemed like an overripe peach the size of a basketball. She set down the basket and carefully removed the peach, and set it in front of the sheep, careful to suppress the trembling in her hands. The sheep didn’t seem to react at all, and instead closed its eyes, seeming to sleep.
For several seconds, she didn’t know what to do, but then she just picked up the basket and moved on. Next was the giant grey gorilla, and, feeling more confident now, she removed the banana and placed it in front of the gorilla.
The giant creature said nothing, but gave the cook a look that could only be described as aggrieved. The cook simply shrugged.
“Um…” Jemma squeaked, abruptly aware that the gorilla was 4 times the size of the man beside her, who was at least double her size. The trembling in her hands got worse. “Is there another one you’d prefer….?”
This time, the gorilla looked at the cook nervously. Still, the cook said nothing. Very delicately, as if afraid to set anyone off, the gorilla lowered its huge head until it was only a few centimeters above Jemma, who was holding the basket.
‘He’s going to eat me.’ The thought dominated her being, and drove out all other thoughts, even the thought to run. She was frozen there, before this monster.
But instead of biting, the gorilla sniffed. Then it blinked, leaned a little closer, and sniffed again.
The second sniff was met with a cacophony of noise. The komodo dragon hissed. The two headed lion stood and growled dangerously. The turquoise frog released a bubble of phlegm that popped audibly. But most violently, the crimson eagle screeched, taking a step forward, its wings spreading.
Very quickly, the gorilla drew back, and carefully used one of its very large fingers to point towards a purple, eggplant seeming fruit in the corner. After retrieving the banana, Jemma gave the gorilla its desired fruit and continued on around the circle.
The rest of the divvying up of the fruits proceeded smoothly, with each monster carefully peering into the basket and indicating their desired fruit. Some Jemma was able to guess, while others were more perplexing to her. For example, the turquoise frog wanted the prickly fruit, which Jemma was very careful to set down in front of it without puncturing her hand on the spikes. How would it even eat it…?
It was only on the second to last animal, the crimson eagle, that there was a problem. The eagle peeked down into the basket at the two remaining fruits, giving them both careful regard. It seemed supremely torn, its golden eyes flicking back and forth between the two options. Jemma grew intensely nervous, the shaking in her hands more pronounced. After fully 5 minutes had passed, and the shaking was starting to affect her ability to stand, Jemma felt a spurt of energy and just picked one out of the basket and set it before the crimson eagle.
Anything to end the prolonged torture.
It seemed satisfied at first, but as Jemma moved to walk away, it shrieked and pecked forward, aiming for the fruit that remained in the basket. Jemma’s body instantly lurched to a stop, unable to move with the crimson blur that was rushing towards her.
Then she had a large hand on her shoulder. The world seemed to slow.
At the edges of her vision, she could see the world falling away, fading to a blackness. There was a low mist on the ground around them. With increasing volume, a ticking rose to dominate the world around her.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The crimson eagle seemed to slow, its beak shuddering to a stop midway to the basket in Jemma’s hand, as if it was caught in some sort of bog. It shrieked again, but it contained none of the arrogance and pride that it had previously. Now it was confused and fearful. But that confusion drove it forward, a desperate rush towards the basket.
Smoothly, a finger slid past Jemma’s shoulder, sliding to meet the peck. As soon as she saw that finger, Jemma began to tremble, much more violently and uncontrollably than she had in the past. Her whole body was racked with wild shakes.
Because when she saw that finger, she didn’t see a finger, but rather a cold, sharp tip of a spear, the edge thick with the stench of death. She became hyper aware of the hand on her shoulder and the cold, vicious energy it released.
All at once, the strange images faded away, and the crimson eagle twisted and hopped backwards, squeaking plaintively. The cook dropped his finger.
Every other monster was carefully not looking at the cook standing behind her, just like Jemma wouldn’t dare turn to regard the man. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but that thick stench of death around him in that moment filled her with dread.
That’s what the world was now. The world was an empty place where only through killing can you survive.
Woodenly, Jemma turned to the final monster, the metallic dog. It was probably the most eye-catching, and the smallest of the monsters in the inner circle. The fur of the dog was a beautiful mixture of silver and copper, its teeth pitch black as it panted.
What was strange was that after Jemma placed the fruit in front of the dog, the dog ignored it and trotted towards her. She was so numb from the previous experience that she didn’t even react as the dog walked up to her.
She felt something damp on her hand and looked down to see that the dog was licking her hand. Then it looked up at her with its pitch black eyes, its concern for her clear on its face.
Jemma began to cry.