Tears stung my eyes but I couldn’t let them fall. I wouldn’t let them. The monster’s footsteps had moved past me and now, I needed to move. I was so close to the forest, so close to safety. I just had to make it there. I wasn’t sure if my salvation truly lay amongst the trees but I needed to believe it. I needed to believe that there was a way out of this.
I held my breath and tried to pick out the sounds of footsteps nearby but I couldn’t hear anything other than the occasional screams of my sisters as they died. Clamping a hand over my mouth to stifle the gasp of pain, I rolled over as quietly as I could. Tears finally sprang free of my eyes. My foot was held awkwardly but I was scared to let it touch the floor. I had no clue what I had stepped on, I just knew it was bad.
My body shaking with silent sobs and tears dripping down my face, I sat up and stared at my foot in confusion. Something almost the length of my forearm was stuck through my foot. A sharp and jagged white stick protruded from the top, the end splintered and sharp.
I knew how dangerous it was and that it was the wrong decision, but I had to pull it out. If I left it in, it wouldn’t bleed as much, however, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move as fast. It was the better option for my escape. I didn’t need to make it far, after all. As long as I got to the trees, I would be fine. There would be someone there who could help me. Some futuristic society or something that could heal a wound with just a spray or something. It was fine, it would be fine.
I wrapped one hand around the bottom of the stick, the other one holding my leg up, and looked around. The screams had quietened slightly which meant that I could hear the movement of the creatures near me, the flapping of their wings in the sky far too close for comfort. I didn’t have time to waste.
I sucked in a breath and held it before pulling as hard as I could. Nausea crashed into me and the world began to twist lazily, white spots exploding in my vision. I blinked, trying to keep my unsteady grip on consciousness. I knew that, if I were to let it take me, I would never wake up again. The monsters would find me in a puddle of my own blood and they wouldn’t hesitate to attack.
But, maybe that would be better. Then, at least I wouldn’t feel it. I would just fall asleep and never wake up. It would be over. The thought was tempting, so painfully tempting, but I couldn’t do it. I should have but I couldn’t. I wanted to live.
A shaky breath chased away some of the dizziness, making my vision clear enough for me to stare down at my foot and the stick I had clutched in my hand. I could see shards of the wood sticking out of my now rapidly bleeding wound but my hands were shaking too much to be able to do anything about it. I started to drop the wood before something about it caught my eye.
My brain couldn’t work out what I was looking at, or maybe it just didn’t want to. The stick was round, which was normal enough, but there were marks on it, gouges, as if something had been chewing it. My blood coated most of the length but some had been wiped clean when I had pulled it out.
Disgust gripped me and I looked away from it, my eyes finding the pile of bones near my feet that I had stepped on. My brain worked slowly but as soon as I realised what I had been impaled by, vomit forced its way up my throat and out of my mouth. Liquid splashed against my cheeks as I tried to be as quiet as possible, leaning over so that my face was almost touching the sun-baked ground to minimise the noise.
I had stood on the bones of my sisters. It could have been one of the girls who had been thrown out of the town during the last sacrifice. Maybe Macy. She was always so kind to me. Or even Delilah. She used to read to the younger girls when they had nightmares to help them get back to sleep. She didn’t deserve to be sent out, she wasn’t a bad person, her family just had too many kids and she was the youngest.
My heart ached, the weight of terror and sadness over the unfairness of everything physically hurt me but I needed to go on. I couldn’t just wait for the monsters to find me, not when I still had a chance. But I couldn’t run. I wouldn’t be able to stand again with the gaping hole in my foot.
Rolling onto my hands and knees, I tried to keep my foot lifted. I started to crawl, my knees hurting and my hands stinging as thistles and other sharp things tore at them. My vision was cloudy, tears and pain making it hard to see and even harder to avoid the bones which seemed to litter the ground. How many of my sisters lay in that field forever? If I got out, if I managed to survive, I will come back, I promised myself. My sisters deserved a proper burial and I would be the one to give them that. No one else would.
Blood trickled along the back of my leg towards my knee, pooling in the crevice and almost tickling me. The pain was fading, being replaced with something much more terrifying. Numbness. I could barely feel my foot. It felt like I was floating, unattached to my body.
Just above me, a harpy shrieked. I froze, my body tensing, sure that it had spotted me and that my end was here. I couldn’t move as it screamed again, the noise guttural and far too human. Maybe it once was. Maybe impure men turned into the ground-bound creatures around me, women turned into harpies.
The cry sounded again and I looked up, knowing that the moment might attract its attention. It was near but it wasn’t circling me, I didn’t think. It was too far to the right. One of my sisters must have been there. My fingers dug into the dirt. I couldn’t go and fight with her. I wasn’t able to fight at all in my current state, I would drag us both down. If she was that close to the forest, maybe she could make it even without my help.
A sudden terror-filled scream told me that she had not made it to the safety. A rush of footsteps sounded, far too close to me. They were too loud, too uncaring to be one of my sisters. It must have been a monster. That meant I needed to be even more cautious, it was too near.
I started moving again, crawling at an almost painfully slow speed and straining my ears to pick up any sounds but I couldn’t hear anything over the sobs of my sister and the ripping of her flesh. My eyes had been fixed on the ground, making sure that I didn’t lean on any bone or anything else that would make noise, but I took a chance. I needed to know where I was, if I was almost at the forest or even going in the right direction. My strength was deserting me fast and I was getting dizzy, probably from blood loss. My hands were cold and my face stung from how hard I had been crying, but I still shouldn’t have looked up.
That was my mistake.
My hand landed on something that had been covered by long grass. It held my weight for just a moment before giving way with a bone-chilling crunch. Something wet and oozing engulfed my hand, the smell reaching my nose immediately. It was rancid. I didn’t know what it was but I knew that. The stench of rotting flesh made bile rise in my throat again and I recoiled back, dragging my hand out of whatever it had been in.
Thick, congealed and bug-infested blood clung to my fingers, gleaming dully in the light of the full moon. I could feel the bloated white creatures wriggling on my skin, delighting in the fresh blood that welled from the cuts on my hand. I reacted automatically, crawling backwards and trying to rub the gore off of me.
I wasn’t paying enough attention to how I was moving and my injured foot hit the ground. White hot pain shot through me and a hiss escaped my gritted teeth before I could stop it.
It was quiet, so quiet. The noise was barely even audible in the night. My fingertips hurt as I gripped the ground as hard as I could, begging myself not to make another noise or move at all. Tears dripped from my chin onto the ground and I couldn’t breathe. My chest ached from the strain. The world was silent, waiting with bated breath, to see if I had been caught. My racing heartbeat was the only thing I could hear other than the soft susurration of wind through the dry grass.
Please, I begged of the One Who Sees All, please let me live.
Hope started to grow in me. Maybe He had listened to me. Maybe He had viewed my soul, seen how much I wanted to live, and judged me worthy. I truly thought for a moment that I was going to be safe.
Just above me, a harpy cried out, the noise victorious. My brief reverie was shattered as pounding footsteps started racing towards me. I was out of time, they knew where I was.
I started moving again, not caring about being quiet or careful anymore, I just needed to move. The forest was so close, if I could get there—
I never had a chance to finish that thought. Something crashed into me, landing heavily on my back and forcing the air out of me. My limbs sprawled outwards and I smashed into the ground. I was taught to give up once the monsters found me, to not fight and make it easier for them. They’d caught me, after all. They deserved their prize.
I couldn’t do it though. I buckled, ignoring the pain in my foot and hands, slamming my elbow back into any part of the creature that I could. It was surprisingly solid and I don’t know where I hit but the monster on my back let out a bloodcurdling roar.
My hair stood on end and a whimper slipped out of my lips as a hand threaded into my hair. I tried to fight against it, feeling my hair being ripped free from my scalp, but it was too strong. I couldn’t escape. The thing wrenched my head to the side, exposing my neck.
They told us we would feel peace. I should have been feeling peace, not pain. I never truly believed them but I wanted to. I was meant to be welcomed by the One Who Sees All, they promised us we would be! I suspected it was a lie but now I knew. I could feel everything.
A final burst of adrenaline exploded in me as a long jagged claw trailed gently down the side of my exposed neck, catching the tender skin there. I tried to flail again, tried to dislodge whatever monster had caught me, but it was useless and I was so tired.
I fell still, my resolve crumbled. Nothing had worked. The creature hadn’t even moved. I could hear footsteps around me, even over the gasping sound of my breath. More had found me, they were simply waiting their turn to feast.
It was hopeless. There would be no divine intervention. The One Who Sees All, if he even existed, had not seen me. Either that or He had seen me and chosen not to act. Maybe that was intentional. We were sinners, my fellow sisters and I. It was true. We had become sinners, made bad decisions, but more than that, we always had been.
We were born at the wrong time, to the wrong people. We were unwanted, brash, outspoken. Wrong. We were always destined to die from the moment we were born. We’d either die at the hands of our parents, the priest or the monsters who were currently circling me and waiting for their turn to feast on my body. There was no point in struggling. I’d rather die at the hands of those monsters and rob my family and that priest of the satisfaction of seeing me die. It was better. It was my choice.
I wept freely, ignoring the jeering noises from around me. Why hadn’t they done it already? Why wasn’t I dead? What were they waiting for?
I needed to know though. I needed to know how close I had been to salvation. Struggling against the fist in my hair, I looked up desperately. Another sob escaped my lips. I was so close. I had almost made it.
My gaze locked on something in the forest. There was something there, hiding in the shadows. Eyes, barely visible in the low light, were staring back at me. They weren’t moving. They were just standing there watching me.
“Help!” I tried to shout but it came out as a whisper, causing the creatures around me to laugh cruelly.
I felt breath touch my neck as the monster on my back leaned down to whisper in my ear.
“I prefer it when you fight,” it growled, its voice barely human. “It makes it much more fun for me.”
Weakness washed through me and I tried to look at the eyes again but they were gone. I was truly alone. The fight left me and my head fell down again. It didn’t matter what I did. I was still going to die.
Suddenly, air rushed back into my lungs and my head was yanked up as the weight was flung from my back. I choked, not expecting it, but immediately began scrabbling forwards. My foot throbbed but I ignored it, trying to get as much space in between me and the monsters around me. I expected them to try and stop me or do something but they didn’t and I didn’t wait around to find out. This was my chance, I could reach safety.
Horrible noises filled the field around me, a hundred times worse than the sounds of my sisters dying. Growling, panting, ripping noises and the sounds of bones crunching surrounded me. There was something else though. Under the deafening cacophony of violence, people were sobbing. Strange mewling cries sounded before being snuffed out but they didn’t sound like they were human. Was it the monsters? Surely not. It couldn’t be. They didn’t die, they couldn’t. Could they?
But I refused to make the same mistake again. I would get to safety and then look back.
My arms trembled with the sheer effort of moving. My back ached, my heartbeat pounded painfully in my foot and my entire leg was sticky with blood. I could feel the wind blowing against it and the occasional long strand of grass stinging as it stuck to it. But still, I continued dragging myself forwards, ignoring the noises from behind me.
Finally, the grass started to clear slightly and I was in the forest. Branches snapped under my hands and knees but I didn’t stop until I reached an old, wizened tree. I sat carefully, my back against the trunk and stared out at the world.
My village could barely be seen in the background, far across the overgrown field. Harpies still circled in the sky above, crying loudly and angrily, but I was protected by the thick canopy of trees. They wouldn’t be able to reach me easily. No, I was more worried about the lumbering not quite human creatures.
I tried to peer through the grass and see what was happening there but the wind was agitating it too much. I couldn’t see. I needed.
Looking around, I found a thick fallen branch just to my left, still spotted with bark. I could use that, I would need to. The only way I would be able to see what had happened would be if I could stand and I couldn’t do that alone. Checking my surroundings once more for monsters, I reached out for the stick.
It was huge and heavy but maybe I was just exhausted. I was able to pull it closer and position it so that I could stand. My limbs were clumsy, they moved too slowly and felt uncoordinated, but eventually, I managed to get my good foot under me. Leaning heavily against the trunk, I dragged myself upright and stared out at the world beyond the forest.
My mouth fell open.
The grass where I must have been just minutes before was now flattened in places and coated in red. Blood. There were chunks too. I could see that from where I was, even with how dark the night had become. And there was something in the middle that was still moving.
A giant black shape, nothing more than a shadow, stood over a whimpering monster. It growled as it ripped the flesh from the creature’s body before finally closing its jaws around the monster’s throat. It fell silent.
I should have been scared. I should have taken the opportunity to run away but I couldn’t. Curiosity, something I had long been accused of, was pulling at me. I couldn’t see what the dark shadow was but one question floated through my mind. Was it a gift from the One Who Sees All? Had He listened to my prayers and saved me? If so, I couldn’t run.
I staggered forwards, leaning heavily on my crutch and trying not to put any weight on my still-bleeding foot. The ground was uneven and hard to navigate but I kept moving towards the divine creature as it continued to feast on the remains of the monster sent from the One Below. Even the harpies stayed away, seemingly sensing its purity.
It wasn’t until I was a mere metre away from the shadow, which was almost as tall as I was, that it fell still. I stopped moving as well, panting from the effort of walking, and stared at the beast as it rounded on me.
Blood and viscera flecked its muzzle and I couldn’t look away from its black eyes as it closed the distance between us. It examined me shrewdly and I realised that it was the creature that had been watching me from the forest as I had been attacked. I had cried out for help and it had answered.
Did that mean that it was not a gift from the One Who Sees All?
No, it couldn’t be, I realised as I stared at the demon in front of me. We had been taught about that creature. A giant creature, almost dog-like in shape, that roamed the Land Below, attacking people at will. It belonged to the One Below. It only left when He sent it out to hunt down a person and bring them to the Below for some horrifying reason.
But the dog wasn’t attacking me. It stood in front of me, its head cocked to the side as it examined me carefully. Was it checking to make sure that I was the person the One Below wanted? Had He chosen me?
Why? And why would the dog have killed all of the monsters and protected me? Were they not sent from the One Below too?
I should have been scared, I should have been terrified, but my hand barely shook as I lifted it to stroke the dog’s head. I felt no fear and I knew that I would follow the dog wherever it led me but one question ran through my mind. Was I the lucky one for surviving or were my sisters because they were allowed to die?
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A lifelong dreamer, I focus on sci-fi, fantasy and dystopian novels which allow me to disappear into new worlds.
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