Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Daniel Pratt

Part One

Alpha’s nose quivered as the acrid scent of disease in his prey rushed to greet him.  He hesitated a moment before signaling to the rest of the pack that the old doe was to be their mark.  If he was wrong, and she were healthy, it could mean death.  A deer could crack the skull of a wolf with one of her hooves as easily as his jaws could crush the skull of a rabbit.  This hunt was important for the pack.  The pups were just about to leave the comfort of the cave for the first time.  Luna was exhausted and thin caring for them in the den these past months and needed to recoup some of her strength.

A pained gurgle in his stomach overrode his hesitation, Alpha signaled and the pack moved in for the kill.  They moved together as a single organism.  Alpha’s only role now, was to play his part in the hunt.  One small piece of a deadly puzzle.

Grazing heads snapped up as one, and the heard began to flee toward the safety of the tall firs.  Alpha’s tongue lolled out the side of his mouth as he became one with the spirit of the hunt.  As his senses took over, he became reborn, his conscious mind moving into the background as his body took over—moved by sheer instinct.  His muscles flexing and moving in perfect synchronicity with the rest of the pack.

Three wolves broke left, cutting off the doe’s escape.  The doe panicked and put on a burst of speed, hopping over a fallen branch and darting deeper into the woods.  That was just fine.  Wolves love to run.

The wind snapped at Alpha’s nose.  It was cold.   He felt a wet trickle licking the tip of his muzzle as he willed his legs to go faster and faster, paws beating the forest floor in a steady rhythm.  This was the best part of the hunt.  Not the feast, but the chase that comes before.

The three wolves dropped back a little, allowing the doe to tire herself out—putting on a burst of speed every time she tried to change direction so she knew that she was nowhere near safe—with each pivot she would lose enough ground that she could feel the hot breath of her relentless pursuers.  She let out a fearful braying as teeth lightly raked against her leg.  The leaping wolf’s teeth snapped shut on thin air.

She began to slow.  The sickness that was eating away at her from the inside was fast devouring the last tendrils of her strength.  Worse, every move brought her further from her herd.  Further away from safety and closer to the end of her life.

Alpha saw that this doe was certainly ill and dying—she would not have seen the first falls of snow.  Alpha knew he had selected his prey well today.

Glancing to his left, Alpha saw that Beta had been steadily gaining on the struggling doe’s right flank, outside her field of vision, and was about to strike.  Beta struck.  Alpha’s heart skipped several beats as he realized that the doe had been aware of his friend’s presence the whole time as was about to end his life.  She placed a well aimed kick at his head.  Alpha let out a whine as his heart sung out in panicked horror.

Beta danced aside in mid-air with the grace and dexterity of a hawk in flight, and managed to sink his teeth into the bludgeoning leg that had nearly turned his skull into an unrecognizable stain on the forest floor.

The doe wriggled out of the jaws clamped on her leg, but it had been enough.  She crashed into the ground, and Alpha heard a loud snap as one of her legs broke.  Beta opened her throat, ending her pain quickly, the forest floor drinking away the tendrils of her life.  A murder of crows descended into the trees above.  The entire forest would feed this night.  Her life had been spent to keep the precariously balanced wheel of the forest turning.  It was a good death.

Part Two

Luna caught Alpha’s scent when he was still over a mile away, the iron sweet smell of the kill mixed with his like a beacon.  He was bringing something back for her.  She licked away the globules of saliva that began to form at the corners of her muzzle in anticipation of her upcoming meal.  The pain of hunger, a dormant fire mountain, exploded within her.  She let go an almost imperceptible whine that escaped along the soft currents of wind; a breeze that caused the surrounding forest sentinels to spring into a green dance that seemed to reflect the hunger boiling within her.

Sensing that something was happening, the pups began to yip excitedly.  One particularly brave and precocious youngster began a clumsy climb to sit on her back, then began to nip playfully at Luna’s ear leaving the others to paw at her from below.  They were hungry, too, and some of them began biting painfully at her nipples, even though her milk had dried up several turning of the moons ago.  Luna barely noticed.  She was in hunger.

Alpha dropped his prize with obvious pride at her feet and nuzzled her muzzle.  Love for her mate briefly edged out her hunger.  He was still the same proud, bold pup she had fallen for.  She let his nuzzle linger for a moment in deference to his pride before her hunger began tearing into the fresh meat with gusto.  Her stomach growled in warning to any would be scavengers.

Knowing that it was their time to feed as well, the cubs began running over to Alpha as well.  The ball of fluff perched on Luna’s back leapt down, and did a slight tumble before joining her sisters and brothers who were pawing frantically at their father.  The excited pups began to lick at Alpha’s muzzle as he opened wide, like a nesting mother robin, letting loose the extra food he had prepared for them into their hungry mouths.

Sated, Luna looked warmly at her family; she carefully worried some of the kill’s pelt from flesh, fashioning a toy for her pups.  By the time she was done, the pups had finished their meal, and were eager to play.

The rest of the pack had returned from eating their fill—leaving the rest to the scavengers, birds, and insects—and everyone joined in playing with the little wolves; lighthearted tug-of-wars that the older wolves would lose, much to the delight of the young ones as they tumbled back, victorious.

The pack’s play was a palpable shield of happiness and sheer joy that encompassed their beloved home.  A substance that was both soft and powerful, like the feathers of an enormous bird.  The forest echoed with their joy.

Sound shattered the calm.  It was like a nest of angry hornets being amplified to such an incredible volume that Luna saw the skies blackened out by clouds of angry insects in her mind’s eye, the pack’s joy suddenly shadowed in a shroud of buzzing.  She cast her gaze up, actually seeing a swarm of hornets blanketing the sky before her vision caught up to her fear, and she saw only open sky.  It wasn’t a swarm; it was a single creature shredding the forest’s calm.

The roaring buzz stung her ears, and she howled in pain along with the rest of the pack.  Their play forgotten, the pups shivered in fear behind the comforting wall of their mother and father.

One of the older wolves threw herself into the ground, wriggling and pushing her head against the hard dirt floor, trying to block out the painful sounds.  More wolves began writhing against the ground and snapping at the roaring torment of sound. 

Luna jumped at a crash that shook the earth.  Whatever was making the evil roar of sound was so large and powerful that it could rip the very trees from the earth.  She had once seen a bear bending a tree over to get at a hive of bees higher up, but that was a fairly small tree, and once the bear had snagged his prize, the tree snapped right back up to stand guard over the forest.

The sound of buzzing and giant trees falling to forest floor continued until the sun started to hang low in the sky.  The pack whined in relief as the creature terrorizing the forest finally fell into a silent rest.

The empty quiet slowly gave way to the peaceful sounds of the forest.  Luna, her mate, their pups, and the pack huddled close together in the cave as they fell into an uneasy rest of their own, certain that the creature would soon begin its violent buzzing again.

Part Three

The dark clung to Alpha’s fur like fine mist as he stalked gingerly out of the cave.  The birds still slept, but mournful cricket song kept him company as he headed out toward the source of the terrifying sounds of yesterday.

He crept along the forest floor, softly stepping over the leaves that had just begun to fall from the trees.  The crisp morning air stung his nose as he took in the sharp, wet scent of frosted dew.  The calming forest smell began to give way to a new, unfamiliar smell.  First it tickled, then assaulted his nose until his head was filled with it.  The smell convulsed against his skull, stung his eyes, and turned his stomach.  Stars danced along the edges of his vision.  He shook his head, trying to rid himself of the reek that was drowning the forest.  His heart began to quicken and throb against his ribs.  Now the stench of fear began to mix with the ripping, stinging cacophony in his nose.  He hesitated, then resolutely pushed himself further toward the source of fear.  Toward death.

All smell, air, and life were sucked out of him.  The trees were gone.  Stumps scarred the forest floor like a disease. His fear grew until it was a looming monster that hung over the air as a dense morning fog. blotting out every last ray of morning sunshine.  Such devastation; he had seen old, rotten trees felled by great winds; some young ones brought down by the sky flashes—but never anything like this.  But where had they gone?  There were no trunks, no branches.  Only the scars of stumps, some scatterings of needles and leaves stood out like drops of blood against the forest floor remained.

He could still smell them, though.  The smell of wood was so powerful that his mind was telling him that he must be trapped inside a tree.  His sharp eyes and keen nose were at war with one another.  How could the scent be so strong when they were no longer here?

A roar pushed him violently from his trance.  He ran, cowering low on his belly behind a cluster of ferns, his hackles shredding the air around him.  A blinding light stole his vision.  The sound grew louder.  Became a dangerous purr.  Stopped.  His vision began to crawl back.  His vision resolved into the form of a monster with two glowing, predatory eyes.

The monstrous beast was the color of dried blood.   It was the largest creature he had ever seen.  Taller than the largest bear, and as long as a tree is tall.  Perhaps longer.  Alpha gagged as the smell that had plagued his home grew even more oppressive—he hadn’t thought that possible—pushing him heavy against the soft earth cringing below the pads of his feet.  He was held captive by his fear.

More roars overwhelmed him, and more beasts with glowing eyes began to gather, like a pack preparing for a hunt.  Most of these new creatures would have been the largest Alpha had ever encountered had he not seen the giant first.  Alpha thought the smaller monsters must be the giant’s young joining the hunt for the first time.

Alpha stifled a gag as the sides of the creatures begin to burst open.  They were infested with parasites, he realized, as smaller—though still quite large—creatures begin pouring out of the giant growling beasts like beetles bursting out of the decaying corpse of some long dead animal.

Fear expelled every drop of breath from his lungs, his throat was torn away, he forgot how to breathe, and his heart raced like prey fleeing a predator.  Today, he was prey.

As the buzz that sounded of clouds of bees assaulted his ears, he smelled bleeding sap, and watched in horror as another great tree crashed down to earth.  The resounding roar tore through his paralysis.  Alpha fled.

Part Four

Luna was torn from sleep and thrust into the morning by a blood chilling howl in the distance.  The sound sent cascades of shivers down her spine.  It had erupting from the throat of her mate, who was stoic and fearless.  His fear infected her and radiated like ripples through the pack.  As one, they bared their teeth and raised their hackles to the dying moon above.

She first caught his scent, then saw him—her breath frozen in horror—he was running at top speed toward the place they had called home for the past several months; the place where she had given life to their young.  His eyes were white with terror, and she knew in that moment that she would never again see this place she had grown to love.

As Alpha franticly tried to communicate the danger he had just fled, the buzzing sounds from the day before begin to grow louder, rendering all explications unnecessary.  The danger was coming closer to her home.  Closer to her pack.  Closer to her pups.  Luna fled.

The pups had barely started coming out of the cave, and now, instead of being allowed the weeks of the carefree play that would help transition them into hunters, they had become prey.  Even in the best of times children were lost to the balance.  These were not the best of times.  If they lost some or even most of the growing pups, the entire pack would morn as one, but life would go on.  She hoped.  But if all the pups were lost, the pack would wither and die.

After what felt like several days, the ominous chorus of sound began to fade behind them and the pack slowed to a trot.  The children looked tired, but the fear that was present in the adult wolves did not show on their faces or in their scent.  They thought that this was a great adventure.  Maybe it was.  Her heart burned for her young; she would keep them safe.

They ranged for several more miles after the sounds, had completely faded and fell into exhausted sleep.  The sickly blackened sap of fear that they had been drowning in down began to fade into a light fog, and then a mist.  Luna slept.

She awoke to the sounds of Alpha growling softly.  The sun was bright in her eyes, how long had she slept?  She was completely enveloped by white when she first opened her eyes.  Her ears flicked as she became aware of a strange rumbling sound.  It was like a distant winter avalanche.  As she turned her head away from the bright light, she realized that she was still covered by the dark furs of night.  The moon and stars winked at her from above.  On any other night, the stars would have lulled her tranquilly back into sleep.  Tonight, she felt uneasy.

The light she had mistook for day, burned like a tiny moon.  It was coming from one of the parasites that had been stalking her young.  The parasite held the sun in its paw, and the glare of its bright eye was staring directly at her.

A shriek of alarm echoed from her heart; her body was electrocuted with fear.  More of the parasites begin to fade into the perception of her terrified eye.  One of them cast its hideous gaze on her pups.  Her fear turned to anger.  The pack ran into the night.

There was a loud bang, and then all sound and all thought was swept aside by a high pitched ringing whine in her ears.  Another bang tore through the chaos in her ears; her heart rent in two as she stumbled.  A mother knows when her child dies.  Luna ran on, howling at the uncaring sky.

Part Five

The sun pulled Alpha from his rest.  The sun was already high overhead, he couldn’t remember having ever slept this late—or being this exhausted.  They had been running for several days already.  The puppies wouldn’t survive this frantic running for much longer, and though she tried to hide it, Luna was still recovering her strength after giving birth just a few weeks ago.  The run was her first real time out of the den in months the nights hard running dragging it out to years.

Three of the older wolves, including his father, had already fallen dead from exhaustion.  As if the pack could hear his thoughts, all of the wolves lifted their heads in a single chorus, howling their mournful eulogy for their losses.

After running through the night, the pack collapsed under the dawning smile of morning, taking refuge under a small outcropping of earth and stone that was not quite a cave.  Nearby was a small laughing stream, and Alpha drank with a single-minded determination to lap it dry before the cold turned into winter.

He had led them to the place of his birth.  The spirit of the forest had guided him to back to his first home.  He hadn’t been running with any conscious purpose.  Just away.  Away from the cruel creatures and their buzzing fangs.  Fangs that ate through trees as though they were summer mushrooms.

Though he had eaten only days ago, the run had gobbled the energy from that feast down to bare bones.  He was very hungry and very tired.  The scars of a hundred hunts clawed at him as though they were all fresh wounds.

The pups were awake, but had nuzzled themselves deeper within the safety of Luna’s fur, the fear that gripped the pack had finally wormed into the hearts of his young.  A mixture of love, fear, and great frustration welled in his heart.  He let out a low, mournful howl that was almost a whine, almost a growl.  He would protect his young.  Perhaps they had already run far enough.  Maybe the hunters had given up the chase and the pack could begin to heal.

The sounds of danger broke the exhausted silence of the forest.  The glimmer of hope that had been holding back the damn keeping his sanity in check gave way.  What kind of relentless predator stalked their prey without rest?  The pack knew when a hunt was too difficult and when to go after easier game.  Had the roles been reversed, they would have given up the hunt within the first ten, no more than fifteen minutes.  Hunting strong prey made the forest weak, wither and die.

He thought of the evil glowing eyes of their relentless pursuers, and the parasites that infested them, driving the into this single-minded insanity.  This predator didn’t care e about the balance in the forest, it lusted after them as though the pack were a bitch in heat.

The parasites must have driven these giant creatures mad.  He had seen it before, animals spouting foam, not hungering for flesh, but wanting to bite, rip and kill just the same.  Once a foaming raccoon had launched itself at him, shocking him nearly to stillness before he came back to himself and ended the poor creature’s suffering.  Perhaps the predators had been driven mad by the parasites, perhaps they were driven past the point of insanity.  Perhaps they were even dying.  Could the parasites live without their giant hosts?

They had traveled nearly the entire span of forest.  Normally they would have covered this distance over the course of an entire season, but they had done it in just a handful of nights.

The evil sounds of looming death grew ever closer.  Alpha let out another growling moan tinged with the hysteria that had begun to take control of his mind.

Luna nudged his muzzle, breaking through his exhausted, frantic thoughts, and for the moment, his madness.  There was love, hope and urgency there.   Even though the fear told him it was time to curl up and die, her fire snapped him out of his fear and replaced the creeping madness with determination.  The pack ran on.

As Alpha wove in and out of trees, however, his hope fled out ahead of him and then died.  As fast as the pack was running, the sounds of danger kept drawing ever closer.  Nothing could be this fast, not for this long.  The fleetest of creatures in the forest also tired the quickest.  The things that stalked them were unnatural.  Alpha didn’t know the word for it, but in his heart, he knew that the things were pure evil.  An evil so great it had swallowed the world whole.

The forest became a blur, not because he was running, but because he was exhausted.  He shook his head violently in an effort to clear the fog that seemed to fill the world around him, and to fight off sleep that seemed to be chasing him as relentlessly as the parasitic monsters gaining behind.  Unfamiliar sounds, unfamiliar smells, unfamiliar sights.  He no longer recognized any of the land the pack was now traveling.  They were in alien territory, with an alien terror chasing, chasing, chasing.  The pack ran on.

The pack ran for what seemed like an entire season, the sun had been replaced by the moon, and the moon replaced by the sun as they continued their ragged run through the trees.  More of the pack, even some of the younger wolves had simply laid down and died.  Were it not for Luna and their cubs, he would have happily laid down beside them.

The trees began to thin around them, and then suddenly, the forest broke open onto a green field rich with purple, blue, yellow, white, and orange flowers, their stalks drooped as though they were as exhausted as he felt.  The exhaustion they all felt.  Bereft of the shade thrown by the trees, the sudden explosion of light brought him halting to a stop, stars sparkling near the edges of his vision.  The land was washed in white.  His legs stopped working.

He collapsed, belly pointing to the sky, tongue lolling out of the corner of his jaws, sweat blanketing his fur, and basked in the sun’s rays.  As his exhaustion began to slowly fade, he realized that he no longer heard the sound of the pursuing predators, nor could he catch their alien scent in the calm breeze.  The land was at rest, and finally, so was the pack.

Alpha felt tired.  No, tired was something he was familiar with.  This was an exhaustion past the point of reality.  It was better to rest, he was probably already asleep and dreaming anyway.  His eyes closed, and perhaps because he was very hungry, he dreamed of hunting caribou.

The fields that had become their new home were absolutely devoid of caribou, however.  Alpha had sent out several scouting parties, but no food larger than a rabbit or two was to be found.  It seemed they had escaped one predator right into the jaws of another.  Starvation.

As the days turned into weeks, Alpha saw the entire pack beginning to look haggard and thin.  An underfed pack is not a pack which survives.

The scouting parties began ranging back toward their familiar home, like some kind of beacon they were irresistibly being drawn to.  They returned to report finding nothing but poor hunting, and an eerily quiet forest.  Alpha resolved to search in the other direction, deeper into the tiny forests of grass and flowers.

Not wanting to spend any of his pack mates rapidly evaporating puddle of energy, he slunk gingerly away from what they had begun to think of as their new, unwanted, home under the cover of a taunting moon.

The darkness of night enveloped him as he made his way into the unknown.   He had stalked the night for maybe a half hour when the scent of damp that was not morning dew hit his nose.  He padded toward the smell, being guided as though he were a bee seeking nectar.

Lost in his thoughts, he nearly yipped like a pup when a tiny cold paw touched his nose.  He started, but nothing was there.  He felt another cold paw touching his snout, and realized that the first snows of winter had come.  If he couldn’t find a source of food today, the pack would not survive.

He pushed these thoughts aside as he continued on toward the source of the smell.  His heart soared as he entered the loving embrace of a proper forest again, and began to wind his way through the increasingly dense clusters of trees.  Soon he was among giants—verdant pines that ran far past the reach of his gaze.  A feather of snow dotted his eye.  He blinked the snow out of his eye and moved on.

Gingerly he leapt over a fallen log, no doubt an ancient sentinel finally brought low by a wicked wind.  Its life supported the small scurrying things and vegetation that clung to the forest floor.  All life served the balance.  Except the monsters that had driven them from their home.  He shuddered and pushed the shadow of that thought away as his paws carried him on.

His ears were greeted by the low babbling sound of water.  The sound of a river.  The sound of life.  A river meant that they would survive.

He began a trot that turned into a run.  Soon he was loping full out toward the water, heedless of the ferns, nettles, and low hanging branches that slapped at his face and sides.  The whooshing of the wind in his ears turned into the roar of a great river.

He stopped just short of the bank, small rocks making tiny plopping sounds as they tumbled ahead of him into the water.  His stomach roared as he saw fish jumping out of the water, trying to leap up a small fall of water.  The snows may have come early, but the salmon were still making their annual journey home.  Ignoring the pangs of hunger, he turned around and rushed back.  The pack would survive.

Part Six

Luna led the cubs in a playful dance beneath the falling snow, snapping at the fluffy white flakes as they floated down to the earth.  She savored the looks of joy on her children’s faces, the youngest lolled her tongue in glee.  She understood her place in the world, her life was for her children.  She would do anything to protect them.

Eight nights had passed since the salmon feast.  They had returned to the river every day since.  On the first morning, ice had begun to form along the banks.  The water was frigid, and only five or six fish had been caught.  As the days went by, the ice crept further across the water, until the ice completely shielded the fish swimming below from the pack.  Luna crept cautiously from one bank to the other, looking for any gaps in the ice where a fish might be pulled through.  The river, and their only source of food, had frozen over for the winter.

She had hoped that the play in the snow would scare some small game out into the open, but their new world seemed to be completely devoid of life.  The pack, and the salmon safely hidden below the ice were the only living things here.  The balance was all wrong here.  Luna shuddered.

Her sleep was stinted and uneasy that night; Alpha kept slinking out of their new den in search of prey.  She yearned for her old home.  The familiar territory, the plentiful herds of elk, deer, and caribou.  The soothing susurration of the familiar pines speaking to one another as they danced in the wind.  The fresh scent of pine, soft dirt, and lush vegetation.  It felt so close.  So close she could feel it pressing against her snout.  She whined softly in longing, nostrils pulling in phantom scents, wondering if she would ever see her old home again.

She opened her eyes and saw that she was no longer in the den.  She was back home, in her familiar home.  A ray of sunlight pushed through the dense tree cover and warmed her side.  The past several weeks was a fading nightmare as her heart filled with joy.

Her ears perked as she heard a twig snapping.  She jerked her head toward the sound and saw salvation.  An old stag was looking arrogantly into her eyes, as though it was taunting her.  A bead of saliva dripped from her jaws.  Before it hit the ground, she was off in a blur of deadly motion after her prey.

It turned, as if in slow motion, and began to run.  Alpha had picked her for his mate because she was the best hunter of the pack.  It had been far too long since she had been on a hunt, and the chase exhilarated her, her paws racing ahead of her hunger until all that existed was her prey.

She was a feather gliding over the landscape, her paws not quite touching the soft, lush ground below.  Her world was a blur of green as the forest, the stag standing out in sharp contrast.  Nothing else mattered.  The old stag was faster than any prey she had hunted before.  This was good, it would have been a disappointment if the hunt had been an easy one.

She leapt over a fallen tree, feeling the exhilarating energy of life warming her heart and her legs.  She was alive.  She was hunting.  She would save her cubs.  She would save the pack.

So lost in her thoughts, she didn’t notice that her quarry had stopped in his tracks, frozen by something far more terrible than the wolf perusing him.  She barreled right into the large stag, knocking him over.  She stumbled through the air, sailing over and past him.  The old stag didn’t even try to get up.  Something was wrong.

As she regained her feet, she saw that the stag’s eyes were wide with terror.  With a jolt, she realized he was looking past her.  She turned around, beginning to feel the stag’s fear, knowing the parasite ridden monsters would be behind her.  She knew this, didn’t want to look, couldn’t not look.  Her head swiveled toward the source of fear as if it was being controlled by mind other than her own.  She would be lucky to escape with her sanity, much less her life.

What she saw was worse than she had imagined.  The forest was on fire.  The foul, unnatural smelling monsters that had driven them from their homes were engulfing the world in flames of fire.  One of them locked eyes with hers, opened its mouth wide and showed her his teeth.  Its fangs seemed to grow until they were impossibly long, sharp, and deadly.  The eyes of the monster glowed red and menacing, the small patch of fur on the top of its head burst into flame.  Flames shot from the foul creature’s gaping maw.

As the creature’s flame began to lick her hide, it let out a piercing howl.  She recognized the howl coming from the monster.  It was her mate’s.  It was Alpha’s cry.  She collapsed into a shivering heap of saliva and fear; the creature faded as the nightmare of her dream merged into the nightmare of reality.

Part Seven

Alpha watched as Luna groggily gained her feet.  He could feel the flames doing their destructive dance in the distance behind him.  The danger had returned.  He was lucky to have been so restless this night, spotting the monsters as they set fire to their new home.

He jumped as the clear skies barked out thunder.  One of the pack’s oldest hunters was frozen in a partial rise before she fell back into the earth, a patch of red spreading through her snow-colored fur.

Every moment was an eternity as the pack struggled to gain their feet.  More than a few of them returning into an eternal rest as the thunder struck out from behind a shield of flames. 

The thunder wasn’t coming from the sky, Alpha realized in shocked horror, it was coming from the monsters setting fire to their lives.  As several lifetimes passed, and several lives ended, the pack fled the flames, away from the monsters that had made the pack their prey.

Alpha’s ears were assaulted by a horrifying—and familiar—growling purr.  He saw one of the creatures with glowing eyes racing toward him.  He could see two of the parasites inside the impossibly fast creature—a creature which had parts he could see right through.  The parasites were making whooping sounds that reminded him of the excited yips and howls the pack made when hunting prey. 

The creature passed by him in a flash of red.  The lifeless bodies of his fallen pack mates appeared to hold little interest to the monsters as they sailed past—and sometimes over—the dead.  Alpha turned away in horror as one of the large creatures trampled over Beta’s head.  There was a sound of something being squeezed and then a loud popping sound marked the passing of his friend, then the creature finished passing over the wolf, leaving a flattened, unrecognizable mess of fur and red in the place where Beta’s head had been.

The paws of the creature that had killed his lifelong friend trailed continuous bloody footprints as it hunted on.  Alpha’s terror grew as he realized they weren’t even being hunted for food.  They were being slaughtered without purpose.  No animal of the forest killed without reason.  Killing for fun rather than for survival destroyed the balance.  It wasn’t just his pack at risk, he now understood, it was the whole world.

He became lost in his terror like a drowning rat becomes forever lost beneath the surface of a black lake.  The pack was being herded.  Toward where?  For what purpose? 

When his pack herded, it was to move the weak away from the strong.  The weakest would then become the prey.  The predator strengthened the heard by feasting on their weak, ensuring that both pack and heard remained strong.  Alpha only understood the balance.  These monsters served chaos.  Alpha had known nothing of chaos in his other life; the life that these monsters had stolen.

As Alpha risked several glances around him.  Only a little more than half of his pack remained with him.  The monsters left a bloody trail of carcasses staining the pure white with their blood.  Blood that had been spilled without purpose. 

The monsters’ appetite for killing seemed to be growing even stronger.  The fearsome whooping noises, and the constant growling of the beasts they rode inside grew to a piercing crescendo as they pushed the pack closer to their end.  The pack was already dead, Alpha knew, but they kept running.

Suddenly, the creatures split off, the strange growls of the large beasts, and the whoops of their parasitic riders faded into empty silence.  Had their monstrous lust for death and destruction of these creatures finally been sated?  Was it finally over?  Alpha knew in his heart that something even more terrible was yet to come.

Thoomp, thoomp, thoomp.  It sounded like it was coming from all around him, but Alpha couldn’t see anything other than the pack, and endless fields of snow.  He thought it was the sound of a massive hummingbird.  Alpha glanced up into the sky to see another parasite ridden beast hovering in the air.  It looked like a giant bulbous insect without wings.  That wasn’t quite right.  It seemed to have wings on the very top, spinning so fast he could barely see them.  This reminded him again of a hummingbird; but this hummingbird, he knew, was an apex predator.  One that would share all the other monsters’ endless appetite for blood and death. This time the sound of thunder did come from the sky.  The head of one of his precious young—one that had been playing carefree in the snow just a day before—exploded into a shower of blood, brain, and chunks of skull.

The pack ran on.

There was no getting away from the giant flying insect, however.  Now Alpha understood why the monster had led them here.  They had been led into an open killing field without a single blade of grass to hide behind.  Thunder exploded from above and the world ended.

Alpha howled his denial.  He refused this reality.  The pack would survive, he would give his life; but his pack would survive.  Another bolt of lightning tore his heart from his chest.  He watched, helpless, as Luna—his love—fell. One of her legs vanished and the snow drank her blood greedily.  Letting out only a whispered whimper, she pushed herself up.  She would protect her young, and she began howling her warning at the thing in the sky.

Luna’s eyes burned with fire.  She would rip all of the monsters, and the parasites inside them, to pieces.  Luna and Alpha would die here today, yes, but the puppies would be safe.

Thunder roared again, and a hole appeared in Luna’s side.  Alpha shrieked out a howl as light shone briefly through his beloved mate before she fell to the earth for one final time. 

He exploded in fear and anger as he ran on.  With every crash of thunder, another of the pack fell and did not rise again.  All of his pups.  His mate.  His pack.  Their lives spent; not for the balance of or even some greater purpose, but for pointless death.

He felt a bee drive its stinger into his flank, his eyes went blank, and he crashed into the earth.  It would be good to die with his pack.  He faded into the black and knew no more.

Part Eight

When he awoke, Alpha’s head felt as though a rock were resting on his skull.  His mind filled with visions of Luna’s final moments.  He wondered briefly if his mate had survived long enough to die in slow agony as he was doing now.

Eyes sticky with some sort of sap, he tried in vain to take in his new surroundings.  He blinked a few times and the dark began to fall away into a confused vision of captivity.  He wasn’t dying after all.  It was worse, he was trapped inside some kind of enclosure made from silver, leafless branches.  They were perfectly smooth, and perfectly cylindrical.  There were no leaves, no knots in this strange wood at all.

He tried to push open the branches with his muzzle, frantic to see if any of his pack still remained.  For a moment, he forgot that Luna was gone, and yearned for her comfort.  The cold reality of her violent passing stung him as hard and cold as the bars he was helplessly trapped behind.  His pups were dead.  Beta was dead.  His pack was dead.  There was no life left in him, either.

The enclosure was inside some sort of cave without entrance.  It was dark, but he could hear the wind rushing outside.  He pushed himself as tightly as he could in a corner up against the cold bars of his cage, covered his muzzle with his paws.  He felt himself sinking back into terror as he took in the scent of the parasites somewhere nearby.  There was no scent of the forest.  There was no scent of the balance he had served his entire life.  He howled for death to take him.

Finally, the cave shuddered and then he felt it come to a stop.  He was gripped with vertigo, and began to gag as he realized that he had been moving.  Terror gripped him in a vice so tight that he fell back into the depth of the dark, letting it take him out of this nightmare and into an uneasy sleep.

He saw Luna, his cubs, and his pack.  He howled for them, but they couldn’t hear him.  They turned and began to walk away.  He ran toward them, but the more he ran, the further they seemed to be.  After several more moments, they vanished from his sight forever.  He kept running after them.  Alpha’s feet kicked out in his sleep as he ran and ran and ran.

Alpha came awake under a blazing sun.  The parasitic monsters were everywhere, barking ceaselessly to one another as though barking was their only way to communicate with one another.  He was lying in a grassy field, though the grass felt lifeless and wrong.  There was a cluster of trees, and a river between him and the parasites.  He hoped that they couldn’t swim.  He was tired of running.  Even if he weren’t, there was no place to run to.

Fear seized him again.  There was a parasite here with him, on his side of the river.  He welcomed the death this parasite would grant him.  It didn’t kill him, though.  It barked something incomprehensible at him.  Alpha shrank back, then the parasite tossed a slab of meat in Alpha’s direction.

Alpha backed away from the meat as though it would bite.  His stomach hurt from hunger, however, and the smell… he approached cautiously, ready to flee in an instant.  As the parasite disappeared into a stone wall, his hunger overcame his caution, and he tore into his meal.

“Looks like we came at a good time, Bobby.  It’s feeding time.  Isn’t that exciting?” one of the monsters said from across the river to a little monster standing next to it.

Bobby gripped the rail with both fingers as he followed his father’s finger toward the wolf.  The wolf was lost in its hunger.  Bobby’s eyes grew wide with fear, feeling his gorge rise, and he hid behind his father’s leg.

“Oh, don’t be afraid Bobby, he can’t hurt you.  The wall’s too high for him to jump over.  Besides, he’s probably friendly.  It says here he was bred in captivity.”


Author Bio

Daniel Pratt, an autistic software developer, faced life-altering disability due to Long COVID in March 2020, halting his career and passions. Amidst the challenges, he rediscovered his love for writing, ending a 15-year hiatus. Despite mourning his lost normalcy, writing became his newfound purpose, offering hope and resilience.

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