~ a short story
Marc and Erin had not yet made it to the clearing. They were beginning to doubt they ever would. And that was okay with them.
The canopy loomed above the duo, under moonless midnight. The dense darkness of the forest surrounding them situated them as blind to its wider threats. But its sights alone, not its sounds. On all sides of them, thrumming insects screeched into the silence, their cadences erratic, off-beat, unnatural. Singular night birds bayed on, the gifted singers of their flocks soundtracking the chase. Howling came from a distance, drawing nearer with every lurch through the crackling scape of sprawling wood. Along their steps through the mud and the dead leaves were tracks unseen. Atop the endless brush of the ferns, their naked knees swashed against was cascading sets of droplets dropped from lesser prey, crimson and fresh. Threshing behind the trunk and past so much greenery blackened by the night were the cycling engines of life in the forest, utterly unknown to these two persons, far astride their kindred existence thus far in their twenty-something years.
They held hands tight, and giggled. Fun in the forest. A night they could share and remember. Forever. Not everything had gone according to plan. But they were both finished, happy. They ran through the trees with a thrilled, reckless abandon. A rising fear of this dark, natural and akin to both of their younger selves, only tightened their interlocking fingers and raced their hearts to higher intrigues. Alone, this would be a terror, a trauma never to be forgot. Together, it was magic. When they turned to see the other, to continue that loving reciprocation, they mired in the other’s glinting orbs. Full of life. Full of lovely, lovely life.
Up ahead, finally, was their clearing. A lone, grand tree beckoned over it. They quickened their run. Were they almost out?
Just before they overtook its place, Erin stopped. So did Marc in reaction. She looked up ahead. He looked to her, clear concern dawning upon her delicate features. Catching up, unconscious dread washed over him.
“What’s wrong?” Marc asked.
Speechless, in awe or terror or both, the young, naked woman, darkened by shadows but basking in the glow of the man’s memory alone, raised her arm and pointed. Marc’s eyes followed.
In the long, crooked caress of that grand tree before them were a pair of eyes. Yellow, sickly, glaring. They belonged to a silhouette of a cat. A big one. A panther? Jaguar? A tiger? Here… Impossible. Menacing lumps of its shoulders and hind legs sitting upon the wooden stand revealed its sleek bulk. A machine of muscles and speed and ferocious, instant killing power. Tensed and ready for a launch and a great bloodletting. It could not be, and yet it was. Its fangs sheened a moment as it opened its maw. Marc felt his heart thumping louder and more violently than it had yet tonight. He gulped and put all his strength into the grip upon his girl’s hand. She stopped pointing and took a step forward in apparent fearlessness, or confusion. Instinctively, Marc let her hand go and stepped in front of her and toward the big black cat, interposing himself between his woman and the monster. He prepared his body for great movements, even while his mind raced to nowhere. His innards lurched and his manhood drew toward him. Charged and pounding for a response, he nearly ran toward the branch and its tenebrous beast before it started speaking to them in a deep, cold voice,
“I am a speaker for the dark. And I am here to issue a warning.”
Marc shook his head. Erin said nothing.
“A warning? Is this … some kind of joke?” Marc asked.
“No,” returned the shadow.
“We must be dreaming, honey. A shared dream. Wonderful. Terrifying…” he mouthed, trying to search her eyes for some comfort. They were blank and wide open. He tried to blink the growing terror away within him.
“Call it whatever you want. But this is reality. And you will do well to listen to what it is I have to say.”
Marc covered his manhood, suddenly cognizant of this other being’s eyes upon him. “I suppose we don’t have any other choice. We were headed out of these woods. And you bar the way.”
“Do I?” asked the cat, its tone piqued.
Marc stared ahead, at the path underneath the branch, and it, becoming distracted by the beast’s black tail lolling down from its seat and into a walker’s space.
“You do. If we tried to walk underneath the branch, you could drop down and kill us both before we knew what was going on,” Marc said triumphantly, trying to find bravery in indignance.
“Perhaps,” said the cat.
“I would go as far as to say that if she hadn’t seen you, that is what would have happened. I had no idea we’d be walking underneath a shadow of a monster…”
The cat growled and raised its form to a stand upon the branch. Its back arched like a small cat’s, its fangs flaring once more. Throughout it kept its attention trained upon them, like prey. Its snarl shifted into a kind of unsubsiding, bestial chuckling.
“Your words are kin to my own, my warning,” spoke the cat after resettling itself into a seat upon its hind legs, a more regal, more serious posture for it to speak from. Can I be sure it’s a cat at all? Or Something else… Marc studied its body to no avail. No details came into focus. Either from his fear or the dark’s obfuscation, the bestial silhouette as cat remained the default approximation. Too much shadow to see its spots, or confirm its coat was black, or bring its ears or claws or facial features into relativity.
“As a representative for the world of shadows-”
“The ‘world of shadows’? This is a joke,” laughed out Marc. We are dreaming… We are dreaming…
“This is no joke!” screeched the cat with mouth wide and in the mode of a consummate devouring.
Marc leaped back in fear. Still hand in hand with Erin, who had stood her ground, her arm had to reach back to maintain the connection. Quickly, he returned to her side, reflecting on his words and reevaluating the unreality of this ‘dream.’ The thing is responding to me, screaming at me… it certainly sounds real.
“I speak for the predator and for the killer, and for the all-consuming darkness of the unknown realms about us. I speak for every shadow upon the wall, every bitter, wretched, and hateful spirit and thought, awaiting its release into this reality. When I speak, I am a voice for the horde…”
A chill struck down Marc’s spine as the beast explained. He felt it in Erin, too, through his hold upon her hand, though she better resisted it, remained upright. Her attention could not be swayed from the cat, the thing’s, form. The more Marc looked upon it, the less he understood its physicality, but more he ascertained something of its dark majesty. It was like a king upon a throne. Ancient and strong. Every one of its words was inevitable. And to be reckoned with, one way or another. His knees weakened at the thought of having to do battle against it. If it came down to it, to let her escape… Would I find the courage?
“And you have a warning? For us?” Marc asked.
“Yes,” said the cat instantly.
“What is it?”
The thing’s eyes widened. Bright as the absent moon, they flickered with an intensity not borne of any world Marc had ever known. Not yellow, but saffron, or the colors of melange. They harbored an unstoppable mysterion from a foreign plane, watching and waiting with an infinity of guile.
“You have tested fate by coming here tonight,” the cat said.
Marc touched his hand to his chest, trying to grip the heart underneath his skin, attempting to still its incessant raging. He glanced to Erin again, thinking of why they had come. And of how happy they both were only moments ago, in spite of the darkness and the fear… Because they were together. We’re still together… But for how long.
“The two of you willingly walked yourselves into the lair of damnation. You came together, hoping to fulfill something nameless within yourselves. You each came for different reasons. Among these trees and the beasts, large and small, that you see only as inferior, you experienced something together, in a reciprocation. A choice. Something outside of this realm, something only kin to your own human frames. Of your own volition, you made yourselves vulnerable in a place as foreign to you as the great scapes above and beyond!” the cat screamed these latest words into the night sky above.
“A drive into the darkness and the unknown — into the potential and possibility of Death — is what brought you here. All for a lark. It is what is special in the human. Unnecessary risk. Purposeless risk. A sacrifice of its own security, for the sake of two moments of micro-joy. You are the only beast in this strange world that can choose death.” The cat’s voice, this speaker for the dark, filled with resignation. Exhaustion. Disgust. It spoke from supremacy, as if disappointed in two of its own children.
“And yet you live. You live and you love. You continue to breathe. Against my better judgments, I have allowed this.”
“So you were going to kill us,” said Marc in a whisper.
“I could have. At any point since you stepped into these lands, your fate was mine to deal in. Every single instinct yearned me to devour both of you…”
“What stopped you?”
“An idea,” spoke the shadowy speaker, “For a different approach.”
“A warning,” surmised Marc. Confidence returned to him as his mind operated alongside the conversation for the first time, no longer utterly dominated by his fear.
“A warning against your drive-to-death your kind cannot help but repeatedly succumb to. I hoped my presence — and the revelation for my capacity for speech — might spur a dramatic change in behavior I can only see as pathological. An instinct unto death, as equivalently powerful as my own instinct to hunt… Shameful. Confounding. I saw this kind of appearance as the only way. If I were to send my form alone as the warning, leaping into your midst as the paragon killing beast, the shadowy superpredator — you would flee. And that, of course, would make the killing simply irresistible…”
The cat let a visible chill source through its own form. Marc’s heart lurched in place once more. The prickling feeling of mortal danger had not subsided and only rose in its power within him. He widened his stance, tightened his fingers around Erin’s own, wishing to feel strong beside her. For her.
“The warning… is this: We are hungry. And we are relentless. We will never retreat. Only death can stop us. If you and yours continue to enter our landscapes, we, the darkness, will be forced to devour you. We do not want this; but just the same as we do not wish to die, ‘want’ has little to do with the inevitability of the outcome before each of us within this game. If you come again, you will be forcing our tooth, our claw, our great waiting gullets.”
As the cat finally finished the relaying of its ‘warning,’ Marc felt a peace wash over him, as if the creature had released him from its invisible thrall. But even more than that, he understood what the beast meant. This caused relief and revelation of a kind he didn’t know he was still clutching for. They had taken a risk in coming here. Why? Why did they do it? Foolish. It was foolish. The speaker was right. An unnecessary overreach of their own mortality, of their humanity.
“Thank you, speaker,” Marc said. “For sparing us… and for the warning.”
The cat nodded down to the duo. “I hope you will spread such a message, this warning from the dark itself, among your tribe and your peoples.”
Marc nodded his assent at the additional request. He then looked ahead, on the path through the clearing and out of the woods. He turned to Erin, suddenly worrying about how they would make it back into town and back home in their current state of stark nudity… “Honey,” he said lightly.
Erin blinked, and the blankness of her expression turned to indignation, or rage, or something that Marc had never seen before from her. He stepped back from her as she began to seethe and speak up to the dark beast.
“What if we killed you?”
“You can try,” returned the cat with a droll tone. “But you don’t appear equipped for it. Because you are no hunter, no natural born killer like myself and my kin. One of our many separations.”
“Baby-” Marc tried to intervene.
“Yeah, well we can change that can’t we?” whispered Erin with confidence. “That’s what really separates us from you.”
“We can learn, and change. And do something different, something new, something-”
“Chaotic? … Oh believe me child, I understand. For we are beings borne of chaos, forever mired in it. Humans get to choose the time and place — and tools — of their chaos… Spoiled from birth, the lot of you are.”
“Oh? Then you know that we can escape this place, return with only a few items, and proceed to easily capture you. Then we could do whatever we wanted with you. We could force you to entertain us, to mate with one of your adversary species, creating some dual-species novelty abomination for our amusement… We could fuck you if we so chose! HA!”
Marc’s eyes widened and he went to grasp at Erin, to try to help her, stop her…
The black cat leaned forward on its branch and narrowed its eyes in a compulsion to speak more forcefully, or for the sake of a coming intention.
“You may be beings of chaos, but it is Chaos leading only in one direction. Death. That’s all you are good for. Killing and death,” finished Erin with confidence, smiling victoriously up to the beast.
“Bold words from prey,” spit the cat.
“Bold words. Something we are good for. And they can be followed with bold actions!” Erin took a step forward, toward the cat. Its big black claw now hung down from the branch, within reach of the young woman’s face.
She turned suddenly and shot a glance to Marc. It was one he recognized. Again, he took a step back. She was not finished.
“I don’t want to do any of that, Speaker,” Erin said calmly. “I say it only to convey my capabilities to you, and to message my… our own intention.”
“Which is?” asked the cat, confusion latent in its voice.
“Manifold,” she answered. The young woman began to pace in place, hands on her hips and then upon her chin, she articulated her instincts.
“It’s not about the drive into death, this ‘death-drive’… it is about being alive. Truly alive. Not just breathing. But being places where you can be in the game. In the conflict, going back and forth alongside one composed like yourself, figuring it out with blood and tears and smiles. Inspiring opportunities, battling risks. Taking chances for the sake of-”
“Thrills,” spoke the speaker.
“Yes,” Erin said, contacting the beast’s yellow eyes, “But it’s so much more than just thrill-seeking. It’s so much more… “
She sighed and walked up to the base of the grand tree, placing her hand upon it slowly. “We think we live in reality…” She turned to Marc. “But we don’t. It’s just a shadow. A boring one.”
“And our world…” the cat spoke with anticipation, speaking of itself and the realm it crawled from.
“Is a real shadow. And though we endanger ourselves by entering it, only by doing so and embracing such sudden precarity in our tiny, mortal circumstance, can we come to assert some kind of control over our destinies.”
Erin sat below the tree, staring suddenly up through its winding branchwork, searching the dark sky for any hint of moonlight. Tears of every emotive quality roiled in her eyes.
The black cat then crawled down even further, down from the branch and onto the trunk, its snout nearing the tiny girl’s head and neck. From his distance, his blood up again at the sight of her in danger, Marc paused. He could not tell whether the speaker did so as to better listen, or if it planned to bite her head off… Immobilized with fear and uncertainty at the sight, he did nothing. After a moment, Erin stood up and walked through the grass with grace, her tone whimsical, distant, longing. Despite his extreme unease, and the misgivings of her choices inside of their situation, he listened to her every word with climactic expectation.
“I say to you, speaker for the dark, that we want to be here. We do not want to kill you. We certainly do not wish to be your next meal, either… Though understand that these kinds of things may leave our volition as our survival instincts eventually kick in. In spite of the risk — maybe even because of it — we want to be right here, right now. Call us thrill-seeking fools, helpless food wandering in the fog, waiting to be devoured. Name it as the death-drive manifesting within our consciousness, for reasons that we may never get to the bottom of… Label us as evil, willing to do much worse to you and your kin in the natural world than you could ever conceive of doing to us.”
Erin straightened her back erect and widened her arms then, speaking up into the tree and past the beast, into the starscape heavens themselves.
“We are here to live!”
The cat let loose a small grown and resettled itself upon the branch of the tree.
Erin whispered, “It is only natural that we might die.”
The young woman then stepped back to the midst of her man, took his hand and began to walk away without another word. Marc looked back and smiled sheepishly in an attempted apology at the silhouette in the crooked branch of the tree. Erin kept on, her pace leading the duo and forcing Marc to keep up. She walked the clearing, headed to exit from the woods.
Forever? wondered the speaker, The Black Beast of Nihilos, The Monster of the Menagerie, a dark god of The Seven.
No, not forever. Her words answer my warning with the purest ignorance, in a whole other layer of blind pathology… The beast raised itself up on its haunches, preparing to launch its form into the night after the duo and their disdain for its honest offering…
But something stopped the beast. A realization. This, a moment of potential evolution — a second one on the day for the speaker, after its decision to speak instead of hunt them in the first place.
Am I to be moved by her words? Whether I hunt now is a response to her, and not a part of my instinct… My instincts tell me to devour. But I already defied them once today. I am in a new realm. I am residing within a world of concern — of reaction — against their presence. Against her words. Her action dictates me now. Not my response, but my reason for it. Either way, no matter how I move, I am in the thrall of Man. Of this woman…
She has me.
The beast seethed, released and retracted its claws upon the wood below it, shredding away components and letting them flay away to the grass below the great tree. Instinctively, it wriggled its bottom at the prospects of their warm blood flowing over its body and into its gullet… It would be so easy.
On down the only man-made path within these lands, at the edge of the clearing, nearly exited from its field of view, the duo crossed the threshold away from it.
Returned to a default state, immobilized by uncertainty and fear, two prospects entirely unexplored as of yet by a creature such as it, the speaker for the dark observed them and did not hunt. Instead, until dawn brought it to a much-needed rest, it began to think and theorize and tinker with its instincts. ~