The Hunt

AuntieVerse Serial #2, 2016

Let me tell you a bedtime story, Dearest.

 

One night, many, many years from now and very far away, a young woman with golden eyes is living alone in a house that is far too large and far too old. Fine, raven hair curls delicately about her pink lips and her smile is silver and sickly, like the moon that washes her path white. She steps lightly, one dainty foot after another, but her eyes are bright and steely gaze set high in the trees. When the sun rises, their leaves will catch its light and glow like red and orange embers on the ends of their branches...beneath the stars and in the bloated light of that Hunter's Moon, they are merely dried skin flaking from the fingertips of bleached bone stems. Like a broken spine that old Hangman's Tree has pierced the hardened earth and curled in on itself, and up, up, up in its lonely branches hangs a shaking, shivering soul.

 

A beast awaiting Auntie.

 

She is hardly surprised to see the beast and with one effortless tug after another, she lowers the net gingerly. Then, she reaches inside, twisting its head and examining its teeth, as though she could read the nature of the animal from its breath or bones.

 

Perhaps she can.

 

The wolf—of course it is a wolf, my love—snarls and sneers at her ministrations. Its jaws snap and its great head shakes and Auntie clicks her tongue delicately and lays her perfect hand over its yellow eyes. After all, sleep is Auntie's greatest gift to her Dearest.

 

Yes, my love?

 

Yes, her Dearest.

 

The wolf does not wakes for hours, but when it does, the beautiful, ancient room is a swirl of motion. There is a storm in the wolf's stomach and it retches upon an irreplaceable handwoven rug, unable to stand. It is unbalanced, it is unsure, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. Where did these weak fingers claw their way from? When did these blunt white stones push away its fangs?

 

Where is its fur?

 

Crawling unsteadily, the wolf whimpers and whines and wanders through hallway after endless perfect hallway: down, down down to the cobblestone kitchen, where an electric box that they recognize awaits them. With a tentative finger, the wolf presses a shining chrome tooth and Auntie's voice—who else—echoes with a tinny familiarity. The wolf listens irritably, drumming its fingernails along the brightly polished wooden table.

 

The tea that I have given you will halt your transformation for as long as you remain in the house.

 

Now this is important information, wouldn't you say, Dearest? If Auntie has no intention of releasing the wolf, why would she reveal the limits of her dark magic?

 

The wolf wonders this as well, and its eyes fall upon the cat in the far corner of the room, a streak of shadow that mewls prettily and strokes its tongue along its paw as though to say that it has no interest in the wolf's nosing about its mistress's home. The wolf''s head tilts, its eyes narrow, and it gives the cat a cautious sniff, but a well-timed bat to the nose wards off further investigation. Instead the cat follows at the wolf's heel, one slow, awkward stagger after another, through each immaculate room of the house.

 

At last, at the end of the eastern corridor, the wolf leans against the cool wood of an oak door. With a quirked eyebrow at its smaller companion and all of its weight in the push, the wolf enters Auntie's elaborate bedroom. Before it looms the unmistakably feminine bed, draped like a bride in sheer gauze and silky velvet. Aside from the bed and hundreds of beeswax candles, stuck to the floor in massive puddles of their once-melted flesh, the room holds only an ebony chest that seems to swallow all light. The cat lopes from between the wolf's legs and climbs up, watching the wolf from its perch with a single wary eye.

 

A treasure chest, perhaps?

 

The wolf drags a fingernail along the lock, feeling a tug at the corner of its mouth. With a swift motion, the ebony chest groans, gutted, and the wolf reaches inside of its splintered belly for its prize.

 

All too easy.

 

Fingertips burning, the wolf draws the cloak from the bowels of that chest and strokes its soft silver waves. The moon and cat watch in silence as it reverently pulls that cloak over its shoulders and inhales, body settling as though beneath a second skin. After several moments, however, the wolf is a whirlwind of fury, howling and smashing candles, shredding the linens and silks and ripping the goose feathers from the pillows. The rampage continues throughout the house, leaving deep furrows in the elaborately carved woodwork and wreckage in each and every room. The only surface untouched is the front door and all other exits—they repel the wolf's touch as easily as a parent swats a petulant child. After hours in the throes of its outrage, the wolf is overtaken by despair.

 

The fingers, the legs, the blunt teeth, the weak nose...all remain, in spite of its skin cloak.

 

Worse still, the rage has weakened it, and its head is swimming, the world is spinning. Again the not-wolf is heaving on the carpet, while the witch's cat watches curiously, nose twitching in disapproval. It is nearly an hour after and the moon has begun to sink, when the wolf wipes the sweat from its eyes and the bile from its lips. It drags itself to the nearest doorway, the entrance to the cellar, and pauses for a breath.

 

Meow.

 

The wolf gazes upon the smaller beast, searching its ruined face. It takes the precious time to find its voice, but when it does, the frailty of its syllables are frightening.

 

“Can...you...help...”

 

The cat approaches cautiously, an inky stroke of brilliance that eases itself deliberately beneath the wolf's gangly legs and through the creaking cellar door. When the wolf does not follow, it returns and yowls, then makes its way toward the first stair again. After a moment's hesitation to ensure obedience, the cat descends into darkness.

 

The wolf follows. Of course it does.

 

-

 

When Auntie returns, it is with the sun. her home is destroyed, her room defiled, her familiar and Dearest each missing. She clicks her teeth anxiously and sits at the last unbroken seat in her parlor, running one finger after another along her palms.

 

The gall. The ingratitude. The audacity.

 

She reaches out then, her intent an arrow that screeches through the underbelly of her home, past the stink of decay and wretched broken bodies slumbering in the hardened earth. It finds the target easily and blazes through the wolf's mind without mercy.

 

When the wolf hears her voice again, it is a tidal wave against the fragile paper walls of its mind. It has followed the streak of shadow beyond a hidden door and deep into a sandy cavern. The tunnels that creep beneath the surface of the witch's house are an elaborate network of chaos and corpses, but the cat leads the way through the catacombs like a silent secret. The wolf follows—of course it does—threading between exquisite sarcophagi and nameless ditches and for once is glad of the loss of its senses.

 

The drug can not dull the pain of Auntie's voice, which slices mercilessly through the wolf's thoughts and sends it tumbling. The cat mews in irritation but its single eye is alight with concern as it watches the pain burn through the wolf, who writhes and wriggles and whispers its pleas. The sensation is overwhelming, a seemingly endless jolt of lightning that sends the wolf's limbs thrashing and flailing and it chokes on its own tears even as Auntie's laughter in its head dissipates, like a child's dream.

 

The cat watches and waits.

 

Next comes the cold, my Dearest.

 

Next comes the frost that slithers its way along the dusty corridors of the catacombs, up sandy walls and through the air, turning the wolf's hair white and its breath to ghosts. Its eyes widen and it takes a moment to gather itself from its own pain and sick, but then the wolf is up and it is running, running, running..

 

The wolf's feet are bare and the ice is quick and before it knows where it tumbles to, a grave is slick with its blood. It pulls viciously away from the wall and howls its pain through the endless caverns when skin and hair come away from its scalp. Then it is up again, cradling frost bitten fingers and watching for movement—any kind of movement—

 

THERE.

 

Across the chasm!

 

The cat watches and waits.

 

The wolf trusts its instincts and gives a fearsome leap, high above a minefield of stone and skeletons, arms wheeling to purchase. The cat watches when it claws its way from the ledge that separates it from the murderous ice. Something glints in the cat's eye, something that the wolf would see if not for the drugged tea that forces its way up their throat again. Coughing and sputtering, the wolf pulls itself to an alcove and waits in silence for Auntie to call again.

 

-

 

When Auntie calls a second time, the wolf suffers in silence.

 

The shaking and heaving are comparatively short and the cat is patient when the wolf's steps falter. It is careful to keep its pace, however, and a plan is forming in its mind.

 

How does Auntie know where to find it? Why did her magic retreat when the wolf and the cat were rejoined? Now that the wolf was weakened, drugged and dragging its torn feet and flesh...would Auntie strike again? When the wolf is ready, it rises, pulling the fur cloak tightly about its shoulders.

 

The cat watches and waits.

 

The wolf rejoins its guide, shuffling pitifully between the narrow streets of the dead, plucking its fragile fingertips along one shallow grave after another for balance. The trail of deep crimson grows darker with every shuddering step and it is not long before the wolf feels that familiar curdling deep in its belly.

 

Moments and hours and days pass for them in that gloomy maze and still the wolf trails along in the cat's delicate, silent footfalls. Thick, stale air is to be expected now, and each lungful stings when the wolf's chest rises and falls weakly. So intent has it become on staving off illness and wretched melancholy, so insistent on ignoring its injuries, that when death takes action, the wolf is not ready.

 

The hung has begun.

 

A bone-shattering blow to the side sends the wolf reeling and rolling and the cat spitting and hissing. Dazed and head ringing, the wolf rises slowly, slowly, and crawls to a corner until it can collect its bearings. The halls are black as pitch and its eyes need to readjust, but the red-speckled dry heaving leaves the wolf whimpering in pain.

 

There, to the left.

 

There is a glint of light and then a bellow that sends goose pimples along the wolf's arms and spine. It tumbles to the right and narrowly avoids a swipe from some manner of shambling corpse, too molded and decayed to have done the damage that sent the wolf sprawling. The stench of death clings heavily in the air now, and the wolf's eyes are beginning to make out the silhouettes of groaning, growling cadaver as they scramble to lift themselves from their barrows and nooks. An oil lamp careens and crashes and the flame casts the shadows of nearly twenty dead men shuffling down the hallway to their prey.

 

The cat hisses, screams, and runs.

 

The wolf follows. Of course it does.

 

They flee, darting beneath the swinging fists and grasping fingers of death, around corners and across aisles. The moans of their hunters echo perilously, casting misdirection that sends the wolf teetering and tearing, punching through the corpses that look as though they've little more than dust binding their bones and narrowly avoiding other creatures of more substance. When threatened with a spear, the wolf crashes through its foe and takes the weapon, loping away painfully.

 

The cat leads the way all the while, until the two animals, trapped like some madman's mice, are gazing upon a crumbling stone stairwell and what was once an entrance, now filled with debris and rubble. The cat sits at the base of the stairwell patiently, tail whipping, its single eye following the wolf's desperate pacing. The moans of dead men creep ever closer.

 

It could not wait for Auntie to find them.

 

If the wolf would die, it would be on its own terms.

 

The cat's yowl shatters the otherwise fragile silence of the cavern and all at once the wolf finds itself gazing at its torn toes and the black streak of fur that arches itself between the wolf's ankles. The wolf gulps a stomach full of air and leans down, scooping the cat into its arms. It has never reached out with its mind before... but now the wolf tries and, when it feels that it has finished its message, it grips the head of the cat in its weak, human hand.

 

And it squeezes.

 

-

 

There is a scream that pierces through the wolf's mind and shakes the very walls of the cavern. It knows that scream—it is the cat and Auntie both. The air grows still and there it is:

 

The wolf's ghost breath.

 

She is there in the room before the wolf can drop the cat's body. When the beast falls, Auntie gathers it in her arm and coos and coddles, then lifts her head to snarl at the wolf and reveal a ruined eye. The cat mews pitifully against her chest and she drops her gaze--

 

THERE.

 

The action is swift and sure and the thrust of the spear is clean. Auntie's face is stretched in disbelief, her perfect eyebrows climbing to her hairline. The wolf pants, spent, and releases its clenched fists from the shaft in anticipation. In a moment, Auntie's body will hit the stone floor and it will all be over.

 

In a moment...

 

A simpering smirk and Auntie grabs the wooden shaft of the dead man's spear and snaps it in a single motion, as through disposing of a cheap child's toy. The wolf staggers away from her, head over clumsy human feet, up the crumbling staircase. The force of the witch's bitter laughter sends dust flying and the dead men with it, until they are battering down upon and above and beyond the wolf, slamming into the rubble with dry, meaty thuds. One after another after a hundred, the weight of the dead men and the might of the wind force the walls of the cavern to shake and all the while the wolf gazes upon the witch in horror.

 

It would die here tonight with her.

 

Then, with a great thunderous shuddering, the wall gives and the wolf is clambering and climbing over dead men in its haste to evade, to escape, to embrace freedom. The chill of the night air stings its eyes and sends a painful jolt into its lungs and suddenly the wolf is doubled over, bones creaking, snapping, and shrieking, streams of thick blood flowing freely from eyes and ears.

 

The pack of men at the edge of the clearing watch and wait.

 

Knees twist and turn, fingers receded uselessly, teeth fall out one after the other when fangs push through perfect pink gums. The sound of tearing muscle sends the trees shaking as birds flee to the safety of the dying stars and distant sun. Fur pushes through gaping holes as skin separates and the wolf contorts itself in fear and misery.

 

Auntie watches and waits.

 

When the wolf is finally shaking the discarded shreds of skin, the witch purrs and ascends slowly, theatrically, and she steps over the devastated remains of her decaying soldiers without another thoughr to them. The pack of men gather around the two of them, chanting long and low, as beast circles beast.

 

Snapping and snarling.

 

Auntie lunges first and she sinks her teeth into the wolf's neck, scarcely feeling its claws rend her shoulders to ribbons. She growls low in her throat, and there is a gurgle of pleasure through the wash of blood in her mouth and on her chest. The wolf bites back, its fangs the better weapon, and her arm comes off easily, spraying a robed man with the price of her vicious enthusiasm.

 

When Auntie lunges again, she grips the back leg of the wolf, and twists and when the bone breaks with a wet snap, she crows in delight, though the wolf has already gotten a hold of her hip and tears great chunks of flesh and gristle into its maw. The fight is over quickly after this, and the bloodstained wolf limps in a circle three times beneath the light of the moon and lays its head lazily upon its forelegs.

 

The cloak comes off in a handful of hellish moments, and the blood that stains the hard earth is in equal measure the wolf's and the witch's by the end of it. The pack of men nod thoughtfully—yes, good, very good—among themselves and one bends to kindle a spark trapped in the thick coal bed of an iron brazier. When the brand sears the wolf's shoulder, the trees shake again and fall silent.

 

The Hangmen watch and wait.

 

The wolf sleeps then, beneath the dizzying spin of stars, nestled face first in the crimson trophy of its first hunt. Trapped in its slumber and its weak human skin, it does not hear the screams of Hangmen as their skin peels from their flesh.

 

When the wolf opens its eyes beneath a sky that is blotting out dots of silver stars with great pink bloodstains, it sees only a single streak of shadow, blind and limping and much, much too large. Silently, the cat pads next to its prone form, and waits warily, sniffing at the wolf's face. Then, it eases out a rough, pink tongue and tenderly licks at the shattered remains of its mistress. With every flicker of that tongue, the witch's body grows smaller, hazier, until it crumbles to ash and cinder. The wolf rises, panic blooming in their chest.

 

When the cat turns its head to the wolf, both eyes glint dangerously in the shade of the Hangmen's Tree. The snout curves into a cat's smile and the familiar is upon the wolf in a moment, clutching its head tightly in between two massive paws. The wolf claws desperately at its side for purchase, but the scorched noose in its biceps renders the arm useless.

 

The cat roars and the wolf dies.

 

-

 

When the wolf's body rises, the sun is sinking into a pool of crimson and its blood is languidly dripping across the sky. The woman wearing the body smiles toothily—more a baring of teeth than anything—examining her stubby fingers and ripped feet, her missing hair and newly forming scars. The noose in her bicep would be the first to go, she decides, and motions to the steadily pacing cat at her side.

 

Its eyes shine with something intelligent and she grins, taking up silver fur cloak that is caked in the grimy, cold blood of foolish men and clasping it at her slender throat.

 

“Come, Dearest,” she coos and coddles, stepping over the shredded remains of those that thought to hunt her. “We've much to do.”

 

The cat follows. Of course it does.

 

-

 

Story time is over, Dearest.

Let me tuck you into your warm blankets.

Shut your eyes.

Dream of dusty catacombs and crawling corpses.

Dream of ice that crawls up your back and down your throat and inside of your heart.

Dream of silent, secret shadows and wolves desperate to become Hangmen.

Dream of Auntie and her bell-like laughter as it flays the delicate layers of your sanity.

Dream of a blood-stained dawn in a quiet grove.

Sweet dreams, Dearest. Auntie loves you.

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