Survival

This is a short story that takes a look into the fears that can compel people to hunt and drive out anything different. The main character is a shapeshifter forced to defend themself every midwinter.

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1. Midwinter Hunt.

I shivered against the crisp morning air, watching as the next hero came to face me. It was midwinter; they always sent a hero at midwinter. Heroes that would persevere through the biting cold and the towering mountains and the eternal depths of the forest until I was dead.

They came, like a raging storm, destroying everything that moved in their path. Sometimes I followed them; circling behind and tracking the blood-trails they left. If they wanted to, the heroes could have walked silently, disturbing not even the smallest leaf or twig on the forest floor, making it all but impossible to follow them. Impossible, perhaps, to anyone other than me.

This was the reason they hunt, I am a threat and they know it. I was one of them once, but I do not remember it. I was only a child and they cast me out, condemning me to a life of fear. My first battle, I am told, was when I only five years old. My first hero. The man had said it to me like it was an achievement to have to kill at five. The man who had risked his life to find me, to kill me. Had died in my arms protecting me. I still don’t know why he did it.

 

The hero came closer, breaking into my clearing, brandishing a severed goat’s head.

“Come out, come out freak.” He said, smiling cruelly. I could see the satisfaction in his eyes as he saw me flinch away from the goat. The heroes, they knew the death of any creature harmed me, so they went out of their way. Nothing I did from here on would change the way this battle went down, one of us would die. I had tried running away, but they followed. I screamed, but they struck. I hid, but they came still. The last thing to do was fight.

I brandished the spear I had whittled for myself; I would get rid of it as soon as the battle was over. Bloodshed is a terrible burden and a tool of it even more so. It would leave my hand.

He came at me, calling my name and twisting a web of profanities around it. Goading me, forever taunting. I grow so weary of these word-games. They are always the same, always ask how I like being outcast, a freak of nature, cursed. I have seen dozens of faces; all of them repeat those words, over and over until the words bleed into each other.

I have never seen my ability as a curse, could never comprehend the thinking behind it. I hated to kill, that was the curse, having to take a life in cold blood every year without end.

I stood perfectly still as he came closer, and with one swift movement I shoved the spear into his chest, and watched as he drew his last breath.

 

A full year had past, and I watched the new hero with interest. It was a woman they sent this time. It was a new tactic, and new wasn’t the way things went down.

I followed her for three days noting with interest that she did not kill animals for fun and she cleaned up after herself. I made myself known to her on the third day of the midwinter week, she hadn’t come after me like the others, maybe it would have been smarter to wait for her to find me, but I wanted to get it over with.

She spun around at the obvious snapping of twigs that rang through the clearing, staring in shock as she saw me.

“But you’re just a legend.” She stammered, “You’re not real.” She stared at me in horror, my reflection visible in her eyes. I can only imagine the thoughts running through her mind as she saw my filth-caked visage. Believe me, I do not like the filth, it is part of the camouflage of the midwinter week.

She was not a hero, not even close. She wasn’t even from the same clan, she was bait.

The leaves rustled behind me, just before an arrow whizzed past my face and landed home in the bark of a near-by tree. I could tell, just by that arrow that the hero was not one of the best. The best heroes had the stench of blood on everything they owned. They were drenched in blood before the hunt, and it caked them from head to foot. Every night of the hunt, they went and bathed themselves in the blood of the animal they cooked for their dinner. The arrow that was now quivering and surrounded by a small pool of sap that smelled fresh, clean and new.

I called upon my power, taking the form of the first animal that crossed my mind; I couldn’t use the spear with the witness to watch. I became a wolf, standing my ground before my assailant. The woman, seeing what I could become, gave a shriek of horror and grabbed my abandoned spear, turning on me too. How quickly people assumed what was good and evil, or right and wrong.

We fought, all of us. I held my ground but in the form I chose I could not stand up to a warrior and a frantic human with weapons. It was not long before I made my decision.

I reared up on my hind legs, feeling the changes. I pulled myself into my original form, hearing the crackle of bones rather than feeling them. I thought of the sky, the bountiful, rich, never-ending blue that could pick me up and carry me to heights only ever dreamed of by man. And soon I was there, soaring on the currents of dense air, feeling new muscles pull and shift as I left that world behind. It was enough.

Enough death, enough blood, enough toxic words. I had run before but not far enough. The lands past the mountains were long deserted. Fled by man in a time of great and destruction. When the world had become nothing but a great desert of ice. I still fear the superstitions, the tales of a cursed land that would release tortured and vengeful spirits that would reap havoc and destruction if anyone were ever to step foot in the bounds of the Darklands. But I was already cursed, and as such, perhaps the peace and redemption I seek shall be there. Waiting just over the horizon. 

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