I ran. Faced with the screeching and scarping sounds of the beast behind, there was nothing else I could do. Bare feet kicking up dust and dirt, I dashed through the dark alley my hardened soles slamming against the cold stone. It was pitch black out with no stars to cast their light on the earth, no moon to shine on those with little hope. But I did not need light to hear the slow steps of the creature that hunted. It hunted and tonight, I was its prey. At the end of the alley I saw an opening between the stone walls, large enough for me to crawl through. I dashed through and felt pain along my stomach as the sharp edges cut through my ragged clothes, drawing the first blood of the night. But I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. You stop; you die. That was the first lesson I learned here. A brutal lesson I carried with me every night.
The crack led to an open courtyard with trees swaying in the distance, all but invisible against the blackened sky. Not ideal but better than the endless maze behind where any turn could spell death. The creatures, whatever they were, didn’t like the open air. They preferred slinking through the shadows and shade, waiting for their moment to strike as their prey cowered in fear. It shouldn’t be long now, morning was coming soon, and with it one step closer to freedom.
One week had passed since I had been brought to this place. One week in this sprawling ruin with its never-ending nightmare. They had snatched me from the street in front of my house on my seventeenth birthday, demanding I hand over a thousand gold coins to the chancellor as payment for all the years of care he had provided to the city and to me. A tax they said. I scoffed.
“Care he provided? The city is in shambles, its people starving. I’ve never even seen the chancellor or this care of his. He doesn’t even know that I exist.” I said to them.
They beat me for that. Right there on the street.
“A thousand gold coins. Now. Or to the ruins you go.” The one in charge was ruthless. A small scar sat at the edge of his lip gave him the look of someone always snarling.
Of course, I didn’t have a thousand gold coins. I’d hardly ever seen ten. This was all just a ruse. They simply wanted prisoners for their entertainment. They hauled me away and dumped me into the ruined city that served as a hunting grounds for their creatures. The creatures they somehow controlled. The creatures they let loose into the night hunting for any living thing. They said if I survived ten hunts I would be released. That my crime would be forgiven. But I had committed no crime. Unless you counted being poor a crime, which they did.
This hunt marked the sixth. From the whispers I had gathered, no one ever made it past eight. I still remember the night of the first hunt. Scared and alone in the darkness with sounds of death in the distance. Others screaming, crying, pleading. Then silence as the creatures feasted. I had stayed still for so long I’m surprised I hadn’t been eaten. Then came the sounds of footsteps falling on the floor. As the stranger came closer, I saw his face, covered in sweat and grime. He was an older man, with grey hairs in his dark brown hair. His eyes were rugged and wide with fear.
“RUN BOY!” He shouted as he ran past, waving his arms wildly. “IT’S COMING BOY. RUN.”
Then he was gone, never to be seen again.
Behind him came the slow thrum of heavy footsteps that rocked the ground beneath. I heard the hiss of its breath, the sound of cold mist. From the darkness all I saw was a single beady eye, all black narrowed on its prey. Me. My blood turned to ice and I knew true terror. I
didn’t stay to catch a close look. Every fiber in my body was screaming at me to move. I simply turned and started running.
I had run with no hope of surviving, expecting every step to be my last. I had run through the winding streets moving left, right, right, left, straight all while hearing the cries of others dying around me. But when morning came, I was still alive. The creatures had retreated. In the morning I lay exhausted where I stood, resting from the ordeal. The only food I had were the scraps of bread our jailers dropped from the skies. The next four hunts were the same. Every night I would run, hoping to put as much distance between me and them as I could. Every night I would miraculously survive. And every morning I gained more hope that I could escape.
This night was no different. It started the same as the others, with the vicious screams of the creatures in the night sky signaling the start of their hunt. The moment I heard them I had bolted.
I ran through the open field, slowing my pace, giving my lungs time to recover. You had to catch any breaks you could during the night, you couldn’t be picky. Then I heard it. The simpering in the wind. I hadn’t seen many other people, everyone tried to be far from everyone else but that wasn’t always possible with the number of people they dragged here. As I got closer to the trees, I saw a young woman leaning against an oak, catching her breath. Dangerous, I thought. Stay away. But I couldn’t let her do that. This might have been her first night. She had to learn. Someone had to teach her, just as I had been taught. I started my way towards her.
“Hey!” I called out. “You can’t rest here. They could be anywhere. You have to keep moving.”
“I know…I know….” Her breath came in bursts. “I just…need…a minute….”
“Listen. I know you’re tired but-”
A scream echoed from her throat as a dark tendril erupted from her chest, lifting her into the sky and spraying blood over everything. I stood frozen in fear and confusion at the creature that had snuck behind, catching my first real look at these beasts that had terrorized me for the past week. It was a true nightmare. A tall slender body sat atop two thick legs, each with talons the size of my arm, its skin an inky black that merged with the night. Multiple tendrils ending in sharp points came off its back, a mess of them all tangled and confused, each moving independently of its neighbors, searching, hearing, smelling. The head was the worst of it all.
Countless small black eyes surrounding a grey beak filled with razor sharp teeth. The creature hadn’t noticed me. It was too busy playing with its new toy. The woman was dead, moving through the air as the creature swung her around like a doll. Its victorious screeches filled the air but in my mind all I heard was the fading scream of the mutilated woman. The scream that I myself struggled to keep down. I swallowed my emotions and backed away from the nightmare slowly, careful not to slip on the blood that drenched the area. Once a good distance away I turned. There was nothing else I could do. I ran.