The night was rapidly expanding and smothering the day’s light, a dark blanket that covered them like a shroud as they trudged across a broad expanse of mire, the damp, sometimes wet mud oozing around their feet. She looked at her companion, and even with the sense of danger and fear that lived in the air around them, her heart warmed. He was a sweet, dark haired young man, with gentle eyes and a quick smile. She knew, struggling at his side that she lacked his grace. She was having a harder time wading through the muck and maintaining her balance, but was keeping up with obvious effort.
“Not much further,” he promised. “I'll be here and watch over you.”
She nodded, her faith and belief in him absolute. Had there ever been a time when he wasn’t there, inspiring her trust and her dreams? She couldn’t remember anymore. It seemed important that she should, but until they were free of their present situation it would have to wait for further thought. Keeping up was taking all her energy, and he wasn’t slowing his pace to make it easier for her.
Eventually they came to a stretch of beach, and collapsed on a dry patch of sand. For a long time the only sound that filled the air between them was the heaving breaths they took to regain their composure. Finally, near-silence prevailed, and he stood up. He bent, kissed her forehead, and walked away, gathering some wood and twigs to make a fire as the sun sank completely beyond the ridge of the horizon, and the true darkness of night enveloped them.
She watched, enjoying the elegant simplicity of his motion, but she was afraid, and the fear was growing steadily worse. There was something out there in the darkness, she could feel it there. Subtle shadows moved where there shouldn’t have been movement, and there was a pulse of sound below the surface that she could hear inside her head.
She didn’t even recall his name. Only that she loved him. He was beautiful and brave, and she was safe. She knew they shared a whole life, yet she didn’t know his name...
He returned to her and soon had a fire blazing. They didn't speak, just enjoyed the quietude between them, and the understanding that seldom needed to be expressed with words. Memories clamored in her mind, feeding her things that were both familiar and utterly alien. He preferred her quiet, she remembered; they only fought when they talked too much, really. She reached out, clasped his hand in hers, and smiled when he kissed her very softly.
* * *
A short while later, sitting side by side, watching the moon rise over the water, the sound of growling and barking invaded the false tranquility. He rose and spotted the hulking shape that marred the near-perfect peace of the beach. She knew the death she’d been sensing had just shown itself. There was a scent in the air, inexplicable, but present. Just like the pulse of energy had been there, only it was no longer faint, it was pounding inside her skull like thunder–angry and focused, intent on destruction.
The animal grew in size as they watched it, a blackness that expanded with each guttural, rumbling growl rippling ominously across the expanse of air that separated them. He rose, his motions cautious. The moment he moved, the timpani in her head grew to pain and she knew somehow the creature had come for them. To challenge this handsome young man.
“Don’t leave me!”
He turned and smiled at her. She knew he was easily reading the fear that was turning her pale features ashen in the glow of the moonlight.
“I have to,” he said. “It’ll be all right, I promise. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“I’m afraid for you.” It was true. Whatever waited was not intent on causing her death. At least not yet. It wanted to feed first... She knew that. She shouldn’t know it. But she did.
“Don’t be afraid,” his soft voice purred in comfort.
Before she could object, he turned to the animal looming in the distance, watching them in motionless curiosity. She felt that it somehow understood every word that had been exchanged. A glance at her companion assured her that he had sensed the creature understood them, too.
* * *
Without warning, he ran toward the animal, a sudden surge of madness telling him surprise was his only weapon. The muddied ground slipped and shifted under his desperate flight, and he was flailing to keep his balance when he realized he was alone again. He bent over, hands on his knees as he dragged in heaving gasps of air, and tried to silence the pounding fury of his heartbeat blocking out everything else.
When the sound of the surf penetrated the roar in his ears, he straightened and looked around, fear whispering insidious laughter in his mind…
He scanned the area, eyes peering intently into the night, trying to see past shadows and terrors real and imagined. Nothing moved, and he relaxed, certain the animal was gone.
Had it ever really been there at all?
The thought had barely formed when the growling began with new intensity, deeper and more menacing. His first thought was for the girl waiting near a dying fire, secure in the knowledge that she was safe, because he was there. He'd never reach her in time if what was waiting in the darkness was as swift as he knew it was.
He started to run, and the menace grew louder, until a vague, dark shape whipped past him as he stumbled in the soggy muck. He called out a warning, but it got lost, and all he could think about was the need to get to her, to protect her. Even if it meant he was the one the monster killed instead.
A scream tore the night to shreds, and he fell, face down in the quagmire, his voice raw with anguish. The sounds that rolled over him were wet, growling, gore-choked…and the screams flooding the night had two voices…both dying…one in terror, one in agony…
* * *
She heard the noises that wafted back to her on the breeze, and the scent of blood made her turn away. She threw up in the sand, retching repeatedly. The rhythmic pulsing had now become doubled, two heartbeats, one in each ear–one was growing stronger and the other was dying...slipping into quiescence as she choked and gasped for air to continue breathing.
The night was growing darker. Impossible she knew, but it was happening. Somehow, the light of the moon was fading into a dull steel grey, not the shimmering silver it had been only minutes earlier. When she looked up at it, her mind recoiled in horror as it began to change color again. Scarlet tendrils were seeping downward, the trickle of crimson blood-like, as though the world itself was pouring out gore. Not a gushing sputter, but a slow, leeching kind of death that was going to swallow her sanity before it consumed her life.
Out of the shadows there was once again the sensation of movement. This time she staggered to her feet, poised to run before she died. There was a single moment, between two pulses of madness, when she felt total peace permeate her soul. It was fleeting, but in the span of two heartbeats, she found understanding that she was somehow safer than she had been since she had run, chasing after the handsome boy.
From the murkiness she heard a soft sigh of sound, a whisper that reached into her terrified mind and calmed it.
He’s gone. Let the beast feed and retreat.
It was a voice she’d heard before. She did not know from where.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Before there was time for an answer, she bent over, arms crossed over her midriff, the sense of being torn in half an anguish that rose from deep within her. “Why?” It felt like a scream inside her head. In reality, it was barely a whisper.
Because your fate was not his, that’s why I am here. To see that you survive.
The answers were spoken in calm, soothing murmurs that drifted to her on the merest ruffle of air. She sat back on her heels and tried to stand, but she was held fast in the shifting, damp sand. Tentacles rose from out of the tumultuous ground and coiled around her ankles, holding her in place.
She screamed...until there was nothing left of her voice but a rasp of tortured horror and pain.
She rolled over onto her back, eyes closed, not willing to fight anymore. The growling rumble of the beast was under her now, she felt the shaking as if the ground was quivering, the tremors finding answer within her. She called out to the creature in the silence, invited him to dine again.
Open your eyes!
The command drilled into her brain as though a dagger had been sunk into her head.
Without thought she obeyed.
The moon glistened again, but the bloody gloss still covered it like a sticky film. It expanded as though drawing breath, then as it sighed softly, the wind blew, and she smiled. Mist coiled from the ground, gliding over her like the hands of a lover, invading every part of her body, draining her of the very essence of life. Just before she lost all awareness, the tendrils of icy flames retreated and she was lifted from the ground.
She turned to see who had come for her, and the handsome boy whose name she could never remember smiled down at her. Deep inside his eye's flames burned, yet his touch was icy. High above them, the silvery moon cleared, and scarlet rain fell as he carried her deeper into the darkness at the edge of her dreams...
© Denysé Bridger