What was that? He stopped his scream and sat up, mouth still open. Just behind a nearby bush, there had been a cough. No, not a cough, it sounded more like a choking dog. An awful sound, but yet, nothing was there. And then Joshua’s heart stopped. The beasts…the beasts they had told him about. They were real.
Fear struck him immediately as his eyes poured into the area of the sound, desperately searching for its source. Too afraid to blink, he slowly stood, fighting to remain silent. His first instinct was to shout for help, but no one was around to hear him. Then it came again. This time, louder and longer, similar to a man gasping for air, but deep, almost wet sounding, it came and was followed by silence, but only for a moment. At the second sound, Joshua bolted forward.
The forest was painted black with night and where he ran he did not know as long as it was far from the source of the sound. Filled with new energy, he sprinted blindly through the foliage, pushing himself to his limits. He was sure he had never run as fast or as long in his life, until other loud, terrible noises rang out. Whatever that was, it was following him. A sudden misstep caused him to stumble forward, and when he stood upright again, he ran headlong into a low branch, which knocked him onto his back.
Groaning and rolling onto his side, he listened as the sound of his running feet no longer covered the hundreds of other footsteps that pressed the grass behind him. They were multiplying. He yanked at the grass and pulled himself forward and sprang upwards and hurdled shapes that covered the ground cautiously, working to not fall again. Suddenly, before he could stop, he found himself running towards a drop-off. Left with no option but to jump, he spotted a sufficiently thick branch sticking out just beyond the ledge, waiting for him.
With one last step, he pushed off of the ground, soaring through the air, arms flailing until his chest collided with the branch. Throwing his arms over it, he squeezed himself to it. The ledge had to be a drop of nearly twenty feet, as he looked down to a night so dark he could barely see his own feet hanging below him, with no ground in sight. The branch held strong, but the tree itself cringed as the rotting roots gave away and it began to tip, falling faster and faster until it stopped suddenly as the trunk collided with another tree. The stop took Joshua by surprise and he lost his grip, falling a meter to the ground below him, and rolled out of the way in time to watch the massive trunk smash onto the ground where he had been laying.
Looking up towards the ledge, which was made visible because from moon that had risen behind it, he saw a dozen, and then two dozen, and then three dozen figures approach the cliff.
They stared down at him.
Standing on two legs, their hunched and twisted forms angled oddly in a sick mockery of a human imitation. Many of them twitched spastically as if it were impossible for them to be still. Low, awful voices whispered to one another for a moment, before a shout behind them caught their attention, and they vanished, chasing whatever it was above. Climbing to his feet, Joshua continued forward, unable to keep up a sprint. His legs burned and wobbled as he moved and his lungs felt like old cloth, worn to rags. He could not stop, but he could not keep moving.
The trees began to disappear as he entered an illuminated clearing. Stopping just short of the moonlight, he stared forward to find a village sitting peacefully four hundred yards away peacefully, offering to protect him. He quickly weighed his options of staying hidden in the trees but having no idea what surrounded him, or bolting into the light and revealing himself but also possibly making it to the village and finding help. What would he do alone in the forest? Any hiding place chose might just as well be hiding the creatures that searched for him. He could feel their eyes watching him from the tree tops and the shadows of the thickets. The forest was dangerous. He had to risk the run to the village. He ran forward, wincing as his figure entered the moonlight, and yet there was no response. All was still as he approached the nearby houses.
He found the nearest house, where a small man sat sleeping in his rocking chair. Throwing a hand onto the man’s shoulder, Joshua tried to whisper could only gasp loudly, “Help…please…they are coming…” He nearly choked on his own shock as his fingers found the cold, moist fabric of the stranger’s shirt. Snapping his hand away, he felt a cold liquid kiss his fingers. The moonlight revealed blood that had climbed onto him from the man’s soaked clothing. The jolt of Joshua releasing him caused the man to fall from his chair, face first onto the ground into a crumpled heap. He was dead.
Lifting his eyes, Joshua looked up to find hundreds of corpses lining the ground. Many of the houses had been pillaged and destroyed, and yet everything was silent. The silence was deafening as his heartbeat resounded in his ears and his own breathing felt as loud as screaming elephants, for he was the only sound in the entire village.
He clutched the porch’s pillar beside him as his exhaustion overcame his terror momentarily. Pain racked his lungs with every breath as his inhales seemed to swallow all the air around him. His body throbbed and swelled with his breathing and his legs trembled beneath him, threatening to give out. He considered sitting down, sudden throaty howls echoed into the air. The world seemed to fold in on him as he stood straight and realized beasts had left the forest and entering the clearing. They had found him.
Shrieks and snarls grew louder as hundreds of footsteps sounded out from the field behind the village. Joshua almost sobbed in fear and frustration as he jumped into the dead man’s house, eyes darting for a place to hide. Deciding between the closet and the bed, he changed his mind, choosing the large chest that sat at the foot of the bed. Opening it and throwing the blankets out, he climbed into the box and pulled a blanket over him and closed the lid just in time to hear the roars of the beasts as they entered the streets of the village. He watched through a crack in the wood of the chest as they entered the streets and began to attack the corpses to be sure none of them were faking dead. The shadows hid their true appearance from him, but their rabid movements caused him to tremble in his box. A box that could quite possible become his coffin.
Then all was dark. Painfully dark. One of the beasts blocked the moonlight, standing in the doorway. The light seemed to bend around it as its silent presence stood at the house’s opening. Exhale. Most of its features were hidden in the shadows, but he could tell its head was slowly moving side to side, scanning the room. Exhale. While the roars of the beasts outside resounded strongly, the room seemed to be silent as the monster took a step forward. Exhale. A small thud of its heavy foot against the wooden floor sounded, followed by another as it slowly entered the house. Exhale. Its breathing was heavy and bubbly, like breathing through a throat full of mucus. Exhale. Steam seeped from its invisible lips as its warm breath entered the chilled air. Exhale. Joshua threw his hand up to cover his own mouth, which was still wheezing loudly, hoping to stifle the noise. Exhale.
And then there were two. A second entered behind the first, whipping its head quickly from left to right, before it spoke.
“We’re wasting time,” it said in a dark rattle of a voice. “Why would he come back here?”
“Where else would he go?” said the first, which was considerably bigger.
“He’s got to be moving still. This place would only trap him. If we wait too long, then he’ll reach the castle. We have to find him tonight.” The larger turned, towering over the smaller, looking down on him like an angry father.
“We search every house,” he growled. “Gather every hunter.” The smaller nearly responded, but was stopped by a man’s shout in the distance.
They were gone. In an instant, the streets emptied as the monsters vanished, sprinting silently back into the forest. Moonlight spilled back into the room. Joshua was left alone.