I swing my bow over my shoulder and let my breathing subside from nervous to normal. I fan my gloved hand out and stretch my arms. I never miss a shot. So what happened? My Papa, that’s what.
I was unwilling to let the story rest, so I tortured it and tortured it instead of letting it rest. And when he told me the story, I begged him for answers.
“You won’t like the ending of every story you encounter. And sometimes you won’t like the beginning. But we don’t all choose our stories,” he said to me.
“But I don’t understand.” I shook my head in frustration.
“Not all stories are meant to be understood.”
“Then why tell them?”
“For the sake of telling. Stories give life. Once you set them free you’ve given birth to something. And you also lose part of the life that was beating inside of you. That’s when you hide from the darkness and seek the stars.”
“Is that what you’re doing Papa?” I hesitated. “Are you seeking the stars?”
He nodded solemnly, a rough smile hardening around his mouth, and began to tell me the story in disjointed stops and starts. Hesitant at first, then blossoming in color and life. “It all began with Jhudora. You do know Jhudora don’t you?”
“Yes of course Papa!” I shouted with abandon, warm violets and emeralds seemed to bathe me in their soft glow.
“And so it begins,” he said softly. *
“The ice hunts the winter, and I am left broken and empty unless I am creating something.”
Jhudora looked down on the crestfallen dark head before her. The prostrate body, the heaving chest. Pale little hands clutching at empty air, supplicating at the starlight for freedom. Tealia. Her name stung Jhudora’s tongue.
Jhudora brought her fist down hard.
“You are one of the Hunted now.”
A blast of frost hissed over the ground, shivering to a stop at Jhudora’s feet. “Flee from this place.” She was not certain who had said it, but the words hung there, solid as the ice at her feet.
Fat drops of snow began to fall gently, hesitantly to the ground. The quiet stillness filled Jhudora’s ears, the beauty of the silence impacting her. The snow began to pick up speed, so slowly that she did not notice until it nearly blinded her. Bitter flakes stung her cheeks and limps, painting them red and blue with burns and frost.
When the snow quieted, at last holding its breath, Taelia was gone. *
“Is that the end Papa?” I asked him with true sadness, longing for him to continue.
“Not all stories have endings child, at least not what you think is an ending.”
“So that’s it?”
“No,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “There’s more, but the story starts somewhere else now.”*
“Did you hear that?” The small brown Symol asked. The tunnel swelled with sound, or maybe it didn’t. He was beginning to grow very uncertain.
“Hear what, Mickel?” his digging partner Sims asked. His claws were dripping with dirt, they hit the earth with soft plunks and Mickel watched them with a growing fascination. Satisfaction almost.
A soft buzzing, a small hum, thrummed through the earth. “It feels like its stomach is growling,” Sims said with a soft huff of a laugh. Mickel didn’t laugh.
He scurried forward, desperate to barrel through more dirt. To heft it to the side and feel it slither satisfactorily down, to settle, to shift away from him. Something was very wrong. Mickel felt as though they weren’t alone in the tunnel, as though something was waiting just out of sight. He was afraid to turn his back on it. The light on his headlamp pulsed with a golden, almost buttery light. It coated everything in a sickly yellow and began to fill his stomach with a pit of dread. He could feel something looming, some grim specter come to seize the shadows.
Yawning blackness behind, he couldn’t penetrate its heaviness. The tunnel was draped in a heavy velvet cloth for all he could pierce the physical dark. Sims began pushing dirt aside and tunneling on ahead. Mickel could just see Sims’ feet sticking out, digging deeper and deeper when a rattling began. A deep sense of foreboding rested itself heavily on Mickel, but he stood still, listening.
Rattle, crackle, shiver, thump.
“Sims? Is that you?”
‘What is that noise, you ask? What is that sound?’
Mickel froze, he could feel the words, taste them, more than hear them. And they hadn’t come from Sims.
‘Tis only my bones, they’re afraid of the ground. ‘
Rattle, crackle, shiver, thump.
Mickel whipped his head from side to side, not certain if the voice was coming from behind him or ahead of him.
“Sims?” he managed to croak out. His voice felt thick, muffled. Behind him, the darkness seemed to be growing, shadows moving where no shadow belonged.
‘Fortune’s wheel is faster now, picking up speed’
Mickel watched in horror as his headlamp flickered and stuttered out, zippering him into an eternal darkness.
‘The place is Midnight, where shadows breed.’
Mickel began digging frantically, not knowing if perhaps he was digging straight down, to settle his bones in the earth.
‘Have you the courage, have you the heart?’
The coolness of the earth scorched him with fiery ice, he yelped but kept digging, dirt clouding his vision. He could see nothing, and the shivering dirt around him offered no salvation, no hope.
‘So here we are, let me ask, shall we start?’
A slithery form wavered and shifted in the oppressive air around him. A shadow Usul solidified, its glowing eyes piercing him to the earth on which he sat.
‘These mines are ours. Surrender.’
“Hannah will save me,” Mickel tried to put steel into his words, hoping against hope that his shuddering wasn’t as obvious to the Usul as it was to himself.
A thick, pleasant laugh slithered through the air. It latched onto Mickel and wove round and round his head, diving into his ears with a soft snick. “Hannah isn’t here to save you little Symol. She has no idea of your plight nor your terror.” Shadows deepened around her, heightening the glow of her eyes. Her gaze was as aloof as the moon, chilling and silver and golden.
“Jhudora sent me to weaken the earth under Terror Mountain. You just happen to be in the way,” the Usul said quietly. “You are one of the Hunted now,” she said quietly. So quietly that Mickel had to snatch the words out of the air to hear them. He turned and fled, burrowing and burrowing until dirt felt like air and it filled his mouth and he breathed it in.
But still he burrowed on and on. Stories clashing and converging in his head. But where was the end?*
“But that can’t be the end Papa!” I shouted restlessly. I huffed my dark curtain of hair out of my face. I brushed my tail out from under me and sidled up closer to my Papa. It had been so long since I’d been able to come home and see him.
“No, it’s not,” his face was ashen and still as stone.
“Then how does it end?”
“You are one of the Hunted now,” he whispered.
“She is coming for you Hannah, she’s coming.” *
Now I shoulder my bow and push my way forward, towards Jhudora. Towards the end. Who is Hunted now?