By Ben Detiveaux
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
You left your mother a year ago.
Since then you have survived on scraps long since rotten. Warped purple tubers dug up from dirt that burn your fingers and slack greens tasting of sour water sprouting around the puddles of the gray pathway.
You have slept in barkless trees and in the crumbled caves that dot the pathway. You know which parts are best for sleeping, which are softest and yield to your body when you lay upon them. They are a curious thing, these caves, but they are comfortable and, most importantly, they are safe. Your mother has taught you well.
It is in these decrepit trees and lonesome caves that you try to hide from the wandering eyes of scavengers. You cling to slick branches or press yourself tight against damp walls. You are strong; your mother raised you such, but they are many.
And you are alone.
Months tick by, gauged by the rising and setting of the sun and the shedding of sulphuric green leaves by smooth-trunked trees. Your feet rub raw, bleed, and rub raw again while towering spires of mountains, the home you have always known, fade away in the distance.
One day, you realize, you can no longer see your home. You are in a pasture of gray snow and scattered patches of thin grass that crunch under your feet and leak a bitter ichor.
It is only once the snow has melted, and the sun is once again behind the steady, acrid haze of spring, that you spot your first prey. It is a small, four-legged beast that watches you through the curves of its horns. It is silent.
When you approach, your hands clutching the sharp spear your mother taught you to craft from a warped branch, its eyes widen in fear, and it is gone before you manage so much as a third step.
Three more weeks of scraps. Three more weeks of hunger pangs before this hunting ground provides a new challenge. A surprisingly plump rabbit, hopping between patches of clay-colored grass.
This time, you do as your mother bid you. You stand as still as the paintings she would point out, the ones that were held in the sky by brackets of metal. You emulate them, the sweat under your palms greasing the makeshift spear, and wait until the muscles in your shoulders sear with pain and sweat begins to drip from your forearms.
It is a good thing you have your mother’s eyes. The kind that see through shadows to the creatures hiding within, because the gray-tinged sun dips low in the horizon before the hare hops close enough for you to strike.
You were patient. Now you can be quick.
You bring the spear down, muscles gasping in sweet relief as they release. The beast speaks to you, begs against this brutal end, but only for a moment.
You toss the bloodied spear aside and greedily reach for your kill.
The scent of blood and the sudden wettening of your mouth are a forewarning of the urge. Your mother’s strict instruction disappears, lost in the need to rip your still twitching prey apart. To tear the bones free and gnaw into the meat. To slurp greedily at the fat and muscle, to swallow blood and tissue.
You are so very close to gorging yourself before you regain control, teeth inches from the dripping carcass. You force yourself to lower your kill, to stall the eating.
It is the hardest thing you have ever done.
Fighting the urge that burns inside you with a sick, pulsing heat, you hide the body in the darkest depths of a nearby cave. You gather the reagents for the summoning, the blood on your hands smearing faint streaks of red on twigs and dried grass.
You place the sacred kindling in the center of the cave, forming it into the jagged, arcane symbols your mother taught, and whisper the rasping holy words she spoke. The ritual is a slow one. It requires several attempts before it calls the demon from beyond. They are temperamental beings, your mother would say. You must respect them.
When the magic strikes, the demon appears in a rush of heat that burns your cheeks. The incorporeal fiend flickers; its many tongues wrap around the reagents you gathered. It hungers. Always. Its cackles disrupt the dark quiet surrounding you while you offer it strips of fat as an offering before the feast.
Slowly, the demon consumes the red meat and drops of blood you so desperately wish to taste. It has its fill of these precious parts, those you savor most. The corpse of your prey is charred black. You are free to eat.
This is the sacrifice for a good hunt.
Your food tastes just as good as your mother’s. You think of her as the burnt flesh crunches between your teeth. Her strict guidance in the spires of your home, her gentle songs to pass the nights you could not sleep, and the day you had to leave, when she kissed your head and ushered you away.
Because now you are old enough to be alone.
The demon watches you. Its body burns low, the cackles lessen. Its incandescent glow casts long shadows against the cave’s walls as it slumbers.
You scoot forward and lay near the beast’s warmth. With your belly full of meat and your side heated by the fiend you successfully conjured, you slip into the loving grasp of sleep.
Your mother would be proud.