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I have seen nothing but red mountainous rocks before me for hours. This passage seems to go on forever. Rock walls stretch far above my head and seem to touch the clouds. The sun is directly overhead so it is impossible to seek shade. My right arm is slightly torn just above the elbow and it throbs painfully with each anxious beat of my heart. I clutch my sword tightly for it is my best hope of survival. In my other hand I hold a small, bloody parchment. It is a letter written by my best friend. He gave it to me while taking his last breath.
The light reflects off of the rocks and almost blinds me. Sweat stings my eyes, but I keep them open; I must remain alert. From up above I hear a commotion and a rock comes tumbling down the cliffs. It would be best to keep moving. Whatever is was that killed Gilias is still out there, waiting for me. There were five of us in all; two disappeared after the third night, one was taken from us as we walked, and Gilias and I were attacked just moments ago.
Before entering the canyon, the five of us were joking, and laughing, and talking about what we’d do after the army. Our battalion was sent on one last mission and we were now returning home. Eric said he wanted to be a blacksmith; he was always the one that made our wooden swords when we would pretend to be bold knights fearlessly going on the most daring adventures. Now everyone but me had perished on one of these adventures. Franz dreamed of being a cook in the royal court; whenever we hunted down a rabbit or a squirrel, he would be the first to build a fire and order us about, as though we were in a kitchen. They were the ones to disappear that third night after entering the canyon. We searched for hours unaware of the dire peril they were in, until Edmond was taken.
I suddenly become aware of a presence watching my every move. I must escape this canyon. My leg is numb where the beast slashed it; all I can feel right now is my arm, for it is impossible to feel two pains at once. It is better this way. I need my legs more than my arms right now. I look back to a large bend and see a shadow disappear behind the rock wall. It’s stalking me. In all the years of my life I was always the predator. Be it rabbit, dear, or enemy soldier, I was the one who instilled fear in that which was my prey. But now it is I who feel the fear. My armor grows hot from the burning sunlight, and my boots of dark leather are sweltering.
Suddenly, up ahead I see a man propped up against a rock. I rush forward to find my friend Roderick. He looks up at me, straining with tired eyes against the sun. He opens his mouth to speak but blood pours from it. “ I’ll get you out of here,” I say, but I know he will probably not survive. His armor has been torn from him and his stomach is in shreds. As I begin to help him up, his eyes suddenly become wide, staring at something behind me. I quickly spin around and feel an immense force strike me to the side. For a moment everything goes into a blur. I hear Roderick scream as he is dragged away.
I pull myself together and stand up wearily. I look around. Roderick is nowhere in sight but there is a trail of red in the dirt leading into the direction from which I came. I continue onward. Soon I see another soldier. This is Pastor and he seems to be fairing much better than Roderick. He is bruised and his armor is a bit damaged, but he appears to be mostly sound.
“I am glad to see you,” says Pastor with a big grin. “That thing had me in the dark and I thought I was done for but it suddenly threw me out into the open.”
“Can you walk?” I ask him.
“I think so. Where’s Gilias?”
The only thing harder than witnessing a friend’s death is having to tell another friend about it.
“He was killed.”
Pastor is motionless. Any more description of the attack and I would have relived it in my mind then and there.
“Well, we had best get moving.” Says Pastor.
I help him to his feet and lend him my shoulder. Pastor has always been the fragile one so it beats me why now he is so unscathed. When we would hold mock jousting competitions as boys, he would always be the first to be thrown to the ground in tears. But in this moment when everyone else has perished, he looks stronger than ever. I look up at the rocks and see a flash of white.
We continue onward as fast as possible. Once again I am overcome by the feeling of being followed. Something strikes me from behind. Pastor and I are hurtled forward onto the dry, thirsty ground. We both draw our swords and look about. I stand up, but Pastor only has the strength to kneel. From up above, rocks begin reigning down on us. I try to dodge the rocks while at the same time shield Pastor. The creature hurtles towards us. I stand in front of Pastor to try and take the brunt of the attack. I can hardly see through all of the rocks and dust but I know it is nearly upon us. I see a great white shape fly over my head and then feel something crash into me from behind.
My head strikes a rock, but I still have my helmet on so I am only dazed for a moment. A searing pain in my back keeps me from losing consciousness. Pastor hits the ground beside me, facing away from me. My heart races and I forget my pain for a moment. Slowly I look back and see that his back has been ripped open and entrails are lying about everywhere.
What is this thing that wants me to see all of my friends killed. It would have been much more simple to kill us both instead of pushing me out of the way. I feel my back and find a huge gash made by a single claw. All around me, among the carnage, there are strange footprints that have a heel and one claw. This is no creature I have ever seen before. I clench my teeth through the pain and hurry onward. The passage can’t go on for much longer for it was only a four-day journey going through the other way. That was when I had my comrades- and my friends- at my side. We were carefree then, for many of the horrors that plague older men were not known to us. Now I am among those that will have a past scarred by loss and tragedy. Only in the span of a few hours have I been changed.
The rocks are alive with movement. I draw my sword and am ready to cut down this vile creature that has killed my friends. I see a dark shape rapidly approaching from above. It is a body. It strikes the ground with a dull thud and sends up a cloud of bloody dust. It was Roderick. Only now he is a twisted, mangled, bloody mass that can only be distinguished by the bear-claw necklace he wears.
I kneel down and take hold of the necklace. I remember exactly how Roderick came by it. For his eighth birthday we all pitched in to buy him the goat that he always wanted. He adored the goat he called Bert, and we would often go on expeditions on the hills near the village with the goat leading the way, and then give him bits of our lunches that our mothers packed for us. But one day a bear killed Bert. Bert’s death left Roderick so distraught that we all decided to hunt down the bear. We found the bear a few days later with Bert’s remains nearby, and with one shot of Roderick’s well-aimed bow, killed that bear. Roderick wore the bear’s claws from then on to remember Bert.
But now he is dead. I remove the necklace and carefully place it in my pouch. Once again I hear a sound behind me. This time I do not hesitate and take a blind swing at whatever it is. My sword strikes flesh and I rush forward, blind with rage. I see teeth and white fur, but not much else as I furiously stab at the creature. I push it back further and further until it lets out a terrible high-pith screech that brings me to my knees. I cover my ears and bury my head in the earth knowing that I am as vulnerable as a child. But the creature is injured and disappears once again.
I stand up and look around.
“So! Running away again?” I cry. “Why don’t you come out and fight me you coward?”
Only silence answers my clamors.
I find myself running, hopefully in the right direction, but I am not certain anymore. I remember running races with Franz and always winning by yards, for he was rather plump. He would have made an excellent cook.
As I come to the crest of an incline I see the opening of the canyon far ahead. Beyond that I know is the village and my hometown, with all of our mothers preparing a wonderful feast for our return home. Only there will be no feast, no celebration, only funerals. My mother alone will be comforted with my return, but all those others will have no one to embrace in the street and welcome home, no one to kiss goodnight, only a silent memory.
I realize that I cannot return home without slaying the beast that took my friends’ lives. I cannot go on without knowing that it lays dead. If there were a thousand such creatures roaming the countryside, each identical in all aspects, only this one would matter. I glance at my sword and see large, glistening splotches of blood; the creature is wounded and will not return to torment me for some time. I look at the village once again. Either my mother or those other four will be at peace. I sit down and quickly scribble a note on the back of Gilias’ parchment telling what happened if I were not to survive, then I set to work.
I begin to dig out loose rocks with my sword and stack them up on one another. I work until the sun has long since crossed the crown of the meridian. My back has become numb and my arm had all but ceased to function, but I have my trap set. I stand up and begin walking back towards the heart of the canyon, keeping constant vigilance of all my surroundings. Then I hear it on the rocks up above.
“Ha! I didn’t think you’d show yourself to me again. So are you going to strike and then vanish like you did with everyone else, and then let me bleed until some wary traveler can watch me die? Is that what you enjoy, someone else’s pain as they are dying? Like the devil you are. And like a varmint I will remove you from this place! I will kill you like you killed all those others, and I will enjoy watching the life slowly ebb away from you.”
I hear it approaching. I turn and run. I am suddenly aware of all the pains that had long since vanished; my back stings and my arm burns. I also realize everything I had said. I was so full of rage that I had seemed to become as inhuman as that beast.
My trap lies just ahead and I fight to take in each painful breath. I see the trigger for the trap and strike it with my sword as I run past. With the one rock holding up all the others, a massive wall comes crashing down behind me. I hear the awful screech, and the crushing of bones.
I finally stop and turn around. I see nothing but dust and piles of rock. The trap worked, but I want to see it. I know it could not have survived this, but I want to see the lights leave its eyes. A part of me tries to pull me away; it is either dead or will not survive much longer. All of my friends have been avenged, but I take a step towards it anyway. I think of Roderick after slaying the bear. He wept over its body and gave it a proper burial after removing the claws that had killed his goat. I take another step. I think of my mother waiting for me at home. If I stop now I will be able to see the tears of joy in her eyes for my return home…but I must see the creature. I must see the face that my four best friends saw in their last moments. I approach the ruble and see a large claw protruding from it. All of the thoughts inside my head become a swirl as I try to picture the dying face. I picture the pain it feels as it struggles to breath, but in vain. I am comforted by this thought. I push a large rock aside and stand back. I am so close now. I hear the creature take a hoarse, painful breath.
“Soon you will be dead,” I say quietly, “and I will watch you die.”
I lean over the hole and see it’s face. Our eyes meet for an instant that feels like and eternity. With its last bit of life the creature lashes out at me, striking me. I slump over next to it and see in its face the pain of approaching death, and of slowly being swallowed up by the unknown darkness. This pain has now become my own.