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The Butcher's Apprentice
“Oh man,” thought Jack. His eyes shifted between the alleyway and the main road, large thunderheads reflected in the blue circles. He opted for the alley and ducked behind the compost pile as Mark ran by. Mark was the town butcher and meat vender, and right now he had a sharp cleaver with Jack’s name on it.
If Jack had learned anything over the years, it was that stealing was easy. But while it may have been convenient, it was not safe. Not by a long shot. This was what Jack was thinking as he was leaving the compost pile, clutching a pack of long meat strips in his hand. But as he walked out of the alley and back on the cobblestone main road, he felt the butcher’s greasy hands around his neck, and putrid breath in his face.
“Now listen here street rat,” said the butcher in his gravelly voice. “You’re going to come back to the shop and work for me.”
“And if I don’t?” replied Jack in a confident but unsure tone.
“Then I’ll kill you right here.” Jack was surprised, but not taken aback.
“You’d never get away with it.” Jack said with a sly grin playing at his lips.
“Oh wouldn’t I?” Mark replied, his evil breath rolling down his chin and onto Jack’s shifting eyes like the thick smoke in Big Town.
“I would grind you up with the meat!” And with that he laughed, a deep sound that made his shoulder length blonde hair quiver and shake. “What do you say, boy?”
“Fine.” scoffed Jack.
“Now that’s a good rat,” replied Mark, tousling the boy’s long black hair. Jack slapped his hand away.
“What do I get paid?”
The butcher stepped back and looked at Jack, as if to appraise him. He stroked his blonde stubble and smiled, showing his surprisingly well kept teeth. “You can keep the meat.”
And with that, the rain came down hard, and Mark, with Jack in tow, went to the butchery. As they walked down the wet roads and back alleys, the boy contemplated what he had done. Sure, he saved his hide, but at what cost? For all he knew, the butcher could have been taking him straight to The Enforcement Agency. And then they arrived at the meat stall.
Jack had never been inside the butchery itself, just out beside the broken down meat stall. He was in for a surprise. The first thing that hit him was the smell. A disgusting, coppery odor that never got better, no matter how long you stayed in that cesspool. It smelled like Death. Then there was the blood. All over the walls, the table, and even the roof. Fresh blood seeped and oozed between the cracks in the white tiles. It had this shiny tone, caused by the electric fluorescent lights above.
The butchery was one of the only places with electricity in The Commons. “Alright boy, your room is down the hall,” Mark grunted , flopping down in a chair. “Now leave me in peace.” Jack was shocked. His own room? As he walked down the dingy hall he heard the heavy thud of a deadbolt on the front door. He arrived at his room. It could hardly be called a bathroom, much less his sleeping quarters.
His “room” used to be the meat locker before they got an electric freezer. In a neat row, below where the meat hooks used to be, were pools of dried blood. They still smelled rank even months after they had dried. And to top it all off, there was a hole in the crumbling old roof. The only consolation he had was a mat on the floor. This struck him as odd. Had Mark known he was coming?
Just as he sat down on the moth ridden mat, he heard Mark’s unsympathetic voice call from the main room. “Go to bed, Jack. You got a big day tomorrow!” Jack sighed and lay his head on the top end of the mat. The last thing he heard before falling asleep was mice under the floorboards. But wasn’t it too cold for mice? “Oh well,” thought Jack, and drifted into a deep sleep.
Jack woke to a cold and foggy morning. He stumbled into the main room and found Mark slicing the head off a pig. It rolled off the table and onto the floor with a squelching plop. “What’s for breakfast?” Jack said with a yawn.
“Bacon strips.” Mark grumbled. “It’s on the end table”
But before Jack could grab a piece of warm, sizzling bacon, Mark interrupted.
“Pick that pig head up, would you boy?” Jack grimaced, and obeyed.
After breakfast Jack had to help the butcher cut the excess fat off the dead pigs. It was painstakingly slow, but at about noon the work was done. “Can I trust you boy?” Mark asked, glaring intently at Jack.
“Yes sir,” came Jack’s forced response.
“Then there is something I want to show you. But it must wait till dusk.”
A nervous Jack waited as the hours ticked by, sure it was some kind of trap. But, just as the clock hit eight o clock, Mark called from the main room. Jack walked in to a stern Mark gazing about the room, almost nervously. “What I am about to show you,” the man said in a quivering whisper, “Must never be repeated to anyone.” Jack, now even more nervous, replied cautiously,
Mark swiftly moved across the room to the far right corner, and pulled up a worn, loose tile. Then another. Then five more. Soon there was a sizeable hole in the bloody floor.
“Come” whispered Mark. Jack blindly crawled into the dark hole after the man.
He found that he could stand up after a bit, and did so. He felt Mark’s breath very close, and it made him jump. “Welcome,” the butcher said in a tone of almost reverence, “To Blood Caverns!” And he lit a torch. The cave was massive, at least twice the size of the shop above it. The walls dripped blood, the blood from up above, seeping under the tiles. The cave was essentially a large hole in the ground with a path winding around it. At the bottom of the hole was a large, bloody machine, and a cage. Inside the cage were children. Kicking, screaming children.
Jack spotted something odd. Six people in dark red robes. They were standing by the cages, unmoving. Mark led him down the spiral path to the bottom of the cave. When they reached the bottom, Mark whispered something to one of the hooded men. They proceeded to scurry out of the deep cavern. Mark walked over to the hulking machine and patted a small panel on the side. “This is the grinder.” Mark shouted over the screams of the children, which had increased since they saw Jack. The boy’s eyes widened.
“Let me demonstrate,” said the butcher as he opened a slat on the cage and pulled out a boy of about seven or eight years old. Mark swung the small child, now too shocked to scream or cry, into a hole on the grinder. “Observe,” Mark crooned. And with a smile, he pushed a button on the small panel. What followed was too vile and disgusting for description, but Jack continued to retch long after the machine had cut off.
“Why?!” Jack screamed after he had regained control over his stomach. “Why do you do this?”
“The most tender of all meat comes from children.” The smell of fresh blood was beginning to fill the cavern. “Now,” Mark whispered, “I give you a choice.” The cavern was silent for a few moments. Jack noticed that the caged children had stopped screaming, and were staring intently at him. “Please Jack, become my apprentice.”
“Are you crazy?! And help you do this? Never! What’s the other option.”
“The other option….is The Hunt”
The children began to whisper amongst themselves, casting glances at Jack all the while. “The rules of the hunt are as follows: You, and a lucky child from the cage here, get six minutes to escape into the city. After those six minutes are up, we come find you. And then we kill you. If you manage to get past the city limits, you win.”
Jack was blown away. He knew every back road in The Commons. Every alleyway and main street. You name it, he knew it. Suddenly a chant began to rise from the cage. “Hunt! Hunt! Hunt! Hunt!” It increased in volume with every word, until at the peak of the roar: “I’ll take The Hunt!” The scream was from Jack, and after he had let it out, a deathly silence fell over the caverns. It was as if those four words had caused the end of the world.
“Very well boy,” Mark responded with a tone of deep sadness in his voice. “Who do you want to accompany you?” Jack looked over at the cage, the gears in his mind turning.
“I’ll take that small boy. The one in the very back.”
Then, as if by magic, all the screams started up again. All, save one. The very small boy, who looked about six, was laughing and jumping up and down. “Don’t get too excited,” thought Jack. “It’s not over yet.” Mark plucked the boy from the cave and gave him to Jack. The boy crawled onto his back and kissed his cheeks.
“We must go back upstairs.” said the butcher, with that tone of sadness still evident. Upon arriving, Jack was surprised to see those six hooded men, standing in two perfect rows in the main room. “He has chosen the hunt,” Mark proclaimed solemnly. The men rustled, but soon were quiet again. “Draw arms!” Mark shouted. The four men in the back pulled cleavers out of the folds in their robes. But the two men up front pulled out two parlor pistols, with silver inlay. They gleamed menacingly.
“Run boy!” That was all Jack needed to hear. He bolted out the door and down the street. The small boy was hanging on, clutching Jack’s neck with more force than Jack would have thought possible. But he hadn’t gotten twenty feet from the door when he heard the thudding of boots on the cobblestones. Jack came to a horrible realization. He had been tricked. Deceived. Duped by Mark the butcher.
“Oh well,” thought Jack as the first musket ball sunk into his calf. The blood pulsed and oozed out of the wound. “I had a good life, right?” Jack was still running as best he could. He remembered fondly of those times when he had hitched rides on food stalls, and played with his friends in the junkyard. The small boy had long since dropped off of Jack and scurried away to freedom. Another bullet, in the collarbone. Tears were flowing freely down Jack’s dirty face. One more round, in his lower back. As Jack fell, he wished he had known his parents. And as he lay there, bloody, bruised, and dirty, he wished most of all that he could have amounted to something in his short life. Soon Mark was upon him, leaning over his battered frame.
“I’m sorry boy. I really am.” And Mark raised his cleaver. It shined in the sunlight just the way the silver ring did when Jack and his best friend had found it in the dumpster. Shined like those silver coins he found on walks. Shined like those odd pieces of metal his old hound would bring him. Shined like the moon on those many nights that he didn’t have a place to sleep.
“Oh man,” thought Jack as the cleaver fell.