The Hunted

The Hunted

The sun was soon fading from the horizon, and the cold night was creeping upon them like a strange shadow. The light of day that protected them thus far soon began to wane, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. As the sun moved away into the depths of the horizon, the stars peeked into the night, aroused from their celestial retreat. The moon seemed missing tonight, but stars more than made up for it, as starlight caught their every movement in its eerie embrace. For tonight, the stars were not kind specks of night sky, lending man a glimpse into the heavens.

Tonight, the stars yearned for blood.

Panting from exhaustion, Maxi looked at his companion, whose sullen faced told him that he had all but given up. The field upon which they stood was home to beasts of almost every kind. None of them were friendly. Each protected its territory with a cold ruthlessness. Shrubbery extended over some parts towards the east, peppered by giant oak trees that seemed to extend indefinitely into the night sky. Tall grass extended in all directions, except for a patch far north, that seemed strangely barren. Towards the west lay a thick jungle, beyond which a swamp stretched on miles and miles, where insects the size of a human fist buzzed around with sharp stingers. It is said that their venom contains a peculiar poison that temporarily paralyzes the body, while the rest of the swarm gathers around and pecks at your flesh. A slow, horrible death.

Out on the open grasslands, Maxi could only think that this was the safest place to be. Further south, all he could see was more and more grass, shorter than he was right now. No room to hide, and no way to remain hidden, he thought. While the north also offered a similar possibility, but he was wary of the vast barren land. There was something strange about it: it just started too abruptly.

He had made up his mind. Maxi dragged his wary companion forward, as he trudged through the tall grass. The silence of the dead night was broken only by the chirp of crickets in the distance. Suddenly, something jumped at him.

BUZZ! The grasshopper landed on another stalk, just about avoiding his face. Maxi composed himself. He didn’t like insects. Especially the big winged ones. And the grasshoppers here seemed larger than usual. Or was that just his imagination?

Brad didn’t seem to think so.

That’s the least of our problems though, he had said. Maxi tried to remember Brad’s brave little face, as they had set off in the beginning. Brad’s a well-built lad, who swam for the district team. He also ran sprints and dodged ball.

Tonight though, he was a shell of his former self. Something had frightened him back there, and sucked the life out of him. His eyes now stared into the distance, almost lifeless, and his face was as white as a sheet. Every time they stopped for a breather, he curled up into ball, muttering to himself.

Maxi snapped out his little reverie and continued trudging.

There must be a way! he said to himself, as he dragged a lifeless Brad along by his collar. The cricket chirps were getting louder and louder as they moved further. Many more grasshoppers seemed to jump at him, and he swatted them away in a strange panic. He started to run now, and all manner of insects rugged at his clothes and bit into his skin. Mosquitoes buzzed around his ear, and then his arms and feet. Maxi felt an urge to stop and scratch, but he resisted, for he knew that would be the end of him. He closed his eyes, and ran some more, and more insects continued to hunt greedily for his skin.

Until they stopped.

The chirping died down, and the insects stopped. Maxi allowed himself a moment to rest, and to collect his thoughts.

He forced himself to look at his arm. It was cut and torn in some places, while some patches had inflamed into an unsavory purple. He would choose cuts and purple patches over getting killed any day though.

He noticed Brad had similar patches on his face and arms too. He had curled up into a ball again. But this time, he was dead silent.

Maxi got up, and started to walk again.

Brad, get up will you? I wouldn’t mind leaving you here, he said and walked a few paces, before turning back. Brad had not moved an inch.

But he was now whimpering. Maxi sighed and walked back to Brad, who was now whimpering louder than usual. He dragged him up and smacked him in the face.

Get it together man! he cried, and started shaking him by the shoulders. But the whimpering only got louder. Maxi stopped shaking him and looked into his eyes, which were now tearing up. Then he shook him even harder. His whimpering now reached a climax, and slowly turned to begging.

Please, please, no, he said softly, as Maxi now renewed his attempt to drag him along.

Please, no, he muttered again, but wouldn’t move an inch. Slowly, his pleading got louder, and louder, as Maxi widened his eyes in alarm.

He moved back to his friend and decided to lift him over his shoulder, and drag him along. Whatever’s out there, it would find them if he didn’t keep moving. If they didn’t keep moving.

As he held Maxi by the shoulder again, he noticed his face beginning to change. His boils became darker, and turned to a shade of deep maroon. His mouth became wider, and his tongue grew longer, as it laced over sharp teeth that glinted off the mean starlight. His pupils slowly narrowed, while his eyes turned a hungry yellow, that seemed to bore into Maxi’s soul. His hair grew longer, as it turned thicker and thicker into a fur coat.

Maxi stepped back, too stunned to move. Brad’s nose now twitched in his direction, before he bore his teeth, and snarled.

And then, he leapt.

The last thing Maxi could remember seeing was a full moon.

Ranjan Anantharaman

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