She should have been used to it by now, the ever-present terror that filled her breast, lay there always, preoccupying her every thought, dictating her every action, fouling her every moment. It never rested, not even when she lay her head down at night to drift off once again into an uneasy slumber, to wake at the slightest provocation... and every time she did so, she fully expected to see him there, leering down at her, trapping her with a knife ready to cut her throat... or worse, as he’d sworn.
She’d been at some regal ball, or something... she was nothing more than a wandering vagrant, of course, with no wealth or power to speak of, but she knew – she’d been forced to learn – how to attract the attention of those with enough influence to provide her protection for one night... one more night on the run.
The male she had found this particular night was not unlike all the others – arrogant, crude and desiring nothing but her female body. He was confident to leave her for a moment, sitting at a table all alone, to get himself drunk on wine with some friends. She had no reason to worry then, at that moment... or so she thought. How could he get himself into a place like that?
But the next thing she had known, a presence was at her left, and the jumpiness she had learned reacted quickly and she spun around to see who was hovering over her. Before she could even register the fact that it was indeed he whom she was fleeing, her mouth had gone dry with fear and her hands had clenched the tablecloth and chair tight. Her eyes shone with a wild light, the light of an animal frozen with raw terror, and he spent a moment reveling in that light. Then he grabbed her hand.
“Dance?” he hissed, but it was not a request. Numbly, her mind not yet able to think, she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet and dragged out to the dance floor. With a cold, menacing leer, he put her hand on his shoulder and grasped the other one and began to lead her in a sardonic waltz.
“Why are you so nervous?” he asked mockingly, still leering, “What style is there in killing you off in the middle of a crowded gathering like this? Who am I to spoil the party?”
He chuckled darkly and she could not meet his eyes. Then his light tone vanished and he hissed in his all-too-familiar gravelly timbre, “Did you really think that even after all this time I’d given up? Or...” and here he laughed again, “Did you think you could actually lose me? I’ve been by your side every day, every night, watching you. I’ve been closer to you than you can even imagine. You’re smarter than I gave you credit for, but now I’m tiring of this game. I’m going to catch you, and when I do, I’m going to kill you. But before I do, I’m going to hurt you more than you can even comprehend.”
By now, her numbness had melted, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out. Fear more potent than she’d ever felt before now filled her, and her mind took her back, so long ago, to when she had first met him in that dark tavern, how she’d tried to get away but he’d chased her down and she’d only been saved at the last minute. But he was not gone, he had not forgotten her, and her brother had tried to help her...
The tears had come unbidden then, the pain inside of her caused by fear and memory and loss, and it had only made him smirk all the more. She didn’t remember anything else about that night, only remembered waking up next to that fool she’d given herself to for a night’s safety and running as fast as she could, stopping for nothing.
And still that terror burned inside of her as she walked quickly and trembling down a lonely road in a swampy wasteland. It was not the safest road for her, but her mind had broken down from pure fear during that dance and no longer was she human, but a hunted animal, driven by no thought save the instinct to run.
She neither saw nor heard the heavy bough but she felt it as it struck her cruelly on the back of the head, and she fell to the damp earth, darkness before her eyes and only a vague swimming filling her head. She was not unconscious, and though the blow had momentarily stolen the memory of who or where she was, the fear that had become such an integral part of her dragged her to her feet and she set off running.
It took him by surprise, of course, that she could get up so quickly. He was expecting this to be quick and easy... but no mind, it was obvious the blow had addled her thoughts. For she ran not down the road but off into the treacherous heartland of the swamp. He followed her at her own pace, content for the moment to see where her blind panic would take her. He smiled to himself, the chase was fun once again.
It was not long before she stepped into a deep puddle of sucking mud, and instantly her feet were trapped and the dark haze from the attack on the path left her mind. She was already in almost to her knees, and sinking fast in the foul-smelling brown paste.
She heard a chuckle and her head snapped up to the face she already knew would be staring down at her. She expected him to make some gloating comment, but he did not. His leer twisted into a savage snarl and his fangs glistened in the gloomy half-light of the swamp as he grabbed her wrist and forearm. Keeping her arm still he savagely brought his knee up into the back of her elbow – and the joint shattered with a loud snap.
It was so sudden, and the pain so intense that she screamed before she could even think. And before she stopped, he broke her other arm, and her scream died into a choking gag.
By now she was up to her waist in the mud, and still sinking down, down into the hidden depths. But he was not going to let her fall away so easily. With another snarl, he grabbed hold of her wrist again and yanked on her useless arm, causing her more unbearable agony and soliciting another scream as he pulled her up out of the mud. Quickly, he pulled a length of thick rope from a pocket and tied the wrist he held to a firm branch.
She hung by one arm, the elbow that supported her entire weight against the sucking pool of mud swelling grotesquely. Every move she made, every breath she took, shot burning pain up her arm, making her gasp and moan.
He leaned in closer to her, and her pain-filled eyes stared steadily at him, not in defiance but with a sickening fear.
“Was it all worth it?” he sneered into her pain-tightened face, “I remember the helpless, innocent little vixen I first attacked. What did you do to protect yourself from me? What did you give away?”
He let the question hang in the air for a few moments before continuing.
“How did it feel to be used like a toy by filthy, groping males?” He leaned in closer, until the sharp point of her muzzle touched his nose. “Was it worth it? Think about it... think about everything you gave up. Remember your brother, mangled and bloody, hanging from the rafters above you. Was it worth it?”
He knew that she was indeed thinking about it, for her the gasps and moans she made in her agony changed to muffled sobs and tears rolled down her cheeks... tears of shame, tears of sorrow. Tears of regret. His face smoothly changed from sneering to grinning, and he laughed aloud.
“That’s right! You gave away everything, just to end up broken and dying in some forgotten wasteland!”
He leaned in again. “Did you ever dream? Ever imagine what it would be like when it was over? When you’d run long enough, and I’d given up and gone back? When finally... finally you were free? Did you dream?”
He drove a wickedly-curved knife into her belly as he asked the final question, and her body contorted as it tried to reflexively curl into a ball. But it could not, and still she hung, even more flaccidly now. Her face slackened, and strange visions swam before her eyes. Strange visions, but beautiful.
He brightened as he saw her eyes fall and unfocus. Her ragged breathing and soft cries of pain told him that she was still alive, though her warm blood leaked around around the knife and spilled onto his hand.
“Are you dreaming now? Tell me... tell me what you dream!”
She heard his voice as if from a long distance, and she so wanted to disobey him. But so wonderful were the images she saw that she could not hold herself back.
“I’m free... free in the air, free as the wind, and my brother is beside me, and we fly together through the clear summer air...” she spoke strongly inside her mind, but what came from her mouth was a hoarse, labored whisper. “Our home, the grass green and cool in the shade... but we pass that by, we come to the mountain, its peaks glistening white above us... then to the sea! Ah, the smell of salt and the feel of the moist sea-air! We fly across, to our ancient home, we see our father and mother beneath, and we wave... then we fly higher and higher... and we see everything stretched out forever beneath us... and... then...”
She hesitated as the vision swam before her eyes again and faded to nothingness.
Suddenly, he growled and pulled his knife out of her body, ripping flesh apart as it tore out. She screamed again, but it was weak even as she was. He struck her hard across the face, and grabbed the arm from which she hung, right at the elbow. She whimpered softly, then he clenched his fist tight around the shattered joint and shook it cruelly.
“Is that real? What is real, the dream or the pain?!” He slashed her face, ripping her eyes and smearing the thick pus that flowed out from them. “Do you see that now? Can your eyes still see? Where is your dream now?!”
She was past screaming now. All she could do was moan softly, though her whole existence had been lost to pain and the cold that was creeping up upon her. It was more than she could stand, so intense was the agony that consumed her that her mind began slipping and her life faded and bled out of her through her ruined eyes and torn, broken body.
Still he shouted at her. “Can your lost dream save you? This is real, this pain! The pain I cause, I am real, and I control you! And now, I’m going to kill you, you pathetic, ruined thing. You were always pathetic, you little worm that thought you could fight against me. Now, think about your ruined life and think about me and die!”
With a furious rage, he slashed her throat and a faint gurgling sound came from her then she slumped as the last of her life drained out of with the gushing blood from her throat.
Then the pain was gone and the darkness of the swamp was gently washed away by a fresh brightness. A summer breeze opened her eyes and she looked into the smiling face of her long-lost brother. As the instinct to run had once gripped her, so now did an unbelievable joy, and she cried out with the intensity of that feeling and leapt on her brother, squeezing him tight in an embrace that made him grunt.
“Ow, hey, did you miss me that much?”
She released him and grinned, then after a moment the grin fell. Her brother’s brow creased, and he tilted his head.
“Something wrong?” he inquired.
“I killed you,” she said miserably, taking a step away from him and feeling a sick weight inside, “If it hadn’t been for me, if I hadn’t told you about him, if I hadn’t...”
Her brother laid a gentle hand over her mouth. “Don’t say that... nothing’s your fault. Look...”
She looked around and saw him, sneering at a mangled body hanging by one arm from a tree. He turned and began walking straight at her, but she didn’t feel afraid. He walked straight through her, and went on his way.
“It’s funny,” her brother began, watching the back of the retreating figure, “Everything he did... it poisons him, but he doesn’t see that. He thinks he’s winning by hurting everyone else... but it burns him inside every time. And when he dies, that’s all he’ll have. His own poisons to drink, his own burned-out soul he’ll have to live with forever. And he’ll have to do it alone, always alone. You and I, on the other hand...!”
She felt her brother grab her hand, and her dream came to life. They flew over the land, bathed in an eternal summer, and passed by all that had been dear to them. And on and upward they flew, and the lands stretched out beneath them, a squallor of stuggle and pain going on forever, and they had prevailed over it and no longer could it touch them, and they flew higher into the sun and a glorious eternity, lit by joy forever.