Write to Rank: Stick and Stone

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They rest in my palm, unassuming and so ordinary that anyone would pass them by. A stick. And a stone. These are my tools, my weapons, my only method of survival.

A boon, from the Hunter. To make the nightly hunt a little more fair.

I swallow, tears prickling at my eyes. Nothing about this was fair. My fingers curl tight around them, squeezing, trembling. Then a crack cuts through the forest.

Birds stop mid song. The air instantly grows heavy, suffocating, and an unnatural stillness settles around the trees. My heart leaps into my throat, every nerve shrieking at me to get out of there, now.

I scramble from my hiding place, branches scraping my arms, and bolt like a frightened rabbit. I can hardly see where I'm going. The moon is out tonight, but shadows are everywhere, twisting and shrouding and oozing menace everywhere I look. Brushes rustle as I whip through, fallen twigs and leaves snap and sigh when my feet pound them down. I'm making too much noise, but I can't stop.

There's a fallen tree in my path. I leap over it, then stumble when I land, falling to my knees. "No no no!" The words spill free, panicked and barely more than a whisper. Adrenaline spikes through me, and I stagger to my feet and run.

The forest is still and quiet despite the fact that I'm crashing through it. It's wrong. Unnatural. Goosebumps lift on my flesh as I duck beneath a heavy branch. My feet slip on leaves, orange and brown mingled with yellow. Then I'm flailing, the world tilting around me as I fall.

The ground punches the breath out of me, pain spiking along my hip where I landed on a crumbling tree. A tremor runs through me, my breath coming in short pants. It hurts, but I can't stay here. I have to move!

I get up, though this time, I leave the stick laying in the midst of scattered leaves. The stone remains in one fist. It's all I have now. Teeth gritted, I run through the forest, arms lifted in front of me to shield my face from clawing branches. It stings when some slip past my defenses and whip across my cheek.

The forest seems more and more unfriendly. Its silence feels cold, cruel, almost like it's doing everything it can to stop me in my tracks. Despite my best efforts, my flight through its unforgiving depth slows. Every muscle hurts. My sides ache and it's hard to catch my breath. Every step takes immense effort.

My eyes burn and I want to sob. It's too hard. I can't do this! Please, I'm just...

I'm just ... so tired.

But I don't stop. I can't. The Hunter comes, and with it, a horrible fear. If it catches me -

A shadow lunges from behind a tree. Something grabs my leg and yanks, pulling my feet from under me. I scream, a weak and faint cry that is cut short when I slam into the ground. My mind blanks just for a moment, flashing white, flashing back, and then my eyes fly open to see the Hunter looming over me.

I see sharp canines glistening as he bares his teeth. His golden eyes glimmer, ruthless and knowing and excited as he leans down, reaching -

The stone burns hot in my hand. I squeeze it with all my strength, terror shuddering through me so hard I can barely think straight. Please!

It answers my call.

Like the twang of a cello string being plucked, the world spins away, catching me up and then depositing me back on earth with a flurry of sweet-scented leaves. Orange and yellow and brown, sighing as they flutter down about me.

The Hunter is gone. But not for long.

And there beside me, right where I left it, is the stick. Somehow, in the darkness of night, I spot it. In my hand, the stone now feels cold. A soft sob breaks free and I want nothing more than to curl up and cry. But I can't. The night is still young and it's a long way to daybreak.

I force my hand to move, to pick up the stick. There's only one use remaining for tonight, and even though I know I'll use it again shortly, even though I know I'll run out and get caught again and again, I can't bring myself to leave it. Something in me won't let me give up, won't let me quit fighting.

So once more I stand, sniffling, shaking, leaves stuck in my hair, and I walk.

It hurts too much to move any faster than that. That's okay though. I've bought some time, and if I keep moving, then the Hunter will take a while to find me. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Somewhere in the distance, a crow caws. It's the only sound in the entire forest, apart from my own wheezing. I reach out, press a hand against the rough bark of a tree, and listen. It caws again, though it seems further away. I start walking towards its direction. Maybe if I head there, I'll leave this awful pocket of silence. Maybe it'll be safe there.

Lies, a small voice bitterly spits in my mind. I ignore it and cling to that thin thread of hope. It's all I have. That, and the stick and the stone.

The crow caws. Tears well in my eyes. And suddenly it takes everything I have to not just crumble to the ground. Why me? Why did they have to choose me? I was the worst possible choice for this role - couldn't they see that?

A branch looms before me, pale and gray in the moonlight. I touch it with my fingertips, then carefully push it aside. Once clear, I release it and it snaps back into place. It whooshes, the sound sudden and loud.

I startle badly, heart leaping into my throat. It's okay, I tell myself. Everything's okay. Just a branch. He's not there.

Pausing, I listen for the crow. But it doesn't speak again. My heart sinks, a cold prickle of dread ghosting down my spine. And then I feel a soft puff of ice-cold air on the back of my neck.

I freeze, eyes going impossibly wide. No...

The forest is silent. So terribly, awfully silent like it's frozen in this one dreadful moment. Then something grabs me tight by the throat and drives me down to the ground, face first. I don't remember the impact. All I know is the taste of dirt in my mouth, the cold, damp earth pressed against my cheek.

The Hunter holds me down by his grip on my neck, even though I was too shocked to put up much of a struggle. Even if I did, it would have done nothing. Once the Hunter catches his Prey, it's over.

I breathe a sob into the dirt and close my eyes. Please, I think. Please, just let me go.

He leans over me. I can't see him, but I can sense him, a huge, dark thing that exudes the scent of blood, of death, a presence that is overpowering, terrifying, consuming. I shake and sob, whimpering silent pleas, but the Hunter doesn't listen. He never does.

His hand flexes around my neck, tightening briefly. And then - I'm not sure what he does, exactly, but my mind blanks like a cord's been cut. For a second, a minute, or an hour - my consciousness is suspended.

When I snap back to myself, the Hunter is gone. He's left me lying in the dirt, discarded like a piece of trash. Not that I care - I curl into myself, wrap my arms tight around my knees, and I cry.

Something's missing. He's taken something; I can feel the sense of loss, an emptiness somewhere deep within, but I can't tell what is gone. Was it a memory? An emotion? Or maybe he took something I loved. A shudder ripples through me, and a soundless wail rushes past my lips.

He'd already taken my love of storms. The awe and open wonder I used to feel when thunder roared across the sky. The excitement that once sang through my heart when powerful winds along a storm front rocked trees and kicked up clouds of dust - that's gone. When it rains now, all I feel is dead apathy.

I cry and scream as hard as I can, but no sound louder than a whisper escapes, because he's taken that too.

Eventually, I stand, streaks of tears cutting through the dirt on my face. The night is not yet done. Until daybreak, he is the Hunter and I am the Prey.

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