The Thing That Followed
When the rabbit cries, it is the fox that first comes running.
There was almost an ache in the trees as they blurred by the running man. They seemed contorted, writhing with an unseen agony of sorts, as though each were sick with an illness that forced them to arc away in shame. Their symptoms the wounds of visible sores that marred bark once so smooth, festering now like the pockmarks of some human disease. Their long years of life were nearing an end, and the man thought that perhaps they knew it. Something they were certainly not alone in.
There was a routine misery in the air, one that seeped deeper with each heaving breath the man took. It slithered under his skin, leaving more and more of his soul withered and black with each corner of his mind it trailed by. He knew that very soon he and the trees would share that state of terminal living.
Though he wondered for a moment if perhaps their cowering came not just from the pain, but also fear. Maybe the man was not alone in the terror he waded through. Maybe the trees were not bent with sickness, but were in fact cowering.
In fear of the thing that lay behind.
Or perhaps they were simply just trees, suppressed by the winds that cut through their canopied home, bent with time and not feeling.
To a man eyeing his own mortality, it made no difference.
He had enough fear stapled to his own heart that he imagined it resembled more a rose than it did an organ. Each thorn a breath of horror taken in his run to flee from the thing that followed.
A thing that had a name he hadn't yet been able to draw to words.
At times it seemed that death was so close in his wake only the desolate silence of the forest separated them. A very hollow and thin veil, no thicker than a hair’s breath. In it he could have sworn that he could hear the breathing of what followed only meters behind. A whist inhaling, not of breathlessness, but antiquation. Though just when convinced the shadows had outrun him, just as they seemed to leap forward and engulf all, they would fall back to trail alone in the corners of his vision. In the unseen spaces that taunted him with shapeless movement.
Where he ran, he hadn't the faintest idea. He knew only that forward, even in it’s journey, lay a fate far greater than in meeting with what lingered behind. There were few things in his world he knew as certainly as that.
In truth, he knew very little of what followed. Only what his instincts screamed. Only one name from a legend so long forgotten even his forefathers had doubted it’s validity.
Not a title, though nor was it a calling. Simply the word of his people to describe a thing of shadows. A thing birthed from the darkest parts of fear.
Something that had been here before.
What followed was no materialization of any imagination. No man was so unsound as to ever dream of that. No, it was something older, something far too old to be from the minds of simple men. Something he and his people had sourly forgotten.
Only if by forgetting could something be swept from existence he thought in haste. If only his world was one so easy, like he’d once believed himself. Though the warmth running down his forearm was proof that his world was not nearly as serene as it seemed. Time had made his people gullible.
As the air in his chest began to burn as though a simmering fire, he could no longer find the strength to keep his arm cradled at chest height. What little might he’d had bled out onto the leaves as they brushed by, leaving a silky path for the thing that followed.
His life’s blood shimmered under the moonlight like little pools of ink in hands of those cowering trees. The man knew that what followed did so only because his heart betrayed him so. Unknowingly pumping his life from the veins it was purposed with keeping, like honey to the hunter.
He’d not been able to fully see what it looked like, and only glimpsed from the corner of his eye a horror that walked as man did. Though it had lumbered in a perverted way, as though sick and in pain like the forest it hid in.
But he had not needed to gaze in it’s eyes to know they were there. Without seeing, the man had felt something he’d never before. Something he could compare only to instinct, as though mankind was not completely unfamiliar with what lay behind, only unaccustomed. It was a sense so primal and controlling it seemed at heart no different than hunger or thirst.
This sense hiding in him, perhaps in all humans, until the moment it wasn't anymore. Until the moment he’d found the thing that followed.
At last he sensed that his will to live no longer outpaced the will of what followed.
He knew there came a time for all men where the spirit was simply too dim to go on burning. Where no matter the fear riddling a heart, or the desperate cries of the mind, the energy to imagine escape was simply not there, left instead in small inky pools on the leaves of troubled trees.
As the man slowed, he heard only the underbrush behind him shuffle softly a moment.
Nearby a rabbit stumbled, and a fox looked up.
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