Hounds

He was running.

That’s all Josh knew. He was running away. Faster, he had to run faster. He had to escape the howls and barks running behind him.

He had been traveling along the highway, trying to make it south before the weather changed. It hadn’t been a good couple of days. Most of them spent getting hassled by small town cops. He managed to hitch a ride with a guy that agreed to take him as far as Clementsville. The dude seemed alright at first talked a lot of religious nonsense, Josh had learned to tune that crap out after a couple of years of hitching. After a couple of hours in the guy started getting creepy. He started asking Josh a bunchof pervy questions about himself. All sorts of bad experience told him it was time to bail.  He told the guy he needed to take a leak, and  got him to pull over. Josh got out and tried to grab his bag from the back of the truck. Pervy guy saw this and jumped out of his seat. Josh just bolted into the woods. The bag was just stuff, it maybe everything he owned but just stuff.  

He wound up trekking pretty deep into the woods just in case the weirdo decided to be persistent about looking for him. He got farther in than he had planned but, through experience, was able to figure out which way was south and started walking. It was getting dark and all of his gear was in the back of some creeps pick-up. He really hadn’t set out planning on doing survival camping today. At least the moon full so he would be able to see where he was going. He figured on traveling through the woods for a while, find a reasonable place to hunker down and head back out to the highway in the morning and try his luck thumbing up a ride. It was a couple hours later when he ran into the asshole with the dogs.

Josh spotted the light from the campfire a little ways off. He didn’t see any people but he could see the dogs lying about near the fire. Huge black dogs, some kind of hounds he was pretty sure. They were noisily chewing on their evening meal. Josh figured it was just some rednecks out hunting hogs and getting drunk. That type of good old boy was usually friendly enough but he figured it was best if he didn’t spook the dogs by sneaking up on them. While he stood there wondering what to do he felt a hand fall on his shoulder. He wheeled around and came face to face with this really tall psycho wearing a ghillie suit.  Josh started to back away cautiously and raised his hands.

“Hey sorry man, didn’t know you were out here. I’ll just be on my way.” Josh peered over his shoulder at the dogs, they didn’t seem to know he was there.

“You should run.” The man said, as if to no one in particular. He was wearing a crown sort of thing made of antlers.

“What?” Josh heard himself questioning what was clearly a sound idea.

The man took his distant, blue eyes off of Josh’s and motioned with his oddly long chin towards the dogs, “You run, they chase. That’s how it works.”

“How what works?” Josh, looked over his shoulder, the dogs weren’t paying any attention.

“The hunt, now run.”

“Hey look,” Josh slowly backed away, “I don’t want any trouble from you, or your hounds.” Maybe, he thought if I just move real slow I’ll get out of this. He’d been on the road long enough to know dogs. They’re way more likely to ignore you if you just don’t run.

“Run.” The hunter said impatiently.

Josh took another cautious step back. Still nothing from the dogs. He breathed heavily.

Run! The thought screamed into his brain and down his spine. His heart slammed blood into his legs. The dogs looked up suddenly and then Josh’s legs took over.

Then he was running.

That’s all he knew. He had to run. Faster. He had to out run the howls and barks that were chasing behind him. Faster. His lungs burned. His legs ached. He knew he couldn’t stop. He had to keep going. He had to get away. He had to… Where was he running to?

After a few years on the road he was no stranger to running. Away, was important. That was always first priority. But, you needed somewhere to run to. You needed a plan. Dogs, what was the dogs plan? He crashed through the brush and low hanging branches as he pushed forward.

People, People was always part of a good plan. Get to where the people are. People out here, in the woods, nearest to town was maybe twenty miles down the highway. Which way was the highway? Could make it to the highway. There might be a passing car, a cop, someone who could help. The highway. He could move faster on flat ground. So could they.

Running.

Running water. Some how through the pounding of blood in his ears, over the howls of his pursuers he could hear it.

Water. There was a stream ahead. The highway, he remembered. The highway ran over a stream. The water might throw the dogs off. It lead to the road. People, get to the road get to where there’s people.

He surged forward, heading for the sound of the water. Legs pumping faster, burning. His foot slid sideways as he planted it on some wet leaves. His other leg buckled. He fell, sliding down an embankment. His head struck against a rock. The world clouded. For a moment felt warm. He was bleeding. He was falling. He was fading.

Stark coldness woke him as he rolled into the stream. His arms flailed. He tried to right himself. His hand caught something. Sharp. He cut himself. He grabbed anyway. He pulled himself up. The thing cutting his hand came loose. He stumbled. Reached out with his other arm. Found his feet. Standing again. Shaking ankle deep in the water. His bleeding hand still clenched around a piece of rebar he’d wrenched from the mud of the stream bank. He panted heavily as he wiped away the blood from his forehead away from his eye. He could hear them coming. He ran plodding through the water, towards what he was sure the highway.

Down the stream. To the road. Get to people.

He kept moving. He was cold. Blood kept running into his eye. HIs legs ached. He couldn’t tell how bad he was hurt. Later, he knew, later he’d feel all of it.

He stepped out of the stream after a time. He couldn’t hear them after a while. Had he lost them? Where was the highway? He should be able to hear cars, even this late. What time was it. His eyes drooped just a bit. His pace slowed. He staggered from side as he jogged along. He was tired. He had to have lost them. He need to rest just for minute.

A twig snapped behind him.

He spun around and lashed out with his blood soaked right hand. The metal bar he still clung to struck the mouth of the hound just as it was lunging. He cut his hand again on its razor teeth.

The beast leapt sideways and let out a long wail of pain as it rubbed its face in the dirt. An acid smell filled the air. The black dog’s cry was answered by it’s brothers off in the distance.

Josh ran.

A stumbling, half-hearted, run.

He was going to die. He was going to be ripped apart by this fucking psycho’s dogs he knew it. His feet kept pulling him forward. Down along the edge of the stream. It was over.

The sounds of branches breaking behind him.

Tears began to stream down his face, washing the trickling blood from his eye. He passed through the edge of the woods.

Excited yowls and growls of eager mouths

Josh stumbled forward, finally collapsing near the deserted highway, next to the old drainage pipe that let the stream run under it.

Hungry black shadows at the edge of the trees.

Sobbing he pulled himself into the drain and curled up. The cold water flowed around him.

The shadows came forward and stopped at the entrance of the pipe. They sniffed cautiously at its edges and whimpered. They circled the highway, to the other side of the pipe. Josh shook in fear and cried. He waited. The dogs barked and lunged at the entrances to the pipe, never quite coming far enough in to reach him. From both sides of the drain they bayed at him. 

Josh screamed out at them, in great sobbing breaths. Why didn’t they just kill him? They just kept at it, growling and barking. Menacing from the outside all night.

The long hours passed, and as the sun began to come up the dogs quieted. Josh peered through his hands. As one turned and walked back into the woods. Just like that, as if he no longer existed.

***

Josh woke up crying. He sat up and grasped the piece of rebar he kept near his bed. It always made him feel better, more grounded. The dreams were getting worse again. Bea said they would around this time every month.

Sometime after the dogs left, he crawled out that pipe. Made his way down the highway. He found pervy guy and his truck a few miles later. He’d had some kind of spear through his chest. But the keys were still in his truck, as was Josh’s bag. He drove it, through various scenes of horror, south til he got to Clementsville, or what was left of it. There were people there. Most of them digging graves. The rest huddled around a pizza shop and listening to the old woman who ran it. She took him in and got him cleaned up. Some young girl named Harper treated his wounds as he told them his story.

She told him that the dogs could smell the iron in the rust of the drain pipe. That like all fey they were loath to touch it. That corrosion was what had saved his life. That if they had caught him and killed him, he would become one of them. Rebirthed as a hound in the huntsman’s pack.

“Not many people manage to get away from a wild huntsman,” she told him when he had finished, “but you outlasted his hounds and survived til sun up. For that insult to him, he’ll chase you for the rest of your days. Even in your dreams. Best you not wander far from The Circle on nights of the full moon.”

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Rest Stop

Harper stalked away from the gas station leaving the others to fill the tanks. She just need a moment of calm quiet away from Josh and Erin’s constant nagging. It was obvious they didn’t want her along, and only took her because Aunt Bea insisted. Sometimes she hated that the old woman meddled so much on her behalf, it just made everyone else not want her around. She took the faded red ball cap off her head and let her hair down to feel the warm summer breeze blow through it as she crossed the empty highway. When she reached the median she sat down, placed her pistol beside her, and ran her hand along the carpet of fresh wild flowers. She reached into her bag and retrieved a  sandwich.  Peanut butter, again. She was so tired of peanut butter. She took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully as sat among the flowers, enjoying the cleanness of their scent carried with it.

The air at home was full of the choking smoke of the foundry and the fuel exhaust of the generators. Out here the sky was clear and blue, for once she didn’t feel like she was constantly suppressing a cough.The world out here seemed so beautiful and vibrant. So much more colorful and alive than behind the built up wall of grey cinder blocks and rusted iron scrap that she lived behind. Out here the only thing blocking her view of the world was the tall green of the trees.

There, at the tree line on the other side of the highway,  a deer stood staring at her. It was an enormous buck, antlers crowning it majestically. Sitting on its back was a woman, elegant and tall. She wore a sheer gown, its color just a slight shade away from the sky’s hue. Her legs both draped over the beasts right side as they casually approached Harper.

When she was small she had been raised on all the old fairy tales and as she got older she came to grips with the difference between make believe, and the ugliness and boredom of the real world. Then it all changed, everything. Oberon and his people had returned, and the new reality of things took hold day by day as she grew up in the hot noise and dust of The Circle. Now here was one of them. Beautiful and perfect, and in the flesh. This is as close as she had ever been to one, before this there had only been brief glimpses of them from the top of the wall. It was singing.

The woman sang as she approached. A faint, soft song in a voice that seemed to be part of the wind, and harmonized with the bees as they buzzed among the flowers around where Harper sat. Those beautiful sweet flowers, that used to droop and turn grey here on this strip of lawn as cars belched their filth into the world as they sped their owners up and down the flat dark roadway. Harper felt her hand brush against the pistol beside her. Ugly thing, she thought as she pushed it away, cold and ugly metal thing. Just more crude death that we carry with us, more ways to destroy. More ways to be ugly. Not like them. They are life. They are beauty. They brought back the flowers, and the birds. They didn’t just return to the world, they returned with the world.

The woman rode closer, still singing. Harper could hear it so clearly now, that beautiful song in an unknown language. She heard herself singing along, as if she had known the song all her life. The woman in blue held out her hand invitingly. Harper stood and took the offered hand, and looked up into the enchanting face, its eyes staring at her with pity and forgiveness. Harper could still hear that song of love and sweetness, even though the woman’s lips were not moving. Those pale and pink smiling lips. The other hand came into view holding a long knife. Harper was still singing along with the woman’s thoughts. She tilted her head up waiting for the cool blade against the flesh, waiting for a final and warming stroke of the razor sharpness across her throat.

Then the song ended.

It ended in a sharp crack, like thunder and a fast whisper, like silk. The beautiful whiteness of the woman’s face became marred with a streak of red velvet leaking from her temple. The clean air now smelled of burnt flesh from where the iron slug had pierced it. First the knife fell, and then the woman slid sideways off her mount. The beast shook its head and then bolted back towards the woods as another shot rang out.

Erin came running up, panting, smoke still curling from the barrel of the hunting rifle. She caught her breath for a moment.

“Fuckin’ elves!” She spat, “Be more careful and don’t wander off next time damn it. Bea ‘d have my ass if I let anything happen to you. C’mon now, Josh’s loaded up all the gas we can carry, let’s head back home.