Rabbit crackles over the fire. I watch as flames lick the skin black, and I salivate. My stomach grinds and digests itself, anticipating the meal, but I hold. I wait until I cannot bear an aching minute longer, and then I begin to rip meat from the bones and slurp it down. The insides are still raw, I know I risk illness, but it does not slow me. Nothing could now. I eat, ravenous and meticulous both, leaving no morsel behind.
When my catch is reduced to a carcass, I lay back and stare up at the stars through the breaks in the canopy. I am slipping away toward sleep when my ears key to something moving in the forest, barely louder than the rumbles of my stomach. I lift my head and rest on my elbows to listen better. Leaves rustle under soft footfall a few paces beyond the edge of the light. Many creatures move at night. Only a few are dangerous, I remind myself. I sit upright and tucks my legs under me regardless.
This animal is quiet enough to be wolf, but they abhor fire. They would not approach me now. Whatever this creature’s identity, it harbors more curiosity than hunger, which narrows the candidates.
As if on cue, a brilliant orange fox-face appears at the edge of the firelight. A wash of white fur marks its muzzle and cheeks and shines against the black night behind it. The slits that form its pupils are drawn tight against the harsh light of my fire. We study each other, and the hairs on my neck prickle under its gaze. Its eyes have expectations.
I’ve never known a fox to be interested in cooked meat, but I take the rabbit carcass from beside the fire and lob it over toward him. It lands a pace short and the fox watches dispassionately as the rabbit’s remains tumble toward him. We look at each other again, and this time the fox smiles at me.
Blood flees from my extremities and my heart thunders. Sometimes animals flash expressions, and sometimes humans wrongly assign human emotions to them. This is not one of those situations. This is a sentient act, an expression not belonging to any fox I have known, even among the hundreds that have crossed my path.
Exhaustion, dehydration, malnutrition—any of these could cause such a vision— but after the inexplicable torment I faced in my clearing and in Lilliput Creek, I have decided that nothing is beyond reality. That, always, things are what they are.
And since my reality is so mad, I do something that only a mad person would do. I ask the fox what it wants. My disused vocal chords rattle and creak the words out into the night.
The fox blinks once in response, heavy and slow. Even though I spoke to it, I do not expect what happens next. It answers.
“Find her,” it rasps in a voice like chaos itself.
It gathers the rabbit carcass into its jowls, and with a flash of a fuzzy orange tail, it trots away into the night. I sit by the fire with my eyes locked on that patch of forest and I feel like poor Ebenezer, who’s seen one ghost, and expects only more to come.
Eventually, though, the comfort of warm food and a warm fire eases me into an accidental sleep. I drift into unconsciousness, deeper than I should.
I wake with a start in the morning, to find my body curling around the smoldering remains of my fire. It is day, but a dark and dreary one. A coat of flat gray clouds drowns out the sun and leaves the Earth bone-dry and cold. Still, I mutter a prayer of thanks. I am not wolf food and that the creatures have not followed me.
I sit up and I spit a thick wad of contempt as I remember the night before. The expanding scope of what is my reality—one of trees that won’t stop growing, of unearthly creatures stalking the woods, of roots that bind and drown, and now of foxes that speak—sickens me. Worse yet, the talking fox gave me hope. I will find her.
I stamp out the glowing ashes of my fire and hoist my axe onto my shoulder. With the sun drowned out, and no markers in these lands, I have little to navigate by. I pick the direction I believe to be east and hike until night falls again.
I build another fire, and while I sit beside it, I correct my bearing by tracing the patterns of stars overhead. In the morning, I hike again. I find mushrooms, shoots, and even some willow bark to chew along the way. I trap another rabbit by collapsing its burrow. I follow a simple order, one designed by nature, so normally I feel no guilt when another creature gives its life for mine. This time, though, tears roll down my face when I pluck the poor thing from the safety of its home and extinguish its life. That night I eat rabbit again. I cannot waste it, so I dry the pelt over the smoke of the fire.
Three days ago I felt on the brink of death, but two fortunate days have altered my fate. I am strong again, and the creatures that haunted my clearing are a distant memory. In the morning, I march through the forest, and when it breaks, I enter a large field. There I find the first sign of civilization I have seen in months. On the horizon stands an old stone chimney, hewn of local rocks. A concerning lean tells of its age. I kick through rubble around the chimney, but I find nothing. Whatever home stood here burned down long before my time.
Eventually, my pathless route through the field becomes a foot trail. Then the trail becomes a wide path, and the path a road. Ahead, a stolid farmhouse rises out of the mist. As I pass it, the homes become more frequent. Some are rickety shacks, some are proud cabins, and eventually they become brick structures that line both sides of the street.
In the town, muddy pits that smell like horse shit riddle the roads. I am no stranger to the smells of an animal, but this rotten muck makes my nose curl, and the smoke of so many chimneys fills the air with a haze that stings my lungs. This is an awful place.
The few people I meet eye me like a leper come to spread disease. For a town, there are shockingly few, and it seems all the shops are closed too. At first, my stomach does flips thinking that they have been ravaged by the same curse that held me. I am about to turn away, when ahead, several groups exit their homes in near unison. They gather together and set the same course. I jog to catch up with them and fall into the flow as we move deeper into town. In the distance I hear shouting. When we reach the town square, my jaw drops. A crowd this size, it must be all of the town’s people and some from neighboring towns too.
A man stands on a wooden platform. His voice booms with authority. He cries that the verdict is guilty. The mob cheers. He shouts that the punishment is death. They cheer louder.
Behind him a woman is bound to a wooden post at the center of the stage. A thick stack of timber surrounds her—branches and logs and stumps. Together it is enough for a fire ten men tall. She wears a beautiful red cloak. She is silent, but fear and anger twist her face.
My heart races. Suddenly I know why the fox came to me.
The woman and I meet eyes, and even without her uttering a word, even across the impossible distance, I hear Anya speak to me.
“Help me,” she says as though she whispered it in my ear.
The opportunity will not last. The man on the platform holds a torch and riles the crowd before he begins the immolation.
I sprint into the mob, knocking over any bodies unfortunate enough to be in my path. I create a commotion of my own as I part the sea of people and approach the platform. Two men stop me at the stairs. I shriek at them to step aside, but they will not. I see it in their eyes. I lift my axe from my shoulder and I swing it into the clavicle of one man. His bones snap like splintering branches.
The man beside him raises a musket. I close the distance with a quick step and thrust the barrel of the gun into the man’s nose. It gives with a satisfying crunch and he reels as blood pours from his face. I wrestle the rifle free from his grip. He snarls like a wolf. I take aim. I pull the trigger. A deafening crack erupts from the barrel. I kill him like a wolf. Black power. Black magic.
I drop the rifle and retrieve my axe from the first man’s shoulder as I race up the platform. I look back over my shoulder at my audience. They are frozen in shock, for now, but a feral rage is quickly replacing it. Soon they will turn. I make haste as I run to the back of the wood pile, I cut the ropes holding Anya with three mighty swings.
Anya pulls the ropes free and stands at the front of the stage. I join her, and I raise my axe in preparation. I will fight for both our lives as we run.
Only, Anya is not running.
She holds her arms up to the sky and mutters under her breath. Black veins rise to the surface of her skin, making her look like the drowned copy I saw in the creek.
The crowd howls and screams in response. As they panic-run in all directions, I see black flames rise from the earth and consume their bodies. Some fall quickly, others seem to escape its field of effect, but all are lost in wondrous chaos.
A sulfurous smell hangs in the air, like the taste of the root in the creek. I look over at Anya and she smiles behind black eyes. She takes my hand, and together we walk down from the stage. The flames part for us, and us alone, as the whole town burns. I think of the ruined chimney near the edge of the forest, and I smile to myself.