CW: Body Horror
People say that the cold numbs your mind. That it makes you slow to react. Irrational. But mine is alert to every noise. I know the sounds belong to the nocturnal beasts that are coming awake, but my heart jumps out of fear that the snapping twigs and rustling bushes come from some poor soul’s misplaced footfalls. Some other fool stumbling around, as lost as I am. That’s the only way I could possibly be found at this thin-veiled hour, before the moon has risen. The forest is dark, like a suffocating bag that is tied over my head, the canvas sticking to my mouth and nose as I try to gasp for air in the moments before I’ll be thrown into a lake.
As my thoughts run from me, I realize I’ve stopped breathing. I inhale so sharply that I gag. I spit bile from my mouth and shudder. For a moment I close my eyes. I need to calm myself, keep myself quiet. But I must open them again before I’m tempted by sleep. Cold and sleep never mix.
Occasionally, I lose control of my jaw in a single, spasmodic chatter of my teeth, and the greedy frost bites at my bare extremities. My clothes are folded and hidden somewhere in the bushes. A whine escapes my lips as I pull again at the chain wrapped tightly around my waist, pinching my skin as it holds me against the rough bark of the tree. But I am trapped. There is no going back to the village now.
I feel stupid as I can only vaguely recall how I got here. But damn me if I couldn’t have a drink or three to dull my senses this morning. My mood had been sour from the moment I awoke, my joints already throbbing in protest. I only wanted to ease the pain.
I look to my left at the crumpled bulk of the thug from the inn. I know we fought in the street. I don’t know why, or why he’s here with me. My head aches when I try to remember. His blood, though, wafts under my nose in the breeze. He’s dead. I try to shake the scent of him from my head as my mouth begins to salivate. I hopelessly settle for rubbing my numb fingers against my arms. I’m running out of time.
On especially long nights when I cannot sleep, I have to remind myself of who I am. On those nights, I’m prone to forgetting. I repeat my name. Over and over. My name, not Orias, that thing that people call me. I reassure myself that I’m a man. It is all I can do to try to distract myself until dawn. I do the same now, rocking, hands clasped like in prayer. Waiting is the worst part.
The night grows colder. My limbs scream from deep within, though they’ve now been dead to my occasional and fruitless rubbing for hours. I can feel that thing approaching now. I can sense its hunger. Its lust rumbles in its ravenous belly. With another whine, I curse the dead man’s presence, and for losing myself this morning. I begin to count as I rock, mouthing the numbers under my breath.
“Eins … zwei …”
I keep my eyes trained on the black earth in front of me. The longer I stare at it, the lighter it grows, the shadows of the surrounding trees taking shape along the forest floor. Bruising. Twisting. Making monsters. A dream-like haze settles at the edges of my thoughts. My heart flutters. I choke back a sob as my body is wracked by a violent shudder. I think I wrap my arms around myself and curl over my knees.
Not tonight, I wish, even though there are many nights I enjoy the power I feel. It’s a sin that I do. How wrong it is, and yet … Things would be so much easier if I gave in and embraced it. Even nature seems to insist I’m anything but a man. But that is what scares me the most, the idea of losing myself for good. My body shudders again and my belly squirms.
I can feel the heat of its breath on my skin now. The fetid stench of carrion fills my nose. Suddenly all I can hear is my thundering heart. And then its claws sink into my shoulders. All at once, fire explodes in my chest. I tear my hands from my skin.
The bones in my fingers snap and gnarl. They break at each knuckle like the creature is smashing them in a vice. My breath is drowned out by the sound of grinding, brittle pieces of bone splintering as each one is chewed apart. My limbs stretch. My paper skin splits at my joints.
It takes all of my will not to scream.
My back scrapes against the tree as my spine twists and arches, each vertebrae crunching together. Pain sears through my skull, blurring my vision. I curl my toes into the dirt as my teeth crack. One by one my mouth is full of them. Loose, separate, like marbles. But I cannot spit them away as my body has gone rigid. I tremble and choke. For a moment, my thoughts stumble — my mind goes white with fog. Then I’m thrown back into myself as new molars erupt from my gums, too large for my mouth.
A snap from within the forest roots me, briefly, to the present. The frost returns. Everything aches and my body spasms and trembles. I am still growing. But I search for the sound, too familiar, and think if I am silent, the stranger will depart. Then they call my name. My name. Yearning fills my chest. I stretch and search to hear it again. That beautiful sound. The knowing in that voice. My desire for more distracts me from my pain, just for a moment.
There it is again. I recognize the voice behind it.
My vision sharpens and lands on my love as he kneels before me. I do not hear what he says, but my own lips betray me. “Help me.”
Those two words send a shock deep into my soul. And the fool obeys — unchains my torso, lays me to the ground.
“No, no, no,” I groan.
The man caresses my face, my chest. His hand clasps mine. He tries to soothe me in my ear. It repels me. I cannot be found. But my body is overcome with another wave of spasms before I can push the man away. He only holds me tighter.
“Help me,” my gluttonous tongue gurgles again, before the creature wrenches my mouth wide, ripping the corners of my lips to the hinges of my jaw. A wail bubbles in my throat. I claw at the creature’s muzzle. Teeth and bloody strands of tissue tangle in my fingers. I try to tell the man to go, but my words foam and froth. My mind tips sideways. My throat burns — again my body seizes. My heart clenches then expands far too much, and I can’t breathe. I think I will suffocate on it as it presses into my lungs. Iron fluid foams onto my tongue. Hairs sprout along my back as the creature ripples through my skin, making it burn and fester. Too tight for this body. It tears its frantic claws at my flesh, peeling it open. Freeing the sinew and muscle trapped beneath.
From somewhere beyond us, a scream curdles my blood.
What remains of me tumbles away as the creature crawls into my eyes. The last I see, the man is running towards the village. I am overwhelmed by the scent of his fear, and our belly fills with lust.
I am hungry.