Freitag, 9. Januar 2015

Short Story: A Visit in Winter (Long Version)

As promised, now that the contest is other, here's the longer version: (I got third place and won something, by the way.)


A Visit in Winter

It had gotten colder again. Even though her short, but dense fur protected her, she started to feel the cold.

Normally, at this time of year, her favorite prey would have wandered up from the valley below and she wouldn't be hungry now. This year however, everything was different. First it was unnaturally warm, but there were still enough animals to eat around, so she didn't care. Then the cold finally came.

Snow and ice covered her mountain forest and all the animals went into hiding or wandered down into the valley, searching for better hideouts. Everything seemed like normal again and she waited impatiently for the several small herds of red deer to come up from the valley.
Every year, the red deer would follow a small river up to the mountains and enter her forest. She didn't know and didn't care why the deer went up when most other animals went down, but for her it always meant she wouldn't be hungry during winter.

But the red deer didn't come and it still got colder. Then it got colder again. Even she had to start hiding in caves over night, or the biting cold would have gotten her. For some time she survived by digging out frozen corpses from the snow and slowly warming them with her body until she could eat them. But after a while she stopped finding new corpses.

Now even the ravens and crows had started to avoid her forest, as if the cold was slowly smothering all life within.

An icy breeze caught her by surprise and nearly toppled her from the branch of the spruce she was sitting on. Rudely awakened from her melancholic thoughts, she hastily rammed her claws into the wood below her and slowly steadied herself.
Enough of this. Waiting obviously doesn't work. I'll just have to go and search for them.”, she thought.

If her food wasn't coming to her, then she would have to go where her food was. She decided to go down into the valley and find out why her red deer hadn't come. 

She jumped to the next tree, determined to reach the valley before nightfall. But the branch she had targeted turned out to be too small and brittle: Right when she dropped on it, she heard a sharp crack. Suddenly she was tumbling through the air, desperately trying to grab another branch in passing. Moments later, she hit a huge snow drift right below the tree.
Cursing and hissing she burrowed her way out of the little mountain of snow. Typical for her luck. She started walking. It was a long way down the mountain.

Hours later, long after nightfall, she finally reached the valley. In the darkness, she could faintly hear the river flowing nearby. Down here, the river wasn't frozen anymore, which had been a nice surprise for her thirst after hours of traveling. Some smaller animals had turned up, too. But a badger and a little unlucky blue tit weren't really filling her. 

Where were the deer? She decided to climb one of the high beech trees surrounding her to take another look around. This was the first time she had come to this strange area, after all. Carefully she selected the highest tree she could see and used her claws to scale it. Every once in a while she stopped to make sure her claws were embedded deep enough in the wood, to prevent her from suddenly slipping. This time there was a lot less snow around to cushion her fall.

When she finally reached the treetop, the surprise nearly made her drop down anyhow. There were a lot of lights! Close to a third of the night was full of lights! That wasn't what she expected. It was also really bad for her night vision, so after her awe had passed, she tried her best to avoid the many lights. Blinking to make her eyes work properly again, she tried to skim the area with lights as best as she could. “What is that?”, she thought.

After some time, she noticed some of the lights were closer to her than others and less blinding. Now her curiosity took over. She wanted to see what could make so many lights in the darkness. She selected one of the closer, smaller groups of lights and started crawl down the tree again. She would go and take a careful, but closer look. Maybe there was some kind of giant mushroom-field spreading ahead? She remembered some of the mushrooms in her mountain-caves would sometimes emit a faint, nice light. 
She couldn't wait to find out. Her excitement nearly made her forget her hunger.
After a time she could see the lights shimmer in the distance, giving the forest an otherworldly glow in the darkness. Excited, she scrambled closer, trying to use the trees to hide as best as possible. To avoid leaving too many tracks, she climbed over fallen trees and evaded the snow as best as she could. Finally the glow got so strong, she couldn't even look directly into it without hurting her eyes. The light seemed to come from a clearing up ahead. She reached a tree trunk next to the clearing and peered slowly around it, using a hand to protect herself against the light.

For a moment, she was speechless. The light didn't come from mushrooms, like she had expected. Instead, there was some kind of weird-looking square hill with what looked like holes and caves inside. And the lights came from several different sources: There was a chain of small, blinking lights draped around the hill, a towering tree-like gray thing without any branches, but a huge, blinding light instead of a crown. Smaller, milder lights shone out of the holes in the hill. The lights combined to illuminate a flat, hard surface made of some weird black stone. She had no idea what exactly could make stone look that polished. Maybe a river flood or something? 

Na, that was stupid. Someone probably had done this. She stopped herself. “If there is someone, then there is something to eat!”, she thought. Excited again she raced across the stone, carefully avoiding the hardest light. Just in case there was something there looking out of those holes. She slipped into a zone of deep shadows below one of the larger holes. Suddenly she saw her bushy tail sticking out in front of the hole above her head and moved it hastily out of the way . This would have been the dumbest possible way to get discovered and lose a meal, she decided.

Now that her potential meal didn't have a reason to run away or hide anymore, she tried spying through the hole. It turned out to be harder than she thought: The light from inside illuminated everything nicely, even though the light from outside had destroyed her night vision somewhat fiercely. But the unnatural light everywhere still made her nervous and the few glimpses she made in-between ducking back under the hole just frustrated her. She didn't understand anything she saw!

The only thing remotely understandable were the few animals which looked disturbingly like her, except not really, sitting calmly under a tree they apparently had dragged inside for some reason. And the tree was almost bending under the mass of lights and shiny stuff hanging from it! Those things were weirder then crows, she decided. The rest of that cave had been an almost incomprehensible mess of forms and colors. She recalled sensing some movement deeper inside, so there were probably more animals moving around somewhere in this den.
Some of the stuff she had seen must have been unnatural, like the lights. Those animals somehow had made them. She faintly recalled her mother sometimes using her claws to make nice things out of pieces of wood. Maybe those animals were just really good in using their claws? 

Frustrated and hungry she thought of maybe jumping really fast and snatching one of the smaller ones. But if they had claws like her, this could be a serious fight. Maybe if they were like her enough, they would share food with her?

Absentmindedly, she tried climbing into the hole. “If it goes wrong, I can just jump out. Right?”, she thought. But then her plan immediately derailed. First, she bonked her head on something hard and fell back. “An invisible wall? Man, those animals are smart.” Before her dazzled mind could think of anything smart itself, one of the animals showed up on the other side of that weird wall-thing. It was a strange animal indeed. Fur only on its top, hairless hands and face sticking out of wraps made out of the weirdest animal skins she had ever seen.

The animal grinned at her, showing blocky teeth. She immediately calmed down. Obviously they weren't predators like her, so at least if they didn't want to share, she could eat them without feeling guilty. 

Some kind of gibberish came out of the mouth of the animal. It did something with its hands and to her astonishment, parts of the hill around the invisible wall came loose and the entire thing moved. She could now see some kind of mechanism made out of moving parts between the wall-thing and the hole it was in. She was impressed. This was a lot more than just making a small wood-deer. She wondered so much about what kind of fine motor control would be necessary to make those small parts just with your claws, she nearly missed the animal pointing some kind of stick at her.

Surprised she looked closer. The stick was part wood, part the same gray stuff the light-tree outside was made out of. When the large animal moved some other part of that thing with a finger, she decided there must be some deeper meaning behind the stick and threw herself sideways.

A loud thunderclap shocked her momentarily, but she regained her balance pretty fast. A funny smell hang in the air and the animal was apparently furious. More senseless noise came from it. She dashed back to the hillside next to the hole, just as another thunderclap pummeled the air.

This time, she saw a small flame burst from the end of the stick and she could have sworn something fast was moving out of it. She suddenly felt very lucky she had trusted her instincts.
The angry animal stuck his head and hands out of the hole and tried to level his stick on her. She decided she had enough backtalk from prey for today and just grabbed his head. The animal started struggling to get free, but it turned out to be astonishingly weak. Even with both hands he couldn't get her hand off his face. He tried to slip out of her grip, but she just pressed down to embed her claws deeper in his skull and dragged him out of the hole, down to her. His weird stick had fallen back inside. A lot of agitated sounding noise came from inside.

A bit torn between the urge to flee and her hunger, she paused a moment. The animal in her grip started flailing and screaming like mad and a sound like wood and stone banging together came from the other side of the hill like an answer. Suddenly furious, she smashed the animal against the stony hillside until its body went limp, then she cracked his neck with a bite, just to be sure. In the sudden silence, she heard hurried foot steps. Apparently the sound earlier had been some other animal opening the hill and getting out.

And now it was coming to her. Well, now it was easy. She just had to avoid those strange sticks and she would have enough food for weeks. In a hurry she stood up on and moved away from the hole, deeper into the shadows. Close to the edge of the hill, she leaned herself at the stone and waited.

Another animal looked out of the hole, seemingly agitated. But she was too deep inside the shadows now and the light everywhere wasn't strong enough to expose her. After a while, the animal went back in again. More loud noises. Could it be some sort of talking, like a language? “Now this would be weird, seriously.”, she thought.

Finally the footsteps stopped, just on the other side of the edge. Did the animal notice her? She held her breath. Suddenly, the creature jumped around the edge, wildly flailing his stick around. But by leaning back against the stone of the hill, she wasn't where she had been expected and it was incredibly easy for her to just grab the dumb thing and wrestle it around for a killing bite. It didn't went as easy as she had planned, of course. The creature evaded her first rush by blindly stumbling sideways, then it tried several thunderclaps to shock her into submission, followed by using the stick like a club to cave her head in. 

Now it was her who stumbled blindly out of the way, just barely avoiding a really painful death. Incensed she rushed around him and jumped on his back. Just a moment before she could finally place her fangs in its neck, the stupid thing suddenly dropped its useless stick and pulled out a long, gray claw. She was again impressed about so much resourcefulness. Not only were those things armed with some sort of self-made killing stick, they had artificial claws hidden deep inside those layers of animal skin protecting them. 

But she wasn't impressed enough to find out if her dense fur could repel claws, artificial or otherwise, so she just kicked him. The gray claw flew away in a cloud of blood. She noted satisfied how her own claws had breached all those layers of protection easily. Maybe those animals weren't so smart after all. She finally got a good grip with her teeth on the creature's neck and chomped down until she felt the bones splinter. The neck broke with a satisfying crunch and the animal under her suddenly went silent. Its body twisted around one last time and fell, forcing her to hastily jump off. 

Her heart hammered fast and her blood was boiling. She remembered the third animal. That creature also had looked rather hostile. She decided to be proactive in self-defense and hurried to the edge of the hill. If she was lucky, whatever opening the creature had made in the hill to come out was still there. Time to get the third one and be done with it.

She was lucky. After rushing around the edge and along the porous hillside behind, she found the opening the creature had made just on the other side of a second edge. It was another strange hole in the side of the hill, this time covered with wood instead of invisible walls. Of course, more of the smaller holes with those things in it were also there, but by now she had gotten some routine in avoiding them.

The wood stood at an angle, revealing more mechanisms inside. And also a large cave entrance. She smelled blood from the inside and the everlasting light had been switched off somehow. The creatures knew she was here, and they thought the darkness would help them. Determined to prove them false, she jumped inside as fast as she could.

Annoyingly, nothing happened. The creatures, or maybe just the third aggressive one, were hiding somewhere inside the hill. With careful consideration she took a good look around. Inside the cave was a maze of tunnels, everything seemed to be made either out of wood, stone or stuff she couldn't identify. Large pieces of worked wood were everywhere, even blocking off some of the tunnels. In awe she tried to understand how much work must have been necessary for all of this, and failed miserably.

The lingering blood smell brought her mind back to the real world. Cautiously she moved through the maze. Luckily it turned out to be a lot smaller then her over-awed mind had thought at first. Most of the tunnels ended up being just weird square rooms filled with weird stuff. Some of the weird stuff was understandable, like the caves with cozy looking furs and animal skins on top of sturdy looking pieces of wood. Probably sleeping places. 

Other caves were just utterly incomprehensible. Like that small hole she found filled with round, long things connected to another thing, which was ominously humming. It looked and sounded nice, but it was baffling. Curious, she held her head close to one of the round things: Some kind of hissing came from inside. Like air moving fast or an small snake. Mysterious!

She avoided the large humming thing. It seemed to be the most sensible decision.
At last she entered a cave she was already familiar with. She had seen it from the outside. The tree was there, the opened invisible wall was there and the irritatingly incomprehensible stuff was also there. What surprised her were the creatures still sitting under the light-tree. They looked fearful at her. After some time, she noticed some of them were bleeding. Weird.

Now that she had the time to look at them for a while without getting attacked, it again disturbed her how close those beings resembled her, just hairless and wrapped in ersatz-fur instead of the real deal. She thought she could even discern which of the four creatures before her were female and which were male. Which was impressive, considering she would have had trouble telling female and male deers apart if the males hadn't had horns growing out of them. 

Suddenly she stopped her train of thought. Those creatures weren't looking at her, they were looking at something behind her. She whirled around. That stupid blood smell had masked the scent of the animal she was hunting. The light suddenly went back on, blinding her for a second.
“Now I got you, asshole!”, the man said. He walked out of the corner he had been hiding in and waved his rifle in her direction. Then he stopped and went pale. “What he hell are you?” Instead of the armed woman he had thought he was hunting, he saw some kind of lanky, lean thing. Covered in short, but dense fur. Dark green fur. It almost towered above him. Suddenly it leaned forward with unnatural speed and grabbed his rifle with incredibly long, thin fingers. 

Startled he tried to press the trigger, but screamed in pain instead. The thing had used its thumb like a spear and pierced his trigger finger with a nasty looking claw. Panicking, he tried to get away from it, but the table was suddenly behind him and he awkwardly fell to the ground. A bowl filled with gravy toppled over and spilled its contents over his jacket.

“Fuck this. I said this was a bad idea, but no, we always have to do things the stupid way.”, he mumbled while trying to get up.

The monster was leaning over him, that almost human looking face peeking curiously at him. It still had his rifle in it's left hand.

Cursing he pulled out his revolver. He wouldn't fucking die this day, with this stupid family looking at him like stupid sheep. His last thoughts were about wishing they'd just killed all of them right after breaking into their house, then his own rifle came back down on his head like the end of the world and he never had any thoughts again.

She looked at the other four creatures. They still looked scared, but a bit calmer now. She felt exhausted. With a last look at the creature she had killed, she decided to leave it there for the other four. It was obvious now they were a different tribe or even a different kind of animal altogether. But there was some bird-meat on the table, so they probably could digest it. 

Besides, the creature's stick was still stuck inside it's head. And she really didn't want to know what that weird not-wood stuff on it would do to the meat.

Now the two smaller creatures under the tree started with that mewling noise, too. She told them: “I think I'm getting a headache. I'll take my food and go.”

The four creatures got a bit agitated, but it didn't seem like they understood a single word.
She looked at the small hole in the cave's wall and then decided she had a better idea.
Lost in thought, she walked back through the small maze and to the larger hole leading out of the cave. She went out and carefully shoved the big piece of wood back on the cave's entrance.
Afterwards, she collected her food and dragged it into the woods. She was pretty sure there was some perfectly normal cave close by she could use. And who knows? Maybe tomorrow she would find a herd of red deer. Staying here seemed like a good idea for now.

She carried the bodies into the night, quietly humming to herself.

Word count: 3543