By Steven E. Carman
The creature's eyes flew open.
There in the darkness and cold, wrapped in the furs covering a wooden bed, she wondered what had awakened her. Because the hut was shuttered she was unable to discern anything in the blackness. Fear immediately took hold of her. Silently, she put a claw to the wall and felt around until the tips of her talons brushed the shutters of a small window, which she quickly opened. The light that came in was dim, yet it was enough to allow a hasty look around the tiny hut. Nothing seemed amiss. Even the hut's only other occupant, a hairy, four-legged beast, who was currently in a much deeper sleep than she had been, remained curled up at the foot of the bed, undisturbed and oblivious to the mistress's vague unease.
The sight of the peacefully sleeping beast, her pet and sole companion, calmed her and she felt her tense muscles relax. Still, a trace of alarm lingered. She realized what had awakened her must have come from outside. Certainly, then, it must have been some sound, she reasoned, but what? Though freezing air blew in through the window, she did not immediately close the shutters. Instead, she stared out into the cold, dark valley, straining to see and hear all she could. The position of the window limited her view, but she was able to see enough to satisfy her. She noted that the wind was increasing in strength and that there were even a few snowflakes in the air. Finally, shuttering the window, she slumped back into bed. It was nothing, she thought in relief.
The moments passed. Unable to resume her sleep, she simply rested for a while before forcing herself out of bed. Feeling her way around, she moved to her kitchen shelves, where a few quick pats told her she was out of food. She would have to go and gather more. Believing she would not be gone long, she did not wrap any furs around her, but she did not need to, for her skin was tough and thick, her feet and claws well padded, and her body hirsute.
Grabbing an intricately woven basket from the table, she made her way to the door, which she quietly opened only to then pause and remain inside. She turned to the beast. Normally, he went with her, but when she looked at her large, robust companion and saw how warm and comfortable he was, she thought No, let him sleep. Then she walked out into the frozen valley, softly closing the door behind her.
It was a dark land, for the planet’s long winters were without any sun. Yet beginning where the valley opened from between two mountain ranges and continuing on overhead, a sky full of stars lit the land, producing enough light to see and move around in.
Presently, however, this light was diminishing as foreboding clouds claimed more and more of the starry night sky. A fierce wind blew through the valley, carrying snow with it. The creature knew the storm was going to be a severe one and she quickened her step, hoping to beat the blizzard’s arrival. After gathering her food and eating, she planned to visit her little niece and nephew, but traveling through the valley during the brunt of the storm would be difficult, if not impossible.
She jumped a couple of ditches and walked swiftly through the snow until coming to a dense grove of trees. She was not concerned with the fact that these trees had no life to them, for hidden among the limbs and frozen leaves were the trees' seed pods, or what she knew as winterfruit. Inside their hardened cases there was an edible pulp that was the creature's principal food during the wintertime.
While searching through the multitudinous branches, she suddenly remembered, not without a bit of mirth at her own forgetfulness, that she had already picked all the winterfruit to be found at this grove. She would have to go to another one farther off. For a moment, she hesitated, looking back through the faint light toward her hut which was snow-covered and hidden among trees and huge snowdrifts. If she had not known where it was she would not have seen it at all.
A freezing gust of wind hit her full in the face, telling her there was no more time to waste. Gazing into the sky, she saw that the cloud cover was now complete. The land was noticeably darker and a heavy snowfall had begun. She moved up the valley and soon lost sight of her hut. She continued walking for a while through the bleak, inhospitable terrain toward a cluster of trees that was turning out to be much farther than she had remembered. Sadly, she knew she would not be going to see her niece and nephew now. It was going to be all she could do to collect the food and return home.
The creature hurried forward until finally coming into view of the grove. Though it was similar to the one from which she had just come, it had a mark of distinction. The entire grove was in the slow process of being uprooted by the powerful force of the wind. As she approached it something suddenly made her stop short.
She had seen movement near the trees -- something going on behind them. Cautiously, she neared the grove and at once heard sounds coming from the other side. She erected her ears and listened.
"I don't know, Captain ... you weren't the guy who went chasing after that small one who got away. I don't think it was an accident that this animal chose the one path that would leave no tracks. I mean ... I think it ran across that expanse of ice deliberately. And what about the lean-to, Captain? Huh? What about the lean-to?"
The creature immediately recognized the voice as masculine, but the words were unlike any she had ever heard before.
"Oh, come on, Lieutenant! That was cut wood that had been thrown up against the cliff, so obviously they weren't the ones who had done it. Most likely a ship once crashed here and some survivor made a makeshift home--one that had since been overtaken by those creatures."
Curiosity overwhelmed her. She put down her basket then began walking, though slowly and warily, around the trees.
"I don't know. I guess I’m just bothered by the whole affair. You know, I caught up with the creature and found it hiding in a heavily shadowed area among some rocks less than a hundred meters from me. I drew my laser then cursed because I saw that the gun had only enough energy left for one more shot. Telling myself, ‘Make it count’, I aimed and was immediately taken aback -- for the creature was looking directly at me. Apparently, it had heard my expletive, though I’d only whispered it. Stunned I stood there and stared at it -- and what I saw on its face was pure terror."
"I wouldn’t be too concerned, Lieutenant. Lots of animals show fear."
"Well I’m telling you it was different! It was an almost human expression. And there's more irking me. Right after it had seen me, it turned and looked down the valley, where it appeared to see something, though I myself saw nothing. At once, it took off running in the direction it had looked. I lost no time. Taking quick aim, I fired. The silent flash tore right through it. Then ... it did something strange as it was falling forward."
The creature had almost made it around the trees -- just a few more steps.
"It let out a loud, resounding scream, but it was more than just a scream -- it was a sort of call. It even stuck out an arm, like it was reaching for something that was nearly at its grasp. I won-" The Lieutenant suddenly choked on his words. He struggled to say something but nothing coherent escaped from his lips. It was only after he managed to point to the creature that he was finally able to stammer, "Behind you!"
The Captain spun around. Without wasting a moment he drew his laser pistol and at once fired at the creature who stood a full threatening two meters.
She fell backward and hit a patch of frozen earth. When the Captain saw her writhing on the ground, he fired again. After that she moved no more.
The men gathered around her, and in the silence that followed they looked at each other and down at the strange creature, while the snow swirled about them and a freezing wind chilled their bodies. Finally, the Lieutenant broke the silence to remark, "God, that makes five. The two males and the female back at the lean-to, the small one I killed, and now this one."
The Captain winced. Recent images came into his mind: the discovery of a crude door to a lean-to at the base of a cliff, a lantern held high as they entered, the horrible screaming from the fear-stricken occupants who awakened from the intrusion, and then the wild, thrashing arms and legs as their bodies crashed backward from the powerful laser blasts. He stood looking down at the creature for only a moment longer before shouting, "Bury it -- like we did all the rest!" He turned around and tramped back to the ship, leaving the men behind him to do the work.
Making excellent time, they finished their task, packing down the snow with the backs of their shovels until only a slight mound was left. The snowstorm had increased its output and already the men's work was being covered by newly fallen snow.
Awaking in pitch blackness, the beast stepped out of the furs near the bed, stretched, and immediately sensed the mistress was not in the hut. He jumped onto the bed and sniffed around, then raised his ears and listened for any sound of her, even her breath, but his actions proved ineffectual. She simply was not there.
The beast headed directly for the door and opened it with his mouth. He left and as he did so the wind caught the door behind him and slammed it shut. Because of the snowfall and the cloud cover, the light outside was scant and the beast could not see very far ahead of him. Feeling a sense of urgency in finding the mistress, the beast, after first relieving himself on a nearby snowbank, began running about, attempting to catch her scent before it was lost under the pitiless, obliterating accumulation of snow. Only once did he pick up on her trail but it was quickly lost when a powerful blast of wind, carrying bits of ice, slammed into him, turning him over and scattering the scented snow.
Carrying forth with his search he investigated all familiar paths he and the mistress had so often taken, but as he did that the storm moved in full force. It was not long before the beast found himself coming to a stop in the midst of a now raging blizzard. Under the threat of being overwhelmed by the burying snow, he defiantly raised himself into a near standing position and let out a reverberating wail. With his ears raised high, he listened for a reply that never came. He remained in the same spot for a while longer, refusing to be deterred from his purpose. The blizzard, however, continued dumping its snow, and the ferocious wind slammed incessantly into him. The snow was amassing so rapidly that the beast had to repeatedly fight to keep above it. He resisted for some time, but when his body began to fatigue, he realized he was going to have to find shelter. The blowing snow nearly blinded him, and he stumbled about until at last he came to a mountain wall that yielded a low overhang of rock. The beast crawled underneath it and lay down, where he was then out of the snow and wind.
Resting his chin on his forepaws, he waited quietly in the darkness for the storm to end so he could resume his search for the mistress. He wondered where she could be. Lying there, he dwelled upon the idea that she could be out in the blizzard and might at any point stumble upon him. With this possibility in mind, he kept his eyes open for the first sign of her. His body, however, was exhausted from all its exertions and, in time, he fell asleep, not realizing it.
When the beast awakened, the blizzard had ended though periodic gusts of wind remained, blowing much of the snow down and out of the valley onto an ice-covered and snow-laden plain. Wasting no time, he left his shelter. Moving through the snow was not easy and he found himself having to jump and trudge his way along. Some higher elevations of land and the tops of many boulders, though, were already swept free of the snow by the strong blasts of wind, and he used them as lookouts. Still, he descried no trace of the mistress. Where could she be? he wondered. He knew she must be around someplace. Whenever she had been absent before, no matter for how long, she had always returned. Why should this time be any different?
As he walked through the valley, he could not help but notice all the shadows that beset him, for the stars shone brilliantly. Combined with their light and the flight of the wind across the land, which swayed the trees and blew the snow, these shadows often seemed to take on a movement of their own, giving the land a sort of animation, an appearance of life that was in reality not there. Though he tried to ignore them, he still found himself constantly distracted by these deceiving motions. Thinking the activity might be the mistress moving about he kept whipping his head around as he caught glimpses of the shadows' movements in his peripheral vision.
As he struggled through the snow, on his way back to the hut he hoped that he would find her there and his distress would be over. He would know then that the situation had not in fact been serious, that everything had actually been all right.
He did not find her there.
What he did find was the hut completely engulfed in a snowdrift. Such an occurrence had happened before, but those times the mistress had always been there to dig it out. He had the thought that perhaps, while he had been away, she had returned to the hut and was now inside. Motivated by this possibility, he commenced to dig through the pile of snow, pausing only once to rest, until his nails scraped the frozen door. Hoping she might be inside, he yelped for her to let her know he was outside and wanted in, but there was no response. He yelped again and quietly waited. In the end, he backed himself out of the tunnel, sat, and attempted to scan the area for her, but found his sight obstructed by all the snow.
Fortunately, however, in front of the hut, off to one side, jutted a flat-topped rock the size of a small boulder that the beast who had been atop the rock before, knew offered a superior view of the surrounding area. He jumped up on it, stood on his hind legs, and gazed as far into the distance as the darkness would allow, and still he saw no sign of the mistress. In time, he lay down, not knowing what else to do, but soon after that an invigorating thought jolted through him, impelling him to jump off the rock and run up the valley as well as he could, for he had suddenly remembered a possible place where she might be, someplace she had taken him many times before -- the lean-to where her little niece and nephew lived.
On his way there, the beast, who had yet to eat anything since the mistress's disappearance, had to stop frequently, being fatigued, but he put aside his feelings of hunger and tiredness and concentrated instead on the strenuous physical exertions demanded of him in maneuveuring through the snow-laden valley. Perseverance alone finally enabled him to obtain his goal. He wanted desperately to find her there and had a euphoric image of discovering her at the lean-to, of running up to her where she stood waiting for him with open arms and a joyous face, she as happy to see him as he was to see her. That wishful vision, however, vanished when he caught sight of the demolished lean-to. The beast had no way of knowing the men had razed the home, and to him it looked as though it had simply collapsed under the massive amount of snow now piled atop the wood. There were no signs of life.
Alone, he stood in the starlight wondering what he should do. Then his stomach rumbled and he began to focus his attention on his starving body. For a long time he searched before he at last spotted snow being propelled into the air as a small animal made its way through the snow. Within moments, he was upon his prey, but it was hardly enough for the sizeable beast. By the time he found the need for sleep overwhelming, he had caught only one more of the tiny rodents. Wearily, he dragged himself back to the hut and jumped up on his rock, falling into a deep sleep almost immediately.
Since the mistress's disappearance, the beast had spent much of his time sitting and lying atop his rock. He was there now, lethargically eyeing the usual sight of ice and snow around him. Then he noticed movement a short distance up the valley. At first, he thought it was just one of the shadows, but as the wind continued to blow, an object came into view. The beast instantly recognized it. Suddenly roused, he leapt off his rock and sprinted toward the object.
It was an intricately woven basket.
Unknown to the beast, the basket, soon after being put down by the mistress, had been rolled away by the wind and blown into the thorny grasp of a nearby bush, where it had remained, snug in the bush’s arms, until many strong gusts of wind finally released it.
The beast sniffed the basket avidly. Then, filled with hope, he looked in the direction it had come, and at once took off up the valley, wildly running through the snow, heedless of all else around him and expecting at any moment to meet the mistress coming home. The nearly cloudless sky allowed the full light from the stars to illuminate the land, so the beast knew he would be able to spot her even if she were some distance away. But no matter where he cast his eyes, she was not to be seen. His run soon lessened to a fast walk then stopped altogether. For a while, he sat on the snow, looking about. Seeing nothing, he stared off into the distance, hoping to catch sight of something, anything he could have possibly missed. When this proved futile, he rose and aimlessly walked around, shivering now and then.
It was not until later that he again felt the pull of hunger and began to search for food. After locating an animal’s hole at the lee side of a large slab of rock, he dug at it and was soon able to eat heartily. Then, he returned home.
The beast waited.
Many blizzards came and went. There was one raging now. The strength of the wind was nearly unendurable, but the beast would not let himself be forced off his rock. Stubbornly, he kept himself low and pressed down upon the stone with the muscles in his legs and paws, resisting every effort by the storm to make him relinquish his position. Projectiles of ice slammed into his body, and he used any lull in the storm to shake off the snow that was covering him.
A short distance away from the rock, in the center of the valley, where there were fewer obstructions, the wind was constant and at its strongest. The beast watched as bushes, branches, and huge clumps of ice blew past him. At one point he turned his head and, through the storm, witnessed a distant but huge object moving swiftly toward him. A gigantic, uprooted tree was turning end over end in midair as the powerful wind blew it down the valley. It passed the beast flying by. He watched it until it was lost from view.
Later, the beast was still upon his rock. No storm currently howled through the calm valley. The wind was still, and the earth lay silent. Bright starlight from a cloudless sky flooded the land.
The beast waited.
Not wanting to be too far away from the hut, believing, in all his faithfulness, that it was here the mistress would return, the beast stayed as near to it as he could. Even when he hunted, he never ventured far. And for a very long while, that was how the situation remained, but in time the restless beast desired to do more.
He began to methodically search the entire valley for the mistress knowing that if she were present, if she existed at all somewhere, anywhere in the valley, he was going to find her. He used boulders, trees, and hills as markers to indicate which areas had already been or needed to be searched. Ditches, caves, and ravines were all investigated. He was determined to search everywhere.
Once he even came to a particular grove of trees that was in the slow process of being uprooted by the force of the wind. He circled the trees, sniffing here and there, but sensed nothing out of the ordinary. Within mere moments, he had moved on.
The terrain he crossed and recrossed was forbidding and sometimes dangerous, because expanses of snow often covered depressions and sometimes deep fissures in the earth that the beast had several times narrowly missed falling into. Even if the area he was examining had little snow, he found that the savage winds sweeping the place often left in their wake sharp-edged rocks that cut into his paws. Yet, the beast remained devout in his intention of locating the mistress and worked continually to complete this arduous task. He did not give up hope. He knew that he had to keep searching for her, so when the situation arose that he found his view hindered by mounds of rocks and large boulders from an ancient avalanche, he was determined to locate a superior position in which he could look down upon the valley for any evidence of the mistress having been there.
Spotting a plateau high in the starry night sky, he lost no time in walking up the stony mountainside, where he knocked rocks loose and left them rolling down behind him. When he had reached his goal, he did not realize that it was not a level slab of rock, but a sheet of thick ice. Without hesitation, he stepped onto it in order to make his way to the edge and look down.
The beast was halfway there when he heard the ice cracking, and his entire body was jarred as part of the overhanging ice sheet suddenly broke and sloped downward. Instinct alone caused him to remain absolutely motionless, so he was not sure at first what was happening when he felt his body still moving. Panicking, he turned and tried to scramble back up the slippery ice, but he could not get a hold of anything. His claws merely scratched the surface. Before he knew it his hind legs were dangling off the edge. For a few moments, he stayed that way, but then the icy overhang broke off completely.
The beast fell through the night air.
While the chunks of ice that came down around him were dashed to pieces as they hit the rocks below, the beast himself plummeted into a deep snowdrift.
It was the impact with the boulder inside that broke his back.
When the beast regained consciousness, he lay partly out of the drift, having been bounced there from the impact with the rock. Writhing in pain, he could not stand and it was all he could do to pull himself away, where he lay panting on the frozen earth. Froth pooled beneath his muzzle. A sensation of insects crawling up and down his right hind leg caused him to lunge several times at it, snapping at the unseen insects with his jaws, but there was nothing on his hindquarters but blood. As for the left hind leg, he could not feel it at all.
Only after much time and effort was the beast finally able to raise himself onto three legs and remain feebly upright. His injured left leg would not respond to any of his efforts to move it and it remained limp and without feeling. When he was able to walk away from the place, he took to dragging it.
In terrible pain, the beast called out for the mistress. And each time, as he listened for a response, only the silence answered. Having no other choice but to go on, he struggled with all his might to return to the hut and, after many periods of sleep and rest he prevailed. A fierce snowstorm was raging, but no one was there to let him inside. With effort, he climbed back up his rock, where he collapsed.
When the beast awakened, it was because of horrible hunger pangs. As he had done so often before, he jumped off the rock. This time, however, unlike all the others, the movement was clumsy, and his hindquarters hit the ground with a thump that caused him to yelp in pain. It was a struggle to even move through the snow. Soon though he spotted a small animal hopping across the terrain. He attempted to chase after it, but his laboring movements only alerted the creature to his presence and it quickly raced away. The beast was left half-sunk in the snow, snorting heavily from the exertion.
Continuing his attempt to hunt, he located a stretch of land free of snow. Another small rodent was there at the far end. He tried to catch this one. Moments after initiating the chase, he felt his back left leg give way beneath him and he fell to his side. Struggling back to his feet, he looked in the direction of the desired prey. It was nowhere in sight. For a long time he sat there on his haunches and stared at the land around him before his thoughts returned to the hunger that gnawed within him. Having no other recourse, he returned home and ate snow until his stomach hurt.
It was from that point on that the beast felt a growing sickness within him. Often, on the rock outside the hut, he lay as still as possible, for any emotion aggravated the excruciating pains in his head and the nauseous ache in his stomach. He tried to wait the illness out as he had always done before, but this sickness was different and he only became worse. His body thinned, his fur lost its sheen, and his ears and tail drooped. He slept now nearly continually.
With a gasp, the beast suddenly awoke as sharp pains shot through his body. He had experienced them in the past, but this time they were so severe he could barely endure them. After a few moments, they subsided enough to allow him to move