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“Alexander, breathe steadily and count your heartbeats as you take aim. Each breath, each beat of your heart reminds you that you are alive; focus on this as you take aim upon your target. Even hunting the gentle deer, there is still potential danger all around you. Never take the silence for granted.” Ruben’s voice was soft behind Alexander, the boy who he had accepted as his own son when he married Miranda five years prior. They had a difficult start to their relationship as Alexander had resented him for taking his mother away from him at first, but over the last year he started to realize that Ruben was not taking anything away. He was adding a crucial element to their small family.
Alexander, a serious boy of twelve years, gave a quick nod before he focused his breathing and aimed his rifle at the target painted onto a tree a great distance away. He let out a slow breath as his soft brown eyes settled upon the red circle in the distance then pulled the trigger, watching his target, as the bullet bounced off the trunk of the tree barely touching the outer edge of the target. “Dammit!” Alexander exclaimed, lowering the rifle and looking to Ruben with frustration. “I will never get this!”
Ruben chuckled and rubbed his hand over Alexander’s dark brown hair playfully, “It’s alright, you just need practice. It will come.”
“I’ve been practicing for weeks now and can barely hit the target! I’m just not good at this.” Alexander stood up and handed the rifle to Ruben who slung it over his shoulder easily.
“Yes, weeks. It takes a lot longer than a few weeks to learn how to shoot well; just be patient and keep at it. I promise you that with perseverance, you will hit that target. Never give up on something just because you do not seem to be good at it in the beginning.” Ruben draped his arm over Alexander’s slender shoulder, “Come. Your mother will be calling us for dinner soon.”
“Alright, I will meet you there; Whinny needs dinner too.”
Ruben chuckled and gently pushed the boy toward the barn, “Be quick about it. Miranda is making her famous casserole.”
Alexander rolled his eyes good naturedly and added, “Yeah, famous for being so dry?”
“Easy, Boy, you’ll eat it and tell her it is the best she’s ever made, just like always. Now go.”
Alexander ran through the tall grass to the barn, stopping only to pick an apple from a nearby tree before stepping into the cool barn. Whinny, the caramel colored horse that has been his own since Ruben came to live with them, stomped the ground and gave a soft neigh as her boy walked over bearing gifts of food. “Hey, Whinny, I brought you an apple today,” Alexander muttered softly while running his hand down her nose. “Sorry I didn’t get to take you out today, Ruben wanted to watch me shoot; you know how he gets sometimes.”
Whinny stared at him with her large brown eyes, huffing a hot breath out of her nose as she waited for the promised apple in Alexander’s hand. Finally, her wait was ended after the boy cut the apple into quarters and held the pieces, one by one, on his flat palm. Alexander chuckled at the feel of her velvety lips tickling his hand and rubbed his hand down her soft neck. “Good girl,” he cooed gently, “always the good girl. I promise to take you out for a long run tomorrow.”
“Alexander! Dinner!” Miranda yelled out the back door of their little farmhouse, nestled in a large clearing surrounded by trees.
“Coming, Mother!” Alexander hollered back, then turned back to his horse. “Alright, Whinny; dinner time. Grains and oats for you!” He set to work filling Whinny’s feed bucket and making sure she had fresh water before kissing her nose and running to the house to join his family.
That night was quiet and peaceful as the family slept soundly in their beds. They were exhausted after spending the entire day in the fields preparing for the fall harvest. The summer had been good to them, bringing plenty of sunshine and rain to produce enough bounty to feed them for the entire winter, while also allowing them to sell the excess to nearby villages. While they slept, their dreams were filled of hope and prosperity with no thought of the faint sounds of screaming, or the scent of burning villages being carried upon the wind. No, they slept through it all, completely oblivious to the devastation taking place but a few miles away. It was not until the hour before dawn that the demon horde made its way to the small, out of the way, farm.
Alexander rolled over to his back and threw his arm over his face as he slowly began to stir. Something had disturbed his dreams and he groaned, wishing he could roll over to fall back into oblivion, but the heavy feeling of dread refused to allow him any further rest. With a hard grunt he pulled himself up and sat on the edge of his bed with his face in his hands. He was rubbing away the remnants of sleep when he suddenly heard the horses screaming in fear and smelled the scent of smoke reaching out to him. Instantly alert, he staggered up, nearly tripping over one of his boots that weren’t fully placed under the bed. Quickly, he pulled on his clothes, grabbed his rifle, and stuffed his pockets with the bullets he’d made the night before. He thought to wake up his stepfather, but as he stepped out of his room he met the older man just outside. “Ruben, the horses,” Alexander stated softly.
“I know. Something’s got them spooked,” Ruben whispered. “Your mother is up and fetching the bandages from the cellar in case something’s gotten into the barn.” The older man looked the boy over with pride, noting the loaded gun and the pockets full of bullets before clapping him on the shoulder, “Let’s go have a look, shall we?”
Alexander straightened his spine and met his stepfather’s gaze with all the seriousness he could muster. He lived for these rare times when he saw such pride reflected within Ruben’s eyes and he worked hard to see them. Ruben was his hero, the man he wanted to grow up to be. He gave Ruben a determined smile and a nod as he followed him out the door, but nothing prepared him for what he was to see.
The dark horizon glowed with the burning fields highlighting the silhouettes of the approaching demon army. The distorted horned heads slowly grew in size as they approached, no two looked alike but all looked like thick tree limbs frozen in pain. Even at a distance, Alexander could see they had thick skin of cracked red with blood crimson shining beneath. Each wore cast off armor of leather and metal, and carried swords, spears, and cudgels; whatever they were able to plunder from their victims. They ran, weapons raised, each screaming with dual voices, some so high pitched it hurt the ears and others droned so low the men could feel it in their bones.
Ruben and Alexander stood transfixed in horror, feeling the heavy weight of dread sitting within their bellies, before the screaming horses brought them back to their task. The Horde had sent a scouting party that couldn’t help but give in to the temptation of such a ready meal in the form of the livestock held within the barn. Ruben grabbed Alexander’s arm and pulled him along toward the barn to see what could be done to help the animals. By the time they rushed into the barn it was too late. The screaming had stopped and two horned demons were looming over the dead horses and cattle, their sharp teeth ripping chunks from the raw flesh of the animals. Hot tears stung Alexander’s eyes as he saw Whinny’s still form lying bloodied upon the straw. Raising his rifle, he tried to take aim at the nearest demon. The muzzle shook with his fear and sadness, his vision blurred with unshed tears. His horse was dead, as were the rest of the animals that he had taken such great pride in helping care for over the last few years.
Luck was on their side as the demons were too busy with their meal to notice the two men standing in the doorway. Alexander’s heart slammed hard in his chest, sweat breaking out on his forehead; all he wanted to do was turn and run. He held firm, however, struggling to steady his shaking hands as he knew he had to calm himself before taking the shot. The world stood still as he carefully took aim, hearing no sound other than his pounding heart and ragged breath that he couldn’t control no matter how hard he tried. Alexander turned his entire focus to the feasting demon tearing Whinny’s body apart. He took a steadying breath, then gently squeezed the trigger in the moment after exhalation, the lessons Ruben had given him momentarily displacing his terror and anguish. Disbelievingly he stared as the bullet glanced off the iron like skin of the beast’s shoulder, barely rocking the huge form. The report of the shot rang loudly within the enclosed space of the barn, rebounding the sound painfully in his ears but it brought him out of his trancelike state and the world started moving again. The sudden shift between calm and chaos dizzied Alexander and he stumbled against Ruben who righted the boy quickly.
Miranda’s scream reached their ears as the demons turned their attention to the men. Ruben emptied his revolver into the the demon Alexander wounded, finally able to break through the hard skin and kill it. “Drop the bastard and run!” Ruben yelled at Alexander. “You hear me, boy? RUN!” Alexander nodded vaguely at his stepfather’s retreating back as he reloaded clumsily, the cartridge finally sliding home. Ruben was depending on him to get the job done and get out. He blinked away the remains of tears as he cocked the gun, pointing it at the rushing demon and shooting it in the face. Cursing, he fumbled with another cartridge and nearly lost his grip on the brass casing, almost dropping it. Blood trickled down the demon’s face, its thick skin having protected it from mortal harm but the bullet’s impact had slowed it.
The demon rose up to its full height and spoke in a deep, raspy voice, “You think to destroy me, Child? Come, I will show you true power with a quick death.” The beast took a step closer with a toothy grin, “You won’t feel any pain when I feed on your flesh.” It clacked its pointed teeth together to punctuate its last statement, laughing at Alexander’s pale face and trembling fingers while the boy tried to load his weapon.
Alexander looked to the torn bodies of the butchered animals, then stared directly into the face of the taunting demon. Sudden determination replaced the paralyzing fear that had possessed him and he tossed his rifle aside. There wasn’t time to reload before the beast was upon him. Snatching at the pitchfork directly beside him he crouched low, jerking his weapon up in front of him. Glaring at the demon he tried to look as intimidating as he could while speaking in a shaking voice, “Get back, I won’t let you come near me and live.”
“You do not have the strength to kill me with that flimsy weapon, foolish child. Come to me and accept your fate.” A blur of claws and teeth came at him as the demon attacked. Pain blinded Alexander as the flesh on his chest was ripped by iron claws. The demon’s teeth clamped down agonizingly on his shoulder, forcing him to drop the pitchfork. Alexander fought back with every bit of crazed strength he had. He dug his fingers into the demon’s eyes, forcing the beast away as his nails pressed their way deeper. When the demon jerked back, it took a mouthful of flesh from Alexander’s shoulder. Falling to his knees, Alexander cried out in pain, fear, and anger, feeling the blood ooze from his wounds. Hopelessness overwhelmed him. They had lost. His mother and stepfather, if not already dead, would be soon.
Again, the demon threw itself at the boy, its snapping teeth flashing for his throat as it darted towards him. Alexander’s hand closed on the rough wood of the pitchfork handle that lay beside him. Lifting it, pain setting his arm and shoulder on fire, he braced the improvised weapon against the wall behind him. He closed his eyes tightly and hunched his shoulders in defeat as though blinding himself to his own demise. A sudden thought flashed through his mind, Ruben would be displeased at this cowardice so at the last moment Alexander opened his eyes. His muscles tightened, jaw clenching as the tines caught the rushing demon just below its ribcage. The beast’s momentum forced it onto the pitchfork, the points piercing its tough hide and driving into its chest. One of the slender metal rods must have found its heart, for a gurgle that might have been a growl burst from its contorted, fang filled maw. Blood splattered Alexander as it flew from the still working mouth, the body slamming hard into Alexander’s heaving chest. Falling under the weight of the dying demon, he tried to push it off of him as the thing twitched, soaking him with its venomous and oily blood. The iron of the pitchfork ground into him painfully, and as desperation took over, he shoved at the dead demon with arms that had lost all coordination. Finally he rolled free, staggering to his feet to take in the sight of the carnage.
Swallowing down his fear and pain, standing on adrenaline alone, he clumsily lumbered out of the barn to see his house burning and the demons swarming the farm. Ruben’s last words to him echoed in his mind, “You hear me, boy? RUN!” A cold realization set in that he would never hear his stepfather’s voice again, nor would he see his mother’s smile. Biting back the sudden rush of nausea and grief, Alexander took one last look at his destroyed home and for a sickening moment, was tempted to join their death just to be rid of the pain. Before any of the demons could see him, he turned and ran as fast as he could, leaving his peaceful life behind.
Written By: Joni Graham – Artwork By: Savoula Tsoraklidis