(Apprx. 6 min read)
The man with the short black hair and ragged Nike t shirt tensed his legs. There it was again. Feng followed the line zig zagging through the bushes. He hunted for days sometimes, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes for sport but most often to feed his family and always following the tracks that spread through the forest like the lines of a map only he could read. But it was getting harder to find prey these days. The wiser denizens of the woods hid further in and only the foolhardy went foraging where hunters could get the drop on them.
Feng crouched and held his breath and there was a squeak as the Civet cat died and its still beating heart sprayed into the branches. Feng never noticed the tag in his catch’s ear as the cat’s reek flooded his nose. He began to gut his catch and stopped as something snagged his knife. At first he thought it was just a bone, but as he cut and sliced, working his blade back and forth like a saw he realised what the problem was. What was stopping his work was a collar like they wore in the farms where rank upon rank of his prey squatted one atop another in the cages they made in the city.
Feng looked up, startled as the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He wasn’t alone anymore. In the clearing’s centre a sickly moon had risen from the carcass that lay splayed at his feet. Feng watched the pale sphere bob gently for a moment, no, not a moon, more like an egg and one that was coming closer.
Inside the sphere Feng saw something move and a powerful wave of nausea passed through him as the tiny worm whiplashed and struggled. The hunter’s chest contracted so hard it left Feng gasping and he tried to open his jaws again even if only to take a gulp of air.
So Feng dodged through the trees hoping to outrun whatever the vision was and the welts that were appearing on his skin at its approach. He ran so fast that in his mad dash he barely avoided the branches that plunged past closer than a whisker.
Feng was still running when he felt the ground give way beneath his feet and a second later there was a crack as iron bit deep into his leg. He howled deep and low and at first he hopped round in circles trying to drag the limb free, but even with his leg snapped at an angle like a tree brought down by a storm he couldn’t do it. Feng was just about to get to the business of chewing when a man appeared.
‘There you are.’
He was dressed in a black suit and jet-black shades and he had a mobile phone clamped to one ear but that didn’t stop him bringing a rifle from the briefcase he carried. The butt crashed into the back of Feng’s head and he snarled once before the world went dark. The last thing he heard was the man say, ‘For that sort of price whatever they want.’
He never saw what happened next, never saw himself being dragged through the snow with one torn and mangled stump where his leg had been. Because the man had had his knife sawing away as soon as Feng’s eyes had closed.
Feng’s captor stopped and looked back at the bloody path behind him idly itching at the back of one hand where some welts had appeared like he’d been stung by a nettle, only this one had drawn blood. There was a pale sickly light back there that seemed to be following him but when he stared it vanished. He shrugged and turned back to the task in hand. He hadn’t been kind with the hunter’s dead weight, nobody cared if the animal arrived a bit battered and knocked about, and he began to whistle as he dragged Feng’s body down the track. They’d left the real jungle far behind when he reached the market the man called home.
The first wives rushed over cooing and laughing as they ran their hands over what was left of Feng ignoring the strange rash covering his skin. Soon they’d gotten down to the real business with a catch as fine as him and the blades in their fists were skinning his flesh back like an orange until the meat had separated from the bone and been divided into packets. When they got to the collar wound through Feng’s mouth they removed it carefully and put it to one side so their menfolk could use it on the next animal they brought down. The tastes of the cities wealthy had gone from extreme to voracious and everyone knew that with the right catch you could earn much more than the right price. Then they fought with each other over the bits they were going to feed their kids.
When the women got to the last of Feng they produced pestle and mortar splintering every bone he had left. The result they added to the cement they were mixing for houses. The wives were getting anxious with their men away all the time and they were tired of sitting in huts that filled with smoke with nothing to do but stitch and gossip.
The hunter’s kids had grown up and their kids had too before the first settlers arrived in jeeps with the black suited men in tow behind. By then the camp had grown to the size of a metropolis and the huts had long gone. Glass and steel was everywhere you looked and the trade in wild animals had drained the jungle for miles around. But it was only when the settlers arrived that the place really took off. Pretty soon houses had balconies and porches and if you listened close you could hear bones crunch like gravel as those inside worked their way through all the species the jungle had contained. Though someone had forgotten to tell the settlers that the roads they were building into the forest and the houses they fed were a two-way street. Not everything that lived in the trees died when it lost its home.
Maybe things would have been different if the settlers had stayed away. But the city kept growing and soon it was spreading further through the woods, felling trees by the hundred as it chewed more space from what had been the animal’s home. When the new arrivals looked over the stumps that were left no one had ever seen as many carcasses as those that littered the edges of the jungle. The bleached bones and tattered skin made the settlers drop their jaws in awe like they’d witnessed the work of the half remembered gods from their homelands. Then they got back to work, there were trees to be uprooted and eating to be done.
The city chewed up so much of the forest’s inhabitants that even the wind died in the branches until you could barely hear a thing. Not a bird, not an insect, not so much as a worm stirred in the killing fields the hunters had made of the jungle. No one thought to wonder how that was possible or if the pale light they could see in the suburbs at night flickering through the buildings had something to do with it. It looked like one creature had survived their guns and knives.
It wasn’t long after that that the first sickened and died.
In the beginning fugitives deserted in ones and twos, then in dribs and drabs. But after a while the trickle became a flood and when the city began to realise how keen its slaves were to get out of the new buildings their owners called home they began to employ them in armies. They gave them uniforms with yellow jackets and shiny shovels and axes. Then they sent them to go forth and conquer. The city’s industries were always hungry and its mouths were ravenous. There were new jungles to find and parcel up, new woods to fell, and species to exploit. Except when there wasn’t and eventually the armies met the shores of the sea and looked out over nothing but waves and miles of salt water.
What no one back home expected was what the armada did when they returned. Even for a city that was normally jumping late into the night by the time the streets were dark they’d filled with soldiers. The army weren’t stupid. They knew what no more resources meant and they knew what the rash spreading over everyone’s skin meant too. A few had even begun to suspect the pale glow that had spread from the jungle to emerge from the cities alley ways after dark. At the end of their employment there would be no happy heaven waiting for them with its gates ajar. There was likely to be no end to their service at all with most of them dying in bondage, chewed up by the city’s rulers like the forest they felled. They’d end up out there with the rest of the garbage a happy breeding ground for what had crawled out of the trees and begun knocking at their door.
Eventually everyone was whispering of ghouls and demons and other viler things that made you sick without you seeing a thing. It was a shame they were right about the latter. Although the virus that had crept inside where it couldn’t be seen deserved all of those names and many others too.
When it was over and the streets were quiet again after death had stalked between the houses, and taken a lot more than every first-born son, what was left of the wood’s inhabitants began to visit the city just to see the empty houses where the masters had lived. The problem was the houses weren’t as empty as they thought. Death never stops being hungry and its lips skinned back from teeth more numerous than a zoo as soon as the first set hoof inside the city’s graveyard borders…and that made the virus twitch.
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