The Dark and the Ruin
By: Josh Poole

Clouds shifted in large patchworks beneath the crescent glow of a fingernail moon. The sum of mankind's works lay in ruin, blasted into oblivion, and reduced to infertile swaths of concrete earth. The world was gone, but the creatures of the night remained…

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A doe nudged her young fawn up an embankment and into the thick mania of staggered trees and thorn brush. The night was young, and the nests of howling creatures had only begun to stir in the gloom of the nearby city. She could hear them moving about when she had led her daughter through the narrow streets, between the stripped skeletons of abandoned structures. She had seen their shapes dancing in the shadows amongst the ruins, their numbers inestimable, and their cunning formidable. She had felt their teeth once, with the traces of that experience still remaining in the form of scars on her white belly and hind legs.

Once inside the woods, however, she felt at ease. The howling creatures never dwelled far there, never ventured deep into the forest for one reason or another. Perhaps it was due to their former domestication, an artifact of which remained in their propensity to dwell in the old human structures, still guarding the homes of their long-gone masters. Perhaps, she thought, it was due to the other creatures who dwelled in the forest. There was, however, no water to be found in the forest, and she would have to leave with her daughter with the sunrise to venture back across the city to the old park where the water collected in a deep pool surrounded by symmetrical lines of ancient trees that celebrated the metal figurine of a woman poised at its center.

Her daughter soon fell asleep, exhausted by the day. The doe looked at her small form, at the white dots that speckled along her back and side in a dark attenuated by the moon's light gleaming in through an intermittent canopy. The noise of the creatures was distant, cast through the reverberate cityscape in shrill yips and long, bellowing howls. Her ears remained perked as she slid into a deep sleep, weary from the day and dreading the morning.

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The doe awoke to the sound of an animal being torn apart. Her eyes exploded open, her heart and lungs quickly reached their full capacity as she scanned frantically for her young one. Afraid to make a sound, she searched only with her eyes and ears, listening for any faint steps, and looking for the little white dots that floated above the tall grass like a small constellation. She found no such thing, but felt a sudden movement against her flank that spun her head around in fear.

To her relief, it was her fawn, nuzzling against her belly where old scars still scalped her underside. The noise amplified, the shrill squeal of a rabbit drowning in the delighted yips of the hounds. She could smell them, the urban reek of dogs, and she knew that, if she could smell them, that they, too, could catch her scent.

Quietly, the doe coaxed her young to follow her deeper into the woods where the brush grew thicker, and the trees huddled closely together. The young one obliged, shuffling in behind her mother as they pressed into the painful briars and protruding branches that bit into her face and neck. The doe had been into those woods before, but it wasn't a place that you could become familiar with, as the growth changed with each day and even in daylight there remained a dim, homogeneous tint over the entire area. Nevertheless, the mania of the forest maze proved to be alluring in light of the savage cacophony taking place mere yards away. The doe knew, however, that there were other things to fear in the woods. On they sauntered, brushing through the countless tendrils towards a goal that existed only in the mind of the mother. Instinct alone would tell her when they had gone deep enough, far enough away from the dogs that they wouldn't pursue, wouldn't dare follow them deeper into the forest.

The sound of the dogs disappeared behind, and their noise was replaced by the ambient chirps of strange birds and the bizarre cackling of creatures the deer had never heard before. Her fawn remained close, attached to her magnetically even as the barriers and unpredictable terrain separated them for brief moments. The dark, which had been nearly total even at the edges of the wood, had become absolute, and the doe was guided solely by her nose and the sensations of foliage brushing past her legs as the fawn followed. Noises emerged from all around, some far, but some close. Too close.

At last, a bit of moonlight filtered in, percolating through the canopy into dapple spots along the forest floor. She could see the brambles, and hear the sounds emanating from within both the brush and high above in the trees. They were drawing closer, drawing in like predators, like the dogs. She felt a rush of adrenaline, but was trapped by it, unable to sprint away and leave her fawn in the open to be consumed by the forest.

The noises drew closer, with the strange chirps and yowls mixing with the snapping of twigs and the fluttering of loose leaves. Her heart raced, threatening to drop out of her chest to escape the trap of her rib cage. They were surrounded by the noise on all sides with no escape, no release, no hope. At last, the creatures fell upon them, dozens of animals no larger than squirrels whose black fur saturated the night.

As the doe reared on her hind limbs and batted at the creatures with her legs, the small animals froze and stepped backwards, as if confused. She stood still, her fawn still clutched at her side while the animals lined up all round them in a circle, their beady eyes shining in the moonlight as their noses twitched above sharp, glistening teeth.

One of the small animals approached, standing directly in front of the doe, unafraid of the hooves that could stamp its life out in an instant. The fawn, more perplexed than afraid, loosened her stance from her mother. The sound of the dogs arose once again in the distance, with their yips permeating the thick forest and, it seemed, were growing closer by the moment. The doe froze, not knowing what to do as the dogs closed in, as they'd never ventured deep into the forest before, and with the strange creatures assembled all around her, she felt unable to move in any direction.

The yowls and barking amplified until they became intertwined with the noise of clambering footsteps and snapping twigs as the dogs spilled into the clearing and immediately lunging towards the pair. Only, in an instant, the dogs began spinning around in circles, baring their fangs, and yelping as a darkness consumed them. The doe watched as the small creatures, dozens at a time, climbed onto the three dogs that had spilled into the area and ripped them apart, disassembling them like she would tear apart a walnut in her mouth.

After mere seconds, the predators were reduced to carcasses, and then only bone. The creatures, which had been so numerous and voracious, disappeared at once into the brush, leaving the doe alone with her fawn to stand next to the skeletons of their foes. She sniffed the air, smelling the familiar scent of water and, as the sound of the strange creatures dwindled, could hear the hiss of its soft movement. With a newfound drive, she marched with her fawn deeper into the woods, pursuing the sound of a stream and feeling, for the first time, safe in the most dangerous place she knew.

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