HUNTING THE BEAST • by Stephen V. Ramey

I wanted to distrust the crone. What purpose could she have to aid my quest? I drew myself up until the Christ’s Soldier medal on my vest glinted in the morning sun.

“You seek that which cannot be named,” she said. Her eyes were milky with cataract. I imagined the cackle that would erupt from that toothless mouth.

“What do you know of the beast?” I said. Where it trod, devastation followed: droughts, disease, pestilence, great seething storms. I had sworn to bring its blasphemous rampage to an end. “Do you know its whereabouts?”

The crone dropped her stick and felt down my arm to my hand. She pressed a pair of reading glasses into my fingers. “These lenses will allow you to see through its eyes.”

I perceived a greenish glow deep within the lenses. An urge to drop them washed over me.

“What unholy magic is this?”

The crone chuckled. “We would all do well to see through another’s eyes. Head due west. Use the glasses to look for landmarks, clues to your foe’s location. But beware, for there is a price. Each time you wear them you will find your own vision diminished.”

I pushed the glasses into my pocket and left the crone clucking by the road. Every instinct screamed that she was sending me into danger, yet I continued. Others had overtaken the beast. I buried their bones.

The grass grew thin, the sun hot. I thought of Ethan’s boyish grin, the way he swept his sword in practice. I later found his body torn limb from limb, face melted into a terror mask. What did he see? Would I see the beast? Would it take me unawares?

The silhouette of a town wavered through the haze, its many steeples ripped out like rotten teeth. I prayed beside the largest of these husks, though I had not felt God’s presence in many months. Still no sign of the beast.

A mass grave marked the town’s edge. I stepped carefully, dreading the moment my boot would crunch through a child’s skull.

Once free of that devastation, I donned the glasses and found myself standing before an anvil-shaped mesa. A chill filled me despite the sun. Awareness washed over me, and I tore the glasses away. The real world coalesced. I blinked, but my vision would not quite clear. It seemed the crone was right about a price. Still, I could see well enough to navigate.

Each morning I used the glasses long enough to glimpse a new detail of the mesa’s foreground. The beast had not moved. Was it waiting? Should I not turn back and seek the comfort of whatever civilization remained?

I could not, for I had set my foot upon this path with a solemn vow, part of a brotherhood intent upon saving our world. I must not let my fellows down.

By the time I entered the true desert I was nearly blind. I had, however, developed a rapport with the glasses. Not only could I see through the beast’s eyes, but I also sensed its direction as a compass detects true north.

For three bright, hot days and cold, dark nights I plodded through sand and ravines, sucking moisture from cacti as I pulled their thorns from my flesh. The glasses had become a fixture on my face. I kept my eyes closed to minimize disorientation.

Of a sudden, coolness covered me. I heard a snuffling, sucking sound. The sky was dark, but I saw a figure as clearly as if in broad daylight, a sticklike man in torn garments, skullified face covered with welts.

The beast, I thought. I took heart from this, as the beast seemed as haggard as I felt. Perhaps its journey had been as taxing as my own.

“I see you,” I said, and lifted my hand to my face. The beast also spoke, also touched its cheek. Hope fell flat. It was not the beast I saw, but myself through the beast’s eyes.

A shrieking voice said, “Why have you come here, man? I separated myself from your kind to avoid such confrontations.”

“I am a soldier of Christ, sworn to destroy you.”

Laughter. “Have you now? Look at yourself. You are weaker than water.”

“Faith is my power.”

“And sight?” the beast said. “You are blind without the witch’s spell.”

I turned and watched the figure turn. By aligning myself with the vision of myself, I could at least face the beast. It was a difficult process, everything backward. “I do not fear death,” I said.

“As you wish,” the beast said. “But know this, man, know that my faithlessness did not spawn storms and disease, but your own inflexible faith. Rather than solving the problems before you, you chose to trust in prophets. The world was yours. Now it belongs to me.”

I heard the sound of hooves and saw myself loom larger. The urge to dodge was strong, but I held firm.

“Show yourself,” I shouted. “Show me the cause of our destruction.”

More laughter as its hooves pounded closer. “Behold, man!” No matter how I tried, all I could see was my own form standing like a blade of grass against the wind.

Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania with his wife and two reformed feral cats. Glass Animals is his debut collection of flash fiction, published by Pure Slush. Read it if you dare.

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