It was the one emotion that you never got used to.
You could comfort yourself. You could tell yourself that nothing that could happen has never happened before, and you know exactly what is going to occur, and it couldn't really be that bad, and it must be your imagination going into overdrive. You could feed yourself all sorts of lies, but that feeling never goes away. It bubbles up inside you, clenching you heart, freezing you muscles, dulling your thoughts, until the only thing you are aware of is your own ragged breathing.
He raced upon the narrow paths threading through the Hedge, barely heeding the tendrils whipping at him, its thorns easily splitting his skin, drawing tiny shreds of flesh away. It didn't matter, anyways. The Hounds have already locked onto his scent, and he didn't have the time or luxury to hide his trail anymore.
His bare feet pounded against the serrated undergrowth as he stumbled around a corner, arms reeling wildly. He tottered for a second, swaying in unbalance, before flinging himself down a even narrower and darker path.
His heart drummed in his chest, each dull throb seemed to rob his muscles of more oxygen. His sight blurred, more due to dehydration than any speed on his part. Every fibre, every sinew on his body creaked and stretched painfully as he desperately willed his limbs to move faster, always faster.
At least he wasn't hungry. Hunger was easy to get used to. Now, all he could feel was an odd sort of emptiness in the pit of his stomach. It gnawed away at him day and night, but it wasn't unbearable.
He shook his head and focused his thoughts on running again.
Speculation didn't do him any good. The task at hand is getting away from those Hounds…
They were getting closer now. He could hear their yelps and howls as they chased after him, even smell the sweet, repugnant scent of decay that hung like a cloud around their being.
It was only a few hours into the Hunt, too. He'll no doubt be punished severely if (or when, but he tried not to think of it that way) he got caught like this.
Master had come to expect much more from him.
His steps faltered involuntarily at the thought of punishment.
He shivered as unwelcome memories rose to the front of his mind and, as clear as though it was happening right before his eyes, he saw his cell, the long, winding whips, the brands and the red-hot coal, the darkness, the masked figure pulling back an enormous fist, and the-
Clutching his head, he fell to the ground with a dull thud, splitting the skin of his knee on the jagged rocks.
But this time, it wasn't the memories of his torture that turned his knees into water.
What was that feeling?
The incessant itching at the back of his mind, the irritation of half-recalled sounds and sights…
A distant memory was fighting its way to the surface, but for the love of all that is holy, he couldn't figure out what it was…
His only warning was a puff of warm breath on the back of his neck.
Suddenly, he was knocked violently forwards. His head bounced off the ground, his sight going white, even as sharp claws dug painfully into his back.
They were here.
He rolled over, desperately flailing, trying to get that thing off of him, all the while, the stench of death clouded his senses.
More of them came flying, tackling and pinning him to the ground. Red, gaping jaws snapped at him, yellow phlegm dripping from long, tapered fangs. Glowing red eyes, narrowed to a slit in excitement, met his own, and he heard the Hounds howl in triumph.
It was over.
But he still fought.
He couldn't just give up.
Couldn't let them drag him back.
Couldn't let himself be locked up again.
He had to run.
He had to…
Then, something happened.
The itching at the back of his mind stopped, and a flood of memories came rushing to the fore.
Memories that he had never seen before. Memories that were colourful and warm and vibrant and loving…
There was a woman there, in every single one of them.
He remembered how she would smile sweetly at him and ask how his day was.
He could almost feel her hand brushing through his hair as she read him silly bedtime stories.
He could almost hear her soft voice singing the same old nursery rhymes, and yet somehow, making them the most wonderful songs in the world.
And when she leant down to kiss the little boy good night, when she leant down to kiss him goodnight, he swore he felt a gentle brush of warmth against his forehead.
He threw his head back and shrieked, somehow mustering up enough energy to throw the Hounds off him.
The animals yipped and snarled in protest, struggling to their feet.
But he didn't look back.
He took off again, almost flying over the rough ground, barely registering where he was running.
But it was different now.
This time, he knew where he needed to be.
Almost instinctively, he ducked down and squeezed himself through a hole in the Hedge.
The small opening had been hidden behind a particularly leafy bush and had been all but impossible to see. When he tried to force his way through, the Hedge itself seemed to close in around him, suffocating him, trapping him in the tunnel for what seemed like forever…
He battled his way forth, squirming and writhing, ripping off handfuls of branch and leaves in his haste. His injuries screamed in protest and his muscles ached, but he pushed on, because he knew what was on the other end.
But then, he was falling through the air. The Hedge vanished around him, the thorny vines that had been tearing into his flesh melted away into nothingness and he simply fell.
With a resounding smack, he landed face down on a hard surface, gasping for breath.
In panic, he quickly hoisted himself to his feet, eyes darting around wildly, ready to run at the slightest noise.
But there wasn't any noise.
He found himself half crouched at the edge of a highway, stretching away on either side of him into the horizon, one long strip of pale grey that ran unbroken for miles on end. On either side of the road were flat desert plains, featureless, open, and deafeningly silent. Along the horizon were the faint outlines of low hills and ragged, rocky mountains, jutting into the navy blue of the midnight sky.
He paused, and then tentatively straightened, still looking around him with a newfound wonder.
It was so still, so silent.
The vastness of the desert seemed almost trifling compared to the utter stillness of everything.
Slowly, very slowly, he stretched out his arms, making himself as big as possible.
After…god, how long was it? Centuries of cramming himself into nooks and crannies, after centuries of hiding and running for his life…He simply couldn't describe what it felt like to stand tall and straight. To stand still and…well, enjoy the view…
It almost felt unnatural…
It almost felt free…
He opened his mouth, willing his swollen tongue to work. 'Free…' He croaked, his throat rumbling a little in disuse. 'Free…' He tried again, louder this time.
The sound melted away into the silence of the night.
The word sounded strange on his tongue, foreign, unfamiliar, his mouth protesting as he tried to wrap it around the single syllable.
But it sounded so simple.
He took a step down the highway, savouring the feeling of simply strolling, because now, he realised, he didn't need to run.
He won't ever need to run again.
That thought was strange…
He paused in his tracks again, forcing his brain to wrap itself around the concept.
No one would be hunting him.
He won't ever need to run…
A broken chuckle wrestled itself out of his throat, distorted and dry as it was, it still made his heart flutter a little. 'Free…' He said again, not only louder, but feeling more confident. 'I'm free.'
A low growl sounded behind him.
He jumped and swung around so rapidly that he almost fell to his knees.
But there were no red eyes, no gaping jaws, no stench…no Hounds.
A large, black jeep pull up beside him, it's engines reverberating. The window on the driver's side rolled down and a blond woman in her mid-thirties poked her head out. She eyed him speculatively, took out a cigarette, and lit it up.
'Hey, you alright there?' The first human he had seen in what seemed like forever asked casually, her smooth voice cutting through the night.