Prey by Laurie Atkinson

Then the horrible comprehension. I suddenly understood that one of them was still among us. Realisation resounded around the dull walls of the chamber, a fear and dread that as it seeped into their muffled skulls triggered a shudder in each of the vacant countenances of my companions.

We knew now we were but quarry, shaking bundles of flesh and fur trapped in the tightening circle of our hunter’s advance. But who was he? None of the hollow frames I saw huddled about me seemed capable of aggression, but I knew better than to discriminate by appearance. You can’t always see the claws. I tried to remember my hurried training, the poorly printed identification manual we had been issued some weeks before. But all that rattled around my mind were the threads of myth and stereotype that had coloured so many scrawled cartoons and dubious accounts in recent trashy papers. These people had none of the usual deformities, the sharpened teeth, the abnormal tattoos, the burning eyes devoid of emotion… They seemed instead to blend into a single tone, and melt into the ashen vault around them, bare but for the ranks of wooden shelves, heaving in their sparseness, and the cracked mirror nailed above the wash-stand

Looking to this tarnished pane, such was the angle of my gaze, the reflection was a world empty of beings; . For a moment I was alone, locked in this desolate echo of my consciousness hanging before my eyes. The isolation was unnerving, and I tilted my head so that the others came into view.

From this vantage I could examine each of those assembled. Their heads were hung, eyes closed, as if the lids provided some refuge. Aware, as I was, this place was no sanctuary, the huddled sheep obediently waited. All but one. He was a gangling youth, of unfortunate proportions whose neatly folding of his hairless limbs poorly concealed their elongation. His presence seemed to demand my attention. With movements less cautious than the rest he picked the dirt from his nails with bony fingers. While we shivered and rocked he was contently engaged in personal hygiene, lending a somewhat animal confidence to his existence. At once my thoughts were shaken into activity. Dirt beneath the nails, wasn’t that one of the marks?…yes I was certain, that was what they had taught us, that was how you could tell. It must be him, that creature in the corner, he was the one.

Moulded to familiar form, there was a pleasing reality to my enemy. The paranoia that had consumed me was replaced by the instinct to survive. I looked intently upon my foe.

Tall but slight, the thing was little more than a child. His was the kind of face that hung, an emaciated, mirthless face dragging behind prominent cheek bones cradling two dark pebbles for eyes. On his side there was a throbbing sore, the angry redness absorbed me through the grit and dust, as its agony pulsated through the room. Yet no hint of pity stirred within me, I was in little doubt now behind that forlorn expression a pair of slobbering jaws quivered and snapped, eager to clasp shut upon us.

Was I alone in my revelation? My muscles twitched with the eagerness of discovery. I cast my eyes about my wretched companions. They too were transfixed. No, they knew.

Glances were exchanged, eyebrows raised, but the youth seemed blissfully unaware of the conspiracy unfolding around him. For some time we sat in anticipation, each of us terribly brave but utterly afraid, desperately hoping another would be the first to strike. Mercifully it was as one body we finally fell upon it, a web of terror and sinew that cried and pulsed, entombing the yelping wretch beneath blows and curses. The flurry was brief, but effective. The pack withdrew moments later to reveal the pitiful corpse of the vanquished, the once embodiment of our fears and distresses, torn to pieces under our tangle of limbs.

Silence returned. Our eyes still smouldered with the embers of victory, but congratulations seemed somehow inappropriate. One by one we slunk away, leaving the boy in a heap on the floor. I considered conversation, but thought better of it, no more than a grunt was needed to qualify our deed. Releasing bared teeth, and letting my haunches fall, I sat down instead to pick the dirt from my nails.