The Night of the Devourers
GREAT MAPES FOREST
A heavy boom disrupted the serenity of the Great Mapes Forest. The sudden noise sent birds flying from treetops. Deer lifted their heads, rabbits rose on hind legs, all scanning the landscape for signs of danger. Then another boom sounded, louder this time. This one rattled the ground, swaying the trees. The woodland creatures scurried away.
More booms followed. They were coming from underground. A steady pounding against the ceiling of the world below. They were getting louder. The hammering more forceful. Something, it seemed, was moving closer to the surface.
The first fractures of stone formed from a central point, appearing suddenly like a spider’s web of cracked ground. Yellow-and-red steam hissed out, venting from the molten underground. Fragmented rocks collapsed under their own weight down into the depths below.
The smoldering hole formed a glowing cavity, a steamy portal into the underworld. Casting shadows across the forest, the glowing vapors exhaled and gave the branches a sinister appearance in flickering light. The hole itself looked like a breathing monster with a noxious mouth completely opened.
Then the pounding stopped.
Deep within the pit something stirred. Movements disturbed the smoky beams of uplifting light. A three-fingered hand, black as the darkest shadow, reached out of the pit and struck the ground, clamping down hard outside the rim. The other hand followed, trailing with it a fleshy purple forearm and elbow. Leveraging against the ridge, the beast endeavored to lift itself out.
The creature came out of the pit and firmly stood on legs of wrinkly flabby skin. The beast, silhouetted against the yellow glow, hissed steam and lifted its head. The motion revealed two round eyes, black as obsidian. Its snout, upturned and rodent-like, jutted up above the thing’s shiny eyes. Out of its nostrils came a snort of warm vapors in twin columns. Below its snout, and across the entirety of its body, its enormous mouth stretched in a wide downward frown that ran down in a great arc, nearly touching the ground at its lowest point on either side.
The creature, lumbering slowly, stepped away from the rim of the pit with pounding steps. With another snort of hot air, the massive colossus shook its bulbous head, again exhaling vapors in the cold night air.
Behind the first creature, another pair of dark arms reached out of the pit. A second huge Devourer began climbing out of the steaming crevasse. The second one was an exact duplicate of the first. The thing rose out of the hole and stood beside the first, silhouetted in billowing yellow-and-orange fumes.
The first Devourer leaned back and lifted its arms to stretch. As it did, it untucked a pair of veiny, leathery wings and opened them fully. The wings were connected in segments, sealed over, and supported by spindly rods. They resembled long smooth shields accentuated by sharp edges like unforgiving sharpened knives. Swinging its wings out quickly with only the slightest flap, it hurtled dirt and leaves off the ground back into the ashes. Then once stretched, it neatly compacted its wings, folding them under and away. The creature turned and considered its twin. Then they both paused and waited for yet another to climb its way out.
The second Devourer yawned, exposing a wide gaping mouth that opened the entirety of its body. After a series of smacks with a purplish tongue, thick and covered with sticky clear slime, it closed its mouth into a morose frown. It watched the third shape rising from the steamy underground. Just as the other two had, the new creature labored to climb its way up to the top of the hole. Finally, the third Devourer was born.
Three Devourers stood in front of the glowing billowing steam. Their eyes shimmered like wet obsidian with the slickness of the oiliest black. Upon instinct, they opened their wings and turned into the wind. One by one they took to the sky. With their massive wings pumping the air, they gradually rose in incremental flaps. Soon they were riding the air currents above the trees of the Great Mapes Forest. Into the night they rose, becoming nearly invisible as black on black in the darkness. Reaching the extent of their elevation, they effortlessly moved through the night. They followed one another circling overhead into a triangular pattern. They were scanning the Mid-Run Valley below. The land stretched out before them, revealing its secrets to their unique vision. Nothing escaped their sight in any direction.
They glided down now. The ancient trees were thick and strong enough to support their weight. They silently came to a rest with a gentle, but heavy, landing on some low-hanging branches. There, they sat motionless for a long time, using all their senses, driven by an instinctive need to feed.
A pair of young lovers had stolen away from the watchful eyes of their parents. They rolled in an adolescent embrace, kissing and laughing softly—tempting targets to the Devourers. But the young lovers were not what they scanned for and not what they craved. So, the lovers went about their lovemaking, unaware they had been passed over.
The Devourers looked beyond. A glen appealed to them, a distant cow pasture, where a herd of animals lay asleep. One by one, the living wood sprang away, as the Devourers pushed off the branches. Catching the air in a mighty pull of their wings the creatures rose into the night again. After climbing high and gaining the desired elevation, they dived in unison, reaching incredible speed, soaring toward the ground, toward their unsuspecting prey.
The Devourers struck with taloned feet, and three cows let out startled screams. The surviving bovines scattered as quickly as they could, running for their lives.
The Devourers opened wide yawning mouths, revealing row upon row of triangular teeth that spiraled in circles down deep purple throats. Each monster, in turn, enveloped half of their animal with the elastic skin of their enormous mouths. Then they tightened, and with a series of jerking, crunchy bites, the cows were severed in half—the uneaten half falling to the ground like a wet bag of sand from a single lethal bite.
The black creatures munched until the meat was gone. Afterward, they remained silently still in the darkness, like giant insentient monoliths. There, they waited for their meal to settle and digest. As the hazy dawn blended orange light through the dark blue, they waited.
The hours passed. Then, the Devourers started to stir again. One lifted a wing and preened underneath with a claw, satisfying an itch that disturbed it. Then, each in turn rose on their three-toed feet, unfolded their wings, and took to the skies. They glided back to the waiting branches of the Great Mapes Forest.
The dawn did not bother them. As the sun rose, they remained perched upon the high branches of the great trees. No observer would be able to recognize them from some distant shadow in the branches. Here, they could watch, invisible in the treetops. The only suggestion they were there was the ever unblinking, ever watchful orbs of their greasy black eyes.
The surrounding lands had brightened into a new day. The lovers had gone long ago, never knowing how close they had come to death. But the Devourers were not sent up from below to punish the wicked. They had another purpose entirely, one even more sinister.
Finally, the dew burned away, and the day revealed hazy shapes in the village below. The townsfolk started to move about in the open, intent upon doing their business, unaware of the danger lurking above.