May we present this month's third-place story for our monthly contest. The theme this month was "Nightmares" and they did not disappoint. Join us on Patreon to gain full access to all of our monthly winning stories!
By Chris Bannor
I’m so hungry. I can hear them at the edge of the night, calling my name. Calling for me to protect them. It’s an old tradition that makes it harder to ignore. I am starving, on the fringe of the world, but if I go where they call, it will not satisfy me. Too few call these days and the fear isn’t enough.
My feet turn towards the old district where the poorer houses are. There is more than one call. Maybe… maybe it will be enough.
In the old district, they still believe. The world is spinning, times move too fast for me to keep up with, but some places hold true to the stories and lore of their elders.
The streets are nothing but packed dirt, and centuries of use have made them hard and unyielding. Lined with trees and thick bushes, anything could lie in wait, but I’m not afraid. There is little in this world that I need to fear, and none walk the tiny village tonight. I would feel it if they did. An echo. The call of like to like.
The path beneath my feet is familiar enough. I walk it every night, fighting the same knife’s edge.
I hear the small voice in my head, the strength of the call. It’s too much tonight. The hunger gets the best of me and I arrive at the window of a house I don’t know. I don’t remember walking here, but that’s how it always happens. My hunger knows the way.
The child inside calls out again, a wordless cry for help. Above his bed, a talisman hangs with my likeness. He need not say the words to bring me here. The talisman knows the need.
I walk through the window and into the house, undeterred by wood and stone. Like Santa come to deliver to the good boys and girls, only I take.
The boy is sweating in his bed, dark sheets twisted around his body, leaving a stench. I am hollow. I am too weak. Thankfully, there is another tonight. I hope it will be enough.
I touch the boy’s forehead and the image of wolves running passes into my thoughts. A black path in the night, without even the moon to guide him. The boy runs in fear. If they catch him, they will tear his flesh and drink his blood while he still squirms on the ground, caught under their fierce paws.
I cover his eyes with my hand and ground myself in his vision. I can smell the coming rain, and hear the thunder of paws behind me. The boy’s panting is loud in my ears and I turn to face the wolves that are gaining on him.
I open my mouth, but there is nothing human in what these nightmares see. I suck it in, and it comes, every delicious detail, every flavor of his fear rests on my tongue as I devour it. I relish in this buffet, in this filling of my senses.
It is not enough, but there is another tonight. Another to satisfy my hunger. I hope there are more after that. I am a creature that protects people from nightmares, but I must feed. If there is not enough terror, I will have to take other things as well, things more precious and far too important for a creature like me to devour. I will, though.
Tonight, I am beyond ravenous. I starve from too few meals and a growing inability to stop myself. I have stolen too much already.
I step away from the boy and watch his body settle. He sighs in his sleep and I can just make out the vision of sunshine and flowers and a clear river stream through the trees; an image of love and warmth that I have no right to consume.
The next one calls out and I can hear her even louder. She’s been calling half the night, nightmare after nightmare coming from her usually quiet house.
I’m in her room with barely a step, hands to her eyes, and my throat full of seawater. She’s drowning, reaching her hands out to catch hold of her little brother. She can’t but her body struggles to reach him even as she’s losing control.
I inhale this nightmare too. I gorge on her pain, on the reverberating fear that fills her dream brother, echoing until she is too panicked to know it is hers alone. I gasp when my job is done. The nightmare is gone, but I am still hungry, still needy.
I step outside of her head and try to take a step out onto the street, but my body betrays me. I am frozen where I stand, my hands clenched in fists as I fight the imperative to feast.
This is my nightmare. This is my life. I am too hungry, and the children of the village no longer feed me enough to survive. The elders no longer call to me. Only a few of the parents hang my effigy in their homes to devour their nightmares and protect their dreams.
There has always been a cost for calling me, though. If they don’t keep me fed, I must find a way to feed myself. I fight it - always - but my body shakes and my jaw aches from the tension of holding it closed.
I lose the battle and my hand is back on the girl's head, over her eyes. I drop to one knee beside her bed and try to ground myself in the moment, but I’m already in her dreams again.
These are not the nightmares. These are the dreams of a young girl. She dreams of a family, of going to a university in the big city and coming home to help the sick of her village. She dreams of children and laughter and a loving husband. She dreams of a quaint wedding and a life of happiness.
I inhale, sobbing as I choke down the heart of this child. I devour her dreams and her hopes, take every bit of life that she looked forward to. I steal her future to appease my hunger.
When she wakes in the morning, she will be a hollow remnant of the child she was when she went to sleep.
I’m back in the street again, unaware of moving. The gnawing hunger is gone, but my nightmare remains.
A baku is never truly satisfied. The hunger will return.
Chris Bannor is a speculative fiction writer who lives in Southern California. Chris learned her love of genre stories from her mother at an early age and has never veered far from that path. She also enjoys musical theater and road trips with her family but is a general homebody otherwise. You can follow Chris on Facebook @chrisbannorauthor or at her homepage at www.ChrisBannor.com