This short story was inspired by the gnoll, a hyena-like humanoid creature that hunts in packs. I originally submitted this story to Wayfinder as one of two tales that captured the essence of what it means to be a monster. The other story will be appearing in Wayfinder 14, December 2015.
“Come to me, Auroo.” The priestess beckoned. The tribe’s laughter followed me into the crimson circle drawn around the fire pit. A sea of eyes glittered in the darkness around me.
The attack came two nights ago. Armed humans found our place while my pack hunted. When I returned, our huts and tents were rubble, and the fires ashes. Only smells remained. The smells were memories of births and deaths, feasts and fires, and were all that was left to us. My pack waited until dawn stained the sky for the survivors to creep back. If we had been there the pups might still live. I blamed myself for that. Tonight, I would find out if she blamed me.
I knelt at the priestess’ paws. Her thick dappled fur glistened in the firelight. The black vestment she wore was ripped in half to reveal her proud, swollen belly, the new life of our tribe riding high above me in her womb. A third eye was painted on her forehead. In one paw she gripped a jagged blade already stained red. She touched my brow with her other paw, smearing something greasy over my fur.
“Our Mother calls you to defend our lands. Go forth and break their bones. Drink their hearts’ blood that it may nourish us. Return with bones for the elders to gnaw. For every pup they slaughtered, slay a dozen of their young.” Her voice rumbled over the howls and yips around the circle. Silence fell. Tonight we would hunt.
Her blade kissed me on the cheek. I felt my blood rush out to mingle with the paint.
“Rise!” She growled, arms raised triumphant toward the black face of the new moon.
I obeyed, crying a wordless howl into the night. The tribe answered and the air trembled with our voices.
Everyone swift or strong of paw ran with me. We made no sound save the whisper of grass against our fur. We ducked low to the ground as we approached the humans’ place. Rickety wooden gates were all that stood between us and our meat. Firesticks fluttered in the black air, dripping puddles of yellow light where two metal-clad humans stood watch. One was old, his head-fur grizzled and grey, and the other wore a sword that was too big for him.
“Watch the old one,” I whispered to Girra, who crouched beside me. Her powerful haunches rippled as she moved closer to me. Her proud ears stood at attention, her black eyes were like coals, and her fur glinted silver in the dim starlight. If the Mother would have this be our last hunt together, I would remember every detail of her muscled body, her silver fur, her snarling mouth.
“I will rend him,” she growled. I grinned and nipped at her shoulder.
“After me,” I said, and leaped out of the grass. I heard the pounding of her pawsteps behind me as I bounded into the torchlight. The old one rushed me while the pup fumbled with his sword. I lowered my head and swung my hammer for a killing blow, but Girra was upon him. A shower of blood arced through the air as her knives found the weak spot in his armor. She laughed and turned to face the pup.
“He’s yours,” she spat, and with a rustle of fur she was gone. I shuffled toward the pup. He stumbled back against the gate. He swung his sword wide, both hands on the hilt, and I stepped in to meet him as he jerked forward with the weight of his swing. My hammer found his skull and he lurched to the side with a sickening crunch.
My pack swarmed around me, advancing on the gate. Swords, flails, and hammers fell on the wooden gate like rain. A sharp crack rent the night as boards shattered in a spray of splinters.
We rushed through in a mass of steel and fur. Candles flickered in the windows of the huts as we approached, and screams pierced the night. Humans armed with blades long and short surged forward.
Girra tore the throat of one man, her gored knife pointed straight toward the sky in a deadly strike. Krell stumbled, grasping at the spear piercing his belly, but for every gnoll that fell more humans crumpled, my pack feasting in twos and threes on their twitching bodies.
I saw pack members breaking down doors and flooding into the huts. Girra fell in beside me as I approached a hut, bigger than the rest, nestled near the center of the village. Her silver fur was slick with blood.
“Chief’s house,” she grunted, punching a hole in the door with one of her curved knives. She reached through with one paw and the lock clicked. A human woman with a metal pot in hand cowered as Girra’s knives slashed her. We padded down a long tunnel of wood and stone and came to a room empty save for a wooden crate. Flowers and animals were painted on the walls, and wooden objects littered the floor.
Girra stood at the door as I peered into the crate. An ugly pink thing lay swaddled in a mass of blankets. Two blue eyes opened and stared into mine. A downy patch of black fur curled at the top of its naked head.
“Is it a pup?” Girra hissed from the doorway.
“Yes,” I said, reaching out a paw to grab it. A tiny pink hand grasped my claw. I lifted the bundle and reared back to throw it against the wall. I remembered the pups with their wet noses and soft speckled fur, the way they giggled when they chased and tumbled around the huts.
“Crack its skull!” Girra shouted.
The pup didn’t cry or shriek in my arms. It made a soft noise like a whine.
“Hurry,” Girra warned. She grunted and I spun around to see Gralnak push past her. His hulking body shook with each ragged breath. Two arrows protruded from his shoulder and a gash across his chest wept blood.
“Give it to me,” he barked. “I have slain a dozen. I have the right to take my share of the tender meat.”
“No,” the word escaped my muzzle before I even thought it. Gralnak snarled at me. “It is a gift,” I said, “for the priestess.”
He circled me, flexing his wicked claws. Gralnak never carried a weapon. He didn’t need to.
Girra growled. I glared at her, and those proud ears flattened against her skull.
“You cannot have it,” I snarled, and Gralnak lunged at me. His claws sank into my flesh. I couldn’t use my hammer without dropping the pup. Instead I punched Gralnak in the jaw and opened my first to dig claws into his face. He yelped and wrapped his powerful arms around me, squeezing, and I felt a rib pop. I thrust my head forward into his nose. He loosened his grip enough for me to draw my knife. I shoved it into his stomach to the hilt. He twitched against the blade, and his arms went slack.
I let go of the knife and pushed, one-handed, freeing myself. I set the pup down and freed my hammer while he staggered, eyes rolling, blood bubbling from his lips. A single blow crushed his skull.
I turned to Girra.
“We’re done here,” I barked. I could feel her eyes burning into me as I strode past her, the human pup still clutched to my chest.
The pack stood outside in a semicircle. Howls erupted from their jaws as I stepped into the night.
“Auroo! Auroo!” They chanted.
“What do you hold, Auroo?” Nyill crooned, licking her lips. “A tasty morsel to share?”
“A gift for the priestess,” Girra said from behind me.
“No,” I yelled. “No more pups will die.”
The glittering eyes of the pack watched me in silence.
I stiffened as Girra’s knives pierced my back. I rolled my head around to meet her eyes. She stood, muzzle set in a grim line, arms rigid as she pressed her blades deep into my body.
“You are weak,” she spat. My pack, the brothers and sisters who had run with me a hundred times, crept toward me, their bared teeth gleaming with saliva.
“We are hungry,” Nyill yipped. Her teeth pierced my thigh like needles.
“Feed us,” another said, and I felt a dagger bite into my side.
They were on me now. A hundred paws pinned me to the ground. Girra let go of her knives and wrenched the pup from my arms. She held it out to the pack. Their frothing muzzles ripped at the tiny bundle.
Through the searing pain of their teeth and claws, I felt the words of the priestess wash over me. “Our Mother calls you.” I felt the wounds on my body open up into the abyss, to the arms of the Mother of Monsters, as she called me to her.