“Those fools! They understand nothing!” Christian thought to himself angrily as he slammed the door to the tavern and almost ran away. “They drink their minds away until they fall asleep on the tables of that damned place. I shouldn’t have even bothered to come back!”

Christian was the village shepherd, in charge of taking all the sheep out on the grassy steep hills of the mountains surrounding them from spring towards late autumn. He would go away for weeks at a time, returning to the village only for provisions. Lately, these visits had become more rare. He didn’t feel at ease surrounded by other people and it somehow seemed that they didn’t like having him around either.

On this particular day, at the end of summer, he felt sorry he had come back, especially since he had found a great new and isolated spot for his flock. But he needed his hatchet and some food for he had run out of supplies. His father wasn’t there as he reached the farm, and neither was his hatchet. He hated that he had to go look for him at the tavern and meet the village drunks there, but he hated the fact that his father had taken his hatchet even more. That tool was special to him, since it was a gift from his late mother, “something to remember me by…”. And it was also invaluable, for he needed it to build a fire and warm himself during those cold long nights up in the mountains. He would often sleep under the night sky wrapped in his cloak.

His father was, as always, inside the tavern with the other drunks, and he looked like he had already had his fair share of sweet honey-beer. As Christian walked in, a few tired and lost pairs of eyes turned towards him, then back to the mugs at their front. “Did you take my hatchet again?” the boy asked nervously. Tom didn’t even look at him, nor did he answer. Christian tried again, with the same result. At first he hesitated, then took a few steps closer, reaching for his father’s shoulder and pulling a bit “Father, did you hear me?” The old man turned his head a little, just enough so that Christian could see his right eye over the shoulder. And he immediately stepped back, for he felt anger and hatred in that look. Tom had always been a cold and strict man, imposing his will through force whenever he deemed necessary. The beatings he would give Christian got more frequent and violent after his wife passed and when he was drinking.

He just froze on the spot, not knowing what to do. Tom turned silently back to his beer, but at the same time he extended an arm, hatchet offered in his hand. Turns out he had taken it after all.

Christian grabbed it and hurried back to the door without looking back while he heard a few mocking words coming from the table he was leaving behind and feeling his blood boiling and hands trembling while squeezing on the tool.

As he slammed the door to the tavern shut behind, he turned towards his father’s farm, but stopped abruptly as he heard a familiar young woman’s voice calling his name. He turned as he realized who she was - Elisa, the barmaid, the daughter of the tavern’s keeper.

She was the only good thing in his life, he thought while moving closer with heart pounding and red cheeks, dark thoughts and tensions from a few minutes ago already forgotten. “Christian, you come back from the mountains, you drop by and you don’t even say hello” she said with a mock sad expression. “I’m sorry, I just needed some supplies… I shouldn’t even be back yet, I am in a hurry so I can go back up fast before nightfall.” he said, stumbling to find the words, turning his eyes to the ground and then back to her. “Oh really? Now I am sad, I thought I was finally going to see more of you. Here, I put something together for you in this little bag here when I saw you coming in. Maybe you’ll think of me a bit when you’ll eat.” “Oh I am thinking a lot about you Elisa, don’t you worry.” he answered hurriedly and blushed immediately afterwards, thinking it was a mistake to be saying such silly things. But Elisa seemed to like it, because she was showing a big, beautiful smile that could have lifted his spirits on any occasion. A moment of silence set between them, and then she reached for him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Christian couldn’t even realize what was going on before she had turned away and back to the tavern, leaving him while saying over the shoulder “Go then, we wouldn’t want you to be in danger when night falls”.

He was left staring at the door, dumbstruck, hand clutching the little bag with food for a good, long moment while thinking about her, before he realized that he had to go. His thoughts were scattered all over as he hurried back home. His mind raced from his father to Elisa to the sheep and his worries for the coming night, to dreams and hopes for the future, to memories from the past.

The farm was quiet, just as he had left it. Only the wind and occasional sheep cries would break the peace that one finds in the mountains. The shadows were already becoming too long for Christian’s liking, so he knew he had to hurry. He moved the flock with relative ease, even though the 30 or so sheep were complaining all the time along the way.

They traversed the usual hills and moved closer to both the mountain side and the forest. He let the sheep rest just as the sun was setting, feeling relieved that they had made it before nightfall.

As he sat down to rest for a bit, he remembered the bag from Elisa. He started looking inside and he found some cheese, some bread and cured meat, as well as a small bottle of strong spirit. Christian hadn’t realized until that point how hungry he was, and now that he could feel the smell of the food and the cracking of the bread’s crust his mouth was watering. But there were still a few preparations to take care of for the night, and the light was giving way to the darkness fast, letting him know that there wasn’t much time at hand. He stood up and looked around, taking in his surroundings with real care for the first time since he had discovered this new spot. The alpine grassy hill wasn’t very steep, and the woods seemed well suited for a make-shift sleeping place. The sky didn’t look threatening in any way, meaning there was no risk of rain, so Christian decided to move the flock at the edge of the forest, where it was easier to gather wood for fire. The flames warmed him up as he sat on an old stump, enjoying the food. His dog, Nero, looked at him with hunger in his eyes, but Christian wasn’t noticing or thinking about him as he was lost in thought, remembering the summer celebration in the village where he and Elisa had danced together in the middle of the square, around the big bonfire built by the men. He remembered her beautiful smell and her smile. As he spent the nights alone on the hills in the mountains, he often found himself thinking about her. Maybe she was the one for him, maybe he will finally find the courage to ask her out and maybe, just maybe, he will also… But what did he have to convince her with? Especially compared to Will, the other young man from the village who seemed to fancy her. He was better in every way, more good looking and his family richer than himself and his drunken, cold father.

As these thoughts were swirling through Christian’s mind, Nero started barking towards the darkness of the forest. Some of the sleepy sheep raised their heads and looked in the same direction. The shepherd turned his head slowly, wondering what the dog had felt. The forest seemed to move slowly, caught in a dance between the wind and the light and shadows of the fire. The only sounds that could be heard were the cracks of the trees and rustling of the branches and leaves. This was just another night for Christian, nothing out of the ordinary. He had been a shepherd, sleeping in the woods or under the sky with nothing but a dog and some sheep as company since he was thirteen years old. Nero stopped barking, but kept looking towards the darkness.

Christian turned back to the fire and put some more dry branches in. Now he remembered some rumours about wild animals being seen by other villagers. A few weeks ago, while he was searching for his father in the tavern, he heard crazy Raleigh talking about having seen a giant sixcat in the forest. Ofcourse, that was nonsense. Everyone knew that sixcats were travelling in packs, and when they moved into new territory they killed everything. Raleigh must’ve seen something else, or his mind was playing tricks on him, as it usually did.

It was getting late, so Christian threw a few big pieces of wood on the fire and tried to find himself a comfortable spot to sleep on, all wrapped in his cloak. The night carried on as time passed, trees moving slowly under slow caresses of the winds.

Nero suddenly started barking again, this time more upset, growling in between barks. Christian woke up almost jumping to his feet in one movement, before taking a few seconds to shake off sleep’s haze. “Nero! Quiet boy!” But the dog didn’t obey, instead it just darted forward towards the forest. Already standing up and trying to pierce the darkness with his gaze, Christian couldn’t make anything out. He could still hear the dog somewhere close, barking and growling madly at something. The sheep were also starting to move and bleat, as if something was bothering them. The shepherd screamed and whistled loudly as he usually did when there were signs of predators nearby, to scare them away, but nothing seemed to change. Nero kept barking somewhere just beyond his view. Then, as abruptly as he had started, Nero stopped, and an overwhelming silence fell over the camp. Only the rustling branches and the sheep that were obviously scared of something from the dark would make noises. “Oh you silly dog, what rabbit are you chasing now?” Christian muttered to himself, while instinctively touching the hatchet at his waist. He grabbed a flaming piece of wood and moved a few paces in the direction he had last seen the dog go. The forest wasn’t too dense, so he could advance without too many problems, but soon the shroud of darkness surrounded him and his makeshift torch wasn’t too much help.

After only a few minutes of stumbling through the dark and calling out his dog, the fire on the stick gave out, leaving his eyes trying to make out something from the irregular shapes of the trees and bushes. “Come here boy!” he shouted one more time. He heard some cracking branches behind him and tried to turn around - “Ne…?” he didn’t finish the word - a snake-like form, much longer and thicker than his arms, grabbed around one of his legs, making him shout with fear “Gha aaaagh! Wha…?!” but before he could realize what was going on other such forms spawned from the darkness grabbed his arms and neck, raising him from the ground towards the branches of the trees above, where a giant round shape with a great number of eyes were observing him silently, slowly and irregularly opening and closing. As the snakes squeezed his torso and he was no longer able to draw breath, darkness and silence overtook him as his consciousness slipped into nothingness.

Christian opened his eyes slowly as he woke from what seemed like deep slumber. He could not see well with one of his eyes because of a drip of blood from a wound on his forehead. His arms were raised above and apart but were stuck in something and so were his legs, and he could feel cold hard stone against his back, but couldn’t move almost at all. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness and he started discerning the shapes in front of him, the memory of what had happened, of those eyes getting closer to him started coming back, and with them the fear started coming back as well. He could see stone all around him in what must have been a cave and from what he could gather he was stuck on the wall in a slimy but firm substance that was holding his left arm and most of the right one, as well as both his legs up to his waist. The thing was so well hardened that he felt like the earth itself had cemented him inside. Above there was mostly darkness, disturbed only by a moon beam that slipped through what must have been an opening - “Perhaps the exit?”. In front of him he could see, on the floor, something that looked like a bird’s nest, only bigger, and inside it there were five egg-like, dark shapes. The only difference from a normal bird’s nest was that everything was bigger. One of those eggs was twice the size of his head, and he was by no means a little young adult.

Suddenly, he saw something move further away in front of him. At first he couldn’t tell what it was, but as his eyes adjusted to the distance he made out a small, round shape - it was one of the sheep from his flock, and it was caught in the same goo that was holding him stuck to the wall, with the only difference being that the sheep had some of it stuck around its neck and its face, thus not allowing it to make too many sounds. It could still breathe and it seemed very much alive and scared though. Christian stared confused at the sheep, not understanding what was going on and what he was doing there. As time went by, one of the eggs from the middle of the nest started to crack and shake slowly. Unease and tension grasped the young shepherd as he watched in horror how what looked like a small snake emerged through one of the cracks, feeling the air for the first time in its existence. He could not make out the details through the darkness, and the creature was dark, but as he strained his eyes he realized it was not just one, but three then four or even more of the slithering shapes removing bits and pieces of the egg shell and moving around. He started violently pulling on his arms, body and legs with all his might, bolstered by a wave of fear, but the goo that was holding him didn’t give at all.

The creature pushed away the last pieces of the egg shell and started shrieking in an ungodly manner, making Christian pull even harder at his bindings. He managed to get his left arm out of prison and started to claw at the dirt and goo that were holding his other arm in place. It was only at this point that he realized his hatchet was still hanging at his waist. He grabbed it with the loose hand and hacked hard, making progress towards freeing his right arm. The swings weren’t very precise due to his position and his use of the left arm which was not his dominant one, but he wasn’t thinking about the risk of injuring himself, only about escaping by any means. At the same time, something massive emerged slowly from the darkness - it was the same giant shape from the forest, with a multitude of eyes opening and closing and those snakes surrounding it. As Christian saw it moving towards him terror grasped his mind, letting sanity slip and causing him to start screaming and shouting, while hacking away with the weapon he had. The monster, noticing Christian’s newfound freedom of movement, reached a few of it’s long arms on the cave floor and then repositioned its round body surprisingly fast right in front of him. At first, the shepherd instinctively tried to retreat into the wall at his back, but as his rational mind took control he remembered the hatchet in his hand. He tried to swing towards those madening eyes, but he felt his arm being grabbed and slammed back to it’s original position with such force that he almost dropped the hatchet. At the same time, another one of the monster’s arm grabbed his neck. It was only now that he realized that what he had thought to be giant snakes, were, in fact, the creature’s arms and legs - big, thick tentacles coming out of the round shape that it was using to move around but also to capture its prey. At the end, each arm had something that felt like hard claws. The monster opened what must have been it’s mouth, revealing rows upon rows of big, sharp teeth. Slimy saliva started pouring out in a puddle in front of it, and one of the arms slowly mixed it with the mud from the cave floor, then scooped it up and placed it over Christian’s left arm, sealing it back in place. He was still holding the hatchet tightly. Its movements were slow and deliberate, especially when using its arms.

Once this was over, it slowly turned towards the young one, grabbing it gently and moving it towards the hanging sheep. The way it was shifting its body using all those tentacle-arms, it almost felt like it was floating. A second egg started to hatch, little arms reaching out from the confines and protection it had towards the new world it was coming into. The first youngling had reached the sheep and after prodding around, smelling and licking the fur, it suddenly started ripping and biting into its flesh, using all of its arms and its mouth. Since it was still tiny compared to its parent, who could’ve probably swallowed the sheep whole, the little one was making a mess, ripping small bits of flesh and spraying blood all over itself and its surroundings. The sheep was making some horrible noises in agony while trying frantically to move, but its bindings were cementing it in place, doomed to be slowly eaten alive while the mother gently moved the second little one towards the first meal of its existence.

Christian could not move anymore. His left hand was still squeezing the hatchet tightly under the cemented goo. Eyes wide open, mouth shut and clenched teeth, he stared in horror as another two eggs started hatching. His terrified mind could not even register the state his body was in - weakened and hurt, kept in place on the cold cave wall. As the sheep’s cries were slowly getting weaker and a third young monster was coming out of its shell into the world, shrieking, Christian realized, horrified, that the sheep would not be enough to satisfy their ravenous hunger…

Outside the cave entrance, darkness engulfed the forest, wind rustling in the trees. No sounds could be heard except for those of nature.