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It was just before sundown on a Tuesday evening that the artist hauled the tools of his trade through the forest. His bag was heavy, but he had no regrets about choosing the eastern woods, far off of the beaten path. The place had a calming, warming effect despite the chill in the autumn air.
The turning leaves shimmered as the sun lowered slowly towards the horizon. The only sound was a light breeze whispering through the trees. No matter how perfect the setting, the artist knew he could not go much deeper into the woods.
He would have to be back by midnight, if not before, and there was work to be done. He had almost given up on finding his perfect setting when it seemed the trees suddenly opened up before him.
He could never be sure afterward if he stumbled upon the place by pure chance or if something had baited him. In any case, the artist found himself standing in a large clearing. In the center of the area, a large outcropping of rocks rose out of the earth like a tongue protruding from a giant maw.
The entire site was anything but natural. Ragged holes remained in the ground where trees had been ripped out down to the roots. Large stones lay scattered around a cave in the center of the mass of rock. They looked as though they had been cut and hurled out of the living rock to create the cave. The artist was used to strange sights, but the scene before him gave even him pause. It was completely alien to the forest surrounding it.
Despite the profound wrongness of the place, the artist stepped into the clearing. He moved carefully around a large gash in the ground and slowly approached the cave. He was ten feet past the tree line when a voice rang out from the cave in front of him. Its pitch was high and light, but it reverberated through the ground beneath the artist’s feet.
“You are unlucky to have found this place,” said the voice. “For now you must die.” The artist did not scream or flee. He merely stopped and raised an eyebrow at the gaping hole in the rock.
“May I ask why?” said the artist in a dark, tenor voice. The creature in the cave did not respond immediately, possibly confused by his bluntness. As it responded, the artist took note of a strange breathy quality to the voice. It sounded like some form of speech impairment that did nothing to take away from the ominous quality of the voice. He was unable to tell if the voice was male or female.
“You have found the lair of The Hunger, mortal,” said the creature slowly and deliberately. “My purpose is to consume, for I am the maw of the devourer. You shall serve this purpose.” The sound of a loud footstep echoed from the darkness in the stone.
“That would be unwise,” said the artist. A loud stomp came from the cave.
“Do you dare toy with me?” asked The Hunger. Its tone was somewhere between annoyance and rage, but it did not emerge from the cave. It waited for the artist to reply.
“No,” said the artist. “I don’t. But I have something here that may change your mind.” The man laid the body bag he had carried onto the ground. He pulled open the zipper and revealed the face of a dead woman within the bag. Still, nothing replied from the darkness.
“I’m an artist, you see,” he continued, his voice brimming with pride. “And this is my work.”
“That is flesh to be consumed,” said the Hunger. “Explain why I should not consume you along with it.” The annoyance had been replaced by a slight intrigue.
“This is my art,” the man said in a theatrical tone. “Steel and Blood are my brushes and paints. Flesh is my canvas. I create marvels that draw the eye to what would normally be an ordinary piece of meat. This is only the first of my works. I will bring them all to you so that someone will finally appreciate them.”
“I do not appreciate,” said the Hunger. “I only consume whether it be art or refuse, living or dead. But your bargain intrigues me, mortal.”
“I will take what appreciation I can get,” said the artist, placing as much eloquence as he could into his wording. “I will create great art for you. I will present you with works such as you have never seen before.” A pause followed. The artist hoped he had not failed. His speech did it’s job.
“Enough talk, artist,” said the Hunger. “Bring me my meal. I hunger.” A smile formed on the artist’s lips. As he removed the body from the bag, a growl came from the cave. He could almost feel the ground beneath his feet echo with the sound of it. The body had a deep gash carved into its neck.
The body beneath it was laced with many shallow cuts. Dry blood still lay caked on the skin. The artist picked the body up in his arms and carried it to the entrance of the cave with care. As he approached the opening, he noticed something quite odd.
The setting sun had dipped almost to the horizon behind him, casting a golden light over the outcropping of rock. The light should have illuminated the interior of the cave, but the darkness had not dissolved a bit. The artist felt as though he was staring into an endless void as he carefully placed his work on the ground before the veil of shadow.
Two heavy footsteps sounded within the cave. The artist watched as a hand protruded from the shadows and grabbed the body. It was more claw than a hand, large enough to envelop the waist of the corpse. It quickly dragged its prize into the darkness.
The artist sat down on a boulder as horrifying sounds echoed from the cavern. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, placed one in his mouth, and carefully lit it with a match. The sound of gnashing teeth continued to emanate from the cave while the artist sat smoking.
As the man sat and stared at the darkness, he fancied that he could hear music in between the sounds of cracking bones. In the back of his mind, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy began to play softly. It was the song he had played as he created his first work. Even in the dark corner of the world, he found himself in, it seemed appropriate for it to accompany his success.
He had found a patron. As the noises from the cavern ceased, the artist had begun to hum. He had just put his cigarette out on the rock beside him as the Hunger spoke from the darkness once again.
“That was not entirely appetizing,” said the Hunger with a growl. “It was dry and tasteless.” The artist stood up and faced the cave entrance.
“That would be because the majority of her blood was outside of her body at the end of my work,” he said. “I will be sure to change my methodology next time.”
“See that you do, mortal,” said the Hunger. “Before I decide you are not worth keeping alive.” The artist bowed his head towards the cave.
“As you wish. I will return within three days with my next work.”
“Two days, mortal,” said the Hunger. “And do not disappoint me.” The artist nodded, turned, and walked back into the woods.
Two days later, the artist returned to the woods. The air had grown colder as the seasons continued their march, but the artist did not feel the cold. He strode through the growing carpet of fallen leaves with new purpose and a new work slung over his shoulder.
The artist found the clearing as effortlessly as he had before. He felt as if he was connected to the place now. He was connected to whatever sort of monster laid waiting in the cave which he approached.
A loud groan of suffering echoed from the darkness. He supposed it was called The Hunger for a reason. As the artist laid his latest work on the ground several feet in front of the cave entrance, the beast within finally took notice of him.
“You return, artist. I had begun to doubt that you would.”
“I always keep my promises. If you continue to spare me, I will gladly continue to serve you.”
“You may serve me my meal now, mortal,” said the Hunger. “That is all you are good for.”
“But I am good for something,” said the artist, a sly grin creeping onto his face. He removed his newest work from its bag. His newest victim was a man that had been brutally beaten with a blunt instrument. Although bruised and broken, little blood had escaped the body. A gunshot wound to the heart had been the final stroke. He had covered the wound quickly afterward.
“Negligible blood loss as you requested,” said the artist. “And tenderized as well. I hope you enjoy it.” He dragged the body over to the edge of the darkness and laid it gently on the ground. As he turned and walked back to his boulder, a claw once again came from the cave to gather its meal. The sound of teeth and breaking bones began as the artist took out his cigarettes and lit one. As the man finished his first drag, a loud scream of pain echoed from the cave.
“I should probably have mentioned that there may be a piece of lead in it,” said the artist in a tone that lacked sincerity. “My apologies.” A loud growl came from the cave, but the Hunger still hid in the darkness.
“You have broken one of my teeth, mortal,” said The Hunger in a voice dripping with barely contained rage. “If this ever happens again there will be no bargains or words that can save you from my wrath.”
“I understand,” said the artist. “I will do better next time.” The artist put out his cigarette on the rock next to him and exited the clearing, humming his favorite tune as he did so. He could hear the monster in the cave behind him moaning in pain.
“One day, mortal!” The Hunger roared as the artist retreated into the woods.
It was a day and a half before the artist returned to the clearing. It had rained the night before, and the forest floor was wet and muddy. He noticed that there were new divots on the wet turf of the clearing. They were in the shape of human feet, although twice as large as the average size. Something had been pacing the clearing in the night. He had just entered the clearing when the Hunger cried out from the rocks.
“You will be glad you waited for this one,” said the artist. “For this is my finest work.” He unzipped his bag once again to reveal a body that had been burned to a crisp. There were few features left to identify it as much of anything.
“Seared to a crust on the outside and then extinguished to keep it relatively rare on the inside. I think you will be pleased.” The Hunger made no sound other than a very light growl.
The artist put the charred remains on the edge of the darkness and made his way to his seat as the Hunger dragged its prey into the cave. Its arm reached out farther than the previous times, and the artist saw part of its forearm. It was large as the hand but looked withered and sickly.
The artist hummed his symphony as he lit the day’s cigarette and listened for sounds of approval from the cavern. He could hear the crackle of the burnt skin below the cracking of bones. He had finished smoking by the time the Hunger had finished its work. It spoke in a tone that he had not heard before. It sounded…pleased.
“That was indeed your finest work, artist,” said the beast. “You will now create all of your work in that manner. It will please me and spare your life further.” The artist threw his cigarette butt into a pile of rocks and approached the cavern’s entrance.
“I will gladly do so,” said the artist. “But first I must try one last method. It should prove to be quite spectacular, but if you do not like it, then I will return to this method permanently.” The Hunger did not speak again, but gave a low growl that sounded like consent. The artist smiled broadly, bowed slightly, and walked into the trees. He was still humming.
Two days later, the artist walked through the forest once again. The leaves were thick on the ground, and the setting sun was clearly visible through the skeletal tree branches above. He could not shake the feeling that a trail of blood-red leaves had fallen in a path that led straight to the cave in the clearing. A chill wind blew through the suddenly lifeless woods.
The artist strode boldly into the clearing with his final work. As he walked through the ravaged field, he thought he could see movement in the darkness ahead for the first time. By the time he had reached the rocks, whatever he had seen was no longer visible.
“Show me what you have brought, artist,” said the Hunger. “Show me your best.” The artist grinned as he laid his body bag on the ground a yard from the darkness. He opened it and dragged out the body of a young boy. It did not appear to have a mark on it. As the artist laid it gently on the ground, it almost looked as though it was just asleep. “What have you done to this one, mortal?”
“If I reveal my masterpiece, it will lose all effect,” the man replied. “I await your reaction.” The boy’s body was quickly yanked into the darkness by the Hunger. It seemed impatient to try the artist’s grand finale.
While the now routine sounds emanated from the cave, the artist leaned against his boulder and lit his cigarette. The Hunger finished its meal more quickly than the previous visits. A long pause followed the sounds of the consumption. The artist, smoking more slowly than usual, walked back to the front of the cave.
“I do not understand, mortal,” said the Hunger with a hint of anger. “What was special about that meal? Do you expect me to find meaning in nothing?”
“Oh, it has vast meaning, my patron. It occurred to me, you see, that an artist’s masterwork is entirely dependent on his previous work. They mold it. It uses them, binds them, and eventually consumes them.” He stared into the dark void as if he was waiting for something.
The Hunger began to speak again but was cut off as its voice gave rise to an inhuman shriek of pain. A loud slam came from the darkness as the Hunger apparently had fallen to the floor of its lair. Loud moans continued to pour out of the monster as the artist calmly placed his cigarette on a rock.
“That boy was only the beginning,” said the artist. “There was enough poison in his system to kill twenty men. Or one monster, apparently.” As a long scream of agony echoed through the clearing, the artist returned to the bag he had brought and extracted a gas can from the very bottom of it. He did not enjoy killing children, but it had been necessary this time to reserve room for the can at the bottom of the bag. He reflected that one must make sacrifices for the sake of art. He removed the cap from the gas can and smiled as the smell of kerosene wafted up to his nostrils. He quickly turned and began to splash the kerosene into the cave, in the direction of the roaring screams. As the can ran empty, a small stream of liquid was left running out of the cave entrance.
“You call me a monster??” screamed The Hunger, forcing out the words amid the agony ripping it apart. “Can you face yourself without saying the same?!”
“You eat men, women, and children,” said the artist as he picked up his cigarette from the rock. “You have no remorse, no qualms, and little restraint. Do you think you’re better than me?”
“I…am…the Hunger,” the beast replied with something that sounded almost like sorrow. “It is…my purpose. I consume.”
“And I am an artist,” said the man before taking one last drag off of his cigarette. “I create.” He dropped the cigarette onto the stream of kerosene.
It did not take long for the scene in front of the man to transform. The flames danced along the trail of kerosene until they struck their target. In an instant, the cave came to life in a blaze of glory. As the flames enveloped The Hunger, it rose from the ground in a broken and unearthly shriek that resonated throughout the forest around it.
In the blazing light, the artist finally saw the form of the creature he had been dealing with. It was a massive humanoid, at least ten feet tall, its head scraping the top of the large grotto it had hidden in. Its emaciated torso and limbs writhed in the flames. Atop The Hunger’s neck, the artist could make out coal black eyes and a massive set of jaws, large enough to swallow a man whole.
As the artist drank in the breathtaking sight, he could only look on in rapt awe. The light of the flames shimmered off of the blood-soaked walls of the cave. The rock outcropping around the mouth of the cave was bathed in the orange light of the setting sun behind him, which had finally broken the darkness of The Hunger’s lair.
The autumn leaves covered the ground of the clearing, only adding to the beauty of the scene. The artist could almost hear the music swelling into the air. The Ode to Joy echoed through the woods, highlighting the scene before him, a symphony in crimson and gold.
The artist could not tell how long he watched. He stood motionless until long after the flames and screams had given out and the sun had set behind him. The last notes of the symphony had died out with the light.
The mortal thought long and hard about whether he had it in him to continue his work, given that he would never outdo that night’s work, his masterpiece. Finally, with a deep sigh, he turned and walked away from The Hunger’s cave, wondering what purpose he might find.
As he reached the edge of the woods, he turned back once more and looked at the darkness in the rocks. Words came into his mind; his favorite translation of the lyrics to his Ode to Joy. He spoke them softly to the night around him.
“Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread,
Within thy sanctuary.”
The artist shook his head, turned, and walked into the woods, trying to forget the final moment of the night. As the light had died and the screams had faded, The Hunger had murmured two final sounds. They were two words whispered in a voice that sounded far too human for his liking: “Thank you.”