Dwellers by Anastasia Gerges

Running was all Herschel knew.

Ever since he was a young Dweller, he knew that everything in the forest was out to get him; creatures significantly larger than he was and much more terrifying. Herschel would’ve liked to believe he wasn’t as puny and helpless as he was, but what was the point? With a bushy long tail and pointy front teeth only good for chewing small acorns, what else could he ever hope to accomplish?

He figured that was why he always ran from his problems, much like he was doing now.

Herschel was running, and two Beasts were on his tail.

Beasts, Herschel knew, were the most unfortunate creatures for a Dweller to encounter alone in the forest, especially to be chased by. Two of them at once had to be a death sentence.

Herschel was terrified- what else could he do but run?

Perhaps he had brought this upon himself. If he had taken better care of his brother maybe he wouldn’t be in pursuit of his life. Or perhaps it was his fate, that he lived only to be destroyed.

What could they possibly want with me?! Herschel thought, exasperated and tired, feet aching as if they were about to fall off. He doubted a small animal like himself would even be a suitable meal for a predator as large as a Beast. As if by some cruel coincidence, the winter wind howled ominously, identically mimicking sounds of the monsters he was trying to escape.

The two Beasts surveyed the area as snowflakes entangled their long, grey fur. Looking famished as they bared their teeth, they glared at the small red Dweller as if he were a fragile treasure just waiting to be broken. Frozen breath engulfed their nostrils like smoke in the frigid air.

Fear turned into desperation. Panic fueled Herschel as he frantically surveyed the freezing, barren wasteland he had found himself in. His glistening scarlet coat violently thrashed in the snowstorm like a strong autumn wind. He squinted his eyes, attempting to peek through the unforgiving snowfall that lay ahead of him. Unable to get a glimpse of anything that could serve as a sanctuary for a Dweller like himself, Herschel had no choice but to keep rushing forward, pleading for a merciful fate.

The flurry of white continued to descend on the wilderness, and with no trees in sight, Herschel panicked. The snow was slowing him down significantly. Pain shrieked throughout his limbs like a flash of lightning. He knew he couldn’t stand to run much longer.

Desperately, Herschel began to weigh his options. He could continue fleeing, but how long could he last in the freezing cold? He could barely see, let alone traverse in this weather. He could try to call another Dweller for help, but there were no trees, and no Dwellers to be found.

The thought of this frightened Herschel, as he was not determined to let the Beasts catch up with him. Even though he was tired, he hoped he was fast enough to live another day.

But what if I’m not fast enough to keep up? Herschel worried. What if I won’t make it alive? What if nobody realizes I’m gone?! What if this storm is so strong it’ll blow me away?! What if-

Herschel took a deep breath. As doubts of survival swarmed his thoughts, Herschel tried to talk himself out of worrying. Besides, he thought, if running was all he was good at, he might as well try his best to keep trudging forward. As bleak as this situation was, now was not the time to give up. He still had a chance.

The snow began to fall faster, surrounding the Dweller in the thick, wet storm. The angry wind shot through Herschel as the white snowfall further clouded his vision, its protests causing Herschel to come to a standstill. Herschel could barely tell where he was. His eyes stung and his ears rang as the sharp wind screamed through him.

Herschel struggled as he tried to push himself through the merciless storm, but as much as he tried to keep moving inches deep in snow, the blizzard would not relent.

“No! I can’t s-s-stop now!” Herschel cried out, shivering as the cold wrapped around his miniature frame.

Refusing to give up, Herschel pried his eyes open despite the cruel wind restricting his vision. The Dweller peered around, eyes rapidly blinking to shield the snow attempting to rush in. As Herschel hoped he hadn’t given the Beasts an opportunity to catch up to him, his heart sank, almost skipping a beat as he saw two faint outlines of the massive creatures slowly encroaching their way towards him.

The blizzard didn’t seem to deter the insatiable killers that trudged toward the frightened Dweller. As they picked up speed, the two mongrels dove towards Herschel, kicking up mounds of snow in their wake. They reached a close distance and began to encircle their target, baring their teeth as they snarled.

Herschel trembled as dread filled his mind. If the storm hadn’t already paralyzed him, his anxiety guaranteed he wouldn’t budge. His legs buckled as sheer horror made its home throughout his stiff body, tufted ears pinned backward as he stood on the snowfall, eyes unwaveringly focused on the hazy figures in front of him.

As the mongrels approached, he began to see what made the Beasts the most feared in the forest: paws larger than the biggest tree stumps and teeth longer than pines. The swampy, clouded eyes of the darker-colored Beast stung Herschel in the very core of his being as it stared into his own dark brown eyes, anger surging through them. The other Beast gave a horrible grin as he licked his lips, smacking them in anticipation of his next meal. Their stomachs were almost as loud as the wind, growling as if they hadn’t eaten in months. Nearing closer to the scared Dweller, Herschel saw that their sunken, boney ribs showed clear signs of starvation, almost as if he had been their only chance of food in ages. Herschel was certain he did not want to be that meal.

Any chance Herschel had to flee was immediately dashed as the lighter one dove for his head, crushing his body with his gigantic paw. The Dweller struggled for breath as the Beast crushed him under his massive weight. Faintly, Herschel thought he could hear the crunching of snow and the Beasts barking at each other, as if arguing over who’d get the first bite, but it didn’t matter anymore. Herschel was too scared, too weak to come up with a way to escape the fear that plagued him constantly and the storm that was way stronger than himself. It didn’t matter how fast he could run or how brave he was, he’d always be a scared little Dweller, and there was nothing he could do but try and run from his problems. That was just the way it was, and Herschel was too powerless to change that.

As his vision turned to black, the Dweller heard the lighter beast violently yelp as Herschel felt the pressure suddenly lift from his chest. Gasping now that he could finally breathe, Herschel only had to look in front of him to see what had made the Beast scream so horribly.

Seemingly unconscious, the light brown predator was sprawled out on the ground next to the Dweller, a small patch of blood now oozing from his forehead. Confused, Herschel turned to the darker beast next to him.

Did the darker-colored Beast knock the lighter one out when I was unconscious? Herschel assumed. If they had been arguing with each other beforehand, what else could’ve knocked out a Beast?

However guilty he was, the darker Beast glared around menacingly, amber eyes filled with confusion and rage, as if he too was questioning what had injured his friend. Consumed by dread, the mongrel inched towards his injured partner, whimpering and nudging him with his snout to no avail.

“T-then, if it wasn’t you… W-what just d-d-did that?” Herschel stuttered, thankful but worried at the same time. If whatever this was had the ambition to fight a Beast, it could do much worse to a Dweller.

As the snowfall began to subside, Herschel squinted. He was able to make out who it was that saved his life.

Standing in inches deep of snow, a Burrower with long ears and particularly large feet panted, attempting to catch his breath. Rage filled his eyes as he stared at the two Beasts and then back at Herschel. Despite looking significantly older than Herschel, the long-eared mammal was much more muscular than he was.

There’s no way… Herschel thought. Confused, Herschel debated whether this Burrower had truly saved his life. This couldn’t have been what hit that Beast… He’s a Burrower. And Burrowers would never mess with Beasts, he thought.

Judging by the way the animal looked at him, he could see a fire in his eyes. A fire unlike anything else he had ever seen. He seemed almost like a predator himself. The way he glared at those Beasts largely suggested that he was the one who hurt them.

As the wind picked up around him, Herschel realized he was scared of this Burrower.

Herschel wasn’t the only one who had seen the Burrower. The amber-eyed Beast’s brows furrowed as he saw what it was that hurt his friend. Shame and guilt were written all over his face as he seethed with resentment. As the animal focused his attention away from his fallen brethren, Herschel could tell the last Beast standing had enough. Anger filled his eyes as he bared his teeth, clenched together like an unbreakable cage, eyes watering and stomach growling. Without giving a moment for Herschel to think, he roared as he charged straight for the Dweller.

“Ahh! Not again!” Herschel flinched as the Beast bounded towards him.

It was no sooner when he felt the Burrower’s head on his back, promptly pushing him out of the Beast’s range. Bewildered, the starving Beast cocked his head as to why the Burrower kept successfully evading the finest predator around, furious expression growing wilder. Urging the Dweller to escape the possibility of being eaten, the Burrower yelled at the Beast.

“This red one’s mine, you filthy mutts!” He squealed as Herschel pulled himself up from the snow he had fallen on.

Herschel’s ears shot back. Was this Burrower trying to help him, or did he have other motivations behind saving his life? Whatever the strange creature wanted, Herschel took advantage of his freedom as he quickly ran away from the trouble he got himself into. However, Herschel hesitated as the snow began to subside further around him. He didn’t know why he had stopped. He knew this wasn’t a good mess to get into, especially since both the Burrower and the Beast were out to get him for some reason. However, Herschel had never seen anything like this before. A Burrower beating up a couple of Beasts was unheard of in his experience. What’s more, this one hadn’t run away from danger like Herschel was attempting to do, he went towards it. Whatever this was, Herschel felt obligated to stay and watch this Burrower as long as he could, even if the animal had questionable intentions.

As he ran back towards the long-eared risktaker, Herschel was shocked to see the Beast had managed to injure Herschel’s new idol. As soon as Herschel made his way from the Burrower, the Beast had given him a bloody scratch to the thigh. The Burrower stopped to lick his wound as the Beast made his way towards the Burrower, maliciously grinning before he inflicted even more damage.

“CAREFUL! LOOK OUT!”, Herschel yelled as he ran towards the Burrower, suddenly worried for the brave animal’s wellbeing.

Completely unphased as if he didn’t need a warning, the Burrower immediately stopped mending his wound as he leaped towards the Beast, running past him like a swift wind and nimbly avoiding him at any cost.

Herschel noticed the Burrower wasn’t running in a straight line, as if he was attempting to make it harder for the Beast to keep up. Aware of the Beast’s starvation, he ran as fast as he could to tire him out.

Whatever plan the Burrower had made seemed to work, the amber-eyed mongrel slowed, his stomach aching like a festering wound. He panted anxiously as he looked around for the springy animal who weakened him.

Taking advantage of the situation, the Burrower took no more chances as he ran towards the Beast, giving him a taste of his own medicine by scratching him across the snout with his long back claws.

Herschel was dumbfounded. Despite lacking any physical advantages, the long-eared mammal managed to successfully defend himself against a threat that had injured him. The cocky herbivore smirked as he looked at the Beast as if insulting the top predator’s own skills.

Agonized by pain and embarrassed, the Beast howled, notifying the whole forest of his distress. His amber eyes filled with shame as he noticed the blood slowly inching from the fresh wound and onto his umber fur. He looked at the confident, long-eared menace and bared his teeth again, as if ready to attack. Disheartened, the weak and tired foe dropped his grimace, almost as if he realized it wasn’t worth shattering his pride anymore. The Beast glanced over at his collapsed friend and whimpered as if promising to come back for him, then ran off into the distance, wind howling as he left.

Herschel almost felt bad for the creature that could’ve ended his life, but immediately turned to the Burrower as if in awe. He couldn’t believe he had just witnessed an herbivore like himself go up against a vicious monster and win thanks to his sharp wit alone.

Maybe I don’t have to run anymore, he inquired. Maybe he finally could go against what he was taught all his life to believe.

He ran up towards the Burrower, smiling and thankful.

“Woah… what you just did back there… that was crazy! Where did you learn to do something like that?” Herschel beamed.

“What are you, exactly?” The Burrower snapped, eyes focused on the red Dweller.

“Huh?” Herschel stammered. He thought it was quite obvious what he was by appearance alone. “I’m a Dweller, what does it look like?” He asserted as he cocked his head to the side, noticeably confused.

“I mean, yeah, obviously, you look like a Dweller… but-” The Burrower paused, staring at Herschel more intently as he hopped closer, one eye dead set on the Dweller in front of him. “That red fur you’ve got shows me that you’re definitely not from ’round these woods, are you? All the Dwellers I’ve seen have had grey fur, and yours isn’t exactly a perfect match.” He smirked, deep voice grumbling as he spoke.

Herschel was getting uncomfortable, but he had to admit the peculiar Burrower had a point- when his first winter started almost a week ago, Herschel’s days were full of encounters from many animals who looked at him and his brother funny, but he had never known why. Maybe Herschel stood out more than he thought he did.

“Ah, I’ve got it!” The Burrower’s ears shot up triumphantly, nose twitching as he came to a realization. “You’re one of them Intruders I’ve been hearin’ so much about.”

The word “Intruder” stung Herschel. What could that possibly mean? He worried. Herschel was scared what this title could mean for him if this Burrower had heard so much about these so-called “Intruders”. Do all Intruders have red fur like his?

The Burrower paused as he stopped to lick his new wound and looked back at Herschel. “You certainly don’t seem as dangerous as the others I’ve seen in these woods” He paused for a moment in thought. “And yet… maybe you have some potential.”

“Potential?” Herschel questioned “Potential for what?”

The Burrower grinned, ears perking up as he beamed. “Listen, kid. You seemed pretty enthused by my skills back there, so how’s about I teach you the ropes? With a feared Intruder like you on my side, no one would ever stand a chance against us. Whadda you say?”

Herschel pondered for a bit. He barely knew this Burrower, and judging from how he had acted just now, he was rather impulsive, rude, and maybe a little crazy. Maybe it was best not to trust this Burrower. Herschel looked at the scratch mark on the Burrower’s side as he pondered. But he is brave, he thought, and that was more than what he could say for himself. And in the end, he did save my life. Maybe this is what I need to become less fearful. Maybe I should trust him, He decided.

“So, have you made a decision?” The Burrower chirped.

Herschel looked the Burrower in the eyes. The fire in them was glowing brighter than ever. He took a deep breath, as he knew this decision would most likely follow him for the rest of his life.

“You’re on” Herschel smiled.

The Burrower grinned, noticeably pleased by this answer. “I knew you’d come around, er…” He scratched his head with his long foot. “What do they call you?”

“Oh, Herschel.” Herschel smiled. “Herschel’s the name.”

“Herschel’s a strong name. Glad to have you.” He grinned. “The name’s Sligh, kid.”

Herschel could tell Sligh hadn’t been appreciated in a long time, which was strange for someone who led such an interesting life. Herschel thought he’d be swamped with acquaintances and friends, but for such a talented Burrower he seemed very lonely and awkward. Whatever the reason, Herschel was glad to have met him, even if he had to be chased by Beasts in order to do so.

“Nice meeting you, Sligh”.

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