Reblex ascended the ridgeline he had chosen at a steady pace. Once high above the valley to his right, the path widened, providing more comfortable footing. He glanced over the edge occasionally to see if he could still spot Dahj along the river bank or Brenloru in the valley. Neither were seen though the night’s air, even with the illumination of the nearly-full moon. Intrusive thoughts of negativity penetrated his conscience. Was this some elaborate plan to ditch him? Spread out and then ‘accidentally’ lose him on the ridge line? He wondered if he had been contributing enough to the cause, or if he had become a worthless commodity.
Reblex awoke on his side. He couldn’t remember falling asleep the night before. It must have happened under a cloud of negativity that still loomed over his head. A new day, he thought. No excuse not to keep moving. I either return to the only group I have left or resume my lifestyle of a mountain goat. He rose with a groan and dusted himself off. The night’s chill was still leaving the ridgeline he had awoken on, and a shiver was sent down his spine as he suppressed a rattle through his teeth.
Sunlight broke above the distant eastern horizon as Reblex’s stomach growled. Leaves and berries weren't cutting it anymore. He remembered grazing and foraging heavily the night before, but it hadn’t been satiating… the meal had passed right through him. His cheeks turned red and his face skewed into an ugly frown. He pondered the possibility of this trip being a work of trickery and mind games – complete waste of time. He slowed himself to a walk, quickly losing motivation to stick to his route.
Hands placed on his knees, he leaned over. Steadily panting deep breaths, thoughts of the biodome raced through his mind. Images of the tortoise, the pitiful plants, and the woodpecker. He lamented the failed Guardians, and other unsatisfactory projects exiled to a destiny of living in a crater for eternity, never to see the ever-aging planet again. The thoughts only accelerated his stress. He feared being deemed a failed Guardian as well. Should he displease the Designer, he may be forced to live in a bowl with other odd experiments.
A strong breeze rustled the branches of scarce trees surrounding him. He considered staying here to search for members of his original species and start a new life – leaving this stupid mission and ill-informed group behind. He could never be sent to the mountain-bowl if he didn’t return to the Homestead in the first place.
A small squirrel squeaked. It clung to the bark of a thick tree, hanging upside down as it carefully searched the ground surrounding the trunk for grabbable food or predators. Releasing its grip dropped the animal to the dirt with a light crunch, displacing small, fallen branches and dried needles. The squirrel perked its head to meet eyes with Reblex, but didn’t consider the ram a threat.
Resuming its search for food, the squirrel hopped over rocks with a flick of its bushy tail and rummaged through grasses. A deep rumble passed through the bottom of Reblex’s stomach, reminding him of its emptiness.
The lack of acknowledgement angered Reblex. “That little thing should show some respect,” he grumbled. His cheeks turned a deeper red.
He considered injuring the small animal. Images of pinning the squirrel against a rock with a thick, sturdy horns passed through his mind. They felt relieving – invigorating. One swift charge would do it, he thought, eyes locked on the scavenging mammal. After the charge, he would hold it there; smashed up against the solid stone wall until its last breath left the squirrel’s tiny body.
Once limp, he would use his back molars to rip the prey’s head off, slowly crunching its tiny skull between his teeth. The thought of warm blood running down his own cheek before dripping off his chin reminded him of the red paint that ran down his arm after Festelda had painted him. He lifted his arm to inspect the red mark. It burned with speed and power, flared by hunger.
The tense ram advanced towards the animal. Veins protruded through the skin of his slim, toned arms. He stared intently at the squirrel as it collected a small tree nut from the soil. Turning the meal in its hands, the squirrel nibbled on various areas of the surface with its long front teeth. Reblex let out loud huffs of air through tight lips, cheeks puffed.
He prepared to grab the squirrel by the scruff of the neck to shake it into unconsciousness. Show some respect to a dominant species! he screamed silently at the rodent. I will assert my place on the food chain…
The squirrel stared at him with its dark, beady eyes, detecting aggression. It stopped chewing as Reblex took another step closer. The squirrel no longer trusted the distance separating the two, and dropped the nut it had been eating before retreating to the safety of the tree with a sharp squeal.
Reblex let out a loud gasp, followed by a hacking cough before dropping to his knees. Eyes widened, he squeezed the sides of his head between his hands. It felt as if someone else's thoughts had occupied his mind. Intrusive and powerful, they commanded his body. The volume and power of the thoughts terrified him. In that moment, his body had become a mere vessel. A manipulated husk of a ram carrying out the brutal agenda of a savage controller. The ground before him spun to the right. His eyes rotated with it, causing him to tip his head to follow the tilting horizon before his body leaned.
He had felt it – it was here, and now, that he knew what it was like to have the carnivore’s grasp squeeze one’s mind. He felt powerless, as if the only thing to loosen the grip would be the act of consuming flesh. A wave of pity overcame his feeble mind – he understood the transition many others had suffered. He stared up at the massive sky above him. Clouds had been pulled into long, thin streaks, stretched to their limit. He hoped dearly that the maddening whispers would never again infiltrate his mind again.