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You peer around the ancient trees, askew and unnatural yet still alive. That feeling in your gut, honed by years of war and rescue, hasn’t settled. You fiddle with the volume knob of your radio as your eyes catch where the moonlight casts shadows over the contorted knots of the oaks. You can sense that lingering silence of death hovering over you, yet the girl sitting near you is still breathing. Although, if the emergency helicopter doesn’t arrive soon, you’re not sure how long that will be true.
Kate’s been missing for two weeks since she got lost in these woods. Only you are experienced enough, or dumb enough in Mike’s case, to climb down the cliff into the old sinkhole. You’ve been called in a few times over the years to come check down here for lost hikers, but practically no one who’s fallen down this cliff has survived. Yet there she was, and here she is; sitting around the lantern with you and Mike, completely calm.
She’s gaunt but otherwise unharmed, if you’re not counting the level of exposure shock she’s currently going through. Although the dried blood smeared on her arm and caking her shirt when you found her had initially made you question otherwise. She told you it was from a meal, which would explain why she’s not completely starved. And you know better than to question what someone had to do to stay alive.
Kate ignores her blanket, allowing it to slip almost off her shoulder. That’s never a good sign. She grazes a thin finger over the pale scar running across her lower jaw from ear to ear. Her mother didn’t mention the identifying mark, but she could barely give the police a complete, non-sobbing, sentence. Panic is the enemy of accuracy.
Kate’s voice is soft as if she’s still hiding from the bears and other predators that prowl this forest, while her gaze remains blankly watching the nothing in front of her.
“I heard that people used to come out here to hunt for scraps of proof on the legend stalking these woods. No one has ever told me the gruesome parts of the story, but being out here… I think I deserve to know the whole thing. Could you tell it to me?”
Mike practically lunges forward, released from his forced silence, and gets right up into the lantern’s light. He really is untrained. He shouldn’t try to scare someone during trauma, let alone someone in shock.
You focus on the rustling of the leaves overhead, listening for the whirr of the helicopter blades. The warning in your gut grumbles back to life. You disregard it but stay alert. Maybe, at this rate she should at least have a last wish granted.
Mike lowers his voice and speaks with the slow eeriness only found around late-night campfires.
“There is a legend of a creature that roams these woods, responsible for all the people who have vanished here over the decades. It was created by a clan of magic-wielders long ago to hunt mankind to extinction. They gave it retractable claws, a second mouth jutting from its neck filled with needle-like fangs, and the ability to take on any appearance it wants. It was released into a village only to be met by gunfire, so it returned to these woods and hunted its creators instead. When it ran out of its prey, it learned to use its abilities to trick new victims. If it comes across you in its woods, it will take on the form of the person you love most, bloodied and dying. When you approach to help, it uses its claws to gut you alive. It will watch, saliva dripping from its maw, as the life drains from your body before using that second mouth to swallow you whole. The only thing it fears is the guns which were its first greeting in this world. So, if you travel into these woods and hear the pained voice of your loved one crying out for you, you better be ready to fire first or face your death at the hand of the Dee’aymin.”
The wind blows past as you clench the spot on your waist where your pistol is strapped in its holster. Mike manages to keep his face straight for only a few more seconds before he bursts into a cackle.
“You should see the look on your face!” Mike doubles over, still pointing a finger at you.
“Not too bad, though I must say some details aren’t quite right.”
Kate’s voice is sleek and coy.
Mike stops laughing. He turns to her, eyebrows raised. A crooked sneer slithers across her lips. You blink, thinking the grin is a trick of the light, but she’s gone, her blanket abandoned on the ground.
The sound of a snapping branch comes from Mike’s direction as he bolts up. You try to ignore that alarm in your mind firing off all your nerves at once.
“Did you see whe-“
Mike isn’t standing. He isn’t even sitting. He is strewn on the ground, limp. A puddle of blood pools under the place where his head used to be. That heavy aura of death you’d been failing to source since you got down here grows thicker.
Kate, the girl, the creature stands over Mike’s body. Blood is smeared all along the scar on its chin, dripping down its neck, yet its face is completely clean. That scar breaks open, revealing a glimpse of sharpened ivory. Its voice, grinding from its human mouth like it is the more unnatural of the two, scrapes against your bones.
“Thanks for the ‘rescue’.”
You draw your pistol. It vanishes with the wind into the snarling forest, taking Mike’s decapitated body with it. Only leaving behind a pool of blood, a trembling figure, and a revised legend.
Sam Kaufman is a writer from Connecticut. She started avidly writing in her sophomore year of high school doing both novels and short stories. She mostly writes dystopian tales but occasionally slips into fantasy as it is her favorite genre to read.
Published to the Kaidankai on May 18, 2022.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.