‘Forest World’ by Guest Author David Rhodes

Guest Author David Rhodes

1

In this forest world, where the dead were buried just about everywhere, Sirrus ambled among the scattered markings, some carved from expensive stone, while others were merely rocks or pieces of wood nailed together. Some were merely humps in the trodden ground. There were many such places among the forest.

That he was here at all was hard enough, but he was searching for a spot to bury his best friend, and this weighed heavy on his heart. It would be difficult to let go for the final time.

A fine ground mist swirled about his feet as he led the horse and wagon, and dark trees loomed overhead like the guardians of this dark place. Distantly, a crow cawed through the dim, and he thought that this place must be the perfect home for their kind.  

And he thought about the body that lay in the back of his wagon: If I had only been there, he may not have died. I should not have let him go alone. “I found something of my father’s,” Allyon had said. “He knew something of the beasts. Something he would not speak of when he was alive.”

“Pray tell, what was it?” Sirrus asked.

“I do not know, but he must have had good reason to keep his secret. But I must take a long journey like my father. I shall go alone.”

“You cannot go alone, Allyon. You will surely be killed. I will go with you.”

“No, my friend. I must go alone. It is the best way to travel undetected. I will leave in the night so as not to alarm the villagers.”

“But what about the Elders? They will never allow such a thing.”

Allyon had placed his hand on Sirrus’ shoulder and smiled. “That is why they are not going to know. Can I trust you to keep this to yourself?”

“Yes, but I still do not approve. How long will you be gone?”

“I am not sure, Sirrus, but I will return as quickly as I can. After all, I can’t leave all these pretty women just for you.” They both laughed, and Sirrus stayed with his friend as he prepared for his journey. And in the middle of the night, he watched him walk off into the darkness for the last time. Ten days later, in the early morning light, Sirrus struck out into the forest in the same direction Allyon had taken, taking care to stick to the shadows and foliage for protection. It wasn’t long before he found his friend lying in a patch of ivy, his head propped up against an aged tree. His body had been ravaged – deep, bloody wounds everywhere, a sword still clutched in one hand. At first he thought his friend was already dead. He kneeled down next to him.

“Oh, Allyon, why did you have to go?” He lowered his head and wept.

Allyon stirred and struggled to open his eyes, and softly spoke.

“I killed it, Sirrus. Ran him through before he could finish me.” He choked up blood onto his cheek and closed his eyes.

“Allyon! You’re alive! I will save you, friend, I will take you back to the village and take care of you.”

Allyon barely opened his eyes. “I am sorry, but I fear it is late for me. I know. I know the secret of the beasts. They are…they are…” Allyon closed his eyes and stirred no more. Sirrus saw something jammed into the top of Allyon’s pants. He gently pulled out several papers; there was writing on one, barely legible. Blood had soaked the rest, and they hanged in his hand like wet cloth. He dropped them to the ground.

“Your pain is done, I-” He heard the cry of a beast approaching. He slid Allyon’s sword through his leather belt and hefted the body over his shoulder. The beast shrieked from somewhere in the dim forest. Sirrus rushed headlong through the trees toward the village, stopping occasionally to catch his breath, hiding in thick foliage. His pain and sorrow and love for his friend drove him on.

When he entered the village, people gathered around and watched in shock and sadness as Sirrus gently laid the body on the ground outside the Elder’s hut. He tapped on the door and heard, “State your business.”

“I need to speak with the Elders. It is urgent.”

“Enter, friend.”

Sirrus opened the misshapen door and approached the table where the three Elders sat. All were old men with lined faces and graying beards, for in the village age dictated the wisdom of a man.

The High Elder Kronen sat at the end of the table, the others on each side of him. He clasped his hands together on the rough surface of the table and regarded Sirrus with mild anger.

“I am glad you are here. We need to discuss this business of Allyon entering the forest alone. You had knowledge of this?”

“I did, Elder, and I am truly sorry. Please forgive me,” Sirrus said.

“Why did you allow this to happen?”

“Allyon said he found something among his father’s things that said he knew something of the beasts, but kept it secret. He was determined to find out what it was his father knew. He said he had to go on a long journey. I respected his wishes.”

“I can understand that,” Kronen said, “he being your best friend, and we offer no punishment for his transgression. We only imposed this decree for the safely of all.” The other Elders nodded. “Has he returned?”

Sirrus’ face reflected great sadness. “Allyon is dead. When he did not return, I too entered the forest alone in hopes of finding my friend. He lay just outside.”

“I am very sorry to hear of your loss. It is truly a great loss for all of us as well. He was a leader of men.” The other Elders also offered condolences.

Sirrus said, “Thank you, Elders, you are very kind. But there is something else I wish to speak to you about.”

“We will listen,” Kronen said.

“I did not know where he was traveling to, only the direction he took. I followed that direction, and found him not too far from the village. He found what he was searching for, for he was still alive when I found him. He spoke to me. He had battled with a beast and was very near death. He said he knew the secret of the beasts, and he tried to tell me, but death took him.”

The Elders lowered their heads in sympathy.

“I have a request – that you allow me to travel into those woods to find what Allyon found. I shall go through his father’s things and find out what I can. It may be of great importance to us.”

The Elders murmured among themselves.

“We will honor this request with one exception. Sarr the Horseman is young and strong. He will accompany you on your quest.”

Sirrus considered this momentarily. “Agreed. But I require today to lay my friend to rest. We shall leave tomorrow night, under the cover of darkness.”

“We will eagerly await your return, Sirrus,” Kronen said. “Please return alive.”

2

 

 

His feet grew as heavy as his aching heart as he reached a small clearing overcome by tangled ivy. Here, too, were many markers of the past. He swished through the moist leaves, occasionally snagging his feet, until he found a suitable spot. There was no marker, but that was no guarantee that there was nobody buried there – he would just have to take a chance.

Sirrus sank his shovel deep into the ivy and soft topsoil and, taking care not to clutter any of the surrounding graves, proceeded to toss shovel-loads of soil off to one side. Even when he reached drier, hardened soil, his determination drove him on, along with anger and sadness. And even when his limbs screamed for rest, he pushed on. Even if the forest beasts came, he would not care – he would kill them. One way or another, he would kill them all.

He finally gave up when he was shoulder deep in the grave, he body not allowing him to dig any further. Trails of sweat ran down his soiled face. His clothing was equally as soiled, but it bothered him not. All he could think about as he hoisted himself out of the hole was his dead friend lying dead in a wagon at the outskirts of this cursed place of the dead.

He sat and rested against a huge, gnarled oak, half expecting a hairy, clawed arm to reach around and tear his throat open; and one small part of him did not care, but the desire for vengeance was too strong. He soon found himself walking wearily through the darkening forest toward the wagon, where awaited his lost friend.

His horse snorted as he came to the back of the wagon, and there among scattered strands of hay and loose dirt lay an indiscernible figure under an old canvas tarp. His old friend, Allyon. A stout young man like himself, handsome he had been, with his long, blonde curly locks. He had been a man envied by many of the village, for the females seemed to flock to him. But he had promised himself to one and one only – her name was Petranna, and she was to be his bride.

She now was at the cabin of her mother’s in the village, grieving, and awaiting the return of Sirrus. She had not been able to kiss his mangled corpse goodbye; her last goodbye had been standing in the dusty road that ran through the middle of the village, watching with eyes blurred by tears as the wagon rumbled away toward the place in the woods where not many dared to go, not even to visit the dead; this graveyard had to be distant from the village, for the beasts had been known to dig up the freshly dead and feed, and to have it too close to the village put the living at even more risk. It was oftentimes unbearable for some folks to live with their losses, not being able to visit their loved ones in death, and only a few were daring enough to do so only in daylight, but it was a necessary precaution.

Sirrus gathered up the bundle and hefted it over his shoulder. He normally would have had no problem with the extra weight, but after his recent labor the body seemed a much heavier burden. He paced into the misty woods on aching legs and complaining back, his mind a whirlwind of mixed feelings. He knew that at any time he could be confronted with an unwanted visitor – his footfalls or heavy breathing, the scent of human flesh, alive and dead, could announce his presence. But he carried with him a sword and dagger, both sharpened to keen edges, both on previous occasions wet with the blackened blood of beasts.

He had not been alone on those occasions, however, but he had insisted on taking care of Allyon alone.

He paused for a moment, gently laying the body on the ground before sitting on a nearby boulder to rest. He listened to the silence of the forest, studied the darkening forms of the trees. Quiet, foreboding, this place was a tomb. Only death itself lived here, including the beasts. They were death. But it had not always been this way.

 

3

 

 

When Sirrus was quite young, his father, Pateus the Stone Mason, told him stories of this place, stories passed down by his grandfather, Borr the Strong (a name given to him by the early villagers). Borr told Pateus of a time when it had been a happy place, feared by none. The forest had been bright and filled with wildlife, and had never served as a burial ground. It supplied materials to make shelters and feed fire to cook and warm them. Men hunted there to bring home meat for their families, using weapons of a heavy, shiny material that were passed down from father to son.

Change arrived one day when a villager came up missing. A man called Lechtor. He had been out hunting and never returned. Some of the men formed a search party and scoured the land for any sign of Lechtor. Sadly, he was found dead in those very woods, apparently mauled and partially eaten by a large animal. This was disturbing, for the villagers knew of no such animal prowling the nearby landscape.

However, the first villagers to arrive in the area brought with them ancient texts from a world long before their time. Most were books written in a language that closely paralleled their own, though they did not know it had once been called English. The books spoke of terrible wars, and incredible metal machines that performed even more incredible tasks. Some of the books had smooth, shiny pages with pictures of animals with which the villagers were already familiar. They had possessed a rough knowledge of the domestication of animals such as horses and cows, the latter which not only providing meat to fill their bellies and clothing fashioned from their skins, but a liquid from their teats not unlike that of a woman which nourished the infants.

There were things called bears – large, hairy beasts they were, with sharp teeth and claws, and much larger than a man. There were also things called wolves, and while they were smaller, they nonetheless looked as menacing as bears. And there were numerous varieties of what were called cats. Some were small, domesticated, whatever that meant. Some were quite large, with names like tiger, lion and cheetah. And even some called mountain lions and cougars. These cats weren’t as large as bears, but some were as big as a man. This frightened the villagers, for they had seen many mountains on past sojourns and apparently bears frequented mountains, as well.

Sirrus pondered this for a moment; he himself had seen some of the ancient pictures, and after all these years no one had ever seen an animal even remotely resembling those of the old images. And yet, he knew that they had existed in a long ago world. Unknown to the villagers, however, the not so distant world was populated with beasts, all of them the same. Nothing more, nothing less; like people of the villages, growing larger in population with each passing year, while the populations of other animals that had once helped sustain them diminished. Their discarded remains began to dot the landscape, remains that had been killed yet not entirely consumed.

Lechtor, or what remained of him, was buried in the makeshift cemetery next to the village. Immediately thereafter, all able-bodied men were called upon to join another search party to traverse the woods for whatever had done this horrible deed.

Borr the Strong was among those who headed into the woods that day, yielding a large broad sword that he had inherited from his father. The others also had weapons, anything they could think of that might come in handy: swords, knives, makeshift bows, spears, and even clubs. The party was not taking any chances if perhaps they did run into a bear or wolves or one of the strange cats.

The women and children did not necessarily like the idea of their men partaking of this mission, and they stood at the edge of the village, watching fearfully as the men spread out and entered the woods, some daring glances at the fresh grave in the cemetery. They waited until the search party vanished, some even longer, before returning to their daily routines (which for many was nearly impossible because of the frightful thoughts running through their minds.)

The men tried to keep equal pace, but once in the trees and brush it became increasingly difficult to see the man walking thirty feet or so on either side of you, for their homespun clothing sported no bright colors. Most found it best to listen to the crunching of feet on the underbrush, to be reassured that someone was still there. Like soldiers pushing through a Vietnamese jungle they carried on, and though they did not speak, their thoughts ran along the same waves, replaying the image of Lechtor’s mangled body.

Bears.

Wolves.

Cats.

Some of the men even harbored thoughts that some of the footfalls, crunching over dried leaves and tangling through thick ivy might not necessarily be those of men; if some of the louder   occurrences did not come from men, well then what? This left may on edge, but not a one was so unnerved that he would turn back. The brotherhood of the village was too strong.

Borr, although not one of the Elders, took the lead and searched well ahead of the others – his position as a natural leader of the people had never been disputed, and besides, the Elders were much too old to participate in such a dangerous endeavor. They were simply too valuable to their primitive community. They were the teachers, filled with knowledge, wisdom, and most held the highest respect for them.

And yet, with all their wisdom, they were as just in the dark as to what could have caused the untimely death of Lechtor. They relied dearly on men like Borr to enlighten them as to any new developments that needed to be studied and stored in their small, crude libraries. And what precautions needed to be taken to prevent a recurrence.

As darkness began to fall, the women and children (along with the Elders, except those who chose to venture outside in anticipation of the search parties’ return) bolted the crude wooden doors on huts that were made mostly of branches and long, thick leaves from indigenous plants and trees. They tried to go about their nightly business, getting children fed and to sleep, while they sat up worrying if their men would come home alive – or if any of the men would come home alive. Little did they know that many of the men were thinking the same thoughts as they moved through the now mysterious woods and jungle-like undergrowth.

As darkness fell in the woods, many of the men out of fear took to whispering to each other to ensure friendly company nearby, but as Borr became aware of this he went against his initial plan and started to spread the word among the men that whispering was out of the question – the only noise one should hear was if someone came across something pertinent to their mission.

“Spread the word,” he said to several men. “If I hear more whispering, I will send you back to the village in shame.”

Again, silence prevailed, as did the darkness. Torches were lit, floating among the trees like fiery, disembodied ghosts, creating a surreal landscape of flickering light and shadows.

And then, the silence was broken by a blood-curdling scream that ceased as abruptly as it started. Shouts filled the woods as those nearby ran toward the source of the scream. A torch rested on the ground, scorching the moist ivy. A man named Sortear was the first to discover the body, and he fell to his knees and vomited. Although the head had been torn off, he still recognized it as Narp, the horse keeper. Blood still drained from the wound, staining the lush earth. Fortunately (under these circumstances, that is), he was not married, except to those of the village who held him in dear regards.

Sortear picked his own torch up and stood, grimacing at the acidy taste in his mouth. Voices and shouts were growing near, and a slight growl caused him to raise his torch high. He took a step back, for he realized that the tall shadow of a tree nearby had not been something as mundane as a tree, but the figure of someone or something standing just outside the torchlight. It did not move, did not attempt to approach.

The others were drawing closer, torches racing among the trees, and this gave him some courage to step forward, torch held high.

“Over here!” he called out in a shaky voice. A few more steps, and he saw what had been hiding in the shadows. Men called out his name, but he could not speak. Had he not been frozen in place, he would have fallen to his knees again. He tried to recall an ancient prayer the Elders had taught him, but it would not come.

The creature before him held aloft with one thick arm the head of Narp. A large part of the face was gone, revealing bone and ragged tissue, parts of which were dangling from the creature’s impossibly long fangs that filled its huge maw. It took several chews, and with one swallow the flesh was gone, save for the still warm blood running down its…face?

The beast, as it and others like it would become to be known tossed the head aside and stepped toward Sortear. The crude spear he had been holding fell to the ground as he awaited his own fate. With the thing not three feet away, he closed his eyes.

The beast suddenly emitted a scream so deafening that it seemed to echo for miles through the woods; Sortear instinctively covered his ears and dared open his eyes. The pointed edge of a broadsword was protruding out from the center of the beast’s chest. Both of its massive arms reached for the sword’s edge, and Sortear saw with shock the long, jagged claws growing from the tips of its thick fingers. Something from behind pushed the sword forward with one great thrust, and the beast released its grip on the blade.

Its arms dangled at its sides, the claws retreating back into the fingers. It teetered back and forth, and with his wits finally coming to grips, he shoved the torch close to the thing’s face. It was a sight he hoped he would never have to see again. But, he would; for not only would he see one again, he would never again forget that first horrid look of the beast’s face.

It swayed as thick, dark liquid drained from its wound, and fearing that it might fall upon him, Sortear quickly stepped back. The beast opened its mouth and exuded a breath of air so putrid that he could smell it even from where he stood. It was the smell of living death.

Like a tree in a forest, it fell backwards, creating a small shock wave and driving the broadsword farther out of its chest. The beast was silent, unmoving, and for the first time Sortear saw the figure standing behind the body.

“Are you alright, my friend?” Borr asked. He held no torch, for he had extinguished it as he could plainly see Sortear’s torch and the tall beast that almost killed him. His broadsword pointed straight upward from the beast’s chest, the sickly dark blood oozing down its blade.

“Sortear?”

The man could not yet speak, only tried to mouth the words. Borr had to force his friend’s torch from clamped fingers. He waved it over the body, appalled at what he saw; but it was only a short glimpse, as the raw flesh of the beast preceded to melt and slough onto the ground, absorbing into the soil as if it had never been there.

Many of the others arrived, standing dumbfounded with their torches around the now indiscernible corpse. It sank lower, and with nothing to hold it up, the sword fell over with a slight clang of metal, and incredibly, the dark fluid ran off the blade and likewise sank into the ground. Thirty seconds later, there was no evidence that anything had even been there.

Sortear finally spoke: “What was that?”

Borr merely shook his head. He lighted his torch from one of the men and picked up his broadsword. It was clean, shining, no evidence of ever having killed anything.

“Thank you for saving my life, Borr.” They shook hands in the way of the villagers – grasping each other’s arm above the wrist.

“It was my pleasure, my friend.”

“You truly are Borr the Strong!”

“Hear, hear!” the rest sang out. Borr couldn’t help a slight smile (which was never his greatest attribute) and bowed respectfully.

“Because of you, no more shall die,” said Dado, a metal smith.

Borr said, “Let us take our friend back for a proper burial.” He sheathed his sword, lifted Narp’s headless form into his arms, and began the trek to the village. He did not bother to see who would take the partially eaten head, he only knew that any of the men would have gratefully done it.

Far back in the woods, standing like statues in the cover of night, others watched and listened.

So as not to disturb those sleeping, or those waiting nervously for their return, the men went straight to the village cemetery and quietly laid Narp’s remains to rest in an unmarked grave. There would be time tomorrow to fashion a marker for their fallen friend.

They circled the grave and stood with heads bowed for a time; there was much sadness, yes, but no prayers, for they knew nothing of true religion, of a creator called God. And yet, they instinctively knew right from wrong, and knew love and respect for each other. Perhaps it was all they needed. That they did not know the world as it had once been spared them the harsh realities that had scarred modern mankind and led to its destruction.

 

 

4

 

 

Sirrus continued his journey into woods, all too aware of how dark it had grown. Although his heart still strengthened his courage, he was becoming increasingly wary of sounds the night brought, especially the not too distant crunching of twigs and branches that seemed to be following his path, and he began to consider that he was being followed; this made him fearful not only for himself, but the body of his friend, for he would have to bury it in quick fashion if it were to remain hidden from any hungry beasts.

He decided that he would remain nearby, sword drawn, to protect the remains from being devoured. The strength and example of his forefathers told him that it was only right, that the dead were sacred, no to be desecrated by the mysterious creatures with the insatiable hunger for human flesh. In this forest world that had no true religion except that of the heart, respect for those alive and dead were the order of the day. It was the invisible influence of a higher power that had always been there, imbedded in each man, woman, and child.

 

 

     By the time the sun rose above the eastern sky of the village, raising both the restful and the restless from their huts, most already knew or had a good idea of what had happened to their brother Narp. They gathered around the men of the search party, questions in their eyes, fear on their faces. Talk ran amuck through the people, and finally Borr pulled his sword and raised it high. This silenced the crowd.

      “Some of you know what happened out in those woods last night, some maybe not. But, I will tell you straight. We found the beast responsible for the death of our brother Lechtor, and now for the death of our beloved Narp. This beast…this beast I shall speak of even in front of the woman and children, for all should know of this, and know well, for though we killed the thing, there could be others. And let me warn each of you – it is the most horrible thing you have ever seen –two feet taller than even the tallest among us, with long, sharp fangs and claws. And by my truth of all I’ve seen, this beast had no skin.”

     The crowd murmured.

     “It was a beast stripped of its skin, and only the raw internal makings of it were seen. We know it was a flesh eater, for it tore the head straight from Narp and chewed on the flesh of his face. By my father before me we saw this.” Many of the men lowered their heads as if reliving that very act.

     “ But, whatever it may have been, or should it have been only one or maybe more, we need to be prepared. It is up to the Elders of this village to keep the women and children safe.”

     “What are we going to do about it, Borr?” a voice challenged.

     “First, let me say that if it is one, or more, they can be killed. I ran the beast through with my broad sword, and he fell like any other man. The strange thing is, is when it died, it melted into the grown like it had never been there. My men saw the same thing.”

      “I can’t believe a body could just melt like you say,” an old-timer said.

     “But, I saw it with my own eyes!” Sortear burst out. “The beast was about to kill and maybe eat me, too, but Borr the Strong ran his sword through the beast and brought him down. I believe he saved us all!”

      The others of the search party rose in cheer: “Borr the Strong! Borr the Strong!” And soon most others were following suit.

     Again, Borr raised his heavy sword and quieted the crowd. “My many thanks go to you, and my sadness as well, for we have lost a dear friend. I would do the same for any of you, and I know any of these brave men would do the same.” More cheers.

     “But, let us turn now to the cemetery to pay respects to those who have fallen. Hail to Lechtor and Narp!”

     “Hail to Lechtor and Narp!” came the echo from the crowd.

     Borr sheathed his sword and walked with conviction toward the cemetery. The crowd made way and let him pass, and then followed behind nearly single-file, some helping those missing limbs or eyesight, or those so aged they needed help to simply walk. Most of these latter were high Elders of the village

     When they reached the edge of the village, Borr stopped. “Why are we stopping, Borr?” Sortear asked.

     Borr raised a thick, hairy arm and pointed. Sortear’s eyes went wide.

     “What is it, let me pass,” said Pateus, Sirrus’ soon to be father. They let him pass, but he did not go far. A hush went though the people.

     At the far end of the small cemetery, part of the four-foot-tall fence fashioned by several of the woodworkers of the village had been torn down; nay, not just torn down, but the thick posts had been torn from their holes and tossed into the surrounding woods. Here, there, lay a log, its bottom still thick with dried earth.

     But this was not the beginning.

     “Stay here,” Borr said, as he proceeded into the sacred ground.

     The first open grave he came to was that of Narp’s. He gazed down inside. Narp had been wrapped in a shroud fashioned from weaving plants together; now, the shroud lay in shreds and ribbons around the grave, revealing only the remains of Narp. Borr noticed immediately that Narp’s head was gone. But even more shocking, most of the flesh, muscle, and internal organs were also gone. What was left was nothing more than a skeleton specked with blood and tiny pieces of flesh. This from a body not even a day old.

     Borr motioned for Sortear and Pateus, whom reluctantly approached the desecrated grave. Seeing the stony expressions of the other two, Borr call out, “No one else is to enter this sacred sight. Stay back, for the sake of the dead.” But, many still craned their necks to see just what horrible thing had happened.

     Borr spoke softly to the other two: “Sortear, Pateus, what do you make of this?”

     “But, it can’t be,” Sortear said. “You killed that beast, and only it would only be capable of this.”

     “Unless there are more than one,” Pateus said.

     “But eating the dead, it just can’t be.” Sortear said.

     Borr said, “You saw the beast! Do you not think it capable of this? We know what this means, my friends. There is more than one.” He gazed off into the forest.

     “But, why don’t they just attack us all, if there be more than one?”

     “Maybe it is because there is safety in numbers, Sortear – maybe they do not think they can overpower us in our home. The forest,” he said, “is their perfect cover. They can take us in small numbers.”

     “You speak as if there may be many of these things out there. Is that what you think, Borr?”

     Borr looked into Lechtor’s grave – his flesh had also been torn from the bones, a stained skull grinning up from the soil at the bottom of the grave.

“Yes, I believe where there are one or two, there could be many more.”

     One more grave had been opened, that of an old-timer named Tyrus, who had died only a week before. Strangely enough, not much of the remaining flesh had been stripped from the bones.

     Sortear leaned over to Borr. “I don’t think they like the old flesh. Perhaps it doesn’t suit their needs.”

    “You are right. They need fresh flesh to survive, to fill their needs, this much we now know.”

     Borr raised his sword and released a battle cry that echoed throughout the forests.

     And those without skins heard the cry, and knew there would be more for the feeding, and it would be soon.

     Pateus told his son that that had been the day when the Elders had agreed that all the dead had to be hidden in a place far from the cemetery, and that no person should venture into the forest alone. A new place would have to be found, and the only alternative was out in those woods; and while the high Elders held meetings on just how to carry out this task of hiding the dead, Borr was already forming another search party. This party would be search and destroy, going into a battle against a foe with which they had no experience. But, they would soon learn.

 

 

5

 

 

Sirrus buried Allyon and covered the grave to make it look as natural as possible. He stabbed his knife into the backside of the nearest tree, a marker of sorts, facing the wrong direction, but this had become normal practice, besides just simple memory.

Darkness had fully fallen, urging Sirrus into a nearby thatch of bushes to wait. The black birds of the night had returned to the treetops, cawing in their secret language. But, this meant that the forest was empty of threat. Perhaps there would be no flesh-eaters this night, and his friend’s grave would be safe.

The scavengers took flight suddenly with a thunderous flap of wings, and the woods fell silent. Sirrus pulled his sword and waited. Distant, echoing through the night from the direction of the road came a deep moan followed by howling, an atrocious baying that emanated not only pain, but also terror; it was enough to stop a man in his tracks.

Sirrus hesitated, and then after another of the high-pitched, gurgling howls, he took flight into the woods, not caring if any beasts were abound, or even following him. He had to make it to the road. As he drew near, nearly breathless, he dropped behind some brush to witness the horrible sight.

Even in the dark, he could see the moist, skinless muscle of the two beasts as they swung their heavy arms with sharp talons in wide arcs at the neck of the horse. It stood uneasily, shifting from leg to leg, as its head came loose and swung downward, leaving only the leather harness circling its neck. Its life fluid flowed from the gash. One of the beasts tore the head completely off and held it aloft, the triumphant warrior. The horse stood a moment longer, as if unsure without a head whether to rear or bolt, and then broke its legs as it collapsed to the road. The cart shook like a toy, the end of it rising up, wheels turning uselessly in the air.

The two beasts suddenly turned their attention away from the horse and began sniffing at the air. Long, deep breaths that went on for several minutes – several minutes that Sirrus dared not risk moving, breathing as slowly as he could and growing dizzy. But, he knew the horse and cart had alerted the beasts that a human was somewhere close by, and they had perhaps caught the scent as well.

The one holding the horse’s head bit deeply into a cheek, tore off a long strip of flesh and began to chew while the other continued testing the air; and then it spat out the meat as if disgusted with it, tossing the head to one side. And then both of the skinless creatures strode into the woods toward the cemetery in search of a better meal.

Sirrus waited just a short while longer, and then crossed the road to the woods on the other side. Staying just off the road, he began to work his way through the thick forest, carrying with him the roughly drawn directions he had taken from Allyon’s hut and a small leather pouch strapped over his shoulder containing small rations of bread and dried meat; he had never had any intention of taking this journey while risking another’s life for the sake of his quest. It was just not within his nature. When the road abruptly ended, he looked back only once to make sure the beasts hadn’t returned sooner to taste again the foul flesh of the horse.

 

 

     Borr implored for volunteers, yet only five agreed. Four of them were young, inexperienced, and had no women or children to wait impatiently in fear for their return. They were obviously frightened, but full of foolish pride. The fifth was of Borr’s age, a stout bearded man called Alexor, well learned with years.

     “Do you think these young ones will really serve their purpose?” he asked, eyeing them as they stood off to themselves murmuring.

     “They’ll have to,” Borr growled. “They are men, now. It is time they learned just how harsh the forest can be.”

     Alexor nodded slowly, both men resigning to an unspoken and ugly truth.

     The three Elders approached, with thin gray beards and robes. “Borr, please forget this reckless folly. It will only bring more death to our village. Have you not seen enough?”

     “I am sorry, Elder, but we must try to gain our freedom back from our enemy. What if one dark day many beasts enter the village and kill every man, woman and child? What then?”

     With forlorn faces, the Elders watched the men gather their weapons and make for the tree line. A short time later they heard the ominous howls of the beasts, the shouting of men, cries of terror. Of agony. There was the unmistakable deep roar of Borr himself, words indiscernible at that distance.

     And still, surrounded by many of the villagers, The Elders waited.

     A figure emerged from the tree line; Borr stumbled across the field toward the village, dragging his sword behind him. Splattered with the dark fluid of the beasts and the crimson of men, he dropped to his knees on the dusty ground before the Elders. He raised his stained face to them, and they saw the lines of tears coursing down his cheeks. All were silent.

     “This is the end of it, Borr,” Kronen said. “There will be no more reckless acts. No more pointless suffering.”

The other Elders nodded. The three of them turned about and walked away, villagers separating to allow passage.

 

 

The distance between the safety of the village and Sirrus grew quite large, and he wondered just how many had dared go this far in past ventures. He moved stealthily through the ever-thickening forest, wary of his every footfall, every breath; to reveal himself to his foe now could surely prove to be hazardous. The light from the thing the original Elders called Sun spiked down through the trees, shafts of light that revealed tiny particles drifting lazily in the air.

He detected a slight sound and hunkered down next to a tree, studying the rising trunks surrounding him for any movement. The silence was ominous, engulfing him while the pureness of the forest filled his nostrils with earthen scents as he watched and waited.

There, again. But from what direction. Sirrus was motionless, save for his fearful eyes zipping frantically back and forth in search of a sign, any sign at all. He was no longer a man, but an animal suddenly frozen by the threat of a predator. One that may bolt into this living void haphazardly, seeking shelter to avoid being eaten by some ravenous thing. His mind raced, and he looked upward into the foliage. And there he saw his shelter.

No sooner had this crossed his mind that something crunched heavily into a deadfall nearby, prompting Sirrus to latch onto the rough bark and pull himself up, up into the foliage before the beast could sight him. He suddenly found himself lost in a universe of leaves, blinded somewhat except for that below him.

Sirrus was sure he had alerted the beast – now heavy footfalls advanced toward him, the deep grunting of some unfathomable thing. Again he froze, trying not to let fear overcome his rationality.

It crashed through the brush, breathing and snorting harshly. Sirrus gazed in shock at the beast that now stood directly beneath him; it was the most heinous creature he had ever seen. Having no skin, its monstrous form was smeared with the dark fluid that flowed through the complex network of veins and arteries that snaked through its’ body, somehow managing to keep its’ exterior moist.  Thick chest muscles flexed and retracted as it breathed.

The beast tested the forest air, head slightly jerking with each sniff. It contemplated the surrounding trees and suddenly tossed back its’ head and roared into the silence. Sirrus clutched the tree limb tightly and closed his eyes. A cluster of birds somewhere flapped away, quickly growing distant. When the last of the echoes died down, Sirrus chanced a peek downward. The beast was still there, and still had not seen him.

Now it stretched its head forward and retched, its knotted back hitching as it bent over and heaved several times. Something gurgled in the back of its throat. Its maw opened wide and a large opaque bubble bulged through its teeth before plopping to the ground. Something twitched inside the thin, veined tissue. Sirrus hardly dared to breath as he watched this bizarre spectacle.

A tiny, clawed arm tore through the membrane, releasing thick, milky fluid and tissue that collapsed slowly around its greenish form.

A beast! This is how they make their young, Sirrus thought.

It lay writhing in its own juice among the fallen leaves. In shock, Sirrus witnessed it begin to grow almost immediately. Muscle and flesh expanded, new bones snapped and grew longer; and all this occurring in only several minutes. The large beast snorted and waited impatiently until the thing was half its size. It lumbered away and out of sight, the halfling close behind, emitting the sickening sounds of its inhuman form growing to full size. Again silence prevailed.

That’s it. That’s why we never saw any small ones. Just where did this unnatural thing come from? Was it another forest far from here that we have never explored? Has it been here all along?

Sirrus tried to calm his racing heart with slow, deep breaths. The scent here in the trees was strong, and Sirrus realized that was probably why it had not detected him. He plucked a few leaves and brought them to his face. The scent was strong, and gave him a good idea. He plucked handfuls of moist leaves and stuffed them into a deep pocket of his pants, snatched another handful, and proceeded to scour his skin and clothing. Still mindful of the beast, he stuffed the used leaves into his pocket as well. Sirrus started as several escaped his grasp and fluttered toward the ground.

Not too far from where Sirrus sat, the large beast turned and noticed subtle movement from the direction he had just been.

 

 

6

 

 

Several villagers watched curiously as a very distraught Sarr strode purposefully in the early morning light to the Elder’s hut and burst through the door. The Elders sat at the table, engulfed with important discussion.

“What is the meaning of this?” asked Kronen, obviously angry at the intrusion.

The other Elders were normally soft-spoken, offering only council while letting the High Elder make the crucial decisions, as his wisdom took precedence over all. But this action warranted more discipline.

“This had better be of great importance,” said Wertan.

“Agreed,” said Vistir. “This is not the place for senseless acts.

“I am sorry, Elders, but I assure you, it is of great importance that I speak to you,” Sarr implored.

“Sirrus has not returned from burying Allyon. I am worried.”

“He may be dead by now, Sarr. He took a great chance going into the forest alone.”

“But Sirrus is very smart, Elder. What if decided to travel alone on his quest? What if he never planned on having a companion?”

Kronen said, “This would be like Sirrus. He can be stubborn. But there is nothing we can do at this point, Sarr.”

“I could go in search of him.”
“Out of the question. We have suffered too many deaths. I will not allow you to search for him only to be killed.”

“He might be wounded and in need of help.”

“Sirrus is strong and cunning. I am sure he will return.”

“A small search party might help.” Sarr said.

“We’ve been through all this before, Sarr. It is out of the question. All we can do is wait, and hope for his safe return. And we will be keeping a close eye on you so you don’t pull the same stunt. We are only looking out for your safety. Please understand that. Now please go about your business, I am sure Sirrus will return soon.”

Sarr said his goodbyes and left for the dusty streets of the village. He had no designs to go looking for Sirrus; the Elders had been right. All he could do was wait and hope.

 

 

The beast trampled through the trees, back to the spot where it had seen movement. It was right under the tree where it had been standing only moments before. It gazed around and sniffed at the air. Various leaves lay scattered on the ground, but two caught its’ attention. They seemed to be different, crumpled and it picked them up and sniffed them. Under the fragrance of the leaves was another scent.

A human scent.

Again it sniffed at the air, and discovered an unusually strong scent of the leaves. The beast looked up into the tree and saw nothing unusual. It began to follow the scent into the forest, sure that something had somehow tricked it, was playing a game with it. This angered it – when it found this human, it would tear it from limb to limb.

Sirrus was already far ahead of the beast, into a part of the forest that was more dense. The light was failing, and soon darkness would prevail even more so here. There were many good places a man could hide, maybe even have a little sleep; but Sirrus had an idea that he was still not alone. He rubbed more of the leaves on his skin and clothing, shoved them back into his pocket, and moved on.

Darkness prevailed, even more so under the thickness of the trees. He knew not how far he had traveled, only that it had been about one day. Sirrus grew weary and looked for a place for rest. The trees here were much older, larger, and this would probably be his safest place.

He stretch his arms as far as he could around the trunk of this ancient tree, grasped and tried to pull himself up to the lowest limb. The bark scraped and tore at his arm, but he tried to ignore the pain. He reached the limb and pulled himself up onto it. He was still quite low, and knew he must go higher to stay out of sight.

The blood.

There were traces of blood on the trunk below. If a beast were following him, this could prove to be the ultimate sign. Sirrus climbed higher through incredibly thick boughs. He soon found what he was looking for. A lot of the thick limbs criss-crossing with the others did not even belong to this tree after all. He would travel by tree for as far as he felt necessary, and try to fool whatever he felt was following him.

The darkness made it difficult for Sirrus – he moved precariously across large limbs, able to walk across some with the help of other branches, crawling on others that tore at his body and left bloody scratches wherever there was bare skin. He grew discouraged, and realized he was not going to make any real progress in this fashion.

He descended down to the forest floor and stood next to the tree trunk. His vision was diminished by the dark, but he heard no a sound. He knew the beasts could not travel as quietly as a person, and judging that he had not traveled very far by treetop, he moved on. Sirrus knew that the beast would lose his scent for only a short time, eventually finding it even stronger from all the scrapes and scratches on his skin. The smell of blood would lead it. That the scent of the leaves was also leaving a trail did not occur to him. Onward he moved scratched and tired, looking for somewhere to maybe get some rest.

Does those horrible things need rest? Sirrus wondered.

 

 

7

 

 

Sleep.

Oh, wonderful sleep. Sleep…

Pain. What is that pain? A noise descending upon him, stirring him out of his stupor.

Sirrus suddenly awoke, the cuts and scratches on his body in harmonious pain. At the same instant he realized that something was bearing down on him, and he instinctively drew his sword from its sheath and held it aloft, trying to shake the sleep from his mind.

He heard a short grunt, and then a wisp of the stale hot breath of the beast flowed through the brush in which he had been hiding, assaulting his nostrils and nearly causing him to vomit. Large, grotesque hands separated the brush directly in front of him, and he was then staring directly into the eyes of horror, death. Wide, unblinking eyes glared at him from a skinless mask of insanity, the harsh breath of this living dead thing permeated the air. Madness personified.

Sirrus was mesmerized as he kneeled before this atrocity, for it surely caused one’s mind to reel.

It reached for him, and in a panicked state he drove his sword upward, up through the bottom of its jaw and out the top of its head. Both were frozen, yet its eyes widened even more as it ceased breathing, senseless, standing on its hands and knees. For a moment both stared at each other, Sirrus gripping the handle of the sword with both hands. Time stood still. The forest seemed to be silenced by this one simple act.

This prompted Sirrus to yank out the sword, its keen blade blackened with the blood of the beast, and thrust it into its chest, and again yank it out; Sirrus was now filled with the fire of triumph, and he grimaced at the beast as it fell in on itself, crushing the brush beneath it. It immediately began to dissolve into the ground, and Sirrus watched with fascination, for the villagers still could not fathom how such a thing could happen. He found that he was breathing heavily from the shock of that suicidal moment, and he stood like a statue until it subsided. It was done, then.

Sirrus snatched up some leaves and cleaned the foulness off his sword before returning it to its sheath. Relief washed over him, and with a pirate’s smile he looked down at where the beast had been, and the man gathered his wits and fled into the forest.

He came upon a tiny stream gurgling haphazardly through the forest floor. He fell to his knees and drank his fill, and splashed the cool water onto his face. Sirrus sat a while, taking in the surroundings and thinking. A distant howl broke his reverie, and he stood.

Just what am I doing? I wish this was all over. Allyon…

 

 

8

 

 

Sarr stood with one of the youngsters near the perimeter of the village, watching over a few of the horse and cattle as they grazed and sipped from the stream in a nearby field. The animals were never let out all at once, and this had never attracted much attention to the beasts. They had different meat in mind.

The tall grass waved in the breeze and his long hair whipped gently against his scruffy face. He gazed at the distant tree line, longing to see Sirrus appear suddenly, safe and sound; bearing good news would bring smiles to the villagers’ faces. They went about their business solemnly, as if a dark cloud was hanging over their heads.

The Elders said nothing save for the usual menial business of the villagers. They stayed within their hut, whispering among themselves the thoughts and secrets that never escaped the confines of their hut.

Sarr grasped his walking stick tighter and looked toward the sky, wondering…

 

 

The forest had drastically changed; Sirrus found himself in different world, a desolate world of its own, filled with ancient trees with huge trunks that towered high, bearing think foliage that blocked out any of the suns’ desperate rays. Long strands of moss hung down from thick boughs and graced trunks like gray hair. He struggled through the dim; the thick ivy carpet caught and snagged on his feet, and he stumbled over thick roots circulating along the forest floor. His feet ached in his makeshift leather shoes.

The cries of the beasts had grown faint, and he had not seen or heard one in two days. This indeed was a blessing, however Sirrus had other concerns. The long days had diminished his rations, and his thirst grew strong, for it had been two days since he had last tasted the sweet nectar of water.

A string of moss brushed against his face and he pushed it away as something screeched from far above, but it was of no concern – he pulled out a piece of molding bread and tore off a chunk. He stuffed it into his dry mouth and chewed slowly, the sour taste assaulting his starving palate. The dried meat tasted better, but was difficult to chew, and tired his jaw.

Tiny sounds surfaced from all around him as he rested against a tree. Something scuttled down the tree and onto his shoulder, and he slowly turned his head to view the thing. He had seen pictures of these small animals (insects, one of the old books had called them), but this was disturbingly larger. Eight thin legs clutched the cloth while two antennae twitched atop its black, fuzzy head. Eight bulging eyes regarded him indifferently, revealing not its true intentions. Disgusted, Sirrus swiped it off and it vanished into the underbrush. He quickly moved on, his skin crawling at the very thought of what may lie beneath his feet.

Night was falling, and it was increasingly difficult to see. His tired feet taunted him, but he feared resting here for fear another insect might crawl onto his body, or possibly something even worse. He had not discounted the threat of the beasts.

Sirrus was oblivious of the dark clouds gathering overhead, but soon he saw faint flashes of light, and the sky exploded. Rain pelted the thickset shield of leaves, worming its way through the living maze. All around him, water dripped and trickled, and Sirrus tilted back his head and opened his mouth to let the precious liquid saturate his tongue and throat.

His thirst quenched, he found a clear spot against one of the ancient trees, sat on the moist soil, and leaned back. He closed his eyes. Already the storm was mellowing, the thunder growing more distant every few minutes. The soothing sound of the distant thunder and pattering of rain lulled him close to sleep.

I’ll just rest for a moment. Just a little rest…

Sirrus in back in the forest, near the village. He has his sword drawn, and is searching among the trees for his foe. Something moved behind him, and suddenly Allyon was standing in front of him, his face slashed and bloody, as were his clothes.

“Look out, Sirrus! Behind you!”

“What?” Sirrus asked, as if Allyon were speaking in another language. He was then facing the other direction. A beast stood there, eyes full of fire; Sirrus felt the hot breath on his face.

“I know,” Allyon said, from behind him. “I know…”

Sirrus wheeled around to run, but his legs were fixed to the ground. He panicked and tried to move, but to no avail. His heart jumped as something powerful grabbed his leg and squeezed. The pain is excruciating. Long, sharp claws pierce his pants, penetrating the skin. Sirrus struggles, struggles, the pain is too much.

Pain. The pain…

Pain! Sirrus abruptly awoke and sat up. He knew not how long he had slept, but morning had arrived, the storm had passed. The trees had awakened with sounds and aromatic leaves dripped rainwater. Immediately, he felt the stinging pain in his left shin. He looked down and saw something moving under his pant leg. With typical humanistic panic, he reacted without even thinking – he quickly swatted the lump. Yet, it continued twitching, tugging at his skin. Sirrus grimaced as pain shot up his leg to his groin.

He yanked up his animal-skin pant leg and discovered the source of the pain. This insect was long and thin, with too many legs to count. Covered with thick, gray stubble, its head was buried deep into Sirrus’ shin. He clutched it and pulled it out, needles of pain piercing the skin around the wound.

In his hand, it felt unnerving; it raised its round head and studied Sirrus with two miniature human eyes. Its mouth ceaselessly worked as if it were chewing. Perhaps it was.

It opened its tiny lips and hissed before spitting onto Sirrus’ face. Sirrus hurriedly tossed the insect as far away as possible and swiped the yellowish fluid off his face with the back of his arm. He had a disgusting taste in his mouth, and he spat out what he could – however, this aftertaste was going to hang around for a while.

He stood and took a few steps, and abruptly stopped. A short ways away, a large, four-legged animal was burrowing into the ground; plant life concealed its head as its brown, furry body circled desperately around its intended prey.

Its head popped up and it spotted Sirrus. His jaw dropped.

It was the head of a man!

Its eyebrows dropped in suspicion, and a low growl emitted from its throat; lips curled back, revealing threatening fangs. It lowered its body, tensed like a wound-up spring. Sirrus grabbed the hilt of his sword, and slowly stepped back. He tripped on a large root, and fell backwards to the ground.

The animal sprang, and in a second latched onto Sirrus’ right arm. He cried out in pain as it sank its teeth deeper into his forearm. Its human face glared at him mercilessly.

Sirrus grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and throttled it loose. Fueled by anger, he hurled it against a thick trunk. It yelped and fell into the ivy; Sirrus jumped to his feet and drew his sword.

It lie unmoving at the base of the tree, its eyes locked on him in a frozen stare. He approached the animal precariously and poked at it with his sword. The pain in his arm drew his attention; blood flowed freely from the various holes.

The animal regained consciousness and struggled to its feet. Sirrus carefully stepped back to witness this most unbelievable of things. It shook its head and a nightmarish countenance looked up at Sirrus. It was a face of utter resentment, and Sirrus suddenly realized that this animal not only had a man’s head, but a man’s intelligence. It hated Sirrus for what he was – normal.

Its lips curled back, revealing the bloodstained fangs that had punctured his arm. With the subsequent threatening growl, Sirrus knew its deadly intention, and he immediately drove his sword into its chest. The man face lost its viciousness; it now showed sadness, resignation. Its death had been a gift.

Sirrus drew out the sword, and the animal toppled over and closed its eyes. Sirrus’ mind spun; had he killed an animal, or a man? Had Allyon witnessed the same on his travels? Had he lived, he surely would have shared this with the villagers as a warning. Allyon’s father had chosen not to for his own reasons. Perhaps he felt that the beasts were enough to deal with, and did not want to add to the burden the villagers already carried. They had both been good men. Paying no mind to the blackened blood on his sword, Sirrus sheathed it and stumbled away through this mysterious wood.

 

 

9

 

 

He sat against a moss-covered goliath and checked his wounds. The hole in his leg had clotted into a small black circle. The holes in his arm had done likewise, but had left small rivers of dried blood streaming down his arm. Both ached incessantly.

Food. Water. Dizziness…

Something buzzed next to his ear, and he swatted at it, only to find a large insect with wings and spindly legs attached to his hand. He brushed it off in disgust, and looked around at the forest. It was an infinite maze of giant trees. The insects were abundant here, however, he had seen no more of the man/animals.

He had also seen nothing in the way of food; this forest yielded no berries or edible wildlife, save for the insects, and he had no quite reached that point of hunger. He again dug around in his pouch, as he had done a hundred times before, feeling for the tiniest bit of meat.

He thought about those things, insects, the Elders called them. Hunger prompted him over to a tree, where a multi legged insect with two long antennae was crawling up the green, fuzzy moss. Its body squirmed as it moved; it reminded him of the one that had bitten his leg. He snatched it off the tree, and held it out for inspection.

Then he put it in his mouth and bit down.

Bitter black fluid squirted into his mouth and down his chin. It crunched as he chewed; he grimaced at the taste, but it was bearable. He swallowed, and looked at the remaining part in his hand. It still wriggled around in his grip with no head, which reviled him to no end; however, he pushed the thing into his mouth and finished it off. He tried to think of something else as he stood there pondering over what he had just done.

Meat. Cooked meat.

Little as it did to cloud the taste, it had to do, and he tarried on knowing that there was at least a small food source here. He carried his sword unsheathed for a while, lest a larger animal, perhaps edible, should appear. However, he soon grew tired, and sheathed his sword in defeat. Insects it would have to be for now.

 

 

 

10

 

 

Light.

Ahead, a bright light pierced between the trees.

Firstly, Sirrus thought he was hallucinating. His mind grasped at the light as he stumbled through the roots and ivy. The golden light invited him forward, ever forward.

He winced and blinked as he emerged from the edge of the forest into total sunlight. Sirrus closed his eyes. The warmth soothed his body with its invisible pleasure; he merely stood, absorbing the heat with disbelief. Behind him, a wall of monolithic trees demarcated the end of the forest.

A fragrant breeze whisked through his hair, tall grass brushing around his legs. He stretched his body, cracking his bones. He stood at the bottom of a grassy rise, the top of which showed only blue sky, and a few lingering puffs of clouds. Sirrus felt his destination calling him.

This is what Allyon, and his father before him had seen. This was what they experienced – and something new waited ahead – this is what they saw…

His body and mind filled with relief, and he could not deny himself; he slowly lowered himself onto his back in the grass, the sun washing his face and body. Sleep took him in its arms…

 

 

He was walking across the open fields just outside the village. Straight ahead was the forest. Beautiful but ominous. Death lurked in there, for anyone who dared venture into their domain. But, Sirrus feared not, for his friend was there, waiting desperately to be saved before they came for him.

The trees loomed up slowly, under a darkened sky, hovering silently overhead, reaching for him, beckoning him to enter. He reached the tree line, familiar scents surrounding him.

A distant cry: “Sirrus, help me! I am here!”

Sirrus stopped and listened for more, but all was quiet. He ventured farther, leaving behind the safety of the village. He was determined to find Allyon, and could not allow fear to thwart him. He drew his sword, and headed in the direction of his friend’s cry.

The buzzing in the air was manic. The insect things were everywhere, yet unseen. Sirrus heard movement on the other side of some thick underbrush; he hefted the sword and swung, revealing Allyon. His friend lies there, splashed with blood, beaten.

“Sirrus, my friend. Please-“

A huge skinless claw appeared  from behind the tree, and snatched up Allyon with one swing. Sirrus was frozen. The beast swung Allyon in the air, shaking him senseless, his insides scattering around below him. Sirrus was helpless. He wanted to swing at the thing, but he hesitated, lest he hit Allyon.

The beast took a bite out of Allyon’s torso, and suddenly Allyon’s head came alive; became the face of the man/animal. “Go home, leave us alone,” the head said, snarling.

“Allyon, Allyon…”

The twisted countenance screamed, and…

 

 

Sirrus woke with a start, heart pounding, drenched in sweat. The sun fiercely beat down on him. His wounds were unavoidably itchy; he rolled up his pant leg and scratched at the blackening flesh around the small hole. His skin came off in flakes. Around the bites in his right arm, the flesh was also blackening and peeling. Sirrus knew this was not good. He had many times seen something similar in the village, perhaps the minor infection of a child’s scraped knee, or a small cut in a finger, initially reddening before healing. However, this was alarmingly different.

Sirrus composed himself and stood, wiping the sweat from his brow. He started up the hill, savoring in the slight breeze cooling his moist body. His legs were tired, and complained as he climbed.

Part of a structure appeared over the top, growing larger with each step. At the summit of the small hill, Sirrus stopped, quite unsure of what he was looking at. It was a large, square abode of some sort; part of its center raised another level. Ivy had invaded its tan, brick exterior almost entirely, lending it a strange quality. Curiosity filled Sirrus, dampening any fears he formerly had; that was reserved for the lands within the forests.

He descended the other side of the grassy rise, noticing the fence that surrounded the building. He knew its purpose; only this was fashioned from a dull, gray metal, around a foot and a half taller than he was. Thin, jagged strands of the metal circled menacingly across its top. Perhaps this was meant to keep beasts at bay. Lush ivy had also attacked here, forming a thick, green wall as a perimeter.

Sirrus walked up to the fenced and pulled at its links, flexing it easily in and out. He was near an entrance, where two gates stood open – he examined a rusty lock hanging from a metal loop. Of course, Sirrus knew nothing of latches and locks; in his world, there were no locks. The rusting hinges of the fence squeaked loudly as he pushed open the two sides and entered.

 

 

 

 

11

 

As he proceeded through the entrance, the ground changed; it was a gray, stony material. Its surface was even, with large cracks circulating through it like veins. From these cracks, weeds had sprung up, some quite tall and gangling. Waste from the flying things spotted this ground everywhere.

Sirrus spotted something he most surely had never seen the likes of; an automobile. He advanced slowly, unsure of what to think about the rusted antique. The wheels were long since gone, and it now sat on four rusty hubs. Here and there were botches of the original color: black. The windshield remained intact, but only cracked pieces of safety glass made up the rest of the windows, protruding from the window frames.

He touched the hazy glass in wonder. The interior was in ruin, but still recognizable as a place where people had once sat.

An aged, dusty skeleton sat behind the steering wheel. The skull had a small hole in its side…

Sirrus reached in and grasped the strange, round wheel – it shifted slightly, but did not turn. The motion caused the skeleton to collapse into pieces onto the seat and floor. He jumped back, unsure of just how to react.

What manner of wagon is this? He thought.

His wounds itched persistently, and he scratched at the black, peeling skin. The leg wound was the same; he scratched at it, trying to relieve some of the relentless itching. Thick, black fluid oozed from the hole, and he squeezed the skin surrounding the holes in his arm like a zit – he was appalled to see the fluid ooze out and slowly run down his arm.

This is not good, not good. What am I going to do?

Sirrus went to the side of the building, and then realized he had actually reached the front. A thick metal door lie on the ground nearly bent in half. Rust had claimed most of it. Ivy had creeping around the partially destroyed doorjamb and into the building. He stood in the open doorway.

This is it! I made it. But, why would Allyon’s father keep this secret? What is in this strange cabin?

A hallway stretched out before him, dimly lit from skylights staggered along the ceiling. The floor, once a brilliant white was now dull, filthy with dust and animal tracks. Ivy crawled a short distance inside along the walls and down onto the floor, circulating around aged mounds of feces.

Sirrus stepped carefully down the hall, his leg and arm now itching painfully. His body ached for sleep on regular bedding; sleeping on giant roots and in bushes had turned his body limp.

More doors lined the hallway, all spotted by rust. Sirrus made his way along, and he tried several and found them locked; he tried to force one open, but it held fast. This was not logical for Sirrus. In the village, there were no locked doors – there really was no reason for it.

The farther Sirrus went, the more scant the ivy was, not quite able to flourish as well in the dim halls. Rogue vines twisted along, occasionally branching up toward the ceiling and the skylights.

He reached a junction where the hall not only continued ahead, but also to the right and left. He went right, and partway down saw another door. This one had no knob, only one small round button on the wall with a small arrow that pointed down; when he pushed it, nothing happened. After passing more doors (all of which were locked), he reached the end of the hall and discovered metal stairs.

Sirrus reached the second floor landing and paused; the surroundings here were much in the same as the first floor, only this section seemed smaller. A door was lying in the hall, bent, and useless. On the other side of the hall, another strange door with no knobs, only the same button with the arrow pointing down. Something had bashed it inward, leaving two large indentations on a now rusty surface.

When he grew near, he saw the open doorway. Sirrus studied the doorjamb. It was metal also, yet something had nearly torn it from the wall. It stuck out as if something very strong had torn the door from its hinges. After witnessing the damage thus far, a thought occurred to him: Beasts!

 

 

 

 

12

 

 

“Now, tell me again why we are here in the middle of the night, when we should be sleeping,” the scientist asked. He was putting on his lab coat and yawning.

“Because, Frank. I told you. I may have thought of something we overlooked. I need to do a test, and I need you to help me design a particular formula.” As he spoke, Elliot Sherman sorted through the scatter of documents on his desk.

“This couldn’t wait until morning. You know the military doesn’t like us playing with their toys without their man here with us.”

“Their man is a waste of time. We need to work on this while the thought is still fresh in our minds.”

“Fresh in your mind, Elliot. What is it you’re thinking about?”

Elliot remained silent. He stared at a document he was holding, eyes flicking back and forth as he quickly read the information. “Ok, six days ago, we put a man and a woman in the holding cell with the test subject. And what happened?”

Frank said, “When the subject woke up, it made no move to harm the man or the woman. Elliot, I’m surprised the man didn’t have a heart attack. I mean, he shit and pissed all over himself when that thing woke up!”

“Frank, we’re scientists. We’re supposed to put aside emotions. We don’t have feelings. Remember? If the military thought we had feelings, we’d be off this program in a heartbeat. You know that.”

Something howled from the closed door on the other side of the room.

“Dreadful,” Frank said. He hesitated, and then said, “You’re right. We can’t let emotions get in the way of our work. After all, this program is very important to me. I’ve been waiting a long time to get funding for a genetics project. Whatever the military does, it’s their business.”

“Good man. You are absolutely right. It’s not our business what they have planned. But, imagine how science can benefit from our work.”

“Right. What is it you want to do?”

“I want to conduct an experiment with the reproductive organs”

“Reproductive organs? Elliot, it has no reproductive organs.”

“Not on the outside,” Elliot said, coming around from behind the desk. “But on the inside, it has everything. Male and female. Frank, that thing is intelligent. Limited intelligence, yes, but it is intelligent. It was once human. It knew the couple would reproduce.”

“Well, yes. And we determined why it wouldn’t harm them.”

“Of course. But it retained knowledge about reproduction. Most animals reproduce by instinct, but they know when and how the time is right. Some prepare for it. Maybe, just maybe, the test subject has the same knowledge. Maybe it just can reproduce.”

“What did you have in mind?” Frank asked.

“We create a formula to stimulate its reproductive organs. A catalyst to start a reproductive cycle.”

“You’ve got my attention. But Elliot, this is not something the military is going to support. They don’t care about reproduction. All they want is a killing machine.”

“Right. And we’ll give them a killing machine that can reproduce. That will give them more for their dollar. I’m sure they’ll go for it.”

“Ok, you’re the boss. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to start a molecular study on its reproductive organs. I’ll do a chemical analysis on every organ. I’m sure we can come up with something viable. Prepare a dart. We need to put that thing out.”

 

 

Elliot pulled out the needle and stepped back. The scientists stood near the beast and stared in wonder. No matter how many times they saw it, the horror they created always fascinated them. The huge, skinless creature lie on the cement floor of the holding cell, its chest heaving with every breath. Its exposed muscles and organs were moist and animated, and terrifyingly huge.

“Lets get out of here before that thing wakes up,” Frank said.

They left the cell, and Elliot pushed a red button on the wall. The two sides of the clear barrier slid together silently until there was hardly a crack down the center. “I don’t think we have anything to worry about, Frank. We’ll just watch from the monitors in the lab, record any changes. Might as well kick back and enjoy the show.”

“This may be more than we bargained for, Elliot.”

“Well, it may not be total success for us, but complete success for the them. Look at it this way, Frank. We have all the critical information, and we can do with it what we will. It fact, I’ve been sending it to Professor Ingard for safekeeping. He is, to say the least, shocked at our findings, yet carries the same attitude as we.”

On the large monitor, the beast was stirring. “Looks like our friend is waking up,” Elliot said.

“The best part of waking up,” Frank said, mocking an old television commercial.

“Look at it, Frank. It’s shaking its head around. I think it’s becoming aggressive.”

They both watched it on the monitor. It crouched over as if in pain, and howled, the sound reverberating through the entire lab. The skinless thing bent over and heaved.

“We better go and look,” Elliot said.

“You think it’s safe. I mean, look at it!”

“For God’s sake, Frank, it can’t get out. I want a close up look at it. The cameras will catch everything, but we will be the first to see what happens live and close up.”

Elliot opened the door to the study room – the beast was moaning, and bent over as if in pain. It paid no attention to the two scientists on the other side of the clear barrier.

“Have we killed it?” Frank asked, clutching Elliot’s arm.

“No, Frank. It is experiencing something it had never felt before. See how it’s bending over? Something is going on with the reproductive organs. The serum did something, that much is sure.”

“It pissed it off, that’s what happened!”

“Just wait, Frank. Have patience.”

The beast glanced over at the scientists, not with hatred, but with some secret knowledge that it could not display on its skinless face.

Nonetheless, Elliot understood. ”It needs to reproduce.”

“How? How can it reproduce?”

“I think it’s already known, Frank. The human side of it knew. We just helped it along. Watch.”

It bent over and heaved; only this time a bulbous, opaque bubble bulged from the end of its toothy mouth, small veins bulged on the membrane.

Elliot watched it fascination and horror, for he knew exactly what was about to happen.

“I don’t believe it,” Frank said. “ I just don believe it.” He backed away a little. The iron hand of fear was enclosing around him” We need to leave, and lock this room up, Elliot. Now!”

“Just one moment longer, Dr., just one more moment.”

The two watched wide-eyed as the blob popped out of its mouth and splattered onto the cement floor, spreading a milky fluid around the small green thing lying at its center. It tried to rise and release a tiny screech. The beast watched nonchalantly, as if it was the most normal of events.

“Oh my God. It worked, Frank! The damned thing reproduced, and it knew it!”

“Do you know what you’ve done, Elliot?”

“Yes, I do. Isn’t this what the military wants? A killing machine that can reproduce, overcome the enemy!”

“But what if it reproduces too much? Finishes the enemy and then everything else.”

“That’s their problem, Frank. We did our job. We need to contact the general.”

“Wait! Elliot, look!”

The tiny beast had changed to black, and had grown a few inches taller.

“Elliot, that thing is growing!”

“Must have been the serum. It stimulated the reproductive organs, and stimulated growth! This is quite a breakthrough!”

Frank grabbed Elliot by the shoulders. “Elliot, what if it reproduces uncontrollably? What then? And God help us if it were to get loose. Even just a scratch from one of those things and…”

“Oh my!” Elliot exclaimed.

Wide eyed, they both stared into the containment cell. The small beast was now half the size of the other. It was walking around the room, opening and closing its mouth, stretching it arms. The larger one howled at the small one, and the two men stepped back.

“In another few minutes, that one is going to be of equal size as the original, Elliot! I had better prepare some darts, pronto!”

“Right. I need to jot down some notes. This is incredible!”

Both beasts charged the barrier, causing it to reverberate.

“Screw the notes, Elliot, help me with the darts! Hurry!”

They locked the door to the study room and rushed into the lab. Frank went straight over to a table and began pulling out several bottles of clear liquid and two darts. A small black gun lay on the tabletop. Elliot was at his desk, scribbling something down.

The pounding on the barrier got louder.

“Elliot, they’re going to break through the barrier!”

“It’ll hold, Frank.”

“It’ll hold one, yes, but what about two?”

Elliot said nothing, only scribbled like a maniac.

“What are you doing? Come and help me!”

“I’m just getting some notes down. This is important, Frank. Important!”

Frank was just stabbing a syringe into one of the bottles when they heard the undeniable sound of the barrier crashing outward.

Elliot and Frank looked at each other, lost in frantic thought.

Something big bashed against the study room door, bending it outward.

There were no words needed – both scientists dashed for the exit just as the study room door broke free and hurled across the lab, smashing into a table and destroying the computer and assorted beakers. Papers flew loosely in the air. Elliot locked the door as they flew into the hall. They heard the beasts going berserk in the lab as they made for the stairs. Frank watched in shock as Elliot hit the elevator button.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Frank screamed from the top of the stairs.

“I’ve got to contact someone, warn them. I’m going to the basement, and I am going to lock down the building!”

“No, Elliot! Run! Come on!”

“I’ll be ok down there. Go, Frank, hurry! You don’t have much time!”

The elevator doors opened and Elliot jumped inside, pounding the button with his fist. Frank watched incredulously, and then the lab door burst from its frame and slammed into the opposite wall. The sound was horrendous and the shock nearly paralyzed Frank. When the first beast appeared, however, his eyes bulged from their sockets and he took flight down the stairs.

Elliot’s heart pounded; the elevator door seemed to be closing in slow motion, with the beast coming right for him. It had nearly closed when the beast thrust its arm through and clawed deeply into Elliot’s left shoulder. He cried out in agony. The door pressed tightly against the beasts’ arm. Confused, it withdrew the arm and slammed both of its huge fists into the door’s metal hide, bending it inward.

Elliot fell to the floor as the elevator descended; blood flowed freely and soaked into his lab coat.

“No! Oh, no!” Elliot said. The only entrance or exit to the basement yawned open and Elliot crawled out, painting a red stripe across the floor. He face filled with pain, he glance up at the button next to the elevator; it had an arrow pointing up, but there would be no more going up.

The basement was actually a morgue. Scientists constantly performed autopsies on specimens here, human specimens – or specimens that used to be human, anyway. Elliot managed to stand and take off his lab coat. He pressed it against his shoulder and staggered toward the basement’s control station. Several empty chairs sat in front of a bank of computers, which was on front of a large empty containment cell like the ones upstairs. Everything that went on in the basement was documented here.

He sat in front of a computer and punched in a command with his right hand. Something popped up on the screen.

Please enter security code.

C’mon, c’mon Elliot! he thought frantically. He punched in a series of numbers and hit return on the keyboard.

Instigate emergency lockdown?

Elliot guided the pointer to yes and clicked on it.

Emergency lockdown in 30 seconds.

On the screen, the countdown began, and Elliot could do now was watch and wait.

The only other exit out of the basement was a thick door that was strictly emergencies only. The keypad on the wall unlocked it, and beyond that a short tunnel and a ladder that lead to a hatch on ground level. The emergency lockdown would override the regular code, making it impossible to get in our out except for a select few that possessed the emergency code, and Elliot was one of those few. But Elliot had no intention on leaving the basement. Not as a human, anyway.

I hope you make it out, Frank, he thought.

 

 

Frank rushed down the stairs without really using the steps. At the bottom, he paused and listened. Something crashed down the stairs above him, and he fled out the door just in time to see it swing shut. There was an electronic buzz, and the lock bolted into place.

Frank rushed to his car as the first blow hit the door, bending it outward. Frank grabbed the car door handle. Another massive blow, echoing inside somewhere. He jumped into his car and slammed the door shut. Frank watched as the door suddenly blew out onto the pavement and the beast emerged, looking around at its newfound world.

Frank thought frantically, My God! What have we done? Just what have we done?

He snatched the Glock from the glove box. Surely, these tiny bullets would not stop one of them. He put the barrel in his mouth. He simply could not be responsible for the new plague that would one day ravage man. He could not live knowing he helped create it.

And there truly was no escape now.

Another of the beasts appeared in the doorway and immediately spied the man in the car. The beast approached the car and gazed through the glass at the dead man. It did not crave dead meat. Not while the smell of man was it the air. It turned and vomited up a membranous blob that splattered on the pavement and began to grow.

The chain link fence was no barrier to the beasts. They entered the world deadly and free; off in different directions they drifted, multiplying into multitudes.

 

 

 

 

13

 

 

When Sirrus entered the lab and saw the disarray, he sighed and sat down on the old tile floor to rest his weary legs. The black infection on his arm had grown larger, and so had the wound. He gently lifted his pant leg – the fabric rubbed against the raw wound, and Sirrus grimaced. The black, flaking skin had spread over the entire length of his shin. He gently put a finger on the tender wound and jerked it back.

While Sirrus surveyed the room before him, he faced a deadly reality: I am going to die. I am poisoned, and I am going to die.

Faced with this notion, Sirrus stood. He did not recognize anything in the room, except possibly the overturned tables with their tan metal legs. Their shapes reminded him of the crude tables they used in the village.

Papers littered the room, curling at the edges, words indiscernible. He picked one up and it crumbled to his touch. He toured the room in search of something like the books and magazines the Elders had back in the village, but only found more of the same faded pages scattered about the windowless room like dry, autumn leaves.

A metal desk stood in one corner. Sirrus regarded the drawers with idle curiosity, and pulled one open; inside was a metal box, and after playing with the latch for a minute, he managed to open it. Sirrus recognized the item inside immediately – a book. He had never seen book such as this, and he examined it closely. Its hiding place had preserved it quite well.

Bound in brown leather, a thin strap held it closed with a snap on its front. He opened the book and was pleased to find that, unlike the pages scattered around the room, these were in fine shape, indeed. At the top of the first page, the owner had written with something thin and blue – Personal Journal of Doctor Elliot Sherman. The words were written in longhand, and in the language of the village. Sirrus scratched his arm and read: July 28, 2010. He had seen such words and numbers in the Elder’s books, but for the villagers they were meaningless.

“The initial experiments involved insects and small animals. These produced only strange creatures, genetic hybrids of a nature one would only see in nightmares. Regarding them as useless, the General ordered them put down and dumped into the forest. I warned him of the dangers of other predators feeding on the dead flesh, that considering the nature of the serums, some cells could remain active even after death. But being the military man he was, dead was dead, and he maintained there would be no danger. The General announced that a new step in experimentation was to begin. Humans. ”

Humans? People? What kind of people were the old ones, to do such things? Sirrus again scratched at the black skin on his arm; it was flaking off in larger pieces now, the wound larger. Pulling up his pant leg, his heart skipped a beat. Nearly his entire leg was blackened and peeling, especially around the increasing wound, which was raw and secreting black fluid. Fear and doubt filled his thoughts: Am I to die here? Will I ever return home?

August 10, 2010

“General Hapscott is quite pleased with the restructured serum, as it has produced the most vile creature I have ever seen, even during my days as a scientist.  The General is hopeful that this will be the ultimate weapon if produced on a mass scale. As it is now, we can only produce the thing with an injection, or as was the case with Dr. Smith, wounded by one of the beasts. If we had known sooner, we could have ended it humanely for Joseph, but to watch him change and conduct experiments with him – this was especially difficult for Frank.”

“I know the secret of the beasts. They are…they are…”

Us! They are us! Sirrus thought shockingly. Allyon had proof, but could never tell anyone!

Sirrus studied his arm. Thankfully, a beast had not wounded him, but he still had a serious problem. Perhaps the book held a key to the solution, and he continued to read.

“Every human subject we have put in the enclosure with the beast was killed and partially eaten. After just a short time, the beast would only take a few bites of the dead meat. We found this odd, so we decided to put a subject that was already dead in with the beast. It would not touch the corpse. It wanted live flesh. And human flesh, at that. It would not eat any of the animals we introduced to it; they would run around in fear until the thing would get so irritated that it would kill it and toss it aside. There was one time, however, when it did take a few bites of a rabbit, but we can only assume this was from its insatiable hunger. We think that this is the case with the dead human subjects, for after a few hours following death, the beast no longer fed.”

Sirrus recalled the stories the Elders told of the early days, a time when it was thought that only one beast existed. And yet, even after they had killed the beast, more beasts had come and dug up the freshly buried bodies in the tiny village cemetery and fed on them. The older graves had not been touched. The Elders had decided that for the safety of the villagers, they could no longer bury the dead near the village. They would have to chance burials in the woods, hiding the graves so no beast could desecrate their loved ones. The Elders declared that this would only be carried out during daylight, and only two able-bodied man could carry out the task.

A few villagers had mentioned that burning the dead might be a better option, but the Elders argued that burial had for years been the one true way to care for the dead with respect. Burning was akin to destroying something, and even the dead were not to be destroyed.

For the most part, the new ritual worked, and became a village custom. Some villagers had been killed, and gravesites discovered, but always too late. The graves were too old for the beasts. As long as sites were relocated occasionally, most were left to rest in peace. Sirrus was used to these customs, as he had helped with many of them.

“The General has asked us to perform another experiment, one that has Frank disgusted, and ready to walk. I had to remind him that to walk would surely mean death. We had to perform the experiment. The following day, they brought us new subjects. A man and a woman. They were frightened beyond belief, but sadly, their fright had only just begun.

“We darted the beast, and after it was out, soldiers forced the subjects into the enclosure. After one look at the beast, the woman went into hysterics, and the man held her close and tried to calm her. I remember the way he looked at me at that moment. I had to look away. I wondered where they were getting these people, whose live they ruined in the process. But these were not questions to be asked. This was just the way it was, and we were supposed to act like scientists, emotionless and unconcerned. This was one of the most difficult days for Frank, but he hid his emotions well – to let General Hapscott see him show emotion might have ended his career, and possibly his life. Who knows, maybe He would have ended up as one of the subjects.

“The General was not always present during tests, but he seemed particularly interested in this one. The three of us watched through the clear wall of the enclosure as the beast woke. It immediately saw the two cowering in a corner. The thing rose and approached them. It sniffed at the air. And then it proceeded to pace back and forth, as if unsure of what to do. It did not kill them! General Hapscott asked me what this all meant, and I told him I would have to study on it. I knew, though. I knew. The beast was once a man, and it had retained some of that intelligence. It knew that if it killed either one of the subjects, they would not procreate. Therefore, there would be no more meat for it to eat. This was its mentality, its reasoning, and I knew enough about the beast to know that this was the truth. Again, he had to put it down, and the man was removed. This proved to be interesting, for when it saw the woman alone, it clawed at her, and snarled, but it knew we were trying to trick it. We were order to repeat the test, except this time the man would be left alone with the beast. The man was eaten alive. Even the General turned away from the grisly sight. He left disappointed that I didn’t have much to tell him. Again, I told him that I would have to think on it, and I would report to him soon. Frank and I locked eyes for a quick moment. He knew, also. I could tell he was grateful at my discretion. The men left, taking the woman with them, and I am sure she met an untimely death. This is the way is was.”

Sirrus closed the book. This is why they don’t just attack the village. We are making food for them! We are a just a place of feeding for these horrible beasts! He thought. Examining his wounds, a fleeting thought came: I’ve got to get this book back to the Elders! It is too late for me, but maybe this will somehow help the villagers.

Instead of reading more, perhaps trying to find something to help his own dilemma, he decided that if he could only make it back to the village, could only pass on what he has discovered thus far, the journey would not have been wasted. Sirrus thought about the village, about home, and the people that were his friends; tears sprang to his eyes as he made his way out of the building.

As he walked toward the forest, he passed near an opening in the ground that plant life had mostly covered over; it had once been the emergency exit from the lab’s basement. Dr. Sherman had never made it out, but the beast he became had.

The dense forest loomed before him, dark and forbidding. As he reached the tree line, dizziness overtook him and he sat against a tree and lost consciousness. It would be a long time before Sirrus would awake to continue onward, with a despairing knowledge about himself and sadness in his heart.

 

 

 

 

14

 

 

Sarr and Trelor entered the edge of the forest and stopped, listening for anything out of the ordinary. This was a sad day for the village, where a young couple mourned silently in the confines of their small cabin. For Sarr carried with him the body of their young son. He had contracted a strange fever, and without any knowledge of medicine, all they could do was wipe his sweating brow with cool water from the spring and hope. The boy succumbed to the fever after three days, and the Elders called upon two volunteers to properly lay the boy to rest in the forest.

Trelor carried a makeshift shovel he had fashion from a fallen tree branch, and he held it warily, shaking with fear. Sarr shook his head but did not speak. He had a sword of metal the Elders had lent him, and he was ready to use it; this was a sacred event for the village, to lay one to rest without interference from a beast. Especially a child.

Trelor followed as Sarr stepped gingerly on the forest floor. To step on a branch or even twig could alert a beast. This reminded him of Sirrus: Where are you, my friend? What has happened? Please come home. But Sirrus had not come home. All the village could do was wait, though all knew this to be futile. Sirrus was dead, and they would all have to just accept it one day.

Sarr stopped in a small clearing – others were here, the markings on the trees told him. He gently laid the body on the ground. He pulled his sword and stabbed it into the ground – this would the boy’s final resting place.

Trelor dug as quietly as he could, scraping away the ivy to reach the soft soil. The grave could not be very deep, for to stay in the forest too long invited discovery by the beasts. Sarr marked a nearby tree with his sword. It was merely a rough cut in the bark, one he would remember and later show the sad young couple. They could at least know where their child’s final resting place was, if the Elders ever allowed them entry into the forest.

Sarr turned from the tree and suddenly froze. “Trelor, take the child back to the village.”

Confusion crossed Trelor’s face. “What are you saying, Sarr?” He noticed Sarr standing rigid, facing away from them, and when he looked, he too, saw the beast.

“Hurry, take the child!”

Trelor lifted up the body and cradled it in his arms. “The beast will kill us, Sarr! What do I do?”

“Do what I said, go back to the village! I will take care of this one.” Sarr held his sword as a batter would, waiting for the first pitch.

A tree trunk concealed half of the beast, only ten feet away, but Sarr could see its movement, could hear its breathing. He frantically waved for Trelor to go, and watched as his friend crept away with the body. He turned his attention to the beast.

It came out of its cover and moved toward the fleeing man. Sarr quickly stepped in it way, and the beast stopped and snorted. Sarr could smell its fetal breath, and it sickened him. It tilted back its head and howled – Sarr readied himself. He would have to kill this thing or be killed, this was the natural law of their world.

He took a few steps back, however, and the beast even stepped back as a huge black creature scuttled down a tree trunk and into the small clearing. Thick, spiked fuzz layered its eight-legged body, and it hissed not from the mouth of an insect, but from the mouth of a man. Disgusted as he was, Sarr thought the face oddly familiar.

The insect rose up on two spindly legs, and was suddenly taller than even the beast. Its other six legs, or perhaps arms, were jointed halfway through, a single hooked claw at the tip of each appendage. It regarded Sarr, its wicked human face curling its lips back from jagged teeth. When the initial shock rose from Sarr, he saw something even more disturbing – the thing was wearing a man’s clothing. Or what was left of it, anyway.

The insect (for like Sirrus, this is the only name Sarr knew for a thing of this nature) turned toward the beast; the beast actually had to look up into this creature’s face. The creature opened its mouth and a thin spray of black fluid coated the other’s skinless face. The beast howled and wiped at its face, where thin wisps of smoke rose from points where the fluid was already burning away its foul countenance.

The creature swung an appendage out swiftly and the thick claw sliced deeply through the beast’s neck. Thick black fluid immediately pumped out onto the ground and down the front of its massive chest. Another appendage swung out and sliced its face cleanly in half. The beast went to its knees and tried to howl, but its burned and ruined face produced only a gurgle. It fell onto its back and disintegrated into the earth.

Sarr lowered his sword in disbelief, but raised it at the creature turned toward him. It gazed at Sarr not with malevolence, but curiosity. It only stood, swaying slightly to and fro as if to balance it on the two thin legs. The spiked fuzz covered its head as well, but the face. Oh, that face. Sarr again lowered the sword. He knew that face, could not believe it to be true.

Sirrus!

“Sirrus,” he whispered.

The insect slowly nodded.

“Sirrus, my dear friend. My Sirrus, what has become of you?”

Sirrus pointed at Sarr (which was somewhat startling), and then tapped the leather pouch hanging from its shoulder to its opposite side. It tapped the pouch harder, and made a waving motion at Sarr.

Come here! Come here now!

Sarr approached the think precariously, and as he drew near, he smelled its strange odor; not like that of a beast, but an insect scent. He reached over and opened the pouch, and pulled out its sole item. Sarr stepped back, and beheld the book in his hands. He looked up at the thing towering over him, at the face.

That face…

A tear ran down Sarr’s cheek.

Sirrus pointed at the book with one wicked claw, and tried to speak. One word. One word is all he tried to say, and it came out slowly and gargled.

“El-ders,” it croaked.

“Elders,” Sarr repeated. “Take this to the Elders.”

The thing could not smile, but nodded in consent.

It tapped its side one more time, this time to a sword buried in its sheath. Sarr had not even noticed it, so unbelievable this encounter was. Sirrus stood quietly as Sarr untied the strap that held it around the thing’s body. He laid down the sword, and grasped a clawed appendage with both hands, could feel the bristly fuzz around the dangerous claw.

“My friend, what should I do? Can I help you?”

Sirrus showed only emotion that seemed brutal and cold, and yet…

…wasn’t that a tear that Sarr spied in his eye?

“I will tell the Elders of you, Sirrus. You have saved me. Will you stay?”

A slight nod, and then Sirrus dropped down to all eight legs and scuttled away without looking back.

“Goodbye, Sirrus. I hope to see you again, my friend.” Sarr picked up his treasures and headed back to the village.

 

 

“Tell us again about the good beast of the forest, Sarr!” the children cried.

“I don’t know, it is time for sleep I think.”

“Please, please” they all implored.

“Yes, I’ll tell you one more time and then no more,” Sarr said.

The children grew quiet and attentive as Sarr began his tale.

“Once, there were many bad beasts in the forest. Big and mean!” He held up his hands dramatically and the children’s eyes widened.

“They were everywhere, and if you went into the forest, one would get ya!” he cried, and the children jumped back.

“But one day, I was in the forest, and one of the horrible things came for me!”

“Aaaaaaaahhhh,” the children said in unison.

“But along came the good beast. He was part man, and part beast, but all good, I say! He saved me that day, from certain death I tell you! He gave me gifts. A special book and a sword. And then he went off into the forest, never to be seen again.”

“But what happened the all the bad beasts?” one small boy implored.

“Little one, the good beast KILLED all the bad beasts! One by one, I tell you, and….