The parking lot was empty when I pulled in, yellow caution tape crisscrossing the trailhead. A big sign reading “Temporarily Closed” covered the maps and information on the wooden notice board, and the whole place looked desolate and ominous.
Or maybe it didn’t, and I only thought so because I knew what had happened there.
I parked but didn’t get out, my leg twitching as I scanned the trees. It was early morning, the sky gray and the roads foggy as clouds drifted through the mountains. The campers and day trippers wouldn’t flood the area for another couple of hours, and the forest was quiet.
A beat-up van pulled into the parking space next to me, and I tensed. A woman got out. She didn’t look like a paranormal expert—not that I knew what a paranormal expert was supposed to look like. She wore torn jeans, hiking boots, and a tank top, her only jewelry plain metal bands around her wrists and neck. Tall and well-built, she had dark, messy hair and sleeve tattoos on both arms.
I grabbed my pack and stepped out of the car. “Ms. Romo?”
“Call me Bea,” she said. “You must be Dustin.”
She looked me over, and I could guess what she saw: a burly, bearded man in a park ranger uniform. Hopefully someone who looked trustworthy and not a wacko who’d made the whole thing up.
“Any updates since we talked on the phone?” she asked.
“No, nothing else.”
“Then I’ll start searching.” She strode toward the trailhead. “You can wait here.”
I stared at her back for a second, mouth open. That was it? She really didn’t waste time on small talk.
“Um.” I hurried after her. “I’m going with you.”
“You know how to fight monsters?” she asked, not turning around.
“No,” I said. “Do you know how to navigate the forest, find water, or forage for food?”
She stopped and glowered.
I swallowed. “People die out here, and it’s not— It’s not always a monster. Most of the time, they just get lost and die from thirst or exposure. I can’t handle whatever that thing is out there, but I… I can make sure you get back after you deal with it.”
She stared at me for a long moment, her eyes a deep brown. A bird twittered obliviously in a nearby tree, and a car rumbled past on the road. My palms began to sweat, and I didn’t know why. I’d hired her to come, found her name on the internet and transferred a down payment despite feeling like a gullible fool. That made me the client. Shouldn’t she do as I asked?
But she was the expert. I had no clue what we were dealing with. She did—or at least that’s what I desperately hoped.
Finally, she shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
She went around the caution tape and started down the trail. After a second’s hesitation, I followed.
The air was cool and damp, though it would warm up quickly once the sun cut through the clouds. Leaves rustled overhead in the wind, and the hammering of a woodpecker echoed in the distance. My body felt tauter than a rope bracing a tent pole, and I kept looking over my shoulder. I hated the fear that slithered down my spine. I’d never been afraid of the forest before—cautious and respectful of its dangers, yes, but not afraid.
I stuck close to Bea, but could she keep me safe? She wasn’t carrying any weapons. How did she expect to get rid of a monster that had killed two people so far?
“Shouldn’t you bring a gun or something?” I asked.
“Not a fan of ‘em,” she replied. “Why? You carrying?”
“No. I’ve got bear mace though. You think that’ll help?”
She was probably just humoring me. I didn’t see how bear mace would be any use against that thing.
I shuddered. It had been four days since I’d seen it near this very trail. The second person had gone missing that day, a young woman out hiking with friends. She’d been the last one in the group, and one of her friends had turned around to find she simply wasn’t there anymore.
I’d joined the search party, hoping she’d simply wandered off the trail and hadn’t gone far. When I’d heard a twig snap behind me, I’d turned around…
And seen a monster.
It was taller than me, at least seven feet despite its hunched back. The creature stood on two legs, half hidden behind a tree, and went still when I met its eyes—red eyes glowing in the daylight. It had matted brown fur and a grinning, goatlike face. Curling horns sprouted from its head, and blood stained its fur around a mouth of sharp, jagged teeth.
I’d stumbled back, tripped, and fallen on my ass. When I’d looked back at the tree, the monster had vanished.
Suddenly, losing two hikers on the same trail in a single month had made a lot more sense.
I hadn’t told anyone what I’d seen, knowing it would make me look crazy. I’d called in sick the next day, binging beer and ice cream at home in an attempt to forget. It hadn’t worked. When I’d heard talk about when to reopen the trail, I’d known I had to do something or more people would die. So I’d scoured the internet and found Beatriz Romo Reyes, freelance exorcist and paranormal consultant.
I hoped she was the real deal. She’d come out here instead of just taking my money, so that was something. But would she really be able to slay the monster?
“This is about where I saw it,” I said when we reached a dead tree covered in fungi. “I was off the trail, maybe about ten minutes in that direction.” I pointed.
“How far does the trail go?” she asked.
“About a mile further. It ends at an overlook—gorgeous spot. You can see the entire valley. I go there sometimes in the morning when the sun’s just coming up. It’s tranquil—feels like you’re the only person in the world. No matter what’s going on in my life, sitting up there in silence for half an hour makes everything better.”
Realizing I was babbling, I snapped my mouth closed.
Bea tilted her head thoughtfully. “Sounds nice.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out something that I thought was a necklace at first. Then I realized the chain wasn’t looped. A colorless, opaque crystal hung from the bottom of it. Bea gripped the top of the chain, holding it out with the crystal dangling below.
“Um…” I said. “What—”
I shushed. After about ten seconds of waiting, the crystal began to swing on its chain like a pendulum. Bea looked in the direction it moved, which was pretty much the same direction I’d pointed earlier.
“This way,” she said, stuffing the crystal back into her pocket.
I had so many questions.
We hiked off the trail, going slower now that we had to pick our way over uneven ground and through underbrush. Goose bumps spread across my arms, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching us. My imagination or a survival instinct? I didn’t know, but I made sure not to lag behind Bea. The last woman who’d gone missing had lagged behind her group, and that’s when the monster had gotten her.
My insides went cold as I thought of the dried blood sticking to the messy, matted fur around the creature’s mouth. It must have eaten her and the other hiker. I hoped for their sakes that it had been quick.
We kept hiking. I noted the landmarks we passed and checked my GPS frequently. We hadn’t been off the trail for long, but you’d be surprised how easy it was to get turned around in the forest. My compass told me we weren’t walking in circles, at least. I wondered how far we were from the place where I’d seen the monster. What was the range of its habitat? How far did it travel to hunt? Was it even worth thinking about things like that when it clearly wasn’t a normal animal?
“Have you ever seen one of these monsters before?” I asked, huffing a little from exertion.
Bea scanned the forest as she trekked. “Not one exactly like what you described.”
“But you know what it is.”
Please tell me you know what it is.
She shrugged. “Sometimes things that don’t belong in this world find their way here.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. Or maybe I did. Was it better to think of the creature as some kind of interdimensional demon rather than an undiscovered animal? If it was a native species, did we have any right to get rid of it? It hadn’t felt natural when I’d seen it though. It had felt evil.
Bea stopped, and I was following so closely behind her that I nearly ran into her. Every muscle in my body tensed, and I frantically scanned our surroundings. Had she seen something?
She turned about fifteen degrees and took off at a faster pace. I hurried to keep up, and less than a minute later, we came upon a cave.
It wasn’t the type of big, impressive cave that tourists visited. I’d have to crouch to get inside, and the opening wasn’t very wide. Surrounded by ferns and tree roots, it would be easy to overlook.
But the smell was hard to miss. It stank of rot, and the buzzing of flies filled the air.
“Stay there,” Bea said, and approached it.
I wanted to tell her to stop. Even if this wasn’t the monster’s lair, there could be a bear or something inside. You can’t just waltz into random caves in the wilderness. But I couldn’t seem to open my mouth and get the words out.
Bea ducked down, bracing one hand on the mossy rock overhang as she made her way inside. She picked her steps carefully, arm muscles clenching beneath her tattooed skin. How deep did the cave go? What if she didn’t come out?
I didn’t need to worry, as I never lost sight of her. She stopped partway in, stood there for a second, then spun around and climbed out.
“What?” I asked. “What did you see?”
Her jaw was tight, and the color had drained from her face. “Bones,” she said. “Some of them human.”
“Old bones?” I asked, voice cracking.
Her head shook jerkily. “Some of them were still juicy.”
Bea rubbed her face. “We’ll wait here until it comes back. I doubt we’ll be able to take it by surprise, but—”
She jerked up straight and threw a fireball at me.
Yes, an honest-to-God fireball. I couldn’t believe it either.
This is it, I thought as the roaring ball of orange flames hurtled toward me. I’m dead, killed by a shady woman I met on the internet who’s apparently pyrokinetic.
But the fireball soared over my head, singeing the skin on my face, and struck something behind me.
A screech filled the air. I spun around and saw the monster again, the fur on its chest scorched and smoking.
In the back of my mind, deep beneath my panic, I noticed details that I hadn’t picked up on the last time I’d seen it. Its legs were backwards-jointed and ended in clawed feet. Thicker fur grew on its hunched back, broken twigs and dead leaves tangled up in it. And its limbs looked abnormally long and thin.
It hurled itself at me with a shriek, and I probably would’ve died if Bea hadn’t charged forward and blasted it with fire again.
The flames were so bright that I had to squeeze shut my eyes for a second. When I opened them, bright spots drifting across my vision, the monster had disappeared.
“Shit,” Bea hissed, looking left and right.
My chest tightened, and while I didn’t quite hyperventilate, my breaths definitely grew faster. I spun around in a circle, searching the trees for the monster. Where had it gone? How could something that big hide so well?
I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything either, which was weird. No chirping birds. No chittering squirrels. It was like the only animals that dared come near were the flies.
About five feet ahead of me, Bea turned slowly, her fists clenched and stance wide. As soon as she’d turned far enough, the monster edged out from the shadow of a tree behind her.
“Behind you!” I shouted as it rushed her.
She spun. The monster pounced on her, slamming her to the ground. Its teeth went for her throat, but she grabbed its head, arms straining as she pushed it back. Fire flared to life around her hands, searing the fur on its face, but the monster didn’t flinch. It pushed through the pain, jaws snapping. It seemed determined to rip out her throat. Bea grunted, arms shaking as its snout pressed slowly closer.
The monster looked up, and I sprayed bear mace into its eyes.
It shrieked and flailed. Bea kicked it off of her and jumped up. She conjured enough fire to make me scramble back from the heat, and then she shot it all at the monster writhing on the ground.
I cringed from the flames. The heat was painful even several feet away. For the monster, it was lethal. Its shriek cut off, and the stench of charred flesh hit my nose. I coughed, covering my eyes until the brightness faded and the heat finally cooled. When I could look again, the monster was a blackened corpse, every bit of undergrowth in a five-foot radius of it burnt to a crisp.
Bea sat. Well, honestly it was more like a controlled fall. She was panting, her skin slick with sweat and her jeans dirty.
“Take a deep breath,” she said. “Try to calm down.”
Calm? I was calm. Then I realized I was babbling, a steady stream of “Holy shit. What happened? How did you do that? Oh my God. What was that thing?” leaving my mouth without my knowledge or permission.
I clenched my jaw shut and focused on breathing for a while.
After a few seconds, I realized the monster’s corpse was melting into goop. “What—?” I asked, pointing at it.
Bea stood and dusted off her jeans. “It doesn’t belong in this world, remember? It won’t leave any remains behind.”
So much for calling in scientists to examine the corpse and figure out what the hell that thing had been.
“Come on.” She patted me on the shoulder. “Time for you to lead me back to the trail.”
I had enough presence of mind to check the GPS before we left. I could lead people back to the cave—leave out the whole monster thing and let them assume a rogue bear or mountain lion was responsible for the killings. At least it would give the families of the missing hikers some closure.
I got us back to the trail, and then Bea took the lead again.
“Wrong way,” I said. “Parking lot’s in the other direction.”
“I know. Let’s see this overlook of yours.”
We hiked. The sun made its way through the clouds, and as predicted, the day got warmer. I was sweating by the time we reached the top.
The trees parted, revealing a bald spot on the mountain, and a cool wind refreshed my sweaty skin. I walked over to a large rock and sat, resting my elbows on my knees. Bea took a seat beside me.
Blue mountains rose in the distance beneath a pale sky. Verdant forest spread out before us, covering rolling hills. The valley lay below, squares of farmland like patches on a quilt, and a sparkling blue river meandered across the land. The only sound was the wind. A peregrine falcon soared on an updraft ahead, and clouds drifted above, casting shade over us. Tiny wildflowers grew from cracks in the surrounding rocks, and tall grass waved in the breeze.
There were absolutely no monsters here.
“Feel better?” Bea asked.
“A little,” I said. “It still doesn’t make sense.”
“The monster—you shooting fire—nothing that happened makes any sense. It’s like some kind of fever dream.”
Bea shifted her leg, getting out of the way of some ants marching across the rock. “Did the world really make that much sense before?”
“Yes.” I paused. “I dunno. Maybe. I’m still freaking out. How are you not freaking out?”
“I do this kind of thing all the time. It’s my job.”
“Well, it’s not mine.” I buried my face in my hands. “I’m going to have nightmares for the rest of my life. How do you get over something like that?”
“Try to focus on the positive.”
She looked over and smiled. “You saved my life back there. And you called me in the first place, which means that thing will never kill anyone else. You did good, Dustin.”
I leaned back and gazed out over the valley. It didn’t look the same. Would anything look the same after today? Maybe Bea was right, and I should focus on how the monster was dead and I wasn’t.
“I need a drink,” I said with a groan.
“Great idea.” Bea hopped up and headed back to the trail. “You’re buying.”
This story originally appeared in Issue 6 of Indie Bites Magazine, a great publication that showcases fantasy short fiction from indie authors. Click here to get the issue and read the other four stories for free.