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I might’ve had time to dwell on what Steve had said if I hadn’t almost tripped over Mike lying in the bracken within sight of the path. Nothing like finding the prone body of your friend to reset the brain.
I let out half a squeal and leapt back, the threat of any lingering angst blown away with a flush of adrenaline. I didn’t know I had any left.
He turned back with a finger to his lips, then gestured for me to get down with him. The sight of him moving nearly brought on a fresh wave of panic. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might’ve done an about turn and pegged it after Steve. Exhaustion had brought a weird, numb sort of acceptance which I clung onto as the only way I was going to get through this.
“Fuck me,” I said as I made myself comfortable next to him. “I thought you were dead.”
“Not yet,” he whispered with a thin, humourless grin.
“What’s happening?” I asked when I’d settled in.
He nodded ahead. With his direction, I could see the hump of Jo’s back; she was gently pushing the browning bracken away, stepping lightly and carefully. Small as she was, she was almost completely enveloped by the leaves.
“She’s mad,” I whispered.
“She hasn’t changed a bit.”
I supposed not.
He glanced back over his shoulder after we’d watched Jo ease her way forward for a minute or so. “Where’s Steve?”
I bit my tongue while I considered what to say. ‘He’s left us to die’ sprang to mind. Or how about ‘He’s got more sense than the rest of us idiot shitheels put together’? In the end I opted for a more diplomatic: “He’s gone on ahead.”
“Hope he gets out alright.” And he really meant it.
I didn’t know if I admired Mike for his apparently boundless patience for the world’s many and varied wankers, or felt sorry for him. Not that he was naive – far from it – so much as he embodied the word ‘chill’. There was always some greater purpose or bigger fight to be had. No point in sweating the small stuff, he’d said one time. I hadn’t ever heard anyone say that unironically. Mike never did anything ironically.
I nodded. “So do I. I’d love the chance to tell him what an absolute twat he is.” I am not subscribed to Mike’s philosophy. I will never be the bigger person.
He became thoughtful.
“I heard some of what he said to you,” he said eventually.
I didn’t answer. It was something I could unpack later. One thing at a time, and all that. With one elbow in an ice-cold mush of rotting leaves and the other being skewered, I wanted to focus more on survival. I would’ve resented anyone else from trying to have an earnest conversation in such a position.
“I’m sorry about that. For what it’s worth, I think you are an arsehole, but you’re our arsehole.”
I gave a soundless laugh.
“None of us are perfect.” He thought again. “I think Paul did his bit to make sure everyone got on. You know what he’s like. He never would’ve said what Steve told you.”
I managed half a shrug. “I mean, he was right.”
“There’s right, and there’s right. You’re a good person. You’re just not great at showing it. Not even to yourself most of the time.”
I rolled my eyes. “You’re such a bellend.”
“It’s been good to see you again. I mean that.”
I bit back the sarcasm and let myself have this one. “Good to see you too, mate.”
We heard the groan then. It was quiet. It was amazing that Jo had heard anything at all from back where we’d been walking. We’d been moving as quietly and quickly as possible, but you can’t really do both without compromising on the other. Every other second a bunch of leaves had been kicked or a twig snapped. There had been the constant rustle of our waterproofs, the slopping of water bottles, and the panting of unfit smokers on top of that.
“It’s definitely a person,” Mike muttered, the moment of connection forgotten. “We think it’s male.” He nodded off to one side where I could now make out the lumps of Paul and Ewan squatting at the base of a tree. “Ewan reckons it’s Gerry.”
The thought that Gerry might still be alive hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’d been quick to write the guy off when we saw what happened to Lucy. I remembered the blood I’d washed away and how it just kept coming and coming up from the grass with every bucket I’d thrown over it. It seemed impossible to think that anyone could’ve survived that.
I wanted to say something, to say how impossible that seemed. Instead I watched Jo as she braced herself at the top of a rise. She waved for us to follow.
She didn’t look back as the four of us commandoed our way to her position. Whatever held her attention kept it. Paul glided like a hawk, using his crossfit athleticism to slither through the forest floor like a ninja. Unfortunately the rest of us couldn’t move quietly no matter how many action movies you’ve seen as it turns out. We grunted, huffed, and crunched our way through the brush like a pack of horny wildebeest.
If there was anything out there, it would’ve heard us coming. That was the only reassuring thing about the whole situation: We were still alive.
By the time we joined her, pulling ourselves up, we were coated in sticks and torn moss.
We looked down to see what held her attention.
The rise sloped steeply down. It overlooked over a large, flat, circular patch of lush grass that was clear of leaves. Something about it was surreal and vivid against the browns and greys of the ground around it. A little patch of perpetual summer, set out all alone off the beaten track. Trees arched overhead, meeting somewhere over the circle’s centre point. It would be completely hidden from aerial view.
Around the edge of the circle were flat, rough rocks jutting up like gravestones. It was too deliberate to be natural. Unclear red markings had been daubed onto them.
The air was a mix of damp vegetation – moldy – and something I could only assume was rotting meat. I’d never smelled a body before, but I imagined it smelled like that. I always thought it was weird that people in films described the smell of a body as ‘sweet’.
I’ve smelled rot before. I know what a bin left out on a hot summer day is like. The thought that a corpse could be described the same way as ice cream is perversely nauseating.
No: This smell was vinegary and bitter; it was like greasy shit.
Ewan gagged at my elbow as I pulled my sweater up over my mouth and nose.
I shivered. I’m not a superstitious person, but there was something deeply wrong about this place. If it wasn’t the isolation or the eerie stillness, then the marsh of blood spread across the middle of the green, green grass did the job. There was so much of it. So very much. I was reminded again of the blood next to the campsite.
How much could a person have in them? How much could they have outside of them and still function?
From the distance, I recognised shreds of the clothes that Lucy had been wearing. It was obvious enough that we were looking at the place she’d either died, or been brought after dying. I didn’t want to think about where her remains were.
“What is this place?” Ewan whispered, his voice was strained. He wanted to scream and shout – I wanted to scream and shout – but fear pinched our throats into slits.
“Is it a stonehenge?” asked Paul holding his nose.
“Stone Henge is a place,” said Mike, his voice low and almost reverential. “There’s no ditch or anything. This is a stone circle.”
“This is fucking wrong, thats what it is” I mumbled into my sweater. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“The air’s not right,” said Mike. He was sweating, his back hunched. “Can you feel it?”
“I can smell it.”
If he’d asked me to describe it, I couldn’t. I don’t think any of us could have. We all nodded anyway, struck dumb by something bigger than fear. We all felt it. It was something like tension and shame. Anticipation: the cool heat of a late spring evening; the smell of a too-wet winter; humility; impermanence. The sensation of standing at the foot of the biggest structure you could imagine and being slammed with the scale of it, all while knowing that it’s all for nothing. It doesn’t matter.
And it was nothing like that at all.
My head was swimming even as Jo grasped at my shoulder to keep herself upright.
Maybe the problem wasn’t that the place existed, so much as we were there – the feckless five – looking at it.
We heard the groan again. It was coming from somewhere close, opposite the circle – outside the circle – and obscured from view. It was definitely male, and it was weak.
“We need to go,” said Jo.
If it was anyone else, they would’ve meant leave: Turn around, go back to the path, and run until we spat blood. I would’ve followed.
She didn’t, though. Not her. Good old Jo.
Paul moved first. We crept stooped double, staying in the trees.
Even broken twig was a gunshot. Every gasp of surprise as the ground sank or a boot clipped a rock was a shout. ‘Here we are!’ it bellowed. ‘No need to find us – we’ve delivered ourselves!’. Even the misting of our breath was a smoke signal, begging for us to be hunted down. With every muscle tensed, I felt I would’ve shattered like glass if I’d tripped.
Halfway around, we saw Gerry leaning up against one of the bigger stones. He was in a bad, bad way. One of his legs was missing below the knee. He’d fashioned some sort of tourniquet from a strip of material, but it had been too little, too late. What was left of his trousers were red and wet; he was sheet white, his lips a shade of pale purple. I’d never seen anyone look so utterly destroyed but alive before. As we watched, he rolled his head and slipped down a little further. Another minute or two and he’d be completely horizontal, swallowed by leaves. We would never have found him.
You might hate me for wishing that had been the case.
“We can’t leave him here,” said Ewan.
It might be wishful thinking, but I thought I could hear something pleading in his tone. Like he wanted someone to tell him it was too late – that we’d done the right thing by coming to check, but it was pretty fucking obvious Gerry was on death’s door.
“What if there’s someone, or something around?” I said, hating myself for entertaining the hope. “This might be a trap.”
Jo shook her head. She was exhausted, her hair hanging loose, the constant shadows under her eyes that much more obvious. She was pale – she had always been pale – and anyone who didn’t know her might’ve assumed she was weak, delicate.
I put a hand on her arm. “He’s dying, Jo. We can’t save him.”
“He doesn’t have to die like this. We didn’t come here just to abandon him.”
I shut my mouth. My run as the token voice of reason was done.
I thought then of Steve. It had taken us a good while to make our way to where we now hid. The sociopath was probably halfway up the ridge, moving so very lightly and quickly now he didn’t have to deal with us. I thought of how I could’ve been with him. How we all could’ve been with him, surrounded by deliciously open, craggy terrain instead of this shit-stinking slaughter site.
“Fuck this.” Mike straightened up first. “What do we do?”
Jo took a deep breath, paling to the point of porcelain on the fetid air. “Watch my back,” she said, making to start the short scramble down the slope.
“Wait,” said Paul. She twisted, daring him to stop her. He muttered something under his breath. “I’ll get him,” he said, loud enough for us to hear. “Keep watch. Make a noise if you hear or see anything.”
I wanted to object. I didn’t. There was no one else who could do it, and one way or another Gerry was going to come with us. Paul was by far and away the only one physically capable of carrying a dead weight, or near-dead weight. If the rest of us tried, it would be the sort of idiot martyrdom that would end as soon as it began. Christ, I thought Paul was indulging in a bit of idiot martyrdom, but he at least stood a chance.
Jo was uncertain. She wasn’t happy about it, but ran the calculations.
She nodded, reluctantly.
“We’ll protect you,” she said.
Ewan drew himself up to his full 5’5” height and tried to look brave. I could’ve laughed or cried at that point. I was so fucking afraid. I didn’t trust myself to do either, so I looked at the floor and tried to shake the feeling that this ridiculous mission was going to be the last thing any of us did.
I could only imagine the look on Paul’s face. I suspect it was kind, sympathetic – something loving and gentle. I imagined him putting both hands on Ewan’s shoulders, maybe hugging him, maybe kissing him on the forehead.
“I’ll be back soon,” I heard him say.
I raised my head in time to watch him slide silently down and away from us.
Now there was nothing to do but wait.
He tread lightly, wincing every time his foot made contact with the ankle-deep trough of dead leaves. He lifted his knees high, wading cautiously and stopping every other step to listen. His arms were held out for balance. Once or twice he almost fell forward, cartwheeling them to keep himself upright.
I let go of the breath I didn’t realise I was holding when he finally reached Gerry. I wasn’t alone. Either side of me was a chorus of near-silent sighs – the dead, still air started moving again. I wondered if their lungs burned like mine did, if their minds span with the sudden influx of air.
I guess it was then that I realised how quiet it was. The only thing I’d heard for the last few minutes was the blood pounding in my ears. Paul had been moving so carefully that he was little more than a sigh. There should’ve been bugs moving through the undergrowth. There should’ve been birds. The few leaves overhead should’ve been moving, or at least rustling.
Growing, anticipatory terror dripped its way down my spine. I wanted to shout out – to tell Paul to get the fuck out of there, that he’d done enough by trying – but my larynx was fully paralysed with hot tension as the fear dribbled its way to my shoulders, my arms, my guts and legs. My mind was filled with a field of eyes reflecting back torchlight.
I suddenly felt vulnerable.
Paul shook Gerry, trying to get some sign of consciousness from the poor guy. Gerry’s head rolled around, another moan bubbling up from his slack lips to break the silence. Paul glanced up at our position, then back to his boss.
He twisted himself and grabbed the near-dead man’s arms, throwing them over his shoulders and standing. Gerry rose as he did, slumping forward as Paul bent double and did an experimental squat. Shifting the distribution of weight and firming up his hold, Paul started back towards us moving as slowly and as carefully as he could with the new burden.
Then there was heavy thumping from one side, further up the hill.
Every one of us – except Gerry – turned.
Jo gestured to Paul, sweeping her arm furiously towards us. ‘Come on!’ it screamed with nothing but a whoosh ‘Be quick!’
Paul did the opposite after turning this way and that, openly considering his options. He eventually ducked low, taking a couple of large, ungainly strides back to the stone he’d lifted Gerry from and crouching. It was a decision that saved his life.
Suddenly the thing, that thing that had come to the campsite and taken Lucy – the Horghart, the monster – burst from the trees further up the hill. It swept from side to side, its huge antlers barely skimming past the densely-packed trees with ungainly grace. It loped like a dog, galloping on too-long legs through the undergrowth without a care in the world.
But it wasn’t a dog, of course. It wasn’t a wolf either. It was closer to a stag. In the horrible, patchy sunlight I could see that now. There were elements of something canine about it – the way it moved, in the shape of its face – but it was something else altogether. Something profoundly unnatural.
Across its back arched disordered, quill-like bones and branches jutting down and either side the length of its spine. They bounced, clacking and rustling like a stiff breeze as it bounded towards the stone circle.
A mane of moss and matted fur rippled as it moved, catching the light with dull flashes of green and amber. The rest of its body was covered in black, shaggy fleece that was thick with dripping ivy.
It was beautiful.
My guts were lax.
Clamped between its jaws was a person. Steve. He wasn’t moving, not in any way I’d consider a sign of life at least. His arms and legs swung limply, his head lolled about at strange, loose angles like a ragdoll as the thing moved. When his head fell back and swung forward, we could see that his throat had been torn out. Little surprise we hadn’t heard him die.
I wondered what his last moments had been like.
He’d most likely hoped we would get ourselves killed; to be a nice distraction as we trampled through the undergrowth. He would’ve had his head down, moving quickly and with absolute focus. Maybe it came down the path towards him while he concentrated on where to place his feet. Maybe it had been waiting at the next turn, opportunistic and still. Maybe it had leapt out from between the trees, silencing him immediately with its weight before taking out his throat.
I wondered if he had even heard it coming.
I wondered if he even knew he was dead.
Several metres back from the rise, the creature leapt. It landed in the centre of the stone circle, just metres away from where Paul now squatted.
It wasn’t graceful, but it was powerful. I could feel the damp thump of it landing. The tree I hid behind trembled at the weight of it. It was huge. At least as big as any horse I’d ever seen. Bigger maybe now that it was so close.
When it dropped Steve’s body, it’s teeth were exposed, wet with slobber and foamy blood.
Locked in place, Paul gawked at us helplessly. We peered over his head, unable to pull away from the thing as it started eating.
It had been running on its knuckles: Long, dark claws were tucked back on something resembling hands. It unfurled them now to clamp Steve, and took one of the lifeless arms in its jaw. With a grinding, pulling tear, Steve’s arm popped and snapped out of its socket, before a single violent jerk tore it entirely loose. The creature threw back its head and swallowed the limb whole with a clumsy, bird-like movement.
With ravenous hunger, it set on the rest of Steve, systematically tearing chunks off him and devouring them without chewing. I watched as it threw each chunk of a man I’d spoken to just moments before down its throat.
I’d never heard anything like it. A soggy pop, a meaty crunch. Were bodies really that fragile?
As the noises echoed around the clearing, Paul made his move. It was a reasonable choice. The only choice he could really make. He couldn’t risk staying where he was. Who knew why the monster hadn’t straight up eaten Gerry while it had the chance. Odds were it would come looking for him, or would sniff around and find an unfamiliar trail. He didn’t know – we didn’t know – how it would work or what logic it might follow.
He couldn’t bank on it being stupid enough to not notice that it’s first prey was missing.
I twisted back behind the tree. I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t bear to see that thing move on him, my best friend. To see his throat destroyed. To see his arms popped off and swallowed.
He might’ve made it if Gerry hadn’t given the game away.
As Paul moved like silk through the leaves, the injured man gave another fevered groan. The sounds of butchery abruptly stopped.
I heard the last whisper-soft crunch of Paul putting a foot down in the leaves, the last gulp of flesh down the thing’s maw. Jo inhaled sharply, her eyes bulging out over the hand she clamped across her mouth. My chest tightened to the point I thought my ribs were going to break – they’d have the same soft, meaty crack of Steve’s body being ripped apart.
I knew that sound now. I knew I’d never un-know it.
Then, suddenly, Mike was moving.
He sprang up from cover before any of us knew what was happening. He gave a blood-curdling bellow. I had no idea a human being – least of all Mike – could have a sound like that inside them. It was so full of anger and terror it tore through the air like a chainsaw. The penknife was in his hand and before any of us could stop him, the mad bastard was charging down the embankment. Away from us. Towards the thing.
I snapped around to watch.
Paul was gaping up at us in dumb horror, like he couldn’t decide whether he fancied his chances against the fairytale monstrosity at his back or the beserker stoner now sprinting towards him.
Mike helped him decide. As he burst past Paul, he swung an arm back to shove him in the right direction, then continued on. Paul stumbled and almost fell with Gerry’s awkward weight across his back, his fugue momentarily shattering.
My throat relaxed itself. Against all good sense, I was jumping to my feet and waving my arms.
“Run!” I was screaming. “Jesus Christ, run!”
Paul gave way to blind, desperate panic. First one step, then two, then he was sprinting up the embankment towards me with Gerry still clamped in place, scrabbling with his boots at the footholds of roots and slippery, rotting leaves. The three of us that were left threw ourselves towards him, grasping at whatever part was closest. An upper arm, a jacket, a shoulder – whatever we could to yank him up as quickly as possible.
I looked up in time to see the thing pounce over the stone circle. It landed squarely on Mike. He was still screaming. The rage had gone from him – now it was a howl of pure terror. With one arm free, he brought it up again and again to stab the thing in the neck even as it snarled and hissed with those long, dark claws pinning his shoulders – through his shoulders – to the ground.
Then there was Joanne. My fucking goddess. She let go of Paul and let out a wail filled with so much pain, I thought she might’ve been attacked.
At some point she’d found a branch and was gripping it, holding it over her head like a club. As Ewan and I were hauling Paul up the embankment, she was now surging down it towards Mike, screaming like a banshee.
I tried to grab her, but failed. I had the fingers of one hand knotted up in Paul’s waterproofs and tumbled forward.
My fingers brushed through her hair. In less than a second, she was half falling, half skidding down the incline and far beyond where I could reach, .
I fell over, taking a mouthful of dirt and sliding down the rise in clumsy desperation. One of my boots snagged itself in a bush and I stopped. Paul used me as a ladder, dragging and tugging on me to pull himself up the last slippery metre.
The thing stretched down. It either didn’t care about Mike’s attempts to hurt it, or was too focused to notice.
His shrieks were brought to an immediate stop as it took his face in its maw and effortlessly tore the meat apart.
Jo was there now. She brought the branch down across the back of its head again, again, and again.
I was screaming and reaching towards her, dirt and spit flying from my mouth as I clutched at nothing but leaf matter.
Mike’s last breath gurgled out of the hole where his mouth had been.
My ankles were being gripped. I was being pulled back up the rise. In hysterical desperation I was clawing at the ground, trying to free myself to get to her. I kicked back against my helpers even as I felt their hands work their way up my calves, then my thighs.
The last thing I ever saw of Jo was her stood like a valkyrie. The creature rose up onto its hind legs, its maw and claws dripping bright red. She braced in front of it, beneath it, the branch gripped in both hands like a baseball bat.
She took a swing, then the world was leaves and grasping hands spinning me around so I could only see the canopy.
I was being forced to my feet. Ewan was there shouting at me, pulling my face to look at his. He was pointing, jabbering, gesturing. Paul was already running down the hill back to the campsite with Gerry across his back. Then Ewan had ahold of my hand and we were sprinting downhill.
All I could hear was Jo. And then the absence of Jo as a loud, meaty snap echoed through the trees.
My goddess. My friend.
She and Mike had been made for each other after all.
I was running.
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