The three men stumbled drunkenly and mistakenly into a part of the forest that most men subconsciously avoided, as if their bodies could feel the ancient vibrations of some long-buried menace that still throbbed with an unearthly life far below the ground and knew to steer clear of it.
It wasn’t until they were hopelessly lost and had long since emptied their last bottle – when they began to sober – that they started to realize that they were no longer surrounded by the familiar mixture of Douglas firs, oaks, maples, ferns and various other, more normal, arboreal life forms. The trees here had a sinister blackness to their bark and even though all deciduous trees were now bare this deep into November these had a particular starkness to them that spoke of a millennia of lifelessness. Their twisted trunks bore little likeness to those of the typical trees of the region and there was little underbrush. What underbrush did exist was unnaturally grey and stark, possessed of a dreadful stunted look that evoked images of cowering demons under the whip of a cruel and inhuman master.
The men found themselves climbing a steep hillside to try to get a longer look at their environment when they all three realized that there were no animal sounds in this part of the woods. There should still have been some birds; ones that don’t migrate south from here as winter approaches and ones that migrate here from farther north. But there was none. The silence hung over the hillside like a coffin pall. Even the quality of sunlight differed here from the more familiar part of the forest. It shone down on the men like a sickly-yellow, cloying shroud.
It was on this hillside that the men came upon the thing that likely unhinged Pete’s mind and led him ultimately to his fate, as quickly sealed in that one moment as the loss of an old man’s last breath.
It was a black bear, not quite fully grown but no longer a cub, either. It was most likely an adolescent, first learning to survive on its own and just beginning to stake out its territory, away from the more established adults in the area. There was nothing very unusual about coming across a black bear in these woods – all of the men carried large-caliber side arms in addition to their .223 and .308 caliber hunting rifles for the most extreme possibility of just such an encounter. What was so completely unnerving was that this black bear had been cocooned in spider’s silk.
Pete stumbled backward, a low moan escaping his throat, his eyes wide. His quickened pulse throbbed in his neck. He stumbled backward and fell into a hole.
“Ah, shit!” Andy shouted, reaching out to grab Pete’s outstretched hand, missing by less than an inch. Bill pulled his eyes away from the cocooned black bear with an effort and turned just in time to catch a glimpse of Pete’s hands disappearing into the hole, clutching vainly at the disturbed roots which grew into the hole’s gaping maw.
Bill and Andy both fell to their knees beside the hole and shouted after Pete. They peered into the blackness and tried desperately to catch a glimpse of him or some clue to how deep he’d fallen. They saw nothing.
A voice drifted up the long shaft toward them from what seemed a great depth. “Chun,” it said. Bill and Andy looked at each other.
“That wasn’t Pete,” Andy said.
“Bullshit,” Bill replied, but his eyes gave away what he knew: that voice did not belong to Pete.
The ground suddenly shuddered and lurched beneath them, knocking them off their knees. The two men looked up the hillside and could easily see dry rivulets of earth and small stones coursing down the hillside. Whatever the movement had been, it had moved the entire hill. Several of the stunted, alien-looking trees were trembling lightly, as if they knew a secret Bill and Andy didn’t and were afraid.
“Dig,” Bill said, lunging forward and tearing with his fingers at the earth surrounding the hole where Pete had disappeared. Without a word Andy joined him.
The ground gave another lurch and then began trembling steadily and rapidly, as if the world’s largest bass guitar “E” string was being strummed underground. The men paid no attention, intent only on rescuing their friend from whatever the owner of that voice was.
“Chun,” came the voice again, louder this time, and not just from the hole in front of them. The men paused once, briefly, then redoubled their efforts at freeing Pete from his earthen tomb.
The rivulets of debris grew in size and number as the trees shook more violently. Once more, Bill and Andy were thrown off their knees, this time onto their backs.
“Bill.” Pete’s voice. “Andy. Help me.” It wasn’t scared, that voice. In fact, he sounded almost resigned, as if Pete knew what horrible fate was about to befall him.
Andy leaned forward, putting his face almost into the hole. “Pete!” he called. “You there?”
“Andy?” Pete’s voice again, this time with a glimmer of hope.
“We’re gonna get you out, Pete,” Andy said. “You just hold on to something. Try not to fall anymore.”
“It’s hard, so hard,” Pete called back.
“Bill, c’mon!” Andy shouted, a new sense of urgency in his voice. He didn’t like this whole situation at all, neither of them did, but he had taken a particular dislike to the tone of Pete’s voice when he’d said that last.
Andy started digging at the hole with his hands again as Bill got back up onto his knees and joined him. They were making real progress when they heard Pete scream.
“Oh, Jesus fuck, that hurts!”
Andy’s eyes grew even wider. “Hold on, Pete, we’re coming!”
Suddenly the ground below heaved upward nearly six inches – this time it was extremely local, only below the hole – and a gusher of blood, arterial red, shot up out of the hole as if some living thing had just been squeezed by a giant hand like a fast food ketchup packet. Bill and Andy were knocked violently backward and were instantly covered in what they feared was Pete’s blood.
The hole was growing larger, dirt falling into it as it grew and dirt flying out onto the surrounding ground. There was a horrible clawing sound far below as if some great beast was tearing its way through the earth to get at the men who had disturbed its slumber.
Bill and Andy weren’t waiting around to find out what it was. They both started running back the way they had come, leaving their rifles and packs behind to be swallowed by the still-growing hole.
“Andy,” Bill panted as they ran. “What the fuck are we gonna do?”
“Keep running,” Andy replied. “Don’t look back.” He didn’t sound out of breath in the least, although Bill was starting to sound a little like an out of shape locomotive.
“I can’t…keep…running…like this,” Bill gasped. He started to slow. Andy grabbed his arm and tried to pull Bill along with him, but it was slowing them both down.
“All right,” Andy said, slowing to a brisk walk. “We’ll slow for a while.”
“Okay…good,” Bill wheezed. Andy didn’t like the sound of Bill’s breathing at all. Bill had never been in the best shape, and it was certainly showing now.
“But we have to keep moving,” Andy told him. They walked several yards more before Bill again broke the silence.
“What the fuck was that?” Bill asked. “What happened to Pete?”
That wasn’t a question Andy wanted to deal with right now. “Fuck,” was all he said.
Bill kept looking at Andy, wanting some kind of answer, needing to discuss it. Andy just kept putting one foot in front of the other and tried to feel with each step if the ground was vibrating at all. So far he felt nothing. Either whatever was in that hole had stopped coming up or it was already out. Either way, there was nothing they could do about it but keep moving.
“Andy?” Bill left it at that, hoping that Andy would pick up his end of the conversation so Bill wouldn’t have to push him.
Andy stopped walking and turned to face Bill. “Okay,” he said. “This is what we know. Pete fell in a hole. We tried digging him out. He screamed and we ended up covered in his blood.” Bill cringed a little at that.
“I know it’s not what you want to hear, Bill,” Andy told him. “And I don’t want to say it or believe it, myself. But I’m gonna call it like I see it.”
Andy started walking again. Bill kept pace with him.
“What about the bear?” Bill asked. “That wasn’t the same thing that got Pete was it?”
“I don’t know,” Andy said. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“But that bear was cocooned, like a spider does. And Pete was….” He trailed off and shuddered.
“I don’t know, Bill,” Andy replied.
They stopped again and Andy knelt down, putting his hand flat on the ground.
“Andy, what…” Andy shushed him with his free hand. He stayed that way for nearly a full minute, then rose.
“Good,” Andy said. “Nothing that I can tell.” He started looking around them. “I don’t suppose you remember which way we came into this part of the woods, do you?” he asked Bill.
A fresh coat of panic fell on Bill as he realized what Andy was asking. “Are you telling me we’re fucking lost?” he said. “We’re lost out here with whatever got that bear and whatever got Pete in that fucking hole in the ground?”
“Never mind,” Andy said. “Just keep moving.”
“Whaddaya mean, ‘never mind’?” Bill shouted. “Are you kidding me? ‘Keep moving’? That’s all you’ve got to say?”
Andy stopped and turned to Bill. “Unless you want to stay here and wait for whatever’s back there to figure out which way we went.”
Bill went completely pale. “But…but….”
“Look,” Andy told him, “I’m just as scared as you are – look at my eyes and tell me you can’t see that – but we need to keep moving. I don’t want to just stand here worrying about what might happen.”
Bill didn’t say another word, but followed when Andy started walking again.
Several hours had passed and the late-November sun was low on the horizon. The clouds had parted enough for a glimmer of gold to tinge their lower edges, hope for a new day yet to come. Even the sickly yellow pall had eased a bit, but perhaps that was just dusk dimming the day’s color.
“We’ll have to stay here,” Andy said. Anticipating Bill’s response, Andy continued, “We can’t go stumbling around in the dark, making all kinds of noise that something might hear.” That seemed to get through Bill’s fear.
They sat down right where they stopped walking. In this forsaken woods there was no point in moving to one side or another since there were no paths and no clear direction except the setting sun in the west. Unfortunately for them, since they had no idea which direction they traveled heading into this part, knowing which way west was did them no good at all in determining which way to go to get out.
They lay down with no fire, no blankets and little hope for tomorrow. Nerves prevented them from sleeping at first, but eventually exhaustion won out.
The two men were awakened in the middle of the night by a sudden crashing, rending sound, like a tree coming down suddenly in a violent wind storm, but there was no wind at all, not even a breeze.
“What was that,” Andy asked, in a low voice.
“How the fuck should I know?” Bill asked back, keeping his voice low, too.
“It wasn’t very close, I don’t think,” Andy said.
“I think you’re right, Andy,” Bill said. “But I still don’t like it.”
“What’s to like,” Andy asked. “Fuck it. Go back to sleep.” He lay back down and Bill did the same. But neither one of them got another minute’s sleep that night.
In the morning, they rose and started walking again. They left little in the way of footprints or other tracks in the grayish moss that covered the ground everywhere. That was good for them in that it made them more difficult to track by any means they were familiar with as hunters. However, it also meant that with the low clouds and no way to tell where the sun was rising from, they didn’t know if they were moving in the same direction as the day before or if they were, in fact, going back the way they had come.
Either way, they had little choice but to keep moving and hope for the best.
“Man, I’m hungry,” Andy said.
“Me, too. I wish we hadn’t lost our packs.”
“And just how much food did you have in there, anyway?” Andy asked him.
“So what,” Bill replied, getting the point. “I wish we still had ’em, anyway.”
“Oh, fuck me,” Andy said, despair creeping into his voice. “What the fuck is this shit?”
“What…?” Then Bill saw for himself what Andy had already seen.
The crashing sound from the night before was now explained. A tree had been broken off about seven feet above the ground.
“Look at the way the top is laying,” Bill said.
“I know, Bill.”
“It didn’t fall, Andy,” Bill told him. “Look how it’s laying. It was broken off by something.”
“Shut up, Bill.”
“Andy, that tree’s about a foot and a half through the middle, and something hit it and broke it the fuck off!”
“I know, Bill, I can see that!” Andy shouted back. But his attention was caught by something he had just glimpsed curving around from the far side of the trunk. He moved to the other side of the tree and gasped in dismay.
“Oh, Jesus, what now?” Bill wondered. He stepped around the trunk to see what Andy was looking at. “Oh, fuck me,” he said when he finally saw it.
Splattered on the tree trunk about two-thirds of the way up in dull red, dried blood was a single word:
“That’s what that voice said, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “I think that was it.”
“Two questions now.”
“Number one: is this back the way we came or did it get ahead of us?”
“Christ,” Bill breathed. “And the second?”
“Is it a warning or a threat?”
“Christ, doubled.” Bill paused. “Now I’ve got a question for you, Andy.”
“Shoot back,” Andy said.
“Is it just fucking with us, or is it hunting us?”
Andy didn’t have time to form any kind of response. There was a sudden horrible crashing sound in the distance. Both men turned toward the source of the sound.
“That was another tree, wasn’t it?” Bill asked.
“Yep,” Andy replied, his eyes just as wide as Bill’s. “I think you’re right.”
Another tree fell, then two more in rapid succession.
“The fucker’s coming this way, isn’t it,” Andy asked Bill.
“Run,” Bill told him, and promptly took his own advice.
They turned and ran in the opposite direction from which the sounds of toppling trees were coming.
Bill and Andy stayed together for a good quarter of a mile before the sound of trees falling got too close, then Andy started to veer to the right, Bill to the left. Bill realized that they were getting separated and yelled at Andy, “Stay together!” But it was no use. Andy continued in the same direction and Bill didn’t want to cross the path of those falling trees. He turned his back on the sound of falling trees and kept running.
Another few hundred yards and the sounds of toppling trees had passed Bill. He paused to see if they would turn toward him, but instead they seemed to be moving away faster than before.
Then the sound abruptly stopped. Carried to him across the woods came the same inhuman voice they’d heard the day before, “Chun.” Then came the single, dull boom of a large handgun. Contrary to the whole idea of self-preservation, Bill started trotting towards the sound of that one gunshot.
Within a couple hundred yards, Bill came to the left side (as he had been running) of the damage path. And “damage path” was the correct terminology here. It looked as if a tornado had blown through, knocking trees down in its path. But instead of the insanely pattern-less destruction of a tornado, what Bill witnessed was a trail cleared by some enormous creature, knocking trees down out of its way as it went. Several were just toppled over, dirt-clotted roots jutting out of the ground. Others were broken off like the one they had heard come down during the night – the one with that horrible word written on it in some unfortunate creature’s blood. It was as if whatever had made this trail was filled with rage and had taken some of it out on the helpless trees.
Bill crossed the damage path with the same trepidation as a rabbit might feel when crossing a clearing where it knew a hawk to hunt. When he got to the other side he trotted a little slower, trying to keep his breath, wishing that he wasn’t in such poor shape.
He tried to keep to a relatively straight line, considering the difficulty of doing so in these particular woods. However, he still found himself near the damage path again and tried correcting his own path until he realized that the back trail was turning to the right (towards the direction Andy had been running). Bill continued with extreme caution.
Bill came to the end of the damage path and hid behind more of those grotesque trees as he approached, trying to stay out of sight in case the creature was still there. Chun, his mind insisted. It is called Chun.
There was no sign of anything big enough to knock those trees down, but Bill could see something at the end of the damage path. Something he couldn’t quite make out at this distance. He waited a while, his heart pounding in his chest, trying to will his courage to increase and his heart to slow. When he felt both were as good as they were going to get, he made a determined dash towards the end of the path and whatever was there.
As Bill approached, he realized it was Andy sitting there, slightly slumped over and leaning back against the trunk of the last tree that had been broken off.
“Oh, Jesus, Andy,” he said. “No, please, no.”
Bill slowed to a walk as he crossed the final few feet to his friend, thoughts of whatever had caused this carnage suddenly driven from his mind.
He stopped in front of Andy and dropped sharply to his knees, like a lifeless rag doll. In Andy’s limp right hand was his heavy-caliber revolver. Most of the left side of Andy’s head was missing. Bits of bone and brain clumped together in the blood spray to the left of Andy’s body. The sight that made the horror complete, though, was the hair that was still there on the right side of Andy’s head. What hadn’t been discolored by blood had gone pure white.
Andy had faced a terror so complete that he had chosen to end his own life in the face of it.
“Oh, Andy.” Bill reached out to touch what was left of his friend’s face. Just as his fingers brushed the blood-stained chin, a low, grumbling voice rose behind him.
Bill paused a moment, his fingertips brushing lightly against his dead friend’s chin, his eyes closed. Then he opened his eyes again, stood upright and slowly, resolutely, turned to face whatever was there.
© 2008 Jack Farnsworth III