In a town kept alive by retirees and tourists looking for a cheap scare, we knew a place hidden from their money was bad news. Plebes are paraded around in horse drawn carriages through the dead of night. If there’s a storm, all the better. In the dim glow of our gas street-lamps, we tell them stories, grinning each time a passenger shakes with fright. As long as they stay on the safe, paved streets of downtown, they’ve nothing to fear. If they knew what was really out there, beyond those city limits, they would jump in their fancy cars and never look back.
It’s when you drive past the city limits things become less… rehearsed. What use to be cotton fields far as the eye could see were now dried-up wastelands, unusable to the living. Over the years, our ancestors built further and further away, desperate for distance, but unable to leave entirely. A forest grew around the 300 acre area known as the Deadlands, but not even an insect crossed Mother Nature’s well drawn line.
The Deadlands were born in the Civil War aftermath. Losing did nothing to sway the opinions of ignorant Southerners who believed slaves were their God-given rights. In a world where tractors were not yet invented, farming seemed daunting. Cotton, ironically prickly, is painful to harvest. Days turned to weeks, and the sight of freed slaves settling into new lives taunted the rednecks relentlessly. In their world, White Supremacy and religion were one in the same, it was fact, unquestioned.
Five families, owned the majority of our state’s cotton supply. On their wealth, the town of Cotton Hills was founded, and on their heinous actions was it doomed. Where their property lines merged, each man donated 60 forested acres to the relocation of freed slaves. Thus the 300 acre plot of death was created.
The town formed a posse to deliver every black man, woman, and child. Guard towers were built, each connected by fences of barbed wire, and any who attempted escape were killed on sight. Eventually, some tried to carve out a life for their families. Primitive shelters were erected, men hunted, women homesteaded. They did okay at first, but as more people were thrown into what whispers already called the Deadlands, resources exhausted quickly. Friends who once worked side by side killed each other to feed their children.
After 20 years, the few who remained were so malnourished, so barbaric, they no longer appeared human. Few original guards remained, most replaced with younger, stronger sons. Sons with ambitions, and the desire to make their own names. One fateful night, while the old guards slept, those sons entered the Deadlands, intent to win their freedom with blood and fire. They set out to burn every acre, and kill any who crossed their path along the way. Fifteen men entered, but only one returned, smoke and flame billowing in his wake. He was spotted from a guard tower as he crawled from the tree-line, one leg missing below the knee. The remaining guards gathered, waiting to see how far the young man would make it.
When he was finally within ear-shot, David Grayson called to the man, who he now saw was the eldest son of the late Jake Abernathy. “What happened boy, tell us quickly.”
Abernathy moaned in pain but continued crawling until he was only a few feet away. A few men aimed their guns, ready to fire should he attempt to cross the boundary. With a knowing look of defeat, Abernathy dropped his elbows, and with his loudest cry yet, rolled to lie flat on his back. Coughing blood with each strained word, he managed to say, “We just… wanted out. To… to live normal lives… why… stay? We killed them… all. But the huts… there was crying… like a baby.” The old guards sat still and quiet through a longer coughing fit, too frightened to turn away, but all sharing the same thought. No way they could be having babies in there.
They all jumped when Abernathy resumed talking. “We killed… all of them… every… one… dead. So many… barely human… all dead. We were… leaving. All of us… they came from above… but we killed all… nothing left… what… what killed us?”
For several minutes, the only sound to be heard over the crackling flames were Abernathy’s wet, dying breaths, until finally, he fell silent. The old guards’ trance was soon broken by something large rustling through the flaming treetops, coming their way. They ran, hid until morning, and left the Deadlands forever. Whether a cowardly excuse to leave or the good of humanity, the men returned to their families, warning all to stay away. None doubted their words.
Now, we future generations are warned as children, raised with proper fear and respect. Maybe we hate our ancestors for their crimes against humanity more than we fear a legend, but the result is the same. It’s not a place kids dare each other to go, no clubs enter for initiation, no ghost hunters investigate, no Christians pray for it. No one has tried to enter for over 100 years now, but occasionally, something tries to escape. The evil merely resides within, sleeping, hungry, always waiting. Unfortunately for Todd and Linda, they knew none of this.
“I think this vacation is exactly what you need while you’re getting better. I checked this place out, and we couldn’t have found a quieter town. It has one of the lowest populations in the country and only old people and ghost hunters go there.” Linda sat in the passenger seat, reading from her phone as she and Todd entered the last stretch of a long drive.
“Yea, sounds great.” Todd knew Linda was trying to be supportive, but he hated how she said getting better. He couldn’t stand being coddled, why couldn’t she just say addiction? Was that so hard? It wasn’t his fault he got hurt at work, he didn’t know what the pain pills were doing to him until it was too late. He went to rehab, horrible as that was, and he was still consumed by the siren’s call every waking moment of his miserable existence. That’s not the point. He learned to live with that, he can resist the urges now, but what he can’t live with, is Linda’s desire to talk about it incessantly.
“I don’t think we’ll do the ghost tours, there’s no reason to put you through unnecessary stress, but they have tons of hiking trails. It says one leads to abandoned train tracks with a real antique caboose! Now, doesn’t that sound quaint! Oh Honey, do you think we could do that one first?” Linda turned her phone to Todd, showing him the pictures.
With a short glance Todd turned back to the road, trying to force a smile lest Linda notice his annoyance. What 30 year old says ‘quaint’ anyway? “I’ll look when we get to the hotel, sounds great though.” Using all his willpower, he forced a smirk on his face, and Linda sat back, placated.
Shortly after 6pm they reached their Holiday Inn, exhausted from a 12 hour drive. “How about we order some pizza and watch a movie tonight? I want you well rested for another early start!” Linda cooed, already googling the local pizza options.
Todd knew with sickening certainty the moment where he snapped on Linda would come, but he was beginning to worry he would enjoy it. “I think I’ll be just fine tomorrow regardless,” he replied through gritted teeth, forcing himself to add cheerfully, “but you read my mind, movie and pizza sound great.”
Linda’s hurt look faded as quickly as it appeared, leaving Todd to wonder if he’d really seen it in the first place. Most of Todd’s patience was born from guilt. He put Linda through hell with his mood swings and temper tantrums. He never hit her, and he thanked the god he pretended to believe in for that mercy, but he had wanted to. At his worst, he wanted to grab her head, force her mouth shut, and keep it that way, but he didn’t. That’s what mattered. He still got the shakes when he thought of that all-consuming rage. In the end, it was the reason he agreed to rehab.
Logically, Todd knew he and Linda had a happy marriage. They never fought before the accident. The addiction was to blame, they were its victims, both trying to cope however they could, grasping at straws to find the way back to their old lives. Linda was only trying to help. Keeping that thought firmly at the forefront of his mind, he sat next to her, wrapping his arm around her waist.
“Let’s see what we got.” Todd leaned over the screen Linda was currently studying. “Oh, you want to get P’zones? We’ll find an old movie and pretend we’re back in college.”
When Linda met his gaze, her eyes gleamed. “That sounds like the best idea ever! A zillion times, yes! Please!”
Todd felt his first genuine smile in longer than he could remember. Linda’s silly use of her old catch phrase, once used to accept his marriage proposal, and now specially reserved only for him, made him feel, a zillion times, yes, like things might be okay one day. After a magical evening that truly had felt like old times, they lay in each other’s arms and slept soundly through the night.
The alarm rang at 7:00, and they pried themselves apart to prepare for the day ahead. Both walking on eggshells to preserve the previous night’s magic, they spoke in soothing tones through breakfast. As they exited the elevator in full hiking gear at 8:30, they bumped into an older gentleman who resembled Yosemite Sam. His name tag identified him as Richard Davenport, Manager. “Ah, G’morning folks.” He greeted them, also sounding like Sam, with a tip of his cowboy hat. “I say, lovely weather for a hike! Which trail have you chosen? Might I suggest Buffalo Bill’s Bluff? You begin just east of the river, but it takes you to a clearing on the bluff that makes a beautiful place to picnic.” Mr. Davenport waved a chubby hand over his head, as if painting the scene.
“That sounds lovely!” Linda replied, turning to Todd, “Let’s do that one tomorrow, Hun! Can we?” Without waiting for his answer she faced Mr. Davenport once more. “But today, we’re going on this one. With the train caboose.” Linda showed him her phone, the trail’s website loaded to her favorite pictures. She watched the manager’s face turn from bright pink to deathly pale.
“You okay, sir?” Todd asked, concerned how quickly the man drained of color. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. We didn’t end up in one of them haunted hotels did we?”
“Ha. No, my goodness, no. I chose a Holiday Inn to separate myself from that part of the town.” Mr. Davenport stammered, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to mop the sweat from his brow. “No, you’ll find no ghosts here, folks. But that trail is a different story, people get lost, it’s not safe. Please, choose anywhere else. They’re a dime a dozen here, all safe, public property maintained by the city. All except that one.” He pointed to Linda’s phone, pictures still displayed. “It’s privately owned by a family that moved here last year. They set that train to attract tourists, but they don’t know what they’re doing!”
“Really? But it doesn’t say anything about being haunted on the…” Linda began pressing buttons on her phone, ready to enter a full blown debate, but Todd cut her off.
“It’s okay Hun, we can check into it some other time. We better get going or we won’t have time for breakfast.” Having already eaten, he hoped Linda took the hint to play along. She did.
Once safely in the parking lot where they couldn’t be overheard, Todd explained. “That’s how these small towns operate, by sticking together. They probably hate the idea of outsiders horning in on their local legends. Look around, these people don’t have much else. I haven’t even seen a Walmart since we crossed the state line.”
Linda noticeably relaxed. “You really think so? I didn’t want to admit it, but he kinda creeped me out.”
“I promise. Think of it this way. In a town known for hauntings, don’t you think these people would plaster their website with ghost stories if it was part of their gimmick? But they didn’t, did they? In fact, that old man didn’t say anything about haunted until I made it clear we weren’t here for that.” Todd, seeing Linda’s perk completely restored, was pleased with himself.
“Hey! You’re right! They don’t, and he didn’t!” For only a second did Linda allow herself to think but what if it’s not be a gimmick. Then imagining the photos she would post on Facebook after the hike banished the thoughts completely. “Wow, we’re never telling anyone I almost fell for a redneck ghost story.” The young couple shared a laugh as they passed a sign informing they were now leaving the city limits.
As they drove, the GPS instructed Todd to turn left off the highway. The road they followed turned from a black top, to gravel, to dirt in the span of 20 miles. “Wow, we must really be out in the sticks now.” Todd noted, driving slower to appreciate the scenery around them. “We don’t have anything like this in the city, I don’t think I’ve seen so many trees in my life, not in one stretch.”
“I know, it’s so beautiful! I think I could live here.” Linda said, rolling her window down to breathe the fresh air. “You smell that, Hun? That’s clean air!”
The road ended in a large clearing with a parking sign in the center. Beyond that loomed a small, wooden shack with “Welcome” painted above a glass window. To the right, a brightly painted post marked the trail entrance, and a matching post to the left marked where they would exit. After gathering their equipment, the couple headed to the shack first.
“Huh, it looks empty.” Todd announced, face pressed to the glass as he peered inside.
“I’m sure it is, there’s no other cars here and look, they have a donation box. Do we have any cash?” Linda asked, knowing they didn’t but feeling guilty.
“Uhh, not in the last 5 years.” Todd laughed, shaking his head. “Oh well, I’m glad we have the place to ourselves. Does the website say how long the trail is?”
“It’s supposed to be four hours. No tricky terrain, just watch for snakes. Hey, we might have time for the bluff today after all.” Linda answered excitedly, skipping toward the entrance.
“Wait for me!” Todd called, running to catch up.
In the first hour, they walked without a break. Linda took pictures by the dozen, but having no signal for Facebook, resigned to save that pleasure for later. Todd walked slowly, enjoying the scenery and not thinking about pills for a change. As he felt his throat going dry, he noticed a fallen tree that looked perfect for a quick rest.
“Hey Lin, you wanna stop for a water break? This looks like a good place to sit for a few minutes.” Todd was already digging through his pack.
“Sure, I could go for a power bar.” Linda settled next to Todd, laying her head on his shoulder as he drank deeply. “I just love it here, we should go to places like this more often. Just listen to all those birds, it’s like nature’s music.”
“Definitely! I guess being raised in a city, I never gave this kinda stuff much thought, but yea. I dig this, we should make hiking our new thing. I wouldn’t want…” Todd’s words were cut off as they heard a shrill cry to their right.
“What the hell was that?! Was that a person?!” Linda’s nails dug into his arm, her eyes frantically searching for the scream’s source.
“No. No, it wasn’t a person.” Todd cleared his throat and tried to sound less terrified. “I think it was a deer. The doe are suppose to sound like humans or something. Danny told me that after one of his hunting trips. Whatever it was, I think it’s finished now. Come on, let’s go see that train.”
They hiked another hour before coming to the caboose, strange cry nearly forgotten. “I should have known they’d put it in the middle, those crafty devils, that’s one way to make sure people do the whole trail!” Linda took pictures from every angle. The selfies took 15 minutes followed by another 20 posing Todd every way she could think of. “Ok, that should do! I cannot wait to go through these tonight!”
“You sure you got enough, Hun? You only took a few hundred.” Todd teased, slightly flinching at Linda’s playful punches. The woman wore rings, if she caught you just right, those puppies could sting.
“You’re just a mean old bully.” Linda joked in a mocking child’s voice, but their flirting came to an abrupt end with the sound of a large animal barreling through the trees.
Both stood frozen, holding each other tightly as the sound drew closer, louder. The trees, thick around them, blocked their view. Mentally tracking its location by sound alone, they flinched when the animal should have burst through the clearing, but nothing came. The noise stopped as suddenly as it began. Only silence followed.
“I’m starting to think Mr. Davenport wasn’t so crazy after all.” Linda whined, voice thick with fear.
“No, that’s silly, there’s no such thing. He got in our heads is all.” Despite the hammering of his own heart, Todd tried to be brave. At least one of them needed to keep a cool head. “Everything is fine, I promise. Look, we’re at the halfway point. We’ll walk to the exit without any more breaks, and this will all make a great story for Facebook, whaddya say?”
“I say yes, a zillion times, hell yes!” Quickly, they once again donned their packs, and continued on their way.
Only minutes after resuming the trail, trees grew denser than ever. The path appeared to shrink, becoming darker, twisting and turning to restrict their lines of sight. The couple clasped hands, neither willing to admit the feeling of being watched, but they felt it intensely. They progressed from a steady pace to almost jogging without noticing until Linda fell to the ground, screaming.
Todd, unsure if her high-pitched wails resulted from agony or terror, kneeled next to her. “What was it? Are you okay? Talk to me, please! What happened?!”
Linda sat up, pulled her legs to her chest, and scanned the ground around her. “Where’d it go? What was it? Did you see? Did you see? Someone grabbed my ankle. Where’d it go!?”
Her words struck new fear into his heart. Someone… grabbed? “Hold on, grabbed you? Like a hand? You’re sure you didn’t just trip, I mean we were moving pretty fast?”
“Yes! A hand grabbed me!” She quickly shot her hand out and grasped Todd’s ankle in a vice-like grip. “See! Do you think you could mistake this feeling?”
“I believe you, I was just… hoping… that’s all. Do you need a second? We shouldn’t have let ourselves get so worked up, we need to be more careful.” Todd stood, offering his arm to Linda.
Taking hold, she pulled herself up, but collapsed once more upon standing. “I think it’s broken, I… I can’t walk on it. Why is this happening to us.” Linda sobbed, dropping her face into her hands.
“It’s going to be fine, here, let’s take a look.” Linda winced as he removed her shoe, but it had to be done. “It’s dark under these trees, can you shine your light? The shadows are playing tricks with my eyes.” He stared, unable to accept what he was seeing, but when the flashlight illuminated the purple bruise on his wife’s ankle, he gasped in shock.”
Terrified, Linda sat forward and instantly regretted it. Wrapped around her now swollen ankle was a perfect handprint. Well… perfect if your fingers were skinny as knife blades and your thumb was twice as long. She inhaled deeply, preparing for another scream, but Todd clamped one hand over her mouth, and the other over the light. “Eeem! Mmm! Grmm!” She hummed, staring daggers into her husband.
“Shhh! Please! I know, but if something is out here, maybe we shouldn’t draw more attention with loud noises.” He whispered close to her ear, relieved to remove his hand when he felt her struggles cease.
Carefully, Linda turned the light off, and returned the otherwise useless phone to her pocket. “What are we gonna do?” Her voice was barely audible.
“We’re going to get back to our car, drive to our hotel, lock ourselves in, and order take out. Because I am starving. You’re going to lean on me, and we’ll hop out of here if we have to, but we are getting out.”
Linda collected herself, dried her tears, and prepared to stand. After a dozen attempts, they conceded it was a poor plan. “I’m sorry, I just can’t! What are we going to do?”
Still catching his breath, Todd was lost deeply in thought. He knew he couldn’t carry Linda the rest of the way, he would never lift more than 100 pounds again thanks to his accident and that idiot forklift operator. That only left one other option. Not brave enough to suggest it, he stalled. “I left my phone in the car, let me see yours.”
Linda glared again, hurt and impatient. “Don’t you think I’ve tried that?! There’s no service out here!”
“We have to try something, we can’t just sit here and hope someone comes along to help. I’ll climb a tree, maybe I can text 911 or something.” She didn’t budge. Todd took a deep breath, “Look… it’s either that or I have to leave you here while I go for help. Neither of us want that, can I please see your phone?” Todd held his hand out, waiting.
Tears filled Linda’s eyes anew as she handed him the phone. “Please not that, I can’t be here alone, anything but that.”
Todd shook his head in agreement, and began searching for a signal. Linda dragged herself to the center of the path, propping her pack up as a back rest, staying alert for any movement in the dark forest. When Todd returned, it wasn’t with good news. “Ok, there’s no signal right here, but I know if I can get out from under all these trees I can at least get a text out. I saw a tall one I could climb easily just before we got to the train…”
Linda stopped him there. “No way, that’s back where that noise was! It’s too dangerous! And too far away, what if something happens?”
“Hun, we don’t have a choice, it’s this or walk ahead with no idea how far I’ll have to go. At least this way we know where I’m going.” He tried to sound confident, hoping to ease her worry.
Linda didn’t like it, but knew it was their only option. “Promise you’ll be careful and come back fast.”
“I promise. I love you.” Todd kissed her forehead, loaded his gear, and walked away. As he reached the curve that would hide Linda from his sight forever, he stopped for one final wave and kiss goodbye.
Todd jogged at a steady pace and returned to the train clearing in good time. Stopping at the tree-line to catch his breath, he felt his stomach lurch. Something seemed different, but what. Making his way across the clearing slowly, cautiously, he scanned the area for any sign of movement. It wasn’t until he passed the caboose, the spot with the little step ladder Linda made him pose on, that he understood what was wrong. His heart leapt into his throat, almost choking him as he remembered how the sun had glinted off the caboose, into his eyes. There was no sun.
It was gloomy under the thick tree tops where forest closed over the path, but this was wide, open skies. It was dark, nighttime without stars. If they were storm clouds, they were the blackest he’s ever seen. His mind raced, a storm like that would be on the news everywhere, and Linda checked the forecast at least 50x the night before. It should be a clear, sunny day. But, it can’t be dark already…
“No, it can’t be, we’ve only been here a few hours, this should be the brightest part of the day.” Todd muttered to himself, digging through his pockets. He dropped the phone between the tracks twice without managing to see the time, but even as he stared, mouth agape, at the brightly lit phone, he couldn’t believe it. The screen was technicolor and shattered.
Todd’s stomach lurched again and he thought about pills for the first time that day. So overwhelming was the craving, he momentarily forgot Linda. It wasn’t until the phone rang, that he realized the full extent of this new dilemma. He repeatedly swiped his finger across the bottom, hoping the phone’s other functions remained intact, but screamed in anguish when the ringing stopped. He sat on the ground, rocking, muttering. “What have I done, how long have I been gone? I’d do anything for a few pills. What will I say? How do I explain.”
A loud, piercing scream from Linda’s direction penetrated his skull. Phone forgotten, Todd leapt to his feet. “Linda?! Linda!” He screamed her name, not knowing if she could hear him, just wanting to stop his thoughts.
It was another deer, it wasn’t her. Is what he was trying to think.
It was her, and you know it. For that matter, you knew the first wasn’t a deer either, but you can’t ignore it this time. Don’t panic, after all, she’s going to scream every time a cricket chirps. Especially now that it’s dark… oh no. It’s dark! If I had pills, I’d crush some up right now and snort one big line. How long have I been gone? What must she think?! How can I explain this… or her phone? Is what he knew.
Moving fast as he dared in the dark and soaked in cold sweat, Todd focused every ounce of his willpower on returning to his wife. The longer he walked, the more anxious he became, and his junky monkey clawed his back furiously. He called to Linda, expecting to see her around each new curve. Unable to judge the passage of time, only when he reached a clearing with blackened remnants of tall wooden structures did he stop to assess his location. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he visualized his every step when leaving the train area.
“Was there more than one path? I didn’t walk toward the entrance, but I didn’t see Linda either. I’ve never seen this clearing, or I would have remembered these… what are these? Burned down deer stands? I want some pills so bad. Well if people hunted here, maybe a cabin with a phone is nearby. Maybe Linda fell asleep… I coulda passed right by her if she did.”
It felt strange hearing his voice break the silence, as if he were in a library, offending the other patrons. “Stop being stupid, there’s no one out here. You’re alone in Hicksville USA. You need to man up right now, find a phone, and get your woman to safety. Linda is out there, in a strange place, alone in the dark, depending on you. This is not the time to bitch out, son. Forget the damn pills!” Todd’s inner voice, became that of his father’s. A few slaps to the face helped him regain the illusion of control.
With his second wind coursing through him, Todd steeled himself, marching forward as if he could see farther than five feet ahead. He passed the ruined guard towers he mistook for deer stands and hair stood on the back of his neck. Continuing beyond the line of burned and rotted tree stumps from which an Abernathy once emerged, legless and dying, he began to shiver from a sudden temperature drop. Afraid to acknowledge the feeling of being watched had returned, stronger than ever, he desperately called for Linda until his legs shook and throat ached.
“Oh man, what am I doing? I’d sell my soul for a few pills. There’s nothing out here, everything’s dead, there’s not even grass.” He whimpered, teeth chattering as much with fear as cold. Todd tried desperately not to think of ghosts. If there’s one thing all ghost stories universally agree upon, it’s that cold inevitably precedes every encounter. “Nope, screw this. I’m going back the way I came, no way I’m finding a phone out here. There had to be another path, that hotel guy said people got lost here. I was so scared I ran off without the phone. I ran down the wrong path, hell, the paths are probably marked, this is for beginners! Yea, that’s it! I just have to get to the train, and then I’ll find Linda in no time.”
So relieved was he at the prospect of turning back, all fear of Linda’s anger evaporated. He would spend the rest of his life making it up to her. The moment he turned around, a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, momentarily allowing Todd to see his surroundings clearly. His knees almost gave out, but somehow, he managed to stay up right. Due to their long feet and snout like mouths, his mind wanted to believe a pack of rabid coyotes were blocking his retreat, but couldn’t reconcile, how are they hairless…standing on two legs… and, were those… wings? Or really long arms bent the wrong way at the elbow? They were thin as these dead trees, what the hell are they? At the moment it didn’t matter. Neither did the rain that now soaked him to the bone. What mattered, was running.
He could only go forward. Running as he hadn’t since high school track, he couldn’t get their image out of his mind. Those eyes, they were red. If I looked back now, I would still see their eyes, glowing in the dark. I wish I could die high. Oh Lin, I’m so sorry. Another bolt of lightning lit the sky, and Todd saw a small hut only 15 feet ahead. Ignoring the stitch in his side, he ran with renewed vigor. Please be unlocked, please be unlocked, I don’t want to die. Lunging the last few feet, he collided with the door, and scrambled for the knob. Tears of joy spilled over when it turned easily under his grip.
He threw himself inside, risking a short glance into the darkness before slamming the door shut. “Holy…” he pressed his back to the door, slid to the ground, and dug his feet in for leverage as several creatures collided with the door. He almost lost his hold when the lights came on and the old man spoke.
“Here, move aside.” A deep, rattled voice of a lifetime smoker instructed, placing a thick, wooden beam across the door. “Don’t worry, that‘ll hold ‘em. Come sit and have some coffee, keep a lonely old man company won’tcha?”
Todd stared, stammering but unable to speak. The tall, old man shook his bald head as if disappointed, but not surprised. He poured two cups of coffee, and placed them at the table, waiting patiently. When no more creatures tried to break in, Todd found his voice. “What are they? My wife is out there, on the trail. I have to get to her.” He rose on trembling legs, body aching for the warm coffee despite everything else.
“On the trail you say? Ahh, she’ll be fine for now. It’s you who wandered away. Took a wrong turn at that train is my guess.” The old man let a hint of disappointment out when he said Linda would be okay, but Todd was too rattled to notice.
“How do you know that, who are you? Is this your trail, Mister?” Anger raced through him at the prospect.
“Oh my heavens, no! I’ve been here longer than you’ve been alive. No, I have nothing to do with it, but it’s brought me some visitors since it opened, so I can’t complain.” The old man mused, clearly enjoying himself.
“Then who are you? What the hell are those things out there?” Todd tried to keep his voice even, but couldn’t.
“I’m nobody anymore, I just stay in my cabin. Sleeping mostly, waiting. It’s them you gotta worry about.” The old man pointed his cane toward the door, indicating the creatures outside. “They’re hungry, it seems you’ve riled them up. They are Vetti. They’re normally solitary creatures, extremely rare, but special circumstances culminated to create this hoard.”
“You’re crazy!” Todd interjected.
Making no effort to hide his amusement, the old man smiled wide, exposing his yellow, rotted teeth. “My dear boy! If I’m crazy, you’re absolutely mad! Those Vetti were humans once you know. Are you familiar with Harpies at all? No? Shame. You see, when humans suffer terrible anguish, when they’re tortured for years, and there’s no end in sight, most develop a seething hatred. An overwhelming desire for revenge, for inflicting their pain upon others. In the most extreme cases, after they die, their souls reek of that hatred and pain, it’s like catnip to the Harpies… and when they come for it… well, you get the point.
“No, I don’t, what happened here? You’re not making sense!” Todd rose to his feet quickly, getting a head rush and feeling dizzy. His hand pressed to his forehead as he fell to his seat. “I don’t feel so good. Please old man, just speak plainly, I’m begging you.”
“I’d love to sit around shooting the shit, I really would, but it looks like that coffee is kicking in. I’m afraid we’re out of time.”
The last thing Todd saw, was the old man rising from his chair, eyes glowing red. With a snap of his fingers, the brightly lit room returned to darkness. He unlocked the door, opening it wide, “Come brothers, it is time!” He announced, arms held high in victory. “Tell me, which of you will take this vessel and venture forth?”
From the darkness, one Vetti came to stand before the others, snout pointed high, wings stretched open, strutting. The two entered the cabin alone. Several bloody hours and ear-splitting screams later, Todd emerged from the cabin, eyes glowing red. The other Vetti, not yet possessing their own vocal cords to communicate with, were still able to speak to their brother telepathically. What will you do first? They eagerly inquired.
“Find Linda, of course.”
Credit : Page Turner
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