“Demon Tree” by Chris Saunders
It had been years since Taylor had done this walk, and boy was he starting to feel it. He must have covered five or six miles so far, following the narrow, winding path leading from Wood Forge up into the sprawling, picturesque hills flanking the tiny village. Right now, the path was skirting an impenetrable-looking forest thick with lush vegetation.
What a way to blow the cobwebs off and get some exercise. Apart from a solitary dog walker an hour earlier, he hadn’t seen another soul all day. The path wasn’t exactly made for cars or bicycles, and was so over grown in places it was difficult to even walk on. Even so, it felt good to be out in the sunshine, doing something active. He spent far too much time cooped up in the office. It wasn’t healthy.
He just wished he’d brought something to drink. A cold beer would be spectacular right now. Though if he’d carried it with him all this way it would no longer be cold, obviously. Unless he’d carried a refrigerator too.
Then he remembered something. Wasn’t there a pub somewhere around here? Perched high on the mountain, just over the brow? One of those old, traditional country places with whitewashed walls, picnic tables outside and a horseshoe above the door. It was called the Halfway House. Logic suggested because it got its name because it was situated half way between two villages, but a more romantic idea would be that because it was so high up, it was half way to heaven. That in itself was ironic, because when he was a kid he and his friends used to try to frighten each other with tales of devil worshippers who, it was rumoured, used to come up to these mountains to perform their satanic rituals away from prying eyes.
The sun blazed down on to the bare skin of his forearms, and he felt his calves tighten more with each step. He’d worn loose-fitting knee-length shorts and an old pair of trainers for comfort, but had neglected to put on any socks. Now he regretted it. His blisters had burst long ago to expose the raw, reddened skin beneath, and his feet were now wet with a mixture of pus, sweat and blood, which only made his trainers rub more.
He could just turn back and go back home, of course. But he was too stubborn for that. He’d come this far, and persuaded himself that a cold beer or two was the goal. He’d push on for another mile or so and reassess things then. He wasn’t too proud to find the nearest main road and call himself an Uber.
There was a rickety wooden sign ahead, standing on the side of the trail. When Taylor drew near, he saw that it was pointing at a right angle marking a public footpath leading off the main trail and disappearing into the thick forest. Except it wasn’t much of a footpath. It was so neglected that it was barely even visible beyond the first few feet. The forest looked wild and intimidating, in complete contrast to the wide open spaces the mountain afforded. It would be easy to get lost in there, but he assumed the footpath would be marked.
He stopped to catch his breath. It was decision time.
Should he stay on the main path? Or take his chances on the shortcut?
Shortcut to where? That was the all-important question.
It had to lead somewhere. Every path did. And he’d been treading this one for hours without so much as a glimpse of a country pub. Or even a shop. How much worse could this new option be?
If things got out of hand he could always retrace his steps.
That settled it. With half his brain still arguing the toss, Taylor found himself venturing off the main path into the forest. Within moments, the atmosphere changed. He felt cocooned, and was incredibly glad to get out of the sun. This path was steeper, and a lot harder on the legs, but he was still under the impression that he was making good ground.
Deeper and deeper into the forest he went, sometimes using the trunks of conveniently-placed trees or overhanging branches to help haul himself along, the wood blessedly cool to the touch. Occasionally, a small animal would rustle in the undergrowth causing him to stop in his tracks, but he never saw so much of a glimpse.
In his mind’s eye he saw himself bursting out of the forest and back into the sunshine, right in front of the Halfway House. Its doors would be wide open, and the inviting smell of brewed hops and barley would carry over on the breeze. There would be newspapers inside, and ham rolls, and the TV would be set to one of the sports channels. Bliss.
The reality, however, was very different. The forest was becoming more and more dense, the light finding it increasingly hard to penetrate the canopy. All around him, shadows slithered and squirmed. Taylor stopped for a moment to get his bearings, breathing hard. He looked down at his feet for the path.
It was gone.
How the fuck did that happen?
He glanced behind him, hoping to see some remnant.
There was nothing.
What should he do?
He swallowed hard as a knot of panic began to squirm in his chest. Then he forced out a chuckle which, in the oppressive surroundings, sounded more like a death rattle. The noise seemed to hang in the air far longer than it should have, causing Taylor to look around anxiously.
Something was terribly amiss.
Then he noticed the smell. Sickly and thick, it seemed to swirl around him. Something nearby was dead and rotting. Probably one of those small furry animals that populated the undergrowth; a field mouse or a vole, maybe.
No, judging by the stench, it was something bigger than that. A rabbit or a squirrel? Maybe even a fox or a sheep?
Taylor’s mind flashed back to the time when a group of kids at his primary school had stumbled across the body of a homeless man who’d sought shelter in the grounds over the summer holidays and ended up dying there. By the time the body was discovered it was a putrefying mess, and probably smelled a lot like this.
He knew he should just carry on walking. Nothing good could come from standing around in the middle of a dark forest looking for an animal carcass. There would be germs and bacteria and all sorts kicking around.
What if it wasn’t an animal carcass?
What if it was the body of another homeless person?
One thing Taylor could do without was stumbling across a fucking corpse on his afternoon walk.
But he didn’t know which way to go. Which way was out. The forest wasn’t exactly huge. Assuming he went in a straight line, if he walked in any direction long enough he was certain to emerge in an hour or two. He just didn’t want to spend the rest of the afternoon trudging through dense vegetation.
But that stink!
That was when he saw it. Right in front of him. How he hadn’t spotted it earlier was a mystery. It just kind of blended in with the leaves and foliage.
It was an animal carcass, impaled on a sharp branch just below eye level. It looked like a squirrel, and it had obviously been there a while. A few days, maybe. Its blood-stained fur was balding in patches, and the skin had been peeled back to expose desiccated flesh and a tiny white rib cage. Tiny flies swarmed around it in clouds.
As Taylor leaned closer, top lip curling in disgust, he noticed movement. Beneath the flap of skin, a handful of tiny, pale maggots squirmed merrily.
“That’s fucking disgusting,” he said aloud, putting a hand over his mouth and backing away.
Then he stopped, and a deep frown creased his face. Something troubled him. Something above and beyond finding a dead animal crawling with maggots impaled on a tree branch.
How did it get there?
It surely didn’t put itself in that position, and no other animal could have done it, predator or otherwise. It was unnatural. That meant, only another person could have carried out the deed. Which, in turn, begged the question, ‘Why?’
Kids messing around, maybe. Though they would have to be a pretty sick bunch to think killing small, defenceless animals and impaling them on trees was a fun thing to do.
As Taylor tossed things around in his head, something else caught his eye. Markings on the tree trunk, just underneath the sharpened branch. A series of intricate shapes and symbols carved into the bark. They made no sense to Taylor, but were immaculately done. Someone had obviously spent a lot of time and effort here.
Could there be some correlation between the carvings and the dead animal?
Who was he trying to fool? Of course there was. It was far too much of a coincidence otherwise. Then, another piece of the jigsaw slipped into place.
The devil worshippers.
Maybe it wasn’t just a rumour.
Taylor’s heart was now thudding in his chest so strongly he could hear it, and beads of sweat were running freely down his face.
What the fuck had he stumbled across?
It was almost a surprise when he realized he didn’t care. It wasn’t his business, nor his problem.
With a dismissive snort, he made to walk off. As he moved he happened to glance above him, and what he saw rooted him to the spot.
It was a pair of eyes.
Partially obscured, they blazed red, glaring down at him from above.
It had to be some kind of optical illusion. A of trick of the light.
A chilly, light breeze rustled the leaves around him bringing goose bumps out on the exposed skin of his arms and legs and an unnatural hush fell over the forest. The atmosphere felt somehow oppressive, almost as if he were trapped underground.
There was a man, or some kind of creature up a tree looking at him.
Could it be possible?
It had to be possible, it was happening.
It was happening right now.
Taylor shifted his position slightly, trying to create more of an angle that would enable him to see exactly what he was faced with. The man thing didn’t move, but no matter what he did, Taylor couldn’t seem to connect the dots. Whatever he was looking at remained hidden.
His senses heightened, he became aware of a foreign sound. A sound so low that had he been walking, it would easily have been obscured by his footfalls. It was the sound of air being drawn in, and then slowly expelled.
It was fucking breathing.
This revelation was enough for Taylor and, eyes still glued to the glowing red orbs, he started backing away. He no longer cared which direction he should go in; he just wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
For a fraction of a second, the pair of eyes disappeared. There was the whoosh of displaced air, and suddenly the creature was standing before him.
The unnatural eyes weren’t the worst of it.
The thing towered over him, standing at least seven feet tall. It looked like a giant moth/human hybrid, complete with a huge set of demonic, leathery wings folded behind it. It was covered head to foot in grey or black fur, which had thinned in places to reveal skin so dry it looked more like scales.
It was certainly more monster than it was man. Despite the pointed horns on each side of its head, it’s wickedly elongated face was its most human feature. The oversized red eyes still blazed, above a long, conical nose and a black-lipped mouth from which an enormous set of sharpened fangs glistening with saliva protruded.
Confronted with such a horror, Taylor’s legs gave out and he slumped to his knees as if praying to some kind of monstrous deity. He was now directly in line with the thing’s sinewy bare legs, the ripped and torn parchment-like skin studded with those coarse black hairs. Something almost disembodied flicked the air, as if tasting it. Then, the appendage lingered, snake-like.
It was a tail. A fucking tail.
Most terrifyingly of all, Taylor realized that the joint of the creature’s knee was all wrong. It was bending the wrong way, and was reminiscent of a goat standing on its hind legs right down to the hooves where its feet should be.
No. It wasn’t possible.
As he scrambled away on his hind quarters, Taylor thought of the strange markings etched into the tree, the dead animal that, come to think of it, looked like it had been sacrificed, the myriad stories of devil worshippers at work on these mountains, and how all these things fit together.
They’d conjured something up. Some kind of entity. Something demonic and inhuman, yet irrefutably alive.
In one smooth motion, Taylor leapt to his feet, turned away from the looming creature, and charged through the masses of undergrowth and vegetation. He tried to take the path of least resistance, but moving at speed made it impossible. It was all he could do to avoid running headlong into a tree and knocking himself unconscious.
Roots and vines seemed to grip his feet as if trying to trip him up, and within moments both of his legs were lacerated and bleeding, cut to ribbons by the thorn bushes he trampled through.
But he couldn’t stop. The creature was right behind him. Close. He could hear the noise it made as it crashed through the forest in pursuit. Taylor had no idea what it would do if it caught up with him, but those fangs provided a clue. He had to get away. Far away.
A white-hot flash stung his cheek as he felt the wrath of a stray branch. Taylor screamed aloud in an explosion of pain, fury and frustration. He wanted to look behind him to see how far behind the creature was, but fear prevented him. He imagined turning to see it reaching out a long, clawed hand and gripping his neck. That would be the end.
He was convinced he could hear its ragged breath as it drew ever nearer, eating up the ground between them on its muscular goat’s legs.
Finding his way blocked by a sprawling oak too wide to easily get around, Taylor stopped abruptly then set off again in another direction, praying the manoeuvre wouldn’t prove too costly.
On and on he went, the forest around him blurring into a collage of greens and browns. More than once he tripped and stumbled, just managing to right himself before crashing to the ground.
His breathing was coming in harsh gasps, every exhalation accompanied by a mournful whimper. He was how hopelessly lost, and had reduced his objective to simply surviving, a task made even more difficult in the face of a torrent of vile, defeatist thoughts which pervaded his mind.
If he died here, how long would it be before his body was discovered?
And by the time the demon-thing and the litany of wildlife finished with him, would there be enough left to bury?
A seemingly solid wall of green stood in front of him. There was no circumnavigating it. Something told Taylor he needed to smash right through it to have any chance of getting away unscathed. He put his head down, raised one arm to shield his face, and took a running leap. He was airborne.
There was resistance. Branches and thorns grasped at him like despairing hands and he was sure he felt the creature claw his trailing leg. From just behind him came a chilling, inhuman howl. Something like the cry of a wolf, but throaty and monotone. It was a sound borne of pure frustration.
Then Taylor hit the ground with a thud, and rolled onto his side. He looked skywards and, rather than a canopy of leaves, was surprised to see clouds moving lazily across a blue sky.
He had escaped.
Instinctively, he looked back at the forest, half expecting the creature to follow him out. If it came for him now, it would be over fast. He was too cut up and exhausted to run any more.
But something told him it wouldn’t come. Not now. This wasn’t its domain. It belonged in the permanent twilight world of the forest, not out here in the open air.
Looking around, Taylor realised that he was but a few yards away from a road. Not a mere path, an actual road. Not a hundred yards away he could make out the whitewashed walls of a building set against the mountainous backdrop and instinctively knew it was the Halfway House. Stumbling across it this way was almost serendipitous.
As he rose gingerly to his feet, he brushed himself off and inspected his wounds. His arms and lower legs were covered in scratches and bruises, and his face still stung from its collision with the low-hanging branch, but the injuries would heal. What would perhaps take longer to recover was his mind. He knew it would never allow him to forget the sight of the creature. It would probably haunt his subconscious for the rest of his life.
He knew right now the creature was just beyond the tree line, watching. He could feel its eyes on him. Extending his right arm Taylor flipped his middle finger, then turned and head toward the pub.
Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from South Wales. His work has appeared in over 80 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including The Literary Hatchet, Feverish Fiction, Fantastic Horror, Flash Bang Mysteries, Morpheus Tales and Crimson Streets, and he has held desk positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being a collection of short fiction entitled X: Omnibus.