I’m not lost, Ben kept telling himself. He thrashed his way through the thick undergrowth, the rifle slung across his back constantly getting tangled in the brush. Calm down. The GPS will get you back to the trail and your quad.
Breathing heavily, Ben decided to stop and rest for a moment. He’d shot an elk earlier, but his aim had been off and the animal was only wounded. After tracking for a half hour, the drops and spatters of blood he’d been following disappeared. Ben widened his search, spiraling out from the last known location of the wounded bull, yet he’d still found nothing. No animal, no blood, not even any tracks. Where’d he go?
Ben decided he had to give up. He needed to leave himself time to hike out before dark. The forecast called for low temps that night and he didn’t have bivy gear. He felt guilty for wounding such a big bull and failing to utilize its meat. Guess a bear will probably scavenge it, Ben mused, or maybe wolves will find it first. Thinking of bears made Ben touch his canister of bear spray reflexively. It was still there, thankfully.
With his breath finally under control, he set off once again. Taking out his GPS unit, Ben hit the button to turn the screen on. Nothing. He pushed the button harder. Still nothing. What the… I just put new batteries in before I left. Taking the batteries out and putting them back changed nothing. Dread flooded Ben, and his stomach dropped. All his earlier worries about not getting back to his ATV and the trail crashed in on him.
“You can do this,” he said, taking a deep breath. He wished he had brought his phone with him. There was no service out here, but the map app would have been helpful. That’s what the stupid GPS was for.
Scouring his mind, Ben tried to recreate the last image he’d seen on the device’s screen. It seemed like he needed to head northwest, but in all the excitement of the chase, his sense of direction was off. He hadn’t taken mental notes, or even paid attention to where he was going. Now you’re screwed and you only have two hours before the sun goes down. He checked his headlamp. At least it still worked. Too bad it doesn’t have the same batteries as the GPS.
Ben began walking in the direction he thought was northwest. If he could manage to stay on course, he believed he might reach the trail in about a half hour. His ATV was another thirty minutes down that path, where it joined with a much larger, multi-use trail. “You can do this,” he repeated, once again thrashing through tough bushes.
Time passed, and Ben lost himself in the process of trying to stay on course. Every thirty seconds or so, he would clap loudly, hoping it would alert any nearby bears to his presence. Eventually, he noticed his hands beginning to sting. It made him wonder how many times he’d performed the act.
Anytime now, Ben thought, feeling he had to be close to the foot trail. He checked his watch, and uttered a surprised expletive when he saw an hour had gone by since he’d abandoned the hunt for the elk. I should be back to the trail by now. Ben checked the sun, feeling his panic rise higher as it neared the horizon.
“This has to be the right way,” he uttered, picking up his pace. You still have time. Just get to the trail and then you’ll get to the quad and it has a nice bright headlight and you know the way out so just go right now. His thoughts accelerated, matching his pace.
More time passed, continuing to escalate Ben’s panic, until finally, he popped out on the trail. “Thank god,” he sighed. But something wasn’t right. It was different. The path he wanted was dirt single track, a foot trail. This one was wider, two faint ruts in long grass. It obviously wasn’t used very often. I don’t remember seeing this on any map or GPS… It didn’t run the right direction either. The path he needed went roughly east to west, while this one ran north south. Well, at least this will take me towards my trail. It will be easier traveling at any rate. Ben’s nerves calmed, and his stride became easy. Trails go somewhere, he thought, happy to be out of trackless terrain.
A few minutes passed, the path continuing to lead north. Ahead, Ben spotted a dark stain in the tall grass. Once he neared, he realized it was blood, and a lot of it. Maybe my elk is near! All the hope of a successful day buoyed Ben’s mood. He would dress his bull, load it up on the ATV, and be out before dark. He’d have quite a story to tell all his friends.
When he finally reached the stain, he realized there was far too much blood to be from a simple bullet wound. Something was gutted here. The grass was bent over along the path ahead, looking like an ATV had come, turned around, and left. Another hunter. It was slightly disappointing, but if someone was nearby, perhaps they could help him find his way out. Checking the sun again, Ben saw it was just a finger or two off the horizon. He forced thoughts of an unpleasant night out of his mind and pushed on, starting to jog.
Just as the sun began touching the horizon, a clearing opened up before Ben. The ground rose, creating a mound that prevented Ben from seeing further into the space. The ATV tracks headed up the small rise, so he continued on.
Striding up the mound, a white object caught Ben’s attention. A skull. He ignored it and continued. More bones caught his attention, skeletons of what appeared to be several elk. They were picked clean, bleached white. Why would someone leave multiple years of carcasses in one place?
Cresting the rise, Ben saw a lone figure standing at the bottom. Several ATVs were parked on the far side of the open space, including one that was the same make, model, and color as his own.
“Hey,” he yelled out, excited to finally see someone after his long day alone. The figure turned slowly, giving Ben a chance to take in more of the area. Around the solitary person were bloody heaps of flesh, as well as more bleach white bones. His first impression was that there were at least ten elk carcasses. He then noticed the person was small and shirtless, with long black hair.
“Hello,” the woman responded, facing him. Ben didn’t know where to look. She had pants on, but her entire chest was on display.
“Um, hi,” he replied lamely. The whole situation had thrown him off guard. He felt like an intruder, interrupting something he didn’t understand. Ben tried to keep his eyes on her face, but it, along with her chest, was stained with blood. It had dried and was flaking off to reveal pale white skin underneath. “Do—do you know the way back to the trail head? I was chasing a wounded bull elk and my GPS died, so I’m a bit disoriented,” he finished in a rush, feeling stupid.
“Yes,” she replied, a small smile on her face, “I can show you. I even have an extra quad if you want to borrow it.” Her voice was smooth and calm, and it made him feel more at ease.
As she mentioned the ATVs, Ben looked in that direction, seeing the one that was so similar to his own. He squinted. It was far away, but it appeared to have a crack in the fender and a bent cargo rack. That’s my quad! How did it get here?
When he looked back at the woman, more details stood out. A few of the skeletons and skulls around her he’d originally taken for elk were small. Much too small. And the shapes weren’t right for elk calves either. Are those humans? A pot sat over a small fire, a dark liquid bubbling away inside.
“Just come over and I’ll show you the way,” she continued, beckoning. Ben didn’t know what to do. The situation was surreal. There’s no way this is what it looks like, though. No way there is a bare chested woman out here killing people and skinning them. And why would she have stolen my quad? A second, nagging voice in his mind protested, wondering how it could be anything other than what it looked like. Maybe it’s some kind of Halloween prank or something. That thought comforted him. It’s too far away for you to see the ATV very well anyway, plus the light is getting bad.
“What are you doing out here?” Ben asked, making his way down the gentle slope to her.
“Oh, just enjoying some fall festivities.” The response made him feel uneasy for some reason.
“Thanks for your help by the way. My name’s Ben. What’s yours? ”
“That’s not important.”
Ben didn’t know how to reply. Out of habit, he checked the position of the sun. It was almost completely set, a thin sliver hanging above the horizon. A flicker of movement caught his attention, and when he turned to look, the bare chested woman was charging him. She clenched a large knife in one fist. Her blood matted hair streamed behind her, making the woman look like a character from one of those haunted Halloween hay rides. She moved silently, bare feet making no sound in the long grass.
Instinctively, Ben drew his bear spray, pulled off the safety, and released a thick red cloud into the woman’s path. She ran through it for a moment before veering off, coughing and gagging uncontrollably. Ben yelled an expletive, not knowing what to do next. “What the hell are you doing?”
“It’s all—part—of—Halloween,” the woman sputtered between coughs. She hunched over, retching.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry,” Ben said, dropping the can of spray and running over to her.
“I—thought you—were—here for it.”
“Sorry. I just freaked out and reacted.” When he reached her, Ben didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t help her, and was fighting hard not to gag himself. Bear spray is strong shit. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes,” she answered, her voice quiet and horse. Ben moved in closer. He felt awkward being that near to a bloody, bare chested woman, even if it all was just part of a production.
“What is it?”
Her next words were indecipherable, so he leaned in closer still.
Finally, she spoke again: “I—need—your—pain.” With that, the woman rose up and drove her long knife into his stomach. It happened so fast Ben couldn’t react. A sneer etched the woman’s tear streaked face. Her eyes were red and bloodshot, hatred emanating from them. Mucous ran from her nose.
Then, the pain exploded in Ben’s stomach, a searing deluge that threatened to overwhelm him. He took a step back, then another. His mind told him to get away, to run from this evil apparition. But his legs were weak, and after another step, Ben fell onto his back. “What? Why?” he stammered.
“They—chose—you,” the woman coughed out, “take—comfort—in that.” She towered over him and pulled the knife out, sending a new cascade of pain through Ben. He tried to roll over, to crawl, anything to get away, but she stabbed him, this time in the thigh. “Whyyyyyy?” he screamed. The knife came out and stabbed again, and again, each time in a new place.
“Have you ever wondered what your dying elk felt?” the woman questioned off handedly, continuing her work. “Did it suffer the same way you are?”
Ben’s head felt light, and he could barely move. Darkness pushed in at the edges of his vision. I’m going to die out here, he thought, even as shock waves of pain coursed through him.
“After you, I have just a single sacrifice left. The Dark Ones will be satiated for another year. Earth, our country, our families, will once again be safe from them.”
With that, the blackness swallowed Ben, and he knew no more.