Find similar stories in my book, Aeon of Wonder, available on Amazon.com!
Blackfeather, the Chief, and even the medicine man had warned Hank Paul about the particular stretch of forest. There was something wrong with it, all of them had said; something Evil. Yet he had much ground to cover and not much time. He’d faced Grizzer bears and wild men and had come out alive. He would risk it, he told himself. Nothing he believed he couldn’t face.
His horse, Paul noticed, did not seem nearly so cavalier about the enterprise.
The Black Trail. Before them it yawned through the dark trees. Lit by a fat moon above, the shadows made the trail all the more creepifying to Paul. What gave the place its name was the dark, almost black, dirt of the trail. No one knew why the Earth was such color. It was the only place of its kind anywhere in that part of the Nation. Paul gave it another look, then made his final decision. He made a clicking sound with his mouth and shook the reins. The horse began walking forward. As the trees surrounded them, Paul reached his right arm down and placed his hand on the scattergun. He pulled it from the saddle holster and then rested it across his left arm, keeping his right index finger close to the trigger. Just in case, he thought to himself.
The medicine man had said some kind of chanty prayer over him, and Paul still didn’t know why the superstitious man had been so terrified for him. Best he could figure, it was just a somewhat morbid and eerie stretch of trees, not much more. The shaman had then insisted that Paul wear some kind of charm or amulet on a leather string around his neck. To appease the old man, and in order to get moving, he’d taken it and worn it, until well away from them all. He’d promptly tossed it soon afterward. Paul didn’t care for symbols. He liked bullets. Less to remember.
Down the trail and the world began to shout. Cicadas, crickets and other creatures blasted the night air with their songs. Paul nearly had to put his hands over his ears, for the din was somewhat deafening. The horse neighed and fidgeted beneath Paul. “Whoa, easy,” he soothed. It sounded to Paul as though the damnable bugs were all competing to be the loudest. After a while, he swore the pattern of the sounds took on a rhythm, and soon enough, he was having to convince himself that the rhythm didn’t sound like his name repeated over and again.
Han-n-nk. Han-n-nk.. Han-n-nk..
He shuddered and gripped the scattergun tighter. He remembered his earlier conversation with Blackfeather.
“Let us pretend, friend, that I accept any validity in this legendary tale you weave. For the sake of moving forward, what sort of demon thing is it that I may face?”
“You will not know until you know, Hank.”
“I do not know what that means. Speak plainly”
“There is a world trapped within those trees. A black world full of things not meant for ours. The wall separating you from them, once you enter, is frail and thin.”
Hank Paul laughed. He’d not intended to but the whole thing sounded ridiculous to him. “If the pipe is so potent, Blackfeather, when I am able I shall return and share with you. Take care, friend.”
Paul remembered the look of worry on his old friend’s face.
From Paul’s left he heard a wailing, a long shriek with a high-pitched keen that hurt his ears. The sound was without mercy in its onslaught, whatever thing making the sound seeming to never need breathe. In desperation, Paul pointed the scattergun skyward and fired, the loud boom flying outward into the night. When the ringing in his ears stopped, there were no sounds at all to be heard. The forest had gone utterly silent.
A warm wind picked up, gaining speed as quickly as it had manifested. Soon the tops of the many trees bent and swayed, dancing in a time that seemed to speed up Paul’s heart. He forced himself to remain calm, it had just been a bird screaming and the wind was apt to pick up all the time in such topography. None of it eased his mind, however, because his skin continued to tell him that there just might be something inside that wind. Something, maybe, traveling with its momentum. While his skin told him this, his gut told him to snap the reins and run for his life.
After another blast of warm air began to actually circle Paul and his horse, sending leaves flying into the air in a spiral around both of them, he did what his gut told him, snapped the reins and barked a command. His horse jumped at the opportunity, quite literally. They were off in an instant and already Paul began to feel better.
The last thing he would remember was flying right over the horse’s head.
When he came to in the road, Paul tried to sit up. His body put him promptly on his back again. Then, the smell hit him: copper and flesh. Paul turned to look behind him and there on the trail, now blacker from the blood, lay what was left of his horse. He cursed out loud. He’d been a damned fine animal. Easy to tend to, didn’t want nor need much. Good horses weren’t easy to find. A few feet to his left lay the scattergun. Paul forced himself upward, winced through the pain, and walked over to and picked up the gun. He pulled out another shell and reloaded the second barrel, then began walking.
There was a rustling in the foliage to his left and out stepped a man. In the moonlight, Paul made out the shape of his friend, Blackfeather.
“Did I not warn you, friend?”
Paul pointed the scattergun at the apparition. “You did not, friend.” He pulled both hammers back on the gun. “Blackfeather warned me of this. You, I know not.”
The thing smiled, Paul could see the white teeth in the dim light. The apparition stepped forward and Paul could not suppress his shudder. The shape of his friend was gone, left naught but a twisted form, something horrible to his eyes. Long, scraggly hair, knotted and frayed, surrounded an oval face; overlong and malformed. No eyes nor nose existed on that face. Just leathery skin and a mouth nearly as large as the entire bottom half of its head. The demon smiled a rictus grin full of long, sharp teeth, blood, and flesh. Paul felt rage burn hot in an instant, for this was the thing that had killed his horse, he now knew.
Paul pulled both triggers. The gun kicked and the night exploded into light and sound as both barrels opened up on the demon. When the smoke had cleared, no apparition stood in the shadow. Yet Paul knew it survived yet. Though not a superstitious man, Hank Paul wasn’t the type to stand and argue with reality, even when she twisted on him. He’d seen peculiar things in the night before. He put the scattergun in the holster strapped to his back and checked both his pistols. Loaded and ready. Paul continued walking.
He noticed nearly instantly that something flanked him in the forest. Likely the demon. And then something began to flank him to the right as well, making just enough rustle in the forest to make its presence known, but not completely giving away its position.
Before he was completely aware, Paul found himself on the ground, grappling with a humanoid form that was very much not human. Every time the thing touched his bare skin, or he grabbed a hold of it, the feeling was like trying to grip ice that somehow burned. The touch was miserable, but Paul fought anyway, several blows to its head nearly breaking both his hands. It was trying for his neck with mad ferocity. Paul could also tell that the demonic thing was toying with him. If it had intended as such, he knew he’d already be gutted.
Taking advantage of the demon’s game, Paul reached down and grabbed a very long knife from its sheath on his leg. Fighting away the acid-cold touch, he saw the thing’s neck and shoved the knife into it, upward, toward the top of its head. There was a scream that left his ears ringing, then the demon’s grips loosened and he was able to shove the cold monster off him. Paul lay there for a moment trying to catch his breath.
“So,” he said, looking at the monstrosity, “you can be killed. That’s the kind of informational gem that Blackfeather should have given me right away.” Paul had already grown tired of being the prey. Though not so fool as to think that he’d never meet his match nor end, he could not abide being chased like some delicate fawn, toyed with and laughed at.
“Come out of the darkness, you fiends. Face me. I’ll not go being your toy!” Paul readied his hands over both pistols. But the forest had gone quiet and remained that way. Turning around in a circle, he watched the forest, hoping that something would appear. That thing would promptly receive a bullet in the forehead.
For a full two more minutes, Paul waited, then he began walking again. There was still ground to be covered. Where he would get another horse, he had no idea. But if walk he must to make his destination, then walk he would.
Finally, after several hundred steps, Paul watched as a form walked from the left, out from the trees, into the middle of the trail. The moon did not show him much from a distance. He could see it was humanoid, up on two legs with two arms, the familiar shape of a head atop the neck and shoulders. As it made no moves, Paul did not unholster any weapon. He continued to walk.
As he neared the thing, at about thirty feet away, it made a move. He stopped. From behind the thing, wings unfolded. Great, black wings that spanned at least sixteen or more feet across, easily. He watched as the thing became airborne, and was on him too fast for him to react. Paul rolled with the blow as it knocked him on his back, rolled over as soon as he hit the black dirt, pulled a pistol, aimed and shot the demon. It fell to the ground, wings flapping and flailing. Paul thought to himself that it was just such times he was thankful he kept himself disciplined with his marksmanship.
When the demon hit the ground, it did not shriek but positively roared like some great animal, then began to change shape. Before his eyes, Paul then saw something like a gigantic wolf bounding toward him. He whirled around so that he was sitting up on his haunches and opened up on the thing with both pistols. It shimmied and strafed, missing each bullet with ease.
“FINE, THEN!” Paul yelled, dropping the pistols and pulling out the scattergun. He reloaded, the beast now only a few yards away. He cursed out loud, trying to get the shells in but running out of time. He knew it was too late but he wasn’t going to give up so easily.
The weight of the demon was on him, cold and burning to the touch. Paul made to fight back, then suddenly realized the thing upon him had no fight in itself. The demon was dead. He yelled into the night and shoved the thing off him. Then, he saw why it was dead: an arrow protruding from the back of its skull. Paul looked up and there, some yards away, sat Blackfeather on his pale horse.
“I did warn you, did I not, my friend?”
Hank Paul started laughing.