Three hours following camp break, Emily and Astinos had a little more than a mile and a half of uphill terrain covered. Due to the late start the sun was already straining far to the west; the shadows throughout the undergrowth deepened, and soaked into every gap and sliver. No way would they reach the main trail before nightfall, not at this pace, but progress was progress. The lack of voice and songs was not as welcome of a change either; the absence was an ominous warning.
Astinos made hiking unnecessarily difficult.
“Come on, Asty. Keep moving.” Emily tugged the leash, breaking Astinos from his trance. The entire morning the dog kept silent, and hopelessly distracted. He ate some of his kibble food – out of necessity and fierce coaxing from Emily – but was not cooperating with her commands. She put his leash on after they started out; Astinos constantly stopped and surrendered his focus to the immediate area. It was a constant battle. And finally, Emily tired of it. She never saw anything.
“Is someone out there? Would you please show yourself!”
The birds and usual wildlife continue with their prattle. Of the elusive threat, Emily was blind to. Astinos remained a deterrent, but she made certain to leave the gun in its holster, unclipped, should the need arise. She always carried the mace container in her pocket, and it was primarily for wildlife encounters. The gun was for people.
Hours dragged by in this manner; Emily struggling to keep Astinos focused, and the dog adamant about something being there. A hundred ideas and dreads wound through Emily’s mind, between her grunted commands. Her plans to return to the main trail became less likely as the forest colors shifted from golds to oranges, and the wind picked up.
Emily wanted to push on and gain as much distance as possible before darkness soaked in. But that was stupid. She and Astinos were exhausted, and continuing in the dark was asking for it. It was better to buckle down and hold out.
“Calm down, Asty.” Emily tied the leash to a thick pine, and made certain Astinos was secure. The dog whined and pulled at the leash as Emily stepped a few feet away. “I’ll be right here. I don’t want you wandering far.”
The wind was picking up, but down among the trees they shouldn’t be in any danger. Thick clouds rolled in heavy, smiting the last strength of light. Emily pulled out her flashlight and tied it up onto a low hanging branch, then, tore off her hiking pack and unloaded the supplies. The fresh rain scent descended and a few droplets fell, but the weather wasn’t expected to be too intense. If anything, Emily expected their terrorizor to lose interest at long last.
This night she decided to build up a fire; if not for a nearby log which was rotting she wouldn’t have bothered. She pitched the tent, and dug out a shallow pit. The lit fire starter was tossed in with kindling and left alone. While the fire snuggled into the kindling, Emily went to Astinos and undid his leash.
In the blink of an eye Astinos vanished. The thunder of barking shot through her ear as the dog whizzed by, teeth and jaws frothing, legs a wild blur. She turned in time to see his white paws whirl over the newly built fire pit, an instant before Astinos faded into the yonder distance. Emily’s mind sputtered through replaying the subsequent events. She was certain she caught the shimmer of something... gliding down among the shrubs. And like that Astinos, and his frenzied voice, were gone.
An unholy shrill cut through the gloom; like a shriek and a sob churned together, and sifted through dissolution. It made her skin prickle all over. Emily specialized in exotic species, and worked with her local zoo from time-to-time. Never in all her career had she heard a cry like that.
“Astinos! Asty!” she called. She strained to hear over the ominous prowl of the wind churning leaves. Beneath the hiss she did hear the dog’s yaps, but she couldn’t gauge how far out he was. She concluded he was close. Close enough to find his way back, definitely.
Emily went to work doing nothing extraordinary, except get into her pack and pull out food ratios. Her hands shook as she prepared the food, and spooned it to her mouth. The easy purr of the fire eating up kindling did not settle her freezing nerves, despite the warmth. She shook shoulder to toe. She made certain to have her mace handy, in case whatever was out there decided to show its self. That would be the straw to kill the camel; shooting her own dog if he came hurtling back. Leaving food out for Astinos might help the dog find his way, but she couldn’t risk it. She debated it though. It was tempting. He was out there.
A cold prick shocked Emily. She slapped her neck and gawked at the yellow blaze of the fire. Droplets descended gently, popping across the leaf cover and the tents rain tarp. Emily flipped her hood up and hunched down. A light drizzle, without the resonance to dampen another peeling cry from the distant thicket. She could hear Astinos, barking. Mad, and perhaps deranged.
Then, the rain becomes thunderous. The intensity of the droplets did not increase, Emily just couldn’t hear anything of her dog, or the animal he pursued. By now the night shimmered with inky silt, the undergrowth looked inhospitable and slimy. Emily stood up and scanned beyond the fires reach, eye prodding the dark glitter of branches and shrubs. She turns, and in the barest slither of her peripheral she sees something.
“Astinos?” Emily twisted, and caught the faint shimmer of two lights low to the ground. She knew what they were, but her mind wasn’t processing fast enough. She expected a bear or a cougar, but as its silhouette melted from the gloom, the shape became grotesque and alien. It moved fast and low; the fur bristled all over its body, and that’s all she saw.
Emily fumbled with her coat, but at the same time she bolted. She didn’t get more than five feet before she was shoved from behind; mere inches clear of the fire. The air was knocked completely from her lungs and she lay, groaning, struggling through the disorientation. Weight pressed into her spine, with enough force it could snap her in two. Heavy breathing slung down and Emily felt painful compression on her ribs; she screamed. She was dragged up by her coat, weight bore down on her spine – she heard ripping, feathers exploded. The animal shook her, and Emily felt something in her back crack.
A nasally snarl rattled from the creature, and the pressure lifted off Emily’s coat. There were muddied hands and a rabid torrent of barking; dirt and leaves spiraled skyward. Emily could do nothing but lay there, hands clasped over the back of her neck. She glanced up.
In the firelight there come flashes of teeth, fur goes flying, and jingling. The dog doesn’t care where they fight, Astinos dragged this creature by the underside of its gullet, where teeth couldn’t reach. He shakes and kicks his short dog legs, and the creature bucks; this and that way, claws snag into the reflective vest Astinos‘ wore; he refused to relent. This is where Emily witnessed the collision of the fighter dog, with the unyielding breed of the protector.
Astinos was not a rescue dog from a pound. Emily was forced to barter him off from work. In her area a big dog-fighting trade was shut down, and a lot of the animals were put down without temperament tests. These animals were of no debate, completely unsociable with other dogs and deemed unsafe to integrate back into the adoption program; a waste of resources it was labeled. Astinos was still a puppy at the time, on the edge of the fence ready for training. Most of the puppies from the operation were sterilized and put into shelters, but some young dogs like Astinos were still put down. The shelters didn’t have sufficient resources to horde dogs with the in-breeding for potential aggression.
Emily wasn’t big on being social with people; she didn’t invite a lot of her colleagues over to entertain. She wasn’t interested in a ‘fulfilling’ relationship, she didn’t want kids. She could use a strong, protective, companion, who was always ready to go out into the woods. Astinos had a vote in his favor for being a breed other than the misrepresented pit-bull, though Dogo Argentines were notary for over-protective aggression. Emily knew she could handle him.
The creature tore Astinos free with an vicious shake; in the same second, Astinos was gnashing at its neck, appendages, hindquarters – whatever Astinos could lock his teeth into. Embers spiraled, the creature shrieked as it tumbled over the fire pit. Some of the flames dampen, but there remains enough shimmer to see the combating outlines.
Emily finally manages to get herself upright – sitting but progress – and pried free the handgun. She doubts her aim in the meager light, limbs and dog everywhere. The creature seemed less focused on her, and more focused on amending the dog crises. Astinos was clever, and stayed away from those teeth. When she’s certain of her shot Emily fired. The report splint her skull.
Muscles ripple and singed fur fills her nostrils, but the thing didn’t react. Emily adjusted her aim and waited for another clear shot – this time Astinos takes a back leg and shakes, the vibrations drag him and the creature sideways. Emily braced her footing and aimed for the head. The bullet missed its mark, but made visible impact within the broad shoulders. This time, the head turned toward Emily and she sees something in the pit of its eyes.
The wind picked up. The air around Emily is stirred into a hailstorm by powerful oaring. She dropped to her knees, shielding her face as branches and leaves buffet. A moment Astinos and the attacker are there, the next both have vanished. Emily strained to see; she peered from under her hood and heard it… some distance up, high above the glow of the embers. A ragged snarl.
Astinos dropped. He crashed into the fire pit and limped off the biting embers. Emily primed herself to leap upward, but the creature falls upon Astinos. Not so much as fall, as it seemed to descend onto the dog, and pinned him under its paws. Feline claws extend from the knotted digits, and dug in. Astinos yowled and scrabbled at the dirt.
Emily raised her gun and shot one-two-three – she fired until the gun clicked dry. The creature hissed and recoiled, but wouldn’t relent. It sank its teeth into Astinos shoulder and shook. Astinos’ voice careened with yelps, his paws twisting frantically; eyes bulging and his dog fingers bloodied.
There was no choice – Emily only had one last magazine tucked into her pack, worthless! – she pulled out the mace canister and turned it on the aggressors snout. Asinos wailed when the mist hit his open wounds.
And so did the abomination. It released the dog – Emily abruptly stuck by a strong appendage, was thrown sideways. The mace tumbled out of her grip. She crab-crawled backwards when the attacker spun on her, jaws snapping inches from her chest; teeth gnashed air this and that way, missing her by mere inches. Emily kept going and going. She didn’t dare risk kicking it; instead, she cursed it mentally and pumped her arms.
The abomination ceased pursuit and shuddered. A not-paw foot arched up over its elbow, and scrabbled at the eyes. It shoved its snouts into the leaf cover and rubbed its head, completely at mercy, and whining. It snuffled once, gave a last hiss, and took off in a direction. In its blind retreat it crashed into a tree, recovered, and continued its retreat. Its unnatural screech faded minute by minute.
Then, it was only the burble of the winded fire, the timid droplets of the drizzle, and the wind crooning through the trees.
“Astinos. Oh god!” Emily flipped to her hands and knees, and scrambled over to her dog. He was still and quiet. She touched his shoulder; by the dying glow of the fire she saw glistening red and muscle. The harsh fumes of the mace stung her nose. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know that hurts.” Her eyes blurred. Astinos wasn’t moving. “Please Asty. You’re a good dog. You did so good. I couldn’t ask for more, but please… please.” Her voice choked.
Astinos whined. Faint and weak. His glossy eyes looked pained and unfocused.
“Asty. Oh god. Good. Good boy. Thank you. Thank you.” Emily stoked his damp head – damp with rain. “My hero.”
Emily switched to vet mode. She hurried to her tent and got into her hiking pack. The flashlight was retrieved and brought over, along with a small mending kit – for the tent – and the medical kit. Carefully, she unbuckled and removed the vest from Astinos’ body; there wasn‘t much left of it, and the difficulty lay in untangling the shredded fabric. The process was agonizing, Astinos whimpered and jarred; Emily struggled to keep him still. The dog’s senses were overwhelmed by harsh chemical, which wound unforgivingly into his wounds. Emily apologized profusely as she worked.
Astinos’ wounds were severe in the sense that they were deep, but the vest had protected his body from the intense savagery. If not for it, no doubt the dog would have been decapitated twice over. There were puncture wounds and scratches, all bleeding. Thankfully though, this was the extent of the damage; no broken bones, no bones breaching flesh.
Emily mulled over this, as she threaded a needle and began stitching. “I know this hurts, Astin. But I have to try and close this wound and stop this bleeding. You’re doing so well. You’re so brave and courageous. Bear with me.” When she finished with the large gashes, she wrapped Astinos up with a spare plaid shirt and tightened it.
There was no other option open to them. Emily didn’t have supplies to properly treat Astinos – that would mean disposing all the blood proper, or risk attracting other predators. Likewise, she didn’t have pain medication or antibiotics, or other aids that would keep the dog stable in his condition. A chance remained that he would bleed out anyway.
Emily took a last look at the camp. The fire was already doused, the drizzle continued, it was cold; she scanned the area with her flashlight.
The mace. She found it near the black coals and pocketed it. Emily packed only the bare-barest of essentials – a last food ration, a liter of water, the med kit, and the compass with the map. These items went crammed into the narrow pockets of the dog vest, which she buckled around her waist. It was still saturated with chemical, otherwise she would use it to better bind Astinos’ wounded hide.
“We’re going now, Asty.” Emily heaved the dog up over her shoulders and carried him in a piggyback fashion. “I’ll do everything I can to get you back. Hang in there.” Astinos whimpered as he was shifted, but submitted and kept still. His once snow-white paws were rust colored, and deep gashes cleaved his snout. It was never a thought she had, that one day Astinos might look like one of those fighting dogs. The gun should have severely damaged, if not killed that animal.
But it was nothing from zoological index.
There was no doubt in Emily’s mind that the animal would return once it recovered. It wasn’t a question of if. She wouldn’t bother entertaining the small sense of satisfaction that getting shot up and maced all in the same go, would leave the animal severely wounded and dying someplace. It didn’t like the mace.
The night went on and on and on. Emily staggered over half hidden rocks and clumps of damp branches; the weight of Astinos sagged over her back. The scarce noises of the night felt disconnected, and muffled through a black sheet; nocturnal animals chirped and trilled into the dark expanse. The foliage curled around the somber beam of the flashlight tracking her path, everything vibrating in the gloom became poisonous. Lethal. Every lacy shrub hid dark sunken eye sockets, glittering teeth. She thought noises followed beyond the tree trunks, sometimes she heard a woman sobbing, and asking for help. Emily hurried her steps despite the sharp ache winding in her thighs.
Astinos ragged breath lapped at Emily’s neck; Emily herself wheezed and choked. Each misstep caused Astinos to whine and scrabble weakly at her flanks, his whimpers sounded pitiful and defeated. Emily spoke to the dog, reassuring him they were going home.
The rich contrast of gloom began melting away as vapors of light and mist worked its way beneath the canopy, the sky began lightening. Birds chirped gently in the early dawn. Emily barely registered that the hours of night finally passed, but all the same exhaustion swarmed through her legs and arms. Her eyelids were gummy, and it was a futile struggle to keep her legs pumping up and down, hurdling over the obstacles of the forest. She was on a downhill hike, the light of the flashlight smoldering dim in the rolling onslaught of day. Deer trails and the usual pathways crisscrossed in the forest shrubbery; clear indication that they were nearing the main trail.
With the strong light of day, the scenery around Emily became familiar. Tame almost. Emily was at the end of her strength and slumped to her knees; she carefully eased Astinos’ off her backside. Her shirt and the dog vest were soaked in sweat and piss.
“Asty. Astinos. Easy. Stay.” Emily gripped the dog’s collar firmly. Astinos staggered and tried to stand, but he swayed sharply on his boney legs; she didn’t remember his legs being so thin. Despite the bravado and savagery of the dog earlier that night, he looked frail in comparison now. “My brave savior. Take it easy. I have to rest.” She looped her arms around Astinos neck and leaned against him, gently. “Lay down with me, okay boy?” It took no effort from Emily to sink into slumber and leave behind the rich scent of the forest, the earth. The thick scent of copper.
It felt safe here, and wouldn’t take much more effort to reach the main trail. Someone might find them where they lay here, and seeing Astinos evidently wounded, would go for help. It was probable; she hoped, dimly, as Astinos whimpered softly in her ear.
“Shhh,” Emily hummed. “Rest baby. I promise, we’re not far now.”
It was hours later when Emily roused. Head leaded, arms and back stiff; sun on the far side of the canopy dipping into the west. She was trembling unrestrained, despite the sultry heat swabbing her down. She swept her arm over to where Astinos lay, motionless on the leaves—
The dog yelped and winced when she gripped his neck scruff. His eyes gazed at Emily, wide and pained.
“I’m sorry,” Emily gasped. She sniffled, and struggled onto her knees beside Astinos. “We should’ve been miles along by now – probably reached the car—”
The noise stopped her voice cold. Emily hunched down low over Astinos, and held her breath. Minutes passed, or seconds – she couldn’t tell. Astinos lay where he was, head turned, ears straight. Silent sentinel, back to dog business.
There it was again. The audible, retching report of a rifle. Blearily, Emily wondered, Who was hunting on a hiking trail? Her answer erupted forth, in a bloodcurdling howl. The sob cut off.
More sounds leapt forth and frolicked among the forest, in the Northwest direction; voices in varied distinct pitches. A woman, another man – two men – other squeals and shrieking she couldn’t place. Pain and terror. And one-by-one each silenced, until the forest resumed its calm, deceptive tranquility. The noises of birds were absent; Emily could only imagine the avians as solemn observers to the barbaric life that unfolded on the forest floor.
She quaked. Cautiously and slowly, Emily lifted Astinos into standing. This time the dog didn’t protest or make a sound; he followed Emily’s manipulation like a bendy-toy. Every slight movement felt like a vivid broadcast. She envisioned seeing that thing at any moment, at last tearing through the woods toward her.
She didn’t want to see it sculpted in daylights cleansing light.
Astinos molded over her back. Emily secured him and started moving, not as gently as the previous day. Fresh energy burned in her muscles, despite how knotted and starved her stomach was; how drained her and loose her limbs had become. Emily felt the weight of Astinos bear down on her, but her steps felt light and invigorated, as if she was flying through the woods. She gagged on each breath, between sobs and agony. She chanted to Astinos:
“It’s okay. It’ll be okay. Stay with me, Asty.”
Within an hour, she managed to stagger onto the main trail; the path cleared by three feet of foliage, the trail layered with gravel. Emily adopted a steady pace, on the faint downward incline of the path; she swung around the bends and bolted down stone steps. Her throat ached and creaked, but Emily feared slowing, feared stopping and being at her limit. The natural sounds of the forest began to resume; the chatter of birds making preparations to bed down for the evening.
The sun dissolved behind the tall trees, the light stretched and fractured orange patters swam among the trees. The gaps around her swam with shadowy patterns, inhuman figures, teeth grinning. She urged her feet to move faster, carry her farther from that place, deliver her from the nightmare.
Dusk was thickly entwined through the forest by the time she reached the final stretch; the sharp incline that lead off the main trail. Emily saw no one else on her way back, thankfully no one was heading out. But it was late, too later to begin out.
It was only when she rushed up to her little jeep that she realized, she had left her keys in her hiking pack. She made it to the cold grill of the vehicle and collapsed – Astinos groaned as he tumbled off her back. Astinos didn’t rise, he just lay there whimpering; Emily gasped and sagged.
A bright light enveloped woman and dog. Emily shielded her eyes and choked out a sound.
“Are you all right?” a strained, authoritative voice growled out. The blazing light gathered in the scene; Emily could see a burly silhouette beyond the harsh circle. “I’ll call up an ambulance.” He grabbed at the communicator buckled to his hip and spoke into it.
For several minutes Emily couldn’t speak. She grabbed for the dog, vest wrapped around her waist, and got out a small water bottle. She sipped some of the liquid, and tried to hydrate Astinos. The dog lapped weakly at the bottle’s nozzle.
“Other people,” she gagged. “An animal attack.”
“We’re you with a group?” the ranger asked. He knelt beside Emily and looked Astinos over closely. Emily pushed him off, her head shaking.
“Someone has to go out. Find them.” Emily was uncertain what more she could say. By the sounds she heard, there would be no survivors. Only remains.
An hour later, the ambulance from the ranger station arrived; lights flashing blue and orange interchangeably. They hooked Emily up to an IV, gave her antibiotics – though she insisted she was unharmed. Astinos was the priority. They strapped her into the gurney, and lifted Astinos onto her lap.
“Can you describe the animal that attacked you?” someone asked.
Emily mumbled through a translucent face-mask. “Didn’t see. Not sure….” Overheard, the engine of a helicopter buzzed out. She watched the flashing lights of the aircraft as it hovered above the eclipsed treetops, suspended beneath a black lake of gemstones. “I don’t know.” She repeated. The lights spun and churned. She breathed deep the oxygen and surrendered to sleep.
The following week was a blur. Emily was taken to the nearest town, twenty miles away from the mountain road. Her condition was diagnosed with severe exposure, and shock from the attack. She was kept on IVs and a high nutrient, liquefied medical food, and started she was started on rabies vaccinations as a precaution. Astinos was taken to an all-night animal hospital and treated for his injuries, and likewise placed in quarantine. There were doubts that the dog would recover at all; Astinos lost too much blood and was depressingly weak. But within three days Astinos recovered some strength, and his minor wounds showed improvement. A happy ending for all.
Emily was finally discharged from the hospital. She already had a boarder ready to take in Astinos, for the three shorts days she had to return to work; Astinos needed more time in the hospital, but Emily had to go back to work. Though she was allotted the sick days for full recuperation, she had patients that needed care.
Work took her mind off the… Incident, as Emily came to know it. She continued to treat the animals and pets at her clinic. A few weeks more, Emily was able to take the two hour trip to retrieve Astinos and at last bring him home. The regular routine of life restored itself for the two, though she still had the nightmares. She was debating putting her spare camping equipment up for sale on Ebay.
A few nights later, Emily was in her small home preparing dinner for her and Astinos. Astinos still took it easy; he was bundled up in his ‘hero blanket’ and lying on the soft couch, watching television. That day, the doorbell rang rather late.
When Emily answered the door, she found a sturdy man dressed in a collared shirt standing tall in the doorway. The man had an air of authority, and carried a pistol holstered on his belt. Under one arm, he cradled a folder.
The man introduced himself as Howard, from a rescue team that sought the group of hikers attacked in the woods. Emily invited him in, and the two spoke at length regarding the details of the ‘retrieval’ effort, as Howard put it. The unit was recovery, primarily for the sake of the families.
After extensive searching and the use of cadaver dogs, only one body and the remains of a second hiker were located. This was ten miles from the point where Emily first heard the anguished cries, off from the main trail. The search team could find no other evidence or whereabouts of the bodies, but it was deduced the bodies were scattered by the local scavengers.
Howard didn’t stay long, only to discuss behavior patterns of common predators in the region, and confirm a few of Emily’s previous statements. The visit was a prioritized follow up, and he didn’t push on the questions, unless Emily was willing. Howard made note regarding the hiker registry, and that some groups of campers were well past due to return. Since Emily’s attack the trail was shut down, and only two thirds of the registered hiker parties had yet to return or were located and brought back, since the beginning of the recovery search.
Emily escaped with her and her dogs life, and her resolve saved others from disappearing.
There were specific details of the retrieval unit, which Howard withheld from Emily entirely. ‘Paw’ prints of the suspected predator were sparse, and difficult to track. If not for the cadaver dog’s dedication and training, the search would have failed. Though the body of one hiker was found at the base of a tall-tall tree, the corpse was well concealed among leaf litter and dense shrubbery. And virtually untouched. The coroner ruled the death to a shattered spine, a prognosis that baffled Howard initially. Eventually, the second hiker’s remains were found, hidden more than six meters above the first corpse, and crammed among branches of the tree. There wasn’t much left of the corpse to return to the family, but there was a funeral and two caskets.
One final, grisly, detail that unnerved Howard was the coroner’s report concerning the first hiker found, embedded with the ground. The coroner concluded that this hiker was surviving for at least one week prior to death, and that the fall killed him almost instantly. All of this was confirmed by a meager length of healing, in the soft tissue swollen around the splint fibia of his leg. A crushed food wrapper was retrieved from the rigor mortis hand, a protein bar – a banquet – ingested moments before disaster. A partial and vague message was scrawled into the white side of the wrapper, one which chilled the retrieval team present once the message was decoded.
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- Characters and content © 2017 Tempus Willow.