Saturday, 5 December 2015

Copy Cat - Chapter 3 - Final

Copy Cat
Chapter 3
By Sundaysmile

            It must have been around 11am before we set off warily back to Keith’s minivan, first light was around 5am which meant we’d been sitting around the campfire watching and waiting for any sign of Paul’s return for close to six hours...
Or at least, we waited for whoever or whatever that was imitating our friend…

I never spoke of what I saw to the rest of the group; I never spoke of the metallic silver teeth like thick sewing needles and those doll-like eyes staring at me like a goldfish’s passive gaze.  As far as anyone else was concerned, this person or whatever or whoever they were, looked like Paul. 

But it wasn’t him…  It couldn’t have been him.
I refuse to believe that a friend I’ve known since my earliest childhood memories was some kind of monster all along that he’d been simply waiting for this moment in time to turn on us. 

            No something out there took Paul and was wearing his guise to taunt us. 
Though thinking backwards, I remembered seeing not Keith sitting alone by the campsite after dark, but just who I assumed to be Keith wearing his jacket to stave off the cold.  I was neither suspicious back then, nor was I paying much attention to the details like that, I was more focused on the trip and the long journeys ahead me, and enjoying myself with my friends.
I threw a cautionary glance towards Keith who was going about his business helping Fitzy to his feet and letting him lean on his shoulder.  Was Keith even still the guy I knew?  Or was he just some monster waiting to reveal itself?

I figured if he was, he had had plenty of opportunities to do that last night.  But even still, I kept a watchful eye on him during the rest of this nightmare.  Because who knew how long it was before Paul became that thing?  How long was the monster within our group unnoticed and mingling with us like he was part of the family?

            As for where Paul really was?  I don’t know.  We waited and listened, hoping that maybe the real Paul would call out to us or would run back to us with a tale of how he escaped his captor’s clutches.  But there was no sign of him, the trees around us remained deathly silent and stood ominously still like a grim painting, we couldn’t even feel any trace of a breeze in the air. 
It was almost like the forest was waiting for us to make the first move...

And we couldn’t wait any longer.  There was no way we’d ever be able to endure another night of hell like that again, we had to get out of here, get help from the police and return to find the real Paul and hope that he was alright. 

            We moved as quickly as we could with Fitzy in tow, and it wasn’t the pace we’d hoped.  There were too many inclines and some very steep terrain between us and our destination.  Fitzy, even with help, hadn’t a hope in hell of moving over such difficult terrain so we had to compromise and chart routes around much of the areas Fitzy couldn’t move through. 
This only added more time to our journey which was already moving slower than molasses.  And I knew at this pace, it would likely be almost dark by the time we reached our way out of here.

I also knew we were being watched.  We all did.

I’d like to think it was just my imagination, that after the previous night I’d just been on edge, but more than once I saw something skulk out of sight.  It was too big for a hare, and too small to be a deer, and yet still not a single sound, not a twig breaking or leaves rustling. 
And then we found a very peculiar and morbid discovery lying half buried in the midst of dead leaves and dark soil.  Martin pulled out what appeared to be a set of clothes half buried from the ground, and held it up to his breadth to examine the size, he suddenly let it drop from his hands as if he’d been electrocuted by the leathery cloth. 

He stared at the hood of the brown wrinkly jacket, and it was then I realised the hood bore a shrivelled and empty face.  Complete with two eye holes, empty sockets for nostrils and a long stretched out mouth that looked like a silent scream. 

After finding such a gruesome thing, we did our best to pick up the pace…

            Eventually, we breached the forest to the dirt road we had parked by and the sight of the minivan made us quicken our pace with elated cheers and gestures of thanks to whatever providence was watching over us.  Though once we got close enough, I was hit by a wall of fumes, the air was thick with the scent of petrol, and it appeared the tires had been all but destroyed. 
The rubber had been torn to the point that the exposed wheel touched the road itself, and a darkened stain of fuel trailed out from underneath the vehicle and had soaked into the soil. 
It seemed our stalker had been following us for quite some time…  Especially if this thing knew where we were parked. 

            Martin broke down into a fit of anger and violence, he started yelling into the forest, issuing threats and challenges to the monster within, smashing the hatchet against the minivan’s windows and tail-lights which threw Keith into motion to calm the man down before he rendered his van into scrap metal.
Linda had been silent since she had been attacked, her legs were bandaged as best we could but there was nothing we could do about the pain, and she hobbled almost at the same speed as Fitzy, who stood staring at the tires of the van.  It looked like they were both trying to fight back tears.

As for me?  My heart just sank; it felt like after all this time this was the final nail in the coffin, we were going from one run of bad luck to the next and it seemed very likely we’d die here. 

Then I noticed the road. 

            Regardless how far away we were from civilisation, this was still a road, and we could still walk down to the next town and get help.  Or, if we got very lucky, we could flag down a passing car, tell them what had happened and get a ride to the nearest police station. 
Or hell…  At least get close enough to town that we got phone reception again, and then we could call the cops to come pick us up. 

What other options did we have?

            I tried in vain to break up the argument between Keith and Martin but neither of them started listening until I began walking back to town.  I didn’t stop walking until Keith had caught up and grabbed my arm.

            “Where are you going?”  He demanded, his nose slightly bloodied after his sparring round with Martin.

            “I’m heading into town, unless you got a better idea?” 

            “It’s at least a twelve hour walk!”

            “Again, if you’ve got a better idea then I’m all ears, because arguing sure as shit isn’t doing us any favours.” I shot back and casted a glare back at Martin, who was sitting by the minivan with his head in his hands.
Keith mused for a moment, squeezing the bridge of his nose tightly and pausing to take a breath, I could see him weighing our options and none of them were good.  We either stay here and die or we take the risk of walking down the road, even through the night if we have to.

            “Going down there is suicide.”  Keith grumbled, pointing a finger down the long lonesome road.  “None of us have had any sleep last night.  And you want to walk for the next twelve to fourteen hours through the dead of night with that thing snapping at our heels every step of the way?”

            “Again, do you have a better idea?”  I replied back.
            Keith sighed and pulled the map from his rear pockets; he knelt down on the road and began studying it nervously for a minute, before settling on a point with his finger.

            “Here.”  He stated, pointing at a small blue icon on the paper.

            “Where?”  I asked impatiently, at this stage I wasn’t really interested in whatever hair brained plan he had to offer, I was too tired to even think straight after the long walk with no sleep.

            “There’s a ranger station a few kilometres west from here, we could go there.”  Keith offered, bringing the map closer to me to show the route.  “We can get help there, more importantly we can get to a Phone and call for more help.  They’ve got to have some way of contacting people in an emergency, right?”

I wanted to argue, I wanted to point out some potential problems, but again, I was tired. 
Keith was right though, there’d be no way in hell I’d be able to walk for half a day in the condition I was in, especially with that monster stalking after us.  I also couldn’t depend on luck alone to have a car pass us by on this road and stop to aid us.    

A working phone sounded more promising. 

            “Alright, let’s go.”

            The mood around us was clearly grim, none of us spoke, none of us wanted to be the one to break the tense silence and risk the explosive anger of their neighbour.  Things had gone from bad to worse, and now we were braving the unknown, hoping that Keith was right and that salvation lay only a mile or so away from us. 
It was also 8pm; we had gone a whole day yesterday, last night and all of today hiking and waiting for the next attack to strike us when we were weakest.  It was likely it would wait until we were all completely exhausted or sleeping deeply where we would not stir at the monster’s invasive presence.
All we knew is that we had to get to the Ranger Station and get there soon…

We walked for another forty minutes before we caught sight of the building; a small one roomed hut built from pale wooden boards and brown earthy shingles.  It was bordered by another dirt path led from the road to a small clearing, presumably for parking, next to a row of two blue cubicles that housed a chemical toilet each. 

            I was elated to see it; it was the first sign of the civilised world we’d seen since setting off on our journey, but our elation soured to anger as we got closer and noticed the darkened windows starting out at us.  The lights were off, and nobody was home.

            “Well this is just fucking great.”  Fitzy murmured in a daze, clearly he was on his last legs before ready to collapse from the duress of a broken foot and a long journey without rest.

            “There might still be a phone.”  Keith added, storming off to check the building over, cupping his hands over his eyes to peer through the blacked out windows.

            Martin tried the entrance, and within seconds of finding it locked he began thrusting kicks and driving his shoulder into the door to force it open.  The door remained steadfast and resisted every blow against it even as it rattled within its frame upon every impact.
Though Martin was beyond patience or diplomacy by this point, he battered his hatchet against the small glass panel on the door and reached inside, fumbling with the lock before opening it with a satisfying click.

The inside was built probably for two, maybe three people at most, with two workstations comprised of cheaply made desks and a chair each.  There was a small kitchen area with a sink, cabinets, microwave and an electric kettle was nestled in the corner next to a small plastic covered couch which we lay Fitzy on as comfortably as we could.
Martin and Keith ventured outside to look for a fuse box or breaker for the power, the lights wouldn’t work, and to our frustration the phones were dead as well.  The plan was falling apart at the seams already… 

            While I waited on the verdict on the power situation I wandered around the room browsing various charts and photographs colourfully displayed upon the walls.

            “What is this place?”  Linda asked, probably taking notice of my own curiosity. 

            “It’s owned by the Forestry Commission, I think it might be an arborist’s hut or something.”  I replied as I looked over the detailed photos of tree bark and leaves. 

            “What’s an arborist?”  Fitzy chimed in, adjusting his body into a more comfortable position on the very uncomfortable couch.

            “It’s like a guy, who studies wood.”  I muttered back.

            “Sounds sexy.”

            “I guess it’s a living.”  I was in no mood for laughing, but that at least brought a half-hearted smile on my face...

            Eventually, Martin had returned through the main entrance, he didn’t say a word; he just sat down in the corner silently staring at his feet.  Judging by his demeanour he didn’t need to say anything, we were up shit-creek with no paddle, there was no power, and that meant no phone.
Keith followed shortly after, shuffling inside with a defeated and apologetic look on his face, and I cut him off before he even spoke.

            “Not a word.”  I breathed tiredly.  “Not one single fucking word out of you.” 

            “How was I to know???”  He yelled back.

            “I don’t want to argue; just don’t fucking speak for the rest of tonight.”  I growled angrily, “I’ve been walking who knows how long and I’m too tired to even fucking think right now.  I just want to sleep and hope I wake up alive in the morning.” 
I took a seat by the desk and slumped my head in my arms as a makeshift pillow, I heard Keith mutter something, probably an insult, probably an excuse, but I didn’t care.  The sun was setting, my legs ached, my eyes were heavy and my mind was fogged with the single-minded purpose of sleep.
And I’m damn sure it came quickly.

I remember having a dream that night, something about having to wake up early to meet the postman and pick up a parcel, I remember that same postman knocking on my bedroom window yelling at me to wake up.  I remember waking up and people yelling at me again to wake up. 
It was dark, but the moon was bright and highlighted the interior cabin with a faint silvery shine, I could make out Keith and Martin standing by the windows, and I could hear Fitzy crying softly in the corner. 

            Linda was gone, or at least we thought she was…

She was standing outside in the clearing with torn, muddied clothes and bedraggled hair, staring up at us as we stared back from the windows.  Her arm gave a crude wave, as if her limbs had been numbed by a strong anaesthetic and just flailed without proper motor control. 
And then she turned and skipped like a child into the forest. 
            “Okay, I’ve had enough of this shit.”  Martin growled, pulling the door open forcefully and storming outside with a murderous glint in his eyes.  He marched into the forest and Keith and I just stood there and watched, frozen, terrified that if we went in there, we’d be the next ones to vanish like Paul and Linda.

            “You’ve got to stop him, he’ll kill her!”  Fitzy pleaded as he limped forward, shaking Keith’s shoulder to get him to snap out of his complacency.

            “It’s not her anymore.”  He replied quietly.

            “You don’t know that, none of us do, she could just be sick or maybe being controlled, you can’t let him do this!” 

            He was right, we didn’t know for sure what was going on, and I had to know if Paul, Linda or anyone could be saved from whatever the hell was happening.  I put Keith’s flashlight in his hands and stared at him, he didn’t need me to speak, it was written all over his face. 
He brought us here, he’d damn well get us out. 

I moved to the door and Keith followed, neither of us wanted to, but we’d already lost two people, and probably Martin as well if he remained alone in the woods.  And so, we gave chase.
We broke past the treeline and back into the forest, our flashlights did their best to carve through the darkness but we could find no visible sign of Martin or Linda, but farther in the distance we could still hear Martin in the midst of his tantrum. 
We yelled aloud, hoping he’d hear us over his own enraged tirade, but either he didn’t hear us or was beyond caring by this point.  He was like a man possessed by an angry god, accepting nothing less than our antagonist’s head or his own death…
We hadn’t even thought of a plan to reason with the guy once we found him, he could be drunk with anger and possibly even turn on us with that hatchet.  But we’d have to cross that bridge when we came to it; we had to reach the angry bastard first.

            I call out again, hoping Martin will hear me this time and by this point I realise I’m now alone…

Keith is gone…

I become still with a creeping fear that grows like a morning chill, I whisper out Keith’s name in the hope for a response, but all I can hear is Martin’s incessant and incoherent bellows of anger in the distant forest.
I slowly turn in place, trying not to shift too quickly and create more noise; my flashlight creates a small window of light for me to see what lies in front of me.  Keith is nowhere in sight.

            The next thing I know is something heavy striking my shoulders and forcing me into the ground, leaves and twigs scratch my face and my mouth fills with mud and the coppery taste of my own blood. 
I try to move but the weight on my back is pinning me to the ground, and I freeze still when I feel many sharp points like knives press upon my back and shoulders.  My muscles are rigid and frozen in place; the very motion of standing up against this weight on my back would impale me with these spikes.  And then they start moving…  They’re kneading my clothes and skin like dough or like a cat would knead a soft spot to sleep with its claws.
That thought stays in my head as I realise what’s threatening to pierce my body, long and dangerously sharp talons. 

I suddenly feel an unsettlingly warm breath against my ear and take in a sour odour like spoiled milk, it’s whispering to me, but not in words, it’s a series of clicks and crunches like twigs breaking underfoot, and then I feel one of those talons pressed against the back of my neck and my body seizes up under the pain and threat of being torn open by the pressure.  

I can only stare into the ground or close my eyes, but another hand is placed into the mud near my face, and I get my first glimpse of what threatening to steal away my life. 
The hand is thin and feminine, clearly belonging to Linda, it’s even wearing her bracelet, but the fingertips are gone, they’re opened up like a torn glove and protruding through are long grasping talons, curved much like a bird of prey, the middle one is especially long and resembles a gut hook, something that I saw Keith use to skin and “unzip” the carcass of a rabbit only a year ago. 

            Then suddenly, I hear Martin’s voice, then Keith’s voice, they’re close.
And then in the blink of an eye, the weight upon my shoulders is lifted and I can feel those talons no more.  I call out as best as I can; half muffled from the mud and unwilling to move in case the slightest motion means my death.
Martin rushes over, shouting questions to me and I feel his hands pull me back to my feet, but I’m still very much in a daze.  Simply from what I was just privy to witness and the closest I’ve ever came in my life to imminent death.

Another loud groan from nearby and Martin and I find Keith with a bleeding head wound lying in the muddy underbrush; his flashlight is broken, though mine works well enough that we can find our way back to the arborist hut. 
Martin practically carries us both; we lean on him as we stumble back through the forest and back to the clearing of the ranger’s hut where we’re met with another turn of bad news. 

Fitzy is gone. 

Not a trace of struggle, not a speck of blood in sight, just vanished like everyone else. 
We let ourselves collapse into a sitting position by the doorway, defeated and exhausted we say nothing, if that thing were to return at this moment in time I’m sure it would claim an easy victory.  I don’t think any of us are willing to fight anymore.

            We sit in silence for hours and occasionally we hear something from the forest, sometimes it sounds like Paul, sometimes like Linda, and now sometimes like Fitzy.  I honestly can’t tell if it’s trying to lure us, or just mock us by gloating its victory.
Not before long, the sun rises and with it, the forest seems to come alive again.  Birds chirp merrily, the breeze brushes through the tallest trees, making them sway gently to and fro.  And mercifully, there is no sign of our body snatching stalker.

            “I’m willing to try that road idea now…”  Keith mutters solemnly.

            I didn’t answer him, I contemplated giving up, just walking into the woods and letting whatever that thing was take me sooner than later.  So I stood up, walked out the door with Martin and Keith following me close behind, and if they hadn’t followed me, I’d have probably walked right into those woods myself. 

Instead, we ran. 

We ran towards the main road and then headed back towards town, we ran until our lungs wheezed and our throats were so dry we could barely feel our own tongues.  Our legs burned and every footstep stabbed our feet with agony as each blister and sore from our long walks bled and ruptured. 
We ran, and when we couldn’t run we walked until we could run again, we didn’t stop moving even once.

Then we saw it… 

Not our monstrous stalker, but a small blip on the hazy horizon.

It was a truck.  It was cruising down the road ahead of us and completely oblivious to the horror which lurked in the trees around it. 
We formed a blockade on the road, standing side by side and waving our arms frantically for help, doing our best to grab the driver’s attention.  The truck slowly decreased speed and the cautious driver eyed us with a stern degree of suspicion, we must have looked like a bunch of vagrants by now. 

He didn’t even roll down his window and kept his engine running as he spoke with us.  We told him we needed help, that some of our friends were missing and we needed to get to the nearest police station.
            “Hop in.”  Was all he said, and Keith, Martin and I climbed into the flatbed on the rear, making ourselves comfortable in the midst of gardening tools and clods of turf stored there.

            On the ride back into town there was fifteen minutes of anxious silence between the three of us, but it was Martin who broke that silence with a very good question.

            “What do we tell the cops?”

Do we tell them our friends went missing due to some body snatching monster?  And would they even believe us if we told them the truth?  Or would they more likely believe that we were responsible for their disappearances?

In the end, it was my suggestion to lie.  We’d tell them that we woke up one morning to find them gone, some of our tents and gear were we damaged and our car sabotaged.  We would give the police the description of the man we saw down the riverbank, the one who ran from us. 
This would be our official story to the authorities, and we stuck to it.

We were each interviewed by police and press alike, search parties were organised, and somewhat reluctantly we agreed to participate.  Searches went on for months and during that time we were interviewed again and again and we presumed that we three survivors would still be the likely suspects.  But no arrests were made and no bodies were recovered either. 
The man we described was never found either, and seven months later we went back to our lives and tried to move on.

Keith, Martin and I don’t speak to one another anymore.  At work we barely interact with each other unless we have to, the mood has changed.  I know people in work whisper about it, about how our friends went missing, and we either survived or perpetrated the act…

Two weeks ago, Martin stopped showing up to work.  He didn’t call in sick and he’s not answering his phone and has severed all contact with everyone.

And just yesterday, Keith has done the same thing… No calls or nothing.

I don’t think its coincidence. 

I think I might be next.

After our sudden disappearance the authorities will likely assume we went into hiding and were guilty as charged.  I doubt they’ll think we were victims in the slightest, people always want someone to blame for these sorts of horrible mysteries.

So this is the real account of what happened in the woods those nights ago,  I don’t expect anyone to believe it, but at least if you DO venture out there, you’ll hopefully spot the signs before I did, and get out of there before you end up like us. 

Look after yourselves.

And wish me luck. 


The End

Copy Cat - Chapter 2

Copy Cat
Chapter 2
By Sundaysmile

            That morning I heard many complaints as people were roused from their beds to be met with headaches and dry mouths, all of it stemming from a hangover lurking around like an unwelcome guest.
But, if we were to make it to the Gorge in time to catch a glimpse of this blood river in all its glory we had to be there by noon, and that meant we had to rise and meet the aftermath of our binge drinking head on.

Though a pot of coffee and some aspirin did help a little bit…

            Breakfast consisted mainly of powdered eggs mixed with some jerky and baked beans on the side, though Linda was almost put off her own breakfast thanks to finding a dead squirrel by her tent.  I remember Keith mentioning that it must have been a “present” from one of the foxes. 
Afterwards we began packing together some things we’d need for the trip to the Gorge, just a few snacks and some water, nothing too excessive.  Though while we were packing everything together Keith discovered he had a teensy problem as well, he’d lost his jacket.
I made mention that be probably misplaced it last night when he was drinking, even mentioning that I saw him wearing it while he was sitting alone by the campfire. 

            He did look puzzled by my comment, stating lightly that he didn’t even remember getting up last night or falling asleep by the campfire, but then he was blind drunk last night so he shrugged it off.  It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten so hammered that he passed out or forgot details of a night out.
Oh Hell, half of the time when any of us went drinking in in the city we’d be lucky to remember how we even got home…

None the less, with a belly full of breakfast and caffeine we set off on our trek to the gorge, Fitzy being his usual self was chatting away with everyone, mainly with Martin who was fresh meat to a lot of his stories and jokes.  And like Fitzy, Martin didn’t really suffer with hangovers like the rest of us did; the pair were chuckling and laughing while the rest of us shambled forward like sleepy zombies. 
Though along the way, it seemed like we weren’t the only ones visiting the gorge, at least so we thought.  Our path’s crossed with another campsite, two domed tents standing side by side in a small clearing, though we couldn’t see anyone there.

            The place looked like it had been abandoned for months, maybe even years…  Both tents were left wide open and were filled with dried leaves and debris from the forest floor, while an empty cooler and some trash lay strewn around the outside. 
An overpowering stench was emanating from inside the tents, like something or someone had been using it as a toilet… 

            “Um, should we be concerned by this?”  Paul asked with a little bit of worry, prodding at the discarded cooler with his foot.

            “Nah.”  Keith dismissed.  “It wouldn’t be the first time some kids went camping, got drunk and then couldn’t be arsed taking their tents with them in the morning.” 

            “So, no rapist axe-murderers then?”  Paul asked again, still a little concerned about our findings.

            “There’d probably be a lot more blood and guts lying around if that were the case.”  Keith laughed.  “There are also no backpacks around, so they probably just left this crap behind.”
            “Seems like a waste…”  I muttered, though in all honesty I’ve done the same thing before myself at festivals and music gigs, leaving behind cheap tents and even cheaper camping gear like litter.  I almost smirked at my own hypocrisy, kicking aside some of the rusty beer cans and a leathery husk of what I thought to be an old jacket. 

            At Keith’s behest we strolled onwards towards our destination, following a trail from the derelict campsite which snaked through patches of feathery long grass and spindly saplings, eventually approaching the distant roar of flowing water. 
            “The River’s not far away from the gorge.  We’re getting close.” Keith spoke aloud as the sound became more prominent, filling our ears with its persistent presence much like white noise. 
And not before long, we encountered the edge of the Gorge’s maw, a gaping mouth carved into the earth that stretched down possibly fifty feet or so.  Maybe even deeper. 
While folks were snapping pictures of the view with their phones, Keith and I spared no time in eagerly making our way down.

There was a passage which cut downwards in a sort of natural staircase, creating a thick corridor of soil and moss, with slick stones embedded into the mud acting as steps which led down into the gorge.  As we stepped and stumbled deeper through the small passageway, we had to climb past gigantic roots of trees which had been exposed from the soil walls flanking either side. 
It was almost like stepping into another world, like something from Tolkien’s fantasy or a place untouched and unexplored by man. 
But at the bottom, we were greeted with a grand sight.

The Gorge was lined with red sand upon the ground and dotted with black shining pebbles while the walls were composed more of soil than rock, the orangey clay texture almost looked like the side of a rare steak.. 
A shallow and almost still river flowed through the middle, and even at this light we could see that it did indeed look scarlet red.  It created a very macabre landscape especially with the long dead trees and branches poking out of the crimson pools like they were grasping hands reaching towards the sandy shores. 

In stark contrast, much of the black soil and red clay walls were covered in layers of emerald green moss and I followed its trail towards the top where we saw Fitzy, Paul, Linda and Martin waving from above. 
Paul shouted something unintelligible and I just waved back, beckoning them to come on down.

            As everyone arrived below and started taking in the sights, Keith acted as a kind of mock tour guide to the place, explaining how far the gorge stretched, where it led to and where the caves were, which we were going to eagerly explore next. 
We followed the crimson riverbank further into the gorge, snapping photos with our phones and exchanging comments about how cool or creepy the terrain was at every turning point. 
But just around the corner we found the first opening. 

A massive cavernous mouth made of wet black stone and tinted with green hues of mossy slime greeted us with a wide yawn.  Whatever daylight reflecting off the pools of water inside caused the rocky walls to glimmer and move with fluid patterns of light.  I remember well even now the sights of this place almost like I had the photographs in my hand, but I also remember feeling somewhat apprehensive, like a kid caught trespassing in a place off-limits to them.
I don’t know what spurred this instinctive gut feeling, but it seemed to be just me.  Everyone else seemed eager enough to go exploring, and I just went with the flow.
My flashlight was not particularly powerful, but it did make navigating much of the cave easier, and I scanned the walls and jagged ceiling in amazement that there was no graffiti, no trash or presence of man anywhere to be found.  It was almost humbling in a way to be standing here.
Paul didn’t seem to share my sentiments as he waited outside for fear of getting his feet wet, Fitzy was walking along some kind of upper ledge he’d found which gave a better view of the grotto, trying his best to encourage Linda to join him.
Keith and Martin were chatting away to each other, presumably Keith was telling his work-mate about all the other places he’d been to, trying to encourage the guy to venture out with us more often.

I on the other hand was inching my way towards the throat of the cave which led deeper into who knows where.  My flashlight only stretched maybe less than ten feet in front of me, highlighting important areas where I could walk and not fall and injure myself on the slippery and jagged rocks which layered this cavern like predatory teeth.

I nearly dropped my one and only light source in shock when I heard Linda scream. 

I ran stumbling back to the cave’s mouth, following the sounds of shouting and cursing as quickly as I could without misplacing my footing on the slick and slippery stones. 
I got back in time to see Linda standing in shock and Fitzy shoving Keith away and to the ground in anger.  Fitzy bawled out in pain as he pushed back, hobbling and hopping on one foot before collapsing down on a nearby rock, cradling his foot like a new-born baby.

            “What the hell happened?”  I yelled out at the commotion. 

            “He fell.”  Linda exclaimed, moving closer to check on her boyfriend’s leg. 

            “I didn’t fall, he fucking pushed me!”  Fitzy yelled angrily, pointing a finger at Keith who was picking himself up off the ground with a bewildered look on his face.

            “I didn’t do shit.”  He shot back. 

            “I fucking saw you!”  Fitzy grunted back, holding his breath to fight back the throbbing pain in his foot. 

            “Mate, he was with me the whole time.  He never even touched you.”  Martin stated as he put himself between the pair in case a fight was about to break out, though judging from Fitzy’s injury it didn’t look like he could start swinging even if he wanted to.

            “Dude, you must have just fallen down.”  I added, just hoping to help diffuse this before it got much worse.

            “I’m not even joking.”  Fitzy blurted out between painful cringes.  “I was pushed.” 

            “Did you see anything?”  I asked Linda, but she only shook her head and shrugged in response, clearly just as confused by everything as I was.
I scanned my flashlight along the area where Fitzy had been standing, but nothing was there, or at least nothing was there Now.  But unfortunately that fall he took, regardless of whether he was pushed or fell resulted in an apparent broken ankle. 

The trip was officially over.  It was time to go home.

Getting Fitzy out of the gorge was hard enough, we practically had to carry him AND ourselves out of there up that slippery passageway we used getting down.  Afterwards we had to help him walk back to camp at the pace of a snail, every hour became two as he limped back, being flanked by Lisa and Keith who supported him at each shoulder. 
Martin and I kept trying to call emergency services on our phones to arrange either pick up at camp or at the minivan but we couldn’t get a bloody signal out here.  We were too far in the arse end of nowhere to reach anyone we needed, and to make matters worse? 
At the pace we were walking it would likely be almost nightfall when we reached camp, and the four hour journey to walk back to the minivan might easily become an EIGHT hour journey if we hobble along at Fitzy’s limping pace.
There’s no way we’d be able to do that in the dark…  This meant that Fitzy would likely have to grit his teeth and suffer with it for the evening until morning.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to be the one to have to tell him that…

            By the time we managed to shuffle back to camp it was just after 7pm and the sky was already turning a faint orange over the distant horizon.  We’d at least made it back to our tents, but our elation quickly turned to bafflement, then to anger and further disappointment by what we found.
Three of our tents, including my own, had been torn apart and trampled to the ground, Martin’s sleeping bag had been ripped to shreds and the entire campsite was speckled with the tiny white feathers held within.  Our bags had been emptied; their contents littered around the campsite, much of it our spare clothes and food.

            “No bloody way…”  Paul sounded out in a gasp, almost ready to break out into a cynical laugh of disbelief.

            Martin shared a knowing glance with me, and I felt we were both thinking that this was the work of that fellow who ran from us yesterday at the riverbank.  I just shook my head, not in disagreement, but more with shared disbelief at our sudden turn of bad luck.

            “Guys, I think we’re fucked…”  Paul stammered as he picked up the remains of his backpack.

            “Calm down.”  Keith stated flatly, helping Fitzy over to one of the fallen logs to rest his foot.  “Some asshole vandalised our camp and fucked up our stuff.  It happens; you just need to get over it.”

            “Oh yeah?  And what if he comes back?  What if he’s a bloody psycho and he’s armed?”  Paul shot back again, quickly checking his phone hoping to see a signal.

            “We’re armed as well.” Martin announced angrily, unclipping the hatchet from his belt.  “If it comes to that, we’ll deal with it.”

            “Look, nobody’s chopping anybody!”  Keith spoke aloud, trying to talk over the discord of angry complaints.  “If he shows up, then yes we kick his ass for wrecking our stuff.  But leave the hatchets and blades out of it!”

            Martin and Keith continued arguing over the necessity to dispense justice on our “visitor”, who I assumed would be watching now and giggling at everyone pissed off at his handiwork.
Little did I know that he actually WAS watching us even now.

Linda gasped with fright and pointed frantically into the woods and our heads followed her finger to the source of her concern. 
There stood a man in the distance, standing still like a statue and just staring, staring at all of us in the small clearing amidst the remains of our gear.  He wore a dark jacket with the hood covering his head and faded grey jeans which looked soaked around the legs with mud and water.

            Martin charged after him like a raging bull with hatchet in hand and I gave chase, worried that either his anger might get the better of him and he does something stupid with that hatchet or he might need help if the guy was indeed armed or more dangerous…
Standing nearly seven foot tall with arms as thick as my waist, Martin was not a flimsy guy like me and living in the area of the city he did, I knew he’d be no stranger to a fight. 

He certainly ran fast for such a big guy too…  He outpaced me in nearly the blink of an eye, barrelling forward to the silent stranger who had watched us bicker from afar.        
I called out after him once I saw he’d stopped running but I was struggling to catch my breath and could only call out his name.  At first I thought he was just talking with the guy, but I noticed instead he was looking…  up?

            I arrived huffing and wheezing, not sure whether to expect a confrontation or indeed the aftermath of a confrontation and one guy lying bleeding from an axe wound.  But it was just Martin and I.

            “Where is he?”  I asked, still looking around for our intruder. 

            “Up there…”  Martin said in an almost confused yet childlike manner, pointing up towards the nearby tree with his axe.  Puzzled, I looked upwards but couldn’t see anything but before I could even ask what the hell he was talking about, he stated again.  “He went up the tree.”

            “He climbed the tree?”  I asked sceptically.

            “Climbed?  He fucking ran up it like a spider monkey!” 

            “I don’t see him…”  I muttered as I looked up towards the myriad of branches and leaves towering above us. 

            “Neither do I, but that’s where he went…”  Martin and I continued staring for what seemed like ten whole minutes, both in confusion and disbelief.  And at that moment I wondered if we were seeing things, if our imagination was playing tricks, or more likely Martin just lost sight of the guy or misinterpreted what he saw.  After all, there was no way anybody could physically climb a tree like that, that quickly, and then just disappear…

            Back at camp we began clearing up some of the mess left behind by our friend the “vandal”, seeing what was salvageable and what was still left intact.  But it would be likely we’d only be able to take back what we could carry anyway, the rest would still have to be abandoned…
It was also going to be dark soon, and despite a few complaints of having to spend the night here with some asshole harassing us, none of us wanted to hike through the woods in the pitch black of night. 
So to compensate, we’d take shifts staying awake and watching the camp.  Martin and I would take the first shift and then Keith and Paul would take over the second, we’d keep a campfire burning through the night and at first light we’d get ourselves to the minivan and into the closest town.
While Keith stated flatly that it was just the work of some guy who just wanted to dick around with us, I still feel that he felt this guy, whoever he was, could be dangerous.  A shift system was a good idea in that eventuality.

            Other duties were handed out by Keith in the meantime, Paul was to fetch more firewood for the campfire, and we’d need a LOT more lumber than we had if we were to keep a fire going the entire night. 
Fitzy and Linda stayed huddled up in their tent and tried to get some rest, Fitzy in particular would have it rough tomorrow when we began our trek back to the minivan in the morning.  The walk was long and arduous, and on a bad leg it would be absolute torture.
Martin kept watch around the campsite, doing odd jobs and keeping an eye open for our guest to return or start more trouble with us.  He kept a hold of that hatchet like it was a child in his care, which I assumed made Paul’s job a little bit harder, since it was the only axe we brought with us.

Keith and I were mainly cleaning up the place, looking for whatever could be taken back with us.  There wasn’t much left…
One backpack had one of its straps torn, but was in serviceable condition to carry some goods; our pots, pans and canteens were slightly dented and covered in mud but in otherwise working order. 
Our clothing was scattered around but was surprisingly not torn or ripped like the rest of our gear, instead some of it was polluted with some kind of greasy oil.  It wasn’t sticky or viscous in any way; it had more of the consistency of cooking oil but with none of the smell. 
In fact I couldn’t smell anything from it whatsoever, it was another oddity which nagged at my sense of reason that things were getting VERY strange.  Stranger than us being screwed over by some prankster with too much time on his hands, everything just started to feel wrong to me by this point.
I kept shrugging it off as best I could, I was getting anxious, there was nothing more to it than that, my imagination was wandering into the fanciful and out of the bounds of reality.  Sure, you hear of strange tales from books, movies and games about people encountering weird situations and all hell breaking loose, but those are works of fiction.  They’re not real.

            Even though I kept telling myself this, it didn’t dispel that feeling that I have even now, that something was just not right.  There was something going on that was beyond us and we were in serious trouble.
Keith put on a brave face, but I could see he was feeling it too. 
It was panic that our visitor wanted, he wanted to scare us, make us angry, distraught with our predicament.  He was definitely messing with us, but to what end we would have to wait and see.  To see whether he continued his interactions or started getting violent with us. 
Calm was the order of the day, so long as we maintained our composure we’d be fine and not give this guy the satisfaction of seeing us frightful and bitter.

            By eight thirty in the evening, we’d assembled what we could and Paul had returned with a bindle packed with sticks, twigs and dry leaves.  More than enough lumber to keep us going for the evening and beyond, he even found Keith’s jacket somewhere out around the woods near our campsite. 
Unfortunately the inside of it was coated in the same oily mess much like our clothes were, and it understandably dissuaded Keith from wearing his reunited parka.
Paul pretty much just went straight to bed after that and Keith soon followed, they’d both need as much sleep as possible if they were to wake up early enough to relieve Martin and I from watch duty.

            The sun eventually receded, changing the fading skyline from a fiery orange to a blinding black, there is no moon tonight and the claw-like branches of the tallest trees kept our prying eyes from seeing any distant stars. 
The woods themselves were smothered in darkness like a black curtain that blocked our sight from beyond the campfire’s glow, and the crackles and pops of smouldering twigs are the only sounds tonight besides hushed conversation between Martin and me.
Not a sound beyond that treeline, not of nocturnal birds hooting, or chirping insects or even a hint or sign that our guest is out there watching us.
We were sitting on the old gnarled logs, our eyes flitting back and forth from one dark corner to the next as the shadows moved to the embers of our campfire.  I grew more and more worried that one of these dancing shadows may indeed belong to some dangerous invader who would cause us harm.

            “No offence mate, but I’m never going camping with you guys ever again.”  Martin speaks in a subdued grumble, still keeping his small hatchet in hand. 

            “After this, I’ll be sticking to the city too.  It’s bloody creepy tonight.”  I admitted, thinking about all the hassle we’ve had so far and hoping for a better day in the morning.

            “Aye, it’s like a Blair Witch project out here.”  Martin grimly snickered back.

            “By the way I meant to ask, did you get a good look at that guy?” 

            “The tree guy?”  Martin responded, pointing a thumb back in the general direction where he disappeared. 

            “Yeah, was it the same guy from the river yesterday?”   
            “I don’t think so, but I do know he moved up that tree like nothing I’ve ever seen.”  He shook his head at the recollection and stared thoughtfully at the burning fire.

            “You’re sure he went up the tree?  I mean, does that even make sense?  You think you might have misjudged it or something?”  I tried again, hoping maybe Martin would admit to something he missed or reassure me that what he saw could be wrong.

            “I know what I saw.”  Martin growled back.  “The guy bounded up there like it was nothing, he just…”  Martin motioned with his finger in an upward flick to demonstrate the speed this guy ascended. 

            I sighed defeated, maybe he DID climb up the tree, and maybe he was a frigging parkour master or had something more elaborate to help him up.  Martin seemed convinced of what he saw but I couldn’t tell if his conviction was truth or just him trying to save face for letting the guy get away.

We’d been talking away for around an hour or so to pass the time and at some point during that time of our conversation, for who knows how long, he’d been sitting there beyond the campfire’s glow.  Perfectly still, perfectly silent, caked in shadows and watching us as he did when we first noticed him earlier. 
Our mystery guest. 

The moment I noticed and realised he was actually there I fell backwards off the log crying out in fright, I scrambled back to my feet but he was already gone, vanishing with a rustle of leaves into the night.
 Martin had clearly seen the guy dash into the shadows beyond the clearing, and he stood brandishing the axe threateningly and bellowed into the darkness.
            “Aye, you better run you chickenshit!”
            Linda and Fitzy were the first to rise from their sleeping bags at the sound of the commotion, poking their heads out from the tent with wide eyed stares.              Keith was next to follow out in sleepy strides, clearly irritated by the persistence of our intruder, carrying a flashlight in his hands. 
The beams of light did not travel far in the omnipresent dark; and there were too many places for a man to hide out there.  There were too many trees to hide behind, too many shrubs casting long shadows, all of it working against us as we stood by the reassuring light of our fire.

            “Our best pal is back.”  I uttered to Keith as I pulled out my own flashlight.

            “Yeah, I figured.”  Keith murmured before calling out to the forest.  “We don’t want any trouble, just fuck off and leave us in peace!”

            “You really think this guy is gonna listen to that?”  I asked sceptically.

            “If he doesn’t, he’ll listen when I introduce my foot to his arse and wear him like a bloody stocking!”  Martin yelled aloud, loud enough to ensure that our visitor would hear the threats directed at him.

            After a moment of sullen silence, Keith asks a question which sets me even further on edge..

            “Where’s Paul?”

            “You tell me, he was sleeping in your tent!”  Martin yelled back, his anger clearly growing with every frustrating minute.

            “You mean you two didn’t see or hear him leave the tent?”  Keith grunted disapprovingly, still keeping his eyes on the treeline with his flashlight.

            “Well, did you?”  I shot back, and Keith never bothered answering me, instead he started shouting out Paul’s name, calling out to him in the forest. 

            “What’s going on?”  Linda asked, fearing she already knew the answer.
            “Paul’s missing.” 

            Our voices fill the forest as we call out to Paul, I’m getting incredibly concerned by this point.  Not just at our situation which is growing more and more ominous with each minute, but for Paul’s welfare.  I’d known that guy since my early years of school, I dragged him out on every outing and every hike I’ve ever done. 
And now he was in trouble, and it was likely my fault just for bringing him out here.

            Keith suddenly hushes us for a moment, motioning us all to be quiet with a frantic wave of his hand and we all fall still like trees to better hear the sounds of the forest. 
And then we hear it, it’s faint, but it’s there. 

It’s Paul’s voice, but instead of rushing out to help my missing friend, something puts me ill at ease, it’s a question which holds me in place and roots me to the ground.
Why is Paul yelling his own name?

            I share a confused glance with my fellows, and it seems like they too share the same thoughts.  The voice is getting closer and growing louder from in front of where we stand, and even though it was our friend, who may be injured, who was lost and may be returning to us.  We all seemed to take a step back almost instinctively, as if this voice of our long-time friend was now a threat.

            “Paul, is that you?”  Fitzy called out as he tested fate and hobbled a step further. 

            Another voice replies angrily, this time far to our left.  “Better fucking run!”

            And then again, back in front of us from the shadows.  “You Chickenshit!”

            I turn to look at Martin who’s staring at me with the same dumbfounded expression I must be wearing, “That sounds like you…”  I comment, and everyone shares a frightful glance.

            “The hell is that supposed to mean?”  Martin accuses angrily.

            Paul’s voice interrupts us all once more, it sounds dry and crooked, like he’s being choked or struggling to speak clearly against a sore throat.  It’s all around us now, never staying in one spot before announcing another comment, such as “Is that you?”  Or “The hell is that supposed to mean?”

            “Nobody move from the campfire!”  Keith barks to us all, “Whoever this guy is, he’s just fucking with us, if we stay lit and together he can’t do shit.” 

            “Dude, do you even hear what’s going on right now?”  Fitzy stammered, his eyes struggling to pick out anything, any clue which may betray this phantom’s presence in the darkness. 

            “And what about Paul?”  Linda cut’s in before Keith could reply.

            “Look, if we start wandering arou-“ At least, I thought it was Linda who cut him off, Keith cut himself off and just stood staring towards one of the trees behind us. 
I turn to catch a fleeting image of Paul, and at first I think he’s just upside down hanging from the tree by his ankles, but he scuttles around out of sight like a spider on the bark, quickly and silently almost like a ghost. 

            “Tell me I’m not fucking dreaming…”  Fitzy blurts out.

            “That was NOT Paul.”  Keith stammered, his voice shaking.

            “It bloody looked like him.” I whispered blankly in disbelief.

            “IT’S NOT PAUL!”  Keith yells back and suddenly we hear Linda and Fitzy scream.

            The next thing we knew, Fitzy was on the ground and Linda was being dragged by her heels towards the treeline at great speed.  Keith, Martin and I make a scramble towards her as she reaches out for dear life; I throw myself in a lunge to grab at her and pull desperately at her clothes and shoulders, trying to pull her towards the light of the campfire.  And I almost let her go as my eyes meet with the figure pulling at her legs.

It was Paul.

His long hair was covered in dried leaves and broken twigs, stained with soil and mud from the forest floor, while his skin was pale and oily but his expression was blank and his eyes almost dead or even completely alien. 
The campfire’s light wasn’t perfect and the struggle was hectic so I’m not sure what I saw exactly whether it be true or not, but I will describe what I “thought” I saw. 
I remember his lips just hung open limply with that blank stare of his, but inside his mouth I could see teeth.  Teeth like silvery needles arranged in dense rows and sealed tightly shut. 

I remember it more like a snapshot in my memory more than a sequence of events, because as quickly and desperately as I had managed to grab at Linda, Martin also delivered a solid kick to “Paul’s” face, sending him reeling into the thicket of shadowy shrubbery bordering the clearing around our campsite.

Linda scurried back to her feet and towards Fitzy, the leggings of her jeans were sliced and bloodied, but Martin bounded into the shadows after Paul, swinging his hatchet in wild strikes against the clawing branches and smothering leaves only to find nothing.
Instead of a body, we heard a yowling groan from the other side of the clearing, sounding like a strange mix of a distressed cat or bleating goat. 

            Within moments the forest was alive with unnatural sounds like garbled deer calls, shrieking birds, off key dog howls and even a facsimile of Linda’s screams was repeated to us all from everywhere around us. 
The sounds of leaves rustling and branches breaking forced us to huddle together in the centre of the clearing, like we were sheep being herded by a Shepard’s dog. 

And then suddenly we were met with silence.

We waited for another call.

We prepared for another attack.

We watched the shadows intently for the slightest clue to deliver Paul’s whereabouts to us.

Nobody slept that night.

Even as the sun rose beyond the horizon, we still waited. 

We were just too scared to move.