The tracks maintained their standard length through the dense forest; twice as long as the average man. The group of men were well-supplied and well-fed but struggled to maintain a steady pace. Men were intermittently stopping to vomit or relieve themselves, cursing their over-consumption from the night before. As the alcohol’s effects wore off, the men became attuned to their surroundings.
A consensus was reached that the pace needed to increase, as they were not at risk of ambush. Whatever they were pursuing was heading steadily in one direction, and no other tracks could be found. The men broke into a run, and the remaining whiskey was flushed out of their systems. Sweat trickled down their backs, and across their faces. Puffs of steam billowed from each man with labored breaths. They couldn’t help but feel as if they were gaining ground.
They maintained this pace for several hours before cramps took hold of their stomachs and calves. Their muscles were burning, and their lungs were on fire. Exhausted, they took out canteens and provisions and rested. Crows chattered noisily overhead, and vultures were circling high in the sky. A carcass was sure to be nearby.
Stomachs full, they set out briskly once again. They did not have to go far before the atmosphere changed distinctly. Crows were hopping around them, carrying chunks of meat away from a thicket. Vultures fought with each other over scraps. A man’s scalp flew closely overhead, skin flapping, hanging from a crow’s beak. The eight men stopped and held their breaths.
He stooped, grabbed a large branch, and threw it into the thicket. Birds jumped and scattered with surprise, screaming about their disturbed feast. Something had not budged and could be heard gnawing on the carcass with vigor. Flesh ripped, bones cracked, and a sickening chewing could be heard. There were no growls, barks, or yelps, just a steady devourment.
Heart racing, the man crept forward, with the party a few paces behind. As they came within a few feet of the thicket, the devouring stopped. Something dark grey was stooped over the bloody scene. He could barely see through the dense foliage, but there was certainly something there. He slowly cocked his hammer, and it clicked into place.
At the sound, the creature flashed out of the thicket and bounded through the trees in a blink; clearing forty feet at a time. He was dumbfounded. Never before had he seen something move with such swiftness. There was no time to pull the trigger. He turned, and the slack-jawed men stared blankly into the forest, muskets hanging at arm’s length. However briefly, they had finally seen one of their tormentors in broad daylight.
With the creature gone, the birds once again took their seats at the table. The men did not move. They stared in awe in the direction of the grey streak. It cleared a few hundred yards in a matter of seconds and was out of sight. It did not disturb the snow, merely bounded with extreme athleticism through gaps in the trees. It was a terrifying display of prowess. Mere mortals drooling over their superior opponent.
They looked around, some rubbed their heads to ensure that what they had seen was not a dream, as one man let out a hysterical laugh. “Did you fucking see that?” Another bout of hysterical laughter. “We’re doomed. There’s no way we’re making it out of here alive.” He grabbed the man by his collar and told him to be quiet. They weren’t sure if there were more of them nearby, or if the creature would return with the overwhelming haste that it had displayed at departure.
When the tension had lowered, and the hysterical man had returned to his senses, the group walked hesitantly towards the thicket. He pushed aside the curtain of shrubbery with his musket, revealing a ghastly scene: the remnants of a man torn to pieces. The blood-soaked snow was laced with organs, bones, and scraps of cloth. The men covered their faces in the crooks of their arms and turned away. It was the man who had been kidnapped the night before.
Their companion had been devoured. By what, they were not sure. The only thing they were sure of was his death. Had this happened to the first two men who had disappeared? Were they still being carried to their demise? The men sat in a warm bath of hopelessness. How could they possibly defend themselves? It was only a matter of time before they too were being torn to shreds by these mysterious creatures.