Bogleech.com's 2013 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by StuartThe beast had come to the Ruhr, walking through a place half-remembered, the haunt of a different life, a different creature. Emotions it had not felt in centuries, emotions it could no longer understand, were stirred.
Home... It was home.
It fed upon the people it encountered; first travellers on the roads and later the people of the towns and villages. It was an all too familiar terror, here, and it was not long before a man, driven half-mad by piety and hate, began to follow in its bloody wake.
No man could face the burning in his eyes and they followed him out of faith and fear. They tracked the creature down, hunted it like an animal through the streets, until finally it fled the town and their wrath.
Emboldened by wine and fire they chased the pallid monster into the forest, screaming defiance to blot out fear. The beast was faster and stronger than any of them, but they surrounded it, ran it down until it was forced to hide before the first rays of the morning sun. It would have found a place of security in the dense woodlands, perhaps, but dry wood caught light all too readily. It ran from the encircling flames, ran back towards the path where the men waited with their torches and their drums.
It fought like the caged animal it was, tearing men apart with its talons, but the creature was cut down. As it lay on the ground, lifeblood seeping into the dirt, their leader appeared above it with a wooden stake in his hands and a familiar fire in his eyes.
Its body was burned into ash and scattered onto the blood-soaked soil where it had been killed. The stake which had claimed what could, in the twilight, be called its life was buried unceremoniously in same spot.
Time passed. The days grew longer. Winter gave way to spring and all across the land new life flourished.
Beneath the soil, something grew.
The path is overgrown, now, replaced elsewhere by a sturdier roadway. It is a longer, lonelier route, but that is ideal for men like Dietrich.
He’d come looking for some country simpletons to swindle, but the people here did not care for outsiders and had a simple and practical approach to justice. He’d been flogged; a first, and the welts and cuts were still raw.
It didn’t matter. Dietrich is a survivor, and more than that an optimist, even with mud trickling into his boots and the wounds on his back smarting with every movement of his pack. This is just a minor setback. He needs to get out of the Ruhr - he knows better than to steal a horse, but a man in nearby village owes him a favour. With luck, and if he crosses the forest in good time, he could be on a barge by tomorrow and from there make his way to Essen. There a man can make money easily enough.
Dietrich pulls his scarf up to warm his face and buries his hands in the pockets of his coat. It is cold here, even for autumn, and mist curls around the trunks and branches of the trees.
A whistling sound draws his attention – a fat little bird hops between branches, chirping. In moments it is joined by another, and another, their beady eyes hidden by dark stripes.
They bound away from him, never quite taking wing. It is a welcome distraction, and Dietrich strays willingly, if carefully, off the path, following the birds to a dark clearing where a small tree sprouts in the shadows of larger neighbours.
It is a hawthorn tree, presumably long dead, naked branches stained by sap and lichen. As he approaches Dietrich can see the bodies, old and new, of countless mice, insects and birds impaled on its thorns. The stench of decay and a subtler, metallic odour cuts through the smells of the forest around it.
Beady-eyed birds spring from branch to branch, cocking their heads and peering suspiciously at Dietrich.
They scatter, shrieking, at his approach. He inspects the tree, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure. Some of the animals impaled here are larger than the birds themselves – a crow hangs from one of the sturdier branches.
He touches the trunk with the tips of his fingers. He knows from the smell alone that the brown residue is not the sap he had assumed.
Something catches his eye. Movement. A mouse, somehow still alive, flexes its legs.
He is not a man given to superstition, being far more inclined to exploit it, but now he steps away, mud sucking at his boots. The birds whistle and cackle around him.
He steps away from the tree, uncomfortable, but the ground beneath him swirls and something coils around his leg, snapping taut. He stumbles and fell into the jagged stub of a branch.
Blood soaks into thirsty soil.
Weeping with pain and fear, he struggles to free himself. Impaled cleanly through the shoulder, he can only use one of his arms. There is a hollow just beneath his legs, a hollow he does not remember seeing a moment before, that leaves him he hanging impotently. He kicks against the tree, trying to push himself loose, achieving nothing but pain.
The birds close in now, cautiously, as he began to pass out. One perches on his shoulder and as his vision darkens he sees the hooked beak sink into his arm.
The blood is life, and with each day his life creeps from his body and into the earth while the birds pick away at his flesh.
He slips into unconsciousness and haunted, second-hand dreams and wakes to a nightmare, fighting hopelessly against the branch.
By the third day he has stopped struggling, only his lips moving silently as he relives memories of a life and half-life that are not his own.
On the fourth day, the birds take one of his fingers.
By the sixth day his skin is as ashen as the snow that fall around him and yet he sweats with fever.
On the eighth day his heart finally stops beating.
Upon the ninth his body is wracked by a spasm that sends him headfirst into crimson-flecked snow. His body is pale and wasted, tattered clothes hiding a multitude of bloodless wounds from whips and beaks.
He lies still a time, watched by the birds. Eventually, though his heart remains still, he moves, stretching his frozen limbs.
He cannot remember his name. All he could remember was that he is a traveller and all he can feel is the cold and hunger. He must travel, seek out warmth and company to salve his loneliness and banish the appetite that eats away at him from within.
The shrikes watch him go, whistling to one another.
As he sets off down the path, he begins to cough. Shrivelled lungs shudder briefly into life.
He leaves a splash of pink in the snow by his footprints. A sticky mixture of sap, blood and a handful of tiny, black pips.