by Marleigh Green

The campfire crackled before my bare feet as I sat before it, breathing in the fumes. The smoke made my eyes water, but the only place I knew I was protected was within the red-orange glow cast by the flames. Darkness was death. 

I was the last one left.

The forest around me was pitch black and silent, save for the occasional scuffling and growling noises that emerged from between the great tall trees. I hardly noticed them anymore, but it was hard to ignore the way that even the crickets had gone quiet in reverence to the things in the woods. 

When we set out on our weeklong journey, there were five of us. Experienced campers and hikers who’d been exploring the wilderness for our entire lives. We’d met in some chatroom and bonded over our love of wide open spaces and isolated cabins. We weren’t frightened by things that go bump in the night. Each one of us could identify the sound of a bear’s roar, a falcon’s screech, even the scratching of a squirrel’s sharp nails against the bark of a tree as it climbed.

But when we first heard the things in the woods, none of us could place what they were. We’d been sitting around a similar fire, laughing and drinking and passing around cans of baked beans when a guttural roar ripped through the night and gave us all pause.

“What was that?” Riley, the youngest of our group, had asked, sitting up straighter.

“It had to be a bear, right?” Sergio offered, looking hopefully to Sam, our unofficial leader.

Sam, the oldest, had been camping and hiking in the woods all over Colorado since he could toddle. He fully rejected glamping and campervan culture, only sleeping inside of a tent when it was necessary. He preferred to lay out under the stars. His wife and 12-year-old daughter liked the indoors much better and had chosen not to tag along for our trip this time. 

Frowning, Sam turned his left ear towards the noise, scratching at the base of his salt and pepper beard.

It was quiet for a while, the only sound the crackling of the logs, until the roar pierced through the night again. This time, sounding closer.

Sam shrugged airily, but his grave, lined face didn’t match the casual tone of his voice, “Maybe a moose? Definitely not a bear, it isn’t their season.”

We all exchanged worried glances, but soon shook off our fears and got back to chatting and laughing, albeit quieter this time. We were experienced outdoorsmen, and most animals didn’t want anything to do with humans, even the dangerous ones. At minimum they wouldn’t come after a group this large unless they were desperate. 

An hour later, we were crawling into our tents or in Sergio and Sam’s cases, under tarps. I was disturbed by the sound of the roaring we’d heard, but I also could barely keep my eyes open, and swiftly fell asleep.

When we woke up, Sergio was gone.

I was brought back to the present moment when I heard whimpering in the trees in front of me and rose to a stand, peering past the flames. 

The downside of the fire is that it makes everything around it basically invisible. You can’t see any more than five feet past the ring of it at night. But if I were to put it out, that would be certain death. 

What I’ve learned over the past few days about the things in the woods are that they’re willing to hunt in the day, they can mimic human voices, and the only thing that keeps them at bay is fire.

A pair of yellow eyes flash at me from the wall of darkness, and the whimpering gets louder.

“Fuck you,” I hiss.

The whimpering stops.

That’s how they got Riley. After we lost Sergio we knew we had to go looking for him. He’d left behind his tent and all of his belongings, the only clue to his disappearance the discarded flashlight lying in the middle of the clearing where we’d made camp. You always wanted to have your flashlight within reach when you were camping outdoors. I slept with mine tucked into my sleeping bag. Sergio had lain down next to his, one tent over from mine.

“He must’ve just gotten up for a piss and gotten lost, that’s the only thing that makes sense.” Sam insisted as Riley, Nick and I gathered up our things in a panicked frenzy.

“And left his flashlight?” Nick grumbled.

Sam glared at Nick, but the younger man had a point. It made no sense for Sergio to leave without his flashlight, and the discarded flashlight was lying just out of range of what would have been the glow of the fire. 

I imagined two possible scenarios. Either Sergio had awoken and picked up his flashlight, dropping it by mistake and getting lost as Sam suggested. Or, bone-chillingly, someone or something had moved it out of reach as bait, to get him to leave the safety of his tarp. The back of my neck prickled at the second scenario and I shook my head. I couldn’t let myself fall into that fear trap.

I didn’t know yet that the second scenario was probably exactly what had happened to Sergio. 

“Maybe he dropped it and couldn’t find it again because it was dark.” Riley offered hopefully, but I caught her eye and she didn’t look particularly convinced.

Sam laced up his hiking boots and stood with his hands on his hips. “We’ll find him. Nick’s a good tracker.” 

If Sam was faking his confidence, I couldn’t tell, but even with Sergio missing it was easier to feel safe with the light of the day dawning on us. I was less afraid now that the sun was up and we weren’t limited to the sight range of just what the fire could reveal.

We’d set off with optimism that we’d discover Sergio stumbling around, confused, but alive, or at worst injured, in which case we’d be in a predicament. We had cell phones but we were also in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t any towers for a signal to ping off of. That was the point of this trip; to disconnect.

Our optimism faded when we left the clearing, packs on our backs, and Nick squatted down in the pathway, frowning.

“It looks like something was dragged, see?” He pointed out the marks in the dirt that showed no footprints, but instead long streaks on the ground that led deeper into the treeline.

Nick followed it, and we followed him, up until we stumbled across a droplet of blood.

Holding his arm out straight to keep us back, Nick stepped forward, following the trail with his eyes, but instead of leading deeper into the woods, it led up.

I gasped and grabbed Riley’s hand as I followed the same line of vision as Nick, up the tree trunk and into the leaves above, there was a coppery, thick streak of blood. It was still dripping from the branches above. No body, but a body wasn’t necessary. There was no way Sergio was alive if he’d lost that much blood.

“Oh my god,” Riley covered her mouth in horror and looked away.

Nick locked gazes with me and shook his head. “Something got him.”

The same something that got Sergio, then Riley, then Sam, and finally Nick, was what lay beyond my range of vision in the woods as I sat in this clearing alone.

The glowing eyes I’d glimpsed at the source of that baiting whimper vanished as the thing retreated into the darkness. I glanced over my shoulder and checked in all directions but saw no other eyes. It didn’t mean they weren’t there, though.

Exhaling heavily, I sat back down in front of my fire and added another log. 

We’d left behind the bloodstain that was the last remains of Sergio and continued on Sam’s guidance, walking in a single-file line down the trail. 

We walked in silence, occasionally sniffling as we mourned the loss of Sergio. His husband would be devastated. We were devastated. But, more than anything, we were afraid of what the next night would bring. 

The day passed too quickly, but sunset didn’t need to arrive before Riley was taken.

As we trudged through the thicket, climbing over fallen trees, just beyond our line of sight a little voice whispered, “Mama.”

All of us stopped cold.

“Mama,” it repeated.

“Dani?” Riley asked, starting forward.

Sam caught her arm before she could move off the path and said, “Riley, don’t.”

“But it sounds like—”

“Your kids are at home, Riley. There’s no way they could be here.”

“What if it’s someone else’s kid? If it was mine, I’d want someone to help them.”

Riley tugged her arm out of Sam’s grip and he let her go with a troubled look on his face. I knew what he was thinking, because I was having the same thought. Even though it sounded crazy, there was no way that that voice had come from a child.

But what else could it be?

We watched Riley trudge into the woods, calling out, “Hello? Can you hear me?”

Riley didn’t return. 

We had no choice but to make camp in the closest clearing we could find and hope that she would make her way back to us. We didn’t banter or laugh as we sat around the campfire in a grave, small circle.

“What do you think it is?” I asked Sam, breaking the silence.

He shook his head. “Whatever it is, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard of.”

We slept fitfully, under the same tarp together, our flashlights tucked into our sleeping bags with us. Nobody disappeared in the night, but when we woke up the next morning, somehow, impossibly, our flashlights were gone.

That was probably the loss that had disturbed me the most, if I was being honest with myself. Unlike a person, who could wander off or be lured away like Riley had, a flashlight didn’t just disappear on its own. Whatever had taken it was smart enough to recognize that we would be handicapped without our flashlights. It also possessed enough restraint not to slaughter us on the spot, but instead to delicately take an essential item without even waking us.

It still troubled me that whatever these things were in the woods would make such a calculated move. As if our fear was what fed them, as much as our flesh. 

My fire had diminished slightly, so I added another log. I did a mental check of how many I possessed at this stage. I needed to add two per hour to keep the fire big enough to keep me comfortable and illuminated, and there were twelve left. Which meant I had six hours worth of logs. Barely enough to stretch me to dawn. But it would have to do. 

Tomorrow I had to get out of the woods. It would be harder because I couldn’t fall asleep, and without rest I would be sluggish and slow, but this was what I needed to do to stay alive. If not for myself, for the others. Their families deserved to know what happened to them. And for anyone else who might enter these woods thinking it was a good idea to camp in them. 

A low growl met my ears and I looked towards it, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to see its source.

“Yeah, you’re pretty fucking pissed at me, aren’t you?” I asked the darkness. “I’d be so much easier to eat if I just gave up. But I’ll light these woods on fire before I let you have me, you assholes.”

The growl stopped and I looked at the fire again. 

After we’d confirmed our flashlights were, indeed, impossibly gone, Sam turned to Nick and I and declared, “I’m going to go look for Riley.”

We exchanged a panicked glance. 

Nick shook his head, “No, Sam. We can’t split off from each other. If we stay together, that’s the only way we’ll have a fighting chance.” 

“She could still be out there. What if she needs our help?” 

I swallowed guiltily as I thought to myself she made her choice. It was cruel, and banal and unlike me to not want to go after my friend who was definitely lost but possibly still alive. I didn’t imagine she was, but if we could find some sort of proof that she’d died maybe Sam would let it go. Selfishly, I couldn’t bear the thought of Sam abandoning us. He was the most experienced and most likely to help us survive this. 

“Then we’ll all go,” I stated shakily, standing up. “Nick’s right, we can’t separate. But you’re probably right too, Sam.”

“I can’t ask you to do this.”

“You aren’t. I’m volunteering.” I looked at Nick, who seemed unsettled, but nodded in his agreement.

“We go together or not at all.” He said.

So, we set off into the woods. At first we heard the sound of the birds chirping and insects buzzing around as we backtracked to where we’d lost Riley, but after a while the sound died. We all noticed, but nobody said anything.

“Sam!” A familiar voice called out from between the trees.

In spite of the fact that it was precisely what had lured Riley away, we followed the voice, hastening towards it. 

But the closer we got, the further it seemed to move away. It took turns calling all of our names, drawing us deeper. 

We’d wandered into another small clearing when we saw one for the first time.

It leapt down from a tree silently as we moved towards the disembodied voice, and the only reason I noticed at all was that I happened to see something moving in my peripheral vision. 

“SAM!” I’d screamed, pointing, as it encroached.

It crawled on all fours, its fur pitch black. It looked like some cross between a wolf, a bear, and possibly even a man. It was enormous that way, but when I spotted it, it rose on its hind legs and lunged, standing at easily 9 feet tall, widening a jaw filled with razor-sharp teeth.

We turned and ran back towards the path, stumbling and crawling over rocks and boulders and fallen trees, our hearts pounding in our throats. 

It wasn’t until we’d returned to where we started, not far beyond the clearing where we’d slept last night, that Nick and I realized Sam was gone.

I sank to my knees in the middle of the path, the horror fresh and acute, but unable to conjure a scream from me. Nick knelt beside me and we wrapped our arms around each other, quietly sobbing. 

That was when I noticed the gash on Nick’s calf. He must have cut himself while we fled the monster. 

I helped him limp back into our campsite, the day all but lost to our fruitless pursuit of Riley, who was likely dead. 

“Did you see it?” Nick asked, as I cleaned and wrapped his leg wound.

Beyond words at this point, I just nodded.

“What was it?”

I shook my head. 

When night fell we huddled together at the fireside, neither of us sleeping. Nick soaked through two makeshift bandages before the bleeding finally stopped. We made it to the next morning and agreed not to leave the path, even if we heard one of our friends calling to us. We’d deduced by then that the things in the woods could imitate people, and even more frightening, understood enough about humans to know how to lure us in. 

I helped Nick hobble down the path for a few miles before we had to pause to rest. He was pale and shaky. Under ordinary circumstances such a wound would not be fatal, but out here, it was a death sentence. 

“You might have to leave me,” he said breathlessly as we sat in the path, eating the last of our rations.

“No.” I replied stubbornly.

“I’m slowing you down.”

“You are all I have left, Nick. I won’t leave you even if I have to carry you out of these woods.”

He nodded somberly. We made it one more mile before having to give up for the night and make camp. Unfortunately I was so exhausted that despite my struggle to stay awake, I fell asleep by the fire.

When I woke up at dawn, Nick was gone. Inscribed in the dirt next to the stick he’d used to carve it was the message “SURVIVE.” 

I was snapped from my current reverie when I heard a clatter at the edge of the clearing. I watched as my flashlight rolled from the edge of the trees into my campsite. 

“Not falling for that one.” I declared.

The thing’s response was a snarl. 

The fire’s glow dimmed as I sat before it, wide awake, but never died. As I awaited the coming of the morning, I knew only one of two things would happen. 

I would make it out, and tell everyone in the world what had killed my friends.

Or I’d burn this forest to the ground.

Author Bio

Marleigh is a 32-year-old pre-published new adult fantasy author from Los Angeles, California. She graduates from Emerson College with a Master’s of Fine Arts in Popular Fiction Writing in Spring, 2024. A longtime writer, she resides in her native city of Los Angeles, and is working on her debut novel, World Breaker, the first book in her Dark Horse series.

Social media: @authormarleighgreen