The Spirit

Written in response to: Set your story in the woods or on a campground. ... view prompt

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Fiction Suspense

"Run!" Garrett grabbed Heather by the arm and urged her forward through the woods.

Something came crashing through the low trees, rough bark chips and splinters peppering Garrett in the onslaught. It happened so fast that he nor Heather had time to get out of the way. Only Barry, who had been further to the left of the path, saw, or more heard, it coming. It was an enormous grizzly barreling toward them. At least they thought it was a grizzly.

It was like a dream. Those trees that were not smashed to bits seemed to bend around the creature, almost making way for it like commoners for a king. Heather and Garrett fought to regain their footing as Barry took off at a dead sprint in the opposite direction. 

The monstrous animal howled as it charged around, circling the two. Clearly, this was no grizzly. It was far too large, and grizzlies are not small by any means. It was nearly hairless with a long neck like a hyena. Dozens of teeth glinted in the fading sunlight underneath eyes a sickly yellow color. Great muscles rippled with every movement on its shoulders that supported enormous paws, each with four equally devastating-looking claws. It was as though someone had turned a perfectly good bear inside-out, and now it was pissed.

"HE-YA!" cried an old man suddenly standing at the edge of the creature's circle. Stepping forward, he placed himself between it and the two campers. Shaking some sort of gourd rattle, he approached the beast. Snarls and growls came from deep within the animal. It swiped at the man with its great paw in an act of intimidation, but the old man kept his approach. Reaching slowly into an ancient animal hide bag tied to his waist, the man pulled out a handful of dust and blew it in the creature's direction. As if by some miracle, the animal stopped, looked hard at the old man, then slowly retreated and disappeared into the forest.

"Are you hurt," the old man asked, returning to the campers only once the brush had settled where the creature had retreated.

Garrett and Heather turned to each other, shock still draining from their faces, but looked none the worse.

"What in all holy hell was that?" Garrett looked at the old man, his eyes full of questions.

"My boy," the old man began, "that was the Katshituashku. The stiff-legged bear."

      "Stiff-legged bear? What the hell is that, and what did you just throw in its face to make it back off?"

Suddenly, another crash came from the woods in front of the small group. The old man drew a wicked-looking knife and crouched low, ready like a coiled spring to defend his position should the need arise. Barry, looking like the walking dead, pale as moonlight, came traipsing back to the group from the direction in which he had run. The old man sheathed his knife, and everyone relaxed as much as the situation would allow.

"White ash. It is sacred to our people and used for many purposes, like dealing with spirits."

"Look, pal," Garrett said, "I can't tell you how grateful we are that you came along when you did, but can you please explain what all this is about?

"Come with me," the man motioned to the three.

He led them through the thicket, eventually coming to another clearing. An animal hide tent was set in one corner while a fire pit sat at the center. Fallen logs surrounded the cold pit, clearly meant for sitting.

"Please, sit while I make a fire, and then I can share with you what I know." 

Garrett, Heather, and Barry each grabbed a seat on the log furthest from the edge of the forest, lest the creature return and they be the first to know it, as the man set about his work.

The old man grabbed a small hatchet that had been buried blade first in another log and set to work splitting and stacking kindling in a box formation. When satisfied with his work, he clanked the ax head against a small magnesium and flint bar, sparking the pile to life as he blew on it, coaxing the growing flames. Setting his tools down, the old man erected an old iron spit over the fire. He walked to the opposite side of his camp and gingerly lowered an ancient-looking Igloo cooler that hung high above the ground to prevent animals from invading his camp. He removed two young rabbit carcasses and proceeded to skewer and set them atop the roasting spit.

"I hope you three like the taste of wild rabbit," he said, adjusting the spit so the flames licked the meat but wouldn't char the outside too terribly before the rest cooked. Garrett and Barry looked on with interest. Heather tried to hide her facial expressions as they contorted in disgust.

Once set, the old man sat on a log closest to the fire warming his hands. He cleared his throat and looked at his guests.

"My people call it Katshituashku, which translates to stiff-legged bear. It is a monsters spirit from the old times, an animal of folklore and legend, though now you know it isn't just a tale around campfires. No one knows its origin, but it is a spirit of this region that feasts on man. The story goes that eating so much human flesh has caused it to lose its hair. For more years than I care to think about, I have hunted it, protecting my people from its extraordinary appetite for pain and suffering. You three were nearly its latest meal. Had that happened, not even your soul could escape its hunger."

The old man rotated the meat one-hundred-eighty degrees to keep it from burning.

"Okay, so this "spirit," Garrett motioned with his fingers as air quotes, "roams the area looking to eat anyone and everyone, condemning their soul to a tortured afterlife?"

"Yep, that about sums it up," the old man said.

"You really believe that?" Barry chimed in.

"I not only believe it, but I know it, and you should as well. My family is a long bloodline of medicine men and women who have fought the great evil since the beginning. It is now my duty, and trust me when I say I'm not playing around.

Heather rubbed her arms to fight the chill that filled the evening air. It was close to sundown, and they were at least a half-mile from their camp.

"How are we supposed to get back to our campsite? And furthermore, how do we get back to our car?" she said mournfully.

"You don't," the man said, looking up from his work tending to the fire.

"What do you mean we don't? "Barry said as he leapt to his feet.

"It's not safe, and you three can bed down here. I have a few extra blankets, and one night in the open-air won't hurt you. That is, stay by the fire, and you shouldn't get hurt.

Twenty minutes passed in silence as the three campers looked forlorn at the forest edge.

"Dinner's almost ready," the old man said with a cheer in his voice. He stood and walked to the makeshift tent, reaching in and taking out a bottle of amber liquid.

"What's that?" Barry asked.

"What else," the old man looked back at the young man. "Kentucky's finest," he said, coming back with a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon and three small mugs. "Sorry. Two of you will have to share. I'll leave you to sort that detail out." He handed Garret and Heather each a mug. Barry looked none too pleased but shrugged it off to his typical luck.

"SNAP!

The campers jumped at the sound of a branch snapping in the distance. A low growling sound could be heard from the direction they had entered the camp. In one quick motion, the old man drew his hunting knife again.

More snapping sounds could be heard. A pounding of the earth that seemed unnatural followed.

The old man reached for the deerskin bag that hung loosely on his waist but stopped. Reaching down and withdrawing a branch from the fire he had been using to stir the logs, Garrett noted that the tip was now ablaze, like a torch. The old man stepped between the young campers and the forest's edge. The muscles in his neck stood taunt, like the strings of a piano freshly tuned. He cocked his head to one side and whispered to the three standing behind him in a tight huddle, "Brace yourselves, my children, because here it comes again…."

April 22, 2022 17:59

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