(Content Warning: Violence, Blood and Gore.)
Legend has it that a monster emerges from the Mystic Forest once a generation to prey upon children. It does not feed on flesh but the innocence of youth. The creature has never been seen by a living soul, but the proof lies within the destruction it leaves behind and the agony of despair from grieving parents. Time is but a passage of lost memories that are quickly forgotten, and life goes on.
To the east of the Mystic Forest lies a small village called Thornbrush and is home to many settlers, young and old. Thornbrush is the last trading community in the desolate regions of the Wild Lands. Of course, there were more, but most traders packed up and moved out west, where vast opportunities for wealth were more attainable.
Other people left due to the increasing number of beasts in the Wild Lands and rumors of missing children. Those that remained were too poor and couldn’t afford to relocate. To venture out into the great unknown was a dangerous risk that most villagers were unwilling to take. Thornbrush had its fair share of trappers because many hunters far and wide came in search of prized trophies to hang above their fireplaces.
Like most villages in the Wild Lands, everybody knew everyone, and most people were quick to start friendly conversations with their fellow brethren. Thornbrush had the usual amenities, including a bar, ironworks, horse stables, lodgings, various food markets, and fur trading merchants willing to cut a deal.
Claire Bromfield was a single parent left to raise her young daughter, Lilly after a logging accident claimed her husband’s life. The devastating loss took a toll on Claire and Lilly, but they found the courage to carry on in life.
There was only one popular baker in the town market, Claire. Her crumbled cinnamon bread was a popular choice for hunters because it had a long shelf life and was very delicious. At only ten years old, Lilly was a masterful artist and painted local portraits for a small fee. Even in the winter, people would travel to Thornbrush to have Lilly paint them a picture.
Claire and Lilly were not only talented but beautiful as well. Claire was a fanciful spark and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She kept her soft black hair in a bun and had a firm slender body that caught perverted men by surprise. One day a frequent trapper named Marvin wouldn’t stop harassing Claire for a date and thought she was a pushover. Marvin found out differently when she grabbed his arm and flipped him over onto a table of pastry treats.
Lilly was Claire’s look-a-like daughter but believed in a more carefree style. Lilly didn’t like her black hair styled, just free-flowing like nature’s breeze. Also, like Claire, Lilly had a small frame with a strong stature. Being only ten years old, Lilly liked the attention but was soft-spoken in her ways. She loved expressing herself through her paintings, and most people respected that fact.
At Claire’s bakery, an old man wearing a black trench coat with a salt-n-pepper beard stared at a fresh batch of crumbled cinnamon bread. He licked his wrinkled lips and gasped.
Never one to leave a customer waiting, Claire rushed over to the strange man and said, “Hello, would you like to buy some of my famous cinnamon bread?”
Scrunching his lips, the old man replied, “How much?”
Claire smiled. “Two slices for a dollar, or you can get the whole loaf for five bucks.”
“Hm…” the stranger pondered. “A bit expensive, eh?”
“Not at all,” Claire uttered. She could sense his apprehension but couldn’t afford to waste her time on a non-paying customer. “It’s a good deal, but if you don’t have the money, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I have other customers that need my help.”
“A bit rude, eh?” said the stranger.
Claire clenched her jaw and sneered, “Excuse me?”
The old man turned his head away from the bread to match Claire’s brown eyes. “I didn’t stutter. I came here to prevent a great tragedy from happening, and what do I get?” He answered his own question before Claire could part her lips. “I’m greeted with expense offers and rude remarks.”
Claire rolled her eyes and barked, “Look here, buster! This isn’t a soup kitchen for the poor, so you need to leave now!”
“I’ll take six dozen.”
“What? Did you say six dozen?”
“Hard of hearing, eh?”
“Uh…” Claire paused, not knowing what to say. She blushed and found the missing words. “I-I’m sorry, I just assumed…”
The old man grimaced. “You just assumed that I didn’t have any money. Is that right? Well, I’m a hunter from the west side of Ulrich tracking a legendary monster who feeds on young children.”
“That’s an old wives tale,” Claire cut in. “You don’t really believe in that old superstitious story, do you?”
The stranger shook his head. “Tis no wives tale, my lady. I’ve tracked the beast for thousands of miles to this exact location.”
“I don’t believe it,” Claire scoffed. “I’ll go get your bread ready.”
He grabbed her arm and growled, “The Mystic Forest covers a lot of land. The beast tore through Ulrich like a thief in the night, stealing our children away from us. It got my boy, and I tracked every claw mark on every tree leading me to this very place! I tell you, your town is next!”
“Unhand me, you fiend!” Claire yelled. “I’ll get your order, then I expect you to leave, Mister…”
“My name is Feldman. Don’t think about it too much, darling. You don’t have anything to worry about unless you have children.”
As Claire prepared Feldman’s order, she wondered if there was any truth to his story. Lilly was Claire’s entire world, and without her, life would be pointless. She wrapped each slice of bread in wax paper and placed them in a brown bakery bag. Claire briskly collected Feldman’s money and watched as he headed for the exit. Before leaving, he turned with a half-grin and winked.
Claire was glad the strange man was gone, and for the next few hours, she managed to forget him altogether. The bakery was busy with hungry customers, all of whom wanted Claire’s famous cinnamon bread. Claire enjoyed watching people devour her delicious pastries. Their faces would light up with excitement and wonder as the sweet treats quickly disappeared.
All was well until Claire glanced out the window and saw people running every which way like a bunch of wild squirrels. She stepped outside and grabbed the next runner who crossed her path, a young man dressed in brown overalls.
“What’s going on?” Claire asked.
“The kids,” he said in a shaky voice. “The kids have been taken!”
Claire remembered Feldman’s story and recoiled at the thought. “What do you mean the kids were taken?”
“They’re gone!” he whimpered. “A big monster sprang forth from the shadows and snatched them all!”
“You’re mad!” Claire snapped. “There’s no way a monster could take all the children.”
The young man removed Claire’s grasp and chastised, “You’ve been stuck in this bakery too long!” Before taking off, he warned, “Everyone is leaving, and I suggest you do the same before it comes back for you next!”
Claire immediately ran against the swarming tide of sprinters calling her daughter’s name. “Lilly… Lilly… Lilly!”
Crashing through her front door, Claire noticed the tornado-like wreckage, and her precious Angel was gone. Something took her, something big…
No screams of anguish or tears of sorry came from Claire. Only one emotion boiled within like a raging fire on a cold night, vengeance. Claire knew what she had to do next. The carnage from town led directly to the Mystic Forest, so Claire grabbed her satchel and stuffed it with water and a few slices of her crumbled cinnamon bread.
I don’t care if it kills me, but I will get my daughter back!
Claire marched toward the borders of the Mystic Forest while the other citizens of Thornbrush ran for their lives like cowards. A cold breeze pushed against Claire’s body, almost as if something was trying to keep her away. Persistence always pays off for those who endure, and Claire wastes little time entering the dark forest. The trees were a vast ocean of vegetative growth that blotched out the sun.
The monster was easy to track from the broken tree branches and ruts in the soil. Claire couldn’t believe that this was happening, especially now of all times. It was hard enough losing a husband; she couldn’t bear to think about losing a daughter too.
A soft sputtering of water filled the air, and Claire knew she was getting close to the Whispering River. As she laid eyes on the magnificent body of water, a small gasp escaped her lips. She stooped and ran her hands through the cool water and decided to take a sip to preserve her canteen.
A fierce roar broke the silence, and Claire turned to see a rabid wolf creeping towards her. The animal had matted black fur, and thick saliva dripped from its ferocious teeth. It was hungry for human flesh.
Claire quickly grabbed a broken branch beside her and jabbed it like a spear. The wolf was undaunted and proceeded without fear. Claire wasn’t sure what to do. If she lunged and missed the beast, it would surely mean the end of her quest to save her daughter. If the stick pierced strong and true, her journey could continue.
Holding the branch tightly, Claire narrowed her eyes, knowing that she would only get one good offensive maneuver, and it needed to count for something. The time was now, and she needed to act before the wolf made its move.
Lunging forward, Claire felt confident that her strike was a deadly one, but her feet met a firm tree root buried beneath the thick leaves and tripped. The wolf dodged out of the way and then jumped into the air to tackle Claire with lightning-quick speed.
Before one paw could touch Claire’s flesh, a black blur rushed by her eyes and tore the wolf limb from limb. The smell of fresh blood filled the forest, and standing before Claire was a massive black grizzly bear. Its head was tucked low to the ground with hungry eyes locked on Claire.
Claire’s heart pounded so fast and loud that she could hear it thumping in her chest cavity. She knew the bear could as well and felt like a golden dinner plate with a tolling bell. Here’s your dinner, come and get it!
The bear salivated and stormed forward. Claire closed her eyes and screamed, “Please, don’t kill me!! I need to save my daughter from the monster that took her!”
The next thing that Claire felt was a warm, prickly tongue licking her face. She opened her eyes and saw the bear smiling back at her.
The bear spoke in a deep throbbing tone. “My man-cub was also taken.”
Aside from being surprised and amazed by a talking bear, Claire gulped, “Are you going to eat me?”
“Ha, ha, ha, ha! Me no eat you!! Me needs your help to find big, nasty creature.” The bear backed away and continued, “Me name is Belko.”
Claire stood up and brushed the leaves away. “My name is Claire. If you promise you won’t kill me, then we shall join forces to rescue our children.”
“Me no have children, only man-cub!”
“Okay… to save our man-cubs.” A slight giggle escaped her lips.
Belko grinned, and so it was settled. A strong woman and a mighty grizzly bear had joined forces to battle an unknown monster in the wilderness. Together they journeyed further into the Mystic Forest, following the ruffled trees and upturned soil. They were both focused on the mission at hand and did not talk much. Claire wasn’t sure what bears liked to talk about and didn’t want to say anything that would upset him. Belko felt the same; humans are complicated creatures, after all.
The path went on for miles, and soon Belko and Claire came upon a broken old man gasping for air and sitting in a bloody puddle. Claire’s eyes popped open because she recognized the person. It was Feldman.
“What happened?” asked Claire.
Feldman spat out blood and rasped, “I was… closing in… on the beast… and… he swatted me like a… fly… like I was… nothing…”
Belko sniffed the air, licked his lips, and reached down to grab a brown paper bag that was lying next to Feldman. Reaching in, Belko pulled out a slice of crumbled cinnamon bread and ate it in one gulp.
“Mm, this good yummies!”
Feldman’s eyes glazed over. “Please… save my son… save them all…” Claire nodded and watched as Feldman took his last breath.
Belko suddenly shoved a slice of bread into Claire’s face and uttered, “You must try this goody-good thing. It will give you much energy!”
“What you have there is of my own making,” boasted Claire. “It’s my recipe, and if you like it, I’ll make you and your man-cub a fresh batch once we rescue them.”
Belko liked the idea and pressed forward hastily. After another few miles, the path of destruction came to an end at the mouth of a hollow cave. It was a dark abyss that smelled like rotting flesh.
Claire glanced at Belko and shuddered, “This must be the place!”
“Yes,” Belko warned. “Time to dance with death!”
Belko brushed past Claire and was the first to enter the dark cave. Claire followed close behind down a long narrow pathway that led to a wide girth. A tiny sliver of light shined through a crack in the ceiling to reveal thousands of small skeleton bones scattered around a rock table that stood in the center of the cavern.
Claire scowled as she recognized her daughter chained to the stone slab. She began to run towards her, but Belko held her back.
“Let go of me,” Claire ordered. “My daughter is right there!”
“Me no let you go yet,” Belko urged. “It might be a trap.”
Just then, the shadows stirred, and the monster stepped into the light. It was an abomination to all life. The creature had a man’s torso with a lion’s head, curvy horns, goat legs with mangy brown hair, and black hooves for feet. Standing over twelve feet with talon-like hands, it was no wonder that the monster could steal so many children in one grasp.
Seeing the intruding trespassers, the demon hissed a blood-curdling scream, “Agh!!”
Behind the beast, Belko could see more children chained to the wall, including his man-cub. He could no longer contain his rage and charged forward. The abomination snarled and stormed ahead, locking horns with Belko. The titans wrestled around the broken bones trying to gain the advantage.
Claire used this opportunity to unchain Lilly from the table. She wrapped her daughter in a loving embrace and heard a wicked slam from across the room. Belko was thrown against the stone wall, and all light faded from his eyes. The abomination was now upon Claire. She shoved Lilly away and screamed, “Run!”
The monster hit Claire with the back of its hand, knocking her to the ground. It stooped and opened its maw, ready to devour her, but out of desperation, Claire had one last idea. She quickly reached into her satchel and removed a slice of cinnamon bread. She crushed the bread with one hand and blew the crumbs into the monster’s mouth.
The abomination withdrew and coughed. The cinnamon bread was like poison or acid that ate away the creature’s insides. The monster howled in agony and dropped onto the stone table. Coming to his senses, Belko trudged toward the demon and yanked its head off. A waterfall of blood filled the cavern floor as Claire and Belko freed the children and made their escape back to Thornbrush.
To everyone’s astonishment, the children were returned to their parents unharmed. Feldman’s son was reunited with his mother in Ulrich, and the story of how his father tried to save everyone made him a local hero.
Afterward, Claire, Lilly, Belko, and his man-cub gathered at Claire’s bakery and had a magnificent feast of fresh-baked crumbled cinnamon bread. A victory that was well earned.
Before returning to the forest, Claire gave Belko a hefty supply of cinnamon bread and bade him farewell.
“Thank you for the yummie, yummies!!” Belko said, waving goodbye.
“You’re welcome, my friend,” Claire gushed. “Please come back if you need more!”
Belko’s face lit up, and he clapped his paws. “Oh yes, me surely will!”
A few weeks later, Lilly painted a mesmerizing portrait of the hideous abomination so that no one would ever forget what it looked like. Through her art, Lilly managed to put away the torment she had endured and carried on.
Claire was doing quite well. Aside from being a legendary local heroin, she had a new dish for people to try. She called it apple bread but wasn’t sure if it would be a killer delight like her famous crumbled cinnamon bread…
Daniel R. Hayes