“There’s a place no one’s heard about,” says Ryan. “And tonight’d be a perfect time to visit it.”
“What is it?”
“The Haven. Out in the woods.”
“Let’s go,” they all agree.
It’s Friday night and they feel all right. Bored teenagers looking for an adventure. Invincible in the autumn breeze.
They walk in the chill, the dirt and leaves under their shoes. Their strides are arrogant, their gait is loose. The moon is out but the forest is dark, the light unable to penetrate the whispering branches.
“So what is the story?” Daniel asks.
“Back in the 1800s, there was this old warlock that lived out in this house in the woods,” says Ryan. “They say he practiced Satanic spells and feasted on the flesh of the innocent with hordes of demons.”
“Fuckin’ lame so far,” says Nick.
“He kidnapped a farmer’s daughter and the townsfolk formed an unruly mob and stormed the guy’s house. They found the daughter chained in the basement, fully pregnant even though she’d only been missing a day or two. They burned down the warlock’s house with him inside. They said they could hear more than one voice screaming.”
“What about the daughter?”
“She couldn’t speak, but they helped her get better. She carried the baby to term but when it was born it was all hairy and it had the face of a 90-year-old man and it had wings. It started speaking as soon as its head came out, reciting these incantations. So the town priest threw it in the river, and the river’s surface lit on fire and burned for three days. No one in town slept for those three days.”
“So what’s this got to do with us?”
“The foundation to the warlock’s house is still there, out in the woods here. And some say that the infant survived and haunts the woods.”
“That’s honestly the dumbest fucking legend I’ve ever heard,” both Nick and Daniel say at the same time.
They walk, their phone flashlights bouncing along the path. They can’t hear civilization anymore. No traffic or sirens or train whistles. Just the wind.
They round a bend in the path, and to their right, there it is. Their lights fall on a tumble of silver stones. They’ve come across a darkened ruin.
They walk up to it, shine their lights. It’s almost unceremonious, how it just sits there. It looks like any other old foundation, round stones and cement covered in moss and sticks and leaves, reclaimed by nature. There’s a broken stem of a chimney and about fifteen square feet of stone shaped in a rectangle.
They spread out, examine it, feeling thrilled at their discovery.
“Look at this,” says Daniel after a minute. He points his light down on a pair of stones near the base of the ruin.
Hewn into the stone are two symbols. One is two parallel lines, like a wide equal sign, with an X between them. The other is two circles connected by a line, resembling a badly drawn pair of spectacles.
“No idea what these mean,” says Nick. “But is anyone else getting weird vibes right now?”
There’s a noise. It could be a bird or a toad. It’s a strange noise, like a gargle in the back of the throat. It comes from above them.
They have a second to look up and see the thing in the tree. It has red eyes and swoops down upon them.
It takes Nick before any of them can register what’s going on.
The swift violence of it. The animal quickness and crunch and rip and tear. There is no mercy, no capacity for mercy. Mercy doesn’t exist between predator and prey. There is only what could be and what is.
They can hear it eating him, his flesh rent from his bones. It sounds like someone devouring an especially delicious chicken leg. There is chewing, snapping, grunting.
The other two run. As far as they know, it happened quick enough that Nick didn’t feel anything. He didn’t even scream. There was just the swoop and the eating noises. It covered Nick with giant black wings like an owl.
They run into the woods and turn their lights off. They’re lost now, their breath is showing and they’re afraid even that will give them away.
They don’t dare speak. Both of them think about The Blair Witch Project but it’s not funny. They feel like lost children who’ve been caught doing something terribly naughty. They are lost children.
The only noise is the wind in the trees.
They look up. The thing is above them again, seeming to appear with absolute silence. They see with horror that the thing has Nick’s head. His eyes are red now and his teeth are incredibly long and sharp and they stick out of his mouth. His head sits on top of what looks like a reptilian bird, a collar of thick white feathers, two scaly feet of cruel black talons.
There are slaughter-screams as it strikes again. This time it’s Daniel who gets taken. There is another swoop and a bone-crunching, skull-knocking catch followed by more eating.
Ryan flees, an animal fear ripping through him. He feels like he’s full of cold air. His legs fly, his eyes fill with freezing water.
He runs, he runs. He darts through trees, his hair damp and dangling. He doesn’t know where he’s headed, except away.
He stops, then keeps going, looks around frantically. There is only the moon, the wind.
He doesn’t know where he is. All is black forest.
He stands there, quivering, cornered. He can’t see it.
He doesn’t hear it swoop.
It knocks him over, and he looks up into its two pairs of eyes, sees both his friend’s heads on the shoulders of the demon-bat-bird, both their eyes bulging and red, their mouths full of jagged pin-cushion teeth.
They both bend down, feed.