Working in a tumble-down shed by the light of the morning sun, Lars Thomond pressed the steel blade of his axe against a rolling grindstone. Sparks from the blade shot sideways through the air as Lars tread the stone’s pedal with his foot, generating a thumping rhythm to which he whistled a favorite melody. He moved the axe head from side to side until he felt that the blade had been sharpened and then he ran the fleshy part of his thumb along the metal to feel its edge.
“That’s well honed,” he muttered, and taking his foot from the pedal, he reached for the oiled leather case that protected the axe’s head.
Rumbling wagon wheels coming up the lane told Lars that Joshua and Jacob had returned. He and the Alders intended to continue cutting up the giant oak they had chopped down the day before. First they would strip off large branches. Then they would use the horses to drag the branches to the tree line for transportation to the mill where they would be sawed into boards.
Sheathing his axe, Lars glanced out of the shed at the grassy patch where he planned to build his barn. Two broad doors would open into a wide interior where stables lined the walls for the cattle and horses. Hay from the fields would fill a high loft and he would paint the whole building brick red. Elsie said they should also paint an ornate hex sign on the barn to ward off evil spirits, but not being a superstitious man, Lars had argued against it. Elsie persisted, however, and Lars gave in to keep the peace. After the barn had been built he would contact a local artist who specialized in painting the signs.
When the wagon rolled into view it stirred Lars from his reverie and he waved.
“Greetings, Joshua and Jacob,” he called.
“Good morning, Mister Thomond,” replied Jacob with a curt touch of his hat. Joshua did the same, adding a nod in Lars’s direction.
“You men ready for a hard day’s work?” asked Lars. “We have a lot of wood to cut.”
“Yes, sir, I reckon we are,” nodded Joshua. “We’ll get the job done.”
Lars stowed his axe in the bed of the buckboard wagon and looked up at the father and son. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “You wait here a minute while I say goodbye to Elsie.”
Walking to the door of the house, Lars pushed into the kitchen where his wife finished tying a cloth around a basket of food.
“The workmen are here, Elsie. It’s time for me to go,” he said.
“Alright, husband. I’ve prepared a lunch basket for you with bread, cheese, and berries in it. Here’s a jug of apple cider for you, too.”
“Cider? Why, that’s wonderful, Elsie. I didn’t realize we had any.”
Elsie grinned and put a hand on Lars’s arm. “I know how much you enjoy it, so I bought some from the cider works near Needwood Village. You’ll need it to keep up your strength.”
“It’s not hard cider, is it?” Lars winked. “I won’t be able to work.”
“Silly man. No, it’s not applejack. I won’t indulge your bad habits. Now, you’d better go.”
Taking off his hat, Lars stooped to give Elsie a kiss. Then he picked up the basket and went out into the yard. He placed the basket in the back of the wagon and hopped on board.
“I’m ready, Joshua. Let’s be off.”
“Yes, sir, Mister Thomond. Hee-yah!”
Joshua snapped the leather reins over the horses’s backs, stirring them into motion. The team snorted and pulled a circle around the dusty yard before proceeding back to the main road. They made their way south for several miles until they arrived once again at the old wagon trail that disappeared into Needwood Forest. Looking up before they pulled to a stop, Lars noticed a crow circling under the blazing sun. It would be hot that day, he thought, and he wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Joshua halted the wagon by the tree line and climbed down to unhitch the horses. As they had the day before, the men planned to walk the team into the dense woods. Lars and Jacob secured their axes and the rope they would need to haul the branches out of the trees. Then, after ensuring everything was ready, Lars led them once again into the shady confines of Needwood Forest.
They followed the old trail for a distance until they arrived at the clearing where the fallen oak lay in a colossal heap. Branches twisted in all directions, making passage through the clearing difficult. Meanwhile, the leaves had begun to die, shriveling into gnarled bunches as they dried in the sun.
“Well, gentlemen, here we are,” said Lars. “Let’s get to it.”
The men untied their axes from the horses and found places around the tree to work. They chopped intently for a while, not noticing in their preoccupation that a mist had begun forming around them. It emerged from the trees as thin gray tendrils that snaked through the grass, but as it lifted into the air it congealed into clouds, dimming and then blotting out the sunlight that passed through it.
Setting down his axe, Lars leaned on the handle and gazed around the clearing. “What is this damnable fog?” he asked. “It has grown thick.”
“It sure has and right quick too,” noted Joshua, who set down his axe as well. “Look, it’s rising to the treetops. I can’t even see the sky anymore.”
Lars followed Joshua’s gaze to see that he was correct. The mist had filled the woods around them and billowed upward into the canopy, covering the last patch of blue sky. What was more, the forest around them had gone so quiet that the loudest sound Lars could hear was his own breathing.
“Joshua, have you ever encountered anything like this?” he asked, his voice dropping to a near whisper, as one tends to do when in a very quiet place.
“No, Mister Thomond, I can’t say I have,” replied the older man. “It’s downright strange, I tell you, but then we are in Needw—hey! Something’s spooked the horses!”
Terrified shrieking pierced the mist and the woodsmen rushed to the spot where their horses had been tied. The animals, however, were gone. Pieces of snapped rope lay at the men’s feet and the sound of pounding hooves echoed through the trees as the horses fled.
“I’ll get them!” yelled Jacob and dropping his axe to the ground he ran off through the fog.
Lars knelt down to examine the tattered rope. “This is very strange, Joshua. What do you think could have spooked them like that?”
Joshua walked around the small tree to which the horses had been tied. “Darned if I know, Mister Thomond. Ack!”
Grimacing, Joshua spit on the ground and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“What on God’s green earth is that foul stench?” he choked.
Lars also caught scent of the noxious reek and rose gagging on it to his feet. It smelled of rotting flesh mixed with sulphur and sweat. The stench tormented Lars’s nostrils and he quickly put his handkerchief over his face.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said in a muffled voice. “I’ve never smelled anything like it before.”
Shaking his head, Lars let the length of rope in his hand fall to the ground. Then he looked up to find himself alone.
“Joshua? Where are you?” he called, staring at the spot where the old man had been standing.
Lars walked a circle through the trees to search for Joshua, a swirl of irritation and alarm rising in his chest.
“Joshua, this is no time to jest. Show yourself!” he demanded in a nervous voice.
The horrible stench suddenly intensified and Lars felt the urge to retch. His eyes watered and he doubled-over to spit the vile taste from his mouth.
“Gauch—Joshua?” he gagged.
Then Lars spied something horribly out of place—a shadowy humanoid form that crouched over a dark mass in the gloom. Lars squinted at it, making out the thing’s spindly legs, its hunched back, and its clawed hands. The thing turned toward him as if it had felt his gaze and its eyes glowed an eerie green in the fog. Long strands of saliva dripped silvery from the phalanx of razor sharp teeth in its mouth.
Terror shivered down Lars’s spine.
“JACOB! COME QUICKLY!” he shouted.
“Sssss, another soul for Samael!” hissed the thing.
Then it leapt.
Stumbling backward, Lars used the handle of his axe to bat away the claw that reached for his throat. The thing hissed with fury and lunged a second time. Fear swept through Lars, screaming that he should run as fast as his legs could carry him. Yet despite his panic the instinct to fight proved stronger. Lars raised his axe and slammed it with all of his might into the thing’s furry chest.
The creature let out a howl of pain and staggered backward as a torrent of blood gushed from the cut. Lars thought it might sink to the ground and die after such a grievous wound, but it merely crouched there panting. It’s red tongue lolled from its mouth and for a second the green light in its eyes grew dim. Then a low growl sounded in its throat and it rose to its full height. The growl rumbled louder and the light of its eyes brightened as a sneer spread across its face. Lars shook his head in horrified disbelief. The creature was laughing at him!
“Stupid mortal!” the thing blurted out. “Your puny weapon cannot harm me. Behold!”
Spreading its arms wide, the creature puffed out its chest to reveal the leering, bloody gash that Lars had chopped. Lars stood there in shock as the flesh threaded itself closed. Utter panic filled Lars’s heart and his knees buckled. He could not fight a thing such as this.
Lars took a step backward, the axe falling from his hand. Then he turned and ran off through the fog as fast as his legs could carry him. Crashing through the underbrush, he called again for Jacob. Roots caught his feet and Lars sprawled onto his face. Fear drove him, however, and he scrambled back to his feet and sprinted through the trees until all sense of direction had left him.
After he had run some distance the fog cleared and Lars paused to take shelter behind a moss-covered boulder. He listened for his pursuer, but heard only the pounding of his heart and the sucking of breath through his teeth. Too afraid to move, Lars waited to catch his breath. Then he heard Jacob’s voice echoing through the trees calling his name.
“W-what should I do?” babbled Lars in terror to himself. “That devil is still out there, but I’m the one who cried for Jacob to help and he came back to find me. The thing will get him! I can’t leave him to face it alone.”
Swallowing his fear, Lars bolted from his hiding place and ran toward the sound of Jacob’s voice. Jacob, meanwhile, had returned to the site where Joshua’s body lay on the damp earth and he knelt sobbing beside his father as Lars came up through the fog.
“Jacob?” Lars called.
“Mister Thomond!” sniffed Jacob, wiping tears from his face. “I’m here, sir! Over here!”
Lars pushed through the bushes toward the sound of Jacob’s voice.
“Jacob, are you there?” he asked.
“Mister Thomond! Thank goodness you came,” said Jacob as Lars rounded a tree. “I thought—my God! What is that thing?”
Jacob pointed over Lars’s shoulder and the Swede turned to see a dark silhouette rise out of the fog. Quick as a whip, the demon struck Lars a powerful blow across the chest, its terrible claws lifting him completely off his feet.
“Uh!” grunted Lars, his broken body crashing dead upon the forest floor.
The hideous creature slipped over a rocky mound toward Jacob, striking the youth dumb with fear. Nauseating strands of spittle dripped from the thing’s jaws and its claws scratched menacingly on the bark of a tree. Jacob’s bladder emptied itself down his pant leg and he closed his eyes in fright when suddenly a crow squawked loudly from above.
“Caw! Caw! Two souls, said the mistress. Caw!”
The hissing creature gazed up and spit at the crow. “Ach, but this one is so close, sssss. I can smell his fear. He won’t be missssed. Just one more soul.”
“Caw! Heed the Bane. Two souls only. Not three,” commanded the bird.
Cracking open his eyes, Jacob questioned his sanity. The scene before him felt unreal. His senses reeled from the Krytten’s powerful reek and his knees quaked. He thought he would faint, but he forced himself to stay upright as the thing hovered over Lars’s body.
“Run!” said a voice in Jacob’s head.
His feet moved of their own accord and Jacob stumbled backward into the fog until the hellish thing had been left behind. Then Jacob turned and ran as fast as he could to the edge of the forest, feeling in his pounding heart that the creature pursued him every step of the way.
It did not give chase, however, and Jacob broke safely into the field beyond the trees. There he spotted the two horses grazing in the grass. Jacob grabbed up the reins and harnessed the team to the wagon with shaking fingers. In his panicked state, time slowed to a crawl for Jacob, but he got the team secured and after climbing onto the driver’s bench, he lashed them toward Lars Thomond’s farm.
Driving into the yard behind Lars’s house, the kitchen door swung open and Elsie stepped into the sun, her hands clutching her apron as she dried them.
“Why, Jacob, what are you doing back so soon? Where are Lars and your father?” she asked, a puzzled expression on her face.
“Oh, Missus Thomond, it’s terrible!” Jacob sobbed. “A horrible creature attacked us in the forest. It killed my Pa and … and.”
“And what, boy, spit it out!”
“Lars is dead.”
Shock spread across Elsie’s face. “Lars is dead, you say? What do you mean he is dead? And what is this creature you speak of? Come down from that wagon and tell me what happened!”
“I can’t, Missus Thomond,” cried Jacob. “I’ve got to go to town and get help. The thing that attacked us killed Mister Thomond when he came to save me from it.”
Elsie rushed to seize the reins of Jacob’s team. “Don’t leave!” she howled. “Where did this horrible thing happen? What was the creature?”
“I don’t know what it was, Missus Thomond. It had black fur and it reeked with the stink of death. It was a demon, I tell you. Now let me go! I must warn the town.”
Jacob jerked the reins from Elsie’s grasp and one horse reared, its eyes gone wide from fear of the bawling woman near its face. With a shriek, Elsie toppled into the dirt, but Jacob did not pause to glance back. He snapped the leather straps and sped from the yard to warn the villagers that evil incarnate stalked Needwood Forest.