Great torrents of hot wind roared through the dark woods, whipping up dust and debris. Try as he might, the young boy kept getting dirt in his eyes, while branches ripped at his clothes and scratched at his face. Ten-year-olds don’t get scared—or so he kept telling himself. Tears poured freely down his cheeks, as pangs of fear seized him. The sky swirled and churned with black, ominous clouds. They hung low over the treetops like a heavy blanket, withholding their rain and smothering the forest. Jagged streaks of lightning split the air with deafening cracks and rolling thunder. Everything looked the same. The north looked just as it did to the south, and both equally resembled the east and west. Even though it was noontime, the clouds had grown so thick that it felt well past eventide.
A faint sound touched his ears.
Was that a growl? He worried.
It was hard to tell over the deafening storm. His mind conjured up all kinds of ferocious beasts that surely lurked in the shadows, behind dense foliage and thick tree trunks—monsters he had fought countless times before in the safety of his own home and imagination.
There it is again! His heart stopped and he froze, afraid to move.
What is it? Where is it coming from?
He closed his eyes and strained his ears, listening intently. There, carried faintly on the wind was the sound.
Tepidly, he moved forward and listened again.
That’s no monster. It sounds like…singing?
Blindly, he fought the wind. With arms up to protect his face from the thrashing branches, he continued to push his way through the woods toward the sound.
It has to be human, he thought. Encouraged, he plowed on.
Finally, the clouds burst. Sheets of rain drenched the ground, making it slippery and treacherous.
The song grew louder.
He wiped the stinging moisture from his face with a sleeve. In doing so, he failed to see the root that snagged his foot. Down he went, falling in the mud with a splat. He half slid, half tumbled down a small hill.
He came to a rest. A lightning bolt split the air overhead. Thunder shook the earth all around. So terrifying was it, he thought that trees would fall to the power of the storm.
It passed and he could tell the song was right there, close by.
Not a song, he realized. It’s chanting.
He wiped the mud from his face and looked up, finding himself at the edge of a clearing. Before him, black-hooded figures, adorned in robes with silvery runes, swayed in a tight circular pattern as they chanted around a…
He couldn’t believe what he saw. His breath escaped in a small cry, drowned in another boom of thunder.
The figures didn’t hear him; but the monster did.
Its hulking, hairy form towered above the cloaked people; the lower half obscured by the circle of bodies surrounding it.
The boy poised to run; but the monster’s black eyes locked on his, momentarily transfixing him. They were wide, searching eyes—like those of a trapped animal.
Could it be afraid? wondered the boy.
The chanting grew louder, reaching a fevered pitch. The monster’s eyes rolled back in its head, exposing only the whites. The figures stopped their movement. One of them raised a blood-drenched dagger high above his head and shouted something in a strange language.
A dark, unnatural fear gripped the boy—the terror of some unnamed, ancient evil. He scrambled back, flight being his only thought. The monster bellowed a deafening roar, exposing teeth as long as hunting knives.
The boy screamed!
This time, he was heard.
Cloaked heads snapped around, searching for the source of the disturbance. Anger flashed across their faces as the boy stumbled back into the forest, desperate to flee the scene.
The figure holding the dagger pointed it at the retreating child and gave a blood-curdling yell. Instantly, two others gave chase.