As wake up calls go it's not Sarah's favourite.
"How?" she asked, voice thick from sleep.
The voice at the end of the line hesitated before saying, "It's best if you come to Greycliff and see for yourself."
Sarah's stomach dropped.
She performed her usual morning routine like an Olympic sprinter chained to a lead weight; hurtling out to the patrol Jeep with a cloying sense of dread.
She took the dirt road up to the rocky slope and followed it all the way to the top until the ground evened out into a flat square of land, revealing Greycliff station. The sturdy old watchtower sat upon its namesake; a steep rise where the new forest abruptly meets the old. Its weathered limestone face loomed over the sunken woods below, the part of the forest the sun never seemed to reach.
Out of habit, Sarah glanced at the metal platform that jutted unnaturally over the lip of the cliff, just visible beyond the station. The beginning of a set of ageless iron stairs, rusted red, that zigzagged over a hundred feet down the rock face to the small glade in the cliff's immediate shadow. Those who reach the bottom were greeted by a single pillar of stone that protrudes from the centre of the glade, a pale finger reaching up from the surrounding shadows. There is blood on it that is always wet.
Sarah's train of thought was interrupted when her eye was drawn to a figure emerging from the station. As she eased the Jeep to a stop she noticed the chief ranger waiting with a familiar expression on his lined face that made Sarah's stomach roll uneasily. That look was never good.
"Jim," Sarah greeted as she climbed out. The wizened man simply nodded. Definitely not a good sign.
"Where is he?" Sarah asked hesitantly, grimacing.
The chief nodded his head in the direction behind her and Sarah turned in surprise, having noticed nothing on the drive over. Sarah walked toward the trees that formed a line some twenty feet behind the station and Jim followed. The smell hit her first; an overpowering stench of something dead cooking in the morning sun. Then her eyes picked out something strange between the dense ferns on the forest floor. The shredded remains of a uniform and a pair of black boots were the only thing to distinguish the body as that of a ranger. The head and hands were missing.
"Oh, God..." Now the smell made sense. "When did you find him?"
"'Round Eight thirty," Jim replied gruffly, "think he's been out here most of the night."
"Where's the rest of him?"
"I don't know, Sarah," Jim said stiffly.
"Well that could be for the best. Nobody would know it was him, we could-"
"I'm not burying Nate in the woods!" Jim snapped abruptly, his words echoing down into the valley. Sarah chose to ignore the uncharacteristic break in the man's voice. He took a moment to compose himself. "He worked here his whole damn life, he deserves better. Help me carry him to the truck."
Sarah stared at what remained of the man she'd known since starting as a ranger at Barrenoaks National Park. He had always had a knowledgeable look about him at all times and a good humoured temperament that never seemed to waver. But now any trace of that smile was gone. His head hadn't been so much removed but torn apart from the inside out, the loose skin and sinew discovered hanging limply down his back, caked in mud and leaves.
It was his failing marriage that changed him in the end, barely three months ago. The smile became a little less natural and his breath harboured the sweet smell of whiskey. Now he smelled of soil and rotting meat. A little, green beetle crawled out of one of his wrists and Sarah looked away, forcing vomit back down her throat.
As they heaved the body to the back of the truck, Sarah saw a sleeping bag laid out and waiting. They lowered Nathan's remains onto the cushy black material and then began to zip it closed like a makeshift body bag. Sarah found the experience surreal even for someone of her background.
Kyle arrived at that moment. He was a transfer from the nearest town, Fairwater. He'd been fresh faced and as green as could be, living the previous luxury of patrolling the sleepy town. It was fair to say life in the wilderness had opened his eyes.
The young ranger turned very pale as he caught sight of the messy remains of Nathan's head before it disappeared inside the sleeping bag.
"You okay, kid?" Sarah asked warily.
"No," he replied quietly.
Sarah had seen enough in her years at Barrenoaks to not balk at the sight of blood, guts or bones. Kyle, having worked as a ranger just shy of four months, clearly couldn't share the sentiment because seconds later, he bolted away to dry heave in the bushes nearby. It came as no surprise, considering Fairwater's crime ranged from petty bar fights to someone accidentally shooting themselves with their own gun. It made Sarah oddly nostalgic; she had had a weak stomach for the first few weeks, too.
"What now?" Sarah asked, shielding her eyes from the sun to look at Jim.
"I'll call the Fairwater General. Probably blame it on a bear."
Sarah remained quiet and nodded, even though she knew this looked nothing like a bear attack, never mind the fact that most of the animals were smart enough not to venture to this part of the forest.
"I've got the recording from last night's surveillance," Jim stated gesturing to the security camera hanging from the lip of Greycliff Station's roof that was always pointed toward the stairs at the end of the cliff. "I'll go through it later."
"Sounds like a plan."
The rest of the day was a blur populated by concerned visitors asking inane questions about news of the park ranger's death and voicing worry over attacks from a man-killing bear. Fairwater was a small town where little of consequence happened. The same couldn't often be said for Barrenoaks.
Sarah took Jim's giant German Shepard Wolf hybrid, Harvey, out of the kennels and made a show of having him sniff around the woods where the visitors can see, just to put their minds at rest. The dog may as well be a bear judging by what Jim's been feeding him, but unfortunately for Sarah his bark was far worse than his bite. He'd likely run in the other direction if they encountered a Lynx.
Greycliff was out of the way and prohibited to anyone but park rangers so the sudden fear of being mauled by a bear dwindled by the evening. Regrettably for Sarah the station now had a vacancy and she wasn't that surprised when Jim says he'll need her to man the lonely watchtower for the night. He at least okayed Sarah's request to bring Harvey with her to keep her company, albeit reluctantly.
The truth was Sarah hated Greycliff Station.
It was relatively homey as far as a fifty year old watchtower can hope to be. It had a bed, a bathroom - though a basic one - and even a small kitchen complete with a few appliances. These rooms were spread around the station's first and second floor. The third and highest floor had windows lining every wall and provided an ideal 360 degree view. If you walked to one of these wide windows you could see straight over the cliff and down into the depths of the old forest. Sarah never did this. Because her intense dislike for the station wasn't the building itself, but what it neighboured.
That evening, as the sun set against a red sky, Sarah sat in Nathan's favourite chair with her revolver resting on the arm. The aged green leather made her feel like she was sharing the same seat as a ghost. An ancient radio on the side table next to her played country songs from one of the few stations it would pick up. It crackled with static frequently, and despite the volume having been turned to its maximum setting, performs at a pitiful whisper. A wannabe cowboy quietly sung of heartbreak and his words do nothing to soothe the tension roiling through the park ranger.
The old tower creaked and groaned as the sun's warmth was replaced by shadow, and slowly, the ever present chill below the cliff crept upward, seeping through wood and brick to raise the small hairs on Sarah's arms.
By the time the sun had finally set and darkness fell like a black sheet over every window Sarah pushed herself out of the chair and ventured down to the kitchen, unable to stand the feeling of eyes watching her from the darkness beyond. She discovered a half empty bottle of bourbon sitting in the fridge and poured a generous amount into a mug. She toasted Nathan and winced as the alcohol burned down her throat, but battled through, heading begrudgingly back upstairs where at least it was slightly warmer. A few sips later and Sarah felt a comforting fuzziness wrap around her like a blanket. She fell back into the chair with a new sense of numbness to the cold and encroaching night pressing against the windows.
There was a quick tapping across the roof. Like tiny hurried footsteps.
Harvey let out a long whine.
Sarah ran her fingers through his fur as he perked up beside her. "It's just the squirrels, boy."
Harvey looked dubious and gave a low growl when one of the windows rattled.
The radio abruptly buzzed and crackled and a single languid tone drifted from the speakers, growing louder than any of the muted songs before. Sarah abruptly turned it off leaving herself in silence.
After a minute of unnerving quiet, a soft knocking sounded on the door downstairs.
Sarah closed her eyes and muttered to herself, "...It won't happen again, it won't happen again..."
Sarah's eyes shot open and she immediately shielded her face when she was blinded by the sun. She blinked away her confusion and fear, gradually realising she'd slept through to morning. She jumped when someone pounded on the station door. She descended to the bottom floor to find Harvey scratching at the door's interior. Sarah spent a moment to check her dishevelled appearance in the mirror, combing her fingers through her dark hair before opening the door.
"Oh!" Kyle jumped back as Sarah appeared where he was about to knock again. "You scared me!"
"Yeah, sorry," Sarah mumbled as she rubbed at her face and looked at the young ranger expectantly.
"I'm here to take the day shift," Kyle explained, looking like he'd rather do anything but that. "Jim wants to see you in his office."
Sarah nodded and stepped out of the way so Kyle could enter. She ruffled Harvey's pointed ears one last time before setting off in the Jeep to the camp site.
The park camp site was the size of a small town, complete with a multitude of supply stores to meet the demands of any outdoor activity a visitor could think of. There was a diner and even a moderately stocked supermarket for those who stayed in the holiday cabins to the north; and at the heart of it all was the visitor's center. Here you could find a museum of sorts, detailing the history of the land and the native American tribe that once called it home. An enormous and intricate map of the forest's impressive range greeted those who entered on the opposite wall. The chief ranger's office resided on the floor above.
When Sarah arrived Jim wasted no time with pleasantries and showed her the surveillance footage from the night Nathan died. It was mostly uneventful, simply showing a view of the cliff's edge and the metal steps that descended beyond it in various shades of night vision green. Jim fast forwarded through the majority until coming to one moment of interest.
Sarah leaned in as someone slowly moved into frame from the bottom of the screen. It was Nathan, clearly far from sober, staggering toward the wooden railing at the edge of the cliff. As he stumbled closer to ironwork of the staircase Sarah feared she was about to watch him topple head first over the side and into the pit below. Luckily, he managed to find his balance, gripping the rickety metal frame. For a while he seemed to stare out into the night, swaying on the spot. Then he unfastened the zip of his pants and Sarah let out a disbelieving bark of laughter as she watched him take a leisurely piss off the side of the cliff.
"Oh, for Christ sake," Sarah muttered, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Well that explains a lot."
She felt the apprehension she had been carrying with her since yesterday lessen considerably. At least there was a reason to this death - something that wasn't always present in past incidents at Barrenoaks. Sarah no longer felt like she had a target painted on her back. However, Jim ruined her brightened mood with what he said next.
"There's a reporter here," he said with a pointed tone. Sarah looked up at him expectantly. "Had some questions."
"What did you tell her?"
"Not much," Jim replied, "heard about Nathan in the Fairwater Gazette. She wants to talk to all of us."
"You'd have to ask her yourself," Jim shrugged unhelpfully, "Name's Rebecca Bendall."
Sarah paused at the name, squinting at the chief thoughtfully.
"I swear I know that name. Who's she work for?"
"Some specialist magazine, uh," Jim gestured with one hand like he was trying to conjure something out of thin air, "Stranger Worlds, I think."
"Great," Sarah muttered, "another nut job looking for ghost stories."
"Just humour her like all the others," Jim instructed patiently, turning in his desk chair. "She's waiting in the diner."
Sarah sighed in resignation as she headed out. "I needed coffee, anyway."
"You look familiar."
"Do I?" asked the young woman sitting opposite Sarah.
"Mm," Sarah hummed around the cigarette she'd placed between her lips. She searched her pockets and came up with a lighter, bowing her head as she ignited it. She narrowed her eyes at the reporter thoughtfully as smoke issued from the corner of her mouth. "Can't place you though."
"Maybe you've seen me around town," the reporter humoured her with a patient smile. Rebecca Bendall had her dirty blonde hair tied in a ponytail and a pair of black glasses framed sharp green eyes - the picture of someone well put together. She was practically the mirror opposite of Sarah. The ranger got the sense she was patiently waiting till she could be somewhere else; at least that they shared that in common.
"Doubt it," Sarah replied, leaning back on her side of the booth."Bendall...Bendall...I know that name rings a bell. Its gonna drive me crazy."
Racking her memory and coming up empty, Sarah stopped scrutinizing the other woman and sighed.
"So how can I help you?"
"I had some questions regarding the recent death of one of your colleagues, Nathan Carter," the reporter stated, getting straight to business. She pushed a dictaphone between them on the table and set it to record their conversation, glancing up at Sarah to check this was acceptable. Sarah nodded grudgingly and Rebecca shot a grateful smile, straightening up. "Firstly, I have to say you don't appear particularly affected by his sudden passing."
Sarah smiled thinly. "We weren't that close."
"But surely you're concerned, especially considering the manner in which he died?"
Bendall's brow furrowed. "May I ask why?"
Sarah sighed out a plume of smoke and wearily replied, "Nate liked his drink. Lately, he liked it too much. If you go wandering out into these woods at night you run the risk of bumping into a cougar or stepping on a rattlesnake or, in this case, pissing off a bear. Go out there wasted and you're basically asking for trouble."
"I see." Bendall jotted something down in a well-used notebook and then flicked backwards through the pages. Sarah made out various newspaper cuttings and photographs before the reporter stopped on an article of interest.
"This isn't the first time you've lost a colleague, is it?" she asked rhetorically, "Two years ago Donald Bishop committed suicide within the park grounds."
Sarah's stare hardened ever so slightly.
"Donnie was dealing with...a lot. He suffered from depression."
"What was he depressed about?"
"It's...complicated." Sarah took a long gulp from her coffee to help with the knot in her throat.
"So I've heard," the reporter said before inquiring curiously, "but jumping from the Black River Falls, like he did, seems...unnecessarily dramatic, don't you think?"
The park ranger stared at the reporter blankly.
"Are you seriously critiquing the death of my friend?" Sarah asked incredulously.
"No, not at all! I didn't mean any offense." To her credit the other woman looked appropriately flustered by her blunt approach. "It just seems...strange."
"Well, I've seen a lot stranger," Sarah smiled dryly from behind her paper cup.
"Like the Robinson family incident?" the blonde asked, turning to the correct page in her little book of secrets and completely blind siding the ranger.
"I don't see what that has to do-"
"The daughter, Samantha, eight years old. On a day trip with her family she goes missing. Her parents find her nearly an hour later when they follow her screams. She was found with 3 fingers on her right hand missing. When asked, she said 'the big dog bit her'.
"The park has a wolf population," Sarah replied irritably, still annoyed at being interrupted.
"Wolves don't attack people, Miss Warren, that's a common misconception," Rebecca informed her matter-of-factly.
"They do here," Sarah replied, offering a shrug and wry smile, "evidently."
"Samantha also explicitly said the dog told her to follow it."
This time Sarah remained silent, sipping her coffee.
"Does the park's wolf population also talk, Miss Warren?" the blonde asked with mock curiosity.
The diner was practically empty, save for a couple of patrons scattered about eating a late breakfast; no one close enough to eavesdrop. All the same, Sarah didn't like where these questions were going.
"What do you think is more likely," she proposed slowly, "a child wanders off and gets bitten by a wild animal and in shock, says something nonsensical and fantastical - like kids often do - or a mystery canine lures her away into the woods by asking politely?"
Sarah's dubious and disparaging expression made it clear which choice she thought was the obvious one. The reporter didn't even bristle, simply flicking through her notepad again as she started rattling off other incidents.
"How about the camping group of over a dozen teenagers that went missing? Or the boy who went blind in the caves? Or how about the honeymooning couple who saw, and I quote, 'an animal taller than the trees around us' and both became violently ill when it turned their way."
"What's your point to all this?" Sarah asked after a moment of silence spent glaring at the pain in the ass opposite her.
"My point is, the reason you're not cut up over Mr Carter's death is because you've learned to expect death and tragedy as part of your job description," the reporter declared, her expression and tone becoming accusatory. "My point is, Jamie Smith is still blind; Mr and Mrs Hunter are still hospitalized; and not one of those teenagers was ever found. Most importantly, my point is that we both know Nathan Carter didn't die the other night because of a drunken encounter with a bear."
Sarah put her cigarette out in the ashtray beside her and rubbed tiredly at her face. "If you dig at this you're not going to like what you find."
"What exactly does that mean?" For the first time, Bendall looked clueless.
"You're better off dropping it," Sarah said earnestly.
"That almost sounds like a threat, Miss Warren," the reporter remarked, arching an eyebrow.
Sarah's face scrunched up into a look of amused dissent, midway through taking a sip of her coffee, and she shook her head as she swallowed. "No. It's a warning," she stated with a solemn smile. "You've done your homework, you took the time to collect all those incident reports, so you know nothing good's going to come out of this. The truth about this place changes people."
Bendall narrowed her eyes. "I'm not the superstitious type."
"Neither was I," Sarah chuckled, finishing the dregs of her coffee and putting the paper cup aside. "Work in these woods a year or two. Tell me what 'type' you are then."
Sarah glanced at her watch. "This has been real fun but I've got a job to do. Have a nice day."
"Any other advice before you leave?" the reporter asked, looking somewhat unsatisfied.
"Yeah," Sarah said, sliding out of the booth and pushing a menu across the table, "try the banana pancakes - they're amazing."
The rest of Sarah's day went by with little event and far quicker than she would have liked. She found her feet dragging by the time the sun was starting to set. She had barely got in her Jeep when her hand radio blasted out static and Kyle's distorted voice filled the vehicle. Sarah winced at the unpleasant sound and tuned the radio before talking.
"Hey, Kyle, I'm just heading your way-"
"Whoa! Slow down, kid," Sarah shouted over the other ranger's hysteric ranting, "Say again?"
Kyle took a moment to breathe, then said, "Some woman just walked down the stairs! I told her it was off limits but she wouldn't listen!"
"Shit," Sarah said under her breath. She had a pretty good idea who would do something so stupid. "It's okay, Kyle. I'll be there in five."
Sarah rolled up the slope to Greycliff Station to find Kyle pacing the edge of the cliff like a caged lion. He ran toward the Jeep as soon as he heard it arrive.
"She's still down there!" he cried manically.
"Calm down," Sarah ordered firmly as the younger ranger pulled at his hair, "What happened?"
"She said she was a reporter and started asking all these questions, but I didn't know what she was talking about and she asked for a drink so I went into the station to get her one-" Kyle took a much needed breath, "she was halfway down by the time I came back out."
Sarah shut her eyes, clenching her jaw as she contemplated what to do next. "Kyle, go back to Greenwood Station. I'll deal with this."
"It's fine, kid. I'll deal with it," she repeated firmly.
Sarah watched Kyle drive off before popping the trunk of her Jeep and taking out the rifle inside. She loaded it carefully and marched herself to the edge of the cliff. Down where the remaining sunlight would never reach, Sarah could make out a figure moving about in the glade. For a long, agonizing minute the park ranger seriously considered doing nothing. If she walked into Greycliff Station and closed the door behind her that would be the end of it - problem solved. Her conscience decided this wasn't something she was prepared to live with.
With a long suffering sigh, Sarah stepped onto the iron platform and began her descent. The journey down was slow despite Sarah being acutely aware of how little sunlight she had left. The ancient steps whined and squeaked with each movement she made. Rust peeled off beneath her boots in big, red flakes. The smell of copper was strong enough to turn her stomach. The temperature dropped steadily and by the midway point Sarah's breath trailed behind her in a white mist.
The lower Sarah went the more light-headed she felt, her balance wavering a few times to the point she had to cling to the railing to push herself onward and down. By the time she reached the bottom Sarah's head was spinning and she was fighting to keep her lunch from coming back. The cold was unbearable now, her teeth chattering as it sunk into her bones.
She could feel something pulling at her mind, begging for her attention. Her eyes slid across the dark, misty glade, over the haggard trunks of dying trees that would never grow and sharp, spiky leaves that would never fall, until they met an object that stood out like a torch in a darkened room. She clamped her eyes shut immediately, wincing at the after-image burned into her head. White stone marked with something disgusting and red. A vile picture that turned the ranger's usually strong stomach. Something else had stood out against the white - a figure.
Summoning courage from god knew where, she opened her eyes again and used all her restraint to focus on Bendall and blur out the thing she was steadily inching toward.
"Get away from that right now!"
She saw Bendall freeze. The woman turned around slowly and took in the ranger and then the gun pointed in her direction.
"I have every right to be here," she retorted with enough indignation to give Sarah momentary pause. "I don't know what this is but I'll bet anything it has something to do with what's been happening here for decades."
Sarah grit her teeth, her eyes beginning to water as the urge to look at the subject of Bendall's rant became painful to ignore.
"This is protected ground! If you do not leave I have the authority to shoot you!"
"Then shoot," Bendall challenged coldly. She stared the ranger down and when Sarah did nothing but glare she turned back to the stone.
She took three steps forward and the rifle went off with a deafening crack. The blonde keeled over.
With a sickening sense of dread Sarah forced her feet through the black grass, her boots seeming heavier with each step that brought her closer to the pillar of stone.
She pulled the tranquillizer dart out of the woman's back and picked her up beneath the arms, dragging her back through the grass. The whole time Sarah didn't look up at the thing inches from her face - looming over her - nor at the surrounding woods; certain she would see something looking back from between the trees if she did.
Sarah hefted the trespasser over her shoulder with some effort, glad the woman weighed as little as she did. She didn't bother to be cautious on her return trip up to the station, her feet clanging noisily off each step as she raced the setting sun to the top. Already the glade below had become a black pit of shadow.
More than once Sarah heard something call her name from the bottom of the stairs and she ignored it, taking the steps two at a time and drowning out any other sound with the racket her footsteps made.
Once at the top, Sarah rushed toward the station, her lungs near bursting. Only when she had stepped through the door and locked it did she stop to catch her breath, sucking in ragged mouthfuls of musty air. She dumped Bendall none too gently to one side of the cabin and staggered over to the opposite end, wiping the sweat from her brow.
It was around two in the morning when the ranger's guest roused from her forced nap. The blonde looked groggily about herself, appearing confused and a little nervous despite her dazed state. When she finally spotted Sarah in a chair across the room her expression turned frosty.
"You shot me," she accused, slurring her words.
"My head is pounding," Bendall groaned, kneading her temples carefully.
"Too bad," Sarah replied curtly, "next time listen to the person pointing a gun at you. You're lucky you're not under arrest."
That gave the other woman pause to think. "Why aren't I?"
"Because apparently I still have a soft side for stupid people," Sarah bit back acidly.
"Anyone would think I'd started a forest fire," the reporter quipped, shooting Sarah a patronising look. "All I did was touch a big, creepy stone."
"You touched it?" Sarah asked in hushed disbelief. Her face gradually fell into her hands. "Of course you did."
"Why does it matter?" Bendall said irritably, pushing herself unsteadily to her feet. "What is it, anyway?"
"Even if I knew I wouldn't tell you," Sarah replied sharply. Her expression turned stony. "Wouldn't want to give your publication an inside scoop, right, Rebecca?"
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Bendall asked with a scowl.
"I remembered where I know you from," Sarah replied slowly, savouring the look of fear crossing the other woman's face. "While you were in dreamland I had time to really think and it came to me, eventually."
Rebecca walked over to the nearest window but said nothing.
"You were here when those teenagers went missing," Sarah continued, narrowing her eyes at the blonde's back. "I recognise the name because one of the them was Jason Bendall."
The reporter remained at the window, staring out at the dark.
"Does the magazine even exist or was it all a front, Rebecca?"
"It's real," the woman replied in a small voice, "but it's not a magazine it's a website. I went there when I needed answers. I got them and more," she affirmed with a dark chuckle. "You said the truth of this place changes you. I already know what lives here, Miss Warren. I know your family's history. There are entire forums full of stories of these woods - an endless list of victims." She scowled distastefully at the ranger and threatened, "They'll come a time when you won't be able to keep this a secret any more, and when it does, you'll have to live with the choices you made."
Sarah sighed impatiently.
"So you hear about another tragedy at Barrenoaks and use it as an opportunity to come looking for your brother. Is that the gist of it?" Sarah said plainly, unmoved by Rebecca's story.
"I wanted..." Rebecca paused, her gaze distant, "...closure, I guess. There was no body to bury. One day everyone just gave up. First the park rangers, then the police, and then my family. But I couldn't."
Two floors up the radio began to crackle and murmur.
"If you want to go back down those stairs be my guest," Sarah stated darkly, "but don't expect anyone to save you a second time."
Rebecca stared sullenly at the ranger, then abruptly looked toward the ceiling, her expression unreadable. She gasped sharply.
"Oh my god..." her voice was a trembling whisper, "It's him. It's Jason! I can hear his voice!"
But Sarah could only hear the spine chilling tone she'd heard the night before issuing from the faulty radio upstairs, and this time it built to a crescendo; loud and ominous like a wailing horn.
"I don't hear anything," Sarah lied, finding that easier than explaining what she could hear. "Whatever you think you're hearing you're wrong."
The wail came again, louder than before; the hairs on the back of Sarah's neck rose to attention.
"He sounds so frightened," Rebecca whimpered, her face awash with grief, "he wants me to find him..."
"He's dead, Rebecca." Sarah snapped bluntly.
"No, he's out there! We need to go find-"
Rebecca was silenced when Sarah's hand slapped her across the face.
"I'll tell you what's going to happen. We're going to wait this out till morning and then you're going to leave the park and find a nice, crowded city to spend the rest of your days far away from this place."
Rebecca remained in stunned silence.
"There is a reason we forbid people from coming up here and why this station exists. If people like your brother had paid any attention to authority or signs saying 'danger' we wouldn't even be in this shitting situation."
She heard that distant wail again and Sarah paled.
The sound had come from outside.
"There's someone out there..." Rebecca stated, almost in a daze, "I can hear them talking..."
"Ignore it," Sarah warned as noticed the woman subtly edging toward the door.
"I know the voice of my brother! It's Jason! He's out there!"
"Rebecca, just ignore it and get away from the fucking door!"
Rebecca looked torn but reluctantly she did as instructed, bracing her hands against the long table in the middle of the room. Sarah walked over cautiously and pulled out a chair for her.
"Just sit down and-OW!"
Sarah feel back against the hard wood of the stairs and then slumped over the table, holding her face. Her hand came away spotted with blood. She wasn't sure what Rebecca had hit her with but it hurt like a bitch. As she tried to stem the blood flowing from her throbbing nose, Sarah realised the other woman was gone - and the door was wide open.
Suddenly struck with terror, she froze on the spot. Then, against her instincts, she moved forward and out of the station. She unclipped the flashlight from her belt and a brilliant beam of pale yellow light cut through the dark. She couldn't hear the telltale whine and rattle of someone descending the stairs and Sarah paused, confused.
Something rustled in the woods behind her.
The ranger spun around, her revolver raised as her light bounced off the trees, throwing shadows into the forest. After a minute of searching, she spotted Rebecca a fair distance into the woods. Sarah called her name but the word died in her throat when another wail pierced the night. Her blood ran colder than the air around her.
"Jason! Jason?..." echoed from the forest, followed by softer words too hard to make out.
Sarah slowly lifted the flash light up and that's when she saw it, hunched down between the trees watching from above. Sunken eyes glinted in the light and its giant head turned her way.
Sarah sprinted back into the station.
She could still hear Rebecca's distant shouts as she locked the door and stumbled over to the opposite wall, sliding down into a position that made her as insignificant and small as possible. Sarah stared wide eyed at the door, her flash light still on and aimed as uselessly as her gun.
There was a blood-curdling shriek and the walls of the station muffled most of the sounds that followed, but Sarah still clamped her hands tightly over her ears when the radio echoed them down the stairs.
Then there was only unbearable silence.
It lasted for so long that Sarah slowly took her hands away from the sides of her head, listening to the restless sounds of the old cabin.
Three impatient knocks, not on the door, but on the building itself shook the foundations and Sarah screamed.
Slowly, on boneless legs, the ranger stood and walked stiffly across the room. Her father had taught her a lot about Barrenoaks and how to survive the oldest woods in the world.
This caller she couldn't ignore.
Sarah shivered as she opened the door with a shaking hand.
Hot, fetid breath washed over her like a foul wind. She kept her eyes down, her head bowed, knowing that the horrible image painted on the stone in the glade was only a flattering representation of what was currently looming over her.
Crimson teeth and antlers and hollow eyes.
She could feel those eyes on her now. Three sunken pits glaring, waiting.
"I'm s-sorry," Sarah whispered genuinely, her voice hoarse with terror, "it won't happen again. I p-promise."
After what felt like an eternity she heard it lumber over the cliff with frightening speed. Sarah spent the rest of the night in the station bed, still in her uniform and weapon in hand. However, no one else came calling that night.
The next morning, once she was certain the sun was high in the sky, Sarah opened the door to find something waiting for her. Ten skeletal fingers, tendons still in place protruded from two crude holes carved into the top of a blood stained skull. She recognized Nathan's eyes.