“IS SOMEONE THERE!?” Derek’s voice echoed throughout the evening silence. The oak leaves above bristled in the wind, oblivious to the young man’s cries below. His limped form hobbled over to one of the nearby trees and caught it to keep from collapsing. He rested a shoulder against it, drinking gulps and gulps of air as beads of sweat ran down his cheeks and into his eyes. He closed his eyes, wiped them, and tried to calm himself, but his stubborn lungs refused and demanded more oxygen.
He placed a hand over his abdomen and winced as lightning shot through his side. It took all his strength to stay put and keep from falling over. After the pain softened from a burning sensation to a bearable throb, he gazed down at his side. He lifted his hand to see a large, wet, red stain bleeding through his t-shirt, growing wider and wider.
“Damn it,” he mumbled, clamping the wound again as another wave of pain crashed through. He raised his head towards the distance where the other mountains and the rest of the forest below sat peacefully. The few rays of the dying sun leaked over the mountain peaks, turning the sky a violent orange that grew fainter at each passing second. Already he could see the ivory of the crescent moon begin to shine above.
Derek’s eyes found the wooden shack he’d seen right after he crashed; right after he’d woken up to the searing pain in his right leg and the waves of it in his side.
He cupped his mouth with his free hand. “HEY!!!” he hollered. “IS ANYONE THERE!?”
His voiced carried through the night as he waited for a reply, yet only a breeze and his hopeless echoes answered back. Damn it! he thought. Somebody answer! He pushed off the tree and hobbled towards the shack. “PLEASE!!!” he yelled. “I’VE BEEN IN AN ACCIDENT!”
He moved at a semi-quick pace, eager to reach the shack, but not eager enough to cause another massive spasm of pain, if he could help it. He trudged forward, with sudden gasps every time a new wave raced through his body, but still he moved.
The evening grew darker as he neared the shack. When he was half a football field’s length away, the last rays of dusk sank over the horizon, and the moon and stars took its place.
I can make it. Just one foot after the other. One foot after the other. One foot–another sudden gasp of pain–after the other. Just a few yards left. But each yard felt like a mile; three, like five.
When he reached the porch, he fell against the wooden door, gasping.
You did it. A grim smile came to his lips. After taking another breath, he banged a fist against the dark door that stank of pine.
“Please,” he struggled to say, “open up. I’m hurt. I’m hurt real bad. Please!”
Without waiting for an answer, he felt for the doorknob and turned it. The door swung inward with a resentful creak. Derek almost fell forward with it, but managed to catch the frame with his shoulder, keeping him in place.
“Wuh?” He gasped as he was greeted by an empty, dusty, lonesome interior. What little light that streamed through the two windows flanking the door revealed a small wooden table with four chairs blanketed in dust, a single light bulb with a chain and a fan above, a narrow hallway across from where he stood that led to three or four rooms–or so he guessed, it was too dark to tell–a small fireplace to his left with an iron stove next to it and a cobwebbed counter with a sink and few cabinets.
Oh, no. His head sank with a groan. The freaking place is abandoned!?
What the hell was he supposed to do now? Pain jabbed his side. A warm and moist feeling began to seep between his clamped fingers.
“Right,” he grunted. He closed the door behind him and limped forward down the hall, hoping to find a bathroom. If he was lucky, there might be an old first aid kit lying around. He dragged a hand along the left wall until he felt the cold touch of brass beneath his palm–the first door. He clasped the handle and pushed it open. Inside he saw a small bedroom but didn’t pause to take anything else in aside from the bed. He moved on. His entire focus was on a way to stop the bleeding and pain; a bed wouldn’t help. His eyes had adjusted to the dark when he reached the next door. He pushed it opened. He saw nothing at first–just a dark void and a set of steps leading downwards.
“Oh, hell no,” he grunted, slamming the door shut. He moved onto the next one, this time on the opposite wall. He pushed it open. He let out a huge sigh of relief when he saw a tiled floor, a porcelain bathtub and toilet, and a small counter with a mirror cabinet above it.
He wasted no time limping over to the cabinet. He flung it open, half-expecting to see nothing but dust and cobwebs, but, to his surprise, it was clean. A few glass bottles containing strange dark liquids, that he didn’t even try to guess the names of, lined the shelf along with some tweezers, and–he smiled as he reached out for it–an old bandage roll.
Just what the doctor ordered. He sat on top of the toilet lid which, oddly enough, looked like it’d been cleaned yesterday. He pulled up his white shirt and wrapped the bandage around his abdomen. He gritted his teeth as he wrapped one layer, two layers, three layers, four layers…
When he no longer saw crimson soaking through, he stopped, and tore off the end from the roll.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He leaned his head back with a sigh, closing his eyes. His side still hurt like hell, and he knew he’d have to undo it to clean the wound later–assuming he ever found water–but at least he didn’t have to worry about bleeding out anytime soon. He drew in another long breath before sitting up and opening his eyes. He still had another problem to deal with: getting home.
He got up and limped back to the kitchen, then to one of the windows. He wiped the dust off the panel and peered out. While the landscape wasn’t as bright with a full moon, he could still make out the trees and mountains. His lips curled into a frown when he spotted the steep slope he’d fallen from. He wondered how he’d ever get back up there given his condition, and whether his bicycle had somehow survived the fall. He doubted it.
His eyes focused on the windowpane itself where he saw his battered reflection gazing back. Red lines and scratches peppered his cheeks and forehead, a thin layer of dirt and dust coated his lips (had to love old houses for that), his short dark hair was disheveled and scraggily. He grimaced when he saw a few twigs sticking out of it, which he combed out with his hand. The darkness of the night made his irises look black instead of almond. Least they aren’t bloodshot, he thought. In short, he looked like crap.
He closed his eyes and lowered his head with a sigh. “What am I going to do?” he whispered.
Before he could think of an answer, he heard a small thud, and the familiar clank of a latch.
“Huh?” he grunted. He spun around. The hallway was dark, all its doors closed. Wait, closed? Funny. He could’ve sworn he’d left the door to the bathroom open.
He took a step towards the hall, then paused, and listened. After several seconds of silence passed, he relaxed and chuckled. It’s an old house. It’s got drafts, you idiot.
He smiled to himself, then looked up towards the small hanging light. He reached up and gave the chain a small tug.
The bulb remained dark.
“Hmm,” he grumbled. “No surprise there.”
Derek’s eyes flew back to the hallway to see the cellar door ajar.
What the hell? He stared at the open doorway. How had that opened?
He limped over to the edge of the doorframe and peered around it. A dark empty abyss sat on the other side.
“Okay,” he murmured, then closed the door. “That’s creepy.”
“What the–!?” He jumped, then spun around. The door to the bathroom hung inwards, light spilling out of its doorway.
Derek blinked a few times, trying to process what he beheld. He took a hesitant step towards the door then peeked in.
His jaw fell.
“No way.” He gasped.
His mind had to be playing tricks on him. The bathroom light was on, the cupboard closed, the mirror clean, and the tub looked like it’d been made yesterday, only now it had a rack with curtains surrounding it. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the toilet, which still looked freakishly clean.
Derek stepped inside not believing his eyes. “What the heck is this?” he murmured.
Derek jumped as the door slammed behind him.
“Hey!” he shouted, spinning around. He threw open the door.
“Stop doing that you piece of–!” the words died in his throat. His eyes grew wide. He stepped into the hallway, looking left then right then left again. The hall was–somehow–bright. Lit. Clean. He could see each individual door, along with three other doors he’d missed seeing at the end of the hall, due to the dark. Above him, several lights, he’d not known were there, burned, illuminating the night.
“Wuh-buharura-huh?” was all that came from Derek’s mouth. Before he could begin to comprehend what had happened, his ears picked up the sound of crackling. His eyes flicked towards the front entrance where an orange light danced and washed the brown walls. A warmness slithered into the hallway.
Again, what the hell is going on? He edged to the mouth of the hall where the kitchen sat.
When he reached the corner, he poked his head in. His arms turned rigid. The kitchen counter, the table, the chairs, and the stove were spotless. Flames roared in the fireplace, chasing away the cool mountainous air and filling the room with a gleeful warmth.
For several minutes, Derek stood at the hallway corner at a loss for words.
A hysterical laugh left his lips. “Okay, heh-heh,” he said. “I’M OUT!”
He rushed to the front door, grabbed the knob, and yanked it open.
Only, it didn’t.
“What!?” he cried. He tried again. “Open!”
He grabbed the knob with both hands and yanked. The door didn’t budge, not even a centimeter.
“Oh, hell no! I ain’t doing Cabin in the Woods! Open!” he demanded.
For what felt like the millionth time, Derek spun around.
His stomach felt queasy when he saw the sound’s source: the door at the very end of the hallway slowly swung open.
“Oh, God,” he begged, backing into the door. “Please-please-please-please no Redrum shit.”
Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead as his eyes stayed fixed on the open door. His hands twitched, and his heart began to pound.
A vein twitched on his forehead as the minutes dragged by.
The hall remained empty.
After another few seconds of nothingness, Derek took a reluctant breath and opened his mouth.
“Uh…h-hello?” he sputtered. “Is-is someone there?”
The fireplace continued to crackle and pop like Rice Krispies as he waited for an answer.
“W-well, look,” he began again, “if someone is there, please come out. Because I am hurt, and I cannot handle this right now. And if this is some sort of joke you’re pulling, you suck at living, cause, again, I’m hurt, and I need to get to a freaking hospital, and you’ve done nothing!”
Anger began to take the place of fear. He took a step forward. “So, if there is someone there, come out…NOW!” he yelled.
When no one did, his fear melted into resentment and Derek paced forward.
“I’ve had a shitty day,” he said, the anger clear in his voice, “and the last thing I need is to come and find some sick joker at some rickety old shack,” he stepped into the doorway, “too high off his own laughs to–” the words died in his throat.
In the twenty-five years of his life, Derek had rarely ever been stunned or awed by anything to make him mute, yet today had been nothing but one surprise after another. What he saw now took the cake.
He stepped into another bedroom, similar to the one he’d seen earlier. Like the other rooms, it too was pristine. A burgundy bed with clean diamond pattern sheets sat in the center of the room, flanked by two windows. A mahogany dresser sat snug in the back corner, lustrous in the light, along with a vanity and a mirror.
But Derek’s attention blew past all of it. Of their own accord, his legs carried him to the window. The sound of laughter and roaring of flames filled his ears as he pressed a hand against the glass and leaned closer.
“This can’t be real, this can’t be real… This. Cannot. Be. Real,” he mumbled over and over to himself.
The thick veil of trees surrounding the shack–or cabin rather, now that he realized it was much larger than he’d thought–was absent. In its place, about twenty yards away from the window, sat a glade and a clear view of the distant mountains encircling a green valley below. In the glade’s center burned a towering bonfire. The flames twirled, danced, and licked at the night sky so high that it looked like it could touch the stars. Yet it was the strange structure surrounding it that got him–tall gray stone pillars decorated with symbols unlike any he’d ever seen. Underneath these stones sat the hunched forms of several men and women of all ages.
He saw an old man–mid-sixties maybe–wearing a dark three-pieced suit, that probably was worth more than Derek’s car, sitting on the grass next to a much younger woman in her early twenties. She wore a torn tank-top, ripped blue-jeans, had jet black hair along with lip and ear piercings; she could’ve come from a punk concert for all Derek knew. Even weirder, next to her sat a guy who couldn’t’ve been more than sixteen, wearing a red polo-shirt and tan slacks, that, if Derek had to guess, was the uniform from some fast-food joint, which was impossible since the nearest fast-food joint happened to be 45 miles–two towns–away, and the nearest said town was 20 miles away. These were only some of the people he could make out, there were a dozen more or so in the crowd, and none of them looked like they belonged in the woods.
None of it made sense.
“Whoa!” Derek yelped and almost toppled over as the ground quivered beneath his feet. He grabbed the windowsill to steady himself.
“The hell was that?!” he exclaimed.
His head whipped back up to window and he felt himself go cold.
“The hell’s that?” He gasped.
The laughter and chatting of the group died down. Outside the firelight, shadows the size of semi-trucks edged around the curious group. Branches snapped, trees shook, and the ground trembled every time one moved. Before Derek could make out what they were, one of them–the largest–stepped into the light.
Derek’s heart stopped beating. “Holy–!” he cried, falling back from the window. “THAT’S DEFINITELEY NOT REAL!” he shouted, scrambling away. But his eyes and ears said differently.
It had to be about two stories high, this…this thing. Its entire body was the color of coal, glistening orange in the firelight. It walked on four monstrous sized legs that ended with five talons so large that it could encase an entire van if it wanted to. A slick, long black tail and two folded leathery wings protruded from its back and, despite how far away it was, Derek could see the monster’s eyes, clear as day: ruby irises and slit pupils glowing with an inward, ever-burning fire. Its head was the size of Derek, if not bigger–he sure as hell didn’t want to get close enough to be certain. Its face was sharp, angular, long like a reptile. Several white incisors perfect for grinding and tearing up meat protruded from its jaws.
Derek recognized this creature from several movies he’d seen, books he’d read, and talks he’d heard from young dreamers and role-players alike, yet he refused to believe it. He refused to name it. Because it couldn’t be real. It didn’t exist. He knew it didn’t. So what in the hell was he seeing? What the hell was going on? This couldn’t be–
“Hhrrrrruuuuhhhhuuuuuummmmm,” rumbled the beast, interrupting Derek’s thoughts.
His attention went back to the monster outside, who–thankfully–hadn’t seen him yet. It swung its long head from side to side, eyeing each person around the campfire. Then it swung back and rose to full height on its back haunches, making it at least over three stories tall.
Derek heard a small frightened squeak that made him jump, only to realize seconds later it’d been him.
Neither the monster (again, thankfully) nor the crowd, heard. It continued to gaze at the strange gathering below it. Its nostrils flared, and two puffs of smoke rose from them. Then, opening its mouth, it made the strangest, most unexpected sound Derek ever thought he’d hear come from it.
“Tonight,” a deep, rumbling voice came from its throat, “ends with a new beginning.”
Derek’s jaw fell, while the crowd eyed the monster, listening, waiting to hear what was next.
“Tonight,” it began again, “ends my search.” It paused, eyeing everyone. “Tonight, at long last, I have found a host.”
Derek couldn’t understand who was more surprised at that moment: the strange crowd that gasped and exchanged looks with one another, or himself by the fact that this thing could even speak. (He was 90% sure it was him.)
Another large rumble came from the beast’s chest, silencing the bemused crowd. It studied its audience, before it spoke once more.
“I know many of you doubted that I would ever choose to walk, to live, to even breathe the same air as man, but,” its jaws parted, revealing a large carnivorous grin, “I’ve known this day would come since our fall. And now, it has.”
“Bullshit!” one of the viewers, a young man, likely in his mid-twenties, shouted, getting to his feet. “You’ve spent more than the last three eras desolate and away from civilization, unlike the rest of us,” he gestured a hand at the other listeners. “So why should we believe you now?”
Derek felt the air around him grow tense. The audience felt it too. All whispers stopped and the large shadows outside the fire paused in anticipation. He waited for the monster to bawl in anger and snap the man in two with its jaws, but again, it surprised him and instead spoke.
In a cool voice, it said, “I understand your doubt, Nar’ric,” it turned to the crowd, “I understand all of your doubts. But time,” it shook its massive head, “is not a constant and neither is my search–was–my search.” It turned back to Nar’ic. “My search has only taken this long because I needed to be certain I’d chosen a worthy one.” Its eyes narrowed; another puff of smoke rose from its nostrils. “Unlike yours, Nar’ric,” it said in disgust.
Nar’ric’s fists clenched, and for a second, Derek thought he would do the suicidal thing and lash out at the monster, but instead, he took a deep breath and relaxed, opening his palms. “Well, as opinionated as you are in your choices and decisions, elder one,” he mocked, “despite my ‘unworthy’ choice of a host, it still stands that I and everyone else here–everyone but you–have more experience in the world of man than you have or ever will.”
“That may be true,” replied the beast, “but it also stands that I am far, far older than you are and have seen far more than you will ever.” Derek saw the monster’s talons dig into the ground as it spoke. “So unless this is an informal challenge and not some cruel mockery from a young whelp who’s forgotten his place,” it leaned towards Nar’ric with a growl, “I suggest you sit.”
Nar’ric stood a moment longer, staring into the eyes of the beast without fear, before sitting back down with a defiant grunt.
“But if you’ve finally chosen a host,” one of the others, a teenage girl, spoke, “where is it now?”
The beast glared at Nar’ric a second longer before sitting back in place. It looked at the girl and grinned. “I’m glad you asked. It’s in a safe place. It’s not ready for me to take yet, but don’t worry. It soon will be. But first,”
The sound of Derek’s beating heart, the evening breeze, and the crackling fire faded at that moment, when the eyes of this hideous beast did the last thing Derek ever wanted: its eyes met his own.
Its lips parted, revealing a nasty grin as it spoke, “Hello boy.”
“Oh shit!” Derek shrieked. He twisted around, scrambling to get to his feet and out the bedroom. He ignored the pain that shot through his leg when he crashed into the hallway and slammed the door behind him. He needed to hide–No! Screw that!–He needed to get away to anywhere but this God-forsaken place.
He hobbled for the front entrance, as fear and adrenaline overrode the pain. When he reached the door, he swung it open and ran out into the night.
He grounded to a halt. What in God’s name?
White flakes floated down from the sky all around him, covering the trees and the forest floor like a blanket of snow. Derek took a step forward grasping to understand what was happening. It wasn’t cold, quite the opposite in fact, it was warm, so it couldn’t’ve been snow. What was it?
A few flakes sprinkled down onto his hand. He stared at one of them, grabbed a flake with his other hand and rubbed it between his index finger and thumb, forming a gray smudge that stunk of smoke and flame.
“Oh...” he whispered. Ash. As if his realization was a cue to some sick stage act, Derek raised his head in time to see the tips of the horizon glow red and orange and the sound of a constant thunder fill his ears. He’d lived in the mountains long enough to know what that meant. Forest fire, damn it! Can this get any worse?
He about-faced, ready to run. “Oh shit!” the words ran out of his mouth, as he almost fell forward.
The large bonfire he’d seen earlier crackled and spat in front of him. The towering stone pillars surrounded him, looking down at him. Derek eyes darted to the edge of the fire’s light, searching for the massive shapes he’d seen earlier. But he saw nothing.
He still had no clue what was happening, but he didn’t plan to stick around to find out. He took a tentative step backwards, and, trying his best to keep his voice from cracking, said with his best brave face, “Look, I don’t know what you are or what you want or what any of this is, but please! Just leave me alone!”
He took another few steps back. “I’ve done nothing!” he finished, still searching the shadows for the beast.
He took another step backwards. His shoulder blade bumped into something rough and solid. Derek felt the blood drain from his face when he heard a slow, heavy rumble come from above. He tried not to shake as he turned with leaden steps, praying to whatever was out there that it was a pillar, a tree, a boulder–anything that wasn’t what he thought it was.
He realized that his prayers fell on deaf ears when he beheld an onyx, scaly leg the size of several tree trunks. His eyes shot down at the beast’s gray talons, four times Derek’s size, as they pushed into the ground one by one, snapping branches and rocks alike in half.
Oh, God no, he thought as his eyes followed the towering leg up to the massive body, to the large angular head, to its jaws, and then to its rubied eyes.
Part of Derek had still refused to believe any of this was real, but when he gazed into the eyes of that beast and perceived the focus, the mirth, and hunger in its slit pupils, he believed; and the words he’d refused to admit from the beginning tumbled out of his dry mouth:
“It’s a freakin’ dragon.”
The dragon tilted its head to the side, its eyes full of amusement. It leaned towards Derek, until its head was less than a foot above his. Derek didn’t even flinch, too petrified to move. His heart raced at an unreal pace, turning from an occasional: thump-thump-thump-thump into one continuous tttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmpppppppppppp.
The dragon’s jaws parted into a grin as it studied him. It let out a small rumble then flared its nostrils as it blew a small puff of smoke into Derek’s face. Derek eyes stung and watered and he stumbled back in a coughing fit, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the dragon.
When the fit had passed, another rumble came from the beast’s gullet. “Frightened?” it asked, its voice so deep that Derek thought he’d go deaf should it roar.
He opened his mouth to reply that he’d crossed the county line of frightened and was well down the road to terrified, but all that came out of his mouth was a small croak.
“I…I…I…” his voice crackled.
“You, you, you…what?” it echoed, its ivory grin growing larger, another rumble coming from its chest, which Derek realized a second later was a chuckle.
He swallowed and tried his best to not sound scared as he replied. “I-I just want to go home.” He held up his hands, chest level in surrender and began inching away. “I didn’t mean to come here and-and interrupt this-this,” he glanced at the stone circle and fire, “gathering you were having with your friends.”
He tossed a quick look back for the cabin and spotted it just a few yards outside the edge of the circle. “So please,” he turned back to the still grinning dragon, “just let me go.”
The dragon, which had been sitting on its hind legs this entire time, rose and took a single step forward, shaking the ground beneath. “If you’re hoping to escape back to that puny excuse of a shelter,” it shifted its entire stance forward, “you should run.”
Before the words could register, the beast darted forward, faster than an arrow at Derek. He felt like he’d fallen down the side of the mountain again as the dragon’s head plowed into him, sending him sailing through the air.
He screamed as his back plunged into the ground and he tumbled over. Pain shot through his spine, side, and leg all at once. Tears poured from his eyes as he tried to sit up. The dragon stood several yards away, eyes fixed upon him. A giddy rumble came from its stomach as it stalked forward, closer to its prey.
The sight of a hungry colossus coming for him spurred Derek into action. Adrenaline overrode his pain as he stumbled to his feet and sprinted for the cabin. Thanks to a stroke of luck, he’d landed about five yards away from it.
He felt the ground quake, and a deafening roar filled his ears as the dragon picked up its speed. Derek’s hands clamped to his ears as he rounded the front of the cabin and shouldered his way through the front door. Once inside, he did a three-sixty, slamming the door with one hand, then resumed his flight down the hall.
He knew that this wooden house wouldn’t save him and that there was only one place he could go. He grabbed the knob of the door leading to the cellar just as there was another roar from the front. He glanced over to see the dragon just outside the front window arch back and spread its jaws to reveal an amber glow from its throat.
“Oh shit!” Derek yelled, throwing open the door and diving forward. Glass shattered and wood splintered behind him as an inferno blasted through the kitchen and into the hallway. Derek felt the intense heat upon his back for a brief second before hitting the stairwell.
“Ah! DAMN IT!!!” he screamed as his shoulder rammed into the wood. He glanced back upstairs at the doorway. Flames roared past the door, washing the room with a violent crimson.
The door slammed shut.
The room plunged into darkness.