The red mitten was a beacon; I couldn’t have ignored it. Its crimson softness called out to my peripheral vision like a siren song, a ruby gleaming in the grey November surroundings. It was a solitary, ordinary mitten. Why I was drawn so magnetically to it remains a mystery.
The day was grey and misty and the mitten was spotted by man and dog almost simultaneously. Charlie strained forward on his leash in anticipation of a new found chew toy. I reined him back in, my sixth sense tingling. We were a few miles from the last rest point on the trail – a long walk for the small owner of the mitten.
I reached out to snare the mitten and recoiled at the last moment. It was dripping with blood. I jumped back a step and made Charlie sit. He looked at me incredulously, but complied.
“Hello?” I called into the bush, turning to all compass points and scanning for movement in the trees. All was quiet. Except for the blood rushing from my pounding heart through my ears. And Charlie’s panting.
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and snapped a picture. Moving around the bush for a better shot I noticed the tiny trail of blood skirting the edge of the trail and disappearing into the underbrush. There was a spongy footprint about a foot from the bush on the moss covered ground. I took another snapshot and had dialed a 9 and a 1 when I heard the cry.
It was muffled, barely heard above the susurrations above me. Charlie heard it, too. He went silent and as stiff as the oak tree to our right.
“Hello?” I called again. “Is anybody out there?”
The cry came again and Charlie and I both turned away from the trail. Two sets of ears were good enough echo location for me and I followed the sound, Charlie reluctantly bringing up the rear. When I glanced behind me he was giving the dripping mitten a last longing sniff.
“Leave it, Charlie,” I whispered. “I’ll give you a treat later. Come on, now.”
We continued into the bush following small spots of blood and intermittent moans. I soon began noticing more footprints and became more and more unsettled. Something was wrong with the footprints. The one I was standing over was no longer boot-shaped. It was rounder, squatter. The tread pattern was odd, too. It was much less detailed now. I squatted down for a better look.
“Toes,” I mumbled. “The pattern looks like animal toes.”
A raven called overhead, startling me into falling forward. My hand beside the half formed paw print was disquieting. The print was almost twice the size of mine.
Charlie sniffed at the print as I regained my balance. A low growl issued from his throat and the fur on his hackles stood on end. I knew how he felt.
“Help! Somebody help m—” It was a young girl’s voice. I was on my feet and running before the sentence was abruptly cut off. Charlie and I bounded through the woods in the direction of the lost voice, the path of instinct, blood and paw prints leading to the entrance of a dark cave. Sobs echoed from within, alongside a dull, throaty growling. Charlie stopped, catching the stench seconds before me, his canine nose wrinkling as he backed away as far as the leash would allow.
My cell phone was still clenched in my fist. With shaking hands I dialed 911 and put the phone to my ear. It took me a moment to realize that I wasn’t hearing anything. The display indicated no signal. The outcrop ahead of us must be blocking the signal.
The girl screamed again and both Charlie and I jumped.
An unearthly laugh, full of menace, filth and depravity was followed by a sickening thump.
Instinct took over. I set my phone to a flashlight app and crept into what felt like a tunnel. I could see the flickering of firelight on the walls farther down. I hooded my flashlight with my hand and directed it towards the ground as I inched forward. I didn’t know what I was going to find at the end of the tunnel, but I was sure that the element of surprise would be best in my favour.
As the light grew brighter the stench grew worse. I pulled my turtleneck up over my nose and tried to breathe through my mouth. I realized suddenly that the growling had taken on a rhythmic quality.
Straining to listen I was stunned to make out words.
“With this blood I give to thee, O Master, I shall cleansed be.”
Pulled by the words I slowly peeped around the corner. The beast was hunched over a stone altar, his back to me on the far side of a fire. He was huge, making the cavern seem miniscule in comparison to his height. His dog-like legs ended in massive, gnarled paws. His upper body looked black in the firelight, with reptilian scales running up his spine to a head the size and shape of an anvil. The hand clutching the altar was like an eagle’s talon, muscular and tipped with scythe-like claws. He moved slowly, dragging the claws of his free hand across the stone like a master sharpening his chisel.
The girl whimpered and I turned my eyes to the far corner of the cave. She was tiny, drawn up into a ball, eyes as wide as a full moon. Her pink coat was slashed and torn and she cradled her right arm with her left, red mittened hand. She had blood smeared down her cheeks and across her knees. A small puddle had formed on the ground to her right.
The beast dragged its other hand across the stone, setting my teeth on edge and eliciting another sob from the girl.
Apparently satisfied, the beast stepped away from the altar, spearing an object with a claw as he turned toward the flames. As he lifted the object overhead I saw what had soaked the mitten and caused the puddle. A tiny, alabaster hand was pierced on his long, black claw.
Before he could toss it in the flames, Charlie decided that it was time for action. He launched himself into the cave, growling and barking so loud the echoes overlapped each other. He positioned himself in front of the girl and snapped at the beast in fury.
The beast turned and let out a roar. Charlie stood his ground as the beast took a step towards him and swung his other unencumbered claws.
“No!” I cried, stepping into the light of the fire. Distracted, the beast turned towards me and roared again. Charlie leapt, sinking his teeth into the beast’s arm. The beast roared louder and swung around, trying to shake Charlie loose.
I ran towards the girl and put myself between her and the frenzy happening at the centre of the cave. The fire was getting trampled and I was quickly losing the ability to distinguish dog from ghoul.
I scooped the tiny child up in my arms and made a break for the tunnel. I ran through the darkness, trusting instinct and praying for guidance. The sounds of the fight were waning behind me but I dared not stop to think about it or look back.
I shot out of the mouth of the tunnel, back into daylight and the soft whispers of the wind. I ran a further fifty yards and collapsed to my knees. Shaking, I laid the girl on the soft forest floor and spoke to her gently. She remained in a tight ball, her body protecting her stump of an arm, her eyes shut tight.
A scream shattered the air between around the cave and a demonic roar rushed in to fill the void. The ground beneath us rumbled. A brilliant light flashed. And then all was silent.
In terror, I kept my eyes shut tight; not wanting to witness the advance of what was surely my approaching doom. Hot tears of grief leaked from between my lids as I knelt there on the floor of nature’s cathedral.
Dry, rough skin touched my cheek and I yelped in alarm, my eyes snapping open in wonderment.
It was Charlie, wiping my tears with his tongue. I threw my arms around the dog and wept, pouring out my relief, my terror and my love into his blood soaked fur.
Somehow, I managed to call 911 and coherently direct them to where we were. The police officers didn’t believe my story and made me enter the tunnel again. What we saw there was unlike anything I have seen before or since. It haunts my dreams. It challenges my sanity. It confirms my faith.
There, among the blood and embers, was the naked body of a man. A solitary, ordinary man. Clutching an alabaster hand.