Marguerite found Old Ray Thompson dead at the forest’s edge. Familiar brown eyes stared at her empty and all-seeing. The mouth that once housed his warm smile was now wide and frothing with blood, swallowing the horror of his final moments. What remained of his body was mangled and chewed like a discarded animal bone. Bugs were already staking their claim on his outstretched fingers. She traced the line of his jagged palm as she took in the exposed bone of his neck and shoulder gleaming in the dying orange light.
She didn’t notice the crowds filling in around her. The murmurs of horror and the open weeping of fainter hearts as the horrible truth set in.
There was a creature in their midst. No one knew what it was. No one knew where it came from. The only thing that was known for sure was that it partook of human flesh and glutted itself on the bone.
Old Ray Thompson was the third body found in such a state that week.
Stranger promised Marguerite that he would take her to the creature’s grave. The spirits guided her to his cabin yesterday in the thick of the night when she made the resolve to learn more about the thing that killed Ray.
But the following morning, she had her misgivings about the rendezvous.
Stranger would only meet her at night and preferably alone. Though having something preferable didn’t mean it was a strict condition in Marguerite’s mind. She didn’t trust him, a feeling all the more justified from the menace his soul gave off. But based on what she’s seen, she couldn’t rule out his insight.
“I don’t trust anyone who chooses to live out there. They end up just as twisted as the spirits and demons that live within,” Elliot said candidly as he wiped his hands of blood.
The naked corpse of the deer he had skinned stared at her with black eyes unseeing, its front legs tied up in prayer. The entire front of his lodging was strung up with similar beasts, drained and skinned. Their pelts were hung up on a tree a little ways ahead.
Elliot knew his way around the inner woods more than she did. He knew of its dangers–the things that lurked right out of sight and more cunning beasts that drew weaker souls further in. She trusted his shrewd judgment and agreed with his assessment.
She clutched her skirts as she tried to stand firm. “Well, I plan to go whether or not you come with me.”
He eyed her with a grimace. “Then you’re a fool, girl.”
She bit her lip but stood up taller. “I may be but I’m not going to stand around and do nothing if I can do something. Not with Ray…”
Her voice failed her then. Old Ray was a friend of her father’s. When her father up and disappeared ten years ago, he took to looking after her. She remembered the songs he would sing to stave off her fears, his strong arms protecting her from winter’s chill. Those same arms that were bent and twisted behind him, riddled with bite marks and rent skin. Every time she blinked, the images of what he was and what he became kept overlapping as if the blight of his corpse sought to corrupt everything he once was in her memory. It left her breathless and cold.
Elliot unhappily relented but he never looked happy doing anything for anyone else.
He met her that night at the town’s outskirts with a musket strapped to his back and a dagger stuffed in his boot. He tied a garland of teeth and leaves around her neck.
“There’s things in there that come out at night that will steal your soul if you’re not careful.” He held a sheathed dagger out to her. “For mortal beast. Hide it in your boot.”
Marguerite took it reluctantly. She could feel the cold of the metal beneath the animal skin and it filled her with a thrilling terror. She stuffed it in her shoe praying she wouldn’t have to use it.
Stranger told her to meet him under the Witch Oak. It was a dead skeleton tree whose roots were poisoned by a witch that was buried there decades ago. The grass refused to grow and a chill stunned most mortals that crossed it. Marguerite could see wispy green tendrils stretch off its empty branches like willow leaves. Heavy and luminous even in the dying day’s light. The tree was indeed cursed but it was difficult telling whether it was hatred or sorrow that made what was left of the spirit linger. The sight of it always threatened her eyes with tears.
A halo of lantern light hung above the place Stranger was resting. He leaned cross-legged beneath the tree, unbothered by the unnatural presence that hung above him. His pipe glowed a faint reddish orange though it was overtaken by the shadows ahead.
He took a long draw from it before letting out a huge plume of smoke. It curled like the wispy coils of young spirits being set loose onto the night’s chill.
“I thought I told you to come alone,” Stranger’s eyes took them in coldly before a hint of a smile broke behind his beard. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”
Elliot drew his musket forward but kept the barrel down as his fingers played with the trigger.
“And what are you supposed to be?”
Stranger tilted his head. “Do I not look human?”
“Anything can look human. I asked you what’cha are?”
Marguerite still couldn’t figure it out either. There was nothing deceptive in his frame. Blood flowed through him and if he were cut she didn’t doubt he would bleed. His unnaturalness came from his eyes. There was a threat in his gaze that she couldn’t quite articulate. Dark and penetrating but also filled with a power she felt could swallow her whole.
Stranger took another long draw of his pipe. The smoldering fire within crackled in the quiet air.
She took a step forward. “Take us to the Bone Eater.”
He let out a long sigh. “I meant to ask. What do you plan to do after I show you what was the creature?”
“We’ll decide that based on what we encounter,” Marguerite said with what she hoped sounded like authority.
Stranger stood. He emptied the ashes from his pipe and crushed them slowly in the dirt with his boot.
“I hope neither of you hold any hope of vanquishing the creature this night.” His eyes flicked back to them. “The connection your monster shares with what I’m about to show you is slim and inconsequential. Any attempt at purification will prove fruitless. ”
Marguerite swallowed. That was disheartening but anything that bore the spirit of the thing may make it easier to track. Marguerite never forgot any spiritual essence once encountered.
“Just take us there.”
Stranger stared at her for a couple of seconds before taking up his lantern. He motioned towards the dark of the woods, his face impassive.
“The grave is a ways ahead. Try not to get lost.”
Elliot started forward, his musket held close to the chest with fingers brushing against the trigger guard. Marguerite clutched her light as she followed behind them.
Darkness quickly filled the sun’s absence as they traveled further in. Soon it trapped them like a thick black curtain, impenetrable outside their dim lanterns’ reach. It almost seemed like something Marguerite could reach out and touch, her fingers caressing the bend in the light.
She has never traversed the forest so late in the day. The familiar comfort of the trees and spirits that danced in her periphery now loomed hauntingly above her, around her, and just out of sight.
The silence was only broken by the snap of twigs and the crunch of leaves under their feet.
The smell of decay pronounced itself in this dearth of perception. Rotting leaves and stale water from the rain of three days’ past hung around them just as heavy as the darkness. She felt herself sinking deeper into the mud the further they continued.
They made their way to a thicket of tree branches. Stranger bent down low and continued to trundle past the arms that reached for him.
Elliot made a full stop. “How much further?”
“Not too long. You should smell it soon enough.”
Elliot narrowed his eyes. He turned to Marguerite and whispered, “We should turn around.”
She blinked. “Why?”
“He’s leading us down Daelman’s Pass. The place is full of hidden pitfalls and ditches.”
“You’re more than free to leave,” Stranger said casting them a look over his shoulder. “The path ahead is quite treacherous. It was the creature ’s hunting grounds in its previous life. Of course, it has found more cozier haunts–more than likely, someone–some person–was less cautious when navigating here.”
Elliot clenched his teeth. “You saying someone in the town is responsible.”
“Yes, someone who looks human.”
“That can’t be possible,” Marguerite said.
“Not only is it possible, Ms. Henson, it was a downright inevitability. It falls in line with what the Bone Eater ultimately is.”
“And that would be?”
“It’s better shown than told,” Stranger said as he continued forward.
Marguerite held her breath as she followed after him. A few snags tugged at her hair, painfully pulling thick strands from her bun. The branches tried tearing at her hemline as the mud continued to consume her shoes. A fuzzy murmur of voices started filling her ears foretelling a locus of spirits–either from nature or the lost souls of those who found themselves hopeless trapped within this cage.
They fought their way to a small clearing. Marguerite could smell something off. It was more acute than the rotting foliage that she was used to.
Stranger pressed forward, stopping at the edge of a small crater. He held the light over the pitch beneath him.
Marguerite approached slowly. The smell gave way to a hot stink that coated her throat. She held back, feeling herself growing faint from the fumes.
“Lord almighty!” Elliot exclaimed as he took an involuntary step back, his arm over his nose. “You couldn’t at least bury that thing in dirt?!”
It was the first time she heard him raise his voice at anything. Marguerite would’ve laughed but she didn’t want to swallow any more of the smell.
“What would be the point of that if you were going to unearth it anyway.” Stranger stared back down at it. “Besides, there’s something caustic in its blood which makes it impossible for anything to thrive over it. The dirt under it is just as toxic.”
Marguerite swallowed her bile and stepped closer, pressing her shawl firmly against her mouth and nose. Flies buzzed in her ear as she looked over the edge. What she saw was the oozing corpse of…something. It had a vague animal shape reminiscent of a dog but the tufts of fur that clung to it looked wilder. It was also far too large to be any ordinary canine breed, more like a bear. It had sharp jagged teeth and long black claws. Swirling around it like smoke was a black and wispy spirit. As its essence ascended into the night it looked like it was rotting too. It reached up but splintered into little strands, weak to the wind around it.
“What is it?”
Stranger turned to her. “You need to get closer.”
He stepped down, his feet sliding further into the ditch. He hung the lantern closer to its crawling skin.
She reluctantly followed, careful not to trip on an overgrown snag. Elliot was behind her.
On closer inspection, she realized that the skin hung off its bones in jagged pieces almost as if ripped and torn away. The teeth were wet with black liquid that dripped on its lower jaw, sliding down its throat.
“This thing has been dead for over a week,” Stranger offered. “Hold out your hand.”
Marguerite did but quickly drew it back. An unnatural heat was emanating off of it. Like something within was cooking away the dead exterior. More black liquid dripped from its teeth, its bones–. The sight of it made her want to throw up more than the stink did.
“A part of its spirit still lingers here. It keeps the body warm though its core has moved on.”
“What makes it linger?”
Stranger smiled at her, something malicious gleaming in his eye.
“The Bone Eater, like most spirits, lives off death. Death begets it, death sustains it. In its beginning it consumed small things–bugs, birds, squirrels. Its unique in that it crossed into the material plane quite easily as it takes some aspect of the things it consumes. Thus this creature, borne from cannibalizing flesh and bone–moving up the food chain to become this amalgamation. It’s developed a taste for human flesh in the last month or so.”
Stranger bent down and touched the creature’s eyelids. He used a finger to trace the fold of wriggling flesh before digging under and prying it open. Underneath was an eyeball, shockingly blue. A human eye. Its pupils constricted in the glare of the light.
Elliot aimed its gun at it. “You sure this thing’s dead?”
“Positive,” Stranger drew up and whipped his finger against his coat. “When I found it it was no more than a husk of what it originally was. The main core of its spirit’s elsewhere. The only reason it would leave is if it has attached itself to a more worthy host.”
“And you think it’s someone in town?” Marguerite asked but it came out more like a statement.
“The creature lives off of cannibalizing its own. ”
Marguerite clutched the area over her heart. Her head filled with teeth. Normal human teeth gnashing and tearing into its brother, blood dripping down the chin. It was too awful to imagine and yet how else could it be explained. Old Ray Thompson was killed in broad daylight but it was difficult to see how someone, anyone, could get away with it where the light could reveal their crimes. There must be something else.
Marguerite straightened. “So how do we stop it?”
Stranger looked askance. His eyes traveled the upward curve of the ditch before answering.
“I’m not sure. Though…more than likely, you’ll have to kill it’s human vessel to sever the spirit’s tie to the mortal plane.”
Marguerite held her hand to her mouth, shaking her head. She couldn’t imagine–
She turned to him. “You said you hunted spirits like these before. Surely there’s a way of pacifying it–”
“Pacifying it?” Elliot cut in. “If you want to get rid of this thing, we ain’t got no room for sentimental nonsense. Any spirit that lingers too long is bound to become crooked and any fool who chooses to fraternize with them is just so. That’s why it’s best to get rid of them early.”
Elliot pulled a set of matches from his pocket. He lit one against his teeth and threw it on the monster. Its flesh quickly caught, the sound of singeing skin producing a haunting whistle. The smell of it forced all of them to take to higher ground as the creature became nothing but a melting skeleton.
Stranger eyed him. “Are you satisfied?”
“I sure as hell ain’t!” He turned on him. “How long have you know about this creature?”
“I’ve heard whispers about it for a while but didn’t come across it until the last fortnight.” He cast his eyes back to the burning husk. “I usually try to get a handle on these spirits before they become material. Before they grow savvy enough to prey on man’s weakness.”
“You’re not doing a good job at it.”
Stranger took him in coldly. “What I’m doing, sir, is not a public service. Any spirit that comes into contact with mortals grows smarter, grows conniving. They’ll do anything to protect themselves from incursion, even stoop so low as to bind themselves to mortal flesh. Then they both become dangerous because it’s hard to determine how that unholy marriage will manifest itself.”
Elliot eyed him. “Are there any more creatures like this?”
“No.” But his expression looked haunted.
Stranger turned away from them. “We shouldn’t linger here. We’ve already drawn too much attention to ourselves.”
A howl pierced the air sucking the breath out of all of them. Marguerite turned towards the trees, her lantern held far out to cast away the gloom.
But it was unneeded.
Fire was climbing its way out of the ditch, one ghastly paw at a time. Soon the creature surfaced, its black body still surrounded by flames. She couldn’t breathe as it hooked its eyes on her, its bubbling tongue hanging out a panting jaw.
Marguerite took a step back. It staggered forward. Its movements were twitchy and erratic as it stumbled, dragged its nose on the ground, and curled its paws into the dirt.
Then it lunged forward.
Thunder erupted next to her and half of the creature’s face was blown off into the trees. It staggered, dragging what was left of its head into the ground as its brains leaked black into the soil.
Elliot knelt as he drew back the lock of his smoking gun to replenish the gunpowder. But he was too slow.
The Bone Eater was up again. It growled deep and low. Marguerite could feel the sound reverberate in her ribcage.
She ran back. It came at her again. She reached for the dagger. As it got within striking distance, Marguerite was pulled back painfully by the shoulder. She fell face first, leaves getting caught in her teeth.
She turned on her back. Stranger was above her. The creature’s fangs sunk deep into his arm. She could hear a crunch as the monster’s teeth found purchase in the bone.
Stranger clenched his teeth as the creature continued digging into him. With one violent shove, he threw the creature on the ground and crushed its skull beneath his boot. He repeated the action until its head was reduced to a black crunchy pulp.
Elliot came up from behind. “I thought you killed it.”
Stranger didn’t say anything. His shoulders rising and falling from his previous exertion. Marguerite’s eyes fell back on the mutilated corpse. The black smoke that surrounded it faded, its blood sizzled into the ground.
Stranger stumbled back. “It was….relatively. The fire triggered whatever self-preservation instinct it had thus rousing the spirit.”
“And we still have the main one to deal with,” Elliot spat at the corpse.
Again Stranger didn’t say anything. His expression was strange. He looked down at his arm and traced the scars left from the Bone Eater’s bite.
Marguerite stared up at him curiously. “Stranger?”
He clenched his fist and started walked away from them.
“You should make your way back to town quickly. The spirits will be attracted to this place.”
Elliot grabbed him by the arm. “Will you help us track this creature?”
Stranger pulled away from him, his expression icy. “As long as it remains in Hollow Grove, the creature is your problem. I will not set foot there.”
“And why is that?”
“I have my reasons.”
Elliot scrutinized him, his grip tightening on his gun.
Marguerite stood and gently touched Elliot’s arm.
“We should go.” She shifted her gaze to Stranger. “Thank you, Stranger, for everything. Could we seek you out if anything else comes to light?”
“At your peril,” he said low as he stalked away from them.
And like everything else it touched, the darkness consumed him.
Originally Published on DeviantArt
October 28th 2017