The Biggest Freak in Duskwood

On the night of her eighteenth birthday, Diana Velasquez falls victim to an attack that leaves her horribly scarred and an outcast. Worse still, nobody believes the truth about what happened.

The thing that destroyed her life was no ordinary animal.

During the next five months, the threat in the forest grows worse and worse. Diana has decided she’s had enough of being a victim- she’s going to use her twelve years of boxing training, and her family’s wealth of ornamental weapons, to show these creatures they messed with the wrong schoolgirl. She’s going to be a hero.

Then, she realises there’s far more to the monsters of Duskwood Forest than she thought. Their secret is both a strength and a weakness, but it can’t be beaten by brute strength alone. The more entangled in her tormentors’ lives she becomes, the more Diana starts to doubt she’s doing the right thing. She thought she’d do anything to keep her family safe, but how far is too far?

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Author's note

Yo! This is something I wrote under the proverbial radar. Please note it contains graphic bloody violence, as is to be expected of me. Happy reading!
AA

8. The Sword on the Mantel

SITTING IN MY room these past two weeks, waiting to hear that wretched sound again, has been hell on earth. I don’t really know if I want to hear it, or not.

In the end, I stayed the full two weeks in hospital, having my stitches changed and my pain killed and my blood tested. Needles, everywhere. And the pain was constant- I swear, I never ate a bite I managed to keep down, and after I came home, I was too weak to keep up my boxing training. In a way, even though I don’t want to punch Doctor Harper anymore, I miss that ritual. I’ve been spending my days at home beating up pillows and doing push-ups on the ground, just to feel like I’m still in control of my own body. I’ve been spending my nights struggling to keep my eyes open, listening out for sounds that never come. The beasts are too far away from my house to hurt my family, and that’s reassurance enough for me. I’ve heard mutters at the dinner table- mutters that stop as soon as I walk in- that the gang are back in the woods. I’m worried about them, and severely pissed off, but what the hell can I do? They know full well what happened, and they don’t give a damn, so I guess I give up. I haven’t seen Gretchen since I came home, but I’ve been messaging her, not that it’s had any effect.

Hey Gretch. Listen, I heard you guys are still going up to the woods. I’m not the boss of you, and I don’t want this to mess us up, but please don’t go back there. PLEASE. It’s so dangerous.

Hi Di! I appreciate the concern, honestly I do. But I can’t stop those guys from going and you know how it is. I’m sure we’ll be fine. Sorry about what happened.

Please, Gretch. I can’t talk that twatsack Milo or any of his posse out of anything but I care about you.

Don’t be. I promise I’m not in any danger.

I promise you you’re wrong, but I guess it’s none of my business.

Don’t worry about us, honestly we’ll be fine. Hey, I got a manky chew-up in athletics today. Have to wear an eye patch. Look like a pirate. How you doing?

That sounds awful. But pirates are pretty cool. I’m not bad, thanks- feel weak as fuck. Morphine sucks.

Man, really? I wish they’d given me some. My face hurts.

That’s adorable.

Sorry.

I trust Louis’ promise, but I now check on him four or five times a night- whenever I hear a creak, or a bump, or even a whisper of wind, I’m out of bed like a shot and running to push open his door. He’s always there, bundled under his blanket with his hair sticking out onto the pillow. I’m paranoid, and I know it, but damnit, it’s better than being sorry. He’s going to keep the promise he made in that hospital room, though I can’t keep mine.

I’m going back out there eventually.

It’s a Wednesday night when I finally hear it again. I’ve been so busy expecting it, and getting silence in return, that I’m not convinced the sound’s real till it comes again, closer. It sounds less like howling this time and more like screaming- maybe yelling, like a child. It chills my blood, but I don’t hesitate this time. There’s no question as to whether I should stay indoors, or whether I’m prepared to get ripped apart again- I swore I’d protect my family, and this is how I’m going to do it.

This time, I take my pyjamas off first and put on an old pair of wool tights, then my combat trousers. I thought a lot in these two weeks about armour - I tried on Louis’ skateboarding knee guards whilst he was out at school- but I learned the night I was attacked by the blue-eyed beast that manoeuvrability’s more valuable than protection. I put on an old vest top and an even older long-sleeved one, kissing goodbye to them as I do so, wondering how they’ll look once they’re hanging off my body in bloody rags. I bandage my hands, like I’m about to go to the gym, then put on my fingerless gloves. My big brother’s old combat jacket finishes off the ridiculous ensemble, and I don’t dare look in the mirror as I scramble to fill my pockets with his arsenal of knives, in case my real appearance ruins how cool I feel. I know I must look ridiculous- and there’s more where that came from, I think as I trudge down the stairs as quietly as I can. I’ve left two pockets empty- one contains a crumpled piece of paper, which I tape to the fridge before heading into the dining room.

The other’s for the sword on the mantel.

Last week, I loosened the screws on the plate attaching it to the wall. I lift it down, and as I hold it in my hands, stroking one gloved hand along the blade, I feel… powerful again. It’s heavy, but I can carry it, and I can swing it, too. It’s sharp enough to cut through the fabric of my pocket as I jam it into place, the blade sticking out parallel to my left leg. It drags my trousers down, so I tighten my belt till it won’t tighten any more. I still have to pull them up. I’ve lost weight since the last time I went out hunting monsters.

 

 

It’s funny how time can dampen the appeal of just about anything. When something’s new, it feels incredible, but you need time to think it over. That’s all I need to start feeling ridiculous in my getup as midnight wears into morning and I get deeper and deeper into the woods. The gang aren’t at their campsite. The forest is silent, save for the crunching of my footsteps- if something was anywhere near me, I’d hear it. Then again, maybe it’d be on top of me before I got the chance to react. After a couple of hours of walking, I pull the sword out of my trousers and carry it in my hand- it makes my arm ache like crazy, but that weight’s comforting too. Once, I come across a dead deer, killed by a single blow to its throat, a cloud of flies already buzzing over the meagre scraps of blood. The smell is nauseating, so I move on. A couple of times, I practice swinging my sword- I imagine something’s leapt out of the bushes, jaws drooling and snapping and eyes glowing, and I spear it before it can spear me. I wonder if I’ll be able to do it for real when the time comes. I hope so. It’s just an animal, after all- at the end of the day, it’s just a monstrous beast that shouldn’t exist. I can do it. No problem.

I remember that my knife wouldn’t pierce its hide the first time. I hope my sword’ll be different. It has to be.

A twig cracks to my left and I jump, then snarl to myself in frustration. It’s nothing. Ten minutes later, another crack, another jump, another snarl. My heart stays in my mouth and I don’t bother trying to choke it back down. I start to desperately hope something’ll attack me soon, just so this tension’ll shatter and stop crushing me. There’s nothing here. This isn’t right; I heard them- I know they’re out here. Why haven’t they found me yet?

I have to replace my sword in my pocket after an hour or two of carrying it- my right arm starts to throb, and I realise I won’t be strong enough to fight if I keep it in my hand, no matter how much safer it makes me feel. Then, instead, the blade starts to bump against my leg after every step, and the rounded nub of the handle starts to dig into my hip; I can feel the bruise forming.

“Come on, you arseclowns,” I murmur. “Where the hell are you? I’m RIGHT HERE!” I scream. My voice echoes into nothing in the vast emptiness of the sky, eats itself away.

This is ridiculous. I’ve practically given up by now- nothing’s going to turn up, I’ve only got a basic grip on where in the forest I am, and the horizon’s starting to turn pink between the trees. Mum sometimes gets up early, and Dad gets home at seven. They’ll find my note when they do, and then they’ll freak out. I check my phone, seeing the time 04: 19, and tell myself I’ll turn back if nothing’s happened by four-thirty.

Then, suddenly, I see a flash of white in the trees. Something up ahead is heaving back and forth against the ground, and before I know what I’m doing, I break into a run. Something rears its head from the white mass, and I’m blinded by a blaze of bronze eyeshine. I heft my sword and ready myself for a fight. Then, the creature- which, now I think about it, is only about three or four feet tall, and emaciated- takes off running. As it turns, I see its pale fur is mangy and it’s covered in knotted scars and scuffs of mud. I spot a slight limp in its step as it’s swallowed up by the shadows. “Hey!” I yell, but I can’t bring myself to chase after it. Maybe it wasn’t one of them. No- it has to be. What the hell else could it have been? My run turns into a walk as I come up on the white mass against the ground. It’s soaked in blood- it’s another dead deer, with a mess of claw marks on its throat. Nothing else. The beast wasn’t eating it.

I sigh, heavily.

“God damn, where the hell are you all?”

I take one more step, hearing the leaves crunching under my boot. I pause, and hear another crunch directly behind me. It wasn’t me, I don’t think. I turn around, rubbing my eyes and getting ready to snarl.

Something else snarls instead.

“Oh,” I say, pulling my sword out of my pocket as the gloomy daylight picks over the enormous dark shape bounding towards me, kicking up a whirlwind of leaves. “There you are.”

Somehow, I’ve never felt calmer than I did as I raised that sword. My arm still aches, I think to myself as I’m slammed into full-force and knocked to the ground; I bring the sword down and feel the heavy wet thud of it biting into the beast’s shoulder. This one’s bigger than the red one, smaller than the black one- it’s pale, and its eyes are glowing silver. How pretty, I think as it mews in pain and backs away from me.

There’s blood all over my blade as I yank it free. Good. The beast paws the ground and runs for me, and I run too; this time, I yell as I swing the sword with both hands and slice its face open from cheek to cheek. It whimpers again, but it doesn’t back off; it swipes, opening my leg. I drop to one knee as it swipes again, roll, and kick it hard in the face before springing back to my feet. All the while, my mind’s going Okay. Okay. You’ve been waiting for this. Now it’s happening. What are you going to do about it?

“I’m going to kill you.” I whisper- I’m cut short by my own yell of pain as another swipe rips all three layers of fabric above my shoulder and grazes my skin. I grab my sword, shriek as another swipe gouges my stomach, raise it above my head and then throw it downwards, connecting solidly with the top of the beast’s head. Boom. I think, but the beast doesn’t go down. As blood trickles into its ugly eyes, it yelps in pain again, then pounces on me, knocking me down. Thud. Another swipe throws my sword across the clearing, into a nearby tree. Clatter. The beast snaps at the air, making hideous choking jarring barking noises, and then, as I feebly attempt to punch it in the face, it digs its claws deep into my shoulder, between the bones, and starts to drag them.

I scream like I mean it as my shoulder grows hot with blood; those claws cut deep through my jacket and my shirt and my vest and my skin and my flesh. Blood starts spraying- not trickling, spraying. The beast doesn’t release me- its claws stay buried in me. I choke out a yell of pain- this is worse than getting stabbed. The pain’s not cold and bright- it’s acidic and red-hot and wet and filthy. It moves its other paw and I take a second to whine before I reach down to my pocket and fumble around for a knife. My shaking fingers somehow manage to find one and I grab it like a dagger, holding it up and then driving it down into the beast’s ribs. It doesn’t take its claws out of me. I stab down again, and again, and again, in the same place- I’m crying. Its skin doesn’t want to give, but eventually, I see blood. I taste blood, too, and that’s when I realise I’ve bitten into my tongue.

“L- l- let… g- go…” I mumble as I hold back vomit. I keep stabbing its side until it pulls back from my shoulder- “GOD, that hurts!” I sob, feeling my flesh turning to soup. It goes in for another swipe, but I punch it across the snout, as hard as I can, and then bring my knife around to stab it in the side of its neck. I thrash and use all my strength to shove it off me- we roll in opposite directions. My strength won’t save me now. The beast gets up before me, scratching the ground and whimpering like a lost puppy. I get to my feet. Instead of running for my sword, I reach into my pocket and pull out another knife. I’m going to say something cool, but then, my mind says screw it and I run at it again. It swipes and claws open my other leg, but I barely notice- I grab it by the throat and stab it again, in the back. Again. Again. Again. It snarls and spits and snaps at my arms, my legs, opening gaping wounds all over me that knock me to my knees, but I don’t stop stabbing. It’ll die soon, right? Right? My shoulder burns like it’s full of salt. Doctor Harper’s not going to be happy with me. Or maybe he’ll be impressed. I’ll tell him I wrestled an eight-foot wolf. The funny thing is, I think he’ll believe me.

“Why-” I turn to spit blood onto the ground. The beast barks, and the bark turns into a squeal. “Why- won’t- you- DIE?”

It squeaks, and this time, I stop. That squeak sounded… weird. Almost as if- POW. My thought process is cut off by a million tonnes of blood-caked fur and snapping teeth slamming into my stomach, sending me flying again. This time, it wastes no time- I stab it in the side of the face, but its claws come down on my chest and I scream in…

Pain?

No. There’s no pain this time. I open my eyes and see it staring right back at me, snarling, panting, drooling. Close up, it smells like rotten apples and mouldy leaves and blood. But it’s barely grazed me with its claws; that tiny scratch isn’t even bleeding. It’s… frozen, its paw hovering over my chest like it’s having an attack of fucking conscience.

I pant, trying not to let my head fall back on the ground.

“What you.. staring at?” I say. I can hear birds singing. In the sudden silence, I grunt and stab it in the cheek again with my knife, but this time, it barely makes a sound; just breathes out, and whimpers like a kitten. Its weight vanishes from my chest and I sit up, straining all my new gashes and gouges, suddenly frozen as the grey beast backs into the middle of the clearing and starts to walk in circles. It’s whining and wheezing and coughing- is it dying? I hope so as I stand up, but something feels wrong. It wasn’t that badly hurt. It doesn’t look that badly hurt now; its face is covered in blood, but unless one of those stabs at its ribs got lucky and hit something important, I don’t think it’s dying.

“What’ssss… wrong?” I sound like an injured dog myself as I try to keep the steel in my voice. “You going t’… kill me or what? Or am I going to kill you? Come on.” I tell myself this doesn’t matter- I should go for it to finish it off while it’s weak, but something stops me. I don’t know what it is.

From up here, it looks a lot smaller- it’s barely taller than me. Suddenly, it’s less formidable. I nearly smile. Nearly, because that’s the moment I remember it was eight, nine feet tall when it first lunged for me. Now, it’s my height- five and a half feet. Less. I look down at it. Oh, my God.

“What the hell?” I say to myself. The beast’s shrinking. Or, at least, its framework’s shrinking- I’m watching it shrink right before my eyes. I watch its skin loosen and roll and start to sag away from its jaws and eye-sockets. It paws at the ground a couple of times. Then, it goes stiff and keels over sideways like it’s drunk, hitting the ground with a heavy THUD. My mouth falls open. The beast’s lying in the clearing, quivering slightly, its skin hanging off its skeleton like a grey burlap sack. That’s when I notice the sound- the hideous dry crunching, cracking sound I tuned out, because I thought it was branches. It’s not. It’s bones.

“What the hell?” I repeat.

The beast gives a feeble whimper that sounds more like a sigh as its ribcage judders, then suddenly disappears altogether- no, I tell myself. It’s curling smaller. Then, its spine cracks and realigns.

“What the hell?” I say. “What the hell? But what in the actual fuck, though? Seriously?”

Now I’m confused instead of frightened, and my adrenaline’s got nowhere else to go, I just sound frustrated.

In the empty silence that follows, my heart starts to punch me in the throat. The wolf- or whatever the hell it is now- is lying on its side, facing away from me, with the bumps of its spine pressing against its newly tightened skin. It hasn’t just shrunk- it’s changed shape altogether. It’s huddled up, curled around itself. I wait for it to move, but it never does. That’s when I realise it’s no longer grey- it’s a fleshy pink colour, and completely hairless. All I can see is its back, but then, after several minutes of staring with my mouth wide open, it groans and stretches out a leg. Its groan sounds deep and guttural, desperately pained.

And that’s when I realise it’s a man.

Clamping one hand over my mouth, my heart still going nuts like it’s trying to break out of my ribcage, I force myself to back out of the clearing and hide behind a tree. Then, I realise that’s barely hiding and duck behind a bush, my injuries- even the shredded mess of claw marks on my shoulder- forgotten. I can’t believe what I’m looking at- I can’t believe it. But it’s happening, so I guess I can either accept it or wait dumbfounded till the man-wolf finds me. Is he a wolf that turns into a man? Or a man that turns into a wolf? Werewolf, my mind says.

Yeah, no shit, Diana.

The man in the clearing stands up, groaning again, and I nearly cough as I register that he’s completely naked. I realise why he’s groaning- he’s covered in blood, and most of it’s his. His face is distorted by an enormous bleeding scratch over his nose, and as he prods his cheek with one finger, he opens a gaping hole that goes right through to his mouth. His side is a tangled mess of red blood and black gore. Breathing heavily, he drops his hand from his wound and lifts the other, wiping a hard white line through the muck on his face. Then, a sickening pang of shock in my stomach tells me I recognise him, so I look closer. I realise he’s too slight to be a man- he’s a boy. At a guess, he’s younger than me. He’s pale, with an upturned nose, and he’s got dishwater-blond hair that puffs over the top of his head like a mushroom.

He’s Harry.

He’s one of the boys from the gang. 

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