Jake stared at the dead body on the other side of the room. Pale moonlight filtered through one grimy window of the cabin as he stood petrified in the doorway. A curiosity burned in him, but his feet refused to move.
“Jake, I think we should leave.”
His friend Pete stood at his side, practically shaking with fear but equally unable to tear his gaze from the corpse. Pete’s cowardice rekindled Jake’s bravery, and he slowly started across the cabin’s single room. The floorboards moaned underfoot—or maybe that was Pete’s whimpering as he reluctantly followed Jake toward the body. Nothing impeded their progress across the open space. Only a single chair, a small wooden table, and a crudely carved baby crib slouched in one corner near a cold, dark fireplace. Jake quickly swept his flashlight beam around the room, then refocused it on the object of his morbid fascination.
Three things about the dead man’s face stood out to Jake. First, and perhaps most alarming, a pentagram was carved in the center of the man’s forehead. Second, rather than a final rictus of terror or even the slack, lifeless expression of death, the face seemed peaceful, a smile stretched across the bluish lips as the dull eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. Third, Jake recognized him. “I’ve seen this guy before.”
“That’s nice,” Pete hissed. “Can we please get out of here?”
Jake ignored his friend. “On the news,” he muttered. “He’s a serial killer, or a cannibal, or both. Cops have been looking for him for years.” He knelt beside the body, curiosity definitively trumping terror. “I wonder how he died.”
“Who cares?” Pete whined. “Maybe he choked on a bone or something. Good riddance.”
Taking a few more seconds to contemplate the dead man, Jake stood and surveyed the dimly lit space. A thin book lying on the table caught his eye. “A journal?” he remarked as he lifted the leather-bound book. The pages felt strange in his fingers—thick and stiff like card stock but translucent like tissue paper. And each page was filled with strange hand-written symbols. To Jake they resembled letters with pieces removed, words and sentences incomplete in the sense that only half the lines of each letter had been written. He struggled to make sense of the gibberish, but it proved incomprehensible.
Without warning, flames erupted from the charred scraps of wood in the fireplace. Jake and Pete both jumped back reflexively, feeling the sudden blast of heat from a fire much too large and angry for the meager kindling that had birthed it. Jake’s glare snapped to Pete. “Did you just light that?” he asked angrily.
“No way!” Pete yelped.
“Well, there’s no one else here—“
Jake’s protest died in his throat as both boys came to the same terrifying realization. Slowly, they turned around to check on the corpse behind them—
The body was gone.
“Where’d he go?” Pete cried, eyes flicking anxiously around the room.
Jake’s stare fell back to the book in his hands. In the light from the fireplace’s inferno, he saw now that the symbols had been scrawled in red ink. At least he hoped it was ink. He let go of the translucent page he held between thumb and forefinger, watching the symbols on it align with those on the pages underneath. Together, the disjointed markings on adjacent pages formed words, a phrase written over and over again on every page in the journal: THE BEAST WILL BE REBORN.
Jake snapped the book shut in his hand, belatedly noticing the pentagram carved haphazardly on the front cover. “Okay,” he whispered, “we can go now.”
Pete whimpered next to him, unmoving. Jake glanced at his friend, whose wide eyes were directed up at the ceiling. Jake looked up as well—and his heart froze in his chest. An enormous form clung to the wood beams there, directly above the spot where the missing corpse had been. Yellow reptilian eyes stared down at the boys. The thing slowly peeled away from the ceiling, dropping with an earthshaking thud to the cabin’s floorboards. It crouched on powerful hind legs that ended in cloven hooves, eying Jake and Pete hungrily. A long forked tongue lashed out of a snout part lupine and part crocodilian. Waves of greasy, matted fur lined long front limbs rippling with muscles and ending in razor-sharp talons. Above the yellow slits of snake’s eyes, thick curved horns protruded from a forehead that bore a glowing pentagram.
Jake took an almost involuntary step back as the thing leered at them. With blinding speed the hulking beast suddenly twisted its body sharply, and a meters-long tail whipped around, smacking the foul journal out of Jake’s hands. Then it slowly stood up, stooping menacingly as its head brushed the ceiling. With angry huffs of breath it started forward, the cabin’s floorboards groaning in protest. Pete and Jake silently backed away and scooted to the side, as if moving out of the thing’s direct line of sight would make it lose interest in them.
Impossibly, it worked. The massive beast continued toward the fireplace, not them, closing the distance in a few giant strides. They watched in horror as it stopped and craned its head over the crib, opening its grotesque maw and releasing a stream of thick red liquid into the infant bed. Then, slowly backing away from the wooden cradle, it turned its attention back to the boys, bring its front limbs down to the floor and resting on its haunches. It loomed ominously for a terrifying handful of seconds, and then, drawing an impossibly large breath, it roared, the bellow like nothing Pete and Jake had ever heard before. A wolf’s howl, a lion’s snarl, a train horn, a dynamite explosion, a volcano eruption, all rolled into a deafening blast that sent the boys reeling back against the wall, squeezing their eyes shut in terror.
When they opened their eyes again, the beast regarded them indifferently as a wave of fire swept across its body, consuming the thing in the blink of an eye. A mountain of ash fell to the floor, marking the spot where the beast had sat.
Jake and Pete stood frozen with their backs to the wall for a long while. Only the strange sounds of a baby fussing snapped them out of their paralysis. They glanced at each other, Pete whispering, “No way,” before they crept back to the fireplace.
The crib, which Jake was sure had been empty upon their arrival at the cabin, was not filled with blood as he had expected. There was not a red stain to be found anywhere. Instead, inside lay a baby, a seemingly perfectly content infant smiling up at him, blissfully ignorant of the livid welts in the shape of an inverted, five-pointed star on its forehead. Pete peered fearfully into the crib, gasping at the sight waiting for him. “What do we do?” he whispered.
Jake hesitated. The baby locked eyes with him and blinked twice, a flash of reptilian yellow slits taunting him. “We get the hell out of here,” Jake replied.
This week’s flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds involved choosing one of several “story seeds.” The options were:
1.) A child is born under mysterious circumstances.
2.) A dead body goes missing.
3.) A mysterious journal is found.
4.) An accident occurs that may be no accident.
5.) An impossible animal appears.
Inspiration struck, and I decided to incorporate all five story seeds into the above supernatural horror story, titled, “The Beast.”