It was an unusually warm early September afternoon. The heat of summer still lingered in the air and on her skin as Allison carefully pulled herself up the narrow ledge.
There was a Cedar Waxwing family living in the trees not too far away from the main hiking trail.
She huffed quietly and crawled on the forest floor as stealthily as she could, sweat beading at her temple.
Little flyway hairs had escaped the tight bun under her cap and stuck to her flushed skin, tickling the sides of her face.
She didn't worry about getting lost. She'd been exploring the forest for a long time - every other weekend for a couple of years now, when the weather was warm, Allison would drive the forty-odd minutes it took up to Mt. Seymour road to go hiking in the neighbouring area.
She'd strayed further North than usual this time, between Mt Elsay and Bishop near a small waterfall. Having the Friday off from her stuffy desk-job had really made a difference to her wandering time.
She'd always been the outdoors-y type and enjoyed the burn after serious physical activity.
If she didn't get to hike, she'd go play tennis or handball in a nearby court or do her more strenuous yoga poses at home (after thorough stretching of course).
Just like her doodles, it was more of a hobby than anything, but it helped her after a long day or week being stuck behind a desk.
And she'd always been a bit of a loner.
The forest was still her favorite.
She looked forward to nightfall most, with a clear forecast she could fall asleep admiring the stars in solitude.
The little birds tweeted and chirped above her as she settled on a wide fallen treetrunk, laying her thick, puffy jacket down as a cushion and slipping her small sketchbook free from the backpack's outermost pocket.
The jacket might have been too much for daytime, but once night fell she would need it. It wasn't cold enough that she would need a fire, so she'd taken it along - as bulky as it was.
The evening light was perfect. She began sketching the waxwings as they puffed and groomed themselves before sleep. She wasn't a particularly good artist, she'd be the first to admit that - but repetition and a passion for watching fat little birds go on with their day had helped round up her skills - at least when it came to feathered subjects.
Bird-watching had been her mom's hobby. Their mother-daughter camping trips during summer were where she'd developed her love for hiking.
After her mother's untimely death, Allison always kept a little notebook full of doodles.
Her mom had always laughed at Allie's silly sketches and encouraged her to do more.
She was smudging a mistake over as shading with her pinkie when a sudden, strong gust of wind immediately followed by an earth tremor shook the trees and a yell startled her, making all the birds fly away.
Allison swore, she was in the middle of drawing one of them mid-yawn - their beaks looked deceptively small when shut but were comically large compared to their heads in reality
A donkey-like guffaw echoed from above, several other voices joining in, making a racket.
She'd been so focused on the birds she hadn't noticed the group of men that had trudged up several feet above her level on an even patch of rock. They must have come up the other side of the small incline, or through the ravine west of her. The sound of falling water and rustling leaves had been enough to muffle their steps.
She glanced over her shoulder. One of them had to have slipped and caused the others to laugh. She could see several figured helping a wobbly shape up.
So they were drunk too... Awesome.
Allison got up and dusted herself off, more out of frustration than a need to get clean. She shivered as the wind blew, yanking on the jacket.
She'd have to find another place to spend the night, not in the mood to share space with a bunch of inhebrieted assholes.
"Helloooooo!" a masculine voice shouted from above.
"Hey guuyyzz, I though you said -hic- no girls allowed!??" he continued, slurring.
"I'm just on my way." Allison said, raising her voice high enough to be heard.
"Howdy, ma'am! We didn't know there was anyone else 'round here. Hope we didn't interrupt nothin'." another man with a thick southern american accent said as he neared the edge. It was getting darker by the minute, but Allison could see the glint of a rifle's nuzzle peeking up next to his shoulder.
Hunters then. A little early in the season, too close to the hiking trails to be any good at it.
"You out hunting?"
"Yes ma'am, takin' out my boys to show 'em the ropes. A man should know how to procure his own meal, yeah?" the older man smiled.
The younger ones, his sons apparently, crowded around to stare at her. The drunkest and youngest one laid out on his belly, chin propped up on his hands and other two young men were flanking their father.
"Say, why don't you join us for dinner? We'll get the fire started," he kicked at the younger one, who scrambled up and disappeared - presumable to start the fire " - put on some fresh meat to cook… have a drink?" he shook a half-empty bottle of vodka at her (probably not the first judging by the glassy-eyed stares). It was the dirt-cheap, better used for cleaning mildew kind.
Allison resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Something about the guy didn't sit right with her. He was too friendly.
"I appreciate the offer but I've got people waiting for me." she lied. She'd go to one of the nearby official campsites, or cross to the other side of the trail.
Hell there were rumors the military had a base further up North, even they were a better alternative.
Last month, she'd talked to some of the rangers she was friendly with who complaining about armed men in camo scaring the wildlife and putting up fences where they had no business being.
"Aw, don't be that way. They can come join us too. There's enough meat for everybody!" the man said and helped the oldest son heft up two gutted, skinned and partially cut hindquarters. One large, one smaller. Deer.
They'd killed a fawn and doe.
It wasn't illegal, as long as you had a permit, but it was usually in bad taste to kill female deer, especially when they were breeding and so early in the season.
"You got a doe permit?" Allie blurted out and immediately regretted it at the man's sharp squint.
"You some kinda' ranger?" the oldest son asked, tone absolutely devoid of his father's chipper disposition.
She froze while the three men gave her dirty looks, illuminated slowly by the growing fire behind them. She could now see they were all armed.
"I'll just be on my way." Allison repeated, trying to sound uncaring as she turned and shuffled down the incline.
"Now wait just a diddly darn minute!" the older man shoved the carcasses back at his sons and slid over the ledge, expertly navigating the thorny ground even in the fading light.
"I don't want any trouble." Allie turned to face him, bracing a hand against the tree next to her to keep from slipping back.
The man took another step towards her, opening his mouth to say something else only to be interrupted by the most uearthly screech Allie had ever heard in her life.
It was so strange and wrong, she could feel the hair at the nape of her neck stand on end.
The men looked as disturbed as her.
They were all still while they listened, trying to hear where the awful sound was coming from, but the forest wasn't helping and whatever had made the horrible noise must have been moving too.
There was some distant rattling and another weird scheechy wail.
The wail trailed off and Allie could see everyone's shoulders lower in relief with hers once it stopped.
The group looked around, alert.
Some primal part of them recognizing the danger, for no one dared move or utter a word.
For a while nothing happened, Allie's heart thumped less and less loudly in her ears with every moment of silence.
The group of humans waited for another few minutes, heads swivelling every now and then to listen for strange noises.
Allie almost believed it was all over when a low hiss had them all hunching again.
The older man unslung his rifle from his back and checked the ammo then pulled the safety, muzzle carrefully pointed down but ready.
His sons copied his movements almost at the same time.
"Sammy, Cole, stick with Junior and keep watch. I did not like the sound of that one bit…" the older man said.
"Listen here missy, I think you're better off sticking around just in case. Name's Jeremiah by the by."
"A-Allison." she replied automatically.
"What the hell was that?"
"Ain't no deer, that's for sure." Sammy or Cole said. She assumed Junior was the teenager hiding behind his older brothers.
"A coyote?" Junior asked.
"You ever heard a fucking coyote hiss like that?"
"Language, Samuel." Jeremiah snapped.
Sammuel, the broadest of the bunch, only grunted back his regret but Jeremiah was already walking away to the side, laying low by the fallen treetrunk she'd used as a bench just a few hours ago.
Allie took the opportunity to zip up her jacket and make sure the laces of her hiking boots were tied up properly, then she adjusted her backpack, thankful she'd packed light.
If she had to make a run for it, she could abandon it. Her small wallet, carkeys with a compass keychain, her PLB, a foldable pocketknife, her phone and a small flask of water were always on her person.
The wallet and keys were clipped safely to her belt and stuffed in her large pants pockets and the locator was hanging around her neck.
The pack had sunscreen, a map of the area, an extra set of underwear, socks and a shirt, a large thermos filled with tea, enough snacks to keep her going for two more days (if she rationed) - all carefully wrapped, a tiny first-aid kit and matches.
The impermeable tarp rolled and pinned on top completed her gear. She'd taken it more as a precaution, the weather forecast was clear this weekend.
And of course, a few toiletries and a roll of toilet paper.
Never forget the toilet paper.
The pack also held her sketchbook and she remembered putting her library card in there too, she was supposed to pick up Gemma on the way back tomorrow.
Her neighbour and friend worked that weekend. If anything happened - Gemma was the only one who knew her whereabouts... although… Allie had never mentioned straying so far from her usual hikes.
She regretted not taking her moms old flaregun. She might have been able to use it as a distraction at the very least.
Jeremiah was silent where he lay low.
Allie took the chance to shift away, trying not to rustle any of the fallen leaves.
A twig broke under her boot and Jeremiah eyed her like she was stupid.
"Listen-" he started.
There was another low hiss and a rustle in the distance and Allie's head whipped around to stare into the forest. The sound had come from their other side. As if whatever it was had circled them.
The fire threw strange shadows over the younger men. The crackle and pop of the logs and the distant spray of the waterfall were the only sounds except for their combined panicked breathing.
Strange. Even at night the forest carried the sounds of its inhabitants. Something had spooked all the animals away.
Jeremiah noisily got up and turned to face the faded hissing as Junior climbed down. Jeremiah grumbled at his youngest but patted him on the shoulder in an unexpected show of paternal care.
"You two stay up there and keep watch, ya hear? I'll go take a look. Junior, you stick with the lady." Jeremiah ordered. The other two brought their rifles up but Junior made to grab at his father.
"Pa, are you sure you should go in alone? Maybe we should stick together, call for help..." the boy pleaded.
Up close Allie could see how young he really was, couldn't have been more than sixteen.
Jeremiah shook his head. "No cell reception out here." he said, not even bothering to check his phone. It was true though, Allie had wanted to send Gemma a picture of a pretty flower in the morning but there was no signal.
"I could send an SOS…" Allie said while fumbling for her PLB.
Jeremiah, who had walked up to her while she fished for the little device stuffed down the front of her shirt, snatched it out of her hands, pulling on the string and her along with it.
"Hey!" Allison shouted, trying to take it back.
Jeremiah's other hand flashed silver and the taunt cord was cut away from her. Then he pushed her away by the shoulder and she fell on her ass, probably bruising it.
"What the hell!? Give it back!"
"Lets not get hasty now. No need to stir up a fuss for some strange sounds. Promise I'll give this back in the mornin' hon. When we're far away." he cooed at her.
"Pa, I don't think…"
"Shut it. We already got enough warnings. You wanna get me arrested?" Jeremiah snapped at Junior while inspecting the device in the weak, flickering firelight.
"Plus, it don't even work. Look. Dead as a doornail." he turned the display towards her as she pushed herself back up.
Allie's mouth hung dumbly open as she saw for herself.
"Impossible! It's good for at least five years and I only had it for two. I never had to use it before and it was fine this morning!" Allie made another grab for the locator. Jeremiah let her take it, making a dismissive shooing motion with his hand.
"You city folk and your expensive toys. Think you're better than us, huh?"
"What does that have to do with anything? Are we just gonna sit here and wait for Bigfoot to eat us?" Allie screeched.
She stuffed the PLB into her pocket and checked her phone.
It was dead too.
Jeremiah cackled and his sons tentatively joined in.
"Bigfoot, she says! Ha! How bout it boys? Think killing it will make us famous?"
Allie mouthed some choice swears while Jeremiah continued ahead, rifle at the ready. Junior sidled up to her, surreptitiously checking his own phone while his old man wasn't paying attention. His wouldn't turn on no matter how long he pressed the on/off button, just like hers.
The other two young men stood back to back, keeping a careful eye on the forest on both sides.
"We need to get out of here." she whispered at Junior.
The boy shook his head and unslung his own rifle. She could see a pistol holster hanging at his belt. How many weapons did these guys even have?
"No ma'am, we got a good spot here and enough ammo to kill three bears twice over." he muttered back, sounding as though he was trying to convince himself more than her.
"Oy, the heck do you reckon this is?" Jeremiah yelled from where he was crouching at a thick tree's roots.
Allison picked her way across to him, Junior close enough on her heels that he bumped into her when she stopped.
Jeremiah was poking a stick into something goopy. Strings of clear, sticky fluid stretching out as he pulled it up.
"Is that… snot?" Allison asked.
"Awful lot of it too." Jeremiah pointed around where more goop had pooled.
He poked the leaves with his stick more and grumbled. "Did any y'all throw burning coal out here?" he turned to eye his other two sons dubiously, who shook their heads in unison.
There was a soft plink and a hissing noise. Something yellow-green had landed on Junior's shoulder where he was crouching by his father.
Not one second later he was howling in pain, struggling to take his thick leather jacket off.
"Getitoffgetitoff!!" he wailed as he threw the garment away.
Jeremiah was struggling with him, yelling at him to sit still while the boy sobbed.
Allie backed away and her pack hit another tree behind her.
Something wet dripped on her cap.
She reflexively reached up to touch it and sighed in relief when she saw that it was just the clear snot.
Then she made the mistake of looking up.
Allison's scream caught in her throat.
Her mind whirled with denial at the enormity of the thing.
Way up in the canopy, a dark, skeletal shiny shape hung from the branches. She could see the light from the fire dance over its slimy looking skin.
It was slim, but long.
The head was a weird banana shape and there were tubes coming out of its back.
It had no eyes.
The tail was wrapped tightly around a branch while what looked like hands and feet were braced against other branches on spindly limbs.
There was something goopy and clear hanging from what could only be the mouth and there were two long yellow-green slashes and a couple if punctures marring its side over where ribs on a human would be.
It took her a second to take everything in and the only thing her stupid brain could come up with in response was 'That's not Bigfoot.' (Or Yeti, or the Abominable Snowman... or hell - even Mothman)
Her mouth started moving on its own to voice the very thought but all that came out was a wheezy "That-"
She hadn't noticed the other two had stopped struggling, staring up just as another drop of yellow fell from its side.
Allie scrambled away before the blood (for what else could it be?) hit the ground and hissed as it ate the leaves. (Was that acid? How did it bleed acid?!)
At the same time the creature screeched and dropped, partially landing on Jeremiah and slashing at her backpack as she tried to run.
The older man screamed in pain as his son called for his father and the other two shouted at him to get out of their shots.
Allison hit the clasp over her chest and slipped free of the straps, leaving the creature to shred the pack to pieces and throw the contents about like confetti.
She stumbled over a root and crawled on all fours, dropping her phone in the process.
The black thing screeched again as shots rang out and Allison dived to the side behind a thick trunk, afraid of getting nailed by accident.
She covered her ears when the inhuman screams were joined by very human ones that sounded a lot like Jeremiah had gotten the same treatment her pack had.
Allison felt the bitter taste of bile come up her throat and swallowed back what remained of her lunch. Getting sick now was a fast way to die.
The gunshots stopped and she steeled herself to take a peek.
Jeremiah had stopped screaming and lay in a heap by the roots. The creature was keeping Junior between it and his brothers while they were hurriedly reloading.
Junior's arms trembled as he pointed his empty rifle at it and fruitlessly pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked repeatedly, he was out of ammo.
The monster crouched. Allison's hands crept over the uneven ground and before she knew what she was doing, she'd thrown a fist-sized rock at the things back.
It hit it at the top of its banana head and Allie saw it pause then slowly turn towards her.
She was frozen on the spot as the creature leaped back towards her and whipped its tail at Junior in the process, making him gurgle a scream.
It didn't get far. Sammy and Cole had reloaded and shot it in the back.
Yellow sprayed out of it as it screeched again and darted to the side, zig-zagging over the forest floor then effortlessly climbing a sturdy tree before Allie had time to will her feet to move.
The young men kept firing at it as it went up, missing most of the shots.
The monster disappeared in the dark canopy as if by magic.
Cole and Sammy were reloading their rifles again, keeping their eyes trained above them for any movement.
Allie crawled over to where Junior had been knocked back.
He was still breathing. Barely.
There was a gaping slash opening the flesh of his belly up from his left hipbone all the way to his right pectoral. Allie tried to focus on his face and not the entrails slipping out.
He was babbling something but it was too quiet for her to hear.
Feeling like scum, she reached for his belt and slowly unclipped the pistol from its holster, taking the safety off. It was heavier than it looked.
Before she could retreat, his hand shot out and grabbed her free one. He weakly spat out blood and whimpered "Please…"
Allie couldn't understand the rest of his words and the sudden screaming caught her attention, making her wrench her hand away from the dying boy.
The monster had come back, creeping low on the ground and taking Cole's feet out from under him.
Sammy shot at it, screaming, while it slashed his brother's throat only to leap on him next as his rifle clicked empty.
Allie watched in horror as the creature pinned the man down and opened its mouth full of crystaline teeth only for a long tongue full of more teeth to come out and puncture his forehead like it was butter.
She didn't even have presence of mind to bring up the pistol. Just stood there and watched like an idiot.
The dark thing huffed. Its body was riddled with yellow wounds, but it was by no means down.
It crawled toward her and Allie's body finally caught up. She sprung into a a dead run, sidestepping two reedy trees growing closely together in a 'V' shape and dropping the gun as her shoulder hit one. She could hear the thing come after her on all fours.
It was faster than her.
Allison kept running anyway, grabbing onto a tree to swing herself out of the way just as the thing made a jump for her. She swore she could feel the wind from its claws whistle by her head as she turned herself around.
It fell in a heap and Allie twisted out of the way of a clumsy strike from its tail, the tip catching on her puffy jacket and ripping into it with ease.
It could have gutted her like it did Junior…
The creature hissed.
Allie didn't know if these thing could even get tired, but it looked like it was struggling to breathe.
She was pretty winded herself.
It gathered its limbs under it and Allie could tell by now it was preparing to leap.
She turned and dove between the twin trunks that had grown together, tripping over something that clatterd in front of her and falling face-first to eat some dirt.
She turned around, she could hear Junior wheezing a few feet away.
The tubes on the monster's back were too wide to fit through the small gap, though its shoulders were narrow enough.
It huffed tiredly again, and pushed the thin treetrunks away with its spindly hands. They bent and cracked and the thing crawled towards her.
Allie scrambled on all fours.
Her hand fell onto something cold and metallic.
She brought the gun up, aiming at its head and emptied the clip.
The pistol clicked repeatedly in her shaky hand.
The creature hissed and advanced once more, she'd pissed it off more than anything.
There were a few measly yellow scratches on its head.
The bullets had merely grazed the dark skin.
Allie whimpered and closed her eyes.
There was a soft snickt and the hiss of acid blood hitting the forest floor again. That sound would stay with her forever.
Allie opened her eyes just as the monster's head slid from its neck falling to her right, while the body slid to her left with a muted, heavy thump.
She backed away from the spreading pool of acid and her eyes caught a flickering right next to the elongated head.
Allison's gaze slowly trailed up the strange armored shins that were materializing before her eyes.
She caught a glimpse of metal sheeted skirt like a gladiator's (and were those fishnets?) a muscled torso and another monster head clipped on a thick metal belt before her eyes fixed on the giant menacing mask with a high, domed forehead and the long dark spikes that might have been hair if a follicle were size of both her thumbs put together.
The man (was it a man?) was huge.
Broad and tall.
Close to seven feet with biceps the size of her thighs, sculped abdomen and chest covered in that strange skimpy mesh slashed with six fresh looking scars cutting most of his front open diagonally and puckered little circles running along his exposed arm and thigh.
His skin looked strange too.
The man clicked and she almost jumped out of her skin.
Her overworked brain wouldn't quit - no man, no human anyway, sounded like that.