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Stay on the Beaten Path
A Short Horror Story
Several days ago, I came into possession of a camera while exploring the forest our town shares with Cornwall. The contents are endlessly disturbing and have been the source of my nightmares since, so I warn you to turn back now if you wish to save yourself from a similar fate.
No? Well, at least my conscience is clear.
I have managed to stitch together a story from the videos I found on the camera in the hopes that it will provide a greater understanding of the horrors it has bestowed upon me.
The camera clicked on and focused on a young man seemingly in his mid-twenties whom I now know to be Corden.
‘Alright so. I left Cornwall earlier this morning and have reached the edge of the forest it shares with my destination. It’s a rather long hike, so I’m all prepared to camp.’ The camera shook a little as he directed it over his shoulder, to the rucksack he donned.
‘If all goes well, I should be sipping a margarita by the docks sometime tomorrow afternoon.’
‘What are you doing?’ asked the little girl whom the camera was now pointed at. She was leaning lazily on the trunk of a tree and came off as rather puzzling to me. On my first watch I had no idea why a little girl would be out here on her own. But of course, this was no ordinary little girl.
Corden replied from the other side of the camera, ‘Oh, I like to record what I do, especially when I’m travelling. I’m going on holiday to the town on the other side of this forest.’
‘How come you’re out here on your own?’
‘You know, if the next town is your goal, you might want to take the more beaten path. I would advise against going further into the forest, you know.’ I initially didn’t make much of her ignoring Corden’s question, but that was clue number one of what was to come. Corden evidently didn’t think much of it either; he too shrugged it off and went on.
‘And why would that be?’
The girl’s eyes adopted a far-off, widened look as she began to narrate. ‘Come nightfall, the forest will be drenched in a darkness unlike any other you’ve seen before, and the Vânător will start on its hunt. They say it stalks its victim to rattle their nerves before ripping off one limb at a time and feasting on the flesh in front of the screaming human.’
The story chilled me, scared me from the other side of the screen, but Corden seemed unfazed.
He chuckled, ‘And who might this “they” be?’
The look in her eyes suddenly snapped back to normal, the far-off look replaced with a childlike innocence. ‘You know — people. Old folk. People who have been around long enough to know this stuff.’
Corden laughed at her dismissively. ‘If everyone who goes into the forest dies, they wouldn’t have any way of telling other people this stuff, now would they? Doesn’t matter how long they’ve been around.’
The girl shrugged. ‘Okay, your funeral. But you’ve been warned.’
The camera was much shakier when it turned on this time. Corden was shivering and he seemed unable to speak too much. The first two acts of this story had been filmed under sunlight, but the sun’s last whips had now seemingly given up on their effort to penetrate the dense tree covering, and the moon had swung up in its place. A strong breeze billowed and Corden’s clothes whipped around his body, hugging his frame tight.
I could vaguely make out a low, eerie howl coming from all around him, having no source I could discern. Corden betrayed the same, for he suddenly shook and hurriedly looked around.
I have slowed down this part of the video and painstakingly examined it several times, but haven’t found the slightest indicator that could have warned Corden of the fate that was to befall him. There was no way he could have saved himself from what was to come.
Corden’s pace slowed. He stumbled on a surface root. He steadied himself, only to trip over another and have to lean on a tree for support, dropping the camera as he did so.
I watched Corden raise his arm to his forehead, probably to wipe the beads of sweat that come with fright. More accurately, I watched him try to. His arm seemed stuck to the trunk, inexplicably glued in place.
The skin on his fingers peeled off painfully slowly and receded into the tree. Blood flew all over the place, some getting on the camera lens too, drenching my view in blood. Blood that hit the bark disappeared on contact, seemingly absorbed into the trunk. I heard a crunching noise coming from within the trunk as the tips of his fingers disappeared in small increments.
I watched as Corden tried and failed to scream. His mouth and opened and shut silently, and I could see his fear grow. He tried again, but his jaw had been fixed in place, no longer obeying his mind. The trunk continued to claim more and more of his hand, spitting out droplets of blood as it did so. Corden tried to use his other hand to push the first one free, but that too became stuck where he placed it, and the tree began work on hand number two.
Somewhere behind him, I heard rustling noises. Corden must have too, for he snapped his head back, most likely hoping that it would be a passer-by willing to help. His voice worked this time.
I had no view of what happened next, so I’ve had to rely on only audio to construct this next part of the story. Somehow not knowing what exactly happened has made it worse for me, and every night a new possibility snakes its way into my nightmares.
I heard crunching and creaking and groaning noises off-camera. The first night my dreams assumed it to be trees physically parting, bending and twisting out of the way. I know this much for sure: whatever was coming had heavy footsteps, for the camera jumped up and down in place with each nearing step. The tree had stopped trying to kill Corden, but that only scared me more.
The figure finally made its entrance and I could see who it was.
‘Turn out you were right, Corden. There was no stalking, no nerve-rattling. You’re still going to die though, don’t worry about that.’ She ended with a sinister wink and a warning nod.
‘Bu-bu-but how?’ Corden was much too frightened to question how she knew his name or what she was or what was happening.
The girl laughed in response. ‘I warned you, Corden. But did you listen? No. Just like all the others, you chose to ignore the words of a little girl only trying to keep you safe. It’s your own fault, you know.’
Corden began tugging at his hands with renewed effort, yanking them away from the trunk. The girl laughed harder.
‘You’re a fucking maniac!’
‘And you’re going to be dead. I’d say I’m better off, wouldn’t you, Corden?’ She stalked over to him slowly, but deliberately, cackling with each step, beating her hand on every tree she passed. She revelled in Corden’s fear and pain and screaming, visibly enjoying herself.
‘Oh, what’s this?’ she asked bemusedly when she finally reached him. The girl picked up the camera and stared directly into the lens. ‘Videoing our travels, are we? Well, I suppose everyone should see this too, shouldn’t they? What do you think, Corden?’
The tree that held Corden prisoner bent forward, forming a sort of hand, and the girl placed the camera on it, perfectly poised to capture what happened next.
She licked a finger and ran it down Corden’s face who was tethered in place, anchored by the hands the tree had swallowed.
‘Yes, you’ll do very nicely. Well done, Corden.’
He fell to the ground, suddenly free from the trunk’s hold, probably having fractured a rib or two. But when he got up to run, he found he couldn’t. He wasn’t being held back by anything this time — he just couldn’t.
The girl laughed again. ‘What’s the matter, Corden?’
‘Wha-what have you done to me? Why can’t I move?’ His voice shook with each word, becoming more unstable the more he talked.
She laughed again and pushed him back into the tree where it resumed its hold on him. His body shook with the fresh jolt of pain that shot through him.
‘I like to start from the bottom, you know. Have them screaming for as long as possible. I like to hear them beg for mercy and apologise over and over again, not even sure of what they did wrong. I like to see the cocktail of confusion and fear swirl in and out of their eyes. I like to see the fight drain out of them as they finally resign to their fate. I hope you won’t disappoint me, Corden.’
‘No. No. Please. Please let me go. Please.’
She laughed and said with a smirk, ‘Right on time.’ She lifted her hand to his cheek and held it there for a moment, admiring her prey.
She smiled and her hand moved again, making a thin slit on each cheek, Corden’s skin peeling apart to reveal pink mass underneath. Satisfied with the crimson stripe running down both cheeks, she moved on.
The side of her hand made contact with Corden’s hip…and then went through, slicing through his flesh while he screamed and begged, unable to move, unable to do anything but wail. He splintered apart, spitting out blood and other insides across the forest floor. The girl looked at the collateral of her work and laughed, sinisterly content. She stopped midway through his hip and dashed her hand down, cutting off Corden’s left leg. He let out a guttural scream, much to the girl’s amusement, as she sat down in front of him and began to work on the freshly severed limb.
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