Fictober, Prompt 11 – “It’s not always like this.”
Warnings: horror, blood, blood-drinking, implied violent death(s)
The light beneath the trees darkened, and I wandered on carefully. I knew I was heading in generally the right direction, and eventually I’d be close enough to find the path, or to hear my car beep if I unlocked it.
I’d lingered too long, deep in the woods near an old scouting camp where my grandfather had come frequently to hunt. It was lonely out here, but peaceful, and I’d accidentally fallen asleep when I sat down to rest earlier under the autumn trees. It was night now, but a large, orange harvest moon was rising over the hill to the east, and with so many leaves already down it provided enough light for me to walk without stumbling.
I crested a small rise, and dropped down into the small hollow beneath, a clear area in the trees, filled with boulders left over from the last Ice Age; common in the foothills here in western Pennsylvania.
The deer standing in the clearing were common too.
What was not common was the fact that they did not bolt when I appeared so suddenly nearby, and most of them did not even glance at me. One, the farthest away, was backed up against the largest rock outcropping, eyes wide and rolling with terror, though it seemed frozen in place. The other deer stood around it in a loose semi-circle, silent and still in a way that made me uneasy.
This was very strange.
Keeping quiet myself, I started to back up…only to realize that there was now a short drop, slippery with leaves, and a rock at my back. No easy way out that direction.
The slope continued down from here, though, and that was the direction that I needed to go. If I could just edge around the deer carefully, I could leave them to whatever it was they were doing and get back to my car.
I froze only half a dozen steps later when one of the circling deer finally turned its head and looked at me.
It had fangs.
Cold fear uncurled in my stomach. There was some weird, small kind of deer that had long teeth, somewhere in Asia…but these were the usual white-tailed deer that were native to this area. They should not have teeth, or tusks, or whatever these were.
The rest of the watching deer turned to look at me.
They all had fangs too.
The normal deer that was backed up against the rock shifted, sensing a chance to flee…but their attention snapped back to it immediately, and it froze again.
I did not move. What was happening here?
In the next moment, an arrow had sprouted from the back leg of the frightened deer, and it fell with a sound that I hoped I never had to hear again.
As if that were a signal, the rest of the deer, the ones with fangs, advanced on it with steady steps, pressing in until they were close enough to lean down and—
I closed my eyes and turned away. The sounds were bad enough as the downed deer let out a noise like a scream, and the others just…no.
“It’s not always like this.”
I shrieked myself, jumping back, eyes flying wide in shock at the sound of a human voice. In the next instant I realized that the arrow had come from somewhere, but it hadn’t registered in my horror over deer apparently consuming one of their own alive.
Back plastered to a rock, heart pounding harder than it ever had, I stared at the man who had come up silently behind me. There was a quiver of arrows on his back and a bow in one hand, the fancy, modern kind that people used for hunting. I was pretty sure it wasn’t deer season yet.
“Isn’t like what?” I croaked, unable to think of anything else to say.
The man had brown hair and light eyes, from what little I could make out in the moonlight. He was wearing jeans and a jacket, and I doubted I would have noticed him had we passed on the street.
I was noticing him here.
He watched the deer, apparently unperturbed by what was happening.
“This,” he gestured at the unnatural feast. The downed deer had stopped screaming. “The weeds have been bad this year.”
“Weeds?” The apparent non-sequitur made my head spin. What was happening here?
“The weeds,” he repeated, “the heliothana weeds. They’ve been bad this year. Some years there aren’t as many, but not this year. Lots of things in the woods couldn’t avoid them, even the deer.”
“The helio-what?” I asked, mind still spinning, trying to put his words into some kind of context that made sense, and failing.
“Heliothana,” he repeated, voice calm, still not looking at me. “You haven’t heard of it.”
That was not a question.
“What- what is it?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but it might help me understand what I was seeing.
“It does things to you,” the man told me, “bad things. I hate to see fellow creatures suffer, so I give them a hand sometimes. Especially the deer. It doesn’t come naturally to them. Blood helps, you see, for a little while.” Something in his expression went distant, but then his eyes focused back on the fanged deer, indeed drinking the blood of their downed herd member.
“Blood?” I whispered, more incredulous than ever. But I couldn’t deny what I was seeing, however much I wanted to.
“It’s that, or let the Sun take you,” he said, voice low and dark. “And some of us aren’t ready for that.”
“But deer- deer are herbivores—” The protest was weak and flat even as it fell out of my mouth, every hair on my body standing on end. I was trying to pretend that there was something normal about this conversation, but there wasn’t.
“It has to be blood,” the man (or whatever he was) said, shaking his head slightly, gaze not moving. “And it has to be blood of one’s own kind. You were never in danger from them.”
My instincts screamed at me to run, but there was nowhere to run to. He was blocking my way out of the hollow.
His eyes turned to me, and I wished they hadn’t.
“Would you like to help a fellow creature out too?”
He smiled. Orange moonlight glinted off fangs.
I bolted for the slope I’d jumped down.
I didn’t make it far.