A Farmer and Soldier

4

4

"I'm tellin' you Anne, those were gunshots!"

The farmer shouted as he stared into the dark from the porch of his house, his loaded Winchester tightly held in his grip, its strap loosely hanging from his shoulder. Moonlight dripped from the cracks in the clouds as they creeped their way across the sky. The autumn night was unusually cool, strands of wind rustling the leaves around the the small one-story home and scratching them against walls of the barn. The farmer squeezed the rifle and the flashlight tighter in his grip.

"So what if they were, Daryl?", his wife scoffed back from the doorframe. Whilst she was still in her nightgown, she was'nt in a good mood: "It might jus' be couple o' hunters, that's all!"

"Well, no hunters are gonna be huntin' on my property, I'll tell you that!"

"Daryl for Chrissakes get back inside! They probably sent someun' to deal with the thing that keeps killing the pigs!"

The man stopped to think for a second, the grip on his rifle relaxing ever so slightly. He stared at the dark gathering of trees across the farmstead, illuminated only by the moon and the flashlight he awkwardly held along with his rifle. The woman had a point: Something has been killing the animals of nearby farms. Multiple farm owners complained to the sheriff, and he assured them that he will get someone to solve the problem. After a few moments, he sighed, lowered the gun and flashlight and turned to enter the house and go back to sleep.
As he entered his home, a sound suddenly burst through the thick grove and shattered the silence of the night: An animalistic, primal screech the likes of the farmer had never heard of, followed by a much more human and shorter scream.
Daryl whipped around to look back at the forest. He cocked the rifle:

"Anne, get inside.", He murmured

"Daryl, don't do nothin' stu-"

The farmer suddenly barked back: "I SAID GET INSIDE!"

Anne stood there for a moment, nodded her head, went into the house and closed the door. Daryl started running towards the dark grove, gun and flashlight in hand. Branches and leaves crunched under his feet, the shadowy trees silently watching him as he ran. He slowed down once he entered deeper into the forested darkness, listening intently for any noise. A chill ran down his spine as he realised he could not hear any: Besides his heavy breathing, there was only the wind rustling the leaves on the branches, with no wildlife silently chittering from the ground or cheeping from the tree. All of a sudden, he heard a thud not too far from where he was standing. Immediately raising his gun, he slowly approached the source of the noise. As the flashlight revealed the origin of the sound, Daryl's fear was suddenly replaced with confusion. There on the ground, laying on his stomach, was a man dressed in military equipment.

Crouching next to the soldier, he nudged him with his Winchester. The man on the ground let out a weak groan in response. Daryl relaxed :"At least he ain´t dead", he muttered, wanting to break the suffocating quietness. He observed the man more closely: He was definitely dressed in military garb, but not in any Daryl recognised, a fact that was stranger than finding a half-conscious soldier in the middle of a forest for someone like him, who prided himself on his military knowledge, one that he gained through quite the effort. The uniform itself was dirty and stained, and shredded in some parts. As he investigated the equipment and the man wearing it, he sucked the cool air through his teeth as he realised the man had dislocated his shoulder. Daryl let go of the gun and put the flashlight onto the ground next to him, placing his hands onto the man on the ground:

"Get ready, this is gonna sting like a bitch."

Before the soldier even managed to muster a reaction, Daryl popped the shoulder back into place. The soldier screamed out in pain, a noise that was swallowed by the darkness around them. The man slumped back unto the ground, unconscious. Daryl growled silently:

"Hey. Hey! Wake up, this ain't no place to have a lie-down!"

The farmer took off the man's helmet, throwing it aside and slapped the stranger's face a couple of times, trying to wake him up. He didn't know why he felt lie he had to stay silent and get out of the forest as fast as he could. He felt his muscles twitch from the rush of adrenaline, and the hairs standing up: Something had heard them. He slowly got up, taking and cocking his gun once again, slowly looking around, trying to ignore the voice inside of his head screaming he run and not look back. As he scanned his surroundings, the soldier began groaning, waking from his unconsciousness. Daryl crouched next to him, still looking around:

"Can you walk?"

"Khhh…", the man groaned in response.

"I'll take that as a yes. Come on, get a move on!"

Daryl picked up his lightsource and gripped the rifle with one hand, helped the man up and threw his arm around his shoulders, the difference in size not helping. The ageing farmer was not a small man, but the mysterious stranger was lacking in that department. The stranger whimpered: The shoulder wasn't the only damaged thing.

"Ah, shut it! You'll live."

The man only managed to muster a wheeze as a response, before he started limping next to his saviour. The duo walked through the forest, only the cracking of branches, the soldier's silent complaints and the farmer's breathing breaking it. Daryl cursed his constitution, wishing he was young again so he could simply carry this stranger, instead of half dragging him through the dark. As he neared the edge of the forest, something woke up in Daryl. Some primal fear, something that made him brake into a cold sweat and to start walking faster. The suffocating silence was now seemingly becoming a vacuum. The forest's end was getting closer and closer, the lights of the house breaking through the tree trunks. Daryl increased his speed, breathing heavily, eyes darting, staring at the shadows that seemed to stretch around him, trying to make him pay for taking away their prey.

The duo suddenly burst out of the treeline and Daryl whipped around, momentarily forgetting about his companion, and shot into the darkness behind him. The shot boomed, illuminating the dark night for a split moment, and took off a number of low hanging branches. But other than them, there was nothing there. The farmer breathed heavily, staring into the darkness. The feel of being hunted was not leaving him.

"Daryl! Dear God almighty, are you alright? What happened? Who's that with you?"

Daryl snapped back into reality, woken up by the voice of his wife.

"Anne! Chrissakes, help me get him inside."

The wife ran to her husband, stopping a few feet away from him, letting out a short shriek from the ghastly appearance of the soldier. The light from the house now clearly showed the severity of the stranger's state: He was covered in dirt and gore, with a collection of wounds on the exposed parts of his body, some still leaking blood.
They rushed the man inside and as Daryl went to lay him down on the sofa, his wife yelled:

"Not there Daryl, you'll mess it all up!"

"Goddamnit woman, then where do I put him?"

"Well, not there!"

The farmer grunted in irritation and lowered the soldier onto the carpet. It looked like Anne was about to say something once again, but the stare her husband gave her was enough to make her reconsider. As Daryl and Anne began stripping the stranger of his gear and preparing the first aid kit, they heard a soft gasp. A small, ruffle-haired girl, not older than ten, was staring at the unfolding scene through the staircase's beams, still in her pajamas and clutching a small plush rhinoceros.

"Lucy, what are you doing here? Go back to bed!", the farmer said, trying to mask the lasting fear in his voice with strictness.

"Daryl, you obviously woke the poor thing up. Come here Lucy, everything's fine, let's get you back to bed…"

The girl asked: "Is he gonna be awright, pa?"

Daryl looked at the man. He saw cleaner roadkill than him.

"He's gonna be just fine Lucy, don't you worry."

Anne picked up the child and carried her upstairs. The girl did not stop staring at her father and the man on the carpet. Daryl waited until he heard his wife's steps on the floor above them, and then he sighed:

"Shit, alright. Let's get you patched- Huh?"

The stranger was reaching towards the pile of his gear, trying to pull at the strap connected to his water container. Daryl picked the bottle up and unscrewed the top.

"Yeah, I reckon you would be thirsty after whatever it is you went through."

He helped the man drink a bit of the fluid in the container, and let him lie down again on the carpet. He sloshed the drink around in the container, and took a gulp himself only to immediately spit it out. Whatever it was, it wasn't water: It had bitter, pulpy, disgusting taste. The soldier managed to squeeze out a chuckle:

"Hhh…Heh. Had the same reaction the first time I tried it myself. You get used to it after a while."

The stranger was definitely not from around here. He had an Australian accent, and a much less gruff voice that was typical for the locals. Groaning, he sat himself upright, as Daryl watched in shock. The man had looked like he would need a few weeks, if not months in a hospital just a few moments ago. Now it just seemed he would be alright after a few days in an infirmary. The soldier slowly rose to his feet, clenching his teeth as he did so.

"Did you take my rifle?", he asked.

"I, uh… Found you without one."

"Shit… OK. Did you find anyone else?"

"No. You're the only one I found. What were you doin' there anyways?"

The man ignored the question. He limped towards the window, staring at the forest outside. At this point, Anne returned from putting Lucy back to sleep. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, gawking at the man looking outside the window. The stranger spoke:

"Do you have any sort of shelter nearby?"

The wife managed to stutter out: "We…we've a storm shelter by the barn. Daryl, what is going on?"

"I'd recommend you take the child and hide there. Don't get out 'til the sun rises. Also, you'll need to give me a rifle, if you have a spare one."

"Now hold on for just one second, friend. You ain't goin' be doin' shit unless you answer some questions."

The soldier tenses up for a second, but then sighs.

"Right, I guess that's fair. What do you want to know?"

"How many of you were there?"

"Including myself, five."

"What kind of specops are you from?"

"Sorry mate, can't answer that one."

"What is out there?"

To that question, the soldier glances at the window once again before he answers:

"It's a… very dangerous thing. It recently came back to this area and intends to reclaim what it sees as its territory. Have their been any livestock missing here?"

The couple looks at each other: The wife heads to get their child, the husband produces a hunting rifle and some ammo from a cabinet. He passes the rifle to the stranger.

"I won't be huntin' without knowin' my partner's name."

"You won't be fighting it with me, it's too dangerous."

"Horseshit. This thing cost me many swine, and if it thinks it can endanger my family, it better go back to whatever hellhole it crawled out of. Been in the army, too, so don't be thinkin' I'm some yellowbelly greenhorn with a gun."

"Do you know how to use it under pressure?"

"I wouldn't have it if I didn't."

"…The name's Maurice."

"Daryl Dell. Now let's get this sumbitch."

The silence is suddenly broken by a shattering of glass on the upper floor, immediately followed by two high pitched screams. The two men sprint up the stairs, with Daryl racing up the stairs and bursting through the door first, with Maurice trying to keep up with him. What he sees in the room slows down time for him: A creature seemingly made out of branches and shadow, the shadow snaking around the branches, ensnaring the wood, its gruesome form hunching so it may fit in the child's room, its root feet crunching the glass from the shattered window and parts of furniture. In one hand, it holds Anne by the neck, the woman hitting the long wood-talons in vain, trying to release herself from the grip. The swarthy abomination turns its gaze towards Daryl, its hateful, brimstone red eyes shining through the dark of its being, piercing his soul. For a moment that seems to stretch forever, Daryl does not know what to do. And in a moment, Anne's neck is snapped with a wet, sickening crunch.

As her body falls to the ground and the creature extends its grasp to do the same to the farmer, a yell fills the room and a blast explodes next to his ear. One of the hateful lights extinguishes as the abomination screams in agony, the room getting showered in splinters and branches. Maurice shoots the beast again, and it begins retreating. As it does, one of its appendages snatches the terrified little girl trying to hide in the corner by the leg and drags away the screaming child through the window it entered. The father regains his senses and screams in terror and rage:

"NO!"

He runs to the window having to restrain himself from jumping out of it as he sees the creature scuttling into the barn, with the crying girl being dragged behind it. Daryl races through the room, past his dead love and the stranger, down the staircase and through the ground floor, smashing open the backdoor and sprinting towards the barn. His head hot, his vision red with fury and fear. The double doors of the wooden building are open, moonlight seeping into the dark structure. It shines on the tractor, the gas canisters, propane tanks and finally, a mangled plush rhino, its stuffing littering the dirty ground of the barn. Even before he sees her, Daryl Dell knows his only daughter is dead.
He screams out in agony and anger, and the creature lunges out of the shadows roaring in response to the challenge. Daryl does not think: He unloads three rounds into the beast before it even manages to reach him, but it does not stop. It collides with the furious man, throwing him onto the ground and attempting to maul him. The father refuses to allow the abomination the satisfaction of killing him, for he is fuelled by a berserk rage that makes him ignore the punctures and slashes he receives as he wrestles with the shadow-thing. Wood and bone crack, shadows and blood splatter and dissipate into the grass around them as man and beast fight to the death. They rip and tear into each other, their howls intertwining with each other. The man that had everything he loved taken away from him ignores his broken ribs, his lacerated limbs and thoughts of survival. Hatred holds his bones, fury flows through his veins and murder is on his mind and lips.
Through the red haze, the warrior hears it:

"Daryl! Get the fuck away from it, you stupid cunt!"

Something thuds next to him and he knows what it is. He uses the chance and plunges his fist deep into the thing's burning eye, pushing through the thorns and splinters tearing apart the unscathed flesh left on his arm, ripping out the remaining globe of crimson. The monster howls in agony, momentarily lessening its grip. Daryl uses the chance, ripping out of the beast's grasp and backs away.
He sees everything slowed down again, but this time he will not allow himself to lock up. He raises his Winchester, almost in sync with Maurice as he aims with the rifle. Before they pull the trigger and before the rounds hit the propane tank laying in front of the shadow-thing, Daryl mutters:

"Burn in Hell."

The explosion blows away most of the monster, the shockwave and its screams echoing through the night. The flaming carcass attempts to retreat to the forest, but falls and twitches on the ground, attempting to douse the flames. The macabre bonfire tries to grab Daryl once again, but has not the strength to do so. Soon, the twitches become weaker and weaker, until they are no more. There are only slowly burning twigs and charred remains now.
The victor begins dragging himself across the ground. Maurice runs over, his water canister in hand, but Daryl refuses to let the container get anywhere near him as he continues to crawl towards the barn. The soldier helps his comrade up and assists him with slowly getting inside the wooden structure in silence. There, he lays the father next to his daughter. Daryl holds the body of his child, it almost resembling a doll inside the farmer's arms as he slowly caresses the girl's hair. He rocks back and forth, cradling the child, breathing heavily as he does so. He cries without tears, mourns with no words. Finally, he raises his head and speaks:

"Will this thing return?"

"I do not think so."

"Good…Good.", Daryl says as he continues holding his daughter: "None deserve to go through anything like this. Are there any more like it?"

Maurice looks into the man's eyes and recognises the gaze that he was only told about by his peers and brothers-in-arms. A cold, yet white hot stare of determination and will. A look that spoke in one word: Vengeance.

"…Yes. Hundreds, if not thousands of different creatures like this one, all equally lethal, some even more. I and many others have been battling them throughout the years. Many of us have different reason why we have joined the battle, but we all share the same cause: To destroy the abominations that plague this world so humanity may live in true safety."

He offers his canteen to the farmer. The man stares at the bottle, and then takes it in his hand. He unscrews the top and peers into the dark depths of the canister, trying to see the bottom.
He takes a swig from the flask.

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