Run Through the Jungle
Sawyer Shepherd was thinking about the lyrics to an old Creedence Clearwater Revival song as he was dodging in and around the Tennessee Smoky Mountains pine and blackgum trees. The light was flickering and sparse this deep in the woods, especially since the only light was from the full moon.
“The devils on the loose,” he ‘sang’ through ragged breaths. Which was true, in a sense. Not THE devil, but a devil. Sawyer had learned a great deal in the last year under the mentorship of Eli Romer, a somewhat reclusive grump with a big heart who also happened to hunt demons and monsters. Which, incidentally, is one of the things Sawyer had learned- they are pretty much the same thing. But there was a distinction, according to the rules he had been learning.
Rule 7: If you can touch a monster- it is a demon. If you can’t, it’s a spirit.
Well, the thing chasing him (or was he chasing it- the forest made it hard to tell) was definitely a solid, not a vapor. This particular monster demon was what most would call a werewolf. But it wasn’t like the beast of the movies. Those movie wolves could bite you and turn you, but the real thing- they just ate. These ‘wolves were actually a demon that possessed a willing participant. Like any possession, the possessee had to allow the demon in. Once they did, their soul transacted- no returns- and their life was forfeit.
They killed for fun. Eli believed that werewolf demons were released to create havoc and or do some dirty, heavy lifting for higher up demons. They would look normal by day- you’d dismiss them as a random person on the street with a particularly bad case of BO that smelled of wet dog- but when the sun had set, they turned. And if the sun had set and it was a full moon- things got really ugly, real fast.
About a month earlier, just after the last full moon, a camper was found mauled in the forest near Big Hollow. Bites and claw marks were all over, and the heart had been removed and was nowhere to be found. About a week later, a hiker that got lost and did not make it out before sunset disappeared. They found their bodies two days later. Mostly. There were barely enough defining features left to identify them.
Four more had dropped since then. Eli got a call from a park ranger in South Dakota, who was friends with a park ranger in the Smokies that had started to suspect something funky was going down. Eli had helped the South Dakota ranger out a few years back, so he made the connection.
Then Eli, in his wisdom, decided that this probable werewolf case would be the perfect first non-mentored hunt for Sawyer and his partner- Mandy Jane. See that is another rule of this exorcism- or judging- thing of which Sawyer was a part. The first one, actually:
Rule 1: Never hunt alone
Now, things were a bit complicated for Sawyer and Mandy.
First, he was only nineteen, and she was barely twenty one. They would not be taken seriously by, well, anyone. Two, neither had ever hunted a werewolf demon before. Eli assured them that this was not a problem, as long as they watched each other’s back and followed another rule:
Rule 2: Always carry a silver weapon
When Mandy pointed out that she hadn’t the first clue about tracking, let alone identifying if a potential demon was actually a demonic canine person or just a smelly actual person, Eli laughed. He said, “Trust me, you’ll know.”
And Eli was right. The werewolf had hunted in the same area the entire time, and being the smart young individuals they were, Sawyer and Mandy quickly deduced a pattern. The killings were forming a pentagram in the woods. A quick call to Eli confirmed that when a werewolf killed in that pattern, they were trying to open a door to Hell to release another- usually more powerful- demon. And by the looks of the design, only one more kill was needed, and it just so happened to be on the full moon.
All this brings us back to Sawyer, running through the ‘jungle.’
Sawyer and Mandy had set up a camp in the area where the potential final kill needed to be. Needing to be vigilant, they agreed that once darkness fell, they would take turns keeping watch. They lit a fire, and settled in.
That is where the third issue rested. See, Sawyer and Mandy had feelings for each other. Still, they had mutually agreed that when starting as ‘shepherds’ (a nickname given to judges/exorcists who traveled around killing demons), it was best to limit romantic entanglements. So, they had been building a strong friendship and partnership.
But the campfire was an issue.
During their first demonic encounter a year ago, when they first met, Sawyer promised Mandy that when he did kiss her, it would be by a fire in a romantic setting. And Sawyer had sat around the fire as the light was dying that evening, and he could see her face framed by the crackling fire, and she looked him in the eyes, and…
He got distracted and did not notice the werewolf stalking them.
But fortunately, Mandy did- just as Sawyer was leaning in to kiss her. She yelled- totally and effectively killing the mood. They both drew their pistols- loaded down with silver bullets (Rule 2). See, like a movie werewolf, silver was the way to go if you wanted to end the threat. But this werewolf was different in that the person was not innocent- they had made a deal with a devil to get something they wanted. And the devil tricked them into a life of cruel and degrading servitude.
The werewolf realized it had been noticed, so it attacked. It looked human enough, but it had a long mane of hair that clearly had not been there during the day, and short but dense hair on the arms and legs that ended in clawed fingers and toes. The face looked like a bearded man, but the lips had torn at the edges to allow the jaw to open wider and expose a mouth of jagged teeth. Physically, the thing was ripped and looked and moved as if it was massively powerful.
It swept into the camp and made a beeline for Mandy so fast that neither Mandy nor Sawyer got a shot off. It swiped at Sawyer and knocked the gun out of his hand, then ducked its shoulder and caught Mandy in the abdomen, lifted her, and sprinted off into the woods. A lingering scent of wet dog was all that was left.
Sawyer scrambled to his feet and found the gun, and then he tore off into the forest. And that was how he found himself singing a classic rock tune in the Tennessee woods.
He was moderately worried about Mandy- he had seen her more than take care of herself. But he was missing his gladius- a small Roman sword that might have been made of the nails used in reality to crucify Jesus Christ. That meant that it was powerful. Too powerful, according to Eli, to run the risk of losing it fighting some B level demon or monster. Which had almost happened with a gowrow in the Ozarks during their training. So, the gladius stayed under lock and key until they knew they needed it. Which they never knew, as Sawyer pointed out, but he still lost the argument.
One thing that Sawyer had learned very well in his year of training- how to track. Mandy may have missed those lessons, but since Sawyer was living with Eli while his own home was being built (a product of an inheritance), they had tracked in their spare time. Most people would look at the forest and think, ‘Man, how do you tell anything moved through all that?’ But the key was not in looking for the big; it was in looking for the small. The tuft of fur caught on a limb. (Or was it hair? Cryptozoology was not in his wheelhouse yet.) The bent or broken twig. The slight indentation of a foot in the moist earth. The scent of a wet dog.
Or, when your partner was awesome, literal breadcrumbs.
Apparently, Mandy had brought a bunch of bread with her, and she was tearing off pieces to leave a trail. And she would, of course, use bread because it was biodegradable and not harmful to the wildlife. It was things like that that made him like her so much. That, and he loved her curly brown hair and green eyes and that smile…
He zoned back in just as the scent of wet dog got extremely intense. Sawyer stopped, knelt, and listened. He controlled his breathing and listened for any sound. And there it was, subtle and quiet, but the sound of breathing was near. Then there was a slight snap as a small twig was crushed underfoot behind him.
Sawyer spun and brought up the gun, ready to fire.
Sawyer understood what was happening. The werewolf wasn’t dumb. It was actually trying to throw him off and raise anxiety so he would make a mistake. Sawyer didn’t know if this was typical werewolf behavior, but it unnerved him a bit.
Which was the point.
So, he again calmed his breathing. If he couldn’t trust his ears, and the scent was overwhelming anyway, and the dark was hindering his eyes - that left taste and touch.
And there was no way Sawyer was getting close enough to taste a werewolf. Touch it was. Eli had taught them some meditation techniques that he had learned from a monk in Santa Fe that enabled you to isolate a sense and enhance it. It sounded New Agey, but it was really about mental control of your body. Sawyer tuned it all out and paid close attention to the subtle changes in the air around him.
You know that feeling when someone is standing close to you? Essentially that is what Sawyer was trying to tap. And it worked. Sawyer could feel a presence to his right and slightly in front of him. He opened his eyes just a bit, and saw the dark shape moving towards him slowly. It was the werewolf- indicated by the much larger-than-Mandy silhouette it cast.
Slowly, imperceptibly, Sawyer readied the pistol. The werewolf was close, but Sawyer wanted to make sure he didn’t miss it. If he did- losing the ‘wolf and thus Mandy completely was a real possibility. The thought and fear that Mandy was not with the ‘wolf tried to creep in and disrupt his calm, so Sawyer fought it off. He just needed it four steps closer.
Sawyer quickly drew the gun and fired dead center into the demon wolf’s chest. It gurgled and swallowed a growl, looked at the wound, then looked at Sawyer. That is when he noticed it.
That wasn’t the werewolf that attacked them.
That wolf had tatters of a red flannel shirt, but this wolf had green. It fell to the ground, and Sawyer pulled out the small book that had the wolf demon exorcism rite and quickly read it off.
Then he looked around the dense forest. Where could they have gone?
That’s when he heard a gunshot. It sounded as if it was just over the slight ridge in front of him. He ran up the embankment, slapping damp limbs and ground cover out of his way as he frantically crested the high spot. He looked down into a small clearing where Mandy stood over the body of a werewolf, slowly turning back to its doomed human form as Mandy read the same rite he just had.
Sawyer made his way down into the clearing, and finally took a second to evaluate himself and his condition. The werewolf that had slashed at him had torn his favorite gray military jacket- he’d have to sew that back together when he got home. But other than that- Sawyer was okay. He knew Mandy was going to ask that when they reached each other, so he had to have an excellent answer to calm her fears. He knew she was doing the same.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. It took me a minute to get free and able to get a shot on it. Speaking of- what were you shooting at?”
“The other one.”
“The what now?”
Sawyer knelt by Mandy’s kill. “Yeah, apparently there were two. It makes me think this doorway they were trying to open was important.” He pulled out his cell phone and saw there was no service. “Let’s get back to civilization and call Eli so he can alert the park ranger. And we can tell him about the two-for-one deal we just got.”
Mandy looked at Sawyer with concern. “Have you noticed that a lot of the patterns Eli warned us about are...not holding up? Like the fact that there are more monsters and demons moving in groups than he said was normal?”
Sawyer stood up. “Yeah. Eli is pretty sure that the whole ‘Satan walks the earth thing’ is legit. And if so, more demons make sense. I just wonder what’s next?”