An antler wreath from True Detective. Source: Tumblr.

I sighed as I reversed my car out of the driveway.

“Kayla, huh?” I mused, glancing at the Polaroid lying on top of my dashboard — an address scribbled underneath a familiar face.

I remembered this woman. We had graduated the same year from the community college downtown. Despite having had quite the crush on her, we had always been acquaintances at best.

Flying past a speed-bump caused my car to jolt upwards, and my head hit the roof with a thud.

“Crap!” I grunted as I snapped back to the present, my grip on the steering wheel tightening just a bit. The settlement was at a distance from the rest of Windsor Falls; patches of farmland on either side of a dimly-lit, poorly maintained road with cracks running down the asphalt. A green, rusty signboard loomed in the distance. Time and the weather seemed to have taken their toll on its letters.

Adamsville. Looked like I was in the right place.

As if a testament to how cut-off the area was from the outside world, the FedEx office down the block — my employer for as long as I could remember — eventually closed down. As a consequence, I had to take up the only vacancy available at the time: A job at the local newspaper. Far from being what it was advertised to be however, with leads vanishing without a trace to op-eds rubbing powerful people the wrong way, eating shit from my boss soon became a regular occurrence.

This downward spiral came to a fateful halt when I got assigned to the most rundown department of them all… Documenting folklore in a town ripe with stories of unexplained phenomena.

“Screw this up Anthony, and god knows you’re gonna lose this job.”

And that was that, I guess.

I eventually ended up at the address I was looking for, the house at one end of a sprawling cul-de-sac. Killing the ignition as I parked my car by the sidewalk, I took a moment to take in my surroundings. Houses had slated roofs with chimneys as far as I could see, perhaps a nod towards the people who had originally settled here. Despite a dearth of homes that looked lived-in nearby, the house in question was surprisingly well-kept. The lawn looked as if it had been mowed recently, coupled with some patch-work on the outer walls and picket fence. All windows had their blinds drawn, save for one on the first floor.

A gust of wind and the setting sun greeted me as I stepped out of the car, followed by a satisfying crunch as I made my way over a freshly raked pile of leaves. Climbing the stairs to the porch, I took off my hat, rang the bell, and I waited. Moments later a silhouette appeared behind the ground floor curtains, parting to make way for Kayla’s face. We made eye contact as she peeked to see who had rung the bell. She squinted for a bit before her face lit up with recognition, and she quickly made her to the front.

“Ah, Anthony! Come in,” Kayla said as she ushered me inside. “I’ve been expecting you.” I was somewhat taken aback by her appearance as we came face-to-face over ten years later. Kayla’s once vibrant blue eyes were marred by a trench of dark circles; weary, and sunken deep inside their sockets. Her frame had become but a bony shell of what it used to be.

She looked a decade older than she should have.

“Don’t mind if I do”, I said as I wiped my boots on the doormat before following her inside. A long hallway stretched from the entrance to the other end, a small bulb at the back emitting just enough light to cast everything in its pale glow. Immediately to the right was a spiral staircase that ascended up the first floor. Kayla led me to what appeared to be the drawing room, with most of the furniture covered in white sheets. She took them off a couch by the door before slamming its covers, small clouds of dust rising and dissipating in her wake.

“You don’t get much guests around here, do you?” I remarked as she motioned me to take a seat.

“Not really, no” she said, settling into a chair with arm-rests.

“Looks like Mark’s still at work,” I said, noting his absence. “I’ll head over to the library after we’re done here.” She nodded, looking like she was taking a moment to collect her thoughts.

“Listen, if you don’t want to talk abo — ” I began, sensing tension in the atmosphere.

“It’s okay,” She said, cutting me off all too quickly. “Besides, I think it’s better if I talk about it. Things have been different ever since…” she trailed off.

“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” I suggested as I leaned forward, taking out my note-pad.

Lips pressed together in a slight grimace, she began, “This story begins a few months after I got married. Mark has a thing for diving deep into myths and folktales. Particularly those related to the occult… A hobby easy to pursue given this town’s roots. His job at the library lends him the freedom he needs to go through the stuff housed inside its walls at his own pace. One day he came back home rather late, eyes sparkling and a wide grin on his face — I could tell he was excited. He went on to produce a book from his bag. It looked pretty ordinary, save for being old and having a complicated symbol carved into its front. Mark explained the book to be the only authentic record of the origin and history of most folklore of the land and its surrounding areas.”

Kayla paused before continuing.

“He then proceeded to flip through it until he came upon a chapter titled Windsor Falls. Skimming through the pages, he stopped at what appeared to be a map to a location nearby — adamant that it was the real deal and that we totally had to check the place ou — ”

“Could you tell me a bit about the legend first?” I interrupted.

“Umm yeah, sure,” she said, tugging at a stray strand of hair before continuing.

“Less than a century ago, this piece of land was home to groups of settlers from all around — gypsies, nomads, you name it. The giant pine forest and the stream nearby made it a fine choice to start a community. Every year, these people held a carnival that helped celebrate their differences. A decade into the settlement’s formation however, a child went missing during the annual procession… Which most thought wasn’t that big of a deal given it was literally in the middle of the wilderness. According to standard protocol, an official notice was sent out. Search parties were formed, but the poor boy was never heard from again. Eventually the happening escaped everyone’s memory, and life went on as it had. Things normalized for about a year or two when a similar incident took place — a seven-year old girl vanished. Without a trace. From that year onward, the disappearances began happening like clockwork. They happened towards the end of the Gregorian year, mostly after daylight, with the victims always being children. Legend has it that all this was the work of something sinister... An ancient being summoned by townsfolk who had, perhaps, unleashed it upon the land without meaning to. Being the superstitious lot that they were, the community decided to relocate in a rush, leaving behind a ghost-town of tents, campfires, and their belongings. And their whereabouts were thought to have been lost forever.”

Her last sentence seemed to hang heavily in the room.

“Hmmmm,” I mused, breaking the silence as I scribbled onto my notepad. “Coming back to Mark?”

She continued, her tone an octave lower than before, “Mark’s excitement was jumping out of his skin. He was certain that he had singled out instructions for arriving upon that very site. Naturally, he wanted us to see it for ourselves. Despite my initial hesitance, I ended up agreeing with him. The details in the book were surprisingly specific, including a drawing that helped identify natural landmarks: ‘Walk until you see a trident-shaped tree by the other end of the forest and turn…’ Following the “map” felt like we were moving farther and farther away from civilization, with no signs of people ever having inhabited the area. A couple of hours in with nothing to show for, just when we thought all this would end up being a wild goose chase, I caught sight of what appeared to be a long, blackened pole leaning against a cluster of trees in the distance. Curious and with nothing to lose, we decided to move in that direction. Surely enough, we eventually came across more stuff — broken kitchenware, scattered personal artifacts, and a decaying boundary of mud and bricks… almost as if it had been the perimeter to a society at some point. And that the people living in it had left in quite a rush. While part of me was glad that we had actually found something, the other part couldn’t help but notice the sinking feeling in my stomach.”

Kayla reached for a bottle of water as I eased my back into the couch, crossing one leg over the other.

“With daylight fading and the giant pine trees blocking more and more of the sun the deeper we ventured into the forest, we soon had to navigate using our cellphone flashlights. An hour later of wandering about, just as we were about to call it quits, we heard a faint creaking sound somewhere in the distance, almost as if a rusty door hinge had been moved from its place. Both of us froze in our tracks. Reasoning that it might be someone responsible for looking after the area, Mark started walking towards it. I had a bad feeling about it, but I decided to go along with him. Eventually we reached one end of the boundary wall, our beams illuminating the remains of a wrought-iron gate that was slightly ajar. Mark called out, only to be met with silence. Unnerved, we decided to retrace our steps back to where we had come from. My heart felt like it was going to explode any minute. A sudden, sharp snapping sound to our left followed by a loud thud made us jump. It had been close enough for us to see the source of the noise with the light from our cellphones. Before I could process what I was doing, I had instinctively turned in that general direction, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was. I wish I hadn’t.”

Kayla’s right hand had balled into a fist, her knuckles white, the bottle she’d been holding earlier crumpling in the process.

“The beam of my cellphone caught the silhouette of a tall, lopsided figure with its back towards us, partially hidden behind the trunk of a tree. It was standing upright like a man, hunched over what looked like the body of a deer. There were gaping holes where its antlers should have been, with the animal’s neck sticking backwards at an unnatural angle. A trail of blood led from its torn torso to a clearing, where the thing seemed to have arranged its entrails a certain way. The sight made me whimper loud enough to get its attention. It cocked its head before turning to face us in one jerky movement, letting out a cry unlike anything I had ever heard. It disappeared behind the other side of the tree before reappearing and dropping down on all fours, rapidly beginning to close the distance between us. I screamed before breaking off into a run, dropping my cellphone in the process. Mark had the sense to turn his light off before joining me in running the hell away from whatever it was. We quickly found ourselves at a clearing, with remains of what appeared to be personal quarters. Recalling that these people also sometimes built shelters that extended underground, Mark briefly used the light of his phone to scan our surroundings until we found a trapdoor that barely had enough room to fit the both of us. Shutting the metallic clamp behind us as we managed to squeeze ourselves in, we held our breaths. And we waited.”

I felt a shiver run down my spine as Kayla steadied herself with a deep breath.

“We could hear it scurrying in the distance as it eventually seemed to go out of earshot. After a while of waiting it out, just as we had begun to contemplate resurfacing, we heard it right above us, its presence only given away by the trapdoor creaking under its weight. It was an intelligent predator — masking its presence by switching from four feet to two so it could stalk us better by minimizing its noise. I stifled a cry as Mark covered my mouth in a bid to keep me quiet. I don’t know how long we waited after that. After what seemed like an eternity, with streaks of sunlight beginning to seep in through the cracks and the songs of birds seeming to surround us from all sides, absolutely certain that the thing had gone out of earshot, we bolted out of the bunker and sprinted the hell back to civilization as fast as we could.”

I finished writing to find Kayla in a trance, her face white, almost as if she had been transported to that very instant.

“Hey are you okay? That was intense”, I said as I closed my notepad, concerned at the state she seemed to be in.

“Things haven’t been the same between me and Mark ever since,” Kayla said after a little while. “He seems distant... Coming home late, always busy with work. There’s just something off.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just sat there and reminisced about old times in a bid to get her mind off things before saying our goodbyes, eventually making my way over to the library. Soon I was leaning back on a chair in Mark’s office, a glass of shandy in hand.

“Anthony, to what do I owe the pleasure?” he said warmly.

“It’s about that uh, urban legend thing for the newspaper… I’m actually coming from your place. Didn’t Kayla mention it to you?”

“Yes yes, I completely forgot. It’s just been a long day” He said, finishing his drink and propping his head on the table with the help of an arm.

“So how did it go with Kayla?”

“She filled me in on the whole story,” I said before briefly describing her account of things. “I would really appreciate your take on how all this went down too, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“It’s pretty much what she told you. I came across that book out of my obsession with stuff like this. Thought about checking the place out. Ended up seeing something fucked up. Managed to somehow make it back alive. No one believed us. By the time people went to check the very next day, there were no signs of… of anything. The deer. The thing. The bloodstains. The debris. Nothing.”

He paused for a moment.

“Actually, ever since then, Kayla’s not been herself either.”

I perked up on hearing this.

“Funny. She mentioned something being off about you too.”

He looked at me intently after I had said this.

“No. Seriously. Often I catch her talking to herself, staring off into space when she thinks I’m not looking. Her health’s deteriorating too. There are days when she doesn’t eat anything, refusing to get out of bed. Just when I start getting seriously concerned, she magically reverts back to the Kayla I know and love. She’s also gone from wanting time to pressuring me for a baby. It’s all very difficult to wrap my head around. I used to sometimes wake up at night to find her at her desk, deeply engrossed in reading that book, scribbling god-knows-what in her diary. That seriously freaked me the fuck out. We used to be able to talk about anything. Now she’s just jittery and closed-off 24/7. I’ve… I’ve started spending more time at the library instead of rushing home from work. I think all this has something to do with that damn book. I’ve been keeping it away from her ever since, hiding it away even at work so that she doesn’t get her hands on it from the library somehow.”

Mark could see that I was troubled by his answer.

“Here, I actually have it with me right now. Take it. Just keep it away from me and my family.”

He handed me the book, looking a bit hesitant on doing so. The conversation got awkward after that. Mark pardoned himself — something about having to catch up on projects from work, and I had to bid him a hasty farewell. Confused and overwhelmed by all that had transpired in the span of a few hours, I decided to call it a night and went straight home. My wife asked me about my day while she tended to our son. I just groaned in response, told her the day had been exhausting, and dozed right off.

Early next morning, making sure I hadn’t woken them up, I sneaked my way out of the house with the intention of finding the fabled carnival site by following the book’s instructions. Much to my alarm, I actually found the place. The perimeter, the kitchenware, the shelters… everything. Upset that it actually existed and that the whole thing hadn’t just been a figment of their imagination, I made my way back home to study the content of the book in greater detail. Going over the various myths documented within, I eventually came across the symbol described by Kayla in her retelling — as if a serpent was devouring its own tail. Ouroboros.

Ouroboros. Source: Infinity Engines.

Of all the beings connected to this symbol, one caught my eye: The Dál Riata. According to legend, it was an entity of old that had to be summoned through a ritual. The summoning rite was in a language I wasn’t familiar with. Townsfolk would have an abundance of crops and good fortune throughout the year. In return, the creature would require a child older than 5 for sustenance on a yearly basis. Failure to do so would result in it not honoring the agreement — stealing away more than its fair share of sacrifices, and bewitching the townsfolk with a terrible fate. In addition to being able to roam in its physical form, it could also possess people and use them as conduits.

My head was spinning after I had read all this. Did this explain everything? Was this the reason why children kept disappearing? Why the townsfolk had relocated? Had Mark and Kayla come across a physical manifestation of this thing? Resigning myself to the fact that I would probably never know for sure, I emerged from the study, told my wife everything that had transpired during the last couple of days, fell face-first onto the bed, and tossed and turned until my mind found salvation in the blissful oblivion that is sleep.

I woke up to a ray of sunshine hitting my face. Someone had opened the curtains to our bedroom window. Groggily, I made my way out to find my wife making pancakes in the kitchen. Forcing a weak smile, I collapsed onto the living room couch as my son watched TV. The peaceful stupor of my weekend however, was soon interrupted by a knock on the front door. Grudgingly I rose, making my way towards it.

The knocking continued, much more impatient and firm this time.

“I’m coming! Who could it possibly be THIS EARLY on the weeke — ”

It was Kayla.

“Sorry for coming unannounced. Is this a good time?” she said sheepishly, shifting weight from one foot to the other. Unable to figure out what this was about, I gave her a look before letting her inside. She made herself right at home, proceeding to acquaint herself with my family while I insisted she join us for breakfast.

“How old is he?” she asked, trying to make conversation as my son giggled at something the cartoons were doing on TV.

“He just turned four a few months ago”, my wife said with a glowing smile. Kayla nodded politely, eventually guiding the conversation back to me. She asked me about my meeting with Mark, expressing her disdain on learning that he thought it was she who had been acting up. She’d been meaning to compare notes on the current whereabouts of the book but I declined, not wanting to cause any more trouble between the two.

Soon, with awkwardness settling in and everyone running out of things to talk about, Kayla announced that she would be leaving. I offered to walk her to the door, but she insisted otherwise. She collected her stuff, almost stumbling on reaching the front door.

“Careful!” I exclaimed, instinctively reaching out in case she fell backwards. Kayla however seemed unresponsive, almost as if she were in a daze. Slowly she turned to face me, her eyes blank and unfocused.

“Too young”, she said in an almost masculine voice.

She then smiled, opened the door, and closed it on the way out.