The mud slushes underneath my feet as I take each step through the Pinsk Marshes. I’ve been here a week searching everywhere. My GPS tells me I’m still in Ukraine, but I feel so far from home. The only reason I’m here is for my twin brother, Danylo. He went missing here a few months ago when he and his friends went hiking after he returned from university studying literature and mythology. He always had a knack for such studies. Search and Rescue never found them. I got tired of sitting and waiting, so here I am.
My heart sinks as I see another waterway come into view. Twice today this has happened. I should have brought a kayak or something. Thankfully the last two weren’t deep, but still, there’s no telling what could happen out here. I’m done here, at least for now, for today. My backpack slips off my shoulders on its own accord.
I pitch my pup tent and take a seat on the ground. Cool wind flows against my cheeks. The winter snows will be coming soon, hopefully I find Danylo by then. Growls come from inside me. Food. I need something. I pull open my backpack and find an MRE package. It says something about roast beef and carrots on it. I don’t care, I’m just hungry.
I tear open the package like an animal and use the warmers to heat the food. For a military ration, it’s not bad. I’ve had some terrible ones back when I served. The flavor fills my mouth. So good. Though, I can’t tell if it’s the taste itself or my hunger making this any good. As I eat I watch the small river flow by. I’ll try to cross it tomorrow, for now I’m exhausted. The setting sun glairs down through strips of clouds. Its orange and red pierce through them, coloring them pink and orange.
A plop in the water pulls my attention away from the sunset and my meal. I don’t see anything other than a log floating towards me. I shrug and go back to eating. The plop comes again. This time I stand and peer over some of the brush. It appears I’m alone, save maybe a fish that keeps leaping from the waters.
The log floats closer to my bank. My eyes focus on it, watching it come closer and closer. Something pops out of the water next to it before falling back below the surface. I jump. I lean forward, setting my MRE down. Something ripples behind the log like a boat’s wake. Another plop sounds, this time from the other side. It’s alive. How?
It stops near the bank, unmoved by the gentle current. I see something raise itself out the water showing a pair of what appears to be the eyes of a heartless man, round, grey, and filled with hunger. The water’s surface envelopes them.
My body says to run, but I need to know what it is I’m looking at. Each leg is an anchor I have to lift to reach the water’s edge. I step within a meter of the log when I see the eyes resurface. They stare at me.
I stumble backwards, landing in mud and reeds. My limbs push me away, but my eyes refuse to move from the yellow spheres. All I hear is the pulse in my ears: a beating war drum.
The eyes grow higher, revealing a long, bearded face coated in silt. The man stands higher and higher, skin browned by the sun and the mud that covers him. His body is covered in hair, as if fur coats this man instead of skin. His gaze never breaks from me, not even to blink. I see his long legs step through the reeds, revealing he wore the tattered remains of some soiled undergarment that now hangs around his waist in tattered threads.
Every step he takes towards me, I push myself backwards. This continues until my back taps against the tent walls. Now the man is in full view. His silent gaze on me.
“Grygoriy,” he whispers, his voice sounds more like a low growl than a man’s.
I squint. How does he know my name? I sit up, eyes darting across his face. It’s familiar, yet different. My heart falls as it clicks. “Danylo?” I rise to my feet.
“So, you can recognize me,” Danylo sighs.
I pull myself up. My brother, I finally found him. Yet he looks so different. He never had all that hair before, granted he couldn’t shave out here, but the hair on his hands and feet? That makes no sense.
“How’ve survived out here?” I say pulling him close in an embrace. His skin felt different, soft like that of a dog’s.
“Survived? There is no surviving out here, only death,” Danylo’s voice is flat, emotionless. I don’t understand. “I died here, but yet I live.” He turns his head towards the setting sun like he’s waiting for something. “My companions died out here. We all swore not to be monsters, but we became them anyway.”
“Brother,” I say, “let’s take you home. Come on.” I try to hide the chocking feeling in my voice. I want him home; I’m tired of seeing our parents suffer thinking he’s dead.
“No,” he barks at me. “I’m suited only for this place now. Go home, tell mother and father I’m dead.”
“But you’re alive,” I plead.
The sun begins fall beyond the horizon. “I’m sorry brother, but I must leave,” his voice was low, melancholy. “You need to go, now,” he lowers and he returns to the waters.
I grab his shoulder, pulling him back. “No, you’re coming home,” I stare into his eyes, but what I see there are not his, something yellow and angry, hate and fear overflowing in them. The sun’s light fades.
Danylo’s body throws itself to the ground, writhing. His whole being contorts in every direction. Each limb shoots forward in length, becoming long, gangly, and grotesque. That fur I saw on him now grows into long and matted patches, covering his whole body. His face molds itself into a snout, rectangular with sharp canines protruding from his lips.
What arises from the ground, standing before me, I don’t know what it is. It’s head rears, watching me. My feet sink into the mud, keeping me in place. Every heart beat feels like it’s going to cause my blood vessels to explode. It snarls at me. I step back.
“Danylo?” my voice is low.
It creeps towards me, back hunched. Though it stands upright, its forepaws touch the ground balancing itself on the uneven mud.
“Danylo?” it asks me, howls and growls spewing forth. An insane laughter echoed from its snout. “Was he the one I consumed? Oh yes, I believe he died eating his friends.” The demon grins at me. He creeps forward, standing over me now. “They are dead.” I fall backwards, my back to my tent. It reaches in, hovering its nose over mine.
My heart seems to stop as I can taste the rotting flesh in its snout. He looks all the more monstrous in this moonless darkness. It lurches for me with one of its forepaws. I drop my head, dodging its blow.
I force my legs to push me up and run. Instead of moving forward, my feet slip. Pain shoots through my body when sharp daggers enter my leg. Somehow, I pull my leg forward and push up, leaving my gear behind. I sprint. The sound of paws smashing themselves into the mud echo in my ears. I don’t know where to run. I’m a dead man. I need to run. I am a dead man.
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