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Trial and Error

School camp. This is one of the things I enjoy most about being a teacher. Each term at Hamilton College, the students are taken to a different camping location that enables them to bring the content of their studies to life. For this particular camp, the other teachers and I organised to take the students to Lake Eildon, where together with spectacular nature views, an ancient building had been uncovered by Archaeologists over 70 years ago.

I’m a bit of a history nerd, so I took the lead in organising the location and the activities for this camp. The year 10 students were all focusing on Ancient temples where sacrifices were considered holy rituals. Now this particular temple is said to be at least 1000 years old. Built and maintained by a Jewish community, sacrifices included animals- not humans. On record anyway. Many artefacts and bones were uncovered at the site that indicated this, and archaeologists and anthropologists have confirmed this by relating it to other historical rituals.

Of course, to ensure the safety of Lake Eildon, I organised to venture out on a three days camping trip with two of my colleagues, Anna and Josh. Both these teachers were in the same faculty as I was, and we had been friends for at least 10 years. I graduated from high school together with Josh and studied with him throughout University. I started working at Hamilton College as a graduate teacher, and Josh joined one year later. I had known Anna since primary school but developed a strong friendship after we met at a social gathering. She started out as a student teacher at Hamilton College and got the gig the same year I did. What a coincidence, hey?

On Monday morning, I picked up Anna and Josh and we began the 4-hour road trip. I had packed far too much for the three-day trip, but most of my packing consisted of photography and recording equipment. I wanted to do a little digging, clearly. I always felt that I should have been an archaeologist because of the curiosity that drove me to find new things. Even as a kid, I always found myself lost in the forest during family BBQ’s or examining the significance of artefacts at the state museum. I was always reading. My personal library at home was stacked with history books, biographies of archaeologists and historical academics.

Josh and Anna both enjoyed history too, but they were not this level mad about history as I was. All the same, I was glad that the two of my friends had accepted to accompany me on this mini trip.

We arrived at Lake Eildon midday Monday. The lake was completely deserted. It was at least an hour drive to the nearest town. This aspect of the destination of the camp worried many of the teachers at the school, but after a long battle of convincing, the school decided that with the company of more than 8 teachers during the camp were present, it would be completely safe.

The views were spectacular. The lake, with water a foggy blue, was completely still and the mist of the morning was resting on the surface of the water. The hills of the premises were opposite to where we were setting up camp and was nothing short of pure greenery. Our side of the lake, the Eildon Woods, was a little darker than the bright side of the hills. A musk of fog stooped the tops of the trees and caused a chilly climate on the ground. We set up our tents and lighting and decided to start a small fire to get ourselves warmed up.

Because of the tall gradient of the hills across the lake, the setting of the sun seemed to come sooner on our side in the woods. This didn’t seem to bother me, considering we would have an endless supply of lighting for our stay, the darkness wouldn’t have been a problem.

“I didn’t realise how creepy this side of the lake could get”, said Jake while adding some more branches he had collected earlier to the blazing fire.

“It’s not so bad Jake, toughen up. Become one with nature. Haha no really, this place is completely safe. There’s no wildlife here apart from birds and insects.” I responded. “So it’s literally just us, the trees and the monster lurking in the forest,” I joked.

We spent the night thinking and planning activities that the students could do around the lake.

“I think that we explore the forest bright and early in the morning and mark a pathway that we can use with the students. Sort of like a pre-planning of an adventure. What do you guys think?” I asked.

“I’d say the students will probably get lost in there, especially those one or two idiots who think they’re heroes. But if you’re saying we should mark a path from them, then I think it would be fine,” said Josh, and Anna nodded in agreement.

There was nothing but silence that night. We all slept in our own tents and were circled around the still burning fire. Anna was sound asleep, but Josh was up. I could tell by the light protruding out from his tent. Of course, he’s playing games on his phone, even the absence of any network connection in these woods wouldn’t stop him from using his phone up till the battery finally gives in.

I decided to venture out of my tent to creep up on Jake. Opening the zipper of my tent, I was taken aback by the sight before me. Incredible. The views were spectacular at this time of night. The moon’s light was glowing over the lake so luminously, everything was almost clear before me. Something caught my eye across the lake. What was that? At first, I thought it was a tree, but like I mentioned before, there was nothing but grass on the hillside of the lake. It was a tall figure, and it stood so still in the middle of hills that I could almost sense it facing me, maybe even looking straight at me.

“Don’t be foolish, Grace. There’s nothing out here.” I almost felt the hair on my neck stand up as I said it, and out of curiosity, I started walking toward the lake. I stood on the edge of the water and continued to peer across to the other side, but whatever it was that stood there had gone. I glanced down to my reflection in the water, and I noticed the terrified expression on my face. Why did I feel so scared? I must be delusional, I thought to myself.

I turned around slowly and walked back to the camp. The light in Josh’s tent was gone now, he must’ve fallen asleep. About time. I crawled back into my tent. I glanced over at my watch and noticed the time. Had it really been two hours since I walked out of my tent? It was just ten minutes, I could’ve sworn it. I felt the strangeness overwhelm me, and I fell asleep thinking about the silhouette I had seen across the lake.

5.45 A.M.

“Okay guys, up we get! We’ve got a lot of exploring to do today”, I said as I started banging my torch against the pan I found on the floor. Silence. Were these guys seriously sleeping through this noise? I walked over to Josh’s tent and unzipped the entry. No one. Where the hell was Josh? Before I started to freak myself out, I thought of a logical explanation as I walked over to Anna’s tent. She wasn’t in her tent either. There much be an explanation. Maybe they went for a swim, or a hike and didn’t want to disturb my sleep, I thought to myself. But then the chilling memory of what I had seen last night crept back into my mind, and I found myself panicking at the thought of it. Was there actually something here in Lake Eildon, or was I imagining it? I picked up the torch and packed a few things in my backpack. I was going to go looking for them. The sun still hadn’t risen during that foggy morning, so the light of my torch would have to lead me through the forest. At that point, I was trying to cancel out any suspicion of something bad happening to the two of my friends and rather convinced myself that they went exploring without me or are just lost.

I started walking in between the tall trees that surrounded me in the forest, and as I fished for the marking chalk in my pockets to mark my pathway along the trees, I noticed something peculiar. The trees had already been marked. At first, I thought it was a regular marking caused by nature on one of them, but as I continued further, the marking appeared on other trees that were leading in a particular direction. Curiosity and suspicion welled up in me at that point. I examined the marking on the tree, and strange enough, it was a deep gash in the bark, so much so that the wick was protruding. Every other marking on the surrounding trees were the exact same. What encouraged my curiosity further was the fact that the markings were at least a head and a half taller than me. And then it dawned on me.

“I knew it”, I said aloud to myself. I felt really stupid at this point. Josh and Anna must have started before me, leaving the markings for me so I could catch up. They can’t be too far. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t wake me up. What encouraged my curiosity further was the positioning of the markings. How did the guys reach so high? Anyway, I guess I’ll find out when I catch up with them, I told myself. I started to follow the direction of the markings and found myself venturing deeper into the forest than I ever had before.

The sun was finally rising, and I decided to stop to snack on some of the food I had packed with me. It’s always good to plan ahead. I had been hiking for an hour now, and still not sight of them. It made sense to me, they were probably at least two hours ahead of me. But what I didn’t understand was why they had decided to venture so far into the forest. Initially, we had only planned a 45-minute hike for the students, but I guess they must have discovered something interesting. The forest was uncomfortably quiet, not a single rattle from the branches of the trees or the chirping of a bird. It was extremely… still.

At that point, I began to psyche myself out.

Silence.

“What the—“, I snapped my head around and shot right up. A low grunt. I looked around and saw nothing. I heard something or someone make a noise. Surely I did. I gazed around me carefully, examining every tree that was visible to me during that foggy morning.

“Josh, Anna?” It’s got to be them.

As though my thoughts were being heard, the noise of a sinister chuckle came from behind me, as if to mock my thoughts and logic.

“Josh, cut it out!!! It’s not funny.”

Silence.

I grabbed my belongings and quickened my pace. I couldn’t help but feel like I was being watched. From behind every tree to the bushes on my path. I didn’t hear anything after that. Maybe I was just freaking myself out. Either way, I took precaution and held my heavy torch firmly in my hand as my defence mechanism.

I finally came to a halt. Right in front of me was a cave with an entry so dark you couldn’t see into it at all. I looked for any other markings, but coincidentally, the final marking was carved into the tree standing right beside the cave.

This has to be a joke, I thought to myself. Why would Josh and Anna decide to go into the cave?! I started to turn back the way I came, convincing myself that waiting for them back at the campsite would be the better option. As I turned around, I spotted something wedged into the branches beside the cave. A piece of rope? What could that be doing here so deep into the forest? This little piece of evidence proved my fear and worry to be that of logical nature. They must have gone in there. What if something happened to them down there? They could’ve fallen into a glitch or made their way through a passage that they couldn’t find their way out of. Each of these possibilities seemed logical to me, and right at that point, I started to worry about my two friends. How do we even call an ambulance out here? If the final mark ended here, it must mean that they ventured into the cave. The fact that they have been gone for so long must have meant that something happened. I needed to go inside. I took a few unnecessary things out of my backpack and noticed something out of the ordinary. Slightly to the left of the cave was a large, flat stone. I couldn’t make out how it was round and flat as compared to the cave, considering the rest of the forest consisted only of bushes and trees. Shaking the curiosity of the abnormally large stone out of my mind, I switched on my torch and stepped into the cave.

The darkness lasted for at least 10 metres. Literally nothing but the smooth, encompassing cave walls, save for the light of my torch brightening up the metre in front of me. I was careful to make hardly noise while I tried to listen out for anything that sounded like Josh or Anna.

I finally came to an opening. This time, there were three entrances to what seemed like more passages. I had no idea how deep this cave travelled, and feared I’d end up lost. Click, click, click. What was that? Click, click, click. The sound was coming from the third entrance, extremely faint but audible. I decided to follow the sound in hopes that it would lead me to my friends. It must, I thought to myself.

This passage was a little different to the first. There were carvings on the walls, or what I thought were carvings anyway. Most of them looked like lines or scrapes to me. Click, click, clack. This time, the noise was coming from behind me. I whipped around and, in a cause of panic, I shined my light into every black spot I could possibly see. I scanned the passage slowly, focusing into the abyss that surrounded the light. I shone the light directly above me to the ceiling of the cave, and I froze dead in my tracks. I stopped breathing for what seemed like an eternity. I could feel my heart thumping as though it was attempting to set itself free from its cage. With 100 metres apart, and nowhere to run, a black silhouette lay perched up on the ceiling. I could make out its long, sharp claws and tall, muscular legs. It crouched closer to my face, holding onto the ceiling of the cave with its long claws and arms. It’s big, yellow eyes peered into mine as if to read my thoughts. My mind and body completely froze, in what seemed like hypnosis. It snickered at me, revealing its wide jaw with a full set of sharp teeth. I couldn’t move. It continued to smile at me, letting out a low, sinister rumble of laughter. Without realising, my torch slipped out of my hand and the cave went dark.

Released from its gaze, I snapped back to life and crouched to the floor, picking up my torch. I started to run back into the abyss of the cave, attempting to switch my torch on at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever run like that in my life. I snapped my head back to where I had seen it, shined the light and noticed it standing tall, watching me run with a grin on its face. Why wasn’t it chasing me? Why was it smiling? It lowered its head, and its smile deepened. I looked straight ahead and ran toward the light that was protruding from the end of the passage.

I stepped into the light. Without wondering about of the source, I turned back and faced the passage I had come from. I gazed back into it, trying to understand what I had seen. What it was. ‘Why didn’t it attack me when it had the chance?’ I wondered to myself. I saw nothing. Whatever it was that was stalking me had disappeared into the darkness. But it was there, watching me. This I knew for certain.

I looked around me and noticed a passage of stairs, leading to the pit of the cave. It was either that or I would have had to go back the way I came. I remembered its eyes and ruled that option out. I was going down these stairs. I started to wonder who had built this system of stairs, and when. As I made my way further down the stairwell, the light seemed to brighten. I was getting closer to the source. At this point, I was wondering how deep into the ground I was.

The lower I ventured, the more uneasy I felt. I could still see the entrance back into the dark passage in which I had come from. I kept my eyes focused on the dark encirclement, in an attempt to identify the entity that seemed to be stalking me. All I wanted to do was to find my friends and get the hell out of there.

“Josh……Anna?!” I knew that wouldn’t work, and if anything I had attracted more of the attention to myself than I had before.

“Shit!” I gasped as I reached the bottom of the cave. I was astounded by what I had seen. Perched up on a higher platform than the ground were stone structures, circling what seemed like the alter. In the centre of the alter were 4 stone structures which looked as though they were built for the purpose of laying something flat on them. I was confused at this point and didn’t understand what I was looking at. I turned my head to the right side of the room. Hanging from the walls to the right side of the alter were 4 corpses. The flesh had been completely dried off of them, and all that was left were their perfectly composed bone structures. These corpses were 300 years old, at the least.

It finally came to me. How did I not realise this earlier?! The temple. I had found it. Or was I lead to it?

Then it dawned on me. I had been lured into this cave like a fish is lured to the bait. I started to piece everything together, all the while losing focus of my surroundings. The silhouette I had seen across the lake the first night, the eyes in the forest, the markings on the trees and the chuckles that stalked me all the way to the cave. It all made sense now. I had been marked that night, and whatever this thing was knew my weakness. And I followed its plan so precisely that it snickered at my stupidity when it gazed into my face in the darkness. At that point, I knew for certain that Josh and Anna were not here. I had to get back to the camp to warn them.

BANG! I snapped out of my thoughts and turned to the source of the sound. There it was, crouching low on the ground as though it was readying itself to finally consume its prey. It stared into my eyes and opened its jaws to send me a message. It lifted its finger and pointed at me with its long claw. I was frozen. Should I just let this thing consume me? It must be hungry, I thought. 300 years and I’m the first idiot who stumbled into its well thought out trap. It must’ve tried this more than once. I stumbled back, and as I did, it laughed at me. As I hit the ground, I picked up something that felt solid and heavy.

At that point, my hunter had leapt forward in an attempt of catching me. With my full force, I grabbed what I now found to be a long metal rod, and swung it so fast and so hard until I felt the connection to this things head. And just like that, it wailed and stumbled back into the darkness from which it came.

With full speed, I ran up the stairs I had come down from. Without my torch to guide me, I leapt into the darkness of the passage that would lead me directly to the mouth of the cave. That’s when I heard it. My hunter had regained its strength and was stalking me. I could hear its grunts, at least 10 metres away. It wasn’t going to let me go without a chase. Judging by the noise it was making this thing was at least ten metres behind me. I reached the entrance of the cave, swirled around to look into the darkness and I could make out the entities fierce, yellow eyes glowing in the dark. The look of hatred and thirst were portrayed in its piercing glare. I looked around me in search of a weapon I could use as protection. The round stone. I used all of my strength at that moment to wield this stone from the floor. With what seemed like my last bit of strength, I laid the big rock flat against the entrance, blocking the light from glaring into the darkness of the cave. CLICK. That was odd, the stone seemed to click right into place. I could hear my hunter wailing angrily from inside the cave, attempting to smash down the blockage. I was now certain that unless moved from the outside, the entrance to the cave was barred from inside. I picked up a smaller stone off the floor and began to carve into the stone barrier. “DO NOT OPEN”, I wrote in big, clear letters. I had to leave a warning for the next person that may fatally stumble upon this cave.

As I picked up everything I had initially taken out of my bag, I listened to the abnormal silence from the cave. Whatever this thing was had stopped wailing, and for some reason, I felt its presence pushed up against the flat stone. It seemed to be listening to me, to what I was doing. Then it chuckled, that same sinister chuckle I had heard in the forest. I made a break for it.

I ran straight through the forest for what seemed like hours. At least it was light outside, I thought to myself. If that thing found a way out of there, it would be the end for me. No one would hear my cries in these woods. I somehow lost my bearings and found myself surrounded by unmarked trees.

“Shit!” I said aloud. I stumbled further into the forest without paying any attention to the markings on the trees, and now I had lost them. I needed to get back to the camp as soon as I could. I was certain that Josh and Anna were waiting for me. It was me who fell prey to the stalker of the Eildon Forest.

It took me a few hours to get back to the campsite. Everything was just how I had left it, save for one thing.

There was a note attached to the zipper of my tent. I recognised the handwriting straight away, and my stomach churned in pain and discomfort with the feeling of fear. I opened the note, and it read:

“Grace, we have no idea where the fuck you are or when you disappeared. But Anna noticed some carvings on the trees and we thought you started off on your adventure without out us when we were out gathering some more branches for the fire this morning. We waited around for hours for you to come back, but after a while, we felt uneasy. So, we’ve taken most of the stuff with us in case something goes wrong and we’re coming to find you. If you get to this letter before we’re back, stay put and wait for us. Remember, there’s no reception here so we need to be smart about this. Stay put, if we don’t find you in the forest in the next 3 hours, we’re gonna make our way back. Josh. Signed: 1.01pm.”

I looked at my watch immediately. 8.40pm.

It was dark now. And this time, I knew where Josh and Anna were. And I knew that this was all a part of the hunter’s ingenious plan. He planned to fail the first time. I finally understood what the phrase ‘killing a bird with two stones’ meant. I know he can see me, that he’s lurking somewhere in the trees. Waiting for me to follow the path that he created to save the friends that I granted him.

I approached the darkness of the forest, knowing what I had to do.

Credit: Ebru Hal

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