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The Value of Flesh

by Rob Strangman

A sleek red Porsche sped along the country road. Off in the distance, a sparkling lake beckoned.

God, how I hate her, Michael Kelley thought. He tightened his grip on the wheel as they sped toward their destination. He shot a sideways glance at the woman sitting next to him, who was excitedly looking around and talking non-stop.

Sarah Tovar chattered on and on about Diamond Lake, how she'd spent so much time there as a child, how she'd been so happy whiling away her idyllic summers with her family. She was the heir to the Grimaldi fortune, the family that had built an empire out of slaughter. Mega Meats, Inc. was one of the largest retailers of beef and pork in the world. They were to cow and pig what Perdue was to chicken.

Michael had grown up blaming Arthur Grimaldi, Sarah's father, for the destruction of his family. Sometime in the mid-sixties, Arthur and Michael's father Bill had been partners. Together they had built Mega Meats, Inc. up from a local butcher shop they had bought together after the Korean War into the massive empire it was today.

Then Arthur had double-crossed Bill. He had never gone into the details, but he'd said by the time Arthur was done with him, his half of the business, and his fortune, had been taken away. Bill - and by extension, his family - had been left penniless. Bill had begun drinking heavily and had been killed while driving drunk in 1967.

Michael and his mother had eked out a meager existence after that. He'd drifted from job to job while his mother was consumed by the same demon that took his father from them. Over the years, Michael came to curse the Grimaldis for all of their misfortunes, plotting various forms of revenge on Arthur. But all they were were fantasies, daydreams. And that's all he thought they would ever be.

His only comfort came from his on again, off again girlfriend, Leslie Wilkins. She drifted in and out of his life, but she always seemed to be there when he needed her. She knew all about his hatred of the Grimaldis, and had even come up with a couple of revenge schemes herself. She hated them as well, but for a different reason: she was a charter member of PETA, and wanted to have Mega Meats shut down.

Then, by sheer chance, Michael had met Sarah. He'd been on his way to a job interview when they'd met, and she was instantly taken with him. It had been a whirlwind romance, one that stopped for him the day he met her parents. The love he'd begun feeling for her had died when he found himself shaking Arthur Grimaldi's hand.

When he'd asked her later why she didn't use the name Grimaldi, she'd replied that she used her mother's maiden name to remain anonymous. Someone had attempted to kidnap her and hold her for ransom when she was a small child, so it was safer for her if she didn't advertise that she was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the United States. He held his feelings in check until he'd left her that night. He went home, feeling completely enraged that he had been taken in by a Grimaldi.

It was then that he hatched his plan, one so devious and cunning that even he was surprised by the scope of it.

***

"It's so beautiful here," Sarah breathed. "It always has been. Thank you so much for bringing me out here, Michael."

They had left the car behind nearly twenty minutes ago and were already deep in the woods. Michael lagged behind slightly as Sarah darted this way and that, delighted to be back in her childhood vacation spot.

"Anything for you, my dear," Michael said, doing his best to not spit out the words.

Michael patted the .44 Magnum holstered underneath his jacket. Soon he'd be rid of this chattering cow. Arthur Grimaldi would be devastated, he was sure.

It was Leslie that had suggested coming to Diamond Lake. She'd heard stories over the years of the strange things that supposedly happened here, namely the alarming amount of disappearances - children chasing after lost toys, teenage couples and small groups of men on fishing trips, among others. All had vanished without a trace. Some whispered tales of a clan of serial killers, some talked of cannibals. It didn't matter that the police never found anything in the woods. It didn't matter that no evidence ever turned up. The rumors persisted, and grew stronger as the years passed.

But one thing was clear: people went into these woods and they never came out.

Some of the more imaginative whispered of dark things in the woods and ungodly creatures, summoned by Satanic rituals. The presence of the long-abandoned West Mansion on the shore of the lake didn't help, for the tales of Dr. West were the stuff of legend. Some said that the missing people would be found inside the mansion, that someone or something had lured them there, never to be seen alive again. Some said the mansion concealed a portal to Hell itself. But those people were usually dismissed as crackpots.

Michael scoffed at all of it, but decided that he could use these wild rumors and stories to his advantage. If Sarah vanished here, he knew the police would never turn anything up. And if they ever did, well, he'd be long gone by that point. He didn't care if they knew or not, as long as he and Leslie had escaped the country by then.

When he'd proposed a drive up to Diamond Lake to Sarah, she jumped at the prospect, immediately beginning to babble on about how much she loved the place. Michael immediately began setting his plan into motion. Leslie had wanted to hold Sarah for ransom, using her as leverage for getting her father to shut down Mega Meats, but Michael insisted on sticking to his plan. After spending nearly an hour arguing about this with him, Leslie had finally relented and agreed to go through with his plan. Sarah would die, and he would have his revenge. To add insult to injury, he would drain her very sizable bank account on his way out of the country.

As Sarah stopped to smell a wildflower, Michael checked his watch. Leslie would be waiting for him by now.

He reached for the Magnum.

Sarah looked back at him, then did a double take as she saw what he was doing. "Michael!" she shouted as he aimed the gun at her. He walked toward her, stopping a foot or so away from her, the gun aimed between her eyes.

"Shut. Up." he ordered. Sarah's eyes grew wide as she realized this wasn't a joke.

"Wh... why?" she stammered.

"I said shut up!" he shouted. Tears were running down Sarah's face now.

"At least... tell me why," she sobbed. He nodded.

"Ever heard of Bill Kelley?"

A puzzled look appeared on her face. "My father's old partner?"

"Yeah. He was my father. Your father robbed him of everything!" he shouted.

Wide-eyed, she shook her head. "No," she said. "Daddy told me what happened."

"Save it."

"Your father gambled his money away," she pressed on. "He sold his half of the business to my father to pay off his gambling debts!"

"Liar!" he shouted.

"I swear to you it's true. I wouldn't lie to you, I love you!"

"SHUT UP!" he shouted as he lunged forward, shoving the gun into her mouth and pulling the trigger at the same time. A large chunk of the back of Sarah's head disappeared in a halo of blood.

Sarah fell backwards, hitting the forest floor with a wet thud. Michael grinned as he slipped the pistol back into the holster underneath his jacket.

Then, to his surprise, she moved. He backed up a step as she rolled over. She was dying, he realized as he saw the exit wound his bullet had left, but somehow she was still hanging on.

Her eyes were wide. They were fixed on him. She reached out for him.

With a snarl, he lashed out with his foot. It connected with the side of her head, sending it snapping to the right. He kicked her head again and again, until finally her left cheek detached from her jaw, causing the entire top of her head to flop over. As her body settled onto the forest floor, he lashed out again. And again.

He stopped only when the top of her head separated from the rest of her body. It rolled away, finally settling at the foot of a tree. Blood pooled underneath her body, staining her blue dress.

Michael straightened himself out, looking down on Sarah's body coldly as he did.

Now it was just a matter of getting to his car, where Leslie was undoubtedly waiting for him by now. Waiting with the tools he'd use to dispose of her body. It was only a matter of time now before the two of them were relaxing on a tropical shore, sipping Mai-Tais and enjoying their newfound wealth.

He grinned at the prospect.

***

Three hours had passed, and Michael Kelley was growing extremely agitated. The sun was beginning to set, and with every passing minute, his frustration was mounting.

No matter how hard he tried, he could not find the path back to the clearing where Leslie was waiting. Yet he knew, he knew that he remembered the way back. Off in the distance he could see Diamond Lake, the same view he'd seen every ten minutes for the last three hours.

And there, as always, stood the scarecrow in the field. He spat in its direction, then pressed on.

He'd spotted the thing shortly after losing the path back to the car. He tried to reach it in hopes of getting a better view of the surrounding area, but no matter which direction he went, he could never get any closer to it.

Inwardly he cursed, then moved further into the forest.

***

Another hour passed. The sun's rays were finally disappearing below the horizon, and now Michael wasn't just frustrated, he was also a bit nervous.

One thing that he'd noticed was the lack of noise. A forest at dusk would have a myriad of sounds pouring out of it: nocturnal creatures just waking, insects buzzing and chirping, owls starting to hoot. But there was nothing, and that bothered him more than he cared to admit.

The forest seemed to close in around him. Michael started to run, only to suddenly stumble over something and land flat on his face in the dirt.

"Fuck," he mumbled as he rolled over to look at what had tripped him up. What he had to say next died in his throat as a glimpse of movement caught his eye. He reached for the Magnum and slowly drew it from its holster.

Something was crawling... no, sliding across the ground toward him. It glistened in the dying light. It looked like nothing more than a giant blob. It was vaguely flesh-colored, and was easily six feet in length. He'd never seen anything like it before. He scrambled to his feet and backed up as the thing approached him. It stopped as it sensed his presence. He began to raise the Magnum.

Without warning, it changed shape, a hideous head extending up from what he assumed was the creature's front. It hissed, then convulsed and vomited out a viscous purple substance.

Only the reflexes he'd developed during his years of playing football in high school saved him. He barely dodged the vomit, which hit the tree next to him. The tree began to smoke and sizzle. One thought went through his mind as his feet began to move: run. He charged blindly into the woods.

The blob didn't attempt to follow him.

He shoved his way through low-hanging branches, feeling them scratch at his face and tear at his clothes. As he entered a clearing, he suddenly found himself inundated by the stench of rotten fungus. Before he could puzzle that out, he ran headlong into something warm and wet. The shock of the impact caused him to lose his grip on the Magnum, which dropped away, into the underbrush.

He stumbled backwards, now covered by something that smelled very familiar. It took him a second to realize that it was blood.

"Michael?"

That was Leslie's voice. Michael wiped the blood out of his eyes as he answered.

"Leslie? Where are you?"

"Michael? I can't see you."

The sun had disappeared completely, and his eyes were not adjusting to the total lack of natural light. Then he heard the giggle: fast, high-pitched, like a young girl. He spun, trying to see what had made it.

There, in the distance, were three softly glowing points of light. They were blue, and they darted through the trees. They looked like Will-o'-the-wisps. With each second that passed, they got closer.

As the light from the wisps grew brighter, Michael looked around for Leslie again.

What he saw made him drop to his knees and vomit.

Leslie was right in front of him. She was nude, suspended by thick rope, spread-eagle between two trees. The front of her body had been sliced open and pulled back, fastened to the surrounding trees by multiple strands of fishing line, the hooks embedded in her ragged flesh. What was left of her internal organs were exposed, her intestines sagging out and over her waist. Her ribcage and spine had been removed. A large pool of blood had gathered beneath her. Her head was held up by another rope.

A cluster of long red worms with razor-sharp teeth were feeding on her organs. He could just make out others burrowing through her body. As he watched, two of the worms dropped off of her, into the pool of blood.

"Michael?" Leslie asked again. He stepped back, horrified beyond belief.

How was she still alive?!?

Before he could respond, a dark shape moved up behind him. An overpowering stench of fungus filled his nostrils as a rough hand clamped over his mouth. His eyes widened in terror as another hand grasped his arm and held it in a death grip.

A soft, glowing blue light shown in his face. The wisps were finally upon them. To his surprise, they appeared to be the ghosts of three young girls wearing shoulderless dresses. They swirled around the clearing, around Leslie's head, around him and his captor, giggling the whole way.

"Michael? Who is that? Where are you?"

As one of the ghosts passed Leslie's face, Michael could see that her eyes had been ripped out of their sockets. Tears of blood bore mute testimony to what had happened. Her hair, usually a strawberry blond, was matted thick with dark, dried blood.

Michael's bladder emptied as he struggled to get away from whatever it was that was holding him. Two rotting wolf carcasses appeared at that point, materializing from the depths of the woods. They sat down beside the pool of blood beneath Leslie's body and began to lap it up like water.

One of the worms in the blood suddenly leaped out and attacked one of the wolves. It snarled, thrashing its head around, trying to dislodge the worm from its body. There was nothing it could do, though. The worm burrowed its way into its body and was gone.

The wolf corpse returned to drinking the blood like nothing had happened. Michael began to sob. I'm having a nightmare. Wake up.

"You're a fascinating one," a horrible voice sounded. Michael froze.

Floating down into the clearing was the scarecrow he'd seen earlier. With a shudder, he realized that it wasn't a straw man, but rather it was an ancient skeleton wearing a tattered cloak and what looked to be an antique witch's hat. The leathery skin on its skull stretched as the thing spoke. The ghosts swirled around it, like children greeting their father after a hard day at work.

Their voices leaped through the air in a joyous harmony: Krollock, Krollock, they were saying. The thing's name?

"You're not like the others," the dark apparition whispered as the ghosts resumed flitting around the clearing. "Most that come here are... innocent, for lack of a better word. But you came here, overflowing with maliciousness and greed, having only one thing on your mind: murder."

It chuckled. "I've not felt one like you since my Kinderhüter."

It motioned to whatever it was that was holding him prisoner. Immediately the hand around his mouth was removed, although the other one stayed firmly in place.

It took Michael a second to find his voice. "Wh..." he began, only to be silenced by the ghosts that suddenly flew up in front of him.

"Shhhh," they said as one, each holding a finger in front of its mouth, "or you'll be sorry." Then they resumed their holding pattern.

"We found your conspirator," the apparition said, "as you can see. A petty creature, this. She fails to understand the value of flesh."

There was movement off to the right. "But this one coming now," the thing continued, "she understands perfectly."

Then she stumbled out of the woods. A small swarm of flies buzzed around what was left of her head, her blood-stained blue dress hanging limply around her body. Michael shook his head. This was as impossible as anything else he'd seen tonight. But there she was.

Sarah's corpse stopped in front of him, her tongue lolling lazily in what was left of her mouth.

"Michael?" Leslie asked again.

"This can't be-" Michael began, only to be stopped as Sarah's hand shot out, plunging down his throat. He gagged and emitted a stifled, gurgling scream as Sarah ripped his vocal cords out.

"We warned you," the ghosts sang in unison as they flew over Michael's convulsing body.

Michael wheezed as he spat blood. By rights, he should be dying now. But something was keeping him alive, just like it was keeping Leslie alive. He coughed, and more blood spurted from his mouth.

Sarah stepped backwards as the thing floated downward, nodding its approval. "Excellent," it said. It turned to the headless corpse of Sarah. "What do you think, my dear? Shall we begin?"

What was left of her jawbone shook. Her tongue flopped around, flicking up and down, attempting to lick lips that no longer existed.

Michael felt a cold shiver run down his spine. He coughed again and more blood flew out of his mouth. What are you going to do with me? he mouthed, but the thing paid no attention to him.

The apparition, this Krollock - if that was indeed its name - nodded.

Michael's mouth opened in a silent scream as two large hooks were embedded in his shoulders. The pain was excruciating, and grew in intensity as the fungi-stench dissipated.

Without warning, there was a tug on the hooks. He fell backwards, landing on the ground with a soft thud. Then he felt another tug as something began to pull him, and the pain tripled in intensity. Krollock hovered above him, Sarah's reanimated corpse staggering slowly behind it. He felt his body being dragged slowly across the rocky ground, blood flowing steadily from the wounds in his shoulders.

Krollock gestured toward Leslie. The thing that had been holding Michael captive came into view, looking for all the world like a mushroom that had somehow sprouted a humanoid body.

"Enjoy your meal," Krollock said. "All of you."

As Michael was dragged away, he saw dark shapes of all sorts materialize from the forest, all hideously deformed in some way or another. The three ghosts swirled around Leslie one last time, then flew off into the sky and were gone.

The shapes converged on Leslie. Then she began to scream.

Michael closed his eyes as he was dragged along. Leslie's screams began to fade, then abruptly ceased.

For a few minutes, all he could hear was the sound of his body being dragged along a path. Then, in the distance, he could hear a faint sound. A harsh, buzzing sound that grew louder with every passing second.

Doing his best to fight the pain, he slowly turned his head to see where he was being dragged to. What he saw should have surprised him, but it didn't. Not after everything he'd just seen.

A veritable giant of a man, if it indeed was a man, was dragging him towards a shed. He could barely make out the burlap sack covering its head. As he got a look at the man's hands, he suddenly realized the source of the buzzing sound: two huge, rusty chainsaws that seemed to be a part of the man's arms. The chains dragging him were wrapped around the man's arms.

Krollock floated ahead. Michael listened as he stopped before the man.

"We have something special in store for this one, Kinderhüter," it said.

Michael felt another jerk on the hooks. A noxious stench came from behind him, coming from the open door of the shed, growing worse with every tug of the hooks. He grimaced, then looked up at Sarah's corpse, which was still following him.

He still hated her. He hated her even more for doing this to him. But she might be his only way to get out of this.

I'm sorry, he mouthed. Please, Sarah... if you still love me, convince it to let me go. Please.

Sarah stopped. She bent down, giving him a good view of her exposed throat cavity and the tattered remains of her head.

Her tongue waggled, and a low moan rose from her throat.

Heeeeeee...

Michael's eyes widened. She was trying to speak.

Heeeeelllllll iiiiiissssssssss...

She stopped. A shadow had fallen over him.

Krollock looked down at Michael. The leathery skin on its skull crinkled as it spoke.

"She says hell is too good for you, Michael."

***

A crashing sound echoed through the forest, the only sound that could be heard for miles.

A flash of pale, yellowish, distorted flesh appeared among the trees. Clawed hands shoved smaller trees out of its way. The head was bloated and twisted, the eyes red and sunken into the deformed skull. A circular mouth ringed with sharp teeth snapped at anything foolish enough to come near it. Ever since its abrupt appearance a few weeks earlier, the denizens of the forest knew to stay out of this thing's way, and thus it roamed the forest unchallenged.

It stopped suddenly. It had spotted what it had come for.

There, on the ground, was a wounded bear. Bears were rare in these woods, but they did appear from time to time. From the looks of things, it had been attacked by one of the smaller creatures that roamed the woods.

It still had plenty of fight in it, though. As it sensed the approach of the creature, it got to its feet and roared.

The creature returned the roar with equal ferocity and charged.

It slammed into the bear, a whirling dervish of claws and teeth. The bear didn't stand a chance as the creature ripped into its soft underbelly. The fight ended moments later as the bear's intestines spilled all over the forest floor.

As the bear tipped backwards, one of its claws snagged on one of the only pieces of clothing the creature had on: the holster of a gun that was half-buried in the creature's flesh. The creature angrily grabbed the bear's leg and tried to shove it away, but it was still caught on the holster. The creature shoved at the leg angrily. The holster gave some resistance, but ultimately tore away from the creature's side. It landed on the ground.

The creature either didn't notice or didn't care. Instead, it crouched down and began to feed...


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