Shanook Forest, West Virginia. 6:32pm, April 5th.
“This looks like the perfect spot.”
“I don’t know, Jerry, it smells kind of funny.”
“That’s just the smell of the Great Outdoors, honey.” Jerry swung the seventy pound backpack off his aching shoulders with relief. They had been hiking all day and now that the sun was going down they were getting hard pressed to find a place to camp for the night. This was Mary’s first trip and he wanted it to be perfect.
“If you say so.” Mary replied hesitantly.
Mary walked around the small depression that they had found a few hundred feet off the trail. The ground didn’t have any fallen leaves or sticks in this area, which seemed odd. However she didn’t know much about the woods so she didn’t question it. Mary stepped on something that cracked audibly under her new heavy boot. Bending down she picked up what looked like a speckled piece of china ware.
“What do you suppose this is, Jerry?”
“What?” Jerry was busy trying to set up the tent for some much needed rest.
Mary brought over the pieces she’d stepped on for Jerry’s inspection. He put the last finishing touches on the newly erected home and turned to look at Mary’s prize. At first glance it seemed to be a half inch thick piece of plastic. Jerry took the piece and noticed it didn’t feel like plastic. Turning it over in his hand he found the underside of the fragment to be a shiny white and sticky to the touch.
“Strange.” Jerry said mystified. He took a closer look at the speckled side. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say it was a piece of egg shell.”
“Egg shell? Nonsense, the egg would have to have been the size of a basketball!”
“I know, I know. But look at the way it curves and the...”
Jerry stopped at the sound of a snapping twig.
“What was that?” Mary hissed in fear.
“Probably just a raccoon, or a fox.” Jerry responded in an unsure whisper.
“Look!” Mary pointed into the dark brush.
About ten feet off the ground a wide set of reflective green eyes stared at the couple. The rest of the animal was hidden in the darkness of the forest shadows. The two luminescent spots stared to bob slowly up and down. A clear clicking sound emanated from where the eyes bounced.
“Don’t move, Mary.”
“What is it?” Mary whimpered. “A bear?”
“I don’t know. Just stay sti...”
The bright eyes suddenly lunged out of the wood at the pair. The attack was so quick that Mary’s high pitched scream echoed through the lonely forest valley long after she and Jerry were dead.
Scully turned the thin object that Mulder had given her over in her hand. One side was plain white and the other had speckles. She couldn’t tell what it was made out of. “Okay, Mulder, I give up. What is this?”
“That is a piece of egg shell from a Phorusrhacos.” (for the reader that is pronounced Phos-for-Rah-kuss)
“Phorusrhacos, a bird from the Miocene.”
“The Miocene?” Scully raised her eyebrows. “Mulder, that was 50 million years ago.”
“I see you know your paleontogy. Phorusrhacos was one of the Terror-Birds. Eleven feet tall, with a head the size of a horse’s head, not to mention one mean hooked beak and large razor sharp claws on the end of powerful legs.”
“That sounds like a lot of bird to try and get off the ground.”
“Oh, no, they were a flightless bird, their wing span was only about two feet across. They’re kind of like an oversized carnivorous ostrich.”
“Right, whatever.” Scully looked at the fragment again. “So you are trying to tell me that an exstinct flightless bird the size of a Buick is running around the forests of West Virginia, and that it has gone unnoticed until now?”
“Well it hadn’t killed anyone till now.”
It was a long hike to the crime scene out in the forest. A fine mist made its way through the thick trees making it seem like the humidity was around 300%. The trail had been closed to visitors and the bodies had been removed. The site itself had been preserved for further investigation. Mulder held up the yellow police tape for his partner. Scully slipped under and gave he black trench coat a quick shake when she got to the other side. The local Park Ranger was already at the site waiting for them.
“Good afternoon, Agents.” The Ranger greeted cheerily. “I’m Ranger Richard Hothwell, but please call me Rick.”
“Good day, Ranger Rick.” Mulder replied holding his hand out. “I’m Agent Mulder, and this is my partner Agent Scully.”
“No introduction needed.” Hothwell replied shaking Mulder’s hand. “I’m the one who sent you the egg shell. I’ve heard all about your work. To be honest there is not much to do out here other than read the paper, and such. I knew you’d listen, even if no one else would. The local police are not taking this very seriously.”
“Two people are dead, what’s not to take seriously?” Scully asked.
“Ah, well, you see they think it was a bear.” The Ranger turned to the side and spat. “I’ve been out here fifteen years, this was no bear attack.”
Scully looked around the shallow depression that they were standing in. The ground bore deep rents and scuff marks. What once had been a tent was now a heap of blood stained nylon, the mist had kept the two day old blood wet and bright. All over were bits and pieces of clothing. It had all the signs of an animal attack.
“How do you know it wasn’t a bear?” Mulder asked also scanning the damage.
“Well, for one thing there are no tooth marks on what’s left of the bodies.” Rick grimaced at the memory. “For another the food sack was left untouched.”
“I can see you’re not a backpacker. When you come out into the wild you’ve got to carry everything you’ll need on your back. That includes food. Now the first thing a bear is going to go for is your food because bears have gotten to like the sweet taste of human food. Well, there were six Snicker bars, among other things, left in their backpacks. No self respecting bear would eat a human and leave a Snickers.”
“Who found the bodies?” Scully asked when she felt she’d seen enough of the crime site.
“I did.” Hothwell replied. “I was on my rounds looking for any illegal campsites, you know people camped too close to one of the streams or next to the cliffs.”
“And how did you come to suspect that the attack was by a Phosfuro, Fos...” Scully stumbled over the strange name.
“Phorusrhacos.” Hothwell supplied. “Well, for one thing, as I said, there is not much to do out here other than read, and I read a lot of books on ancient animals.”
“Surly a little piece of ‘egg shell’ wouldn’t be enough to identify an exstinct animal out of a book.”
“Oh no, of course not.” Hothwell laughed. “I can identify it, because I saw it.”
“You witnessed the attack?” Scully asked shocked.
“Well, no.” Hothwell admitted. “But I’ve seen that big bird before. Everyone around here says I see it because I drink too much.”
“I see.” Scully said slowly. “And do you drink, Ranger Hothwell?”
‘Well... Like I said, there’s not much to do out here.” Hothwell looked uncomfortable for a moment and then added “but I’ve been dead sober every time I’ve seen her.”
“Right.” Scully looked up at her partner. “Can I have a word with you, Agent Mulder?”
“Uh-oh,” Mulder grinned. “She used ‘Agent’. That’s how I know I’m in trouble.” He explained to Ranger Hothwell. “Please excuse us for a moment, Rick.”
Mulder followed Scully over to the far side of the crime scene.
“How do you do it?” Scully whispered fiercely.
“What?” Mulder asked innocently.
“Talk me into joining you on cases like this.”
“Oh that. It’s just my blinding charm, forgive me.”
“Be serious.” Scully snapped. “This man is obviously delusional.”
“I don’t know, Scully, he seems pretty educated to me.”
“He is a drunken, lonely man who is seeing exstinct animals. For all we know he killed the pair himself just for the company of law enforcement. What are the chances of these bodies being discovered so quickly?”
“He knew who you were, he practically lured you out here. I’m not saying he is dangerous for sure, I’m just saying that we should look at the obvious answer here. And the obvious answer does not involve giant flightless birds of death.”
“You don’t know...”
“Have you taken the ‘egg shell’ to a paleontologist?”
“No.” Mulder admitted.
“Have you had it analyzed in any way?”
“So all we have to go on is Ranger ‘Rick’s’ word?”
“All right, all right.” Mulder put his hands up in surrender. “So what’s our next move?”
“I’m going to take a look at the bodies and you’re going to take that fragment over to the nearest specialist.”
The nearest morgue was fifty miles away so for the moment the bodies were being held in one of the walk in refrigerators at the local supermarket. Scully noted with disgust that the food hadn’t been removed, simply pushed to one side. The bodies lay on the concrete floor in the back corner under a sheet. Scully turned to the Sheriff that had lead her here.
“I want these bodies taken to a proper morgue the second I’m done here. Understand?”
“Yes, Agent. Sorry, we didn’t know what else to do.” The young Sheriff looked abashed. “Most dead folk are taken directly over to the local crematorium.”
“What do you do when there is a suspicious death?”
The Sheriff looked around the supermarket refrigerator and smiled.
“Never mind, Sheriff. Just make the arrangements.”
The Sheriff was glad for a reason to scuttle away. Scully walked over to the bodies and lifted the sheet off. Despite refrigeration the stench of blood and decay washed over her. The bodies were completely destroyed. All of the internal organs were missing with the exception of the small intestines which had been stuffed back into the body probably by the people who moved the bodies for easier transport.
To Scully’s eye it looked like the pair had both died of disembowelment. Several large gashed on each body lead from the chest to the open stomach. The muscles of their legs had been torn off and for the most part were missing. However, just like the Ranger had said there didn’t seem to be any tooth marks.
One of the woman’s leg bones had been cracked clean in half and striped of muscle. Scully put on a pair of gloves and picked up half of the broken bone. Looking inside the long bone she found that all of the marrow was missing. That almost confirmed the idea of an animal attack. Many carnivorous animals love the protein rich marrow found in bones and will crack them open to get it.
Scully turned, bone in hand, when the refrigerator door opened. A young spotted faced employee stepped inside. He jumped slightly when he noticed he wasn’t alone.
“Sorry, Ma’am.” He stuttered. “I, I just need some more tomatoes for the produce display. I’ll be out of your way in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
The boy hurried over to where the tomatoes were kept and picked up a box of them. He took a quick glance at the bodies and went a bit paler. He shook his head sadly. “Same thing happened to my dog.”
“My dog, Wolfie, he was a big German Shepherd Husky mix. One day we were out in Shanook Forest and he took off. I found him several hours later, ripped apart, just like those two. I’ve also heard tell of people finding deer and stuff like that. Funny thing is that Wolfie could have easily out run any old Black Bear.” The boy shrugged. “Well, got to get these tomatoes to the people. Have a nice day.”
“You do the same.” Scully replied absent mindedly.
Something out there was hungry if nothing else.
“Considering this place doesn’t have a morgue I’m surprised that they have a resident paleontologist.”
“He is retired, he just happened to grow up around here.” Mulder replied turning the infamous egg shell over and over in his hands.
Scully looked around the dingy hotel room for somewhere sanitary to sit down. She finally sat on the bed next to Mulder since she was going to have to sleep there anyway.
“So what did he have to say?”
“Well, first he laughed at me.”
“He said that it indeed looked like an egg shell to him, but he really only dealt with fossils so he couldn’t be sure. He said that I needed to take it to an ornithologist. Unfortunately there isn’t one of those around. One thing he did know was that there would never be hard evidence as to what it came from because neither fossils nor egg shell contain DNA. The shell is mainly calcium and other deposits and of course a fossil is just rock.”
“Well at least we know it isn’t Ranger Hothwell. Unless he is also into slaughtering and eating dogs and deer.”
Scully told Mulder about the grocery boy.
“Yuck. Remind me never to buy ‘fresh’ produce again.”
“Anyway,” Scully continued “what do you suggest we do now.”
“The only thing I can think of is to take a walk in the woods and hope we find this thing.”
“Before it finds us.”
“Scully,” Mulder said in a mock astonished tone “was that a ‘joke’?”
The mist like rain still persisted. Every lung full of air was half water. Scully’s hair fell in loose wet locks as the three wandered through the Shanook Forest. They weren’t wandering aimlessly, exactly. Ranger Hothwell was taking them to the places where he’d caught glimpses of the creature before.
“I still don’t see how something so big can go unnoticed for so long.”
“Well, Agent Scully, it’s like this. We people who live in the sticks have a bad enough reputation as it is. We don’t want to go around shouting that we see monsters and make it worse.”
“You told people you’d seen it.”
“Yeah, and look what happened.” Hothwell spat. “I’ve been branded a drunken lunatic.”
“Some places make big money in tourism by advertising local monsters.” Mulder added.
“Yeah, well, we don’t really take to tourist either. We certainly don’t want to take responsibility for them getting eaten.”
After another hour walk they came to a large grassy meadow. Ranger Hothwell explained that the area had been clear cut a few years back and was starting to regenerate. The tall grass was covered in droplets of water from the unrelenting rain.
“This is where I first saw her.” Hothwell turned around. “Hey, where’s your partner, Agent Scully?”
Scully looked at the empty woods behind her. “He was right...”
Three ringing gun shots in succession sent Scully running back into the thick forest.
Earlier while Ranger Hothwell was leading them to the site of his first encounter Mulder’s eye caught a hold of a motion off in the trees. Instinct caused him to turn in the direction of the motion in hopes of another glimpse. Mulder stood stationary waiting for whatever had caught his attention to reappear.
When he was ready to give up on the hunch Scully and Hothwell were well out of sight. Mulder hadn’t thought he’d been distracted for very long. They were off the trail here so he couldn’t easily follow. Mulder was just about to call out for Scully when the flash of motion ran past his peripheral vision once more.
Thinking that the others wouldn’t get far before noticing that he was gone Mulder decided to try and get a closer look at whatever was stalking around the corner of his eye. The vegetation was lush from the constant supply of water so plowing through it towards his goal Mulder made quite a racket as far as the woodland creatures were concerned. However, no animals scurried out of his way and no birds took flight before him. It was like the whole forest had been abandoned.
Mulder finally stepped into a small clearing. Looking back he suddenly realized that he wasn’t quite sure where he had started from nor which direction they had been traveling before he got distracted. Mulder stood in the middle of the clearing looking about. There wasn’t a single sound to be heard. Even the misty rain seemed somehow muted.
“This probably isn’t smart.” Mulder muttered to himself.
At the sound of his voice a clicking noise started up. As Mulder turned to face the noise the object of their searched stepped from the brush where it had been hiding. The titanic bird stepped into the clearing with Mulder with a single graceful step. It’s oval, brightly feathered body balanced upon two long bare legs that rippled with powerful muscle and ended in fiercely clawed toes. The birds slender neck gave way to an almost comically outsized head that wore a beak shaped like that of a hawk’s.
Both Mulder and Phorusrhacos stood for a moment seemingly paralyzed. The fine mist collected on Phorusrhacos’s green and blue streaked feathers in round droplets which slid off as soon as they formed. The clicking noise started up again. It was Phorusrhacos snapping her enormous beak in excited anticipation.
Mulder slowly went to pull out his gun. Phorusrhacos turned her head to get a better look at her prey. In a abrupt flurry of motion Phorusrhacos spread out her stunted wings, flashing their brilliant red undersides. At almost the exact same moment the mammoth bird attacked and Mulder fired at the animal three times.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t suppose ‘over here’ answers your question.” Mulder finished his sentence in a series of labored coughs.
“Keep talking, Mulder.”
“Easier said than done.” Mulder coughed again. “No pun intended.”
Scully followed Mulder’s voice to the small clearing. Mulder was sitting with his back to the tree that he’d been pushed into by the force of the bird. His parka had a diagonal slash across it from which bright blood seeped. Scully knelt beside him and pulled back the fabric to get a better look at the damage. A deep cut was rent in his chest from his right clavicle to his left tenth rib. When Mulder coughed again Scully put her hand near his mouth. She pulled it away only to find her palm spattered with blood. At least part of the wound had reached his pleural cavity. The pleural cavity holds the lungs and is under negative pressure so when it is punctured it starts to equalize the pressure by sucking through the new hole, this draws blood into the lungs.
“I was attacked by a turkey, a really big turkey.” Mulder tried weakly to laugh. “But I got him, twice I think.”
“Hush, Mulder. Keep breathing you have to keep the pressure stable.”
Hothwell finally caught up with them. “Good Lord, she got another one.”
“We have to get him out of here.”
“The nearest road is eight miles away.” Hothwell lamented.
“He’ll never make it that far. He needs to concentrate on breathing.” Scully looked around desperately. “Can you lead paramedics here?”
“I can get them here, but not in any kind of a hurry.”
“Go. Tell them to bring the necessary tools for a sucking chest wound and a supply of A negative blood. Okay?”
“Sucking chest wound, A negative.” Hothwell repeated. “Got it. I’ll be as quick as I can. And keep an eye out, Agent Scully, she might come back for more.”
Phorusrhacos stumbled away from the clearing. She was confused and hurt. One moment she was bearing down on her prey and the next there was a searing pain in her chest. Unlike mammals an avian’s lungs do not collapse when they are punctured. However they still start to fill with blood. The wounded animal ran blindly from her attacker with no thought other than to escape the pain.
However the pain followed her. There was no hiding. When Phorusrhacos found she could no longer provide enough oxygen to her powerful legs she fell onto the shore of a small lake that she had come to with a splash. Thrashing in a desperate attempt to get out of the water and back on her feet the once mighty bird only made matters worse. Finally her lungs filled with thick blood and thin water. With one last spasm Phorusrhacos died.
Drawn by the smell of blood and sounds of struggle a smaller version of the dead bird bobbed up to the carcass. This was former occupant of the egg shell that had been the beginning of the end for the elder Phorusrhacos. Now her son approached her dead body. Although only old enough to be half her size he was already more colorful and flashy than his mother had been. His iridescent feathers shone bright in the afternoon sun.
The young Phorusrhacos nudged his mother with his already formidable beak. There was no response. He circled around her nervously and squawked his immature call. He tried again to get her to rise, but a glaze was already forming over her eyes. When the young Phorusrhacos had done all he could to revive her he slashed open her stomach with his sharp claws. The waters turned crimson.
After eating the last meal his mother would ever provide for him the young Phorusrhacos dragged the rest of the carcass into the water so that the smell wouldn’t draw other predators. Satisfied that the kill was hidden he stalked back off into the woods. From now on he’d have to hunt for himself, and there was blood in the air.
“Talk to me, Scully.”
“Okay, I wish you would stop running off and getting in trouble or hurt. I wish you would stop dragging us into these insane cases we can’t win. I wish...”
“Forget I asked.” Mulder smiled. “You know you can always transfer to another division.”
“Don’t tempt me, Mulder.”
Scully looked up at the setting sun. Normally it would not be cold, but the rain brought along with it a chill as the warm rays sank away. Mulder was doing as well as could be expected. Scully’s hands were stained with his blood from trying to stanch the flow. She found that the puncture was only at the very top of the wound so at least it was a slow leak. Most of the bleeding had been slowed, however, if help didn’t come soon blood loss was going to become a factor. In an attempt to try and make him comfortable Scully had him lay down with his head on her lap. Scully ran a gory hand through Mulder’s hair.
“How are doing, Mulder?” Scully knew she had to keep him awake, the slow heavy breathing of sleep would just make matters worse.
“Don’t worry, the paramedics will be bringing some blood.” Scully sighed. “Maybe I should start carrying a pint or two around with me.”
Mulder tried to laugh but ended up coughing again. Scully couldn’t help she just had to wait for him to stop. When he did Mulder was sucking hard at the air with rasping gasps. Scully snaked her hands down onto the spot where the puncture was and applied pressure. He must have reopened the wound. Now Scully had the choice of applying more pressure and increasing the rate of blood filling into the lungs or letting go and risk having the lung collapse.
“Damn it, Mulder, don’t you dare die on me out here.”
Scully kept the pressure on Mulder’s chest to prevent collapse, despite the blood flow danger. There was nothing more to be done. Slowly Scully became aware of a rapid clicking sound. Looking up she found a set of luminescent eyes staring at her from the far side of the clearing. Mulder struggled trying to warn her.
“Stay still, Mulder.” Scully hissed.
Scully couldn’t take her hands off the puncture to get her gun because she could tell from Mulder’s breathing that his lung was about to collapse. At the same time it wouldn’t help to get killed herself. Scully wavered a moment in indecision with her eyes fixed on the slowly bobbing green spots.
It was Hothwell.
“Over here!” Scully responded. “Hurry!”
Hothwell burst into the clearing with three paramedics who instantly went to work on Mulder without question. Scully looked around desperately for the green eyes, but they were gone. Scully shook her head, it could have been anything, perhaps just a curious deer. It didn’t really matter. The important thing now was to get Mulder to a proper hospital.
The young Phorusrhacos watched from a safe distance as the band of strange creatures fled the site. He hadn’t really been hungry anyway, he had just wanted some practice. However his ancient instinct told him that he was gravely out number all of a sudden. This territory was becoming too dangerous. Phorusrhacos turned away from the party and fled on strong legs. It was time to find a place of his own.
“How are you feeling, Mulder?”
“Like I’ve been run over by a lawn mower.”
“Well, they did end up putting seventy eight stitches in you.” Scully sat in a chair next to Mulder’s hospital bed. “You were unbelievably lucky to get out of there alive.”
“We both were. Have they found it?”
“Hothwell and a team of volunteers have combed the area, they can’t find a feather.”
“I know I shot it, it couldn’t have gotten far.”
“Mulder,” Scully said slowly “it simply isn’t there. I don’t know what attacked you, but I think the shock might have made you a bit delusional.”
“I don’t believe this.” Mulder muttered.
“I’m sorry, Mulder.”
“No, it’s not you. It’s just this curse that surrounds me. I never can seem to get a hold of the evidence I need. Even a flightless bird seems to have taken wing.”
Rankee Forest, Ohio. 4:17 pm, November 12th.
“Come on, Ed.”
“Yeah, I guess were not going to catch anything today.”
“I’m telling, ya, it’s like all the deer are just gone, I haven’t seen one in months.”
The two hunters climbed down out of their deer blind and started the long walk home. One of them stopped and picked up something that was half hidden in the brush.
“What cha got there, Tom.”
“I don’t know, it looks like a giant feather.”
“I’ve never seen a bird that color around here.”
“What was that?”
“That sound. Here it?”
Click, click, click, click, click, click.....