Along the troubled shores of Lake Onesta, there stood a curious oak. The passing of time having no bearing on its countenance, it looked the same now as it had for the last one hundred years–which was to say, a bit unsettling. No man alive nor mother nature herself had been able to fell it. No limb or leaf ever left its place. It was neither there nor not there. It simply was.
Unfortunately, the eternal oak was as poisonous as it was beautiful. Its twisted limbs and cloying leaves reached high and wide, creating a breathtaking canopy. But it slowly choked the life out of any saplings or brush with the misfortune of trying to grow underfoot.
And instead of providing an umbrella of protection and refuge for the creatures of the forest, the oak remained a cruel tyrant, refusing to play host. Curiously, all of the animals seemed to possess an innate sense of self-preservation and avoided the tree entirely.
The same could not be said for those that walked on two feet.
Daniel set the last trap before silently creeping back to the cabin. He couldn't quite believe his good fortune. It hardly seemed as though three days had passed since he'd stumbled upon the small log house not far from the edge of a lake. The old man that resided there was surprised to see Daniel show up on his doorstep, but it had been little bother to dispatch him, claiming the place for himself.
There'd been a nice fire burning with plenty of wood in store. The pantry was stocked, and there were all the tools he needed to fish and hunt. The best part was the lack of modern technology–no phone, no satellite, no electricity. In other words, no way for anyone to know the old man was permanently indisposed.
For just a moment, Daniel wished Kirk were still with him to share in this good luck, but then his thoughts soured as he remembered it was Kirk that had forced him on the run. His friend's treachery sent Daniel into a violent rage.
He burst through the door, almost tearing it from its hinges. His fists smashing and splintering the closest thing he could reach–a small table sitting nearby. Daniel's veins throbbed, his breath heaved. After a few moments, he shook his head, working to clear the red haze from his mind, but it was no use. It would take him some time to calm down.
In his first search of the small hideaway, he'd come to find a hidden bottle of bourbon tucked away in a cupboard. As the old man appeared to live alone, Daniel couldn't fathom why it had been stashed away, but he was all the happier for having found it.
A swig of spirits tended to soothe his temper. Just what he needed now. Grabbing the bottle, he downed several mouthfuls in quick succession, enjoying the burn. The warmth in his chest settled him.
With his mind a little clearer, Daniel became aware of the bloody mess on his hands. The red stickiness clinging to the glass. He moved over to the wash basin he'd filled earlier with clean water from the pump and rinsed the blood off, the cold water biting into his irritated skin.
As his gaze moved over the damage, Daniel couldn't help but be reminded of the times his father's knuckles had bloodied him. The memory of his childhood abuse something he could never escape.
Unfortunately, it seemed "like father, like son" was an apt turn of phrase to apply to Daniel and his father as he seemed to have inherited his penchant for physical violence to appease his demons.
The only person to have ever tempered that seething beast within had been Kirk. Damn that man. Daniel had been good for so long with Kirk's help, just a minor slip up here and there. Now his tether to a moral compass was gone.
He'd known the moment he'd lost Kirk too, but he hadn't wanted to accept it. He'd seen the horror in Kirk's eyes as he'd watched Daniel beat the life out of their assailant, but he thought Kirk had understood. That he just needed some time to process, but he acted strange for the rest of that night.
In the morning, Kirk's bed was empty. Daniel knew he'd gone to the police and in so doing, put a dagger in his heart. Why didn't Kirk just let him explain?
He drug his hand down his face, stubble scratching at his palm. He was no closer to an answer to that question now than ten days ago when he became a fugitive. Sighing heavily, Daniel grabbed the bourbon and drank until his eyes grew heavy, finally succumbing to sleep.
Opening his bleary eyes early the next morning, Daniel gazed around the room trying to get his bearings. A shiver worked its way down his spine as he realized he'd not tended to the fire all night. Lumbering over to the stack of wood next to the hearth, he tried to work out his stiff muscles as he bent low to start a new blaze.
Once the fire was crackling, he got on with boiling some water for the coffee he'd found. Searching around for a hot beverage mug, Daniel stumbled across a small box he'd overlooked before. Despite needing to check his traps, curiosity got the better of him. As he prized the lid open, a sheath of pictures fell out, scattering on the floor.
As he gathered up the photos, he noticed a disturbing theme among them–an oak tree and the old man who'd lived here. Image after image of the same thing. The man and the oak. No matter the season or the year, the tree remained the same, never shedding leaf or limb. In contrast, the pictures reflected the progression of the old man's aging. His hair slowly turning gray. The plaid coat he wore taking on a tattered look.
Stunned at this unsettling discovery, Daniel stood frozen until a loud bang startled him, setting his heart racing. He hastened to the window and saw that a wicked wind had kicked up outside, slamming one of the shutters closed. The morning sky had taken on an eerie green cast which spoke of an incoming storm. He'd better get to those traps before the rain came.
Scurrying to grab the old man's hunting bag, he took off for the woods.
It was barely daylight yet, so Daniel was taking great care with his footing. He couldn't afford to twist an ankle right now. But as hard as he tried to remain focused, his mind drifted, trying to puzzle out the mystery he'd stumbled upon. There just was no reasonable explanation. He very much wanted to see the oak for himself, and he'd noticed the lake in the background, so it must be close.
Daniel quickly came upon his first trap and hummed with satisfaction at the fat rabbit he'd snared. Collecting his kill, he headed to the next which, much to his delight, snagged a squirrel. His spirits were beginning to lift with his continued hunting success until he is was in a right fine mood.
Unfortunately, as he drew closer to the lake, all the traps were disturbingly bare. That seemed strange, but then it occurred to him that there may be a predator nearby causing the smaller wildlife to remain scarce. Turning slowly in a circle, Daniel scoured the landscape for any signs of imminent danger. Seeing none, he decided to change course and set out for the lake front in the hopes of finding that tree.
Daniel knew the moment he'd found it. The oak stood out in stark relief against the lake shore horizon, no other trees or vegetation grew nearby. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he approached.
He was so preoccupied with the strange sight before him that the presence of danger didn't register right away. Not until a looming figure came into view.
At the sudden intrusion, Daniel's heart beat out a staccato rhythm, his skin breaking out in a cold sweat. But as the identity of the man registered, blind rage washed over him. Kirk.
"You back-stabbing son of a bitch!" Daniel roared, charging at his betrayer and punching him solidly in the face.
The sound of a gun being cocked backed him off quickly.
"What is this?" Daniel spit out in disbelief. "You condemn me for saving your life and now you're going to what, kill me?"
Kirk spit blood on the ground and barked out a laugh. "You really don't see yourself for the murdering, narcissistic bastard that you are, do you? I'm so glad to finally be done with this fake friendship. You're going to get what's coming to you."
Daniel frowned looking utterly confused. "What are you on about, Kirk? Have you brought the police with you?" He started backing away at that thought, looking for a means of escape. Surely Kirk wouldn't shoot him.
"Oh, I don't think so," Kirk hissed. A sinister smile creeping over his face just as he pulled the trigger sending a bullet ripping through Daniel's leg. "You're not going anywhere."
Daniel was no stranger to pain, but the gunshot wound was blinding agony. He slumped onto his side, cradling his injured leg and sobbing as his blood flowed freely to the ground. The sound of Kirk approaching had his eyes flying back open. This was not the Kirk he knew, and Daniel didn't know what he was capable of doing.
"Excellent, your gift has been accepted," Kirk noted, staring at the ground next to Daniel's leg.
Daniel looked to the same spot and even with his vision blurred, there was no mistaking that his blood was sinking into the earth, leaving no trace at all. He was surely going to die. And then blackness overtook him.
"Wakey, wakey," Kirk crooned like a madman as he slapped Daniel's face a little to revive him. "Come now, you don't want to miss all the fun, do you? After all, justice is your cup of tea."
Daniel slowly regained consciousness, but the moment his surroundings registered, so too did his pain. He gasped, his eyes instantly welling with tears. While he was passed out, Kirk had dragged him over to the base of the oak. His wounded leg placed over one of the thick roots at an awkward angle, making the pain almost unbearable.
"What do you want with me?" Daniel groaned out.
"To break the bloody curse," Kirk said with glee as he rose to tower over Daniel. "I wasn't sure if it would work, of course, but I had to try."
Daniel could feel himself weakening, his strength being sapped away with each pump of his heart, forcing more blood from his battered body. He needed Kirk to keep talking, giving himself time to formulate a plan.
"What curse?" Daniel's voice croaked, rough with pain.
"The Curse of the Oak is the short answer," Kirk replied smugly.
Despite his suffering, Daniel's eyes tightened in annoyance at that response.
"Oh, you wanted a little more than that? Alright, I'll indulge you as your time is quite limited," Kirk answered, his gaze turned distant as he stared out at the lake gathering his thoughts.
Daniel took Kirk's distraction as an opportunity to glance around for anything he could use as a weapon. Nothing. There was literally nothing on the ground under this menacing oak.
He'd just have to conserve every last bit of his energy so he could launch himself at Kirk when the opportunity arose. Even with his wound, Daniel knew he could overpower him. The problem was that Kirk knew it too, and he was keeping that gun trained on Daniel.
"Where to start?" Kirk sighed, turning to face him fully. "The truth is going to sound fantastical, but it is the truth nonetheless. The path forward cannot be changed whether you choose to believe or not. As you may have noticed, the oak we're under right now is not your average tree. It was cursed long ago by–"
Daniel's burst of laughter cut him off, swiftly followed by a groan as the sudden movement tore at his flesh. "That's ridiculous. You sound like some superstitious fool," he coughed out.
"Shut up! You know nothing! Nothing!" Kirk raged, spittle flying from his mouth as he lunged forward.
Daniel cringed back, a little frightened. He was taking a gamble trying to unsettle Kirk, hoping to get him to move closer, within striking distance. But his gamble could just as easily backfire. Kirk seemed unstable and might fire that gun again before Daniel had a chance to fight back.
Kirk visibly calmed himself though, taking deep breaths and running his hand back through his ruffled hair. In control once again, he resumed his tale, "As I was saying, story has it that the tree was cursed over a century ago by a woman that was deemed a witch. From my research, I've been able to piece together that she was very powerful and greatly feared, though she'd never used her abilities for harm.
She'd come to her village as an outsider, a small child abandoned in the woods. The people gave her food and shelter, a life of safety, but she was continually shunned for her unknown heritage. As she grew older, strange things began to happen around her, and the villagers recognized what she'd become. They grew more distant than ever but stopped short of casting her out altogether, scared of her retaliation.
Of course where there's power, there are always those that wish to exploit it. And eventually the three elders of her village came to her with a deal. She would use her talents to conquer and control nearby villages. In exchange, she'd finally be accepted as someone with respect and prestige in their community–married to one of the elder's sons.
All went as planned. She brought her village lands and riches and might. But on the day of her wedding, she was tricked into drinking a sleeping draught just before the ceremony. When she awoke, she was tied to this very tree, only a young sapling then, and burned alive.
In her final desperate moments, she unleashed a curse on the elders who'd betrayed her, tying their lives and those of their descendants to the oak's." Kirk's voice trailed off then as though he was reluctant to finish.
The sheer outrageousness of the story had kept Daniel's rapt attention. He was battling the effects of blood loss and trying to remain sharp, ready for the right moment, but he needed to hear how this curse related to him.
"What does that have to do with me?" Daniel rasped.
Kirk's face contorted with anger again as he opened his mouth to respond, but then snapped his jaw shut. His eyes turning to saucers as the blood drained from his face.
An unearthly feminine creature had crept out from behind the oak to hover beside Daniel as Kirk had spun his tale. She was beautiful, youthful even, but with a menacing air about her. The witch.
"Well, you've certainly gotten close to unraveling the mysteries of my curse. And we can't have that, now can we, even though you did get a few things wrong," she said with a lavish smile. "Feeding the oak the lifeblood of each elder descendant hasn't just kept the tree alive, you know." She gave a little laugh at that, pleased with her cleverness.
Kirk's horrified expression, quickly turned to cold calculation, and Daniel had to do a double-take at the abrupt change. Also, what'd she just say about descendants?
"I'm not sure if you've guessed yet, Daniel, but you and I are the last two elder descendants. And I plan to use you to end this curse today," Kirk proclaimed, brandishing a long blade from inside his jacket.
The witch gave a throaty chuckle, "Go ahead and kill him, I only need one descendent to keep the curse going."
It was Kirk's turn to laugh, "How very wrong you are." His hand moved in a blur, burying the knife in her heart before she could react.
"You fool," she gasped, clutching at the hilt. "I cannot be killed, not with the oak still standing."
"Ah, but you can if you're an elder descendent," Kirk growled. "Your arrogance blinded you to the truth. The curse worked but not in the way you imagined. The three elders that betrayed you? One of them had a bastard child, a daughter."
"No," she whimpered, realization sinking in.
"Oh yes," Kirk gloated. "You cursed yourself, and now your revenge ends. There will be no survivors today."
A bullet found the space between her eyes.
Kirk moved quickly over to Daniel, "I lied, you know. I used my own blood first, hoping yours might be accepted. I needed to trick her and the oak. You're not the third descendent." He pointed to the side, "He is."
The newcomer spoke softly as he approached, his tone pleading, "We need you to kill us both to end this."
Daniel's eyes burned. He knew Kirk had truly used him and for his depravity, no less. They were never friends, and that truth cut deep. But his anguish quickly turned to fury, something Kirk had surely counted on.
Bitter tears streamed down his face as he snatched the gun from Kirk's outstretched hand and angrily pulled the trigger.
Three. Wretched. Times.
The weapon slipped from Daniel's grasp as his lifeless body sagged to the ground.
The absolute silence in the wake of the gunfire was a welcome reprieve. But as minutes stretched on, the quiet began to feel ominous. The forest held its breath, watching and waiting.
Then a low hum began.
It was a chilling, depraved melody.
The oak was claiming its bloody offerings.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters
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