A ringing sounds throughout the house. Old wooden floorboards creak under my feet as I make my way to the front door. Annoyed, I yank it open, only to see a young man's face red with exertion before me. His breathing is heavy and irregular. I cast a skeptical glance over at him, while he is still gasping desperately for air. A few uncomfortable seconds pass before he wrings out the first panicked words, "You... you have to help me! My friend and I..." he takes a deep breath, mid-sentence, "...were walking in the woods when he suddenly tripped and sprained his leg. Can you come with me?"
Hastily, I put on my shoes and a thick jacket while several questions babble out of my mouth, "Damn! Did he seriously hurt himself? Have you notified the emergency services yet? Where is he now?"
The young man puts a hand on my shoulder and calls out to me. "Calm down! It's not so bad! I just need you to carry him to my car."
I wince under his grip. "We shouldn't keep him waiting too long. How far is he from here? Did you call the police, or not?"
"Only fifteen minutes from here," he replies to me, relaxed. I wait patiently for another answer as I grab my cell phone and house keys, but he remains silent. I step out of my house and lock the front door behind me as I repeat my question, more forcefully than before, "Well? Have you informed him now?" I stare into the man's emotionless eyes.
Although the weather outside is nice, my face hurts from the cold. The man can't seem to find a suitable answer to my question until he finally speaks to me, "No, I didn't call anyone. I didn't think it was necessary to contact the mountain rescue." I frown and already want to protest but hesitate. Maybe he is right. If his friend only has a slight sprain, then both of us would probably be enough to drag him to his car. The young man waves his hand at me and speaks calmly, "Follow me. I'll show you where he's lying."
We walk along a narrow forest path for five minutes. The steep path quickly has me panting, and the fact that it is partly icy doesn't make it any easier. The two of us don't talk much on the way and to be honest, I don't want to get into a conversation with him. He's been acting strange the whole time. One would assume that he would be panicked or at least worried, but he shows no emotion. His glance is directed forward, and his breathing remains rhythmic. He doesn't even seem to feel the extreme cold.
The forest itself looks magical and enchanting. Snow glitters on the branches of the conifers and small snowflakes give everything a mystical atmosphere. Still, I don't feel welcome. It seems to me that no living creatures are wanted in this area. Usually birds can be heard, even next to my house, but here, everything seems to have fallen silent. And the presence of this man does not reassure me either. Why exactly did he ask me for help? There are houses closer to this forest path and there is no reason why he should be turned away there. But before I can make myself even more paranoid with worrying thoughts, the man stops abruptly.
His breath forms little ice crystals as he mumbles slurred words under his breath. I gasp over to him, "What are you saying? Are we there yet?" My gaze wanders over the frozen area. There is no sign of his friend. My suspicion grows by the second. Suddenly, the young man in front of me speaks in an awestruck voice, "Here it is. Isn't this animal magnificent? A wonder of nature." I frown, not too sure what he's talking about. Snow crackles under my footsteps as I step hesitantly beside him. At first, I can't make out anything among the spruce and larch trees, yet I can sense another presence. The feeling that we are being watched grows in me, and with it, panic. Desperately, I look at the man next to me and want to ask him what is going on, but when I see his dreamy face, my throat tightens. His eyes widen and his mouth has twisted into a disturbing smile that stretches from ear to ear. In the corner of my eye, I notice something moving. Raising my fists, I turn around, but go into a kind of shocked stupor when I catch sight of it.
A feeling of warmth and joy overflows me when I see the black hart in front of me. I can't help but adore this wonderful creature. I have never seen such a beautiful animal in all my life. The world around me blurs and the only thing that remains clear is this proud hart.
But the hart looks hungry. I absolutely must feed him. He must not starve. He must not die. Hope spreads through me as I think of the man who brought me here. A deep determination floods my body and I take a step closer to the man beside me, not taking my eyes off the creature. The beast's red eyes flicker strongly as they watch every step I take. Its gaze holds me in a trance, but I am distracted as a warm liquid flows around my hands.
Reluctantly, I break eye contact and stare at the limp corpse lying in my arms. I squeeze the man's eyes into his skull until they fully disappear into his eye sockets. My hands become soaked in blood. His head is still turned toward the stag, as if he admires this creature even after death. His smile does not disappear and his brown strands of hair stick together with almost black blood. Shock brings me out of hypnosis and I pull my thumbs out of the sticky head with a smacking sound.
Like a television changing channels, I now see the true terror behind the oh-so-beautiful veil. Several mutilated corpses litter the ground around me, coloring the snow a dark red. The cadaver of a woman leans against a tree, the intestine from her belly outstanding. Directly in front of me lies a male corpse with torn open ribcage, a wide grin over his frozen face. How could I have missed that?
With shaky breath, I turn my head again to examine the hart, but the magic that made this creature desirable is gone. Bile tries to force its way out of my mouth. Whole pieces of fur are missing from its lean body, and flesh peeks out in some places. Pieces of its skull are visible on its head and the antlers are partially broken off. With a gruesome human smile, this monster steps closer, its red eyes fixed on me.
I can hear bones breaking as it cautiously approaches. Its movements look as wrong as they could be. Its legs twist in every possible direction and its neck seems unable to support the weight of its head. I want to scream, to run away, to at least do something, but I am unable to move, as suddenly, the surroundings around me blur and the only thing that remains clear is this beautiful hart in front of me. A smile spreads across my numb face as my eyes widen.
A soft, deep voice speaks to me in my head. The words ring clear and distinct in my mind. I nod urgently to the hart and turn in the opposite direction. I trudge through the snow as if on clouds. All the way to the valley floor, a giggle and a chuckle can be heard from me. The forest around me seems more beautiful and magical than before with every step I take. The snow glistens in the sun and icicles hanging from branches flash at me as small snowflakes fall from the trees. For several minutes I walk through this dream world until, out of breath, I find myself standing in front of a strange house.
My smile slackens and my expression becomes more serious. I knock hard on the door and wait patiently. Footsteps are heard from the other side as the door swiftly opens. A slightly older man looks at me in confusion and asks, "What's up?" I feel a kind of euphoria rising inside me, but I try to suppress it. I answer as seriously as I can after a few awkward seconds.
"I need your help. My friend sprained his leg while hiking."