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Hic Sunt Dracones[]

The fetid air of the fall cypress trees permeated every inch of the swamp, the ungodly stench painfully reminiscent of skunk. It was without a doubt the worst time of year to be visiting Big Cypress, but Skye had insisted, and now Oliver was hiking through the middle of the most foul-smelling place he'd ever visited. And the flies! Christ, they were relentless. Even the repellent didn't do shit against these obscene insects. There must have been thousands swarming around them.

Of course, it wasn't all bad — every moment he could spend with the one person he truly loved was a good one, even if they were traversing through an uncharacteristically disgusting part of the Floridian wetlands. Oliver clutched his camcorder and aimed it at the dark tree trunks around him. The trees cast a long shadow across everything, and the light filtering through lent an air of beauty to the scene. But he couldn’t just forget about the unpleasant parts.

“How much further?” he found himself asking. Of course, he didn’t exactly want to sound impatient, but in actuality, that’s exactly what he was.

Skye just turned around and shrugged her shoulders. “I dunno,” she said. “Didn’t decide.”

Oliver sighed and adjusted his backpack. He didn’t know how Skye could tolerate all these bugs, and the stench, and the ridiculous humidity — or maybe she didn’t, but she was just doing one hell of a job acting as though she did. But Oliver had always been an anxious guy, a worrier, and the knowledge of what lived in Big Cypress preyed on his mind the whole time. Cottonmouth. Gators. Bears. Anything big and dangerous he could think of was almost certainly there. And his anxious brain naturally jumped to the worst-case scenario at every corner. This was a shitty idea. Really, it was. Shouldn't have let Skye sweet-talk him into wading through a fucking swamp. He longed to be back in the cabin, the only part of Big Cypress he actually liked, drinking hot cocoa and watching The Sopranos for the thousandth time.

Fuck.

“You could always go back, you know,” Skye said. Oliver cursed under his breath until she added, “you know this is a circular path, right? We’ve been walking about forty minutes, and it’s another twenty to the cabin.”

Oliver shook his head, sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me that before?” he asked.

Skye chuckled. “I did, dumbass,” she teased. “About five times in as many minutes. You were too busy reading about everything that could possibly go wrong. How much juice you got left on the camcorder?”

Furrowing his brow, Oliver examined the camera. It was an old Canon EOS 6D from 2015. He’d been given it as a gift by his cousin, a girl he barely even knew. But he still kept good care of it.

“One bar,” Oliver said with a frown.

Rolling her eyes Skye walked over. “Might help if you didn’t keep it plugged in all day,” she said, taking the camera and examining it. “Probably screwed up the battery life or something.”

Oliver’s eyes drifted to some point in the swamp. He’d sort of appreciated the brief interruption from his anxious ruminations but now he was plunged straight back into them. So he tried to think of other things. More pleasant things. He tried, for just a moment, to imagine that he wasn’t in the most anxiety-inducing situation of his life. Oliver imagined that he was standing on the beach on a tropical island, watching the sanderlings and the willets going about their daily avian routines. He pictured a sunny, serene afternoon; the ocean was clean blue, lapping against the wet sand. Yes, that made him feel better. Much better.

“Come on,” Skye said, interrupting Oliver’s train of thought.

Shit.

Draping the camera strap around his neck again, Oliver scanned the fetid swamp. There was movement from every direction, incessant buzzing filling his ears. Fucking mosquitos. A thick mass of reeds and bulrushes towered overhead, an impenetrable barrier that blocked his view of the other side. Tree roots stuck out below, snake-like, threatening to slip him up if he was just a little too clumsy. But he had to keep moving, had to get back to the cabin. Get your ass moving, he said to himself, or we’ll be here all day. He shifted his heavy pack onto his shoulder and stepped forward, staying close to the trail, following Skye who looked ahead, not even bothering to glance behind. She seemed oblivious to the alligators lolling lazily along the banks of the swamp, covered in moss and algae, but Oliver most certainly was not.

With each step, Oliver became more focused on where they were headed, mentally reciting facts about cattails, palms, and cypress trees to try and distract himself. But the knowledge that a bull alligator longer than their SUV rested just twenty feet away was very difficult to push out of his mind. The atavistic fear of large, semi-aquatic reptiles was very real.

“Come on,” Skye said, as if to hurry him along. “It’ll take even longer to get back with you lingering around like that.”

That was when Oliver realized for the first time that he had been slowing down. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, uttered a breathless, “Sorry.”

Skye herself slowed down, raised an eyebrow. “You okay?”

Oliver had a good, long think about what he was going to say next. He didn’t want to sound offensive in any way, didn’t want to make her feel shitty about bringing the two of them out here.

Choosing his words carefully he said, “It’s the gators.”

Skye sniggered a little, walked over, and patted Oliver on the back. “They’re not gonna do much right now,” she said. “Unless you sit on their backs or smear yourself in pig’s blood, I doubt they’re gonna attack. C’mon.”

“Yeah,” Oliver said, more than a little unsure of that fact. “All right.”

Trying his best to steel himself, to ignore those hungry jaws with their interlocking, conical teeth designed solely to crush bone and masticate flesh, Oliver stepped forwards. Without hesitation Skye took the lead once again, though she stayed much closer to him. Maybe it was a way of reassuring him, or maybe she too was starting to get anxious about the reptiles. Oliver couldn’t blame her. He suddenly recalled how they were supposed to have one of the strongest bite forces of any living animal, and suddenly he felt even more thankful that they were staying away. He was thankful when the path started to veer away from the banks, deeper into the forest at large, away from the alligators.

Getting further and further from the swamp by the second, the two of them kept walking for a while. Mosquitoes continued to buzz around them, but the further they got from the water the fewer mosquitos reared their ugly heads. Even the heavy scent of cypresses started to dissipate. Oliver could almost bear the walk now.

“You weren’t scared, were you?” Skye asked. Her tone was half joking, half serious.

For the briefest of moments Oliver contemplated what to say. “Yeah,” he said, a little reluctant and slightly embarrassed. “To be honest, I was.”

The faintest hint of a smile crept up on Skye’s face. “Fair enough,” she said. “So was I.” She patted him on the back. “Not far now.”

Oliver was about to say something, though he didn’t quite know what, but almost the moment he opened his mouth there was a low rumbling sound to the north-east. It sounded a little like the cacophonous roar of a distant fighter jet, or maybe a clap of thunder. But neither of those made any sense — the sky was clear, and there was no sign of any aircraft in the vicinity. The sound had started so suddenly that it made no sense for it to be a fighter jet.

“What was that?” Skye asked.

“I don’t know,” Oliver said. “Isn’t that the way we’re going?”

Skye looked in that direction. “Yeah,” she said, almost breathlessly. “It is.”

Silence followed, interrupted by only the calls of distant birds. Oliver picked up the camcorder, raised it to his eyes, and looked off into the forest. He couldn’t make out anything in that direction, but he was getting a little anxious nevertheless. He exchanged glances with Skye for a moment, and he could faintly discern a slight falter in her apparent bravado. It might have been just a quirk of Oliver’s imagination, but it seemed like she was genuinely apprehensive about something. Or maybe it was just Oliver. Maybe he was freaking out, and he was projecting. But no, he was pretty sure there was something there. They stood there for a few more moments, listening, but nothing more seemed to happen.

Oliver and Skye exchanged another glance. With a sigh, the two of them kept going. The sooner they got back to the cabin, Oliver reasoned, the better. They trudged onwards for some time, then, having cleared several hundred yards of swampland behind them, finally broke through the thickets surrounding the densest part of the wetland. Though there was still a stand of old cypress trees to deal with before they were out of the swamp altogether, reeds up ahead, they were getting close.

“Be back in five,” Skye said. “I need to ... do things.”

Oliver sighed, nodded. “All right,” he said.

In the absence of Skye, Oliver found himself trying to distract himself by other means. He leant against a tree trunk, once again trying to imagine he was somewhere else. But eventually he lost interest in even that. After a few moments of just being bored, Oliver decided to have a look around and see if he could film anything interesting with what little was left. The battery would be flat by the time they got back anyway, so he figured it’d be all right to just see if he could think of anything interesting.

There it was again.

It was the low rumble, except this time it was clearer. It was loud. Guttural. There were vibrations interspersed with the call that seemed to chill his very soul. Infrasound, Oliver recalled. He’d heard about it in high school: vibrations so low that you didn’t hear them, you felt them. He’d been aware of a few animals that used ultrasound. Gators. Crocodiles. Elephants. Of course only two of those lived in Big Cypress, but it didn’t sound like any of them. Maybe he was just going mad. Maybe his paranoia was just getting to him. But no. he heard the noise again, only this time it was much, much closer. Maybe within a hundred metres or so. In the distance he heard the cracking of vegetation. It was coming from the east.

That was where Skye had gone.

Shit! he thought, panic surging through him. Whatever it was, it was close. Too close. He was rooted to the spot. Unable to move. His breathing grew heavy. Something was there. Suddenly his worst fears had been realized. The trees began to crackle and bend, contorting under the weight of something big. From the depths of the forest there was a low rumble. Like an alligator, only much, much bigger. In some unfathomable way it almost sounded angrier. And then another sound became perceptible. The sound of crunching, snapping, somewhere between someone eating a bag of chips and someone tearing off the branches of a tree. Oliver didn’t know what was going on any more.

His mind froze.

Then it emerged.

It was almost pitch-black, melding with the shadows in-between the trees, aided by rosettes like a melanistic big cat. Colossal three-toed feet powered the thing forwards as it strode through the water, staining its lower legs a weird green. Quills topped its body, vestiges of a more complex integument. From beneath enormous hornlets on its boxy skull, a pair of yellow eyes stared. Malevolent. Hateful. Pulped flesh hung from its jaws. It gnawed on its unrecognizable kill like a dog gnaws on a bone. Oliver’s brain couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing. It was a monster. Something that shouldn’t exist, not even in someone’s worst nightmares. And it was right there in front of him. In the flesh.

“What the fuck?” Oliver blurted, lip quivering, eyes wide.

His eyes flicked around for something — anything — to defend himself with. But as his eyes darted from side to side, his gaze landed on a single detail. One single detail that broke him.

In that pulped mass of flesh, he saw Skye’s mangled upper body.

Oliver screamed, threw himself backwards, gibbering madly. The monstrosity before him raised its quills and suddenly it looked even bigger, even more horrific. The eldritch utterances of the thing vibrated the ground, sent a cold shiver down his spinal column. A visceral reaction inherited from ancestors millions of years prior suddenly kicked into gear. The rational mind gave way to a pure, unadulterated, and primal terror. He stumbled away, barely restraining what would probably have been the loudest scream anyone had ever let out in this horrible, nightmarish, gut-wrenching place. The thing threw its head back. Swallowed what remained of Skye Brandt whole. And then it turned its horrific head to him. Tilted its head.

And then he fucking ran.

Oliver knew that death itself loomed right behind him. Even Skye had been temporarily forgotten. His brain was occupied by an implacable and mind-numbing fear, the sort that no living thing had felt for millions upon millions of years. The fear of being chased by something which shouldn’t exist any longer. He was dimly aware of the pain in his lungs, the strain put on legs that barely ever ran, but all of this was overridden by the primal urge to get away from this thing. In the background the sound of heavy footsteps rang out, shaking the ground, cracking vegetation. The monstrosity behind him was just as fast as him, if not faster.

For a brief moment he made the mistake of looking back.

It was there, about fifty feet behind him. Its quills stood on end. Monstrous eyes stared right into his very soul. Another involuntary scream escaped Oliver’s throat as he stumbled and clambered back to his feet. Now it was just forty feet away. The closer it got the more horrific it looked. Monstrous teeth like rail spikes protruded from its jaws, covered in gore. Panic overtook him once more. And then, there it was. The path. He skidded as he stumbled off the path, and then he started running. The monstrous thing kept coming. Barrelling towards him like a living steam train. But the end of the path was already up ahead. It was so close, so tantalizingly within reach.

Made it.

Oliver stumbled out into the midst of the cabins. Blurted. The first thing he could think to do was yell for help. The place’s occupants came barrelling out of their respective cabins.

“What the hell’s going on?” one of them asked.

Their questions were answered as the monstrous head of the thing came out from the trees. In near unison, every person there went completely still. Yellow eyes stared right into Oliver Brandt’s soul. The one who got away. The lights of the cabins seemed to keep it back.

Slowly, with a low and ungodly rumble, it withdrew.

Tree branches cracked and snapped as it slowly pulled its head into the trees. Oliver watched it go. And then it was completely gone, melding with the shadows until nothing was visible. And then there was an almighty sound from the trees. Not an infrasonic rumble. Not a low hiss. The sound of something monstrous, something unfathomably old, voicing its disdain at failing to catch this most simple of kills. For a moment Oliver just stood there. Gasping. He was dimly aware of someone calling the police.

And then he sank to his knees.

His mind started to clear. Everything started to come back. And then came the realization that he would never see Skye. He’d never see his girlfriend again. Never be able to sit with her. Laugh with her. Hold her.

She was gone.

“Hey, hey,” said one of the homeowners, a young woman who looked no older than thirty. “It’s … it’s all right. You’re gonna be all right.”

But Oliver knew he wasn’t going to be all right. The police would come in due time. They’d probably take notes, interview eyewitnesses, arrest someone who didn’t do anything wrong. He’d eventually go to therapy in all likelihood. Talk to someone he didn’t even know about the day he lost his girlfriend to a fucking monster. But it wouldn’t bring Skye back.  

“What the hell was that?” someone asked, barely audible.

Someone else spoke up. “It was a T. rex,” they said. “It was a fucking T. rex.”

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That was awsome although I would doubt the eyewitnesses identification. The hornlets reminded me of a ceratosaur or allosaur or maybe even an albertosaur.

It was more a case of "they just interrogate people to work out what happened", which to my knowledge is routine. Might have to change the wording in places. Palaeontologica (talk) 05:51, 30 August 2022 (UTC)
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