A Burning Beast
Science-Fiction / Mystery / 3000 words
When people talk of the stars, they dream of exploring fantastical worlds, encountering alien lifeforms, discovering new technologies, challenging the limits of humanity’s imagination—or perhaps of humanity itself.
And while there truly is beauty out there, there also is darkness. The kind wherein lurk monsters, wherein lie secrets we would rather not uncover, wherein hide mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Each world that men colonized brought its own new set of terrors.
Luz Azul was no exception.
And despite having been settled for two generations already, it still held many secrets.
Near the heart of the planet’s largest continent was Aspendale—a small village that prospered at its own pace and that had been quite peaceful... until one day when the village was shaken by a gruesome discovery.
The mangled, half-burnt body of an out-of-towner was found in an abandoned field.
Intrigued, Kaz Orvis—a boy of sixteen years—hurried to the scene but was barred access by the local authorities, who were still busy studying the location.
He then headed to the village inn and listened to the stories people were telling. He figured if anybody knew anything, someone was bound to talk about it there.
Soon enough, a rumor started circulating. It grew and grew until everyone was convinced that the death was due to a gnac attack.
The appearance of the wounds, the burns... all of it was consistent with the wild beast’s behavior. Some voiced doubt, because nobody had spotted one of these creatures in over a decade, but most would dismiss that argument in light of the overwhelming evidence.
Kaz went home wondering what a gnac was.
Two days later, after spending the night at a friend’s house, the boy walked back to the farm—his father owned a lot of lands, for he was the village’s largest cultivator.
As he passed near the forest, he heard a piercing scream from within. He froze, his heart beating faster, wondering what could have provoked such fear... The voice was still audible, though it sounded different now, transformed, and not so loud. Without thinking, he rushed through the trees and followed the sound.
He came to a clearing near a stream, just in time to see a jet of flames disappear into some bushes to the right, where a dark form turned and disappeared.
But his attention was quickly drawn to the squirming, writhing form on the ground. It was a woman! In agonizing pain, her mouth was still open, though no more sound came from it. Her skin was charred in some places, while in others it displayed large gaping wounds. Because of the intense heat, the bleeding had stopped, leaving dark red traces all over her body, and on the ground as well. Parts of her skin had peeled off and you could see bone underneath. One of her hands hung at an odd angle, and Kaz realized with horror that it had been half sawed off. Part of her leg seemed to have suffered the same treatment.
He looked away and retched.
Wiping his mouth, he avoided looking back at the woman and ran back to the village to get help.
It was too late, of course. The victim was long dead by the time the authorities arrived at the scene.
She was identified as Greta Grack. Her husband was the local blacksmith. He was devastated when he found out about his wife’s death. He was also furious and blamed the mayor for his lack of reactivity.
“Nobody cared for that first victim,” he yelled, “because he was a stranger... so nothing was done! Greta’s death could have been avoided! Are we finally going to do something?”
But what were they supposed to do against a creature that no one had seen in at least ten years? No one was even sure what it looked like.
Kaz had gone to the library and tried to find some information, but everything he came up with felt more like rumor and fantastical fabrication—from a fire-breathing serpent, much akin to Earth’s legendary dragons, to a demon-like creature that ate children for breakfast. After going through all the reports, the teenager wondered if this gnac even existed at all... could it have been the product of someone’s vivid imagination?
After this second death—shaken by the husband’s words—many set traps to catch the fearsome creature.
But the more Kaz thought about it, the more he felt like something was off, though he couldn’t say what exactly.
The teenager had lived in Aspendale his entire life. Many times his parents had promised that they would go on vacation... somewhere, anywhere, so long as it was elsewhere... but always the plans had been delayed, postponed, canceled for one reason or another.
Kaz was bored, tired, and longed for a change of pace.
So the next day, he decided he would investigate.
An adventure had knocked at his door!
He went back to the place where he had seen the shape, in the bushes, and headed from there deeper into the forest. After a few hours, he realized he didn’t know where he was going.
He paused and looked at the ground for tracks. Well, he knew there was a way of doing this, but he had no clue how it worked. He frowned as he stared at the dirt and rocks and branches. Shook his head, then started walking again. He’d figure something out.
But as time went by, he became worried.
What was he doing?
He had expected to find something... anything... He thought it’d be easy, that it’d become glaringly obvious within minutes. But he’d been wandering for hours now and he had a feeling he wouldn’t know how to get back.
To make things worse, it was getting cold and the sky was darkening. He didn’t have any food, either.
He berated himself for his stupidity, for not thinking things through...
Rubbing his arms to warm himself up, he sat on a jutting rock to rest and think. He might as well come up with a plan now. Better late than never.
After pondering for a moment, he decided his best course of action would be to find a cave where he could hole up for the night—since he was not likely to find his way back in the dark. It would also get him out of the chilly wind. And with some luck, he could start a fire there and keep it going. As for food, he’d try to find some fruits on the way.
Feeling somewhat better now that he had a goal in mind, he jumped to his feet and set off again.
It did not take him long to find a cave—the region was riddled with rocky hills and crevices.
After going in, he sat in a corner and took out the one device he always had on him—an all-purpose tasker that could take notes, display the time, record his voice, play his favorite songs, or even measure your heartbeat. It could also produce a flame—he had never used this feature, but he knew folks who lit their cigarettes like this.
He gathered some branches in front of him and set them on fire. He grinned as he watched the flames grow and crackle. This was actually fun.
There were a few trees on the way that he had recognized as carrying edible fruits, so he had picked some and peeled them now with a knife he always carried with him.
After he was done eating, he lay down on the rocky floor, next to the flames, and fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, an odd squeaking sound woke him. He propped himself up on a shoulder and rubbed his sleepy eyes.
On the other side of the fire was a small round creature, and it was burning.
At first, he thought the fire between them was playing tricks on him, but no...
There were flames all over its body, though they did not consume its flesh—nor did the creature seem the least bit indisposed by the phenomenon. In fact... the more he observed, the more he grew convinced that the flames were an integral part of its being. It had little blue eyes that were open wide and looked straight at him.
Kaz jumped backward in fright as he realized that this could be a gnac. At the same time, the creature jumped back as well, looking just as frightened.
The boy blinked—as did the creature—and stared in disbelief. He slowly made his way back to the fire. The creature similarly came back to its earlier spot.
They studied each other for a long time. Kaz noticed that every time he moved, the flaming beast would try to reproduce it—as best it could with what limbs it had.
Was it trying to communicate?
“Hi,” he said.
This time, the reaction was different. The gnac—for he was certain now that it must be a gnac—took a few quick steps back and blinked its eyes rapidly.
“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you. What’s your name?”
The creature just stared.
It moved back toward the fire, then slowly circled around it.
The teenager watched but didn’t move, in fear of scaring the beast away.
It came closer and sniffed at him. Then it nuzzled him affectionately.
“I like you too,” he said.
It was a strange experience to have that fiery skin touch his. It did not burn, though it felt warm. But in a nice, comforting way. The flames even felt soft.
He reached out slowly with his hand. The creature eyed it but didn’t move. He set it down on the gnac’s back and rubbed it. It closed its eyes and purred in contentment.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here, but I really should get some more sleep. You can stay if you want.”
He lay down, and the creature did the same.
They fell asleep together.
Kaz woke up thinking he had dreamt the whole thing... but no. The creature was still there, curled up against him, its flames tickling his skin. He chuckled.
He knew now that the gnac couldn’t possibly have killed anyone. This creature was harmless. He had to let everyone know.
As he rose, the creature did too, opening its eyes to look at him in expectation.
“I have to go home,” he told it. “You can’t come. Not yet, anyway. I have to tell people the truth first. Otherwise, they might hurt you.”
It tilted its head and blinked.
“Don’t worry, I’ll come back for you later.”
He walked out of the cave and looked at the sunny sky. But how was he going to get home? He knew he was lost.
All he could think of was to head in the direction he had come from... though he wasn’t entirely sure where that was.
He started toward a large tree.
After a few minutes, he heard a cracking sound behind him. He turned around and saw that the gnac was following. It paused and blinked at him. The flames on its skin were not as visible in the daylight.
“No, no, no... I told you to wait here! You can’t come, buddy. It’s too dangerous.”
The creature stared at him.
He started walking again and checked over his shoulder. The gnac hadn’t moved, but it was watching him with a blank expression.
His attention focused back on his path. If he could just recognize something, it would help...
There was a sudden ruffling of leaves on his right and as he looked, he saw the gnac shoot past him at incredible speed.
“Hey! What’s up? Where are you going?”
Without thinking, he ran after his new friend.
He couldn’t see it anymore, but he could hear it—it was making a lot of noise.
When he finally caught up with it, it was waiting for him near a stream with blinking eyes.
“Why did you run off like that?” he chided.
He froze as he stared at the water. Could it be...?
His eyes went back to the gnac that was still observing him.
“You’re a genius, buddy.”
If he followed the stream, it would likely take him back to the spot where that woman had been killed. The creature had shown him the way.
He walked up to it and petted its back.
It was raining when Kaz finally made his way back home.
He found the village in an uproar. A third body had been found, and a search party had been gathered to look for Kaz. His parents were worried sick. They berated him and hugged him at the same time, and they all cried together.
Finally, he told his story. But no one believed him. His father grew angry.
“How can you make up stories like that when we have to deal with this horror? You should be ashamed of yourself! Especially after the fright you gave us...”
And yet, the third death had occurred during the night, while he was with the gnac—wasn’t that proof of its innocence? But they wouldn’t listen to reason. They thought he had made the whole thing up... why would he do something like that? It made no sense to him.
Though he wondered if, maybe, there was more than one gnac in that forest. Perhaps he’d run into a tamer, gentler one?
But the more he thought about it, the more he grew convinced that what he had seen in the bushes had not been a gnac—it was larger, taller... closer, in fact, to a human!
That’s what had been bothering him, he realized. He had only glimpsed the silhouette, but he was sure now that it had been a man.
But how could he convince anyone?
Barely a few hours after his return, a fourth body was found—just as mangled and burned as the others.
This time, the mayor announced he was going to reach out to the government, as he felt things were getting out of hand. They were overwhelmed and could not deal with this crisis without help.
Kaz was frightened that his new friend would get caught, maybe even killed. He had to do something!
It had stopped raining now, so he went back to examine the four spots where the bodies had been found, to see if he could find any clues that might have escaped the authorities. After all, they had not looked so thoroughly once everyone became convinced it was the doing of a gnac.
He found nothing in the three first locations, but the fourth was more revealing.
Because it had rained all morning, the earth had been trampled by all those who had come and gone after the body was found.
But, further from the scene, he found some isolated footprints in the mud. They were far enough to raise suspicion. He also noticed that they had a distinctive marking: a star-shaped symbol in the center of the shoe’s heel.
He followed the tracks through the bushes, down into the valley, over a dirt path... and straight into Aspendale.
Once in the village they became harder to follow, as they were drowned by so many other prints. Furthermore, most of the roads here were made of stone. But the mud-covered star-shaped emblem had left its marking in enough spots that he could find its destination. He recognized it instantly.
This was the house of the blacksmith.
The second victim’s vocal husband.
The room was dark and quiet. It was dry and smelled of old wood and fresh rain. There was another scent here as well that the boy couldn’t quite place.
He had found an open window and had snuck into Grack’s garage. He was now convinced the man was the killer, but after the way he had been treated earlier, he knew he would need solid evidence if he wanted anyone to believe him.
Again, he was doing something rash without thinking things through. He was aware of it, this time, but what other choice did he have? The government could arrive at any moment and then the gnac’s life would be in danger.
With slow and silent gestures, he turned the tasker’s light on and looked around the room.
There was an old, disused glider that took up most of the space. It was dusty, with shattered glass. The door was unhinged, the inside a mess of broken items and discarded cloths.
Something glinted in a corner. He directed his beam there and his heart beat faster.
It was a flamethrower!
He came closer and touched it. It was still warm from recent use.
Behind it, laying on the floor, was an ax... with blood on its edges. And on the other side, a pair of muddy boots.
He lifted them and saw the star-shaped symbol.
With his device, he took pictures of all the items.
A sound of footsteps came from the house. He rolled under the glider and turned his device off just as the door opened. A switch was flicked on and light bathed the garage. He saw Grack’s feet as he walked in, rummaged through a box, took some tools out, then went back into the house. The room went dark again.
The boy waited a long moment for his heart to stop pounding. Then he slid out, crawled out of the window, and ran to the police station.
Wilton Grack was arrested that night.
He confessed to the murders, explaining that he had only wanted to kill his wife. The first and third victims were intended to cover his tracks and shift the blame on the gnac. The fourth was an unexpected witness that he had needed to get rid of.
Kaz went back into the forest the next day—though this time he was prudent enough to take a map and a compass.
He followed the stream back in the other direction... and found the gnac waiting for him where he had left it.
It stared and blinked at him, then purred in contentment.
Life didn’t seem so boring anymore, now that he’d made this new and unusual friend.
Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: from royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
Want to read more free stuff?
Sign up to The Sample for a large selection of nonfiction (and some fiction.)
For genre fiction, click the following banner.