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The Witch's Troll by Sue Babcock

Kala swept the light upward as a rumble deep within the cave startled her. Stumbling, she crashed to the floor, her flashlight bouncing out of her hand and rolling away, and blackness enveloped her. She crawled on her knees, searching, but felt only branches and oozing mud that seeped through her jeans and left her knees cold.

With her face inches from the floor, a hideous odor demanded her attention. She gagged and covered her mouth and nose with a muddy hand as a stench like rotting food overwhelmed her. She stretched her other hand out further, certain that her flashlight hid nearby in the dark, just out of reach. He fingers slid over slippery mud until she touched cool metal, her flashlight. She switched it on and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the light. Her scream echoed through the chamber, choked off by the bile rising in her throat.

Her search had to end like this, but the reality of the scene before her caused her body to shake. She wrapped her arms across her chest, trying to still the shivering. Beneath the twigs and branches, bones and flesh littered the floor.

She scrambled to her feet and staggered, her heart thudding and her stomach twisting. As she breathed through her mouth, she scrambled backward out of the cave. The daylight stunned her eyes and her head pounded as she spread her arms wide for balance and tiptoed across the rickety bridge, a makeshift job spanning a narrow ravine in front of the cave.

Water rushed through the streambed far below. She squinted; bits and pieces of trash, out of place in the pristine woods, covered the sides of the ravine. The debris had new meaning now; when she'd crossed the bridge earlier in the day, she'd assumed thoughtless picnickers had left it. Rotten orange peels and yellowed paper mixed with shards of bones. A piece of cloth caught her attention, light yellow with clusters of brown horseshoes. Her feet slipped as she gasped at the sight. She wavered, caught herself, and scurried the rest of the way across the bridge. The image of the cloth burned in her brain. It matched the favorite shirt of Stefan, her son's best friend.

The townspeople had spent months searching after the first child disappeared. When the second child vanished, they searched the hills to the east, certain the child thief would seek refuge in the deep valleys and wooded glens. She and her son continued long after others gave up. And just two weeks ago, a third person vanished, Stefan. Her son was devastated.

Day after day, they'd hiked through the hills, then moved their search to the deep forests far beyond the north end of town. She always carried her phone and her hunting knife, but they found nothing more dangerous than an occasional bear or bobcat or snake. Her son started back to school two days ago, and still she hunted, now alone. Perhaps the days and weeks and months had made her complacent, but she preferred her solo searches to the noisy, unorganized group-searches of the past.

Today she'd followed an old game trail that lead deep into the forest. The trail had grown faint, and she spent the morning tracking it through rocky outcroppings. The trail led her upward to where the earth beneath her feet turned soft from yesterday's rain, and she saw footprints like none she'd ever seen before. She followed them to the bridge. Silence surrounded the area, a silence so deep she imagined every nearby animal had fled. Her discovery today gripped her mind and tightened her throat. The animals hadn't fled, they'd been eaten. And now the creature had turned to human flesh.

She couldn't give this news to others, especially not her son, over the phone. She climbed in her car and sped toward town. * "I found it," she said as she sat down next to her son, Jared, who drank a milkshake at the counter of the town's only café. "It's up in the hills. It's got to be the beast's lair."

Every eye in the room turned toward her and stared, forcing her to look down at her clothes and arms covered in brown sludge. She reached up to her hair and smoothed her frizzy curls down with her hands. A look at her hands and she guessed she'd spread the mud even further. She wiped her hands on her muddy jeans. With a sigh, she tucked her hands into her armpits.

"Whoa, slow down, Kala," said Keith. He had been the quarterback back when he and Kala had been in high school, but his muscular large frame had turned to fat in the intervening years. "You're a mess. Maybe you should clean up first. We've searched those hillsides from one end to the other. Ain't no caves with bones in them up there. You sure you're not just having a nightmare?"

"Dammit, Keith, it may be okay with you that we're being hunted like rabbits, but it's not okay with me. While you and your buddies here have been enjoying Marie's coffee, I've been out looking."

Kala took a breath and placed her hands on the counter. She pressed her lips together, knowing she couldn't risk alienating these men. She needed their help to search the woods.

"Three kids've gone missing," said Victor, who sat next to Keith. "That hardly means we're being hunted."

"I know, I know." Kala forced her tense shoulders to relax. "But I think we should look again. And I think it should be soon."

"Okay, Kala. Give us a few minutes." Keith and Victor drained the last of their coffee and motioned to three other men to join them.

Kala turned to a teenage boy. She looked into his hazel eyes that reminded her so much of her husband, a husband who'd disappeared three years ago. Everyday, Jared looked more and more like his father. Dishwater blond hair, a ski-jump nose and the beginnings of shoulders that would grow and expand until they were broad and muscular. The thought of losing him kept Kala looking.

"Stay here, Jared," she said. He nodded his head, his eyes narrowed, his face wrinkled into a frown. * Victor staggered out of the cave and vomited.

"She's right, you know," he said as he wiped drops of vomit from his lips and spat on the ground. "Something's hunting us."

The other four men nodded, their eyes wide, their faces pale, rifles held ready.

"Fan out," said Keith, "we're going to find the sonavabitch."

The men circled the cave and the bridge in an ever-widening search. Kala paired with Keith and together they checked behind every brush and tree. They hiked through dry streambeds and prickly bushes, watching and listening. They could hear the shouts of the other men but nothing else. No birds scolded from the trees, no insects buzzed, no small lizards or chipmunks rustled. Only the footprints that had led Kala to the cave in the first place, larger than a man's, barefooted and as wide as they were long, hinted at the beast they sought.

A scream pierced the woods' silence and two more shrieks followed. Kala raced towards the noise, Keith close behind her. Three men stood in a clearing about a hundred yards from the cave opening, and as Kala entered the glen, one of the men crumpled to the ground, his face ashen. Despite the cool air, sweat beaded his face. Branches rustled overhead. Kala squinted and looked upwards. The body of the fourth man, blood flowing from deep gashes, disappeared into the canopy. The blood dripped down the branches and onto the ground, soaking into the carpet of dead leaves.

An unseen force dragged the body through the leaves. Kala covered her mouth, stifling a scream, when the force ripped an arm off and threw it at them. As the body disappeared into the shadows, she saw a huge face with tusks protruding beneath its nose and from its forehead, and with sharp teeth exposed in a grin that did not extend to its eyes, hazel eyes that seemed too small for its large, round head. The eyes drooped downward, almost as if a sadness it couldn't control haunted them. The hideous man-like creature, monstrous and misshapen, hunched-backed and big-eared, turned to face the four men and Kala, then rose up and howled.

Kala sank to the ground. She rubbed her face then looked at the four men.


"Well, I say we should turn this over to the state police, maybe even the National Guard," Keith said. The arguments filled the small café with shouting.

"And I say we should go after the creature ourselves. Go ahead and make your report. But let's get some of the other guys together and hunt it down," Victor said.

Kala watched the debate rage. Sweat poured from her face as she remembered the cave. She wiped her face with her sleeve and rubbed her palms on her jeans. She closed her eyes. The vision remained. Skulls, so small, delicate almost. Shredded flesh, mutilated bodies. A shiver ran down her back.

They'd been arguing all night. The sheriff sat among the men in the café and listened without saying a word.

She rubbed her eyes, nudged Jared and they rose from their booth. In her car, she rested her head on the steering wheel and tried to think.

"What should we do?" Jared said.

Kala wrapped her arm around Jared and pulled him over next to her.

"I think I know someone that might help," she said. "But you need to stay here."

"No, Mom. This is my fight as much as yours, if not more. Let me go, please. I can help, I know I can."


The dirt road wound through hills and up cliffs. Kala clenched her teeth. Twenty years ago, the last time she'd visited Galina, the old sorceress had told her never to return. Galina had shrieked her hatred and fury.

Kala had freed a man bewitched by Galina. She and Taurean escaped only because he knew the location of the portal between the mortal world and Galina's world. A tear in the fabric of space and time.

For twenty years, she'd stayed away. She wondered if the witch still lived. She wondered if the tear still existed.

Her heart hurt as she remembered Taurean, the man she'd married a year later. Jared's father. The man who'd disappeared three years ago.

The dirt road ended in a tangle of vines and bushes. Kala and Jared slung their packs over their shoulders and hiked deep into the shadows. The sun disappeared and a green light filtered through the overhead leaves. Fallen trees blocked their path and they clambered over them as large beetles scurried away. Thick vines choked the faint path, no more than a game trail traveled by deer and wolves. Kala puffed and panted as they climbed hills and slid into riverbeds, and sloshed through puddles and streams. Still the trail pulled her forward.

A flash of light appeared before them. It flickered as they dodged around trees, growing brighter and steadier until it consumed their vision. A single vertical line, as bright as the sun. Kala's heart hammered and her head pounded. Could she do this? Should she do this?

Kala's eyes squinted against the light.

"What is it, Mom?" His voice trembled and sounded hoarse as he held his hand up, shading his eyes from the glare.

"A tear - in the fabric between worlds. We're going have to pass through to the other side. I've been there before, a long time ago. We can survive, but you must do what I say, exactly, no hesitation."

She looked over at her son. He nodded. He grew taller, it seemed, every time she looked. More determined. More mature. He'd told her of his visit to the parents of Stefan just last week. He cried with them as the mother told of her son's love of the trees and of wild places. Jared had talked about their last camping trip when he and Stefan had hiked far into the woods north of town, following an old trail. They imagined Indians hunting for game and Stefan wanted to walk even further into the whispering woods. But Jared resisted. The further they walked, the quieter the forest became, until its silence spooked him. Stefan coaxed, but Jared held firm.

Jared had consoled Stefan's parents and told them he would never stop looking for whatever had stolen their son. He hadn't quit, and now she'd found a lair deep in the forest along the same trail her son and his friend had hiked so recently.

Her discovery of the cave and the memory of the hideous shredded bodies proved that Stefan and the other two hadn't just vanished. Something was out there. Something vicious. Something that ate humans.


The trip through the tear hurt worse than Kala remembered. She sat on the ground, catching her breath as pain flooded her mind and her vision blurred. Jared sat next to her, his arm around her shoulders, and she could hear his panting, but he seemed fine. She took a deep breath and her vision cleared.

"We'd better get moving," Kala said. She gripped a silver locket hanging around her neck. "If we stay on this path, this locket will protect us. It was a gift from your father. You'll need to hold onto me so it'll protect both of us."

Kala gripped the locket in one hand and Jared's hand in her other. She took a deep breath and stood up.


A howl, like the wind or a beast. Kala looked up from the ground where she searched for the path.

"That's her," she said. "That's Galina. She knows we're here. Stand still, and whatever happens, do not leave the path and do not let go of me."

The howl grew louder, and Kala and Jared crumpled to the ground. They clung together. Kala shivered and squeezed her eyes closed.

"I told you never to come here again or I'd kill you." A voice Kala had hoped she'd never hear again cackled in her ear. Kala opened her eyes and gripped Jared's hand tighter. Galina, her black hair flying wildly about her head, her silver robes flowing behind her, floated above the path in front of Kala and Jared.

"Did you bring me your firstborn? How nice. Let me look at him." Galina grasped Jared by the hair and pulled him up. Kala wrapped her arm around Jared's shoulder.

"No, Galina, he is not for you. That was never part of the deal." Kala clung to Jared.

"Oh, but he is so pretty. I think I'll keep him."

Jared stood to his full height and looked Galina in the eyes as he wrapped his arm around his mother's waist.

"No, I stay with my mother. Where she goes, I go."

A shriek filled the air. Galina soared into the treetops and around the trees and descended back to the trail.

"Well, Kala, if not him, what? What do you want? What did you bring me?"

"I brought you Taurean's locket. If you help us and let us leave, you can keep the locket. I would never be able to return. And the locket will help you mend the tear. No one from my world would be able to cross ever again."

Galina reached out as if to grab the locket from Kala, rip it off her neck. A crackle, a spark. Galina jerked her hand back.

"You know you can't touch it until I remove it."

"What do you want?" Galina asked.

"I want to know about the beast in our world that is hunting us. I want to know how to return him to your world."

Galina screamed. Her mouth opened wide, a hideous maw that stretched from her hooked nose to her sagging breasts. The darkness inside sucked the light from the day, until blackness shrouded the woods and the trail. The howl screeched through the forest and echoed off the distant hills. Galina flew upwards. Her body expanded until it filled the sky above them with blackness.

"What makes you think he's one of mine." The harsh roar echoed through the dark skies.

"I saw his eyes, Galina. You stole my husband, my Taurean, and brought him here and used your wicked magic on him. He's now a troll so hideous no one but you would ever want him. Then you returned him to shred our world," Kala said. Jared gasped. She gripped his waist as she felt his knees buckle.

"You lie. I didn't send him back. He wouldn't live here. He wouldn't leave your world. He couldn't leave you. I cannot bring him back." Galina shrank back to her human form. Light again filtered through the leaves.

"Tell me how to rid our world of him." Kala hugged Jared tight against her.


Kala stacked wood against the rickety bridge. Its timbers were rotted and dry. Missing cross slats left gaping holes. The bridge shook and shuddered as she walked across it. She touched a match to the kindling and Jared fanned the flames until the blaze engulfed the bridge and spread outward into the forest. The fire filled the air with acrid, stinging smoke, making her cough and her eyes water. She pulled on Jared's arm and they fled to the firebreak they'd prepared.

A shape appeared in the smoke. Twelve feet tall, it ducked as it stomped out of the cave, its width filling the cave opening. Long arms dangled at its side and short legs bowed outward. It lumbered through the smoke, wiping its eyes and coughing. Kala gasped and Jared clutched her hand and squeezed until it hurt. She stared at the troll, holding her breath, her heart slamming against her breast.

Galina had cast a spell on two pinecones. Kala and Jared watched as Galina pulled the cones from a tree and took them back to her shack. The simple wood hut sat at the bottom of a narrow box canyon. Canyon walls stepped downward and in each tier, curled and blackened plants grabbed at Kala. She brushed them off, shuddering and holding tightly to Jared's hand, and followed Galina down a twisted path.

A black cauldron of viscous liquid had bubbled over a fire. Galina scurried into her shack and brought out jar after jar of grey, brown, and black powders. She threw a pinch or a handful from each jar into the cauldron, muttering and screaming unintelligible words. The fire blazed brighter, towering over them and the heat scorched Kala's face. Galina hurled the pinecones into the vat. The fire died. The cauldron flashed silver. Galina reached in and pulled the pinecones out. They'd turned a hideous shade of dark yellow and had become dense and heavy.

Kala and Jared had taken the pinecones and rushed back along the trail to the tear where they'd entered Galina's world. After Jared safely passed through, Kala unclasped the locket and pressed it against her heart. She kissed it and as soon as she laid it on the ground, the clouds swirled black above her and the wind began to howl. She could hear a cackle above the wind and she knew Galina approached to collect her fee. Kala took one last look at the locket and pushed her way through the tear. Minutes later, the tear slammed shut and the sound echoed through the trees. Gasping, Kala'd grabbed Jared's hand and they ran back to her car. She hadn't dared to look back.

The pinecones now nestled in her pack, wrapped in cloth. The cones would destroy the troll, Galina had said, but the cones had to touch the troll's body.

Kala and Jared huddled behind a rock, watching the troll approach. As long as it stayed in the smoke, they could see its shape. It could become invisible if it left the smoke.

"Mom, let me cast the cone," Jared said.

"No, we've already discussed this. I can't put you in that position. I can't make you responsible for our lives."

"Mom, I have a good arm, I know I can hit him before he leaves the smoke."

"No, that's final. Shush, he's getting closer."

Kala unwrapped one of the heavy cones and stood up. The troll spotted her and scurried faster towards her. As she drew back her hand, the troll lifted his arm. A crow appeared from the forest and attacked Kala's arm. The pinecone fell far to the left of the troll. She swore. The troll strode closer. She saw drool drip from its mouth, and hazel eye, Taurean's eyes. She knew this had once been her husband and she stood frozen as it approached.

Before she could stop him, Jared rushed from behind the rock and dashed toward the yellow cone. He scooped it up. The troll roared and, with surprising quickness, rushed towards Jared. Kala screamed for Jared to flee but was too late.

The troll grabbed Jared by the arm and lifted him off the ground. He gripped Jared with one hand and wrapped his other monstrous hand around Jared's arm. The troll pulled until the arm cracked as Kala screamed and covered her eyes.

A sound forced her eyes open. The troll's sharp teeth bit into Jared's arm and blood dripped down its face as it peered with its hazel eyes toward Kala's tree. It reached up with one hand and wiped its mouth, smearing Jared's blood across its face. Kala vomited and gasped. The taste of bile burned her throat. Panting, she removed the second pinecone as the troll slung Jared under its arm. The pounding of her heart echoed in her ears, but Jared's screams echoed louder.

She pulled her arm back as Jared fumbled with the pinecone in his uninjured hand. It dropped to the ground and landed on the troll's foot. A bright light flashed, followed by a thunderous boom and a cloud of orange smoke. The troll roared in pain and dropped Jared. As Jared crawled toward her, Kala held her breath and threw the second pinecone, but the troll dodged and it bounced on the ground. The troll hobbled away into the forest.

Kala could either race after the troll or tend to Jared. Her mind buzzed. She couldn't lose Jared, her son, her life. But she couldn't leave the troll to kill again.

She rushed over to Jared. The wound on his arm still leaked blood. She whipped out a rag from her bag, and her fingers shook as she bound his arm. She placed his head on her lap, his face pale against the streaks of blood, his eyes closed. She felt for a pulse; his heart still beat. She wiped the blood from his face and smoothed his hair away from his eyes.

His eyes opened and she gazed into the familiar hazel eyes.

"Did you get it?" he asked, his voice a faint whisper.

"It got away," she said.

"You've got to go after it. It can't be allowed to live. You've got to, Mom." Jared struggled to sit up.

"Jared, you're hurt. I'll take you to town and then get help to chase down the troll. I don't know if I can destroy it myself. Its eyes. Taurean's eyes. They're just like yours."

"It's not father, it's a monster. It's Galina's monster. It'll get away. I'll be okay. Get it, please, Mom, for me." Jared gasped for breath.

Kala studied her son's face: white, sweaty, but his muscles were tense, his lips pressed together. She looked down at her shaking hands and nodded.


The troll hobbled in front of her. His heavy steps shook the ground. She could smell him from where she hid. He reeked of spoilage and mold. He faded in and out of view, as if his injury affected his ability to stay invisible. The pinecone had mangled his foot and blood pooled with each step. Kala darted silently between trees and around rocks, the second pinecone tucked into her jacket pocket.

A twig snapped and Kala froze. The troll turned as she ducked behind a rock and glared in her direction. She held her breath. Hazel eyes. How can she destroy it? This was Taurean. Jared's father. I would've given my life for him.

"It's not Father." Jared's voice echoed through her mind. "It's Galina's monster."

Jared was right; she had to kill it. The troll turned away and, gulping for air, she slipped through the trees. She circled around in front of it and looked for a place to hide.

A bent dead tree, like a finger beckoning her, promising her the cover she sought, protruded from the hard ground. She watched the grotesque troll approach. She saw the mutilated foot, torn flesh, exposed bone, blood still dripping. She crept closer.

"My last chance," she said to herself. "Now or never."

Again, she grasped the heavy pinecone. In the past few minutes, its dark yellow color had faded to yellow-gray. The magic was weakening. She drew her arm back and waited for the troll to walk closer.

She peeked out from behind the tree. The troll saw her and roared, shaking the leaves. Its mouth opened wide, exposing its sharp teeth, as it expelled its breath in a howl. She trembled, took a deep breath, and steadied herself.

Its eyes stared at her as the pinecone left her hand. It sailed through the air, over brushes, and threaded a path between trees. Hazel eyes opened wide. A tear dripped down the hideous face. A twin tear trickled down her own cheek. The troll vanished and Kala's stomach lurched. She heard a dull thud. Then silence. She held her breath.

Kala cursed. "It's a dud," she said to the forest around her.

A thunderous roar ripped through the trees and knocked Kala down. She staggered to her feet and ran as the troll's flesh and bones rained down around her.


Kala stroked Jared's face. His eyes blinked opened and focused on her, coughing a bit, and he tried to sit up. She held him down with a gentle push.

"Mom, you're alive. Did you find the troll?"

"Oh, yeah. He won't bother anyone again, I promise." She breathed a deep sigh, thanked the 911 operator, and lowered her phone into her lap as she heard sirens approach.