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The Snatcher

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           "... And when she turned around, the Nantai Banshee was right behind her!" Callie sprung up from her seat and wiggled her fingers ominously. "Oooooooh!" she cried in a modulating voice.

 

            The only thing to break the subsequent silence was the crackle of the fire. "Wow, Callie," Marie began, "that was an awful ghost story."

 

            "What?" Callie responded. "That was a great story!"

 

            "It made no sense. Like, I literally couldn't follow the thread, like, at all."

 

            "It made total sense!" she retorted. "Three! Back me up here!"

 

            "I had no idea what you were talking about," Agent Three said between mouthfuls of candy. "Where did all the people that were with her at the start go? Did they die?"

 

            "They dissolved into ink when they heard the banshee scream. Didn't I mention that?" Three shook her head. "Oh." Eight raised her hand. "Yes, Eight?"

 

            "Why did theys go in the forest if theys knew there were ghost?" Eight asked (Inklish still was not her strong suit). Callie paused for a moment.

 

            "Well, because, uhh," she struggled to provide an answer until she noticed Agent Four. "Hey! Is Four asleep?"

 

            Agent Three peered into the mouth of Four's cheap anglerfish mask. "She's out cold," Three observed. While Callie fumed, Three shoved Four and woke the dozing agent.

 

            “What?” Four blearily mumbled. “Oh, yeah sure I was quaking in my boots. Did you see my mask? I felt like bobblehead with how much I was shaking.” To save the splatoon from Callie's oncoming rant, Cap'n Cuttlefish decided it was high time he spoke up.

 

            "Well, I thought it was a fine story, Callie!" Cap'n Cuttlefish announced. Callie smiled at her grandfather then stuck her tongue out at the rest of the splatoon. "In fact," he continued, "it reminds me of an old war story!" Cap'n Cuttlefish took note of the exasperation that suddenly emanated from his grandsquids. "Not one that I've told either of you." He stroked his beard. "I've never shared it with another living soul, come to think of it."

 

            "I thought you told us all your war stories," Marie said.

 

            "All the exciting and heroic ones, yes," he agreed, "but this was the only time I was well and truly terrified." That got their attention. Even the spacey Agent Four leaned in to hear his tale. He gathered his thoughts for a moment. "This all started right at the beginning of the Great Turf War.

 

            "The Great Octoweapons had just failed and the Octarians' siege of Inkopolis had just been broken. In November of that year, Inkopolis's counter-campaign was launched, and the 1st Inkopolis Army Division-- the division I was stationed in-- was sent to take Arowana Castle. From there, the Octarian capitol would be easy pickings. But between the division and the castle laid Triggerfish Forest. I'm not sure if you kids know this, but the Triggerfish Forest is densely packed with ancient oak trees. It's hard to traverse at the best of times, but it bein' November and all, there was also snow as deep as my knees. All this meant that the woods were impregnable to trucks, and the forest canopy was too dense for inktillery to penetrate."

 

            Four snickered to herself. Marie smacked her arm.

 

            "Top Bass decided that the only way we were going to take Triggerfish Forest was with inkfantry only. My brigade was sent blind into the forest first, we encountered heavy resistance and at the end of the first day we dug trenches where we stood. We were dug in for two weeks, weathering attacks from Octarians by day and trying to keep our keisters from freezing off in the cold at night. But chilly air on our tuchuses was the least of our worries at night." Cap'n Cuttlefish shuddered involuntarily. "Several soldiers went missing every night."

 

            "It's war, don't soldiers go missing regularly?" Marie asked.

 

            "That they do, but there's usually some sign of where they went." He stroked his beard. "Or a body," he added darkly. An infinitesimally small quirk of Marie's eyebrows betrayed her interest. She was intrigued, she tried to hide it of course, but her grandfather knew her too well.

 

            "It was the night of the attack when that I saw the Triggerfish Snatcher..." The campfire casted long shadows over his gaunt face. "The Squidbeak Splatoon already lost five soldiers by the day of the offensive. Only one was in the line of fire. Other splatoons were worse off, so we were chosen to lead the charge. Privates Beakney, Inkton, Shellendorf, and Kensa were assigned to my fire group--I was a sergeant at the time.

 

            "It bitter cold that night, the kind of chill that cuts to your cuttlebone. My lieutenant mentioned it was unusually cold for the area. Some might say supernaturally so." He couldn't help but smile beneath his beard; a few light exaggerations here and there wouldn't hurt. "I've never put much stock in ghosts, myself, but there was just something about the frigid air that gripped all my hearts in an icy vise. It didn't help either that the canopy was so thick that not even the tiniest ray of moonlight could pierce through to the forest floor. All we had to guide us was our own natural glows. a standard-issue compass, and my navigational skills.

 

            "'A course, my orienteering wasn't too good then. It didn't take long for us to get off course, but I knew in my gut that we were getting closer. I could tell because I heard the telltale crunch of boots stomping quickly through the snow up ahead, and they were getting closer. I ordered the splatoon to halt and we took cover behind trees, waiting to ambush our approaching foes. After two minutes, our quarry--an octoling--stumbled blindly into our trap."

 

            He rose to his feet and leveled his cane as though it the octoling were standing behind the fire. "'Hands up!' I shouted at him in Octarian, 'Where I can see 'em!'" Cuttlefish jabbed his cane forward for emphasis. "He turned to me and threw his arms onto mine, babbling incoherently in Octarian. The octoling thrust his face into mine, and by the light of our tentacles I saw him clearly. Eyes wide as saucers darted wildly from whence he came and back to me. His complexion was pallid. At the time, I assumed that he seemed so sickly because of ration shortages." Eight nodded empathetically. Cap'n Cuttlefish just then noticed that she was sitting much closer to Three than when he began retelling his tale.

 

            "'Run!' he jabbered at me, 'Run for your lives!'"

 

            "Naturally, I was taken aback by his erratic behavior, and it was Pvt. Kensa that pried him off me." He sat back down. "We couldn't afford to keep him prisoner during the attack, and there was no chance that he would give any intelligence that could be of use. So, I ordered Shellendorf--Sheldon's grandpappy--to return him to our lines.

 

            "Just as the pair disappeared into the woods, a shrill cry echoed from the direction our prisoner fled. It was unlike anything I heard during the war. There was no anger or joy behind it, only fear.

 

            "We ran to the source of the noise, all care for our original mission temporarily forgotten. Deep snow bogged us down at every step, until finally we reached a small berm that stood between us and a clearing illuminated by moonlight. After another wave of screams and indistinct shouting, I motioned for a stop." He lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. "As we crept up that berm, the cacophony from the moonlit glade became clearer. I could tell it was Octarian, but they were using words I'd never heard, mixed with rhythmic thumps of ink weaponry.

 

            "We held just below the berm's crest. The octarians' screams had become noticeably quieter. I peeked over the berm and, there, I saw it, bathed in moonlight." He paused as the memory crashed into him.

 

            "Saw what?" Callie anxiously whispered; her hands clasped together near her mouth.

 

            Cuttlefish snapped back to reality. "The Snatcher of Triggerfish Forest," he uttered. Sharp gasps sounded from around the campfire. "It stood over six feet tall, with arms longer than your legs. Its own legs were thicker than your waist is round. Its wide feet left no trace of its path through the snow, and its breath did not freeze in the frigid air. Its prodigious body was covered in dense brown fur, matted by the deep maroon of Octarian ink. A small, black-ringed tail protruded from the maned lump that served for a head. Unconscious octolings were scattered about the clearing, the snow quietly dissolving their bare skin. A suspiciously lumpy bag was suspended in several feet in the air by a rope tied to a tree branch high above.

 

            "Lying at the monster's feet was the lone remaining octoling. She couldn't have been more than seventeen years old. Absence of ornamentation on her uniform marked her as a private. She cried out for help before the monster smothered her with its pale, brutish hand. As it forced her head into the snow, it produced a knife with its other hand. The blade glinted hungrily in the moonlight. Before the knife could bite into her, the octoling wildly kicked it to the ground. Then..."

 

            "Then...?" Marie prompted.

 

            "Then," Cuttlefish continued after a long pause, "it uncovered her mouth, wrenched up that leg, and bit into her." Cuttlefish shuddered at the memory. "The poor girl's cries morphed into a wordless, ink-curdling scream as it tore off a chunk of her leg."

 

            Cuttlefish paused to gauge his audience before continuing. Callie and Agent Eight's faces had drained of color, and Callie latched on to Marie in a terrified hug. Eight did something similar to Three's arm. Agent Four looked like she was about to be sick. That angler fish mask she wore was probably going to have its usefulness as a bucket tested soon. Even the unflappable Three appeared uneasy. Only Marie seemed unperturbed.

 

            "What happened next?" Marie asked.

 

            "Well," Cuttlefish began, "I'm not sure I should continue. You squids look terrified."

 

            "But you can't leave it at that!" Marie retorted. "Did you save her? Did you scare that thing off? Did she survive?" To his surprise, the rest of the splatoon murmured in agreement.

 

            Cuttlefish hummed thoughtfully. "If you squids insist." He cleared his throat. "The monster unhooked a small club from its waist and bashed the wailing girl's head. Just above the eyes. Her screams quieted instantly, and her body went limp. The beast knelt there, tendons of deep-red ink dangling from its maw. It appeared to be mulling over what to do with the bleeding girl before it. To take another bite, or to let her bleed to death. How I could tell, I'll never know.

 

            "I'll never forgive myself for what happened next." He took a deep breath. "Pvt. Inkton rose to take a shot at the abomination. Before he could even level his Bamboozler, a loud crack burst from the monster and Inkton fell to the ground, his left arm hanging by a few strands of tendons and skin." Agent Four abruptly left the campfire circle, removing her mask as she fled.

 

            "The monster shot fire from its hands and downed him in an instant. Before its face was obscured by a veritable cloud of smoke, there was a flash of light. I could see its beady eyes. Those weren't the eyes of an unthinking beast, of a primitive brute. No, those were the eyes of an apex predator. A hunter, and we were its prey.

 

            "I dived down to help Inkton. When he was stabilized, I looked back to the clearing and the bodies of every octoling had disappeared. All that remained were puddles of ink and discarded Octo Shots. The Snatcher didn't even leave a single footprint behind." The crackle of the fire was all that filled the silence.

 

            "I managed to figure out which way to go, after that. We reunited with the friendly front and got Inkton to a medic." Captain Cuttlefish gazed into the dwindling fire.  "I can't help but wonder if I could have saved those octolings or Inkton's arm... I laid there, too terrified to even move..."

 

            "Wow, Gramps," Callie murmured, "that... that was..."

 

            "Kinda messed up?" Three offered.

 

            "The scaring?" Eight suggested.

 

            "Gross?" Four supplied as she shuffled back to the campfire, wiping her mouth with her sleeve.

 

            "A tall tale?" Marie said.

 

            "Oh, Marie," Cap'n Cuttlefish replied, feigning hurt. "You don't trust your poor ol' Gramps?"

 

            "Well..."

 

            "Baw!" he interrupted. “I could tell your gills were quakin'. But believe me, or don’t. That’s up to all a’ you.”

 

            He addressed the rest of the group, “Just keep an eye out if you ever have the misfortune to be lost within the deep of Triggerfish Woods. No one will be able to find you again in one piece if you don’t."

 

           “Now, then!” Cap’n Cuttlefish clasped his hands and rubbed them eagerly. "Who wants crabby cakes? Four, you look like you could use something to refill your belly."