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Hazel crouched low and focused her camera. She had opted for the digital one, so there was the possibility that the light emitted from the viewing screen could give her position away, but she’d take that risk over shutter clicks. Mud folded around her boots greedily and she fought the urge to wrestle them free. It was as if everything in this wet, dark place was built to make her vulnerable. No, that was just fear talking. Fear has an awfully loud voice in the unfamiliar dark.

Hazel checked her focus again and eased her weight back onto her heels. All she had left to do was wait. She had seen it. No one believed her, of course. Well, nobody except for old Mr. Olsen, the town’s amateur historian, but that wasn’t much of a win. He also believed that he’d been abducted by aliens and told anyone who’d listen about a government conspiracy to collect his toenail clippings. Still, for local folklore, none was better than kooky Mr. Olsen.

“What you saw,” he said, nodding in a wise way, “was the Largruff. A great amphibious serpent that plagued the founding families in the early days of Cedar Grove.”

“Amphi-what?” Hazel had asked.

“Amphibious,” Mr. Olsen repeated. “It lives in both water and land. Frankly, I’m surprised that you saw it during the day. I thought the Largruff was nocturnal.”

“If these things have been around since Cedar Grove was built,” Hazel began, but Mr. Olsen interrupted.

“Not these things,” he said, “this one thing. Nobody ever said that the Largruff was killed, though many attempts were made. You mentioned a red diamond-shaped spot on its left cheek, see, and that distinct feature was written down in Olaf Olsen, my great great great grandfather’s journal.”

“That would make it really old,” Hazel said dubiously.

Mr. Olsen shrugged. “For all we know they live for a thousand years undisturbed. Or quite possibly they hibernate. It has been at least thirty years since anyone has reported seeing the Largruff around here, and that was in a lake fifteen miles South.”

“How would it get from Tiddum Lake to another one?” Hazel asked, her eagerness to discard Mr. Olsen’s story gaining strength.

“Mine tunnels,” Mr. Olsen answered. “Tiddum Lake was originally Tiddum mine. It flooded, killing off the half of the town dwelling at the bottom of the valley in 1912. Really, they ought to be teaching this to you kids in school. Do you at least know about the tunnels under the town square?”

Hazel hadn’t been sure how to reply. Mr. Olsen had a reputation, and it was only because she had seen… something at Tiddum Lake that she was taking anything he said as true. Still, he’d given her plenty to think about. She found a way out of their conversation and went home for supper, already making plans to sneak out after her parents were in bed.

So then, here she was, squatting in the tall grass and mud with her camera trained on the still lake. It was a fool’s hope. At half past midnight she stood on numb legs, pulled her boots free of the mud and trudged home. She decided to let it go the next morning.Whatever she’d seen, it wasn’t worth squatting in the cold and the mud all night to get proof.

“It was probably just a couple of fish jumping at the same time,” she told her best friend, Ricky, on the playground.

“Finally, you’re talking sense,” Ricky said, kicking the ball toward her lazily. They weren’t playing a game so much as trading kicks. “It’s what I’ve been saying all along,” he added.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “I know.”

She kicked the ball, but rather than going to Ricky it flew into the line of trees that edged the playground. Grumbling, she ran to retrieve it. The trees were tightly knitted together so it took a minute to wade into them far enough to reach the ball. It was dim and gloomy, and a prickle at the back of her neck made her pause and look around. There, a short distance away in the thickest part, a pair of large shimmering eyes watched her.

“Where’s the ball?” Ricky asked.

Hazel didn’t hear him as she walked at the most controlled pace she could muster back into the safety and light of the school building.

She wrestled with guilt later over not having told anyone, not even Ricky, who’d gone and fetched the ball after she failed to respond. She suspected… no, she knew that it had been the Largruff. She’d waited all night watching for it and now here it was, at her school, watching her.

That night she barely slept, though she was plenty tired. She kept hearing new noises. Noises she was sure didn’t belong outside her house. Her dreams, when she finally had them, were strange. Colors swirled and it took a while to realize that she knew the places she was seeing; she was just used to seeing them differently.

“What is this?” she asked.

Her thoughts and words were slow and sluggish. She tried again.

“What is this?”

The second time her question came out more fluidly, though not from her voice or in words that she was used to hearing. It sounded like music. The reply came back in the same way.

“This is my home,” a new voice sang.

“No,” Hazel said, realizing what she was seeing, “that’s my house.”

“Hmm,” the other voice said. “You use a different meaning of home. I see. Yes, this is where you sleep. This,” and suddenly she was looking at the whole valley of Cedar Grove, “is my home. And this.”

In an instant Hazel saw miles of dim tunnels. Immense caverns with glimmering crystals. Dry and dusty hand-hewn mine shafts glittering unseen in great private depths.

Hazel formed the question that was foremost on her mind.

“Are you going to hurt me?” she asked.

“Hurt you?” the voice sang, and she heard something between surprise and pain in its tone. “I have protected the humans living in my home since they arrived.”

Hazel remembered Mr. Olsen’s story of the mine flooding. She was about to ask about it but the answer was already forming into song.

“There was a wounded goat deep in the tunnels,” it sang. “I arrived to help it but was surprised to find that it was tied by a rope to a post, left terrified and bleeding in the black. Of course it feared me. Most creatures do. Still I tried to help, cutting it free and shooing it up the paths to the fresh air. A great thunder deafened us both and tunnels began to collapse. Water rushed in. I was not able to bring the goat to the air in time to save it. When the water finally stopped its rushing many houses were underneath.”

“Half the town died,” Hazel said.

“Half the houses died, I suppose,” the voice replied, “but the humans stood watching the waters rise from the ridge.”

“I don’t understand,” Hazel said.

“There was a boy named Tobias,” the voice said. “He helped me to understand. The men had meant to trap me in the mine. They thought I would eat the poor goat.”

Hazel could feel a sensation of hurt. It was getting easier to understand the songs now, as if the language of them was becoming more a part of her. She was about to ask a question but realized that she could pull the answer from memories. She saw the town, though not nearly the town as she knew it. The people dressed and spoke strangely, though it didn’t seem strange in the memories. She was a boy named Tobias, and no matter how he tried to plea with the adults to leave the Largruff alone, they remained convinced that it was a beast that needed killing. Attack after attack plagued her memories, from then until even recently. There had been periods of sleep, and on the last awakening, baffling changes to the world.

“You need someone to help you understand,” Hazel realized.

“Will you?” asked the Largruff.

“Gladly,” Hazel said.

“You look better,” Ricky noticed when they saw each other at school.

“I am,” Hazel said. “I’m a lot better. And I want to tell you something after school.”

“What is it?” Ricky asked predictably.

“It can wait,” Hazel said with a private smile. “It has all the time in the world.”

Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome!  Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog at http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!

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