Dark. Cold. Confining.

Fragmented shadows, flowing, congealing like ink in the cracks and crevices of the rock, reaching out grasping tendrils like a plant striving to reach the sun. Eyes, opening for the first time in years, reflecting flickering witch-light in their depths, discerning shapes and textures in the darkness around them, picking out faint rays of light filtering in from somewhere high above.

Something was stirring in the darkness. And it was hungry.

"Oh, Miranda, there are some absolutely lovely flowers over here!"

Miranda looked up from her book, only slightly interested in whatever strange flora Marion had found this time. She would have been quite happy reading in her patch of sunlight for the remainder of the trip, but it was far easier to humour her younger friend than to ignore her. With a long-suffering sigh, she got to her feet and joined Marion.

"They are pretty, aren't they?" she said, running a gentle hand over the dainty purple flowers the other girl had found.

"Of course! Do you think we should bring some back for the other girls?" Marion was already gathering up some of the plants, not waiting for a response. Miranda looked over at the other two girls, Irma and Edith, who were both napping in the warm sunlight.

"Oh, let's not wake them just yet. It isn't even noon; we will have plenty of time to pick flowers before we leave."

"Today is a beautiful day, isn't it? So calm…" Marion went back to picking flowers, blissfully unaware of the shadow lurking just beneath the surface of that beautiful summer's day…

Clawed hands reach up out of the rock, drifting like cloud-shadows over the ground, slowly dragging the fluid, shifting shape out of the depths where it had slumbered for so long… Pale, burning eyes turn away and vanish, closed, trying to block out the sunlight, blinding after the darkness of the caverns beneath the earth. Wicked teeth are bared in a pained grimace, the light lancing deep into the consciousness of the thing like a white-hot needle. It turns back to its hole, hunger gnawing away at it, driving it along on the hunt as its form grew indistinct once more.

Where had those girls wandered off to?

Miss McCraw had been searching for half an hour already for the four girls, and she was getting quite sick of it. They should know better than to wander away from the rest of the group without supervision, they were none of them stupid.

A bush rustled to her left – she spun around to face it, suddenly on edge. There was nothing there, but something felt wrong. The birds had stopped singing, and the gentle breeze that had just been ruffling her hair had died. There were no insects humming in the grass.

A sound – there – to her right this time. She whirled to face it; half convinced it was the four missing girls playing a horrible trick on her… but the lack of noise…

Behind her this time! She opened her mouth, prepared to give the miscreants the scolding of their lives – and stopped mid-breath.

A kookaburra's mocking cackle rang out through the trees.

The small animals are too quick – it has grown slow in its slumber; too slow to catch the brightly coloured birds that flew from their nests at its approach. Too slow to follow the tiny lizards back to their burrows in the rocks. But this new prey was standing still, oblivious to it as it draws itself up out of the shadows of the soil, solidifying into existence, claws outstretched, jaws gaping and dripping saliva from razor teeth, eyes burning with primal hunger.

It turns; this funny, soft creature with the strange, rippling pelt. Frozen like the rocks surrounding it, mere feet away from it. One of the too-quick birds let its raucous call ring out – a fitting death knell.

Claws lash out – teeth snap shut like a steel trap – blood flies through the air, to be caught by drifting tendrils and lapped up like cream – not a drop wasted. Bones crunch, shattering between its jaws like glass, swallowed down in a flash.

With the edge taken off its hunger, it sinks back into the ground. The clearing is silent, with not a pebble out of place to show what has just taken place.

The kookaburra wings its way silently back to its nest.

"Marion, wait for me, please?"

Miranda scrambled up the rocky slope, her skirts hitched up around her knees. She had left Irma and Edith asleep when Marion decided to start exploring on her own – none of them should wander off alone.

"Hurry, Miranda! I want to see all I can before Miss McCraw takes us back to the others!"

Marion laughed, following a narrow trail worn through the grass and rocks, weaving back and forth. A small black wallaby bounded away, disturbed from its grazing by her passage. Miranda struggled after the other girl, puffing, her face red with exertion. Where Marion got her boundless energy from, she did not know.

It follows the sounds of laughter and the smell of tantalising food to a larger clearing, full of the strange creatures. Their fur is all different colours, and one, larger than the rest, seems to be barking orders. They seem very organised, a much more difficult type of prey than the lone, wandering creature it had sampled earlier. Hungry, yes, but that hunger has been tempered with the wiles of a predator after its first meal. It retreats back into the dark hollows in the rock, content to look for easier prey.

It flows smoothly between shadows, darkness within darkness, the only herald of its approach the sudden absence of the native creatures, their senses much more attuned to instinct than the slow, fleshy ones. Witch-light eyes take in everything, every obstacle, every possible meal. It fragments away from the shadows of a deep pit and a large boulder, unnatural hearing picking up soft, gentle breathing from one – no, two creatures. Unmoving, unawares. Perfect.

Its head rises out of the dirt and grass of the clearing, followed shortly by the wicked claws and the rest of it. The small tendrils of shadow ebb and flow like water around it, twisting like snakes, thirsty for spilled blood. Two of the same creatures from before – a banquet laid out on a patchwork blanket. Those gaping jaws yawn open, the blood caked talons reaching forwards…

"Look! Look! You can almost see the other girls!"

"Marion, lets go back. I'm sure they're getting worried about us, we have been gone for hours!"

"Oh, have we really been gone that long? I suppose we should go back, Miss McCraw is going to be absolutely furious with us, won't she?"

Miranda shook her head in resignation. She tugged Marion back down the narrow wallaby track by the arm. "We really must hurry. We left Irma and Edith asleep; I hope they don't mind terribly…"

"I'm sure they won't mind – they might be upset we let them sleep the day away, though."

Marion grinned and ran on ahead, shouting. "Irma! Edith! Wake up!"

Miranda just sighed. She was beginning to wish she had joined Irma and Edith for their afternoon nap…

Noises echoed down the hill – loud, cheerful utterings that snapped it out of its stupor. There appears to be an infestation of those strange, juicy creatures… another one runs down the slope, joy shifting to confusion, then consternation.

"Irma? Edith?"

The words mean nothing to it – its hunger is almost satiated. The two had put up no resistance. They were fleshy and soft, and shreds of their rough coat were still caught between its teeth. The newest arrival steps into the small clearing, treading unwarily. It stirs again, those serpentine limbs rising out of the grass, ready to strike. Its eyes gleam, concealed in the shadows beneath a boulder, shaped like the head of an eagle.

"Miranda! Irma! Edith!"

The creature has noticed its looming demise, then. Worry is replaced by panic – its noises become shrill, it begins to turn back the way it had come. But the tendrils are faster. They whip forward, wrapping around the fleeing thing, gripping, strangling. The vicious jaws rise up from the shadows – the thing is screaming, terrified. The claws follow, the tendrils drawing the struggling prey towards them, ready for rending, ripping, tearing – the screaming stops, choked off in a gurgle of blood.


… Another one?

"Marion! Marion! Oh my God… Marion!"

Miranda was frozen, her limbs paralysed by the horror of what she was seeing in front of her. It couldn't be real – oh God, it couldn't be!

Marion was held tight in the grip of – something. Its form was indistinct, blurring from one shape to another. A giant water bird, its hooked beak lined with fangs, dripping bloody drool that was lapped up by shadows dancing around its feet like demons. A hulking, furred shape, like the large dog kept by the man next door to the school, eyes burning with a bright blue flame, claws buried deep in the flesh of her dear friend. A pillar of black fire, tongues of flame enveloping the pale figure in its grip, eyes a flickering patch of light against the dark. Then…

Something not even remotely human, with a toothy bill and webbed talons, its hide scaly and rough, a wide, triangular tail sweeping behind it. Even as she watched, it lowered that fanged mouth to Marion's level, and ripped her head clean off her body. Blood rained down, was devoured by the twisting mass of shadows. Miranda couldn't take any more. She screamed shrilly, brokenly, and fled.

It watches the hysterical creature leave, unconcerned. The rest of the meal it eats in peace, save for the snapping of bones and the bubbling blood. Sated and sleepy, it disappears in the dimming light, sinking through the shadows and soil to the deep recesses from whence it came, to sleep until the hunger overwhelmed it again. Those witch-bright eyes close, the shadows disperse like ink, filling the small hollows and cracks where man has never stepped.

Nothing was ever recovered from that fateful picnic. Miranda was found shortly after the traumatic event, cowering in a small cave, trembling all over. She could recall nothing of the attack; it was as if it had never happened – but she continued to suffer from recurring nightmares, the subject of which she could not remember in the mornings. The blanket Irma had been carrying was retrieved, but apart from a small dot of what may or may not have been blood, it proved nothing. There were no clues, no bodies, no records to confirm what had happened. To this day, the mystery of Hanging Rock remains just that, a case unsolved, until the next time the forgotten shadows from the dawn of the world begin to stir again, hungry for blood...

Short story written for my creative writing folio in English class. The task was to write an alternate ending to Picnic at Hanging Rock, despite the fact that none of us had read the story, and maybe one in the class had seen more than the trailer for the film. So this was written with no background knowledge whatsoever, and with a generous inflow of Lovecraft and Vampire: Requiem. The recommended word limit was 500 words. Oops. It should now be obvious to all which country I live in, too.