I stopped and looked at the tree then, or what was left of it. Really looked at it instead of just noticing I was walking past a dead tree in the middle of a forest. It wasn’t just dead, it was blackened and twisted, as though a blast of flame had scorched it from roots to twigs and gone out in an instant. The oaks around it stood proud and unblemished. Whatever had burned this tree hadn’t touched them at all.
I walked round the dead tree, noting that the first line I’d seen marked a circle around it. When I passed, a fourth, fifth and sixth spoke radiating out from the tree, I should have seen enough to envisage the shape from above, but I couldn’t bring the elements of the image together in my imagination. My mind rejected it as firmly as my body rejected the idea of stepping into the circle in the snow.
I persuaded my feet to bring me close enough to look down on it, and saw the line sank straight through the snow to a floor of soot, as though the carpet of leaves left by the autumn had been incinerated by the same heat that immolated the tree.
As I became aware of my instinct to leave that blasphemous place, I noticed that there were no prints other than my own. No animal had risked foot, hoof or claw anywhere near the circle. The instinct that had driven them away was as strong in me as in them. The closer I got to the circle, the more I wanted to run away and never look back. Being human rather than beast, I fought my impulse and followed the circle round until saw what my whole being longed not to see.
The snow was disturbed by a flurry of bootprints that blended together, hiding the number of people who had made them. They ended in an arc just outside perhaps twenty degrees of the circle around the tree. At the front of the disturbed area were pairs of circular prints in the shape of human knees. Whoever the people were, they had walked here, knelt around the circle and left in the same direction they had come.
Through the middle of them all strode a set of prints that pressed deeper than any boot. Whatever had made them had feet twice the size of mine, formed of a broad paddle in the centre with a large toe on either side. If I pressed my middle three fingers together and spread my thumb and forefinger, I might make a print of a similar shape if a fraction of the size. I knew of no creature that walked on such a foot.
I’d seen enough.
I pulled out my phone and let out a breath of relief when I saw I had a signal.
“Emergency,” said the operator. “Which service do you require?”
“Lovecraft Division,” I said.