The Vrăjitoare of Hoia Forest

Even animals which would kill and eat humans will never have the necessary cruelty to manipulate us into leading ourselves to slaughter. That is the preserve of monsters.

While Hoia Forest in Romania is home and host to any number of alleged supernatural horrors - an infamy buoyed by an incidental proximal association with Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula - most, with one notable exception, are little more than folk stories and urban myths. Although largely unearned, this reputation is not (as is sometimes suggested) cultivated in order to draw in curious and adventurous travellers, but to discourage people who might otherwise fall prey to the Vrăjitoare. Emerging at dusk to hunt - though from what manner of lair or nest remains an unknown - the creature is the forest’s one real terror; a fiend which makes sport of its victims, luring them in close before revealing its true nature and its vicious and violent intent.

Drawn to those who, by misadventure or by their own sheer foolishness, find themselves passing through the forest at night, it is always heard before it is seen. The Vrăjitoare announces itself in perfect mimicry of a baby crying, keening tearfully: This is the first layer of its trap. Hearing such a distinct and desperate noise (especially somewhere nearby and in a situation inimical to a child’s wellbeing) affects people on their most basic and instinctual levels; it is almost impossible to ignore, and they will seek out its source. They may call out while they search, but there will be no response, not even when they find a crouched woman - covered only in a ragged cloak - hunched over and whispering to the crying baby she is cradling.

Appearing vulnerable and afraid, the victim of whatever terrible circumstance would drive someone so underdressed and unprepared to flee into the forest by dead of night with a baby in their arms; this is the second layer of the Vrăjitoare’s trap. The woman seems to freeze at the realisation that she has been discovered - her whispers halted in mid-sentence - until someone gets within arm’s reach. The waiting is over, and the Vrăjitoare is eager to hunt. It lurches upwards, standing raggedly like an improperly suspended marionette, and the absence of any true humanity is immediately apparent. The part that had resembled a woman is revealed as a rude approximation of ashen flesh and misshapen bone, with only the vaguest suggestion of a face beneath a flapping hide of loose skin.

The rest of the body is similarly featureless and unformed - a first impression in still-soft clay - and is shocking enough that most people will take a moment or two to realise that, in the process of unfurling itself, the baby was carelessly dropped into the dirt. If the visage of the mother could (once the initial surprise had diminished) be called unsettling then the sight of the baby is simply hideous. It is connected to the mother by several umbilical-like tethers that run from the back of its neck and from each shoulder up and into a rank and festering wound beneath the woman’s hollow ribcage. The baby’s skin is a frigid and bloodless blue around milk-white eyes and a puckered mouth overstuffed with scores of thin, needle-like teeth.

Despite this, and despite being closer overall in terms of dimensions and shape, the part of the Vrăjitoare that forms the baby is even more markedly inhuman in its movement and behaviours. Poised and steady on all fours, head darting purposefully from side to side as it assesses its quarry, it waits for them to run so that it can enjoy the hunt before the kill. When they bolt, it follows, still crying (though the sound shifts from being plaintive to something far angrier, an animal snarl and an unmistakable threat behind). Still bound to its other, the mother, it chases in bursts of sudden movement and pauses as she moves in faltering jerks, dragged behind, still cooing and whispering the same platitudes as when she appeared to be comforting it.

Even with this anchor, the Vrăjitoare has enough speed (along with an unparalleled knowledge of the forest) to catch up to all but the quickest - and luckiest - of its targets. A coursing predator, it prefers to take its prey as they flee, prolonging their suffering by taking several bites from the upper body before taking their legs out from under them. After that it takes its time to feed, first carefully crushing the larynx to keep its meal from screaming. It eats around vital organs and arteries for as long as possible, forcing its helpless victims to watch on silently as their flesh is shredded and devoured and the baby’s cries finally give way to murmurs of contentment. Most, fortunately, pass out from the pain and the blood loss long before the creature has had its fill.

The Vrăjitoare’s work is easily identified by the ruined remains of bodies that are blamed, publicly at least, on animal attacks, from which we know that it is only responsible for a handful of deaths each year. Regardless, its legend goes back - almost unchanged - for over a thousand years: A cautionary tale written in the blooded crimson ink of those it has killed and verified by the handful of survivors who have escaped to speak of it at all. This is, typically, only the case where more than one person is being hunted at a time, though someone once claimed that by freezing in terror (and thus denying it the thrill of the chase) they were able to survive until it slunk away into the shadows, frustrated, as the sun rose the next morning.

The Romanian translation of the word “witch”, the name Vrăjitoare is a historical misnomer born of an assumption that the creature was once human. This supposition - along with misogyny-fuelled religious panics around the existence and practice of magic - led to the murders of at least seven women over the centuries; all of whom were assumed to be the willing participants in some devilish pact which allowed them to transform into the monster when night fell. With no known origin, and no evidence that there has ever been more than one, there are some who believe that the Vrăjitoare is functionally immortal; that whatever bleak and desperate nightmare which birthed such a creature meant for it to rest only when the marrow of the last living man has been sucked dry.

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