Justin awoke with a startled yelp, as if it just dawned on him that he nodded off on his watch, looking around frantically after last night’s delightful excursion.
Delivering Shades from a nightmare of his own. About a dead, shambling Erix stalking him through the Woods, under a hellish red night sky. As well as that dream-certainty of a mass grave of dead campers clawing their way back out of the earth, stumbling and fumbling their way in slow, but sure, pursuit…
When Erix finally caught up with him, he was all alone. Just the two of them. Face to what was left of his. The unscarred half completely missing, half a skull of gleaming white bone. That dull, glass eye moving in a way no inanimate object should.
Thought you’d seen the last of me, did ya? his voice rasped, his tongue a bloody mess. These Woods will be your grave. You fools lost your chance when you lost her…
Even as he struggled, knowing somehow he was already doomed, Erix carried on: Heroes die young, you know. There’re worse things in these Woods than I, and soon you will meet them…
Of that much, Shades had little doubt as he sat up, taking what relief he could from the clear blue sky above. Strangely, the last thing he recalled was his own foot getting sucked into a gaping black hole in the ground, and an excruciating pain in that leg as he snapped awake. Somehow knowing that dream-Erix took grim amusement and satisfaction in this.
Max also looked about, seeing that they were still sitting in the middle of the same circle of stones, in the same clearing, shrugging and figuring they must’ve needed the rest.
Upon closer inspection, though, they could see it wasn’t exactly the same circle stones. The runes and symbols may well have been the same, but were also worn and weathered, though still readable, the stones themselves all upright and unbroken, yet still looked less raw and rough-hewn than they had in the moonlight. It was even more of a shock to look around at trees that were more the same type they saw when they first entered the Woods, as far as any of them could tell, rather than the prehistoric giant ferns from last night, which looked more like illustrations Shades once saw in a book about dinosaurs.
Shades shrugged, wondering if that was also a different moon, and why he couldn’t have dreamed of mining green cheese, instead of being hunted by Erix.
All the same, there was a feeling of safety inside the circle, so they decided to sit down for a proper breakfast before they set out again.
“That’s odd…” Shades remarked as he examined their map. “If these stones are located anywhere near where they’re marked on here, then we’ve gone way off course from the road.”
“Any other good news to share?” Justin muttered.
“It’s not all bad,” Shades explained. “It also means that if we can keep pushing the way we were already going, we might strike the coast today.”
“That almost sounds too easy,” Max pointed out.
After all, the geographical differences between layers offered no guarantees.
“Still, you have to admit, we can’t sit around here all day,” Shades reminded him. Even if Roger and Bandit, possibly even Roxy, weren’t counting on them, they had only a couple more days’ worth of food left. “This circle is almost starting to feel more like a cage.”
“You’ve got a point,” Max conceded.
“Then let’s get going,” Justin proposed.
With nothing else to discuss, they packed up their dwindling supplies and took off.
Shades was fairly sure he remembered which archway they entered this place through, so they continued to head away from it. Mindful not to walk under any of the other arches, just in case. Thinking of the skull he still carried with him, Shades wished again that he had seen which way that spectral little girl went after they entered.
It was impossible to tell if the tension that settled over them was purely psychological, or if the Woods really did exude their own aura of menace that once again loomed over them once they left the circle. If nothing else, the trees didn’t seem so densely packed in this region, yielding greater visibility, and more accommodating terrain.
At least at first. Though as they continued their trek, they found themselves passing through ever more swampy, boggy land, which none of them liked the look of, even in broad daylight. Each found it less than reassuring that their friends shared in each others’ dismay, none of them having any desire to still be slogging through this marshland after nightfall.
“We should try to skirt the edges,” Shades suggested. “Rivers often drain into and out of wetlands, so even if we don’t hit the coast, we could at least find the river…”
By then, they had taken to tucking their pants into their boots to protect against leeches. Figured it would be about par for the course if there were leeches in this muck, probably the most benign things in there, if the rest of the Woods were any indication. And a small cloud of midges and gnats, just enough to get on one’s nerves. Fortunately, they packed an old can of repellent Roger gave them, and it worked better than expected, about the only thing that seemed to be going in their favor, thus far.
At first, his plan seemed to work, but soon a fine, wispy mist began to rise, and it seemed that, no matter which way they went, it only seemed to draw them deeper into the swamp.
All the while, the mist continued to rise, obscuring the surrounding terrain, whose uneven footing already made a bad joke of keeping any steady direction. Soon, they struggled to keep together as the fog thickened, finally pausing at one point to tie a rope between each other. Giving one another about ten feet of slack, as far as they dared, as any farther might reach out of sight in this murk. The sky darkened with clouds, but at least no rain fell as they trudged onward.
Though they all understood rain might be a double-edged sword, even as it would wash out the fog, it could sink them up to their waist or worse in mud.
As the mist intensified, so did the humidity, the air becoming more stifling, leaving all three of them soaked in sweat instead of rainfall. The trees having thinned out as the mist thickened, the scattered reeds and cattails sticking up out of the ground fog too varied in height to provide any indication of land elevation. Instead, they strove to make their way by the shortest paths between hummocks, even as the rising haze made them harder to find.
Along the way, Shades gathered some cattails, bundling them against the space between his back and his pack, telling his friends that they were good for emergency torches, and smudges to keep the bugs at bay.
Their footing also became ever more treacherous, the mud beneath the shallow water, which ranged from knee- to waist-deep, tugging at their boots with every step.
Justin stepped lively, in spite of the cramps of protest from his hips and the back of his legs, not wanting to let his feet linger in that murky water, fearing dead hands, or other unwelcome appendages, grabbing him. The sucking of the mud creeped him out enough as it was, even without Shades’ grim dreams about the walking dead.
For his part, Max found himself recalling his brief glimpses of the swamps on the island of Makando back in Layosha, and his parents’ stern warnings about quicksand. About the only place from his childhood that left him with genuinely mixed feelings. Also remembered their warnings about swampwater. Much like Shades, he, too, understood that watery bowels was about the most benign thing it had to offer.
For a time, they made for the only landmark they could discern, a hazy silhouette of stark, dead-looking pines sticking out of that blurry horizon, that none of them particularly liked the look of. Yet even an hour or so later, they had managed to draw no closer to it.
“Come on, guys! This is bullshit!” Justin moaned as he steeled himself for another trudge up another hummock. The shortest of the three, this boggy terrain was taking the hardest toll on him. “Why don’t we try going some other way?”
“I don’t like it either,” Shades admitted, sharing his friends’ fear that it might be some sort of mirage, “but I haven’t heard any better ideas.”
“We should try for a bit longer,” Max agreed, “and if we don’t get any closer, we’ll stop and take a rest. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to still be out here after sunset…”
“You got that right,” Justin muttered as he started forward again.
Or at least he tried to, nearly falling flat on his face in the muck as his right foot began sinking deeper into the mud.
“You need a hand?” Max asked, concern and anxiety showing in equal measure.
“Damn skippy!” Justin cried, his jerking attempts to free his foot becoming increasingly frantic. “Help! It’s got me!”
Shades had no idea what ‘got’ him, quickbog or something else, but he immediately reached back for his friend, finding little leverage or purchase on the hummock slope. Max, who was a little farther up, on somewhat more stable ground, turned back, lending Shades his strength as he pulled Justin. Together, they strained against whatever held their friend back, as it yielded inches only grudgingly.
“Justin!” Shades warned him, recalling an incident from his last visit to Eastern Montana a couple years ago, in which his foot sunk into half a foot of spring gumbo, losing his boot and having to pluck it out of the thick mud after it slipped off his foot in the struggle. Though he doubted any footwear sucked into this dreck would ever be seen again. “Angle your toes up! Don’t let it get your boot!”
Justin’s horrified expression told him he got the message— the very idea of slogging barefoot in this place redoubling his desperation— even if doing so made it that much tougher to haul him up.
With one final heave, they dragged him out of the sludge and up onto the hummock, and for just a split second, Shades could have sworn he saw a pale hand reaching out of the mud, then the dirty water washed over it, leaving no trace.
Though refraining from panicking his friends any further without proof, Shades also wasted no time dragging Justin up to the top, keeping a wary eye on the misty water on that side of the hummock as they caught their breath.
After that episode, they turned their attention back to that grim treeline, almost surprised to see it was still there. The hummock they now stood atop appeared to be a long, winding ridge that snaked off in that general direction. Still bereft of any better ideas, they headed that way, with one last precautionary glance back at where Justin got stuck.
This swamp didn’t feel safe enough to stop anywhere for long, so they ate as they went, the fetid smell ruining their appetites every step of the way.
For his part, Shades found himself contemplating the places he’d seen over the last day or so. Not liking the possible implications of this swamp. At first, it started out like the same Woods they’d been trudging through the day before, but then, under that bone moon, it had seemed more like they were marching through highlands, like the ones mentioned farther ‘north’ on the map. Then they found the circle stones from the map, as well, which were suggested to be somewhere near the beginning of the peninsula, a more heartening thought. Now, he was trying not to think about those saltwater marshes, which would lie out beyond Rannigan’s Wharf.
Too much contradictory terrain in less than a day, and the only things that gave him any hope was the absence of any sea smells in the air or water, as well as the less encouraging thought that this unmarked swamp might not even exist on the same layer of reality they started on.
As they continued, the cloud haze continued to darken, making everything murkier. Even with the high ground, this place still kept them on-edge. Shades could tell from their apprehension that his friends were also seeing at least some of what he was seeing out there, much to his dismay.
Shapes shifting and writhing out in the mist, never long enough to get a good look.
Not that any of them particularly wanted to, yet Max thought he spotted a pale tentacle drift on the surface, where the fog briefly parted, and shuddered at the memory of the devilfish from his childhood rising out of the depths of his recollection to assail him, ever more convinced that Bandit was better off back at the plane.
Justin silently hoping they could make the rest of their way out of this place without having to go wading in the murk again.
The sun above reduced to a hazy red ball, whose lighting reminded Shades a little too much of his nightmare from this morning. That dead hand he may or may not have seen earlier bringing back Erix’s ominous words, and the image of the dead crawling after him. Found this swamp entirely too apt scenery for it.
He also thought he saw faint glimpses of a little girl on some of the nearby hummocks, always heading off in different directions. While a part of him wanted to believe they might be trying to help, the inconsistency of their direction made him wary of mentioning it, especially with Justin’s disposition to their current direction. Understood that either the ghost girls, or the trees, might be some kind of illusion, might potentially steer them wrong, and decided to stick to the steady landmark until they had something more solid to go on.
On the plus side, though, they did finally seem to be drawing nearer to that stark black wall of trees, which they all hoped would mark the end of this unsettling swamp.
Of course, just when it looked like they were nearing the end of this particular ordeal, that was about the point where the hummock simply petered out, dipping into a long, misty gap of swampwater between them and anything that might be mistaken for solid ground, the treeline hovering just out of reach on a deadfall-strewn ridge above the misty water.
“I don’t trust this…” Shades mumbled, recalling a patch of marshland near a summer camp he stayed at in middle school. No way of knowing how deep it could be. Back then, they had to cross a place where the waist-deep water took a ten-foot dip across a channel leading out to the river near the camp. Though he avoided the fall by doggy-paddling across that section until it was shallow enough to touch the bottom again, he also saw some girl in their group unwittingly step right off the edge in spite of their guide’s warning, her startled yelp cut off as she plunged right down before she popped up a few seconds later, coughing and sputtering.
Except here, he found he couldn’t really picture her coming back up…
“We are not going back there,” Justin declared.
“I’m with him,” Max seconded. Looking to either side, they could see a similar pea-soup gulf between their position and the next nearest hummock. “If we go back, there’s no telling how long we might get lost in there.”
“I don’t want to, either,” Shades admitted, “but that water looks a lot deeper than what we’ve been wading through, and I think we all agree there’s no telling what might be down there.”
Though his rational mind started off with alligators, despite finding no evidence of them thus far, last night’s arboreal assault quickly led to more disturbing speculations. Justin still harbored a lingering memory of feeling something more substantial than the suction of mud pulling on his foot back there. Despite the fact that none of them were sure if they’d seen any real tentacles, or if it was just some trick of the fog, Max still didn’t trust those stagnant waters not to produce one, could all too easily picture a mass of tentacles bursting out to ensnare them if they disturbed those waters by swimming.
“If only we had a boat…” Max pondered, though there was nothing on this side to even make a raft out of, and even if there were any fallen logs nearby, they would be too waterlogged to float. Of course, Roger had an inflatable life raft— back at the plane wreck— but it would have been too heavy to pack inland with them.
“Or a bridge…” Shades mused, but all of the trees were on the other side, looking too dead and rotten to build any sound structure out of anyway.
“Maybe I could pull us across!” Justin proposed, whipping out his crossbow. “My grappling line can easily reach over there!”
“But could it hold all of our weight at once?” Max cautioned, recalling that the power winch built into its butt-stock was only designed to lift the weight of one.
“Well, it would be pulling us sideways instead of up…” Justin pointed out.
More like a river ferry Shades had seen once in Alaska, crossing a dangerously swift current.
“Maybe it doesn’t have to,” Shades concluded. “All we really need to do is get one of us across, then they can chop down one of those trees to use as a bridge.”
“That could actually work!” Justin agreed.
Untying the safety lines between themselves, Justin prepared to cross. Just beyond that water’s edge was a tangled deadfall, marking the place where the ground sloped down from a higher elevation, well above the swamp’s waterline. The skeletal pines beyond most likely starved of important nutrients from the declining soil quality near the swamp, so Justin aimed for the thickest, sturdiest-looking trunk within grappling range.
The barbed grappling bolt buried itself deep in the wood, and the three of them all hauled on the line at once, putting all of their weight against it; if it was too rotten to support towing someone, it would also be too weak to walk across.
The tree held firm, so Justin braced himself, then activated the winch. The force immediately yanked him into the tepid water as he hung on for dear life, the pull skimming him across in a matter of seconds, much faster than any of them could swim. He thought he felt something in those murky waters brush past his leg, but then he was across, crashing through deadfall branches as he turned the winch off, then on again in spurts to climb the rest of the way up.
Keeping one hand on the crossbow for an occasional pull, he drew his laser staff to clear a path through the heavier deadfall as he made his way up to the ridge, careful not to accidentally cut the line while he was at it.
Once there, Justin manually released all of the line, as the grappling bolt was lodged too high for him to reach, then turned to the tree itself. Firing up his energy blade again, he angled his cut so that the tree would fall in the right direction as he sliced through. All the while, Max and Shades covered him in case of any unexpected arrivals.
The tree came crashing down on the tip of their hummock with a loud crack, splintering withered branches, yet the trunk held fast.
Still both of them eyed it with no shortage of trepidation, as the terrain left their new bridge with a pronounced uphill grade to the embankment where Justin waited. Most of the way, it hung several feet above the misty surface, then rising sharply over the deadfall near the end, except for the upper portion, which it smashed flat. Branches stuck out of it at random angles, though both of them doubted any of them would make for reliable handholds.
Shades swallowed hard, wondering if he would have bothered getting out of bed the morning of the Flathead Experiment if his horoscope had hinted at even half of this. Reminded himself that he didn’t read horoscopes as he set one tentative foot on the trunk. It rolled just a fraction, while Max and Justin did their best to hold each end steady, driving their energy blades through into the ground then solidifying them, and Shades tried to focus only on the log, not the swirling mist below.
Tried not to look down at all, though his eyes kept trying to wander that way.
It was every bit as treacherous as he expected, struggling to keep his balance on the slightly shifting tree trunk, which was barely a foot wide at this end. As he neared the midway point, the trunk started to widen noticeably, becoming less wobbly, as well. The trickiest part turned out to be stepping past a large branch that stuck straight up, as he had to hold on to it for balance, but it snapped just as he was almost past it.
He swayed and shimmied for a long moment, flailing his arms before falling on his hands and knees with a horrified wail.
Thus he barely managed to avoid falling off as the branch splashed into the water below, and he was forced to crawl the rest of the way up. At Justin’s insistence, he stopped just above the deadfall to free his grapple, prying carefully to avoid any further damage to the trunk. He was sorely temped to kiss the ground in spite of its filth, just to be back on terra firma as he rolled off the dead log and onto the musty earth.
Now it was Max’s turn.
Shades’ crossing offered hope that it could also support him, as well, being the biggest of the three, and also bearing the heaviest pack. At first, Max did well enough, his balance honed by years of similar training back on the Isle of Paradise, but as he neared the middle of the trunk, there came another loud crack, and the trunk started to snap almost right underneath him, rotten bark chipped and fell into the water. The half-foot drop nearly dumped him, and even he was amazed he managed to keep his feet, barely hearing his friends’ cries of alarm as he steadied himself.
Just when it looked as if Max might have a chance, treading lightly, as each step caused the trunk to dip another inch or so, his own dread premonition proved to be the most accurate.
Even up on the slope, well out of reach, Justin and Shades backpedalled in terror as a snarl of tentacles splashed out of the water, groping for the fallen tree and seizing it, ripping the whole thing in half as Max made one last, desperate attempt to leap for what was left of the bridge. Though he landed on the other side of the log, it was already crashing down on the edge of the deadfall, the impact knocking him back into the water, where one tentacle was already snaking for him. Even as he struggled against the muddy water, and one of the scariest memories of his childhood, he fired up his laser sword, chopping the foul appendage as it reached for him again.
In the center of that writhing maw, he could see the dead wood cramming its beak, and suspected that this would be his only chance as he turned to climb the bank.
Deep in the murky water, Max failed to spot another tentacle, this one grabbing his ankle and dragging him under as his friends screamed on his behalf.
A moment later, it dragged Max out of the water, hoisting him overhead as he clutched his energy blade as surely as his life depended on it, flailing it at the tentacle that hung just out of his reach with every swipe.
Shades stood, power pistol drawn, frozen in indecision, for fear of hitting Max. He watched the tentacles flailing around as that fell beak finished chomping through the rotten remains of the trunk section, finally turning its attention directly to its next meal. In a sudden burst of inspiration, recalling Roxy’s tactics from the other day, he switched to stun mode and opened fire on the mostly submerged main mass of the creature.
This caused the monster to start thrashing about, trying to fend off an enemy it could not perceive, though much to Shades’ relief, its movements became ever more sluggish with each hit, which meant he was at least having an effect.
Justin, meanwhile, having retracted his grappling line while Max was crossing, now aimed it at the tentacle holding Max, finally able to take advantage of their attacker’s sluggish movements.
“Max! Grab the line!” Justin shouted as he saw his shot hit home, puncturing the lethargic limb still dangling him over the churning waters.
Max, unable to reach the line, managed to go one better, finally having a clear angle to slice the tentacle itself. Even as he fell, the thing still wrapped around his leg, Justin started up the winch, digging his heels into the dirt, and Shades holstered his gun and grabbed the crossbow to help anchor him as they reeled Max in. Max skipped across the water, crashing into the deadfall just as the winch ran out of juice.
Max scrambled up the rest of the way through the tangle of dead branches and shrubs, coughing up swampwater as he grunted and panted in spasms of revulsion. Clutching his weapon hilt so hard, his muscles were beginning to cramp. Once he was up top, Shades used his stun-sticks’ shorter energy blade to cut away most of the twitching tentacle, the last part of it whose suckers hadn’t been loosened by his stun shots stubbornly clinging to Max’s boot, and his stun blade finally put an end to that, using a dead branch to fling it back into the water.
For his part, Justin ejected both power clips, exhausted from such extensive use of the winch, and shoved two new ones home even as he watched the betentacled behemoth sink back into the murky waters from whence it came, leaving a cloudy patch of inky blackness behind.
Even as they began to catch their breath after that harrowing ordeal, they already started climbing the rest of the way up the rise, paying little heed to the dead pines they now walked among, the fog left below, but the hazy sky overhead still blotted the sun red as they watched the hazy sunset shimmer on the horizon while they more fully regained their composure.
And couldn’t help but wonder if this dread forest would prove any better than that swamp after dark as they trudged on.