Everything bathed in deep grey shadows as they trudged on, muddy boots and pantlegs dragging at them with every step. Justin kept glaring at Shades, the only member of their party who didn’t get soaked past his waist back there, and all he had to offer was a sheepish grin.
Much to their apprehension, Shades insisted on stopping before they departed that place, using both his energy blade, and the camping hatchet from the plane, digging deep into the heartwood to carve out some fatwood from a rotten trunk. In the end, he justified the stop by explaining that the resin-soaked pulp would light even sopping wet, something all them understood the value of, especially with nightfall nearly upon them. All of them dreading the coming moonrise, and whatever new perils it would bring with it. Though the clouds were parting, the air remained balmy as the last of the haze-reddened sun sank into the trees.
It was only as a broad and unexpectedly bright moon began to loom over the treetops that they started to notice something equally unexpected about the trees themselves. Observing that the leaves here were all red, orange, gold. Autumn colors.
Their flashlights only serving to confirm this peculiar state of affairs.
“Are all of these trees dying?” Justin asked, suspicion written all over his face.
“I should hope not,” Shades replied, though acutely aware that his knowledge of his own world was of precious little relevance in any of these ones. “At least in my world, this is a type of seasonal change that comes over some kinds of trees. The thing that bothers me is that this type of change only comes in autumn…”
“That’s right before the cold season…” Max recalled some of what Shades had told him about it. “Um, winter, right?”
“You mean it’s gonna get colder?” Justin muttered.
“Perhaps,” Shades admitted, “but even then, winter usually didn’t just snow you in all at once. And it’s still pretty warm out here, even after dark, so there’s really no telling with this place…”
And so the discussion went until the topic wore itself out, and all the while the moon continued to rise.
Looming large over the horizon, a vast coppery moonscape that reached almost across half the sky, casting everything around in its baleful red-orange glare. A harvest moon, the biggest, brightest any of them had ever seen. So big and impossibly close, or else larger than Luna, looming over everything around them.
Shades found a moment to ponder just what hellscapes these moons belonged to the skies of as it continued to rise.
In addition to serving as an impressive, if ominous, source of light this late at night, it also left them feeling exposed under this region’s sparse, more frequently broken, canopy. Thus it was a boon each of them wondered if they couldn’t do without, as that light it cast also shaded everything red-orange, a tint none of them found terribly reassuring. Least of all Shades, who couldn’t help but notice that they now walked under that same hellish red sky from his nightmare this morning.
Which felt so long ago, and not just to him; their dreary trek through the swamp had burned up a good deal of daylight, and now all three of them were feeling the burden of so much mileage, and so little rest.
Now that they were out of that swamp, Justin found himself recalling a dream from early this morning. Something about all the knots in the trees opening to reveal wildly darting eyes… Figured it had to be standing the midst of so many trees right now that was doing it, and wished he could forget all about it.
When they came upon a fairly substantial clearing, they found themselves gazing awkwardly back and forth at each other, as if trying not to be the first to say aloud what they knew one another was thinking. Along with the other point that followed on its heels, about the last time they camped in a clearing out here. The inconclusive conclusion of that episode serving to muddy the waters of such a debate, and they had already had their fill of muddy waters today.
Exhaustion cast the deciding vote, made all the more obvious by the fact that none of them had put so much as one foot in front of the other in any direction leading back out of this clearing since they arrived.
Thus resolved, with what resolve they could manage at the moment, they started setting up camp. Max dug out a spot near the middle for a fire, affording them the most distance, and the widest field of view, in all directions. Shades actively test-cutting a branch, watching that wooden stub vibrate for a moment at the abrupt release of its natural burden, the only movement it made, offering hope on that front. Justin gathering stones for a firepit, while making sure to stay in sight of his companions at all times.
By the time he brought enough over to form a partial ring, Shades had cut enough wood to get a small fire started, using some of the fatwood he dug earlier as a firestarter, and Justin turned to collect a few more to complete the circle.
Returning to the patch where he had already found some partially exposed stones to dig out, he reached down to brush some damp, clammy dead leaves aside—
Which was exactly when he saw it.
At first glance, he might have mistaken it for the shifting shadows of their growing campfire, but his own shadow blocked the fledgling firelight, so the movement occurred within the more stable circle of his flashlight beam. As if some shadow detached itself from under the leaves to shift in his direction. Holding still as he froze in his tracks confirmed it, his skin crawling at the mere sight of it.
Whatever it was, it was fluid, and blacker than the shadows, an inky, amorphous glob oozing toward his feet with alarming alacrity, absorbing dead leaves as it came.
Justin backpedaled with a cry of horror and disgust, dropping the stone he just removed splat in the middle of it. The oily mass just glommed around it, and he was fairly sure the portion under the stone slid out from under it, while the rock scarcely budged in its wake. Even hopping from side to side, toe to toe, it still advanced in his direction, making a faint squishing sound all the while.
His friends heard his alarm, Shades bolting over, stun-sticks fired up. Though it took him a second to figure out his friend’s bizarre situation, he wasted no time with a downward slash that gouged the ground, slicing the thing roughly in half, and it continued to twitch and quiver, as if each half was trying to go after one of them. By then, Justin regained his initiative, drawing one of his double-barrel power pistols and blasting the nearest one with a half-uttered curse.
His shot instantly igniting the inky puddle, sending it writhing and squirming, hissing as it burst into flames.
Shades danced backward, the other half still slithering toward him with frightful speed, until Max shot it just before it could catch him. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt to snub the flame. When he turned back toward the campfire, he could see even in the firelight that his brief exposure to the creature before Max shot it was enough to eat away a tiny hole in his boot.
All too much like the end of his horrible dream this morning for comfort.
“What the fuck was that!?” Justin screeched.
“I don’t know,” Shades mumbled, “but it looks like we’re about to find out…”
In between his words, they could all hear a crinkling, crackling sound, spotting random patches of leaves and detritus shifting as at least a dozen more of those puddles of shadow came forth, dead leaves and floor flora sinking and dissolving into them as they approached. All of them steering clear of their charred fallen fellows as Justin and Shades opened fire on them, backing up against the campfire, only to find themselves slowly surrounded. Each of them realizing with dawning horror that they surely had nowhere near enough power clips to keep this up as long as those things could, and the grim intuition that even inevitably stopping to reload might be fatal.
The only thing working at all in their favor was that the new arrivals seemed to pause even as they massed around the clearing, as if hesitating in the face of their smoldering first wave.
Giving Shades just enough time to think up a desperate defense. With no time to prepare anything stronger, he snatched up a branch from the kindling they’d gathered, sweeping it through the flames and turning it into an impromptu torch, which he handed to Max.
Who then brandished it at the dark globs on his side of the camp, from which they immediately backed off, and Shades quickly cobbled together another torch for Justin, driving them back just enough to holster one of his guns and take it.
Shades spared only the cattails he had gathered earlier, tossing the rest of their meager tinder on the flames, with a dash of fatwood to turn up the heat, mind racing. These creatures seemed fluid, even capable of dividing themselves, but were vulnerable to intense heat and open flames, while using energy blades on them only made things worse. He also shuddered at the creeping intuition that these things were also drawn to body heat, along with the grim implications of what would have happened if they had fallen asleep out here, unawares…
Starting a fire may have drawn their attention, but also may have summoned them while he and his friends were still awake to see them coming. Even so, they had nowhere near enough fuel gathered to keep the fire blazing until dawn, and no guarantee the foul things would even leave at sunrise. The campfire was burning hotter than ever, even as his friends’ cheap torches fizzled out, and they fell back, while their attackers hung just near the edge of the ring of firelight.
“It’s getting hot around here!” Justin declared, feeling the flames against his back.
“But not hot enough…” Shades thought aloud, glancing around to see that they were now fully surrounded. “We need better torches!”
“We need more fuel!” Max also noticed that both the campfire, and the burnt husks of their fellows, seemed to be the only things holding them back for the moment, as they either hesitated, or else somehow found it difficult, to pass over their own dead. A moat of oily night forming between and any more wood.
“I’ve got an idea!” Recalling everything he could of his survival training, Shades snatched up one of the cattails, trying not to dwell on the risks as he sprayed their remaining insect repellant on the fluffy end. After thrusting it into the flames until it lit up, he handed it to Max, pointing to the tree nearest their position, telling him, “Try to make it fall toward us, but be careful!”
Max ran toward the tree, waving his torch near the ground as he went, driving them back. Once he reached the tree, he fired up his laser sword, cutting it down at an angle that caused it to fall toward the center of the clearing. As he scrambled back, he noticed that he could step on the burnt ones with no harm, though under this glaring moonlight, it was dangerously difficult to tell which was which.
“Now we can make a bigger fire!” Justin crowed as Max stumbled to a halt close to the campfire, the tree having landed only a few feet from the fire.
“Yeah, but not the way you think…” Shades thought fast, seeing possibilities here. He doubted those things would give them time to do it any other way. “Do you still have your flare gun?”
“Yeah!” Justin answered.
“Good!” Shades pointed out a section of the tree. “Aim for that knot! It’s got a shitload of sap!”
Sure enough, that section of trunk fairly exploded, the hot-burning pitch quickly igniting other parts of the tree in a splattering of flames. In a matter of moments, a growing portion of the fallen tree went up in a merry blaze. For their own part, the rest of those living tar patches backed off noticeably, giving them some much-needed breathing room.
While Max and Justin stood guard, Shades set to work on the next phase of his dire plan. Knowing that the cattails alone would only burn for a couple minutes— even with flammable bug spray, Max’s was already flagging— he had one chance to make them useful. Keeping his back to the fire, to protect against both the full heat and stray sparks as he worked, with only his flashlight to compensate for the deep shadows, he set to dabbing the remaining cattails in their one can of fuel gel.
Thinking: We’re starting a forest fire in another dimension… Is this what we’ve come to?
Recalling his old friend, Arthur LaRoch, their resident tinkerer and all-around Renaissance Man, ‘stoking’ the fire in his wood stove with a can of hairspray, Shades knew he was getting into some serious Don’t Try This At Home territory.
“Max!” he called as he worked, “Which way is the wind blowing?”
“That way!” Max answered, pointing back in what he was almost sure was the way they originally came.
“Why?” Justin demanded.
“Because we’re going the opposite way,” Shades explained, relieved not to have to go back in the direction of that dismal swamp. “If this starts a wildfire, we’ll want to move upwind from it.”
“Are you nuts!?”
“We don’t have much choice,” Max conceded. “Even if that tree burns up in only a couple hours, it could set the rest of this place ablaze at any time!”
“And once the fires burn down, they’ll just move in for the kill anyway,” Shades pointed out. “Aim your other flare that way, to give us an opening to get past them!”
Sighing with resignation, Justin fired while Shades started lighting them fresh, longer-burning torches for the road.
Their opening lit up immediately, and they snatched up their packs and ran for it, waving their torches at the ground to clear the gap as they went.
It was touch and go for the opening yards as they dashed away from the burning clearing, but most of the creatures in the area seemed to be congregating around the fire back there. The biggest heat source, which also stopped them in their tracks at its sheer magnitude once they arrived. Although whether this was because they really were drawn to heat, or due to something else entirely, there was no time to ponder then, as watching the ground ahead of them quickly consumed all of their attention. Even after they put some distance between them, that garish moon still dappled the forest floor with a treacherous array of inky black shapes, and even the fact that they held still, for the most part, did little to inspire trust.
By now, they were all pretty sure they’d be jumping at shadows for a long time to come.
It was only as their desperate sprint began to stumble, and their cattail torches began to fizzle out, as they struggled to catch their breaths, that Shades found a moment to conclude that he’d rather deal with the zombies from his dream this morning than this.
Stubbing out their spent torches in the dirt, they pressed on, struggling to maintain a stern stride, fear fighting fatigue every step of the way. Max watching ahead, Justin and Shades scanning their flanks. Swampy, sooty, and certain that stopping for any length of time out here was an open invitation to be surrounded like that again, this time without the benefit of fire.
None of them knew for sure just how long they trudged through those red woods before they eventually staggered out into a wide open hillside, nearly falling on their faces on the downhill slope. Though some sparse shrubs grew along the hill, the thing that stood out most was a massive boulder, which they all made their way over to more by instinct than any conscious strategy. Looking back to see none of the insidious shadows slinking down the hill behind them, they scrambled up the lowest face, which was still vertical and slightly convex.
Mostly just hoping those things couldn’t climb.
Even so, the three of them placed their packs in the middle of the flattish space on top and sat in a triangle facing outward. Setting a two-hour alarm for watches, and they ate a cold, delayed supper in silence, staring out at the surrounding hillside. They doubted they’d be able to rest here for long, but knew all too well that collapsing from exhaustion could easily be fatal on such unhallowed ground.
Then settled in for what might be a lengthy vigil against both shadow and flame.
More than ever, Max found himself wishing Bandit would stay put for a change. After all that, he thought, surely it must be safer back at the plane.
Shades looked up at that vast moon, seeing what looked like tiny black shapes crawling around on it, too. Now shimmering as if the sky itself was underwater. The last thing he would remember before he would wake.