Before he drifted off in spite of himself, he recalled seeing what looked like little black dots scuttling around on that huge Halloween harvest moon, shimmering as if underwater. His conscious mind shrugging it off as just his tired eyes watering, which they tended to whenever he yawned, but when he looked back up, those tiny bug shapes appeared to be coming closer. As if flying across that gulf, the moon itself just a hungry hive, seeking to devour the hapless world below, droning death drifting down on whirring wings…
Yet when he snapped his eyes open, neck craning up and around, he could discern no sign of that massive moon which haunted his uneasy sleep, only the pale sky of early dawn.
Still, even as he breathed a sigh of relief, he noticed an odd, sinister slithering sound off to his right, and when he looked over, what he saw dropped last night on his spine like a bucket of ice water.
Black patches, not mere shadows, drifting across the ground, out of the trees uphill from them, heading right toward their perilous perch, leaving dead brown dirt in the wake of any grass in their path.
He looked around, horrified, to see his friends still fast asleep, oblivious to the threat now encircling their boulder.
A cry of alarm finally reached his numb lips as he elbowed his companions and fumbled for his power pistol. Justin drew both double-barrel power pistols almost in his sleep, cursing and sputtering as he took aim, while Max took a moment longer to gather his wits, then joined them. Not waiting to see whether the foul things could climb or not, they opened fire on the ones closest to their refuge first, but before long, they were surrounded by an inky black moat of death.
The only thing working at all in their favor was that it turned out they couldn’t climb after all, at least not vertically. That meant focusing their defense around the couple sloped sections, where they appeared to be massing and pushing on each other. It also meant that, even if their position was technically defensible, it was also completely surrounded.
No way out.
Their desperate need to hold back the tide of corrosive carnage about the only thing holding off any argument about who fell asleep on watch this time as they wondered what would run out first, their attackers or their power clips. Max calculating no possible way to jump far enough without being overtaken, or else injured and then overtaken. Justin wishing they had any sort of fuel left to light up the whole lot of them. Shades wishing they had any framing materials to rig their remaining tarps into a glider, with which they could float down the remaining hillside to a sporting head start…
To conserve charges, they took to waiting for a big glomp to form at one of the slopes, to ignite a bunch at once with one shot, yet even the thinning numbers from up on the hillside left little hope of clearing out enough to escape.
“Why the hell did we stop here again!?” Justin demanded.
“Because we were dead tired!” Shades reminded him.
“Guys…” Max pleaded.
Thus, none of them noticed the sun creeping up on the horizon, not until some of the black patches they weren’t shooting started to smoke and smolder.
By then, the trickle of splotches on the hillside had dried up completely, and any caught out in the open burst into flames, little flares lighting up all around them as the remainder tried to glom together in the boulder’s shadow. A few also tried to squeeze underneath a few clefts where the boulder met the ground, with varying degrees of success. Instead of a writhing black mass, they found themselves surrounded by a loose circle of dusty ashes.
In a matter of moments, the attack petered out just as abruptly as it started.
After taking a couple minutes to collect their gear— to say nothing of their composure— they carefully climbed down on the sunny side of the boulder. Careful to keep their feet well clear of any cracks along the ground, just in case. Then, wanting to be as far away from this region as possible before nightfall, they set out again.
Once they reached the bottom of the hill, they kept to mostly open stretches, unsure just how much shade those foul things could survive in. At the very least, they could be sure they were safe from at least one threat walking in sunlight, but were all too well aware that this place held its share of daylight horrors. By now, they were becoming accustomed to eating on the go, as that circle of stones was the only place they’d been that struck any of them as terribly safe to linger very long out here.
Everyplace else left them feeling like sitting ducks.
It was only once they were well clear of that area that any of them thought to remember that they may have started a forest fire last night. Yet when they looked back, they could see not a single ribbon of smoke above the forest above the hillside, let alone the horizon-blotting pall Shades had witnessed in Montana wildfires. As far as any of them could tell, the Woods had swallowed the fire whole.
As whole as it seemed to have swallowed them.
Their breakfast was down to slim pickings, their morale dwindling right along with their provisions. Despite having tagged along on a couple hunting trips in his day, Shades had no personal experience dressing or butchering, even if there was a hint of any game to hunt in the first place. And the suspicion that anything they found under those other moons would be poisonous anyway.
A couple hours later, they were all hungry again. Combined with roller-coaster sleep patterns and an endless parade of crises, this eldritch forest had long-since proven itself the perfect-storm setting to naturally sow the seeds of discord among even the most steadfast of friends. It was hardly a surprise to any of them when the grumbling started again.
“Do we have the slightest idea where the hell we’re going?” Justin muttered.
“No,” Shades muttered back.
“Well, at least you admit it…”
“This isn’t helping…”
“Guys…” Max implored.
“And what if this Pickford joint’s just as fucked-up as the rest of this place?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Max pointed out.
“Neither here nor there,” Shades agreed, though he doubted it would ease Justin’s frustration. “The only thing we know for sure is that staying out here will be the death of us. At least if we found Pickford, we’d be back on the coast…”
“That’s not what I mean!” Justin screamed. “We don’t have any kind of plan! We could just be going in circles for all we know!”
The three of them stopped for a moment of long, awkward silence, with only those words ringing in their ears.
Shades bit his tongue, not daring to ask aloud what all Justin’s tirade may have just announced their presence to.
“Guys…” Max finally spoke up, listening intently, “do you hear that?”
At first, they heard nothing, but after a moment, they caught it, too.
The sound of running water.
Keeping an ear out, they carefully followed the sound, growing gradually more audible as they drew nearer. All but holding their breath, they made their way through the trees, any previous threats all but forgotten for now. It just seemed too good to be true, yet it could also very well be their last chance.
When at last they came upon the river, they were speechless, refusing to believe it until they dipped their fingers and came back wet, at which point even Justin couldn’t help cheering with them.
Now that, for the first time in days, they actually had something to work with, they headed downstream, wanting to work their way back to the coast. Sticking to the bank, making sure to keep the water in sight at all times, they found a spring in their step that had gone missing ever since they started this ominous journey. They were by no means out of the woods yet, but for the first time since the road vanished, it looked like they might be on the right track.
As they strolled along the riverbank, Shades tried to hold back the suspicion that this was all just a cruel illusion that totally clashed with this rustic scenery, telling himself to heed his own advice to Justin and think positive.
Due to the dense canopy above them, and the thick screen of trees along the river, they didn’t see a hint of the abandoned lumber mill until they were almost on top of it.
At first, all they saw was a large open-frame wooden structure with a roof around the bend, sitting right along the riverbank, housing a broken waterwheel and a rusty old circular saw. Set a little further back was a tall main building, at least three stories, the top most likely housing the mill office and private quarters, and they wondered at how they failed to spot it, trees or no trees. The greyish paint was faded and peeling, but they could still make out the name running down the full height of structure, along one corner.
Max and Justin covered Shades as he brought out the map, glad that he had kept it in the top of his pack during their trek through the swamp. Sure enough, it bore the same name as the location marked on it, along one Ellay River. Presumably meaning that they were currently on the same layer as they started on. Just as important, this was the river that ran almost straight to the coast, veering away from the peninsula and near their destination, Pickford.
And, based on the distance they had already traveled, offered the hope of less than a day’s walk to get there.
Struggling not to let their guard down in the face of the best news in days, they searched the area, both as a precaution, as well as scavenging for any useful supplies, not that there turned about to be much of anything. The building itself was as long-abandoned as Camp Stilton, full of rusty dusty old logging equipment and general tools, that they could see through the gritty windows, with some rotten piles of unfinished lumber nearby. Though, much like Stilton, Shades couldn’t help that hint of unease at how thoroughly the trees had hemmed the place in, given the place’s original purpose and all.
But at least no discernable signs of anything else having taken up residence in there.
Behind the main building, they could make out a few cabins, of similar design to those at Camp Stilton, looking every bit as forlorn and abandoned as they had. And every bit as hemmed in by more trees than Shades would expect so close to a lumber operation. Seeing no sign of recent use, they decided not to venture away from the river now that they had actually found it.
Finding no immediate threat, they sat down at the sawmill for a proper lunch, or at least as proper as they could manage with their dwindling provisions. They also boiled water from the river, both to cook, and to replenish their nearly exhausted canteens, saving their handful of purifying tablets as a last resort. They also took the opportunity to wash up as best they could in the shallow stream, flushing some of the swamp muck out of their boots, though it was plain to see that their footwear had taken on a great deal of mileage these past few days. Taking turns washing each others’ boots while still wearing their own, just to be on the safe side. When the water proved itself safe enough for wading, they also washed their feet and clothes as best they could before settling down to eat. The only sounds to accompany their subdued conversation, the breeze through the trees and the lapping of the stream.
Combined with a full meal, this unexpectedly relaxing atmosphere was starting to lull them to sleep in spite of themselves.
Wanting to avoid their past mistakes, if possible, Shades found a rickety old ladder by the side of the main building, which surprised them all merely by supporting their weight, and climbed up onto the roof of the sawmill, which turned out to be a shallow enough grade to lay down head-up, feet-down against the incline with their packs on either side to curb rolling off the edge in their sleep. Pulling the ladder up behind them, and using the flat of the hatchet to pound in some rusty nails they found below as pegs to hold it up, they settled in for a nap while their boots and gear dried out next to them.
While they could still drop down in a pinch, they had seen for themselves by now that even a minor injury could have been fatal trying to escape the things that dwelt on some of the other layers, and they certainly didn’t want anything just strolling up the ladder, either. They also banked the campfire, and left a couple makeshift torches at hand. Though they only meant to nap for only a couple hours, they contemplated resting for the night— if nothing crashed their party in the meantime— and making one last push for Pickford at dawn. Though they had no way of knowing if those things from last night could swim, they were in no hurry to take a dip if they didn’t have to.
Staring up at a clear blue sky, with a soothing breeze blowing, and the calming lapping of the river, even in such an eerie peace, it was all too easy to dismiss their entire experience the last few days as a result of eating the wrong mushrooms or something, making things as awkward as they were relaxing up on the roof.