To the stillness and the silence. Not even the sounds of insects, birds, rustling leaves, something. At first, they had been too preoccupied following, then losing, the road, all the while looking out for Erix, only belatedly did they notice just how dead quiet these woods were.
The forests of Montana were nothing like this. No matter where he looked, Shades could see no sign of any animals. As if to suggest this entire wilderness was deserted, and he wondered for a moment how the laughter of children might sound in this place.
The chill he felt had nothing to do with the coming of dusk.
If a little kid falls down in the Woods, would she make a sound?
Shades shook his head, trying not to dwell on the fact that his mind was already making mental associations with that missing girl from Camp Stilton, whose fate would surely remain unknown after all these years, turning his focus back front and center. Being the most experienced with this sort of forest terrain, he took point, scouting what he hoped was a way back to the coast, having given up on the river for now, while Justin covered him and Max took rear guard. The moss and undergrowth out here proved quite resilient, yielding nothing in the way of a trail. Confounding both his and Max’s tracking experience.
Short of bringing out a bloodhound, even an experienced outdoorsman would have little luck tracking anyone out here.
Though they doubted they would actually pick up any signals from the Albatross, Shades kept one earphone in on the radio. Despite hearing strange birdcalls that he did not hear from the surrounding forest with his other ear. Found he could turn the birdcalls on and off with the radio, and at times he wondered if it was such a bright idea to leave it on at all.
Max wasn’t so sure if even Bandit could follow them anymore, and couldn’t make up his mind about whether or not that was a good thing.
“It weighs on your mind, doesn’t it?” Shades remarked. “Trying to be quiet, to not draw attention to ourselves, yet this silence…”
“You’re tellin’ me,” Justin muttered. “I still can’t believe this.”
“You’re in good company,” Shades replied. There were still moments when he couldn’t help but feel cheated, like some city-slicker rube who wandered off the marked trails and onto the Missing Persons list. As the map was fast proving to be no use against the Woods, they decided to keep striking the river as an outside chance, and instead focus on trying to at least reach the shore of the peninsula again, to follow the remainder of the coast. Even if it took longer, there was no arguing that course offered a better chance of actually getting somewhere. Couldn’t help thinking they could’ve avoided their current predicament if only that note had been a little more specific about the dangers of the forest, but also had to admit that perhaps it originally had been, before parts of it got blotted out with mold. “The only upside I can see is that at least that bastard Erix can’t follow us.”
“And that crazy bitch can’t, either!” Though Justin also had to admit that he would feel a little safer with another sharpshooter on the team. “But I guess I wouldn’t mind if she did for once…”
“I wonder if Erix is even going to be a problem out here…” Max mused, trying to keep his voice down despite being last in line. Most of the time, he hoped Bandit would actually stay put for a change, yet he had no idea if it was really any safer back at the Albatross wreck, so neither possibility offered any relief for his worries. Though he still kept an eye out for Erix, it was hard not to concern himself more with the increasingly apparent wrongness of this place. “Wherever he is, I’m sure he’s having problems of his own.”
“Especially if he continued heading for Rannigan’s Wharf,” Shades pointed out. “I thought Roger was going to put up more of a fight about going that way, but at least his injuries should keep him from trying it himself.”
Much like his friends, the only good thing to come out of this mess was Erix’s diminishing chance of return. Though all he had to do to get back to the Albatross was just follow the shoreline, if he got too far from the coast, he would likely be in the same predicament as themselves. His sympathy was understandably short, whereas he couldn’t help feeling bad for Roxy, who also had no clue what she was getting herself into.
“And you used to do this for fun?” Justin snorted.
“Well, yes,” Shades admitted, “but we knew where we were going, we had better equipment, people who would come looking for us if we were gone too long… and no weird shit goin’ on… So, I guess maybe it’s not so much like hiking back there…”
During the long intervals between realms, he had once tried to explain how navigation worked back in his world. Of lands that stayed in the same place, and magnetic fields stable enough to allow compasses to work reliably in most areas. Even the stars, taking generations to shift gradually, such that only astronomers finally pieced together the full movements of the heavens…
But under this stifling, stuffy canopy, he wasn’t so sure if they could trust the sun to actually rise or set in the same places in this eldritch forest.
“I’ve got an idea,” Max told them, breaking a long silence on his part. “I’ll climb a tree, and see what I can see.”
“Good plan,” Shades agreed, and Justin nodded, so they also kept an eye out for a suitably tall tree as they went.
When they found a likely one, whose trunk was noticeably thicker than its neighbors, and whose top they couldn’t see past the canopy, Max ran up the trunk to the lowest branch, then started working his way up out of sight while Justin and Shades stood vigil below.
Much as Shades suspected, the mighty trunk did belong to an uncommonly tall tree, getting Max above the canopy well before he ran out of branches that could support him.
Though at first, unshaded daylight was heartening, the setting sun was a grim reminder that their first full day out here was nearly over. All around him was a lumpy sea of green, as far as the eye could see, the haze on the horizon, where the treeline met the sky, offering him no clue which way the Ocean was. An ocean of land, more than he had ever seen in one place in his entire life…
Reminding him all too easily of the endless ramshackle roofscape he once encountered within the Harken Building.
At first worried that he was wasting his time up here in spite of the view, then he spotted something useful. Keeping careful track of his direction as he made his way down, relieved to find his friends still waiting for him as they were to see him again.
“There’s a clearing over there,” Max informed them, leading them off to the right of their original heading.
Sure enough, they encountered a clearing about ten minutes later. The break in the trees allowed them all to see just how late the hour had grown, making Shades wish he had paid some attention to which way the sun rose in relation to the shore this morning. Though it might not amount to anything, it was still better than nothing.
The thing that caught all of their attention, though, was the wooden road sign near the edge of the trees. Faded past the outer limits of readability, but still obviously part of the old road system. But try as they might, none of them could find the faintest trace of any road nearby. Only calling further into question anything it had to say.
While his friends started preparing to make camp near the road sign, Shades stepped behind a couple trees to do a little watering. Tied around his waist was a rope, with Max holding the other end, just in case. Having seen for themselves just how quickly this place could get one turned around, even over short distances. After their fun experience with the trail earlier, he could not escape the chilling certainty that getting separated out here could easily prove fatal.
While it was reassuring to still hear his friends talking just a short distance off, he still had a little trouble getting started, despite how bad he had to go.
Just kept picturing Erix sneaking up on him… or maybe just drawing a bead. Even though Shades was pretty sure their old enemy would go for a quiet kill. Tried not to imagine a hand over his mouth and a knife to his throat. After all, no need for hostages out here, when you could just kill somebody and loot their gear freely…
Was also half afraid the others were going to call out for him or something, before he finally managed.
Wanting to get back to his friends before this could get any more awkward, he turned as he buckled up his belt, still looking down, to see a skull near his feet, in front of the next tree, and awkwardness tripped over its own feet into dread. Mostly surprising himself by not screaming, as he half expected to, once it began to sink in, just what he was looking at as he noticed more bones amid the underbrush. Going from the size of the bones, he was quite certain they belonged to a child.
He struggled not to dwell on the horrors this child must surely have suffered through during those final hours in this foul place. Caught a glimpse of a tiny white gemstone earring— most likely zircon or something— next to the skull, in a rare glimmer of setting sunlight peeking through the dense canopy. Which he was quite sure he had seen before, back at Camp Stilton.
As he reached down to pick the earring up out of the loamy soil, he couldn’t escape the cold conviction that both it, and these bones, once belonged to a little girl, and the unsettling intuition that he already knew her name.
What he found most disturbing, though, once he noticed it, was how the arm and leg bones were pinned down by surfaced tree roots. Looking at the grim scene before him, the images rushing together into horrifying coherence as his mind tried to put the brakes on this jangled train of thought. No more details, please, the gist of it was quite enough, thank you…
Finally finding his voice, he called both of his friends over, showing them what he found.
Couldn’t help but notice that neither of them found the sight any less disturbing than he did.
“I don’t like this,” Max finally mumbled.
“This…” For once, Justin was at a loss for words.
“That makes three of us,” Shades concluded as he reached down and picked up the skull, and the last request that came with it. Couldn’t help the cold certainty in his own that these bones were indeed the remains of this Kelly Edwards mentioned back at Camp Stilton. Turning to his friends, he added, “I think it would be a bad idea to sleep near any of these trees.”
“I’m so glad you’re here to tell us these things,” Justin muttered, then asked, “Why the hell are you carrying that thing? It’s creepy.”
“I plan to give her a proper burial,” Shades told him, “when we get to Pickford.”
“Justin…” Max said, wanting to defend his friend’s actions, but not wanting to go into the full story of Chad Owen, whose skull, along with his laser sword, he had carried out of the depths of the Harken Building once upon a time. “What I mean is, no one should be left out in a place like this, not even in death… I mean, what if it was you?”
“Wouldn’t be my problem anymore,” Justin answered.
“For what’s it’s worth, I’d still carry yours,” Shades replied. “Where I come from, it’s just a way of showing your respect.”
“To the dead?”
“Let’s not talk about this anymore.”
Max’s words seemed to settle it, and they turned their attention to moving their camp to the center of the clearing, well away from any trees. Mostly working in subdued silence as the sun set on their hasty preparations, and they finally sat down to eat a modest dinner of rations and boiling freeze-dried noodles. Having also stuck to Shades’ advice and used mostly fallen branches for firewood, instead of cutting them, just in case.
Chose to forgo making tents, since that would involve tying ropes to trees. It also felt too much like a net for tangling them up in if the trees were half as mobile as Kelly Edwards’ final resting place insidiously suggested. Even the fact that none of the trees on the far side of the clearing moved, nor made a sound, did much to ease any of their apprehension after what they just saw.
Having drawn first watch, Shades sat close to the campfire, trying not to remember every spooky story he had ever heard or told around one, and largely failing. This place evoked every single one of them all too easily. He tossed a couple more twigs on the fire, refusing to let it go out on his watch, seeing even his friends also found sleep slow in coming out here, in spite of their exhaustion.
That foreboding feeling that old summer camp nightmares were lurking out there, just beyond the fuzzy circle of campfire light, under a bright half moon. Like so many of the more secluded places they had visited in this world, these woods felt too much like the ideal setting for a horror movie to him. Tried not to think of it as Mirkwood, or the Lost Woods, not to think of Evil Dead movies. Of the Dark Forest from every fairy tale he was told as a boy, but the Woods loomed all around him. Reminding him of that fateful night back in Lakeside, even without any storm.
Just how subtly wrong this place felt compared to any woods he had known as a kid.
Increasingly certain that Erix was going to be the least of their worries out here. Not that he was terribly sure they could trust him as an ally, either. After seeing Kelly’s remains with his own two eyes, he was liking the possibilities of this place less and less the more he turned it all over in his head.
Tried not to let his thoughts linger on just how close to Camp Stilton Kelly met her untimely end. Less than a day’s walk, and he strongly doubted it befell her anywhere near the old road, sign or no sign. If it wasn’t for these Woods, a search party would have had a reasonable chance of finding her in time.
And now he felt ever more certain that her end would be the subject of most of his nightmares, even if he did manage to fall asleep.
Later that night, even as Justin relieved him, Shades found little relief. Simply telling him: Trees don’t like fire, keep it burning, before drifting asleep upstream against the notion of seeing the final grim moments of Kelly Edwards’ life replayed over and over, even as he rested his head on his pack, her skull resting in greater peace than he behind him.