During Max’s watch, and all he could remember was staring at the flickering flames in the fireplace, struggling to keep his eyes open. No more immune to fatigue than his friends, after yesterday’s relentless march. The last thing he recalled, only vaguely, was the sound of an old man’s voice:
This can’t be right… There’s a bad moon rising out there…
Now the sound of Justin cursing and muttering as he fought his way out from under the tarp.
Shades woke up in a cold sweat as the damp, clammy tarp touched his skin. Delivered from the ominous mutterings of an old man, whose words he couldn’t make out most of, as well as a strange tremor in the ground, right before the tarp fell on him.
“Hey!” he muttered, “What happened to the fire?”
“I don’t know…” Max stammered, offering no excuses. “It was there a moment ago… There was this voice… saying something about the moon…”
“Let’s try to get the fire started,” Shades suggested, even as it dawned on him that none of them were using their flashlights.
“Moon…” Justin mumbled, looking up at the sky overhead.
For his part, Shades was already more than a tad unsettled at the thought of his friends also hearing voices muttering about the same thing.
Even as his two friends looked around the ruined walls of the cottage, finding the ceiling and rafter beams they originally fastened the tarp to gone as if they’d never been there to begin with. Leaving them sitting under a partly cloudy sky, with a blue-grey crescent moon hanging over them, providing the cold light by which they were now seeing.
Max switched on his flashlight to examine the fireplace, only to find a pile of cold, soggy ashes, as if there had been no fire in that hearth since long before they came along.
“Hey!” Justin called out, pointing up, “What happened to the moon?”
“The moon?” Shades pointed out. “What the hell happened to the roof?”
Only a couple broken rafters jutting from the ragged walls, yet not a hint of debris anywhere on the tarp. Yet the floor was dirty and grimy, as if he had not only not swept it just a few hours ago, but as if there hadn’t been a roof here in years.
Still, it was hard to ignore the moon, once either of them saw what Justin was staring at. A cold, blue-white crescent going on half moon. Or perhaps half was all that was left of it, for instead of being eclipsed from the light by an unseen object, the shadow inside that curve looked more like the shattered edge of something that had a huge chunk smashed out of it by some cosmic concussion. Like someone took a sledge hammer to a pumpkin on Halloween night, for they could even see glimpses of faint stars through its ‘dark’ side.
“That’s…” Max fumbled, “that’s just not right… Is that a bad moon rising?”
“What did you just say?” Justin blurted. “You heard that, too?”
“The old man?” Shades mumbled, liking the feel of this less and less, if his friends were hearing these things, too. Even as he pulled his eyes away from that ominous moon with an effort, he looked around the ruins of this hermit’s cottage, wondering if they hadn’t just heard an echo of its original owner’s last words in this place.
Which was likely why he saw it at all, the pale face pressed to that one remaining, cracked window. A little girl’s face, looking just like that old photo from Camp Stilton. Except that her eyes and mouth formed great O’s of shock and horror.
As if she already knew what was going to happen next.
Even as he gasped and fumbled for words in the face of this ghastly apparition, he blinked, and the face was gone.
He was still trying to figure out if what he had just seen was real, or just leftover nightmares, when she was replaced by what looked like a bare branch punching through the glass, groping around the window frame.
His friends, though, had little need for any warning, as rough brown tendrils started climbing over the edges of the walls, with a slithering, scratching noise that caused them all to shudder in spite of themselves. The creaky, rotten, floorboards began to tremble, as if something massive had awakened beneath the cottage. The vibrations of their staggering footsteps seemed to attract the tendrils, which immediately surged toward them.
Each of them reached for their energy blade, even as the tendrils tried to wrap themselves around each of them, glad that they slept with their boots on after they dried out a bit, and kept their weapons close at hand. Upon closer inspection, these arboreal appendages looked less like tree branches, and more like roots, their touch raw and rough, yet as flexible as tentacles.
Shades, especially, now certain that they were experiencing Kelly Edward’s final moments, and wished he’d been able to stick with bad dreams.
Screaming and cursing as they hacked and slashed to free themselves, barely mindful not to hit each other in this confined space.
Yet even as the tree-tentacles started to thin out, the floor and even the walls started to shake even more violently. The only thing Shades could compare it to was a five-point quake he had experienced in Alaska when his family was stationed there. The far side of the cottage, with the pantry and the bedroom, started leaning toward them, as if that side of the house was being lifted right off its very foundation.
“Out! Out! Out!” Shades cried as they scrambled to grab their packs, climbing over the ruined front window or out the front door that fell right off its rusty hinges. Once again, glad to have kept everything but their weapons and flashlights packed-up, in case of a hasty departure, and they kept right on going.
Ran right past the shattered remains of the roof, strewn across the ground outside, as if some terrible force swept it aside long ago, out under the light of a dreary bone moon as they put as much distance as possible between themselves and whatever just finished demolishing the place, the roaring crash still ringing in their ears.
As they spared a glance back through the trees, all they could make out was a great hoary shape rearing out of the ground, the remaining walls of the cottage falling aside like a break-away film set-piece. Unlike the thin tendrils that still clung to them, twitching and convulsing feebly, this looked like the mighty core root of something that could rival a redwood, thick and powerful enough to tear the old building apart like cardboard. A great rending maw that seemed to bellow its frustration to the bleak heavens with a boom that overwhelmed their own cries of panic until they were well away from it. Such a thing would have crushed the life out of them before they could even begin to free themselves from it, and they very understandably chose not to stick around to see what it would do next.
Once the tremors diminished with distance, they all slowed down a bit to take stock of their surroundings, which had changed considerably from what any of them remembered. Couldn’t tell if the terrain was really changing that drastically, or if they were even walking through the same forest anymore. The trees themselves growing in sparse patches, much smaller and lower than any they had seen thus far, the terrain more hilly and rocky, with small patches of grass and underbrush, illuminated by the bluish glow of that dread moon above.
Finally stopping to catch their breath, they sat down on a large hump of rock, well away from any trees.
“Holy shit!” Justin panted, leaning forward with his hands braced on this knees. “What the fuck was that!?”
“I hope we never find out,” Max replied.
“I’ll second that,” Shades added. Their utterly unfamiliar surroundings strongly suggested they weren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak. It was hard to stop trying to look everywhere at once after that, despite the sigh of breeze providing the only movement in the immediate area as he looked up. “And that moon…”
He could tell from his friends’ expressions that they didn’t like the look of it any more than he.
In addition to looking as if nearly half of it was blown away in some cataclysmic event none of them could quite wrap their head around the scale of, they could also make out the edge of a massive crater on the upper hemisphere of the remaining half. It’s shape distorted by unknown forces, a deep impact that left it mostly in shadow. If it was anywhere in the same size range as Luna, that crater would be large enough to swallow a small country, wiped right off the map.
The only thing Max had to compare it to was the strange moons he witnessed during his surreal stay aboard the Sweet Lady of Twylight, or, to a lesser extent, the paradoxical sky overhead in the ‘outdoor’ portions of the Harken Building. Neither of which he found at all reassuring. After all he had seen in the last day or so, he hoped with all his heart that Bandit stayed with the plane. Though he had no proof it was any safer there, the fact that their first stormy night was safe enough— Erix not withstanding— offered hope that it might at least be less dangerous than the peninsula’s interior.
Which was more than he saw anywhere out here.
Justin found it hard to take his eyes off that creepy moon for long, in spite of his rational mind telling him he should be on the lookout for predatory plant life. There was just something about its remaining shape that bothered him on an instinctive level the longer he looked at it, something he just couldn’t quite put his finger on. Only the sense that he should know what it is.
While Shades wished he could rotate the moon to see what he was sure he didn’t really want to. So when he noticed he could see a little more of the far side than he could a couple minutes ago, it was with a dawning horror that he was getting just what he asked for. The moon was apparently rotating, slowly but surely, revealing a form he wished he could unsee, as if everything else wasn’t enough.
“Justin, do you see what I see?…”
On the fractured edge, a ridge taller than any mountains on Earth had been pushed up, carving a deep triangular shadow between the edge and that distorted crater. Below that, a jagged crack across the lower hemisphere, looking for all the world like one half of a gaping death-grin. Both of them in their own way cursed the human mind’s mechanism of pattern recognition, especially for discerning faces.
“Tell me I’m seeing things…” Justin moaned.
By now, their alarm had broken Max out of his own grim reveries, and he saw it, too.
A cold moon of bone, like a pie-faced skull fragment hanging in the sky. Like nothing that ever loomed over any of their worlds, leering down with its big empty crater of an eye-socket. That sliver seeming to slowly turn its gaze upon the bleak landscape below.
Before Max could speak, they all felt a great stirring in the earth around them. Much to their horror, they could see those clumps of bare trees heaving and lurching, even if still anchored in place, and that set them running again. Not wanting to be caught standing still again after what happened back there.
On they fled, over the rocky terrain, occasionally stumbling and catching themselves under that cobalt moonlight, steering as far clear of the frenzied foliage as they could manage.
After an indeterminate amount of time, the trees began to settle down, and they slowed down to catch their breath, Shades suggesting they tread lightly so as to avoid drawing the things’ attention, if possible.
Justin was the first to notice that it was also dimmer, as slowing down was about the only way to avoid missing his footing every other step on this rough terrain. He glanced up, and, sure enough, a tattered veil of clouds had drifted in front of that morbid moon. It was hard not to think of them as somehow shrouding its vision, a most disconcerting analogy.
Much as they feared, when the clouds passed, and that bone moon was exposed again, the trees once more became active. This time, they stifled their terror as best they could, sticking with Shades’ strategy of moving quietly and keeping their distance. For it felt like there was nowhere to hide from that ominous gaze between the clouds’ passing.
Shades wished it was just his imagination, but at times that nightmare moon seemed almost to lean in close, and it was impossible to discount the notion that it was somehow directing or influencing these creatures. Tried to tell himself they were merely stimulated by moonlight, but couldn’t even sell it to himself, let alone the others.
When they found themselves trudging uphill, Max suggested they keep going, in spite of Justin’s grumbling, that high ground was about the only advantage left to take.
As they topped the rise, they looked down at the lay of the land beyond, seeing more of the same ahead. Until Max pointed out what looked like some sort of circular rock formation off to their right. Lacking anything else to go on, they headed that way.
Naturally, that was about when the last of the clouds parted, leaving the three of them exposed, out in the open.
Once again, they saw the plants stir, this time even more violently than before, as if they might totally uproot themselves and give chase or something, and they abandoned any pretense of stealth to make for the rocks with all haste.
As they drew nearer, they saw that the stones really were in a circle, most of them crumbling and broken, save for one lone arch, and their hopes of entrenching themselves quickly faded in the face of such ruin.
“The circle stones?…” Shades breathed, trying not to think of them as Stonehenge back in his own world. At least as it might look in some distant future, for even the arch was constructed of a single massive slab of stone bridging two colossal pillars. Raising more questions than he suspected this place would ever answer.
He was about to suggest going there anyway, just on gut instinct, when he spotted a vague, shadowy figure, about the size of a child, duck through that archway, beckoning for them to follow, and Shades urged them on, hoping he knew what he was doing.
As they ran through the arch, the felt everything waver around them, and even some fundamental quality in the air itself seemed to change. Instead of arid, stony ground, they ran knee-deep through grass. Though still night, the light changed in some subtle way, becoming warmer. Even the smells were different, more lush and verdant.
As they stumbled to a halt near the center of the circle, they also noticed one other major change, as well.
The circle stones themselves. No longer ancient beyond measure and toppled, but seeming almost brand new, all arches intact, looking for all the world as if it might have been completed just last week. Rough hewn, without a hint of the eons of erosion they displayed only moments ago, with only one arch still standing.
They all looked about, slack-jawed, for this circle stood in the midst of a vast clearing, surrounded by a forest of primeval conifers. None of which moved, save for the occasional puff of breeze. Finally, Justin thought to look up, the first to see an ordinary, if slightly greenish, half moon overhead, more like the one they saw the night before.
Shades also noted no sign of that child specter from before, leaving him feeling totally lost in the face of all those archways. Which he couldn’t help suspecting might be doorways to other places like that last one. Along with that same intuition their deliverer had slipped through one of them while none of them were paying attention, possibly costing them the simplest path back to the Woods they started this cursed expedition in.
“What the hell just happened?” Justin demanded at last.
“Don’t look at me,” Max replied.
“I think we’re in bigger trouble than I even want to think about,” Shades told them. Recalling what he could of various books he had read during their voyage aboard the Maximum, he explained: “There are some schools of thought that hold there to be more than one layer of reality, and anymore I think that’s why we’re having such a hard time navigating out here. Max, you experienced something similar to this on that Twylight derelict, right?”
“You just had to remind us,” Justin muttered.
“I don’t know what I experienced,” Max admitted, “but this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to its like.”
“It’s creepy to think about this, but with all the crazy shit we’ve seen in this world, it’s not much of a stretch to concede trees moving on their own,” Shades admitted, pondering how drastically moving a few trees can alter the same piece of terrain. “Still, trees are one thing— if it can rearrange the entire landscape, then we’re in deeper shit than I even want to think about…”
“But how?…” Max, like his friends, couldn’t even figure out how to frame such a question.
“I have no idea what could’ve caused something like this, but I have no trouble seeing why it drove everyone away.” Shades, could see no trace of the foul things hunting them bare minutes ago, and neither could the others, but also had the intuition that stepping back through that arch going the other way might well dump them right back in their previous predicament. “I’m not even so sure they understood it well enough to properly warn anyone about it…”
“Then what the hell do we do now?” Justin pressed him.
“For now, I think we’re safe here, as long as those things don’t follow us…” Shades shuddered in spite of himself, and wasn’t sure how much comfort he found in their doing likewise. There was something about these stones, a sense of lines of force, somehow distorted, yet still converging here. Fractured realities… it was no wonder this place became shunned. He could make out runic characters carved into the stones in regular sequences and intervals, and each arch was marked with a pictograph on its lintel, but they could find no clue to their meaning. “Our biggest challenge might just be getting back out from the same Woods we came in.”
“Could you just for once have some good news for situations like this?” Justin asked.
“So far, nothing’s chased us in here, and that creepy moon is gone,” Max pointed out. “I think that’s pretty good news, don’t you?”
So they waited, counting fifteen minutes by Shades’ watch, figuring that was more than enough time for anything back there to catch up with them if it was going to, then started setting up camp. As far as they could tell, this was quite possibly the safest place out here, so they might as well take advantage of it and rest. In spite of their terrible scare from not so long ago, exhaustion won out, watch or no watch.
Under a peaceful moon, they all fell asleep on the fluffy, springy grass, dozing off to the twittering of strange birds.