For his part, Shades drifted back up slowly, from swimming— drowning— in a dark void. Listening to a raspy, skittery old man’s voice, rambling in some long-forgotten tongue. Eventually, the voice of a little girl chimed in, as if to serve as his interpreter. And what he could recall of her words was any-thing but reassuring:
Stole the sun… Stole the moon… Stole the stars…
Then a final image, somehow darker than black, the silhouette of a hulking, misshapen form, crowned with a hoary tangle of antlers. Looking for all of this world like a grotesque travesty of Native American imagery from his own. A personification of death and entropy, and somehow he understood that they were running out of time, awakened to the feeling of being stalked, that even the quaint sawmill scenery he fell asleep to failed to dispel.
“Guys?” Max spoke up, having spotted something that immediately bothered him. “Did any of you leave that door open?”
And Shades found a moment to marvel in dismay at how the unconscious mind always picked up on critical details the conscious mind could easily overlook.
“No…” Justin shook his head, already visibly dreading where this was going.
As far as any of them could remember, that door had been closed all along, none of them wishing to needlessly disturb the place more than it took to examine it. Now it hung partway open, a yawning portal into musty darkness that had been staring out at them for who knew how long while they slept. Judging from one another’s expression, it was safe to say they all felt something icy trickling at the nape of their necks.
A cursory scan of the surrounding area revealed no immediate threat, nor any particular explanation for the door being open, so they took turns covering each other as they gathered their packs and climbed down. Despite having already verbally lampshaded it, they still approached quietly, weapons drawn, not wanting to be caught flatfooted by anything else out here. Justin and Shades covered Max as he stepped inside, seeing the roomy, gloomy interior in greater detail than they could have through the dusty windows.
And it was the dust he took note of first.
Footprints— boots, by the look of them— two distinct sets, both going in. Though they quickly became a mixed-up mess near the middle of the floor, as if a scuffle took place there. Ending with more footprints leading deeper into the building, into shadowy, creaky spaces none of them cared to venture into after all they’d seen out there.
“Do you think…” Shades hazarded a guess, though he dared not answer his own unspoken question aloud.
“Yes,” Max replied, pointing out something else he just noticed a moment ago, about a nearby piece if machinery. “I doubt it was anyone else.”
Clean-severed metal, as only an energy blade could cut.
Since they saw no prior signs of recent entry, they only looked in from outside. Realizing with a cold sweat that they were no longer even looking for human signs anymore. That this might have been here all along, unseen through grimy glass.
“But how…” Justin stammered. Figuring if it was Roxy, she would have revealed herself to them, and Erix would have killed them in their sleep.
“I’m thinking they’re long-gone,” Shades hypothesized. “About the only possibility that makes any sense is that the wind blew that door open while we were sleeping. I fail to see how either of them could’ve missed us, sleeping up there in the open…”
Shades quietly closed the door as they exited, placing a rock in front of the door to prop it closed before they walked away.
That ill-at-ease feeling of someone dancing on their graves only intensified as they returned to the sawmill to finish packing up their gear, only to find deep claw-marks slashed into the support beams on one side.
“I don’t remember that,” Max pointed out.
“Neither do I…” Justin seconded.
“This place isn’t safe,” Shades concluded. Well, no safer than anyplace else they’d been out here, at any rate. Though he had considered staying the night, and making one final push for Pickford in the morning, these last couple revelations changed everything. In light of recent developments, he proposed, “Let’s get going. We’re surely too far from Pickford to make it before dark, but we should try to get as close as we can, as fast as we can.”
They all nodded and set out.
Shunning another dirt logging road leading away from the mill, they resolved to continue following the river itself.
Cutting a trail along the bank, they tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, only firing up their energy blades when necessary to keep the river in sight at all times. Each of them quietly wondering exactly when they stopped worrying about Erix, or which way he and Roxy may have ultimately gone. All the more so at how that scene provided no clue if either of them still lived, or where they might be now.
As if the Woods themselves didn’t pose enough of a threat as it was.
They stopped only a short way from mill to try the radio, see if Roxy was anywhere within range. No response, just the usual static, and something that sounded like the chirping of crickets. Worse than nothing, Justin pointed out, at the possibility that Erix might now possess the radio, and they were all glad they had taken care to mention nothing about the river or the mill.
Even so, they picked up the pace, not wanting to potentially be in radio range anymore if Roxy wasn’t answering.
As the late afternoon sun sank into the trees, though, their accustomed dread of this place crept back to the fore, the gloom and shadows deepening around them with every step. After last night, every shadow appeared more menacing than ever, all of them determined to stay moving all night, if need be, unless they could find anyplace at least as defensible as that boulder or the sawmill roof. Flashlights and flare guns at the ready, as well as a couple hastily-crafted torches.
None of them in any hurry to see whatever fell moon rose this night.
Though a cloud front drifted in as the daylight faded, it offered no comfort.
It was in the midst of this dusky twilight that they heard a rustling from some nearby bushes. Each of them snapped to, weapons covering the foliage against an unseen threat. Flare gun, power pistol and laser sword all brought to bear against the Unknown.
“We know you’re in there…” Shades warned.
“Roxy, if that’s you, now would be a good time to come out…” Max advised.
“You’ve got a count of ten to show yourself,” Justin declared. “Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven…”
They all jumped back as something emerged from the bushes. In the dark, none of them were ever quite sure what it was, looking more like a skittering jumble of twigs than anything else. Justin nearly tripped on a stone, his shot going wide, while Max lunged in, energy blade cleaving the creepy thing in half.
Flashlights concentrated on a twitchy pile of branches, dripping ichor into the dirt. The closest any of them could come to forming a coherent picture of what they beheld was Shades trying to visualize some bizarre, mismatched stick bug, with no underlying symmetry to its form.
Before any of them could regain their words to comment, they heard more rustling in the underbrush, accompanied by loud clicking sounds.
The three of them were on the run before any of them could catch up with what their feet were already doing, kicking and stomping at any stray vegetation in their path.
“Stay together!” Max called out.
Keeping each other’s lights in sight, they struggled to do just that as they sought to evade an enemy they couldn’t always pinpoint as they fled this new menace.
Some time later, they all stumbled to a halt to look back, straining to hear the sound of any pursuit through the blood pounding in their ears, forming a circle, back to back to back.
Hearing nothing, they turned off their lights and stood as silently as they could while they tried to catch their breath.
“Are… they… still after us?” Justin panted.
“I don’t think so…” Max sighed.
“Hey guys…” Shades huffed, looking more closely at their surroundings. “Is it just me… or does this place look really… dead?”
Much to their dismay, all of the trees and shrubs around them were black and bare, the ground ashen and dusty, without a hint of grass or underbrush. It was also colder than any of them recalled, as well, now that they were no longer running for their lives yet again. Not to mention, now that they stopped for a couple minutes, even Max was having trouble catching his breath, as if the air itself had somehow grown thinner.
As if all having the same horrible thought at the same time, they looked skyward.
The clouds had steadily parted during their flight, so now they could see the sky clearly. If any of them could find words at that moment, it would likely have been a wish to see a moon. Any moon at all, rather than this.
No moon, no stars, only a dying sky.
Just the faint glow of nebulae and the shadows of galaxies, which all seemed too close to be real. On closer inspection, they could make out tiny pinpricks of black where the stars ought to be, darker than the space around them. Against the red and violet shifts of their slow turning, somehow barely discernible in the stillness.
The only thing worth looking at in these deadlands, the sky. The heavens as no one had ever seen from Earth. Nor anyplace else they’d ever been, or likely ever would.
Yet even this seemed to be slowly winding down, a cosmic clock with worn-out springs.
A dead wind blew, stirring only dust.
“Is this… how it ends?” Shades murmured as he looked around. “Galaxies close enough to see with the naked eye… black hole suns…This makes no sense…”.
“It’s all… dead?” Max breathed.
“We’ve gotta get out of here…” Justin moaned.
That was about when Shades’ dream from earlier snapped back into his head. That thing he thought of as ‘Antler’. Those ominous words: stole the sun… stole the moon… stole the stars…
And apparently also stole the river, as they looked around, neither seeing nor hearing it.
Even fleeing those creatures, they had kept close to the riverbank, hoping desperately to avoid losing their way any further. Yet there was no guarantee of any similarities between layers in these Woods, a fact they were all painfully aware of anymore. The sense of defeat perfectly complimented the ashen tang in the air.
“This… can’t be happening…” Justin gasped.
“Seriously?” Shades muttered, looking around in desperation.
“We can’t give up,” Max said, as much to himself as to his companions, as if in defiance of this grim place, rather than just their current predicament. “There’s gotta be a way…”
Just when it looked as if they were doomed to repeat more days of aimless wandering, Max spotted something off to the right. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a dried-up riverbed. As far as they could figure, it also seemed to run in the same general direction as the river they were already following before their run-in with the killer shrubbery.
With no better plan, they set about following it.
Along with not wanting to wait around for anything else to attack them, walking was also a good way push back against the stark chill in the air. As well as calm their nerves so they could concentrate. Though it also served to confirm their suspicions that the air really was thinner in this place, leaving even Shades, who grew up in the mountains, winded and slightly lightheaded.
They didn’t have to trudge very far to begin to understand that they weren’t going to make very good time in this place, having to stop every ten or fifteen minutes to catch their breath.
The closest thing any of them could compare it to was accounts Shades once read of Mount Everest expeditions, of adjusting to high altitudes. Only he could no longer spare the wind to tell them anything about it. Found himself thinking of Erix’s diving gear, only to realize that it would be heavier than his backpack, and offered only about an hour or so of oxygen, but still…
For the first time since they set out, Max found he feared for his own life even more than he feared for Bandit’s, and that bothered him even more than this morbid scenery.
The more Justin looked around at this dead world, the more he found himself thinking about that eerie sky bridge from the Harken Building. The one that crossed through a cavern, and whose mysterious collapse, or at least breach, seemed to suck all of the air out of that section. As well as the feeling that he might just meet whatever he suspected resided on that side of the glass somewhere in this world, despite the utterly sterile atmosphere of this place…
So they continued plodding against the cold, the thinness of the air, and the unnerving impression that if they slowed down, the entropy of this place might just catch up with them.
Much like his friends, Shades was unsure exactly when he first noticed the hair on the back of his neck shifting, as if feeling a draft, despite the sparse wind out here, and that dread sense of something approaching.
Along with an instinctive, gut knowledge that whatever it was, they weren’t going to like it. All three of them looked over their shoulder in almost perfect unison, each nearly stumbling under the ominous sight looming behind them. A shadow on the horizon, blotting out the dim lights of that dying sky.
At first, it would be all too easy to dismiss it as a front of stormclouds, troublesome enough in the absence of any shelter, yet further examination revealed that shadow was also blacking out the barren lands beneath it. An advancing wall of darkness, devouring everything in its wake. The worst thing about it, though, was the resolving shape that rode atop it.
A hoary mass of antlers, made of solid shadow, beneath which two dead orbs hovered, both darker than black.
A silly name, for such a terrifying sight, one that nearly sent Shade into fits of hysterical giggling. Though he knew it had another name, ancient beyond history, one he was certain mortal ears were never meant to hear…
None of them recalled exactly when they took off running, only that their feet had taken on a mind of their own, and most certainly had the right idea. That whatever stalked these deadlands was more dangerous than everything else they’d encountered in the Woods combined, and utterly, hopelessly, beyond them. Right about now, wishing more than ever that the plane was still working, and they were aboard it right this moment.
Though Shades, at least, struggled against the image of that vast shadow reaching out somehow and swatting them right out of the sky. That even an airplane couldn’t hope to outrun this thing. This shadow of death loomed over the whole land, and none of them believed there was anyplace to hide from this, by now running on nothing more than primal panic, even as it casually closed the distance between them with every frantic backwards glance.
Lungs burning, straining for air that wasn’t there, running on adrenaline and cortisol.
From an advancing wall of doom, as inevitable as death itself.
Such was their panic, that it wasn’t until a complete lack of ground under their feet sent them tumbling headlong that any of them realized they were no longer paying any attention to where they were even running. That they just ran right off a cliff. Screaming into the thin air as death behind gave way to death ahead and below.
Shades almost thought it might be better this way, before finding himself stricken with the horrible intuition that even death would be no escape from that thing…
Still flailing, they splashed into deep, cold water, what little breath was left in their lungs knocked out of them as they thrashed about and sank.
The shock, though, served to snap them out of their previous blind panic, even as they struggled back upward against tired limbs and soggy clothes, lungs straining for air even more than before. Though they would never be sure if it was just the bubbles of their own impact and the current itself, after all they’d seen, it took little effort to imagine other things down there with them. Adding even greater desperation to their efforts.
Coughing and gasping and shuddering as they dragged themselves up on the bank of what turned out to be a wide plunge pool, where waters at the bottom of a waterfall gathered before taking another, smaller, dip to resume the river’s course. As they at last started to catch their breath and regain some semblance of composure, they noticed there was indeed a waterfall back there, marking where the terrain took a sharp drop. At least twenty or thirty feet; high enough for a bone-shattering drop, if there had been no water below to break their fall.
From up there…
As if all having the same terrifying thought, they all looked around the sky, seeing no trace of the horrible wall of black that so nearly drove them to their deaths. Instead, they saw trees with broad leaves, and underbrush that looked like oversized ferns. As well as more of the same up top, the sky itself sprinkled with stars.
The thing that most quickly grabbed their attention, though, was the moon. Both of them. One lavender, the other pink, and slightly larger. The former at a quarter, the latter nearly full.
Breathtaking beauty on the heels of such breathtaking horror, leaving them at a loss for words.
After a few minutes, though, they arrived at a tacit agreement that none of them felt like hanging around the water’s edge to see what might pop up next. They set out, quickly finding where the river resumed its course, and resumed theirs.
Cold, wet, tired and wary, yet also all too aware of how close they just came to total annihilation only a short while ago.