Even the skull’s absence in the waking world did little to dispel his dread, upon seeing the rest of his surrounding. Same Woods. Same clearing. Same predicament.
The sky overhead cloudy, dreary, threatening to rain at any moment.
He groaned as he sat up, finding his back and neck stiff from sleeping on the ground, muttering, “And today’s forecast: mostly cloudy, with a seventy-five percent chance of precipitation. Oh, and watch out for flurries of eldritch bullshit on Highway Thirteen between Stilton and Pickford…”
His sleep plagued by dark visions of cute forest animals with red glowing eyes, and trees that couldn’t keep their branches to themselves. Of a dog or wolf’s jaws snapping and snarling in his face. A harrowing blur, but still he found he didn’t like the look of this place, even in broad daylight.
Woke up at last from what he sincerely hoped were just run-of-the mill nightmares about Camp Stilton. A creepy image of an entire mass grave somewhere out behind the campground. Could all too easily imagine it being dug and buried by those old, rusty logging machines back there…
The only consolation he could come up with was that he mercifully could not remember dreaming anything about Kelly Edwards, and the frightening, final moments of her life.
Thinking about it, though, prompted him to open his pack, finding her small skull right where he left it last night.
“I wonder if Roxy’s doing any better…” In spite of all he’d seen in the last day or so, he found he still couldn’t picture her dying so easily.
“Who knows?” Justin shrugged. “Last we saw, she was headed for that Rannigan’s place.”
“Alas, poor Erix,” Shades told the skull. “I knew him…” But no matter how he looked at it, it lacked any grooves on the left-hand side, and was simply too small to belong to an adult. “That we would be so lucky.”
“Wishful thinking,” Justin agreed.
Then the moment of whimsy passed, and Shades remembered that the skull he held belonged to a child who likely died a very gruesome and terrifying death out here, all alone. Or possibly not so alone, which may well have been the problem.
“Sorry kid,” Shades apologized. “Whoever you were,” though he was already pretty sure he knew, “please do not begrudge our making light of these grave circumstances. Please understand, we’re still alive, and more scared than we’d like to admit… Right, Max?”
Shades put the skull back in his pack, wondering why his friend was so quiet, silently reiterating his promise of a proper burial if— when— they reached civilization. Figured mocking the skull and then throwing it away was the sort of thing Erix would do. Not to mention bad karma, and he figured Max would likely agree.
“Yes, please put the skull away,” Justin said. “Talking to it is just plain creepy.”
Shades frowned openly as he surveyed his surroundings. Now that he looked around, nothing about the clearing where they laid their camp looked the same as it did the evening before. Even knowing that things look different at dusk than in daylight did nothing to dispel that insidious intuition.
Shuddered at the observation that the entire clearing seemed measurably smaller than it had last night.
“You don’t recognize this place either, do you?” Max finally asked, sounding every bit as concerned as his friend looked. After finding those ominous remains, it was impossible to shake off the same feeling as the Harken Building, or that disturbing Twylight derelict. Even his disorienting early days in the Isle of Paradise as a boy were starting to feel like a walk in the park in hindsight.
“You’re shittin’ me, right?” But even as Justin looked around, he could see they were right. Even that road sign from last night was nowhere to be found, not even farther back in the trees, that any of them could tell.
Not that any of them felt like poking around back there to find out.
“I know I heard something during my last watch…” At times, Max occasionally thought he saw a flicker of movement, out beyond the glow of their campfire, but no matter where he shined his flashlight, he never saw anyone or anything. That all of those small movements added up to this, right under his nose… “But I never saw anything…”
“As they would say in my world, you missed the forest for the trees.” Though Shades’ witty tone quickly faltered as an ominous image formed in his mind. Just couldn’t help but picture the Woods slowly creeping up on them, as if waiting for their fire to sputter out. “I think we should leave this place, the sooner the better.”
Before Justin could propose at least eating breakfast before departing, it started raining. That made up their minds for them, and they quickly packed up their camping gear, and Shades showed them how to tie up their tarps into makeshift rain ponchos, looking for all the world like gaudy blue and green cloaks, adjusting them for optimal range of motion, and quick access to their weapons.
“Groovy,” Shades blessed their handiwork, hoping it would stick.
That settled, they left the rain to finish snuffing out their campfire’s dying embers.
In his shame, Shades found he almost wished they’d run into Smokey the Bear, rather than that looming sense of dread that if they were still in that clearing when the last spark of their fire fizzled out, something ugly was going to happen.
They all kept their energy blades close at hand, passing through the widest gaps they could find between the trees. Combined with the scenery rearranging itself behind their backs, and the sky being so dark and overcast, Shades had no idea how the sun might have risen in relation to where it set. Thus, all they could do was try to keep to as steady a direction as they could while they trudged along.
It wasn’t until they were nearly an hour away from that cursed clearing, with no sign of pursuit, that they finally relaxed enough to break out some ration bars and jerky, but continued to walk as they ate while they broke their fast.
Even the fact that they never heard anything back there did little to ease any of their minds, and Shades wondered if that was genuine intuition, or just plain paranoia back there. Catching forty winks in these woods struck him as a very bad idea.
For the first time since they left Anchor Point, Justin found himself reconsidering the act of throwing away that black duster Roxy gave him. Surprised he would regret it so soon. It also dawned on him that it had been almost two days since he even thought about Jesse Fletcher, and all the trouble his use of Justin’s name had left waiting for him out in the world, like some convoluted karmic minefield.
Not that there was anything he could do about it out here.
At first, they were still worried about Erix, but found him increasingly lurking on the backburner against what they currently faced. A tough decision, opting for pace over stealth, but if they wanted to cross the peninsula in time to help their friends, they could not afford to slow down and sneak without a discernable threat to avoid. As if playing Red-Light/Green-Light with rogue foliage wasn’t unnerving enough. Increasingly certain that if Erix was still alive out there, he surely had problems of his own to deal with.
Along with wondering if Roxy was still alive, Max also wondered aloud, “If Roger failed to keep him locked in, would Bandit even be able to find us out here?”
“I doubt it,” Shades replied. “These Woods are nothing like my old home.”
And the weather would have had the final word.
“That bad, huh?”
“Back there, the woods were my friend, and never betrayed me,” Shades tried to explain. Before now, he had never seriously considered just how old the forests of the Flathead Valley truly were. Older than the original peoples of those lands, and long before his own ancestors ever found their way to that continent. Yet even on the night of the Flathead Experiment, it had still remained the natural wood it always was, the one thing that hadn’t scared him.
But this forest was different.
It all came back to that camp. That abandoned camp. Though he had to admit that he had always been simultaneously intrigued and unsettled by abandoned places. It was the love-hate relationship of the habitual loner, but he also wondered at times if it wasn’t also instinct and perhaps a little premonition.
Was that camp built on an Indian burial ground or some shit?… Shades’ rational mind reminded him that he was in another dimension. The other half of his mind pointed out that there were other indigenous peoples in this world, and he doubted all of them came out as well as the Kona. You’ve watched too many horror movies.
And, he reminded himself, seen a couple too many real haunted places for your own good.
This whole place smelled of primeval odors, of moss and fungus and rotting wood. A fairy-tale forest even the Brothers Grimm themselves could never have imagined. And it looked as if he and his friends might soon find out what haunted these woods, for it stood between them and the rest of the world.
Yesterday, they used Max’s radio, now Shades’, to conserve battery power, leaving it in receiver mode, in large part because none of them cared to actively listen for very long. Sometimes, Shades would hear deep grunts and snorts and snuffling. As if from some massive beast, so great and terrible, even all of their firepower might not be enough to bring it down. Recalling some tale he once read, about a cursed camera that kept showing grim pictures of the subject’s future, he grappled with the irrational, counterintuitive notion that ignoring it was the safest course of action. That listening to it might summon it, might somehow get its attention in some way he didn’t even begin to comprehend.
At random intervals around them, distant sounds beyond their limited line of sight. Groaning and creaking to snapping and breaking. But not a hint of movement to go with. Both the rain-washed visibility, and the pattering hiss of rainfall obscuring distance and direction, fluctuating in waves from downpour to drizzle, just when their senses were starting to adjust to one extreme or the other.
Producing a constant feeling of being watched by something as unseen as it surely was unhallowed.
Shades found yet another moment to wonder how he got from Anchor Point, where he was merely having nightmares, to this eldritch forest, where he was also living one.
Justin struggled not to imagine his own twisted dreams last night. The same dark sky, dreary trees, only with butchered shapes dangling from ropes and chains. Some skinned and gleaming, others wrapped in sack cloth. Swaying, twisting, creaking. Like a thawed-out version of the meat locker he passed through in the frozen storage rooms of the Harken Building.
Max kept trying not to see Bandit’s mangled remains around every turn.
They even ate lunch on the move, as stopping to rest anywhere for more than five or ten minutes at a time left them all feeling too edgy to relax anyway, at the memory of that creepy experience back in the clearing. Each of them knew they would need to rest soon, that they couldn’t keep this up forever, yet the lack of anyplace that felt safe kept them moving. No way to be sure if all trees were a threat, or just some, more fear than anything keeping them moving by then, leaving them with grave concerns about where they could even camp after dark.
They stopped for another short while in another clearing to refill their canteens with clean rainwater, but refused to linger long.
No matter how much time seemed to stretch out like temporal taffy as they trudged through the rain and soggy terrain, they were still taken aback when the clouds finally blew over to reveal a late afternoon sunset. The bruised yellow stormlight a revelation of just how long they had been marching, with scarcely a few five- or ten-minute rest breaks, even eating lunch on the move. Afraid to lean on any tree for long after all they’d seen.
Even an end to the rain offered little consolation, as the forest was sopping wet, and so were they.
Thus they were surprised to stumble upon an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere. Had to admit even its sagging shingles and broken windows still afforded more shelter from the weather than crudely-rigged tarp tents. The chimney promising a blazing fire to warm up and dry off in front of, to say nothing of a hot meal.
All the same, they all paused in front of the place for a moment, as if harboring identical suspicions. The cottage just felt too convenient, too much like a trap. Yet Shades, especially, felt increasingly certain that one, if not all of them, would soon catch a chill if they continued to blunder around and exhaust themselves out here, cold and wet, without at least a little rest.
Tired, footsore, and damp, they wordlessly admitted defeat, and on some unspoken agreement, all decided to turn in early today since shelter, no matter how dubious, had presented itself.
In spite of their fatigue, though, they still checked around the outside of the house, finding no cause for alarm. They found a path leading from the front door. Right over to a dense wall of trees and underbrush. About as they expected.
“You know,” Justin declared, “I’m really starting to hate this place.”
“We should totally start a club,” Shades replied as they turned back to the cottage.
Drawing their weapons, Shades opened the unlocked door on rusty, squawking hinges, while Max and Justin entered guns first, finding the place as deserted and dilapidated as it appeared from the outside.
Inside, Shades could discern the decrepit remains of an herbalist’s apparatus ranged around the main room. Drying racks of shriveled plant parts, mortar and pestle, cracked alembic and retort, rusty strainers and clippers, screw press, a large tarnished calcinator, scales, rows of dusty bottles and jars, sagging baskets, and other tools of the craft which the house’s original owner apparently fled in too much haste to pack up. The roof proved to be even more leaky than Stilton Lodge, so they quickly set themselves to the task of starting a fire.
The chimney turned out to be surprisingly clear of debris, and there was some firewood stacked inside near the fireplace, so they started with that, then hauled in some damp wood from a pile against the outside wall to dry near the fire. Shades found a ratty old straw broom, and swept away the dust and detritus, while Justin used a can of nails and an old hammer to board up the windows. There were two doors in the back, one leading to a small, empty bedroom, the other to a funky-smelling pantry that they quickly slammed the door to and stuffed the cracks with old rags to shut out the stink.
Shades rigged up some old pots and pans to the bedroom door in a fashion he recalled Erix using as a makeshift intruder alarm at the late Mr Larson’s house back on Kon Kimbar. They propped an old rickety chair under the front door latch; though they doubted it would hold for long against anyone (or anything) serious enough about breaking in for long, it would at least make plenty of noise. Figured that if any trees came after them in here, they might at least have a fighting chance, even if the structure wouldn’t offer as much resistance as it could have even five or ten years ago, it was still better than nothing.
By then, they had a good blaze going to dry their sodden boots and gear. To say nothing of their first cooked meal since last night. Since there was no accounting for the weather, Shades rigged up one of their tarps, hanging it from the corners of the ceiling on their side of the room.
“Slant it that way,” he instructed Max as they worked, “so even if it rains again, we’ll stay relatively dry over here.”
That resolved, they settled in for a grim supper and early bed, even less sure than last night if any of them would get much sleep between watches. Even so, the lumpy ground outside made modular seats feel like five-star accommodations, and even the slightly warped floor of a cottage was an improvement from wilderness terrain, especially now that it was all soaked. Much to their chagrin, they all fell asleep more easily than they expected, exhaustion finally taking its toll.