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Wizard Tournament: Chapter 12
“Gayooru?” Peter asked. He was taking notes again. “How do you spell that?”
“Gear-you is close enough,” Sylnya answered. “And don’t ask me to spell it. He’s been around longer than any recorded history so nobody knows where he came from.”
“That old?” Peter’s eyebrows shot up. “You didn’t mention that when we were reviewing his details. Is he some kind of ancient repository of lost wisdom from before the Purge?”
Draevin chuckled. “Oh yeah, that’s Giryuoru for you… always dispensing wisdom.”
Sylnya smiled along and added, “What’s your favorite, the part about his swamp?”
“Oh definitely,” Draevin agreed, “but for me more specifically I’m more partial to the part where he tells us to leave.”
Peter stopped taking notes. He looked from Sylnya to Draevin. “So he’s not…?”
“Not full of wisdom?” Sylnya finished for him. “Not particularly, no.”
“But he sure does like to talk,” Draevin added. “Oh look, here he comes now.”
On the field below a procession of purple-robed acolytes dragged a large metal box to the field and left it within the wards of the fighter’s box. The box was etched all over with the runes needed to contain the creature inside and chains connected the side of the box facing the arena grounds to a pair of acolytes that stood just outside the boundary line. It made for quite the show for both contestants of this match to arrive under armed guard, and as Trundle had his chains removed a hush came over the crowd.
Maeve began with Trundle. “Trundle is a gnome sanguimancer from Trenal representing the Cult of the Burning Eye. He is carrying the Belt of 10,000 Strikes and his wish is to ascend the members of the Cult of the Burning Eye to a higher state of being greater than mortal or demon-kind. Trundle wants everyone to know that he has seen the deepest reaches of Hell and he would still rather take a vacation there than Shashena.” Trundle ran a hand over his slick red hair before removing the golden belt he was wearing to hold up for the crowd. He cracked a grin along with the crowd when they laughed at his dig at Shashena. Draevin suspected there was a story behind that comment.
“The belt is a defensive item,” Sylnya explained to Peter. “Blood magic works a little differently from most other kinds of magic so he uses the belt to buy enough time for his rituals.”
“Differently how?” Peter asked her. “How is a ritual different from an incantation?”
“I’m not really an expert,” she told him, “but I can try to explain a little after the match.”
“It’s not that complicated,” Draevin spoke up. “It just uses blood instead of mana.”
Sylnya shot Draevin a dirty look. He wasn’t sure why. It might have had something to do with the look of excitement on Peter’s face though. Peter scribbled down some notes.
“Giryuoru is a swamp elemental that just wants to get this arena out of his swamp.” Maeve announced next. It was the shortest introduction any contestant was going to get. Giryuoru didn’t have a sponsor or an item and didn’t even register with the regular contestants. He just had a standing arrangement with the Guild that he would be allowed to fight each year in exchange for not attacking travelers on the road.
A chant of, “Get out! Get out!” started up around the arena. Giryuoru had somehow accumulated some fans over the years; something Draevin would never understand.
“I thought we were in a jungle, not a swamp,” Peter pointed out.
Draevin chuckled. “Don’t tell Giryuoru that.”
“Like anyone misses that dumb swamp,” Sylnya commented dryly. “Everyone loves jungles.” Draevin begged to differ, but not enough to say so out loud in front of his dryad friend.
Down on the field the unlucky acolytes tasked with letting Giryuoru out of its box got ready to pull on the chain. Maeve passed on the signal to the judges that they were ready. The bell chimed.
The two acolytes heaved on their chain and Giryuoru’s box flung open. There was an explosion of thick brown mud that splattered the acolytes and everything else in the vicinity. The mud flooded out of the metal box in a veritable landslide that made it all the way across the field to where Trundle was standing. There was a small circle of clean dirt around Trundle’s feet.
“GET OUT OF MY SWAMP!” A booming voice cried out from somewhere deep within the mountain of sludge. Fans all over lost their minds at hearing the iconic phrase. Draevin even spotted a small group down in the front row who had removed their shirt and gotten splattered with Giryuoru’s mud on purpose. It seemed very exciting to them for some reason and they were waving their arms wildly while they cheered.
Trundle paid no mind to any of it. He simply slashed the palm of his hand open with a dagger and started chanting in the throaty language of demons. A bright red glow emanated from his bloody hand in response to his chanting.
The mud on the field gathered back together into a massive hill with a face and arms. It looked towards Trundle and bellowed once more. “GET OUT!” It heaved a blob of mud at Trundle which merely splashed harmlessly against the invisible egg-shaped barrier his enchanted belt provided.
A bright spot of red hellfire appeared in the air before Trundle. He kept chanting and the spot of red began to expand into a Hell rift. Giryuoru was at least intelligent enough to understand this was a bad thing. It sprayed Trundle down with a concentrated blast of mud that splashed just as uselessly against his barrier. Smoke rose from the growing Hell rift when it got wet, but it kept expanding wider. Giryuoru tried to rush at Trundle instead. Its whole body became a tidal wave of mud that buried Trundle and his barrier entirely.
Considering how useless Giryuoru’s mud was against that belt of Trundle’s, burying him in mud actually wasn’t the worst strategy. Giryuoru typically employed two basic strategies; throw his opponent out, or suffocate them.
The mud swirled into a whirlpool centered over where Trundle had been standing. An angry face the size of a wagon appeared over Trundle’s spot in the mud and shouted, “GET OUT! GET OOOUT!” The gear-heads in the audience took up the chant once again. Draevin groaned in annoyance.
The mud where Giryuoru had covered the Hell rift was bubbling and smoking. A turn of the wind brought a few of the fumes in Draevin’s direction and he and Peter started gagging. “Oh gods!” Peter moaned. The human shoved his face under his collar. It smelled like Draevin imagined a pile of human feces would if someone lit it on fire and wafted the smoke in his direction with a rotting cow carcass. He tried to speak the incantation for Clean Object, but just ended up coughing ineffectually.
Thankfully Sylnya noticed what was happening, and though she couldn’t smell it herself, she ran her fingers through a quick series of woven hand signs and sprouted four fuzzy little purple flowers from the palm of her hand. She plucked them off and offered two to Draevin. He shoved them up his nose and sucked in a blessedly-fresh breath through them. Peter followed his lead.
“Dadth wuzz boul,” Draevin said through his blocked nostrils.
On the field below the hellfire portal had boiled off a circular trench in Giryuoru’s mud. A humanoid shape began to rise to the surface from its center.
“A new contestant has entered the arena,” Maeve announced.
“Dew conessnand?” Peter asked. “Wuhd dee…” His question trailed off as a demon emerged from the mud. The creature had the head of a goat with two curly horns on its head and long flexible fingers with needle sharp claws. Hellfire dripped from the demon’s mouth and it let out a wide torrent of red flames at Giryuoru’s mud. Everywhere the flames hit mud turned to clay.
“I forgot to tell you,” Sylnya shouted over boos from the gear-heads in the crowd. “There are some special rules regarding demon summoning. There’s a reason Trundle is the only one who tries it.”
Giryuoru’s face appeared near the goat demon. “YOU DO NOT BELONG HERE, DARK ONE,” he shouted. “GET OUT!” The swamp elemental spat a dark ball of mud directly into the goat demon’s mouth, which cut off the flames. He followed that up with a tide of swamp mud that buried the demon. The crowd whooped in delight at the sudden change.
A black claw broke from the surface and tried to get traction, but was just sucked under the surface once again. Giryuoru’s face emerged near the dried-out clay the demon had left behind and broke the pieces off and threw them away. Chunks of powdery earth smacked against the wards and several gear-heads had to be restrained by Guild acolytes as they tried to lean down over the railing and scoop up pieces.
“Come on!” Sylnya shouted into the air while clapping her hands. “Let’s see some action!”
The demon was sucked under the mud once. Twice. The third time its head came up there was a flame burning within its maw again. It went under once more, then the mud began to glow red and rapidly boiled away. The mud was quickly cooked into a solid shell of dirt. The demon clawed its way to the surface and emerged from the fiery hole in the ground surrounded by red flames, molten earth and black smoke. It looked like the creature had crawled right out of Hell, and that wasn’t far from the truth either.
Giryuoru’s form rose up from behind the demon, ready to bury it once more. The demon turned on the elemental with another red flame ready. It shot a fireball from its jaws that crashed into Giryuoru’s face and splashed over it. An impression of the elemental’s face solidified on the field in a rictus of pain.
Its face emerged again several paces away somewhat smaller in size than before. “FIRE NO!” Giryuoru shouted at the demon. In response to the fire, Giryuoru employed a novel strategy; he pooled up a small pond of swamp water behind his face and spat it through his mouth out at the demon in a powerful stream. The goat demon threw up its arms to block the attack and bleated angrily. As the swamp water dribbled off the demon’s body, Giryuoru formed rivulets that led the water back to his pond where it could be recycled into a never-ending loop.
It was hard to make out what was happening to the demon from beneath the water, but it seemed more annoyed than threatened by the elemental’s attack. After enduring the attack for a few seconds a red light began to glow within the stream and the water began to evaporate away into huge clouds of steam. Draevin was glad of his flowery nose-filters as a gust of the steam wafted in their direction once again and the nearby fans groaned and retched in disgust. Only a few crazy gear-heads—many of whom were dryads anyway—seemed undisturbed by the stench.
Once their swamp water started evaporating it didn’t take long for Giryuoru to run out of moisture. His stream of water sputtered out and the mud that was left was much less malleable than before. The goat demon bleated in triumph and charged Giryuoru’s face and blasted it with another flame. “NO! GET—” the swamp elemental tried to say. This time when the face hardened into clay it didn’t reform elsewhere. The demon stomped its hooved feet on the dried out husk and crushed the face to powder.
A bell chimed and Maeve announced, “Giryuoru has been eliminated.” She did not, however, announce that Trundle had won. The demon didn’t relax either, merely going down on all fours and sniffing around warily. When it found what it was looking for it drew in a large breath and shot a burst of hellfire towards a nondescript mound of cooked mud.
The mud quickly burned away to reveal Trundle, who had been buried during Giryuoru’s opening salvo and not seen since. The fireball splashed against his barrier harmlessly. Trundle was red-faced and panting and had a look of relief as soon as the mud surrounding him cleared away.
His own demon rushed at Trundle and shot another gout of flames against his barrier. On this second attack a purple shimmer started to become visible: a sign that his barrier was reaching its limit. Trundle slashed his still bloody hand with his knife and went back to chanting in demonic once more. A section of dried mud nearby crumbled away to reveal that the Hell rift from earlier was—at least partially—still open. There was now a force sucking dust and dirt inwards towards the Hell rift.
“Good job Kreath’zint, but now it’s time to get the fuck outta here!” Trundle shouted at the demon.
The demon did not seem interested in what Trundle wanted it to do. It dug its claws into the scorched mud and pulled itself towards Trundle with its back hooves flapping in the pull of the rift. Slowly and steadily it clawed closer to him while he focused on his banishment ritual. More and more loose debris started getting sucked into the rift and Trundle’s hand began to glow from the strain but the demon stubbornly refused to be sucked in.
“Since the demon was summoned into the battle,” Sylnya added helpfully for Peter’s benefit, “Trundle can’t win until it’s defeated.” The demon tried to breathe another gout of hellfire at Trundle, but the force of the rift was so strong at this point that the fireball left its mouth and got sucked backwards instead. Trundle was dripping with sweat and blood and kept up his chanting within his barrier.
The demon kept clawing its way steadily closer to Trundle. When it finally reached him it started clawing its way up the barrier. Its claws hit the edge of the barrier and sent cracks of bright purple light out around the point of contact. The goat demon pulled back one claw and jabbed it at the barrier sharply and the cracks flared and expanded all the way around until Trundle almost couldn’t be seen behind them. The glow of hellfire returned to the demon’s maw.
Trundle didn’t look concerned. In fact, he smiled at the demon.
“Buh-bye dipshit!” Trundle said with a little waggle of his fingers. He touched his belt and the barrier disappeared. With nothing left to hold onto, the demon tumbled backwards into the rift and vanished.
“The demon has left the arena,” Maeve announced as the bell chimed a second time, “Trundle wins.”
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Out of the Pines
Its source streaks out after me a second later – a flash of mottled grey and tan elation. Euey is instantly in her element. Her paws trace semicircles in the soil behind the car as she sniffs noisily in every direction, impatient to take in the thousand scents that swirl around and through each other in the pine-crisp air of the [XXXX] National Forest.
I’m as eager and buzzing with restless energy as she is. After weeks of planning, we’re about to embark on our first multi-day hike since I relocated here to the Pacific Northwest. In my mind, the trip marks the end of the worst year and a half of my life.
During those agonizing months, as I struggled to keep my head above water through anxiety over the bleak academic job market and grief at the sudden (though not unexpected) death of my mother, my lifeline was imagining just this sort of excursion. Fantasies of slipping past a dense woodline and losing myself in the ancient loveliness of the evergreens consoled me when I finally conceded – fancy philosophy PhD notwithstanding – that there would be no career for me in academia. That, at 32, I’d have to find something new to do with my life, and with no family left to lend me a sense of rootedness through the transition.
I toss my head lightly, brushing back the memories with the lock of hair that’s fallen across my glasses. I shoulder my pack, give Euey’s ears a scratch, and head toward the quaint old repurposed cabin that serves as the Park’s welcome center.
“Be Back Soon!” the sign on the door promises in cheery, hand-carved spruce. Odd. I must have stopped by this building at least a dozen times over the past couple of months, on my way out to the trails for shorter hikes, and I’ve never seen it closed during daylight hours before.
The corners of my smile slip a bit as I realize that this means I’ll have to forgo my customary Saturday chat with Whit, who runs the center over the weekends. He and I quickly formed a compelling connection when I began frequenting the Park – first over our mutual appreciation for its old-growth woods, and then, as we got to know each other better, over the experience of coming out to our families in our mid-20s that we both share.
For a moment my mind is full of his warm mahogany eyes, crinkling at the corners as they do when he’s about to deliver an unforgivable pun. Next time, I promise myself; I’ll ask for his number the next time I see him.
Of course, I’ve made the same vow every weekend for the past two months.
For now, though, the sun has been up nearly half an hour already, and I have a lot of ground to cover in order to reach my intended campsite by nightfall. The route I’ve planned is ambitious, especially for a novice hiker. A little shiver of nervous excitement slides down my spine and settles in my stomach as I remind myself of the consequences of falling short: a profoundly solitary night somewhere along the trail, away from the company and sense of security that an established campsite in a popular National Forest offers.
“Better get going,” I grin at Euey.
People exploring the wilderness of the PNW for the first time often express surprise at just how quickly the feeling of being “close to civilization” gives way to the unmistakable sense that one is in the deep woods. Euey and I have been walking for less than an hour now, no more than two miles or so beyond the trailhead, and already I feel it uncoiling itself at the base of my brainstem: the familiar conviction that I’ve wandered out of my species’ territory.
(These pictures from one of my previous hikes on the same stretch of trail capture something of the source and nature of the feeling, I think: photo 1, photo 2)
For me, the sensation has always served as a potent catalyst for aesthetic experience. It heightens my awareness of the otherness and ages-old unknowability of the place until the forest undergoes a sort of chrysopoeia for me, its beauty temporarily transmuted into sacredness in my perception. Or, at any rate, the nearest thing to sacredness that a confirmed atheist can countenance.
Absorbed in these thoughts, I don’t notice at first that Euey has dropped out of view. I turn around and find that she’s standing about 5 yards behind me, rigid and perfectly still. She’s staring intently into the trees bordering the path with her head low and ears at stark attention.
This portion of the trail winds along the side of a hill, the ground rising sharply to the right and sloping downward somewhat more gradually to the left. Euey is staring in the latter direction, into the dense tangle of ferns, foliage, and deadfall that veils the hill’s descent.
“Come on, Euey,” I call. The words come out more softly than I intended, but my voice seems to cut through the quiet with a disconcerting sharpness – like a peal of laughter during that moment at a party when every conversation has simultaneously reached a lull. She doesn’t react.
I walk a few paces back toward her, following her gaze in an effort to spot whatever has her so riveted. It’s mid-October, and not yet uncommon for newly weaned fawns to wander closer than their mothers would’ve permitted to these heavily trafficked trails. (Well, usually heavily trafficked – today I haven’t encountered anyone else since I arrived.) My fingers brush absently against the canister of bear spray clipped to my belt loop, but I see nothing.
A towhee calls brightly nearby, and all at once the tension in Euey’s body evaporates. She saunters up the path toward me and continues past, tail wagging; she’s evidently ready to keep exploring.
My pulse quickens abruptly, however, and I stay rooted to the spot several seconds longer, scanning the shadows beneath the pines. Until the bird’s call interposed itself between Euey and the object of her attention, I hadn’t noticed that the only sound I’d heard for at least 10 minutes had been the crunch of dry leaves under our feet.
The next several hours of the hike pass peacefully and pleasantly, accompanied (with no further unsettling intermissions) by the usual music of the woods.
Shortly before noon, we reach a stretch of trail that runs alongside a tidy, sunlit circular clearing for about 60 feet. Toward the clearing’s distant edge, perhaps 45 or 50 feet from the path, is a small grey boulder streaked with veins of basalt- and bronze-colored minerals.
“What do you think, girl?” I smile, giving Euey’s ears a satisfied tousle. “I’ll bet that we could walk a hundred miles and never find a nicer lunch spot.”
The trail is plainly visible from every part of the clearing, and so I don’t pay much attention when she declines to follow me into it in favor of stretching out on the shady packed soil.
Neither do I notice how the hazy sunlight that illuminates the clearing seems to be filtering through the surrounding trees, but not from any particular direction… and certainly not from directly overhead, as it should be at midday.
A breeze whispers through the eucalyptus-hued carpet of ferns and tall grass; they bend and sway together in waves, rustling as they lap against the solitary stone island on which I’m now sitting. The effect is enticingly soporific, and more than once I let my eyes drift closed for a moment as I nibble my dried cranberries and nuts.
I rest in the clearing this way for perhaps 20 minutes before rejoining Euey on the trail. 20 minutes, and no longer.
My first indication that something is wrong follows swiftly after. Euey and I have barely resumed walking when I pull out my phone to consult the hiking app on which my route is charted. I move to unlock the screen, but stop short, my thumb frozen above the Home button.
“What the hell? That can’t be right.”
The clock display reads 3:45 p.m.
It shouldn’t, couldn’t, be later than about 12:30. I swing my pack off my shoulders and fumble around inside it for a moment, eventually producing the wristwatch that I carry in case my phone dies on the trail. The charcoal numbers blink up at me unsympathetically: 3:46 p.m.
Could I have fallen asleep in the clearing without being aware of it? For three hours? I can’t imagine how – but no other explanation comes to mind, however assiduously I cast around for one.
In any case, I have a more pressing problem. We’re now hours behind schedule on a hike that was meant to take all day. Even if we were to push through the rest of the route with minimal breaks, there’s no way that we’d make it to the campsite before sunset. And, for an inexperienced night-hiker with no headlamp and an easily spooked dog, attempting to navigate the remainder of the distance in darkness would be risky at best.
It seems to me that I have two options at this point: concede that Euey and I will be spending the night alone somewhere on the trail, or look for a shortcut. My nagging unease over the sense of having lost time makes the choice straightforward.
I pull up the route on my phone and try to zoom in, but the app glitches immediately. So, I resort to the massive fold-out map that Whit gave me on my third visit to the Park.
“Technology is great, until it isn’t,” he’d quipped that day, a playful glint in his dark eyes. “And besides, paper is a closer relative to the forest than bits of metal and plastic; maybe this will make you feel more at home.”
At home would be an overstatement at the moment, but I feel a warm surge of relief rush outward from my abdomen as I spot a thin beige line on the map, branching off to the north just a mile or so ahead of my location.
The main trail winds circuitously along the side of a tall ridge of hills that form an elevated arc – a sort of horseshoe-shaped front porch, marking the entrance to the eastern mountain range beyond. By contrast, the minor connecting path whose course I’m now tracing with my finger cuts directly across the thickly forested valley within the arc. It reconnects with the main trail on the opposite side, in serendipitously close proximity to the campsite.
With any luck, we should make it before the shadows already seeping out from beneath the firs saturate the forest completely.
Despite my keenness to reach the connecting path that cuts across the valley, I unwittingly walk past its entry point at first, so narrowly and sharply it splits off from the main trail.
Fortunately, Euey alerts me to its presence. Just before the point at which it intersects the main trail from the north, she stops abruptly, retreating several paces toward the wall of earth and undergrowth that rises sharply from the trail’s southern edge. She sits there stiffly, glancing between me and the break in the trees.
Something in her demeanor evokes a memory from early this morning, of the way she stopped short when I crossed the invisible fence encircling our yard – waiting for me to disable her receiver collar so that she could follow me across the boundary.
The impression is fleeting. The late-afternoon gloom of the forest is already deepening toward twilight, and I don’t have time to entertain the uncanny products of my unsettled imagination. I crouch in front of her and scratch her ears with both hands, catching sight of my face reflected in her honey-amber eyes. I look anxious.
“I think that we could both use a little company tonight, girl,” I murmur.
I straighten, adjust my pack, and take a few steps down our new route. After a moment’s hesitation, Euey follows.
This connecting path runs perpendicular to the stretch of trail from which it branches off, plunging directly down the face of the ridge and into the thickly forested valley below. The slope is steep, but not steep enough to be unmanageable, and I’m grateful to have gravity on our side for at least the first portion of our scramble toward the campsite.
The narrowness of the path, on the other hand, is less amenable. Dense undergrowth and towering, moss-coated trees crowd in against it so closely on either side that Euey and I have to walk in single file. Every few yards I find myself angling my shoulders to maneuver my unwieldy backpack through a patch of encroaching vegetation. The forest canopy nearly obscures the sky overheard here, with fist-sized flashes of periwinkle slipping through to serve as reminders of the dwindling daylight.
I can hear the familiar woodland cacophony – birds and other fauna, rustling foliage, snapping tree limbs – from every direction, but it strikes me as more distant than before. Even my own footsteps seem somehow far away. The realization gradually fades into focus in my awareness that sound is muffled here, as if the claustrophobic press of pine needles, leaves, and ferns were leeching vibrations from the air like mist. As if they were enforcing the sort of reverent stillness that befits the ancient places of the earth.
I quicken my pace.
After 30 or 40 minutes of steady descent, I begin to look for the ground to level out at the base of the ridge, but it continues plunging downward at the same grade.
After an hour, my calves are starting to burn with the prolonged plantar-flexion, and at each moment I’m thinking Surely I must be just at the bottom of the hill.
After an hour and a half, I know that something is seriously wrong. There’s simply no way that I should still be losing elevation so sharply on a hill this size. I retrieve my compass from my pack and check it every few meters as I proceed, confirming to myself that I really am heading due north down the slope.
After two hours, the ragged shreds of sky visible through the branches are glowing icy lavender with the vestiges of day, and I know in my bones that I won’t be getting off this ridge tonight. I press on, less out of any rational hope that I might reach the campsite than a need to outpace what my senses seem to be telling me – a compulsion deeper than instinct to distance myself from this incursion of the inexplicable into reality.
And then the light is gone. The seeds of unease in my stomach sprout into outright fear, and I struggle to maintain my presence of mind through alternating surges of adrenaline and panic. I briefly entertain the possibility of turning around and trying to return to the main trail. But scrambling back up that incline in the starless blackness beneath the pines, with no headlamp, would be dangerous even if I were confident of my location and bearing – which is quite evidently no longer the case.
No, the safest option now is to stay put until morning and try to retrace my steps with the advantage of daylight. I find a spot on the path where the gap between the flanking trees is just sufficient to admit my compact tent; I set it up with fumbling hands in the beam of my flashlight.
Euey shows no interest in exploring any of the smells or sounds – the latter still unaccountably muffled, as if a thick wool hat were covering my ears – around our hasty camp. She sits in the middle of the path, as close to me as she can, the tent between herself and the trail’s downward course.
As soon as the tent is up, we crawl inside and double-zip the door. I’m grateful that the layer of canvas obscures my view of the rippling obsidian darkness outside. Like a cat in a cardboard box, being hemmed in closely on all sides by shelter makes me feel less vulnerable and exposed. Gradually, the adrenaline recedes, leaving me exhausted. I drift into a fitful sleep.
I’m awakened not by any noise, but by the utter absence of it. The woods are enveloped in a dense, heavy silence, without even a breeze to make the intertwining branches whisper to each other in the dark. I feel as though I’ve been asleep for hours.
I sit up in my sleeping bag, fumbling for the flashlight. As it clicks on, I barely manage to stifle the scream that claws its way up the back of my throat: the tent door is wide open. Euey is standing just inside it, motionless, eyes fixed on a point deep within the pitchy undergrowth.
Against the abject, yawning soundlessness, it’s impossible not to hear the sudden soft rustling of pine needles and creaking of branches in a nearby tree, no more than 15 yards behind the tent. Euey’s head snaps in that direction, but I’m frozen in place by the icy rush of terror that tears through my nervous system.
A thud and the dry crush of detritus as whatever was in the tree drops lightly to the forest floor. Snap. Crunch. Footsteps inching slowly closer in the dark – two feet, two legs supporting something massive. Now quickening its pace. Now barreling at full tilt toward the tent, with horrifying speed and purpose.
“Euey, go!” I shout, and we both careen out of the tent and into the impossible thickness of the night. I dart between pine trunks and tumble through shrubs, one arm raised to protect my face from the needles, twigs, and thorns ripping at my skin, and the other clasping my flashlight as if it were life itself.
The only sounds anywhere are Euey’s frenzied uphill plunge through the forest ahead and the steady, pounding footfalls of the thing behind, grotesquely unimpeded by the tangle of vegetation. Closer every moment.
A single coherent thought shakes itself loose from the paralyzing grip of fear that's coiled itself around my mind: I’m going to die here.
Then, all at once, I’m running through open air, and I can no longer hear either Euey or the thing from the pines. I skid to a halt and swing my flashlight around wildly in the sudden silence. I’ve emerged into a clearing identical in every respect to the one that stole my hours earlier, down to the solitary grey boulder with its basalt- and bronze-colored veins. The ground here even appears level, while all the surrounding earth continues its sharp descent down the ridge.
I dash to the boulder and crouch behind it, partially hidden by the tall grass, lungs screaming with panic and exertion. There are no stars in the night sky overhead, but the darkness is not so oppressively heavy here as beneath the trees, and the air is not so thick. I douse my flashlight and wait.
I can’t be sure how long I’ve been kneeling here in the grass, listening intently for any rustling or footsteps that might break the stillness of the clearing. It feels like just a few minutes, but my phone and watch are back in the tent (along with all my other supplies, save the flashlight and a few small items clipped to my belt loops).
Once the roaring torrent of blood in my ears subsides, I carefully lower myself onto the moist soil so that I’m completely obscured by the surrounding vegetation. I begin to inch forward on my elbows and stomach toward the trees at the south edge of the clearing, probing the silence for any sign that Euey might still be there.
The next indication that I’m not alone in these woods isn't a sound at all, however. It’s a light – the clean, white beam of an LED headlamp moving methodically through the trees.
An impulse to run blindly toward it grasps me by the base of my spine, but I manage to suppress it. I have no idea what the thing from the pines was, or what it might be capable of; and anyone who has ever heard a campfire story knows better than to follow lights into the forest.
Then I hear my name, slipping between the trees on the tones of a strained but familiar voice. “James! James, are you out here? Try to make a noise if you can hear me!”
I’d know that voice anywhere.
“Whit!” my voice breaks as I shout. “I’m over here! Please!” I switch on my flashlight and aim the beam across the clearing in his direction, leaping to my feet.
“Okay, I’m coming! Stay right there, James!” I hear him clambering through the undergrowth as the globe of cool light affixed to his forehead grows steadily brighter, a miniature full moon gliding through stygian space. Relief like nothing I’ve ever experienced sparks and crackles in my muscles as he appears at last just beyond the edge of the clearing. The brilliant headlamp overhanging his eyes illuminates his distinctive Roman nose and the softly captivating curve of his lips. My friend has come to save me.
“How did you find me out here?” I whisper breathlessly, after duly expressing my pleasure to see him.
“I took the 4-wheeler around to the campsite to celebrate your big hike with you. When you weren’t there, I came looking. I was worried that…” His voice trails off, as if he’s unsure how much to tell me.
“I think that you may have saved my life, Whit.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he replies, unsmiling. “Come on; I left the 4-wheeler near the campsite, just on the other side of the valley.” He turns and steps back into the shadows beneath the pines, facing due north. Directly down the slope of the ridge, on the same trajectory as the path that brought me to this place.
Cold dread tightens in my stomach as I recall my earlier descent toward the valley floor that I should have reached miles ago, that seemed to recede deeper and deeper into the aphotic chasm below with every step I took.
In my relief at being rescued, it hasn’t broken through the threshold of my conscious awareness until this moment that Whit was climbing up the slope, out of that darkness, when he found me.
“Wait,” I call softly, pausing just inside the border of the clearing. Whit turns and faces me 5 or 6 paces beyond, his head already half a foot lower than mine. The headlamp shines upward and into my eyes.
“Euey ran off to the south, back up the ridge toward the main trail on this side,” I point across the clearing, an edge of fear returning to my voice. “We could go the same direction and try to find her on the way, like you did me. She’s my only family – I can’t leave her here alone if there’s a chance of catching up. Besides, I think… I think maybe it’s safer not to go any deeper into the woods.” I don’t mention the thing from the pines.
“We can come back and look for Euey in the morning,” he replies, an edge creeping into his voice as well, mirroring my own. “An animal has better odds in these woods at night without a human around anyway. This is the way we need to go.”
His tone effectively quells any thought that I might have had of attempting a rebuttal. I begin to follow him.
But as soon as I pass between the inky firs at the northern boundary of the clearing – back into the overwhelming density of their shadows – some animal part of me bristles with alarm. I know with the intuition that all hunted things have shared since time immemorial that death is nigh and stalking.
“Whit!” I whisper urgently, swinging my flashlight upward to expose the branches above us. He looks back at me, only a few feet away now, just as the flashlight’s beam passes near his head in its skyward arc.
In the split second that it casts its glow over the upper portion of his face, shadowed until now by the angle of his headlamp, I glimpse an unexpected flash of deep, vegetal green at eye level.
I slowly lower the beam back to his face, and the terror that lodges itself in my throat is too hulking and ancient for a scream to penetrate it. Where Whit’s warm mahogany eyes should be are two rough grey stones, a patina of moss spreading outward from their centers as if to mimic human irises.
Before I can form a conscious intention to move, I’m fleeing with every shred of myself from this aberration of stone and flesh, from the horror of this fathomless forest that consumes sound and perhaps would consume me, too.
In seconds, I’m across the clearing and clawing at the ferns and deadfall as I hurl myself back up the slope of the ridge. The same hillside that I hiked down for hours earlier in the evening somehow takes only 45 minutes now to ascend, and suddenly I’m back on the main trail, cutting a desperate, adrenaline-fueled dash back toward the trailhead where I left my car.
I don’t hear anything following me. For a long time, I hear nothing at all but my own ragged breathing and the rhythmic drumming of my boots against the packed soil. One after another, the landmarks that I passed on the hike out appear and vanish rapidly in reverse order, rushing along at the edges of my flashlight’s beam like a rewinding VHS tape.
All except the first clearing, which I never see again – the forest continues unbroken through the space it occupied just hours ago.
With about two miles of trail left, I’m approaching the place where Euey first alerted me to the unnatural silence that now shrouds the entire forest. I glimpse a flurry of rapid motion ahead of me, at the outer limit of the flashlight’s reach. I nearly stumble in alarm, but an instant later the source of the movement emerges fully into view…
It’s Euey, racing back along the trail toward our car!
I call out to her. She slackens her pace to let me catch up with her, and we sprint those final miles side by side. And now we’re passing the carved maple sign that marks the trailhead.
And we’re passing the old log-cabin welcome center, its dark windows gleaming in the moonlight like a beacon.
And we’re crossing the dirt parking lot, where the only vehicle is my dusky umber car, its key still mercifully clipped to my belt loop.
And now, at last, we’re diving into the car. Locking the doors. Peeling out of the lot and onto the 40-mile stretch of paved road that lies between us and the outer woodline.
Euey and I sit in silence as we speed through the forest, both glancing warily at the opaque shadows between the trees that crowd in close on either side of the road. The only sound is the car’s engine and the low rumble of its tires against the old asphalt.
The tide of adrenaline in my system starts to ebb, and I regain enough presence of mind to note that Whit’s truck wasn’t in the parking lot when we left. Perhaps he never came searching for me in these woods tonight at all. Perhaps the thing from the pines cobbled together a perverse simulacrum of my friend from mist and memories, and the real Whit is safe at home – still wearing his own skin.
I begin to let myself hope that maybe, in spite of the impossible horrors I’ve witnessed here, in the end nothing has been shattered beyond repair.
I reach over and run my hand gently along Euey’s head and neck, scanning her for any signs of injury in the dim glow of the headlights. I notice that the headlights are angled downward, following the slope of the northbound byway as it winds from the elevated trailhead to the countryside below in alternating stretches of graded decline and level road.
A sudden, frigid rush of realization turns my veins to ice: The car has been descending far longer than it should have taken for this stretch of road to level out.
“Oh, god,” I breathe into the dark. At the sound of my voice, Euey turns her face away from the passenger-side window to look at me.
To look at me with her mossy stone eyes.