Everything was green. This was where he was supposed to be, this garden, this clearing in the middle of nowhere.
She stirred lightly in her sleep, making those small sounds he had grown to love over the time they had been here together.
“He’s almost here,” she said in her sleep.
"What?” he replied.
“We’re almost there,” the captain’s voice shouted very close to his ear. “Time to wake up. You didn’t pay me enough to get any closer.”
The green place faded quickly from his memory and was replaced with reality; a rickety boat on the edges of a huge storm that threatened to capsize them at any moment. “Where is she?” he asked the captain.
“Who? Ain’t no-one here ‘cept me and you. And soon, only me. Gather your shit.”
He tiredly moved around the tiny cabin, repacking his small bag. His sleepy haze still blurring the lines of what was real and what was the dream. Eventually, though, he woke proper and stepped out onto the deck to face whatever it was that he had paid for.
All around him were dark gray clouds, whipping up a cold wind and spraying a mixture of seawater and rain in their faces. He was sure the previous night had been clear and calm and the look on the captain’s face told him he thought so too.
The choppy waves obscured any view either of them had of anything more than a few hundred yards out.
“We’re stopped,” he said, noticing for the first time.
“Cant risk me boat going into the storm,” the captain nodded towards the lifeboat. “You want to go any further, you’re on your own. May the gods have mercy on you.”
“What do you know about this area?”
“Nothin’. This is dead sea. Nothin’ nor no-one out here. We shouldn’t be either. Not too late to turn back,” the captain was beginning to sound worried.
“I’m afraid it has always been too late to turn back, captain. I thank you for your service, but it appears I no longer have need of it. The island is here, somewhere and now it is my turn to attempt to map it.”
“Darn fool,” the captain said, turning to lower the lifeboat.
“You’re not wrong,” he said, climbing in.
The storm seemed to blow around him as he rowed. Neither helping nor hindering him. He turned to wave goodbye to the captain, but the boat was already out of sight. In fact, nothing about what he could see was familiar in the slightest. The storm clouds were wrong, the water was a different colour, even the wind was different.
He tried to change course, to take him back the way he thought he had come, but the storm picked up each time and kept him from going any but one direction.
“Alright, then,” he said, putting the oars down. “Take me somewhere.”
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The noises had changed. No longer were they the soft, calming noises of birds and other harmless creatures going about their lives, instead a cold wind blew roughly through the forest. Heavy footsteps paced slowly, deliberately around the outside of the clearing. Every so often he could hear growling.
She was huddled in the middle of the grass, hugging her knees. “He’s right there,” she whispered.
Rain started to fall, fat drops falling through the thick foliage, smacking him on the head. He looked up just as the downpour began.
Water lapped at his face and wet sand filled his mouth and nose. He coughed it up and rolled onto his back, taking deep breaths. Bright sun shone down on him, but its warmth did not filter through.
He pulled himself out of the surf and further up the beach. Once his strength had returned, he stood and surveyed his surroundings.
The beach was long and narrow, at one end, he estimated to be at least two miles away, sheer cliffs lifted away into the sky. At the other, even further away, a forest crept all the way to the water. Ahead of him was nothing but tall, thick trees. Behind him, the ocean. On the horizon, way out to sea, a dark band of clouds foreshadowed a storm, every so often flashing with lightning. Whether they were coming towards him or not, he couldn’t tell. Either way, he felt compelled to leave the beach. As he walked slowly to the forest, he missed the dorsal fin of some large unseen creature break the surface just beyond the breakers.
The beach rose up a hill a few hundred meters back from the water. As he crested the rise, he turned and looked back down. The breakers were surging along the sand, faster than he remembered them. The water surged and frothed, as if a group of somethings were fighting just out of sight. He blinked and it was as it was before, calm and silent. Not even any birdsong. He turned back to the forest. He couldn’t see past the first few trunks, and there was no path to follow. An unfamiliar feeling filled his gut, but he reminded himself of why he was here, what he was here to find. He disappeared into the trees.
She watched carefully as the figure climbed the beach and walked into the forest. She knew it was a crapshoot whether he was actually there or not, but it was the first sign of life she had seen outside of them. But he was now out of her reach, so close yet impossible to get to. She climbed back down the cliff the way she had come up. Maybe, just maybe, that person would come out the other side. She would find them there, and the two of them, assuming the other person was real, would find their way off this godforsaken hell island together.
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Leaving the clearing had proven to be a mistake. The crunching sound of that thing rampaging through the trees was almost on top of them.
“It should be here,” he could hear her yelling. She was yelling other things as well, but it made no sense to him.
Nothing did anymore.
He awoke with a start. The ground was wet with dew and nearby ground-dwelling birds scavenged for breakfast, scattering back into the undergrowth when he moved. He picked himself off the ground and cast around for his bag, which had gone. He didn’t really remember where he was. He didn’t even remember falling asleep; the last thing he did remember was heading into the forest along the beach.
The orange glow of a rising sun broke through the trees ahead of him, and in lieu of anything better to do, he started walking in that direction.
The ground beneath him started to slope up. He imagined some sort of hill with a vantage point at the top where he could get his bearings and maybe see a landmark to aim for. There was no path and the underbrush came up to his knees. He pulled out a machete from his pack and slashed his way through the shrubs. Birds called angrily from above and he could hear the rushing motion of creatures he was disturbing as he climbed, but nothing tried to stop him.
As he got higher, the trees and shrubs thinned and the ground changed from soil and dirt to rocks. A few trees were fallen down, leaning against each other. Upon a closer inspection, however, it looked as if they had been sawn down.
He reached the peak of the hill as the sun was directly overhead. The other side of the hill, he found, formed a long valley. Tall green trees, much like the ones in the forest behind him, lined the sides of the valley and the floor was lush grass. A river cut through the middle, fed by the mountains way off at the other end of the valley. He followed it down until it disappeared into the forest below him, off to the ocean, he presumed, although he didnt remember seeing a river when he landed on the beach.
There was movement in the trees directly below him and as he watched a family of some primate species tentatively poked their heads out of the foliage, investigating this new comer. One of them, feeling brave, came extra close and reached out slowly and touched his boot with a finger before scurrying back to the others and the safety of the trees.
He moved slowly past them, making no aggressive moves and, as much as he could, ignoring them. As he disappeared into the reappearing forest, he assumed the feeling of being watched was from the primates.
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The stars twinkled in the night sky, sharp and bright.
One of them, a large one, even from here, twinkled red as the planet started to cut across the moon.
She wished she could remember more of the dream. More than just that laugh, that rough, choking laugh. She shuddered and pulled herself to her feet. The sand moved beneath her. “So,” she said to no one. “The desert again. Awesome.”
She had no belongings with her, at least not this time. Just the tattered clothes she was wearing. She knew where her camp was, but getting there was always a hassle and since she was back here, in the desert, she would have to face them again to get back there. “Ugh,” she groaned and started walking up the dunes.
The sun beat down on her as she kicked through the sand. Her camp was maybe fifteen miles away, over the dunes, if she was in the part of the desert she thought she was in, but off to her left, maybe five or so miles away across a flat plain of sand, thick black clouds formed a roiling storm. Flashes of lightning broke through every so often, and she imagined she could hear the accompanying thunder.
She had crossed this desert countless times, but she had never seen a storm like this. It was away from her camp, almost in the other direction, but it was rare for her to see something so normal. She changed course and headed for the storm.
She felt a few drops of rain as the sand gave way to soil and grass. Thunder cracked through the sky and lightning arced down and struck the ground ahead of her. She didn’t mind getting wet, she had spent an inordinate amount of time under the glaring sun in that godforsaken desert, so this was a considerable improvement for her.
She hadn’t seen it until now, and a part of her brain told her that it had just appeared there when she blinked, but a thick forest spread out in front of her, bearing the brunt of the storm. The wind rushed through the trees and to her it sounded like animals roaring. Her stomach grumbled and she remembered she hadn’t eaten in a few days. She wondered if there were any animals she could hunt in there before remembering all her tools were back at the camp.
She edged her way past the first line of trees and instantly felt the ground beneath her change. No longer the firm, well-packed soil from outside, but a soft, spongy moss-covered soil. She tested each step before continuing forward.
She had been inside the forest for a good few minutes before she realised it was no longer raining. Looking up, patches of blue sky seeped through the canopy above. She turned around and backtracked for a good ten minutes without finding the edge of the forest.
She realised she had moved again. An actual roar filled the forest and the ground shook slightly.
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He could hear that thing outside, its thumping footsteps echoing around the cabin. The girl was pacing, muttering under her breath.
“We cant be here,” she said, over and over. “This isn’t our place.”
The river was clean and flowed into a small cave in the hill. The hole wasn’t big enough for him to enter, but he watched several of the primate creatures slip in and come back out easily enough.
He was down on the floor of the valley after a good few hours climbing. The wind was starting to pick up now and it was turning cold. He dug through his pack and pulled out a long sweater and put it on, it helped, but not a lot.
He followed the river back the way it came, marveling at how clear it was. He saw small fish bounce around off the odd shaped rocks on the bottom and made a mental note to make a fishing rod and cook some of them up.
He stopped to make camp for the night at a place where the river widened. There was a nice grass field to lay back on, the only downside was the cloud cover would obscure all the stars. He wasn’t a big astronomer, not like his father had been, but he knew enough that star-gazing was fun to him.
He had no tent, or at least, he didnt remember packing one, which felt strange to him, as a tent would have been the first thing he packed. He shrugged it off and pulled a canvas tarpaulin and spread it out over the ground, weighing it down with his pack.
He took his boots and socks off and walked down to the waters edge. The water was more or less still here and he wanted to swim. The water was so clear, so inviting and the little fish that swum and bobbed around the rocks seemed to be inviting him in.
He stepped back from the edge and looked around. There was, of course, no one else here, but he could have sworn he heard someone say do not. He looked into the water again, and while it was still clear and still, there was something about it he couldn’t quite put his finger on that made him feel uneasy. He didn’t fill his bottle from it, and instead walked back to his sheet and pack.
The sky had darkened since he walked to the water, and he was sure it wasn’t just because of the clouds. The wind was stronger too, but just as cold. He pulled his coat around his neck and closed his eyes. Perhaps tonight would be a night without those goddamn dreams.
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It was relentless and they were exhausted. They had nothing left, nothing except each other.
It wasn’t enough.
The first rays of dawn had landed square on his face as he slept. He woke slowly and found himself surrounded by small rabbit-like creatures who jumped back when he moved and bared sharp rows of teeth at him. From a nearby tree, the family of primates who had been following him let loose with a barrage of stones and other items, forcing the other creatures to disappear back into the long grass. The primates chittered triumphantly and swung from the branches up and down the tree.
“Thank you, friends,” he said to them, as he repacked his bag. They didn’t seem to understand.
It was weird to follow the river after hearing that voice the day before, but he had nothing else to go on, so he kept walking alongside it. A part of him, deep in the back of his head, wanted him to dive headfirst into the water and swim. He ignored it.
The river was full of the little fish and they, like the primates who were always a respectable distance away, seemed to be following him. He threw a stone or two at them but they always seemed to regroup and continue following him.
The other end of the valley, where the river started from, was full of chirping insects and those strange rabbit-creatures. He watched quietly from a distance as they played and rolled around in the grass. The primates chittered nervously as he hunched down and watched them. As their chittering got louder, they caught the attention of a few of the rabbit-creatures who eyed them and him with open hostility. The primates chittering became angry screeching and they ran around crazily.
He tried to formulate a hypothesis as to what was going on here, but couldn’t really find anything to match what he was seeing. The primates weren’t hunting the rabbit-creatures, nor were the rabbit-creatures hunting them. They just seemed to really hate each other. He stood again, startling some of them, who, as before, bared razor sharp teeth at him and who, as before, were hurried off by the items flung at them by the primates.
He left the herd of rabbit-creatures, with the primates between him and them, and followed the river into the trees which covered this end of the valley. Insects burst loudly into life as he entered the trees, the primates swinging behind him lazily, unconcerned now they had left the rabbit-creatures behind them.
Ahead, he could hear a noise which he couldn’t from the valley, a familiar yet foreboding noise. He pushed through the trees, the primates sitting quietly in the branches above, and found himself on a rocky ledge as the river rushed over the edge into a roiling waterfall which ended a very long way below him in a large, clear lake.
A lake which, along the shore, had many buildings.
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The creatures hung in the sky, motionless. They were jellyfish, or something that appeared to be jellyfish. Long thin tendrils hung from pulsing sacs of light above. Electricity arced between them.
They had stopped that thing in its tracks.
The climb down to the shore of the lake was reasonably easy, he thought. The cliff was almost perfectly vertical, but it had strong trees growing out of it. He watched the primates use these as a way down, and he followed suit. As he started down, a rabbit-creature, a big one, rushed out of the trees, hissing and spitting at him. He managed to hang onto a tree as it lunged at him and swing off the cliff, allowing the angry thing to miss him and sail away to the water below. He couldnt tell if it survived or not, but he assumed if it had, the primates would do their thing again when they all made it to the bottom.
There was a path along the shore. He crouched down to investigate it; it looked paved, deliberately made. There were other people here. He couldn’t find another conclusion to come to. Someone, or someones, else made this path. He set off, optimistic and confident he would find someone at the stand of buildings he knew were at the other end. The voice he had been ignoring in the back of his head, the one that wanted him to go swimming was silent, and he assumed that was the cause of strange feeling he had. The one that felt like he had forgotten something.
There was nothing. The path had ended, he hadn’t noticed where, and instead of a clearing full of buildings and a busy population, there was just a clearing. Tall grass swayed in the breeze and short stubby trees grew randomly around.
He furrowed his brow and looked around. Not a single sign that anyone had even been here, much less had built a town.
He walked down to the lake. The wind had picked up again and turned the smooth surface he had seen from the top of the waterfall into a roiling, black cauldron. Swim, the voice shouted in his head, startling him. He stepped back and followed the lake back to the cliff and the waterfall, which was dry. There was no waterfall; he could see where it had been, a trail worn down by years of flowing water, but there was no water. The trees he had used to climb down were withered and many of them had fallen down. A gust of wind pushed against his back and along the water. He turned back to the clearing.
A flash of light and he passed out.
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It was always night. She never saw the sun anymore, just the stars. The twinkling, friendly stars.
She enjoyed finding the big, bright red one. The only one that was different. It was near the moon most of the time. The shadow on the face of the moon was even bigger tonight. It made her uncomfortable.
She woke up again, it was still night. She couldn’t explain it, she felt like she had slept for hours, yet it was still dark. She pretended she could see the first rays of dawn through the canopy above but she knew it was a lie. She tried to get up, to stand, but her eyes felt heavy again, like they always did when she woke during the night. She fell asleep again.
The sun streamed through the trees when she awoke. A strange dream quickly left her mind and she sat up. Her head was heavy and she felt groggy. But, she thought to herself, at least she didn’t wake up in the desert this time.
She could hear a trickle of water nearby and small creatures rustling through the nearby shrubs. Even though she was happy to be out of the desert and on a new path, it was still an odd feeling. She had grown used to the cycle. Desert, campsite, them, desert. It was predictable. It was her routine.
She didn’t know what to do now. There was no path through this forest and the quiet bothered her. Not that it was silent; there were still creatures rummaging and there was a soft breeze blowing through the leaves above. No, what bothered her was the quiet. The lack of something, she couldn’t quite put her finger on what exactly, but something that had been there, in the background, but was now gone.
She walked down to where the water was running over rocks and around the trees and ran her hands through it. Small fish darted everywhere and she took a drink. It was cool and a little bit metallic, but it refreshed her nonetheless. She followed the creek through the trees, using it as a path.
She had been walking for what felt like hours when, suddenly, it disappeared. She backtracked and saw where the water fell down a small hole under a rocky hill. She tried to peer down, to see if she could see anything. Of course, it was pitch black, but just beyond her sight, she could hear a soft growl. She jumped back and fell into the water. Getting up, wet and adrenaline flowing strong, she ran into the trees.
The wind changed. It grew cold and the wind grew. The trees bent and branches creaked and cracked. Somewhere, far off in the distance, she heard a crack of thunder which was immediately followed by a enormous roar.
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The red star had stopped twinkling. It now pulsed.
The shadow crept further across the moon and she would ignore it.
The other stars were dim, some even vanished.
A cold wind blew through the desert. This wasn’t the end, it was something worse.
She regretted everything, as she usually did. But leaving the desert for the trees more than anything else. The rain had started to fall slowly but had quickly escalated into a torrential downpour. The small creek she had been following was already overflowing and rushing down the small cave where whatever that thing was lived. She was already soaked through by the time she found shelter; a huge rock which had fallen in such a way that it created a shelf she could fit under.
She stripped down and laid her wet clothes out on the ground and sat with her back against the cold stone wall, shivering.
She woke up later, not realising she had fallen asleep. It had stopped raining, although the ground just beyond her shelter still had overflowing water from the creek rushing by. She realised now, too late, though, that her shelter would have been washed away if it had rained any more. She eyed the water suspiciously and turned to put her probably still wet clothes on. Her top felt tighter than yesterday and she groaned in frustration. She needed her belongings; she needed to get back to her campsite and get them all. She decided there and then, forget the forest and whatever bullshit was happening inside it, it was time to get back to the desert and get her shit. Fuck those things, she could deal with them in the usual way, for now, she had a mission.
She stripped the top off and walked through the water, back the way she had come. This forest must have an edge; she had entered it, hadn’t she? She would just follow the creek back to wherever it started, and go from there. There was nothing that would stop her.
The thought nothing can stop me now had barely made it out of her head when her foot slipped on a loose rock under the water and she went head over feet under water and was washed away downstream, barely conscious.
Chittering noises woke her some time later. She had a splitting headache and her mouth was full of sand. Sitting up, she spat out the sand and pebbles. She slowly pulled herself to her feet and looked around. She was on a beach against a large, grey-green lake which was choppy in the cold, wet wind. She looked around, the forest was behind her now, and the river she had been pulled down flowed into the lake nearby.
Strange noises drew her attention across the water. Smoke rose from inside the trees she could see and metallic clanging echoed across the water.
Above her, unnoticed and unwanted, the first star of the night, a small reddish dot twinkled.
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It wasn’t safe.
Was it ever? Had he been deluding himself? Was this always inevitable?
Was this what happened to him?
He woke to strange noises. Not noises, per se, but the idea of noises. He could hear someone moving, but by the air currents that resulted, not through whatever it was they were doing.
He opened his eyes and was immediately blinded by a glaring sun. Rolling over to shield himself, he tried again.
He was lying on a stretcher made of some woven plant material which was itself laying on a bed of grass and twigs. He was in the middle of a large open square which was bordered by a metal fence. Getting to his feet, he saw he was alone. There was no one inside the fenced off area with him and whoever it was he felt moving around him a moment ago was no longer there. Outside the fence was a series of what looked like temporary structures, put together hurriedly. But there was also no one out there. He didn’t feel alone, though.
It took a minute for his head to clear; whatever it was that knocked him out had left him cloudy and out of sorts. He stood and paced around, getting feeling back into his legs. Once he felt better and he had stretched his muscles back to life, he walked up to the fence and tried to climb it.
He woke later, on his back, in the dirt, his hands stinging from whatever it was that had blasted him off the fence. In his head, he could hear what sounded like a bunch of kids giggling, but when he opened his eyes, he was as alone as he had been before.
The sun was setting again. How many times had it rose and set since he had been here? He had no way of knowing how long he was out for. He watched as the sun changed from gold to orange as it dipped lower and lower in the sky until it disappeared behind the horizon. He sighed and turned. On the other side of the sky, rising into the night sky like an omen, the full moon, bright and orange itself hung in a cloudless sky. No stars tonight. None except that one red one.
The only constant in this place, he thought.
He didn’t sleep. Not because he didn’t want to, but because that voice in the back of his head, the one that told him what to do, the one he refused to listen to except he couldn’t help himself, had said not to, and as always, he felt compelled to listen. Compelled to stay awake despite every inch of him screaming for sleep.
Nothing happened. No one came.
He could feel it watching. Something else. Something patient.
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It growled. It snapped. It was hungry.
There was something in its territory. Something small and smelly. It was in its territory.
It was a threat.
Waves lapped at his face and he woke slowly. It was night, but the bright full moon lit the ground up surprisingly well.
This wasn’t where he had been. This wasn’t the fenced off area in the deserted town with those maybe people and giggling children.
This was a beach. He sat up and looked around. This was the beach. The one he had first arrived on. He could hear thunder out to sea, a slow rumbling kind of thunder. He didn’t see any lightning.
He walked along the beach, waiting for something to happen. The warm breakers crashed around his ankles; the tide approached. Unseen beyond them, something swum. A large fin broke the surface and disappeared back under.
At the end of the beach, maybe seven or eight hundred meters from where he woke up, a wall of rocks prevented him from going any further. He tried to climb them but a family of very hostile scorpions surprised him and he fell back onto the sand. “Fine,” he muttered. “The other way.”
The breakers were coming up higher and higher on the beach with each wave, higher and faster.
He didn’t have a watch or any real way to tell the time – he did remember his father, once upon a time, before he left, trying to teach him how to estimate the time by following the stars as they moved across the sky, but he never remembered how it was supposed to work – but the moon was at least a diameter closer to the horizon than it had been when he started from the rock wall when he reached the other end.
There was a road here. A paved road. He crouched down and ran his hands over the stones. Smooth and assembled together to fit solidly without cement or anything else holding them together. Who would go to all that effort? He thought about all the answers that question could have and decided it was better to stop asking.
He had a choice. Back to the forest, and whatever waited in there for him. He could swim, but he already knew there was nothing out there. Or…
He looked down the road, leading deeper into the island and shrugged. Setting off along the road in the dim moonlight, he sighed. “Alright then,” he said. “Take me somewhere else.”
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Another star had appeared in the sky. A white one. It shone bright on the opposing side of the moon to the pulsing, blaring red one.
She wondered, as she explored the dark, empty sky for others, why the new one made her more uncomfortable than the red one.
She woke in a cold sweat. She didn’t remember falling asleep, or even wanting to fall asleep. She remembered seeing a column of smoke rising from the other side of the lake and some metallic banging, but that was it.
She was still on the shore of the lake, laying in the gravel that amounted to a beach. She had been dreaming again. Whatever it was about had quickly faded from her mind leaving only a dim feeling of dread and discomfort.
The noises she remembered had gone and there was no longer any smoke rising from the trees. She got up and shook herself clean. She knew better than to get into the water and a stream of bubbles right at the edge confirmed her decision. The water was never safe.
The brush was thick alongside the lake and she had to struggle to get through it. It was bad enough that she didn’t have her machete with her, but without a shirt on, the prickly bushes that were everywhere started to cut her skin up as she pushed through. The only thing that kept her going was the idea that there had to be a path or a clearing or something from where the smoke and banging came from.
Eventually, and much to her relief, she came to an opening in the brush. The grass here had recently been swept down and she could vaguely make out where tents and other structures had been erected. They had all been taken down and removed. She looked around for any paths in or out of the clearing, but besides the one she made, there was nothing. She felt that sinking feeling in her gut and swore loudly when she came across the sigils.
They were scratched into a patch of dirt that had been dug away and she recognised them as patterns that represented travel and capture. Immediately she knew that they had been here and were again on the move but also that they had got someone. It had been a long time since they caught her and the wave of relief as she realised she was free was immense. But it also meant she had a purpose again. Something to do.
There was someone else. They wouldn’t have let her go if there wasn’t.
Someone else was on the island.
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There was only noise here. The in and out of waves and their echoes. The sounds were all around, so there was no way of finding them. Only darkness.
“Ahh!” he screamed.
“Ahh!” she repeated.
“What?” he jumped back and scrambled against the rocks. There was a girl here. A topless girl, he noticed. There wasn’t one of them before.
She was dumbfounded, but not exactly surprised. She knew there was someone else here, but hadn’t expected to literally wake up next to him. She tried to slow her breathing and calm down. She could feel the adrenaline pumping and willed it to stop. She opened her eyes and breathed out slowly. She ignored that he was staring at her chest. “Ok,” she said quietly. “We’re ok. I’m ok, you’re ok. We’re ok.”
“Ok,” he said latching onto the word as if it was the only thing that meant something. “Ok ok ok,” he slowed his breathing and stood up.
He was tall, at least taller than her by maybe 15 or 20 centimeters. Skinny from malnourishment, but not starving. She made a note to ask him where he was finding food. He was wearing tattered shorts that used to be jeans, tied at the waist with a stringy vine. His skin had a sort of leathery look to it. Like he’d been in the sun for forty years. She couldn’t tell how old he was. One moment he looked over 70, the next he wasn’t a day over 30.
She was cute, in a hadn’t-had-a-real-bath-in-weeks kinda way. She had the remnants of a skirt or sarong wrapped around her waist and her legs were covered in scratches and dried blood and mud. Not surprising with the amount of walking she probably had to do. Above her waist, her skin was lightly tanned, very pleasant, he thought. He avoided staring too long at her breasts. Her face was a mixture of curiosity and confusion, among other things he couldn’t tell. She crossed her arms and stared at him as if he was some sort of exhibit, or, no, he thought, not exhibit. Experiment.
She wondered who he was. Where he had come from. Why he was here. All the questions she had, at one point or another since her arrival, asked about herself. Several times she tried to open her mouth to speak, but nothing ever came out.
“Who are you?” they both asked, eventually at the same time. They laughed, as you do when that happens.
“You go first,” she said, waving him on.
“My name is,” he said before a flash of light and a dull thud.
She woke up, covered in sand. A large black sigil had been burned into the dune near her.
Leave, it said.
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The shadow was obvious now. A deep grey patch floating across the face of the moon. Steady and unstopping.
Nearby, the red star pulsed.
“Leave,” she sounded the word in her mouth again. She wondered what it meant.
She was in a desert. It wasn’t her desert; the sand was the wrong colour. It didn’t really matter. He wasn’t anywhere nearby, but that didn’t surprise her. They didn’t keep to any sort of consistent logic. They had him now. She was unnecessary. That was what they wanted her to know.
Other things had changed as well. She was wearing a t-shirt again. Not her t-shirt, but a t-shirt. It was white and shockingly clean, some unusual art work covered the front. Her sarong had been replaced by a pair of orange running shorts. She was still barefoot, but a bandage had appeared on her left ankle. Reminiscent of an injury she did not remember.
Just another day on the island, she thought.
She had spent the last hour or so clambering to the top of the dune she had woke on. Each time she got close to the top, she slipped and fell all the way back to the bottom where the burnt sand sigil waited.
Leave, it still said.
She flipped it off. She looked down the length of the dune which stretched for miles in each direction. Looking the other way found her staring at another dune a few meters away. She vaguely wondered why they were so even but the thought disappeared as fast as it arrived. She climbed.
She managed to get her eyes above the top of the dune this time before falling back. She didn’t slip this time, in fact, she was on fairly solid footing. She felt something move under her bandage and, startled, she fell back and rolled down to the bottom.
She hurriedly stripped off the bandage and stared in horror as something that looked like a centipede only much longer crawled out of a hole in her ankle and disappeared into the sand. She rubbed the hole it had crawled out of vigourously and re-wrapped her ankle. “Gross gross gross,” she repeated.
She stood up again and tested her foot. It took her weight fairly easily and she tried to climb the dune. She had adrenaline this time and easily made it to the top.
This was definitely not her desert. Not that she had any doubt before, but looking over this new vista made her damn sure that she hadn’t been here before. Directly in front of her was a flat, rock plain stretching for what looked like miles and miles. It was hard and orange. Jutting up, seemingly at random, from the ground, huge pillars of black rock rose into the sky. She looked up but the glare prevented her from seeing how high they went.
Tied to one of these pillars with a huge chain was a massive creature. It was laying on the ground and it had its eyes pinned on a figure in front of it.
Someone was about to slay a dragon.
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It wasn’t a laugh. It sounded rough. Heavy. It grated on him. Like fingernails over sandpaper.
It wasn’t a laugh. But it meant the same thing.
He was trapped now. Separated from her.
Cornered in this place.
It wasn’t a laugh. It was triumph.
He woke screaming. He rolled onto his side and breathed fast, shallow breaths. The images in his head faded fast and he calmed down. He sat up and leaned against the mossy tree he had made his home in. The dreams were every night now. They always woke him up but the images faded quickly. Except for the eyes. Golden with horizontal pupils, rushing at him at the moment he woke.
He shuddered and stood. The sun was already high in the sky. He had been sleeping longer and longer lately. The eyes getting closer and closer.
The chittering primates joined him and they followed him down the branches to the small pond below. As they approached a family of deer-like creatures, already drinking at the ponds edge, jerked their heads up and looked around alarmed. Seeing it was just him and those other creatures, they returned to drinking.
He stripped down and slid down a rock into the water, submerging his tangled hair and letting the dirt wash off him. He swum around a bit before coming back to the shore and plucking a wide, dark green leaf off a nearby plant. Wetting it slightly, he used it to scrub his body up and down, the wet leaf forming a layer of light green foam on his skin. He lathered up his hands and scrubbed his head before diving under the water again to wash it all off.
The sun was warm today. Winter had definitely passed and the thaw should be coming down the hills soon. It wouldn’t be long before the summer winds started to blow the dunes back across the oasis. Time to leave again.
He struck out after the sun had reached its peak and was heading down towards the horizon again. The primates were always reluctant to leave the oasis but they would follow him eventually. He wondered how long it would be this time before he saw these trees again.
He had been in the desert for days, sleeping in the sand whenever he felt tired and eating the rodent things that were everywhere. Water wasn’t as scarce as it should have been in a desert, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. The primates had gone as well. He missed their chittering but he assumed they had found somewhere else to spend the summer.
A loud roar filled the air and ahead of him, over the dunes, flames licked up into the sky. A flash of golden eyes filled his head and he fell to his knees.
It was just a dream, he screamed inside his head. That thing was just a dream.
He had to make sure. He had to see for himself. He had to know. He climbed the dunes and looked down over the most amazing scene he had ever witnessed.
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The moon was entirely covered now. The bright silver face that was, now a deep blood red.
There were only two stars now. The pulsing red and the bright white.
The muted light shone on the water.
She had never seen a dragon before. It was huge, even from this distance. Over twenty meters nose to tail. Its wings were folded away along its body, but they would have stretched wide as well. It was hunched on four thick legs, ending in sharp talons which dug into the sandstone plateau.
From her vantage point, some 500 meters away, she could see it bleeding through its thick hide.
The man standing in front of it was older than her. He was dressed in a sort of armor; it was hard to tell from here but it looked like leather. He wore a cloth rag around his face and when he pulled it down, she saw a stubby grey beard cover his cheeks and neck. He was holding a long sword, resting it on his shoulder. He stood his ground in front of the heavy breathing dragon and waited.
She crept closer, sliding down the dune to behind one of the black stone pillars. Running her hands over the stone, she realised it was carved with all manner of sigils and marks, many of which she didn’t recognise. She heard yelling from the other side of the pillar and peeked around. The old man was standing, braced, with his sword in front of him, yelling something at the dragon. Peeking around the other side of the pillar she saw the dragon unmoved from when she was up the dune. As she watched, it snorted steam out of its nostrils. She suddenly remembered what it was that dragons were most famous for. She pulled back behind the pillar, pressed her back close against it and closed her eyes.
“WHY DO YOU DO THIS EVERY TIME?”
“It is my life to end your existence. Yours and every dragon that roams this land.”
“I HAVE DONE NOTHING TO YOUR PEOPLE.”
“Others of your ilk have!”
“AND YOU WOULD PUNISH ME FOR THEIR MISDEEDS?”
“I would punish every last dragon if I thought it would prevent anything like that happening again!”
She heard the conversation, but not with her ears. It was inside her head. Nothing was said out loud, yet she knew the conversation. The dragons voice, such as it was, was calm and collected. Level and confident, like someone who knew they had the upper hand and didn’t have to prove it. She could also sense a growing frustration beneath the voice. The dragon knew it was going to have to prove itself at some point. It knew, she could feel, there was only one way to do that effectively.
She ran back up the dune as fast as she could as the dragon gave up on diplomacy and let rip with a giant plume of orange-red flame.
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He could hear it. Creeping around the edges. He couldnt see it, but he imagined its nose pressed to the ground. Hunting.
He had to try his plan.
He had to get back.
The sand dune dropped down to a flat rocky plain with a number of black pillars embedded in it. It was about the size of two or three football fields and each pillar grew up into the sky with no top in sight.
It was, though, the creature in the middle of these pillars that caught his attention though. It stood on two thick legs, each of them ending in razor sharp talons. From its back, large leathery bat-like wings grew, and it flapped them as it stood, using them to maintain its balance. A long snake like neck ended in a vicious looking head with fast, intelligent eyes darting around, watching.
“Dragon,” was all he could whisper as he took the magnificent beast in.
It prowled around the plain, weaving in and out of the pillars. He thought it was impatient, but there was something else, too. Something he had seen but not registered. He stopped, closed his eyes and breathed out. When he opened, he ignored the beast and looked around the rest of the plain.
There were 13 pillars arranged, seemingly, at random. He was still too far away to see anything really clearly, but at the point where the pillar met the ground, small cracks appeared in the rock, like the pillars had been forced into the ground.
He walked around the top of the dune which circled most of this arena. And there it was, the thing he had missed. One of the pillars had a series of chains wrapped around it. He watched the dragon as it watched him, wings flapping slowly, rhythmically. It snorted and hunched back on its legs.
On the other side of the pillar with the chains, he saw a woman. Not the woman he had met already, another one. An older one. She was dressed in old armor, and her head was lowered, looking to the ground. From here, it was impossible to tell if she was dead or alive, and he wasn’t about to risk his own life to find out.
He sat on the dune, his legs hanging over the edge into the arena. The dragon had relaxed, or so it seemed, and had lowered its whole body to the ground and folded its wings away. Its eyes, though, were always on him and he knew if he made the wrong move the best case would be he ends up as dragon food.
The moon shone brightly on the pillars and gave them a slight purplish glow. Strangely, he thought, he could see grooves and markings on them, and the more he looked, the deeper the desire to investigate more grew.
His eyes grew heavy and the dragon moved. He tried to wake back up but it was too late, it was on top of him, he ears full of flapping and growls and the last thing he saw before everything went black was rows and rows of teeth.
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The absence of sound.
Not the sound of absence.
It was there. Waiting. Patient.
It was hunting. He had seen this before.
A false sense of security.
Exactly what he had been banking on.
He was awake. He remembered neither falling asleep or waking up, but, suddenly, he was awake. He looked around and recognised nothing of where he was. None of what he saw was familiar. Nothing of what he had was his.
He was on a paved stone path. It stretched, dead straight, ahead of him for as far as he could see. Behind him, it disappeared around a corner and into a dim, creepy darkness. He shuddered as his brain conjured up all sorts of things that were inside it. Forward it was then, he thought without thinking it.
He picked up the bag that was at his feet, a bag that felt off somehow, and started down the path.
The trees crowded the path; the further along he walked, the denser they got and the more they overhung the path. The trees were twisted, old oaks. They reminded him of a trip he took with his father when he was a child, somewhere in England.
His father had been a traveler. He had come and gone his whole childhood and there had been three times where they had gone somewhere together. The first time was England. Out in the countryside. There had been thick forests of trees similar, but still distinctly different, to these ones. He never remembered anything about why his father had taken him here, but he remembered the trees. He remembered his father telling him to wait on the outside while he went in. He remembered sleeping on the ground outside of thick, old forests waiting for him to come back. His father didn’t come back for more than a week.
He didn’t think much of his father anymore, and when he did it always startled him. He had left for the final time a few years ago. They had not parted on good terms and it was always a shock to others who knew both of them that he had decided to follow in his fathers footsteps, traveling as he did. He never had a satisfactory answer for them. He knew why he was doing it, and it made perfect sense. He could never articulate it to others though, no matter how hard he tried. So he gave up.
The small sense of familiarity gave him a weird confidence as he walked down the path. It was almost as if he expected to see his father walk out from behind one of the trees.
The path ahead of him was dead straight as far as the eye could see. He never once looked back to see it disappear into the wall of trees which was always a hundred meters or so behind him.
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It saw. It always saw.
Something invaded. It knew. It hated.
It was hiding. It was scared. The fear was strong.
Time to feast.
It felt like forever, this path. This cobbled path. It was dead straight. Every now and then he would see a path that wasn’t paved or cobbled snake off the stones into the deepening darkness in the trees, where the branches reached down overhead. Like the goat tracks from his grandparents’ farm. There were no goats here, he was sure. He stopped at every one of these paths and peered down into the trees. Every time he shied away from leaving the paved stones. This path was obviously made for travelers. Those paths were not. The choice was logical.
It wasn’t dark yet. The sun hadn’t completely sank below the mountains which rose up behind the trees. An orange glow, muted by a blanket of cloud which pressed down on everything showed him west. Or was it east? He couldn’t remember. The thought of an experienced traveler forgetting where the sun set flitted through his mind before other, scarier thoughts chased it away. He kept walking. There was nothing else to do. Nowhere else to go. No place he had to be. He did, though, have someone he needed to meet.
He was being followed. He was sure of it. There was something in the trees off to his left. He tried to think back, back to when he started down this path, back to when he knew he was alone, but the memories didn’t come. He had always had this company. Always just out of sight and just deep enough in so he couldn’t see them when he looked. He couldn’t explain how he knew. He just knew. It scared him, this invisible thing, watching. He thought it was her at first, that weird half naked girl from … From somewhere. He couldn’t place her, but there definitely was a girl, he remembered that for sure. But why would she be here? He was alone. He was by himself. This place, this island in the middle of nowhere ocean was uninhabited. No one had ever found it and returned and only one person had ever, before him, spoken of it. He adjusted the pack on his back and sped his walking speed up.
The sun still hadn’t set. How long had it been? He had been walking towards it for hours now, yet the glow, the clouds, they were still the same. The sun was still in that just-before-twilight position. Hidden, mostly, behind the mountains, but still out enough for it to still be considered day time. Something heavy settled in his gut and his pace slowed.
Behind him, creeping vines snaked through the gaps between the stones and twisted together as they approached his ankles.
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There was something else.
It was across the world.
It was approaching.
The path had changed now. The stones were more regular here. Like deliberately made bricks. The paths that he had seen before, the goat tracks, they were also paved now. Narrower than the ‘main’ path, but paved and maintained nonetheless. More evidence of people.
This island is uninhabited, his brain screamed at him.
He felt like these paths should be streets in a town. They were everywhere now, splitting off from the main path and winding off into the trees. He could imagine buildings being built in the gaps between the paths. He started to plan out where he would build certain things. A bank would go over there, between those two twisted oaks. The Old Oaks Bank, he would call it.
Over there would be a drive through fast food restaurant. He would auction off the rights to which one later. Out here, in this virgin territory, the value would be high. There were other, more valuable, places for better restaurants. But he would let the junk food fight it out first. He thought about the things in the trees and how they would finally come out if there was a place to eat.
This space, he thought when he came to a tree stump, this space would be. Would be. Would be.
The thought looped in his head as he stared at the stump.
A tree stump. Here. He leaned down and ran his hand over it. Smooth. This tree had been cut down a long time ago. None of the surrounding area looked as if there had been a fallen tree here for many years. He looked up. There was no gap in the canopy, but there was movement. Those shy locals, he chuckled and forgot all about the stump as he continued through the maze of paths and paved bricks. He was speaking out loud now, pointing out to an imaginary conversation partner where different things would go, and how many people would come to live here to operate them.
He slept peacefully, or at least that’s what it looked like. His pack was off to the side, almost, but not quite, off the path. The darkness of the trees had grown to a pitch black and inside, just out of eye shot, movement. Rustling of something in the dead leaves. Deeper in was the sounds of territorial creatures staking claims. Above, as the branches of the old oak trees bent down towards his body, something long and white, something too big for the trees to hold, swam through the canopy. And the vines wrapped tighter around his legs, scratching any skin they could find with their venomous thorns.
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The moonshadow cast a dark pall on the ground beneath it.
The pulsing red star seemed to laugh.
The white star was bigger tonight.
She sunk up to her knees in the soft sand, swearing as she tugged her legs out, back onto the relatively solid surface of the not-soft sand.
She climbed up the oh-so-familiar reddish-orange dune and stared in frustration and anger at the sight below. It was the fucking camp. Her camp. Their camp.
It was different though, she could feel it, even all the way up here. It looked the same; the same tents, the same fence, the same bonfire. But it felt different. Not just empty, but abandoned. But more than that, her space, where her tent would have been, was empty. A square of sand with nothing on it.
She slid down the sand and crept up on the fence line. She knew she was being stupid, even as she did it; it was broad daylight and there was clearly no one around. But there was a part of her that knew if she didn’t at least pretend to sneak around, then there would be someone, or something, waiting to catch her unawares. She knew this place and she knew it wasn’t worth the risk, no matter how it looked from the outside.
The gate was wide open when she made it around to the front. The padlock that had worked shockingly well keeping everything secure had been melted, it looked like, and lay useless on the sand. It was quiet inside the gate. She slipped in and, keeping her back to the fence, made her way to where her tent should have been. It took nearly an hour but, again, she didn’t want to risk anything. The image of being melted like the padlock kept flashing in her mind and she shuddered.
As it had looked from above, the tent space was empty. It didn’t even look as if there had been anything here in the first place. The sand wasn’t flat, like you’d expect it to be if there had been a tent here. But she did notice something curious. The sand here was a different colour. Less red, more golden.
Like that other place you just were.
The voice was sudden and harsh. And as fast as it had spoken it was gone. It wasn’t there long enough for her to register it as a woman or mans voice. Even the message was weird. Other place? What other place? This was just the desert again. The same as always. Although, she thought, she was surprised to see it this time. Either way, this sand was different. The wind picked up and blew it around her in a small storm. She sighed.
It was time to leave this place again. But, as always, she knew it would be temporary.
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The moon was almost glowing red now. A deep blood red.
It had moved in front of the red star. In a blink, the sky was full of stars again.
Animal calls filled the air.
They say animals can sense danger before it happens.
She was following someone.
Whoever it was was maybe a day or so ahead of her, and getting further away. She was only resting where they had rested, and only for a couple of hours. Sleep was getting harder to find and what little food she could find was not satisfying her. She had to keep moving. Getting out of the desert, out of the blinding white sun, was the only way she could hope to survive.
The person ahead of her was making fires now. Small ones, to be sure, but fires all the same. She didn’t understand why; there was no food here to cook, none of the creatures had enough meat on them to waste that sort of time or effort, there was no water to boil to drink. Night still hadn’t come, so there was no light needed. Why the fires? Were they a message? To whom? Her? Him? Them?
Where is he?
It was that voice again. Here then not in an instant, leaving a message branded into her mind like a scar. Who was he, was the question she wanted answered. There was no he. She was the only one here besides them, not that she knew anything about them either, but at least she knew they were real. This man she kept thinking of was not real, a mystery, a shape in the back of her mind that refused to fill in with the other bullshit of this place. Maybe that’s who was in front of her, she thought. She kicked at one of the fires whoever it was had built, disturbing the family of ants and other insects who had been drawn to the heat. She kicked sand over them in a fit of superiority and carried on across the sand, half searching for the person in front of her, half looking for the edge so she could leave.
She didn’t remember sleeping, but she remembered waking up, laying in the sun, burnt bright red. She rolled over, groaning. A shadow passed over her and she focused her eyes on the large bird circling. She had never seen a bird in the desert before. She bolted upright and looked around, ignoring the stinging burns. She had been properly asleep, that usually meant a reset. But not this time, it seemed. There was no massive dune, no camp, no them. Just the sunburn and the bird who had flown away as she moved. She stood.
Smoke twisted up from behind another dune ahead of her. She started walking, fast. Time to meet this other person.
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It looked into the black sky. It saw nothing. It saw everything.
He felt weird. Little jolts of electricity shot through his body periodically; not enough to hurt, but enough to make him jerk around each time. He was bound by something as well, below the waist. He couldn’t see what though, it was too dark and his eyes were not acclimating fast enough.
There was something else nearby. A familiar feeling told him it was sitting, watching. As he recognised this feeling, laughing children filled his hearing from the other side of him.
He didn’t understand why it was familiar, but he knew he didn’t like it. He struggled to free his legs from what was binding them, but each time he moved, the bindings got tighter and he felt small pricks drag up his legs.
There was movement now. He could feel it. Something was circling him. Moving slowly and deliberately. There was no noise. But every now and then he felt a stream of warm, moist air flow over his face. The laughter died down and then everything went back to silence. There was something else though, right at the edge of his hearing. Something else.
He could see something now, too. Hazy shapes and motion were swimming into focus slowly. There was also feeling in his hands. Sharp, focused feeling, as if everything had been turned up to eleven. It was almost painful.
He ran his hands along the surface he was laying on, the rough sensation caused him to cry out and the thing circling him stopped. He couldn’t be sure if it came from the thing already there, or from something else he was unaware of, but there was a soft growl.
He could move his legs more now. The bindings were releasing. He couldn’t feel his feet anymore, but for some reason that didn’t concern him. He was more worried about this new thing.
The laughing children had been silent for a long time now and the circling creature had retreated outside of his awareness. It was still dark, but he could see a flame jumping around just beyond his reach. He moved his hands and tried to push himself up, but they screamed in pain but he pushed through and managed to pull himself up. His legs weren’t co-operating at all. He looked around and tried to peer through the haze. Something was standing behind the flame.
It was huge and shapeless. It moved like water, changing and reforming. It was watching him and, he felt, judging him. He blinked and it was gone.
His legs were rubber now. They weren’t moving at all. A pit of panic was in his gut and it took all his self control to not freak out. He hit his legs over and over, but they refused to feel anything. His sight was back now, mostly. He could see beyond his feet and he saw the thing. The white creature with red eyes.
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The moon was hidden behind thick clouds.
The clouds hid the stars. Their warnings ignored again.
The sun had set by the time she had made it to where she had seen the smoke coming from. She could feel the coldness of a desert night creep into her skin. She wished the fire to still be there, and hoped whoever it was who had lit it was amenable to some company.
She could see, ahead of her, but hidden by the way the sand dunes had formed, flickers of orange light. The fire was still lit.
She couldn’t hear anything, not even the crackling of the burning wood, or whatever this person had found to burn. She crept around the dunes as quietly as she could and found herself an angle she could see from.
A low brick wall that seemed to have been made from a glossy black stone stood about ten meters ahead of her. On the other side of it, five people stood. She couldn’t focus on them properly and they kept swimming in and out of her vision. She stopped trying to look at them and instead on what they were doing. They were surrounding a fire which, while flickered orange, burned a bright green. On the ground underneath them, inside the wall which she could see now encircled them and the fire, black lines twisted and burned into the sand, making patterns which changed and moved with the flickering of the flames.
She could hear them now, although she could still hear nothing coming from the fire, they were chanting something in low voices, in a language that she knew but couldn’t understand. Their hands were held over the fire and they were moving and twisting them into random, synchronised, gestures as they chanted. She watched the hands for a while, wondering how they could twist and bend like that.
They either didn’t care she was watching them, or they hadn’t seen her. She stood upright and walked around the walled off area. The wall itself only came up to her thighs and was made from, now that she could see it closely, a single piece of black rock that looked as if it was glowing a slight purple colour.
On the opposite side of where she had arrived, there was a gap in the wall. It was wide enough to allow one person at a time through. She walked around slowly and stood at it, looking through it at the people inside. Nothing had changed, and she felt embarrassed that she had expected them to.
A strange feeling came over her and she stepped into the circled off area. Immediately the twisting black lines on the ground stopped, freezing in a familiar sigil. The fire extinguished in a green bloom of flame and the five people turned to face her, their faces hidden by deep black hoods.
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There was only darkness.
Only the emptiness of a failed hunt.
It lay down where it lost the trail and slept.
It would return.
And next time, there wont be failure.
The creature was tensed, ready to strike. He watched it, not taking his eyes from it for an instant. He pulled himself away from it, sliding over the ground, his useless legs dragging behind him. It didn’t seem to be concerned by this. Didn’t seem to be worried.
He was scared now, he could feel it in his head. The rest of his body didn’t feel it, as if there was something stopping the feeling from leaving his brain. He backed into something and stopped. Gathering all his energy, he turned his head away from the creature and looked at what he had run into. It was a familiar, yet strange, wire fence strung up between posts of rotten wood. The fear finally managed to escape his brain and flood his body. Every muscle tensed and adrenaline filled his veins. His legs, though, remained useless behind him. The laughing children started again, right next to his ear. He turned and there was, of course, nothing there. He sensed, rather than heard or saw, the creature move and his brain screamed run at him. He turned back to the creature, but it was too late, it had already launched and the last thing he saw was grimy yellow teeth coming straight for his face.
The night was clear.
A waxing moon sat high in the sky, surrounded by twinkling white and yellow stars.
The air was calm.
Everything felt safe.
She couldn’t move.
But they could. They were moving slowly towards her. In an instant she knew who they were and for one of the only times since she had arrived here, she felt actual fear for her life. This was different to the desert cycle. Different to anything the forest could throw at her. This was them in the flesh. This was what she had spent so long trying to avoid. Futilely, it seemed. She felt something wrap around the foot which had broken the threshold but looking down, there was nothing.
She thought of the strange man who had been in her dreams lately. She had no idea who he was or why she was dreaming of him, but for some reason, now, when she thought of him, she felt anger. He was supposed to save her from them. Why was he not here? Why was it her that was about to … She didn’t finish the thought and instead closed her eyes and waited for whatever it was they were going to do to her.
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Everything was green. He felt at home here. Safe.
But outside, the green was different. Not safe.
He stayed inside this green. He stayed here, afraid.
Warm salt water washed over his face as he regained consciousness. He groaned as he rolled over and threw up a mess of seawater and sand. He had no idea where he was or how he got here. Nothing before waking up filtered through to his conscious thought, nothing except the image of an older man. He was wearing old, dirty jeans and a checkered shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to expose thick tanned arms. His face was a blur of changing features though. A beard, then no beard, then a partial beard, then another, different beard. Different glasses switched and blurred over different eyes. Only the general shape of his head stayed the same. He had no idea who this man was, but he was important to him. He could feel it.
He stood up and examined his surroundings. He was on a long, narrow beach. Dirty grey sand stretched either side of him as far as he could see. In front of him, maybe ten meters away, the beach rose to a bank which followed the beach all the way around. Beyond that stood a thick, dark green forest. Behind him, the blue-green-grey sea which had thrown him onto this beach dared him to come back in. Beyond the breakers he thought he could see a boat, or something, but it was gone before it really registered in his mind.
The clouds prevented the sun from warming or drying him, but it didn’t matter. Not really. He walked up the small bank and peered through the trees into the forest. There were things in there, he could hear them moving around. There were noises he associated with probably birds. There were also noises he knew were definitely not birds.
He only had the clothes he was wearing and nothing else. He kicked around the fallen branches and dead leaves on the ground looking for something he could use as a weapon if anything in there wanted to attack him, but found nothing.
He slowly walked along the edge of the trees, looking for anything that wasn’t just trees. He kept walking until the dim light behind the clouds meant the sun was setting. He watched, as best he could, as it sunk below the horizon out to sea. He sighed. The first night here. He didn’t feel tired, which a part of him was grateful. This seemed like a place full of nocturnal hunters.
As the thought finished in his head, something deep in the forest roared.
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It wasn’t full, not for another few days.
The moon was bigger tonight.
As it rose, the bright star, the second brightest thing in the sky after the moon, twinkled next to it.
It was an omen.
She didn’t know that.
He was gone again.
He was gone more often than not these days.
He would come back, she knew that, but she couldn’t help but worry. The forest was full of things he couldn’t handle by himself. Not these days. And there was always the dangers of the desert, even though he swore up and down that he never touched sand. She trusted him, but she didn’t trust his memory. They had been here too long and it was time to leave. But she knew, deep down, finding the ocean again, after what happened last time, was going to be harder than avoiding the desert.
Not to mention, she had to wait for him to return. It was months, last time, but he said it had been mere hours.
She spent the next day or so packing the camp up. They had been here for too long for it to be safe anymore. She would leave the next morning, whether he had returned or not. He would find her, she knew that, and he also knew the rules about staying in one place too long. The image of that one strange village flitted through her head.
She was already awake when dawn arrived. She stood as the orange glow filtered through the trees and got ready to leave. She wrapped herself in the leather cloth that passed for a skirt and hoisted the tatty pack she had arrived here with on to her shoulders. It was lighter each time she did this and she worried about what would happen when it was empty. Like always, she pushed that out of her head and set off down the path. The little jumping creatures were also out and about, getting an early meal in before the carnivores woke. They jumped quickly away into the underbrush as she approached and missed having him make her spears to catch them with. She understood why he left all the time, but was still upset that he wasn’t here to look after her.
She could hear the running water nearby. Memories of the things in it flooded her memory and she stayed well away from it. Rain water was always better than whatever those things were.
She walked for a whole day, the sun setting ahead of her as she finally found somewhere to set up camp.
An old tree with bent and twisted branches provided a convenient above-ground platform to sleep on with room for him, should he return. She climbed up and put the pack down against the trunk. She turned and looked around and found herself staring into his lifeless eyes.
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The fear is unfounded, is what logic said.
The fear is unnatural, is what his gut said.
The fear is irrational, is what the only rational part of his brain left said.
The fear is real, is what the noises outside the green said.
He had entered the forest after running out of other options. The trees were thick and the air was humid. The ground beneath him was covered in a layer of dead and dying leaves. The contradiction was lost on him as he walked through, looking for anything. Something that would tell him where he should go, or what he should do. But as much as he looked for some random clue, or some thing that would give him a clue as to what he was doing here, he saw nothing, he learned nothing and he found nothing.
Eventually he found a creek. Pristine clear water ran quickly down over smooth rocks. He could smell the wet leaves and dirt as he splashed through the water. He drank heavily from it and did his best to wash off the dirt and sand that had been caked on since he arrived here. Once he felt clean, even though he knew he would never be truly clean, he climbed back onto the bank and followed the creek, which quickly grew into a river, then shrunk back down to a small trickle as he followed it. Ahead of him, somewhere, he could hear a roar. This time it wasn’t an animal roar.
The forest came to an end, and he was shocked that he was surprised about that. He stepped out of the trees and into the setting sun. Ahead, about ten or so meters, the edge of the cliff just dropped away and the roar he could hear was the sound of the creek, wide again, pouring over the edge into the valley below.
He stood at the edge and looked out over the lush green expanse. Immensely tall trees sprouted at random and stood tall above the canopy. At the far end of the valley some, maybe, twenty miles away, he could see the glistening of a large lake in the setting sun. He followed the edge of the cliff with his eyes until he saw something a few meters along, on the other side of the river. Steps. Leading down into the valley. The first, and only, signs of civilisation he had seen since he arrived. If it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, he might have questioned that.
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The moon looked over everything with a pale glow.
Another night with no clouds.
Another night of its mournful, waxing gaze.
She scrambled backwards and pressed against the tree. The body was white and cold. It had been there for some time. Left alone, away from predators. He was dressed in the same clothes he was wearing the last time she saw him. Slightly more tattered and worn, but the same. There was nothing obvious she could see that would explain how he got here or what happened to him, and she knew next to nothing about medical care, so she had no idea how long he had been here. Not to mention, this place was weird, even if she did know that sort of thing, there was no way to know how accurate she was.
She climbed down the tree when she had calmed down and her nerves had stopped tingling. She would find another place to sleep.
A small cave that had been dug into the soft mud under a large rock sufficed for her purposes. She buried herself in there as tight as she could and tried to sleep. Down here, at ground level, the noises she could hear, the other creatures she shared these woods with, sounded a lot more threatening, a lot more hungry. She knew she would sleep, she knew she would wake, but she didn’t know what would happen between those two things.
The entrance to the cave she had dug for herself was on the wrong side of the rock to get the morning sun, so it was already late in the morning when she woke. She hadn’t woken during the night and remembered no dreams. Same as usual. She went back to the trees, to his corpse. It had gone and the way the branches of the trees had grown was subtly different. She looked around, up and down, but saw nothing unusual. She breathed in and out slowly and deeply. Time to move on. Either he would catch up to her, just like last time, or she would just find his corpse somewhere else. Maybe even both. It had been a while since it was both.
She climbed back down the tree and followed the path deeper into the woods. She was being followed, she could feel them. Something deeper in than her. She did everything she could to ignore it, but so long as she was awake, it would always be there, following her.
Or was it guiding her?
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He was alone.
He was not alone.
The green was safe.
Outside the green was not.
How long would it be like this?
When did the change happen?
The climb down the steps he had found was harder than it looked. Once he had managed to find a safe spot to cross the river – slightly back in the trees – he found that the steps weren’t as artificial as they had looked from across the way. Still, though, they were definitely a way down, and from what he could see here, at the top, they went all the way down.
He climbed down like it was a ladder; facing toward the cliff, feeling with each foot for the next ledge before putting his weight on it and lowering himself down. He was half way down when the ground shook and the waterfall sprayed over him. “Earthquake?” he asked no one. He clung to the rock wall and tried to turn his face to the valley. His hand slipped and his foot fell several inches before stopping suddenly on a ledge. He gripped the rocks with his hands tight, squeezing his eyes shut, the image he saw before he slipped burned deep onto his retinas.
The creature was massive, standing taller than the tallest trees in the valley. There was nowhere it could have come from. It stood on three spindly legs, each of them looking very shaky and weak as it lifted one and put all its weight on the other two before its leg came slamming down on the ground. Its body was thick and grey, like a reptile. Pockmarks and scars littered the side of it, as if it had been attacked over and over. A long, snake like neck coiled on the top of the body, moving slightly as it walked through the trees, somehow leaving the trees behind it in tact as if it hadn’t walked through them at all. A long thin tail swished back and forth behind it, whipping its tip making a sharp crack each pass.
He had recovered his position on the rock face. His feet were secure on the ledge and his hands had found a tree growing into the rock face and he held onto it tightly as whatever it was behind him roared far too loudly for the small head that perched at the end of its neck. He pulled himself closer to the rock face and squeezed his eyes shut again, the image still there. He opened his eyes when silence fell and leaned out from the cliff, using the tree to hold on, and turned his head to get a better view of the creature.
It was no longer there. But its roar echoed across the valley sending shivers up and down his spine.
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The moon was fuller tonight.
The star pulsed faster tonight.
The night moved slower.
She was lost.
Deep in this forest, away from anything she could use as a marker or landmark. No sunlight made it below the canopy and it gave everything a perpetual early evening feel.
Birds flitted from tree to tree above her. They didn’t chirp or make any noise. Creatures would rustle in the bushes around her, but also made no noise of their own. Everything would freeze when she grunted as she climbed over a fallen log, or when she gasped as a thorn bush cut her skin. She didn’t notice.
Out of nowhere, the trees ended and she was in a clearing. It was almost perfectly circular and had been cleared of all vegetation and the topsoil had been dug out to about three inches deep. The earth had been pressed flat.
She stepped out onto it and she felt the sun on her face for the first time in what felt like forever. It was cold. But she lapped it up. Being out of the forest was something she had been dreaming of for days.
Dreams. She had started to dream again. Asleep and awake. Almost all of them involved him. Either returning or leaving. The dreams that weren’t about him were about something dark. Something that was both there and not there at the same time. Sometimes it was malevolent, other times it was nothing, just a presence. She didn’t remember all these dreams. She barely remembered any of the dreams themselves, but she knew not remembering was far better than remembering on those mornings where she woke up screaming.
She sat in the dirt. She sat in different places in the clearing. It was just dirt. The sun would shine on her during the days, making her colder than when she was in the forest. During the nights the moon looked down on her, always centered in the sky over the patch of dirt she had started to call home. None of the other forest creatures set foot here. She wasn’t going to get eaten. None of the birds flew overhead. There was that other thing. The creature, somewhere deeper in the woods. She hadn’t seen it yet. Hadn’t felt its gaze. But it was still there, waiting. Would it step into the dirt? Was it scared to, like the other creatures?
She never felt like leaving. It wasn’t as if she was comfortable here, or that it was pleasant in any way. It was more a feeling of whatever was out there, in the trees, was far worse, even in potential. She stayed. Day and night. She weathered the dreams and the dread she felt looking at the moon. She waited for whatever that thing was to get her. To step out of the shadows and swallow her whole, to end this whole miserable affair once and for all.
“Hello,” he said, one morning, looking over her as she woke, that small smirk she adored on his face.
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The green was safe.
There was something else inside.
Leaving was a mistake.
Some mistakes cant be undone.
It felt strange looking up the waterfall at the cliff he had just climbed down. From down here, it looked taller than the cliff he had just climbed down. He ran his hands over the smooth stone step. It was done now, and he might as well continue on.
The valley was now spread out in front of him. It was a lot greener down here than it looked from up the top. There was more space between each tree as well. He walked slowly through them, looking with amazement at the different types that grew here. Twice he came upon one of the tall ones, their trunks thick and strong, running with sap. There were things high in the canopy, but he couldn’t see them clearly. They could have been birds or something else. There were no branches low enough for him to grab to climb up.
He could hear water. He assumed it was a continuation of the waterfall. He was very thirsty all of a sudden and was overwhelmed with the urge to find the river and drink. He hunted until the sun was a glow on the horizon but he came up with nothing. The river, although he could hear it constantly, was nowhere to be found. It was driving him insane how thirsty he was. Each time he parted a fern or snapped off a thin branch, he expected to see the water, but each time it was just more forest and more thirst.
Something ticked in his brain and he remembered the lake at the far end of the valley. The river would feed into that, he mentally slapped himself for getting panicked over nothing and instead of looking for the river, he just followed its sounds, making sure that he always kept it an even distance away. He would get his drink at the end.
Night came fast, or at least, it came faster than he would have liked, and a part of him thought it was even faster than the previous night. He looked to the skies, but despite there being no clouds at the end of the day, there were no stars out. No moonlight lit him up. It was a quiet, dead night. And everything was making his nerves scream at him to leave.
He didn’t sleep here. Something about the way the trees looked in the night, something about how different they looked. It meant that sleep wasn’t safe. Nothing happened. No creatures came to eat him, the ground didn’t open up and swallow him. He didn’t end up chained to a fence and left for whatever wanted to scavenge him first.
Dawn broke and the spell was broken. Everything was as it was the day before. The trees were greener, the forest was wider, more open and the light scared away all of the shadows.
He wasn’t watching where he was going and stepped out from behind a tree into a massive clearing. All the trees, shrubbery and even the topsoil had gone. In the middle sat a girl. Crying.
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Clouds covered the moon.
Darkness below, as above.
Omens upon unrecognised omens.
She was beginning to understand, though.
She jumped and scrambled backwards through the dirt, right to the edge of the clearing. She had just been dreaming of something, she couldn’t remember what, leaning over her, or covering her, or something and now she woke to his face. It was enough to wake her instantly, instead of the ten or minutes it usually took. He stayed where he stood, watching with unhidden amusement, as she jumped to her feet.
“Take your time,” he called. “Not like I’m going anywhere.”
“You say that every time,” she called back, recognising, finally, who it was.
“Every time? We’ve been here together since the start.”
She looked around her. They weren’t on the cleared patch of dirt. They were in a different clearing. Warm sun shone down from above and everything was green. Twisted willow trees lined the clearing and the ground was covered in a lush grass with different flowers sprouting out of it.
“Nice, isn’t it?” he said, stepping towards her. “I always like it here.”
“I wasn’t here before,” she said. “I was in the other clearing, the dirt.” She couldn’t get her head around this change.
“Surely you’ve moved before. Taken away and put somewhere else. A woman of your experience should be used to it happening.”
“What are you talking about,” she turned her gaze on him. His clothes were clean and tidy. The same ones she had found on the corpse. The same ones he had left in, weeks and weeks ago now. The smirk was gone now, replaced by a neutral expression. He stood with his legs apart and his hands in his pockets. He swayed on the balls of his feet. None of this looked right on him.
“This place,” he said, using his hands to clarify he meant the clearing. “Is mine. Its a safety place. You have one, probably. Somewhere you go when you need to be safe. Somewhere you dream about. Maybe you don’t remember. But understand, this is mine,” the word cut through her like a knife. This wasn’t the man she remembered. He wasn’t angry, or intimidating. “You come here when I allow it, for however long I allow it. Do not think I don’t see you hovering on the outsides at night, hoping for an invitation. Don’t think I don’t know what you are, or what you want. This is my place and I will not have you disturb it out of turn.”
She tried to say something, but no words came out. This wasn’t the man she knew, she realised that now, but it was too late. Creepers from outside the clearing were snaking their way towards her. She recognised them as the vines that made you sleep if they cut you. A sleep you don’t wake up from. She turned and pushed her way through the foliage and out into whatever was outside the green space. The walls fell and she stumbled through, outside.
She woke up and screamed loudly. Something very close roared back.
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