The town had grown since the last time he’d been here, about twelve years now. That old house right on the town limits hadn’t though.
He’d heard that a few years ago the city council had declared the forest a protected area and moved future expansions in every other direction, just ignoring the thick trees. They’d always been…creepy. Now it was downright disturbing.
You could see the edge of the forest but the harder you looked, the darker it got. Even on the brightest days it was like a black hole.
He wandered the overgrown property with the weeds that threatened to trap his shoes, the plywood that covered where windows had been creaking in the breeze. The place hadn’t been owned since his mother died in it, a night he didn’t remember.
He kicked a rock off into the trees.
“Ow!” her voice was clear and she slunk out of the woods rubbing her shin, where a small cut dripped fresh blood.
He remembered her from all those years ago, even if no one had believed him. The girl that lived in the woods. They’d told him he was crazy. The girl with the yellow eyes that burned in the darkest night. He’d never seen anything like them before. And hadn’t seen anything like that since.
He walked to her and hugged her, pulling her tight.
“You cut me,” she said, pouting.
“Don’t creep around in the trees then,” he said, looking down to the trail of blood that led to a perfectly healed shin. She still had it. Whatever it was.
“Where did you go?” she said to him, holding his hand as they walked the property line together, “you’ve been gone for so long. Everyone left me.”
“You know I couldn’t stay here.”
She rested her head on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry about her. She was a beautiful woman, inside and out. I really liked her.”
He looked at the house and sighed. She would hate to see it now. Worn and ugly and uncared for. It used to be so warm and inviting.
“Your dad was so upset about that, he went searching for whoever did that for years, tracking through the trees. He was always very good at that.”
He stopped in his tracks and looked at her and she slowly turned, realizing she’d made a mistake.
Her eyes darted back and forth nervously as she tried to stammer out anything. Something. But the damage had been done. She backed away from him but he didn’t stop coming at her, he wanted answers.
“My dad died when I was born, car accident. My mom told me that. My dad isn’t out there. He’s dead.”
“Yes, she…she said that and it’s true, that’s true. Totally true. I’m wrong, not your dad. No, not him.”
She looked away from him and kicked at the grass and he waited.
“He’s not dead.”
She finally said, quietly. The wind was almost louder. But he heard it clearly.
“Where is he?” he shouted at her, losing himself for a moment. She ran from him, disappearing into the trees that she knew better than anyone.
He didn’t pause, he didn’t wait, he didn’t think. He didn’t care that she disappeared into the blackness of the forest or that she would come back if he waited, he didn’t care about the aura of desperate fear and abject terror that the trees exuded. He only wanted answers.
So he ran after her.
And so he disappeared into the darkness too, leaving a house creaking in the wind.
His feet pounded on dry leaves, crackling under his shoes as he followed her as best he could. She moved like water through the trees, leaping from thick trunk to trunk on nimble legs.
“No, leave!” she shouted as he followed her, his loud steps a contrast to her noiseless movement. Still he followed, even as he lost sight of her. A branch cracked to his left and he glanced over to see a massive dark shape flitting from tree to tree and as he turned back he found himself looking at a thick limb right at eye height.
He tried to stop but on the leaves and at the speed he was going it was no use, he slammed into it with the tip of his nose and felt warmth spilling down his mouth and chin to soak his shirt. Laying on his back he clutched at his nose and looked up at the canopy that hid almost all the daylight form sight. The whole place was wreathed in a strange green and blue light that didn’t look anything like the forests he knew.
He was rolling to his side when something hit his chest, a small weight that moved and wriggled on him. He lifted his head to look and saw a small creature with the same yellow eyes, spindly legs and thin arms with a piece of wood clutched in one clawed hand. It had a long nose that protruded from a small face, bumpy light green skin. It almost looked like a goblin. But that wasn’t possibly.
He must have hit his head harder than he thought.
“Who-who are you!” it shrieked, leaping up and grabbing at his shirt with the free hand and waving the little wooden dagger in front of his eyes, “why-why you in forest?”
He forgot about his bloody nose and blinked at the little creature, the overly large yellow eyes unblinking as it got closer and closer to his own. So close they became like dinner plates. It tilted its head with twitchy movements.
“I…you’re not real are you?”
It laughed, a chittering noise. He heard the branches shaking around him and saw dozens more just like the one on his chest appear, clambering on the bark and running across the ground on all fours.
“Real-real, yes. Eat you now.”
“No-no!” one of them said loudly, dressed in a dirty brown robe that looked almost like a wool blanket someone might keep in their trunk. It walked with a large, for it, staff of some kind. Like a shaman.
It wasn’t possible.
“One-one of them, this one is. Doesn’t know it yet.”
“Okay, I’m dreaming,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m on the ground and I’ve knocked myself out. Time to wake up.” He pinched himself on his arm but nothing happened.
“Fun-fun!” the little one shrieked, using a clawed hand to pinch up and down his other arm. He jerked it back from the little thing as it started to sink in.
Not a dream. It was real.
Then he started screaming.
The little one with the staff listened to the screaming for a few seconds and then decided enough was enough, whacking the strange man with his walking staff in the center of his head.
The screaming stopped.
They all crowded around the limp body and stared intently with enormous yellow eyes, dozens of the things. They watched and waited and saw his chest rising and falling.
“Not-not dead!” they all chanted, cheering and jumping. Quickly they grabbed at him and with many hands making light the work they whisked him away towards their lair, towards safety. Dozens more followed closely, leaping across the branches with crude bows clutched in their hands.
She followed the procession from a safe distance, feeling guilty about having led him into this mess. Behind her something snorted and she rested a hand on it’s nose, or what would be a nose if it wasn’t formed of twisted branches and leaves in the shape of a very large wolf, it’s haunches standing as high as her shoulders.
“I know, I know,” she muttered to him, “we have to go get him back.”
They were forest goblins, a very annoying group that were mostly harmless if not generally annoying. They were constantly stealing things and getting into trouble between the tribes. Now they’d gone and stolen the son of a revered figure in the forest. All because of her.
They dragged his limp body to the center of one of their little villages, wooden ladders and tree homes haphazardly constructed with whatever scrap they could steal. Years ago a city works vehicle had overturned in the snow and the goblins had found aluminum ladders and tools and had taken to making the strangest constructions.
They had used the ladder from the works truck as a grill for their fire up until one of them had figured out they could use it to climb into the trees and to safety. In the span of a few years they had gone from dirt dwellers to taking to the branches like they were born to.
It had taken them a little longer than it should have, she’d always though, but they got there eventually.
They formed a circle and danced around his body while the shaman, actually more of a druid, performed some sort of ritual. When they saw her everything froze.
“I have to take him,” she said, holding out her hands openly while her wolf padded behind her. The goblins hissed at the massive beast, only their chieftains and druids were permitted to toy with the wood magics. They distrusted it.
“Go-go! We find, not yours to take!” the druid shambled forward, waving his little staff. He barely came up to her knee but carried himself as if he towered over her. Cocky little beast.
“You know who he is, I have to take him.”
He stirred in the dirt and slowly opened his eyes. First he saw the fire, then the circle of goblins watching him with those giant eyes, then her. Finally he settled on the enormous wolf of twisted wood and leaves that watched him curiously.
He started screaming again.
“No-no!” the druid shrieked, closing the distance with surprising speed and bringing his staff down again with a sharp crack in the clearing.
“Would you quit that!” she shouted, snatching the little staff from him.
“Mine-mine, give back!” he shrieked, jumping up as she held it high above his head. Which was only waist height. She would have laughed if she wasn’t worried that the little druid had just delivered some brain damage.
“He-he’s ours! We find. Go now! Give back stick!” the druid yelled it up at her. The others took up the chant of “give back stick” and danced in their circle again. She rolled her eyes.
“I’ll give you back your stick for him.”
The druid narrowed his eyes and slowly looked to the wolf.
“Want-want stick!” he shrieked, jumping up and down and pointing at the wolf, “like that!”
“Fine,” she closed her eyes and pretended to share some of the woods magics into his staff, making a big show of it. Then she let out an enormous breath and slumped as if exhausted and drained, giving him back the little stick without any change.
He gripped it tight and his eyes doubled in size, at least. Which was terrifying since they were already huge.
“Can I take him now?”
“What-what? Oh, yes, take him.” They had lost all interest as the other little goblins stared reverently at the newly blessed but completely unchanged staff. She lifted him up by his armpits and draped him over the wolf’s back.
He stirred, groaning and opening his eyes again.
The druid yelped and delivered another blow to his head, another crack in the clearing.
“Would you stop that!” she roared and they all scattered up their ladders and into their homes, yellow eyes peering out from every crack and nook. Even the druid, carried by two unlucky goblins, made it up a ladder. Still clutching his staff.
They left the clearing and were barely out of sight when she heard the goblins chanting again.
She really hoped he didn’t have any lasting damage. The tribe would be furious if the son of one of the greatest chieftains was defeated by one of the least powerful goblin camps. She’d take him to a Coven, they’d make sure he was okay.
Might be easier for him to wake up to them too, since they looked human.
He opened his eyes for the third time, maybe the fourth, and wondered why his head hurt so much. He could almost feel a hard lump growing on the top of his head. It took him a bit longer than it should have to realize that he was moving.
The ground was passing by but his legs were still, he wasn’t moving himself, he was being carried. He saw four…legs moving slowly as whatever it was plodded along. The thing was the legs weren’t flesh and bone and fur they were sticks and leaves and twisted vines.
Suddenly the thing stopped. Warm hands grabbed his head and turned it and he saw her yellow eyes, the kindly ones he remembered from all those years ago. Behind her comfortingly familiar face he saw the shape of a wolf’s head turning to look at him.
He opened his mouth and she slammed his chin shut with one hand and pressed her finger to his lips with the other.
“No,” she said, “no more screaming.”
He let out a muffled whimper and nodded, taking a deep breath before she pulled her hands away. He looked up at her from the odd position and prodded his cheek with his tongue.
“I think I bit my tongue,” he said and she laughed. She helped him down from the tree wolf thing and he stood on his own two feet again. He rubbed the top of his head and winced at the obvious lump that was forming and it slowly came back to him.
“Mmhmm,” she pulled several leaves from a leathery pouch that hung from her belt and began chewing them into a mulched mess, before rubbing that same mix on the lump, “goblins.”
“First, gross. Second, goblins aren’t real. Third, where did you get this animatronic wolf from? It looks so real!”
He poked a finger into the branches that made up the wolf’s haunches and it snapped at the air around his arm as he pulled back, chuffing displeasure at being invaded.
“Oh my god. It’s real.”
“Mmhmm,” she continued pressing the mash onto his wound, “sure is.”
He sat there feeling the moist mixture seeping into what had to be a good sized bump and probably a cut, instantly feeling better as it soothed the headache and bruising.
He looked at the wolf as a tongue of vines lapped at the haunch he had attempted to violate and then to her, with the now familiar yellow eyes.
“So…” he wrung his hands, “what are you?”
He laughed and laughed, so hard he nearly fell over.
“I’m dreaming, I have to be dreaming, right? I ate something bad or drank some spiked tea and now I’m having a lucid nightmare thing. Right?”
She whacked the bump on his head with two fingers and he yelped.
“Feel like a dream?”
He pouted at her and rubbed the now tender spot, muttering one word.
She shook her head and pulled him to his feet. She felt the rumbling earth before he did and only just after her wolf did. Then he did.
She looked through the trees and spotted the movement, a handful of riders on broad chested moose just like her wolf. They must have had a spy with the goblins. Or the trees sold them out. A human in the forest was big news, even if he was a half human.
“We have to run.” She said, pulling his arm towards the wolf, who dropped down to allow them to climb up.
“Cool. Can we ride out of this whole place please, I would like to go home now. Or wake up. Either one will do.”
“It’s not a dream!” She spurred the wolf on and the crashed through the underbrush as the riders gained on them, “they want you.”
“Who doesn’t,” he said, laughing at his own joke and wondering why he’d even made it, “but why do they want me?”
An arrow sank into a tree after hissing just past his right ear and he screamed.
“Right in my ear!” She elbowed him in the gut and stopped any more of that by driving all the wind out of him, “can we maybe talk about the why later? You know, after we’re not being chased?”
He let out a wheezy sound of agreement and looked back at the riders. They were scarred over their whole bodies, like tribal tattoos but concentric circles and designs of thick scar tissue. That wasn’t terrifying.
One of them made eye contact and let out a bloodcurdling war cry.
He held her tighter and closed his eyes, wishing to wake up.
“I should have never come back,” he said, managing to catch his breath, “I should have never come here.”
“You were always going to come back here, it was just a matter of time. You would have been drawn here someday. Everyone born in this forest comes back to it. Eventually.”
Hot coffee spilled across his lap and he shouted, dancing in the seat of the police cruiser and struggling to open the door. Finally he stumbled out and let what little liquid morning starter was left pooled on his pants pour onto the pavement.
His partner applauded slowly, sarcastically as she watched him dab at it with a wad of fast food napkins they kept in the console.
“Yeah yeah,” he finished and bowed slightly for the applause. They had stopped on a stretch of road that connected the retirement community to the main town, a stretch of road that most people avoided driving on whenever possible. Something about the creepy trees.
Most people took the long way just to avoid it. How the road had ever come to exist was a great mystery since the road workers hated doing anything here.
As they settled back into the car and looked forward a huge shape crashed through the tree and disappeared into the brush on the other side. A massive…wolf with two people on it’s back.
“Did…did…” she stammered while he looked into his coffee mug for half dissolved pills or something. He looked at her and she looked back, both of them blinking.
“I didn’t see anything.”
She nodded and started the car, driving just a little too fast but at the same time not fast enough.
They stopped riding once they had cleared the black roadway and the police cruiser. She ignored the fact that he had yelled for help the whole time they were airborne. She felt safe they weren’t coming in after them, no one did.
He slid off the wolf and shook his head.
“No, no, no, I wanna go home. I want out. Stop the ride, I wanna get off.”
He started charging towards the road when he saw the totem. It towered over him, a series of animal skulls rising up to a deer skull with antlers protruding out on a pile of carved stone skulls.
“No, no, I don’t like that. Not one bit.”
“It’s for show,” she said, grabbing his arm and leading him towards a clearing, “they just don’t like visitors.”
“I’m a visitor!” he shouted, snatching his arm out of her grab, “that’s me! I’m the thing they don’t like! Why are we going towards where they are?!”
“Calm down, they like me.”
“Oh good! Well gee, that makes me feel so much better!”
“No! I want to do something! I scream and I get hit in the head, now I can’t yell? Can I cry? Is that permitted or will that raise up some tree minion to beat me?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, there are no tree minions.”
He stared at her, his left eye twitching. The wolf slunk behind her and it almost looked as if it was smiling at him. He marched towards the road, startling her.
“That’s hilarious. You’re funnier than I remember.”
“Don’t you want to know where you came from? Your dad?”
He stopped. Closed his eyes and thought of the goblins, the chase, the wolf thing, the totem. All of it. Part of him had to admit he was curious about answers.
He spun and marched for the clearing, startling her even more. She followed behind him.
“Visitors! You have visitors!” He shouted just as he entered the grassy clearing, “come greet your visitors!”
“We know,” three voices said in unison from the trees, “heard you coming we did. Even if we didn’t already know. So loud, your friend is. Where did you find him Lilly?”
They emerged from the trees, dressed in brown robes that weren’t wool blankets stolen from a trunk, they were proper robes. They moved gracefully, two women and a man.
“We are the witches of the wood,” they said.
“And one warlock, but it doesn’t flow as well,” the man added, shrugging, “so we stick with witches. Lots of jokes.”
“Neat!” he shouted at them, looking between them and Lilly, “that’s neat!”
“Why is he shouting?” they asked her, one of them petting the wolf’s nose and the other two examining him.
“He has a head wound,” she offered as explanation.
“I think I’m having trouble processing all this!” he shouted it and one of them waved her hand over his mouth. He stopped shouting, stopped speaking. He tried but no noise came out. He closed his mouth and breathed heavily, staring angrily at Lilly who just smiled.
“That’s better,” all three said in unison, “come inside. You have questions and we have answers.”
He hadn’t even seen the hovel before, sunk right into the earth with a little wooden door. They led the way, ducking inside. He couldn’t see the inside through a pitch black veil of some kind, just like the woods themselves.
He opened his mouth at Lilly but nothing came out, still. He shook his head and she waved a hand for him to go ahead.
“What’s the worst that happens?”
He mockingly laughed but without sound, a strange thing to see then forged into the darkness.
She followed behind and the door closed on it’s own.
Then it looked like a clearing again, no door, no witches (and a warlock), nothing at all. Just the birds chirping in the strange green light.
He sat quietly, not by choice, in the little hovel of the witches (and a warlock). It wasn’t overly comfortable but it wasn’t uncomfortable either, sort of a rustic cottage feel to the whole place. Not his tastes but nothing he would turn his nose up at.
The witches busied themselves with a great cauldron perched over a small fire in the center of the kitchen area while the warlock seated himself in front of him. Lilly’s wolf laid down in a corner and closed it’s eyes while she found a seat to watch the events.
“Can you be trusted to hold your tongue without magic?” the warlock asked and he agreed, with a wave of a hand the warlock removed the curse.
“Oh thank God,” he said, feeling the words like an old friend as they spilled over his ngue again.
“Who?” the warlock said with a cheeky grin, moving off to the cauldron with the others. They spooned a thick black broth into a polished bone bowl and brought it to him. Again they spoke in eerie unison.
“Drink this and see your past,” they pressed a spoon into his left hand and the bowl into his right, “take deeply and find your answers, find your fate.”
He looked at the thick slop and then at them, their eager faces watching him and waiting. He dipped the spoon, if one could call pressing it into a thick sludge dipping, and lifted a large portion of the droopy goo to his mouth. It reeked of rotten everything, something served in a diaper might have been more appealing.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, through his mouth to avoid the stench, and shoved the spoon in. It tasted just as bad as it smelled, maybe even worse, like pureed oatmeal thickened with sadness and despair. He struggled with it and finally swallowed, looking back to them for approval.
The warlock took the bowl and spoon from him while the witches pulled chairs across from him and waited, watching.
“We wait,” they all said at once, “to see if you live.”
“What?!” he shouted, trying to figure out how he could vomit up something that was stuck to his insides like tar, “you’re trying to kill me?”
“Kill you? No. Test you. Children of this forest can taste the Bark without fear. Others…others not so much.”
“Bark? Like…tree bark?”
“Yes, like tree bark. With some ground bones, cursed earth from the great tree, a rabbits heart, feces of the great white bat-“
“Why is everything you do disgusting?” he posed this to Lilly who shrugged, leaning against her wolf.
“The forest is different. They’re also lying.”
The three tutted in unison too.
“Selling us out like that, how rude. It’s just boiled bark with a minor incantation, tests your spirit. If you are one of the forest you will be fine, if not…you’ll pass out and we’d take you to the edge of the forest and you’d remember nothing. We’ve done that many times before. Your kind is so nosy.”
He waited, feeling no different than before. Except disgusted by the thought of boiled bark.
“You’ve brought us one of the forest Lilly, where did you find him?”
She shuffled in her corner and mumbled something.
“Speak up girl!” they said together.
“He’s Joanna’s son.”
They stopped moving, busying themselves and otherwise being occupied. They all stopped to stare at her.
“Joanna’s child…” they whispered it almost reverently and started touching his face and arms, looking him over from head to toes. It was, by far, the strangest physical examination he’d ever had. Though he couldn’t remember ever having three doctors prodding him and not one of these three were doctors.
“I am, actually,” the warlock said, “but not them.”
“So, what is your name, son of Joanna,” they asked this when they finished the strange examination.
“Um,” he paused.
“Um! What a strange name.”
He dropped his head into his hands and muttered something angrily about how stupid that was.
“No, my name isn’t ‘um’, my name is Clark.”
“Clark, do you believe in destiny?” All three spoke the words in unison, closing in on his face in a very gross display of personal space invasion.
“No, I don’t.”
The warlock held up his hand and blew a sparkling green and blue powder into his eyes and mouth, he choked and blinked and generally recoiled from it. Everything took on a surreal shape and colour as he faded away from reality as all three said something else in unison.
“You should start.”