”Have you ever been to the Forest before?”
She struggled through the underbrush as she tried to fight off the dizziness and the haze that prevented her from seeing anything but dark, blurry shapes in the murk around her.
”Which one?” She didn’t know who she was talking to, or even where she was.
The voice in front of her – something not quite human – laughed quietly. ”Oh, but there only ever was one”, it said.
”What? No, I’ve been to several–”
”They are all connected, child”, the voice interrupted her. ”All the forests of the world, connected. There’s only one Forest, and you’re in it now.”
”How did… I don’t remember getting here. Who are you? Did you bring me here?”
”You don’t even have the sense to be afraid, do you?” That soft, purring laughter again. ”Well, good. Then you might be ready for what I’m going to tell you.”
She tried to walk faster, to catch up with whoever was walking before her, but her whole body felt strange and slow.
”Something’s wrong with me”, she said. ”It hurts.”
”Yes, I know it hurts”, the voice said. ”That’s part of the beauty of it.”
”The beauty of wha–”
”Don’t speak now, just listen. What you think you know about the world, yourself and reality is a lie. A carefully constructed lie, composed long ago by creatures far wittier than you and I, but a lie nonetheless. It is a lie that tells little children what they need to hear in order to remain sane and alive. A lie that holds human society together, and a lie that protects that which needs to dwell in darkness from the merciless light of day. It is a lie that I myself dread see exposed. But tonight I shall still dare whisper secret truths to you, truths that you shall then help me protect.”
”Me? Help you? I’m sorry, but should I know you?” The trees around her glowed silver and the air smelled of darkness and glass.
”No, but you will. In fact, let me begin by telling you my story”, the voice said – and begun.
”There was a time when I, too, believed in the lie that had been fed to me. This was a long time ago, however, and I have learned my lessons well since then. I was always alone, but I preferred it that way. I never understood other humans, and they did not understand me. I would have been happy to leave it at that, but they were not. For reasons that are more relevant to my own sentimental memory than to this story, they turned on me and I was broken.”
”They… attacked you?” She felt a sudden anger rising up, seemingly from nowhere. The surprising surge of emotion scared her.
”Yes. But as I said, that was long ago and none of them are alive anymore. I have seen to that.”
”You’re not saying–”
”Yes I am. But be quiet now and listen. I was broken and hurting and they left me in the forest for the animals to do their part. But as I lay there, half adream and half awake, I could feel something changing. Slowly, slowly, my mind and body melded with something dark that might have been part of me all along – and suddenly I was not broken anymore. I was not hurting.”
”And what did you–”
”No, this is my story. No more questions. But yes, I killed them. All of them. Grown ups and children just the same. Oh, it was glorious.”
There was such mirth in the voice at this that she didn’t dare inquire further.
”Silence, good”, the voice chuckled. ”But as I said, that’s not part of the story I’m trying to tell you. What is, however, is that I have been living in the Forest ever since, observing, protecting and sometimes hunting. ‘Hunting what?’, I sense you want to ask. Well, sometimes I hunt animals and sometimes I hunt other things. There are other things out here, and the deeper you get into the Forest, the darker and sharper grows the prey. But enough about that.”
The creature cleared its throat with a deep, growling sound, but never slowed down the pace.
”A big part of the lie that humans tell themselves is that the world is simple and logical. There is logic to it, sure, but the logic is not theirs. They limit themselves to seeing only part of reality; build themselves into a confining box, if you will. That box is what the Night Children call Zenith –the world under the sun.”
”Night Children? Zenith? Wait, I don’t–”
The creature growled, and she silenced. ”You have to stop doing that. Asking… Questions. I don’t like it. Zenith is what you perceive as the real world, but it’s not. Reality consists of many worlds, and Zenith is just one of them. But humans cannot handle the thought of this, and they cannot handle the thought of there being truths and creatures and realities outside their own limited perception. And that’s why most often they refuse to see them – and us. Especially those of us who do not blend in well with their narrow scope of the world. We simply become invisible to them.”
”And who are ‘we’?”
”Oh, that’s a good question finally. Maybe the only one that truly matters. We, my dear cub, are the Night Children I mentioned. Those who once were, or at least thought we were, humans – but who fate has proven wrong. We are cursed to live outside the lie and to protect it, thereby protecting ourselves. There are many types of curses that can befall those unlucky enough, but they all end us up outside the box. And outside the box, outside Zenith, is only the darkness of Midnight where few dare tread.
Or that’s not entirely true. Between the two realms is the crossroads twilight of Dusk, and that’s where we are now. It’s the shadow of reality’s hidden nooks and crannies, including forgotten parts of cities and the true parts of the Forest. These places tie all the sunlit woods, towns and corners together. There are doorways here, and pathways and thresholds, that tie secret parts of Zenith together with Midnight. From here you can go anywhere in the sunlit world, but you can also end up terribly, irrevocably lost.”
”And… Am I lost?” There was some kind of fear inside her, but not one that she could easily place and recognize as her own.
The creature laughed again. ”No, dear, you are not lost. I would not have that. It was I who brought you here, and I know these parts inside and out.”
”But… Why? Why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me all of this? I know your story, sure, but I don’t know you.”
”No, that is true. But I, on the other hand, know you rather well. I have been watching you for many moons now, sensed the change in you as soon as it started. You have felt it too, have you not?”
”No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She knew this was a lie, but could not clearly remember why.
”You sure? So the increased growing of your nails and teeth, the sudden surges of emotion and the inescapable hunger for raw meat did not strike you as anything outside of the ordinary?”
She remembered something like that, but it felt like it had happened to somebody else, sometime very long ago. ”Well, I guess it did, but I just thought…”
”That you were going mad? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to hide the change anymore now, it is done. Finished. You are what you are now, and your little stunt there couldn’t stop it.”
”Stunt?” The memories were starting to come back, but very, very slowly.
”You tried to do something really stupid to yourself, but I stopped you. I told you I have been watching you, didn’t I? Well, I was waiting for something conclusive to happen to you, like it once did to me. And then I stepped in. Lifted you out of that bathtub and carried you here.”
She stopped walking. ”Wait, what? You were in my apartment? You… lifted me out of the bathtub? No. No, this is too much. Sorry, but I have to go. I’ll just, I have to go home now.”
She started turning around, but stopped and jumped as the voice spoke up again – right beside her this time.
”You could do that”, it said. ”But I would not recommend it.”
”Because we are here now.”
And just in that instant the moon far above them left its nest in the clouds and cast its cold, merciless light down upon the forest. Suddenly she could see the world around herself clearly – including the still surface of the lake right in front of her feet. The water was so dark and quiet that it flawlessly mirrored the forest, the moonlit sky – and the two creatures standing by the water’s edge.
Creatures, not people, because their skin was clad in grizzly fur, their eyes glowing and their pupils little more than horizontal slits. Their hands and feet were adorned with big, monstrous claws and gleaming fangs protruded from their too-wide mouths.
She just stared, too shocked to scream or run or even say anything. The creature to her right, the one who had been walking in front of her this whole time, calmly met her eyes through the reflection in the water.
”You could go back”, it said in a low voice. ”But it would not be the same. I do not know why you have been blessed or cursed with Night, but life as you knew it is over, gone.”
She looked at her own reflection, at the face that she did not recognize but which still reminded her of something she might deep down have known for a long, long time. She shook her head. ”So this is what I am now? A… a monster?”
”Not a monster, dear. You have been blessed with the Wilder heart, cursed with the beast’s mark. This is your true form, yes, but you can still blend in, regain your past form for a while.”
Relief surged through her strange body. ”I can?”
”For a limited time, yes. But it comes with a sacrifice.”
”How?” She turned to face the creature for the first time, grabbed its ragged shoulders and stared into its terrible eyes. ”Just tell me, I’ll do anything!”
The creature met her gaze in silence for several heartbeats. ”The price is beyond ‘anything’ to many whose humanity is still intact”, it said. ”And that is also part of the curse’s irony. To retain the appearance of humanity, you have to commit monstrous acts and ingest what we call vitalem – human flesh and blood.”
She started to say something, but stopped as the meaning of the words suddenly sank in.
The creature nodded solemnly. ”Yes, that is the sacrifice. To give up your inner humanity in order to keep up the semblance of your outer such.”
”But you, you…”
”Yes, I stooped to it initially. I killed those who had wronged and hurt me, and that act kept me human – for a time. But then the realization of what I had done drove me back into the Forest, and for shame and guilt I have seldom left it since. I have been so very alone, but now I am not alone anymore.”
She let go of the creature’s shoulders and backed away a few steps. ”What, so you mean that this is it now? That I am to stay here with you, looking like this, feeling like this, for the rest of my life? Until I die?”
”You will not die. Not in the sense that you appreciate the word, anyhow.”
She let out a frustrated scream that resounded off the surface of the lake and far beyond the slowly dancing treetops. ”No”, she then said as she continued backing away. ”No, I can’t do this. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I can’t be like this, I can’t live here and I definitely can’t stay here with you.”
”You’re not thinking clearly”, the creature said. ”You haven’t thought this through. I told you about the alternative, and I’m sure–”
She laughed manically and shook her head, still slowly walking backwards. ”You don’t know me”, she said. ”You don’t know what I’m capable of. This isn’t fair, this shouldn’t be happening to me. None of it. I’ll have my life back, even if it means drinking blood or whatever. I–”
”You don’t know what you’re saying”, the creature growled. ”I have suffered through the consequences of that road, and I can tell you that it changes you. It makes you into something that–”
”So let it!”, she screamed with a wide gesture of her arms. ”Let it change me. As long as it also changes me back. This isn’t me! Fuck this thing, fuck Dusk and fuck you. I’m going home and you can’t stop me.” She backed a few more steps, then turned around and disappeared between the trees.
The creature remained by the water’s edge, a melancholy glint in its glowing eyes. As the sound of running steps abated and finally silenced altogether, a black bird landed on its right shoulder.
”You’re not very good at this, are you now, Ira? You’ve just lost us another one”, it croaked.
”Virdis, please don’t”, the creature said lowly. ”I did what I could, but she just wouldn’t listen.”
”Well”, the bird called Virdis cawed mockingly, ”Let’s just hope that she’ll at least calm down and listen to her own reason before she kills anyone in Zenith, or worse.”
”Hopefully the Organization will get to her before that. But they will not be happy about it”, Ira sighed, staring into the woods where the other had disappeared.
”I’m sure they won’t mind”, Virdis mused, but the bird’s sly eyes said otherwise. ”Well, I’d better be off then. Gotta let Vincent know that there’s another one coming. Can’t wait to see his reaction. Seeyah.”
And with that the black bird left Ira’s shoulder with a strong beat of its huge wings. It quickly soared into the air and was soon gone into the night, off to whatever strange places crows and ravens use to cross between worlds.
Ira remained alone by the lake, staring at the reflection in the water and wishing, not for the first time, that the world were indeed as simple as the lies from a far away childhood had once made it out to be.
Chris Smedbakken, 2018-02-15
This story was written in response to a title writing prompt, as part of my and Aurumsella’s take on the #52weeks52stories challenge.
It is also highly inspired by a dark urban folklore/RPG setting created by my good friend Stellawainwright. Check out his site, will yah?
I have, by the way, previously written another short story set in the same universe. It is called The Sound of Silence, and you can find it here.