Part 1 :: An Evil Plan
Part 2 :: Chasing Shadows
Part 3 :: Stick Figure
Part 4 :: Scary Story
Part 5 :: The Body
Part 6 :: A Mob United
Part 7 :: A Boy Divided
Part 8 :: The Ritual
Part 9 :: Old Bones
Part 10 :: Visitors
He stared out from the edge of the clearing, peering through openings in the brushy foliage, as he had done since the beginning of time. Countless times, he had watched Autumn slip into Winter, the leaves fluttering to rest on the dry, brown grass. He watched Winter rise into Spring, buds bursting with inconceivably brilliant colors, filling the woods with the green smell of Summer.
He’d wandered for so long, trudging through blankets of snow, of fallen leaves or through dew-laden clearings, he no longer knew when his life had begun though he wondered every day, while the sunset warmed his face, when it would finally, blissfully, end.
He walked the woods every day, searching for something, someone he recalled only in vague snippets of ragged memory. Sometimes he crouched by an old fire ring that had nearly rusted away, vanishing into the earth. There, the tinkling half music of childrens’ voices and laughter tugged at his mind, heard in staccato bursts as if from a great, echoing distance.
Children, as far as he could recall, had never come to these woods. Nobody had ever come, not even animals.
At night, though, he was never alone.
In his nightmares, he remembered in vivid detail all the things he had done and to whom. Screaming, crying, sobbing, pleading and the vicious, visceral percussion of fist falls filled the night accompanied by faces, innumerable faces that glared at him with hatred, contorted with rage or suffering, or just fell into beaten despair as he looked back coldly.
And lately, even though Summer enveloped the woods in thick humidity, the nights seemed to grow strangely longer. The days, even the ones without clouds, grew steadily darker, more menacing, as if the sky were closing in on him somehow.
One day, after a particular troubling night of little sleep and many memories of the waste his life had been, he trudged to the edge of the fire ring clearing, located a spot free of debris and lay down, determined to never rise again.
“What’s the point of continuing?” he asked himself silently, slowly. “Nobody comes here. There’s nobody left to threaten the woods. There’s no reason to protect them.”
Indeed, he had gone to the edge of the woods many times, cautiously because the open sky beyond the canopy frightened him, and had seen only an infinite expense of grey, dusty rubble and weeds extending into the distance in every direction.
So, with nothing left to threaten or by which to be threatened, he would lie down and never get up again. He would simply moulder into the earth like a decaying, fallen tree.
He had, of course, done this countless times, had promised to die, only to have his determination callously betrayed. He watched the sun glimmer through the leaves high above and dozed, dreaming of distant roaring and terror and defiance. That’s why, when a real roaring erupted suddenly in the clearing, he didn’t immediately realize that it wasn’t just a memory. So monotonous had his days become and so fitful his sleep, that he wasn’t even sure of the difference between dreaming and reality. He tensed his body in a particular way he had discovered that would usually wake him from the worst of his nightmares. Nothing changed.
The roaring sound remained and, indeed, grew steadily louder as he lay, listening to it. Wind whipped up leaves, smacking them harshly against his face and, suddenly, he recalled a dreadful memory.
As he sat quickly upright, a new sound joined the roaring, a shrill whine that made his body vibrate uncomfortably.
“No!” he thought. “It can’t be!”
He shot up, stepping quickly toward the clearing and stood staring, a terrible memory mingling with a growing horror. A brilliant pinpoint of light suddenly appeared in the middle of the clearing, seemingly popping into existence. Then as he watched, utterly baffled, it grew quickly into a shimmering, irridescent sphere about the size of the rusting cars that lay inert in the rubble, just beyond the edge of the woods.
As it hung motionless, the roaring and whining sounds diminished until the object, if an object indeed it was, emitted only a dull humming sound like an active beehive. He noticed that something like faint red-orange flames danced around the sphere, writhing like living things. The sky beyond the sphere seemed to have darkened considerably even though there were no clouds, making the sphere seem even brighter by comparison. Then, shocking him so much that he took a lumbering involuntary step backward, he realized that the sky was in fact growing darker by the moment, the sun shining dimly now like milk residue at the bottom of a glass.
Every color seemed to shimmer and flit across the surface of the sphere, as if it were a lense into a world turned liquid and stirred violently by some unseen hand.
A new movement from the sphere caught his attention and he squinted at the glowing surface, trying to discern what might be the cause. Without warning, a pink and red striped sneaker emerged slowly from the surface, following by the shapely bare leg of what he was certain must be a girl, even though he could not recall ever seeing one except those who screamed, terrified, in his nightmares.
The leg stopped mid thigh and the toes of the sneaker dipped back and forth, quickly, as if seeking for a solid surface on which to alight. Briefly, they touched the tip of a twig, a branch of which rose upright beneath the sphere. The sneaker descended confidently and then, as the twig snapped beneath it, was followed by a squealing teenage girl with long, red pigtails who tumbled, plunging, to the ground.
She fell in a heap on the grass below the sphere, missing the sharp edges of the rusting fire ring by inches, and lay moaning. Surprised, he stared until his attention was caught by more motion from the surface of the sphere. Another girl’s head, surrounded by long, thick, dark hair, emerged from the sphere’s surface like a face floating in a pool. She looked around and then, seeing the red haired girl lying on the ground, rolled her eyes and shook her head slowly.
“Jessica, you okay?” she asked, her shoulders and arms, clothed in black, emerging behind her.
The red haired girl, Jessica, rolled over and lay on her back, laughing like someone who has painfully bumped their elbow. Then she sat up, moaning, and replied with a pouting expression, “Seph. I don’t want to go first anymore.” She plucked a leaf from her hair, stared it at for a moment, flung it away in disgust and added,
“Why does Sophie always open the portals like a million feet off the ground?!”
“You’d rather she port into a pond and flood the whole East Village?” Seph retorted, shrugging.
Without answering, Jessica clambered to her feet, brushing leaves and grass from her black and red plaid skirt. Then she sighed, smoothing the wringles from her black tee shirt. “Whatever. Next time make the trainees go first.”
“Affirmative,” Seph replied and then leaped smoothly, like a cat, from the sphere onto the ground next to Jessica. He watched them calmly, his fear fading into curiosity. Although he had only his memories to draw upon, they were the most unusual girls he had ever seen. The short one, with red hair, looked like she was dressed up for one of those all night parties teenage girls used to go to before the world beyond the woods became gray and empty and silent. Other than her short skirt and tight black tshirt adorned by a sparkling pink cartoon cat, she wore only a sort of arm band safety-pinned to her left sleeve. It displayed a symbol he had never seen and words he seemed no longer read.
The other girl, tall and lanky with dark hair and even darker eyes, wore a black uniform like a ninja from an old video stream and carried a long slightly curving sword in a black scabbard slung over her lean shoulder.
The two girls slowly scanned the clearing, turning thru a complete circle. Though they looked directly at him, somehow they didn’t see him. Then Seph turned and called to the sphere, cupping her hand over her thin mouth, “Clear!”
Two more girls emerged, hopping clumsily from the sphere, both wearing white tee shirts tucked into camoflage BDUs and black combat boots laced up to mid calf. They seemed almost like twins. Both had dark brown hair with a reddish tinge, except that one wore her hair in short pigtails while the other, who carried some sort of device he could almost remember, wore hers in a long pony tail that swung slowly behind her.
They both looked about fourteen, a couple years younger than the tall girl, Seph, and the bouncy girl, Jessica.
“Missy,” Jessica said to the pony-tailed girl. “Go ahead and bring up the SQUIDS and see if Sophie can triangulate the Core Fragment.”
“Missy?” he thought, searching his memory as she flipped open the device. He couldn’t remember where he’d heard her name before but he suddenly recalled the little computer she held.
“A NaviPad!” he tried to say out loud but the sound emerged only as a low grumbling sound.
“Christa,” Seph instructed the pig-tailed girl, waving her hand casually at the clearing. “Spiral search pattern. In case Sophie can’t get a fix.”
“What does THAT mean?!” a voice asked, insulted. It seemed to originate from the NaviPad Missy carried.
“Eek!” Jessica said, gritting her teeth. “She didn’t mean anything Sophie! Just do the search, okies?” Then she whispered to Seph, “Oh my god! Apologize!”
Seph closed her eyes and shook her head, repeating the sentiment, “No offense intended, Sophie.”
“Even so, you’re mean!” Sophie exclaimed. “Like I can help it if my servers are unreliable. I’m only at sixty four point…”
“Gomen nasai, Sophie!” Seph said more loudly, interrupting. “Really. You’re the best Core in the world. I mean it.”
“Really?!” Sophie asked, her voice attenuated and made tinny by the NaviPad’s tiny speakers. “And do you love me very very much?”
Silently, Seph shot a look of annoyance to Jessica, formed her hands into tense claws and her lips into a tight thin line.
“Yes, Sophie!” Jessica answered quickly, frowning at Seph. “Seph loves you very very much. We all do. Now please scan the SQUIDS for the Core Fragment.”
“No she doesn’t. I know the truth. But I know you love me as much as I love you, super cute Jessicaness so I’ll run the scan just for you!”
Both Missy and Christa covered their mouths and snorted back laughter as Jessica closed her eyes and breathed deeply in an effort to relax.
“Yay!” Jessica said, forcing brightness into her voice. “Thankies Sophie!”
“Do your search,” Seph said quietly to Christa, cupping her hand so her voice would not be picked up by the NaviPad’s microphone.
“Just in case,” she added a moment later.
Christa stepped out into the clearing away from the sphere, removed a stake from one of her cargo pockets and, with a swift downward stroke, planted it firmly in the ground. Pushing aside something hanging from her webbed belt, she pulled a thick coil of slender black nylon cord from her other pocket and tied it to the stake, pulling it several feet from the stake.
He watched as she did this, still searching his memory. She seemed so familiar, as did the Missy girl, and yet so remote. Then, as the others stepped aside, Jessica and Seph having resumed visually scanning the woods, Missy tapping at the NaviPad’s little keyboard, Christa stood up and the object on her belt fell back into place, swinging down to hang in front of her hip.
He would have gasped if he could but the sound came out only as a low hiss.
A small green toy dangled from her belt, tattered with age, stained and nearly unrecognizable to anyone who didn’t already know what it was.
“Cthuhlu!” He shouted, the name emerging from his mouth as a shrill “Ccreeeeeeeeeeee!”
Seph, Jessica and Missy all whirled around, startled, and stared at him as he lumbered out into the clearing, trudging slowly, each foot fall as loud as as a falling tree in a storm. He walked directly toward Christa.
“Christa!” he shouted excitedly, remembering the defiant little girl, surprised at his excitement. But he could only utter a loud, creaking “Chhhhhhiiiiaaaaaallll!”
Christa dropped the string and stumbled backward several steps. Snagging her boot on the stake, she tumbled over backward. Then she screamed.
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