Chuck’s challenge this week is the conclusion of a 4-part round-robin writing exercise.
I chose to end a story begun by Peter MacDonald
, continued by J M Beal
, and further continued by LizAskew
. You can find their blogs by clicking on their names, and — especially if you enjoy this story — I recommend that you do so. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling the entire tale here for easy reading, and have cleaned up a couple of what I assumed to be typos along the way. No changes of any consequence to the story have been made or intended.
I hope I took it to a place that perhaps it wasn’t meant to go, but that will be satisfying nonetheless. At any rate, I hope you enjoy it.
Here, then, is:
Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening
The snow was up to Jake’s knees and still wasn’t quite done falling. While most of the snowfall had passed, there were still a handful of wayward flakes drifting down from the heavens, belatedly joining their brothers and sisters on the ground. It was the first real snowfall of the year, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last; before the month was out, the passes leading into the mountains he called home would be completely blocked up, and he would be alone until the spring thaw.
He bent down to check the last trap on this run. It was, unsurprisingly, empty. Game had been scarce for the past week, which boded poorly. If this kept up, he would have to dig into his stores, which might mean a lean winter. With a dejected sigh, he stood up, brushed the snow off of his knees, and started down the mountain towards his home. As he walked, he began to sing out loud a poem his father had taught him:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
He took a deep breath between stanzas, and the crisp winter air chilled his lungs. The warmth of his breath had fogged up his glasses, and he took them off for a moment, cleaning them with his shirtfront. He’d been wearing the same pair for three years now, and they were starting to wear thin; one of the legs had been clumsily repaired with bailing wire two weeks ago, after he’d taken a nasty fall on some frozen ground. Hopefully, a trader would come through with a new set before the pass closed.
If any more traders came through at all. It had been more than a month since he’d seen one.
My little horse must think it queer
to stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
the darkest evening of the year.
As he finished the second stanza, a distant rumbling made him look up, and he could see the black stormclouds moving in from the distance, the setting sun resting behind them. It seemed he’d misjudged the snowfall; it was letting up now, but it was only a brief reprieve before a true winter storm came down upon him.
I should cut through the woods, he thought. He normally avoided the deep woods whenever possible; he’d lived around them his whole life, but he still got turned around in them sometimes. Plus, the woods were full of unfriendly animals. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally stumble into a bear’s den, or get surrounded by a pack of wolves. But he wanted to get caught by that storm even less, and taking the direct route through the woods would get him home a lot quicker than walking long way around.
The woods were dark and twisted, and as he peered through his broken spectacles to keep track of the path, he sang the next stanza to keep his spirits up:
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy…flake…
As he spoke the final words, he stepped into a clearing and stopped short at the sight in front of him. The snow – including, he slowly realized, the very snow he was standing on – was stained red, and covered in the bodies of…creatures. There was no better way to describe them, but they were unlike anything Jake had ever seen in the twenty-three years he’d lived on the mountain. They were messes of tooth and claw, amorphous masses of limbs and mouths and eyes and tendrils. There were more than a dozen of them, but no two of them were alike, except for the one thing they had in common: they were all dead, rent apart by deep gashes and still slowly oozing blood.
The smell came upon him suddenly, and he doubled over with a sudden rush of nausea. His mouth filled with the taste of iron, and he nearly threw up onto the snow. He stepped forward in a daze, compelled to investigate. The creatures’ forms sickened him, but they fascinated him as well. He had to know more. Had to see more.
There were only a few of the creatures at the clearing’s edge, but the center was a solid mass, bodies piled together and on top of each other until you could barely tell where one ended and the next began, all of them coloring the snow with their ichor. Jake approached slowly, suddenly acutely aware of the sound of his boots crunching against the snow, of the fogging of his breath, of that terrible, terrible smell. He extended a hand to touch one of them. It was still warm. It had not been dead long. Its skin was thick and rubbery.
Jake jumped backwards as he heard a groaning sound. Panic made him clumsy, and he tripped over his own feet, falling down to the bloody snow. A moment later, another, louder groan could be heard. Jake lay very still for a moment, and then slowly rose to his feet as he realized that none of the creatures were moving. They were not the source of the noise. He stepped forward again and peered over the very top of the pile.
At the center of the clearing, at the very center of the mound of flesh, lay a woman, no older than he was. Her hair, blonde, her body, slim. Her cloak was stained with blood, and he could see that her clothing had been torn by tooth and claw. Her shoulder was a horrific mess, covered in what looked like teeth marks. But she was breathing. She was alive.
“Holy shit,” he gasped, clambering over the dead to get to her. “Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” His mind seemed to be stuck, unable to process any more than that. He knelt over her, quickly stripping off his gloves and then doing the same for her furs, wincing at what he found beneath them. Whoever this woman was, she was badly hurt.
His eyes fell on something bright: a pendant, hanging around her neck, which seemed to glimmer in the non-existent moonlight. For a moment, her injuries were forgotten. He reached out carefully to touch it, then lifted it up to inspect it. It was made of wrought silver, and shaped into a complex spiral of loops and whorls. He lifted it higher still, captivated by its light.
A sickening noise lifted up from the other side of the clearing, shocking him out of his stupor. He dropped the pendant and sat up, looking fearfully in its direction. One of the things – almost in the shape of a wolf, but with too many arms, too many jaws, and a body of roiling tendrils – was moving. It let out another sound, a rumble which got right into his gut and churned it, and then to his horror it sloughed up off of the ground and started coming towards him. Its legs were broken, its body covered in cuts, more than one of its limbs ended in stumps – but it was coming, leaving a blood red trail on the ground as it dragged itself towards him. It made it two, maybe three paces, and then with a keening moan it slumped over and died.
Jake crouched fearfully for a moment, waiting to see if it would start moving again. When it didn’t he turned back to the woman, and got to work carrying her back to his cottage.
Snowy Trail Through Woods, photo by Sarah Davila (via Flickr)
He stumbled through the dark woods, twigs snapping underfoot, branches snagging at his coat and the woman’s cloak. Jake looked anxiously over his shoulder, terrified the things from the clearing were following him. Maybe they hadn’t any of them been dead. Maybe just the one that’d moved was still alive. Maybe the woods hid ever stranger, more horrible creatures.
Suddenly every warning he’d ever been told, about the woods and the things he might find there, nearly shouted in his ears. He tripped over something on the trail and fetched up against a slim tree. The bole cracked, like a gunshot echoing through the quiet, and a deer startled on to the trail in front of him.
It froze, staring at him, eyes wide with terror, chest sawing. Jake watched as its eyes grew larger, as a thin, reedy scream began to echo from its chest. It started soft and high, like the air whistling out of a balloon, and grew louder and louder until he nearly dropped the girl to clasp his hands over his ears.
The animal reared and stumbled back, and dropped suddenly silent to the ground. Blood leaked from its eyes and its nostrils. Its tongue hung limply from the open mouth, black against the snow on the ground.
Jake couldn’t breathe, his heart pounded in his chest and his vision started to dim. His limbs were numb. The tree cracked softly and started to bend under his weight. The girl whimpered, and shuddered, pale and otherwise still with snowflakes starting to cling to her lashes.
He didn’t remember how he got back to the cabin.
One minute he was standing against a broken tree, dead deer at his feet, and the next he was stumbling through the door with the girl still in his arms. Jake reeled forward and dropped her on the pallet in the corner before he raced back out into the snow and threw up off the side of the porch. He fell to his knees and wrapped his fingers over the edge of the boards, staring at the stained snow. His heart still pounded, the scream still echoing in his ears.
He stayed like that, knees numb and sore against the worn planks until a twig cracked off in the trees, where they bordered the yard.
Jake jumped to his feet and peered into the woods. Nothing moved. The snow fell, thick and blinding. The wind didn’t blow, the trees didn’t shake. Jake swallowed, and backed slowly toward the door of the cabin.
He hadn’t hidden his tracks.
Even if he had been, before the animal—he hadn’t been, he’d been too focused on the things in the clearing—he couldn’t be sure he had after either. Jake looked around him at the trees and the snow and the deepening gloom as the storm rolled in, still utterly windless. He glanced back over his shoulder, but the girl was still where he’d left her.
He carefully, quietly shut and bolted the door. There were no windows in the cabin, no cellar under it, not really. He had a root cellar, where he stored what little food he had—it wouldn’t be enough for two people for the winter.
If she ate.
Jake pushed the heaviest piece of furniture he had—an old chest of drawers with a trunk nailed to the top—in front of the door. He added another log to the fire and lit the oil lamp on the table. Pulled a bowl of water from the barrel in the corner and grabbed a clean towel.
The snow on her lashes and in her hair had melted. Her cheeks and hands were pink, but the rest of her was a bright garish red. Jake swallowed, and started carefully cleaning her wounds. He didn’t change her clothes; he didn’t have anything else for her to wear. He worked around the ripped and bloody fabric and did the best he could. Tore up one of his old shirts and used it to bandage the worst places.
He’d finished, and put another log on the fire, when there was a noise on the porch. A soft scrape and the creak of a board. Jake grabbed the rifle—he hadn’t taken it with him to check the traps because he only had so many bullets—and pointed it at the door, chest pounding.
Another strange drag. A soft thump. The door latch clanked and jiggled but didn’t actually turn, even as much as it would while it was locked. The shuffling drag moved away, he thought he heard soft rumbling noises and grunts.
All was quiet. Only the crackling of the fire and the sound of her breathing.
The wind shrieked through the trees so suddenly he almost fired by accident. The cottage creaked and braced against the onslaught. It shuddered, just enough to make him wonder if it would hold before it seemed to find its feet in the sudden storm.
There was a dead rabbit on the porch the next morning.
Jake had slept in the chair, in the middle of the cottage, so he could see her and the door and the fire all at once. He kept the gun in his hand the whole night. In the morning he waited a long moment, listening to the wind in the trees and the muffled sounds after a heavy snow. Once he was sure there wasn’t going to be some unnamed horror waiting on the other side of the door, he opened it.
The rabbit was large, a well-formed male. Dried blood crusted around its eyes and nose, but the corpse was still limber and unfrozen.
Jake cleaned it for the pot because he didn’t have a choice.
He ate rabbit stew for two days. The girl didn’t wake.
He opened the door, after he’d finished the rabbit stew, to go get more firewood and found three guinea fowl and a small clutch of eggs, placed gently before the door.
When he saw them, he stopped. His back straightened and his hands fell away from where they’d been clutching his coat. He took in the perfect, unmarked fowl. The only traces of what had killed them were the darkened trails where blood had streamed from the eyes and beaks. No bullet or arrow holes. No tooth marks. It was as if their brains had just burst inside their skulls, just like the rabbit he’d carved up the night before. Probably just like that screaming deer too, with all that blood cascading from its eyes and muzzle. Oh, that tortured, awful scream. His heart dropped even further when he thought of it.
He shook himself and realized he’d been standing there in the open like an idiot. He began darting his eyes all around, into the trees on either side of the cabin, into the snow around the…
And there it was: a sign. Tracks in the snow with a line of tiny red drops lacing along beside them. How had he missed the tracks before? He thought he’d probably just been too scared to look for tracks, or do anything at all other than snatch up that rabbit and slam the door behind him.
These tracks looked deep and strange. Most mammals have a somewhat standard arrangement to their feet that makes any variation between species fairly easy to spot, if you’ve got a good print. As he peered down into the two prints beside where his presents lay, he realized just how strange they were.
He looked away from the prints, off into the endless white. Everything carried a heavy mantle of snow this morning. All sound, all color, all the liveliness of the animals that haunted the woods had been shut down by its burden. The silence had begun to play his nerves.
Had he been up here alone too long? His dad had warned him about this kind of thing before. The old man called it “going stir crazy”, though he’d left out any explicit mention of full-on hallucinations.
That seemed an utterly cloying way to put it now—“stir crazy”. Disgustingly cute. It sounds like the kind of thing one might tell a child to explain away the strange behavior of adults who have completely lost their shit.
He ran a palm over his face and briskly shook his head. His father’s house was his now. His to manage and his to protect, winter or spring. He could not afford to lose it out here.
He grabbed the three fowl, taking each of their necks between the fingers of one hand. He scooped up the patch of snow which cradled the eggs with the other. He did his best to ignore the tingling sensation he felt on his back as he turned to march back into the house, cook his dinner, and care for the wounded woman.
Later that night he decided he was curious enough to try to catch sight of the provider of all that priceless meat. He sat an old wood-slat chair down by the the door and settled into it. He’d avoided that door for the past few nights. He had begun to resent the fear he felt of simply occupying that space in his own home, his father’s home. Tonight, he decided, he would get to the bottom of it.
He sat silently with a cold plate of fowl bone by his side. He’d begun to think he might be awake until dawn waiting for whatever it was to come out of the woods. He peered through the opened slit in the door that his dad had called his “Judas hole”. He looked into the darkness as deeply as his eyes would allow.
Eventually, out of the dark came a tall, black silhouette. He’d have missed its dark form entirely if it hadn’t moved that way, with a steady sort of rolling gait. He thought he could see it had four legs…or was it six? Suddenly a gale picked up and whistled through the trees. For a moment, the snow-clouds shifted in the sky revealing a weak shaft of light which broke in the treetops. What he saw, just for a moment, must have been something like a horse—like a horse that seemed to grip the ground when it walked. He didn’t think the eyes of horses were supposed to glow in the dark like that..
The thing turned those eyes directly on him, and he quickly slipped down out of the chair and across the floor to the corner by the stove. The low thump and groan came then, growing more and more clear through the cracks around his old wooden door. He pressed his back hard into the wall. He tried to slow his breathing, to stop his mind from racing. After he finally heard the thing go, an exhaustion settled over him that he didn’t have the heart to deny. He slipped into bed that night, wishing that he’d sleep the rest of the winter away.
The following day he firmly decided that he’d make no more efforts to see the thing through the window again. That resolution seemed to lift a weight off him. Why try to track it? The thing was helping him survive the winter.
He was afraid to feed his guest anything solid in her still comatose state so he cooked the meat for himself. Three times a day he would ladle the liquid animal fat from the pan down her throat. Her wounds had scabbed over to the point where they no longer wept after just one day. It was remarkable.
Still, he continued to change her bandages. He attempted to wash her clothes piece by piece. If she should wake, she wouldn’t find herself completely nude under a wool blanket in a strange man’s home. He’d managed to wash her socks and her tattered britches so far. The pants were made of what appeared to be soft buckskin, but the skin was so thick that he couldn’t imagine what type of buck it had been. Prehistoric maybe.
When it came time to scrub her over-shirt, he was trying to squeeze one of her arms out of a holey sleeve when he found himself again staring into that strange necklace of hers. The bauble was clearly well constructed. Its spirals and cogs of metal work seemed to draw the eye into its self and hold it there, guiding it over and through the winding labyrinth of gleaming silver.
He noticed that some of the poor woman’s blood had dried on the thing, tarnishing its perfect shine. Surely she’d want that cleaned, he thought. Surely…she wouldn’t mind. He searched the chain of the necklace until he found a complex latching mechanism behind her neck, tiny yet intricate as the necklace’s charm.
He fumbled with it for a few minutes, determined. “Ahhh, there we go,” he purred when the latch sprang open. He lifted it off of her chest and brought it up close to his eyes to admire its small details. He did not notice what was happening behind the trinket now that it was free of its owner. He did not see her body begin to change, or her eyes snap open.
A maze, he realized. The locket looked like a maze, redoubling and looping back on itself, an eternity contained in those silvery whirls and etchings and…
In the blink of an eye, his father’s cabin had winked away and the only thing in its place was a screaming, endless void. Jake’s brain had sprouted claws and was scratching its way out through his skull. He wanted to scream, but found he had no mouth. There was only an eternity of pain.
Her eyes opened in front of him. Disembodied, pale, glorious and terrible, they loomed before him, and he felt his very essence measured in her merciless gaze.
Then the sound of shattering. He thought it must be his sanity. No, it was the door of the cabin, bursting inwards in a frenzy of splinters. The void was gone. He felt a sticky heat on his mouth and neck — blood, from his nose and ears.
The woman stood before him. Frail though she was, she seemed seven feet tall as she crouched in readiness against the black mass that spilled into the cabin: a horrible, vast shape billowing like a coalesced mist across the floorboards his father had cut and polished himself. No, two shapes. No… more. They seemed cut from the same iridescent cloth, fanning out around the woman, moving as one, mouths and teeth and claws materializing from their shadows. And eyes. Glowing.
Eyes like the ones on the dark figure the night before.
Too quickly to follow, one of the shapes flashed at the woman, and just as quickly, fell over dead. It collapsed in a tangle of bloody tentacles at her feet. As one, the others converged on her, and a horrible shrieking and squishing and tearing sound filled the cabin.
It was over in seconds, if that. Jake blinked in shock. Blood and gore were streaked across the walls, floor, and ceiling. The woman stood in the center of the room, smaller now, bleeding from wounds to her neck, her legs. With horror, he saw that one of her arms had been sheared off at the shoulder. The bone jutted, jagged and streaming with viscera, downward, but she was silent, surrounded by the twisted, broken corpses of the things that had attacked her.
Jake’s thoughts fled him, and all he could do was stare at the woman, now awake and aware after so many days asleep. She was lovely, actually, despite the blood clotting in her hair and her severed limb. Her eyes found him and she stalked toward him, her one hand outstretched toward him. Guttural, grunting noises streamed from her mouth: she was speaking in some broken, primordial tongue.
Jake couldn’t even begin to grasp what she was saying. He shook his head, unable to will himself to stand or to move at all.
She scowled, and took another menacing step toward him.
“You’re hurt!” Jake pointed a shaky finger at the stump of her arm.
She stopped, followed his pointing finger to the spike of bone at her shoulder. She knelt on one of the black figures and, with a deft and effortless pull, severed one of its tentacles. Its bloody, torn edge she pressed to her own ragged skin and, with a sound that turned his stomach, the black and white fleshes knitted themselves together. Sickeningly, the appendages of the tentacle began to move under her half-interested gaze. Satisfied, she turned to him and spoke again, without words. Rather, a meaning seemed to take shape in his mind.
Jake nodded furiously. “Yes, I saved you.”
She smiled, and his stomach turned again.
“Prison? No, this is my home, I don’t –” The void blinked in his mind again. Just for an instant, he was lost in agony of body and soul, then he was back. She hadn’t liked his answer.
Silver. Maze. Prison.
Her necklace. “Yes, that. I have it.” It was still clutched in his hand, its wispy chain tangled around his fingers. He held it toward her.
She recoiled, flinging up her tentacle-arm to shield her from it, a wicked hiss filling the cabin.
He lowered the pendant. “This was your prison.”
She lowered her tentacle enough to eye him over it.
“And they did that to you. Imprisoned you. Your coma.”
A thick snarl crossed her lips. Prison.
“But you’re okay now.” An impulse grabbed him, and he threw the pendant, past her, into the corner of the room. She shied away from it as it passed, watching it, as if it might grow legs or wings and assail her, but it clattered into the corner. She looked at Jake with renewed interest.
“No, I won’t kill you.”
At that, her leer was positively condescending. He realized, growing red-faced, that she had meant she wouldn’t kill him. She passed her fingers — and her tentacles — briskly through her pale blond hair, nodded with finality at him, and strode toward the shattered door.
“Wait,” Jake cried.
She stopped, her lip curled. A look of an impatience truly taxed.
“Why did they imprison you?”
“What are they?”
Jake almost laughed. She, an image of perfection dressed like an exhibit at the Natural History museum, speaking to him telepathically of angels. Those black, twisted, angry things, dead on the floor, angels. Then he hesitated.
They had imprisoned her.
They had fed him, hadn’t entered until he was in danger.
They had fought her.
They had saved him.
And she had killed them all.
“Wait. If they’re angels, then who…”
She stepped the distance between them much too quickly for mortal movement and laid an alabaster hand to his cheek. For all their softness, her fingers felt like ancient stone. The corners of her mouth pricked upward and she winked at him. Quick as a winter breeze, he found himself alone in the cabin, the corpses of the angels thickening and bleeding into the wood, the unearthly sound of her laughter echoing on the whispering wind in the trees.