Prose, Short Stories

Wilder Part II

By: Eric Anderson

*Spring – Fourth Moon – Sixteenth Year*

       In the weeks that followed, Mother, Father, and Elder Clarke gave me guidance on undergoing the rite. Father showed me how to handle the axe he used to chop firewood in case I encountered danger in the woods, though he still didn’t believe me when I would tell him about the cloaked man. Whatever dangers I would face, man or wolf, I was sure my father’s axe would protect me.

        Mother told me about how her spirit guide, a crow with feathers of orange and red foliage leaves, told her that the man she was meant to marry would soon visit her village. A week after she returned, she met my father when he came to visit family there. Not long after, they were wed here in his village.

        Father warned me that spirit guides, while benevolent, are not all as becoming as Mother’s was. His was a frightening creature, made of thorns, who spoke vaguely about Father’s future, only telling him he’d encounter his destiny while visiting family that lived in another village.

       Elder Clarke assured me during my talks with him that my spirit guide would know what gift to bestow upon me.

       “They are wise beyond our understanding, they see paths and futures we could take, where they lead, and where we want to go,” he said.

***

       I stood with the others, on the edge of the Flamering, looking out at the dark wilds before me. I scanned the trees and the spaces between them. He was nowhere in sight. The adults of the villages stood behind us, to watch the sixteens embark on the rite. I tightened the straps on my pack. Mother had filled it with dried foods, a blanket, and other things I may need for a few days. I asked if I could carry a lantern or torch with me to light my way, but Elder Clarke quickly dismissed my request. There were a lot of traditions to uphold, this being one of them. I looked back behind me. Mother and Father held each other’s hand. They were concerned. Why wouldn’t they be? This is how they lost Ethan, and now I was going into the very same place that took his life.

       “Since the dawn of our village’s founding, this ritual has served to guide our people toward the greater good. With the help of the spirits within the woods, we have built a thriving life for our people. Our ancestors underwent the rite to preserve this, so we honor their wisdom by continuing to preserve our wellbeing to this day,” Elder Clarke spoke out to the crowd that had gathered, “These brave sixteens, along with the sixteens across every village, will set out into the woods just as we did, just as our ancestors did, to seek the gift that lies within. Return to us safe, young children, and return to us as enlightened adults. Now go onward, toward what you seek.”

       I knew not what guidance I would receive, as I stepped forth into the forbidden wilds. I looked back every so often, until the dim glow of the Flamering torches grew smaller, resembling the scattered belts of stars above, and eventually faded away altogether. Moonlight illuminated the pathless sea of maiden hairs, dandelions, and aspen trees before me. Vegetation had grown strong in the warmer days this time of year. Snap. I clutched the axe Father gave me tighter.

There are wolves in the woods

       The tiny flame flickered in the night. It weaved between the trees, drifting closer, growing larger, brighter, casting light into the forest around it—a torch. Was something wrong? We weren’t supposed to have torches. “There are a lot of traditions to uphold, this being one of them,” Elder Clarke had said. So why would a villager be here? It’s forbidden after the rite as well as before. The light moved closer, allowing the edges of its carrier to become visible. The hairs on the back of my neck stood erect. On approach, I could sense deep within myself that this was danger.

       He paused a mere few feet in front of me, silent and rooted into the ground like the very trees surrounding us. Run, I told myself. Broad-shouldered and cloaked in dark cloth—the weaving of which did not resemble anything I had seen before—he angled forward, his head craned to the side to take a closer look at me. His eyes remained hidden beneath the droopy hood despite the light from the torch he held, which too appeared different in make from any I had seen before. The wood, the cloth, the smell of what was used to fuel the flame—all unfamiliar. This isn’t safe. You need to run. He seemed curious, inspecting me the way a cat examines its prey before lurching forth to the claim its next meal. Pick up your feet and move. My legs locked in place. I told myself to move, but I remained stationary.

“What are you?” I asked.

       His pale hand lurched forward, gripping my shoulder. Now! I swung my axe blindly, slicing through nothing but the air. He jumped back without making a sound. I swung again. And again. Hitting only air. The hooded figure now lurked behind a tree. Go! Now’s your chance! I ran into the night, looking back to see the hooded figure standing still as before, watching me escape. There was much about him that confused me. His existence, his identity, and his motives, like his attire, remained shrouded in shadow. Only two things were certain: he was not of the villages, he was not of the woods.

       I dashed through the trees, their branches and vines grabbed and pulled at my clothes. I kept moving forward, glancing back to make sure he wasn’t following me. I fell to the ground, panting and out of breath as I scanned my surroundings—nothing.

“You’re safe,” I said to myself, “for now.”

       I got back up, brushing off dirt and leaves from my dress. The boys surely had an easier time navigating the woods in pants, which to me seemed absurdly unfair. I pulled a knife from my pack, cutting lines down either side of the skirt. It’s of no use if I can’t run.

       As I wandered aimlessly through the forest, aspens faded to towering pines, oaks, and willows with tendrils that swayed in the night’s breeze. I climbed up and perched myself on a sturdy willow branch to get a better view of my surroundings. My feet dangled above the ground. I must have been walking a good while. The stars began to fill the sky. I could see every tree, every leaf and stem of the underbrush, clearly visible in the starlight.

       Here in the quiet night, my mind wandered back to the hooded figure. Who was he? Why was he following me? What did he want? I feared any further confrontation with him, but there was another way to learn what I wanted to know: the spirit guides. They bestowed knowledge, so maybe they could tell me about him. I had entered the woods, curious about what lay in the forbidden, but had found further confirmation of what I would ask of my spirit guide when I encountered it. Elder Clarke stressed that it may be a few days before I met mine, so I would need to fend for myself in that time. Part of me feared the hooded figure finding me again, but here I was, venturing into a land I would never see again, eager to explore. I peered into the woodlands around me. There was nothing but forest. No dangers in sight, just quiet and tranquility. For so long this place had been refused to me, but now I had been cast out into its very heart. And why?

       I jumped down from the branch, hitting the ground with a resounding thud. After looking for some form of shelter amidst the shrubbery and flora, I huddled against the hollowed root base of a fallen tree, which uprooted the earth to form a small cave-like space. I climbed inside and curled up for the night. Roots draped in front of the entrance like curtains, obstructing the view within.

“Perfect,” I whispered before drifting off to sleep.

       The rising sun shined beams of light between the tendriling roots, rousing me awake. I pulled my fingers through my hair, trying to obtain something resembling less of a mess before ultimately deciding to braid it.  I crawled out of my small shelter, pushing the dangling roots aside. I had only made a few steps before tripping, falling into an expanse of ferns. Looking back, I saw what caused my fall: a rock. Something seemed familiar about it. I stared at it, perplexed for a moment until my memory was jogged.

       “Who are you?” I demanded, hurling the rock at him. I blinked, holding back tears. The rock hit the very tree he had crouched behind moments before. Like silence after the wind blows, unchanging, yet absent, as if never there at all, the cloaked man was gone.

       That rock. I had picked it up off the ground, weathered and broken off from a gravestone, to throw at him. He kept it? I wondered. I sprang up, frantically searching for him. If it’s here, he left it. While I slept. But he didn’t wake me, didn’t take me in my sleep. But nothing stirred within the dense greenery around me. Is this a game for him? I thought, picking up the stone and brushing my thumb over its rough, cracked surface. There was only one place I knew he would never enter—the villages. He didn’t cross the Flamering. Something about it that kept him from doing so.

It’s the fire—beasts of the forest are afraid of it

       If I hurried and found my spirit guide, I could find answers, or leave and be done with him. Otherwise I gripped my axe tighter. Getting up, I left the chunk of gravestone behind me.

***

       I wandered through the wilds again, looking for a tall tree that’d give me a good view of the sunset. I searched through various aspens and pines, with no low branches, before finding an oak that would do just fine at the edge of a clearing. At its base were plants Father once told me about. Pitcher plants, he called them, as they resembled that which they were named after.

      “These, little one, are very special plants,” Father said, gesturing to tube-shaped flowers in the pine grove near our house. Long slender petal bulbs formed a tube, with a single point sticking out, a lid ajar.

“Why are they special?” I asked.

       Father took a small pebble and dropped it into the flower. The lid-shaped petal folded forward as to trap the pebble in itself. “Bugs are attracted to a nectar inside,” Father began, “When one falls in, the nectar alters its mind, rendering it unable to escape. Then the flower closes and feeds upon the insect. Large bugs can sometimes escape, a bit worse for wear, but little flies are likely to be consumed.”

       I climbed and took a seat on a large branch high above the ground. I watched as the sky turned from bright orange, to a dark red, and eventually darkness after the sun sank below the horizon. Time to find another place to sleep, I thought while staring at the limitless expanse of stars above. A peaceful moment, but there is little peace to be found in the nocturnal forest.

       I saw them enter the clearing. Two of them. One with auburn fur, the other gray. They sniffed the ground, nudging ferns aside with their noses, looking for the scent of prey. Looking for me.

There are wolves in the woods

       If I stayed up here, they wouldn’t be able to reach. They couldn’t do to me what they did to Ethan five years ago. The gray one stopped, looked up, and began to sniff the air. It’s found me. Of course it has. This is how I was going to die, I thought. I’d cling to this oak for dear life until thirst would eventually take me and I’d fall below, where my meat and bones would be defiled. I thought back to those I loved. Mother and Father would be beside themselves. Losing two children in the woods was unheard of. Or it if it did ever happen, no one spoke of such a horror. For a while, Father’s schoolhouse would go unused, Mother’s chickens unfed. At least they’d have Kathleen. Little Kat would be alone. Such a precious, innocent thing. I would’ve wanted to see her grow into a young woman. She’d be pretty. I would have had to help Father chase off all the boys in the village who wanted to court her, I bet. Ethan would too, if he were there. Ethan, with his flaxen hair and that stupid smirk he would give me when bringing home more game than me after a long day’s hunt in the village groves. I wonder how it happened for him. Did he get hunted down by a pack? Or did he waste away up a tree like I would soon? I suppose it didn’t matter. He was gone now. And I will be soon too. Some people believe we’re reunited with those we’ve lost in the end. Would I see your face again Ethan? I supposed I might have something to look forward to then.

       The auburn one lifted its head and howled. I heard this sound one night during your rite, Ethan. They must have known. They must have come for the sixteens. For you. For meat. Such vile creatures. But what came next was unexpected. Three pups came trotting out of the brush, yapping and nipping at each other in play. The three young scurried around their parents, panting and full of energy. These did not seem like the frightening creatures I had been warned of all my life. The gray one gently nuzzled its kin. A family, not too unlike my own.

       They gathered together and laid down for the night, snuggling closely to one another for warmth. They were just distant enough that my escape might not rouse them from their sleep. They don’t seem to be vicious killers, I thought, this might be my only chance to get away unnoticed. I valued my life more than proving the innocence of wild animals anyway. I slowly inched my way down the tree again until my feet firmly, yet quietly, met the ground once more. I took my axe out of my pack, just in case, and set out once again. I had walked only a few paces before I stopped, looking down at something most odd.

       The underbrush began to glow. Specks of light, like fireflies searching for each other in the night, dotted across every leaf on the floor of the wilds. The glow, bright shades of blue, spread outward like a ripple on water’s surface. But this beauty did not feel safe. Something about this wasn’t right, wasn’t natural. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up once again. This time, the danger felt even more foreboding. Growling came from behind me. But not the kind of growl a canine makes to warn. This was bad. This was danger. I turned my head. Glowing flora filled my entire surroundings, specks of blue glow encompassed the woods, resembling the lights of the cosmos above. And within it, an abomination.

       A long stretch of intertwined river reeds, slithered their way through the clearing and encircled the pack. From the mass of rope-like woven leaves emerged a head, thorn-like fangs, and a forking tongue covered in moss: a serpent. It’s glowing bright crimson eyes opened, revealing its thin slitted pupils as it hissed.

spirit guides, while benevolent, are not all as becoming as Mother’s

       Was this what he meant? The wolves moved in front of their pups to protect them, letting out a growl from deep within. They must not be smart enough to see past its appearance. The serpent’s head dipped down to meet the wolves at eye level. As it let out a long low hiss, the pack stood frozen, unmoving. This doesn’t feel right. What is it doing? Small marble-sized orbs of light left each wolf from the core and traveled into the serpent through its mouth. All but one of the pack fell to the ground. The gray one ran, huffing and howling franticly, away into the forest.

       The serpent’s crimson gaze turned to me. It’s seen me. Is this it? The serpent turned went back into the forest, the glow of the underbrush dimming away as it disappeared between the trees. I… guess not. There are many spirit guides, this encounter must have just been coincidence. It was not my chosen guide. I approached the pack, holding my axe at the ready should one spring up from the ground. I wanted to see what became of them. Did they too receive a gift from the spirit guides? But they didn’t move, didn’t breathe—death. Is this how they sustain themselves? I questioned. Harvesting this strange light from animals to survive? Hunting creatures just as we do? Off in the distance I could hear the cries of the surviving wolf, alone in the night. A family now broken, not unlike my own. In the wilds, in the land forbidden to us because of the dangers that lie within, even the wolves had predators.

***

       My stomach grumbled in the heat of day. Sweating and exhausted, I grabbed some nuts and dried meat out of my pack to hold me over until I could find something substantial to eat. I could see the occasional creature scurry around the shrubs and grasses. A plentiful selection of breakfast, I thought. I took some metal wire out of my bag, looped a few snares and placed them near what could likely be a warren hole.

       “Make sure you cut a notch near the top where you tie the wire,” Ethan explained, cutting a chunk out of a thick branch piece, “It’ll keep your snare attached to the stake. Otherwise it can slip loose, and the game will escape.”

“Like this?” I asked, copying his example.

“You’re getting it, little twig,” he said, playfully poking my nose to make me giggle.

“Do we have to kill the rabbits though?” I said with a sigh.

“Only if you want to have much to eat through winter,” he replied with his usual smirk.

       I foraged for a few hours, collecting what few berries I recognized and eating the rest of what Mother packed for me. When I returned, I found two rabbits caught within the snares, and one caught in her mouth. The she wolf’s eyes, the same color as her fur, stared me down as she held the rabbit tighter in her jaws. It was not a threat that I saw within them, but need.

       Small marble-sized orbs of light left each wolf from the core and traveled into the serpent through its mouth. All but one of the pack fell to the ground. The gray one ran, huffing and howling franticly, away into the forest.

       She needed to eat, nothing more. Alone and broken—just like me. She stood her ground, arching her head forward and letting out a short growl. Back away.

“Take it,” I said, stepping back slowly. And she did, running back into the trees.

A shout came from a distance, “Care to share those with us, Wilder?”

       I turned around to see Owen and a girl I’d never met before slogging through the undergrowth. I looked back in front of me, but the she wolf was gone.

“There’s enough to go around,” I yelled back.

       “Good! I’m starving,” said the girl, her blonde hair in knots from venturing through the woods, not far off from mine. Braiding was a wise choice, I thought. The girl and I stared awkwardly at each other before Owen took the hint to introduce us.

       “Oh! Right! Lucy, this is Alexandra… though it feels weird to call you that. She’s from my village,” he said, addressing me, “And Wilder, this is Lucy. Her parents are friends with mine. She’s from the village not far from ours. Close enough for us to bump into each other during the rite, I suppose.”

“Oh, the one with all the sheep?” I asked.

       “Yep,” she said with a chuckle, “That’s pretty much what we’re known for. Anyway, I’m Lucy. Lucy Winslow. It’s nice to meet you, Alexandra.” She shook my hand and smiled.

“Call me Alex.” I smiled back. “So, you two just ran into each other out here?”

       “Yeah, just this morning. Elder White from my village said there’s nothing wrong with us forming groups during the day, but she said it’s best we’re alone at night. It’s easier for our chosen spirit guides to find us that way,” Lucy answered.

“Hmm, I don’t remember hearing that,” Owen said.

       “I think Elder Clarke may have mentioned something about that once. But we were too distracted by the hole in his pants,” I laughed.

       “Right! He had no idea! What a great ‘orientation of the sixteens’ that was!” Owen said with a grin.

       “He must’ve realized it at some point,” I replied, “I never saw him wear those at any of the other orientations.”

“So they’re only out at night? Nocturnal?” Owen asked.

“It makes sense,” I began.

“How?” Owen asked, confused and not sure what I meant.

“I saw one.”

       “What? Did it communicate with you? Did you get a gift?” Lucy asked, fascination and curiosity bringing a twinkle to her eyes.

       I told them what I saw, the serpent, the wolves, the small lights it fed upon—everything. They were alarmed, since we were not told about much of what I saw, but also curious to know more.

“So they sustain themselves off… what exactly? Light?” Lucy asked.

“I’m not really sure. One of the wolves survived, but the rest…” I trail off.

       “Well they are sentient. Conscious. Like us, more so even according to Elder Clarke. So I suppose they need to hunt to survive. We do too,” he said, pointing to the snares.

       “Fascinating that you stumbled upon one though, usually sixteens only ever encounter their chosen spirit guide.”

“It was beautiful. Terrifying, but elegantly so.” I added.

       “We should probably get a fire going to cook those, right?” Owen said, again gesturing to the rabbits.

       “How are you on water?” Lucy asked, “We were nearly out before we found a stream.”

       I grabbed my leather pouch, cupping and bouncing it in my hand to judge how much remained. “About a third left. You said you found a stream?”

       “It’s spring fed,” Owen answered, “tastes even better than the well water back home.”

       On our walk they asked me more and more about what I had seen, but I didn’t know the answers to many of their questions. The day grew warmer still, drenching my brow in beads of sweat. Owen walked beside Lucy, oddly close, though she didn’t seem to mind it. We continued on for a few more hours before reaching the stream they described. The clear water trickled across tiny pebbles, dancing its way further down the current. They made a crunching sound as I walked over them. I filled up my pouch as Owen got a fire going to cook the rabbits. We took seats on the riverbank next to the fire, rotating the sticks so the meat would cook evenly.

“I’m so hungry. Thank you, Alex,” Lucy said with a grateful smile.

“Me too. Thanks, Wilder,” Owen agreed.

“I don’t think I could’ve eaten both, so it’s good they’re not going to waste.”

“Have you seen anything else… unusual?” Lucy asked in between bites.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Like death incarnate stalking you through the woods, I thought.

“I… well—” I began, hesitating to tell them.

“Lucy, nothing about this situation is ‘usual’,” Owen scoffed, interrupting me.

“I suppose you have a point,” I said, returning to the rabbit meat.

       The rabbit meat dripped grease onto the fire, making it pop and sizzle. We finished our meal, doused the flames, and rested our feet in the water. The cool stream eased my aching feet.

“We’ve been walking all day,” Lucy complained.

       “Yeah, I wonder how much longer we’ll be out here together,” Owen said, putting his arm around Lucy. The same way he did to me—not that I remotely wanted nor cared for. He saw me notice, our eyes met before he quickly looked away and awkwardly brought his arm to his side.

       “What is—is that a—no!” Lucy screamed, standing up and frantically swatting at her arm.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Spider!” she yelped, rapidly scanning her body for the bug.

“You’re afraid of those little things? They can’t hurt you.” I said.

“They’re gross! And those legs, their little mandibles—gah! No!”

The little bug crawled onto my hand. Small, brown, no larger than a clover leaf.

“Hi there,” I said playfully, lifting my head to greet it face to face.

“Kill it!” Lucy yelled.

       “How about,” I began, getting up and walking over to the nearest tree, “I just let it be on its own, safely over here?” I placed the bug on the bark. It made its way upward and out of sight.

“That’s… that’s okay, I guess,” she said.

       After a short rest, I said goodbye and parted ways with them, heading off on my own. It would be sundown soon, and I needed to find my guidance alone. Orange twilight cast tree shadows in the forest as I wandered forward. A howl carried in the cooling wind, the gray wolf helplessly called out to it’s departed. Lost and alone—just like me.

***

       I continued my trek through the woodlands. Starlight breaking through the canopy of oaks and aspens above to illuminate the underbrush around me. But there was no gentle night’s breeze, no hoot from an owl, not even a single chirp from a cricket. Silence. That’s when the fog appeared. It crept across the ferns and grasses, enclosed trunks of trees, and flowed without making a sound. I walked around it, trudging away from it through the woods. It followed, obscuring the woods it encompassed. Something about this doesn’t feel like a natural way for fog to behave. Run. I picked up my pace, not knowing what I was fleeing from, but knowing it wasn’t safe. The underbrush grew thick, making it more difficult for me to move fast. Every glance back revealed the fog continuing to drift toward me. But off in the distance—salvation. The same specks of blue, the glowing forest, a spirit guide was near. I raced toward it.

They will offer you protection in addition to the gifts they bestow

       Whatever dangers lurked in the woods, the hooded figure, beasts, this fog, I would be protected by my chosen spirit guide. It wasn’t long before I was completely surrounded in an expanse of glowing flora, yet the fog still chased after me. I continued to run, looking to my left—nothing. My right—Owen. I turned his direction and stopped. He was conversing with his spirit guide. I hid behind a tree to get a closer look. Lucy was there with him, her back to his while she conversed with her own spirit guide, a spider, towering over the canopy.

Kill it!

       It’s exterior resembled that of tree bark, only interrupted by several tiny red eyes, glowing just as the serpent’s did. I glanced back once more—the fog continued to creep toward me, but slower now. Lucy was smiling, glad to be in the spider’s presence. I found it odd, as fear was nowhere present in her expression. Owen’s was a ram, larger even than the spider, with rock-like horns and bundles of thorns in place of wool. Father mentioned his was made of thorns, maybe this was the same one. Owen was smiling as well, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. We were supposed to separate, but I guess Owen wanted to stay with her. She’s welcome to him, I laughed to myself.

       They conversed for only a few more moments before Lucy and Owen froze in pace, their eyes unblinking. Just like the wolves. What is happening? Elder Clarke never told us of this. Large orbs of light, radiant and almost as large as Owen and Lucy themselves, drifted outward from their chests. While large, Lucy’s light was considerably smaller than Owen’s. The lights drifted away from my friends, slowly rippling through the air and into the spirit guides, not into their mouth’s like the serpent had done to the wolves, but through them, into the core of their forms. Lucy fell to the ground. She laid there motionless, tranquil in a breathless silence. The spider and ram departed, the glow of the flora along with them.

“No!” I screamed, running toward her.

       I knelt down to feel her neck—death. I couldn’t breathe. The world around me began to spin until all I could see was a mess of greenery, night, and fog. I looked to Owen, cradling Lucy’s head in my hands. He looked at me blankly. Was he too shocked to react? This was not the guidance we were promised. They were supposed to help us. They were supposed to guide us by bestowing a gift. They were supposed to protect us. Every year a few sixteens didn’t return, but the wolves were never the problem at all. It was them.

“Alex, you should be going,” Owen said. His voice was calm.

       He never calls me by my first name… I collected myself, brushing my hand over Lucy’s eyes to close them as I stood. I did not know her well enough to miss her, but it wasn’t her death that gripped me so. It was the death itself. Or not the death really, but the unknown purpose for which she died. They were supposed to protect us, not take our lives.

       “Owen,” I said, marching toward him, placing my hands on his shoulders and looking him in the eye, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?” He didn’t respond, but looked at me— expressionless.

       I could see it over his shoulder—the fog. It was nearly upon us. Even more so, it began to spread left and right. It’s trapping us.

       “What did your spirit guide tell you? What gift were you bestowed?” He remained still. The fog crept closer. “Owen! Why is Lucy dead? What were those balls of light that came out of you?” I screamed in his face, “What is going on?” Nothing. The fog was only a short distance from us now. “Owen! Look at her!” I yelled, shaking him to get him to respond, “What just happened?”

       “We should not speak of such things.” His mind was not his own. Yet this seemed oddly familiar. When I asked about a sixteen who died, or how Ethan died, details pertaining to the rite before I too was a sixteen… he deflected just as Mother and Father had done.

Bugs are attracted to a nectar inside. When one falls in, the nectar alters its mind, rendering it unable to escape. Then the flower closes and feeds upon the insect. Large bugs can sometimes escape, a bit worse for wear, but little flies are likely to be consumed.

       “They’re feeding off us, just like the creatures of the forest… we’re nothing but prey to them. Why would the rite exist? To think they sent us into the woods for this…” Owen remained unresponsive. “Owen, listen to me!” I shouted in his face. He stepped back, my arms falling to my side as he disappeared into the fog.

       “Go find your spirit guide, Alexandra,” he said calmly, trailing off as he moved further away.

       From the very spot Owen had disappeared, a glowing pair of crimson eyes emerged. Run. My body turned, my legs sprinting as fast as they could. I did not control my body, for now it was ruled by the primal need to ensure one’s survival. I was merely the onlooker; instinct was in charge now. I glanced back—fog, yet the crimson gaze was nowhere to be seen. I turned my gaze back in front of me—fog. To my left—forest. To my right—another threat, him. The dark cloak flapped about furiously as he ran, his torch dragging behind him for he needed to find his way through the night no longer. Not you too.

       I dashed left, my only option. The path forward narrowed as the fog began to drift ahead of me, moving faster than I could run. I stopped short, the fog just before my nose. Thick, smoke-like, without any dissipation, to form a clear divide between the space it existed in, and that which it did not. I backed away, turning in a circle to inspect the small fogless space where I now stood. A few feet of forest, containing a single tree, was all I could see. Fog encircled the small remaining patch of forest, trapping me inside. It was still, unmoving, imprisoning me in a cage of its own making. He’s gone. And probably lost in the fog as well, a small gratitude, I thought, thinking of my shrouded stalker. I crouched down to catch my breath, gripping my knees as I took air back into my lungs. As my primal instinct faded, conscious will returned to take its place. What now? Do I brave my way blindly through the fog? Then it returned. The blue glow of the forest. Their glow. The glow that followed only the spirits, not the cloaked man nor the beasts of the forest. The fog was thick to the point where I could only see the glow of what existed in my confined patch of wilderness. I squeezed my axe so tightly I feared it might snap under my grip. *red eyes, the same color as mother’s favorite flower, stinging like thorns?*

“There you are,” It said, its crimson gaze just before me in the fog.

“What are you?” I quivered.

       “Oh, allow me to introduce myself,” It spoke slowly, in a low tone and vibration in its voice that made every hair on my body stand on end.

       It floated out of the fog. First it’s hands—detached and floating independently from the rest of the being. Tree roots interlaced themselves to form slender palms, extending outward into sharp, pointed fingers. Then finally it’s head, hovering in unison with the hands, for there was nothing else to complete its form. Much like the roots of its hands, they wove themselves atop it’s head, two pointed ears sprang up from a mass of thicker roots and branches, jagged and bundled together forming tufts of fur. The thickest of them encircling to create jagged outlines around crimson irises which made for most of its face. Rows of teeth, a wide-open mouth, even more pointed than its fingertips, hung open—the edges of which curved, smiling at me. It had no features to suggest a sex, but it’s voice was male in tone. I knew in my heart it had found me, this was destined—my spirit guide.

There are wolves in the woods

       “Hello,” he spoke in a long, drawn out breath, “apologies for the fog, but I thought it’d be best for us to be alone, without… intrusion. So we may have a… proper conversation. What is your name, my child?”

“Alexandra. Wha—what is yours?” I shuddered in fright.

       “Oh, me? I don’t really have a name, I simply… am,” the spirit replied, gesturing a hand toward itself.

“I… I—I know what you did!”

“And what might that be, Alexandra?”

“Your kind, the spirit guides, they—”

“They what?” the wolf interrupted, swiftly inching forward.

“I’ve seen them. Taking the light, killing animals. And people!”

       “My, my… aren’t you quite a little… explorer.” His eyes widened. “I hate to inform you, but the harvesting is more… complicated than it appears. It’s for the greater good, really. But you needn’t… worry yourself with such things.”

       “The harvesting? Greater good? You claim to be benevolent, but then why do the forest animals fear your kind?” I asked.

       “They are simple creatures, not intelligent beings like you and I. I’m here to give you… a gift. You needn’t… be afraid.”

“You hunt them just as you hunt my kind, why shouldn’t I fear you?”

       “Hush… hush… let go of your worries, my child. My gift will guide you along the path to your future. Aren’t you even the least bit… curious? There’s a many foresight I could tell you. Who you’ll marry, now wouldn’t that be nice not to have to… worry about? Or your children’s names? Or something else entirely? Do you wish to know? Accept, and all your troubles will simply… disappear,” the wolf spoke in a persuasive tone, extending out a hand for me to take.

“No.”

“What?”
“I refuse!” I screamed, slicing my axe through the hand, cutting it in half.

       As fast as the root tendrils fell to the ground, a new palm and fingers regrew in their place. The spirit howled. His head rearing upward, casting out a low roaring sound, much deeper than that of an actual wolf. He thrashed his hand at mine, knocking the axe loose form my grip and out into the foggy abyss. The wolf lunged forward.

“As you desire,” he whispered, grabbing me by the neck.

       The jagged tendrils of its fingers cut off my breath and dug into my skin, blood trickling down onto my sleeve.

       “The hard way it is!” the wolf spat through its teeth. The spirit flung me through the air.

       My head—a pounding ache I pressed my hand against in attempt to subside. It took me a moment to realize it was the tree I now leaned against. The spirit guide flexed his palm outward toward me. My breaths became shallow, fading away along with my sight. Lines and clarity blurred into a mixture of fuzzy colors. I could feel it—life draining away, being extracted from my body as round light peeked out from my chest.

       A blurred mass of dark cloth descended from the trees, planting himself directly between the spirit guide and myself. He waved the fiery torch at the spirit, jabbing at him with it in rage. The wolf recoiled, patting out smoking embers on his slender hands. The light drifted back into me, and my consciousness along with it. He pulled down his hood, exposing his face to me in the torchlight, and spoke with a smirk on his lips.

“Hello, little twig.”

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