Chapter 28: Into The Darkness
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Previously: Three orphans off on their own were in search of a home, a place they could belong, when Oz deceived the young Nagato and sent him running into a dangerous forest (that is said to be cursed) to find Wonderland and a permanent home. Hours later, Ash goes in after him. Drisel, now alone, runs in search for help before it’s too late and the curse consumes her friends…
Bare feet bruised against the scratch of pavement as Drisel ran, even the soaked dampness and gathering puddles from the pelting rain didn’t lessen the pain. She barely paid attention though, focused only on one thing: getting help.
Ash was right though: No one cared. Not for a pack of orphans who’d run away from the place all orphans belong. What they didn’t know was how awful a place the orphanage truly was—how most orphanages really were on the inside. She didn’t regret leaving that place, but she did feel guilty for not having helped Nagato more. Maybe if she and Ash had given him more attention, been more open, he wouldn’t have run off like a hero determined to solve all their problems by himself—determined to find them a home, a place to belong. And now he was gone, and Ash gone after him, into the Forest of the Haunted.
Her ragged breath put out puffs of mist into the damp, chill air. She had no idea where she was going, running to, just that she had to find help. Not the police—they would drag her back to the orphanage, and consider her friends missing unsolved cases. The surrounding empty, soaked streets seemed to laugh at her. No one was here. No one would help. She should just give up.
Exhaustion brought her to her knees. Soaked brunette hair blurred her vision. Drisel tilted her head back despite it, letting the rain wash her tears and drown her sobs. A curious glass door stood to her right, with a sign above it reading “Madness Solver: we solve cases, not shenanigans.”
Madnes swallowed down the last coffee drops in his mug, and was about to berate Harrey and Knight Pelur that they should find better things to do than pester him, when the door jingled open.
In from the rain came a pile of rags and matted brown hair. He had to blink twice before he recognized it to be a child. “Help! You have to help them!” The girl stumbled forward and collapsed on the floor.
“What the—?” Harrey started, but Madnes was already at her side and sitting her upright. “Harrey, bring that towel over here.”
“You solve c-cases, don’t you?” A small hand gripped the front of his shirt. “Sign says you help people, don’t you?” she said again, more desperate.
He nodded, “Anything that’s feasible, yes.” He wrapped the handed towel around her frail shoulders and head, working to absorb the rainwater before she caught ill. “Where are your parents? A child shouldn’t be out on the streets alone, especially in weather like this.” But she pushed away and turned so that she faced him, the lines in her face determined if weak.
“Th-there’s no time t’ worry over me. You have to help them!” she insisted.
Harrey knelt on the opposite side; his cheerful demeanor usually worked well with kids. “Calm down now, little miss. We’ll help whoever it is. But you gotta take it easy first.”
“You don’t understand!” Her sudden shout rang in their ears. “They’re dying! Help them now, or it’ll be too late!”
“Too late?” Harrey looked reasonably disturbed—reflecting what Madnes felt inside but outward kept calm.
He held the girl by the shoulders, staring into her young eyes. “Tell me: who, what, and where?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Nagato and Ash, my family. Nagato ran into the Forest of the Haunted—something about ‘in search of a home in Wonderland,’ whatever that is—and then Ash…ran after him…” Her eyes were liquid pools of dread.
Pelur made a sound, a low grumble, and Madnes looked up from her to him. “What? Do you know the place?” Pelur’s brow crinkled deep.
“The Forest of the Haunted is one of few places in Okinala that is closely attached to Wonderland. That forest is linked to a very dangerous forest in Wonderland of the same name—a place Wonderlanders avoid at all costs.” Pelur’s sharp-angled face never looked so grim. “Pockets of linked space open and close erratically there. If one happens to be open while you venture through that particular forest in Okinala, you will find yourself walking into Wonderland’s Forest of the Haunted…and you will be lost, consumed by it.”
Shrugging on his coat and top hat, Madnes followed Pelur’s lead out into the rain. Thankfully it was lessening. The little girl, Drisel, tore after them, determined to see that her friends would receive help; Harrey tried to keep a hold of her hand.
When they reached a spreading field, and Pelur came to a halt, Madnes saw it: a forest at the edge of the grass, mist curling around its dark borders. Even from a distance he could feel a prickle in the air that made the hairs along his skin rise.
“It’s like a living thing, that forest.” Pelur observed the trees, thick as jungle. “If there were ever a reason to believe syn exists, its that forest—It’s evil. It hungers…” he growled, “hungers for more souls to make into its children. The Haunted Ones: they are the cursed children of the forest. They can never leave its grasp, neither living nor dead, forever a part of the forest.”
Madnes swallowed his nerves, they caught in his throat. He was about to step forward when Pelur’s gauntlet grabbed his shoulder. “A person who enters has only 24 hours to live, before the forest takes them.”
“Takes them…what do you mean?”
“After 24 hours, you will become a Haunted One—forever bound to the forest’s will, neither living nor dead. That is the curse people speak of.”
The old Madnes would have guffawed and dismissed it all as fantasy and shenanigans, but he knew Wonderland better now—you don’t dismiss things. “But…when did Nagato enter the forest? That gives us far less than 24 hours to save him—not that it isn’t doable.” Pelur shook his head, spiked hair limp with the light rain. “No?”
“It’s like a labyrinth in there. Once you go in, things change and shift. The Forest will do whatever it can to make you lost and keep you within it.”
“…Great. That’s just great,” said Madnes. “Tell me, is there anything in Wonderland that’s pleasant and happy?” Pelur cocked his head sideways, not getting the sarcasm.
“Beware nightfall, Sir Madnes: that’s when the poor souls who’ve already been taken awake. They roam in search of lost people, to turn them. You must beware of both time and them, Sir.”
Madnes drew his top hat further down. “Keeps getting better, doesn’t it? Okay…” he breathed deep, “I’m off! Before I lose all courage.”
“Wait! Use this,” Harrey placed a compass-like gadget in his palm. “Whatever that wicked forest tries, you use this to find your way back out.”
Madnes hefted it, “Thanks.” He smiled past his nerves, and zipped it into a pocket. They wanted to come with him, but he refused, insisting a group would be cumbersome and difficult to keep track of; much as he didn’t want to go alone, he refused to put more lives at risk. Besides, he had the Madness Solver power. “Twenty hours—I’ll be back by then!” He waved, and trotted toward the forest.
He stepped through the wall of curling mist and up to the trees. Leaves and branches furled aside for him. He stepped inside.
“I’m going with you!” Drisel appeared, and before he could protest, she dived in after him.
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© copyright 2015 E. Rawls and Rawls E. Fantasy, All Rights Reserved
This is my entry for this week’s #BlogBattle challenge by the wonderful author Rachael Ritchey, where the challenge is to write a short story based on that week’s chosen word. This week’s word was: “Shenanigans.” Check out the link, read other great stories there, and VOTE for your favorite 3 to win!
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