Chapter 29: Searching
Read all the chapters here. Enjoy!
Previously: The orphan girl Drisel has asked Madnes for his help in what may be his most difficult case yet. Her orphan companions went into the forbidden forest, a place that is closely connected to Wonderland’s Forest of the Haunted: a perilous place from which few have ever returned, a place where the Haunted Ones roam and the forest itself seeks to consume you. From the skies Oz watches his plan unfold…
A crow circled the treetops once before gliding away. “You will fail this time, Madnes,” Oz cawed to the air, “And it will finally break you…”
“Drisel!” Madnes grabbed for the little girl’s arm. Already the heavy forest foliage obscured the way they’d come in.
“Let go!” Drisel tried to yank free. “I’m coming with you—I won’t go back!”
He knew how she felt, but the child would be in too much danger here, not to mention a distraction for him. He shoved low branches and veils of vines aside to take her back out the forest. More green lay beyond what he just pushed aside. He breathed in, and shoved more greenery away. More, and more, and more.
Where was the field? Why was the way out not revealing itseld? He swallowed down a surge of panic, bottling it up. But no matter how much he dug at the green, there was nothing but more leaves beyond his hands.
Pelur’s words came to mind: “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.”
He released the foliage, letting it swing back in place, and backed up until he was beside Drisel, on a narrow winding path. “We can’t get out the same way we came in, huh?” His voice sounded small in the heavy atmosphere, muffled. Drisel blinked up at him. He had to keep his cool; she was counting on him now. “Promise you’ll do as I say, and won’t let go of my hand,” he told her, taking her hand in his.
She tilted her face up at the ceiling, and he took a moment to do the same: faint light filtered down through a soupy green canopy, rivers of mist spilling around it like waves. “Okay,” he heard her agree.
Hand in hand, their shoes squished dirt and moldy leaves as they followed the path, that was more like a deer-run. The forest glowed an eerie green from the rainy day’s filtered light, and not a drop of water reached their heads. A heavy musk permeated the air: rich soil and moss, filling his nose. No sound but their footsteps through a graveyard-like stillness.
His heart jumped, and he yanked her hand to a halt. “It’s a bird,” Drisel spoke up, reassuring. He looked where she pointed at a blue jay. Something about the bird’s beak unnerved him, as if it were grimly smiling. He tugged her forward, eager to leave it behind.
Flowers sprouted, winding open the moment they passed by, some as tall as his knee. A bubbling liquid spilled down their petals. He was careful to steer clear of it. Yellow fruits hung down from strands of moss, some forcing him to duck under to get around them. They put off a pungent scent. He refused when Drisel wanted to taste one.
It felt like they had been walking for hours—Or was it just a few minutes? Time felt like a distant thing. He checked a pocket watch: 18 hours left. He had to pick up the pace. But to where? Where was he going? How do you find someone who’s lost in a forest? No message in a bottle with a map to guide you?
He raked his Madness Solver brain. Prints in the dirt, snapped twigs, places to hide. His eyes scanned, but he hadn’t come across any prints, or any decent places to shelter. There were a few snapped twigs, but that could be from anything.
The best thing—and also the worst—was to make as much noise as possible, and call their names. ‘I really don’t like that idea.’ But it was the fastest approach—and fast was what they needed.
“Hey, Drisel,” he told the little girl his plan, and her already wide eyes grew.
“You want the Haunted Ones to find us? Are you mad?” said Drisel.
“It’s still daytime—even if a bit gloomy with rainclouds. The Haunted don’t come out until nightfall, remember? According to Knight Pelur, anyway.”
“What if other things live here?”
Madnes shifted uncomfortably, turning his neck and eyeing the heavily-moss trees either side. “It’s our only hope of finding your friends.”
Their calls rang out. But the heavy air wouldn’t let their voices carry far. Was it just him, or did the vines move closer? He checked his watch again: 17 hours left.
Something broke free from a wall of bushes off to his left: a high pitch growl seared his ears, and a tangle of limbs charged at them. It moved like a blur. Madnes had only time to grab up Drisel and duck around a tree trunk. Claws scratched up the ground as it barely missed.
He lunged over a fallen tree and zigzagged through the forest’s tangle of trunks, roots, and undergrowth, free arm knocking aside low limbs, head ducking under what he could. It was like weaving through a thick maze. As fast as his powerful feet carried him, the creature was somewhere not far behind.
Drisel was clutching at his neck as he held her, staring wildly over his shoulder. “What is that thing?” he could barely spare breath to ask over the commotion of the chase. Her bewildered stare was silent. Maybe it moved too fast to identify.
His legs carried him across the forest floor in wide strides. High pitch growls drew nearer—more growls. More of the creatures had joined in the hunt. Drisel whimpered in his ear.
Madnes made a dodge around a large boulder that came up suddenly through the overgrown ground, and found his feet racing across stone. A bird twittered prettily and he realized the forest had suddenly gone silent, once more. He slid to a stop and turned: the creatures were no where to be seen.
Drisel wriggled free and plopped to the ground. Some old structure had once been here. Now nothing but ruins, a stone platform, and broken pillars. “There’s a face in the tree.”
He moved to her side, stepping around the tree’s thick roots that wove and broke up a portion of stone ground. Slightly bumping out from the tree’s left side bark was something like cheeks, a nose, and what could be closed eyes. Almost human.
A chill crawled up his skin, and he pulled Drisel away from the face before she could reach up and poke a finger at it. “It’s like a person. Is a person stuck inside the tree?”
His words came out a murmur, “…I don’t know.”
The Haunted Ones…the cursed children of the forest…neither living nor dead, forever a part of the forest…
“Look, Mr. Madnes, there’s another one.”
This face had half a torso attached, arms clinging to its tree as if in sleep, smooth bark surface, hair and eyelashes a tangle of moss. Madnes clenched Drisel’s hand. What light filtered down from the canopy was fading fast. Was it a trick of a shadow, or did one of those closed eyes in the bark move?
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© copyright 2015 E. Rawls and Rawls E. Fantasy, All Rights Reserved
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