Chapter 30: The Haunted Ones
Read all the chapters here. Enjoy!
Previously: The orphan girl Drisel 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. She and Madnes now venture through the depths of the forest, in search of her friends, before time runs out and it’s too late to save them…
He gripped her hand tightly, in a hurry to get them as far away from the grove of trees, and human faces sunk in bark, as possible. Daylight had fallen fast away, faster than Madnes had anticipated.
At nightfall’s arrival the Haunted Ones roam the forest, in search of those who don’t belong.
He had to find Ash and Nagato before they found them. “And before they find us,” he murmured.
The mist, hovering in the forest canopy during the day, now descended—its tendrils wrapping around roots and forest growth. He couldn’t see his shoes. It was like wading through swamp water. Damp air stirred around him as if the forest let out a breath. Limbs cracked and wood groaned. Something rumbled briefly along the ground.
Drisel grabbed at his hand, wrapping small palms around it, and her head turned every which way in the darkness. He could barely make out her features. “Mr. Madnes,” she spoke under a whisper. “The forest is waking up.” A deep, throaty rumble passed through the surrounding trees before all went eerily silent. “The children of the forest will arrive…they’ll find us!”
Madnes urged her to keep moving, his hand in hers a comfort. “You leave the worrying to me. For now, just focus on finding your friends.” The words left his lips, and a shadow moved: swiftly from behind one tree to another, darker than night. He stared at the spot, not far away. “Keep moving, Drisel.”
The mist took on a faint blue glow with the onset of deep night. Much as it unnerved him, the faint glow was a source of light they needed—however dim it was. He hurried his young companion forward, weaving around gray shapes of moss-buried trunks and reaching vines.
“Ash! Nagato!” He called out as low as he could without actually shouting. It felt like his voice wasn’t carrying far, the thick air grasped and extinguished the words.
A second shadow dashed across his vision. His body whipped around to face it, wood groaned and creaked through the night.
A tree limb suddenly reached for his back.
Madnes fell sideways and the bark hand missed, rolling back up on his feet. A shadow the shape of a human glided toward Drisel, a pair of eyes glowing, void of life. A Haunted One. She screamed, and Madnes yanked her hand—pulling her away. He scooped her up in his arms, and once more put his power-charged feet to work.
He ran, dodged, ducked, and bounded—weaving his way in the opposite direction of the following shadows. Could he lose them? The forest felt thicker, closing in. Running up what was once a path, Madnes wondered if his vision was going double or if trees tangled closer and closer together, working to choke out the path and stop their escape.
The forest will do whatever it can to keep you…
He spared a look over his shoulder: A shadow and glowing eyes trailed on the path after them, gliding effortlessly and swiftly toward their fleeing backs. Hands encrusted in bark reached out, tangles of hair and leaves flowed back from a too-human face.
Madnes swung his head back around to speed up his pace, and came face-to-face with white, pupiless eyes. “Ahh!”
A twig-like hand swiped for them, lethally sharp. He shifted his arms and torso holding Drisel, pulling her out of the way but exposing his back. Twig claws sliced through his coat. He winced.
“Your soul. We want your soul.” A second twig-hand reached, and Madnes struggled to twist around and veer off the path. The Haunted One behind them had now caught up and drew near like a ghost. The voice, the void eyes, pulled at him like invisible ropes—his body shuddered, the soul in his chest weakening under their touch. “Give it to us. Become one with the forest. Appease the forest. Serrrve the forest…”
The tread of his shoes dug into the ground and Madnes launched himself off the path—bark fingers clawing for his hair, arms, and coat.
The children of the forest screeched rage, diving after him into the vine-and-root tangled depths.
‘I won’t make it—I need help!’ Madnes admitted desperately. But there was no help. No one was here to help.
He thought back to his uncle’s faith, and made a decision. ‘God, if You do hear me and really care, please—please help us! If not for my sake, then for Drisel and her friends…!’
Praying for help only when he absolutely needed it—he groaned. That’s what almost anyone does when they’re in distress, especially when facing death. Going about life, never thinking or caring about God, until something bad happens. Then they pray, then they care. He had been like that.
A part of him felt ashamed asking for help now, when he’d never cared much about the Creator’s will before. ‘If I never cared, then why should He care?’
Five hours left.
His leg muscles were growing steadily tired. He would have to ask the fairy for power, and lose a portion of his life, if his body couldn’t keep up and escape.
He pushed on, struggling, and let himself dive through a rising cloud of mist suddenly billowing up before him—hoping beyond hope it could somehow hide them.
Mist churned around him, everywhere, stirred by the forest’s cool breath. Groans and creaks sounded off to his left…then to his right. He held Drisel close.
Something in the mist beckoned. A small shape with fluttering auburn hair. A palm outstretched like a ghost’s. “Come.”
He stumbled blindly forward after the fading image. The person vanished, and he used his free hand to feel out through the mist. Fingertips feeling nothing but the air’s moisture at first, a rough rock surface came across his touch, and he moved to duck down behind it; Drisel huddled against his chest…
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© copyright 2015 E. Rawls and Rawls E. Fantasy, All Rights Reserved
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