Clearing :

Alone in a dark wood one night, a young boy walked anxiously down one of the gravel paths. His parents had always warned against his journeys there, worrying constantly of the notion of him staying too long and becoming hopelessly lost in the dark of night.
He never once imagined they’d be right.
He continued down the path, his little heart racing in his chest. He passed the time with reassurance to himself. He knew where he was going, he knew where, he knew. This path led back to another path that led back to his neighbourhood, he was certain. He only had a bit further to go, then there was a sign which would lead him back home. He knew it. He constantly repeated this to himself as he walked as quickly as his short legs would carry him. He kept at bay the gnawing anxiety by repeating this to himself, and not thinking of anything else. He didn’t need to – he knew this was the way. He ignored the thudding of his heart inside him. He wasn’t lost. Suddenly the gravel path took a sharp turn left. Aha! He remembered this; it turned left just before the sign! He felt the relief come in a wave with the familiarity. He broke into a run around the turn and sprinted when he saw the sign, and nearly ran straight into it in his mad rush.
His heart sank as he inspected it. How could this be happening? The only thing he could tell about his location was that he couldn’t have been more wrong about where he thought he was. This sign was worn and filthy where the other was brand new, and whatever might have been written on it before was long gone. The path branched into three separate winding trails which all snaked off into the woods, with no sign of leading to any escape. Fresh tears streamed down his face and he struggled to breathe as he felt the darkness close more and more tightly around him. Thoughts of home, of dinner, his family, raced through his mind, making him ever more aware of the cold of the night here, and the icy grip on his heart tightened as he thought of his parents frantically searching for him. I NEED to get back, he resolved, breaking into a run down the nearest trail.
The gravel crunched under him as he sprinted down the narrowing trail. He frantically begged in his mind to whatever may have been listening. Please let this be the right way, please let this be the right way. He let out loud sobs in between pained breaths, fighting back the gnawing paranoia that he was only getting more lost. He shuddered in despair as the ever-narrowing gravel path turned to simple dirt beneath his feet, only getting narrower and narrower. He could hear the booming of his beating heart as if it were actually in his ears. I don’t have time to get it wrong, he thought, please don’t end, please don’t – ! Suddenly, he felt the wind rush right out of him as his foot caught a root, pivoting him straight into the ground.
He stood up, catching his breath, and opened his eyes. He was at the edge of a small clearing in the woods, though the surrounding canopy stretched far, covering much of it. From what minuscule starlight came through to the clearing, he could see that most of the clearing was covered in a large, thick bed of odd stones, while a small pond sat in the centre. The boy’s breathing slowed as he became curious of this clearing in spite of himself, when he noticed something else – it was completely silent here. Not the slightest peep came from the surrounding woods, and as he made to step into the clearing, he stopped as he felt the very sudden, very powerful feeling that he was not supposed to be here. He stood very still in the palpable silence, looking around the clearing as he tried to ignore his mounting anxiety. It’s nothing, he told himself, but as if in response to that he felt the menace of the air grow tighter. Enough of this. He called out,
His anxiety rose steadily as he waited for an answer, trying to contain himself. But as the silence continued and no answer came, he felt himself begin to calm. He turned back onto the dirt path and walked quickly away, finding his way back onto the gravel path and gradually hearing the sounds of the woods return as if prompted to do so by the renewed crunch of the gravel. He continued walking, hoping against hope that he could find another path that would lead him back home. He was too exhausted now to worry. He slowed down to catch his breath, wondering how long he could keep this up for. He stopped and put his head in his hands, wondering if he could, or should, try and sleep here so he could search for rescue in the light of morning. But then he looked up. He could hear something else, now that he was no longer walking. He spun to the right, and his heart leapt. There were voices nearby! Off in the woods to the side of the path, there were at least two voices, but they were too muffled and, somehow distorted, for him to understand them.
“Hello!” he called out, but the voices made no attempt to respond to him. Instead they became louder, and seemed to be delivered in a divergent direction from the boy. The boy called out again.
“Hello!” This time, the voices stopped. The boy looked on, puzzled. Then two more distant, similarly distorted voices came from both behind and to the right of him, toward where the original voices seemed to be coming from. The boy moved cautiously along the path, where a voice wasn’t heard. Something wasn’t right here. He flashed back to the lake as he felt the familiar anxiety rising again. And then icy fingers clutched his heart once more, waves of terror chaining him to the ground as he shook. And somehow he knew that this was not just childish paranoia – this terror was something else. Suddenly, he saw a bright orange glow in the distance along the path from where had just come. He spun toward it, only to see another glow suddenly appear in the distance to his right. He turned around to where the original voices had come from, and so close in front that he could hear the hiss of the torch being lit, another glow appeared, this one illuminating the silhouette of the horrible, misshapenly humanoid figure that carried it.
And then they screamed. The boy covered his ears, but it did no good – the screech was louder than anything he’d ever heard, like high-pitched static mixed with every tormented scream ever uttered from human lips. Covering his ears, the boy bolted in blind panic down the gravel path as the ominous orange lights bore down on him. His mind screamed his primal terror though he made no noise save for reckless gasping for breath as he sprinted. He looked behind – big mistake. His heart nearly burst free when he saw the now eight torches floating steadily behind in a neat ring around him, and they were closing in. He felt his legs start to ache. His lungs were burning. He couldn’t go any further. He darted to the thickest tree he could find and crouched into a ball behind it, sobbing all the while as the bizarre murmur, loud and distorted as if from old radios, of the monsters closed in around him. Before long he could hear the approaching footsteps along with the horrible distorted chanting, getting louder and louder as the monsters came closer and closer. He screamed and curled up tighter as the noise came right up to him and then, all of a sudden, all of the noise stopped. The boy strained to listen, but there was nothing, only the same deathly silence and stillness of the clearing. He almost felt like he was still there, and if he looked up he would see the same stones and lake as before. He looked up.
Above him, the monster stared down. Its whole body from head to feet was adorned with wickedly curved spines, and the hair which sprouted from its entire head and back twisted and curved jaggedly like horrible dead branches. It carried a torch, but where the others were normal orange flames, this flame danced out of control with white plasma, but in spite of this it gave no heat. In fact, it seemed to suck the heat away from the world, and the boy started to shiver. The low light of the torch moved to illuminate the face of this thing, and the boy recoiled. It grinned down with rows of long needles for teeth, and the barely human face was covered in thick, festering scars and boils. But the worst of it were the eyes, which weighed down the boy more than the weight of the world. They had no pupils – only pale, milky white all over, yet they gazed with more intensity than any human eye ever could. They saw, and they hated.
The monster reached to the boy’s face. He tried to move, but suddenly felt exhausted, as if anaesthetized. The talon bore a strange symbol glowing red, and when it touched the boy’s forehead, it filled his entire body with such a cold that it burned. The boy writhed and tried to scream, but no sound came. And it was done. The monster then made to grab the boy, but stopped. It looked behind, and then hissed and scampered away. The boy forced his eyes open, only to be blinded by a bright light, accompanied by the scraping of tires on gravel. He heard people shouting as he slipped out of consciousness.
The boy awoke in darkness. He sat up, feeling the familiar blankets fall off him, and gave a long, shuddering sigh of relief as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He was in his bedroom. He fell back onto his bed, wondering what had happened. Had it all just been a dream? The things in the woods must have been, but he was sure of the previous day’s events and was sure he had ended up lost in the woods for real. The lights, he thought. They were headlights; they must have been his parents driving to get him. They’d probably put him to bed when he was passed out.
The sound of approaching footsteps outside his door interrupted his thoughts. He heard muffled murmuring between two voices outside – must be my parents, the boy guessed. He sat up expectantly as the footsteps stopped outside his door. They opened it and stood outside.
“Mum? Dad?” the boy said. They didn’t reply. It was too dark to see them properly. The boy spoke up again.
“Turn on the light.”
This time they did answer, and the familiar chill clutched the boy’s heart as one of the figures spoke the same static-filled drone to the other. Then in an instant it was at the boy’s side, staring down at him, just like the monster from the woods had. It drew back and screeched the same, unbearable wail as it had in the woods, before it and its fellow monsters had begun pursuing the boy. It grabbed him as easily as he would take a jumper, and then they were out the window, speeding away from the house. The boy felt dizzy – this couldn’t be happening. In an instant they were at the edge of the woods, and the thing screeched again. The boy grimaced in tears and put his hands over his ears. The screeching continued, but then it became… not quieter, but fainter as if it were suddenly further away. The boy went limp as he felt the cloud of anaesthesia take him again, as it had after his earlier encounter with the pale-eyed monster, and he passed out once again.
The boy woke up suddenly, and sprung to his feet as the light touched his face. He was in the woods again. Although the thick canopy blocked much of the light, much more still broke through, and the boy knew it was daytime. He looked quickly around, but he was alone, and there were no paths in sight; only trees and grass. What was going on? The boy was too confused now to be frightened, but he knew he needed to get out of these woods, and quickly. Whatever was going on, he was pretty sure these monsters were real, and he did not want to meet them again.
He paced quickly through the woods, trying to stick to a straight line, hoping to find another path and figure out what to do from there. He continued on, looking down, passing endless trees over an endless bed of patches of grass and dirt, along with the alternating patches of sunlight and shadows of trees and their branches. He looked around several times, but there was never any sign of anybody, never any sign of a new path. He kept walking, trying not to think about whether he’d ever leave these woods again. Did I even leave them before, he wondered. His brief experience in his bedroom seemed as much a dream as the rest of his loss in the woods had seemed to him then.
And then the absolute stillness turned to a slight, cool breeze from his right. He stopped, but then looked closer at the shadows on the ground, puzzled. He looked closer, concentrating. There it was again! He was still, yet one of the shadows was still moving. He looked to his right – and the chill took him completely. In front of him, hanging from the branches, were a cluster of bodies. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and all of them were covered with bloody scars from head to toe. Their faces were the worst – all had been burnt beyond recognition. But even in spite of all this, and the boy’s overwhelming desire to throw up at the scene, this was not what chilled him. Below the hanged corpses, mounted into the ground, was a torch. It offered no light in the presence of the low daylight entering the woods, and emanated a clear white plasma. And as the gentle, chilly breeze blew through it again, the boy knew that it had no heat, and instead sucked the heat from its surroundings. The boy felt the touch of the pale-eyed monster, trembling. Without a peep, he turned in the opposite direction and ran. He ran as fast as he could. The woods were starting to get thicker around him, but he made no attempt to change direction; the desire to get as far from the torch as quickly as possible was overwhelming. The boy made to look behind him, but stopped. His heart thumped when he heard the distorted chattering and heavy footfalls behind him. The monsters! He pressed himself harder, pushing through the canopy which now pressed around him. Pushing branches aside, he pressed on as far as he could. It only seemed to get thicker around him. He pushed on…
…and stumbled out into a clearing. He froze as the unbearable silence of it took him, and the scene unfolded before his eyes. The low light now revealed the awful truth of the clearing – the ground was covered in a thick carpet of human skulls and bones, and surrounded the lake of blood in the centre. The viscous liquid then stirred. The boy stared, transfixed with horror, as a talon emerged from the surface, gripping the morbid shore. Then another, and then horrible, fleshy branches began to emerge as the thing’s head rose from the lake. And then the boy was looking into the hateful, pale eyes once more.
“Welcome, child.” A voice like fingernails on a chalkboard pierced the silence of the clearing. The thing’s grinning mouth was perfectly still as it spoke, yet its words were clear – and cut to the boy’s soul. Tears welled in his eyes as he turned to run, but he found himself blocked by a row of masked figures. They carried torches, and were hunched over in thick robes adorned with spikes and strange symbols. The masks they wore were black, covered in random red lines, and had eyes of pale white. The boy turned back to the pale-eyed monster, which now held his hand in its own.
“We’ve been waiting for another like you,” it uttered in its unbearable manner as it slowly led the boy towards the lake. The boy walked hopelessly with the thing, crying. “I can’t wait to show you, child. Things you couldn’t imagine.” The thing stepped into the lake, and the boy let out a small sob as he placed his foot into the awful, viscous liquid. Then another, and then another.
“Welcome home, child.”


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