S1| Ep10: Into the Woods (下)
May 6, 2011
(A/N: Don’t forget the new update schedule! I shifted scenes around a bit, hence the delay [I should specify that I’ll be posting on Friday afternoons], but there just didn’t seem to be a good place to break. This installment is decidedly weird, but explanations are forthcoming…)
A lizard scrambled across the rocky trail. After the brief spell of snow earlier in the month, the sun had returned, transforming everything to slush, but within the forest the air remained cool, even chilly.
Hadil seemed to draw back. “What do you mean, missing?”
“Park… hasn’t been well,” Eguzki admitted grudgingly.
“But I saw her last night at the party,” said Intan. “She was one of the greeters. Didn’t you see her?”
“Was she not supposed to be there?”
He muttered something under his breath.
“Shouldn’t we inform the faculty? The Headmistress?” said Hadil. “What if it’s –”
“No!” said Eguzki, and even Intan was taken aback by the ferocity of his reply.
“No,” he said again, this time struggling to keep his voice even. “She’s been blabbering on about running away for weeks now. Ever since the festival.”
“She said there were monsters. In the forest. They were calling for her.”
Hadil stared. Held both hands to her head, as if she could block out everything she was hearing by doing so. “She’s gone nuts. I know she was upset when Sita… But this is…”
Intan turned to her, startled and suddenly uncomfortable. But Hadil gave no sign that she noticed.
There were more important things to worry about. So Intan said instead to Eguzki, “We’ll help you find her!”
He opened his mouth as if to protest, but seemed to think better of it.
“Fine,” he said, face half-turned, and trudged off with his hands jammed in his pockets.
* * *
They reached the end of the trail halfway up the mountain without much incident, but no one responded to their calls.
“Maybe she went to a different mountain,” Hadil suggested nervously.
But Intan continued forward without pause, clambering through the undergrowth up the slope, into the restricted area. It was strange, how silent it was. She had seen no sign of life at all, aside from the lizard near the base of the mountain. Not even the wind seemed to be stirring. She could see the sun shining overhead now through the dense canopy, but any hunger she might have felt earlier had dulled and was now forgotten.
Hadil called for her to wait up, but she did not hear.
Then she stilled.
Before her she made out two large, indistinct shapes in the shrubbery, rising like grave mounds among the trees.
Dolls, abandoned, half-buried within the earth. Only their heads and torsos remained above ground. For a moment Intan thought she could see their eyes glowing from behind their grinning masks.
Behind her Hadil gasped.
Eguzki whispered, “Down!”
Intan ducked, pulling Hadil into the shrubbery beside her.
“It’s dangerous, so close to the campus. What’s the boss thinking?”
“There’s no helping it. Nowhere else…”
“… Headmistress ain’t stupid…”
“… in plain sight…”
The voices faded again, replaced by the crunch of footsteps.
Two men strode into sight, pausing by the buried Dolls.
“Ugh, damned creepy place,” said one, kicking at one of the Doll’s chests. The clang echoed through the silence. “Are these the ones, then?”
“How long have they been here?”
“Can’t be too long. Paint’s not faded yet.”
“From the war then, you think?”
“Weird place to keep them. Wonder why the king’s dogs haven’t bothered retrieving them yet. Did they just forget about them or something?”
“Nah, I bet the old bitch knows. But you know what these things are like. They won’t be found if they don’t want to be.”
“Ha! Enough of that superstitious talk, man.”
“It’s true, though,” insisted his friend. “Back in my village…”
They began to walk again, this time towards where Intan and the others were hidden. At Intan’s side, Hadil tensed, ready to flee or perhaps to fight.
Suddenly, Eguzki stood.
The men stopped, stunned, then drew their guns.
“Shit! A cadet!”
But Eguzki did not seem to notice them. He stared, instead, at the Dolls.
Or rather, at the tree sprites perched on top of their heads.
One of them vanished.
“Let’s separate!” hissed Hadil, and dashed off in the other direction.
“He wasn’t alone!”
The men cursed, shouting directions at each other. One went after Hadil; the other followed Eguzki.
The second sprite laughed and fled.
* * *
She ran and ran, trailing the sprite as it flashed in and out of sight. Gunshots sounded in the distance, but she ignored them.
At last, she stumbled into a clearing.
Eguzki was standing there already, still as a statue, staring into space. His pursuer was nowhere to be seen.
Intan’s sprite chittered and moaned, as if in distress, and faded from sight.
“No, wait –” said Eguzki, as if stirring from a stupor. He turned, eyes meeting Intan’s. Then he looked away again.
“You can see them too?” Intan asked, wonderingly.
For a while he did not answer. “Ever since I was a kid.”
The sky darkened as they stood. Tendrils of mist twined past their legs, drifting across the clearing.
Intan said, “Look!”
There, in the center of the grove, lay a great hooved beast.
Black fur covered the creature’s delicate frame. It looked like a deer, or perhaps a goat, but its double tails were long and green, like leafy vines. Upon its forehead grew a single, twisted horn of silver bark. Its eyes were bluer than the sky in summer.
But crusted over, unseeing, Intan realized, as the beast sniffed at the air and rose, trembling. Its legs were spindly and scaled.
“It’s sick,” whispered Eguzki.
And indeed, both coat and scales were dull, shedding. Its ribs poked out as it shifted, and Intan could see large, ugly boils growing upon its flanks.
Its ears flicked, as if it had heard them.
Everything went white.
* * *
Three crows flap into the air, scattering black feathers in their wake.
The sun hangs low on the horizon, a deep orange-red.
It is cold.
The surface of the lake is still, smooth.
In the distance, a shadow approaches.
“Hey, kid. Heard you’re one of the new ones.”
There, on the banks, sits a boy. Sandy hair, back hunched. Familiar.
He turns at the shadow’s approach.
The boy has a name.