It is quite unknowingly that I have, by the stars of a midnight sky, stumbled into the forest of worlds. Many mountains, prosperous with life, have found their place behind me, in the distance of the days gone by.
As the early forest night drew near, I ventured out onto a vast open plateau. A carpet of spongy moss, soft under my steps, filling the space between my toes, was luring me forth to rest. The wilderness entices abundantly when weary eyes seek a place to ease off weightful legs and lumbering feet; when days are measured by a laden heart and a soul lulled by miles underfoot.
Ahead, a smooth silver lake, absolutely ripple-less, mirroring the white cloudless twilight. A thick circle of trees loomed on the opposite shore, darkening the horizon. Reflected, it formed a perfect iris for the sky-and-lake eye. Dark, impenetrable; my heart grew tense. Would that I had not known this at once to be forbidden land, festering like a wound on the flank of the earth; for then I might explain all that came to pass.
Alas, life seldom pierces through such barren bedrock as lay before me but when evil will inhabits it—driving its roots like crooked nails down into the dry infertile ground, shattering stone to draw blood from the innermost layers of the earth’s flesh.
I trudged on, reluctant at first and afraid, wrestling as I was against to drowse, against fatigue; if only to stand unwavering in the face of this menacing sight. I glanced onward, weary of the path ahead. Willful, undermined by pride, for unwavering I certainly was not. The wise shelter of forest still but a few easy steps at my back, the hour was not so late as I would have myself believe. I scream now, in the knowledge that it is not the humbling that I dreaded most but the loss of glory. That, was I to step away from the amply ill-omened iris, back to the nest in the soft safe greenery of the forest and heed sleep’s persuasive call; I might wake to quite another horizon. Barren of threat, yes, but barren of venture foremost.
I scream now, in the clearing, awaiting grimly my fate, for it does not happen so, that one simply stumbles upon evil. Behind happenstance, always the devil schemes. Had I been wise and remembered this in time, the battle for my life would not have already been lost.
Many a Woodsman has wandered his wayward way into a foreboding forest, only to return—if at all they returned—broken and with fear permanently hacked into their mind and soul. Felled. Splintered. Lost. The dark sap that now lurks, thumping, pulsing, trickling beneath the bark of their forbearance, carving its way ever deeper through the hardwood of their soul. To weaken. To rot.
Approaching the lake, the sombre iris loomed large at the centre of the eye. A sudden surge of vigour, a fierceness, took a hold of me at the sight, fending off the exhaustion in my limbs. Overriding my every instinct. Impelling me onward, as persuasive as fright would have made me flee. I recall the moon rising above the tree-line, then. A streaming draft drawing my fogged breath away and forth into the sombre woods. And a silence that withdrew all sounds but a faint ringing in my ear. At which point had I circled the lake, I could not have said. Nor cared. My chest became a hollow chamber amplifying the raucous of my heart. All else vanished out of focus, vague and secondary.
Drawn by this force unknown, I found myself edging closer, closer and closer still, and by no device of my own; until the edge of the woods was but a few yards away, and then afoot. Scrawny branches, like so many frail and bony limbs knotted, interwoven into a tightly knit gate, that obscured the impenetrable darkness beyond.
I took a tentative step forth. By valor, I believed. Tricked.
A branch reached for me, a dancing leaf at its tip, captured my affinity. A single leaf, dancing simply, outstretched as though in flight from the inhospitable forest, phthalo green contrasting so dearly with its lifeless surroundings of ivory branches and black earth. I knelt by it. I felt compelled to reach out. My actions arose from intuition, and so I thought not to question their origin. What other compass has a Woodsman to wade into the vast unknown world? The leaf, twisted and squirmed before my approaching hand. Its reaction startled me into a standstill. As I looked on, pity in my heart, it promptly withdrew back into the trees, wilting as it went. Intuition, again, guided my movements; I leaned forth slowly, as to a wounded creature, and gently extended my hand towards it again.
My heart leapt as the thorn buried itself into the calloused skin of my finger. Blood rushed to my head and, for the breadth of a moment, a burst of raw lucidity unveiled my mind.
How had I left all reason abandon me so?
Reflex lifted the wounded finger to my mouth, faster than thought could intervene, and I began sucking the poison from the wound. The puncture was deep, but the wound was mostly that of betrayal. The venomous blood, sweet on my tongue, made my mouth salivate. For a moment, my eyes closed on the sensory dullness that ensued, savouring where I should have spat. How easily I swallowed. The thick acrid sweet mixture sliding down my throat slow, sublime.
Much too late, as though witness to the event rather that unwitting victim, I awakened to the madness that besieged me. I took a step back in alarm, snapping the hypnosis ensnarling me, hoping beyond hope to yet escape the cold horror of this surreality. Backing away, I did not get far before my back struck a tangled wall of brush and brambles. Needles and thorns were tearing at my skin through the fabric of my clothes. Darkness fell, opaque as ink.
The forbidden forest had drawn blood, there would be no turning back.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
For longer than a night, though the sun never rose, I crawled and clawed, sightless through the tenacious, voracious thicket and vines, through the damp sucking earth, until I knew not whether I dwelt above or underground. The wind, whistling and howling, threw me forth, forcing me to breathe its stale oppressive air deep into my lungs. I writhed and wrestled for an eternity, unknowing what motive drove me on, except but to prove that I was still alive; that I still could. Writhing and wrestling without markers of progress but exhaustion, up to the moment when, as though released from a great height, I fell headlong into a muddy clearing.
I lay there a while, all flesh and blood for my efforts, bare of clothes, for not even tatters remained, the cool breeze and the moist earth soothing against the shredded fibres of my being. But for the stars above, I could interpret no orientation to this new land.
I nestled, there, in the mud and dove beyond pain into a dreamless sleep.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
Unconscious, a tremor in my heart jostled me where I lay. The icy sting of nerves. Panic. Senses sensing even as the mind is beyond registering. The weight of sleep was as a stone tomb lid, immovable. With a gasp, I exploded awake. Heart thundering, I took in my surroundings. Searing pain flashed and memory of my whereabouts returned.
Night had not yet come to pass. The clearing. The stars above. All was as before. Why was nature agreeing to this? I had never before known the sun not to rise. Could it be the very same night?
Silence was as a presence about me, droning. With great pain, I snaked through the mud to sit up against the foot of a gnarled tree. And sat, waiting… waiting for something to happen. Waiting to regain my senses, though surely only fevered thoughts awaited… Waiting for the virulence that spawned these cursed woods into being to manifest. To exact whatever it exacted upon its prey.
My left arm had fallen numb. My heart throbbed in the exposed flesh of my muddy wounds. The cold silver night felt sharp, murderous. Back pressed firmly against the coarse bark, once again I became aware of the silence. Proprioception warning me… but the clearing was empty but for me. The absence unsettlingly corporeal. Oppressively so. Almost invasively so. Something was watching. I scanned the knotted branches above.
Nothing. Overreliance on sight, however, could come to blind the Woodsman. What sense, then, perceived so acutely the dissimulated presence lurking so very near? Why was I so convinced of its ill-intent towards me? Shrouded in the impenetrable shadows of the silhouette of trees, it waited. Inaction its own torment.
Doom crept closer, in the shape of fever, at last. What my dissimulated tormenter shied away from, at least for now, my body would engender on its own. Sweat prickled and stung the corners of my wounds. I shifted uncomfortably, wary of making a sound. Above in the vast star-laden black, I watched as a star fell across the sky in a stream of light. As it extinguished, a bolt of pain coursed through my left arm, up into my shoulder. I closed my eyes against the pain. And it was there, behind closed lids, that it came to me. The answer. Out of the soot of time came forth the memory of the leaf and the thorn. Its poison now coursing up from my finger through my arm. The image emerged like a verdict, sharp-edged and definitive. Spelling the hitherto unspoken path towards the inevitable loss of my arm.
As I opened my eyes, my peace was already made. The pain was already gone. These were merely the stakes of the game I should have known better than to play. Resolute, I reached for my benumbed limb. It felt heavy, limp. The hand, shrivelled and blackened, bore no resemblance to the hand that cradled it. I looked the other way as I carried out the sickening deed.
The arm tore away from its socket with nauseating ease. I averted my eyes but could not keep my ears from registering the slow sucking sound of tearing flesh, nor my nose from the stale putrescent odour that rose from the wound like a dense cloud. Removing the limb was an unexpectedly sickly-sweet experience, embued with an alien sort of satisfaction, of release, not unlike the dislodging a thorn deeply encrusted in flesh or the slow pulling of a tooth from fresh bleeding gums, or the expelling of pus from a wound. This vilest of pleasures, enlivened by the presence of overwhelming numbness and revulsion, became the temporary focus of my existence. With one last jerk, the arm came away. It had already long not been mine. I felt relieved to be rid of the corrupted thing. I threw it from my hand, my throw pitiful; it land before me, too close, ever too close, with a muted thud. Half-swallowed in mud. And there it lay, with a silence so whole.
The price of my innocence. My sacrificial offering to the plagued forest.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
The moon had risen again, and still I dared not move.
The forbidden forest extended in a perfect circle around me, and a part of me yearned for the shelter of the iris. However inhospitable it had proven to be, it surely could not be worse than to sit on the edge of this empty clearing, this pupil from which the unknown would arise to swallow me and be done. A silly distinction, perhaps, between doom and doom, but now that I have learned to distinguish between the two evils, I feared the invisible presence more. Whatever the forbidden forest was, it remained but the symptom. The forbidden forest had revealed its evil, not so the truly sinister force at play here. That patiently awaited the rotting of the fruit, to feast. This patience, this unhurried insouciance, was proving the catalyst of my unfolding madness. The enzyme for the dissolution of my will—or whatever was left of it—to live. Time alone would suffice. Time, and the memory of my actions.
The bark at my back was encrusting itself deep. Still, I dared not move.
My ears stared ahead at the silence of my lost arm; my eyes caught the every drip of my shoulder’s wound with an incisive blink. The veins and arteries, there, cauterized by putrefaction. It was so… immobile.
I did not start, did not even flinch, but merely looked up to witness the presence I so dreaded, finally manifest. Awed, terrified or just numb, I did not know which overwhelmed me as I watched. As I watched a shifting silhouetted mass, spilling forth from the darkness, like a detached shadow, but writhing and dully luminescent, with fluid motions like… algae swishing weightlessly in water. A great colonial being, like an ant colony on foot, but also reminiscent of… sea creatures? Motionless, I watched as it headed for me. My end materialised, at last. No more wallowing in self-pity. Take me, I thought. But the thing, or things, had other plans.
The colonial entity stopped, near enough for me to breathe in its pungent odour. Powerless, even to beg, I wait. And watch. Watch a thin spore-like cloud trickle down onto the dead arm. The entity does not bend as much as shift, or extend itself towards my discarded limb. To claim its due. To feed. As detached as I was from the arm, physically and emotionally, I nonetheless failed to see it as anything else. Mine.
The many smaller organisms of which the being seemed constituted, gradually elevated the limb, in peristalsis-like waves of murky green and indigo bioluminescence. Not for ingestion, I now realised; rather, for incorporation. The arm comes to rest where a shoulder would be were it remotely humanoid. An involuntary groan of pain coalesced inside my throat. My every muscle shuddered uncontrollably as I beheld my estranged fingers begin to respond to the command of the grotesque lifeform. A last spasm rattled my bones and I slowly lost consciousness. The last I saw of the creature, its newly acquired fingers were clenched into a fist, all but its index, which slowly rose to point back at its new master in a gesture of self-declaration.
I flourish as you wither, the motion said.
I am, it said.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
Snow fell in the clearing. The ground laid white and virgin for an execution.
A strange warmth radiated from the earth underneath me. Waking, I had to restrain my hand before it reached the spot where once had been a shoulder. I glanced over, instead. Quite to my surprise, I found the wound thoroughly blackened, as though charred, yet unsettlingly painless. Healed?
No, merely healed enough so as to not be a purveyor of death. Of the lacerations and contusions that had previously covered my body, there seemed no trace, however much I searched. I took in a deep breath of air and sighed.
Feeling a nascent inkling of relief, chased away immediately by warm rush of shame. Shame for the fallacious gratitude, I almost felt. This treasonous idea that my offering might have sufficed to appease the wrath of the forbidden forest and of its resident evil. I still drew breath, but, I reminded myself, only at their sufferance. Only to suffer more.
With formidable effort, I crossed my legs underneath me and, leaning against my remaining arm, I attempted to rise. A pitiful effort which only succeeded in unleashing more pain. Despite having achieved a meagre hand’s breadth of levitation off the ground, my motions were noticed. Somehow, my motions triggered some sort of alarm response. Ahead and all around me, the clearing became quite suddenly aglow with scintillating lights. Such was my horror, so pitiful and submissive had I become, that I sat back down instantly and froze in place. Hoping that this would quiet the alarm before the entity caught sight of it. Only once the flashing lights receded, only once the clearing had remained still for a great while, did I even venture to breathe.
What modicum of life, what semblance, what crumb, was I hanging onto?
I wished the air didn’t feel so sweet against the back of my throat. This life, so narrowly reclaimed from the clutches of the body-snatching multi-organism… Better when I had lost all hope. What else awaited? Why await it? I wish I didn’t savour it so. But, alas, I did.
That is, until the adrenaline faded and the pain returned with a vengeance. The pain of a hundred searing lashes was coming from the places where my naked flesh met the bark of the gnarled tree. I reached a tentative hand, filled with dread at what I knew it would find. The flesh, torn from my journey to the clearing, had healed around the rough shards of bark, sealing me in place. Tethering me to my resting place. Affixed to the very tree, whose protection I had sought against the darkly presence.
On all sides, manifestations of evil. Seeking my demise, intricately, secretively, each more wicked than the previous, than the next. Cognisant of all the mistakes that cobbled the path to my current state, I nonetheless could not keep from making more. The forbidden forest, lesser of two evils, had not spoken its last word. Existential weariness settled into my every muscle and joint.
What hope I might have regained, leaked out of me, then. In my despair, I decided to risk it all and try to rise again. Skin tore, as the hooks at my back clung stubbornly on. The lights blazed amok. Again I failed but to rise a few fingers width. I gave up, again. This time forswearing all future efforts.
The quarter moon—had it waxed?—basked everything in a most unnatural glow as it rebounded off the silk white crystals of snow. Anchored to the gnarled tree I watched the interplay. The light played tricks, so that I could ascertain neither the source nor the authenticity of my perceptions. It seemed that, here and there, the blanket snow was perforated. As though something hot had burrowed into the snow, melting it in the process.
With my one remaining arm, and to the aching protest of my back, I reached far into the hole nearest me. And came away holding a small viscous stone. The stone, mucoid as it was, instantly slipped from my hand and fell to my feet, where it promptly burrowed itself in the snow anew. All the while gleaming violet and crimson red, emitting flashes like the general alarm. My hand too, where traces remained, was ablaze with glowing slime. My hand felt peculiarly cool in the wake of the stone’s warmth.
I shifted back against the tree and soon the entire clearing was alight once more.
When had I left the known world for this, a world bereft of laws? And why should it be so saturated with ill-intent?
ϒ ϒ ϒ
A few hours of troublesome swaying between the waking world and that of dreams passed while the moon set behind the forest and the trees. No amount of sleep could soothe such a restlessness as now burdened my soul. No manner of sleep could make the sun rise either. From the varied phases of my struggle between worlds, conscious and unconscious, a thought came to me. As certain as I sat there trapped by the gnarled tree, I now knew for certain that it was the moss and its invitation to rest in the softness of its bed, that had landed me here to sit between a devil and an evil place. It was the moss that baited my pride in the presence of the menacing woods. I couldn’t be sure why it mattered considering the circumstances, but it was then, far before entering these forsaken woods, that the battle for my life had been forfeit.
Now, condemned to sitting on the edge of ruin, where body parts are mere spoils to be fought over and divided, it all became brutally clear. My life had not been mine to claim since, soft under my steps, filling the space between my toes, I stepped onto the deceitful carpet of moss.
That was many moons passed now. I raised a hand to my cheeks, to brush away the warm useless drops of hopelessness trickling there. My fingers felt painfully coarse against my the skin of my face. I sighed and closed my eyes, for I had seen it. Seen what new torture would befall me. Seen the foreseeable end. My eyelids remained shut, as I relinquished the world outside.
The darkness inside was other. Soft and mine, still.
This too came to pass.
A lonesome drop of emerald ink came to trouble the waters of my exile. And as it swerved and spiralled, it came to take the shape of a twig and a leaf, such as now protruded from my every fingertip; and of the thorns, such as my nails had become. The nights of fright and despair were long behind me. I cared not to repress the images any longer. Instead, I merely watched the thick green cloud shifting shapes against the dark skies of my eyelids. I abandoned myself to it.
What worse could it reveal than the fate I had already endured?
I watched as it showed me the dark woods in a land that bore much semblance to my home. And a young Woodsman, eager in his gait and proud in his stance. I watched on as darkness drew its curtains around him. Birds flew off like frightened shadows. I knew not whether I figured in this vision, whether the young man could see me, yet I could not resist waving to him in warning. I shouted for him to flee this place at once. A wind stirred the leaves around me. The young Woodsman heeded the calling of the forbidden forest and marched on, curious and bold. Again, I motioned for him to leave this land, and again the leaves trembled around me. The vision darkened further. It became difficult to distinguish shapes as they merged into one another. Then, suddenly, the young man resurfaced a few paces in front of me.
I was startled. I could not recall the last time I had seen another living person. The urge was strong to reach out to him, and I could not resist the impulse, if not as a helpless man to his saviour, at least as to a fellow Woodsman. He too reached out a hand. And it was then that the horror bloomed within me. I saw the leaf dancing at the end of my fingertip. I saw the thorn lurking underneath. I withdrew my hand with great haste and jarred my eyes open. But the worst had come to pass. I knew all too well what would follow.
‘Curse you,’ I screamed at the forest and the clearing. ‘Curse you, to the stars and the moon.’
I opened my eyes and, filled with madness and inexhaustible ire, I began twisting my wooden fingers until, one by one, they broke away like the dry branches that they had become. There was no pain. Only the sharp resonance through the silence of the empty clearing.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
There was much agitation above me as the gnarled tree bemoaned its loss. I felt its wrath as its bark twisted and burrowed deeper into my back. I was beyond knowing pain. The metallic taste of blood came to my mouth. I spat in protest.
A burgundy stain in the glittering snow.
ϒ ϒ ϒ
The clearing stirs in the perpetual night. There are things here that have been set in motion anew which for aeons have slumbered in silence. The lifeless discover warmth, the inanimate awaken and brew in the dark. Symbiotic relationships enliven the dormant to fashion little worlds of balance and subtle alliances, witnessed by none.
A new force is awakening in the cycle of life, and I, alas, have been but an instrument of its perpetuation. There is a rustle in the tree line now. My time has come. Thunder has troubled my sleep, I can feel the rumble still, in my bones. The great colonial entity lurks in the shadow of the forest. A star has fallen, and I, fastened to my sombre grave, have lost yet another limb to the deafening numb.
The moon has risen, fallen and gone. And this forest of worlds will have me all before the night is done.