His eyelids fluttered. Grains of sand blanketed his eyelashes; scraping his eyes as he strained to pry them open. His vision was blurred, and a coursing pain rang through his head. A wavy sea of umber surrounded him.
He blinked with the force of a baby’s grasp. He squeezed his eyes shut, then open again. His vision cleared only a moment before the haze returned. His chest was heavy, and a searing pain traveled down his neck and into his back.
He coughed an aching, dry cough. One cough, and sand traveled from his throat down into his lungs. He gasped for air, making his first attempt to raise his hand to his chest. A dizzy spell came over him. He tried to raise his arm again, but the might of soiled earth weighed him down.
In a moment of clarity, he realized he was in the desert. Buried in the sand, packed tightly around him, up to his neck. Trapped in a body cast of soiled, brown, desert clay and to his dismay, it was nearly nightfall.
A storm roared above his head and lightening flashed across the bronze sky. Squinting his eyes with tensity, he struggled to see what was ahead of him, but his blurry vision returned. Sand danced and wailed around him as a wall of billowing dust, miles into the atmosphere, approached.
His eyes widened. The majestic, menacing force of nature hurled toward him. In a blink, the sun lost its bout to darkness and disappeared beneath the mountains.
The ominous cloud of sand barreled closer, and a flash of lightening illuminated it, in one last dance across the horizon. He closed his eyes and braced himself for what was to come. Would he be buried beneath it, or would he survive?
Well. I hated to admit it, but despite all the navigational tools at my disposal: the map I had bartered my father’s old belt buckle for, my compass that had to be nearly a thousand years old, and the directions that crotchety old woman had given me, I was totally, and utterly lost. I had been surely trudging in circles for hours as I had now seen that same giant mossy rock on my left a hundred times. I did the only thing I could do for the time being, I sat down on it, feeling slightly uncomfortable at its cushiony, softy, dampness under my bottom and regrouped my thoughts.
Everyone had told me this would happen. They tried to warn me. They said, “Mila, what is the point of going off into those woods? Everyone that dares venture that deep does not ever return. What could you possibly gain from such a risk?”
What could I possibly gain? My dignity was too far gone to have any hope of salvaging. Infamy was never on my list of things to desire. My father’s life, on the other hand, would surely be a noble cause.
My father was a local woodcarver, and my brothers were lumberjacks, pulling in wood for my father to build furniture, tools, and curios from the outskirts of the woods. Then one day, we found him in his workshop, collapsed on the floor, stuttering strange mutterings, and sweating like an ice cube on a hot day. None of the town healers had the slightest idea what was wrong with him, and after a month of searching for someone who knew, my brothers had stopped trying.
It was decided that the oldest among them would continue up the trade and keep up the shop, while the rest of them would continue hauling lumber from the woods and making deliveries, and I would stay home and tend to my father’s health until he inevitably passed. It wasn’t a decision I agreed with, but what is a young girl to do among her many older brothers?
I grew desperate, for I love my father, and I love my freedom. I wanted him to be healthy and able to work in his old shop again. So desperately, I played the fiddle that he had carved me in my slightly younger days for him every day, songs of healing, lullabies, songs I had heard the traveling gypsies play in the town square as they stopped in town for the night, songs of faraway places, songs of hope. He hardly moved, and never acknowledged my presence.
Finally, I grew very desperate. I had to do something. I couldn’t sit here by my father’s side day in and day out and watch him fade to nothing. So, I did what none of my brothers had the courage to do: I went to Agatha, the woman of the woods.
Everyone knew where her cottage was, but it was just deep enough into the woods that people didn't dare go there. There were rumors of her witchcraft, as well as monsters that roamed that deep, but at this point I was willing to try anything.
Surprisingly enough, when I got there the woman was working hard at something on her workbench, but I couldn’t really place what it was. It wasn’t any of my business anyhow, I was here to ask for her help. She was at first was very surprised by my seeking her out, sarcastically retorting to anything I said and ushering me out the door like an ignorant child, but it was when I confessed that I was there for the health of my father, that she became more sincere (albeit nonetheless crotchety).
I described my father’s illness to her, and she nodded and began pacing about her workroom like a caged tiger, hobbling on her left foot and rubbing her fuzzy chin, deep in thought. I was almost finished telling her my family’s tale of woe when she interrupted me, quite loudly, “He’s cursed!”
I stood there, shocked and stuttered, “W--what? Cursed? How could he be--”
“Shush child I’m thinking!” She muttered some more and hobbled back and forth, then leapt up unexpectedly and began rifling through the things on her work bench. She was nearly on top of the workbench when she supposedly found the thing she had been looking for and turned quickly around, pouncing back onto the floor.
Whatever it was that she had found, she was now holding somewhat suspiciously behind her back. “Alright dearie I’ll make you a deal, see?”
I nodded, trying to mask the perplexed and more than slightly judgmental expression from my face.
“You’ll go into the woods! And fetch me tree sap from the great red tree! You bring it straight here, no detours, no talking to anyone! And don’t tell anyone about what you are looking for!” She spoke in an urgent whisper, looking paranoidly around, out the windows around the house.
“And if I do this you will cure my father?” I said, mimicking her hushed tone out of respect.
She cackled. “Then I’ll give you the means to cure your father, yes.” She started pacing around me, snooping over me as if to figure me out. “You’re a musician, yes?” This was starting to get creepy.
My shoulders hunched up, involuntarily, as the hairs on the back of my neck rose in fright. “Yes.” I said, not wanting to give her much more information about me. Thinking of my father in his awful state was the only thing that kept me from running through that door.
“Do we have a deal then? The tree sap for the cure?” She said, her eyebrow raised higher than I expected possible for such a wrinkled old face.
“It’s a deal.” I said. I had come this far, there was no backing out now.
“Great!” She said, her tattered old claw grabbing my hand in a handshake that was oddly very strong for one so frail. Then she slapped a heavy piece of parchment into my hand. “The fact that you’re a musician already will save you some time and money in the delivery of this cure. You go home immediately and play this song for your father, make sure that it can be heard clearly, and that you get it right the first time, for it will only work once. After it’s played to completion, it will never work for you again.”
I nodded, opening the parchment, my eyes going crossed at the page. “But what is this?”
“Can’t you read music dearie? That should be the one in your clef, no? You’re a violinist, yes?” She stuck her nose right in my way to double check that it was indeed whatever she thought it was. “Yes it is! What is the problem?”
“Read music?” I stuttered. “I didn't know one could read music. I have always learned by ear.”
“Oh fine then!” She muttered, and she brought up a stool with the wave of her hand up to her workbench and nodded me over. We set the parchment out flat on the workbench top, her nudging off a mountain of tools and wood shavings, and gears, and screws, and washers, and bolts to the side with her arm, and she explained to me how reading music worked.
“The spell won't work, if you make any mistakes, so you’ll have to start over. Once it is played correctly all the way through, it will work, but only once.” I nodded, and we reviewed once more how the chicken scrawl on the page translated to the neck of my violin.
“Great. Now that I’ve wasted so much of my time teaching you something you should already know, let me tell you exactly what you are going to do, as soon as your father is cured.” She spun around on the seat of her stool and leaned an arm against the workbench, her elbow pinning down the parchment as if to bar me from grabbing it and running.
“Get a map of the woods from town, and go into the woods, you are to leave the trodden path, northward, once you get back from the fork that points you to Sundry and Farath, then you are to plot on until you hear the whistling of Borodin; the birds should help you find it. Follow the whistling to the Great Red Tree and there you will come upon a man. Trade him some food, preferably homemade pastries, for some sap from his tree, and then come straight back to me. Do not let anyone else know where you have been or what you have on your person, or they will try to stop you.” My head was dizzy with all the information, but once we had gone over it a few times, it was too bouncing around my head with the method for reading music.
I was nearly out the door when I heard the woman say, “Listen carefully my dearie. If you cheat me and don't hold up your end of our deal, there will be dire consequences!”
And I left for home, studying the music, and singing it in my head. When I arrived, my brothers were in the dining room, as it had grown late and was supper time. I joined them at the table and ate the soggy and salty stew that my brother Arald had cooked up over the fire, listening to their tales of the day’s ongoings. When dinner was done, I helped to clear the table and wash the dishes, as was my job, and then announced that there was to be a performance in our father’s bedroom that night, and any who were willing were welcome to come listen.
My brothers chuckled, amused at the ways of their youngest sibling and only sister. I had always been a little theatrical when it came to my violin. Despite their weariness, and their sadness at the fact that I had been trying to revive my father with music, without sign of it working even the slightest, they filed in and sat in chairs they had dragged in in a semicircle around me and my father’s potential death bed.
“Could you please hold this up for me?” I asked my brother Jarold, the closest in age to me, and handed him the parchment with the music on it. My violin in my left hand, I helped adjust the parchment so that it was right side up and legible to me while in position to play. My brothers, especially Jarold, were quite puzzled at what I was doing, for none of them had known that one could write down and read music just as I had not known. I didn't take the time to explain though.
And I played, slowly and trying hard to eliminate any mistakes. Sadly, my first attempt was fraught with errors, so I simply repeated the page over once I reached the end. My brothers were used to me repeating songs over and over again, as was custom in most cultures anyhow. The second attempt was better, still not perfect, but I was getting used to it. The third time I played through, I began to add embellishments, as all great fiddlers did. The music seemed to come from my hand rather than the page, and I let notes fly where they would.
At the last note, hoping that the song had worked, I looked up at my brothers who were looking at me as they never had before. Jarold turned the page of music over in his hands and tried to study it, unsure how I had made music come from what was written there, and the rest of them sat hunkered over in their chairs, teary eyed. I could tell Jarold was about to open his mouth to ask me where I had learned the piece, as none of us had ever heard it before, when we all heard from the far-left corner of the room, a low whisper, “That was beautiful.”
My father was awake. We all rushed the bed, careful not to crush him with hugs and sobs of relief. Arald left to make him a bowl of stew, which he ate heartily, and requested another. I brought him bread and cheese to go with his dinner and we all sat together in his dimly lit room, my brothers sharing stories of what had been going on since our father had been found stricken ill all those weeks ago. He seemed proud of us. It was very late by the time any of us could begin to think about going to bed, scared that if we went to sleep, we would wake up to find our father’s recovery had been naught but a dream.
But I had a promise to fulfill in the morrow, and while it was easy to think that I could simply stay at home with my family and ignore the obligation I had to the old woman, it was either her words of caution or my own sense of honor that kept me from doing so.
Early the next morning I rose, before the dawn, and began baking several loaves of zucchini bread, making extra for my family to have for their breakfast, and stuffed two of them in my pack for the man I would supposedly find at the Great Red Tree. The sun had just risen when I went into my father’s room, bringing him a few slices of the bread with cheese and sliced fruit for his breakfast and gave him a gentle hug before I left for town.
Once in town I found a shopkeeper who was willing to trade me a map of the forest for my father’s old belt buckle that I had kept all this time. I’d have to find him another soon, once he was back on his feet. Now was not the time to worry about such matters.
“Now what exactly do you need with this map, young lady? A nice decoration for your living room wall? A present for your boyfriend?” The shopkeeper asked, polishing up the belt buckle, most likely to be displayed in the shop window and sold. So I told him that I was going to explore the woods myself. He suddenly seemed regretful for having already traded me the map and began trying to discourage me from using it.
Several more people stopped me in town as they saw me studying the map and tried to convince me not to go into the woods. Those warnings echoed in my head as I sat on the moss covered boulder and continued to gather my bearings in this mangled forest.
I had followed her directions and the map, leaving the trodden path at the fork in the road that split for Sundry and Farath to the East and West, and headed North, plotting onward for quite some time, and still I had not heard any whistling of any kind. Who in the world was Borodin anyhow? And how would I recognize his whistling? Agatha had told me the birds would help me find him. But how?
I felt ridiculous, but I stood up on my rock and started looking overhead for the birds, even calling out to them. This magic business, if that was indeed what this was that Agatha was having me do, was unpredictable, and perhaps when she had said the birds would help me, I was meant to ask for help.
“Um...birds? Would you be so kind as to show me the way to a...um...Mr. Borodin?” I asked, stupidly. And stupidly, there was no reply.
I slid back down onto my bottom and crossed my arms, nearly pouting like a little child. “Well now what?” I asked myself, going back over the instructions for yet the fifteen-hundredth time. Finally, frustratingly, I concluded that the only thing I could do was continue plotting on, northward, as she had said to do, until I heard the magical whistling or whatever.
It seemed to take hours, and the sun was nearly lost to me through the thick branches up above, so there was really no way to tell what time it was. I stopped and sat once again, on a boulder that looked suspiciously like the same one I had rested upon before and passed umpteen more times.
“This is impossible.” I said, putting my head in my hands.
The forest was quiet but for the wind. I sat totally still on the border of breaking down, running through scenarios of everything that could possibly happen. Perhaps if I were to travel south, I could make it back to the main path and head home, tell Agatha I tried but couldn't find the tree. Or maybe there is a magnet somewhere nearby that is throwing off my compass. Maybe if I climb a tree, I’ll be able to find the path from the better point of view. Maybe I should have tied myself to a long rope and a tree at the fork in the road so I would have been able to follow the rope back...My head was spinning.
Without warning, the woods erupted in song, birds of all colors and sizes and sub-species began trilling away. At first, I was extremely confused, trying to decipher what exactly was going on, darting my head from side to side, to find the source of this craze, and then I realized something awe-striking. They were all singing the same song, just at different points. There was that same descending line, the same turn, the same phrase, the same upward rising scale, the same gliss. Oh, how in that moment I had wished I had my fiddle to try to copy the magnificence that was this song.
I rose to my feet and began to follow the direction the song seemed to be coming from, which was very difficult at first as it seemed to surround me. I walked, the leaves crunching under my feet at the rhythm of the tune, and I smiled, adjusting my pace to keep it so. It was hard not to hum along, but I had to keep my ear out for Borodin, whoever that was.
It seemed as though one bird would finish the tune, and then another would take it up, the cannon becoming less and less far apart as I seemed to draw nearer to the source until suddenly, the birds ceased to sing and a sound so soul shattering that I stopped still in my tracks rose out of the cacophony. It was a lone bird, unlike any of the others I had yet heard, singing this tune in its complete grandeur, with added phrases and turns and embellishments. I nearly cried for longing for my fiddle to play along.
I followed the sound, stumbling over my boots and falling to my knees multiple times, until violently, my face was filled with red leaves in a bright canopy that nearly reached the forest floor. The birdsong seemed to be emanating from behind it. I carefully reached up a hand and parted the branches, stepping through into a clearing.
But it was not a clearing. Standing tall before me, at the center of a grand dome of red branches and leaves, was a dark barked tree, winding and slanting in such a shape as I’d never before come across in my years of watching my brothers heave trees from the forest for my father to carve. The ground beneath its branches was bare, but for a mossy colored grass that grew in patches around a rich loamy soil. And an odd-looking contraption stood in its midst, two wheels, one in front of the other, with a seat complete with saddle bags, and a shiny exterior. I almost thought I heard it hum, low, underneath the brilliant birdsong that was now the clearest I’d heard it yet.
And sitting in the largest, lowest split of the trees, I found the source of the beautiful song, not a bird as I had once been convinced, but a man, who could not have been much older than myself. His lips formed a perfect “o” as he continued to whistle his song, his arms behind his head, and his feet propped up against one another, seemingly without a care in the world. His hair was dark and cut in a soldier’s fashion, and he wore dark leathery clothing that put him as someone not from around here.
“Excuse me.” I said, hating to interrupt his heart wrenching performance. “Are you Mr. Borodin?”
The man turned to look at me, sitting up, and smiled, his whistling ceasing. He chuckled. “Me? Borodin? No! What would you know of Borodin anyway, he hasn't been born for hundreds of years yet.”
I shook my head in bewilderment. How would he know of people not born yet? “I’m sorry, I didn't mean to offend. I was just told to follow the whistling of Borodin to seek out the sap of this Great Red Tree.”
“Oh?” the man said, raising an eyebrow mischievously. “And who told you this?”
My cheeks flushed as he looked at me. He was truly not a bad looking fellow. “Um...the woman of the woods, a local known as Agatha. She knows of this tree and asked me to come make a trade for some of its sap.”
The man hopped down onto the ground from his perch and took a few steps toward me. “And what have you brought to barter?” The corner of his mouth tugged up in a smirk that seemed to have no ill intent, and his eyes seemed to hold a hidden wisdom.
I scrambled for my pack, swinging it clumsily around and reaching in for the loaves of zucchini bread that I had baked that morn. “Zucchini bread!” I said a little too loudly and thrust them in his direction. He swiftly grabbed them, chuckling to himself even more at my display and looked them over.
“Have to say, “he said, smelling the loaves and smiling, “this is a fist for me. Most people just bring a cookie or pre-packaged sweets, and then of course there were the cinnamon rolls…” He trailed off in thought for a minute and I pondered over what exactly “pre-packaged” sweets were.
“Okay, you have a deal, girlie. But don't take too long, I’ve got other things to do today that wait around for you to collect sap from this tree.” He turned back over to the contraption that I had noticed earlier, with the wheels and sat on its saddle. I stared at it nearly cross eyed, trying to figure out if it was indeed a beast that could be ridden, or something different, but never could come to any sort of conclusion.
“Well?” He prodded me, growing impatient.
“Right! Yes.” I said stupidly, blushing at my own incompetence, and then started for the tree trunk, examining it and looking for places I could get sap from. There were a few old holes, I counted about 5 of them or so, but they all had seemed to run dry. So, I decided to make a new one, setting my pack on the mossy ground and removing the tools I had brought with me for this purpose.
Out from my pack, I pulled the largest metal spile I could find, not knowing how great this Great Red Tree would be, as well as a jar of average size with a bucket handle on it, and a large wooden mallet from my father’s shop. Then, I set to work, finding a food place to start a new bore into the tree, placing the sharp end of my spile there and hammering it in a few inches with my wooden mallet. Quickly, I placed the handle of my bucket over the spile so it could hang off of the end and collect the thick sap as it began to sluggishly pour out of the trunk and down the end of my spile.
By my estimate it took about 15 minutes for the jar to fill with sap, but once it was full, I was able to put a water-tight cloth over the top of it, fastening it there with a bit of string. As I worked, the man had begun to whistle again, this time a different tune than the one before, a tune of sadness, that made me whist for my family, who was however many miles away, mourn my mother all over again, and pine for my childhood, which had been gone for several years yet. I pulled the spile back out of the tree trunk with great care, wrapped it in another cloth so the inside of my bag would not become sticky with sap, and gathered the rest of my tools in my pack, wiping away a silent tear at the beauty of the song.
“What song is that?” I asked, coming out from behind the tree to find the man with his feet propped up on what appeared to be handlebars and whistling in the same way I had found him on the tree.
“Oh, it doesn't exist yet for you. Don’t worry about it.” He smiled mischievously. “You done?”
I nodded, dumbly. “Who are you? And what is that?”
He pulled the strangest helmet I have ever seen out from behind the machine and began to slide it on his head. “Never you mind, now you best be on your way, so I can get on mine.”
I didn’t want to leave. I was so curious about what the significance of this tree was, and who this man was, and where he was learning songs that supposedly didn’t exist yet, that were written by people yet unborn to the world, and what on Earth this contraption was that he sat upon. But as I was about to insist that he give me at least some information to answer these curiosities, I watched him turn something on the machine and it roared a strange roar, loudly, startling the birds and the animals that surrounded the area. Smoke billowed from the back.
I jumped, spinning on my heels, and ran, not wanting to risk this creature or machine, or whatever it was coming after me and hurting me. Perhaps Agatha would know what it was, and I could ask her. It was very apparent that it was too dangerous for me to stay.
As I ran, I tripped a few times, but began looking for landmarks in the woods that would help me find my way back to the fork in the road that I had left from. I saw nothing. Suddenly, the roaring behind me grew louder. He was chasing me! This beast surely planned to devour me, or at least trample me.
No matter how fast I moved my legs, my pack beating down rapidly on my back, my arms pumping at my sides in a blur, my speed was no match for the strange beast that came hurtling behind me. I braced for impact, tumbling to the ground in a heap, my arms over my head. The roaring grew louder still, and then, in a gust of wind, and a strange “zooming” sound, the beast and rider whooshed past me, and was gone. In its wake, the leaves were slowly floating back down to the ground, and it left a seamless tread in the mossy ground.
Shaking my head in bewilderment, I decided that the only option I really had, other than getting lost in the woods once more, was to follow the trail the contraption left and hope it led somewhere of use to me navigationally speaking. So, I stood up and I started down the makeshift path that had been created.
It went on quite a way, but at least I wasn’t plodding in circles like I had been before all the birdsong had brought me to the tree. I consulted my map, finding nothing of real use on it. The landmarks I saw were not really indicated well. But it sure was a pretty map, and it had helped me get to the fork in the road where I left. Perhaps I would put it on my wall when I got home; if I ever got home.
It must have been an hour or so of me walking down the track that Mr. Not-Borodin had left until I reached the sign indicating Sundry and Farath, finding the road I had left that would bring me back to town. That was where the track ended, abruptly, almost impossibly. I searched around the area, thinking perhaps the man had picked up his metal beast and walked over to a rock or something to rest, but to no avail.
Staying true to my promise, and despite wanting to go home immediately after such a tasking day, I went to the home of the woman of the woods once more, to bring her the sap. Once again, she was hard at work at her workbench when I arrived. This time, she didn’t turn around when I entered. “Did you bring it?”
“Yes,” I sputtered, reaching into my bag. Sadly, as I reached in I found the entire content of my pack sticky and gross, for the jar had broken during one of my falls earlier. My cheeks flushed hotly, and a bowed my head. “It WAS nice and neat in this jar here, but it must have broken when I tripped earlier. Do you accept it in the form of a pack?” I asked, holding out the sloppy mess complete with all my sticky tools and an apple that I had packed for a snack, coated with the stuff.
“Whatever, just set it on the kitchen table and be gone. I’m busy now.” Agatha said, not bothering to look.
She was acting strangely, and that was saying something for her. But I did as she asked, setting the entire pack on the table, and deciding that leaving the tools in it was worth the reward I had received for this trip, bringing my father back from the brink of death. I was about to do what the old woman had asked, and leave, when again, curiosity got the better of me.
“Please. What is it that you are going to use it for? The sap I mean.” I asked her.
Before she could answer, I heard from behind me a familiar whistling, a new song that I recognized from my youth, but it was unmistakable from whom it came. I spun around to find the man from before walking in the door, dressed in completely different clothing, looking more like he might belong around here. On his head were a pair of dark glasses. His helmet and strange beast were nowhere to be seen outside. Instead, a horse was tied up to the branch of a tree outside.
“What? You two know each other? Why didn’t you just ask him to get the stupid sap for you!?” I exclaimed.
“Never you mind.” Agatha said.
The man raised an eyebrow at me. “Have we met before?” He asked, seeming sincere, but also quite aloof.
“Just an hour ago you nearly ran me over with that strange beast of yours!” I cried, utterly confused.
“Huh?” He asked. “What strange contraption?”
“Never you mind.” I said, disappointed while also thoroughly frustrated and confused. I stepped out the door and started heading home, my hands in my back pockets, my head spinning. I could get home from here, not needing the map that was in my right back pocket.
That night, however, I was wide awake in my room and decided to do something productive in my sleeplessness. I lit the candle on my bedside table and opened my map, considering where best to place it on my wall. Much to my surprise it had changed. I blinked rapidly, trying to decide if it was late night delirium or something that was really happening as I looked down to find that throughout the woods on the map were a series of trees that hadn’t been there before, along with a bunch of numbers in golden inscription: 1985, 1935, 1823, 1750, 1700. What could these numbers mean? On top of the red tree was the number 2003.
Perhaps I would have use for this map yet. I smirked to myself, and continued to study the map, committing what I could to memory, and then plotting to go into town and barter something else for a new pack and some supplies. Boy, would I need them.
The world shook.
If only for a moment...
A clouded mind woken in the brink of a world unforgiving of the unpreparedness of actions.
"Grab what is important." I hear the voice, but I only discern the irreverence of what that is considered. What would that be entailed in your opinion or better yet, mine?
The cold creeps into my body. Something is afoot. But I grab, searching for what I know is essential. But through shoddy eyes, I keep grasping at straws.
"Do you need any help? I've got the last of the valuables." He looks down at me, the lines of worry trace his face better than any map I have ever seen.
"No. I think that I have everything I need." I look down at my barren hands and look up to him with an expectation of disappointment.
He sets the money, cards and a picture down.
"Moriah, there has to be more that you need."
I watch his confusion as it drapes along the shaking tapestry. His voice has changed from one fear to a new one. A frozen one. Where the earth does not move.
He looks away, breathes a breath that is slightly worse than the scorched dawn of obliterated hope.
"You aren't coming are you?" It's a question that needs no actual response.
But as a resolve, I still nod.
"I love you." He nods, also. An indication that my actions are not purely out of fear or selfishness. And instead, he hands me the knife.
"Keep it close, I fear there is danger afoot. I'd have been your protector, but I can only do so much." His eyes search mine to question my choice.
I shake it silently while the tears come forth. "I'll be ok, run away with the others."
He agrees and suddenly in this shaking house he is gone.
The rumble grows louder. A spark of the anticipation of what is to begin, or hopefully, beginning of the end.
The Forest Talks...
There once was a girl galloping on horseback through the forest. However, this was no normal forest and this girl was no normal girl. The girl seemed to fly through the woods not noticing how the trees would lean into her and her horse, Razz. Her name was Laura and she was one of seven princesses from the north country in Ireland. She had never been alone before having snuck out from her guided room and nosey handmaidens. She was determined to go for a ride through this particular forest. She knew she was a good rider and knew that Razz was the swiftest of horses in the land.
And yet on this particular day, in this particular forest, she kept hearing footsteps. How someone could be running so close while she was on Razz... well that unsettled her. Whatever "it" was, was always behind her and always, always so close. She could even smell the rancid breath of some unknown person as if they were close enough to touch her. She was usually a very calm princess, more so than her sisters, a quality that her father, the king, was very proud of and would often boast about. And yet on this day she kept hearing these footsteps. Goosebumps ran up her spine as she took a deep breath, ready to turn around and see what was behind her, and just how close this "thing" was. Fed up with uncertainty she whirled around only to find...
Moisture cascaded through the subterranean air of the tunnel, heaving with humidity like the amazon in the rainy season. The rock walls were draped in curtains of moss and lichen, all thriving on the artificial lights installed by humans. Lights that now flickered with the randomness of the power surges. The flickering made phantoms out of shadows, heightening the sense of danger and the excessive need for vigilance.
The Facility Alpha Security Team, or FAST, unit took a measured pace down the long corridor, its eight members maintaining a safe distance between one another in case of ambush. Captain Rick Hunter led from the front, the way he was taught during his military days, when his mission was simple. Not that his mission was different now, because it was essentially the same. Provide security and contain or eliminate the threat. The only difference was the threat.
In Iraq and Afghanistan he earned the nickname "Hellfire" Hunter for his rambunctious operations against insurgent forces. Hunter cracked a grin as he thought back to those days. Who would have thought that taking on extremist insurgents was a walk in the park? That was in comparison to what he now faced.
Corporal Garrison, the teams forward scout, brought him back to the present in a blast of radio static. "Cheetah One, this is Hawkeye."
Several of the team snickered at the call signs and Hunter waved them down for silence. "This is Cheetah One, report."
"I've take up position on the lookout above the Coliseum cargo landing, looks like all subjects have broken containment. It's a free for all down here."
"Do you see anyone alive?"
"Negative. The rest of the path is clear to my position."
"Roger that. Hold tight, we're oscar-mike. Out."
The mic clicked off and Hunter gave the hand signal to move out. He picked up his speed, but not entirely. Just because Garrison said the coast was clear before, didn't mean it was now. The Facility had more than one horror show going on at a time and Hunter had no idea which ones were still contained.
A stale, sickly odor began to infiltrate his nostrils as the team neared the Coliseum. The massive cavern was a natural formation cut into the rock by geologic processes unknown to him, but it sure as hell impressed him. They were in the main service corridor which lead from the freight elevators to the rear of the Coliseum, which was actually known as Research Area 12-C. RA 12-C was only halfway down into the bowels of Facility 57. Even after working here for a year. Hunter could not fathom the vastness of the operation. If the public had any idea what was going on here...Hunter shook his head, they would never know. It was his job to keep it that way.
The odor thickened in something almost tangible as he signaled a halt at the Coliseum's door. The massive wall of steel was partially open, stuck without enough power for it to completely retract into the recess cut into the granite.
As Hunter investigated the door, Sergeant Mendez spit on the ground in a curse. "Captain, what the fuck did that?"
Hunter looked to his NCO and followed her gaze through the opening. He resisted the urge to react, needing to stay calm and collected for his team or any civilians they encountered. The metal grating lining the floor on the other side was slashed with giant gaping tears, as if clawed apart my massive talons. Shattered fragments of rock and debris littered the area. All of which was coasted in the iron red sheen of blood.
"Garrison didn't mention this shit," Mendez barked.
"Easy, Sergeant. If there wasn't an immediate threat, Garrison wasn't going to waste words." Hunter beckoned his two junior members forward. "Davis, Rice. Go check it out, see if you can spot Garrison."
"Yes sir," Rice answered for them as the took off through the gap between steel and stone.
Hunter watched them move off, covering their sectors with their rifles. These men were well trained, former military all. He was confident in their abilities, but none of them really understood what they were up against. Not yet.
"Jones, try to contact HQ again."
"On it, sir."
Hunter kept his eyes on the gateway ahead as Jones fiddled with the coms. After a minute of supernatural silence, he tore his gaze away and back to Jones.
"Sir, I don't have shit. We're in too deep and without power to the repeaters, I can't see how we can make contact."
Mendez grumbled something under her breath and Hunter snapped around to her, feeling the building tension. "Something you want to say, sergeant?"
Mendez stood her ground. "Sir this is fucked. The maintenance teams should have had power restored by now, or at least backup power. And now we got blood everywhere and something with claws like a dragon."
"Technical shit takes time and that ain't our job. Our job is to secure civilians and get them back to the depot. Do you get me?"
Mendez narrowed her eyes but kept her retort in check. "I get you, sir."
Hunter nodded and tapped his mic. "Rice, what's your status?" He waited a minute without response. "God damnit. Davis, Garrison, come in."
Only static answered.
"Fuck this cave," Hunter mumbled. "Ok, team let's move. Scott take point with the SAW, Mendez with me, Brown and Jones take the rear."
The team pushed forward, eyes darting every which way, snapping to at any sign of movement. Even the barest whisper of a water droplet turned their attention. Ahead of them was a wide shelf of rock, like a balcony of the Emperors of Rome, overlooking the Coliseum. Pieces of equipment and storage containers lay haphazardly across the surface of the cargo landing, as if they were rapidly abandoned in transit.
Scott moved up toward the ledge, taking a defensive position. Mendez went to the right as the other took up rearguard positions. Hunter scanned the area for any sign of threat.
Finding none, he moved toward the edge of the shelf, feeling his heart beat faster. He signaled the team to be silent as he dropped down into a crawl and push forward until he could peer into the Coliseum.
Hunter, despite his discipline, could not maintain his silence with the sight that greeted him. "Holy shit." To be briefed on it was one thing, but actually seeing what the Facility scientists created was a fucking shift. And those nerds talked about it like it was no big deal.
Stretching away into the distance was an underground world straight out of Jules Verne. A cavern so large that the other side was invisible, even with the ceiling blooming with artificial light. Light derived from some form of bioluminescent microorganism that Hunter didn't understand. If that alone was not awe-inspiring enough, the verdant greenery of a complete forest ecosystem several miles underground took the cake.
Instinct and training took the reins from amazement, forcing Hunter to analyze the new environment for threats. His hawk like gaze shifted around the periphery, searching for his missing team members. Garrison had said that he was in the lookout tower on the landing. It was easy enough to find, even it was not actually on the landing.
Hunter pulled out his compact binoculars, the latest issue from HQ, and aimed them at the tower. It took him a second to get them adjusted and when he did, the high density glass flashed crimson. The top of the tower appear intact except the side rails, which were torn outward in the same slashing pattern as the metal grating on the cargo landing. The stainless steel was painted red with blood and it had to be Garrison's.
"Fuck me." Hunter whispered and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on edge. The hunter had become the hunted.
Scott must have heard him and he turned to face the tower. Hunter pulled back from the ledge and was about to signal them to fall back when his ears filled with the sickening sound of leathery wings and the pervasive musky odor of a carnivore.
Before he could react a gust of wind pressed down on him as something large swooped down overhead. Scott bellowed in pain as the monstrosity speared into him with sickle claws. The reptilian flying death tried to get airborne with it's prey, but found Scott's linebacker frame too much to hand. It retracted it's hideous swords and made to fly off for another pass.
Hunter came to his senses first and brought his rifle to bear. He opened fire, allowing his muscle memory to take over as he emptied the magazine into the demon. Mendez and the other followed suit and lit up the cavern with suppressing fire, giving him time to get to his feet and make a run for the injured Scott.
Before Hunter could reach him, the monster let out a siren shriek and spasmed in the air. Its limbs went slack and the monster crashed into the rock below with a wet thud.
"What the holy fuck was that thing?" Mendez did not take her eyes off of its corpse and she kept he rifle aimed and ready.
Scott groaned, blood bubbling from the corners of his lips. Hunter knelt down and investigated the wounds. He instinctively knew that Scott was not going to make it.
Anger surged up in him. No one could have prepared them for this. He was not even allowed to describe the horrors they would face until they faced them. It had cost him four good soldiers.
Hunter looked at Mendez, Brown, and Jones. They were frightened, but resolute. They had a mission and they wanted to finish it.
"There is something I need to tell you," Hunter pointed to the corpse of the saurian demon which had effortlessly picked off three highly skilled soldiers without a sound. "That thing there, well it's the least of our worries."
I just came up with this off the top when I was sitting at work. There has been no revisions or editing, so it might not be the best prose. It is fun though!