“I knew it, you may be a complete but you’re still a wuss.”
Five small figures stood on the edge of the Whispering Forest; it was a cold day, bitter cold, wisps of hot breath escaped from between chattering teeth and were lost in an early mist that had swept through the town. Randolph and Shep had decided to go for a walk by the forest; this was a bad idea as the forest edge was a known haunt of the three boys that they were now facing off with. Their names were Bren, Kelale and the biggest of them was called Aurna. He was the same age as Randolph and Shep but was a good foot taller and broader. He had a habit of flexing and rotating his arm, for he only had one, as if to show the world that there was strength enough in it for two. Randolph thought it made him look like a water pump. Aurna moved about like someone who has had an easy life, getting by with the strength of his arm and a mind possessed of a low cunning. Bren and Kelale were two years older than Aurna but were every bit the clichéd henchman bullies kept by their side. Both of them literally had half a brain and followed their leader around like lost puppies.
“Then prove it, go into the forest.” Said Aurna
“Yeah prove it.” Bren imitated, not having thoughts of his own.
“But it’s dangerous, there are dryads and the wizard” he mumbled, “and …and…the monster” he added in a low whisper.
“The monster?” repeated Aurna. “Do you really believe that? You’re pathetic.”
He took a menacing step forward, Randolph stepped back but Shep held his ground.
“If you’re so tough you do it” said Shep.
“We already did.”
“No Dryads?” inquired Randolph.
“Nope, they’re scared of me” boasted Aurna, his arm pumping water furiously.
Bren and Kelale sniggered.
“Don’t be stupid, Dryads only come out at night” Said Shep
“If that’s what you wanna believe” said Aurna
“He’s lying” said Shep, turning to Randolph, “I bet he was pissing himself the whole time.”
“Watch your mouth Shep.” said Aurna, his face reddening.
“I bet you only went as far as Goreks Razor.” Said Randolph, plucking up his courage he added, “Before you went crying home to your mummy.”
He regretted it immediately as the three of them barrelled down on him, Shep was thrown to the ground by Bren and Kelale, Aurna despite only having one arm still managed to lift Randolph up by his collar.
“Still feeling brave?” asked Aurna.
Aurna slammed his forehead down on Randolph’s nose, a sickening crunch of bone and cartilage was all he heard and he tasted hot blood as it poured from his nose and down his face. His vision blurred, but he could just make out Aurna looming over him, the one armed giant said something his ears couldn’t make out and he turned towards Bren and Kelale. Turned towards Shep. Randolph felt something new, a cold anger burned deep inside of him and he fought desperately to regain control of his senses and his numbed body.
“Hold him still!” Aurna shouted at his cohorts.
Shep was pinned down with renewed vigour, his struggling gasps drowned out by Kelale’s sadistic laughter. Aurna swaggered over, flexing his muscles, grinning broadly.
“I wanna see your face when I ̶
Aurna collapsed onto one knee holding his temple with his lone bloodied hand. He looked up and saw Randolph, on his knees having just discharged a rock from his hand, his bloodied face twisted with rage and his eyes burning with murderous intent.
Aurna looked disbelieving down at the rock which had wounded him and, mind still cloudy, he regained his feet and advanced on Randolph.
Footsteps signalled the approach of someone new; all five of the boys immediately ceased all signs of a fight as an adult showed up on the scene. Seeming at first to be going for a walk in imitation of Randolph and Shep, the five of them waited with an air of perfect nonchalance for him to leave. But, to their dismay, he began to ponderously chop wood from the outskirts of the forest. They let out a collective sigh. Randolph and Shep may have been in dire straits but this was not something they wanted a grown up to interfere with. Bren, Kelale and Aurna as if by telepathy agreed and began to leave.
“We’ll finish this later” Aurna whispered.
Neither of them moved until Aurna and his cronies were lost amongst the rocks that dotted the edge of the forest. Only when they were gone did they breathe properly and, as typical boys do, they began to boast of their battle scars.
“Did you see? It took both Bren and Kelale to hold me down and barely. I got Bren in the stomach a couple of times too” lied Shep.
“Look at what Aurna did to my nose!” said Randolph, “I think he broke it.”
“It’s all wonky, bent out of shape, yuck”
“Yeah it really hurts” Randolph whimpered.
“Come on then, we need to find someone to fix that” said Shep.
“Nu-uh, I’m not going to a sawbones, anyway we have unfinished business” said Randolph.
Shep looked at him quizzically.
“The forest” said Randolph, “We have to go further than Aurna”
“Are you serious? You’re not the Randolph I know.” Shep grinned, “Alright, but only to Goreks Razor then we go get your nose checked.”
* * *
The Whispering Forest owes its name to its malevolent inhabitants. Weaving through twisted branches and tripping over exposed roots, the boys felt the presence of their hosts everywhere. Occasionally a branch would break from up high and fall on them or their clothes would snag on a portion of a tree that they would swear wasn’t there a moment ago. But these occurrences were merely the half-asleep ramblings of the creatures that dwelt inside each half dead tree; Dryads, the people of Deadmans Landing called them, they were the reason the villagers locked their doors at night. Come dark, the dryads wake from their eldritch and tortured dreams to stalk the interior and borders of the forest. Their gnarled feet making no sound and leaving no trace, their victims, at least those that have been found, cold, lifeless and frozen in such a state of terror to make the bravest weak at the knees. The unfound, carried off to the depths of the forest to sate their sordid appetite.
But during the day the forest was safe, relatively, the only danger were the vague suggestive whispers the dryads could plant in the heads of those who invaded their domain. Become careless and their thoughts can lead the most intrepid explorer astray and to become lost in that dread forest watching the light fade to darkness knowing that death will follow but not before abject horror is enough to keep people out. Most people anyway.
“Is it much further?” Randolph inquired.
They had been trudging through the forest for what seemed like hours to Randolph and he was starting to get nervous.
“Scared?” teased Shep.
“Good, it was your idea to come here, I don’t want you running off”.
“I won’t” Randolph said defiantly and, to prove it, he sped up until he over took Shep.
Shep took advantage of this to let a worried glance spread over his face. He had never been to Goreks Razor before but his brother had said it only took an hour. The incessant whispering of the dryads made it hard to keep time or even direction and Shep wasn’t sure how long they had been walking. Rousing himself from these thoughts Shep realised he wasn’t sure how long he had been standing still. Randolph was nowhere in sight.
Shep was in a panic. He tore off in the direction he thought his friend would have gone, calling his name.
“Shep?” said a recognizable voice.
“Where are you?” cried Shep.
“Over here” said Randolph, “Come and see.”
Shep followed the sound of the voice until he came into a large clearing. Cutting through it was a raging river; its violent waters were spitting white foam menacingly at the boys. Goreks Razor was called as such because of the way it cut through the forest like a razorblade. It runs off from the Old Water and continues all the way down the mountains, where it ends up the villagers don’t know nor do they bother to find out.
“Thought I’d lost you” panted Shep, “why’d you go off like that?”
“Could have sworn you were behind me” replied Randolph.
“You didn’t hear me stop?”
“No, I heard you following me” said Randolph, realisation dawning on him, “…the whole way”
The two boys cast nervous looks all around them.
“Come on” Said Shep, “we made it to Goreks Razor, now let’s get out of here. The forest doesn’t want us in here… and your nose is looking worse.”
These words didn’t have the effect he was hoping for; he saw the defiant look in Randolph’s eyes staring across the other side of the river.
“No, don’t even think about it”
“Come on let’s go a little further, we still have time.” said Randolph.
“We don’t know that” replied Shep, “I can’t tell how long we’ve been in this cursed place”
Randolph remained silent.
“You can be so stubborn! Are you trying to show up Aurna? He’s not gonna believe us anyway”
“That’s not the point” Randolph said quietly.
Shep mellowed a little.
“What are you trying to prove? That you’re strong? Not a wuss? I know your not so who are you trying to prove it to?”
The two boys eyed each other awkwardly as all young boys do when talking about their feelings.
“Ok, how are we gonna get across?” said Shep
“I don’t know”
They searched their surroundings for some time until Shep exclaimed:
Randolph hurried over and found Shep examining a large tree that fallen over the river forming a natural bridge.
“Lucky, eh?” said Shep.
Randolph eyed it with apprehension.
“I came this way when I first got here” Randolph replied, “That wasn’t there.”
“So? It must have fallen since then.” said Shep, “It looks sturdy.”
Randolph wasn’t convinced; the fallen log lay there with almost smug satisfaction and seemed to beckon them in a way that filled his thoughts with black dread. The mist curled round it forming ghastly shapes and Randolph was reminded of what really lay there across the river. But he realised too late and had to watch Shep leap nimbly onto the tree and suffer for his rashness. The malevolent being that resided in the tree waited for Shep to be half way across before it cracked and split in two and with a thunderous crash the two ends of the log fell into the raging river.
Shep was left desperately hanging on to a branch, torrents of water raced over him blinding and deafening him. Without thinking Randolph leapt into action, literally, he sprinted down one log end and jumped, clearing the rapids and landed, with resounding crunch, on Shep’s fingers. He heard his friend let out a gargled scream and watched, seemingly in slow motion, as he lost his grip. Randolph threw out his hand, managed to catch Sheps and pulled with all his might until the two lay panting on the far side of the Razor.
“I warned you” Randolph managed after a while.
Shep waved his hand noncommittally by way of a reply.
The boys rested by the side of the river until they started to feel icy needles pricking their skin, numbing their limbs. A cold feeling of horror swept over them as the realised the light mist that had been hanging around all day had begun to thicken.
“Seen enough?” asked Shep.
“Yeah this has been enough adventure for one day I think” he replied.
“Good, let’s hurry back before this fog makes us as blind as Faceless Onok.”
But the mist advanced fast, its ghostly tendrils lashed their faces as they hurried along the river side seeking a way back over it. The heavy thud of their boots became the only sound heard as the whispering of the dryads ceased altogether. Randolph slipped over a rock and hit the ground hard, Shep was next tripping over him. The mist had become oppressive, it sat heavy on their heads, crushing their will, shattering their sanity. They linked hands and ran until their lungs burned and their muscles screamed but they could find no crossing. They ran until they became delirious with fear and they collapsed onto the dirt, their eyes betrayed them as every half glimpsed shadow became the things that shamble and blaspheme out of their nightmares. Every sound sent them into hysterics as visions of dryads stalking them filled their minds eye.
“Help!” Randolph screamed.
His cry was swallowed by the dense fog.
“Help us!” Shep joined.
They howled and gibbered until their throats became hoarse but their pleas were lost in the crushing silence of the forest. Shep collapsed and began pounding the ground with his fists. Randolph stood staring frantically about him, searching for something, anything. The swirling mists parted, almost imperceptibly, but Randolph saw.
“Over there!” he cried.
He couldn’t really be sure he had seen anything but that didn’t stop him. He hauled his friend up and led him in the direction which he hoped their salvation lay. They moaned and stumbled desperately until they found themselves at the entrance of a cave. The stench of death greeted them as they threw themselves upon its rocky floor but they cared not. The weight of the mist was lifted from their shoulders and that was all that mattered. They laid there, backs up against the wall watching the swirling fog.
“Are we gonna die?” asked Randolph.
Shep was silent.
“I don’t wanna die”
“Does it really matter?” Shep replied.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it doesn’t really matter if we die, no one will miss us.” he said, seeing the look on Randolphs face he continued “Oh our parents will, of course, so will our friends I guess. But it’s not like we matter. We haven’t done anything great like when we used to pretend to be heroes. Far off peoples won’t weep at our passing, great men won’t think back on us with awe. The gods don’t care.”
“Enough! Stop it!”
“Face it Randolph, that’s how things are! If you’re gonna die you might as well accept it!”
“I don’t want to.” Randolph beat upon the ground. “I won’t accept it!”
Shep cast a weary glance at his friend and then down at his feet where a puddle lay. He could just make out his reflection; the young vibrant boy of several hours ago had been replaced with a much older, weathered man. He had upon him the look of a dying man who knows his time is up and who is too tired to fight it. Randolph continued to thrash about on the ground. For lack of anything else to do, Shep examined the interior of the cave. It was old, rocky, damp and featureless. It was very much a cave. The ground sloped down into the pitch black abyss at the far end and was lost to sight. Shep felt an aura of dread emanating from the abyss and turned his eyes away.
“Ow” cried Randolph.
“I pricked myself on…” he trailed off.
“On what?” said Shep, he wandered over.
Randolph held up a large needle made of bone, its tip was red with Randolphs fresh blood and its end, they noticed with horror, was stained with dried blood.
“Who left this here I wonder?”
“There’s more over here.” said Shep.
Randolph hurried over to where Shep was looking at more gore stained needles, strands of muscle sinew, presumably used as string and several large bones. The boys looked at each other, horror stricken and made for the cave exit but a powerful arm shot out of the darkness and seized Shep.
Randolph saw, with terror filled eyes, that the arm was covered in bloodied stitches and ended in two hands. One was strong and pulling Shep to the ground, the other was stitched on clumsily, it hung there limp and rotting.
Randolph lunged on the arm, desperately trying to free Shep but to no avail, it was as strong as stone. A second arm shot out and pushed Randolph aside with ease and drew Shep in. Randolph caught a glimpse of a giant creature, it shambled on two uneven legs and, in his panic stricken state, he thought he saw many additional arms protruding out of its torso. Some were twitching and writhing in agony others were lifeless like the dead extra hand.
Sheps screams echoed through the caves and through Randolph’s unhinged mind. The sound of bones cracking and limbs ripping mingled with the screams of Shep and now Randolph. Through the echoing of tortured screams and tearing flesh a demons voice roared.
The cavern shook at these words, Randolph broke and ran but he could hear the shambling gait of the thing behind him. He reached the exit but the monster threw him to the ground and he cracked his head. His vision swam and all he remembered afterwards were flashes of red light, a deafening thunderclap and strong arms carrying him off.