A/N: This was written as part of an art project, which was probably the single most open-ended assignment I've ever done. My teacher gave us a theme ("Inspire") and pretty much told us that we could do whatever the heck we wanted as long as we could justify it as part of the theme.
The entirety of this piece was composed at three in the morning the night before it was due. Yet for some inexplicable reason, I adore it.
All text in bold throughout the story is still a part of the story...just from a different...perspective, I suppose. I had them as different fonts, but, alas, we can only utilize plain text here.
Enjoy! And...you know. Reviews make my day!
Footsteps approached me through the woods, steadily growing louder and faster the nearer they drew. Whether friend for whom I was searching or foe from whom I found myself fleeing...it was impossible to tell: though I was willing to bet the last of my belongings (cloak, half an apple, bow, two arrows, boots, my sword in its sheath, and a dead horse) that it was the latter. The clamor spoke of numbers, and no friend of mine would travel in such a large group or make such noise. I would have been unsurprised if the din managed to frighten off every creature in the vicinity, in the case that the hunters—of which I must count myself a part—that lay claim to this part of the forest had failed to kill them all off already.
In the dark, without the help of a lantern or moonlight, trees loomed mere paces away, threatening to block my path or throw me to the ground with their low-hanging branches or high-rising roots underfoot. I dodged a dying bush and leapt over a log before risking a glance over my shoulder to see if my pursuers had made further progress. Torchlight flashed between the thick trunks, and I caught my breath. They were far closer than I had anticipated or would have believed possible. Not even the nimblest of sprites could match my pace in my own territory, betwixt these trees that were more familiar than the back of my hand. I kept as still as I was able and listened carefully for any sound that might hint at this query's intentions. Nothing particularly telling revealed itself—just heavy footfalls, uncoordinated, a tad clumsy, with the unexpected undertone of confidence that led me to believe that the strangers at least knew this area well.
Unsure, I stopped a moment to catch my breath and dither. If these were enemies, it would not do well for me to be caught; yet if they were friends, I could not afford to waste an opportunity to find security for a little while...
My gut gave a tiny lurch and my stomach muttered unhappily. And perhaps a little food, I added in my head as an afterthought.
I glanced upwards to where a sturdy oak's innumerable bows wove together in a tough canopy of leaves and bark, leaving only minute gaps through which I could just barely see starlight. Hiding might have just been my best bet, and what better site than the one directly above my head? Fleeing, I would eventually tire or blunder directly into their path, but invisible, I could wait for them to pass in order to determine who—or what—they were.
A brief gust of wind ran through the oak's limbs, rustling up the foliage as though telling me to hurry it up. I grinned and nodded once, wondering if there were any sprites still there that might acknowledge my presence, or mischievous wood-elves that would give me away. At that moment, someone a dozen or so paces behind me—the source of the brightest torchlight—swore loudly, and the light dipped and went out, accompanied by a dull splash. My grin widened. With a ruckus like that going on, no creature would have bothered to stay behind.
Mind made up, I grasped hold of a knot in the trunk and began to pull myself up, sap sticking to my fingers and turning them a grimy amber-red before drying black. I had just lifted my left foot from the ground, about to reach up towards the lowest branch, when a loud crack sounded somewhere behind me and a bit above my head. Instinctively, I dropped low and put my back to the tree, eyes darting back and forth while I cursed the torches for taking away my night-vision. A shadow detached itself from a fallen branch and stood—if you could call its position upright. I blinked rapidly, trying to turn the dark lump into a proper shape. Whatever it was moved with a lurching slowness that would sometimes accelerate to a split-second burst of lightning speed, walking on legs that bent backwards at the knees.
Silent as death it was—lifting a claw-like hand over its head and slowly turning it back and forth, almost as though it were a bird's head scouting the area. The creature's body was twisted and hunched, and it had no visible neck; only a half-dome protrusion that could perhaps be called a head. The shadow turned away and continued its odd hand-turning. I held my breath and hoped against hope that it hadn't taken notice of me.
Another piercing crack rent the night, and a short distance to my right, another shadowy being stood from the branch it had been sitting on before it had snapped under its weight. I clapped a hand over my mouth to keep from uttering a sound. What were these horrid things? I'd never seen their likeness anywhere—not in this forest, not in books, not even in songs or stories. The second also raised its hand and methodically turned it back and forth, in every way identical to its twin.
A third creature suddenly fell from a nearby holly, the brittle wood creating the loudest sound yet. After it followed an uncharacteristic lack of sound, and I realized that whomsoever had been on my tail since evening had fallen were as motionless as I was. Clearly, they too had heard the falling of the branches and perhaps even knew of the arrival of these three creatures, for barely a moment had passed when I suddenly heard the sounds of a swift retreat. The pursuers were now taking flight, and I pondered the irony of that concept. Trees fell daily, and the snapping of branches wasn't so uncommon as to be ominous unless one was remarkably paranoid. That even the mere possibility of the shadow-creatures' presence might startle an entire party into running only made them more frightening.
The trio simultaneously turned towards one another and raised both hands straight out in front of them, as though in greeting. I watched, fascinated, even whilst the cover of darkness only allowed me to make out the vaguest suggestions of movement. A humming sound filled the tiny clearing, and it originated, I noted, from the first of the three to fall. It stopped momentarily, and another then sounded, its frequency marginally higher than the other. Was this...were they...speaking to one another?
As the two shadow-creatures bantered back and forth, making my ears ache from the subtle vibrations in the air, the third continued to—there was no other word for it—search the area with its hands about the air. In absence of other light, my eyes began readjusting to the dark. Details sprang at me. There were seven fingers on the hands of the creatures, arranged in a broken circle with four at the top, like in a typical human hand, and three at base, like triplet thumbs. They rippled hypnotically as the hands spun, and when the third shadow-creature's palm swiveled towards me, a shiver ran down my spine. 'The feeling of one walking on your grave' they call it, though I thought a better description was 'the feeling of being watched'.
The sentry suddenly added its own humming note to the conversation of its comrades, leaving its palm in the air and pointed right at me. A sudden foreboding crept over me. I watched the hand, trying to see through the dark and into the reason that its stillness unnerved me.
A chance ray of starlight pressed through the trees above and illuminated the creature's odd hand for a half a moment, reflected.
That moment was enough to make my blood freeze.
They had been moving their hands about as though trying to see with them, but that was because they were. A milky-white eye sat in the palm of the shadow-creature's gnarled hand, staring unblinkingly back at me. In my shock—in my horror—I neglected to comprehend the scene before me as that of an informant relaying the sight of a victim, huddled against a tree. By the time I'd realized, they had already jerked in my direction with a uniform rapidity.
A three-part harmony of humming assaulted my eardrums, rising in sound and pitch until it grew to a whistling, and then the whistling evolved into a shrieking, and then the shrieking was a full-out wailing that shook the planet. Panic clouded my mind. I couldn't think for fear, couldn't move for terror, and I—
—paused there and lowered my pencil, staring over the hastily-scribbled words in the spiral-bound notebook resting in my lap. Now aware of the adrenaline making my fingers shake, I rolled my neck and sat up straighter, questioning, not for the first time, how I always manage to go from sitting upright at my desk to huddled in a ball with my feet on the tabletop. My mind may have a tendency to wander, but surely even an encounter with the vile Deep-Darks couldn't make someone completely unaware of their body position?
I shook my head to clear it and carefully read over what I'd written, frowning when I came across a small error. I reached for my eraser, only to find it missing.
"Ai," I muttered, glancing to the floor for the blasted thing. "Why must you always do this to me, you yellow-bellied yeasty boot-licker?"
The words flowed easily, almost instinctively, from my mouth, my mind supplying the appropriate (if slightly unorthodox) eraser-insults the same way it could piece together the stories that bled from my pencil straight onto paper. My fingers brushed something solid and rectangular in the folds in the hem of my shirt, and I curled my knuckles around the little white square of rubber that became my best friend whenever the words refused to flow. I pressed a corner of eraser to page and swept it over the mistake, tearing graphite from the crevices my pencil had dug into the notebook. With the back of my hand, I dusted the scraps from my work and marveled at the suddenly empty two-word-sized gap left in the middle of the sentence—in the middle of the story. A hiccup. A choked read.
Once again taking pencil to hand without even setting the eraser down, I pressed the quickly dulling tip to the space and filled it in, letting the words breathe and flow once more. Tired eyes scanned the story hesitantly, then more confidently the further they went along. My brain processed the words, reading until the very last stroke of the very last letter of the very last word...and it continued going, reading ahead where there were only blank lines. Fingers moved into action, wrist gliding and twirling back and forth, continuing to tell the tale, trying to keep up with the words as they spun through my cranium and landed in perfect sync, occasionally disappearing just as fluidly if only to be replaced with a seamless alternative. I wrote faster, jaw tense with focus, mouth embarrassingly half-open the way it always is when I'm in deep thought. I was working myself into a fervor I knew, and soon I would lose myself in the words, seeing what they told me was there, hearing the very sounds their syllables formed...
The subtle snapping cut off the scratching of lead on paper, and I stopped, slightly confused as to why the words had ceased. The bewilderment lasted for only a moment, however, and I lifted the pencil to my face, inspecting the broken tip. Blast. This happened way too often. My gaze roved over the desk, hoping to find a suitable replacement before the words left me...
I frowned. Momentum was everything in writing—I knew this. The second you lost focus, you would lose your way, and it was nearly impossible to find it again. Even the greatest writers have a place or two where the story doesn't quite line up on either side of a comma, between paragraphs, or in the space separating one word from another.
Sitting back, I threw down the now-useless writing utensil and let my eyes wander until they settled on the eraser that had somehow, once again, found its way into the folds of my shirt. The corner of my mouth tilted a tad at that. Erasers must have an inherent ability to find the most invisible place in one's lap and settle there. The very same thing happened whenever I was drawing, as well.
My brow furrowed while I considered. The word repeated itself once more, and I found myself mouthing it along, feeling my tongue coil around the unarticulated sound. Drawing. I glanced sideways at one of the dozen blue ballpoint pens scattered across the desk. Draw.
The tiniest of smirks graced my features as I chose the nearest one (found on the ground at school in the seventh grade, and it has yet to run out of ink) and clicked the top, hearing the satisfying CLURK of the mechanism. Carefully, I put the tip into the left-hand margin and sketched a single line, straight up and down. The smirk grew more pronounced, the pen-hand more assured as I drew—
—my sword and swung at the shadow-creature, lopping off the clawed hand that had been reaching out towards my face. Blinded, and in agony, it wailed in its fury and stepped aside for its brethren to hum their own battle cries and storm towards me, uneven gait making their attacks impossible to predict. A thumb triplet's jagged nail caught me on the cheek before I could lift my blade, drawing blood and eliciting a short cry as the gash burned with the same fury as the shadow-creature's bellows.
A second eye-hand made a grab for my throat ere I could blink, yet by some yet unknown power, I jerked myself away and the claws buried themselves in the trunk of the tree. The voice of the creature to which the hand was attached rose to a screech—perhaps its eye had been impaled on a twig, though this was no time for wish-making.
The thrill of fight-or-flight suddenly rushed through my limbs, clearing my head with all the briskness of a coursing winter river and alleviating all heaviness that shock had paralyzed my muscles with. The sword felt right in my hand then, the two-handed hilt entwined by my fingers, comforting by the familiarity the hold possessed. Information was processed through my mind so quickly that it made my head spin.
Cornered. It is necessary to risk abandoning the safety of the tree.
Its legs are a strength. Balance is essential for them. Aim low.
Their eyes allow them to see in darkness. Yours have no such ability. Take care.
The shadow creature lunged for me, and I parried off its claws with the flat of my blade, tip pointed straight at the ground. It withdrew in that lightning-way of its kind, humming angrily at the long metal weapon that gave me an extra arm's length of reach—four hand-widths of advantage over the shadow-creatures, whose only armament was also their only line of defense for their eyes—the long claws at the end of each of their fourteen fingers. It was my sword and seven years of skill against their unpredictability and familiar arena, as no matter what perspective one was looking from, there was ironclad proof that these creatures were most at home in the darkness. Should the shadow-creatures have a hope of overwhelming me, they would have to come at me all at once, else I could defend myself indefinitely from their swipes.
The trio appeared to arrive upon this conclusion in the same moment I determined the same, and they drew back, humming softly, to regroup. I raised my blade shakily, swearing on all I knew that I would not let myself fall at the hands of such twisted night-dwellers. Scarcely had that oath been uttered mentally, however, when all three shadow-creatures receded worryingly swiftly into the trees, impossible to see in the night. I struggled to pierce the blackness, but though my eyes ached with effort and my head throbbed in sympathy, I could not see a thing.
"Cowardly beasts!" I called out boldly, wincing as my voice cracked painfully from disuse. Had not the last time I'd spoken been weeks previously, when I had last bid my friends on the edge of the forest farewell for the summer? Those that went even days alone in the woods without whispering a single word had often gone insane, but in the oddest way, that self-same maddening solitude had no effect on me. I considered challenging the shadow-creatures again, but if the lack of response to the first had been any indication, it would do me no good.
A single bead of sweat tracked from my hairline, across my brow, and down my nose before dripping onto my lips and filling my mouth with the taste of salt. The woods were still. I did not move, standing only at the ready with my blade drawn and gaze raking the blackness about me for signs of an immediate threat. The moments stretched longer, tension drawing my emotions taut and herding me nearer the brink of madness the longer the suspense was permitted to permeate every pore of my being. It continued building...and building...and building...
A movement to my left.
I whipped about, bringing my sword point with me and breathing heavily with anticipation.
Again, to the right.
Hastily, I turned, before whatever I'd seen could disappear.
The hum was the only warning I received.
In a split-second, all three of them were on me, clawing at my neck, my back, my arms, and my wrists—
—ached with a vengeance from the record-breaking speed at which I'd been writing. I unclenched my hands and let the pen drop onto the open page, my fingers feeling stiff as blood pounded through. I shut my eyes tightly and then opened them, fighting off the exhaustion that had quite abruptly accosted me the moment the words began to slow.
I blinked and studied my hands critically, recalling the studies I'd done on carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful malady in the wrists that is common in those who type too frequently, write too quickly, or happen to wring towels for a living. "So long as you give your arms as much rest as they need," one source had said, "you will find yourself at less of a risk than if you were to consistently push yourself to your limits, however inconsequential it may seem at the time."
Digging my fingers into my eyes to rub the sleep away and encourage some feeling back into the poor appendages, I decided that this break had been long enough and seized the pen. I couldn't help the fierce expression that contorted my face as the words slowly built up once more, manipulating my emotions as easily as money turns a miser's eye.
And speaking of eyes, my own were burning with tiredness, and I had to resist the urge to surrender to the call of sleep and the warmth of—
—the air around the makeshift brand whose flames lit the entire clearing with its fearsome light. The shadow-creatures flinched away from such effulgence, torn between the chance at violently tearing me to bloody shreds and the security of retreating into the dark of night that mirrored their own black hearts. A fallen branch could only burn for so long, though, I knew, and already I could sense its uncertainty.
Keep burning, I told it mentally, urging it to fight on.
Keep burning, I told myself, imagining my own bright flame kindling deep in my chest.
Shadows danced across the tree trunks, each of them taking the shape of one of the creatures named for them. The sense of being surrounded stifled me, and I held tighter to the fiery stick, seeking courage from it, from the feeling of the wood—
—of the pencil digging into the space between my thumb knuckles, sure to the leave a blister. Excitement filled me, knowing that soon—
—the light of a Far Northern summer's day would end the reign of the terror that night had gripped on the land, during those three hours between dusk and dawn, when the sun never stayed down for long. The shadow creatures would never dare savage the woods without the darkness to protect them from—
—falling asleep before the story could be completed. I glanced helplessly at the clock, letting a few numbers mingle with the words that continued to flow, sensing that the end was near. One could not simply quit—
—before victory was utterly assured, lest they find themselves the victims of their own pride. I couldn't let that happen. I growled in response to the nearest shadow-creature's humming, and it sprang back from the flames in my hands with a shriek that made me want to—
—just curl up and go to sleep. You're nearly there, I goaded myself, turning my face upwards to look at the lamp on the desk and find comfort in the light—
—just beginning to lighten the woods. I could see it streaking through the trees, breathing color into every orifice, every detail that had been missed in the dark. One by one, as the shadow-creatures took notice of the—
—time passing, every second being another without rest, another in which I had to force my eyes to stay open. I groaned—
—in relief as the last creature of the night slunk away into one of the few shadows that had accrued at the bottom of a ditch, leaving me alone with a burning stick, a sword black with dried blood, and a rising sun that could only mean one thing: the—
—end, I wrote at the bottom of the page, just barely managing to fit those six letters (seven, if you count the space in between) in my tiniest handwriting. I smiled slightly, nodded once, and gently set down—
—the branch, cleaning the glistening blade of my sword on the bark of the very oak I had sought to use as a lookout hours before. I turned slowly on the spot, taking in the peacefulness of the clearing in this forest I had long called my home, and wondering if perhaps it had all just been a dream. I reached a hand up to the cut on my cheek and winced.
It was real.
I watched the muddy ground put the flaming brand out.
But it's over.
I closed my eyes and—
—didn't even notice as my head lolled forwards and came to rest on the words that I myself had written. Thus I fell asleep...words inside my head, and out.
After all, isn't that what dreams are?