Alia closed her sketchbook with a sigh, and stood up, brushing dead leaves and pine needles from her jacket. She had completed the majority of the nature sketches she needed for class, and the sapling had served its purpose nicely. It was a crisp autumn afternoon, and she didn’t mind the time outside amongst the creaking trees.
Her art teacher had assigned them three sketches for the evening, each to be taken from something different in nature. Alia had two completed, a rosebush, and now the burgeoning White Pine. She didn’t know what she wanted for her third and final drawing of the afternoon, but she had time yet to wander in the woods and was confident she would know when she saw it.
Leaves rustled and crunched underfoot as she continued, returning to the old snowmobile trail she had followed out into the forest. The path always became a little hard to follow due to disuse as the seasons wore on through spring and summer, and would remain that way until the snows came.
The Maples, Oaks, Birches, and Beeches had shed most of their leaves and stretched skeletal arms towards one another, seeming to huddle in order to ward off the coming cold. The air had gained that distinct bite to it that comes with winter’s approach. Still, the sun shone warmly through the trees, warming Alia’s face. The woods were a beautiful place to be this time of year, and she drank in the life of the place with every breath.
After a short while of hiking, Alia’s eyes fell upon a fallen tree. It had long since begun to decompose, and a line of purple wildflowers grew atop it, the tree’s death giving them life. She smiled; the flowers looked like tiny, lavender shaded trees, a forest within a forest, the woods in microcosm. It would do perfectly for her third sketch.
Alia sat cross-legged in front of the fallen tree. She took her sketchpad and pencil from her jacket pocket, brushed her long hair out of her eyes, and began.
It was at least twenty minutes later that she first caught the shape moving in the corner of her eye. She looked up from her sketchpad and saw someone moving along through the trees, appearing and disappearing behind them as he went. Their shoulders were hunched, their eyes pointed at the ground, yet they moved quickly, striding like they had a purpose. Due to the distance, Alia could only discern that they were wearing a dark colored hoodie with the hood drawn up over their head.
Alia’s gaze shot between the stranger and the fallen tree. Never had she seen another person out in the woods here, and so she immediately felt desperate to discover who they were, and why they were out in the forest. They certainly didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves, whoever they were.
Her curiosity eventually got the better of her. She closed the sketchbook, returning both it and her pencil to her pockets. She had the shapes of the picture drawn out and could manage the detailing and shading by memory later on.
She hurried after the hunched figure, crunching leaves as she went. As Alia drew near, the figure stopped and turned to face her.
It was a boy, somewhere near Alia’s age too, and fairly diminutive in stature. He looked vaguely familiar; she had probably seen him at school. The boy’s face was shaded from the hood, but still, she could tell that he had dark rings sweeping under his eyes.
He stood silently, hardly seeming to breathe. With dark, wary eyes he watched her, his demeanor that of someone who has been accused of a horrible crime for which they have no alibi.
“Hi…” Alia finally managed, after standing uncomfortably before the boy for a time. In a voice barely audible, and with hardly a movement of his lips, he gave a “Hi” in return. The uncomfortable silence returned. Alia realized she would have to be the one to speak yet again.
“My name’s Alia. Haven’t I seen you around school? What’s your name?”
“Alec,” he replied slowly, but a bit louder than before. He fidgeted, and perhaps feeling warm, swept back his hood.
Alia recognized him at once, or rather, his hair. She remembered seeing his face around, and up until several months ago, his face had always been capped with a crop of light brown hair. The boy had obviously been going through something of a phase, though; his hair was dyed a silvery white.
Alec quickly noticed Alia staring, and quickly pulled his hood back up as he averted his eyes.
The boy looked frightened, like he thought Alia was going to hurt him. The fact alone made Alia feel guilty. When the boy made eye contact again, she flashed him a reassuring, questioning smile. Alec shifted nervously from foot to foot but seemed to be a little more at ease. He returned a small, friendly, oh-so-you’re-not-going-to-hurt-me smile.
“I’m doing some sketches for my art class.” Alia drew her sketchpad halfway from her pocket to illustrate. “What brings you into the forest?”
All of the improvements seen in Alec’s demeanor vanished in a heartbeat. He returned Alia’s quizzical look with a cold, icy stare. Without another word, he turned and began striding off the way he had been going. Alia took a few half-hearted steps after him. Immediately, Alec yelled over his shoulder, all of his vulnerable manner having evaporated.
“Don’t follow me!”
Alia was completely taken aback. She stood in shocked silence as Alec trudged away, shoulders hunched once more. Where could be going that he was so secretive about? She chewed her lower lip as she stared after him. Her curiosity had always been able to get the better for her; she had gotten in trouble for that in the past. This time, it seemed, things would be no different.
Once Alia was confident that Alec was far enough away that she could move without being heard, she began to follow after him. Wary of making too much noise, she tried to avoid dead leaves wherever she could. Several times, Alec turned and scanned the forest behind him. Alia hid each time and was each time sure that he would see her. However, her luck held, and after a while of hiking and hiding, Alec led her to a field.
Alia stopped at the tree line, poking her head out from behind the reassuring cover of a large evergreen. The area wasn’t a true field, it was circular, and not quite large enough to be called a field, but too large to be called a clearing too. Alec was walking toward two tall, dark figures standing at the center. Squinting, Alia saw they weren’t figures at all, but a pair of stone columns, each about six or seven feet tall, and made of dark basalt. The two cast long shadows in the sinking Sun.
Alia hadn’t noticed the Sun. It was low, too low, almost gone behind the trees. She would never be able to find her way back in the dark. Alia was a brave girl, but a strong feeling of uneasiness was rising inside her.
Alec had his back to her now and was crouching before the pillars. Alia had come this far, and there was little point in turning back now. After all, it looked as if she might need the strange boy’s help to escape from the forest. Maybe he had a flashlight in that sweatshirt of his.
Leaving the tree line, Alia padded quietly up behind him. He hadn’t noticed her yet, so she offered a quiet hello. Alec jumped up and whirled. Upon seeing Alia, his face flashed through a parade of emotions. Surprise, anger, and finally fear. He didn’t yell. Once again, he spoke quietly as a mouse.
“No… No… You’re not supposed to be here! No one’s supposed to be here! Not here, not now… Not…”
He cast his eyes toward the sun. Only a tiny fringe of burning orange remained above the trees.
“Not now…” The boy looked positively terrified. Before Alia could respond, he spoke again, this time louder, more frantic.
“You need to leave! It’s not… Just go! You can’t be here!” He gestured wildly with his arms as he spoke. As he did, his hood slipped down, revealing his white head of hair. The last of the sunlight set it aflame.
Alia stared at him, fear, curiosity, and confusion all chewing at her.
“Alec, calm down! What’s wrong? Why are you even here?”
Alec wasn’t listening. His gaze was directed toward the western horizon. The last sliver of sunlight disappeared behind the trees, and the fire atop Alec’s head was snuffed out.
“Too late… Please, if you go now, you still have a chance. Run, and whatever you do, don’t look back!” Fear and madness burned in his eyes. Alia regarded him with a completely confused but increasingly frightened face. Whatever it was Alec thought was going to happen, it could only be something horrifically terrifying. Alia could see the boy’s emotions were no act.
Alia had gradually been becoming aware of a low hum beginning to fill the air. Both Alia and Alec froze and stood silent, listening. Alec turned, staring at the stones standing behind him. Rigid and terrified, he turned, and slowly, looking defeated, like a man walking to his execution, moved step by step to the stones.
Alia was unaware that she had started moving backward, away from the bizarre scene unfolding in front of her. She wanted to run, knew she should, but some part of her wanted to see what happened next. The hum was growing, not even sounding like a hum anymore, it was more akin to a room full of whispers.
Alec cast a final glance back towards her, sad and rueful. Before the two pillars, there was a circular stone set in the ground. Alec knelt down upon it, looking as if he was awaiting the headsman’s axe.
Darkness was creeping over the forest. Alec offered a final word.
“It’s too late to run. If you run, they’ll chase you.”
A shimmer appeared around him, as the whispers intensified. It looked like the boy was enshrouded in a heat shimmer like those seen over hot asphalt. His whole body tensed.
The whispers were almost deafening now to Alia, who stood rooted to the spot. They were coming from everywhere, from nowhere. She dropped to her knees and clamped her hands over her ears, but the whispers didn’t abate. A second sound joined the chorus of murmurs. It took Alia a moment to realize that the sound was Alec’s screams.
There was an almost electric sounding snap. Blackness seemed to consume all light pooled between the pillars and Alec slumped to the ground. Alia’s ears popped, and a gust of putrid air hit her. It was cold and filled with the smells of rot and decay. Following the air from the liquid darkness came a flurry of dark leaves. One of them skimmed Alia’s face, and her skin stung where it touched. She fell to the ground, curling into a ball, clenching her eyelids tight together and keeping her hands over her ears.
She had already seen too much, she knew. She didn’t think she could bear to see what came next.
The air breezed around her, still filled with the smell of decomposition. She could feel Them, feel Them streaming out of the Black, flowing out into the world. She could feel Them standing over her, watching, puzzling.
Only once did her eyes betray her, and Alia took a glance. Shadows, thick and dark like acrid smoke dancing in the wind flowed around her. Shapes surrounded her, horrible shapes of things that couldn’t exist. Their words filled her head, though she understood not a word. They spoke in tongues never meant to be heard by humans, unpronounceable, foul languages.
Alia tried to tell herself it was all a dream, and that it would all vanish soon and be replaced by the warm safety of her bed. She tried, but her mind couldn’t seem to form a cohesive thought. She knew only terror.
The last think Alia remembered before blacking out was the cold. It seeped into her, stealing her warmth, until she had no more to give.
Alia awoke to a bleak morning. She found herself in the large clearing still, her face pressed upon frost-coated blades of dead grass. Every bone in her body simply felt weary, almost incapable of movement. A thin coat of frost had formed across her and everything else. It was a struggle drawing herself, shivering, to a sitting position.
“You’re awake.” Alia found Alec sitting with his back against one of the black pillars. His face looked gaunt, more drawn and weak than he had been before. His hair was whiter than she could’ve believed.
“What… What happened?” Alia managed shakily.
Alec, for a long time, simply looked at her, fixing her with a sad, empty gaze, before replying.
“If They want to come through, they need someone to open the door for them. I was unlucky; they chose me. If I don’t do this, one will eventually find their way through and…” His voice trailed off.
“They take a lot of energy,” he added. He gestured at Alia’s head, and his sorrowful look deepened.
“And I wasn’t the only one who helped them last night.”
Alia took a lock of her hair and held it before her eyes.
It was completely white.