“Catch me if you can!”
“Eve, come back here!” Faltering to a stop, Miri Summerland gave an exasperated smile as a small figure dressed in blue streaked away from her. With a sigh, she placed a hand on her aching side. Her little sister could run fast, but she was even quicker. A tiny stitch wouldn’t stop her.
She gave chase again, and the distance they covered melted away under their feet. Eve’s giggles drifted back to her. Exhilaration welled within Miri, and a merry laugh bubbled up her throat. This was the way to spend a glorious, sunny morning free from their father’s scholarly lessons. The red of Eve’s hair was easy to see as her sister bobbed and weaved over the hilly terrain.
Miri suddenly grimaced. Maybe she needed to stop giving Eve such a head start. Thank heavens, summer was fading away, taking the worst of the heat with it. Growling in annoyance, she swiped at a loose brown lock that kept tumbling into her eyes. Her cursed hair was forever tumbling loose of any confines she imposed on it.
The stitch in her side returned with a vengeance and urged her to slow. As she opened her mouth to call a halt to their race, the words turned to ash on her tongue. A dark forest loomed far ahead, a black blob marring the bright day. The Dark Woods. God, had they come so far without her knowing it? Fear, deep and gaping, arose before her and consumed her whole. Creatures, strange and ferocious, were said to live in there. Neither she nor her sister had a weapon. Not that it would matter if they did, because they didn’t know how to wield one.
“Eve, stop! Don’t go in there!”
Her sister kept hurtling toward the forest, apparently deaf to her voice or purposefully ignoring it.
Miri cursed and sped up until her legs were going faster than they ever had. “Eve, for heaven’s gates, stop!”
Brambles and low-hanging branches bit into her clothes and skin the closer she came to the black-trunked trees. The pain was easy to dismiss, though. All her attention was frantically centered on Eve, who had yet to slow. In fact, her sister seemed hell-bent on getting to that dastardly woods as quickly as she could. That, in itself, was telling. Eve had always had a healthy fear of that forbidden area, as did every sane person from their village and the surrounding countryside. In fact, probably everyone in the nation of Enpel had one.
Miri screamed at her sister yet again, panic weaving a tight net around her. Damn it all, why was Eve not listening?
The seven-year-old didn’t look back at her once. Soon, the branches of the forest cast their long shadow over Eve. A scream of anger and fright welled from Miri’s throat. If her sister went in, she’d never come out. That she knew with a surety that horrified her to the core.
But on Eve flew, and she could only stare on helplessly as the dark woods swallowed her. Miri’s feet were still eating up the distance, but there was no longer a hint of Eve to be seen. Still, she couldn’t stop. How could she leave her sister to suffer whatever lurked in that forest? She’d never forgive herself if she did, and she doubted her father would, either. Though he loved them both, Eve would always be his favorite.
Miri sprinted onward until she came to the edge of the woods. Without thought, she skidded to a halt, sheer terror freezing her in place for a moment. The black-as-tar tree trunks leaned drunkenly, as if they could fall any moment. With a shaky breath, she marshaled her runaway feelings into submission and crept across the invisible line that seemed to delineate safe land from that of the dangerous.
Immediately, the temperature plummeted, and cold wrapped around her like a shroud. Dark. It was so dark, and she didn’t know which way to go. Eve still wasn’t in sight—nor was anyone else. She wasn’t sure if that was a stroke of good luck or not. Those cursed trees blocked out most of the light, their leaves covering the sky as if with tar.
She glanced warily at the trees surrounding her. Were they now closer than they’d been before? God, she had to get her imagination under control. Still, the close-set, greasy-looking trucks made her shy away from brushing against them. But in places she’d have to turn sideways to slip in-between them.
Though she hated to move one step farther, she couldn’t stand here and let her sister face this horror of a place alone. If she couldn’t find the way, she’d have to make one—somehow. Picking a course, she set out in that direction. Twigs cracked under her hard-soled slippers, and each time, the sound echoed eerily in the silent forest. Where were the birds and the other animals that usually made their home amongst the trees? Maybe they were just as scared of this woods as she was and avoided it at all costs. Not a heartening thought.
Tension and fright bit at her spine, an almost palpable presence that drove her onward. Some primal instinct told her not to stay in one area for long. Though she questioned the sanity of calling out for her sister because she could draw unwelcome attention, she did it anyway. “Eve. Eve, c-come back now.” Her voice broke.
There was no response, nothing drifting on the air that told her where her sister might be. She spun around hopelessly in a circle, awash in a sea of black.
That was when she heard it—a faint laughter. She froze and strained her ears. Eve! But when the sound came again, it chilled her soul. The sinister tone and voice weren’t anything her sister could produce. Someone else was near. Did they have Eve? Cold sweat weaved down the small of her back.
Though everything warned her to run back the way she’d come, her conscience wouldn’t allow that. Plus, the way out of the forest was likely lost to her now, anyway. There was no tell-tale sign of the outside world. It seemed this woods would be her grave—and Eve’s.
Releasing a shaky breath, she crept in toward the malicious laughter. Her numb feet refused to work properly, and she stumbled over a root. She landed on the leaf-littered ground with a crash that knocked the wind out of her lungs. Small rocks and twigs cut into her palms. Gritting her teeth, she tried to ignore the pain. Aware she was in a very vulnerable position, she began to push herself up, only to abruptly stop when she saw a pair of small, pink hooves not more than a foot away from her.
Her gaze slid upward, and she gulped. A short creature stood before her. Though it had the legs of a pig, the brown, furry body and head were that of a cat. The creature seemed to glare at her the way only felines could.
Miri slowly backed up on hands and knees. The animal hissed, revealing sharp, pointed teeth. That was all she needed to be off and running. Oh, God, oh God. What was that abominable thing, and was it capable of hurting her? As she crashed through the trees, she prayed the animal wasn’t following her. Her heart was so busy trying to jump out of her throat that she doubted she’d hear the pig-cat creature if it trailed her. Where had that creepy laughter been coming from, though? She spared a glance back. No sign of the animal.
After a few minutes, she slowed. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, not that reassured her. The gnarled woods looked as terrifying now as they had when she first entered them, but other than that hissing creature and the odd laughter, she’d found no other hint of sentient life. Whether that boded well for her sister, she didn’t know.
Worry prodded her to move again, but which way? Something crunched loudly under her foot. She squinted at the ground. A stick of white poked from a mass of black leaves and moss. Frowning, she felt as if she should be able to recognize what it was. The answer hovered around the edges of her mind until the realization slammed into her. She recoiled a step back. Was…was that a bone? She shivered. No, not even going to investigate further. Just find Eve and go.
As she started to glance up, a splash of black snagged her attention. She cringed at the tar-like substance that stained her light-blue dress. The trees had done that? Though something desperately urged her to take off the soiled garment, she wasn’t about to remove the only protection her skin had against the elements.
With a resoluteness she didn’t feel, she picked a direction and headed that way. If she stood and did nothing, she’d never locate her sister. If they were to die in this place, they’d die together. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her forearm. A stinging sensation flared over her palm and fingers. With a hiss of pain, she jerked her hand away. The skin was raw and red, and there were traces of black dotting her palm. Her gaze flew to the sleeve she’d been so thoughtlessly touching. Black was smeared over it. Well, she now knew what the trees produced was a poison of some type.
She carefully lifted a clean portion of her skirt and wiped her hand on it. The rough fabric grated against her sore hand, but letting it remain on her would surely be the worse alternative. That done, she continued plodding toward God knows what.
Suddenly, an icy quiver stole down her spine, and the skin on the back of her neck prickled. She was being watched. A careful glance around, though, revealed nothing. Nothing but the same dreadful trees.
After untold minutes had seeped by, she huffed in frustration. Not only did she still have that feeling of being followed, but she might as well be going around in circles. Everything looked the same. Every creepy, forbidding, goddamned tree seemed to mock her. That was crazy, right? Trees weren’t alive, at least not like humans and animals were. But it was almost as if she could hear their sniggering on the air. However, whenever she strained her ears, there was nothing but the sound of her own footsteps.
The feeling was enough to madden her and drive a bit of the fear away. Was someone toying with her, or had her own mind turned traitor? She didn’t know, which only angered her further.
With a growl, she turned around in a slow circle, glaring at the boughs of the trees. “Who’s there? Reveal yourself!”
She didn’t care if her challenge led to her death. Why postpone the evitable? Whatever was out there stalking her was probably doing the same to Eve. Hopefully, there would be some justice in this world, and she and her sister could die together.
The laughter from earlier blazed to life, closer than ever. Miri froze, trying to pinpoint from where the sinister noise was coming. It built in volume until it encompassed her from all sides. Damn, damn, was it more than one voice? The ground reverberated with the sound until it rattled her bones. She held out her arms for balance, but that did little to help, and she tumbled to the ground.
She managed to get on all fours before the trembling threatened to knock her down again. Her weary body protested. Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Too much, this day had been too much.
The laughter exploded into a pinnacle that nearly blew her eardrums out. She curled onto her side so she could cover her ears. But when she did, her gaze landed on the trees. Oh, God, the trees were now leaning down menacingly. Grotesque faces formed on their trucks, and she screamed. She couldn’t move. Both fright and the shaking of the ground held her hostage. One tree in particular folded down so low that its massive branches were but inches from her face. It glared at her from a snarling face, but the silver of its eyes mesmerized her.
“Human, you will never leave this forest,” the tree said, its voice deep and rumbling.
All the breath left her lungs. She couldn’t have formed a word even if she’d wanted to. Then the ground was collapsing away from her, and she was falling, spinning, into darkness until her body hit warm, soft earth with a jarring thud.