OK, guys, go easy on this stuff, it’s all in Beta stage! Read the commentary afterwards for this to actually make sense and see what I was on about!
Illustration by Elliot Coffin, check out his awesome art and illustration at: Elliot Coffin Illustration
For years, the forest of Lyca was perfect for taking a short cut to the larger towns and somewhere that the children could roam free and play without fear or care of any kind. That was before the disappearances, before the howls in the night and the cries of children silenced.
The creature that dwelled deep inside Lyca forest was one that was simply evil. It was the worst type of creature, the one all the other bad creatures cross the road to avoid passing. It was thirteen and a half feet tall, and that was with the hump in its back that caused it to lean over at a slight angle to the right. It was clothed in robes that hooded the creature, that were of a most bottomless and hopeless black and ripped and torn as if they had been through barbed wire. Its face was one of terror incarnate, with entirely white eyes, slits for nostrils and a wide, gaping pit for a mouth that constantly hung open as if it were howling with misery. It had teeth that were broken and jagged, skin that seemed to not be large enough to fit its face and therefore appeared stretched and peeling. It was, in short, horrifying.
Perhaps the worst thing about the creature was its affinity for children. Its yearn for taking children from their families who henceforth could never hope to see them again. What it did to them, reader, even I do not know, but if I did, I still would not tell you. This is certainly evidence enough for mothers far and wide adamantly refusing their children entry into the forest, it is known that in particular, the creature preyed most preferably upon girls that were reaching the time wherein childhood is but a repressed memory and womanhood a tentative cycle journey away.
Before, parents around the land had not known that the disappearance of their children and the mournful, spine chilling scream that arose from the forest each time they did, were due to the monster. This was until seventeen children had gone missing, and after each and every one had been devoured the parents could hear the same soul-wrenching howl that meant the monster had indeed struck again. One of these had been Alice’s own brother, and since then children had been banned from entering the Forest of Lyca, children just like Alice.
Alice was, well, perhaps not like any other girl her age; she was naive and curious as fourteen year old girls surely are, but she possessed an essence of beauty that was blossoming with her age. She had long, wavy dark hair that swallowed one’s gaze and flowed right down to the bottom of her back; her eyes were the lightest shade of blue, so blue that it seemed she had inherited them from the wolves in the hills and her lips were full and of a blood red. Her skin was pale, and made the red hooded coat she had recently purchased from running an errand for her sick mother, stand out boldly against it. And her mother was just that: sick. The type of sick that people don’t come back from. But Alice had been told that there was a plant, a herb of the rarest kind that grew only in the heart of the Forest of Lyca, and it was that alone that could save her mother.
Alice was stubborn and headstrong, and despite her mother’s refusal, at dawn she had made her departure from her house in secret, two hours earlier than her mother normally rose from bed. She would at least adhere to the warning she was given, and had been given since she could remember: “Keep To The Path. Do Not Stray From The Path.”
As Alice stood at the gates of Lyca Woods, she contemplated the weather. It was spring, the weather was still bitterly cold at times and the villagers were still treated to the odd bout of snow, often preceded by sunshine that lacked all warmth and merely glared down at the villagers as if showing them its potential whilst deliberately refusing it. However, the closer Alice had got to the forest, the fouler the weather became. The sun had almost completely retreated and now its foul cousins the wind and rain had come. The wind itself seemed to be attempting to blow her back the way she had come and the rain seemed to be trying to weigh her clothes down with so much water that she would be unable to walk on. Even the odd ray of sunshine seemed to be pointing in the direction of home.
The trees at Alice’s point of entry towered over her and seemed to glare menacingly whilst simultaneously welcoming her in with branches outstretched like great gnarled arms, and indeed, as Alice crossed the threshold of the forest she turned her head to see if some knobbly and gnarled fingers weren’t reaching out to grasp her from behind.
They in fact, were not, although Alice noticed that the moment she passed under the candid stare of the tree a deafening silence engulfed her. You might question how a silence can be deafening, but from the terrific noise and commotion from the weather that Alice’s ears had become accustomed to, the sudden instant that she crossed the threshold of the forest it silenced, causing her to jump and scream and look about as if the tree’s imaginary fingers had placed their hardened hands about her head. However, Alice was levelheaded and brave enough to regain herself. She shook her head and walked along the path that snaked suggestively through the forest.
It was a path that was not really a path. There was no man-made evidence that made it a path, nor a consistent heavy footfall that had created one. There was just gentle falling of leaves and shrubbery that seemed to beckon her to the desired route. As Alice walked along she noticed how she could, at best, see only ten or twelve steps in front of her at a time. This was partly due to the dim and gloomy light that only partially provided a vague picture of her surroundings, but also due to the path only having a very short stretch in front before snaking round a bend of trees restricting the route from Alice’s view.
Aside from the growing feeling of being watched, the random snap of a twig and her own mounting feeling of unease that she ignored, Alice found her earliest hours walking through the forest to be thankfully uneventful.
It was not till two hours after this that Alice began to tire. She thought that it must be around noon at least, although looking above to see how the light had changed she remained unaware as the trees still admitted no sunlight, or any light it seemed. The eerie, dim light had a green tinge to it that made it seem that it came directly from the trees themselves, as if each one were a part of a sun that lit the forest.
As she sat upon a boulder that lay next to the path, Alice drew her cloak around herself and looked around. She had certainly thought she had heard a lot of activity within the forest surrounding her, but she had not seen a single animal. The plants were changing too. They had appeared like any of the plants that grew outside in the fields, but as Alice progressed through the forest she had noticed them changing. They, similar to everything in the forest, seemed to have a life, a soul, seemed to shrink away if she stomped too close, to follow her scent as she walked. There were tall, imposing flowers that were of a vivid pink, with arms that seemed to sway in the wind and gills in its neck allowing it to breathe.
As she tried to not allow the bizarre foliage disturb her anymore than it already had, she heard something. It was a movement, a scurrying in the thickets around her. She instinctively got up from the boulder she was resting on and returned to the path.
Alice set off looking around her as she went, but she couldn’t locate the origin of the sound that was beginning to distress her more and more. Throwing back her hood and feeling the muggy, frozen forest air wash over her face, she stopped walking and listened intently. The sound had stopped. Whatever it was appeared to be waiting for her to make her next move.
The next thing Alice knew there was a sudden movement in a tree above her, and she ran as fast as she could up and along the path constantly looking behind her to see if anything was following her. She ran for as long she could until, partly due to the light, partly due to fatigue, she tripped over a thick root that lay conveniently along the path. She fell with the full force of her sprinting, and collapsed, face first, biting into and removing a large, fleshy segment from the inside of her bottom lip. There she lay, panting, with blood flooding from her lips that matched the colour, and onto her cloak that did the same. As she did so she noticed the scurrying grew closer and seemed to be coming from behind her; she turned onto her back, ready to face the creature if she must.
Staring at her, from the path, were two animals. One was a squirrel. But a squirrel unlike any that Alice had ever seen before. This, she thought, must be the king of all its kind. It was larger than most, and its coat was of the most beautiful looking fur Alice had ever seen. It, like the trees, seemed to have a glow emanating from it, which gave it the combined and total look of splendour.
Beside it was a stag, a stag of the same astonishing beauty as the squirrel that sat next to it; it seemed almost to be straight out of a dream. Alice gazed at it in awe, wished that she could gaze at it forever, but it turned and cantered off from the path, out of sight, and the squirrel followed it.
Alice ran, away from the path and after them. She wasn’t able to explain it, but she had a compulsion that swelled deep inside her to be near them, to touch them, to follow them wherever they led her. It could have been that she was just grateful of the company in the forest, but she couldn’t say. She ran, not looking where she was going. The trees were becoming a blur of green and brown, but her way ahead was clear. Alice could see a third creature in front, much bigger, alongside the other two; she needed to see it, to find out what it was, to be close to it.
It wasn’t long before Alice had to slow down. Her lungs could not keep up with her will, and battery acid was flowing through her veins as her heart begged for a chance to catch up. As she stood, her head hung, panting, she heard it. Breathing, breathing that quickened with excitement. A rasping, moaning wheeze of a breath and a sniffing, a deep smelling of the air, of her scent.
As she gazed into the impenetrable darkness she saw it appear, two pearls through the fog. Two oval shapes of purest white, two eyes. It had found her. The creature that Alice had been told of, the thing that all others feared, and she could see why. Alice had to silence a scream when it jumped to her lips as it came into view; it was horrific. The tattered cloak, the stretched and disfigured face, the disgusting drooling mouth with the overwhelming expression of sadness.
It was then Alice noticed a breeze, a breeze that flowed through her hair, around her neck and towards the creature. The monster breathed in deeply, a slow, wheezing breath and its white pupils seemed to bulge, its mouth to contract. This caused Alice to gag, and nearly be sick, but just as this happened the stag smashed through the undergrowth and landed with a clatter between Alice and the monster. Before then, Alice must have been rooted to spot with terror, unable to move due to sheer horror and repulsion. Whatever had been holding her lifted now with arrival of the stag and she found herself running, faster than she had been before, faster than she had all day, faster than she had ever run.
Without looking where she was going Alice tore through the forest. Branches whipped across her face, cutting her, and roots and rocks tried to tripped her up, but she did not stop. She did not look back to see what had become of her assailant or rescuer but continued to run, as blood and tears streamed down her face she ran until she collapsed against a tree, broke down and sobbed into her muddy, bloody hands.
It wasn’t until some time later that Alice looked up from her tears and stared around her. She pulled herself to her feet, pulled herself together and pulled her hood back over her head. As she brushed the dark strands of her hair that had stuck to her face she realised for the first time that she was no longer on the path but far from it. It seemed she had followed the animals and ran into the heart of the forest. The air was thicker, the strange light was stranger and the ear-perforating silence engulfed her more than ever.
Moments later, Alice saw something emerging from the dense shadows. It was a figure, unlike the one she had run from previously. It made no noise, and seemed to glide rather than walk and, for good or for bad, was coming directly towards her. There was something about it that filled Alice with unease. She felt as if she knew it, but at the same time had absolutely no idea what it was.
As it grew closer, Alice saw that it was the figure of a man, or was it a man? It seemed to be of human form, and male, but young, only a few years older than she was in fact. As he approached Alice realised, with a shock greater than any other she had encountered yet, why he was familiar.
It was her brother. Although Alice had not known him well before he had left home and disappeared, she knew that she was not mistaken. The confirmation came from within her.
“Brother?” She called. “Brother, is that you?”
It was he and she knew it. Although he did not seem to quite be there; it seemed as though he was not of solid form, a mist-like substance, smoke, as if a breeze occurred too strong and he might be blown away in an instant.
The figure of her brother made no sign of recognition, or any sign that he heard Alice speaking to him at all. Instead, he merely grew closer and closer to her; his eyes unfocussed yet staring right through her. Although he made no obvious sign of threat, Alice couldn’t help but feel the instinct of fear and mounting unease that was becoming so familiar during her trip into the forest. She began to back away.
It was at that moment that many things happened at once. Firstly, Alice, backing away from the apparition form of her brother, tripped over. Her shoes had managed to locate yet another root poking out from the undergrowth. Secondly, the misty and translucent vision of Alice’s brother had come closer and she noticed that he had changed ever so slightly in appearance. It was if his features had been blurred, or burned and inexpertly patched back together again. His eyes had focussed with an unnatural hunger and burned momentarily red. At the same time as she noticed this she fell over, and by doing so, her hood fell back and her skirt flew up.
Before she could even get to her feet, he was upon her. For a vision that seemed to almost be made out of smoke, he was solid enough. Solid enough in all of the places she feared and he pinned her to floor. She could not move an inch, she could feel her cloak threatening to tear as she struggled, and his weight upon her was causing her to lose breath.
But as her mind clouded, as the air that could not reach her body seemed to fill her mind, and all hopes of rescue and prolonged childhood seemed to flicker and die, the scene around her came back into focus. She could breathe again, and the smoke-like figure of her attacker was fading. Something had driven it away. Alice looked around her and saw what it was. The creature, the hideous monster that she thought she had escaped from was stood in an opening of the trees behind her, wheezing deeply, drooling from its mouth and watching her.
Alice got to her feet but staggered and winced with pain from her midriff. She looked down at her clothes, they were ripped and torn and she was scared at where blood was coming from.
The creature limped towards her, dragging one of its legs as it did so. Alice, too weak to run anymore, tried to move away, but her back found the cold and tough touch of a tree’s trunk blocking her path. She slumped to the bottom of it as the monster bent over her. It gazed intensely at her with its bulging, bottomless white eyes. It did not seem as if it were readying itself to attack her. It seemed to be considering her, trying to communicate. This did little to calm Alice’s fear however: those teeth were meant for only one thing.
The thing extended an arm from its robes, at the end of which was what Alice supposed was a hand. It was crooked, and deformed, with brittle jagged claws for fingers. It grasped her arm and pulled her away. She kicked and screamed but it was pointless. The monster was far stronger than she and her voice, like the rest of her body, no longer had the will to resist.
In the distance, Alice could see the path that she had run from. It snaked through the forest going ever deeper into its heart. The light in the forest appeared to be dwindling, yet she found she could see further. The creature limped, dragging her along with it back towards the path as Alice sobbed and made one last futile attempt to break free. As she felt the claws clutching at her arm, she was surprised at how gentle they were when holding her, despite denying her freedom. She was in no pain from the creature. Well, she thought, not yet at least. That part would surely come soon enough.
It was then that Alice heard it: another sound in the forest that began as an echo. A dull, rhythmic thudding that quickly grew in volume and clarity. Hooves, Alice thought.
With a crash from a nearby tree, the figure of a horse smashed into the surrounding undergrowth occupied by Alice and the creature. With a roar that Alice had never heard any horse make before, it reared and kicked the monster where its chest ought to have been and sent it soaring into the bushes. With smooth, muscular arms, it picked Alice off the floor who gazed at it opened- mouthed.
She was staring into the face of a longhaired, bearded man, but she could have sworn she had noticed no rider as the horse dived through the trees. With a queer thought she looked down, and her mouth, if possible, dropped even lower. There was a point where the bare-chested man, who held Alice carefully in his arms, ceased, and the horse that had gallantly attacked the monster, began. He was both horse and man, and a superb specimen of both. He was broad and wild, with piercing blue eyes and a long, silky mane of blond hair.
“I am a centaur, Alice.” He said, as if it needed clarifying, in a deep, slow and reassuring voice. “I have come to ensure that you will no longer fall prey to the hideous creature that curses these woods.”
He placed Alice upon his back, and began to walk away from the path.
“How do you know my name?” Alice asked. It was this, rather than the fact she was sat, riding on the back of a mythological creature, that most concerned her.
“I know many things.” The centaur said, in his calculated tone. “I know of your purpose here, I know of your past and of what is to come.”
“I need to find the plant,” Alice said. “I need to find the herb that can save my mother.”
“I know of your purpose here,” The centaur repeated, shaking his magnificent head so that his hair danced around him. “And I shall take you to where it grows.” He spoke no more, but broke into a canter and Alice found herself drifting heavily into a sleep despite her not being in the least bit tired. She could not keep her eyes open.
When she awoke, it was to find herself curled up in a haystack; her bleeding had stopped, her clothes were repaired and the green light from the forest appeared to be shining brightly again around her, so much so that it caused her to squint and shield her eyes.
She pulled herself out of the hay and looked behind her. To her astonishment there was a small, old stone cottage with a thatched roof that seemed familiar to Alice with smoke puffing out of its chimney. Alice turned to pick up her red cloak from the haystack.
“Alice,” Said a deep voice making her jump and causing her to drop her cloak. The centaur stood at the doorway of the cottage, but she could have sworn he had not been there before. “Come into the cottage. We have prepared the plant that you need to save your mother. It is brewing inside. Come in,” He opened the door, “and we shall make a batch up for you to take home. I will escort you back to ensure no harm comes to you.”
“Thank you,” Alice stammered, “Thank you ever so much.”
She collected her coat again and approached the centaur and the cottage.
“Give that to me.” The centaur said, in his deep, commanding voice, taking Alice’s cloak. “And your dress, you won’t be needing them anymore.”
Alice did not question him, but did as he said, took his outstretched hand and stepped into the cottage with the centaur at her back.
It was smoky in the cottage. Alice couldn’t see clearly, but she could see figures huddled in the corner and a cauldron bubbling with a sickly sweet smell coming from it.
There was a creek, as one of the shadowy figures opened one of the windows, and the air seemed to immediately clear, as the outside air guzzled the smoke up.
As Alice’s vision cleared, the figures around the cauldron came into view. There, stood gazing at her, was a squirrel and a stag. She knew them to be the same animals that she had met what seemed like a lifetime a go, but they could not have looked more different. They were not glistening and soft, but matted, mangy and with open sores all over their skin and foam at their mouths. Their eyes no longer shone hope and benevolence, but contained malice and a twisted hunger. Outside, Alice could see the strange light surrounding the clearing in the wood; the flowers were beautiful, the trees majestic, but that light seemed obscured from this room. And as Alice looked down at herself, she noticed her bleeding had restarted and that her cloak was nearly torn in two.
Alice turned to flee, but found her path blocked by the centaur. He too had transformed. No longer did he appear so glorious, he was balding, weak chinned, fat and ugly. His eyes were crossed and his smile wicked. He was laughing, and no longer was his voice the deep and calm tone it was before, but a high-pitched cackle that emitted from his evil mouth. She could not escape.
Outside stood the monster, gazing through the window, trembling and shaking with grief. It’s horrific face twisted in agony, and tear drops of the thickest oil-like substance splattered onto the windowsill. As the tear hit the windowsill, onto the patches where the light of the forest could not reach, it turned to a pearly white. And the mouldy claws that rested next to it appeared to be hands of the most beautiful pale skin.
The creature, turned from the cottage, threw back its head to stare pleadingly at the heavens, and howled. It howled and screamed in misery, the same howl that the surrounding towns had feared and presumed evil.
“Alice! Alice!” A voice. A voice from what seemed so far away began to come into focus and clarity.
Alice opened her eyes to find her mother standing over her.
“Where, how did I…”
“You’ve been ill Alice,” Her mother said. “quite ill in fact. But the doctor managed to find a rare plant that would cure you.”
Alice stared up at her in amazement. “But what about you?” She asked. “And your illness?”
“Quiet now Alice.” Her mother said calmly. “You’ve been asleep for three days now. I found you outside the house, collapsed! It was after you got back from town on that blasted errand I could have probably run myself.”
Alice stared at her surroundings. The sunlight was peeking in through her open window and offering no warmth. She had no visible signs of injury, and the red hooded coat she bought on the same trip to town was hanging up on her bedroom door, untarnished and intact.
And she lived.