There are five wagons in our group winding slowly through the forest on a dirt road. Ours is the last in the line of covered wagons, made of old ruined automobile parts. The three of us sit in the bed of our wagon in brooding silence until Amy, the more talkative one of our group, speaks.
“I kinda wish I’d packed something to read.”
“How could you read in a place like this?” I ask, “It’s so beautiful here...”
“I know, I know. The forest, the mountains... they are amazing, only…. there’s something to be said for a good book,” Amy says, smiling wistfully. She absentmindedly begins to tie her auburn hair back in a ponytail and hums a tune.
“Say it, then,” John mutters. He hasn’t been in a good mood in a very long time. Amy glares at him and continues to fidget.
I glance outside the wagon for a moment and look around. I spot a deer standing under the trees to the side of the road. It notices me, cocks its head, and then darts away. But as the wagon rolls on, I could swear there’s something else lurking in the shadows under the green leaves. I’m not sure, but I think it’s a little kid standing there in the darkness. I must be seeing things; I blink and it’s gone. Besides, no one lives here anymore. Not since before the war, anyway.
I don’t like to think about that. It was one of the worst wars in history; I think everybody lost at least one family member. The three of us, though? We were luckier than most. We weren’t drafted.
We graduated high school in the last months of the war. My parents never wanted me; they kicked me out in ninth grade and I’d been sharing an apartment with Amy ever since. Amy has been my best friend for as long as I can remember. Ever since Kindergarten, really, we’ve been inseparable. Since my family never cared about me, hers pretty much raised me.
We had a good friendship: hanging out all the time, practically living together. We made each other happy, which was a rare thing once the war started.
We met John a few weeks before graduation. He had been on his own for a while, having lost his father and brother to the fighting and his mother to leukemia three years before.
The day after graduation, the three of us packed up and left town to travel. It’s funny, I don’t quite remember how long ago that was… but we eventually signed on to the caravan, and here we are.
The wagons are coming to a stop now and I realize it’s early evening. We step out of the wagon to find ourselves in a large, flat clearing in the forest. We can see a fair distance in each direction. There are hills all around us and mountains behind them all covered in forest.
“Look! The sunset!” cries Amy and John and I look to the West. It’s absolutely beautiful!
The sky is streaked with bright red and orange and the clouds have formed almost an archway over the setting sun.
“I’ve seen something like that before,” says John, a distant look in his blue eyes, as if he’s searching for something that is no longer there. “It was years ago, before I met you guys, before high school… I was on a summer sailing trip in the Pacific with some friends. Our first day out was the most beautiful day… and that evening, the clouds made a gate and the sun set through it, and the stars came out…” John sighed, and when he smiled then his usual cynicism was replaced by the genuine warmth that has never been as prevalent in his face. “It was the most beautiful night I had ever seen…”
John suddenly snapped out of his distant gaze and shook his head, pushing his light brown hair out of his eyes.
“The next morning I got the news my grandmother had died.”
Neither Amy nor I can think of anything appropriate to say, but I put my hand on his shoulder hoping to comfort him. The poor guy has no hope or happiness left in him, and not without reason. Amy finally breaks the silence.
“It looks like a gate to another world,” she says cheerfully.
“Like Heaven?” I ask.
“Or Hell,” says John. Amy smacks him lightly on the side of his head.
“Cheer up,” she orders. Then to me, “Maybe you should tell a story. You’re good at that…” John perks up at that. He’s always loved my stories. I smile, nod, and open my mouth.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy named Will. He wasn’t terribly strong, nor was he tall. He was neither fat nor thin. He appeared absolutely average in every way. But he was clever. He had a tall, strong, handsome brother who never cared about him at all and only worried about himself.
One day, the King’s Daughter, Isabelle was kidnapped. Her hand in marriage was offered to anyone who could rescue her. So Will’s brother, Jack, decided to rescue her. He set out and soon came upon a dark forest. On entering, he found a mad hermit living in a tree who asked him to share a bite of dinner. Jack refused, laughing at the old man and saying he needed the food for himself, as well as anything the Old Man was hiding. Jack left the forest with more food and supplies than he entered with. He eventually came to a tower guarded by a huge, hideous, tusked ogre who asked him a riddle. Jack, who had very little in the way of intelligence, drew his sword and attacked the ogre. The ogre killed him.
Will, after hearing nothing from his brother, set out to save the princess. He came upon the dark forest and the mad hermit. The mad hermit asked to share his dinner, and Will agreed.
In return, the hermit gave him some advice on the ogre: ‘There is a fierce ogre guarding the Princess. It will ask you a riddle, but it is a trick. The answer, no matter the riddle, is ‘an egg’.
Will thanked the old man and continued on his way.
He came to the tower guarded by the ogre. It looked at him and grinned, picking its teeth with an old shin bone.
“ ‘Ello, son.” it said. “You ‘ere for the Princess?”
Will replied that, yes, he would very much like to see the princess, please, if it wasn’t too much trouble.
“Well, then. You got to answer this here riddle, then.” said the Ogre, looking forward to his next meal.
“Alright. What is it, sir?” asked Will. The Ogre leaned down so that his huge, hideous tusked head was level with Will’s.
“I have two heads, yet one thin neck. Every so often, you come to check Just how far I've gone, and how long til I'm done. The more still I stand, the faster I run.”
Will thought about it a while. It didn’t take him too terribly long to figure it out.
“An egg.” he said. The Ogre, dumbfounded as to how Will had answered with “an egg” instead of the obvious “hourglass”, let him pass into the tower, where he found Princess Isabelle waiting for him.”
At that moment, the bell rings for dinner. I hurry it up: “Long story short, they got married and lived happily ever after, with the Ogre as their butler.”
Tonight’s dinner is a delicious lamb stew made by Shandi, the caravan leader’s wife. John, Amy, and I get our bowls and sit back near our wagon, campfire, and sleeping mats to dig in. It is probably the best stew I have ever eaten.
After a few minutes we are joined by the strange old woman known to the caravan as Old Mother. She is ancient, probably in her late nineties. She wears a long plain dress but is decorated all over in amulets, talismans, rings, earrings, and tattoos. Her grey hair reaches her feet in long beaded braids.
We try to make polite conversation. Old Mother does not smile.
“It’s beautiful out here, isn’t it, Old Mother?” says Amy.
“Beautiful? Aye, but also dark,” says the old woman.
“Dark? The moon is full, Mother. I can see. Perhaps I may go for a walk later,” Amy continues.
“NO! Do not leave the camp!” It’s the first time we’ve ever heard the old woman raise her voice.
“Mother? What’s out there? Tell us,” says John, his voice calm and respectful, even reverent.
“The Children?” I have to ask.
“The Ancient Ones that walk between the Shadows and the moonlit leaves. They dance beneath the Silver Moon to the beat of an unknown tune. Their beauty is Foul and Fair at once, and they feed on Mortals on nightly Hunts,” Old Mother stands and leaves us.
“She’s cracked,” Amy says when Mother is out of earshot. But John looks troubled by the woman’s words. He pushes his bowl away.
“I’m going to get some sleep,” he says and climbs into the back of the wagon where his quilts are.
Amy and I are quiet for a moment.
“Move over a little,” she says. I do. She sits next to me and leans her head on my shoulder.
It’s dark out, the only light being cast by the fire and the full moon. Amy and I are sitting by the fire.
“You remember, way back, we were in elementary school, and Jack was babysitting us? And we ran away from him and decided to-” Amy begins.
“-to swim in the old pond out in the pasture!” I laugh, “Why the hell did we do that? The pond was disgusting, and you almost drowned!”
“But you managed to drag me back to dry land.”
“Yeah… Man, we were quite the pair. Remember when we ruined Jaime’s concert in tenth grade?”
“I still don’t know how we never got caught… Or how they finally managed to get all those squirrels out of the cafe!” We both lose ourselves in laughter at that.
“Those were good times. What happened to them?” I ask, almost to myself.
“We grew up.”
“We grew older, anyway. The world changed a lot…”
“But we stuck together, even through the war.”
“Even through the war,” I say as I stare into the fire, watching mesmerized as the flames dance about the charred wood. Amy takes hold of my hand and I look at her, seeing her smile. I smile back.
She really is the best friend I could ever have asked for.
At that moment the wagon creaks and we look up to see John, wearing a heavy coat and gazing off as if something has caught his attention from very far away.
“Hey, John. What’s up?” I ask him. He doesn’t look at us, but walks as if in a trance away from the fire, into the woods.
“Don’t you hear the music? It’s calling me…” he murmurs as he wanders into the darkness. Amy and I share a worried look and follow him.
“John, what’s wrong? Where are you going? What music? What’s calling you?” we ask, but he ignores us, chanting or mumbling some words I can’t make out under his breath.
As we move through the trees, I notice something. It’s very subtle, but the air has changed. It seems more… thick, I guess is a good word for it. Heavy, even. Sort of. I feel like something is watching us, following us.
John keeps walking and we reach the base of a hill. John starts up it without hesitation. I start to follow my friend but Amy grabs my arm.
“Look!” she whispers, pointing. I follow her finger and see, as my eyes adjust, a pulsing blue glow coming from behind the hill.
“Let’s go. But… crawl,” I whisper to her. So we crawl slowly after John. When we reach the top of the hill, Amy gasps. So do I, when I realize what I’m seeing.
The hill is overlooking a large clearing in the woods. There is a pond at one end, fed by a spring that pours down from some rocks. Surrounding the clearing at intervals are what appear to be gigantic mushrooms, and it is from these that the pulsing glow emanates.
I don’t hear any music, but the things in the clearing obviously do.
There are dozens of them dancing madly throughout the area. To look at, they appear to be no more than children. But I can tell they are not. They all look slightly… feline, or canine with long sharp faces and large pointed ears. Their eyes are luminous, huge, almond-shaped. The creatures appear to be wearing leaves, covering them and pressing closely against their bodies.
They are strangely beautiful, but they are also the most terrifying things I have ever seen.
But then I see something else. It’s standing in the shadows across the clearing but I have no trouble seeing it. Its body is blacker than black, so dark that it shows up clearly against the shadows around it. I cannot see its face.
John is still standing tall, still mumbling. He walks into the glade as Amy and I watch like fool and time seems to stop. The Children all turn and look at him. The tall, thin creature turns and looks at him. All is silent and Amy and I are frozen in fear.
The Children change. Their animal-like features sharpen, turn feral. Their eyes, already disturbing, now all turn a solid color, some blue, some green, some amber, and the Children swarm around John. But the ShadowMan turns straight toward us on the hill. Some of the Children notice us too.
I grab Amy’s hand and run. I can hear nothing but our own footsteps, dead leaves crunching, but looking over my shoulder I see them chasing after us: shadows upon shadows flitting through the trees. But I don’t see the Shadow.
I’m not sure where we are. We’ve been running a long time now and I can’t help but feel the Children are toying with us. They should have caught us by now; they’re certainly fast enough.
Terrified, we sprint through the forest. We run and run, and I’m too tired to go on but if I stop the Children will catch us… And my legs give out and I sink to the ground. I just want to give up… close my eyes… sleep…
Amy slaps me.
“Get up!” She screams, “They’re coming!”
I stare dully at her. She slaps me again, harder, and suddenly I’m wide awake. I get to my feet feeling like I could run a thousand miles. But if we keep running, they’ll catch us. We have to hide.
We keep running though, and the Children are still behind us; we can’t lose them.
Then Amy yells “There!” and turns left, pointing. It’s a large, old rusted and abandoned warehouse.
I open the door and we slip inside. I immediately look for something to barricade the door with. But as I turn around I realize I'm somewhere else entirely.
An obviously pre-war hospital room, judging by the computers, machines, screens, and well, the higher technology level of the place. There's a bed in the room and in the bed is a girl.
She is very beautiful but she lies very still. The machine next to her says she’s alive, but she doesn’t look it.
Sitting at her bedside is a young man, maybe a little younger than me, wearing dark colors that match his black hair. He is holding the girl’s hand in his own and a tear slides down his cheek.
Moving as if he notices my presence, he stands up to face me.
“You’ve come.” I don’t think he is talking to me. “I knew you would. You’ve been watching her her whole life and now you want to take her,” his voice breaks slightly. Then a flood of words comes out. “Give her a little more time. Just a little more… Don’t take her away from me, please, don’t take her, just let me stay with her, let her be with me, just give us more time together, don’t take her away all alone, let me stay with her.” The last words are strong and forceful, but his voice is strained and I think that he is very scared. Confused, I turn to see who he’s talking to.
“Help me with this!” says Amy. She’s found a large crate.
“What?” I ask her. How did we get here? Weren’t we just… somewhere?
“This crate! Hurry!” she says.
We push it so it blocks the door. I turn around. The building is dusty, dirty, and dark.
Amy hits a switch on the wall and the lights come on.
It’s not a huge improvement. There are some small lightbulbs hanging overhead, covered in dust and very dim, making the light take on a very sepia-like quality. I can see that the warehouse is practically a labyrinth of old crates, shelves, and boxes.
“I’d rather see them coming than have them sneak up on me,” says Amy. She is shaking badly. I nod.
“Let’s hide. Deeper in. Just in case,” I say. We go.
Then when we hear a faint scratching and tapping at the door, we go a little faster. But eventually we hit a dead end. We turn and look back.
There is a straight alley between two walls of crates. Every few feet, there is a dim column of light cast by one of the weak bulbs. And at the end of the hall I see a human figure approaching slowly. It looks familiar, even more so as it walks toward us. It steps into one of the lights.
“John?” I ask incredulously. John makes no answer, but I see his face now. He keeps walking slow, steady steps. He reaches the edge of the light and darkness envelops him for a moment.
The he reappears under the next light. My heart is pounding.
We’re both watching John intently. He smiles at us. It’s his normal smile, sardonic, but with a sort of warmth to it that is reserved only for Amy and me.
John vanishes in darkness again. He reappears. My heart almost stops.
It’s not John.
It’s the Shadow. He moves toward us and I can see his head. But he doesn’t have a face, only darkness. Despite that, I can tell he is looking directly at us. And behind him, all the lights have gone out.
Amy and I shrink back from him against the wall. I feel her hand in mine. We look at each other, make eye contact. I can think of no words to say. Just a look. And when I turn back, the Shadow’s head is level with mine.
The edges of my vision are growing dark and all I can see is the Shadow. I squeeze Amy’s hand, feel her squeeze back. My other hand searches behind me for anything I could use as a weapon. There’s nothing.
The Shadow’s nonface is inching closer and closer.
The thing lets out the most horrifying sound I’ve ever heard. Like a dying man's sobbing mixed with a high-pitched wail. It recoils, as if in pain, and then melts away. The lights come back on and I can see clearly again.
“We have to get back to the caravan,” says Amy. She’s holding a large metal pipe.
I nod. We run back through the warehouse, searching for the door. There is no sign of the Children, but I’m sure they’re out there. We just have to make it back to the wagons, and we’ll be fine.
But where are the wagons?
Outside the warehouse, the moon shines brightly. I can see roughly where we are now: At the top of a hill. Behind us is a mountain, to the side is where I think we came from. Downhill is a lake. Across the lake, over another hill, I think I see smoke rising.
“There!” I say, pointing. We run toward the smoke as best we can in this terrain, but it’s hard to keep it in sight. Upon reaching the lake, Amy grabs my hand and leads me to the right.
There’s a small wooden boat on the shore. It’s broken, but it may float. We push it into the water. It leaks, but it’ll stay above water long enough for us to paddle across.
As we paddle, I look back. There’s a single Child on the bank, just looking at us. We’re far away, but even so, its piercing blue eyes are clearly visible to me. From this distance, it doesn’t seem hostile at all… just… curious.
“Come on, focus!” says Amy. I go back to paddling. We’re almost to the other side of the lake now, but there’s something on that shore as well. It’s a human-sized shape, holding a lantern.
As we get closer I see it’s a girl, maybe sixteen years old, with short blonde hair.
“You two! Follow me!” she calls out once we are near enough to hear her.
“Who are you? Why should we listen to you?” asks Amy.
“If you don’t trust me, you’ll both die. Or worse,” says the girl.
“Amy, things can’t really get much worse. She’s pretty much our only hope right now,” I whisper to my friend. I can tell she doesn’t like it, but she knows there’s no choice.
“Good,” says the girl as she turns and walks into the trees. We follow her.
I look behind us: across the lake, the Child is gone, but in its place, the Shadow is watching us.
It’s not moving, just standing there. And then it melts away.
“I think it’s coming back!” I say.
“Yeah. It does that,” says the girl, still walking calmly, holding her lantern out to light the way.
“What is it?” asks Amy.
The girl ignores her. After a while, I can see the flames of a campfire ahead.
“Is that..?” I ask, hardly daring to hope.
“Yes. That’s your caravan. You’ll be safe there,” says the girl. Then the lantern goes out.
A wind blows. The girl is gone.
Amy and I focus on the campfire. It’s so close, we just have to run for it! But it’s getting darker, harder to see. All around us, the Children are dancing, and the Shadow is approaching from behind.
We burst into the fire circle and collapse. It’s over. We can’t escape. The Shadow and his Children will catch us, they’ll kill us, or worse…
I grab two sticks from the fire, hand one to Amy. We face our fate, the gigantic Shadow that’s been hunting us all night. It’s growing bigger and bigger, and the shadows envelope us.
But it isn’t scary. It’s almost comforting. The Shadow won’t hurt us…
Someone shouts words in a language I don't recognize. The shadows retreat; I can think clearly again. I can see clearly again.
Old Mother is standing in front of the fire, facing down the Shadow. She holds up a strange talisman and speaks again, in the same language.
There is an unearthly shriek, and the giant Shadow stops, shrinks, and then flees into the forest.
I put down my burning stick, and without anything to hold on to, I start shaking violently.
“You’re safe now,” says Old Mother. And with that, she turns and walks away to her wagon.
The next morning, Amy and I hitch the wagons up to the horses. We’re moving out in about twenty minutes. Neither of us say anything.
I leave the driver’s seat of the wagon to Amy and go in the back. As I look out the back of the wagon, I see something on the path about twenty feet back.
It’s a Child, staring at me with large blue eyes.