You know there’s something wrong with the forest.
The light of your lantern feels choked, like the darkness makes it fight for every inch. It isn’t enough to make out more than a few meters around you. That little flame is the only light you see.
The trees are black as pitch, and your only indication that they have leaves at all is a rustling above your head that follows the wind. Ash— or at least what you think is ash— covers the gnarled roots that make up the ground. It’s cold there, but you don’t dare to open the lantern for a taste of heat. You don’t want to think about what would happen if the light went out.
You don’t remember how long you’ve been walking. Your feet hurt. Your hands ache from where you’ve scraped them against the bark of trees. You don’t remember when you started walking.
It’s hard to remember anything before the forest. You remember being full and happy. You remember the sunlight, warmth on your skin. It’s hard to remember anything more than those things, but they’re enough to keep moving forward.
Thirst builds in your throat until you start to wonder if you’ll just keel over dead mid-step. Everything here looks desiccated. Water hasn’t touched this place in a long time. The forest feels like a place for the dead, not the living. You aren’t supposed to be here.
But eventually the forest relents. You find a stream of ashy, quick-moving water. There’s no riverbank or riverbed, just running water finding its way through the gaps between roots. You set the lantern down a few feet away from the freezing water- can’t let it get wet, can’t let it go out— and kneel down to drink from your cupped hands. Despite the ash, it tastes like heaven on your parched tongue.
The water level dips, and your hands bump into something metal beneath the roots. You pull it free without a thought. It’s a box lantern, identical to your own except that the flame inside has been extinguished. Something hard and heavy settles into your gut at the sight of it. Losing your only light to the pitch darkness of this place was not a story that ended well.
Had the lantern run out of fuel? Or had something put it out?
You glance away from the lantern as you realize the creek is ebbing away into nothing; like it had only been there for your thirst. A helping hand meant to urge you onward. The realization doesn’t bother you as much as it maybe should. It’s not like there was any way else to go but forward.
The back of your neck prickles with the offbeat feeling of someone, something watching you. You grab your lantern and pull it close to you. Suddenly the light feels less like safety and more like a big beacon: showing anything and everything where you are. Darkness is the default here. That makes you the outsider.
A cold wind picks up, stirring through the trees; a quiet urge for you to move. You tighten your grip on your lantern and step over the space where the river had been flowing. All you can do is keep looking for a way out of here. You steel yourself and start walking faster than you had been before. Right now, trusting the impulse to keep moving feels more natural than staying still.
Your eyes start playing tricks on you. Little flashes of movement in the edges of the light cast by your lantern. Like there’s something following you just out of sight. You swallow, your mouth suddenly dry again, and pass it off as your imagination. The wind turns harsh, desperate. Hurry.
You start to run. It’s nearly impossible between the roots, the trees, and the poor visibility, but you manage it anyway, chasing the wind in a stumbling, unsteady dash. The thing following you matches your pace, but now you can hear it— lunging through the air, crawling at your heels, tearing through the bark of trees. It’s impossible to tell if there’s just one or if there’s a dozen. You force yourself not to check.
The only warning you get is the abrupt disappearance of the wind. You try to stop, but it’s too late. It’s impossible to see the slope coming in time. Your foot meets open air, and you plummet. The breath is knocked from your lungs with a blinding flash of pain as you tumble, the lantern slipping from your grasp. The ground is too slippery to find a solid handhold. All you can do is fall.
You reach the bottom of the hill and land face down in the ashy dirt. Your lantern is laying on its side a meter away, thankfully still lit and soaking you in white light. Breathing is agonizing, but for the moment it’s all you can do. The forest is silent again, save for your choked breath.
Strength returns to you in pieces, and you dig your fingers into the soil, trying to drag yourself forward. Your legs are enveloped in the darkness. It clings to you even as you attempt to free yourself. You kick backward, your foot meeting something cold and light and almost solid. That slightest give that you create in the darkness is enough for you to scramble forward and reach the lantern, lifting it up high above you.
The darkness retreats from you, and you can make out the clearing you had fallen into. Your breath catches.
A single tree towers up into oblivion in the center of the clearing. Lanterns scatter the ground around it. Shattered, torn, pierced— extinguished. A skeleton‒ blackened, as if by fire‒ is half consumed by the wood of the tree. Skulls and bones dot the trunk as far upward as you can see. It’s hard to tell where the bones end and the black wood begins. You can’t be certain there’s a difference at all.
Horror roots you in place. The darkness around you changes, solidifies. Figures emerge, staying in the fringes of the light. They tower over you with silent stares. One of them steps out before you. It’s impossible to make out any real features in its form. It is of darkness, and the dark is not meant to have a shape. You have no idea what you’re really looking at.
Smoke and ink leak from it as it enters the light. This isn’t its domain.
You look up into what seems like a face. An intention passes from it to you. There’s nothing you can do. The impulse for you to run or fight is squashed under something you can’t understand. This is inevitable.
Your hand moves nearly on its own, reaching up and unlatching the door of your lantern. Inside, hidden behind the smoked glass, is a perfectly white flicker of flame. Unnaturally pure and blinding. No heat emerges from that cold glow.
The thing-that-came-from-the-dark inclines what is maybe its head toward you. Thank you. It raises an arm toward the lantern, and, in a single motion, snuffs out the flame. The darkness returns to what it had been before you intruded here. Absolute.