CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
It’s been years since Matthew did anything remotely resembling camping, and even on the few occasions when he technically “slept under the stars,” he did it in a tent. It seemed like roughing it at the time, but as he itches furiously from numerous mosquito bites he finds himself thinking wistfully about tents with zip flap entrances.
“Mosquitoes,” he grumbles aloud, as much to remind himself he can speak as anything. His voice sounds raspy and cracked. He stretches; then he winces. His arms and legs are still very sore from the swim, and his entire body is stiff from sleeping on the ground. He scratches at his face, tries to stop, then scratches harder.
He itches, he’s starting to sweat, his arms and legs hurt, he’s hungry, and he’s thirsty—the last two, at least, he can do something about. He drinks from his thermos, trying and failing not to drink too much, then unwraps a food bar. The bar is sticky, the peanut butter coating half-melted from the morning heat, and when he finishes he winds up drinking even more from the thermos. It’s better than nothing. He sits up and feels his back twinge; he hadn’t bothered to take off the backpack before he slept, and his body is not amused.
Now that it’s light, he can see the spot he chose the night before. It’s a pleasant-looking meadow sitting behind a ridge that separates it from the river.
It was a pretty lucky spot to pick in the dark, as tired as he was. He could have done far worse. He stands, wincing as his legs protest, and swings his arms side to side, trying to work out the soreness. He figures walking will help, so he ignores the pounding in his head and starts off in the direction of the sun.
He wants to see the tower. That means east, then northeast. He doesn’t specifically know where it is, but he has a vague idea of its direction from Buck’s house, and a vague idea of where Buck’s house is from where he’s standing. His best bet, he decides, is to stumble across something he recognizes. He nearly laughs aloud at that, and tries very hard to ignore the voice in the back of his head that’s telling him this is a lunatic’s plan.
He thinks back to the night he saw Simon Wendell enter the other tower. That night, on the shore, he saw the echoes of a light bobbing and dipping behind ridges and trees. Close to the shore, but separated from it: that describes the meadow pretty well. Perhaps Simon actually walked this way to the tower.
Off to the east, a short walk from where he stands, he sees the meadow end and a forest begin. The trees look very much like the ones around Buck’s house. He shoulders his pack, looking at them warily. He coughs, wipes sweat from his forehead, and starts off.
* * *
He stands at the edge of a forest. Behind him, the heat of the day beats down in full effect, humidity making the air feel heavy and sluggish. Before him trees rise into the sky, coming together like a twisting wall. The wall, however, is not solid; these aren’t the trees that blocked his way to the manor house. The gaps between the trunks are clearly visible, and a small path—an animal trail, perhaps—winds its way in and through the trees.
Matthew puts on his jacket, readjusts his backpack, and steps through. Almost immediately the humidity lessens. The sun filters down through the trees, bathing the forest in dim light. The ground is soft, covered in decaying leaves and thick moss. The path is faint, but visible enough to follow. Matthew walks on, leaving the humid, bright world behind and surrounding himself with the smell of bark, moss, and leaves. Deeper into the forest, farther out of the sun, the air grows dryer and cooler. There’s enough light to see—no reason to break out the flashlight just yet—but he finds himself squinting involuntarily.
Eventually the trail leads to a small clearing where sunlight streams down on unbroken grass. He steps out into the clearing, and immediately the humidity returns, thick and suffocating. The sun is high in the sky, now—Matthew guesses it’s close to noon. He eats another food bar, drinks a little water from his thermos, and tries to figure out what to do next.
It’s a dead end: the only trail out is the one he followed to get there. He doesn’t want to go back, and he can choose a general direction based on the position of the sun—maybe he can, or maybe he’s putting too much faith in skills he doesn’t really have—but he has no doubt that even if he starts off in the right direction, he’d wind up getting turned around navigating the trees.
So that’s it, then: he’s lost.
He fights back the urge to panic, forcing himself to think. He isn’t lost; he can go back down the trail and return to the meadow. It isn’t what he wants to do, but he can do it. If he wants to figure out whether he has any other options, he needs to be calm. He walks to the other side of the clearing and, just before reaching the point where the forest resumes, he hesitates.
Everything is silent. There is no breeze, there are no birds, there is not even the buzzing of insects. Then, faintly at first and growing louder, he hears the sound of footsteps, rustling leaves, and snapping twigs.
It’s coming up the trail.
Matthew backs into the forest, darting around a large tree and peering through a gap between two trunks to spy on the clearing. Emerging from the trail is a figure dressed from head to toe in filthy gray rags.
As soon as it steps into the clearing it halts, head turning left, then right, as if searching. Matthew stares, frozen in terror: although he finds these creatures indistinguishable at this distance, he’s certain this is the one who’d attacked him twice. When it begins to pace back and forth up and down the length of the clearing, murmuring and muttering indistinctly as it makes small oval patterns on the grass, Matthew backs away slowly, fading deeper into the woods.
He doesn’t take his eyes off the creature as he retreats, letting the thicket block ever more of the raggedy thing from view, until finally only flashes of gray can be seen between leaves and branches. Almost there, Matthew thinks to himself. Just a few more steps and I’ll be entirely out of view.
All at once the creature utters a guttural, screeching cry. He sees a patch of gray cloth swirl through the tangle of branches and leaves, then hears the snap of twigs as the creature dives into the trees toward him. Panicking, he turns and runs; trees fly by him in a blur as he races through the forest, twisting and turning to avoid the trunks and branches that seem to appear from nowhere, whipping at him, snagging his collar or scraping his arms and legs. The creature screeches, and Matthew hears answering cries to his right. He immediately changes direction, angling left to put distance between his pursuer and the ones who answered its call.
He runs hard, dodging roots and stones with an agility he doesn’t normally possess. Behind him he hears the creature’s occasional screeching cry, but he’s mostly aware of the sound of his feet pounding on the ground and his lungs gasping for air. He rounds a tree and nearly stumbles as he sees a flash of gray ahead—he immediately bears right, leaping over a small stream and dashing between two elm trees.
It screeches again—closer, but not as close as he feared. Knowing how fast they run, he can only assume they’re having at least as much trouble navigating the forest as he is. How long that will remain true, he can’t guess. Whatever tactical advantage the forest may provide, he doesn’t expect it to last long.
He needs to be somewhere else—someplace defensible. Immediately, the image of the tower comes to mind. He tries to focus on that, to convince himself he’s running toward the tower even though at this point he doesn’t know which direction he’s running at all.
Another screech—this time much closer. Something is behind him, very close. He forces fear away by concentrating on that tower. He pictures the stone as it rises out of the earth, gray stone, solid, plain, unadorned. He thinks of the tower as he saw it the other night: ornate, gleaming white, banners bearing a strange symbol hanging from each side of the door. He concentrates on the tower instead of his fear, forces his fear aside, and as he runs for his life he recreates that tower, brick by brick, in his mind’s eye.
The ground shrugs. Matthew stumbles, tripping over a root, crashing through a net of twigs and branches that tear at his clothes and scratch his face. He twists as he falls, and sees a ragged figure closing, reaching out toward him, and as he opens his mouth to shout in fear he exhales a long stream of white, cold breath…
…and the world shifts, spins, and he falls backward into the sunlight, onto stone. The tower looms over him.
Matthew scrambles to his feet, looking around wildly. He’s alone in the valley. In the distance, he hears a shriek of confusion mixed with rage. A wave of nausea washes over him and he doubles over, trying not to be sick. It’s cold; the air bites at his lungs as he gulps it down. Eventually the nausea passes, the cold recedes, and the heat and humidity of the day return. He steadies himself and climbs to his feet.
He hears another shriek, louder, followed by others, and looks for a place to hide. All he sees in the valley is the tower. This is not the tower from last night: it is the same size and shape, but it’s a shell compared to the one he saw the other night, rough stone sides, no room with glass windows at the top, and an empty, doorless entrance leading to blackness beyond.
He doesn’t have many options. He steps through the entrance into the tower, hoping to find a place to hide. It is not completely dark within, and in the dim light he can see the ground floor is a single large room with a stone staircase set into the far wall, spiraling upward. The floor is covered in a thick layer of dust and completely bare. That doesn’t feel right to him—a derelict building like this ought to have visitors, maybe even occupants. He doesn’t expect the homeless population to be terribly high, but he also doesn’t expect it to be non-existent, either. At the very least, the floor should be covered with cigarette butts, discarded bottles and cans, and other signs of teenagers or college kids.
Matthew considers the stairs. There’s no guarantee the upper floors will be of any use to him, and taking the stairs dramatically increases his chance of getting cornered. He is standing in the middle of the room, locked in indecision, when he hears a third shriek directly behind him. He spins, then staggers back: framed in the entrance is a gray creature. Rough, wiry white hair, tight, drawn skin, dark, soulful eyes, as their eyes meet its face twists into a mask of rage.
He shouts in alarm, tries to run for the stairs, and stumbles over his own feet. A cloud of dusts rises into the air, blinding him, making him cough. He rolls to his hands and knees, trying to crawl toward the stairs, expecting to feel the creature’s impossibly strong grip at any moment. It isn’t until he reaches the first step that he realizes it hasn’t even entered the tower.
He looks over his shoulder. The gray creature, he realizes, isn’t actually standing in the entrance, it’s a short distance from it. And despite its frenzied rage it isn’t moving any closer.
Matthew’s panic ebbs and he frowns, picking himself up off the floor and taking some time to dust off his jeans as best he can. The creature watches him, snarling, but makes no move to enter the tower. More creatures appear, emerging from the forest, but while they join the first they too stop short of entering the tower itself. They stand a short distance from the door, snarling, and go no farther.
For whatever reason, they won’t enter the tower. He’s safe, at least for the moment.
Safe, but trapped. The shrieking stops, but the gray creatures don’t leave. They glare at Matthew, glare at the tower, and wait. Eventually others arrive, emerging from the forest and spreading out. Matthew doesn’t dare go through the door, but from the doorway he can see the creatures appear to be setting up a perimeter. He’s certain, at this point, that he’s surrounded.
The shrieking has stopped entirely. The creatures aren’t even muttering to themselves. An eerie silence settles over the valley.
“What do you want?” Matthew demands.
“What have I done to you? Why won’t you leave me alone?”
Matthew sighs in frustration. He doesn’t know why the creatures won’t enter the tower, but he’s convinced they won’t, which means he’s safe, at least for now. He’s surrounded, but he still has his backpack, he still has his thermos, and he still has his food. He can last for a little while.
If he is under siege, he decides, he might as well explore his castle. He turns his back on the creatures, crosses the empty room, and begins to climb the tower stairs.