27

He stopped mid-stride and looked towards the Forest of Dreams and Darkness where it loomed only half a league away on the other side of the Majik-Txiwteb border as a sound bounced off the trees and danced along the wind that had picked up suddenly, scattering snow in all directions. He stared at the black-barked trees and the swaying branches with their nearly black leaves and the darkness that filled the spaces between the tree trunks so completely it was as though the light from the sun never penetrated the Forest’s canopy. He stood frozen in place because that sound rose the hairs on the back of his neck, sent every instinct in him scattering to the winds. He stood unmoving as something flowed out across the snow covered ground, as though the darkness of the Forest’s interior had come alive.

When he saw the first shadow rise off the snow and take a vaguely humanoid shape not a mile out from the Forest’s treeline he dropped the basket of precious stones he’d mined from the frozen Iyrk River and ran for the village.

He didn’t make it five feet before that shadow was on him, was whirling him around in hands so cold they made ice form on his skin. Hands that held him in a grip so tight that his frozen flesh cracked and shattered under death-white skin and the bones it slid over. He loosed a scream that shook the air as he looked up at a face that wasn’t a face, at more of that death-white skin stretched over holes where a mouth and a nose and eyes should have been but weren’t. He screamed again as thinner shadows stretched out behind the thing that held him fast in its hands. He screamed as fast as he could draw breath as those thin tendrils undulated, as that faceless face tilted to one side as though listening to something.

He probably shouldn’t scream in its face, probably shouldn’t anger it, but he didn’t care. He had to make some noise. Had to alert the village, had to call for help, had to do something. Because he knew he wasn’t strong enough to fight this thing off with magick or even physical strength. Not when its touch alone had managed to break his skin like it was ice and bare the muscles and tendons and bones that lay beneath it.

But somehow despite the sounds of his screams echoing the sound that had brought this thing out of the Forest, he heard what it did. He heard the click click chirrup and the haunting wails of childless mothers and the eerie laughter of children and the soft whine that steel made when it was swung swiftly through the air.

No one came to help him, no matter how loud he screamed. Not when those undulating tendrils snapped forward and engulfed him. Not when that cold seeped all the way through his skin and his Shields and his Barriers into the core of him. Not when Fear wrapped its too warm arms around his Self and squeezed. Not when his screams turned to wordless pleas for a death he needed the beautiful release of and knew was coming just not soon enough. No one heard him but the thing holding fast to his weakly flailing body. No one came to save him as midmorning whiteness of the sun reflecting off the snow turned to early twilight.

He was alone and he was going to die.

The last thing he saw was thousands of things crawling and loping and slithering out of the Forest in a mass of iridescent bodies and nightmares given flesh and shadows that were humanoid looking at a distance but couldn’t pass when up close. And then, gods be thanked, his mind went numb and the frigid press of dark nothingness consumed him.

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