Nicole ran, baby held tight to her chest, looking over her shoulder every few seconds to see if it was still following her. A long howl into the night air, followed by an echoing cry of wolves in the distance, made her double her pace as she ran through the underbrush, her dress tearing as briars and thorns tore at her exposed legs. Boots going up to mid-calf protected her from the worst that Worley Wood had to offer, but the close knotty oaks growing almost over each other made for a difficult path to forge.
The baby in her arms began to sniffle, the onset of a wailing tantrum coming on if Nicole had ever sensed one. She shushed the child, muttering soft nothings to try and calm his cries before they even started. He grunted, wriggling about in her arms as she vaulted over a briar bush, landing roughly against a partially rotten log. That got him to let out a surprised cry, which led to wails of discomfort from the journey.
“No, no baby, you need to be quiet now,” Nicole said, looking down at the wrapped bundle of cloth over the chubby baby’s small body. “Now’s not the time for tears…”
A faint, haunting flute melody lifted over the silent night, echoing throughout the woods with every sibilant note. Nicole looked up, afraid of what this could mean, and instead chose to wriggle under the rotten log half propped against the tree, wedging herself and her charge into the safe confines of the shadows, swathing them in robes of darkness.
For the next ten minutes, all Nicole could hear was the gurgling of the baby pressed against her chest, her own ragged breathing, and the creaking of the woods as the wind blew through them, the flute tune piping up two more times, playing the same melody both times. Just as she thought she was possibly safe, she heard them.
The crunching of boots, the flickering light of torches dancing over the shadows, the rough and guttural tongue of the men and women from the clearing, all speaking rapidly as they marched slowly past Nicole’s hiding spot, the men leading the march, machete’s drawn and hacking into overgrown undergrowth as if it were straw before a scythe. The women were walking, all holding a variety of firearms or the torches, dressed in simple country clothes: ankle length dresses and simple leather shoes, some with dull brown mantles or cloaks over them to keep winter’s bite to a minimum.
Nicole didn’t understand a word of what they said, and frankly, she didn’t care. She’d been driving along route ninety-three, a highway that wrapped around the large expanse of Worley Woods, and she’d gone over the edge into a ditch after hitting a patch of black ice. She only had fragments of memories from then and now, but her most distinct memory was the crying of a child and the guttural, inhuman chanting of the men and women in the woods, surrounded by three bonfires. Nicole, along with six others, were tied to a green stone altar before a statue of some impossible creature, an insect-like being rising from the ground that stood with small words carved in swirling circles all over the main body, the eyeless head hanging over the altar with an opened mouth leaking viscous orange fluid onto the bound captives.
Somehow, Nicole had wrestled the rope binding her free, thus freeing her and the other six captives, who had all taken off in different directions, just as Nicole had almost been about to do.
But then she saw the child.
Swathed in thick woolen towels, laid out on a green stone dais in front of the altar with several wicked looking tools next to it… Nicole couldn’t leave the baby alone to be killed by these crazed hillbillies.
So she’d scooped him up and, amidst the chaos that was reigning at the time, had run off into the woods, several cultists screaming out in rage as she made off with their child sacrifice. Now, she kneeled beneath the broken remains of a rotting tree, clutching the child so tightly Nicole was surprised that it wasn’t making any noises. Perhaps it could sense the need to be quiet?
One man stopped just outside the entrance of her organic cave, his back pocket facing inside, a shotgun gripped in one hand as he spoke into a crackling radio in the same unintelligible language they’d all been using since she woke up. The radio died temporarily before it roared back to life, a hoarse voice speaking in English coming over the static-filled line.
“She cannot have gotten far,” the voice said, a heavy accent to it. “Find her and, more importantly, the seal. We need it by dawn if the ritual is to have any effect.”
The man spoke back in his horrid speech before clicking the radio off, grass crunching beneath his boots as he moved forward to continue his hunt for Nicole and the child. Nicole let out a sigh of relief as he moved away, watching his frame become nothing more than a meager shadow in the distance, roughly hacking through the undergrowth with abandon belying the man’s apparent age, what with his long white hair.
Nicole looked down at the boy, who looked back up at her with dark eyes, chubby fingers reaching out to caress her cheek with an open palm.
“What are going to do? Will they call off the hunt at dawn? Is that how long we have to last?”
The baby gurgled in response as if amused by her worried tone. She hugged him closer to her, rocking him gently as she waited for the torchlight around her to dim and die, for those pursuing her to move past her so that she could double back and maybe, just maybe, find a car or something and drive out of these woods.
Leaning back against the tree Nicole tried to close her eyes, tried to get some rest. But every time she tried she saw images of the statue, of the other men and women, tied down, screaming. Of the child, crying. Of their captors chanting. And of a low whisper echoing across the entire glade, low enough that nobody could tell precisely where it was coming from, or what it was saying. Nicole’s eyes snapped open just as an image of a grinning skull-like face peering at her from the darkness faded away, causing her to give a slight yelp, tightening her grip on the babe. He stirred against her, wriggling within his woolen blankets, one arm slinking out to pat at Nicole’s face.
She smiles weakly, cooing at the infant. “You just want to get somewhere warm and safe, don’t you?”
The baby gurgles happily, waving one hand high in the air, tugging at her hair as she spoke. Nicole smiles, bringing a hand up to free her hair from the child’s iron grip. A sudden rustling not far off has her halting her movements, staring at the smiling baby in abject horror as he continues to giggle softly. Moving her hand slowly to cover his mouth, the baby moved and twisted in her grasp, growing louder by the second. Outside of the rotting trunk, someone was moving about, sniffing loudly.
In a gritty, hoarse voice not accustomed to speaking, let along singing, the person began to croon.
“Come little one,
Times gone, no more play
Rest your eyes and rest you sweet head
We must leave by break of day
If it is not so I will not be kind
To the woman who took you away
Her life, now mine, I command unto thee
Reveal yourself human so I can flay!”
The voice sang this song over and over, causing the child in her grasp to grow very still, his muscles relaxing as if someone had just slipped him something. Nicole was almost thankful for this when she caught herself yawning, and fighting to keep her eyes open. The cool air was slowly growing warmer, the rotten wall cozier.
“Just close your eyes and soon I will find
Where you’ve hidden yourself and my treasure, mine;
The longer you wait the harder I’ll slice
Why not give in now,
Take a roll of the dice?”
Nicole pushed herself up onto shaky legs, listening for where the voice was coming from. The rustling of underbrush was coming from far behind her, as was the song, so what she needed to do was move forward down one of the paths that the men had carved through the briars. Just as she was about to move out from under the fallen log, something large and heavy landed on it, causing it to crackle and pop. Looking up from just under the lip of her cover, she saw a large, skinless head, pulsating with pink and red muscle tissue intersected by sharpened bits of bone. A line of yellow saliva crept out of the opened maw, spattering atop the log with a horrid sizzle, followed by the smell of burning hair.
Nicole quietly moved back as deep as she could into her rotten den, as the creature began to softly sing it’s tune once more, repeating the verses. Nicole blinked wearily, staring outside at the rest of the woods and her way to freedom.
How was she going to get to it?