Spirit's Forest, Part One
Alice was worried.
She'd gone into the forest to pick blueberries, filling her basket with the fruit over the course of an hour or so. But now she was lost.
She didn't understand, she'd been in the forest dozens of times before and never gotten lost! The trails were always easy to find, though now she was only able to push through fields of blueberry bushes. The chill of dusk was slowly working through her light covering and an involuntary shudder ran up her spine, Looking around the grove, thick with blueberry bushes, as the sun faded through the thicket of trees, the dying light of the golden orb struggling to remain up for Alice, a doomed attempt that led to its own dark demise.
Plunged into night, she was slightly happy as she was able to see fairly well. As she tromped through the woods she found fireflies, usually dancing about in swarms over rings of mushrooms beneath tree boughs that hung low enough for Alice to pick hanging fruit with ease. Chewing into a ripe apple, Alice followed several dancing fireflies through the bushes, careful not to trip over roots.
Coming clear from the woods in a vale devoid of any bushes, dotted with small clumps of trees and covered in fields of soft, blue grass, Alice sighed. The moon, waning from a full moon that had happened two nights ago, shone over Alice as she walked across the vale, taking in the sights of the strange place. Crumbling ruins were everywhere, great statues having succumbed to wind and rain years ago, leaving behind tall worn stone figures to stare over the strange valley.
Raised stones poked free from the grass, cheerful red flowers sprouting from the stalks that grew. Alice took time playing on these stones, hopping from one to another, pretending the ground was lava. As she played these games, she set down her basket down next to a large rock.
When she turned around, she found that her basket was gone, replaced by a folded up blanket and a waterskin filled to burst.
"What's this?" Alice asked, skipping over the stones towards the blanket. Lifting it, she found it was made of wolf pelts, all sewn together by an obvious amateur in the art of tanning.
"Still," Alice said, pulling the blanket around herself, reveling in the warmth it brought to her as she snuggled into it. "The blanket works just fine."
Reaching down, she picked up the waterskin and pulled the cork from the top, the scent of fermented apples rising from the opening. Smiling, Alice took a deep swig, wiping her face with her forearm as she looked around for any sign of who had left her these gifts. Above her was a tree jutting out from some orange stones. Across the vale she saw rows upon rows of tiny gray stones, like miniature islands amidst the ocean. She walked forward, sipping her wine when she heard a creaking of wood echo behind her.
Spinning, she looked up at the tree that she'd been standing under, only to realize that it was much smaller than it'd been moments ago. Several branches were gone and a knotty lump had disappeared.
"That's weird..." Alice muttered, looking around as a shadow danced at the corner of her vision. "Who's there?"
Another shadow, this one larger, darted forward and pushed her on the shoulder, darting back with a cackle before she could realize what it was. Alice felt her shoulder ache where the hand had pressed; she'd have a bruise soon.
"What're you doing? Who are you?" Alice demanded, pulling the blanket closer to her body. Chuckles were her only answer, several voices coming from around her, the shadows floating about the vale to harass her.
"You came to us," a voice said.
"Willingly!" Another exclaimed.
"With an offering of the lands bounty," a third concluded. All of them were silky and wet as if they were fresh from a lake and speaking after coughing up water.
"I'm lost!" She cried. "I was picking blueberries for my family!"
"Her family she says!" The second voice jeered.
"Imagine that," The first commented. "Pray tell, are you a mother by chance?"
Alice spun to try and see the creature that spoke. All she saw was a flash of red eyes as the shadow that had crept up close to her leaped back into the enveloping darkness.
"No! I'm of good Christian upbringing and no husband. I have no children!" Alice huffed before stumbling forward when a cold hand pushed the back of her neck, rough skin with thick nails dragging over her delicate skin.
"Now stop that! Who are you people?" Alice cried, earning a chorus of laughter.
As if materializing from darkness itself, a short man dressed in ragged clothes composed of leathers walked in front of her. Over his head, he wore a skull, one with great antlers jutting out from where his temples were. The skull was big enough that the sockets revealed the eyes of the man standing there. His eyes were blazing red.
Another appeared, this one a woman dressed in the garb of the savages that roamed the lands. She too bore a skull, this one with tusks and no horns. Her hair was long and greasy, reaching the ground as she skulked close to Horns.
Two hands grasped her shoulders, fingers slowly grabbing her hard enough to prevent her from moving. He leaned over, his height clearly impressive. A bear skull covered his face, his blazing red eyes staring out from the sockets, revealing an ashen face beneath the bone covering.
All three of them were pale otherwise, with long ragged nails. Bear pushed her to the ground with a single thrust. Tusks tapped her mask impatiently as she stared at Alice, while Horns stood by watching her with a detached sense of curiosity, almost as if he was studying a piece of meat.
"You asked who we were," Tusks said, clearly excited. She looked up to Horns, patting the ground with her hands. "She did! She initiated the ceremony!"
"That she did," Horns drawled, nodding to Bear, who walked forward to drag Alice by one of her feet across the vale.
A bitter chill was settling over the area, frost forming on the grass as they forged a path towards what resembled a small campsite. Stacked between three huts was a cross, with a ragged skeleton held together by loose tendrils of tendon and scraps of skin hanging from it.
Tusk lashed forward, jumping up to knock the rotting corpse free from the wooden beams, leaving only the left arm and a few vertebrae connected to the skull, held up by a dirty rag that must have kept the figure placed up there looking ahead.
Tusks laughed, wheezing loudly as she slammed the side of the cross several times until the remaining bones clattered down around them. Horns walked up and placed a hand gently on Tusks shoulder, silencing her cries and bringing peace back to the night.
"We must know if she's guilty," Horns said, not turning to face Bear, who had pulled Alice up to her feet, one beefy hand grasping her bicep stiffly. She didn't dare struggle as she felt the amount of strength in the man and knew that he could easily tear her apart with ease.
"I'm innocent! I swear to you, I've done nothing wrong!" Alice cried, only to wince as Bear lifted her up, her shoulder aching as her joints stretched.
Horns lifted his hand from Tusks, who instantly began panting and hopping in place. She looked up at Horns, who nodded. With a shrill cry, she reached up to her mask and grabbed it, pulling on it with a thick peeling sound.
The mask was free, and her hair fell around her face from her dancing about. The darkness of the night made it impossible to see what she looked like, which made the situation all the more terrible as she ran on all fours up to Alice, one calloused hand snagging her forearm.
The long hair hanging around her head began snaking up, wrapping around the elbow and wrist with a surprising amount of strength. Slick with sweat and grime, they slathered Alice's skin in grease. The woman inched closer, tilting her head to where Alice could see one red eye peering through the curtain of hair.
Glowing, the eye rolled about as the woman brought her face close to Alice's bared arm, causing her to flinch when she felt something cold, bumpy, and wet slap against her skin. The woman groaned lewdly as she moved her head back and forth, the sticky tentacle licking up her arm before slipping away.
The hair instantly released her and Tusks turned away, reapplying her mask, wiggling it into place to ensure it was firmly in place.
"She's innocent," Tusks said, her voice low and full of defeat.
"Excellent!" Horns said, clapping his hands together. "Judge, you may go to your home and rest while I determine what we do with her."