Part IV: Descent
Jennaleigh whipped around toward the unknown voice behind her. Standing illuminated in the moonlight was a dark-skinned man, wielding a bow and arrow. He was tall, dark and bald apart from a long braid in the middle of his head that dangled off the side. The group stood and starred at this strange, native-looking man, collectively bewildered.
“Come! Hurry!” said the stranger, waving his hand and ushering the group forward.
A deep, low and ungodly roar erupted from behind them once more. Jennaleigh looked back and saw a pair of neon red glowing orbs suspended in front of a giant, shrouded figure mere yards away. In the darkness she couldn’t quite make out the monstrosity behind her, but it’s size was enormous; bigger than anything she had ever seen. She turned away and began to run, and as she did so too did the rest of the group. They followed the stranger across the snow covered grass, Jennaleigh closely behind him; the other four farther behind. Jennaleigh and the stranger reached the edge of the trees. Suddenly he stopped, prompting her to stop too.
“Stay here. Do not move past this tree!” said the stranger, pointing to a tall, thin tree that had a marking of some sort upon it; it looked similar to a rune, though Jennaleigh had never before seen it’s likeness. The stranger started back towards the group, who were still running across the open grass, the glowing red orbs getting closer and closer by the second. Clarabelle and Charles were running next to each other, further ahead were Maria and her daughter. The stranger stopped, dropped to a knee and knocked and arrow before loosing it in the direction of the monstrosity. It whizzed past the beings’ head and seemed to enrage it, as a piercing bellow erupted from the beast that shook Jennaleigh to her core, and it barreled ahead towards the runners with alarming speed. Maria, carrying her daughter reached Jennaleigh and collapsed, crying on the ground. The child was silent and wide-eyed, seemingly oblivious.
Jennaleigh brought her gaze back to Clara and Charles; their respective age apparent from their lack of speed. Charles began to inch ahead of Clara, who began to get slower and slower as the seconds went by. The enormous shadow of the beast was slowly closing the distance, still mostly invisible in the darkness. Another arrow whizzed by, over the heads of Clara and Charles, and from the shadow came another noise; a foul, enormous noise that sounded like a million angry wasps swarming in unison, coupled with an enraged bear; the only comparisons that came even remotely close to similarity.
At last, Charles reached the treeline and collapsed with a thud. Clara was almost there, mere yards away, when a giant swooping hand emerged from the darkness behind her and wrapped itself around her torso. Clara looked down for a moment at the bony three-fingered hand that was holding her, then lifted her eyes to Jennaleigh’s.
“Help me… help m-” cried out Clara, as she (and the giant hand that gripped her) disappeared from sight. A shattering scream cut through the darkness, and as Jennaleigh stood and stared in terror into the blackness before her, the very spot where the old driver just was, she heard the screaming get farther and farther away, until at last it vanished completely.
Jennaleigh remained motionless and peered into the darkness, still in shock when the stranger appeared once more, bow slung over his shoulder. He stopped when he was beside Jennaleigh, and put a hand on her shoulder.
“She’s gone. I’m sorry. Come,” he said in a voice that Jennaleigh trusted; a voice that seemed to bring her back to reality and provide a small amount of comfort. She turned to him, tears streaming down her face, wide-eyed with fear and nodded in agreement.
She followed him to the group. Charles’ angry voice rang out.
“Wha… what the f**k was that?!”
The stranger knelt down to the ground, sighing as he did.
“That was what my people call, ‘Ee’umboweh’, or in your tongue, ‘The Giving Sorrow’,” replied the stranger calmly.
“What the f**k does that mean?! Your people? Who are you? Where the f**k are we and why is that… thing after us?!” Charles was yelling now.
The stranger stood back up, and seemed to survey the land around them.
“It is an ancient being, not of this rock. It struck a deal with my people long ago. I am Nahele, unbending child of this forest and enemy of Ee’umboweh, the eternal shadow over this land.”
Jennaleigh couldn’t quite come to grips with the words this man was saying; none of this seemed real. She had just seen Clara get dragged into the darkness by a huge, inhuman hand, her piercing screams still echoing inside her mind.
“Clara… she’s… she’s…” Jennaleigh struggled for words. Charles’ signature bark interrupted her.
“She’s f*****g dead! Gone! Get a grip, girl! That thing just took her, picked her up and dragged her away like it was nothing. It’s only a matter of time before it comes back for us!”
Jennaleigh stood there in the cold snow, eyes still locked and staring at the same spot that she had seen the driver get taken just moments ago. At last she looked back at the group. Maria was silent apart from panicked breaths. Her daughter looked at her mother, wide-eyed with curiosity. Charles stood in the snow beside them, hands on his waist and breathing deeply. The stranger was beside the thin tree with the runic marking, stroking it as he spoke words quietly to himself; words Jennaleigh couldn’t make out.
“We are safe from the creature here. This marking protects us from it’s gaze. We are blind to it, mere shadows. Come, there is shelter nearby. We may stay there for now,” Nahele spoke, never looking at anyone apart from Jennaleigh.
“I’m not f*****g going anywhere until you tell me where the f**k we are. We were on a bus and now we’re in the middle of the woods, no road in sight, no sun showing. What is happening?” Charles demanded an answer.
“Very well. If you choose to stay, then stay. This marking will fade soon, and you will no longer be invisible,” Nahele spoke as he started heading deeper into the forest.
Maria grabbed her daughter by the hand and followed Nahele without a word spoken. Jennaleigh followed suit, as did Charles with a reluctant grunt. As they trekked through the snow, deeper into the strange forest, Jennaleigh once again felt the ‘thing’ inside her pocket. Its ridges were smooth and coarse, paradoxical and almost nonsensical. She wondered if this was all real.
“Wake up. Just wake up,” she said to herself as she pinched her arm and twisted, hard. Nothing. No jolt awake. No rush of comfort at the realization that this was all a nightmare, just pain. No Charlie beside her; a face that she normally dreaded, but one that she found herself longing for. He was heavenly in comparison to this descent into hell that she found herself in the midst of.
The group walked for what seemed like an hour at least before a word was spoken.
“Are we almost there? My daughter can’t make it much farther,” said Maria tenderly.
“Yes. We are nearly there. It’s just beyond this pass,” Nahele spoke as he pointed ahead, directing the group.
“Why did you help us? Why are you helping us?” asked Jennaleigh, wondering his motive.
Nahele looked back at Jennaleigh, continuing his stride as she spoke.
“I’ve seen too many souls consumed. Men, women…” his voice broke off and was silent for a moment, reflective. “…children.” Nahele glanced at young Fiona, who looked back at him, oblivious. “No longer will I sit and watch as my people suffer.”
“Your people?” asked Jennaleigh, intrigued.
“Yes. Long ago, my people struck a deal. We prayed to the stars for an answer, a way to protect ourselves from the white man that burned our fields, r***d our women, and spread disease and death across the land. The legends say that Ee’umboweh descended from the sky and offered to take us to a place free from the white man’s grasp. My ancestors, eager to be protected accepted this deal, but it came with great cost. In order to sustain this power, which was outside of time as we knew it, the creature demanded gifts of life, so that it may feed and sustain strength enough to protect our land. It said its name was incomprehensible to our minds, so my people named the beast, ‘The Giving Sorrow’, the lesser of two evils that could sustain us and save us from the scourge of the white man,” Nahele spoke with swift, flowing certainty that resonated.
“B******t,” said Charles, dismissive.
“Shut up!” said Jennaleigh under her breath to Charles. “Go on.”
“The deal was struck and the land was covered by a dark, endless winter. A small price to pay for seeming salvation, or so thought. We made sacrifices, year after year, and as my people flourished, more unopposed to the demands of their patron they became. It became a God to my people; a savior. It began to demand more lives yearly, and more particular ones at that. Only those born deformed, either mind or soul bore the mark, bestowed by the beast in the womb. This mark was internally etched within the bones of the chosen, invisible to the human eye, but as clear as day to Ee’umboweh.”
“So you were part of a cult that worshiped that thing? How do we know that you’re not leading us to be sacrificed right now?” asked Charles gruffly.
“Why would he have saved us in the first place from that… thing?” Chimed Maria, speaking at last. Her voice faltered and shook as she spoke.
“Listen, all I know is that both this guy AND that thing showed up at the same time. Doesn’t seem like coincidence to me,” Charles yelped out.
“It wasn’t,” Nahele said flatly.
Charles stopped dead in his tracks, flabbergasted.
“What do you mean it wasn’t? So you admit you had something to do with this after all?”
Nahele came to a halt, as did the rest of the group behind him. He turned around slowly and faced Charles; his moonlit cast shadow loomed over and dwarfed the old man, who cowered in response.
“It is drawn only to the mark. We do not know how it embeds this mark, but we do know that only the damaged bear it. One among you must have this mark, or Ee’umboweh would have no craving for your essence,” Nahele spoke with grave certainty.
“Mark? What does this mark look like?” Charles asked, still cowering.
“It is embedded in the bones of the afflicted. Upon corpses of those chosen, are rows or jagged teeth upon solid bone, causing great internal and lasting pain, so much that the chosen often welcome their death and even rejoice,” Nahele responded.
A wave of horrifying realization washed over Jennaleigh as she felt the ‘thing’ still in her pocket, only this time as she felt it, she no longer wondered what it was. It was the mark Nahele spoke of, the very same thing that had been thrown at the bus tire and had started this wild descent into madness. Without thinking, Jennaleigh removed it from her pocket. The jagged row or teeth glistened in the moonlight, and as she stared at the mark, Nahele’s gaze caught sight of it. He stared, eyes wide as he lifted his arm up and pointed at her.
“That… is the mark.”
Charles swung around and faced Jennaleigh. His eyes met the mark she held in her hands with wide and seething fury.
“What… what the f**k? You? It’s your fault we’re here?! You… you b***h!” Charles shouted as he charged at Jennaleigh and wrapped his hands around her neck. Before she could fully process, she was on the ground with Charles atop her, squeezing and grunting.
“I’ll kill you, you b***h!” he yelled as he squeezed, trying his utmost to choke the life from her. Maria shrieked in the background and Fiona sobbed; a chorus of panic that sprung Jennaleigh into the moment.
“Stop! Now!” Nahele said as he drew an arrow back in his bow and pointed it at Charles’ head. He immediately released his grip from Jennaleigh, who took deep breath’s and coughed feverishly, Charles still sitting on top of her. Anger and rage coursed through Jennaleigh, and almost involuntarily she swung the sharp and jagged teeth of the mark at Charles’ exposed face. It hit him with a forceful thud that sent him flying back, blood spraying from his mouth. He landed flat on the ground and immediately Jennaleigh sprung up, put a knee on his chest, a hand on his throat, and brandished the can of pepper spray that her brother had gifted her long ago from inside of her coat. She raised it to his eyes which were exposed now that his glasses were knocked off his face, and spoke.
“You put your f*****g hands on me again and I’ll empty this whole can in your f*****g face!” Jennaleigh shouted, the rest of the group silently looking on in amazement. “I’ve gone through too much s**t from pricks named Charlie already, so don’t test me, a*****e!”
Charles whimpered in fear. “Okay, okay. I’m calm.”
Jennaleigh stood up and brushed herself off. Nahele slung his bow over his shoulder and offered Charles a hand, which he batted away with a grunt as he stood up on his own.
“Come. We’re almost there,” said Nahele, directing with his hands.
The group started moving again through the dense trees; a fog started to creep up beneath them, which strangely illuminated the woods around them and simultaneously obscured anything in the distance. After another thirty minutes or so of trekking through the deepening snow, they reached the huge, black mouth of a cave entrance. Upon a large boulder beside the cave was the same runic marking as was on the tree before. Nahele stopped in his tracks, turned and faced the group once more.
“Welcome to my home. Come.”