Ruth shivered, her eyes staring ahead at that familiar darkness within the forest. It had been so many years since she stood at this very spot. This was it: the source of all her painful memories, the nightmares almost every night, all due to her stupidity back then. It was time to end it all. She tightened her grip on the container of fuel in her hand, exhaled, and proceeded forward.
The air was still.
Could she sense her right now? Ruth’s pounding heart made it hard to listen anything. She continued forward, all the while, her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Each of the looming bodies around drove her heart further into the depths. She kept expecting that pale creature to pop-up from behind one, ready to pounce and make her claim. Why not though? Ruth was in fact walking into the devil’s den voluntarily. But what better way to attract something then with bait; unfortunately, she was it.
As she continued forward, she caught sight of a familiar glow ahead, forming a knot in her stomach.
“That didn’t take long,” she whispered to herself.
This was it. That thing was waiting ahead. Ruth found her legs wobbling as she advanced. She needed to be strong. She had come this far and now wasn’t the time to back down. Up ahead, the light started to pulse, seemingly syncing with the rhythm of her heart. One last tree blocked the view ahead. She swallowed and braced herself to confront her demon.
Ruth walked around the tree and came to a halt. Her eyes widened and her mouth hung open in awe. She saw someone standing at the opposite end with their back to her: it was a woman donning a familiar red coat. She was crouching down, facing a large tree with a gaping knot at its base. The source of the glow was coming from inside.
“This was it, huh?” the woman spoke out without turning around. “This was why you came out here, right?”
She reached inside the knot and pulled out a glowing flower – the same one from all those years ago. With it in hand, she turned around. Tears welled up in Ruth’s eyes. All she could do was stand there, speechless. The container slowly left her fingers plopping into the snow.
“This would’ve made a lovely gift, Ruth. I absolutely love it.”
“M-mom?” Ruth stammered, her lip quivering of joy. “Is that really you?”
The woman smiled and nodded, “Hi, sweetie. I’ve missed you so much. Look how much you’ve grown.”
Ruth coughed out a half-hearted laugh amidst her smile. She took a small step forward. “Mom, how are you here? I thought you were…”
“Gone?” her mother finished. “I was, sweetie. But I came back… for you.”
“Bu—where have you been all this time?” Ruth advanced a little more.
“Don’t you remember? I left with Chione. She took me to see Mother.”
Ruth halted. “Wha—”
“I saw her, baby,” her mother continued. “And she was so gorgeous beyond words. She’s everything, Chione said she was: loving and caring. I’ve been telling her all about you and she’s been eager to meet you.” She held out a hand. “Come.”
“Mom, why are you saying this?”
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“W-what’s wrong with you? What did she do to you?”
Her mother frowned. “I don’t understand what you mean, Ruthy. Don’t you want to come with me. We can have a new home together, with Mother. Wouldn’t that be nice, to be with each other, forever?”
Ruth shook her head, backing up. “No… you’re not my mother.”
“Don’t say that.”
Ruth picked up the container of fuel, opened the cap and began to fling its contents all over the surrounding trees. “No, you’re not my f*****g mother!” Tears ran feel freely down her face. “You’re not her! You’re not her!”
She dropped the half-empty container in the snow and pulled out a flare gun.
“Now Ruthy, don’t you dare do that,” her mother stated firmly, her voice took on a more layered effect. “Put it down.”
Ruth felt the rage boiling over in her. How dare that cursed thing use the face of her mother. Of all the vile things it tortured her with, this was beyond crossing the line. She pointed the flare gun at the nearest tree.
“Ruth, stop it, now!”
“F**k you,” she whispered back and pulled the trigger. Immediately, a large spark rocketed out of the barrel, colliding into the trunk, igniting it into flames. The fire swiftly engulfed the tree, bathing the entire area with its orange rays. Ruth aimed the flare gun at another tree and repeated the action.
In the light, she could now see her mother clearly. She was bemused: it looked exactly like her. Those eyes, every strand of hair, even the mole on her check. How was that possible?
“You shouldn’t have done that, Ruthy. What’s gotten into you?”
Ruth aimed the flare gun at her. More tears welled up in her eyes. Her hand shook as her finger lay on the trigger. Why was she hesitating? This thing wasn’t her. If she pulled the trigger now, all of this could end.
Her mother’s face softened. “Ruth, please,” she spoke with ease. “Did I not protect you back then? Is it wrong for me to ask for you by my side, to wish happiness for us?”
Ruth bit her lip. “S-stop… Y-you’re not her… You can’t be…” The gun started to falter in her hands.
“It is me, Ruth. It’s time to stop fighting, baby. It’s time to give-in. Mother is waiting for us and we can join her together. I’ve missed you all this time, please don’t let me go on alone without you.”
“I c-can’t… you’re not…” Ruth stammered. She managed to lift the gun again and aim.
“Please, Ruth,” her mother continued, “You have to remember…”
“…None may reject the call when chosen,” Felton whispered into Ruth’s ear.
He swiftly wrapped his arm around her neck, and yanked her arm upward, causing her to fire the shot into the sky. She screamed out in pain as he twisted her wrist, forcing her to drop the gun into the snow.
“You were doing so good, baby-girl,” he said, lifting her by the neck until her feet dangled above the ground. “Why’d you have to go and do something like this?”
“D-dad…?” Ruth coughed, struggling to breath.
“It’s okay though. All will be forgiven.”
He started to walk Ruth forward towards her mother. Ruth kicked and screamed, attempting to free herself from his grip. Yet, it proved to be useless. He was too strong. Her mother extended her hands out into an open embrace.
“Dad! S-stop, please!” Tears were streaming down her face as she continued to fight.
“You don’t see it now,” he replied, “but I promise all will be better in the end. You’ll see, Mother Gaia’s will is absolute.”
Without warning, a loud gunshot shattered the air. Felton collapsed, dropping Ruth in the process. She rolled over and coughed. When she looked over, she saw Carol crouched in the back with a rifle.
“Ruth, get out of there, now!” she yelled. She ejected the empty casing and loaded another round into the chamber.
Ruth glanced over to Felton, who had a large hole in his leg from the bullet. However, the wound appeared to not faze him. He quickly got to his feet and began rushing towards Carol with an insane speed. Carol shrieked in terror and quickly shot off another round. This one hit Felton in his lower side. The impact caused him to waver for a second but he didn’t stop.
She narrowly dodged as he threw a heavy swing her way.
“You’re really startin’ to piss me off, Carol!” he roared as he spun around, tossing another, missing her by a hair. “Why can’t you and Ruthy just accept there’s no fightin’ this!”
Carol managed to bolt around a tree. She struggled to load another round as Felton immediately homed-in on her again. The heat from the flames was beginning to become unbearable as the flames expanded, lapping at the neighboring trees. She cursed, losing a round to the snow from the sweat building on her hands. She didn’t have to time to grab it though and fished out another from her pocket.
Still running, she turned around another tree while attempting to reload. However, Felton appeared out in front of her. He grabbed the weapon, with Carol still gripping it, and slammed her into the ground. She gagged as he pressed the weapon’s stock up against her throat.
“Valiant effort, Carol,” he said with a twisted grin, “but it’s over.”
Ruth suddenly jumped on Felton’s back, attempting to pull him off Carol. Angered, he effortlessly shook her off, spun around, and landed a heavy backhand. She toppled to the ground like a sack of bricks. Felton then reeled the rifle from Carol, and beamed it deep into the forest. Afterwards, he grabbed the two by the neck and pinned them to the ground.
“Enough of this nonsense!” he stated.
Ruth moaned at the sharp pain pulsing across her cheek. She glanced over to Carol who was helplessly looking back.
“I-I’m sorry, Carol,” Ruth whispered. “I-I tried…”
Tears ran down Carol’s face as she smiled. “It’s o-okay, honey. We both did.”
She slid a hand over to Ruth, who took it. The two squeezed them tightly. Still in place, Ruth’s mom started to glow with a bright white light. As she did, the air grew cold – the wind picking up slightly. From it emerged Chione’s pale form.
“It looks like you’re finally ready,” she spoke with a toothy smile.
She started to walk towards them, releasing that familiar sickening crack from her legs.
“Mother will be very pleased.”
Something caught her eye and she halted. The fuel container was suddenly thrown through the air, landing at her feet. Instantly, its content began pooling out. She stared at it with a puzzled look. Everyone turned towards its origin and they were all surprised to find Alex standing there.
He looked disheveled and tired – dry blood caked down the side of his face. In his hands, he aimed the flare gun at Chione.
“You are one ugly b***h,” he stated and pulled back on the trigger.
Her eyes widened as the flare shot at her feet, igniting the flames. She let out an ear-piercing scream and began scrambling around aimlessly as the fire engulfed her pale body. Felton joined her shrills, releasing Ruth and Carol, to clutch his head in pain. Strong winds suddenly erupted around them, releasing a loud cry in its voice, tossing up snow into mini torrents.
Chione’s screams became layered and escalated into deeper cries of agony. Felton was on par until finally, he slumped over to the side, and fell still.
“Hey, move your asses!” Alex yelled over. “We gotta get the hell outta here!”
His voice barely carried over the wind, but it was enough to spark life in Ruth and Carol. They quickly rose to their feet, hands till clasped, and took off towards him. The gale picked up, obscuring their view with a blanket of white, smothering the fire in the process. Ruth could feel it trying to s**k her away. She struggled to move forward, her only anchor Carol, who was guiding her onward. How were they going to escape this storm? She could barely keep her eyes opened.
To make matters worse, the ground started to shake. Sharp jagged pieces of ice began to jut up like thorns.
“Look out!” Carol screamed and shoved Ruth to the side just as one of the sharp glaciers shot up between them.
It narrowly missed Ruth, grazing her arm in the process as she fell to the ground. She winced from the pain, clutching the wound. The spikes continued to sprout around her. Ruth looked around and couldn’t find Carol. Had she gone on without her?
“Carol?!” she screamed out, but her voice was drowned in the wind’s roaring.
Off to the side, she noticed a figure stand up. Upon closer inspection, she realized it was Alex. He struggled to maintain his balance in the wind as he scanned the area. His eyes landed on her.
“Jesus, move it, kid!” he screamed at her.
But she couldn’t – she was too afraid to. There was too much going on around. He grunted and ran back towards her, dodging ice shards along the way.
“Kid, come on!” he yelled. “We need to–”
He was closing-in until one of the pieces shot up in front of him, impaling him in the chest in mid-run. Ruth cried out in horror. His eyes were wide as he struggled to gasp for air, his hand lifting up to the shard piercing his body. Finally, he glanced over to Ruth and the light faded from his eyes. She looked away in terror.
“Carol?!” Ruth called out again.
Yet, there was still no answer. Had she suffered the same fate? Pieces continued to jet up sporadically around her – some getting dangerously closer. Frightened, Ruth hugged her knees and closed her eyes as the chaos went on.
Felton slowly opened his eyes. It was morning – he could hear birds chirping in the distance. Where the hell was he? He caught the hint of smoke and ash in the air. Was there a fire? He glanced around and to his surprise tall pillars of serrated ice were scattered about.
His head was pounding – it felt like he’d taken a few good ones to the noggin. He tried to recall his last memory but his mind was jelly. Fortunately, some things were starting to come together: he remembered moving that strange scarecrow outside… Then there was something about voices… yet everything afterwards was a blur. Maybe it would all come back to him later. Felton attempted to stand and immediately he was met with a sharp pain. He glanced down and saw that he had a hole not only in his side but in his leg as well.
“What the hell…?” he muttered, wincing.
There was no mistaken it. They were bullet wounds. When had he been shot, and by who? Dried blood pooled him his body in the snow. He also started to feel a searing pain on his face. He brushed it and felt a dry, rough texture that stung upon contact. His heart leapt in his chest as he screamed out in pain. What the was going on? What the hell happened to his face?
In a panic, he tried to stand up again only to be met with an even sharper pain from his wounds.
“Hello?!” he called out. “Anyone there?! I need help! Hello?!”
The air was still with a white mist lightly blanketing it. He scanned the area further and noticed the trees. He was in a forest. But why? How? His eyes came across a figure standing off to the side with a hunch. He squinted and recoiled when he saw the slumped body of Alex, impaled by one of the many pieces of ice.
“Holy s**t!” Felton said in shock. “Alex?! Please tell me you’re still with me?! Alex?”
Yet, his obvious corpse did not respond. Felton saw the pool of blood at his feet and cringed. Promptly, his eyes flashed. “Ruth! Baby, you out here?!”
The air remained silent.
Tears welled up in his eyes. “Ruth!”
Finally, he heard something stir in the distance. Soft footsteps slowly made their way in the snow until their owner appeared from around an ice pillar. A smile formed on his lips: it was Ruth. Tears of joy fell.
“Ruth! Are you alright, sweetie?” he asked.
She appeared rugged, hair and clothes in a mess, clutching her arm. Her muddled face was covered in light scratches. She didn’t respond, keeping her distance.
“Ruth? What’s wrong?”
“D-dad?” she asked in a raspy voice. “Is that really you?”
He gave her a puzzled look. “Wha—of course it’s me, darlin’. Who else would it be?”
She slowly took a step forward, the suspicion still in her eyes.
“Why are you actin’ like that?” Felton asked. “What happened around here? Where are we?”
She peered deep into his eyes. The blue glow that once occupied them was absent. When she noticed this, her face lightened. “It really is you.” She ran up to him and attempted to give him a hug. Felton immediately winced out in pain. “Oh, I’m sorry, Dad.”
He smiled. “It’s fine, baby-girl?”
“Ruth?” another voice called out.
The two turned around to see Carol emerge from another spot. She appeared to be in the same shape as Ruth. Carol scanned around until her eyes settled on them and instantly she went white.
“Ruth, get away from him!” she yelled.
“It’s fine, Carol. He’s back. She’s not controlling him anymore.”
“Controlling?” Felton repeated. “Okay, I’m gonna need answers. Explain everything, startin’ with why there’s goddamn hole in my leg.”
Carol exhaled in relief and chuckled. “Yeah, about that…”
Felton tossed her a bewildered look. “Don’t tell me you had a hand in it.”
As she approached, Ruth ran up to her into a heartfelt hug, surprising Carol. “It’s finally over,” she whispered into her ear.
Carol smiled, hugging her back tightly. “Yeah, kiddo. You know it could’ve gone smoother if you had just told me your real intentions for the get-go.”
Ruth laughed. “I know, and I’m sorry. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.” She attempted to pull away, but she noticed Carol’s grip only tightened.
She didn’t respond, only tightening her hold. Ruth tried again to pull away.
“Carol, let go. You’re hurting me.”
“What’s going on?” Felton asked with concern. “Carol, you alright?”
A smile crept across Carol’s lips. “Rejoice, child,” she whispered, “Mother awaits her daughters.”
Ruth eyes widened. She couldn’t believe it. Yet, before she could say anything her fear suddenly disappeared into a dull daze. Carol loosened her grip and the two stood facing each other with hands locked.
“Wha—” Felton began. “What’s going on?”
They turned to face him and his heart dropped; their eyes were glowing blue with a wide smile was pressed across their faces. Felton was speechless. Suddenly, the ice everywhere slowly retracted into the ground, revealing a figure at the opposite end.
Felton stared at it in horror. It was pale, half of it a girl while the other half, he could only think, resembled a tree. Her face and arms were heavily charred with searing cracks of red, producing a cloud of smoke from her form. He noticed that she had matching blue eyes, piercing back at him, filling his body with an icy chill.
That’s when it dawned on him: all those times he felt that coldness, heard those voices… it was all from this thing.
“What… what the hell are you?” Felton muttered.
“Mother doesn’t like it when I force her daughters… the sons she could care less,” the pale girl spoke out, “but I’m sure she will approve of it this time. Come.”
Instinctively, Ruth and Carol turned and began walking towards her. Terror gripped Felton.
“Ruthy, what are doing?! Get back here!” he screamed out. “Don’t go near that thing! Carol, stop her!”
They both ignored him though, pressing onward.
“Ruth!” Felton continued. He attempted to stand again, but was instantly brought down by the pain. “F**k! Ruth!” He tried to drag himself over, but again was at the mercy of his wounds.
The two walked calmly over to the Chione. She took each of their hands and started to walk away. As they did, a white aura slowly engulfed them. Chione took the time to glance back, and rendered one last toothy grin, before they continued forward.
Balling out, Felton could do nothing but scream after them as the three faded into the distance.