What the hell am I doing? Devil’s Bane appeared in the forest. An unnatural footpath bisecting the Devil’s Mountain. Dense fog hugged the rocky incline illuminating the mountainside with its thick tendrils. Patiently creeping over the pines and ancient red oaks that populated Pine Barrow Forest. Trees stood tall and twisted with misshapen limbs and gaping holes that oozed black sap.
Leaves rustled and I grasped my backpack.
There’s no such thing as ghosts. No such thing as ghosts.
Maybe if I repeated it enough, I’d believe my own lies.
Moss absorbed our footsteps keeping a silent vigil.
Where the hell was the noise? The call of birds, buzzing of insects, slithering of snakes. Even my friends’ voices seemed muted. Only the rustle of leaves sounded normal.
“Hey guys, let’s head back.”
“Oh look, Jennifer’s scared.”
Misshapen trees lined the trail. Their deformities warning me to venture no further.
“Brooke, I’m serious.” She rolled her eyes ignoring me.
Malcolm stood silent at my side. His face lightened by the glowing footpath. We came here to debunk the devil’s myth even after the townsfolk begged us to reconsider. My two scientists, ever hungry to explore the weird and unexplained, even as they vehemently denied the existence of ghosts.
Two pines towered in front of us forming a doorway to the trail’s entry. Their craggy branches a canopy above our heads. Black ooze pulsed from their bark, coagulating at their roots.
“What is that,” I asked, eying the foul liquid.
“Damned if I know.” Brooke stepped closer and sniffed.
“Jesus, that’s awful.” Her shoulders convulsed and she covered her nose with her sleeve. “Must be some kind of fungal or bacterial infection causing the trees to rot.” She reached into her rucksack, removing latex gloves, a flask and an eyedropper from the front pouch. “The increased moisture probably expedites decomposition.” With careful precision, she dipped the dropper into the sap, sucking up globs of black goo before placing the liquid into her flask. Corking it with a stopper. “We should take more samples.”
Brooke hurried up the trail before I could object.
I turned to Malcolm. “This place is different from the others.”
“Oh?” He arched a single brow. “How so?”
“It feels wrong.”
“You’ve said that before.” He sighed and shook his head. “It’s just your imagination, Jen. Fueled by local myths and creepy trees.”
“No. I feel it in my bones. We should leave.” I fingered the slip of paper in my pocket, thrust into my hands by a young townsman.
A warning, he’d said. Eyes wild and bright.
A warning both Malcolm and Brooke thought ridiculous.
“It’s a poem for Christ’s sake,” she’d said. “And a terrible one at that.”
Those who walk the Devil’s Bane
never return quite the same.
Once inside, you cannot hide.
The rot, the stain,
They won’t refrain.
Those who walk the Devil’s Bane
live only if they can abstain.
Run away, oh run away.
Live to hide another day.
“Something fascinating is happening here. I want to understand it.”
A twig snapped and I spun only to meet a wall of fog. Shadows shifted in its strange light.
“Did you see…?” I turned to face an empty trail. “Malcolm?”
The fog billowed in waves, clouds thickening, hovering.
“Malcolm where are you?” I squinted through the gloom and found him knee-deep in the forest, sampling rot from a large oak. His skin, paler and gaunt in the haze. Dark hair and green eyes the only contrast to the grey.
“Up here,” she said. Her voice a distant echo through the trees. No footsteps, no figure, no tinkering of flasks and eyedroppers.
“Malcolm, enough. Brooke, come on let’s go.”
A soft hum permeated the forest and shadows gravitated toward the fog’s light.
“Malcolm come on!”
“You go. I’m right behind you.”
I stepped off the path, determined to grab him but stopped when I noticed the black ooze covering his fingers.
Shit. When did that happen?
He flexed his hands and I watched the filth pulse like a heartbeat then crawl up his palm.
Black shadows moved behind his eyes and suddenly he crooned. His voice sounding like the hum from earlier. I watched in horror as he returned to the oak, lovingly caressing its bark.
Please, God. No.
A tendril of fog reached beyond the boarder and grazed my cheek.
“I’m here,” she whispered, and I flinched, furiously scrubbing to remove its oily touch.
The legends were right.
A sob burst from my throat as I watched a shadow walk towards me from the forest.
Trembling I stepped closer and gasped as dozens of figures materialized in the gloom.
Men, women, and children floated along the periphery just outside the fog’s light. Their bodies pale with flowing white hair and ethereal limbs. Dozens of cold black eyes fixed their gaze on me. Heart pounding, I cried out when I spotted Brooke, floating among them. Together, as one, they grinned. Thin, wispy fingers reached across the veil and an awful, insatiable hunger urged me to step forward, to touch the sap. Coat my fingers in its rotten essence and join my friends.
My right hand brushed against my eyedropper before I realized I’d walked into the forest and now stood directly in front of an old oak. Black sap burst from its center, the thick pus eating the tree from the inside.
“No,” I cried, my fingers inches from touching the liquid. I forced myself to ignore the siren’s wail. The harsh cry to touch, yearn, devour. Sobbing, I ran from the hunger.
A collective hiss erupted as my feet touched the trail. Trees cracked and branches fell. I ran, dodging wispy arms that reached for me.
Behind me the wind howled and shrieked but I refused to look at my pursuers whose whispers called to me in Brooke and Malcolm’s voice.
Don’t leave us.
Interlaced among them a single, guttural cry.
I kept running.