By Terrin Jarrell
The wind was endless and the moon was waning on that cold night. Tardo could barely make out the fine path as he crawled up the mammoth stone that resembled the head of a charging horse. The torchlight from the other side was little enough to cloak him in shadow but still allowed him to see vaguely where he was going amongst all the moss and vines. He hefted the smaller, leaner Bello up and dumped him down beside him.
“What is it?” whispered Bello from beneath Tardo’s arm.
But Tardo didn’t answer him because he barely knew himself what his mind was trying to refuse. The creatures were gathered in a half circle, in the center was a stripped woman whose eyes milky white but oddly fearless in the presence of the beasts. She had an enormous pregnant belly sticking out like a round ball from her stomach and she kept mumbling something lowly under the firelight as the creatures surrounded her, dancing in their odd, fluid way. The firelight stroked and teased her taut belly skin and unusual images arose on her barren skin painted in black shadow.
“I…I don’t know,” Tardo said quietly, his breath glistening against the cold night.
“We should head back, tell Sir Pestorus or something,” Bello whimpered in his usual nervous self but was unable to move from his spot just like Tardo.
“Shhh, Bello,” Tardo waved him off.
The creatures were hideous yet fascinating to watch as they moved oddly, swaying here and there in rhythmic maddening motions. They had dark shimmery hair covering their bodies and in the firelight it looked to glow purple, or possibly blue. Their eyes were deep orange, darting constantly and never settling on one thing for too long. The fangs were the most grotesque sticking out from chapped gray lips like enormous tusks and the claws were sharper still, making an ear grating noise when they rubbed together like knives. The woman withered in the circle but nothing more happened. The beasts were just watching her, waiting it seemed as they danced to inaudible music. To Tardo’s seven year old mind, it was incomprehensible but cool to watch. He couldn’t know the possible danger it was to stand watch at the unusual ritual.
“Tardo, let’s go,” Bello whined and Tardo turned on him, punching him in the nose hard with a tightly clenched fist. Tardo pulled back, barely noticing the wet blood against his knuckles as he sneered at Bello.
“Shut the hell up, baby,” he said but for the half second or more it took to say those words, he instantly regretted them, wishing he could pull them back into his nasty mannered mouth. Bello yelped as he touched his now bleeding nose, crooked to one side absurdly.
“That hurt! You punched me in the nose you ass!” he whined. Tardo looked back at the group and ducked. Every creature had stopped and Tardo had the overpowering feeling that they had been heard. The vivid dancing of the creatures no longer painted the leaf ceiling above but rather stood eerily still in the cold.
“You bloody idiot…they heard you.”
Bello’s face paled and he scrambled up the top of the rock to prove Tardo wrong, the fear rising in him as the blood dripped down his soiled white shirt. He was quiet staring at nothing, sitting straight up like a statue and Tardo watched him collect thick fistfuls of moss in a momentary spasm. Tardo was vaguely aware of the scent of urine in the air as he watched Bello intently. When Bello looked back at Tardo, his face was completely blank. Only white, glazed eyes glared at Tardo. His mouth, nose and eyebrows were all gone, completely vanished from his face and yet Bello was still able to talk, still able to produce sounds so eerie they came out as a lisped whisper.
“Tardo, they’re gone. All gone. Nothing more to see. Will you join us, Cha?” he said strangely as Tardo watched in horror at the spectacle his childhood friend had become.
He stole one single glance over to the ritual space and was surprised to find it completely empty. Not even the torches were still burning, or the withering woman on the ground. The space was empty and night surrounded them both in a shroud of black deathly stillness like an ominous demon. Goose bumps rose on his arms and he longed to itch them away, to go back home to a warm bed but he knew that was impossible now staring at his blank friend.
“Cha, nothing to see,” Bello repeated again disturbingly beside Tardo.
Though Tardo couldn’t see Bello in the darkness that engulfed them suddenly, he could feel the dead eyes staring inches from his face and he scrambled from the rock they both occupied. The fall from the rock wasn’t terribly steep, but Tardo felt the rocks below his knee’s dig deep and he winced in pain when he tried to stand. On two shaky legs, he ambled through the forest, trying to distance himself from the scene and the creatures and Bello. But it was especially Bello he was running from. Dark trees past him, dark shapes, disembodied voices surrounded him as he fled and the fear only gave way to erratic jerky turns that lead him nowhere inside the maze of the forest. Whose idea was it anyway to come into the forest? Was it Bello’s? No, it was Tardo’s. It was his fault they got into this situation, his fault that Bello was dead. The Cha Forest was known for its mysteries but did Tardo know this was going to happen? That an innocent adventure would turn into death of nightmarish proportions? His foot struck a stray stone sticking from the earth and he toppled, arms flaying as he reached for anything to hold him up. His face smacked first, sending tingling lightning bolts flashing through his skull as the rest of his body crashed around him in an ungraceful landing. He cried out in pain, trying to remain calm and move slowly as he felt his bloody, cracked chin. Something rushed past him, a dark blotchy blur and nothing more. He bit his lip against the pain and stretched out his broken leg. Would it be too much to go insane? To not know what’s about to happen to me, he thought desperately.
“Tardo…Tardo, cha. Come into my arms and be warm and safe. Your bed is here, you mother is here, Tardo.”
“You’re a liar! Stop talking, stop talking. STOP.TALKING!!” he shouted. There was only a brief momentary pause.
“Bello is with me. Do you long to see your friend?”
The voice was so far off he nearly passed it off as wind through the trees. Tardo was confused. Was that the voice of the woman? The pregnant one from the forest? Whispering enfolded him and he cowered, covering his head as it got closer to his ears, the smell of rancid meat and defiled underpants filling his noise.
“Leave me alone!” he cried into his arms.
“Tardo, it’s okay. We’re all safe now. Bello will hold your hand,” she said so close to his ear now and he screamed as a cold wet hand grasped his. The scream ripped through his throat only to reach closed, dead ears.
. . . . .
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