New Arrivals
Author-Blixa
Titles

The Woods of Sleepy River
by Blixa

Summary: The Blair Witch Project. Same situation...different characters. Rated PG-13.
Warning: DEATH story (at least for now)... but please read it anyway, I swear it’s not over yet.

Disclaimer: Not mine...blah blah blah

Hi. This story is dedicated to two special friends. Elisa (I miss you darling... watch for me) and Claudia the mighty witch. Claudia questa storia e’ stata scritta per colpa tua!!! Thanks to my beta reader Nakira. But the story have been updated so there are going to be tons of mistakes in there. Please be patient and try to remember that I’m still a learner.

“Great day for a picnic” (Twin Peaks)

“I’m so sorry, because it is my fault. Because that was my project. I’m so scared.” (Heather- The Blair Witch Project)

***

DAY 4 – 2:30 pm

The woods were utterly silent, no birds chirping, no signs of life from the thick undergrowth. Not even a single breath of wind that rustled the leaves. Everything was as still as a painting. Dead. Gone were the noises that had accompanied the campers during the previous nights. Suggestion, they’d told themselves more than once, some wild animal looking for company, any explanation was better that the uncertainty, the possibility that there was something out there too scary to even name. The witch. The one who’d decimated the population of an entire village in 1653, who had caused diseases among the livestock for centuries, the one who during the seventies had possessed a man turning him into a murderer, forcing him to slay six innocent children. The witch of Sleepy River. Horror and local boast. A topic that wise people preferred to avoid. The campers would have never known about it if they hadn’t met one of the weirdest people in the village: Libby St.Clair, fortune-teller by profession. A bit crazy, people said about her (although they didn’t dare to repeat the remark when she was around) the woman had lost her youngest child twenty-five years before when he’d been killed by the psycho. While the campers were getting ready to leave, she had approached them, a basket under her right arm, and she had muttered, talking to one of them in particular:

“There’s a malevolent presence out there. Something strange in the woods. Something dark and mean”, then she’d added “Can you feel it?”

Right there he couldn’t, but now he was starting to change his mind.

DAY 1 – 9:30 am

The road-sign stated ten miles to go before they would finally arrive to Sleepy River, last village before the Black Hills Forest. Jim had already been there, even if more than five years had passed since his last excursion in the area, and he had always considered the place a perfect spot to relax and forget the chaotic life of the city. Not that he hoped to escape his hyperactive roommate planning Lord only knows how many tests in that little head of his. They would meet Simon, Daryl and Megan in front of the only store in the village, just in case someone forgot something that really needed before entering the forest. It was a very hot end of September, but in spite of the generous summer, they weren’t going to have much company. The best period for excursions in the area stretched until the end of august when the rain and the strong winds from the north brought considerable dropping in the temperature and made the unprepared campers wish they had spent their week-end playing Risiko at home.

“Hey Chief?”

“Uh?” was all he got from his roommate scribbling furiously on his notepad.

“You with me?”

“Yeah…”

“How come Megan wants to go with us anyway? She doesn’t exactly strike me as a camper…”

“What do you mean?” the anthropologist asked suspiciously, trying to keep his voice as neutral as he could.

“Nothing but…"

“But?”

“Maybe someone…”

Blair cocked his head on one side pretending to process what Jim was so casually saying, not failing to remark the glances his partner threw him and the half smile.

“Oh…I’m sure it’s for your great company.”

“You think?”

“Positive.”

“Oh well, all right then.”

A couple of miles after this exchange, the young man focused his attention on the first wooden houses of a little village and cheerfully asked: “Sleepy River?”

“Yep”

“It’s nice…looks like a peaceful place. Do you think the others have already arrived?”

“I suppose. Simon left an hour before us…as for Megan, I don’t know…” and again he put the accent on the Australian’s name.

“Oh…”

***

Jim was right, Daryl and Simon were already waiting for them at the large deserted square, camping gear tidily stacked beside the car. The young man was heartily waving a hand to draw their attention.

“Hey, finally! I was starting to think you got lost!”

“It would have happened if Sandburg were driving.”

Blair pulled a face at the joke and the captain burst out laughing.

“I like this place.” the tall man exclaimed looking around “It’s so quiet compared to Cascade.”

“Too quiet maybe” Jim returned “But don’t worry Simon, we have our original trouble-magnet with us”

“Trouble-magnet?” Daryl looked puzzled.

“You’ve heard about Murphy’s Law, haven’t you son?”

The young man nodded.

“Well, then it’s simple: change the name Murphy with Sandburg and you’ll understand”

“Hey!”

“Yes, Sandburg?”

“It’s not true, I’m not so unlucky!” he weakly protested.

“Really? What do you say about the episode at the Wilkinson Tower? That place is huge and there are at least fifteen elevators but who did have to end on the one held hostage by a psycho with a bombs’ fetish? And we shouldn’t forget the…”

“Okay…okay! I think you made your point. But you have to admit at least that it’s not always my fault”

The way he said that only served to make Daryl chuckle harder.

A slight breeze from the trees came whirling around them and Blair shivered. ”What’s wrong Chief? Cold?”

“No. I don’t know…maybe a bit. Do you mind if I take a walk while we wait for Megan? I’m curious to visit the village…I want to see if there’s a library”

“All right…we’ll see you here in half an hour”

Nodding, the young man headed toward the store, stopping briefly to take a look at the shop-windows bathed in the morning sunlight, before he turned round the corner and reached the small wooden church in the middle of the village.

(Sleepy River…Sleepy River…why can’t I place this name? Yet I’m sure I’ve already heard it somewhere)

There weren’t many people around, only two men intent upon smoking their pipes and playing cards in a tavern and a blond little girl in a blue dress watched by a young lady with a basket under her arm. Peaceful scenes of ordinary life. Another shiver shook him while he stopped looking at the half-opened doors of the small library by the church.

“Is there anybody here?” he shyly asked while he entered the dusty little room.

DAY 1 – 11:15 am

“Creepy lady, don’t you think?” Megan asked him.

Not really listening Blair, just nodded in agreement while he let his gaze wander among the tall trees surrounding the path.

“Well, she looked totally crazy to me” Daryl said behind them.

“I agree” his father accepted as he kept pressing his cell-phone’s keys. “Hey, Jim?”

When the detective turned his head he continued “Is your phone working? I don’t understand if the battery is low or if simply there’s no signal”

Fishing the cell phone from his backpack Jim critically pressed a couple of keys, then he shook his head.

“Must be the area…mine isn’t working either and I charged the battery yesterday evening”

“Who cares?! Shouldn’t this be an holiday far from everything and everyone?!”

Megan cried out, with a bright smile, trying to ease the growing tension “Don’t you think?”

They all nodded, the fact of being completely isolated in the middle of a forest soon forgotten. After all, they had a map, a compass and until they didn’t leave the main road, they would always have an idea of their position. There were signs every half a mile clearly showing the right direction to follow.

DAY 1 – 5:45 pm

“Okay, I think we’d better stop here for today”

There was light at least for another two hours, but Jim wanted to have all the time to set the camp before nightfall.

”Where are we exactly?” Daryl asked as he observed the map without, actually, understanding much of it.

“Here” his father showed him a point not far from where the road split, taking two different directions.

“Tomorrow we’ll take the path turning left for a couple of miles. It’s a bit more difficult so it will probably take more time, but then we will be almost in the middle of the oriental side of the woods. From there we head north for other four or five miles, until here.” Jim added pointing a precise spot on the map “That’s a great place to camp, not far from fresh water and with a good observation point on the forest. If we’re lucky enough we should spot some wild animals in the vicinity”

“Um, what kind of wild animals are we talking about here?” Daryl asked feeling a bit uncomfortable about the prospects.

“Deer, elks, squirrels…relax, nothing dangerous. I’m sorry Megan, but no kangaroos or dingoes in the neighborhood.”

“Too bad” the Australian muttered with a sarcastic smile.

“Any wolves?”

The question came from Blair, who sat under a big tree, his head up as if he was watching something scurrying among the branches.

“Usually not…during winter maybe, when they’re hungry they tend to get closer to living areas. But if they can hunt then be sure they’ll keep away from men.”

“Oh.” he looked disappointed.

DAY 1 – 10:14 pm

“What do you say we turn in, I don’t know you, but I’m starting to feel tired…”

“Good idea…goodnight everybody.” Simon concluded entering the tent and in a few minutes they all mirrored his gesture. All except for Blair who had remained sat beside the dying fire, intent upon throwing small branches in the last flames.

“Hey Chief?” Jim called from the tent.

“Yeah?”

“Be careful if you plan to stay out there to meditate for a long time. When the fire dies out, it’ll start to get cold.”

“Just a few minutes.”

“All right. G’night then.”

“’Night”

(There’s something dark in the wood. Something mean out there) Blair’s mind reminded him.

“If there is, then I don’t want to know”

He muttered closing the tent, just as an owlet stopped its night wandering for a minute, perching on a bought to stare at him.

DAY 2 - 4:30 am

A single puff of wind. That must be the reason why Megan’s tent had moved so suddenly, waking her up with a start. Only there was no wind at all, and it had been more like there was someone outside vigorously shaking the cloth. Yet she was sure there was no one around them for miles and she doubted that Blair or Daryl had gotten up so early only to play this childish trick. A puff of wind, she whispered again as she fell back to sleep.

DAY 2 – 7:35 am

As coffee was bubbling on the fire, Jim sat by the flames trying his cell phone again. Still no signal, they had to be in the middle of some totally isolated area. Blair came out of the tent, yawning, and crouched in front of the fire to gain some heat in the damp morning.

When the cop raised his head, he noticed that the young man was silently looking at him. Not like Blair had done anything else since they’d arrived, Jim thought. Always observing, it was his nature. He hadn’t talked much, he looked upset, constantly trying to find something hidden amidst the vegetation. He could be wrong, but it all had started with Libby StClair’s remark about the woods and what seemed to inhabit them. Later, the shop’s owner had lively denied what she had told them, proclaiming it was just a bedtime story good to scare little children, but it didn’t seem it had worked. Blair had smiled at the woman’s statement. He’d shaken his head and laughed when the man in the shop had called her crazy, but something had clearly impressed him anyway.

When he was back from the library, Blair had brought a small book with him: it was some kind of diary written by one of the local guides at the beginning of the century.

“Jim?” the young man called.

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“How far is the clearing you told us about yesterday?”

“Five or six miles, but it’ll take time to get there because the ground is not in the best condition.”

“Maybe we’d better awake the others. So we’ll have part of the afternoon when we get there”

“Okay…I’ll awake Daryl and Simon. You take care of Megan.”

And he stood up, trying to hide the smile spreading on his face.

DAY 2 – 2:50 pm

The clearing Jim had told them about was indeed a beautiful place. It was on the top of a small hill and its position allowed them an interesting view of the trees stretching in every direction. Everything was quiet, still, only the bees, lazily buzzing around the wild flowers disturbed the sun climbing his path in the sky. That strange shiver ran across Blair’s body once again. Bonelessly slouched on the glossy green grass, staring at the fluffy white clouds, the young man was thinking about a song, trying to connect the lyrics with Sleepy River…maybe it hadn’t nothing to do with that. Maybe.

(You must have heard about the curse of Millhaven How last Christmas Billy Blake’s little boy didn’t come home…)

“Why does the name Sleepy River sounds so familiar?” he asked no one in particular, as he closed his eyes.

“Because twenty-five years ago it has been a famous national case. Even if you were too small to remember.” Captain Banks’ words had made him jerk “A psycho killed six children claiming he’d been possessed by a witch. He was executed four years later.”

There. Now he remembered. It wasn’t the psycho, but the legend behind him. He’d read about the curse of Sleepy River in an old anthropology book discussing American folklore. It was the story of an entire village decimated and mysteriously destroyed by flames many centuries ago and a chain of accidents that from that moment on had plagued the entire area. The witch of Sleepy River. Something dark in the heart of the woods. The witch…and before he could finish his thought he fell in a light slumber.

DAY 3 – 3:00 am

A noise outside the tent. He was sure. Still drowsy Blair went out, only to meet Megan and to bump into Simon.

“Did you hear that too?” The young woman asked.

“Shh…”the captain hushed them placing a finger on his lips.

As Jim emerged behind them a small branch suddenly cracked, somewhere in the pitch-black night, as if invisible shoes had carelessly stepped on it.

“What was that?” Blair asked, clearly uncomfortable, eyes darting around.

“Do you think we are in danger?”

“It’s probably just an animal.”

“I don’t know…animals usually never get so close to tents. Aren’t there any hungry bears in the vicinity, are they?”

Jim had to smile at Megan’s worried question.

“No, there are no bears…you can relax Connor. It probably was just a too enterprising deer”

He knew perfectly well that animals preferred to sleep safe in their dens at night. But it was useless to create alarmisms when his senses couldn’t detect anything strange. If another person had been stalking them, he would have surely being aware of that since a very long time.

“Okay, look…I think it’s useless to stay out here and freeze to death because of Charlie the insomniac deer. We’re in no immediate danger so we can head back to sleep.”

But none of them could actually rest before dawn brought the first rays of sunlight and, along with them, another disconcerting surprise.

DAY 3 – 8:25 am

“Hey, what’s that thing?” Daryl asked as he got out of the tent, peering through half opened eyes.

“That thing, what?” his father asked back, yawning.

“This one…” and the kid pointed at a ring of white rocks just in the middle of the clearing. Not the rocks they had placed in the evening to protect the area destined to the campfire…these were all perfectly polished white stones and in the middle of them three broken sticks laid, arranged in a very strange way.

“But what the Hell…Jim?”

“What’s wrong now?” the detective muttered as he joined them.

“Look”

“What’s this stuff?”

“It looks like a symbol…but I don’t know. I’m not the expert about this kind of things”

“Blair…wake up.”

A few second then a sleepy:

“Uhm, why…we aren’t going anywhere, are we?”

“No, but come take a look”

His puzzled expression turned into a mask of shock when his eyes rested on the aligned rocks.

“Oh my God!”

“What?!”

“Oh my God.” he said again, without paying any attention to the worried faces that surrounded him, someway it was like they weren’t even there with him.

“Sandburg, dammit! What’s wrong?!”

“The mark…the rocks, don’t you get it?”

“No! We don’t get it! What do they mean?” Jim was quickly loosing his cool.

“The witch.”

“What’s with the witch?” Megan asked as she joined them “Hey! Why did you place the rocks this way?”

“We didn’t put them this way. And about the witch…if Sandburg could possibly enlighten us”

“The symbol…it’s the one they put on the witches’ doors when they brought them to the stake. It was a mark of culpability…with no appeal. I guess someone doomed us.”

He really held all the attention now, but there really wasn’t anything more to say, no other explanation to give: if it were a joke it wasn’t funny, if it wasn't…well then it was definitely worse.

“What do we do now?” he asked, his face still a sickly shade of gray.

“What do you say?”

“I don’t know…maybe we’d better go back.”

“You don’t think we are in danger, do you?” Megan asked.

“No…I mean, we heard noises tonight, all right, but I’m almost positive that there wasn’t anyone in the vicinity.” Jim answered, trying to reassure everybody.

“And this would be positive, right?”

Blair said with a grimace as he crouched beside the rocks, carefully avoiding any contact with them.

(I feel tonight I’ll lose my way in the woods)

Violently shivering at the words invading his brain, the anthropologist scrambled backward, trying to put some distance between himself and the rocky pattern.

(There’s something dark in the woods. Something mean.)

The sky was covered with thick black clouds. It looked like a storm was heading toward them. Soon, a lightening stretched in the sky, followed by the uproar of the thunder and the first drops of rain.

“Come on, people! Let’s find a safe shelter!”

“What do we do with the tents and the other stuff?”

“Someone take what is really necessary…map, compass, the things that we can carry without being slowed down. We’ll be back to collect the rest later. Let’s get going!”

DAY 3 – 5:15 pm

The storm was finally over, the sun shone again on top of the trees, but the temperature had drastically dropped. Yet this wasn’t the campers’ main concern: they had, in fact, another problem… a very serious one. Who knows how, they had lost the map and the compass. In the confusion of the pouring rain no one had taken them, probably thinking someone else already did, and when they were back to the camp, they simply couldn’t find them anymore. Now they couldn’t but head back to the village as soon as possible, always hoping to find the main road. The much wished holiday had started to become some kind of hell. Since there were just a few hours before sunset they decided that it was better to spend the night at the camp and pack everything first thing in the morning. Blair didn’t want to stay, the ominous symbol was way too close, but he knew how dangerous walking at night would be. He sat on a flat rock reading the diary written by Colin McGrath, the guide who accompanied the tourists during their trips in the area a very long time ago. After a few pages he’d started to notice all the similarities between their trip and the last one the man had headed almost a century before and all his desire to read left him.

Strange signs, disappearing items, mysterious noises during the night.

(I need to meditate. Maybe I could go down to the stream.)

After informing the others, he descended the slight slope and sat by the singing water.

DAY 3 – 6:15 pm

“Where the Hell is Blair?”

“Still at the river I presume…I bet he fell asleep.”

“Probably. I’ll take a look. I don’t like this situation Simon. I don’t like it at all.”

Blair was indeed asleep not too far from the small stream. He hadn’t even noticed he had dozed off and he was dreaming of being awake, observing the fishes that darted in and out the creeks. A scrunch of steps behind him caught his attention. Turning, he saw it wasn’t a person but a wolf. A huge black wolf. Not knowing exactly how to react, he decided that remaining seated perfectly still could be the best solution.

“Hello.” the wolf said.

The young man opened his mouth wide but no sound came out.

“Hello.” repeated the wolf “Are you deaf or what?”

“Ehm, no…hello.”

“How are you?”

“Fine thanks, and you?”

“Not bad.”

(Oh God, I’m chatting with a wolf!)

“You know you haven’t chosen a nice place to camp?”

“I’m starting to realise that, yeah.”

“Then you should go back…as soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow, now it’s nearly sunset…it would be dangerous to traipse around. We’d only lose our way.”

“I’m warning you…be careful.”

"Of what?”

The big animal didn’t answer and turned to leave.

“Hey?!” when the wolf looked back at him, Blair asked “It is the witch, isn’t it?”

“Again, be careful…don’t let the fire die out tonight and for no reason leave the tents.”

“The mark…what should I do with that?”

“Don’t touch it, no one should touch it!”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Very…now wake up!”

The young man jumped to his feet, his eyes wide open, almost knocking Jim to the ground in the process.

“Jesus, Chief! What do you think you were doing?! Were you planning to give me an heart attack?!”

“Sorry.” he muttered, slowly massaging his temples, then he shyly added “Haven’t you seen…wasn’t there a…a, uhm. No nothing…”

“A what, Sandburg?”

“No, nothing…nothing. I guess I just dreamed it”

“If you say so…let’s head back to the camp, dinner is almost ready.”

DAY 4 – 4:45 am

The tent was shaken with violence. Once, twice.

“My God, what’s happening?!” Blair sat up, startled.

“Nothing…sleep Sandburg”

Another jolt and this time Jim too had to acknowledge there was something wrong outside.

“But who’s there?!”

“Jim…can you feel someone?”

“No…no heartbeats except for ours, but then…”

“Then why does the tent move as if someone is shaking it? Yet, there’s no wind.”

“I don’t like it.”

“Maybe we should head back now.”

“We can’t…we have to wait until dawn, it’s dangerous to move around in the dark, even my enhanced vision can’t prevent an accident.”

“I seriously start to feel like a character stuck in a cheap B-movie. Do you think we’ll manage to get to the village…after all we don’t have a map.”

“There shouldn’t have any problem as long as we avoid sudden detours”

“Okay. What do we do? We go back to sleep? Because, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ll be able to…”

“Me neither. Since we’re awake we should start packing our gear.”

“Good idea…I really need to get moving. This place gives me the creeps.”

DAY 4 – 2:30 pm

They’d stopped for a break after five hours of continuous walking. The direction seemed to be the good one, but Jim had started to have some doubts. He expected to see the main path at any minute, yet there was still no trace of it.. He’d tried to stretch his hearing, looking for human voices, but only silence had met his attempts. The woods were big, okay, but his senses should have granted him at least some small advantage.

Megan was chatting with Daryl, but he didn’t need to eavesdrop to know that it wasn’t a relaxed conversation. Inevitably, as the situation kept getting worse, the first signs of nervousness had started to appear, and with them the first veiled accusations on who should have taken the damn map and who was heading them in the wrong direction. Simon was looking around, while Blair seemed the only one calm enough to relax under a tree, reading a book. But Jim wasn’t fooled, he knew his Guide too well not to know that something was troubling him. Maybe the one most scared by the entire situation was the young anthropologist.

DAY 4 – 6:00 pm

It was crystal clear now: they were lost! Irreparably lost and without a map to guide them toward any sign of civilization. If they could at least reach a river everything would be easier…they would simply follow the water. The other matter was the food…sure they brought stuff for a week, but the little mishap had changed all their plans. At nightfall, the trees had started to assume ominous shapes, their shadows like monsters creeping on the muddy ground. It had started to get really cold and the sky threatened another storm. But it wasn’t the rain that distressed them so much, maybe not even the fact they didn’t know where they were. What cut into the nerves was the prospect of other noises in the darkness, other steps somewhere outside, branches that suddenly cracked, the tents shaken by invisible hands. It was what they couldn’t see that scared them. No one had talked about it during the day, it was silly but maybe they simply hoped to exorcise the problem. Don’t talk about it and the problem doesn’t exist. Simple! Yeah…simple.

DAY 5 – 2:45 am

This time noises were stronger, more defined and there were really steps in the dark, but once again even stretching his senses to the limit Jim couldn’t perceive anything “human” except for their five presences. Rain was pouring hard and the wind crawling among the trees seemed to take a physical form, some kind of howling entity who made leaves rustle in fear. No one was sleeping. How could you think about sleep in a situation like this? Blair suddenly got up, opening the tent.

“Sandburg! Dammit, come back here!”

The young anthropologist turned and in the darkness Jim could easily detect the lines of tension on his face.

“Stay there…don’t come outside!”

“Damn, Blair!”

“Stay there. Don’t move.”

And he flapped the entrance close in a swift gesture. Everything went silent around him, in the darkness he would never be able to see if there were something prowling around. Rain was falling hard and thick, and in less than a minute he was soaked to the bone. It was just when he was going to head back inside that something caught his attention. A quick movement somewhere behind him, the air that hissed, cut by a body. Whirling around, Blair found himself staring at the pitch-black darkness…nothing more. Yet. Yet he could swear that the thing was moving in circles. Frozen, his fingers already numb, teeth chattering, he closed his eyes and stood still in the cold night.

(Wait…wait…now!)

When he watched again he finally caught a glimpse of a movement of something yellow and bright: eyes?

“Out!!!” he screamed “Out of the tents!”

Jim suddenly appeared by his side.

“What’s up Chief?! What did you see?!”

“What’s happening?!” Megan shouted, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“Run!!!”

“Sandy, what did you see?!”

“There’s something! We must leave…now!”

And everybody listened to him however it was quite a foolish thing to run in the woods at night, in almost total darkness, guided by a sentinel and a small flashlight. Jim had grabbed the anthropologist by the arm dragging him along…no need to ask where they were going. There wasn’t a where anymore in that haunted place…their situation couldn’t get much more entangled than it already was. After a couple of minutes, when everything had seemed to be quiet again, they stopped, panting, in a small clearing, trying to catch their breath.

“Well, what do we do now?” Simon asked to no one in particular.

“Shh!” Blair hissed, listening again. Satisfied that there were no sign of the creepy presence, he whispered: “We wait for daylight, we go back to the tents and we keep walking…we can’t stay in the same place for too long.”

“But what did you see?” Daryl asked, somewhere in the darkness.

“I don’t know…I mean, I heard something moving near the tents…and when I turned I saw like something yellow…something very quick. I think there were eyes all around us”

“Eyes?! You made us leave the tents for this?! It could have been just a wild animal!”

Blair stared at the captain for a moment, although in the darkness he couldn’t see anything but a shape, then he shook his head and said: “It wasn’t an animal…no animal moves that way. No animal shakes tents or leaves rings of rocks near the fire!”

“What the Hell was that, then?!” Megan yelled.

“Calm down! Just calm down…oh God what a headache.”

Blair let himself slip down in the mud, damp hair covering his face in a veil. “Is everything all right, Chief?”

Snorting, the young man answered with a sarcastic smile: “No…you know, I think right now nothing it’s really “all right”. We’re in big trouble here. Trouble you can’t even imagine.”

But he didn’t add more to his comment. All they could do was to wait for dawn, and pray that nothing more happened before the sunrise.

DAY 5 – 6:35 am

The first rays of sun shone on a spectral company, five people sitting close, too scared to do more than stare at the awakening forest looming over them. Blair rose to his feet arching his back to relieve his stiff muscles.

His head still throbbed painfully and been soaked didn’t help to improve his mood. There was something wicked in those woods…something as dark and creaky as the old stairs leading to a haunted house’ mansard. Libby St.Clair was right then…she knew what she was saying. As he was casually walking around the clearing, the glimpse of a slight movement behind a bush caught his attention and Blair bent to take a better look. The thorny branches suddenly parted and a big black wolf jumped out, growling and snarling at him. With a yelp the young men took a step backward, losing his balance and stumbling to the ground. The animal leapt at him but when it touched his body, it vanished. As he had never been there at all.

(What was that? An omen)

It was the same wolf he had dreamed of only two days before, the one who had told him to leave quickly. A hiss of icy wind caressed his body, making his skin crawl.

“Blair, hey man, are you fine?”

Daryl was gently shaking his arm, trying not to hurt him. The anthropologist focalised his eyes on the young man and nodded with a bitter smile that never got past his lips.

“We must go.”

“One moment Chief…” Jim put a hand on his chest, stopping him.

“What?”

“What did you see?”

“When?”

“Sandburg, quit your little games!”

“I’m not playing at all…”

“Sandburg!” Simon growled “Would you answer?!”

“Nothing.”

“You’re lying, Chief.”

The remark came out roughly and Blair jerked as if Jim had physically slapped him. With a sad sigh, the young man turned and headed toward the direction he thought to remember they had left the tents.

“Let’s go.”

But he didn’t wait to see if the others were behind him.

DAY 5 – 2:00 p.m.

Thank God, at least it was a sunny day! Megan had started to feel all the muscles in her body aching, as she’d run ten marathons. At the beginning she’d simply thought it was because she was worn out from their endless march in the damp forest, but little by little she’d realised it was more likely a flu, possibly pneumonia. Breath had seemed to get harder and harder, and she’d started to cough and sneeze. Just great! In a situation like that one, even a trivial cold could become a deadly risk, for herself and for the others. She didn’t want to slow them down, forcing them to stop too often would probably mean to increase the possibility to get caught by the thing lurking among the trees. No one was talking since a long time, conversation had been so strained and tense that it was better to say nothing at all before getting into a harsh fight. The only noises around them were the sporadic calls from birds and their steps on the first dead leaves crackling under their feet. Simon constantly kept a hand on his son’s back, as if he wanted to be sure he was still there. And Daryl looked too scared to even notice. Finally they stopped for a pause, just a few minutes, it was necessary to keep walking until the darkness wasn't too thick to see and probably even after that. Blair had picked up the book he’d carried with him again and was taking some notes on it while his eyes nervously darted around, searching for something hidden in the vegetation.

From Colin McGrath’s diary...

“She’s calling me, somewhere in the woods. Last night I had a strange dream, but I can’t remember it very well. Only that there was a big black wolf by my side and the moon shone just above the horizon, as white as a diamond. I felt the wind blowing around me and the grass was my pillow as I watched the sky. It was full of stars. And it was then that I heard her, she had a sweet voice…she said she was a messenger. But as I started to walk among those big trees, I started to tremble with fear. Then I saw her. God help me! It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. Even the monsters in the legends the Indians tell near the fire aren’t nothing but harmless little creatures compared to her.”

A couple of white lines, then, just in the middle of the page the sentence “I feel tonight I’ll lose my way in the woods.”

Blair closed the diary with a sigh, it was the last page, the last note left by the guide who the night after had disappeared forever.

(There’s something dark in the wood and this is a great day for a picnic, oh yeah)

The young man noted below…only to add: oh God, I’m losing it.

DAY 6 – 6:00 am

“Daryl!”

A desperate scream ripped the silence. The night had been peaceful, unlikely the previous ones nothing had disturbed the exhausted sleep of the campers. But that scream was enough to make Blair jumped out the tent in a single motion, even before Jim was totally awake.

“Simon, what’s wrong?!”

“Blair…it’s Daryl! Daryl has gone!”

“Oh God…oh no. No, no, no. This can’t be happening.”

Then he saw it. There was another one of those stone rings, this time directly in front of the tent the young Banks had occupied with his father. And inside, there was some kind of puppet made of bleached branches, held together by a rough rope. He didn’t say anything, what was left to say?

(I made a mistake…I was totally wrong. It was me who had to get lost in the woods!)

It took only a few minutes to fully organize the search: Megan would stay at the camp while Jim, Blair and Simon started to patrol the environs, everyone in a different direction. For the entire day and a good part of the night, the three men kept calling the boy, but there was no trace of him. When it was really too dark to see and searches would have been dangerous, they all met around the campfire, defeated.

Simon was clearly in shock, shivering, his eyes wet and puffy: “It’s all your fault Ellison…you and your fucking holiday! If we hadn’t listened to you we now would all be in Cascade and my son would still be with me!”

“Simon…” Megan tried to make him reason.

“No, dammit…what good is it to be a sentinel if you can’t even find a missing boy?!”

Jim wasn’t even shocked at what his captain had so carelessly revealed, he knew that Simon wasn’t really thinking at the moment and that it was better to give him a scapegoat who could momentarily make him feel better.

“A what?” the woman asked interested in spite of her.

“A freak…a circus freak. Tell me Ellison, what for?”

But Jim shook his head, lowering his gaze, what could he retort?

“It’s your fault…you should have taken care of the map…your super senses should have led us out of this mess, but…” before he could end his tirade, Blair bluntly stopped him, exclaiming: “Enough Simon…quit it!”

The strain was evident in the flat sound of his voice. “What?!” the interruption had only managed to irritate the captain even more “How dare you to give me orders?! It’s your fault as well…” he lashed out.

“Mine?!” Blair didn’t even notice he was shouting too “We’re all in the same situation here, there’s no one to blame more than the others! There’s no one to blame at all! Our only hope is to find a way to get out of these fucking woods!”

“I won't leave my boy here.”

“There’s nothing we can do for him…it’s too late”

“It’s not true! It’s not too late! How can you be so heartless?!”

But the young anthropologist only lowered his gaze and sadly shook his head. What happened then was very sudden: Simon flung at him and even before Blair had the time to react, the big man hit him with a punch in the face, dashing him to the ground. “It’s not too late, you understand?! You’re a coward! He’s my son and I won’t leave him here!”

Jim grabbed the enraged captain trying to drag him backward: “Simon! Enough!”

Megan burst into sobs, huddled as she was near the fire, hugging knees, she looked like a scared little girl.

“Stop it…please. Please. Please.”

Blair gingerly got up, wincing as he touched his split and bleeding lips and went to sit beside her. Placing an arm around her shoulders he pulled her toward him, holding her tight. He didn’t even notice he was sobbing with her.

“Sandburg I…” Simon started, but his words trailed in an uncomfortable silence.

DAY 7 – 3:00 am

There was someone screaming. A gut wrenching scream, rather far from them and not well defined, but almost surely belonging to a boy. Simon immediately got out of the tent followed by Jim.

”You heard?! Oh my God, you heard?!”

“Yeah…”

“Daryl!!!”

No answer, for a moment silence was deafening, then again that striking scream, so high it could have broken a glass.

”It’s Daryl, Jim! We have to go and look for him!”

For a minute the detective was tempted to say no, but the spark of hope he saw in his captain’s eyes made him doubt that it was the right solution.

“Okay.” he finally consented “But we have to wake the other before we go…”

And he headed toward the other tent. Delicately opening it, he found Blair and Megan sleeping, holding each other, at least the young man was sleeping, the Australian, in fact, rose fever-clouded eyes on him, muttering:

“What’s up?”

“We heard some screams…”

“A person?”

“Simon thinks it’s Daryl.”

“Daryl is dead…” whispered the anthropologist, still deeply asleep, his arms tightly wrapped around Megan’s body.

“And I guess you want to go and check…” the woman asked, even if more than a question it sounded like a statement.

“Yeah…but I want you two to stay here and wait.”

“But…”

“Megan, you’re too sick and Blair simply doesn’t seem in the ideal condition to go for a walk. Trust me, we’ll be back soon.”

“Good luck then.”

“Thanks, I feel we’re going to need it.”

DAY 7 – 7:34 am

The search had proved to be vain and the two men were heading back to the camp, when just from that direction came a wild scream. Jim’s skin crawled, he didn’t think he’d ever heard so much desperation in a human voice. It was Megan and she was still screaming.

What they found when they arrived there left them breathless. There was another of those strange puppets, but wrapped up in the sticks there was a tatter of the flannel shirt Daryl was wearing when he’d vanished. Megan had opened the bundle and she had found what seemed to be a lump of meat.

“No Simon!”

Blair had cried out when he saw the big man approaching. And oddly, the captain had listened to him, yet asking:

“What is it Sandburg…tell me, please!”

“It’s a-a…” its voice faltered, then cracked in a broken whisper “It’s a human heart.”

It was enough to make the big man collapse on the ground, senseless.

Megan was shaking like a leaf, her hands still red with blood, and Blair just stood behind her staring at some distant point lost in the middle of the trees.

(One by one…she’ll take us one by one… unless we find a solution)

DAY 7 – Midday

There wasn’t much more they could do, the situation was hopeless: Megan’s condition was getting worse, Simon was almost catatonic, only Jim and himself remained. Maybe he should let the witch catch them, but the thought that some kind of evil entity could reserve the same fate Daryl had faced to his friends made him sick.

(I’d like to know what I have to do…)

A stealthy motion in front of him caught his attention, it was the wolf that spied him, hidden in the bushes.

“Jim…we have to go”

“It’s useless Sandburg”

Astonished, the young man turned to face him:

“Excuse me?”

“The thing that’s stalking us, whatever it is, it’s going to find us no matter where we run…”

“So, who cares then?! Oh yeah! Let’s stay here and get ourselves killed as lambs to the slaughter! Is that what you want?”

“Dammit Blair! Look at us! What do you suggest?!”

“To go on…we can’t stop hoping. Because if we stop Jim, then we may as well admit that we’re already dead! But if we go on, we can at least say that we’ve tried… maybe one of us will come out alive of this nightmare”

“And what would be the use of it?” the detective bitterly asked.

“What do you mean?”

“If someone came out alive of these woods…he wouldn’t be alive anymore. I mean…” he paused, not knowing exactly how to explain “See four people die…see them vanish in the thin air without a trace, hear the screams all night long for Lord only knows how many nights. Honestly, how do you think you’ll come out? I think I’d probably blow my head off.”

“Then why don’t you do it?!” Blair was yelling, his voice dangerously close to hysteria.

(Get a grip Sandburg) he told himself, shaking with barely controlled fury.

“Take the gun and shoot, dammit! Why don’t you do it?! We’re all scared Jim! I’m so fucking scared! But I won’t surrender to her because I know…there must be something we can do!”

“So you want to go on?” Jim sighed, defeated.

“Yes…we haven’t anything more to lose.”

“All right, let’s go then.”

DAY 7 – 4:00 pm

Blair was sitting beside the river, he’d found it then. Although he couldn’t remember why he had searched so hard for it. The water was fresh and some fishes darted in the stream. The sun reflecting on the surface created a myriad of small rainbows. The grass near the bank was thick and tall with a reassuring smell, sweet as summer. The young man let himself fell back to contemplate the clouds quickly running through the sky. Ivy grew near his feet, a small formless bush whose branches crawled on the ground like tentacles. Wait, he thought, astonished, ivy doesn’t grow here. A voice called his name…somewhere amidst the trees. He closed his eyes trying to resist, but when he opened them again, a girl with long blond hair was leaning on him.

“Who are you?” he said

“A messenger.”

“From who?”

“You know what you have to do, don’t you?”

“No. What?”

“Look, look at your hands.”

And Blair saw it, just above his right wrist: the mark! The witch mark.

“She’s looking for you, but you don’t have to go…not now. It’s too soon.”

“No, this isn’t happening…”

“You’re like her!”

The young woman screamed quickly stepping backward.

“No! Wait!”

He tried to sit up, but it was like he was nailed to the grass, his arms open. Then he felt the ivy writhing, lengthening to excess, creeping on him, twisting around his forearms and wrists and covering his fingers. Slightly turning his head he noticed that where the girl had stood, now there was a long dagger thrust in the ground. And the ground was bleeding. The silver moon had climbed in the sky and, in the dark, the shapes who’d haunted their past nights restlessly prowled around him. Someone far away was calling his name, again that sinuous sweet voice. The wolf appeared in front of him, teeth bared in a mute growl.

“You know what you have to do” The messenger whispered somewhere around him “The mark condemns you, but it also frees you.”

“I feel tonight I’ll lose my way in the woods.” Blair said and shuddered because now he knew, it was the truth. His lot was marked, the wolf had arrived to him, but maybe there was still time to save the others. Then the animal leapt at him and when his teeth tore at his chest he couldn’t but scream in horror.

DAY 7 – 5:00 pm

Jim had heard the scream coming from Blair. Shaking him vigorously, the cop exclaimed, concern evident in his voice:

“Chief…come on, wake up! For God’s sake, wake up!”

Blair kept struggling for awhile, then finally his eyes popped open and he tried to sit up.

“Easy, easy Blair…it’s all right”

The young man was heavily panting and he seemed on the verge of a collapse. “Oh God…Jim…oh God. The witch”

“Shh…there’s no witch here, you’re safe.”

“No. I’m not safe. I’m not safe anymore.”

“Don’t speak like this, everything is going to be all right.”

“Yes, I know.” Blair said with a forced smile “Tomorrow you’ll find the road and you’ll go… tomorrow everything will be over.”

And Jim didn’t notice that Blair had excluded himself, that he had said you’ll find the road.

I FEEL TONIGHT I’LL LOSE MY WAY AGAIN IN THE WOODS

Midnight. The hour of things that go bump in the night, the hour of ghosts and zombies leaving their coffins to scare good little children. The hour of nightmares and vampires. The hour of the witch. Could there be a better hour, Blair asked himself as he watched the other sleep. I’m sorry, he whispered, I’m sorry to leave you like this, but I’m forced…I have to go.

Delicately placing a hand on Jim’s forehead, careful not to wake him, the young man whispered again:

“I’ll be always with you Jim…please be strong”

He left the tent, standing on the threshold for a while, observing. The woods were calling him, the witch was out there, somewhere…don’t keep her waiting. You never keep your destiny waiting.

(I feel tonight I’ll get lost in the damn woods again)

Were the words Jim found in the morning written on a sheet of paper as he awoke. Running outside he couldn’t but discover two things: Blair was no longer there and the road was only a few steps from them.

FIN