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[um_loggedin show_lock=no]As they meandered through the woods, toward the shaft of light from the hole in the roof, the pounding of Darnight grew increasingly distant, masked by the bellowing silence of this uninhabited woodland. Grace found it a little unsettling to walk through the forest without the faintest sound of rustling leaves, or the distant call of a sparrow.
When they reached the light, Grace looked up. There was a decently thick branch which jutted out across the opening, but she had no idea how they could reach it.
“Hey,” Allie touched her arm; looking down, Grace met her eyes. “You coming?”
After a brief glance around her, Grace realized that Aaron had proceeded on to the right, away from the light. “Where are we going?” she half spoke, half yelled as she caught up with him. “The light’s back there.”
“There’s a tree house somewhere near here,” he explained. “Should help us get up to the upper levels.”
“A tree house like the one in Millvale woods?” Allie guessed.
“More like it’s opposite,” Aaron smiled, taking her hand. It took a moment before Grace understood; she had forgotten that the article about the disappearing forest had mentioned a tree house, specifically that the boy had fallen from one when it disappeared.
A few paces later, they happened upon a thick tree trunk with wooden planks nailed to it, and Allie began the climb. Once at the top, they faced the exceedingly formidable task of strafing along tree branches toward the exit. And Grace was afraid of heights.
“I’ll go first,” Aaron offered. “Feel it out.”
“Grace, you should go second,” Allie suggested; she rolled her eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” she gestured.
“No really,” Allie pressed. “It’ll be safer between us.”
“Yeah, but you’ll be at the end,” she pointed out. “If Darnight gets in, you’re the last person who should be at the back.” Of course at that moment, the sound of snapping metal and a slamming door resounded through the canopy. Great.
Aaron whispered, “Move!” With no time left for argument, Allie stepped out onto the branch after Aaron, and like him took hold of a higher branch for balance. Soon it came time for Grace to do the same.
Leaving her flashlight, and draping the binocular strap around her neck, Grace stepped out on the limb. The overhead branch, she found, was far smaller and thus far more wobbly than the one beneath her. A couple steps out, a ripple shot through the branch as Aaron hastily tried to steady himself; in turn, it served to unsteady Grace.
She leaned far forward, almost losing her footing on the branch below. In the end, Allie pulled hard on the high branch, swinging Grace back into a roughly vertical stance; nevertheless, during her brief bout of diagonal-ness, she did manage to get a good look at the ground – it was farther than she’d care to fall.
“Are you all right?” Allie whispered back to her.
“I’ll just be glad when this is over,” she replied. They carried on.
At one point they lost their overhead branch; it had grown too thin and too far away from the branch underfoot. Grace had to walk three steps before taking hold of Allie’s arm, and then gripping a new overhead branch which protruded from a tree they were approaching. At least it’ll get less wobbly as we go, she noted with some measure of comfort. Of course, the branch beneath her was changing in the opposite direction.
Then Darnight came calling.
“Marco!” he called out from somewhere on the forest floor. Grace resisted the urge to shout ‘Polo’. After receiving no answer, he made the call again; the three of them remained silent and unmoving.
“Now you know I’m going to find you,” he shouted in a soothing voice. “So why bother hiding? Just call out to me, just say it – ‘Polo’.”
He thinks we’re hiding on the ground, she realized; quietly they continued their sluggish trek forward.
The branch beneath them was quite flimsy by the time they reached a perpendicular path. With a glance to her left, Grace realized that the new branch was the one she had seen on the ground, the branch which shot across the breadth of the roof hole. They were almost there.
Unfortunately, this new branch was at least five feet higher than the old one, so they had to climb. Aaron went first, naturally; then he straddled the new branch to help Allie up. Meanwhile, Grace used her free hand to draw the binoculars up to her eyes. A quick scan of the forest floor revealed no sign of Darnight, but it did remind her of why she shouldn’t look down.
Allie was up. Aaron now offered his hand to Grace, and she put away the irrational twinge of jealousy she felt at the fact that he helped Allie first. She took his hand, and began to climb.
“Marco!” came another unexpected call from Darnight. Her surprise at the breached silence made her lose her footing, and with nothing but Aaron’s hand to hold her, she careened out into open space.
Grace let out a shout. Darnight then shouted “Marco?” from below.
As she struggled to regain her footing, something about the branch beneath her changed. It got lower. Then, confirming her horror-stricken suspicions, the air behind her whispered “Polo!”
Shutting her eyes, Grace kicked, knocking Darnight off the branch and sending herself out into the void once more. The others were shouting something above her, but she wasn’t listening. Rather, she focused on regaining her footing, and listening for the thud which came only seconds later.
With a quick thermal scan of the forest floor, she found his body, unmoving and lifeless. She couldn’t believe it. “Darnight is dead!” she shouted to the others, somewhat regretting how happy that made her.
A voice behind her laughed. “You can’t kill me; I’m dreaming.” By the time Grace turned around to look at him, he was gone.
“Lucky for you,” he called from somewhere below, “I can’t kill you either. At least, I think I need Allie alive, probably not the others. Doctor, what do you think?”
“I think you should get a life.”
“I’m trying to,” he retorted. “How about this. I’ll give you guys three seconds to shut your eyes before I flip that switch over there, and you all go falling to your own, very real deaths.” Grace gazed at Aaron, paralyzed in fear.
“One!” Darnight shouted, spurring her into action; Aaron pulled her up, and she gripped the branch with her legs.
“Two!” he called from farther away; Allie helped her stand, and she grasped the overhead balancing branch.
“Three!” he called, and she immediately shut her eyes. For a moment they all waited, and heard nothing but Aaron’s sigh.
“Something about sight,” he grumbled, and she heard him take his first step forward.[/um_loggedin]
[um_loggedin show_lock=no]The branch beneath Grace was trembling, not only from the cautious footsteps in front of her, but also from some struggle behind. She heard lots of grunts and words she’d rather not repeat, and she wished for a moment she could look back, to see what was causing Darnight such trouble.
It sounded like he was struggling back at the point where the branches crossed, and Grace wondered if he had to keep his eyes closed too. Even so, she couldn’t imagine why he didn’t just make himself appear up on the branch they were on now. Mental block, she remembered.
It was a fortunate stroke of luck, but one which didn’t last forever. She felt the branch eventually depress under his full weight, and could hear Darnight’s distinct lack of swear words. She let out one of her own.
Then she heard a footstep behind her. Not directly behind her, but maybe twenty feet? That wouldn’t have been as alarming had not the shoulder in front of her stopped. “I’ll admit guys, I’m impressed,” Darnight called out from behind. “This isn’t easy to do with your eyes closed. But don’t worry,” he assured them. “I’ll catch up.”
“Why aren’t we moving?!” she hissed, hearing distinctly his next two footsteps.
“Aaron?” Allie asked.
“I think I found it,” he whispered back. Grace panicked; the hope flooding her chest had almost caused her to open her eyes. The next sound was just as tempting. “Yep,” Aaron replied to the tenor of vibrating metal. “That’s it.”
Suddenly, the footsteps behind her became less important, even though they had increased in frequency and were accompanied by a low, angry growl. Far more important was the sound of Aaron hoisting himself up onto the roof, and the slap of flesh as his lowered hand collided with Allie’s.
Still, the sound of Darnight’s footsteps did tug at her attention, especially as they drew near enough to be accompanied by his stench of sweat, and cigarette smoke.
Allie was up. Grace stepped forward, and she could feel the moonlight shining on her face. Freedom was mere inches away. As was Darnight.
She reached up her hand, somehow found Aaron’s, and she began to climb. The first thing she felt was the wind on her face; she had never before noticed how delightful a breeze could be. The second thing she felt was Darnight’s hands gripping her thigh. She glanced down at him in revulsion.
That was a mistake. Darnight disappeared, sure enough, but then again so did the branch he was standing on. And apparently that meant he could fall through it.
Also apparent was that he still had to obey gravity; he was…heavy. “Grace!” Aaron shouted as she lurched out into the void once more. She could feel Aaron’s grip on her wrist begin to slip, and her other hand’s grip on the roof wasn’t great. She needed to find her footing.
Hating to let Darnight out of her sight, Grace closed her eyes, and used her free leg to search for the branch. She found it. Then, with some level of support from beneath, she strengthened her grip on Aaron’s wrist.
Darnight meanwhile strengthened his grip on her, by climbing from her thigh to her waist, and then to her stomach. “Don’t worry dear,” he whispered up to her. “The true prize is up top there. I won’t get to you for some time.”
Then he continued to climb, until Grace shouted, “Allie look down here!” Her face remained unseen.
“I don’t think…” she protested.
“It’s Darnight; just do it!” Grace shouted; her friend’s head popped over the edge. At the same time Grace lost her footing, and began to swing like a pendulum. On the upside, at least Darnight couldn’t reach higher.
“No offense Grace,” came Aaron’s voice from above. “I think you’ve put on some weight.”
“It’s Darnight,” she defended herself. “He’s climbing up my back.” She felt her grip on Aaron start to slip again.
“Um, okay,” Allie glanced away. “I’ll grab your other hand.” Even with Allie’s added strength however, Grace could still feel her hands slipping from their grasp. She looked down to the ground and let out a sigh, a feeling of peace overtaking her panic.
“It’s all right,” she smiled, looking back up to their frightened faces. “It’s all right guys, seriously. What’s important is that the two of you survived.”
“Grace, that isn’t cool,” Aaron told her. “We’re going to get you through this.”
“How?” she asked; they both remained silent. She looked to Allie. “Just promise me one thing,” she petitioned. “Love this man. Live your life.”
Allie shook her head, dislodging a tear. “It’s a borrowed life; it isn’t mine to live.”
“Then live it in my place,” she smiled through her own tears. “Live it for me.” She sniveled and laughed, grateful to have enjoyed such a friendship, even if only for five months. The weight of Darnight’s cold, invisible mass pulled heavily at the connection between Grace’s hand and Allie’s, yet she knew that nothing he did could break the bond of friendship that they shared.
Allie wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered down to her.
“It’s all right, just let me go.”
Strangely, Allie then repeated her apology to Aaron. “I’m sorry,” she reiterated, then looked back down into the hole. “Grace, there’s another way to end this. It’s really the only way to end this.”
Grace looked into her eyes, and instantly understood. “No,” she refused, “don’t you dare.”
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t your decision,” Allie insisted, affixing Grace’s hand to the roof. “It isn’t your life that I’ve borrowed.” Allie then chuckled, and gave her one last smile. “Darnight wants his life back? I think it’s time I do just that.” With those being her final words, Allie shoved herself forward, off of the roof and down into the hole.[/um_loggedin]
[um_loggedin show_lock=no]It all transpired in a matter of seconds, but Grace in horror caught every facet of her friend’s descent. Allison dove behind her, touched her hand to her back, and simply fell. Grace could feel her feathery touch drifting down her spine, until finally it reached her lower back. At that moment, the touch faded, and the weight around her stomach simply disappeared.
Allie continued to fall. By the time Grace could look down to watch her descent, her form was already shimmering with flashes of light and darkness. Grace saw every shift in her friend’s body, every contortion of bone as she grew into the massive man who had haunted them all night. She noticed the wrinkles spreading across Allie’s forehead, and now spreading around his lips as they twisted into a sneer of victory, then a sneer of wrath, followed finally by fear.
Darnight hit the ground. The predator was dead.
“Come on,” Aaron eventually whispered down to her; she pulled herself up to him, up onto the roof.[/um_loggedin]
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