“What do you hope to accomplish here, Wesley? Hm? Ah, I see. The silent treatment. That’s okay, I already know. A word of advice, though—little boys who wander too far into the dark don’t often find their way back. The world is full of so many rabbit holes, now. And we both know which one you’re looking for, don’t we? One lined with shiny, plastic smiles and heads filled with flies, yes? You want to know what happened in that beautiful little puppet show under the earth, don’t you? To glean some sort of insight from those doll-eyed moppets you dragged your still-breathing corpse over—”
“Shut up!” Wesley hissed through his teeth.
The voice tsked. “Brave little Wesley, rapping on darkness’s door in hopes it will invite him in, praying it will prattle on about its secrets like some lonely old cat lady. Perhaps knowing will insulate you from its effects, hm? After all, what can a piglet like yourself do when a big bad wolf like the Darkness comes prowling about? One can only save themselves when something so evil blows their house down, right? Certainly, there’s nothing you could have done to save them—your precious wife and sweet daughter. You can’t even remember what happened. No one can. So how can you be blamed?"
“Maybe humanity can’t remember simply because it can’t bear to. Maybe you and all the rest of those self-pitying shits with survivor’s guilt have locked those memories in the basement of your skulls for one simple reason—you can’t admit to yourselves that you’re glad they’re gone, and that the Darkness gave will to the things you were too cowardly to admit were there—”
“I said shut the fuck up!”
Wesley’s words carried like the ponderous footfalls of some giant golem. He looked back to see whether his outburst had alerted anyone, but the fog was thick, and he was already far from camp. He buried his head in his hands—a fleshy Venus fly trap engulfing his face, sharp fingers digging into the sides of his skull. Perhaps if he squeezed hard enough, the voices would come spilling out like septic fluids draining from his ears, eyes, and nose.
Centuries ago, they would have drilled a hole in his skull to drive the evil spirits out. But he knew they wouldn’t be dispelled so easily. The voices were happy in the messy playground of his brain, slipping and sliding through the meshwork of tangled pathways, merrily working his emotions like a seesaw. Drilling a hole would only provide them a skylight, he imagined—a peephole into the reality they so diligently worked to corrupt.
Wesley was suddenly exorcised from his thoughts as movement in his periphery pried him away. Perhaps it was just a phantom playing at the edge of his vision—debris blowing on the wind, moonlighting for the briefest of moments as a bogeyman. It was gone when he turned his head.
Still, there was an echo of a presence—a memory of something stowed away between the silence and the motes of strange ash swimming through the mist. It was faint, ghostly even, but most definitely there. Yet it wasn’t the presence of one, but of many—standing behind him, around him, trapping him in a claustrophobia of stares. But there was nothing there. Nothing visible, anyway. Just Rorschachs in the fog.
Wesley continued forward, huge banks of fog rolling across his tall, lanky figure. There was a certain weight to the mist, he noticed, a robustness that reminded him of walking against the tide. Tiny, vaporous hands seemed to push him back, making him trudge all the more forcefully ahead. It didn’t matter where he was going, it only mattered that he was defying that which had taken his life away. Or at least, those aspects of his life that had made it worth living.
He didn’t like to admit it, but the voices were right—each step he took was in spite of the Darkness. It was a brutish form of coping. Childish, really. He was like a little boy who stubbed his toe on a rock and then, despite its inert nature, vengefully kicked it. But the reality was the Darkness could no more be offended by his defiance than the rock by his spite. And although he was motivated by more than just stubbornness and anger, what chance was there that his actions would somehow goad out the truth? Even if they could, would he truly want them to?
As Wesley straddled the borders between the misty new world surrounding him and the equally gloomy one stirring in his head, forms began to take shape in the near distance. Trees, as far as he could tell, although they weren’t like any trees he’d seen before. They looked more like frozen lightening bolts jutting up from the ground, jagged things pointing this way and that. Inspecting them closer, Wes could see they shared a slight similarity to birch trees, as both donned a pale veneer reminiscent of a corpse that had spent too long in water. Their exterior was equally foreign—rock hard, like bone or petrified wood, and their bark possessed a scaly texture and shape. There were thousands of them, many of which rivaled the size of the great Redwoods of Northern California. It was a forest, of sorts, but to Wesley it looked more like a cemetery of wooden ghouls reaching up into the sky, desperate to drag it down.
His intuition told him to leave, to let the tides of fog wash him back to safer shores, behind lines of gun-toting GI Joe’s, sandbag barricades, and olive drab tents. By now, his canvas lab was surely piling up with samples to analyze, tests to run. There was no reason to think he couldn’t find this place again. One need only walk straight out from camp to find it, after all. But just as he was about to turn back, he got that feeling again—that itch for reprisal. Despite the fact that his decision to retreat was solidly founded in reason, he knew it had been affixed by a more primal motivation—fear. The same fear that accosted him whenever his hand happened to wander over the edge of his bed, or his eyes closed to sleep. It was the ever-nagging fear of uncertainty, a paralyzing apprehension that in a single moment, the world might turn on him again. It wasn’t his fault, really. The Great Darkness had laid quite a nasty egg in his psyche, and while it had not yet hatched, the effulgence of the nightmare gestating within was enough to cast a permanent shadow of doubt on his grasp of the world. He wanted badly to fight it, to get revenge on whatever force had turned his wife and little girl into soulless playthings, but what could he truly do? Wesley continued his course, making his way deeper into the petrified woods.
Soon, a latticework of sclerotic branches leered over him, making the sky above look like a penumbral mosaic. The ground was curiously devoid of any kind of foliage—the absence of the chatter of fall leaves or the crunch of pine needles almost made him uncomfortable, their voices a staple this time of year. Instead, he saw large alabaster roots breaching the soil’s surface, accompanied by networks of similarly colored vines strangling each other into unsightly knots. In spots, the ground looked like a seething nest of cadaverous snakes—he even felt the impulse to tiptoe between their coiled bodies, for fear he might be bitten. But he took hold of what little rationality was left to him and pulled himself further along.
Wispy cobwebs of fog played between the fingers of tree branches above. Below the wilted canopy, however, the mist was less shy, washing across the wasted timberlands and making it progressively more difficult for Wesley to navigate. As a result, he followed paths less permeated by the stuff.
The mist had changed its attitude about Wesley—where once it sought to limit his progress, it now seemed to guide it.
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