Previously: “On our journey to locate the missing EON units, we had reached the Twisted Forests. Major Thurlow had passed through this strange area once before, the only survivor of a hundred soldiers that attempted to cross the Forests from one side to the other.”
Part 8: The Forest Dwellers
Weighed down by a pack of supplies and stumbling over the thick roots of gnarled and verdant trees, I was not especially surprised to discover that I was the least physically fit of the five of us. I lagged behind the others, and had fallen flat on my face at least twice.
Lady Una glided effortlessly beside me, only the slight mud stains around the edge of her dress showing that she was walking and not floating over the untamed, overgrown soil. “You can take my arm, doctor,” she suggested, “if you need help staying steady.”
My throat was cold and raw, so I could answer only hoarsely. “Or you could just let me in on your secret.”
I mopped my brow with my sleeve. “You seem to have discovered the secret to moving with easy grace in every situation. I have to say that I'd be very thankful for that kind of knowledge myself about now.”
She looked at me carefully and said, “Ballet.”
“From as young as I can remember until I was a young woman. It's physically demanding, and requires absolute control over your movements.”
I looked at her in her high-necked dress and gloves, her hair tied up in a tight bun. “I can't picture you in a tutu.”
She blinked. “Well... good. I don't really want you to picture me in a tutu.”
“In any case, if we pass somewhere that's offering ballet lessons, sign me up.”
“But your masculine pride somehow won't allow you to take my arm?”
“Fine.” I slipped my free hand into the crook of her arm.
At the head of the group, Major Thurlow turned round to hiss at us: “Will you two be quiet? When Phenice suggested this might be a good place for a stroll I thought it was clear that she was being sarcastic.”
Lady Una and I looked at one another and then walked on in silence. When I stumbled, she turned out to be a remarkably sturdy person to lean on.
Thurlow dropped suddenly to one knee, holding up a hand. The rest of us followed suit, Lady Una crouching elegantly, and EON-4 dropping onto all fours as if he was about to do push-ups.
A pale mist pervaded the forest, foliage fading away into shadowy silhouettes as it retreated into the distance. The whole place was shaded, a thick canopy of leaves blotting out the sun. I could see dozens of unidentifiable shadows, but nothing that was clearly the centre of Thurlow's attention.
Slowly, Lady Una crept forward. I retrieved my hand and followed after her.
“What is it, Major?” she asked, sotto voce.
In answer, he simply pressed the stock of his rifle to his shoulder. “I doubt there's any human who can answer that question.”
Sigrid lay down on her front beside him, looking through the sight of her rifle. “It's a deer,” she said.
I followed the line of their barrels. I could just make out something vaguely deer shaped ahead, though if my attention had never been drawn to it, I would have assumed it to be a bush or small tree. Until, that is, I saw it move, lifting its head. It certainly did look a lot like a deer to me, though I'd never had much chance to look at one before.
“It's not a deer,” Thurlow said.
When he fired, I jumped out of my skin. But it was what happened next that really surprised me. The creature leapt up, catching the branches of a tree. For a moment its elongated head and long grasping fingers were perfectly silhouetted against the mist. And then, with a long, gurgling screech, it fell into a heap on the forest floor. Reacting to the gunshot, flocks of black, long-necked birds fluttered up from the branches, cawing harshly.
“Got it,” Thurlow said casually, getting to his feet.
“What is it?” I asked.
Thurlow just shrugged.
“If you don't know what it is,” I asked, “why exactly did you shoot it?”
“We can't afford to take chances.”
Lady Una smoothed down her skirt as she stood. “Chances like letting off a gun and waking up a flock of noisy birds? Weren't you only stressing the need to be quiet a moment ago?”
“I'm certain it had already noticed us. Better to kill it noisily than let it disappear and engage us on its own terms - or worse, fetch its friends.”
Sigrid still lay on her front, scanning the trees with her rifle. “Assuming of course that its friends aren't within earshot.”
I started towards the creature Thurlow had shot. “Can we take a closer look? I'd like to get an idea of what we just made an enemy of.”
“Be careful,” Thurlow said, helpfully.
I unbuttoned my jacket and drew my revolver. The others followed me at a moderate distance. “It does look somewhat like a deer,” I said, as I drew nearer. “But also kind of...”
EON-4 finished my sentence for me. “Human.”
I stood over the thing now. It stared upwards with lifeless eyes.
“I don't like its expression,” Lady Una said softly.
Sigrid nudged the thing with her foot. “It's the expression of something that was shot out of a tree.”
“I think it's wearing clothes,” I said.
Lady Una clasped her hands together. “Just rags. Did it used to be human?”
Thurlow stood some way away from us, looking about nervously. “Maybe it just doesn't have ready access to a tailor. Look, let's keep our distance from it. If there's one thing I've learned about the Twisted Forests, its not just that things change here. It's that whatever causes that change is contagious.”
At that we all hurried back several paces, though EON-4 seemed to step back more for our comfort than his own. Lady Una began to speak, but stopped at the first syllable. A sound rose out of the mist. A keening wail, like a chorus of people crying out in grief. But-
“That's not a natural sound,” Lady Una said. “At least not natural to this world.”
Sigrid lifted her rifle. “It's a factory siren.”
“In the middle of a forest?” EON-4 asked.
“This didn't used to all be trees,” Thurlow explained. “There used to be towns and cities and roads around. The forest just grew over the top of it. Up through it, rather. Trees of types never seen before, splitting open the pavement and growing faster than you'd think possible.”
“If we can hear that siren,” I suggested, “doesn't it seem likely that whoever triggered it would have heard our gunshot?”
“A call to arms,” Thurlow said. “Do we all have weapons? Good. I suspect we'll need them.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Who runs the factory in the Twisted Forests? What, if anything, could possibly be manufactured there? And will our heroes escape those strange, contagious changes? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!