In Stag Hartford’s opinion, this was exactly how forests should look. They should, as this one appeared, be unmanaged, wild, untameable. All the best forests were dark, cool, rugged places, where a dense canopy vaults a leaf-fall floor from the sky’s panoptic gaze. By those measures, this had to be one of the very best forests that Stag Hartford had ever seen, stolled through, or otherwise taken his leisure in. That was no mean feat, as Stag had spent a lot of time in forests, even after Mamma Universe had tricked him into his position as the world’s first Spirit Animal. A really good forest stirred his deerish heart – well, his prehistoric deerish heart, anyway – and reminded him of what his nature had once been. Certainly, they could be places of fear and terror, but only for human minds. They had never been able to unsettle him in any way. Which is what made this forest so…. What was the word? Oh, yes: wrong.
He hadn’t noticed the forest’s general ‘wrongness’ at first. From a distance, it had seemed like any other tree-clad landscape: green, sprawling, full of promise. Full of so much promise, in fact, that Stag had decided to take the detour to walk through it on his way back to the beach. He didn’t need to go that way, not really. He had just convinced himself that he really should. It would add time to his already lengthy journey, but it would be worth it. Anyway, as a fine – nay, as the finest – connoisseur of woodland expanses, he really should check it out as a professional courtesy. I mean, he thought, it’s almost compulsory at this point, right? Since he’d already seen it in the distance, it had no doubt spotted him and become hopeful of a visit. Rude not to go once a forest has seen you. After all, it’s never wise to hurt the collective feelings of a forest, as many an unfortunate tramper has learned to his or her lingering, sometimes fatal, distress.
Even once he’d reached the edge of the forest, there had been no sense that it was not quite right. Although, as he reflected on it now, Stag felt that perhaps it had been too perfect. Yet, hindsight is really no kind of sight at all, and at the time he’d thought it delightful. An opinion he had voiced out loud, partly to complement the forest on a job well done – because forests are very vain that way, and love to hear how wonderful they are – but mostly because he hadn’t been able to help himself.
The edge had been one of those deliciously ‘soft’ borders. The kind of border that starts with the odd tree here or there on the way in, and just sort of eases itself into being an edge. Or rather, it hints at its general character of edginess, as opposed to actually becoming one. It invites the traveler in, with spectacular plays of contrast between light and shadow, the trunks only slowly becoming more populous with each footfall. Until, at last, without knowing how it happened, you are beyond the edge and inside the woods. You are not yet in the forest proper, not at its heart, but not outside of it, either. Stag always thought of this part of a forest as the ‘picnic zone’.
Not every forest has a picnic zone, of course. Jungles, for example, are notorious for refusing to grow them. Not because they are being stubborn, but just because they are trying to indicate to non-forest folk that if they hang around inside too long, they are likely to be eaten. Stag had worked out a whole classification system of forests in relation to absence, presence, and type of picnic zone, so he really knew what he was talking about when he noted that this forest’s picnic zone required him to add another level of scale to his measure. It had a nice balance between trees, burbling streams, and open – yet still shady – glades. The balance was so superb, that for the first time in many centuries, Stag had actually stopped at several glades for a really good frolic, before trotting off over a particularly clear stream. “Burble,” he had gleefully cried in answer to more than one stream’s happy discourse.
Only once he had moved beyond the picnic zone, did Stag start to feel that something was a little off about this forest. He couldn’t quite put his hoof on it, but it was there, like a slow-leak puncture on an ill-fitted bicycle tire.
At first, it was the general terrain that started to trigger warning. Not the sort of ‘burst-your-eardrum’ car alarm that sets teeth on edge, and warns that someone – probably a cat – is standing way too close to some arsehole’s sports car. More like a soft, slow seepage of sound out at the periphery of hearing. Perhaps it’s a siren? Perhaps it’s the ringing of a watchtower bell? Whatever it is, it’s surely so far away that it has to be a problem for someone else, and no cause for personal concern. Yet, Stag mused, it wouldn’t hurt to have a quick, furtive glance around himself to confirm that it wasn’t his problem. So he had. Hazard lights began to, metaphorically, lick at the corners of his mind. The terrain was all wrong. As he was on his way to the beach, the forest should feel, and look, more ‘sea-level’. It didn’t. Instead, it bore a striking resemblance to a mountain forest. In truth, it bore striking resemblances to several different kinds of mountain forest, as if it was somehow all of them at once.
“Perhaps,” asked Stag of various trees and rocky outcroppings, “you are a new, and hitherto unknown, type of sea-level forest?”
He hadn’t expected an answer, and his expectations were well met. He’d only spoken aloud to ease the anxiety that was slowly beginning to push at the walls of his consciousness. It hadn’t really worked, but it had at least stopped it from pressing itself into something that more closely resembled fear. For now, anyway. Stag had done his best to shrug off the growing sense of disquiet, steeled himself, and struggled up a steep incline.
By the time the incline had become a decline, Stag had almost managed to convince himself that he was being a very silly Spirit Animal indeed, and needed to have some stern words with his imagination later. Almost convinced himself, but not quite. The wrongness of the forest still nagged at him. He quickened his pace as the decline became suddenly and impossibly flat. Then he stopped. He looked around. He looked up at the canopy, and then at the forest-floor. He examined sundry thick mosses and fungi. He firmly stamped a hoofed foot on the leaf litter, as if testing the ground for soft spots. He closed his eyes tightly, counted to ten, and then opened them slowly. He clicked his tongue, and listened. He sniffed at the air, willing it to trigger some response in his nose. Then he knew three things, and would soon know four.
He knew for the first time, that one of the things that was so desperately wrong about the forest was its color. It is not so unusual for colors to become muted, almost monochromatic, once one penetrates far enough into a dense wood. Even in the thickest tree-congested place, however, the color is still there. They are only hints, but close inspection always reveals them eventually. This forest, as far as he could tell, had no color in it at all. It was, against all logical probability, a perfectly tuned grayscale. It gave the whole environment the feel of an expensive black and white movie; an almost silent movie, for that was another of the three things that Stag Hartford had recently come to know.
There was sound, but most of it came from him. And even then, it didn’t travel in the right way. There were none of the natural reverbs in it to give the sense that it was flowing out into physical space. That would have been disturbing enough, if the sound that wasn’t coming from him hadn’t been so nondescriptly creepy. It traveled to his ears from all around: soft, static, syllabant hisses and chitters; emanations from just beyond the nearest grayscale trunks. They seemed to almost be language. There were words in there, he was sure. Words, he realized as they reached him, that carried with them the smell of third thing he had come to know. He was not alone, yet not in the company of the creatures that should normally be found at a forest’s heart.
“Who’s there?” After he’d asked the question, Stag reflected that perhaps he didn’t want an answer to it. Somewhere, just out of sight, came a chorus of insectoid clicks. It seemed like laughter, although there was more menace than amusement in it.
Click, click, click. “Don’t you know ussss friend SSSStag? Our feelingsssss are hurt.” Click, Click.
“How could I possible know you? I haven’t ever seen you before… or, yet.” Stag stretched his neck forward, in an attempt to put his eyes closer to where he thought the largest concentration of clicks were coming from. He didn’t want to move too much of himself close to whatever was talking to him. He couldn’t be sure, but just for an instant he saw something dark slide its way between two trees. “Wait. Did you say: ‘us’?”
Click. “Oh, yessss. We are all here, and we,” Click, Click, “know you well. We are ancient friendssss, SSSSpecial SSSStatus SSSStag.“
“Who are you? How do you know about my special status?”
“We know many thingssss about you, SSSStag Hartford. We know of a cave, a painting, a ssssstar, and of a delicioussss fruit, yesssss?” Another chorus of clicks followed; humorless, dry, staccato. “Here, SSSStag SSSSpirit, eat thissss fruit. Issss, good, issss juicy.“
The darkness beyond the the trunks coalesced then. Almost shapeless, but not without form. It oozed itself from behind a tree, its leading edge becoming a faceless head and shoulder, with arm and hand stretched out towards Stag. In the hand there was a fruit, strange yet somehow familiar. A fruit once reached for, but never eaten.
At last, Stag knew the fourth thing. He knew that his insides were slicked cold with a terror that washed chill over his bones. And then Stag ran. He ran for the sake of his life; a life he had already lost long, long ago.
END OF PART ELEVEN