Diantha's Gate

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Chapter 9

Our hike had been a success, with the exception of the tick bites I’d received. After carefully removing two from my calves, Lav had drenched me in more insect repellent.

“Lav, I’m supposed to wear it, not drink it!” I’d choked, after a considerable amount entered my mouth.

“Well, then, yeh might wanna try closin’ your mouf, innit?” She’d shot back as she continued to coat me.

Drew and Brynn were beginning to prepare our food, and Lav and I lit two lanterns as the sun began to descend behind the trees. A pink and orange glow enveloped us, along with the lulling songs of various insects. I found such contentment in the moment, that I closed my eyes, letting a smile reach my lips. I was startled by a red solo cup dangling in my face. It was being projected by a lean arm with an old school pin-up girl tattooed on it. Drew. “What’s in it?” I asked, only mildly hesitant.

“Your signature cocktail,” he replied, and I whiffed it. Rum and coke. Ominous. Without further consideration, I brought the cup to my mouth. “Whoa, hey now, you forgot to ‘cheers’ me!” He was holding out his own cup expectantly. “Sorry,” I replied, and I lowered my arm. I made a motion to touch his cup with my own, but was instead met with, “Too late for that, Lass. That’s bad luck, that is. It has to be the first drink.”

“You just made that nonsense up,” Lav called to him.

“Ok, but it’s on you two if something bad happens,” he said resignedly as we gently knocked our cups together.

“Superstitious, much?” I asked with a wry smile before consuming another generous gulp.

“More like cautious,” he corrected.

As I’d anticipated, Brynn saved the night in respect to our dinner. Our simple fare of burgers and beans had proven to be quite the challenge to prepare over a fire that struggled to stay lit. Brynn had taken charge, directing Drew and me to collect sticks and Lavender to continue fanning the flames while she monitored the burgers. It had all turned out successful, but the others admitted that fast food may not have been the worst idea, after all.

All of us were beginning to relish the effects of the alcohol we’d been consuming throughout the evening, when we became startled by a crashing sound coming from brush about thirty feet behind us. We’d heard a miscellany of noises we weren’t particularly accustomed to, but not one had been unsettling. Not until this one. Looking from one face to the next, we each, wide-eyed, shrugged our shoulders to indicate having no suggestions for what the cause of the racket could have been.

“What the…” Drew whispered to the rest of us, staring at the area where the sound had come from. We all kept our seats at the concrete table, our s’mores forgotten.

“Should we… should we go see what it was?” he continued.

“Bright idea. Go for it,” Lav replied quickly, giving him a nudge.

Drew looked as though he hadn’t expected to be nominated for the task. “Oh...erm. Yeah, all right,” he said, straightening up. “Yeah.”

As he approached the origin of the crashing sound, a piercing hoot split the air. Everyone, including Drew, jumped. We waited in anticipation as he cast the light of the lantern over the brush and the ground around it, and we all breathed a sigh of relief as he shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t see nuffin over here,” he called, though still in a strained whisper.

He returned to the table, and after a couple of minutes of speculation and rationalization, we returned to light conversation and a game of Sorry! We concluded that the noise could have been from damn near anything. The woods were full of nocturnal predators; it’s not like we’d be familiar with their mannerisms and sounds. We laughed at our paranoia, knowing it was a result of overindulgence. My head was becoming very light and heavy all at once, my vision slightly blurry.

“What are you smilin’ so hard at, yeh weirdo?” Lav asked me, while moving her yellow piece. “You’ve had the same face for like, ten minutes now.”

I turned my attention to my face. She was right; I hadn’t realized I’d had this ridiculous smile pasted to my face, and I giggled as I felt the soreness of my jaw. “I dunno,” I slurred. “I’m just, like, really enjoying myself. I love you guys,” I heard myself say, and I laughed again. I sounded so funny to myself, but I couldn’t help what came out of my mouth at this point.

Profuse laughter erupted from all of us, though what was so funny, I wasn’t sure. Each time one of us began to settle again, someone else’s giggles would ring out, and we’d all be caught up in the hilarity once more. Our intoxication levels continued to climb steadily, none of us paying attention to how much had been consumed.

“I’ve got an idea,” Drew nearly shouted.

“Shhhhh,” Brynn replied just as loudly, indicating the campsites near ours with her head. She was snickering once again.

“Let’s play tag with our torches! Lav, we haven’t done that since we were kids. Remember that night every kid in our ends played? That was a good time, that was!”

“Are y’all talking about flashlight tag?” Brynn asked. “What about the other campers? We can’t just go… you know, galavanting through the woods with flashlights at one in the morning. They’d have park security on us, and we’re not exactly in a state to speak with authorities.” Another giggle.

“‘Course we can,” Drew replied defiantly. “We just got to go further in, where ain’t a soul campin’,” he said, his accent growing thick with the booze.

“Ooooh,” Brynn and Lav said together. They were clearly game, but I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t exactly love the idea of woods at night, and especially not solo, as we each would be.

“Umm,” I said hesitantly, but they ignored this. They had all grabbed their flashlights and risen from the table before I could even form an argument.

“Ok, then,” I said aloud to myself as I picked up my own flashlight.

Ten minutes later, we were stumbling over roots deep within the woods that lay behind the campsite. The tree canopy was thick, blocking any light from the moon above, and I shivered.

“’Kay, who wants to be ‘it’ first?” Drew asked excitedly, once he’d determined we were far enough from other campers.

“I will,” Brynn said, bobbing up and down with enthusiasm. The coils on her head moved with her. I’d never seen her like this. I briefly wondered if this was a side of her that only came out when I wasn’t around. I tried to push the thought away.

“Won’t it be easy to find us if we have our flashlights lit?” I asked, feeling nerves creep up my spine.

“Yeh don’t leave your torch on, yeh muppet,” Drew laughed.

“How are we going to see where we’re going?” I said in surprise.

“That’s kinda half th’ point, innit?” Lav said. “Got teh find yer way wifout one.” She winked, the facial movement grotesque in the light and shadows cast by our flashlights.

“Yeah, ok,” I heard myself concede once more. “Yeah, that’s… fun.”

Though not losing her enthusiasm, Brynn paused. “Wait, Nia, are you sure you want to play? I’m sorry; I don’t know how I didn’t consider… you know… I mean, the dark.”

She was right; the dark still held this mastery over me, but I was not going to be the buzzkill of the night. Everyone looked at me expectantly. “No, I’m in,” I said with an attempted smile.”

Brynn clapped, clearly relieved that the game wasn’t going to be shut down. She skipped over to a tree, getting ready to count. Damn. I really had never seen her like this. Her round ended quickly; she spotted me within seconds, as I’d barely made it ten feet from where we started.

“Nia, you’re supposed to hide,” she’d crowed. I’d been very slowly and cautiously navigating the ground while also straining my ears for any strange and unwelcome sounds.

“Oops,” I shrugged.

Everyone had heard the commotion and returned. I made my way to the counting tree, grateful that I’d at least get to have my light on now. I counted to fifty. Something was very unsettling about standing completely still in the darkness while everyone around me scampered off. I tried to distract myself by focusing on the numbers I was muttering. Goose bumps ran the length of my arms as I spun around to find nothing but the deserted ground and trees around me.

“Here goes,” I whispered to myself.

I began traversing the thick woods, ignoring the pit of nausea in my stomach. I moved with purpose, wanting to come across another human as quickly as possible. A twig snapped nearby, and I spun around, shining my beam in as many directions as I could in one motion.

“Hello?” I said faintly.

The woods became silent as I mentally implored my ears to work harder. The fetid odor of decaying leaves suddenly became overbearing, and a sense of dread washed over me, despite my constant internal pep talk.

“Drew, if that’s you, you better come out,” I said lamely. Nothing.

I began moving again with difficulty, as my legs had become noodle-like. Without warning, an owl shrieked nearby, swooping only a foot above my head. I cried out helplessly, fearing a nervous breakdown.

“Guys? Guys, come out now! I can’t play anymore,” I called with all the voice I could muster. Footsteps sounded nearby, and relief washed over me. Thank god.

I allowed myself to breathe and closed my eyes when another owl cried out. I found the ominous eyes quickly. They were watching me, or so it seemed, from a branch not far from me.

“Jesus, what the…” Before I could finish my thought, it swooped upon me in a predatorial dive. I began to run, dropping my flashlight and quickly scooping to claim it once more. The light flickered upon impact with the ground, before going out completely.

“Dammit,” I whimpered, while beating the device against my palm and stumbling around in terror. I could hear a second set of wings join the cacophony of the first, and I began to sprint blindly. Salty tears stung my eyes as I whipped through brush and trees. I held my hands out in front of me, in case I rammed into a trunk.

The din of the birds continued behind me, and I remembered, ruefully, that their vision was uncompromised in the blackness that was swallowing me. I felt the rush of wings lightly brush my hair, and I dropped to the ground, emitting a sharp cry. Fire ran through my leg. I’d cut my shin on a rock. I began crawling quickly, searching for any shelter I could find. I still clung to my flashlight, though it was useless and awkward in my grip.

Moments later, I felt the ground change beneath my palms as they met cool stone. I continued to crawl, my leg screaming in agony. The percussion of beating wings was becoming faint. I sat up, clutching my leg. I could feel the slick viscosity of blood, which flowed more freely due to the alcohol coursing through my veins. The air around me was exceptionally cool and damp. Was I in some little cavern? Having no clue what I was supposed to do or how I was going to find the others, I sat frozen for a moment, before deciding I needed to staunch the blood oozing from my leg. Having no choice but to remove my shirt, I tried to shred a strip of the material from the rest. The task proved extremely difficult with shaking hands. I growled in exasperation, more tears streaming down my cheeks. Finally, the satisfying sensation of ripping fabric ran through my fingertips. I took the ribbon of cotton and tied a makeshift tourniquet around my calf.

My ears peaked and my heart leapt as I heard the distant shouts of Lavender, which were followed by the calls of the other two. Everything was going to be fine, everything was going to be fine, everything was going to be fine. I repeated my new mantra at least five times, before grasping that I needed to return their calls with my own.

Before I could open my mouth, an acrid odor reached my nose, so pungent that I began to gag. A strange sensation began to descend over me, one I’d never before experienced. I felt as though I were in the eye of a tornado, like the world around me was spinning as I sat motionless in the center of it all. I could see nothing, yet the velvety darkness was somehow shifting around me. Croaking sounds erupted from my throat as I attempted to cry out for the others. They were met by a chaotic rushing of the air around me. I could physically feel the air around me thickening, as if the darkness was attempting to carry me away. The stench surrounding me thickened, nearly palpable as well. Pain erupted in my leg as I stood, trying to scramble out of the reach of the maelstrom. Just as I thought I’d reached the mouth of the cave, a gripping sensation tugged behind my navel. Arms of darkness enveloped me, drawing me back forcefully, and I felt myself, both physically and consciously, give myself over to them.

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