Enoch O’Conner had only been 15 years old for 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 22 seconds when he gained the unfortunate pension for rotten decision making often associated with his age group.
It had all started with the innocent invite to go to a Halloween party, instead of spending his birthday alone, like he normally would. He didn’t know why he accepted the invitation. Enoch’s personal philosophy was that everyone in the world was stupid. He had no interest in underage drinking, hoax-y witches gatherings, and drab party games. However, something had possessed Enoch into accepting this bizarre invitation, despite his better judgment. He didn’t know what it was exactly that caused him to dive head-first into the stupidity of a high school party, but like with any good party he was bound to feel the ill-fated fallout of his decision at some point.
That point just so happened to be 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 22 seconds after he left the party.
Enoch found himself wandering in an unfamiliar setting with little memory of to how, or why, he was there. He was a boy too proud for his own good and, even if he did know how he got himself to this point, he would never dare admit it. He would one day go on to describe this incident as, ‘educated meandering’, or ‘a self-guided walk about in foreign terrain’, when in reality,
Well, he was lost, to put it quite frankly.
Enoch was deep into the woods with the hour undoubtedly drawing near midnight. Most of what he could see was the silhouettes of the autumn trees and the glowing yellow eyes of creatures unknown, staring at him from the inky darkness. He was unsure how he got there, but he was certain it was not his fault. Enoch looked beside himself for a person to blame and, surely enough, he found one.
Although he was lost, he was not alone.
There was a rather cheerful, bubbly-sort of girl, marching along beside him. She was holding a lantern that practically illuminated nothing in the obsidian night and was going on to him about something he could not hear, until this very second Enoch happened to notice her in. He was too distracted to be listening in his state of jumbled confusion. It felt like he had just hit is head on a rock and had stumbled out of a coma. How did he get here? Who was this girl? Enoch absolutely hated being in the dark, especially when the questions were extremely important and needed immediate answers.
“—and then I rolled down the hill—”
“Who are you?” Enoch inquired, far too bluntly towards someone who had been talking at him for the past ten minutes at least.
“I’m Madeline,” the girl replied, simply. She oddly didn’t catch onto Enoch’s blunt rudeness that put most people off. However, Enoch figured she was so thick it’d take at least ten more minutes talking to him for her to catch onto how horrible he was, “Don’t you remember? You promised to walk me home.”
“Right. Sorry…” he replied, only sounding the slightest bit sorry Enoch might’ve remembered his mother telling him he would need to do something like this with a girl who lived a few blocks away, but he had only been half-listening then too. Judging the current situation, he probably should’ve learned a little bit about her before he mindlessly agreed, “We’re lost, aren't we?”
“Of course not. This is a shortcut—”
“No. It really isn't.” She looked around for a silent moment, as if seeing the area around her for the very first time, then down at the ground, in clear guilt.
He sighed a stressful sigh, trying to calm his perpetually growing temper, “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” Enoch assured her, even though he thought the exact opposite. It was all her fault, but yelling at the girl about it now would only worsen the situation. Last thing he wanted was to be stuck in the middle of the woods with a girl, who was crying.
“Maybe we can find someone with directions.”
“If there’s someone lurking out here at this time of night, you’d better hope we don’t meet them.”
“Well, that’s a bit rude.”
A voice had ringed through the trees and pierced them with a nasely, auto-tuned pitch. Enoch quickly grabbed the lantern out of Madeline’s hand, so he could shine what little light they had on the culprit. However, not trying to hide, the culprit fluttered close enough to be revealed. A golden yellow finch hopped to ground before them, presenting itself with a bow,
“Hi, I’m Bill. You two are lost, right?”
“Nope, nope, nope.” Enoch was already walking away, dragging Madeline along with him, clearly not wanting to deal with whatever this was about to become.
“Wait a minute—Kid, I can help you!” the bird assured him. He flapped after the practically running pair, not allowing them to simply brush him off
“A bird’s brain isn't big enough for eloquent speech!” Enoch snapped, trying to swat the impossibility, as it twittered all around him.
“What was that?”
“You can’t possibly exist! Go away, you mangy little thing. Just let us be.”
The finch looked a little hurt. He blinked one eye, then the other, before settling himself on a low branch before them.
“Fine,” the bird named Bill agreed, “You’re going to regret not accepting my help, though. There isn’t many in this forest you can trust. This is his forest, after all…”
“What do you mean?Wait!” Bill took flight before he would answer Madeline’s question. She watched as the magic talking bird flew into the starry night and left them possibly for death.The second Bill had vanished, Madeline turned on Enoch, “You scared him off! Now how’re we supposed to get home!”
And so they did. They walked all night, until eventually, at daybreak, they stumbled out onto one of the many edges of the forest. There was a long dirt road leading into a little town that was sadly not theirs. It was a much quainter little setting, surrounded by fields of autumn harvest and old wood cottages.
“See, civilization,” Enoch reiterated, as if he had been trying to prove some kind of logical point to the clueless girl. “There’s got to be someone down there that can help us—”
“Look at this funny scarecrow, Enoch!” Madeline exclaimed, not paying the slightest bit of attention to his massive ego. As they approached the crops, they were greeted by a small skeleton lazily hung up on a rough wooden frame. The parts were barely held together, however, the head was securely fashioned with the steak right through the middle of the skull. He barely held onto a sign that said, “YVDZVIV YROO!”
“Disturbing.” was the only sentiment Enoch could give the twisted design. He couldn’t see what amused her so, “You’re such a child. Come along, already. We’ve got to get home…”
He trudged on down the road and she followed after him. The town was bizarrely quiet as they entered, even for an early morning. Where were the bakers? Where were the weavers, or the farmers? Everyone should’ve been there. However, only three seemed to fill the square that morning. An old man wielding an axe emerged from the morning fog and Enoch and Madeline just missed collision with him by inches. He looked far more shocked to see them, then they were to see him and he was the one with a weapon in hand.
“Children! What are you doing here?” he gasped, in a rough, croaky voice. The man looked around suspiciously before leading them both in the direction of the unknown, “We need to get you both inside—”
“Okay, first off, I’m not a child. I’m fifteen. Second, we may be lost, but we aren’t completely idiotic—”
Despite the man’s advanced age, he picked up Enoch and hoisted him over his shoulder, like a sack of flour. “Hey! What’re you doing!?!Let me go!”
“You don’t understand, my dear boy. Look!” the man turned Enoch so he’d have no choice but to see the most horrific sight he’d ever see in his painfully average life. Heads of the young were strung up, stabbed violently through with steaks from the ground. They gazed back at Enoch with empty eyes, that were supposed to be more youthful then his, and open mouths of a frozen terror he could never dream to fathom. “This is no place for children.”
“Are you going to kill us?”
“No. I’m a huntsman of animals, not children. I was just passing through town…” the man mumbled. He put Enoch back down onto the ground and Enoch hurried back to stand beside Madeline, “We need to get you kids out of this place.”
A few minutes (and a rock through a nearby tailor shop window) later and they were off again. Enoch wore suspenders and shoes so big he needed to where ten pairs of socks just to walk in them. Meanwhile, Madeline wore a silky dress that was the vibrant color of a blue bird and brown heeled boots that elevated her height by an inch or so. She was nearly taller than Enoch now and it forced him to take more notice of her.
“You look nice,” he found himself remarking, suddenly. She smiled a warm, glowing smile that could rival the comfort of hot chocolate and a warm blanket. It made Enoch actually believe for a moment everything would turn out alright. However, it was only for a brief moment, “—but not much older. Stand up straight.”
“Hey! Outsiders, come ere’.”
They had almost made it to the other side of town when a burly voice commanded them further from their goal. A hefty gentleman with a bushy walrus mustache was storming towards them, despite the fact that he’d called them over. Based on his attire and obviously doughnut based diet, he was a constable. The trio froze as he approached, rather than make a foolish run for it. Enoch didn’t know how Madeline or the Huntsman felt, but he was panicking on the inside. There weren’t many things that scared him, however, having ones head stuck on a pole for eternity would freak out even the bravest.
“I don’t believe we’ve met yet. I’m Officer Burke.” the man greeted, all to sugary to be innocent and random, “Now, what brings you all to our little town this morning.”
“Just passing through with our father.” Madeline answered, with a surprisingly serious tone. However, it wasn’t the brightest of answers she could’ve given. The officer turned all his attentions on her.
“How old are you, love?”
“I’m 18.” she replied, so convincingly that for a moment even Enoch believed it were true. Unfortunately, the officer was a more trained man.
“Do you know what this is?” the officer grinned, tapping an object fastened to his belt.
“Good girl,” he nodded. The officer began to pace around her, like a vulture circling its helpless prey, making Enoch grow more worried. The unknown terrors of the simple object were a very concerning concept and he did not want to learn what the bell did. He feared for his life and, although she was the culprit of all this, her life as well. “Now, this here little bell of mine is special. The ring it emits can only be heard by young ears.”
“You don’t say?” she added, sounding vaguely surprised, but not worried. However, the briefest side glance at Enoch told him she was just as frightened as he was. He wanted to help her, but even with all his brains and books, couldn’t for the life of him think of how.
“You assure me that if I ring this bell, you and your brother wont hear it,”. The two nodded dilegentlty and braced themselves. Madeline grasped Enoch’s hand in her’s and, instead of cursing her to release him, he squeezed it tightly. “Alright, let’s test it out then, shall we?”
Officer Burke gave the bell the lightest of shakes and the area was suddenly filled with a ring so loud it could’ve rivaled all 10 bells of Notre Dame. Enoch and Madeline kept their straight faces as best they could, tried to conceal the fact their ears might be bleeding and not touch them. However, after only 22 seconds, Enoch cracked. He had let go of Madeline’s hand and covered his ears. Although, once he did this, the sound immediately stopped.
“I knew it…CHILDREN!”
As if on some kind of cue, the town appeared, most of them with pitchforks at the ready. The baker had a rolling pin ready to bludgeon their heads, the weaver had cloth wrapped around his hands ready to choke them to death, and the farmers held scythes, sure they were going to be the pair’s grim reapers.
“Run!” Enoch whispered to Madeline. However, he had already re-grabbed her hand to take her away. They were about to flee, despite their ill-fitting shoes and little chance of escape, but a strong force was trying to pull Madeline back. Officer Burke was yanking her other wrist, pulling her towards the maddening crowd. “Let her go, you beast!”
“You can’t save her, boy.” Officer Burke smirked, like he knew something Enoch did not. In one final tug, he was able to take Madeline and hoist her over his shoulder like the Huntsman had done to Enoch. She kicked and struggled as best she could, but he unfortunately had his hefty layer of walrus blubber to protect him. “If you want your girl back, you’ll come quietly.”
“What’s the point, if you’re just going to kill us anyway?”
“Well, unfortunately, according to the law, I can’t just gut you right now. The justice system at least allows you a trial…”
They were locked into jail cells of heavy stone and metal bars, seperated from each other. However, Enoch quickly found a hole he could complain at within 9 minutes of their incarceration. The grace period of his sympathy appeared to have ended.
“I promise to walk a girl home one time and I end up stuck in a jail cell in some nutjob town in the middle of the woods.” he huffed to no one in particular, even though Madeline was the only one who could hear him.
“I’m sorry, Enoch. I never meant to drag you—”
“Stop apologizing!” Enoch snapped, even though that was exactly what he had asked for by complaining. It felt like that was all she’d been doing since she met him. However, Madeline was not the one who jumped at the first chance of civilization and was not the one who blew their cover in town ,“Look, this is mostly your fault, but it’s also a little bit of mine. We’re in this together now and you shouldn’t be the only one apologizing.”
“Thanks…” Madeline smiled. He had not said it directly, but she knew Enoch had just come as close as he probably ever would to try and apologize for his rudeness. It wasn’t the greatest of apologies, but he was trying at least. Enoch was attempting to reach out to her. Just a little bit.
“We’ve probably got a lot of time before Burke comes back. What do you purpose we do in the meantime?” Enoch inquired, trying to sound casual and calm, when in reality he needed her to distract him. He was honestly still scared for his life. The trial was clearly just a formality. They weren’t actually going to make it out alive. Enoch’s life back home was not a very good one. His mother was a suffocating woman. She smothered him with the affection she could never give his deadbeat father who disappeared off the face of the earth long ago. Most days she acted fine, however, even fifteen years later, Enoch still spotted her crying over him. He loved her, but he also pitied her. The only sanctuary from her overbearing presence was at school. Enoch was a loner (by his own terrible choice) and would much rather escape to a book then spend his time socializing with daft people who could not understand him.
However, despite the many things Enoch disliked about his life, he knew it was the only life he was ever going to get. So, he was going to cling to his horrid life, like the desperate little boy he’d never been on the leg of his mother and refuse to let go.
“You could maybe tell me about your friends and family. I was prattling on about my life earlier, but I don’t know a thing about yours.” she replied, a curiously hopeful rise in her tone. They had spent the past several hours together, but it felt like they hadn’t discussed anything beyond the woods and their journey through it. All this time talking about getting home, but not about what was waiting for them when they got there.
“I have a wretched mother and no friends.” he answered, without hesitation or much thought.
“No friends?! How can you have no friends?”
“Companionship is not a necessity. It’s a trivial distraction.”
“Well, I’ve done a hell of a lot more then just distract you,” she reasoned, with a bit of a laugh. And, just for a moment, Madeline thought she heard the oddest little sound from the other side of the thick stone wall. Enoch had laughed too. “Does this mean I can be your friend?”
“You really don’t want that. I’ll treat you bad and make you cry.”
The hole in the wall was just big enough to push her pinky through. She wiggled it to the other side, but Enoch just looked at it, obviously not familiar with the gesture and unsure what finger exactly that was. It would make more logical sense if she was flipping him off. “I still think we should give it a shot, though…”
“What’s this? What are you doing?”
“I promise to be your friend and never give up on you.” As childish as a gesture a pinky promise was and as foolish a promise as that was, they were signs of true friendship. No one had ever wanted to be his friend this much before.
“Deal,”he agreed, linking his pinky with hers, “and, in turn, I promise to get you home no matter what happens.”
“Times up, kiddies!”
The doors were unlocked and they both tumbled into a courtroom filled with angry spectators. The air was so hostile it probably could’ve killed them just by breathing it in. Their apparent friend the Huntsman had decided not to show up to be their only defense. They should’ve known better then to trust the likes of him.
“You’ve come to our court today with the accusation of childhood against you. How do you plea?”
“Well, guilty, but this is absurd,” Enoch argued, “Being a child is not a crime. I mean, you were all children once.”
“Lies!” “Slander!” “Blasphemy!” *COUGH*
“Silence in the court!” the judge yelled, to the outcries. He looked down at Enoch, not for causing such an uproar, but with a slight curiosity. He didn’t seem to know what everybody else knew. “Boy, do you know what lurks out there in those woods?”
“Well, no wonder you blundered in here like a damned fool. Allow me to enlighten you,” The judge stepped down from his podium, paced a little as he gathered the right words, and settled himself back in front of Enoch and Madeline, “For hundreds of years, this forest has been owned by a demon—”
“ ’His forest’, Enoch!” Madeline whispered. The magic bird had mentioned something of the sort. However, at the time, Enoch had been too determined to ignore him.
“—his name is so horrifying, we dare not speak it. His only purpose is to feed off the lost souls of children, such as yourselves.”
“Then, just let us go! We’re just trying to get ourselves home. We don’t care about any of this.”
“Afraid we cant do that. He already knows you’re here,” The judge presented Enoch with a bit of parchment scribbled with nonsensical letters, just like the sign leading into town, ’ULFMW BLF.’, “We shall keep you here and give you to him, so he will not enact his vengence on the entire town.”
“What in the world?” The judge looked to his jury and his court. They were all coughing their feeble hearts out. A grey billowing smoke was coming from underneath the doors and it was not hard to guess that it was causing the heinous cough. The fire burst through the double doors making a flamboyant, dramatic entrance. The town had been so consumed with their hunt they had not noticed the room go red, or the floor beneath them shake in agony, until it was too late.
Chaos insued as everyone ran to find an exit. However, only one person in the entire room would be smart enough and lucky enough to actually find it and get out. Thanfully, for Enoch, the fire allowed her to bring a friend.
“This is our chance! Come on!” Madeline exclaimed, pulling along the boy who was too busy dying to move himeself. She guided them through a door by the judge’s podium, led them through the burning hallway, and all the way to the back door of the court house. They collapsed on the grass, getting in a few slightly fresher breaths before being forced to take off again. Enoch and Madeline ran back up the hills and to the edge of the woods. Only there were they allowed to have a true moment of rest.
“Was that fire meant to kill us or save us?” Madeline questioned, the second words became available to use again.
“I think—the latter, actually. Pretty shotty excuse of a rescue.” Enoch breathed, still quite exasperated. It would take him a little longer to recover than her.
“Well, we made it out didn’t we?”she reasoned. Madeline gazed out at the firey sea that was beginning to engulf what use to be a whole town of people. They had not been very good people, but it was a hundred deaths just the same and she couldn’t help but morn them. “That entire town is going to burn…”
“They’ll be fine,” Enoch assured her. However, considering everyone had come to their trial to see them guilty, he doubted anyone else made it out alive, “Better then what he was probably going to do to them at least.”
“And what are we going to do now?” Madeline asked. They hadn’t planned on actually escaping.
“Keep on walking?” he suggested, simply. Earlier, it had been a demand, but now was an offer. He turned towards the treacherous woods that were apparently owned by a demon who wanted to devour their souls and confidently extended an arm for Madeline to take.
“Keep on walking.” she grinned, taking up the arm meant for her and followed him,
Into the unknown...