The Last Day of October
“Evil is not something superhuman, it's something less than human.”
― Agatha ChristieEnglish author of detective fiction and playwright
“The thing I find really scary about ghosts and demons is that you don't really know what they are or where they are. They're not very well understood. You don't know what they want from you. So it's the kind of thing you don't even know how to defend yourself against. Anything that's unknown and mysterious is very scary.”
Producer and writer
Carpeting the southeastern perimeter of the Hyperborea Outpost Research Station was a dark and mysterious forest. On the outside, it looked no different from the other ancient forests in the Outer Midgard Territories, and its size was rather modest compared to that of the Amazon Jungle, the Siberian Taiga or even the Tongass National Forest in the Alaska Panhandle.
However, should anyone be courageous enough to enter this particular area, they would soon notice a number of increasingly strange things. The climate always stayed the same here, even in the driest of times. Perpetual saturation of winter rain and summer fog kept this emerald portion cool and wet. It also appeared to be much bigger on the inside than on the outside, growing ever increasingly larger, older and more menacing as one walked deeper into the wood. Wildly exotic fauna and flora existed in great numbers. Here, one must always tread very lightly and not get distracted: bad things often happen to those who don’t obey the rules, who don’t heed the posted warnings and go farther into the Yggdrasil Wood where the beginning of the end of the human world occurred nearly a thousand years ago.
Sunlight pierced the mist shrouding great towering conifers and broad-leaves. As the flickering rays slanted down into this shadowy realm, the forest slowly awoke. Layers of heavy, fan-shaped branches unfolded leaves the size of dinner plates or extended umbrella crowns tipped with thousands of tiny needle-like tendrils. Reaching out to touch the diffused light, numerous branches swung and crisscrossed to align themselves for maximum energy capture.
Awakened by the lengthening sun, insects emerged in overwhelming numbers. They were shortly followed by a myriad of small avians attracted by this seasonal feast. The air soon filled with the shrill buzzes and trills of songsters both scaly and feathered.
Numerous beasts moved easily though the interwoven maze of twisted branches and thick forest litter. A striped squirrel scolded intruders while far below a hexapodal owl bear plied the remains of a log for tasty white grubs. Elsewhere, herds of eale, tusked deer and spiral horn nibbled lichen and leafy shrubs.
Wandering through this vast green expanse, you might get the impression that it was a forest primeval, untouched by civilization. Yet if you were to look more closely, shadowed traces of a long lost era would appear. Barely distinguishable from the moss and lichen-draped trunks and logs are heaps of tumbled reinforced stone and masonry work—remnants of cottages, town houses and stately businesses. Shingled and steel roofs have long given way to ferns and ivy, gables and iron supports have tumbled while small animals nest in the shattered walls and chimneys. Trees slowly straddled fallen room beams using them as nurse logs, while gardens once tended with loving pride ran wild and overgrown.
The Yngvi people who built these structures were long gone now, driven out when the entire"Woods" arose overnight from a spilled dose of special growth enzyme. Rapidly spreading, the vegetation that erupted from the greenhouse laboratory soon engulfed the whole city within a few hours. Within a few days, the entire Sereadaland Continent was entirely consumed. Once great cultural and scientific centers of the Yngvi World were soon reduced to unrecognizable hunks smothered under tangled foliage and gnarly crowns of trees.
The few scattered survivors were forced to flee to the outer reaches of the Known World: well-ordered lands of their former allies—the elves, dwarves and Jötnar.
Adolphus Spraag, the junior bio-chemist responsible for this catastrophic event, hadn’t intended any trouble. All he wanted was to prove his worthiness to the Scientific Academy by testing the miraculous restorative properties of a new elixir compound. Unfortunately, due to youthful over eagerness and bumbling ineptitude coupled with a massive hangover resulting from drinking a cocktail or two followed immediately by a double espresso, he chose to forgo the standard safety protocols and ended up spilling the enzyme onto several fixtures of wooden furniture. What was originally meant to be a school project inadvertently became a massive, on-going science experiment.
The accidental blunder did more than resurrect an entire forest from inert organic matter; it also caused the miniature ecosystem nestled within the grains to undergo an unusual chemical reaction. Evolving at a rapid rate, the organisms accelerated through the various stages of development within seconds, eventually leading to even more complex forms—some more advanced than current humanity.
Although Outer World human and near-human colonization managed to breech Sereadaland’s dense wall of green and establish permanent settlements, the Hyperborea Region had kept its special status as an ecological study area.
Since its creation, the Yggdrasil Wood was a forbidden place, unwelcome to all but a select few who wisely followed a strict policy of non-interference. One thing was certain: this was the forest primeval, a place that existed well before the dawn of humankind. It was a place where the old gods still walked, where the old magic still clung, where time marched to a different tune to that of the Outer human world. In the lands touched by wild enchantment and radical genetic-manipulation, evolution often followed more bizarre routes, unconstrained by the laws of logic.
Not every city inhabitant left when Yggdrasil Wood overwhelmed the region. Not just the hundreds of dead whose bones now serve as enriching fertilizer. There were hundreds more who chose to escape into the burgeoning forest rather than join the desperate and dangerous exodus across the sea and the starry void to much more stable worlds.
Descendants of the conquered Nye-Am, Esk and Ainsel Tribes, enslaved sprites and peri forced into indentured and bound servitude, and “chimeroid” or G-MOES (life forms genetically modified to handle various manual tasks or for entertainment and companion purposes to resemble mythological creatures), once divided by mistrust and bitter rivalry were now united with a single purpose. Turning their backs on the bleak squalid warrens and slums now overrun by leafy growth, they vowed to never again to be lowly domestics toiling away in the sculleries, barnyards, foundries and factories. Never again will they be servile, downtrodden beings forced to kneel and lick the feet of human masters. Humanity?They said to themselves, what good are they? Nothing but stinking, vermin-infested Hiiet and Null-rats who bring about disorder and destruction; our destruction. At least here in the New Forest, we'll be safe from their poisonous, parasite ways.
So the people who would eventually be known as the Faire Folk went further into the tangle bulk of the Otherworld where they would find new lives for themselves, eventually recording such tales down on paper and parchment or scavenged data crystals. Yet unbeknownst to the new population, other more powerful survivors of the Fourth Technocratic Era lurked just beneath their feet.
These failed military and wetware experiments were confined to subterranean laboratories or locked tight in cold torpor deep within reinforced vaults. Like the monstrous hidden dragons of the First World— Nidhogg and Jormungand, they lay dormant, patiently biding their time for their eventual return to the Upper World. Occasionally, either through a force of nature or through an action of a rash explorer, a few do break out.
Some of these beasts erupt like hellborn juggernauts out of the earth, sowing chaos and carnage, their threat apparent from the start. But others arrived secretly and insidiously without obvious drama. These were the most treacherous and unpredictable for not only were they small enough to hide in shallow niches no bigger than a thumb, they knew the ways of the younger races and the naivety of their children.
The Quinarth Rim valleys, located some 280 miles inside the Yggdrasil Wood Zone, harbored a dense population of Faire Folk, or as they prefer to be known, the "Free Folk." Hundreds of permanent towns and villages dotted the misty shores of the Quinarth Rim Area. Hundreds more nested in the surrounding trees or in dens among the root system.
Others were always on the move, wandering in pursuit of trade, the next seasonal crop or greener pastures for their herds. Although they were living in a beautiful and fruitful land that was protected from the hostile outside world, the Free Folk knew better than to trust the idyllic scenes before their eyes.
Their land held many dangers—huge predators like the weira and yowie lurked in the deep wood.
Then there were things worse than any wild beast, often told of in old time fairy tales but seen by no living soul. Monstrous things that could suck out a person's soul as easily as a vacuum could suck up a herd of dust bunnies. And how long could a body live with no mind let alone a soul? Not very long—it would be a very dismal death indeed. Even worse was the horrible loss of oneself by substitution. Such was the case in the quiet woodland community of Branshel seventy miles from the Swanwick Coast.
It was a cold, wet and gray morning on the last day of October, the sort of morning when anyone with a reasonable amount of sense pulled the blankets up over their heads and reset the alarm clock to noon.
A wolverine was snuffling about in the gloomy woods. As a rule, wolverines don't have a reasonable amount of sense, being mostly an appetite with claws and teeth.
To Krissa Beetle, an eleven-year old Ainsel girl crouching behind a nearby clump of blackberries, this wolverine was different. It was larger than usual, like a large sheepdog or a small owl bear, and it seemed to be humming a tune as it rummaged about in the brush.
The humming had a kind of rattly, snarly pitch somewhat like acorns going down a vacuum cleaner hose, but that was to be expected from an animal whose mouth wasn't shaped for singing or speaking. Nevertheless Krissa recognized the tune as an old human folk song, one that seemed to be designed for the sole purpose of driving people completely and utterly insane.
"Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall, Ninety-eight bottles of beer, Take one down and pass it around, Ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall…”
Krissa shivered and nervously fingered one of the numerous amulets that bedecked her orange rain poncho. Before she went out to pick mushrooms, her mother came in carrying a cedar chest crammed to the brim with supposedly magical trinkets, and insisted that she wear all of them.
When Krissa skeptically asked why, her mother replied in a severe tone that it was to keep her safe from the dark powers that were out in force during this time of year. Krissa thought her mother was crazy to believe in such superstitious nonsense, but knowing her mother, she obediently took the talismans and fastened them on.
The collection of protective charms was proving to be a hindrance rather than a help. When she walked, it felt like she was carrying several pounds of lead-weight; every time she brushed past a branch or a bush, she almost always had to stop and untangle herself. The blasted things rattled, tinkled, and jangled until Krissa sounded like a Christmas tree in a heavy windstorm. Not a healthy combination considering the beast snorting and rooting about a few steps away.
"Take one down and pass it around, Ninety-five bottles of beer on the wall…"
Krissa was trying to decide whether she should try to slip quietly away or just stay put, when the humming abruptly stopped.
She looked up shakily, wondering if the wolverine had finally sensed her hiding place. Heart pounding wildly, she peered through the leaves.
The creature wasn't even looking in her direction; instead it was staring upward. Following its gaze she saw a bright red spark darting and shifting high overhead like a dust mote in a sunbeam. It dropped swiftly down, stopping just a foot away from the wolverine's head and hovered there.
The animal stood absolutely still and eyed the thing intently.
Krissa sat still, wondering what was going on. She lifted her nose and gave a speculative sniff. There was a rank musky odor in the air along with a faint electrical smell, like that of ozone.
That's a funny-looking lantern fly, Krissa thought, puzzled. I wonder why the wolverine's so afraid of it?
After a few minutes, the "lantern fly" completed its inspection and soared out of sight.
The wolverine bristled, bared its teeth and growled something that sounded like "creepy little bugs." Then it turned around and shambled away into the bushes.
Krissa stared after it with growing alarm and unease. Perhaps that red glowing thing wasn't a fly at all, but some new sort of bee that zapped its enemies with electricity, much like what an electric eel does.
After nervously scanning for more wild life, she picked up her basket and stood up. Warily she stepped around the tangled blackberries and crept slowly into the clearing. She stood for a moment, listening to the quiet and sniffing the breeze stealing through the rain-drenched trees. There was nothing lurking nearby waiting to pounce.
Krissa finally relaxed and then started walking toward the twisty path leading out of the clearing. Then she stopped suddenly when she felt a presence behind her—someone watching her closely.
There was a blurred motion from the corner of her eye—a red shimmer among the trees at the edge of the clearing. She looked back—nothing.
Knock it off, she thought, fighting down her rising fear. You're getting scared over a little bug. It's probably just a harmless lantern fly.
She turned and gasped with surprise as the thing streaked toward her face like a tiny fireball. Something freezing cold shot straight up her left nostril. Krissa flinched and snorted desperately. Then she winced as a sharp, stinging chill poured into her skull like ice water. The sensation soon passed as quickly as it had arrived.
"Wh—what happened?" she stammered, cold and trembling. "What was that thing?"
She stiffened when she heard a tiny, thin, triumphant voice sounding within her brain: "That would be me!"
That was the last thing Krissa heard before her mind sank into darkness.
The wolverine was looking down at her reflection in a clear flowing stream. She was thinking how great it was to be a wolverine, with her large, broad feet, thick fur coat, and her ability to run fast and effortlessly through the woods.
There was nothing in this forest that would bother her. Well, almost nothing. That glowing red ball of fire that smelled strongly of electricity gave her the chills. She felt sure it was going to shock her or do something more horrible.
The sound of leaves rustling underfoot made her swing around.
The blonde girl stood stock-still, arms at her side, her head slumped forward and her eyes tightly shut. She held limply in one hand a basket with some mushrooms inside.
For several minutes the wolverine stared at the girl, sniffing curiously. Then she walked forward, slowly and cautiously, wondering why the girl was still standing there and not running away.
As she sniffed at the many ornaments that adorned the still figure, the girl raised her head slowly and opened her eyes. Only there weren't any eyes, just gaping holes and way back in the darkened recesses, a compact mass of red shapes wriggled. Pallid lips stretched into a mocking smile.
Terrified, the wolverine snarled and retreated rapidly away. Crouching low to the ground, she backed into the stream, then spun around in a blur of spray and headed straight for home.(C) by mmpratt99 2015
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