The sun is dying on the horizon, bleeding different shades of gold red and pink out across the lingering clouds, the ground beneath my feet is no longer the smooth cement side walk of the city. Masky and I are at the edge of the city, a giant forest looming out in front of us only a yard or so away. Before it, is a large stone building. And that’s where we’re heading.
The busy hum of the city is no longer hissing in my ears. It’s quiet out here. Some may even describe it as too quiet. The desolate forest isn’t alive with bird song, it is cold and silent. With only the sound of an occasional tree branch groaning over head, or the wind whistling eerily through the trees. I’ve been in Screamer’s forest a few times. It’s an experience one may wish to forget, but probably never will.
Smile’s paws crunch against the gravel of the dusty dirt road laying out before us. The forest is closed of with a fence running around its border. And the building is fairly out of place but only to the few people who can actually see it. Those who haven’t had a near death experience cannot.
I steal a quick glance at Tim, his gaze isn’t on me, it’s on the forest.
I only wish I could warn him of what he was about to face. But I can’t. Those are the rules.
When we’re only a few steps away from the old stone building, who everyone calls Under Castle, my phone rings. I lift it to my ear and mutter out a brief greeting to the man I already knew was on the other end.
“Hello Hoodie.” I coat my voice in ice.
“You’ve brought Tim?” The other Proxy doesn’t bother returning my greeting, and his voice is monotonous.
“Obviously. I said I would. Open the gates, we’re pretty much here.”
“Have you told him anything?” Hoodie asks, again disregarding my words.
“No.” I bite out. This man always rubbed me the wrong way. Not only did he have superiority, but he had to act like it too, even though we only had a one page difference, and only by a few seconds. “I know the fucking rules.”
“Very well.” And the line goes dead.
I snap my phone shut angrily and shove it into the pocket on my hoodie.
“Who was that?” Tim asks suddenly, after the long silence we’d had on the way here. I’m actually surprised he hadn’t questioned me earlier on the bus, or on the walk here.
“Hoodie. He’s a proxy like me, except he’s got a bit of a different job.”
“Say for a second I actually believe you, what’s his job?”
“He’s like a secretary.” Secretary. That actually kind of fit. And it gave me a sense of satisfaction. “He does all the dirty work, although I won’t say he doesn’t get rewarded for it.”
Tim only nods slightly, before following me closer to Under Castle. The door is made from steel and spans a good 3 meters high. It lacks a door knob, and is usually locked from the inside. I place a hand on it, the metal feels cold against my skin and sends a faint shiver wracking through my body.
The door groans on it’s hinges as I push it open.
The first thing to meet my gaze is darkness, just black nothingness yawning out in front of me. The air feels damp on my tongue and smells of rust and stone. Smile brushes past me and disappears. I don’t even have time to open my mouth, before a savage growl tears from Smile’s throat a few paces ahead. I don’t have to see what he’s growling at to know who it is either.
“You could have turned the lights on, jack ass.”
I glare in Hoodie’s direction, while lifting my hands above me to feel around for the string on the ceiling. It takes me a few moments, and I bump into both Smile and Tim, more than once as I feel around. After a few continuously colourful swear words, my fingers finally brush against something long and dangly and I yank the cord. A dull yellow light floods the room. It’s small, and has only one entrance, and a hallway leading into more darkness.
Hoodie’s leaning against the door frame leading to the hall. His face hidden from view with a black and red cloth as usual. There’s a face pattern made up from the red fabric. And even though I’ve known this asshole for years now, I still haven’t seen his face. And frankly I’m not sure if Slendy has either.
“I’m not going to coddle you.” Hoodie sneers, a hint of amusement in his masked voice.
“Fuck off.” Tim interrupts me. He’s standing a foot or so behind me, his arms crossed over his chest. He doesn’t look the least bit concerned or nervous, if anything he looks bored.
Hoodie tilts his head towards my new roommate. Since I guess that’s kind of what we are. I don’t like saying we’re ‘Friends’ because I don’t think I make those anymore.
But I’m much more intrigued by Tim’s sudden comment.
When neither of us say anything, Tim continues.
“We hauled our asses all the way out here. So either get this crap over with, or fuck off and stop messing with us.” His dark brown gaze flickers to me, and his expression softens from a glare to a sharp stare. “I didn’t come here just to watch you get bitched at. Where are all these ‘monsters’ you were telling me about?”
The room goes quiet.
I’m not sure how long the silence stretches on, but the one to break it is Hoodie. He turns his back on us and heads to the other side of the room, where a table was placed neatly against the stone grey wall. “Still as sharp tongued as ever, Tim.” Hoodie finally retorted, as he sorted through some papers on the table. After a moment, he picked them up, and leant up against the table in their place.
“Still?” Tim echoes, his tone dropping from its smug octave it was tuned to a few seconds ago. “What do you mean still? And ho-“
“There’s 8 of them.” Hoodie doesn’t give him time to speak. And I watch the two of them carefully. What did Hoodie mean by still? I hadn’t taken him to see Tim before. I was the only one assigned to watching him as well. So what exactly did my rival Proxy mean?
“What?” Says Tim, his eye brows furrowing in confusion. I watched the faint creases appear in his forehead, as his expression slowly morphed to suspicion.
“There are 8 pages.” Hoodie repeats his words and holds up the simple lined pages, each with a different black drawing messily scrawled onto them. They were the same ones every time. Some pages were stained with blood, others torn, and more damaged by water stains or covered in dirt. Occasionally one had to be re-made, but remaking them was a pain, since the specific paper they were made out of was designed to increase the effects of The Sickness.
“D-Don’t ignore me!” At this point I assume Tim’s a little weirded out, because his expression has changed once more, and he’s looking at Hoodie with a re-approachful look in his eyes. “Do you know me or something?”
Even though neither of us can see the other proxy’s eyes, we both know he’s staring at Tim, debating on accepting the challenge Tim had just thrown out.
“... No.” Hoodie looks back at the pages collected in his left hand, and he holds them up. “Now pay attention. As I said before there are 8 pages. These are your goal. Collect as many as you can, as quickly as you can. Do you understand?”
Tim blinks. “No, what the fuck are you talking about? Collect them from where?”
Hoodie doesn’t respond. Instead he turns his head in my direction. I hate it so much that he doesn’t show his stupid face. Because I know he’s looking at me, and I can’t see what stupid expression he has on, or if he’s even looking me in the eyes. I glare back, momentarily forgetting about the job at hand.
“Well Jeff?” I can practically taste the venom in Hoodie’s voice as he speaks. “Get on with it.”
Fuck. I realize why he’s staring at me. Why couldn’t he fucking do it?
Despite my earlier contemplations this morning, scaring Tim was one thing, but I didn’t really want to hurt my new roommate, especially not before The Game. When I first had to play, I remember being stuck up and completely fearless. Humans didn’t frighten me anymore. I’d already had a taste for being the predator, and not the prey. I under-estimated this entire thing. Even when the rules were explained to me a bit better, because back then it wasn’t a jack ass like Hoodie who explained them, it was Jack. And Jack actually bothered to explain stuff as well as he could without breaking the rules.
Still, I wouldn’t envy anyone in Tim’s shoes right now. He’s underestimating the position he’s in.
But the King of the street’s was about to be the jester of the game.
Hoodie doesn’t retract his invisible gaze from me, I know because his face is still facing me, and I can practically feel my skin burning under his stare. “Asshole.” I spit the word at him, a snarl hinted at the end of the word.
“Oh and Tim,” Says the hooded man, intentionally snapping Tim’s attention away from me.
“Remember to hurry.”
“What the fuck, hurry wh-“ I don’t let Tim finish the rest of his sentence. Taking a deep breath, I quickly grab the blade of my knife in my hand. Since I'm mad I don't even care that I'm going to slit myself open. Instead I just drive the blunt side of the knife against the side of Tim's skull. It makes a rather loud hallow ‘klud’ noise. That one so specific, it only comes from the sound of bone being beaten. The sound instinctively makes butterflies rush through my stomach. But I still feel bad.
Tim crumples to the floor, and my eyes meet his momentarily. There’s betrayal in them.
Sorry I mouth the word, unsure if Tim caught it or not before his eyes close.
Darkness is the first thing I’m conscious of. My body feels as heavy as lead, and dark shapes fade in and out of my vision, as my eyes attempt to open. Everything around me feels faint and numbed. There’s a dizzying hum in the back of my head, that makes the ground seem uneven beneath me. My lungs feel like they’ve been frozen, and every breath is an exhausting heave. The oxygen that manages to slip through my stinging lips, is dull and tastes heavy, like I’m breathing steam through a tube. I can hear the air hitching in my throat, as something slowly creaks above me, groaning back and forth.
For a second it feels like a wind sweeps over my body, seeping in through the fabric of my hoodie. There’s a sharp pain in the back of my head, hardly noticeable over the nauseating hum in my brain. I feel sick.
Where am I?
I try to struggle from the thick fog my mind has been thrown into. I try to regain control of my body, second by second.
I can feel my fingers scrape against something, the feeling is far away, but I keep moving them, until it feels more and more familiar, my sense slowly returning to me, as the ground slowly stops shifting under my weight.
As I slowly regain control of my limbs, I once again try my eyes.
Salt and pepper stars blanket my vision, but I’m used to those, thankfully. I wait for them to clear out, slowly prickling to the edge of my eyes. My sight clears enough for me to make out long pillars of different sizes running up from the ground, extending into the darkness, till I could no longer see. Some were shrouded my choppy shapes, that I soon recognized to be leaves.
I suck in another breath, glad to feel this one a little more revitalizing. My lungs seem to unfreeze slightly, and I can literally feel fluttering inside my ribcage. The feeling is similar to a shrooms or mushroom trip.
I don’t know how much time I let pass, before I feel I can finally move, but when my breathing becomes even for the most part, I decide to test my bearings. I’m laying in grass and dirt, above me the branches of many trees gently rock and sway back and forth, occasionally letting out an eerie creaking noise. A shudder passes through my body, from both the cold, and from the weak dizziness still lingering in my body.
Everything suddenly comes to me. Jeff had knocked me out. But he, he’d said something before I blacked out. It almost seemed like ‘sorry’ But why would he bother apologizing? And what about Hoodie, he was saying something about pages. But after that... I guess they had dragged me into this forest.
I glance around, trying to peer through the trees for any sign of something familiar. I spin around, my gaze rests on a big steel fence. I look at the wires running through it, and the barbs on the top. I didn’t have to touch it to know there were electrical currents pulsing through it. I hissed in disappointment.
Wherever the fuck I was, it didn’t seem like I was getting out of here easily.
There’s something heavy in the front pouch on my hoodie. I slip a hand in, and my fingers are met with a hard plastic rod. I retrieve the object, and turn it over in my hands. It’s a flash light. I wasn’t carrying one before. There’s a note on it:
Find the 8 pages,
I don’t fucking want to find anything right now, to be brutally honest. My head feels like it’s going to split apart, and even over every hang over I’ve ever had, or drug come down, I would rather take any of them over how I feel now. The ground still threatens my balance. It’s not moving, but it feels uneven, and my body still feels heavy with a fatigue I’d never felt in my entire life before. My throat itched, and I would have killed for a glass of water. I feel around in my pockets, locating a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. This is a relief. I bring on to my lips, light it and take a breath of the toxic smoke.
It’s time to get moving. I don’t have any intention of finding the pages, but if I come across one, I’ll pick it up. What I’m really interested in, is finding an exit. I flip the little not over. There’s more text scrawled across it.
Never mind. Looks like I’ll be looking for both, pages and an exit. I’m not entirely sure disobeying the note is in my best interest, and even though I hate obeying some random note I find on me, when I wake up in the middle of a fucking forest, this is still a first thing for me, and I decide to stay level headed, and not let my irritation get the best of me. I slip my mask over my face, since it makes me feel less exposed.
The coarse grasses and crumbly dirt, crunch eerily beneath my feet, and the sound is so loud, all I can hear is my footsteps and my breathe, which I still can’t get to back to normal completely.
I feel better the more I breathe, but breathing itself stings and my throat is still as dry as ever. I try to muffle the sound of my footsteps as much as I can, keeping closer to the trees, and away from the dirt path that seems to run through the forest. Although I decide to follow the path and keep it in sight at all times. I try to do the same with the fence, but eventually I lose it in the shadows of the eerie forest.
There was literally no sound at all, the wind was hardly blowing, and what little wind there was, only gave a faint rustle of the leaves, and a creak of the branches. There weren’t any animals, just nothing.
After a couple of minutes I nearly assume I’ve gone in circles, until a shape melts out of the darkness ahead. I can’t quite make it out from this distance, so I draw closer to it, ready to fight something if I need to. Although to be honest, I feel kind of naked without even a pocket knife to my name. My gun that I always carry, is gone.
I drag my feet over the blades of grass, bringing my crunching footsteps down to a dull whisper of foliage brushing rubber. The shape grows more colourful as I draw closer to it, and I finally decide to make use of the flashlight I was... given? I turn it’s tunnel of faint yellow light on the object before me.
The thing is red, and it extends well beyond my height, but thanks to the tree branches keeping more to themselves, I have enough clearance to see all the way to the top of it. It’s... a big red farmer tower. What were those things called again?
It was a big red, rusty silo. The dull red paint flaked off it in certain areas, and it was rough to the touch. I run a hand along the surface, walking around the base of it and keeping the flash light on. It’s a sudden bright piece of white that appears on the side of the silo, that snatches my attention.
I reach for it. It’s got a black doodle sketched on to it. It looks like it was drawn by a child. There’s what I assume to be a man in a suit drawn on it, and next to it are some trees, although they’re way out of proportion, and the man is nearly as tall as they are. Oddly he has no face. If I had a pencil, I would have drawn one on it. There’s more writing on it, running vertically down the page.
I read the scribble out loud. I try not to spend too much time, lagging around, and quickly snatch up the paper. I could be imagining things. But as soon as my hand makes contact with the page, the pain in my head suddenly worsens. I fold it in half, and stick it in my pocket.
I retrace my steps back around the silo, till I can see the path again. I feel like I’m being watched, although I know I’m just being paranoid. It was impossible not to be paranoid in this kind of situation. I woke up in a fucking forest for crying out loud. But if I was sleeping in the middle of it and woke up okay, I should be fine, wondering around.
And these are the thoughts I use to reassure myself, and fight of the urge to glance over my shoulder. I won’t give into the paranoia.
I continue on the path, pausing only to crush my cigarette out in the dirt. It didn’t help my throat at all. In fact, I feel like it made it worse. I cover my mouth with my mask once more.
The next land mark to stick out is a big, and I mean big, rock, with two little ones next to it. There’s a page on one of them. I study this one like I did with the last.
I roll my eyes and pick this one up too.
My chest suddenly tightens out of nowhere, and my lungs feel like they’re being crushed. A bout of coughs wracks through my body. In my painful wheezing fit, I manage to fold the page and add it to the other one. So far I haven’t found anything useful, other than these stupid pages. But I have a good idea of how the forest looks. The path seems circular.
I stumble on.
On my journey through the forest, I find another bizarre landmark, a random brick wall in the shape of an X. Unfortunately, there’s nothing on it. And I’m forced to keep looking.
My bravado is running thin, and even I can’t trick my mind anymore. I swear I’m being followed. But I’d know if I was. And that’s the part that’s freaking me out so much. I glance behind me.
Like I thought. There’s nothing there. But I can feel a whisper amongst the trees that just feels like breath on the back of my neck. I can feel a gaze burning at my back. I can feel a presence. An unhappy one.
Another fit of coughs catches me by surprise, but I keep walking and just give up on ignoring them. Maybe there was a gas in the air or something. The pressure in my head was getting worse too, and the nauseating feeling hadn’t left me yet.
By the time I reach my next marking point, I’m exhausted. I don’t want to move anymore, and I’ve checked over my shoulder half a dozen times. I’ve even paused to just stare into the darkness. And each time I see nothing.
It’s probably my mind playing tricks on me, or my vision messing with me, but I swear I catch movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s nearly just a trick of the light. Maybe a cloud passing over the moon, but every once in awhile, I see something in my peripheral vision. But when I turn to look, it’s gone. I reach a grove of cut down trees. Or partially cut down. The tree tops are missing, but the trunks are bigger than most of the other ones around it. I use the flash light to inspect them. The one on the far left has a note attached to it. Finally. I draw closer to it, and peer at the contents.
‘Don’t look. Or it takes you.’
This one makes my blood run cold. And when I pick it up, I find my fingers feel numb again. My vision blur as my fingers make contact with the paper. These things are either fucking with me, or I’m abusing my body too much. Either way I need out of here. My sanity is slowly dripping away. I read the message again. The sentence feels ironic on my tongue. All I’ve been doing is looking. Looking for something. Looking for whatever it was that keeps following me...
I fold the page and put it away with the others.
And that’s when I see it. A face. A pale white face staring at me vividly through the trees. I freeze, I can’t help it, and the pain in my head suddenly raises to a nearly unbearable level, I can hear a high pitched screech ringing in my ears. Making my vision so fuzzy it threatens to disappear all together. All I can see are black and white flecks of salt and pepper. And that ghastly face.
I can’t take this. I’m going to die. I can literally taste my own fear in the air. I don’t even know why I’m scared. Death doesn’t scare me but that fucking thing doesn’t have eyes, and I can’t breathe, my throat feels like it’s being crushed. More coughs are pouring from my throat. I just can’t do this. This isn’t normal. That thing isn’t human. I can’t scream, I can’t breathe, I can’t feel.
I turn tail, and I run.