Last week we lost J.S. Marlo in the graveyard. This week, will Jenna Greene and her friend make their way to safety like Rita, or will they be trapped forever by the muse's evil plot?
“That’s a lot of trees,” Jenna remarked as she rotated in a full circle twice. Surrounding her was bark and leaves of various textures and designs. Craning her head back, she couldn’t see the tops of any of them.
Rachel poked her in the arm. Hard. “That’s what has you marveling? A second ago we were in a cabin, laying on somewhat lumpy beds with crickets soothing us to sleep, and now we’re…here.” She flung her arms wide as she sidestepped her way out of a bush. “And you remark on the trees?”
“Well they’re pretty and there’s a lot of—” She caught Rachel’s glare. “Er, nevermind.”
Exhaling in an exaggerated fashion, Rachel thrust both hands into the pockets of her cargo pants and glanced from left to right. “Where are we?”
Resisting the urge to say, “A forest,” Jenna pinched her lips together and shrugged.
“Let’s get a better look around,” Rachel suggested, pressing a thin branch out of her way so she could move past.
The forest wasn’t easy to maneuver through. Not only were the trees thick, they often twisted like a helix. Their roots bulged from the soil, these hazards disguised by the dense underbrush that consisted of ferns, weeds, bushes, and plants. Within seven steps, Jenna was on the ground, having tripped over an unseen obstacle. Rachel helped her to her feet, and politely swatted away dirt and leaves.
Wrinkling her nose, Jenna twisted her upper body to better see the stains that marred the rear of her pants. “All the time.”
“You have enough problems on solid ground.” Rachel’s words held a hint of laugher. “Be careful.”
“Gotcha.” Jenna saluted, took two steps, and then promptly stumbled again. “Dammit!”
They wandered through the forest, guessing at a proper direction and finding no distinguishing marks to help them navigate. Likely, they were traveling in circles, as one massive, gnarled tree appeared the same as another. Though it wasn’t raining, drips from a previous storm slid off of overhangs, landing on both girls’ heads, flattening their hair, chilling their skin, and dampening their dispositions.
Wincing as a twig snapped into her face, Rachel asked, “What’s weird?”
“This place feels familiar.”
“You grew up on the west coast of Canada. You were raised with rivers, mountains, and trees. Of course a forest feels familiar.”
Jenna didn’t respond for a moment. “True. But also, no. I feel…something else.”
“Don’t analyze,” Rachel warned, bending to snatch a burr off her pant leg. “Just help me search for a way out of here.” She brushed aside a fern that was nearly as tall as she was, then halted. “Whoa.”
Barely managing to keep from plowing into Rachel, Jenna stopped as well, rising on her toes to see what her friend was viewing. When she spied a bare patch of land, devoid of trees, bushes, weeds, or even grass, she echoed her friend’s sentiment. “Whoa.”
A scientific spark rising in her, Rachel marched into the space. Gazing darting to-and-fro, she noted that all the trees around the area rose in completely straight lines, none bent or spiraled as those in the rest of the forest.
“Strange,” she murmured, bending to press her palm against the ground. She wiggled her fingers into the dirt. No seedlings were near the surface. She supposed the clearing could be man-made, but there was no evidence to support that conclusion. There were no signs of human tilling—lines or ruptures in the soil. No stones had been placed to form a border, keeping wayward weeds from encroaching on the territory. Surely in a forest this dense, crowded foliage would want to migrate to an open zone. Yet the grass and other plants bordering the clearing leaned away from the area.
Slowly, she straightened. “Jenna, have you ever seen something like this before? Right in the middle of the forest, a perfect circle of nothingness.” She glanced up, only mildly surprised by what she saw. “Not a bird or a cloud above, even. It’s like this place is its own special universe. What kind of geographical phenomen—”
“Oh god.” At the edge of the clearing, Jenna sank to her knees, forehead falling into her hands. “Not good.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.” Moving to Jenna’s side, she tugged her friend to a standing position. “It’s abnormal, sure, but nothing to lose your lunch over.”
Jenna wavered, swaying heavily to the left, forcing Rachel to tighten her grip. “What’s the matter with you?”
Releasing a low moan, Jenna said, “I know why this forest feels familiar.”
“You’ve been here before?” Rachel shrugged. “I guess something like this would be pretty distinct. I can see you recognizing-”
Straightening abruptly, Jenna swiveled into her friend’s embrace, clutching Rachel’s shoulders with both hands. “I don’t just recognize this place. I remember it.”
“I don’t see a dif—”
“I created it!” Jenna yelped, smacking a hand over her mouth as soon as the words left her throat, as if holding them back would prevent them from being true.
Eyebrows rising, Rachel repeated, “You created it?”
Hands still clamped over her lips, Jenna nodded.
Rachel sighed. “No.”
Her hands fell to the side. Tone icy, she hissed, “Yes.”
Rachel opened her mouth, closed it, and slowly formed words. “What do you mean?”
“I’m a writer.”
“And I’m an archaeologist. What’s your point?”
“I create stories. Novels. Fantasy genre, mostly.”
Rachel clicked her tongue. “Not following you here.”
“Sometimes I have to put characters into sticky situations. You know, make the setting a challenge, not just other characters. It helps with the suspense.”
Feigning patience, Rachel waited for more information.
“In my novel, Imagine, a few characters travel through the Great Forest,” Jenna stated.
Eyebrows twitching upward again, Rachel asked, “And you think this forest resembles the one you wrote about in one of your books?”
“Not resemble. Is.”
Rachel snorted. “That’s impossible.”
A look of determination on her face, Jenna entered the clearing for the first time. Reaching the center, she spread her arms at waist height and spun in a full circle. “I know this exact space. I created it. Named it. It’s called the Nellino Clearing.”
“But I’m sure lots of forests…”
“Have a perfectly circular spot of bare space, lacking even a stray blade of grass or a bird soaring overhead?” Jenna’s tone dripped with sarcasm.
Forehead creased significantly, Rachel came to Jenna’s side. “Okay. Perhaps this is the same place you describe in your novel. I guess being transported to a book setting is no more fantastical than being in our lodgings one moment and somewhere else the next.” She flicked a gaze at the sun. “And it was evening last time I checked. Now it’s full daylight.” She shivered, the cool wave starting at her toes and making its way to the top of her head. Glancing over, she noticed Jenna’s freckles stood in stark contrast to the paleness of her face. Sensing there was something more to the story, she prompted, “What is it?”
“Well, I don’t know if we’re exactly in my novel. Or just in a setting. But…”
“But?” A trickle of dread worked its way up Rachel’s spine.
“I’m just worried about what creatures are about to show up.”
Rachel blinked twice, then let her instincts take over. Latching onto Jenna’s arm, she bolted, dragging them both away from the Nellino Clearing. Crashing through underbrush, she sidestepped a prickly-looking bush before whipping around and wide tree and bracing herself against crumbling bark, yanking Jenna into position beside her.
Panting, Jenna pressed a fist against her trembling lips. “I heard something.”
Goody, Rachel thought. Then she detected movement somewhere behind them in the forest. A thump, followed by a loud snort, reached her ears as well.
Growing paler by the second, Jenna lifted her other fist and joined it with the first.
Rachel offered a hopeful smile. “You write young adult literature, right? How bad could these creatures be?”
The expression on Jenna’s face should have warned Rachel from looking, but she did so anyway. Rotating on the spot, she pushed her belly flat against the tree and leaned to the left ever so slightly.
A beat later, she was facing her friend again, white-hot rage flooding her system. “You write young adult literature!” Though her volume was low, it was heated “What’s the matter with you?”
Peeling her fists away from her mouth, Jenna lifted one shoulder and said, “Remember what I said about suspense?”
“You need professional help!” Rachel hissed.
One glimpse at the strange creature—no, creatures—beginning to occupy the clearing was enough for Rachel. She doubted any future therapy would erase the details that were now imprinted in her brain. Massive wasn’t a sufficient word to describe them. Neither was gargantuan. Their leathery skin, paired with their size, brought to mind a comparison to dinosaurs. Not only were they muscular, their arms were abnormally wide. Humps on their upper back caused their shoulders to appear malformed, and added to their characterization as monsters from nightmares.
“What did you see?” Jenna asked.
“Yes, but…” Jenna positioned herself so that she could peek around the tree. After a quick glance, she smiled. “We’re okay.”
“How so? Those things have arms like clubs. I’m pretty sure I saw fangs and claws.”
“But listen.” Jenna rotated so her left ear was positioned toward the clearing. “Do you hear that grunting sound?”
“I hear heavy breathing,” Rachel responded. “And, like, a sniffing sound.”
She nodded with enthusiasm. “These creatures are the larger of the two I created for this book, but they are easier to evade.”
“Clumsy?” Rachel guessed.
“Not really. They can’t see well, though. They rely on their sense of smell to catch prey. If they haven’t noticed us yet, I doubt they will. We’re out of their range.” She gave a mini-cheer, arms held at shoulder-level. “We’ve caught a break here. As long as we don’t hear—”
Just then, a high-pitched shriek echoed through the clearing. In unison, both girls winced.
Shaking her head in hopes that she could reject the truth, Rachel said, “Tell me what I’m thinking is wrong.”
Smile vanishing, Jenna took Rachel’s hand in a firm grip. “Don’t think. Run!”
They were far from quiet as they bolted through the forest, dodging trees, sidestepping bushes, and stumbling over roots. Branches snapped in their faces. Twigs, thorns, and burrs scraped their bare skin and tore holes in their clothing. They scrabbled over fallen logs, stumps, and seedlings. When they stumbled – Jenna far more frequently than Rachel—they wrenched each other back to flight, barely slowing.
High-octave squeals trailed them as they sprinted. Jenna whimpered every time she heard one. Rachel’s mind worked over-time, keeping pace with her feet. If what I saw already was the lesser of two evils…Lord help us!
A crash to their left occurred a split-second before a dark form landed in front of them. The girls screamed, skidding to a halt. Jenna flung her arms up above her head in defense while Rachel froze, wide-eyed.
The creature hissed, hopped once, then squealed. Golden orbs filled wide eye sockets. Teeth that dripped with saliva protruded from an elongated snout. Like the other creature, it had leathery skin that was tinged with green and orange flecks.
“What the—” Rachel breathed.
“Watch out!” Jenna hollered. “It moves quickly!”
As if in response to her cry, the creature lunged. Jaw snapping, bright-green tongue visible, it raised one leg and sent Rachel flying. She soared through the air until her spine struck a tree limb. Her body crumbled to the forest floor like a heavy rock launched into a puddle. Vision coated in black, she patted the ground to orient herself. Blinking, she gained her sight back, minus her peripheral vision, in time to see her best friend get kicked across the ground, flattening a patch of flowers as she rolled across them.
The creature turned back to its first target, batting Rachel to the ground as soon as she managed to stand. Then it sunk dipped its head and sunk its teeth into her ankle. Screaming in anguish, she jerked her free leg, aiming for the beast’s face, and struck something firm. When her ankle was released, she army-crawled behind a decaying tree that was leaning precariously to one side. A glance at her foot revealed shredded clothing and slices in her skin, highlighted by streaks of blood. Feeling woozy, she propped her upper body on a limb and searched hopefully for her friend.
“Hjaw!” Jenna flung herself onto the creature’s back, landing lopsided, barely managing to wrap one arm around its neck. A quick twist of the upper body allowed the creature to propel her from her feeble perch. She bounced twice as she landed, coming to a halt with her knees in the air and her right hand jammed under her butt. As she began to untangle herself, she moaned.
“Watch out!” Rachel ducked under the arch of the deadened tree and grabbed hold of Jenna’s shirt. The fabric tore as she tugged, but enough of it held tight. With a few grunts she managed to retrieve Jenna, dragging her to temporary safety.
“What were you thinking, leaping on its back like a ninja?” Rachel chastised, anger at her friend fueled by the fire pulsing from her ankle.
“Trying—I was trying…” Jenna panted. “Trying to get to its wings.”
Glancing at the creature, whose gaze suggested it was assessing the best way to get at its prey, then back at her friend, she asked, “What wings?”
“They’re—” Jenna still hadn’t recovered her breath. “On its back. Concealed.” She swallowed, and braced her body on her elbows to partially sit up. “But they’re thin and vulnerable.”
“So if we can slice a hole in the wings?”
“It’ll retreat,” Jenna finished. “That’s what happens in the book.”
“Okay. Good.” Rachel thought for a second. “How do we get it to reveal its wings?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Yes you do!” When Jenna started to shake her head, Rachel added, “Do you remember how this all started? You got a letter from your muse. That’s who sent us here. Obviously, this is a test of some kind. About you. About your writing. Now, you created this—this thing, strengths and weaknesses and all, not me, so you have to figure this out!”
For a moment, Jenna pinched her eyes shut. When they popped open, she blurted, “Aggressive! We have to show aggression.”
“M’on it!” Rachel wriggled free of their protective nest, reaching for the first thing she came into contact with. At first the branch wouldn’t come loose, but a sharp tug gave her control of it.
“Ywah!” Waving her free arm over her head, and jabbed the branch at the creature. She snarled and took another step forward. Unfortunately, her injured ankle couldn’t withstand the pressure. She teetered to one side, losing any hope she had of assuming a threatening demeanor. The creature squealed and bounced her way.
A rock sailed above Rachel’s head, landing nowhere near the creature. Jenna’s second missile, however, smacked it in the head. Snarling, it ducked and skittered back a step. Given time to recover, Rachel stood on one foot and brandished her branch again, swiping it to and fro.
“We might be able to intimidate it into fleeing this way—aah!” Rachel nearly jumped out of her skin as thin, translucent wings sprung from the creature’s sides. In almost the same instant, its teeth sank into her branch, tearing it from her hands. Weaponless, she pivoted. The turn was too fast and her knees collapsed under her. As she struck the ground, she bit her tongue and tasted both blood and dirt.
The warning from Jenna was unnecessary. Already Rachel was slithering to safety. Batting aside prickly weeds, she burrowed into a collection of bushes, ignoring the thorns that jabbed into her skin, knowing the threat behind her would cause far worse injury—or even death.
When she felt she was safe, Rachel rolled onto her back and sat up. Then gasped. Though the creature was facing away from her, she was far from relieved, for it was heading toward Jenna, a fiendish glee filling its gaze as it licked its inhuman lips.
Though she could clearly see the creature stalking her direction, Jenna didn’t flee.
“Jenna, run! Go!”
Squinting, Rachel tried to get a better look at her friend. What is she doing? Though her feet were glued in place, Jenna’s hands were busy, tugging at her clothing and patting her pants pockets. The creature was less than three feet away from her when she bent over to fiddle with her shoes.
“Move!” Rachel scrambled to her feet. Once again, her ankle refused to support her weight and she crashed sideways into a tree. A branch poked through her shirt, puncturing her belly. Fresh blood flowed from the wound.
As the creature snapped its teeth and sprayed saliva on her face, Jenna pulled a shiny object from her sock—the golden key they’d been given to unlock their cabin. Holding it in her fist, she raised her arm, imitating someone bearing a honed dagger.
“Jenn—” The world tilted upside down. Blinking, Rachel braced her hands against sap and bark. Resting her head on her bent forearm, she glanced back at her friend.
The creature snapped its wings closed then allowed them to spring back open. It scraped the dirt with one set of talons, then shifted its weight so it could repeat the action with the opposite leg. Beside Jenna’s face, it bit the air. Though she flinched, Jenna held her ground. And then thrust the key into the creature’s paper-thin wings as soon as it tried to clamp its jaw around her throat.
The beast reared back, jerking Jenna forward. The shaft of the key ripped a jagged line down the wing before she lost her grip and the golden item went flying. Screeching, the creature knocked her to the ground with its head, following the action with a kick to her belly. Rolling into a ball, she winced as dirt and leaves sprang at her face, stray particles stinging her eyes.
Then there was silence.
Half-crawling, half-sliding, one hand pressed against her mid-section, Rachel reached Jenna’s side. “You’re okay.” She patted Jenna’s shoulder with her free hand. “We’re okay. It’s gone, just as you predicted.”
Unfurling, Jenna eased open her eyelids. “You’re bleeding!”
“’Tis but a scratch.”
A half-smile curled one side of Jenna’s lips. “If you’re quoting Shakespeare, I know you’re not dying.”
“Nope. Not unless I copy one of Kit Marlowe’s refrains.” Rachel sighed and shifted into a more comfortable position. “Though I’m not on death’s door, though, I would like some medical attention. I assume, though, there are no hospitals in your novel?”
Hot and cold flashes rushing up her body, Jenna shivered as what was left of her bravado fled her system. Her neck had a Jello-esque quality and her fingertips were numb. “There are healers. Just none around here.”
Cringing as she leaned back, Rachel asked, “So what do we do now? How do we exit this world you’ve created?”
Jenna’s response came at once. “Where’s that key?”
“Um…” Rachel gazed around, then pointed to the left. “Over there, I think. Somewhere. Why?”
On her feet and already searching, fighting a strong sensation of vertigo, Jenna said, “Because I think it’s the key to all this. Aha!” Finding the key buried in a pile of twigs, she held it aloft.
As soon as she did so, a snapping noise reverberated through the trees. As tremendous light burst forth, Rachel swung her arm up to shield her eyes. Heat stung her face, causing her eyes to water.
Peering between her fingertips, she faced a horrid sight. The source of light and heat was an arc of fire that raced up her best friend’s body. Jenna was a mere outline, a dark shape within a pillar of flame.
“No!” Rachel screamed.
With another sharp snap, the fire dissipated; smoke trailing into the air as it followed the retreating flames.
Rachel blinked. What had just happened?
She shivered, a sense of foreboding washing over her. The fire had either consumed or transported Jenna. Either could be possible, for logic had long-since fled. Not sure whether to grieve, she struggled to her feet, one hand sill pressed against her abdomen. Blood trailed between her fingers.
A quick glance around revealed no sign of the golden key. Not that she would risk touching it anyway. But she had no other clue for how to get back to reality. She was lost. Alone. Injured. And she had no insight into this fantastical world she occupied.
Would she live to see another day? Fearing that another creature might lunge from the foliage at any moment, she took one stumbling step, then another. Feeling small, she realized she knew no one in this place. Unlike any other moment in her life, she was alone and vulnerable. Her life had changed forever in just one night.
Two authors and one friend have been caught by the muse. Stay tuned to find out what she plans to do with them next week!
This week's piece was written by Jenna Greene.
Two authors and one friend have been caught by the muse. Stay tuned to find out what she plans to do with them next week!
This week's piece was written by Jenna Greene.