The Dryad of the Woods

Chapter 1: Underneath

Felton slammed on his brakes, releasing a choir of screeching tires. His SUV stopped abruptly, narrowly missing the car ahead.

“Jesus, Dad!” Ruth yelled. “The hell?”

Felton gripped the steering wheel in an iron grip, feeling his heart pound a mile-a-minute. After a few seconds, he managed to release a sigh of relief. “You okay?”

“Barely. What the hell gives?”

Language, young lady.”

She scoffed. “Why isn’t anyone moving?”

He squinted ahead, attempting to see through the frost-covered windshield. “Not sure. Thank God for four-wheel drive, huh?”

Ruth groaned, rocking back-and-forth in her seat. “Can we go already? I seriously have to pee.”

“No one’s moving alright. I hope it ain’t too serious. Think I oughta check it out jus’ to make sure though.”

“What? Did you even hear me, Dad?”

“It’ll only be a minute, Ruthy. You see now, I told you to go easy on the Pumpkin Lattes.”

She groaned louder, leaning onto the dashboard, causing her auburn hair to cascade around her head in a twisted bunch.

“You can handle a minute. We’re at least twenty out anyway. Besides, if it becomes too much, you do have the tree line,” he joked.

She quickly shot him a salty glare as he exited with a smile. Outside, he was met with the cool wind of the snowy mountains. It sparked a ripple of swaying trees that extended for miles into the horizon. Felton shivered, propping up his collar.

Ahead, he could hear an angry voice shouting. The vehicle, a fancy Lincoln SUV, had a shattered headlight accented with a smashed front bumper. A foot ahead of it was a red Chevy truck inscribed with a minor dent in its rear. A man stood by the driver window pounding on it.

“Hey, what the fuck is your problem?!” he yelled smacking the glass again. He was clearly not from the area, no doubt a city-fellow. It was like he was peeled right out of a white-collar movie: combed-back slick hair, dark shades, and an overcoat atop a nice suit. “Open the fucking door!” he went on.

“Everything okay?” Felton spoke-up as he approached.

Seriously, man?” he shot back, gesturing to his car.

Poor choice of words, Felton thought. “How about we calm down, so we can figure out what happened?”

The man continued to smack the glass. “I’ll tell you what happened: this cunt just ruined a $90,000 car. And she’s gonna pay for it. Every. Fucking. Cent. And. More! I’m gonna sue you into the ground if you don’t open up, you dumb bitch!”

Felton set his jaw. Nothing fueled him more than disrespect to a lady. In most cases, the easiest way to set an asshole in his place was a quick crack to the jaw, but he thought otherwise; there was no need to add fuel to the fire. Instead Felton slid in-between the suit and the truck.

“Alright, back off. She’ll do what she needs to, but you’re not helpin’ anything. Give us some space. Now.”

The man noted his size difference to Felton, who owned a foot over him and was clearly gifted with more body mass. After a minute of glaring, he reeled out his phone and sauntered away. Felton turned back to the driver in the truck. It was a woman, middle-aged with blond hair. She was tightly gripping the wheel facing ahead like a statue. Her eyes were glossy and her face was paralyzed with grief.

“Ma’am?” Felton tapped on the glass. “Can you roll down the window?”

She remained fixed though. So, Felton tapped a little harder, which seemed to awaken her. The woman turned his way slightly, eyeing him with a blank stare and slowly complied.

“You alright, ma’am?”

She remained silent, opting to simply shake her head.

“Well, are you hurt?”

Again, she shook her head.

“Okay, good. What’s you’re name then?”

“C-Carol,” she finally stammered.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Felton. Now, I’m jus’ tryin’ to find out what happened, is all. Why’d you slam your breaks? You lose traction on ‘er?”

“N-no.”

“Okay, how ‘bout the engine? It stall on you?”

“No.”

“Is—”

“My truck’s fine!” she snapped. “I know how to handle it, goddammit.”

“Alright, alright. Jus’ checkin’,” Felton replied with his hands up. “If everything’s so dandy then what happened, you see something on the road or what?”

Instantly, Carol’s eyes flashed, and she slowly nodded.

“What’d you see, a deer?”

“No, I saw…” Tears started welling up in her eyes again. “I saw… a kid. Oh God, I t-think I hit a kid.” She swallowed. “I couldn’t stop in time. I swear to God I tried.”

Felton grimaced. “You’re probably mistak–”

“Just jumped out of nowhere, they did,” the woman interrupted with a quivered lip. A tear rolled downed her cheek. “I-I don’t wanna check… I can’t… P-please don’t make me.”

She was clearly shaken by the ordeal. There was no way a kid could be out in these parts, but Felton nodded solemnly. He figured he indulge her to keep everything calm.

“It’s fine. Jus’ stay put, Carol. I-I’ll check for you.”

Felton swallowed and slowly crouched down. His heart got to pounding again though. Why are my nerves shakin’ to this?he thought. Ain’t nothing gonna be down there.

As he peered underneath, the frigid wind rushed against his face, forcing his eyes to water. He glanced ahead, bracing for a horrid sight. Around the first two tires, he saw nothing – no blood or any evidence pointing to a supposed “body”. He chuckled to himself in relief.

However, when he scanned further back, he noticed a dark bulge near the far rear tire. Felton recoiled, feeling a knot grow in his stomach. He squinted at it but it was hard to make it out from his angle. The knot tightened when he realized he’d need to get closer to get a better look. In no hurry, he edged his way around to the rear passenger. As he approached the bulge, the wind made another pass, swaying what appeared to be clothing.

“D-dear Lord,” he whispered.

“You s-see anything?” Carol stammered.

Felton ignored her though, crouching down to it. It couldn’t be a kid; it was impossible. It had to be something else – a small animal at worse. Time felt stagnant as he got lower. All the while, his mind attempted to deconstruct the “body” into something else, but he couldn’t shake the original thought: a crushed kid? He slowly extended his hand towards it, feeling every cell in his body object the action until he touched it. Immediately, he flinched, but was then filled with instant reprieve.

“It’s n-not a kid,” he relayed up. “Or an animal…”

He heard Carol exhale; it sounded as if she’d been holding since the beginning. Felton reeled the object from underneath the car and into the light, staring at it with a puzzled look. He carefully brought it over to the driver’s side. Carol noticed it and gave off the same confused expression.

“What is that?” she asked.

He shook his head unable to answer.

It was a strange bale of twigs held loosely together by twine in several areas. Despite being a disheveled heap, it appeared as if it had once formed a shape, but it was hard to tell what now. Admittedly, Felton was more disturbed than confused. This thing didn’t seem like something one would find up in the wilderness, not naturally at least. He quickly tossed it off the road.

The suit from earlier returned. “Shit, I can’t get a fuckin’ signal to the cops,” he stated, pocketing his cellphone. “Now, did I see correctly that this chick ruined my car because she ran over a tree?”

“A bushel of twigs to be exact,” Felton corrected him, “and you’re not gonna get anything out here. Passed through here enough times to know.”

The man scoffed. “Great, the fuck are we suppose to do then? Alex Cartfield is a very important man and he has places he needs to be.”

“Who the hell is Alex Cartfield?” Felton asked, setting his jaw again.

“Alex Cartfield is me,” he stated, jabbing a thumb to his chest.

“You always refer to yourself in third-person?”

He scoffed again. “Look, just tell me how we can get a signal out here.”

Felton bit his lip, but answered grudgingly. “There’s a rest stop ten miles out. They got a landline you can use to call the sheriff. You have to go inland a bit but it shouldn’t be too hard to reach.”

“I can probably find it,” Carol chimed-in. “I don’t mind leadin’ if I have to.”

The suit shot a glare her way. “Fuck no, I ain’t trusting you to lead Jack-shit. You can’t even tell the difference between a kid and a fucking tree.”

She sank into her seat.

“Hey now, ease up” Felton spoke-up. “How about I lead then? I know the layout and I’m headin’ to that spot anyhow. Shouldn’t take no more than thirty minutes if we ride slow.”

The man contemplated the thought and then nodded.

“Smooth Peaches then. Hang tight and let me grab my car.”

The man left for his SUV. Felton was about to follow when Carol held out a hand to him.

“Hey, they got coffee up this place? I’m… a wreck without it.”

“Sure do – Sam’s the keeper. He knows a thing or two ‘bout a good pot. Best brew for miles.”

She smiled. “Cool. And thanks… for stepping in when you did. Not sure what I was gonna do.”

Felton nodded in acknowledgment. Immediately, the chilly wind summoned another shiver from him, prompting him to push forward, catching a glare from the suit as he passed.

As he approached his own SUV, something caught his eye in the distant tree line. He squinted through the white mist and was surprised to see what looked like a figure – a short, child-sized one. It stood unmoving near the edge of the trees seemly staring back at him.

“Hey, do you see—” he said, turning back, but it was obvious that neither would be able to hear him.

He returned to the tree line and immediately his heart dropped. The figure had moved closer. In the second he had looked away, it had managed to jump from its previous location, but it wasn’t just a few feet; it had to have been at least a mile or so. That was impossible though. The hairs on his neck pricked up. Felton soon began to hear faint whispers as if someone spoke just out of earshot. Was someone calling out to him? Again, he checked behind, but it didn’t seem to be from the others.

No, he thought, it’s jus’ the wind playing tricks.

As his eyes fell back on the figure, he noticed it had jumped even closer. At this point, Felton was ready to bolt to his car but his body felt paralyzed, paranoia washing over him like a wave. He started to feel what he could only describe as an emptiness in his stomach, like a cold hollowness expanding within him like the knot in a tree. The voices grew louder with this, seemingly repeating a word but he couldn’t decipher it. Where were they coming from? What was happening to him?

Suddenly, a loud car horn startled him.

“Come on, Dad!” Ruth shouted from the window. “I need to piss!”

Felton blinked for a second, feeling as if he had awoken from a dream. The cold air finally settled back in and he could feel the sting of its kiss lingering across his face as if he’d been bearing it for an hour.

He glanced back at the tree line, but the figure – whatever it was – was gone. Was it ever there? That emptiness – what the hell was that? It felt like… He had no time to dwell on it as Ruth leaned on the horn again. He gave one final scan of the trees and shook the thought away, continuing to the SUV.

Chapter 2: Thunder

“Well, I’ll be a wet match on a cold night – Felton, is that you?”

“How you doin’, Sam?”

The old man set aside his broom and hobbled over to Felton into a heartfelt hug. It must’ve been concerning for those observing to see the bear-of-a-man hug the scrawny old one, seemingly on the verge of breaking the latter.

“I was wonderin’ when Felton Banks was gonna swing by this ol’ lodge and give an ol’ friend some company. Can’t even recall the last time ya blessed these parts.”

The lobby of the lodge was big, well-lit by its many windows. It was cramped wall-to-wall with dated furniture, mainly comprised of leather comforters embroiled with creases that rivaled Sam. They were huddled in groups around chipped coffee tables like a campfire site. Every inch of the walls was heavily ornamented with old knickknacks and taxied animal heads that filled the air with a musty scent of pine.

“Well I’ll be. Look at ya all grown-up,” Sam said, eyeing Ruth. “Ya almost as tall as yer pa’.”

She grinned sheepishly at the compliment. She knew her height was nowhere near her father’s towering one, yet she still rendered a hug to the old man. “Hey Sammy.”

“Ya look like a stunnin’ reflection of yer mother too,” Sam went on, looking her up-and-down. “Felton whatcha been feedin’ her. I swear chil’ren bein’ growin’ too doggone fast these days.”

“Only the good stuff, but she’s been dyin’ to eat your grilled cheddars again.”

Sam scoffed. “I dun told ya the recipe how many times now? Ya still ain’t got it yet?”

“It ain’t the same, Sam. Nothing beats—”

“Excuse me,” Alex interrupted. “I hate to jump between this little reunion, but I need a phone so I can call the sheriff. I got places I need to be. Now do you have one or not?”

Sam’s brow tightened as his eyes bared a salty glare.

“Um Sammy?” Ruth chimed-in, hobbling in place, “Sorry to cut this short too, but I really need to use the lady’s room anyway.”

His face lightened. “Ya still remember where the bathroom is, right? On the second floor, darlin’. To the right on the end – just got it refurbished too.”

She thanked him and hurried off.

“Old man?” Alex interrupted again. “The phone?”

The scowl returned to Sam. He clenched his fist and started to walk towards him until Felton stepped in-between.

“Looky here, Sam. These two had a bit of a fender-bender down the road. You know how that can be? Even in the heat nothin’ can melt taut like that. If you give ‘im what he needs, he’ll be outta your hair before you know it.”

Sam exchanged a glance from Felton to the uptight prick and then sighed. “Phone’s on the second too – in the diner. Come on then, I can whip up some of them grilled cheddars and anything else ya want. Any of y’all gonna need a room?”

He led the group to a staircase in the back. As stated, there was a small diner at the top, housing several tables and booths. Off to the side was a miniature-sized room resembling the lobby with a few comforters and even more knickknacks covering the walls.

Sam pointed to the wall next to the counter. “There’s ya phone. Sheriff’s number is posted on the side.”

The suit stormed over to it.

Sam hobbled behind the counter. “So, I got two grilled cheddars for you and Ruthy – anything else?” he asked.

“Can I get a coffee?” a soft woman’s voice spoke-up.

Her presence startled him. “Sorry there, missy. Didn’t see you trailin’ the pack. One cup of java comin’ up. Pot’s fresh too. Oh, and that’ll be two-fifty.”

Felton glanced back to see her render a sheepish grin.

This was the first time he had really taken in her appearance. She was a short woman, rivaling Ruth in height, with golden locks nestling around her ears. She had a face plastered with freckles and eyes greener than moss. She was certainly a looker and a thin one – donning a minty green and white sweater. He noted the large stain of coffee on it.

“So, is it salvageable?” he asked. “The sweater, I mean? Coffee always seems drawn to shirts like a skeet on a neck.”

She glanced down at it and chuckled. “Oh this? Yeah, it’s a crock – my favorite too – but my mama knows a thing or two about stains. This’ll be nothing to her.”

“Your mama, huh? That why your cuttin’ through the Pass? Let’s see… From the way you hold yourself I’d figured you to be… a Nebraskan girl, am I right?”

She gave him an impressed look. “Am I that obvious? Or did you just look at my plates?”

He laughed. “I’m might’ve peeked at that,” he admitted.

She smiled, shaking her head. “Well, yeah I’m a Nebraskan girl: born and raised. And yeah, I’m on my way to see my mama. It was Felton, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, Felton Banks,” he said, offering a hand. “Carol, if I remember it?”

“Yeah, Carol Swan,” she replied, taking it. “You seem to know the innkeeper pretty well. I take it you’re from around these parts?”

“Somethin’ like that. Me and Ruthy used to come through here every year to do some huntin’.”

“Ruthy? I take it she’s your daughter?”

“Yes, ma’am. She’s sixteen years a-pain-in-my-ass.”

Carol snickered.

“In all seriousness though, I love ‘er to dead. She’s my pride and light. Don’t know what I’d do without ‘er.”

“That’s nice.”

“What ‘bout you? Any kids yourself?”

“Me? None. To be honest, I’d say I’m still a kid at heart.”

“Is that so?”

Sam set the mug of hot Joe on the counter and Carol quickly slid the exact payment his way. He popped it into the register and made his way back into the kitchen. Felton eyed her as she lifted the mug and took a small sip.

“Well…?”

She smiled and took another one. “I’d say it’s damn good indeed.”

“You hear that, Sam?!” Felton called back to him. “Found you another believer!”

“Mighty obliged!” he replied.

Felton caught her staring over at Alex on the phone who was obnoxiously yelling at the sheriff, occasionally tossing a glance back her way like a guard dog.

“So, how you feelin’?” he asked.

“Still a bit shaken-up, to say the least. Most of it’s a blur now.”

“You gonna be alright?”

She nodded softly, taking another sip. “I’m starting to second-guess what happened out there. Thinkin’ maybe I dosed off and then slammed the brakes when I realized it. Thank you again, for stepping in – I know I already said that – I just… really thought that guy was gonna clock me or something.”

Felton chuckled. “Don’t you worry ‘bout him. Assholes like to talk a big game, but he ain’t gonna touch you.”

“Ya damn skippy, that’s all they do,” Sam chimed-in returning up to the counter. “Lousy good for nothin’…”

“At least, I wouldn’t let ‘im.” Felton scowled towards Alex.

She chuckled. “So, is that your angle? The big strong guardian: checking up on everyone, fighting back one ‘asshole’ at a time, stranger or not?”

He sneered. “We’re all people at the end of the day, jus’ tryin’ to make our own way. Some jus’ feel the need to butt heads jus’ because. Me, I jus’ do what I can.”

“Well, what ya need to do,” Sam started, “is keep that kinda trouble away from m—”

His words were cut-off by a small tremor. The glasses and silverware started to rattle. Even the knickknacks on the walls began to shake. Felton turned to Carol to see her eyes widen in fear. It felt like the rumbling from an earthquake.

“What the…?!” Alex shouted, pulling the phone away.

The tremor escalated into a more violent shake like the entire building was encased within a snow globe. Suddenly, a loud thunder exploded in the air, forcing Carol to instinctively grab onto Felton as the lights started to flicker erratically. More lamps and other loose items continued to shake until they crashed to the ground, followed by tables sliding across the floor. The walls joined the choir of roaring, adding a deep moan.

“Sam, what the hell’s going on?!” Felton screamed, his voice barely carried over the thunder of noises.

“Not sure!” he shouted back. His eyes drifted over to the window. “Oh Shi—”

Yet, his words were interrupted by a heavy thud against the building which threw everyone to the ground. Several windows shattered from the impact, launching glass in all directions. The walls moaned even louder accompanied by the splitting of wood and furniture slamming up against them. Felton held on tightly to Carol on the floor as the chaos around them continued to erupt.

After several more seconds, the tremor slowly began to die. The rattling soon ceased, and everything settled.

Felton slowly looked up. Glass and other knickknacks from the walls were sprawled-out on the floor, a few tables overturned. He glanced down at Carol, who was buried in his chest.

“You alright?” he asked her.

She poked her head up, her face plastered with fear. “Yeah. W-what just happened?” she spoke softly; it was as if she was afraid her voice would kick-start another episode.

“Everybody else okay?!” Felton called out.

Sam poked out from behind the counter, eyes in a frenzy as he studied the damage around. Alex emerged as well cursing to himself.

“Ruth!” Felton called out. “Ruthy, are you okay?!”

There was a second of delay before her voice carried out from the halls in the back. “Dad!” she called out emerging. She ran up to him and into his arms.

“Are you alright, darlin’? Are you hurt?”

She had tears in her eyes. “No, I’m fine. What the hell happened? What was that?”

“Sweet Jesus!” Sam said out loud. He tore from around the counter and over to one of the broken windows.

Alex joined him, more curses under his breath. Curious, Felton made his way over too, not removing his grip from Ruth with Carol in tow. He approached the window and his heart dropped at the sight. For miles, snow engulfed the trees like a white ocean. Broken branches and uprooted trunks could be seen sticking out in the mix.

It was an avalanche.

The group stared silently in awe at the sight until a splash of snow from the roof drew Felton’s attention to the windowsill. He noticed the snow had stopped just a few feet below the opening. His heart sank even lower at the revelation: if the snow had reached this high, that meant their cars were clearly submerged.

Chapter 3: Generator

Felton’s hands cramped as he dug his shovel deep into the snow and heaved another good clump off to the side. He paused to catch his breath and checked his progress. He could just make out the top of his black SUV completely submerged, thick ice and snow swallowing it and everything else around. A mound next to it signified the top of Carol’s truck with Alex and Sam’s vehicles further down the line.

The minor trench he had created was just a few feet deep. Felton traced from his car to the road beyond and released a deep sigh. Even if they managed to dig out their vehicles, that didn’t even include the battle there was sure to be trying to clear a low enough incline to drive up on. Not to mention the snow was sure to freeze soon, making an already losing battle even worse.

“I don’t care!” a voice yelled from inside the lodge. “It’s your fucking fault why we’re stuck here in the first place!”

It sounded like the suit was having another tantrum.

“I could be in the next state by now if it wasn’t for your ass!”

“Back off ‘er now!”

Felton decided to call it quits for now and made his way back inside. The snow had managed to burst through the doors and into the lobby submerging all within sight. He had already cleared enough room for them to close again, but they didn’t seal completely. The furniture of the lobby lay swallowed by the snow, with few knickknacks clung to the crack embroiled walls. They were lucky the damage wasn’t too extensive. He reached the stairs and climbed up into the diner.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

Sam sighed. “This damn fool’s gonna get his teeth emptied if he keeps yellin’ at this nice lady, is what’s gonna happen.”

“Yeah? Take your best shot, gramps!”

Carol was sitting at one of the booths, hugging herself. Her eyes were glossy and she had a reddened face. “Look, I already said I was sorry, okay?”

“Sorry, huh?” Alex shot, “Sorry, ain’t gonna get us out a fuckin’ avalanche.”

“I said cool it, punk!” Sam yelled.

“Alright, let’s all calm down,” Felton jumped-in. It was clear the moment was getting to everyone. “We need to keep a sound mind if we wanna get through this, alright?”

“I am calm!” Alex spat. He turned his attention to Sam. “Why the hell isn’t your phone working? You should be prepared for this kind of shit!”

Sam glared back. “Listen here, buddy, I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years, and I can tell you, Misty Pass don’t get no avalanches.”

Alex scoffed and pointed to the window. “Well newsflash, pops: it looks like the rules have fucking changed!”

“Why ya—” Sam rolled up his sleeves.

“Alright, alright! Everybody jus’ relax!” Felton shouted.

He noticed Carol was excessively rubbing her arms.

“You alright?”

She gave off a sheepish grin and nodded. “Yeah, I just… I don’t like knowing we’re trapped here, stuck in one place… with no help.”

He nodded. “I know how it looks now, but we’ll be fine. Can I have you check out the rooms and see what state they’re in? Might be good to know if we can use any of ’em. There’s no tellin’ how long we’re due-in. Might as well get to preppin’.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you look like you can use the motion and I think it’ll help get your mind off the whole ordeal.”

She bit her lip and reluctantly nodded.

“If none are salvageable, at least collect the sheets and pillows. Sam, can you give ‘er the keys for that?”

The old man detached a ring from his belt and handed it off to her.

“Darlin’?” he said to Ruth. She was sitting in the adjacent booth to Carol, head on the table. “Might be good for you too. Can you accompany Miss Carol?”

Ruth shrugged nonchalantly.

“And Sam,” Felton continued, “Can you man that phone and see if you can get through to the sheriff?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I can do that, Felton.”

Alex scoffed. “Alright, noble leader, what about you?”

For a second, the lights from the lamps quickly faded in-and-out drawing everyone’s attention.

“I’m gonna have a look at that generator to see what state it’s in.”

Alex smirked. “Knock yourself out then. I sure as hell ain’t going out there.”

Felton set his jaw. “Fine.” He tossed the shovel into Alex’s hands. “You got next shift on the cars.”

Alex threw it down. “I ain’t doing shit!”

Felton quickly closed the gap between them. “Look, I ain’t here to play, ‘whose got the bigger dick’. Everyone here is pullin’ their weight and you’ll do the same, you hear?” He picked up the shovel and pushed it into Alex’s hands. “Now get to it.”

The suit glared at him. For a second, it looked like he’d object further but he loosened his tie and grudgingly started to make his way to the stairs.

“Hold up, city-fellow,” Sam spoke-up; Alex halted with an irritated look.

“Felton,” Sam said hobbling over to him, “that ol’ generator is stubborn, always has been. Let me look at ‘er. I know how to work ‘er.”

“Sam, I don’t think you should go out there.”

The old man sucked his teeth. “Listen here, sonny. I’ve been doin’ this way before ya knew what pant leg went where. I’ll be fine; I would’ve called it quits if I didn’t think otherwise after all these years.”

Felton chuckled. “Alright, but I’ll be nearby. Call-out if you need anything.”

“Oh, don’t ya worry, I aint goin’ out there yet. That shack to the generator is probably buried to all hell. Gonna have the suit help dig it up. Ya hear me?” Sam said, glancing over to him. Alex’s glare tightened at the news. “While he does that, maybe ya can see what we can use to cover these windows. Night’ll be here before ya know it, and ya know how evenin’s are around these parts.”

“Yeah, good thinkin’.”

***
Carol opened a door in the hallway and peeked inside. Immediately, she was met with an icy breeze. The room was small and painted with a god-awful blend of baby blue and peach. Yet, the queen-sized bed looked cozy enough, centered around a dresser and a desk. Glass covered the floor and the bed while the walls garnished deep cracks like gashes.

“Looks like the windows are shattered in this one as well,” she stated, shutting the door. “We’ll swing back around and grab the sheets later.”

Ruth nodded silently.

“So, your dad tells me you guys come up here often to hunt.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ruth replied shrugging.

“Seems you’re used to these parts then,” Carol continued. “Can’t imagine how though. I still can’t stand the cold – prolly my fault for moving to a warmer state – but I do love a good cup of Joe and nothing beats having one in this kind of weather.”

Ruth simply shrugged again as they made their way to the next door. “It’s not so bad once you get used to it. We did do hunting, but it was the tracking I favored the most. Dad always told me it came natural to me. A lot of what he taught me, he only had to do once.”

“Really? Maybe I could have you track down some lip balm I lost in my car about week ago,” Carol joked.

Ruth snickered.

“She finally smiles,” Carol noted with a smirk. “Didn’t think it would be possible.”

“I smile,” Ruth shot back.

“Uh-huh.” Carol checked another room. “So, how young were you when you started ‘tracking’?”

“Eight, I think… or nine. I was old enough to know what was going on, at least, and was real big on nature back then, a real tomboy. I’m lucky Dad didn’t force dolls down my throat.”

“I wish I had one like yours. He seems like a good man. Any reason you guys stop hunting until now?” She opened the next room to find it in a similar state as the last.

Ruth pulled a strand behind her ear. “We… just stopped for a while, is all,” she mumbled, heading to the next door. “I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

“The innkeeper, Sam, seems to be quite fond of you two as well,” Carol brought up.

“Yeah, we’ve known Sammy for quite some time,” Ruth replied with a smile. “Well, I’ve known him all my life.”

“I figured. He mentioned you resemble your mother a lot. You ever bring her up here too, or has this always just been daddy and daughter time?”

Ruth halted.

“Something wrong?” Carol asked, glancing back.

She didn’t answer though and briskly walked off, leaving Carol dumbfounded.

***
Felton had managed to find a staple-gun and started to pin the curtains to block the open windows. In the background, he could hear Sam tinkering with the phone.

“Hey… uh, Felton?” Sam said suddenly.

“Yeah?”

“I uh… wanted to ask… how ya’ve been holdin’ up?”

“Pretty well. Everything will be fine, Sam,” Felton replied, adding another layer of staples for his seal. “I’m sure we won’t be here for long.”

“That’s not what I mean. I’m talkin’ about after everything that’s happened, ya know… with Janice? I know it’s been six years and all…”

Felton paused from his sealing and sighed. “I…” He struggled to find the words for a second, “I wanna say it’s been gettin’ easier, Sam. Yet, I’d be lyin’ to you – to myself. Not a day goes by where I don’t think ‘bout ‘er. Hell, half the night, I wake up expectin’ to feel ‘er next to me, but…”

Sam nodded. “I understand it, Felton. Same happened with me when Joan passed. I got pretty desperate back then – even contemplated eatin’ bullet at one point in hopes of seein’ ‘er again. But I knew she’d never want that. All I can say is that it will get easier.”

“Will it though?”

“It does if ya believe it.”

“Yeah? The toll it’s taken on me is one thing, but everything with Ruthy… I know it’s affected ‘er more than… shit, beyond words. I can’t even imagine what’s she goin’ through, Sam. Haven’t had the heart to ask ‘er either. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve failed ‘er as a father.”

“Felton, she knows ya’d do anything for ‘er. Hell, Ruthy, I think understands it more than ya think. She’s a strong gal, raised by the both of ya. There’s nothing I can think of that she can’t take.”

Felton smiled. “Yeah, she sure as hell is.”

“But I do gotta ask. Ya think it was wise to bring ‘er up here? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see both of ya and all, but really, why did ya come back?”

“Heh. Would you believe me if I told you it was Ruthy’s idea?”

Sam chuckled. “Of course, it was. That’s Janice’s stubbornness showin’ itself in ‘er.”

The two laughed heartedly. A second later, Alex slid the curtains to the side and climbed through the window.

“Cold as reindeer’s balls out there,” he stated, blowing into his hands for warmth.

Sam scowled. “What the hell’re ya doin’ in here? Did ya finish clearin’ that damn generator?”

Alex shot a salty look. “Geez, old man. Can I even take a moment to warm my ass?”

Sam set the phone down. “Looky here, sonny, if ya don’t clear that path, we’ll all be freezin’ our asses off.”

“Nice to know your worried about my well-being. And yes, I finished clearing the path.”

“And how did the generator look?”

“I don’t know,” Alex shot back. “You told me to just clear path, and that’s what I did.”

“Why ya… ya couldn’t take two seconds—” Sam started.

Without warning, a deafening screech filled the air. The pitch grew, stretching into a long-studded moan, accompanied by what sounded like a hammer banging against metal. Immediately after, a thunderous boom exploded that shook the room.

“Jesus Christ!” Sam yelled, holding his hands to his ears.

“Another avalanche?!” Alex cried out in a panic.

The lamps inside the diner surged with energy to a blinding light before quickly cutting to black. In the background, the humming of the ventilation released a sickening dry cough, and then dwindled down into silence. Instantly, the windows seemed to suck out the lingering heat replacing it with a chilly wind.

Felton stuck his head out to see a thick cloud of smoke billowing from the back of the lodge.

“Son of a… Sam, the generator’s smokin’!”

He immediately hopped out the frame, feelin his boots sink slightly into the rigid snow. Sam and Alex followed suit, all trekking ahead. It was a difficult task to walk straight, each step forcing an exaggerated lift forward, and even harder with the wind mocking their efforts to maintain their balance.

As Felton approached, he recoiled at the singe of musty smoke which forced its way up his nose and to the back of his throat. The small shack ahead was connected to the rear of the lodge – the wide trench Alex carved could be seen leading up to its door. The black smoke continued to filter out the top like a chimney, adding a hint of ash to the snow around.

“What the hell did ya do?!” Sam yelled to Alex.

“I didn’t do shit! You told me to dig a fucking path to the door, and that’s what I did, that’s it!”

“Ya obviously did more than that!”

“Fuck you, old man!”

“Alright, quiet, the both of you!” Felton bellowed. “Right now, we need to check out the problem instead of pointin’ the finger.”

“Don’t bother,” Sam interjected. “Best to let the smoke filter out a bit.” He took a moment to spit in the snow. “Godblabbit.”

“So, what does this mean?” Alex questioned. “The generator will be fine, eventually, right? You said it’s always been stubborn, right?”

Sam ran his hand through his hair. “Don’t know. Ain’t never had a flood of snow to deal with in the past. Could be somethin’ worse.”

“Sam, I gotta look at it,” Felton brought up again. “We need to assess the damage now, if there is any. Smoke may never clear up in time. Check the horizon, every second counts.”

The old man noted it and sighed. “Ya know what to look for?”

“Seen a few generators in my life. Once you seen one…”

Sam chuckled. “Here, then.” He handed Felton his scarf.

He nodded, wrapped it around his mouth, and entered the shack. Most of the smoke had cleared but the remaining smog immediately stung his eyes, the scarf doing little to block it for his mouth. He could feel the tickle at the back of his throat grow as he fought the urge to cough.

Inside, he noted the machine which stood tall, reaching his chest. Its outside casing was rusted in many areas with tubes and cables running amok like wild hair. No doubt it had been around for decades clearly past its expected lifespan. That was Sam for you: he’d hoard the corpse of a dog if it meant keeping it around.

Felton began his check, opting to look at the fuel first. He found the cap, which opted to be stubborn before conceding, and peeked inside. The levels looked fine: he could vaguely see the line where the liquid reached. Fuel wasn’t the issue. He decided to check the cables and followed one to the back. Immediately, he froze at its side. He found a large gaping hole.

“What the hell?” he whispered.

Pieces of its hull were torn in several directions like a deep gash on a prey. He also noticed that something was sticking out one of the edges. He reached over and attempted to grab it, but the blasted piece, whatever it was, was stubborn to get loose. It took several pulls until he could reel it free. Felton tried to make it out in the smoke, but couldn’t, ultimately shoving it into his pocket. Right when he did, a drop of oil splashed into the snow which drew his attention. He glanced down to see a puddle inside a small dip.

His eyes widened as he crouched to get a better look. It was a footprint: a trail of them to be exact, but they didn’t appear to be human; they almost resembled a deer’s hoof. Strangely, the pattern was off; instead of a set of four prints seen for a deer’s, there was only two. He followed them and found that they led back to the entrance.

“Felton, ya alright in there?!” Sam called out. “Come on out, ya shouldn’t be in the smoke that long!”

He nodded to himself and exited. Once out, he couldn’t hold back the cough anymore as he took in the clean air.

“How bad is it?” Sam inquired.

It took several more seconds before his coughing started to subside. As it did, Felton’s eyes returned to the ground, noticing the tracks as they curved around the shack.

“Felton, ya alright?” Sam asked. “I asked how bad it was in there?”

Felton remained quiet, noting the tracks lead to the distant tree line where some of the forest managed to survive.

“Real bad,” he finally answered. “It’s a lost cause, Sam. Generator’s toast.” He paused to cough for a few more seconds.

Sam cursed under his breath.

“Something… got in there,” Felton continued, “and gutted the damn thing to hell.”

“Something? What do ya mean something?”

“Don’t know, Sam… something… it went to town on that generator.”

“What was it? A coon? Possum?”

Sam noted Felton’s eyes still gazing at the ground.

“What the hell’re ya lookin’ at?” he asked.

“That trail of prints,” Felton brought up pointing to them, “they were inside. They led to the generator and back out here.”

“And? So?” Sam shrugged. “I’m not following ya, Felton.”

“I think whatever made them, might’ve…”

Alex crouched near the tracks. “I’m no expert in wildlife, but these like look like deer prints. You’re not suggesting it was that, are you? How hell does a deer tear up a generator?”

Sam scoffed. “Ain’t no way.”

He hobbled over to look. As they both studied them, Felton’s eyes suddenly flashed, remembering the piece he found wedged in the side. He fished the object out his pocket and held it up to the light. He had to blink several times before taking another look. His mind couldn’t comprehend what he was gazing at. The object resembled a talon, but it felt and looked like a piece torn from a tree. It was like the wood had been carved into a talon.

“What’s that?” Sam asked, noting it.

“It’s… don’t know. Found in it in the generator where it was gutted. What do you make of it?”

He handed it to Sam. Felton didn’t know what to think. Maybe he was just seeing things in the object, adding paranoia where it didn’t need to be. He found that he was holding his breath as the old man held it up to inspect it.

Sam sucked his teeth again. “Possum talon,” he concluded. “Like I thought. Damn things.”

“Sam, I don’t think…”

“Trust me, Felton, it’s a possum. Damn critters are around here. It was only a matter of time ‘til they find their way in. Can’t complain too much though. I’d say I did pretty good for fifteen years, wouldn’t ya say?”

“You ever see a wooden talon though?” Felton brought up.

“It ain’t wooden, Felton. It’s dirty is what it is. That’s how animals are. Ya see, this is what happens when yer outta the game for too long.”

“Let me see that,” Alex said.

However, Sam quickly tossed it away before either of the two could object anymore.

“What the hell?” Alex shot.

“You don’t think it looked wooden…?” Felton pressed, “Like it was carved outta a branch?”

“Eh?” The old man’s face was twisted into a puzzled look.

Seeing this, Felton sighed. “Forget it. You’re probably right: a possum.”

Sam nodded and started to make his way back. Alex did a quick scan for the item before he gave up and started to follow. Felton was about to do so too until something caught his ear. In the distance, he heard what sounded like faint whispers. They were soft, hiding just under the wind. His stomach tightened. He could feel that familiar sensation growing in the pit of it, that cold emptiness. He was hesitant to check, but his body seemed to turn on its own. He cautiously scanned the area into the horizon. All the while, the whispers continued.

His eyes drifted in the direction where the footprints led to the trees in the distance. The emptiness seemed to grow stronger from it. The whispers too, sounding as if each was fighting to speak over the other. They were endlessly repeating that word again. Yet, he still couldn’t tell what it was. As they grew in volume, the surrounding sounds were swallowed greedily. Felton felt paralyzed again; he couldn’t move no matter how hard he tried, too drawn-in by the voices.

As they continued, he thought he caught the word; it was very brief: “Ma-ga!”

What did that mean?

“Hey Felton, ya coming?!” Sam’s voice called out. “It’s gonna get dark soon, we should make final preps!”

Instantly, the whispers ceased along with the feeling in his stomach. Felton shivered from the cold, feeling as if the blood in his very veins had thawed. He blinked several times, finally able to move his limbs again. It felt as he’d been frozen alive, yet, not at the same time. It was hard for him to describe. After another quick scan of the tree line, he nodded to Sam, and turned to follow the others.

Chapter 4: Porcelain

Carol awoke to an icy chill. She shivered out impulse, forcing several puffs of white mist to escape her lips. She sat up, noting she was on the floor of the dining room– she was all alone. The tables, the chairs, and even the entire ground she was upon was all layered with a good inch of snow. The staples of the curtains to the windows had come undone allowing the wind to enter unchallenged.

“Hello?” she called out softly.

There was no answer aside from the wind’s hollow cry, which summoned another shiver from her.

“Felton?! Sam?!”

Nothing.

“Hello?!”

Carol jumped to her feet. Instantly, she ran behind the counter, propping open the door to the kitchen. Despite being closed, a thin layer of snow had managed to cover everything in there as well.

“Sam?!” she called out.

The kitchen wasn’t very big. She could see in-between the shelves at the center through to the other side where the sink sat on the opposite wall. The room was absent of anyone. Carol left it and ran to the stairs leading to the lobby. The entire area was still submerged in snow.

“Anyone?!”

Where the hell is everyone? she thought.

She ran back to the diner and was startled to find Ruth suddenly standing near the window, looking outside nonchalantly.

“Ruth?” she said softly. “What’s going on? Where is everyone?”

She remained quiet though. Carol slowly approached, noting the snow had accumulated up to the sill on the verge of spilling inside.

“Ruth, are you okay?”

“I can’t stop dreaming of this place,” she suddenly spoke out. “It’s like it won’t let me forget.”

Carol was puzzled. “What are you talking about? Where’s your dad and the others?”

“She wants me to remember,” Ruth went on, ignoring her questions. “Though this is the strongest the dreams have ever felt.”

Carol shivered as she approached her. She couldn’t see how Ruth could stand so close to the open window without being affected by the cold front.

“Ruth, honey, let’s get you away from that window, okay?” she said, tugging on her arm. Ruth glanced at her to reveal a bluish-purple face, her lips dry and crusted. “Oh my God, you’re freezing. Get away from the window!” She quickly reeled her back from it, pressing her hand to Ruth’s face. It was like ice. “What the hell’re you doing standing out in the cold?! Where’s your father?”

Ruth gave her a puzzled look. “I’ve never shared these dreams with anyone before.”

“Honey, why do keep saying that? This isn’t a dream.”

Suddenly, a sharp snap of wood drew their attention. Carol quickly scanned the room, but it was still empty.

“What was that? Was it the others?” she asked.

Ruth shook her head. “No, it’s her.”

Carol shot her an unsettling look. “This isn’t funny anymore, Ruth.”

The same snap of wood surfaced again in response from further back in the lodge. It sounded like someone was casually splitting a bale of twigs. Carol’s heart started to pick up. She grabbed Ruth’s hand and cautiously moved towards the sound. She tried to tread softly but she couldn’t stop her shivering; her entire body was becoming numb now, even her teeth began to chatter. It felt like the very heat was being reeled from her at an alarming rate.

She paused at the corner that branched to the hallway of the lodging rooms. As she was about to turn, a soft coo filled the air that caused her heart to skip a beat.

“W-who’s there?” Carol forced out, feeling her lip quiver. Every strand of her hair felt erected.

There was no reply, only the same minor snapping of wood. She glanced back at Ruth whose face looked in a daze. She didn’t seem disturbed by any of this. On full pins and needles, Carol took a second to compose herself, before she peeked around the corner.

The hallway was empty, covered in the same film of snow like everything else.

An eerie feeling settled in her stomach. Her senses were telling her to run, to not pursue, but something else prompted her to continue onward.

She crept down the passage, fighting the urge to shiver uncontrollably. As she came near the first door on the left, she heard it again: the cooing. She swallowed, placing her hand on the handle. Once again, she took a deep breath, and turned it. The door gradually opened to reveal the back of a figure facing the window. Carol recoiled, ready to pull the door back until it spoke out:

“Wait,” it said softly, forcing her to halt. The voice sounded like it belonged to a young girl.

The figure was shrouded in an aura of white, vaguely obscured. It turned around, confirming a face of a young girl who appeared to be near the age of Ruth. Carol was in awe at her appearance. Was she an angel?

Her face was flawless, with skin as pale as snow, if not whiter, accented by a kiss of red on her cheeks. Her eyes were unblinking, radiating as they cycled through random hues of blue like a kaleidoscope – her gaze alternated between her and Ruth. Long, brown locks of hair cascaded down her face like a river of chocolate falling over her bare chest. Peculiarly, her head was fitted with two small antlers.

The girl’s pink lips parted into a smile to reveal a set of ivory, jagged teeth.

“It is time,” she said softly with a voice layered as if three unseen others had spoken in unison with her. “She will wait no more for you.”

Carol was speechless. She noticed the girl was looking at Ruth, and managed to find her voice. “W-who?”

The smile widened on her. “Mother,” she said holding up a hand which released a sickening crack. “Come, Ruth.”

Instinctively, Ruth began to walk forward slowly extending her own hand. Carol immediately yanked her back. As she did, the light finally diminished from the girl’s form, allowing her to fully see the being. Carol’s eyes fell upon the hand girl’s first and immediately her stomach tightened. This thing was far from being an angel. Her… or rather its torso was human-like – but its lower half was composed of wood as if its legs had been carved out of a tree. Sharp jagged pieces stuck out at odd angles with roots in the mix – bits of dirt clinging to a few of the edges as it became two hooves.

The skin on its shoulders formed down into a twisted knot of wood, its hands fitted with large, jagged talons for fingers. Its hand remained stretched out – the calmness still in its smile. What frightened Carol more than anything was the urge to take it regardless.

“W-what t-the h-ell are y-you?” she stammered, feeling the cold sap the last of the heat within her.

“Mother awaits her children,” it retorted, ignoring her question. “None may reject the call when chosen.”

Chosen? What was she talking about? Carol thought, And who was this “Mother”? Her words left Carol confused for a few seconds before she finally shook the thought away. Fuck what it all meant; they needed to leave, immediately. Carol tried to move her legs, but they wouldn’t respond. It was like every inch of her joints were locked-up, too numb to obey. When she glanced down, she noted her hands were now a sickly dark-blue – she still had little feeling in them though unlike her legs.

The creature took a step forward, releasing sickening snap from its legs, sounding as if its entire body would collapse. It then took another, its face frozen in that perfect smile, its piercing eyes never once blinking still. As it drew closer, Ruth raised her hand again.

“Ruth, the hell’re you doing? Stay the fuck away from that thing!”

“None may reject the call when chosen,” Ruth repeated in a monotone voice.

Carol could feel her trying to move towards the creature.

“No, Ruth!” She tried to pull her back, but somehow, the young girl’s strength seemed to dwarf her own, slowly pulling away from her. Carol noticed the damn thing kept edging its way closer. All the while, she found it hard to peel her eyes away from its porcelain face with those eyes, ones that seemed to fuel the tundra spreading within her.

She opted to direct her focus into lifting her legs, but they were so heavy like foreign objects attached to her body. The thing grew closer. She couldn’t focus while its gaze was upon her and decided to shut her eyes. Carol poured every ounce of willpower into her legs, repeating the command to move them. For a second, she vaguely felt one move. She continued until one foot slowly dragged against the snow.

Yes, she thought, just a little bit more.

She continued to slowly drag it – it was tingling as if she had fallen asleep on it. However, she misplaced it, losing her balance, and fell to the floor. The snow powdered over her body like the rush of cold water, adding insult to her already chilled form.

Ruth had managed to stay up, still holding out her hand. Carol couldn’t let her leave with that thing. With only her arms still under her control, she mustered up all her strength to pull herself across the floor. If she could just grab Ruth’s ankle or even a piece of her clothing… In a failed effort, she was only able to reel in a handful of snow.

“Ruth, don’t! Run, dammit!” she yelled.

“None may reject the call when chosen,” Ruth repeated.

At that moment, Ruth’s earlier words dawned on Carol: she mentioned this was a dream. Carol prayed that was truly the case – she had no other options. She closed her eyes and began speaking out loud, “Come on, Carol. Wake up! Wake. The. Fuck. Up!!”

***
“Wake up! Come on, wake up!”

Carol’s eyes opened. She was back in the dining room except now it was dark, lit by several lanterns placed arbitrary atop tables and the floor. The snow that had covered everything was now gone, even the windows were back to being sealed off. All the furniture had been pushed up against the wall to allow the layout of blankets and pillows.

It really was a dream, she thought, feeling relief wash over her, all of it.

Carol found that she was bundled in a blanket near the wall. Even so, her mind desperately tried to convince herself she was still in that half-frozen state; she even could feel the urge to shiver out of impulse but her body didn’t feel cold.

It was just dream, she assured herself.

“Come on, Ruth. Wake up for us, darlin’!”

That voice. It was Felton’s. She glanced over to see him along with Alex near an unconscious Ruth. She was propped up against the wall being shaken by her dad, but her eyes remained shut. That’s when she noticed Ruth’s face; it was like in the dream: slightly blue with sickly purple lips.

“Shit, Sam, where the hell’s that hot towel?!” Felton yelled out, adding another blanket over her.

A second later, Sam came running out with a steaming towel. He quickly passed it off and Felton immediately began dabbing it across Ruth’s face.

“Come on, baby, wake up for us. You’re gonna be okay, you hear?”

“Felton?” Carol started. Her voice sounded so raspy. “W-what’s going on?”

To her surprise, he managed to hear her among all the commotion.

“Carol, everything’s gonna be okay, you hear? Jus’ gimme a minute to get this sorted out.”

“But—” She was about to protest when she felt it. Underneath the covers, something cold was in her hand. She slowly pulled it out and to her surprise she found a lump of melting snow in her palm.

Chapter 5:Real

“You alright, Carol?” Felton asked. “You’ve been quiet all morning.”

She was huddled under her blanket in a corner staring off into space.

“Huh?” she replied, coming to.

Felton chuckled. “I asked if everything was alright with you?”

She blinked for a second, staring over to Ruth, who was bundled up tightly nearby. The color had returned to her face, her chest rising and falling in a calm rhythm. Felton noted this and glanced over to her.

“She’s doing fine now,” he brought up. “She’s had episodes like that for years. This was prolly the worst I’ve seen it though.”

“Episodes? She was blue, Felton. That can’t be normal?”

“You’re right, it ain’t. It’s called: Raynaud’s Disease. Makes the unlucky victim exhibit frostbite-like symptoms, usually to cold or stress. With Ruthy, it’s a bit more extreme than usual – off and on at odd intervals. It’s a good thing you woke me though.”

Carol blinked. “I woke you up?”

It was Felton’s turn to give her an odd look. “You don’t recall screaming Ruth’s name in the middle of the doggone night? Nearly made us all soil our draws,” he replied with a chuckle. “You woke me up and when I heard what you said, I glanced over at ‘er, and that’s when we found ‘er like that – cold as ice.”

Carol glanced over to her and swallowed. The thought of the dream surfaced. It was more like a nightmare, and yet, it felt so real. She thought of the snow in her hand. How was that possible? Then there was that thing…

“And then what?” she managed to ask.

“Well, you’d fallen back to sleep apparently. ‘Bout a minute later, I looked over and you were awake. Look, Ruth’s gonna be fine. Is that what’s got you so quiet lately?”

Carol bit her lip.

“What’s wrong?” Felton asked, noting her puzzled look.

“It’s… n-nothing.”

“Hey Felton, I got the sheriff on the line!” Sam announced. “I got a hit!”

Sam was propped up on a chair, phone-in-lap near the wall. Everyone made their way over to him.

“You got in touch?” Alex asked with a genuine smile. “Nice goin’, old man.”

“’Bout time, we get some good news flowin’,” Felton chimed-in.

Sam held up a hand for silence as he listened in on the phone. “Yes, sir,” he said to it, “I can hear ya, but yer breakin’ up a little. Yeah, we’re doing fine. There’s uh… five of us in total.”

Felton could vaguely hear the voice on the other end.

“We’re managing so far, but our generator gave out yesterday,” Sam explained. “That’s correct. Yeah, the cars are no good either. No, sir. Yes, sir.”

“Ask him when they’re coming,” Alex suggested.

Sam gave him a glare and held the phone closer to his ear.

“What’s that? Sorry, Sheriff, yer gonna have to speak up – how long are ya –?”

Immediately, the color seemed to drain from Sam’s face. This seemed to add another level of anxiety to Alex, who demanded the phone be handed over to him. However, the line seemed to go dead as the old man made multiple attempts to confirm the information.

“So, what’d he say? Spill it!” Alex snapped.

Sam swallowed a bit, letting the phone slip from his hand.

“Come on, Sam, I can’t take the suspense anymore,” Carol added.

“Sheriff said,” he started, “the avalanche’s got the whole south-end covered in at least twenty-feet of snow. They’re having trouble clearin’ it let alone traversin’. In fact, he said the terrain’s been givin’ ‘em… issues and what not – vehicles stallin’ and somethin’ about areas they already cleared, appearin’ as if they hadn’t touched it after a break. It hasn’t been snowin’ like that. He said he’s never seen anything like it before.”

A puzzled look circulated around the group as he explained this.

“How long did he say until they get to us?” Felton asked.

“They said, given all the mishaps, a week, at least.”

“A fucking week?” Alex repeated. “Are you shitting me? What kind of cops you got running this area?!”

“Calm down,” Felton replied. “He said the snow’s been givin’ ‘em trouble.”

“That don’t give ‘em any excuse. Like I said to the old man: this is y’all’s mountain, why aren’t you equipped to handle it?”

Sam glared at him again. “Watch it, sonny. Like I said: Misty Pass don’t get no avalanches!”

“So, what do we do then?” Carol asked.

Felton gave off a sheepish smile. “I guess all we can do is hold down the fort: we ration what we got, keep our minds in tack for each other’s sake… and wait it out until they come.”

“You think that’s a good idea?” she asked.

“What exactly are you suggestin’ we do otherwise?”

“Well, for starters, how about we just make our way down,” she continued, “and meet the rescue team halfway instead sitting here on our thumbs.”

“Ya think that’s smart, missy?” Sam asked. “Even after everything ya heard?”

“Hold up,” Alex chimed-in, “Lady, you wanna go out in this freak weather?”

“I’m just tryin’ to consider all our options,” Carol replied.

“Yeah? Well, it’s a bad option. Period. I ain’t going out in that fucking tundra unless it’s on the back of a rescue chopper.”

Sam sighed. “Can’t believe I’m sayin’ this, but, ma’am, I have to agree with the suit on this one.”

“Thank you, old man,” Alex retorted, “Wisdom does reside in the elderly.”

Sam grunted.

“I’m with the two on this one, Carol,” Felton added. “It’s too dangerous to consider.”

“Felton, what if it takes longer than a week? Or what if we run low on food before they get here? You really wanna take that chance?”

“True, but what if it doesn’t? There’s dangers with going out in this kind of weather, especially after an avalanche. Horrible things can happen out there, Carol… That’s not even includin’ the time it’ll take to move down the mountain. And what if they’re not even there when we get to the bottom? I don’t wanna risk anybody’s safety if we don’t have to.”

“Yeah,” Alex annoying added, “plus, Blue Missy over there is still out cold. Don’t think it’ll be smart moving her in this after last night.”

Carol scowled at him. Boy, did she want to crack him across his jaw. Luckily, Ruth started to moan as she came to, drawing everyone’s attention.

“Felton, Carol – I say we at least wait the week out,” Sam suggested. “If we don’t hear anything by then, maybe we reconsider the option. How’s that sound?”

The two pondered the idea and then nodded. Sam returned one. Felton crouched next to Ruth as she sat up. Her eyes were red and glossy.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said softly. “How are you feelin’, baby-girl?”

“H-how,” she started with a raspy voice, “how long have I been out?”

Felton smiled. “Jus’ the night and most of the mornin’. Almost thought you’d sleep the day away.”

Sam appeared with a cup of hot cocoa.

“Here ya go, missy,” he said extending it to her. “Thought this would brighten yer spirits.”

Joy wash over her face as she took it, thanking Sam, and choked down several gulps.

“Now, ya sure yer alright, sweetie?” Sam continued. “Ya gave us quite a scare last night.”

Like a switch, the dread returned to her face. “W-wha…”

Felton sighed. “Last night, you had another episode but worse than I’ve seen on you. We found you bluer than the sky in the summer and cold as ice. Hell, we couldn’t even get you to respond when we tried to wake you.”

Ruth held the cocoa closer in silence.

“By the grace of God, Carol sensed somethin’ was up and hollered your name, which prompted us to respond when we did.” As he explained this, the two locked eyes again. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if she hadn’t. My question is: did you go outside at any point? Cause it seemed like we were all bundled up pretty good in here.”

Ruth didn’t respond. Felton realized her eyes were still locked on Carol’s.

“Ruth?” he repeated.

“I’m fine!” she suddenly blurted, which startled everyone. She quickly stood up, spilling some of the cocoa as she set it down. “Look,” she said softly, “I’m sorry, Dad. I… I don’t know what happened. It was probably… just a draft or something. Thank you, for being there, but I really would like to be alone right now, okay?”

Felton grudgingly nodded as she made her way to the hallway at the end.

“Somethin’s certainly got her shaken up,” Sam noted.

Carol immediately followed her. “Ruth?!” she called out, halting her from entering the bathroom.

“I just want to be left alone right now, Carol,” she stated without turning around.

“I – You know what I want to ask you, don’t you?”

Ruth turned around sharply. “Please don’t, I-I don’t want to talk about it.”

Carol quickly closed the gap between them. “So, I wasn’t just seeing things then. That really was you in my dream.”

“Carol, I don’t…”

“Ruth, I need you to tell me what the hell all that was? I can’t even begin to explain the level of scared shitless I am right now. I don’t even know what was real and what wasn’t. Then there was the incident with you last night… You need to explain before I lose my mind.”

Tears began to fill Ruth’s eyes.

“Ruth, please,” Carol begged.

She sighed. “Look, you’re better off if you don’t get involved, okay? I would rather you just forget it. Can we just leave it at that?”

Carol was dumbfounded. How could she just pretend as if what they had experienced hadn’t happened? How could anyone forget? Yet, she couldn’t find the words or the strength to relay that. With the silence, Ruth proceeded to the bathroom door, opening it. Immediately, their eyes widened at what they settled upon on the other side: it was the girl – that creature – standing there with its hands stretched out. She smiled and in a ghastly voice, spoke out: “Ma-ga!”

Carol shrieked and quickly slammed the door on it.

Instantly, the others came racing around the corner.

“What?!” Felton asked half out of breath. “What’s wrong?! Who screamed?! Ruthy, are you okay?”

Carol ran up to him. “Felton, we need to leave! We need to fuckin’ leave now!”

“W-wha – Tell me what happened?” he questioned with a puzzled look.

“Can we just leave, please?” she begged.

“Carol, calm down, and tell me what’s going on?”

Again, she couldn’t find the right words though and simply backed away into the wall. Felton looked over to Ruth, who was completely red-faced, huddled into a corner crying hysterically.

“Ruth, what’s wrong?” he asked.

She fumbled on her words in-between tears.

“For God’s sake, speak-up, Ruthy!” Sam demanded.

All she could do was point in the direction of the bathroom. Immediately, everybody glanced at the shut door. The air was pin-needle silent; all eyes pressed on it as if waiting for something to come bursting through. Yet, no motion occurred beyond it. Finally, Felton broke the trance and decided to do the honors.

“Dad, don’t…” Ruth said from her spot.

He held up a finger to her to signal silence. As he crept towards it, the others watched anxiously like a family of deer in headlights. Felton’s heart was pounding like a jackhammer in his ears as his hand settled on the handle. After a deep exhale, he slowly opened the door, and peeked around the edge. He flinched at what he found.

Inside leaning up against the wall was a tall bundle of twigs much like the ones he found under Carol’s truck. However, unlike those, these were fully intact, and strangely, they were fastened to form the shape of a person.

“What the hell is that?” Alex inquired. “Is that what all the hollering is about? Another fucking tree?”

“What the fuck?” Carol said, her hands running through her hair. “No, that is not we saw, there was something in there!” she shouted in a tear-streaked, reddened face, “I know what the fuck I saw!”

“Carol, please,” Felton stated, attempting to approach her, but she swatted his hands a way.

“No, No! Don’t, Felton! Just Don’t! I’m not fuckin’ crazy!”

“Nobody’s callin’ you crazy,” he assured.

“Speak for yourself!” Alex shot.

Felton quickly tossed him a glare. “Lay-off ‘er.”

“I know what I saw. Ruth saw it too, didn’t you?”

They all glanced over to Ruth who was silent in the back, eyes still pressed upon the bundle leaning in the bathroom.

“Ruth?” Felton said softly. “Is that true?”

Her eyes carried over to her father’s, then to everyone else’s until they settled on Carol’s – they were glossy and reddened, pleading for support.

“I…” she started, “I don’t know what I saw.”

Carol shook her head in disbelief. “What… What do you mean? How could you miss it? Tell them, Ruth!”

“Carol, I…”

“Tell them the dream… about the girl, what you saw… what we saw.”

“What dream?” Felton asked.

“Ruth…?” Carol pleaded.

“She’s lost it,” Alex stated.

“Fuck you!” Carol shot at him.

“Hey!” Felton snapped at Alex. “Carol, just tell us what you mean?”

“Ruth, please?”

Ruth struggled to say anything, but eventually opted to be silent.

Betrayal etched across Carol’s face. “Felton, Ruth and I…” she began, “I don’t know how to explain it. We had this… this dream. It was strange but somehow, we were sharing it.”

Alex rolled his eyes.

“And in it,” Carol continued, “there was this… thing… I don’t know what. It wasn’t just a dream though. Whatever was in it, we saw here. It was in that bathroom.”

“You mean the tree?” Alex mocked.

“It wasn’t a fuckin’ tree, asshole!” she shot.

“Oh really? Looks like one to me!”

“Bite me!”

“Hey!” Felton barked, snapping his fingers. “Enough, both of you!”

“Come on!” Alex retorted, “First, blondie over here, ruins my car and gets us all trapped here. Now, she’s crying wolf trying to drag your daughter into it… I bet just so we can leave this place, and you’re okay with it?”

“Fuck you, you son-of-a-bitch!” Carol snapped. She quickly cracked him across his nose.

“You bitch!” Alex yelled, gripping it as blood gushed out.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Felton roared, yanking her away effortlessly like a doll.

His voice shook everyone, prompting instant silence. He glanced over to Alex.

“I think you should leave.”

Alex scoffed, checking his nose again. As he turned to leave, he gestured the “cuckoo sign” to Carol, who responded by tossing up the bird. Once he was gone, Felton turned his attention back to the two.

“So, is anyone gonna tell me how the hell that thing got in here?” he said, gesturing to the bathroom.

“Dad… maybe Carol is right. Maybe we need to leave.”

“Ruthy, I am not gonna entertain that thought at this moment. Right now, I wanna know why there’s a damn ‘scarecrow’ in the bathroom? If this is your idea of a joke… it ain’t funny. Everybody’s already on edge and the last thing we need are tasteless pranks to set us off on each other.”

“You’re not listening, Felton,” Carol chimed-in, “We need to leave. There’s something here…”

“No,” Felton replied, gritting his teeth, “it’s too dangerous.”

“Dad,” Ruth continued, “we could lead everyone down. You and I know more about this mountain than any of them.”

“I said no.”

“Hell, I haven’t forgotten what you taught me. If you want, I could lead them myself—”

“And risk losin’ someone out there with you again? I said, no, Ruth!” he snapped. He instantly regretted his words. Ruth’s face grew bright red, tears streaming down it. “Ruth, I didn’t mean…”

“I knew it. I fuckin’ knew it,” she stated softly, “You do blame me.”

Before he had time to say another word, she bolted off. Confused, Carol glanced over to Sam who shook his head solemnly.

“Felton…?” Sam started.

“No…” he interrupted, “not right now, Sam.”

He nodded.

“Listen you, two. I need a minute alone. Please.”

“Take all the time ya need,” Sam said, leaving.

Carol glanced at Felton. She wanted to apologize, but opted not to and followed Sam. When she reached the diner, Sam disappeared inside the kitchen. She could hear Ruth’s soft cries nearby. She followed them to find her sitting at the foot of the stairs. She was playing with snow in her hand, before tossing a ball of it across the lobby into the wall.

“That was a real shitty thing you did back there,” Carol remarked. “You made me look like a nut.”

“Fuck off,” Ruth shot back, wiping her eyes. “I told you to just drop it.”

“Yeah, well I wanted answers, Ruth. After all, it’s not normal when Satan’s fucking daughter appears in board daylight. So, excuse the fuck out of me if I wanted to bring it up.”

“Yeah, well, it’s none of your fuckin’ business anyway.”

“It is when I get dragged into it!”

Ruth kept her eyes forward. “Are you finished?”

Carol gritted. She was ready to wring the little brat’s neck. She decided it was best for her to leave when a thought crossed her mind. “In the dream, you mentioned it wasn’t the first time it happened?”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“How many times has it been?”

Ruth didn’t answer.

“You don’t have to do this alone, you know? If you just open-up to me maybe I can help.”

“You don’t what you’re talking about. If you knew… if you really knew, you wouldn’t want to get involved. I can handle it by myself.”

“Really…?” Carol was stunned. “I swear to God, you’re the most stubborn, foul-mout—heh—You’re a tough little brat, I’ll give you that. Wish I could say the same for myself.” She winced as the pain from the earlier punch was finally settling-in.

Ruth noted this. “Yeah, well, that was a hell-of-a-right on that jerk. Don’t think I can top that.”

“Yeah? Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch though. I’ve heard of hard-headedness for some people, but goddamn, he takes it to another level…” She rubbed her hand.

This prompted a light laughter between the two, which eventually eased into silence for a few seconds.

“What is it?” Carol asked, finally breaking the stillness. “What is that thing and what does it want?”

Ruth didn’t respond. Carol was ready to give-up until Ruth sighed: “It… she wants me.”

“Why though?”

Ruth glanced back at her. “You’re not gonna ever drop it, will you?”

“Nope. You’re not the only one who’s stubborn, kiddo.”

She exhaled again. “You asked me yesterday if it was just my dad and me when we came up here. It wasn’t… my mom would come too. Used to come here for as long as I can remember. They taught me all kinds of nifty tricks to survive in the wild: Map-reading, pace-counting, you name it… I used to love exploring with them.”

A smile was pressed across her face, but it didn’t last long.

“Everything was fine until that day. It was six years ago…”

Chapter 6: Chosen

Six years ago
Ruth poked her head out the bedroom door, carefully glancing down the hallway. After a quick scan, she checked back into the room to see her mother who was sleeping on the bed. A smirk creeped over her lips – she was out like a light. Satisfied, she eased out the door, shutting it softly behind her, and tiptoed down the hall. She reached the end and peeked around the corner. Sammy could be heard in the kitchen, singing to himself as he moved about – the sound of pots clanking as he did.

Perfect, she thought with a devious smile. Cleaning right on a time, as usual.

She crept over to the stairs, careful to not make a sound until she reached the first step. She paused to listen if Sammy had noticed or not. His singing hadn’t missed a note – well if you could call it singing. It was too easy. Then again, sneaking past him wasn’t a challenge. The old man wouldn’t notice a moose if it was walking right by him. The real challenge was getting past her father.

She eased down the stairs, ensuring to walk heel-to-toe just as he had taught her. She could hear his voice talking among a group of others, breaking into laughter occasionally. When she reached the bottom, she could see a gathering of men in a corner. He was distracted – another perfect opportunity. On top of it all, the lobby had the best cover, filled to the brim with furniture. She crouched to her knees and crawled to the first comforter, ensuring to take advantage of the laughter to mask her movements.

“So, how old is the little tike turning?” one of the voices asked out loud.

“Believe it or not, she’s jumpin’ into the double-digits,” her father’s voice answered.

“Oh buddy,” another voice chimed-in. “I know ya already got that shotgun polished, don’t ya, Felton?”

Her dad laughed. “Hell, why do you think I’ve been takin’ ‘er up here every year on ‘er birthday? Gal can damn well handle herself. She’s been molded tough; I ain’t gotta do shit. I actually feel sorry for any future sumbitch.”

Everybody broke out in laughter.

Ruth made it to the door, using the uproar to crack it open just enough to slide through. The air outside was cool – the night sky lit by the moon accompanied by the span of thick clouds. All around was the soft blanket of snow undisturbed for miles, tempting her to jump-in to make snow angels, but she resisted the urge. Ruth was on a mission. She pulled out her keychain light along with a map, tracing over its designs, noting the marked-out route into the heart of the forest.

It was two years ago, she could still recall the day.

She and her parents were out exploring the forest when they came across a glow emanating from within a knot of a tree. On closer inspection, they discovered it was from a strange flower – the entire thing lit up like a chem light stick from stem to peddles. There wasn’t a plant her parents couldn’t identify but this one had them completely clueless. It was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. Her mother was mesmerized by it and asked her father to pluck it. Yet, the flower was too far back in the knot, and the mouth too tight. He joked that Ruth could probably reach it with her size, but her mother wouldn’t have it.

He did promise to try in the future and marked it on their map, so they would be able to find it again. Yet, since then, he wasn’t never able to retrieve it and soon forgot about it, more than likely deeming it unobtainable – until today. Ruth smiled to herself; she was going to do the impossible and nab it. Her mother’s birthday followed her own, several days from now, and there was no better gift she could think of than the majestic flower. She already could picture her mother’s face in awe at the gift when she handled it off to her. It would be perfect.

Ruth pocketed the map – with the route in mind, slid up her hood, and began to head off towards the trees.

The wind started to pick-up as she trudged her way through the snow. Even with her thick coat, its bitter kiss was cruel across her face. It must’ve taken at least thirty minutes to reach the tree line. She was sure her mother had noticed her absence. If she was lucky, she would think she was with her dad. Even if she was caught, she was confident the flower would overshadow any potential chastisement.

Ruth halted when she reached the trees. She took a second to check her map again then gazed ahead. The looming bodies seemed to swallow the moonlight, presenting what appeared as an endless void beyond. She took a deep breath – she had come this far; there was no way she could go back empty-handed now– and took her first step in.

The warmth of the moonlight quickly faded as she crossed the tree line’s threshold. Once several feet in, she allowed her eyes to adjust, soaking up the darkness until the void revealed the obscured bodies of the trees around. Satisfied, Ruth continued forward, ensuring to walk carefully. There was no telling what lay hidden beneath the snow.

Another thirty minutes bled into the night until she pulled out her map out again. The flower was set to be another 200 meters, give or take, if she had been consistent with her pace count. Yet, she started to get worried.

“Where is it?” she said softly.

The flower was quite bright when they had found it during the day; at night, the blasted thing should’ve been a beacon regardless of distance, especially in this darkness. Yet, she saw now sign of it from any angle. Had she gotten side-tracked along the way?

No, she thought. Dad, always said to trust your pace count.

She folded up the map again, fighting off a shiver, and stuffed it back into her pocket. She counted onward until she reached 200 meters. However, no glow could be seen from the flower. Ruth felt tears form in her eyes. She was nowhere near it. Where had she messed up?

“Where is it?!” she screamed out into the darkness, kicking at the snow. Her voice echoed for a few seconds before fading. “It has to be here!”

Annoyed, Ruth sat down next to a tree, placing her head into her knees. The cold had already begun to eat its way through her gloves to her fingertips, and she found that she couldn’t stop shivering now. How long had she been out here, going in the wrong direction? It had to at least been an hour, possibly more. She was going to hear an earful from her parents, her mother especially. Ruth sighed, and prepared to take the walk-of-shame back when something caught her eye: a glow.

Her eyes widened and her heart started pounding. Was it the flower? She started to run towards it. The glow was pulsating in the distance. How had she missed it earlier? Maybe, it only glowed at certain times? It didn’t matter though she had found it. When she reached the area, she immediately halted. Her joy was short-lived as she stared in awe at what was before her. The glow was not coming from the flower, but a deer – a large one, standing tall with massive antlers. It stood just a few meters away, its body glowing exactly like the flower, as if the creature itself was comprised of light.

It stood silently, casting its bright white glow around the forest like the sun. Finally, it perched its neck towards her, locking its blue-encrusted eyes with hers. They were gorgeous like staring into the stars, radiating endless colors of blue. Ruth suddenly felt a chill swiftly grow within her as if ice had been packed inside her body. The cold instilled on her face grew with it to a painful sting, settling into a numbness. Yet, she ignored the feeling, still locked in a staring contest. What was this thing?

The deer finally broke the trance and walked towards a tree. As it crossed behind it, its body disappeared. From the other side emerged a tall, pale figure: a young girl.

Ruth was still speechless. A white aura engulfed the girl, accenting her pale skin that seemed to rival the snow. Was she the deer? Her head was fitted with a set of similar yet smaller antlers. Half of her body appeared to be human but her legs were like the bark of a tree.

Ruth didn’t know what to do or what she was looking at. Somehow, she had managed to find her voice, but all she could say was, “W-wha—who…”

The girl smiled. It wasn’t a creepy one, but seeing it come from something like her didn’t ease the nerves on Ruth.

“Hello,” she said with a layered voice that seemed to echo.

It could talk? “H-hi,” Ruth stammered.

The girl cocked her head to the side. “What’s wrong, child? Are you afraid?”

Ruth nodded.

“Please, don’t be. There’s nothing to be afraid of?”

“W-who… are you?”

The smile widened on her. “My name’s Chione. What’s yours?”

“R-Ruth.” Why was she telling her name to this stranger, this thing?

“What a beautiful name. I have wonderful news, Ruth. You’ve been chosen. By Mother.”

Ruth gave her a confused look. “Whose mother? Y-yours?”

Chione’s lips finally parted to reveal a set of jagged teeth. “Yes, my mother, but she’s also yours too.”

“I-I already have a mother,” Ruth replied.

“She’s also her mother too. She’s everyone’s,” the pale figure explained, her eyes radiating like blue embers. “All are her children, but not all are chosen. Only the daughters may be given the honor. Come.” She held out a hand, revealing it too was made entirely of jagged wood.

“N-no,” Ruth answered softly. Her legs felt so numb; she could barely feel them. She took a step back. “I have a m-mom, and she’s w-waiting for me.”

The air felt even colder. There was no wind, and yet, it felt like the very presence of the girl was draining whatever heat lingered around.

“None may reject the call when chosen. Now, come,” she said firmer.

“No!” Ruth yelled and took off in the opposite direction.

Without warning, the wind suddenly picked up, streaming heavily against her face, forcing her eyes to water. Snow began falling in heavy clumps, obscuring her view ahead. Ruth felt her balance teeter but she pressed onward. Where did this storm come from suddenly? Was she being chased? She was too afraid to look back though. All the while, her legs felt like jelly, each one threatening to give-out under her weight. Her heart was crashing against her chest, fueling her with adrenaline while her lungs were begging for her to stop, at the mercy of the icy wind singeing them.

On the verge of collapsing, Ruth finally halted. She needed to find her bearings. She pulled out the map, struggling to open it with numbed fingers. However, the wind abruptly tore the paper from them, flinging it up into the darkness.

“No!” she yelled out, unable to grab it.

“Ruth!” Chione’s voice carried in the wind. It was like her voice fueled it, increasing its pressure. “None may reject the call when chosen!”

“Leave me alone!” Ruth screamed out.

She spun around, attempting to locate any recognizable landmark, but everything looked the same: trees, darkness, and snow. The flakes started to fall in thicker clumps. Ruth hugged her arms as the bitter cold continued to sink its cruel fangs into her.

“Mom!” she called out. “Mommy!”

Maybe if she yelled out loud enough her mother would hear her. She had been gone long enough for them to notice. Surely, they had to be looking for her.

“MOM!”

That’s when her heart dropped. She heard it.

“Ruthy!”

It wasn’t that creature’s voice. It was her mother’s. She wanted to cry tears of joy, but nothing came out and the ones she had already shed had frozen to her cheeks.

“Mom, over here!” she yelled out still unable to pinpoint a direction. Her eyes lit up when she remembered her flashlight keychain. She pulled it out, struggling to turn the switch on in her frozen fingers. When she did, she waved it around crazily, hoping it could be seen from any direction. Finally, she saw a small light in the distance.

“Ruth, I see you. I’m coming!”

Ruth could hear her boots crunching against the snow rapidly as she approached.

“Don’t move, baby!”

Just hearing her voice seemed to warm her up. She shined the flashlight ahead, catching sight of the familiar red coat of her mother. Ruth couldn’t contain herself anymore and tried to run towards her but lost her balance and fell in the snow. Her legs were done. At this point, her mother would have to carry her back, but she didn’t care.

“Ruth!” Her mother ran up from behind a tree and immediately came to a dead stop.

“Mom!” Ruth exclaimed but her smile faded when she noticed her mother’s wide eyes looking beyond her. Oddly, her face began to grow brighter from something behind Ruth. Her heart skipped a beat as she slowly turned around. Standing a few feet away was the pale girl, only she wasn’t smiling anymore.

“What the hell…” Ruth heard her mother whisper. “Ruthy, slowly come to me. Slowly, now.”

However, Ruth couldn’t peel her eyes from the creature. Its mesmerizing form was glowing brighter with each second.

“Ruth!” her mother snapped.

“I-I can’t, Mom,” Ruth replied. “I-I can’t feel my legs.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart. I-I’ll come to you.”

She could hear her mother slowly edging her way over. All the while, Chione stood quietly, eyes following her as she did.

“What the hell are you?” her mother whispered as she drew closer.

The girl didn’t respond. When her mother was at an arm’s length away from Ruth, Chione swiftly grabbed her wrist, yanking Ruth over to her side.

“No!” her mother screamed as she halted. Ruth could see the anxiety boiling within her.

“None may reject the call when chosen,” the girl finally said. “Rejoice, your daughter has been selected for the highest of honors.”

“I don’t give a fuck what she’s been selected for,” she shot back. “She’s my fuckin’ daughter, now give her back.”

“She is Mother’s daughter, as are I, as are you. None may reject the call when chosen.”

Her mother scowled. “You are not taking my daughter.”

The pale girl smirked and started to turn with Ruth still in her clutches.

“No, wait!” her mother yelled out. “Take me instead.”

Chione halted, giving her a blank stare.

“You said we are all, ‘Mother’s’ children, then I can go in her stead. Just leave her be. This ‘Mother’ of all people should know the feeling of losing her children, right? I’ll do anything for mine, please.”

“You do not decide.”

“Please!” Tears were streaming down her face. “Don’t take my baby-girl.”

“You do not decide, only Mo—” The girl paused in mid-sentence as a deep howl of the wind drew her attention further back into the trees. Without hesitation, her fingers uncoiled from Ruth’s wrist.

Ruth fell to the ground, and instantly crawled over to her mother’s arms. She hugged her tight, feeling a small hint of heat from her body.

“It appears Mother has decided to accept your offer,” Chione stated. “Know this though: it only postpones the inevitable. Ruth’s time will come again.”

Her mother glared at her before looking down at her shivering little girl. “Listen here, Ruthy,” she whispered into her ear. On three, we’re gonna run for it, okay?”

“B-but, I can’t—”

“It’s okay, I’ll carry you if I have to,” her mother interrupted. “And if at any time we get separated…” she pulled out a whistle from around her neck and placed it over Ruth’s, “you blow this as loud as you can. Your father will hear it, understand?”

She simply nodded. “Okay.”

“Come,” Chione stated.

Her mother gave her one last hug and whispered, “One…”

They stood up.

“Two…”

Ruth felt her mother’s grip tighten on her hand. Her heart was pounding erratically at this point. What happened if she tripped up? Would her mother notice and come back for her? What if she accidentally pulled them both down? She swallowed as she anticipated the last count.

“Now!”

With a great force, her mother yanked her forward as she took off. Ruth’s legs were still numb, but somehow, they found strength in the moment. They could do this! They could get away and put all of this behind them. Yet, as they got just a few feet away, Ruth felt a harsh reel that tore her to a standstill. She turned to see her mother had stopped in mid-run.

“Mom, what are doing? Let’s go. Come on!”

Yet, her mother remained fixed, staring at the ground. She slowly lifted her head to reveal a set of blue glowing eyes, matching Chione’s. Ruth flinched at the sight. Her mother’s grip loosened and she turned back to the pale girl.

“None may reject the call when chosen,” her mother said in a monotone voice.

“Mom?” Ruth pleaded.

Her mother simply repeated the phrase as she started to walk towards Chione.

“Mom, stop!”

However, her pleads fell upon deaf ears. Ruth tried to pull her arm, but to no avail; it was like she was trying to yank a boulder. With a flick of Chione’s wrist, ice formed from the ground, wrapping around Ruth’s ankle reeling her down, forcing her grip to slip from her mother’s.

“Mom!” she screamed, repeatedly, trying to break away from the ice. Her tears were dry, too frozen, her nose, running and freezing over her lip. Yet, her mother continued to walk in a daze over to the Chione, taking her hand.

The pale girl glanced back, lips extending into another wide grin. “Fear not, child. Mother will call for you again.”

Ruth put the whistle in her mouth and blew with all her might. She prayed her father was nearby. If there was one person who could tear that thing apart, and return her mother to her arms, it was him. She blew into the whistle long and hard. Her mother and Chione slowly grew distant, the light radiating from them fading back into the darkness. All the while, Ruth kept blowing the whistle. She blew, ignoring the pain growing in her head from the strain or the urge from her lungs to take a breath.

She kept blowing until she blacked-out.

***
“I later woke up to the sight of my father and a search party,” Ruth finished, “Apparently, they were looking for me the whole time. I thought only an hour passed; turned out it was five. My mother had broken away on her own. Dad told me she was probably following her instincts like she normally did. After several hours, they had to call the search off for the night, due to an unexpected storm. By then, Mom hadn’t returned either. It took four men to restrain my father all night, to keep him from going out to find us.

“The next morning, the team was sent out there again. They searched the hills up and down, not leaving a patch of snow unturned. Right when all hope was about to be lost, they found me. They told me I was balled up in the snow, whistle still in mouth, asleep. They don’t know how I could’ve survived – claiming I should’ve been a popsicle the way the temperatures were, but I was fine – save for some minor frostbite.”

“What about your mother?” Carol inquired.

“She… was nowhere to be found. I was the last one to see her. They tried searching for her for the next few days, but gave up on the third. I don’t think Dad’s forgiven me since then, and I don’t blame him. I haven’t forgiven myself.” Ruth wiped her eyes. “He doesn’t even mention Mom anymore, which doesn’t help because I practically forgot what she looked like, or how she sounded.”

“Ruth…” Carol started, “I’m so sorry.”

“My mother protected me. It was supposed to be me but she took my place. Since then, I’ve been having those dreams, each one ending with an ‘episode’. Because of her – she’s in my head. Every time I dream about her, I can’t control my actions – it’s like she trying to get me to come back, to heed the ‘call’. I’m fed up with it. I feel like she’ll keep tormenting me until I do.”

“Ruth, you’re not trying to… You can’t be serious?”

“It wants me, Carol,” Ruth stated. “I dragged you all into this and I’m sorry. The avalanche, the generator, the rescue team – I’m the only way it can all stop. Don’t you want to go home?”

Carol shook her head. “There has to be another way.”

“There isn’t. It’s plain and simple: this thing’s powerful and it’ll do anything until it gets what it wants. The fact that she connected our dreams might mean you’re next.”

Carol swallowed.

“Do you really want to wait around until then?” Ruth asked. “Or until it tries something else? Something worse?”

***
Felton struggled to maintain his grasp on the makeshift “scarecrow” of twigs as he tilted the head piece out the diner room window. He pushed until the whole thing fell over with a heavy thud. Relieved, he climbed out and began to drag it through the snow. He didn’t want it anywhere near them. He stopped when he reached the side of the shack. Satisfied, he started to head back when he heard voices in the air. Instantly, his spirits felt lifted.

“The rescue team?” he said under his breath.

He paused and listened closer. The voices continued, but as they got louder, they sounded less and less like their salvation. The hairs stood up on his neck at the realization. He glanced over at the tree line once again, and on cue, that familiar chill within his stomach grew like a weed. However, this time, Felton caught sight of something that made his blood freeze. Amid the trees, he saw a pair of blue, gleaming eyes, staring back at him.

Chapter 7: Hunch

“Alright, city-fellow, lay ‘em over there,” Sam instructed, making a note on a clipboard.

“You know,” Alex stated, placing the bin of canned beans on a table, “I have a name, old man.”

Sam grunted, while he counted them. “Yeah? Funny thing is, I do too.”

“Heh, fair enough. Is that everything?”

“Hold on, gimme a sec,” Sam retorted, glancing down at his paper. “Let’s see… We got 24 canned beans, 18 bottles of water, 15 cans of tomato soup, corn, and mixed fruit… hmm non-perishables looks pretty good. Over here, two med kits, five lanterns, one flare gun with uh, four shots—”

“So… are we good then?”

Sam glared at him. “Ya know if ya ain’t the most impatient… what’s the rush anyhow? Ya got somewhere ya need to be?”

Carol and Ruth emerged from the stairs into the diner. Alex caught sight and rolled his eyes.

“Great, you back for round two, blondie?” he remarked as they approached.

“Looky here, missy,” Sam chimed-in, “we don’t wanna start anymore trouble ‘round here.”

“I don’t either,” Carol replied. She noted the bandage on Alex’s face. “Yeah about that… I’m—how’s your nose?”

Alex gibed. “Is that your version of an apology?”

“Look, it was the heat of the moment, I was scared as shit and… I’m sorry, okay?”

He sucked his teeth distastefully.

“Alright now,” Sam jumped-in, “She said her words. Let’s drop everything and let by-gones be that.”

“Whatever,” Alex retorted.

“So, what are you two doing? What is all this?”

“Exactly, what it looks like: we’re inventorying for the long haul like we all originally agreed on, remember that?”

“We figured we be able to monitor the rations better,” Sam added. “Ya did bring up a valid point earlier about the food.” His eyes fell on Ruth. “How ya feelin’, darlin’?”

She hovered around the table, noting the layout. “I’m fine. Nothing to really say.”

“What your dad said back there… ya know he didn’t mean it now.”

“It’s fine, Sammy. I’m over it.”

He nodded.

“So, you two finally ready to get with the program?” Alex inquired.

“Guess we have no choice,” Carol said, shrugging. “What do you need from us?”

“Hmmm let’s see,” Sam said looking down his board again. He blew into his hands. “Damn chill. Those seals are startin’ to lose their effect.”

“Are we outta staples?”

“Eh? Yeah. Been tryin’ to think what we could do ‘bout ‘em. Was thinkin’ maybe we could siphon up that fuel from the generator to get some heat goin’. Problem is, we need someone to go out there and do it.”

“I’ll do it,” Ruth volunteered.

“What? No, Felton would kill me if I sent ya out there.”

She sneered. “I need to do something. I can’t stand all this sitting around anymore.”

Sam rubbed his neck. “Ruth, I… can’t…”

“Sammy, we need the fuel and no one else is willin’ to do it. Let me.”

“Hey, kid,” Alex spoke-up, “I’ll do it.”

Everyone gave him a surprised look.

“What?” he shot. “The hell are y’all looking at?” His cheeks were turning red. “Look, I’m an asshole, not a heartless prick. Besides, she shouldn’t be going out there, especially after earlier.”

Carol gave him awestruck look and shrugged at Ruth, “Sorry, kiddo, he’s got a point.”

Ruth folded her arms.

“Hey Sam, where’s that shovel?” Carol inquired.

“What ya need that for?”

“Wanted to take a crack at my truck.”

“You still bent on leaving?” Alex brought up, “I thought you were onboard?”

“I am. Just wanted to dig up my baby first though. I love my truck and if I leave ‘er out there as is it’s only gonna be harder later.”

He eyed her for a second, then, pointed to the shovel laying at the side of the table. She thanked him, grabbed it, and started to make her way to the stairs. “By the way,” she said halfway, “where’s Felton? Wanted to apologize to him too.”

Sam shrugged. “Don’t know. Haven’t seen since… well, ya know. Think he might need a lil more time than we figured. He should come around soon enough.”

She nodded. “Oh, one more thing, Sam… could you keep an eye on Ruth?”

Betrayal etched across Ruth’s face, forming into a mean glare. Sam exchanged a confused look between the two.

“Ugh… sure. Why exactly?”

“Just… make she doesn’t do anything stupid.”

***
Alex shivered, blowing into his hands as he waited for the last few drops of fuel to drain through the tube leading from the generator into a container.

“God, this is taking forever,” he whispered to himself.

He was already regretting coming out here in the first place. The damn place was like a beacon for chill. With the sun setting, that chill had been enhanced. Nature sure knew how to kick a guy in the nuts when he was already down. Alex zoned out on the lantern in the snow – the dancing fire inside provided a small circle of light against the consuming darkness around. How anyone could see being out here as peaceful was beyond him – the thought of being exposed to vast emptiness, even in the shack, didn’t hold the slightest comfort.

His eyes returned to the bucket when he began to hear the steady flow of fuel dwindle to droplets.

“Finally,” he exclaimed.

As he crouched to collect the container, he started to hear a sound in the distance. He paused to listen – it sounded like the crunching of snow just outside the shack. They were heavy footsteps. Who the hell would be moving around out here? Instantly, his thoughts flashed on Ruth. Had she come outside after all? She did seem like the rebellious type. Almost a reflection of him at that age. He sighed, grabbing the lantern on his way out, ready to scold her.

God, I’m acting like the damn kid’s mine, he thought.

He poked his head out the shack, ready to chide her. Everything outside was cloaked in darkness – he couldn’t even make out the trees in the horizon. He could hear the heavy footsteps continued up ahead. Alex held up his lantern and was able to vaguely make out a figure.

“Who’s there?!” he called out. “Kid, that better not be you!”

Whoever it was halted, but didn’t respond.

“Hey, is that you? Look, it’s too cold for games.”

The figure remained silent. Alex felt his patience starting to wane as he approached them. As he did, whispers started to fill the air. Startled, he looked around, attempting to find their owner, but all he could see was darkness.

“You hear that?” he asked. “Somebody else out here with you?”

The voices grew louder in response. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. He turned his attention back to the figure and proceeded closer.

“Why aren’t you saying anything?”

He closed the distance to them, his light slowly casting over them, revealing the back of Felton.

“You…?” Alex said softly. “What the hell are you—”

Yet, his words fell flat when Felton turned around. Alex couldn’t believe what he was seeing: his eyes were a bright blue – glowing like embers. He took a few step backs in shock. The glare Felton gave was intense, filled with malice.

“Y-you alright, man? What’s going on with your eyes?”

Without hesitation, Felton swiftly walked up to him. He grabbed Alex’s collar and threw him up against the wall, and started choking him.

“Wha… are…” Alex could barely talk as he felt the air being squeezed out of him.

He tried to free himself, but failed to against the giant’s vice grip. All the while, Felton’s unblinking blue gaze burned into his own – like he was peering directly into his soul. Alex could feel his vision fading quick. His eyes began scanning his surroundings hoping to find anything that could prove useful before it was too late. Finally, he noticed the lantern still in his hands.

He lowered it to the best of his ability and with all his might, slammed it against the brute’s head. Felton was barely fazed; in fact, the blow seemed to enrage him, tightening his grip around Alex’s neck, forcing out a gag from him. With options limited, Alex repeated the action. His pounding heart started to slow down – with it, Alex could feel each blow growing weaker. He was running out of time; yet, he threw in another blow, and then another, until eventually, the glass broke, releasing the flames over Felton’s coat.

Finally, Felton let go, screaming out in pain. His screams didn’t sound like his own though; it was layered as if several others cried out in agony alongside him. Alex fell to the ground, feeling air once again rush into his burning lungs. He struggled to find his feet as Felton, or whatever the hell he was, attended to the flames consuming his jacket.

Alex eyed the window back to the inside. Once he found the strength to stand, he made a break for it, but instantly, he felt a harsh grip snag his shoulder. He glanced back to see Felton, the flames now reduced to smoke, but half his face was left charred. The gleam in his eyes seem to grow brighter – the burns seemingly providing little pain.

With insane strength, he reeled Alex back and lifted him in the air like nothing, and heaved him straight into the wall of the shack, splitting the wood in the process. Alex felt an ungodly pain bite into his back, the wind torn from his lungs as his head smacked against the wall. He collapsed to the ground. The world around slowly faded to black as the snow from the roof of the shack crashed onto him, burying his body.

***
Carol dug her shovel into the snow. Just as she had feared it had hardened over the previous night. It was more ice than anything. She lifted a large clump with the weight of a boulder and tossed it to the side.

She felt guilty outing Ruth as she had, but the kid had her whole life to still live. Carol couldn’t let her throw it all away. Ruth was right that the creature –whatever it was—had to be stopped, but there was a better way, one that didn’t involve giving-in to it. She only hoped her hunch didn’t fail her.

She paused to check on her progress.

Carol had managed to uncover more of Felton’s truck to reveal its windshield. He said they were hunters, right? And one couldn’t hunt without a weapon of some kind. Hopefully, they hadn’t left it behind for this trip. She wiped away some of the frost from the windshield and peered inside. It was hard to see. She grabbed her lantern and held it up to get a better view.

In the backseat, she could make out what appeared to be a long case. Bingo, that had to be it. Carol noted the rest of the SUV: it was still mainly submerged. The job to get to the windshield was a pain in its own right; the fight to clear the backdoor would be an all-nighter if she didn’t stop. There was no time for that though. Carol glanced at the shovel and back at the windshield.

Felton wasn’t going to like this, but she was already neck-deep in shit from her previous incident, what was another few inches? She raised the shovel high and brought it down hard against the windshield. It produced a large crack across it, sending a strong wave through the shovel’s handle into her hands. Carol recoiled; admittedly, she was expecting it to break on the first swing. She lifted the shovel again and repeated the action but harder. The web of cracks expanded.

She continued until the windshield start to cave-in. Using the shovel, she wedged the glass out the frame and off to the side, and paused again to catch her breath. All the motion managed to warm her up a bit. Carol was about to climb in when she felt a sensation that made the hairs on her neck stand up. It felt like she was being watched. She turned around and to her horror she saw a pair of blue glowing eyes gazing at her from the shadows.

Carol froze. It was her. She was back. Carol exchanged a look from it to the case. Could she grab it in time? The figure slowly walked forward until the light from her lantern casted over it. She stared back in awe: it was Felton. As he approached, she noticed his face was partially burnt.

“Felton?” she began, “What happened to your face? And why are your eyes…”

Something was off. He continued to walk towards her. He had a daze look in his eyes; she’d seen it before – on Ruth. Carol started to back away.

“Felton, are you alright?” she asked, a squeak in her voice. She didn’t want to believe it. Not him. “Felton, is that… are you, you?”

He stopped halfway, the gleam still shining bright in his eyes. A smirk formed on his lips.

“She calls, Carol,” he stated affirmatively. “Mother Gaia awaits her daughters.”

Carol’s heart dropped. “No…” She shook her head. “Not you, Felton…”

The smile grew on his face. “None may reject the call when chosen.”

Carol grimaced. Those damn words again. She exchanged a glance between the backseat and him. Could she make it in time? She had to try. She swallowed, her heart pounding erratically. Whatever had its hold on Felton made him smiled wider as if baiting her to make a move.

It was now or never.

Carol made a run towards the windshield. Felton instantly booked it towards her. She picked up the shovel and flung it at him, forcing him to fall over as he dodged. She started to climb inside the frame, yet, he managed to reach her and grab onto her leg. Carol clung tightly to the SUV as he tried to reel her from it. His strength was incredible. She pulled harder against the frame, feeling pieces of leftover glass start to bite into her hands, but she held on.

“You can’t fight it, Carol. Mother’s will is absolute. None may reject her.”

Carol could feel her grip weakening. “No! Let me the fuck go!” The glass bit deeper into her flesh. She winced in pain. “Felton,” she pleaded, “you have to fight it! Fight, goddammit!”

Yet, she felt a strong yank finally separate her. Carol screamed out, trying to kick herself free as he dragged her away from the SUV. She tried to claw at anything, but she only managed to pull at snow.

It was over, she thought, feeling the hopelessness wash over her. What can I do?

Suddenly, there was a loud bang from behind. Instantly, Carol was dropped. She crawled away and checked back to find Sam standing over Felton with the shovel.

“The hell’s gotten in yer head, Felton? What’re ya doing?”

However, Felton wasn’t down for the count. He growled slowly standing, immediately looming over the old man. Carol could see the fear in Sam’s eyes when he saw Felton’s.

“M-my God…” he whispered.

“Sam…” Carol muttered. She didn’t know what to do.

Her voiced drew his attention. He looked surprised as if he had forgotten she was there. “C-Carol, when ya see an opening,” he stated, holding his ground while tightly gripping the shovel, “I want ya to book it. Ruthy and ya can barricade yerselves inside, understand?”

“But Sam—”

“Listen now, don’t argue with me and do it!”

Before she could object further, Sam swung at Felton with the shovel, narrowly missing him. Carol bit her lip and glanced back at the SUV. She had to try again. She ran for it, climbing through the front. The tight confinement made it hard to pull herself through to the back seat. Behind, she could hear the grunts grow louder in-between Sam’s missing swings.

“What the hell’re ya doing?!” Sam yelled out. “Get outta here!”

She reached out for the case and managed to pull the edge of it towards her. Sam’s breathing sounded labored. Immediately, something was slammed hard into the snow behind her. With a full grip on the case, Carol yanked it into her arms and exited.

She was shocked to find Felton now on top of Sam, choking him with the handle. Sam’s bruised and bloodied face leaned back to glance at her. Carol could see him struggling to stay conscious. She was ready to race to his aid until he yelled out:

“S-stop! R-run… run, g-goddammit!”

He gritted his teeth in pain, tears running down his eyes.

“R-run!” he gagged.

Carol glanced back at the entrance and then at Sam, and closed her eyes. “Forgive me, Sam,” she whispered and took off.

Felton noticed and started to get up, but Sam grabbed onto his leg, forcing him to trip-up. In response, Felton launched a hard kick back into the old man’s face. Annoyed, he began releasing a barrage of heavy blows down on it. Carol continued onward. Behind her, she could hear the sickening cracks grow louder until she reached the lobby. She struggled to maintain her balance while running with the heavy case.

“Ruth!” she yelled out, tiredly. “Ruth, where are you?!”

She bolted up the stairs, skipping some, until she reached the diner. Ruth was nowhere to be seen in it.

“Ruth?!” Carol called out. “We need to hide, now! Something’s—your dad isn’t in his right mind. I think she’s got a hold of him! Ruth?!”

She raced over to the kitchen and peeked inside. It was empty.

“We don’t’ have time for this? We need to—”

Her words trailed when she could hear heavy footsteps racing from downstairs. Shit! she thought, taking off towards the lodging rooms. She ran down the hall skipping the first few doors, finally turning to one on the left. She kicked the door open, threw the case to the floor, and slammed the door behind her. With adrenaline coursing her veins, Carol quickly scanned the room for something to block the door, settling on the bed.

Immediately, she grabbed a corner and pulled with all her might. The queen-sized bed obnoxiously scrapped against the floor as it moved. With it cleared from the wall, she got behind it and pushed it until it was pressed tight up against the door. Once that was complete, she froze, listening, fighting to slow down her breathing. Was he near? Beyond the door, she could hear the heavy footsteps moving slowly – it was clear he had reached the diner.

“I don’t understand, Carol!” she heard Felton speak out-loud. “Why are you running away?!”

She listened as his footsteps slowly edged their way down the hallway.

“Don’t you understand: it’s the highest of honors to be chosen by Mother Gaia! It’s a chance for her daughters to be recognized; to note their worthiness!”

Carol flinched as she heard a loud slam from a door being shattered open in the distance.

“Sons like myself can never be worthy! We can only be her tools, but at least we can still serve!”

There was another loud crash from a door, but much closer. Carol glanced around the room, looking for an exit. She noted the window and peeked out. The drop was much higher than the diner’s angle, leaving a chance to injure herself. Yet, staying put wasn’t a plausible option either; she was a sitting duck here. Did she want to risk it though? As she pondered this, she noticed something in the distance: it was a figure moving in the snow. She squinted and immediately her eyes lit up: it was Ruth. What the hell was she doing out there?

Carol traced ahead and saw that she was heading to the forest beyond. That idiot! she thought. She was going through with it. How could she give-in so easily? Carol was ready to call out to her when there was another aloud slam, this time from her door. Fortunately, the bed prevented Felton full access in, but he immediately began to slide it. Carol ran up to bed and leaned against it.

“Carol, stop fighting it! None may resist the call!”

She could see his half-burnt face peeking through the cracks of the door as he gave it another strong slam. She struggled to hold her weight up against his. If he kept this up, it was over. Once again, she scanned the room, hoping to find something that could assist. Her eyes lit up when they fell upon the large case sitting a few feet away.

She leaned her back up against the bed and attempted to use her foot to scoot it closer. She could feel the bed falter even more from another strong slam. Tears welled up as she extended the edge of her foot further out. Time was running out. She took a risk and let go of the bed to grab the case, and quickly slammed back up against it. Carol quickly unfastened its snaps. She paused for a second to exhale. This was it, if there anything but a weapon on the inside, she was screwed. she opened the lid.

Her heart dropped when she looked in: it was long rifle with a scope. Joy filled her. She didn’t know what kind it was, but it didn’t matter. She quickly scooped up the gun, and pulled back its bolt to reveal its empty chamber. A box of ammo sat on the side in the case. The door started to splinter against Felton’s force, allowing him an arm inside. He began to pull himself through.

“She calls for you, Carol!” he yelled with a voice now layered – she could hear his and that girl’s mixed together. “Stop resisting and come!”

Carol struggled to load one of the long rounds into the chamber, between her shaking hands and the plowing giant. The bed started to push outward even more, allowing his entire torso to enter. She finally slid the round in and loaded it. Carol spun around, still pushing against the bed with her knee as she aimed the rifle at the door.

By now, it was barely in place with large holes in its frame. The blue in Felton’s eyes gleamed with madness as he clawed to pull the rest of his body through.

“Don’t make me do this, Felton!” Carol screamed, with a tear-stricken face as her finger slowly tightened on the trigger. “Fight it! Don’t let her control you!”

Immediately, Felton paused. His face dropped into a calm expression. Carol’s heart skipped a beat. Had she gotten through to him? She started to lower the gun.

“Felton?” she called out softly. “Are you…?”

The smile returned to his face, wider than before. “You’ve come. The wait is finally over,” he stated, pulling himself back out into the hallway. He gave one final smirk at Carol through the cracks and walked off. She listened as his footsteps led down the hall, fading into silence.

The confusion grew on her. What had just happened? Why did he leave? She listened closely to hear if he was really gone: the air was silent. Was it a trick? Carol sat there pondering the sudden departure until it finally dawned upon here: Ruth!

Chapter 8: Home

Ruth shivered, her eyes staring ahead at that familiar darkness within the forest. It had been so many years since she stood at this very spot. This was it: the source of all her painful memories, the nightmares almost every night, all due to her stupidity back then. It was time to end it all. She tightened her grip on the container of fuel in her hand, exhaled, and proceeded forward.

The air was still.

Could she sense her right now? Ruth’s pounding heart made it hard to listen for anything. She continued forward, all the while, her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Each of the looming bodies around drove her heart further into the depths. She kept expecting that pale creature to pop-up from behind one, ready to pounce and make her claim. Why not though? Ruth was in fact walking into the devil’s den voluntarily. But she had no choice: the easiest way to attract something was with bait; unfortunately, she was it.

As she continued forward, she caught sight of a familiar glow ahead, forming a knot in her stomach.

“That didn’t take long,” she whispered to herself.

This was it. That thing was waiting ahead. Ruth found her legs wobbling as she advanced. She needed to be strong. She had come this far and now wasn’t the time to back down. Up ahead, the light started to pulse, seemingly syncing with the rhythm of her heart. One last tree blocked the view ahead. She swallowed and braced herself to confront her demon.

Ruth walked around the tree and came to a halt. Her eyes widened and her mouth hung open in awe. She saw someone standing at the opposite end with their back to her: it was a woman donning a familiar red coat. She was crouching down, facing a large tree with a gaping knot at its base. The source of the glow was coming from inside.

“This was it, huh?” the woman spoke out without turning around. “This was why you came out here, right?”

She reached inside the knot and pulled out a glowing flower – the same one from all those years ago. With it in hand, she turned around. Tears welled up in Ruth’s eyes. All she could do was stand there, speechless. The container slowly left her fingers plopping into the snow.

“This would’ve made a wonderful gift, Ruth. I absolutely love it.”

“M-mom?” Ruth stammered, her lip quivering of joy. “Is that really you?”

The woman smiled and nodded, “Hi, sweetie. I’ve missed you so much. Look how much you’ve grown.”

Ruth coughed out a half-hearted laugh amidst her smile. She took a small step forward. “Mom, how are you here? I thought you were…”

“Gone?” her mother finished. “I was, sweetie. But I came back… for you.”

“Bu—where have you been all this time?” Ruth advanced a little more.

“Don’t you remember? I left with Chione. She took me to see Mother.”

Ruth halted. “Wha—”

“I saw her, baby,” her mother continued. “And she was so gorgeous beyond words. She’s everything Chione said she was: loving and caring. I’ve been telling her all about you and she’s been eager to meet you.” She held out a hand. “Come.”

“Mom, why are you saying this?”

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“W-what’s wrong with you? What did she do to you?”

Her mother frowned. “I don’t understand what you mean, Ruthy. Don’t you want to come with me? We can have a new home together, with Mother. Wouldn’t that be nice, to be with each other, forever?”

Ruth shook her head, backing up. “No… you’re not my mother.”

“Don’t say that.”

Ruth picked up the container of fuel, opened the cap and began to fling its contents all over the surrounding trees. “No, you’re not my fucking mother!” Tears ran feel freely down her face. “You’re not her! You’re not her!”

She dropped the half-empty container in the snow and pulled out a flare gun.

“Now Ruthy, don’t you dare do that,” her mother stated firmly, her voice took on a more layered effect. “Put it down.”

Ruth felt the rage boiling over in her. How dare that cursed thing use the face of her mother. Of all the vile things it tortured her with, this was beyond crossing the line. She pointed the flare gun at the nearest tree.

“Ruth, stop it, now!”

“Fuck you,” she whispered back and pulled the trigger. Immediately, a large spark rocketed out of the barrel, colliding into the trunk, igniting it into flames. The fire swiftly engulfed the tree, bathing the entire area with its orange rays. Ruth aimed the flare gun at another tree and repeated the action.

In the light, she could now see her mother clearly. She was bemused: it looked exactly like her. Those eyes, every strand of hair, even the mole on her check. How was that possible?

“You shouldn’t have done that, Ruthy. What’s gotten into you?”

Ruth aimed the flare gun at her. More tears welled up in her eyes. Her hand shook as her finger lay on the trigger. Why was she hesitating? This thing wasn’t her. If she pulled the trigger now, all of this could end.

Her mother’s face softened. “Ruth, please,” she spoke with ease. “Did I not protect you back then? Is it wrong for me to ask for you by my side, to wish happiness for us?”

Ruth bit her lip. “S-stop… Y-you’re not her… You can’t be…” The gun started to falter in her hands.

“It is me, Ruth. It’s time to stop fighting, baby. It’s time to give-in. Mother is waiting for us and we can join her together. I’ve missed you all this time, please don’t let me go on alone without you.”

“I c-can’t… you’re not…” Ruth stammered. She managed to lift the gun again and aim.

“Please, Ruth,” her mother continued, “You have to remember…”

“…None may reject the call when chosen,” Felton whispered into Ruth’s ear.

He swiftly wrapped his arm around her neck, and yanked her arm upward, causing her to fire the shot into the sky. She screamed out in pain as he twisted her wrist, forcing her to drop the gun into the snow.

“You were doing so good, baby-girl,” he said, lifting her by the neck until her feet dangled above the ground. “Why’d you have to go and do something like this?”

“D-dad…?” Ruth coughed, struggling to breath.

“It’s okay though. All will be forgiven.”

He started to walk Ruth forward towards her mother. Ruth kicked and screamed, attempting to free herself from his grip. Yet, it proved to be useless. He was too strong. Her mother extended her hands out into an open embrace.

“Dad! S-stop, please!” Tears were streaming down her face as she continued to fight.

“You don’t see it now,” he replied, “but I promise all will be better in the end. You’ll see, Mother Gaia’s will is absolute.”

“N-no!”

Without warning, a loud gunshot shattered the air. Felton collapsed, dropping Ruth in the process. She rolled over and coughed. When she looked over, she saw Carol crouched in the back with a rifle.

“Carol?”

“Ruth, get out of there, now!” she yelled. She ejected the empty casing and loaded another round into the chamber.

Ruth glanced over to Felton, who had a large hole in his leg from the bullet. However, the wound appeared to not faze him. He quickly got to his feet and began rushing towards Carol with an insane speed. Carol shrieked in terror and quickly shot off another round. This one hit Felton in his lower side. The impact caused him to waver for a second but he didn’t stop.

She narrowly dodged as he threw a heavy swing her way.

“You’re really startin’ to piss me off, Carol!” he roared as he spun around, tossing another, missing her by a hair. “Why can’t you and Ruthy just accept there’s no fightin’ this!”

Carol managed to bolt around a tree. She struggled to load another round as Felton immediately homed-in on her again. The heat from the flames was beginning to become unbearable as the fires expanded, lapping at the neighboring trees. She cursed, losing a round to the snow from the sweat building on her hands. She didn’t have to time to grab it though and fished out another from her pocket.

Still running, she turned around another tree while attempting to reload. However, Felton popped out in front of her. He grabbed the weapon, with Carol still gripping it, and slammed her into the ground. She gagged as he pressed the weapon’s stock up against her throat.

“Valiant effort, Carol,” he said with a twisted grin, “but it’s over.”

Ruth suddenly jumped on Felton’s back, attempting to pull him off Carol. Angered, he effortlessly shook her off, spun around, and landed a heavy backhand. She toppled to the ground like a sack of bricks. Felton then reeled the rifle from Carol, and beamed it deep into the forest. Afterwards, he grabbed the two by the neck and pinned them to the ground.

“Enough of this nonsense!” he stated.

Ruth moaned at the sharp pain pulsing across her cheek. She glanced over to Carol who was helplessly looking back.

“I-I’m sorry, Carol,” Ruth whispered. “I-I tried…”

Tears ran down Carol’s face as she smiled. “It’s o-okay, honey. We both did.”

She slid a hand over to Ruth, who took it. The two squeezed them tightly. Still in place, Ruth’s mom started to glow with a bright white light. As she did, the air grew cold – the wind picking up slightly. From it emerged Chione’s pale form.

“It looks like you’re finally ready,” she spoke with a toothy smile.

She started to walk towards them, releasing that familiar sickening crack from her legs.

“Mother will be very pleased.”

She was caught off guard as the fuel container was suddenly thrown through the air, landing at her feet. Instantly, its content began pooling out. She stared at it with a puzzled look. Everyone turned towards its origin and they were all surprised to find Alex standing there.

He looked disheveled and tired – dry blood caked down the side of his face. In his hands, he aimed the flare gun at Chione.

“You are one ugly bitch,” he stated and pulled back on the trigger.

Her eyes widened as the flare shot at her feet, igniting the flames. She let out an ear-piercing scream and began scrambling around aimlessly as the fire engulfed her pale body. Felton joined her shrills, releasing Ruth and Carol, to clutch his head in pain. Strong winds suddenly erupted around them, releasing a loud cry in its voice, tossing up snow into mini torrents.

Chione’s screams became layered and escalated into deeper cries of agony. Felton was on par until finally, he slumped over to the side, and fell still.

“Hey, move your asses!” Alex yelled over. “We gotta get the hell outta here!”

His voice barely carried over the wind, but it was enough to spark life in Ruth and Carol. They quickly rose to their feet, hands till clasped, and took off towards him. The gale picked up, obscuring their view with a blanket of white, smothering the fire in the process. Ruth could feel it trying to suck her away. She struggled to move forward, her only anchor Carol, who was guiding her onward. How were they going to escape this storm? She could barely keep her eyes opened.

To make matters worse, the ground started to shake accompanied by the sharp jagged pieces of ice that began to jut up like thorns.

“Look out!” Carol screamed and shoved Ruth to the side just as one of the sharp glaciers shot up between them.

It narrowly missed Ruth, grazing her arm in the process as she fell to the ground. She winced from the pain, clutching the wound. The spikes continued to sprout around her. Ruth looked around and couldn’t find Carol. Had she gone on without her?

“Carol?!” she screamed out, but her voice was drowned-out in the wind’s roaring.

Off to the side, she noticed a figure stand up. Upon closer inspection, she realized it was Alex. He struggled to maintain his balance in the wind as he scanned the area until his eyes landed on her.

“Jesus, move it, kid!” he screamed at her.

But she couldn’t – she was too afraid to. There was too much going on around. He grunted and ran back towards her, dodging ice shards along the way.

“Kid, come on!” he yelled. “We need to–”

He was closing-in until one of the pieces shot up in front of him, impaling him in the chest in mid-run. Ruth cried out in horror. His eyes were wide as he struggled to gasp for air, his hand lifting up to the shard piercing his body. Finally, he glanced over to Ruth and the light faded from his eyes. She looked away in terror.

“Carol?!” Ruth called out again.

Yet, there was still no answer. Had she suffered the same fate? Pieces continued to jet up sporadically around her – some getting dangerously closer. Frightened, Ruth hugged her knees and closed her eyes as the chaos went on.

***
Felton slowly opened his eyes. It was morning – he could hear birds chirping in the distance. Where the hell was he? He caught the hint of smoke and ash in the air. Was there a fire? He glanced around and to his surprise tall pillars of serrated ice were scattered about.

His head was pounding – it felt like he’d taken a few good ones to the noggin. He tried to recall his last memory but his mind was jelly. Fortunately, some things were starting to come together: he remembered moving that strange scarecrow outside… Then there was something about voices… yet everything afterwards was a blur. Maybe it would all come back to him later. Felton attempted to stand and immediately he was met with a sharp pain. He glanced down and saw that he had a hole not only in his side but in his leg as well.

“What the hell…?” he muttered, wincing.

There was no mistaken it. They were bullet wounds. When had he been shot, and by who? Dried blood pooled around him his body in the snow. He also started to feel a searing pain on his face. He brushed it and felt a dry, rough texture that stung upon contact. His heart leapt in his chest as he screamed out in pain. What the was going on? What the hell happened to his face?

In a panic, he tried to stand up again only to be met with an even sharper pain from his wounds.

“Hello?!” he called out. “Anyone there?! I need help! Hello?!”

The air was still with a white mist lightly blanketing it. He scanned the area further and noticed the trees. He was in a forest. But why? How? His eyes came across a figure standing off to the side with a hunch. He squinted and recoiled when he saw the slumped body of Alex, impaled by one of the many pieces of ice.

“Holy shit!” Felton said in shock. “Alex?! Please tell me you’re still with me?! Alex?”

Yet, his obvious corpse did not respond. Felton saw the pool of blood at his feet and cringed. Promptly, his eyes flashed. “Ruth! Baby, you out here?!”

The air remained silent.

Tears welled up in his eyes. “Ruth!”

Finally, he heard something stir in the distance. Soft footsteps slowly made their way in the snow until their owner appeared from around an ice pillar. A smile formed on his lips: it was Ruth. Tears of joy fell.

“Ruth! Are you alright, sweetie?” he asked.

She appeared rugged, hair and clothes in a mess, clutching her arm. Her muddled face was covered in light scratches. She didn’t respond, keeping her distance.

“Ruth? What’s wrong?”

“D-dad?” she asked in a raspy voice. “Is that really you?”

He gave her a puzzled look. “Wha—of course it’s me, darlin’. Who else would it be?”

She slowly took a step forward, the suspicion still in her eyes.

“Why are you actin’ like that?” Felton asked. “What happened around here? Where are we?”

She peered deep into his eyes. The blue glow that once occupied them was absent. When she noticed this, her face lightened. “It really is you.” She ran up to him and attempted to give him a hug. Felton immediately winced out in pain. “Oh, I’m sorry, Dad.”

He smiled. “It’s fine, baby-girl?”

“Ruth?” another voice called out.

The two turned around to see Carol emerge from another spot. She appeared to be in the same shape as Ruth. Carol scanned around until her eyes settled on them and instantly she went white.

“Ruth, get away from him!” she yelled.

“It’s fine, Carol. He’s back. She’s not controlling him anymore.”

“Controlling?” Felton repeated. “Okay, I’m gonna need answers. Explain everything, startin’ with why there’s goddamn hole in my leg.”

Carol exhaled in relief and chuckled. “Yeah, about that…”

Felton tossed her a bewildered look. “Don’t tell me you had a hand in it.”

As she approached, Ruth ran up to her into a heartfelt hug, surprising Carol. “It’s finally over,” she whispered into her ear.

Carol smiled, hugging her back tightly. “Yeah, kiddo. You know it could’ve gone smoother if you had just told me your real intentions from the get-go.”

Ruth laughed. “I know, and I’m sorry. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.” She attempted to pull away, but she noticed Carol’s grip only tightened.

“Carol?”

She didn’t respond, only tightening her hold. Ruth tried again to pull away.

“Carol, let go. You’re hurting me.”

“What’s going on?” Felton asked with concern. “Carol, you alright?”

A smile crept across Carol’s lips. “Rejoice, child,” she whispered, “Mother awaits her daughters.”

Ruth eyes widened. She couldn’t believe it. Yet, before she could say anything her fear suddenly disappeared into a dull daze. Carol loosened her grip and the two stood facing each other with hands locked.

“Wha—” Felton began. “What’s going on?”

They turned to face him and his heart dropped; their eyes were glowing blue with a wide smile pressed across their faces. Felton was speechless. Suddenly, the ice shards everywhere slowly retracted into the ground, revealing a figure at the opposite end.

Felton stared at it in horror. It was pale, half of it a girl while the other half, he could only think, resembled a tree. Her face and arms were heavily charred with searing cracks of red, producing a cloud of smoke from her form. He noticed that she had matching blue eyes, piercing back at him, filling his body with an icy chill.

That’s when it dawned on him: all those times he felt that coldness, heard those voices… it was all from this thing.

“What… what the hell are you?” Felton muttered.

“Mother doesn’t like it when I force her daughters…” the pale girl spoke out, “the sons she could care less. However, I’m sure she will approve of it this time. Come.”

Instinctively, Ruth and Carol turned and began walking towards her. Terror gripped Felton.

“Ruthy, what are doing?! Get back here!” he screamed out. “Don’t go near that thing! Carol, stop her!”

They both ignored him though, pressing onward.

“Ruth!” Felton continued, tears streaming down his face. He attempted to stand again, but was instantly brought down by the pain. “Fuck! Ruth!” He tried to drag himself over, but again was at the mercy of his wounds.

The two walked calmly over to the Chione. She took each of their hands and started to walk away. As they did, a white aura slowly engulfed them. Chione took the time to glance back, and rendered one last toothy grin, before they continued forward.

Felton could do nothing but scream after them as the three faded into the distance.