Tiane’s legs pump furiously under her like pistons. The cold, dark forest closes around her like a dark presence. She can almost taste the malevolence in her gasping breaths. Her chest is tight, aching with strain as she struggles to draw in more air to feed her starving muscles.
She pivots around a tree. Her foot lands in a pile of leaves and skids out from beneath her. She hits the ground hard, all her weight on her hip. She grimaces in pain, clamping her teeth down to stifle the cry that is almost wrenched from her. She opens her eyes to begin righting herself. Poised above her, glistening with wet and poison are the screaming thorns. They hang scarcely a breath from her skin. The sap they secrete bubbles on the tips.
A oncewolf howls in the forest, the pack has not given up their pursuit. Fresh meat is always a priority for these twisted creatures and Tiane has certainly had their attention since she passed below the heavy stone arch hours ago. She involuntarily jerks at the reminder of the pack.
Carefully she edges out from under the screaming thorns. She hears her father telling her about them, about the crippling pain they cause if even a drop of the poison gets into her mouth or eyes. Deities forfend the thorns actually piercing her skin. The oncewolves tearing and rending her apart while her screams filled the air would be a much better fate than the days of blinding pain of that thorn prick.
She snorts to herself as she eases away and rises, limping on the aching hip. She should have listened to her father more, should have stayed away from Abandoned Hope Forest. She was crazy to have ever thought she was the one that could succeed where so many had failed. She brushes her golden hair back from her eyes and looks for the path.
A warbling call rises up from somewhere, close. It is answered by the howl of a oncewolf. Tiane’s eyes grow wide as she realizes that the oncewolves have been joined by the displaced. Well, not joined, they never work together, but they’re both tracking her. She will be their chew toy, caught in the middle, if they find her. She lurches into a hobbled run, careful to avoid the screaming thorns.
This was a mistake. She knows this now. She’s just another failure and her mother will cry bitter tears over the loss of her child. Tears well in the corners of her eyes, mingling with her sweat as it runs down her cheek. She stumbles a bit as she corners on another tree, a huge loon flower blooming behind it. The petals are heavy with the thick powder coating them. A sniff of this powder will give you visions and hallucinations for hours. It was once a highly-valued trade item, but the forest has claimed them and made it too dangerous to harvest. This one could easily provide hours of escape for her whole village.
But there, just past it, she can see the clearing. The green of the grass is a brilliant emerald green; a sharp contract to the dark trees towering around it. The rich red flower grows in the center, it’s petals the ruby of fresh blood. The air is almost crystalline around it, shimmery and sparkly with hope.
Tiane turns her head away from the loon flower and takes a deep breath. She carefully edges past the powder heavy flora blocking most of the path. The oncewolves howls grow closer, the trilling of the displaced bouncing off them. Tiane struggles to hold her breath and not disturb the powder. Time is certainly not her friend here but she doesn’t dare to make a mistake this close to her goal. Finally past it, she rushes to the clearing.
Across the clearing a displaced bursts from the trees and orientates on her. Its skin has lost its color, soaking up the hate and sorrow of the forest. It is ashen and yellow in turns. Its eyes are sunken in, haunted by what it used to be, the life it once had. The limbs are gaunt, barely bones held together by tendons stretched tight. The trill it releases at seeing its prey sends icy fingers tip tapping down Tiane’s spine.
Tiane sprints forward, toward this hellish creature that she’ll become should it close on her. She must get to the flower before then. Behind her the lead oncewolf crashes though the forest, closing in on her fast. The three speed toward the center at a speed that promises a spectacular crash. Tiane drops to her knees and slides. Her hand is stretching out, reaching for the flower and the hope it promises. Her fingers brush the petals, soft as crushed velvet. The oncewolf snaps his jaws shut on her ankle and yanks her back.
“Noooooo!” A sob is ripped from her throat as she is pulled from her goal. She kicks, once, twice, finally landing a solid kick on the oncewolf’s muzzle. It yelps as it releases her. She crawls forward, once more in reach. Her hand closes on the stem. Agonizing pain sears through her scalp as the displaced rakes its fingers through her hair, dragging her toward itself for the killing blow.
The flower is sucked through her hand and into the ground. The green of the clearing is following it, like water through a funnel. Ignoring the displaced Tiane lurches forward, blood from multiple cuts streams down her face, as she tries to dig up the flower. Blood patters around her hands as she loses chunks of hair to the claws of the displaced. The green is gone and the dark of the forest is quickly following.
So close, she was so close.
Sobbing and bleeding she collapses, her fist pounding the ground. She is sucked into the whirlpool too, face first so the crying is quickly cut off. The displaced and the oncewolf back off, each eyeing the other warily. As they warily creep backward a green tendril sprouts where the ruby flower grew. The flower quickly grows and blooms, its petals a rich honey color, golden with promise. A deep chuckle rumbles through the forest.
There is hope deep in this forest but none have managed to avoid the forest’s minions to free it. They have only managed to feed the forest and strengthen it with their blood and tears.