Into The Woods

Chapter One: A Strange Town

"The woods are dark and deep, and I have miles to go before I sleep." The man recited those words as if saying a spell, his tired grey eyes fixed on the book in front of him. The words blurred together like ants, and with a muffled curse he knocked the book to the floor and walked over to the window that opened up onto the cool night. He pressed his forehead against the cool glass, taking slow breaths to keep from screaming in rage and agony. He caught a glimpse of his shadowy reflection in the glass, and for a moment he didn't recognize himself. This cursed town had nearly leeched him dry.

Once, he had been a doctor at one of the finest hospitals in the States, with all signs indicating that he would only be moving up. He had a fine wife and daughter whom he loved and who loved him, and colleagues that respected and liked him, not just for his skills as a physician, but for his outgoing and friendly nature.

Then, in one night, it had all come crashing down around him. He had returned home late from a party, and even from miles away he had seen the black smoke billowing. He drove as quickly as he could; praying that what he feared wasn't true. When he saw the red haze above his house, his heart had stopped.

He slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car, screaming for his family at the top of his voice, unaware that a crowd had gathered. "EMMA! JENNA! ANSWER ME!" The only sound was the crackling of the fire, and Robert Carmon screamed again, running towards the house. Strong arms grabbed him and pulled him back, and a soothing voice spoke in his ear.

"Easy, fella. If they're in there, we'll get them out."

Robert kept struggling, but the man only tightened his grip, and gradually he settled, watching as the firefighters battled the blaze. A movement in the house caught his attention, and he watched two firefighters come out with….his mind went blank as he caught sight of the charred and burnt objects in their arms. "Emma? Jenna?" he whispered, on the verge of screaming. He stared with unseeing eyes as they were placed in body bags and zipped up.

His wife and daughter….gone…burnt…while he partied…he had killed them…he needed to make it all better…

With a wild yell, he broke free of the firefighter restraining him and ran towards the house, eyes wide and a mad smile on his face. "I'm coming, Emma love! I'm not going to leave you or Jenna! Here I come!"

He had just stepped foot in the still burning house when he felt a blow to the back of his head. The world went grey, then black.

He had woken up two weeks later in the hospital, his left arm a mass of fiery pain. He turned his head, nearly vomiting at the pain, and went pale at the blackened…thing that dangled from his shoulder. He didn't dare to even move it one inch, for fear it would crumble to dust.

"Oh, thank goodness you're awake!"

Robert turned back and gazed at the man in the doorway of his room, his traumatized mind trying to work out where he knew him from. "David…" the hoarse tone of his voice shocked him…. "What…happened?"

Dr. David River frowned. "You don't remember? You tried to kill yourself, Robert. There was a fire, and…"

"Oh God! My…my family…they're…god…" Robert began sobbing. "My…arm?"

David gave him a half smile. "We're going to try to save it, but you'll most likely lose all feeling in it."

Robert sighed as he walked away from the window, remembering those five pain-filled months. The endless surgeries, skin grafts, and therapy. In the end, his arm was saved, but his medical career was over. He found himself crippled by vivid nightmares in which Emma and Jenna burned over and over. He wasn't sleeping, and his practice began to suffer. Drinking seemed to alleviate the nightmares, but that only caused more problems. Finally, four months ago, the head of the hospital had called him into his office.

"Dr, you have given this hospital many good years. However, I am concerned with certain reports I have been hearing. I therefore think it would be best if…we parted ways."

Robert hadn't even bothered to argue. He had nodded, then turned and walked out of the hospital, driving towards the horizon.

He had broken down three miles from Darkhallow, and the citizens had been welcoming and willing to help him. The mayor had showed him around, introduced him to all the townsfolk-including his piggish son, who was the Constable-then, offered him a place to live and practice. Robert had accepted happily, settled into his home, and begun taking patients.

That had been almost two years ago, and he had learned some things about the town. He had learned that Constable Devon Richards was an inept and incompetent buffoon, but that he kept his job because his father refused to hear anything bad against him. He had learned that the owner of the bookshop had a small still behind his house, and had been somewhat of a steady customer.

But most of all, he had learned that the old and tired quote from Hamlet was true. There were more things on earth than he had ever dreamt of. Monsters lurked in the dark woods, and if he hadn't seen them with his own eyes, he would have called himself mad. The first time he saw…an unnatural, as his mind had penned them, he was certain that he had somehow been pulled into a nightmare. But then the creature had roared at him, its furnace-blast breath causing his face to pucker, and he realized with an emotion akin to primal horror that he wasn't dreaming. He screamed and ran back to town, where he panted out his story to the mayor. The mayor smiled ingratiatingly. "Yes, I know. We don't bother them, they don't bother us. We just have to…keep them happy."

Robert shuddered. "Happy…how?" The Mayor's hard smile told him all he needed to know, and he had gone pale. "Oh. Well, I…should probably be going…time to move on…"

The Mayor smiled wider, showing his teeth. "Dr, nobody leaves this town. They don't like it. I'm sure that you'll come to see that you can do well here."

He had tried, but still he yearned to escape, and now-he was going to try again. He had a knapsack of food, a flashlight, and a knife. He exited his house-it had never been a home, not really-and set off at a quick trot for the woods.

When he was halfway in, he felt a wave of dizziness crash over him. "No! I'm not going back! I can't…do this anymore!" He shut his eyes, counting backwards from one hundred, and finally the world stopped spinning. He opened his eyes and ran on, tripping over roots and running into thorns. Branches slapped at him, and he felt blood flowing down his cheeks, but he kept running.

A primal roar in front of him made him skid to a halt, and he gazed in terror at the form of one of the creatures that made the Woods their home. It was a manticore, and Robert kept a fearful glance at the poison tipped tail and razor sharp teeth. The manticore licked its lips, tail swishing in anticipation, and Robert froze, knowing that by the time he got his knife out of his pack, the creature would be on him. He took a slow step back, and tripped over a root that had slithered onto the path. He went sprawling, landing on his back, and white hot pain shot up his arm. The manticore growled, preparing to spring, and Robert shut his eyes, knowing that his death was inevitable.

He felt the hot and heavy body slam against his, and he braced himself for the bite that would end it all.

It took him almost a full five minutes to realize that the manticore was oddly still. He strained his head, trying to see, and gasped when he saw that the monster's eyes were glazed over in death. A second straining of the head showed a barbed arrow lodged deep in the heart.

He heard footsteps, and held still as someone came forward; rolling the manticore off him, then spoke in a slight drawl.

"You can open your eyes."

Robert did, and found himself looking at the strangest sight he had ever seen.