Chapter Three

"Will of a Phoenix"

The forest seemed to close in around her. The sounds of swaying plants was the only noise. To the woman, her own heartbeat sounded earth-shattering. Every step sounded like a hammer striking an anvil.

In happier times, her family had warned her about the forests. Not only did wild animals lurk in its depths, but humans did too, though they were barely worthy of the title "Human".

When the bombs went off, radiation on a massive scale was released. The designers of these bombs had the means to remove all radiation from the explosions, but the buyers wanted the radiation to be released too – to make lands infertile and ravage the world. The manufacturers accepted this, and even intensified the amount of radiation from the blast – almost as if punching someone after killing them. What the radiation did was nothing short of horrific – half a century of life in close proximity to the radiation had scarred not only the land, but the people.

People exposed to radiation had their core genes overwritten – most commonly resulting in physical abnormalities or cancer. The deadly diseases seemed to come with exposure, one of which had almost destroyed the human race.

Expectant others who were exposed to the radiation became ill. They sprouted sores and became unable to move – living through weeks of excruciating pain. When they gave birth, their offspring were viciously mutated, twisted things hardly resembling humans.

If the bombs wrecked the world, the radiation wrecked the populace.

Long years of exposure eventually caused mental death – in short, turning these people into mental vegetables, forcing them to return to the basest instincts – foraging in forests for food, walking on all fours and being unable to speak. Human but human, ostracized both by the humans and the remaining animals, they lived alone or with others of their kind.

All of these thought twirled in the woman's head as she walked through the forest, pulling the cloak tighter around her body. Her hair twisted in the breeze, flapping against her neck like cold fingers.

She could still see the house in the distance, sitting on a rise in the forest. Treetops surrounded it, almost forming a halo around it. It seemed a refined old place, constructed in equal measures of wood and stone, the woodwork probably taken from the forest. In contrast to the old looks of the place, a satellite aerial wound around the chimney, pointing up through the canopy of trees.

A path through the trees emerged at the woman's feet, twisting past the trees. It was a simple mud path, beaten down by countless feet. Tied to some of the trees dotting the route were coloured ribbons, flapping forlornly in the gust. The wind streamed towards the house, making the ribbons flap merrily that way too, as if indicating the correct path. The ripple of the ribbons made a gentle shushing sound.

A noise came from behind her. The noise was a mix between a scream and a snap, mixed with strange tearing sounds. The noise would be forever burned into her memory. Turning slowly, afraid to look, she saw that almost all of the ribbons had been liberally coated with blood, some of it still congealing. A muffled cracking noise emanated from behind her, a grisly noise amplified by the wind. She shuddered and moved very, very slowly, every muscle in her body wanting to scream and run. A final crack, followed by gulping, came from behind her. Her mind could take no more and her body ran, yelling, too scared to even look behind herself. She pounded through the woods, walking stick dropped in sheer panic, her feet slapping onto the path. She blindly heard a shuffling sound behind her and panting, the sounds nothing should ever make.

The house encroached slowly, soon filling her view. Ducking under some low branches and jumping some of the thicker ones, she quickly approached the door to the hut. The shuffling behind her ceased, turning into the sounds of someone – or something- cantering after her. At least, it sounded like four footfalls. She slammed, breathless, into the frame of the door. She fumbled madly with the knob, and after what seemed an age managed to shove the door open. She dove inside, turning to close the door, and stopped dead.

The thing racing after her was human – or at least, bore a resemblance to one. They cantered towards her on all fours, their hands used as feet. Their features were twisted and horrifying, pus-covered wounds and deep scars criss-crossing it's face. The corner of it's mouth was missing – the entire line of teeth grinned at her from the death's head of it's face. Saliva dribbled vacantly down it's ruined face, dripping off its long, lolling tongue. crimson stained its entire front – it had eaten recently. Both of its eyes were bloodshot terribly, and were rolling about in the sockets.

The woman dimly noted that it was wearing the tattered remains of clothes before it was practically upon her – snapping from her stupor, she slammed the wooden door shut, shaking the house. Her fingers trembled horribly as she slipped the catch on the door, which suddenly shudder as something collided with it at great speed – an inhuman howl came from outside – disappointment at losing its prey, perhaps. The door shudder a few more times, and the woman heard scraping and scrabbling as it clawed the door.

She collapsed, sliding down the wall, out of breath and shocked beyond measure. Her hands stated to shake, then her entire body. A muffled sob wrenched itself from her chest, and she began to cry, the fears and changes of the last day finally hitting her. She was lost in a forest, stuck in an abandoned house with a sub-human demon stalking the forests outside, ready to rend her to shreds. The only thing she had had, the walking stick, lay forgotten in the woods. The only thing that stayed with her was the leather case, a reassuring weight on her back. She pulled it in front of herself again, once more slipping the top of the leather case off and running her hand along the twisted golden letters.

"Liah…" She said to herself absently. Her fingers stopped shaking when she touched the wood.

A memory appeared – a recent one, from the other night.

The man slowly extended their hand, lifting it until it was pointing directly at the woman. They cupped their hand and beckoned with their fingers.

"Give it here." An unmistakeably male voice came from the dark recesses of the hood. The gruff voice almost made the woman flinch. Her grip on the case tightened. The man advanced a step, arm still held out. His other hand tightened on the object within his coat. The woman backed another step away, moving the case behind her back. She shook her head sadly at the man.

"Wish I could. But it is me…mine." She whispered, her voice again cracking painfully. She gulped and shook slightly as the man stepped closer again.

"I won't ask again," the man continued, lending emphasis to every word, "But it's now Mine."

"This is me…" the woman said to herself, looking at the wood. "It IS me. Just as I am it…" she flipped the cover over again, pushing herself onto all fours, then onto her feet, slightly unsteady, but with a new resolve.

"I am Liah." She announced resonantly to the building. "It is me, and I am it. Wood cannot be scared." Her voice, cracking as usual, but with a strong note of determination behind it.

She even managed to convince herself.

She looked up, and saw the hallway for the first time.

Scattered along the walls were family pictures –images of a black-haired youth smiling into a camera. Other pictures showed two older people – possibly parents – walking on a moonlit shore. Further down the hallway, a door was positioned on either side. The door on the right was slightly ajar, and the one on the left seemed to have been opened violently, if the marks on the back were anything to go by. At the end of the hall, stairs to the next floor wound their way up.

Looking at the pictures dotting the surfaces, Liah felt a surge of emotion. She recognised some of these people, their names now lost in the abyss of memory. She could recall their faces, but how or why she knew, she could not remember.

Soon, the inevitable happened, and she came across a picture of herself. A much younger version of her sat on a wall staring at the sun, a small smile on her mouth. But her eyes had not changed, and Liah could tell it was herself. She reached over and picked up the picture, running a hand softly over the ancient image of herself, attempting to remember.

Nothing.

A clatter from another room startled her, and she whipped around, dropping the picture. It hit the floor softly. Liah stepped forwards slowly, each step silent, until her foot accidentally stepped on the picture. The crunch of glass seemed deafening. The blood pounded in her ears as she waited for the noise to find her.

Silence.

She bent down, ever so slowly, and picked up the picture. The frame was smashed but the picture itself was undamaged, if a bit dirty. One of the crazed cracks ran right over her face, bisecting her yellow eye. She looked mournfully down at the smashed picture.

Her head snapped up as a smashing sound came from another room. It was followed quickly by splintering and frenzied gasping. A look of pure terror washed over her face, her headlong run from such a noise in the forests still at the front of her mind.

Something scraped against the door of the room, a low shushing sound. She could hear whatever it was outside, its laboured breathing coming through the wood so clearly it was as if it was in there with her. She attempted to regulate her breathing, slowing the time between each breath, pulling air in with shallow breaths.

A thump against the door shattered her composure. The breath escaped her in a ragged stream, and she only barely resisted the urge to yelp. The snuffling noise moved on, gradually growing silent. Liah still did not dare to release her breath. The world started to sway and darkness crept at her from the corners of her vision.

From the other end of the house, a shatter caught her attention. It sounded like a window being broken. A feral, animal howl tore through the house one last time before everything fell silent.

Liah slowly released her breath. The darkness receded. She pulled in one great gulp of air, resting her hand on the wall, moving slowly and softly. The carpet swept under her feet as she walked slowly to the door. She put her hand on the handle.#

An image came unbidden to her mind. The image of the monster outside. The one with the ruined face. The feral thing. The distorted face, the lolling tongue, the rolling eyes…the bloodstains…

She did not want to leave. Her hand was refusing to move, locked on the doorknob. She leant in with her other hand and slowly pried her fingers off, one by one. Her hand fell limply to her side. Her other hand crept back to the leather case, an ever-present weight on her back. Its comforting weight clearing her mind, however slightly. She shook her head and straightened her back, reaching for the door again.

"Wood cannot be scared."

"Wood cannot be scared."

She repeated this to herself, over and over in her mind. Her gaze became more determined, her general poise more confident.

And then she looked down.