It wasn't until I had stacked three boxes near the ladder that I looked back and noticed the box labeled 'Naomi's Junk' once again. For a lingering moment, I sat on the scratchy, uncomfortable sheet of wood and stared at my name scribbled on the cardboard. And the longer I sat there staring, the more a creeping sensation seemed to crawl up the length of my spine.
I frowned and reached back to rub at my hair at the back of my neck in case some had fallen from my ponytail and was tickling me. There was no more than usual sticking out and I tugged the elastic from my hair. The headache I hadn't realized was creeping over my scalp eased in an instant and I pushed myself onto my feet.
It was going to be a chore getting the junk for donating down the ladder and I had half a mind to search through the cabinets for a bottle of wine to enjoy until my parents got back. But despite how much my mind was calling for the numbing effects of alcohol, I couldn't leave the attic just yet.
That box was still sitting there and for some reason, I couldn't leave it behind. There was no telling what junk was stored in there-nothing I had been missing for the past ten years, that was for sure. Pursing my lips, I crossed over to the box and peered down at it.
The top flap of the box was ripped open, and I could just make out the plastic corner of a thick, purple binder poking out the top. It was one I had used for school, but I had covered the front of it with various stickers, some peeling away and leaving the splotched, white paper beneath. I kept my eye on the binder corner as I tugged at the other flaps and opened it up completely.
I could see a few editions of my high school yearbooks in the bottom, a stack of drawings made on sketch paper, and some homemade jewelry I thought had been the coolest things when I was a teenager. They were mostly paperclips with beads on them glued onto an earring clip and were definitely not in any way cool. They hadn't been then and they weren't now.
But as I rifled through the junk-and it was truly junk-the peeling stickers covering that binder kept drawing my eyes to it and I plucked it out of the box with a sigh of slight annoyance. My eyebrows lifted to my hairline and memories flooded through me so quickly, the wave of nostalgia nearly knocked me back.
In puffy, block stickers across the top of the plastic binder, the word Evera was spelled and for the first time in months, possibly years, I felt a tug at my heartstrings. I traced the letters with my middle finger and stared down at the front cover of the binder. Tears stung my lower lids and I blinked them away, feeling foolish for getting so emotional over something I hadn't thought about in the last twelve years.
The binder had been a part of me, a rather large part of who I had been at such a young age and it was strange holding it again after so long. Before I could dive back into where I had left off as a teenager, I knew I had to get these boxes down the ladder first. The attic was growing stuffy and the bare bulb hanging from the central beam was starting to make my headache return.
With the binder tucked beneath my arm, I carefully made my way down onto the second floor and started the process of easing down the rest of the junk my parents had stored for far too long. It didn't take long, but each trip back down from the attic, my eyes couldn't resist glanced to the binder I had set down on the floor by the stairs.
And each time, the same strange sensation of cold swept across my neck.
I left the boxes for donating on the second floor, scooped the binder up into my arm once more, and headed downstairs without a second glance back to the attic.
My parents hardly ever drank alcohol. I could count on one hand how many times I ever saw them drinking in the house. One New Year's Eve, they had bought a bottle of champagne to "see what all the fuss was about" and after a few sips, decided it wasn't for them. They went to bed before the ball had even dropped that year and being a curious teenager, I snuck the bottle out of the trash and poured myself a glass.
I hadn't been able to tell what the fuss was about either, but over the course of my marriage, I had grown accustomed to drinking wine. With the dinner parties and schmoozing with the other upper-middle-class couples, it was the thing to do. I drank wine from France, from Russia, from the vineyards in California and each one of them tasted exactly the same to me.
Logan always told me I had no taste for the finer things, and I knew it annoyed him that I wasn't as swanky as he or his friends were. I often wondered if he had married me to do me a favor, to pull me up out of the 'slums' of the middle class, to show me how much fun it would be to live above your means. I had never found it fun, but I thought I had to, and I had faked my smiles and interest in the stories of other couple's trips to Europe to bring back their expensive, top-shelf wine.
It was probably a good thing I couldn't tell the difference in the good stuff and the thirteen dollar bottles bought at Wal-Mart because that was all my mother had on her shelf.
It was unopened but I could tell it had been sitting there for a while. Dust had collected across the top of the foil-covered cork and along the curve of the glass. It had more than likely been bought during one of her more adventurous moods, having read on a blog about how well red wine pairs with curried chicken, only to be forgotten in the back of the pantry, much like the curried chicken ingredients.
They had stored it on the top shelf and the irony wasn't lost on me, though I didn't let myself smile at it. The foil and cork were removed with a quick pop and I opened the cabinet to search for a proper glass. My parent's collection of goblets were as dusty as the bottle of wine and I frowned.
I was no longer in Logan's house and possibly would no longer live among that social status. What did it matter if I wanted to drink Wal-Mart wine out of an old mug with Garfield's face stamped on it? I hooked my finger around the handle and pulled down the mug while reaching for the wine bottle with the other. I poured half a glass, and then a few sips more, before turning the bottle up at my lips to take a long, uncouth drink.
There was a sense of embarrassment when doing things like this that had been ingrained in me the past decade-a kind of dread that someone might have seen my social faux pas. Oh, poor Naomi doesn't know wine is better enjoyed drinking out of goblets at fancy dinner parties? How humiliating it must be for Logan.
I half expected to lift my head and see Logan standing at the kitchen table, arms crossed over his chest as he shook his head in disappointment at me. My eyes cut to the left where my purple, sticker-covered binder still sat on the table. The room was empty except for me, but I still narrowed my eyes into a glare exactly where his face would have been.
I grabbed the bottle of wine, my Garfield mug, and the binder before crossing through the sliding back door, stepping out onto the narrow, back porch patio. In the corner, a stationary bike was facing the backyard, another splurge that neither my mother nor father stayed interested in for too long. I turned to the right and dropped into the wicker patio sofa with a soft creak of the wooden legs. The red and white cushions were bleached from the sun and the striped pattern was nearly gone completely.
I let my head fall against the brick of the house and brought my mug to my lips, taking a long sip that turned into nearly half the glass. A dribble of wine ran down my chin and swiped at it with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. In the back of my mind, I could see my husband standing at the door, watching me with those cold, narrow eyes filled with judgment. I drank until he disappeared.
Thankfully, the alcohol was doing its job better and better with every sip I took, swimming through my body, and leaving warmth in its wake. My thoughts slurred in my mind and I could feel the quickened thump of my heartbeat against my chest.
Swallowing down another gulp, I pulled the binder into my lap and once again, traced the fading stickers with my fingers. Whether it was holding a large piece of my childhood in my hands once more or the wine bringing a smile to my lips, I wasn't sure. I pried open the front cover and the plastic cracked at the seams. The years it had spent packed away in a cardboard box hadn't been kind to it, and for some reason, I felt the need to apologize.
The front pocket had loose sheets of paper, mostly drawings of different characters and places, and a few random ideas I had planned to slip into the storyline. The first drawing was of Isobel and Isaac, siblings that lived in the Valley who could do magic but strictly in secret. In Evera, magic was forbidden. I was by no means an artist and my attempts at drawing accurate images of people were laughable. Eraser marks had torn at the paper where I struggled with drawing their hands and to remedy my lack of skill, I had simply drawn them both with their hands behind their back. The corner of my lips lifted into a smile and I slid the drawings back into the pocket, turning to the first page tucked into one of the protective sheets.
A crudely drawn map, colored with Crayola colored pencils and labeled with black, block letters (from my mother's label maker) stuck on the proper places. Tsankara mountains, where the horrendous dweller monsters lived; Antir, the dazzling Capital city; and the Winter Realm at the top of the page, colored in silver and white. I had even labeled it 'Elven Territory' with a strip of the sticky label.
I turned the page, unable to keep the smile away from my lips. I could still recall how many hours I had spent sitting at the family computer that had been in the den, typing as quietly as I could while my parents slept in their room, thinking I was doing the same in mine. Countless hours writing, planning, and building; classes wasted where I would do nothing but daydream about this other world I longed to live in.
The pangs of nostalgia struck a bit stronger as I flipped through the typed manuscript I had printed out so many years ago. Each page was hole-punched three times and I remembered how tedious it was to do it all. We hadn't had a three-hole punch in the entire house, and I had gotten the only one-a single punch-out of my mother's craft supplies. It took hours to perfectly line up the pages and punch each hole until they all stacked up neatly in line.
Years of my life typed and planned on the pages; an entire world dreamed up all to completely disappear as soon as I grew out of it. I had forgotten all about it over the years and a part of me felt guilty-as if I had abandoned an actual person. The worst part was I knew how badly I would have treasured this the past few months, how badly I needed something to immerse myself in the way I had been at sixteen years old, something to take my mind off of the heartache and pain. And in a way, I felt guilty for making myself go through this mess alone.
The soft smile of nostalgia started fading as the thoughts of my husband and our crumbling marriage managed to weave back through my head. I closed the binder and dropped it onto the faded cushion beside me before letting my head fall back against the wicker couch. Above me, a moth was fighting against the glass light fixture and I watched it for several minutes as it tapped over and over, looking for any path that led to the light inside.
My mind was a maelstrom of thoughts, constantly circling, swirling, and pulling me down into the depths. I just wanted a moment of peace, a few hours of silence, but the thoughts usually followed me into my dreams and I knew sleep wasn't the best option.
Hopefully, an entire bottle of wine would help numb the edge of my bitter thoughts and I poured another mugful of cheap wine.
Beyond the back porch, the yard stretched, and I stared at the places I had played as a child. The swing-set I had spent hours on had rusted and was hauled off to the scrap yard years ago, but I could still see in my mind exactly where it sat beneath the shade of the only tree tall enough to provide any. At the edge of the yard, a narrow strip of woods sat that separated one street of the suburbs from the next.
There were only two acres of woods or so, enough trees not to be able to see the neighbors behind the house but not enough to attract wild animals-though foxes and coyotes had been known to traipse through it. Where I sat now behind my parent's house, I could see the first line of trees and a few more behind, lit by the light shining out from the kitchen window above my head.
Directly behind the blocked off patch of grass where my mother's bird feeders and sweet shrubs sat, the light couldn't quite reach and the trees were shadowed. I stared at the darkness stretching along that back corner of the yard and as I did, a strange, pressing sensation crawled between my shoulder blades. I rotated my arms, trying to release the sudden knot, and reached back to knead the muscles between my neck and shoulders.
It wasn't quite the same sensation I'd had up in the attic, but the cool breath of something remained across the back of my neck. I shook my hair out of the hood of my sweatshirt and pulled the strands over my shoulder. My fingers separated three sections and I quickly braided my hair to keep it tied down. I didn't want the wind blowing anything across my neck...Though, there wasn't exactly any wind to begin with.
Perhaps it was all of the stress I had been through lately. Now that I was sitting still, now that I had a few moments of peace to myself, the stress that I was trying to forget about was rearing its ugly head once more. It wouldn't surprise me. But now as I sat with a bottle of wine in one hand and an empty Garfield mug in the other, I wondered if it was something more.
Before I could brush the thought off as being ridiculous, a press of an invisible hand pushed against the center of my back and I quickly slid to the edge of the wicker sofa. I spun around to stare at the faded cushions, feeling along the material for any wad of stuffing that had bunched inside it that could have been the cause of such a weird sensation.
When I found nothing there that could have remotely felt like the press of a hand, I stood to my feet and went back into the kitchen. That was enough wine for the night. I didn't like to drink too much anyway and usually stopped after a glass or two, knowing to drink more wasn't considered very classy. But a good rule would be to stop drinking once you start feeling phantom touches.
Through the window above the kitchen sink, as I rinsed my glass, I couldn't help glancing at that spot of the trees. It was still just as dark as it had been minutes ago, and I pursed my lips as I stared at it. Why was it even bothering me? The backyard was the exact same as it always had been.
My swing-set had been replaced by a square of paving stones where a small patio set was set up and along the back edge of the yard, my mother's flowers and birdbaths still sat. There was absolutely nothing sinister about the yard or the strip of woods. It was in the middle of a suburb that had been there for the past forty years, for crying out loud. If there was something sinister lurking in those woods, I'd have known about it by now.
And honestly, what sinister thing could be lurking? I didn't believe in ghosts or demons and I certainly didn't believe in any kind of urban legend creature that could stalk the quiet, sleepy towns of suburban America. The wine had gotten to me after not drinking for months and I should have known better than to drink nearly an entire bottle.
A hangover was the last thing I needed in the morning.
I reached to switch off the light above the sink and as it went out, I caught sight of something fluttering on the wicker couch. My hand lingered on the light switch as I stared through the sudden darkness of the room, out the screen window. Now, my pulse was racing for an entirely different reason than alcohol.
Laying on the cushions exactly where I had left it was the binder. The pages I had spent so long writing were fluttering in a wind that I could neither feel nor shook the leaves on the trees in the backyard. And certainly no wind was blowing that could lift the plastic cover of the binder. I blinked several times just to make sure I wasn't seeing things and each time I opened my eyes, the pages were still fluttering and flipping rapidly back and forth.
My eyes darted to that spot of the woods again and I felt a sudden surge of anger. After not feeling anything for so long, it surprised me to feel something like this. But I was pissed that someone was playing games with me.
I snatched my phone from the counter beside the sink where it had been charging and stalked out the back door and onto the patio once more. Just as the door slid shut behind me, the pages fell against the binder once more as whatever breeze that had been blowing them completely disappeared.
For several minutes, I stood in silence, listening to the sounds of the summer insects and frogs croaking in a nearby pond, my gaze never wavering from the typed pages I had written over ten years ago. My mouth opened, though I had no idea what to even say and after a moment, it snapped shut once more. With each breath and each beat of my heart, I tried to make sense of what I had seen and nothing clicked.
It had been the wind-but how could it have only been blowing inside the porch? Why hadn't it rustled the leaves or the grass?
"Maybe I'm finally losing my mind," I muttered to myself, feeling my shoulders drop slightly from the tension that had been making them tight. That was the only option that made sense. I was somehow going crazy and I had imagined the whole thing.
Shaking my head, I took a step toward the wicker seat and reached for the binder with one hand while shoving my phone into the pocket of my hoodie. Before I could even bend down to grab the binder, a sudden burst of wind snatched the pages once more and I jumped back in surprise. This time, I could feel it and it whipped the strands of hair that had fallen out of my braid around my face.
The words barely had time to leave my mouth. The force of the gust snatched the pages up and ripped them clean from the binder, making me suck in a breath of surprise. I quickly swiped my hair out of my eyes and watched several pages of my teenage obsession tumble and twirl over the dark grass of my parent's backyard.
For a moment, all I could do was stare-too shocked to even move or make a sound. It wasn't until the pages fluttered right toward that dark corner of the yard where the shadows of the trees had called to me earlier. I felt my eyes widen and before I could stop myself, I was moving toward the yard.
There were only about fifteen or so pages tumbling over the grass and I knew I had to move fast to get them before they reached the trees. I broke out into a run-or as close to a run as I could get with alcohol clouding my head and making me stumble forward. I caught myself on the grass and snatched up one of the pages, glancing down at it quick enough to see the number 15 at the bottom of the page.
"Shit," I hissed, springing forward to pluck another one out of the air and another until I had nearly ten pages tucked between my elbow and ribs. There were still several fumbling along the ground and I slid to a stop, breathless and eyes wide as I stared at the dark corner of the yard where the pine trees stood tall above me.
The mysterious wind carried a few of the papers into the woods and I swallowed, suddenly unsure if I should go after them. Did it even matter? This story was over ten years old. It was something I hadn't thought about since I was eighteen and if I had lasted this long without it, did I even need it?
For the second time, I felt the invisible touch of a hand at my spine and whirled around to stare at the back of my parent's house. There was no one there, no one touching me, though I knew exactly what I had felt. A sense of unease filled me and I slowly turned my head toward the trees once more. The wind had died enough that the pages of my book were resting along the mossy ground.
Only a few steps into the trees. Nothing too extreme and I would be able to see the house with just a glance over my shoulder. And honestly, what was I afraid of anyway? This was one of the most boring, mundane suburbs in the entire state-possibly the country. I was being ridiculous. I was being my typical self. Naomi; the woman afraid of her own shadow.
Clenching my jaw and squaring my shoulders, I made my way into the trees. Stray twigs and pine needles crunched beneath my flip flops and the ends of them poked into my feet above my flipflops. It made me cringe. I was strange about my feet. I didn't want anything or anyone touching them if it wasn't shoes or socks. With a sigh, I pressed on and bent down to pick up one of the pages, clamping it beneath my arm before moving onto the next.
Only two were left and one had gotten caught on the root of a naked shrub that hadn't survived the winter. Its branches were bare compared to the bushes around it and I bent down to reach beneath the gnarled twigs and snatched the page. One down, and only one more to go.
My knees protested as I stood and glanced around the area. Just in case, I made sure no one had followed me into the trees and could still see the back patio behind the house. Nothing looked out of the ordinary and I took a breath, facing the woods once more. As soon as I found this last page, I would go back inside and laugh at how ridiculous I was being.
Thankfully, the last page wasn't too far away and I would soon be back inside, finishing that bottle of wine, and relaxing in my childhood bedroom that had long been turned into the guest room. I narrowed my eyes on the white paper and cursed beneath my breath. It was a bit too far out of reach and I would have to pass between the dead shrub and the thick trunk of the tree to get it.
I squeezed between them and lifted a foot over the root of the tree. I could feel the heel of my flipflop sinking into the soft moss on the other side and something tickled against my heel, making me grimace. My arms tightened around the pages at my side and I leaned forward, extending my free hand as far as it would go without me tipping forward.
And just as my middle fingernail brushed along the corner of the page, I did exactly what I had wanted to prevent. The moss beneath my shoe was too slippery to keep my balance and I found myself falling forward. All of the pages I had managed to snatch up slipped out from the clutches of my arm as I put my hands out to catch myself.
My breath caught in my throat and I expected my palms to hit the twigs and pine needles, the moss or the roots, of the tree, but they didn't. I kept falling until my shoulder rolled onto the hard roots of the tree and sent me spiraling, heels over head. The ground sloped beneath me and I rolled along the hillside, grunting with every bruise I acquired on the way down.
It was a quick thought in the back of my head that there wasn't a hill behind my parent's house, that I should have been rolling into the back yard of one of their neighbors, but gravity brought me rolling down onto my side hard and the air was knocked from my lungs. I gasped for breath but could find no relief from the sudden pain and I managed to slide to a stop at the bottom of the hill.
Every breath I took was like trying to suck in lungfuls through a narrow straw and left my chest aching. I coughed and sat up enough to pull my elbow beneath me. My ribs were definitely cracked and the pain made me clench my eyes and jaw shut tight. It was a struggle just to sit there and breathe.
How in the world would I climb back up that hill? Maybe I could continue on to the neighbors and ask them to call my parents-
I gasped and pressed a hand to the front of my sweater, quickly finding the bulge of my cell phone in the pocket. It was hanging halfway out and I was thankful that it hadn't flung out during my descent.
My fingers trembled as I tapped the screen. It lit up brightly and I sighed in relief. At least it wasn't broken. I pulled down the menu at the top of the screen and tapped the flashlight on. The ground around me was lit in the soft, blue glow and I glanced at my surroundings. I was definitely at the bottom of a steep hill, with not much around me but the sparse patches of grass that typically grew in a forest.
I shined the light up the slope and widened my eyes. It stretched high above me, far beyond the light that the phone could produce and I frowned. The fall didn't feel quite that long when I was tumbling and I knew I should consider myself lucky for only having the injuries I did. Climbing back up was going to be a bitch.
Groaning, I rolled onto my backside and checked to make sure my legs were still intact. I could see a tear across the knees of my leggings and my skin was scraped beneath it, but nothing too serious. Even my flipflops had managed to stay on, though both were sitting skewed on my feet.
Once they were back on properly, I managed to stand up on my shaking legs and dust the seat of my pants off. Again, I lifted my phone and peered up at the hill I had tumbled down and unease filled me. This hill was not behind my parent's house. I would have remembered that growing up. I had explored this neighborhood countless times with my childhood friends.
If there had been something like this, then we would have all been warned about it. Surely the neighborhood hadn't drastically changed this much. I would have known about it. But...if it hadn't then what the hell was this?
Behind me, deeper into the trees that I couldn't acknowledge just yet-because they weren't supposed to be there-a twig snapped, making my blood run cold. I pressed my phone to my chest to hide the light and whirled around. My feet brushed over the fallen leaves and I cursed myself for being too loud.
If someone was out here, I didn't want them to know I was as well until I could be sure they weren't some crazy axe-murderer. My fingers were shaking around the device pressed into the front of my sweatshirt and I swallowed down the fear prickling beneath my skin. The trees were dark, but I could still make out some of the shapes of the trunks around me.
I narrowed my eyes and looked into the darkness between the trees, waiting for another sound. Could it be one of the neighbors? Someone who had heard me falling and wanted to come make sure I wasn't lying dead in the dirt?
Swallowing down the panic that was threatening to bubble to the surface, I took a slow, cautious step to my left to peer around some of the trees. A few yards away, standing just between two fairly small trees, I could see the shape of a person and my breath left me in quick relief. The phone fell away from my chest and I turned it around so they could see the light and me.
"Thank God. I was starting to think I was going to have to climb...that hill...again..." My words faded as I shone the light through the trees, my throat clenching tightly around the sound of my voice. I was frozen in fear, no longer able to keep the panic at bay. My breath and my pulse were gaining in speed and I stared at the figure in the light.
It wasn't a person at all. There was nothing I could do but stare in absolute horror as the creature slowly turned its face toward me and the light. It was tall, standing at least eight feet high, and had a face that looked like it was made from the bark of a tree-all jagged and cracked. The knots in the wood formed two eyes and a hole in the bark, jagged around the edges, was its mouth.
In the light, I could see something dark dripping from its mouth, and I followed it down to where it splattered along its long, splintered fingers. Clutched in its grip was what I could only guess was a rabbit, though by now, it was ripped apart with chunks of bloodied fur and entrails hanging from those twisted fingers.
"Fuck-" My fingers were quick to drag down the menu from the screen and I quickly tapped the flashlight app, plunging me and the woods into darkness. I wasn't sure if it was a good idea, but I didn't want to look at that thing anymore. And I didn't want it to look at me.
It was no use though. It had seen me. Standing in the darkness, petrified to the spot on the forest floor, I could do nothing but try not to pass out. There was a logical explanation for this. I had hit my head, had a concussion that, paired with the years-old alcohol, was making me hallucinate horrifically.
That was it.
This was nothing but a bad trip induced by equally bad alcohol and a concussion.
But if that were true, why could I still hear the blood dripping onto the leaves at the forest floor and why did I get the feeling that my hallucination was no longer satisfied with that rabbit? My entire body trembled and I held my phone tightly against my body. Could I manage to dial 911 before that thing got me? Would they even be able to help?
Would I even be able to fight-
A roar split through the night and my thoughts and I felt as if I had been knocked back by the force of it. I didn't wait to get the answers to any of the questions I asked myself. I did exactly what the adrenaline pumping through my body commanded of me and I ran.
My feet flew over the twisted roots and broken branches and I cursed myself for wearing flip flops. There was no way I could have known that I would be running from a horrifying tree creature, but that was beside the point.
I would never wear flip flops again after this.
If I lived through it, of course.
The monster tore through the woods after me, shoving trees over that were as thick around as my body. If it could do that to a tree, I could only imagine what it would do to me. So, I ran harder, my breath quick and shallow and my chest aching already. I wanted to stop and throw the wine up, hoping it would put an end to the nightmare chasing me.
But I didn't. I couldn't.
I dodged around the trees and caught a low hanging branch to the cheek, barely noticing the pain or the warm drip of blood down my face. Close behind me, the monster ripped the trees from the roots as it let out a primal roar that I felt in my bones. It was closing in on me now.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a light and gasped, turning toward it. I must be close to the houses again and I hoped I would find shelter long enough to call for help.
As I whipped around a rather thick tree, following the light bouncing through the woods, I slammed into something hard. I stumbled back on my heels and gasped, knowing that the creature was close to me now. If I went backward, it would grab me easily. But an arm circled around my waist and stopped me from falling back, pulling me around to their side.
I shook my hair from my face and stared up at a hooded figure, too dark to tell who it was, or if it was another monster. But they turned me away from the creature and with their free hand, grabbed something dark and curved from a sling at their back. I stared, eyes wide in terror, up at the shadowed face of whoever this person was.
In the direction I had just come, the monster was still tearing through the woods alarmingly fast and my body tensed, preparing for the inevitable moment we would be ripped apart. I struggled against the arm holding me still. "We have to go! That thing-"
"Cover your ears," the figure at my side said, but his words didn't register in my head. I knew what he said but it was like hearing it in a completely different language that I hadn't used in years.
My brows pinched above my eyes and I said, "What?", seconds before he put the object in his hands to his lips. I blinked at the shape of a horn stretching high above my head.
The sound blasted from it was louder than anything I had ever heard and vibrated through my entire body, tearing a scream from my throat. Much too late, my hands slapped against my ears, but the horn ripped through my defenses. The woods blurred around me though the light from earlier was closer-a torch held by another hooded figure. I could see the tree creature, tearing its way toward us, its face a twisted, furious knot of bark. Its gaping mouth opened and though I knew it was letting out a roar, I couldn't hear it.
Then the world turned black and I fell limp in the arms of the hooded stranger.