Chapter 1 – Who are They?

The snow fell wet and heavy without mercy. A cold wind whipped the dense flakes into a swirling, white curtain. Trudging through the knee-deep snow was worsened by the lack of visibility. Dusk was giving way to darkness, and he was desperate to find shelter. He pulled at saplings and pushed past snowy branches, feeling his way through the thick forest.

The torment of the weather, his aching joints, and his empty stomach gnawing at his insides were enough to plant the seeds of quitting in his mind. He thought of curling into a ball, letting the snow blanket him, and falling into the palms of death. It couldn’t be that bad. Rest. A long sleep. Anything was better than his current predicament.

He had been traveling for days without sleep. There was no time for sleeping. Food was scarce, and he had finished the last of his rations more than two days ago. He was running on empty. Gulping stream water was his only respite in the unforgiving wilderness. Despite his hunger and fatigue, he could focus only on finding shelter.

The storm was becoming dangerous. The tall pines groaned under the strain, as the wind howled through the canopy. One foot in front of the other was the only order he could register. “I have to keep moving. I need to keep going. Just one more step, just one more step. I’ll find somewhere safe to rest.”

His clothes were coated in a layer of half-frozen snow, and crinkled with unordinary movements. The crunch of the snow underfoot and the relentless gusts of wind were all he could hear. This was a good sign. The sounds of those he was escaping from, were not within earshot. His exhaustion was taking hold, and he knew that the gap was closing. His tireless pursuers knew nothing but the chase.

They felt no cold. They did not grow tired. Their senses were finely tuned for tracking, stalking, and killing. He wasn’t quite sure what “they” were. Neither did his companions. They had discussed the matter briefly before his group had begun to disappear one after another. He was the last survivor of an expedition that had set out with a dozen men.

They had come one night, on the outskirts of the campfire. Their eyes glowing from the dense forest. Pairs of green eyes, eerily still and unmoving, about seven feet off of the ground. Blinking occasionally, but always staring in the same direction.  There was no sound of their approach, but an unintelligible hushed collection of whispers were passed back and forth as they watched.

He had been the first to see them, but not the first to hear them. One of his companions had asked the man to his left to speak up. “I wasn’t saying anything.” Almost instantaneously, the conversations around the campfire ceased, as the wind carried an odd mixture of sounds into the curious ears of the expedition.

It was unlike any language they had ever heard. It was a mix of clicks, single syllable mutterings, and low hums in a symphony of foreign accents. It made his hair stand on end. The men were frozen with fear. Fear of the unknown. Who could be approaching in this empty wilderness? What strange language were they speaking? How many of them were there?

The last question was answered as the men turned slowly to peer into the pitch black forest. The glowing treeline offered the only reference point, but they did not have to look long to count their visitors. Eight pairs of eyes in an equidistant semi-circle. Glowing green globes piercing their very souls.

Animals would have cracked branches, or at the very least paced to and fro; investigating the chance of a meal. These eyes were frightfully still. The men were stricken with fear. One man finally managed to utter, “who the fuck is that?” The whispering from the treeline stopped, as a silence swept over the campsite.

His heart began to thump in his coat. The blood in his face drained as he scanned the looks of terror overtaking his companions. They all knew that something was amiss. What was this mysterious gathering on the treeline?

He could take it no longer. Taking a branch from the fire, he raised it overhead and towards the treeline, and asked, “who goes there?” His slack-jawed companions stared with anticipation. The silence hung heavy in the air for a few seconds. The whispering from the outskirts broke out again.

Nobody moved a muscle. “What are they?”, someone finally managed to stutter. He threw the flaming stick towards the band of intruders. It tumbled end over end, hissing through the falling snow. The last second of its trajectory brought only more questions to light.

Before the torch extinguished itself in the snowy treeline, it had illumined the silhouettes of eight bodies, standing perfectly upright on two legs, with their long limbs hanging at their sides. They were unusually tall, with an athletic build. Their heads were more oval than round and showed no signs of hair. They were sleek, with no signs of clothing. How was this possible in the freezing conditions?

The beings in the treeline did not flinch as the torch came hurtling towards them. The glimpse the expedition had caught, was enough to send fear and panic rippling through the camp. Some men were frozen stiff, as others scurried to their tents. Two men grabbed muskets, as another began to add wood to the fire.

The eyes drifted slowly away from the treeline, and back into the depths of the forest. A musket shot cracked without reply. The man began to feverishly reload his weapon before falling to his knees and weeping. He picked up the weapon, fearful of his companion’s potential actions, and began rallying the expedition.

He went tent to tent, pulling out the shaking shells of the men he once knew. Some were unreachable; staring into the distance muttering to themselves. The others were silent, but were staring into the treeline as well. The remaining man kept his musket pointed at the forest, sweeping intermittently for something to take aim at. Nothing presented itself, and the group calmed enough to begin asking more questions.

“What were those things?” “What do we do?” “Why are they here?” “What do they want?” “Do you think they’ll come back?” “Should we leave tonight?” “Where should we go?” The campsite crackled with the shouts and retorts of terrified men. Panic had taken hold in some, and despair in others. A watch was ordered to be taken in shifts until dawn. The first two men on watch were given muskets after drawing the shortest straws in the stack.

The rest of the men returned to their tents to get what little sleep they could. The two men on watch were reassured of the best as they huddled by the fire. He stared blankly at the side of his tent, mulling over the recent events. He thought about the men on watch and was aware that his turn was soon to come. He prayed that nothing would happen to them and that the expedition would move forward as planned the following morning.

He curled under his fur blanket, and warmth began to course through his veins. Sleep crept into his body and took him asunder. He dreamt of sailing through clear waters, with the sun on his face. The sails fluffed, and gulls screamed overhead. His delusions of diving into the tropical waters were spoiled as he woke from his slumber.

The sun was peeking over the distant mountain tops as he exited his tent. His breath sent wisps of steam upwards on the cold breeze. A light snow was falling slowly as he approached the embers of the fire. The two men on watch were missing. There were tracks leading away from the campsite, but only one pair. The prints were large, with no tread, and a smooth outline.

He followed the tracks towards the treeline and paused. He was alone, had no weapon, and was unsure of what he was following. He retreated cautiously while scanning the forest. He could not hear or see anything notable. The camp began to rouse, and it was difficult to retrieve some men from the comfort and warmth of their tents. The men looked tired, and on edge. All of them had the memories of the night before fresh in their minds.

The discovery of the missing watch was relayed, and a new wave of fear washed over the men. Orders were made to break down the campsite, gather weapons, pack supplies, and extinguish the campfire. All of this was done while their eyes were cautiously trained on the treeline. The men had completed their tasks and packed together nervously at the start of the tracks.

They marched in two lines on either side of the prints. How could there be only one set of tracks? There were two able-bodied men on watch. Nobody had heard anything during the course of the night, and the following shift was never awoken. Thoughts zipped through his mind as they neared the treeline. His stomach began to churn, and a cold sweat broke on his forehead as he held his breath.

A massive pine tree stood in his path. He raised his musket, gave the signal for the men to stay still and crept forward. His steps were slow and deliberate. He was expecting the worst, but hoping for the best. He jumped to the side of the tree and swept in all directions looking for a target. Nothing.

The stride length was much longer than his own. He followed it intently as the group of men trekked further into the forest. They scanned the trees and pointed their firearms in all directions. Everyone was on edge. The only explanation so far, was that something walked into the campsite undetected, silently picked up the two men, and carried them into the forest. Impossible.

 

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