Bogleech.com's 2019 Horror Write-off:
Submitted by Shakara
Zira’s home was made of a hollowed-out tree. Ancient, it had been emptied from the inside by a fungus. Being fixated on the studies of plants, she had stopped it. Alas, the tree was dead. So, she took it upon herself to live within it. It was certainly big enough, forming a wide, circular room. The top of which had a hole that led to the tree’s peak, of which she blocked to keep the rain out.
Over time, she filled the knot-holes with glass wherever she found it. With the skills of weaving, sewing and polishing the walls with lacquer to keep out the weather, she made a life there, constructing her own furniture. She ate of the wood’s berries and game, having everything she needed.
Greyleaf, the closest town, was where she got her materials. Working as a weaver, florist and impromptu apothecary, she gained a fair bit of coin. She bought a goat, knitted its fur and drank its milk. It was happy in her great wood garden, gnawing at the grass. She named it Nami. Nami the nanny goat.
She was happy, living in the tree, listening to birdsong, weaving her dresses.
Until the dark days came.
Dark in the most literal sense. Either the sun had refused to rise, or there was a thick cover of cloud- Zira could not tell. Lighting a candle, she looked to her old clock, stuck to the wall alongside framed, pressed flowers and hanging glass jars.
7 o’clock. The sun should’ve been streaming through her rainbow-glass windows!
Nami was bleating, butting her head on the door.
“I’m here, don’t fret.” She opened the door, seeing how the goat was trembling in every limb. She had loosed her bowels out of sheer terror.
“What’s wrong? Is it a wolf?” Nami simply rushed inside and hid under the table, eyes wide with fear.
Zira looked out through the door, candle in hand. The sky was overcast, as if it were still night. Mist swirled around her feet, cold and wet. She shuddered and shut the door.
“Well, it looks like there’s some strange weather. Best we remain inside. Don’t want any wild animals coming in.” For security, she barred the door.
Time ticked on. Zira didn’t see any progression in the dark sky.
Her tree-home was in the middle of a clearing! Just what had happened to the sky to turn it into pitch-black? Not even the sun nor moon was out.
Several times, she got up to stare out at the impenetrable black. She had the uneasy feeling of being trapped, like an insect under a jar… She rushed back and lit all the candles.
On the second day, it was still dark.
Nami went out only to eat grass and make waste, much quicker than usual. When she wasn’t sleeping, having her fur shorn or being milked, she was huddled under the table.
“Poor thing. Don’t worry. The dark will go away.”
On the third day, it was still dark.
Carefully, Zira limited her use of candles. Once, she’d gone out to try and catch fireflies, but she found none. She didn’t even find simple rabbits, mice or foxes.
“Perhaps… they still think it’s night?”
On the fourth day, it was still dark.
Zira would go out into her back garden, picking her plants by candlelight. She did it quickly, watering and planting much faster than usual. Though she did not hear or see anything, the thick blackness in the wood made her very uneasy.
She ate less, feeling too fearful. She tried to weave, but her hands shook. She tried to read, but felt distracted. Nami had taken her usual place under the table, sitting on a blanket Zira had put there for comfort.
On the fifth day, it was still dark.
Zira climbed to the top of her tree-home to the balcony, trying to find the sun. She did not succeed. Whenever she opened the door to the peak of the tree, she found herself cloaked in mist, much colder than it had ever been, as if she’d stepped out naked onto a winter day.
“Gods above!” She slammed it shut and rushed downstairs, lighting the fireplace.
She curled next to it, trying to melt the glacial coldness that’d settled in her heart.
Concerned, Nami cuddled up close to her. She put an arm around the nanny, feeling the soft fur of the animal. Company. She was not alone.
That night, if there was such a thing as ‘night’ and ‘day’ anymore, she slept fitfully. Nami snored, curled up on the blanket. Zira tossed and turned, feeling cold still. She tried to think of beautiful scenes, remembering times of flower-picking with her mother, making stews and broths with her father, visiting her cousins… But rest would not come to her.
She felt watched.
Tiptoeing past Nami, she took a candle and walked out into the woods, the mist chilling her feet. She had lived her for over 9 years of her life, categorising each plant and berry, analysing the animals and tending her garden. She knew every last part of the boscage.
The white-currant tree that gave such sweet berries.
The small, hidden stream that she found shiny stones in.
The empty fox-burrow she’d fallen into.
Hell, even that rock hidden by the moss and grass she kept on tripping over in the autumn!
“Something is out here, and I’m not going back inside until I find what you are!” she shouted into the dark. Her voice echoed back, lower.
“What you are. What you are. What you are…”
She clutched to the candle, ignoring the hot wax as it dripped down her hand. A wolf, a fox, a bear, a boar, a hunter? What was out here? She couldn’t just imagine the sensation of being looked at- that was something you don’t just imagine.
“Who’s out there?” She snapped. If this was some kind of ploy by a vandal or murderer, she would not go down so easily.
“Out there. Out there. Out there…” The echo responded.
She stared to the ground and sighed. The girl jumped as she heard a loud, clear sssiuuuu. It sounded almost like an exhalation of breath.
The mist pulled back from her feet, coalescing into a pale cloud. The fog sculpted itself, twisting and warping into a pillar of grey.
“What is that?” She quickly scurried backward into the doorway. “What the Hell?” She gripped the candle so tight, it burnt her hand.
“Hell. Hell. Hell…” Went the echo.
It turned its faceless face toward Zira and melted into the dark.
She couldn’t remember when she went inside, but she woke up under the bed, her palm burning. Knocking her head off the wood, she got up slowly, nearly blinded by the multicolour light streaming in through the windows. Nami clambered to her feet, jovial at the presence of sunlight.
“Dawn.” A single tear of joy rolled down Zira’s cheek. “Dawn has come! The dark is over!”
She opened the door and ran outside, Nami bouncing up and down. She was going to Greyleaf, straight to the tavern. She’d celebrate! The sun was back!
Down the dirt path, barefoot, she sprinted. Feeling the wind in her hair, the scent of flowers and wheat in the air, she laughed. Nami bleated in exultation.
She ran past the gate to the town, into the plaza.
“Merry-met, fellow men! Dawn has returned!” she threw her arms to the sky in benediction, no longer feeling the pain in her hand.
Nami buried her muzzle in a fallen basket of hay skeins, chomping happily.
“… Hello? Anyone?”
Zira opened the tavern door. Nobody was inside, not even the landlord. She checked the market-place. Not even the early-morning sellers were present.
“Where is everyone?”
The church was empty. The schoolhouse was empty. Even the regular homes were without people. Not a single sound, not even livestock. She walked out to the farmsteads on the border of the town and fields. Nobody. Nary a single bird nor field mouse made a sound.
Nami nudged her leg, confused, breaking the lady out of her fearful trance. The goat looked up at her and quietly bleated.
“Well… I think they left? Perhaps the dark scared them…”
After gathering some goods from the abandoned market, the girl and goat returned to the tree-home. Still, she thought of the dark. Why was Greyleaf abandoned? She felt her stomach twist. What'd happened here? Did an army come under the cover of the dark, kidnapping all? A plague? What'd cause a mass exodus? How had she not heard a single sound?
Zira stood at the balcony, scanning the horizon. Sun, bathing all in golden light. She was grateful for the warmth and light. For a time, she sat atop the wood, breathing in the scent of the woods around her. She froze, skin prickling as each hair stood up. But why? She hadn't heard anything. But she could feel it, like waiting for a thunderclap, waiting to crack through the skies. She turned around, trying to find the source of her terror. There, far away on the horizon where the mountains stood, was a cloud. A low, low cloud, black as pitch.
It slowly floated over the earth, like a slow, ancient ocean.
Zira watched, horror-struck, as the pitch cloud enveloped the mountains. She watched on and on, long until after it had vanished beyond the edge of the horizon. And after that, she finally moved.
She slowly descended downstairs and sat, frozen in terror and confusion. Nami placed her head on her lap, cheerily unaware. She petted the soft grey fur, feeling it warm under her hand.
And she began to cry.
And thus, new citizens moved into the abandoned town, grateful for the security and lush land. The disappearance of the townsfolk became a tale of mystery, unsolved for years afterward. Greyleaf became Silverleaf as it advanced in invention. Smiths and carpenters, priests, scholars and traders- all had expanded the town. Thin staves of smoke rose into the sky as iron clanged and wood was whittled. People lived well there.
Only the woman who lived in the woods knew what'd happened. Sometimes the citizens would go to her and buy flowers, seeds or philtres. She had an impressive repertoire of medicine and poultices. And a small herd of goats, of which she shorn and wove soft wool for cloaks.
Oddly, she would refuse to leave her home during the darkest of nights...