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Heart of the Rotwood

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Estimated reading time — 17 minutes

Darlene Kelly’s eyes scanned the set of hoof prints in the mud where she knelt. Her eyes moved to the thick underbrush in front of them, where something large had fled, tearing a hole in the autumn foliage. She could see crimson specks on a patch of leaves to the side. The buck had been huge. It was going to be a hell of a trophy on the wall. Still, she didn’t like the direction it was heading. There were stories about that stretch of Tennessee woodland. Strange stories.

“That means it came this way, right?” asked Cal Conner, who did not have a tracker’s bone in his body. His idea of hunting was to sit in a blind drinking beer until a deer walked right up to you. She rose to her feet, steadying the bow slung over her shoulder, eyes never leaving the hole in the brush in front of them.

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“’Course it did, dumbass!” said his brother, Benny, with his thick drawl. “What else you think made that big hole over there?”

“Hell, anything could have made it! Might’a been a bear or something!”

“You ever seen a bear in these woods??” said Benny, a look of disbelief on his face. Darlene could have done without the two of them yelling. They were almost on her last nerve and there was a scent in the air that told her there was a storm coming.

“Both of you, shut the hell up,” said Darlene. “It can’t go forever. My aim wasn’t that bad.” She cursed herself for the hundredth time in the past two hours. Her aim with her bow was usually dead on. This time, somehow, it was off. Maybe the buck heard something and moved. Maybe the wind picked up. For an instant, she thought of the old tales about that part of the woods. Maybe something didn’t want her getting that deer. Whatever had happened, its trail had gone on forever through the heavy brush.

“Only time I ever seen you not take it down in one shot, babe,” said Benny, attempting to be supportive. Darlene shot him a dirty look. He averted his eyes and held his tongue. She knew he was trying to be nice, but the use of the old pet name made her think he also might be trying to rekindle old flames. Those memories weren’t the ones she was focused on. Not on that day.

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“Follow me,” she said, stepping cautiously around the tracks and into the thick grass. Cal and Benny gave each other a nervous look before following her into the deep forest. They knew better than to piss her off on the anniversary of her father’s death. Ralph Kelly had been an avid hunter and took his daughter with him into the woods around Steadville too many times to count. It had felt only fitting that they go hunting every year on the anniversary. Darlene and Benny had been dating at the time and, although they had broken up two years later, it would have felt wrong to not bring him along on the annual trip into the woods. Cal was another story.

Darlene plowed through the dense brush, the low-hanging limbs prodding and pulling on her thick, camo jacket and long, red hair. Her eyes searched everywhere for a broken branch or a spot of blood. She couldn’t believe the buck was still going. It hadn’t been a great shot, but it couldn’t have gone that far.

“Darlene,” said Benny, his voice hushed. “There’s a chance this deer ain’t dyin’. How’s about we get out of here and come back some other day.” Her eyes flashed back at him with an intensity that made him regret saying anything.

“That’s the only deer we’ve seen all day,” she said, her voice heavy with determination. “We are not leaving without it.” She turned her back to the two brothers and shoved a branch out of her way.

Darlene knew she might be too hard on them, but she’d make it up to them later, when they had a carcass in the bed of their truck and were getting trashed. Taking down a deer was only the first part of the anniversary tradition. The other part involved a bottle of Cal’s homemade moonshine, which was somewhat legendary in the small, country town due to its potency and surprisingly smooth flavor. They’d sit around their kill at the edge of the forest, splitting the bottle and telling stories, many involving Darlene’s father. As stressful as the day had been so far, she knew that when they got into out into the moonlight, everything would seem better. Then, they’d do it again next year.

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Darlene heard a low, clicking noise behind her and turned to find Cal attempting to light a cigarette. She reflected on how his moonshine distilling might be his only positive characteristic. No, she thought, that wasn’t true. He also volunteered to carry all of the supplies every year. She suspected that he did it to try to impress her; the same reason he came along at all. It was no secret that Cal had a crush on her and hated going out in the woods on any other occasion.

“Put that out, dumbass,” said Benny. “You wanna burn the whole damn forest down?” His eyes moved to the forest around them, as if he expected the trees to echo his objection.

“Yeah, like this’ll do that,” he replied, flipping his lighter closed and throwing it into his pack. With the other two staring him down, he sighed and dropped the cigarette and ground it into the mud with his heel. “Y’all can really suck the fun out of hunting.”

“You can leave the gear and go back to the truck if you want,” said Benny, his voice trailing off as he looked ahead of them. His jaw dropped slightly as his eyes scanned the trees. “That look right to you, Darlene?”

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It didn’t. In front of them, the trail of blood led into a part of the forest she’d never seen before. The trees looked wrong. The leaves on them were still green, even with winter just around the corner. It was a sickly green that trickled down onto huge, moss-covered trunks pitted with rot. They looked like they were alive when they shouldn’t be. The thick leaves above let through a feeble, green light that made the darkened woods look like the drowning towers of a sunken city.

Her father had always avoided this part of the forest like the plague when they went hunting. She had never seen it herself, but the name of the area was whispered around town by the old folks like a curse: The Rotwood. She remembered the look in her father’s eyes every time their path took them near it. It looked like he was trying to crush a memory.

“Well,” she said, her voice wavering slightly. “Let’s go get our deer.” She strode towards the strange woods with a forced bravery in her gait. Cal and Benny hurried after her, the looks on their faces anything but brave.

They crossed the threshold into the venomous green of the Rotwood. A noxious scent filled the air like a miasma, as if the entire forest, not just the trees, were infected. The only positive thing was the complete lack of underbrush around the towering trees. Darlene told herself that whatever afflicted the trees must have wiped out the smaller vegetation, but, deep down, she knew there was something else going on.

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“You know the stories ‘bout this place, right?” asked Cal, his voice a whisper. “They say there was people here a long time ago.”

“Indians?” said Benny.

“Older,” said Cal. “Way older.” He took a handkerchief out of his pack and wiped away a layer of sweat on his forehead. “And after they all died, the forest grew over their graves. Their spirits went up the roots and started livin’ in the trees, makin’ ‘em rot from the inside out. And there’s other stories, like-“

“I think that’s enough,” said Darlene, her blood running cold. She stepped over a large root on the ground. There may not be underbrush, but the roots from the trees grew everywhere, like a spider’s web across the forest floor. Looking up at the trees, she could see large vines wrapped around the trees like serpents. She forced herself to look away and focus on the task at hand. After ten minutes of walking over the blighted ground, they saw a large shape lying on the ground twenty yards in front of them.

“I knew it couldn’t go forever,” said Darlene, a note of triumph in her voice despite her surroundings. She took a quick step towards it, but Benny reached out and grabbed her by the arm.

“Wait,” he said. “Look! Something ain’t right.”

She squinted and looked more closely. Something was very wrong. The shape on the forest floor was covered by tiny sticks. As she took a slow step forward, she realized that they weren’t sticks, but small roots coming up out of the ground and encapsulating the deer. She knew it was madness, but it looked like they were moving, pulsing around it.

“Let’s get the hell outta here,” said Cal. They didn’t have a chance to decide further before a blood-curdling sound came from the carcass on the ground before them.

A distorted bleat emanated out of the thing’s mouth as the body was wracked with horrifying tremors. As they watched in disbelief, the deer moved it legs shakily beneath it and rose up like a puppet dangling from strings. Its head lolled towards them, the eyes blank and glazed. It took one step towards them, then another, and another. Moving into a beam of greenish light, Darlene could see the roots digging into its flesh. Finally shaking free of her shock, she pulled her bow off of her shoulder, fingers flying, notched an arrow, and fired at the abomination in front of them.

Her flawless aim had returned and the arrow struck the gangrenous thing square in the forehead. At the impact, the deer’s skull shattered and burst into a mass of flesh and bone. Darlene shrank back towards the others as she saw green tendrils wriggling out of the ruins of the creature’s neck. With a final shudder, the roots withdrew and the deer’s corpse collapsed in a bloody heap.

“What in the goddamn hell was that?!” screamed Cal.

“We need to get out, now!” said Benny.

Darlene was too terrified to hear them as she noticed the roots on the ground around them begin to crawl. At this new development, the two brothers finally lost what nerve they had left. Cal hurled their pack of supplies onto the ground, unburdening himself, and running back towards the edge of the Rotwood, his brother following him closely. Darlene was about to follow them when she noticed movement in the trees above them. The vines that she had noticed before had also begun to move.

There was no time to warn them as a large root swung up in front of Benny and Cal, smashing into their legs and knocking them to the ground. As Benny writhed on the ground, clutching his leg, Cal rose breathless to his knees, sensing movement as instant too late as a lowering vine curled around his neck. Within moments, the two of them had been enveloped by roots and vines. Darlene shut her eyes and froze where she was. When she finally forced her eyes open, the two of them had vanished.

Looking around herself frantically, she noticed the roots were still shifting, but nothing was moving towards her. The only part of her not paralyzed by fear, her eyes shot everywhere, trying to figure out where the trees had taken her friends and why they were not attacking her. The tendrils writhed across the ground, obviously searching, but they didn’t seem to be able to see her. Her eyes wandered to the earth below her and she finally noticed that her feet were set on one of the few patches of ground not covered by roots.

Darlene gained back some control of herself as she began to believe the trees could not sense her if she stayed to the bare earth. Still, if she stayed where she was, the wandering vines would find her eventually. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something on the ground. It was the pack with their supplies that Cal had pitched onto the ground in a panic.

She quickly formulated a haphazard plan. If she could reach the pack, she might be able to find something to throw and distract the trees. Maybe, just maybe, if she started throwing things and kept her feet to patches of dirt, she could make her way out of the Rotwood and back to safety.

Moving apprehensively to the very edge of the bare ground, she held her bow by one end, as far as she could stretch it, and attempted to catch the strap of the pack. It looked as though it was lying on a bare spot as well. She prayed it was. Her arm trembled as the far tip of her bow barely fit through the strap of the pack. She gripped her end with both hands, attempting to leverage it enough to lift the pack off of the ground, hoping it was just light enough to move. She saw air beneath the pack and she allowed herself a moment of hope. Then, something inside the pack shifted and it fell off of the tip with a thud, directly onto a large root. Her heart sank and she fell back onto her haunches. The seconds felt like hours as she waited for something to happen. Finally, right when she thought she may be safe, she heard something behind her.

“We see you,” said a voice, both familiar and horrifyingly alien. Darlene turned and saw two figures behind her. She had always prided herself on not being the type of girl that screamed at horror movies. In fact, she couldn’t remember herself ever screaming in terror. But, at that moment, she screamed.

Two figures that had once been Benny and Cal stood behind her. She fell onto her backside as she gazed in rapt horror. They stood half-suspended by vines trailing from the trees above. They looked like ghastly marionettes as vines wrapped their arms and moved them in some mockery of human expression. Roots rose from the ground and wormed into their legs, presumable inhabiting them like the deer before. Their heads slumped limply to the side above large vines wrapped around their necks. Their eyes still pointed directly at her and she knew, somehow, that the trees really could see her.

“Follow and live,” said the things with no hint of their normal accents. Their mouths did not move and, somehow, the voice had come out of both of them at the same time. She had no idea if it was one entity or many inside them, but she was willing to bet on the latter.

“What do you want with me?” she asked, forcing her voice as loudly as she could manage.

“We want nothing. It does,” said the trees in a raspy voice that sounded as old as the forest itself. “Follow and live. Stay and die.” With that, the husks of her friends began to move away, their legs moving in horrific, shambling steps, while they were still supported by the vines above. Forcing herself to rise to her feet, she reached slowly behind her to the pack of supplies. She grabbed it off the ground and put it on quickly, wondering if they would protest. The two corpses spun briefly to look at her, but said nothing. She hurried after them as quickly as her legs would allow.

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She stayed a healthy distance behind the two infested bodies, trying to look at them as little as possible. The skin on their bodies had already turned the same sickly green as the forest around them. The mechanical, unearthly movements of their bodies were painful to watch. Looking at the woods around them, Darlene noticed that the canopy was growing thicker and thicker, but the forest was not becoming darker. It seemed like the rotting cores of the trees were giving off light of their own. The legends of the Rotwood were no longer a myth in her mind.

“What are you?” she asked softly, almost hoping they didn’t respond.

“We are the wanderers,” the voices said without turning. “We are the followers. The scavengers. The deserters. We were first in this land and we will yet be last.”

“What does that mean?”

“You will see.”

As they walked on, Darlene slowly unzipped the pack she was carrying and tried, silently, to rummage through it and find anything she could use to help herself. Her fingers came upon a large, glass object and, despite her situation, she couldn’t help but grin. Cal had been carrying his own supplies. A plan began to form in her mind. It was an insane, desperate plan, but desperation seemed like all she might have at that point.

She noticed the ground beneath her feet turn marshy and saw a large pool of water through the trees to her right. The figures wandering through the marsh in front of her paused and did nothing for a disturbing amount of time. It was like they were deliberating. Finally, Cal’s hand raised and pointed towards the pool.

“Go. Look. Do not try to escape.” She went in the direction he indicated, nodding an affirmative as she did. She noticed that the two husks did not follow her towards the water’s edge. She slipped around the largest tree she could see and began to enact her plan, not really caring what they wanted her to see. Her hands worked quickly, grabbing a few key items from the pack and stuffing them into the large pockets of her jacket. She had just finished readjusting her jacket when her eyes glanced out into the pool. Her arms fell to her side.

A ghastly city rose out of the marsh. The blackened husks of massive buildings hung over drowned plazas. Windows like eye sockets opened into cavernous, burnt out halls. Moss clung to the ruins like a burial shroud, blending the ruins into the forest like a mirage. She could almost see the ghosts of an ancient civilization walking through the sunken streets. The fear inside of her turned to outright sorrow at the sight of the place. After another minute staring, she hastily finished her preparations and walked back to her guides, her jaw hanging open. Her plan had changed. She had to see what awaited her at the heart of the forest.

“What happened here?” she asked the ghastly shades of her friends. She almost thought she saw emotion in their dead eyes as they answered.

“The Caw,” they said. “The prideful remnants of the first cities of man. The echoes of the Harvester. They tried to claim this land; to slay what they could not have. But It would not let them. It cast them out and…preserved us all.”

The creatures before her fell silent, turned, and continued on. Her fear finally returned, but it was more tempered, less paralyzing. She took a deep breath and followed once again.

They had been going for half an hour when they reached a row of massive trees that stood like a barricade, a single opening between them. Her guides disappeared through the doorway and into the clearing beyond. As they did so, the vines above them released, leaving the bodies to be manipulated by the parasitic roots beneath them, slouching like ragdolls. She did not know what awaited her in that glade, but she saw a bright crimson light beckoning her. She stepped through and, once again, she stared in awe.

A massive tree stood at the center of the glade. It rose above everything. Its branches spread like a scarlet ocean above them, a thousand tendrils hanging like a monstrous weeping willow. As they passed beneath it, she got a closer look at one of the branches. She regretted it immediately. Although it was shaped like a tree branch, it appeared to be made of flesh and blood. It took almost all of the nerve she had left to follow the decrepit forms of Benny and Cal up to the very shadow of the giant tree. She knew more horrors had to be waiting.

The ground around the thing was stained deep crimson and looked like fresh loam. The trunk itself was a wide as a house and rose into the air like a skyscraper. Its bark looked like an unholy mixture of wood and leather, as if the tree was covered in mummified skin. Knotholes dotted the trunk like wounds, with a black ichor glistening in the reddish light. A hum filled the air around her.

She froze in her tracks as, in a flash, the roots and tendrils withdrew from the bodies in front of her and they dropped, lifelessly, into the red earth in front of them. They had apparently served their purpose. She watched in horror as the flesh on their bodies seemed to melt off and sink into the ground. The cloth and bone followed, as if they had been doused in acid and, in less than a minute, the ground was bare, as if the bodies never existed.

The tree before her began to pulse. A deep red liquid, which she assumed was all that remained of her friends, flowed upward through dark veins along the length of its trunk. This was literally the true heart of the Rotwood. Then, just as she thought she had seen every horror the place could throw at her, a large crease in the trunk slid open to reveal a two-foot-wide, dark blue eye.

Unable to conjure any more screaming, Darlene fell to her knees before the eye, staring into its indigo depths. As she sat there, she heard a voice. She didn’t hear it in the air, but inside her own head, where she couldn’t escape it. It was at that moment that she knew what she was facing: a god. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did.

“Welcome, my child,” it said in a language that was far older than English, but she understood all the same. “Welcome to my garden of echoes. It has been long since I saw a living human. It has been longer still since one has been useful.”

“How?” she asked. She couldn’t tell if she was speaking or thinking the words. “How can I be useful?” The pupil of the great eye narrowed as it stared at her.

“Do you wish to live?”

“Yes.”

“Then offer your soul.”

“What? I don’t understand.” A low rumble that she recognized as amusement came from the massive form in front of her.

“The traces of souls found in the dead give me little nourishment,” It said. “They allow me to endure, but they do not give me what I truly require.”

“Which is?”

“I must expand my garden. With a soul willingly given from a living being, I will be able to fill the surrounding lands with my glory. More will bow to my power. More will bend to my will. My garden will fill the world with its beauty.” Darlene’s mind filled with the images of the desert blooming a venomous green, skyscrapers covered with moss, and cities bathed in a sickly, emerald light. “Speak the ancient words, child: ‘Ven kel veta’. ‘I offer my soul’.”

Darlene began to breathe heavily, her tenacity being pushed to its limit. She doubled over, panting, her face an inch from the crimson mud beneath her. It seemed so simple. The world was in chaos. It needed something to take back control. What better than an actual god? Could she do it? Would it be better than way? As she took a deep breath, trying to regain her composure, she heard another voice in the back of her head. It was her father’s. She remembered the last conversation they had ever had.

“I know you’re gonna do great things, Darlene,” he had said, knowing the end was near. “You’re tougher than I ever was. You just have to promise me one thing.”

“What, Daddy?” she’d replied, holding back the tears.

“Never back down.”

She wouldn’t.

She shook the sleeve of her jacket and the arrow she had stashed there fell into her waiting palm. Before anything in the glade could react, she had leapt to her feet and plunged the arrow deep into the center of the monstrous eye before her. An earth-shattering roar filled the forest, this time definitely audible. The ground beneath her feet shook with its fury.

Her plan mostly relied on catching the denizens of the Rotwood off-guard. That seemed to be the case as the crimson tendrils above her flailed around frantically, searching for the source of their pain. She stuffed her hands into the front pockets of her jacket and pulled out two objects. The first was the bottle of moonshine that Cal had been carrying around with him, unbeknownst to Benny and her, with his handkerchief stuffed through the top and into the alcohol like a crude Molotov cocktail. The other object was Cal’s lighter. She never would have guessed that his bad habits would come in useful.

Darlene moved quicker than she ever had in her life, adrenaline fueling her, as she shoved the bottle into a muck-filled knothole next to the blinded eye. She clicked the lighter and held it to the alcohol soaked cloth. It took a tense couple of seconds, praying that the newly-blinded vines would miss her for a precious few moments, but the handkerchief lit.

She spun around and saw the area in complete chaos. The crimson branches above her writhed in agony. The roots on the forest floor crept back in fear of their master’s rage. She saw vines swirling around the edge of the clearing. Spotting a clear path of dirt in the retreating roots, Darlene threw the pack off her back and took off at a dead sprint, clutching her bow to her side. As she reached a web of root-covered ground, she attempted to bound from patch to patch of clear earth, but she couldn’t help grazing one of the tiny branches a stone’s throw from the way out of the grove. She was forced to stop as a dozen huge vines from the forest in front of her wove their way into her path.

The vines paused before her, waving in the air like cobras waiting to strike, probably wondering if their god still wanted her alive. The rumbling throes of pain would solve that issue for them if she gave the trees time to think. She had hoped her bomb would have ignited by then, but she supposed it was like their hunting trip; she had to do everything herself. With the haunted trees around her momentarily paused, she spun, grabbed her bow, notched an arrow, took aim, and fired.

She never knew for sure how the vines sensed the arrow flying towards their heart, but, the instant the arrow left her bow, they flew through the air and gave chase. She backpedaled towards the hole in the trees, willing her shot to move faster. The fastest vine was a hair’s breadth from the arrow as it hit home, a perfect shot to the bottle of moonshine.

A blast of flame erupted from the side of the massive tree as Darlene reached the opening into the forest beyond. She was prepared to turn and run while the trees were distracted, but a larger burst of fire made her linger.

Darlene had no idea what sort of unholy thing filled the innards of forest gods, but, at that moment, she learned that it was very flammable. The tree pulsed again, not with blood, but with flames consuming it from the inside. Leathery bits of bark blew off in chunks as flames blasted out from inside the creature. The crimson branches above began to blacken. Ash and debris began to fall over the glade like a black rain. As she finally decided to turn and run, one of the scarlet tendrils had the awareness to reach out and latch onto her arm. As the rest of the clearing began to burn, Darlene grabbed the fleshy leaves and wrenched it loose of the dying branches above. Looking out into the Rotwood, she saw the venomous green trees begin to turn gray, whatever life was in them fading with their god. Giving the dying master of the glade one final glance, the hunter turned and sprinted into the forest.

Two hours later, Darlene Kelly was sitting in her truck on the edge of the Steadville Forest, halfway through the bottle of moonshine they had stashed in the back for their post-hunt activities. The storm she had been expecting had moved in and was dousing whatever flames had spread beyond the Rotwood. She knew she should be thinking of how she was going to explain this to the authorities, but she could only focus on two things. The first was getting as drunk as possible, raising a few toasts to Cal and Benny. The second was where she was going to mount her new trophy. A weak smile came onto her face as she looked at the blood red length of fleshy leaves on the passenger seat. It may very well be her last trophy. She was seriously considering giving up hunting.

Credit : Alex Taylor

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