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The warning had sobered Eli up quite quickly. But then, everything began to make sense. The pieces fell into place, painting a gruesome portrait of what she had been experiencing since her arrival.
Over the years, Landyn had shifted her view of reality. He made her believe things that were untrue and question those things that were. Somehow along the way, he had obliterated her ability to trust her instincts. As it turned out, the devil she knew was the one she could fight against. This—a new, unknown world—she was entirely too unprepared for.
For days, she had been downplaying her feelings. She had convinced herself that her worries and unease were simply something she would have to live with for the rest of her days. She rationalized it as being a byproduct of her life in Vegas. And yet, a real threat had been staring down the barrel at her this entire time, and she was pretending everything was all right.
In a way, it was worse than being oblivious. At least then, she could say that ignorance and its bliss had been the illusion that led her to the gallows.
There was no excuse for this.
Eli did her best to remember her steps through the town. She half-jogged through the streets, taking note of familiar signs and storefronts under the faint purple glow of the streetlights. It wasn’t long before she found the entrance to the forest and the path that opened up on the outskirts of town. No sooner did her feet find the path did twin yellow orbs erupt from the earth. Their sudden presence earned a startled screech. They warbled and trembled, mirroring her surprise.
“We are guides,” one of the strange glowing orbs hissed. “We are here to make sure you don’t get lost.”
Its twin flickered a soft shade of red before returning to its pale color. It bobbed up and down as if nodding.
“Oh,” she flushed, embarrassed, “I’m sorry. I’m new to town.”
“We know,” they replied in tandem.
It was impossible to know, but it looked like they did an about-face and began to lead her down the path. She plodded along after them, swallowing down hundreds of questions.
“What are you?” She finally decided.
“Guides,” they replied, using an identical unimpressed tone.
“Like…” She paused, her brow furrowing. “Are you going to show me my greater purpose?”
“No,” the more friendly of the two replied, “we’re not those sorts of spirit guides. We’re just guides who happen to be spirits. You’re thinking of spirit guides.”
Eli managed to bite back her protest that she didn’t understand the distinction. “I didn’t tell you where I wanted to go?”
“You want to leave,” the glummer of the two said, again flickering to red, before paling once more.
“How do you know that?”
The spirit erupted into a bright crimson ball.
“Remember what we talked about with your temper?” the other chided.
Slowly, their color blanched, shifting to a darker shade of blue. It was almost impossible to hear, but Eli believed she heard a quiet apology.
“We’re spirits who guide,” the soft yellow one explained, their tone cordial, albeit rehearsed as if they had the same conversation several times a night. “We can sense what you’re looking for. What you’re craving.”
“What if I wanted to go somewhere other than where I intended?”
“You mean, what if your heart wanted to go one way, but your mind another?”
“Then we’d converge, and you’d instinctually follow one of us to where you’re meant to go.”
Eli nodded, though she wasn’t too sure she understood. “Okay. So… What do I call you?”
“No, I mean like… What are your names?”
The blue guide sputtered again. Eli swore she saw its neighbor squint in its direction. Then, too quickly, its sapphire hue turned black.
“Names hold power,” the guide replied without missing a beat. “To give you our names would give you the ability to summon us. And we’re not foolish enough to chance that with a stranger. No offense.”
“None taken,” Eli said, holding her hands up. “I just didn’t know if it’s rude not to ask.”
To her surprise, the guide giggled. It was a light, pleasant sound. “You’d be the first to worry about offending us.”
They settled into amiable silence. Eli watched on with marked interest as the spirits bounced along the path. She had many more questions, but she didn’t want to waste any more time getting to Yui. She had left early to ensure she was there before Yui got off her shift, but still, anxiety sat like an anvil in her stomach. It was a pressure she knew wouldn’t be relieved until she saw her again.
The deeper they traveled, the more she understood the necessity for the guides. The signs were all but undetectable in the forest’s pitch. The strange, peaceful magic washed over her again, robbing her of her urgency. Instead, she felt an incessant nagging that something should be bothering her. It wasn’t hard to imagine getting lost in these woods in the darkest hours of the night and being entirely unphased. The furthest reaches of her mind summoned a visual of her freezing to death as she waited for morning to come. It was eerie how she felt nothing in response.
Before she knew it, she found herself at the entrance. The stone gateway looked far better kept on this side — ivy still crawled its way over its arch and buried itself into its grooves. But the steps were well maintained and seemingly regularly cleaned of dirt and debris.
“Good luck,” the friendlier spirit murmured. “Don’t mind my friend, here. He’s been in Court-mandated anger management. You know how it is.”
Before Eli could reply, the spirits twinkled out of existence, suspending her in shadows and the moon’s overcast.
She received no response. Not that she had expected one.
She knew she was cold because her body shook with shivers, but she barely felt it. It wasn’t until she climbed the steps and stepped through the portal that she felt the frigid breeze scalding her neck, cheeks, and hands.
Making a mental note to get warmer clothes, she followed her scent back through the woods, like Hansel and Gretal following their crumbs. She kept her hands tucked under her armpits as she scrambled through the underbrush. Her feelings came back to her in a trickle. First, the unease she felt in the woods. Next, the worry she felt for Yui.
But what she felt most was the sudden, desperate need to get away. To run. There was something off about these woods. Their unnatural stillness, the unending quiet. And the smell. It was wrong. The earth was damp, and the pine was fragrant, but something else was there. She couldn’t describe it. It was as if something was meant to be there, but a great black hole opened up to devour its stench.
Her stride hastened. Her feet slipped against the damp pine needles. Eli’s gaze darted in all directions, searching the shadows for a face to put to this wrongness. But nothing came—just the ever-approaching absence of stink and the stifling feeling of someone being close.
Too damn close.
A cold sweat trickled down her spine. She swore she could hear someone’s breathing — muffled as if respiring through thick fabric. Then, the sound of a breaking twig. She froze, her hands clenching into fists. She felt the monster within her awaken.
She took off sprinting, weaving her way through the trees. A symphony of sound awoke around her. Frantic footfalls chased after her, heavy breathing stifled by what she could only assume were cloth masks. She heard a shout—a muffled pop.
A blinding haze filled her head, and blood filled her mouth. She didn’t even realize she was screaming.
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