Above her there was only blackness, and around her only a dull, ambient light. The blackness was not sky, but layers of leaves so thick they cloaked the forest in eternal night. She looked up at them from her pit.
Would they let her leave?
She dared not move. Petals from the blackberry flowers dropped onto her face.
There was a sound.
“Shhh! They’ll hear you!”
The voice lowered. “Are they nearby?” She could see a pair of eyes glinting in the dark, and the black half-outline of someone against pale blossoms.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’ve been hiding here for what feels like days. I don’t dare move. They’ve trapped me.”
“They” were the Owls. They hunted the Forest with claws as long as the branches of bushes, and wings as long as the trunks of trees. Skulls were mixed in with their pellets.
“I think they’re gone for now,” he said. “Do you want me to help you out?”
“Yes, thank you.” Her throat was scratchy and dry, and limbs stiff as she took his hands. In the dimness, she could see he had antlers starting to grow from his head.
“What are those?”
“Happens after you’ve been in the Forest for a while. The moss of it grows on you. In my case, instead of moss it’s antlers.”
She rubbed her scalp, as if expecting to feel hard nubs sprouting. Fortunately there were none.
“How’d you get here?”
“The door. Same as everyone else.”
It wasn’t a real question. All their stories started the same way. They found the door. They went through it, they got lost. And then, after the Forest swallowed them up, they got digested by the locals. Deer with sharp teeth. Wolves with two many eyes, crows with two few. Turtles sprouting with mushrooms.
He asked her how long she’d been here.
“Not very long,” she said. “I’ve mostly just been hiding from the Owls.”
A glimmer of hope suddenly flickered in his eyes. “Really? The door must be nearby, then! Do you want me to help you look for it?”
“Sure.” She pointed through the trees. “I think I came from that direction, so we’ll start looking there.”
“Sounds like a plan,” he replied. “You can call me Clove.”
So they both walked for a while. The blackberry flowers were pale in the dimness, and thinned out into a clearing. In the clearing a woodcutter was splitting logs. They said hello, and he said hello back. He’d been in the forest a long time, longer than Clove. his face was half wood, and his fingers cracked like twigs. Other than returning their greeting, he only gave them one piece of cryptic advice.
“Don’t eat the blackberries. The seeds grow in your stomach.”
Thanking him out of politeness, they walked some more, until they decided it was time to sleep. They didn’t know how long they slept, nor when they woke up. You couldn’t tell when the sun set or rose when it was always dark.
The blackberry flowers wilted and dropped their petals, and turned to hard green fruit. They walked even farther, and the green turned to ripe purples and blacks, and their footsteps became slippery with berry rot. Clove picked some. The air buzzed with flies.
“Didn’t the woodcutter say not to eat them?” she asked.
“That’s just stuff people make up to scare little kids,” he said. “He’s probably crazy anyway.”
He was right, they just tasted like normal blackberries--good. And she hadn’t eaten in a while.
“What are you doing?” she asked Clove. He was trying to force his way through a thick part of the bramble. “If you get cut, the wolves can smell blood, if the Owls don’t first.”
“I’m not going to get cut. Anyways, the best berries are in the mid-Oh.”
She looked, through the blackberry branches. They were sprouting from something. There was a bad smell…
“Oh,” she echoed.
It was a body, pretty well rotten. The bushes were rooted in the ribcage and curled up like dark claws, in spine-hooked loops and spirals poking from every inch of the skin. It wasn’t pleasant. So far, all she’d seen were stripped bones. This the Owls didn’t even touch.
“Let’s keep walking,” said Clove. “We’ve already gotten most of the good berries anyway.”
They came to a stream. In the blackness it looked like ink, or oil. Tasted minerally. Her throat still felt prickly. Neither knew how long it’d been since last time they slept, so they had to guess.
After waking they rested a bit longer. Clove caught a frog. It had two heads.
They set out again and walked some more. She looked at her wrist. “Are veins supposed to be this dark?”
Clove shrugged. “I dunno.”
“Are we out of the bramble yet? It still feels like thorns are poking me.”
“I dunno,” He said again. “I feel it too. I hope it’s not poison ivy.”
They kept walking for a while.
“There’s a leaf in your hair,” she said.
“Right th-Hang on, let me-“ Her fingers jumped out and pulled.
“Ouch! You pulled my hair!”
“Did too! It hurt!”
They kept walking. After a while they glimpsed part of a cabin through the trees, and headed towards it. They pushed into a clearing, and saw it really was only part of a cabin. Only two of the walls were finished, and a third only went up to their shoulders. Inside were two makeshift sleeping mats, and outside, the cold remains of a campfire. The logs were of the same darkish wood of the trees around them, and the mats of the grass under their feet.
“Looks like someone was thinking of staying a while,” she said.
Clove’s look was grim. “Maybe they gave up trying to leave.”
In any case, something permanent-in a place they soon hoped to escape-wasn’t promising.
Suddenly, the low, soft hoot of an owl whistled through the trees. Their blood ran cold. They could see the flash of eyes between leaves, talons dug into dark branches.
It was looking straight at them.
“Don’t...move…” she whispered, even Clove was already stock-still.
The Owl looked at them, for a very, very long ten seconds.
And then, in a whirlwind of feathers, it was gone.
They both unfroze slowly, like candles warming up.
“Why didn’t attack us?” said Clove, confused.
“Maybe it didn’t see us,” she answered, halfheartedly. She didn’t know either.
Even if the cabin wasn’t promising, it was still a place to sleep. Neither slept well though. Their skin still felt prickly.
In the morning it was sprouting with thorns.
She woke up coughing, and it didn’t take long for her to realize why. Vine was sprouting from her throat, pricking at her lips and scratching her teeth. Tendrils were breaking from her skin, and her hair was hanging with leaves. She looked at clove in a panic, to see he shared her fate. The woodcutter’s words echoed through her mind.
“Don’t eat the blackberries.The seeds will grow in your stomach.”
Clove stood up, leaves rustling. “We must find the door. It’s now more important than ever.”
“It’s not us,” he said. “It’s this stupid forest. First antlers and now this. Once we get back to the normal world it’ll go away.”
And so they set off again, their pace quickened. The tendrils sprouting from her skin lengthened into vines and twined around her fingers.
They walked faster.
The began seeing brambles again, the same kind as before-sprouting from a corpse in the middle. At first, just a few here and there. Then more, and then even more, until they found themselves pushing through thorns.
They walked faster.
Their pace was slowing. Foot upon foot of creaking blackberry vine trailed behind them. It was heavy, and kept catching on dead hands and loops of bramble. The sprouting in her throat made it hard to breathe.
They walked, slower and slower.
Was that the door? It was...she tried to run towards it. She couldn’t. Her legs were tangled in leaves, and her mouth was filled with thorns.
Owls have good hearing, and they heard where it came from, and what had happened. Usually they would take advantage of a free meal, but them they wouldn’t touch. They knew better. They knew not to eat the blackberries.