They were gone. Ollie could only hope he was doing the right thing. Would they be all right on their own? Would they make it out of the forest? Would they be detected? Ollie knew that Rose would be fine, but Megan… she was almost never on her own, the two had become inseparable ever since they’d found each other.
Ollie would have laughed at that thought, if it weren’t so distasteful. They hadn’t really found each other at all, it had been part of Rexl’s plan all along. Rexl had planted his own daughter in his younger brother’s path, knowing they’d latch on to one another in their shared grief and loneliness, to alleviate their shared misery.
Ollie hoped that she’d be all right.
Hope… that was all he could do. He’d said it to Kayla. He had faith in them. He believed in them. He’d done all that he could. The rest was up to them.
Were there really guards waiting up ahead? Would the girls run into them? Could they be walking into a waiting trap? Perhaps Ollie could cause a ruckus and draw the guards’ attention, lead them away from Megan and Rose.
No. It was a plan, but ultimately, Ollie had to decide against it. The ideal outcome was for all three of them to escape together. What good would it do to risk getting caught and leave the girls to fend for themselves? Ollie wouldn’t fail them again, and he wouldn’t abandon them.
Besides, maybe the girls would get lucky and manage to navigate the labyrinth without detection. In that case, alerting the guards to their presence would only make things more difficult.
No, he had to follow the plan, he had to believe in them; they could do this, Ollie knew they could. With a nod of his head, the man stepped forward and began the journey through his chosen path.
It would be long, slow, tense, and hopefully, dull; but their freedom was waiting for them on the other side of this forest. They couldn’t falter now.
This was it. They were almost free. The nightmare was almost over.
As Ollie made his way through the labyrinthine forest, he could feel the dread growing within his mind. Something didn’t feel right. This layout wasn’t what he’d expected. This path was supposed to be more winding, wasn’t it? He had intentionally assigned himself the longest path, thinking that most of the guards would be posted in his way.
It wasn’t as though he wanted to confront them, but it was better they find him than either of the girls.
Ollie’s hand reached inside his shirt and gripped the concealed gun. He didn’t want to run into them, but if he did, he would be ready.
That was the thing though. He’d been in here for a while now, and he hadn’t seen anybody. Did that mean they weren’t here? Then, where were they, could they be stationed on one of the other paths, lying in wait for Rose? What about Megan, had Rexl and Kayla planned around him?
Had they known—or guessed—that Ollie intended to send the girls down shorter paths, they might have positioned guards accordingly. They could be lying in wait for Megan and Rose. Were they guarding the other paths, or were they guarding the area beyond, waiting for them to come out in the open?
Rose had said it earlier. In this forest, they at least had somewhere to hide.
If they were waiting just outside, Rose would walk right into them. She could be heading straight into an ambush!
The girls were on shorter paths. They’d be out1 of the forest before him. What if they weren’t alone? Ollie would be stuck inside this labyrinth, trying to make his way to them, but until he got there, they’d be alone and vulnerable. Ollie wouldn’t be able to help them.
“Damn it,” Ollie cursed through grit teeth. He should have realised.
It didn’t matter now. All they could do was stick to the plan and hope that everything went well. Perhaps luck would be on their side.
It would need to be.
In all the time spent traversing the forest, Ollie hadn’t run into any guards, not even a sign or trace of them. If they weren’t here, then they must have been somewhere else.
“Megan….” He uttered the girls name, hoping that she was safe.
That voice. Gentle, high in pitch. It sounded just like her.
Ollie froze. Had he really heard that voice, her voice?
It sounded just like her, but that was impossible.
Megan wasn’t here, she couldn’t be. It made no sense.
This had to be some kind of trap.
This forest, it was playing tricks on him. It had to be.
Come to think of it, this layout wasn’t what he’d expected at all. It had changed completely from the first time he’d snuck out.
Was that even possible? Ollie knew that this forest wasn’t natural. These trees hadn’t simply grown here, they had been bred. This entire forest was one big sentient organism, and it wasn’t their ally.
This forest was yet another result of their unnatural experiments. It was alive, and it was a predator.
This forest surrounded the facility for a reason. It was a final security measure, to stop anyone unwanted from getting in… or out.
They had tested it by releasing animals from the facility gate.
Not one had made it out alive.
They’d run human tests too. Those hadn’t fared much better.
The dark forest was capable of trapping its victims. Thick roots and vines served as limbs, but it also possessed chemical weapons. The vines alone would be difficult to defend against. If cut, broken, or split, they secreted a deadly sap that was toxic to humans. The sap could be absorbed through the skin, but if ingested, injected, or allowed to somehow contaminate the blood, it was significantly more potent.
The sap was capable of inducing hallucinations, numbness, paralysis, even death, depending on the dose.
Thankfully, Ollie hadn’t seen a single vine. He had no open wounds or cuts, and he had no intention of putting anything from this forest in his mouth; the mushrooms growing in this place were not for eating. Still, the vines weren’t responsible for producing the sap, they simply carried it. They were simply one way it could be used against intruders. One of many.
The sap wasn’t even the worst of the dark forest’s defences. There were fungi growing in here, releasing spores, creating a poison fog that acted like a psychotropic drug. If he happened to inhale the air they contaminated, it would be over. He’d be unable to defend himself, unable to differentiate reality from hallucination. Without his wits about him, he’d be defenceless against whatever came up against him, be it human or otherwise.
Ollie looked to the girl before him. Was she an illusion? Was the dark forest messing with his mind? Had he already succumbed to the fog without realising?
He didn’t think so, but in that case, why was Megan here? This was definitely Megan, wasn’t it?
“Don’t do that,” the man chastised.
“Do what?” she asked, playing dumb. She knew perfectly well what he meant. She was reading his mind, after all.
“You’ve never directly probed my mind before.” Could he really say that? After all, he didn’t know for a fact that it was true, he could only trust her. He rephrased himself. “You’ve never been this direct before, responding to my questions without even giving me a chance to ask them.”
“Yes I have,” the girl argued. “When you first came for me, remember? You were grieving for your family. I told you that they didn’t suffer.”
“Don’t do that again.”
“What?” The girl stared at him, wide eyes looking up at him like those of a scolded puppy.
“Stay out of my head. I don’t want you invading my thoughts anymore.”
“But I… I was just trying to help.” She approached him, wrapping her arms around his body. “I understand you better than anyone. Don’t push me away because of that.”
Ollie enclosed his right arm around the girl, placing his hand on her left shoulder. He looked into her eyes. “You can’t just invade somebody’s mind and read their personal thoughts. That’s an invasion of privacy on the most intimate level.”
“But… we’ve gotten so close because of that… I know everything about you. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, nothing I won’t understand.”
Ollie held the girl to him, returning her embrace. She didn’t get it. “You don’t understand anything about privacy, do you?”
“We’re closer than words,” the girl said, nuzzling her head into the man’s shirt. “Why do we need privacy, why do you want to build walls between us?”
Ollie sighed. The scientists had clearly been so busy getting Megan to use her power, they hadn’t bothered to teach her when or why she should hold back, or the consequences that could arise from her actions. They hadn’t taught her anything of restraint, moderation, or ethics.
Of course, that was to be Ollie’s job, as if the scientists knew anything of ethics themselves, the man thought, derision filling his mind. Was it any wonder Megan had turned out like this?
Ollie looked down at the girl pulling on his heartstrings. Rexl’s men had no interest in whether they should do something, they only cared about whether or not they could. Their only concern was with pushing the boundaries of what was humanly possible. Of course they wouldn’t give Megan limitations on her powers. As her carer, that was Ollie’s responsibility. If he’d known what she’d been up to, he could have stopped her, guided her. If only he’d known. If only he’d paid closer attention.
He’d been blind. Now, it was too late. To release her into the public like this would be irresponsible.
One of Kayla’s cruel taunts echoed in his mind.
Ollie ran a hand through the girl’s short, scruffy hair. She calmed instantly at his touch.
“I know. Look, just… We’ll talk about this later. For now, just do as I say.” Speaking of which… “Why did you follow me? Why didn’t you just take the path I laid out for you?”
The girl looked up at him, confusion etched into her features. “I did follow the path you gave me. I did!”
“I went straight, just like you told me, then I wound up here and found you.”
“It can’t be. This isn’t right. It wasn’t supposed to go like this.”
What was going on? What had happened to the plan? Ollie had thought the layout was strange. “This forest is moving.”
“How can it do that?” the girl asked him.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but it must be. It’s the only explanation. I had it all mapped out. My plan was meticulous. If we each stuck to our own paths, we should have reached the end, but somehow the two of us met in the middle. Some point between now and the moment I mapped out the forest, something changed. This forest is a maze, but the maze has shifted, the paths are different.”
Ollie had purposefully given himself the most winding path. Megan’s was supposed to be much shorter and straightforward. She should have been on her way toward the other side, but if she’d wound up here instead, then what about Rose?
Could he have sent the redhead on an incorrect path too? Could she be walking into another kind of trap? Maybe this was all part of Rexl’s plan.
Would Rose’s path lead her back to the facility, into Rexl’s waiting clutches?
“This is all wrong.”
Out in the distance, they heard a commotion.
Ollie looked to the source of that noise. They both did. It came from behind them, a little way in the distance, but not far, by the sound of it.
What could it be? Were the guards finally coming after them, or was it something worse?”
Then they heard it. A voice, her voice.
Ollie and Megan looked to each other. With their shared glance, they each knew what the other was thinking. Ollie didn’t need Megan’s psychic power to see into her mind, it was written in her eyes. The word crossed both of their lips, and they cried out her name in unison.
Ollie slipped out of the girl’s grasp and made for that commotion.
Rose was in trouble. Rose needed him, needed them.
Ollie ran. His arm trailed behind him, fingers interlocking with those of his young companion, holding her by the hand, pulling her along behind him.
It wasn’t long before they found her. She was in the distance, frantic, running in their direction. Her head was down, arms flailing. Her voice pierced Ollie’s ears. What was she doing? They were supposed to be sneaking, but here she was, running, screaming. If he had managed to find her, who knew what else could be on its way, if it hadn’t found her already.
“What happened to her?” Megan asked.
Ollie didn’t know what to say. The redhead was hysterical. Was she running toward them, or away from someone else?
Was she being chased?
“Should we hide?” Megan suggested, reaching the same thought as Ollie.
It wouldn’t do for them all to get caught. There was a reason they had split up.
“You go on ahead,” he told the girl, “I’ll stay and help Rose.”
“You already know the answer to that, don’t you? You’ve been reading my mind all this time, right?”
Ollie could see the sting of his words in Megan’s eyes.
“You told me not to do that anymore….”
Ollie sighed. “Look, I don’t know how this is going to turn out. I want to make sure at least one of us escapes. I can’t leave Rose, but I don’t want to put you in danger. You have to get out of the forest. Whatever happens, promise me you won’t get caught.
“Okay, Daddy. I promise.” There was no hesitation, no argument. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his body, squeezing him tight. Megan sent a concerned glance toward the running Rose, flinching as the older girl fell and landed flat on her face.
Ollie stared up ahead. What was chasing her? He couldn’t see anything. Was someone there, or had the forest gotten to her?
Why had she fallen? Had she tripped? Lost her footing? Or was there a more ominous cause for Rose’s tumble?
Was she breathing?
Whatever the case, he had to hurry.
“Go,” the man ordered to the young girl beside him.
“Right, I’ll wait for you outside. I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too.”
With one final, tight embrace, Megan stepped away from him and disappeared into a nearby bush.
Ollie had a bad feeling. He didn’t know why, but it was there. Somehow, he knew. Rose didn’t have long.
He had to hurry.
Breaking into a run, Ollie charged headlong toward the downed girl.
She lifted her head. Upon seeing him, panic flourished throughout her. It was present in her body language. She rushed to her feet, only to fall again.
Ollie called out to her. Could she hear him? Was she even aware of her surroundings? This forest contained many spores and saps that could give a psychotropic effect. Could Rose have come into contact with one of them?
The Psychiatrist pushed himself to run faster. He had to get to her. He had to help her, before she hurt herself.
A wave of panic suddenly rode over him, chilling him to his spine; eyes widened, and mouth opened to release a cry that never sounded as the girl was suddenly dragged backward.
Something had been after her, it had caught her, and now it was reeling her in like a fish. It was literally dragging her back to the facility, dragging her home by the leg. The forest was taking her away from him, taking her out of his reach.
This was bad.
Ollie grit his teeth and took off after the helpless girl, he had to act quickly. Rose must have triggered some kind of trap. Her erratic behaviour made sense now; it was those damn vines; perhaps something had scratched the skin of her legs, that’s all it would take. Once the forest managed to contaminate her, Rose would be at its mercy. Her mind, her body: they both belonged to the dark forest.
Rose belonged to the vile, sentient plant that was currently wrapping its clammy feelers all over her. It was collecting its prize.
The flora in this forest were all of a hive mind, but they were still individual specimens. It may have seemed like the vines were dragging Rose back toward the facility, but the reality could be much worse.
If Ollie failed to rescue Rose, she was likely to be devoured.
She’d be forever lost to him; she’d become an empty husk, a thrall of the forest, of the hive mind, unable to leave.
She’d become part of the forest.
Dammit! He had to hurry, but those vines were dragging the poor girl faster than he could run. He could see her struggling. She hadn’t given up, she was still putting up a fight, grabbing at anything and everything around her, but nothing would take hold. It was as though the entire forest were against her.
Rose’s fingers dug into the dirt below, but that wouldn’t save her. Not even the ground would hold.
The girl screamed and cried out as her fingertips scraped against the dry ground.
Suddenly, the situation worsened. The vine, as though tiring of her efforts, chose that moment to change her position. It lifted her by the leg, inverting her. Her skirt rode up, following gravity’s design, exposing the entirety of her legs to the forest.
The girl’s face was left to drag against the hard, dry forest floor. Did it want her to suffer? No, the plant wasn’t intelligent enough to be consciously sadistic. There had to be a method to this madness. More likely… it wanted her cut up. The more it broke the girl’s skin, the more chances this forest had of infecting her.
The vines were restraining her, binding her limbs and wrapping themselves around her body, wrapping her like a package as it pulled her quickly in the direction of the facility.
Her head continued to scrape painfully against the ground as the vine dragged her mercilessly along the rough dirt road like the world’s worst courier.
Finally, it lifted her body higher and she lost contact with the ground completely.
Ollie was both concerned and relieved at that. She was no longer being dragged across the hard ground, but now she was dangling above it, suspended, moving further away from it, further away from him.
Even if Ollie managed to cut her down, would she survive the fall?
He didn’t have much time.
The vines continued to bind their prey, moving in on the only part of her body that yet remained free.
A particularly thick vine wrapped tightly around her head, settling in the facial cavity of her mouth, effectively gagging her.
Ollie had expected it to constrict around her throat. He was thankful that he didn’t have to worry about it strangling her, but this wasn’t a totally positive development either. After all, these vines were the forest’s veins, and the blood they carried was a virulent poison.
Was this last vine simply intended to silence the girl’s helpless cries, or was there something worse afoot?
Was the forest about to force-feed the girl its deadly sap?
This was bad. Was it trying to kill her?
No. Something was different. Normally, the vine would wrap around its victim’s throat and squeeze, then force its way into their open mouth as they struggled for breath. Once inside, the vine would gather sap at the point of entry, swelling until it filled the victim’s mouth. Only then, would the tip burst open and excrete the deadly sap.
This was a new development.
Ollie approached, staring upward. Did Rexl know what was going on? Was the vine afraid of killing it’s new thrall, or was there more to it than that? Could it be acting under orders?
It didn’t seem possible. Nobody could communicate with the plantlife in this forest. The symbiotic relationship between the dark forest and the facility it guarded was the result of a lucky coincidence, or so Ollie had thought.
It was in Rexl’s interest for the forest to trap her, but only if it kept her alive. Nobody could control the will of the dark forest, but had he found a way to influence it?
“Oh no!” Ollie’s eyes widened at the horror unfolding before him.
Rose had fallen.
So much for that hypothesis. This forest wasn’t concerned with keeping its captive alive at all, unless dropping her right now had been an accident, though it seemed unlikely that the vines would break under Rose’s miniscule weight. The redhead wasn’t Exactly skin and bones, but she wasn’t particularly heavy either, and the vines ran thick and strong.
The man ran headlong. He wasn’t going to make it. If the girl hit the ground like this she would land directly on her head, and the result wouldn’t be pretty.
Luckily, Rose was saved at the last minute. Another vine dashed forward and attached itself to the one binding her feet.
The vine had saved the girl, redirecting the inertia of her fall at the last second. She hit the ground, hard. Her chest took the brunt of the impact, but she was alive. The damage wouldn’t be nearly as grave as it could have been, had she hit her head.
The vine had saved her, but where was it taking her? She was being dragged along the ground once more. They were all the way back to where they had started, except now Rose was in much worse shape. She was tied up. Had she ingested any of that toxic sap?
The vine hadn’t invaded her the way he’d seen in the past, but the sap could have seeped through, especially if the girl had tried to fight. If she damaged the vine in her mouth in any way, it would have bled sap as a defence mechanism. She’d be signing her own death warrant.
God, Ollie hoped that she hadn’t done anything like bite into the vine. More than anything, he hoped that she hadn’t swallowed any of that crap. She’d still have a chance, as long as she didn’t….
“Don’t swallow,” Ollie uttered under his breath as he ran. “Whatever you do, don’t swallow.”
He had to hurry. The vine was dragging Rose away from him. He had a vague idea of where it was going, and it was confirming his fears. Somehow, Rexl had managed to gain control of the organic sentience surrounding his facility. The will of the forest was now his will. The hive mind of the dark forest now served Rexl. It was a defensive fortification in every sense of the word.
These vines were taking the girl back. Back to hell, back to him. Rexl was about to undo everything Ollie had achieved this night.
He had to hurry. The vines were fast, and they were strong. He couldn’t stop them, he couldn’t pull them out, he couldn’t even cut them. They were too thick, and their roots ran too deep, but they had one weakness.
Everything had one weakness.
Ollie pulled a cigar lighter from his pocket and ignited it. He didn’t smoke, but he was glad he’d decided to keep it. The thing had been a graduation gift from his brother. He’d held onto it and had it modified since then. Rexl had given him the seemingly useless gift as a joke, but now it might just save them all from him.
The lighter burned bright, and the flame it produced reached high.
Ollie reached out and snapped off a nearby branch as he ran, touching it to the flame and throwing it up toward the vines.
He threw another, and another.
Ollie pushed himself to the limit. He had to catch up to Rose. The vines kept coming. He felt one grab at his ankle, tripping him. They were coming for him, preparing to bind him like they had Rose.
They wrapped around his legs. He didn’t have time!
It was lucky that he had a countermeasure for this: One of the modifications he’d had made to his lighter. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a small aerosol can. The can and the lighter, they were two of a kind, married together.
Releasing the first, his fingers squeezed the second and the pressurised gas shot out from the can, propelling his light, and dowsing the oncoming vines in flame.
It was a far cry short of a real flamethrower, makeshift as it was, and propelled by gas. The range at which it could actually spit the fire left a lot to be desired. Being reliant on the aerosol can meant he only had very limited ammunition as well. Still, it would be enough.
Ollie imagined he heard the beast cry in pain as he torched it. Of course, it was only his imagination; the vines were simply a plant, and had no voice, but they relinquished their hold on him and shied away.
The psychiatrist rushed to his feet, he was close. He had to remember that he only had so much gas. The forest seemed to be aware of that fact as well, because it sent vines galore after him.
Ollie torched them all, not allowing them to get close. He couldn’t afford to let them grab him, or secrete their vile sap.
Finally, Ollie reached her. He managed to overtake Rose and grab onto the vine that was dragging her.
So focused on his actions, he was taken aback when he was knocked down by a wooden limb.
Landing on his back, he sprung to his feet. There was no time to waste. He released a safety lever on the aerosol can and pushed in a red switch, causing an arm at the top of the can to swing down sharply. A pin on the end of the arm hit the side of the can in the middle, piercing it.
This was yet another feature of Ollie’s makeshift weapon.
This was his last resort.
“Sorry, Rexl,” he said, throwing the entire device as far as he could. The can, the lighter, the gas, the flame. All of it.
He’d never tested it, so Ollie had to hope that it would work. For a moment, there was nothing. Then….
A flash of light, and a rush of heat. The aerosol had exploded in a fast-burning ball of fire.
The vine dragging the helpless girl stopped its efforts and fell to the ground, dead.
The vines would no longer be a problem. Ollie released a sigh of relief.
Still, it wasn’t over. He had to hurry and get Rose free of those accursed vines. He only hoped it wouldn’t be too late.
Had the damage already been done?
Ollie pulled at the girl’s binds. They were hard, tight. They wouldn’t come away easy.
The man struggled, using all his strength to free the girl.
Slowly, methodically, gradually, eventually he managed to loosen the binds enough to free the girl.
The large, bulbous appendage in her mouth was the hardest to remove. The bulb had swollen until it filled her completely, stretching her jaw to full width.
He wouldn’t be able to force it out of her, not if he wanted to keep her teeth intact. Fortunately, the bulb was designed to detach once formed. Without contact with the living organism, the bulbous appendage would wither and shrink.
Moments passed, one after another. Patience was one of Ollie’s virtues, but even he was becoming tense. Still, it paid off, and his reasoning had been correct. Eventually, the bulb came loose enough to be gently eased out.
He pulled the thing from the girl, unplugging her from the abomination of nature.
It came free, leaving her mouth and bringing with it thick ropes of saliva, mucus, and the tell-tale remnants of the deadly sap. Ollie tried to wake the girl, but she wouldn’t stir. She was unresponsive.
He tried to wake her, but nothing he did had any effect. He lightly slapped her cheek with his fingers. “Come on, Rose. Wake up!” He tapped a finger against her collarbone, he even tried shaking her by the shoulders. Nothing worked, he couldn’t wake her. She was dead to the world.
That was a poor choice of words.
The man found his eyes transfixed to the girl’s chest, staring intently. Surely somebody would find a way to take such a situation out of context, but there was no one around. He watched her chest. It wasn’t moving.
He put an ear to her. He couldn’t hear a thing. The pounding of his own heart deafened him to all else. He held in a breath, focusing, listening intently.
Nothing. He placed a finger beneath the girl’s nostrils, just above her lip.
Finally, he felt it. The faintest breeze. He almost thought he’d imagined it, as though his wishful thinking had taken hold of his senses.
He felt it again. Ollie allowed himself to breathe.
Rose was alive.
Her eyes were dilated, that wasn’t too strange, given their dark surroundings, but with the light shining directly into it… this was a symptom of the sap.
Ollie’s fist came down beside the girl’s head, hitting the ground with a painful thud.
What was the point of all this? Had it been part of Rexl’s plan, or was it an unfortunate coincidence? If Rose died here, then everything would have been for nothing. If this accursed forest hurt Megan as well, then it would have been for less than nothing. What should he do?
If he were a religious man, he’d pray. At times like this, there wasn’t much else he could do; but that wouldn’t accomplish much, save for putting his mind at ease for a moment, however fleeting. Despite the organisation he worked for, Ollie had seen nothing that would cause him to believe in a literal God; he was a man of science, he was sure it was the same with Rexl.
Ollie had no faith in a higher power, so he had to have faith in Rose. He had to trust that her body was strong enough to fight off the toxin.
“You can do it,” he said to her, his voice barely above a whisper. “You can’t die here. You’re stronger than that. They made you stronger than that. Use it. Resist. Take the strength they gave you, and use it against them.” Ollie didn’t know if Rose could hear him. He doubted it. He knew his words were to assure himself more than her.
He looked down at the girl. She couldn’t die in this dark, dank hell; he had to get her out, her family was waiting for her. He would take her to them, no matter what. He’d promised.
Rose was better than this. She deserved better than this.
Ollie had long since rejected the concept of gods and magic. There would be no whimsical miracle or divine intervention to help them. He simply had to trust in Rose.
She would make it, she had to. He had to get her out of here, there was nothing else he could do for her.
They just had to hope.
Ollie picked the girl up, propping her up on his back. Her body was so light. She lay against him, arms draped limply over his shoulders as his hands secured her legs at his sides. He attached his flashlight to his belt, hoping it would provide enough light to see them through this winding path.
Ollie didn’t like this. There were too many variables. He had to hope that Rose would survive. He had to hope that he could find his way out. He had to hope that Megan would be alright on her own. He had to hope they would all get away.