Taller Than Trees

Nightfall in Brahmir: Taller Than Trees

“Round the crook of his arm, the fettered helpless lie, a savior from the eaves on high. No features decorate his hidden face, as he takes you to a better place.”

She’d heard the line a thousand times. Every year when the academy made their annual summertime trip to Diamond Vale, the students gathered after long days of running and swimming and “team building exercises” which were thinly veiled excuses to keep them out of the camp guide’s hair for an hour or two.

After dark, beneath the crooked branches that watched over Diamond Vale the students gathered to tell one another frightening stories, as if their day to day lives weren’t frightened enough by those things frequently shooed away by the Mana Wards.

Birdie, a sixth year counselor herself, had been to plenty of retreats like these and something about the children’s fraught disdain for the reality of the world in which they live both unsettled, and encouraged her.

Regardless of the encouragement at the children’s outlook on Diamond Vale, a location grown famous from the stories told of Sorvane and his mother, the tale of Fetterman’s Lank made her skin crawl.

It was distinct in many ways from the quickly spurned rumors that filled the city streets when there was no moon hanging in the sky to speak of. Fetterman’s Lank was a story that seemed, as she understood it, to have evolved from nowhere. Unlike the Night of Knives, which came to be told and retold upon the massacre of the. Children’s primary years before she’d been born, or even the gruesome retellings of Sorvane’s mother butchering dozens of camp staff when she was a child. There was something wholly unseen about Fetterman’s Lank.

“Miss Birdie!” One of the students, a young girl with blonde pigtails draping down an awkward fitting cotton gown. “Mr. Fetterman doesn’t live here, does he?”

She smirked. Referring to the Lank as a “Mr.” or “Mrs.” as the children often did brought a kind of stark strangeness to its existence.

“Mr. Fetterman,” She began ceremoniously, “Is not real my dear. He is an imagination told repeatedly by kids like yourselves. There is nothing to be worried about this time of year.”

Of course, she knew that wasn’t entirely truthful. Outside of the city limits and as far away from Dr. Lachmann’s automatons and turrets, there were few things not to be afraid of in the woods at night.

The girl nodded her head, bouncing her pigtails as she turned back to rejoin the conversation, another story told by one of the older boys about The Blythe Woods Witch.

A tap came upon Birdie’s shoulder and she whipped back to see one of her companions, Argus, a thin boy a hand or so taller than her, holding two wooden mugs.

“Figured you’d need something to take the edge off.” He pushed one of them into her hands and took a seat, watching over the children as he slowly sipped.

She took the mug to her lips and tasted the warm, bitter rum.

“Another year, huh?” He gestured at the piece of parchment lying before her.

She let her eyes fall down onto it, swirling the drink around her tongue. “I guess so.”

Argus kicked his feet out while one of the children jumped from the shadows and screamed at the apex of his friend’s story, causing the rest of them to shriek. Birdie couldn’t stifle her laugh quickly enough.

“I guess so, I was hoping with my volunteer service I could have made an entryway, but the Academy wants me to “prove myself” another year.” She rolled her eyes.

“It’s probably your family, honestly. The Academy doesn’t want to associate with us, it never has. I bet if you lived in High-rise they’d pull you up in an instant.”

She swallowed another gulp of rum as a new camper started on an intricate story, a familiar story she’d heard nearly every year since she’d started working the camps, and could retell in her sleep if necessary.

Absently, she mouthed along with the child who launched into the trained retelling of the tale, the same boy each year who told and told his story.

“On the whistle of the winter morning, down from the mountaintops the wind carries a word for us that we can’t understand. A stark utterance to warn us of that which lies atop the summit of the Bengali Ridgeline.” 

She breathed in alongside him, to build the tension. Then continued whispering along.

“There was once a camp of hikers, who though they’d see the mountain peak for what it was. But after a long night by the fireside, they dozed off to dream of their homes and their safe keepings back home and awoke in the midst of the night to find that their Ridgeline had changed.”

She caught Argus eying her, watching her quietly recite the story, and she quickly whipped her gaze at him with a grin on her face, and continued repeating after the boy.

“One of them a scientist, awoke in the night to find a hole in the wall of their cave, perfectly his size. But the size of the hole was not the peculiarity as he rested his eyes. The lamplight on the wall shone a mystery tangled even to this day, that his form complete and whole had been carved into the stone. So he rolled from ‘neath his sleeping mat and made his way to see the hole within the stony cave which from nothing, came to be.”

Argus rolled his eyes, and she hunched her shoulders, raising her hands like claws before her.

“When the tired man came too and sleep fell from his eyes, he considered what it might mean if he worked his way inside. So her crept and crawled and stripped himself to garments, to slide into the hole. As he made his way between the fault line in the stone the lantern light behind him grew ever darkly dim, until he passed onto the other side and found himself, no longer him.”

Her partner forced a shiver and took a long sip from his mug.

“Well acted.” He pushed on her shoulder a bit, and she mimicked him, taking a sip of her own before she replied.

“It probably is my family, or our lack of money. I couldn’t tell you. Maybe they’re just glad to have the free labor. I do a lot for the Academy considering I’m not enrolled.”

He laughed. “You’ve been here longer than I have, that’s for sure.”

The boy continued his story as a hush fell across the group.

“In the morning when another stumbled from his dreams, he awoke and saw a marvelous and frightening thing. Upon the wall in the crowded corner of the cave stood a cut upon the stone, which would fit him perfectly today. So he released his swollen coat and strode across the floor until he found himself inside the door. Or perhaps it was a tunnel, made especially for him to go, but one thing he held for certain, the purpose of the hole was something he must know.”

Behind them, beyond the tree line, a twig snapped.

Argus and Birdie whipped back to peer into the darkness, and met the eyes of a tall stag wandering through the woods. It’s eyes reflected the light from the campfire, hovering ominously in the darkness just beyond the camp.

It stood there for a moment, gazing back at them with a hollow look about it before it turned and made its way deeper into the woods, cracking more twigs and rustling brush as it went along.

“When the third had awoken alongside the remainder of the crew, they had realized,” The boy continued, captivating the group. “Their once strong numbers had, at night, become so few. They paced around and panicked at the missing friends they’d made, until along the wall tucked along the shadowed back of the cave, they discovered four more holes perfectly aligned. One beside another, and they all made their way inside.”

“Doesn’t this bother you?” Argus gestured to the boy, whispering. “He tells the same story every year.”

“He’s a kid, and his dad works for the Observatory. He’s going to know more than he should. Even if his parents keep what the Observatory does close at hand. I think it’s healthy for him to get it out.”

“But five years in a row?” Her companion chuckled to himself. “You’d think his dad was on the crew.”

The boy turned, suddenly, to face them.

“When the lot of them did not return, a search was sent to find them. What the party came upon was unexpected, and a kink upon the minds of all of them. In the cave they found, beside piles of coats and empty lanterns, was a row of perfect carvings, one for each of them that fit their bodies just right.”

Birdie set down her mug and stood, clapping. 

“Alright, kids, it’s time for bed. It’s getting late and we have to head back tomorrow bright and early. Are you excited to see your parents?” She moved around the group as they all stood and shuffled, collecting the sticks they’d used to heat up various treats around the fire. They scrambled, however disorganized they were, to their places. The boy who told the story of Bengali Cave stood still, staring at her as she moved around the fire, dousing it slowly with a bucket of water.

“I didn’t finish.” He muttered.

“I know, dear, but we know how it ends.” She heaped water onto the sizzling coals and glanced at him, in the darkness she saw the frown on his face.

“But if I don’t finish, and one of us grows up, and goes there, we might disappear too.”

Her heart panged at his words. With a short breath she knelt and set the bucket at her feet.

“Dear, everyone who goes there knows now, it’s not safe. You all have a lot of years before you’re grown-up and I trust that all of you brave, intelligent campers will know better. You’ve done a great job trying to warn us, and I am proud of you for doing what needs to be done, but right now it’s more important that you go to sleep.” She put a hand on his head, his greasy hair left residue on her fingertips. She tousled it a bit and quickly withdrew her hand, wiping it on her shirt.

“Do you mean that?” He sniffled, beginning to cry.

“I really do.” She offered a quick smile in the darkness, unsure if he could even see it. “Now go get ready for bed. I’ll let you finish the story for me tomorrow morning.”

He nodded and stepped off toward the row of cabins beside the treeline.

Argus corralled a group of kids and escorted them back to the cabins while she continued pulling down the decorations and putting away the remnants of their meal.

Beyond the far reaches of the dying campfire light, another twig snapped. Birdie turned to the sound, down the shoreline a ways, but not far enough beyond the campsite to be unconcerned. She narrowed her eyes, peering into the darkness long enough that the rest of the camp drowned out in her vision. She searched the trees for a pair of eyes belonging to a fox or doe, praying it was simply that.

Argus made his way back to the camp, alone and slowly to wrangle a new group of kids while she stared, searching, unwilling to turn away until she could see the source of the noise.

Behind her, a hand tugged on her shirt.

She whipped to confront it, her heart racing as she found the young blonde girl with pigtails tugging on her shirt.

“Are you okay?” She asked, kneeling down, one ear tuned to the place she’d been staring moments ago.

“I am, I wanted to say goodnight.” She grinned and wrapped her small arms around Birdie’s torso.

“Well, Goodnight, Lulah.” She embraced the girl tight and sent her on her way. “Get to sleep, dear. We’ll count off in the morning and make sure we clean up camp before we go home.”

The girl nodded and stepped back. “Ms. Birdie?” She began.

“What’s the matter, dear?”

“You’re going to keep us safe, right?”

She put a hand on the child’s arm and squeezed gently. “Of course I am.” 

Lulah smiled from ear to ear, as Argus stepped up to the edge of the fire pit.

“Time to rest, kid.” 

She turned away and followed him back to the cabin with another group while Birdie returned to organizing the campsite, still watching in the distance with one eye as she piled up sticks and toys left out.

As she continued her work, Argus ignited the lanterns on the porches of the cabins one by one, shedding a dim glow across the campsite before he returned to her.

“You can go, Birdie. I’ll stay up for first watch.”

She took a seat on a hewn stump, still rooted into the ground. “I don’t even know if I’m tired yet.” She found her mug with a few swigs left in it and carried it to her lips.

“I mean, we don’t necessarily have to go to sleep do we?” He shot her a coy grin.

She downed the rum and leaned back, her gaze dancing between stars.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, out here especially. Do you know where we are?”

He shrugged. “I suppose you have a point, but there’s something about this place, isn’t there?”

She continued looking up at the sky. “There certainly is, but it doesn’t give me those feelings.”

Argus laughed and took her cup to the pile of used equipment stacked on a nearby table.

“Maybe when we get back to town?” He said, half joking.

“Definitely when we get back to town.” 

She stood, her mind still bothered by the sounds of the forest. She watched the darkness beyond the campsite and as she did, another twig snapped. She followed the echo and locked eyes with something, short with beady eyes that caught the reflection of the lanterns, causing them to flicker.

Argus made his way around the camp, doing a second sweep to ensure they’d picked up everything as the fox, or hound, or whatever it was scurried off into the woods.

She took a seat and picked up a stick one of the kids had scorched in the fire and began absently playing with it while Argus returned from his search. He took a seat across from her and sat, expectantly.

“Well?” He eventually asked as she rubbed her thumb nail along the wood. “Are you going to sleep?”

“Not yet.” She eventually replied, eyes tuned to the forest. “I’m not tired.”

“I don’t care if you’re tired, Birdie. The longer you stay up, the longer I have to stay on watch.”

She laughed at him. “You can come wake me up at any time, quit being a baby.”

He shivered, hard enough to shake the table. A cold breeze pushed its way across the surface of the gently lapping lake.

“I know that,” He paused, the movement of nearby brush interrupting him. “Don’t you think tonight feels… different?”

“I think you’re freaking yourself out.” She fired back, scanning the portion of woods where the noise had come from. Anywhere after dark was unsafe, Mana Wards in the city only helped to alleviate the problem but they didn’t rid anyone of the potential to be assaulted by the horrors that stalked Brahmir. Nothing could.

“Maybe you do need rest. This is normal.”

He swallowed hard, his eyes darting through the trees. “I suppose so, but, I don’t know. Something feels different tonight.”

She shrugged. “If it’s different, we get to a cabin. They can’t get in, not with the Wards lit.”

Argus sighed and folded his arms, laying his head on the table. “Maybe I’ll just sleep here, then.”

Birdie stood and knocked on the table top. “No good. Go to a cabin. I’ll watch.” She felt a yawn growing within her and turned away, hiding it as best she could.

“No, you go.” He pushed himself up and past her, beginning a walk around the campsite.

She shrugged and made her way to the large cabin at the end of the lane, the only one with an honest to goodness Mana Ward, rather than one of the frail hanging lamps that decorated the kids’ cabins. She pushed her way inside and stumbled through the darkness to her cot, barely slipping out of her boots before she fell and let sleep overwhelm her.

Birdie woke with a start. She rolled to the side of the bed and stuffed her feet back into her shoes, her mind alight with memories from her dream. Figures swirled in her mind, imaginary entities that stood just outside the corner of her room. As she laced her boots and tied them, she peered out the bay window of the cabin to see the fifth moon nearing the tree tops. She forced herself to take a breath.

“Calm down. It was dreams, just dreams.”

She took five seconds to inhale, and three to exhale as the shock of fear receded.

When it had crawled out of her, she stood and approached the front door, where she heard voices coming faintly through the cracks. 

“Should we tell Birdie?” One of the students asked.

“She’s asleep, we should get Argus.”

“Where is he?” The first voice responded.

She pushed open the door, stepping out into the dimly lit night to see a small ring of children gathered around the campfire, which remained unlit.

“What’s going on?” She asked, glancing once more up to the tree line, the foreign points of trees jutted into the dark sky, lit by the glowing moon.

“Himir said he got sick, and stepped outside to find Argus.” The first voice, a girl, Dhea, replied.

“Where is he?”

The children nodded.

Birdie quickly counted eight of them, out of thirteen, she took note of those missing as she approached.

“Where are Lulah, Jans and Frie?” She knelt beside a boy with tears in his eyes.

“They weren’t in their beds either.” Dhea

She gestured for the kids to get close. “Everyone get back to your cabin, lock the door. Don’t open it for anyone that isn’t me, okay?” She tensed her jaw, peering through the darkness for Argus and the others. “They’re probably just off taking care of Himir, it’s nothing to be worried about I promise.”

She ushered the kids back to their cabin and waited until Dhea locked the door behind them. When the children lit the lantern, she double checked to make sure they’d all made it inside, peering through the window before she stepped toward the next cabin. She plucked it’s Mana Ward and stepped out into the darkness toward the trees.

“Argus?” She called. “Himir?” Another crack popped in the forest, deeper than those that came before it. She pivoted and moved toward the sound.

“It’s me, Birdie! If you can hear me, follow the sound of my voice!” She shouted, against her better judgement. Calling out so plainly into the night would attract more than her companion and the students.

“Hopefully the Ward will be enough.” She muttered, and took another step.

In the distance, she heard a cry. A man shouted in fear, followed immediately by a sick squelch. She sprinted toward the noise, dodging through low hanging branches and overgrown shrubs.

The trees in the summertime were not maintained on this side of the Blythe Woods, far from the logging camps and outside of the day to day bustle of the city. They were a tangled, cavernous maze of branches, beehives and vines. Despite that, the whimpering of Argus in the distance was as close to a compass as she could get.

The overgrown thicket of trees gave way after a few minutes of running to a vacant clearing. She passed the threshold from abundant vegetation into an arid, leafless space. Above her, naked branches extended in a spiny cascade from the trunks of trees, the grass and undergrowth which permeated everywhere else in the woods had long died, the dry acrid dirt beneath her crunched with each step.

In the center of the clearing knelt her friend, Argus.

Her eyes met him, bleeding profusely from his abdomen as he knelt on the ground, dry vines tied his arms behind his head.

“Argus!” Bridie screamed, dashing toward him.

She set the Mana Ward on the dirt and sliced open the vines with a knife as he whimpered, blood dripping from his mouth and out from numerous cuts on his cheeks.

“What happened?”

He sputtered through the blood caught in his throat.

“Lulah,” He coughed a glob of thick blood onto the soil. “She and some others.”

Birdie wrapped an arm around him, bracing him up and pulling him into her chest. 

“What about them? Are they safe?” She reached into a pouch on her pants and slipped a wad of linen to begin wrapping the wounds.

“No. They’re evil.”

She didn’t understand, and knew it wouldn’t serve either of them to ask for clarification. She wrapped the linen cloth around his abdomen as tightly as she could in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

“You need to run.” He muttered, falling to his side.

“I’m not leaving without you and the kids.” She tugged on his arm, but then, he tugged back.

“The kids did this to me!” He shouted. “Look.”

Argus raised a weak finger to the edge of the clearing, and as Birdie followed it her gaze landed upon one of the children, Lulah, who had been so afraid only hours before, standing at the edge of the woods with Argus’ blood-drenched knife in her hand.

“What are you doing?” Birdie shouted, reaching to her side to check for her own as the little girl giggled.

“He said he’d grant me a wish if I did it. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

“Who?” Birdie screamed, as her fingers touched her sheathe and found it empty.

“Mr. Fetterman.” A boy’s voice came from behind them on the other side of the clearing. Himir, who was supposedly sick.

She whipped around to see the child holding her knife with a devilish grin on his face. “He promised us that if we brought you two to him, that he would make sure we weren’t afraid anymore.”

Bridie growled. “That’s a story! Fetterman isn’t real!”

A third voice from the far end of the clearing came. “Yes he is, and he is upset that you don’t believe.” Jans, a daughter of one of the professors at the Academy skipped out of the darkness and came to a stop at the edge of the Mana Ward’s light.

“Just come home, kids. Come back to the cabin, everything will be alright.” She urged, feeling Argus writhe in pain beneath her, his hand softly wrapped her ankle.

“We don’t want to be afraid anymore.” Frie, the final child, emerged from the fourth side of the clearing.

Birdie jumped her gaze between them all, standing at the edge of the Mana Ward.

It was too late.

She knelt, and brushed a hand through Argus’ hair.

“I told you to leave.” He sputtered another heap of blood.

“So you can die here alone?” She wrapped an arm under him and lifted, fighting his requests to drop her, she hefted Argus to his fear and took a step out of the clearing.

“But you can’t go.” Himir called with a song in his voice. “He won’t let you leave.”

She ignored the boy and moved toward the spot she’d entered the clearing, where Lulah stood with a frantic grin.

“You’re going to get us both killed, Birdie.” Argus whined over her shoulder.

“At least I didn’t abandon you.” She fired back and continued dragging him, despite his attempts to make himself dead weight, toward the child.

“Drop that, Lulah. If you do, you can come back to the camp with us.”

Her mind raced. Could the stories really have driven the children to do something so terrible? She knew Argus had little chance of making it out alive. The hike back to Ammon’s Reach would take them days, and she didn’t have the know-how to heal him herself. Let alone any of the children they were supposed to be caring for.

“I don’t understand how you got here.” She whispered to her friend, who had found his footing and helped her carry some of his weight.

“Himir told me he was sick, so I took him to the woods to have some privacy, and then,” He coughed. “Lulah came after me with my knife.”

“Why?” She asked Argus, but hoped the girl would answer. To her dismay, she did.

“He told me to. I told you already, Ms. Birdie. I do this, and he makes it so I’m not afraid of anything, ever again.”

Birdie’s face warmed with anger as she approached the girl, she tapped Argus to stand on his own and marched up to Lulah’s smug, smiling face.

“We don’t hurt people.” She reached forward and Lulah drew the blade back.

“That’s not how we ask for things.” She mimicked Birdie’s tone when she disciplined other kids who didn’t play well with one another, and then, much faster than she’d expected a child to be capable, Lulah drew the knife back and slashed open Birdie’s arm.

She reeled back, shouting in pain.

Blood gushed from the wound as she clutched her arm, and scolded at the child who continued to look on as if what she was doing was justified. Birdie, in a moment she knew she might regret, swung her healthy arm out and rocked Lulah’s jaw with her fist, sending the elementary age girl tumbling backwards. The knife fell to the ground and as she scrambled for it, she saw a pair of hands catch Lulah’s fall.

They were gnarled and worn, but covered in smooth skin pulled taught against weak, thin bones. Grey in the dim light, with too many knuckles they caught the girl and righted her. At the wrist began a long black sleeve that ascended above her head and into the darkness, connecting to a torso that stood many feet above them, with a thin skinned, featureless grey face the figure stared down at her, its head peeking from the tops of the trees.

“You made him mad.” Lulah whispered.

Behind her, Birdie heard the shuffle of children’s feet moments before Argus howled once more in pain. She turned back to see the other three children had run him down and, led by Himir, were stabbing him with her knife as well as sharpened sticks they’d found. Birdie screamed and jumped forward, reaching for the knife. With it in her clutches she ran back, to her friend, her partner, who no longer made noise.

She swiped down at the children, not trying to harm them, but only to scare them into backing off. To her dismay, Himir raised his hand to block and caught the knife in the thick of his forearm. Blood coursed from the wound and, in shock, Birdie drew the knife back, slicing through his flesh.

Tears burst from her as the other children stared and Himir gazed at the open cut, silent.

“I’m so sorry, Himir.” She mumbled. “I didn’t mean to do it.”

The children paused, looking past her into the sky at the form which still guarded Lulah, and then nodded together before they returned their gaze to her.

“Ms. Birdie,” Jans asked, a blood covered stick in her hands. “Are you afraid?”

She tightened her grip on the knife as Himir stared curiously at the mangled flesh on his arm, and Jans took a step forward.

“Do you want to be afraid?”

Birdie shook her head, her eyes darting back and forth between Himir, Jans and Argus whose shuttering breaths grew further apart.

“Then help us, and you will not be afraid any more.”

Jans hefted the stick above her head and swung down with more force than any child she’d ever seen, and thrust the sharpened point into Argus’ neck.

Blood funneled from the puncture and spilled onto the dirt, and Birdie turned away.

Without looking back, she ran.

She ran as fast as she could through the forest, leaving behind her friend, the children and the Mana Ward. She ran until her lungs burned in her chest and she broke out of the trees, on the other side of Diamond Vale.

Above her, the fifth moon began to set and make way for the sunrise. For a brief moment, she thought she should cross to the other side of the lake and make certain the other children were safe, but as the first beams of morning glory cast themselves over Diamond Vale, she saw, moving through the tree tops a pale sinned, featureless head attached to a tall, emaciated frame.

Branches snapped under its footfalls and crashed sending echoes across the still surface of the lake, and it emerged from the woods followed by four children, one of them with a severed arm.

Birdie couldn’t watch any more, and she ran as fast as she could away from the still smiling face of Lulah, as they knocked on the locked cabin door.

If you enjoyed today’s short story, I would love if you checked out one of my many others! Everything that takes place in Brahmir, from the main storyline to the side stories like this one is an homage to a couple of things that have been a huge influence to me, Magic: the Gathering and Horror! The inspiration for this one might be obvious, but it was a lot of fun to put together.

Nightfall in Brahmir is an episodic fantasy fiction story taking place in the world of Brahmir, where the lines between dead and alive are not simply blurred, they are almost nonexistent. In this place, all manner of horrors plague the denizens from returned corpses, trickster spirits, to killers stalking the daylight. Part One will be four Chapters, each of which follow one of the main characters as they try to work out what happened to Mayeli, and rescue her from the grasp of the strange powers that be within the merchant city, Ammon’s Reach.

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