Alex could sense something had changed. The dark canopy of the forest hung lower than before as if sagging under the weight of the moist night air. In front of him, he could see only dimly; the light he held barely penetrated the blackness that lay before him. The slender beam of light that shone forth from his flashlight quavered slightly with the shaking of his hand.
Would his light last long enough, he wondered. He shuddered at the thought of treading through this dark forest with no light to guide him. He flashed the light back and forth in front of him. Yes, he sighed, he had not ventured from the forest’s narrow path. Before he had entered the forest, locals from a nearby village had assured him that only one path would take him clearly through to the other side. Stay on that, they told him, and he would be safe. Leave the safety of that way and…well, they hadn’t really told him what would happen then.
“Best not worry about that, boy,” one grizzled villager had told him. “I reckon you’re better off fixin’ those eyes of yours on that there path we told you about. That’ll see you through the forest. Don’t need to go a wondering ‘bout what’s outside the path. Only cause you a heap of trouble, that.”
Ha, he thought. What could be so dangerous about a little old forest? When he arrived at the forest’s edge, the sun shone brightly, birds sang a joyous tune, and the path lay wide open before his eyes. A herd of elephants could march through this path. They’d bray all the way, relishing the magnificent milieu. Alex tugged his backpack over his shoulder and began his walk, whistling a happy tune, bouncing with eagerness to begin his travels.
Now, he hunched over, dragging his feet behind him as his eyes danced feverishly from side to side, wary of any disturbance in the wood. The formerly broad path had narrowed so that any step to the left or right brought him out of its comforting presence. Worse, fallen branches and twisted roots disrupted the smoothness of the path, almost as if lying in wait to trip the unwary traveler. One careless step and he’d find himself sprawling among bushes and brambles. Who knows what sorts of thorns grew out of those bushes?
A howl shattered the stillness of the night. The hair on Alex’s neck rose, scared stiff by the prolonged wail. Whatever lived out there sounded pained, he thought. Fortunately, it seemed far away. Hopefully, the light wouldn’t draw its attention.
Another howl erupted to his left. Alex’s hands shook so badly this time he dropped the flashlight; that cry had been closer. His limbs trembling, Alex scrambled on the ground, groping for his flashlight. As soon as his hands clasped the shaft of the light, a third cry broke forth from his right. This last cry came from only a few feet away. Without thinking, he spun the light to his right. Some sort of beast, he imagined, a wounded animal filled with rage.
Instead, he saw a man. Certainly, the man looked ghastly, his pasty skin emitting a wan light. This man had not seen light in years, Alex knew. Yet, it was a man who gazed at Alex with piercing eyes.
Transfixed, Alex remained rooted in place. The villagers had warned him of these forest-dwellers, yet he expected something less…grave…in appearance. Terrified, yet fascinated, he could not move. How could the dead walk?
Sometimes, the locals said, forest-dwellers join travelers on the path, but more often they stay in their dark abodes beckoning others to join them. “Not many travelers on that there path. More forest than path.”
He knew he should continue, but he couldn’t. Finally, the man opened his mouth and breathed, ‘Come’. At that, Alex ran. He flew down the path, heedless of any growth that threatened to stumble him. He needed to get away from this place, to leave the things that dwelled in the forest behind him. Loose branches tripped him up from time to time, but he sped onward until his foot caught a gnarled root. Alex flew headlong into a thick oak. Everything turned black.
A hand on his arm startled him awake. Remembering his last moments, Alex jerked his arm away. ‘Stay away’, he growled.
“Is that the way you treat your guide, Alex?” a deep voice replied.
“What…” Alex opened his eyes. A light shone down from above him. The surrounding dimness made this light seem even brighter, yet through its beams he could not see the one who woke him. “A guide? Who are you? How did you know to find me?”
“I am who I am,” he replied. “I knew to find you because your friends from the village asked me to find you. I always knew where you were.”
Alex frowned. ‘Always knew…’ This guy must be delusional. Still, he had lost his light and his way. Ghastly ghouls hunted for his soul, so, “Lead on, guide. I have no way out of this forest but through you.”
A smile came from the other. “Stay close to me and I shall guide you through the darkness. Stray and I shall find you, but you may get hurt that way.”
A hand clasped his. Thrusting aside lingering doubts, Alex grasped the offered hand and his Guide lifted him up. “I shall follow you, my Guide, and I’ll stay close to you.”
The warmth of the other’s smile enveloped Alex. Suddenly, the darkness around him seemed less terrifying. His guide led him back to the path. So long as Alex’s eyes remained on his guide, he felt secure, but if his eyes wandered, he strayed. His guide always found him, though, and brought him safely back to the path.
Alex made a mental note. When he returned to the village, he’d have to thank the locals. Their guide had truly been a savior.