The eternal forest stretches on, keeping its victims close.

Andrew Willings, Staff Writer

He looked over at the mountain rising tall above the trees of the eternal forest like a beacon. It tore the sun, making it difficult to see anything in the dim light. Leaves piled up to his ankles for miles around, but he trudged through them, at this point accustomed to it in the dense fall.  Mold worked its way up tree, giving the forest a rustic feeling that more or less inspired him.

The wind blew angrily at him but his jacket kept out the cold. The jacket was black, a great visual representation of the thoughts he was feeling for this unrelenting forest. He moved along stealthily managing to make very little noise and not give his position away. He hoped the sun stayed down as long as possible. It made him harder to see. A stream could be heard directly to his left, a good way to refill his water supply as it was running much too low for him to be at ease. He drank too much, too often. He walked over through the trees which were twisted around each other, untrimmed since everyone disappeared. Correction: almost everyone.

He rustled the leaves around his feet to find the bottom of the pile. Below all the leaves lay some rough gravel. He was on a road. He walked calmly over to the water, now under the knowledge he had the chance of finding shelter, and tracked the stream as best he could. The leaves crunched under his feet as he walked, his pace picking up slightly as he crouched around low-lying branches and other obstacles.

Once finding the river, he took his bat off his back, strung there for as long as he could remember, and set it carefully on the ground, hoping that it would not sink into the leaves. He pulled off his backpack and rustled for his bottle. It was still intact after all these years, a bit of a miracle to be honest. He crouched down by the river and let it fill up the bottle. He did not care the water was bad for him, it was something. It was common knowledge that without hydration for five days one would die.

After standing up, he collected his things and trudged back to the area he came from. Once spotting the area he had cleared the leaves from earlier, he re-entered his path and walked along it, stopping every few minutes to make sure he was still on some asphalt. He moved silently and carefully, attempting to avoid any unwanted human contact. In reality, the last time he saw a human had to be several months ago. He lived a solitary life.

Interestingly, at that same moment he heard voices. A major coincidence. He wondered if it was even worth his time. At best they would mug him and let him carry on without any means of survival. People were growing increasingly cruel as time passed, resources becoming extremely rare in the dark unrelenting world he lived in.

As footsteps approached the path he panicked, now fully understanding his predicament. He had to get out. After going so long without human interaction, he wondered if he would be able to hold a conversation. There was no use talking to himself, so he barely had to worry about language. He could not remember his own name, he was just him. He ran off the road and behind a bush, waiting intently and trying not to make a noise that could be understood. Sure enough, a few minutes passed and a group of people came out from behind an oak tree, all heavily armed and supplied. He sank further into the bush, his club growing increasingly heavy on his back.

A thought crossed his mind that he was not exactly proud of. What if he was able to shoot them, maybe kill them? All those supplies could make him incredibly powerful. Powerful enough to maybe join one of the small communities he had come across every now and then. They had never accepted him, of course. Why would they accept a young man into a group of killers where everyone had a role? But if he had enough equipment, maybe… No. His morals got in his way and he let the people pass without his input. It was probably for the better, anyway. There was not much chance it would go over too well. He got back up as they passed, curious at how this was going to end for him. But, against better judgment, he followed them.

Several nights passed and he, following the men, found a settlement surrounded by a very convenient river. In all honesty, it was one of the best and most fortified settlements he had found; he might have even called it a city. It was on a hill, which allowed for great defense, and the river made it nearly impossible to get over without being seen. All great for the city, but it was terrible for someone who wanted nothing more than to break into it.

He watched intently, noting the every movement of the men walking in. They were calm, seemingly careful not to make any sudden movements. Rain poured from the sky making it hard to keep his eyes open. But he persisted, not allowing himself to fail. He could not fail. He did not know what was driving him, but he knew he had to get in there against all costs.

He walked down from his perch, trying to estimate his best way in and out of the wretched eternal forest. The guards at the heavily thickened wall’s only gate were intently watching the men as they walked toward them. That was when he noticed, his eyes drifting away from the front members and to the back of the group, a wagon that was being wheeled toward them. It would be a good way to get in, but he was risking it all on the hope that the guards would not check the wagon. Focusing, he stealthily ran down the road and toward the group as soon as they looked away from the wagon. He was being blessed today, although he did not understand why. Maybe he was just lucky?

He ducked under the wagon and prayed for his miserable life not to end yet. Again, he did not know why he wanted in so badly. Maybe a part of him was ready to risk anything for this small reward. Maybe he just wanted to remerge, quietly, into the city, hoping to eventually be accepted. Life was lonely after the countless plagues that had torn the earth apart, and human contact was necessary for a healthy life.

He felt the wagon jostle and suddenly totally insecure. The wagon finally stopped, and he heard the guards looking around the top of the wagon. Panicked, he moved to the very back of the nook he was in and prayed for his life not to be wasted in such a meaningless fashion. The guard looked around a few more second, his brash hand sweeping things left and right making sure everything was in order, and then they finally continued on their way.

The jostling of the cart nearly broke his bones after about 6 minutes of thrashing. “Everything seems to be in order,” a worn voice said, maybe the first clear voice he had heard in months. He recognized the words and understood them, but at the same time they seemed foreign, as if it was a different language. “She was difficult to find. What kind of compensation are we going to get, all those years gone?” a man with a younger voice asked. He heard something much like the drop of a sack of coins falling onto an oak table. Looking out the crevice in the cart, he was able to see a wooden door and some other nice woodwork stationed around the room. He could clearly see a table with two chairs, a flower pot resting comfortably in the light from the open glass window. It was cozy, but he felt off. Maybe it was the rough cobblestone floor, reminding him of some sort of dungeon. It was chiseled in a way that made it look extremely sharp and painful, although the people he could see did not seem fazed.

They eventually left the house, and the cart was abandoned in a stable. He had made it. He shimmied his way out of the cart and breathed in the air. He stretched, his muscles aching from staying in that cramped space, and walked to the door. Right as he was going to pull the handle, he realized that it was probably a bad idea to just walk out in the open like that. He paused and turned around looking for a more convenient exit. Sure enough, above the cart was a small window that looked just large enough to fit through. He walked up to the cart and jumped into it. After three years in the woods, he had grown good at vaulting and climbing obstacles.

He pulled himself through the window and came out onto the floor of a dirty alleyway. Crawling out and crouching, he peered around the wall and slowly made his way onto the street. It was a nice looking town, consisting of mainly cobblestone and oak walls with a few glass windows. The roads were consisted of a hard, semi-powder substance that had surprisingly good traction. It was without order, and roads seemed to be laid wherever necessary, buildings filled every cramped space between. Something else he noticed was all the buildings lower down seemed carved out of the hill, and there was either a new building on top of it or a sort of deck with stairs that led into the buildings. It all looked extremely easy to defend from barbarian attacks or a group of scavengers.

He walked, tense, down the road, attempting to spear inconspicuous. He received a few glances, but nobody seemed all too concerned. It was nice to be accepted, yet troubling that nobody seemed to care about his presence.

He walked back to the first area he had been to: the shop. By the time he got there the doors were closed and the lights were off. Interesting; he was sure that this was the building he was taken to. The owner must have left, but why? What cargo could be so precious that he would abandon everything so quickly? He remembered the word “her”, something he recalled being associated with many things. It could have been a boat for all he knew, although it was unlikely that something of that size could fit in such a small compartment.

He looked around the room, trying to notice anything of importance. He saw a wooden door in the back with metal bracing. Metal was hard to come by anymore. He walked toward it, careful not to injure his feet on the extremely rough floor. He crept slowly into the room and found a hallway with a staircase going off to the side. He stopped, nervous that he would be caught if he attempted to trek any further into the hall. Soon enough, however, he started hearing the sound of strange, strained crying. Attracted by the presence of life in the dark hall, he crept carefully down the stairs. To his surprise, he found a horrific scene in front of him. At least a dozen bodies were all locked in cages, all of them alive and watching something happen in horror.

Risking his own life, he crept around the door and behind a desk. On it rested several books and a key rack with too many keys for one man to count. From the desk, he was able to see an older man shoving a flailing body into another cage. There were hundreds of them, all lining the wide hall. He turned around quickly with the sole intent of getting out of there as fast as possible, but before he could get out, he was spotted by a prisoner. The men looked at him, long and fully, though he would not call out the coward of a boy. He ran.

He ran from there, as fast as he could, back into the eternal forest. He remembered its simplicity and longed for it. He longed to be away from civilization. Unfortunately for him, he would not leave that area for a long time. Because by some unrelenting force, he found himself right back where he started, no matter how hard he tried to get away. Five years later he understood why.

Now an adult, he was stronger and more capable. He had upgraded his bat to a strong, sturdy blade, albeit crude, which he had been able to create from years of trial and error and many burns on his hands. He had lost track of how many times he had run across that depressing fortified city. He was tired of remembering those captured prisoners. So he waited.

Eventually another caravan came to the city, and he repeated his steps from the first time breaking in. It all remained the same; step by step he eased his way into the city his mind had been dreading for many years. The man from the cell block went over the human shipment, and the caravan members demanded payment. He was wheeled back to the stable, and he climbed out of the window. All was running smoothly. It was night, and he snuck through the city without raising an eye.

He eventually made it back into the dark hallway. Screams could be heard from the stairs, and he felt purpose again. A reason for living, a mission he had to finish. He walked down and crept toward the first cage, quietly unlocking it with the key he had grabbed from the rack he had seen the first time, on the table. The man inside was the same one he had been spotted by the first time.

As quickly as he could, he asked the ones he saved to help him unlock the cages as quickly and quietly as possible. However, he was the only one who did much work; the others were slow and hungry for all their years in captivity. How… Why would anybody do that, he thought to himself? And how was he going to get everybody out.

The captor was much older now, probably in his late 70’s. He finally turned around and saw the mass of crippled and starving prisoners and a young man with a large knife. And although crude, it was dangerous. The captor’s eyes widened as he recognized his coming doom. But the hero would not stoop to his enemy’s level. Not completely, at least.

After crippling the man severely to eliminate being chased, they left the prison and ran for their lives, or at least walked at a decent pace for people who had been stuck in cells for a long time. They left in a hurry and found it was much easier to leave the city than to enter it.

When they finally got out, they ran as fast as they could, and after only two hours he found a familiar patch or trees that he had not seen in five years. He had escaped, to the extent that he rid himself of all thought of that city.

Eventually, some of the older freed prisoners had to stop. He stooped to the ground and whittled with his blade before tossing it into the woods, which were now bare in the early-winter. It was a last reminder that he did not need, or want. A young girl walked up to him curiously. “What is your name?” She asked. Her voice was rough from years without use. But it was still calming, one of the first friendly voices he had heard in years. That is when it occurred to him.

He did not remember, much less care. He had been so wrapped up in concern for them that he refused, deep down, to let himself leave. Completely selfless. He smirked at his good deeds and saw the end of the forest opening up into prairie. He had found the end of the eternal forest only after he found closure.