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It was a dare, just a stupid, childish dare. Besides, it’s not like this thing actually exists. The Traveler was just an inane campfire story, created to scare small children, nothing more. I stood to face the formidable woods. A nebulous fog clung to the roots of every naked tree. The icy chill soaked through every cell of my body, despite my many layers. The frost bitten trunks leered down at me, challenging me to continue. Most of them were already dead. The only light came from the twinkling stars embroidered into the velvet, ebony sky. My last remaining comfort.
A few yards away my timorous friends stood, pallid and horror struck that I was actually going through with this. Growing up, we were told stories of a lurid traveler that got lost in the woods about 165 years ago. Still searching, he haunts the forest. Waiting.
“Ready or not, here I come.”
Taking a deep, steadying breath, I ventured in.
Twigs snapped underfoot, their corpses strewn across the hard, lifeless earth. There were no leaves to rustle. No owls to hoot. No wind to whistle. Nothing. Just an unsettling feeling of uncertainty. Unmoving, the silence was palpable. Cold, sticky sweat slithered down my rigid spine. Devoid of sound, devoid of life. There was nothing lurking behind the trees, it was pointless to be scared.
Then why did I want to run?
The deeper I plunged into this darkened world, tripping and stumbling over protruding roots, the more edgy I became. The first sign of life was the putrid stench that became apparent as I neared the heart of the forest. All too quickly, I became aware of another sound, other than the beating of my own heart: A horse, ragged breath just behind me.
I spun around on my heel, falling as my flailing foot caught on an exposed tree root. The soft thud of compressed earth against fabric, against human flesh seemed to echo through the emptiness. Warm pain boiled in my ankle. It was sprained. Trembling, I worked my way into a standing position. My good ankle bearing most of my weight. I raised my head, setting eyes, for the first time, on the Traveler.
The source of that putrid stench stood, hunched before me. It oozed off his sallow, almost transparent, slimy skin, creating his own personal miasma. Paralysed with fear, I tried to scream, but my mouth seemed to have forgotten how to work and my voice had vanished.
His serpentine features gave the impression of a genetic experiment gone severely wrong. His nose looked as if it had caved into his face, if you could call it a face. A rusted odor met my nostrils. It was emanating from the holes where his eyes should have been. Lips? He didn’t have any to hide those rotted, sharpened fangs.
Crimson tears glistened off his sunken cheeks. The nefarious creature seemed to be crying. It melted my frightened heart, until I saw the scarlet tears oozing thickly from his empty eye sockets, weren’t tears at all.
I was transfixed by the manifestation of Satin’s most terrifying nightmare, my limbs relieved of bodily function by a monster that would bully Hell’s most truculent demons.
All I could do was remain standing, with my ankle on fire, trying not to wince.
“Give me your eyes.”
“My w-what?” was all I could manage to squeak.
It was silent again. Even my heart forgot to beat, my lungs forgot to breathe. I wish I could forget to be scared. I bet he could hear the tremors that racked through my very being; the stars flickered and died, giving the cue for every last shred of hope to evacuate my anatomy.
I snapped my eyes shut as he extended, his joints popping as if from lack of use, one taloned claw. Salty moisture soaked my lashes, streaming over my prickling, goose bump ridden jaw bone. A sharp pain stabbed beneath my clamped lids. My long awaited scream erupted from my frigid lungs, cracking through the silence like a whip.
Salt became iron. The stream became ooze. Cold became warm, as my tears transformed.
A soul for a soul.
A traveler for a traveler.
165 years later...
Drowning in the eternal, suffocating solitude, a girl’s flirtatious voice rang through the still palpable silence, shattering my stretched hibernation, “You’re not scared of the traveler, are you Mitch?”
“I’m not afraid of some campfire ghost story!”
Another male voice began to taunt, “Oh yeah? Go inside then. Go on. I dare you.”
165 years I lay waiting. 165 years, I’ve suffered. Pushed to excruciating, unnatural limits as my tissue, muscles and fluids melt from my bones. Yet I’m still alive, waiting…
My four remaining senses magnified beyond any fabled horror. I want what was ripped from me.
“Ready or not, here I come.”