Julia surfaced as if from a dream into a world she didn’t recognise. Everything was hazy, covered in a film of darkness. She shifted her arms slightly but found herself unable to move. Her head was heavy, like a weight had been placed on her brow that was holding her down. It took several tries to lift it up a little as if she was pulling herself through sucking mud, but eventually she succeeded in flopping her head back enough to see her surroundings.
The space around her was dark, small spots of light throwing long harsh shadows up the walls – or were they walls? The world seemed to slide between a strange room and something more like a forest, the light shining between tree trunks and the floor covered in a carpet of vines and leaves. Everything had a green tint to it, simultaneously verdant and lush and also somehow sickly. She could see her arms were bound at her wrists by vines and roots, twisting around and sliding under her skin. There was no pain and she felt as if she should be panicking, but it was as if something was stopping her. Was it still a dream?
A creature walked out of the shadows in front of her. Its skin was dappled with green and brown bark, shifting to show cracks of light splitting from under the wood as it moved around the glade. It wore a crown of thorns and branches. Leaves trailed from its head and body, softly rustling on the floor as it extended unnaturally long fingers to pull at one of the trees. She felt her head loll back as she tried to open her mouth. Her head was unclear, everything humming and throbbing. Its eyes were inky black pools as it turned to face her.
“You’re stronger than I expected. It’s only been a few hours.”
Its voice was a cracking scratch, like wood splitting. She saw it pour something from the tree – sap? No, the liquid was too dark to just be sap and she could smell it from her seat. She struggled weakly against her bonds, roots tightening around her wrists and ankles.
“Do you need a larger dose? Or just more frequent ones?”
It moved towards her slowly, moving its hands so that she could see the liquid running between its fingers like tar – or congealed blood. Julia tried to open her mouth again, to demand to know what it was and to be set free. All she could do was make an unintelligible groan.
It stood over her, looking down dispassionately as it tilted her head to the side. Its thin finger extended, growing a long spindly tendril that slowly slid under the skin of her neck. She felt the dark liquid seep into her veins, spreading throughout her body with every beat of her heart.
Julia lost consciousness again.
She awoke to find somebody crouched in front of her. The roots had crept up her arms to the elbow, twisting into her veins and spreading tiny tendrils into her muscles. She lifted her head slightly, but she couldn’t raise it enough to see properly past her knees. A gentle hand helped her prop it up.
In the dim green light she could see a familiar figure. Her mother’s hands gently touched her cheeks, explored her face as if it was strange and alien. The expression on her mother’s face was curious and a little sad. She tried to slur a warning about the creature in the woods, but her mouth wasn’t moving properly and it came out a garbled mess. They looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, or possibly forever. Finally her mother’s expression changed to disappointment.
“Not good enough. It will have to be stronger still.”
She shook her head at Julia and then stood up and walked away. Julia tried to shout after her, to rise up from the chair but she couldn’t; her tongue was lead and her body was tied to the tree. Her head fell forwards again.
Her eyes opened slowly, half lidded. She could feel people around her, smell familiar scents. Everything was mixing together so that she couldn’t pick things out properly but she knew who it was. Her pack had found her.
The world around her was foggy. She could tell that there were multiple bodies, but they were moving too much for her to really be aware of more than one at a time. Familiar fingers brushed against her neck – Annie. They were cool and gentle, calming as always. Her family were here, they could save her, kill the creature and get her out of here. They would be able to stop this before it was too late.
She felt relief somewhere at the back of her mind and tried to move. Her body wouldn’t co-operate. She couldn’t move at all anymore. The vines had twisted all the way up her arms and legs, wrapping around her torso and pushing through the flesh of her stomach and into her chest. It was difficult to breathe.
She felt Annie’s hands lift her head up so that she could see forwards. Cal and Nahuel were crouching in front of her – or she was fairly sure it was them, the two figures were blurring together and their features were increasingly indistinct. She couldn’t even smile to let them know she was so glad they were here. Their hands rested on what remained of her wrists beneath the mass of twisted red roots where her skin had been.
Cal – or maybe Nahuel – began to casually scratch at one of her arms. Julia tried to frown, to show him that she wanted him to stop because it hurt. She couldn’t reach out through their thunderbird link, it was too difficult. He kept scratching, peeling and pulling at what remained of her skin as it stretched taut. Annie’s hands dug sharply into her neck, nails digging into the skin until sticky drops of blood slowly trickled down into her shoulders. She breathed raggedly as pain seared through her and her chest tightened. She wanted to scream.
Suddenly they were all ripping at her, tearing away her flesh until she could see the thick pulsing roots flowing under her muscles, filled with the dark liquid that the creature had poured into her.
It wasn’t real. It had to be a dream.
Jake gently brushed her hair out of her face. The vines crawled down her throat, into her ears and the gaps behind her eyes. They filled her lungs, pulsing slowly as the creature’s sticky liquid replaced her blood and thickened her every thought. She tried to blink, to communicate with her eyes that he had to get away, to flee before the creature came back and found him. She wanted to tell him that she loved him, but it was too late. He couldn’t save her anymore.
He smiled softly, running a hand across her cheek. The roots throbbed under her skin in response to his touch. He tilted his head to the side curiously as her mouth fell open, more roots spilling out and tumbling around her face and down her neck.
“I was worried for a moment there that I used too much before, but it doesn’t matter now.”
He stood up, looking down at her with the same dispassionate eyes that the creature had looked at her with. They slowly turned black as he ran his hands down her throat, claws growing and digging into the pulpy roots.
“I think that will do. Let’s get started, shall we?”
His hands gripped tighter and tighter, squeezing the last of the breath from her lungs.