by Thomas Castle
Copyright 2016 Thomas Castle
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Cover Design by Thomas Castle
Cover Art by Respawned Art
“The World Within The Woods”
All throughout human history, we have been warned against venturing too deep into the forest. For as long as we have lived near forests, we have been afraid of what lurks in the shadows of those ancient trees. We’ve huddled around campfires in the dead of night to tell each other stories about what happens out there amongst the creaking bark.
There is no doubt that, at some point in your life, you will have heard some of these stories. Those tales tell of little girls attacked by wolves and children lured in by candy houses and teenagers unable to survive a single night in a cabin, all within the deep dark forest. Even today, we hear stories of people getting lost in the woods and nearly starving to death before miraculously finding their way out – and those are only the lucky ones.
In almost every case, these stories are born of a very natural fear that has stalked us since the dawn of conscious thought: the fear of the unknown. For as long as we have wondered about the edges of our own existence, we have also been afraid of what lurks beyond. We naturally fear what we can’t see or what we don’t understand, and so we make up stories to fill in the parts of the forest we have no knowledge of.
But what if there really was something in the forest to be afraid of, other than wild animals and the potential for getting lost? What if there was a world deep within the trees where the bright and warm surroundings of nature became a dark and twisted shadow of themselves? And what if, once you found it, you were unable to find your way home and were doomed to remain there for the rest of your life?
It was the tales of just such a world that brought a witch by the name of Grace Morgan to the town of Wicker Creek, Inglenook. The town itself was far out of the way of the rest of Inglenook, located by a creek of the same name and surrounded by the verdant growths of Blackwood Forest. To most, it was nothing more than a few shops and a couple hundred people huddling together in the midst of nature – but to Grace Morgan, it was the chance to answer an age-old question that had long nagged at her mind.
Her life before coming here wasn’t really much to celebrate, as she had spent many years of it drifting from one cheap motel to another in search of the next mystery to solve. When she was in school, other children used to pick on her for things like collecting rocks and talking to spiders. As she grew, their taunts changed but never really stopped, and so she remained an outcast even into adulthood. What little family she had no longer wanted her, and she never stayed in one place long enough to find a new one.
Perhaps that was why she was so drawn to this town. No one else would even have thought twice about the stories its residents told, let alone paid them a visit to investigate the truth of the matter. But there had always been a deep yearning within Grace to discover what lurked in the shadows where others feared to tread. There was a reason she was the person so many people called when they wanted someone to check for monsters under their bed or inside their closet.
That said, it was not the town itself that was the mystery. The residents of the town, however, were more than willing to point Grace in the direction of the true mystery. They all told her the tales of locals who went missing in the forest during particularly long nights, often those who had gone out on a camping trip and simply never returned. No one seemed to personally know anyone who had gone missing, but the town was convinced enough of the stories that Grace believed there might actually be some truth to them.
Just a fragment of possible truth was enough to convince Grace to pursue this investigation. She wasn’t the type of person who would pass off strange noises around the house as being just the wind or squirrels in the walls. Instead, she was the type of person who stayed up all night, searching the house for the real cause of those noises. Being a witch, she was also the type of person who would be able to tackle whatever monster or creature she revealed as the culprit.
In this case, she was the type of person who would make the journey into the woods to determine for herself where this whole local legend came from. If she happened to find some of the supposedly missing people along the way, then she would be perfectly capable of bringing them home – or, at the very least, discover once and for all what had happened to them in Blackwood Forest.
So it was that Grace Morgan set off into the woods on the back of her flying cane, which she’d cast a levitation spell upon. For the first several hours, Grace and her flying cane meandered around the woods more or less at random, hoping that getting herself lost would allow her to find the darker parts of the forest. After all, one major aspect of the tales she was told was that no one who ventured into the woods knowing where its secrets were hidden ever actually found those secrets.
As the day wore on into night and the moon eased into the sky above, Grace had lost all sense of where she was or how she might be able to return to Wicker Creek. Her plan had worked so far; her flying cane had taken her so deep into the woods that it was easy to forget there was civilization in this valley at all. There was a kind of peaceful isolation here, one that made her wonder why she hadn’t just taken up residence in the forest long ago.
Her mind drifted in those thoughts until a sense of wrongness brought her back to the journey at hand. Everything around her now had a musky and earthy smell, like a pile of wet grass clippings left in the sun all day. The trees had gone from thick and healthy trunks with leaves full of life to twisted and crooked things that clawed their way up from the black dirt below. An eerie mist now took the place of clear air, rolling off what seemed like thick and dirty rivers to surround the witch and her cane.
This was a part of the forest not documented or even mentioned in any Inglish textbooks, and was thus unfamiliar to Grace. A lesser person would be reluctant to venture much further into this place, but at this point, Grace had no choice. It was now just this strange world shrouded in unnatural darkness in every direction Grace looked. But she was neither scared nor hesitant about this. Instead, she merely smiled to herself about having found the world within the woods and press further in the hopes of discovering its secrets.
On and on Grace Morgan flew on her cane until the first views of the world that would become her home became apparent through the fog. As she approached, Grace’s smile widened with a kind of dreadful glee she had only felt a few times before in her life. This was even more exciting than when she had been given her first knife for Almsgiving!
In the distance up ahead, the revolving beam of a lighthouse illuminated the shadow of buildings, their silhouettes betraying nothing about whatever dwelled within them. A foghorn called out across the mists – no doubt a part of the lighthouse’s duties, yet Grace felt as though it was beckoning her into this world. Even the crickets that chirped all around her seemed as though they were applauding her in some small way.
At last, Grace flew through a covered bridge over a river, and shortly thereafter came upon some kind of town. A grand majority of the town’s buildings were constructed of stone and brick, and the streets below Grace were exclusively cobblestone. A number of clunky, antique vehicles all shining with brass littered the way in between those cluttered buildings. Each building cast a shadow so dark as to seem painted on the ground, and the ever-present mist lumbered through the streets like some kind of living being huddling close to the cobblestone in its death throes.
Only a few people were out tonight, many of them travelling by foot. Those Grace saw were dressed in an old-fashioned way that would be little more than a costume back in Inglenook. Almost everyone she glanced at stared at her as she passed by and, whenever she returned someone’s look, they quickly looked away and shuffled back to their business. Grace found this to be deeply unsettling – was it just because she was an outsider, someone they had never seen before, or was there something else behind their gazes?
Whatever the reason, pondering their motivations was not Grace’s top priority at the moment. This town was far more than she was expecting to find, like searching spiderwebs for a simple house spider and finding a black widow instead. There was so much to see and explore that Grace had no idea where to begin. It was almost too convenient for her, then, when she heard the echoes of screams and bestial growling from down one of the alleyways she passed by.
Grace altered her direction quickly, heading down that same alley to investigate the noises. The alley led to a courtyard between buildings, where she found a young boy with sandy brown hair and a set of scratches already on his cheek. He was backing away from a bestial, dog-like creature whose fur was not affected by the lamp post nearby and, in fact, seemed somehow darker than the black clothes that covered Grace’s body.
Seeking to strike before the creature noticed her, Grace reached for the holster attached to her belt and drew out a slender rod of dark brown wood, a spiderweb pattern carved along most of its length. She aimed her wand right at the creature’s back and focused some of her soul’s natural energy through it, uttering as she did so, “Somniferus!”
The spell shot out and hit its mark square on the creature’s matted fur, and for a moment it seemed to work. The creature lurched and stumbled on the very edge of sleep, and Grace raised her wand to get ready – but it just barely managed to shake off her spell’s effects. With a great shaking of its head, it turned its face to her, its eyes reflecting the nearby lamplight in what seemed like a glowing red. It unleashed a growl that threatened to vibrate the very cobblestones it stood upon.
Grace stared right back into its eyes, her own full of righteous anger. “Unhand that child, foul beast!” she shouted with her hand still aiming straight at it. When it showed no signs of backing down, Grace opened her mouth to cast her second spell—
—and the creature lunged at her, its heavy paws swiping her clean off her hovering cane.
Grace and the cane were both sent straight for the ground, one ending up more hurt than the other. Her wand was sent clattering away, leaving her almost but not quite defenseless. With a groan, she recovered herself and leaped away from another lunge, her own body stretching to retrieve her wand.
The creature glared at her over its shoulder, but was not fast enough to prevent her next spell.
“Jaculum!” Grace shouted, her voice ringing out around the courtyard.
The flinging spell sped out from her wand, fueled by Grace’s panic and anger. It flung the creature back away from both Grace and the boy, leaving it huddled against the cobblestone. Though it wasn’t a deadly spell and Grace hadn’t had given it much preparation, it was still quick and gave her time to ready her next spell while the creature recovered.
She was already aiming her wand when the creature came at her again with a great leap. A wave of pain flowed through her body as she was knocked flat back against the cobblestones. With its terrible teeth mere inches from her face, the beast’s growling filled her ears and drowned out all other sounds.
Grace’s hand against its neck was all she could do to prevent her face from being eaten off by this thing. Fortunately, her other hand was free to point her wand at its stomach. Though she couldn’t hear her own words, she uttered out the flinging spell again and the creature was flung back and away from her once more.
This time, while the creature was recovering, Grace reached into her drawstring bag and pulled out a coil of rope that had served her well many times before. With an aim of her wand and the utterance of a levitation spell, she could control the rope’s very movements – and, keeping the spell going with her own protective rage, she shot the rope through the air. The rope wrapped tightly around the creature’s legs, tripping it over again and keeping it from getting back up.
Grace approached the creature, now huddled at her feet and struggling to break free. They stared back at each other, either more furious than the other, as Grace held up her wand at the creature’s head. Focusing all of her wrath through her wand, Grace shouted out one final spell – “Severus!” – that shot toward the creature’s head like a bullet, delivering a brutal killing blow.
Its head caved in with a splatter of crimson across the cobblestones.
As the beast went still with a shocked and dying squeal, Grace took a deep breath and attempted to ground herself, allowing the anger to leave her body before glancing to the boy she had just saved. Stepping around the bloodied remnants of the creature’s cranial cavity, Grace approached the boy with the calmness of approaching a lost and scared animal.
The shock of his attack seemed to be wearing off. Even though she had just saved him, his fearful face was directed at her now. With every step Grace took toward him, he inched a little closer toward the alleyway out of the courtyard – until he was far enough that he could turn and run off into the fog.
Now alone in the courtyard, Grace turned back to the corpse of the monster and stared down at it. It was an unusual beast for sure, bigger and meaner than any dog she had seen – which was saying something, considering all dogs were like that in her eyes. But regardless of what it was, it had attacked that young boy, and so Grace considered her final judgement to be a righteous fate for the creature that now laid dead at her feet.
As Grace bent to retrieve her cane and untie her rope from around the beast’s legs, she began to realize how hungry all of this had made her. Going on a search for what kind of restaurants a town like this might have would be her next priority. She mounted her cane once again and set off into the fog, evading a gathering crowd and leaving the monster far behind her.
It didn’t take Grace too long to find somewhere to eat. It came in the form of a pub on the corner of a nearby intersection. Above the door hung an old carved sign with the words ᴄʀʏɪɴɢ ᴡᴏʟғ around a depiction of same. Grace hopped off her cane and let the spell fade so she could use it to support herself instead.
The pub itself was almost as empty as the streets outside, with most patrons drinking silently around dark tables. A majority of them seemed to have a desire for isolation, yet almost all of them looked up at Grace when she came in. Even the group of young people standing by a wall Grace had trouble looking at directly watched her move through the pub toward the bar itself. As she took a seat on an empty stool and leaned her cane against the bar, they all went back to their drinks and quiet chatter and whatever they were doing with that wall.
After only a few moments, the apparent barkeeper approached Grace and spoke to her. “Welcome, stranger. What’ll you have?”
“Greetings,” Grace replied, inclining her head. “I would like a meal and some information.”
“Well, there’s the menu,” the barkeeper said with a gesture to the folded menu beside her.
Even just glancing over the menu made Grace’s stomach nearly turn as she searched for anything with green instead of grease. Many of the offered items didn’t even seem like real food to her, what with all the rotten dishes and fried insects listed. The listing for fried spiders in particular made her cringe, the very idea deeply upsetting to her. At least there was a rice dish available that didn’t sound completely off-putting.
“The rice salad,” Grace said. “And a glass of red wine.”
“Be just a moment,” the barkeeper said, before heading off to fetch her meal.
Grace turned her gaze on the pub as she waited. The patrons were largely an uninteresting sight, but whatever those kids were doing with the wall drew her attention. It seemed as though one of them kept throwing themselves against the wall while the others reacted with some kind of disappointment. She still had trouble looking directly at the wall and wasn’t sure why, but could look at the youths with no problem.
Upon returning with her order, the barkeeper noticed her staring. “Got a problem?”
“Not as such.” Grace turned back to the bar. “But pray tell, what is their intent with that wall?”
“You really are a stranger, aren’t you?” the barkeeper said. “There’s something not right with that wall, there is. No one knows what it is, but if you go at it a certain way, you’ll get yourself stuck in it. Some among us have made a game of it.” The sentence was punctuated with a pointed glare at the youths.
Grace nodded, attempting to understand the concept. “Such a game does not seem safe to play.”
“It’s safe for people who know how to play.” The barkeeper shrugged. “More or less.”
“How intriguing,” Grace asked.
The barkeeper gave her a suspicious look. “Just where are you from, anyhow? You’re certainly not from around here.”
Grace raised her eyebrow at him and took a sip of her wine. “No, I am not from ‘around here’. I am merely a traveler attempting to determine the truth behind some local legends.”
“So you’re from beyond the Veil,” the barkeeper said. “Well listen, I don’t know how you found this place and it’s really none of my business, but I have to warn you. This town and the people who live here have a way of devouring those who don’t belong. You’re in the lion’s den here. Get out while you still can.”
Grace merely stared back, his warning coming as no surprise to her. “I appreciate the warning, but I am fully capable of removing myself from whatever danger I might encounter during my stay here.”
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When a witch by the name of Grace Morgan investigates local legends about what really lurks in the forests of Inglenook Valley, she gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon the secret town of Grimstead - a place where nothing is quite right, superstitions come true, and nightmares and monsters prowl the streets looking for a midnight snack. During Grace's first few nights in this strange place, the recent winner of a beauty pageant goes missing, leading Grace to discover a string of similar incidents. But in order to uncover the secret of the vampires who took her, she must team up with a mysterious gravedigger by the name of Gallo Belgrave, who can't seem to stop talking about the people he's buried and the horror films he loves. Will this strange town be the end of the road for Grace Morgan? Or will it be the beginning of a whole new life for her? And will she find out the dark secret behind that spooky crumbling castle overlooking Grimstead? Read the first installment of Solemn Graces today!