On a cool autumn evening Derek went out into the woods to fetch his sister. Twelve year old Madison had entered Timber Forest earlier that afternoon, calling out that she was going to go play in the woods. Derek watched her enter the old forest and disappear into the thick tree line. Madison knew that forest like the back of her hand, and she also knew that she wasn’t supposed to be in there as the sun was going down. Now the sun was touching the top of the great trees, and Madison was nowhere in sight.
Figuring that she just must’ve lost track of time, Derek set out to find her. Looking into the forest brought back memories of when it held wonder for him. Like Madison now he had a great knowledge of the forest. He still knew where the tallest tree he had ever climbed was, a hole where a family of ground owls once lived, even the spot where he first camped out. However, it had been a long time. Derek was seventeen now; the old woods didn’t possess the magic it once did for him.
Right off the forest was a dense mixture of fir, spruce, birch and elm trees. The different species would cluster together but couldn’t help intermingling. The forest was a beautiful canvas of autumn colors. The ground was carpeted with fallen leaves, as winter was around the corner. The last few birds were making their way south, and squirrels and rabbits scurried through the foliage in search of food to store away. Life went on in Timber Forest as it always did.
Even through the carpet of leaves Derek could see and follow Madison’s paths. He called out for her, telling her that she had to come in. No reply came back. Derek kept yelling out for her, looking out for movement, too. At first, Derek hoped that she would’ve just had her Ipod in her ears and that’s why she wasn’t answering. As time went by and it got darker, he grew more and more scared.
He walked deeper down the path, having now turned his flashlight on, frantically calling out for Madison when a breeze whistled through the trees.
“Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek.” Derek froze. “Coooooooooooooooooommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeee tooooooooooooooooo meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.”
The voice was clearly a girl’s, but Derek didn’t recognize it. He ran further down the trail, yelling for the voice to answer him, but it never did. The trail ran along a dirt ridge, but it was too dark for Derek to notice it. He ended up running right off the ridge, tumbling head over heels twenty feet down. He lost hold of his flashlight and it bounced away. When he finally stopped, landing on his back, he was too disoriented to move or call out, so he just closed his eyes.
When Derek woke up again, it was fully dark. The full moon cast light through the trees as a cool breeze blew through their leaves. Derek tried shifting around but found some slightly heavy object on his stomach. He pulled his head up to see a cat sitting on him, staring at him with yellow eyes that glowed in the moonlight. It was kind of big for a house cat, but that might have been for the scruffy fur that covered the animal. When Derek started moving around, it started to purr, the first indication that it was alive, for it hadn’t moved a muscle the whole time since.
“What are you doing here?” Derek asked out loud.
The cat tilted its head, but kept its eyes locked on Derek’s. “Waiting for you to wake up.”
Derek froze and did a double take. Unbelievably, those words came from the cat. It was the deeper voice of an older man, but it definitely came from the cat.
Derek was sure he was still reeling from the fall. “I must’ve hit my head,” he said to himself.
“You didn’t hit your head,” the cat said. “And if you don’t get up soon your sister is going to die.”
Derek’s wits came back to him instantly, and he jumped up, letting the cat slide off him in the process. “Where’s Madison?” he asked the cat forcefully. “Please tell me where she is.”
“Ask me my name first,” the cat replied, sitting in the leaves. When Derek was thrown off by the request, it continued, “If you want to know how to save your sister, you’re going to have to play my game first. Ask me my name.”
“Fine,” Derek groaned. “What is your name?”
“So manners aren’t fully lost on humans,” the cat commented. “My name is Damien.”
Damien said and did nothing more, but watched Derek expectantly. He either didn’t understand or didn’t care that Derek only wanted his sister to be safe if what he said was true. Grudgingly, Derek politely asked, “Would you show me where my sister is?”
“Very good, now keep up,” Damien told him and walked off into the woods. Derek quickly retrieved his flashlight and followed. The cat took many twists and turns through the trees, but Derek was able to keep him in the beam of his flashlight. Along the way, he realized how insane this must be. He was following a talking cat in the middle of the woods. He silently agreed to himself that, if this was really happening, he wouldn’t tell anyone about this ever.
Damien’s path was completely nonsensical. He led Derek for half an hour through the woods, for sure going in circles at times. When they went through the same clearing at the bottom of the ridge for the third time, Derek had had it. “Wait,” he yelled, stopping dead still. Damien sat in the leaves, craned his head around and stared at Derek curiously. “Where are we going other than in circles?”
“Patience,” the cat told him. “I’m retracing my steps to where I saw them.”
“Who’s ‘them’?” Derek asked suspiciously.
“Your sister and the Witch,” Damien said nonchalantly. Then it started licking its paws.
Derek froze in disbelief once again. Then he just burst out laughing. “You can’t be serious.”
The cat just sat licking its paws. “Believe me or don’t; either way, it’s your sister.”
“But a witch?” Derek asked in disbelief. “There’s no such thing as magic!”
“Whatever you say,” Damien replied in his usual manner. “I guess you should just stop talking to me and go on to find your sister. If magic doesn’t exist, then I don’t exist, and you’re just losing your mind. There’s no use denying magic, or else your sister is already dead, and that witch is going to have herself a nice Madison steak.”
Derek couldn’t believe this, but Damien was right. It was crazy enough that there was a talking cat, so he might as well just go all the way. “I’m sorry,” he conceded. “Would you please show me where my sister is?”
Damien nodded curtly and darted back off into the woods with Derek right behind him. The path was much straighter this time, and soon they were approaching a new clearing, where there was clearly a fire flickering through the thick brush. Damien stopped just outside the field, turned to Derek, and said, “They’re in there.”
Derek nodded and peered through the brush to see a huge fire about six feet wide and two figures standing by it. Derek recognized one as his sister, Madison. She was just standing still, swaying back and forth with her head hanging forward. It was hard to tell if she was conscious, but she was standing firmly.
The other person was walking tight circles around her, whispering something to Madison as she did. She was Madison’s height, but her large tattered cloak hid the rest of her features. From what Derek could tell, she was filthy, or at least her clothes were. She had spent a long time in this forest for sure.
Derek had no idea what she was doing to Madison, but he wasn’t going to sit and watch. He burst through the brush, yelling “Get away from her!”
The witch calmly stopped her chanting and turned to face Derek. Her hood concealed her eyes, but Derek could clearly see that she was smiling. Madison didn’t react at all. “You must be Derek,” she said in a musical voice. “Dear Madison here has told me so much about you while we were playing.”
“Well, game’s over,” Derek replied. “If we don’t get back home soon, people will start looking for us.”
The witch started walking toward Derek, who was starting to get nervous. “And will they blame me if they find me? I’ve done nothing wrong. Madison is here of her own choice; she wanted to see some old magic, but I told her that we would have to wait until dark to do it, and she agreed to stay.”
The witch kept walking toward him, which was starting to creep Derek out. “Well, she can’t stay; we have to go.”
“She can’t leave,” the witch protested. “We’ve already started and can’t just stop in the middle of this process. This is delicate work that can’t wait.” Derek still couldn’t see her face, but something about her smile changed. “If you want to speed this up, there is something you can do to help.”
Derek wanted nothing more to do with this. He rushed past her and grabbed his sister. She went limp as soon as he laid his hands on her. The witch turned around and started screaming at him. She made no move toward them, but started chanting in a language Derek couldn’t identify. Derek picked up Madison and rushed out of the field into the night.
Derek ran through the trees with his sister in his arms, trying to get as much distance as he could from the witch. It was cumbersome, and he had difficulty pointing his flashlight steadily, but the point was to keep moving.
Derek stopped for a second to catch his breath, but took time to inspect his sister. Setting her down against a tree, he tried rousing her, but with no success. He shook her, flashed his light in her eyes, yelled right in her face, but she kept still. She was breathing and her heart was beating, but she was completely unresponsive.
“Deeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeeek,” came a voice on the wind. Derek froze as chills ran down his spine. “Yooooooooooouuuuuuuu caaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnn’t ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnn.”
Derek, officially terrified, scooped his sister back up and ran. He picked a direction and just ran, figuring sooner or later he would get out of the woods.
In his panic, however, Derek forgot about his flashlight, so he didn’t see the root he stumbled over, or the twenty-foot drop off that he then tumbled right into.
A few hours later the sun was starting to rise and shine through the trees. The witch stood at the edge of the cliff, statuesque and covered in the morning dew, looking down at the lifeless bodies of the two children, disappointed. If she had gotten there sooner, she might have saved them from such a painful death.
Behind her she heard a soft rustling in the damp, dead leaves. She turned to see the scruffy cat, Damien walk toward her, appearing to have a smile on his furry face. The cat walked up to her legs under her cloak and rubbed against her, purring affectionately.
“They didn’t survive,” the witch admitted with guilt.
“They weren’t going to one way or the other,” Damien pointed out.
“But we didn’t get what we wanted from them,” the witch replied.
“Others will come,” Damien reminded her. “More always come. It may be a while before we see more youthful faces, but they always return.”
“And next time I’ll do better,” the witch assured herself. “I promise I’ll do better next time, Damien.” The cat purred in response and continued to weave through her legs.
“It is a shame, however. I wanted to have some more fun with them,” Damien said. “But the spirits of the woods will have their fill of fresh souls. We did our job.”
The witch and the cat each felt a cold wind from behind them. “Brrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnng mmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeee mmmmmmmmmmmoooooooorrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeee.”
When the wind became silent, a dark smile formed on Damien’s face. His ears twitched to pick up the sound of children already wandering and playing in the woods. “Let the game begin again,” he said with an evil glint in his eye.