This is an excerpt of a current novel in progress.
The stone path cut through a land covered in dried leaves and browned pine needles as far as he could see. Trees traversed the land, inching along on roots that crawled through the soil and occasionally lifted just barely above ground, branches making gestures as if they were arms. Oaks and maples, hickories and firs, a land replete with all the trees that Aaron could imagine, and they walked. It could be a scene from a Tolkien tale, but for one thing:
The humans frozen in place along the path.
One young man was in the prime of life, locked into a running stride, his mouth partially open, muscles tensed and contracted, but never moving. Farther on, another man stood, head tilted down, body-length gray hair pooled at the ground around him, his face a cavernous, collapsing mass of skin and bone. An old woman eternally reached over to pick something up off the ground, her tight curls of white hair extending in all directions, nearly obscuring the fact that what she was reaching for was her decayed and detached arm. Another man had fallen to the ground when his legs deteriorated past the point of supporting his weight and cracked in half at the shins, separating his feet from his body. A poor woman kneeled beside him for eternity, her final motion being her effort to reach out and aid him.
All were immobilized, with one exception: The movement of their eyes.
In those eyes, Aaron saw the horror of being locked in place for eternity. Some had numbed. Others screamed in silence. Terror and acceptance mixed.
“Stay on the path,” Catherine warned.
The party walked single file. White Wolf stuck to her human form, clinging to Kurst’s arm as they walked, unwilling to trust her wolf instincts in this place. It was all too clear what happened to those who left the path designated for visitors.
“Is there anything we can do to help them?” Aaron fought the temptation to reach out, to stop what he saw.
“No,” Catherine said. “All who leave the paths are lost. Death would be mercy, but even that you must bring them from a distance.”
“Guns,” Kurst said.
Catherine shook her head. “The trees don’t like guns. Or anything to do with fire. Someone tried that once. It was very—” She shuddered. “—bad.”
“Arrows?” Kurst offered.
“Made of wood. Trees don’t like that either.”
Ahead, two trees stood, apparently engaged in conversation, beside a young woman. One tree leaned and rested a branch on her head. The other reached out a branch, wrapped some leaves around the woman’s hand, cracked off her left little finger and twirled it like a leaf, revealing a footlong fingernail that spun like streamer. The woman’s eyes followed it all, a green sea roiled by a storm of pain and terror, darting between the trees and Aaron, pleading and screaming. He felt an anger rising within him, an indignant response to his powerlessness to do anything, lest he face the same fate.
Aaron felt Isobel’s hand on his shoulder. Only then did he realize he had stopped at the very edge of the path, transfixed by the young woman in her torment.
“Don’t look at them,” Isobel said, her voice soft but weighted with empathy. “You can’t fix everything. Focus on what we can change.”
The rest of their group had moved well ahead as Aaron tarried beside the frozen woman.
“I’m sorry,” he said.