Our Wake, Our Mercy
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The Journal of the Walk, Thursday, April 10th

I had a rude awakening this morning.

A strong hand clasped my shoulder and shook me vigorously, and a deep voice – riddled with urgency – burrowed in my ears three words that would continue to haunt me for the rest of the day.

"Are you alive?"

In the near-darkness, it took a few instants for my eyes to drink in the face of the one who had woken me. He was tall, husky yet well-groomed, like a wild man who has been elevated to nobility or a noble man who has been dragged down into savagery. His amber eyes were like fallen leaves in Autumn, fiery but dry, with dark circles carved below his orbits by many sleepless nights.

"I– I'm alive, yes," I managed to mutter, though my dazed mind had not yet understood the weight of my answer. I tried getting up, but my left foot was caught in something gnarled and rugged, and I struggled to free myself. The man's pupils shot wide open, and he rushed forth, his mighty hands taking the thing that had begun to ensnare me and tearing it apart with zealous fury: it was a root – a black, sickly thing that twisted around itself in an unnatural, almost agonized fashion.

Then I realized that I was covered in thin roots, in soot-like spores and creeping rivets full of thorns. All around me, the trees had grown in a single night what should have taken them years, if not decades; their trunks were so thick and close together that they were like the bars of a giant's prison, and their canopies were so thick that virtually no sunlight could come through. What remained of my tent was besieged by vines, torn apart by the unyielding tide of strange nature gone wild.

"We must go," the man said while wiping his hands clean. "This place is almost overrun, and you don't want to be here when the vultures come."

"Vultures?" I picked up what few possessions I had and followed him towards the widest opening amidst the trees. Their roots formed a jagged maze that left but a few patches of black earth on which to tread, and I took care not to trip or get caught anew.

"They started nesting once the trees swallowed the sun and the stars," he answered without turning. "Big as a man, and thrice as strong. They're vicious, too – I once saw them pick a man clean to the bones in just a few hours. Hush now until we are out of these woods."

I heeded his warning, though I would have not dared to ask him more anyways, for the forest was now so thick that we almost had to slither between the trees. To name something was to invoke its presence, to give it power and substance – I knew that we'd be doomed if one of the creatures showed up, attracted by my unwitting summon. Thus we walked silently, knitting our fear into a muzzle, a taboo.

We walked for an hour, our heads turning violently whenever we heard any noise other than our labored breathing and the crunching of our steps on fallen leaves. Sometimes I felt like there was something stalking us, but shadows concealed all which stood beyond the encroaching woods, and I did not wish to stop and wait for something to gaze back at me.

Distracted as I was, I almost bumped into the man who had awakened me, who turned to me with one finger to his lips. His eyes were now full of dread, and my heart dropped to the bottom of my gut: there, half-embedded in treebark, her arms and legs twisted and entrapped by countless thorny vines, was a woman. Her eyes were shut; her lips looked dry and gaped like she had been frozen just as she started screaming; and most of her hair, skin and clothes were now fused to the tree against which she had lied down to rest. Perched on a branch right above her, three vultures stared at us with eyes unblinking.

Never had I seen a creature that looked so little like a bird. They had oily feathers, yes, and sharp beaks, but the things that the man had called "vultures" were anything but. They were grotesque parodies, vaguely humanoid, vaguely serpentine, gnarly and perfidious, unnatural. Whatever they actually were, the only thing they shared with real vultures seemed to be their taste for carrion: one of them descended from its perch – not gliding, not flying, but creeping down from it – and set its cruel beak upon the woman's flesh.

I drowned a horrified gasp and stumbled backwards; the man who had awoken me took out a hunting knife and raised his guard. The vulture turned towards us, its beak dripping blood, and uttered a single, cavernous word:


Then it went back to feeding, its partners joining in a few instants later. We sped away from that accursed place, the echoes of their feast ringing in our ears like distant screaming, our hearts beating with unabated horror.

At last, light came to us – the first rays of the morning sun. It appeared that I had been rescued in the darkness of early hours, right before the new day dawned with a fresh corpse added to the cursed forest.

The woods stopped abruptly at the edge of what had once been a town and was now but a cluster of ruinous houses, their windows boarded and their roofs rotten away by time and rain. What little people remained were huddled around bonfires or sat on the porch of the few habitable houses left. My host – my rescuer – beckoned me towards the fire's warmth and handed me a cup of coffee: only then did I realize just how cold I had been for all those hours.

With adrenaline quickly wearing off, I sat down and let my chest exhale the dread that had accumulated like a malignant mass below my diaphragm. My breath danced together with the coffee's homely vapors, and I drank to warm my blood and soul. Not one time did my gaze leave the forest, however, for I knew its eyes had not stopped gazing back at me.

"What happened here?" I asked to no one in particular; I might have just as well been questioning the woods themselves.

"It started with a girl," my rescuer answered. He sat next to me with his back turned to the forest, almost as if he did not wish to acknowledge the monstrous trees. "She went into the woods one morning, her eyes full of tears, looking for a place where she could cry undisturbed, a place where no one would witness the true depths of her sorrow. She never returned, so we went after her. What we found was a gnarled tree with no leaves, its branches twisted as if begging the heavens for mercy, its roots withered yet desperately holding on to the earth. Embedded on its grey bark, fused from head to toe, was the girl. Her eyes were open, yet unseeing; her mouth was agape, but no cry came from within. We tried to cut her free, to return her to the land of the living, but our axes did not harm the tree. We were powerless, and thus it was decided that she should be put out of her misery."

He paused and turned around so that his gaze met the forest.

"I was not there to witness it – the moment when they sliced her throat open so she would pass on – but I was told she spoke only once through the tide of blood, her single word clear like the sky before a storm. She said regret."

"So did the vulture," I recalled.

"They came when the woods had grown so thick that no sunlight could pierce through. After the girl died – after we killed her – many more ventured into the woods, never to return. Men, women, even children – entire families walked calmly into the forest. Some went in with tears streaming silently down their faces; others shuddered, rocked by uncontrollable sobs. It was guilt, they said, a call to contrition that burned their entrails and pulled them further into the cold, into the embrace of the woods. Regret."

"For the girl?"

"Sometimes," the man sighed. "Other times it was for sins long forgotten, for things only they knew in their hearts. Some tried resisting the urge, going as far as confessing their wrongdoings in the public square so we as a town – as a people – would absolve them. In time, however, they heeded the call. With every new soul who went into the forest, the trees grew thicker, mightier, darker. They began swallowing our town: our homes, our church, the town hall… all was taken by the woods, often in a single night – and the people were taken alongside them. We few survivors were forced to the edges of what had once been a thriving community, to eke out an existence in the wake of catastrophe. And then the vultures came."

"Why? What do they want?" I asked, remembering the things feeding on the woman, on the unfortunate soul who had gone into the forest to face the deadly atonement for secret guilt.

"No one knows; all they've ever said is regret," he muttered, "but I reckon all creatures of flesh and blood must eat to survive, to persist – even unnatural ones. We call them vultures because so far they've only preyed on the dead. Perhaps the stench of our slow passing is what brought them here, summoned to await our imminent death under the weight of our sins. Maybe that is why they say regret: they know the calling of the woods, the beckoning of a shattered people whose only escape is to return to the very soil. And perhaps once we're all gone – once we have all heeded the call of the forest – they will move on to the next town drowned in dust and sorrow."

"Why not leave?" I asked him. "Why stay here, awaiting your turn to join the woods?"

"We cannot leave. We are bound to this soil, to this sorrow, to these sins. We rescue those we can, those who unknowingly venture into the forest and fall prey to its perfidy and help them on their way out of this cursed place, out of this town whose name is now Regret. You can leave – and you should, before your heart echoes with the call of the forest."

He stood up and left me to my own devices, the sound of his steps growing faint until I heard them no more. I sat for a few moments more, and then I headed in the opposite direction, away from the forest of regret and sorrow, and into woods far kinder. My path, however, was impeded by a figure in black, a thing of countless feathers, vaguely humanoid, vaguely serpentine, and reeking of death. With glassy eyes it gazed at me and knew the question that nested in my heart: Why? Why come here? Why feast on the dead and dying, on the regrets of a hundred souls?

Mercy, the vulture answered, and it flew away on Stygian wings.


Art by Ghourlock - Buitre

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