Nate parked behind some trees on the side of a fire-road then just sat. Looking out at the forest, he scowled, wondering what he was doing there in the first place. The clues led him to that precise spot. There was a distinct fork in the road where he parked. He checked the map, just to make sure. But he knew already.
But what was out there? Taking a deep breath, Nate opened the door and put a foot out of the car. Nothing jumped out of the bushes to meet or attack him. “Hello?”
Shaking his head, he stood up and closed the door behind him. The sound of the closing door seemed deafening to him and he flinched. The forest was almost silent. He scanned the forest with his eyes, looking for any other hints, any other clues. But it all looked the same. A homogeneous stand of conifers with nothing standing out, pointing the way.
Sighing, Nate looked back in the car at the map. That’s as far as the clues led him. He began to wonder if it was all some sort of prank. But whoever set those clues knew of his abilities, his most closely kept secrets. That alone warranted further investigation. Nevertheless, he felt handled. Like he had no choice in the matter.
Nate pursed his lips and started walking into the woods. He figured he would walk a circle around his car to see if anything became apparent. As he pushed through the underbrush, he couldn’t help but get the impression that some of it seemed to cling to him. Annoyed, he pulled the underbrush away as it seemed to wrap around his legs.
Finally, he stumbled into a clearing as he peeled a broken branch from his leg. “This was a mistake.”
Nate spun around, then looked around again. “Who said that?”
“What was the mistake?” The voice seemed to come from the very leaves of the forest.
“Okay, this is weird.” Nate crouched down and peered at a bush. “Plants are talking to me?”
“What is weird? You can start fires with but a touch.” The voice was from behind him. Nate looked around at a pine sapling.
“Did I breathe something? Someone burning some mushrooms or something?” Nate stood up.
“That you made it this far is remarkable.”
“You know what I can do. How?”
“You are so alone.”
Nate shook his head as he held up a piece of the clinging branch. It puffed into a sputtering blaze. “Wrong. This doesn’t define me. I have family. Friends.”
A path in the underbrush seemed to open up. “And yet you are here. Who else do you know that is like you? You don’t have to be alone.”
“I don’t have to be creeped out either.” Nate fidgeted, looking around nervously.
“You want answers. I can help you find them.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard that before.” Nate looked back where his car was. “I’m sensing a trap. I think I’ll be leaving now.”
“After coming all this way?”
“I’m talking to plants.” Nate held his arms out. “I have a ficus back at my apartment for that.”
“There is a face behind these plants.”
Nate pursed his lips. “You are hiding from me.”
“Do you blame me? You’ve seen a little of what I’ve had to deal with.”
“Yeah, about that…”
“Come to me.”
Nate looked at the beckoning path. He had obsessed with this mystery to the point that his position as a JAG officer was in question. He rubbed his brows. “This is wrong. What am I doing? I have responsibilities.”
“You do. Far more than you realize.”
“No. This…I have a career.”
“You’re on paid administrative leave. How does that bode for your career?”
“You did this. Didn’t you? I was going somewhere.”
“You were suffocating. I can give you purpose. Direction.”
Nate scowled as he flexed his hands.
“There are others like you, Nate. They need you. I need you.”
“And I get to live in the forest picking mushrooms?”
“Is that so bad?”
Nate threw his hands in the air.
“Your position in the Navy would be useful to us.”
“Ah. So that’s it. You want me to be an asset.”
“There are others who need you, Nate. We can help you get to a position to truly be helpful to them.”
Nate looked at his car again. “I should just leave.”
“What if you’re discovered?”
“I won’t be.” Nate looked around at the forest. “I better not be. Or this twig isn’t all that’ll burn.”
“You’re not in full control.”
“I’ve got a handle on it.”
“You sleep on a stone slab.”
“Well…I’m still working on it.” Nate rubbed his brows. It would be nice to sleep on something softer than his bed of firebricks.
“You’re almost there, Nate. Please come to me.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m your friend. You need never fear me, Nate.”
Nate rubbed his brows. “That doesn’t answer my question…”
“I’m the Forest Spirit called Darkhorse. You need to be with me to truly comprehend who I am, Nate. Please…”
Nate sensed a pause. He was about to ask when he felt a low rumble in the forest.
“Nate. You’re not alone.”
He looked over his shoulder back at his car. A tall figure in a black cloak stood beside it, staring at him. He squinted. “That’s not possible…that’s my nightmare.”
“Nate, you need to run. I can protect you.”
Nate shook his head. “This is real life. Not a dream. Here, I am in control…”
The figure abruptly vanished and reappeared standing just a few feet away. Nate flinched and took a few steps back. “Who are you?”
“Where is she?” The figure pulled its hood back, revealing a stern-looking man with a brilliant, white complexion and long, white hair.
“You don’t exist. You’re impossible.”
The figure appeared again, inches from him. Before Nate could react, the man grabbed his throat and pulled him close. Nate winced, startled at how cold and hard the man’s hand was. The man furrowed his eyebrows as he stared intently at Nate. “I cannot see her. She is blocking me. You will take me to her now.”
Nate blinked. Suddenly the figure released him as roots shot out of the ground and wrapped him up in a tight cocoon. Nate dropped to the ground and stumbled a few steps back, his eyes wide as the roots tried to drag the figure down into the ground.
An explosion of wood and roots was all the additional motivation he needed as the figure clawed his way back out of the ground like some b-movie undead. Nate sprinted down the path as fast as he could, while branches and roots shot out of the soil and trees as he passed to block his pursuer. He grit his teeth as he realized once again his mind had been made up for him. He was not in control.