He dreamt of the wolves that night. He dreamt they came into the camp, padding softly through the shadows, their teeth pulling gently at his fingers and toes and their noses pushing at his face to rouse him from his sleeping place.
When Maximilian stood in this dream, they ran joyfully about him. Like the wind they moved– a warm wind from the east. That movement, that sound, that feeling was oddly familiar.
“Hello,” he said to the biggest and greyest of the wolves, holding his hand out in greeting.
The creature responded, bounding over with an energy that defied its age, only to knock him to the ground. The wolf placed his front paws on his chest, casting sharp silver eyes upon the young man before gently grabbing the silver chain around his neck.
The wolf did not let go, tugging until Maximilian had risen to one knee. When he finally stood, the creature let go. It sat on its back haunches and yawned, showing off its impressive teeth.
He smiled in return, before the play began again in earnest with the other wolves. They played until the wolves were satisfied and tired out, lying down in a circle around him.
In this dream, Maximilian sat down and then closed his eyes.
* * *
He woke the next morning, and the wolves in his dream and the ones in reality were both gone.
Throughout the day, he pondered the coincidence, quietly walking through the rapidly darkening forest. They walked with lamps, as the sun could no longer peek through the dense forest canopy. They walked for hours.
“A bit strange isn’t it?” Delmari mused to a very silent group around one of the campfires that evening. “One would think we should have some small game to catch and eat, but we have seen nothing. It’s as if all creatures have left the area.”
“Maybe they all went to the Lake,” joked his brother Delmarin.
Eldnar spoke up. “It seems unlikely. Even if the Swan Queen comes to Mirror Lake, that ecosystem can’t support every single creature between here and that point. And there would be some evidence they had been here.”
Maximilian worried aloud, “Perhaps it’s my presence that is bothering them. They’re not used to humans in these parts–”
“Nonsense,” Delmari interjected. “There may not be a lot of your type out here, but it makes no difference to them whether an interloper is elf or human.”
“If it’s not us they’re afraid of – then what? Dragons?”
Toryn shook his head at Delmarin’s question. “It’s not dragon land here. We’ve scouted this area last month and know that to be the truth. Besides which, none of the timber in these parts has been disturbed in such a manner to suggest that a large creature like that has been here.”
“Unthings,” Delmarin suddenly blurted out. “What about those?”
Delmari reached over and punched him on the arm. “Fairy tales,” he spat. “No one has ever seen those either. “
“That doesn’t mean they can’t exist,” his brother scowled. “Plus the shaman said they do. They just don’t like the area we live at, that’s all.”
The men fell into an uneasy chatter. The stories that had passed between the elder and younger rangers was that once one had you (or you had the misfortune to step into one), you had only the briefest of moments to escape. Unthings were a hideous glue that would slowly swallow its prey alive. And then, the elves whispered, the Unthings rendered the caught person or creature nonexistent.
Toryn stood up, silencing the rangers. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Although we have not yet seen much evidence of them, we are in a much denser part of the wood, where light does not always reach the forest floor. There are enough dark places for them to survive here.”
Maximilian had come across a few references to these things in one of his grandfather’s books. The silly minstrel elves had plenty of poems in which they described these creatures. Unlike the bogeys or devils that sometimes showed up in their longer bardic tales, the Unthings were shadow beings that ate good and bad, and seemingly did not care much for rank or lineage. It was almost humorous to the extent that some epic tale would be interrupted by the untimely demise of its hero thanks to a shadowy Unthing lurking in some poorly lit pathway.
“But surely they couldn’t account for this complete lack of wildlife? There would have to be quite a few –?”
“They do not usually amass together, true. However—“ Toryn set his mouth into a grim line. “Be cautious. Dark things found here do not like fire or light. Use both well.”
As advised, they began their morning carrying torches and weapons in hand. They were entering lands that only one or two had passed through before. It was obvious why – for the forest no longer was grey, but an unsettling deep black. The air was stagnant, as the wind would not pass through the dense line of trees.
Their morning passed without incident, but the sound of a sharp, toneless whistle interrupted their midday meal. Alerted by the scout, man and elves stood from their meals, straining their eyes towards something quivering several dozen yards away from their camp periphery. A shapeless mass moved clumsily, detectable only by the leaf-less wake it left behind it. It moved soundlessly, but to Maximilian’s keen ears, he could perceive the slight sound of air being vacuumed around it.
The elves reached for their lamps and arrows, but their troupe leader held up an arm and shook his head. He simply held his lantern aloft and waited, as did the others for a tense half an hour.
In that period, not once did it appear interested in approaching them, in spite of the attractions of the food they had been enjoying up until a few minutes prior. Rather it zig-zagged about, sucking up leaves and twigs, before it suddenly stopped.
They held their breath then, wondering what the incomprehensible being might be doing next.
And then it stretched long and tall, straining and quivering for a few minutes before it suddenly collapsed on itself and disappeared.
Maximilian frowned, ignoring the murmurs of relief.
Delmari spoke as he drew alongside Toryn, who was still staring thoughtfully at the place where the thing had once been. “Do they appear as easily as they disappear? And in that same manner?”
The older man paused, considering the question. “I hope not, or we will certainly not be able to ever walk about this area again with much confidence.” He saw the fear on the younger man’s face and continued. “Once we hit the river, however, we should be rid of these. The trees will thin out closer to the waterline and the light of both moons and the sun will keep them at bay.”
The elves broke camp quickly, spurred on to make it to the river before nightfall. They did not wish to be caught in this part of the forest later.
In their journeying, the elves did not see anything like that creature again during the next few hours. As the trees thinned, they spotted water in the distance. The men began to break formation in order to head for an outcropping of rocks to set up camp.
“Water looks pretty good from here,” Delmarin patted Maximilian on the back. “So does the sky,” he grinned as he pointed to the cloudy sky. “Pretty stuff isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Maximilian said absently as he watched Ridnar and Eldnar move further down towards the water. He had thought to join them this evening, if only to engage the more knowledgeable Eldnar on the topic of the shadow creatures. However, he was distracted by the sudden feeling of heaviness around his neck and immediately set his bag down near the fire that Delmari was fixing. As he watched his fellow rangers move eagerly to the water to refill their canteens, he rubbed his neck absently while frowning at the picture of beauty the sky and the water made.
The water reflected the sky with an unusual clarity. A wind came off the water, but the surface shone with nary a ripple.
A sudden thought came to him. “Hey,” he called out after the men. He grabbed a lamp from the hands of Delmari, and started to walk after several of them. The twins, startled by the sight of their friend completely unglued, started to follow.
“Stay back,” Maximilian shoved Delmarin aside before sprinting off towards the darkness. Too late, he called ahead to the men near the water with the same warning. “Stay back! Don’t touch it!”
His necklace was heavier still and now burned against his skin. Maximilian moved, like the wolves in his dreams, towards the direction he had seen Eldnar and Ridnar pass, cursing his slowness. He had realized, too late, that the quiet pools reflecting stars from a cloudy sky were not made of water, but a thousand Unthings.
And now near them came the sound of screams.