Meet the characters
“We should get back,” Charles seized him by the arm.
“There’s still a mile left till the Greywoods,” Lenny leaned over.
The Greywoods separated the city of Wilden from the outside communities of the South. Once known as "The Wilden Woods" by the first mayors, the forest had grown ratchet ever since the great flood swallowed the Sun Valley and everything else a mile south of it. Swamps grew as big as lakes, changing the very hue of the forest to grey.
“A mile left and ten on the way back. Best cut the bullshit before our legs dry out.” Charles's voice echoed in the fields.
He was a skinny boy of eighteen with the attention span of a fly.
Lenny stopped at once:
“Did the story frighten you already?”
“I am not the one chasing storms,” Charles chuckled.
“Perhaps its your courage that dried out,” Lenny widened his crooked smile.
The low muttering of an unspoken opinion hung from behind.
Bob's face seemed more pale than usual.
“My father told me to stay away from the Greywoods. He said there's dead dogs in the swamps and Satanists lurking at noon,” Bob jerked his head at the forming clouds. He was a head shorter than Lenny and twice as round as both of them.
Sweat poured down their faces. Even with the clouds, it had been the driest day of the month. The last rays of sun reflected off the hills, turning the landscape into a furnace.
Lenny had walked the walk for nineteen years, and it made his feet grow strong and rough on the inside. He was the only one among them who lived in the outskirts.
Somewhere across the valley, the pounding echo of drills rang with heavy beats. It was the long-anticipated day for the city of WIlden, and Mayor Williams had ordered all buses to change route and relocate for the upcoming festival.
“At the end of it, we might turn into outcasts as well. One with nature and proud to walk ten miles daily,” Charles pushed Bob on the elbow.
The fat boy grimaced to defend Lenny, but the words left him at once.
A cold breeze swept across the field, muting their chatter altogether. It grew in fury, filling up the air with leaves and dust, and the scent of distant rain and earth filled their lungs. Bob and Charles seemed rather surprised by the sudden shift of the weather.
“The cold means we’re getting closer,” Lenny glared at the darkening sky.
Lenny Miller had been the eldest son of a large farmer family with too many cousins. He had a long face with thick eyebrows, long-necked and a sharp nose. Lenny grew rather tall and skinny for a boy his age, calm-faced and green-eyed. His old black sneakers were rough on the edges, and the short ripped jeans couldn't shield him from the wind.
The wind blew stronger by the second as the group ascended the final trail leading to the forest.
“From the top, you’ll see it,” Lenny’s eyes pointed towards the top of the hill.
“This should become the driest prank in history,” Charles ducked to light up a cigarette.
''Hard to make the people you joke with believe you for once,'' Lenny thought, biting his lip to withhold himself. The other two most likely thought the same.
“Four hills passed, and still no good sight of it, eh?” Bob said, rather annoyed.
He hated the walk and walking in general.
But Lenny ignored him, and Bob knew he had to repeat the question.
“Four hills we passed, and still no…”
“Shut up,” Charles cut him off.
A daunt from the skies echoed in the valley.
“We’re close,” Lenny rushed forward.
Refreshed by the cold, the boys followed suit.
The world in front of them widened as they reached the top.
Although the hill was of no great height, the wind made it hard for them to keep their eyes open.
The once-blue skies of the East had turned into black shadows that loomed over the forest.
“What exactly did you see again?” Bob’s voice trembled.
“You will know soon enough. Right now, there’s a bigger problem,” Lenny gestured at them to bow down.
“We’ll stay low for the rest of the walk. There are trucks and dogs patrolling the area, government they say. They told us that they’re studying a chemical leak, bullshit I say. We need to get to the Old Mill, and from there we’ll sneak in through the thickets,”
“That's it?” Charles snapped and tossed the cigarette down the hill.
“You think the dogs will let us pass with this bulldozer right here?” He looked at Bob, who blinked in panic.
He was terrified of dogs ever since Mrs. Kendrith’s Pinscher had attacked him over an ice cream.
“There’s a green swamp right behind the Mill. The tall wild-corn makes it barely visible; that's from where we’ll enter,” Lenny said. He knew that even ten people could walk through it without being noticed.
“Is it really worth stepping in the swamp?” Bob couldn’t hold it any longer.
Charles rolled his eyes. “Yes, fatty, we go through it and you better not sink. ''
“He won’t be the one paving the way,” Lenny stepped between them.
Charles grimaced. “Why not? He weighs more than the two of us combined; who else should be the tank?”
“We don’t need a tank for this one,” Lenny tried to remain serious.
“I’ll be first. I know where the mud is safe,” he concluded.
“As you wish, princess,” Charles snapped.
“Don’t worry, you won’t sink.” Lenny laid his hand gently on Bob’s shoulder, who only nodded in response.
“If the Mill is the way, so be it. If we make it through, the fast food goes on me tonight,” Charles said, bumping his hand on the thick wallet in his leather pants. He was the group’s bank.
They all smiled at the proposal and zig-zagged their way downhill.
Bob, afraid as always, muttered something under his nose, eyes glued to Lenny.
“Are you scared of what you saw?” Bob finally asked.
“It’s the weirdest shit I’ve ever seen. But there’s always worse,” Lenny remained calm. It was enough of an answer to make Bob shiver.
“Others saw it too, right?” He looked at Lenny again.
“Aye, the growers were worried at first, but then the men in suits came with fancy titles and said a chemical leak had caused it, a big leak it must be, I’d say. They told us that it’s nothing dangerous and if anything happened to plants or animals, the government would pay double. I guess that’s why crazy old Lira started butchering her livestock,” Lenny let out a laughter.
“What if it’s a leak and we go right in it?” Charles suggested.
“Bro, if it was a leak, I’d be dead by now, right?” Lenny laughed again. Something in their worrisome faces made him more confident. “The blitz is all you need to fear. Lightning can strike people, buildings, trees; nothing’s safe, but the fire afterward is the worst.” Lenny looked at his arm.
“I couldn’t run away; the wind blew it right into me like a flamethrower.” He touched the deformed skin on his forearm. “I would have two empty eye sockets if it wasn’t for the oak bark I wore that night.”
The tale of the burned arm had earned him the respect of other boys his age. It was a famous story for its time, a tale no parent would want to relate to their child certainly. With the years, the story became less told until the nickname “Burned Arm” was the only thing people remembered.
The boys disliked looking at the scorched mark too long.
As they approached the Mill, wild corn and crops towered their view of the Greywoods but did not hide what stretched above it. And just as Lenny had promised, the sky here turned into a deep violet, with one large black cloud that seemed to remain still, defying the force of the wind that swept through the thickets. “Patrol’s here already. Keep your heads low.” He pointed at the silhouette of the parked truck deep inside the thickets.
One by one, they moved forward, each stepping cautiously into the murky waters.
Darkness deepened as they drew closer into the eye of the storm. Suddenly, open ground appeared, framed on the edges by grey trees. Lenny slowed his steps as he leaned on the back of one of the great sentinel trees. “What is it?” Bob asked, half-terrified. “We’re close, but not alone,” Lenny directed his finger toward the dark. A man-shaped figure lurked in the bushes that grew behind the sentinel. Suddenly, the ringing sound of a device cut through the silence, and at once more shadows appeared.
“Agents,” Charles whispered.
“Should we run back?” Bob was ready to jump in the water again.
“We'll lose them across the river,” Lenny pointed to the rocks on their right and slid quickly to the next tree, half crawling.
Legs deep in the chilly mountain stream, the trio found themselves on the other side of the forest.
Hard rain from the night before had filled the earth with puddles.
“Sooner or later, they’ll track us,” Bob pointed at their footsteps in the dirt.
“Make sure we are gone by then,” Lenny replied and carried on.
“I told you to head back,” Charles muttered.
“We can’t go back, only forward,” Lenny snapped. There was no time for this.
“I want to head back too,” Bob added.
Lenny's grimace turned deadly, and he leaned in, gripping both Bob and Charles by the shoulders, encircling their heads with his arms.
“If you go back, you have no idea what you’ll face. We don’t know who these men are, nor what they’re doing here. They can lock you up, cut you, or kill you, and no one will ever find out the truth of what happened. The only way out of this forest is forward.”
Charles escaped the grip. “You’re the scared boy—”
But before he could finish, Lenny met his face with a sharp slap. “Keep your voice down.”
Bob could see Charles leaning on the side where he had been struck. For a moment, he thought that Charles would pick up a rock or branch to hit back, but he didn’t.
“Go forward then.” Charles gritted his teeth with anger and moved.
After a prolonged period of silent walking, they came to a halt. Lenny's eyebrows shot up, covering his mouth with both hands.
His gaze was drawn to the sight ahead. The body of a deer lay scattered on dark moss, its chest twisted by two large bite marks. He couldn't imagine what creature could possess jaws capable of such damage.
“A bear?” Charles asked.
Lenny’s lips tightened.
He was aware that bears or wolves would have eaten their prey, so he chose to keep his thoughts on the matter to himself. “Don’t panic,” he reminded himself.
“A wolf, a bear, or the agents,” Lenny muttered and vanished into the thickets.
His head appeared again from the bush. “First, we need to get out, then we'll talk” and disappeared. Charles and Bob, silent as nuns, seemed to agree on the matter and followed through.
Shocked by their latest encounter, the two of them paced in silence behind Lenny. The dead deer, the wounds, the black forest, the agents, all weighed heavily on their minds.
After fighting to pave their way through a dense thicket, they found themselves in the open again.
The trees in this place were covered with yellow tape. The ground was filled with boxes and scattered equipment, while grand ancient oaks encircled the area in a ring. A large black log marked the center of this natural amphitheater.
“Is that it?” Bob whispered.
Lenny’s confidence left him at once. “Impossible,” he thought. The lights he had promised were gone. Hovering silently above them was a dark cloud, its ominous presence barely noticeable from the night sky.
“What exactly are we looking at?” Charles snapped.
Lenny’s eyes shot in all directions.
“It’s here... but there’s more,” he looked at the sky again.
“Enough proof of what I told you, a cloud that doesn’t move,” he added.
“Yeah, a cloud that I can’t even fucking see, man!” Charles’s anger grew.
“Was all this for nothing?” Bob’s voice tinged with disappointment.
Lenny’s eyes caught something unusual.
A series of pipes had been placed at a distance from one another, mirroring the exact position of the oaks, forming an even closer circle within the area. He noticed something blinking from below. A gadget of some sort was placed on the lower side of the stump. It had the shape of a plastic box with a series of numbers flickering in green on its half-shut display.
“We should get going,” Bob insisted.
Lenny was about to agree with him when it suddenly hit him.
He took out the flashlight from his backpack and pointed it at the stump.
“Are you mad?” Charles grabbed him by the arm.
“You tell me to shut up and then put on a light?!”
“You don’t understand! Do you see the logo?” Lenny illuminated the upper right side of the device. There was an emblem. A half-moon and three odd letters.
“A logo,” Bob whispered.
“NMF,” Lenny pointed at the letters. “National Moon Federation.”
“What of it?” Charles shrugged.
“A Photometer!” Bob added in hurry.
“Exactly! It’s used to study the moon, its intensity, or something. I’ve seen farmers use it to measure soil, water, and in some cases, weather.”
“They’re studying the moon,” Bob concluded.
“But why?” Lenny studied the other objects carefully.
“The cloud... the lightning...” his eyes shot up.
“The event... today... The blue moon!” Lenny’s voice echoed too loudly.
“What did your father tell you about the moon?” he seized Bob by the shoulders with both hands, but the boy couldn’t spit out a word. “Think,” Charles backed him up.
Bob bowed down at the stump.
“I don’t know. He only joked about the rain that...” his mouth spun wide open.
“The rain! He refused to go to the festival because every time after a full moon, there’s rain, even thunder!”
The three of them looked at each other nervously.
“The cloud, this place… It’s connected to the moon,”
Just then, an echo cut through the silence, and a flock of ravens filled up the sky. Multiple yellow lights popped in the dark.
“The agents are here,” Lenny whispered.
“Which way do we run guys?'' Charles shot up.
Suddenly everything turned bright.
An ever-widening hole tore up the cloud above them. A piercing thunder followed, and the glow of the blue moon shone through the cloud. The eye of the storm gazed at them with growing force. Nobody dared to move.
The hole was now a wide gap filled with strange plasma blurring the moon. Lightning around it intensified as the sound of thunder blasted through the silence. Nuggets of ice poured down their heads, filling the ground with little dots of white.
“Do.. you all see this?” Charles drew nearer to the center.
Lenny felt the words snag in his throat.
Eyes glued to the unravelling chaos, Charles approached the stump.
“Stop it, Charles!” Lenny called. “Get back. NOW!”
The very air electrified and a sharp strain cut through his lungs. Lenny rushed to grabbed him, but it was too late.
Lightning bolts pierced onto the earth with force, and in an instant, only silence followed.
No sound, no wind, nothing at all. Lenny's eyes flickered open to a suffocating darkness. His mouth felt paralyzed, his limbs severed. “Dead," the thought struck deep.
“My heart’s still beating. How?” A second later, the world opened up again. He soared above clouds and mountain landscapes. Then, with a jolting force, it sent him plummeting against the ground, bones screaming from the velocity.
Everything vanished again. White light penetrated his eyelids with a stark, straining glow. Lenny couldn’t see a thing, yet he felt the mud beneath his feet. A strange feeling began to grow from the inside. That was when Lenny realised he was somewhere entirely different.