I’m running as fast as possible. My legs have gone numb, my feet feel like a distant part of me thudding against the ground, something I can no longer control. Fear and adrenaline are pumping through me, and dictating each movement inexorably.
I can hear their footsteps behind me. The clink of sheathes against chain-mail, a wooden bow slung across someone’s back, thudding against armor. Or can I? There is an empty cottage, lonesome and sprouting in the middle of the forest like a gigantic mushroom. I dash to its farthest wall and halt my fleeing. My blood is rushing like rapids in my ears, such that I cannot hear anything besides it.
It takes a few moments for me to sense that the noises I thought I heard are gone. I poke my head around the corner, and a droplet of sweat falls off my brow. I catch it in the palm of my hand: a palm that is covered in blood—blood that is not my own. Tatters are where the ends my black sleeves are supposed to be. My ebony leather breastplate is shining through a woolen garment that has a hole in it the size of my thumb. It came from an arrow meant to pierce my heart.
I can’t stop shaking.
I look at my hands. They are separate entities that never obey. It makes me infuriated just to see them. They, too, are trembling and no amount of digging my nails into my palms will stop it. Why can’t I subdue these wicked creatures?
I curse at myself, fling my arms and grasp my head tightly while I crouch and scream at the ground. My eyes are hot from angry tears, and before I can stop myself I am banging my head against the ground of the forest, trying to smash the memories to pieces.
Just as quick as it started, the tantrum ceases. There’s a stillness around me that I perceive to be peaceful at first, and then threatening. So I hold my breath, and listen. There is nothing but the rustling of the leaves blown by the wind. The sound is growing steadily. The leaves seem to be speaking. They are whispering, just loud enough to let me hear them. Something rustles behind me. I stand up, turn around, and stare at the air. There is only a vast expanse of trees.
I turn my attention to the door of the cottage, for the first time questioning if it is empty. Perhaps there is someone inside? Perhaps that person, too, is watching me. I stick my head into the window of the cottage and see darkness, the outline of an overturned bed, the wreckages of poor furniture, and an aura of solitude. The place is desolate.
“Am I going insane?” I ask myself as I take a deep breath, put my hands through my hair and exhale slowly as I slide down the door of the cottage, until I am sitting, staring at that expanse of the forest in front of me.
After a few breaths, I feel as if the cacophony in my mind has finally ceased. There is a calm, sharpness to my thoughts. Then I look at my bloodstained hands, feeling the burden of my conscience weigh down like a mountain upon my back, because I know this sanity cannot persist for long. “I am a madman,” I think sadly. “I killed that poor barkeep and hurt those that stood in my way. I’m a lucky scoundrel for having escaped the guards, and a demon for having made it alive beyond the city gates. But for now I am safe. Safe and sane ….” it takes a moment to realize that these words were uttered from my mouth, and left the safety of my head.
“But,” I think to myself, “a truly sane man would return to the city, and turn himself in, knowing the monster he is. A sane … and just man.”
“However,” I realize, “I am not the monster I was. How am I responsible for the actions that this monster committed?”
“No. I am not too different people for having two different states of mind. If that were true, we would all be thousands of different people, for having so many different moods and temperaments changing constantly.”
“Although, am I truly responsible for this? Can I be blamed for something done out of a dark side of myself that I can never control?”
“Is the question your threat to other people, or your innocence?”
“Don’t stray away from the path. I am not thinking about that right now.”
“Oh, aren’t you? You mean you’re not thinking about the thing that you’re certainly thinking about right now.”
“No. Quiet, dammit.”
“Cursing at me. Cursing at yourself, really … the fool you are.”
“Don’t insult me, fiend. You are worthless scum,” I say to the man sitting next to me.
“Worthless scum?” he scoffs, then spits. “You’re no better than me. You do exactly as I do.”
“That’s not true!” I exclaim, jumping to my feet. “I would never do those wicked things that you did back there! My mind doesn’t even have the ability to conjure it! My heart, old as it is, is pure.”
He shakes his head, then laughs to himself. “Idiot.” He doesn’t have the decency to get to his feet right away. He sits for awhile before standing. I can hardly stand looking at him. Then, he lifts his head and meets my eyes. “Then get rid of me,” is all he says.
“Get rid of you? Fine. Begone with you! I wish to see you no more,” I say to him as I make a motion with a hand as I would with a dog.
“It’s not so simple. You think mere words have any effect on me? Wouldn’t you have been able to subdue me back at the tavern if words kept me at bay?! No. Fool! I am much more than an idle thought to be swept with the rushes. I am a part of you.”
“A part of me?” I sound each word from the depths of the abhorrence he instills in me.
“The best part,” he grins wickedly.
My blood is boiling, bringing back the trembling in my hands. “Leave me be,” is all I can say without screaming.
“Get away from this place, leave me to myself!”
“Go. Go and don’t return!” I scream, inches from the face that is so similar to mine. Only the eyes are different. They are piercing and sharp enough to cut through a man with their viciousness.
“Words alone cannot scare me!” he shouts back, tugging at the hilt of my dagger hanging from my belt. I force his hand away and push him.
He doesn’t take a moment’s hesitation, and charges at me. I try to dodge him but he grasps me by the shoulders and throws me against the door of the cottage.
There’s an eruption of splinters as my body flies through the decayed wood.
“Weakling. You can hardly face me,” he says as he walks through the opening. A peg of wood from the door has impaled my arm, and fresh blood is already falling again. My eyes are brimming with tears—a mixture of hatred and self-loathing.
“Why can’t you just leave?!”
“That won’t do.” Suddenly, I see he’s holding a dagger, and he’s getting closer. Its blade is sharp and staring at me. Where he got it from, I do not know, only that it looks thirsty for my life.
“Go!” I shout once more. “Go, or I’ll … I’ll hurt you!”
“As if you could …” he gets closer.
“You devil, I will not resist myself any longer,” I growl at him. But he is looking down on me, and his dagger is pointed at my chest.
“I am not a devil! You are the parasite, here!” he says as he raises his dagger to bring it down upon my heart. I roll away from the strike, sweep his legs with a kick from my shin that sends his back slamming into the ground.
The dagger clatters across the room. There is a silence. It is only filled by the dripping of my blood on the stone floor, and our heavy pants. I unsheathe my blade. There is a murderous fire in my hand that quells the pain from the punctured arm. “I will endure your presence no more.” The words leave me, in a haze, as I swoop down and thrust the point of the blade into his side. Then his chest. A spattering of his blood falls on my face.
Why is the man silent? Where are his screams?
I go dizzy from the sensation of the blood. There is an immediate pain near my heart that almost brings me to my knees. Everything around me is feeling more and more like a dream, as if … as if I am going to wake up from this nightmare at any moment.
Somehow I am outside the cottage, stumbling, the pain in my chest growing. I don’t know where I placed the dagger. I thought it was in my hand, but now it isn’t. I look back into the dark room of the cottage, and see only the splintered door, a third of it hanging from the hinges, and the furniture inside scattered more than before … and the bloody dagger lay cold, alone on the floor.
The body has disappeared.
I look at my chest.
There are two wounds, one by my heart, and the other in my side. My arm is still bleeding. I jerk the peg of wood from my forearm. More crimson drips down.
With no willpower to carry myself any longer, I fall to my knees. My consciousness is like a candle flickering, and in its final struggle, there is a spark of clarity. As my head hits the dirt, I see pairs of ghostly feet dancing toward me, and the high-pitched giggle of something inhuman, something devilish, something that is utterly delighted with my bloody end.
There was no murdered barkeep, no vengeful guards chasing after me, and no hallucination that my nonexistent insanity never conjured. The blood on my hands, on my chest, on my arm … it’s all my own. I had merely taken a stroll here to fetch a pail of water …
I must’ve wandered into the Forest of Demented Sprites.