A Bloody Beginning

Tales from the Outlander Express

- October 2022 Popular Pick

Horse and rider ripped up sand, half in flight for most of their burning stride. The horse grunted viciously, unwilling to stop, as if he knew how important their arrival was to the people of Willow Rock. Jake could hear the saddle bags full of letters and small packages slapping against the bay’s haunches, reminding him of his responsibility. Reminding him of his own parcel he’d been waiting ten years and counting for.

They’d been on the trail for three days and after each break they’d both been eager to make up for lost time. When Jake took this job, he thought it sounded like they were looking for him specifically. Young, skinny fellows, not over eighteen, excellent riders willing to risk death, he smiled remembering the qualifications.

Orphans preferred.

He was seventeen, tearing up a trail through the desert on his first delivery, on his own. Seventeen was too old to dwell on feelings of loss from ages ago. He had a job, he was his own man, and he wouldn’t be letting any other children wait in their house full of sickness for a doctor’s medicine that would never come.

Jackal gave a wheezing snort and Jake mercifully slowed him to a trot. He was panting, but grateful for the intense run. A horse like him wasn’t meant to sit in a stable, digging his hooves in the city, but it made him hungry for the ride. Jake could see the town on the horizon. He pulled his dusty, blue kerchief down off his face and gave Jackal a pat, telling him the news as he leaned forward. The horse snorted like he didn’t care for civilization of any kind.

Suddenly, as if lightning struck right in front of them, Jackal jolted up on two legs and then slammed his hooves back down, shuffling backward on the trail. The shift in momentum threw Jake forward and he clutched the horse both to keep from falling and to gather his thoughts. Before he could ask what it was, half expecting Jackal to answer, he caught sight of an enormous, white hill off in the distance. It wasn’t far enough away to escape Jackal’s notice, but it wasn’t close enough to make out what it was.

“Just a rock, Jackal,” said Jake, patting him firmly, squinting his eyes at it. “Just a big ol’ white rock.”

The horse hurried along the trail, not willing to linger another moment. Jake didn’t fight him, he wasn’t keen on being thrown this close to town. Rest and witnesses so near.

The saloon was quiet, but not empty. Hungover, exhausted, or homesick, almost no one shared words or glances. The barkeep felt it too, lazily cleaning the counter space without any sign of urgency. His eyes were half open when his regular patron pushed the doors open with a tilt of his head, straddled the stool, and threw his elbows onto the bar between them while he hastily broke the silence and the mood.

“Did you feel that quake this morning, Virgil?”

“I did, it weren’t too big though.”

“Any quake’s too big,” said the young man leaning against the bar.

“Roger, it is too early in the mornin’ for your complainin’,” said Virgil, pouring whiskey into a shot glass and slid it forward.

“And it’s too early in the mornin’ for a drink,” said Roger, gritting his teeth after shooting it back.

A man in a tattered, old hat with a bent brim poked his head into the quietly stirring bar, waving a hand at the bartender for his attention.

“Hey Virgil, Pony Express kid’s here,” he said, not expecting most of the bleary-eyed patrons to get up and herd passed him.

“Looks like everyone’s eager for a kind word from afar this mornin’.”

“Not me,” said the man at the door, “I got everything I need right here.”

“Well now, Red, ain’t that wholesome,” said Roger, shaking his head.

The crowd pushed into the small, cluttered post office, surprising the young Express rider. He cracked a smile, but continued sorting out his delivery with the boisterous man who worked the local post office. Everyone greeting him called him Art. Laughing with an effortless boom, Art welcomed everyone in and didn’t bother asking them to form any sort of line.

“I been doing this almost a year now,” said the grinning man. “They ain’t thieves, but they ain’t patient. Best to just let ‘em do what they’ll do.”

Jake smiled nervously, eyeing the large, restless crowd anxiously watching them carry out what he thought was a mundane task. Someone spotted their delivery and snatched it up, checking the name on it before disappearing out the door. That happened a few more unexpected times, but even when the wrong package was scooped up, the right person took it out the door.

Once the sorting was done, Art shooed him out, insisting he get rest and feed that horse before he even thought about heading off. Jake agreed, not needing to hear the offer more than once. He stepped outside and noticed that his previously droopy-eyed, nodding horse perked up and swayed excitedly in place at the sight of Jake coming outside.

“Not yet, boy, just time to eat,” Jake chuckled, lazily raising his hand.

“Must not’ve rode as hard as I hear, you got a horse that eager to get on again,” said a young lady, loitering under the adjacent general store awning. Her arms were crossed and she wore an irritated look, as if that’s the way her face naturally settled.

“Some animals, an’ people for that matter, got an itch to keep moving that moving don’t seem to scratch.”

“Aren’t you a bit young to be spoutin’ wisdoms?”

“You ain’t a rattler, are ya?” he asked, squinting and dramatically fanning himself.

She laughed despite her best efforts and glared unconvincingly at him. “You know, I think I am a mirage. Now, stop wastin’ time talkin’ at the air.”

Jake tilted his dark brown hat as she shooed him away, sliding the wide brim down with one finger. The rest of him was too tired for much more. Taking Jackal by the reigns, he led him to the livery for some quick feed and to see if they’d take him for a single night. They’d probably gouge him for the trouble, but he was getting paid twenty-five dollars a week. With that wage, he’d shrug off a little bamboozling for the convenience.

He wasn’t ten steps away when the high-pitched draw of a breath startled his horse. Echoes of it rang out between sobbing as the young lady buried her face in her father’s arms. The letter he was holding crumpled in his fist and he stared out over his daughter’s head, taking the town in as if it was the last place they’d ever see. Jake turned away quickly, continuing on to the livery with a revelation he had truly never considered in full. Some of these letters would be letters of tragedy and news of death. Some people were waiting not to get one.

The livery owner stood up straight from his duties, watching young Jake stride up with his horse in tow.

“Can I hep’ ya, son?”

“Yes sir, I need to set this hoss up for a single night.”

“Just one night?”

“Just the one.”

The owner sighed, looking him over. “You that delivery boy?”

“I work for the Express, yes sir.”

“S’pose you’ll be heading out in the morning?”

“That’s the way I’d like it to go.” Jake smiled.

“Tell you what, you deliver that package there for me and I’ll treat him to all the finest.”

“…I could do that.”

The livery owner saw his furrowed brows and rubbed the back of his neck as he gestured toward the delivery sitting on the barrels outside. “It’s just my pa’s ol’ lead pusher, but it’ll make a little peace between my kin if I give it up to my brother in Crow’s Bend.”

“Hell, that’s almost back where I came from,” said Jake, squinting into the eastern sky.

“Well, offer stands. Else it’ll be two dollars.”

Jake pulled the corner of his lip back, showing some teeth as if in pain and the livery owner chuckled. After patting his leg and staring toward the sun for a few moments longer, the young Pony Express rider agreed and told him to pack the parcel on Jackal right away so he wouldn’t have to remember in his rush the next morning.

“He’ll get the best tonight.”

“Don’t feed him too much, he’s runs faster than he rolls.”

The owner laughed, waving over his shoulder at Jack while he took the horse inside to feed and have a safe place to sleep for the night.

“Alright,” Jack muttered to himself, turning on his heels, “my turn.”

The saloon sat so peacefully in the late morning sun, the wind could be heard harassing its integrity. Jake’s light footing clomped like a horse’s trot on the wood outside and he felt like too many eyes were watching him. Giving a final polite gesture before darting inside, he was glad to escape the friendliness of the storefronts with the nagging need for rest pulling at his dragging mind. He enjoyed meeting the folks in town so far and was looking forward to at least a few more years of traveling the world, getting to know those living in it. But for the time being, food and sleep were his preferred company.

The saloon owner, Virgil, had already offered him a room at half price and Jake was more than happy to accept. He’d never slept in a saloon before. Glancing around, hoping to spot a pretty little painted lady, he let his shoulders slump on the way up the straight stairway in the back of the room. Feeling his eyelids fighting separation reminded him that it was for the best. Maybe after he woke, got some food…

“I swear to God I saw what I saw,” screamed an old man in one of the gambling rooms downstairs, just beneath his feet. His voice carried farther than his companions. “No! I ran like hell! Blood everywhere and this white skull with an eye, a giant eye just loo—”

There was another shout but Jake couldn’t make out the words. He hoped their conversation wouldn’t carry into his room.

“I ain’t drunk!”

Jake slammed the door to his room, leaned against it, and squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t hear anything. Peace, silence, and a bed with two soft blankets. A bed sitting in a real frame. First delivery and he was already living like a king. Sighing, he threw down his bag near the doorway and them himself, facing the ceiling. He imagined himself riding into town in fine, twenty-dollar suits with women smiling at him as he paraded through town, men tipping their hats, wishing they’d been lucky enough to be so malnourished at his age. Jake chuckled at his own thoughts, rubbed his pink and red eyes, and fell into a deep sleep with one leg resting up on his bent knee and his hand flat on his face.

A nightmarish scream struck like a bullet, flipping him out of his bed. Jake scrambled to the window before he had fully awakened and let his head swivel until he found the source. A woman was pressed against the wall of the general store, staring in horror at the men stumbling through the middle of the street. They looked to be reaching out for help, but at no one in particular.

Jake hurried from the room, joining the rest of the curious citizens on the sides of the town’s main road. The sun hung low in the sky and it was only as he stood shoulder to shoulder with several concerned gamblers did he realize he’d slept the day away. The two men had collapsed and the doctor was examining them, his own hands shaking. Creeping closer than most of the others, Jake peered over the doctor’s shoulder to see what the victims looked like.

Pale as men long dead, they had blood pouring out of their mouths like a flooded river. Though they had thoroughly died, the blood still pushed its way out with urgency.

“What in God’s name, doc?” asked Virgil, standing across from the both of them.

“I ain’t got a clue yet, Verge.”

As the doctor examined his eyes, turned his head, and otherwise tried to assess this horrifying affliction by sight, a screeching wail rang out around the corner. In the alleyway between the general store and the barber, the distressed cry was cut short by muffled gurgling. Once several of them hooked around the walls, they caught sight of a woman falling to the ground. A widow for mere moments before her own time had come. And not a soul in sight.

Many of the spectators started to disperse in distress, but Virgil bent down beside the woman and tried to get her to convey any sort of message before she let the light leave her. Jake watched, listened, and felt his own stomach turning, but the only message he could make out was one of indescribable terror. Her eyes died wide open, like an animal in fear.

“Let’s get her and those men out of the street,” ordered Virgil, choking back his breaking voice.

Jake jumped to help him with the woman, feeling obligated after watching her final breaths. He hadn’t seen a woman die in ten years. It made him feel weak and helpless, but at the same time he couldn’t help scanning the area over and over, ready to break out his revolver and burn the murderer down. Watch the bastard choke on his own blood next.

“I didn’t see nobody, did you?” asked Virgil.

Jake shook his head, staring at a blood-red robe hanging on the corner of the alley beside some hooks and barrels. Red, the man behind Virgil, responded with the same. Suddenly, Jake jerked and dropped the womans legs, feeling as if he might throw up, scream, and take off running until he regained his senses.

“What’re you doin’? You see somethin’?” asked Virgil.

“Goddammit, the hell, what was that, where…” mumbled Jake, feeling like losing sight of the red robed man was the last thing he’d ever do.

“You’re worrying me, son,” said Red.

“I thought I was lookin’ at…well…somethin’, not a person though, but it weren’t no person. It moved like water. It weren’t right.”

“Shut up,” muttered Virgil, looking around at all the people watching them.

The sheriff took off down the alley with one of his deputies, heading in the direction they saw Jake staring toward. Pistols out and ready, the two disappeared around the corner, heading in opposite directions. Each of them looked as though they saw something worth investigating. Several seconds went by before they heard screaming again, almost in unison.

Setting the woman down and flagging over a couple of men nearby, Virgil pulled out his own gun. Red tried to stop him, but he wasn’t having it.

“I ain’t standin’ here, holding perfectly good iron just to watch more of my friends die.”

“Dammit,” grumbled Red, drawing his own pistol.

“Adaline, get in here,” hissed a man in a dark duster, hanging his head out the boarding house door. Jake followed his line of sight to the young lady, the irate mirage from before. She had her gaze fixed on them, her hands clutched against her chest and her feet planted firmly in the street. Jake stood a little straighter and felt for his own revolver, though he soon remembered leaving it on the floor of his room.

“I’m comin’, too.”

“Boy, you get on outta here,” said Virgil, eyeing his empty holster.

“I can run faster than the both of ya. At least I’ll be able to tell folks what gotcha.”

Jake’s nervous offer amused them, but no one could find ground solid enough to laugh from.

He followed them cautiously, glancing behind often enough to watch them slowly slip out of everyone’s sight. They stepped around and over the briefly-widowed woman’s blood pooled up in the dirt as best they could, but there was so much that had spilled out in such a short time they found that they were not only followed two sets of bloody footprints, but making their own. Each of them held their breath as they rounded the last corners at the back of the buildings. Jake could hear Red’s old, rusty pistol rattling in his hand.

Convulsing in the dirt on both sides of the trio lay the near-corpses of the sheriff and the deputy. Both flat on their backs, floating in and surrounded by about a body’s worth of blood. Virgil swore and Red’s aim darted back and forth as he frantically searched for something to aim at. Both times the pistol passed over the crimson, hanging robe behind the building, Jake thought about shouting. Both times he couldn’t believe they didn’t see it, too. Finally, his brain connected with the rest of him and he shouted in the face of rapidly approaching death.

“There! Goddammit, there!”

Red started shooting before he saw anything and Virgil started firing into the red cloth after he found it. It stood out so starkly from the rest of the dirt, wood, and dust that each time, Jake couldn’t believe they didn’t see it. Looking for a man blinded them to what had been standing before them, its arm outstretched.

The first person it touched was Red. The bloody hand oozed into his chest as though it was melting at the touch, but they could tell it was going inside of him. They could tell Red was trying to scream or breathe, but death had touched him and that’s all there was to him now. Virgil shouted, hitting the creature with his revolver, but it was like slapping the water. Out of the corner of his eye, Jake saw the other. It was like a woman, shorter, slender, but reaching for them all the same. When the creature grabbed Virgil, it looked as though he was about to go out like Red. Instant and with horror in his eyes. Then, in a final fit of defiance, he pulled up and kicked Jake out of his trance, landing him on his backside in the freshly pooling puddle of Red’s blood.

That was all Jake had needed. He flung himself up like a coiled spring, crashing back out of the alley and yelling a string of frightened warnings well enough to scatter those that were left hovering and wondering in the main street. Hearing the scraping of his own boots against the dirt and the pounding of the blood still in his veins, he was deafened to the shrieks of those who weren’t nearly as fast on their feet. Clawing at the boarding house door, Adaline threw it open and jerked him inside, her father slamming the door closed behind him. She pulled her hand back, losing the pink in her cheeks at the sight of the blood running down her fingers.

“Ain’t mine.” Was all Jake could say.

He felt as though the next time he opened his mouth he might bite off his tongue with how badly his teeth were chattering.

The boarding house waiting room had several simple chairs and some end tables, all from the furniture store three buildings down. They’d been hastily pushed against the wall, leaving dusty evidence of how long they’d been sitting in one place on the floor. Stretching out from the lobby was a long hall filled with doors just across from the stairs leading up to the rooms above them, but they were already filled with people hiding from what they believed to be outlaws picking the innocent and guilty off from out of plain sight, without discrimination.

“I told you, I told you I saw ‘em,” said a familiar voice.

The old man from the gambling room. Jake figured that had to be where he heard his voice from. Jake pushed his way toward him and grabbed his arm a little too rough, but the old man dropped his indignant response when their eyes met.

“Holy hell—”

“What did you see?” Jake growled, barely feeling like he had control over his body.

“These red people, not injuns, red, like blood. They was killin’ a man out in—”

Someone feverishly shushed them and they all held their breath, using only their eyes to check around the room. The same kind of thump that sent them into silence resounded again. And again.

“It’s coming from in there,” whispered a woman, her own arms wrapped around the man’s beside her.

Heavy pounding thundered throughout the boarding house until they were left in the storm’s wake. Something creaked at the end of the dark hall and he heard Adaline trying to hold back her own wilting scream with a hushed wheeze that only their complete silence could have revealed.

Head, fingers, and knees trembling, Jake marched himself forward like a newborn foal and threw open the first door. Bleeding out through the cracks in the wallpapered wood, one of the red murderers faded away like a stain spilling through. Leaving a bloody blotch on the wall, it was only after Jake witnessed it completely disappear that he let his eyes settle around the crowded room. The floor was flooding from the bodies that had fallen every which way. As the blood pushed up against his boots, Jake took a step back and threw the message to the others with just one look.

“I’ve gotta get out of this place,” exclaimed a justifiably hysterical woman. “Samuel, please, come on.”

“It’s pitch black out there, we can’t see him.”

“Them,” corrected Jake. “And they ain’t people.”

“What the hell kinda animal—”

“It’s no animal,” whispered the old man in a harsh voice. “Last year, these things came. Didn’t get nearly this hungry for us, but I remember someone sayin’ somethin’ about a bloody man and some people dyin’ in a bad way.”

“Why now?”

“It was exactly a year ago,” said the old man. “Maybe there’s somethin’ to that…”

“Oh great, rainin’ now,” complained a man, peering out the window.

It didn’t take them long to realize there was no rain, but liquid dripping from the ceilings all around them. Down the hall, the pattering of the blood drops rang out, calling to the red lady standing in a newly soaked-through doorway. The old man shouted a warning to them all and they scattered like mice caught sleeping in their hole.

As they all pushed out the door, the red lady rushed them, grabbing first the old man. Jake got a good look that time, but wished he hadn’t. Her face was mauled and gored, drenched with ever-flowing blood that poured down the entire length of her body. There were no eyes, but hollow places that would occasionally reveal themselves between the short, molasses-like waterfalls. When she jerked her unnatural gaze toward him, he bolted. Adaline grabbed his arm as they fled the house, her father swiftly leaving right behind them.

“Get to the damn horses!” he shouted.

Jake didn’t need to alter his course. His mind had already taken him on a path to the livery, but had not prepared him to be yanked backward by Adaline’s father in the middle of the darkening street. Screaming streamed out from the building like fireworks, but it was Adaline’s own that finally brought him to his less cowardly senses. Her father had her arm in a painful death-grip, not knowing he was doing it, with a red lady’s arm halfway melted into his chest. Jake tried to pull his hand away, but only when Adaline called to him did he let go.

“Don’t stop!” Jake shouted to her, causing her to give in to fear and leave her father behind.

The red lady reached for her, but he pulled Adaline to him with all his might and ran like a man possessed. They burst into the livery and frightened all the wary horses into fits of loud whinnies and kicking stomps.

“Jackal, where the hell are ya…?”

Frantically searching, Jake finally saw the stable where his horse paced, eager to break free during the chaos. He ran up to the simple latch lock and struggled to simply unhook it.

“What are you doing?” Adaline hissed.

“I’m openin’ the door, goddammit, open!”

Finally flinging it open, Jake pulled Jackal out with an insulting yank. He apologized to him, feeling the willful steed’s indignant resistance.

“There it is,” shrieked Adaline, pointing toward a wall.

The stable owner fell out of the hay when the red creature put its hand inside, reaching out to doom a horse within reach as well.

“Get up, get up,” chanted Jake, pushing Adaline to the saddle before he’d pull himself up.

“Go away!” she screamed at it, sounding more like a bobcat than a person.

Jake heeled at Jackal, feeling the hay give way under his hooves. The red lady reached for them, but missed by a long-shot. Adaline was holding Jake so tightly, he was settling with shallow breaths as they galloped wildly into the night. The moon was only a sliver in the still desert sky and Jake desperately scanned for any sign of the unnatural beings in the treacherous dark. From the corner of his eye, the slaughter seemed complete. If they were the last two alive, he would not be surprised. Hopefully Adaline was keeping her head down.

“Oh my God,” he heard her gasp.

“Stop lookin’,” said Jake.

At the edge of town, racing through the entry archway, the red man waited. Jake saw him, but there was no other way to go around the already tightly packed gap to the desolated town. Reaching out for them, Jake warned Jackal and tried to steer him around, but the demon-spawn reached its deathly hand into the horse’s body, though only for a moment. Jackal squealed and kicked out at the bloody man, only dispersing him like a hand through running water.

They staggered too fast into the desert, slowing after only a minute or two. Jake leaned forward and vigorously scratched Jackal’s neck while he spoke encouragingly to him. It wasn’t until the second time he leaned forward that he noticed the blood and the trail they were leaving. Jake’s heart ached, but he needed to keep them moving. Glancing around the nothingness, he saw the white rock bulging out of the sand. It looked even bigger than before, almost glowing too, so Jake figured they were close enough to it.

“Look, there,” he said, pointing to it.

“What is it?” whispered Adaline.

“I don’t know, shelter maybe. He ain’t gonna make it. That thing touched him.”

“All it has to do is touch you?”

“Looks that way,” said Jake.

They trotted over to the giant rock and just before they reached it, Jackal fell to his knees, then on his side. They were able to roll off without getting trapped underneath, but Jake hurried to his side. The horse was panting and Jake rested his forehead on Jackal’s neck, petting him gently until he stopped moving. Then, he marched over to the saddlebag and pulled out the parcel the livery owner had attached. He ripped the brown paper away and pried the box open, revealing a beautiful Colt revolver with a bag of bullets and powder packed in with it. Jake loaded everything on his belt.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Adaline, staring at Jackal.

“Let’s look around,” said Jake, eyes red and mind swimming.

They circled the rock cautiously, looked for crevices and making sure they were the only ones doing so. As they came around the back, they found three giant holes.

“There’s a light inside,” said Adaline.

“Careful,” said Jake, putting his hand in front of her as he crept toward the opening.

Inside, two crimson candles sat in a pool of their own wax, tiny flames flickering in the whipping breeze. Standing before them, Jake understood exactly what he was looking at.

“Let’s put these out,” he said.

They went to work kicking at them, pinching the flames, covering them, and even spitting on them. Nothing seemed to have any effect on the candles or the fire. On the floor behind the candles lay a circular stone slab with a symbol painted in blood. Adjacent that lay another, with a slightly different symbol painted in blood as well. Jake approached it, staring at it long and hard before turning back to Adaline.

“What’re you thinkin’ it is?”

“Maybe where they came from...”

She watched him, figured he was trying to guess at what might happen to him if he stood where they’d stood. She was about to dissuade him when the screeching echoed through the eerie, enormous skull-like rock.

“They’re comin’,” said Adaline.

“I’m gonna try.”


“Only other thing to do is die.”

Adaline sucked in a deep breath, nodded to him, and glared out into the darkness behind her, hanging her head out of the white rock for a better look at the pitch blackness swallowing them. Jake stepped around the candles and stood on the platform to the left. Nothing happened.

“Try the other,” suggested Adaline.

Jake looked over her shoulder and saw something moving in the darkness, though he couldn’t see clearly over the light of the candle and the white-rock interior. When he placed both feet on the platform, the red man, only steps away from Adaline, screeched and stumbled into the room with them. Adaline chirped out a scream, hurrying over to Jake. He grabbed her shoulders and held her against him as the demon’s own bloody visage dried up, revealing the rotten flesh underneath. It belched out a black orb onto the sandy dirt in front of them, desperately scrambling against its own death to pluck it up off the ground. It crumbled into a fine dust as it held the orb in its hand, dropping it once again as it disappeared. Jake smiled triumphantly at Adaline and though she was still reeling from the close call, she returned the victorious feeling with a disbelieving chuckle.

“I can’t move,” said Jake suddenly.

His boots were stuck fast to the symbol, but he couldn’t just take off his boots, the feeling was moving up his legs.

“There she is,” he gasped, suddenly able to see the red lady flying toward them at unnatural speed. “I can see her, there.”

It was an unnatural vision, but he could see only the red lady through the blackness outside. She was flying with a fury, straight toward them. Adaline sucked in a deep breath, ran around the candles, and stood on the other symbol. The red lady reached Adaline as her feet planted on the symbol. Jake called to her, watching the red lady’s hand start to slip into her chest. Suddenly, the creature curled up into herself, her shriveling hands tucked against her own chest, the blood flowing over her face drying up just as the others had, and crumpling to the ground in a heap of flesh then dust.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, no I ain’t,” she said in disbelief, feeling around the blood-stain on her chest.

“Are you stuck, too?”

“I am. What do we do?”

“Pray, I guess.”

The room shifted, lurched, and then rumbled steadily. Everything was vibrating, though only part of them could feel it.

“We are sinkin’,” shouted Adaline, as if this rock had the audacity to do so.

Jake swore and pulled at his legs and tried to bend down, but found that the petrified feeling rose above his waist by that point. Sand sifted itself over his boots and the room began to rapidly shrink. Adaline screamed a few times, but he couldn’t help joining her with shouts and yelling for help. He had no idea what anyone could do for them, but it was worth a try. He wasn’t just going to turn into a rock at the bottom of this sandy death trap. His head stopped moving though he was trying to look around and shortly after that he was buried in the sand along with Adaline, who had gone distressingly silent before that.

Suddenly, the sands receded much faster than they came up and the feeling of turning to stone melted away just behind it. Adaline gasped and they both fell to their hands and knees once they were able. The sun blinded them through the holes in the white rock and once the sand was well and fully gone, the whole room rolled over onto its side. The two were shuffled around before crawling out of what turned out to be a gigantic eye socket in an enormous skull. The flames in the candles had been snuffed and the long, red sticks rolled plainly over the thick mulch. Jake stomped on them until they flattened and cracked under his boots.

“Where are we?” asked Adaline, dusting bark scraps off her pale blue dress.

When Jake stood up straight, he realized he’d never been in a place like they were then. The ground was covered in old, chipped-off bark, the trees were thick and suffocating, but there was a hole in front of them letting in a blinding light. Once their eyes adjusted, they stepped through and saw a vast forest sprawling out just below them as they stood on a stout cliff’s edge.