This story was written for a prompt called 'Dream Catchers'. It works as a stand alone story but is also a follow-up to a previous story published on this page called "The Grandmother's Pendant". I haven't decided if I am going to try to turn these into a longer book, although I do like the style of dialogue that the stories are built around.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story and I look forward to any feedback!
Visions and Voices in a Dark Wood
by James J Meadows III
I cannot begin to guess how long I drifted in the strange white mists before the world finally swam back into focus. When it did, I found myself in a scene very different from the large mowed lawns and wide grassy expanses of my grandmother’s estate. Though I was still standing inside a fairy ring, one identical in every detail to the one I was cajoled into entering as I ran-away from home following my grandmother's funeral, the similarities ended there.
The beams of morning sunlight had vanished, replaced by an eerie black gloom which settled over the surrounding woods, whose thick black trees formed a canopy so impenetrable all strands of light became swallowed by the hungry leaves coating their twisted limbs. I shuttered involuntarily. Dangling by strings from almost every branch, like some sort of demented Christmas ornaments, hung hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little hoops adorned with feathers, strings and what looked like small beads carved into the shape of skulls.
The strange ornaments possessed glittering blue sapphires in the center of the loops. These gems provided the only light in the clearing, emitting an odd violet glow which enhanced my already growing unease. There was no movement, no wind, and no noise of any kind to break the stillness.
Everything about the strange location unnerved me, reminding me forcibly of the various sinister woods my grandmother often wrote about in fantasy stories, stories she started composing after her mysterious disappearance, and equally mysterious reappearance, when she was my age.
“Hello!” I called.
My frightened voice sounded strange in my ears. I stared around, hardly daring to move, making a point not to step outside the fairy ring. The round line of mushrooms glistened in the blue glow like fortress walls, making me feel safe even if I couldn’t tell you why.
“Hello,” a voice replied.
It came so suddenly I almost screamed. The voice was strange, possessing an unnaturally high pitch, which was difficult to describe. It cast images into my mind of a small playful little girl while simultaneously giving the sensation of speaking to a wise old man. What was more, it sounded quite close. Yet when I looked around I could see no one.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I am here,” the voice responded. “You are too. Although I must admit I don’t know why. No one ever comes into these woods, except for us when we are doing our ritual of adulthood.”
“Who are you?” I asked, still glancing around wildly, not seeing anyone.
“I am me,” the voice responded. “Who are you?”
“I am Annie."
“Hmm, I’m not familiar with that term,” the voice said. “What is an Annie?”
“I’m Annie,” I replied. “Annie is a name - my name.”
“So you are a name?” the voice replied, sounding almost as confused as me.
“No,” I replied. I felt slightly exasperated. I was, after all, in a strange, frightening land and this dialogue wasn’t helping me get any information.
“But you said you are Annie, and Annie is a name,” the voice replied. “Doesn’t that mean you are a name?”
“Look, can we just talk about something else?” I said.
“Sure, what do you want to talk about?” the voice answered.
Looking down, I saw the circle of mushrooms at my feet. While I felt protected inside the circle, I also knew I couldn’t stay here forever. I raised my foot to take a step, then hesitated, glancing around at the dark forest and its eerie, foreboding shadows.
“Is it safe for me to step out?” I asked.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” the voice asked. “Do you have difficulty taking steps? Does your race perhaps suffer injuries from walking and this is why you are standing still?”
“No,” I replied, annoyed. “I am perfectly capable of taking a step without injuring myself!”
“Then I would suppose it is safe for you to take a step,” the voice replied.
“That was not my…grrr,” I growled, “Nevermind!”
Driven by frustration, resigned to the inevitability of acting, and taking some solace in the fact that I could jump back into the circle if I needed to, I stepped out from the ring. I instantly regretted the decision. The sensation of safety vanished; the mushrooms vanished; the ring vanished.
I found myself standing in the middle of a dark forest, where my breathe rose like smoke in the icy air. Apparently the fairy ring also protected me from the cold, providing a false sense of warmth, which I missed greatly now that I no longer had it. I took another step forward, the bottom of the low-hanging ornaments brushing the top of my hair.
“I wonder what these are,” I marveled aloud, staring at their unique and masterful, if frightening, designs.
“They are dream catchers,” the now familiar voice replied. “They are there to catch your dreams. Better be careful, though.”
I looked around for the source of the voice again, wondering if I might be able to see it now that I was no longer inside the ring. I couldn’t; but my eyes did catch sight of a piece of moonlight streaming through some nearby bushes. They were tall, though thankfully not thick, and I was able to push my way through them rather easily.
On the other side, I beheld a beautiful lake, its clear waters and smooth glassy surface sparkling in the moonlight. It stood out like a beacon of peace within the otherwise dark forest. Nearby, a series of rocks formed a sort of pier, extending into the middle of the lake. Alongside it, standing up to his waist in the smooth water, his clothes piled neatly on the rocks beside him, was a young man of about my own age.
My jaw dropped as I stared at him. He had long smooth hair, clear clean skin, a six pack that most men would die for, and the muscles sculpting his body formed just the perfect balance of firm and strong without being bulky. As I stood marveling at him, he turned and looked at me.
At first, he took a quick step back, as though startled by my appearance, then I saw his face relax.
“You scared me,” he said. “I was just taking a bath. I’m not used to meeting other people out here, especially young ladies as pretty as yourself.”
I blushed slightly, my gaze transfixed on his blue eyes, which stared up at me with a fascination and wonder almost as great as the wonder I felt looking at him. I brushed my hair behind my ear with an almost instinctual gesture and took a step forward.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” I said. “It’s just, I’m kind of lost right now and I don’t know where I am.”
“You didn’t frighten me,” the young man replied. “I’m actually happy for the company. It gets pretty lonely out here sometimes. Why don’t you come and sit down? If you’re lost, maybe I can help you.”
He gestured toward the stone pier stretching out beside him, where his clothes rested. I started toward it when the now familiar voice from earlier broke the serenity.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it called quietly.
It seemed to be coming from behind me.
“Why not?” I demanded, turning around to face the speaker, only to discover I was staring at open air.
I gave an irritated huff and turned back around. A scream burst from my lips. The beautiful lake had vanished, replaced by a swirling black quagmire of dead plants and slime. In the middle of it, where the man stood just a moment ago, hovered a creature composed of transparent silky robes wrapped around a luminous turquoise skeleton. Glowing green orbs shone from inside the sockets of the skeletal face while clawed arms, drifting in their bizarre robes stretched toward me.
Still screaming, I stumbled backward, falling onto my butt before turning and dashing back through the bushes, where I tripped over a tree root. With a nasty thud, I crashed to the earth, sprawling across the ground.
“Are you alright?” asked the mysterious voice.
“What was that thing?” I asked in a terrified whisper.
“That was a dream spirit,” the voice replied. “They use the dreams captured by their dream catchers to lure victims into their grasp, where they can feast upon their life force.”
“What?” I replied, still trying to catch my breath. “Feast upon their life force? You told me it was safe out here?”
“No I didn’t,” the voice replied. “I told you it was safe to take a step out. And it was. Taking a step out didn’t hurt you at all.”
“That isn’t what I meant and you know it!” I fumed.
“Actually, he doesn’t,” came a soft voice to my right.
I recognized the voice at once. Turning, I found myself, to my breathless amazement, staring up into the face of the one woman who meant the most to me in the world.
“Grandma?” I said, staring at her with disbelief. “How? I mean, you’re dead.”
“Time works differently here in this world than in our world,” she said. “There are many things which will be a mystery to you, like your friend.”
“What is he?” I asked.
“He is a pseudodragon.”
“A dragon?” I asked looking around. “Why can’t I see him?”
“No, not a dragon, a pseudodragon,” she replied. “They are very similar in appearance but very different in nature. You can’t see him because he is naturally invisible. He has to make an effort to be seen, just as you would have to make an effort to walk on one leg.”
“What do you mean when you say, ‘he doesn’t know what I meant’?” I asked.
She gave a small laugh.
“Psuedodragons are very complex and wondrous creatures,” she replied. “Yet, they are also very simple minded. They understand everything from a very literal perspective. They aren’t like us.”
I stared at her for a moment, pondering this. As I watched, she gave me a small smile.
“I always knew you would find this place, just like I did,” she said. “You always had the right spirit and sense of adventure. How I wish your mother was the same way but I could never get her to straighten her life. You, you were the one I knew had the spirit to follow in my footsteps.”
A smile spread across my face as I stared into her loving eyes.
“Grandma,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here? I’m confused.”
“Come with me,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
She extended a hand to help me up. I reached for it. Just as my fingers came within inches of her own, a burst of bright light shot between us. Streams of crackling lightning split the air, causing me to fall back down, shielding my eyes. My grandmother retreated backward.
With a bound, I saw a creature leap into the space between us. It was small, only about two feet tall, with a pair of tiny wings, no bigger than a butterfly’s, resting atop its back. The skin was a strange hue of multiple colors, all sparkling, as though the body was composed of tiny gems. In every other way, it looked like a dragon, with a long neck, black eyes, and fierce claws, except all of these features were shrunk into the size of a puppy dog.
At the same moment, the image of my grandmother disappeared, replaced by another glowing skeleton, floating off the ground in its transparent white robes. I gasped as it let out a horrifying shriek, reaching forward as though attempting to grab me. The dragon opened its mouth, shooting another fierce bolt of electricity at the creature. The monster dodged the attack easily, yet made no effort to continue its assault. Instead, with an angry shriek, it retreated, fading into the darkness.
The tiny creature turned toward me, seemingly studying me with its deep black eyes.
“The image you saw?” it asked. “Was that your grandmother?”
The voice was the same one I spoke with earlier, there was no doubt about that.
“Yes,” I answered.
“You are the granddaughter of The Great Light?” it asked.
“The what?” I replied.
“Nevermind,” it said. “If the woman you saw in that image was your grandmother, then we must get you out of these woods fast. The creatures here will not take kindly to you. Follow me.”
It spun around and headed away from me, hurrying through the woods. I climbed onto my feet, chasing after it.
“Wait,” I called. “How do I know you’re not another dream or illusion from the dream catchers?”
It turned around, staring at me with a quizzical expression.
“Have you ever dreamed or longed for a pint-sized dragon to save you from the heart of an evil forest?”
“Well...no,” I replied, taken aback.
“Then, you are probably safe,” it said, in a matter-of-fact manner.
Without another word, it spun around and hurried away. I hurried after it. My other questions could wait. For now, I just wanted out.