Their laughter faded as one of the sounds coming through the trees caught their attention. The crystal had taken them deep into the forest. They had been surrounded by animal sounds the entire way. Birds’ wings flapping above. Critters crashing through the underbrush below. At first even the sound of a chipmunk chittering at them made them jump back and freeze. Now, hours later, the sounds had become comforting. Almost serene. Enough to lull them into a sense of security. A false one, it turned out.
This new sound was not one they had heard yet. It was heavy. The sound of something big. A crunch as whatever it was put the underbrush under its foot, and then the thud as that foot found the earth.
They had unknowingly drawn closer together. Each turned their breathing shallow. It was impossible to pinpoint exactly where it was coming from. The trees bent the sound and passed it between them. The big late-summer leaves which had shaded them from the sun all day now blocked sight and sound. Their eyes scanned the part of the forest they thought it was coming from.
Milo swallowed hard. “If it’s the guardian, we must be close.”
“Maybe it’s not the guardian,” Laurent said with a lilt. “Maybe it’s just a…a bear, or a moose.”
“We don’t want to see either of those things, either,” Milo said. They were both speaking in whispers now. The sounds were coming closer but were still far off. “It can’t be too close. The other animals are still making noise.”
He didn’t even get to finish. Hush fell like a brick. Laurent glared at him.
“Just had to say it.”
“What do we do? Wait for it to pass?”
“If it is the guardian it’s not going to pass. We need to find the gate. Before the guardian finds us.”
Laurent held the crystal up and turned in place until the glow told him the direction. He let it fall back against his chest. They couldn’t pretend this was just a walk in the woods anymore. They stayed close together. Made small and careful steps. Walked so slow it was excruciating. The next large bush they came to Laurent began to push his way through. Milo grabbed his arm. Shook his head. In the new silence, the sound would be a beacon. It took them extra minutes to find a path clear of brambles. Extra minutes they maybe didn’t have.
The only sound beyond them was the crunch thud of whatever was out there. Sometimes it was so far back they could convince themselves it was leaving. Other times they were sure they’d turn around and see it. It never got faster. But they couldn’t deny it. It was following them.
Milo was looking back. Scanning. Trying to see through the leaves. He couldn’t see it. And he didn’t see the branch. Laurent pulled on his arm. But it was too late. Milo stepped firmly on the middle of the branch. The snapcrack went out like a shockwave. Milo nearly screamed. Laurent clapped a hand over his mouth. The two were as stones, unbreathing. The crunch thud stopped. All of the world was silence. Even the air was unmoving. They waited to hear the guardian begin to run at them.
It didn’t. But when it started again it was moving faster. Toward them.
“Come on,” Laurent said. He had to pull Milo’s hand to get him to start walking. They moved as fast as they dared.
“What is this?”
Fog was rolling in. No, not quite. It was stationary. They were walking into it. First just thin tendrils that reached out and wrapped around trees. Then a cloud at their feet. It blocked the ground enough to make each step a gamble. And it was rising. The further they went, the higher the fog. Only a few steps until it was at their hips. Then their shoulders. They stopped. They couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet in any direction. Not even the way they had come.
“Do you think the park service knows about this?” Milo asked.
“I think they would have marked it on the map.” Laurent wiped at his face. The fog was settling on them, making them damp. “We can’t see our feet.”
“Fog block sounds a little,” Milo said. “I think.”
Laurent frowned but said nothing. The crystal at his neck was still glowing. That’s all they really needed. The two started walking again.
The forest seemed barely the same. Sunlight came at them from all directions above. It scattered in the fog and made it bright. Almost too bright, making them squint. Trees and underbrush loomed out at them, always at the last second. A couple of times they came close to walking into bark face first. The sound of the guardian was still behind them. But it had become softer. They could hope their own sounds were softer, too. Too many times they stepped on a branch, or kicked a rock.
“We have to be getting close,” Milo muttered. They’d been sent without much information. Follow the crystal. Find the gate. Avoid the guardian. No one knew what the gate looked like. Or the guardian. Laurent was terrified they’d miss it. The crystal would send them in circles around it and they’d never know-
Laurent pulled back in time but Milo didn’t. The ground below them had turned to stone and disappeared. Laurent reached for Milo and missed. With a scream, Milo fell into the fog. Laurent fell to his knees. The sound of Milo hitting the ground came quickly.
From behind him, the crunch thud stopped again.
Through the silence came a roar. One unlike anything either of them had ever heard. Loud. Guttural. Almost mechanical.
The guardian began running.
He didn’t sound far, and Laurent took the risk. He jumped. His stomach rolled as he fell through the fog. But before it could complete a turn the ground found him. He landed inches away from Milo.
Above them, the guardian roared again. Much closer.
Laurent stood and held a hand out for Milo.
“We need to run.”
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