Whispering Pines: Sage

Revised 11/20/2021

Sage was in the forest again, alone this time. She seemed to be carried forward by something other than her own volition, her legs moving without her telling them to. She travelled further down the path, reaching the place where she had seen the monster. It was gone this time, replaced by a break in the underbrush that developed into something less refined than a path proper. Perhaps a deer trail. She found herself pushing aside branches and stepping off the path into the woods. Immediately upon leaving the path, it seemed to disappear in the underbrush, the trail behind her overgrown with thorny vines, leaving her no choice but to continue forward. She turned to look at the trail in front of her and saw the creature from the night before, pale skin and too many limbs protruding from its body. Looking at it, she was reminded briefly of those illustrations that are supposed to show what having a stroke is like, everything familiar but nothing recognizable. Antlers grew from its head and its pitch-black eyes seemed to stare straight through Sage with a horrifying knowing. As she watched the creature’s face changed, taking on first Sage’s likeness, though still with those black eyes, and shifting through the faces it seemed to draw from her memories, her aunts, Eleanor and Madge, her friends from her old town, her cabin mates here at camp. Sage tried to turn away, but she couldn’t move. The creature was wearing her face again and it started laughing, its mouth unnaturally wide and filled with sharp teeth. The noise was sharp and grating on her ears. Its face shifted back to its own sickly pale visage and approached Sage. As its cold hands wrapped around her neck and started to squeeze, her feet unstuck and she stumbled backwards, tripping over a root.
Sage hit the ground, and realized she was back in the cabin. It must have been a dream, she realized. She was on the floor next to her bunk, sheets tangled around her legs. Her skin was sticky with sweat. She stood up quietly, inspected her body for injuries, and spread her sheets back over her bed. She had bruised her hip from falling out of the bed but seemed otherwise to be physically unharmed. No one seemed to have heard her fall, either. It was only a few hours until Jamie would come in and wake everyone up for cabin inspections and breakfast, so she decided not to try to go back to sleep. Even if there had been time, she wouldn’t have wanted to risk going back to the dream. It didn't take much to figure out that the dream was something more than the ordinary products of sleep. If nothing else, the lingering ache of her throat was evidence enough that something was amiss. She tried to remember what the counselor had said at the bonfire the other night, but she hadn't paid much attention beyond "There's something in the woods". She should have known better, honestly, than to assume it was just some bullshit story made up to scare people into not getting lost. after some deliberation, she made up her mind to tell Jamie about the dream. She wanted to know if anything worse might happen, if anything could be done to stop it happening again.
While she waited for the other campers to wake up she found her mind wandering to that meeting with the director. It was strange that such a blatant violation of the rules hadn't been met with any significant punishment. They had been chastised of course, but the director seemed not to care at all that they had broken curfew and gone into the woods without their counselor and almost gotten killed. Maybe it was because the line cook (what was their name? Basil?) had been there. But she couldn't figure out why that should make any difference. There was something off about the director. She seemed flippant, like she didn't really care what happened to the campers or what they did so long as she didn't get sued. It was a strange attitude for someone who had evidently volunteered to be responsible for the safety of the hundred or so children at the camp. She seemed vaguely interested in the creature they had seen in the woods but after they told her about it she insisted that it was just a deformed tree and they should forget about it. Jamie had been reasonably distraught that half his cabin had gone on a midnight escapade without his knowledge, giving them a long lecture after the meeting about how irresponsible and dangerous it was to go out at night and how lucky they had been that nothing had really happened, all things that seemed normal given the circumstances.
When Jamie got up, Sage went over to his bunk.
"Jamie, can I talk to you for a second?" Jamie flinched and turned to face her.
"You startled me, Sage" he laughed nervously. "What's going on? Why are you up and dressed so early?"
"I... had a dream."
"Okay. That's a pretty normal part of sleeping"
"Yeah I know that. This dream wasn't a normal dream though. It was, you know. it was about that night in the woods. the creature we saw."
"That's not good. Maybe it's just a nightmare though, something you ate or drank at dinner last night"
"I don't think so. Look" Sage tipped her head back to expose her throat and the bruises that were beginning to show where the creature had tried to strangle her in the dream.
"...Oh. that's unusual. We'll go to the director at breakfast, I'm sure—”
,"No." Sage cut him off. He looked up, surprised. "I mean, we shouldn't bother her right? Surely there's someone else?"
"I mean, she's been the director for as long as I've been here. I'm sure if there's anything to be concerned about she'll know what to do about it."
"It seems a little drastic though, to go straight to the director"
"Are you afraid she'll be upset with you? She already knows about your little adventure the other night"
"No I just... I'd rather not go to her right away. Are you sure we can't just sort this out on our own?" Sage paused, trying to think of someone else, if Jamie didn't have answers. "Or maybe we can ask Jasper for help. Hasn't he been here almost as long as the director? He should know what to do if you don't."
"I guess so, yeah. I don't really know what to do about this, so we'll have to talk to Jasper, if you really don't want to talk to the director"
"Thanks” Sage was relieved not to be confronted with the director’s strange apathetic demeanor again. She turned to go back to her bunk to finish getting ready for cabin inspections.
“Wait, Sage. This might help” Jamie held out a necklace with a carved bone pendant. Sage took it, tentatively.
“Thanks, I think? What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Put it on. It’s for luck, protection from evil. That kind of thing.”
Sage slipped it over her head and looked at the pendant. It wasn’t any kind of symbol she recognized from what little her aunts had taught her about charms and talismans. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to wear it. She headed back to her bunk, unhindered this time and straightened up her things for the inspection. After some thought, she slipped a knife into her pocket too. Sometimes magic needs a little help.
The director was nowhere to be seen at breakfast, so it was just as well that Sage had convinced Jamie to take her to Jasper instead. The director’s secretary was there, looking very anxious, so Sage figured that the director was engaged in some kind of business meeting. Jasper never ate breakfast in the dining hall, preferring instead to eat alone in the armory, which is where Jamie and Sage found him after breakfast.
The armory was not so grand as it sounded. It was a medium sized storage shed, situated between the axe throwing range and the archery range. While Sage was not terribly happy about walking through the woods to get there, those parts of the paths were clear and the sun was bright, leaving very little in the way of dark corners for anyone or anything to hide in and surprise them. They arrived safe and unscathed to Jasper sitting on a tree stump handing out hatchets to another cabin. He was a thin, freckled young man. Sage thought he seemed a little unimpressive for a weapons instructor, but he had a reputation.
"Jamie, hey! What's going on? I thought your cabin was scheduled for the afternoon block."
"Hey Jasper! We'll be back for axe throwing this afternoon, but Sage here kinda needs your help with something" Jamie gestured toward Sage.
"O-kay. what kind of help?"
"She was one of the kids from my cabin who went on that expedition the other night—"
"You know what? We should talk about this somewhere a little less crowded. Give me a couple minutes to give a demonstration." Jasper stood up and walked over to where the campers were gathering in front of the targets. As they watched, he showed the proper way of holding the ax and throwing it so the blade would hit the target instead of the handle. After talking for a bit, he planted his feet and threw the ax. It hit the target directly in the center, sinking about an inch into the wood. Sage was impressed. His reputation was clearly not exaggerated. Satisfied with his performance, Jasper pulled the ax from the target and walked back over to Sage and Jamie.
"Jamie, can you watch the kids? Sage, follow me." Jasper stood up and went back into the armory. Sage looked to Jamie for approval and then followed Jasper.
"Tell me exactly what happened in the woods."
"Well, we heard about that kid that disappeared last summer, and we wanted to see... it sounds kinda stupid now. But anyway. We snuck out after curfew and just started walking down the trail after a while we saw this...thing in the woods. I don't really know how to describe it. it just didn't look right. and we looked at it for a bit but then the line cook—Basil, I think—was following us and they fell over a root or something. While we were looking away it tried to grab us and Basil told us to run—I don't know if it followed us, but it wasn't behind us when we got out of the forest. The director showed up then, and sent us all back to our cabin.” Sage paused for a moment.
"Did... The creature you saw, did it touch any of you?" Jasper looked at her intently.
"Maybe? I felt something brush my arm, I think but it could have just been Basil. What does that have to do with anything?"
"You've been having nightmares, I suppose" Jasper ignored Sage's question.
"Well, just the one so far, but it was weird. in the dream that...creature grabbed my throat, and when I woke up, my neck hurt, and there are bruises now." She showed him the marks on her neck.
"I should have figured. Sorry, I can't help you."
"Wait, what? You've got to know something. you knew about the dream!"
"I didn't say i didn't know anything, I said I won't help you."
"Can't or won't?"
"...won't. Listen you don't know what you're asking for. Get anyone else to help you, or just go home but don't ask me" Jasper walked over to the door and opened it.
"Of course I don't know what I'm asking for, you haven't told me! Look, this is my first summer here, I don’t even know the name of that thing in the woods! I don’t even know if it’s real or just something I imagined! I know you told that story at the amphitheater about the Whisperer in the pines or whatever but I figured it was just made up to scare us into behaving. The director told me it was just a trick of the light but you act like it’s something really dangerous, and i guess it is if it can leave bruises through my dreams. I just want to enjoy my summer!”
"...Okay. Because it touched you, it's bound to you. That's why it can hurt you in your dreams. But you can hurt it too, and you're going to have to. The only way to stop the dreams is by killing it."
"Hang on. if it can be killed, why hasn't anyone else killed it?"
"It's not one of a kind. there are god knows how many of them in the woods. We've got wards around the ranges to keep them out but if you leave the wards, you'll have to bring your own protection. That's why the trails aren't maintained past the ranges, and we don't have kids disappearing left and right."
"That kind of makes sense. Why even build a camp here though?"
"Are you a city kid or something? The woods are dangerous everywhere. Most people just know better than to go looking for trouble" Sage frowned at that but decided not to answer that accusation.
"All right, so I have to kill it. I've never really killed anything before, let alone... whatever that is. Do I have to be the one to kill it?"
"You'll have to kill it, since you're bound to it."
"can you... can you help?" Sage looked at him, suddenly very afraid of what might happen to her.
"I can tell you what to do, and I can give you the tools to do it. I really can't do anything more than that. Listen, I meant what I said before. You'd be better off just calling your family and going home. You'll be safe if you don't come back."
"I don't want to go home."
"Okay. Come on, I'll send you back with your counselor. This is a lot for you to process, I can see that, and you probably didn't sleep much last night. You'll be safe for now, and that talisman Jamie gave you should let you get some rest." Jasper put his hand on Sage's shoulder and guided her to the door. "You'll be fine, okay?"
When they emerged from the armory, Jamie jogged over to them.
"Did you get things sorted out?"
"More or less. We can talk more later. She'll be fine for tonight though." Jasper attempted a reassuring smile and walked off to correct a camper's form.