Flash: Attrition

84942186 © publicdomainstockphotos | Dreamstime.com

Crunching underfoot within a forest is expected from leaves and last year’s ferns; in the forest of bones, the crunching is from some poor soul’s vertebrae from the Wars of Attrition. Not a place to walk through barefoot.

Not a place to walk through in general. The dead don’t like to be disturbed. Mourning for eternity, the skeletal trees radiated a perpetual winter chill from their bare branches, never budding with hope, despite the summer green and ripening fields Malloryson left behind. He would have never entered these damned woods if this wasn’t, ironically, his last hope. A stick, two days hardtack wrapped in a handkerchief, good boots, and, maybe, a ten-minute lead on his pursuers was all he owned at this point.

That lead became infinite the minute he passed into Dead Man’s Forest, for none but fools would follow him here. Walking around the forest takes days; not a single farmer’s path carved through the bones, chill, and unsettled dead of the blighted battlefield. Pushing deeper, Malloryson slowed his rush, confident the investigators would leave the walking dead man to the dead.

Water would be an issue soon, he thought, his mouth dry from his run. Last night’s gentle rains left red-tinted puddles reflecting oily rainbows, sitting strangely in the hollows between white roots digging into the black earth, bubbling yellow ooze clung to the wet edges like puss.

He pushed onward, looking for shelter and water, pressing against the horror each of his footfalls brought from the muffled crunching in the silent woods.

Once wizards walked here, summoning creatures from beyond to fight the rebel slaves. Humans died in droves, but for the hundreds of deaths, one or two of the monstrous beasts would fall, making the wizards vulnerable just long enough the slaves could kill a magical despot.

And then the cycle of destruction and death would start again, and end again.

Again and again.

And again.

The humans surviving the Attrition Wars didn’t win, so much as they didn’t die.

Malloryson’s hope was, like his ancestors, he was very good at not dying, so far. Unlike the burgomaster’s son, who he had accidently on-purpose killed. That soft throat needed to be squeezed to stop the poisonous words bubbling forth. It had been easy to squeeze tighter.

Malloryson didn’t regret the results. Some people are worth dying for.

The crunching of bones softened the spongy, squishing noises in his memory. A bubble, a gasp, a rattled wheeze.

The last echoed against the leafless trees. Not a memory.

The crunch of bones played counterpoint to the scrape of claws from some forgotten creature of the Wars.

Sucking sounds gurgled out from the mud as nearby bones cracked together into a new form.

A grimace splintered the blood-speckled rigor mortis grin engraved on Malloryson’s visage. Really, he had hoped to survive one meal within this cursed place. Part of his mind squealed “run away”, while another part debated if becoming a meal counted as the one meal he had hoped for.

He was done running. Too tired after hours of being chased by the investigators. If he was about to die, he wouldn’t die panting.

Instead he stepped forward to face the bone abomination, dead but refusing to admit it. Just like him.

Approaching the creature weaponless, Malloryson reached out his killer’s hand still dewed with the last breath of a hatemonger. The grotesque froze, tilting the head sideways, confused, before unhinging its jaw, exposing three rows of infinite teeth like a goose.

A mud-red tongue twisted out and looped around Malloryson’s hand, stripping the blood offering. Chill raided warmth from his arm. The tongue jerked back to the jaws of uncountable teeth, and Malloryson stumbled closer. He stared in the non-eyes of the forgotten bones and thought: how magnificent death looked.

A fitting last thought. Malloryson expected never to wake again. The return of awareness wasn’t kind.

(first published 3/5/2023, 650 words – Created from a Workshop attended at Ret-Con 2023 run by Tally Johnson. He provided thirteen possible visual prompts, all ghost/horror related. I choose prompt six which showed a traveler entering a forest of skulls.)