My name’s Charlotte, but I usually go by Lottie, since my last name is Webb. I’m not embarrassed about it, though. I actually love spiders. I wear spider jewelry, and I even have a few spider tattoos, but I like to minimize people commenting on my name as much as I can.

Sometimes a name can tell you a lot about a person, but sometimes they can be misleading. For instance, I have, for financial reasons, recently moved in with my childhood friend Alice Faircroft. Now, based on nothing more than her name, where would you assume Miss Alice Faircroft lives? Somewhere fancy, right? An old British manor house, mayhaps? Alas, the Faircroft Estate is naught but a single-wide trailer in the Somber Creek Trailer Park.

To be fair, it’s a nice trailer park. There’s a perimeter of trees all around it, lots of trees inside, a park centered around the eponymous Somber Creek, and it's right beside a motel with a gas station and a diner. Alice has lived there with her mother her whole life, and for the past couple of years or so, I think, with her boyfriend Jack Ashborne.

Since the trailer only has two bedrooms, I sleep on a couch – or, the couch, since it’s the only one - in the living room. Despite this couch being only twenty feet away from two horny twenty-somethings who bang every chance they get, and surrounded by neighbours that do not strictly abide by the park’s ‘no loud noise after 9 pm’ rule, I never had any difficulty sleeping there until last night.

I think it was around three A.M. when I was awoken by what sounded like a cross between a roar and a howl from the woods across the highway. Coyotes and the neighbours' dogs are the only things that howl around here, and this sounded nothing like either of those. It sounded almost like a person, only feral and crazed. But that wasn’t the weirdest thing about it, though.

The really weird thing, the thing that really freaked me out, was that it triggered my synesthesia. It gave me these images of a Maiden Goddess in a sacred grove, of a Witches’ Sabbath, of a portal to the Underworld. I’ve had synesthesia my whole life, or at least I thought I did, but I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I thought that maybe the fact that I was still half-asleep and that the sound was so strange was what had caused the intense vision, but the experience really left me rattled and I wasn’t able to get any more sleep that night. 

The next day Jack, Alice, and I were sitting around outside their trailer drinking some local craft beer that had been part of Jack’s payment for his last gig. Jack’s a very, very, minor local celebrity, and when we’re not under lockdown he plays a few sets a week at various dives around the county. I think he also has an album on Spotify and maybe a channel on Youtube or something. Even though I’m pretty sure he only makes enough money to pay for his mustang, Alice and her mom treat him like a Rockstar and seem convinced it’s only a matter of time before they’re rich. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s insanely hot and perpetually shirtless, so I guess it’s not that weird they don’t mind putting him up.  

And he’s more successful than I am, at any rate, so I’m in no position to judge.

“Ah, hey; did either of you hear that fucked up howling coming from the woods last night?” I asked, starring off warily in the direction of the forest.  

“Howling? Sorry, no. I didn’t hear anything,” Alice said. “It was probably just the coyotes though. It’s springtime, so the boys are fighting over girls and the girls are getting a much-needed pounding.”

“No, it definitely wasn’t coyotes. Not even coyotes having sex,” I insisted. The strange vision the sound had given me was still fresh in my mind, and was thankfully keeping me from visualizing a coyote orgy. “I think it was a person, like someone doing some kind of shamanic ritual or something. I don’t know, it kind of freaked me out.”

“I bet what you heard was the Green Man,” Jack claimed, gesturing with his beer can exactly as you would expect of someone about to start rambling bullshit. “He’s a primeval nature spirit who was first summoned by a settler Witch centuries ago to protect those woods, and he’s the main reason Harrowick Woods are so weird to begin with. He was probably going to town on some poachers or something.”

“Jack, babe, don’t tell her stories about the woods. She has to live out here now,” Alice reminded him.

“They’re not just stories though. There’s a real Hedge Witch living in those woods. We’ve both seen her,” he claimed.

“A Witch?” I asked, wondering if there might have been any connection to the Witches’ Sabbath from my vision.  

“No, don’t listen to him. She’s not a witch,” she assured me. “We go walking on the trails sometimes and once we crossed paths with a woman with a cloak and witchy-looking walking stick, but that's it. But's she's not a Witch, she’s just one of the hippie chicks that hangs out at the New Age place in town, and she’s definitely not living out there. That’s ridiculous.”

“We’re not the only ones who have seen her though,” Jack insisted. “She’s a regular on the trails, and some other regulars have seen her do weird stuff, like tracing out the sigils on the trees, hanging charms off the branches, or wandering off the trail and just never coming back. A group of dudebros from Avalon College were hiking and one of them cat-called her, and all she did was tap her staff to the ground and some invisible poltergeist came out of nowhere and drove them all out screaming like toddlers. She can summon and command the dead, talk to animals, and she definitely has a hovel deep in those woods somewhere. Some real Blair Witch shit.”

“Lottie, I’ve been living across from those woods my entire life; there’s no Green Man, no ghosts, and no Witches in them,” Alice swore, rolling her eyes at Jack’s juvenile attempt to scare me.

“Then, can we go hiking there today?” I asked hopefully. I knew it was kind of silly, and that any similarities between my vision and local folklore were probably just a coincidence, but I figured it would be healthier than sitting around drinking beer all day.

“Oh my god, yes! We haven’t been out there since last Fall!” Alice agreed excitedly, pulling out her phone. "Let me just check to see if the trails are open during the lockdown and we'll go."

As fate would have it, the trails were open. I didn’t have hiking boots, but Alice insisted I take hers, saying that she could just piggyback on Jack anywhere there was rough terrain. She quickly threw together a backpack, grabbed three walking sticks from the shed that had been hand-carved by one of her neighbours, and we were off. It only took us a few minutes to walk to the woods themselves, and a few more minutes walking along its edge until we came to the first trail entrance, each of us putting a Twoonie in the donation box as we passed by.

As soon as we were in, I was immediately struck by the overall atmosphere of the forest. Maybe it was just because there was so little traffic on the highway because of the lockdown, but even just a little way in we couldn’t hear anything of the outside world.

It almost felt like that forest was just a little out of sync with the rest of reality, that it was older and more primeval, a place where humanity was at the mercy of Nature and her servants. The one hundred-foot-tall, centuries-old trees towering over us certainly left me with the impression that we under the watchful eye of mighty titans, who wouldn’t hesitate to punish any irreverence.

“These woods are so much prettier in the Fall, but some of the leaves are starting to bud, so that’s kind of cute,” Alice remarked casually, apparently not sharing my sense of existential awe.  

“How big is this forest?” I asked, already losing all sense of direction and scale.

“Only about four square miles, or ten square kilometers,” Alice replied, hopping onto Jack's shoulders. “Some of the trails are really winding though, and I think there’s something like forty miles of them, so they make the whole place seem ten times bigger. That’s why they tell beginners to stay off the Deep Trails, but you’re with us so it’s cool.”

“Yeah,” I said hesitantly. “So, aside from that Witch, have you guys ever seen anything weird in here?”

"She wasn't a Witch!" Alice insisted. "And no. There are no big predators here, so people just make up monsters to fill the void.”

“We’ve found giant deer tracks once. Probably from the Green Man,” Jack claimed.

“Yeah, like you know how to read tracks. Those could have been anything,” Alice rolled her eyes.  

“What about that Mothman Lady looking thing that was perched up in that tree one time?” he asked. “We both saw her.”

“Yeah, but neither of us got a good look at it,” she retorted, though sounding a little less certain than before. “It was just a big bird in poor lighting.”

“Okay, while what about the weird rune things that are on a lot of the trees, like that one over there,” he said, pointing over at a tree a little up ahead. I peered forward, and saw that he was right. The tree had some form of magical sigil carved deep into its bark, and once I noticed it, I realized that it wasn’t the only one. Trees all along the trail had similar markings, and now that I had seen them, they caused the same sort of mental feelings and imagery in my mind that the howling had. 

“It’s a local tradition. Instead of hearts and initials, people around here carve those signs into trees. Don’t ask me how it got started, but it’s nothing to worry about it,” Alice tried to reassure me. I nodded acquiescently, but didn’t say anything about all the strange vibes I was getting from the forest.

We wandered the trails for another hour or so, eventually winding up somewhere pretty close to the middle of the forest. The weird sensations and imagery the woods were giving me hadn’t gone away, but they hadn’t gotten any worse either, so I was starting to accept that it was all just a new manifestation of my synesthesia.

“Jack, Jack, look!” Alice shouted excitedly, still riding his shoulders without a complaint from him the whole time. I followed her finger to where she was pointing, but couldn’t see what was getting her so worked up. She finally dismounted her boyfriend, grabbing him by the hand and dragging him off the trail, leaving me to chase after them if I didn’t want to get left behind. We were forty or fifty feet deep when Alice came to an abrupt halt in front of a circle of small, periwinkle mushrooms, about seven feet across.

“Yes! First shrooms of the seasons!” she cheered as she knelt down, plucked off a cap and popped it right into her mouth.

“Wait, shrooms? You’re getting high now, in the middle of a forest?” I demanded indignantly.

“No worries Lottie, we’ve done it before,” Jack said as he sat down and took a cap for himself. “Trip walking through this place is really cool.”

“And these shrooms only grow wild in Harrowick County for some reason. You can’t cultivate them and they won’t grow anywhere else. You’ve got to try some,” she insisted, handing me a cap.

I sighed, accepting the offering but putting it in my pocket.

“Thank you, but I’m not getting high on shrooms I’ve never tried before when I’m out in the middle of a goddamn forest!” I affirmed, stomping my foot a little. “Can we please go back on the trail, please? This is starting to freak me out a little.”

“Well, actually, Jack and I kind of have a tradition of… fucking in the fairy ring while we’re waiting for the shrooms to kick in,” she admitted with a sheepish giggle.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said as I felt my face contort into a rictus of horror.

“Sorry, Lottie,” she apologized while eagerly unbuckling Jack’s jeans. “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to, though. Just go back on the trail and take a break on the first bench you find. We’ll catch up. We promise.”

I sighed in frustration, but didn’t bother arguing with them. I knew that trying to talk them out of screwing was fruitless, so I stomped off back towards the trail.

I’d almost made it too, before I heard screaming.

It wasn’t real screaming, just in my head, but I could still tell that it was coming from behind me. It was faint, distant, and most of all pleading. Whoever was screaming had heard us, or at least sensed our presence, and was calling for help.

I did briefly consider that I had somehow accidentally ingested some of the psilocybin from the mushrooms, but the scream was the same kind of sensory association that I had been getting from the forest the entire time I had been inside of it, so I knew I wasn’t tripping.

Now, I’ll admit that running off into the forest chasing phantom screams wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did. At the very least, I should have gotten Jack and Alice to come with me, but the screams were just so desperate they demanded immediate action, and I didn’t have the fortitude to resist the impulse to answer them. Even though I was sure I was running towards the source of the screams, they weren’t getting any louder, but because I knew the sound was in my head, I didn’t really question that.

I must have been over two hundred meters from the trail when I finally came across something that made me stop. Standing in the middle of the forest was a pair of cobblestone pillars with a metal arch over them, bearing the word ‘cemetery’. That was weird enough in and of itself, but what was even stranger was the imagery the gate was giving me.

In my mind, I saw it as a set of onyx pillars, taller than any of the surrounding trees, carved with starving, virtually mummified figures in abject misery. Instead of a metal arch, the pillars supported statues of an enthroned king and queen, which I automatically interpreted as Hades and Persephone without anything making that explicit. The gate itself was a thick, glowing fog, radiating out a sense of such hopelessness and terror that I was paralyzed, unable to move towards or away from it. The screaming continued, now clearly coming from the gate itself. As desperate as they were, they weren’t enough to rouse me from my catatonic trance.

Without warning, a black silhouette passed in front of the gate, casting a long shadow that fell upon me that seemed to eclipse all other light. The figure looked like some kind of demon woman, a pair of batlike wings slowly flexing behind her, and I was immediately reminded of Jack’s claims of having seen a winged female figure.  

I have never been more afraid than I was at that moment. That demon was the most literal monster I had ever encountered, and I had no idea what she meant to do with me. I quivered, I whimpered, but I could not bring myself to fight or flee, not even when she started to move towards me.

It was then that I heard a woman shouting, though I was far too frightened and fixated on the demon to catch what she was saying. A cloaked form suddenly interjected itself between me and the gateway, holding up a staff and shouting incomprehensible incantations at the demon.

The demon recoiled slightly, pausing as if to consider if I was worth the fight. Apparently, I wasn't, and with a slight sneer, she retreated from view. The sound of screaming left my mind, along with the image of the gateway, leaving only the out-of-place cemetery gate in its place.

The cloaked figure spun to face me, and I saw a fair-skinned woman with warm brown eyes and long, beautiful red hair. Her staff was carved with the same sigils that I had seen on the trees, topped with a crescent moon and crystal chain, and a pentagram talisman hung prominently from around her neck. She was, beyond any doubt, the Hedge Witch that Jack and Alice and others had seen, and I had just watched her vanquish some kind of demonic hellspawn with nothing more than a glammed-out walking stick.

I then, perhaps understandably, fainted.  

When I awoke, I was lying upon a lawn chair near the back end of a small cemetery, with the woman sitting beside me and looking down at me with a mix of concern and joyful curiosity.

“Are you alright?” she asked, offering me a cup of water.

“Where are we? How long was I out?” I asked as I bolted upright, looking around the cemetery in confusion.

“Barely a minute, and not even a hundred feet from the archway. You’re still in Harrowick Woods,” she assured me. I opened my mouth to object, but I caught myself. I was still getting the same eerie vibes from the cemetery as I had from the rest of the forest. If anything, they were stronger here.

“The archway. I saw, I saw some kind of demon woman in it,” I muttered as I blushed from embarrassment, the sentence sounding ridiculous as it left my lips.

“She was an Erinyes, a Fury,” she nodded. “The archway is a spirit portal to the Astral Plane, specifically the Underworld, and she was trying to lure you to her. They can only cross over to our world at certain times or if they’re summoned. You must be a very powerful clairvoyant to have seen the portal’s astral form. When I first found it, I could only sense its chthonic nature, not see it.”

“Huh?” I asked dumbly. “I’m not –”

“Can you see him?” she cut me off, pointing towards a man with a long coat and a stern gaze, keeping a close eye on me from a respectful distance. He was also, I couldn’t help but notice, translucent with a pale blue tinge to him.

“Jesus Christ, is that a ghost?”

“He’s my spirit familiar, yes, and he’s not physically projecting himself right now, so you are definitely clairvoyant,” she grinned.  “This cemetery was hallowed centuries ago so that most people can’t perceive it, or if they do, they can’t remember it. I have a feeling you’ll remember it though. I’m Samantha, by the way, and my familiar’s name is Elam.”

A long-haired brown tabby suddenly leapt into her lap, meowing as if she had just said something gravely offensive.

“I’m sorry, my spirit familiar’s name is Elam. This is my animal familiar, Moxley,” she said as she scratched him on the head. He plopped down and started purring, seemingly appeased for the moment. “And what’s your name, sister?”  

“Ah, well, Charlotte, or Lottie, if you like,” I stammered, still looking around the cemetery in confusion. I only then noticed that we were right beside a camping trailer with an enclosed awning, solar panels along the roof, and an expansive garden and homemade greenhouse. “Oh my god. You live here? You actually live here?”

“Absolutely. I love it out here. It’s quiet, beautiful, and full of magic,” she smiled. “Isn’t that what brought you out here?”

“I… think so,” I answered pathetically. “I heard someone howling out here last night and it gave me this vision, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I came here to see if it meant anything, and ever since I stepped foot in here, I’ve been getting these powerful, spiritual vibes.

“Ah… it wasn’t you howling, was it?”

“Not unless I howl in my sleep,” she smirked. “These woods are under the protection of a spirit most people call the Green Man, and I suppose he's technically my landlord. If the howling gave you visions, then I’d say that was him calling out to you. He probably sensed your presence and thought it would be a good idea to send you in my direction.”

“Huh. Yeah, my friend’s boyfriend Jack said it was the Green Man, but it’s nice to get a second, expert opinion,” I said.

“Jack? Jack Ashborne?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “Shirtless guy? Thinks he’s a Rockstar? Drives a mustang with tasteless nudes painted on it?”

“Ah, yes to one and two, but I kind of like the artwork on his car,” I admitted. “You know him?”

“Yes, and he knows me. He’s my girlfriend’s half-brother,” she replied, sounding a little annoyed. “He didn’t mention me when you were talking about this forest?”

“He said there was a Hedge Witch living out here and, well, he seemed to like talking about you like you were Bigfoot,” I told her hesitantly. She looked a little angry, and a little hurt, but seemed to be making an effort to keep her composure.

“He’s nearby, isn’t he?” she asked, looking towards the forest. A sudden grimace swept across her face, and I knew that she knew that Jack and Alice were screwing.

“Elam,” she commanded, hanging her head and clasping the bridge of her nose in frustration. The ghost didn’t need any further instruction, immediately darting off into the woods. Seconds later, I heard both Jack and Alice screaming in terror. “He’s not hurting them, they’ll be fine. They’ll probably just write the whole thing off as a bad trip.”

Suddenly she stood up and shouted.

“Those are entheogenic mushrooms, Jack! They’re not for recreational use!”

She sat back down, looking exasperated, and I hurriedly reached for the cap I had in my pocket and offered it to her.

“No, you’re fine. Keep it. You might actually get some use out of it,” she said. She then reached into her own pocket and pulled out a business card. “I won’t keep you here any longer, I’m sure you want to catch up with your friends and make sure they’re alright. But, if you’re interested in learning more about all of this, or in honing your clairvoyance, I work at Eve’s Eden of Esoterica in Sombermorey. We can schedule a remote session, or you can come to visit us after the lockdown's over. Genevieve and I will be more than happy to help you.”    

“Thank you,” I said as I gently accepted the card. “And thank you for saving me from the archway.”

“Don’t mention it – and I mean that. Thinking and speaking of spirits does have a tendency to draw their attention,” she smirked. Swallowing anxiously, I nodded graciously and ran off back towards the trail, taking care to avoid the arch as I did so.

The cemetery became lost in the trees behind me far quicker than it logically should have, but I didn’t forget it though, or Samantha. Elam, the ghost, was kind enough to point me in the direction Jack and Alice had run off. They were scared and stoned but otherwise okay. I didn't tell them what happened to me, just scolded them for tripping on shrooms out in the middle of the woods. Alice accepted that her encounter with Elam was just a bad trip pretty easily, but Samantha was telling the truth about Jack. He knows her, and he knows that was her spirit familiar, so hopefully, he'll think twice before spreading urban legends about her again.

I went online to see if I could find out any more about her and, well… oh boy. I’ve stumbled into something way bigger than just some creepy goings-on in the woods, and I need to know more. I have all of Samantha’s contact information from the business card she gave me, and I’m going to try to keep in touch with her. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw that her last name was Sumner, a very fitting name for someone who can summon spirits and fend off the damned.

Like I said at the beginning, sometimes a name says a lot about a person.



Written by The Vesper's Bell
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