The ground rose steadily to the north. As the path moved from the open ground under the cover of the bare, late autumn trees, the hiker shifted the pack on their shoulders. Leaves crunched beneath their feet upon the packed gravel. The sun slowly sank in the west, bringing rich colors and a chill to the evening. A sense of urgency pushed them to press onward.
Clouds were gathering and the air held the threat of cold rain. Still, the hiker did not pause to build a shelter. They merely flipped the hood of their coat up over their head and moved faster. When the first fat drops of water fell from the sky, the traveler was growing near the summit of the hill. Rain had turned into a steady pelting of icy cold water, mixing into something like sleet. A clearing was on the north side of the hill, just a few hundred yards below where the trees were regularly smited with with the wrath of the sky.
As the traveler moved into the clearing, they pulled a glowstick from in their right pocket. As they snapped the thing and shook it, there was a moment of worry that the chill of the evening was going to render the chemicals useless. The lurid green light that came almost immediately after they stopped shaking the sealed plastic tube should have reassured the one holding it. Instead, they remained agitated. The pack on their back felt heavy. The exhaustion from their quick march up the hill was catching up with them.
A fear pressed them onward. As they came to the end of the path, they found the standing stones. It was nothing like the fabled henge off in an English field. It was barely a ring, to be honest. Jagged stones of granite stood up like they had been cast to the ground by some giant. By the light of day, they seemed some queer combination of orange and pink with dark veins of feldspar through them. In the queer half light of the glowstick, they looked to be the color of the hiker's flesh, if not more lurid- in short, like the flesh of the zombies from the cheap paperback that was buried in the bottom of the heavy pack.
They stopped at the edge of the circle. Carefully, the swung the pack off their shoulder and set it on the ground outside of the circle. Holding the glowstick in their teeth, they opened the pack and began to dig through its contents. With a shaky hand, they pulled out a leather sack that bulged awkwardly but in an organic fashion. Soon a second sack was found. It was longer than the first and seemed heavier. The items in the sack clattered slightly as the hiker was setting them down.
The hiker's face paled at the noise. They looked from the bags they had carried up the hill to the ring they were beside with a fearful expression. With a swallow, they pushed the lump of terror back down their throat before pulling out a canteen and a crushed loaf of bread. The glowstick faded as they dropped the flap over the opening of the sack. They took the glowstick out of their teeth and held it awkwardly in their right hand, shaking it in a quick desperate motion.
The glowstick went dark the moment the tip of an end crossed over the perimeter of the circle. Alone in the darkness, caught in a rainstorm that was closer to hail than sleet, the hiker gave an unconscious whimper of fear. Within the circle, a light seemed to rise. It was like a faint mist, a trick of the eye against the dark. Slowly, the light grew brighter. The hiker tore their eyes away from the light and cast the loaf of bread into the circle. The cord of the canteen tangled on their wrist as it swung away from them.
The canteen abruptly stopped midswing, as though someone had taken hold of it. The hiker looked over. A man stood across the grassy demarcation of the circle's edge. The canteen had swung half into the circle and the man had taken hold of it. He looked at the hiker and then down at the two bags laying at their feet. "You return what is ours?" the man asked.
The hiker nodded, awkwardly attempting to untangle their wrist from the canteen's strap. The man pulled on the canteen, dragging the tangled wrist closer to the edge of the circle. "And the price?" he said. A chill washed down the hiker's spine that had nothing to do with the weather.
"I have nothing to give, my Lord," the hiker wailed, "I have given you all that I have."
The man in the circle tipped his head slightly to the left and regarded his unwitting prisoner. The traveler stooped and picked up the sacks at their feet. They held them out to the man, unable to still the anxious tremors that made the things within give a quiet noise, as though dry, fragile things were jostled together. "Take them," the hiker said. Hysteria had entered into their voice. The man before the frightened traveler smiled.
The tips of the fingers of the hand holding the bags had crossed over the grassy line marking the end of the path. When the man in the circle closed their own large hand over the wrist attached to that hand, the possessor's eyes went wide. A scream echoed in the dark as all light vanished and the hiker lurched forward.
Three days later, a search party found the pack and the glowstick laying at the trailhead. Within the ring of stones, a notable number of mushrooms were present. One of the members of the party from out of town commented on this. The head of the search team, an older man, said that it was due to the previous rain. They then went back down the trail, fanning the search to go through the cold wood.
Wrote this whilst listening to:
Trollabundin from Eivor
I can feel it humming from The Flashbulb