Chapter 7: At the Center
He wasn’t conscious. The current of the river must have really worn down his strength. I had to find some way to help him, some way to wake him back up. I didn’t care if this wasn’t real; I couldn’t bear to see my dad like this.
“Dad!” I screamed. Quickly, I tried performing what rudimentary CPR I knew. I couldn’t tell what was wrong, or if even the same rules applied to this place as the world I knew, but I had to try something.
After one final exasperated punch to the chest, he coughed up a sizable portion of water and opened his eyes, looking up at me. It took him a second to get adjusted to his surroundings, but as soon as his eyes focused, he recognized me, smiling his own personal goofy grin.
“Hey there.” He said as he sat up in the water. “That current was a little rough after all, wasn’t it?”
“Dad—,” I began, before he cut me off. “Help me up out of this water, will you?” he said. “I think one of those things took a chunk out of my leg.” I helped him up and walked him up on to the beach. Was it really him? He seemed so real, like everything else in this place. But it was impossible.
“Okay, that’s good. Right here.” Unexpectedly, he gave me a great hug. “It’s so nice to see you.” He said, letting me go. “You’ve done so well so far. You’re almost finished.”
“Dad, I—I don’t understand.” I said in response. He smiled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, there isn’t time. You need to get moving. You don’t want to be late.” He pointed towards the forest entrance, nursing his leg with his other hand. “I can’t come with you though. I don’t think I’m going to be able to move from this spot for at least a little while.”
“Dad I can’t just leave you here! You’re hurt.” He shook his head. “I’ll be alright, don’t worry about me. Go.”
With slight hesitation, I responded. “Okay, Dad.” He was right, there was not much time left. And he had taken me this far. The sun had set, and the storm seemed to be getting bigger with every passing minute. I had to go right now.
Reluctantly, I got up and walked towards the forest entrance. This was it. The last obstacle. The storm crackled above me, eagerly awaiting me to enter, challenging me to survive inside. A challenge I wouldn’t back down from. I would not be trapped here.
Entering in, I could barely see a few feet in front of me. The trees were thick above, and the storm ensured that I wouldn’t have any usable light source. Every now and then, lightning would strike from the sky and illuminate my path, but it wasn’t enough to see anything by. This was going to be a problem.
I thought about what had happened the first time with the monster. I had needed a way to fight it, and suddenly a weapon had appeared in my hand. Maybe I had more control over this place than I initially thought.
Stopping for a moment, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize myself holding a flashlight, just enough to light my way. Nothing happened. I tried again and still nothing appeared. I thought back to how I was feeling when the sword appeared, what I was thinking.
Maybe that was the key to solving this.
I heard movement. Something was moving in the forest. At first, I thought that it might be some kind of animal, but it was like no animal I had ever heard before. Judging by its movement, it was big, it was fast, and it did not like me being here.
Everything in my body wanted to just run forward and try my luck in the dark, away from this thing. I felt my fight and flight response working in overdrive, yelling at me to just do something, anything, to get away from the noises I was hearing. But I needed to stand my ground. This was my world, and it was about time I had some say in what was going on.
The noises were getting closer, more ferocious. Whatever it was, it sounded impatient. I don’t know why it hadn’t attacked yet, but I had to do something fast. I visualized the flashlight in my hand, trying to will it into existence.
I felt the weight in my right-hand change. A small flashlight had appeared in it, almost identical to the one Dad keeps in the kitchen drawer back home. Better than nothing I guess. I turned it on and a generous light beam emanated from it, illuminating the path ahead.
As I trudged forward, the noises around me stopped. Maybe it was afraid of the light, used to living in an environment where none normally appeared. Maybe I had passed some sort of test. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was moving forward, working towards reaching my goal.
I started running along the path, there was no time to waste. The further I got along, the more the environment seemed to push me away. The grass and plants rustled violently, and several trees fell right in my way. The wind pushed me back more and more, until it became a conscious effort every second just to hold myself upright.
Suddenly, I heard a horrific, primal scream, loud enough to pierce my ears even above all of the sounds of the storm. Someone was in trouble.
“Help! Someone help me!” The voice screamed from the darkness. I recognized that voice. It was Dad. He must have gone in the woods after me after all. I stopped moving forward.
Dad let out another soul-crushing scream. I couldn’t just leave him to die, even if he wasn’t my real dad, in the world I knew. But he seemed just like him. Also, he had done so much for me already in getting me this far, and that was enough by itself.
I started veering off the path to the left, into the thick forest brush, when I heard another voice from my right. “Wait!” it said. “It’s a trick. Don’t go after it. Stay on the path, no matter what!” It couldn’t be. The voice was Dad’s also, but he sounded fine. The screams to my left got louder, and more unbearable to hear. How could there be two of them? This had to be another trick.
Suddenly, I heard a loud crunch and the screams to my left went silent. Without hesitating, I rushed off the path to the source of the screams, ignoring the yells of protest from behind me. He was not going to suffer because of me. Not anymore.
“Dad!” I screamed. No response. I pushed past branches and leaves and ran furiously to where I thought he was. Out of nowhere, I tripped on something heavy. Something warm.
Something not breathing.
“Dad!” Shining my flashlight on him, his face was extremely pale, and his neck had been bent violently to the side, mangled horribly. He was gone.
Tears streamed down my face in an instant as I fell to the ground beside him. I let him suffer, it was all my fault. I let this happen to him. I shouldn’t have listened to that other voice. If I had not hesitated, then I would have been able to save him. If I had just reached him in time…
A voice echoed from all around me, boring itself directly into my skull with its sharp nasally tones. I turned around and watched as Dad’s body crumbled to dust, and I realized my mistake.
I felt the blow connect against my rib cage as I was thrown back ten feet, right into a tree trunk. I fell to the ground, coughing up blood. There was no time to fight this monster again. Picking myself up, I ran as fast I could to my right, hoping that would take me back along the path. I only made it a couple dozen feet before I felt another blow connect with my side, knocking me back into another tree. This time, my foot was caught in a branch on the way down, and I felt excruciating pain as the bones in my ankle and foot snapped. Ignoring the pain as best I could, I limped away from the monster. I had to make it through.
I could see light up ahead, poking through the trees. This was it, the end of the road. I was almost there. I reached my hand out to brush away the branches and push through, when I felt a large hand grab my injured foot and pull me back. Nearly blinded by the pain, I kicked as hard as I could with my good foot and broke the grip, leaping through the opening. My vision blurred. It was too much to bear, and I felt myself lose consciousness.