The first light along the winding path had bloomed with a brilliant red. At first there was nothing but the inky blackness of the night, the chill of biting wind, and the crunching of small feet on leaves. But as they walked, the ground had begun to shine like the sun, blood-red streaks cracking through the moist earth. The old trees, gnarled and black, glistened in its soft radiance. None stopped to admire the light. All kept their slow, steady pace, through the dead of night, through the shimmering red.
After the next mile, the red light no longer seeped through the ground underneath their feet. It did not fade over time, but rather, one step from the crimson glow took them into the empty night once more. For a few more moments, there was nothing but darkness. All kept their pace still. None faltered for the lack of light. None shivered through the cold and loneliness. After just a few more seconds, the second light shone. One of the trees that blended into the oily sheen of the night sky spread its branches and revealed a deep blue glow. It brought the night into day, bathing all in its deep shine. The next tree followed suit, and the next, and the next. The forest was still old and dead, but no longer was the oppressive blanket of darkness strewn over their shoulders. But once more, none stopped to admire. None stopped at all. All kept their slow, steady pace, through the dead of night, through the radiant blue.
The girl in the column felt her feet grow numb. For each step, her foot sunk into the soft earth, swallowing it in frigid mud for a few moments. Until her next step, which brought it from the ground into the biting cold of the air. But still she stepped, one foot at a time. She followed the lights. Like the boy in front, and the boy behind, and all the others around. She could see their silhouettes through the hazy light. She knew their names. She knew the foods they liked, the toys they hid in their beds, the games they loved. And they knew the same of her. But none spoke. None spoke but for the man only a few places behind her, and all the others strewn in the column. They spoke only rarely, their gruff voices breaking through the whispering of wind and squelching of mud.
“Follow the lights,” they would shout, even as their voices grew hoarse, “follow the lights. Follow the lights.” There was nothing else to follow but the lights. And so they followed, keeping their slow, steady place, through the dead of night.
The lights on the trees faded away suddenly, the branches twisting and closing. They crushed the last rays of blue between their ancient fingers, drinking the false day. The men behind the girl still shouted behind them, as though they never noticed.
“Follow the lights. Follow the lights. Follow the lights.”
“They are the lights for the dead eyes.” The soft whisper stole into the girl’s mind, but still she walked through the darkened night. She followed the column in front, even if she could not see them. She heard their footsteps, the breath that stole from their lungs and frosted in the frigid air. She couldn’t stop. If she stopped, the boy would tread on her heels and knock her into the mud. The boy behind him would step over her, and the boy behind him, and all the others behind. She would swallow the earth instead of air, and choke on darkness and cold. She knew this because one ahead had fallen, when the light still shone blue. His limbs had gouged out tracks in the mud as his numb fingers tried to carve out handholds. No one could stop, not even her. So she walked. The embrace of the forest had muffled his screams, even as her feet trod over his flesh and bones. The column behind would still be walking over him. The earth had almost certainly stolen the life from his flesh, the spastic flailings slowing and stopping along with his heart. The girl noticed one had fallen before she trod over his form, as the line in front increased its pace for a moment. That was the only difference that his absence made. Her absence would be the same. Forgotten in a heartbeat, nothing compared to the need to keep moving. The need to follow the lights.
The next light bloomed from inside the trees. A trunk gave a slow groan and cracked open, an emerald green pouring from the splintered wood. The other trees broke apart too, slow moans of breaking wood the only protest. The long dead trees bent backwards, curving away from the path and revealing more of the empty sky above.
“Follow the lights,” the men cried, “follow the lights. Follow the lights.”
“They cannot see the lights. They are not for them.” The girl clutched inside her thin wool jacket. She had brought an item with her. The men had told them before that there was nothing to be brought but the clothes on their backs. That the skin would be stripped from their chests and hung from their shoulders if anything was found. But the girl did not listen, and the men did not find it. The stuffed doll was nestled in the folds of her jacket. A small pocket etched into the left breast, hidden from the prying eyes. The doll spoke sometimes, in a voice so soft and quiet only she could hear. It rarely spoke to her. But the night before they left, it told the girl to bring it. That it would accompany her on the journey of the lights. So it was tucked away in her jacket, and the men never saw. Perhaps they did not care.
A fork in the path was coming up, the thin track of mud splitting in two. The column followed to the right, twisting through a new stretch of glowing, broken trees. The ground looked almost alive in the deep green glow, but nothing but the long dead trees broke through its cold surface.
“Follow the lights,” came another shout from behind and in front, “follow the lights. Follow the lights.”
“The lights are the last your dead eyes will see. You will see a light greater than the stars in your sky. Then your eyes will fall into the soft mud and drown in blood and earth. Maybe they will be crushed under the weight of bones and blood. Maybe worms will feast on them, and savour your cracked and chewed bones for supper.”
“I don’t want to see the lights.” She whispered hoarsely, through her cracked and dry lips. Her doll did not reply, still nestled warmly in her jacket. He would rarely talk, and reply even less. She turned her head to the side, looking through the ranks of long dead trees older than the village she came from. Past the fog of deep green there was nothing but the dark, as flat and black as an obsidian stone. No birds sang in the darkness, no squirrels dug through the mud for nuts or scrambled up the ancient wood. Maybe she could run through the night when the lights next died. When no one would notice her absence, when hundreds of tiny feet would not crush her spine and dig her head into the soft earth. But something about the night unnerved her. The silence past the tramping of feet and the squelching of the mud. Beyond the soft breaths of the column, the rhythmic shouts of the men who lead and followed. And even further, into the stretch where not even the light reached, into the abyss where anything could lurk.
The column slowed in front of her, the steady pace for once stopping. The girl slowed as well, craning her neck to the side to see past. Some ahead were walking on a log, stretching their small arms out to balance. The line had slowed, but still moved, waiting for the ones in front to cross. Before long, it was her turn. The log was as gnarled and black as the trees, but no branches stretched from its surface. She pulled her tiny hands from her jacket and placed them onto the log. It was cold and slick with dew, but still she heaved herself on top of it. Her foot slid, teetering over the edge. The green light did not reach to the bottom of the chasm, dying in the emptiness below. In front, she saw new lights coming alive, a warm orange illuminating the path. Past the row who balanced on the log, teetering over the edge. She had no time to hesitate, the boy behind her was already climbing up the log. She walked slowly but steadily, ignoring the stabbing pain of her cramping calves. One step followed another, and another, her arms out wide as well. She was three quarters across when the wind came with a vengeance, tearing branches off the trees and howling in her ears. Before her mud soaked feet could slip off the slick surface, she crouched and grabbed at the wood. Her nails dug into the log, driving in splinters that drew droplets of blood from her fingers.
She didn’t fall. The boy in front did. The wind struck as he was taking a step, and his foot came off before he could react. He fell silently, his pale blue eyes cocked upwards, staring blankly ahead. He plummeted for only a few moments before he was out of the reach of the light, devoured by the abyss below. The wind died as swiftly as it begun. As she was righting herself on the log, a faint crunch came from below. She gave a final look down at the green tinted darkness, and continued. She jumped off the log and landed on the ground with a twinge of relief and regret. The orange lights lit the path, paler than the lights before it.
“His neck broke when he landed. He will not feel the teeth that rip the flesh from his bones, nor the insects that will burrow into his heart and lay their eggs. A new feast for those who live in the darkness, away from the lights that guide you.”
“Do you see the lights?” She asked, quickening her pace to rejoin the column. Another girl was in front of her now. She didn’t look back to see if the boy at her heels had fallen. It was easy to admit that she didn’t care. There was silence for a minute, silence apart from the footsteps and wind.
“The lights were made for the dead eyes. I have seen the lights longer than you have drawn breath into your lungs. When I had legs of bone, I walked this hallowed path. My eyes fell from my crushed skull, and now they only see dirt. My new eyes see nothing but lights. My eyes are dead, girl. Like yours.” The orange lights bloomed from the earth, much like the first red. But it came from patches. One spot of ground would glow with an intensity so bright that no one could look, but the next moment the path was devoid of light.
“Follow the lights,” came the yell from all around, “follow the lights. Follow the lights.”
“No.” She said, half to herself, half to the voice that shared her mind. “I don’t want to follow. I want to live.” She turned towards the right, and stared into the grove that was stained a pale orange. Before her legs could move, the voice came back into her thoughts. No longer a whisper, but as though a knife was stabbed into her mind.
“I have told you. These are the lights for the dead eyes. They guide you. Do you wish to stray from the path that has been set? You cannot see without the lights. The creatures of the dark live beyond this path, in the groves and valleys where no human has trod. Their eyes have sunk into their skulls and rotted in their heads. And yet they hunt. They hear the breath that rattles in your lungs from a stone’s throw away, and the pulsing of your blood twice as far. They smell the sweat on your skin, they feel when you shiver in their air. Only the lights keep them at bay.”
“Then what can I do?” She asked. She had turned back to the path, and kept her pace. But now her face was streaked with tears, tears that started to freeze and dry down her cheeks. Her mind was quiet again, and she could only hear the wind and her own feet. Her feet had long since gone numb, but she still took one step after another, following the pale orange glow. None stopped, not even her. No one could stop. All kept their slow, steady pace, through the dead of night, into the dying orange shine.
The next three miles were in darkness and silence. The orange had long since faded into nothing, and sound alone guided the column. Her throat was cracked and crying for moisture. But the only water was swallowed by the ground that she trod through, that had soaked through her shoes and socks and stained her numb feet. If she stopped, the column would not rest. It never rested. The winding path was longer than anything she had ever walked, longer than anything any of them had trod. Maybe the men had walked these grounds before, if they could not see the lights but could still follow. Or maybe they followed the footsteps of those in front. Maybe the doll knew. He was still silent in the girl’s pocket, nothing but a lifeless cloth stuffed with old wool. Was it even him who talked?
The new light was paler than even the orange, a soft white glow that brought the darkness to dusk. It did not seem to bloom from anywhere. It did not come from the trees nor the earth, but simply existed. The light was so weak that the girl could only see the girl in front of her, and the boy behind. The trees only a few steps away cast long shadows across the path, and blended into the dark sky. It looked like mist that crept through the trees, snaking and winding between the age old trunks.
“This is the last light.” The hissing voice stole into her mind, but brought some comfort rather than fear. “The last light before the end, and the brightness that will block out everything.”
“Why don’t the men see the lights?” The girl didn’t care to quiet her voice. She didn’t need the doll to tell her that they were nearing the end. Her blood was running colder than the wind that howled all around her, a primal fear that she couldn’t shake.
“Follow the lights,” came the final call, “follow the lights. We are not far. Follow the lights.”
“They are not dead. They will leave these woods, guided by instinct and fear. To guide the next ones, and the next, and the next.”
“Why?” She was met again with silence. A moment after, a cry ahead pierced her ears. A shriek that ran through the woods, not far ahead. She craned her neck upwards and felt the breath come from her lungs in a gasp. Towering above the trees, only a quarter mile away was a single point of light. It shone with such brilliance that she had to turn away and stare at it half lidded. Other lights came to life below it, burning through the darkness and bringing countless colours.
“It hungers.” The lights winked out one by one, and the greatest one lowered itself towards the trees. The pace of the line quickened, almost at a jog. The girl followed, her heart thudding faster and faster in her chest. The white, misty light had died, but the glare from ahead, the glare that peeked through the trees, was more than enough to see.
“No.” The girl whispered. “I don’t want to.”
“You must. Something must slake its thirst for blood. Something must fill its belly.” The line grew closer, winding through the trees. Another scream came from ahead. The girl stared ahead, eyes widening. The line was coming even closer, she looked to her right. The trees were cracked and broken, hiding the darkness that lay beyond the intense glow. She turned back and the light drowned her vision. The girl in front stepped back, crying, but her voice died. The great pinpoint of light rose into the air, towering above the girl with the doll. She couldn’t see through the stinging brightness, but heard its breath, louder than any hurricane. She smelt the rot and blood that came from its jaw, remnants of the column stuck between its twisted teeth. It snaked an arm towards her. She didn’t see, but she knew.
“No!” She screamed and ran. The hand reaching for her buried in the mud where she stood, showering her in slick earth. A bellow rang through the forest, loud and low, rattling in her ears and shaking the ground. She leapt over a shattered branch and ran into the light.
“No, stop! What are you doing?” The men that lead were yelling, screaming, and she could hear the choking sobs of the column left behind. The only thing she cared for was a thud that stirred the earth. Followed by another, and another. The light in front was drawing closer, becoming brighter. She looked behind and saw the beast’s tail drawing from the ground. It started white, then came orange, green, blue and red. She turned her gaze back to the forest, stepping in time with the shaking footsteps of the thing that followed.
“Stop! You are angering it. The sacrifice will no longer satisfy it.” But the girl still ran. She slid down a hill, sending up sprays of mud under her feet. Her blood was now running hot, the feeling in her feet coming back. The thing behind her groaned, long, low and loud. It wasn’t far behind. She could still see the light that came from its face. The light for the dead eyes.
It planted an arm right before the girl, three times as wide as the largest trunk in the forest and as white as snow. She slid around it, dodging around the pale flesh and the gnarled trees. It groaned again.
“Too late. How many more will feel its jaws? I walked this path. I trod the mud. I wound through the trees. I followed the lights, meant for my eyes and yours. This path was chosen for you, and you left. Turn back. Turn back and face your fate.” The girl reached into her wool jacket and grabbed the doll. It burned at her touch, running hotter than anything she had felt. Wincing, she curled her fingers around it and tore it from the pocket it was nestled in. She threw the shrieking doll into the light behind her, the voice in her head fading and dying. The steps grew closer together and heavier, the ground heaving and mud rippling. The girl still ran, as the hill sloped to flat ground. But as she took a step, her foot sunk deep into the mud. It slid further and further into the earth, only stopping until her leg was buried at the knee. She lost her balance and fell face first into the frigid earth. The girl planted her hands into the ground, trying to push herself out of the mud’s embrace, but they only sunk too. One last groan rang in her ears. She felt a hot breath along her back, moisture budding along her woolen jacket. Her eyes saw nothing but mud and tears. The light that shone behind burned bright as her body broke beneath its teeth. Her dead eyes never saw that light again, buried in the churned mud and her own foamy blood.
All could see the light now. The column that had scattered into the darkness saw it, and too the men that led them. On a hill many miles away, a young man and his wife saw the lights. They admired the brilliant sheen and conspired to make a wish. They saw the light that shone for the world to see. The light that all the world would see.
The light for the dead eyes.