cover art by eosrose
This podfic is also available to download from the Eos Rose Productions website.
Links last updated March 17, 2018.
The woods are dangerous.
No one talks about it, of course. Not out loud, not in the daylight.
At night, though. At night, people share their fears, in quiet, desperate whispers. They talk of glowing eyes and sharp fangs, howls that send shivers down your spine. Cut-off screams and blood-stained, ripped clothing.
The woods are not safe. As long as people have lived here, the woods have been perilous.
Frank knows this.
Parents sing cautionary songs about careless children wandering too far from the known paths and getting lost in the forest, never finding their way home. Songs about lovers promising to secretly meet in the forest to consummate their love, who were never seen again.
Grandparents tell thinly disguised stories about the lass who was too bold for her own good and never returned from exploring the woods, and the parents who got distracted by their petty fight and didn't notice their toddler heading toward the forest.
Children know, from a very young age how dangerous the woods are, and Frank is no exception.
But something in the woods calls to him, waits for him, croons his name in the dark, and he can't stay away any longer.
Frank waits until everyone is asleep and the moon is out, full and round, before slipping out of bed. He dresses warmly, his thickest trousers and three layers of tunics. And lastly, his favorite cloak, blood-red fabric, lined with silk and edged with rabbit fur.
He sheathes his daggers, one at his waist, one in his boot, and grabs the lantern he'd hidden in his room weeks earlier. Carefully, he climbs out the window, treading lightly through his mother's herb garden before approaching the outer edge of the woods. He takes a deep breath, feeling the way the forest calls to his blood.
Frank doesn't look back.
It's moon-bright, but the lantern softly illuminates the well-worn path under Frank's feet. The woods are noisy, filled with the buzzing of crickets, the hushed beat of feathered wings, and other, less innocent sounds. The wind blows, ruffling Frank's hair, playing with the hem of his cloak. He can taste the first hint of winter in the air, snow and ice. It sends a shiver down his back, and he pulls the hood of his cloak over his head.
There is a sense of menace surrounding the old oaks, elms and maples in the forest, and Frank's lantern casts strange shadows, turning branches into outstretched arms, knots and whorls into eyes and gaping maws, roots into feet. Dead leaves rattle in the breeze, swirling along the ground, startling Frank.
He chokes on a laugh, a frisson of fear tingling along his nerves. This isn't what he expected when he entered the forest. After being drawn to the woods for so long, Frank thought he would feel. . .welcomed. Instead, all he senses is a distinct lack of interest in his presence here.
This was a mistake. That stark realization turns his blood cold.
Frank presses forward, because it's too late to go back now. The stories tell of foolhardy youngsters who get lost in the forest, maps and compasses useless, paths twisted and confused in the shadow of the trees. He holds his lantern up higher, trying to see what lies ahead, and the light sputters and dims. Frank shakes the lantern carefully; he knows he filled it with oil before he left home, but now there's no movement of liquid in the reservoir. It's empty, and a moment later the light dies.
"At least the moon is full." Frank says the words out loud, and the firmness of his voice pushes back the fear. The moonlight is bright enough to keep his feet on the path, gilding the trees with shining silver. Two wide eyes watch him from a high branch, yellow and glowing, and whooooo? asks the owl. "Frank," he answers, and the owl blinks in reply.
Further on, the path forks, and Frank stops, uncertain. He looks left, then right, trying to decide which direction to take. There seems to be no difference between them, so he chooses to go left.
The moon slips behind some clouds and suddenly it's as dark as pitch. Frank stumbles over—a tree root?— and flails his arms to recover his balance. The lantern slips from his grip and crashes to the ground, glass shattering.
He curses, heart pounding, and his words echo in the silence. It's eerie, like the entire forest is holding its breath, waiting—
Suddenly Frank notices the eyes, dozens of them in the trees, glowing and unblinking and low to the ground, nothing like the owl. The eyes see him. The hair at the back of Frank's neck prickles and stands straight up. He spins on his heel, but he's surrounded.
There's a howl, close—too close—and Frank pulls his dagger, fingers wrapped tight around the handle. The wind blows and the clouds shift and the moon shows its face again.
"Hello there, little boy," a voice purrs, and Frank turns to confront a young man, a few years older than Frank by the looks of him. He's pale and dark, strangely delicate, and when he grins at Frank, his canine teeth are sharp.
"'M'not a boy," Frank says, anger heating his words. "I'm almost grown."
The stranger chuckles, and it sends a thrill through Frank. He circles Frank, drawing closer. Frank wants to flee, get away from this stranger and the way he looks at Frank like he's a tasty morsel. . .
"Almost grown," the stranger repeats. "And wandering alone in the forest." The stranger clicks his tongue, and leans toward Frank. Frank's paralyzed, fear taking hold as the stranger inhales deeply, mouth brushing against Frank's ear. "Delicious. . ."
Frank cracks and he runs, feet pounding hard and fast on the path, heading deeper into the woods. He doesn't look back, not even when he hears a ravenous howl and the sound of footsteps—of paws giving chase.
The panting of the beast is loud in Frank's ears, and he can hear the click of its teeth, the low growl it utters as it chases Frank. There's the snap of branches and the crunch of leaves, more howling and when Frank dares a look back, he stumbles over his feet and almost goes down. There's dozens of them, dark wolf-shapes, eyes yellow and predatory.
He runs faster, but in the end, the wolf-beast leaps and lands atop Frank, slamming him into the ground. Frank hits hard, gasping, and he rolls under the wolf and blindly slashes with his dagger. There's a cut-off yelp and the wolf-body surges, teeth closing on Frank's hand. He screams, it hurts it hurts, and the dagger falls from his useless fingers.
The monster dances back, wolf-grin bright, and licks Frank's blood from its muzzle. It shakes its head and then lunges, body blurring into a human shape. Frank feels an answering pull inside his heart, like his own body is trying to shift.
The stranger is crouching over Frank and growling. "Who are you?" he demands, and Frank senses the rest of the wolf-beasts gathering around them. "Who?"
"F-frank," he stutters. The stranger's face is close; Frank can see the blood on his lips and the way his eyes reflect the moonlight. "Frank Iero."
"Who are your parents?" The man grabs the front of Frank's tunic and shakes him. "Why are you here in our forest, stinking of them but tasting of us?"
"What? I don't understand!"
"Gerard," a soft voice says, and the stranger jumps back to his feet, lowering his eyes as a dark-haired woman approaches. She's pale, like the stranger—Gerard—and she smiles at Frank.
Frank sits up, cradling his hand to his chest, feeling the wet warmth of his blood dripping down his arm. The crowd of wolf-beasts transform, one by one, into their human forms, men and women in equal numbers. Frank can't help but gape at the sight.
"Frank Iero," the woman murmurs, tasting his name. "Who are your birth parents?"
"I don't know," he confesses, meeting her stare. It's hard; he finds himself wanting to look away from her glowing eyes, to throw back his head and bare his throat to her. "I was a foundling; my parents said I was abandoned near a stream in the forest, swaddled in a wolfskin—"
A gasp moves through the pack of human wolves, spreading out like a ripple in a pond. The woman laughs softly and holds out her hands. "Welcome home, Frank Iero."
"For generations, the humans have been stealing our children, our future," Gerard hisses. "Turning them against us, hunting us—"
"Oh." When Frank was growing up, he'd always felt strange, different. Like he didn't quite fit into his life, rough edged and sharp. He'd tried to love his parents like a dutiful son, attempted to make friends, forge bonds in the community he lived in, but it had always felt false.
And now he knew why.
He lets the woman pull him to his feet; she takes care to avoid his injury. "My name is Lindsey, and these are my people." She sweeps her arm out gracefully. "Be welcome, Frank Iero."
It feels natural to tip his head back, and she presses a kiss to the pulse that throbs in his neck. It's an obvious ritual and Frank shivers, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of rightness. "Gerard will show you the path to our village, and teach you our ways," she says.
Frank glances at Gerard, and there's something hungry in his eyes that makes Frank flush, and his heart beats faster. Gerard holds his hand out to Frank and Frank doesn't hesitate, places his palm to Gerard's and sighs. He's home.