"Infinitesimal stars shine down from the sky. They twinkle, and scintillate, and fizzle out, and die. They are already dead. We dance beneath their corpses."
Counselor Jordan's story times were always the highlight of every summer at Camp Nettlebottom. Between the hot, humid days spent traipsing through the woods pretending to know which mushrooms are safe to eat and which ones will earn you a one way ticket to dysentery by way of needing to spend far more time than recommended in the latrines, and the endless prattling on of Counselor Moira about the current mid-twenties heart throb and how his songs simply resonate with her soul and what she would give to sing just one set with him on stage but alas she was stuck watching children pick their noses and complain about nettles at Camp *Nettle*bottom, the children were positively voracious for some form of entertainment.
It was a particularly blustery night, and the thin trails of cloud streamed through the sky like cattail seeds blowing across a lake, causing the light from the moon and the stars to move erratically, the shadows dancing along in time. Every time Counselor Jordan told one of her stories the forest came alive with the scenes and characters prowling around the campers, making them press together, closer to the fire so as not to be consumed by the night and wrapped up into one of her tales. But as much as they shivered and quivered and trembled and shook, as much as they tossed and turned at night on their cots and rolled and tangled in their sleeping bags, the children at Camp Nettlebottom always stayed up late to hear the enchanting stories of wonder, mysticism, and the supernatural.
One of these campers was a child named Sam. Sam was the youngest camper that summer, and sat enraptured by the stories Jordan told every night despite the chidings of the other campers about bedtimes and being too young to listen to these mature, big-kid stories. Tonight was no different. Sam sat huddled under a blanket, eyes wide with wonder as Jordan began to detail the setting of tonight's story:
"Thirty years ago today, the sky was the same pale gray of shriveled, decaying bone, buried untouched for centuries only to be plucked out of the forgotten pit and put on display for all the world to gawk and stare."
Sam's mind wandered, getting lost in the world of the story but not listening to the exact words, wondering at how the trails they had trudged through and complained about earlier that very day had seen so many adventures, so many events that were deemed interesting enough to be told and retold around campfires throughout the years. It all seemed rather unfair that others should get to experience wonder firsthand in these woods while all Sam got was a scratchy pair of socks and a lingering musk of sunscreen and bug repellant.
Away from the comfort of the campfire and the safety of its light, the sounds of the forest at night could be heard. The faint buzzing of insects flying in and out of hearing range peppered the children's ears, just tickling at their consciousness, drawing what miniscule attention could be wrenched from the grasp of Jordan's story before fading into the background. An owl drifted silently above their heads, drawing a large shadow across the ground before swooping down on some unsuspecting critter. This drew the gazes of a few of the children, but they quickly turned back to the main attraction. It was only little Sam that noticed the soft rustling of leaves behind the logs.
At first it sat on the edge of her mind, but it gradually grew in volume, pushing aside the bugs and the wind and demanding the attention of anyone that got in its way. Sam turned slowly, afraid of seeing what might be lurking at the edges of the light, afraid of not seeing. Sam tugged on the sleeve of the camper sitting beside them on the log, but they shrugged off the hand and shushed, their attention soon consumed once again by the night's entertainment. Sam turned once more and strained to see any sign of danger, any sign to run or hide or scream, as the rustling grew louder and more frantic.
A squeak emerged from Sam's mouth at the same time that a small rabbit tumbled out of the bushes and into the light. She sighed in relief, drawing the ire once more of those around her, and she bent to scoop up the little animal. There was a small thorn in its paw, which Sam took to be the cause of its late night thrashing about. With the thorn removed and the rabbit sent on its way, Sam crept back to the log to listen to the rest of the story.
"The body is merely a shell, a container to push through the sticky, viscous world around us. A vehicle for which to carry our souls to the inevitable abyss we so desire, the body is slow, weak, fragile. Alone, dreams of bliss, absolute nothing, absolute silence amount to failure and humiliation. But worry not, children, for the key to your salvation is here for the taking..."
With a sudden gust, the wind changed direction, blowing now into the faces of the campers and bringing with it the smoke from the fire. The children scrambled to move around to the other side of the fire, but there weren't enough logs for everyone to sit on one side, and no one was keen to sit on the ground and fall victim to a stray pack of ants or other creatures of the like. Those who were quick enough to secure new seatings were packed even tighter together, their hot breath being sucked away in the wind to feed the fire. Those unfortunate enough to be left log-less laid blankets and jackets and even some handkerchiefs down on the ground between the logs and the fire in a futile attempt to discourage any would-be child-chompers.
Jordan stayed right where she was, never once breaking the flow of the story despite the smoke pouring around her. It enveloped Jordan, but never quite touched her. It flowed and billowed and made her appear 10 feet tall as she stood towering over the campers, arms gesticulating as if the wind was guiding them to weave tapestries of her words.
Sam was lucky enough to have been seated close to the logs on the far side of the smoke, and needed only to scoot a few steps over to be safe from the heavy fumes. This meant they were now one of the closest to Jordan, and unfortunately also one of the farthest from the safety of the tents. This was far from ideal, but Sam was preoccupied with the wish that the person next to them would have at least changed socks after the hike before pressing so close to them. A little courtesy goes a long way, as Sam was often reminded. But as Sam's nose adjusted to this new olfactory onslaught, her eyes began to drift behind the towering figure of Camp Counselor Jordan.
The smoke drifted into the trees behind Jordan, and within there arose figures of inhuman shapes and sizes. Twisted and gnarled, their great limbs swung wildly as they danced between the trees. Bent and bulbous, they pranced and rolled and swung from branch to branch as if celebrating the discovery of that night's meal. Thin and ethereal, the wisps of their shadows faded behind the fog, reappearing in another spot quicker than any living thing could move. Sam's eyes grew larger with every new shape that appeared, every new creature come to rend the flesh from their bones and savor the marrow as they crunched through every vertebra.
In a panic, Sam turned and yanked at the collar of the child next to them, nearly pulling them both off the log and onto those in front of them. But Sam's body betrayed their mind, and their mouth made a faint squawking noise as they desperately tried to warn of the monsters lurking just outside of the fire light.
"As the child reached for the old woman's hand, clouds circled overhead. The sounds of the forest were all but drowned out by the roar of the wind, tearing at the child as if to throw them away into the depths of the darkness. The child strained and stretched, and just as their hand grazed the very tip of the longest crooked finger, the air crackled with static, and lightning struck the pair - KABOOM!"
Just as the word screamed out from Jordan's lips, the child thrashed, stood, and shoved Sam off of him in a mix of surprise and terror. Sam fell backwards, from a height higher than they were tall, their head knocking against the log on the way down to the forest floor. A column of green fire shot up from the campfire and into the night sky, illuminating the area and revealing the figures in the woods, their hideous shapes moving closer and closer to the campers.
A scream erupted into the night, echoed by others soon after. The children scrambled and stumbled and stampeded towards the tents, towards the safety of their cots and sleeping bags.
Jordan, an intense look lingering on her face, calmly relaxed her body, shaking out the tensed muscles and stretched her arms to the sky.
"Tonight was a real hit!" exclaimed Moira, emerging from the trees behind her. She was covered head to toe in moss, with branches taped here and there to disguise the shape of her figure.
"Certainly," said a lanky man, coming out on the other side of the fire, "and it was all thanks to *my* copper sulfate."
"Why do you carry that around, anyway, Hank?" asked Moira, a quizzical look appearing on her face as if just considering this for the first time.
Hank shifted, looking uncomfortable, then shrugged. "I had a nasty bit of fungal infection last summer, didn't feel like going through that again."
"Gross," said Moira, her attention already elsewhere. There was still food and blankets strewn about the place, and she bent to pick up one of the s'mores to see if any part of it was still edible.
"Don't worry, I'll take care of clean-up," said Jordan as she walked over and extinguished the fire.
"Sweet, don't have to tell me twice." Hank strode lazily back over to the tents. Moira hesitated, then tossed the food scrap back down and walked away towards the rest of the campsite, careful not to trip over any logs. She tossed a "goodnight" over her shoulder, then disappeared into the darkness.
Jordan smiled, the moonlight shining in her eyes as they swept around, scanning the area like an owl watching for any signs of movement. They soon alighted upon the stirring figure of a small child. There was just enough light to make out a dark, oozing liquid seeping out of the child's head. It tried to push itself up off of its stomach, but its hands found no purchase amongst the leaves and it slid back down to the ground, defeated.
The eyes flashed once more, ensuring that no living souls besides their own and the child were about. Jordan stalked over to where the child lay, and gently prodded it with a boot. A soft groan spilled out into the night, but the body did not move.
Jordan scooped the limp body up over her shoulder, and slipped away into the forest.