“Hello, sweet thing.” Tay jumped and turned toward the sound of the voice. A strange creature was peeping at them from the undergrowth of the forest that surrounded them. It was about three feet high and roughly human in appearance, other than that it was stick thin, knobbly and distinctly tree–like. It inched forward, a smile on its woody face. Behind it, Tay could just make out other shapes lurking in the shadows. Occasionally, sunlight glinted on an eye, making it seem to glow.
Tay was entirely spooked and crouched protectively over Cale, searching the forest floor for something he could use as a weapon. As he turned his head, movement caught his eye, and he glanced over his shoulder to see more of the stick creatures creeping toward them.
“Stay back,” he growled, trying to keep his voice steady. “Get away from us.”
“Don’t be afraid, pretty thing,” the creature said. Its voice was like the creak and whisper of a tree in the wind. “We won’t hurt you. We just want to look…to touch your softness.”
“Pretty things. Pretty things.” The whisper came from the other creatures that now surrounded them.
“Stay away,” Tay shouted.
By now, Cale had dragged himself to his knees, and they huddled together, trying to keep all the creatures in their sights.
Tay jumped when something touched his hair, and spun to find one of the creatures at his shoulder with its woody fingers combing through his hair. “Pretty,” it crooned. “Fire.”
“Fire,” the others echoed. “Touch the fire.” They all moved forward, emboldened that their fellow creature had not been consumed by the fire, presumably meaning Tay’s bright, fiery-red hair.
“Get off.” Tay lifted the stick man, tugging the fingers from his hair, and literally threw him away from them. The creature hissed, and the sound was repeated around the closing circle. To Tay’s horror, the expression on the woody faces turned from curiosity to animosity, and a dozen little mouths opened to show rows of razor-sharp fangs.
“Oh shit,” Cale said softly, then stood up, pulling Tay up with him. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, “I’ll protect you.” Tay almost laughed until Cale whirled, catching the nearest stick creature with his booted foot, sending it flying back to knock over three more. He then whirled again, sweeping two others off their feet. The creatures snarled and hissed, trying to bite his foot, but his boots were too thick for their teeth, as sharp as they were, to make any impression at all.
One enterprising imp leapt at Cale, whose sweeping arm caught it before he could reach the throat for which it aimed, and although it sank its teeth in, the thick layers of wool coat and jacket protected him. He was then able to use the swinging stick as a weapon against the others, which he did, protecting both himself and Tay until the creatures, including the one he’d been swinging in his hand, fell back licking their wounds.
“Nice work,” Tay said breathlessly.
“Hmm. I’m not going to be able to fight them all if they come at us together, though. There are more than there were when it started.”
As he spoke, Tay realised he was right. The number of stick-men had more than doubled, and there were more skulking out of the trees to join the little crowd, who whispered and rustled and watched Tay and Cale with glowing eyes and bared teeth. During the fight, the two friends had moved to the centre of the clearing and now stood back to back in the middle of a ring of stick-men. They weren’t moving forward, but they seemed to be waiting for something.
“Well, at least we’re together, mate. Last man standing, huh?”
Tay grinned at the reference to the games they used to play. Whether they were cowboys or ninjas, wizards or warriors, they were always the last men standing, facing the last battle with their guns, wands, or swords in their hands. In their games, they always triumphed. Today, it seemed they were about to fight their last battle.
“It was good knowing you.”
“Yeah. At least I’m not going to turn into a demon now.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Not saying it won’t make it go away.”
Tay gave an ironic huff. “No, but―” He broke off, his eyes flying wide. “Shit, now we know what they’re waiting for.”
Dozens of the little creatures had materialised out of the trees, surrounding Cale and Tay with a ring four deep. The ring now split to let something else into the circle. It was a creature similar to the stick-men, only three times as big and much bulkier. The teeth, though, were just the same, if bigger and probably sharper.