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Somewhen along the road, she lost her way.

Maybe it was when she chose to leave her home. She wanted to see the world, meet new people, touch the vibrancy of life outside the familiar...

...but there's barely any time for exploring, barely any time for socializing, and before long the new became routine, each day part of a familiar pattern.

Maybe it was when she chose to be a high school teacher. She thought it would let her share her passion for physics, for understanding the world, how reality works and how to manipulate it, the closest thing to magic that exists...

...but the system stifled nearly all creativity, the students were mostly apathetic, the hours long and the paperwork draining.

Or maybe it was when she decided to go on sabbatical, to give herself the time to explore, to figure out who she really is and what she really wants...

...but the months have flown by, and all she's learned is that she's even less sure of what she wants than before, that life seems absent of any lasting meaning, and that going back to teaching feels intolerable.

Somewhere along the way, she lost her road...

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...which is only really clear to her when the branches she was pushing through grow thicker, and instead of revealing the path through the park, show a dimly lit forest.

She blinks, but the scene doesn't change. She looks behind her, but the park is gone.

She took this shortcut home a hundred times before. The park isn't large enough to ever completely block out the sight of the surrounding city, let alone get truly lost in.

But somehow, right now, it's clear that's exactly what she is.


She feels disoriented and oddly alert. Something is happening. Something she can't make sense of.

She grabs her cell phone, somehow expecting that she might have walked into a different part of town. Was she really that absent-minded on her way back home? It's really the only possibility.

She checks google maps, but her icon won't load. "Offline mode", it says. Huh.

She checks her reception, and finds none. Maybe something is blocking the signal? Some ... structure?

She looks around and only sees leaves and bark coalescing into walls of foliage.

Ooooor not.

"What the ...", she whispers under her breath.

Now the sensible thing to do is to turn around and trace her way back to familiar ground.

The sensible thing is to not walk in to mysterious places, while disoriented, and outside of cell reception.

Yet sensible things are boring. And her life is already so boring.

So she ignores the pounding in her chest, and instead pushes her attention outward to her senses. The quiet like glass, splitting in hair fractures from her slightly ragged breathing...

She steps forward slowly, scanning her surroundings, trying to make out where this path goes.

What does she see?


She's surrounded by thick underbrush, surrounded itself by thicker hedges. Her clothes give some protection, but she still feels stings as branches or nettles or thorns occasionally prick and scratch her. Each step adds a third sound to the absolute silence, masking for a moment the pounding of her heart and the harsh push and pull of her breaths.

Everything she sees is some shade of brown and green, though the dusky light makes it hard to see too far, and the trees grow thick enough to block her vision anyway. The sky is a vague haze of dim light, with no sign of where the sun should be. Noticing that draws her attention to the shadows, eyes roaming over the pattern of green and brown around her, letting her gaze unfocus to take in the all the black at once...

...until it becomes clear that they are not where they should be. It's subtle, so subtle she can't quite understand what's wrong until she looks up and around again to see the light's dim glow through branches, then down again at interplay of foliage and shadow.

The shadows aren't following the light, because the light is coming from everywhere with the same faint haze. It's hard to know what the shadows should be doing, in an environment like this... but her intuitive mind knows, somehow, that what she's seeing is wrong.

It only gets worse when she tries to look back and forth between two patches of forest, tries to compare the shadows between them, and realizes that they're changing. Not a lot. Not obviously. But a leaf that was a dark green before looks a slightly brighter shade, now, and then an even brighter one, then back to dark, then so dark it's hard to see at all... or did she imagine that it's the same leaf? Perhaps the wind... but no, there is no wind.

No wind, and no bird calls, and no animals, and no insects. Just her heartbeat, and her breaths, and the more she pays attention, the stronger the feeling of subtle wrongness is, and the harder to miss, like a 3D image she can't unsee. She has to actively focus her attention on things in the distance, tree trunks and patches of bramble, to keep the creeping sense of offness from filling her entire awareness with surreality.


She suppresses the urge to run. A rising panic fills her. Her mind feels like a room full of propane where one wrong thought might light a spark. Her eyes shift back and forth from the distance to the flickering, ever-changing wrongness of her immediate surroundings.

'I'm on drugs', she realizes. 'I must be on drugs.'

Wait, how? She just went for a walk around town, with a little break for a pumpkin spice latte at that cute coffee bar on 34th street. It had the cute couches and the cute waiter, and the cute ... uuuhm, do people spike each other's coffee nowadays?

She shakes her head. 'This is paranoid.', she thinks.

So maybe she is unwell? Is this one of those things that can happen if you have an aneurysm or a brain tumor?

In either case, staying calm is important - accept that things may seem different from how they truly are. If she's on drugs, she can give herself a bad trip. If she is having medical issues, then freaking out will make it worse.

She could also be having a psychotic break down. How do those even work? How can she tell if she's hallucinating?

Triangulate. That's it. Triangulate the information. This is just a puzzle.

Logically, if she keeps going, she should soon reach the edge of the park and hit the enclosing fence. If however, she is not in the park after all, then she should encounter a building or street. If none of that works because this is all in her head then she won't be able to perceive fences, streets or buildings. However, in that case her body should start colliding with objects that disagree with her mind's new creative direction for reality.

'And that makes *not running* pretty important.'

Also, this place is kind of beautiful in an eerie and foreboding way. Maybe she can turn this rising panic in to something beautiful. This experience will end and the world will become mundane again. Let's carefully keep walking forward, carefully keep picking a path past the brambles and thorns, and carefully keep focused on the more visually cooperative plants in the distance.

Breath in, breath out ... She's got this.

A few more steps, and a few more breaths, and she finds herself softly humming "Rockabye baby" as her fingers gently twirl around the thorn bushes in passing.


She walks through the waking dream of her (probable) delusion with an eye for the beautiful, and beauty seems to rise up to meet her. A spiderweb sits suspended between some branches, glistening with dew that's absent elsewhere. A flower peeks out from between some hedges, sky-blue petals stark against the endless green and brown of the forest. A gnarled trunk that bends sideways and up and over and down, forming an arch that almost looks like a gateway.

Occasionally the hedges are too close together, and she has to force her way through, brambles tugging and tearing at her clothes while the occasional thorns leave stinging white lines along her skin. It feels real, and grounding, keeping her from retreating too far into the dream-like state of wonder that's fed by each new beautiful detail she sees.

A tree whose long, thin branches droop in a leafy umbrella around it, faintly glowing mushrooms dotting its trunk. Another tree thick and tall as a skyscraper, stretching up in the distance like a looming giant, higher than her neck can crane, its branches eventually disappearing into the skylit mist above. The burbling, happy sound of a brook... the first sound she's heard that didn't come from herself, sometimes distant, sometimes seeming to be just behind some particularly tall hedges, until she pushes through one last batch and finds it ahead of her.

Along with an elk, standing at a bend in the stream with its head bent forward to drink. It's large as a horse, with massive antlers that twist and split into a dense forest above its head. Its coat seems to have moss growing on it in artful patterns that seem to gleam in the dim forest, and its eyes, when it looks up to stare at her, are pitch black.


"Holy shit", she exclaims very loudly inside her head and very softly outside of it.

She stands frozen, first simply taking in the shock of the majesty before her, and then finding her eyes hooked on to those pitch black pools.

Though she has never been an animal person, she very much knows that large creatures are inherently dangerous. Even the sweetest and most gentle of critters can accidentally kick her head cleanly through death's door.

And yet.

And yet and yet and yet.

She senses something different about this one. Some spark that normal animals never possess...

She considers stepping forward, and then considers the massive gordian knot of essentially-just-knifes on the creature's head.

So instead, she reaches out a single hand as if beckoning, as if showing there is nothing to fear.

She will wait here. Cock her head slightly. Softly smile and say "hey" in that sing song soothing voice of someone calming a startled child.


Water drips from its wet neck, and a black tongue flicks out along its damp muzzle as those black eyes stare back into hers. In her periphery she can see the antlers subtly shifting, becoming less knotted and tangled, almost forming a picture. After a few tense heartbeats have passed, it opens its mouth to give a high pitched bugle... but interwoven with the primal animal sound is the warbling of a wooden flute, a brief, mournful melody.

The stream slows to a stop as the sound echoes in the woods around her. Only when it fades away does the water begin to flow and babble again.


"Drugs. Definitely drugs.", she realizes. "Shit."

She has no medical knowledge to speak of. Back in college she had momentarily considered becoming a doctor, but abandoned the idea the moment she had to study actually live intestines.

"Wait wait, just think this through.", she thinks. "There are some basics: Heart rate, pupil dilation, dehydration."

She licks her lips. No cracks, and she doesn't feel particularly thirsty.

Next she grabs her phone and opens the camera app. She looks in to the selfie camera and studies her pupils.

They seem larger, but that makes sense in the dim light.

Ok, sure, her heart is pounding again, but that seems easy to explain...

"Maybe ... maybe this is a dream?"

She pinches herself.

"Ouch. Ok, not that either."

She is quickly running out of hypotheses here...



The elk's horns have shifted back into a tangled mess, and seem to be growing even sharper and more chaotic as it watches her. Eventually it returns to drinking from the river, the faint lines along its coat shifting to look something like a map...

Which she's so entranced by that she doesn't notice the dark figures until they're nearly on the ground. Six of them that she can quickly count, things that look like wolves but covered in (or made of?) vines, and crawling vertically down the tree trunks to surround the elk... or her and the elk.


She feels time slow down as all her senses snap in to focus. Slowly and naturally, as unhurried as can be, she steps lightly and smoothly back - back down the path, back away to safety. By the third step, her hand casually slides in to her coat pocket and wraps around the hilt of her carving knife. She had ever thought about how to use it in self defense instead of 3d-doodling on random objects, yet she wasn't particularly eager to find out if any of her fantasies would play out well in reality.



Luckily the wolf-things seem more interested in the elk that's three times her size, or maybe they just don't hear her as she eases her way back through the brambles. The brook masks some of the sounds, and she gets far enough that she can just barely make out what happens when they pounce.

The elk's antlers spear out in multiple directions,  piercing the bodies of three wolves as they leap forward, their vines lashing around their prey. It splashes away up the stream, lowing in pain as the remaining wolves claw and bite into its haunches, and soon they're out of sight, leaving the three bleeding monsters on the ground.

And then the stream is once again obscured by the thick hedges, and it's just her, her heartbeat, and her breaths.


"Fuck ... fuck ... fuuuuuuuuuck.", she curses under her breath.

If she is having a seizure, or is on drugs, or is asleep, or is in some crazy simulation, it doesn't really MATTER. This all feels too real. Stupidly, intensely real.

"I need to get out of here", she realizes.

Carefully and quietly she traces her steps back along the path, while her senses are still sharpened from the adrenaline rush. It's almost an unreal sensation in itself how she is instinctively trying to stretch her senses to take everything in. She needs to notice every sound, every movement, every change before anything can creep up on her and hurt her. Like those ... wolves? What were those things?

She shakes her head and keeps moving forward, ignoring the wrongness of everything, and focusing on getting back to the real world - the safe world.


It should be simple. She traveled in a more-or-less straight line to the brook, and by turning around and walking back the way she came...

She sees the massive tree. And the umbrella tree. But not the arch tree that she'd been tempted to go through, and not the flower she had half-a-thought to pick, back when she thought this was likely just delusion. Instead she finds the thick brambles squeezing in on either side... then expanding outward into three rough paths that definitely weren't here before, because the one on the right leads uphill.

And the faint light, coming from seemingly all parts of the sky equally, is definitely starting to get dimmer.



She pulls up her phone and checks the battery: 56%. It has a flashlight and the screen is bright. She flicks it in to energy saving mode and puts it back in her coat pocket.

Next a way to stop getting lost.

She looks around.

Are there any long vines she could cut and string together as in to a rope?


Quite a few, thanks to her pocketknife! She'd have to be careful not to prick herself much, though; few plants here seems entirely benign.


Can she pick her way carefully to some vines and then skin any possible thorns off the vines themselves with her knife?


That sounds like a wonderfully logical plan!


She will proceed with her wonderfully logical plan!


Carefully ...


She logically takes the very end of a vine, and carefully holds it up so that her knife can slice along its length, cutting any thorns off it as she goes...

...which is how she avoids having her palm pricked by the new tiny thorns that start to grow from it.

Not long, and not particularly sharp. Probably wouldn't even break her skin. But definitely there, where they weren't a few moments ago.


Murderous fauna and flora. Of course it is.

She pulls her hands up into the sleeves of her jacket. It's made of soft leather, that plausibly can withstand the fairly short thorns growing along the vines. It's a little clumsier and a little slower to handle the vines like this, but she is now intent on making it work. How much rope can she tie together this way if she is careful to use her sleeves as padding, and cuts thorns away around the ends that she knots together with her bare hands?


Her carving experience combined with her precautions serve her well, and she can tie many lengths safely together. Some of them are harder to reach, but if she restricts herself to vines that wouldn't require climbing, she will relatively soon have a length of slightly barbed rope that's nearly 8 meters long.

After which it will again be noticeably, if slightly, darker.


She is starting to doubt her original plan. Tying the vines together works, but it's such slow going that she won't have a useful length of rope to Hansel and Gretel her way through the ever-changing forest.

The increasing darkness is also starting to fray her nerves. She furtively looks up and down the path, listening for any movement or approach.

As she ties together the last of the vines, she slings the 8 meters of thorny improvisation rope across her shoulder. She tucks the upper end under her hoodie so her face won't accidentally rub against the thorns.

Then she gets up, and slowly picks her way toward the right path that goes up the slope - maybe there is a little more light up there.


The path winds, back and forth, and so doesn't grow particularly steep. Still, her footing is uncertain, and it takes careful attention not to stumble into any of the thicker bramble, all while her fraying nerves keep her on high alert for any danger, a light layer of sweat keeping her cool.

One tree trunk she passes seems to have a sinister leer in the whirls of the trunk. Some dark patches in a hedge ahead make it look like a skull. There's finally a slight breeze in the stillness of the forest, and the sound it makes as it moves through the trees is like a fearful whisper.

But it doesn't seem to be getting much darker by the time the ground levels off. Ahead of her the hedges shrink to reveal a clearing with a tall tree in its center. Branches jut out from it, long and thick, and eventually disappear in the mist above.  When she looks back, the mist also keeps her from making out the bottom of the hill where she started; it just looks like a sea of green, with tree trunks rising up like islands.


huh. Is time passing normally here? At first she thought the sun might be setting but now she isn't sure anymore.

She pulls up her phone. What time is it?


It appears to be 7:03PM. She stares at the screen long enough for it to change to 5:48AM, and then about twenty-three seconds later to 9:01PM.

Just as it does, a mote of light lands on her screen and disappears into it. She can see it, under the glass, a glowing spot that swims around in the digital space of her homescreen, curving around letters and shapes like a curious fish in a pond.

Another mote of light falls onto her phone, then another, each one sinking into the screen. When she looks up she sees a small cloud of them descending toward her.

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