Lena’s boot stubbed a tree root. Arms outstretched, she flew forwards, her rucksack pressing her into the earth. Gravel and twigs tore her palms. She grimaced and rolled sideways, seeing only towering pines and blue sky. Neither offered help, nor did the geothermal mist that obscured the surrounding trunks.
That now-familiar sulfurous stink clawed down her throat as she gulped air and chewed agony. Silence, save for the pulsing blood in her ears. As a solo traveler, on a backcountry trek through a fraction of Yellowstone’s 9,000 square kilometers, she realized just how far she’d hiked.
Her hands were a crimson mess. She sat up and shrugged off her rucksack. Smearing blood across a pocket, she grabbed tissues and began wiping her hands. More mist enveloped her as she removed stones and splinters. Eventually, she dropped the tissues and squinted into the mist. The gnarled root she’d tripped over hooked from the earth like an arthritic finger. Patched with lichen, it appeared as though someone had burnt a symbol into it. An hourglass, perhaps?
A chill crept with the mist, and darkness pushed into her periphery. Her breath snatched. She shuffled backwards, and her back thumped rough bark. Shadowy clusters, like tangled phantoms, thickened. Approached.
Black tendrils lashed out and snatched up the bloodied tissues. Something crackled, hissed, and the blood faded. The tissues floated to the ground, each now marked only with dirt.
Another tendril slithered forwards to coil around her ankle; cold, wet... Agony. Searing. Skin blistered. Smoldering flesh and fabric mixed with the sulfur. She gagged. Her flesh wrinkled, feeling like a billion writhing maggots. Every inch taut over her bones, crackling, crispy and flaky.
Freezing. Her lungs tightened.
Something clutched her mind and yanked it into the shadows. From a growing distance, she saw her frail body. Her head, now little more than a skull with wispy hair, broke free—a hollow, rustling sound. It rolled. From gaping sleeves, an arm slipped and fell and cracked the skull. Bones splintered like dead branches. Dust plumed.
Lena watched from the retreating shadows, to where her life once was.