“So I’m supposed to follow Cerby there, into the woods? Are you freaking kidding me?”

I know the forest seems intimidating. But sometimes, the answers we seek lie in places that challenge us, that make us confront our fears. Remember, your perception will shape your reality here. It is important to keep a clear mind and stay focused on the task at hand.

I want to lash out at the voice, challenge its vague sense of superiority—the eater of dreams. But instead, I think about what happened in the church. I know I caused it to collapse. I don’t know how, but I did it. Maybe the voice is right. Maybe my perception shapes this place, feeding off my thoughts and emotions.

Cerby seems determined to head into the forest.

“Hey!” I yell at him, my voice cutting through the silence. “Do you know where you’re going?”

It’s a dumb question for many reasons. The biggest two are that he’s following footprints, and that he’s some sort of devil dog. They don’t talk.

Mentally, I direct my question to the voice as I speak. “If you’re going to be around all the time, and I’m talking to you, maybe I should address you by name. What can I call you?”

The names we assign to each other are constructs, symbols that aim to grasp the essence of being. However, I exist beyond these limitations. That said, for the sake of communication, you may call me Machina.

“Machine. Yeah, so clever. Let’s go with Mack for short.”

As you wish, call me as you will. Remember, every choice you make in this realm bears a consequence, even the choice of a name. Now, shall we venture deeper into this forest, following Cerby’s lead?

I’m not sure I understand how using a nickname has a consequence, but what choice to I have? Mack is the only one talking to me in this place, so I guess I have to listen.

As Cerby moves deeper into the forest, I notice things changing. The brown, dusty tracks have given way to a dense forest. Layers of dark green leaves block what little sun makes it through the canopy, and yet the place feels completely dead—no birds, insects, or animals that I can tell. Looking about 100 yards past Cerby, I see a gap in the trees.

“Is that a clearing ahead?”

Indeed, it appears to be a clearing. Just as the forest seems to breathe darkness, the clearings in these woods can be pockets of revelation. Be prepared for what you might find there.

Okay. So Mack knows there’s something up here that I need to see.

As Cerby and I approach the clearing, I shudder. Dangling from the gnarled, low-hanging branches are these aberrant constructions I can only liken to stickmen. An unsettling array of shapes fashioned from twisted twigs and gnarled bones, strung together with what looks like coarse, ancient hair. They sway slightly in the almost imperceptible breeze, creating an uncanny symphony of soft creaks and scratches.

I watch the eerie figures twist in the dappled gloom. The longer I stare, the more unnerving they become. They take on a life of their own, every turn and flicker seeming to hint at an encoded message or, worse, a warning.

My heartbeat echoes in my ears, each thump a stark reminder of the alien dread seeping into my bones. The haunting figures, suspended in the perpetual twilight, have turned my stomach. Cerby seems tense, his usual curious energy replaced by a subdued wariness.

A primal part of me screams to turn back, to retreat to the safety of the known. But something more profound, more terrifying, urges me forward. The truth, whatever it may be, is tantalizingly close. Sometimes we prefer the lie.

As we step further into the clearing, under the shadow of the stickmen, I can’t shake off the feeling that we’re not alone—that we’ve never been alone. The forest seems to watch us, every hanging stickman a silent witness to our trespassing.

“What are these things? Who left them here?”

I am not privy to the individuals who crafted these stickmen, but their meaning is universal across many cultures and realities. They often signify protection, warding off evil or attracting positive energies. In some darker contexts, they might be harbingers or symbols of dark magic. As for who left them here… that remains unknown for now.

“Not. Helpful.”

Mack is telling me these will either protect me or put a curse on me. I’m not sure we should go any further. We’re already an hour or two from the tracks, heading in the opposite direction of the beacon. And honestly, these things are freaking me out.

I understand your concerns, but remember, fear can distort our perception of reality. You have an important choice here: turn back, away from the unsettling mystery of these stickmen and the person you’re tracking, or press on into the unknown, risking whatever might lie ahead but potentially getting closer to understanding what brought you here. Trust your instincts. Trust in Cerby.

“You slipped, Mack! You just told me we’re tracking a person.” I could have assumed from the footprints, but now I know for sure.

Cerby pushes onward, so I decide to follow him. I ask a question that I know the answer to. “Did you hang these here, Mack?”

No, I did not. The influence I have over this place is more abstract, more about guiding you through it. These talismans are the work of a different presence. But who, or why… that’s a mystery we’re still unraveling.

Cerby barks. He stops, his ears up and his body tight and ready for a fight.

I walk up behind him, and I see across the field. Between two trees stands another robed figure, and it’s beckoning us forward.