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Prologue  




SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL FOREST

MICHIGAN, NORTHERN LOWER PENINSULA 

SUMMER, 1938

 

A warm breeze swept through the forest as the men’s boisterous chatter intensified. Withholding a smirk that threatened to expose his softer side, Elijah Bay swiped a handkerchief across his sweaty brow and took in the scene before him. Tough love was what these men needed in order to stay on task, even though the tough part seemed to elude him at times. 

“Eh, quit screwin’ around! We’ve got a job to do here,” he ordered, eyeing each one of his men critically. “We ain’t got much daylight left to skid and log another tree, and we need to move deeper in to find one worth our time. And you know what that means. The older the better.” 

“It’s hotter than hell out here, boss,” young Walter grumbled, running a dirt-crusted hand through his peach fuzz beard. Barely fifteen and already one of the guys.

Elijah huffed, his impatience growing. “It’ll be cooler in there.” He waved a hand toward the center of the woods. “Now get yer asses in gear.”

The men nodded, gathering their logging equipment, and trudged deeper into the heart of the forest. All but one lone man intentionally absent from the crew’s shenanigans, that is. Elijah glanced around, making sure all of the loggers were no longer in sight, and started off in the opposite direction in search of the rogue crew member. 

He heard the sounds of trickling water minutes later and knew exactly where to look. He pushed aside a low hanging branch and what he saw stopped him in his tracks. The summer sun shone down through the canopy of trees, highlighting an unruly sea of familiar golden locks belonging to the man he’d been searching for. 

His heart slammed in anticipation within his burly chest, like an axe befalling a tree trunk, he realized. The same feeling he always got when he approached him this way. 

“You’re hidin’,” Elijah said, absorbing the image of the man’s rocks skipping freely down the Platte River. 

“Mm,” he agreed. “The day’s almost through.”

“I know. I sent the crew off.”

Turning around to face Elijah eye to eye, beard to beard, the young man of twenty with a magnetic, lopsided grin replied ruefully, “Good.”

“John…”

“Shh, Elijah,” John pressed a finger to Elijah’s lips, and he could not resist the urge to kiss them as he did. “We don’t have long this time.”

“We never do.” Elijah’s desire could no longer be concealed. Their shared need for more than just lingering glances and stolen moments of passion weren’t going away like the tales of men seeking another man’s company had indicated in the past. 

But this was no tale teasingly told over ale and moonshine. This was so much more. More than any physical attraction or a need for release. Elijah loved John, fiercely. And it scared the shit out of him. 

John slid his hand down Elijah’s chest and palmed the skin over his heart. He had never told John how he felt, never let himself say the words aloud. Fear held him back and guilt gnawed away at any courage he tried to build. 

Maybe it always would. 

“My wife… John, I don’t wanna hurt her, but I can’t deny the way I feel for you anymore.”

John gasped and leaned forward in his work boots to press his thin body against Elijah’s muscular one, capturing his mouth in a long, tender kiss. 

“And what is it you feel, Elijah?” John mumbled along his bottom lip. “Please, just tell me.”

Could he tell him? Could he finally express his deep yearning for more? 

Before Elijah could consider how to respond next, an ear piercing screech reverberated through the trees, echoing what sounded like fearful screams through the humid air. 

Elijah tore away from John - the noise painfully vibrating his eardrums - and snapped his head towards where his crew was working. “What the hell?”

CRACK! 

A familiar sound of metal cleaving through thick oak resounded through the air.

The sky instantly darkened, swirling colors of soot and silver, like they’d stepped into an eye of a storm. Elijah fisted John’s overalls and protectively yanked him away from a swaying branch above them. Heat lightning tinted in a violet hue zapped angrily across the sky, only to be upstaged by a cacophony of booms and whipping wind. In the distance, a large orange and white light floated between trees, as if someone he could not see carried a torch through the growing darkness. 

Elijah shook his head, drifting toward the light. “The men...”

“Something’s wrong,” John said, concerned, but Elijah was already sprinting through the hilly landscape, stumbling over thick foliage to help his crew. “Come on, John, let’s go!” he yelled over his shoulder. 

“Hello!” Elijah screamed. “What happened? Eh, can anyone hear me, what the hell’s goin’ on?” he continued to yell, but was met with an eerie silence. Not even the birds sang. 

He ran, panicked, for what felt like an hour but seemed as though he’d gotten no closer to the heart of the forest than feet from where he started. Exhausted, he stopped to catch his breath and was about to insist John run back to camp to alert the med staff in town of an accident, when he realized John was nowhere to be found. 

“John?” he hollered, spinning in circles to look for his missing lover. “Goddammit!” Frustrated and confused, Elijah thought for one brief terrifying moment that maybe he was the one lost in this scenario. 

One rule of logging he’d always made sure was drilled into his men’s heads was that being lost meant you just had to wait where your ass sat in order to be found. But that meant his men could be lying in the dirt injured without their foreman’s help. 

Unacceptable. 

Taking in his surroundings, something strange caught Elijah’s eye. A massive, shimmering wall of air that seemed to ripple with the wind from the direction he’d just come made his spine stiffen. It was in the same direction where he’d left John behind. Whatever this thing was, he had just run through it. 

Before panic put a stranglehold on the remainder of his senses, Elijah decided to mark his trail. He found a sharp rock and scratched an X deep into the bark of a massive White Oak. 

“How dare you,” a stern tinny voice growled from behind him. 

He inhaled sharply and jerked around to see who was there, knowing that voice was one he had never heard any of his logging men breathe to him in his life. It was the voice of a woman. 

“Who’s there?”

A small, willowy figure with long flowing hair moved gracefully through the shadows. 

“No one you know… yet,” the woman cooed. Her voice was soothing, lulling him, making his limbs heavy and lax. He melted to the ground knowing he’d only ever felt this way when the moonshine kicked in and coaxed his soul into slumber - and Elijah hadn’t had a single sip of white lightning in days. “Soon, you will know so much more. Soon you will see.”

“See what? Are they here, my men?”

She groaned, as if in pain, her stark white teeth glowing like a bone-colored moon. “No, I am alone. Always alone,” she murmured sadly, then began to sing.




***

 

 

Elijah squinted, the sun and sheer exhaustion blurring his vision, but he could finally see open fields through the tree line ahead. His heart nearly leapt from his chest. 

Freedom!

Adrenaline surged through his veins as he began to run. He was close, so close to finding his way out of this magical maze filled with nothing but tortuous images of the only things he had ever wanted and was not able to have. Witchcraft, it was. It had to be. Visions of what could be assailing his mind and hurting his heart. Nothing but witchcraft, and he wanted no part of it. 

All he wanted now was John. 

The only thing Elijah had ever wanted in life was to be happy with the one person he could not live without but he had been too damn fearful to admit it. He realized while being stuck in this forest and assaulted with visions of a life he did not lead, that he may not have ever admitted it aloud. Now, it was all he could think about doing.

“John, I’m coming for you. I’m coming…”

He stumbled over a gnarled root just feet away from the end of the woods and fell face first in the brambles with a shout. 

“To hell with you!” he wailed, distraught at the fact that the man he loved was missing without having any clue of what happened or where he was. Had no clue as to  the fate of his logging crew, either. “John…”

Determined, Elijah crawled through the brambled tree line with renewed vigor; a prickling sensation danced across his skin. He shook it off, head spinning, and gasped at what he saw next. 

The area that held meager farmers and lumberjacks was now bustling with activity from people wandering around with a look of confusion on their faces. He had never remembered seeing this many people near these uncharted woods before, let alone when he’d walked into the forest as the sun rose this morning. 

“Eh, are you okay?” a man he didn’t know asked, approaching him as he knelt with a hesitation that sent goose flesh stippling across his arms. He wore a bright yellow jacket that had “Search Team Leader” written on the lapel. “You lost? I think you might be who we’ve been lookin’ for. ”

“What? I don’t know,” he answered honestly, eyes darting around the unfamiliar scene. Where was his crew and their equipment? Where was John? And why was he alone? “I… I don’t remember.” 

“You just walked out of Sleeping Bear. You don’t remember what crew you were in there with?” 

“No, I mean I don’t remember anything that happened inside of there at all.”       




_____

 

 

SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL FOREST

MICHIGAN, NORTHERN LOWER PENINSULA 

OUTSKIRTS 

60 YEARS LATER

 

The blazing summer sun had Rebecca Shaw’s thick blonde hair glued to her neck with perspiration. 

A dinner date out in the secluded wilderness with her fiancé was their last ditch effort for a peaceful, romantic evening together before their lives changed forever. The fact that she was roasting like a marshmallow over a flame was an unfortunate side effect only she had to deal with, apparently. 

“David, honey, you know I love you, but if the sun doesn’t slip beneath the trees within the next five minutes, your child will be born with a tan,” she teased, stroking the taut swell of her nine month pregnant belly. 

He chuckled, sweeping tendrils of sticky hair from her pale skin and kissing her brow. “Now that would be a feat, Becca, considering you tan like a tomato.” 

“Careful now,” she arched a brow. “You’ve just booked yourself an appointment for an all night foot rub.” 

“An all nighter, eh?” David trailed his pouty lips down to her cheek, peppering sweet kisses against her warm flesh. “My pleasure.”

“I’m sure,” she smirked and kissed him soundly until the sky turned pink. 

Cicadas started to strum their evening songs when David lit the lanterns he had packed in a sudden urge to be romantic, likely hoping an outdoor lovemaking session might happen under the northern stars. Unbeknownst to him, Rebecca already had plans to skip dessert and indulge in an explicit third trimester craving of her own.  

David slid his hands down to her puffy ankles to slip off her shoes and socks, his tawny, nimble fingers sending a thrill through her limbs as he began kneading the sore soles of her feet. 

She moaned and her eyes fluttered shut while David began to speak.

“The trees are amazing at sunset way out here. I still can’t believe this is one of the oldest forests in America. Just imagine what’s out there,” he said wistfully. Rebecca understood his overwhelming love of the outdoors with both of them growing up surrounded by the beauty of the Great Lakes. Living in the city now only served to showcase their need to resubmerge themselves in the wilderness. 

“You’re amazing,” she murmured, smiling. “And I don’t need to imagine that.”

He squeezed her toes. “Ya know, people should be green with envy seeing how much I love you.”

“They absolutely should,” she agreed as her fingertips danced languidly across David’s thigh, feeling his warm muscles twitch beneath them as she thought back to her childhood: her late mother tucking her in at night, telling her magical tales and legends of mystical forests that just so happened to be located close to home. None of those stories ended with happily ever after.  

Chuckling, he said, “My mom is over the moon that we came to visit this week, but I think she was hoping you’d have popped by now so she could snuggle that grandbaby of hers.”

“I think you’re right. Maybe we can visit here every summer with our daughter? Bring her out here and let her run barefoot through the rolling hills while her baby soft curls bounce in the breeze,” she wondered, already imagining their cherub-cheeked child snuggled between them as they watched the sunset as a family of three. “How’s that sound?”

David sighed, “Like heaven.”

Suddenly, the once tame, indigo sky swirled above and the once bright stars faded to black. Millions of leaves rattled like wind chimes through a harsh gust of air and even the cicadas were silenced by its wrath. 

A chill crept down Rebecca’s previously sweat-dappled spine as a soft whimpering drifted through the breeze. “David…”

His ministrations along her arches stopped before he hopped to his feet. “You hear that?”

“Yes, but I thought we were alone.”

David spun around, scanning the empty field past their SUV parked down the hill, concern written across is face. “We are.”

The whimpering got louder and Rebecca could tell it came from a woman. She sounded utterly anguished, but something prodded her protective instincts to keep her fiancé close. Something unnatural. 

The silence was deafening.

“Something’s wrong.” Rebecca rolled onto her hands and knees and scrambled to pack up their belongings. “Let’s get out of here, David.”

She went to reach for her shoes when in the corner of her eye she spotted a red light flickering through the bushes that quickly disappeared behind a tree trunk - and David was just feet in front of it. 

Her heart raced beneath her breast. “David!” 

“What if it’s a child lost out there?” He didn’t move, just stood poised to react. 

“Please, honey, come on, let’s just call someone to help,” she begged as the sorrowful cries intensified and seemed to echo through the forest.

That was no child’s voice. 

Her own child kicked wildly beneath her palms, sensing her mother’s rising panic. Rebecca stepped off the blanket to drag the kind-hearted, stubborn man back to their car herself when a loud thunderclap blasted through the sky, sending a thick bolt of purple and white lightning soaring through the clouds behind her. She whipped her head around to see where it struck, the wind blowing her hair into her eyes, blinding her while she turned back to face David. But when she did, her fiancé had vanished.

Fear rippled through her and she screamed, “ David!

Rebecca ran to the tree line, her toes gripping the grass with every waddling stride before bursting through the underbrush. The brambles tangled tightly around her ankles like seaweed pulling her under water. She was drowning, she thought, choking on a wave of dread. 

“Dammit, David, come back!” Golden tendrils of hair stuck to the tears flowing down her cheeks as she sobbed into the darkness. Then the sky suddenly opened, calming the whirling clouds and the heavens wept with her. “Please…”

Her shoulders slumped as she sank limply to her knees, arms cradling her precious cargo. In an instant Rebecca knew the legends of mystical forests were real, and the man she could not fathom life without was now lost within one. 

She could only hope that their story had a very different ending. 





_____



 

“You’re crazy and I’m out of my mind.” 

-John Legend




MICHIGAN, NORTHERN LOWER PENINSULA 

EMPIRE COUNTY 

PRESENT DAY - THREE DAYS LATER

MAY 18th, 1998

 

The forest’s beauty was breathtaking. Vibrant greens and rich mahogany browns instantly shrouded their rental car with shade as they pulled off the busy highway. It wasn’t the ocean, but Scully had always held a healthy appreciation for the wild. 

She uncrossed her legs, fully regretting wearing nylons in this heat, and looked over at Mulder in the driver's seat, his tongue working diligently to shuck a sunflower seed from its shell. She suddenly found the cuticles of her nails utterly fascinating. 

“Another forest,” she commented. This was an all too familiar image. A stunning one, of course, but also one Scully wasn’t too keen on seeing displayed up close and personal after their eventful romp in the Florida woods six months ago. 

“Not just any forest,” Mulder said, beaming with barely suppressed glee. “One of the oldest uninhabited forests in the country.” 

“Mulder, no.” Her voice ascended into a whine, and she immediately hated hearing the sound slip through her lips. “Whatever invisible monster you plan on searching for this time can stay that way.” 

“That’s just it, Scully, I don’t plan on searching for a monster,” he justified. “Yet, anyway.”

“Yes, yet.” Scully could still feel the groggy side effects from their early morning flight here as the sunrise painted the northern sky gold. The Ford Taurus dipped and turned through the maze of the hillsides, making her stomach roil. The reminder of how she got here was as glaring as the sun. 

“Speaking of I , Mulder, I ended up with four hours of sleep after your witching hour phone call this morning asking me to ‘pack for the great outdoors’ and meet you at the airport for a 4:15 flight. You’ve given me little information as to why, by the way... and I missed breakfast,” she said pointedly.

“I’m sorry, really, but I did plan on explaining everything on the plane,” Mulder objected. A worried crease formed between his brows that assured her his words were sincere. “And by now I’ve learned not to wake a sleeping bear.”

She withheld a smirk. “4:15 in the morning, Mulder.”

“Noted, and I am sorry about the short notice but this just couldn’t wait.”

She eyed him from the passenger seat, smirking behind her fingers at his shitty tie as she secretly appreciated the way his bottom lip jutted out into a pout with his penance. 

“I didn’t get much sleep either, if it makes you feel any better,” he offered, as if she could ever take pleasure in his unrest. 

“It doesn’t,” she said softly. Scully would rather sacrifice a full night’s sleep if she knew Mulder would get one in return. “It’s okay, I’m here. So what‘s the case?”

“Dancing orbs of light.”

“Excuse me?” 

“Dancing lights are one of the things we’re here to investigate. I’ve been keeping an eye out for cases involving unexplained lights in the sky.”

“Ah,” Scully sighed, propping an elbow on the arm rest and holding her hand over her pursed lips. 

“Not those kinds of lights,” Mulder amended. He cracked the window and flicked a soggy shell out into the wind. “There are several locations around the world where witnesses have reported colorful lights that seem to hover above the ground, hypnotically dancing in the dark.”

She considered this, already forming her own counter-opinion as to what these so-called dancing orbs could be. “And these lights are what we’re currently driving deeper into yet another forest for?” she couldn’t help but jest. “Because the last nice trip earned us a week's admission to a military hospital where I repeatedly kicked your butt at Gin.”

“You swept the floor with me,” Mulder laughed. The rare sound sent warmth through her chest. “But no, that’s not all. There’s a copy of the casefile in your briefcase.” 

Scully reached down into the small, black leather bag at her feet and pulled out the file. “When did you put this in there?” 

“Uh, somewhere over West Virginia, I think?” He drummed his fingers along the wheel and grinned as if he’d just won a lifetime supply of David’s seeds. “It was after you started sawing logs against my shoulder.”

Her cheeks flushed at the memory of waking mid-snore - blurry-eyed and drooling. She was easily lulled soft and pliant along the warmth of his arm as his tender touch skimmed her jawline.

“I don’t snore,” she said daintily, licking her lips and burying her flaming face into the folder. Inside, a photo of a handsome man with big brown eyes and dark brown skin smiled up at her. “David Michelson,” she noted, knowing Mulder was just itching to chime in. “I’m assuming these lights have something to do with him.”

“You’d be right. Three days ago, thirty-one year old David Michelson was having a picnic with his fiancé within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Forest and simply vanished without a trace.”

A photo of a small group of local police and search and rescue members standing around within a tree lined clearing was also included, each person looking more confused than anything. 

“Vanished without a trace,” Scully echoed as she tapped her manicured nail against the file. “His fiancé must have seen something.”

“Right again,” Mulder continued, “The original case report states that Mr. Michelson’s fiancé, Rebecca Shaw, saw a ball of light shining through the trees and heard a woman’s voice. But that statement was later refuted by the Empire County Sheriff’s department after they combed the area and found no evidence that any strange woman nor Rebecca’s missing partner, David, had ever entered the forest.” 

Scully’s eyes widened. “You’re saying they don’t believe her statement?”

“I’m saying, I don’t think they believe he went missing at all. Not against his will, anyway.”

“Well,” Scully started as she set aside the current file of the missing man, the information proving to be lackluster at best, “I’m also assuming you have a theory of your own that overrules the sheriff department’s. Not to mention an X-File that supports it.”

“Therein lies the I in FBI.” Mulder pointed to her briefcase once again as they pulled up to a light. 

Scully opened up a different colored casefile labeled with a number she’d never seen before. She had attempted to memorize all of the original files she could get her hands on the first year they were partners, eager to please and secretly enthralled by the mystery of them all. Then her father died, and Scully realized that some things were better left to the imagination.

“I know I don’t have to tell you that people don’t just vanish,” she reminded him gently, realizing his thoughts would likely drift to Samantha. “The evidence is there, you just-”

“-Have to know where to look,” he finished wistfully. “I do remember what you say, Scully, even over five years later.” She was grateful his eyes were focused on the road instead of the smile currently exposing her teeth. Scully quickly splayed the manila file timestamped as 1938 across her lap. 

The light turned green, and Mulder gestured towards the file. 

“This very forest seems to have a rich history of housing the mysterious. But folklore aside, that’s not what caught my eye about this case in particular,” he said, pointing to the description of the unexplained missing time that a group of loggers had experienced sixty years earlier. 

Scully read on and noted the correlation she knew Mulder saw from the start. 

“Cryptic lights within the same woods that David Michelson disappeared into - and according to this, all of the men who’d stepped out of the forest in 1938 had reported a shared state of disorientation after-the-fact, since each one of the loggers eventually returned home safely?”

“They did,” Mulder confirmed as they approached the outskirts of town. “But add loss of memory to that list because none of the men seemed to remember what happened in the woods after they left it.” 

“Sounds like some sort of natural phenomena to me.” 

Mulder popped another seed into his mouth and smirked her way. “Sounds like an X-File.”

Scully stared at her partner until he squirmed in his seat. He was ready for her to pick apart the case’s foundation or reprimand his need to drag her out into the wilderness once again. 

Maybe he was right. He usually was. “Maybe…

She crossed her arms over her new double-breasted Donna Karan suit in thought. Her last three had succumbed to dry clean resistant mud stains, black char marks from a Pennsylvania bridge fire she had no recollection of, and one she’d tossed herself, worried it might upset Mulder after he had been Pushed into watching Linda Bowman shoot herself while wearing it just feet in front of him. She wouldn’t be surprised if her outrageous wardrobe replacement bill was the sole cause of Skinner’s budget plight. 

“Scully?”

Mulder sat ruminating in the silence she’d created as rolling hills peppered with vibrant trees of all shapes and sizes flew past while they approached the center of town. 

“Several explanations exist for what you’ve speculated,” she told him, enjoying toying with the idea of feigning annoyance. Misdirection seemed better for them both than admitting the truth. She couldn’t just let him off easily by acknowledging she looked forward to spending both her days and nights in his presence, just being close to him, making sure he was safe, case or no case. 

Scully needed him. Her craving the ability to see, hear, and touch him at a moment’s notice had become aggravating to the part of her that valued her alone time. She needed all of him.

And she was just beginning to accept the fact that she always would. 

“Come on, lay it on me, Scully.”

She held back a smirk of her own and offered her opinion. 

“Mulder, most lights can be explained by natural phenomena, such as bioluminescence or simply marsh gas igniting. Small photon emissions can be replicated by combining chemicals and gasses found in marshes and rotting compost. This would fall in line with the locale where Rebecca Shaw said she saw the lights.”

“Mm, even if this marsh gas seems to move with purpose and comes with a feminine voice?” he asked. Scully strained to recall what chemical reactions could replicate such a thing when Mulder continued, “But I have a different theory.”

“Just one?”

Mulder grinned. “So far.”

“Of course.” Scully shook her head. Of course he did and of course he ended up convincing her to follow him across the country on a whim, like always. So here she was, in yet another rental car that smelled of stale smoke and feet - already tired, attempting to mentally prepare for only God knows what... and utterly thrilled by every minute of it. 

She really was his one and five billion, after all. 

“Well?” Scully prodded as Mulder pulled into the nearest diner offering footlong coney dog combos and a pitcher of pop for cheap cheap cheap. “Are you sure your theory doesn’t have a monster in it?”

“Like I said, not yet,” Mulder chuckled as he parked the car and turned to her, his eyes gleaming. “Ever heard of a wisp, Scully?”

“A wisp? Like the paranormal theory of spirits manifesting themselves as an orb of light?”

“Sort of,” he said, tossing her a sexy, lopsided smile. 

She flushed. Suddenly the air conditioning blowing chilled gusts in her face wasn’t quite cutting it for Scully anymore. 

“Folklore attributes the phenomenon of dancing lights - or Wisps - to Faeries, Witches, and elemental spirits,” he continued. “But the supernatural beings who are linked to the wisps are said to be powerful enough to control nature itself.”

Scully couldn’t help but scoff. “Mulder...”

He shrugged and turned off the engine. “Call me crazy, but I could smell the paranormal bouquet all the way from DC.”

“Mulder, you’re crazy,” she said with a smile as she got out of the car, the Michigan humidity slapping reality of the situation in her face as she did. “And I’m out of my mind, apparently.” 

“Oh, Scully, you had to have seen that coming.”

She had, certainly. But what she hadn’t seen coming, what she had been completely blindsided by, was just how much she’d love it.