Collateral 4.11

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Congratulations, Blake Thorburn.  You’ve successfully reverted two or three million years.  You’re an ape in a tree, hiding from the scary things.

“Day!  It’s your arm that’s supposed to be fucked up!  Day!  You’re the one who died, Day!”

Shut the fuck up.

“God, my legs!”

Again, that wave of pain.  An illusory sort of pain, something that might have knocked me out of the tree if I hadn’t been wrapped around a branch.

The big thing that loomed beneath me, it seemed, wasn’t any more a fan of the ghost than I was.  This wasn’t a bad thing.  Wasn’t a good thing either.  It was just a thing.

It lashed out, striking blindly at the air with thick, heavy arms.  The ghost didn’t have the sense to get out of the way, but the Other didn’t have the ability to hit the ghost.

Nothing accomplished.  Only a brief distraction for the blind Other, a bigger threat beneath me, and a bit more nervousness on my part, when one large clawed fist came a little too close to the tree I was perched on.

It wasn’t calming down, either.  The pain it suffered, the wound, it was driven out of its mind, unable to calm down or relax.

I wasn’t sure how to label the thing.  Yeti?  Troll?  Ogre?  It was big, strong, and somewhere midway between human and animal.  The books had said that the more brutish Others hadn’t survived the years without being enslaved or killed, but it could be argued that this one wasn’t exactly alive.  Or free.

The Hyena was apparently coming my way.  That was, if the ghost wasn’t simply repeating a stock phrase.

“Day!  Oh god, Day!  Oh god!”

The big thing lunged.  Its shoulder brushed against the trunk of the tree, and I swayed briefly.  I heard a faint cracking sound.  Ice breaking, or wood splintering?

“Please, Day, wake up!” the ghost cried out.

Speaking of stock phrases.

Mr. ‘Legs’ here was a car accident victim.  One nearby.  He’d hurt his legs, his girlfriend or wife or sister or something had been in the passenger seat, dying.

Could I reason with him?

Probably not, I decided.

Could I do something, given the chance to talk?  Maybe.

But I couldn’t afford to make too much noise and give the ogre-troll thing a chance to home in on me.  I didn’t trust the shotgun to work, and I did believe that a missed or ineffective shot would get me killed.

Besides, I suspected I’d need what I had for the Hyena.

Well, I was camouflaged in glamour.  Whatever that was worth.  It wasn’t helping much against these Others, but it was very possible they were using other senses to track me.

Was that my bias at play?  I was human, so I thought in human terms when camouflaging myself?  My own bias would influence the glamour, in turn…

Alright.  Moving very slowly and very carefully at my position on the branch, I ran my hand along my arms, across my face and over the top of my head, raised one leg to sweep my hand over the glamour I’d painted there…

I could see a brassy highlight here and there, where I’d made contact, deeper shadows.

I had no idea if it would work.

I whistled, a small, tentative sound.

The big thing turned to face me, drawing one hand back.

The whistle echoed, faint sounds a short distance away, bouncing off the trees.

The thing turned, first one way, then the other.

It wouldn’t fool anyone or anything that was thinking straight.  The false sounds were too faint, the sound I made still too distinct.  But this thing wasn’t thinking straight.  It was purely reactive, every action undertaken with blind aggression.

“Tires squealing,” the ghost said, but he didn’t move his mouth.  A thought uttered aloud?

The ghost was still directly beneath me.  He was the real problem.

More problems, I could tell, were on their way, attracted by the voice and by the violence of the big ogre-giant thing.

They weren’t here yet, though, meaning I had a moment.

Was I supposed to rationalize with this very confused spirit?  Or take a different tack?

No time to waste.

“You killed Day,” I said.

Whispers of my voice echoed through the area.  The brute snorted and grunted, lashing out at air, before stepping a little bit away from me.

“Day!  No!”

“You fucked up,” I said, injecting a note of anger into my voice.  “Day’s dead.”

“Please, Day!  My arm, it’s not supposed to hurt like this!”

“Why are you talking?  Who’s listening besides yourself?  Day is dead.”

The ghost went momentarily quiet.

Which only made it easier to notice that other spirits were drawing nearer, some murmuring.  I could see glimpses of them through the trees.

“My arm, it’s not supposed to hurt like this.  Hurts more than anything else.  It’s your fucking fault, Day!”

More volume meant more attention from the locals.

I needed to think simpler.  I needed to break this pattern, and the way to do that was… what?

Get him back to his usual pattern?

“Your arm isn’t supposed to hurt like this, and you’re not supposed to be here.  Think,” I said.  “Think, where are you supposed to be?”

“I… the car.”

“There isn’t a car here.”

“I… I’m trapped.  My legs are crushed.  Nobody’s coming.”

The mention of his legs made pain emanate outward.  The brute lashed out, but the different sources of noise were confusing it.

“You were in an accident,” I said.  “What are you going to do?”

Move it along.  Push him to follow the script.

“I’m… need to get my phone, call for help.  But it’s not where it’s supposed to be.  Day’s dead.  Oh god.  My arm hurts.  Why?”

I wasn’t sure, but he seemed a fraction fainter than he had.

He was coming to pieces.  Every time he mentioned his legs, he reaffirmed the imprint he’d made in the world.  Every time the arm came up, though, he was running headlong into dissonance, into something that didn’t fit him and his existence.

Question was, would his anger and restlessness drive him to keep pursuing me, despite everything else, or could I get him back on track, using some metaphysical survial mechanism?

“You can’t reach your phone.  What’s the next step?”

“My arm, it hurts.”

Not a bad thing, if he was unraveling.  But it was taking too long, and I only had thirty seconds to a minute at best.

“What’s the next step?” I asked, again.

“Get out, get away, the car might blow up.  Have to get up, get away.”

Cars didn’t really blow up, but that was the narrative.  The image that was Mr. Legs here.

“Then hurry,” I said.

I could see the image distorting, a gap, a flaw.  A scene trying to play out and glitching on some fundamental level.  An interruption in the script.

“Hurry,” I repeated.

My voice echoed through the trees.  The giant punched a tree where the sound had bounced off it.

Not necessarily a good thing.  More were coming.  I might very well have cut off my head to spite my face.  Or whatever the appropriate metaphor was for attempting to solve one problem and creating a bigger one.

If I couldn’t handle two Others, how was I supposed to handle four?  Or ten?

He was replaying the script, stuttering.

Hurry,” I hissed the word, pushing him to try again.  If he broke down enough, I could slip free.  But I couldn’t jump down to the ground if he was right there, to grab me, or hit me full-on with whatever he was made up of.

He tried again, a little more distinct.  I could hear him now.

“I can do this, I just have to push hard enough, squeeze myself free-” glitch.  “-My arm, it’s not there.”

Try,” I said.

“Where’s my arm?”

“Try,” I said, once more.

I was nearly out of time.  Others were now drawing closer, getting caught up in one of the same tangles of branches that had slowed me down.  Except they didn’t care about making noise.  Not ghosts.  Men and women in white, features bland and blanched by pain, their clothes stained red around gouges where sharp blades had penetrated the cloth and flesh beneath.  Intelligent enough to be distracted by the sound.  Perhaps intelligent enough to look for me and find me.

The ghost began to struggle, jerky movements, replays of scenes.  This time, however, he simply skipped the scenes where he’d used one arm to help pull himself free.

He screamed, an agonized sound, somehow folded over or partially wrapped aroud something that wasn’t present here, and blood began to pour, flooding the snow around him.  His legs were tearing, his wound where the arm had been torn off joined them in how it bled openly.

I felt the same pain in my own legs.  Each time I’d felt his power, I’d felt like something was being used to pulverize my kneecaps.  Now I got to experience what it was like to try and heave those pulverized limbs free of a vise.

My vision swam.  It was bad enough that I nearly let go of the branch.

I could hear a growling echoing around the area.

The Hyena.

No.

When I managed to heave in a breath, gasping for air like I was drowning, I heard that same sound echoed.  The noise had been my own, echoed.

I saw the ghost pause for rest, and fragments of bone slid out to protrude once more through the flesh around his knee.  He screamed.

Three or four stab wounds made themselves felt around my own knees.  Illusory, not real, no real harm done, but I still felt it, still screamed, a strangled sound.  I closed my eyes, to shut out everything else, to keep myself from losing my lunch as my vision wavered.

Adrenaline flooded my body.  Again, not real adrenaline.  Only an illusion, the desperate sort of energy one got when they had no other choice but to face terror head-on.

No doubt in my mind: destroying one’s own body in a desperate attempt at freedom and escape was terrifying.

He wrenched himself free, tumbled over some invisible barrier, and collapsed in a heap, radiating agony.

The old spatters of blood from his earlier theatrics faded as the new ones appeared.

He wasn’t moving.  I didn’t, however, trust him to stay still when I hit the ground.  Not with how my own mobility might be suffering.

“You’re free,” I said.  “What now?”

“I’m- I did it,” he said, without rising.  “My… my arm.  I’m supposed to have an arm.  Day!  Day, can you hear me!?”

He was barely there, his voice faint.

“What now?” I asked, again.  “She’s not responding.  She can’t respond.”

My real voice was enough for the pale Others in the woods to turn my way.

I wasn’t exactly sure what they were, but they moved as a flock.  Pale haired, pale skinned, dressed in white, bleeding from their ragged Hyena-inflicted wounds.

I got a bad vibe from them.  Of all the Others here that were in pain, they were in a eerily quiet, bottled-up sort of pain.  They were solemn.  They were different, cold, and I liked them less than I liked anything else I could make out.

Now they were headed my way.

“You’re free of the car, Day isn’t listening.  What do you do?”

I couldn’t keep the desperation out of my voice as I asked that last question.

Maybe the desperation was what he paid attention to.

“Wait by the car.”

“The car isn’t here,” I said.

Just like that, he was gone.

I couldn’t say whether it was one more straw, to break the camel’s back and unravel him or if he’d simply gone back to where the accident happened, but he was no longer beneath me.

I dropped from the branch.  Half hopping down, half letting go.

The snow crunched under me, and my ‘wounded’ knees didn’t hold my weight.  I fell, the snow crunching again, beneath my weight.  Both crunches echoed around the space.

The brute and two more ghosts seemed to react to the ghost noises, but the pale ones weren’t so foolish.  They were heading for me, moving with a quiet sort of insistence, heedless of branches in the way, to the point that they got caught, branches scratching their faces and digging into their chests and guts.  But each branch in turn broke, and they were making headway.

The phantom pains in and around my knees faded swiftly, now that ‘Mr. Legs’ was gone.  I found my feet, assessed the general dangers around me, and headed for the nearest gap, the same direction the ghost boy had gone.

The false adrenaline faded, and I made myself slow down, take stock of where I was going, where I was coming from, and what I needed to do.

Branches were broken here or there.  Had I not seen the Others, if I were viewing all of this in blissful ignorance, I might have dismissed it as the casualties of winter.  Ice and snow tearing weaker branches from the trees.

As it was, I was aware that these were more wounds, of a sort.  Something big had come this way, and its mass had knocked healthy branches free, scattering them to either side.  The clearest, most open path available to me was also the path that it traveled.

More things were veering my way as I made my way through the woods.

I shouldn’t have been making that much noise, but…

I was multiplying the amount of noise I did make.

As much as I wanted to keep moving, I made myself stop, and I manually altered the glamour.

How were they finding me?  There were too many variables to cover.

Rather than dwell on it, I chose a simpler concept, focusing on it.

Insulation.

Hold in the heat, hold in the sounds, the smells.

Abstract.  But the Hyena seemed to be a very concrete being.  One that dealt directly with the world, gouging it, biting it, leaving it ruined and in pain.  I had to work against its basic nature, and that meant being a little less direct.

In a simpler sense, there was no fucking way I was going to fight it on its turf, using weapons of its choice.

I started off again.

Quieter.

I could make out a stream through the trees.  No more than ten feet wide, it had largely frozen over.

A cluster of ghosts sat by the water.  A family, it looked like, haggard, maybe homeless.  All but the youngest child were bloated, drenched and wet.  All had been wounded by the Hyena.

I circled around them, giving them a wide berth.  They paid me no mind, only sitting there, shuddering, occasionally exclaiming in pain.

Reaching the stream, I saw another ghost by the water’s edge.  The hooded boy.

“Water in my boots,” he said, with that peculiar affect ghosts had.  Maintaining the emotions they had at the moment of death.  “Wet socks.”

I judged his outfit.  The hooded coat wasn’t really meant for the worst of winter.  The boots were closer to rain boots than anything else.  Not the simple rubber sort, a little warmer, but not that warm.  When had he died?

Fall?

“Cold water, huh?” I asked.

He spoke, but it sounded more like he was talking to himself.  “Feet are cold, but I have to keep running.  Have to.  If I keep running and keep hiding someone will come and find me and I can go home.”

That said, he took off.  No snow crunched under his feet.  There was only the sound of wet socks squishing.

I looked back at the family.  Too many ghosts for one area.  How many of these guys had followed the Hyena from its last haunt?

Or did it have a way of engineering these deaths?  Spook a car into going off the road?  Drive a homeless family into the water?

Doing whatever had been done to this boy?

If I’d had any hesitations about setting foot on the ice, that idea was one more reason to stay back.

Taking risks was a bad idea.  If this thing was cunning, it was all too possible that it was capable of something more devious.

I traveled alongside the stream.

Another ghost squatted on the far end of the stream, face impossible to make out, pants down, hands holding nearby branches for balance.  It was shitting an endless stream of liquid shit and blood at the edge of the stream.  Claw marks criss-crossed its back, having gouged flesh, shattering ribs and spine.

They apparently hadn’t been having a good day before the Hyena appeared to savage their ghost.

I could hear the intermittent grunts and groans well after the ghost was out of sight.

“Sorry, ghost,” I murmured.  “If my life wasn’t what it was, and if this wasn’t what it was, I might come back to put you to rest.”

Alexis had once given me a hand to help me up from the lowest point in my life.  Or the lowest point before I inherited the house, in any event.  Even if this was a ghost, a psychic echo, I felt like it deserved the same.  I knew it wasn’t real.  It was merely a replay, a bad recording.  There wasn’t anything to it beyond the scenes it lived out in perpetuity.

But I still felt like I should be doing something.

I started hiking up a steep hillside with large rocks jutting out.

I could imagine the Hyena running up, knocking the rocks from where they sat, crushing me.  Knocking me ten feet to the right, so I hit the ice and broke through to hypothermia-inducing water.  Doing something.  I was vulnerable while climbing.  But I wasn’t about to backtrack.

The savaging at the Hyena’s hands that would inevitably follow, to defile my corpse and ruin me after death…

I picked my course carefully, with attention to where I put my hands and feet, and where everything was.  No icy patches to slip on, no areas where the ground wasn’t really solid.

I was focused enough on the navigation and my thoughts of the shitting ghost that I was caught entirely off guard by what waited at the top of the hill.

The little boy stood there.  His eyes technically on me, but looking through me.  From my angle, I could see his face beneath the hood.

Large eyes, with exaggerated dark circles under them, a thin mouth, hair plastered to his forehead by sweat.  Hands in his pockets.

His eyes moved this way, then that.  Searching his surroundings.

“We keep running into each other like this,” I said.  “Is that because you took good paths, or because you want to run into me?”

“The slaves sang songs,” he said.  Voice high.  Prepubescent.

“What?”

“…a secret way to spread the word.”

“That so?” I asked, not really looking for a response.  Riddles.  I climbed to my feet, walking around him.  There weren’t as many spirits over here.  But then again, most of the spirits had come in response to the noise.  I’d chosen the path with the fewest of them, in an indirect way.

Which made sense, sort of.  The stream was blocking ones on the other side from coming over here.  It was only natural there would be less lurking around here.

Was this a good battleground?  If I were to lay a trap…

“Wade in the water,” he said, drawing out the words slightly.

“What’s that?”

“Wade in the water, children,” he said, a lilt to the words.  “Wade in the water.”

Singing?  Halfway between a whisper and a song.

Something, something, trouble the water…” he murmured.

I heard hints of a chorus.  They could have been an echo, but there were different tones, different cadences.  Some were more song, others more whisper.

“Rest assured,” I said, “You’re doing a fantastic job at being creepy.  As ghosts go, you’re first rate.”

He turned his back, then hopped along the biggest rocks that sat at the upper edge of the short, frozen waterfall.

A moment later, I saw him doing it again, the opposite way.

A half-dozen flickering replays all at once.  Back and forth over the river.

While the scenes played out, he appeared again in front of me, still very alert, watching the surroundings.

“Not your average ghost,” I said.

I had a very bad feeling.  A sense of pressure.  Foreboding.

Was this the trick?  The trap that saw me tumbling over the waterfall to become a ghost?

“Are… you the Hyena?” I asked.

“The wolf,” he whispered, in response, eyes wide and staring.

Not reassuring.

A moment later, he turned, running.  Scrambling away.

I heard a frightened noise escape his mouth as he scrambled over the rocks, interrupting his whispers to himself.  “Wade in the water.”

I turned to look, and I saw it.

It stood in the thickest patch of trees.  The way it was obscured, I could only make out bits and pieces.  Fur, matted and stained with mud and dark bodily fluids.  It breathed hard enough that I could see its chest expanding with each intake of breath.  Fog appeared with each exhalation, and it took a moment before the fog faded enough to reveal a deep red eye that I could make out through the gloom and intervening branches.

All in all, the thing was big enough that its shoulders rubbed branches I couldn’t have touched if I reached overhead and jumped.

Silent.  I hadn’t heard it approach, hadn’t heard branches break or snow crunch.  Its breathing didn’t make a sound.

It moved forward, cutting off my retreat.  Not that I was particularly capable of running from it. I had the creature to my ten o’clock, the river to my right, and the steep hillside behind me.  Walking forward would mean walking to the same destination it was heading to.  Walking to my left would only require the thing to turn around.

I saw its limbs.  Scrawny fore and hind limbs, narrow enough for me to make out the bones and tendons.  I could see gaps where the flesh sucked in around the ribcage, its dangling, twisted, knotted genitals, and the broken, splintered claws on each foot.

For all that it was gaunt and broken, it was more scary, not less.  Those claws wouldn’t cut me like a scalpel.  They’d tear me like the uneven end of a broken bottle.

This thing was mangy, malnourished, and it was still strong enough to beat me in any contest of strength, no question.

I owed that little boy ghost an apology, for the accusation.  No mistaking what I was looking at.

“Hello,” I said.  “You’re the thing they call the Hyena, I take it?”

It moved through the trees without a noise.  When it was visible again, I could see its muzzle pulled into a leer, revealing teeth that were every bit as broken and disgusting as the claws.

Hatchet wouldn’t do a thing.  Shotgun… assuming it was vulnerable and not weak to the iron, and the bullets would hurt it as much as they would hurt any other non-Other thing, I couldn’t imagine the shotgun doing anything substantial.    The chain was too fucking short to surround the bastard.

Maybe this was a suitable battleground.  But I sure as fuck wasn’t ready to fight the thing.

It stopped pacing forward, now at my twelve o’clock.  Standing by the bank of the frozen stream.  Two red eyes stared at me.

Seeing it more clearly, where I could make out any feature, I could see that it didn’t resemble a hyena.  It didn’t resemble a wolf, either.  Everything fit together wrong.  Proportions were off, if even, muscles overlapped in odd ways.  This was not a creature crafted by years of evolution.  It had been made wrong, more like a humanoid thing that had once walked on two legs and then been twisted and wrenched into a four-legged shape, everything torn apart and rearranged and regrown until it was this.

If anything told me that, it was the expression it wore.

I shook my head a little.

It was a goblin.  A big, bad sort of goblin, twisted into a monstrous shape.  It wanted to tear me apart and then tear my ghost apart.

That was the reality I needed to focus on.

“Do-” I started.

I stopped because he lunged.

Crossing the distance between us.

Stream to my right, steep hill behind me, thick trees to the left.

Wade in the water.

I took the same path the ghost had.  Over the jutting, ice-slick stones.

I got about two steps over before I fell.  Foot slipping, shin slamming into the space between two rocks, chest hitting another rock dead on, knocking half of the of air out of me.  All in all, I came a matter of inches from simply bouncing off the rock and tumbling down the ‘waterfall’.

I heard a crash.  I looked down and to the right, and I could see one of the big boulders from the hilltop tumbling down, tearing out chunks of frozen earth and ice on the way, sending smaller stones skidding out onto the frozen stream’s surface.

When I looked up, the thing was no longer there.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to call it the Hyena anymore.  It felt off-target.  A bad name for what I was dealing with.  But what fit?  The Goblin-beast?  A bit wordy inside my head.

The beast?  That had connotations.

The monster?  That would have to do.

Moving more slowly, more carefully I dug my fingers into the craggier spots on the rock, where the snow didn’t cover it, found my feet and made my way across, slipping twice more, though not so badly.

It was gone.  It hadn’t simply followed and pounced on me.

Why?

The water?

The little boy had apparently found a way to evade the monster he called ‘the wolf’.  Crossing the water.  Not explicitly an anti-goblin measure, but… well, labels were dangerous.

Distant murmurs and shouts suggested I wasn’t alone.  The boy wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but the noise of the falling boulder had attracted attention.

I could make out the shitting ghost, way down the way, staggering in zig-zags, blind and clutching its stomach.  More were visible in the trees.  They walked around trees, but they passed through branches that had been lowered closer to the ground by snow and snowfall.

This was how the goblin functioned.  Take the prey it could, use the remains of its prey when it couldn’t do it itself.

I headed into the trees, and the cries of the ghosts carried sensations.  Illness, an inability to breathe, pains here and there, disorientation, blindness, weakness.  Few lasted for more than a second.

Doubts harried me much as the ghosts did.  The fact that there were ghosts on this side meant the monster could and would travel over this way.  The stream wasn’t a barrier, not completely.  It moved in near-silence, and it could find me.

I was following the boy, after a fashion.  Taking his advice on paths and on that escape route.

Problem was, well, he’d died.

His advice wasn’t perfect, or he’d be alive.

I moved the shotgun around my body until I had it in position and ready to fire.  More for the security than out of any belief that it would help.

The murmuring of ghosts fell behind me as I moved on.  I saw an Other to my right, something more wooden than anything, doubled over in pain, but it moved too slowly to pursue me.

Moving was making my injuries from last night felt.  The scrapes and gouges I’d left alone, because I simply didn’t have enough glamour.

There weren’t enough assurances here.  The rules for this goblin were a little different than the usual.  I had to bind it, and I had almost no experience on binding, let alone binding goblins.

The kid had figured something out, or he’d been awfully lucky.  I could use that knowledge or luck.

“Little boy,” I said.

Not even a glimmer.

“Wet boots,” I said.

If there was a connection, I couldn’t make it out.

How to connect to him?

“The little survivor, trying to make it until he can go home,” I murmured.

There.

A connection, faint.

Through that connection, I saw something else.  Not just a thread or a line between me and the boy, but a bolt of lightning, arcing off.

I focused on other things near me, on trees and stones.

I could tell, now, there was a conflux, a well.  A star at the center of this small world of trees and hills and frozen streams.  Something powerful and scary enough that every other thing in these woods related to it in some fashion.  The monster.

Through the connections that surrounded me, I could see it.

No sooner did I try, than I felt it looking back.  Far away.  Navigating around the stream.

I felt it change course, making its way to me.

Instinct told me to make a break for the stream.  If this was how he functioned,  I could cross each time he came over to my side.

Instincts were not my friend, in this particular circumstance.  He’d called things to that location by knocking the stone over.  They would get in my way.

Besides, I needed to make progress.  Backtracking over and over would be safe, but it wouldn’t get that monster bound and over to Conquest’s custody.

I headed in the direction of the kid ghost.

A kind of conviction settled within me, as pieces clicked into place.  This was how he operated, how he hunted.  The territory was his, almost like a demesne.  All spirits fled from him, because there was no denying what he was and what he did to Others and mortals both.  Thus, the rules of the world were bent.  He made no sound, because there were no spirits to be found.

He littered the area with wounded spirits.  His spirits.  Maybe he held parts of them in his stomach.  Maybe he had a kind of ownership of them because he’d traumatized them.  But he maintained a kind of power over them all the same.

When a connection did form, when something did reach him, he was sensitive to it.  Easy enough to be sensitive, when the only spirits that maintained any connection to him were the ones that had to.

Any maimed ghost I had contact with, in turn, contacted him.

As if the forest was littered with strings and bells.

Too many different types of Other to avoid contact with all of them.

It also meant that interacting with the little boy’s ghost would bring the monster down on my head.

I didn’t have enough chain to make a ring that would encircle him.

I found the boy in a tree.  He’d made a makeshift treehouse.  Chickenwire stretched across a ‘v’ of branches, forming a hoop overhead, with openings on either end.

I could see the fence posts the chickenwire had been taken from.

He simply sat there, twenty feet above the ground, arms around his knees.

“What’s your name?” I called out.

Stupid question, dangerous, given the fact that any connection to him would help the monster find us.  A ghost could only give answers from its particular script.

“Evan,” the hooded ghost said.

“You’ve stayed alive all this time?” I asked.  I could feel the connection, sense it drawing closer.  ‘Close’ being relative.  The monster had rounded the far end of the stream some time ago, though.

Not just the monster.  It was causing noise, and the Others were following in its wake.

“It’s been days,” he said, high above me.

When he looked at me, eerily enough, he looked at me.  Not through me.

“Trying to stay alive long enough for help to come?” I asked.  While I spoke, my eyes roved over the area.  The wire fence was up there.  There wasn’t anything down here.  “Have you eaten?”

“I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept.  I’ve barely drank.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not sure you want to drink the water from that stream.”

“I’m seeing things,” he said, his voice small.  “The wolf was there from the beginning, but there are other things.  There’s a fog.  And the hungrier and tireder I get, the thicker the fog gets.  I see things in the fog.”

I touched the chain from around my shoulders, but I had no idea what to do with it.  Couldn’t form a ring big enough… clothesline the thing?  It wouldn’t do anything.

The thing was getting closer, and my priorities were changing.

“Where do you run, when you need to run from here?”  I asked.

I didn’t hear a response, so I looked up.  He’d shrugged.  “If they’re down there, I wait.  But they have to leave.  Or they leave so they can try to trap me.  I go down, and then I go that way.  Climb over the short fence and bushes.  He doesn’t follow that way.”

“Can you show me?” I asked.

He didn’t climb down.  He disappeared, in something between a flicker and a fade, and he appeared at the bottom of the tree, letting go of a branch and stumbling a bit.  So exhausted he could barely stand.  He took a step and nearly tripped.

I reached out to steady him, and my hand passed through him.

“I’ll be okay,” he said.  “Have to wait.  Be brave.  Help has to come.”

“You’re awfully lucid for a…” I stopped before finishing the sentence.

“Are- are you calling me something bad?”

I was so caught off guard by the direct response I couldn’t put two and two together at first.  He wasn’t drawing a conclusion.  He was responding to the word ‘lucid’.

“Lucid is good.  It means you’re… awake, aware.  You’re making a lot of sense.”

“Oh,” he said.

The thing was getting closer.

“Where’s the short fence?” I asked.

He didn’t respond, but flickered and traveled a good ten feet away, already walking as he arrived.

Still moving a little too slowly.  I wanted to be running.

We reached the fence.

I’d hoped for metal.  I’d hoped for barbed wire, or more chainlink or chicken wire.  But it was short, plastic, and from the height, apparently meant to keep rabbits or other pests from spilling over to another section of the park.  The cheap look of it was disguised by a hedge.  I couldn’t see with the snow, but my gut told me there had once been a walking path here, when this area of the park was more traveled.

All it was now was a stupid, pointless boundary, in the middle of the woodland.

“You couldn’t go home, huh?” I asked.  The monster was close, but I couldn’t find him, scanning the trees.  “How’d you get stuck out here?”

“I got lost.  My backyard opens out onto the park.  I saw something… someone?  I went to look, and I got turned around.  Scary noises, and growling.  I wanted to leave, but there was always something.  I tried following the paths, but then I’d see the wolf standing there.”

“He let you go?”

“I… I don’t think so.  This bush is how I escaped the first few times.  I’d follow the hedge, and if I saw or heard him, I’d climb over and hide on the other side.  I- I use the water to hide my scent, washing my boots, like I learned about in school, but yesterday, he was there, and he saw me.  He attacked, and I ran over, and he didn’t follow.  There are two places I can use to escape, like that.”

“The stream and the hedge?” I asked.

“When I can, I go to the road.  I follow the hedge, and I have to leave it behind to peek.  I look for cars.  Then trouble comes and I have to run harder than I ever run.  There’s nowhere else I can go where I have a place to run to if I need to hide.”

“So you wait,” I said.  “Getting hungrier, more tired, thirsty…”

“And cold at night.  But I’ll be okay,” he said.  He said it like he was reassuring me.  “I’m tougher than I look.  And smarter.  Did you see my treehouse?”

“I saw.”  I kind of want that chickenwire.

“I’ll be okay,” he said.  There was more of the ‘ghost’ to his voice, as he said it.  “I just need to wait.  Help will come.”

“Hasn’t it come already?” I asked.  “I’m here.”

“You’re not really real,” he said.  He started to reach out, then dropped his hand.

I looked down, and saw the streaks of glamour, turned into insulation.

Mucking with his senses?

He was capable of rationalizing, but not entirely capable.  He remained a ghost.

My eyes moved back up to the line of trees, searching for a large form moving through the woods.  I couldn’t pinpoint our stalker with the meager connection.

“What year is it?”  I tried.

“Twenty-thirteen, I think.”

“Twenty-thirteen,” I responded.  “Right.”

Just last fall, then.  No small wonder he was so lucid.  He’d practically died yesterday.

Help was never going to come for him.  There were wards, to keep people out and away from the monster in the woods.  He’d been lured or spooked into entering the area, and there hadn’t been a way out.

Now that he was a ghost, he’d retained all of the prey instincts and tactics and desperation that had kept him going, up until he’d stopped.  Such was the imprint he’d left.

It didn’t explain why he’d been so typical a ghost before, though.  In the tree, by the river, looking through me.

There was more to this particular riddle.

I investigated the fence.  Sure enough, it was plastic.  Faux picket fencing, waist height, churned out by machine, with interlocking panels.

No reason it should stop the monster.

The bush… I had to push off the snow that layered over the top, to get a better view.

Holly.

“Run.”

“Run?”

“Over the fence, over the bush.”

He had to climb over the bush, passed through the snow that layered it, as if it wasn’t there.  Which it wasn’t, for him.

I simply leaped, rolling over the top of the edge, and landed on the other side.

I had to look twice before I saw it, lurking.  I could make out the red eyes, glowing in darkness.  It was breathing hard, from the long run.

I looked down, and the boy was shivering.

Evan spoke, “He wants to eat me.  He won’t let me sleep, growling and sending things.  He won’t let me stop.  Then he grins.  He smiles.  Because I’m not happy and he enjoys it.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s… what he is.”

“It’s never going to end,” Evan said.  “Help’s never going to come.”

“Hey,” I said.  “I-”

The Other lunged.  Evan screamed, backing up, as the goblin-beast ran towards us.

The reaction had to be a replay, the movements were too natural.  The ghost tried to retreat, and he fell instead.  He screamed.

The goblin, the Hyena, Evan’s Wolf, the monster… whatever it was, it stopped short of the hedge.  It paced there, on the other side, looming, looking down on a child who had been reduced to stark terror.

Petty.

Vile.

The hedge served two purposes.  It hid the shotgun, for one thing, which let me pull the trigger, with less than ten feet between me and the monster.

It also meant that when the shotgun did fire, there were shreds of holly mixed in with the shot.

The monster reacted, rearing up, flinching, shaking his head as if to get the offending materials loose.

I could have raised the shotgun, to get a better shot, but I kept it where it was, firing again through the hedge.  Further away, less direct.  But there was the wind rune, and that counted for something.  A little more oomph.

He still flinched, reacting.  He growled, breaking the perpetual silence, and backed away to a safer distance.  One open eye glowered at me.  The other squinted.

I fumbled with the shotgun until I managed to open it up.  I reached into one pocket for ammo, and reloaded rather clumsily.  I could have managed better, but I wasn’t about to take my eyes off the Other.

Evan stepped closer to me.  He’d stood up without traversing the space in between.  Switching too rapidly to another state, another piece of script.

Wonder and fear both.  Awe?

I imagined it was the same expression he’d had on his face when he’d discovered the water was a boundary the Other couldn’t cross.

“Like I said, kiddo, help already came.”

The ghost was kind enough that he didn’t disagree.  Script or no.

I watched the thing, looking for a response.

If it could talk, I imagined it would have just now.  But it didn’t, which posed problems.

Everything I’d bound thus far, I’d negotiated with.

How the fuck was I about to bind this thing?  It was a big, nasty, cunning animal, beast in every respect that a ‘beast’ was a problem for me, and it wasn’t stupid.

Not stupid, but petty.  It was content to taunt.

Except it wouldn’t be in a taunting mood, now that I’d shot it.

I’d embrace the fact.  It was angry?  I’d have to find a way to use the anger.

“Your move, little goblin,” I said.

He stepped back again, and then he roared.

Howled.  Screeched.  It wasn’t a natural sound.  It was a broken, crackling, painful sound, one that made my skin crawl.

That done, it disappeared, fleeing into the thick of the woods.

“Move, Evan,” I said.  I hopped over the hedge much the way I’d come.

“What?  It’s dangerous.”

“It’s about to get more dangerous.  I’m ninety percent sure he just called out to all the other bumps and spooks and ghosts in this forest,” I said.  I watched Evan slip over hedge and fence, struggling a bit, helpless to help.  “No more stealth.”

“Shouldn’t we go the other way?”

“No,” I said.  “Can you tell where he is?”

“He’s hiding.  Far, but not that far.  Watching and listening.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“It’s… easier to tell.  I guess, and I’m right.  I went to sleep this afternoon, too tired to keep moving, too hungry… I woke up feeling… not better, but it’s easier to tell.”

You died, I thought, and just like the monster more sensitive, with connections only to his half-devoured prey, you’ve got less flesh in the way of sensing things.

“Alright.  He’s sorta far, and he’s watching.  Not the worst case scenario,” I said.  “There’re just a few moments.  Let’s see…”

I drew June, and hacked off a few of the biggest clusters of the holly hedge.

“What’s the worst case scenario?” Evan asked.

“Him running.  Getting as far away as he can.”

“That’s not right.”

“Let’s move,” I said.  “We gotta get gone before the little guys close the net.”

“Him running is the best thing,” Evan said.

“Not when you’re hunting him,” I said.  “Come on.”

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189 thoughts on “Collateral 4.11

  1. Thanks for reading.

    There will be a Thursday update this week. Keep in mind that it’s typically a twice-a-month thing (it’s the way the donations go, and it’s also sort of personal preference, though I wouldn’t object to doing more if it was called for.

    I’ve yet to tally the donations, but there’ve been a few generous ones at the tail end of this month, and I’m almost certain the mark was met, especially when Patreon gets added in. Let me extend a general and very sincere thank you to you guys now, and specific thank-yous to individuals at some point tomorrow.

    I expect the Thursday update will wrap up the arc and Saturday may well be a Histories or Gathered Pages thing. Up to you guys which of the two you want.

    Edit: Oh, and votes on Topwebfiction would be awesome, if you guys were so inclined.

    1. Well, one of the longer arcs for this story I see. And I only realised I should get sleep when i realised you’d updated. I hope writing continues to give you enjoyment for along time. Goof Night.

    2. I wouldn’t mind a bit more on Shamanism and what can be done with it, if there’s an appropriate Gathered Pages. Maybe an interview with a really powerful shaman, or even a list of different runes and limitations of the art?

      1. I wouldn’t like more on shamanism until Blake regains access to the/a library. It baits us into expecting spells that Blake would be unable to use, especially when he’s the cunningest low-power practitioner around.

        Past is good. Past of family, past of Conquest, past of demons or others…

    3. Well, I confess the last two chapters were not really my favorites, but this was awesome… The haunted forest is super creepy, and Blake is being incredibly badass towards the end. I guess the audience helps.

      Also, Blake should totally bind creepy ghost kid, both because he should have plenty of power available as others pointed out, and also because that’s definitely the nicer thing to do. Although it’s sad that he can never tell him the truth or he’ll probably break apart.

      1. O yeah, I forgot to add the reason why I was replying to this particular comment: I’m in favor of Black Lamb’s Blood for Saturday. It should be interesting, both to provide an insight into the mindset of “standard” demonologist and universe history.

          1. Yeah. And it seems like even within the same catagory of Others there can be large ammounts of variation. Rose is apparently quite a bit more realized than the Vestiges in Johannes Demense. Evan may be something other than just a regular ghost.

    4. Black Lamb’s Blood Gathered Pages would be fantastic. Histories… Fell could be cool, Conquest would be enlightening, the Knights could have the potential to be the most depressing read so far if they really lost a lot against the Demon (and that might work well as a setup for the next arc, since it looks like the Demon is going to be waiting till then).

      Jeez, there was quite a bit of interesting stuff that I would like elaboration on in this arc.

    5. Gathered Pages, please 🙂 I know that you said that you didn’t like writing them very much, and I’m sorry for that, but I would like the book better.

    6. any intention to up the donation bar? it seems like you’re hitting 1k a bit faster than every two weeks…have you figured out what your monthly budget needs are? is 2k a month sufficient for you to write full time? i know, eventually you’ll have book income streams or whatnot -cough- MERCH -cough- but till then?

      (merch merch merch merch merch merch merch merch merch c’mon there are people here who need bday presents sometimes.)

      1. Right now, donations are averaging 2.5k per month. Tidy enough, and manageable, esp. once I find a place in a smaller town and move.

        Merch requires me to find an artist I can work alongside, and so far that hasn’t come up.

    1. Evan really is quite an endearing character. His story is heart-wrenching. I’d want to know more if not for the fact that we already know his story doesn’t end well…

      Maybe Blake can at least help him make it a little less terrible.

      1. If Blake is sucessful in the Binding, set-up & delivery, he can do better in returning the boon by helping the boy find peace by putting him to rest. Betraying the boy by binding him and having him re-living the “hunt” over and over again for power is just sick.

        1. Thing is, that’s the only thing the boy’s ghost can do. He’s not the boy, not really. And hey, If June got to be warm, maybe the boy’s ghost might get some reprieve too?

  2. I could certainly see that if Evan is still around after Blake finishes with the Hyena, he will bind him like June. Although, there is as good or better chance of Evan passing on cause Blake saves him. This is all of course if it goes cleanly like it has so far. Not much chance of that happening.

    Still, there should be a lot of ghosts Blake can use in the area if he wants to bind some more. He could certainly use a broader utility belt. I would be interested to see how much stronger Blake is at the end of the three Days. He has anti-demon armor, contracting ability, another rune, maybe a couple more ghosts to replace his use of June. Even some possible allies. The abstract demon promises even more interesting stuff.

    1. I certainly hope Blake winds up keeping Evan. The brilliant little kid is a spirit of pure determination and survivalism, something Blake could definitely used.

      Of course, I’ll be just as happy if Evan is put to rest by finally being “rescued”. Poor kid.

      1. “I was following the boy, after a fashion. Taking his advice on paths and on that escape route.

        Problem was, well, he’d died.”

        “I went to sleep this afternoon, too tired to keep moving, too hungry… I woke up feeling… not better, but it’s easier to tell.”

        If I hadn’t read this second quote I would still have had hope for Evan to have been rescued seeing as a ghost is left by the impression of a moment; It is possible for one very emotional person to create many ghosts. It was possible for Evan not to have died.

      2. Or next chapter Blake is forced to let the Hyena eat the poor kid as bait. God I hope not, the story would take a whole new level of depressing. At the very least could Blake find Evan’s remains and return them home?

      3. What if Blake keeps Evan, but then the abstract demon gets the boy, so that Blake never got the tips?
        Wait a second, wouldn’t that make it so he had died to the Hyena and couldn’t have gone after the abstract demon at all? I’m confused now.

        1. That’s the kind of thing that’s annoying about temporal paradox-attacks.

          What’s confusing me so much more is how, if this demon obliterates not only the memory of the targets but even their effects, the group knew that it was there. Because there shouldn’t have been a weekend without anyone scheduled, if after they were obliterated the effects of their existence were erased, as that would lead to someone else being scheduled to check out that warehouse.

          …wait, would that be why it didn’t work? Because scheduling more people for that day would have led to more people being sent there–or rather, having been sent there–and also obliterated, repeated ad nauseam? But…hm…

          Yes, temporal paradoxes can be interesting, but they can also be annoying lol

          1. Well, there were implications that the group used to be a lot bigger. Perhaps people kept getting eaten until people who managed to defend themselves and their memories were the ones who were sent. Effect continues until it gets stabilized.

            1. But…they didn’t defend themselves on that weekend. Things just ended up so that nobody was scheduled to go there.

        2. It’s not actually a temporal effect so there’s no paradox. If AD got Evan, history doesn’t rewrite but everyone remembers it as never having contained Evan.

          Blake got the tips but won’t remember having done so. Probably he’ll just have a vague feeling of outwitting the Hyena… somehow.

  3. Perfect, this is just what I wanted. A victory, yes it’s minor nor complete, but it’s something to hold on when things are dark. Which is most of the time

    1. For now. It’d be more merciful to release the kid’s impression. He was badass enough to last that long, he deserves to have his trauma resolved…that being said, even for a fresh ghost the kid was a bit too lucid.

      1. I think the people who die in that forest aren’t leaving “ghosts” but having there afterlife selves trapped behind.

        1. That makes a lot of sense, but on second thought, their a) reliving their experiences and b) their ‘gaps’ in their experiences and c)other practitioners and Others talking about things coming to them after death, good or bad, implying that they will have a continuation of actuality, seem to show a difference between afterlife selves and these ghosts.

          1. Is there a difference between “afterlife selves” and ghosts? From the way that the Knights of the Basement described what happened to the Astrologer’s mentor, I’m not sure there is. It’s possible that it just involves shades of grey; the amount of lucidity and fixation on the events of their death. Being killed is pretty traumatic, after all.

            1. When people die in the Pactverse, they generally move on to some afterlife that we don’t have much information on yet. Ghosts are psychic impressions of people having noteworthy deaths. As ghosts are but impressions of people havingtraumatic events, they can be dismissed by resolving the traumatic event. Because of this, a distinction is being made between ghosts and people in an afterlife.

  4. Starting the typo thread:

    survial
    survival

    aroud
    around

    a eerily
    an eerily

    criss-crossed
    more commonly crisscrossed

    of the of air
    of the air

    chickenwire (thrice)
    more commonly chicken wire

    tireder
    more tired, but given the circumstances, possibly written as intended

    chainlink
    more commonly chain-link or chain link

    1. Hmmm, do I get an award for replying earlier than you posted?

      The monster was close, but I couldn’t find him, scanning the trees.

      This feels a little awkward, I feel like it might need to be by scanning the trees. Might be a parallelism problem that makes it feel awkward

    2. ‘You died, I thought, and just like the monster more sensitive, with connections only to his half-devoured prey, you’ve got less flesh in the way of sensing things.’

      –missing something here. maybe a ‘became’…I don’t know, I can only barely get the gist of this sentence.

    3. Typos:
      – “Was I supposed to rationalize with this very confused spirit?” -> ‘reason’?
      – “Moving more slowly, more carefully I dug my fingers” -> ‘more slowly, more carefully,’
      – “and just like the monster more sensitive” -> missing verb

  5. I’m looking forward to seeing a non-negotiated binding. It would do Blake well to get more firepower. To this end, binding Evan the Boy Wonder and the Troll/Ogre (Shrek) would be beneficial, if at all possessible.

    1. That would be very cool, and I hope to see what that looks like. I have a feeling that it is something like:

      Practitioner: I will hurt you if you do not agree to this very one-sided contract.
      Other: Okay….

  6. Wait a minute, Blake got a hit in, gained a (fragile) new ally, and is going on the offensive? Things are actually looking up for him.

    It’s too good to be true. I fully expect this to be an April’s Fools day joke and the real version of this chapter ends with Blake being horribly mutilated by a goat.

        1. And with that hilarious imagery. . . I am guaranteed sweet dreams ( or nightmares) tonight (technically this morning).

          1. Ah yes this is the April Fools chapter, isn’t it? Too bad it wasn’t the Christmas Chapter, Blake could have Glamoured himself to look like Santa to both keep warm and get Evan to trust him. And delivered this line when he shot the Hyena.
            “Ho, Ho, Ho, lets deck your ass with Holly MUTHAFUCKER!”

            1. I’m imagining lumberjack Blake in a Santa Claus outfit belting out “DECK THE HALLS WITH BOUGHS OF HOLLY! TRALALALALA LALALA AXE TO THE FACE FUCKER AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

              And it is glorious.

  7. My no chance in hell thought: Not enough chain for a circle, or even enough to tie up its limbs. So, all Blake has to do is make a lasso or collar and break the Hyena like you break a wild horse – by riding it until it gives up.

    1. No chance for Blake to bind it by bridling the Hyena by its neck since Blake isn’t a country boy with rodeo experience; Blake would have a higher sucess rate bridling the Hyena by the balls, then rodeo ride it till its’ fighting spirit is broken.

    2. I was thinking that he’d end up using the chain as a leash. I doubt he’ll rodeo it – that would just be silly. More likely he’ll corner it and force it into submission, and it will have no choice but to agree to the binding. That kind of binding will likely make Conquest happy, as a bonus.

    3. For a beast taller than he can jump up and touch to the shoulders of, the beast’s neck is going to be huge. I just don’t see him having enough chain in order to bind him around the neck, if he can’t even put a circle around himself.

      1. Twenty feet of chain makes for a 6+ foot diameter circle. As tall as this thing is, I don’t think it has a neck more than 6 feet across, especially since the descriptions make it sound lean.

        1. I thought I remembered somewhere that he couldn’t make a circle from the chain earlier. As a protective barrier. I guess I’m getting things muddled.

    1. Elementally charged metal and holly. I’m guessing that despite the considerable strength disparity between the two, that should be sufficient to at the very least give Blake some form of leverage. I mean, water filled pipes several meters of concrete deep underground are a sufficient inconvenience to deter most Goblins from crossing cities after a while, so I am guessing that having an elementally charged metal chain wrapped around your neck with your equivalent of kryptonite can’t be too pleasant.

  8. Evan is unusually clear and rational, capable of reacting to new circumstances even. I wonder if that is normal for a new ghost or if Evan was something special in life. Oh wait, he was – any kid who can survive days being hunted like that is pretty amazing to start out with. I wonder if that made for a more powerful ghost.

    1. It was mentioned in an earlier chapter that gosts tended to grow increasingly weaker as time went by… unless they were connected to some sort of power source. I wonder if that is the case with Evan, or if it is all just because of his relative “freshness”. Perhaps something else? After all, one should always be wary when classifying others.

      Personally, I’m hoping he turns out to be more than just a normal ghost. Perhaps because his scenario isn’t technically over, he might still be able to learn? After all, with all the ghosts we’ve seen thus far, their experience came to some sort of closure, one way or another… June gave up and died of cold, Liam perished, etc… For the ghostly boy, on the other hand, his scenario is clearly not over. The hyena never caught him, and he has a recollection of events which came -after- his actual death. Remember how he mentioned that one day he was too hungry and tired to go on, [but then], when he woke up, he could perceive spiritual entities better? If this were a regular ghost, I’m guessing the story would have ended when he died, but he adapted to his new situation, using his newfound Sight to help him evade the hyena. Obviously, he does have some ghostly caracteristics, and many of his actions manifest as replays of past events, but I am hoping that as a result of his unique condition he can still learn and adapt to new events. All of which to say, he could maybe, if he isn’t a regular slowly fading phantom, make a good familiar for Blake, or at least a companion…

      1. I really am hoping for some sort of extenuating circumstance that would allow making this boy his familiar to make any kind of sense. An aware, sentient, rational ghost, which seems capable of adapting to post-death events and circumstances, would be a really cool familiar, and his focus on survival is appropriate for Blake. I feel like Blake’s situation is thematically similar enough to Evan’s pre-death circumstances that Evan might be able to carry on as a lucid ghost without having to relive his own experience – a life with Blake would be struggle enough that the emotions keeping him in this world could just be transferred to apply to his new “life” as a hunted diabolist’s familiar.

        I know it’s a pipe dream, but I want something to go right for Blake, and we’ve been talking up the necessity of getting implement, demesne, or familiar since almost the very beginning. And didn’t Blake and Rose agree that the familiar doesn’t need to be a whole big thing, just a sort of stepping stone to the other two?

        1. He’d have to be a very special ghost to be a decent familiar – remember that ghosts fade away in time unless they are connected to an external power source. One of the big reasons to get a familiar is to use it as a power source, so any type of Other that can’t recharge without the practitioner providing something isn’t going to work for that.

          1. I do remember, which is where the “extenuating circumstances” bit comes it. With what we know right now, you’re right, it won’t work. I just want it to.

            1. Well, he may not be familiar material but there’s no particular reason that he couldn’t possibly become part of Blake’s retinue of ghosts. He’d be the third ghost Blake has bound, and rule of three being what it is he could get something really useful out of that.

          2. The way I see it, there are two power-related things to look for in a familiar: The power you can take from it and the things it can do with power. So perhaps Evan will need to draw on the glamour to stay “alive”, but what can he do with power he takes from Blake?

            1. One, Blake gets a lot of use out of his hair locket – I’m not sure the utility gained from dedicating that power to a familiar on a full time basis would be worth the loss of glamour ink and its myriad of uses. Two, we know glamour doesn’t mix well with vestiges due to their fragility. Ghosts have a similar problem – they are fragile enough that contradictions to their script can make them fade out of existence.

      2. Well, normal ghosts don’t need to keep struggling after death. Once they die, the traumatic experience is over and they’re left with only memories that they relive until they use up whatever ghost essence keeps them going. There’s no feedback. No interaction. This kid, though, was in pretty much the exact same situation after death as he was before. The Hyena was still hunting him, and he had to keep running from it. Maybe being more lucid is to be expected for ghosts in his situation? He retains some sentience, because even in death, he has a use for it.

        I don’t think he’d make an especially good familiar, since he doesn’t look like he has any raw power to spare. Still, I hope he sticks around. Either bound by Blake as a ghostly sidekick, or just living a long and fulfilling life as a ghost after the Hyena is dealt with. 🙂

        1. I concur with the idea that he gets put into a coat of “don’t get tired” or a pair of seven-league boots.

  9. awesome as always Wildbow, really liked this chapter, i was worried Blake wouldn’t be able to go face to face with the hyena but it seems like he will be okay.
    was everyone else also momentarily convinced the boy was the Hyena? i felt the same way when Blake when to check Barbatorem’s room and found it empty, i was sure Rose was really Barbatorem, i guess i’m just wrong genre savvy. maybe Wildbow will eventually play it straight just to mess with us.
    P.S.: do a black lamb’s blood gathered pages, please!

    1. Holly has a long history in mythology and is considered a pretty holy plant by a lot of different groups. It’s especially popular with druids and from what I’ve just read a roman fellow called Pliny the Elder thought that it could protect places from lightning and witchcraft. I guess witchcraft covers deranged twisted goblin things.

    2. Well, keep in mind that for this world Other’s are kind of rules by laws and oaths and rules agreed upon. There is a certain legality derived from customary and common actions, regardless of their written and professed legality.
      One could easily reason this allows for repeated and common actions, with no concern as to if they are performed by practitioners or rather of cultural origin, to become a law upon themselves. It is not really a “Belief makes it True” but there’s a semblance to it.

      Furthermore, if I go by the etymological significance, Holly has a meaning of “protector”, going further down the time line reveals it be “thorny” and finally “to cut”. It’s significance might predate Ahriman or whoever laid down the ground rules for dealing with Others.

      The point made by Krusty about it being used by druids is also valid, of course.

      1. Solomon (the biblical King Solomon) laid down the modern ground rules for dealing with Others. The meaning of holly undoubtedly predates him by a wide margin.

        1. Thank you. The name had completely slipped my mind and I only remembered the person coming from the fertile crescent ± 500 km.

          The etymological root of holly, to cut, incidentally predates Solomon by about two millennia. Though the archaeological veracity of language is certainly harder to pinpoint.

    3. Holly, among other things, symbolizes consecration, health, beauty, peace, good will, and physical revenge. (according to ask.com)

      All of those would be excellent anathemata to something like the Hyena.

      1. But that only happens with European Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and not Canada Holly (Ilex verticillata) right? Unless all holly have universal harm to certain Others or the Canada Holly’s use by Native Americans for medicinal purposes also count.

        1. I’m not sure the distinction would qualify, ironically enough for the setting. Regardless, the Hyena didn’t want to go through/over it, so blowing a shotgun blast’s worth of holly debris definitely irritated it.

          And Ask.com didn’t specify a type of holly.

        2. Ah, but does the Hyena know there different kinds of Holly? And Healing might be harmful to the Hyena. It is a creature that leave permanent wounds and suffering, after all.

          1. That… actually makes sense, the Hyena being an embodiment of wounding and harm can be hurt by substances/symbols/embodiments of healing and relief.

            1. That suggests things like Eucalyptus, Willow Bark, and Aloe Vera might also be effective counter agents to the Hyena.

    4. “Like I said, kiddo, help already came.”

      Most badass moment in Pact till now! Blake is all the reinforcement this battle needs.

  10. Great job with this chapter! It was extremely enjoyable to read.
    I’d love to get a glimpse into Black Lamb’s Blood, but whatever you decide to write, it will be fantastic! If you wouldn’t tease us with so many interesting books, we wouldn’t want to read them. 🙂

  11. Evan’s apparent ability to maybe-sense connections better than Blake, and react to new things, especially petty hunting things…

    He is the perfect anti-Enchanter ghost, and Blake can use that.

    1. wvan can sense the Hyena because he’s tied to it & dosent know he’s dead not because of an inherent ability.

  12. i just read all of Worm last month. Keep up the amazing work Wildbow! Taylor is a hell of a creation and Blake is shaping up well too! I can’t wait for Blake to get Rose back though.

    1. Well, if you don’t count experiencing the phantom pain of having his legs ripped off to escape from under a car and slipping on rocks as nothing bad happening…

      1. Let’s see:

        Negatives this chapter:
        Experiencing the ghost’s pain of having his legs crushed.
        Experiencing the ghost’s pain of tearing off his own crushed legs to escape.
        Experiencing multiple other similar minor pains.
        Being hunted by multiple Others in frenzied pain.
        Being hunted by the Hyena.
        Listening to a little boy describe how the Hyena hounded him to death.
        Realizing what he brought for binding just isn’t going be be enough.

        Positives this chapter (some are relative):
        Finding two ways to escape the Hyena from Evan.
        Shotgunning the Hyena.
        Not getting actually caught by anything chasing him.
        No physical injury.

        That is a good day for him. And I am speaking in a non-sarcastic way.

  13. Somthing sure is weird with Evan. Mabe he isn’t a ghost at all, but some… other Other?
    I would love to see the history of the knights.

  14. Well this was badass.
    Lot of snark, is Blake getting used to this shit?
    Genuinely creepy and funny chapter. Nice.

  15. “I got about two steps over before I fell. Foot slipping, shin slamming into the space between two rocks, chest hitting another rock dead on, knocking half of the of air out of me. All in all, I came a matter of inches from simply bouncing off the rock and tumbling down the ‘waterfall’.”

    Blakes minor fuck ups actually really sell Pact for me

  16. Blake really should make an Evan’s Stealth/Evasion Cloak. If Evan is able to imbue such a cloak, the benefit is obvious–many of Blake’s enemies can basically one-shot him if they catch him somehow, and the frequency of his encounters mean that even small damage is pretty bad news. The value of being able to avoid or circumvent a deadly encounter is incredible, and being just that much more slippery would likely increase his survivability far more than an increase in his endurance would, given his status as a Wildbow protagonist and thus ridiculous number of deadly situations and rapidly increasing powers arrayed against him.

    1. I’m for any excuse to keep Evan. He’s just so cute ; ) Also I am a fan of keeping anyone who can stay alive for dayswhen up against a horror like the Hyena.

      1. Again folks, the kid is only useful in this particular case. Keeping him around after the Hyena is taken care of is not likely because:

        1.) The trauma is resolved.
        2.) Blake obviously doesn’t like them being in a state of suffering that is their life as ghosts and it would be more merciful to resolve the trauma.

        Then again, I doubt this kid is actually a ghost. Too lucid. He probably somehow evolved.

        1. “Not actually a ghost anymore (and aren’t labels dangerous to begin with?)” is probably our best shot at keeping Evan around, as a familiar or otherwise.

        2. I don’t see how being lucid makes him more than a ghost. Every ghost is different and the particular circumstances leading up to his death go along with being lucid. Think about it. June froze to death in a state of despair and giving up and Leonard was a guilt ridden drunk, and both were older ghosts. Lucid they were not. Evan on the other hand did not give up or give in to despair – he was afraid, but he pushed past that and used every bit of toughness and cleverness he could muster to survive until the cold in his boots forced his body to shut down. He kept his wits about him before dying, so higher lucidity than the average ghost isn’t that strange.

          1. Do we even have an average for ghosts yet? We’ve seen June, LIAB, and the ghosts of The Hyena’s domain. June was specifically targetted as a not too dangerous ghost. LIAB is basically a wisp, barely existing. The ghosts here have all been mutilated and are essentially crazed, outside the norm. Perhaps young, powerful ghosts (like The Boy Wonder) are simply more aware, active and alucid than what we’ve seen so far.

    1. Thanks. I know I am. It’s just nice to have other people recognize it. Say, how do you like pecs? I’ve been thinking up adjectives for them all day. Ravishing. Engorged. Bulging. Innuendo-inducing.

      But enough about me. You talk about me.

    2. Once again, my lack of ever seeing Adventure Time keeps coming up. I haven’t felt this awkward since I was being talked to by a nerdy girl with fake green hair wondering if I’d seen Adventure Time at that speed dating thing. Which was almost bad as that time Vernon Wells had the GALL to accuse me of having womanly hands. Which was earlier that day, actually.

      Wish I got the number of that girl in the Totorro outfit, though. Or the one dressed as Cecil from Night Vale.

      Hell, I’d have settled for the number of the gay Asian guy sitting beside me.

      Why must I be so alone?!!!! WHY?!!!!!!

      Why does everything I love and harass with my digits leave me?!

      Eh, I’ll probable corner someone some day. Then they’ll have no choice. It’ll be either me or the death trap.

      …and after getting enough corpses stuck in the death trap that it stops working, I think one of them will have to choose me.

      1. By the way, saying I’d have settled for that guy’s number wasn’t meant to be as disparaging as I wound up wording it. There was just this weird thing where we kept running into each other and I think he wanted to ask me out when we both left. Weird in a cool way. Besides, he was real nice and kept asking me how I was doing and listening to my stupid stories…

        Also…dammit! More girls there wanted to sit down and talk to him than to me. I can be gay too, ladies! I can be super gay. Just watch. I’m gonna go out and start preaching in churches about gay people being horrible. Six months from now, you can bet your ass I’ll be caught in a gay orgy sex scandal.

          1. You should have seen him when he was actively welcoming all the new commenters to Worm. His… ingenuity knows no bounds.

    3. I really don’t have much to say about this drawing, for alas, I have only seen 1.5 episodes of Adventure Time. It was quite. . . trippy, as the kids like to say.

      Ok. I feel it’s now more appropriate to ask. Pencil, when are we going to see a fan drawing of Glamour Blake/Rose in his Kill la Kill style ward suit?

      1. You guys are missing out, big time. 🙂 They even introduced Rule 63 gender-bent versions of the main characters (Fionna & Cake VS Fin & Jake), which turned out to be the result of one of the recurring villains having come up with his own fan fiction – which he was reading to Fin & Jake, while they were struggling to get out of his Blofeldian death trap. Can you say ‘captive audience’? 😉

        The show returned to the gender-bent version in a later episode, and both times, they used the excuse to say some potentially meaningful and profound things about gender normativity, social mores etc. (And, of course, a lot of very silly jokes.) Similar to some of the topics that Wildbow seems to be addressing with Pact.

        “…when are we going to see a fan drawing of Glamour Blake/Rose in his Kill la Kill style ward suit?”

        Why, as soon as Wildbow introduces it in the story, of course.

        Or when the Rule 34 mob catches up, whichever comes first. 😉

        1. Why, as soon as Wildbow introduces it in the story, of course.

          Did bot Blake create and wear this for the binding of Paws (pronounced Puss)?

  17. Now they must play …. the most dangerous game!

    If Blake actually defeats this monster, then his career as a valkyrie will have a nice pool of horrific deaths to draw from. Why, he could open a legitimate business of selling knick-knacks of poor maimed ghosts.

    This will most likely end with Blake getting maimed, though. Maybe he’ll lose an arm.

  18. Well, that was very interesting.

    I am very curious about Evan, and the mention of the star made me think the Astrologer was involved in some way, shape or form.

  19. Well, I’m trying to piece together the little symbolic mystery we got here. Now, holly stands for truth in heraldry, but I’m not sure that’s what we’re dealing with. Fuck the truth. The truth won’t set you free. Just ask Ned Stark about that one.

    I will start off with something unrelated. Good job Evan. The reason that Hyena keeps after him, you know, is because he beat it. Oh sure, he was lured in and died, but he has yet to be caught and bitten by the Hyena. Frostbitten, possibly, but not bitten bitten.

    I think this thing’s weakness is life, particularly symbols of life. You’ve got the holly plant, an evergreen. Evergreens are so often brought up in winter holidays because, since they never seem to die off like the other plants, they are a symbol of everlasting life. Same reasoning for why some slaves would make sure to plant evergreens like periwinkle.

    He’d do even better swinging a Christmas tree at it. Think about it, not only a symbol of eternal life, but phallic as well. Hell, maybe that’s why the gun worked too? He shot his symbolic load over the Hyena. He defeated with the power of mystical life bukkake.

    Then you have its refusal to cross the stream. Now, you might be thinking “Maybe it doesn’t want to cross streams? Maybe it’s afraid of total protonic reversal?” Well, that’s possible, but water and streams are another very important symbol of life. It wasn’t uncommon to have Ancient Sumerian artwork depicting a great king of the day receiving waters of life or some sort of tree/plant of life from a goddess or a god.

    There you have it. This thing has been compared to wild animal, and like the naked belted hero of Ancient Sumeria, it’s time for Blake to strip naked save for a belt and wrestle with this thing. Don’t forget the oil. And, uh, I’ll just be over here with my popcorn and tissues. Don’t mind me or any heavy breathing you hear, you hairy naked beasts.

    Or, and I suppose this is a possibility to or is at least related to the life thing…anyone else remember any characters of folktales who had a tendency to remove parts of living beings, chasing them along rural roadways, only to stop at running water?

    What, you forgot? You’re just like Ichabod Crane, you know. I swear, you’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached to your neck. Or if the Headless Horseman came riding around.

    Anyone remember if the Hyena was described as missing a body part, or possibly as being portrayed by Chistopher Walken? http://www.badassoftheweek.com/horseman.html

    1. I did in fact catch the similarity to weak-sauce vampires, but that myth states pretty clearly that the water must be of a running nature.
      Then again, this isn’t actually a vampire, so frozen bodies of water may be an acceptable substitute for actually running water.
      Which reminds me: Blake is still referring to the hatchet as June. I was under the impression that June had used up all her tormented energy and given up the ghost. But if she simply returned to the axe like a ghost pokemon, perhaps Blake could use her against the Hyena, I’m thinking piss on the overgrown mutt and flash-freeze the puddle.

      1. The Hyena could have probably mauled June or wouldn’t affect it. Look at the sheer number of ghosts with varous traumas, spreading their pain and misery, and the Hyena is hardly bothered by them.

        As far as June goes, she’s not too high up there in terms of power since she’s somewhat old.

        That being said, when all this is over, Blake can probably go ghost-hunting for any remaining ghosts after the Hyena is trussed up like the ugliest Christmas turkey and handed to Conquest.Either way, The Shepard will probably deal with them once the Hyena has been taken care of.

      2. I don’t know much about the climate of Canadian winter, but if Blake was worried about crashing through the ice then he probably thinks there’s still running water under the surface.

  20. Since we’re nearly at the end of the arc.. I’m enjoying the pactverse very much. The magic in the story feels completely natural to me, despite being a completely original magic system to me.

    As a reader, the differences between the Wormverse and the real world was easy to assimilate because it more or less boiled down to a single conceit (people have superpowers). Because I’ve been primed for similar universes by other stories, it was easy to accept.

    The rules of the pactverse is completely new to me, yet they feel familiar because the flow so naturally from what I feel like magic should be, keeping oaths, telling the truth, empowering actions with abstract ideas.

    As a reader, I’d get satisfaction from knowing how closely the pactverse matches my own expectations of it in terms of the number of type of differences. Is Blake’s magic – so far mostly binding, connections and contracts – a good example of magic in the pactverse? Or is it a specific diabolist-flavoured kind of magic? Might we run against a practitioner later on who can cast magic missile or something along those lines, does every type of practice (chronomancy etc.) look completely different to what we’ve seen Blake use from the point of view of the practitioner?

  21. And this just occurred to me, but why didn’t Blake call Maggie and ask for her advice on binding Goblins before he went out with Fell?

    He knew going in he was dealing with one, and then he didn’t bring anything to bind it with. If he had asked, Maggie could have at least shared the knowledge of how to make Ofuda with him so he could use that.

  22. Yeah… The chain leash idea does make sense. Blake riding this doggy into Conquest’s home would be amazing, and a solid request for you, psycho gecko.

    Also… Rule of three. Blake has shot this sucker twice. How much more ammo does he have? Better hope for a head shot, as I think breaking its jaw might be an existential injury.

  23. It occurs to me that Evan did in fact find a place to hide. It was just behind a holly bush rather than up a tree or across a river.

  24. Blake seems to be building up some clout in his own right. He didn’t need to glamour up the Thorburn voice in order to communicate with Evan. Perhaps a victory here and he could even command Dickswizzle.

    1. Might actually be because of Evan’s particular nature though – he’s a child that’s scared and alone and wants help to come. As an adult Blake probably automatically gets some respect, and considering he just shot the thing the kid is scared of that probably earned points in this case.

      1. That also works. A near death victory over a mere imp may not be enough to earn Blake respect, now that I think about it. After gaining a pet erasure monster, on the other hand . . .

        1. Of course, gaining a pet erasure monster may have the unfortunate side effect of erasing all the reputation you have gained already. Along with everything else, in some cases.

  25. “It’s… easier to tell. I guess, and I’m right. I went to sleep this afternoon, too tired to keep moving, too hungry… I woke up feeling… not better, but it’s easier to tell.”

    Evan appears to have formed memories after he died!

  26. Is it possible that kid ghost Evan is more lucid than the other ghosts we’ve seen because he isn’t actually dead? For example he might be in a coma or unconscious and having an out of body experience.

    1. It must be something along those lines, I think. There are too many indications that he isn’t a ghost for him to be a ghost.

      1. It is considered not a good idea to categorize Others. This is probably because there is a wide degree of variation, even within a category.

      2. With Blake’s luck,he’ll bind the ghost, then find out the kid’s in a coma in a hospital somewhere,and have a mess to sort out.

    2. Hum, you mean he’s in a place where people go when they die, but because he’s in a coma he’s actually more lucid and somehow mor able to communicate with the living?

      But Evan’s too young to be a cop…

      1. (If you don’t get the above reference, I’m not explicitating more because that would be MASSIVE spoilers for a great series.)

  27. All these ghosts and the Shepherd hasn’t tried to take down the Hyena?

    This seems to say something very important about how practitioners operate. The Shepherd’s whole deal is sending ghosts on to their rest, removing problematic ghosts and giving useful ghosts purpose. He helps the world out, probably gets a lot of good karma in the process. But he doesn’t do anything about the hundreds of tormented ghosts caught by the Hyena.

    The Shepherd isn’t really in it for the spirits. He’s in it for the karma. Briar Girl is an example of a practitioner who truly believes in what she does. She would risk life and limb for the forest. If something like the Hyena started fucking with her forest she would do whatever it took to put an end to it. But other practitioners aren’t like that. They get their power from these things, but it’s a means to an end.

    The same applies for diabolists. The Shepherd probably tells people that he does what he does because it’s the right thing to do. But in the end his personal comfort and safety comes first. And diabolists tell people that they do what they do because it’s a necessary evil. Because someone has to do it. But when push comes to shove, they won’t risk life and limb to save innocents from demons.

    Blake has shown a very different attitude. Even while on the run from the Hyena, alone, scared, and very much in danger, he cares about the plight of the dysentery ghost. Even surrounded by feral animals, with his mind consumed by Pauz’s static, he cares about the people Pauz is hurting and tries to warn them about the dog in their car. Blake is a diabolist who is willing to risk life and limb for people.

    I think that’s where this story is going. Blake is going to become the diabolist the propaganda pretends exists. He’s going to go into demonology because he believes that someone has to. He’s going to fight for people who can’t defend themselves against the darkness, and he’s going to do it with all the resources of the Thorburn family.

    1. Did I miss something? Is The Shepard a character in Pact, a title for one of the characters, or from an outside source? The answer may be simple, but I just woke up and can’t think of who the Shepherd is (at least from Pact).

    2. We know very little about the Shepherd, so I don’t know if that’s a fair judgement. We don’t know his motivations. What little we know comes from last chapter, and all we know is that he guides the dead, cleans up bad ghosts and collects good ones. We don’t even know if he’s human. However, SOP among practitioners and even many civilization friendly Others for dealing with diabolic and otherwise very dangerous Others seems to be to just wall them into an area and put up wards to keep normals away so long as the threat can be contained like that. The Shepherd may not be a fighter, so even if he’s “in it for the spirits” going up against the Hyena may be seen as too risky – getting turned into a mauled ghost trapped in a park isn’t going to help his cause.

      Also, even if he helps the world out that isn’t what generates good karma in Pact. It’s not about good and evil, it’s about right and wrong. People need to remember that.

      As far as Briar Girl goes, she may be in it for her forest friends, but that only applies to that particular forest as far as we know. In spite of the fact that the Hyena has mauled a number of local nature spirits and elementals, she hasn’t gone out of her way to deal with the thing either. She’s probably fine with walling off things like that as well, so long as it’s outside of her territory.

      For diabolists, we haven’t met many. By reputation I’m sure some are in it for the power, but there is evidence that points to that not being the case. Blake’s grandmother could have easily traded herself or the family land to the lawyers to pay for her family’s karmic debt, but she didn’t. Sure, she’s still using them with the land as possible payment if her family fails, but it’s still a harder road. She also didn’t seem to be in it for power – worst case she may have been an academic on the subject, studying it out of interest. Hell, a number of the lawyers seem to be decent, even if they didn’t have the strength of character to not sell themselves to the lawyers.

      1. Except the lawyers made it pretty clear that Granny Rose and Blake are atypical as diabolists go and that most are the sort who would be perfectly happy to deploy the likes of Barbatorem.

    3. Pfft. Blake won’t become the good diabolist from the propaganda. He’s already one of the bad ones. He gave Conquest to Pauz. He has injected a fundamental concept with a demonic mote. Unless Blake stops Pauz he’s gonna be well above average in terms of moving the clock closer to demongeddon.

      1. It’s only one embodiment of a fundamental concept that he placed a demonic imp near.

        It’s bad news if left alone, but people, come on. He’s not corrupting the very nature of Conquest, here.

        (Also, I feel that I must point out, this was Rose’s plan >.>)

  28. I wonder what would happen if Blake used some Glamour to “heal” the wounded Others once this is all over?

    1. He wouldn’t have enough ink, and most wouldn’t let him get close enough. I’m thinking he’ll have the Hyena vomit up the pieces of the Others that are in its stomach.

  29. Dammit, Wildbow, I had that song in my head all night!

    Awesome chapter. I admit, I was wondering if the kid was the Hyena too, until Blake asked.

  30. “I just need to wait. Help will come.”

    “Hasn’t it come already?” I asked. “I’m here.” Does this qualify as a lie?

    1. Why would it? Even if Blake isn’t considered help (though I think he is) his declarative statement is “I’m here.” He is there, therefore it is not a lie.

      1. Or more appropriately, he is “here” so it isn’t a lie. Also, I don’t think questions can be lies in the Pactverse.

  31. I’ve said it before, and I think now is a relevant time to say it again. Blake should’ve been a blue mage. If he was, this would be the perfect opportunity to learn the Goblin Punch command. It has a magic power cost of 0 and is super effective against enemies of the same level as the caster. That would cement Blake as king (or queen from a certain point of view) of the novices, weak Others and dabblers!

      1. Yeah? Well. . . Um . . . Crap. That wouldn’t work would it?

        In that case, he should learn some chronomancy so that he could cast demi. . . Who am I kidding? Knowing Blake’s Karma, all of his enemies would be immune anyway.

        1. No. In that game, there will always be an easy way out of any situation that will screw you royally later, and possibly for eternity.

  32. hey wildbow!

    I started reading worm last December after Eliezer Yudkowsky recommended it in one of his HP:MoR author’s notes. I finished reading Worm a few weeks ago (i loved it!) and now I’m happy to say that I’m finally current in your web serials! Keep up the good work!

    Goof Night.

    1. One minute after midnight, but WordPress has been wonky lately. I scheduled it, but it then takes its time, unless I resubmit. Thus, the two-minute delay tonight.

      1. Blame Laird the Chronomancer. he knows some people seem to like Blake so he;s gone straight at the author… someone is in deep shit now…

  33. Comments:
    – Blake is trying to do good. The universe and its bad karma will eventually screw him over, particularly now that he actually is a diabolist. (apt quote from Worm: “having to do the wrong things for the right reasons”)
    – Is holly a weakness for goblins in general? I don’t quite remember. But if so, and if Blake knew that e.g. from a conversation with Maggy, he should’ve collected some before coming to the Hyena.

    Great lines:
    Congratulations, Blake Thorburn. You’ve successfully reverted two or three million years. You’re an ape in a tree, hiding from the scary things.
    – “How were they finding me? There were too many variables to cover. Rather than dwell on it, I chose a simpler concept, focusing on it. Insulation. Hold in the heat, hold in the sounds, the smells.”
    – “In a simpler sense, there was no fucking way I was going to fight it on its turf, using weapons of its choice.”
    – ““Sorry, ghost,” I murmured. “If my life wasn’t what it was, and if this wasn’t what it was, I might come back to put you to rest.””
    – “Alexis had once given me a hand to help me up from the lowest point in my life. Or the lowest point before I inherited the house, in any event. Even if this was a ghost, a psychic echo, I felt like it deserved the same.”
    – ““Rest assured,”“You’re doing a fantastic job at being creepy. As ghosts go, you’re first rate.””
    – “All in all, the thing was big enough that its shoulders rubbed branches I couldn’t have touched if I reached overhead and jumped.”
    – I owed that little boy ghost an apology, for the accusation. No mistaking what I was looking at.
    – “Shotgun… assuming it was vulnerable and not weak to the iron, and the bullets would hurt it as much as they would hurt any other non-Other thing, I couldn’t imagine the shotgun doing anything substantial.”
    – “This was not a creature crafted by years of evolution. It had been made wrong, more like a humanoid thing that had once walked on two legs and then been twisted and wrenched into a four-legged shape, everything torn apart and rearranged and regrown until it was this. If anything told me that, it was the expression it wore. […] It was a goblin. A big, bad sort of goblin, twisted into a monstrous shape.”
    – “This was how the goblin functioned. Take the prey it could, use the remains of its prey when it couldn’t do it itself.”
    – “I was following the boy, after a fashion. Taking his advice on paths and on that escape route. Problem was, well, he’d died. His advice wasn’t perfect, or he’d be alive.”
    – “I moved the shotgun around my body until I had it in position and ready to fire. More for the security than out of any belief that it would help.”
    – “There weren’t enough assurances here. The rules for this goblin were a little different than the usual. I had to bind it, and I had almost no experience on binding, let alone binding goblins.”
    – “The kid had figured something out, or he’d been awfully lucky. I could use that knowledge or luck.”
    – “I could tell, now, there was a conflux, a well. A star at the center of this small world of trees and hills and frozen streams. Something powerful and scary enough that every other thing in these woods related to it in some fashion. The monster.”
    – “Instinct told me to make a break for the stream. If this was how he functioned, I could cross each time he came over to my side. Instincts were not my friend, in this particular circumstance.”
    – “A kind of conviction settled within me, as pieces clicked into place. This was how he operated, how he hunted. The territory was his, almost like a demesne. All spirits fled from him, because there was no denying what he was and what he did to Others and mortals both. Thus, the rules of the world were bent. He made no sound, because there were no spirits to be found.”
    – ““What’s your name?” I called out. Stupid question, dangerous, given the fact that any connection to him would help the monster find us. A ghost could only give answers from its particular script.”
    – “When he looked at me, eerily enough, he looked at me. Not through me.”
    – ““So you wait,”“Getting hungrier, more tired, thirsty…”“And cold at night. But I’ll be okay,” he said. He said it like he was reassuring me. “I’m tougher than I look. And smarter. Did you see my treehouse?””
    – “Help will come.”“Hasn’t it come already?”“I’m here.”“You’re not really real,” he said. He started to reach out, then dropped his hand. I looked down, and saw the streaks of glamour, turned into insulation. Mucking with his senses?”
    – “Help was never going to come for him. There were wards, to keep people out and away from the monster in the woods. He’d been lured or spooked into entering the area, and there hadn’t been a way out.”
    – “He had to climb over the bush, passed through the snow that layered it, as if it wasn’t there. Which it wasn’t, for him.”
    – ““He wants to eat me. He won’t let me sleep, growling and sending things. He won’t let me stop. Then he grins. He smiles. Because I’m not happy and he enjoys it.”“Yeah,”“That’s… what he is.””
    – ““Like I said, kiddo, help already came.” The ghost was kind enough that he didn’t disagree. Script or no.”
    – “I watched the thing, looking for a response. If it could talk, I imagined it would have just now. But it didn’t, which posed problems. Everything I’d bound thus far, I’d negotiated with. How the fuck was I about to bind this thing? It was a big, nasty, cunning animal, beast in every respect that a ‘beast’ was a problem for me, and it wasn’t stupid.”
    – ““What’s the worst case scenario?”“Him running. Getting as far away as he can.”“That’s not right.” […] “Him running is the best thing,”“Not when you’re hunting him,”“Come on.””

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