Category Archives: Arc 4 (Collateral)

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Black Lamb’s Blood

Introduction

What got me into the darkest practices was a desire to do good.  First as the youngest child of an evangelist and templar, then as a purveyor of dark texts and a colleague to men and women who perpetrate crimes against the world, each time they deal with that which is Wrong.

This text will not find its way to many on the side of Right.  I itch, already, to get into minutiae, to argue the meaning of Right, just as I know many of my contemporaries and peers are already telling themselves that they do not Wrong.  They tell themselves they are the exception.

The others, the unrepentant, the ones who have given up on the delusion, I suspect they have already put the book down, tossed it aside.  They equate Right and Wrong with Good and Evil, and they have already dismissed conventional morality.

I am not an expert practitioner.  My bindings, such as they are, have all been minor ones.  Careful ones, a very small number when one considers my age and my long career.  I am alive now because I am deliberate, because I move with excessive caution, not because I am good.  Certainly not because I am Good.  That particular quality is up for debate.

It is with this cautiousness and deliberation that I approach my first work.  This cautiousness and deliberation does not pay particular heed to the consequences of this writing.  I might, for example, say that it is unusual to wait so long to write their first work, that my fellows are narcissists by nature who write and write early out of ego and self-congratulations.  In saying this, I make enemies, dangerous ones who are liable to act on this insult.

I have always been honest to a fault.  Child of a preacher, an evangelist and templar.  Nothing else would be permitted, even before my siblings and I were invited to see what lies behind the curtain.  I’ve known since I admitted I was a diabolist, that anything I wrote would have to be something that would offend certain parties, march to a different rhythm.

When I say that I approach Black Lamb’s Blood with care, I mean that I chose my topic only after a great deal of thought.  Writers are told to write to fill the empty space on a bookshelf, the book that has yet to be written, but practitioners, narcissistic practitioners in particular, are prone to a kind of masturbation.  Self congratulating drivel, with crumbs offered to the peers as incentive to buy and read their texts.  These crumbs come as knowledge of demons and means of summoning, but not the truest means of controlling the things.  Such knowledge is retained by the one who bound them.  Nothing meaningful is offered.

Other texts are written with a quiet desperation.  The writers aim to unravel the mysteries and plumb the depths of knowledge.  The reasoning is similar to that of the compulsive gambler.  One more roll of the dice, one more answer, they tell themselves, and they’ll have a way out from beneath the debt that has piled up around them.  They will have an escape from the unbound beings that bay at their heels with every waking and sleeping hour.  This writing is too focused on immediate answers, or on big ones, and tends to the myopic.

What are my motivations for writing?  Look to the title of this text.  I am the black sheep of my family, but I am still new to this world, relatively speaking, relatively innocent.  The black lamb, perhaps.  The blood?  That of a martyr.  The conceit of a preacher’s get, to romanticize martyrdom.

I researched not the binding of demons, but the aftermath in the wake of these bindings, and in the wake of their actions.  I researched karma, the paths my peers took, I look at the lies we tell ourselves.  I mock my peers where I think they deserve to be mocked, call them repulsive when they act repulsive.  I curried favor, played to their love of themselves, the wide-eyed student eager to pay them homage.

They will, I think, be less than pleased when they see what I actually wrote.

I write this because I feel the field is largely ignored.  All of the rest of us, it seems, even the greatest of us, are focused on the present.  What happens in the future?  What happens when the binding is done?  What happens to us?  To the ones touched by the Wrongs?

Is there, I ask, a way out?  A methodology that might allow us to deal with evils without a sum loss for our world as a whole?  I would suggest there is, though I do not yet know what it might be.

I write this knowing that my audience will be small, if it exists at all.  Years of interviews and analysis point to the same conclusion.  My work will not be read, not as it is intended to be read.  The solutions I posit, and the questions I want others to answer, will each be ignored.  The unrepentant will refuse to challenge their own world view, moderate diabolists, my target audience in this, will feel uncomfortable with the emphasis on the future and dismiss me.  Lesser diabolists will not be in a position to read my work.

Beyond diabolists, I expect others will see it as self pity, which it is.  Failing that, they’re liable to see it as a kind of manipulation.  I wouldn’t blame them.  I have far too little to say in concrete terms, and talk around subjects, raising questions.  In their shoes, I would say the same about this text.

I write with a goal in mind, but perhaps it will solely for my own benefit, a masturbatory exercise in the end.

Masturbation or martyrdom, I chose my path in life, and I pray to God that this is a final destination that leads to a greater Good.

Chapter One: The Nest

I remember the first demon I encountered. My eldest brother was studying Religion, my sister enjoying a brief flirtation with freedom, partying and men, before her return to the family and assumption of her responsibilities.  I was an older teenager, I’d studied the books my father provided, and the task was one that needed as many hands as possible.  I was conscripted.

Our community knew my father as a local preacher.  He was more beneath the surface, privy to things beyond the curtain.  Practitioners called him an evangelist, a summoner, a man powerful enough to sway the world with words.  He called angels forth, cherubim, Madonnas carved of ivory to give others shelter.

That night, I saw him take off the mask he wore with his wife, his family, and his congregation.  He was always stern, but I saw him grim.  I saw old companions, others who had once been taught by the same teacher as my father, a man who taught them to use angels and guns both.  Men and women, wearing armor beneath clothes, long coats to hide their weapons, not one span of their body unadorned by tools of their trade.  Water, poisons, incendiaries, scrolls.

It would take me long decades to learn what proper diabolists already know.  Most practitioners count themselves unlucky if they have to deal with one of the darker powers.  Diabolists make such dealings their stock and trade.  My father and his fellow templars walked a middle road.  They had irregular contact with the Wrong things, but the only things they dealt out were fire, bullet, and death.

Were this another text, I would spell out the fighting, the measures taken, in hopes that others could use that knowledge and better survive.  My focus lies elsewhere.

The being we sought that night was more powerful than we had anticipated.  It was intelligent enough to hide the bulk of its activities from the outside world.  We expected an imp.  We found something evolved enough to be birthing its own imps, to have a form and its own symbolism.

A devil of the sixth choir.  The choir of man’s evils.  A weaker choir, and the one most personal to all of us.

She had collected inhabitants of a small town into a cult and church, and she had done it long enough that her initial followers had descendants.  Mother, father, child, grandchild.  All rutted on the floors and pews of the devil’s church in a grand, senseless, ceaseless orgy, the devil herself presiding above all in naked, Wrong splendor.

A devil of incest, she had made her own monsters even before she began creating imps, by way of inbreeding and birth defects.  There was only horror there, enough to sear its way into my eyes.

I will sum up that night by saying that each of us who walked in there with guns at the ready walked away alive, but we did not walk away intact.

When I think of what drove me to write this work, this event was one that remained with me.  I spent some time wondering about the aftermath.  It was my first eye-opening experience, and it was the last incident where I researched the long term effects.

It was only when I’d researched the events that are covered in each chapter that follows, that I let myself look into this one.  I looked at the numbers, and I want to point to statistics, the increase in birth defects in that town and county.  To the rise in the divorce rate, or the rates of abuse.

I want to, but I can’t.

It’s an event that touched me, personally, and started me on a different path in life.  Allow me, instead, to open my first chapter with the reality virtually all diabolists are cognizant of.

By the time my siblings returned the following April, almost a year later, my parents had announced their divorce.  My father said two words to either of my siblings.  Which was about as many as he’d said to me in the month prior.  That first night my siblings were home, I dreamed, and I realized why my father had been keeping his distance.

The morning before I left for that fight with the young devil, I was seventeen years old, doing the sort of thing seventeen year old boys are particularly inclined to do when locked in the bathroom.  An activity flavored with that uncomfortable mix of guilt and rebellion that is unique when your father preaches every night of the week.

That was the last time I found pleasure in my own body.

Scars and aftermath.  I imagine this particular type is familiar to all diabolists.  To lose our humanity piece by parcel, or to give it away.

This is not a reality diabolists often discuss.  The sacrifices that don’t involve the murder of a lamb or a virgin strapped to an altar.

I intend to open with this topic, a reality we all acknowledge and keep secret.  It was the start of my own journey, a motivation for me to start looking into matters.  I sought a way to fix what had been made Wrong in my own heart and mind.

The push to leave my home and family came about after a late night discussion with my siblings, my brother and the sister I could not look in the eye.

My sister called my father a charlatan.  My brother, set to be a templar after my father’s footsteps, did not disagree, but argued for the benefit of symbolism.

The idea of angels with wings was not situated in record or text, my sister argued.  Take away the invented things, the cultural aspects and art, stick to the written word alone, and the world was left with a deity who focused all efforts recorded in texts on a relatively small section of the Middle East.

My brother argued for the benefit of symbolism, for the power of ideas.  In the heat of battle, ideas and iconography could lend strength to those who needed it.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it hadn’t.  It didn’t.  Not for me, and not for our father.

In the end, with many beers shared between us, sitting on the roof of our house in that warm springtime, it dawned on me that my siblings had lost their faith.  The irony was, I’d retained my own.

I liken my realizations to the evolution of a child in their early adolescence, learning that their parents are indeed not perfect.  The subsequent realization is one many don’t make until they are in their twenties.  That their parent is still their parent.

Such was my relationship with God.  Such was the nature of my faith.

It was with that faith and little else that I gathered my things and struck out on my own a week later.

That was the start of my journey.  I would ask, to those who are still reading, to come with me.  Start with your eyes open to the most basic scars we wear.  We move on to the subject of Balance, to debts, prices, and the question of how one might better manage dealings with creatures who take from everything.

 

Chapter two: Tower

I would like to say I moved with direction after I left home, but I did meander.  I was hesitant, and I took too long to break some naive promises I had made to myself.  Foolish, I expect, to think one can get answers without paying some price.

When I did finally allow myself to look for and converse with diabolists, I found myself making rapid progress.  I hated myself for the prior years, telling myself I had wasted time, but I value them in retrospect.  I needed to exhaust all other options before I could walk this path and learn what I knew, or my self-loathing and doubt would have been too much to bear.

At the time, I weighed morals.  These days I debate questions of Balance.  Some call it karma.

I remain a careful man, these days, but it is human nature to make mistakes in youth.  I remember classmates racking up credit card bills in the tens of thousands, before reality caught up with them.

For a practitioner without parents to watch over them, it is easy to do the same with one’s Balance.

Frustrated, tired, and well traveled, I was twenty years old before I reached out to other diabolists.  I found Lucrezia, who identified herself to me as Lucy.  She, in turn, introduced me to her master and teacher, Jeffrey.

I remain unsure as to why I was invited to their home and presence.  My agreement to join them was a cautious one.  I spent a full night and two days awake, writing and revising the written contract.  Jeffrey barely skimmed it before agreeing.

Among those terms were measures meant to protect my Balance in the universe.  I’d come from a good home and an honest life, I’d been generous and given back more than I’d taken, and I held to the rules that God gave to mankind.  It was in holding to those rules that I bettered my Balance, rather than God himself, but I remain thankful for opportunity He gave me.

I remained free to refuse any task given me, with the caveat that I would have to pay for my own food and shelter any day that I did, or leave.  He agreed to never bind me or limit my freedom.

Even with the terms of our deal, I was uncomfortable.  For a long time, staying with Lucrezia and our mutual master, I slept with one eye open, convinced I would be sacrificed.  Instead, I got room and board, and frequent menial work, including illustrating for Jeffrey’s texts, which he wrote as short volumes, bound in nice embossed leather and sold at premiums.

He played to the shallow narcissism of other diabolists, fanning their fancies and indirectly flattering them.  Each volume was written with specific customers in mind, holding the relatively little substance he’d managed to dig up or barter from others.

Such was my existence with him.

I was there, but did not assist, when he summoned Agares.  A duke among the seventh choir, one that brought great beings low.  A corrupter and agitator.  He could compel a king to march to war, or stop that same warhost in its tracks.

Jeffrey’s efforts were not guided at men.  This was, I later learned, one step in my new master’s lifelong quest to quash and vanquish the gods of mankind.

Even in times of quiet, the gods are busy, fighting and holding on to their assets.  There is a delicate balance.  Jeffrey and Agares both sought to disturb it.  To start a war that included gods, incarnations and spirits, and make the deaths that resulted true deaths, ones that left the world bereft of those forces and the structure they gave to our reality.

Many of the choirs are focused on tangible things, but the seventh is an abstract one.  Not one that we are able to grasp in concrete terms.  Many call it the weakest choir.  It is one we are liable to underestimate or lose sight of, and thus the one that gets the furthest in its endeavors towards the Wrong.

By way of my contract with Jeffrey, I was forbidden from direct interference, so I turned to compelling my friend and fellow apprentice to stop Jeffrey.

Had Lucrezia and I succeeded, I might have returned home to be a templar, bottled up my passions and faced the horrors with the same grim expression my father wore.

My master and the Duke won.  Lucrezia died in the fight I urged her to take part in.

This text isn’t for the stories of battle, for exchanges of blows.

Ultimately, the world kept turning, a little less bright, less spiritually whole.

I was angry, passionate, protective of my sole friendship from the past three years.  As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer…

I sought revenge and I did it by way of the tools I’d accumulated, studying and watching diabolism.

I failed, and I was lucky enough to avoid the worst of the backlash when my own bindings failed to hurt Jeffrey and came back to me to exact the required prices.

Many diabolists maintain some means of tracking their Balance.  I use a wooden ring.  For a long time, the changes in that ring and the perpetual reminder that I was in debt bothered me.  A lifetime bringing up my Balance, a few moments of outraged stupidity to spend it and subsequently plunge myself into debt.

My first big question, then, is whether we can manage the karmic balance.  Is it possible to walk away free and clear?

Most will say yes.  There is the slow growth.  Regaining an even or positive Balance by fits and starts, small oaths and large ones, through Right, maintaining and keeping to a code.  The Universe will periodically seek to re-establish balance, and the practitioner, succeed or fail, will find a portion of the debt spent to bring this about.  Bigger oaths and restoring balance to reality can counteract the karmic weight that burdens the practitioner.

 

It is possible to escape this burden, yet time and again, diabolists fall into the trap and fail to escape it.

It is human nature, to treat the world as a series of nails, when all one has is a hammer.  Even when the use of the hammer comes with a grave price.

It is human nature to take the easy road.  To resolve the dynamic, there are two simple options.  Let me return to this in a moment.

In chapter one, I focused largely on myself.  The individual.  In this chapter, I look to people one step removed from me.  Jeffrey and Lucrezia.

Let me ask a broader question, then.  Is this a question we can solve?  Is it one we want to solve?

Let us put aside the unrepentant, the ones who would never read this text, because it does not feed directly into their need for power.  Let me ask, can we better the world?  Do Good in some fashion?  Can we remedy the cosmic Balance as a whole?  Minimize the Wrongs?

I emphasize ‘we’.  As I write this, my Balance is not so terrible.  There are certainly non-diabolists who have worse.  I believe I have done some Good, in the face of it all.  Were a jury to be convened, there would be much argument over my overall contribution to humanity, and perhaps that would have to suffice.  Being questionable in my standing Balance is better than being unquestionably Wrong.

My concern is not with the self, or with the individual, but diabolism as a whole.  We are hated because we do Wrong.  Not evil, but we do a disservice to reality as a whole.

Yet, at the same time, we serve a useful function.  What better tool to use to bind the greater threats than one who is already doomed?

Many diabolists do this out of selfishness.  The very good and very bad diabolists excepted, many stay alive long enough to bind a few minor entities and accrue a horrific Balance before reality asserts itself and they die a miserable death.

I might argue that the average diabolist betters the world, for having been in it.  Not in the short term, but perhaps in the long.

If problems exist in our number, it is undeniably the short lived failures that bring about disaster with nothing to offer, and the long lived practitioners who leverage their knowledge to bring about the greatest Wrongs.  The net gain for mankind is lowest.

To bind Others and leave them bound is the best thing we can do.  Because of their nature, we inevitably do so at a cost to ourselves.  For Diabolists, these others are devils, demons, imps, and they are ghosts, goblins, faerie and other beings so Wrong that practitioners who devote themselves to their study will often shy away.  Were this our pattern of behavior, we might be acceptable in the eyes of others.

This is one answer, one solution, but it begs more questions.  How might we bring this about?  Could diabolists as a whole be convinced to take this path?

The answer is no.

My old master Jeffrey was targeted by local practitioners not long after Agares was returned to his realm, but he lives.  His enemies saw fit to lock him in his body, mute, unable to practice.  I visit the man from time to time, the both of us many years older.  I have not forgiven him for what he did to his student, nor have I forgiven myself.  When we meet, now, I drink tea while he drinks beer with the assistance of a nurse and a straw.  We talk, about balance and the aftermath of demons, and I painstakingly transcribe what he struggles to express.

Jeffrey, in my eyes, is a manifestation of the problem that plagues us.  Any attempt to restore diabolism in the eyes of others and to get their help would raise questions about Jeffrey’s like.  He is not so insane to be dismissed entirely.  A man who held a grudge and saw only one way to see that grudge done justice.  Jeffrey is not a true Scotsman.

I confess, I write here in the hope of inspiring questions among a group that is prone to forging forward without accepting any answer but the one that serves them.  I do not labor under the illusion that enough will read my work to have heated discussions over what the answers might be.

But I must ask.  I hope to raise questions among the individual, and I dream of a circumstance where we might look deeper at ourselves as a group.

Earlier, I suggested there are two simple options.  We’ve already discussed the obvious, that the archetypical diabolist must cease to be and become something more selfless.  It isn’t possible, because the typical diabolist won’t break from the pattern of taking the easy road, even when it is demonstrably self-destructive.

If there is a solution, and this is purely food for thought, the easy road must become the road that serves us best.

In pursuit of answers, I lead you on to chapter three, where I talk about the sociology of Diabolists, and the negative patterns we perpetuate amongst ourselves, and how one might attempt to reframe society instead, in an attempt to provide an easier road.

 

Chapter Five: Swords

The years after the loss of my family were something of a blur.  Somewhere in the midst of it all, I began to take a harder look at what I was doing, at my Balance, and my repeated failures.

I was a wretch, I admit, and if ever I’ve come close to suicide or embracing Wrong, I came close then.  I was in ill health, and I might joke I had more alcohol than blood in my veins, if I could write such statements without being forsworn.

My hair was shaggy, my facial hair growing in, my thoughts clouded by drink and depression, and I knew a great deal I shouldn’t.  I knew rituals to summon things that would have made me stand tall, handsome, in good health, and above all else, happy.  I knew many more rituals to call forth things to act against my enemies, and I was short enough on self respect that I didn’t care nearly enough about what might happen to me if my targets successfully fended them off.

Jeffrey and all the other individuals I sought to target in violence had been parts of a greater pattern.  The forces of ‘Right’, if you can call them that, saw fit to apply pressure and purge society of diabolists.  This was not a good thing, because it failed to stop the worst kinds, types I’ve touched on twice now.  By seeking out the organized, largely quiet diabolists, this purging demanded retribution and self defense.

Remember, when all one has is a hammer…

Diabolists who might have gone out in unspectacular manners after successfully binding a handful of imps and maybe an intermediate being were now perpetrating Wrongs.

I, by virtue of itinerant means and a lack of any real connection, managed to slip away before the doors were kicked in and diabolists rounded up for execution.  I sustained myself for years, simply selling my knowledge to individuals who desperately sought to patch the holes that had appeared in their libraries and in the collective knowledge of diabolists.  I then drank much of those earnings away.

Many of those sitting at the middle section of the totem pole had been destroyed, and only those on the bottom, such as myself, and those on the top, individuals much like Jeffrey, remained in one piece.

I’ve brought up the individual consequences, karma, and the diabolist’s place in society.  I’ve talked about the opposition the diabolist faces, and the tools the diabolist must employ versus the tools they don’t have to employ, but are liable to.  Each of these observations are conducted through the lenses of what should be versus what actually is.

I’ve raised the topic of the individual, about those who are one step removed, about the groups, and society as an abstract.  The scope ever widens.

The world.

Will Earth cease to be tomorrow, if the greatest demons were to be called forth?  No.  Not definitively.  The Balance would be disturbed, and the universe would naturally exert an opposing pressure.

If such threats were likely or possible, perhaps we would see something concrete occur.  Perhaps all diabolists, myself included, would be scoured from the earth.  I would not expect this to end the problem.  Some knowledge can’t be destroyed absolutely, and I suspect many Wrong things collect tomes and texts to disseminate among the public, in case of such an event.  I know some lesser beings have asked for copies of my writing, and diabolic organizations will collect or order research.

Instead, it is a long series of Wrongs that are too easy to ignore.  The world and everything in it erode.

We have established a problem of binaries.  On the one hand, we have the diabolists who contribute to the greater Wrong and the diabolists who don’t.  On the other hand, we have the restrictions of society, accommodating and not.

Draw out a grid, and three of the four possible answers are disastrous.  Either society and diabolist are both working against our mutual goals, which they are, and we speed towards an ugly end, the diabolist alone works towards Wrong while society attempts to accommodate, or society forces the diabolist’s hand while the diabolist attempts to conform and serve the greater good.

The sole remaining option, harmony and the best chances at righting that which is Wrong, is a difficult one to accomplish, for reasons already stated.

The question remains: how do we achieve something that requires this kind of concordance, this kind of cooperation?

I would say the ‘how’ is simple, if unpleasant.  Sacrifice.  In particular, forms of sacrifice that don’t require the cooperation of all parties.

One option is that we could turn on our own.  Oh, I’m sure that statement got attention.  A few of our kind are so vile that they sour our ability to deal with the world at large.  Is it possible that we could form a call to arms?  To set diabolist against diabolist, five moderates against one of the worst of us?  If they band together, then destroy them as a group.

Conflict breeds desperation, and desperation in diabolists breeds Wrongs, but we are well versed in the tools our kind employ.  A demon properly warded off will return to its master, and many conventional protections will cease to have effect.

Knowledge will exist, it must exist, but a group of moderates can store and treasure knowledge.  If we were to reach this point, we could set rules that discourage passing that knowledge on.  All of the knowledge in the world, stored away, an enclave who might work to find the knowledge that industrious imps and devils might distribute in hopes of maximizing chaos.

It isn’t nearly so simple, of course.  Our world is a close-knit one, not always in healthy ways.  We depend on one another for advice and research, for the right summonings and enough favors are owed that the wrong death at the wrong time could doom several attached individuals.

Achieving cooperation in this would be difficult.

The other option would be to sour this relationship.  Very few non-diabolists know enough about our work to properly safeguard themselves, their property and their loved ones.

I wonder what might happen if one were to sell the templars, witch hunters, and various Lords of major cities the necessary tools for protection against demons and other Wrong things?  Not the darkest knowledge, but the ways to turn an attacking demon aside, if one knows their general type.

What would they be buying?  Their own security.

Suspicion would be rife, chaos endemic.

Yes, Wrongs would be committed, but I can’t help but wonder if it is possible to create a rift deep enough to separate diabolists for centuries to come.

The problems here are that, again, desperation breeds Wrongs.

In writing these words, I doom myself, because others will act to keep any of this from coming to pass.  But I hope I have illustrated the severity of the subject and shaken those dabbling diabolists.

I intend to posit another answer.

 

Chapter Six: A Last Chapter

Sacrifices must be made, the metaphorical lamb must be bled.

I’ve suggested murdering our own.  Cain’s crime.  I’ve suggested betrayal.  Judas’.

I would offer a third suggestion.  It’s relatively easy to accomplish, and many non-diabolist practitioners would likely be willing to help bring it to pass.  Of the two major issues that plague diabolists, one is handled.  It also falls in step with my earlier suggestions, that it pave an easier road for the diabolist to follow, one where the diabolist is driven to cooperate.

I believe in this enough to sacrifice myself.

Enslavement.

Let’s talk history.

We don’t know where the oldest demons came from.  Some suggest they are an antithesis to those same forces that created the world, and they are laying the groundwork for the world’s demise, while the creator forces are still at the far-flung edges of reality, expanding our universe.

Others say they are all devils, at their root.  Collections of malign power that take root in people, swelling and transferring from host to host, until they have sufficiently defined themselves.

We don’t know.  Some argue we can’t know.

What we do know is that they can be bound.  They harbor fears of a sort.

At some point in history, all the forces of the world gathered, recognizing that there could only be chaos if they continued fighting amongst themselves.  Gods, incarnations, and other powers realized that with the power they could each bring to bear, certain actions couldn’t be permitted.  Trust was impossible to maintain.

Laws were set in place.  Those same laws are the ones that a practitioner agrees to abide by, in order to broker access to what lies beyond the curtain.

My suggestion is simple: We amend the laws.

We make adhering to greater goods the easier path to take.  Power would not be obtainable through the old awakening ritual, and the new ritual would limit and control diabolists.

To be a diabolist, one would need to shackle themselves.

If calling diabolists narcissists at heart didn’t damn me, suggesting infighting or betrayal should see that one diabolist wants to murder me.

Writing this is another thing altogether.  I described two kinds of practicing diabolist, those who self-aggrandize, and the desperate.  You could divide these further into minor practitioners, moderates, and the extremes.

Each would find the idea of enslavement repugnant.  I expect many are already plotting the worst possible fates for me.

I have changed details about myself, changed major personal details, taking extreme steps to protect myself in these regards while avoiding falsehood and forswearing myself.  I’ve masked my location with the practice.  I know how little all of this will ultimately help.  I’m not young, and I’ve spent much of my life around diabolists, studying them.

I know what I’m in for.

But I’ve lived some time, now, and I believe in what I’m doing.

This lamb goes as willingly to slaughter as one can go, knowing what awaits.

My book will go largely unread, I think, but I have to believe I do Good, in writing it.

Even if this were widely read, I do not think change would happen in one year.  Or twenty.  This is but a seed, something to be brought up and forgotten until it becomes a subconscious thought.  Many who read it, many who I have arranged to get the book, are immortal.

But the fear and anger many experience will be real, in the end.

Words and knowledge are power.

I give my life in hopes that this seed of an idea finds fertile ground.

I hope my few friends will support me in this.

Should that not be possible, then I hope they forgive me this indulgence.  I’ve had so few.

God help me.

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Collateral 4.12

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By and large, asking an American how far away something was tended to get an answer in terms of miles.  The gas station is a quarter mile that way.  Ask a Canadian?  Time.  The highway is a ten minute drive thataway.  Or so the idea went, with exemptions for more civilized areas of the States and less civilized parts of Canada.

When I tried to parse how big the park was, the number of Others present, I thought in terms of time.  Time to get away.  The amount of time that had passed between each encounter with a ghost or some other Other.

I’d passed maybe one spirit every two to five minutes.

Judging by the number of spirits I could sense by way of connection, now, extrapolating?  This park was as big as fuck.  A good hour or two on foot, if I didn’t backtrack to where I’d started out.

The net was drawing closed.  Not a circle, enclosing me, but a general shape that followed the contours of terrain, streams, hills, cliffs and other stuff that might impede travel.

Not that I could extrapolate anything from the patterns I saw.  I wasn’t that smart, for one thing, and there were too many different kinds, following different rules.

Not to mention that the trees were thick enough that I couldn’t make out much twenty feet ahead of me.

I ran, shotgun in hand, branches of holly held to my back by both the coils of chain and my jacket, pricking at my shoulder, neck, and ear.

The first ones to reach me weren’t ghosts, but Faerie.  Mangled, savage Faerie, who had made themselves beautiful, used Glamour to change their shape and conform to ideals of beauty, only to find themselves in the Goblin’s clutches, maimed and somehow trapped in his realm.  Hair grown long, dirty, clothes in tatters, where years of abuse and survival in the woods hadn’t removed them entirely.  Eyes stared at me from behind long greasy hair, the faces and forms I could make out were attractive.

Were it not for the look in their eyes, the fact that they’d been harrowed by years of pain and degradation, the resentment and hate, I might have dismissed them as Hollywood savages.  Actors playing roles.

I turned to take a different route, and one broke away from the group, blocking my path.

I remembered what Fell had said.  This was a bad place to stop moving.

“The tree people,” Evan said, his eyes on the Faerie.

“Yeah?” I asked.  I almost reached out for his hand, then stopped.  I took a hard right, pushing through the branches.

“There weren’t many who bothered to climb the trees and come after me in my treehouse,” he said.

“These guys?”  I glanced back.  Only one chased, now, but she was running.  Faster than I was.  Closing the distance.

“I climbed out onto a branch that wouldn’t hold them.  They tried and fell.  I went out onto another branch…”

He trailed off.

“Evan?”

“Stop trying.  Please.  I just want to sleep.”

There it was.  The cadence that suggested I was talking to the echo, not the consciousness that had somehow remained.

I looked to confirm, but the act of looking meant I ran headlong into a branch.  Not a thick one, but something that could scrape against my face.

The glamour was torn away, where I’d covered up the bites from the vermin.  A light scrape on the cheek was matched by a smattering of gouges and scratches, just as raw and painful as they’d been when I’d covered them up.  One glamour taken away.

Not just that glamour.  The branches scraped against my coat, my pants, and the stripes of glamour I’d painted all over myself were snatched away.  Very easily.  Dangerously so.

Something told me it was by design, not bad luck.

I turned and aimed behind me as I ran, and saw a glimpse of the savage Faerie, one long-nailed hand pressed to the bloodstained strips of cloth that bound her stomach, the other clutching at a branch.  She caught a gossamer strip of something, and the stuff flowed over, across, and into her hand and arm like smoke or water.

Was it imagination that she seemed a fraction faster, a little more Faerie and a little less savage and broken?

I raised the shotgun with one hand and fired back at her.  The blast knocked her clear off her feet.

I turned my attention forward, trusting my ears to catch the sound of body hitting snow.

Instead, I heard the continued sounds of her footsteps behind me.  Not as close, but still there.

I might have wondered if she’d landed on both feet or all fours like a cat, only to resume running, but I didn’t have the luxury.

Two more Faerie were flanking me, running just a matter of feet to my left, shoulder to shoulder with one another.  Both men.

I shifted my shotgun to a two-handed grip and winced as another branch whipped my face, punishing me for not paying enough attention.  A little less glamour, and a taste of blood where my lip had been cut.

I didn’t remember blood in my mouth when I’d been attacked by the imp’s animals.  Was the universe charging me interest?  Making the wounds just a little worse?

The distraction interrupted me from aiming at the pair and hitting both with the shotgun.  A waste of bullets, maybe, but they were too close for comfort, and I didn’t have a wealth of options when it came to shaking them off.

Instead, I reacted a little too slowly as I moved the shotgun.  One hand settled on the barrel, catching it before I could aim it.  He pushed it away with a deceptive ease.

His hand was broken, but not bleeding.  Where index and middle finger had been shattered rather than broken, reduced to spears of splintered fingerbone, he jabbed the hand at my face, aiming to thrust them into my eyes.

I pulled back, still holding the heavier end of the shotgun in both hands, and my forward momentum was interrupted by the thick branches of a large tree.

I was no longer moving.  Not a good thing.

I was cornered with someone pressed up against me, clearly intent on hurting me.

Less good thing.  Worse thing.

I pulled the trigger, fully aware I wasn’t about to hit him, much less anything else.  The savage Faerie barely reacted.

He reached back, then stabbed at me again with the shattered ruins of his hand.

I caught his hand, more out of fear and reflex than anything clever or skilled.  Because putting my hand in front of the stabbing wound was better than leaving my face in the way.  The splinter of bone tore through the webbing between two fingers.  Blood flowed freely down my hand and into my sleeve.

I felt stabs of pain on my injured hand.  Where the blood flow from the cut webbing didn’t obscure it, I could see my hand changing.  Once-covered wounds opening up, the holes appearing in my gloves.  As if the interest I was paying extended to what I wore and carried, indiscriminate.

“Evan,” I managed.

But Evan was backing away.  “I’m lighter than they are.  Perch on a branch.”

I wasted precious seconds fighting with the Faerie, struggling to keep those bone points from reaching my eye sockets, while my mind turned over his statement, tried to figure out the trick.

No trick involved.  In his ghostly little head, he was retreating to the thinnest branches that wouldn’t support the Faerie’s weight.

The other Faerie arrived, stopping a short distance away.  The woman Faerie with the gut wound and a male Faerie with his arms cut up into ribbons.

Others drew a little closer.  Ghosts.  Everything else.  The net closing tighter around me.

“The wolf’s watching me,” Evan said.

Watching us.

“Hope it’s a good… fucking show,” I grunted, pushing against the Faerie’s hand.  It was all I could do to avoid losing it and letting myself drop to the ground.

The fabric of the glove gave way, tearing away.  Turning to rags.  The flesh that was revealed was dirty, stained, riddled with scrapes and wounds.  Only a few were from the animals.  Some was interest, and a lot of it was…

I felt stabbing pains in my fingers.

Saw his fingers changing, in kind.

Lesson learned.  Trying to use glamour was a bad idea, if I was going toe to toe with Faerie.  It was like opposing like, and they were too well versed in glamour and trickery to lose this tug-of-war.

He was transferring the wounds to me, along a medium he was very well versed in.

Blood flowed from the wound, a little thicker now.

Drenching chain and locket.

His eyes moved down to our joined hands.  There was a glimmer of confusion on his face, or curiosity, or something else entirely, as he noticed the thin chain that criss-crossed my hand, the locket that was pinned to the back of it.

Had I been of sound mind, less paralyzed by the sudden contact, I might have been able to use the distraction.  As it was, I fumbled for purchase and failed, my mind filled with steel wool and white noise, putting me on the defensive and keeping me there.

Comhroinn liom,” the woman rasped.

The male Faerie didn’t respond.

Comhroinn le linn,” the other male Faerie echoed.

The pain in my fingers intensified, until I felt like it was reaching a crescendo.  A critical point where it felt like they would explode or be torn away, leaving only slivers of bone.

This wasn’t the pretend sort of pain that ghosts caused, either.

I groaned, and the groan transformed into a scream as the pain built up.

I raised a foot, kicking at his hand, where he gripped the shotgun.  Then, rather stupidly, I swung it at his head like a club.  It moved a little faster than it should have, and wind stirred his hair as the barrel hit his ear.

But he was Faerie, and this wasn’t the sort of thing that was useful.  He caught the barrel with his good hand, his eyes staring into mine.  His ear wasn’t even bleeding.

“Evan,” I said, but it was only a whisper.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“Need… useful…” I grunted and gasped the words, hating how small my voice sounded. “input.”

The pain built again, faster, harder.

A crack sounded through the area, like a gunshot, and my fingers leaped into the next category of agony.

Lesson learned, I thought, which was ironic, because I could barely think.  How was I supposed to learn when I couldn’t think?

Comhroinn!” the woman shouted, over my scream.

Angry.  The thought barely connected.

She was angry.

Not at me, either.

So I did the second-least intuitive thing I could do, here.  Short of actually letting him stab me in the eyes, I moved my face closer to said stabbing implements, where my hand gripped his.

I could feel his breath on me, feel the weight of his body.  As with the Imp, when I’d stepped outside the rabbit-gut circle, I felt like every iota of movement in his direction came with a corresponding loss of sanity and courage.

But, just as I’d pushed through that with one singular goal, I acted with a goal here.

I kissed the back of my hand, getting a very up-close view of the way his hand was regenerating, piecing itself together with the glamour he was taking, and all of the bits of my hand that he was scraping up along the way.

Then I spat.

Blood from the back of my hand, where it flowed from the stabbed webbing, sprayed onto and over his shoulder, in the direction of the Faerie woman.

She reacted, angry, no longer willing to hold back.  Her face contorted with anger, glamour helping to twist her features a step further.  For a moment, she resembled the sort of faerie that cursed newborns to die from a pricked finger.

She didn’t attack me, though.  She attacked my assailant, blood feeding the connection between them, leading to the natural conclusion.  Jealousy, anger, frustration, a desire to have some of the relief he was finding.

I was free, as they tumbled to the ground.  Flight instincts took over.

I didn’t make it one step.  My flight was interrupted by a minor snag.  Literally.  The branches of holly that stuck out of the back of my jacket caught on the tree branches.  A velcro attachment of hook to hook, in a dozen places.

I tore free with a roar.

Without the Faerie in my face, I was able to take in my surroundings.

A little ghost boy with a hooded jacket.  Two fighting Faerie.  Another Faerie lunging for me, getting pulled into the fight instead.  Trees.  And a whole lot of Others.

They came with a kind of fog, standing behind and between trees, surrounded by the moisture and the rolling snowflakes.  Not zombies, despite the glistening, angry wounds that each sported, the sometimes shambling gaits.  As with the Faerie, I saw resentment here and there, glares, anger, hope.  A mix of emotions, a wariness about the Others they stood next to.

Many heaved and panted for breath, some whimpered or moaned.

It wasn’t so much that they were on the same side, as the fact that I was on the side of the healthy, the unwounded.  That made me something to be torn down, in their twisted perspective.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“I don’t object,” I said, trying to take in the numbers and find a gap, failing.  “What squeeze?  What are you talking about?”

“Just over there,” he said, very quest.  “Just- just- through the squeeze.”

I had an eerie sensation of someone with a stutter, trying and failing to communicate.

Was he lucid-ish, right now, but forced to communicate through riddles?

He was looking in one direction.

“Over there,” he said.  “Just over there.”

On the other side of the ring of Others.

This wasn’t a situation where I could deliberate.  Standing still was bad.

I charged.

Red rover, red rover.  Send the stupid-ass diabolist over.

I jammed my hand into my pocket as I broke into the all-or-nothing run, intent on getting ammo, and I felt the agony explode in my hand.  I was mid-stride, and very nearly forgot to bring my left foot forward again.  As it was, I stumbled, lost momentum.

Broken finger, at the very least.

I pulled my hand out of my pocket, my index finger bent in a place it wasn’t supposed to bend, a single shot clutched between ring and pinky fingers.

I had a better sense of what I was doing this time around, as I popped the shotgun open and fumbled a shot inside, butt of the weapon jammed under my armpit.

The ghost ran alongside me.  Flickering, keeping pace, showing different images of him standing still as he paused mid-stride to let me keep up, let me forge the way.

Too many big Others in the way, here.  Not as big as the Hyena, not as big as the blind brute I’d run into before.  Still… big enough.

I wasn’t about to be pinned down again.  I fired off to one side, aiming to catch them off guard, then made a sharp change of direction, springing off of one toe.  I swung the shotgun like club at the one I’d hit hardest with the shot.  Not a big one.  A smaller thing, with wood armor or wood skin or something.  A bit more wind power, a bit of an impact.

He stumbled back into others, and I hurried through the gap.

Finding myself face to face with others.  Five feet away, ten feet away, twenty feet away.  Still approaching the source of the Hyena’s cry.

Were they obedient, or had they come to attack the thing that had hurt them so badly?

Both?

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

Through the squeeze.  I looked to see him, and he was gone.

Trouble was drawing closer, and I didn’t trust myself to reload.

Scanning the surroundings, I found myself making eye contact with a woman.

Blonde, with one eye that sort of bugged out, the other joining three quarters of her face in being covered by blood-stained bandage.  The bandage bound her tightly enough that I could tell her face wasn’t the normal shape, or she’d had a lower jaw and she didn’t anymore.  The damage to her neck meant her head hung at a cocked angle.

I’d made eye contact, and I couldn’t break it.  I could see the connection, hard, unyielding.

I staggered to the left, blind, and I had to turn my head to keep my eyes fixed on hers.  I had little doubt that if I’d been moving, or driving, the connection would have held fast enough that I might have snapped my neck turning my head as I passed her.

She had to fight the others to get closer to me, while I blindly ran to one side, unable to look where I was going.  I hit branches, trees.

I had only seconds before I got surrounded and swamped by bodies.  The idea terrified me.  Even with everything I’d seen, it rated as one of the worst ways to go.  For me, anyhow.

She wasn’t a ghost.  Something else.  One of the unique sorts that urban legends were based around, like the hook-handed murderer who scratched at car handles or the murderess who appeared in mirrors in dark rooms.  She was simply Other.  A siren call for the eye alone.

I tried to move my hand in the way, to block the eye contact.  My wrist bounced off the connection as if it were something solid, and my various injuries made their displeasure known as the impact rattled each of them.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said, a little to my left.

I headed his way, stumbling, my feet sinking into a deeper patch of snow, hitting a rock.  I was hoping that some other bastard would get far enough ahead of the eye-woman that they might block the view.

They weren’t being so generous.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said, again.

I followed the sound of his voice, Marco-Polo style.

My foot moved over, and I hit nothing at all.  Open air.

I fell.  My back hit more solid ground.  I was left with one leg down a hole, arms splayed out, shotgun in one hand, my head wrenched at a dangerous angle as my eyes insisted on holding contact with that woman-Other’s single orb.

If I’d fallen in a different manner… snap?

I swept my good hand forward, through snow, bringing the shotgun with it.  An augmentation to the wind, a push…

The connection was strong enough to push snow out of the way.

But not all of it.

For a brief moment, the link was broken.  I turned my head, looking away.

Only to become aware of how close the rest of the Others were.  Lying on my back, I could see them creeping around my peripheral vision.  Some closer than five feet.

Evan was among them, standing through my leg.

He flickered, looking concerned, then jumped.

Jumping right into my stomach.

Through my stomach.

My ass and left leg weren’t touching solid ground.  I drew my right foot back…

Gravity had its way with me, dragging me into the same hole that the little ghost had slipped into.

I landed on my back, and was momentarily blinded by the snow that had followed me down.  My heart pounded, and my hand throbbed in time with each beat.

Others would be following.  Pain aside, I needed to move.

I flopped over onto my stomach.  There was barely any light, which somehow made it easier to make out my little companion.

It was… not a cave, but a collection of stones and roots that had made a kind of tunnel.  The ground beneath might have eroded away, or it had simply grown like this.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“You’re a little less lucid,” I said.  “How come?”

“Through the squeeze,” he said.  He passed through me on his way to the tunnel.

I wasted no time in following, crawling after him.  Was it weird that I was less bothered by the fact that he passed through me than the alternative?  Probably.

I crawled on my elbows, shotgun in my right hand, barrel resting in the crook of my other arm, unable to even rise up enough to put weight on my knees.  Every brush against the overhanging roots brought puffs of snow down.

“Squeeze for a, what, an eight year old?” I muttered.  “What’s this to me?”

There was no response.  I was talking to Evan the projection, the echo, the replay.

I stopped as the branches on my back snagged.  I had to crawl backwards a distance, then shift them around so they were pressed between my body and the ground.

I pressed forward again, and I made it about two feet further as the chain caught.  A quick check suggested it wasn’t the chain itself, but the bulge it made where my jacket covered it.  More snow filtered through the overhang as I jerked to a stop.

The space didn’t look like it got any more open from here on out.

I backed up again, tried shifting my coat around, pulling it tight against my body, holding it like that with the shotgun-

I heard a growl behind me.  A very inhuman growl.  It was too cramped a space for me to turn around, to even look behind myself.

No time to waste, I tried again.

I stopped short at the exact same place, for the exact same reason.

Fuck,” I swore, under my breath.

A snarl was followed by rustling, and snow raining down on me yet again, in larger clumps.

Whatever was behind me was strong enough to move the roots and stones, to push past them.

Fuck,” I said again.  Was an understatement like that bad enough to count as a lie?

Had I already wondered that?

What did it say that I even had to ask that last question?

I heard another snarl, felt another lunge shudder through Evan’s ‘squeeze’.  Snow fell down on top of me, making my job harder.  Some even landed in the crook between my face and arms, atop the holly branches I was squishing down with my body.  For a second, between fear, snow, holly and the confined space around my body, I couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t want to die like this,” Evan said.  He was sitting further up the tunnel, hugging his arms to his body, legs propped up.  “Not like this.  Not here.”

“Thank you,” I muttered, “For the commentary.  I’d say it was doing lots for my morale…”

I struggled to make headway, failed.

I huffed out a breath, because the struggles were making me hold my breath to the point I might pass out.  “…But I’m not allowed to be sarcastic anymore.”

I heard whatever it was behind me scrabbling for purchase on stones.  Claws or something scraping.

Another movement of the roots overhead and more snow suggested it was succeeding where I was failing.

I didn’t have many options.  June?  No use.  Too slow, maybe counterintuitive, with the ice thing.  Loading and firing the shotgun?  I could clear the snow out of the tunnel, maybe, but I could also kill myself with ricochet, and I’d have an audience if and when I made it to the other side.

I reached down, squeezing to one side, until I couldn’t breathe, to get my bad hand down past my pelvis, past my pocket.

Cargo pants pocket, reaching in while trying to keep from bumping my broken finger, failing.

A little jar.

I had to move closer to the thing that was behind me in order to get the room.  The contents of the jar were cold as I jammed my three good fingers into it.  I smeared the stuff along the chain, pulled on it until it rotated around my body, smeared more on, squeezing it down flat.

Not enough of a covering to be as meaningful as I maybe hoped.

The thing behind me pushed forward again, and I heard wood splintering and breaking.  Snow rained down, twice as much as before.  I could feel hot, fetid air waft past me.

Not the Hyena.  The Hyena’s breath would smell worse.

Still not a good thing.

I heaved myself forward.  A third attempt at that same snag that kept catching on the chain.

A little bit of metaphorical butter made the difference.  I squeezed through, squeezed through the next bit, which was every bit as bad.

I was holding my breath, because I couldn’t afford to take up any more space.  I forced myself forward, jamming my hand against something hard beneath the stone, and I very nearly gasped.

If I had, I might have expanded enough that I wouldn’t get back through.  I might have lost the scarce forward momentum.

My vision was starting to act up, my head pounding, from the lack of air.

Last leg.  I used my elbows rather than my hands to get leverage on the roots and stones, pistoning myself forward.

To freedom.  An open area.  Snow, trees, and a surprising lack of Others.

They wouldn’t be that far away.  I was glad for the silence effect on boots and chain both as I ran over the snow, joined by my companion.

“Thanks,” I said.

He flickered.

Not the usual flicker, where he jumped to another part of the script, then jumped back.

Flickering as in a flame that was dying or going out.

“No,” I said.  “No way.  Stop.”

He stopped.

“I’m so tired,” he said.  “They won’t let me sleep.  I’m so hungry.  I can’t stop to eat, and the only things I can find are things I know I’m not supposed to have.”

He sounded faint, in both senses of the word.  Or were those two sides of the same sense?

“I just… I need to sleep.”

I knew I was hearing the words he’d spoken before he died.

“A little nap.  To save up energy for when it’s brighter out.”

A nap, to conserve energy?

I thought of Rose.

I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the fact that I’d just crawled through piles of snow, or the fact that I was drenched head to toe in sweat in the dead of winter.

Was Rose out of energy?

No.  It had to be more complicated than that.  Pauz had expressed a kind of glee.

He’d wanted to see my face, when I found out.

Why?

Rose had spent energy to break the mirror and the ice, back when we’d first met.  She’d taken her time recuperating.

Just yesterday, she’d broken the windows.  Same thing, closer together.

She was in a coma of sorts.

Conserving energy.

What was different?

I was asking myself the question, but I knew the answer.  Ergo, the chill.

Me.

I was different.

I was stronger.  I was able to talk to ghosts like Evan.

Why?  What was the dark, sick joke that Pauz would find funny?

He was an imp that subverted the natural order.  He’d affected me.  Instead of me feeding power to Rose…

Rose was feeding power to me.

I could imagine the imp’s laughter, mocking me.  His glee, if he could see me now, deep in the woods, knowing that every second I was operating like this, I was taking from Rose, helpless to do anything about it.

I shivered again.

“Thanks, Evan,” I said.  I looked down at the ghost.  “Good tip.”

“A little nap,” he said.

He was in pure echo mode, now.

Which was a riddle unto itself.

“Come on,” I said.

I led him forward, taking the time to very carefully reload the shotgun without hitting my finger.

He flickered again.

“This way, then” I said.

Every interaction was alerting the monster, the goblin-beast.  But I could live with that.  This was a hunt.

Moving at a right angle to the direction we’d been going didn’t elicit any more flickers until we’d walked for about a minute.

Right.  It was a question of territory, then.

Well, this could be a staging ground, then.  I would have liked to get further away from the other Others, but this would do.

I drew the holly branches from where they were tucked against my chest by jacket an chain, and I tossed them to the ground.

The chain was my other tool.  Still slick with glamour.

“Thing to keep in mind, Evan,” I said, talking to him as I threaded the end of the chain through the loop of the dial lock at the far end, “Is humans have been hunting things bigger than them for a very long time.  We’re built for it.  Most of us have pretty good brains in our heads, we’ve got a natural endurance, and the ability to use tools.  We can hold water, and in a sheer endurance run, we can cover more distance than a deer, a gazelle, or a mammoth.”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever going to come,” he whispered, eyes down on the ground.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said, affecting fake cheer.  “I came.  And so long as we keep talking, our guest should come too.”

I jammed a twig through the chain, then checked my handiwork.

“A little nap,” he said.  Hearing it for the Nth time, I wondered if he was trying to convince himself.

“No time for napping,” I said.  “I need you alert.  I know you’re not up to a lot of thinking like this, but I’m relying on you for a hint that he’s coming.”

Hard to climb a tree with one hand, but I did it, just to get to a better vantage point.  I made it up as high as I could, then wound the end of the chain around a thick section of trunk, higher up.

“By the way,” I said.  “Introductions may be in order.  June, meet Evan,” I said.

I drew the hatchet, then buried it in the trunk.  I wound the end of the chain around the handle and blade.

I hopped down more than I climbed down, crossed a short distance, then climbed a nearby tree.

“The wolf,” Evan said.

“Fuck,” I said.  “Excuse my language.  Probably not appropriate around an eight-year old.  How close?”

No response.  But when I looked, Evan didn’t look like he was afraid.  More an observation.

Close-ish, then?

I didn’t say it aloud.  If every word I said reeled the Other in closer, I’d have to control it.

I  used the tip of the shotgun to catch the dangling chain and dragged it over my way until I could hook it with my thumb.  I hooked it around a branch.

Before I climbed down, I ran my hand along the chain I could reach.

ColdConductivityHidden.

I tried to push ideas into it.  To change what it was.

For now, it was simply a very elaborate clothesline, about twelve or fifteen feet above the ground.  A metal clothesline charged with the cold from the hatchet.

I hopped down.

This time, I didn’t interact with Evan.  No use bringing the goblin closer.  Not yet.

I tramped in the snow, stomping.  Following a set path.  Here and there, I glanced at Evan, who was curled up and trying to stay warm.  Replaying a memory.  I suspected it was from that same night he’d failed to stay warm, or he’d been too dehydrated, or something else had happened.

Sorry, little man, I thought.  You didn’t deserve this.

Let’s fuck up that wolf.

I tore the bluish holly leaves from the branches, depositing them into the circle I’d stomped into the snow.  I was careful to layer them so the leaves all touched.  The little red berries were spaced out at even intervals.

I was so engrossed in the task I nearly forgot about the other thing I was supposed to be paying attention to.

Or was it more accurate to say the Other thing?

“The wolf… have to run,” Evan said, more agitated.

It was here.  The circle wasn’t a circle.  It was a ‘c’.

Which was by design, more or less.

I cocked the shotgun, winced in pain at the pain that caused my finger.

Such a little thing, so much pain.

He appeared in the woods, almost as if the shadows were binding together to give him a shape.  One caked in filth and blood, but a shape all the same.

“No, no, have to run,” Evan said.  He turned.

“Evan,” I said, sounding as authoritarian as I could.  “Come to me.”

“Have to run,” he said, but he didn’t move.

“Safety, right?  Think about safety.  The treehouse?  The hedge.  The stream.  I’m a kind of safety for you.  Come here.”

“I-”

“Evan.  Surviving ghost.  I swear to you, I will help you.”

The words had power.

Evan listened.  He came to my side.  I reached out for him, and my hand passed through.  I would have wanted to hold him, to crouch by his side, and protect him, or simply rest my hands on his shoulders.

What did it say, that I was willing to have contact with him?

I saw a leer on the wolf’s face as it paced around the clearing.  Mocking me.

I kept Evan with me, walking around the edge of the circle of holly.  Keeping the opening in mind.

He was a bully.  He taunted.  He’d charged Evan earlier just to see the ghost cower.  He couldn’t speak, so he taunted with actions.

Would he do the same here?

Yes.

But not the way I’d planned, not the way I’d hoped.

He charged, but he did it at an oblique angle, bypassing the clothesline entirely.

Great, filthy paws stopped short of the barrier.

He didn’t step through the opening in the circle either.

Instead, using his paw, he struck at the snow.  Snow and the dirt and grass from the ground below were cast atop one of the branches I’d left by the opening.  Branches with holly still on them, that I could maybe throw across the opening once he’d passed inside.

The other branch wouldn’t cover the whole opening, either.

He wasn’t stupid.

The Other’s toothy grin widened, showing teeth.  It would have seemed cartoonish if… well, if he wasn’t fucking terrifying.

“Stay close, Evan,” I said, as I circled the incomplete ring of holly.  My voice shook a little as I said it.

“I don’t want to be eaten,” he said, and his voice shook a lot more.  A replay of something he’d said to himself, once.

“Neither do I,” I said, without taking my eyes off the Other.

He was faster than Evan and I.  Covered more ground.  I tried to keep the ring of holly between him and us, but it was futile.  If he really wanted, he might have lunged, changed direction and lunged again.  I wasn’t sure I would have been able to move fast enough.

But he didn’t.  One ear twitched every time Evan made a sound.

I reached the point where I’d left the other holly branch.  Not enough to close the circle, if I wanted to hide within.  Which I didn’t.  I bent down to pick it up, not taking my eyes or the shotgun off the goblin.

I didn’t want to let go of the shotgun, or take my finger off the trigger, so I hooked my good fingers into the crooks of the branches and bit.  Tore.

Giving me a mess of holly leaves in my mouth.

“Run!” I screamed, around the leaves in my mouth.

I bolted.

The Hyena chased.  Silent, but I could feel the impact as his great paws hit solid ground.

I cast the branch down between him and myself.  There was blood on it from my wounded hand.  I hoped that counted for something.

It did.  The Hyena dodged, leaped off to one side, then corrected course, closing in on me.

No.  On Evan.  On the ghost of the child that had eluded him.  The ghost who had eluded him.

For one second I couldn’t afford to spare, I took in the scene, tore the holly from my mouth.

“Evan!  Come!”

I screamed the words, as if volume could impart some measure of power, commanding the ghost.

Evan came.

Not fast enough.  Not far enough to get away.

I jammed the bloody holly into the end of the shotgun, aimed, and fired, haphazard.

A distraction, repelling the Hyena for one precious moment.

Evan ran past me, flickered, and disappeared.

The Hyena shook its head, looked at me, and lunged.

Into the chain-clothesline I’d rigged.

The branches holding it taut broke like they were nothing.

There was only slack.

I fired a second time, without holly this time.

The Hyena pounced.

A tiny something snapped.

It was like time stood still, as I lost my balance, and landed on my ass in the snow.  The Hyena loomed over me, forelimbs outstretched, claws ready to tear into me.

Back legs on the ground.

I panted for breath, saw the Hyena there, its legs struggling, futile, in an attempt to touch ground.  It did a short tip-toe dance on the ground, rear limbs only.

The tree swayed, where I’d tied the chain up higher.

As nooses went, it wasn’t a conventional knot.  A simple loop, prevented from drawing closed by a twig jammed in the intersection.  The twig broke when enough force was exerted on it, force the Hyena was definitely capable of bringing to bear.  Simple forward momentum pulled the loop closed around the Hyena’s neck.

A choke-collar of metal charged with glamour, with blood, and power.

He snarled, lunging again.  The tree shook, and snow drifted down on us.

“Fuck you too,” I said.

Still sitting in the snow, I pulled my legs around into a cross-legged position.  “Now, I think, we can have a chat.”

He retreated until he could have all four legs on the ground and growled, a long, low sound.

“This is the point where you’re supposed to call all the spirits and ghosts you have at your command, isn’t it?” I asked.  “When you realize you can’t win on your own, you call them, and you cower like the miserable little fuck you are, hiding until your prey is worn down or dead.  So why don’t you call them?  Do that howl thing again.”

He growled, quieter this time.

“No?” I asked.  “You’re not going to call them, huh?  Could it be that you’re scared?  Are you worried that they might want to take back what you took from them?”

He didn’t make a sound, this time.

“Yeah, fuck you,” I said.  “Look, it’s not even sunset.  How many do you think I could call here before the sun’s down?  How are they going to take it back?  Do they just carve pieces out of you, eye for an eye style?  Or would they actually try to recover what you have in your stomach?  Cut you open like the woodcutter did for little red riding hood?  Sew you back up with stones inside you, and toss you into a river?”

No reply.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.  “Which one do you think I’ll find first?”

Still no reply.  Only a malevolent glare.

I left him behind, watching out for Evan.

Hoping he wasn’t gone forever.

He’d been a help.  I felt like I owed him.

I did owe him.  I wasn’t sure I’d fulfilled that oath I’d made, back there.

I probably had, but-

I heard a crunch.

Realized what it was.

I ran back the way I’d come.  Back towards the Hyena.

I saw him biting the trunk of the tree, splintering the wood.

Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuck.

I dashed past him.

He let go of the trunk, lunged for me instead.

I rolled, he kept going.  I heard a choking sound.

But my focus was only on the branch I’d thrown to the ground.

No sooner did I have it than I was heading back for the Hyena.

When I’d left his reach, he’d turned back to the tree.  Biting again.

I threw the branch, and he recoiled.

As with the circle of holly, I kept the branch between us, drawing closer to it.

I tore off bits of holly and distributed them in a wide circle around the trunk.

Cast off more bits and the remaining berries in his direction, until I was sure he wasn’t about to approach the tree again.

“Fucker,” I said.  “Fuck you, you fucker.”

I was learning all sorts of useful lessons.  Like not leaving a haphazardly-bound Other unattended.

“Now, what do you say?” I asked.  “Should I go find your pets?  Tell them that you’re not in good shape?  Or should I find some holly?  Surround you until you have nowhere to go?  Until you have to sit still while they take you to pieces?”

He growled, very different from before.  Head as low as he could get it.

“Or do I use a bit of power?  I can see the connections radiating from you.  Wouldn’t take much.”

I drew out a line in the snow.  “There’s one.”

I drew out another line.  “There’s another.  There’s a lot of blood on my hands.  I don’t imagine it takes much to bring them running.  They’re probably pissed.”

Another growl, head low.

“The alternative,” I said.  “Is that you agree to be bound.  Which is probably loads better than you deserve.”

He didn’t move or make a sound.

“If I don’t get an agreement of some sort, I’m going to bring the others.  I’ll protect myself and watch.  I’d tell you how that kid you just tried to get?  He was actually pretty awesome.  He in no way deserved this… but you don’t care, do you?  It’s not what you are.”

There was no grin on his face.  He was only a mangy cur, now.  Big, but still a mangy cur.

“Ten,” I said.  “Nine.  Eight.  Seven.  Six.  Five-”

He spoke.  A language I couldn’t understand.  Something guttural, with more sense in the silences than in the utterances.

It was, I suspected, a language so basic that most could understand it.

I submit.

The tree, no longer bent by the weight pulling down on it, rose to its full height, casting the remaining snow into the sky.

And somehow, with just the movement of that one tree, it seemed like the sun was able to reach the area around me, making everything brighter.

A sword hung from a point partway up the tree, the chain looped around blade and handle.  It swung from the movement of the tree, blade ringing each time it banged against trunk and branch.

My entire body protested as I climbed the tree, but I made it up to where I’d tied the chain, collected June, and unbound the chain.

I was careful to bind the sword in chain before I headed for the ground.

The thing was ornate, but in a very odd, unpleasant way.  An ugly face of the Hyena’s head in profile, a ragged claw at the pommel, and the blade itself was uneven, with terrible weight.  I didn’t miss the fact that the grip had spikes sticking out from it, so anyone who held it would gouge their palms and fingers.

A pretty fucking reluctant binding.

I looked to connections, and found the way I needed to go to reach civilization.  Trudging through the snow, shotgun slung over one shoulder, chain-wrapped sword in hand, resting on one shoulder.  Uncomfortable and heavy.

But I wasn’t in a rush.

The forest was peaceful, bright.

Here and there, I saw ghosts flickering out of existence.  Their wounds widening, tearing them into pieces, leaving fragments to drift out of existence.

The remaining Others were already gone.  Finally healing, maybe.  Or something.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, if it was something.

I was nearly to the wood’s edge when I saw him.

“Evan,” I said.

He wasn’t fading.  Wasn’t disappearing.

He was the Hyena’s, but not in the same way the others were.

“The wolf is defeated,” I said.  “He shouldn’t bother you anymore.”

“The wolf leaves,” he said.  He flickered.  He had that tone that ghosts did when they were repeating scenes from the past.  Part of a riddle I hadn’t answered, though I had a pretty good idea now.

“The wolf leaves,” I said.  “Yeah.  I’m taking him away now.”

“The wolf leaves,” Evan said.  “But the wolf will come back.  I have to keep running, until help comes.”

He looked over one shoulder, a flicker of fear on his face, and then bolted.  Running, faster than I could follow.

“Yeah,” I said.  I rattled the sword.  “Fuck you, goblin.”

There was no response

I approached the roadside.

“Nick of the Knights,” I said.  “Because Fell will kill me if I call him like this.  Nick of the Knights.  Nick of the Knights.  Shotgun guy.”

I felt the connection appear.

“Great,” I said.

I sat back and waited.

“You look a little worse for wear,” Fell said.

I didn’t comment.  I only waited.  I ached, I was scabbed over in a dozen places.  People stared when I passed them.  At least I’d had a good container for the sword.  A cylindrical case for holding posters and artwork.

It was fucking heavy, which didn’t help the weight of it.

Conquest’s manse loomed before me.  Not too bad a walk from the subway stop.

“You’re quiet, too,” Fell said.  “Don’t tell me you traded away something like your voice.”

“Was a pretty unilateral deal,” I replied.  “I think I scared him into submission.”

“All with hours to spare,” Fell smirked.  “I thought you’d have another last-minute finish.”

“I hurried this one, because I need time to plan and prepare for the next.  It’s the ugliest one, far as I can figure.”

“Probably.  Come on, then.  Let’s get this over with so you can keep preparing.”

I followed him inside.

There was no illusion of a ground floor when we entered.  Only a vast open space, and a tower.  Lopsided, elaborate, so impossible to ignore that it commanded attention, reminding me of the Other with the eye.  There were decorative features that would have been impossible on another structure.  Gravity would have torn it to pieces.  Spires jutting off like blades in scabbards at a man’s hip, points facing skyward.  A pale white halo surrounded the top floor, reminiscent of a crown.

I did not appreciate the long walk up to the top.  Floor after floor, with screams of the tortured muffled by closed doors, dark, facing scene after scene where Conquest paid homage to himself.

I reached the top, where Conquest waited.  But I supposed he didn’t sleep.  He just was.

He was still in his halfway-form, half man, half monster, flesh stretched, beard, the eyes more whites than anything, wearing clothes that were part skin, part coat, part robe.  He held no animal, but I saw that the rooftop was bordered by a moat, where large silver fish swam in perpetual rings.  The only light was a pale reflection from Conquest himself, and from the halo-crown that surrounded the tower.

There were five points of interest around the tower top, besides Conquest himself.  Rose was one.  Asleep, her back to the wall, with a short chain trailing from her to Conquest’s hand.

I looked, and I saw the connection between us.

Suspicions confirmed.  Something was wrong with the flow of it.  Too much coming my way.  It was twisted, never straight.

There were also three altars, behind and to either side of Conquest.  The book sat on one.  The other two were empty.

“You have one more day,” Conquest said.  “Then we get to business.”

“I understand,” I said.

I drew the sword from the container, then laid it on one altar, chain and all.

“I assume I can’t take Rose with me?” I asked.

“No,” Conquest said.

“With your permission, I would like to leave now,” I said.

“Leave?  To prepare for your next task?”

“No,” I said.  “Yes.  Both.”

“Both,” he said, with a tone that suggested he was pointing out the inconsistency.  The almost-lie.

But all three answers were true.

“There’s something I need to do,” I said.  “With your permission?”

“Granted,” he said. “You’ve done well, servant, being so prompt, bearing scars from service to me.”

I could have argued, but I was too emotionally weary.

And I needed his cooperation.

“Fell,” I said.  “Do you have a phone?”

“You don’t?”

“I’m poor,” I said.  “Please?”

Conquest gestured, and Fell frowned a little.  He stepped forward and handed me the phone.

One search.

Another.  For a map.

I stared at it for a while.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

When all of this comes crashing down.  I hope.

Peaceful.

I luxuriated in the quiet, the isolation.

Time to myself, in a way.

To put thoughts in order, plan, strategize.

I was functioning on a higher level because I was more me.  Because I was borrowing from Rose.

I couldn’t even feel proud of what I was doing, knowing that it wasn’t all my success.  I had to figure out a way to repair the connection, before I took too much.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do good.  I… I was glad, for what I’d managed to do, clearing out the woods.  Not proud, but glad.

It was as if a deep-seated worry had less of a hold on me.  I could do good.

I would do good.

Snow crunched underfoot with each footstep.  Periodically it squeaked.  I couldn’t make out much, but the moonlight reflected off the snow, and it let me see the essentials.  Ground, tree.

I’d tended to my wounds, and I’d seen the tattoos.  I’d given a lot of blood, and I’d suffered for it.  I was paler.  but the tattoos weren’t more vivid.

Things were starting to make sense.

The pattern of my boots crunching through snow stopped as I came to a halt.

I saw the ghost.  Evan.  Running from something that was no longer chasing him.

“Evan,” I said.  I thought of the internet search.  “Evan Matthieu.  Stop.”

He stopped.

“Can we talk for a bit?” I said.  “I promise I’ll do what I can to keep you safe.”

He looked over his shoulder.  A flicker.

Something of an echo.

“Come on,” I said.  “I know where we need to go.”

He nodded.

I would have held his hand, if I could have.

But I just walked alongside him.

I saw how furtive he was.  There was nothing left in him that could really relax.  It had been easy to miss when we were together, because there had been no reason to relax.  But now that there was peace of sorts in these woods… it stood out.

“Your mom and dad looked for you,” I said.  “It was in the news.”

He looked up at me.

“You were trying to go home?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You said you tried the road, but that didn’t work.  Did you figure out the direction you needed to go, to go home?”

“I have figured it out,” he said.

“Present tense,” I said.

“”I… I almost forgot?  But yeah, I saw an airplane!” he said, with a note of excitement.  “I saw… and I know it’s going to the airport, which means home is… that way!”

He pointed.

“Were you in the treehouse?” I asked.

He frowned, then nodded.

“That makes it easier,” I said.  “You saw the plane, and left the safe area behind.  The treehouse, the hedge, the stream…”

“Uh huh.”

“And you thought you could just find hiding places along the way, right?  You didn’t need the hedge and stream if you knew where you were going.”

“I think, not thought.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Come on, we’ll be able to tell when we’re closer, because you’re a little more you, I think.”

“More me?”

“Yeah.  Come on.”

We walked together.  It wasn’t a fast walk.  I knew the minutes and hours were ticking on.  I knew this was an imperfect science.  Time I should be sleeping, preparing for something that was pretty fucking scary.

But like I’d said, I had something to do.

“Do you remember my name?” I asked.

“Blake?”

“Yeah,” I said.  We’re closer.

Somewhere between his home and the treehouse.

It was an hour before we got far enough.

He flickered.

“I… I need a nap,” he said.  “I’m so tired.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And… I don’t think you were here.  But we’re close.  Come on.  Let’s look.  Look for good hiding places.”

He nodded.

It didn’t take that long to find, now that we were close.  He started to break up when we reached places he never had, and places where he was too far away, like he had when I’d fought the Hyena.

We wound up by a series of rocks.  I had to crawl to get far enough in.

Evan’s expression was solemn.

I was careful, brushing away the snow.

I touched something that wasn’t earth.  Not snow, not dirt, not wood.

Gently, I dusted off his face with the back of my good hand.  Cold to the touch.

When I looked at Evan, he was crying.

“You found me,” he said.

“Yeah.  I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

He shook his head.  “I- I-“

He stopped, crying openly.  He hiccuped.

I waited, patient.

When he could finally speak again, he did so through more hiccups.  “I wanted someone to find me.  So I could go home.  But I can’t go home, can I?”

“Not like this,” I said, my eyes on the ground.

He took another moment, a brief wail cut short, a whimper.

I saw a flicker in my vision.  But when I looked, there was only darkness.

“It’s your choice, Evan,” I said.  “If you want to move on, go wherever you’re supposed to go, I can try to help.  I don’t think it’ll take much.”

He shook his head.

“Whatever’s supposed to help you on to the afterlife, I think the Hyena scared it off.  It’s why you’re so… whole.”

“I don’t… I can’t.”

“There’s another option,” I said.  “I… I think you’re pretty amazing, lasting as long as you did.  And, I think there’s something to you, that maybe resonates with me.  Being scared, being alone.  I had a long series of bad days, too.  We’re similar, kind of.”

“Yeah?”

“You don’t have to answer right away, but… well, it’s maybe not the best idea, it would mean you’d have to help me in some pretty ugly stuff.  But would you want to be my familiar?”

“What?”

“Like the witch has her black cat, kind of.  You could be alive again.  And I think you’d be you, because you’d take a little bit from me to stay whole.  I’d… I’d like to think I’d take from you too.  Because helping you, like someone once helped me?  It might nourish my soul, my being, if that makes any sense.”

“Not really.”

“Is that a no?  You’re totally allowed to say no.”

“You… you stopped the wolf, didn’t you?”

“The Hyena.  A goblin.  Yes.”

“I don’t know what I could really do.”

“Show me escape routes,” I said.  “Help me move faster.  We’d figure it out.  But I’ve dealt with a lot of ghosts and goblins, and…  it sort of feels right?  To be honest, this thing I have to deal with next?  I could really use help.  But please, don’t feel pressured to say yes.  I would… hate myself forever if you did.”

He nodded slowly.

But he didn’t get a chance to give me an answer.

Lights flickered on, all around me.  Dots.  Beams.

Flashlights.

“Toronto PD!  Slowly raise your hands over your head!”

I looked at the corpse, then at Evan.

Police?

Of fucking course.

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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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