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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
“…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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”