Либрусек (книги fb2)
B. V. Larson Shifting
“Are they dead?” Vance hissed in my ear.
I gestured for him to be quiet. I stared at the wreck for a full minute more, but nothing changed. The steaming sedan lay on its side in a ditch full of dead leaves. The windshield was a spider web of silvery cracks. A long, pale arm had punched out a hole through the windshield. A single fly crawled over the knuckles in hops and jerks.
The fly on the knuckles vanished.
“What do you think, Gannon?” asked Vance, still whispering.
I glanced at him. He was my younger brother, the only family I had left. Like me, his hair was black and his eyes were blue. His face was bloodless and tight with fear. His breath came in hard puffs that made white plumes in the crisp air. It was a cold day for Indiana in October. You could feel the first frosty promise of the winter to come.
“I think they’re dead,” I replied.
“Are they going to stay dead?”
“I hope so.”
“Are we going down there?”
“Not just yet,” I told him.
He didn’t argue, and we waited. The arm hanging out of the windshield did not stir. The ticking engine cooled and the wisps of steam died down. Vance squirmed nervously, licking his lips and gripping his hunting rifle, a Mauser.30–06. I could not blame him. I had the hilt of grandpa’s old Marine dress saber gripped in both hands myself. Vance seemed to be looking everywhere at once. We had heard the crash not more than ten minutes ago and had worked our way down through the forest to it. We still were not sure as to the cause.
After a reasonable time, I stepped out onto the asphalt. I looked up and down SR 446, not that you could see very far in the forest. There was no other traffic. Cars were rare these days. One end of the highway went north and back home past Redmoor. In that direction lay what locals called “the Cutright”, a boat launching area on the lakeshore. Farther north, the 446 went on over the bridge across Lake Monroe. In the other direction, heading south, you eventually hit U.S. highway 50, which drew a stripe across the southern tip of Indiana. At least it used to, before things had changed.
This car had been traveling north toward Redmoor and the lake. It had Kentucky plates, and they were probably coming out of Louisville. We had heard rumors about Louisville-none of them good.
“Let’s go,” I told Vance. He watched me with frightened eyes then finally got up and followed five paces behind.
The woods sound different on a cold day. Each footstep is muffled somehow. Most of the leaves were still on the trees in their fall yellows and reds mixed with green, but there were enough on the ground now to make every step crunchy.
I peered inside the windshield. The car had come to rest on the driver’s side. The driver’s body lay against the side window with his face pinned between the steering wheel and the windshield. It was his arm that had punched through the windshield. Still gripped in his other hand was a large revolver. His throat had been torn open by something. No doubt, this had caused the crash. His eyes were open and he looked decidedly dead.
There was another passenger, however, a woman in the backseat. After the car had done its death roll off the highway, she had ended up crumpled against her closed car door.
Vance clucked his tongue in my ear. I glanced at him. He had come to crouch next to me.
“She’s pretty, dammit,” he said. “There’s blood all over her shirt. She’s dead. What a dammed shame.”
I moved around to the back window and kicked it out. I looked her over. Her wrist hung at an odd angle, probably broken. There was a matted bloody area in her hair where she had hit the car roof. I reached in and put my hand on her neck, just to be sure. I felt a light, fluttering sensation under my fingers.
Vance paced behind me, shaking his head. I gripped his coat, stopping him.
“She’s not dead. Help me get her out.”
It took us about twenty nervous minutes, but we managed to build a crude stretcher out of the dead man’s coat and some branches. I wondered how she would react if she woke up and noticed she was riding on the bloody clothes of her companion.
In the open trunk I spotted a large wad of newspapers. They were copies of the Louisville Courier Journal. I checked the dates, and they were from last month. I decided to take them with us. Outside news was valuable.
While we built the stretcher, I noticed a tripod-shaped print in the mud near the car. It was a deep print, indicating something big had made it. It looked like a hoof-print. I chewed my lip for a second, glancing at Vance. I knew what his reaction would be; he would want to run-right now. I covered the hoof-print with a scoop of dead leaves and worked faster on the stretcher, eyeing the trees around us distrustfully.
“What’s wrong, Gannon?” asked Vance.
When it was time to lift her, she seemed to weigh nothing at all stretched out between the two of us. I wondered if we were doing the right thing taking her in. Sometimes, these days, strangers went bad on you. They rotted and changed overnight, like fruit that you had forgotten about and left on the counter for too long.
Vance at first took up the rear position, letting me lead. But almost immediately, he halted.
“Let me lead,” he said.
“It’s no good,” he shook his head. “I can’t keep a sharp eye out with her stretched out in front of me, I keep thinking if she’ll die or not and what her voice will sound like and…”
“Okay,” I said, and we switched places. Walking behind him, I noticed he had a new heavy lump weighing down his coat pocket. It had to be the dead man’s pistol. Vance still believed in guns, but I did not. They did not always fire anymore, because like everything else, they had changed. Sometimes, usually when you had a frenzied monster chewing on your foot, they would misfire or jam. That’s why I carried my grandpa’s saber. It always worked. Vance’s theory was to have a lot of guns, hoping at least one of them would go off. I didn’t argue. There was no need. Whoever lived the longest would be proven right.
As we carried her, I thought about the benefits of being attractive. Would we have worked as hard to save the driver, if he had been the one to survive? We had even brought the backpack she had with her in the backseat. True, she didn’t weigh much, but I had to wonder if we would risk so much for someone less interesting. The world was anything but fair.
“You think she’s a hitchhiker?” asked Vance from up ahead between white puffs. We were going uphill and the loose leaves were sliding around, slowing us down.
“I don’t know.”
“How old do you think she is? She looks like she’s maybe twenty.”
“Kind of young for you then,” I remarked.
“Really young for you,” he said with a dark glance.
“You’re still thinking about her, even though we switched,” I said, grinning.
“Yeah. I bet you are, too.”
I didn’t respond, I didn’t have to. We both knew the truth of it. She was possibly the only adult female under thirty left alive in the county. We trudged westward, deeper into the woods and away from the highway. The shores of Lake Monroe were to the left and less than a mile off.
“Who do you think she is?” Vance continued when the land leveled.
“She’s probably up from Louisville. Plenty of people have been trying to get out to the countryside.”
“So what went wrong? Do you think one of them changed and caused the wreck?”
“It would have to be her if that happened, it was the driver’s neck that was ripped.”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking of the hoof-print I’d seen. I had hoped Vance would shut up and walk faster if I didn’t talk much. But as his brother, I knew better.
Vance glanced nervously over his shoulder at the girl between us. “She looks really normal. I bet something got in. Maybe they had a window down, and something flew in there.”
“I hate the flying ones.
“You know, I’m not sure that we should take her back to our cabin.”
It was my turn to frown. I said nothing, but he had a point. You never knew who was dangerous.
“We should take her to the Preacher. We are supposed to be patrolling the highway, and we definitely have something to report,” said Vance, “He’ll know what to do, and I bet he could tell if she’s dangerous or not.”
“We couldn’t make it there before dark.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to carry her that far anyway. We’ll have to take her to the cabin. Then we could get out the Durango and drive her over.”
“It would still be dark before we got back.”
He nodded. We both thought about it as we trudged on. Things always got much worse in the dark. Vance managed to shut up for about twenty minutes, saving our breath for walking.
“What time do you think it is?” I asked him finally. The girl was slowing us down now, getting through the denser trees was a problem with a stretcher, and we had to hunt for open trails.
“It looks like four o’clock at least,” he said. Neither one of us wore a watch, of course. Watches didn’t work right anymore. Complex electronic things were useless now, they either ran too fast, or too slow, or simply spit sparks and died when you turned them on. No one knew why. The Preacher simply said that the laws of the world had changed, and it was time to learn how to live by the new laws.
“Let’s pick it up,” I said.
He glanced back at me, immediately suspicious. “Tell me,” he said with eyes narrowed.
I sighed and told him about the tripod-shaped print in the mud back at the wreck. Half-way through my confession, he dropped his end of the stretcher. The girl rolled partly off the stretcher and her head lolled into the leaves.
“You idiot, Vance,” I said, easing her back onto the stretcher. “What if her spine is damaged?”
“Then she’s dead anyway,” he snapped. “I can’t believe you had me running around in the woods cutting sticks to carry her without telling me something big was out there. I used to wear your hand-me-down feet-pajamas and the moment a girl shows up I can’t trust you anymore?”
“You would have run off.”
He scowled, stamped around and threw up his arms sputtering. “Maybe! But I would have told you, Gannon!”
He had a finger pointed at my chest, and I looked down. “Sorry.”
Getting an apology out of me was rare, and he was impressed, but still angry. “Something is out there and you were letting it follow us back home without even telling me.” He complained further for about a minute before I cut him off.
“It’s getting dark fast, we’ve got a ways to go, let’s just get going and pick up the pace,” I said. I took my end of the stretcher and looked at him.
Vance hesitated. He looked around at the trees, which seemed to crowd in closer every minute. A bird cried and the wind rustled the upper branches of the forest. He looked down at the girl, and I knew he was thinking about ditching her. He lifted an arm that had flopped off and placed it back onto the stretcher. We both saw smudged high cheekbones and eyes that would be wide and bright if they ever opened again. I wondered what color they were. Her hair was a honey-brown blonde. I could tell just by looking at it the color didn’t come out of a bottle.
I could not carry her alone and defend myself if Vance took off, so I was quiet, letting him think it over. We both knew he was deciding if she lived or died. He stared at her.
I think it was her face that saved her in the end. I wondered how many times over the millennia lives had been decided in just such a moment.
With a grunt of annoyance, Vance took up the stretcher again and we hustled deeper into the woods toward our cabin.
We barely made it. Darkness comes fast in the woods, and tonight the setting sun was aided by sheets of mist which crept up from Lake Monroe. The fog pooled around the base of the hill, and moved its way up to the cabin. Both the mists and the darkness seemed to be in a race to beat us to the door. By the time we got there, the shadows from the trees formed a wall of impenetrable gloom over the clearing around the yard and the last yellow gleams of sunlight trickled through the branches. We set down the stretcher and scrambled to open the barbed wire barricades that were set up all around the cabin. Vance stabbed himself on the wire in his haste.
“Aww! Friggin’ wire,” he complained.
I watched blood well up on his hand in alarm.
“Don’t let the drops hit the ground,” I said.
“I know, I know, the scent.”
He wiped his bleeding hand on his coat. I chewed my lower lip, sure that some fresh blood had gotten on the wire and the ground, but we had no time to hose it down and dig it out now. We had to get inside.
In the cabin, the air was musty and dank, but smelled wonderful to me. For the first moment since we had set out that day on patrol, I felt the tension ooze out of me. I felt tired.
It was then, as I reached to close the cabin door, that I saw it.
A line of three-pointed prints crossed the yard and went around behind the cabin to the garage. Vance was looking over our guest whom we had laid out on the old ratty couch in the living room. I hissed unhappily and Vance was at my elbow in an instant.
“What is it?”
I pointed to the line of prints.
“It didn’t follow us, it beat us here,” said Vance. He made a show of smacking himself in the forehead with the palms of his hands. “I never even heard it. I don’t like this, Gannon.”
Neither did I.
We quickly overcame a slight pang of guilt and searched the girl’s backpack. Inside, we were surprised to find a passport.
“Czechoslovakia?” said Vance in bemusement. “Her name is Monika. That’s something anyway. If we have to bury her, at least we know her name. Is she some kind of student or mail-order bride or something?”
I handed him my find. It was a printout from a webpage. It was a profile from one of those people-search type pages. The picture at the top was Monika’s. She looked even better in the photo, and I noticed that her eyes were greenish. We read the note together.
Nice, responsible, patient and experienced 20 year-old Czech girl who has the thoughts of young person, but the responsibility and maturity of one older:)
Dear family, I wish I could live with you in Belgium — Antwerpen, or in Australia in future time. I worked as an au-pair for one year in the UK — Midlands. I lived in a family with 4 children, 3 dogs, and 6 horses. I was busy, but happy:) I can speak English fluently sometimes, sometimes less so. I have got a big family with many small cousins. I passed school at Klatovy with mark B in last years. I like astrology and paintings. I would like to earn extra money for my next studies. If you would like to know something more from me, please contact me.
Thank you! — Monika.
Vance was nonplussed. “What’s an au-pair?”
“A nanny,” I said.
“Ah,” he said, sounding a bit disappointed. “Well, at least she’s not married.”
“She sounds sweet,” I said. Somehow, the innocence of the ad made me feel homesick for the old times-the days when I did not have to setup barbed wire around my house before bed.
“Girls with accents can be hot,” said Vance speculatively.
Getting annoyed with his attitude, I turned on him, but then Monika made a mewling sound. We both leaned forward.
“We should have set her wrist.” I said, grimacing at the sudden thought. “Before she wakes up with that.”
“We didn’t have time,” Vance hissed back. “Anyway, we don’t know how. Doc Wilton will have to do it. What I can’t believe is that now she wakes up, after we carried her for hours.”
I took her injured hand and tried to lay it out as straight as I could. She squirmed. I could tell I was hurting her. Vance hurried to get more lanterns. It was dark outside now and we only had the one Coleman hanging from the ceiling.
Monika moaned at my crude ministrations. Her eyes fluttered open. Great way to meet a girl, I thought, the first thing she knows about me is that I’m causing her pain.
She looked up. Bafflement turned to fear, then to terror as she recalled what had happened. She said something incomprehensible that I imagined must be in Czech.
“I’m sorry, Monika,” I said gently, “Try English.”
Her mouth opened and closed a few times. “What happened?” she asked. She did have a soft European accent, which I liked immediately.
Vance came over, twisted his mouth and quickly said, “I’ll get you some cokes and stuff.”
He vanished into the kitchen. I knew he was leaving me behind to tell the girl about her dead companion.
“There was a car crash, and you were hurt.”
She looked at her wrist and winced as she touched her head with her good hand. “Where is Ron, and Billy?”
“Um,” I said, “What do you remember?”
“We left the city,” her eyes were searching the ceiling for answers. The fingers of her good hand probed her injuries delicately. “I was with Billy and his father, there were so many terrible things on the road. We turned into the wood. Something…. Something bad appeared in front seat. It hurt Ron, we crashed.”
I nodded. “Ron was driving?” I asked.
“Yes, Billy is only eight.”
“Well, I’m afraid Ron died in the crash. But we didn’t see any sign of Billy.” Even as I said it, I had a sudden, dark thought. “The boy, was he sitting up front with his father?”
“Yes, what?” she looked at me quizzically. Her eyes were dark with pain, grief, fear and shock. She looked too wrung out to cry anymore. I knew the look well.
“Nothing,” I said gently.
We rigged up some tape and sticks and a crude sling for Monika. When she was able to function, we all ate dinner from our stash of emergency rations. There was a moldy half-loaf of white bread we had rummaged out of Billson’s market downtown, venison jerky from last winter’s hunting and peaches in jars our mother had laid down years back.
The cabin had been our folks’ place before the meter-reader from Indiana-Michigan Power had grown claws and a head like a pumpkin one day. The meter man had begun methodically killing everyone on his route, including Dad, until a concerned citizen had put a dozen rounds in that mushy skull and stopped him. I’d never really been sure what had happened to my mother. She had died in the woods the same day as my dad, but I never knew who-or what had done it. From the pieces I’d found, I knew she was dead, and that’s all I knew. Now Vance and I owned the cabin.
It was cooling down fast outside, so I lit a fire in the ash-choked stone hearth. Feeling expansive, I fired up the generator long enough for everyone to have a hot shower. Nothing feels quite as good as a hot shower after days of running around in the woods. After dinner and bathing and some fresh clothes, Vance and I cracked open beers and Monika had some coffee and lit a cigarette. I didn’t smoke myself, but it didn’t bug me.
She noticed me watching her. “I quit when I was teen,” she said apologetically. “But today I make special day.”
I nodded. Today was indeed a special day. We had had a lot of them lately. I wondered if she really had any idea yet how special things were.
After a while, she carefully extinguished the cigarette and tucked it back into her crumpled little pack. I could tell this was a woman who knew how to make things last.
Vance was haunting the front window, peeking through the cheap, dusty, mini-blinds. “Anything out there, Vance?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“Just the same,” I said, “I think we should turn off the gen and use the Coleman.”
“Good idea, no point in wasting fuel.”
Monika watched us closely, frowning slightly. I wasn’t sure if she was picking up on our worries or if she was just concentrating on English.
“Tell us your story,” I said to her.
She looked very pretty now with washed hair and she even managed to flicker a smile at me. I liked her smile. Foreign girls never seemed to smile as much as American girls did. To me, her first smile was an important event.
“You read my profile,” she shrugged. “I came to U.S. in April, to Louisville. The family was nice. There were three kids, Billy and twin girls. Bad things started in the news, strange things. You know. But we didn’t really think it would get to us. So suddenly, things went bad. One day, the mother left with the twin girls…”
A shadow passed over her face, and suddenly I regretted asking her.
“They didn’t come back. Ron looked for them, I took care of Billy, but days went by. One day he came back bleeding-Ron did. Then, after few more days, he decide to try to make it up to Canada to his Uncle’s house. He showed me pictures. I didn’t know what to do; they had already closed the airports. Anyway, we didn’t make it. You can see.”
By the end she was struggling not to break down. Her story was vague, but it was her story. I made a mental note not to pry. I saw some tears and I nodded sympathetically. I resisted the urge to reach out and touch her, to comfort her, fearing she might take it the wrong way.
Vance didn’t miss the cue, however. He slid up next to her and put an arm around her shoulder. She responded immediately by touching her head to his chest and closing her eyes briefly. He opened his mouth and privately showed me a bit of tongue, gloating. My jaw muscles bulged as I clenched my teeth and gave him a tight smile. I hated him sometimes.
Monika lifted her head back up and edged away a bit so that she was no longer in contact with him. I watched approvingly as she sipped her coffee. Vance looked disappointed.
Then we all froze. There was a tearing sound up on the roof. It was a long tearing sound, like that of ripping cloth.
“The tarps,” I said, knowing in an instant what it was. My dad had always been a bit of a Scotsman at heart when it came to repairs. A few years back Thorson’s downtown had wanted twelve thousand bucks to replace the cabin roof and Dad had decided to let it ride another year. In the spring rains, the leaks had come, and in a pinch he bought a stack of those cheap, blue, plastic tarps that every department store carried and tacked them down in layers up there. It worked so well, he had let it ride a few more years.
In that slow-motion instant while we jumped to our feet and grabbed weapons in my mind I heard Dad saying-”They look like hell, but I can afford a shitload of tarps for twelve grand, Gannon.”
And now, something was ripping its way through them.
I drew my saber and backed across the living room. I needed room to swing it without hitting someone. Vance held up the pistol he had lifted off Ron. I saw now it was a.38. He put three rounds into the ceiling where the wood was looking a bit pregnant and then the gun misfired and smoked so he dropped it.
He moved toward his rifle, which he had left leaning against the front door. He always did that. You could not forget a rifle that bumped you in the knees on the way out.
Monika was staring at the ceiling, horrified. She still sat against the wall at the kitchen table. I moved to stand between her and the ceiling, which was bulging now. There was nothing under those tarps I knew but plywood-and us. The sounds had shifted from tearing cloth to creaking and shredding. They were like the sounds a lath and plaster wall makes when you dig a crowbar into it.
“How the hell did it get up on the roof?” shouted Vance.
“I don’t know, maybe it jumped up there, those prints outside were deep.”
I held grandpa’s saber up with my arm fully extended, just as I’d learned in a fencing class back in a junior college course I’d taken. Vance thought I was a romantic fool, but I really did prefer the sword at close range and against this type of enemy. It always worked and you never had to reload.
I glanced at Monika, she had produced and unfolded a pocketknife, probably from her pack. I was glad to see she was prepared to do what she could. I’d see plenty of people taken down who might have been able to save themselves, but who seemed too horrified and surprised to fight for their lives. In these new days, our deeper, more animal instincts served us well.
The ceiling gave way and Vance’s Mauser boomed at the same moment. The thing that came down was one of the types we called trolls. It was as big as a large dog, but shaped more like a humanoid with overlong arms and curved claws instead of hands. It had bristly reddish-brown hairs that stood out in a stiff spray from its body. One leathery foot was splashed red, showing that not all of Vance’s shots had missed. The troll-thing landed on the sofa and perched on the back of it for an instant, between me and the cheerily burning fire. Before Vance could blow it away, it sprang impossibly fast, shrieking. Huge curved claws still full of splinters reached for me.
It was when the troll sprang at me that I saw the face. It had the face of a famished idiot, which I had expected, but the eyes were bright blue and very human. They looked like they belonged on a little boy’s pale face. They were Billy’s eyes, of course. I realized too, that the troll was looking past me with those strange, haunted eyes. It was trying to get to Monika, not me. It wanted to finish the job it had started out on the highway, and I was in the way.
The thing once called Billy opened its fanged mouth shockingly wide. It stank pungently of wet scat.
The Mauser boomed again, but this time it was a clean miss. Crockery popped somewhere in the kitchen as the round smashed into the cupboards. I heard dry clicks from the rifle after that. Vance cursed.
I forget what French number the move is called in the fencing manuals, but I slashed the crap out of it. I sheared away a huge hunk of meat, starting at the furry left shoulder, which came away from the body in an explosion of dark, sappy blood and flesh.
Monika was screaming in my ear as the thing that had once held her hand in the park thrashed about on the floorboards. I gave it a few hard thrusts, and it stilled. I might have been screaming too. I’m not sure.
A young man’s mind never strays far from love. I’d heard that quote somewhere, and just to prove it, I found myself thinking that probably the last way to get a girl’s affection was to cut down a kid right in front of her.
As it turned out, in this case I was wrong. She knew it wasn’t a kid anymore. She knew it was a monster now. I looked at Monika. We were both breathing hard. She was clearly in shock. She trembled and stared at the thing on the hardwood floor.
“Billy. You said he wasn’t there. Wasn’t in the car,” she managed between the sobs and shivering. Her fingernails dug into her face making deep impressions and one tiny crescent of blood. I was shook up too, but tried to hide it. I laid the saber on a bench. There was a nasty stain on the blade, but now wasn’t the time to clean it.
“We’ve never seen him before now. He must have-changed in the car and caused the crash.”
“Right in front of us, so fast?” she asked. Then she stopped, thinking of something. “No, he had a blanket. He was cold. He had a blanket. He must have been changing under it… Shifting…”
I nodded. That word sounded very right to me. Wasn’t that what they called werewolves, Shape-shifters?
“Shifting, yes,” I agreed.
She fell against me then. She buried her face against my chest. I felt her body heat and smelled her hair. It was intoxicating. Using my clean hand, I touched the back of her head and shoulders. Her hair was silky to the touch. Vance watched us with twisted lips and I found his displeasure gratifying. I gave him a look and indicated the dark heap that was the troll’s body on the floor. He nodded and rolled it up in the entryway mud-rug. He quickly dragged it out back and dumped it.
“Will there be a service?” asked Monika, still hugging my chest.
“Tomorrow,” I said.
In the morning, the sky was gray and the sun was only a weak shadowy disk overhead. We buried the monster that had once been called Billy out back behind the tool shed under the watchful, looming pines. He was still wrapped in the entryway rug. We had nothing better. I mumbled a few words, bowed my head, and wished the Preacher were here. He always knew what to say.
Vance pulled me aside after our pathetic little service and made sure Monika couldn’t hear us. “You said it had hooves.”
I stared at him for a moment, and then realized what he was talking about. “Yes, the prints. I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right.”
“That thing had nothing like hooves. That wasn’t what made those prints.”
“But that was Billy,” I said, thinking it over. “There must have been something else back there at the wreck. Something else was outside our cabin yesterday.”
“Right,” said Vance. “Something that beat us here, because it knew where we were headed.”
I took that in and chewed on it. I didn’t like the taste at all. “Keep an eye out, this isn’t finished,” I told him.
For breakfast, we toasted up the rest of the moldy bread. It tasted better as toast. Afterwards, Vance took Monika to Doctor Wilton in the Durango while I struck out toward the Preacher’s cabin. Her wrist had swollen up pretty badly. Doc Wilton wasn’t a proper doctor, but she was the best we had left. Pharmacists at least had gone through basic medicine and anatomy, everyone figured, so Wilton was it: our town physician.
Looking everywhere for something with hooves, I set out for the Preacher’s cabin. It was really best to walk to the Preacher’s place, as the only access was an old logging road strewn with potholes and deadfalls. The Durango had four-wheel drive, but I didn’t want to risk it without need. If I broke an axel now it would never move again. The last mechanic in the area had died weeks ago.
So, I hiked it up to the ridge. It was about a mile and half straight through, three if you stuck to the road. I stuck to the road most of the way.
It took me until mid-morning to arrive. There were some scuffling sounds in the bushes as I hiked up the hill. I stopped and looked around, trying to breathe quietly.
I listened for a full minute, but heard nothing more. Deciding it was probably nothing, I continued up the road.
The Preacher’s cabin was one of those A-frame type ski cabins. They were rare around here, as we really didn’t get enough snow to warrant building a place that is mostly roof. I supposed it was stylish when it was built. When I walked into the Preacher’s yard, I heard it again. More pattering, sounds, like small feet.
I pulled out my saber and threw one last glance over my shoulder at the tree line. Nothing stirred.
While I listened, I had time to admire the view. One thing this hilltop spot did allow was a wonderful sight of Redmoor and the lake beyond. I paused to gaze at down at the town I had grown up in. It was strange not to see any stoplights or moving cars. There were no fishermen gliding their boats over the lake, either. The only noticeable details were the burned out buildings, here and there, around the town. The church steeple had survived and the steel roof still shone brightly in the sun like a silvery white arrow.
The screen door slammed as the Preacher came out to meet me. He had his wood axe in his hand, as he always did, and his heavy black book tucked under his other arm-as he always did. About fifty paces apart, we eyed one another for an obligatory moment of suspicion. I thought to myself that centuries ago frontiersmen and scattered mountain people must have eyed each other upon meeting and performed just the same careful appraisals.
Neither of us saw anything wrong. I think I was the first to smile. We approached and shook hands.
“Gannon, my boy,” said the Preacher. He let go of his axe to clasp my hand, a centuries-old sign of trust. “How’s your brother doing?”
Reverend John Thomas was tall, even taller than I was, but thinner and twenty years older. He wore a long weather-stained cloak that matched his big, weathered hands. The cloak’s original color was a matter of conjecture, but now it was a deep brown. It hid most of his clothing within its shadowy interior, but visible below the hem were a heavy pair of well-worn boots. Around his neck he wore a stiff white collar and an equally stiff-brimmed fedora sat on his sharp-featured head. His appearance, garb and attitude would have fit the world better a century earlier. But then again, maybe his time had finally returned.
“Every time I see you, I know some of us are more blessed than others.”
“Just a bit of luck, sir,” I said, sheathing my saber.
“No,” he said very seriously. I looked at his hawk-nose and met his burning eyes under the fedora’s wide brim. “No, not luck. There were nearly four thousand of us in Redmoor and the surrounding hills last year. I’ve been keeping a tight tally. I now estimate there are about fifty of us left. By All Hallows Eve I would think there will be half that. But you boy, you will be one of those to survive if any do.”
Anyone under thirty was a boy, in the Preacher’s mind. This bothered Vance, but not me. He turned and walked back toward the cabin’s rickety wooden porch. Pondering his grim words, I followed him. I thought of Monika, and how I could get her out of Vance’s reach, and if there was somewhere to run to. Less than fifty left? Were we all doomed?
Both of us heard a sound in the woods then. It sounded like the voice of a girl. It wasn’t quite a giggle, nor a shriek, but something in-between. We paused and turned in unison. Both of us stood there scanning the trees. I quietly drew my saber.
The Preacher shouldered his axe. It rode there easily and naturally. I had seen him swing it, and he had an art with it that came from chopping perhaps a thousand trees to kindling.
“Come forth, lost one,” he said loudly, but gently. His tone wasn’t challenging, but rather filled with pity. He took a step toward the trees. Something moved in there, something that scuttled from one tree trunk to duck behind another. I glanced over my shoulder and eyed the cabin roof and thought about last night and my own cabin roof. I stepped forward too, wanting open space all around us. These things usually charged in close. I held my heavy saber high, but did not fully extend my arm, as I wasn’t sure from which quarter the attack might come.
“Come forth, that ye might be judged,” the Preacher boomed now, his voice a sonorous volume that filled the quiet clearing. Another shape, pallid in color and moving low to the ground like a running dog, moved between different trees on the other side of the clearing.
“How many are there?” I hissed aloud. Sweat ran down my arms and made tickling lines all the way to my elbows.
The Preacher ignored me. He stepped two more paces toward the trees and raised out his arms in a beseeching gesture. In one hand he held his Bible, in the other his axe, with his knuckles wrapped high up around the haft of it. “Come home,” he called out to the woods. “I offer you peace, if nothing else.”
The woods were silent. There was no more movement. We waited for several minutes, but still nothing came at us.
The Preacher nodded. “They will wait, so we will wait.”
He turned and went into the cabin. I followed him with many glances over my shoulder.
It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the gloom inside the cabin. Heavy blankets blocked out all the windows. A single lantern hanging over the Preacher’s desk illuminated the interior. He saw me looking around at the blocked windows.
“A theory of mine. They are attracted to the light and sounds of human habitation-the wandering ones, that is. Not all of them are lost like those outside, some have great purpose. I’ve started calling the purposeful ones seekers.”
Seekers. I thought of Billy, and of the meter man who had gotten my dad. Had the meter man harbored some kind of hatred for everyone on his route? Or was he just following some last shred of memory from his past life? I recalled that he had taken pains to go after every dog he met. I filed away the Preacher’s theory of seekers and blacked out windows in my growing mental cabinet of survival notes.
Sitting across from him at his desk, I made my report. I told him about Monika and Billy and the three-pointed hoof-prints. As I did so, I pondered how he and a few others in our community had become our leaders. There had never been a vote, or even a discussion. The natural leaders of the group had simply started with suggestions, and soon, in these desperate times, everyone else had followed them. The good Reverend John Thomas was one of our natural leaders.
He nodded in thought when I finished my report. “In the immediate sense, this is good news. We have a new young female in our group-a net gain of population. However, considering the indications as to what is going on in the outside world, things are not so good.”
I showed him the newspapers from Louisville and he pored over them with great interest. I joined him, and we spent half an hour of reading them over and discussing them, like two generals reading over the secret plans of the enemy. The Preacher got up and poured us the coffee he had been brewing. I sipped it carefully; he always made it strong and black. There was never even a hint of my usual preferred sugar or cream, but somehow, I still liked the taste when he made it.
Outside, I thought to hear a skittering sound. It was followed by strange series of padding steps across the porch. It sounded like a dog had jumped up and ran off the porch into the yard. But I knew the Preacher didn’t have a dog. He glanced toward the front door, paused, and when nothing happened, he pointedly ignored it. I followed his example and did the same.
“The breakdown of electronics appears to be centered in this region,” he said. “As are some of the first reports of strange events,” he said. “Very good thinking to bring this in. It supports everything I’ve been puzzling over for the last week or two.”
“And that is?”
“That we are in the center of this, or at least a local center. If you read the reports, they are almost all about changelings in our area. But in other areas, there are different effects.”
“Yes, like the one from England about the shining little men.”
“And reports from California of marching rocks and trees.”
“Yes.” I suppressed a shudder. The thought would have been humorous a few months ago, but now that I had seen so many fantastic things, I was glad I wasn’t facing boulders with huge maws, or trees with grasping branches that lurched, rather than walked, after their tiny, soft, fleshy victims.
“I’ve come to some theories, after poring over many texts, both old and new,” continued the Preacher. He tapped his Bible meaningfully as he said this. I knew, however, he was a broad reader. Lining the walls of his cabin were hundreds of dusty volumes, mostly non-fiction, covering a startling array of subjects.
“I think there must be a source, or sources, to all of this and I’ve found places to start looking.” He spread out an old map on the table between us. The corners were yellowed, stained and there were tears along the fold lines. There were some colored pencil lines drawn here and there around the borders of Redmoor. “Fifty years ago, Lake Monroe was a valley. They dammed up one end of it and built the biggest reservoir in Indiana right here.”
I nodded, every school kid from Monroe County knew this. As he was speaking I realized what the map was. It showed the area before the dam was built, before the area was flooded.
“And you’ve heard of Elkinsville, the flooded town?”
“Of course,” I said. There had even been a special about the town on PBS once, the entire town had been abandoned. “Everyone was moved to a new site.”
He nodded. “The town was drowned and forgotten. But there were other things buried in that Lake out there. Deep hidden things.”
I blinked at him, not knowing where this was going. I could already tell he had some mission in mind and I hoped he wasn’t thinking of putting a diving suit on me. Vaguely, I wondered if there were any changelings in the lake. What if one of them had turned part fish, and was out there waiting for a swimmer?
“Another factor of this part of the country is the limestone. We are famous for our caves in southern Indiana.”
I just looked at him, hoping he didn’t want me to investigate caves. He watched me appraisingly for a moment.
“Gannon, it’s time we took some chances. Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days. We’ve got to take some risks, because what we are doing right now isn’t working. We lose people every day.”
“Okay, but what do you want me to do?”
A great deal of scrabbling came from the roof just then. I raised my eyes to the knotty pine ceiling. Something out there was trying to climb the steep A-frame roof. I could tell, just by listening to the sounds, that the thing had claws. The sounds paused, and I imagined a cat-like animal clinging to the roof, panting from exertion.
I looked back down to the Preacher, who was watching me patiently. Seeing that he had my attention again, he answered my previous question.
“I’ve been seeing more and more of the seeker types. They are much more dangerous than the wandering mindless ones, but at the same time, they are more predictable. One of my ideas is that the more resistant folk tend to turn into seekers when they change. They have more purpose and intelligence, maybe because they have more humanity left in them.”
I frowned a bit, only halfway following him. I kept thinking about Monika, and thinking that if this new mission took too long Vance would be working hard to get her attentions. Why had I let him get away with taking her to the Doctor? And what the hell was climbing up the roof out there?
“When we last gathered in a large group,” he said, “things went badly.”
I nodded, grim-faced. Much of the town’s population had perished in the town’s only school about a month ago. They had plenty of food from the cafeteria, but the big glass windows in the classrooms had proven to be a weak point. A few of them had changed, and then the rest had died in a terrible fire.
“We must do better this time,” the Preacher continued. “I’ve already talked about this with the Captain, Doctor Wilton and Mrs. Hatchell. We need to gather our remaining strength and beat them this time. They are hunting us down. I think there is some kind of method to their madness now, as if they are being led by-something.”
“Something like the thing with the hooves?”
He nodded. “We’ll build a compound, based around the medical center. It’s brick and loaded with supplies. With a fence around it, and strict rules on entry and exit, we’ll keep control of the remainder of our people.”
“How can you be sure some won’t turn and get the rest?”
“I can’t, not really, but look at these lines on the map. These are event lines, where the changes have happened. To the best of our knowledge, the changelings only appear when someone crosses one of these lines.”
I looked at the random red, blue and green lines. They formed an odd multi-faceted pattern around the area. One of them was down on the SR 446, where Billy had turned into a troll.
“The lines don’t even connect,” I pointed out.
“No, they are more like cracks, or fissures, than walls,” he said. “And we aren’t even sure all of these are real. Red lines mean they are well defined with many cases. Blue lines are strong probabilities. Green lines, are maybes-guesses.”
I looked dubious. “Even if we build a fort and can keep people from shifting, what good is life stuck in a fort?”
He nodded. “That’s where you come in.”
I felt my stomach sinking.
“As I was saying about the limestone caverns in the area. We need to know if they can be traveled, if people can safely move around and under the lines, these shift-lines, let’s call them, then we will have a great deal more control than we do now.”
“How do I fit into this… plan?”
“You know these woods as well as anyone left alive now, I’d say. And you know the caves. There is one line too, very close to your house that leads down to the lakeshore. Possibly, it goes right into the lake itself.”
I nodded. My hometown was famous for its caves. Since boyhood, I’d spent a lot of time in those cool limestone holes, exploring, getting into trouble.
“How did you compile this map?”
He smiled grimly. “See these dots? They mark places where people shifted and others were killed.”
I looked more closely at the map. There were faint dots all along the shift-lines. I understood then, he had simply mapped where things had gone badly and connected the dots, forming lines. The map was really an epitaph for hundreds of deaths. The thought gave me a tiny chill.
“What about the animals? Why aren’t they shifted by these lines, if they exist?” I asked finally.
He nodded, “I’ve been thinking about that, why animal changelings are so rare, mostly birds. I think they must sense these places. I think they avoid them, but it is only an idea.”
I must have looked doubtful.
“Look,” he said, leaning forward suddenly. “We’re all going to be dead soon at this rate and this is the best plan we could come up with given what we know. Are you willing to go out and scout some of these spots?”
I looked back at those burning eyes. I knew he had already lost a family to the changelings. Hell, who hadn’t? He was right in that we had to do something.
“I’ve got no better plan,” I said. The words seem to echo in my head. “I’ll do it.”
He nodded. I could tell he had never really doubted that I would accept the mission. I wasn’t sure if that made me a natural, brave champion or a chump. A bit of both, I supposed.
“Check this one first,” he said, pointing to a blue line that ran between my cabin and town. It ran in dashes, as if no one was sure where it was exactly, all the way down to the lakeshore.
I looked at it. “What’s special about it?”
“Not much is known about it, but there have been some strange reports. I think it is related to the lake itself, somehow.”
I looked at him questioningly, but he just shrugged. I assumed that was all he knew, and nodded. “Okay, it should be easy to find, we drive right past it every time we go to town.”
“And when you get to town, you should see the Doctor, and the Captain, we need them both to join us in the compound when it’s built,” he continued. He folded up the map and handed it to me.
“You can keep the map, I’ve got copies,” he said in answer to the unspoken question posed by my raised eyebrows. “We are making them for everyone.”
“Anything else?” I asked, standing up. My plans for spending the evening chatting up Monika were dying fast. It was nearing noon already, and I had some hiking to do.
He nodded, looking worried with a final thought. He sat back, his swivel office chair creaking, and put his feet on his desk.
“I think I should tell you, I believe there is a third type of changeling.”
He had recaptured my wandering attention.
“The lost ones wander about in the woods until they find something interesting, and then at that point someone dies, either us or them. They seem to be like simple predators, no more intelligent than wolves, maybe less so. The seekers are a bit more intelligent and head on a path of destruction until destroyed. But there is another sort-the worst of all.”
I sat down again. His news was grim, but I kept my face as impassive as I could. Unlike Vance, I never liked to be the panicked one in the room. I liked to stay cool, no matter what I was feeling inside. So I waited.
“I think there are changelings living amongst us. I think they are only partly shifted, and hiding it. Or, perhaps, they are waiting for the right moment to strike, or are engineering the deaths of the strongest among us. In any regard, these are the most dangerous of all, I believe in the end.”
“Wonderful,” I said, standing up again. “You’ve given me a lot to worry about, sir.”
He nodded. “Sorry to burden you, but there are only so many of us left. The time for secrets and happy fictions are long past. I would have you know that I still have hope for these victims in our midst, these shadows. I think they can still be redeemed. At least, I still pray for them.”
I went to the door. “I’ve got to get moving.”
We went out, watching carefully in case something was to spring down upon us from the top of the roof. Whatever had been up there, however, was now gone.
The Preacher strode across his yard toward the trees. He took out his Bible as he went and held it high overhead, as to ward off evil or to block the rays of the dying sun. “Enough nonsense,” he told the trees. “Come out and face justice, children of the dark.”
I’m not sure if it was his words, his gestures or his proximity to the tree line, but they charged.
There were three of them, and they looked like mutant spiders with at least four extra legs each and hairless, human-like, gray-pink skin. They had circular mouths like loaches and something else on their hindquarters that looked like a stinger.
One of them giggled like a preteen girl as she charged. I wondered who she was, and if I had met her parents in town.
I was wrong about the stingers, they were spinnerets. These organs were those used by spiders to make their deadly webs, but formed in proportion to these grotesque bodies. They each shot out a loop of silver-gray spider silk at us. I dodged the one that came at me, and it hissed through the air over my head. A second thread touched the Preacher’s cloak but found nothing to attach to there. The third hit the Preacher on his Bible hand. I saw it loop around his wrist and in a second it was stuck fast.
They had more than eight eyes as well. They wore skirts of eyes, like a fleshy mass of fish-egg jelly. Each eye rolled wetly and independently.
The Preacher bared his teeth in determination, and readied his axe with one hand by dropping it and catching the handle at the last instant. He stubbornly refused to drop his Bible despite the spider creature, which tugged at the line excitedly.
I took a step forward and slashed, severing the silvery web and freeing his hand. It left a glistening shine on the tip of my blade. The Preacher had time to wipe a sticky mass from his skin and nod thanks to me before they all charged in unison.
They were not very big or bright and we had had a lot of practice with these moments. We chopped the first two to pieces, but the third got under my guard and sank venomous fangs into my boot. The steel tip held, however, and after a moment’s frustration, I felt those pumping feet climbing my legs to my mid-section. I knew the thing could smell my terror and the hot blood flowing in my neck. It scuttled up my torso, its loach-like mouth forming an idiot’s grin.
It was awkward, slashing at something that is clinging to your chest, but I managed to get the blade into the rippling line of legs. The most memorable sensation was when I cut through a long line of those pumping, hot dog-thick legs. There were bones in there, very thin bones, but I felt them as my saber cut through them. Normal spiders didn’t have bones, I didn’t think, at least not in their legs. Had they shifted that way from someone’s finger and toes? Had each toe thinned and stretched into the shape of a spider leg? I almost retched when we were done, just from thinking about it.
There was a scrap of red clothing on one of them with a picture of a cartoon animal on it. The Preacher identified it with a nod. “The Krenzer girls,” he confirmed evenly. “They’ve been missing for days.”
I was further sickened to learn another family had gone bad.
“Weren’t they junior high girls?” I asked, disturbed. Families often turned as a group, which made things worse. Distantly, I wondered why that happened.
“The youngest, perhaps. The older two were in high school this year, I believe.”
It was horrifying, but we talked about it calmly. Somehow, doing that helped keep your sanity going.
The Preacher insisted on a service right then and there. We buried them under heaps of dirt in the stony yard. It was my second service today, and I was just glad that I didn’t have to mumble the words this time. He talked about final peace and blessings. He did not sound like he was just going through the motions, either. He meant every word of it, you could tell. He meant to send those souls to heaven, if there was any possible route by which they could get there, which I strongly doubted. But I bowed my head and mumbled with him in pray anyway. I was surprised he could keep his faith so tightly after all that had happened. I admired him for it.
“Gannon,” he said as I left his hilltop. I turned back to him. He stood there in the middle of a makeshift graveyard that would have seemed pathetic even to the first settlers who came centuries ago to farm this land. There were fresh mounds everywhere, and I knew that before he slept tonight, he would fashion ratty crosses out of sticks and twine for the newest three graves, just as he had for all the others.
He hesitated, and for a moment, I thought I saw a tiny tremble at his mouth. It must have been the dim light, however; the Preacher never wavered.
“There is something else out there,” he said at last. “Something is sending these things to us.”
He paused, and then said, “Watch your back.”
Visiting the Preacher had not made me any less nervous. I moved quietly, with all the woods craft a dozen years of deer hunting in these hills with my dad had taught me. My saber never left my hand, and even though my throat tickled horribly, I never coughed. I avoided dry patches that might cause my boots to crunch unduly.
In any case, the hike down to Redmoor was relatively uneventful. Along the way I paused to eat some sardines and hard biscuits the Preacher had provided me. I took the opportunity to examine the Preacher’s map as I chewed.
I spent a bit of time running my fingers along the map lines and calculating distances. I marked a tiny blue box where my cabin was with a pen. The natural route from there to town didn’t cross any of the colored lines the Preacher had added, nor did our usual route out to SR 446. But on the way from my cabin to the Preacher’s there was indeed a thready blue pencil line in the vicinity. Had I crossed it on the way there this morning? My mix of following the logging road and weaving through the woods might or might not have caused me to cross that vague line scratched on an old map. It wasn’t like a street map. It only showed major roadways.
Perhaps that is where I had picked up the lost ones, the Krenzer girls. I shuddered. How close had I come, perhaps a dozen times, to walking into that line and-shifting into something? If the Preacher’s map was correctly done, it was vital information. Everyone should have a copy.
There was another line, blue pencil or felt tip, I think this time, placed between me and town. It took an extra half-mile, but I gave it a wide berth. One thing the map did is give me an extra sense of confidence as I arrived in town. It felt good to think you might have in your hands a way to prevent your random demise. It might all be a comforting illusion, like a newspaper horoscope, but it felt good, regardless.
A heavy red line, definitely felt tip this time, cut a pie-wedge out of Redmoor, leaving the northern third of town including the downtown business district almost inaccessible. I nodded to myself, no wonder we had abandoned the town. Thinking it over, I realized that that third of town had been the first to go-mad. The police and fire stations were in that area. There were no police or firefighters left alive in our town now. They had died out like the wooly mammoths. I shook my head and wondered if elsewhere in the world people were mapping out madness and death just like this. The cities must be living hells.
When I arrived in Redmoor, it was a ghost town. There were no lights, no sounds, and no traffic. Even the stoplights had stopped blinking weeks ago, their emergency batteries having long since run out of juice. Redmoor had never been a big town. We had an optimistic population estimate of three thousand one hundred and sixteen printed on the sign. Someone had crossed out all the digits except for the final sixteen. I wondered how long it would be before we had to cross out the one as well. In the hot months the summer people who kept cabins up here and only spent their vacation time each year along the lake always inflated the population. We had two motels, a single gas station combined with a Stop-n-Go convenience store, three churches-all Protestant flavors, of course, and an elementary school. Once you reached age twelve, you had to ride the school bus down to Newton to get your education. All that was ancient history now.
I chose to visit the closest target first, the Captain’s place. Captain James Ryerson was, as far as I knew, the only surviving inhabitant of Redmoor proper who had never fled this entire summer or fall. He had simply refused and had holed up in his place at the southern edge of town. His house backed up right against the woods. His parents had left it to him, and he’d never moved away. A veteran of the Gulf Wars, he had come back after a few decades in the service to the town in which he was born. The town was much the same as it had been in his youth, but he had changed. He had become one of those funny, survivalist-type vets, one of the ones who never really got over their war. He had all the telltale signs: He wore fatigues often, always at least a tattered service cap. His cinderblock house was full of guns and supplies, too. People always said he had a fully automatic weapon in there. Quite illegal of course, but the local police knew him, had grown up with him, so they didn’t bother him about it.
He had been in the Special Forces, everyone knew that, but no one was sure which service it had been. If you asked him about it, he wouldn’t tell you. I had once confronted him and ticked off all the ones I knew of, Delta, the Seals, the Green Berets, etc.
“They called me a Captain,” he said, with a grim smile, and that was all anyone could get out of him.
One bright, sunny day last summer the meter guy had grown claws. Wearing orange coveralls and a flesh-covered head in the vague shape of a pumpkin, he had killed my dad and a lot of other people. The meter guy had finished up his route on the Captain’s front lawn. The dozen or so slugs into his misshapen skull had proven, once and for all, that the Captain really did own the only fully automatic rifle in Redmoor. And I will always like him for it using it that day.
I sheathed my saber and took off my hat so it would be easy to recognize my face as I approached his place. One simply did not approach this man’s place looking armed and dangerous. He had always been paranoid, and since the world had recently gone mad, his outlook had not improved. The gate of iron bars had only a latch on it, no lock, but I didn’t barge in. Instead, I tugged on the cord that hung down on one side of the gate. I heard a bell tinkling somewhere.
While I waited, I looked through the iron bars and past the tall cinderblock walls into the yard. There were big humps in the earth that could only be buried bodies. There were a lot of them. If I thought about it, and I tried not to, I could detect a strange unpleasant odor coming from his emergency cemetery. Such things seemed commonplace now. Perhaps they would be a curbside fashion statement someday, these front yard gravesites.
I waited ten seconds, and then jerked the cord again.
“Gannon?” asked a harsh whisper off to my left.
Startled, I turned my face up and squinted at the top of the wall. The Captain was up there, sitting on the top of his bricks. He had a rifle aimed at my head.
“There you are,” I said with all the cheer I could muster. “Fixing up the top of your wall, are you?” I chuckled falsely. It was a stupid thing to say and I felt stupid saying it, but it was the first thing that came to mind. I had always gotten along with the Captain better than most. The key, I found, was to accept everything he did as completely normal, and everything that he said as completely reasonable. That way, nothing you said ever set him off and you could deal with him. It was like feeding a strange pit-bull.
“Always approach a man from the left,” he said. “The left is a blind spot for most targets.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. He studied me further and I kept my smile pasted in place. He had been strange before recent events, and now I wondered how far a-field his mind might have wandered after a month or two of burying deformed, murderous neighbors in his front yard.
“Good to see you, Gannon,” he said, lowering his weapon finally. He dropped down inside his wall and came around to let me in.
“You still move with as much stealth as ever, Captain.”
He clanged the gates shut behind us and turned to inspect me. He was about fifty, but still in excellent shape. He was shorter than I, but stockier. His hair was reddish-gray and as unkempt as his beard, which was red shot through with silver. His eyes were the kind of yellowy-brown that looks like a dusky orange.
“Show me your hands,” he demanded.
Surprised, but not too surprised, I showed him my hands.
“Now your feet.”
“Shoes, socks-off,” he demanded.
I opened my mouth for an automatic protest, but shrugged instead. I wondered again about how things had been for him down here in Redmoor. “Just like at the airport, eh?” I joked.
He didn’t answer and now was inspecting my ears. After a long moment he seemed satisfied. He smiled finally, and looked at me like the friend I thought I was.
A more normal person would have invited me in for a can of cola, but not the Captain.
“The Preacher sent you?” he said.
“Yes, he gave me a new kind of map.”
“I’ve got a copy, a great piece of intelligence if confirmed.”
“Um, yes. I guess I’m supposed to confirm it and find ways around these lines. He also talked about there being at least three kinds of changelings.”
“Right, that’s why I checked your extremities.”
“Huh?” I asked, recognizing a new piece of data.
“I’ve gotten a few of the lurking kind, the ones that can talk,” he said, indicating the humps of earth surrounding us. “They have deformities sometimes, a foot or an ear…”
I nodded and thought I was glad I didn’t have a clubfoot or anything. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had ever made a mistake in identifying one of them. Another thought chained off in my mind: was a true madman any better than a monster? I figured the madman probably was better. He might someday come to his senses.
“I’ve come to tell you something, James,” I said, risking using his first name. “The Preacher and the others mean to build a compound in town, at the old medical center. We’ll build a big fortress out of it, like this place you have here, but on a grander scale. And we need you there with us.”
He stopped scanning for intruders and our eyes really met for the first time. I could see in his face he saw this as a call to duty, and he was troubled by it.
“You remember what happened before, at the school?”
“Yeah, I know. We plan to do it right this time. We want to make a real fortress out of the medical center.
He eyed me doubtfully. “I’ve lived through a lot. Staying in this place on my own has seen me through for years.”
I nodded. “That sounds like a ‘No’.”
He dropped his gaze. I think I had shamed him a bit, and for the first time since I’d met him as a kid, he seemed unsure of himself.
He reached into his pocket then, and pulled out a black, heavy pistol. It had the distinctive shape of a Colt.45. He handed it to me.
“I want you to have this weapon. You like to fight in close, Gannon, and I respect that, I really do. I mean, every soldier has to find his own path to battle in an asymmetric struggle like this. But I know there are times when a bit of range and firepower are extremely useful. Take it from a pro.”
“Yeah, if it goes off,” I said.
He nodded. “That’s got to be the worst thing about this whole business. Unreliable weaponry.”
I half-snorted. Thousands dead, and the worst thing was that your gun might not work. I guess that explained the Captain’s thinking.
I took the weapon and hefted it. After a moment, I nodded. He handed me a box of rounds to go with it. The gun and the bullets each weighed down a coat pocket. The weight of guns and ammo was another reason why I didn’t often carry them. I’d found that just running for it worked really well sometimes. Still, I could have used this weapon earlier today to great effect.
“Thanks,” I told him. I turned to go, and decided to try one more time.
“Ryerson,” I said, eyeing him now, man to man. “You are already in your own prison here. All we’re asking is for you to come join us in our new prison. We need you too, to do your magic, we need your know-how. The people of Redmoor, what’s left of them, need you and me.”
He looked at me a moment, then went back to scanning the horizon like a hunted animal. I wondered right then if he was really the bravest man or the biggest coward in town. Probably a bit of both, but the guy sure knew how to stay alive.
“Okay,” he said finally. “If you guys get it built, and you confirm where the changelings are made, I’ll move into your camp.”
I nodded and left. Behind me, I felt his eyes on my back for a long time.
I got back to the cabin with only an hour or so to spare before dark. I could have stayed in town or gone to set up camp at the medical center with the rest of them, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about Monika and Vance. I’d already left them alone all day long. Vance moved fast, who knew how things had gone?
When I got there, the Durango was in the driveway, and I felt somewhat relieved. In these new times without phones or any other form of instant communication, sometimes your timing was off and you missed each other. Vance opened the door and poked his head out.
“`Bout time you showed,” he said and waved.
Inside, it took me a moment to realize that Monika wasn’t there. My frown amused Vance.
“Sorry, lover-boy, the Doctor kept her down at the medical center. They really are building it up as a fortress. They’ve got a watch post on the roof and everything. I suppose you heard about it?”
I nodded bitterly, realizing I had chosen the wrong path. I had missed my chance to see her without Vance hanging around.
“Eric Foti is there, with his kids, and Carlene Mitts and that goofy Nick Hackler and the Hentons and the Dagens too. Even old Brigman is there. Remember good old Mr. Brigman from back in school? We both had him for Algebra. He said he had been away for summer vacation, but then his family called him back home and when he got here everyone on his block was already dead and now he’s stuck with us in this one-flea town full of monsters,” said Vance. “Poor bastard.”
“At least he’s alive. That’s about all any of us have got.”
I looked outside. In the distance, I could see the sun would soon set out over the west shore of the lake. I came to a sudden decision.
“Let’s pack up and go join them.”
“Huh? Now? It’s getting late for that, bud.”
“Let’s just do it. We’ve got a hole in our roof and some kind of smart hoofed monster out there. With this map,” I said, handing him the map. “We know what to avoid. We’ll be safer in town with the rest of them as long as we keep everyone away from these lines.”
Vance pondered the map for a moment. “I’ve heard about these, they were running them off on the color copier at the center. I didn’t get my hands on one yet. What do you think of them?”
“I think they might be our salvation.”
We packed quickly, if you can even call it packing. Really, we threw things in the back of the Durango as fast as we could. We thought about taking the generator, I’m sure they could use it down there, but it would take too much work. We decided to leave it until later. We started down the hill with less than a half-hour until dark.
I took the wheel and we rolled out spitting gravel.
Vance kept checking the dying sunlight nervously. “I’m saving one round in here for you in case we buy the farm,” he told me darkly.
“We’ll be okay.”
“Has that girl got such a hold on you already?”
“I don’t know.”
Vance laughed and went back to scanning the road. His rifle poked out the window. The trees flashed by as we negotiated the potholes and sharp turns.
“Well, I like her too,” said Vance seriously after a bit. “I mean, it’s not like there are a lot of choice females running around here.”
I nodded and sighed. It was only natural. “Yeah. We’re twenty-somethings stuck out in the woods without women. “
“So,” he said, delicately. “I guess it’s a free-for-all? The best man wins?”
“I guess,” I said accepting the idea unhappily. “In the end, the girl always makes the choice anyway.”
“At least when she’s a babe,” laughed Vance. He sounded way too happy with our arrangement. He had always been the more confident of the two of us with girls. He probably thought he had it in the bag. I set my jaw, determined to give him a run for his money if we all lived that long.
When we had driven about two-thirds of the way, I saw something in the woods off to my left, toward the distant lakeshore. It was bluish, and it shimmered, or glowed in the trees. Without any ceremony, I killed the Durango’s engine. We rolled to a stop and I pulled it over to the side.
“Gas?” asked Vance.
I pointed into the woods. “Something’s out there.”
“No kidding? There’s always something out there. Let’s get rolling.”
I shook my head. “This something is glowing.”
Vance looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “That is all the more freaking reason to crank that ignition.”
“Look,” I said, turning to him. “I’m going to go check it out. This is pretty close to where that shift line is on the map. Right where the Preacher said it was. He wanted me to check this one out.”
“Okay, so we just checked it out,” said Vance slowly, sounding like someone who was trying to talk a stubborn, rather thick-brained child out of something foolish. “The line is right where he said it would be. You saw a glowing critter, you have confirmed it. Now, we can go back and tell him he was right, something really is out here, hallelujah.”
“All right,” I said and turned on the ignition. It didn’t start, the Durango was dead.
“Oh, come on,” complained Vance. “Are you faking?”
“No, I think we should check this thing out now, though.”
“The engine won’t start? Let me try.” Vance climbed across and got into the driver seat. I got out of the way and stood outside in the road.
He worked at it and cursed.
“Come on, you are going to wreck the starter or something,” I told him.
After six or seven more grinding tries, he gave up. He glared at me in defeat.
“We need to check it out,” I said earnestly. “We need to learn from it. We can’t just run from everything forever.”
Vance leaned his head back against the headrest, rolled up his eyes and sighed hugely. “Okay, okay, I give the hell up. I’m giving you five minutes.”
We got out of the Durango and headed into the woods.
We found nothing right away, and he demanded to see the map. I showed him the unconfirmed green line that ran down to the lakeshore.
“So where is it?” he asked.
“Right here, as close as I can tell.”
“What?” he choked, stopping dead. He looked around as if expecting to see a shimmering haze nearby.
“You can’t see the line. At least I don’t think you can. Don’t worry, we’ll be okay, just keep going.”
“Look the whole point of those lines is to avoid them,” he said in exasperation. “What is the bloody point of mapping these lines if we go messing with them?”
I sighed. I checked the map again and this time I had to use one of the flashlights we had brought from the truck. It was getting dark. “See, here’s the line, we won’t have to cross it, and we are on a parallel path.”
“It’s a green line, man,” he complained. “Don’t you get it? Green means the old man wasn’t sure if it’s really there, or where it is, or what the hell direction it goes. It’s a guess and I’m not betting my balls on a guess!”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I’m heading back to the road, getting in the truck and I’m leaving your butt out here if you don’t come with me.”
I nodded. “All right.”
“That’s it then?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I need to go closer and see if I can figure anything out about this line. That’s the whole point of my scouting job anyway. This is an opportunity to do some of that scouting.”
Vance looked at me in dead silence for a few long seconds. “You crazy bastard, you are as bad as the Preacher himself. What’s the point of putting down warning lines if you are going to go play around with them?”
“Someone has to figure this all out or we are all dead in the long run, Vance.”
“You said that already,” he looked troubled. “Okay, so we split up. Do you have a gun at least?”
His eyes slid to the bulge in my coat pocket. “Good, good.”
“I’ll see you at the center in an hour.”
“Sure thing,” he said in an odd voice. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
And we split up. The world seemed much darker after his flashlight vanished into the trees.
I walked pretty far downhill and had to be getting dammed close to the lakeshore. I couldn’t hear the water yet, but I could smell the lake and the cold, fresh breeze out there. Lake Monroe was big, the biggest body of water in Indiana. It covered more than ten thousand acres and like all big bodies of water it had its own ambience.
But there was something else out here with me besides the lake. I could feel it. Maybe I had been feeling these fissures to god-knew-where all along. Usually, when I had that funny feeling one of the changelings showed up. Maybe all along it had been because I was near their home turf. These thoughts opened up new doors in my mind, but I wasn’t sure where any of it led. I was excited, however, at the very idea of understanding the cataclysm that had stricken my world. How do you deal with events you really didn’t understand? It had been a terrifying ordeal for all of us who had managed to survive this long.
I was drawn out of my thoughts by a sudden wrongness. I halted and peered into the night off to my left, to the west. I felt I was becoming more sensitive to it, and whatever it was, it was too close for comfort. I took out the map and held the flashlight pinned under my arm while I made a tiny fractional change to the Preacher’s green line on the map, extending it closer to the lakeshore than it originally had been. I wished I had one of those geomapping gizmos that used satellites to pinpoint your position. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked.
A light mist was rising up from the lake as I scrutinized the map, and my flashlight grew dimmer, as if the batteries were dying. It wasn’t the mist affecting the flashlight I knew, or the batteries. I had put fresh ones in it before leaving home. Looking at the yellowing light of the dying bulb, I began to sweat. The sensation that something was near grew stronger. I snapped the light off, drew my saber and waited in the dark, listening.
My eyes adjusted to the light of the half-moon that shot silver threads down through the leafless trees. The forest was a gloomy dark purple with overlapping black shapes.
Slowly, I became aware of a deep purple glow in the direction of the shift-line. At first, I thought it was just an effect of the moonlight and the trees. But it persisted, and after a time, it moved. Obeying a feeling I didn’t completely understand, I followed the movement. It headed north toward the lakeshore. I matched it, walking slowly and trying not to stumble in the dark as I took a parallel path.
At times, the mist-like glow died down, at others it brightened. Perhaps this was the effect of intervening tree trunks. At the points where it brightened, it took on the shape of a human figure, I was certain of it. I kept shadowing it, certain that it was as aware of me as I was of it. Whatever it was, unlike the changelings I had met, it showed no signs of launching an attack. Was it hoping I would come closer? Was this dream-like experience what happened to everyone before they turned into a wild monster?
After a while we came into sight of the lakeshore. The figure halted and I halted too. I had hoped it would come out into the open on the shore and let me have a look at it. Apparently, it had no such plans.
I felt scrutiny, and I turned to face the thing that stood perhaps fifty yards to the west. The breeze coming in off the lake was cold and fresh and felt good. I felt an urge to speak to it, but didn’t.
“You trouble me, shadow,” came a voice from the forest. It was a woman’s voice, soft yet clear, despite the distance between us.
“Do you want me to leave?” I asked. I was startled at the idea. All the shifted things I had ever encountered only wanted to attack and destroy, not chat and enjoy the solitude of the woods.
“Would it matter?”
“No,” I admitted. It was all I could do to keep my emotions from coming up in my voice. This was the first conversation I’d ever heard of being struck up with a changeling, which she so obviously was.
“You don’t approach me. Aren’t you curious?”
“Very much so.”
“Are you afraid then?”
I thought about that for a second before saying, “I am patient.”
She paused a second, glimmering. I’d seen some of the changelings glow a bit in the dark before, but usually everyone was trying to put as much light as possible on them when they showed up. I was drawn to her in that moment. I really wanted to see what my eyes were straining toward in the somber night. I kept my feet rooted, however. All I could make out was a vague figure, outlined in a lavender-blue haze.
“Do you know the one who slew your father?”
My jaw tensed. Was the thing taunting me? I decided to taunt it in return. “Yes, the Captain blew its jack-o-lantern head off.”
“And do you wish to know of the one that slew your mother?”
I sucked in a gulp of cold air.
“I know the one who did it,” she said.
She almost had me then. I lifted my right boot and placed it down one step closer to her. Then with a great effort of will, I stopped.
“Was it you?” I hissed. I felt a rage come over me, but I held myself in check.
“Come to me, and you will know the truth.”
My feet wanted to move, but I held them firmly. I reached into my pocket and groped for the pistol the Captain had given me.
“Why don’t you come out on the shore so I can get a better look at you?” I asked, angry now. I pulled the.45 out and thumbed off the safety. I doubted I could thread a slug through all the trees, but then again, maybe it was worth a try.
“The time is not right for you to walk the waters of the lake,” the apparition replied. Perhaps suspecting my murderous thoughts, she turned back into the woods and began that slow processional walk again along same the path we had taken down to the lakeshore. I fell into step again, shadowing her. The gun was in my hand, but I restrained myself. We needed information more than we needed vengeance.
“You are indeed a patient one, my shadow,” she said after a few dozen more steps. “Patience is one of the rarest of virtues.”
I said nothing and concentrated on not tripping over the roots and undergrowth. My eyes had grown accustomed enough to pick out obvious obstacles. It seemed I could see in the gloom where before I could not. My heart quickened in my chest, could it be she had changed my vision somehow? Was I even now shifting into something? Was this how it happened? Imperceptible changes at first, monstrosity to inevitably follow? I looked up at the moon and it still seemed to shine with the same silver-white light. I took a deep breath and calmed myself.
When I looked back for the figure, it was gone. I stopped dead and scanned the forest quietly.
“Changeling? Are you there?”
The breeze stiffened up from the lake and made the highest branches waver and rattle like black fingers beseeching the skies, but there came no answer, no hint of any presence. I had lost her. The natural thing to do was to walk to the spot where she had been, to look about for her, but I held back the urge. Perhaps this was another trick.
I retraced my steps to the lakeshore, and then quietly moved along it to the spot where I thought she might have stood. There, I found a loose pile of stones. My heart accelerated when I noticed that one of the stones was glowing. I reached down and touched it. There was an impression in the stone, like that of a three-pointed hoof.
I gazed at the faintly glimmering stone for a few moments, uncertain. It had a light blue haze about it. The odd thing was that if you looked at it directly, you couldn’t really see anything unusual. Only if you focused your eyes on something else to one side of it did you notice the soft glow.
I took the imprinted stone. It was about as big as my palm. I slid it into my pocket where it felt faintly warm.
Using the rest of the stones, I formed a small pile to mark the spot. When I had finished, I turned and followed the lakeshore eastwards toward Redmoor.
I thought about the thing I’d met in the woods tonight and how in days gone by it would have been described as a succubus, or a ghost, or a siren, or perhaps even a mermaid if found at sea. I wondered about men who’d walked lonely spots like this one in centuries past and encountered such strange things, things I myself would have called a myth or a legend just a few months earlier. It seemed clear to me now that all of those ancient stories and legends were true and full accountings. I felt pity for all those who had been ridiculed and disbelieved throughout time.
Occasionally, my hand strayed to my pocket and I touched the flat, rounded, rough stone. It was still slightly warm.
The old medical center looked more like a makeshift internment camp than a fortress, and it was only about a quarter of the way finished at that. The Redmoor Medical Center itself had never been much to look at. It was built in the sixties with that cheap cinderblock construction they were so fond of back then. The roof was nearly flat and covered with white gravel and the pinkish-brown trim needed a paintjob. The trees in the parking lot had outgrown their small squares of earth long ago and now their roots lifted up large sections of asphalt like tentacles heaving beneath a frozen black sea. I supposed the place had all looked cool decades ago, but now it was just plain ugly. But for all that, the walls were thick and strong and the few windows it had were high and small and full of reinforcing wire. It was big and probably the sturdiest structure in town, making it a good choice for defensive purposes.
I noted as I walked through the abandoned parking lot that they were planning to make the parking lot and the grassy areas in front of the center all part of the compound. They had made it about a third of the way around with chain link fencing. The fence had been strapped to the line of lampposts and trees that bordered Hagen Street. Big spools of barbed wire lay about the place, I’m sure they planned to decorate the top of the chain links with a generous spiral of wire.
I made it about half-way across the parking lot before a sentry challenged me. It was Erik Foti, he had been sitting in a police cruiser with a shotgun. He wasn’t a real cop, but I think he liked being in the cruiser.
“Hold it!” he shouted, seeing me and scrambling to yank his ear buds off. I wondered if he would go bats when the last cassette player in town died on him. All the digital music players had already died, of course, but the cassettes still worked, I guess because they were simpler. I’d spent years in school with Erik and he’d never been without portable sound of some kind. He had the cruiser door open and his shotgun out before he realized who I was.
“Ah, hello Gannon,” he said relaxing somewhat. He still held his shotgun to his chest, watching me. Good boy, I thought, no wonder you lasted this long.
“Hello Erik, you got guard duty eh?”
Erik made a face. “Yeah. Go on in, they are expecting you.”
I made my way into the large waiting room, which was full of neglected potted ficus plants, torn up magazines and vinyl furniture. The fish in the aquarium were all dead but for one feisty-looking tiger barb. I was sorry to see the fish go. I had spent a lot of hours poking at that glass when I was a kid.
There were three different nurses stations, one for the dentist, one for the doctor and one for the optometrist. The dentist and the doctor were dead, so I headed for the optometrist’s office. I found from Carlene Mitts, who was playing receptionist, that the optometrist was dead as well, and our pharmacist Beatrice Wilton had taken over the office. Lots of people were in the center and each family was bedding down in a different examination room. It was only about 10 o’clock but most people were quiet and trying to sleep on sleeping bags and cots.
As I walked around the offices, it felt good to see so many people. I hadn’t seen more than a handful of people in one place in a long time. It felt right to form a community like this. I suppose it’s only natural for humans to do so. I hoped with all my heart it wasn’t a big mistake.
“Gannon!” said Vance, coming out of a door marked private. “You made it, buddy.”
“So you finally got the Durango to start, huh?”
“Yep,” said Vance, still talking in a breezy way, but looking a bit guilty. We both knew he’d run out on me back there. “I bet Doc Wilton is going to want to talk to you.”
“Is she in there?” I asked him, indicating the private room with a nod.
“Yeah, that’s her office and kind of a conference area. Guess all the medical types used to share it-back when we had them. Hey, listen, before you go in, did you find anything out there?”
Vance lit up, but looked apprehensive. “Anything really freaky?”
“Yeah, something new.”
“Oooo,” said Vance, licking his lips. “You’re in once piece though, right? Cool, cool.”
He lowered his voice to a harsh whisper and scratched at his neck nervously, “Sorry man, to run out on you I mean-but you’ve got the real balls here. I mean it, man, I’m just not like you.”
I nodded without feeling. Vance often complimented people after pulling a fast one. It was pretty effective. Still, I couldn’t really blame anyone for not wanting to wander into a known area that made changelings.
“Sharon Hatchell is giving her the whole psych-trauma thing she likes to give everyone after something goes bad. You know.”
I nodded. I knew. Mrs. Hatchell was our town counselor. She had been the counselor at the local school. She was one of those types that volunteered for every community service job the town had and when she ran out of those, she made up some more of them. I’d always thought she was a bit spooky herself, but her heart was in the right place.
“Talk to the Doc and I’ll catch you later,” said Vance, slipping by me. I had an unpleasant thought that he was off to make some quick time with Monika. I tried to shake off the idea, but I couldn’t.
I had never needed glasses or much teeth drilling, but my parents had dragged me in here at least twice a year just in case. In all that time, I’d never been into the back offices. I pushed past the door marked private and walked inside.
“Gannon! Excellent of you to come, take a seat,” said Doc Wilton when she recognized me. She was surrounded by a mass of graph paper and a ruler and a lot of pencils and erasers. All of that old stuff office people used to work with before computers.
“Sure thing, Doc,” I said walking in and sitting down.
Doc Wilton was a squat woman with a gut that ballooned out over her pants. Her hair was cut short, the way a lot of older professional women like to style it, but maybe a bit shorter even than that. She had a quick laugh and an even quicker smile. I’d always liked her.
“So, what’s the word up there from the Reverend?”
I looked over the papers she was working on. There were colorful lines on them and landmarks. “Working on new maps? I’ve got some information in that area.”
That got her attention. She listened to my story about what the Reverend had said and about the changeling I’d found and talked to. That, of course, is what interested her the most.
“So you are sure you heard the voice? It wasn’t just in your head, but in your ears?”
“I’m pretty sure about that.”
“And you think she was trying to get you to come to her, to where she walked?”
“It seemed like that is what she wanted.”
She nodded and sat back. She knitted her knuckles together over her beach-ball stomach and concentrated. “Hmm. What worries me the most is that she knew things about us, like about your parents. That means one of two things, either she has been watching us from the woods, or she has walked among us.”
I poured myself some coffee. I was feeling the long day of hiking. “Or maybe she is a recent convert, and she remembers all this from when she was on our side.”
She nodded, admitting the possibility. “In any case, she is definitely a free agent and one of the new sort of creatures we have been seeing.”
I looked at her, and felt an urge to get some answers. “Look, Doc, do you think you have a handle on all this now? I mean, not that you are about to fix it, but that you get what is going on? Where did our world go wrong?”
“No,” she said simply. “Well, I know some things. I do think I have clues now, and what you’ve told me fits with the pattern. You already know about the fissures, the fault lines if you will, in the world, where things go mad.”
I nodded, gulping some hot brown liquid. It tasted like it had spent a few days in the pot, but exploded warmly in my belly, feeling good.
“I think all of us and everything around us is being affected, not just the few who go all the way and turn bestial. You see, even your flashlight was affected when it got too close. It seems electrical devices fail first. They can’t take much variance and still operate. Look at a car for example. Have you ever put new sparkplugs in an old car?”
I nodded, only half following her.
“You have to set the gap on the sparks to just the right distance with a fine tool, right? If the gap is too short or too wide they don’t fire right, it’s a very delicate system. Computer chips are even more precise, they require an absolutely stable voltage level and the circuitry has to all be formed exactly right down the millionths of an inch per contact. If anything is wrong, they don’t work. That’s why we are seeing more failures in digital equipment than we are even in humans.”
“But not all this equipment has been moved next to one of these lines on the map,” I argued. “Computers are dead everywhere, it didn’t matter how close the shifting was.”
“Right, which brings me to our next conclusion.”
She eyed me for a while, as if deciding if she should really tell me.
“What then?” I demanded.
She nodded and looked down at her hands while she spoke then, seemingly wishing she didn’t have to bear this news.
“Gannon, we are all changing. Getting close to these lines on the map speeds it up, and some of us resist better than others, but we are all changing. The world is changing too. People and animals are much more resilient systems than complex machines are. People can get cancer, get pregnant, lose a limb, get fat or old or whatever and still function. Computers can’t change shape and still operate.”
“But we still look the same,” I argued, not liking her idea at all. It was like being told you were terminally ill.
Wilton slowly closed her eyes, and then opened them again. “Do you realize Gannon, that the largest and most age-resistant organ in the human body is the skin? We think of it as the classic way to detect age, but really, a doctor can tell you that inside your body your other organs are getting worn out even faster. They show more wear and tear than you would ever see on the outside of a person. In a like fashion, we are all changing in small, subtle ways. They hide at first. The way a person riddled with cancer might notice nothing and go on for years before the truth shows up as a backache or an odd cough that won’t go away.
“Some of us are already learning the inner truth. There are spurs on the backs of hands. Tiny tails sprout, hidden in underwear. Extra teeth in the back of mouths. People will hide it at first, terrified, hoping against hope in natural denial. This is how the last of us are going. We are the resistant ones, or the ones lucky enough to have been far from the fissures all this time. As the population is reduced down to those who are most resistant, we won’t change all at once, it takes a while longer.”
“What kind of proof do you have?” I demanded. I was having trouble buying all this. I’m sure, at least partly, it was because I didn’t like what I was hearing.
She chuckled, “I’m not running a government certified medical lab here with a crack research team, if that’s what you mean. But, I will tell you a few things: For one, our normal internal body temperature in this town is not 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit any longer. The average is now 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit and it seems to be rising. For another, I know of two people in the community right now who have deformities, minor ones that you would never find unless you stripped them down and examined them inch by inch. And you can bet there are others.”
I opened my mouth at this point and raised my index finger.
“And no,” she went on, waving my finger back down again, “I won’t tell you who they are. They seem stable and there is no reason for me to believe they are any more dangerous than anyone else in the group.”
I chewed my lip, thinking I still wanted to know. I wanted to know who to watch.
“Lastly, I’ve observed an increasing number of minor changes in the plant and animal wild life. It is my belief that they will pose our next major threat.”
She sighed. “So far, mostly humans have been affected. But what if a migrating flocks of birds turn into winged snakes-”
“I’ve seen a few of those,” I interrupted.
“I know you have, and what if the trees themselves-changed?”
I thought of the articles in the newspapers I’d read. Hadn’t trees come to life somewhere?
“There are a lot of trees in this forest,” I muttered.
She nodded, clearly feeling she was victorious over my objections.
“There’s something else,” I said finally. I showed her the stone in my pocket. With the lights turned down, it was easy to see it still glowed.
Wilton touched it and spun it around gently, examining the impression. She looked at me sharply.
“The thing had hooves?”
I nodded, “I guess so. I’ve been seeing such prints quite a bit lately. I think this creature was leaving those prints.”
Wilton suddenly shoved the stone away from her, sending it skittering across the table. I snatched it up and put it back in my pocket. I gave her a frown of annoyance, but she didn’t seem to notice. She wrung her fingers one by one and stared at the desk.
“She’s one of the powerful ones, then,” she said quietly.
I asked her what she meant, but she didn’t tell me.
The first thing I did when I got out of Wilton’s office, of course, was search for Monika. I was yawning despite the coffee and munching on a sandwich that Carlene Mitts had handed me. The sandwich tasted great; neither Vance nor I could cook worth a damn. When we made sandwiches, they came out as Spartan, bachelor-house affairs with only bread, meat and maybe a smattering of one half-crusty condiment or another to glue it all together. I’d forgotten what a real sandwich tasted like when done by an artist such as Mrs. Mitts. There was pickle in there and thin onion slices, it was like a professional deli sandwich. I made a mental note to really lay on the complements next time I saw her.
I found Monika still talking to Mrs. Hatchell. At least she wasn’t crying, but I could see by her reddened face that there had been some tears at some point.
“Oh, hello Gannon,” said Mrs. Hatchell when I nosed the door open. “We were just talking about you.”
“Nothing too incriminating I hope, Mrs. H.” I said. All the ex-school kids called her Mrs. H.
Then Monika jumped me. I needn’t have worried about her forgetting me, I realized as I received her enthusiastic hug. She felt and smelled good, and I slipped my arm around her. We stood in the doorway and listened to Mrs. Hatchell for a while. No one ever ran into old Mrs. H. without stopping and listening for a while.
She was a widow who had lost her husband but not her wedding ring. She would always be married to the man she’d lost to a boating accident she often referred to as “some foolishness” a decade ago. She wasn’t anything special to look at, either. She was thin and had a slight stoop. Thirty years ago in high school, she had been pretty, I was sure, but now her bright eyes looked suspicious rather than curious. Calculating, rather than thoughtful. Not that she wasn’t a good citizen. She was, in fact, one of the best citizens in the county. I liked her, but she was hard to take in large doses.
She talked on and on about traumatic experiences and altered judgment and false redirection of blame and finally worked her way up to something she called The Counter-Intuity of Socionomic Insight. Whatever the heck that meant. While she talked I noticed her noticing that Monika and I were in contact the entire time. That was the funny thing about her, sometimes it seemed like she was just raving on in her own land of terminology and reciting tidbits from interesting articles she’d read, but she really was picking up everything that was going on in the room and sometimes, if you poked her the right way, you could get something useful out of her.
The lecture went on for some time. It was all about the mental state of our community in these trying times. We moved into the room and took up chairs around a small table, joining her. Monika’s eyes went glassy after about a minute and a half. I sympathized, it wasn’t even her native language. I lasted a bit longer, but soon I couldn’t hold on any longer either.
“Mrs. Hatchell,” I interrupted loudly.
“Yes?” she said, seemingly startled.
“Do you know about the shadows?”
“The ones that are partly changed, but live among us. Do you think you can spot them? Do you think they are dangerous? How are they feeling about all this?”
She gave a sudden intake of breath. “So you know about them.”
I told her briefly of my encounter in the woods. Monika watched me with big eyes as I told my tale.
Mrs. Hatchell eyed me suddenly, as if seeing me for the first time. “You’ve grown into a fine young man, Gannon.”
“Thank you, Mrs. H.”
“The Shadows,” she said. She took a sip of coffee and ran her finger around the rim of the mug. “I think they are thinking the same thing you would if you found a discoloration on your body-a strange one. First, you feel panic. Then, perhaps you would explain it away as bruise or an injury, but then… Eventually, you would realize you had to hide it from the others. You might live in fear then, feeling like no one was your friend, not the changelings outside nor the humans in here.”
I nodded. “Makes sense. But are they dangerous?”
“I don’t know. If the change affected their minds not just their bodies then yes, they may be. But we’ve never been attacked by anyone who looked purely human. All the changelings were very far gone before they tried to harm anyone else. So I would expect them to be somewhat safe to deal with.”
“But you don’t know.”
“Of course not. Are you thinking of an individual?”
“No, I’m looking for general information. I can see your point about not being too dangerous because no one in that partially changed state has ever been reported as an attacker… But maybe that will change now that there are more of them.”
“Gannon,” said Monika then, speaking up for the first time. “If you do find someone like that, don’t be too hard on them. I’m sure they are afraid themselves.”
I looked at her dark eyes and saw the hurt there. Of course, I realized she must be thinking of Billy.
“She’s right,” said Mrs. Hatchell. She leaned forward and her eyes became intense. “There aren’t too many of us left. We may have to make compromises.”
I got a weird feeling from her, but then, who didn’t after talking to Mrs. H. for a long while? After her husband had vanished there had been plenty of cruel jokes to go around. If anything, she had become more intense since then. Sometimes she even talked about her husband as if he were still around.
“The Reverend said the same thing, more or less. He said that they are lost and they might possibly be brought back to us. He still prays and hopes for them.”
Mrs. Hatchell nodded and retreated back into her chair. “He’s right, in his own rationalized way. I have essentially the same thoughts. This town is almost dead.”
I thought of Elkinsville then, out there at the bottom of the lake. Would Redmoor someday soon be as dead as that watery ghost town?
I left Mrs. H. and took Monika with me. It was late, we were both yawning, but somehow as soon as we were out in the corridor alone some eletricity started up and we talked closely.
“She’s a wise woman,” said Monika. “But maybe not as wise as she thinks.”
I pushed out my lower lip and nodded, appreciating her logic. “Let’s go outside and eat a donut.” I said, showing her a white powdered donut I’d snagged from a tray. She smiled up at me and we went outside.
The air was cold and fresh and there was a light wind going. It felt good after the stuffy interior of the medical center. I gave her the first bite of the donut. She took a nibble at first, then smiled and took a good-sized bite. I wondered if she had ever had a powdered donut in her life before. I took a bite myself. The donut was stale, but the powdered sugar tasted good. It caked up in my mouth in a familiar sensation that made me smile.
I pointed to the stars and she nodded and we talked. I named a few constellations and she joined in. Some of her names sounded strange, but I agreed with whatever she wanted to call them.
The stars were bigger and brighter overhead than I’d ever seen them in Redmoor. They looked like they do when you are up in the mountains camping. There were no streetlights or cars or neon signs or flickering televisions in windows anymore to compete with them. The moon had set by now, and the Milky Way was a glowing river that crossed the sky. Constellations shone in noticeable groupings. I picked out Orion from his belt and the Pleiades cluster straight overhead. I wondered how many people around the world were out looking at them tonight, seeing them as people hadn’t for centuries.
Monika got cold after awhile so we went back inside and found a room to sleep in. There were was only one cot. She looked at it and then at me, alarmed.
“Oh, just a second,” I said.
I went and found a second cot and put it in the room. I pushed it up against the opposite wall. She was shy at first about sleeping in the same room with me. I kind of liked the idea, but decided I wouldn’t care if she left and slept somewhere else. When we turned down the lanterns, I thought of going for a kiss, but could not quite do it.
I fell asleep knowing that if Vance had been in this spot, he would not have chickened.
Mrs. Hatchell found us in the early morning. I awakened to find her tapping at my boots. There was a carved frown of disapproval on her face. I glanced at Monika, sleeping in her cot across the room and felt a flush of embarrassment. This was quickly followed by a feeling of irritation. I wondered if she would ever get over treating me like a kid.
“Yeah? What is it?”
She waved me out into the hall. I grunted and rolled gently off the cot and put on my shoes quietly so as to not awaken Monika, who made a murmuring sound but stayed asleep as I left. I stumbled into the hallway. Hatchell looked at me reproachfully over her reading glasses.
“Gannon, I don’t think you should be taking advantage of her.”
“Mrs. H.,” I said, “the world is being eaten nightly by monsters and I think there are more important things to worry about.”
She glanced back into the room, at Monika, still frowning. “Gannon, have you thought about your actions? Can you imagine bringing a new life into the world the way it is right now? It would be a crime.”
I made a sound of exasperation. “Is there something I can help you with, Mrs. Hatchell?”
She kept frowning at me. “The Nelson family came in last night, all except for little Holly Nelson. They’ve asked for volunteers to go back and get her. She’s only eleven.”
“Why did they leave her behind?”
She made a fluttering motion with her hand. “Something chased them out. They lost her out there at night. You know how her father is in a wheelchair. They are begging for help and most people are just looking ashamed.”
I nodded. There were few of us willing to go out and face the world as it was now. “I’ll do it. Me and Vance.”
She nodded and was about to stalk off when she paused. “One more thing. There’s a storm coming in. A big, strange one by the look of it.”
“Great,” I said.
After she left I gently awakened Monika and we went out to find some breakfast and Vance. The Nelson family found us first and gave us tearful thanks. I nodded and felt uncomfortable. Mrs. Hatchell must have gone and told them immediately. Everyone knew the odds were bad. I hated the idea of coming back and telling the Nelson’s that their daughter was torn to pieces, or worse, that she had turned into a lizard and we had killed her.
I sighed, knowing that I was committed now. Looking outside, the skies did indeed look to be darkening with a storm. The wind was gusting up and plucking the last of the leaves off the trees.
Monika sent me out into the storm with a worried look. A lock of her hair kept slipping down into her face and she kept pushing it back. I liked that. She gave me a thermos of hot coffee she’d gotten somewhere and a brown sack with a tunafish sandwich in it. I hated tunafish, but I smiled anyway.
She gave me a kiss on the cheek that left a wet spot that quickly cooled in the winds to an icy tingle. She only said one thing: “Come back.”
Vance watched all this with interest and was on me before we had gotten across the parking lot.
“Well?” he demanded.
“What?” I said in annoyance.
“You know what, dammit. Did the best man win or not?”
“I think she likes me, if that’s what you mean,” I said vaguely. On some level I was enjoying his discomfiture as much as he was enjoying mine.
“Come on, Come on,” he complained. “Did you get down to business with her or not? That cot was pretty dammed cozy.”
“I got a second cot for her.”
“I’m not going to get into any details with a joker like you.”
He stared at me for a moment.
I attempted a poker face, but it didn’t work.
“You wimp!” he exclaimed. “You didn’t do a thing, did you?”
“Shut up, Vance.”
He sputtered and made sounds of disbelief as we turned onto Bohlend drive and began climbing the slope. The Nelsons lived at the very end of Bohlend drive just outside of town.
“You know what,” Vance told me. “If you were a dog, you would be poodle. One of those poodles that rolls over on its back when you come near and wizzes itself. A real piss-and-shiver dog.”
I turned on him and might have punched him, but we both heard something big rumbling behind us. It was the storm.
We looked up blinking at the sky. It didn’t look right. There was a black billowing cloud shaped like an anvil in the middle of the overcast sky. A contrasting wisp of white like a streak of cotton moved quickly over the face of the anvil. There came a flash of light, like lightning, but there was no thunderclap, just the rumbling sound. The anvil-shaped cloud was impossibly dark, and seemed unnatural. Worse, the flash of light inside it seemed to be twinged with red.
“Lightning?” I said almost hopefully.
“What kind of devil’s lightning is that?” demanded Vance. “It was red. I swear it was red. Man, did you see it?”
I nodded, but wasn’t really listening to him. I had caught sight of the lake. I gestured and pointed.
We had made it up to the top of the only hill in Redmoor on the East side. It wasn’t very high, but it was enough to see over the trees and houses to the Lake. The water there was as black as slate flecked with silver. Even at this distance I could see the waves the storm was kicking up. It was like looking at an open beach along the Atlantic. And out there, under the storm and under the waves too, I thought I saw a light. A blue-green glow. After a few seconds the glow died down and the Lake was just roiling dark water again.
Vance turned back to me, and I could see from the horrified look on his face that he had seen it too. For once he was speechless. The wind was beginning to gust up into a roar at times now. The trees bent and whipped at the sky.
“Let’s get moving. If that girl is out here we had better find her fast,” I shouted over the winds. We turned and hurried up Bohlend Drive.
We actually found the girl. I think we were more surprised than she was when she popped out of an abandoned car and came up behind us to grab our coats. We hadn’t even made it up to the Nelson place yet, and we were so distracted by the storm that we hadn’t heard her cries as we passed the car in which she had hidden.
Holly Nelson was a preteen and not a little girl anymore. You could tell she would have real breasts and hips within a year or two, but right now, she was wearing pajamas with yellow bears blowing bubbles on them. She was rail-thin with long wet hair that had pasted itself in black stripes over her face. Her bright green eyes shone with fear out of her very pale face. In her hand, she gripped a six-inch long screwdriver with a green resin handle.
“I–I was hiding in the car,” she told us in between sobs. “Things came after me, little things. They couldn’t get in. I spent the night in there.”
“We’ll take you back to your parents, everyone is fine,” I told her.
“Things?” asked Vance, grabbing her arm. She nodded, and I saw Vance’s radar go on. He eyed the soaking landscape around us nervously. I couldn’t blame him.
Vance patted her shoulder. “Were they flying things?”
She nodded again.
Vance recoiled and his hand leapt from her shoulder as if she somehow had delivered a shock to his fingertips.
“Let’s move,” I said and there was no argument from either of them. We headed back toward the medical center. We had less than a mile to go, but the storm was moving in off the Lake unusually fast.
It was the most savage storm I’d ever seen. Earlier, there had been no thunder, but now there was plenty of it crashing in the sky with more red flashes deep up in the clouds, lighting them up from the inside like a light bulb under a gauzy blanket. Here in Indiana we are a long way from open seas and hurricanes, but we do get a tornado now and then. I’d always heard about them, and we had the warning system, but I’d never seen an actual funnel cloud up close until today.
“What the heck is that?” demanded Vance, and I saw that the black clouds were passing over the area of the Lake where we had seen the lights in the water a few minutes before. A silver gushing cloud rolled out over the lake centered on this point. It rose higher as we watched and formed a swirling dark conical shape that aimed down into the lake. The mist and winds it kicked up at the bottom swallowed the trees along the lakeshore.
I gazed at the storm for a second, thinking hard. I realized that the storm had touched down just about where I had met the changeling and spoken with her the night before. Were the two events related? I had no idea. But I wondered if that pile of rocks I’d set out there would still be there to mark the spot after this storm. I doubted it.
“It’s a water cyclone,” I said, “we’ve got to run, and we might have to find a cellar to hide in.”
Holly was pulling desperately on my coat. I worried instantly that she had hurt herself. She had no shoes on and I’d been wondering all along when I was going to have to pick her up and carry her.
But it wasn’t her feet. She pointed behind us and screamed something but I couldn’t make out the words. I looked behind us and I yelled myself.
They were coming. The flying ones.
I’d developed a theory about them that differed from everyone else’s. Some people thought the flying ones were birds, because they ranged in size from about that of an adult crow to that of a goshawk. Others theorized they were leaves originally, because they were shaped like leaves and had the skin-texture of a leaf-if you can imagine a leaf that is fleshy, like a big slab of steak. Worst of all was the sucker-like mouth that could chew through the back of your coat and latch onto an artery to suckle. I myself figured they were too leaf-like to be birds, and too big and mobile to be leaves-I figured they were both. Somehow-I felt in my bones I was right the very first time I thought of it-I knew they were both bird and leaf, merged together in whatever unnatural fashion these changelings were made, like two colors of candle wax melted and molded together to form a new color in a new shape. Except that these new shapes were abominations, things like flying kites that wriggled through the air and which seemed to catch currents and glide like flying squirrels down upon their fleeing victims.
Behind and above us, moving in wild swirling patterns in the turbulent winds were perhaps a dozen of them. I could see glittering eyes like black marbles. Their open maws worked beneath those eyes, contracting and expanding in anticipation, seeking our flesh to latch onto.
I took Holly’s hand with my left arm and drew my saber with my right. Normally, you could hear them coming when they swooped down on you from out of the sky, but today with the storm beating down on us we couldn’t hear a thing except for the roar of the cold silver sheets of rain pouring on the asphalt and the wind screaming in the trees. Still, I sensed their nearness and whirled and slashed just as two of them dived for us. One sheared apart to flip and slap on the wet pavement like a gasping bass in the bottom of a fishing boat. The second made it down and adhered itself to the back of Holly’s head. She shrieked, hitting that special, ear-splitting high-pitched note that only young girls can reach.
I lifted my saber but realized I couldn’t do anything without risking her life. I reached out and tried to rip the thing out of her hair. It felt like a wedge of muscle. The cold rubbery flesh was strong and I thought that a stingray must have felt like this. Vance had joined us then and he gripped the thing and tugged at it too. His lips curled back to bare his teeth in disgust, but he did it. Our efforts only made Holly scream louder. Blood trickled down her face as her scalp opened up.
Then there was a silvery flash as her hand raised up and punched at the thing. It was the screwdriver she had been carrying. She stabbed at it repeatedly. I saw one of the black spherical eyes pop. Then it let go and Vance and I stomped the unholy life out of it.
We both took up one of Holly’s arms and ran. We half-carried Holly the rest of the way into the parking lot. Jimmy Vanton and Carlene Mitts were there to greet us with shotguns. They boomed at the things that darted about like kites in the sky. We didn’t stop running until we slammed open the glass doors and stumbled, dripping with rainwater and blood, into the waiting room.
We had made it.
Doc Wilton gave Holly a dozen or so stitches in her scalp and there was a spot up there she would have to comb over and hide for the rest of her life, but she would live. When I came to see her, munching on the sandwiches and coffee Monika had given me so long ago, but which I had never had a chance to eat, she was still gripping her screwdriver resolutely. I nodded in appreciation, she was a survivor. I didn’t know whether to be glad for her or to mourn the rest of her childhood she had already missed out on.
“Thanks guys.” She gave us a smile.
Vance and I mustered up smiles of our own. For the next hour or so while the storm raged on outside, we were heroes. We felt relatively relaxed inside, confident nothing could breach our walls. Even if it did, there were too many of us, too well-armed and too battle-hardened to be taken. The center had been vandalized back in the seventies and the owners had taken pains to put in thick, wire-filled windows that were hard to crack much less to break through. We felt safe inside, the way that medieval armsmen must have felt in their stout stone castle walls. Let the storm do its worst, we thought.
After the strange storm blew past and the winds died down, a fog settled over the town it left behind. The fog was of a peculiar quality, and I was reminded of the silvery cloud of vapor I’d seen earlier today swallowing up the lakeshore. I had to wonder what might wander out of that fog. Soon, we could only see half-way across the parking lot. Half an hour later, even the nearest of the cars drifted in and out of sight behind patches of heavy white vapor.
Still, with the storm gone and Holly rescued, we felt safe inside our walls. We felt it, a rising confidence. We had turned the corner on this whole thing. We could understand it and we could beat it.
We could not have been more wrong.
The white fog outside the center kept growing thicker.
“Somehow, just looking at it, I don’t like it,” said Vance beside me. Monika communicated the same sentiment in a more direct way by sliding herself under my arm.
“How’s Holly?” I asked her. I knew she had been spending a lot of time fussing over the girl.
“She is improved.”
“Did something move out there?” asked Vance.
“I didn’t see anything,” I said. “The wind stirs that stuff around sometimes.”
“What’s with this fog, anyway?” Vance demanded petulantly. “A storm is supposed to leave the air nice and clear.”‘
“That was not normal storm,” said Monika.
“You got me there,” admitted Vance.
We were peering out through the closed glass doors in the lobby. Most people avoided the lobby now, figuring logically that any intruders were likely to start with the front door. It had afforded the best view of the storm, however, so there I stood.
“What I really don’t like are those red flashes up there,” Vance continued.
I didn’t like them either. They were still going on, occasionally, red flashes of silent lightning far up in the clouds. They were completely outside all the normal rules when it came to storms. The light from them shone through as a pinkish glimmer. I thought about how odd it was to have any kind of lightning and fog at the same time. I could not recall having seen both at the same time before. Not ever.
Then came a heavy whump, which none of us missed, the sound that an elephant might make when falling against a building. This was followed by a splitting crunch, and another heavy whump.
Vance took a step back from the glass. I joined him. Monika took at least two steps back and half-tripped over one of those waiting-room chairs that are all connected together in a group like a weird chair-couch.
“You gonna tell me that was nothing?” Vance hissed out between clenched teeth.
“What’s going on out there?” asked a deep voice. It was Brigman walking up, our old history teacher. As far as I knew, only he and Mrs. Hatchell had survived from our old school. I was glad to see him. His deep voice had always commanded instant respect from us back in school. He was bald and fat, but had thick arms with a lot of hair on them. On his shoulder was a red fireaxe he’d probably pulled out of a firebox at the school. He tossed a steady stream of peanut candies down his throat with the other hand.
Vance tried to shush him, but that was an effort doomed to failure.
“Don’t wet yourself, boy!” Brigman laughed. “That’s just Erik Fotti out there, probably trying to drive that police cruiser around in the fog. He’s on guard duty until dusk.”
I nodded, a bit relieved. It seemed likely that Fotti would be out there, screwing around with the police car. I sensed that he already fancied himself our new sheriff. He had quietly taken ownership of our town’s only police cruiser and its shotgun.
No more sounds came from outside for a bit, and we unconsciously started to relax. That’s when the power went.
It wasn’t just the lights powered by the generators that died. Everything around us died. We had a lot of things rigged up now and some of the lights were connected to car batteries in the dimmer hallways. Everything went out, every machine in the place.
It got very quiet for a few moments, and then we could hear the cries of concern from back in the labs and examination rooms and nurses stations. Everyone was asking the same thing.
“I’ll check the generators,” said Brigman.
Monika left to go check on Holly.
“Let’s break out the Colemans,” I told Vance. He nodded and we were on it, setting up propane lamps all over the building. Fortunately, the possibility of losing the generators down in the basement had been prepared for. We worked quickly, it almost felt good to have a chore, it drove out thoughts of the fog and the whumps.
I was back in the dentist’s section when I ran into Erik Foti. He was messing with his cassette player and seemed agitated.
“Aren’t you supposed to be on guard duty?” I asked him.
He tossed me an annoyed look and shook his cassette player. AA batteries rolled across a table and he put in two more. “Yeah,” he said. “I took a break for the storm, okay?”
“Fine, but the storm is pretty much over with.”
He gave me a wry look. “Things still look pretty strange out there.”
“What’s wrong with your player?
“I guess it’s dead or all the batteries are,” he said mournfully. “Flashlights aren’t working either.”
I frowned and took up a flashlight, messed with it, switched batteries. Nothing. He had three cassette players out on a table and they were all dead, all of them.
“I’ve got to tell the Doc about this,” I said. “And you should take a look out there.”
He nodded, a bit sheepishly. “Hey,” he said as I was leaving. “You did a fine thing out there bringing that girl in, Gannon.”
I flashed him a smile and walked quickly toward Doc Wilton’s office. On the way, I noticed by the light of the Coleman in the nurses’ station that the battery operated wall clock was motionless. There should have been emergency lights on over the exits, and those were out too, I realized. I began to shoulder my way past the people wandering dazedly in the halls. I broke into a trot.
I threw open Doc Wilton’s door, ignoring the PRIVATE sign on it. The interior was dimly lit by a tiny bathroom-sized window up high over the bookshelves.
She didn’t answer right away. She was working with something in her hands. I couldn’t see what.
“Doc, the power’s dead. Everything is dead. I mean everything, all the batteries and flashlights-” I broke off, realizing for the first time that the thing in her hand was a small handgun.
“I know, Gannon,” she said quietly.
“Doc, we really need you right now. People will panic without light tonight,” I said quietly.
Wilton didn’t look up, but she put her pistol down on the desk in front of her.
“Have you got one of the lanterns, Gannon? I’d like to read something to you,” she said in a distant voice. Her head was still lowered.
“Yes,” I said, “yes, I’ll get one. Stay right there.”
I headed out into the hall, moving fast. I gritted my teeth, expecting to hear a single, popping shot behind me. When it didn’t come, I hurried to find a lantern before it did.
In situations such as we were in, the social rules regarding suicide changed. None of us spoke these thoughts aloud, they were too terrible to voice, but we knew that it was understandable, should anyone wish to take their own life. Our own sheriff had done it on the third day, after his four young children had gutted his wife and left her to die on the kitchen tile. He had blown them apart, I think with the same shotgun that Erik Fotti so proudly toted today, and then he had turned it on himself.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we condoned suicide or that we wanted anyone to do it. Rather, the act had lowered somewhat on the unthinkability chart. Now it was more on the level of quitting a shitty job. You argued your coworkers out of it when you could. You would miss them, but you didn’t blame those who checked out. You understood them.
When I got back with the lantern, the gun was gone and she had a small clothbound book out instead. I set the lantern on a shelf and turned it up a notch. It hissed and brightened.
I saw then that the book had the look of an old library book, and many yellow bits of paper stuck up from it at different angles with notes scrawled on them. After a moment she began to read:
In ancient days the dog was looked upon as man’s best friend, and the enemy of all supernatural beings: fairies, giants, hags, and monsters of the sea and the Underworld. When the seasons changed on the four “quarter days” of the year, and the whole world, as the folks believed, was thrown into confusion, the fairies and other spirits broke loose and went about plundering houses and barns and stealing children. At such times the dogs were watchful and active, and howled warning when they saw any of the supernatural creatures. They even attacked the fairies, and sometimes after such fights they returned home with all the hair scraped off their bodies, if they returned at all.
She looked up at me very seriously, as if what she had read had great and obvious importance.
I nodded solemnly, thinking all the while, what the hell does that mean?
“How many dogs do we have?” she asked me.
I let slip my confusion. “Um, none here, I expect.”‘
“People tend to try to save them, don’t they?”
“Yes, well, the things…” I trailed off. “Not many survived, I guess.”
“Try none,” she said somewhat smugly. “When was the last time you heard one bark, or howl at night?”
I shook my head, it had been weeks.
She nodded and opened the book again to a new passage.
Knee-deep she waded in the pool-
The Banshee robed in green-
Singing her song the whole night long,
She washed the linen clean;
The linen that must wrap the dead
She beetled on a stone;
She washed with dripping hands, blood-red,
Low singing all alone:
The Banshee I with second sight,
Singing in the cold starlight;
I wash the death-clothes pure and white,
For Fergus More must die to-night
She gazed at me bemusedly for a bit and closed the book. “You still don’t get it, do you?” she asked. “I had thought that you would, out of all of them.”
This statement irked me just a bit. “Okay, you are saying that these old legends are like what is happening now, I get that.”
“More than that. I think things have turned again, back-back to the old days when superstition ruled the minds of men. But what we didn’t know was that it ruled for a reason. It ruled because those fantastic creatures and stories were all real, or at least most of them. The thing you saw at the lake, it would have been called a Banshee, or a Hag, or Mermaid perhaps in years gone by, depending on where and when you were, but everyone everywhere was familiar with that type of creature.
“This time, I think however, is very different,” she continued, paging through her book. “This time I think it is worse. It’s like the Ice Ages, I believe, these magical times, they come and go. Usually, it is small waves of magic that don’t warp history much, like the little Ice Age that just ended a few centuries ago. Between the year 1550 and 1850, the world was much cooler than it is now. I think the Magical Ages are like that, these ages of the supernatural. They come and they go and are forgotten until the next time.
“But this is a bad one, this time. Like the Ice Age ten millennia ago that froze those mammoths in Siberia so fast that they still had grass and flowers in their mouths. They were flash-frozen. In a few years, the glaciers grew dramatically and cataclysmically. The world froze over and thousands of species died out forever. Most of the big mammals died out. And now this age, with its increase in the supernatural, is like that time. Cataclysmic.”
“Okay, so then why are there no fossils of things like these monsters we’ve been encountering?”
“Good! Good point,” she said, rising. For the first time, she seemed animated. She got up and paced. I noticed as she walked that she had a slight limp, but decided now was not the time to interrupt. Mostly, I was glad to see some distance between her and that pistol.
“I suppose I could flippantly ask in return what you think a tyrannosaurus or a giant sloth really was, if not a monster, but the real answer is, of course, that I don’t know. But perhaps, just perhaps, these warped creatures don’t leave remains because when the effect fades, it changes the creatures-including their bones or what-not-back into their original form.”
I made an appreciative face. “Like you say, we have no idea, but that’s as good as any.”
“Do you know what percentage of the cultures of Earth over the last thousand years has had tales of supernatural creatures and occurrences?”
“All of them?”
“Exactly. Not all of them are identical, mind you, although certain themes tend to come up again and again.”
“So, Doc,” I said, “what should we do?”
It was the wrong thing to say. She sagged down again into her chair. “I think it’s the end. We will descend into barbarism at best, become extinct at worst. This time, the supernatural is so powerful, life is not just more interesting, it’s like a nightmare. I’ve yet to find any way we can survive it, and I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet.”
I nodded, but took one thing to heart. “Well, even if we all survive as just changelings of some sort or another, eventually, our descendants will go back to what they once were.”
She frowned deeply at that. “Provided some survive.”
She nodded, taking to the idea. “You are right. Quite right, I hadn’t extrapolated far enough.”
She smiled then, looking fully at me for the first time. “You’ve given me peace of mind in the form of a tiny ray of hope. Thank you, Gannon. You are a natural leader, you know. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got one more duty this day.”
I stood up and put my hand on my saber. “Give me the gun and I’ll be on my way,” I told her.
She moved her hand near the pistol slowly. I took a step toward her. She looked at my hand on the hilt of my saber and laughed.
“Going to cut me if I kill myself, eh? Ironic, don’t you think boy? If ever there was a time and place where suicide was easier for a person, I don’t know it. All I have to do is take a walk in the woods and it will all be over shortly.”
“That would be a brave death.”
She frowned again. “So I’m a coward? You don’t see what I do, Gannon, you don’t see the future clearly.”
She took up the pistol and toyed with it. I saw it was a cheap-looking.32 caliber semi-automatic. She put it down on a pile of maps she had been working on with a clunk and I snatched it up. I tucked it into my pocket and walked out. As I did so, I found the flat stone I had picked up on the lakeshore. It was still there, and it still felt warm, although that could have been from my body heat.
I pulled the stone out and flashed it at Wilton. She recoiled slightly. “Why are you afraid of this thing?”
“It’s enchanted, I think,” she said.
“What can you do with an enchanted rock?”
She shrugged. “Try throwing it at one of them, or if it is rough enough, use it to sharpen up that pig-sticker of yours. I don’t care.”
I hefted it and nodded. “Why don’t you go check on Holly again?” I suggested.
She nodded and got up. She looked old and bent, but not broken anymore. She limped away to the examination rooms. I opened my mouth to ask about her limp, but shut it again. I’d asked enough.
I went back to my empty cot and closed the door. I didn’t want anyone to see this.
I pulled the stone out of my pocket again and here, in the darkness, it glimmered plainly. I took out my saber and ran the stone along the edge. It was indeed rough enough to use as a grinding stone. Usually, one would have used a softer stone like soapstone, but it worked quite well. After scraping each side perhaps twenty times, I thought to see the faintest blue glimmer along my blade. I chewed my lip and breathed harder, feeling like I was doing something evil, but fun, like finding dad’s playboys as a kid. I scratched at the blade more, and the faint glimmer turned into a glow.
I put the stone back into my pocket, sheathed my weapon and went to check on things at the front entrance. The fog outside looked even thicker, if anything. It looked like someone had pressed a gauzy blanket against the glass. Only a few feet of gray concrete walkway was visible outside now. Erik Foti was in the lobby peering out dubiously at nothing. He gripped and re-gripped his shotgun nervously. He glanced at me as I walked up.
“Yeah, I know, guard duty.”
“Hmm,” I said, “looks kinda strange out there. Is everyone inside?”
“Everyone except for Brigman, he found nothing wrong in here and went outside to check the fuse box. He thinks maybe one of the trees fell over in the storm and hit the lines that came up from the basement.”
“He’s out there in that? Alone?”
“Yeah, well…” Eric trailed off. None of us wanted to go out there. It wasn’t the roiling fog itself, exactly, it was the things that might be out there in the that stuff. The things you wouldn’t be able to see.
“How long has he been gone?”
Erik paused before answering, and then he sighed. “Too long.”
I nodded, and swallowed. “I’m going out. I’ll just sweep around the building once and see what’s up.”
Erik’s face worked, I looked at him and he was flushed, his cheeks purple. “No,” he said quietly, putting a hand out in front of me, “I’ll go, I should have gone already. I’m on duty.”
“Erik, it’s cool-”
“No, no, it’s not. You went for that girl and I chickened. I’m going to do this one.”
I nodded. “I’ll stand right here. Let me know if something is wrong.”
He glanced at me again quickly and nodded. Then he grinned. “I’m not gonna scream, don’t worry.”
I chuckled politely.
Then he edged open the door, and a white tendril of smoky vapor curled into the waiting room. He slipped outside and the fog ate him up.
He went to the right. I noted that, in case he didn’t come back and we had to look for him. He went around to the right, I repeated in my mind so I wouldn’t forget.
I cracked open the door, even though I didn’t want to, and listened. It couldn’t have been much past two in the afternoon, but you’d never know it looking out there.
Vance came up next to me. “There you are, what-?”
I put up a hand and shushed him. For once, he actually fell silent, not an easy thing for Vance, I knew. He and I listened at the cracked doorway like thieves.
We waited and strained our ears and listened. A minute passed, then another, I think, before I heard anything special. What I finally heard wasn’t the welcome sound of shoes on wet pavement coming back home to us, but instead something that sounded like the creaking and twanging of guitar wires breaking in unison.
Vance and I looked at each other.
“What?” he asked in a hushed tone. Somehow, we both wanted to keep quiet.
“The chain link fence,” I whispered back, envisioning something out there, ripping slowly through the fencing that the last of Redmoor’s citizens had hastily erected.
More wires creaked and twisted and snapped. Then there was a jangling sound that could only be the chain links coiling up, and a crash that reminded me of the sound a trashcan makes when it is knocked over and spilling its contents. A figure loomed in the fog and we both drew back a pace. I saw a round belly and a red axe. It was Mr. Brigman.
“Something-” he panted, pushing in through the doors, “Something’s out there. Something big.” I didn’t like the emphasis he put on this last word.
“Where’s Erik? Did he find you?”
“Yeah, he did, he went to check it out. Something was messing with the fence line. We worked so hard on that fence. It’s not even finished yet. Anything that wanted to could just go around. Why would they want to tear up the fence? Why not go around?”
This simple question seemed to really bother him. But I didn’t have any answers, so I didn’t try to give him one. The things were mad, who knew why they did anything?
Faces started to appear behind us at the three nurses’ stations. Everyone seemed to stay behind the reception desks, as if somehow a four-foot tall wooden structure with a Formica countertop would protect them. The Nelsons were there, and Monika and Mrs. Hatchell and even Doc Wilton, plus about a half dozen others. They were all dark oval faces and bright big eyes in the gray light. Everyone was quiet. Everyone was listening. We were Neanderthals huddled in our cave while a saber tooth nosed around outside.
Everyone hung back, that is, except for Holly Nelson. She came forward slowly to join us. In her hand she had that screwdriver. Her lips were pressed in a narrow line as she studied the fog outside. I almost smiled, she was a fighter, all right. I found it interesting in a detached way that no one called her back to safety. She looked much older now with a bandaged head, a hunter’s jacket and blue jeans on. She had as much right to play this game her own way now as any of us did. There wasn’t really any safe spot anymore, and all of us knew it. I realized that kids were going to be growing up very fast in this new world.
I drew my saber then, and it rasped out of the sheathe with a long sighing sound. I rested the blade on my shoulder and pushed open the door another few inches. The mist swirled and broke up enough for me to see glimpses of the nearest cars parked just a dozen feet away.
“Erik?” I hissed. Something moved out there, and for a second I thought something had heard me. I listened to what could only be the crunching, tinkling sound of glass breaking. It was probably a car window caving in.
I had my head out, then a foot. Then I figured screw it, and stepped out into the fog.
It was colder out there than I had realized, and the fog had a funny, almost seaside smell to it. The odor was faintly swampy, like rotting organic material and stale water. I could see further out here, the windows had been fogged up with condensation. Outside, it was not so bad, I could make out cars for about twenty feet off, but the chain link was at least a hundred feet away, I calculated from memory.
I heard the door open and a murmur came from behind me. I had an audience. Vance poked his head out behind me.
“Friggin hero,” he muttered in annoyance.
I almost muttered back, faithful sidekick, but figured, just in case, it wasn’t worth getting slaughtered.
“Vance?” I heard a weak, desperate cry. His voice came from somewhere ahead of us in the thick mist. It didn’t even sound like Erik’s voice really, but it had to be him.
“Make a run for it, Erik,” I told him. “Come to my voice.”
In reaction to my words there was a crunching noise and huge thumping, bashing sounds. Two cars at the edge of my vision shifted. Tires screeched and I saw a bumper spin around. I realized that the entire car had spun with it, as if an elephant had lunged and knocked it aside.
Then finally, I heard the distinct sound of a car door popping open and there came the welcome sound of rapid footsteps out there somewhere in the fog.
“Come to my voice, this way, this way,” I said, speaking louder than I wanted too. I stepped forward and I felt Vance and Brigman come out behind me. I had to give Erik a direction to run, to guide him with my voice. “This way, man, over here, run it!”
I heard him trip and curse. Then he came out of the fog, crawling, scrambling, and dragging one foot. He still had his shotgun and his face was a death’s mask. Something huge thundered forward after him, we still couldn’t see it in the fog, but we heard its fantastically heavy tread and heard what had to be the chain link fence it was dragging. The fence clattered and jangled as it swept over the cars like a bridal train.
I ran out to take his hand.
“Oh sweet Mary-” sobbed Erik. I had time to see that his face and arms were bloody and his shirt was mostly missing. His haunted eyes met mine and then it had him.
When I first saw it, I really thought something had swung down a branch or a log, using it like a club to strike him on the back. It took me a slow second to realize that the wooden thing was a hand. A huge, claw-shaped hand with three foot-long fingers like a pitchfork. The hand stabbed down, grabbed Erik’s legs, and lifted him upward.
Erik twisted as he was lifted from the ground and got off one shot with his shotgun. A chunk of bark sprayed as if he had hit a tree, which of course, he had.
The thing in the parking lot was an ash tree come to life, just as we had read about in the newspaper stories. The ash looked nothing like a man in the shape of a tree. It was just an ash tree that could move. The thing’s bark was grayish-brown with black cracks that ran down in runnels over its body. The bark slipped over the wood and seemed more flexible than any normal tree, more like thick, armored skin. The roots, festooned with clumps of fresh black earth, writhed about like questing tentacles. It seemed to walk on its roots-or more exactly: it glided on them, as if it rode upon a thousand snake-bellies. The roots flailed and flipped and grabbed at the cars they passed by. Behind the tree dragged the chain link fence we had hoped would protect us. It wore the fence like a cloak of woven, jangling steel.
I charged the monster and chopped with my saber at the massive arm. I was shocked to see the blade sink in more than an inch. Had the glowing stone really sharpened the edge? Fluid, smelling like fresh sap, welled up from the cut. The thing shuddered a bit, either from pain or rage. It did not cry out, because it had no voice. The upper branches that jutted up into the fog far above me swayed and shivered. Its bright yellow leaves rustled.
I looked up at the trunk expecting to see a face, but there was none. There were no eyes, there was no nose. But there was a maw. On the side of the trunk, about eight feet up, a chomping, grinding hole made chewing motions. I had no doubt that was the destination it had in mind for its prey.
It lifted Erik higher and my saber with it. I hung on and gave a tremendous yank to free it. Erik’s headphones dropped to clatter down into the twisting mass of roots, along with an assortment of Ted Nugent and Chili Peppers tapes and lifeless batteries. Like a nest of ravenous snakes, the roots thrashed about, grabbed and tore at each item in blind eagerness. I thought it would lift him up and drop him into its hole, but I do not think it could reach that far. Instead, it just took his leg, starting with the foot, and began to stuff him in. Bones snapped and blood ran down the trunk. Erik’s face was white, and he was beyond screaming, but he had a grip on a knobby twist of the tree branch that served it as an elbow and he was struggling with all he had.
I could not get any closer. The roots had a hold of my ankles by now. They cinched up on my legs like pythons and I slashed wildly at them. I recall my voice was hoarse from shouting but I have no idea what it was that I said. I pulled out my.45 from my coat pocket and unloaded most of the clip into the trunk. Orange-white, splintery holes appeared in seven spots on the squirming trunk. I was gratified only by a slight shuddering and an increased activity in the roots, which turned into a frenzy.
Erik was looking at me, and I think he was still aware, and to me, his eyes pleaded with me, although he was unable to speak. I took aim with the last round, before those roots could pull me off my feet, and I put Erik out of his misery. I think he would have done the same thing for me.
Vance and the others had my arms then and were pulling me out of the thing’s grip. Brigman with his fire axe was the most effective, chopping off roots as they tried to grab us. Vance dragged me, raving, back into the medical center.
We huddled in there, whimpering and shivering in the dark lobby, surrounded by cheap musty furniture, beige painted cement walls and curled up magazines. We tried hard to be quiet, while outside, the tree crunched on Erik’s bones.
It seemed to take it a very long time to finish.
We spent a hard night in the center, only daring to use the lanterns deep inside the recesses of the building, and only after covering the tiny windows with blankets, tarps or newspaper. None of us knew how many of the trees were alive now; perhaps it was all of them, perhaps only one. We spoke in hushed tones and scurried about in our makeshift fortress like terrified mice in the walls of a cattery.
“If we all go for it,” said Mrs. Nelson, “I’m sure we can take just one ash tree.”
“You first,” said Brigman with a snort.
Jimmy Vanton snored in a chair in the corner.
Brigman jerked his thumb at Jimmy. “I nominate him for the job.”
“If we go out there, we can’t be sure we won’t get the attention of more of them,” I said. “But they seem to only react when people are close.”
“We don’t know that! We don’t know how many are alive, maybe every tree in town, or maybe every tree and tomato vine and thistle bush that storm touched is just waiting out there for us,” shouted Vance, pulling at his face.
It was about two-thirty in the morning and a group of us were having what amounted to a council of war in the conference room. We burned a Coleman at about a quarter-power to conserve fuel. Most of the others were sleeping fitfully.
Carlene Mitts had bedded down with her baby, who had seemed cute and joyous only yesterday, but tonight, for reasons known only to the baby gods, the kid cried off and on all night. Everyone in the place cringed every time it so much as gurgled and we all listened closely as she worked hard to shush it. Generally, this didn’t work and the cries built up in strength and finally into a righteous fury. While it coughed and wailed with what seemed like incredible volume in the silence of the night, we all waited for that thing that sat only twenty yards from the front glass doors to come wading into the lobby. In my mind’s eye that great arm lifted off the roof and start devouring us all like a sloth tearing into a termite mound.
“That kid is starting up again,” hissed out Vance between his teeth.
“It’ll be okay, nothing happened the last times,” said Brigman.
I kept quiet. I didn’t tell them that earlier I had crept out into the lobby to peek out and see if the tree was still there. It was there all right. While I crawled back, holding my saber firmly so it didn’t clatter against the chairs, the kid had started up. The roots had definitely sensed it, and had moved around restlessly, questing for the source of the disturbance. Something I had seen had disturbed me even more, however. I decided to tell them about that.
“I did see something when I last checked on it.”
The others looked at me, not sure if they should ask.
“The flying types, they are roosting all over it,” I told them.
Vance stood up then, that had done it for him. “We’re screwed. We are surrounded. The Preacher got us all in here and never even made it down to join us. I bet he and the Captain are both dead.”
With those grim words he left. I didn’t go after him and try to argue, as was our usual pattern. I was tired and I knew he might very well be right.
It was Brigman’s turn to rub his face. “Well,” he sighed. “I’m willing to go down fighting. We can’t just sit in here for a week or two until the supplies run out. I think we’ll have to take a look at the situation in the morning and go for it.”
I agreed and we all found places to bed down for the last few hours until dawn.
To everyone’s relief, the mist dissipated overnight. By morning, it was hazy and overcast, but relatively clear. Peeping out the windows, we could see the tree clearly now. Bits of Erik Foti’s clothing still hung in strips from its boughs, its roots and the open maw in the trunk. A great dark stain of dried gore ran down the face of it.
The parking lot around the tree was a wreck. The cars were damaged and stacked at odd angles like a spilled box of dominos. The two trees closest to where the ash had been planted were both sycamore trees. They did show splintered rips in their bark where the chain link fencing had been ripped away, but showed no obvious signs of life. They were still rooted in place.
It was Mrs. Hatchell who came up with the winning plan. She woke up Monika and I at dawn to tell us about it.
“We’ll burn it,” she said in a voice filled with resolve. I recalled that Erik had been one of those students who had hung around her counseling office for years. She had never had any children, she thought of all us school kids as her children and her hate for the tree that had killed Erik was palpable.
“How?” asked Monika. She was still lying on her cot in the same room with me. Mrs. Hatchell had found us there again, but this time she hadn’t complained about fraternization among the young or anyone else’s delicate state of mind. This morning she was on a mission. A mission to kill a tree.
“We’ve got propane tanks, but no blow torches,” I said.
“No, not the propane. The gasoline,” she said, eyeing me directly.
I opened my mouth to say, “What gasoline?” then stopped. “You mean from the basement, from the generators.”
“Right. They aren’t working now anyway, so what the hell good are they? If we live, we can get more fuel. There is plenty in town, we can refill them later.”
I nodded, it made sense.
“We need liquid, something that will stick,” she went on. I could see in the dark pit of her eyes that she had been thinking about it all night.
“I wonder how much burn damage it can take and still live?” I said out loud. “A normal tree, full of green sap and soaked with rainwater, is not easy to burn down to a stump.”
“I doubt we’ll have to burn it to a stump,” said Mrs. Hatchell. “The thing seems to eat now. It had to change significantly to do that. I doubt it is even made of wood all the way through.”
Monika came up and touched my back with a small hand. Her other hand, with her wrist in a cast, she hugged against her chest. “I don’t want you to fight the tree again, Gannon,” she said. There was a pleading quality to her voice. I was surprised and wasn’t sure how I felt.
Mrs. Hatchell turned narrow eyes on her. “Gannon isn’t just your personal protector, Monika. We all need him on the front line. I doubt the rest would have the guts to face that thing without him. But if he goes after it, they will join him.”
Monika narrowed her eyes in return, and the way her lips tightened I knew very bad words were about to be exchanged. I’d already learned that Monika had a quick temper. I put myself between them and said, “Look, I’ll go talk to Doc Wilton about this. I think it is a good idea, we just need to talk it over with the others.”
Mrs. Hatchell wasn’t having any of that, however. “Forget her. She’s given up. You’re the leader now. After yesterday, it’s obvious.”
I opened my mouth in surprise. I didn’t want to be anybody’s leader, I wasn’t even thirty yet. I didn’t want to have to think for a group. I wondered where the hell the Preacher was and hoped he was still alive. “I’ve just been trying to do the right thing,” I said lamely.
“And you’ve been doing a fine job of it. Yesterday’s trauma would have put some men into a shaking, broken state, but you are back and ready for more. Every tribe needs a chieftain, especially when there’s a war on. Just do it.”
Monika tucked her good hand into my belt behind me, getting a grip on me as if she felt I was going to get away. It was a possessive action, and I noticed she was still glaring at Mrs. Hatchell.
I put my hands up in a gesture for calm. “Emotions are running high here,” I told them both. “I’m going to talk to the others, we were talking about this all night, and we do want to make a try for it. Maybe you two should talk together a bit.”
Catching Mrs. Hatchell’s eye I made a significant gesture toward Monika.
“Okay,” she said. “We have plenty to talk about.”
When I moved to leave, Monika held on and followed me into the hallway. She came close and it became hard to think.
“Gannon, you tried to stop it. Erik is dead, but that is not your fault,” she told me. “You have done enough. Someone else can do the finish.”
I nodded, kissed her on the head, and said, “I’m just going to talk to them.”
I left her and went to find the others. I thought she might be crying, but I didn’t look back.
The gasoline idea went over big. We could imagine setting the thing alight and standing back to toast marshmallows while it flailed about. No one wanted to take hatchets to it like a pack of pygmies pin-pricking an elephant while it ate us one at a time.
“First, we’ll pick off the flying things, sniper-style,” I said.
I teamed up three people with hunting rifles to take care of the flyers. Wilton had always been more into hunting than most women, so I suggested she should lead the sniper team. I paired her up with Nick Hackler and Jason Dagen, both of whom knew their way around a rifle.
“We’ll try not to miss,” she said with a weak grin.
“Who’s fast on their feet?” I asked the huddle, I looked around and pointed at Vance. “You, Vance. You will be the decoy.”
“Decoy?” he choked.
“Someone will have to give it something to chase. Once it’s on fire, we don’t want it crashing into the lobby and burning this whole place down.”
“So, I’m the bait? What, am I supposed to tie an ass-load of tin cans to myself and run around in the street?”
I nodded, “Something like that. Whatever gets it to chase you while it is burning. Certainly, you need to be louder than the rest of us while we retreat into the building.”
Vance’s mouth hung open. “And what is everyone else going to be up to?”
“I’ll get the gas out of the gens,” said Brigman. “And I’ll swing this axe when it comes down to it.”
“I’ll throw the gas on it,” said Carlene.
“I will too,” said Monika. I had been surprised when she had joined the group. She seemed to have decided to become a fighter.
“What about your wrist?” I asked her.
She pursed her lips. “It’s okay.” She demonstrated by clonking the cast on a tabletop and flexing her fingers. It did look like she could heft a bucket if she had to. It troubled me that she was going out there with us, but I couldn’t really see a reason to keep her out of it. She was half the age of some of the others who were going, and if an old bat like Mrs. Hatchell was going, why shouldn’t a younger, stronger woman join the battle? It wasn’t like we had a SWAT team of athletic professionals handy.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s have each of the women ready with a half-full bucket of gas. The men will carry the heaviest cutting tools we have in case a root gets hold of someone. Vance will be the rabbit, and once it’s burning hard and chasing him, we’ll all slip back inside.”
“And how do I get back?” demanded Vance.
“You outrun it and circle back. It should be pretty well messed up after burning for awhile.”
Vance breathed hard and blinked for a few seconds. He was probably thinking of all the other things the strange storm might have awakened out there, all of the things we didn’t have any inkling about yet. He was critical to the plan. If I did the running around, and something went wrong, I wasn’t sure I could keep the rest of them together. I wasn’t sure we could keep it together in any regard. If one of us was grabbed by those roots and dragged into the inferno, would the others keep throwing gas on? Would they stand their ground against a nightmare ten times the size of any we’d seen before? I didn’t know.
“I always wanted to be the hero,” said Vance after a bit, looking around at everyone. “I guess this is my chance.”
The first steps went off without a hitch. We snuck down into the large, dank basement. We weaved past old office furniture and medical equipment that should have been hauled away years ago. There were broken gurneys and outdated X-ray machines and ancient computer terminals that were now wired together only by cobwebs. In a back room where the generators slept, we broke out the surgical tubing and prepared to siphon off the gas. The basement reeked of mold and wet concrete, until we started to fill the buckets and then all odors were replaced with the special stink of gasoline. We got about six gallons out of the two generators plus a few more from the cans kept down there. We had plenty of two-gallon plastic buckets, and after filling each one with about a gallon we hauled them upstairs again and handed out three buckets each to the women. We thought about rigging up Molotov cocktails but figured it was too risky without practicing. The last thing we wanted was a nasty accident.
To light the monster, we soaked mops in the buckets of gasoline. The smell in the lobby was overpowering and everyone was forbidden to even think about lighters or matches or lanterns until we got outside.
By ten A.M we were ready to roll. The hunters had carefully wriggled into place and cracked open frosted glass windows. They took careful aim at the dozen or so kite-shaped things that hung like huge bats from the tree limbs. I heard Wilton shout, “Fire!” and three booming shots rang out. Two of the things popped in fleshy explosions. Several others took flight and fluttered around the tree like angry wasps. Another volley boomed and two more went down. By then all the rest were flying, and I grimaced, wondering if they could kill them in the air. I doubted it; we would need shotguns out in the open for that.
And then, before things even got really started, they went horribly wrong. A bullet had clipped the tree trunk, furrowing a line across its bark. There was a spray of orange-white wood pulp and it seemed like a sappy vein was hit, because a dark, yellowy, thick fluid flowed out of the tree’s skin, looking for all the world like alien blood.
“That did the trick,” said Vance beside me.
And indeed, it had. The tree woke up, and it didn’t just wake up, it went berserk. It heaved up on its roots like an angry father standing up out of an easy chair and raised its sagging, single arm. The arm had two knobby elbows in it, and it struck out with sweeping, groping motions like the blind abomination it was. The thick fingers latched onto the heavy towing bumper of a small white pickup and yanked the rear wheels off the ground with a groan of twisting metal.
“Let’s GO!” I shouted to my stunned troops and charged outside. They paused for only a heartbeat, and then I heard them following me. Once outside, we lit our dripping mops. The mop heads flared up into balls of orange heat and black rippling smoke.
“Throw the gas, come on, ladies!” shouted Brigman beside me. His deep sonorous teacher’s voice rang out in the cold still morning air.
The tree shuddered in response to that voice, and I knew it had heard him, and I knew it was enraged.
“Get out there Vance, get its attention,” I hissed urgently.
Vance ran by, pushing a dilapidated shopping cart he had gotten from somewhere. It rattled and squeaked and crashed when he ran it into cars purposefully as he headed across the parking lot. The tree paid no attention, however. It still came toward the lobby, toward the spot where it had heard Brigman’s voice. We were all streaming out under the covered entrance in front of the lobby and taking up our positions, but the tree had a target, it had fixated on the spot where Brigman’s voice had come from. It was headed straight for the lobby doors.
I think Brigman knew it, too. He hung back under the covering, he had his red axe raised, but I could tell he was close to running back inside.
Everyone was moving a bit too slowly, no one knew quite what to do, we were way off script and everyone was yelling now.
“It’s not following Vance.”
“Burn the frigger!”
“Gas, gas, just throw it!” I screamed. The women finally moved and threw. They threw it a bit too early, from too far back, and only splattered the roots. Carlene sloshed a load over her sweater, half-tripping as she threw it.
“More gas before we-” I started, but it was too late. Someone had thrown in his mop. I think it was Jimmy Vanton. It did go up with an amazing and gratifying whoosh. The tree paused and the roots thrashed in what looked like agony, and I felt good inside to know that it was hurting.
“Yes!” roared Brigman. “Burn you bastard!”
“More gas!” I shouted and grabbed up one of the extra buckets, I wasn’t sure whose it was and I didn’t care as I heaved it up into the center of the inferno. The ladies did their work better now, emboldened, and tossed their buckets deep into the flames despite the choking black smoke and searing heat.
The tree lurched into gear again, over its initial shock, and kept on its original path. Behind it the white pickup dragged, the front wheels must have been in park because we all heard the tires as they were hauled squealing over the pavement. Some of us naturally moved behind it now, not wanting to be in its path, and we threw more buckets of gas on its back. The pickup’s tires caught and the white painted fenders turned black.
Then that massive arm flexed and the pickup went up and over in an arc. We all watched with our mouths forming perfect O’s of surprise. Flaming, screeching, tortured metal, the tree wielded the pickup like a club and smashed it down with fantastic force on the small peaked roof over the entryway. The old wood and bricks exploded and crashed to rubble. The door to the lobby disappeared.
Someone was screaming. Several someones, in fact. I looked this way and that, taking in multiple disasters at once. Carlene’s arm was on fire somehow, Mrs. Hatchell was trying to bat the flames out. There were legs sticking up from under the burning pickup and the smashed entry way roof-I recognized Brigman’s shoes. And near me, running to me in fact, was Monika with one of the flying things on her back, trying to sink in its fangs.
I grabbed her and slashed at the thing and cut it away. Then I felt fangs in my own neck and howled. I struggled, went to my knees, clutching at the fleshy leaf of meat. I could feel a fluttering sensation in the wound, it must have had a tongue or something like it to lap up my blood.
The tree was still in the game, too. It lifted the pickup a second time, and I could see right then that it was going to destroy the entire building and kill us all. The flames had only enraged it, only blackened its skin and filled it with a terrible resolve. Soon, the gasoline would probably burn off and the green wood beneath wouldn’t burn.
There was a strange, tremendous ripping sound that at first I couldn’t identify. Then it sounded again, and I saw the tree’s arm crack open. Bright orange-white wood-flesh appeared in stark contrast to the blackened bark. That dark sappy alien blood sprayed out and bubbled in the flames. The ripping sound came again and I saw the arm completely come off and drop the white pickup back into the rubble. I looked for the source of the noise and saw it was the Captain, walking toward us across the parking lot, carrying an M4 rifle. Set for full-auto, he had emptied a clip into its elbow and the tree’s only arm had torn off under the weight of the pickup. He was messing with it now, no doubt it had misfired or jammed or needed more ammo.
The tree seemed to give up then. It shuddered one last time as the flames built up to a roaring height, scorching the full length of its trunk and even the antler-like upper branches. It toppled over, flattening an imported SUV in a handicapped parking spot. A shower of cinders and choking black smoke rolled out over everyone as we fled.
Vance and Monika worked on the thing that had my neck. They pulled it off after breaking their nails and roaring with exertion. Someone put a dirty rag on my neck. I knew I would live. I found myself on my knees beside the dying tree, which still occasionally heaved or shook its roots spasmodically.
We had won the day.
“Thanks for coming,” I told the Captain. My voice was hoarse, the air was full of smoke and I almost choked on my words.
“Better late than never,” agreed the Captain.
“What brought you now?” I asked.
He eyed me and said, “I wasn’t going to come. But I got curious, so after the storm, I went scouting. Somehow, I was in the neighborhood when you guys went for this tree. I saw the flames and came running from a few blocks off.”
He nodded appreciatively at the tree’s death throes and whistled. “I don’t think even my place would stand up to that thing.”
“What did you see on the way over here? Anything new?” We both knew what kind of new things I was talking about.
“No other trees gone bad, not like this one. But stay away from vines. If you see some big bushy vine growing up someone’s abandoned house on a trellis, just keep away.”
I nodded, and tried to digest the news. It was very good that every tree in town hadn’t awakened, but then again, why had this particular one come to life? It suggested something other than randomness, and I did not like the sound of that.
Monika came over to me and gave me a water bottle. The rest of the group were tending to the wounded and beating down the last of the flames. Once the gasoline had burned off, the fire had died down in intensity. I saw Vance prying open a window to get into the lobby. We’d have to build a new entrance.
The Captain was looking over Monika. “Maybe you were right about us banding up together.”
“There are advantages,” I said.
The Captain’s demeanor changed and he went down on one knee next to where I was sitting on a bumper. I still had that dirty rag pressed against my neck. The bleeding had stopped.
“I’ve decided I’m going to have to get involved,” he said to me quietly.
I just looked at him.
“Before,” he said, and it sounded like he was a bit apologetic, an impression I’ve never gotten from him about anything. “Before, I thought I could just ride this out. Life often takes wrong turns, Gannon. There are bad spots in many people’s lives. Genocides, plagues, famines. People in this country have no knowledge of things like that, but I’ve seen chaos and destruction many times.
“Usually, I just ride these things out. I go to ground, wait until the storm passes, and then come out when it’s safe. But now, after these last weeks, and after seeing this thing here…” he trailed off for a moment, staring at the tree. “What I’m saying is that I don’t think this particular bout with chaos is going to get better by itself. I think it’s getting worse, not better. I think we are going to have to fix it, before it fixes us.”
“What do you have in mind?”
He leaned forward, but before he could tell me, Monika showed up again and put her hand on my back.
“He’s done enough. He’s done today,” she told the Captain coldly.
He raised his eyebrows at her and smiled. “Indeed. I see how it is. Well, we’ll talk again later, Gannon.”
He walked off to help the others with the wreckage.
“I don’t like that one,” said Monika.
“He’s okay,” I told her. But quietly, to myself, I wondered if she was right. And I wondered what he had in mind.
We had a long day of digging out the entrance. At the bottom of the mess Brigman waited with the infinite patience of the dead. The strange thing was that the day turned out to be beautiful, in a cold, blustery way. The sun burned off the last of the haze and there was nothing like those red bolts of alien lightning in the sky. The air off the lake was crisp and fresh, this was especially welcome as it blew the stink of the smoldering tree away to the south as we worked.
Eventually, we got Brigman out of there and got the body onto a tarp for easy transportation. Holly Nelson was with us when we pulled him out, watching closely. Her brow was deeply furrowed, but she didn’t cry, unlike a lot of the adults. I wondered again how she was going to grow up, if we got that far with life.
We dug two parallel graves for Brigman and Erik Foti. We dug the graves in the atrium that was in the center of the dentist rooms. It had always been there, a small, enclosed area surrounded with windows for the patients to gaze out into. It had been meant to look peaceful and to take one’s mind off the sound of the drill and the scratching of steel on your teeth. It doubled well as a cemetery. In Erik’s grave, all we had to drop in was some strips of bloody cloth and a set of broken headphones.
Doc Wilton mumbled a few words and then Mrs. H. told us a story or two she knew about the victims. She finished up with an ominous note.
“We lost two citizens to a single bedeviled tree, yet we are surrounded by countless thousands of trees. We must be stronger of spirit and wiser of mind to survive this trial as our ancestors survived such dark times before us. May they both rest in peace.”
We mumbled Amen, and filled in the shallow holes.
The Captain slid into a chair next to me in the cafeteria. It had been more of a break station, but we’d set up some propane stoves and a store of supplies and tables, making it the eatery we all shared. Monika was gone, and I immediately suspected that he’d waited until I was alone to come talk to me.
I sighed for a moment and nodded to him over my cup of coffee. It was all the greeting I could muster.
“Nothing takes it out of you like burying a friend,” he said in the tone of someone quoting a proverb.
I nodded again.
“Burned out?” he asked.
“It’s been a long day.”
“Going to spend another night in these walls?”
I looked at him. He seemed tense, which was normal for him. “What’d you have in mind?”
He leaned forward, close, a bit too close. I tolerated it with difficulty.
“I can’t stay here.”
“Why not?” I demanded, annoyed with him. I had almost said, “Well, go then.”
“You’ve got a traitor in your midst.”
I sucked in a heavy breath and let it out. I blinked, almost rolled my eyes. Imagine that, the Captain had a conspiracy theory. Suddenly, I found I couldn’t take this guy anymore. Today had been too much, I was beyond humoring this nut. I leaned up to his ear. “I know,” I said, “I know that little girl Holly is really one of them.”
He pulled back from me and gave me a strange look. I enjoyed it. For just a second, I was the nut with the crazy theory upsetting him. It didn’t last.
He jumped up angrily and stomped out.
“Ah, come on,” I called after him. “You’ve got to hang on to a sense of humor, man.” Even as I said it, I realized I wasn’t sure that the Captain even had a sense of humor. There had never been any evidence of it.
I watched him go and sat there a few seconds, sipping my coffee. Screw him, I thought. But after a few more moments, a sense of urgency came over me. What if he really did know something? Muttering curses, I followed him.
I found him outside, standing beside the fallen tree. I realized he had been waiting for me. He’d known I would follow. The sun had already dropped down low in the horizon, it must have been late afternoon. He poked at the tree gingerly with his M4. Wisps of smoke still rose from the trunk.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me.”
He cocked his head and stared at me for a moment. “Gannon, you and your little tribe here are doomed.”
I just stared at him, waiting for more.
“All you are doing is reacting, playing defense. It is a losing strategy in the long run. Normally, I wouldn’t care, but I don’t think I can make it through this alone.”
“So we are marginally useful to you. That’s nice. So what else should we be doing?”
He ignored my barb. “You can’t win a war without an offense. And you can’t mount an offense without intel. I’m suggesting we need to go scouting. You and me.”
I nodded. “The Preacher had the same thing in mind. We’ve been a bit busy these last few days, however. What about the other thing?”
“The traitor?” he said, nodding. “Yes…”
He walked around the tree to the midsection. He tapped the tree with the muzzle of his rifle. “I talked to a few people about what happened here, and about what else has been happening. You had three riflemen on the flyers, right? Two shots hit, one missed. They fired again, and all three shots hit, but one of them hit the tree right in the face, essentially.”
I examined the spot he was tapping at. There was a grooved streak across the blackened trunk. I suppose it could have been the spot the bullet that had awakened the creature had hit.
“That’s it? That’s all you’ve got?” I demanded. “You are suggesting it was done on purpose? Look, someone just panicked or just plain screwed the pooch and shot the tree. We aren’t pros here.”
He nodded. “I thought about that. It’s a plausible cover. But there’s something much more damning.”
“What?” I demanded.
“Have you checked out the good Doctor Wilton’s foot, lately?”
My face fell. I knew right then and there that he had me. I knew too, that no matter how this played out, it could not be good for anyone.
I didn’t want to do it, that’s what it came down to. It was like firing your favorite Auntie, but far, far worse than that. I felt like the traitor, not Wilton. I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t true, that somehow, the good lady had just been hurt, that’s why she limped. I told myself that anyone could have been depressed by the latest events, and that we shouldn’t give in to the witch-burning mentality. Then, of course, I had to wonder… Had they been burning real witches in Salem? Had they done it all not out of hysteria, but out of reasoned desperation? History had always been unkind to people in our situation. We were brutes, performing great evils by misplacing our fears.
The Captain was watching me coldly. I’m sure he knew my thoughts, but seemed to have no compassion for them. What had he done in his own dark past to be so cool now? Had he dragged half-sleeping men out of their tents in the night and executed them in the blowing sands of some forsaken desert? Had all feelings of guilt been burned out of his soul long since? I didn’t know, but I did know, as he watched me, that nothing I did would surprise him.
“Why aren’t you urging me to drag her out here and yank her boots off and cut her down if she’s hiding something in there?”
The Captain shrugged. “This is your show. You invited me here. It’s your play, kid.”
I looked at him, not sure if I should feel better or worse. “What if I decide to do nothing?”
He shook his head. “You won’t be able to do that. You’re a man of action. It will drive you nuts.”
That was true enough. Just thinking about it for five minutes had left me torn up inside and I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep without resolving this. Without knowing.
“What do you think the others will do?”
The Captain lit a cigarette. As far as I knew, he was the last smoker in Indiana, unless you counted Monika, who had only smoked once since I’d met her. “I don’t know. Most of them will follow your lead, whatever you do. But some, they might just go for her. Like that Mrs. Hatchell. There’s cold steel in that woman’s eyes.”
“What should we do with her, assuming it’s true? We should know ahead of time how we are going to handle it.”
He nodded. “Good thinking. As I see it there are three choices. You put a bullet in her head, or you exile her, or…”
“Or, maybe, since most of her is human, you chop off the offending piece.”
I snorted and shook my head. “I’m not going to start chopping parts off of people.”
“Well, from our point of view, it’s the best way.”
“And why is that?” I demanded.
“We need her. She’s our medical personnel, all of them wrapped in one package. The only way the others will accept her-and this is a maybe-is if she’s minus whatever is in that boot of hers.”
I actually thought about it for a minute before shaking my head. “I just can’t see it. It’s insane.”
He shrugged. “So which of the other two choices do you prefer?”
“We aren’t sure that she’s done anything. So we can’t just kill her.”
The Captain nodded. “Banishment then. Like I said, it’s your show.” He tossed his cigarette down and crushed it with his boot into the parking lot, making a tiny fresh black spot.
I realized then that it was time to go inside and actually do this crazy thing. I wondered if she would show us willingly, or if we would have to grab her. I turned to the Captain before we went in and stopped him.
“What would you choose?”
He looked at me for a second. “You really want to know?
“I’d chain her to her office chair, lop her foot off with that saber of yours and then let it ride, to see if she returned to normal. If nothing else, we’d learn something.”
I shook my head and forced open our makeshift door. We’d cut it out of plywood and it didn’t really fit the half-demolished entry way.
Grim-faced, I entered the lobby. The Captain followed me like a headsman following his lord. I wondered which of us was the wise man and which of us was mad.
We did it privately, in her office. She had a drowned-cat look on her face when we both marched in there, looking very serious. I think she knew right away, but she played it straight.
“What’s the matter, boys? Not another storm.”
“No Doc,” I said quietly. I put my saber on the conference table between us. The Captain closed the door quietly behind us and stood there. Wilton’s eyes flicked over each of these significant elements of the scene.
“Well, something is up. Just tell me,” she said, and she almost snapped it, suddenly irritable.
I gestured brusquely toward her leg. “What happened to your foot, Doc? Some kind of accident?”
She crossed her arms, but otherwise didn’t move. She glared at both of us. “Yes, obviously.”
I nodded and took a step closer. “Been noticing that limp of yours.”
“There has got to be more to this dramatic show than that.”
I pinched my lips up tightly and looked at her. “We have to know, Doc. We have to see it.”
She nodded once, curtly, and sat down. “So that’s it.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her.
She took up her annotated book again and paged through it rapidly. “May I read you a passage?”
I glanced back at the Captain, but he just watched us both with dark eyes. He gave no hint as to what I should do.
The Nisses of Norway, we are told, are fond of the moonlight, and in the winter time they may be seen jumping over the yard, or driving in sledges. They are also skilled in music and dancing, and will, it is said, give instructions on the fiddle for a grey sheep, like the Swedish Stromkarl.
Every church, too, has its Nis, who looks to order, and chastises those who misbehave themselves. He is called the Kirkegrim.
She closed the book and looked at us triumphantly. I could see she believed she had made some critical point. We stared back flatly.
“Dr. Grimm wrote that-you know,” her voice took on a note of desperation, “the German fellow who spent so much time compiling all the old folklore of Europe.”
“That’s a nice piece, Doctor, but I’m not quite sure what it has to do with-”
“Don’t you see? They aren’t all evil! There are good ones-and bad ones. All of the histories of these creatures that have returned to us during these dark times are filled with stories of both good and evil. Think of the angels of the Bible, the elves that helped the farmers…”
“Okay, I get it. And your point is well taken. Notice, we are in here without the rest of them. We have not told any of the others. We don’t plan to do you harm.”
“What do you plan, then?”
I told her that we had chosen exile. I even discussed the other possibilities with her, which we had rejected.
“Logical,” she said. “Flawlessly logical… Except that I’m not a threat!”
I shook my head. “I don’t think we can take the chance. We’d be remiss in our responsibilities. There have been so many mistakes already.”
“And you are making another one! But very well, I’ll go then. I’ll take a lantern and a bag of food, if you will allow me that!”
“Of course,” I said.
Without further ceremony, she pushed past me and made for the door. Her limp seemed more pronounced than ever. She walked with a peculiar gait, as if one leg was shorter than the other.
She came close to the Captain, who didn’t budge from his position in front of the door. The Captain gave me a look with raised eyebrows.
I sighed. “We have to see it, Wilton.”
She whirled on me and stood there, clutching her lantern. Her hands trembled. “Why?” she asked, her voice almost pleading.
“I have to see something. We have to know.”
She paused a moment, her eyes pleading with both of us. She saw no mercy in them. With laborious slowness, she bent down and pushed at her boot. The boot seemed too small or her foot too thick. I could tell as she pushed it off that it pained her.
“You should have let me shoot myself, Gannon,” she said, her voice almost a whisper, “when I had the courage.”
Somehow I was surprised when I saw it, even though I should not have been. There, at the end of her leg, thick course hair sprouted in a mix of brown and white about half way down her calf. At the terminus, where there should have been a foot, there was now a gray hoof.
The hoof was cloven and had three thick points to it.
Wilton got her boot jammed back on and gathered up the lantern and a paper sack of canned goods as we’d promised her. It was dusk when we got outside. I thought about offering her to stay the night, but it seemed like a mistake. I knew somehow it would be that much harder to get this over with in the morning.
We almost got her out the door without anyone noticing. Vance, of course, being blessed with a prairie dog’s acuity of senses, knew something was up and appeared suspiciously to waylay us.
“Where’s the Doc going?” Vance asked as we helped the old lady with a limp out the front door.
“She’s going,” I said simply. I took hold of one of Wilton’s elbows to guide her over the rubble, but she shook me off and tottered out into the parking lot on her own.
“What do you mean she’s going?” Vance demanded very loudly. A few other heads poked out into the lobby to see what was going on.
Carlene Mitts was among them. Her face was stitched in worry. She went outside and accosted Doctor Wilton in the parking lot.
“I don’t know what’s going on, Doc,” she said, “But I’m worried about my little Nancy. She cried all last night because she’s getting sick. She’s got a cough.”
“Children get sick all the time, she’ll be fine.”
“She’s got a fever.”
There was kindness in Wilton when she turned to her. I saw it in her eyes and it made me feel guilty.
“Take the antibiotic marked amoxicillin,” Wilton told her. “A red plastic bottle you’ll find in the dentist office. They always keep a supply on hand for people who get root canals. She’s not allergic to penicillin derivatives, is she?”
Carlene shook her head, “I don’t know, I don’t think so.”
“Good, open up the capsules and mix them into her juice. One half a capsule three times a day should do it. Don’t overdose her, she’ll get diarrhea. If she gets hives, stop feeding it to her and give her an antihistamine.”
“Doctor, why are you leaving?” Carlene asked. “This is your office now, for crying out loud. We are all your guests, really. Maybe it is all of us who should leave.”
“I can’t stay, my dear. This place is only for the pure,” she said with a dark venomous glance at me.
More people were coming out now. Holly Nelson was there, and Monika. Even Mr. Nelson had managed to get his wheelchair to the entrance and gazed out at the drama unfolding in the parking lot. News travels fast in a small village.
“This is crazy,” said Vance, putting up his hands to beseech us all to come to our senses. “Whatever the fight was about, we can get over it. There’s no need to break up now. We can put it together, trust me.”
“You don’t understand, Vance,” I told him. I tried to catch his eye and signal to him to shut up. As usual, this had no effect.
“Don’t understand? Oh, I think I understand. You guys are pissed at each other because we’ve had some rough times and just buried two of our people in an atrium.”
Mrs. Hatchell showed up then, and I groaned inwardly. She nodded in smug, full knowledge of the situation. She believed she’d taken it all in with one instant glance.
“Everyone,” she began, “I’m sure mistakes were made, but I’m even more certain that you people are all having a good time with your pissing contest. We however, the lowly citizens such as Mrs. Mitts and I, have an unfortunate need of all of you. It’s time for everyone to get over this and play nice.”
I rubbed my face and sighed. My fantasy of a quiet resolution had exploded in my face. I noticed the Captain seemed disinterested in the whole affair. He was over at the tree again, toeing it and poking it with his rifle.
Wilton glared at each of us in turn, but saved her last look for Vance. “Just can’t let anything go, can you boy?”
Vance blinked, surprised at the attack.
“I’m going to set up house at my old pharmacy down on frontage road, the one near the beach. If you need something, come look me up there and I’ll see what I can do for you. Some of you might even want to join me, as time goes on,” she added with a dark grin, as if speaking of a private joke.
Carlene pleaded with her one last time. “But why, Doc?”
It took her a couple of grunting attempts, but she managed to kick off her boot. There was no foot holding it there, and I imagine it had been close to sliding off all the time anyway.
Everyone recoiled in horror to see her hoof, which looked all the more odd in the open light of day. There were gasps and cries and sobs from the crowd.
“She’s one of them.”
This last came from Jimmy Vanton. Wilton spun on her hoof to face him. The new appendage seemed to serve quite well for this pivoting maneuver.
“That’s almost right,” she told Vanton. “I’ve been touched by the shift, it’s true. But we all have. Some of you know it, some of you will learn it soon. We’re all going to change, at least a little.”
With that, she turned and left us. No one tried to stop her now. No one argued. She walked slowly across the parking lot, we watched her odd, hobbling gait until only her lantern was visible down the street.
I watched until finally she turned a corner and even the lantern winked out. What was it that the Preacher had called her kind? Shadows, my mind answered back.
The night closed over us, and we went back inside.
Vance was on me as soon as we had a spare moment alone. “You let her just leave?” he demanded incredulously.
“You’re the one who thought I was crazy to push her out.”
“Yeah, sure, but that was before I knew she was the guy with the hooves! What the hell was she doing out at that wreck, and at our cabin that night?”
I shook my head. “Wasn’t her.”
“You’re sure? That looked like the perfect shape to make that track.”
“Yes, but she has one normal foot still. She couldn’t have made the tracks at the cabin. You saw the tracks. There were clearly two hooves.”
“So there is something else out there with a hoof like that? With both of them like that?”
“Right. I’m not sure what, but something. Another shadow like Wilton, but further gone.”
Vance frowned and tapped at his temples. “So was Wilton a traitor or not? Did she shoot the tree on purpose? Did she get Brigman killed?”
“I don’t know. Couldn’t be sure, so I tossed her out. Otherwise…”
“Otherwise you would have killed her,” finished Vance.
“I don’t know. I’m sure we would have to have a group vote for that. A trial or something.”
Vance nodded. “I guess you did the right thing. We can’t trust her, but we really don’t know how much of a danger she is. But sending her out there at night. Isn’t that almost like killing her?”
“Maybe, but she’s got a chance, this way.”
When I went back inside, I found that most of the others avoided my gaze. It was as if, by discovering Wilton’s hoof, I’d somehow made it happen. No one had wanted to see her go.
Only Holly Nelson came to seek me out. Her dark serious eyes latched onto mine. I saw that in her hand she had a hunting knife she’d picked up somewhere, a move up from the screwdriver. I’d never seen her without a weapon in her hand since that day when the flying things had caught us.
“Gannon,” she said, “you did the right thing. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.”
I thanked her and headed to bed for another night. When I opened up the room, I did it as quietly as I could, just in case Monika was already asleep. I blinked in the gloom and realized she wasn’t there. I felt a familiar pain in the pit of my stomach. All of a sudden, it hit me. I’d probably blown it with her. She’d had a very strange look on her face when I’d banished the Doctor. She probably thought I was a fool, and perhaps she was right. Vance was really going to laugh at me. I’d been sleeping in the same room with the last cute girl in town and had gotten nothing but some tender kisses and light touches. Every time I’d reached for more, she had stopped me by putting her hand over mine, firmly. I sank down to sit on my cot and sighed.
I almost got up and went looking for her, but stopped myself. If I found her with Vance or someone else, there was going to be a scene, and we hadn’t made any commitments to each other yet. We’d only just met, really. She was a free woman who could do as she pleased. At least, so far she was. I had dark possessive thoughts and told myself that if she had left, then she wasn’t worth the trouble of hunting down.
I found a bottle of wine I’d been saving for a night like this one. I uncorked it, and had drained about half of it when the door quietly opened. It was Monika. She had on a long dark coat. She smiled and I returned it. I liked her smiles, they were rare, and weren’t wide toothy grins like the American girls I’d known. They were different and sweet, those shy smiles.
I must have had a look of comic surprise on my face, because she laughed softly, and stepped forward to touch my shoulders. She read the situation perfectly.
“You thought I left you?” she asked.
She touched my nose as one might a child and shook her head. “No, not yet,” she said, smiling again. After a second I realized she was joking and grabbed her and pulled her down to sit on my lap. She laughed again.
She didn’t have much on under that coat, I soon learned. I didn’t get everything a man might want that night, but she was soft and warm and I liked what I did get very much.
That night I sweated and dreamt that Monika and Vance changed into wet tentacled monsters but with their natural heads. I cut them apart while the Captain watched and gave me dispassionate pointers. Then I found my own tentacles, and I cut them away too…
I awakened, sucking air like a drowning man. My stomach was a knot and my heart was pounding. Monika murmured and I had to slide my arm out from under her neck delicately. It was tingling and half-asleep. I shook blood into it in the dark and pulled my boots on.
I stumbled out into the hall, strapping on my saber and checking my.45; the clip was full. I left the safety on. I was sure it was nothing but a dream, but these days I was determined not to ignore my instincts. In the hallway, I was surprised to see that dawn was a blue glow in the sky outside. Soon, the sun would rise out of the trees to the east. Sleeping in rooms with the windows blocked out made one lose track of nature’s alarm clocks. I found the Captain alone in the lobby.
He nodded appreciatively when he saw me. “Long day, hot night with that little girl of yours and you’re still up before dawn. You make a sharp troop, Gannon.”
I frowned at him, wondering what he knew about Monika. He ignored me, so I rubbed my eyes and groped for coffee.
“Good time to make plans,” said the Captain, “the cold morning air clears the head.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Nick Hackler brought word about the Preacher.”
I perked up. “What word?”
“Some kind of trouble. He said there were gunshots up there yesterday, after the storm. He heard them. No one else is up on that hill.”
I sat back, thinking hard. “We have to go check it out. One way or the other.”
“One way or the other,” he agreed while having a quiet morning cigarette. The drifting smoke made me want to cough, but I put up with it in silence. I wondered how many years it had been since a cigarette had been quietly smoked in that lobby. Probably thirty, maybe forty or more. Now, no one was likely to come and demand he put it out. Times had changed.
I got out the map that the Preacher had given me. I pondered it. There was a shift line on it, a blue one, across our path to his cabin. I showed it to the Captain. He showed me his teeth in return.
“I’m beginning to like your aggressive style,” he said to me. “More balls than brains and it’s gotten you quite a ways. What do you want to do, sneak around it or bull our way through?”
I looked at him and at the map. “There are some fair-sized caves up there, really close to that spot. I used to play in them as a kid.”
He nodded, looking at it. Monroe county was famous for its limestone caves. In Kentucky, to the south, every farmer seemed to have a cave on his property and that he tried to charge tourists a few bucks to see. Every year in elementary school they gave the kids long-winded speeches about staying out of those dangerous caves. Of course, a country boy like me who had grown up in these hills had often ignored the warnings.
“What if we could find a way through the caves that went under that line?” I speculated.
“Let me guess, you want to try out the cave idea.”
“We can’t just leave him up there. I might as well try out his theory. Maybe he’s dead up there, maybe not. Either way I want to do the last thing he asked me to.”
He nodded and leaned back. “Okay, I’m in, but if you turn into a fanged aardvark, I’m going to blow you away. Fair warning?”
“Fair enough, and the same goes for you.”
He grinned again darkly and nodded. I could tell by his grin he didn’t think I would be able to take him under any circumstances.
Vance didn’t think it was such a good idea when I bounced it off him. “Let me get this straight, you know where the change happens, so you are going to seek out this fantastic danger to your very soul. You’ll go there, down in a cave for crying out loud, with a psycho to cover your back.”
“The idea is to see if the cave prevents the effect. I think I can sense the effect now. I think I’ll know if I’m close to the danger point.”
“Gannon, did you ever read any stories about supernatural monsters and stuff? Did you skip that part of youth? Did you ever notice that they like caves? That monsters tend to hang out there in stories? When did you ever read a story where the cave was a good, happy place?”
The Captain appeared, “I, the psycho, agree with your ravings, boy.”
We both reddened. It was hard to keep a secret even if you whispered in this place.
“Here’s a new tactical plan,” he went on, undisturbed. “I’ll be the control on this little experiment of yours. I’ll take the long way around the blue line on the map, going about a mile or so out and swinging around to the cabin from the south. You two ladies will do the cave thing. It should slow you down enough that we should make it at about the same time. If we make it at all, that is.”
“I don’t want to go through the cave!” blurted Vance.
“No problem,” said the Captain with a grin. “I think we have a replacement for you right here.”
“I’ll go,” said Monika. She had been listening in the hallway and came out now. Her hair was tousled and she still wore that dark coat she had come to me in last night. In her hand, casually, she held that.32 pistol I’d given her. “I want to go with you, Gannon.”
It was nearly noon by the time we found the cave mouth. During the trip, I kept noticing the Captain’s eyes crawling over Monika. It was more than just a few appreciative glances-I would have expected that from any guy. I recalled a bearded vagrant I’d seen on a subway in Chicago, his eyes had worked over every woman on the train. They’d been hungry eyes, and he’d ridden the subway for hours, like he lived on it. The Captain’s eyes were like that.
His stubble had been coming in further every day, few of us bothered to shave anymore, and there was plenty of white in his beard. I bet it had been a long time since he had been with a young sweet girl like Monika. Maybe he never had, not in his whole life. I bet he’d been frequenting backstreet whores for years up in Bloomington or down in Louisville on the weekends. That was more his speed.
I shook my head, trying to clear away such thoughts. I reminded myself that he’d killed the thing that had killed my dad and half the town along with him, and then there had been the matter of removing a thirty-foot tree-monster’s arm just yesterday. I owed him for that, we all did. But he did give off a strange feeling to us more homey types. I imagined vague suspicion had always been the reward others gave to real warriors, real killers. Everyone needed them when the chips were down, but we had a hard time trusting them completely. Especially the spooky ones like the Captain.
“Okay, I guess we split up here,” I said.
The Captain glanced at me, and then his eyes swung back to latch onto Monika. He stood there staring, leering really. I guessed he was waiting for us to enter the cave. I almost turned my back on him, but I had a dark thought, just then. He had that rifle. What if he just blew me away, had his way with Monika, and then headed back after dark with some story about us turning into werewolves? Maybe he figured we were crazy and doomed by going down there anyway. Maybe in his thoughts he was figuring he might as well finish us now, instead of waiting for us to come back and stalk him in the woods after we had changed. Who would ever know the difference? What policeman would come out and dig up the truth? There weren’t any police anymore. We were our own law.
For an awkward moment I stood there, all of us watching each other, and I didn’t know how to move things forward. Monika had big eyes. I wondered if she knew what I was thinking. She was pretty perceptive. If she was tracking my thoughts, she was playing it cool. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and I knew she had her pistol there. Maybe she had her hand on it with a white-knuckled grip, or maybe she didn’t. I didn’t think an American girl could have kept quiet at a moment like that, if she was having those thoughts. But this girl was different, more serious.
I opened my mouth, and then closed it again. I thought hard for one more second, and then I had it.
“Hey, I wanted to thank you.”
He startled and looked vaguely surprised.
“For yesterday, and for back when you got that meter man, the one that got my dad.” I said, speaking honestly. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for that. I owe you one, James.”
He looked at me for a moment, and I saw a change come over his face. “You’re welcome,” he said evenly.
I nodded and we parted ways. Monika and I went into the cave, while the Captain took his overland path. I wasn’t sure if had any reason to be, but I felt relieved to get into that cool, dark cave mouth.
When Monika and I were down in the dark hole I lifted the lantern and turned it up. She looked up into my face seriously. I opened her pocket and gently pulled her hand out of her coat. It was wrapped around the pistol grip, just as I had suspected.
“You were worried?” I asked in a whisper.
She nodded. Her lower lip quivered, and I thought for a second she might break down, but she didn’t.
“I had strange thoughts from him,” she said. I had noticed that her English became a little worse in stressful moments.
“He often gives people that feeling. He’s not a completely normal man. He fought in many wars. Bad wars.”
She looked at me in sudden understanding and nodded. I wondered what kind of soldiers she might have met in Eastern Europe. Russian veterans of Chechnya, perhaps?
“I think he is okay, he just worries people, especially now that the world is so different.”
“Okay,” she said, I could see her pulling herself together. “Let’s find the way out.”
“Do you like caves?” I asked.
“I don’t know. This is my first cave.”
I grunted as I got down on my hands and knees. “It opens up further down. There are some big rooms below us.”
She followed me as we wormed our way down into the earth. The cave had all the familiar smells I recalled from my teen years when I’d spent quite a bit of time in them. It smelled like fresh dirt and a dozen hinted-at flavors of old dung. The air was very cool and still. I’d only been in this cave a few times, but I remembered it had several exits. To get to them you had to work your way down a few twisting shafts, one that was steep, like a chimney, and then you would be in the big rooms. There were water pools down there and big rock formations, one of which looked like a petrified pipe organ.
Getting down the chimney was the hardest part. It seemed smaller than it had years ago, and I had a lantern instead of a strap-on headlight this time. The lantern clanked and scraped on the walls as I toted it down. I wondered what the hell I would do if I broke it down here. We’d brought flashlights, but of course they didn’t work. They were just dead weights in our pockets now, relics from a forgotten era.
“I wonder how long it will be before we forget about flashlights,” I mused aloud, straining as I lowered Monika down to the floor of the first big chamber.
“What do you mean?”
“If they never work again, years from now people might even forget their original purpose. They might think things like that were some kind of bizarre religious icon.”
Monika looked up at me when she had her feet planted firmly. She wore an expression of bewilderment mixed with a touch of fear. I worked at getting myself out of the chimney and down to the floor of the cave.
I shook my head, “Never mind, a silly thought.”
“No, no,” said a strange voice in the darkness of the cave. It wasn’t Monika, it wasn’t anyone we knew. In fact, the voice wasn’t even human. “Pray thee continue, it is a good question, a deep question, one the earth can answer.”
The voice was high-pitched and querulous, and upon hearing it, my mind conjured an image of a shirtless, skinny old man with every one of his stacked ribs showing between his sunken belly and knobby shoulders.
I fell out of the chimney and almost broke the lantern.
“Come out!” Monika demanded, while I struggled to get to my feet. Monika had her pistol out, and her face was all stretched white skin and gray streaks of dirt.
We saw no one. The chamber was big and still. There was a large black pool in the middle of it and at the far end of the pool was the formation that looked like a pipe organ. The room was perhaps a hundred feet in length and our ring of lantern light didn’t reach that far into the gloom.
“Come on, speak up, we mean you no harm,” I called out.
At that, we got a dusty chuckle. “So good of you to worry about my well-being, child.”
I took a step forward, holding up the lantern and peering. Was there something at the far end of the cave, or was that just a shadow? I thought about pulling out my saber, but this sort of encounter was why we had come here, to find out more about these lines on the map where the shifting occurred.
“Do you have a moment to speak?” I asked. I was sure now that I spoke with some kind of changeling, as I had that time on the lakeshore.
“A moment?” cried the voice. “Nay, no one has a moment to spare! But a century, yes, that I have.”
“That sounds a bit long for me, changeling. I only want to ask a few questions and we’ll be on our way. Reveal yourself.”
“Questions?” it all but screamed the word. “Have the fates placed me here in this dank hole only to educate wanderling mooncalves?”
Monika and I eyed one another. This thing, whatever it was, seemed less than sane.
“You’ve only been down here a few weeks, or months at the most,” I said, trying to keep it talking while I strained to pick it out in the dark abyss. “The shifting changed you from human to whatever you are now. Perhaps you didn’t know that. The Preacher calls your kind shadows, humans who’ve lost their humanity, but he still holds out hope for you to return to us, to return to our kind.”
“We would wish you to come back to us,” said Monika.
There was another raspy sound of grim amusement. “You know so little of what you speak, children. But I’ll answer three questions, two of which you’ve already asked.”
“What-” I began, but Monika put her hand on my arm, I glanced at her and followed her pointing finger. There it was, the thing that spoke to us, sitting on a knobby formation that looked like a brown beehive made of stone. It sat in the middle of the pool. I couldn’t make out much more than its generally humanoid shape, but it was small, much smaller than a man.
“Firstly, mortal fools will of course forget the meaning of your torch-of-the-hand. It will no longer function, and so its purpose will be forgotten and turn into a vague legend, as did the true purpose of witch-hazel and belladonna and a cross hammered from single chunk of iron.”
I took a few quiet steps forward along the lip of the black pool. I could see the elf now, and yes, my mind told me, that’s what it was. It was sitting but could not have been more than two feet tall if it stood.
“Secondly,” the creature continued, ticking off my questions on its fingers. “You asked if I have a moment to spare. I will tell you that some of us-changelings as you say-have always been here, but we’ve slept for centuries, as the leaves sleep within the trees waiting for spring. One of your kind has provided me the flesh needed to take my ancient form, but I was here long before your grandfather was whelped out of a screaming farmer’s wife and long before his grandfather did the same.”
I stopped now, about twenty feet from it. The thing watched us and I thought I could see a glitter in its tiny eyes reflected in the lantern light. “You’re saying I get one more question then-”
I sensed its glee and hurried, “-No, wait, don’t answer that, it was a statement, not a question.”
It made a hissing, sucking sound of disappointment. “Ask then, child.”
“What was the thing I met on the lakeshore?” I blurted. It wasn’t the smartest thing to ask, I’m sure, but it was what I wanted to know most at that moment.
“Ahhh,” it said, somehow sighing out the sound in a long single syllable, the way a snake might sigh in contentment when the rat is finally a twitching lump within its swollen belly. “Something useful has not been gotten out of Malkin of the Elfkin in a very long time. As a fitting reward, I’ll reveal myself, as you have previously requested.”
Malkin of the Elfkin. I filed away this bit of information. I imagine in other times Malkin might have been called a troll, or a goblin or a pixie or any of a thousand other names in a thousand other places. I supposed it had only been a matter of time until one of his type showed up. He got up from his perch then, and hopped toward us across the water. He seemed to splash only lightly into the inky pool with each step. I wondered if there were stones down there just below the surface or if this creature was so impossibly weightless as to be able to run over the water like a skittering insect.
He paused only five feet from us. I lifted the lantern a bit, bent forward and peered at him curiously. Monika knelt beside me, putting one knee on the lip of the rocky pool. Malkin had a thin face with sharp features; the nose was like a blade and the chin tapered to a point. Across his face stretched an overly large mouth, which flashed us with a leering, humorless grin. Monika and I examined his clothing in wonder. His pointed boots and his russet-brown coat seemed to be made of a light leather. All the clothing seemed sewn with impossibly fine workmanship, each stitch smaller than any human tailor could produce. The elf leered at us and rested his overlarge hands on his bent knees. He stood in the pool, but was clearly perched upon a stone or something just below the water.
He gazed back at us with as much curiosity as we had about him. “Strong is your will and your luck to resist this time of upheaval! But don’t trust to luck forever, younglings.”
“How can you stand on the water?” asked Monika.
Malkin clucked his tongue at her. “Such a crude attempt! One would normally secure the third cake before stealing another.”
Monika blinked at him. I snorted in amusement, but between her English skills and his odd approach to speech she didn’t comprehend him.
“You asked about the Hag,” said Malkin, leaning forward with his hands on his knees. He watched us, and I thought he displayed almost as much curiosity as we had for him. “For that is what she was. The creature that you met on the lakeshore. She resides in the lake now, and she is the thing that summons others into her new home, which your people have all but forgotten already. She summons and guides a new people in the name of the hoofed ones.”
Monika and I opened our mouths simultaneously, bubbling with more questions. Hag? I thought, chewing over the term. I thought the Doctor or the Preacher had mentioned such a thing. A type of powerful witch, as I recalled.
Malkin stilled our further questions with a wave of his tiny hands. He peered up at us with eyes like black beads.
“You don’t have to answer more questions,” I said. “But maybe we could call you a friend?”
Malkin’s face grew sad then, and I saw hair-thin lines there in his face that revealed his fantastic age. I wondered how long he had truly been in this cave, or perhaps others like it. He shook his head slowly.
“Ever it is so with your folk,” he sighed. “Ever would you mistake the slightest aid for friendship. True friendship is something which must be earned and which is never given. So big your kind grows, yet still you bear the minds of children.”
He turned directly to Monika and almost whispered to her, bending forward as you might when speaking to a child. “Your question will be answered, but perhaps not in a manner to your liking. Gaze at my feet, child.”
He made a little shuffling motion with his feet. Something dark swirled there, over his wet boots. I realized he was standing on something that moved and rolled a bit in the water and I lifted up the lantern and craned out to see what it was.
Monika realized what we were looking at first. She gasped and pulled back in horror. I squinted, and then I saw it. The dark substance moving over Malkin’s feet was someone’s hair, and the stone he was standing upon was a face-a head, to be more exact. I thought I recognized the head of Mrs. Krenzer. After we’d slain the three spiders her daughters had turned into I’d wondered what had become of her. The whole cave seemed to brighten up then, and I watched the elf raise his arms up slowly over his head, chasing the gloom somehow from the cave, or perhaps from our eyes.
The black pool was black no longer, and in it must have lolled a dozen human heads. Dead eyes like boiled eggs sat in fish-nibbled skulls. Dark hair wafted over slack jaws and silver or gold hoops glinted in the pale rubbery ears of some of the women.
I stared in disbelief at Malkin for a moment. He wore a very strange, intense expression. Not triumph, exactly, but something like it. I had the feeling he was as curious about us as we were about him. He wanted to see and feel what we did, to live through our shock and grief by observing our reactions.
“I would grieve with thee, but grief is not in my mix. It would not work, just as spreading sugar upon a stone would not make it taste sweet.”
I drew my saber and slashed at him in one smooth motion. He seemed only mildly surprised and bounded away to splash down upon another head. As I stumbled into the pool after him, I found it was less than a foot deep. I slashed and cut the air where he had just been. He leapt about like a maddened frog and long before I could catch up he had bounded to the spot where we had first entered the cavern.
“My trophies are not of those I’ve slain myself, but merely collected. Elfkin are neither your friends nor you foes, children. But beware the Hag.”
Monika squeezed off a shot at him, missing by a foot or two. The booming report was deafening in the enclosed space. He waggled a finger at her, then leapt up the chimney we’d come down in a single great bound. He was gone.
I looked at the heads in the black pool. I wondered how they had gotten here, and how we had avoided their fate. Perhaps it was as the Doctor said: perhaps we were the last and the strongest, most resistant ones. I thought of gathering the heads and taking them back up for a proper burial and a service. Instead, I mumbled a few words over the dead, and prayed they would not be forgotten, even though I knew they would be.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Monika in a husky voice.
We worked our way deeper into the cave and an odd feeling came over me. It was as if something pressed against my face and hands, and entire body. I leaned into it, like a stiff wind. But there was no wind, there was nothing you could see. Still the barrier was there.
“I feel something, Gannon,” said Monika behind me. She was frightened.
The tunnel narrowed as it went upward. Soon we were reduced to crawling. Side passages went off in every direction, but I kept heading in the direction of a faint puff of fresh air I could feel. It was cold moist air, and I could tell it was from the surface.
Malkin’s voice came to us again, from behind us somewhere in the dark. There was no way to tell where he was, he could have been in any of these side passages.
“You have not melted. You are very young and very strong,” he said.
I crawled forward, reaching back my hand and half-dragging Monika after me. The barrier I felt but could not see slipped away and I managed another ten feet of progress before I felt it again, stronger this time. It was as if a huge plastic ball of water rolled up against me, crushing me softly down.
I pressed against it. Monika was a dead weight behind me, but I clung to her hand. I kept moving forward, one inch at a time. I knew now what we faced. This must be the shiftline. This was what it felt like to cross one.
“You intrigue me,” came Malkin’s voice again. “I shall let you pass.”
Suddenly the barrier was gone. I fell forward and my chin dug into loose debris at the bottom of the tunnel.
Monika cried quietly, but she needed no further urging. Grim-faced and barely speaking, we found our way to the far end of the cavern. Sometime later, tired and panting, we wriggled our way out into the fresh breeze again, like two fugitives from the grave.
We made it to the surface and beat the gray dust out of our hair. The sky had turned cloudy and the morning sunshine was gone. There should have been plenty of hours before sunset still, I was sure of it. We’d only been down in that cave for maybe two hours, probably less. But still, my feeling from the skies around us was that it was nearing dusk.
“I didn’t like it,” said Monika suddenly.
I looked at her, “What?”
“I didn’t like the cave. You asked me before.”
Her face was so pitiful then. She looked young and lost. She was so far from home. I put my arm around her and kissed her dusty forehead. “Well, I was glad to have you with me,” I told her.
We headed up the hill toward the Reverend John Thomas’ cabin. I hoped, that after all this, he would be there. It could still be a very bad day if we found him torn apart, or if he had shifted. I also wondered vaguely what the Captain was up to. I thought he would make it, and would probably beat us up here.
We made it to the cabin without further mishap. We stood in the cover of the trees, looking out over the bald hilltop, listening. Nothing seemed wrong. Nothing stirred at all. There were a few crows on the eaves, no doubt attracted by the makeshift graveyard with crosses made of wooden sticks. I counted thirteen graves there, two more than the last time I’d been up here. It seemed like a lot of the wandering, lost ones were attracted to this spot.
“What do we wait for?” whispered Monika.
“I don’t see anyone, but the Captain might be waiting and watching too.”
After twenty minutes of watching a quiet scene, I finally decided the hell with it, and walked out into the open, approaching the cabin. The crows lifted off only when I was in spitting distance and lazily flapped away, cawing at me reproachfully. I tapped at the door, which stood ajar. There was no response, so I entered.
There were no bodies or other horrors inside. I breathed out a sigh of relief. There were, however, two notes. Each was held down by a stone on the desktop. The first one I read was from the Captain. It said:
I waited a full day. I doubt you have survived, but in case, I’m writing this. I think he’s right. I’m going to investigate the strange phenomenon he mentions in the note. Possibly, I’ll even find him there.
— Captain Ryerson
I stared at the note for a bit and chewed my lip. One thing about it kept beating in my head, pulsating in my brain: I waited a full day. I knew just by looking around that he had sat right here. I counted sixteen cigarettes butts lined up on the desktop, each smoked down to the yellow filter. The Preacher never smoked. I didn’t know how it had happened, but we had spent a long time down in that cave. Had we been under some kind of spell down there? Had we been inside a shiftline, where perhaps, time ran differently? I didn’t know, but the implications made me feel queasy.
“That thing,” said Monika, reading the note carefully. “That thing in the cave did something. It was a skritek. An elf.”
“Sometimes, they make you think a day was an hour. Or that a century was a year. My grandparents believed in them. Perhaps there were some still around, when they were children.”
“Yes,” I said, realizing with a mild shock that I now believed something I’d thought impossible only this morning. Why I would still place anything in that rarified category of impossible after what I had seen over these past weeks defied logic, of course. But one must cling to physical laws as one clings to sanity itself.
There was one thing I refused to think about. What if it had been more than a day? What if it had been a week-or a year, or-? But I clamped down on that monkey, I caged it up and bound and gagged it. Gibbering and with eyes full of madness, it was a thought that could not even be considered. It had been a day, I told myself, and only a day, and it was weird, but that was all it was.
I picked up the second note. It was from the Preacher.
Gannon, I know it will most likely be you who reads this. I’ve observed a phenomenon from my hilltop which you can’t see from the town. I’ve decided to go investigate. When it begins to get dark, gaze to the northwest and you will see where I’ve gone. God willing, I will join you at the center.
— John Thomas
“What do we do?” asked Monika.
“I suppose we wait until dark.”
While we waited, we found some coffee to brew up on an ancient propane stove along with a can of chili and half-empty box of very stale crackers. We scraped chili onto the crackers. It actually tasted pretty good. As we ate them, I couldn’t help but wonder if a box of crackers would last a year before turning to dust. Probably, I had to admit. But not a century.
“I would have liked your home, Gannon,” Monika told me after a time.
“Yes. It makes me think of my home. Cool air, trees, hills.”
“You mean you would have liked it more before the changes?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, I like you Monika, just the way you are.”
She flashed me a shy smile and looked back down at her food. I wondered if smiling a lot was embarrassing in her country. They must think that we all grinned all the time like fools. But TV and Hollywood and models in magazines didn’t matter anymore. They didn’t even exist anymore. The world had become a quiet, empty place. I tried to cut off that depressing line of thought.
As I finished the last of our meal, I wondered vaguely about the cave. If we had spent more than a day in that cave, wouldn’t we be hungrier afterwards? Or had time slowed down for our stomachs as well? I was hungry, but not ravenous. I tried again with a force of will to put the whole thing out of my mind.
“It’s getting dark,” Monika said in a hushed voice. I nodded and we moved out to stand on the hilltop. The planted sticks at the very crest of the hill that marked the makeshift cemetery rattled when the breeze shifted. I saw that the Preacher had gone to the effort of scratching names and dates in the crossed sticks that marked the graves. The three graves of the Krenzer children had a date of simply October. I suppose a year wasn’t necessary. If ever there was a good time to start counting years from zero again, this was it.
We watched the last trickle of sunlight die in the west. The cloud cover had broken up enough to see the sunset. It burned the sky a blazing orange that was streaked with lavender clouds. I tried not to see anything suspicious in the skies. There had been colorful sunsets before, and there was nothing strange about it. I had my arm around Monika’s shoulders and she leaned up against me.
But as the sunlight died, the strange landscape of the town laid out before us did take on an alien and sinister aspect. There was no denying that things had changed down there. The town was dark, of course. The street lights and moving headlights and twinkling stop lights you would have seen in abundance just a few months ago were all gone. Human civilization had ground to a halt, like some extinct beast of the plains. We had not gone out with a bang, but rather with a heavy sigh.
The gloom of night descended on Redmoor while we watched. Inky shadows grew from the buildings, purple and indigo and flat black. These shadows pooled together and drowned entire streets and neighborhoods, swallowing them from our view.
A few twinkling white lights were visible at the medical center. Propane lanterns, no doubt. It was so strange and lonely to be able to see only one other spot of human habitation in the middle of what had once been a bustling town.
“Look, there,” said Monika, pointing toward the east, toward the downtown district. Finally, I saw what the notes were about. In the entire downtown area, there was only one sickly yellow glow visible. It wasn’t the white shine of a lantern or the yellow twinkle of a campfire. It was an unnatural yellow glow, and it seemed to pulsate gently as we watched. It reminded me immediately of the glowing nimbus I’d seen around the hag that one night, while we walked together in the woods.
It gave me a chill to see it. I wondered if you were down there, carrying a lantern in those streets, if you would even notice the shimmering yellowy air. Would the glare of your lantern drown it out?
“What part of town is that?” she asked me.
“Downtown. The old part of town, shops and-” and then I had it. “It’s the pharmacy. It’s Wilton, I bet.” Even as I said it I was sure. It was Wilton doing only the Lord knew what. Could she have possibly changed so much that she glowed in the dark like a ghostly yellow heartbeat?
“Look, out there, too,” she said, pointing out to the west side, out in the blackness beyond the town. Another spot, much similar to the one in town, glowed and glimmered. But it was a bluish glow this time, and it was brighter.
Monika slipped her arm around me and her cheek pressed against my chest. “Isn’t that out in the forest?” she asked in a whisper. It was silly to think that whoever was there in that glowing spot would hear us from two miles or more away, but that is how it felt, seeing those lights. They made you want to crawl somewhere and hide.
“No, that spot is out in the Lake.”
I thought about the spot, and I knew in my bones where it was, but I hesitated to say it. Somehow, saying it aloud gave it power. Speaking of evil made it more real, my instincts screamed at me, but I overcame them.
“A dead town, at the bottom of the Lake. That’s the spot where the glow comes from. I bet its related to the hag that Malkin told us about. I saw her out there on the shore.”
Monika turned her face fully into my chest and she broke down then. She’d held it all day, and her tears were hot and soaked through my shirt. I ran my fingers over her hair absently, but didn’t try to coax her into stopping.
As it became darker, we could see the three locations ever more clearly by their individual lights. The medical center twinkled with burning lanterns and the other two, the town in the lake and what had to be downtown Redmoor, glimmered with unearthly fluorescence.
“What’s going on down there?” she asked, her voice muffled. “Where did the others go? Which of those lights is the one the notes are talking about? How long were we down in that cave?”
I just gave her a hug. I didn’t have any answers.
We went back inside. After our adventure with Malkin, I didn’t want to walk the woods again in the dark. We’d have to spend the night in the cabin. I found Monika looking at me with dark desperate eyes.
“How long?” she asked me.
“What?” I replied, but part of me already knew what she was asking.
She held her eye contact with me, and I couldn’t break it. “How long do you think it has been?”
“I don’t know,” I told her honestly.
“No, no,” I said quickly, “it can’t have been a year.”
“In the old stories, it was always a year and a day, or something like that.”
“It can’t have been more than a week or two, judging by the weather. I know Indiana in October, and this is October,” I argued. “If it had been a year-” but I stopped.
“If it has been a year, it would still be October, just a different October,” she finished for me.
My mouth hung open. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
Monika fell against me and I was relieved not to see the pain in her eyes anymore. “What if we are the last ones now?” she asked. “The last ones who haven’t changed yet?”
That night, in the Preacher’s cabin, Monika smoked an entire cigarette, one of her very last. And then we finally, really, made love. It wasn’t a hot and joyful thing, however. It was more of a desperate attempt to console one another. Tomorrow we would have to come down from the hill and face whatever we found there.
In the morning we made our way down into town. I felt with each step a sense of dread worse than I’d felt before facing the changelings. A changeling was of flesh and blood, and could be beaten. A vast loss of time was irreplaceable and could in no way be overcome. I couldn’t help but notice signs of time having past. The trees were beginning to lose their leaves now. Soon, there would only be a few left to hang on like the last loose teeth in an old man’s head. I noticed the roads seemed a bit more overgrown with weeds, as there was no one now to cut them. Had they looked that overgrown before I’d gone down that cave? I could not be sure. The streets in Redmoor were strewn with debris, but they had been that way after the storm, hadn’t they?
“Look,” said Monika.
I looked and we both halted. There was the center, at the end of the street. It was completely fenced, at least, as far as we could see. Chain links, arranged in a dull gray steel net, circled the parking lot. My heart sank. There was no way they could have gotten all that work done in one day.
Monika’s hand groped for mine. I took it, and together, with our stomachs in knots, we approached the medical center.
“At least, it looks like we aren’t going to be alone,” I said with a pathetic attempt at a light-hearted tone.
Vance was the first one to see us. There seemed to be a platform up against a tree behind the fence. A guard post, I supposed. He jumped down over the fence and approached with his rifle raised.
“Gannon?” he asked. I heard amazement in his voice. Monika squeezed my hand.
We got closer, and he didn’t look fat or bald or gray, that ruled out decades. I took a breath; it was the first I’d taken for awhile. Vance stopped advancing when he was maybe thirty feet from us.
“Vance, we’re back,” I said.
“Where…?” he asked, trailing off, looking from one to the other of us. “What have you been doing? We’d pretty much given up on you, I hate to say it.”
He didn’t rush up and hug us. In fact, he kept his distance. His gun wasn’t pointed at us, now, but it was at the ready. His frown told me he thought we might be shift-creatures. I realized that, in a way, he might be right.
“How long?” asked Monika, her voice quavered a bit.
“I don’t know,” said Vance. “Don’t you know? About two weeks, I would guess.”
Two weeks. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or not, but I was. I felt my chest muscles relax. I could breathe again.
“Two weeks,” I said, nodding. “Not that bad, I guess.”
Vance looked at us suspiciously and it seemed as if maybe he was embarrassed about his suspicions, but could not shake them.
“I don’t blame you for being worried, Vance,” I said. Then I told him our story. I told him about the cave and the creature Malkin that lived in it. I left out some of the details, but gave him the quick version.
He nodded, still looking uncertain. “Can I see you hands, and feet, brother?”
We showed him our extremities and they looked clean and normal. My bulbous pink toes and yellow nails had never looked so good to me.
Heaving a sigh then, he charged us and hugged us and jumped on us. He was Vance again. Even Monika smiled and it warmed my heart to see it. We all walked into the compound together.
“You smell like a monkey’s finger, Gannon,” said Vance affectionately. “How long has it been since you’ve had a bath?”
“Too long,” I said, smiling.
I gathered from talking to Vance that things had been relatively calm in my absence, allowing them to quickly build up the entire fence. He made a particular point to note that they weren’t using any more trees as fence posts. Not that the fence would actually stop one of them, if it were to come to life. Still, the fence did give you a certain sense of protection once you were inside the compound.
As we met the others inside, they had shocked reactions similar to Vance’s. Jimmy Vanton and Mrs. Hatchell in particular seemed shocked and disbelieving. I’m not sure that my return was entirely a benefit in their eyes. But Mrs. Hatchell soon warmed up, and everyone raptly listened to the longer version of my tale.
“How come these things only talk to you, Gannon?” asked Holly Nelson’s usually quiet mother, Shelly. She had hair that naturally formed a wild balloon of tight dark curls.
“We’ve all talked to one,” said Vance, speaking up in my defense. “Don’t forget the good Doctor Wilton.”
“What I want to know about are these glowing areas,” jumped in Mrs. Hatchell, never one to stay out of any conversation for long. “You say one of them is Elkinsville-absurd, but so is everything else these days. The second one though. What is behind that?”
Monika and I glanced at one another. “It is about where the pharmacy would be,” I explained.
“It’s her,” blurted out Monika, “the Doctor.” She looked shy afterwards and I could tell she was glad when no one argued the point.
“So, what the hell is she doing, burning sickly yellow incense out there?” asked Vance.
“We’ll have to find out,” I said. Everyone looked at me very intently. I realized slowly that my adventures, and even more critically, my returning unchanged from them, had raised my stature in the group. They were all looking at me to give them direction.
“And yes, I’ll do it.”
Monika didn’t look happy, but she didn’t object.
“Well,” Mrs. Hatchell said reasonably. “If one of those places is underwater, the Captain and the Preacher must have gone to the other, the one in town.”
I nodded, conceding the logic of it. The good Doctor now definitely warranted a visit. Then I thought about the Preacher and the Captain for the first time.
“You mean that neither of them has shown up?” I asked everyone. I stared at a group of blank, slowly shaking heads.
“I wonder if they could be under some spell or time-warp, or whatever, the way we were. What is the date?”
“The twenty-ninth,” said Shelly Nelson.
“Two days to Halloween. The Doctor kept talking about Halloween,” said Vance.
“Indeed she did. So no one has gone out to check on Wilton these last two weeks?”
Everyone looked a bit sheepish.
“That pharmacy is right on the other side of one of the lines on the map,” said Mrs. Hatchell. “One of the green ones. She set up camp very near a shift line, as you call them. No one wanted to go check that out, especially after your scouting party vanished.”
I nodded, understanding. “All right, I’m going to go make a social call then, first thing in the morning. Do you have any good food? We’re pretty hungry.”
Everyone jumped into setting up a good dinner. Nick Hackler cooked up some fresh barbecued chicken, stuff that had been kept on ice since the power had died, but now, even with the cold weather, it was getting gamey. We had a feast that night, knowing we had a long winter of canned goods staring us in the face.
Later, Vance and Jimmy Vanton, and even Mr. Nelson in his wheelchair came to talk to me quietly. Their eyes were haunted with shades of guilt. I did not ask them to come with me. Instead, I suggested that they all focus on gathering enough food to last the winter. They seemed relieved, every one of them.
The next morning was the day before All Hallows Eve. I remembered so many grim stories of that day, that I felt a bit of urgency. It seemed to me all too likely that something might happen on that famous festival of the dead. I could only wonder at our celebration of it, all these years since the last age of the supernatural. Like a distant race memory, we had forgotten exactly what it was that we feared, but we could still recall the fear itself.
The weather was definitely colder. In November, I knew, we would probably get our first light dustings of snow. The colder, crisp air and the white frost that lay upon the morning grass gave me pause. Something about the approach of winter when all our technological defenses were gone gave me an odd feeling of unease. This winter there would be no bulbs of light burning with magical brightness. Heat would come from wood-burning stoves that burned fuel chopped with axes and sweat. There would be no central heating automatically blowing warmth on the cold bricks.
The good folk of Redmoor had worked hard as scavengers while Monika and I had slept or dreamt or whatever it was we’d lived through in that chamber beneath the earth. They had set up three wooden stoves and a stockpile of wood in the medical center now.
I felt, oddly, different from them now. Somehow, my adventures had made me into a different kind of person than the others. They were people who stayed huddled inside with eyes peering out into the night. I had become someone who ventured out into the darkness as a matter of habit. I imagined that in the past, there had always been people like me and people like them, and that we were naturally taking up roles that our ancestors had played out centuries ago.
I left after a few quiet good-byes. I could feel their eyes on me as I walked downtown, but I didn’t look back.
Redmoor wasn’t a big town, and I soon reached the forbidden area, bounded by Linwood Drive on one side and Olive Street on another, according to the Preacher’s map. When I reached the boundary, invisible though it was, I felt it. The sensation was similar to what I had felt out in the woods or down in the cave, except perhaps stronger. I realized before I stepped out into the empty strip of patched asphalt we called Linwood Drive that I knew where the line was. The boundary between sanity and insanity, order and chaos, was a few paces away, in the middle of the street. Linwood Drive was wider than most of our streets in our small town, it was a two-laner, but most people still treated it as one lane with slanted parking lines painted on both sides for shoppers.
I stood on the southern side with my toes resting on the red curb. I was in front of the Redmoor video store that old man Marcus used to run before his wife killed him with claws grown from those painted fingernails she’d always worked so hard on. I hesitated there, I’m not sure for how long. A yellow fire hydrant, a relic of a past that seemed distant, stood on the curb next to me like a faithful pet. We waited on the curb together, the yellow fire hydrant and I. The barrier was right there in the street before me, I could feel it, but I did not yet dare step toward it. I had the sensation of being watched, but could not see the watcher. Perhaps the shift line itself watched me, hungrily, already planning what sort of vile twisted thing it might morph me into. I shook my head at these thoughts. They were absurd, but the feeling of dread would not leave.
I knew somewhere in my mind that I could go around this border, this barrier, or fissure, or whatever it was, that led into the unknown. I knew I could just walk another mile or so up into the woods past the city limits or down to the lakeshore and find a way around it, but I didn’t want to give in to this thing that had eaten my town and my life. I hated it, and wanted to beat it. I felt, after weeks of learning about it and brushing up against it that perhaps I was ready to beat it. I felt that I had run from it long enough.
While I thought about it, I spotted some of the flying creatures, roosting upside down like bats in the trees across the street. They were the things that watched me, I knew. They made no move to flutter down and drink my blood. I wondered if somehow they knew I pondered the barrier. Was some other unseen creature directing them? The trees that bore the flying things seemed quiet as well, barely shifting in the breeze as if the trees too, considered me. The whole world seemed to hold its breath.
After a time, I thought to myself that if I was going to do it-and I knew that I was-it might as well be now. So, after having dithered for perhaps a dozen minutes, or perhaps more, I left the yellow fire hydrant and the video store and finally took my first step into Linwood Drive. The things in the trees moved restlessly. They continued to watch me as I walked into… something. Only heaven-or perhaps hell-knew what.
I hit an invisible barrier two steps from the curb. I could feel it, but could not see it, not yet. At first, it was very gentle, like a thick spider web breaking over my body. I paused, and the sensation strengthened. Somehow, I knew that if I stopped, it would grow stronger, so I took another slow step, then two more. The sensation of walking into some resistant force increased. It was like moving into a pool of water now, it dragged against my feet and sought to push me back. I swung my boots forward and my breathing became labored, more with fear than with physical effort. I glanced back toward the sidewalk where I’d started and that was a mistake.
The air between me and the sidewalk I’d come from seemed to waver, just for a moment, and then it steadied. I felt vertigo rush up from my belly, like a thrill that hits you when you stare down into a deadly fall. Looking back was like looking down when scaling a cliff face: it was a bad idea. I lost my balance and stumbled, but managed to steady myself with an effort. I snapped my eyes forward and stared with determination at the far side of Linwood, absurdly close yet so far away. I felt like a tight ropewalker who had forgone the net and the safety belts for the very first time. The breeze gusted up now and it ruffled my hair and the sweat that had popped out upon my brow dried and turned cold.
I took another step.
It was fighting me openly now. A barrier I could truly feel rose up against me and pressed against my legs. I could only think that a thousand others had felt this very thing and had failed somehow in this test, and had lost their way. They had fallen prey to this force from another age and had been melted by it into a twisted caricature of themselves. What was this force? My mind demanded an answer when there was none. It was like hot magma from the center of the Earth, a force that could destroy and create all in one violent process. I thought perhaps it was an echo left over from the wild violent act of creation of the cosmos. Or perhaps it was a natural ripple from some physical law that we had yet to discover with our arrogant science, still perhaps as primitive and infantile as we imagined the alchemists of centuries past to be.
Soon, as I took step by step, all my thoughts fell away from my mind, as all my focus was needed to quell my fears and force myself to take yet another step into the unknown.
Then, suddenly, I felt something give way and I was through it, I had passed a test of some kind. I almost pitched forward, something I knew would be bad thing. I took another step and felt the resistance grow again. But I felt more confident, I had broken through the first barrier and I would break through them all until the last. I realized now, too, why we had not seen many animals transformed. They knew enough to keep away from such a terrifying thing. Their senses were more acute and their reaction to the unknown was simple and effective: flee. Humans had to make it more complex, had to resist changes in their environment not of their making. This was our street, and I could imagine others like me forcing their way across where any beast would have simply turned and fled with the wisdom of a thousand generations of knowing that anything unknown was deadly. Humanity had forgotten their old deep-seated fears and had bulled their way into trouble much as I was doing now, I felt sure of it. One of the Preacher’s favorite quotes rang in my ears: Pride goeth before the fall.
I put another foot forward, and another, and now it was much worse than water, worse than a tidal surge, I was trying to walk through the Earth itself. I took another step, and the barrier broke, just as the first had. The last barrier was different, however. It didn’t form a wall against me, but rather tried to drag me backward. Like a fly caught in the web of a cunning spider, I struggled to be free of this unnatural thing that held me. It wasn’t just my feet and legs that felt the effect, now it was my entire body. Tiny red sparks had come up from somewhere and ran in little bursts and shivers over me. I ignored them and pressed on, head down, body hunched and leaning now like a man walking into a hurricane, like a fool fighting an incredible force of nature. Which, I suppose, was exactly what I was doing.
It let go all at once, and when it did I stumbled and pitched forward over the far curb. I laid there gasping, and dared turn my head and look back across the street. The yellow fire hydrant still sat there, unimpressed and unmoved. The only thing I could detect now as a slight ripple in the air, like the wavering air on a hot summer day over a distant ribbon of black highway. Had it been only thirty steps? I calculated the distance and nodded my head. The hardest thirty paces I had ever taken.
I had made it. I grinned in wild triumph and shivered with exertion at the same time. Hands trembling, I examined myself. My hands looked normal. My heart was pounding, but felt right in my chest. My face felt familiar under the slightly sticky touch of my sweating palms. Even inside my boots, when I shook them off and exposed bare skin into the freezing air, there were no hidden hooves, nor claws at the end of my legs. I sighed hugely. Upon initial inspection, I was still entirely human.
Why had I made it, when so many others had failed? I could not be sure, but I imagined it was due to natural resistance, and perhaps also due to a sort of acquired resistance I had gained over recent days. It could all have been due to my focused effort to cross it, as well. Others had likely panicked. Perhaps they had stumbled, or turned back, or flailed helplessly and spent hours there, long enough for the change to occur. Steady, determined plodding was the way across, with never a look back, never halting, never faltering. I felt I had learned at least part of the key, but I certainly did not relish doing it again.
I pulled myself together and walked through a parking lot half-full of abandoned cars and around a building that had once been a bank and now had smashed out windows like blinded eyes. The pharmacy was near, and I realized that I could feel something new. Some twitch, not totally unlike the sensation that the shift line had given me when I’d first put my foot onto Linwood Drive.
The pharmacy was red brick and it was an old building, and had been built perhaps more than a century ago, not long after the town’s founding. The painted signs over the entrance were faded. Weathered foot-high letters spelled out Wilton’s. Doctor Wilton had owned the pharmacy but had recently hired another pharmacist to run it, a prim, bespectacled woman named Darla Howell who had vanished on the very first night of the change. The town gossips had whispered words about Darla and Doctor Wilton, as neither had ever married. The quiet words were things that no one had proven, but which had hung in the air around them for years. Now, of course, the gossipers were as dead as Darla herself, and their words as meaningless. No doubt, I thought, she had been one of the first to try to cross the barrier as I just had. I imagined her shock as she came into contact with the supernatural in the middle of her oh-so-orderly world. In the middle of an average town that was in the middle of America itself. After a long day’s work, she’d been caught in a spider’s web and her bewilderment would have turned quickly into terror and then perhaps madness. And for her, like for thousands of others, the spiders had finally come.
I pushed open the door to the Pharmacy. It was dark inside and the ancient bell at the top of the door jangled and scraped wildly against the glass, announcing my presence. I didn’t care. I entered the gloomy interior and pulled the door shut behind me against the winds which were now coming in off the Lake in hard gusts.
“Wilton?” I called with some force in my voice. The atmosphere of the place made one want to use a hushed voice, but I was not in the mood for meekness. I sensed a dark foreboding presence here. And something, something acrid clung to the air. It was an unnatural stink that was not ether or cleanser or bleach. It had an organic base to it, of some kind, that stink.
“Wilton!” I shouted, walking past the initial rows of comic books and hair products. I walked between the aisles, glancing down each one, wishing I had a working flashlight. There were rubber kid toys next to the comic books and then an aisle full of foot gel pads and foot massagers and deodorizers. The next aisle was full of aspirin and ibuprofen and the dozen other over-the-counter pain relievers that relieved about half of any pain you served up to them. The next aisle was all shampoos and conditioners and hair dyes. Last came the final aisle that led to the register in the back. It was full of tampons and prophylactics and I remembered as clear as day how I used to giggle and poke at them with my friends after school, in a distant era that seemed like centuries ago.
Those boys were all dead now, save for Vance, and somehow this made me angry as I approached the register. There was a door behind the register, it hung half open and a yellow light came from behind it. That back room was the very place, I knew, where alleged indiscretions were supposedly carried out by Wilton and Darla Howell. No one else, to my knowledge, had ever stepped back there.
“Wilton!” I roared. I hammered the little service bell she had sitting on the glass-topped counter. Inside, laid out like a movie house display case, she had rows of candies. The chocolates were always at the top and gum always lined the bottom. I’d steamed up and smudged that glass with my greasy kid-fingers a hundred times, perhaps a thousand.
My next sucked in a breath, ready to shout WILTON! again with such power that the good Doctor would have awakened from the very dead to answer, died into a hiss that passed my teeth quietly. The door behind the register creaked open a bit further, letting out more of that yellow, oily light and a hunched figure eased out of it.
Wilton was not herself. She had what looked like a pillow case pulled over her head. It was a hood, I realized, and a long cloak hung down from it. I thought it looked like a cannibalized blanket or perhaps even a dark curtain. The hood raised up and a single, baleful eye regarded me. That eye would have looked human, but I saw now that it glowed, just slightly, just enough to make you think that it glowed, but not enough to make you certain. It was an effect that on any other day I would consider odd, and tell myself was impossible, but here, now, anything was possible and I knew it. I wondered what further monstrosities were hidden beneath her makeshift cloak and decided I didn’t want to know.
“You rang?” she said, showing she still had a sense of humor.
I snorted and demanded, “What are you up to out here?”
“Nice of you to come check on me,” said Wilton. As she spoke she slid open the display case under the register and dug something out. It was a chocolate bar. She pushed it across the table.
“Your favorite, if memory serves me rightly.”
I looked at it, then took it and was about to slide it into my pocket. Then I relented and tore it open and took a bite. It was my favorite, after all. It was a bit stale, but still tasted good. She still had not answered my question so I didn’t repeat it.
“I’ll show you what I’m up to,” she said, “but we’ll talk a bit first.”
After staring at her for a minute while chewing on the chocolate bar, I nodded in agreement. A part of me still liked her, still wanted to like her. That organic stink was stronger here and I realized it had to either be Wilton herself, or it was coming from that door behind her. It smelled like someone was cooking bacon in a pot of chlorine.
She looked at me over the counter appraisingly. “You crossed the shift line, didn’t you?”
I nodded. “How did you know?”
She shrugged and I noted, without wanting to, that she seemed to have a fleshy hump on her left side now. “You look normal enough, but you don’t sound quite like the Gannon I left behind. It’s not just the body that is changed by the shifting, you know.”
I stopped chewing for a moment, thinking about this. I had to admit her words made sense. It wasn’t a pleasant thought, wondering if your personality had changed. “I don’t feel very different. It was an ordeal, that’s all.”
“Trust me,” she said waggling a finger in my direction. The finger had a warped, calloused look to it. I tried not to focus on it. “When you cross that line you come out changed. Perhaps it is only a tiny, hidden change, but it is there.”
“You’ve crossed it, then,” I said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes. That line in the middle of town and several others. I’ve done more than cross them, I’ve explored them, Gannon. They are as full of wonders as they are of terrors, if you know where to look.”
I nodded again and crunched up the chocolate wrapper. The candy was gone. I believed she had done it, probably far more than was wise, if even a single trip could be said to be wise.
“Most of the lines are like that one, but some are very different, more like portals to other places,” she told me.
“I think I’ve been in one of those different places,” I said, and then I gave her a quick version of our adventures in Malkin’s cave.
“Yes, time distortion,” she said, “I’ve experienced it, but nothing as strong as you describe. I’ll have to make a note of that cave and that interesting cave-dweller. The barrier in town is strong, but not the strongest around. I think they tend to get stronger when more people try to cross them, but that is only a theory of mine.”
“Do you know why I’m here, Doc?” I asked finally.
“Honestly, I expected to see the Captain or perhaps the Preacher. I’ve sent them both off on missions some time ago, and neither has returned. Perhaps they are caught in a time distortion as you were. Like you, however, I expect them to survive.”
“You sent them off? Where?”
“To Elkinsville, of course.”
“So you know that something is going on out there?” I demanded. “How did they get there and what did you expect them to do with a sunken town? Did they take diving equipment? And why does this place and Elkinsville glow with an evil light in the darkness? What are you up to?”
“Better than diving equipment,” said the Wilton, waggling that unpleasant finger again. “I’ll tell you about it, but you must be patient.”
I felt anything but patient. In fact, I realized I was tempted to kill Wilton now. Something told me I should do it. My hand crept of its own accord to my sword, but I did not draw it.
“You see, Gannon,” began Wilton, oblivious to my thoughts and lecturing me now. “The world has changed. It has progressed to a new era. History shows us that those who survive are those who adapt to change. So I have chosen to embrace the shift lines and the odd things they produce, rather than to fight them. Much like the technological magics that we produced in our time as a civilization, those who embraced them and used them best prospered the most. I’m simply a woman who is trying to get ahead of the curve.”
I shook my head in bewilderment. “The shift just makes monsters and warps the mind and body. What possible use is there for that? You might as well embrace a rash of earthquakes.”
“You’re wrong!” she declared. “What it does is change things. Why should it only work random changes upon us? Why can’t we use it to change things to our liking?”
I considered the idea.
“The shift is like fire, Gannon. Flame can destroy a forest or a town when it is wild and unchecked, but if controlled, it gives us light, heat, transportation and weaponry.”
I looked at her in sudden understanding. “You’re talking about sorcery.”
She stared at me and that one wild eye gleamed now, rather than glowed. “Yes! Yes, exactly. I’m Redmoor’s first sorceress. I’m sure there are others out there in the world, certain of it, in fact. But perhaps I’m the first of the new age in this place once known as Indiana.”
“So, what have you come up with?”
I saw her teeth then, for the first time, as she showed them beneath her cowl in what I took for a yellow grin.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she said.
She hobbled back through the door behind the register and vanished into the oily yellow light. I followed her with trepidation. At first, we entered a small office festooned with catalogues and strewn with paper prescriptions and shipping orders that had fallen like leaves, forgotten and useless now.
The yellowy light came from a door to the far side of the office. We went to this and she pushed it open, biding me to follow with a gesture. As I approached the source of light I realized it was also the source of the odd stink that permeated the place. We entered and a very strange sight met my eyes.
In the center of the laboratory, which is what it had to be, was a very large steel sink of industrial size and capacity. It stood over a brazier full of burning charcoal. The coals were searing orange covered in a frost of white ash. In the sink boiled a foul and vicious liquid and it was this liquid, mixed with the glowing of the coals, that made the yellow light. It shined like sunshine.
All of this was far from being the oddest thing in the room, however. That distinction belonged to the sewn sack of pink skins that hung suspended by cords from the ceiling. The sack shivered and dripped. The drippings fell into small catch basins which were cunningly placed beneath it. V-shaped metal channels ran down from these catch-basins to run the dribblings down into the industrial sink, which I realized was serving as a bubbling cauldron.
“Oh my, look at the coals,” she said and scuttled to get out a fresh bag of barbeque briquettes. She spilled a dozen or so black lumps into the brazier and it flared a-new.
“What in the hell…” I said trailing off as she beckoned for me to come to the other side of her contraption.
I came over and looked as she showed me a distillation line that was coming from the bubbling cauldron. It had filled a small plastic vial perhaps a third of the way. The vial, I realized, had an eyedropper built into the cap. It was a liquid dispenser for children’s antibiotics. Beside the one being filled were four others.
“My production is up!” she declared. “The purity of it, as well.”
“What is it, and what kind of skin is that sack made of?” I demanded, jabbing a finger at the foul pinkness that shivered and burbled and dripped overhead.
“It is the skin of changelings, of course,” Wilton told me calmly. “And this, this is a mix of many things.”
“Such as the waters of the Lake, the blood of trees that are near enough to life to shiver when I harvest it-” she paused at my shocked look and chuckled. “Oh yes, there are quite a few of them that are partially awake around town. And it contains the blood of the flying things, just a hint of that, and many other things that-well, had best be left unnamed.”
My horror-struck face made her laugh.
“Don’t you want to know why it glows?” she asked gently.
“Because I leave that sack out in the middle of the shift line for a long time, a day or so, tied to a line. Then, when it ripens, I drag in the line. It is a liquid distillation of the shifting effects, and I use it as a base.”
“A base for what?”
“Potions, of course.”
“For what purpose?” I managed to croak out. The smell was overpowering in the lab and I wanted to leave. I rubbed at my nose and my face. I’d smelled horse piss I would rather drink than this stuff.
“The key ingredient, I think, is the water of the lake. It took me a while and a lot of reading up on alchemical formulas, mind you. But what it does, essentially, is relieves the breathing.”
“All this to make an asthma medicine?”
“No, no, it relieves the subject from the burden of breathing. It allows one to hold ones breath, or even to breathe things other than air.”
“Death does that as well,” I commented.
She smiled at my joke and offered me four of the potions. Each had only an ounce or so of liquid in them.
“I’ve rigged them up so they can be consumed underwater. All you have to do is cut the rubber top, the bulb of the syringe, and suck the contents out. Optionally, you could unscrew it and squeeze the liquid into your mouth, but some of it would probably be lost in the waters.”
I opened my mouth, and then shut it again. I didn’t know what to say. “This is absurd,” I finally managed. “What is all this for? What do you think I’m going to do with this disgusting stuff?”
“It doesn’t taste all that bad,” she said, with a tiny hint of hurt in her voice. “The potions are of course for you, the Captain and the Preacher. I’m concerned that their doses have run out by now, and I’m giving you enough for all three of you.”
“How long does it last?” I heard myself ask, still disbelieving that I would even entertain the idea of what she was proposing.
“I really don’t know, a day at least, I believe from my own experiments.”
“Do you really think I’m going to the bottom of that huge dark lake trusting to some kind of magic you just worked up?”
“It’s easy enough to test. Just go to the lake and take it and stick your head beneath the waves for a while.”
I gawked at the potions and at her. All in one sick second, I realized that I might actually try it.
I followed her out of the laboratory, thinking hard. When we got back to the register, she offered me another chocolate bar and I took it, absently stuffing it into my pocket with the four potions.
“Malkin told me to beware the Hag,” I said, looking at Wilton intently.
“Yes, yes, and good advice it was, too,” she replied. She seemed oblivious to my meaning.
“Doctor Wilton-Beatrice,” I said, using her first name. “What is a Hag? Describe such a thing to me.”
“The Hag is a well-known element of every fairytale and myth from across the planet!” she replied with gusto. “She’s hideous, and a witch. More than that, she’s evil and powerful and tricky. Every story from the Sleeping Beauty to Hansel and Gretel is based on the Hag. But in our modern terms, we’ve got one near at hand. I think that thing you met in the woods is our Hag, come back to life after centuries of sleep, like that elf Malkin you met.”
“A solitary female bent on witchcraft, eh?” I said, eyeing her. “And what would you call your research, if not witchcraft?”
She opened her mouth, and then closed it. Finally, I saw understanding in her eyes. She laughed. “No, no. My work is different. I’m a woman of science. I want to understand this new phenomenon and work with it. I’m a chemist who has turned to alchemy, admittedly, but I’m not some ancient spirit come back to haunt humanity, some beast from below bent on evil. Quite the opposite, I’m defending us! Gannon, I am your only hope. How can you beat what you don’t understand? How can you understand it without studying it? Besides, I don’t want to help this Hag of the Lake, I want to defeat her.”
“I wonder what the Preacher would say about your investigations.”
She drew herself up and her cheeks showed a slight tremor. “Well, go ask him! Go find him, boy, before it is too late for him. I think you are stronger than he, I think you may pass barriers where he failed. Bring him back, and slay the Hag who will slay us all if she can. Hags often take prisoners, and I think you can free them.”
I shook my head, eyeing one of the potions she’d given me. “How can I trust the very thing that seeks to destroy us to save me? Everything that bubbles up from these supernatural fissures is evil.”
She laughed at me again. She leaned forward and spoke with infinite patience, as though I were her slowest student. “Don’t you see, Gannon? You and I are the same. Neither one of us is untouched. There is no more black and white in our world, only many subtle shades of gray.”
“No-” I began, but she raised her foul finger to stop me.
“No, before you speak, think back upon the first moment we met today. Did you not want to draw your blade and cut me with it? Is that normal? Is that the Gannon of three months ago? Were you a murderer then, or only now, with new dark thoughts in your mind, which has been darkened by the shifting. You are no changeling yet-but in a way, you are. You are still on the same side, but you have changed, you can’t deny it. You are no longer pure. You are a shade of gray. And so am I.”
“So, you are saying that we have already lost.”
“Far from it! We are adapting, changing to meet these new requirements in our new supernatural world. Much as in any time, you win your battles by gathering your forces and your allies and by careful preparation. And when we take the field, we will be victorious over the Hag. She will not bring back whatever horrors of the past her mind plans.”
I gazed at her flatly for a long pause. Her words weren’t to my liking, but neither were they irrational. I was torn between a devil I knew and an unknown one. I thought about the Captain and the Preacher and made up my mind.
“I’ll go,” I said, but I put up my hand to stop her toothy grin. “But remember this: I’m not going because I’m on your mission. I’m going to find the others you’ve sent before me. And, I’m not about to fall into whatever trap you may have designed, because I’m not your creature. I only hope for your sake that they live still.”
Her grin was subdued, reduced to a smoldering tiny glimmer of a smile. “Very well, and I wish you luck.”
“One more thing,” I said. “You are going to drink one of these potions before I go.”
Her face fell. “What?” she sputtered. “You won’t have enough then. You need them all to get those two back out.”
I shook my head. “The way I look at it, if everything you say is true, they would be dead anyway if they needed air down there all this time. I only need enough to get down there and check it out.”
“It’s an unnecessary waste,” she began, and argued at length. I held my ground, and in the end, she snatched the bottle I offered at random out of the ones she had given me and tossed it down. She glared at me, gestulating with her arms in exasperation.
“There, are you happy? You’ve gotten me to waste a half-week of work and possibly killed one of the last good men in Redmoor.”
I nodded slowly, watching her. She didn’t seem to be getting any more hideous. “I’m happy.”
“When you drink one, have a care,” she said, “it takes a few minutes to work. A brief span, but long enough to be a problem if you are in a hurry. I think it is due to the changes the liquid must work upon your system.”
“I feel I was right to exile you and your dangerous work to this place,” I told her. “I really hope your work helps us. But I don’t trust it, and will not, until it has been proven.” And maybe not even then, I added to myself, silently.
“My work will pass your test, boy,” she said. “One last thing.”
She looked, for once, very hesitant. She chewed at her lower lip and sucked in a breath before going on. “I’ve seen some things on the lakeshore, not like the usual ones we have around here. I believe that shift line, that barrier, extends out into the lake itself and she feeds on it. What I mean to say is, keep on your guard if someone approaches you and says nothing in response to your challenge.”
“I always keep on my guard, but thanks for the warning.”
I exited into the fresh air again and breathed deeply. I gave a shudder that was more from relief than from the cold breeze coming off the lake. I turned north around the building and headed toward the lakeshore. Like most big lakes, Lake Monroe had a thin brown sandy beach that wound around it. I passed the little private jetties and the Marina and walked along the beach itself. A squad of ducks quacked at me in annoyance and swam away.
I thought about going back to the center, but decided against it. Maybe I could get Vance to come with me, but probably not. He had not wanted to go visit the pharmacy, why would he want to drink some foul concoction and attempt to drown himself under the lake while looking for a devilish Hag? I also didn’t want to wait any longer. Arriving an hour or a minute too late to help would worse than useless.
I stopped at a nice little sailboat that had survived the storm. I was a fair sailor in calm weather, and one quick way to check out that strange light in the lake would be to glide over it and have a look. I decided against it, however. How would that be better than swimming down? If something was down there, it would see me as an object floating above, not really the safest position to be in. I sighed, not knowing really what to do. I wasn’t sure what it was that I was going after and the lack of information was critically important. I wasn’t even sure that the potions would work, or where the Preacher was, or if this wasn’t just some elaborate hoax. Maybe these two hags had cut a deal to send each other gullible fools every Tuesday as raw materials.
I drew out my saber and checked my pistol, which was loaded and ready to go. I sensed I might be needing it. When I fished in my pocket for extra bullets, I found the Hag’s stone. I drew it out, and knew it for what it was, a magic rock. Had she left it for me, or had she made it by accident? I decided I might as well use it, and spent a few minutes stroking the edge of my weapon. Orange and white sparks popped as I did so, and when I was done, I knew it was much sharper than before.
My boots kicked up wet sand and I trudged down the beach leaving the sailboat behind. Soon I was leaving Redmoor proper and getting into the rental cabin area where summer people came up to spend a week or two on the lake. I passed one log cabin mock-up that I knew inside had a modern kitchen and central air. Just after I’d passed it, I heard a screen door creak open and then slam shut.
“Hello?” I called.
I stopped on the beach, eyeing the cabins nearby. I saw no one come out. It could have been a backdoor, or it could have been the wind. Some of the windows were broken, perhaps from the recent storm or perhaps from worse things. Thinking about Wilton’s words, I decided against investigating and continued plodding down the beach. I figured I had only about a mile to go.
After another few hundred yards, I chanced a look over my shoulder. I froze in my tracks. A figure was on the beach behind me, following. It looked like a normal man, but he moved with some difficulty, limping. He seemed to be missing a shoe on that foot, although at a distance of a few hundred yards, I was hard to be sure.
“Hey there,” I called out to him. I expected him to halt or wave or shout back. He did none of these things but rather continued to approach with that odd, stumbling gait. I watched him for a few seconds more, and then decided I didn’t really want to get a closer look at him. I hurried on up the beach.
I was gaining ground, I was sure of it, and after another hundred yards I looked back again and there were three of them now. One appeared to be a large woman and the third was a child. The child seemed to be crawling rapidly on all fours like a kid pretending to be a spider. Perhaps, I thought, this kid wasn’t pretending. I hurried on up the beach, sure I had no more than a half mile to go.
In the middle of one long look back at those that followed me, I almost walked into the fourth one. He was dressed in a bathing suit with red flowers on a black nylon background and was dripping wet. Clearly, he’d been in the water a moment before and now had risen up out of the waves. He had his arms up as if to embrace me.
I shoved him back and his cold, bloated, purplish skin ripped open like tissue paper. I could see right off he was dead. I made an odd croaking sound in my throat in shock and disgust. I shoved him back and he made no utterance, but simply reached for me again. I had my saber out in a smooth motion and slashed at his reaching arms. Flesh peeled back to reveal bones and his left hand hung at an odd angle but still he tottered after me.
I ran. More of them came. I don’t know how many, but they were coming out of the summer cabins and floating in the water. By the time I reached the pile of stones I’d built to mark the spot that led down into Elkinville there had to be more than a dozen of them, coming from both directions along the shore and from out of the forest as well. They were slow, but if one of them got a good grip on me and the others piled on… I ripped the top off of one of potions Wilton had given me and tossed it down. I tasted like urine mixed with bathroom cleanser. My stomach hitched and I fought not to sick it up.
Looking both ways at the approaching swarm of dead things, I realized that if she had meant to trap me, she’d done a good job after all. I grabbed up the rocks from my marking pile and shoved them in my pockets for ballast. I found my pistol there and took aim at the closest group of silent shambling monsters and emptied the only clip I had into them. I saw them rock back, I saw bones shatter in their legs and I watch the side of one woman’s skull pop, but they still kept coming. All of them.
I waded out into the waters of the Lake and put the empty pistol into my pocket for more weight. It takes a few minutes to work, I heard Wilton’s words in my head and they sounded to me like an epitaph.
I was ten feet from shore and the cold waters of the lake had filled my boots and begun to sting my legs. I gasped when the shocking cold reached up to my waist. About then, the things on the beach finally reached the shoreline. The first ones there were the crawling kid and the very first one I’d seen. I realized now that he had no foot on the end of one leg. He’d been walking on a shard of shinbone and had made pretty good time for all that. He wore a nice shirt and a tie and, incredibly, still had sunglasses on. I could only imagine what kind of vacation he’d been enjoying when some ghastly fate had befallen him in the beach house he’d paid good money for had turned into an abattoir.
The crawling kid came out in sort of a dog-paddling motion and I laid into him with my saber. He never complained, but simply took the strokes. I grabbed his hair, finally, to keep his snapping teeth away from the meat of my thighs while I took his head and his limbs off. After that, the limbs kept thrashing but with less purpose. I pushed him off and he floated way harmlessly. I backed further into the water, chest deep now, and realized I could not retreat much further or I would be unable to move freely due to the water, but there was nothing for it. Already, my toes were going numb from the cold.
I threw the kid’s head at the guy with the sunglasses and knocked him off kilter. He recovered and reached for me with gray fingernails which I sliced off with one wild swipe. His other hand I took off at the wrist, I grunted with the force of that swing and was shocked to see the saber cut right through bone. The sharpening stone had indeed worked some magic on my blade, I realized. Five stubs and one stump still reached for me, and then I tripped.
I went over backwards into the water and sank down. I had stepped off a shelf or into a hole and was underwater. I blasted bubbles from my nose and thrashed about. I put the point of my sword out blindly and felt it sink into something. It was the chest of the man with the sunglasses and he kept coming, forcing the blade into his ribs.
I struggled, the rocks in my pocket were doing their job, pulling me down. I thought I was about to run out of air and felt that bubbling, squeezing panic that comes with being down too long, like when you are a racing a friend underwater and start to feel you aren’t going to make it. I expected any second to see red flashes and feel my lungs bursting in open panic. I heaved up and took in a gulp of air. I sank back down with Mr. Sunglasses on top of me, his finger stubs massaging my scalp, my sword lodged into his ribcage.
With a great heave, I threw him off me and nearly lost my sword in the process. His body had deteriorated enough over the summer, however, that it released my blade and I swam backward with great kicks. I sank as I swam and I felt tired and heavy. I wondered if I would ever taste another lungful of sweet air.
More or less standing on the bottom, at least ten feet down, I gazed upward and ignored the stinging in my open eyes the cloudy water brought. There above me was a splashing company of things. They churned at the water and flopped up there. Some had sunk a bit, but most seemed to be floating, as bodies will do when they are dead. They lacked the coordination and self-control necessary to swim downward deliberately. I wondered if the Preacher or the Captain was among their number.
It was just about this moment that I realized I had been holding my breath for a remarkably long time. In fact, I felt no need to breathe at all. This set off a moment of panic, but I fought it down. I concentrated on the idea that I was holding my breath, and that I was simply holding it for a very long time and didn’t need to worry about it. This worked pretty well. My lungs felt strangely empty and deflated, however, as I had released a lot of air in my struggles. I worried that if I kept releasing it, in little bits, I might collapse a lung eventually with no air to replace it. Still, for the moment, I wasn’t drowning.
I turned and headed toward the bottom of the Lake. I walked downhill with slow-motion strides into the green-black unknown.
I saw the light down there, and it was entirely different underwater. From the surface, you might only notice it at night, but when you were underneath the silvery-blue line that made up the border between air and light and the depths of the lake, it shimmered with bluish radiance. Just looking at it, you could tell it wasn’t a normal light; it wasn’t a huge sunken light bulb. It looked more like a flame, a dancing, wavering blue flame that glowed in the murky distance.
I walked slowly toward it, feeling like a moth drawn by fascination to burn my wings upon a magical candle. As I descended, I ran into huge water weeds that stood at least a dozen feet high. I slashed and cleared a path. If nothing else, the path might help me find my way back to shore. But I felt doubtful that I would ever be making that return trip.
It was a horrid feeling, being down there. It wasn’t pleasant or funny. It was terrifying. I had no idea when the potion would wear off and I would be left choking at the bottom of the lake, or when I would find some underwater horror waiting for me. Or, possibly worst of all, the sun would go down and I would be left on the bottom of the lake, lost in blackness and bitter cold. A tiny part of my mind even wondered if I was already one of them, one of the things back on the beach. Perhaps, a tiny, evil monkey in my mind whispered, I no longer breathe because I am no longer alive.
I put my hand up to my chest, and it took a long second, but I felt my heart there, still thumping away. It wasn’t conclusive, but I took it as a very good sign. I continued down the slope. I looked up at the silvery-blue surface and, although it was hard to be sure, I figured I was at least fifty feet down.
I looked back, and my heart skipped and began pounding harder. The things, some of them at least, were coming down after me. Those that had little flesh on them, that were mostly white bones with scraps of clothing left, were still coming. They were just walking down. I supposed that their bones were dense enough not to float without their flesh. They weren’t coming fast, but they would never stop, I knew. They would not grow tired or bored. I knew somehow too, that even when darkness came tonight, if I still lived, they would still be coming.
The deeper I went the darker it became. I reached a flat plateau that ran out at least fifty yards, and then I found a low stone wall. It looked very strange down there, overgrown with waterweeds and with a few perch floating around it lazily. It had to be part of the town, I felt sure. I followed the wall for a while and found the foundations of building. I stepped into it and figured it would have been a barn. The timbers had rotted away for the most part, but there were still concrete anchors holding the bottom of the posts down. I imagined how it must have looked that day, more than half a century ago, when the waters of the river had risen up after they’d built the dam and consumed this whole area.
I noticed there were drowned trees here, on the bottom. They were festooned with growths and fish now, but there they were, with their dead branches reaching upward as if begging the impossibly distant sun.
I looked back and saw the things chasing me, there were four of them. I had left them far behind. Feeling relatively safe, I looked around and wondered at this drowned world and I had a new thought then, one I didn’t appreciate at all. What if the dam broke? Soon, heavy rains and snows were coming, and I’m sure that back in the summer when the world had gone mad and died, the engineers running it had left it in the normal summer configuration. It had been a dry summer, meaning the gates were set to only allow enough water to escape to keep the river alive. When the weather really came in, I’m sure the level would rise and the dam would overflow. Part of Redmoor might even flood. Worse, I had no idea how long the dam could overflow without giving way. Maybe years, or maybe just one season.
It was while I pondered such things that something grabbed my ankle. I jerked, and it gave somewhat, but flexed back again. I struggled out my saber and realized that a hand was wrapped around my foot. I hadn’t noticed the body laying in the weeds and rocks. The corpse was wearing a fisherman’s gear, right down to the hat with the lures stuck in it. He appeared to have ropes around his body. Bewildered, I struggled to keep my foot from his mouth, where he seemed determined to drag it. A second hand latched onto my ankle now, and was pulling hard. I struggled and managed to get some distance, but the thing held tightly to my foot. I realized after a time that ropes across its back meant the thing was tied down to something. Stabbing the body was doing no good, the struggles didn’t even register any pain, so I sawed instead at the ropes that wound around the midsection.
Before long, I had one of the ropes apart, then another. The creature began to float, just a bit, and now it had a harder time in its struggles with no firm anchor against which to push or pull. Without leverage, its grip weakened.
My face was a grimace of mixed disgust and triumph when I finally cut it free completely. It flailed in the water, making primitive, awkward flailing motions to reach me. It floated higher, and I finally saw what it had been tied to: a large metal tackle box. It painted a picture of the owner’s last hours, perhaps caught out on the Lake with monsters on the shore. Possibly, he’d spent days out on the water, but had been unable to return to his cabin for fear of a horrid death. Clearly, he’d decided to tie himself to his tackle box and throw himself into the lake, better to drown cleanly than to be torn apart.
Soon, the thing had floated up too high to reach me. It continued to struggle in awkward silence.
Before I could celebrate or mourn, however, I noticed the things that had followed me down from the surface had caught up and were very close now. I could see fresh white bone gleaming.
I turned toward the bluish flame and half-walked, half-swam toward it, scooping water with my hands to speed me along. I left the sunken barn behind and followed the stone wall, trying to hurry, which was really not possible when walking on the bottom of a lake. Then I found something odd: a road. It was a normal, asphalt road. Sure, it had sediment on it and the yellow line was very faded and only visible in patches, but it was a road, just the same. I took the road that had once had a name and followed it to Elkinville. I half expected to find an ancient street sign pointing the way, but was disappointed.
Alongside the road now, I sensed that one of the shift lines was very near. I wasn’t moving into it, but rather paralleled it so that instead of increasing resistance I felt instead the continuous light touch like that of a breaking spider web discovered in a doorway in the morning. It was even lighter than that, much of the time, feeling like a field of static electricity that plucked at each hair in my scalp individually and prickled my skin. The line ran directly to the light that I moved toward.
I tried to ignore the shift line and pressed forward. I knew if I stopped now and I survived to reach the surface, I would never have the guts to come down here again. To turn back now meant failure.
I felt as if I walked in a dream, and the surreal surroundings reinforced the sensation. I came to dead houses in various stages of watery decay and finally, to a church of mortared stones. The light was very close now, just on the other side of the church, it appeared. In the churchyard I found a well that had a bucket, still on its chain, that hung upside down like a kite. I marveled, wondering how many years the bucket had floated there, anchored by that chain, tirelessly working in vain to float up to the surface. While I gazed up at the floating bucket, something new grabbed my shin.
I opened my mouth to scream, but only a few bubbles came out. I looked down and saw something was clawing up out of the well. Something had a hold of me. It was in too close to use my saber, so I grabbed at the gloved wrists and tried to rip those hands away. They held on and now a face was coming up at me, out of the well.
It was the face of Captain James Ryerson. He was lit with a greenish glow. His mouth was open as wide as his eyes. He gaped like a fish on the deck of a rowboat. I understood in a moment that he had drowned down here, and that he had fallen for Wilton’s spell in Redmoor, just as I had. His face worked, and bubbles came out, and I smashed that face. The water pulled my blow, but I gave it a good one, and blood and bubbles frothed up between us.
He was clutching at my pockets. I pulled back my fist again, and something slowed me. Bubbles? I looked at his face again and there was desperation in it, but there was life in it too. He wasn’t dead, and I saw, feeling like a fool, that he had green chemical lights pinned to his jacket that had caused the green glow. My instincts switched over to trying to help. He wanted something, desperately. He was alive, and he wanted something. It only took me a second longer before I reached into my pockets and took out one of the potions. He grabbed at it and then turned and dived headfirst into the well again. I stared down at his retreating boots, outlined in a ghostly green chemical glow. Bubbles floated up to me, and I knew that meant air. I climbed into the well after him, feet first, and let myself sink down like Santa Claus coming down a chimney.
The well stones went by my face for a long time. I felt like I was burying myself, but fought back the panic and kept gently sinking. At the rocky bottom, there was an opening in the side of the well. I crawled inside and up into a large air pocket. The air was very dank and very stale. Doubled over and breathing hard was the Captain.
“Don’t,” he said, “don’t use any of the air. You don’t need it. Not much oxygen left in it.”
I saw then there were tanks down here with him. He’d brought his own oxygen at least. Smarter than I was. I wondered how long I had before I was gasping like a fish.
He choked down the potion and seemed to relax a bit. He slid back against a wall.
“Thanks for bashing my face in,” he gasped. “Moron.”
I nodded and shrugged. I snuck in a gulp of air, figuring he would be okay soon. It felt so good to fill my aching lungs again. Even if they didn’t need the air, they felt like they needed it.
“Okay, okay, you can talk now,” he told me. “I think it’s working. I won’t need oxygen soon.”
“So strange,” I said, stopped, choked, and coughed up some water. I was alarmed. I wondered how much water was in my lungs. I kept coughing and choking for a bit. When I was finished, I said, “So strange not to breathe.”
He nodded, closed his eyes, and leaned back. His sucking breath had slowed down some. “Yeah.”
“Is the Preacher down here?”
He shook his head, “Haven’t seen him. Came down here, looked around, but the things from the graveyard over behind the church found me and chased me back here.”
“Things?” I said.
“Things like back on the beach?”
“Yeah, but with a lot less meat on them. They don’t float. They came out of the local graveyards down here, and they seem to like it down here. After all, this is their hometown.”
“What about the Hag?”
“The witch-thing? She only comes out at night. She does something in the church, something that lights up the town,” he was talking almost normally now, and I figured that neither of us was using up any oxygen anymore. So strange.
“How did you end up in here?”
“I was just checking things out. I had already investigated the well and found this reeking air pocket when I tried out the church and the skeletons came after me, I lost them down here. They aren’t big thinkers.”
He laughed then, and it was a bitter thing.
He caught my eye and reached out a hand.
“Thanks,” he said, sounding as if it was an unnatural word to him. I took his hand and we shook. As far as I knew, that was the only handshake he’d ever given to a man in Redmoor.
“You don’t leave a man behind.”
I shook my head.
“I thought about swimming straight out to the surface, but I knew I’d get the bends. We have to be about a hundred feet or more down. The potion ran out and I’ve been living on these two tanks and on the air pocket. There are two of us now, I say we fight our way out.”
I shook my head. “I came all this way down here to investigate. I’m going to see what that glow is about.”
“You’re crazy,” he said flatly. “It’s swarming with those things. And the Hag, she is out there somewhere.”
I considered telling him about the time distortion that Monika and I had experienced. Maybe he thought he had been down here for only a day, but really it had been a week or two. But this wasn’t inside a changeling dwelling, he wasn’t really their guest, which usually seemed to be the case in the histories of such things. I really didn’t know how long he’d been down here and it didn’t really matter, as long as we could get out.
“How long does the breath potion last?” I asked him.
“A few hours.”
My mouth sagged open. I’d already been down here an hour. Perhaps it had been two.
“Gannon, if you are going out there, I’m not coming,” he told me. “Thanks for the breath potion, but I’m going to make a run for it. I’ll wait half an hour, and then I’m climbing to the shoreline and out of this pit.”
Deciding there was no time like the present, I took out my sharpening stone and ground away the nicks in my saber’s blade. There was a notch where I had cut through some particularly tough bone.
The Captain watched me pensively. His eyes were on the stone and the shine that it emitted. Somehow, down here the glimmer was more noticeable. Finally, he could not keep quiet any longer.
“You are enchanting it. The blade is glowing.”
I smiled grimly at him. “I’m full of surprises.”
“I don’t think a sword will do it, even a magic one.”
“You’re afraid of her.”
He flashed me a look of annoyance. “Yeah. Yes, I am.”
I could tell he did not like admitting it.
As I struggled up out of the well shaft, which felt so much like a rocky, underwater tomb, I imagined that I now knew what it was to be a vampire. The bitter cold of the water clawed at my face, shocking it anew. I had become accustomed to air again very quickly, no matter how stale it was. Behind me, the Captain would either follow or he wouldn’t. I was determined.
When I climbed up out of the well and onto the lake bottom, I noticed the blue light was brighter than before. Whatever it was, that sky-colored flame, it was lighting up the green-black gloom of Elkinville.
I crossed the churchyard, the first human to do so in perhaps three generations. The church had no doors or roof left, but inside, there were still some pews visible beneath fallen beams and murky sediment. I went through it, and found my way out the back wall, which had fallen away to reveal the graveyard.
And there it was: the source of the majestic light. It was beatific and I immediately pitied the Captain, who in his fear might never lay eyes upon its glory. The flame was due to a large brass lantern with a prism inside of some clear substance, perhaps cut crystal, or even diamond, I could not know. The light that shone out of it wasn’t all blue, I could see now; it shot out a rainbow of colors in various directions. In our direction, back toward Redmoor, the color was bright, pale blue, the color of underwater artic ice. The lantern sat upon a large gravestone that was shaped like a pyramid. I could see no source for its luminescence, but I could feel the tickling nearness of the shift line that I’d followed down here. The lantern, with the prism inside, atop its drowned gravestone, must have been about in the dead center of the shift line.
Then, suddenly, I thought I had it. Perhaps, just maybe, it was the source of the line, or maybe it was the terminus of the line. Perhaps, it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
“You are the first mortal to have laid eyes upon it in many centuries,” said a soft voice at my side. I startled, but even so, it took an effort of will to remove my eyes from the prism. I turned my head slowly, toward the voice, as if in a dream. Standing at my side was the Lady of the Lake, the creature I had walked and talked with in the woods and on the lakeshore. Somehow, I didn’t feel terribly threatened. I knew that I should, but the sensation was a vague one. I wondered if this was the sensation one had when a spell was laid over the mind. It was not important, I told myself.
The Lady-I found I could not bear to think of her with that other term Hag-was a tall woman with a white gown that seemed made to float and flow around her. She shined with inner light, emitting that same pale blue radiance that the lantern did. Her floating black hair was astoundingly long and radiated out from a face that was not uncomely. Her pupil-less, mirror-like eyes did have an alarming quality to them, but somehow they didn’t bother me.
I turned back to the eye of the lantern, which was even more interesting than the Lady. I opened my mouth to speak, but of course, I only got a mouth full of water. I coughed, and bubbles burst out in a silver explosion.
She nodded. “Let go of that vile stuff from above. The atmosphere down here is oh so much smoother. Feel the water,” she said, and it was as if she commanded it.
I reached out my hand and groped in the water.
“You see how smooth it is? Nothing is smoother than that; there is no sensation like it. Not the finest minks or the softest gauze. None compare to the simple sensation of perfect, smooth, soft water.”
She was quite right, of course. I wondered why I had never realized it before. I worked my hands in the water around me, feeling the infinitely delicate touch of it.
“Take in the water with your lungs, you can breathe it,” she told me. “If you wish to speak, beyond a burble, you must do so in this world.”
I opened my mouth and breathed it in. It was a shock at first. I coughed, spasmed, and then the sensation of drowning died away. I breathed in and out, sucking water through my nose and mouth. The sensation was strange, but not entirely unpleasant. Somehow, in some way, it served to wake me up.
“Who are you then?” I burbled out. My voice sounded very strange in this place, speaking underwater. It was audible, but wavered in pitch and volume.
“Ah, a question!” she laughed then, and I almost fell in love with that laugh, that wonderful quavering sound. “You are indeed a strong one, to be able to ask me a question now. I am impressed, mortal, and I will grant you an answer, but only one. So, think hard upon what you wish to ask for you will hear no more answers for all of your existence.”
I thought hard, for she had bid me to do so. I knew the one thing I’d like to know above all others. “What killed my mother?” I asked her.
She smiled then, a slow thing, and her lips pulled upward impossibly far, until it stretched into the grin of a jack-o-lantern carved with an overzealous hand.
“He who did this thing is very close,” she said. I could tell that she savored my growing interest. “He is known to you as Captain James Ryerson, although that is not the name he was christened with.”
She watched my face then and floated closer, I could almost sense an animal lust in her to see my emotion, to feel what I did, to know my grief and anger. I felt these sensations, but they were deadened by the effects of her spell.
I saw something moving behind her, and I drew my sword in that smooth motion I’d practiced so well. My only thought was to protect her, to save her from whatever moved up with great stealth like a spider upon the ruined stone walls. My saber was shining blue now, unlike the tiny remote glimmer before. Now, in this place, it was like a shimmering blue-white length of frozen fire. I did not know why it shined so, perhaps it was the lantern, or the nearby shift-line, or the Hag herself. Or perhaps it was me.
Her reaction was instantaneous, in any case. She loosed a powerful, ear-bending screech that made me yank my head down like the snapping turtles that cruised the lake would when a noisy group of boaters approached. Then she shot up into the water, straight up, with alarming rapidity. The wake of her exodus rolled me backwards and I stumbled.
The Captain looked at me and the sword that burned in my hand. He had a long killing knife with a gleaming serrated edge in his hand.
For a fraction of a second, I was going to kill him. He was an assassin, and a single thrust would end the whole foul business. But, when the Hag vanished, so did my intentions. For a few long seconds, we just blinked at each other and scanned the dark waters overhead, but there was no sight of the Hag.
I realized, numbly, that it must be night now up there in the world of smells and wind and sound.
“What…?” I asked in confusion.
The Captain eyed me warily. He stared at my sword, which had lowered with drifting slowness to rest at my side.
I stopped looking for the Hag and turned my gaze back down to him. He didn’t walk upon the bottom as I did, but was in a more normal swimming position, lying on his side near the bottom.
“You can speak,” I told him. “If you just suck in the water, and empty your lungs of air, the water will let you speak.”
He shook his head. He pointed up, to the distant, invisible, impossible surface. I knew that somewhere up there winds blew and stars twinkled, but that was another place.
I pointed with my sword to the lantern. He watched the tip of my blade moving through the water and floated backward a bit, giving it some distance. I felt my senses coming back to me. I felt cold again. And I felt fear. But some of that dream-like quality to things stayed with me.
“Let’s take that with us,” I said. “I think it is the source of her power.”
He shook his head and pointed up again but I was already approaching the lantern. The truth was, I had enough self-control to try to leave this place, and to try to leave the Hag, but I didn’t want to leave the light in the lantern. I realized that I couldn’t leave it behind.
Accordingly, I laid hands on it and it shocked me. There was a silent blue flash. It wasn’t an electrical shock, not exactly, but every nerve in my hands was jolted with sensation. There are many things that stimulate human nerves: pressure, heat, cold, and the pain of severing or crushing damage. Picking up the lantern was like experiencing all of these rolled into one.
But I lifted it anyway, and I held on. I could not drop it and chance shattering the artifact, it was much too lovely for that. So I held on, howling, raving, for how long I’m not sure. It seemed like an eternity, but was probably less than a minute. I opened my squinched eyes again when the pain subsided and saw the Captain had not moved. He still floated there at the ruined stone walls, watching me warily.
I turned and moved slowly back to him, carrying the lantern. It was surprisingly heavy and dense. It was like carrying a cannonball. There would be no swimming to the surface with this thing in my arms.
I would have to leave the lake the way I came in. I would have to walk out.
We made it about as far as the fallen barn with the dead trees standing guard around it before my breath potion began to run out. It started as an odd tickle in my chest, which rapidly changed into a wild burning. It was a horrible sensation, worse than just drowning, because I already had drown, sometime ago when I’d sucked in that first lungful of murky water. I scrambled wildly, digging in my pockets. I never dropped the lantern, however, I never even considered it. I strained to hold it with my left hand while my right searched for the last potion frantically.
For one horrible moment I was sure that I’d lost it along the way. I couldn’t believe I’d been such a fool as to just shove the very breath of life into an open-topped coat pocket, and then proceeded to battle a dozen horrors and trust to luck I wouldn’t lose anything. Then I found it.
I used my teeth to tear open the rubber stopper that topped the bottle and sucked out the contents. It’s hard to drink something underwater while you are drowning and suddenly becoming increasingly aware that your lungs are already full of water, but somehow I managed to get most of it down. I almost puked, but fought it down savagely. I had to hold on to every drop.
Over the next minute or so the world almost went black. I just stood there, on the muddy bottom of the lake, head bent, waiting for death or life, not knowing which would occur first.
I held up the lantern still, never did the thought of letting it go cross my mind. It warmed my hand now rather than burned it. Strangely, it felt less heavy, rather than more, as I died. I had to wonder, vaguely, as my mind faded toward oblivion, if it had become lighter or I had become stronger. I felt there, in my hand, a new, strange, twisting sensation that I could not identify. At that point, I believe I lost consciousness, at least for a moment.
The Captain was poking my cheek and lifting my chin when my eyes snapped open. He recoiled and I grinned at him. “I live,” I burbled. I found I still stood, and the lantern was still warming my left hand, feeling lighter than ever.
We came up onto the shoreline and I shivered in the cold night winds. Nothing makes a man quite as cold as sopping wet clothes and stiff wind. The only warmth I had was from the lantern, and I clutched at it, hugging it to my chest.
“Can you breathe?” asked the Captain, looking at me strangely.
I shook my head, and sicked up a great gout of water. It was only the beginning. It was a while before I could choke and cough wretchedly, I had to build up to that. First, I simply fountained lake water. The only thing that helped, besides the warmth of the lantern in my hand, was that I still didn’t really need to breathe. I’ve heard you can drown in a teaspoon of water, but I must have unloaded a half-gallon or more onto the sands before I was done.
The Captain waited until I was simply trembling and gasping, and then asked, “Put that thing down, would you?”
I shook my head.
“Why not?” he asked quietly.
I stopped, I didn’t know why not, but I didn’t want to do it.
“I think you are going to have to,” he said.
I felt a flash of anger, my lip twitched up in a snarl, but I quieted when I followed his pointing finger.
The things on the beach had finally noticed us, and they were humping in our direction. There was a pretty big pack of them.
“Put down that stone and get out your sword, boy,” he hissed, “They’ll take that thing back to the witch if they beat us, you know.”
I realized he was right and I put the lantern down on the sands in a spot that looked soft and was devoid of rocks that might mar the polished surfaces. I threw my soaking coat over it, mostly to get rid of the cumbersome garment, but partly to hide it. The dripping coat didn’t completely cover it, and beams of colored light still shined out onto the beach in trickles and shafts. I wiped spittle from my face and lowered my head determinedly. We walked confidently down the beach to meet the pack of shambling things.
There were two of us, this time, and we were mentally prepared and methodical. The fight went on for perhaps two full minutes. It took several more to fully dismember the flopping corpses.
When it was over, we were both winded, but relatively unharmed. They had come at us strung out, in ones or twos, and we had cut them down as they reached us. We had started the fight with our pistols empty of bullets and full of water, so we had stuck to blades, he to his combat knife and me my saber.
“What the hell?” he said to me, staring, when we had finished.
I followed his gaze, and sickness waved over me again. He was gazing and pointing to my left hand. It looked very different. It was gray now, the skin had changed to the color of a bloated corpse. I looked at leathery fingers with black claws like thick pencil graphite where my nails should have been. There were only three fingers.
I yanked up my sleeve to see how far the horror had gone. It ended at my wrist where it turned back into normal, slightly hairy skin. I flexed the hand and it clutched at the air in accordance with my thoughts. To me, it looked like the claw of a predatory reptile. Perhaps that of a dinosaur.
I looked at the Captain and blinked. My face worked but I couldn’t speak for a second. I knew, right then, what had happened to Doctor Wilton. I knew how she had felt to discover her hoof.
“It must have been the lantern,” I croaked out.
He nodded grimly.
I staggered back toward the spot on the beach where we had left it. I was glad, even after everything, to see that it was still there and still safe. I was glad too, that I’d only been holding it with one hand when I’d been weak, when my body had been shutting down and dying. It had made its move then, and had shifted me.
We headed up the beach, weary. The Captain trudged beside me. He put his arm around my shoulders and leaned on me for support, as if exhausted. He was a friend, and I suspected nothing.
But my changed hand knew the truth. It gripped his wrist even as his knife rose to pierce my breast. I looked at him and the look of dark determination on his face changed to surprise. He looked at the claw on his wrist and then, finally, for the first time since I’d met him, I saw fear in his face. I shoved him away, and my new hand seemed strong because it left purpling bruises where it had touched him.
I shoved him backwards, but he was trained for such things and twisted and rode the force of my movement. I was pulled off-balance by his judo move and I lost my grip on his knife hand. He sprang away from me and I did the same. We both lifted our weapons and circled. Sand spit out from our shuffling feet.
“Again you sneak up on me,” I told him. I was angry, but scared. He was so much more trained than I was. I’d fought and learned things, but I had no military training to back it up. It was one thing to fight a mindless monster that came at you while you hacked at it. Fighting a man who had made a lifelong study of combat was quite another.
“I moved on that witch not you,” he said, “but I can’t save you Gannon, I know that now. No more than I could save Wilton, or that thing at the bottom of the lake.”
I lunged at him and my sword flared up like a torch swept about in the air. It made no sound, but flared and brightened eagerly.
He dodged with expert precision and slid his dagger under my blade, but could not reach me. He barely managed to get his shoulder out of the way before the tip skewered him. He recovered quickly and so did I. We went back to circling. I hesitated to attack again. It might be just what he wanted.
“I wondered if it would come down to this,” I spat at him, “you and I deciding who would tell the tale to the others, deciding who was the changeling and who the hero after the other was buried in a shallow hole.”
“I’ve never planned to murder you,” he said.
“But you killed my mother, didn’t you?” I demanded, and I saw the surprise in his eyes. For just a second, he stopped tracking my blade tip and instead glanced up at my face. That was the opening I needed. Instead of lunging, I went in slashing this time in wide arcs. Slashing is much harder to dodge than thrusting, and so he moved to block me instead. His long knife and my longer sword clashed and rang. He gave ground, and I kept up the attack, advancing, hoping he would stumble while shuffling backward in the sands.
He tried to gain the initiative, making a few counterthrusts to back me off, but I kept coming and with his shorter weapon he couldn’t stop me without exposing himself. I pressed the attack and our chests heaved.
Overhead the stars twinkled and the lantern that lay on the sands beneath my coat shot out occasional rays of light. The colored beams fluttered over the scene and intermittently illuminated our feet and spurts of kicked-up sand. My blade shined green, then red, and then back to blue-white again as the shifting rays touched it.
The Captain’s right boot slid back and located a piece of driftwood. He stumbled and went to one knee. I hammered down three blows and he caught them all with his knife hilt. He was good and very fast, I had to admit. Perhaps, with more even weapons he could have beaten me. But he was down now and I tasted victory.
Then the driftwood he’d stumbled over came up and smashed me in the face. I was shocked, but I knew that knife would be following the driftwood, so I used the hilt of my weapon to bash blindly down. I cracked the steel counterweight at the bottom of the hilt into his skull. It made a satisfying thump.
Both blinded by pain and nearing exhaustion, we disengaged and climbed to our feet again. Breathing hard, we went back to circling. He had the piece of driftwood in his hand now; it was about the size and weight of a fireplace log.
“How long have you known about your mom?” he asked between ragged breaths.
“The Hag told me.”
“For what it’s worth kid, I didn’t-” he paused to breathe. “I didn’t murder your mom. She had changed. I killed a changeling, that’s all.”
“I’ll kill you for it, all the same,” I said and attacked again.
He blocked with the driftwood and the dagger and I had an even harder time getting through. Then he came at me, reversing the tempo. I had no idea how to stop two whirling weapons, a club and a knife, I only knew how to stop another sword, and so I retreated, parrying as I went. I counterattacked with stop thrusts to keep him honest, but he kept moving in on me, catching my blade, beating it out of the way, and trying to get in close for a finishing move.
I realized I needed to do something fast, so I feinted, and then tried a move I’d learned from our fencing instructor. It was quite illegal in the fine sport of fencing, but the duelists of centuries past weren’t above such a thing. It was risky, so I waited until he was in mid-step and wasn’t ready to make a good counterattack.
I lunged and stabbed at his foot. I received a crack on the shoulder from his block of wood for my troubles, but was gladdened to see my saber come back out of his boot darkened by blood.
He howled and his breath blew through a line of clenched teeth. He made a staggering attack and I skipped away easily. He switched stances, putting his injured foot behind him.
“I’ve beaten you,” I said.
He ignored me, and advanced, favoring his foot. I hopped back.
“I’ll I’ve got to do is wait it out, that foot is already getting stiff. Soon, you’ll start to tire and slow down.”
I exulted. I was getting to him.
“Only one of us is leaving this beach and it won’t be you,” I said.
He stopped chasing me then, and stood up straight. He grinned, and I didn’t like the feral cast to his face. He hefted his knife and reversed it with a casual flip of his wrist. He now held it in a throwing position.
My face fell. I recalled his legendary throwing ability. He had even done a few exhibitions at the county fair. I backed away a few paces.
“You’ve only got one throw,” I reminded him.
“That’s all I’ll need, boy,” he responded confidently.
I felt a wave of frustration. “You started this. You were going to knife me while we stood there together, after everything we’ve been through down there, after I went down there to save your worthless hide.”
He shook his head. It was his turn to be exasperated. “You aren’t Gannon anymore, boy. Look at your hand. Look at that crazy magic rock you dragged out of the bottom of the lake like you were mothering an egg. You’re carrying a magic sword you got from hell-knows-where and that Hag, that thing, whatever, had you in her spell, and don’t try to say she didn’t.”
“A good enough reason to kill me?”
“What would you have done if I’d gone crazy over a magic chunk of glass and had grown a hand like a dead man’s claw?”
I chewed my lip. “And my mother?”
“It wasn’t your mother. She had turned.”
We stood there glaring at each other for perhaps another minute.
“Make your move, boy,” he growled.
“I need to think,” I said. “Truce for now?”
He thought about it, “Truce,” he said.
I backed away and left him with the lantern on the beach. Somehow, when it was covered, I didn’t care about it that much anymore.
As I stumbled up the slope in the woods I felt a tiny hot wet spot on my face. It was a single tear. I hadn’t shed a tear since the day I’d found my parents. I felt ashamed, not for my weak emotions, but for my selfishness. So many had died, but I could only cry for my own losses.
I felt confused and disgusted and wished with everything I had I’d never gone down there. The Hag was different from all the others. She was far stranger and more powerful, I knew, than even Malkin had been hiding in his little limestone hole. She wasn’t just a normal being, twisted into something new, she was older. She was a creature who had walked the Earth in past supernatural ages like this one. I wondered how many more alien creatures had awakened like Malkin and the Hag, and shuddered at the form our new world was taking.
Perhaps Wilton had been right after all. Perhaps you had to adjust and adapt to survive. Like my ancestors who had once faced the Ice Age, I would have to change my ways. I would have to learn new ways to deal with a hostile and lonely world. I didn’t look at my left hand, but I could feel it in like a lump of hard bones in my pocket, where I’d stuffed it to hide it from myself and anyone else I might meet. It made the skin of my thigh crawl with disgust where it rested.
I trudged in misery for an hour or so, dead-tired. Finally, up ahead, I saw a moving white light in the trees. I thought about the gun I’d had in my pocket, and realized I’d left it behind on the beach in my coat. It did not matter much anyway. I was out of bullets for it. I stood in a pool of shade behind a tree and waited.
While I watched, I wondered about how I had trekked through the woods so far in the pitch dark without a light of any kind. Had my eyes shifted, just a fraction, too? Then I realized that dawn was coming, and was in fact nearly upon the landscape. Perhaps that explained my vision, I thought with relief.
The light came a bit closer and I realized it must be a propane lantern. I stepped out and called out to the bearer, who jumped like a surprised burglar.
“Hello,” I said.
“Holy Moses,” exclaimed Vance. He clutched at his chest. “It’s you, Gannon. I almost filled my pants!”
I grinned. I was very glad to see him. Even in the darkest moments, he could cheer me up. “Hello brother, what are you doing out here?”
“Checking my traps,” he said. “The center is just over the hill. We are gathering all the food we can for winter. But I tell you, I’m still hoping I can get through another year without finding out what muskrat tastes like.”
“Gathering traps in the dark?”
“It’s dawn. Got to get to the traps before the foxes do.”
I nodded and followed him back toward the center. He had a sack of somethings over his shoulder. Occasionally, the sack quivered slightly.
“Not much meat on a rabbit, you know,” he said.
“Even less on a squirrel.”
He snorted in agreement. “But tell me how it went? What did you do? How did it go?”
I told him an edited version of my tale. For now, I left out the part about my fight with the Captain and my altered hand.
“So there’s a city of dead things down there?” he asked with great concern.
“Well, great. That’s just grand. I suppose she can turn into a bat and come in our windows as well, eh?”
“I hope not.”
We got to the Center then, and I found my way quickly to my bunk. Monika lavished my dirty face with kisses, and then began to gently bathe my cheeks and forehead with medicated wet wipes she’d gotten from somewhere. The sting of the alcohol in the wipes felt good drying on my face. I kept my left hand jammed in my pocket, and she left it alone. She said a few things to me in her own language, speaking softly and not really expecting an answer. They sounded like the kind of things you might say to a tired, sick and frightened child. I liked it, and closed my eyes.
I wondered if criminals went home like this and enjoyed every kindness they could absorb with intensity before the inevitable heavy knock came at their door. I fell into a sleep as deep as the lake itself.
The heavy knock came about three hours later. I awakened with a jolt of unwanted adrenaline. My dreams tore apart like frosty spider webs and in a few hazy moments of blinking, they were gone forever. I sat up.
The knock came again, three sharp reports. I felt I knew who it was before I opened the door. I almost forgot about my left hand, but managed to jam it deeply into a pocket before the door swung open.
It was the long lost Preacher. Somehow, I’d known that forceful, undeniable knock of confident authority. Seeing his stern face, I knew relief and dread all at once. We studied each other’s faces for a moment, and I knew that mine was honest and showed my feelings plainly. It was difficult to be duplicitous when awakened from a deep sleep.
“John Thomas,” I said in a raspy voice. “Welcome back.”
“The same to you, Gannon,” his voice rolled out. As always, I liked the resonating quality of it. He had the kind of voice that everyone could hear in church-you couldn’t help but hear him. Even when the babies were all crying at once it seemed that you could hear his every syllable in the furthest pews.
I really was glad to see him, glad that he had survived all this time, somehow, just as we had. I was grateful too for the leadership and guidance I knew he would provide us. Just the same, I feared him. He, like no other, would soon divine any secrets I might try to hold back.
His gaze flicked from my face, to Monika, who sat up in the bunk behind me. Monika had no poker face, she wore her fears on her brows. What’s more, I knew that she already knew something was wrong with me. She had said nothing last night, but that was all the more telling.
He took it all in. Her expression, mine, the two cots which were pushed together now, he examined it all in a moment. His eyes even paused on the sword and my pocketed hand. In the dim room, even with reflected sunlight streaming in behind him, the sword still glimmered.
All of this took no longer than three seconds before his eyes were back to my face, boring into my eyes. He always stared you in the eye, unblinkingly. He nodded. He gave me a thin smile.
“I imagine you have quite a story to tell,” he said.
“I certainly do,” I told him. “I bet you do too.”
“Yes, I truly do. Let’s get some breakfast and cleanse our bodies.”
I followed him and Monika followed me. Her hand reached out and I felt her light touch. I reached back my right hand, my good hand, and clasped hers. She was still with me, I knew. Had she, during the night, touched me and caressed me, in my deepest slumber? Had she, perhaps, felt the gray, leathery thing that rode in my other pocket? Or was it simply a sense she had that all was not well? I was again impressed by her natural quiet empathy. She was one of those rare people who didn’t speak much, but was very much involved and always knew the score. I squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back, faintly.
It was about then that I saw the thing on the Preacher’s belt move on its own. It didn’t jump, exactly, but it certainly did shift its weight. A black, wooden handle protruded down from his belt, and I recognized that he carried an axe as he had the last time I’d seen him. He had it attached to his belt with a loop of thick leather, with the head of it resting against his waist the way a carpenter might carry a hammer. The handle, not as long as the usual handle of a wood axe, but perhaps only two feet long, ran down his leg. I could see that he would be able to grab the haft under the head of it and pull it free quickly.
It was the handle of the thing that moved. It switched from one side to the other, first sliding around behind his knee, then rolling forward. The movement was not due to any action on his part, I was sure of it, even though I had not been staring at it directly when it moved. I would have assumed it to be a natural thing some months ago before the world had gone mad, but not now. I knew that when odd, impossible things happened, they happened for a reason and I knew the rippling sources of those reasons intimately.
I knew, instantly, that the axe on his belt was not the same as the last time I’d seen it. I knew that it had a power now, that it was, in a way, alive. I stopped dead and Monika pushed up against my back. She didn’t run into me, she wrapped herself up against my back and peeked around me. She was already aware of what I had just noticed, I realized. She never missed these things. Maybe this was the reason for the look of fear on her face when the Preacher had come calling.
I stopped dead and, after two forward paces, the Preacher stopped too. We were almost out to the lobby. Around us, faces were watching, I now realized. There was Jimmy Vanton, Holly Nelson and Nick Hackler, who chewed on a sandwich. Holly Nelson’s unwashed, rat-tailed hair slipped down into her face, but she paid no attention. Her eyes simply slid back and forth between the Preacher’s back and my face. She had something in her hand. Something very sharp, of course.
“Preacher,” I called out.
He turned his head back and raised an eyebrow at me.
“What rides on your belt?” I asked.
He turned his body around slowly, fully. We stood perhaps twenty feet apart in a corridor that was perhaps ten feet wide. He put his hands on his hips. The thing attached to his waist moved again, this time the metal edge of the axe seemed to be black and shiny, and it twisted and gleamed at me. I realized then that it wanted him to reach down and grab its handle, that it wanted him to pull it out and swing it. He glanced down toward it, and then slid his eyes back to me.
“As I said, Gannon, we both have long tales to tell.”
“But what is it? That is not natural.”
His brow darkened somewhat, the very first hint of anger I’d seen from him today.
“Gannon,” he said, in a voice that told me he struggled to speak as gently as he could. “One might ask you about the shimmering blade strapped to your side. Or-” he paused here, and I knew he was about to say, Or the hand you keep jammed in your pocket. But he didn’t. “Or where you’ve been and who you’ve talked to.”
I chewed my lip for a second, and then nodded. “All right, let’s talk then-now.”
The crowd of pale faces that poked into the hallway breathed a collective sigh of relief then. There would be no clash of wills or weapons. Not yet, anyway.
I followed him out to the lobby and paused at a breakfast spread someone had laid out. I had already decided to forget about our primitive bathing facilities, little more than a can of heated water in freezing shower stall, but I wanted food. There was coffee, weak but wonderful, and a big pile of homemade-looking sausages and homemade-looking flatbread. I realized that everything except the coffee, which was probably brewed up from salvaged grounds, we had made ourselves. Nick Hackler had on an apron and a smile as I approached his buffet. I realized instantly that he had probably gone to great effort to put all this together.
“Smells great!” I said, digging up three of the sausages, they were about as big as a hot dog each. I wrapped them in the lumpy brown flatbread and putting them on a plate. “Great to see we are becoming independent. No more canned crap around here!”
Nick beamed his appreciation. I meant the praise sincerely. We dammed well had better start making our own food at some point. I bit into the flakey bread and hot brown sausage with only the tiniest hesitation. The texture was all wrong and the taste was decidedly gamey, and what flashed into my mind was an image of Vance out there in the woods with his traps and his sack full of squirming animals. My hunger and my concern for Nick, who was watching me intently, got me through the natural gag reflex. I choked down a big bite and grinned at him.
The Preacher took a somewhat less ambitious helping and headed outside. Monika took nothing but a paper cup of coffee. We followed the Preacher out into the open air of the morning.
The air was clean and fresh and for once it was bright and sunny outside. But I could see immediately that gray weather was rolling in from the north, in fact, it looked like another storm. There was a black roiling center to those distant clouds. I recalled the terror of the last big storm we’d had and frowned northwards.
“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” I said.
“Neither do I,” said Mrs. Hatchell. She had appeared outside with us. “That’s the same look we had the day of the storm, the bad storm. All we need is another tree tearing the place up.”
“We should make preparations,” said the Preacher.
“We’ve already cut down all the perimeter trees,” said Hatchell, and I looked around, realizing it was true. When I had staggered into the compound at night I’d not noticed, but she was right, they had cut down the trees.
“What day is it?” I asked them, worried, suddenly, that I had lost weeks of time again while down in the underworld beneath the lake.
“Relax,” chuckled the Preacher. “Or perhaps don’t relax. For it is All Hallows Eve, and none of our few remaining precious children will be dressing up as goblins tonight. There will be no need.”
I eyed him and the sky in turn, alarmed. What had our ancestors feared during this night, the night of the harvest moon, for all those centuries past?
“I’ll go do what I can to prepare,” said Hatchell. She looked pointedly at Monika. “Monika, I could use your help.”
Monika looked startled, and then looked at me. I could tell she did not want to leave me alone with the Preacher, perhaps she did not trust his gentle intentions.
I looked at her and gave her a smile and a nod.
“Okay,” she said, and she followed Hatchell into the center. I thought I saw a calculating look on Hatchell’s face as she watched the Preacher for a moment, then led Monika away. Perhaps I was just getting paranoid. Hatchell always wore a calculating expression.
We ate our ground-up, spiced squirrel meat, or whatever it was, for few minutes in silence. I spat out a tiny bone and couldn’t finish my last one.
“We need to talk,” I said.
“Who goes first?”
“To build trust,” said the Preacher, “we should trade information one piece at a time.”
I nodded. “All right, I’ll go first.” I told him then about Wilton, about finding hoof-prints and then her hoof and then banishing her. I added in my encounters with the hag and her similar hooves, but didn’t tell the full story of the drowned habitation known as Elkinville, or the lantern, not yet. I did tell him about the sharpening stone, with the Hag’s hoof imprinted upon it. He listened to that part most intently.
He nodded speculatively. “I knew some of that, but not all. Thank you.”
“And, your story? Where have you been? What do you have on your belt?”
He sipped his coffee before beginning. “I find the part about your gift from the Hag to be the most disturbing. I too, you see, carry a gift from a creature not too dissimilar.”
He then told me that he had also visited Malkin in his limestone caverns beneath the hills near his cabin. It made sense to me that he would have found it first, that shift line was drawn directly between Redmoor and his cabin.
“My experiences in the cave were similar to yours, but not identical. I came out only last night, after you had gone to the lakeshore. I found when I got to the center that weeks had passed, not hours, just as you did. When I was there in his lair with him, he did talk to me, he did show me, at length, the heads that floated and rolled in the soupy water of his black pool. My reaction was different, however, and so was his. I talked with him about it, and I forgave him, and I told him how his sins might be forgiven forever,” at this point, the Preacher, gestured meaningfully with his Bible.
“And how did that go?” I asked, curious. I had not thought of talking about religion with these creatures.
“He did not laugh at me, he did not become angry. I’d say his response was one of curiosity. He told me he had slept eight times, and awakened nine times, this being the ninth awakening. He told me that long, long ago, in a time so distant that even his memory failed him, perhaps soon after his first awakening, he had had dealings with a creator such as the one I spoke of,” the Preacher shuddered, I thought from deep fear. I was concerned to see such an emotion grip him. He had never shown such a feeling before.
He shook his head, “I don’t know, Gannon. Does that make him an angel, or one of the fallen ones? Or something else that is not written of, that is beyond our feeble, short-lived knowledge?”
“Our ignorance of these things might kill us,” I said, and I told him of Wilton’s theory, that we were all shades of gray now, partway between human and changeling.
The Preacher nodded. “There is some wisdom in that point of view. We have all been tainted, there is no escape. We are all now creatures both mundane and magical.”
While he had spoken he had sat down upon the dead burned tree which now served us all as a bench in the parking lot. He stood up then, straight as a sword, and his face took on the stern demeanor I knew so well.
“But there is a line that can be drawn, I’m sure of it. Determining exactly where the line lies, however, is the difficult part. But it can be drawn, and I will be the one to draw it, if no other is up to the task.”
Again, as if excited by his mood, the thing on his belt shifted. It reminded me of an anxious pet, trying vainly to get its master’s attention. He turned blazing eyes to me. I blinked, there was wisdom and murder in those eyes, all wrapped into one. And, most strongly of all, what blazed out from those windows into his soul was stern, fixated stubbornness. I felt his strength of will like a warm fire and I admired it.
“And what of the thing on your belt, I don’t think you got to that part,” I said gently.
He relaxed somewhat, and breathed deeply. “Yes, our bargain,” he said. “I got the axe from Malkin. It was a gift from the fissures of hell, or heaven, or the primordial residue of creation itself-whatever these places connect one to. Unlike your sword, however, it wasn’t from an imprinted stone left behind, it was from a tiny cut upon his tiny foot, and a splash of his ancient blood that was left there. Like a magical oil, it brought the axe alive.”
“How did you catch him?” I asked.
The Preacher grinned and that grin was not entirely healthy and clean. “I was fascinated by him, and he by me, and when he did not accept the forgiveness I’m bound to offer even such a soul as his, I passed judgment upon him.”
With unnatural speed and grace, the axe appeared in the Preacher’s hand. He had reached down in a blur of motion and drawn it from where it begged to be drawn, ripped it from the loop of old stinking leather and pulled it out into the fresh air of the fall morning. It was big and black and it reflected the sunlight in white gleaming arcs. I was startled, but I could only stare at the curved black blades-for in the bright light of day I now saw the axe had two blades where I had seen it before with only one. The blades clouded over for a moment at the touch of my gaze and then, just as quickly, returned to a glass-like sheen.
The Preacher continued to grin his wise, but feral, grin. “For you see, Malkin is ancient and wise and swift-but my judgment was even more so.”
I had my hand on my saber before I knew it. I didn’t draw it; in fact, I doubt I could have drawn it before he could swing. He moved so quickly with that axe, it was far from natural. So I stared at him, meeting his gaze with my own. After a few seconds, he nodded and idly put away his living weapon. The axe seemed reluctant to go. I thought to myself, it knows the taste of blood now, and it likes it.
The Preacher continued as if he had never threatened my life. Perhaps in his mind he hadn’t. “I nicked Malkin,” he said, “and his essence both blessed and cursed my weapon. Since that moment, it has been warped in shape and nature, but not in purpose. I still use it to judge the wicked lost ones and free them from their torment.”
“Have you found any yet that could be redeemed and still live?” I asked suddenly. It had always been his position that some could be. He was the only person I knew of who didn’t completely condemn the monsters we fought, he was the only one who still held out hope for them.
He lowered his head sadly. “No,” he said, “but I will keep seeking such a creature.”
“John,” I said. “I’ll tell you one more thing and then I’ll ask you one last question about your travels.”
I told him then about my walk down through the waters to Elkinsville, about my encounters with the Captain and the Hag. I told him of our escape, and of our fight on the beach, and of the brass lantern we carried up from that dark place. I did not tell him why we fought or of how I had died briefly down there, clutching the prism in one hand.
He glanced at the hand I still had jammed in my pocket.
“Is that all you have to tell?” he asked me, and I almost told him all of it then, but I couldn’t.
“Yes,” I said.
He sighed, as if a great weight had been placed upon his shoulders. I watched him with some wariness. He spoke with high words, but was his mind as intact as his philosophies?
“What about the lantern? You just left it there on the beach?”
“She will come for it, you know. And she will come here,” he said.
“Why here?” I asked.
He turned and pointed. I followed the gesture and squinted in the sun. The daylight was just beginning to fade behind the growing storm clouds that blew overhead. I shaded my eyes with my good hand. There were two figures approaching from the northeast. They both appeared to be favoring sore feet. It took me a moment to recognize them. It was the Captain, and Doctor Wilton. Wilton had something wrapped in a dark cloth.
The dark cloth she carried was my own coat. It flapped up in the growing winds. The thing hidden beneath it shot out a beam of crimson light in my direction. It was blinding and beautiful all at once.
It was the Hag’s lantern.
I looked back at the center. I realized that there were several faces glued to various windows. I saw Holly Nelson’s, and Nick Hackler’s and Monika’s. My talk with the Preacher had not been as private as I’d assumed. I doubted they had heard the words, but they had gotten the gist of it, I was sure.
The Preacher and I stood side by side quietly as the Captain and Wilton approached us. We had our hands ready. Vance came out too, casually holding his rifle at waist-level. I saw no sign of the Captain’s M4 and felt relieved. Perhaps he had lost that weapon. Or perhaps he had stashed it somewhere for a special occasion.
They reached the gate and Wilton called out. “Let us in, I think we might be followed!”
The three of us walked toward the gate, which was chained tight. Barbed wire wound around the top of the fence now, and the empty guard tower built of plywood and two-by-fours loomed mutely over them.
“Well, Captain?” I said, eyeing them both.
The Preacher had been opening his mouth, and seemed startled that I had beaten him to it. He watched me with interest, but did not object or interrupt.
“Gannon,” the Captain greeted me. He had his knife at his side, but his hand was on the hilt. Both he and Wilton looked dirty and tired. I could only wonder what they had been up to while I slept.
“Do we still have a truce?” I demanded.
“Of course,” he said, attempting a smile. “There are worse things out here than you or I.”
I nodded, not buying his friendly show entirely, but finding his point hard to argue.
“And what about Wilton and the thing from the beach?” I demanded, coming up to the gate to face him. “I never meant to let either of them into the center.”
Wilton opened her mouth to speak, but the Captain waved her to silence. Wilton looked worriedly from face to face, but took the hint and held her tongue. I imagined it was difficult for her. She kept glancing over her shoulder and scanning the houses and streets behind them.
The Captain came up to the fence and clawed his hands in the chain links. “Look, Gannon, things are bad out here. I’ve seen bad things. You know what I mean. We are all going to have to work together tonight I think and use everything we have, or we’re all dead. Or worse.”
I eyed the Captain. “Explain what you mean.”
“Okay, but let us in first.”
I glared at them, undecided for a moment.
“If we let you in, you’ll bring it all right here, just like she did before,” said Vance, his eyes narrowly upon Wilton.
“Let them in,” said the Preacher at my side.
I glanced at him, and then nodded to Vance. With a lot of muttering and cursing, he fumbled with the keys and got the locks off the chains. We shook open the makeshift, sagging gates far enough to let them slip inside, then sealed them up again with twists and braids of rusty chain.
When they got inside, we eyed one another with suspicion for a second, and then the Preacher broke the mood by offering his hand to the new arrivals. We all shook hands around in a circle. The familiar act of trust relieved some of the tension, but not all of it.
“Welcome back,” said the Preacher, smiling and locking eyes with each of them in turn. “It’s hard not to be suspicious of one another on this dark day. We must try to remember our humanity, and to forgive. Everyone loses their way, at times, but it is never too late.”
I could see the words had some impact on Wilton, and even the Captain wasn’t immune and aloof to the sentiment. His words made me think of my secret burden. It was odd how easy it was to forget about it. In fact, I found it easy to pretend my hand didn’t have black talons that threatened to tear apart my pocket. Had I lost my way?
I thought of all the movies I’d seen where people had changed into monsters. They always tried to hide it. They always felt shame and gave angry denials. It was so strange to be the monster. I felt like the good man who commits a crime accidentally, and who is then forced to live a lie, sure that at any moment someone would figure it out, that everyone would learn of his secret shame. They had to figure it out eventually. Who was I to try and judge these others with their own failings? What had Wilton or the Captain done that I hadn’t?
“I think I’ll wash up,” I heard myself say, and I marveled at my normal tone of voice. I was becoming good at covering. “Make sure you try some of Nick Hackler’s cooking, he’s quite proud of it.”
They laughed and I left them out there in the parking lot. I had been driven away by self-doubt, I knew. In a way it was a relief, I wanted the Preacher to take over leadership and manage our defenses. When tonight came, I would fight on the side of the humanity. But I kept having another thought, a dark thought about pulling out of here. I might be able to survive better if I just left, if I struck out on my own. What stopped me was the thought of everyone I cared for. I thought of them in turn, Monika and Holly Nelson and my younger brother Vance, who even now excitedly told whoever would listen about his traps and where he’d found the barbed wire bails and a dozen other things. I couldn’t leave them.
As if she had divined my thoughts, Mrs. Hatchell caught me in the lobby next to the sausage stand. Nick was off somewhere, perhaps concocting a lunch out of changeling corpses.
“Gannon,” she said, grabbing my arm. “I need to talk to you.”
“What is it?”
“Whatever you are thinking, you need to stay here tonight,” she told me, still holding onto my arm.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You wander quite a bit, boy. But not tonight, okay?”
“But why are you so concerned?”
“Because we need you,” said Monika, appearing behind me. I hadn’t heard her approach. She always moved quietly.
I reached out my good hand to her and she reached hers to meet mine. Mrs. Hatchell watched our fingers entwine and smiled. I’m sure she now approved of our closeness-now that it fit in with her plans.
“It’s the Preacher,” hissed Mrs. Hatchell. She leaned uncomfortably close to us. “It’s that thing he’s got, on his belt. He was gone for weeks, even longer than you were, and last night he comes back with an enchanted artifact, saying it’s a gift from one of them. He’s never without it. He’ll put his Bible down, but not that thing.”
She said this last with clenched teeth. She let go of my arm and leaned her skinny butt back against the table.
“So you don’t trust him?” I asked.
“We don’t,” Monika chimed in. I turned back to her, surprised. I trusted her judgment more than I did the counselor’s.
“Listen, ladies,” I whispered back to both of them. “First of all, I’m not leaving. Secondly, the Preacher, I believe, is the most trustworthy of all of us. I trust him more than I do myself.”
They both blinked at me. I looked from one face to the next.
“What’s with your hand?” asked Mrs. Hatchell. She looked pointedly at the abomination I kept jammed in my pocket.
“I injured it,” I said smoothly. I had practiced the lie, and it came out sounding very natural. I wondered how long I could keep it concealed. Perhaps, just long enough for me to prove myself to the rest of them.
“Gannon,” said Monika. Her face had that scared-kid look I found most endearing. “What if he decides that we aren’t good enough?”
I looked back at her for a moment. Her eyes flicked down to my hidden hand, and then back to my face. She knew. Mrs. H. was only starting to suspect, but Monika knew. I had noticed hints before, but now I was sure. She knew my hand had gone bad, and she knew the Preacher wouldn’t like it, and now she didn’t like him, because he was a threat to me.
“You two are so sappy,” Hatchell said suddenly, misinterpreting our close, wordless exchange. She shook her head and tsked. “This office romance would be enjoyable, if we weren’t all about to get butchered. Promise me that if you have a spat, neither of you tries to leave until we survive this storm and the trick-or-treaters I’m expecting to see tonight.”
“There aren’t going to be any trick-or-treaters,” said Holly, walking in our conversation. Her eyes were hard, but there was a touch of a lost look on her too-young face. I felt bad for her. “Not ever again.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
She came closer and I saw she had a Bowie knife in her hands. She thunked it tip-first into the table that still had a few cold sausages on it. “Tonight, I’m going to stand by you, whatever happens.”
I nodded and smiled. I knew she meant it. She couldn’t have weighed eighty pounds yet, but I knew she would fight, no matter what happened. She wasn’t a kid anymore. Others might freeze up or run, but not her. She would fight, and that made her valuable.
“I’ll be glad to have you there,” I told her, and I meant it.
Wilton came in then, followed by the rest of them. The Preacher came in last. Wilton set the lantern, with my coat still over it, on the big, low kids’ coloring table that occupied one corner of the lobby. I had always liked that corner as a child. It had bead-puzzles and blocks and the fish tank in it, along with some heavily-eared magazines and books. I’d played there, what now seemed like a century ago.
The lantern was heavy, and I was amazed Wilton had carried it so far. She half slumped over it now, and even though she had put it down, she kept at least one hand resting on top of it. It’s got her fixated, I thought to myself. I knew that power it had very well.
Vance came over to me and handed me a shotgun, or at least he tried to. I thought it must have been the one from the police cruiser, but I refused it with a wave. “I’ll stick to my sword.”
He shook his head, “Brother, if these guys are right about what is coming tonight, you’ll need it. This is one of our last shotguns, most of the rest burned up over at Billson’s ages ago.”
Our one hunting shop in town had died an early death. Someone followed by two loping monsters had run in there, no doubt seeking some personal protection. Somehow, in the following battle, everyone inside had died, including the changelings. But the place had caught fire and burned, removing most of our ammunition and weapons from the town.
Just the same, I knew I could never work a shotgun with one hand, and I didn’t want to even try to work it with my warped hand.
“Have you got a pistol?” I asked.
He nodded and handed me a semi-automatic. I looked a bit plain, but serviceable.
“What is it?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “It’s Russian or German I guess. It takes 9mm standard ammo. Found it in one of the houses down the block. We went on some scavenging missions. I think we’ve got plenty of guns for everyone in the center. But ammo is going to be low, and we don’t have enough of any one type to match up all the guns.”
I found the stamp on it, made in Jordan, it said. I hoped the sucker wouldn’t jam on me. “Just one clip?” I asked.
He tossed me a back up, and, right there, I almost blew it. My right hand had the pistol, so I automatically yanked my left out to catch the clip. I stopped myself just in time. The clip bounced off my gut and clattered to the ground. Monika dove for it, snatched up the clip and shoved it into my right coat pocket. I put the pistol in there with it. I wondered how the hell I was going to reload.
“You asleep?” asked Vance. We had often tossed balls back and forth in the living room for years, tennis balls, footballs, even while watching TV. Especially while watching TV. It used to drive our mom nuts. He knew I rarely dropped anything.
“You were aiming for my balls, weren’t you?” I accused and faked a smile.
He smiled back, but looked a bit confused. Still, it got him off the topic. He could be like a birddog if you let him get onto a scent.
Monika grabbed my arm then, the bad one, and tugged at me. “I’ve got something for you,” she said in a near-whisper. It was noisy enough in the room that no one else noticed her. Everyone was bustling about. We had lived through a storm before, and we would do it again. The center had walls now, and we were prepared. Or at least, we thought we were, I wasn’t so sure, but I wasn’t going to say anything about my doubts. I hadn’t told people about the things on the beach or the things at the bottom of the sea. They would see horrors enough on their own soon.
I let Monika drag me down a hallway and into a room with an X-ray machine in it. I wondered if I would ever get another X-ray during the rest of my life.
“Here,” she said, and she had a large, black leather glove. It was a left-handed glove. She had a strange look on her face, as if she were involved in a crime. It was the furtive expression people in her country must have worn when they hid contraband from the communists a generation before.
I looked at the glove. I blinked at it not knowing what to say, her trust in me was sweet-she was so sweet. She didn’t care if I was part monster, she just wanted to protect me from the others. I took the glove with my good hand and then I hugged her tightly. I jerked my head, indicating that she should leave while a put it on.
“Put it on,” she said, looking me in the eye. Her look told me that she wouldn’t retch, that she wouldn’t run screaming, that she wouldn’t tell on me, or leave me. But I knew that having lizard fingers, even in a glove, would be a turn off for any girl. I moved behind the X-ray shield, with its tiny window of leaded glass, to put it on. There was a sink back there, and I felt the dry chaffing of my leathery new hand when it came out of my pocket. I wondered if it was part sea turtle, it felt so dry and chapped. It was not at all happy to be away from the watery world it was created in. I turned on the tap water, wanting to wet my curled thick fingers just a moment before I cruelly shoved them into a rabbit skin glove. The sink stuttered and thumped. I’d forgotten, the power was out and the pumps hadn’t been on for days. Still, the faucet pissed out a dribble of cool water on my hand. I rubbed it over the whole thing, as far as it would go. It was like a teaspoon of butter spread over a mile of thirsty bread, but it felt good anyway.
“Do you need help?” called Monika delicately.
I shook my head and tried to jam my strange hand into the glove. The fingers were too thick, especially the knuckles. It was like putting on clothes two sizes too small. When I finally had it on, one of the glove fingers sagged and flopped emptily, of course. I only had three fingers and a short thumb now. Still, it looked pretty good if I kept it relaxed. If I clenched a fist, that one missing finger was obvious, but if I was careful, the whole thing would pass a lax inspection.
I managed to get a fake grin on my face when I turned back to face my faithful girlfriend. I held up the glove and wriggled my fingers a bit inside it. She smiled at first, but the wriggling was a mistake. The fingers move in an unnatural, clutching motion. I ignored her expression and kept the grin pasted on. I put the hand back down at my side.
“Thanks, Monika,” I told her.
In answer, she kissed me. We kept kissing for a bit, and then I noticed that it had grown quiet out in the hallway. I glanced at the door, and underneath, a faint kaleidoscope of lights flickered, as if there was a rainbow out there or maybe one of those disco balls doing a slow spin.
Someone had uncovered the lantern, I knew it in an instant.
I released Monika and strode to the door, throwing it open.
“Don’t look at it,” I told her over my shoulder.
She nodded in confusion.
Everyone was in the lobby. The lantern was still on the kid table, uncovered now. Wilton stood next to it, talking like a salesman doing a demo. The rest of the group was strangely silent. They stared at the lantern, and I knew what they were thinking and feeling. They were in its power, or soon would be. Would we fight to the death over it? I felt it tugging at me, even as I approached. A lime-green beam reached out and touched my eyes and my left hand clawed excitedly. I jammed it back into my pocket.
“What is it? What is it, you ask?” said Wilton, her eyes alight and almost as bright as the eye of the lantern itself. “It is the heart of the shifting, the end of any shift-line, like an anchor at the end of a chain. It is an artifact unlike the others you’ve seen. You’ve only seen shadows of the real thing, objects and beings altered from their original form by the creative chaotic power that sometimes glances randomly off of things that come too near. The Eye is a creation from whole cloth, there was nothing before it. With a single grunting thrust of power it came into being.”
No one said anything. I took two more steps forward, not quickly, not threatening, but closing the distance.
Wilton noted my approach, but kept talking to the people gathered around her.
“This is made of the very stuff of creation,” she said. She ran a caressing hand over it, and I saw she wore a glove of her own. Her hand was oddly shaped, and I thought of a beaver’s paw, or a dog’s. Inside that glove, I suspected there were furry pads and curved nails.
“Does everyone recall the old theory of Spontaneous Generation? From history class?”
No one responded. They just looked at her. No, I realized, they were staring at the lantern, not her.
“Centuries ago they noticed that frogs and fish and insects would appear if you created a pond artificially, or if you dried it up and refilled it. Wildlife would soon appear and flourish and thrive in a new pond far from any other water source, seemingly by magic. People took it as proof of the hand of a Creator hundreds of years ago, but it was all disproved by science since.”
She tore her eyes from the lantern to look at me. She smiled at me, and I knew it was the smile the cat gives the bird it’s brought in the house to play with and show off to the Master before killing it.
“But maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t all disproved. Maybe there was a hint of this power left over back then, and in any case, we don’t need any theories here. We are faced now with hard evidence of this creative power. We are living with it, trying to survive it. One might as well develop theories debating the existence of volcanoes during an eruption. The power we face is in truth as destructive as it is creative. Better to call it the power of chaos, the power of heat when applied to candle wax. The wax takes a new, splattered form, but is this the creation of a new form or the destruction of the old? I’d say it is one and the same, but what matters is that we are the candles.”
“What are they then, these forces you speak of?” I asked, stepping closer and playing her game. I didn’t look at the lantern, although I wanted to as much as the rest of them. They stood there, slack-jawed, mostly. Some of them flinched when I spoke, but none of them looked at me. Even Mrs. Hatchell just stared at the brilliant sprays of color that rippled and danced on the walls.
“I believe these forces have lain sleeping in the Earth, in the belly of our world, for all time, undetected by our fledgling sciences. Our only hint of them comes from our myths, our persistent stories of the past which we’ve all chosen to laugh off. The wisdom of those that went before us we consider the ravings of the mad and the ignorant. All superstitious nonsense and children’s fables, fabricated to keep them from straying too far into the forests.”
She had both her hands on it now, and she was gazing deeply into it. She kept talking, seemingly immune to its mesmerizing powers. I wondered if her voice was hypnotic.
“You all realize that magma bubbles and froths just a few miles below our feet, intense, destructive heat that could kill us all in an instant if it chose to? The supernatural forces are like that. They have been in the Earth all along, lying dormant. What makes a volcano happen? Or a rash of them? One finger of lava is sent up through a weak spot in the planet’s thin skin. That finger sprays out like a hose and fills the land with new molten minerals, killing and destroying everything it touches, making new islands in the sea or blowing old ones into history. We don’t question these amazing phenomena. We accept a long history of such events. Just as we accept the falling of chunks of the sky to Earth, wiping out vast areas and causing vast extinctions. Just as we accept the random new tilting of the Earth’s axis, causing ice ages and warming periods, causing life to wilt or bloom all over the globe. These upheavals are known. But this new one, this upheaval of the supernatural, is unknown to us. We’d forgotten about this one. Perhaps humans, as we now think of them, were created in one such upheaval long ago. Perhaps our confused history is full of such hiccups and belches of chaos.”
“I can accept such lofty theories about the age we now face and that there might have been previous such ages,” said a new voice, the Preacher’s voice. He stepped in our makeshift plywood doorway from outside and approached. He stared directly at Wilton, never glancing at the lantern. He avoided looking directly at it, just as I did. He glanced at me and I nodded and took a step toward Wilton. She shuffled her feet and frowned at both of us.
“What I don’t accept,” the Preacher continued, “is the embracing of the destructive powers of the shifting effect. I think a man might wield an instrument touched by the effect, with some peril, but through strength of will, it could be overcome. I’m less convinced that an artifact forged wholly in the fires of the supernatural can ever be controlled by a human. Not if they still planned on remaining human, that is. I’m willing to offer as proof, your sad sore foot, Wilton, and your hound’s paw, which you favor along with a dozen other abominations, I’d wager, beneath that shapeless garment of yours.”
She curled her lip at him, and her eyes flicked between us.
“Can’t you all recall the basic images that have stuck with us for all time?” the Preacher continued. “What shape does a witch bear when she comes to us? She comes in the form of a Hag, an aged and withered thing, both pitiful and terrible. What garments does such a sad creature wear? Why, formless robes to hide the devastation to her body that her depraved congress with the supernatural has wrought upon her!”
“Nonsense!” Wilton bleated. “My abominations, as you call them, are noble sacrifices, made by me in full knowledge of the consequences for the betterment of us all.”
“Nay, I say they have been made for the betterment of just one: yourself,” he told her. On his belt, the axe that rode there moved and poked out its handle suggestively.
I looked at Wilton and the Preacher, their eyes were locked and I knew, with absolute certainty, that something very bad was about to happen. I wanted both of them alive, at least until we rode out this storm, so I took that moment to act. While her attention was diverted, I threw my coat back over the lantern. The beautiful colors died, and the crowd in the lobby sighed disappointedly.
Outside, there was a flash of color from the skies, answering the sudden quiet inside. Somewhere, there was a flash of red lightning. The storm had begun, and evening was falling over Redmoor on Halloween. The windows and doors shuddered with sudden gusts of cold wind. Rain speckled the parking lot and the sun died.
“Don’t uncover that thing again,” I told her with open threat in my voice.
“The Hag will kill us all,” Wilton hissed back. “She wants her source back and we can’t beat her if she gets it.”
“We’re not going to give it to her.”
She grinned, and I thought her teeth looked a bit too long. “In a way, I’m glad to see you can stand up to this pretty bauble. Maybe we can win this fight after all. I had all but lost hope, you see. Now, no matter what you think of me, remember one thing for the battle ahead: she only has one great power. She can make things come to life and move, such as the walking trees. She will make things that cannot move into mobile servants to tear us apart.”
She sagged down into a chair then, looking exhausted and old and empty.
The Preacher, cheek muscles twitching, stared down at her. There was murder in his eye.
I grabbed Mrs. Hatchell and spun her to look at me. “Don’t look at these things directly. They can captivate your mind. Tell the others. You understand, don’t you? Or are you a mindless old fool?”
She blinked at me, but the insult stung her. She stalked around the room, getting into people’s faces and waking them up.
“Let’s go outside,” I said to the Preacher. He continued to stare at the defeated Wilton. He tossed me a glare, and then stomped outside. I followed him.
Outside it was raining now and the wind worked hard to lash the silvery drops down in stinging sheets. I couldn’t recall a Halloween with worse weather. Probably, weather patterns had all changed now, and not for the better.
The Preacher was angry. “I had passed judgment upon her, Gannon. You interfered. You have imperiled us all.”
“You are the one always saying it’s never too late, that lost ones can come back to the fold. Here she is, back in the fold, and we are facing the greatest danger yet. I say let those who survive until morning decide who is guilty and who isn’t.”
“For her, I think it is too late. She’s passed on. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” he quoted, “and if I’ve ever set eyes upon a witch, that is one sitting inside our very fortress.”
“We need her to counter the other witch. You haven’t met her yet, she makes Wilton seem harmless.”
He sighed. “You’ve endangered us all. Evil can’t be used to combat evil, Gannon, it doesn’t work that way. But very well, you’ve stayed my hand for now.”
That was all I wanted to hear. We went back inside.
This time the world did not fill up with fog. This time, the storm came on like a thousand giants beating furiously on the roof and the pavement. The red flashes were back, but with odd whooshing sounds rather than thunder. It was unnerving, and everyone knew that things would be changed outside after it had passed. We even invented a name for this kind of odd storm.
“A shiftstorm,” said Vance next to me. “Sounds a lot like shit-storm, doesn’t it?” he chuckled at his own joke and I smiled.
We looked outside. It was dark now, just after six in the evening, as closely as I could figure in this age without clocks.
“About this time last year,” I said wistfully, “a hundred kids would have come out in costumes and begun working the doorbells.”
“Yeah,” sighed Vance. “I miss the little bastards. Even the night they hammered my pickup with eggs. I even miss that.”
I squinted out into the storm and watched the chain link fence creak and sway in the growing winds. When lightning flashed, the wet links formed a brilliant pattern of squares for a brief moment. The chains that secured the gate clinked and rattled and shook.
The lightning flashed again, and outside, past the gate, I thought I saw a shape move. Probably, it was just branch, or a bit of debris from a house roof that had been caught up in a gust of wind. Probably.
“Who has the shotgun?” I asked sharply.
“I gave it to Nick Hackler. Don’t know if he has a clue how to use it. Everyone is armed now, even Holly has that pig-sticker of hers.”
“Where’s the Captain?”
“He went off, would you believe, back to his place to get some more ammo. Crazy bastard.”
“In this storm?” I shook my head. I didn’t think he was out to get ammo at this late date. I knew him now and understood his thinking. He didn’t want to be trapped in our little cage when things hit the fan. He wanted be outside, flanking the enemy. But telling Vance this would make him think we had been abandoned, so I just said, “I hope he gets back before things get-wild.”
“Where’s the Preacher?” ask Vance.
“He’s got Nick and a few others at the back door. You, me and Jimmy are covering this one. The rest are in the command post.”
Vance chuckled at the lofty term command post. The dentist’s offices were in the center of the three sections of the center, and we had fortified that inner area with blockaded doors and supplies, in case things went bad.
“You think she’s coming after us tonight, this Hag of yours?”
In answer to his question I pointed out into the lashing rain. The window had fogged up a bit, and the rain had turned into silver-white streaks, where you could see it at all, catching the light from the lanterns that burned in the center.
“What?” asked Vance, craning his neck and smearing a hole in the misted-up glass.
“The gate,” I told him.
He stared out into the storm for perhaps ten seconds. He could tell something was wrong. Then he realized the gates hung open. “Where are the locks? Where are those chains? I put them on myself.”
“Look down,” I said quietly.
“Ah I see them. Hey, they’re moving!” this last he shouted and several nervous sets of eyes came to rest on backs.
I didn’t shush him. I did not try to hide it from the others. Everyone would have to know soon enough. Something had changed our rusty chains into a writhing lump of chain-shaped snakes that even now were struggling not to drown in the vicious rains. They twisted and slithered free of the last of the chain link diamonds that ensnared their bodies. The sagging, homemade gate they had held tightly together hung open about a foot or so.
“It could just be the storm, right Gannon?”
I shook my head, I didn’t think so. Armed silent people moved up behind us and peered out the windows. Carlene took her baby into the back, her kid over one shoulder and a revolver in the other hand.
I pulled the Hag’s gift from my pocket, the sharpening stone stamped by her hoof, and I began sharpening my saber with long strokes. Orange sparks leapt from the blade and the bluish glow intensified. Vance looked at the stone, my gloved, misshapen hand and the sword. He licked his lips, breathing hard, and for once said nothing.
Outside, the gates burst open and dark shapes, moving fast and low to the ground, poured through into the parking lot.
It had begun.
The air stunk of cordite and still everyone kept firing and still the things kept coming. They were wolves. But they weren’t natural wolves, they came in wide variety of all sizes and they wore collars. I realized they weren’t originally wolves, but had started life as all the town dogs we’d known and played with and hated when they barked too long at night-together all of them charged our walls in a pack. There had to be a hundred of them, wolves the size of schnauzers and rottweilers and collies and random mutts. We shot them as they came and they went down, but sprang up again, yellow teeth snapping and snarling. They stank of rot and evil. Some of them had bones showing through their fur. Their eyes shined in the night and they threw themselves at the windows and chewed at our makeshift door. Why hadn’t we built a proper door? It was plywood for heaven’s sake. It would never hold against a determined assault, even if the Hag didn’t change it into a wriggling sheet of slimy flesh or something equally horrible.
A small wolf the size of a fox got in and went for my boot. It was some kind of terrier I imagined in a previous life and I kicked it away quickly before a wolf the size of a big guard dog that was in and on me. I went down with the weight of its body and this one was smarter, if such a thing can be said of such an unnatural beast, it went for my throat with broken fangs and torn black lips. Vance put several rounds into it with a pistol like the one he’d given me and it stopped functioning. It was then I noticed that Holly was kneeling over the smaller one, stabbing it with her huge knife over and over, even though it had stopped moving. I didn’t feel bad, these creatures were already dead.
“More,” Vance panted in my ear as he helped me back to my feet. “More things are coming in through the gate.”
The next wave was full of scuttling vines and walking rosebushes. The vines moved low to the ground, their dried up flowers and leaves were brown and wilted, but their questing, snaking tendrils were still supple and lashed at us like whips. The rosebushes were worse, their thumb-thick rattling branches being covered in thorns. I made good use of my saber against them, slashing and hacking, but soon my hands and legs were bleeding.
“Gannon!” I heard a cry from the back, I wasn’t sure who it was, maybe Nick or Nelson. “They’re coming into the basement!”
“Hold the door if you can, fall back to the dentist’s offices if we lose the door,” I told Vance and the others that were making their stand in the lobby.
I turned and ran back into the offices. I had to get the doors down into the basements shut and barricaded. They couldn’t be allowed to get into the middle of us. Holly Nelson ran with me. True to her pledge, she was following me everywhere I went.
Monika and Mrs. Hatchell were already there with the rest of the Nelsons. Mr. Nelson looked scared but had two pistols resting in holsters he’d rigged up by stapling them to the sides of his wheelchair. He had big arms, like many men who are wheelchair bound, and I knew he’d make a good accounting of himself if anything got this far past our defenses.
I grabbed Monika by the arm. “Get hammers and nails.”
Behind the nurses’ station was the door that went down into the basement from this section. If anything got in down there it could come up the stairs and into the middle of us. I put my shoulder against the door and grabbed hold of the doorknob with my good hand, preventing it from turning.
“Is anyone down there?” I asked Nelson.
Nelson shook his head. His face was white. “Holly,” he said, “You stay back in here with me.”
Holly didn’t say anything to her father. There wasn’t even a look of pain or defiance on her face; it was as if she hadn’t heard him.
“Mind your daddy, now,” I told her, mostly for Nelson’s sake. I knew she wouldn’t.
She just stared at me and the door I was holding closed. I knew her only thought was of how to back me up. I thought about cats that I’d met up with that had “gone feral” and turned wild. Her eyes were like that, she wasn’t really a kid anymore, no matter what she looked like. She was thinking at an animal level.
Then the door I held closed shook with a heavy impact. I did not have any more time for reflection. Three more times it shivered as something threw itself against the other side with everything it had. The hinges creaked, but it held.
“Monika?” I shouted. “Where’s that hammer?”
The blows on the door stopped and for a moment there was no sound other than our puffing breath. Nelson had out his pistols and they were trained at the door in case I went down.
Then we heard a click, and a rattling sound. The lock had been opened. Then something twisted the doorknob in my hand. I grunted and strained to stop it, but the power of it was incredible, unnatural. I pulled out my other hand, my gloved hand, and clamped it onto the doorknob. It was a strain, but I stopped it, and even managed to ease it back a bit.
Then the door began shivering again as more blows rained down on it. I held on, my whole body shivering with the door and the impacts. Wood splintered and metal bits creaked and groaned. I could not hold it closed for long.
Monika and Mrs. H. showed up and started nailing strips of wood over the doorway. The hammers rang in my ears and I sweated, gripping the door with the unnatural strength of my shifted hand and leaning all my weight against the bulging wood. I was glad it was an old door, a solid door of the type they didn’t make anymore. It was a thick piece of varnished wood, well-built by craftsmen that were probably all dead now.
Soon, I felt brave enough to give up my hold on the door and help the women with the nailing.
“What’s down there?” asked Monika when we stopped, breathing, long enough to survey our work.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s not a wolf. Wolves can’t twist knobs like that.”
There were screams coming from another part of the center.
I looked at Nelson. “Can you cover this?” I asked.
“If it starts to go, call us.”
“Don’t worry,” he said.
I ran down the hall and Holly followed me. Nelson didn’t call her back.
We were losing the lobby, I saw that right away when I got there. One of our two makeshift plywood doors was down and cold air and splatters of thick raindrops came in, staining the carpet.
The things coming into the door weren’t wolves or plants now, but human shapes, mostly dressed in colorful summer clothes, when they wore anything at all. Jimmy Vanton was there, sitting in a chair with the police shotgun in his hands. His right leg was torn up, but he hardly paid attention to the blood that pumped up out of it. I turned to ask Wilton to stop the bleeding, but she was nowhere in sight.
After a minute or two, we had fought them off. There was a lull in the attacks and I wondered what the next wave would be like. Vance reloaded with shaking fingers. “We can’t hold everything, there are less than twenty of us left,” he told me.
“Let’s pull back out of here and just cover the dentists place.”
“So much for all that fencing we built out there.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, “we are already retreating to our last stronghold.”
“Okay, I’ll cover the door, you get Jimmy up and help him into the back.”
“What about that?” Vance nodded his head toward the lantern on the table. I looked at the lantern, still lying untouched on the kids table with my coat draped over it. There was only the faintest glow coming from under my coat, we had tucked it down as tightly as we could without touching the thing.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That’s what she is after. Maybe she’ll just take it and go.”
“Or maybe she will use it to finish us off,” said Jimmy Vanton, talking for the first time. We looked at him. He had both hands on his legs and the bleeding had slowed. “Look, I know no one wants to touch it. I’ll carry it, and you guys get me up and help me walk.”
“I’ll carry it,” said Holly quietly. She was staring at the thing on the table. I realized she was probably right, she could do it and leave the rest of us to fight and help Jimmy.
There was a new round of gunfire from the back of the center. It was terrible to listen to, not knowing if everyone back there was dying or just firing out a window at something they thought they saw. I wanted to get all of us together. I wanted to have Monika in my sight at all times.
Then, outside, we heard the fence go down with a wild rattling, snapping sound. There was crashing in the parking lot. Vance and I exchanged glances. We had heard these types of sounds before. Something big was coming.
Jimmy struggled up. “I can carry it! I can do more than a little girl, anyway.”
Vance put an arm out and kept him from toppling over. He clutched his shotgun with one hand and the table with the other.
The whole building shook then. The huge something that was dragging the fence with it had impacted with the building and a section of the wall in the optometrists section caved in. Then the roof buckled over our heads and a hole opened up. There were screams in my ears, and a huge hand reached down through the hole in the ceiling and lifted up a section of it. Acoustical tiles fell in chunks and roofing pelted us. We all just froze and cringed, ducking down, not knowing for a second what to do. Then Vance and Jimmy fired at the hand as it came back down, covered in black twisted bark. One finger splintered and broke off, and then the tree hand came for Jimmy. He tried to duck, to hobble away, but he couldn’t move fast enough. The hand lifted him up and pulled him, screaming, up into the night sky. He flopped and writhed and grabbed onto the sides of the hole. His shotgun boomed once, and then it was over. Blood and bits of roofing rained down when the hand wrenched him, still gripping his shotgun, through the too small opening.
More shapes were humping in through the front door and the building shivered under more impacts. I could see in an instant there was more than one tree out there, I envisioned them smashing away at the building.
We ran then, we simply forgot about the lantern and our job of holding the doorway and we even forgot about Jimmy Vanton, who was as good as dead anyway. We just ran down the halls, Vance and Holly and I.
Chunks of the building were being torn away now, the trees were wading into the lobby like giants. Snake-like roots lashed the old chairs and smashed through the aquarium. Dried-up fish and colored gravel splattered the floor.
Behind us, most terrible of all, scintillating light burst in a myriad of colors. Someone or something had uncovered the lantern.
“What’s happening?” Mrs. Hatchell had my shirt in her hands and she had tears in her eyes.
My left hand reached up and snatched her hands away. A look of shock and pain came into her face. My warped hand must have squeezed her too hard.
“You’re crushing my wrists,” she said.
“Gannon, stop,” said Monika, touching my arm. I twitched away from her touch, but then allowed it.
“Jimmy Vanton is dead,” I told them. “And we’ve lost the lobby and the lantern.”
“The Hag has it,” said Vance.
“Maybe she’ll go away now,” said Nelson hopefully.
“Or she’ll make more things to finish us,” returned Vance.
Mrs. Hatchell rubbed her wrists and glared at me. “What about the trees?”
“Let’s get the buckets and gasoline set up again,” suggested Vance.
“We’ll burn ourselves up,” said Holly, and everyone paused, realizing she was probably right. The trees were not out in a parking lot now, but digging right into the building. If we threw gasoline on these walls and set them ablaze, we might kill a tree, but we had no way out ourselves.
We decided to barricade the hallways as best we could with furniture and equipment. I threw computers and monitors and expensive medical lab equipment in a heap on the floor and piled it up. I would have traded it all for a stack of sandbags now.
The Preacher soon joined us from the backdoor. They had lost that entrance as well. We had retreated to our inner stronghold and there was no way out now. I recalled something I’d read about recordings of the crews in black boxes on lost aircraft, that crews going down in aircraft never seemed to completely understand they were dying, never really believed it, not until the very last second. Unlike in movies, they didn’t weep and scream incoherently, but instead fought the situation, battled professionally until the end with whatever they had, trying everything. And always, they had hope, even though they were doomed. Perhaps denial was one of our most useful survival traits. We weren’t as good as dead, we didn’t accept our doom, the thought never even occurred to us. We simply worked hard to solve the problems at hand.
“She’s got what she came for, but she’s still coming,” hissed Mrs. Hatchell to no one in particular. “Why?”
No one answered her.
After another minute or so of scrambled activity, the roof caved in. At least, that’s what I thought at first. What really happened was the floor collapsed under the fantastic weight of the living trees, taking down the walls and a good part of the roof with it. Suddenly, our corridor that had been ten feet wide or so was half that, or less. The building parted with a vast groaning, tearing noise. It sounded like a freight train roaring by inches away from your head. We dove away from it, but not everyone went in the right direction. Carlene Mitts was standing against the wrong wall at the wrong time. She vanished down into the basement along with twenty tons of brick, furniture, roofing and thrashing trees. It was only chance, I suppose, that she had handed her baby over to Monika before it happened. Or maybe, somehow, she had known. Maybe some changed, newly sensitive part of her mind had told her to do it. We’ll never know the truth, but the baby girl lived.
The oddest thing, after the air cleared, was the feeling of suddenly being outside. A moment before we had been in the deepest inner recesses of the building we had made our home in for weeks and then, we were out under the open skies. Everyone was screaming. My own throat was raw, but that could have been the dust. The storm had settled down to a steady rain of fat cold drops. It cleared the dust quickly and turned the floor into a dark gray mud of crumbled cement and plaster. Cold air blew down from the dark sky and occasional red flashes of unnatural lightning still flickered high above us. I looked up and drank in a heavy breath of night air. For all the terror in my heart, the air still tasted fresh and good.
The optometrist’s third of the building had now become a pit, an abyss of dust and rubble. One of the trees was down on its side, not moving. The other, which had the look of a huge black oak, was leaning and struggling to rise. This tree had two arms. One huge branch was straining downward as it leaned on it, trying to raise its fantastic weight with it. The other arm reached up and grabbed the lip of the shelf that had been our corridor, it clamped onto the crumbling remains of carpet and floorboards. I saw the missing finger on that hand, and recognized this was the one that had swooped down and dragged Jimmy Vanton out of the lobby.
I fell upon that hand, chopping with my unnaturally sharp saber. I used both hands, and I shouted while I did it, furiously. Spit ran from my lips and I chopped a finger away, then another, and then split the wood of the hand itself. It shuddered, and groped for me, and then the Preacher was at my side, his axe chopping at it with great heavy thunking sounds. It jerked back the arm, clearly in pain, shuddering, and toppled over backwards as it overbalanced. The small part of my mind that was not in an animal state realized that trees, once free of the earth, had a hard time standing up straight. Like walking telephone poles, balance was not easy for them. Most of my mind was in a barbaric state just then and that part of me loosed a victory howl when I saw the great oak sag down and thrash there in the ruins of the basement, looking like a devil in the very black pits of hell itself.
“Everyone sound off, who have we lost?” demanded the Preacher.
I called out my name, as did others. Carlene Mitts was gone, as were Jimmy Vanton and Mrs. Nelson and the rest of the Nelson kids, only Holly and her father were left. Monika had Carlene’s baby now. She held her with both hands, shushing her. But the baby cried steadily, inconsolable. They weren’t loud cries but rather formed a hoarse, hopeless, keening sound mixed with coughs.
I looked around at them. There were less than a dozen of us left. Normally, any commander would surrender now, but there was no one to accept our surrender, no one to give us quarter. Surely, not the Hag. There was no mercy there, I knew, for I had looked into her shining eyes.
“John, we have to kill the Hag,” I said.
The Preacher looked at me and nodded.
Around the corner, back where the lobby would be now, the lights were wrinkling the air around us again. Looking up, I could see threads of liquid amber and rosy pink and glaring orange. They reflected in the dying smoke and steady raindrops.
At my side, Monika leaned up on her tiptoes, I bent my lips to her and we kissed. Holly came to stand behind me, as always.
The Preacher had his axe out, and he stepped down the corridor toward the lobby. The corridor was shorn in half and full of debris. It made treacherous footing in the wet and dark night. I opened my mouth to protest, to tell him I would go first, but he was already moving forward. The words died in my throat. It was very likely I would get my turn at the front, I knew. We worked our way along the ruined corridor, a cliff into a deadly pit at our feet, ready to swallow us up. His axe’s black blades shone where there was no light to reflect. My saber glimmered faintly as I took my position behind him.
Things were coming down the half corridor now, around the bend up ahead. Now that our inner doors and barricades were gone, there was nothing stopping them, these abominations the Hag was making. They were worse now, now that she had her lantern and she was in the open air of a hellish storm on All Hallows Eve. Her power, I reasoned, was at its peak.
The first thing to come around the bend was the X-ray machine. It took me a moment to recognize it. That strange, elongated arm like an ostrich’s neck with a wide unblinking eye at the tip. The handles on the side of the projector had grown into curved blades. It didn’t walk, so much as dragged itself with appendages grown from the sides of the base. Its power cord now served as a whipping black tail.
It was the first time I’d seen a machine shifted. Always before the changelings had been animal or plant, something alive, but now the rules had changed. Heat emanated from the projector, and I felt the hot kiss of the beam as it touch my cheek. Somewhere in the back of my mind I worried, briefly, about radiation and the retinas of my eyes if the beam were to shine into my head, even for a second. The Preacher cried out something, I think it was something about Joshua, and then he went in hacking with his flashing axe. I hung back, not out of fear of the machine but of his axe. One does not get too close behind a furiously wielded double-bladed axe.
The tail was the first thing to go, it whipped out and wrapped around his ankle, but only for a moment before it was severed and flopping. Then the projector itself darted forward, like the beak of a dinosaur. It smashed into his shoulder and spun him around. I smelled burning cloth. But he was ready for it, he was good. He grabbed the metal neck and hacked wildly at the joint. A normal weapon could never have cut through the aluminum skin of it, but his axe was anything but normal. He had worked his way down to the vital wires in three strokes. The head whipped violently and then the hot lashing beams stopped and the head came off. Still the heavy base of it thrashed horribly.
“Help me,” he grunted and I rushed forward and we heaved it over the edge to smash down into the basement. The oak tree reached over and groped blindly for the thrashing machine, and crushed it. Soon there was silence again down there.
The next things to come around the bend were a pack of bulbous creatures like black jellyfish. There were a lot of them, and they rolled at us like beach balls. But these beach balls had fangs and hard white eyes.
The Preacher took the brunt of it, but some got past his kicks and his swinging axe. Those that got past were left to me and Holly and Vance, we fell on them and stabbed and chopped them up. Once they were punctured, which was hard to do, as they were tough, a mix of air and vile liquid sprayed out. This process reduced them to flopping, fish-like things. It was only when I caught the smell of them, that powerful rubbery stink. I knew then what it was we were fighting.
“Tires,” said Vance in a wondering tone. “Those were tires from the cars out in the lot.”
Panting, I nodded. I dared to let my hopes grow, for we were winning, we were beating everything she could throw at us. It had to take some length of time for her to make these abominations. The Preacher was good, better than I had any right to hope. But I could tell he was getting tired, that he could not keep this pace up forever. Soon, it would be my turn at the front, after something got him. I thought of telling him to take a breather, to let me take the point for a while, but I knew without asking that he would refuse. I knew the bloodlust he had in his eye. I had felt it myself. When you wielded one of these shadowy weapons made from the very stuff of the shifting, it was hard to quit fighting while there was a fight to be had.
We followed the Preacher, but had only advanced a few more steps, perhaps we were half-way to the bend now, when the next horror came into view. This one made us all gasp and I heard a wail of despair from behind me, but wasn’t sure who made the sound. It could have been any of us.
What stood before us was Jimmy Vanton. He wasn’t quite the same anymore, however. He was dead, of course, and he had been melted together with that shotgun of his. His arm ended just past the elbow and turned into the barrel and firing mechanism of a twelve-gauge shotgun. He raised it slowly, but not slowly enough. The Preacher’s downward stroke lopped off that monstrous fused arm of his, but not before he got off a booming shot.
The sizzling lead spray reached out like a hand, past the Preacher, past me, over Holly Nelson’s ducking head, and caught Nick Hackler full in the face and chest. He fell back with the shock of it, dead before his eyes could close, dead before he hit the cheap dirty carpet of the hallway. I glanced down into his dead eyes for second and thought of those awful squirrel sausages he’d been so proud of.
Then the Preacher’s axe took off the fused arm with the shotgun and the metal barrel crashed to the floor. The bleeding stub flailed, but the Preacher kept Nick back with his left hand. I saw then he had his Bible in that hand, pressed against Nick’s chest. He lifted the axe high again.
“I pass judgment upon thee and thine and cast this thing back into the pit from whence it came!” he cried out. His voice rolled out over us all. The axe removed Nick’s lolling head with a single clean stroke.
We pushed the whole mess over the side and took five more steps forward.
The thing that got the Preacher came next. It was a steel beast, a massive thing with whipping cords and no arms, but it had two legs of round smooth metal. It rattled and clattered and farted blue smoke as it approached. Despite the strange configuration, I knew what it was right away, I had spent too many summers looking at just such creatures, repairing them, to not know one now. It was the contents of a car’s engine compartment, all assembled together into a nightmarish configuration.
It stumped forward and appeared to have no weapons, but very soon its plan of attack became very clear. It would simply push us off into the pit that was now filled with the tree and the flopping remains of a dozen other horrors. It must have weighed near a thousand pounds and the floor sagged under its weight.
The Preacher and I tackled it, grunting, but it was like children tackling a giant. Spark plug wires lashed about and sought to wrap around our necks. The battery opened up chambers and gouted acid.
“Vance, get over here! Heave all at once now!” I shouted and Vance put his shoulder against it. It took another step, ignoring us, and crushed down on Vance’s toes. Vance howled. He struggled but his foot was pinned under those round metal legs-they were exhaust pipes, I realized in a blurry moment.
We heaved together and it shifted off-balance a fraction, and then rocked back.
“That’s it,” gasped the Preacher, straining purple. “Rock it.”
We did as he said and the spark wires whipped harder. Holly cut at the wires with her knife when they wrapped around our necks or wrists.
Thump, thump, we rocked it and the stiff legs were up and off the ground. Inside the thing’s barrel chest, I heard pistons chatter angrily. It farted another stinking blue cloud of exhaust, and then it went over.
Vance and I managed to jump back, but the Preacher went with it. The thing had managed to wrap too many wires around him, and they went over in a lover’s embrace.
“John!” I cried out. And then he crashed down into the basement. I only had time to hope he had gotten on top of it. It weighed so much more, perhaps he had ridden it down, instead of the other way around. It was his only hope for living.
Then it was my turn. More things came. Lots of them.
There a flat metallic thing of chrome or stainless steel. A bumper? A the hood of a car? Or maybe a medical table? I couldn’t tell but my sword rang on it and cast only sparks, made no cuts, and we tossed it off over the side into the pit, screeching and hammering on it. It vanished and we took on a procession of things in its wake. They were smaller things now, but they came faster. Lobby chairs with wooden feet that bent impossibly, a bookcase with attached books that snapped like a thousand hungry mouths, an office computer with a glowing face on the screen, the ficus tree from the lobby, and much more. Some things I could identify, others I could not. I rounded the bend and headed down the homestretch to the lobby. I could almost see the Hag at the table now, and the lantern was shining brightly, more brightly than it ever had. It was as bright as a thousand rainbows in there, almost a bright as the summer sun.
Carlene’s body came at me from behind after I turned the bend. Somehow the Hag had awakened her flesh and gotten her up out of the basement. There wasn’t any hesitation left in me, that had been beaten out of my mind over the last hour. I throttled her with both hands. She thrashed at me with newly grown tentacles, even though she should not have been able to breathe. Vance finished her with his Mauser.
After that, all I could think of was Carlene’s face and that of her baby, who Monika held somewhere back behind me. It made me deeply angry, and that anger replaced the horror and the dread and the fear and kept me going.
It went on for minutes or perhaps hours, I’ll never know how long. It was wild and sad and terrifying beyond any nightmare of my childhood. I couldn’t remember much of the things I fought after Carlene until suddenly there were no more of them coming.
I stood before the Hag and she faced me.
“My champion,” she said. She reached out a delicate hand, as if to caress me. Instinctively, my saber lashed out to take her hand.
I slashed that wrist with all my strength, without hesitation, but it was as if her flesh were made of iron. The blade rang off and vibrated painfully in my hand.
She laughed at me, and I stepped forward, furious, and cut at her neck. The blow did nothing but shock my hand so greatly that I almost dropped the sword.
She shook her head, mocking me. “Child, don’t play the fool. Why would I give you a blade so sharp that you could not be stopped?”
I stared at her and my sides heaved with exertion. My eyes were full of dull hate. I made no attempt to answer her. I thought of the pistol I had carried, but it was long since emptied. I glanced back at the others. Vance was there, so was Holly. But they were stock-still. The lantern had them in its gaze. I saw all of them, except for Wilton. None of them were moving.
“Because, child,” she continued gently, “it is enchanted for sharpness, but it is also enchanted so that it can’t harm me. There is only one thing your sword cannot cut, champion of mine, and that one thing is me.”
I understood then, my sword, the gift she had given me, was a trap. I dropped my saber and stepped forward. She pulled her lips back in curling peels. She reached for my throat as I did for hers.
Her grasp was strong, stronger than any woman’s I’d ever known. I gripped her, but could not squeeze her throat. It was like squeezing a block of wood.
She grinned at me as her fingers sunk into my neck.
“Yield,” she said, “yield and serve me and I will spare the rest of them. I have need of a strong champion, and I have chosen you.”
With a flickering movement, I tossed off my glove. It was no longer my hand. It was still hand-shaped, but there were only three fingers and a thumb now, and those fingers were claws, really, not fingers at all. Thick boned scaly claws flexed in a permanent curl. I applied my warped hand to her neck, and squeezed with all its new unnatural strength.
Her breath became labored. Mine all but ceased. I whistled and choked and swallowed through my closing air passage. I was losing, I knew it, but I figured I might as well make her feel my rage before I died.
“All you have to do is look at it,” she hissed out. “Save yourself, fool. Gaze into the Eye.”
The light in the lantern beckoned me, but I stared at her hideous face instead. The black claw tips dug in, making a row of dimples on her dead-white throat. She should have bled, but I doubted there was any blood left in her body. I felt her neck giving way, folding inward slowly like thick cardboard. There were no more sounds that I could make, I could barely get down a gasp of air now and then.
“Your will is too strong,” she gasped, “you must be put down.”
And then she squeezed harder. I was shocked to realize that she had been holding back. My lungs burned and my heart pounded. I wished I had another of Wilton’s potions, but even then, the blood would be cut to my brain soon and I would pass out. My stomach threatened to vomit, but I knew it would be fatal so I fought to relax it.
Then, even as the world had focused down to her face and mine, I felt her stiffen and gurgle. She stiffened again, and again. Her body shuddered. Then the killing grip around my throat eased. I held onto consciousness as the first choking gasps of air entered my lungs.
She sank down, but my left hand kept its grip. Kept squeezing.
Behind her, with a bloody knife in his hand, stood the Captain.
“I owe you again,” I said to the Captain.
He shrugged. “You did most of it.”
I just stood there for a while in the rain, which now fell with a quiet, sweet hissing sound. The lobby had no roof and not much left for walls either, so the rain simply fell into my matted hair and ran down loosely over my face. I blinked at the thing in my hands. For a moment, I saw a woman’s eyes, they were a pretty shade of yellowish-brown. They were the eyes she’d been born with, long, long ago before she had become a powerful changeling. In death, she was no longer a Hag. I released her throat and she sank down gently, like a deflating balloon. Soon, all that was left was a vicious dark stain on the carpet and an antique dress. Her flesh had melted away even as she had melted so many things into living horrors.
The lantern sat on the table. Still and waiting. The prism inside it continued to shine, but with a less brilliant vigor. What had she called it? The Eye. Now, it sent out slow ripples of color to splash over the walls, rather than fierce beams that dazzled one’s eyes and seared the mind.
I nodded silent thanks to the Captain. He nodded back and cleaned his knife on his jacket. I turned to face the survivors. There were less than ten of us left.
“Let’s go look for the Preacher and Wilton,” I said quietly. The rest of them followed me, some weeping openly for our dead.
“Is it over?” asked Holly. I gave her a hug, she had lost everything today.
“I think so.”
We heard rustling and thumping back down the hall. I led the way. We found no movement other than the flopping of the oak tree in the basement. I had a sudden thought and went back to the door that topped the basement stairs. When we got there, my heart skipped a beat. It was hanging open, broken down from the inside. I drew my weapon.
Nelson was there, still at his post in front of the door. He had his pistols in his hands, but they were empty and so were his dead eyes. I pushed Holly back so she wouldn’t have to find her father this way. I got Mrs. Hatchell to take hold of her shoulders. She began talking to Holly’s ear earnestly while Holly’s body shivered with silent sobs.
“Vance,” I said in a hoarse voice. “Something got past Nelson. Something is up here with us.”
There were footsteps on the stairs beyond the door. It led down into total blackness. The few propane lanterns that still burned in ruins of the center cast only wan beams in this dark corner of the halls.
I put the tip of my saber into the blackness and gestured madly for a lantern. Vance brought me one that guttered and spit, turning an old orange color that indicated the fuel was all but spent.
“Is the witch dead?” asked a voice from the dark pit of the stairwell. I felt vast relief.
“John Thomas, I’m so glad it’s you,” I told him as he emerged. I waited until I had a good look at him before I lowered my blade. He was gripping his shoulder, there was blood on his face and he was in obvious pain, but he seemed as human and determined as ever.
“I echo the sentiment,” said the Preacher.
I frowned however, looking at the broken down doorway. “You just came up, but I think something else preceded you.”
“I know,” he said, almost whispering. “I think its Doctor Wilton.”
A single thought went off in my head, the lantern.
I headed past the others huddled in the hallway. They watched me with dull aching gray faces. I headed back toward the lobby. There, standing by the lantern, was Doctor Wilton. She had her hands inside the tarnished brass housing and was touching the large prism itself, caressing it.
“Isn’t it a beautiful thing, Gannon?” she asked me quietly as I approached her.
I stalked forward like a policeman approaching a jumper on a ledge. “It certainly is,” I agreed evenly.
“My power is different than hers, you know,” she said, and when she turned her gaze slowly toward me I saw a faint, unnatural light in her eyes. Perhaps, in time, they would come to shine like mirrors as had the Hag’s.
“I can see that you don’t trust me, nor do I blame you. Let me speak, all of you! It was I that stopped an army of horrors coming up from the basement behind you! Would you have been able to survive a second army like the one Gannon cut through? No!”
We looked from one to another. “Go take a look, Vance,” I said.
“Yes, of course, check up on my words, I welcome your scrutiny. I stopped as many of these things from the rear as you did from the front, Gannon. You owe your lives to me as much as to your weapons,” she said. Casually, as she spoke, her twisted hand rested on the table very near the lantern.
“Don’t use the lantern, Wilton,” I warned, taking another step. “It’s dangerous.”
“Oh, I know,” she chuckled. “And don’t worry; I have no intentions to wield it as she did.”
“I don’t think any of us can control that thing safely.”
She laughed aloud at that. “No, there is little safety in something this powerful,” she agreed. “The prism inside this lantern allows one to shape the reality of things around you directly. We saw her do it. I could rebuild this lowly ruin into a shining castle.”
Vance came back up behind me. “It’s true,” he said. “There are more horrors in the basement. At least three more things would have marched up behind us.”
“Exactly,” said Wilton.
“What happened to Nelson then?”
Wilton looked troubled. Her hand moved up to her face, then dropped. “That was unfortunate. I came through the door after I held back the enemies at your rear, but Nelson was there. We surprised each other. He fired at me, and I had to… I stopped him.”
“You killed him, you mean!” cried out Holly.
For just a moment Wilton looked human and almost like her old self. “I’m so sorry, my dear. It was an accident. When people fight in the darkness, they don’t always know friend from foe.”
“Perhaps he did recognize you,” said Vance.
I took a step forward, then another. She fixed me with her gaze then, and I stopped my approach. I stood motionless.
“Think, Gannon,” she told me. “We have here the very gift we need to survive in this harsh new world. We could make an army of these trees, sworn to protect us, to guard the last precious humans that still breathe.”
I thought hard, and asked, “Why didn’t you speak when you tried to come up out of the basement? We would have let you come up.”
She blinked for a moment. I was glad to see I had her off track. “I wasn’t thinking then.”
I nodded. I was vaguely aware that the others were filling the lobby behind me. I needed time to think and to let them gather before we tried anything, so I kept talking. “You were the one that came up the stairs. You were the thing that twisted the doorknob against all my strength.”
“Not quite,” she said with a new hint of a smile. “You held it in the end.”
“It was you then,” said the Preacher. He had arrived and stood at my side. I glanced at him and his eyes were dark and unforgiving.
“You survived the basement as well! You are indeed blessed, Reverend,” said Wilton, but she didn’t seem pleased.
The Preacher talked to me, but kept his gaze on Wilton. “Gannon, you put Mr. Nelson on guard in front of that door, and he didn’t survive the task did he?”
Wilton’s eyes flicked from him to me, and then down to Holly, who now stood with us, grim-faced.
“You can’t refuse this gift, it is everything that I’ve worked for and much more!” she said pleading with us. “Don’t you understand, without harnessing this new force of nature, as man has always done, we will be only mundane. We will be slaves to whoever wields the power of the shifting. I’m offering you a chance to do more than survive another week, I’m offering you a chance to rebuild.”
“We cannot tolerate abominations of the flesh such as this artifact produces,” said the Preacher in a tone of absolute certainty. “Warped magic tools yes, but not warped individuals. I have drawn the line. This line must not be crossed.”
“You! You!” she cried out with wild frustration. “Who are you to draw the line between science and morality? I offer you so much for so little.”
“What do you want in return?” asked Gannon. “Our service?”
“Your help, yes,” she said. “That’s all, just your aid, your working hearts and minds.”
Gannon shook his head. “I’ve already declined to enter the service of one Hag today, I’m not going to serve a second.”
“Abominations, eh? What of you, boy? You are no mundane! Show them, I demand that you show them! What do have hidden in that pocket?”
I opened my mouth, closed it again.
The Preacher turned to me. “She has a point, Gannon. It has come time to show us.”
I hesitated. Things had suddenly reversed. I felt everyone’s eyes on me. The claws in my glove clutched into a ball. I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded.
The Preacher grabbed my wrist and before I could react, ripped my hand into the open. The scaly claw of a velociraptor splayed itself in the cool air.
“Gannon too, has been touched by these unnatural forces,” he said to the others. “Look what your perfect prism has done to the best among us, just by his touching of it. Such a force can’t be wielded by us, not if we are to remain human.”
Monika grabbed my shoulder. She looked up at me with worried dark eyes. “Let’s just go, Gannon. I’ll go with you,” she said.
I looked around at them, into their faces. They didn’t know what to do. I had been their champion, but I was not a mundane, as she called us. I had been one of the enemy all along. And Wilton, was she feeling the same way that I was? Did she see us all as her friends, turned upon her after all her work to save us?
“Come with me, Gannon,” said Wilton. “We will form a leper colony and wait for the rest of them to fall sick. For mark me, all of them will.”
Monika buried her face against my chest. Of all of them, she was the only one not looking at my hand.
I looked at everyone. The Captain was there, sitting on a beam that had fallen from the ceiling. He and the Preacher seemed the most passive. The rest of them were staring at the horror that terminated my left wrist.
“Give him a moment,” said Mrs. Hatchell. “He knows what must be done.”
The Preacher glanced at her, and then slid his eyes back to me. He knew it as well, I could tell, but for a few seconds I could not think of what it was. Then, slowly, I had it.
I jerked my hand from the Preacher’s grasp. The sudden motion made people jump back. I had become a feral animal. I was going to split up the last survivors if I left, and already, despite their love for me, they feared me.
It was more than I could bear.
Accordingly, I held out the claw, and I raised my sword, which still glowed with the magic sharpness the Hag had given me, and I chopped it off in one horrible, but clean, stroke.
I must have blacked out for a moment. When I opened my eyes again, confused and numbed, I was on the floor. The Preacher, Vance and Monika lifted me up and propped me against a relatively undamaged wall. The cold bricks felt good against my hot cheek.
“Tie it off, quickly now,” Wilton was saying, and even through the haze of pain and shock, I appreciated the professional concern in her voice. She was still part human, and I knew from having been part monster, that she was neither all evil nor all good.
The Preacher touched my face and gently guided my chin so I could see his face. “Gannon,” he said, “that was well done. I had not thought you would perform the necessary task yourself. I had thought my axe would have to pass judgment upon your twisted hand. I’m impressed and glad you could do it alone.”
I became vaguely aware that Monika was crying. Others were wrapping up my stump in some gauze and tape.
“Fine,” said Wilton, disgusted with the lot of us. “Just fine, if you’ve been asked to join two witches and refused, well I’ve been judged by the lot of you three times now, and that’s the end of it for me. I’m going off on my own, again, and I’ll not come back. If any of you should want my protection, you can come join me at my lab. Otherwise, you can all rot.”
So saying, she lifted up the lantern from the table and began to hobble out into the parking lot.
The Preacher was in front of her, blocking her way in an instant. His axe had appeared in his hand, and it was upraised.
I tried to struggle to my feet, sliding up against the wall of bricks, using them to steady me. It didn’t work, I felt sick and sagged down again. I thought about vomiting, but held it back.
She glared at the Preacher. “You’re no priest, you are a murderer!”
“I am no murderer.”
“You are a slave to that axe then,” she said, “It rules your mind.”
“The axe is only the executioner, I am the judge.”
The lantern flared up, showing its true brilliance. The prism inside burned brightly again. Perhaps it sensed a new master.
The Preacher’s axe flashed downwards. Several of us screamed. I hobbled forward. The lantern flashed intensely and blinded us all with a silent blast of light. It was like standing in the wake of a thousand dazzling flashbulbs, each of a different shining hue. My retina showed huge purple blotches.
I heard a crash and a tinkling sound. When my eyes could function again, I saw the brass lantern had been shorn apart. The prism inside had fallen and shattered into a spray of sparkling jewel-like shards.
Wilton fell to her knees, sobbing. I thought she was more filled with grief than I had been for my lost hand.
Everyone stepped quietly out to form a circle around her. She groped in the rubble, as if not believing the prism wasn’t there, that wasn’t still whole. She found a purplish shard, for each piece had a color, it seemed, and she held it up, shaking it at us.
“Fools! What great idiots you all are!” she sobbed, “you are like cavemen, striking down what you don’t understand. Trapped on a deserted island with a single radio, you would all gather to smash it in some primitive rite. Even you, John Thomas. I just didn’t believe anyone could be so stupid.”
“Beatrice,” said the Preacher gently, “you must leave us now. In fact, you should be slain for murder. Your body is too riddled with twisted flesh for you ever to survive an exorcism of the sort Gannon has.”
“The Hag would have killed you all if I had not been down in the basement covering your backs,” she retorted.
“Yes, and this is the only reason the axe has not yet taken your head,” replied the Preacher evenly. “But you wanted more than just to save us, Beatrice, you wanted to take the Hag’s place and rule us.”
“Nonsense,” she said. “I tried to beguile you so you would help me defeat the Hag my way, that’s true. Perhaps we would not have so many dead now if you hadn’t stopped me.” She struggled to her feet, her hoof scratching a furrow in the powdered cement. The Preacher guided her elbow helpfully, but she shook him off. “I don’t want your help.”
In that moment, Mrs. Hatchel gasped and reached out desperately. A figure moved close to Wilton. The old woman gave a cry of agony. She pitched forward. A huge knife hilt stuck out of her bad leg. She glared back at Holly, who Mrs. H. had wrapped up in her arms. Both Holly and Wilton breathed hard and glared at one another. Wilton’s eyes dropped first.
“You might have killed her!” said Hatchel. “Holly, you don’t know what you are doing.”
“Yes I do,” said Holly. “Let go of me and I’ll show you.”
Wilton struggled to her feet again. She pulled the bowie knife out of her leg and tossed it aside. I was amazed she could get up. I began to believe that she had fought horrors down there in the dark basement and lived.
Wilton held the lavender shard in her hand up in the air for all of us to see. It pulsed and seemed to ripple. “Mind the shards,” she said, “there might be some power in them yet.”
Wilton determinedly hobbled away from us. I wondered how many witches with good intentions had been driven from villages in just such a manner over the centuries. It was dawn now, and we watched her go, remembering the last time she had left us on a fateful day.
The rest of us looked back at the shards on the ground. They sparkled with internal light. It was not the brilliant beam that they had presented us with before, but still, it was clearly supernatural.
“That piece of the prism,” said Vance thoughtfully. “It seemed enchanted.”
Holly knelt and gingerly poked at a piece that looked like an icicle of rich amber. “This one looks like a knife,” she said. “I need a knife that could kill a Hag.”
The preacher stopped Holly with a hand and put up his other hand with fingers splayed. Everyone stopped. “Let’s not take any more of this evil into our hands. We shall bury these shards far from here, without touching them. If you agree, Gannon.”
Everyone looked to me. I nodded, barely able to stand.
A new voice joined us then. It was a high-pitched voice, and I knew it in an instant. It was the voice of Malkin, the elf.
He tsked and clucked his tongue. We all looked up, and saw him looking down at us from the ruined roof of the waiting room.
I took a breath, the others raised their weapons and stared up with wide eyes.
“Are you here to harass us or help us, Malkin?”
The elf walked slowly around the hole in the roof, looking down at us as he replied. “You have done me a favor. You have ridden this place of the Hag. For that, I owe your people. I recognize this debt.”
I noticed that the preacher’s axe was in his hand and it was twitching excitedly. No doubt, it wanted to chop Malkin in half.
“What will you do to repay your debt to us, elf?” I asked. I recalled that in the old stories of his kind, wagers and debts and promises mattered greatly.
Malkin stopped circling up there and pointed down into the mess that was the waiting room around us. We followed his eyes and saw my hand lying on the floor. Blood had leaked to form a dark pool around the severed hand. I looked at it and blinked in recognition. It was strange to see a part of yourself lying on the floor. Everything seemed dream-like at that moment.
“Do you notice a difference?”
I heard a few of the others gasp. I looked at my severed hand again, and in a flash I realized what he meant. “It’s my hand again. The claw is gone.”
“Gannon, I’m so sorry,” said Monika, wrapping herself around my waist comfortingly.
At first I didn’t know what she meant, but then I thought I knew. Perhaps I hadn’t needed to chop off my hand. Perhaps I could have just waited, and when the lantern was destroyed my twisted hand would have returned to normal.
“Yes, yes,” said Malkin, crouching so that his tiny, pointed knees stuck out before him. “Sadness.”
I sucked in a breath and began to grow angry. Anger was good, as it kept away the shock from my injury that fogged my mind.
“That’s it?” I demanded, “you show me that I chopped off my hand for nothing and that’s your idea of repayment?”
“Not exactly. If you would be so good as to send your mad henchman away-” said Malkin, pointing at the preacher with fluttering fingers.
I looked at John and he did indeed look half-mad. A silvery thread ran down from his mouth and he stared up at the elf. His unblinking eyes were all but popping from his head. I could tell that with every word the desire grew in him to cut Malkin.
“John,” I said gently. It took a second or two, but he managed to look at me. “Why don’t you take the others away for a few minutes. This creature might be dealt with peaceably.”
The preacher eyed me. “You have forgotten the heads in the pool in its lair so quickly?”
I shook my head. “No. But I understand something of how this elf thinks. I believe he will not harm us today.”
“They are full of nothing but trickery and deceit!” shouted the preacher. “You are a fool to talk to them. Their kind can never be trusted.”
“Still,” I said, “I ask you to take them out.”
So he did it, but not without many a baleful look up at the tiny figure on the roof.
The last remaining was Monika, who would not let go of my waist. I decided to let her stay there, and hoped she wouldn’t pull out a pistol and have another shot at Malkin.
When the others were safely outside, Malkin hopped down and strutted around on top of the broken furniture. He hopped from table to chair as he walked, looking carefully at the colorful shards of crystal at our feet. He tutted and tsked as he walked.
“Not much here. A thorough job of it. But this one,” he said, jumping down and grabbing up a reddish chunk of the crystal. No sooner had he touched it than the tip of my saber touched his chest.
“This is how you greet a friend working to help you?” he sputtered, backing away from the sword. My sword tip followed him as if fastened to his tunic. I marveled that he had let me get my blade in close. In his greed to grab up one of the shards, he had let his guard down. I knew grabbing the shards had been his goal all along.
“What is it you plan?”
Malkin eyed Monika, who had backed away so I could wield my weapon freely. She had her gun out again, but I wasn’t sure it had any bullets in it.
“How will you protect her, and your children, if you have but one hand?” asked Malkin.
“Children?” I asked, bemused. The thought had not crossed my mind. But he was right, I knew in a flash. If we survived long enough, such things would have to happen.
Malkin, in my distraction, had evaded the tip of my sword and grabbed up my severed hand. It was turning gray, I noticed. Looking at it made my lip curl. Somehow, when divorced from my body, it was disgusting.
The elf held up the red shard and the hand. “Red magic is blood magic. It is a chance. But every minute we wait lessens the odds of success.”
I finally understood what he meant. “No,” I said flatly. “I’m finally rid of that thing. It haunted me for days.”
Malkin tutted at me. “Foolish pride. The claw is gone, that spell is broken.”
“Gannon,” said Monika, standing beside me again, “let him try.”
I looked at her. The pistol was no longer aiming at the elf. She licked her pretty lips and pushed her hair from her face.
“I need a man with two hands,” she said.
I sucked in a great breath and let it out slowly. The dawn had cracked over the horizon now, and a new day was born in pink light. The rain had stopped at some point, I noticed.
I ripped the bandage from my wrist with my teeth. Fresh blood flowed and throbbing, intense pain flowed over me to match it.
I looked away, and the elf did his work with the shard and my dead hand. In a few moments, I felt a cold shock go up my arm as my own dead blood ran up into my veins.
“Is my debt repaid?” he asked in a quiet voice.
I flexed my fingers. They moved. Monika laced her fingers over her mouth. She seemed much happier. She had been playing with baby Carlene. I thought about what Malkin said about future children. I looked at him, and his eyes stared back at me like two black buttons.
“Yes,” I said, “a working hand is payment enough. Your debt is repaid.”
Malkin left without a word. He took great bounds, vanishing from the lobby.
I looked around, but the red shard he had used to reknit my hand to my wrist was missing.
My dead hand did not hurt-it had no feeling at all-but it had fused itself to my wrist and the blood had stopped flowing out of me. Inside the hand, I could sense liquid pumping. It was my blood, I supposed, but it felt odd to have it go away into the dead hand and then return into my body. Somehow, the blood that returned felt cooler as it ran up my arm. The hand moved a bit mechanically, but with a glove fitted over it, looked normal enough. At least I had five fingers again.
The preacher used the tip of his axe to prod and scrape the colorful shards into his leather sack. We determined to take the pieces and bury them somewhere far from our ruined town, hopefully somewhere they could do no more harm.
After we had left the wrecked lobby to tend to the dead and search for something to eat, I and had abandoned the spot where the lantern had been destroyed, I noticed something moving around there. I headed back outside and saw the furtive figure of Malkin, sprinting away with the shard of brilliant blue. He must have dug it up from under the dust and bricks, where it had lain unnoticed by the rest of us. He paused and gazed back at me when he had reached our sagging fence.
I could not catch him, and I did not hate him, so I figured ignoring was the best I could do. He waved at me, but I did not wave back. I could not so quickly forget his cave full of severed heads.
He bounded over the fence in a single effortless leap and was gone from sight, carrying off his glowing prize.
I never did see what he did with it.