Cassandra heard the panic threaded through her name as though it was ripped from her brother’s throat. She ran as fast as the moonlight would allow in dark woods, arriving at the van just as Casey dropped to his knees. She couldn’t see what had happened, and thought he might have tripped. His palms were flat on the ground and he was so still that she thought he might be about to throw up. The light filtered through the trees, exposing the arrow shaft. She was about to cry out and run forward, then glimpsed the figure just in the treeline. She watched as Casey put himself through the agony of trying to rise, of trying to get to his feet. She couldn’t see Blane anymore, her eyes weren’t able to pick him out of the shadows surrounding them. Casey stumbled and cried out as he fell. She couldn’t resist running to him, hoping that Steff had hurt Blane enough to keep him from doing more harm.
Blane watched Cassandra run from where she’d been hiding and smiled, though it took some effort. He flexed his fingers and raised the bow for one last strike. These college kids always made it so easy. Just as he was putting a bead on her, something bumped against his foot.
He looked down and saw a bright orange ball. A few feet away was a small terrier.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” He looked up to see Cassandra had reached her brother, and caught him as he fell. He was fairly certain she was too late. The way she burst into tears a moment later confirmed it. She wouldn’t be moving for a moment so he turned the arrow on the dog but it was gone. He looked around, wondering where it had disappeared to when he heard a low growl behind him. Keeping the arrow notched, he swung and saw glowing yellow eyes, then nothing.
Cassandra’s voice broke on the second syllable. She had laid the weight of her brother’s body on the ground, the sight of his calm repose incongruous with the music piping out the windows of the van. It perfectly matched the attire of the dead girl who had stepped out of the woods though.
It was definitely Tommy, dressed as she had been earlier that day. Was it really still the same day?
“How? I thought you were-”
Tommy tilted her head, smiled her vibrant smile and Cassandra felt what was left of her mind start to crack. Tommy’s face sobered. And then she spoke. Her voice seemed to curl itself like smoke, sifting into Cassandra’s ears as gently as a sigh.
“Was this a mistake? This is the image I pulled from the young man’s head, the one who betrayed you, as someone who is loved by you, by him. She haunts him fiercely. Is there another form you would prefer?”
“So you’re not Tommy? I don’t understand. Who are you?”
“I am the dark, and the terror.
I am the rage and the sadness and the dying of the light all rolled into one.
A small orange ball rolled to rest near the shape. A small terrier sat a few feet away, the look on its face expectant.
“Have you finished with him? Why are you still in that form?”
A tail wagged.
“Have you forgotten these hands are an illusion?”
The dog’s expression remained unchanged.
A breeze picked up, creating enough force to lift the ball and send it hurling through the woods. The dog barked and ran after it.
“It seems my companion has found a form it enjoys. I hope that it is palatable to you.”
“Palatable? None of this is palatable! I’m losing my mind and you’re dressed as my dead friend playing fetch! Everyone I know is dead and there is still a killer out there, probably watching us right now..”
“He is gone. My companion has ended him.”
“Your companion. The tiny dog.”
“It is not a tiny dog. It is not even a dog, really, but it felt that would be something appealing to you.”
“It’s not…” She stopped as the dog not dog came scampering back into the clearing. “If it’s not a dog, and you’re not Tommy, what is all this? Why haven’t you just killed me like everyone else?”
“Why would I kill the creatures who give me life? Without your stories, I am nothing. I have existed as long as there have been voices to speak of me. But man has proven tenacious in the encroachment of the sacred groves and dark spaces. If it were an antidote to fear I might celebrate it, but there is a vapidity to this hunger which is unsupportable. So I require caretakers. Someone to steward the secret places and keep them from being exposed. For generations this place has been cared for until greed displaced my seneschal. The day they drowned the young man in the lake, I was who he called for to protect him. His family has lived in these woods since long ago, and knew what it was to pay fealty to that which lurks in the darkness. To keep it appeased and at bay. I underestimated the wanton cruelty of those who feel entitled to take without any notion of consequence.”
“But Blane killed that kid years ago. For years he’s been up here, hurting and killing people while you did nothing? When it seems like all you had to do was sic your terrier on him? Why the hell would you let all those people suffer needlessly?”
“Humans crave suffering. They find ways to manifest it which defy reason much of the time. I also understand the human desire to engage with story. I knew that as long as stories existed about this place, about what happened here, more would come. I knew that it was only a matter of time before someone who was worthy to be the new sentinel would come. And now you have.”
“Wait, what? Me? You think I’m going to be your…whatdoyoucallit? How do you know it’s me?”
“We sensed it. We thought it was him,” she gestured to Casey, “but when my companion tasted his blood, it was close but not quite right. So we knew that it was you.”
“It’s not me. My god, this is all insane! Please, I just want my brother and my friends back, and to go home.”
“There is no going back, even if you decide to abandon this place. You knew something was going to happen, and that there was nothing you could do to change it. You’ve always known such things. You could have stayed away but you chose to come.”
“What about my brother? What about Tommy and Kirk and Herb or Steff or whatever his name is? What about Nathan and Blane? What about the bodies and the authorities and our families? People are going to ask questions if none of us come home.”
“And they’ll be satisfied with answers which simplify their lives. It is easy to create stories to suit a narrative which humans find acceptable.”
“Why are you talking about this like I’m going to agree to stay?”
“For the same reason I knew your betrayer would choose selfishness.”
“Did your dog kill Nathan too?”
“No, he lives, though the act of pulling this image pushed him further than he was able to take and stay sane.”
“So, you ‘finished’ Blane, as you put it, but not Nathan? Where is the logic in that? For that matter, where is the logic in my arguing morality with a supernatural being who has taken the form of my dead best friend with a dog who isn’t a dog and who wants me to stay and be its caretaker? Do you understand how unlikely it seems to me that the real monster in the woods needs someone to keep it safe?”
“Blane had sealed his fate when he murdered our gatekeeper. There was a mark upon what you might call his soul. However, we could not act against him until a replacement was found. Though he sought to harm you and your friends, Nathan has no such mark. He is not ours to take. His account must be settled by another.”
Cassandra looked around, gesturing in frustration.
“Settled by who? EVERYONE IS DEAD!”
Busmeat cafe was a strange name, everyone agreed on that, just like they agreed the proprietor made the best pulled pork this and potentially every other side of the nearby mountains. There was a consensus among many of the locals that Alexandra was a real good looking lady, though she didn’t seem to shine brighter for anyone in particular so they let it be. Now and then someone would glimpse deep shadows haunting her intense, intelligent brown eyes which seemed to look right into one’s soul. No one could recall exactly when she had arrived, the story was that she had some sort of connection to Herb, who’d been called away to deal with family issues. Not long after she arrived, a letter came in the mail, addressed to Doris at the post office direct from Herb, saying only that Alex would be staying on, for as long as she liked.
People around here had seen enough strangeness, known enough sadness to recognize it was best to leave well enough alone. Now and then, though it was coming on to winter, strangers would pass through, stopping at the restaurant for directions and a story or two, as curiosity is a consistent part of the human condition. Alex would serve them up sandwiches and a smile, and a gentle admonition that some mysteries were best left unsolved. It must have been something in the way she talked, or perhaps a certain light in her eye that convinced folks there were better places to explore than the hills around the cafe. Things were quiet, but there was a feeling that it wasn’t so much peaceful as the sensation of breath being held.
Up in the hills, there was a small house. It had stood a long time, as was evidenced by the established garden and well maintained outbuildings surrounding it. A man approached it, his manner cautious but erratic. Half out his mind, the man who used to be Nathan strained with the effort of trying to remember what the house meant, what this place was, who he was. He had some notion of the skins stretched on racks, of bones which carried some weight of memory. He saw the axe half buried in a stump. It glittered in the sunlight which broke through the trees. He grinned, his lips peeled back in a rictus as it came to him that the axe was for him. Was for him to use. He would inflict pain, he would create fear, he would be unstop…
A blistering pain erupted from the centre of his chest and he looked down to see the point of a knife sticking out of him. He tried to protest, to speak but it had been too long since human language was something he comprehended easily. A voice whispered in his ear.
“It’s about time. I thought you’d never show up, numbnuts. That was for Cassie.” The knife was pulled out and plunged back in. “That was for Kirk.” One more time, out and back in. Nathan was trying to scream, the pain was unendurable. “That was for Casey. And this?” A hand on his shoulder spun him around and he found himself looking into a pair of intense, intelligent, smiling green eyes. Herb hauled off and kicked Nathan in the balls as hard as he could.
“That was for Tommy.” Nathan crumpled and fell, the knife pushing deeper into him. He twitched a bit, and then it was as though a switch had flipped, and he was gone.
Herb let out a ragged sigh, the pain in his would likely never quite be healed leg suggesting there would be rain later. He limped over to a rain barrel near the house, rinsing his hands clean of the blood that stained them. He wondered what would happen now, how long it would be before someone whose hunger and entitlement might send them looking for an opportunity to exploit the pristine wilderness surrounding him. He thought about Cassandra all alone at the cafe, and how she had stepped into his role so readily, so bravely. When faced with that, it seemed the least he could do was to be where he was most useful. If someone made it past her and came looking, he’d be ready.
For the first time in a long time, he felt a weight lift and inhaled deeply, lifting his eyes to the blue sky above, framed in by trees and birdsong. His reverie was interrupted by the feeling of something hitting his foot.
He looked down and saw a small orange ball. Shaking his head with a smile, he looked toward the edge of the trees, where a large wolf waited, a look of expectation in its glowing yellow eyes. When he reached down and picked up the ball, the wolf spread its front paws, preparing for the chase.
“Alright, but you have to help me clean this up later.”
The wolf whined its eagerness, and so with a mighty exhale, Herb threw the ball as hard as he could.
Photo by Jakub Pabis on Unsplash