Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Chapter 11

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Brook: Skin Deep


GM: The rest of Brook’s ride to Red Aspen is–thankfully if unsurprisingly–uneventful. By the time Brook parks his truck on the pinging gravel area beside the station, thunderheads actively crawl across the sky, and the wind bends the pines with a rustle that echoes through the alpine valleys and crags.

Brook: Brook feels on edge through the entire drive up into his stony bastion, expecting a thunderclap to sound and a huge bird to land on his truck. Or for a vampire to jump out in front of his truck in an attempt to commit suicide. As much as both thoughts unease the teen, the deep-seated frustration over the stacking mysteries growing more and more as he dwells on it. On the vision. Put him back.

Once the teen reaches Red Aspen, it’s apparent that he’s in for quite the light show. It’s a great night night for him to take out a camera in between bolts of lightning.

GM: Beyond the threatening storm, Brook spots another sign of trouble: Chet is already waiting for him by the door, keys in hand. He doesn’t even wait for Brook to turn off the ignition switch before he jogs over to the driver’s window.

“I gotta ski-daddle, kid,” Chet says, pulling up his uniform’s hood and then smoothing his mustache as he tries to recall the list of information he’s supposed to convey. “So the walrus has us all hands on deck, combing the park trails. Everybody’s pulling an all-nighter. Your mom’s directing things on the ground, and I’m about to join her and the others. There’s a lot of chatter pinging back and forth, so keep the lines clear.”

He glances up as a splatter of rain hits the truck’s hood. “Dang,” he laments, then turns back to Brook. “So, just stand by in case anybody needs you, but we’ve got it covered. What else, oh yeah, your mom said to ‘do your homework’. Not kidding. She made me repeat it back to her.”

Chet looks somewhat sheepish and pushes his glasses up on his nose. “But heh, there’s some of that Britters’ ice cream in the freezer.” He smiles, then says, “Okay, I think that’s it, but I left written instructions up in the tower. Looks like we’re going to have one doodle of a light-show tonight, and you’ll have the best seat in the house.”

He gives Brook a two-fingered salute, “Skinny Chet out!” He runs over to his own park ranger truck, flicks on its lights and engines, and starts to back out and away. As the vehicle sweep around past Brook’s, Chet slows and rolls down his windows, “Oh, almost forgot to ask if you had any questions, kid? If so, make it snappy. I don’t want to driving when the rain-dance starts to really boogey.”

Brook: Of course skinny Chet has to be here. Just has to. Brook shuts the truck off and gives the man a deadpan look and several nods before he races to his truck and then proceeds to annoy the boy more. “If you see my mother, tell her I’ll have her coffee ready when she gets home. Now get!” Brook waves the white boy down the road, walking around the back of his truck and inside. He’s at least right about one thing. Brook sits down by the radio and starts his homework after a quick change. He’ll get this all done as fast as possible and then enjoy the storm. Maybe even call the number. Definitely call the number.

GM: True to Chet’s word, the tower has vanilla ice cream, quick if copious notes on the rangers’ overnight trail surveillance, and lots of radio chatter between his mother and the other NPS staff. There’s also a voice message, if the blinking light on the radio station’s answering machine is accurate.

Even as Brook pulls out his books, homework sheets, and other academic paraphernalia, the pegged maps, NPS notes, and radio chatter pick at his ears. Although most of the codes and map markings would be indecipherable to a layman, Brook grew up inside Red Aspen, and he cannot help but put together several pieces of information.

As Chet said, Mary is leading the full continent of local park rangers in a manhunt through the local park trails. Or, as Brook discovers likely to his chagrin, Marshal Schofeld is leading it from another, no doubt warmer and drier, location outside Kaniksu’s trails.

Brook: Brook doesn’t give the ice cream much of a look as he starts a small fire in the wood stove and slaps a pot of water there to boil for dinner. Sugar means highs and lows, and he can’t afford that right now. Instead, he starts to look over the trail notes as he gets his things out and listens to the fuckery happening down below. Something to frustrate his mother to no end, no doubt. That pompous ass of a man doesn’t even let the kid who found the clue come and help investigate it? Dropping his books on the desk, he takes a moment to read over Chet’s notes about the trail search, seeing if there are any hints to this sicko’s location.

GM: After a brief investigation interrupted by the pot’s boiling water, Brook learns that there’s been no sighting of the escaped asylum patient–at least none since the ones he found inside the outhouse, or whatever was inside the abandoned farmhouse. The answering machine continues to pulse red. His spread out, yet otherwise untouched, homework does not blink or flash, but still awaits him.

Just as Danny said and as Brook has come to expect, Mr. Epstein has assigned a bunch of geometry problems to solve. Ms. Vosburg may have been a hormone-a-phobe who carried a loaded gun during her lectures, but at least Brook’s freshman algebra teacher didn’t assign so much homework.

Then there’s World History & Literature. Ms. LeBaron’s work is a bit more vague. Technically, all he has to do before tomorrow is turn in a one-page paper summarizing his assigned culture, the book or books he’s currently researching, and a rough plan on how he plans on working with his class project’s partner, which for him, is evidently Leanne Byers. That said, Danny’s notes suggest there may be a pop quiz on the Rome notes. That, and there’s the actual research for the project he’s hardly begun. He only made it through the foreword before crashing in the library, after all.

Brook: Ugh.

With everything going on, the young ranger hopes for a strike of lightning to hit the school tonight, though it’s probably too much to hope for. After dumping a box of macaroni in the boiling water, he returns to the desk to sift through his homework, nodding lightly and looking over everything. Ms. LeBaron’s seems like the easiest to get through, as Hazel—or rather, Ms. Bauman now he guesses—worked her magic just the other day to give him the old information packed book that still rests in his bag. Before he starts everything, the blinking gets to him and he picks up the receiver, tapping the button to hear who’s called and what they want.

GM: “You have, four, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine. “Message one.”

What follows is a juvenile, curse word-filled rant about how Brook kills baby deer and bunnies and how he should burn in hell with Hitler, because he and the rangers and hunters are guilty of animal genocide.

Brook: Brook grins and saves the message. He has a feeling when this girl comes to spray paint the tower he’ll have her making threats on the answering machine. Next.

GM: After a few beeps and prompts by the answering machine, it saves the first and plays the next. “Uhm, do I… press… or wait…” comes a tentative female voice. “Wait, there was a beep already… oh crap…” The message cuts off with a surety the voice lacked. It takes Brook a few moments to realize the unidentified voice belongs to Leanne Byers, his fellow classmate.

Brook: Brook sits up a little, chuckling at the voice, and smiling ear to ear when he realizes it’s Leanne. He hopes she’s called again and deletes the message, moving on to the next.

GM: The next message’s voice he immediately recognizes: June Pohlman. She sounds upset, maybe a little flustered or like she’s been practicing what to say and finally got the nerve to call and was then forced to leave a message: “Brook, it’s June… you need to do… what you know you should. What you can. It’s past time. Stop hanging back. We shouldn’t have to wait to get over… whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.”

Brook: Brook listens and can feel the look on his face before the emotions hit him in full force. Disgust, grime, betrayal. is this girl serious? No. Oooohh, no. Cute as she is, this isn’t kosher. This is a radio station. Brook stands up and grabs and slaps down his sticker and sharpie-decorated personal mixtape machine, the recorder. He quickly puts in a blank tape and hits ‘record’ before pressing to replay the message. After he gets it all on tape, and makes sure it’s on tape, he deletes it and moves on. His mood’s moved from ‘fine’ to ‘pissy’ for what feels like will be the rest of the night.

GM: The answering machine, if jealous, does not convey it as it announces and then plays ‘Message Four’: “Hi, Brook, or radio station person who I hope gives this message to Brook. That’s Brook Barnes by the way. This is Leanne Byers. I’m in Brook’s classes, or well Mrs. LeBaron’s. We’re together. Partners. On the class project. For Mrs. LeBaron’s class.”

There’s a muffle, maybe a crinkle of paper, before the voice begins again. “So we’re supposed to work together. On the project. And like there’s a paper. And presentation, uhm, I think. And we have to like do a little paper, just one page by tomorrow, but you, or Brook see, like, wasn’t in class today.”

“And so I, like, got your number from the radio station broadcast, and was, like, uhm, hoping you could call me back. Or maybe, like, whoever gets this message can give it to Brook, and he can call me back. Yeah, uh, that’s what I mean. Meant. So, right, this is Leanne Byers, and I’m trying to reach Brook. Brook Barnes. For a class project, paper for tomorrow. My number is 208-344-130-” The message cuts off before she can give her final digit.

Brook: Brook’s mood slowly lifts hearing the awkward fumbling. He wonders if Leanne has written this all down on a piece of paper or she’s just steeled herself. Until he hears that crinkle of paper, of course. As it comes up, the boy snaps out of his fugue and jots down the number, the last digit gone. Well, there’s only one way to fix this. Grinning now, the teen runs back downstairs and finishes up his pot of dinner, shoveling his face with food as he rushes around trying to find the Witiko Falls Phone book. Byers. Easy to look up when he’s got the first bit of the number.

GM: Being such a small town in an equally remote and rural county, Witiko Falls lacks its own phone book, but the white pages of the county phone book have what Brook seeks. It takes him a little digging, though, as Byers is a common enough surname in the region, and Brook struggles to pick the right one, given that adults’ rather than minors’ given names are listed. Fortunately, the fact that he has all but the last digit of Leanne’s phone number makes the process not too onerous or tricky.

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208-344-1306

Byers, Arlie & Stella…………………..1 Shoney Pond Road

Brook: Brook is done eating by the time he finds the number and writes the last digit, as well as her parents’ names. The address is something he can remember easily. Looking at the clock, he knows it’s past midnight, but he has one surefire way of getting her to call. Brook hops up to the radio desk, stops the filler music, and flicks on the microphone. It’s time to calm down. The teen puts on his smooth radio voice as he announces,

“Good evening folks. I’m sure you all feel the electricity in the air, but I’m still here up in my tower. Now I warn you, tonight’s going to be quiet from me. On top of being your friendly neighborhood disk jockey and park ranger cadet, I’m still a student down at our little high school. Drown ’em deep and all that. I got work to do tonight.”

“So everyone remember to batten down the hatches. Don’t let strangers in. And if you’re one of the lovely people who tried to give me a call today, please ring me if you’re still awake. Especially my friend who likes black licorice. You know who you are. You all have a good night. A safe night.”

GM: The line starts to instantly light up with calls. However, likely to Brook’s dismay, the first is a caller who simply screams “DROWN ’EM DEEEEEEEP!”

The second caller is also male, but not so readily dismissed. “Hello, radio-guy?”

Brook: Brook puts his homework down and starts working on things as he answers the phone. The first call makes him reflexively hang up out of surprise, and he feels a bit bad about it until the next call comes up. He puts on music and stops broadcasting. "Name’s Brook, friend. How can I help you?

GM: “You’re the one who made the announcement about the crazy guy, the one with the hook? The psycho on the loose?”

Brook: “Dunno about the hook. He was missing one hand. Why, do you have information?”

GM: “Yeah,” comes the voice, then a pause with noise, maybe mumbled words, indecipherable in the background. “We’re part of the astronomy club and were out tonight, and we think we found him.”

As Brook listens closely, he can hear the caller is clearly pinching his nose, a crude and tell-tale way to disguise his voice. The background sounds further solidify the radio-jockey’s hunch that it’s a crank call.

Brook: “The astronomy club meeting when it’s about to storm, huh? Word of advice, don’t try this with the cops. It becomes a crime then. Keep your doors locked.” Brook hangs up, going back to his homework.

GM: The caller tries to yell his answer, “He’s in Ur-an–” but is cut short, and off–the–air regardless.

As Brook pulls out the book provided to him by the Chimera’s new librarian, his hands are once again drawn to the leather cover and its tooled repeating patterns, dimples, and protrusions. A dirty thought emerges in his brain, wondering if the nipples of the biker’s old lady would feel similar… and the inescapable image of her pendulous breast flashes in his mind, just as she flashed him less than an hour ago. No one else is in the tower to see if he lingers with that thought or immediately dives into his work. Either way, by the time the teen finds his place in the hand-cut, hand–blocked printed book titled I Have Heard the Pallid Colour of Howling in the Labyrinth, he begins reading the first letter from the Centurion Germanicus to Legate Caius Estulitius Incitatus:

_ [S]alve Legate!
 [A]s per your command, I commit to post this report of recent events along the frontier wall. The wall contains this branch of the Empire yet, but at no small price I fear. The savage tribes of Caledonia still harry and raid the border, despite the outrageous sums which are paid regularly to their kings and chieftains. At the risk of challenging the wisdom of you and your ancestors, I would submit that the Imperium cease its payments to leaders who have no control of their subjects in the first place!_

[I]nstead of this approach, I would recommend a more effective strategy based upon information l have collected in the years since l took up this post. I have learned a little of the tribal enmities and power struggles which exist in Caledonia and feel certain that such situations may eventually be exploited to keep this frontier intact.
 [T]hrough some native informants I have learned that Caledonia is inhabited not only by the Goidelic tribes of the Celtae, with which we are already familiar, but by another race, wholly separate and not necessarily friendly to the Celtae.

[E]ver since divine Hadrian constructed the great wall which runs the length of the border, the Imperium has been plagued by reports of fierce and savage warriors, naked and covered from head to toe with blue tattoos, who seem to appear from nowhere and often succeed in dragging our valiant boys from the ramparts of the wall with grappling hooks, making a feast of their flesh before the horrified eyes of their comrades.

[T]hese Picti, so named for their painted aspect, hold the northwestern regions of Caledonia, from which they send forth raiding parties to harry the Gaels (as the Goidelic tribes are called) as well as Roman strongholds. I propose to arm these Picti against the Gaels and cultivate an even greater hatred between these two peoples.

[T]o this end, I have invited Brennus, the Pictish high king, to parley at Eboracum. There I will propose that he ally with Rome against the Gaels. If they can be kept at each others’ throats, then they will have no men or energy to spare for costly engagements along the wall, and the rest of Britannia can remain secure within the Pax Romana.

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The second translated letter begins immediately thereafter:

_[S]alve, Legate! 
[I] regret to report that the parley at Eboracum was inconclusive. King Brennus of the Pictis_, though his manner was reserved and noncommittal (after the fashion of most barbarian rulers, or so I’ve found), nonetheless seemed to find favor with my proposal. Unfortunately I have completely underestimated the extent of the anarchy which prevails beyond the wall. Any deal which this savage can make with us is nor likely to be honored by the Pictish tribes who supposedly owe him allegiance.

[S]trangely enough, I was to learn this from Brennus himself, who speaks with complete candor about the sorry state of his kingdom. The man is an interesting study; there is a quiet nobility even in the sloping brow, broad nostrils and heavy beardless jaw. He stands scarcely as high as my shoulder, weighing in at less than half my weight, but is as lithe and sinewy as a panther. Clad only in a breechcloth and those swirling blue tattoos, armed only with an un- adorned iron-tipped short spear and a simple dagger of Celtic make, he strides among the assembled Roman might of Eboracum as if he had a century of his own at his heels.

[T]hough he carries himself with all the self-possession of a civilized monarch, he refers to his people only in a detached, sad sort of way; I surmised that the ruling families of Pictdom had held power for so long that they had become insulated, cut off from the rank and file of their subjects. I also suspect some degree of inbreeding among the rulers, also common with savage aristocracies.

[N]early all these preliminary speculations were overturned when I had time to observe Brennus interacting with his retinue. Some half-dozen Pictish warriors accompanied him to Eboracum as part of his personal guard. They are short, shorter even than Brennus himself, and covered with similar tattoos. There most resemblance ends; while their king ex- udes a savage nobility, these are gross and debased specimens, their spines curved, their speech guttural, their skin unwholesome, scaly and diseased.

[“Y]ou mark the sorry state of my people,” Brennus told me, “but know this, Roman: These men are the finest that l have at hand. Their bodies are twisted by the evil that cloaks my land, but their spirits are as yet untainted. I know that their hearts are loyal to me, and the blood which flows within is that of the true white howlers, not–” and here Brennus stopped, seemingly consumed with a rage which was held in check only by his iron will. He made as if to leave, stopped, spoke to me with his back turned. “Would you court us as allies, Roman? Would you lend us your spears against the Gaels? Then select your closest men and have them mount up! You shall meet those whom you would fight beside! When you are ready, I shall take you to the heart of Pictdom!”

[A]nd there it is, Legate. This will of course be my last missive for some while, but my next communication should be of the best tidings; soon we shall drive the Celtae into the sea and redraw the Roman border to encompass all of Caledonia!

–[T]itus Germanicus, Centurion, CVIIIth Cohort

The translated missives are then broken by the editor’s note which explain that the above articles are the only two complete letters of Germanicus.

The editor goes on to posit that the two letters were never posted to Rome, and equally unlikely to have been carried by the centurion into Pictlands. Instead, the editor hypothesizes that they were somehow preserved at Eboracum and later retrieved by one Nennius or some unnamed compiler. This theory is corroborated, the editor notes, by the difference in the condition between and the narrative that follows. While the first two letters had been copied into he manuscript proper (with the illuminated initial letter of each paragraph left unfinished), the following narrative is in Germanicus’ own hand, and likely intended for later inclusion as an appendix.

What follows, the editor notes, may have indeed begun as a series of letters to Incitatus, but their decayed and fragmentary states leaves the question unanswered. More likely, Brook and the editor alike conclude, is that these fragments comprise Germanicus’ own personal journal or notes, from which he intended to write his report back to Rome upon his triumphant return.

…Leaving Eboracum, we passed the ruins of the Tower of Trajan. Strange glances passed between Brennus and his men, and there was furtive murmuring. Later, a Cymric scout in our party who knew a Iittle of the Pictish tongue related that Brennus’ men had told him accusatorily, “you have called them, and they shall remember.”

[…]

The countryside is beautiful in its Spartan starkness. Vast rolling fields of heather stretch beneath the gray skies; the hills roll gently in some places, in others they jut at odd angles with treacherously bare rock. I asked Brennus […] “[…] but think not that the land was always as you see it now. When my people first came here, we walked, for the seas had not yet divided the land. The earth was pulling back her mantle of ice, and we hunted the reindeer, bison and mammoth across the plains. Gawk not, Roman! For mine is an old people, and our memories stretch back farther than you can even imagine!”

“When the oceans rose, we were driven back into the hills, and lush forests covered much of the countryside. The lion flourished here, as well as the red deer, wild boar, and many other animals, who became extinct as the wilderness died.”

[…]

The squalor of these folk is deplorable. They have no proper dwellings, but live mostly in earthen mounds. I have even been told that there are those in the highlands who make their homes in caves and burrows like common animals.

_ There are some wooden and stone forts where Brennus allows us to make camp and stable our horses. Within the forts one sees bronze and iron tools and weapons, most of them obviously of Goidelic origin. Some, however, I guess to be products of Pictish craft; they are crudely worked, and clumsily decorated with coiling images of fanciful beasts. Away from the forts, even these pitiful items are nowhere to be seen; the majority of Brennus’ subjects eke out their barren existence with nothing more than stone and wooden implements, living no better than troglodytes._

[…]

Here the translated text ends once more and the editor interjects again. Before Brook’s eyes can analyze or glaze over those paragraphs, the phone rings. Looking up, Brook sees that it is 1:36 am.

Brook: Some things stick in Brook’s mind. What evil was the Pictish king talking about? What did he mean by ‘still white howlers’? Why were the Picts so monstrous-sounding? It’s all a buzz of activity in his head, a mystery pulling him in as he reads and reads and reads. Until the phone jolts him awake. It’s getting later. He’s yet to start his assignment, past the reading. But he still picks up the phone rather quickly. “Hello, Red Aspen station.”

GM: The voice on the other end is a mere whisper, “Hello? Brook?”

“It’s Leanne,” comes the whisper, even quieter. Brook can picture the girl cupping the receiver to her lips.

Brook: Brook immediately sits up, feeling her whisper and shivering a little. It’s a little too nice to have a girl whispering in his ear, and his voice breaks a little as he whispers back. “Leanne! I—hey. Um… hey. Sorry I missed your call. I didn’t wanna call back, was so late. I thought you’d be sleeping.”

GM: There’s a pause and for a moment, the adolescent boy thinks the yet–to–break storm has finally decides to break and crash the phone line. Or worse, she’s hung up on him. Neither proves to be the case, however, as Leanne’s voice comes crackling through. “I… couldn’t sleep. Like you,” she says, continuing to whisper.

Brook: Brook can feel his heart scrape against the inside of his ribs on its way up his throat during the silence, like he’s waiting for something awful. It drops back into place when the opposite happens. Like him? He doesn’t know how much Leanne knows about him, but he frowns. “I’m sorry. I know how much it sucks to be awake the next day. I, um… I’m just doing homework. Our project.”

GM: Another pause. “Yeah, um, the project. Right. What do you have?”

Brook: “Lots. The librarian Haz—Ms. Bauman found me a great book. We can read it together,” he whispers, an image of the tall pair shoulder to shoulder reading a book every day coming to mind.

GM: “That sounds great!” her voice raises brightly, altogether forgetting its earlier whisper. “The librarian got me the book or something too. It has pictures. And, like, words too,” she quickly adds. There’s another pause. “I’m… I’m can’t, uh, I’m not sure I understand it though. It’s, like weird. Like old time talk.” She laughs a little self-consciously. “Which I guess makes sense. It’s, like, a history class, after all.” She pauses again, perhaps realizing she’s been rambling.

Brook: Brook jumps a little when she suddenly raises her voice, but as rambling as she is, he can’t help but feel happy she’s enjoying talking with him. Though there’s just one thing. What if her parents catch her talking to a boy at one o’clock in the morning?

“We can figure it out. We’ll be working on this together. And hey, if we have issues, we can always go to the person who gave us the books right? Though, Leanne, you were whispering before. Aren’t your parents sleeping?”

GM: “Yeah!” Leanne says excitedly, then backtracks as seems to realize she’s given only one answer to multiple questions. Her whisper returns, “I mean, like, working together would be what the teacher wants us, to like, do. Together. Will you be at school tomorrow? Were you si–”

The connection becomes a screeching series of beeps and static.
The dial-up naturally fails given the active use of the line, and it is only a few seconds before the ear-drilling sound halts and both Brook and Leanne hear another different form of yelling:

“Leanne!!! What the hell you doing up?!”

Brook hears his fellow sophomore almost drop the phone as she stammers, not into the phone, but away from it. “S-sorr-y, Daddy!”

Brook: Brook nearly jumps out of his skin once again at the sound of the dial-up noise. He sighs away from the receiver and wonders if it’s the storm causing interference before… ‘Daddy.’

GM: “Get the off the damned line, girl!” her father yells, “And go to bed–no, wait, get me a beer if you’re awake!”

“O-okay, Daddy!” Leanne yells back, still flustered, before she whispers into the phone and nearly trips over her words, “Gotta go, thanks, see you ’morrow, bye, thanks.”

Brook: Listening closely, he already doesn’t like this asshole, and his eyes narrow at nothing as he hears the man yell and order Leanne around, who’s all but tripping over herself to please him. He wonders if she has bruises. But then again, he’s never had a father, maybe this is just how you’re supposed to act around one.

“Good night, Leanne,” he manages before the line goes dead. It pisses him off, but at least they can see each other again tomorrow. Buckling down, the boy starts to write the preliminary paper, detailing the name of the book he has from the library, and how he and Leanne are planning on working closely, pooling resources as he wants to put it. It’s only a page, he knows he can knock it out fast and start on that math. Then he can take a look at that bill in his pocket.

GM: The one-page paper is easily vanquished. As Brook looks up at the clock clicking over to 2 AM, he notices that the answering machine has a new message, likely one left while he was on the phone with Leanne. Meanwhile, the first rumble of thunder shakes the sky.

Brook: Brook feels the thunder crackle, and smiles, hoping that he can finish his math before it really starts. Until he sees the light. Sighing, he picks the phone up and presses the button to play the message, holding the phone to his ear as he brings out the math.

GM: “You have, two, messages,” announces the stilted automated voice of the message machine.

The first message, left at 1:39 am, comes from one Jason Tutweiler, requesting Metallica’s Until It Sleeps. “It helps me resist the aliens when they tell me to hurt people,” he explains before ending his message.

The second message, allegedly left at 1.61 am, is much shorter: “Agent Barnes, do the math.” As soon as Brook hears the message, he glances up to see the clock click to 2:01 AM.

Then, everything goes blinding white, then black.

Hudson: A Golden Star


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GM: The candy wrapper falls to the floor. Its descent is nearly as slow and and dull as the past four hours.

Outside the Britter’s boathouse, storm–whipped lake slaps the bottom of the floorboards. The windowless walls creak, while the roof pings and patters with rain. Thunder rattles the entire frame and shakes the hanging rowboats, causing them to sway on their winched chains.

Despite the violent weather outside, the climate inside the boathouse is beyond placid–it’s phlegmatic. Deputy Lowder has stopped recounting all the nails in the floorboards. Her sheriff county department peer–the young brown-haired Deputy Hensler–has abandoned his game of solitaire. His cards sit atop a bait bucket, his discarded jokers listing lazily over his makeshift card-table’s edge.

Their doldrum is finally broken by a knock on the door. Both cops jolt, their hands dipping to their sidearms, only to begrudgingly relax when they realize it is the Marshall’s partner, Deputy Cassidy Porter.

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Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the young African-American woman likes to say–but never says she likes–that she fits in Idaho as well as a raisin in a blizzard. Tonight, as she opens the triple-locked work closet full of cow chum and motor fuel with her right hand holding the corded landline, she looks over the three white law enforcement officers. Dressed in her Marshal-issued kevlar vest and uniform, her engagement ring glitters in the dark threshold as she regards her superior. “Boss,” she says, “It’s Max. Says they got lost. Tried to call, but… you know, reception. He and Curtis are at some wig-wham or something. Like a corner store.”

“Coffee Wigwam,” Lowder clarifies, seemingly happy to be of use, or simply thankful to be doing something. “It’s a shop on the Reserve. You want me to give them directions?” she asks, rising.

Hudson, however, is distracted by someone else. His ‘little man’. He’s been increasingly bothering the Marshal over these past hours–or more precisely, he hasn’t–and that’s what’s bothering the lawman. Normally, his hackles would be going haywire, his guts doing a tap dance on his spine. But there’s been nothing.

Hudson’s disquieting musings are interrupted by static-y chatter coming trough the landline in Cassidy’s hand. After crooking her neck to listen to the stretched taut phone, she tells her Bostonian partner to “Hold up,” then turns back to Hudson and the county deputies that await his decision. “Boss, Max says they picked up the bikes from Coeur d’Alene, just like you asked, and that Lt… Burrell, I mean, Bullard, says…”

She leans back into the phone, “What’d he say again?” After Hodges presumably repeats the message, she immediately relays with an arched eyebrow. “O-gauge or no gauge.” She shrugs. “It’s what he said.” She then adds, “Oh, Lt. Bullard threw in a third bike.”

Deputies Lowder and Hensler give the Marshals a curious look before the former reiterates her prior offer. “You want me to give them directions? With the storm, they’re liable to get lost. Again.”

Hudson: The rain pounds as Hudson’s teeth crunch down on the candy bar. Chocolate. Peanuts. Caramel. Nougat. That’s what the sweet and chewy interior is. He’d dispensed that bit of trivia to Lowder and Hensler (Porter already knew what it was) for pure lack of absolutely anything else to do. Nougat is actually a type of candy in its own right, made from whipped egg whites, roasted nuts, a sweetener like sugar or honey, and optionally candied fruit. The nougat that makes up a Baby Ruth’s chewy interior consists of milk, egg whites, chocolate, and various artificial sweeteners like like corn syrup. The fat fed savors the third candy bar he’s ‘smoked’ this evening like the cigarettes he’s long since given up, to only dubiously improved health benefits. For himself, at least.

Didn’t switch for me, he thinks, but the thought is fleeting and soon discarded, like the red-lettered candy wrapper that slowly drifts to the floor. Other matters weigh on the Marshal’s mind as his tongue licks at the bits of caramel stuck to his teeth.

Mrs. Britter is holed up in one of the expansive farm’s many dairy sheds, well out of Moe’s notice. She’s got her husband and three farmhands protecting her with shotguns, just in case Hudson is wrong. The Britters’ adoptive daughter Casie Saunders is spending the night at a friend’s house, just in case Hudson is also wrong about four guns being enough. The fat fed would’ve felt even better sending away the entire family, but he left that reservation unvoiced. The proud farmer was already unhappy at the notion he couldn’t protect his own, never mind fleeing his land and leaving its defense to outsiders.

So Hudson did the next-best thing, checking in periodically over the police radio he’d given the man. He’s checked in just as regularly with the Park Rangers who are sweeping the Kaniksu’s trail paths, in case Moses doubles back to his old haunts. Stan Epstein is going about his normal routine as if nothing has happened, save for the radio he’s also carrying. The deputized geometry teacher looks like he’s going to be Moe’s next target—and Hudson’s potential ace in the hole in case things are a wash tonight at the Britters’. It’s brave of Epstein to volunteer to be used as bait, and levelheaded of him to be content sitting at home twiddling his thumbs (if Moe decides someone under constant police guard is an undesirable target, after all, it’s anyone’s guess who the psychotic war hero will go after next). Every angle of the pentagon has its part to play, as he told young Mr. Barnes. Hudson has to admit he likes the man.

Meanwhile, the earlier farmhouse he and the others cased sits undisturbed, Moses’ map left just where it was in the fireplace. Hudson’s little man had mused the fugitive might go back for it. Lacking sufficient manpower to post a full guard in wait at the farmhouse, Hudson had considered rigging the fireplace with a trap to douse Moses in red paint—it sure would give the lawmen an easy trail to follow—but called that off. Moses has been seemingly content to live off the land so far (lunches stolen from schoolchildren notwithstanding), and there was too great a risk he might break into a house to use the shower and steal some new clothes. God help any residents he found inside. In lieu of a paint trap, a surreptitiously placed camera is being monitored by Ferg the dispatcher. That’ll at least give them the heads up on his present location.

As for Hudson himself, he and his men—actually, his man and his women, until his other two subordinates arrive—are patiently waiting at ground zero. Moses left copious and worryingly coherent (for a man who paints pentagrams in his own shit) notes on his targets. ‘Scheduled’ Mrs. Britter for today. Drew a sketch of her property’s boathouse. So that’s where the Marshal and his deputies are waiting. Hudson has planned for the night meticulously. Laid contingencies for every possible action he can think that his quarry might take. The whole thing looks like it’ll be wrapped up like a Christmas present. Easy peasy.

That’s what makes his little man lead his guts, candy-gorged paunches of bulk that they are, on an acutely painful tap dance over his spine. Its motions only grow more ersatz and its ponderous steps even heavier as the hours tick by and there’s not a sign of Moses. Not here. Not from the Britters. Not from the Park Rangers. Not from Ferg. Not even from Stan Epstein.

Too easy.

His little man grumbles.

_It’s never easy._

Hudson’s tongue works out a lone peanut stuck in the back of his molars. His teeth crunch down over the salted nut as he muses,

That’s the problem with trying to predict madmen. They’re not predictable.

Lowder’s twice-asked question finally stirs the fat lawman from his thoughts.

Hudson: The Wigwam isn’t far. Even with the poor weather it’s a stretch to imagine Max and Curtis getting lost.

“Yes, I would. And yes, they are,” he answers Lowder.

The fact is, ‘stretch’ doesn’t even begin to describe the things Hudson’s seen in this town. The mad detours on the roads to get here. The animal attacks. The anisocoria in so many eyes. The batteries in everything draining so fast. The awful sleep he’s gotten. The Britters lobotomizing their cows. Actually, no, that one makes some sense with how aggressive the animals all seem to be. A determined enough cow could hurt someone pretty bad. Still…

“It’s a strange town, Joe,” Hudson had declared over a phone call while snacking on a Captain Crunch bar. “The more I see, the stranger it feels—like leftover bits of egg-flavored gummy, stuck in the back of your gums. Stuck there, fermenting, a strange and subtle taste that only gets stranger the longer it’s there, and the more you think on it.”

Then there are the locals. They have their own ways of doing things and understand the town better than he does. Frankly, Hudson isn’t about to tell them no. Outsiders seem to get lukewarm enough receptions as it is, never mind blustering ones who get in the way.

He nods as Porter gets the name right. “Bullard,” he repeats. “Old friend of mine from police academy. Doing us a real favor with those motorbikes.” Under the present circumstances, Hudson doesn’t quite smile at the reference to their shared hobby, but the tight outline of one traces his lips all the same. Back in the old days, Joe likes to say, men had hobbies, not like the hustle and bustle and oft-repeated mantra of “I’m busy” like one sees now.

Taking in his subordinates’ curious looks, the Marshal elaborates, “Little insurance on our part, if Moe doubles back to the Kaniksu. At my weight I’m liable to have a heart attack if we have to chase him through any trails too narrow for cars.”

There’s another tight outline of a not-quite smile. “If he’s smart—which he is, in his own demented way—that’s where he’ll run.”

Of course, where Moses might run is worth precisely jack-all next to where he is right now. It’s been four hours. Where the hell is he? As Hudson watches Lowder pick up the phone, he reaches into his jacket’s pocket and pulls out his police radio. No sign of their quarry is all the more reason to check in with the others.

“Schofeld to Red Aspen. Come in, Red Aspen.”

GM: Silence is his only reply.

Dead silence.

Brook: Skin Deep


GM: Brook awakens on the ground. All around him is the stench of burnt ozone. His head feels like it was struck by a sledgehammer, and his ears keep ringing with a warble and screech akin to an endless dial-up tone.

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap open, realizing in a second what’s just happened. Something that has never happened to him. He lost consciousness while the moon was high in the sky. He jerks up, panicking, grabs the back of his chair and hoists it up like a spear against the room around him. He sniffs the air and then slides his back against the desk. There’s nothing. Last he remembers he was looking at the clock and then—oh no.

The scared teen shoves his hands into his pockets, checking for the wrapped-up dollar bill as he checks the clock. He has to still have time to get that work done. Maybe after he unplugs the phone.

GM: The clock is dead. Everything is dead. Except him. He thinks. It’s pitch back. Rain patters on the windows.

Brook: Lightning. Fucking lightning? That’s bullshit, after so many years Red Aspen has either slacked on its electrical work or whatever hit them wasn’t a normal bolt of lightning. But it fits. Everything going black right when he answered a phone. Maybe it’s his fault.

Fumbling, Brook makes his way down to the main floor and feels in the dark for his bag. Of course the flashlight is dead. But as he fumbles to a cupboard, he finds more than enough candles, and a box of matches. Count on his mother to be prepared. But after everything that’s happened today? It’s time to just… stop for awhile. Brook lights a candle and carries it into his bedroom, grabs his guitar and carries it up into the tower. He keeps only two candles on his desk, so he can see himself and his work.

But he pushes it out of his mind. One song. The rain is perfect. One song to cool his nerves. He mounts the guitar on his knee as he sits and squeezes his hand to loosen it up, and gives a tentative strum. Maybe it’s not the time, but after so many years of art and music as a means to cope, he needs it right now.
GM: Brook’s eyes play tricks on him. Blinding after-images. Serpent-like shadows or lightning bolts mingle with the red–orange candle flames. When another bolt of lightning arcs across the sky, Brook feels his muscles twitch involuntarily, causing the musical chord to fray like a downed power–line. His windowless bedroom, however, provides a relative respite from the storm which ranges outside. And eventually, the after-images and echoes subside.

Brook: Brook grits his teeth at the sudden twitch, and a low growl of self-frustration brews in the base of his throat as he sets the instrument down. It’s not working, and the strange upside-down feeling in his gut is still there from the shock of sleep at night. Is it the phone? The lightning? The boy suppresses a growl, pockets the matches and extinguishes all but one candle, then slowly creeps up into the tower. He has to grab what’s left of his homework.

GM: True to Danny’s jib, geometry and trigonometry are not Brook’s best subjects. However, his friend’s notes provide a vital lifeline as he struggles through his homework. The first half requires him to calculate the angles of different regular polygons. When he gets to the pentagon, he pulls out his sketchpad he made, recalling something Mr. Epstein said about the degrees. By the time he’s done the first portion, he’s pretty sure he got enough items correct.

The second half is in one of those larger word problems from the book called ‘practical applications’. Tonight’s exercise, at least, begins with a photo of the Summa Vitiorum, a thirteenth century monastic illustration, depicting an armored knight with a shield bearing the “sacred geometry” of the Scutum Fidei, or Shield of the Triarchic God.

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Brook reads over the paragraph explaining the symbol’s religious history and a quote by Plato asserting that “God geometrizes continually”. The actual math problem itself requires the calculation of each angle of the Scutum Fidei. The math problem proves a bit harder for Brook, and by the time he’s done, or at least gives up, he’s neither sure he computed the correct number or degrees of the angles. Regardless, the math is done.

Brook: Brook concedes that math isn’t his best subject, but it’s a thin enough line between him and expulsion that he’s willing to even brave whatever the fuck has just happened up in the top floor of his tower to get it done. His earlier muscle twitch, as the thunder rumbled through the world, still eats at the back of his mind. He works hard under the candle light, his pen slitting across the paper as he gets the first portion done. That’s when things get strange, or at least stranger than normal. He doesn’t give in, he does his best, and when he’s done it’s like a wave over him. But it’s not relief as normal.

GM: Agent Barnes, do the math.

Do The Math.

The words reappear like a summoned ghost. He looks back at his sheets of paper, the protractor, calculator, and rest of the candlelit supplies as if he’s forgetting something. Something important.

Do The Math.

The epiphany strikes him as sudden and blinding as the lightning bolts that crackle through the sky. The pentagram. He grabs the nearby maps. He has to be sure. It only takes him few moments to confirm his suspicion.

Five points. Five fires. They match perfectly, not just in number but in precise distance from one another. Somehow the rangers and marshals all missed it. Brook looks back to his sketchpad. No, not five points. Six points, the sixth being in the grand center of the pentagram. A few calculations later, and Brook has found the sixth site. One where no fire has burned. Yet.

Scratch’s Corral. A box-canyon not too far away from Baker’s Cudgel, the dead-end gorge has an old dirt–track trail originally made by nineteenth century cattle rustlers and restored nearly a century later by conspiracy–secessionists in the 1969. Looking at the maps, Brook comes to six disconcerting conclusions. Six. Just like the pentagram. Six points. Six lines. Six words. Six.

First, the homicidal asylum escapee, Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, is either already in or heading to Scratch’s Corral.

Second, Moses is angry, and before the sun rises, he’s going to try to give ‘the Devil a foothold’ likely through some satanic ritual that will doubtlessly involve atrocities against another.

Third, all of the NPS rangers are patrolling public park trails, and thus are nowhere close to the off-limit box canyon.

Fourth, with all of Red Aspen’s electronics fried, Brook cannot alert the proper authorities.

Fifth, even if he could, they wouldn’t be able to reach them, not in time, and maybe not at all, as the Corral’s trail is too narrow for cars and trucks. Dirt bikes are another matter.

Sixth, and most importantly, if someone is going to stop Moses MacDonald, it’s going to be Brook.

Do the math

Brook: Do the math.

The earlier gnawing in his head takes a back seat to a new set of teeth chewing on his brain, until tooth meets tooth and sparks like flint in his gray matter. Brook shoots up, sending his chair to the floor as he pulls a map off the wall and slaps it on the table. Everything lines up. Everything makes itself known. The fires giving everyone trouble have been arson every time. That sick shit-painting fuck.

More realizations mount on, more and more, until it makes sense. Do the math. Do his job. Hunt. Brook bolts back down the ladder onto the first floor, races to his hook on the wall and pulls on his gear. Boots, outdoor camouflage clothing, his boonie hat, and his pocketed vest are soon all tightened up and ready. As his hands move into a blur, he realizes this feels unlike most hunts he’s been on. This feels like war. There is animosity in his movements and an eager shiver in his chest cavity. He’s excited. Maybe to be racing to the rescue, or maybe to be on the hunt for what he is.

His guns, his bow, his arrows, his gloves, and his backpack survival kit. Brook arms himself to the teeth, even hiding his revolver in its holster under his brown- and green-patterned coat, violating a law. The adrenaline-high teen grabs his keys and hesitates for only a moment as he runs back and pulls a loaded flare gun out from the supplies box. Brook bursts out the door like a movie hero, sending gravel flying as he sprints down to the station shed. His project sits right next by. It’s a piece of pride for him and a guilty pleasure akin to the Mooners. He rips the cover off to reveal his dirt bike: it’s not much of a looker, but it’s something he’s proud of. It takes only one smooth kickstart before the lamp flicks on and the ranger cadet is on his war-path. His green eyes stare unblinkingly focused ahead as he makes his way to Scratch’s Corral.

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GM: Outside, the storm rages. The forest feels alive, awoken by the thunderstorm booming and crawling above and between the mountain slopes and valleys. Cold, fat ran smashes down on Brook and his dirt-bike, making the gravel trail and muddy drop-offs treacherous. The blackness of night is cut through by lightning. They alternately resemble horned snakes slithering across the umbral Sky–Country or white–hot arteries and veis on thin–skinned flesh of some ineffable monstrosity looming over the world to swallow it. The staccato flash of blinding white and black create a blurring wash of false gray that distorts color, shape, and time.

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Yet, despite the nightmarish driving conditions, Brook rides on, fast and unfettered. Instincts take off, and rational thought slides into some unused, unneeded corner of his mind. These are his woods after all. His home. His territory. Some atavistic will guides him in the dark. The primeval power, however, has a cost, as somewhere in chiaroscuro cacophony, Brook’s hold on the present washes away like the rain-water down the ride.

One moment, he’s riding white–knuckled down Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast, and the next, he’s rousing from his dark dissociation, his bike still gunning through the nigh–hidden, person–wide entrance into Scratch’s Corral.

Brook: Once again, the young hunter’s forest feels as though it can swallow him alive or push him safely into what he seeks. It chooses. Brook’s mind goes blank as he pushes forward, if anything traveling faster and faster as his heart rate rises. Right up until he bursts through the entrance into the box canyon. Scratch’s Corral, the stage. Either for his death or his successful hunt is yet to be seen. He barrels through on his bike as the world comes back into focus, making his teeth grit and his chest quiver. He still doesn’t slow much. He begins his search, his hunt, racking his brain for places the rain won’t reach. Where he can find a rat.

GM: Brook’s mind doesn’t have to rake long. Only two years ago–in the wake of Ms. Littlebeaver’s shocking suicide–Danny and Brook had camped out in Scratch’s Corral, attempting a desperate teenage vision quest in the hopes of contacting Danny’s ancestors. During that troubled trip, the boys had found an old cave formerly used by rustlers, grizzles, and most recently by militant secessionists, who employed the natural bunker as an arms and ammo depot and locale of their last, lethal stand against the joint task force of ATF, NPS, and FBI in the ‘70s. Other than the cave of the box canyon–which was cleared out by the federal forces–there are thick copses fed by vein-like waterfalls and Auld Coot’s Creek.

Brook: Brook doesn’t wait for a better place to come into his head. He heads for the cave and slows his pace. His original plan of running down the psycho with his bike is out the window, but this place is at least a start. Soon the hunter calms his war ride, slowing to a stop and sliding off his bike a few meters from the mouth of the cave. He takes the keys and slides them into a pocket inside of his vest to keep them silent, and hefts his bow, notching an arrow as he keeps low and makes his approach. Tracks will tell him what he needs, the cave at least not in the washing rain.

GM: As Brook stalks toward the cave, a forked lightning bolt rips through the sky like Uktena’s tongue. For a brief, terrible moment, the young man is once again struck both blind and deaf. Absent those senses, Brook’s mind looks back to the past, when he and his best friend first visited Scratch’s Corral.

July 2, 1996. It’s hot as hell. The circumstances spurring the boy’s camp-out and desperate vision quest were already grueling, but the heat makes everything worse. And it’s only getting worse.

When they had arrived two days prior, it was unseasonably warm and dry. When Mary dropped them off at the entrance with all their supplies, there had at least been a little mountain breeze to wick off the sweat. However, once the boys descended into the box canyon, that wind suffocated like a cat trapped inside a shrink-wrapped shoebox.

At first, the mind-numbing heat, sweat, and exertion of hauling their supplies and setting up camp had been good. Danny hadn’t wanted to speak, and honestly Brook wasn’t sure what to say. How do you comfort your best friend right after his mother jumped out of a third-story hospital window and left him and all his siblings de facto orphans? So the stifling heat seemed like a blessing. But the blessing soon turned into a curse. It was like the box canyon was a giant cauldron and someone kept adding more timber to the fire.

The second day, the temperature climbed. Brook and Danny had tried to sweat it out, to use the pain and discomfort as a cleansing experience to guide them in their search for peace or at least answers. But the brutal sun just baked them and scorched any chance of spiritual solace. Danny especially suffered. Unlike the atypically tall, muscular ranger cadet who lives and works in this unforgiving wilderness, the comparatively short, scrawny pre-teen spends more time inside playing Duke Nukem, Zork, and his most recent favorite, Quake.

Seeing his friend endure the brutal weather so much better than he could certainly didn’t improve Danny’s mood or already tormented emotional focus. Today has been little better. Actually, it’s been a hell of a lot worse. As Brook checks his NPS thermometer–not for the first time–he sees the red mercury top 102 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s literally boiling.

After hearing Red Aspen’s forecast for today from Brook’s walkie-talkie, Danny had declared that he was done with the “crackpot sweat-lodge”. At the same time, he hadn’t wanted to run home crying, either. After all, home didn’t really exist for him any more. Not like it had. Going back would simply mean confronting harsh realities.

So Danny had decided to stay in the cave, hiding from the sun and its cruel heat. Brook isn’t sure whether the darkness has improved his best friend’s black mood.

Brook: While he can’t match it to his best friends, it has been a painful year for the young man. After the incident he’s not allowed to speak of, his body has been changing. He wakes up in pain, his body screaming at him for no reason. His temper flaring at odder and odder times despite his promise to reign himself in. His dreams changing to worse and stranger motifs, much to his awkwardness seeing the girls they involve the next day. He’s grown too, his arms bulging, his appetite demanding much from him.

Danny has been here for him though, the entire time. It’s only common sense once his mother fell to her death, that he reveal what he’s been studying. What they can try to find his ancestors for answers, like his bigger friend is looking for in the waters of the Green Lady. But it’s not going how they want. Brook of course follows his friend I to the cave, taking off his boonie hat and siting beside Danny in the dark awhile. “Are you okay? Do you need more water?” It’s all Brook can think to say. It’s painfully awkward, but it’s better than wallowing in the dark.

GM: Danny doesn’t reply–at least not in a way Brook can see. In the harsh sunlight that reaches but fails to grasp the back of the cave, the ranger cadet can barely make out his friend’s silhouette. Even so, he can tell the silhouette is wrong. But not why.

His friend’s aberrant silhouette moves. There’s a soft movement of stones, then a ‘whiiiish’, followed by the echoing clatter of stone ricocheting against stone. When the echoes die, Danny speaks in a drone-like voice: “…the mouth of Vaults of Zin, and the vindictive ghasts are always on watch there for those denizens of the upper abyss…”

There’s another scrape, whiiish, and distant clatter.

Brook: Brook freezes as soon as he realizes something is wrong. Like a dying biker in the snow, he just listens. Only this time, there’s something in the dark, even as Danny suddenly speaks of mouths and vaults. And another skitter sounds in the darkness. Despite all of it, the young ranger realizes this had to be what they were waiting for. Something is speaking through Danny. Making only very slow motions, Brook removes his hat and puts it down beside him, speaking quietly and carefully. There’s not exactly a script, but he speaks like the people in Mary’s stories, looking at the shadow. “I am Brook. Son of Madcatcher and The Green Lady.”

GM: The strange silhouette turns slowly to face Brook. Danny’s voice speaks:

“Son of two lesbos, eh? That explains a lot.”

Pre-teen snickering echoes in the cave.

Brook: Something is happening. Brooks doesn’t know what but it’s probably what they’ve been working towards. His hair. It’s not how it was. “Close your eyes Danny. I think it’s working finally. You said some…weird stuff.”

GM: “Brooks, I think the sun’s cooked your brains. Not that there was much to cook, after all.” Brook can’t see but can imagine his friend grinning. “Nah, that’s just a line from some Lovecraft. White-ass racist, but he could write some creepy shit. It’s like the base for Quake. Base, inspiration, whatever. Vaults of Zin, my favorite level.” He picks up another rock and wings it, causing another staccato echo of skipping stone on stone. “Those ghasts or fiends, man… scary hard.”

Brook: “Dude. Your hair is gone in your shadow. It’s wrong looking. Focus. We can do this. Your ancestors are here.”

GM: Danny stops, and his voice changes, but not in a good or inhuman way. It’s angry, bitter, and raw in a way that only a hurt human can sound. “No. They’re not. I cut my hair. I don’t want my braids or sweetgrass or smudging or any of the wigwam-crybaby crap.” Brook feels his friend toss a pebble in his lap. “Let’s see how many you can skip, Green Lady baby.”

Brook: Brook frowns. It’s a reverse now. He was always so dismissive of the ways of the who he’d been adamant were not his people. But what he realized was that they don’t have to be his people for the spirits of things to reach him, or vice versa. But now here was Danny, throwing down his hand in pure sorrow and frustration. And now the sun and their hats have made the boy feel like a little bit of a fool, taking a rock.

“I think I’m ready to tell you what happened that week I missed school last year. The last time I gave Nelson a black eye.” Brook throws the rock, hoping to skip it well.

GM: The stone goes spinning away into the darkness, where it skips off the cave-rock repeatedly. Six times to be precise, a number painfully higher than any of Danny’s throws. Both boys cannot help but listen to the echoing stone strikes.

Click.

Pling

Plack,

Clack,

Plick,

CLANG

Perhaps the stone skips further in the dark, but the sixth strike drowns them out, both by its volume and strange tone. The two boys instinctively look at each as they recognize it as the sound of stone striking, not stone, but metal.

“Wh-,” Danny begins to ask, but then clicks on the flashlight clipped to his belt. Its sudden light causes both preteens to reflexively squint. As their eyes adjust, Danny peers into the flashlight’s beam and the distant cave-rock it illuminates.

oth boys once again turn to another after simultaneously spotting something metallic jutting from the cave-rock. “Wha–,” begins Danny again, before walking towards the object, “I thought you said the Feds or Rangers cleared out the bunker?”

The flashlight’s beam shakes and wobbles as the light is brought closer to the metallic object. “Dude, maybe a camper left it since then?”

Brook: Brook is about to spill beans even as the rock skips, until they hear the clang of iron. Neither of them can resist the impulse to check it out, and the taller of the youths walking over to the jutting something after adjusting to the flood of light. It’s strange, was his mother still in charge of the Rangers back when this happened? He’s forgotten the exact date they’ve told everyone those wackos came through. “Well… here, hold the light steady. Let’s see what it is first.” Reaching out, the young preteen carefully bringing his hands around it, seeing which way it’d let him move it without breaking it. Hoping his gloves will keep him safe from any cuts.

GM: Together, they identify the metallic object as a rusted locker box, likely of military origin. The box had been stowed in a cunning artificial alcove in the cave-rock. Someone had chiseled a roughly cubed hole into the rock wall, stored the lock box inside, and then used cement and paint to hide the alcove. In the dark, it would have been all but impossible to miss. However, the decades have not been kind to the painted concrete, and the repeated barrage of hard-thrown stones broke a hole in inch-deep cheap cement covering the box.

Danny excitedly grabs some of their gear, including a hammer and shovel. He sets down the flashlight and begins bashing and scraping away the lockbox. In the long-shadowed light, Danny smiles, almost shouts between grunts, “It’s like real buried treasure!” It’s the first time Brook has seen his best friend smile since his mother’s suicide.

Brook: It’s dangerous, but how can he tell Danny no to this? That smile. Maybe this is the answer, just doing things together. Brook stays in the cave with the flashlight, tapping away with a rock before Danny comes in. Brook lets his smaller friend hammer away at the cement, sweeping debris away with his boot while they uncover the treasure.

GM: Cement dust coats Danny’s grin and knife-shorn locks, making the youth look maniacally happy, but happy all the same. The image reminds Brook of being younger, when he and Danny made mud balls, built forts out of broken car parts and trash, and played ball amid dustbowl gardens. “Together,” Danny says, still grinning, as he makes way for Brook to help him slide the box out of the hole and move it to the ground.

Brook: Brook remembers. All too well. It’s sad, but he doesn’t know if they can ever go back to those care-free days. For now though? He’s willing to ignore the world for Danny, grinning as he helps the boy pull the box out of the wall and down to the ground, very slowly, muttering to Danny they could be explosives and so to put it down carefully as possible. “These people were dangerous, weren’t they? The ones who took over this cave?”

GM: Brook’s comment about explosives does nothing to deflate his friend’s exuberance. He does, however, follow his advice. He stares at the box, then up at Brook. “Dude… dude!” He puts his finger on the lock-switches, then pauses. His voice drops low, more conspiratorial than calm, “What… what do you think is inside?”

Brook: Brook looks up at the wall, seeing how sealed up it was. “Something important. They went through a lot of trouble. Can you get it open?”

GM: He nods for Brook to hand him his multi-tool, then gets to work. It doesn’t take him long to spring the two locks. “Magic fingers,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. Cracking those fingers, he places his fingers on the lid like a magician about to do a great reveal. Only the tiny furrow in his brow seems to convey the worry that the box might blow up–or worse, be empty.

The old metal lid creaks open. Both boys peer inside as the echoes bounce like bats around them. It’s hard to say what they see first. Most of the box is filled by two matching humidors. Then there’s a gun, a swatch of silver cloth stuck inside a chaplain’s bible, and a key. Surrounding all these artifacts is money. Lots of money.

As Danny pulls out the cash, both boys note that the bone-crisp money includes several denominations, but one dollar bills are the most common. What’s uncommon, however, is what’s been done to the money. Each and every one has been burnt.

Inspecting them by flashlight, Danny and Brook can see that the burn marks are relatively similar and roughly the size of a nickel. “Aw shit,” Danny says as he realizes the money is ruined. “Why… why would somebody… burn money?” His smile slips.

As Brook rifles through several ones, tens, fifties, and even some rare two-dollar bills, the ranger cadet notes how the circular, similarly sized marks resemble cigarette burns, but only slightly larger. Looking over defaced money, Brook vaguely remembers a time, nearly a decade ago, when Mary had to attend a week long NPS training in Seattle. She had left the then-six year old boy in the care of several distant relatives. He dimly remembers the hugely muscled Sampson Bird-Rattle pulling out a dollar bill and burning it with his cigarette. Though young, Brook was old enough then to understand that money bought things and fire destroyed them, so he had asked Sampson about it.

“Blinds the Black Men,” he had said, not elaborating.

Brook: “Blinds the Black Men,” Brook repeats, though more to himself than Danny as he looks over each little bill. But he doesn’t dwell too much, he takes them all out and piles them infront of Danny, before he picks up the gun. The only of the two of them to know how to safely handle one, the young Ranger doesn’t want Danny picking up an old loaded gun just to hurt himself, Brook looking the antique over.

“I don’t know what it means, but I’ve seen someone do that to a bill before. One of my mom’s cousins or something? He did these to his bills.”

GM: Danny nods. “Yeah.. I think I saw ‘Lij and some his friends playing poker. I can’t remember, but maybe some of the money had marks like these. Maybe not.” His attention, like Brook’s, shifts to the gun, though only the latter physically inspects it. And only the latter recognizes it immediately. It’s a .22 caliber Ruger target pistol fitted with an integrated silencer. Its serial number has been filed off and replaced with three tiny words likely etched by a hunting knife or razor blade:

Covenant

Sword

Arm

Consistent with Brook’s worry, the gun is indeed loaded, but with only a single bullet. Danny meanwhile pulls out the bible with the silver swatch. The former he plops down by the money and holds the latter closer to the flashlight. He then shows Brook how the fabric, which is about the size of a hand, is all monochrome silver weave save for a single sewn letter in its middle. A crimson L.

“Dude, this is… it’s like Sesame Street on angel dust,” the pre-teen says, shrugging in puzzlement as to what the swatch or letter might mean.

Brook: Brook grabs the multi-tool and carefully gets into the gun’s works, pulling out the target pistol’s pin pocketing it, putting it back down beside the case. Even if Danny wants to handle it, now, it’s safe. But his attention turns back to Danny as he pulls the bible out, brow furrowing at the cloth and the single initial on it.

“L? Was it like… on a certain page in that bible? Gun with one bullet, bible, money. I bet this was like… for those bad guys to grab and run, and pop themselves if the cops caught them.” Leaving the bible investigation to Danny, Brook pulls out the Key to inspect, hoping it’s for something cool.

GM: Left to inspect the bible, Danny picks up the still open book, only to set it back down. “Yeah… uhh, I don’t think this is red ink like Mrs. Scheingart uses.” He nudges Brook to show him the page, which has been splattered with what Brook recognizes as dried blood splatter. Someone has used said blood, when it was fresh, to repeatedly paint the words: Brothers Keep Silent.

The sanguine defacement covers both pages save for a single verse. Jeremiah 51:20. Danny reads it aloud, “Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

He looks up at his friend. “Not your normal Jesus Saves bumpersticker.”

Brook: Brook leans over to take a look soon as his friend nudges him, still holding the key as he looks over the bloody messages. It’s more than clear that these people were some kind of crazy cult. The quote however sends a chill up the young man’s spine. They really had been ready to go to all-out war for their god.

“Nope… I guess they were more than just a little culty and nuts. What about this key? You think there’s even more treasure? Shine the light on it.”

GM: Danny obliges. The key itself appears rather nondescript. It’s attached to a large keychain, though, which is in the crude outline of a leg-bone. Its material, however, is too porous and rough, which gives the keychain the appearance of a dog biscuit–an item most Falls’ natives have not seen, but which the ranger cadet nonetheless recognizes.

“Maybe the key unlocks one of these boxes?” Danny says, pointing to the two humidors still inside the lockbox. “Or well, that wouldn’t make sense,” he remarks in afterthought. “Cause… you know… anyone who’d have the box would… have the key,” he explains, rather lamely.

He shrugs and moves on to the two humidors. Hefting the first one, he angles it into the light, then jolts in alarm, nearly dropping the case. “Shit!” he exclaims with a subsequent laugh that tries to cover his anxiety. Despite his forced bravado, he doesn’t open the humidor. Instead, he angles his flashlight through the top’s glass display.

“Looks like, uh, this box is for you, Brooks,” he says half-jokingly as he slides over the humidor. Inside the humidity-controlled container are two well-preserved corpses. Tiny corpses, but corpses nonetheless. The first is a bat. The second, a snake. Both are as black as they are dead.

So preserved in the humidor, the two creatures look like they are merely sleeping, despite being dead for potentially decades. Brook, being learned in wildcraft, quickly identifies both species. The first is a western small-footed myotis, one of Idaho’s most common chiropterans. The second is a timber rattlesnake. Both are afflicted with melanism, a not common but known condition that gives them their shadowy hue.

Danny, meanwhile, moves on to the next and last item, or at least last box within a box. “A bunch of papers,” he says to Brook as he begins to inspect the pile of papers. After rifling through the stack, Danny shakes his head. He passes the papers to Brook, then says, “I can’t really make heads or tails of these. Sounds, uh, lawyer-y.”

The other pre-teen has similar luck, or lack thereof, after perusing the typewriter-printed documents. Danny meanwhile has begun to nimbly pick at the humidor’s inside. “Ah, yes!” he exclaims as he lifts up a false bottom. He excitedly shows Brook’s the twice hidden item inside. A scroll. And by the look of it, old and fragile.

“Best not touch, Brooks, and leave it to Mr. Magic Fingers,” he remarks smiling. Despite his words, Danny hesitates. “What do you think it is? A secret name for a chthonic demon? A recipe for applesauce? Directions to… dude, I don’t even know with… whoever left this.”

Brook: Brook just watches, looking over the two boxes and wondering what the hell is going on with whoever had these boxes packed. The first was disturbing, two melonistic animals pinned up in a box display to mummify or something. It’s impossible to know what these wackos thought as they stashed this here. But he’s going to take it. Get rid of it, or bury it somewhere safe.

The papers are equally troubling, as the young boy can’t figure them out, not even the smart one of the two can. Brook rolls the papers up after getting them nice and squared and he stuffs them in his pocket, planning on taking a dictionary and these papers into the library.

That’s when the scroll comes in, it’s a straight mystery to them both, and his chest clenches. “Use gloves,” he warns, looking to Danny. “I bet it’ll be some secret future ‘god is coming’ prophecy junk. But be super fucking careful when you open it. I know I’ll mess it up, so… just careful.”

GM: Danny nods, and goes to get a pair of gloves. His movements and bobbing flashlight create strange shadows on the cave-walls. Brook could almost swear he sees one of the animal corpses twitch inside the humidor.

Brook: Brook hefts the papers up and carefully turns, putting the papers in a bag so he can slap them back in the humidor they came from before they leave.

GM: His now-gloved friend returns, however, before Brook can check. “Okay, let’s go for the applesauce,” he says grinning. He turns to Brook. “You know, part of me wondered if you planned or staged all… this,” he says motioning to the lockbox and all. “I wouldn’t even put the bloody bible and animal mummies past you. But all that writing? What was the gun, by the way? Looks weird but wicked cool.”

Brook: Brook still feels silly about Danny so easily tricking him earlier, with him forgetting about the hair and the stone skipping sounding like… something bad in the dark. But when he leaves, there’s no one to trick him, and as the humidor’s animals seem to twitch, the young ranger slowly puts a hand over the case, trying to feel for movement instead of relying on his eyes. But Danny comes back too soon, making him jump and sigh before shaking his head.

“I don’t really know how to put up cement either… the gun though? It’s a sport .22, it’s even got a silencer. I think’s for like… suicide, dude. Here, I took the pin out, check it out.” Brook grabs the gun again, carefully ejecting the round inside and picking it up, handing the gun to Danny and taking his own flashlight to check the bullet, to see if it was anything special.

GM: Brook recognizes the bullet as a .22 conical ball cap, or CB. Its long muzzle velocity, combined with the built in suppressor, would make the shot virtually silent.

Virtually, unlike Daniel who has become truly silent. He makes no movement to take the offered gun. When Brook turns his eyes from the single bullet to his best friend’s face, he sees the pain. Pain deeper than any gunshot. And that’s when the preteen just realizes what he’s said.

Suicide.

Brook: Shit.

Brook pales a little in the dark, dropping the gun on the ground as he realizes what he’s said. Danny truly is the smarter of the two if the half breed can say something so horrible without realizing until afterwards.

“Danny, I-I didn’t mean. Fuck, I am so sorry. I-I just—you’re like the closest thing to family I can get, dude, I’d never mean it like that. That came out so wrong, please believe me.”

GM: Daniel sags like a string-cut marionette. His chin starts to quiver in the flashlight cave. Brook’s words seem to deflate any anger, but that just leaves his best friend with an imploding misery.

“Why?”

The fragile, raw question slips out between a pair of wet teardrops hitting the lockbox. “Why did she do it, Brooks? I-I know she had it hard… ever since my d… he left. But were we r-really that bad?”

Brook: Brook feels his heart twist and ache, and it demands his body to move. He grabs Danny and pulls him in as tight as he can, feeling the question digging into him, into things he can relate with, and into the parts of him that hold Danny up in such high regard. How can someone so good to him suffer so badly? How can someone drop a child in a sack into a river? Why? Thoughts of the coyotes, the river of blood, pills, and water, what they’ve just found, all flash.

“No. No they weren’t, Danny. I just… it’s… it has to be this place. The Rez, the town, even the lands around it. It-it’s like poison, Danny… I’m so sorry. I’m so, so, sorry. She loved you, it wasn’t your fault.”

GM: Danny sobs. He doesn’t fight the platonic embrace, but all he can give in return is a weak clutch of Brook’s shoulders that slides off as he balls his fists. The darkness covers the boys. It hides their mutual parental pains, their heart-wrenching question, and their unresolved regrets and resentments. But it does not heal them. Not today at least. Perhaps these are wounds that never truly heal. They just scab.

And as Danny finally pulls away, wiping his snotty and tearful face on his shirt, he decides that he’s done picking at that scab. For now. He stares at all the… things they’ve uncovered. And eventually his eyes return to the one thing untouched. Sniffling, he looks at his gloved hands then back to the scroll. “Okay, we’ve… come this far,” Danny remarks ambiguously, then adds, “Might as well keep… going.”

Like a diver, he takes a deep breath and dives in. He slowly unrolls the scroll, which reveals itself as a two-page letter. Unlike the stack of bleached papers with typewriting, this letter is old, really old. Small cracks appear as it’s unrolled, requiring Danny’s utmost nimbleness.

As Danny tenderly smooths out the pages and reads the first two lines out loud, the boys discover just how old the letter is.

" Edward Rutledge
Philadelphia, June 1776."

Danny turns to Brook. “What the fu–, no, this…”

Curiosity gets the better of him and he resumes reading. A bit faster now. Angling the flashlight, Brook can see the letter’s handwriting is antiquated, a scrolling quill-penned penmanship. Frankly, it’s amazing Danny’s able to read it as well as he can.

“Dear Representative Adams,”

“No doubt it will alarm you to read words penned by someone, who has these last several months argued so fervently for Reconciliation with the British Crown in the face of your own stance in favor of, Independence for these colonies of America. But in these times the world moves around us and we shall find ourselves left behind like rocks in a rushing stream.”

“I have myself received a revelation. I will not say it is religious in nature, for I feel it concerns our own world and not a higher realm. Our own lives, the lives of men the world over, these are the subjects of the knowledge imparted to me.”

“Many nights I have been haunted by dreams of the serpent. Is this the same beast that tempted the fairer sex in the Garden of Eden? Whatever the case may be, it leers at me and threatens with a snap of its jaws, the consequences of capitulation to the revolutionaries amongst us, and I believed it an extension of my own distaste for Independence. But as I write this, I am exhausted and sleepless, and labor by the light of a candle, for this very night the Serpent visited me. It was no dream, for its scales gleamed as the brass of the candlestick or the wetness of this ink and the death that reeked from it was as powerful a stench as I have ever encountered. It wore upon its brow a crown that shone, but the Light could not hide its ugliness. It opened its jaws and between it held the whole world, and worlds in the Heavens yet to be named.”

“This the Serpent spoke to me. It told me of the future that I must help bring about. In this world, men writhed blindly through darkness, and ruled one another by cunning and subterfuge alone. Deceit became the coin of kings, and the most cunning ruled not by Law but by the vagaries of their own will. The Americas, this new world still so virgin and unexplored, was fodder for the Serpent which would wax strong in the politicking and two-facedness of an America ruled by petty despots and governors lying both to the people of our colonies and to the British Crown who appointed them. This was the world the Serpent desired, and everywhere its brethren snakes would slither, pouring poisoned honey into every ear.”

Danny spares Brook another unsure look, then continues:

“And then I heard a storm as if from the beating of great wings. A shadow passed over an, and I espied the Eagle above me. In one claw it held a lightning bolt, and in the other a scroll, and written upon the scroll was a Code of Laws all men must obey. The serpent recoiled and the Eagle alighted upon a mountain there to rule. Its wings embraced a new world, a new world order in which the laws set apart the best and highest-minded men that they might rule the rest. In this world, law would rule and majesty and conquest along would be the makers of kings. Cunning would win only scorn. By strength and law would one man attain lordship over another.”

“The Eagle spoke to me as the Serpent had, but its words did not fall on horrified ears as the Serpent’s did. It promised me the world of justice, where Right would come to pass, and that the history we few fortunate men were making would bring it about. But only if the Colonies broke from the Crown could the Eagle be free to build this world. I saw its wings were afire and its eyes were of gold, its beak the gleaming steel of a soldier’s bayonet! It was wreathed in rifle smoke and its pinions were purest light that could illumine every corner of our world!”

There’s a delicate rustle of paper as he moves on the second, partial-filled paper.

“Then the Eagle carried away the Serpent and cast it away into the west, so it watched over our new world alone. And so I understand now that I served the Serpent, that subtle and deceitful beast, but now my eyes have been opened and I seek to do the work of the Eagle. It is to this end that I have resolved to sign the Declaration that you and Jefferson and the others are drafting. Outwardly, I shall suggest that this decision is prompted by a desire for unity among the colonies, but to you I profess the truth behind my decision in the hope that you will yourself understand the greater conflict being expressed through the process of Independence.”

“I hope that I can count on you as a brother in this matter, and that you can in turn bring others into the fold of understanding regarding the victory of the Eagle over the Serpent. I am certain tat I am not alone in my revelation, and I am already seeking out certain persons who have revealed themselves to be followers of the Eagle and all it stands for.”

“I shall speak to you soon, and rest assured that my quill shall be in hand as it is now.”

Danny pauses a moment before reading the next and final two lines:

“Yours in liberty,
Edward Rutledge, Representative for South Carolina.”

Danny’s eyes squint, and not just because of the dim flashlight.

Brook: Brook hangs on to his friend tightly in the dark, even if this is a wound that will never truly heal for either of them for Danny, his friend is there for him. They’re there for each other. Before this, he remembers days Danny was his only source of calm, the only person in his life not pushing him to be, or pushing him into danger. Even with high school coming up so soon, with them out of the rez, he wonders if that situation will change. But for now, Brook just knows that he can share this wound, and that he and Danny will heal and scar over one day. One day.

But for now, it’s a good idea for them to distract themselves. Pulling away from each other, they get to reading… whatever this is. It’s a stunned silence as Brook listens, sitting perfectly still as Denny reads out the ancient letter and the worries and triumph of a man long dead all come to light at the same time. He remembers his mother’s words on snakes, about what they are and where they come from. But it’s no real comfort, it just puts strange context on so many questions.

“I, uh… um. I have… fucking tap dancing Jesus in a birch bark canoe, what the fuck was that? Let’s… put it back, with the papers, it’s super old…”

Brook rubs his forehead, he has a lot of his own meaning to take from this. But what meaning can he take from this? Snakes with worlds in their mouths and crowns on their heads. Then eagles with lightning in their claws? Somehow it seems like an Indian nightmare, a thunder bird banishing a snake king, to make way for what sounds like the American Revolution.

“Fuck, Danny… do you think this guy seriously saw all this?”

GM: Danny’s face tightens in hard concentration, his jaw churning and clenching. “It… can’t be real, I mean… it’s so old. Why would it be here? Crazy white-ass people…” He frowns. A hand drifts to his braids. But they’re gone. “But…”

Brook: Brook slowly lets the lights go on his head one by one, until the light bulb pops into his brain. “Ukenta. The snake with the blinding crown. Eagle with a lightning bolt, warring with Ukenta, the Thunderbirds,” he mutters, gently nudging Danny. “And these people who put this thing here. You think these are like…a cult the dude in the letter made, after he saw this? To try fighting Ukenta?”

GM: Brook’s words seem to turn on an equal if not greater storm of light bulbs in Daniel’s mind. “Right! Yes, exactly, or… maybe not at all. Maybe it’s…” He looks back to the line.

“Uktena. My grandfather taught me about those. Remember we had to do that project back in… like fourth grade? You did the bitching art, but I did the reading man. Serpents in native mythology. It’s all over the place. But it’s all backwards.”

He continues, clearly excited, as if he’s lost of temporarily forgotten his still damp cheeks and chin. “Crazy white-ass people, dude.” He waves at the pile of items. “White people, to them, snakes are like evil. The devil in the garden and all that stuff, right?”

“But to us,” he begins then looks down a bit awkwardly at his biracial friend, “Or well to most natives, serpents are sources of wisdom, even magic. Like Quetzalcoatl with the Aztecs, Kukulkan with the Mayas. And you’re right, it’s like a spot on description of the Uktena, here, except like it’s described through a white dude’s eyes. The blinding crown, my grandfather says it’s like a jewel or diamond, the Ulu-something or other, which is all like sorcerous or magic granting.”

“And the stench? Like the Uktena was said to have breath that smelled so bad that no living creature could survive if they happened to inhale even the tiniest bit. I had that all written in our report. It’s called tons of different names in different tribes. The Sioux for example had the legends of the it, don’t ask me what they called it, horned serpent or something, but they had the legends about them fighting the thunderbirds.”

He flicks his hand up his chopped hair. “What if this old white dude had it wrong, like what if… we’re the Serpent people?” He sets the letter gently down, but then picks up the burnt money. “Okay, remember the first flag of the 13 colonies? Remember the creature on it?”

Brook: Brook’s eyes go wide, following along with Danny’s thought process the whole way, keeping up at least enough to know where he was going as he nods at the smaller boy’s questions, a huge grin breaking on his face at being able to take the realization even further, keeping up with Danny.

“The rattlesnake! But like, just a while after this letter was written they changed the symbol to the eagle. I just remembered a bunch of shit too. Fuck. Okay, go on, I’m following.”

GM: Daniel smiles, “You know, you listen pretty well for a guy who sleeps through most of his classes.”He then turns the flashlight to the interior lid of the lockbox. The light illuminates three stickers or decals:

The first says DEATH TO ZOG, the second reads, NORTHWEST TERRITORY IMPERATIVE, and the third is a picture of the Gadsden Revolutionary flag depicting the rattlesnake and motto, DON’T TREAD ON ME.

“Don’t ask me what the fuck is Zog save the awesome name of a troll or metal band. But shit, Brooks, I mean, you’re right about the eagle. Like…” He looks around and then picks up a fistful of burnt cash. Holding up a dollar bill, he asks, “Look, dude, where’s the eagle?”

Brook sees none. Because the place where the Eagle-centered Seal of the United States should be is burnt away.

Brook: Brook’s entire train of thought crashes at the station as his friend points out the eagle being the thing burned out. He realizes his first thought is wrong, and that-…he slowly puts the pieces together, a frown slowly creeping over his face as he smooths his thumb over the wood of the case of mummified animals. What if? If it was…oh no.

“Blinds the Black Man… what if the ‘eagles’ are the government, not the snakes. Like that old senator guy reached out to other senators? What if that senator HEARD cunning, like a white fuck would, but Ukenta appeared to him to say that he had to make a land of wisdom? Does that mean the secessionist guys here were ‘snakes’? Is that why they had this letter? Trying to follow Ukenta’s words? I mean… fuck, dude.”

GM: “Fuck, dude, yeah… like it’s a conspiracy within a conspiracy. Weird shit.” He scratches his scalp. “But weren’t those secessionists like a bunch of white racist psychoids? Or is that just want ‘The Man’ has made us believe?” He drops his hand and shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think… or do with all this stuff. Well, besides the cash.”

Brook: Brook nods at the thought of their conspiracy getting deep. They aren’t sure of anything, and that takes a lot of the meaning out of all this. “You can take the cash. But… Danny, can I tell you something important? Something you have to take to your grave, even?”

GM: In the darkness, Daniel’s face crinkles with worry, excitement, doubt, and curiosity. “Uh yeah, yes, of course. We’re best friends.” He takes off a glove and holds up to show the scar on his thumb where as young kids they cut their thumbs and pressed them together. “Blood brothers forever. No matter what.”

Brook: He gives his friend a weak smile and takes off his own glove, showing the scar on his own thumb, but he hesitates for a moment. “That week I missed school last year, and when I stopped cutting my hair. I had an… experience, Danny. I…” Brook fishes out the pendant, looking down at the red jewel and steel heart he was gifted.

“The moon saved me from a pack of something wrong… I carried someone hurt out of the woods, a big guy. Back before I was so big. And the moon, she—I sound nuts. But I heard drums, and the moon felt like it was spurring me on. I should have died trying to carry that person.”

GM: Danny listens, attentively in the dark, despite a war of emotions and thoughts waging on his flashlight-lit expression. He looks to Brook, down to the pendant, to the strewn cache, and back to his friend. He makes a motion as if to hold the pendant, but his hand falters. Maybe even shakes. “W-hat… dude, I don’t understand… you like carried a guy, rescued him?”

“Okay, that’s really freaking cool, but what does that have to do with the… moon, and drums you say? And that necklace? I’ve never seen you take it off, but never seen you take it out either. Dude, what the fuck is that?”

Brook: Brook looks concerned for a moment, looking to the lip of the cave and out into the blinding light for a moment, quickly stuffing the pendant back into is shirt. He starts the story, telling Danny he’s omitting certain things before he even starts. He leaves out that the man is, or was, a Mooner, that the coyote wasn’t breathing and is probably stumbling blindly out there, all until he gets near the end of his story.

“…after Mary told me those stories, she warned me of snakes, and that they were dangerous, and that this man was one of them. So were the things after me. But when she went inside to call an ambulance he woke up. I could barely understand him, but he thanked me, told me to pick one of his necklaces as a thank you. I picked this one. And he told me to come closer. He warned me about ‘the darkness in me’ and not to be afraid, and…everything went black. I had a vision. And when I woke up, I-…he was gone. I realized the spirits aren’t made up things. Even if I’m not Kainai, the moon gave me the power to pull that man out.”

GM: “That’s… heavy…” is all the boy can reply. Other thoughts and feelings seem to flicker in his eyes and face, but they are like flitting bats in a dark cave: neither youth can identify–much less capture–them. However, Brook knows his friend well enough to be be sure of one thing. For good or ill, Danny believes him.

Brook: Brook slowly reaches out and grabs his friend’s wrist, trying to bring this point home. “Please. Never go off alone looking for this kind of stuff. What I saw? The parts I can’t tell you? You shouldn’t have to face them alone. I’d prefer not at all, but… you live here too.”

With his tale told, he puts the scroll gently back into it’s hidden space, and puts the stack of papers over it, sealing the humidor and putting it side by side with the other one. He loads the bullet back into the now unfireable gun and puts it back in the lockbox. He pockets the key as well, resolving to one day find the lock it goes to.

“We should bury this stuff somewhere. You can keep the cash, I’ll keep the key. But if these guys ever come back? I kinda feel we should let them have their stuff back.”

GM: Danny’s reply lacks confidence and finality, but he eventually nods slowly, deferring to his best friend. “Okay…”
He looks around. “So, like, you wanna put back in that hole or like bury, uhh, outside?”

Brook: Brook looks over Danny for a moment, and just sighs at himself. “Danny, If I lost you? I don’t know what I’d do with myself. So I’m just saying… the forest is dangerous. Take me with you if you ever follow the scent of Ukenta. Okay? You’re my brother.”

Taking his backpack, the half breed carefully pulls everything out of it, wraps the humidors in a plastic bag, and and zips the backpack closed with them both inside, sighing in relief t have them fit. He adds the key in his pocket to the chain of the necklace around his neck, two mysteries hanging from his shoulders, and picks the bible and gun back up. They go back in the lockbox, the young man closing it and hefting it back up to fit in the space in the cave wall they’ve pulled it from, getting Danny’s help to cover it back up with a bit of the concrete rubble. He looks drained, shoulders slack, and he feels relieved to finally tell someone at least part of his story. At least part of something that’s been eating him.

“I get it now, by the way. The snake in the humidor could be Ukenta. The bat might be a Thunderbird. if we’re following a theme.”Despite saying that, the bigger young man grabs the bag and strides into the dark, carefully finding the small alcove he knows will keep it a secret, and hiding the bag there best he can. They can come back or it. Sooner or later.

GM: Daniel holds the big flashlight so Brook can see as he toils. There are a couple times when Brook thinks his friend is about to say something, but the cave’s darkness and echoes make his senses untrustworthy. Yet, when the deed is done, Daniel looks out at the cave-mouth which still radiates oven–like heat. “Still hot as the House of Cthon out there.”

Brook: Brook finishes quickly, and once the deed is indeed done, he looks back out at the sunbaked box canyon. It’s been awhile since they got here, and this adventure in finding treasure has been the only interesting part about it. The young man wonders if maybe he’s not capable yet of contacting Danny’s ancestors, but he knows he can just be there for him. “Want to pack up and get out of here? We could go swimming, and then hit up the store for some freezies.”

GM: Daniel looks between the blinding, burning sunlight and the cooler darkness. His flashlight hands low in his hand, idly illuminating a shorn braid. In the chiaroscuro shadows, it resemble a black serpent coiling around the orphan’s heel.

Clicking off the light, Danny tags his best friend on the shoulder, “Life, Brooks. It’s some messed up shit, dude. One moment you’re babysitting for a paycheck, and the next, somebody’s summoning up Hell. So here’s the morale to the story, Space Marine: let’s skip the swimming and go straight for the freezies.”


GM: A few minutes later, after the pair pack up and exit the cave, Brook is struck blind by the sweltering summer sun. He blinks reflexively, squinting away the burning after-images. When they finally fade, it is October, 1998. The black night sky is sliced open by lightning. Thunder roars inside the box-canyon of Scratch’s Corral. Rain pounds down on the muddy ground and wind-blown pines.

Lightning2.jpg

For a moment, Brook thinks he hears the rumble of motorcycles, but the sound–if it exists outside his mind–is swallowed by the storm’s cacophony. Ahead, Auld Coot’s Creek slakes itself on the canyon’s run-off. The cave beyond it awaits.

Brook: Brook feels the sound move through his chest cavity but he doesn’t blink. If his theory is correct, that this is one of those Ukenta secessionist cult people from way yonder long ago, then… maybe this can end without too much bloodshed. Once the youth spots the cave, he gets low, bow at the ready to fire a piece of wood and steel into the darkness. He slinks in from the rain, stilling his breathing as he carefully watches the dark. Despite his reminiscing about the secrets he has stowed in this area, his heart is still beating a mile a minute. Moses is here, he can almost feel it in his bones, and he’s going to stop this once and for all, ease the burden on his mother and co-workers.

GM: The cave’s interior is dark, but the smell of blood hits the ranger cadet like one of the Britter’s sledgehammers. Fresh blood. In the pitch blackness, Brook’s boot touches something. It wobbles, then tumbles over. Its carrion smell is familiar to the adolescent hunter.

Brook: Brook’s entire body goes rigid as the smell hits and sets him on edge. But he’s swallowed a river of blood, it’s not going to stop him now. Even if it seems just the right twinge for him to knock something over in the dark.

GM: The slight sound causes another to awaken. “W-what do you w-want!?” comes a masculine, if thoroughly terrified voice in the darkness. A familiar voice. It’s a voice that’s haunted his childhood. Normally, its tone is one of over-weaned confidence, petty cruelty, and blind bigotry. But the thread of fear has always been there. Deep down in a dark closet.

Nelson Judd.

Amidst the echo of his terrified shout comes the rattle of what sounds like bones, scraped stone, and the ripped strain of duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s bow raises up towards the voice, cord tightening until the part of his brain not committed to animal instinct finally connects the dots. Is that? No. Oh no. Nelson. Brook swallows and tries to steady himself. It’s like those war movies, they injure someone out in the open as a trap. Or a bear follows a pack of wolves to take what’s left of a fresh kill.

Brook slowly kneels instead, reaching back into his bag and carefully pulling out two of the thick road flares from his kit. He needs light. But being stealthy isn’t a possibility anymore either, Nelson has heard him and has likely alerted Moses. Speaking loud and clear, he starts reciting years old memories.

“Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms.”

Yanking the cap off of one of the flares, the young hunter quickly strikes the match head of the flare and lights it up in the cave, flooding it with bright red light, revealing the young hunter drawing back the bowstring once again.

GM: In the red phosphorescence glow, the cave looks hellish. Its ‘decor’ only enhances the disturbing effect. The cave walls have been painted in blood. Crude hand-prints, pentagrams, as well as increasingly schizophrenic letters spell out again and again a familiar refrain:

GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE

The ‘object’ that Brook knocked over is revealed to be the head of a mountain-ram that was previously propped up on a rock like an atavistic idol. And in the back of the cave, beside some survival gear and the torn shreds of a soiled straight-jacket, there’s a cage.

It’s made of ram-bones and bent pine-saplings, woven together and further secured with duct tape. Inside the savage, anachronistic prison hangs Nelson. He’s been stripped down to his underwear, his arms and legs hyper-extended and tapped in cocoons of the same duct tape, like a primitive but still painful wrack. The bloody pelt of the mountain ram is wrapped around his shoulders, painting his body is rivulets of gore and fear-sweat.

The boy’s blue eyes squint at the sudden exposure to light, but when he opens them, alarmed shock replaces horror on his face. “Brook! B-Brook!” He gives a short gasp of pain as his exclamation twist his stretched limbs. In the red glow, Brook can see a number of painful bruises covering the nearly naked Nelson.

Brook: Brook slowly looks around the cave and scowls, quickly putting his arrow back in its quiver and and putting his bow around his shoulder as he pulls up the shotgun, unafraid of being loud now that he’s turned the lights on. The cave is disgusting, as is the condition that Nelson is in, but this is no time to enjoy seeing him scared and in pain. Quickly and quietly, shotgun aimed at every shadow, the ranger cadet walks along the wall to the cage.

Things slowly set in as he just stands there for a moment. This isn’t how he’s ever pictured his life as a ranger, baring teeth at the dark for a person who’s put him down his entire life. But this isn’t high school, and the realization hits the young man like a wave. This disgusting scene does not belong here. It boils down to this; these are his lands, his wood, and his people. This sick one handed goat fister Moses is fucking with the wrong someone’s flock, and their guardian predator cub isn’t having it, snarling all business at Nelson.

“Shut up. Where is he? Did he leave the cave?”

GM: Brook’s rebuke seems to sting Nelson, but he grows silent. As Brook looks around, he identifies the contents beside the cage: a large backpack and outdoor gear that looks like it was stripped from an unfortunate hiker. But no traps, and no Moses MacDonald. Thunder rumbles outside the cave.

Brook: Brook slowly slinks over to the bag, looking up at the mouth of the cave before he opens and starts to go through the bag. If there’s anything he can hold as blackmail or to help them leave, he needs it. “We’re getting you out of here, Nelson. Just like the cabin, do everything I say. Keep an eye on the mouth of the cave, and tell me… how long has he been gone?”

GM: As Brook glances up at Nelson, the ranger cadet sees an expression he’s never witnessed on the jock’s face. Concern. Care. “B-brook!” he blurts out, then swallows hard. “Y-you have to go, g–get out of here. Now! H-he’ll come b-back! He’s… he’s not hu–,” he shakes his head, tears starting to well over his bruised eyes. “He’s… go, s-save yourself… p-please… please!”

Brook: Brook looks up at the boy and just pauses a moment, looking back at the cave entrance. This isn’t good, Nelson’s head isn’t right. Not hu… hurt? Human? That would explain a few things. But he needs to calm Nelson down, needs to remind him who he’s talking to.

“Nelson. It’s okay. I’m everywhere, remember? There’s a snake with a blinding crown and the stench of death with me, and I will not become a slave to fear thanks to it. You helped me become this person too, Nelson. Now breathe, and trust me.” Turning the bag up-side down, he carefully empties out the contents.

GM: The upturned bag spills out various outdoor supplies. Maps, compass, MREs, some accelerants, and more. As Brook starts sorting through the items, he glances up to see Nelson suck in a breath. A hot tear rolls down his bruised, grimy jaw, but he takes another breath, and then a third.

Brook: Brook spots a few things that can help him here, the accelerants mostly. He’s got more than enough of what he needs to start a fire. Nelson worries him though. Even if he’s finally breathing, he’s still shitting his pants more and more.

GM: “Brook,” he says again, this time no longer in full panic or pleading despair, “He’s crazy. Get me out. Please. We have to get away. We have to run. We ca–”

Nelson’s voice dies amidst a blinding flash of light that frames the cave’s mouth in piercing white. The dreadful radiance frames a man. Or at least something that wears its shape.

Moses.jpg

Moses Ezekiel MacDonald has a thin, gray mane streaked with disheveled white and balding spots. An equally slovenly, savage beard frames stained teeth whose smile looks equally suited to gnashing throats or feces. Warts and moles litter the oddly plump skin around his deep–shadowed and –creased eyes: manic, psychopathic orbs that bulge with thoughts that no man, living or dead, should imagine.

His unbuttoned shirt and pants hang loosely over his flesh, as if the trappings of civilization will and can never fit. His left sleeve hangs limp and empty as a ghost’s shroud. Dog tags hang from his chest, their aged metal resembling the old shrapnel clearly buried beneath his skin. Rain drips from his mangy locks, clothes, and the lumber axe which hangs from his muscular hand.

Thunder rattles the sky like bone-snapping laughter. Moses’ own teeth chitter and snap in eerie echo.

“HehEheHaheHAHahaheehe…”

As the thunder subsides, the psychopath that looks far too young to be a WWII vet hurls his lumber axe with the casual ease of a man flushing a toilet. Whipping through the air, the deadly sharp tool embeds itself into the barrel of Brook’s shotgun. The sudden force rips the firearm from the ranger cadet’s hands, causing both instruments of death to clatter against the cave wall.

Brook: This is him. Moses MacDonald. Mo. Brook stands tall, the brim of his hat keeping the light out of his eyes as he stands up, looking the man over. His heart begins to race again, predator facing predator. But one of them has to take the first flash of teeth, and it’s Moses. The younger man braces as the axe comes in, only to feel the great force of it snap the metal rungs keeping it on the sling over his shoulder, sending it all flying down to the ground. Brook’s only reaction is to put up his fists before…

GM: Moses slowly turns his head, and stares at a spot a foot to the left of Brook’s eyes.

“How old is you, boy?” he asks.

Darkness once again descends upon the canyon, leaving only the blood-red light of the flares. Brook hears his cage–bound peer begin to hyperventilate.

Brook: Good, he’s talking. Slowly, the ranger pulls the bow off his shoulders and tosses it down to the pile now being made of their weapons, taking off his hat and tossing it into the pile as well. “Fifteen, Mr. MacDonald. I got your message in that outhouse… I came to talk and get my friend back, maybe trade for something that’s missing if I’m right about the snake and the eagle, and whose side you’re on.” He only hopes he isn’t spouting gibberish at this man. Prays to the absent moon.

GM: “Fifteen…” Moses repeats, still staring at the vacant space with a quasi-vacant gaze. “I was once fifteen, long time ago. Too long by half, I reckon. But once, once I was fifteen. Too young to join the Army and spit in the Führer’s face.” His eyes bulge a bit. “Boy, you ever spit in a man’s face? You ever put your spit in a man’s mouth?”

He doesn’t wait for Brook to answer–if he’s even talking to him: “So there was me, fifteen, walking in them woods one day when I met the Devil, or at least somebody about the right height. Now me, I wasn’t afraid of nobody, German or Devil, so we got right to talking.”

The rain continues to pound against the man’s back and pour down his pants and arm-less sleeve. Moses licks a finger, ‘“Devil,’ said me, ‘How am I gonna get in the Army? ’Lie,’ said the Devil, ’It’s what I’d do.’ ‘Devil,’ said me, ‘I can’t even grow a beard. Give you my soul if you’ll help me out.’"

Moses moves forward, more a stagger than a step, but he continues staring and sharing his tale. “But the Devil said, him, ’I’ve go a lot of souls, but I’m sure I can think of something else. Tell you what, you go to town and you sign up for the Army, and I’ll make sure you get in, and I’ll make sure you see action.’”

Another step closer. “So I shook the Devil’s hand, me, and went down to town. Sure enough, they took me, and a year later, I was starving in a foxhole somewhere in France. Then one day, I step on a landmine. So I’m here bleeding, and who do I see? The Devil himself, come round again. ‘You here for my soul, Devil?’ said me.”

Moses takes another shuffle closer. “But the Devil, he shook his head, ‘I told you, son, I don’t need souls. I’m starving out here, though. All the meat is mangled and charred. I don’t suppose you need that hand?’”

Another step. “Now me, I started to argue, but I knew the rest of me was all torn up and my left arm was the only part halfway decent. A deal is a deal, so I let the Devil gnaw off my hand, and because he was really hungry he ate off a bit more, see?”

Moses twists his torso, causing the armless sleeve to slap wetly against his bare chest. “’You’re a plain dealer,’ said the Devil, ‘And I don’t need one of those in Hell. Kill one more man for me when you get home, and I’ll make sure you live a good long time.’”

Another step. Nearly an arm’s length away now, Moses adds, “Sure enough, some Frenchie found me within the hour and got me shipped back home. I killed my brother–in–law not a day after I got off the boat.”

Moses’ bulging eyes suddenly slide to lock hold of Brook’s. “A deal’s a deal, boy. Fifteen…”

Brook: Brook doesn’t move, but he feels his heart going faster and faster the closer the man gets to them, and things slowly start to click into place. Isn’t human. This man isn’t human, is that what Nelson was trying to say? And here it is, a man who claims he’s been alive since WWII, with the Devil following him. It’s a lot to take in, but the young man stands his ground where he is, never once looking away or giving the man an opening of weakness. And finally, it’s the eye contact he’s been waiting for. He looks Moses right back in the eye. There isn’t a doubt in his mind this man is who and what he says he is. Btween ghost riders and shadow beasts with tits, Brook is ready to believe anything.

“That’s what ‘give the Devil his due’ means, then. I believe you, Moses. I met the Devil once too, and I’ve seen his devils and wandering souls a plenty. But I’m not like you were. I’m scared, for these people in these lands, I’ve sworn to the one who pulled me from a sack in a river that I’d protect them from what wanders these woods. The Devil told me though, not to deny what I am, and to stare down my darkness, lest I become a slave to fear.”

Searching in the madman’s eyes, he hopes he can find a glimmer of hope for himself. “You’re a plain dealer, Moses. I might have something I can trade with you.”

GM: Moses cocks like a mongrel hearing a strange noise–or perhaps an old familiar one. He then lurches forward, the smell of fecal parasites and strange chemicals pungent on his breath and radiating from his rain-slick pores.

Nelson chokes back a cry of fear or protest.

Brook: Brook wills himself not to flinch, but his eyes trail over to the caves secret alcove, and back to Moses. This is a long shot, but if Moses is interested in affirmation…? It can work.

“The Devil sent a snake to Eden to tempt Eve, and I have a letter from a man that snake once again appeared to. Representative of South Carolina, Edward Rutledge. A letter proclaiming God’s dominion over the lands of my people long ago. This is Witiko Falls, the Devil has his fill of death and flesh here. But I can give you this letter, and you can burn it in his name. Burn the lies of the man who put the eagles that watch you on dollar bills, in the name of God.”

GM: The sky growls in a low pitch that shakes the earth. Moses sniffs the air. “Let’s see this toilet paper, you.” The asylum escapee doesn’t move to make it easier for Brook to disentangle himself to get the alleged colonial letter. But Moses waits as the teenager heads to the cave’s alcove. Brook catches a terrified, confused look from Nelson, as he glances back.

But as Brook moves the rocks aside from the tall ledge, it’s his own face that must choke back terror, or at least confusion. The backpack. It’s gone.

Gone.

Brook: Brook winces and feels a tremble of everything ring through his body. Fear, frustration, impotence. The thought to sneak around the corner and blast the lunatic’s head off his shoulders comes up into mind, as does the hard knuckles of his gloves and how much damage he’s sure they could do against him. But if he’s not even human what can the boy do to affect him? Thoughts of the Irishman pop up again, the blood, the missing body, the need to throw all that up. The thought that he’d eaten a human being. All too late. Thirteen-year-old naiveté has made this a dangerous situation.

Brook walks out the alcove empty-handed. “I’m sorry. It’s been taken. I… thought it would be safe. Thirteen-year-old me wasn’t thinking. If you give me a few days maybe I can find it.”

GM: Moses’ eyes squint and roll. His teeth chitter as if chewing on Brook’s words.

And then, just as suddenly, his eyes fly open, bulging with rage as he races towards Brook, gnarled fingers raised like bayonets. His raw screams oil the cave, “Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

Nelson screams a vain warning as Moses leaps down upon Brook, his one hand clutching hold of Brook’s jacket, breaking the zipper.

Another distant lightning-bolt sunders the night.

Brook: Brook watches Moses closely as he does that chewing, feeling the leather of his gloves tighten as he clenches his fists. This is the moment, whether his words reach the man or a monster descends on him. There’s an instant he looks over at Nelson, just before the screaming starts. Synapses fire in his brain all at once, the young man’s body tensing and a deep fear rising in his gut as he’s grabbed by the jacket.

The lightning hits, and it feels like it hits in the teen’s chest. Words have failed him, and he remembers flashes of voices as a primal violence wells up like bile in his throat.

w h a t e v e r y o u h a v e t o

y o u w a n t t o b e f r e e

Brook’s body reacts on it’s own as those voices echo in his head, a foot sliding back in the same moment Moses grabs him. Nelson sees something he’s never seen on Brook’s face before, a kind of bestial snarl, teeth borne, screaming in murderous effort, and eyes wider than what looks possible, as his classmate’s fist suddenly comes up from in between the two of them, slamming hard as rocks into the psychopath’s jaw in a bone shattering uppercut. His gloves push the impact all through them, he barely feels a thing, but the steel on his knuckles makes sure Moses can feel it.

GM: Moses’ jaw caves in like over-ripe melon rind. Blood and teeth spew from his mangled mouth, sticking in his now-shredded beard. The bone-crushing blow knocks Moe backwards, crashing into the nearby cage of ram skeleton and pine sapling. The structure snaps, twisting the still duct-taped Nelson into a painful contortion. As the prison implodes, Nelson goes down hard on the cave-rock floor. Brook lamely feels Moe’s hand clutching for his throat, but the enraged teen beats him off.

Brook: Brook is losing the plot, fear mixing with rage and pent-up feelings as he feels the man’s bones give way to his savage uppercut, sending them both into the cage and into Nelson before the struggling pair rolls on their own backs to the side. Brook brushes off the man’s attempt at a strangle-hold and roars spit into his face, before…

GM: As the trio of bodies roll over each other and the tangle of bones and branches, Moses and Brook finally break away from the ensnaring morass. When they do so, the taller teen sees that the grisly goat-pelt is twisted around Moses’ head, exposing only his lower jaw. A jaw that inexplicably begins to resew itself back together before Brook’s eyes. New teeth bursting from scabbing over gums, bones re-popping into place. The madman smiles wickedly and spits into Brook’s face, his blood and broken teeth-shards speckling the young man’s face. His laughter is the sound of insanity.

Brook: Oh no. It’s happening again. Just like the coyote in the woods, the man’s head just wills itself back into existence and sends a shiver down the teenager’s spine. But the words echo in his head and he will fight. Brook shifts his focus, rearing back his arm and aiming for the madman’s chest, slamming his arm down into it as hard as he can.

“You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

GM: Moses laughs. A few feet away, Nelson lays flat on his back, his neck at an odd angle against a rock outcropping, his limbs still trapped in duct-tape, but at least no longer pulled taut.

As Brook rears back his fist, Moses feints with his own fist, only to cunningly wrap a leg around Brook’s off-balance arm. The ranger cadet is flipped painfully onto his stomach. No sooner does he slam into the bones, saplings, and stone does Moses snatch Brook by the hair and bash his face into the strewn cave floor. “You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

The head blow leaves Brook stunned, with rock and lunatic laughter ringing in his ears. He’s only dimly aware of his arms being pulled back and bound amid the tell-tale sound of unrolled duct tape.

Brook: Brook’s trained eyes flick over to the young bully for just a moment before affirming that he’s most likely still breathing. But it’s quickly the last thing on his mind as he turns back and everything goes wrong. His hand is caught, pulled around and onto his stomach by the military monster suddenly above him. It’s a terrifying moment and the young man’s least favorite, the restrictions of bonds pulling on his arms as he’s locked into a grapple, hurting his arm as he screams into the stone, aching and burning from the rough treatment, until he feels his hair yanked and head slammed into the floor.

GM: The sound of Moses’ laughter stops when the madman suddenly goes stiff and sniffs the air. “Candyman….” he whispers with a low hiss.

Brook, however, smells nothing but Moses’ fecal odor and the still cloying smell of blood, both animal and otherwise. But the rousing teen does hear what could be footsteps approaching the cave, the sound of multiple people crossing the creek. Perhaps it’s a trick of the cave echoes, or perhaps he’s become infected a touch of Moses’ madness. Or perhaps not.

Brook: There’s a moment of stunned silence from the boy, a breath and reevaluation as he feels his bonds get even tighter. It seems this maniac doesn’t understand as well, but before Brook can say anything, there’s a silent moment of recognition. Smoke from his flare at the mouth of the cave, hopefully a moment of checkmate, as renewed vigor and a wide crooked grin crosses the young ranger’s face.

“There are older things than your Devil, fuck-face. Hungrier things! I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

Brook takes a sharp breath and screams his rage at the top of his lungs, an atavistic howl of effort and victory that’s become a recurring theme in his life as his arms bulge and strain, twisting madly, like a coyote caught in a trap. It hurts, it pops joints and threatens to pull muscles, a stinging throb through his arms before there’s a rip, a snap, and finally he tears his arms free, bashing his knuckles together and letting out another animalistic howling scream at the man, his mind slipping beyond words as he announces his entrance back into the fight.

GM: Moses’ steps back from Brook’s preternatural strength and feral rage. Slack jawed, eyes bulging, he glances to the cave’s exit and the sounds of the approaching figures, then back to the youth whose dual hearts of iron and flesh fill the cavern with the echoes of pounding hot blood and the pungent odor of predators and primal fears. Moses seems to shrink, back and away.

Brook: Brook sees that look and knows already that he’s faced down a demon and isn’t the the one who flinched. Like any predator, this hesitation is blood in the water. The half-feral teen advances an ominous step, crouched to pounce with seething heavy breaths, littering the cave floor with spittle and what blood Moses has managed to get onto the boy’s lip when his head was caved in like a melon. All the boy can think about is collapsing his chest cavity, rending his limbs, holding him down and hog-tying him to beat him with steel knuckles until backup comes.

GM: Then Nelson groans and starts to shift. The sound snatches the attention of both predators, but Moses’ reflexives prove faster. He draws a large hunting knife from behind his back and hoists up the semi-conscious jock by his neck, the knife’s blade pressed against the youth’s throat. “I’ll give you credit, boy,” Moses says with a dark smile, “But give the Devil his due.”

Nelson rouses as the cold knifepoint pricks his skin. Disoriented, the concussed youth starts to yell, but only manages a choking vomit.

Brook: Then it’s Nelson. Rage takes a sudden back seat to caution as an area around the madman is set like an electric fence, just with a knife against his classmate’s neck. Nelson is in danger, and a lot of it at that. There’s little even doctors can do for a half-severed head.

Hudson: A peal of thunder cracks outside. The accompanying flash of lightning starkly illuminates three figures.

It’s “candyman.”

His trench coat is drenched with rain and muck, his receding wind-tossed hair is blown every which way, and water drips from his face like effusively pouring sweat. The broken bits of twig, leaves, and moss scattered over his shoulders only further add to his feral mien. He is accompanied by two more Kevlar-clad figures, a man and woman with darker skin and equally soaked, muck-smeared clothing. Their leader’s countenance is grimly resolute: that of an arbiter of civilization tasked with upholding it in a wild land that knows it not. Yet the Marshal’s belt-clipped golden star, the same one worn by generations of lawmen who brought order to the Wild West, is no stranger to such places. Its five burnished points stand in eerily inverted synchrony to the feces-painted pentagram Brook encountered yesterday, and the dark cave’s hellish red light only serves to further blur the boundaries of the rain-drenched, wild-eyed figures staring one another down. Cop and criminal, lawman and murderer, man and monster.

Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation—and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

GM: Roughly an hour after Red Aspen failed to come in over radio, Hudson and Deputy Marshals Porter and Matlock followed Brook’s dirt-bike trail into the box–canyon named Scratch’s Corral. After contacting the only in-range NPS ranger and waiting for multiple relays on the static-warbled radios, Hudson had waited only long enough for Curtis and Mathew to arrive with the three heavy-duty state police motorcycles, before leaving the Britter’s and their Blue Mooncalf dairy farm to investigate Red Aspen’s radio silence. There, the law officers had confirmed the rangers’ suspicion that lightning had fried the tower, but they had also found several other disconcerting clues.

Namely, Brook Barnes was missing, with no signs of forced entry, and a dirt bike track started from the station’s shed and lead away into dark storm-hammered paths. Deputy Lowder was left to man the station and await Mary Madcatcher’s inevitable arrival, while Hodges and Hensler returned to the Britter’s.

Hudson: To say the US Marshal was red in the face would be an understatement. Hudson’s teeth clenched and his eyes bulged as if the candy-gorging man were finally having his long-overdue heart attack. The radio in the kid’s truck was working just fine. Now, he found himself having to redivert key personnel when manpower was already stretched thin, putting god knows how many peoples’ lives in danger on account of one stupid kid.

GM: It had been an ugly, rough ride from Red Aspen to Scratch’s Corral. The heavy bikes constantly threatened to slip or slide off the muddy unpaved park trails, all of which were utterly unfamiliar to the three town foreigners who were trying their utmost to simultaneously maintain control of their vehicles, follow the dirt bike tracks amid lightning and pounding rain, and somehow go as fast as possible to catch up before… before things only went to hell. More than they already were.

Now, at the entrance to the canyon, all three federal agents are drenched in rain and mud and likely unkind thoughts towards the ranger cadet who’s dragged them out here. With the help of their motorcycle’s police-grade headlamps, Hudson quickly spots the red glow of road flares silhouetting the cave-mouth. As Curtis finally catches up to the others, Cassidy nudges her boss and points up. Against the backdrop of lightning, rain, and night-black storm clouds, dozens of headlamps rim the towering canyon walls.

“We got company, boss-man,” says the Mississippi Marshal.

From this distance, Hudson can tell the headlamps belong to other motorcycles, but little else. They, unlike the cave at the back of the canyon and the creek between them, are out of reach. The arm of the law may be long, but it has its limits. Yet, despite the disconcerting and presently unreachable ring of motorbikes above the canyon, it’s the hellish-red cave light that has his ‘Little Man’ finally wake up and start yelling FIRE!

Hudson: Hudson kills his motorbike’s engine and clambers off, his already mud-soaked shoes squelching as they press into the muck. The Marshal’s once-livid fury has subsided into grim determination under the storm’s relentless downpour—and has set his little man increasingly on edge. Now he’s awake and screaming his head off. Road flares. If there’s anyone who had access to those, it’s that damn kid. Hudson has a terrible, gut-wrenching sense of what he’s going to find in that cave. The motorbikes do little to set him at ease. His little man might not be screaming over those, but he’s giving a good hard frown. It’s also as Cassidy says—no time.

Never enough time.

Hudson grabs his radio with gloved but still-rain-soaked fingers and growls his latest—and potentially final—communication to Lowder. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-97. 10-78. Repeat, 10-78. Send immediate backup. Kid and maybe Moses in cave. Unknown motorcycles by canyon walls. Dozens of them. Schofeld out. Schofeld out.”

GM: There’s a crackled reply on the rain-splattered police radio. The thunderstorm renders Lowder’s or some other person’s voice a static gargle, but one which Hudson’s believes acknowledges his request for back-up. “C..p.. tha…, …ho…ld…”

Hudson: The safety clicks off Hudson’s .40 S&W as the lead Marshal’s countenance settles into a grimly certain look the younger feds know all-too well. Two chunk-chunks sound from the 12-gauge Remington 870s as the three Marshals stalk towards the cave’s entrance.

GM: As Cassidy and Curtis makes visual sweeps behind their superior, the latter asks, “Mission objectives, sir?”

Hudson: Hudson stows the radio and pats the bag full of possibly futile prisoner restraints clipped to his belt. “Get the kid out safe and back to Red Aspen. Take Moses into custody, if that’s him my little man is throwing a screaming fit over. Put him down if he doesn’t come quietly.”

GM: “Yes, sir,” Curtis replies with the eager expression of a soldier ready for war.

Cassidy may or may not roll her eyes as she mutters something about ‘Rambo Commando’.

Both deputies, however, fall silent as the trio of marshals stalks stealthily across the copse and creek, stepping over downed logs while making sure they aren’t being trailed. By the time they reach the dead end of Auld Coot’s Creek, all three marshals hear the shouting. Hudson instantly identifies one of the voices as Moses’.

“Lying to me?! LYING TO ME?! ALWAYS LYING, ALWAYS WATCHING, WATCHING ME, ME, ME, MEHE, HEHEHAHAHAHAHEEHEE!!!”

The second voice is younger, less familiar, but not wholly unfamiliar either. “You think you’re special, shit-fingers!? Coyotes round these parts got the same kinda tricks!! I’ll eat your fucking heart!!!”

“You ain’t listening, boy! Devil don’t want my heart, but he’s still plenty hungry!! HahahahaheehaheHEHAHAahAHEEheeHA!!!”

“I didn’t say he’d eat your heart, I said I would. THIS IS THE PIT AT THE CENTER OF MY FUCKING BEING, I’LL DIVE IN AND FUCKING STARE IT DOWN! I WILL FIGHT! I WILL NOT BECOME A SLAVE TO FEAR!”

The violent words are matched by sounds of a physical altercation equally mad and bloodthirsty.

GM: That’s all Hudson needs to hear. Thunder cracks as a bolt of lightning strikes overheard—and so do the U.S. Marshals.

Hudson: Three guns train towards the center of Moe’s chest as Hudson takes in the situation—and the knife pressed to Nelson Judd’s throat.

Then the Marshal’s expression relaxes. It’s not quite a smile. The circumstances are too grim. The man bearing it too disheveled. But it’s something that tugs at Hudson’s lips and creases his eyelids.

“Moses. Looks like we’re just in time to see the Devil get his due.”

GM: Moses barks out a wild babble of laughter. With his back to the cave rock, he glances outward to the three still distant marshals. With blood and teeth streaking his beard, a gory ram-pelt wrapped haphazardly over his head, and red road-flare fog swirling around his legs, the fugitive looks nothing short of demonic.

“Candyman! Smelled you, I did!” There’s another bark of laughter. “Back away, piggies, or I gut this boy!” The knife presses harder against Nelson’s neck.

Brook: It’s the cavalry. Brook peeks over his shoulder to see the three figures, two of whom he’s very glad to see, and a third he’s… oh. Is that how it is? The dark-haired and manic-looking teen wonders for a moment if sending the rangers out everywhere but here has been the fat man’s plan, but it doesn’t matter now. He stays on guard and doesn’t say a word, waiting for an opening or a signal from the Fed that’s just walked into the scene.

GM: Moses herds his knifepoint hostage out the cave, “SQUEAL!!!! SQUEHEHAHEHAHEHEEEHAHAEAL!!”

Nelson involuntarily obliges, he tries to call out, to shout back a curse, but the knife in his neck hurts so keenly.

“I’ve got the shot, sir,” Curtis whispers to his superior, his eyes never leaving the madman.

The rain continues to pour down.

Hudson: Gears turn in the fat man’s rain-soaked head. Moses Ezekiel MacDonald is 100% certifiably and quantifiably batshit, even by Bedlam’s standards. And most Satanists’. The blood, the feces, the absence of any named demons in his ‘paintings’, the brutal murderers that lack any ritual component or identifiable religious symbolism… Moses is a being of seemingly pure, sadistic id, and it’s a wonder that he’s even capable of venerating a force beyond his own immediate, murderous gratification. There’s no reason to his actions, but there is a rhyme to them, however twisted.

It might be the only thing that has a shot of saving poor Mr. Judd’s life.

“We know you’re just going to kill him anyway, Moses,” Hudson calls out over the rain.

He meets the fugitive’s maddened eyes, then continues, his Glock still raised, “That’s what you need, someone to kill for your ritual. And you can’t do it right here, or you’d have opened Mr. Judd’s throat already. You’ve had plenty time to do that too, judging by the state he’s in. No, there’s a place you need to kill him.”

“But if you do open his throat, Moses,” Hudson continues, the rainfall steadily plunking against his leveled gun, “that’s the end. Perhaps we’ll gun you down, or perhaps we’ll haul you back to the loony bin, where you’ll get slapped in a straitjacket, thrown into a padded room, and doped up on so many meds that you’ll forget why you even wanted to come out here. Either way, that’ll be the sad end of the road for Moses Ezekiel MacDonald. No sacrifice. No ritual. Zilch.”

Hudson genuinely isn’t sure how much of what he’s saying is getting through to the lunatic, so he reiterates, “Take another step and we’ll shoot, because we know Mr. Judd won’t be coming back with you.”

“Or,” the Marshal continues, another tight almost-smile stealing across his features, “The two of us can strike a deal. Just like the one you struck with the Devil, all those years ago.”

“I’d listen to the boss-man if I were you,” Cassidy chips in, her Remington remaining fixed at Moses’ head. “It’s pretty much a no-brainer to shoot you if you’re just gonna kill the kid anyway. But maybe we can work something out.”

Curtis doesn’t spare so much as a grunt, which would be inaudible in any case over the rain, as he calmly states, “Got you right in my sights. Talk or eat lead. Your call.”

Brook: Brook listens, words slowly starting to hold meaning again for him after his slight breakdown of personality. This is too important to be selfishly angry, and the teen slowly forms a plan in his head on how he can help. Besides running the man down, which ultimately means a dead Nelson.

GM: Moses pauses against the collective words. He halt his captive roughly just outside the cave, ducking his head, so only one eye peaks out at the night-shrouded marshals. The rain spatters over them all, save for the ranger cadet still within the cave. The downpour plinks and crashes off trees, stone, and the swelling creek, occasionally swallowed up by rattling thunder.

Moses doesn’t even bother with counter threats, but instead shouts back as plain, severe, and sincere as a bullet in the brain, “Murder me, Candyman.”

“Swear on that star and your last candy bar, that you’ll let me walk a good stone’s throw, and then murder me. Do that, and I’ll plain as day let this boy go.”

Hudson: If something sounds too good to be true, it is.

Hudson’s hackles immediately rise at the offer. He doesn’t like this. At all. Even for someone as crazy as Moses Ezekiel MacDonald, it’s wholly inconsistent with his behavior until this point. No one suddenly just decides they want to die. No, Moses thinks he’ll be the sacrifice. If he dies at the same spot he means to kill Nelson Judd, he thinks that death will have lasting meaning. Revenge on the people who’ve wronged him. God only knows how, but the lunatic seems absolutely certain of it.

The only question is, is he right?

The lawman’s every instinct screams at him. This would be giving the criminal exactly what he wants. Hudson has seen some pretty disturbing things in this town, things that make reluctant to simply scoff off Moses. But this is a boy’s life, in front of him.

The rain pours down, and with a horrid feeling in his gut that such would be making his own devil’s bargain, the Marshal answers,

“I swear by my badge as a United States Marshal, and by the wet Three Musketeers bar I have in the bottom of my pocket, that I will let you walk a stone’s throw and shoot you dead if you release Mr. Judd.”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes at the lunatic. He has no idea what Moses hopes to achieve here or what’s going on in his head, but he echoes the thoughts of the Marshal. But he reaches into his jacket and pulls the hand cannon out into view, preparing himself to see a man die. If that’s what he wants. As long as Nelson is safe, that’s all that matters right now. The boy’s hand goes steady while his heart pumps a million miles an hour at the prospect of finishing this here and now. He doesn’t say a word, but simply points his weapon at the madman’s heart, waiting for the moment Moses tries to pull himself back together to try escaping them. He remembers all-too well what’s already happened.

GM: Cassidy’s aim and arm don’t waver, but her whisper shakes, “Boss? What are you doing?”

Hudson: “Whatever it takes to save the kid,” Hudson grimly answers. “Now play along.”

GM: Her brow furrows, relaxes in relief, and then sets back into poker-face determination. “You got it, boss-man.”

Hudson: “Release Judd and we’ll shoot you dead. Glad to,” Curtis calls back.

“Fine. You’re crazy enough to die, we’ll be happy to oblige you,” Cassidy echoes.

Hudson levels a glare at Brook’s pointed weapon and loudly calls out, “Put that away, Mr. Barnes. You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

GM:LIARS!!!” shouts Moses, “AIN’T NOBODY ROUND HERE A PLAIN DEALING MAN?!!”

He forces Nelson to walk forward, using the boy as a human shield. “Kraut-licking, sonavabitch, Candyman! You think I don’t know what a face looks like when it’s squared up to murder?! Me?!”

Hudson: Hudson grimaces as the lunatic sees through him. So much for that tactic. Moses is set on blood. His or anyone’s. The Marshals can try to shoot him dead, in which case it’s entirely possible they might hit Judd or Moses will slit his throat. Or…

“Take me instead, Moses,” he calls. “I’m facing mandatory retirement in three years. One sacrifice is good as another, right?”

Both of the other Marshals offer the boss their best stunned looks.

“Boss, you’re crazy!”

“Bad idea.”

GM: Moses keeps walking forward with Nelson held at knifepoint, driving through the rain and muck. “Too old, too fat,” the lunatic yells, one bulging eye sweeping the night-shrouded Marshals. “Gimme the negro girl, Candyman!”

“The what?!” Cassidy shouts, unable to control herself.

Hudson: Well, Moses is right on those first two counts. Hudson might even laugh if a boy’s life wasn’t on the line.

“That’s up to her, Moses, though I’ll kindly ask you not to call Marshal Porter names,” the fat fed calls back.

“You’ll be the one who’s laughing when we have him in cuffs,” the Marshal quietly tells his subordinate.

GM: Moses seems confused.

Brook: Brook knows that the triple-crossed madman is just a ticking time bomb. But this is good. They have one thing over him, and that’s numbers. Hudson can sit on him if he likes. When he’s called out, he sheathes the weapon back in his coat. Then the focus is away from him. These are cops and soldiers, and the thought puts an idea in the young man’s head. It’s stupid stupid idea, but the only one that sounds as though it’s going to work as he watches Moses scream at the cops in front of him. Hunters have something even more important. They have patience. They have stealth.

The crouching young ranger uses the cover of the rain to creep to the lunatic, evading everyone’s notice before it’s time to strike. The adults are yelling about sacrificing themselves and who will go. It’s time.

Brook’s hands dart up out of blackness. One grabs Moses’ knife arm. The other wraps around his neck, getting a solid grip on lunatic in the rain. Brook just hopes his gloves don’t fail him.

GM: Brook could almost swear he sees a bat soar past him just he grabs hold of the homicidal maniac. Moses gives a strangled scream, and in the storm, the lunatic, the concussed jock, and the ranger cadet all find themselves tangled together, a lightning-lit knot of limbs wherein lurks a deadly sharp knife.

For the federal agents still several yards away, it’s almost impossible to see what is happening. Only the smoky road flare light catches them in frenetic, pugilistic silhouette.

Hudson: Even dim as that light is, and miserable as the conditions are, the Marshals’ aim is trained at George’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center for 21 weeks, and true as their starred badges’ golden gleam. A single silhouette is yet distinct. The one with but a single arm.

The Marshals don’t waste a second. Three deafeningly loud roars split the air like thunderbolts.

Brook: Brook looks up just in time to see raising guns. Now it’s up to his luck and the skill of these people. He closes his eyes a moment before three cracks of lightning hit hit something very close to him, very near him.

GM: The bullseye precise salvo manages not only to avoid the innocent teens, but squarely strike Moses’ sole arm as it tries to raise up its knife to plunge into one of the boys.

But he never has the chance. The three shots eviscerate Moe’s one arm, tearing it off the shoulder and rending its length into a pulp that showers the grapplers. Moses’ cries cut the sky like lightning, nearly blinding in their pain.

Nelson half-drops, half–falls away, shouting and skidding back away as fast as he can, even as droplets of flesh and blood mingle with the rain and fall over and into Brook’s eyes and mouth and body.

Moses collapses hard.

Brook: Brook’s eyes open just in time to see everything, red tinted or not, as what’s left of the arm comes flying off in horrific fashion and hits the wet floor of Scratch’s Corral. There’s a sudden weight and sickening churn in his stomach, but he ignores it as bodies start sliding. First Nelson. Then Moses. It looks like it’s over, but… it’s not.

His anger returns, not near as much as it once was, but it’s there. Brook pulls out and tosses his revolver over towards the Marshals just in case the arm grows back too fast. Moses has seen it, after all. But after that, the teen descends on the inmate, wrapping his arms tight around him before he can recover. They have to dog-pile him! Cuff him and wrap him up! Arm or no, the teen bear-hugs Moses to the ground and yells,

MARSHAL HUDSON! QUICKLY!! HE’LL GROW IT BACK, COME HELP ME TIE HIM UP!”

GM: “Kid’s in shock,” Curtis replies to his boss.

Hudson: Hudson nods absently in agreement and picks up his radio as the three Marshals briskly stride over. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. 10-95. Repeat, 10-95. Over.” Whatever state Brook may be in, Moe’s going to need immediate first aid if he’s to have any hope of surviving—assuming he isn’t dead already.

GM: Cassidy strides over, shotgun in hand, and checks on the downed asylum escapee. “He ain’t going anywhere in his condition, kid, except the morgue.”

Hudson: Hudson kneels down and feels Moses’ neck for a pulse.

GM: It’s difficult with the manic teen still trying to hold down the dying, armless man. The ground is slick with blood, which continues to pour from Moses’ arm… hole.

Hudson: “Mr. Barnes, get off him,” Hudson snaps. The Marshal rips a strip of fabric off his soaked longcoat and tightly wraps it around Moses’ arm-hole to staunch the bleeding. The improvised tourniquet is quite crude, and utterly insufficient, but it’s a start.

GM: In Brook’s unhinged state, with the taste of blood and human flesh still on his lips, he feels the jerks of Moses’ death throes. Each time, he expects to see the man rise, to inexplicably start growing a new arm and try to murder than all… but none of that happens. After repeated prodding by the adult federal agents, the teen slowly realizes that he’s bear-hugging an old, armless, dying man in the bloodied, rain-drenched grass and rubble.

Brook: Brook slowly releases his grip on the man as the others come around him. He spits to the side and looks Moses over. It’s not growing back. Of course. Maybe it’s… maybe he turned whatever it was off, after saying he was going to die? Maybe it was voluntary. The teen knows that he isn’t insane, this is a ploy to get out alive, and the three cops are falling for it. That’s fine. That’s okay. Brook sits up on the escapee’s lower body and reaches over his shoulder, rips out the medkit he’d packed and puts it down on Moses’ chest, so that the Marshals can work with something other than nothing.

“Are you all certified? I can help!”

Hudson: “Oh, you’ve helped MORE than enough already, Mr. Barnes!” the fat Marshal barks in a tone that does not sound at all complimentary as he frantically works to save the dying man’s life.

Brook: Brook is off the man the moment the fat white Marshal insults him. This is where the young man curses that first part, treated like a burden despite the fact he was here defending Nelson before they ever showed up! And he even got here by himself, no partner and no city police training. He leaves them the medical kit and goes over to Nelson as he wakes up.

GM: The police radio crackles to life. This time it’s a male voice and one less warbled by static, “Schofeld, th..s…Red As…n. Skinny Chet’s… the com. 10-4 on 10…, will 10-5. Confirm… 10-52. Repeat… 10-52? Madcatcher and…. are 10-76 to… but please give me a 10-20. Repeat… 10-20, Over.”

Hudson: Hudson snatches back up the radio. “Schofeld to Red Aspen. We are at Scratch’s Corral and imminently en route back to station. Prisoner in critical condition. 10-52. Repeat, 10-52. Over.”

GM: The radio reply is quick. “10-4, Scho…, will 10-5, Out.”

Meanwhile, Curtis looks over Nelson with a penlight.

“Wh-where am I? Wh-what the fuck?!”

Nelson’s blue, asymmetrically sized eyes find Brook in the darkness, “Br-brooks? Is that you, man?”

Brook: Brook shows his face in the dark and nods. “Backup is here, Nelson. Hang in there, this guy will take care of you!”

Hudson: Good enough. Hudson glances at the teen and lets Curtis take care of that. He motions to Cassidy, and the two frantically, desperately spend the next five minutes yanking Moses MacDonald back from the jaws of death. The night tries to hide the worst of the blood, pain, and sweat, and the rain does its best to wash away the stains. But some memories are no so easily rinsed from one’s mind.

Brook: It’s a tense next few minutes, Brook rushes out to get his Dirt bike, hoping they can use it to help, but other than that…he just watches. Half of his hopes they save him, the part he wants to listen to. Another part reminds him what happened, what his head was like, and how this has to be a ruse. He knows they’ll all rescue him.

GM: “Let’s not do… that again,” Cassidy eventually says to Hudson when they finally stabilize the now twice-amputed fugitive.

Hudson: “If it’s never again, Cassidy, that’ll be too soon,” the lead Marshal agrees as the two gingerly move the bandaged, dying, but at least stabilized Moses towards the parked motorcycles. He sharply motions for the others to follow.

GM: “I think the white kid’s got a concussion or TBI, sir,” Curtis says to his superior as he and Brook help Nelson limp across the rough terrain.

Hudson: Hudson pulls out the belly chain he’d intended to restrain Moses with. “All right. Cassidy, tie him to your waist. Curtis, let’s tie Moe to yours. He’s in no condition to make that kind of ride in this kind of shape, but I don’t see much other choice.”

GM: Nelson’s speech is slurred, but he protests and says he wants to ride with Brook. Indeed, ever since coming to, the disoriented youth hasn’t wanted the ranger cadet out of his sight. He repeatedly asks where they are, why everyone’s here, and what is going on, but it’s one particular passing remark that strikes Brook the most oddly.

It’s after Nelson realizes that both he and Brook are splattered with blood, that he jokes about how the pair “really are blood brothers,” and holds up his knife-scarred thumb. And Brook realizes that he’s not joking.

Hudson: Hudson shakes his head as he finishes tying the belly chain between Curtis and the newly arm-less Moses. “Can’t do, Mr. Judd. You’ll get to see him back at Red Aspen.”

GM: With the trooper headlamps on, Brook shockingly notes that Nelson’s thumb-scar eerily resembles his own, a self-inflicted injury dating back to late elementary school.

Hudson, and his retinue, meanwhile note that the thunderstorm is passing, and with it, the ring of biker-lights above the canyon pull away, one by one, the roar of their engines creating one last peal of thunder.

Brook: Brook keeps near Nelson, knowing that he’s having a hard time. Just going through all that, at least he’s alive. Covered in blood, bruised, battered, almost nude, and… scarred? The young Indian’s eyes widen as he sees the thumb scar, and worse yet, Nelson knows what it means. Only him and Danny did this together, how could their life long bully know about it? Let alone have it!?

He doesn’t say anything and pats Nelson’s shoulder for his denied request. He finds his revolver on the ground, puts it in its holster, and mounts up on his dirt bike. He’s ready to go. Ready to get the fuck out of here.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


GM: Oblivion falls into Hazel like a tempest pouring into a dark, churning sea. But the sea has limbs. Many, many limbs. They’re naked, dirty, and invisible in the dead blackness. But she feels them all around her. Shuffling, clinging, wringing. Fingers, hands, arms, legs, feet. She hears the fetters on those limbs too. The clanging of metal cufflinks and cold chains against stone and flesh. She hears voices. Moaning, screaming, and the kind of naked, soul-wrenching crying that can only be uttered in the dark.

It does not take Hazel long to realize that at least some of those shackled limbs belong to her.

Hazel: Mental institution. The Sweeneys. Can’t be allowed to walk free. Make up for this. Dead. Marilyn. Can’t risk killing again.

The thoughts roar through her mind like an ocean’s onrushing tide. She flings herself after them, following oblivion’s siren call to the benthic depths of unconsciousness. An icy steel floe crashes against her instead. Consciousness shudders through her with all of its attendant pains and burdens. No. No! She wanted—her cry joins the damned chorus as she instinctively thrashes against her fetters, a wordless splash of protest within the churning entropic sea.

I’m not a killer…

GM: Her thrashing is drowned in the cacophony of limbs and lamentations, but as her physical protestations join the chained chorus, Hazel recognizes several of the voices. They’re too familiar, as are the brushes of limbs against her own flesh.

Initially, in the darkness, it was too easy to attribute the disorientation to the lack of light and unknown surroundings, but now… now, she realizes that blurred sense of where she begins and ends is also due to the uncanny familiarity of the limb’s shapes and movements, the eerie similarity of the voices’ timbre and pitch.

They’re hers. All of them. All save one.

The exception is faint, almost imperceptible in the sea of her voices and thrashings. Perhaps she merely remembers it, and like a key found in the dark, it takes her memory a moment to fumble at the edges, turning it in her protean mind until it correctly aligns with mental tumblers and clicks open the cognitive lock.

Gaire no i dormet.

Hazel: No, not Latin. French? No, not that either. But closer. Linguistically and geographically. Occitan.

Don’t fall asleep.

It’s from Sponsus, a medieval Latin and Occitan liturgical play. It contains the first known inclusion of demons in western drama. She’d long since read Inferno, Paradise Lost, and Faust’s sad tale by the time she was fifteen, but she was curious what “the first work of dramatic literature to feature demons” was. She remembers asking that question of Mrs. Griswold, who didn’t know off-hand, but directed her towards several books that might have her answer. She’s not sure if that question got a phone call home or not. If it did, her parents were long since inured to that sort of thing. She eventually found her answer and Sponsus copy after enough hours in the Chimera. She remembers sharing the former with her mother over dinner.

“The work of Western dramatic literature to feature demons is Sponsus. It’s an adaptation of the biblical parable of the ten virgins. The demons only feature at the ending, though, when they drag the five foolish virgins to hell. It’s not as if they’re developed characters on the level of Faust’s Mephistopheles.”

“That’s interesting, dear.”

She clings to the memories. Clings to them like a child’s security blanket. She can bury it against her eyes and shut out all the awful things she doesn’t want to see. What did they have for dinner, it was… a weekend, that’s why she wasn’t eating a Prince pizza home alone, or leaving it in the fridge to go have dinner at Gramps’ house with him and Dad. Mom had put her foot down that further evenings at Harvey’s were in violation of their court-agreed visitation schedule, but she couldn’t do anything about Hazel visiting her grandfather, and oh well if her dad happened to live literally next door. She remembers how smug her voice was when she confronted her mother about it. “You have no legal basis with which to prevent me from visiting relatives besides my father,” she’d proclaimed.

She tries to lose herself in the memories. To drown out the press of grasping, fettered, disembodied (?) limbs beneath thoughts of home and family. She tells herself that her memories are an essential component of the experiences that make her who she is, beyond whatever superficial resemblances this faceless mass of flesh might have to her own. It’s not me, it’s not me, it’s not me, there’s only one of me…

Her own voice—voices—cry and wail in her ears.

This isn’t real. Can’t be real! It’s all in my head, all in my head, all in my head…

‘She’ sobs. Another ‘she’ in the wailing tempest of flesh and steel. Another scene from another medieval drama about hell.

With that, the doleful notes began to rasp
my consciousness; I’ve come into a zone
where pain’s expressed by shriek and moan and gasp
where not the feeblest ray of light is known,
which squalls and bellows like an ocean tempest
when the waves are driven by the cyclone;
this infernal, never-ending blast
drives every soul before it in its sweep,
tormenting them with every turn and twist,
who, confronted by the ruin, weep,
and gnash their teeth, and moan, and curse, and swear,
and blaspheme God, and bawl, and howl, and shriek.


Another scream sounds, as audible as a raindrop in a thunderstorm. She’d wished for oblivion. Not hell.

Don’t fall asleep.

But that wasn’t her voice.

Leo? He gave her the pills…

V.I.T.R.I.O.L.V.M. Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem Veram Medicinam. Visit the interior of the Earth; by rectification thou shalt find the hidden stone.

Her mind races. The “Chamber of Reflection.” A place for the initiate to contemplate death and the dissolution of impurities. The awakening initiate.

Don’t fall asleep.

She’d sought oblivion. But Leo is out there, trying to help her. And she’d wanted his help. She remembers going to him, entrusting him with that letter to give her parents, in case of the worst…

No! I hope it gathers dust in your file cabinet forever. She has to get to her parents! She has to let them know she’s all right—and to do that she has to be all right! All in my head. Yes, this is what’s in her head. An external manifestation of her inner turmoils. This mental hell, this wailing mass of suffering and ignorance. Outrage flares in her. That isn’t what she is! She has to fight!

Part of her sags at the question. But where to even begin? How does one extinguish a fire with a mere thimble of water?

No. Don’t start with the big picture. She’s always been a procrastinator, justifying it in the name of putting off the impossible. Dad always advised her: just do the little things, one at a time. The first line on the police report. Make the task smaller.

Tears in the dark. There are no tears as lonely and afraid as those. She remembers crying in her bed at night during the divorce. She remembers her nemesis hiding under another bed at night, the room’s lights as dead as his pulse. She remembers being sent tumbling down that madhouse flight of stairs, blind, helpless, dying, and afraid.

I’m sick of being afraid!

She thrusts a shackled limb into the screaming tempest. She plucks a low-hanging fruit from the great transcendental Tree whose roots extend even into such barren soil. A fruit hanging just above the foot of Matter.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said,

FIAT LUX!” (LET THERE BE LIGHT!”) Hazel roars.

Previous: Chapter 10

Next: Chapter 12

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