Witiko Falls: Disillusion

Phase I, Case File 1.12


Brook: Skin Deep


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10.08.1998, Thursday night

GM: Brook’s spiral seems like it lasts as long as a toilet flush, but more than three hours go down the drain before he is awoken by the sound of Daniel and Harry arguing. Three hours. It’s not nearly enough time, but it more than triples the sleep he’s had in the last twenty-four hours. Perhaps it’s that sleep deprivation or the recent harrowing incidents at the gorge and farmhouse or the fact that he went to sleep with a full stomach in a foreign yet familiar bed, but no nightmares torment the young man today–save those that live in the waking world.

Outside, the waning moon shines pale white fingers through the boys’ curtain. The siblings continue their spat. “Danny, I can’t go to sleep!”

“Probably because you’re bawling too much, Hairball. Maybe if you shut your trap, it’d be quiet enough for you to nod off.”

“But I can’t… not with…”

“If you’re going to act like a sissy, why don’t you go sleep with the girls!?”

“I’m not a sissy!”

Brook: Brook listens for now, an eye slowly peeks open and takes inventory of each of his faculties as they wake up with him. Then he mulls over the conversation. Taking a deep breath in through the nose, the young man turns and sits up on the bed like normal. As if he hasn’t managed to sleep.

But despite the lack of dreams, there’s still that morning grouch in his spine. Things are piling up on his shoulders, and the ‘mornings’ are always times when his temper rises. Something his mother has raised him on a tight leash to beat down and put towards positive tasks.

“Daniel. Your brother obviously thinks I’m a wendigo or some tribal xenophobe shit. Let’s let him sleep in his own bed and head out or something.” Head rush. The young man puts a fist against his chin and cracks his neck both ways before standing up straight. “We can talk in the truck, put tunes on.”

GM: Daniel regards his now-awake friend. “Yeah, whatever, let’s leave the sissy to the room. Make it easier for the ghost buffalo to eat him.” He stands up, grabs his backpack, and throws a dirty towel at his brother.

Brook: Danny has seen Brook when he’s angry more than anyone else has. There was a time he watched his larger friend take an axe to junker car and just scream non-stop for an hour. Through willpower, Brook never lets his friend see what comes after those fits. It’s pathetic. Thanks to tight discipline from his mother, this is as close as the big brute gets to his old ways anymore. Posture like that of a lumbering bear missing its cubs, he leaves the room with his radio, and doesn’t stop until he’s outside.

“Fucking fuck, Danny. Seriously. What does that old man say that your siblings hate me so fucking much? I break my fucking BACK so everyone can be safe! Is my blood JUST SO FUCKING DIRTY!?” It’s a full-on yell, and the young man smashes his fist into the hood of the car as he makes his way to the driver’s seat, jumping in and staring it to see the time.

He starts the breathing. Inhale, one-two. Exhale, one-two. Think of the trees, the snap of bark, the peel of birch, the crunch of pine cones. All the bullshit exercises he’s been put through. “Sorry. Just… long few days.”

GM: The clock says 10:37 pm. Daniel says nothing–not at first. He’s too caught off-guard by the borderline blow-up. But eventually, he composes himself enough to call out, “Brooks, dude, chill, chill, man! It’s not like that, man.”

However, both teens’ words are undercut by the four prepubescent faces fearfully pressed to the log-cabin’s windows, their dark eyes staring at the aftermath of Brook’s violent, screaming outburst.

Unlike Brook, Daniel has his back turned to his house, and remains ignorant of his siblings’ deer in the headlights voyeurism. “Look, my grandfather is like senile. He was always a little messed up, you know, from the war. But after… after my mom died, he broke for real.”

Daniel shivers a bit, his breath steaming in the chilled nocturnal air. “He just sits there all day long. All fucking day. And then he’s gone, like he disappears. He hardly talks–and when he does, it’s all babble in the tribal language that I give two shits about.” He sighs and sucks in the cold air. “The doctors say he’s got Alzheimers’ dementia or something. Just… just forget about him.”

Brook: It’s an hour and twenty minutes before he’s due at the tower, and just an hour he’s got with his friend. An hour of his siblings worrying for his health with the scary man outside their house. Looking at them, Brook’s eyes are even different. Green stares out from under thick eyebrows, betraying him as a mutt. Patting his passenger seat, he mutters for Danny to get in as he turns the heat on and the headlights off. Affording them a decent place to sit and talk.

“Dude, it’s not just your grandpa. It’s a lot of the res folk. They treat me different.” Bringing his hand up again, he looks over the sizes of his fingers and groans. “Your brats are looking at us through the windows, like I’m going to eat you. Your sis pointed out the finger length thing. Your aunt wouldn’t talk about it. I don’t know, man. Things get to me deeper when I’m on the res. That finger thing? It’s nothing. I know I’m not the brightest, my brain is fucked. But here? It bugged me.”

GM: Daniel jumps in, all-too eager to get out of the cold and away from his family. “Brooks, the whole town and res are bugging. Off-res, you and I are just another pair of timber niggers to people like Nelson. On-res, well, we’re two more mouths milking the cash-cow. And people are greedy and jealous.”

He pauses and looks outside at the cloud-veiled moon. “Look, like, your mom gets a big fat check from the tribe because she’s pure Blood. But my mom married a Blackfoot, because, well, incest only gives you so many dating opportunities if you know what I mean. It’s all bullshit, really. Stuff white people just can’t understand. Anyways, because me and my brothers and sisters aren’t pure Blood Tribe, and because my mom is dead, we get shafted. Hard. I swear the tribal council is like high school for grown-ups, with the popular haves and, well, the rest of us. And by ‘haves’, I mean having the right blood which gets you the right money. If it weren’t for my grandfather’s check, we’d be… well, we’d be even worse off.”

He shakes his head and looks back at his best friend. “So, just try and imagine how people here might feel when a kid who as far as anyone can tell has zero drops of Blood Tribe blood gets a huge cut of the res’ monthly money. That’s why my older brother Lij hates you. It’s because he’s half-Blood and gets squat because our mom married a Blackfoot and then jumped out a window, while you rake in thousands because Mary’s a pure-blood who’s never had kids and gives all her money to an adopted outsider.”

“It’s about money. Not fingers or old men watching TV. Money, Brooks. Money makes people crazy–people who have it and people who want it. You’d know that if you spend more time on the res or at the casino.”

Brook: Brook already knows the money part of the equation, but it doesn’t stop the fact that they treated him just as badly before Mary started giving him that allowance. Though the res might not realize it, it isn’t his money. If he doesn’t behave and work hard, he’s shit out of luck. Mary has cut him off in the past. This truck isn’t even really his either, it belongs to the state as a government vehicle. Not to mention how lean he and his mother live, taking home kills not sent off for census. But Danny is right. This res is like one giant fucking high school, and neither of them are in the right clique. Difference being that Danny has the res folks who aren’t pure bloods, he has his big family (for better or worse), on top of most of what Brook has. Their friends. Then he has his own mother, the only part of Danny’s family missing. Though one that spent the last 10 years beating life lessons into him with branches.

“I know Danny, I know. But it’s–besides you, people don’t want me here in the Res, there’s so many dirty looks from all blood platinums that I feel like there’s meetings to talk about how I shouldn’t ever have been pulled out of that burlap sack my parents tossed me in the river in. The town, I can deal with! It’s water off a roof. But it’s not like that on the res. These are supposed to be ‘my people’, right? They aren’t. I have you, I have our little circle, and I have Mary. I don’t have anyone else who cares I exist. Townies think I’m from the res, and the res looks at me like a townie. Or worse.”

He pulls out his sidearm and begins loading it back up, skilled hands working fast. Like it’s cathartic for him as he speaks. “I’m trying, Danny. To get at least these peoples’ approval. I nearly di… Bad Medicine. I nearly died the other day. Three feet from my face. Death. It was just watching me, slunk away when I put my gun in it’s face. It could have taken me. Maybe I’m just… still fucked up about it or something. Sorry, man.”

GM: Daniel gives an accusatory glare at their surroundings. “The whitey-tighties aren’t the only racists in town, Brooks. Hell, I’ve never met anymore more racist than a res native–fuck, some of these pure–bloods make Nelson look color–blind. That’s why I’m cutting loose of all this bullshit. That’s why I’m gonna go to Vegas as soon as I graduate and be a dealer and operator, so I can take money from morons so stupid they give it away.”

“So here’s what I say about the res. Fuck. Them. You’re never gonna win their approval. Not when you’re living large on the tribe’s tit–especially when your blood quantum runs as straight as the Green Lady.” He then turns to the gun. “Now what the hell are you talking about death three feet from your face. And why am I just hearing about it now?”

Brook: Brook looks out into the dark and thinks about it again. That forbidden little whisper in the back of his head. What if he leaves too? What places need people like him? It certainly isn’t Vegas, though maybe he can get away with stripping or something. If he worked and got a pair of abs before graduation. Danny is the smart one, Vegas would be his hunting grounds. Thinking about leaving is terrifying and heavenly at the same time. He’s been brought up to be a ranger. To be the brave soul in the woods of Witiko, black powder against fang. But if he leaves? Fuck what the res thinks.

“You’ll get there, brother,” is all he manages for the moment, spinning his cylinder and slapping it back into place. Fully loaded. Danny is right again, however. Brook never told him about that day in the pass.

“There was a wolf carcass. I was cleaning it up, a van pulls in. I scare the hell out of them with ghost stories to get them to drive more carefully. Little kid says something like ‘I see the ghost. It’s big and black with scary eyes!’ and points to where I was shoveling roadkill. I go back to where I was, rifle pointed in the bush. Danny, it was big. Didn’t look like a bear, but it was… something. I looked right into its eyes, like an idiot, and it just slunk back down the ravine. Took the wolf’s body I tossed down there, too. Talked to my mom. She’s seen it too. Said it howls wrong, that it’s a part of nature but not of life.”

GM: Dan’s brow furrows. “What the fuck does that mean?”

Brook: Brook narrows his eyes into the dark, looking around the horizon as he switches the safety off his gun and cocks the hammer back to make a point, tapping it on his steering wheel out at the dark. “Native myths that don’t add up. The new librarian, she knows. I’m trying to talk to her about it but she’s like… scared. Really scared, of something. She wouldn’t talk about it in the library.”

Gently pushing the hammer back, he slips the safety back on and carefully pushes his sidearm back in its leather case. “Witiko Falls, man. Questions pile up. I’m fine with her living in the pass, I just don’t want her wandering out. She might get hurt, or hurt someone.”

GM: “Her?” Danny asks, dubiously, then adds, a bit more cautiously, “Are you sure it wasn’t just a shadow… or maybe a messed up bear? I’m just saying you didn’t have much sleep, and you’ve been under a lot of stress.”

He looks out the windshield where Brook punched his own hood. “Frankly, I’m glad to see you blow up, dude. You’ve been acting so sickly-sweet Disney happily ever after lately. It’s good to have the ‘real’ you back, man.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t answer at first, he hesitates and decides against taking out his sketchbook to show him. Instead he just nods. “It. Whatever mangy thing it was.” Though hearing his friend glad about his outburst concerns the young man a little. They’re both angry kids, lashing out at the world.

“My mom was getting worried about me, Danny. She was right, too. We’ve done stupid shit because we were mad. I gotta fucking control myself. No more bricks through windows, hacking up junkers. I’ll probably have a badge and a gun soon. Gotta find a girlfriend or something, to help me calm down, I don’t know. Find a balance.”

Girls. That’s another whole basket of razor wire-wrapped dicks to deal with.

“Maybe I do need to blow up more, Danny. All this bullshit. Make sure you don’t tell anyone, okay? About the weird shit we’re talking about. Spooks in the hospital, bears in the pass, etc. Not with people already so stressed over the hospital gas, and the escaped lunatic, and junk. Plus, it’d suck for my mom to find out I’m ‘being a child’. We should talk about normal shit. Like girls, and how Toby was so sour today.”

GM: Daniel nods. “All right, we’ll keep all this between us. We’ve been though ugly shit before; we’ll get through this stuff too–together.”

“As for blowing up, how about we blow some shit up. I’ve got a bunch of commodity cans. How about we go drive out to the falls or the old quarry swimming hole and blast ’em like zombie brains. Just like we used to. And along the way, we can talk about how to get you laid. Er, I mean, get a girlfriend,” he adds with a lewd grin and elbow to Brook’s side.

Brook: Brook can only nod, reaching over to pat his friend on the shoulder. They have been through ugly shit before, this is no different. At his suggestion of going out to fire some guns, however, he nervously looks back over to the clock. He can’t be late.

“I don’t think I got time for that tonight, Danny. It’s almost midnight. Besides, speaking of girls, you should sleep and take June out tomorrow.” Digging out his wallet, he pulls out some cash and offers it over to his friend. “I probably can’t hang out, so I’m going to have to take a rain check on driving you guys around. I was going to treat you again to make up for the shitty day out yesterday, anyway.”

GM: Crestfallen at Brook’s rejection, Daniel seems initially reticent towards accepting the handout. However, he eventually caves to the financial temptation, if not to Brook’s generosity. “Okay, that sounds fair,” he says lamely. He then looks to the clock. “So… you want to work on some homework together or something? Until you have to go then, or what?”

Brook: Brook looks a bit guilty. It’s not a handout, he wants to be there for his friend, ease his burden that his best friend has been so busy this past summer. “This week, or next weekend, you should come hang out at the tower overnight. If you don’t mind the guns, the dark, and heights.” It’s an honest offer, one he’s sure he can convince his mother to agree with. He doesn’t have to keep such a close tone on the microphone. “Right now though? Homework sounds good, Dan. Some normal not ranger kid stuff.”

GM: Danny gives a little nod, his mohawk tipped with moonlight. “This weekend, man, let’s do it. I’ll bring the cans. I can’t wait to see how the refried beans explode. Ker-pow!” He fires a mimed gun with his fingers and laughs. “Zombie brains.”

The truck cab turns dark as a wind-blown cloud swallows the moon. Daniel stares out into the night before speaking again. “Do you think you could do it? I mean… do you think you could shoot someone? Pop ’em and drop ’em. For real.” He turns slightly, his shadowed face regarding his best friend’s.

Brook: It’s a good idea, firing into the tree line is the safest way to fire a gun anyway, the larger boy laughing along with his friend. It’s a quick smooth over into the strange mood brought about by the masking of the moon, and an even stranger question, Brook awkwardly looking to the clock as he speaks.

“Mary… she brought me up on stories, y’know? I still don’t know how I feel about Apistotoki or Naapi. But Bloodclot Boy? If anyone tried to hurt anyone I care about, or pointed a gun at me, I don’t know if I could stop myself from reacting. I hope I never have to, though. My dreams are haunted enough.”

GM: Daniel quietly considers Brook’s answer in the darkness. His own reply comes slowly at first. “Yeah…”

“…haunted by Horse-Face!” He punches his best friend in the shoulder while he tries to neigh loudly but only breaks up in laughter.

Brook: Brook has a moment of regret for his answer, wondering if he’s scared Danny any. Of course this isn’t the case, rolling his eyes when the punch comes and chuckling. “I swear to god, Danny, I will drive you to the pass and leave you there. Be nice to her, I have to work with her on this project you know.”

GM: With the clouds still covering the sky, Brook can moreso feel rather than see his best friend raise up his hands in ‘surrender’. He starts to rattle out another jibe, but he loses it in another fit of adolescent guffaws. “Okay, okay,” he eventually says to himself as much as Brook. “Too bad though you aren’t working together in Mr. McDermott’s class… ‘cause I’m sure she’d win the blue ribbon in 4-H!”

There’s another hysterical fit of laughter inside the cab.

Brook: Brook nearly headbutts the top of his steering wheel hearing him pinch off another horse joke at the expense of Leanne. He doesn’t quite get this one but lets whatever 4-H is be. No doubt it’s some kind of country fair whatever. “Danny, I love you, but if you keep that up I’m going to date Leanna JUST so you have to be nice to her on double dates with June.”

GM: So threatened, Danny immediately shuts up–or tries to. A few last snickers slip past his lips before he replies, “So homework, yeah?” He looks at the cab-clock. It reads 10:54 pm.

Brook: Brook bites his lip looking at the time. He should probably get going, but there’s one last thing he can ask. “I gotta be at the station at midnight. Do you wanna grab a change of clothes and spend the night at the station? Or do you gotta watch your little ones?”

GM: Now it’s Danny that bitting his lip. He looks up at his house, where his younger brother’s face is still silhouetted against the bedroom window. “Aw… shit, man. I want to, really… but Lijah’s working the graveyard doing… whatever for Ghost Elk. If I dip out… he and my aunt will…” He shakes his head. “Little brats, you know?”

Brook: Brook understands, it’s not like he’s been the best at just hanging out. But tomorrow is Friday, and with how well he did on his paper thanks to Hazel, he has no doubt he’ll be re-entering class. “Nah, it’s cool that you’re helping out. We’ll see each other lots tomorrow, hopefully I get some leeway with it being Friday, and we can go and see Cindy in the hospital.”

GM: Indecision still wars on Daniel’s face. Even in the dark, Brook can tell his friend wants to come over.

Brook: Brook shakes his head, reaching over and putting a hand on his friends shoulder. “Stay home tonight, okay, man? Good rest before we go up against those nurses tomorrow.”

GM: Daniel looks like he’s going to protest, but the reminder about freeing Cindy tomorrow causes him to nod. “You’re right. Gotta think long term. If I dip out tonight, they’d fly off their handle and likely get in the way of our plans this weekend.”

Brook: “They’re not too happy with me, so who’s to say if I take you, they won’t walk to the casino to get you in trouble with your aunt, anyway.” Brook looks a bit dismayed at the thought of the kids hating him, but nods. “We’re not freeing her right away though. Remember, we gotta be smart. We don’t have black helicopters.”

GM: “Right, right,” Daniel agrees, his mohawk jostling as he nods. “One step at a time. Speaking of which, Epstein’s homework. I’ll go crank it out for both of us, and you can copy it tomorrow morning before the bell. You have enough to catch up on with that Rome stuff and Veronica’s biology notes.”

Brook: Brook waves his hand. “Nah, I gotta…do it myself. Get caught up fast. That new librarian really helped me out of a jam, no way I’m expelled with the paper she helped me write. You watch Veronica though, I know you are, but we don’t know if June’s the jealous type. I’ve got a long night anyway. All I got planned is to take some callers again.”

GM: Daniel jukes like he’s going to playfully punch his friend again. “Heh, a jealous babe can have its perks, dude.” He chuckles. “But really, I think it’s Horse-Face who needs to worry. Veronica only gave me the notes when she heard you needed them.”

He looks back to clock. “Anyways, I should let you get going. I’ll have the math homework ready for you–if you need it or at least want to look over the answers. I mean, you can aim all right… but you suck at trig.” His wide smile can barely be seen in the dashboard’s lights. The clock flickers at it changes to 11:00 pm.

Brook: Brook chuckles a bit, shaking his head and wondering. Veronica now? He’d have to talk to her a little. “Okay. Thanks a lot, man, I do kinda suck at math. But you get inside! Rally up those kiddies to bed, and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” Unlocking his doors, he turns the radio off and gives his friend one last pat on the shoulder.

GM: Daniel steps out of the truck and bangs a fist against his chest in farewell salute. “Tomorrow, my brother from a different mother, and remember the immortal words of Tupac, our Lord and Savior, ‘Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real’.”

Brook: Brook laughs and shakes his head. “You’re saying that to the wrong person, Danny! Fuck Tupac and his sound sleep! See you tomorrow!” Closing the doors and locking them, he turns back around and starts driving away, getting on the radio back to Red Aspen.

GM: Four hours before the Devil’s Hour, clouds cover the night sky like a black body bag. Brook turns onto Shades of Death Trail.

For all the macabre oddity of the road’s name, the route is a familiar one to the junior ranger. Beyond its primary function of connecting the Kainai reservation to the Kaniksu Forest–and Akipunni Station therein–Brook is aware of the dark history that inspired the road’s name. Unlike the highwayman banditry and lynching that inspired the similarly named roads in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Shades of Death Trail was originally made by the Kaniksu’s black-robed Jesuit monks seeking congress with if not conversion of the Blood Tribe of Witiko Falls. For deeds which remain disputed amongst local historians, the Kainai’s iikunuhkahtsi flayed the monks and hung their robes and skins from trail’s surrounding pine trees as a warning.

Despite such a morbid inception, the White Plague or the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the trail expanded to its current state as an asphalt paved highway that carves through Kaniksu’s heart. Tonight, no human hides hang from the surrounding pines, cedar, and ponderosas to darken the route, but the drive is still nearly pitch black, save for the Brook’s yellow headlights. It’s quiet too, as the thunderclouds loom menacingly but silently–for now. The forest’s fauna also seem subdued, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Despite such atavistic omens, Brook nearly misses the danger riding right behind him. It’s as if the storm decides to break right behind him, with a thunderclap formed by a deafening roar of a motorcycle and its lightning-hot headlight. Its rider is dressed in black gloves, dark jeans, and a denim jacket whose patches the cadet cannot make out. The dark-haired man sports a thick beard and slicked back hair that seems to blend into the night. But it’s his eyes that Brook notices above all. Perhaps it is merely the reflection of Brook’s taillights upon the man’s glasses, but the biker’s eyes seem to glow like blinding furnaces. The flame-eyed man seems to come out of nowhere, and by the time Brook spots him, he’s racing down on Brook with frightening speed, as if he plans to drive straight through Brook and his larger vehicle.

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Brook’s ranger-honed instincts take over in the half-second before they would crash, though, and he hits wheel, swerving his old truck just in time. Adrenaline spikes Brook’s heart as the biker disappears into the night. Disappears in a mere blink, just like he appeared.

As Brook blinks, he can still see the afterimages of biker’s eyes burning in his vision. Despite this disturbing distraction, Brook easily spots a horde of Harleys and other chopped–up hogs burning down the road. What these riders lack in speed and stealth, they make up in their swarm like numbers.

The Moonbrood are coming.

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Brook: Brook feels the same way on the trail as he does on half the roads in Witiko Falls–on edge. Driving with narcolepsy, even when he knows he can’t sleep, is a part of his life when all his focus is on the road. It pays off today. It’s not too good of a night for a drive, but a thunderstorm on Red Aspen is always amazing, glass on every side, Brook sees every crack of beautiful lightning. If he makes it home. Hope for beauty is replaced with hope for survival with the crack of what at first registers as lightning behind him. It’s all the teen can do to move, the only thoughts going through his head mimicked in his throat as he lets out a primal scream of effort, feeling like he was going to rip the wheel off his truck as he narrow avoids disaster, turning back into his lane and breaking to a stop.

Shaken and panting, his heart in his throat, Brook slams is fist into the seat beside him and lets out another hopped up yell, not a sign of the rider anywhere. He spots them all immediately after. Mooners. Hazards on, high beams off, Brook slides his gun under the seat and stands out in front of his truck, waving his hands above his head to flag one of them down. They have to have seen something! Maybe it’s even one of them! Whatever gives him solace away from the thought that ‘the line’ came at him. Those eyes burn in his brain.

GM: It does not take long until the Moonbrood descend.

The truck’s flickering hazard lights create a red strobe that lights up the wild bikers like splashes of neon blood. The roar of their collective engines shakes the ground, broken bits of gravel and pebbles bouncing and scattering across the weathered road. At least three dozen strong, the Mooners are a chaotic mob whose individual features blur in the rushing blackness. Black leather, denim and boots. Spiraling tattoos against rippling muscles and wild hirsute faces. Patches featuring shape-changing moons.

The first riders don’t even slow down for the ranger cadet. The next portion of the pack seems to only slow down enough to holler and howl at the night. Brook sees a woman, naked save for blacklight body-paint, riding a grizzled biker that races past him so close he can swears he can hear their grunts and libidinous thrusts. He smells the thick exhaust of the hogs, the odor of weed and harder drugs pollute the forest air. Many have terrifying helmets, complete with spikes or bestial horns. Brook thinks he spots one wearing the giant skull of a pig. Men who have become monsters in the night. Disgusting… and yet alluring.

Brook’s attention reflexively shifts though when a beer bottle hurtles from the horde and crashes into the back of his truck, shattering messily. By the time he turns back around, he notices that the stragglers of the pack are slowing down. Yet, as the Moonchildren approach atop their rumbling chrome and leather hogs, Brook is forced to reconsider the wisdom of hailing down a gang of outlaw bikers.

Brook: It’s a bad idea on every front, but after such an encounter he needs to know what they’ve seen going the opposite way. Too much is weighing on his mind for him not to want to wave these people down. Besides, if he’s honest with himself, he’s often watched them all and felt envious, both of the machines they ride and air of anarchy and rage they can openly display. Despite being on what the gang may see as opposite sides of the law, Brook has never looked on them with any kind of scorn. Drug dealing aside.

The bottle against his truck is mighty fucking unwelcome though, a grit of his teeth to restrain himself from any quick movements as he keeps waving SOMEONE down, and gets his wish.

GM: A half dozen circle around Brook in slow spirals. The ring of headlights paints them in flickering false halos, coronas of halogen and smoke. The ranger cadet takes in each of their faces, a carousel tableau of drugs, machismo, violence, and sins best left unsaid.

The ‘first’ is thin–faced, with unkempt white–grey hair that resembles the mangled woolly remains of a wolf–ravaged sheep scattered across his face. Dressed in black leather from cap to boots, his head almost appears disembodied, bobbing and twitching in the darkness a few feet above his harley. His gray-green stare at Brook with a deadness that most roadkill lack.

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The second’s gaze is perhaps even less welcoming. Black shades are slung high across the man’s razored pate, but his large grizzled mutton-chops hang from his chin and face, their two ends pinched by rows of miniature skull beads that match the iron–work nose and earrings. Despite the autumnal chill, he wears a sleeveless leather biker’s jacket and chaps and cause his crotch and buttocks to bulge nakedly. Tattoos are scrawled across both and snake up his chest and around the scars where his nipples should be. While his left hand rests lazily upon a thrumming handlebar, the right clutches a chain that is clipped to the belt of the third rider.

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Also razor–shorn, the middle-aged man has only a small scruff of reddish facial hair around his lip and chin. Warts mark both of his checks. Similarly adorned in a sleeveless black leather jacket with various patches, including a black moon on its back, the man wears tight-fitting jeans and large hobnailed boots. His bare arms and chest are littered with sloppy tattoos, including designs reminiscent of Celtic or Viking runes, a giant ‘1%’, and a praying nun receiving cunnilingus from a devil. Of all the bikers, his gaze seems the least sure, his green-marbled eyes flickering back and forth to his peers.

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Chief amongst those peers is a grizzled giant. Tall and thick-bodied, the man’s skull looks like it could crack a bowling ball. His long gray beard is unadorned save for ashes from his smoldering joint. A red bandanna covers his wrinkled scalp, but his muscled stout torso is adorned by a denim jacket, covered with patches and pins, from sword–swallowing skulls, American flags, a spread–legged cat encircled by the words HAPPINESS IS A WARM PUSSY, and a giant blue moon. Ink peaks from his fingerless biker gloves, long-johns, tooled moose–skin chaps, and heavy boots. He regards Brook with brow–roofed eyes that even in the dark reveal him as a native son of Witiko Falls, as his dilated left pupil all but swallows his iris. Both eyes appraise Brook, as if searching his face for past recollections or future possibilities.

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Clutching the waist of the long–bearded man is what Brook can only assume is his ‘old lady’. She wears a cheap and flagrantly fake fur coat with a snow leopard print and leather pants so tight they remind the ranger cadet of the Swiner’s sausage casings. Her hard–worn skin and sagging breasts are marked with past abscesses, spray tan, and tract marks. A sole tattoo marks her sunken stomach: Property of the Mooncildren. A rolled red bandanna pulls back her bleach–blonde, shoulder–length hair. Her heavily painted brows, lashes, and lips regard the young teenager with a simultaneously glazed-over and lazily lascivious look.

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The last of the slowly circling bikers is shorter and scrawnier than his peers, but no less disturbing. He rides and steers just with his straddled, denim–clad legs. His arms he crosses over his chest. His black T-shirt and sleeveless leather jacket expose his forearms and the gnarled–thick hair that resembles burnt shag carpet. He too wears fingerless leather gloves, those his are studded by spikes. His horseshoe mustache is primarily white, as is the curly hair that bursts from his shirt. He wears an unsnapped bucket helmet and glass glasses that obscure his eyes and scalp. His lips and neck twitch constantly, as if he is shooing phantasmagoric insects.

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As Brook regards the slow spiral of outlaw bikers, old instincts buried in bones take over. He knows nothing of the Mooner’s patches and particular identities, but he does know predators. He knows packs. The blue–moon giant is their alpha–and at present the least aggressive of the pack.

For now.

Brook: Pack is the best word for what descends on Brook, and like every pack before this this one, he reacts accordingly. He deflects his threat, keeps his hands up properly, looks up and makes eye contact with who can only be the alpha. Long in the tooth, the female with him, the calm gravitas of a leader. His giant frame does nothing to dissuade this thought process. Brook follows thr man’s eyes, slowly turning and waiting for them to stop as he tries only once to yell over the din of their hell-bikes.

“Did you see a biker going the opposite way of you? Slicked black hair and… and flaming eyes?” If they hear it, it sounds silly, but he needs to get straight to the point.

GM: Brook doesn’t know whether any of the bikers actually hear, much less understand his question. Even without the sluggish roar of the five hogs, his inquiry isn’t the most… rational. Then again, neither is his audience.

The bearded alpha makes a motion to his pack, and one by one, they kill their engines.

The furry–armed, shade–wearing one mutters something. Brook almost swears he hears the man say, “Dribbles,” like the fast–food fried chicken chunks from O’Tolley’s.

The bearded alpha regards his scrawny-armed companion as he if just uttered something profound. He turns back his gaze on Brook, and narrows his eyes as he takes a puff from his joint.

“What’a we ‘ave ’ere? A lil’ lost pup?,” his old lady says with a psychedelic–slurred tone. With an eel–like motion, she plucks the joint from her man’s lips and takes a hit of her own, all but forgetting her question and its object.

“Pup? More like a little pussy,” sneers the waist–chained biker.

His ‘partner’ looks over Brook’s tall muscular body. His nostrils flare, as if smelling the adolescent’s musk. His fat, flaccid member begins to swell.

The alpha doesn’t so much interrupt the predatory words as he talks over them. “Maybe you saw the Devil, son. These here are his roads.”

His old lady leans on him, and waves the joint as if it is a Black Sabbat wand and she a witch.
“You’s wann’a ride, sweetie?”

“Sweet cheeks,” the chained biker says, flashing an eye to the expression and engorged member of his partner.

The helmet-wearing man continues to twitch and mumble.

The first man remains silent. His dead gaze never once leaving Brook’s face.

Brook: Brook holds to his mindset that this a pack of predators, and as such, he susses out the group. Three of them are concerning to him, the first thin-faced man. Heading a pack instead of an alpha may mean he’s the beta, and a quiet predator is the kind the young ranger is the most wary of. Of course then the alpha. But the third surprisingly isn’t the one lusting after his underage ass, it’s the female. One word in her alpha’s ear and moods can change real quick.

His eyes stay on the alpha. Even an eye twitch could be an attack signal, but he actually perks a bit when the giant talks about this being the Devil’s road, and talks directly to the long-bearded man. “Does the Devil have burning eyes and ride a bike loud as hell?”

GM: Some of the bikers laugh, but enough of them also look at their pack leader before responding.

“Why don’tcha cum n’ find out fer y’self, sweetie,” the tract–marked floozy says, offering the joint. “Or are’ya ‘fraid of a lil’ pow’r ’tween yer legs?” she adds with a husky lick of her lips.

“Sweet-cheeks…” the skull-beaded man says with his equally libido-thrumming gaze.

His partner laughs, cracking his neck in nervous excitement. “Dribbles,” the little man says.

The silent one leans in, close enough to smell Brook’s licorice–black hair.

Brook: Ironic, now it’s on the Indian to ‘smoke the peace pipe’ or insult the entire gang. Just like he thought earlier, she’s a danger to him. Whoever this silent one is, and whatever he’s doing, Brook stands tall and doesn’t flinch away from him, letting him do what he wants. “Sorry. I’m not a good enough driver to get home after a smoke, but I’ll take you up on that next time. I owe you all a drink for stopping, anyway. Thank you, miss.”

He hopes that’s enough to placate her before he looks back to her alpha. “I thought it was one of the Moonbrood. He came up on me, fast, just a minute ago, like he wanted to cut right through me. I got out of the way, but he vanished. Did you pass him?”

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood…

01.23.1994, Monday evening

GM: It’s been an ugly year for the twelve–year–old Brook. Being a half-native six-grader at Lame Bull Middle School hasn’t been easy, as he’s had numerous scraps with not only the Kainai kids who treat him as white trash but now the former off-res graduates from Eugene Baker Elementary who magnanimously treat him as just another ‘timber nigger’.

Chief amongst the latter group has been Brook’s classmate, Nelson Judd. This past week alone has seen three playground scuffles between the pair. Today’s fight, however, happened in the hallway, after Nelson and some of his friends locked Danny Littlebeaver in a school locker. The subsequent earned Nelson a black eye and Brook his first out of school suspension.

It’s been an ugly year. And the winter is just as ugly.

A fortnight after the solstice, night falls quickly on Witiko Falls and the wilderness that surrounds it. With the sun already sunk beneath the western rim of the Bitterroot Mountains, twilight is a ghostly grey that rises to purpling black. The moon shines bright, making the March snow glow. The forecast blizzard has not yet arrived, but the temperature is sinking faster than the sun. Brook can hear pine trees crack as the cold leaps fiercely upon the Kaniksu forest like one of its psychotic predators.

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Most folk would consider Mary Madcatcher’s parenting equally psychotic. Upon hearing of her adopted son’s latest fight and suspension, Red Aspen’s matriarch simply pointed outside and said a single word. “Hemlock.” She didn’t need to say anything else.

Nearly an hour later, Brook is still searching for a suitable switch of the relatively rare wood. This isn’t the first time he’s been sent into the forest to search for a switch, as Mary Madcatcher is not one to spare the rod nor spoil her child. In the coming years, Brook may appreciate the educative as well as punitive role of these tasks. Tonight, though, Brook is more keenly aware of three facts:

It’s freezing. Hemlock is damned hard to find. And Nelson Judd deserves more than a black eye.

Brook: It’s freezing, but Brook is equipped, and unfortunately for the scavengers of the young cub’s birthright territory, he’s very much acclimated. It’s not immediately apparent it’s a twelve year old in the bundle of fur and wind breaking nylon, trudging through the snow, steam and panting threats and insults leaking out a small opening in the hood. It’s a big pack he’s carrying, and a gun he wish he didn’t have to lug around, but the fear keeps him moving and glad for the safety both weights bring him. Well, relative safety.

In the dark, it’s difficult to find anything, and though he has a flashlight it’s suicide to make his presence too well known. These woods won’t welcome even a child. They won’t even give him what he needs to leave. But Brook is anything but a quitter, pushing forward into the woods as he keeps his eyes and ears out, stopping at each tree. He has to come back with hemlock. Has to.

GM: As he presses forward, further into the woods, the young Brook comes across a set of moon-lit tracks. Paw prints, surrounded by snow fleas. Front paws larger than rear ones. Claws visible in the soft snow. Oval shaped rather than oblong or round. Coyote. Just last night, there had been reports of a rapid coyote running wild at the Blue Mooncalf Ranch, trying to suicidally attack the Britter’s lobotomized dairy cows.

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Brook: It’s a moment of pause for the young ranger, looking over the print and sneering. Snow fleas, his least favorite part about the spring. But it’s more than clear what he needs to do, looking to where they’ve gone and checking his weapon as he begins stalking the coyote. Mary will be more than pleased with him if he brings her both the switch and one less headache. It goes from trudging and complaining to a silent young man following the tracks of his next target.

GM: The full moon serves as Brook’s nocturnal flashlight as night sinks into the sky. Unlike the hemlock, the coyote proves easily found. Less than a half-mile later, Brook hears the thing growling and yelping. Its predatory sounds mingle with the crunch of snow, the creak of cold branches, and most incongruently or at least disturbingly, the dull groans of a man.

Brook’s eyes drink in the moonlight, his own predatory instincts allowing him to visually tear apart the scene down to its marrow. The man is a Mooner. He’s nearly frozen to death, supine in the snow, his skin an eerie blue and his eyes circling like buzzards in his skull. One of his legs has clearly been shattered and twisted at a sickening angle. Somehow the man is alive. And more bizarrely, he seems to be enjoying his death.

The coyote is gnawing on the man’s pinky. It grows ravenously, shaking its head back and forth, shredding the man’s finger off his hand. It begins lapping up the blood which flows from torn appendage. The man moans. In pleasure.

Brook: Brook takes it all in, a mix of emotions going through his head before he puts it all down and narrows it down to one. Duty. Whether this man is enjoying himself or not, it’s the young man’s job to save him. Using the element of surprise, he slowly raises his weapon and doesn’t dare breathe as he squeezes the trigger. The shot runs out through the whole forest as one predator strikes out at another.

GM: The slug slams into the coyote’s skull. The predator instantly goes down like a puppet with cut strings. No yelp of pain. Just a hunger cut off mid-growl. Whether the preteen grunts or cries out from the kickback of the gun is another matter, and a secret that neither the insensate coyote or insane man will ever share. The gunshot does seem to snap the dying biker back to reality or at least near its zip code. He begins to scream.

Brook: Brook’s shoulder throbs at the kickback of the weapon, teeth grit in pain for a moment before he realizes it’s the only time he’s needs to use the weapon for the moment. It’s good the poor animal hasn’t a clue how it died, but he’s got more pressing matters. This biker is going to die without his help.

Dropping his backpack, he grabs out his kits, putting the safety on the gun as he sets it down, spent shell in the chamber still. With his supplies, he rushes to the biker’s aid. “It’s okay! It’s okay, I’m Brook, I’m here to help you get out of here! Give me your hand!” Brook already has the first aid kit in his hands, grabbing for the biker’s wrist.

GM: It’s hard to tell if the biker’s screams become slurred curses or remain thoughtless, pain–born noise. Despite his callow age, Brook has been raised for moments like these. Years of training–didactic, observational, and experiential–kick in for the ranger-raised preteen. The Mooner’s eyes continue to swirl, but his screams subside. By the time Brook finally staunches the bleeding wound, the biker’s blue lips mumble. The mumble turns into a strange song:

“An ye gae soon to Damburrow toon, Yer breech–cuff cinch up ladder or lasse. For theyre sure to comme ’roon, Up frae under the groom, ’Aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

That’s when the coyote stands up.

Brook spots it, its head still smashed in by the well-aimed shotgun slug. One moment, the corpse is still and un-breathing, fur, bone, and blood splattered around its head as a crown on the moonlit snow. And then, inexplicably, terribly, it rises. Groggily as if waking from a deep sleep. The slug remains buried in its brain. Blood drips from the massive gunshot. Blood drips from its teeth.

The corpse-coyote does not breathe. But it sniffs the air. And smells prey. Its howl tears through the cold-dead night. Its feral pack answers in kind.

Brook: This is Brook’s purpose. Many people think it’s insane for Mary Madcatcher to send her boy out into these forests alone, like he’s doomed to die the moment his mother isn’t with him. But they don’t understand. Mary trusts him to become strong, to become an alpha. Moments like these are why. Listening to the biker start to deliriously go on as he works, it’s the sound of the coyote standing that drains the sound out of everything else in the forest.

He doesn’t look at first, reaching and grabbing his weapon as he hears the coyote howl with what should have been a head separated off its shoulders. But silence gives way to a cacophony of death. Coyotes are flippant when it comes to packs, either very small ones or ones that are easily broken up, until there’s larger prey to hunt.

That prey isn’t Brook. He refuses. These are his woods, he’s the one being groomed for alpha status, he will survive. He is the son of Mary Madcatcher, the boy born of the Green Lady, he is a predator too! Turning with a snarl, he pumps the gun, sending the spent shell spinning into the snow, before he turns the sights on the coyote. That’s when the horror hits him.

There’s nothing left of one side of its head, caved in and thrown into the snow by a speeding slug, and here it stands. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t breathe but it howls, it has no mind but it smells, it’s dead but has rejected Old Lady’s decision and risen back again. It’s not possible. Fear swells in the boy’s chest as his heart races, but other emotions come with it, eyes flicking to the Mooner in concern, teeth gritting in anger, muscle tensing in preparation. Brook pulls the gun up, pointing at the coyote, and squeezes the trigger once more. It must stop moving, and then Brook must run.

GM: The thing lunges at Brook with wide-open jaws, its bloody fangs seeking to tear out his throat with a psychotic rage. As the scared but defiant preteen raises his shotgun, the corpse coyote nearly swallows the gun’s barrel just as Brook squeezes the trigger. The beast’s lunge and shotgun blast knock the boy to the ground. Snow flies up around him and the cold, hard ground crunches on his already sore shoulder.

The thing however is flung backwards, away from Brook and the gibbering, insensate biker. The boy hears bone and pulpy brain matter splatter the snow-carpeted leaves of a nearby pine. The violent impact and discharge cause the snow to crash like an arboreal avalanche, buying the corpse coyote in a ghost–white grave.

In the distance–but shorter distance now–Brook hears the coyote pack. Moonlight cuts through the forest like cold knives. Brook’s breath steams. The biker groans. The mound lays still.

Brook: It’s a moment in slow motion. Brook can almost feel his pupils dilate, ready to show him a life flashing before his eyes, swears he could feel tooth on steel. Before the pain strikes, a shooting pain through his shoulder as time hits play again and sends him sprawling. Blood everywhere, what can only be brain, and these FUCKING snow fleas.

But when the preteen jerks up to see if he’s yet dead, it’s a moment he knows he can’t waste, the pile of snow unmoving. Like he’s caught in a trap, the young man scrambles up with his shotgun and runs to the biker, hefting him onto his back to keep him warm and get him the fuck out of here.

It’s starting to hurt. Ache in his shoulder from his own weapon, a slight burn in his lungs from effort in the cold air, and the dull thrum of a day outside in his thighs and calves. He ignores it for now, knowing how much worse it will get as he hoists the backer over his beck, grabbing both the stock and the barrel and using it as a bench for him to sit on, before he hears it.

They’re coming for him.

Brook sprints off down the path he’d taken, letting his world fade out as he focuses on survival and duty, tunnel vision as his legs slam into the snow, his breath heavier and heavier steam. Red Aspen can’t be far. Brook doesn’t pray, but he quietly pants out his pleas to the wood and snow around him.

“Please. Please let me get him out. Please.”

GM: Ko’komiki’somm answers.

The full moon lights up his hard-packed trail he’s backtracking on, back to Red Aspen, back to his mother, back to home, and away, away. The bright moon paints the trees and rocks in stark relief, their black blurs rushing past him. It’s almost as if he can feel the moon seep into his veins, feeding his young muscles and bones with strength enough to not only heft and carry the adult biker, but to RUN.

The biker smells of blood, frostbite, booze, and fouler things, but the sixth grader miraculously does not lose his grip. Nor does his footing fail. His heart feels like it is about to burst. But he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t slow. He runs. The howls of the pack become a distant keen on the wind. He runs. The howls die in the darkness. He runs. He smashes through branches, not stopping as they whip his face and threaten to trip his feet. He runs. And he reaches Red Aspen.

Brook: He runs.

Brook feels his body start to scream. Heavy copper blood in his mouth from biting down mixing with the taste of the snot leaking down on his lips, tears stinging his eyes. Ko’komiki’somm feels… alive. As though the moon as summoned drums. As though the world is just this moonlit train in the forest, the slumbering pines around him each beating a drum, the moon leading the ritual. Putting a chant in their hearts that reaches Brook.

RUN!

Everything hurts. Everything feels as though he’s being ripped up from the inside out.

Brook runs.

Coming out of the tree line, his stone fortress calls him, and everything begins to shake. The 12-year-old’s arms fail, his legs give out, everything all at once as he plummets just feet from his front door, sobbing hysterically in pain with what little breath his burning lungs will let him without agony. His face cuts and marks on the pebble studded snow, the smell of gasoline and blood heavy as he writhes with the weight of the biker still warmed by his burning back. Keeping his heart beating, Brook hopes. What’s next takes everything left in the boy, the last of his fear summoned energy.

Brook howls, his voice spitting blood out on the snow as he screams as loud as his throat can handle, straight at that heavy wooden door.

GM: The primal howl echoes across the summit of Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Atop that peak, Akipunni Station, stands vigil. In the moonlight, its stone flashes like silver save for the deep, dark gouges left by generations of mad, rabid, frenzying bears, elk, cougars, moose, and worse. Tonight, Brook can almost feel those gouges on his skin, his throat, his heart. But his heart keeps beating and his throat does not choke as he gives himself to his atavistic howl. Somewhere, from some unseen distant summit or hollow, other howls rip at the night’s silence. Brook has little time or energy left to listen to them, though, as the door to the firewatch station flies open.

Mary Madcatcher stands in the threshold, stout and strong as her firewatch station. She brandishes a pump shotgun and lit kerosene torch in each hand. The latter’s blue flame casts Mary’s androgynous, leathery face in a wild, menacing light. Gazing upon his mother now, Brook must reconsider the local icebox gossip: perhaps his adopted mother did rip off the balls of a live, raging grizzly bear with her bare hands. Her fearsome mien softens or at least pauses as she regards her son. Her dark eyes crease with concern… and maybe awe or love… or is it fear?

But her expression hardens like flint as she makes out the identity of the blue-skinned biker slung across her son’s back. Her brow creases so sharply, Brook thinks it could chop down a tree. She shuts off the kerosene torch and strides forcefully towards her spent boy. With one hand, she far from gently picks up the injured, dying biker, relinquishing her son of his burden, and drops the freezing man like unwanted dung. She spares a moment to sweep her taut gaze down encroaching forest slopes before turning to her son. That same gaze similarly inspects him: for danger, injury, and trouble.

The biker groans as gravel shifts beneath his weight. He repeats the song, but this time his words are so very weak and broken: “…gae soon to Damburrow toon… up… lapse… sure to comme ’roon… aslythin like snaykes thrw the grasse…”

The movement of dark wings flit into a nearby ponderosa. Its boughs hide the bird, but its nocturnal cry cuts all too clearly in the quiet wake of Brook’s howl: a whippoorwill.

Brook: Brook swears he can feel the howls answer him, even after the true alpha of the forest all but kicks open the door to paradise open, fire and death in each hand. Like she’s not heard a boy, but an animal howl at her door. Maybe she’s right. Shaking and desperate on the ground, her adoptive son twitching and too tired to even sob as tears streak down his cheeks. But nothing can tear his eyes away from her face, indecipherable, even to him, until her eyes narrow down onto the life he’d so viciously protected.

As Mary pulls the biker off of her son, she triggers a deep panic in his chest, his glove coming off as it pulls out from under him, raking into the frozen gravel and clawing for the body he was trying to keep warm. The rest of his body stays silent, the muscles in his side spasming and contracting, cramping and screaming at the desperate boy to go limp and stay that way. But he can’t. They all need inside. They need inside now.

Barely able to get enough air in his lungs, the whippoorwill uneases the boy just enough to keep everything burning, screaming, just awhile longer, tripping and choking on his own words. Every syllable nothing but pain to utter as his lungs burn and the core of his chest below the ribs begs him to stop. “Coyote… dead, I… still howled. The moon… it s-s-saved… th… they’re coming! H-help him!”

GM: Mary regards her son with an old pain in her eyes–or maybe one she’s long been dreading will come. She looks away at the moon, the mountain, and the man dying between them. She reignites the kerosene torch and stalks toward the biker. For one terrible moment, Brook is sure Mary is going to use the blowtorch to burn him alive. But she instead sets down the torch a safe stride away from the insensate man. Blue flame-light and black shadows war over his skin and clothes.

Meanwhile, the whippoorwill whispers its name into the night, again and again like a spiral song. Mary spares it a glance, then returns to her son. She cups her strong calloused hands on his cheeks and wordlessly presses her forehead to his. She seems to breathe into Brook a measure of… not quite calm or peace, but at least shared strength. Togetherness.

She breaks the rare moment of tenderness and begins to brush and pluck off the many branches stuck in Brook’s coat and hair. As she picks up one tiny branch, both she and Brook recognize it as being a swig of hemlock. Mary holds it before her son’s gaze and adds, “Too small to teach.”

She smiles. She then collects the small branches and twigs and a nearby brittle pine-cone and returns to the torch. Her broad flat back is turned to Brook as she squats down on her haunches. Unable to directly see what his mother is doing, he nonetheless recognizes the crackle of wood and growing glow of orange flames.

“Go inside,” Mary says. “Get supplies for the night. I will tend the fire.”

Brook: Brook doesn’t know, hasn’t stopped to think that this biker, in another state of mind might throw a bottle at him screaming ‘snow nigger’ at the top of his lungs. It isn’t about that in the young boy’s heart, either because of his reflex of duty to save the man, or the adrenaline blinding him to the consequences. Maybe both. But watching his mother stalk towards the biker, torch in hand, a glimmer of strength throbs through his body, foot dragging up, gearing to leap before the cord tightening scream of his muscles shut him down.

It’s like another weight lifts off his shoulders when the moment passes, he sees his mother’s compassion, putting the torch down before returning to him.

Affection, the feeling of thick cool skin against his cheeks, and the warm press of her forehead. It’s almost too much. Brook’s strength returns just enough for his body to reflexively shudder in an overwhelmed sob in his next breath, like simple gesture was gifted by god. Mary’s yearly joke and that rare smile only make it worse, before he gets his order and raises slowly to his feet.

Blood runs to the boy’s head as his marrow sprints to pump the energy back into his muscle, whip-poor-will mocking his weakness.

Brook returns from out of station a new man, what he’d left of the kit he took into the forest dropped to be sorted out later as he carried out arm fulls of supplies, putting his mother’s folding chair out for her by the fire, a blanket over the top half of the biker, and a pre-made splint for the leg as he carefully kneels on the opposite side of the man, getting to work. His newly loaded shotgun at his side as he glances at the tree line.

“I… I begged to get away from them. They weren’t really coyotes. Ko’komiki’somm. I think she answered me.”

His face is nervous as he looks up at his mother. He’s always resisted her stories, always pushed back against the beliefs of his people. Being a half-breed is hard, and he’s always been too spiteful to entertain his mother’s tales as anything other than campfire stories, or heavy handed anecdotes. This is different. He’s now a scared young boy fresh from hell, wondering if the moon truly cares about him. Enough to keep him awake at night.

GM: In Brook’s absence, Red Aspen’s head ranger has created a roaring fire that pushes back both cold and darkness. The crackle of logs and popping of embers drowns out the whippoorwill’s song–if indeed it remains. The nearby biker shudders as sensation slowly returns to his frost-bitten skin, but he is still supine and silent save for his chattering teeth and groans. Besides the fire, Mary has clearly made no move to help the injured man.

In contrast, she readily welcomes Brook into her circle of fire and light. Her gaze softens with appreciation as her son brings out her folding chair, and she holds her tongue as Brook resumes first aid on the biker. Shotgun in hand, she positions her chair so her back faces the firewatch station and provides an open view of the alpine mountain slope. Sitting, she remains vigilant, save for a reluctantly short glance up at the full moon.

“Ko’komiki’somm…” her flat lips whisper into the night, like a grown child speaking the name of a dead parent. She then breathes in and out, as stoking a second fire inside her mind or heart. “Two stories of Mother Moon I say now.” Shotgun cradled and ready in her lap, she begins the first.

“It is cold now, son. One summer it was just as hot. There was a girl, about your age, named Feather–Woman. Her lodge was too hot to sleep, so she went out into grass to rest. She awoke just as Morning Star, son of Mother Moon, arose. She gazed at his brightness. He was beautiful, and she could not help but love him. She woke her sisters, and said, ‘Oh, sisters, look at the Morning Star! I will never marry anybody except that Star!’”

“Her sisters laughed at her, then ran to the tribe and told the others what Feather–Woman had said. They all laughed and mocked her. But Feather–Woman, she did not care. Her heart knew what it knew. She was as she was. Each day, she woke at dawn to gaze on Morning Star.”

“One morning early, Feather–Woman went alone to the river, to fetch water for the lodge. There, she beheld a bright man standing in the river. ‘Feather–Woman,’ said he, smiling, ‘I am Morning Star. I have seen you looking, and am now come to carry you back with me to my home.’ At this, Feather–Woman shook. Then Morning Star took from his head a rich yellow plume. He placed it in her right hand, while in her other hand he put a branch of sweet wood. He said, ‘Close your eyes’. She did so.”

“When she opened her eyes, she was in the Sky–Country. She stood in front of a shining lodge, and Morning Star was by her side. This was his home, and that of his father and mother, Sun and Moon. Sun was away, working. But Ko’komiki’somm, Mother Moon, was at home. She welcomed Feather–Woman. She dressed the girl in a soft robe of buckskin trimmed with elk-teeth. When Sun came back that night, he called Feather Woman his daughter. She was married to Morning Star, and they lived happily in the shining lodge. They had a son. They named him, Poia, Star-Boy.”

“One day, Moon gave Feather–Woman a root–digging stick, and told her to go about the Sky–Country. ‘Dig up all roots–,’ she said, ‘–but one. Never touch the Great Root that grows near Spider’s lodge. Do so–,’ she warned, ‘–and unhappiness will come’.”

Mary stops momentarily as Brook resets the biker’s broken limb. Once the terrible night-rending screams end with the man passing out from pain, shock, and blood loss, Mary continues her tale:

“Day after day, Feather Woman went out and dug roots. She often saw the Great Root. She never touched it, but her heart yearned to see what lay beneath it. Curiosity grew. One day, it grew so big it swallowed her. She laid Star–Boy on the ground. She took her root-digger, then dug around the Great Root. But the digger stuck in the Root. Feather–Woman could not pull it free. She called two cranes flying overhead to help her. They sang a secret magic song, and the Great Root uprooted.”

“Then Feather–Woman looked down through the hole where the Root had been. Far below, she saw the camp of the tribe, where she had lived. Smoke rose from the lodges. She heard laughing children and singing women. Now she was swallowed by homesickness. She went back to the shining lodge, weeping.”

“As she entered, Morning Star say her tears. ‘Feather–Woman,’ he said, ‘You uprooted the Great Root!’ Sun and Moon also were sad, for they knew she disobeyed. Sad was Morning Star when he took Feather Woman by the hand, placed little Star–Boy upon her shoulder, and led her to Spider who lived in the Sky–Country. Then Spider wove a web through the hole made by the Great Root, and let Feather–Woman and her child down to earth. Her people saw her coming like a falling Star.”

“Her family welcomed her and loved little Star-Boy. But Feather Woman was unhappy. She wanted to return to Sky–Country and see Morning Star. But she wanted in vain. Soon her unhappy life ended.”

The first story told, Mary Madcatcher grows quiet. The fire crackles. She finally looks over at the now unconscious but splinted Mooner. Her flame-lit face hardens like drying leather. “Now, son, listen again.” She looks up at the moon, naked and pregnant with light.

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

“Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“Once there was only one Snake. So big you could spend all your days following his scales and never see head or tail. He was fair and painted with many colors. Big Snake was proud of his clothes and had a wicked heart. Most Snakes are wicked, son, because they are his relations. You know that Sun goes early to bed, and that Moon most always leaves before he gets to the lodge. Sometimes this is not so, but that is part of another story.”

She pauses momentarily as if trying to recapture her thoughts, then begins again. “Now Big Snake used to crawl up a high hill and watch Mother Moon in Sky–Country. He was in love with her, and she knew it. But she paid no mind. She liked his looks, for his clothes were fine, and he was always slick and smooth. This went on for a long time, but she never talked to him. Snake thought maybe the hill wasn’t high enough, so he found a higher one, and watched Moon pass. Every night he climbed a higher hill, then mountain, and motioned to her. She began to pay more attention to Big Snake, and one morning early, she loafed at her work a little, and spoke to him. He was flattered, and so was she, because he said many nice things to her, but she went on to the Sun’s lodge, and left the Snake.”

“The next morning very early she saw the Snake again. This time she stopped a long time–so long that Sun started out from the lodge before she reached home. He wondered what kept her so long. He suspected Snake. He thought long. He decided to watch and try to catch them together. So every morning, Sun left the lodge a little earlier than before. One morning, just as he climbed a mountain, he saw Big Snake talking to Moon. That made him angry. You can’t blame him. His wife was spending her time loafing with Snake.”

She looks back up at the sky. “When Moon saw Sun, she ran away. She ran to Sun’s lodge and left Snake on the mountain. Sun wasted no time. He grabbed Snake. Sun was angry! Big Snake begged. He promised never to speak to Moon again. But Sun had him. Sun smashed Snake into thousands of little pieces, all of different colors from the different parts of his painted body. The little pieces each turned into a little snake. Now they were all too small for Moon to notice. That is how so many Snakes came into the world.”

Mary turns to regard her son across the fire. She stands and adds another log to the flames. “Snakes. They come in many colors. Many shapes.” She looks meaningfully at the biker. The grip on her shotgun tightens.

Brook: Brook listens intently to the woman’s stories as his hands get to work bending the biker, a hand on his ankle and a hand on his knee, waiting for a suitable moment in the story to suddenly force the bone into place, rushing to brace and tie it before it bemds in a bad way. The boy sits cross legged after he’s paid a blanket over the life he’d ripped from the wood, a hand kept on his chest as he settled in to listen. Keeping feeling his breathing. If it stops, the boy has to act as fast as he can.

Both stories are heavy with meaning, making even her son stare at the moon unblinking, searching for any kind of meaning. If there’s any day he soon will listen to the stories of his people, it’s today, after Moon herself touched his heart.

But it’s a hard pill to swallow all the same, and he looks down with pity at the man he’s sure in any other situation have been his enemy. Brook wonders on the nature of a snake, looking out into the woods. It’s never been an issue for them, with the insanity these woods brought down with them each day. Reaching, Brook grabs his own shotgun off the ground and pulls the pump back, picking up the spent case off the ground, just staring at it for a moment.

“I snuck up on it. It took his finger. It was going to take his life. I… the shot was perfect. It shouldn’t have suffered. It was laying in the snow peacefully. I tended to him, but… I-It stood up. It wasn’t breathing, but it howled for the rest of its kind! I couldn’t leave him there. Not to those things. I couldn’t. Even a snake doesn’t deserve to be taken by something so WRONG.”

Gripping his own shotgun, his eyes turn back to the tree line again, unblinking. “What if I’ve been wrong to ignore your stories? What if there are spirits? If the moon… if Moon really did summon the drums I felt, and lead me out of that forest. What if I… am I only alive because the Green Lady, or a Big Snake lurking inside her?”

GM: “NO!”

Mary’s shout roars out so suddenly and loudly that Brook has a split second when he thinks his mother’s shotgun has fired. She turns away, her wide back and thick muscles still visible despite her Park Ranger coat. She shakes her head. Slowly. Her breath steams in the cold.

“No, son.” She turns back and kneels beside Brook. “Don’t ever say that.”

Brook: Brook jumps at the sudden yell, looking up at his mother rather fearfully for a split second before he softens again. She seems distressed. Having her come to sit by him calms him a little, he looks a little ashamed now, a little scared. “What am I supposed to think, then? What am I supposed to do with all of this? Is this why I can’t sleep at night? Does the moon pay attention to me?”

GM: Mary’s flat leathery face tightens. Her jaws flexes once, twice like she’s gnawing on a tough piece of raw hide that she eventually gives up on. “I don’t know, Brook.”

She places a calloused hand on his shoulder, their faces close. “But promise me–promise me that you’ll stay away from Snakes. All of them. Moonbrood. Coyotes. Remember the Moon. Remember Feather–Woman. Don’t go digging up the Great Root.” Her hand leaves his shoulder. “It… it will only bring unhappiness.”

Brook: Brook’s head swims. Witiko Falls has been his home for as long as he can remember, but more and more he realizes the horror it holds for someone like him. His own face turns to the moon once again, and then the wood, and then to his mother’s face as she puts her hand on his shoulder. It’s not the message he’s hoping for, there’s no answers from her, just a life of fighting snakes she’s trying to make him promise to never really look at. It’s disheartening. Anger builds up in his chest more and more, but he chokes it down, looking down at the ground and clawing his fingers through the gravel. It feels like he’s suffocating.

He doesn’t know what to say, or how to say it. It’s a horrible thought, that his mother has just been fighting and fighting and fighting, and never asking questions as to how she can stop it. “Are you unhappy?”

GM: Mary’s face is backlit by the fire as she answers, “You are my happiness.”

Her rough hand then reaches back up and curls around her son’s neck in a firm mother-bear vise. Her eyes are dark as she adds, “Now promise me, Brook. Promise me you won’t go hunting for that coyote. That you’ll stay away from Snakes like this man and his brood. Promise me and Moon.”

Brook: Her answer hurts. But her question stands, and the feeling of that hand on the back of his neck drives it home that she needs him to to promise her this. “I won’t go hunting for that coyote, and I’ll try to stay away from the Moonbrood. I promise. But… but Mom, I… I still want to learn more. More about the Green Lady. More about Moon. If Moon can touch me, could we… talk?”

GM: At Brook’s promise, Mary sighs with the weight of maternal fatigue measured in years. Eight, to be exact. The creases around those eyes tighten in some private, silent war. Eventually, her dark eyes open and regard Brook. She tugs at his ear like a lupine nip, but there’s no smile on her face as she answers, “Curiosity swallowed Feather-Woman. But it is time. Or soon enough. Time to talk to great-grandmother.”

She stands and makes another long, slow scan of their surroundings. “When morning comes, I will call Nittawosew.” She looks up at the moon which still rises in the winter sky. “Tonight, there will be no rest.” She looks back to her green-eyed adopted son. “I will call an ambulance. You wait. Watch. Snakes left this one. Others tried to claim him.” She pauses, then passes him her shotgun. “More may yet.”

Brook: Brook meets his mother’s dark eyes, searching for a glimmer of understanding. Much as he knows Mary is iron-clad, she’s proven today to be more cautious than her boy can ever stand to be. The Great Root. It isn’t a perfect analogy. What if the root was on the ground here with them, what if the root peeks down into something rotten. But finally Brook’s mother says something that can calm his fear and curiosity. Great-Grandmother. Talking with elders puts him on edge, but Brook nods resolute. Taking his mother’s gun and smoothing his hand over it, a look not unlike his mother’s flint hardened glare passes over at the darkness of the tree line.

“They’ll try.”

Pointedly, he holds up the blown out slug casing he’d used to put the coyote under the snow, a shiver going through his form before he shoves it into the breast pocket of his jacket, his hand returning to the Biker’s forehead after getting out a canteen of water, hoping he’ll wake up soon. But a lump in his throat forms rather quickly, remembering again why he was in those woods to begin with. How small and petty that little fight seems now.

“Mom? I… I’m sorry if I worried you, I don’t—I mean with Nelson. I got so angry, and… it was stupid. I’m sorry.”

GM: Mary picks up the small switch of hemlock and tosses it into the still-roaring fire. As she walks into the station, Brook hears her words carried on the wind:

“Maybe not too small to teach.”

GM: As Brook turns his attention back to his now stabilized ‘patient’, the preteen has his first chance to inspect the man whom he saved from the coyote horror.

Fortunately for both the biker and Brook, he’s a small man. Thick elbows. Round shoulders. Stomach like a whole-boned ham. He’s middle-aged, but his facial features have some undefinable impish quality otherwise marred by unkempt ugliness. His gray–spit hair is wild, from his gnarled mutton–chops to his partial unibrow. His black leather jacket bears a full moon patch, and his neck is adorned with several chains, featuring bats, dragons, and ineffable shapes. His long-johns are torn and one sleeve bloodied from his torn off finger. His jeans have old bullet-holes in them that hint at dark tattoos.

Brook: Despite his mother’s distaste and outright hate for the man, Brook has a hard time straying from the snake in biker’s clothes, keeping him breathing steadily with a canteen nearby for when he wakes up. He’ll be sore as all hell, but damned if he isn’t going to live through it after today. Tattoos have always fascinated the young man, always having wanted to get, despite the very real possibility his mother won’t let him see another day. But they’re only so interesting for awhile, Brook shaking the man.

“Wake up, big guy, we’ve gotta get water into you so you can warm yourself up.”

GM: The biker slowly rouses. His dilated pupils remain loose marbles in his eyes. He opens his mouth, and Brook sees his teeth–which resemble a busted piggy bank someone tried to glue back the shards into place, and failed. Badly.

The man barks out, his arms flailing weakly. “Dinnae flap! I widnae buy frae that sleekit bastart!” Brook can almost see the line of pain jolt from the man’s gnawed off finger to his addled brain. “Dobbers!” He stops flailing. Mostly. His two eyes momentarily focus on Brook. He gives a snaggle- and gap–toothed grin.

Laird_Duff.jpg

Brook: Brook pulls his hood down, showing off the short jet black hair on his head as well as a relieved smile, even as the man flails around in a silly-looking panic. Despite how ugly he is, he’s still alive. Rather it was a life without dentists, bad genes, or too many blows to the face, the accent is the ugliest thing about him. He’s barely intelligible. Once he calms down and even grins up at his young savior, Brook offers him the canteen full of water. Even snakes gotta drink.

“Your leg is broken and your pinkie was gnawed off by a coyote. But you’re alive. The ambulance is coming to pick you up now.”

GM: The man’s breath reeks of hard booze, as he takes to the canteen like a teat. “Ah mad wae it, loon… but I cannae say nae to a bevy.” He sips, coughs, and sputters as the water hits him. He shivers viciously, as if finally realizing he’s thawing from near full-body frostbite. He closes his eyes. “It’s chankin!”

And then, as if Brook’s words slowly reach the man’s besotted brain, his eyes yell open as he holds up his hand and sees–or more accurately does not see–his missing finger. “Ma facking hawn!”

Brook: It’s starting to make more and more sense as Brook listens to the man, hoping it’ll keep on that way as he keeps watch over the man. Everything is going to hit him at once, the young mutt knows this, and as it happens he already knows what he should say to get him calm and collected. Brook shoves his hand in his pocket and pulls out the spent casing, showing it to the biker with a bit of a grin on his own face. If he keeps it around, he’ll just wonder harder, anyway.

“The ambulance is on it’s way, they’ll have something to take the pain away. As for the coyote, it was chewing on you pretty hard until I put a slug in it’s skull. Keep this, it saved your life.”

GM: The biker takes the spent casing and stares at it long and hard, as if he’s wondering whether he should eat it or worship it. He squints, his pupils playing pinball once more. “Hawd, the laddies and ah… horra sesh… rat-arsed… radge… cannae ’member…” He looks down as his splint leg. “O’ dunderhead, ah chatty’d ma breeks!” He struggles to look around. “Gaun yersel, Laird Duff, yer a bampot!”

Brook: Brook keeps his seat and watches him, peeking up to check the tree line and then the road, hoping for an ambulance. But it’s better to keep him talking, keep his mind off his injuries while making him aware of them so he doesn’t freak out. With the casing out of his hands now, he feels a little better, and even the biker is trying to put himself back together. Even dropping his name, or so the youngster thinks.

“Laird Duff? Is that your name? I’m Brook Barnes, a ranger.”

GM: The biker shivers, the shell held fast in his unmaimed hand. He gives another dentists’ nightmare–smile. “Brook Barnes… why yer jist a wee bairn! Foos yer doos?”

Brook: Brook’s lost the plot. Wee ‘bairn’ is clear enough, in the sense that bairn doesn’t have to mean anything for the mutt to know he’s being called a kid. But ‘Foos yer doos’? Celtic punk is the only reason he’s gotten this far, but what the everliving fuck. He ignores it, looking over at the tree line again. “You said you didn’t remember what happened? I had to carry you and run.”

GM: “Mah manky burd… she cowked af’er gobbin’ me…” He looks at Brook again as if registering the youth’s claim. “Where am ah?”

Brook: “Red Aspen. The ranger station. You’re safe, I promise.”

GM: He groans. “O’ ma heid. Ma hawn… Ah am maist oot yer nut…” A log pops in the fire, sending a shower of embers into the air.

Brook: Gibberish again. At least the second part. Brook all but gives up. “Just rest, the ambulance will have morphine for your hand and leg.”

GM: He smiles again. “Meltit ’ere ah cumm…” He gives a chuckle that makes him subsequently wince and wheeze with pain. “Bout now, ah jist need a peedy tan…” He eyes the canteen.

Brook: Brook just smiles and offers it to him right away, knowing that the best thing for him right now was to get something in him. After such a rough night especially. The young boy doesn’t say a word, not knowing… exactly what he’s replying to if he does.

GM: He nods in gratitude after the drink, his eyes slowly settling. “Bawsack, it’s baltic ootside, laddie…” He crooks a finger for the boy to come closer.

Brook: Brook chuckles, finally something he understands, it’s cold as the Baltic. But the Mooner has a blanket, and the fire is still roaring. As the biker asks him to come closer, the boy unfolds his legs and carefully puts the gun back behind him, shuffling in closer and leaning over just a little, like they’re sharing a secret.

GM: The man’s drunken breath hits Brook’s ear as the biker whispers, “Maebee och awa an dinna talk pish… er no. Ah din tink no… Laird Duff thanks ye, laddie, uncoly… nou ah aint ‘ave ma spondoolies… but yer a cannie loon.. ah’ma gie’s ye a big yin…”

He unfolds his hand with the shotgun shell, then points to his necklaces as if indicating Brook should choose one. There are seven total, and he (presumably) counts each one. “Ane, twa, three, fower, five, sax, sieven.” All seven necklaces appear to be made of gold chains, though each has a distinct medallion hanging from its nadir.

The first is mushroom forged of some dark material.

The second looks like a misshapen cloud or half-kneaded pile of dough.

The third is a bird, a whippoorwill.

The fourth is a small plain locket.

The fifth is dragon made of some green gemstone.

The sixth is a bat.

The seventh is a heart.

Brook: Brook keeps up with the man for the most part in what he’s saying. That he thanks the young man, and that he didn’t have his… spondoodlies? Some kinda cookie? Like snickerdoodles? But he gets the message clear when the biker opens up and offers him things from the selection of medallions. It’s incredibly generous! And turning this down is rude. Snake may be beautiful, but many animals reward kindness towards them. Snakes keep away rats. Crows bring you baubles.

“This is very generous! I was just doing my job, I… thank you.”

Looking through them as he counts them off, he can’t help but feel guilty to be taking these. He can’t take the locket, much as he’s curious as to what’s inside, it may be personal. But the heart? That’s something he can relate to, the boy a sixth grade ball of hormones, and falling for every girl who so much as looked at him. Cautiously, Brook nods to the seventh.

“I’m a bit of a sap, Mr. Duff. I’ll wear it every day.”

GM: ‘Laird Duff’, if that indeed is his name, smiles widely with his crooked mishmashed teeth. “Tekul… hoora tekul.” With help, he slides off the necklace. It hangs from well-worn white gold. Two hoops hang those chains. The first holds an anatomical heart made of iron or so alloy the preteen cannot place. There is some inscription on its loop that Brook cannot make out in the flickering firelight. The second, lesser medallion seems to be made of a lighter metal wound around a dark red gemstone that swallows the fire.

Heart_Necklace.jpg

“Haur ye gae!” the biker says with another puckish, horrid-toothed grin.

As Brook slips on the necklace, the man’s grin changes. Transforms. Something seems to slither up the man’s eyes and face, a wave of something ineffable and awful, something that smells of childhood nightmares, or night-terrors that made and still make him wet his pants.

The biker clutches at the boy with his hand, holding the already close youth even closer till he is nearly gnawing on Brook’s ear. Brook feels, smells, and tastes the mingling of fear-sweat and foul booze and fouler chemicals leaking from the biker. Leaking. Spreading. Infecting.

“Dinnae be feart ta confront yerself, laddie! Dinnae deny wha ye am! Yer yaks gobbed din truth tonite. Ye leuk’d inwith tonite, ye’ve seen yer inner be’en fer what tis. Tha openin’ of yer yak, laddie, tha firs’ leuk beyond, tha entrance to tha Een Circle –ye’ve fackin’ made it! Ye cannae turn ‘way from tis darkness–tis inwith ye! Suppressin’ tha dubh jist gaes it mair power tah slitter tha blind side o’ yer soul! Dis is tha pit at tha center o’ a’thing–ye gotta dive in and fackin’ stare it dunn, laddie, list ye fall to tha clutches o’ foebok and cumm a slave ta fear!!!!”

The voice of the man–if he is one–transforms into the sound of rushing waters. His fingers turn into a burlap sack of sheet that swallows up Brook in its tangled, freezing wet cloth. The fire, light, and heat instantly vanish into abyssal darkness.

GM: Strong arms heft the four–year–old Brook from the frigid river. The murderous swaddling is pulled back. Writing is on the bed-sheet, written in blood so thick and foul that the river could not–can never–wash it away. The river’s currents shift, changing from alpine water to blood to water to millions of pills.

p u t i t b a c k

The transmogrifying current whispers.

p u t

i t

b a c k

The currents swirl around two strong legs, creating eddies of shifting spirals.

p u t

i t

b a c k

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

y o u r t r i b e

y o u r t o w n

p u t i t b a c k

Pills. Water. Blood. The strong hands begin to rewrap the young child in the wet, suffocating cloth. Soaked with water. Pills. Blood. Brook feels the darkness re–swallowing him as his small body is being entombed alive in soaking, gore–stained swaddling.

Brook: Everything shifts. First comes the snake’s crooked smile, then the young man as he’s pulled, and then simply everything. Suddenly Brook finds himself where everything has began, his oldest and more terrifying memory, made even more WRONG. Soaked burlap rubs his hands and feet raw as he struggles, limbs flailing, reaching for what he hopes is the sky, despite passing rocks sometimes battering his hands and legs.

Water. Blood. Pills.

It’s little comfort as someone plucks him from the seizure-inducing shifting of the river from familiarity, to sanguine terror, to a confusing nightmare. Exhaustion is the smallest thing in his mind at the moment, the small bundle of terror grabbing tight to the strong hands as his follow the burlap bag’s writing, looking for a way out. Some kind of hint on how best to struggle. But he hears the whispers, the river promising who he can only assume is his mother that he is evil. That he’s a bringer of ends.

Brook struggles again, screaming and kicking his legs as he’s suddenly wrapped up again. This isn’t right, this isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies! Swirling thick fear breaks, and the child feels it turn from horror, to desperation, and finally to rage. Falling silent, the child takes as much of a lung full as he can, letting everything out in one last defiant howl. As if he intends to break the burlap, the river, and even the hands pushing him back under. It isn’t Mary. She doesn’t put him back.

GM: The strong hands wrap the bloody cloth around and around him, an ever tightening and suffocating cocoon. The burlap’s weft and weave silence his scream. Crying will not free him. Mary does not care. Nor does the river. They know. What he is. What he will become.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

p u t i t b a c k

Water. Pills. Blood.

The river begins to seep into the cloth.

Seep into his lungs.

Water. Pills. Blood.

Brook: It rattles in the child’s head for a split second before his hands get to work. Screaming won’t save him, and if people won’t listen to his voice, he’ll- he’ll!

PUT ME DOWN!”

Brook lashes out, he bites and claws at the hands holding him, through the cloth, even his tiny feet digging toenail into the burlap hard enough he’s sure he’s ripping them off. It’s base, primal, and as his doom nears, the bag starts to fill, he cares less and less about the taste of blood in his mouth, or the incredible pain coming from his fingers and toes. He can almost feel his death, and he plans to face it fighting.

GM: He fights in vain. Will he die in vain? He’s too small, too weak. The cloth is too strong. Around and around. The strong hands tie the strands together into a constricting, tightening web. The river sucks the boy down its dark currents.

Blood. Pills. Water.

w h a t w i l l y o u d o

It’s whispering to him. It’s killing him.

w h a t

w i l l

y o u

d o

Brook: Vain or not, Brook keeps fighting. Whatever this is, whatever he’s been thrust into, he fights! This isn’t how the story ends, this isn’t how he dies, and the whispering can go FUCK itself. But these strong hands, these aren’t the hands that raised him, the ones that taught him how to fight. How to fight smart, to make it a hunt. The child lets his body go limp, relaxes with eyes closed, waiting for the hands to let go, thinking their job done. If he can’t force his way out, he’ll think his way out, preparing to spring the moment the hands release him, and answers the whispers only internally.

I will fight. With every last breath. Whatever I have to, for what I have to protect. Let me go.

GM: Every last breath. This one may be it. And he sucks it down, fighting against the panic as the cloth drops down hard into the river. It’s completely black. Cold. Suffocating. He can’t move. Can’t breathe.

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

The river continues to whisper. Continues to try to seep through the cloth-cocoon. Seep into his nose, his mouth, his ears.

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

Brook: Brook’s plan has worked, as the hands wrapped him, he paid attention to rather he’s cocooned left or right. With all his power, he keeps fighting, imitating the Nile’s apex predator and rolling, spinning, spiraling the burlap sack, in an attempt to unwind himself. It’s cold, it keeps him awake. It’s black, it just blocks another sense so he can concentrate. It’s suffocating, a deep frustration in his gut pushing him on. Brook snarls at nothing, prepared to fight until his every light goes off.

WHATEVER I HAVE TO! I want to be free. I will be free. I’ll hunt anything that hurts my forest, my town, my family! FUCK not being curious. FUCK not being angry about how things are. I WILL FIGHT!

GM: So enraged, the boy’s death–spirals tear apart his woven web. His bestial scream tears from his lips and the river rushes in. It is no longer water nor pills. Only blood. It does not matter whose. He swallows it. It swallows him.

GM: Brook ‘awakens’ upon Ksah-koom-aukie’s Breast. Blood fills his mouth and flows down his chin. The biker’s blanket has been torn to shreds, fibers and strands still drift weakly in the cold winter air. The fire is gone. The man is gone. Ko’komiki’somm sinks in the dark sky. She is still far from her lodge in Sky-Country, but she is tired. Weary.

As Brook stares down at the tatter–torn blanket, the moonlight reveals the cloth scraps are splattered with blood. The pre-teen feels his gorge rise, as if an entire river of blood wants to rush out of his mouth, but somehow the youth swallows it down. Again. A whippoorwill flits to a closer, shadowed bough, and sings.

Its nocturnal cry is interrupted as Mary Madcatcher once again bursts down the station’s front door. Her black eyes widen as she regards her adopted son. His green eyes. His bloody mouth. His fists clutching torn fabric.

Brook: Blood. Thick, warm, life-giving.

Brook startles ‘awake’, noticing the darkness of the camp site, the absence of the man, and…what’s in his hands. Blood, fiber gore, and a sense that something important has just transpired that he can’t put his finger on. It’s awful. It’s sickening. His body fights the urge to vomit, and he has to spit out a chunk of a meal he’d had the previous day, that somehow made it through the slop shoved in his gullet. Nothing registers in the pre-teen’s mind, until he feels the crusted plasma of dried blood on his chin. It’s a flash of a thought, but it’s there, the worst case.

When his mother kicks open the door, he barely hears it, he only hears the deafening warnings of a bird he feels ‘his people’ are right to be wary of. He just stares weakly back at her a moment, his body shivering, before he looks confused back down at the bed, at what’s in his hands, and the dark fire-spot. His tired body and fractured mind seem to just watershed what he knows he should be feeling, all he feels is this queasy confusion, a numbness he can’t place.

“I-I just… he was… the river. Pills. Water. Blood.” Brooks collapses over on his side, limp.

GM: Mary rushes to rescue the boy. Just as she did eight years ago. This time, it’s the whippoorwill rather than the river that sings the same words from that fateful day:

i t w i l l d e s t r o y y o u

This time, she wraps him in nothing but her own strong arms and races him inside their home. Her arms are strong. But the boy is growing. She holds him tight. But he will break free.

10.08.1998, Thursday evening

GM: Ash falls from the still–extended joint like snow, prompting Brook to remember his last run-in with the Moonbrood.

Brook: Brook’s face falls at the memories flooding back, the taste of blood in his mouth again. Whose blood, it doesn’t matter, but it brings back plenty of horror, plenty of memories, and even more frustrations. Just one name, though.

Still ignoring the silent one close to him, he doesn’t break eye contact with the alpha, reaching up to his neck and pulling on the chain, bringing out the heart. He’s kept it with him all these years, and he doesn’t leave it out too long for the bikers to see, lest they take it from him if Laird Duff never made it back. After all this, perhaps it’s a way out, or at least a way to have these bikers think they know him.

“Laird Duff. His patch looked almost like yours. I don’t know exactly what happened that night, but I know he was one of you, wasn’t he?”

GM: Necklace and name give the bikers pause.

With Brook’s gaze fixed on the hulking alpha, the teen cannot be sure, but he thinks even the silent roadkill–eyed man takes a step back.

The woman licks her lips. Nervously? Hungrily? Brook does not know.

The bucket–helmeted older man begins scratching his arms. “Dribbles, dribbles, dribbles…” he repeats with a rising tic in his face.

“Laird?” the chained one asks, looking around at the others, unsure. “You mean the leprechaun?” he asks again, but receives a tight chain-jerk from his partner, who in turn silently stares at Brook’s medallion like he could eat it with his eyes.

“Shut your man-hole, prospect,” the alpha says, reproaching the black–moon patch wearing biker. “Al would flay your lady finger for saying he’s Irish.”

The bearded giant takes the smoldering joint back from his rider’s hand. “You’re Mary’s whelp.” It’s not a question.

Behind him, the short old biker continues to scratch like he’s caught mange. “Driiiiiiibbbbles,” he mutters between tics.

Brook: Brook stands his ground, eyes flashing over the chain gimp for a moment, before locking right back on the alpha. Though he can see that back-o-the-bike bitch licking her lips out the corner of his eye. Everything seems to give him a little space at the revelation. He’s not just some timber nigger stuck out in the middle of the road.

“Name’s Brook. Your friend Laird was out in the woods with a real cleanly broken leg and a lotta bad shit in his system. I dragged him—most of him—off a dinner plate. Is he still alive? I got questions for ’em. He showed me something. Something important about myself.”

GM: The massive alpha male eyes the tall adolescent as he sucks down the last of his joint. He flicks the spent weed-wrappings into the road. Brook’s gaze watches as the lipstick–smeared, paper-wrapped weed spirals through the air, smashing into the black asphalt, its psychotropic contents bursting and breaking in the wind.

The bearded giant sets down his bike and swings a meaty leg off his hog. “Blueballs Boone,” the biker says, presumably in reciprocated introduction. A last tendril of smoke escapes from his mouth, only to be sucked up his nostril.

‘Boone’ reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a tiny plastic bag. Inside is what appears to be a dollar bill, though its denomination is unclear due to the folds. The denim-clad biker gives Brook the plastic-sealed bill with a palmed handshake. Returning to his bike, he adds, “If you’re looking for answers on Duff, call the number.”

The other bikers seem to swivel their heads between Brook and Boone. None gainsay their evident leader, though.

Brook: Brook straightens his back when the alpha steps off his bike, rather he’s trying to appear bigger than he is, or just fix his posture to be polite, he can’t tell. It’s like a reflex in the presence of someone this large. Though his mother elicits much the same reaction. But as he steps up to the teen, and hands him the number, Brook is just as confused as he was before he asked the question. But it’s a step closer. Snake den or not, that night is… horror, and horror needs answers. Maybe Feather-Woman would pull that root faster if the sky was drowning in the same filth Witiko Falls is.

“Thanks, Boone. You got no idea how much this means after three years. How ’bout the red-eyed rider? One of you, or… just another devil in the Falls?”

GM: Boone re-saddles his hog, causing the black and chrome machine to sink into its shocks. His old lady begins rubbing the man’s thick thighs. The alpha ignores her, but turns back to the ranger cadet and answers: “When I blow up your ass, you’ll know whether it’s smoke or something else. As I said, these here are the Devil’s roads, and we’re riding after him.”

Brook: Much as the young man doesn’t desire the chewed up and spit out looking woman, the moment she pays attention to her man Brook feels a jealous absence. But he doesn’t let it interrupt their talk, and he thinks on the man’s words. Smoke. It’s nothing that makes good sense, but he nods all the same. It’s something he’ll have to look into himself or otherwise just avoid. There’s so much on his plate already.

“He doesn’t seem to like me, so I’ll leave these roads to you until I get the call to clear a furry corpse off it.”

GM: “Haps you jus’ needs to get to know ’im, sweetie,” the old woman says, slowly opening the side of her faux-fur coat to flash a pendulous breast. “Know what they says ’bout the devil you knows…” She licks her lips again.

“Dribbles,” echoes the biker behind them, his scratching subsided but not wholly abated.

The other men simmer like the heat that radiates off their hogs’ chop-block engines. Brook can feel the rising excitement, the near rev of the motors, the tense readiness of a pack about to ride.

The alpha cranks his hog, hard, but Brook still hears him as he turns again and says, “You could join us, you know.”

Brook: Brook’s eyes snap to the woman’s chest, betraying his hormones before he wrenches his gaze back to the alpha. Of all the times and places for a boy to see his first pair of tits, it just makes that absence grow bigger, making him think of June and Leanne, that lady cop, and even that redhead at the Shop-Plus. Above the din of motors, though, he hears the offer. It’s strange, but as much as he idolizes the freedom, he doesn’t jump at the chance. There’s things he has to do, promises to keep, responsibilities to fulfill.

“I don’t think I can, Boone. At least not yet. But hopefully I’ll see you again.”

GM: “Maybe sooner than you think,” Boone answers enigmatically before signaling to his pack to mount up. “The Devil’s not riding a tricycle–get riding!”

The other bikers comply all too willingly: shooting, hooting, and howling as they rev up and race away on the morbidly-named trail. Brook is left in the dark center of exhaust fumes and spiraling black tire-marks.

AM_old_b_w.png

10.08.1998, Thursday night

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 when he hears the awkward fumbling. He wonders if Leanne wrote all of this down or if 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.

Phone_Book.jpg

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 exudes 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


Candy_Wrapper.jpg

10.08.1998, Thursday night

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 marshal’s partner, Deputy Marshal Cassidy Porter.

Cassidy_Porter.jpg

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. 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.

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 of it 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.

Hazel: Attila Awakens


Flashlight.png

10.08.1998, Thursday night

Hazel: Hazel waves goodbye as the headlights from her mother’s SUV recede into the dark. They waited a while before Lydia started the car, and the ride home took a little while longer. Hazel is no longer a disheveled mess, but her heart still weighs heavy. She doesn’t want to face a vampire tonight. She could have still put it off. Asked if she could go back to the hotel with her mom, who would’ve been of less mind to say no. They could’ve had dinner again, maybe watched a movie, talked and comforted one another long into the night. She could’ve gone to sleep in a warm and soft bed, far away from the monster stalking her house. Hazel wanted that so badly. She could’ve gone after him tomorrow, during the day. She knows his place of refuge.

But no. That is no alternative. He has guardians to watch him during his sleep, and Hazel’s sure that finding his daytime sanctuary and overcoming its defenses will be a task of its own. She may well be able to meet such a task–but it’s a battle on his terms. The Sweeney house is familiar turf. She’s got him coming here, likely alone, deluded into believing she will be easy prey. The time is ripe for her to set a bear trap. She’s not going to throw away the assembly kit away at the last moment. It’s time to end this, for good or ill.

Hazel tries the front door she clearly remembers locking–and will not be in the least surprised to find her key unnecessary.

GM: With the passing of her mother’s vehicle, it is dark outside. Evening is dead. Twilight is passed. Night falls all around Hazel. Darkness reigns, and as her hand tries the door that then swings open unlocked, she sees that its princedom extends to her home.

Hazel: She flips on the lights in spite of her mounting anxiety. It’s still early in the evening. He’ll want to come later at night, when everyone in the neighborhood has gone to sleep–her included–and there are fewer potential witnesses. He will. When it’s more convenient, for so many reasons.

…won’t he?

GM: The light switch clicks. But darkness remains. It is then that she notices it, the entire street is black.

Hazel: No. No, it’s…

GM: No light shines.

Hazel: She tries the light attached to her keyring. It’s not connected to, to…

GM: The house creaks. The house smells. A droning fills the air. The pen-light clicks on, shedding its feeble blue radiance over the cluttered blackness. In the darkness, the furniture looms, alien and menacing. She bumps into the living room sofa. It has been moved. The buzzing continues.

Hazel: A new wave of anxiety rises in her chest. She swallows it like a tall glass of foul-smelling medicine as she cranes her neck to examine her surroundings.

No. I’ve… I’ve kept my wits. I’m not going to let him out-psyche me. This is just a game, a psychological trick, like I played on him. She steadies her breathing. Power over animals and vermin… what would I do if I wanted to scare someone in their own home?

She thinks for a moment. I’d kill an animal. Or a person. Leave its corpse to the flies. Leave it in a familiar place and setting to them, violate the sanctity of their… She takes a deep breath. It’s logical for him to wait. And to try to unnerve me. I’m not going to let him.

GM: A dark shadow circles through her light. Tiny and black. Buzzing.

Hazel: She swivels the light. Looking for the source of the flies. What’s attracted them here.

GM: She smells it. Something foul, something sweet. She knows it is in the kitchen, her legs bumping and brushing against things again and again as her nemesis has moved everything just a few inches off. The flies buzz and drone. There are not many of them, but enough to make the air itch. One scrapes her cheek. Another drones and drops on her head.

Hazel: Hazel swats at the passing insects. Her eyes briefly fall out of focus as she follows the dot-like shadow flitting across the light. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. But it’s no good. The keychain’s light is too dim to make anything out. The familiar layout of the house, too off-kilter. Resigned, she makes her way to the kitchen–and the source of whatever ‘present’ her nemesis has left.

If he isn’t there himself.

GM: Fumbling in the dark, Hazel bangs into the fridge door, causing it to rock hard against its hinges. Sweat trickles down her spine as she realizes that her fridge has been left open, allowing the food therein to start to putrefy. Flies land on the delivery pizza box, scratching and scuttling to get inside.

But they have other feasts more available. Hazel’s lip curls in disgust as the sickly-sweet stench intensifies. One hand on her key light, the other traces the edge of the round kitchen table to prevent further bumps and bruises. That’s when her fingers brush against something on the table, scattering a cloud of angry flies.

Hazel: The key light’s blue glow shines towards it.

GM: For all her resolve, the feeble light shakes. Her heart hammers deafeningly as her body secretes fear hormones into her brain and muscles. Knowledge is power, but power has a price–and knowing she is being hunted by a centuries-old terror with mastery over vermin, inhuman strength, and worse starts to burrow cracks in her psyche. Darkness inspires a primal terror–and now, Hazel knows why. And it is dark. Very, very dark.

But she forces the light to move. She forces herself to see. Trembling, the blue glow crawls over a man’s glove situated in the midst’s of the table’s mail. But the glove is not empty. Flesh. Bone. Maggots. Terror. The pale, slimy necrophagic vermin spill out of the glove, and one by one, spell out a message:

RIGHT BEHIND YOU

Hazel: A hand. That’s. That’s someone’s hand.

Bile rises in her throat—but has no chance to come out before she blindly dashes from the kitchen, her heart hammering in uncanny synchrony with her feet against the floor.

GM: The back screen door shrieks, then slams shut after her. The air is cold and cannot be sucked down swiftly enough.

Hazel: Sweat trickles down Hazel’s back as she gulps down the night air. Her eyes desperately cut across the umbral gloom in search of light. Any light. Even awful old Mrs. Worwood’s. She could kiss that shriveled crone right now, just to see light.

GM: All of Red Louse Lane seems engulfed in darkness. But then she spots the tiny flicker of flame in the old hag’s house. Candles. Wavering pinpricks of hope and sanctuary.

Hazel: Hazel can taste the hot pinpricks of bile in her throat, but eventually, it subsides. So. Someone’s cut the power. It’s not just her. And she’s not alone. She’d been formulating a plan to get Mrs. Worwood out of her house–inconvenient to have a potential witness nearby–but right now, she’s glad just to know there’s someone else out there. And besides, it is pitch dark.

Well. She’s not headed back inside the house, not yet. Not with… that thing… but she’s not going to remain idle, either. The lack of lighting in the other houses is a boon. Mrs. Worwood won’t be able to see what she’s up to. She should have done this the moment the lights didn’t work, anyways.

Hazel walks off behind the house. She hears no sound except for her light shoes pressing against the freshly-mowed grass. She looks up at the old oak tree. It could be a coincidence, that it’s located here, right where she needs it outside the house. But Hazel’s encountered too many coincidences for them to be coincidences.

Her gaze lowers from the wide leafy boughs, sweeping across the dark silhouette of Marilyn Sweeney’s childhood swing. It wouldn’t be much to look at, even if it were light enough to clearly make out. It’s a simple wooden plank, with two lengths of rope on each end, hanging from a sturdy branch. But you can learn a few things about someone, living in their house for a while. The Sweeneys didn’t talk about their dead child, and Hazel wouldn’t have asked, but the evidence told its own story to the town undersheriff’s daughter. How the wood was worn smooth by long hours sitting there, swinging back and forth. How the name “Marilyn” was carved onto the underside of the swing with a pen-knife, over a crudely etched heart and arrow. How the other boy’s name was furiously defaced by that same knife and a cigarette lighter. The evidence tells quite a story, indeed.

All before Hazel’s neck-hairs stood on end the one time she sat on that swing. That was Marilyn’s swing. It still is. Now that Hazel knows the full story of the girl’s death, she realizes the swing wasn’t just important to the thirteen–year–old’s life. It was where she broke up with her first and only boyfriend. It is inextricably linked to the cause of her death. And such items hold power over departed souls–or so it is said.

Hazel’s already willing to test a hypothesis about vampires. Might as well expand it to ghosts too.

She walks up to the swing, pulls it back and then pushes it forward, as if doing so for the enjoyment of a seated child. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my voice.”

The empty swing drifts back. Hazel pushes it forward again. Just a little further, this time. “Marilyn Sweeney, hear my name.”

The swing flies off into the night. The wood lightly slaps back against Hazel’s palms. “I am Hazel Bauman, entrusted with the guardianship and care of your home by your parents.”

The swing sets off. The swing flies back. “That home is still yours, Marilyn.”

The swing flies forth, and then back. Faster. Further. A soft wind whispers at Hazel’s ears. “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us.”

Hazel has to stand to her tiptoes this time, catching the swing by her fingertips as it flies back. Perhaps it’s the moonlight shining just right against her glasses, but she swears she can briefly make out the knife-etched heart with the name “Marilyn” interposed against a dark, smudged-out spot. “Marilyn Sweeney, I bring you gifts from life into death. Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

Hazel has to jump this time to catch the swing as it roughly smacks against her hands. She gives a grunt of exertion, but her shoes have barely hit the grass before she pushes the swing off again, into the night. Is it her overactive imagination that she can hear the laughter of a child at play? “Marilyn Sweeney, spirit of the past, move among us! Be guided by the light of this world and visit upon us!”

GM: The clouds curl and wither like burning black leaves, revealing the winning gibbous moon. Its pale light shines down upon the Sweeney’s backyard, casting long moon-shadows. The air grows colder as frost creeps over the grass. As it glistens, the shadow of the swing lays vivid upon the lawn, as does the shadow of a young girl swinging upon it. The physical swing, at least to Hazel’s mortal eyes, remains eerily vacant.

Marilyn.jpg

Hazel: Hazel’s breath catches in her throat. That’s… that’s physically impossible. But her eyes don’t move. The evidence speaks for itself.

Or can… she?

“Marilyn Sweeney,” Hazel states slowly. It doesn’t seem quite appropriate to bow, but her tone and posture are deferential. “Your killer seeks to invade your home and to claim me as his next victim.”

GM: The shadow appears to reach into its dress pocket and pulls out a pocketknife. Blade in hand, her shadow-hand reaches out and begins cutting into the tree’s shadow. Bark starts to crack and sap bleeds as letters form on the old oak.

YOU SHOULD RUN

Hazel: Hazel’s already pale skin all-but blanches. Oh god. What have I done?

What was necessary, she resolves, her jaw steeling. Her voice remains level as she continues, “Marilyn, I wish to help you exact vengeance upon your killer. To bring him to justice. To make him pay for murdering you, and all his other victims.”

GM: The shadow-girl swings softly as in thought, then shakes her head vigorously. She reaches out with her shadow knife once more to start cutting into the trunk’s shadow. New slashes open up into the bark.

YOU WILL DIE

Hazel: Hazel bows her head. “This is your house, Marilyn, and if you wish me to leave, I will do as you request. I have but one question. I have spent two nights running from him already. If I do not face him, if I do not make my stand here, how am I–how are other girls like you–to be safe?”

GM: Marilyn’s shade makes a large series of slashes. A choppy heart emerges on the tree, its sap trickling down in rivulets. The shadow stands up on the shadow swing, then twirls, causing the physical plank to twirl and move so that its underside is lit by the moon. The shadow-spirit points down to her engraved initials, the heart, and the burn mark.

Hazel: “I cannot defeat him. I can only find someone to love, and so escape him,” Hazel states, half-questioning.

GM: Marilyn’s shade lingers, her hair umbral hail spooling down to the frosted ground as she hangs upside down. Where her shadow face seems to touch the grass, crystalline ice forms.

She at last pulls herself up. She places the pocketknife to her wrist and slits it. Red blood seems to materialize mid-air and drip to the ground, splashing on the frost. The shadow-girl steps off of the swing. The bloodied, frosted grass bends with two barefoot depressions. The swing and its shadow then lifts and tilts, once again exposing its engraved and defaced underside. The swing hangs mid-air askew as the shadowy preteen takes hold of the swing’s shadow and begins engraving carefully. Each cut causes more droplets of blood to patter to the ground. A spectral hiss cuts through the air. It sounds like someone gritting their teeth through great pain. Slitted words, however, begin to emerge upon the swing.

FIND HIM

More droplets and another hiss, slip, and a feminine cry that cuts to the bone. An engraved arrows appears. It points to the defaced initials and the arrow-pierced heart. The shadow hoists itself back up upon the swing.

Hazel: Hazel nods slowly in understanding. “I need to find your boyfriend. That is the key to bringing your killer to justice.”

GM: Marilyn’s shade nods. She places one umbral hand over her slit wrist. Slowly the bleeding stops.

Hazel: “Do you wish me to… bring him here, when I have found him?”

GM: Another nod.

Hazel: “Can you tell me his name? Where I should begin looking?”

GM: The black outline of the thirteen-year-old girl shakes her head and seems to bury her shadowy hands in her face. The sound of crying escapes from the slashed bark. Shadowy tears fall from her dress, leaving ghastly blue scorch marks upon the grass.

Hazel: It’s such a human motion. From something… no, some_one_, that causes her such instinctive fear. “I’m sorry, Marilyn. I’ll do everything that I can. You deserve peace.” Hazel pauses and adds, “Your parents love and remember you. They still have your photo.”

GM: The burning grass catches fire. Blue flames lick at the swing. Smoke rises in great plumes. The black vapors obscure the moon-shadows, and when they eventually rise up into the air, the swing’s shadow remains empty.

Hazel: Hazel reflexively backs away from the sight, about to stammer out some apology for her offense–but it’s simply the ghost leaving. She breathes out an all-too palpable sigh of relief.

That relief grows all the more pronounced when she sees the familiar headlights of her dad’s patrol truck approaching. Hazel made a lot of plans for how she was going to face her nemesis. But she also kept one in reserve, just in case she needed to abort at the last minute. She’d called her dad during work and asked if he could drop off some items she’d left at his house–and now, with the power out, she has an all-too ready excuse to stay over again.

Yes, she thinks at the thought of putting off the confrontation for another day. This is… for the best. She still needs to hear from Leo’s contact, too.

GM: Harvey’s truck light and engine stay on as the undersheriff half-bolts from his truck. “Hazel?!” his voice rings out.

Hazel: “I’m over here, Daddy!” she calls, relieved, as she makes her way over to him.

GM: Harvey is clad in his uniform and has a hand on his holstered firearm as he runs to Hazel, then throws his protective arms around her.

Hazel: The hug initially takes Hazel aback, but she’s had a lot of them with her mom recently. And to say nothing of the present circumstances… if she’s stiff, it’s only a moment before she melts into her father’s embrace and buries her head against his chest. She could almost cry in relief. Dad is here. And she’s safe, for as long as she’s in his arms.

GM: “Oh, thank goodness you’re okay.”

Hazel: “I know the power’s out,” Hazel remarks as she pulls back her head to look up at her dad, “but is there something else that’s wrong?”

GM: “I called your number. The line’s disconnected. Your cell too, but that’s nothing new. And then I saw the black van out front,” he says, pointing to the road.

Hazel: “It’s the power, Daddy. There’s no electricity, no running water, ‘no nothing’, as the saying goes.” Hazel freezes. “Like… one of theirs?” She doesn’t need to say who.

GM: Harvey’s big chin nods. “But it’s gone. They pulled off, no lights as soon as I pulled in.” He sighs. “I was worried they might have taken you.”

Hazel: “Did you get the license plate?” she instinctively asks.

GM: Harvey laughs. His face then grows a bit more serious as he whispers, “Theirs don’t have any.”

Hazel: “It sticks out like a sore thumb, though. The best recourse is to use different plates on each outing. Doesn’t stand out, and worthless to investigators when the plates are replaced. If they don’t act fast.”

GM: “I don’t think that’s the point,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter, you’re okay, and I was just being jumpy.”

Hazel: “Ah. That’s right. It’s good that I’m safe,” Hazel confirms. “And I would much rather have a dad who’s jumpy at the prospect of me being in trouble than one who is lethargic over it.”

Also, I was. Your instincts weren’t wrong.

GM: “Oh, and the reason I first tried calling: Lance is awake! I was planning on going to interview him.”

Hazel: Hazel is quiet for a moment upon hearing that news. “Aunt Winnie was right.”

GM: “How so?”

Hazel: “Mom took me to see him earlier today. She laid out a… compelling, logical case for why I should.” Hazel pauses, not sure how she’s supposed to act in this context. She did tell her dad she didn’t want to visit earlier. “I’m sorry, that feels almost like going behind your back.”

GM: “Actually, pumpkin,” he says, shepherding her to the still-running truck, “how about we resume this chat in the patrol vehicle. I left the motor running. It would be embarrassing if Eddie Munson jumped in and took it for a joyride.”

Hazel: “Good idea, Daddy. Give me a moment though? There’s a couple things I’d like to bring.” She smiles. “Stay guard and make sure Eddie doesn’t jump in.”

GM: “Okay,” he says, smiling.

Hazel: Hazel first reaches into his truck and pulls out one of the heavy duty police flashlights. Those are much better than the dinky keychain light she’s been relying on. In fact, she should keep a real flashlight in her purse. She already has a basic forensic kit there.

She still takes a short breath before she flicks on the heavy light and re-enters the house.

GM: The miniature spotlight fires a bright beam across her rearranged furniture and knickknacks. Now, regarding the already lived in house, Hazel is struck just by how many hiding places there are.

Hazel: It’s okay. Dad’s here. If anything happens, I can scream, he can radio backup, and Marilyn acted like no one was here… she hems for a moment, then pushes the door open.

GM: The flies continue to drone and flit.

Hazel: But if she’s afraid to even enter the house where he’s been, how will she possibly be brave enough to face him?

She won’t be. She’s got to do this.

Not just to out-psyche him. She might be able to glean further insight into his activities from the other ‘presents’ he’s left—he’s killed someone if that hand is any indication. Who was his victim? And in any case, she needs to pack a change of clothes for her overnight stay at Dad’s.

GM: The front door creaks.

Hazel: Let’s get this over with. She pushes it open.

GM: The flashlight slams light into the living room. The beam momentarily blinds a large, mange-ridden rat. It hisses and slinks off beneath one of her couches. The light also illuminates a pair of toys left out on the bottom stair.

Hazel: Hazel tenses, as if ready for them to suddenly animate and attack her instead of rats for some debauched aristocratic court’s amusement.

GM: Both are small finely-carved dolls. One is dressed like a sheriff, the other a black-haired woman. Both dolls are streaked with Hazel’s red nail polish.

Hazel: She’s calmer now. She can recognize what a good way that is to unnerve someone. Go through their personal effects and show how no area of their life is safe.

But you’ve shown me you’re not omniscient either, VV. My mom bought me that nail polish, and I’ve barely ever worn it. I frequently eschew cosmetics. You don’t know what’s important to me. Who I am. Or how much I know about you.

GM: That’s when the dolls come ‘alive’. But they don’t attack Hazel. They attack one another. They savagely begin to bite and smash each other.

Hazel: Hazel whips out the camera from her purse and rapidly snaps pictures. She’d been tempted to scoop up the dolls and inspect them as ‘evidence’. But she needs to maintain the narrative of a frightened victim, and a victim wouldn’t think to do that. She’d just want to get the hell away. Pictures are the next-best thing.

GM: The sheriff doll eventually rips the arm off the dark-haired female, only to have the latter rip off the former’s head. The dolls then clatter to the ground, in tatters and splinters.

Hazel: It’s unnerving on an instinctive level. It shouldn’t be happening. But Hazel has… seen a lot of impossible and horrifying things today. A ghost. A severed hand. That’s just within the past hour. These are mind games, tricks to scare her with. She knows them for what they are.

She’s tired of being scared.

Besides. Seeing her real parents fight is far worse. She’ll take a savage brawl between these crude replicas any day of the week.

GM: The red nail polish starts to glisten and run down the dolls’ splintered bodies.

Hazel: “Are you done yet?” Hazel mutters, snapping a few last photos.

GM: The only replies are the subtle creaks of the house and the drone of flies. That, and the trembling echo of her own voice. Outside, her dad calls for her, perhaps alerted to her voice as well as the relative lack of movement from the flashlight. “Sport?”

Hazel: “I’ll be out soon, Daddy! Just got kind of caught up with… you know about my sensory processing…”

GM: “Okay,” he says, looking over his shoulder, back down Red Louse Lane.

Hazel: Hazel steps over the ruined figurines and makes her way upstairs. No doubt her nemesis has left another surprise in the bedroom. Maybe even his grandest one? Not sure. If she got really freaked by the hand, by his little creations, she’d never go upstairs, and it’d be wasted. Or maybe it’s something to really scare her if she makes it through those.

It’s no matter. If she can’t face it, she can’t face him–and she has to face him.

GM: With everything rearranged, it hardly even feels like her room anymore. There’s a pervasive feeling of violation. As her shaking hand sweeps the hallways and bedroom, the light falls upon a photograph left on her bed.

Hazel: Her flashlight’s beam shines over the photo.

GM: It is a birds-eye view of a hotel room, focused on a young woman drawing spirals on the sheets with her own menstrual blood. A hiking boot lays beside it. Flesh and bone rest within, gnawed on by a blanket of flies. A black cat leaps up onto her bed and joins the gristly feast. The flies scatter, their dark, droning wings fluttering around the air with palpable, crude hunger. The pox-ridden cat gives a low growl at Hazel’s presence.

Hazel: The sight, the photo, the knowledge her nemesis knew where she slept–it should make her scared. It should. But it makes her angry. Her nemesis wants to involve her parents, now does he? Showing up at her mom’s hotel? That makes her pissed. And that settles it. She really can’t keep running. And these stupid animals! No doubt they’ll be happy to report all they’ve seen to their master!

She could be more discrete. But she’s not going to tolerate this thing’s pets on her goddamn bed. Hazel whips out her stun gun–another perk to being the town lawman’s daughter–and squeezes off a round. “Fuck you, tom.” In fact, better if the mangy thing doesn’t report back.

The electrifying projectile, however, goes wide as the hissing cat darts under the bed. Hazel drops to the ground, shines her flashlight at the mangy feline, and fires off another shot.

GM: As the electric arc fills the dark recesses beneath the bed with burning cat hair, Hazel remembers why children fear the underside of their beds. That’s where the bogeyman lives. He’s there. He’s always been there. Watching. Waiting. And now she’s come to him.

To him.

As his dark, evil eyes bore into hers, Hazel realizes the picture of Valentin Vladescu was not of the man–but the mannequin. Over the centuries, his form has shifted, such that now, a mere breath away, her Prince Uncharming is dressed in fine evening attire: a back satin shawl tuxedo and crimson bowtie. His face resembles a wooden ventriloquist doll, scratched and scuffed, with old cracks in the pale, pale varnish. His wooden eyes are rimmed in black and wide, so very wide and hungry.

VVbig.jpg

His hinged jaw opens, revealing perfectly flat, white teeth–until they pivot on cunning springs, revealing rows of razor-sharp porcelain fangs. The thing whispers into her ear, dead breath pressing into her skin. Her soul.

“You. Killed. Them.”

And with those three terrible words, as the black cat convulses in pseudo-death throes, Hazel’s mind unhinges as the curtains of repression are torn down and she remembers. She remembers. “What did you do to them?” the Lamia had shrieked. Hazel had forgotten. But now. Now she remembers.

She remembers butchering them. Albert and Elouise Sweeney. It was fun. She was never really good with people. So she decided to take them apart. Piece by piece. Now she understands. Now she remembers. The gloved hand of Albert’s sitting on the table. The booted foot of Elouise upon her bed. She had hid them oh so very well. Or so cleverly that no one would find them. No one would ever know–including herself. But now she remembers.

She. Killed. Them.

The mannequin-shaped Nosferatu seizes Hazel by the neck with wooden hands that are too strong, too inhumanly strong as its unblinking eyes burn her with the knowledge of what she’s done. What she is. The mannequin’s porcelain-fanged jaw clacks up and down three times.

“You. Were. Right.”

She doesn’t need to ask. She knows. She is insane. She’s incapable of caring for herself. She’s a danger. She’s mad. Fear stops her heart. She slumps over, flatlining as terror floods her body. All of her previous panic attacks were but paper tigers. This is true fear. True, mind-ripping horror with claws and fangs.

The mannequin hands then gently release her and withdraw back into the darkness. From that den of blackness, Valentin Vladescu watches her, his fanged teeth clacking.

Hazel: In that moment, Hazel is no longer a woman of nearly twenty-four years. She’s not even the four–year–old who ate her mother’s eggs bare-handed. Her mind is a blank slate. A tabula rasa. There is but one thing she can do.

She runs.

She doesn’t process the motions of her legs or how the gross physical matter that is the house’s walls slams into her from every side. Her shins hurt, then her flanks hurt, then her chin hurts. Wait, why does her chin–? But then it’s her shoulders that hurt, and her arms, her back, her stomach, and her chin again, but that already hurt—and it’s happening again, around and around, again and again—and the stairs are on the ceiling and the ceiling is on the stairs. Everything is spinning like a mad kaleidoscope, and she’s mad too, why didn’t she take the steps one at a ti–?

Her glasses jerk off her nose as she crashes to a broken heap at the foot of the stairs. There’s a pain in her stomach. Stabbing pain. Is that something red? Is it the nail polish from her parents’ murderous dolls that’s smeared over her clothes, or is it–

She can’t see. Darkness envelops her.

GM: But the spiral never stops.

It descends.

Evermore.

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