I’m a slayer – it’s part of the job description that I don’t get creeped out. But looking at something so incredibly out of place was giving even my spine something to think about.
We were in fairly thick woods. It was bright and sunny but that only dappled through the leaves. I wouldn’t call it dark but the canopy above us was thick enough that light only filtered through. Still, there was an awful lot of it so there was no difficulty at all with visibility. Not that that would matter – slayers also see incredibly well in the dark – but it made this thing all the more incongruous.
It wasn’t old. It did not belong to the landscape. It did not belong here, nor would even the most determined of pranksters have built it here. The only scary thing about it was how totally and completely it did not belong where it was.
Yet, there it was. No amount of blinking or vaguely hoping I was day dreaming made it any the less real. It was there, where it had no business being and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and take notice.
I turned to Crystal but she already had a finger to her lips. I hadn’t begun to decide how to interpret that when I heard footsteps approaching from the direction we’d come.
I must have tensed up because Crystal quickly leaned in and whispered in my ear, “They’re human. Don’t look at it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t acknowledge it at all. I’ll…”
She stopped talking as they rounded the curve in the path. I presumed ‘I’ll tell you later’ was the rest of her now unspoken message as I sized up the two rangers approaching us.
These guys reminded more of Clifton than the other ranger I’d met this morning, Bert. They didn’t look at all unsure of themselves – instead they looked like guys who have been on a job long enough that they know what they are doing. Bert had only a year under his belt, so it’s no insult to him. I just had the impression these guys were a lot more professional.
I hadn’t seen them this morning so I also assumed they were some of the guys that had been called in. We greeted the newcomers and i suddenly felt really silly. The younger of the two, Hank, looked over my shoulder. I knew what he was looking at. So, evidently, did Jose, his partner, who glanced that direction then pretended not to see the thing.
Crystal is two years younger than I am but has been a slayer a lot longer than I have. I wasn’t surprised that she took the lead – I just had no idea where she was going with it – or how the heck she guessed a few things.
“You’re looking for someone?” Crystal phrased it as a question but it sounded more like a statement.
Hank nodded, “Another little boy. Went missing about two hours ago, just after we arrived.”
Crystal nodded, “We haven’t seen him. How old is he?”
“Eight.” Jose offered.
Here it got really weird. These guys were both obviously older than either of us – by at least five, six years. They were the authority figures here, yet subtly, Crystal began questioning them as if the situation were reversed. I love the girl but she can be weird sometimes – that wasn’t what struck me as so very odd. The weird part was that two experienced rangers were answering to her as if she were their superior.
Something clicked in my memory – something I’d read in one of the too many books that both Crystal and my mother had loaned me. It isn’t a command power like mine, but under the right circumstances, humans will comply with a slayer, usually rather than acknowledge a creature, if memory served. I realized I was seeing that in action.
That made matters worse to my mind – I had no sense whatsoever of a creature within a hundred miles of us.That thing in the woods that we were all ignoring was weird as heck but it was inanimate – and I really didn’t sense it as I would a creature. Its presence was weird enough to set off a few nerves, that was all. It couldn’t be a creature… Yet, if I was remembering right, a creature would have to be in view or have been in their view.
Crystal got a complete description of the boy and a run down of the search efforts. I just listened – when in doubt, don’t muck up the people that actually know what they’re doing. That’s what Poppa taught me and it seemed prudent now. Besides, I had nothing to go on at this point.
Crystal smiled reassuringly at the men. To my mind, it was a cat patting her befuddled kittens on the heads before heading out to get that danged mouse. That was my impression before she finished speaking.
“… just wait here with Jack and I’ll be back in a jiffy!” she purred. “Jack will keep you company, won’t you?”
I nodded dutifully at my girlfriend with no clue what she was up to. Evidently, I was staying here. She kissed my cheek and whispered a repeat of her warning not to acknowledge the thing. I kissed her cheek and whispered ‘what thing?’ to let her know i understood.
Under any other circumstances, it would have been the most awkward conversation of my life but frankly, as Crystal disappeared down the trail, I swear the forest seemed darker – a brooding eeriness settled over the glen and all three of us felt it.
My guess was that these guys were probably violating a dozen regulations but they chatted with me like we were back in the lodge with nothing going on but deciding what games to watch tomorrow. They seemed to know they weren’t acting normally but also seemed good with it. What they clearly weren’t good with was that thing we were all studiously ignoring.
It was still there. I didn’t actually glance at it but I did glance down the path and could still see it in the corner of my eye. And I kept right on ignoring it. I talked with Jose and Hank about football, not the missing kid. I stopped letting myself think about creatures, slaying, weird effects on humans or eerie things in brightly lit glens – tomorrow afternoon’s game schedule was all we pretended to care about.
Jose was from Dallas and Hank from Seattle which gave us plenty to debate since none of us backed the same team. Someone brought up the Steelers which made it seem all the weirder as things got worse – the air was getting heavy, thick with an almost palpable gloom. The sun was as bright as ever but the shadows seemed to be looming larger and more insistent. Something wanted us to leave.
The winds cut through the trees like a knife as Hank and I debated who’s team would beat Green Bay in the coming weeks. The mood was changing – even I could feel it and it was definitely having an effect on the guys. The beams of sunlight waving through the leaves seemed out of place – like a clown at a funeral. It was bright and airy but the mood in that glen was dark and somber.
Which we men continued to ignore. Jose had gotten quiet for a moment but he just deliberately turned his back toward a tree to lean on it – so that he could no longer see the thing in the glen. It was disorienting, like stepping into a house of mirrors after being through the barrel – nothing felt right.
We were talking about football, ignoring something that had no earthly business being where it was. The sun was shining beautifully in a lovely glen that could best be described as unsettlingly eerie. Like a puzzle that has pieces from three other puzzles mixed in – nothing really fit.
I heard something coming back up the trail. In that instant, I felt my face flush in anger. There was no mistaking it now – something was definitely here and it was definitely unhappy in the worst way. For the very first time, I had an inkling of a creature’s presence. it wasn’t a night creature and it hadn’t dropped concealment but it was definitely there.
The conversation stopped. The air was too heavy to ignore now. Crystal appeared on the trail with a large bundle in her arms. We silently watched her approach, feeling the seething anger of the thing grow with her every step.
Crystal seemed immune. She simply smiled triumphantly at the rangers and handed her bundle to Jose.
“Okay, Jimmy, Mr. Jose here is going to take you back to your parents now. I’ll be along in just a moment and go with you. Don’t fret – it’s perfectly okay now.” She didn’t miss a beat as she looked up at Jose and Hank, “Take him back now.” she commanded, “I’ll catch up in a minute.”
Without a word, the two men took the boy, turned and left. I didn’t feel slighted – I wanted them gone. Crystal turned to me and shook her head, “Not yet.” she told me.
She pulled a sword out of tree behind me. It’s a special talent of sword singers like Crystal – one that takes a lot of her strength so she rarely does it. She handed me the sword she’d summoned – one of hers she named Samantha. Big thing – way too big to tote around, but perfect for what I wanted to do right now.
She pressed her sword into my hands and her lips to my ear, “Not yet. You’ll know when. Wait – it’s critical that you wait.”
I nodded in acknowledgement. I did not want to wait – but I would.
She nodded and went after the rangers. Her eyes were heavy with exhaustion – she’d really had to work to get this sword here.
I just stood there, watching the now empty trail. I could feel the thing’s anger and frustration. I felt its growing fear – fear of me. I could almost hear it wondering why I hadn’t left yet. I could feel it – a raw mass of fear, anger and frustration – and hunger.
Crystal had stolen its meal. It was beside itself – I could understand bits and pieces of the emotional turmoil that filled the air around it. It had finally found a suitable meal – but it was going away. The thing tried hard to bring it back – I can’t tell how it thought it was doing that or what it was actually doing. I just knew that was what it was trying to do.
And that Crystal was making sure it would never succeed. Ages seemed to pass as its emotions swirled around me and I watched the trail, forcing myself to ignore the darkness and the fury.
Then, there was something – I can’t describe it really. It was like nature reset itself. The child was safe – out of the woods literally. The forest that had been holding its breath in the wake of this thing could breathe again.
I didn’t think – couldn’t at that speed. The sword was out of its sheath before I finished turning around. In a blur, I was on top of that thing, slashing it into oblivion. Faster than any human has a right to move, I’d destroyed it. After another minute of my hacking the bits into smaller bits, it dissolved into nothingness.
Only an errant sword strike or two into the soft earth gave any indication that a second earlier, a short, seven step flight of carpeted stairs, straight out of someone’s newly built home, had been there.
I stood there for a moment to recover, then walked back to the tree. I put Crystal’s sword back in its sheath, tossed the strap over my shoulder, picked up our funny stick and walked away. I had just slain a stair case and my only regret was that I couldn’t have done so sooner.