I don’t really remember getting back to the lodge. I vaguely remember handing my mother the sword, to give the Crystal, and the stick, because it was part of the scavenger hunt. I do remember telling my brother Tim that I was going to sleep and that murder was a distinct possibility if anyone woke me without a heck of a good reason. I think Clifton said something about Crystal having also gone back to bed but I was heading for the door and the only part I cared about was that she was back safely.
I woke to the sound of a baseball hitting the cabin wall and Tim growling loudly at either Marty or Mike somewhere outside. I was wide awake now but it didn’t bother me so much – I’d at least made enough of a dent in my sleep deficit to be human again.
I got up and got my toiletries together then headed for the showers. We had a bathroom but it was just a half bath. I wasn’t actually complaining – it beat having to go out at night to find a bush. i waited until I was a lot less smelly and a lot more refreshed before joining human company.
At the lodge I learned Crystal was still asleep. That was no surprise – the one time I’d ever before seen her summon a blade she had slept for the rest of that day. It was a bummer, however. I had wanted to sit beside her at tonight’s campfire.
If you’re wondering, no, I wasn’t even remotely curious about the creature I’d killed. I know it sounds strange but that thing had really ticked me off. Creatures vary a lot – some kill because they can’t stop themselves; some will never kill even if they have to starve. This thing targeted kids. I had no sympathy for it at all. I didn’t care what it was – only that it was dead.
But a lot of that was my mood talking. I did need to get some answers about why we couldn’t sense it and how to destroy them well before they get a chance to hunt. but there would be time for that once I settled down and Crystal woke up.
For the moment, I settled for joining my camp mates in the lake. Even Momma had gotten in – we usually have to drag her into water. I noticed between cannonballs that Mike, Marty, Tina and Jane were playing together – evidently they’d worked out the bad feelings from the day before.
Mrs Abernathy was the only one missing – I assumed she was with Crystal. I was proven right when they both joined us.
I dunked Tim with one hand and Kevin with the other as they too gawked at my gorgeous girlfriend in her modest yet flirty little one piece swimsuit. They fought back for a moment but before they could dunk me, she had reached the pier. We went back to gawking. That girl is something else.
I tussled with my brothers as she got in, thanking God that she evidently had something wrong with her eyesight – I’m not ugly but Brad Pitt, I’m not.
The afternoon went as it should – swimming and playing, having a good time doing camp stuff. Crystal and I won against Tim and Donna in chicken fighting – I honestly wouldn’t have thought Crystal could beat Donna but she did. Mike and Tina took the junior division. Volleyball was a disaster – so we called it a tie and started over. That didn’t improve things so we left the younger kids to their rather inventive version of Marco Polo.
Dinner was burgers and hot dogs grilled over charcoal – Mr Abernathy did the honors but lectured Lisa for calling it ‘barbecue’. That came out later on the following evening – talk about Heaven on a bun!
Desert was eaten in the lodge – I was beginning to wonder just how many sugar cane fields those ladies used up just on deserts alone. Mrs Abernathy’s banana pudding and Momma’s homemade ice cream – I figured if we stayed here another week we’d all be diabetic. None of us would have cared, but still…
Dinner and clean up done, we boys got to work on the campfire. Big campfire – counting new friends, we had twenty six people around it. Ended up with ten more – the campsite is huge but many people had left during the afternoon. With the place practically deserted, people were wandering by to join us.
Which was nice – and they were bringing marshmallows and chocolate and other necessary camp fire goodies. Bert and Hank joined us – they were now off duty but staying onsite. Jose and a couple rangers I hadn’t met before joined us a bit later when they had finished their work.
Good food, good folks and a beautiful girl by my side – I had no complaints at all. Momma announced the various winners of the scavenger hunt – it had enough categories that pretty much every team one something. Our team got the much coveted ‘Funniest Stick’ trophy – which was the stick itself. We also won ‘Most Identified Leaves’ entirely thanks to Clifton. I didn’t even know there were thirty seven different types of trees in that forest.
And we enjoyed the evening. Time crawled by. Folks wandered away to sleep. The guys tended to the fire until there were so few of us left that we decided to just let it die a natural death.
Us now consisted of the rangers, including Jesse and Calvin who were the one’s I’d just met; my brothers Tim and Kevin; Crystal and her cousin Clifton, Momma, which surprised me because she’s rarely up this late, and a guy named Pete who was sitting by Momma.
Momma spoke softly, yet we all heard every word, “If you’re waiting for those who don’t want to understand to leave, you needn’t.”
She had to explain to me later that it had nothing to do with power – like I said, her’s is long gone. It has to do with what people are willing to accept. A person can look straight in the eye of a fully converted werewolf and still not register that it’s not natural. Not everyone, of course, but it’s that ability to disbelieve no matter what that lets slayers and creatures wander through the world with the majority of people never realizing.
I’d done the same thing most of my life so I understood well enough when she explained. At that moment, it struck me as weird – what she said shouldn’t have made much sense to these folks but I could see in their faces, they all understood.
It was quiet for a moment, then Clifton spoke, “Is, whatever it was, really dead?”
Pete answered. “Yep, I checked it out pretty good. No sign of it at all. Boy there did a good job slayin’ it.”
Pete talked like a prospector from the Old West. He was tall and lanky but dressed in just a tee and shorts. Must have been older than Poppa but I couldn’t get a good register on how old he was.
Pete continued, “You boys see ’em often, you say?”
All the rangers exchanged glances, including Clifton. Calvin, the park supervisor, spoke, “We never talk about them… but yeah, most of us have seen them at some point.”
“Most, you say?” Pete screwed up his face in a mix of confusion and distaste, “That’s not good, not good at all. When do you see ’em?”
“Varies. sometimes just hiking, often while working. I don’t know about the other guys, but I see one dang near every time I’m on a search.”
Several of the rangers nodded in agreement at that last comment.
“Isat so?” Pete looked thoughtfully into the fire.
“Yeah, they – we just ignore them but it’s creepy. What are they, anyway? Do you know?” Calvin replied.
“Gretel’s Witch.” Crystal said, more to Pete than to calvin.
Pete nodded, “Yep, that’s it alright. But so many…”
Crystal looked at me, “You emerged more recently – have you ever heard of strange staircases in the woods?”
I shook my head, “No, hadn’t read about them since emerging, either.”
“I have.” Kevin offered. “Scary stories on the Internet supposed to be from search and rescue and park rangers and stuff. I thought it was just to – you know, for fun.”
Pete pulled his phone out of his pocket and began searching.
Bert turned to Kevin, “Any from people who weren’t?”
Kevin thought for a moment, “Yeah, a very few – only one I remember is supposed to be from thirty years ago and it scared the heck out of some kids.”
“I don’t recall staircases like you boys described – the ones I saw went into the ground. Swallowers, we called them. You can guess why.” Momma offered. “Death Wells are the correct name – Dawn, if I remember rightly. But you said these go up.”
“It’s a Gretel’s Witch, Mrs Scarlotti – it’s just happenstance they see stairs.” Crystal said.
“Happenstance?” I asked.
“Yes – mostly rangers see them because a ranger was the first to notice the queen. They appeared historically as little houses, usually very unusual ones.”
“Like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel?” Tim asked.
“Exactly – that’s where the name comes from. They can only appear as small things – tiny cottages and the like. But the purpose is to get people to notice them. Most people won’t notice creatures, even close up, without direct contact – it’s a human defense mechanism. Gretel’s Witches appear as something a human can’t ignore. They were supposed to be nearly extinct but a queen must have gotten loose…”
Pete looked up from his phone, “That’s right, Miss.” he turned to the rest of us, “Whatever the queen is first seen as, the brood will pick up on. They read images from the person’s mind and become that thing – so if the queen first became a staircase, the brood will look for images of stairs that don’t seem natural to the first person – and appear as that.”
“Is that – sometimes people have climbed on them. Some get hurt; some don’t. But if it happens when we’re on a search…” Clifton said carefully.
“You lose the trail.” Crystal told him.
“It depends on if it’s hunting you or already has a victim. They prey on children because children can easily see them where adults will only see them if they work at it. They need to be seen – that gives them the power to hunt. But once you touch them, that hunt is complete – they gain the power to pull their victim into their world. It can also happen if you pay them too much attention – attention, especially adult attention, is like rocket fuel for them.”
“So Hansel and Gretel… is a true story?” Tim asked incredulously.
Pete nodded, “Yep, mostly. They’re the only known survivors to get free from the creatures’ dimension.”
“So that’s why Mike kept seeing something?” I asked.
Crystal nodded, “He’s just young enough to see it more clearly but old enough to begin to disbelieve what he’s seeing. You got a glimpse because you’re a slayer, I imagine.”
“True slayer – normal night slayer wouldn’ta seen a thing – not a movin’ thing, anyhow.” Pete corrected. “Them tracks wuz probably ’cause you both saw it. Made it more substantial than it meant ta be, is my guess. Them stairs – or whatever it appears as – appear only at the conjunction between the worlds. What part of ’em that hunts only has the form the viewer gives it. More’n one can make ’em messed up.”
“Another reason they hunt kids – kids give them nicer forms since kids are more trusting.” Crystal added.
“So they are day and I presume can conceal?” I asked Pete.
“Naw, they’re twilight – nasty things. A bit easier for us Day’s to see than you Night’s but not by a lot. Yeah, they can conceal – hunting buddy of mine, his daddy was a Twilight. Saw him slay a Flicker when I was a lad – they’re similar in that they are based in other dimensions. Know a bit about Gretel’s Witches from him, the ornery old cuss.”
Jose shook his head, “Wait – it would have been able to reach those stairs long before either search began…”
Pete shook his head, “Don’t matter – that’s their weakness. To hunt at all, they need to be seen by an adult. The first viewer probably only barely makes it out – it takes time for them to get a good enough foothold in this world to make themselves clearly seen. but the sting in the tail for them is that the kid has to see the stair case or whatever exactly as the adults see it. If the kid can’t see it, the kid can’t be pulled across into the other dimension.”
“So David couldn’t see it?” I asked.
“The first young ‘un?” Pete asked. I nodded. “Yep, that’s right. The critter’ll walk the kid past a hundred times but if the kid doesn’t see the conjunction properly, the kid’s no use. Some, like that little feller, are just abandoned. Others… well, them critters don’t deal well with frustration.”
Bert got up and ran for the tree line. The noise left no room for doubt as to what he was doing there. Clifton was turning several shades paler and greener as well.
Pete nodded sympathetically, “Yep, I figured you fellas would have seen some of those kids, too.”
Jesse s[poke for the first time, his voice like steel and eyes on fire from his fury, “So what do we do? How do we kill these &%*^$^&?”
“You ignore them – you make sure everyone ignores them.” Crystal told him, “Then you pray. The Gretel’s Witch only has the one weakness – you can’t slay them and you’d probably get killed messing with a conjunction. So pray.”
Crystal was emphatic – she meant prayer as an action, not a retreat.
“What good will that do?” Jesse demanded.
“Twilight has the fewest slayers and they are the most – unreliable.” Momma explained calmly. “But God is not troubled by such small details – you ask Him, He’ll send you a slayer. Doesn’t matter if you ask specifically for a slayer or an angel – He’ll send what you need, when you don’t realize you need it.”
Bert rejoined us, not looking any better. “Is that why you folks are here, you think? ‘Cause after we found that … after what i saw, I’d been praying really hard.” He looked at the ground, trying to keep from crying, “I was about to give up. I thought maybe He didn’t care.”
“He cares – that’s why slayers exist at all.” Momma assured him.
“You aren’t the only one, you know.” Clifton told Bert. “I mean, I knew enough to ask my cousin about it a couple years ago…”
“But I didn’t know enough then – and hadn’t seen one…” Crystal finished the sentence. “I didn’t even consider a Gretel’s Witch until I saw the conjunction – I hadn’t even connected the two things until then.”
Clifton nodded, “Since she didn’t know, praying was all I had – you can’t fight what you don’t understand, right?”
“What about when we see them on searches?” Calvin asked.
“Stay with it – but don’t look at it or think about it. Don’t touch it – just stay there while the others search. You won’t see the thing but you will find the kid – it won’t kill unless it cannot get the kid to see the conjunction – otherwise it’ll wait for you to leave. If you don’t leave…”
“Eventually, we find the kid.” Jesse affirmed. “Got it – so crazy distances – we see one, go ahead and search farther afield?”
“Look for track – get dogs if you can – but yep, if you don’t find the kid close, keep expanding. It is gonna try its dangest to wait you out.” Pete answered. “If the conjunction disappears, stay there – wait for the kid to be found. It’s probably trying to get you to leave.”
“There’s only one thing else you should know – if the child dies while trying to reach the conjunction, the conjunction will disappear permanently. That won’t usually happen – it traps the creature on this side where it will die eventually. But if you find – well, a body, that was why.” Crystal explained.
“Not to be a jerk, but what good does prayer do, then?” Jesse asked.
“Two things.” Momma answered, “first, it gets more slayers mobilized – we don’t know how that part works but then, we rarely know why it is we are in the right place at the right time. Second, it will allow you to save lives while slayers do their work.”
Momma shifted to lean back in her folding chair, “You can gather for yourself how complicated Twilight creatures can be. That’s why they are among the rarest creatures and so few Twilight slayers are ever born. Every so often a window opens – humans stop merely disbelieving and become contemptuous – that sets off a rather complicated series of events that ends with certain humans becoming more vulnerable. A powerful creature – like a queen Gretel’s Witch – can push through that vulnerability and start a new cycle of infestation.”
She sipped her drink before continuing, “That’s what’s been happening. An infestation began that had few slayers to attend to it and the only ones to know about it were a population of humans that didn’t know what they were up against. Crystal is quite right, a human stands no chance of slaying one of those things – they are much too powerful.”
“But, you needn’t worry about that. Today, you gentlemen saved two lives. But God gave you far more than that – He provided slayers in the right place at the right time and with the right skills to not only help you save those two but identify the threat. More importantly, now the threat is known and it will take precious little time to spread the word to those who can slay those creatures.”
“We’ll handle that – you just need do two things besides your prayers. Obviously, your own jobs – that’s so very important, do not forget. But also, you need to stop the spread. Tell your friends that it’s a prank or that only idiots see them – whatever they will believe strongly enough to let them defend themselves naturally. Given a good enough reason to believe they are seeing nonexistent things, they will quickly stop seeing them altogether.”
“The spiritual world that lies so close to our own is not for humans – not yet. Prying around in it makes people more likely to lose sight of what is really important in this life – and the life to come. It’s best that people can convince themselves not to see what should not be there and to leave the few creatures that would do harm to those born with the ability to deal with them.”
“How’s that work?” Clifton asked, studiously not looking at his cousin. “I mean, the slayers have to know about this kind of stuff, right? Why doesn’t it endanger them?”
“Slayers are born with gifts just like regular folks.” Pete spoke, “One gift all slayers get is the ability to detach from the spirit world – ta us, it’s just a job, no different than leavin’ your work at the office. That’s why you won’t find slayers playin’ with ouija boards or watchin’ scary stuff on that internet. It’s not interestin’ ta us any more than readin’ a ranger manual would be to you.”
Momma sighed, “Perhaps we should make sure someone does – I had to read the National Enquirer for five years just for the occasional leads it would provide.”
I grinned, remembering the stacks of tabloids that Momma had kept when I was very small. I hadn’t thought about them in years.
“I’ll email Mr. Ethan about it.” Crystal offered.
The rangers had a few more questions but from there the conversation turned to other things. Slowly, everyone else departed until only Crystal and I were left by the smoldering embers.
What happened next is just between her and I – and her over protective father and my nosy sisters. You’d think in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the morning, a guy could get some private time with his girlfriend. Well, family spies or no, I will say that the rest of that night had nothing at all to do with supernatural creatures.
Told you slayers were the worst ghost story tellers of all, didn’t I?