Location

May. 18th, 2017 04:58 pm
fodschwazzle: (Default)

 

They arrive when the ice melts enough. There is a cave in the mountains that changes with the thaw, when the lakes are at peak capacity.


“We don’t go up the pass except to tend to our herds during the witching week,” Da says. It can’t be helped--it was always a warm season that brought the danger hidden in the cave, but hard to tell when to stop bringing them up that far until we can see it for ourselves.


I am eight the first time I’m asked to follow and help my da tend the flock, the first time we flee the mountain, running back into the village. My da leans across the threshold of the dark cave and tucks his head back, sputtering with fright.


“They’re here!”


We run through bushes and down the steeper slopes as if death itself stands for less than what would soon to crawl through that cave. When we reached the square, my da tugged on a bell that resounded throughout the village. My brother rushes out of our home and grabs my shoulder to drag me back inside while my father begins to butcher a sheep to smear its blood on the ground outside each house.


They would tell me later that I had survived similar nights, but I never remembered it. Probably my mother was starting to become sick, and my brother and father felt harried in watching over us all.


The dark expands as the sun passes behind the peaks surrounding us. The houses in our village are silent except for the bleating of goats. When we look out through the wooden slats of our doors and can barely see the road, we snuff out our candles as well and silence our whispering.


Outside, someone is shuffling down the road through our village. Several things speaking in human-like voices that I can’t understand and are walking past our door and dragging fingers through the blood on our doorsteps. Some sound like women, but it’s hard to discern.


As quickly as they’ve come, they’ve gone. They leave no trace of their presence in town except that all of our goats seem to have returned to our farm.


Regardless, Da has a grim facial expression. We sell the goats as soon as we can to the city and buy more, as my da believes that they have been cursed.


*****


When I am ten, I am taking care of the goats alone so that my family can work closer to town. I know how to run home now, but I forget to leave the goats where they are and just take care of myself when I see what my father saw at the back of the cave.


It’s a natural light where there was none in the previous months. Curiosity grabs at me, but panic grabs harder. I begin to run but get no further than five seconds away before I remember to grab the goats.


“Stop! Wait!” I yell pointlessly after a goat as it strolls into the cave. I wait for a moment, but the goat doesn’t return.


I charge in after him, hoping to catch him before he crosses too far into the cave, but he’s long gone. I’m surprised to note how similar this place is to mine when I cross into the light--it’s a snow covered mountain breaking into patches of grass that slope down towards a village.


“That must be where they come from,” I mutter aloud.


“Yes, we live there!” a boy behind me and a little older shouts.


I scream until I see that he’s holding my goat.


“My name’s Tam!” he says cheerfully, adding, “don’t worry, I’ve got your goat. You’re not the first person who stumbled this way.”


It’s cold and the way back is apparently sealed now behind me, so I follow him into town and meet her: the magic girl.


*****


When I’m in my own world, I can barely remember her. Something clots my understanding and memory, but I rationalize that it’s my age, the way we always forget the background from which we grow. I’m twelve, and I’m staring up into the mountains while I’m supposed to be tilling the fields, feeling that something is waiting up there for me, and though I can remember walking into that cave to get the goat that wandered off, all I can remember is the dark and a warmth unlike anything else on that mountain.


I’m thirteen and lying in bed, tossing a stone at the ceiling just to see if it fails to come back down. The snow on the mountain is too dense to look into the cave even though I’m getting strong enough that I could cross through it with the right clothes. I walk up the mountain, as close as I can get to it, and it’s still frozen shut.


When I’m fourteen, a fire bursts out of our house and claims my parents, my da while he is trying to spare my mother. I don’t know where to lay the flowers I pick so I just stand outside the charred half of my home and the spot where Da gasped his last breath and gaze at the mountain. The melt is strong that year, so I go up to the cave and dig a hole to get in, only to find that the cave terminates where my memory assured me it continued.


I start to wonder whether I made up the story about locking all of our doors and waiting out the witching week until my brother discusses how, as the new head of our farm, he’ll be responsible to ring the bell should anything go wrong. He’s changed in the absence of our parents, and I can feel him becoming colder and more businesslike with each day.


Still, he allows me to tend to the goats, which I do with relish because that lets me keep an eye on the mountain. Even as years pass, I can’t quite lose the sensation that there is something more.


And then, one evening during a hotter than normal summer, a light shines through the back of the cave.


Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow. Her name is Willow!


Before I can even cross to the other side of the mountain, I remember it as if it’s my own. Willow and Will grown at the same time but hardly the same.


She’s waiting for me in the cave and something new is sown inside me just to look at her. I can’t discern what it is.


“Will!” she says, “Do you remember me?”


And I do. All at once I can recall that she taught me magic. I pick a stone off of the floor and toss it into the air, intoning words I had forgotten.


The stone hangs in the air.


“Of course,” I say. “You’re the one that taught me magic.”


*****


I stay for seven days, but it feels like no time at all. I learn everything about her home, her familiar, her smile. I even relearn the generosity of these people on the other side. As scared of them as I was when they first came down from the mountain when I was 8, they were only there to bring back the goats that we'd left stranded on the mountain.


She even teaches me more magic. I watch everything she does with more study than I’ve ever given a thing in my life.

 

I know know that I'll have to return home to help my brother, make amends for being gone so long, craft excuses that don't make these people look like monsters anymore, but the fear is undeniable--I know that when I cross back over, I'll begin forgetting it all.

 

So I touch her face and kiss her mouth and feel a spark not unlike static shock ripple through my veins.

"That's the magic -- telling us we're meant to -- it's meant to be. No matter what, remember that," she says.

And I don't forget anything about her anymore.


“I’ll return to you, Wil. I promise,” I say as I step back through again.
 

*****

I do forget my own village, or at least their paranoia. The first time I try to broach the topic of the seven days I spent away from the farm, I am ignored.


My brother drags me into the house and curses at me for speaking nonsense about my experience. I try to reason with him, but he begins to become physical, grabbing my arm too tightly. He’s strong, and I can’t make him see that the village on the other side of the mountain is worth getting to know by fighting with him.


For three years I needle at my brother’s sense that I’ve been cursed by my stay with Wil on the other side of the mountain. All I find is proof that he and the other people I was raised alongside want me to have nothing to do with the cave. They watch me climb and a few follow me up the mountain when the melt is strong the next year. The way is not open, so I stand and just apologize for not being able to make it back.


Two men are shouting at me on the way down. I can’t convince them that this is safe. In Willow, a home was planted. It’s starting to blossom, a flower unlike any I’ve known in my life. This is love.


A year later and the entrance to the cave has been boarded up. I smash the barricade to pieces with nearby stones until I can get in, but the way is shut again. Again I apologize to her, hoping that she can hear how desperately I want to see her.

*****
 

Twenty is the right year. An uncommonly warm breeze rustles through the valley.

They’re waiting for me at the mouth of the cave.


“What do you think you’re trying to do?”


“Are you seriously trying to get in touch with those creatures?” my brother asks.


I try to push through, but they’re strong. I don’t fight back and take my hits before they lock me into a room in my own house.


All I can think of is her face and the magic she taught me to control, and then I see it all. I see her waiting for me in the open cave, standing with her arms crossed, waiting out the whole week. I struggle against the door. I plead.


When my brother finally lets me out, I knock him down on the way to the cave, but it’s too late. The back wall is solid rock once more.


The village is waiting for me when I return.

“We have no choice but to banish you if all you’re going to do is bring ruin to us.”


“Banish me if you like, but you’re not keeping me from going through that cave the next time it thaws. If you want me to cross over to the other side and never come back, that’s fine. I’ve never tried to harm you and only want to see the woman that I love,” I reply.


“I cannot believe that you’ve fallen for something over there, Will,” my brother taunts.


“You’ve not loved anyone since our parents died, so I’m hardly surprised,” I reply.

 

He tries to fight me, but this time they hold him back. “What if he’s cursed?” a man asks.
 

“My only curse is that I was born here. Leave me be, and I will go with no problem.”

They don’t let me stay in town, and I have to forage for food and work for neighboring villages that are less given to superstitions, but none of them stop me when I visit the cave in the following two years.

 

*****

I can feel her start to lose hope. When her father passes, I feel it reverberate in my own body. I’m twenty-two and lying awake at night, throwing and then watching stones float over my head as a reminder of my promise.

That summer, when I return again, I pass through the cave with no intent to ever return.
 

I see her face rearranging with the realization that I’ve come back. I see her mother knowingly smirking when I kiss Wil in front of her.
 

I see Wil nod when I get up the guts to finally propose to her, even though I know we’re bound together between worlds.

I see my ring wrap around her finger, and the home she planted inside of me is in full bloom now and fruit bearing. I’ve found my place, at last, by her side.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Fuzzy details, but I remember reading a book, barely noticing the sound of music from the upstairs apartment. I couldn’t tell you what the song was. I smelled smoke before I could make out the muffled pitches. Also, I was eight. I didn’t really know much about anything then.


The ceiling was turning black over the living room couch. The mark making the smell spread quickly, a single dot expanding into a large scorch. The bluest flame I have ever seen consumed the center of the scorch and flashed through the rest of the area as a crack of light opened, revealing the room above. Our upstairs neighbor was screaming, but I couldn’t see him burning.


Then, I was moving. My mother grabbed me under my arms and dragged me down four flights of stairs out to the street beyond our apartment. We stood there for a couple of hours while firefighters and police officers walked up and down the stairs, blocking off the area.


“Controlled burn,” I heard one firefighter say. “We don’t know what stopped the fire.”


“Spontaneous combustion?” a police officer asked as the medical examiner’s office took the body away. No one agreed and no one denied.


We had to live in another apartment for a few weeks while the owner made repairs. By the time we returned, my mother had figured out who the immolated neighbor was. He was in his eighties, a bitter man by all accounts. My mother hated running into him at the mailboxes, because his box was right above hers and he always took forever, fumbling into the dark for something that was never there. We heard screaming sounds in his apartment on many nights, and we guessed he was yelling at his upstairs neighbors, since my mother and I were always quiet.


Whatever those sounds were, it was never music.


“I think he was killed,” my mother told me over dinner once, years later, staring at the spot where the ceiling had been replaced. Her fingers were tapping on the edge of the table without any pattern.


“How?” I asked.


“Not sure, but someone played the music to cover for it.”


It didn’t explain the way the burn left a nicely spherical area of damage, or the fact that the man’s body burned first, or the locked door to his apartment that forced firefighters to go through our room just to get to the scene.


The mystery was delicious. We set off to the library immediately to look for other similar incidents.


In Baton Rouge, in 1983, an unidentified woman was found inside the house of another old man. She was covered in blood and had eaten most of his face and arms. When the police tried to detain her, she attacked them too. The first responders were insufficient and fell back for support, suffering minor injuries. When they finally entered the house, she was nowhere to be found. Response time was slow because loud music was coming from the house and experts suspected it shut out the screams of the victim.


In 1978, a penthouse in a high rise apartment started to leak oil. It dribbled down the elevator shaft and began pooling in the lobby. When crews went to residence to find out what had happened, they heard a disco song playing on a record player in the kitchen, of all places. Someone was stretched across the tiles of the kitchen, facedown in a tremendous lake of what seemed to be bacon grease. The record player was fully automatic, and the record was set to repeat. Beyond that, no mention of how the man had managed to drown himself, since no apparent source could be discerned and there were no tracks to or from the body. Before authorities could examine the record player, someone removed it from the scene.


In 1973, in Juneau, Alaska, authorities were perturbed when an entire townhome complex was discovered to be full of crocodiles. Few of the residents were injured, but one older gentleman was consumed entirely. Residents appeared to be unaffected by the loss of their neighbor, unanimously agreeing that he was not unlike a crocodile himself in temperament. The residents blamed their inability to hear the crocodiles being let into their apartment on the old man’s unusually loud music. None of the residents could discern what the song being played was well enough to name it, but someone suggested Elton John as the artist.


Other events continued to happen without any regular schedule. My mom eventually got tired of looking at grisly crime stories and the trips to the library for sleuthing came to a halt. Maybe she felt guilty about introducing her son to so much violence. The deaths were uninteresting to me. Every night in bed, however, I stared at the ceiling wondering what song was playing the night our ceiling caught fire.


*****


I never grew bored of it. I decided that the common theme between all the incidents was not just music, but records themselves. In the nineties and on, the number of incidents came to a standstill. No incidents had ever been reported where music produced by a human voice, by a cassette tape, or by a CD.


I decided that my dream was to open a music store. Maybe, I thought, working with records could reveal what it was that was causing these deaths.


When you ask me why I followed you, I can’t say for certain why. You had a look. Black coat and a funny hat and an arm full of my newest vinyl records. It's not that I suspected, you know, that you would kill someone by putting a record player with Maroon 5's V album on loop inside their living room until their house filled up with sugar. But when you started to phase through doors, I did get a little suspicious. When Taylor Swift's 1998 caused the old man you gave it to to start bleeding out of his ears and mouth, I was certain I had found the culprit.

I really didn't suspect that you would catch me watching you when you played Hozier's Hozier album and we both literally went to church. That was a surprise!

You're not responsible for the murders back then? Who was?

Is your organization going to kill me too?

You only perform assasinations with music and your own record player? What will happen to me, then?

Thank you for sparing me. If you're going to keep me as your supplier, we're going to have to talk about your over reliance on best-seller lists. Stick with me, and I'll show you some really killer tunes.

Psychopomp

Apr. 15th, 2016 06:00 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The man in the bed needs to hang on a little longer. I’m doing everything in my power to stall his demise, but things look grim. He forgot to wear a seatbelt and forgot to look at the road while driving down I-79. Smashed into a concrete barrier so hard that I’m sure he saw and recognized me while he swooped through his own windshield and over the turnpike. He luckily landed on the side of a dirt mound for a good roll. 3.2 for dismount, 9.3 for landing.


I can feel him now, hearing the sounds of the ER, feeling the pulse of his life. He’s conscious, but the game of his life is certainly in overtime. I get to hold the score sheet. I’m dismayed that he’s earning so few points right now, though.


At least I’m not one of those poor schmucks loitering around pediatric care. First, sitting around in that part of the hospital is always so disturbing--doctors take forever to attend to their patients and the walls are painted with a grotesque jungle scene with a blue sky behind it, smiling animals grinning through the slots in the canopy and under trees. I retch a little bit every time I walk through. Second, children are awful. They die and then they become a problem. What do you even do with an immaculate soul? The weigh-in at the gate comes back with a big 0, and those guys just have to let them through. No one keeps track.


Then, when one of us has to report the loss of a child on our event catalog, no one believes it because there’s no easy record of the child passing. Goddamn bureaucracy up there.


My man has a nicely ruffled soul, but he’s still in his 40s. His fear and inadequacy add up quite well. He has at least seven women he wishes he had dated. His favorite color is purple but he always says it is green because he doesn’t want anyone to accuse him of being gay. He won’t let his wife know that he doesn’t like her enchiladas because he wants to avoid a fracas, even though green chili ravages his stomach lining. It’s a heap of little things to which I would like to add “fear of death.” Possibly even “concerns about life insurance payouts.” A smidge of “leftovers didn’t get eaten and may poison a family member” would do nicely too.


He moans or makes a sound like moaning. Something isn’t quite right with his sound-maker. A doctor with a clipboard makes a sudden motion towards the bedside, and the blippy-blippy electronic thing next to the bed starts to draw straight lines.


“Shit!” I say. I’ve seen enough movies to know what the blippy-blippy thing is doing. He’s passing over, and I’m pretty sure he’s underweight and will have to go into therapy unless he can muster a few more moments. I put my ethereal hands around his and give him the most meaningless squeezes of life. Just then, his wife and daughter arrive.


“Hello! Welcome to a really sad moment!” I shout to them. The man already looks gone. His jaw is slack and his eyes are cold. Besides that, he’s not pretty to look at. I see the two clerks following behind, taking frantic notes. Their feet hover just over the floor, and their suits are on point. I’ve always thought we look cool when we move around in the material plane, but since mirrors don’t work for clerks, we have to help each other get dressed every day.


“Hey, Frank!” Tomas and Louie wave to me.


“Hey, good buddies. Looks like I’m going to be on to a new project soon,” I say.


“If he even weighs-in properly. What is the total burden right now?” Louis asks.


“About 14 thousand points. It’s hard to say how much this death will impact him, but now that you guys are here, I can start racking it up.”


“Don’t be so sure,” Louis replies, pointing over my shoulder at my client. He is convulsing and sputtering.


“Well, he heard his wife and daughter come in, at least. All that crying couldn’t hurt.”


“Good luck, Frank. Wherever you go next, I’m sure it’ll be easier than this gig. This guy was far too cozy.”


“Right?” I say, as my ethereal fingers find traction in a palm, which is connected to a spirit.


“WAAAH!” the ghost says as I drag him into Purgatory.


*****


After I give him a cup of coffee, he starts to calm down. It’s really good coffee.


“So, I’m dead then?” he asks.


“Yessir. It’s my job to take you to the gates of Heaven and see if you pass muster.”


“What do you think?”


“I think you should have lived a more difficult life.”


“Pardon?”


“You settled with an easy profession. You fell in love easily. You even died rather gracefully, if messily. You were born lucky and scarcely ever pushed the parameter of that luck. You didn’t even outlive the majority of your immediate family.”


The ghost pauses between sips of coffee. “Are you saying that I should have suffered?”


“You carry few scars from your existence. How are we supposed to know if you’re a good person if you seldom ever met adversity?”


“Couldn’t I just tell you that I’m a good person?”


“Can you objectively prove that you wouldn’t have killed someone if they were the difference between you and your family eating another meal? Would you choose kindness if someone threatened your daughter at school, or would you hunt that person down and give them double what they promised? If that concrete barrier you rammed had been a pedestrian instead, would you have blamed them?”


The ghost looks mad. It’s hard to tell, because fresh spirits in Purgatory look almost identical to white pillowcases with scary smiles cut into them. It takes awhile to reclaim the human form.


“Look, sir. I’ve watched you for your whole life, documenting your actions and psychically prodding you to make meaningful missteps. Even so, you've never really done much. I’m not saying you’re a bad person, but maybe, if you have to go through spirit therapy, you’ll try and be a little bit decisive. Make choices that shake up your world and react to the consequences in ways that show your true spirit.”

Even in therapy, he will struggle to react. I know it will take him at least five years to go through therapy. By then, his wife could be in Heaven, and I wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.


“Alright,” he sighs. “I’m ready.”


“Good. It doesn’t do to loiter at Heaven’s gate.”


*****


When he drifts up to the door, the guard lifts him onto the gilded platform that weighs the scarification of the soul. He comes in at just over 15 thousand points. The big door clicks, rattles, and swings open to him. I love that sound.


It sounds like payday. It sounds like a year’s paid vacation to anywhere in Heaven I want to go. Even though I never made it in, and therapy only found me to be a little too detached to pass on properly, it’s nice that sometimes I get to look inside.


Oh, but that first Monday back is hell.

Feral

Aug. 18th, 2014 08:26 pm
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Asleep in the jungle, dense canopy almost filling that primordial need for darkness while sleeping, Rachel dreamed of a girl she had never met--a girl with gray eyes, brown skin, and curly hair in which a human could lose track of all light and sound.


She awoke to the smell of rotting fish and moldy wool. It was a stark contrast with the sweet aromas of flowers, fruits she had never before seen, and the moisture in the dirt, all of which had carried her to an unusually comfortable sleep the preceding night. Although she had heard a teeming world of insects and frogs at night, that morning there were no sounds except her own motions to quickly rise from rest, tugging the blankets and bedroll to her face just to avoid throwing up.

It was easy to forget that night and morning were effectively the same due to the immutable sun. Something had silenced the jungle. That something, as near as Rachel could guess, was the source of that wretched stench.


When she managed to stand up, the odor, or something emanating off of it, forced her eyes to water and her nose to burn. It was a sensation not unlike stumbling into a restaurant just as the chef was prepping a day's worth of chopped onions, except that this new scent made Rachel never want to eat again.


She dressed quickly, unable to see or breathe while exposed to that noxious stench.  Just as she finished pulling on trousers and a fresh shirt, she hazarded a glance towards the direction from which she perceived the odor to be travelling. There, a mountain of soggy fibers twice her height and many times that in width lay not twenty feet from where she had slept.


"What in the hell?" Rachel said through her blanket. Even though she was sure that it would be a few hours already before she could stomach the small breakfast of boiled egg and crusty bread that she had prepared, she decided to get closer to heap to investigate.


The fibers were longer than her arm and thicker than grass. Beyond the slick and sheen of some kind of mucous spread across and through the pile, each fiber was black or white with occasional stripes of brown and orange. Rachel could not fathom touching it to get a sense of the texture, as it was dripping a white fluid that looked and sounded sticky.


"Do you want to know who did this?" the jungle whispered. Rachel fell backwards from the surprise, twisting her ankle. Two eyes shined in the dark trees beyond the heap; the eyes had a vertical slit surrounded by brilliantly reflective , pale green irises.


I need to run, Rachel decided, grabbing all of her remaining belongings and sprinting away from the pile.


*****


It wasn't until later, hours after finally recovering from the stench of the fiber heap, that Rachel gave any ground to the idea that she should have stopped to talk to those green eyes in the trees. Her legs began to hurt from her flight. Her right ankle, in particular, was starting to turn purple from twisting and running.


The progress through the jungle was slow as well. Of her knives, the chef knife  had possessed the best cutting capability… when she had departed from Coburntown the previous day. Now, with various saps coating it from slicing through the jungle, the knife was about as dull as a butter knife. It required several attempts to cut the tougher vines in her path, and Rachel was becoming weary.


"Are you tired?" the jungle softly asked. Rachel stopped, slowly looking around while her skin urged her to continue walking. She couldn't see any eyes this time, but Rachel knew that she was being watched. Without knowing where the entity was and suffering from the last escape, Rachel decided to talk to the voice.


"Yes, I'm tired," she cautiously replied.


"The path is long. The overgrowth is thick. The jungle is dark. Why does a woman travel this way?"


"I'm sorry, but I don't feel like sharing that information with you."


"You don't know me, therefore you do not trust me," the voice responded. "Did you know that Rammon is stalking you? He means to make you his dinner."


Rachel tensed her muscles in expectation.


"Oh no, I'm not Rammon. I have no love of the hunt. If I wanted to eat you, I would simply eat you," the voice reacted.


Something is different here, Rachel thought. This voice sounds like a woman, while the voice this morning sounded like a man. "What does Rammon look like, so that I may know him?" Rachel asked.


Then, directly in front of her vegetation strewn path,  a pair of eyes began to shine. These eyes were blue, like the sky east of Coburntown and reptilian in shape. "You have seen Rammon already," the voice stated. "His eyes are green. He sat over you all night long, staring at your body with hunger until his stomach could no longer take it."


The pile, Rachel guessed. She felt lucky to have escaped so easily, even if it cost her a little pain. "Why didn't he just eat me?"


"Rammon likes to hunt. I would like to help you escape from him, if possible. Do you permit me to assist you?" the voice asked.


"Can you? Please?" Rachel remained suspicious, but the voice was offering her help and she would be a fool not to take it.


A quick gust of wind tugged through the forest, causing Rachel to wince involuntarily. When she opened her eyes, the path before her lay bare, severed vines scattered across the dirt for as far as she could see. "Hurry now. Move quickly or he'll catch you yet."


Rachel headed down the shredded vine passage with a slight itch of apprehension nagging at her mind. Her leg pained her greatly as she picked up her pace. Somewhere behind her, the barely audible sound of licking made her move a little faster.


*****


Scarcely an hour later, the jungle--darker than before--began to close around Rachel again. She had to reach into her pack and retrieve her second largest knife just to make a little more headway on the walls of foliage surrounding her.


"Foolish woman, where are you going?" asked a voice similar to the first one she had heard that morning. Rachel turned around to look behind her, and saw green eyes closing in on her trail. Firmly gripping her knife, she prepared to defend herself. "Why do you travel this way?"


"I was told that Rammon is chasing me. Rammon is going to eat me. I will fight if I must."


The trees began to quiver and then shake with a reverberating sound. Rachel realized that the creature was laughing. "I am Rammon. I am not here to eat you, child. You must have spoken to Balas."


"Is that the one with blue eyes?" Rachel asked.


"Yes, and a rather dangerous one. She will try to trick you, oh yes she will. This morning, I scared her off just before she could attack you. I must have upset her stomach in the process, as she left a terrible mess behind," the voice explained.

"She told me that you like to hunt your prey. And here you are, following me. Why should I trust you?"


"I am no hunter. Would a hunter take time to chat with a human? I would simply eat you if I needed a meal. Regardless, I dislike Balas too much to allow her even a meatless human such as yourself."


The last part of what Rammon said seemed particularly dubious--bakers were not often known for being thin, and Rachel knew she was no exception.  "What do you intend to do then?" Rachel asked.


"I will clear the way for you. Are you going to Namirus?"


"Yes, I am."


"Then you have been led astray. Namirus is almost directly behind you, at this point. Allow me." With less than a blink, the path behind Rachel was exposed again, veering away from the passage she had taken. This time, however, Rachel noticed trenches through the dirt and clay on the jungle floor. Three parallel marks existed where whatever had sliced the vines and also raked the ground.


"I am going. Please do not follow me again," Rachel warned.


"As you wish."


*****


Not one hour later, Rachel once again found herself entangled in vines. The beasts! In frustration, Rachel slashed harder than ever, desperately pushing the possibility of being eaten by one of the two stalkers from her mind.


"I will eat at least the body. You can have the head," a voice said.


Clearly, there wasn't much she could do to focus on clearing the path. Rachel knelt down to listen, rapidly deciding how to escape.


"Fool. I watched the prey, I redirected the prey. I gave the chase. You would have me skimp on the tasty bits just to satisfy your pride and age!" Balas retorted.


"Little Balas, the head is the sweetest part. All else is savory. Young ones such as yourself long for the savory, but old beasts such as I have no tooth for it," Rammon explained.


Rachel could see them through the thick of trees. The beasts circled each other, never blinking. Lizard-like eyes punctuated hairy bodies with long threads coming from around their noses, sticking out all directions. Both creatures were magnitudes larger than Rachel could possibly hope to handle with any tool she had available.  The smaller of the two beasts--Balas, Rachel presumed--had the same black and white fur mixed with orange patches that Rachel had seen in the morning. Rammon wore a deep black coat of fur accented by white patches.


"If you ate heads more often, maybe you would not have spent so long ogling my waste this morning. We could have caught this one hours ago, but you dawdled!" Balas screamed, drawing black lips back to reveal teeth that could shred Rachel in seconds.


Rammon made a sharp sound, like many knives scraping together. Rachel had to grip the legs of her trousers to avoid falling backwards into the leaves. "You'll take what I give you!" he roared, lifting one leg to swipe at Balas. Razors the size of Rachel's head whistled through the air, connecting with Balas' head with noisy thwack.


Balas simply shook her head, tucked her pointy ears back, and reared back as if she intended to leap on Rammon.


Rachel decided that she had seen enough and bolted in the other direction. Balas and Rammon began to crash through trees behind her, rolling on top of each other with force enough to collapse the canopy around their heads. I could die here without them even eating me, Rachel realized.


In spite of her aching ankle, Rachel found it remarkably easy to run for her life. Easy enough that she failed to notice a curly haired girl sitting gleefully on one of the downed jungle trees, clapping her hands while the two furry monstrosities wrestled over the body of a gigantic mantis. Rachel ran without hesitation and without looking back, until she no longer felt ground beneath her feet, tumbling wildly down a steep dirt cliff towards a river.


*****

Admittedly, Rachel had slept better. Her feet were shoeless and half submerged in fast moving, warm waters.


"Are you alright?" a blurry face inquired.


"Am I alive? I mean, did I die?" Rachel asked.


"I don't believe so."


"Did you rescue me?"


"Yes." The rescuer was a young man with straight black hair and compassionate eyes--or so Rachel thought. Her head was throbbing. "Welcome to Namirus," he beckoned, motioning to the huts and fences behind him.


"This is Namirus? I made it!" she cried.


"You actually wanted to come here?" he replied, aghast.


"Yes! I'm looking for a young woman, in her twenties. Her name is Tabitha. She lives here with her daughter Cathy. Have you seen them?" Rachel pried, grabbing on to the young man's sandy tunic.


"Does she have a husband?"


"Not apparently. Her husband, Thomsen, disappeared shortly after she came here five years ago."


"She never lived here, I can tell you that." The man crossed his arms.


"What?"


"We have no unmarried women living here except Amana, and she's far too old to have a five year old daughter."


Rachel was quickly becoming accustomed to misdirection. She knew his lie, and she withheld her reaction to observe further. This time, Rachel would be the stalker.


Even if she needed to stalk all of Namirus to find the family she sought.

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