The Fallowing – Interlude I
by Steppen Sawicki
This chapter brought to you by Florence’s What Kind of Man, which is pretty much my writing song now.
Novel: Occult adventure
There was little to indicate that the snow-covered plain was once a highway, save for the rusted signs and shells of abandoned cars dotted like punctuation marks in the white expanse. There were the underpasses as well, and we nested within one of these to pass the night. The woods on either side of us were thick and supplied us with plenty of fuel for the fire, and we soon had a large one blazing.
I stretched out on my back and gazed up at the ceiling of the overpass, feeling my tired muscles stretch and relax after the day of backpacking and trekking through snow.
“You ever pretend,” I said “that you can see the stars?”
Sam was prying a hole into a can of beans with a knife. With a regular knife, not the dagger one. That one I hadn’t seen since we took down the thing in Carrington.
He looked better. He had caught some sleep at the inn before we left, and the dark circles under his eyes were now only dim circles under his eyes. He had cleaned up too, so that his chin was shaved and his hair was no longer a mess (though it was still too long). Even his coat had gone through a washing and looked…well, still dusty, but more white than it had been.
“You’re not even looking at the sky,” he said. “You’re looking at concrete.”
“Whatever. You can’t see them either way. But you can imagine them.”
“Like they’re worth it,” he mumbled, pouring the beans into a pan. He started slicing up some sausage into it – part of our reward for saving the town.
I rolled onto my side and studied him. “You’re telling me you don’t want to see the stars?”
“Doesn’t matter what I want. The haze is still up there.” He moved stiffly as he chopped, his arm still sore from infection. That thing that bit him had stored up some nasty bacteria in its mouth. “I suppose you also want to see the man in the moon.”
“Oh, yeah,” I sighed.
“And Selene riding her chariot across the sky.”
“Just as attainable,” he added.
“Want me to chop those for you?”
“I’m fine,” he grumbled, as if I had insulted him.
I watched him clumsily chop for a while. “Where’s your other knife?”
He stopped and looked up at me. “What? I should chop sausage with it?”
“I’m just asking.”
“It’s in my coat.”
“Can I see it?”
He rolled his eyes and reached into his coat. He brought out the blade and flicked it so that it landed point down in the dirt next to me.
“There,” he said. “Now stop asking.”
I sat up and took it in my hands. It was very unassuming, rather simple. It looked like something found in an Egyptian tomb. The blade was shaped like a leaf, fat in the middle. The hilt was no more than leather wrapped around the tang, with bronze rivets embedded in the hide. The whole thing was the length of my forearm.
“Will this kill all of them?” I asked.
“It will.” He set the pan over the fire.
“How many are there?”
He glanced at me, but looked away before answering. “Several. And many lesser beings, not as powerful but still dangerous.”
“And one of these…’greater’ beings is in Holly. And I use the word greater purely in a relative context.”
“One of them has a home there. But it’s one home of many, so there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be there.”
“How do you know this?”
“I’ve been there.”
“What? What were you doing there?”
He shook his head. “It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.”
I turned the knife over in my hands, weighing it. “Where did you get this dagger?”
“It was given to me.”
“Why? Who would give you this?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” he said, glaring.
“Well did they have a reason for giving it to you? I mean, you’re not exactly the strongest person, or most agile, or – ”
He stood and started to walk towards the woods, and as he passed me he plucked the dagger from my hands. “Watch the food.”
“You think you’re going to meet one of those things while you’re taking a piss?” I called after him.
He only waved the knife in response.
With him gone, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. I looked to the west, our direction of travel. I was old enough to have seen stars, but too young to remember them. So like so many others I have strange half-memories of white points in the sky, possibly remembered and possibly made-up collages from paintings and photographs.
The red haze covered the sky, like blood splashed across the heavens.
Well, why would you not want to imagine stars?
A branch broke and fell out of the fire, and as I tossed it back on I heard a rustle from the woods behind me, not quite a commotion but a sudden movement. I had my gun out before I knew it; apparently all this talk of monsters had put me on edge. It could just as well have been Sam tripping over twigs or a squirrel leaping through the trees. But I stood and faced the woods.
“Sam?” I called.
There was no answer.
I moved forward into the woods, following Sam’s tracks in the snow. I didn’t go far past the treeline before I saw an area where snow had been kicked up and disturbed, and beyond this the grooves of something dragged deeper into the forest.
The marks were punctuated by droplets of blood.
A choked gasp came from the woods, and I ran along the trail, crouching low. I heard the muffled sounds of a struggle as I closed in. The night was growing, and I almost fell over Sam, who was writhing on the ground and tangled in dark ropes of some substance I couldn’t tell in the twilight.
Calling his name – and getting only a grunt in response – I pulled at the rope around his neck, and felt it sticky and wet, but it only tightened at my prying. This was all wrong.
I looked over him. The rope was coiled around his arms and body and legs and – there, it came away from him in a line leading between the trees. I grabbed my knife and slashed at that line in the snow.
There was no resistance. It was like cutting through butter, so that I thought I had missed. But there was a cry from the trees and Sam started coughing immediately. I started to pull him to his feet.
I felt something wet at the back of my head only a moment before I was pulled into the air. A noose had fastened around my neck, and as I slashed the air above me with the knife I still held, another rope snaked down to wrap itself around my wrist. I kicked at the air and clutched at my neck with my free arm, but there was little else I could do. I was at the mercy of whoever was at the end of these ropes.
Sam was still gasping for air, but he rushed forward and reached into my coat, pulling out my pistol. He fired straight up, and he wasted the entire clip before there was another cry and I was let go. I collapsed to the ground in much the same state as Sam, but he choked out a word.
So I picked myself up and we half ran, half stumbled out of the woods and back to the fire. By that point I had gathered myself, but Sam was still coughing and retching. As I reloaded my spent gun I glanced at him and was shocked by what I saw. His white coat was soaked in layers of red. Blood dripped from his chin and fell from his nose and ears. He was still blinking it from his eyes. He ran an arm across his face and it smeared, making him look like some crazed murderer. He spat blood onto the snow, so much I thought he must have been stabbed in the lung or stomach. My thought was he was pretty messed up.
“Shit,” I said. “Are you going to die?”
“It’s not my blood,” he choked. “But it got in my throat. It’s on you too.”
I reached a hand to my neck. It came away wet with blood. I saw then that it was on the arm of my coat too.
“Then those ropes – ”
“She can release and coagulate her blood at will, and control the result.”
I grinned. “Then it’s one of them. Is it one of the big ones?”
He shook his head.
“Well it’s good enough. You didn’t drop your knife out there, did you?”
He glared at me and growled “No.”
“We should go after it. It won’t expect that.”
“We’re staying here, where the light is. It has the dark, and it would have the trees should we chase it. The only reason we got away is because it has to knit itself back together after we hurt it.”
I was giddy and practically hopping to chase it, but Sam was still catching his breath, so I stayed by the fire. He brought out the dagger and clutched it so hard his knuckles turned white.
“I saved your life again,” I pointed out to him.
He scoffed, which made him cough. “I saved you.”
“By wasting a whole clip. Bullets aren’t cheap.”
“Ditto. Why did it attack you? Is it after that knife?”
He paced the other side of the fire, watching the dark. “No. It knows I’m…after them.”
“Why are you after them?”
He seemed to think this over. “Because I was told to do so. I could ask you the same.”
I did think this over. “Because I told me to do so.”
“An even worse reason than I have.”
“Not to me.”
He looked back at me but didn’t respond. I think that he liked my reason better than his. But he couldn’t admit that, that his reason was so bromidic.
Because he had to do it. Because he had no way out. I think he envied me that. That I could have turned my back on this, but didn’t.
He never understood that I had no other option. That’s what happens when you hunt. You get trapped in the desire to achieve some measure of equilibrium that’s never acquired.
It was dark now, the haze having swallowed what little there was of the sun. Already the cold was biting. I knelt by the fire, keeping my eyes on the darkness outside the underpass, straining to hear should something move through the snow, but all I could hear was Sam pacing back and forth like a caged cat.
“Stop moving,” I told him. “I can’t hear a thing.”
He didn’t stop. “I can hear fine.”
“Look, we’re good. Don’t be so nervous.”
“I’m not nervous.”
“Please, you’re about to crush that dagger your knuckles are so white.”
“I’m not nervous,” he said, emphasizing each word.
“Then stop pacing. All I can hear is crunch crunch crunch.”
“Maybe if you’d shut your mouth for once, you could hear.”
“Maybe if you listened for once, you’d hear all the noise you’re making.”
He had turned his attention to me, pacing to face the fire. His one-track mind. I heard him yelp and twisted around to find that it had him. The ropes of blood were coiled around the hand that held the knife and were working their way towards his neck again.
I started to stand and found I couldn’t, as more blood tightened around my legs. I slashed at it with my knife but it knew what was coming this time; the ropes dived out of the way of my strokes. I had only gone at it a couple of time before the stuff was gripping my arm. I cursed Sam’s inattentiveness as something came out of the dark beyond the fire.
I saw its hands first, held out before it as if it were feeling its way, and perhaps it was. The tips of its fingers bled from the nails; it seeped down and over the snow towards us. Then its face was in the light of the fire, and I saw red flowing from every orifice: the eyes, the mouth, the nose and ears. It was thin and desiccated, as if the act of pouring out its blood had left it hollow.
At the sight of it Sam tried to cut away the ropes on his arms but only fumbled and dropped the knife. I cursed him but there was little I could do myself. I couldn’t raise my gun, and as I tried to move my own knife the ropes covered it entirely and rendered it useless.
The thing opened its lips and from bloody teeth and gums and throat red flowed and hit the snow. Sam fell backward and struggled against his ropes. But it held him fast; even as he yanked at the cords, they only tightened.
My eyes followed my own bonds, trailing around the fire. I looked up again to see it advance on Sam. Through the flames I could see Sam, trying desperately to inch away even as the rope tightened around his neck.
I didn’t move. I waited until its attention was entirely on Sam, until I didn’t dare to wait any further.
I rolled, nearly falling into the fire myself, but pulling the bloody ropes with me so that they fell over the flames.
It screamed, droplets flying from its mouth. The blood that held me immediately fell away, drenching me, but harmless. Near the fire was a line of blackened and burnt crust. The stench of it caught my nose and I nearly gagged. A cord of red whipped back from the fire, oozing back into those bloody hands.
The thing itself retreated, falling back into the dark. But it didn’t let go of Sam. It dragged him after it even as he kicked and twisted this way and that. But it was injured and couldn’t outrun me. I nabbed a branch from the fire and raced towards it, swinging the flaming end at the blood trailing to Sam. I burnt that trail, and burnt it again, and again, each time stepping closer to the monster. Each time it screamed and each time the stench of burning blood assaulted my nostrils.
It was unable to escape. It knew that, and it tried desperately to latch onto me with fresh blood. But I was practically on top of it, staring into those twin pools of blood that passed for its eyes, screaming back into that bloody yaw of a mouth, and I cracked my burning branch across that face. Everything there crackled and singed, and the thing fell to its knees, grabbing at its face with those red hands.
Something grabbed at my arm, and I twisted around, expecting another offshoot of rope. But it was Sam, gasping and pale and trembling, and absolutely drenched in blood. He stepped past me and with a shaking hand grabbed the thing and forced it to the ground. As he raised the dagger tendrils rose from the dark blackened mass, but they had no strength or clear aim. Even as they wrapped around his arms, Sam brought down the dagger into the heart. The word he spoke came out as little more than a rasping cough. And again, I forgot it.
It screamed that hideous rabbit scream just like the other one had, and within a moment the ropes all fell in a rain upon the snow. The crackling of the fire replaced all sound, and my shadow danced over Sam and the corpse.
“So that’s why you never get any sleep,” I said.
Sam looked at me. His eyes were weary again, as if all the hours of sleep he had gotten in Carrington had left him. His gaze went to the branch in my hand, and though he would never admit it he knew that I had saved his life again.
I turned to walk back to the fire. There was crinkled and crisped blood all over our campsite. I could still smell it.
“Damn,” I said. “The beans burnt.”
I threw the branch back on the flames.