Far to the North (Chp 17)

Snow flurries trickle down from a gray sky, the flakes dancing and swerving in the early morning in search of new homes. Some join enclaves of powder clinging to the branches of bushy pines. Others settle onto a vast expanse of white, forest floor. A select few find their way onto a sled covered with stretched canvas. Around the sled stand three Walkers and their guide, Fergus. Only the most fortunate snowflakes settle onto his black and burly beard. Working together to remove unneeded telegraph equipment from the sled, all are oblivious to the snow and the light wind it dances upon. Instead, their thoughts linger on what’s to come.

What it is that awaits them further north.

Tilda watches the small group from her second-story window. Though silent to her, she follows their conversation through the nods and hand gestures they give. She sees understanding on their faces when Fergus points in the general direction of the cave. She sees their faint hope diminish when Fergus informs them of Clarence’s suicide, ill news that clearly contaminates an already uncertain mood. When Wynn looks up and makes eye contact with Tilda through the frosty pane of glass between them, she doesn’t look away. His eyes are with hers for only a moment, and her face remains still like carved stone. In that brief look, all that needs saying is communicated.

Duty beckons, and he will serve.

Deep within her heart, Tilda cannot hold it against him.

She watches as they begin their journey away from the inn, from Nil, and from the view of her window. She remains and looks out for several minutes more, still and quiet. Clouds cling to the horizon like a burden, and the fear of inevitability clings to her heart. In her mind, she feels an impending doom set in motion. With bitter acceptance, she waits for its arrival.

 

*   *  *

 

With trudging steps, Fergus leads the small band over strenuous terrain. There is no banter exchanged as they navigate below shelves of towering rock. Sparse conversation is had while they work through thick clusters of trees morphing into conical pillars of snow. On occasion, the path chosen by Fergus is for naught as it proves too difficult to traverse with their remaining supplies, and they’re forced to backtrack and find another route. Wilder grunts with displeasure at the struggling guide while valuable time slips by. Wynn and Hemmett walk on opposite sides of the muskox with anxious hands that reach out toward every tilt and lean of the sled. A glacier of silence builds between the two men, thick and wide. Wynn’s decision to travel north is opposed only by Hemmett’s refusal to utter an agreement, but he journeys all the same.

Walking a few paces behind Fergus and easily matching his calculating stride, Anna wonders.

They’re all so quiet. No jokes, no jabs, nothing. Is it because of Clarence and his suicide? This supposed deviling? Does him dying suddenly make the story have more meaning? There’s so much anxiety now. This ugly tension. She sighs and tries to relax. Or maybe this is normal for them. Maybe I’m seeing how they really are, no longer what they were pretending to be when they suddenly have company. Pausing in her tracks, waiting for Fergus to decide which direction to travel next, she looks toward the gray sky. At least the weather isn’t so bad. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll change for the better. A bite from the sun-bug would do us well.

The day wears on, the lull in the storm passes, and heavy snowfall returns. Wind pushes through the trees and stampedes down narrow canyons. With each gust, the travelers are pelted by snow that slowly melts into wet, freezing kisses on their cheeks. Anna takes a moment to wrap her face with a scarf and feels a tinge of heartache when neither Wynn nor Hemmett point out her lack of beard. The gravity of their trip weighs heavily and crushes would-be humor.

In the worsening weather, lunch is a hurried affair with bread and jerky and old cheese. Conversation is direct and centers on Fergus answering more questions from Wynn. There is an urgency to reach the cave before sundown. Fergus assures him their timeline is safe. They’ll surely arrive by then. Yes, he’s aware of the worsening weather. Yes, their direction is true. Not much farther now. The sled can surely make it. Wilder too. Though Wynn finally ends his barrage of questioning, the tension around him remains. Anna gives Hemmett a brief look of concern, but his hardened face reveals nothing, and his closed lips do the same.

With their lunch concluded, they walk on.

“Would you like to trade off?” Anna asks Fergus, following in his tracks. As they march through the storm, he walks with his head down and shoulders tucked. Behind him, he drags an empty toboggan over the snow, one of the tools Wynn insisted upon should they be fortunate enough to find a survivor, and luckier still if they are given the chance to bring survivors home.

“Thanks,” Fergus says, “but I don’t mind, hey? I keep a bit warmer this way.”

Weary of the silence, Anna makes another attempt at conversation. “The man with the limp. Hawk. Why do they call him that?” she asks, avoiding the topic dogging their minds.

Fergus shrugs out a laugh. “Heh, on account of the mishap he had with a glacial hawk some years ago.”

“Glacial hawk?”

“Aye. Nasty things they are, though beauties as well. Eyes blue like the old ice. Long stretch of white wings. Beak like granite and claws like diamond.” Fergus shifts his grip on the handles of the toboggan. “Territorial though, and vicious hunters. If you see one coming, you’re lucky. Hawk never did. He never saw the nest he was near either, hey? We assume that’s why it lashed out at him.”

“A bird gave him that scar?” Anna asks, her eyes blinking against the storm. Another gust of wind blasts her face, and she shoves a hand into her jacket for a pair of goggles. Found, she slips them on.

“Don’t give ‘em too much sympathy for it,” Fergus says with a laugh. “It’s a nasty line across his head, no doubt, but looks worse than it ever was. He bled well, as all men do when given a slice across the scalp, but it was a gentle caress for what a glacial hawk could’ve done. Just a mindful tap to move along. The real shame is that leg of his. The fall he took was worse than any scar will be. Broke his hip something awful and gave his knee a terrible twisting. It healed—sort of, but he’s got that hobble now, and he’ll have it forever.”

Anna gives the surrounding pines a worried glance and wonders how many are home to such fierce creatures. Their snowy limbs, once so beautiful, take on a new and dreadful appearance. Great, she thinks. That’s just what we need.

Fergus stops and analyzes the terrain. Cliffs of rock wedge themselves into the sky. The group turns and descends into a small gully filled with untouched powder. As their feet tromp through, the surging wind whisks loose snow away like blowing dust. “We’re nearly there,” Fergus says, his thick beard crusting with snow and ice. “Just over that rise and into the next canyon.”

Though somewhat acclimated to the cold and the ample walking providing warmth for her body, Anna feels a shiver. She pauses as a stray thought shoots through her mind.

I wonder if this is a mistake.

Are you believing the curse now? her mind chides back.

She sighs. No… but that poor man killed himself. That must count for something.

One man’s suicide doesn’t bring a fable to life.

No, she thinks half-heartedly, no. But the look that swam in his eyes. That sure didn’t come from a story.

Wilder huffs, and Anna turns to see his bored eyes looking at her in question. “Sorry,” she says. Wilder huffs again, her apology immediately accepted. She glances back at Hemmett and Wynn. Hemmett has his face tucked down into the collar of his jacket and his cap pulled tight. Wynn wears large, tan goggles, and his thick beard is spotted with snow. Occasionally, flakes find his dark skin and melt away. Both stand in silence beside Wilder. Neither speak while waiting for her to continue.

Anna tightens the scarf around her face, adjusts her goggles, and continues forward.

Following Fergus through the gully and turning into the canyon, the Walkers move on.

 

*   *  *

 

“There it is,” says Fergus, looking at the cave. The opening is a wedge of darkness in the stone.

Wynn nods. “We’ll make camp at the entrance.”

“Make camp?”

“There’s too little daylight remaining to travel back, especially if Marissa is sick, and we need shelter from this storm.” Wynn stops and sees the concerned look on Fergus’ face. “Unless you were planning on sleeping further inside?”

Fergus looks over his shoulder. The world behind them is a fury of white and wind. Dark clouds grow darker with the closing day. He turns toward the cave again, and his face sours. Protest builds within him. “I’ll make camp, but I’ll not go into that damned place, hey? I commend you, Walkers, for your bravery, but my role in this was to be your guide. Guided I have. It’ll be no further than that for me.”

Wynn removes his goggles and gives Fergus a stern look. After a moment, he nods. “Very well. We’ll unhitch Wilder and leave you with him. Understand that he’s of his own accord. He roams free. However this turns out, we’ll not be gone for long. I expect a large fire burning when we return.”

Happy to be tasked with anything other than the cave, Fergus gets to work.

Wynn turns to the others. Cold gusts snap his beard. “Lanterns, skins, water and some food. Nothing more. With any luck, we’re back within the hour. This sickness Clarence Pickens spoke of,” he says, hesitating with a heavy sigh, “with everything he said, Mrs. Pickens may not be of sound mind. Cold, hunger and sickness do strange things. She could be hallucinating or delirious. We need to be wary.” His eyes linger. “We need to be ready for anything.”

Hemmett pats the large revolver on his hip. Anna sees the gesture and adjusts the rifle on her shoulder. Wynn furrows his brow as unease grips his heart. He looks at the cave, its entrance like a mouth of darkness, and takes a moment to renew his dedication. After releasing Wilder, they sort through the supplies in the sled. They stow furs, food and water into a pack that Wynn rests upon his own shoulders. The three take up lanterns and light them. Prepared, they turn to enter.

Arrrooo!”

The Walkers stop and look at Wilder. His brown eyes are wide with warning.

“Arrroo!” he calls, throwing his voice to the wind. “Arroooooo!”

Anna looks to Hemmett and Wynn. Their faces harden with Wilder’s alarm. Neither speak, and in a silent glance, Hemmett differs to Wynn. Knowing the warning should be heeded, Wynn stares at the beast with pale, blue eyes that run deep with regret, for he knows the worst kind of advice is the kind that is right yet cannot be taken. He raises a hand toward Wilder in vow. “We shall return, friend. I swear it. I like this as little as you, but it’s something that needs to be done. Hold the entrance for us. Make sure Fergus gets that fire built.” Dropping his hand, Wynn turns and enters. Hemmett glances at Anna, shrugs, and follows. Anna pauses to look back at Wilder. The animal snorts and huffs and digs at the snow with his hooves, and the antics cause Anna’s heart to quicken with ache. She sets her lantern on a flat rock at the cave entrance and unslings her rifle. Holding the rifle with both hands, she follows Wynn and Hemmett into the cave.

Extending his lantern in front of him, Hemmett leads the group in a circle of light. Wynn immediately follows, his own lantern hanging low and revealing uneven ground. Inside, the cave drips with black stillness. They pan their lights, and shadows scurry before them like panicked rats. With careful steps over the rocks, they advance.

Wynn calls out. “Mrs. Pickens! Mr. Daniels?” Turning to the others, he asks, “Is it Daniels or Mr. Daniels?”

Hemmett, already uncomfortable with their oppressive surroundings and feeling tension grip his nerves, gives a sideways look. “Who cares? Let’s just find them and get out.”

“Agreed,” says Anna.

Hemmett quickly shifts his eyes to her. “Where’s your lantern?”

Anna, holding her rifle as she was trained, shrugs. “Outside. I want to be ready for anything, so I figured I better have both hands on this instead of one.”

The two lock eyes and see the same state of concern. “Fair enough,” says Hemmett.

“We’re not here to perform an execution,” Wynn chides. “Try carrying a bit of optimism.” He raises a hand to his mouth. “Mrs. Pickens! Mr. Daniels! Can you hear us!? Can you respond!?” The words fly through unseen chambers, Wynn’s diminished echo returning as the only response.

Deep within the cave, veiled in black, malicious ears are alerted.

As they continue further, the sounds of the blizzard reduce to a low howling over the stone. It mingles with the darkness and wraps itself within the cave like a constant wheeze coming from hidden lungs. The Walkers advance, their breaths pluming and fogging the yellow light of the lanterns, their boots scraping over stone.

“We’re too late,” says Hemmett. “If anyone was here, we’d have heard them by now. They’d have called out.”

“Maybe they’re gone,” says Anna, not believing the possibility. “Maybe Daniels found her and they’re already on their way to Nil. We could’ve easily missed them in this storm.”

“There’s the optimism I was hoping for,” says Wynn, thinking the scenario unlikely. “We’ve come all this way, however. Before we turn back, we best make certain.”

“There.” Hemmett points. “What’s that?” The three stop and search beyond the rim of light given by the lantern. Just at its edge, soft yellow illuminates shapes different from stone. They slowly move forward. Swallowing shadows hover around them as they proceed. Gradually, the objects fall under recognizable light. There’s a bedroll made of old skins. A quaint fire pit built from small stones and a cooking pot hanging over its charred center. Nearby, rabbit bones are scattered. They observe the scene.

“Only one bed,” Wynn says.

“Daniels?” suggests Anna.

“Likely,” agrees Wynn.

“Or crazy Clarence lived here alone and had the story all in his head,” Hemmett scoffs.

“Take a good look around,” Wynn says, ignoring the comment. “Split up, but stay close. Ms. Holt, you’re with me since you’ve no lantern.”

The small group splits, their large circle of light breaking into two dimmer versions. Darkness presses upon them as they scour the cave for clues. As they separate, Anna feels a growing discomfort and glances across the small chamber. The light from Hemmett’s lantern dances between stalagmites and over stone.

“Anything?” Wynn calls.

“No,” responds Hemmett. “It’s just the small campsite. You?”

“Just stone and ice,” Wynn says with a sigh. “Let’s keep going.”

Anna stops to listen. Only their careful footsteps and the distant, moaning wind can be heard. As Wynn advances, she’s soon enveloped by the pitch-black surrounding them. It swallows her like a bottomless sea, total and complete and immense, so much that the abyss stuns her as Wynn moves away. Never, she thinks, never have I been in such darkness as this. Seeing Wynn’s lantern drift away in front of her, she has the sudden sensation of drowning.

Wynn pauses and glances back. “Ms. Holt? Are you coming?”

“Yes,” she says with a squeak. She hurries to join him in the yellow light of the lantern. Together, they rejoin with Hemmett and round a bend in the cave. The walls around them expand away, and the air grows stagnant.

“Do you smell that?” Hemmett asks with a sniff.

“I do,” says Wynn with a voice of regret.

Anna perks her nose and takes a long whiff. There’s a scent in the air, but she can’t place it.

Moving with deliberate steps, Hemmett slows and points a finger. “Something over there next to that cropping.” He pauses and stares at the small form just beyond his view. Anna scans, using her rifle to guide her searching eyes. Shadows stir from the motion of the shifting lanterns. For a moment, Anna thinks she sees an arm reaching. Her hands tighten as she holds her breath.

Hemmett steps forward and raises his lantern. The concentrated circle of light around him dulls as it expands. “It’s a backpack,” he says while taking one more step. He stops and draws his revolver. A moment passes before he speaks again. “There’s blood on it.”

“Easy does it,” Wynn says as they move closer. Anna keeps her finger on the trigger. Light spills away and flows further into the cave, contending with the darkness before them. The blood-stained backpack leans against a cluster of sharp stone. Just beyond—

Anna gasps.

“Death of man,” Wynn says in a whisper. “What has happened?”

Beyond a small horizon of sharp rocks, a mutilated corpse lies. Mangled limbs with blood-stained bones are torn free, the remaining meat only clinging near joints and cartilage. Around the torso, the ribcage and sternum are clearly exposed. The muscles surrounding both shoulders and neck are shredded. Only the face remains somewhat intact.

“It looks recent,” says Hemmett, his eyes already scanning the immediate vicinity for threats.

“What could do something like that?” Anna asks.

“A number of things,” says Wynn as he approaches the body and kneels. The stone around him is stained with blood. “Wolves easily could. Or a bear. Maybe a nasty pack of badgers. Judging by the bite marks, however, I’d suspect a snow leopard is our culprit.”

“A snow leopard could do that?” Anna says.

“With a smile on its spotted face,” says Hemmett. Fighting a cough, he clears his throat. “This, though… I haven’t seen anything like this. Even if the animal were ravenous, this is very aggressive.”

Wynn leans closer and inspects the face of the body. “This is—was Daniels,” he says. “It must be, given the facial hair. Death of man… these teeth marks. Mr. Hemmett, look at this.”

“I’d rather not,” Hemmett says as he keeps his eyes averted, the scent and peripheral sight being more than enough.

Wynn stands and brushes his gloved hands together, his eyes still on the torn flesh and gnawed bones. “We need to be careful. This man was eaten clean, and recently. If it was a snow leopard that did this, it could still be in here. There’s shelter, a food supply—” He takes a deep breath and peers into the darkness hanging in front of them. “I’m afraid I don’t hold much chance for Mrs. Pickens.”

“I never did,” Hemmett growls. He swallows hard and wipes his mouth. “Come on, let’s get this over with. One down and one to go.”

“This is awful,” Anna says while her mind ponders the horror of being eaten alive.

“That it is, Ms. Holt,” Wynn sighs. “That it is.” He raises his lantern and looks on. “Though she’s likely perished, we need to continue. We’ve come all this way. We must be certain. Use caution from here on. Move together, side by side. I’ll be steady with the light. If you need to shoot, take your time and call out where. The gunfire may be blinding in here, so be accurate. Be certain.”

“Eyes sharp, soldier,” Hemmett says to Anna. “Rifle at the ready.”

The three continue forward.

Rounding another bend in the cave, the sound of howling wind becomes a faint whisper in their ears. Loose stones slide and grind under their steps. Each Walker scours the cave before them with wide eyes. Steady breathing fills otherwise silent gaps. The smell of death hangs in musty, still air. After a handful of very long moments, they reach the edge of another wide chamber.

“She must be near,” Wynn says, his voice low. “You can smell the blood.” He calls out a final time, hoping against hope. “Mrs. Pickens?”

They listen.

Silence.

The Walkers pan their lanterns. Scant light reaches to the furthest walls of the chamber. Cold stone glares back. Shadows surround them like a swelling mob, pressing against their feeble circle of light. Wynn sweeps his arm slowly, and shadows swirl with his movement like lost spirits searching for the afterlife. His hand stops. “There,” he croaks. In that one word, Hemmett and Anna hear his heart break.

Yellow light spills onto another grisly scene.

Marissa’s stomach is splayed open like shredded cloth. Her entrails are torn and scattered and partially eaten. The scarce meat from her thighs has been devoured. Frozen pools of blood rest in the small holes and valleys of the cave floor.

“I’ve never seen a snow leopard do something like that,” Hemmett says, his voice dull with shock.

Anna’s stomach turns at the gruesome sight, and she looks away. A primitive fear dives into her bones, the fear of being hunted by a very near predator, and suddenly the feeling of being watched crawls over her skin like tingling ice.  With eyes wide and pupils dilating, she searches every inch of darkness around her. Shadows abound.

Wynn steps forward.

“Hold on,” Hemmett says, grabbing Wynn by the backpack. “What are you doing?”

“Where are her clothes?”

“What!?” Hemmett says, not caring.

“Her clothes are missing,” Wynn says, pointing at the body. “If a beast were the result of this horrific sight, there’d be shreds of clothing everywhere, but there’s none to be found. No wool, no furs, nothing. Whatever—whoever did this, took her clothes.”

Hemmett, his revolver still in hand, gives Wynn a long look. “What are you saying? That a person did this? Clarence did this?”

“I’ll welcome any other theory,” Wynn says. “I’ve no desire to learn that a man could do this to his wife.”

They stand at the edge of the chamber, looking in. Anna, still feeling watched, grips her rifle tighter. A shudder passes through her. “Can we stick to the snow leopard theory for now? My imagination is running away enough as it is.”

“In that, we agree,” says Wynn. Again, he attempts to step forward.

Hemmett grabs Wynn’s backpack a second time. “Death of man, what are you doing?” he asks with rising concern.

Wynn motions with his hand. “The poor woman needs to be buried. She and Daniels both.”

Hemmett’s face twists with shock. “Are you out of your mind?”

Wynn glares. “Absolutely not. These people are dead, Mr. Hemmett, possibly eaten alive. They deserve a chance at peace in death.”

Hemmett shakes his head. “How? By dragging what’s left of their corpses over jagged stone and burying them in frozen ground? Assuming we can even find the ground in all that snow. And the creature that did this? Beast or man, these people were slaughtered. Now is not the time for propriety. Now is the time for leaving.”

“Mr. Hemmett,” Wynn attempts, “you know how important this is to—”

“Have you forgotten where we’re camping? The storm that’s hammering outside? We have enough on our hands without paying respects to the dead.” He leans closer to Wynn and hisses. “You’ve lost sight of what’s happening here. You’re so worried about the dead, you’ve forgotten the living. Us. Let’s keep it that way and get the hell out of here before whatever did this decides to try us out for a snack.”

Anna watches as Wynn’s face, full of stubbornness, fully takes in their surroundings. As if seeing for the first time, his eyes suddenly recognize the disadvantage presented by their surroundings. Low light, flooding shadows, corner and after countless corner for any would-be stalker to observe from. His face shifts from sourness to determination.

“Do you see now?” Hemmett asks.

With a heavy sigh, he nods in agreement. “I do, dear friend. Indeed, I do.”

“So? Are we done here?”

Wynn rotates with his lantern, taking a few steps in final observance of the brutal scene. Seeing the mutilation with fresh eyes, he agrees. “Yes, we had better.”

From somewhere nearby comes the sound of shifting stone.

Hemmett spins on his heels and aims as Anna whirls and sights her rifle toward the sound. They stand motionless in the light of their lanterns, staring from their yellow circle into total darkness. Anna feels her heart fall from her chest.

“It’s still here,” Hemmett growls.

“It is,” Anna agrees, trying to hide her panic. Despite her desire to stay within the light, her legs waddle toward the entrance of the cave, already seeking retreat. She focuses on her sights to keep from fleeing.

Pointing his revolver at shadow after shadow, Hemmett begins to back away from the chamber. “We need to leave,” he says. “Now. We’ve no more business here.”

Wynn takes a single step back in silent agreement.

The darkness of the cave hangs over them like a closed grave.

“Kurtis, please,” Anna begs, feeling unmitigated fear writhe into her body. “Please.” Her voice shakes with nerves.

“Breathe, Anna,” Wynn says. “Breathe. Keep calm.”

Only feet away, shrouded in shadow, the deviling watches with hateful eyes. Concentrating, it forces one sudden and angry thought upon them all.

Begone.

The thought stabs into their minds, and all three feel the coldness of death pour over their bodies like a bucket of ice water. Wynn is struck the hardest, and for a moment he gapes, stunned. Hemmett whirls, and the shadows spin in response to the twirling light. It takes all of Anna’s control not to pull the trigger in blatant fear.

“Go,” Hemmett growls, hooking Wynn’s arm as he turns. “Go!”

The shout frees Wynn from his momentary daze. His knees give out in attempt to move. He begins to stumble, but Hemmett’s arm catches him. Wynn lets out a small groan before regaining his feet.

“Come on, old man,” Hemmett hisses, refusing to turn his back to the chamber. “It’s time to go.”

“Indeed,” Wynn says with startled breath. Now trembling, he works to compose himself. “With me, Ms. Holt. Your aim and my light. Smartly now.” They move with quickened steps, Wynn and Anna leading, while Hemmett covers the rear.

As their light withdraws and the shadows fall forward, the deviling pursues.

“It’s following,” Hemmett shouts.

“You can see it!?” Wynn and Anna respond in unison.

“No, but it’s there. It’s—I can feel it.” Hemmett backtracks, one hand holding a lantern and another pointing his revolver. The lantern swings in his hand, and the shadows sway as if suffering heavy seas. “I don’t know how I know, but I know.”

“Steady,” Wynn urges, struggling to control his own flight response. “Keep with us, Mr. Hemmett. No heroics!”

Anna, her body tingling with the sensation of being hunted, focuses on every step she takes. The thundering thought of Begone fades, suddenly replaced by a new idea: that of turning and breaking her ankle. Her vision blurs as she struggles against the invading visualization, her eyes watering. Her boots hurry over stone while sharp edges seem to grab for her toes. Under Wynn’s light, they round a bend and press on.

In their retreat, darkness floods the cave behind them, and the deviling flows with it.

“A bit late to mention it now,” Wynn says, his voice thick with regret, “but we’re at a disadvantage here. We shouldn’t have come so far.”

“Agreed on all counts,” Hemmett says. Backtracking, he squints into the darkness. Each moving shadow looks like a creature coming to life, each reflecting stone dull, glowering eyes. His revolver jumps from threat to imagined threat. His feet work quickly in reverse, kicking stones and sending harsh clacks echoing through the cave. Afraid of stumbling backwards, his pace slows. He loses ground.

Hearing his friend fall behind, Wynn halts. “Quickly, Mr. Hemmett!” he shouts.

Anna uses every ounce of will power to stand with him instead of breaking into a sprint for the exit. She turns and aims into the cave, into the darkness barreling down upon Hemmett.

Hemmett growls as cold crawls over his skin. The feeling of being chased smothers him, and in his mind he sees a burnt face gnash with leopard-like teeth. Startled by the sudden and vivid thought, he fires his revolver blindly.

The shot flashes the cave with light. Thunder echoes around them.

“Hemmett!” shouts Wynn.

Anna strains to see, her vision glaring, and sees only shadows moving in a taunting dance. Her finger pulls against the trigger, but she restrains herself from firing.

“Just shoot!” Hemmett screams. “Shoot it! Shoot it!”

Anna looks down her sights. She watches Hemmett abandon his defensive retreat and spin into a flat-out run. His lantern swings, and the cave behind him becomes a swarm of indiscernible shadow.

“Shoot it!” Hemmett screams again.

Anna fires, squinting against the flash from her barrel. She works the rifle lever and fires again. The smell of gunpowder stings her nose. Her ears fill with ringing.

Hearing the shots, Hemmett stops and turns. Crazed, he fires at the darkness behind him. The revolver booms inside the cave. At the first empty click, he turns again. “Run!” he shouts while rushing by them.

Anna and Wynn sprint.

“What did you see!?” Wynn yells.

Hemmett doesn’t answer. He leaps from rock to rock with hasty abandon.

Running, each feels the weight of full pursuit behind them. The cave itself feels as if it were swallowing them.

Anna’s mind flashes with missteps and broken ankles.

Hemmett can only visualize a burnt face with ferocious fangs.

Wynn pictures the desecrated bodies, their faces rotten and gaped and staring at him in a silent, eternal scream.

Their legs hurry. Their lungs labor and leave puffs of breath behind. They fly by the remains of Daniels without a glance and round the last bend. Howling wind finds their ears, and a draft pushes the smell of fresh snow and air over their faces. They leap from the darkness and into the storm. Outside, all three spin to face what surges behind them. Hemmett reloads in an instant. Anna kneels and aims.

Fergus sees them and stops short of the fire he built, a chunk of wood in his hands. His mouth drops in surprise.

They wait, weapons ready.

Around them, the blizzard rages.

Before them, the cave mocks them with emptiness.

A minute passes. Slowly, a second somehow follows. It isn’t until the third that Hemmett stands down, slowly lowering his revolver and then holstering it entirely. Anna follows his lead and relaxes her aim.

“What did you see?” Wynn asks.

Hemmett shakes his head. His eyes stay locked onto the cave. “I don’t know. A face I think. And teeth.”

“Teeth?” Anna says.

Hemmett nods. “Teeth. Long, sharp teeth.”

Fergus approaches them in a panic. “What was it? Was it the deviling?”

The three Walkers exchange uncertain glances between themselves. None venture an answer.

 

*  *  *

 

Buried in shadow, the deviling lurks within the cave. Wrapping stolen clothes tight around its charred skin, it listens to the whaling winds and the occasional voices that ride upon them. Satisfied with its mental projections, it smiles. Weaknesses have been discovered, and fear has been instilled. Hungry once more, it recedes into the deeper chambers to feast on the remaining meat. All too soon, the meat is gone.

All too soon, its hunger returns.

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