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Shadow of Fear: A Jason Wood Story (part 1)

In honor of Pixel-stained Technopeasant Wretch Day (see papersky's journal for details) I am posting the next Jason Wood Story here in its entirety. Okay, I'm jumping the gun by ... 42 minutes or so.

Enjoy!




Shadow of Fear
(A Jason Wood Story)

By
Ryk E. Spoor

i.

I opened up the fridge and poked around. "I think I'm out of AB, but this bottle of A is new."

The vampire to whom I addressed the comment leaned back comfortably in one of my new office chairs. "That's just fine, Jason. Verne's the connoisseur; I try actually not to cultivate a discriminating taste."

"Given you're theoretically still cursed, I suppose it's probably a good idea. Here you go." I placed the bottle in front of Father Jonathan, probably the most atypical vampire I knew – and these days I actually knew several.

The priest studied me as I sat down, maybe a little heavier than I wanted to. "You look absolutely exhausted, Jason. I hope home life isn't a problem…?"

That got a small chuckle out of me. "Oh, me and Syl are doing just fine. Hell, I'd be a lot more tired if I didn't have her around; she generally screens my public calls and filters out like 95% of them as total crackpots, and most of the rest I can dump off on other people who can do the looking as well as I can. But even that one percent seems to be getting bigger all the time. Then when something really big and flashy happens, guess who gets called? I just got back from Africa last night."

Father Jonathan gave a startled laugh. "Oh, how silly of me. Of course you would have been called in on that."

"That" was, of course, the event the papers were calling the "Gabon Blast". Something had caused an explosion – estimated at around a hundred megatons, or larger than the biggest hydrogen bomb ever tested – near the border of Gabon, in one of the least-populated and still wild portions of the country. That was one of the more positive aspects of the event, of course – few people killed and no reason for someone to immediately respond with missiles. Still, I was really glad this had happened now instead of a few years back during the end of the Cold War.

"Yeah." I acknowledged. "What with the original 'Morgantown Incident' that just about everyone's heard of, plus a few other things that Certain People know about, I'm called in for anything weird these days."

He sipped at the blood, straight from the bottle. "And did you find anything of interest?"

I shook my head, frowning. "More a 'dog in the night-time' case, actually. What we didn't find was pretty revealing. No sign of radiation. No sign of chemical explosives – not that anyone could imagine a way that someone could smuggle a few million tons of high explosive into the middle of a jungle without causing talk. Not a trace of meteoric dust or iron. Of course, certain sources that we know," I glanced at him and he nodded, knowing I meant Syl, Verne, and a few others, "all felt 'something' when it went off, but that's not the kind of evidence I could bring to the table down there. The crater was damn small compared to the blast force, but angles seem to indicate it was damn close to the ground, if not actually a ground burst. No one still alive nearby had seen or heard anything unusual before the blast." That wasn't quite true, but what they had seen just raised more questions than answers, and I was both too tired to go into the details, and not sure how much I could tell Father Jonathan. "Anyway, what brings you to the office?"

He looked mildly concerned. "I hadn't realized how busy – or tired – you were, or I wouldn't have come to you for what seems a relatively trivial matter."

I waved that off. "If anyone isn't going to be coming to me with a crackpot problem, it's a guy who's a vampire himself. What's the problem?"

"Monsters in the closet." He answered, looking embarrassed.

ii.


He wasn't talking about his own closet, something I'd guessed as soon as he'd come to me. I figured Father Jonathan could take care of his own problems, but that in his public persona he would want to seem as normal as possible to keep anyone from asking the wrong sorts of questions. So it had to be one of his parishioners.

The person with the problem was Dave Plunkett, a fairly wealthy entrepreneur who made his money providing security systems for moderate-sized installations. Mr. Plunkett lived near the City most of the time, but he'd inherited a summer camp in the Adirondack foothills, near a tiny town called East Galway. It was a lovely piece of property, around 48 acres of heavily forested hills with a little stream, a moderate sized pond, and a very large, multi-room log cabin his grandfather had actually built. Plunkett and his family – his wife and two kids, a boy and a girl – often took vacations to their little camping area. The camp had no real amenities – no electric, sewer, water, or phone lines ran out that far. The camp boasted an actual log cabin outhouse a short distance away from the cabin (on the other side of a ridge that ensured its separation from the stream).

"Up until the last couple of years," Father Jonathan had said, "they've had no real problems; oh, the usual kid's complaints about isolation, a few nightmares, people calling the house 'creepy', you know the sort of thing – but the worst you could really say was that it was… an 'atmospheric' place. Their kids seemed to actually like the slightly scary atmosphere, and it was popular with some of their friends too. Then…"

"… it stopped being just atmospheric." I had finished, not entirely surprised. It really did seem that something was changing, something that started when the Wolves appeared, or maybe when Raiakafan first showed up. Verne Domingo, the template from which vampires like Father Jonathan had been derived, had hinted about that more than once. One of these days I was going to have to sit down with him and go into these things in-depth.

Father Jonathan agreed that was a good, if all too brief, description of what had happened, and after I asked a few more questions it was clear to me that I needed to talk with Mr. Plunkett personally, and Father Jonathan had immediately arranged the meeting for the next day.

So now I was looking across my desk at Dave Plunkett. Dave was of about average height, with red hair and beard – both showing a bit of gray – and a face of the sort that normally looked open and cheerful. Now, though, he looked more worried than anything. "Sit down, Mr. Plunkett. Father Jonathan gave me a really quick summary of your problem, but I'd really appreciate hearing it from you, straight."

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "It's… kinda hard to talk about it. I mean, in the daytime, here, it doesn't seem real. Well, no, that's not it. I know it's real, Jesus Christ, yeah, but …"

"… you feel stupid talking about it because you wouldn't believe it yourself." I finished for him. "Mr. Plunkett –"

"Dave."

"Dave, I understand completely. I still find it really kinda hard to say the word 'werewolf' without wincing. And I saw the damn things up close more times than you could count, or would want to. If Father Jonathan thinks you have a problem, he's probably right. Just tell me about it. Start with what happened last year; I know about the camp."

Mr. Plunkett scratched his head nervously, then started talking. "Right… well, last year, we – that's me, my wife Jenny, and my kids Elizabeth and Mitchell – went up for our usual trip."

"How old are Elizabeth and Mitchell?"

"Oh, Lizzie's 14 now, and Mitch is 11."

"Okay. Just needed to be able to visualize the group of you. So they were 13 and 10 when this started?" He nodded. "Got it. Go on."

"Okay… we got there in the afternoon, dragged in all our stuff, I grilled us some dinner, and then we all went to bed – well, we usually do some reading first, then we go to bed early the first day.

"About a half hour later, Mitch screamed – loud enough to wake me right off, and I'm a heavy sleeper. Mitch said he'd seen something, something huge like a monster peering in the window, a black shadowy thing with faintly glowing eyes.

"Since this was just a little while after Morgantown, you can imagine what I was thinking; I had a shotgun with silver loads along, just in case. So I checked all around the house very carefully."

Still listening to his narration, I mused to myself that Mr. Plunkett would never have even thought about doing that if he'd ever actually seen a Wolf. Or, if he did, the "checking" would have consisted of firing blasts of silver shot in all directions as he stepped out and then doing the same as he went around the house.

"I didn't find anything; I even checked for prints outside of Mitch's window. Mitch was positive he'd seen something, but he admitted that it was kind of blurry and that maybe the moonlight through the trees had made the pattern. So we pulled the curtains tight shut in his room and went back to bed." He took a deep breath, then continued. "It wasn't twenty minutes later that another scream yanked us awake, but this one was from Lizzy.

"We all rushed into her room, to find her backed up against the one wall with her bush knife in her hand, shaking so bad that she couldn't even hold the thing straight. When we got her calmed down, she told us she'd glanced over towards her closet – well, really more a cabinet bolted to the wall, but a tall one a couple of feet deep – and noticed the door was open. That was just barely visible in the moonlight coming through her window. She was already falling back to sleep and trying to decide if it was worthwhile to go back over the cold wood floor and close it, when she saw the door starting to open wider… and wider… and she could see something inside, something dark and huge with faintly glowing eyes and a wavering, fanged smile.

"Of course, we didn't find anything. Her closet door was open, yeah, but she had it so crammed full of clothes you couldn't have fit a kitten in there, let alone some seven-foot monster. Still, the kids were both scared as hell and Jenny was getting kinda creeped out by the situation – and, I gotta admit, so was I. Lizzie and Mitch hadn't had those kind of nightmares in years, and nothing ever that bad, and it just didn't make sense that they'd both suddenly go all scared overnight. Still, we were already there, it was late, driving back now was out of the question when there was nothing to run from. So we moved sleeping bags into the main bedroom and left a small oil lamp on until the kids fell asleep. Once me and Jenny were sure that both of them were sleeping well, we turned out the light to go to sleep themselves."

"And?"

Dave swallowed hard, then continued. "About ten minutes later, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a faint creaking noise, and saw the bedroom door opening very slowly. You can bet I came awake right away then. But I didn't say anything, didn't even move, except to slide my hand over to where I had the shotgun. Just kept my eyes slitted almost shut, just open enough so I could see the door. Mr. Wood, I've been in security for twenty years, been in my share of fights, even had guys trying to honest-to-god kill me. But I'd take all those over again rather than lie there like that, watching a door open that couldn't possibly be opening, because I knew I'd shut it myself.

"It was black outside that door, black as pitch, and it kept opening, and then I saw a faint light; I thought I was finally seeing the window across the living room, and then I saw it was an eye. A glowing eye, and I swear to God I felt my heart stop dead right then. The door just kept swingin' open, and I saw more and more of this black thing standin' there, blocking out the faint moonlight from the windows, and grinning like some walkin' jack-o-lantern. Then it moved, like it was getting' ready to come in.

"Lemme tell you, that got my heart and the rest of me moving. All I could think of was that Jenny was right there behind me, and the kids off to the side, and there wasn't any way I was letting this thing get them. I sat up and let that thing have it, three rounds as fast as I could pump it. There was a lot of screaming and jumping and moving, and I couldn't see right away because of the muzzle flash, so I couldn't see or hear where it went, but when the smoke cleared there wasn't anything there.

"That was the last straw, though. We cleared out right away and drove home. The next day we were still creeped out, but it sounded pretty silly, so we didn't say anything to anyone else about that, just said that one of the kids got sick and we didn't want to stay up there then." He leaned back, looking slightly defiant.

"Somehow," I said, "I don't think you're the kind of guy to leave it at that."

He grinned, a tired grin but a real one. "You've got that right. Sure, the next weekend I went up there by myself – Jenny didn't like that, but someone had to go check it out. I brought portable lights, security cams and stuff like that, wired the place up, and watched all night. Got a couple of moments where I felt something was watching me, but nothing really happened, and I felt pretty silly – not to mention tired – by the time morning came. So I caught me some sleep that afternoon and decided to go to stealth surveillance mode – I cut the lights and went to near-IR."

I nodded my understanding. Many electronic cameras were sensitive in the near-infrared spectrum, and it didn't take much power at all to send out enough NIR "light" – actually heat – to illuminate a wide area while leaving it pitch-black to the naked eye.

"So again I was watching the little screens, but… well, I hadn't really gotten a full night's sleep and I'm not as young as I used to be, so pulling all-nighters really takes it out of me. So I fell asleep. And I had nightmares, of all the doors opening around me, and things like the one I saw standing there, and coming at me. But I couldn't wake up for like the longest time, and those nightmares just went on and on, until finally I felt like I practically ripped myself out of sleep – you know, that feeling when you're awake, but you feel like someone dragged you out of sleep with a tow chain? Anyway, I was totally – I mean, totally – soaked with sweat, breathing like I'd done a marathon, and I look up and there the damn thing is, standing almost over me, reaching towards me. Now, I ain't proud of what happened next, but I don't know if anyone else wouldn't have done the same. I screamed like a girl and I ran. Lucky I was in the dining room and not far from the door, because the way I was thinking, or not thinking, I'd've dove straight through the nearest window. I practically flew to my truck, had the remote starter start her up and turn her on as I was running, and I dove into the cab. I could feel that thing right on my heels, and as I slammed the door I swear I saw it not three feet off. I left the cab lights on, gunned the engine, and got the hell out of there. Went back the next morning to get my equipment, and even then I was jumpy."

"And did your cameras show anything?"

He slammed his fist on the desk. "Not one damn thing! They blacked out! Didn't show shit!"

"Hey, take it easy. If they were independent units, that's actually a pretty interesting fact. They shouldn't have failed all at once. Was there anything wrong with them?"

"No sir. I checked them all out before, and I checked 'em out afterward. They all worked." He gave me an apologetic look. "Sorry about bangin' on your desk."

"No problem, it's tough. So what about in the time since?"

He recounted a few other incidents, which boiled down to the simple facts that no one – not him, not his family, and none of the few friends he'd dared to tell about the problem had been able to spend a night in that cabin since. Some of them couldn't even walk in the door, getting a feeling of dark foreboding that something terrible was waiting just inside. "So the damn place is going to fall to pieces – ain't no one been inside to clean it since that first time we ran out, I didn't really do any of that on my surveillance trip, and no one since has stayed long enough to care."

I nodded. "Sounds like it happens mostly at night. Is that right? Has anyone run into this thing in daylight?"

"Well… no, not really. The cabin feels a lot creepier and less friendly than it used to, but no one's ever seen or heard anything really funny in the daytime."

"If all it does is scare people, maybe you could use that."

He gave a short, explosive laugh. "Yeah, a tourist attraction. Thought of that, actually. But a real tourist attraction, you still have to know what you're dealing with and be able to control it. I don't know that this thing is just trying to scare us. It can move doors, at least, so I have to ask myself: what else can it do? It sure don't seem friendly."

"No, you're right there. If I look at it as thinking even vaguely like a human being, well, a person who liked doing that is the kind of guy who tends to escalate – they start out small, then get worse. You're doing the right thing. If you still have the surveillance data, I'd like to look at it."

"Sure, no problem. I didn't find anything on it, but if you can, more power to you." He looked apprehensive. "Um, how much is this going to cost?"

I shook my head. "I don't necessarily charge if it's important enough, or interesting enough. There are advantages in being The Guy Everyone Knows. Let me talk to a few consultants first, then I'll get back to you with an estimate."


iii.


The cave ceiling glowed faintly like a starry sky overhanging the small trees and grassy sweep of lawn below it. I leaned against the altar at the center of the Heart, admiring the view. "I swear, it looks brighter in here."

"Your perceptions are most accurate, Jason. It is indeed brighter, a fact of considerable concern." Verne's dark-skinned, aristocratic features, with their underlying vampiric pallor, mirrored the concern of which he spoke. He stood at the edge of the Mirror, the mystic pool which was the true center of this underground temple to the Earth goddess Eönae.

"What's the problem? Light is pretty good for plants; seeing them growing underground like this is still quite freaky."

The wry smile showed the sharper canines more than the other teeth. "The light, by itself, is not the problem. It is that such brightening is the first objective indication I have had of something we were before only speculating about. The strength of the Powers is indeed increasing, in a very disturbing manner."

"You think the problem Mr. Plunkett is having is related to this?"

"I would, in fact, be quite astonished if it did not – and if similar problems are not already occurring."

"We really need to sit down and talk about this sometime. Sometime soon. And if this kind of thing is going to keep happening, I may have to start hiring. Syl can't keep being the filter on my answering machine, she has her own business to run – and since she started studying with you, that business has gotten a lot more serious, for those of us who get to see behind the fluffy exterior."

"I am very much afraid, Jason, that you cannot escape your destiny to be at the very center of such events. Yes, we must discuss the overall implications, and soon. But first, to the very interesting problem of Mr. Plunkett and his no longer friendly vacation home."

I nodded, moving away from the altar stone. "I've brought all the stuff with me. Coming up?"

"In a moment. If you would, please stay while I speak with the Lady."

I stayed, respectfully silent. "Speaking with the Lady" was Verne's phrase for prayer, but unlike prayer sessions in other places of worship, I had gotten more and more the feeling of Someone being present when Verne closed his eyes and spoke in the ancient tongue that no one living had understood in half a million years. I'd asked him if that meant that the other religions were false. His answer was vehemently negative:

"No! Never should one judge the truth or falsity of religion based on such nebulous things – or even, truth be told, on far more objective events. If the Powers be present, there are those deities who will show themselves openly; there are others who do not. There are a myriad reasons why they may, or may not, manifest to their worshippers in physical ways. It is my belief that most religions are true in one way or another; they simply each focus on different aspects of the Creator and Its Children."

This time that feeling of Presence was even stronger; I thought I saw a luminous glitter from the Mirror as Verne bent over it and touched its surface gently with spread hands. Then he rose. "I am now at your disposal, Jason." He said, his archaic turn of phrase complementing his theatrical style of dress, which echoed all the best cinema vampires – or, perhaps it would be better to say, his style seemed to be emulated well by all the best actors of vampires.

We sat down in the same large yet cosy den into which Verne had had me dragged when we first met, a little more than two years ago. The usual tray of snacks was already waiting for me – Morgan, Verne's major-domo/butler, always anticipated my need for additional fuel when researching the weird. Verne, of course, had his usual glass of blood.

"You mentioned that the security images were not entirely without value. You obtained some images of interest, then?"

"Yep. Here, take a look."

The critical frames were taken from the moment that the cameras had faded out. To someone viewing them casually, it just looked like the camera failed; the screen went black. But the human eye doesn't discriminate shades of dark nearly as well as the camera can register them, and playing with the original data showed something very different. The darkness didn't hit the camera in a uniform fashion, but started on one side of the field of view and spread – very quickly, within one or two frames – to cover the entire camera. And in a couple of those frames…

Verne nodded thoughtfully. "That looks like part of a hand, does it not?"

"Yep. Blurry as hell, and black as pitch, but there's structure to that darkness that covers the cameras. The blur might be from movement, or the thing itself might be blurry. So, any ideas, Verne? This a ghost, a demon, what?"

Verne considered for a while. I knew enough not to bug him, just ate a few of the spiced roast beef crackers. Finally he sighed. "The problem, Jason, is that I have entirely too many ideas on this subject. The described events and behavior could be caused by a large number of supernatural creatures and forces, and it will require some effort, investigation, and deduction to determine which one."

I made a face. "I knew this would happen one of these days – that I'd get a case where the answer didn't just drop obviously out of the events. Even the Maelkodan pretty much narrowed the field down quickly once she left a statue out for us to see." I still felt a slight twinge of regret over the Maelkodan's end. I really wished I could have found some way around the creature's death, but even the Maelkodan itself admitted that there was no real chance that it could stop killing things – especially humans and werewolves.

"If there were no signs of the Awakening, the answer might well be narrower." Verne said. "But as the overall level of power increases, things which were too weak to manifest previously become much more likely to be seen. I would say that the three most likely candidates are a ryunihav, a zarbalath, or one of the thansaelasavi."

I knew the first two; "ryunihav" was the Atlantaean for ghost, though I needed details on what they meant by "ghost". "Zarbalath" was one of a number of words which basically meant "demon". "What's that last?" I asked, activating my PDA so I could record this for later transcription.

"Thansaelasavi." Verne repeated.

"Okay, got that… um, if I remember right, that'd be 'magic –something'."

"Very good, Jason. An exact translation would be difficult, mainly because it is a very shortened form of a far more descriptive phrase. The best description is 'creatures born of and sustained by the magic of life'. Some believed such creatures were the creations of wizards or deities; others that they were natural products of a world steeped in magic, that evolution would act upon magical traits exactly as it would upon ordinary genetic ones. For our purposes, unfortunately, it is a very broad category. All of these creatures derive much of their essence from the energies of other living beings, somewhat as the Great Wolves do. However, they do so mostly through interaction with living beings and their … auras, as Sylvia likes to call them; they are also quite diverse, as they may derive from apparently natural creatures, or be a living essence of some mystical element or another – fire, earth, and so on. Some of these creatures are symbiotes – the typical 'familiar' attributed to some schools of magical practice, for instance, would be a thansaelasavi of cooperative nature, exchanging the affection and power derived from its linked partner for the services such a familiar could provide. Others are much more sinister, parasites which influence the minds and emotions of intelligent creatures to generate more energy for themselves and to weaken the creatures in question until they die. Such thansaelasavi cannot directly kill the soul, as could the Maelkodan or Great Wolves, but if someone dies nearby they can consume the released essence."

"Well, that last description sounds pretty much like our friend in the cabin, doesn't it?"

"If only it were so simple. A number of demons could, and would, operate in the same fashion. Similarly, so could a ryunihav. Each, unfortunately, implies differing means of dealing with it, and far different threats for the investigator."

"This thing comes out at night, or so it seems. Why don't you come out with me? There isn't much on Earth that could mess with you."

Verne considered. "What you say is true, certainly. But by the same token, such things will tend to conceal themselves if I am present; in this case, even if what you are dealing with is a demon of considerable comparative power, I am sufficiently formidable that you would find yourself in the position of a hunter trying to catch a rabbit while a tiger is prowling nearby."

That did make sense. "You can't hide yourself from them?"

He shrugged skeptically, finishing his glass as he mulled the question. "In truth, I do not know. If I knew for a fact what was there, yes, probably. But without clear knowledge, I would have to be something more like a Wolf to be able to conceal my nature from all such presences. I am afraid, Jason, that you and, possibly, Sylvia will have to visit this place without my direct participation."

I sighed. "It's never simple. I guess we'd better go over all the details. If I'm going to have to figure out what ancient horror from beyond time is awakening in the Adirondacks, I'd better have a good Field Guide to Horrors available."


iv.


The cabin loomed up before us like a sleeping volcano. Despite the bright sunlight streaming down through gaps in the overhead foliage, the area around the cabin still seemed darker. The sounds we'd heard surrounding us in the woods during the walk up the hill to the cabin – scuttling chipmunks in the brush, birds, the tap-scuff-tap-tap of deer moving cautiously through the woods just out of sight, the drone and buzz of insects – were almost totally absent, only coming to us faintly from some considerable distance.

Syl swallowed hard. "I don't think you need my intuition." Her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the silence.

I shook my head. "There's something in there, that's for damn sure. Finding out what, now, that might take a while."

"No simple tests for this case." Syl agreed, staring at the cabin with not the slightest indication of wanting to move closer. "Can we deal with something like that?"

I shrugged and started forward. "Verne seemed to think so. He said that even though the world seems to be 'Awakening', as he put it, it'll be a long way from reaching high power levels for quite a while yet. He also said something about the 'mark' on me that he thought might have some effect." I turned back. "You have it?"

She blinked, then shook her head. "Sorry, Jasie. I have to focus a bit. Here. Remade with everything I could put into it."

I took the crystal hammer charm, a carved model of one version of Mjolnir – Thor's hammer – which Syl had given to me shortly before a vampire almost ripped out my throat. Even then Syl had been "for real"; her charm made Elias Klein back off just long enough.

Now, after studying under Verne and starting to understand, not the fragments of true magic which had managed to survive or be rediscovered in the time since it had been mostly sealed away, but the real basis of enchantment and the powers of the mind, she had taken the charm back and put everything she could into it. I don't have much real sensitivity to those kind of things – Verne had said, with an apologetic smile, that I was as pure a mundane in that sense as he'd ever seen. But even I could feel a difference as I put the charm back on, as though the clearing had become just a little lighter. "Thanks, Syl. You coming in?"

She nodded. "I just don't understand why I'm having so much trouble. We haven't even seen anything yet."

"Dunno. Maybe after soaking in all the mystic woo-woo from studying you've gotten too sensitive. Or maybe it's just that right now we haven't any idea what we're looking at; before we did."

The cabin door creaked atmospherically as we entered. Inside, the light was dimmer, and it felt as though the ceiling was low enough to bump my head on, even though a glance upward assured me it was at least two feet over my head. "Mr. Plunkett's grandad built 'em big." I sniffed; a very faint, sharp smell reached my nostrils. An echo of something far stronger. "Gunpowder. Long time ago, but I guess the smell lingers in a mostly closed room." I stepped forward, felt something move, looked down. Little metal balls, mostly black in color. I picked one up, rubbed it hard against my jeans; it sparkled like a mirror. "Silver shot. He really meant it when he said no one cleaned up."

I glanced around, remembering the diagram Dave had given me. "Okay, that's the master bedroom there. Don't move, Syl. I want to check some things."

I studied the floor carefully; people had already disarranged a lot of the evidence, of course, since several people had been here since that night the whole family got chased out, but I didn't need any more tracks marking things up. Lots of pellets once you got outside of the main traffic path. I went into the main bedroom, studied the doorway. The sides were chewed up pretty badly in a pattern that confirmed Dave's story; someone had unloaded three blasts from a shotgun right at the doorway. Some of it had hit the doorframe, of course – shotgun blasts spread, and if he was firing from the bed… yeah, it could easily spread that much, depending on how it was choked. Still, most of the shot would go through the door and end up on the wall opposite. I stood near the bed and sighted through the door. "Syl," I said, "Go stand against the wall there. No, a little over… over… stop."

That put Syl right about in the path of Dave's fire pattern. "Okay, you can move out." I said, and then took several carefully focused digital shots of the wall and surrounding area. I wasn't sure, but I thought I was seeing something. "You getting anything?"

Syl's normally cheerful blue eyes were haunted; her black hair seemed duller than usual. "Too much. There's fear… loss… loneliness… fury, hatred…" she closed her eyes. "Feels like a revenant, a ghost."

"What Verne calls a ryunihav."

"Possibly. Verne says true ghosts, in the sense of a living being's spirit refusing to either dissipate or "go on" to some other place, are vanishingly rare. What's much more common are mystical echoes of the presence of a powerful person or soul, accumulations of their essence that take on a circumscribed life of their own. That's a ryunihav. With the increase in magic, such "echoes" would start to replay again."

"So it's like a CD player on repeat, and someone just turned the power back on?"

"Except that these things can take actions, sometimes dangerous ones. But they're usually not capable of reason. You have to banish or neutralize them."

"Well, that's good. Could we try that and see if it works?"

Syl shook her head. "I have a bad feeling about that idea. I have to do the ritual while it's present; if it's stronger than I'm ready for, the ritual could backfire on me, and if it's not a ryunihav, the focus I have on the ritual could leave me open to attack from whatever it really is."

I don't argue with Syl's "bad feelings". Even before I knew there were such things as real monsters and magic, she'd convinced me that she had something, and she'd only gotten better at it. "I don't suppose you can 'feeling' your way to telling me which way to go on this?"

She shook her head again, looking apologetic. "According to Verne, a lot of what I'm doing is precognition. Sensing the future. That's why I could sense even werewolves – I'm not sensing them, because that's almost impossible, but I'm sensing what's going to happen in a few seconds, and I know it's bad. But future sensing is hard. Apparently even as old as he is, Verne's almost never seen anyone else who could do it reliably – maybe ten or twenty in his whole life – and none of them really see the future, except maybe flashes.

"So I might get a good feeling or bad feeling about some approach to something, but that's about it. And from what's happened before, I think it really doesn't work all-out unless someone I care about is in danger."

I nodded. That fit with the way things had worked before. "Okay. Then let's finish checking out the cabin before the sun starts getting low. I want to get back to the hotel and figure out my approach before I get caught in this cabin after dark."

***********

"Now that is interesting."

Syl came and looked over my shoulder. "What?"

I pointed at the 23-inch flat panel I was using for a display in our hotel room. "That's the pattern of shot that hit the wall when Dave Plunkett tried to blow away the thing in his doorway."

She nodded. "Shot hit the wall. So there wasn't anything there?"

"No, that's what's interesting. Dave was a good shot. I was able to use the pattern of shot that grazed the doorframe to reconstruct his shots pretty clearly. He made a darn close grouping, centered here, here, and here." I poked my finger at three points in the main image. "I also, after picking up some of the shot, know what kind of load he had in there, and the spread tells me the choke. Or lack thereof; he had a cylinder barrel, which means that at 15 feet the grouping was about 7.5 inches, and about 20 inches on the far side of the common room, where the wall is. Big house. And I personally wouldn't be using #4 shot for werewolves, but hey, that's his choice. Does give me a nice number of pellets – around 140 per ounce."

"So you reconstructed the shooting."

"Exactly. Now, look; I'm assuming ideal patterns, which don't exist, but I can come fairly close. When I run it through someone firing three shots at these angles, I get a pattern really very close to the one I find at the edge of the doorframe; standing at the bed he was a little off to the side of the doorframe, so he clipped it a bit. But take a look at the pattern I get on the far wall." I ran it through several cycles. "Compare that to the real pattern – I've reduced it to the same wall with dots that I get from the sim."

Syl studied it for a minute. "It looks… denser than the real thing. More dots.

"Quite a few. And I've tried running it a lot of times. I never get anything that low, or even close. But the doorframe proves he really did fire three times, with the same kind of shot. My best guesses is that about half of the first load never reached the wall."

"So… some of it did?"

"Yeah. It's not missing a whole load's worth. Which is really weird. It means that whatever was standing there wasn't solid enough to stop all the shot cold, but was solid enough to stop some of it. And it wasn't there for the second or third shots." I looked at the screen, feeling grim. "That means that this thing can be solid enough to stop bullets. So much for it not being able to be dangerous."

Syl's cell phone began singing something from U2, causing us both to jump. "Hello? Yes… what? Oh my god! Yes, of course…" she looked at me in shock. "Hold on… Jason, it's Valerie Prince. She says Samantha's back."

I understood the shellshocked look. Samantha Prince ("Sam" to her friends) had been one of Syl's closest friends in college; I had met her a couple of times, and she was one of the very few of Syl's friends who also seemed to "have something", rather than just be the fuzzy-headed new-age delusional type. Pretty, delicate, and blonde, Sam had an incisive head for figures and was already a successful accountant and tax advisor, despite being a year or two younger than Syl.

Then, one day, she had simply disappeared. She'd gone out for a walk, entered a nearby park, and never been seen again. The fact that she had made arrangements to ensure that her business and clients were not thrown into chaos argued that she had intended to disappear, but no one in her family or in her circle of close friends had any idea why. She had no "significant others", and her parents were emphatic that the only thing she had said was that she had a "feeling" that something was going to happen very soon.

This had happened about the time Virigar showed up, a couple of years ago. After that much time, even her family had started to accept she was gone forever. "Are they sure it's her?"

"Very sure. But she's not in great shape, and the family… Jason, I don't want to leave you alone with this, but…"

I hugged her and took the phone. "Mrs. Prince? Jason Wood. It's wonderful to hear she's back. Look, Syl thinks you could use some help."

Valerie Prince's voice sounded relieved. "I know this must be an inconvenient time for you… my goodness, with what you're involved in I suppose there are no convenient times… still, Sylvia has always been such a help and Samantha isn't entirely making sense, but she's clear that Sylvia is the only one of her friends she wants called in right now. She's insisting that we not even tell the police yet. It's very confusing."

"It's no problem. I'll send Syl down right away." I handed the phone back to Syl.

A few minutes later, having said goodbye, she came over to me. "Are you sure you want to handle this without me?"

"Want to? Not exactly, sweetheart, but look, I know how close you and Sam were, and I liked her myself."

"Yes, I noticed." She said, trying to sound like her usual lighthearted self.

"Can't blame a guy for looking." I said, grinning. "Anyway, you go help her out. Charter a flight if you need to on this short notice. And if they need anything, well, I know they're not hurting for money, but if you need anything else, give Verne or me a call."

"Thank you, Jason… I love you." She hugged me fiercely and we kissed. "Oh no, I didn't drive up here separately! I can't take the Hummer, you need the equipment!"

"Then get a taxi. It's only money. Or better yet…" I pulled out my cell, hit my speed-dial.

"Domingo residence, Morgan speaking."

"Morgan! Hey, look, a personal emergency came up for Syl; she has to go visit some old friends, and we're stuck up here on that investigation. Can you –"

"But of course, sir. I will send a car up immediately."

"I could call a taxi –"

"That would never do, sir. Master Verne would insist."

"Thanks so much, Morgan." I hung up. Syl was packing away her things. "Gonna miss you."

"You just be careful while I'm gone, Mr. Information Man." She said, using one of her old nicknames for me. "I want a home and a husband to come back to." She looked up at me. "It's going to take at least an hour for the car to get here."

I raised an eyebrow. "Something you'd like to do in that time?"

Normally she'd have countered by playfully withdrawing her implied invitation. Instead, she just said, very softly, "Yes.", and came to me.

After she left, I stared out into the darkness that had swallowed up the limousine. That almost over-enthusiastic "good-bye" session had told me how much she was worried. She knew I never left an investigation unfinished. And she couldn't see where this one would end.

"Great." I sighed. "Now I'm worried."



v.

I checked all the connections again. I'd spent the entire day wiring the cabin with a multiplicity of sensors, lights, and other gadgetry, all hooked to a dual redundant set of generators and controlled both from the laptop computer in the master bedroom and from my wireless PDA. I wanted no chance that any of my preparations would fizzle at the wrong moment, especially not now as the afternoon sunshine was starting to fade away. I made sure I had fresh batteries in everything I was carrying, and hung the Mjolnir charm inside my shirt.

Syl had called around noon, just to let me know what I'd already guessed; whatever was going on with Sam was going to take some time. I had to deal with this one on my own. Apparently Sam's problem wasn't exactly normal and needed Syl's particularly deft touch to help with. Verne and Meta had been able to give me some advice on approaches I could use that didn't require that I be a talented wizard to pull off, and I'd put as much of that advice as I could to good use in designing the pattern of lights and other devices around Mr. Plunkett's cabin.

I glanced at the west windows, where the remaining shafts of sunlight were definitely reddening, and went outside to grill a steak. No point in facing some Unknown Horror from Beyond on an empty stomach. I rubbed it first with a combination of spices (including cilantro, red pepper, and paprika, with a few others), sesame oil, cider vinegar, and honey, taking my time in the preparation and keeping my other senses alert. I wanted to evaluate the entire process of how this presence, whatever it was, acted. Any little quirk of behavior might be a clue as to what it was and how I might be able to beat it. Oh, I thought I'd already come up with a weapon or three, but at least some of the possible explanations for the thing made it possible that killing it wouldn't be necessary.

By the time the rub had worked its way in and I was ready to grill, the sun had gone down. I switched on one of the outdoor lights I'd rigged and started grilling. I could already feel a … pressure, was the best way to put it, an oppressive, nondirectional weight that seemed to drag at my spirit. Concentrating on the pleasant, hot smell of the grilling steak made it feel more like a contest – the "weight" tried to force me to ignore pleasant and happy feelings, while my own focus on my pleasures gave a stronger and more palpable sense of direction (if direction was the right word for something that was purely emotional) to this external influence.

As I sat in the brightly-lit kitchen, eating the steak, I figured out what this leaden depressing sensation reminded me of; it was very similar to being in a very, very bad mood when you were forced to go somewhere that you would normally enjoy. If you didn't know this was external, it would feel like depression, or perhaps the lurking tension of a phobia waiting to strike – as though you were afraid of spiders and didn't see any, but were sure that there were a few hiding somewhere nearby, ready to stalk delicately out into screaming sight.

So I enjoyed the steak, but not nearly as much as I might have. Even in the lighted room – and the lighting helped, that much I could tell right away from having to cross back and forth between the kitchen and the darker deck area where the grill was – the damn thing's influence was insidious. I found momentary flickers of fear and sadness appearing in my thoughts without warning; worry about Syl and the flight she'd have home, feeling I was simply unable to handle this problem, a creeping sensation between my shoulderblades… Then it faded back, as though either it had given up on trying to overcome my own focus, or else it planned a more opportune moment for its attack.

The "opportune moment" was pretty clearly whenever I went to sleep. The thing's history made that clear. I could of course stay up all night if I wanted, but the truth was that this wouldn't help me much at all. I needed to confront whatever it was directly, at least get some personal grasp of what I was facing.

So, after taking a walk far away from the cabin to let my mind, and dinner, settle, I went to bed. That bed, however, had the whole range of controls right near it. Even though the mysterious force had backed off, it still took me quite a while to fall asleep. When you know there is a malevolent something just waiting for you to nod off, it's not exactly easy to close your eyes at all, let alone actually go to sleep – and given that this thing affected the mind, I was pretty sure it could tell whether I was asleep. It had probably known the very moment that the Plunketts had awakened, but it had always waited for its targets to fall asleep. Unfortunately, I also couldn't use any artificial sleeping assistance; when I woke up, I sure couldn't afford to be sluggish.

I went to bed around 9:00. I think I finally managed to drift off to sleep around midnight.



vi.


It was a terrible sleep, filled with indescribable oozing fear, and a slithering feeling of something creeping ever-so-slowly up on you… and with the echoing sensation of complete loss and loneliness, with not a friend or companion for a thousand miles. I forced my eyes open.

A monstrous black shadow, barely visible against the gloom of the night-shrouded bedroom, loomed above the bed. Blank eyes glowed the gray leaden color of winter, and a shadowy, taloned hand stretched towards my throat. My heart hammered completely out of control, each beat jabbing pain through my chest. I tried to speak, to even scream, but my throat was drier than dust and only a faint, incoherent croak escaped. The thing smiled, that frozen witchlight limning a mouth filled with sharklike teeth, and one talon traced an ice-cold, sharp line down my cheek, screaming images of dismemberment and abandonment through my head. I can't move! I thought, with horror rising.

But that was what it wanted. It wanted, needed the strength of that emotion, fear and horror. I was handing it the weapons it needed. I pushed against it, focusing will against fear, forcing my hand to grasp the little cylinder I'd strapped into it. Unfortunately it was still well under the covers; I probably shouldn't have used any covers at all, but mountain cabins without heat aren't amenable to that sort of thing. I concentrated, trying to ignore the fear and the icy claws near my jugular, pushing my hand out one millimeter at a time. The thing's expression flickered, as though it was somewhat nonplussed by my ability to act at all, and a tidal wave of terror thundered down on me.

That might have been a mistake on its part. I let that terror galvanize my arm into motion rather than immobility, and my hand came fully out from the bedclothes. Pointing my shaking hand at it as best I could, I squeezed my thumb down on the button.

A blazing line of blue-green fire seared its way across the room as the overpowered laser pointer sent enough concentrated photons streaking outward to set paper across the room on fire. Seeming bright as the sun in the pitch-black room, it carved a razor-thin line across the black shadow. The dead eyes doubled in size and I almost heard an ear-piercing shriek of agony and shock as it literally stumbled back, apparently unable to just vanish as it had when confronted previously. I tried to rise and give pursuit, but my adrenalin-soaked muscles shook and I fell with an undignified thud and clatter to the floorboards, the equipment hung over me banging the wood and jabbing into me, feeling weak and shaky as a crippled old man. The thing was clearly worse off, though, and it fled out the doorway, fading, feelings of horror and fear and loss now more focused outside of me than inside. I knew I must be feeling what it was feeling now, and I dragged myself to my feet and staggered after it.

I was still half-asleep and shaking, sick to my stomach, and trying to push myself as hard as I could. It didn't occur to me until I was already going through the doorway that this thing could probably sense what I was doing, or at least where I was and what my basic intent was. So I wasn't at all ready for it when the black claws slashed across my hand.

The impact was… weak. The thing might be able to assume solid form, but it was still more a thing of spirit than flesh. But it wasn't trying to hurt me, I realized too late, as the strap holding the pointer in my hand came apart and the second pillow-soft but swift blow knocked the pointer from my hand. I staggered away, trying to find the miniature laser, but the casing was unfortunately mostly black and totally invisible in the gloom.

Now I faced it, towering above me in pain-filled rage, without a weapon to hand. My other hand grasped for the PDA; enough subtlety, it was time to really turn on the lights.

There was nothing in the holster. With real horror I realized one of the clattering noises when I fell out of bed had been the little portable computer ending up on the floor. And the laptop was… on the other side of this thing.

It gave a soundless roar, a silent bellow filled with screaming terror and hate and doom, sending my pulse skyrocketing. It snarled and smiled again, keeping between me and my equipment, sending another wave of horror and isolation and loss that made me nearly faint. My heart seemed to stagger, and I realized that the monster meant to try to kill me with fear alone. I have to fight this!

But… it had cut the strap. It had touched me. But it hadn't actually hurt me. I had hurt it. And there was something, something else, something nagging at me…

At those thoughts it moved another step towards me, almost immersing me in twisting living darkness, screaming despair and death into me.

Into me.

Now suddenly I could feel it. It was… it was not quite real. Or the fear was real, but the source was not. It was the difference between burning with fire, and burning from having soaked your hands in ice-water, or drinking pure capsicum pepper oil. The pain is real, but only one of them is really going to hurt you.

And I could prove it, by remembering real fear. I remembered fighting Elias Klein, a friend turned into a monster, and how the terror welled up from within in cold flaming waves as I tried to outrun him. I remembered the inhuman Colonel as he prepared to sacrifice me in the Heart of Eönae, and the pure knowledge – not mere sensation, but bone-deep knowledge – that I had failed, that Syl, Verne, and all my friends were dead because of that. I remembered running down a Florida street, duelling a creature that could kill me with a glance.

The external pressure of fear wavered, hesitated for a moment, and I focused once more, this time on the greatest fear of all, let myself for once feel it fully, as I had for one moment in the hospital more than a year ago. I brought out that memory and made it real, the moment when the urbane and ordinary man before me had transformed into a hulking, shaggy nightmare of diamond teeth and claws, with a shrieking roar that shattered glass and left nothing but total terror in its wake, the moment I had first faced the Werewolf King, Virigar.

And in the moment that memory became the truth of terror, the thing in front of me stumbled backward, shredding and coming apart like mist in a wind, screaming its own fear, fleeing that image of horror in my head, leaving behind a trailing sense of loss, abandonment, sadness, and defeat.

I sank, shaking and soaked with sweat, to the cabin floor. Something had happened here. Something that might just tell me what I needed to know.

I didn’t feel a sense of triumph, or even of relief. I felt a tragic loss. And that – more than anything – told me I was on the right track.



Tune in to Next Post for Part 2...
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