After last night’s horrific experience, they were all afraid to stop, afraid to sleep, and Shades suspected by now that he was not the only one menaced by things only half-seen out of the corner of bleary eyes. Even still having the river failed to inspire any confidence in the face of all they’d learned of this terrible place. If they didn’t find a way out of the Woods today, none of them were sure if they could keep this up tomorrow.
Shades wondered if this was what it was to fear sleep. Both the vulnerability of the act, as well as the nightmares. Even the fact that some of them revealed the shape of threats to come seemed poor compensation.
After last night, he found himself haunted by visions of his old home, the Flathead Valley, ending up like this, an insidious voice from the back of his mind insisting that something like this was what was really happening the night of the Flathead Experiment, and he was no longer sure he had the strength or conviction to oppose it.
At high noon, they finally stopped to take a late breakfast. Though in desperate need of the energy, this place had taken its toll on their appetite, and they munched mechanically, absently. All too aware there was next to nothing left, that today would see their last meal.
It was only when they stopped to take stock of things that Shades realized, much to all of their dismay, that the map from Camp Stilton got soaked when they fell in the river last night, the folded paper now a soggy, pulpy mess that fell apart between his fingers when he tried to open it. Not that it had been doing them much good before, it was the principle of the thing.
Shades tried not to look at Kelly’s skull as he put it back in his pack. Back then, there was barely room for it, but as their supplies dwindled, it now had room to shift around. A burden that somehow grew heavier even as his pack grew lighter.
Among the last of their provisions, having sunk to the bottom of his bag, he found something he only vaguely remembered packing. Metal tins from Roger’s emergency stores, military rations Made In New Cali, according to the label. Though he could just as easily picture a different label on similar items from back on Earth.
“MRE’s…” he mumbled. “Well I’ll be damned!”
“What’s that?” Justin asked, staring at them.
“Meals Ready to Eat,” Shades informed him. “Soldiers carry these back in my world.”
“Like your father?” Max recalled.
“Yes,” Shades replied. “Even before Master Al, Dad taught me most of what I know about wilderness survival. And this place has turned most of what I learned into a bad joke…”
“Not all of it,” Max told him as they prepared to resume their tired trek. “Your instincts have saved us several times, and that’s gotta count for something. We’re all still alive, aren’t we?”
“Let’s go,” Justin said, surprising both of them by being the first to rise.
Their march continued into the afternoon, eyes sandbagged as their feet as they continued their troubled expedition.
An hour so later, they wandered past another abandoned cabin, right on the river. The mostly useless length of dock and grounded rowboat a testament to how much fuller this river could be in different seasons, certainly more use to the lumber mill back there. The dirt path behind it presumably a tributary to that so-called Highway 13.
Justin and Shades both spat in its general direction in almost perfect unison.
“We’re not fallin’ for that shit anymore…”
Though not quite as dilapidated as the cottage from the other night, even its proximity to the river felt more like temptation than hope.
Max scarcely noticed, lost in his own brooding ruminations; this was by far the longest he and Bandit had ever been separated, and with every day— and every night— it became harder not to dwell on an ever growing list of grim possibilities.
Justin struggled not to let the distance wear on his mind, more land than he had ever believed existed in any one place, and much like Max, the miles were starting to get to him almost as much as the Woods themselves. That, and recalling fragments of a nightmare from the other night, about all the knots in the trees’ bark opening up to reveal staring eyes…
For his part, after five days out here, Shades was beginning to question whether they could even begin to convince anyone to come back with them, recalling the map and note, with all their dire warnings.
As they came around another bend, Shades was positive he saw a spectral figure, a little girl, beckon them toward a tree standing out on an embankment. Passing between the narrow gap between the tree and the water before vanishing. Unlike some things he glimpsed, this one looked just substantial enough to actually be something.
Upon closer inspection, he noted that the tree appeared to cast two shadows. As if straddling two different realities. Of course, most of the Woods proper were too shrouded in shadow for this knowledge to avail them much, now that he thought about it, thus it was really only useful here along the river.
Walking up to the tree, he couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other signs for them to find. Leading to a grim thought. After the other day, they had been too spooked by the radio to bother much with it since then, but now he switched his on as he stood before the tree.
Moving toward the landward side of the tree caused a sharp rise in static, while the river side remained faint and quiet.
Explaining to his friends what he had seen, he led them through the narrow gap between the tree and the river, to a riverside forest that looked exactly like the one they saw ahead of them, but, most perplexing, that the tree now had only one shadow from this side.
“Where the hell has that ghost-girl been lately anyway?” Justin muttered.
“Don’t know.” Shades shrugged. “I think we lost her for a while back at the circle stones. Maybe she was in the swamp, but I wasn’t completely sure. I’m just glad to see she didn’t follow us into those deadlands. I don’t think even a ghost is safe in that world…”
Even mentioning it, at high noon, in broad daylight, didn’t feel very safe, so he tried to put it out of his mind as they resumed.
Armed with two pieces of intel they wished they had days ago, they continued, Shades tuned in to the radio with one earphone, while Max tried to keep a weary eye out for any anomalous shadows as they went.
After another harrowing hour or so, they came upon more derelict millworks, this time a much more extensive complex, yet just as run-down as Rigby Millworks, so they didn’t linger.
Simultaneously dismayed and heartened to find an old dirt road on the far side of the place, running right alongside the river. Though deservedly distrustful of roads out here, they decided to walk it only if its path kept in sight of the river. If nothing else, it did make a smooth path for numb legs and sore feet.
A short walk around the bend, and the road turned left onto a bridge. Wider, longer, and of metal and concrete construction, unlike the covered bridge back at Stilton, clearly designed to bear heavier loads, as well. Despite being left to rot presumably as long as everything else out here, it seemed to have held up better, and they could cross it without a hitch.
The thing that held their foremost attention, though, was an end to the Woods on the other side, and a glimpse of old, crumbling houses just beyond it.
Anymore, it was hard to tell where to focus their eyes as they made their way across. Caution made a strong case for itself, but also the fear that if they took their eyes off that view for even a moment, it might vanish. Though none of them could quite articulate why, they still felt as if they just crossed some unseen border as they set foot on the other side of the river.
Looking back in spite of their trepidation, they could see that in their tunnel vision, they had walked right past several red-lettered signs on and in front of the bridge, warning travelers to stay out of the Woods. Such delightful gems as No Return! and No Search Parties! that looked right at home in any horror movie. As well as several runic symbols painted on the bridge itself.
“For all the good that did us…” Shades muttered.
Shades also noted the road on this side of the bridge was actually paved, if long-neglected, the first thing they had encountered out here that even started to match with the trumped-up highway markers on that map.
Trying not to imagine every horror they encountered back there rushing the bridge in one final last-minute attempt to claim them, they turned to face the moment of truth. Hoping the town ahead wasn’t just a mirage, some final, cruel joke on the Woods’ part. And no small dismay about their chances of finding help, as all of the houses they saw so far appeared as deserted as everyplace else they’d been to.
Dirty outskirts, giving way to abandoned streets, vacant windows staring out at them like unwelcoming eyes. An eerie silence hung over the place, betraying not a hint of any observers. They could also see more of those runes painted on buildings, fences and old, weathered signs at regular intervals.
As they moved in deeper, they began to notice more of the area surrounded by tall severe-looking fences that all seemed to be connected to each other. Forming a broad barrier between the outskirts and the town beyond. Farther in, giving way to stakewall palisades with sharpened points across the top, stockade style.
The whole thing narrowing the street they walked into a walled corridor funneling them into the town proper.
As if, over the years, the Woods had slowly encroached on their community, and people gradually, grudgingly, moved inward, closer to the coast. Leaving layers of derelict fortifications in their wake. And leaving no clue if any of the inner defenses still defended anything.
“I knew I was bein’ followed…” a gruff voice proclaimed from their right.
They turned to see a shabbily-dressed, thick-bearded man, of squat build and wide features, step out from behind an old, leaning stretch of pre-Woods fence. Pointing at them what appeared to Shades to be some manner of shotgun. Eyes wide, hands barely steady, looking for all the world like he no more wished to be out here than they.
“You… you just came from the Woods, didn’t you?” Looking from one of them to another as if he half expected them to be some sort of phantom or hallucination. “Don’t you know there’s a great Evil out there?”
“We noticed,” Shades assured him.
The man made no secret of his suspicion as he demanded, “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” Justin asked back, clearly not liking that this guy had the drop on them.
“I live here, you don’t,” the man countered. “Now, who are you?”
“My name is Max,” Max told him, hoping to defuse this confrontation.
“Shades MacLean.” Just hoping this fellow might actually be a sign of hope, that there might still be someone here who could help them.
“Justin Black…” Then, for the first time in his life, wondering if he just made a big mistake, blurting his real name like that. Now that they had found their way back to some semblance of civilization, he realized that, in the midst of surviving one crisis after another, he had managed to forget about Jesse Fletcher for three whole days. “If it’s any of your business.”
“Jarvis Tully,” he said, lowering the gun, but still keeping it handy in the face of three visibly armed strangers. “Where’re you from?”
“Around,” Shades replied, not wanting to go into the Black Angels, and their unknown implications. “More specifically, we ran aground near Camp Stilton about five days ago.”
“And we had a bitch of time getting here,” Justin added. “I mean, what the hell happened to the road?”
“We came here for help,” Max reminded him. “Let’s try to keep this diplomatic.”
“We have a couple injured friends who are still stranded out there.” Shades could see they were pushing the limits of their credibility, most likely just by being here at all.
“They’re probably long dead by now.”
“We survived,” Max pointed out. “I’m not going to abandon my friends, even if we have to go back around the peninsula ourselves to get them.”
“Then you’re bigger fools than I thought. Even the coast’s no safe place to travel.”
“There must be a way,” Max insisted.
“Please tell me the rest of the town’s not…” Justin moaned.
“No, no it ain’t,” Jarvis informed them. “Pickford ain’t what she used to be, but we still stand. Ol’ Sister Clarice still maintains the wardings, but she’s not well, so I had to come out here all alone to check on ’em…”
“Wardings…” Shades recalled the runes they kept finding all the way in. “And you came out here all by yourself?”
“I’m the caretaker,” Jarvis answered, “it’s my job.”
“Caretaker of what?” Shades wondered aloud.
“None o’ your business,” he said, turning toward the way into Pickford. “If you promise not to cause any trouble, you can come with me. Even in broad daylight, folks’ve been known to go missin’ if they wander past the edge o’ town.”
Seeing he was no more inclined to linger than they, they nodded and followed him around a bend in the corridor, with a tall gate barring the way about a hundred feet ahead.
As they approached, a man popped up next to the gate, calling, “Who goes there?”
“Jarvis,” he called back, “and some unexpected guests. They came all the way from Stilton, so don’t keep ’em waitin’.”
A moment later, the gate ground open, sounding as if it was opened as seldom as possible. Inside, the man from before greeted them, and they could see he wore a uniform and badge that denoted him as law enforcement. Another man, wearing plain clothes, helped him close and bar the gate, both staring after them as if unsure any of that just happened as they walked away.
“What now?” Max asked.
“Now I take you to the inn,” Jarvis explained. “Sheriff Duhan will want to have a word with you later, but there’s other folks who’ll want to talk to you first. You’re the first to come back from those Woods in years, an’ about the only ones not driven mad with terror an’ exposure. Stilton’ll be keen to hear you, I’m sure, an’ I know a couple others, too…”