Camp Whiteridge was a fifteen-minute drive from the town limits. It was tucked back away from the main road on the edge of a large local lake. The sky was blanketed in dark clouds seemingly intent on sucking up all the light they could, bathing the forest in an almost oppressive darkness.
The investigators had dressed up in a combination of dark browns and blacks that looked excusably normal and planned to drive past the camp’s off-road before stopping. Allie’s nap was barely enough to take the edge off so she decided their visit would be short. She was mostly interested in the site where the drowning had happened. Once she was in sight of the lake near the camp, she’d use empathy to track directly to it.
A tall wooden sign similar to the one at the entrance to town marked the turn off for the camp. The road was unpaved but flat and well traveled. In the dark it vanished quickly, marked only by a tiny distant light. Don drove them an extra five minutes before stopping and getting out. She circled the car to the trunk to retrieve their weapons as Allie scanned the woods with a pair of night vision goggles. They were mostly for Don, as Allie could use telekinesis to blind guide herself, but she found them fun to look through. Don offered Allie her pistol: a Glock .38 snapped into a safety holster connected to a shoulder harness. Allie handed off the goggles and slipped on her holster and harness. She drew her pistol, loaded it, and chambered a round. Preparations complete, she looked to see if Don was ready.
Don was readying her own pistols, a pair of HK USP.45s. Her harness was on her lower back, keeping them out of the way of her preferred method of dealing with issues. After harnessing her pistols and adjusting the goggles, she turned to Allie with a nod and tapped her forehead, indicating her mind was open to telepathic communication.
To the lake and back, Allie spoke directly into Don’s mind. If we see or feel anyone, no engagement unless forced. Understood?
Right, Don had a tendency to shout her thoughts much to Allie’s continued frustration. It was hardly Don’s fault as she couldn’t hear her own thoughts to attempt to control their volume, so it was simply a matter of personality and Don’s happened to be loud.
As Don slipped into the woods, Allie admired her partner’s silence. Even with her normally boisterous nature, Don could be frightfully quiet. Her size seemed to be no hindrance as she vanished into the treeline. Don also was acting as the team’s eyes by allowing Allie to share her senses. It was an old trick from the academy. Since Don could see through illusions, Allie used their combined senses to spot them. After allowing Don to get a few yards lead, Allie followed after.
Allie was no more than ten yards in when she was hit with a knee-buckling wave of nausea. Her skin crawled and the air around her felt slimy, almost as though she was being pressed down into a bucket of frightened eels. She wretched violently, unable to push out the attack.
Don was there on soundless feet even before Allie could form the thought to call her. Allie felt herself snatched up and held tightly as Don exited the woods at full speed. Once they were out of the trees the sensation began to fade as quickly as it came on. Don put Allie down gingerly then squatted next to her, rubbing her back.
“Wards?” Don asked.
“Yeah,” Allie replied, spitting out the last of the bile. “Pretty sure they’re infernal too.”
“Well, that confirms the mage theory,” Don said. “What now?”
“Sneaking in isn’t gonna happen. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a ward that powerful before, so we are gonna go through the front door.” Allie rose to her feet, using Don to steady herself. “I hope it’s either not warded, or the ward field is small enough that driving through it isn’t a complete shitshow.”
“You want to go now?” Don asked.
“No. It’ll keep until morning. I didn’t sleep enough for this.” Allie stumbled to the car.
Camp Whiteridge was closed for the season. While it was true that it only had another week to be open anyway, its early closure was disruptive to parents who would now need grief counselors for their children. This early closure was also disruptive to Larry Daniels, who had been sent in to do the end of season checks on the camp and its facilities and didn’t expect to do it in the middle of the night.
Larry didn’t work directly for Ms. King. He actually worked for Wagner Maintenance, a small local company that handled most of the repair and janitorial work in Maplenut and the surrounding towns. Whiteridge was an old contract, one Ms. King had inherited when she bought the camp. She was strides nicer than the previous owner, so when he was asked to work at night and not to talk about the camp with anyone, Larry was happy to oblige even if it would make things more troublesome.
The night was going relatively smoothly, the work mostly consisted of replacing screens and oiling hinges. Larry had stopped to eat when he saw a boy hiding in a nearby copse of trees. He was fair skinned with wet-looking, straw-colored hair. He was shivering violently enough that it was apparent from forty feet away. The camp had closed nearly a week ago and there shouldn’t have been any kids around. Larry grabbed his lantern, pulled an old towel out of his work truck, and made his way over to the boy.
As he got closer, Larry realized the kid didn’t only have wet looking hair, he was drenched like he’d just been in the lake. His soaked pajamas clung to his skin. “Hey, kid,” Larry called out to the boy, not wanting to get to close and scare him. “Are you okay? What are you doing out here?”
The boy’s head snapped in Larry’s direction, his face a fixed mask of fear and confusion. He shook his head and dashed out of the trees with unearthly speed, latching to Larry’s arm like it was a life preserver. He jerked Larry’s arm hard enough to almost pull the man off balance. The boy was attempting desperately to drag Larry into the trees.
Larry recovered his senses and wrenched his arm free, stumbling and falling back. He lost control of the lantern, seeing it tumble away soundlessly before flicking out, leaving him lost in the pitch. He tried to shout but was stunned to find himself mute. He clutched at his throat and tried again. He felt it vibrate but no sound came. It then became clear that the silence was more than just an affliction he was under; the world itself, from the insects to the soft breath of the wind, had gone absolutely silent. Larry had never experienced real silence before. The sensation was both confusing and terrifying. Was that boy suffering from this? What was happening to them both?
As Larry tried to rise to his feet, something pushed him back to the ground. He felt hands pinning his limbs and warm, wet air on his face. He tried to scream, to give voice to his panic, but still nothing came.
He continued to scream silently until there was nothing left.
Allie was awakened by a polite but urgent knock on her door. She wasn’t usually a heavy sleeper, but between how little she’d slept the day before and the aftereffects of walking into an infernal ward she might as well have been dead. Instead of getting up, she reached across the room and unlocked the door with her mind.
Don walked in holding a small digital camera and wearing a worried expression. “You okay? I was about to break the door down.”
“I’m certain Amber would love that,” Allie muttered, her face peeking out of her duvet. “What time is it?”
“Nine. I didn’t realize how tired you were.”
“Well, we don’t all express ourselves by giggling like idiots at the first touch of soft furniture.”
“That’s mean. You’re mean.” Don said with an exaggerated pout. She fiddled with the camera for a moment before showing Allie the preview screen. “Look, coffee!”
It took a moment for Allie’s still sleep-addled brain to make sense of what she was looking at. It was a person, but it seemed as though massive chunks of their flesh were missing. Savaged organs and shattered bone lay exposed in the remains of the victim’s torso. Allie squeezed her eyes shut as comprehension set in. “Fuck, Don!”
Don loosed a short bark of a laugh. “That’s for being a bully.”
Allie threw off the duvet as she sat up. The sight had snapped her out of her torpor. She grabbed irritably for the camera which Don now insisted on holding out of reach. “Gimme that. What happened?”
“Wash up first. Amber took these this morning, but I convinced her and Goldie to get us food. They should be back by the time you’re done, and she can explain.”
By the time Allie had finished showering and getting dressed, Amber and Goldie were back with a week’s worth of groceries. Amber had set to work cooking breakfast, using the opportunity to teach her daughter the finer points of cooking pancakes. The kitchen and eating areas were joined, and Don was sitting at the table, watching the pair of succubi. The camera, with its grisly payload, sat on the table innocently. The smell of Amber’s work reminded Allie that she and Don were so caught up in everything that was happening she’d forgotten to eat the day before, save for a pair of hastily purchased meal bars.
“Good morning, Ms. Piper,” Amber said over her shoulder. “Ms. Kyle has informed you of my call this morning?”
“Not in any detail, no.” Allie shot Don a dirty look and received a raspberry in return. “I was told it would be best to wait for you.”
“A moment then.” Amber handed the spatula she was holding to Goldie while giving her a final pointer before walking into the next room. She quickly returned with a slim stack of paper which she offered to Allie. “I printed the pictures so you could see them better.”
Allie spread the photos out on the table. The images were at various distances allowing for an unobstructed view not only of the body but of the immediate area as well. Despite the wounds the victim suffered, there was little blood on the ground.
“This morning I received a call from the sheriff that demanded my immediate attention,” Amber said. “When I arrived, he informed me of the death of this gentleman at the hands of some animal, and he wanted me to tell him what it likely was. I told him it was a bear, but I am confident this is no bear.”
“No kidding,” Don said. “If bears did this, we’d have hunted them into extinction by now.”
“I am reasonably sure this man did not perish quickly, yet there are no signs he was able to fight back. The owner and her” -Amber paused- “brother were there and claimed to have heard nothing in the night.”
“Why did you say it like that?” Allie asked.
“Something about that pair does not sit well with me. I like to think I am very skilled at reading humans and she does not view him as a human sister should.”
“You sound really confident in that,” Don said.
“It is an invaluable skill. I have found humans say far more without words than they mean to.” Amber said casting a sidelong glance at Don. “I do believe however that they know nothing of this killing or at least if they do they answered true about hearing nothing last night.”
“The edges of these wounds are pretty uniform,” Allie said, massaging her temples. “I think these are bites, but their width is strange. What creature has a mouth this wide?”
“How tall would you say this guy was?” Don asked looking at one of the close-up pictures of a leg wound.
“A bit taller than me I would say,” Amber replied.
Don looked held out her hands at Amber’s knee and hip and then moved her hands to the table while being careful to keep them the same distance apart. “If we assume it’s a bite, then it’s mouth would be more than a foot wide and on a flat face. No ground dwelling natural creature fits that profile. No worldborn either.”
“You’re suggesting it’s some sort of fiend? It couldn’t be,” Allie said. “There’s a mage present with heavily warded territory, and this killing happened in the middle of that.”
“It could be a smart one and it’s working with the mage?”
“That’s possible, but infernal wards equal infernal mages, and it would be stupid to mess around with something as unpredictable and uncontrollable as a fiend when you can summon safe, dependable imps. That’s even more true if it was an intelligent fiend.”
“Okay, but imps don’t have mouths like this. This is like an ape or monkey. I suppose it could be a human as well, but in any case, it would have a head the side of my torso to have a mouth this big.” Don said. “It’s an impossible trait. That means fiend.”
“Maybe it wandered into the camp? We’re only assuming the whole camp is warded. Perhaps the area where this guy died was open to access. Amber was able to get there to take these pictures after all.”
“True, but would a mage be fine with a fiend killing people on their doorstep? That’s pretty sloppy. Not to mention dangerous.”
“Okay, so the two theories we have are an infernal mage working with an intelligent fiend or a wandering fiend leaving corpses in the mages living room?” Allie said.
“Breakfast!” Goldie sang as she slid a plate of pancakes in front of Allie. The case details rapidly gave way to her stomach’s demands for attention. It’s usually wise to be wary of food cooked by creatures that don’t actually eat, but to Allie’s surprise, the pancakes were delicious. Even the ones Goldie made, which were easily identified by their wonky heart shapes, were cooked to an even golden brown and had a wonderfully fluffy texture.
“These are amazing!” Don said between bites.
“I take some small pride in my ability to create a flavorful breakfast,” Amber said.
“If you do it right, it’s the only meal you gotta learn, right Mom?” Goldie said brightly.
With a full stomach and clear mind, Allie returned focus to the task at hand. “I don’t think we’re gonna get much further on speculation. Since Amber was able to go to the camp, that confirms I can get in without wasting all this food.”
“I was thinking about that,” Don said. “We need to have a good disguise so we can wander the camp during the day without it seeming strange!”
“Yay, disguises,” Allie said, her voice steeped in sarcasm.
“You know you love it!” Don said, excitedly. “Our cover story is perfect too. We say Amber called us out to do a dangerous animal relocation! That should get us the access we need.”
“And I suppose you-” Allie stopped mid-sentence and looked away from her partner’s delighted face in disgust. She didn’t need to ask how prepared Don was for this. It wasn’t even that the cover was unreasonable. It was more the smug glee Don had at being vindicated each time one of her overly elaborate fake personas was actually useful.
“Yes?” Don said, dragging the unfortunate word out by its ankles.
“Nevermind, just go get your kits so we can go do this.”
“No rush. It takes a few hours to get here from the city, and we want our arrival to be believable,” Don turned to Amber and Goldie. “Can I have more pancakes?”