It was an hour later when Allie and Don arrived at the camp dressed in khakis and boots from Don’s disguise trunk. Don had split and braided Allie’s wealth of hair and arranged them into a pair of buns on either side of her head. Don had insisted on the style, saying it was part of her wildly detailed and wholly unneeded background story. In truth, Don just thought the combination of cinnamon buns and grumpy face made Allie adorable, and Don wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity.
The camp parking lot was a large patch of gravel with little to mark where to park. It would have been easy to miss were it not for the presence of other vehicles and a sign reading no cars beyond this point. Off to one side sat a full-size school bus, hand painted with a sky and mountain motif similar to the one found on the camp’s sign. Closer to where they were parked was a large pickup truck with a towing rig installed on the back. Behind it was a white utility van, prepared to be towed out. As they walked towards the camp’s main path, Don noticed that the truck and van carried the same logo for Wagner Maintenance. “You think this was the victim’s van?” She asked.
“Probably,” Allie replied. “Though isn’t strange for them to be doing maintenance in the middle of the night?”
“It was to avoid nosey people,” A baritone voice called out.
Don and Allie turned to see, peeking out from behind a large tree, was a tall black man in maintenance clothes and a denim cap. As he emerged from his hiding place, it became clear that his free time was spent in the singular pursuit of eating all the protein. For a moment, Don wondered how she didn’t notice a man that big, even if he was hiding.
“This camp got a problem besides man-eating bears?” Allie asked.
The man thought for a moment and smiled sadly. “I couldn’t say. Is that why you’re here?”
Don stepped forward, offering her hand. “Yeah. Amber Williams from your local Animal Control department called us. The name’s Donna Kyle, but I go by Don. That’s my partner, Allie. Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” The man said, giving Don a firm handshake. “My name is Dell. The guy who died was one of mine. I came to finish his work and tow the van out of here. Well, try to finish at least. Larry was a good guy and deserved better than this.”
“We’ll find the bear that did this and relocate it so no one else gets hurt. Can you point us to where the attack happened?”
Dell pointed down the path behind him. “It was by the cabins, so make a left where the path forks. It was outside of cabin five. Are you guys gonna be okay out here?”
“We’ll be fine,” Allie said, retrieving a tranquilizer rifle from their trunk.
“Okay,” Dellinor said with a skeptical smile. He pulled a large can off his hip and handed it to Don. “Why don’t you take this bear mace just in case? That stuff can take time to kick in, and you might need to buy some time.”
Don clipped the can to her hip. “Thanks.”
“No problem. I’m done out here for now.” Dell said getting into the tow truck. “Oh, hey, one last thing. The owners are expecting you, right? Because they are both wandering around and they don’t seem that interested in peaceful relocations if you catch my meaning.”
“Amber should have told them we were coming, but we’ll keep an eye out.”
Dell started his truck, waved, and pulled away with the van in tow. As he vanished onto the main road, Don tossed the can of bear mace to Allie. “You wanna read that? Better safe than sorry.”
“Agreed,” Allie said. She took a moment to center herself and studied the can. She sighed and shook her head. “Seems okay. Fear. Concern. Confidence. Anger. Sadness. The usual. I checked him out as well, and he seemed fine. All his thoughts were on Larry.” She tossed the can back.
The camp appeared to sprawl with the cabin area being a three-minute walk from the main path. The paths were all graveled and wide enough for a vehicle to travel without crowding anyone who might be walking them. The cabins ran in a row across an open lot from what appeared to be a dining hall. Each cabin gave the impression of a little soldier at attention to the flagpole in the middle of the area.
When they reached cabin five, their target was easy to spot. The ground was still wet as a testament to Dell’s attempt to wash away what had happened there at some time last night. Don circled the damp earth, comparing the surroundings to her memories of the pictures. “I think he was facing this way, head towards those trees.”
“Seems about right,” Allie said as she walked over and stood beside Don. “Now Larry was on his stomach, feet here and head there. It didn’t seem like he struggled much meaning whatever it was probably got the drop on him and was strong enough to nibble him to death without contest.”
Don looked around, noting their relative distance from the cabins. “I know it was dark last night, but I can’t imagine something creeping silently over all this gravel. It didn’t jump him from the cabin either. There’s no good angle to hit him directly and lay him out the way he was.”
“It could have some unusual stealth ability. If we are coming at this like we are dealing with a fiend, then we can’t discount anything.”
“Something else is bugging me,” Don said as she stared at the number five cabin. “We’re past the last cabin. He was also facing away from them, and unless I’ve gone tree blind, there is nothing over there. What was he looking at?”
“I’ll do a surface read of the area. Maybe if we can figure out something about our fiend as well as get a sense of Larry’s emotional state, it’ll point us in the right direction.”
“Are you positive you wanna do that?” Don asked. Light reads were usually safe because an empath just looked instead of touching everything with their mind, but it still had its risks. “We’re pretty exposed here, and the owners are walking around.”
“It’ll be fine. I’ve got you.” Allie said sweetly.
Don felt her heart skip and impulsively folded her arms. “Shut up. Don’t take me for granted. I won’t always be here to cover for you.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Yeah, I will. Where do you want me to stand?” Don said.
Allie walked around the area a couple of times before taking the can of bear mace off Don’s belt and placing it on the ground where Larry’s feet were. Allie then walked to the trees, counting her steps. She returned and pushed Don back the other way, counting under her breath. When she reached the end of her count, she turned and examined the area. Don knew that area reads without natural boundaries grew out of their empaths like a dome, but it was hard to know where to stop, so it was normal for the partner to be a living marker.
Seemingly satisfied with Don’s placement, Allie returned to the can and shook herself like a runner at the starting line. After several deep breaths, Allie’s shoulders relaxed, and she opened her eyes. She slowly swept the area between her and Don, moving her head little. “So there are two distinct emotional imprints here. One is a jumble of confusion, curiosity, and concern. The other one seems to be made of pure fear. Both get stronger as they get closer to where I’m standing.” Allie turned around slowly to get a look at the rest of her dome.
Don felt herself moving before she realized it. Years of training to protect Allie in particular left Don with an instinct for when something was wrong with her. Allie had locked up mid-step and had started to tremble. By the time Don reached her, Allie had launched into a psionic seizure. She began to sputter and choke on her breath, clawing desperately at the air in front of her. Don pulled an injector from her pocket, snatching its cap off with her teeth. She grabbed Allie in a rough grip, using her legs to wrap the smaller agent up. Don trapped Allie’s arm in a tight hug and slammed the injector into her chest. Don then loosened her grip and waited. Within seconds, Allie’s convulsions lessened and then ceased.
Don knew backlash when she saw it. It was a rare event that hit empaths and telepaths on occasion when they were reading if something they saw overwhelmed them. The concoction in the injector was a potent cocktail of antipsychotics and tranquilizers designed to not only sedate the esper but also pull them out of any powerful delusions. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternative. It would wear off in a few minutes, so Don would continue to wait.
After a few minutes, Allie’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked around in confusion. “Dom, where are we?” She said.
Don’s mind raced and her breath caught in her throat. “Allie. Allie, I’m Donna. Not Dominic.” Don said, untangling herself from Allie.
Allie turned over, her expression unreadable. She stared into Don’s face, blinked hard, laughed once, and wiped away two tears. “Donna. Don, right. I said that.” Allie stood up and dusted herself off.
Don stood up and picked up the can of bear mace. She knew Allie was trapped in a dream, but there wasn’t anything else to be done. The drugs would help her shake off the delusion in time, but for now, they were finished. “We’re heading back to Amber’s place, ok?”
“Right. Amber’s.” Allie said, her voice distant.
“Excuse me,” a female voice cut the air. Don turned to see a willowy, middle-aged black woman emerge from between the cabins. She was wearing khakis and carrying a walkie-talkie. Don also noted the hunting rifle slung over her shoulder. It was clear from her expression she was not aware of any expected visitors. “But who are you and what are you doing in my camp?”
“Sorry!” Don said throwing her hands up and flashing a disarming smile. “Didn’t Amber call you and say to expect us?”
“No,” the woman spat the word. She lifted the walkie to her mouth and called into it. “Jack, you there?”
“Yeah, everything ok?” a man’s voice crackled over the walkie.
“Maybe. Did you get a call from that animal control woman after she left?”
“Ah, I did. She said some people were gonna be sent out at the sheriff’s request. I thought I told you that. Are they here?”
The tension eased from the woman’s shoulders, and she breathed a heavy sigh. “No, you didn’t tell me. Or if you did, I spaced it. Thank you.”
“I’ll head that way.”
“No need, you can keep doing what you were doing.” The woman clipped the walkie to her belt. “Sorry. I’m Lucille King. I own this camp. We’ve had some issues these last couple weeks, and I’m on edge.”
“No problem,” Don said, lowering her hands. “We saw a maintenance guy on the way in named Dell who said you were wandering around so we just came here and figured we’d run into you.”
“Oh, Dell. He insisted he be allowed to come finish Larry’s work and-” Lucille stopped. “Anyway, since you’re here, do you have any idea what you’re looking for?”
“Yeah. A killer bear. We plan to track it and relocate it starting today. Well, we wanted to, but my partner here isn’t feeling well, so I thought we’d head back for now.” Don pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. Lucille craned her neck to see where Don was pointing. Don turned slightly to find Allie was doing her best to hide behind her. Since she referenced Dom, it meant she was stuck in a memory but from when? “Sorry, she’s a little shy. We’ll get out of your hair for now and come back tomorrow morning. That would be safest since our bear seems to be most active at night.”
“Don’t bother,” Lucille said, her voice polite yet firm. “I told Sheriff Jacobs I could deal with whatever thinks it can move in here. Since the camp is closed and it’s on my property, I think I’m entitled to handle this myself.”
“We’re just trying to do the job we were called for ma’am,” Don said. This woman wanted them gone, and with Allie in her current state, she couldn’t help. Don was on her own. “Amber can’t handle an animal like this, and she told us the camp already closed early because of some trouble. I can assure you we’re skilled professionals. Please let us do the dangerous work. I mean, do you really wanna be out here hunting a killer bear?”
Lucille ran her hand over her face aggressively before growling loudly into her palm. “Fine!” She said begrudgingly. “I don’t care. Do whatever, just keep off the right path from the main road. That’s where I live, and I’ve already checked it and the area around my house. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” Don nodded. She and Allie made quick pace out of the cabin area, the whole time feeling Lucille’s hard gaze on their backs.
The train that was today had not only lost its brakes but now had jumped the tracks. Allie was coming down from a delusion that was hooked in so deeply, it was altering her behavior, and until she came out of it, there was little hope in figuring out what she’d seen in a light reading that would give her a psionic seizure.
So lost in thought was she, that Don almost didn’t register Allie pulling frantically on her arm. She glanced down to see her partner, who was usually reasonably steady, staring up at her in abject terror. Allie was shuffling her feet, kicking rocks about wildly. It was then Don noticed that the stones were silent. The world had gone dead.
I can’t hear. Allie mouthed.
Don tried to reply but found herself mute as well.
A flicker in her peripheral served as a last-second warning and without it, the day might have ended then and there. Don threw her arm up and pulled Allie against her chest in time to block a monstrous blow that almost dropped her to her knees. She could feel as Allie’s body tensed and moved ever so slightly as she screamed silently into Don’s chest. Don lept backward to get a better view of her attacker and recenter herself for combat.
The creature was built like a grossly muscled horse, though its sides writhed and undulated obscenely. Its forelimbs were human arms and ended in large human hands. Its rear limbs were built like human legs but ended in human hands as well. It had no head, but massive shoulders came together to form a fleshy dome. On the front was a small, humanoid face with small closed eyes, an enormous nose, and a purse-lipped mouth. In front of that mouth was a little hand on a little arm which grew from the side of the face. The little hand had a single finger up in front of the lips as if silently shushing a child. The investigators had found their fiend. More accurately, it had found them.
The creature paused, its one hand still in the air as though it was confused by the result of its attack. It lowered its arm slowly and leaned forward revealing a pair of large nostrils under the mound where its head should have been. Don knew it had to have a mouth somewhere and that detail would need to be discovered quickly.
Don glanced down at Allie who was staring agape at their attacker. Don redirect Allie’s gaze to her face. ‘Run,’ she mouthed. She turned Allie’s head to look down the road and pointed, then swung her hand right to indicate the turn. Allie nodded resolutely and took off at a sprint.
As Don looked back at the Fiend, she took a brief mental inventory. This creature was silencing everything around it. The light throbbing in her arm warned her it was powerful. It had human hands for feet, so it most certainly would try to grapple her, and she lacked any weapons to increase the damage she could do or the range she could do it at. Allie was so severely muddled she was stuck in a memory, so Don had no one to coordinate with. In fact, Allie being in a psychic feedback induced delusion was an active hindrance. They were halfway back to the main path when the attack came. If Don could get to the car and their weapons, this would be easier, but since Allie was headed for the car in a muddled state, that would put her in danger. Muddled espers can’t fight properly, if at all, so that wasn’t an option. There were other reasons to stand and fight this thing, but she pushed the flood of thoughts out. Now wasn’t the time.
Don charged to the side, moving to flank the fiend. She didn’t see any eyes so it couldn’t be tracking by sight, and since it had silenced the area around them somehow, it couldn’t be using sound either. That meant it worked on vibration, smell, or something extrasensory. The latter two were imprecise, and so vibration was probably its primary sense. Don began her assault, closing with the fiend quickly. As she was about to enter its striking range, she leapt into the air.
As she’d predicted, the fiend pivoted to face her at the last moment and swung wide with one of its massive arms. Don tucked into a forward roll then unfurled her body like a whip, stomping down on its elbow. The fiend’s arm collapsed as Don landed nimbly at its side. Without wasting a step, Don rose and slammed her fist into its abdomen, but felt little give. Instead, it was more like she’d just punched a bulletproof vest. She leaped back out of range as the fiend swiped at her with its other arm.
As she landed out of range, Don was able to get a clear view of the creature’s underside. The was a distinct seam running the length of its chest and stomach that she surmised was its mouth. It would be in the right place, but it was almost the length of a person. Why did Larry look like he’d been bitten multiple times?
The Fiend lumbered after, its arms held out like a giant misshapen baby seeking a surface to steady itself while taking its first steps. Don rushed forward to meet it. Without warning, the creature moved to slap the ground with both arms. Even without telegraphing its intent, Don again guessed its attack plan and threw herself into a baseball slide, narrowly avoiding a strike she could feel through the ground.
As her slide neared fiend’s leg, Don pushed herself upright, slamming her shoulder into its hip and wrapping up its leg with her arms. With a silent grunt of exertion, she stood, pulling the fiend off balance. She twisted her body and dug in her pivot heel, now pulling the creature into a throw that terminated against a nearby tree. It had grabbed her back initially, but the impact of its meeting with the local flora had caused it to let go. She released its leg and allowed it to fall limply to the ground, which it hit with an audible thud.
The sound had returned, which meant the fiend was either dead or unconscious. Don looked about, taking note of a large stone about the size of a car tire. She walked over, picked it up, and bounced it in her arms. Happy with the heft of her find, she then returned to the fiend and used the stone to bash its legs to pieces. Satisfied by the lack of reaction, she tossed the rock into the dirt and proceeded to check out her kill.
Coming from the grievous wounds Don inflicted on the creature’s legs was an ichorous green fluid that pooled like mercury. Its skin felt soft and cool to the touch. Its skeleton was rather simplistic, with no ribs to speak of, just bones in the limbs and a spine.
The place that was most interesting was its underbelly. Don ran her hand along the seam she’s noticed during the fight. She could feel hard plates just behind it which she surmised could be teeth, but they would have to be very large. She began worming her fingers into the seam so she could pry it open.
Don had been warned many times about her tunnel vision. Many in the Choir with power sets like hers had the same issue. The durability and regeneration made them complacent if they weren’t protecting something besides themselves, so it was more of a sense of embarrassment than fear which overcame her as the fiend’s massive hand closed around her neck. She heard a slight hissing noise and the world was again silent. It was awake, or perhaps it was never actually unconscious. Either way, she’d been fooled, and the worse case scenario had happened.
Its grip was like iron. Don grabbed its thumb in a bid to break its hold or at least let blood reach her brain, using her other arm to shield her head. Unfortunately, this left her body exposed, and the fiend wasted no time in capitalizing on this fact by breaking three of her ribs in a single punch. Pain blinded her but didn’t slow her as she shifted her grip to its forearm and dug in her fingers, tearing into the much-needed tendons that made its hold on her neck so unbreakable.
She curled her body around the fiend’s arm in an effort to protect herself as her vision began to dim. Its grip on her neck had cut off both air and blood, so it was mostly determination and raw will that kept her awake. The fiend, sensing her plan, smashed her into the ground with tremendous force. She felt another rib give way from the impact. Don knew if she passed out now, she would die, but escape was looking less likely by the moment. She’d weakened its grip by digging into its tendons, but the blows she’d taken had stolen back any ground she’d gained in doing so.
The fiend grabbed her ankle with its free hand and pulled her body flat and positioned itself above her. The seam running along its body parted, and through bloody vision, Don finally saw what had happened to Larry. The creature’s mouth was a cartoonish wall of giant teeth and a mass of thick tongues. The tongues looked like a cat’s, covered as they were with little hooks aimed backward into the void of its body. A void that, at its center, contained an orb of crystalline swirling lights. Don had seen something like that before, but her racing mind couldn’t place it.
The fiend abruptly shut its maw and began to twitch violently. It released Don’s leg as it tried to shift its bulk without the use of its legs. Unconcerned with the cause Don’s instincts took over. She pulled her knees to her chest and braced her feet against the creature’s now closed mouth. She reached into the wound she’d made on its forearm and ripped the tendons free, while pushed with all her might with her legs. The fiend left the ground behind, and Don rolled her feet, ignoring the internal scream of pain her movement cause. Once up, she caught the beast before it could land and spun, slamming it into the ground on its back. Its lips parted, again revealing the orb of light inside. Without hesitation, she reached in, the flesh of her arm shredding on contact with the barbed tongues, taking hold of the sphere and with a silent scream, ripped it free. It went off like a grenade in her hand, flinging her back and smashing her into a tree which cracked from the force.
Sound returned just in time for Don to hear Allie calling her name. She’d done her job. Allie was safe. She’d earned her rest. With a soft sigh, she let the cool darkness take her.