“This thing killed a monarch older than the Republic and we just let it get up and leave!” Caroline shouted at nobody in particular. Progress was slow because of the trees and irregular ground. The nights in this realm weren't very dark but there was a reason the locals called it 'the Dark Forest'.
“How was a I supposed to know that two gaping wounds aren't lethal here,” Isaac said, equally irritated. “I'm a farmacologist, not a doctor.”
“We're not going to catch up with it tonight,” she said and slowed down. He seemed to hesitate for a moment before following her example. “You were supposed to be the expert on these things by the way.”
“When I bleed them dry back...in our base, they die before we're halfway done,” he said while getting two flashlights out of his pack. He threw one to her. “You're supposed to be the expert on the effect that this realm has on living things.”
“We don't normally shoot any of those things here!”
“Then what are you good for?” he said and flashed his flashlight in her face. Just as she returned the favor he looked away. “Let's just get back to it. We caught up to him once before.”
They proceeded in silence. Caroline got the eery feeling that the forest was also keeping quiet, like it was holding its breath in anticipation.
“So this forest was the site of some battle, huh?” Isaac eventually said. Perhaps he had gotten uneasy with the silence as well.
“Yeah,” Caroline said, softly. “, a very long time ago. We know of it only through the records of the natives.”
“These people don't seem like the war-waging types.”
“Apparently it was a battle against invaders from another world.”
“Figures.” Even in the dark she could see his smile.
A sad, wordless song broke through the deathly silence of the forest. The woman's voice was perfectly in key but lacked the mesmerizing quality of the other songs the two guardians of Order had heard from the natives. Isaac raised his eyebrows when Caroline gave him a questioning look. He took the lead and carefully approached the clearing up ahead.
“It's a woman,” he whispered after he had taken a look.
“I figured,” Caroline said and walked past him.
“Oh, hello,” the woman said when she noticed Caroline approach. She didn't seem to notice the weapon she was carrying and simply observed the two with a naive curiosity.
“Greetings. We are agents of Midgard, here for your protection. A being from Hel has breached our defenses and infiltrated your realm. Avoid contact at all costs and aid us in the retrieval if you want to contain this infection,” Caroline said.
“My name is Selene,” she said, sounding amused. “What's yours?”
Selene looked like she was in her late teens. She was pretty but lacked the incredible beauty that most women in this realm seemed to possess. Combined with her sweet demeanor, it firmly set her in the category of 'cute'. Her eyes and voice were filled with compassion. She had painted the skin around her eyes a natural green which matched with her dress. Caroline had never seen face painting like that before.
“I am Caroline. That man over there is Isaac,” she said. Isaac had stayed at a safe distance like he was expecting the young woman to turn into something horrible. He waved shyly at the both of them. Caroline ignored him and turned her full attention on Selene. “You look like you have some distant relatives from our world. I take it that is why you live out here?”
“Yes,” Selene said. The smile on her face faded somewhat. “They call me a witch.”
“Well...I do not think there is anything wrong with you.” Caroline pretended to look at the small house. “About that creature we are trying to retrieve...”
“I mostly just see animals here, sometimes people,” she said. “And trees. They don't talk very much though.”
“What we're looking for would be easy to recognize. It would look very much out of place.”
“I saw a lonely soul, lost in its own suffering. Does that match who you're looking for?”
“That would be it,” Caroline said with a triumphant grin. She motioned for Isaac to get closer. The clearing was bathing in moonlight and felt far safer than the relative darkness between the trees. “Which way did he go?”
“He went in the direction you came from. The forest doesn't like him, so he's moving in a lot of circles. If the forest does like you, you can catch up to him,” Selene said, starting to sound unsure. “Why do you want to find him again?”
Caroline motioned more insistently for Isaac to come closer. His sarcastic gesture went unseen. “He didn't hurt you, did he?”
“Why would he-”
“Good. Go inside your home and do not open the door until sunrise. We will take care of this.”
“Your hearts could burn so bright but you suffocate it with your self-control,” she said, defiantly, but followed the instructions. Caroline and Isaac quickly made their way back into the forest, shoulder to shoulder with their weapons at the ready.
“We should have been paying more attention. There are not enough shadows for him to hide in. We should have seen him pass us,” Isaac muttered as they moved. Their torches lit up the path ahead and to the side. Their weapons swayed from side to side.
“Write it in your report,” Caroline muttered back. “Now focus.”
“If we have to fight it in the forest it will probably try to pounce on us from a high place. These trees are perfect for it.”
“So we aim high.”
“Yeah, and he will probably go for me first. Women aren't really...a factor where he comes from.”
They continued in silence.
It actually came from a small recess between the roots of a large tree. It was completely silent until the moment that it made it made contact, when it snarled like an animal. Bared teeth flashed as it tackled Isaac and went for his throat. They fell against Caroline and the three of them fell into a heap on the ground. Isaac cursed as long canines pierces his skin. He was stabbing his attacker in the stomach but it didn't seem to notice. Caroline managed to untangle herself and get up but the invader quickly rolled over and used Isaac as a shield. Isaac tried to bring out his sidearm while keeping the thing at a distance with his knife. It quickly broke off the attack and was on its feet impossibly quickly. Caroline opened fire but her target was already behind a tree. When she stepped to the side to get a clear shot it was gone.
“Up!” Isaac shouted. He was clutching his neck with one hand while wildly waving around a pistol. Caroline looked up just in time to see a dark figure come down on Isaac. A shot went into the sky as the two collided once more. Isaac collapsed, his legs twisting the wrong way under the weight of the invader. It never lost it's momentum and sped away into the forest again. This time it certainly wasn't hiding behind a tree. Caroline ran after it, slowing down when she came close to Isaac. He was bleeding profusely from the base of his neck and his legs weren't able to support his weight.
“Go!” the Brother of the Night shouted and pointed in the direction that their attacker had fled. Caroline nodded and ran off.
As the sound of pounding boots moved away, the silence returned to the forest. Isaac tried to get himself upright but every movement he made just sent spikes of pain from his legs all through his body. He checked his gun and moved his back against a tree. He chuckled quietly between grunts of pain and effort. White fingers closed around his wrist and twisted the weapon out of his grip. The pain in his wrist was a delightful distraction from his legs.
“I just can't catch a break,” he said and guffawed. “A double double back!”
Red eyes looked down at him with no recognizable emotion. The thing played with the gun in it's hands.
“Do you have a name?” he said and slowly tried to reach for his knife. He tried to remember where his rifle had fallen but couldn't.
“My name is Alex. They called you 'the Laughing Man',” the thing said with it's awful voice. “I guess I'm the one who's laughing now.”
It aimed his own gun at his head. He tried to give one final, defiant laugh but Alex gave him no chance. The gun fired four times before it jammed. Alex threw it aside as soon as it stopped working. The invader quickly went through the dead man's pockets.
The first shot made Caroline stop. The second shot made her look back. By the third she was running back as fast as she could. The black and white figure stood over the remains of her fellow-knight, admiring it's own work. She opened fire and it bolted. Trees splintered under her barrage but her target kept moving. She fired until her magazine was empty. Her ears were ringing but silence had once again descended upon the forest. After standing in place for undetermined amount of time she finally worked up the nerves to go over to Isaac's body.