“I get this isn’t the ideal time, but should we really be doing this?” Dace unties the knot anchoring the narrow rowboat to a weathered pillar. The overcast sky grays with the approach of dawn and the mountain air turns crisp and damp. As we huddle on the pier, the forest around us shift restlessly, as if sensing our destination. “I mean the whole left half of Shari’s face is swollen, Chameleon’s a freaking zombie--and we’re going to what? Face the creature that damn near had us killed?”
“We’re fugitives, Dace. Not a lot of options.” Zakk lowers me into the hull. The boat rocks with my weight and water sloshes against its shabby planks. Dace joins me on the bench that serves as the forward thwart. Zakk perches at the stern thwart while Kamiron settles on the center thwart and fits the pair of oars into the metal rowlocks. He begins to row with powerful, sweeping strokes that yank us away from our lives and towards madness.
Dace stares at the receding shoreline of Camp Genki mournfully. “Maybe we wouldn’t have had a explanation for Security, but--”
“We’d become suspects and accessories to murder,” Z counters, “Not to mention we’re freaks. Who’d believe us? You want to get locked up?”
“’Course not. I’m just saying we could’ve gotten some supplies, maybe planned our next move before we dived into the belly of the beast. That too much to ask?”
Kamiron steers us towards the dense mist that never lifts from the western half of Lake Andy. My entire body hurts, my head rings, and I know my skin is littered with bruises from Sandra’s beating. Even moving is an exercise in pain. But that pales in comparison to the guilt I feel for hurting Kam. Even if killing her was justified, I know Kamiron won’t see it that way. To him, I murdered the woman he loves. There’s no forgiving that.
“We’re going to a safe place,” I repeat. Exhaustion makes my voice sharper than I intend. “The Darkness-That-Hunts can find us anywhere, even out there.” I motion to Camp Genki and immediately regret the movement. “Yes, Ater is his home, but I know where we can lie low.”
“Are you sure nothing from our world can transfer over there?” Dace presses. “Like weapons?”
At least he’s given up arguing that interdimensional travel via rowboat is impossible. I swallow another sigh. The rocking of the boat, almost like the lazy gait of a pony, soothes me. The oars creak with each of Kam’s rows. His bloodstained shirt ripples and his muscles strain, dragging us inexorably towards the place I never wanted to return.
“I’m not sure. When I was brought there, I was unconscious.” The words hurt to admit.
Zakk straightens and points to the oars. “Something’s happening.”
We watch Kamiron row. He sinks the oars’ flat blades into the water, and sweeps them towards the bow. As he does this, we notice that no ripples mar the lake surface and no droplets splash back into the water when the oars arc through the air. Fog chokes everything, so thick we can barely see a foot ahead of us but as the boat glides ever forward, no waves break against the bow and we leave no wake behind us. We’ve become ghosts.
“Any idea what’s happening?” It’s the first time Kamiron has spoken since he offered to row. Even then, he avoids looking at me.
“My guess is some kind of distortion of matter and space,” Dace mutters, distracted. “Like we’ve become insubstantial.”
Dace’s hand dangles along in the water as he marvels at the lack of reaction from the surface and my heart skips. “Get your hand out!”
Dace snatches back his fingers at the panic in my voice. The boys gawk at me. I cough to clear the lump of panic from my throat.
“I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just--” I find I can’t explain it, so I point to the freakishly calm water. “Maybe we’ll see them if we look closer. No doubt they’ve sensed Dace by now.”
Intrigued, the boys lean starboard and stare intently. At first I can tell they see nothing, but as the fog thins around us, they spy dozens of white, six-foot long eels with cloudy, dead eyes swirling around our boat like sharks.
Kamiron nearly drops the oars. Dace jerks back from the rim.
Z swallows hard. “What are those things?”
“I’m not sure, but they’re why you can’t swim out of Ater. They will devour anything that touches the water.” I feel even more tired and a headache starts to build behind my eyes, but I force myself to explain. “Everything here lacks a physical form and with it, vitality. Life is power and here we are beacons to all dead things. Everything--from plants to birds--wants to consume us. You must be careful what you touch.”
My voice fades as the wall of fog ends. Ater swells before us like a grim island. An endless ruby sky streaked by wispy black clouds crouches above the imposing snarl of woodlands that make up the Onyx. Sickly trees reach for us with gnarled, rooted fingers. Tangled black vines, thorny bushes, and scrubby grass form an impassible curtain. There is little light; instead layers of gray cloak the dreary landscape and grant it the ethereal quality of nightmares. But it’s the silence that’s the worst. Ater lacks the ambience of life, the faint din of living creatures, of breezes caressing the underbellies of leaves, the soft sigh of earth settling underfoot. Replacing it is an almost tangible hush--as if the land has just drawn a quick, fearful breath and now holds it, waiting for danger to pass.
Dread erupts in me at the sight and instinctively my fingers close around Gjinna’s pendant at my throat like it’s a holy talisman.
I never wanted to come back here.
I take shallow breaths, focusing on keeping air moving in and out of my lungs and not on ordering Kamiron to turn us around and take us back to the camp. Between the soothing sway of our rowboat and the reassuring weight of Gjinna’s necklace, courage works its way back into my trembling body.
Kamiron propels us towards a rotted pier that juts out from a shoreline of fine black sand. We climb onto the landing and are careful not to touch the water. We avoid staring at the eels that continue to circle the hull. The guys follow me as I skirt planks that look weak but still sections of wood disintegrate beneath our shoes. As soon as my feet land on the grainy sands of Ater, my concern for the safety and survival of my friends takes precedence. I continue towards the Onyx, expecting them to follow, but when I don’t hear the crunch of their footsteps in my wake, I turn to find them taking in the view.
The tiny waves that break along the bank are eerily mute, and it feels as if we are watching a silent, black and white film. The fog obliterates any sign of Camp Genki. It’s all encompassing, as impregnable as any fortress and even blots out Ater’s crimson sky. Though there is no wind or breezes the white-gray mist swells and heaves and looks disturbingly like hundreds of ghastly mouths chewing the horizon.
“Looking at that,” Kamiron whispers, “makes me feel like Gen never existed. Like home was a delusion.”
Dace tries to adjust his glasses, but his clumsy fingers only end up smearing fingerprints across his lenses. “Maybe it was. Who’s to say that we didn’t just imagine it all? Mass hypnosis.”
“That can’t be true.” But Zakk’s protest is weak. He watches the way the tendrils of mist nibble at the solemn lake waters. “Though that thing looks like will probably eat anyone that tries to pass through.”
Tamping down on my budding dejection, I peel my gaze from the curtain of fog and clap my hands. The sharp noise crackles down the obsidian shoreline that stretches towards nothingness and jolts the guys.
“Stop looking at it,” I bark. “Or it’ll suck away your willpower.” Again I start for the Onyx, urging them to follow me. “The Wall of Apathy manipulates you into giving up any attempt to leave Ater.”
“Then how are we supposed deal with it when we return?”
Will we even return? But I don’t voice this. Instead, I shove away my misgivings and bury them. Deep. “Keep your eyes low, focus only on what’s in front of you. Actually, that’s good advice for pretty much everything here.”
I follow a narrow game trail--although to call it a game trail is misleading. It’s more like a dirt path that twists beneath the crooked branches of the trees. It’s nearly overgrown with scrub bushes and barbed vines but it beats trying to hew our way through the tangled and dangerous undergrowth. We occasionally find animal footprints treading through the dirt though they are grotesque and not any prints that we can recognize. The fauna that inhabit Ater are twisted parodies of the animals we know of on Earth and best to be avoided.
“Any other good news, sunshine?” Dace drawls when I explain the significance of the prints to them.
“Try not to touch anything. And step where I step.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s too dark to see where you step.” As if to prove his point, Dace trips over a tangle of black vines with huge fronds in the shape of a trident. “Is it possible to make a torch or something?”
“Too risky,” I counter, but slow my pace. My eyes remember what it’s like wrestling with the gloom, but I have to remind myself that the boys aren’t so experienced. The trail snakes east with the occasional northward detour. Above us, the scraggly boughs of the trees and dead, dry leaves break up the red and black of the sky. Opaque shapes keep stride with us, but so far keep their distance. I wish we could have brought weapons but with all the detritus strewn about, I’m sure I can unearth a makeshift club or find a heavy rock. Kamiron and Zakk shift closer, and I notice them scanning the terrain with grim determination. From the calculating gleam in the feral yellow eyes that follow us, I get the feeling the animals sense the guys’ resolve and are unwilling to attack.
Works fine for me.
We don’t talk so when I hear a distant clatter, like hail falling despite the lack of moisture to the air, I call for the boys to halt and tilt my head. There it is again, hail raining to the ground, but it’s followed by something else--the grinding of bone against bone. Gasping, I scramble off the trail and crouch behind a wall of thorny brambles with deep orange flowers that smell like maple syrup with a hint of rot.
“What is it?” Kamiron’s voice is calm and alert as he squats next to me. He makes sure no part of him touches me as he peers down the narrow trail. At least he’s talking to me now. That’s progress, right?
“I call them bats.”
Dace and Zakk hover near my elbow. Zakk’s hair tickles my wrist as he leans in closer. “Since we’re hiding, I take it these are killer bats with an insatiable hunger for supple teenaged flesh?”
Despite the grave situation and the consistent threat of death that lingers over our heads, a smile tugs at my lips. I’m glad I’m not tackling this alone; my friends’ unfailing sense of humor (morbid as it may be) serves as an anchor for me and decreases my stress.
“The bats are the eyes and ears of The Darkness-That-Hunts.” A thought strikes me. I turn to them and, keeping my voice low, caution, “Never say his name. He can sense it.” I wait for them to each nod before I continue. “The bats travel in colonies of a dozen or so. You usually hear them before you see them. Look.”
They follow the arc of my pointing finger to a dark silhouette further down the path, partially obscured by silver-green leaves that drag against the ground like kudzu. Its hind legs end in paws the size of a bobcat’s, its forelegs oddly reminiscent of a horse. It bends its long neck and its beak snaps off a cluster of the orange flowers.
Kam frowns. “That doesn’t look like a--”
Bursting from the canopy in a wave of boney, sickly wings, a cloud of bat-like creatures descends on the grazing animal. They resemble grotesque toddlers with pallid shriveled skin, a double row of shark-like teeth, and facial features that roam around their skulls and necks. A myriad of rotten limbs protrude from unusual areas--jutting out of a breastbone, dangling between shoulder blades, extending from a left hip--three-fingered hands slash at the hapless victim, ripping away chunks of flesh and fur and bone and shoveling it into awaiting mouths. Each bat creature sports six eyes across their small frames, eyes that rove and glow like blue-white vapor.
We cower in the thorns as the creatures circle their prey, diving in and out of the tangled foliage. Dozens of mouths shriek into the night and the grinding of skeletal wings makes the skin along my arms break out into gooseflesh. I’ve only seen them feed once before, and I’d blocked the gruesome display from my memory. Dripping guano and blood, the bats streak back into the canopy above. Eventually they emerge like a colorless cloud against the crimson of the sky and the peal of hail fades as they retreat westward. I wait a full five minutes before I risk returning to the trail.
Dace trembles at my side and gazes at the remnants of the bats’ victim. All that is left are a few ruined rib bones and a hoof from the foreleg. “I’m gonna be sick.”
He turns back toward the bushes and vomits. Z thumps his friend’s back.
“Those things look nothing like bats,” Zakk chastises.
“I never said they were bats. I said, ‘I call them bats’ because I couldn’t find words to describe them. It’s their wings--that remind me of bats, I mean.”
Kamiron approaches the corpse with caution. “How could they even fly? Their wings had more rotted holes than tendon and muscle.”
“My guess is that The Darkness-That-Hunts’ power animates them. When he is looking through their eyes, they turn gold. The bats usually content themselves with spying from afar but sometimes . . .” I grimace and look away from the soiled area surrounding the animal’s body parts. “They stop to feed.”
Dace spits and kicks loose dirt over his bile. “They coming back?”
“Don’t know, but we should get going regardless.”
“This isn’t guano.”
“Chameleon,” Dace chides, wrinkling his nose. “I don’t care what it is, it reeks.”
Kamiron ignores Dace and instead uses a stick to poke at the festering grey ichor that bubbles around the corpse. “It’s like skin cells. They’re shedding this stuff.”
Zakk squats next to Kamiron and examines the end of the stick. “You’re right.” To our revulsion he takes a deep whiff. “Smells slightly like methane.”
“Methane is odorless,” Dace corrects.
Z shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I smell. We use natural gas at home, and this smells like it--at least, beneath the reek of death.”
Dace adjusts his glasses and his expression turns thoughtful. “Manufacturers would often mix methane with a chemical odorant as a safety precaution . . .”
Kam tosses aside the stick and returns to the trail, wiping his tennis shoes on tufts of weeds. “Shari’s right, we should go.”
I’m grateful he picks up on my sense of urgency. It’s never a good idea to stay in one area too long, especially not in the Onyx. There are worse things out here than bats.
Dace continues to hesitate by the corpse. “It might be a good thing.”
“If we ever run into those things again,” he clarifies. “In its gas form, methane is flammable.”
“You’re saying we could burn them?” I ask.
“If they’re made in part by methane, yes. Of course, we’d need to find a way to turn that goo into gas.”
I decide not to ask Dace how he intends to turn their guano into gas, but he has a point. If we do find ourselves confronted with the bats again, at least we have an idea of how to protect ourselves.
Zakk’s palm rests against my lower back. “Lead the way, Shari.”
Taking a deep breath, I plunge into the maze of the Onyx.
“I think we’re here.”
We’d long ago abandoned the trail in favor of foraging our way through dry underbrush and cobwebs as thick as fabric. The robust trees around us are the color of driftwood left to bleach in the sun, but with deep gouges in their trunks, as if a large creature had ripped through them. Beyond the marred trees, a trio of grassy knolls bulges within the center of a circular meadow. Pikes stab deep into the soil, their emerald banners snapping in a breeze we don’t feel. Clouds crawl across the sky, darkening the clearing. Above the mounds strange orbs that I’ve never seen before bob up and down and cast a faint copper glow on assorted boulders that protrude from the shoulders of the hills.
“Exactly where is ‘here’?”
I check each direction, searching for a hidden predator. Exposed areas make me uneasy, but I spot nothing out of the ordinary. The knolls remain as silent as the graveyard at a Baptist church. “This is Divine’s home.”
I beeline towards the smallest of the three knolls. Dead grass and grey dirt greet me as I hover near the mound’s curved perimeter and hunt for the entrance.
“So this druid of yours lives in a hill?” Dace raises an eyebrow at my confirming nod. “What was I was possessed by? A hobbit?”
Another smile tickles the corner of my mouth. “This would make a very demented Shire.”
“Is Divine one of the Sidhe?”
We each spare startled glances towards Zakk. He presses his hand against the earthy mound. Grass spurts between his long fingers. “I like folklore. The Seelie and Unseelie, the Summer and Winter court of the Fae, are rumored to live in knolls like these.”
In a flash I’m back in Andhakar’s court, dangling from my cage and watching as lithe creatures with tall, slender bodies and translucent skin amuse themselves with the mortal pets Andhakar has procured for them. They rank highest among The Darkness-That-Hunts’ followers, and the bats from earlier are just a sample of the monsters that make up the dark Fae.
“There are Unseelie here,” I reply, “but Divine is human. He has frequent dealings with the Fae since their territory is nearby.”
Just east of the druid’s grove, in fact. It’s a region jealously guarded, and the patrolling Unseelie are ruthless about those who encroach on their domain. That area is to be avoided at all costs. Again my hand flutters to the copper chain at my neck and I’m thankful for the information that Gjinna has passed on to me during her brief visits.
The mound gives a sudden grunt and Zakk staggers back. Darkness coalesces and forms a round entrance near the center of the smallest knoll. There is no sound, no strange copper light glowing from within. The smell that wafts out of the doorway burns our nostrils.
“God, does anything in this place not smell like ass?” Dace grumbles.
Kamiron frowns. “It’s not so bad. Reminds me of beauty bark.”
I’ve never heard of beauty bark but inside the knoll smells like cow manure and old earth and it’s hardly comforting. I motion for the boys to go first. After a brief hesitation where they exchange dubious glances, they step inside. I spare a last glance at the clearing, scanning the cluster of trees that crowd the rim of the meadow. Something moves, a shadow within the shadows and I suck in a startled breath.
I blink and it’s gone. Nothing but twisted branches with mottled yellow-green leaves trapped inside thick cobwebs. But for a moment, I could have sworn I saw a solitary bat, every one of its six eyes golden and trained on me. Another second passes and green banners crackle in a fierce wind that doesn’t touch me.
Just your eyes playing tricks on you, girl. I turn back towards the doorway to Divine’s home. No going back now. Reaching out with ebony fingers, the shadowy entrance swallows me whole.