Tuesday, 05 July 2022 00:00

Out of the Woods (Jordan Winters 6)

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Jordan Winters 6

Out of the Woods

By Bek D Corbin
Edited by Steve Zink

 

In Spring, a young man’s thoughts turn gently to love. And, at 10 in the evening, a young man magicked up as a girl’s thoughts turn desperately to how to get the hell back home before the ‘rents ground me until shaving' is an issue. Since it was a Friday night, I had permission to be out a little late, but when you’re 15, Ten PM is ‘a little late’; Eleven is ‘very late’, and Midnight is ‘Do you know what TIME it is?’

I honestly had expected to be home by now, since the movie that we were supposed to see let out at Nine, but that movie was sold out. Griff suggested the same movie at another theater, and I, like an idiot - or an adoring girlfriend - agreed. Unfortunately, as we were hurrying to catch the last show, I forgot that this theatre was on the wrong side of town from where I had my bike stashed. I literally had a better chance of getting home in something like reasonable time, if I walked - or RAN - straight home.

So, like an idiot - or a truly desperate kid who really couldn’t afford to get grounded - I lit out on foot. Odd, you wouldn’t think that being the Designated Victim would have an upside, but I keep finding new ones. The one that I was discovering at the moment was that I have developed a pretty good wind from running for my life. I’m pretty good at sprinting, and now that the Pesloe swarm has started chasing me on bike after school, my long distance is getting better, too.

I was making pretty good time, very good time, considering that I was wearing a skirt that went below the knee and didn’t have any jazzy slits up the side. I was well out of sight of any house, and it occurred to me that I’d have to change clothes anyway. So, I wouldn’t really lose any time if I changed into jeans, and I’d probably gain some time from the longer stride. I cut into the woods and found a place where no one could see me in the moonlight from the road. Hey, I’m the Designated Victim - things like getting spotted changing clothes from the road happen to me.

I was just about to pull my guy clothes from my backpack, when I heard the sound of a child crying. Oh, this is just what I need! I decided to see what the kid was about, and hope that I didn’t lose too much time. “Hello? Hello, is anyone there?”

“Hello?” a small, scared voice came back.

“Hello? Where are you?” I called back.

“I don’t know! I’m _lost_!” she said. I definitely got the sense that it was either a girl or a really little kid. She said ‘lost’ with all the horror of someone who knows that she can’t take care of herself.

“Well, keep talking, let me find you. I’ll take you back to the road, and we can get you home from there.” Yeah, I know, it will take me hours, but I figured that the Mom won’t be half as snarked off if I have a Boy Scout Good Deed excuse like showing a little lost child the way home. A well managed phone call from her place, and I was Golden.

“I’ll find you!” she yelled.

“No, no! Stay put! I’ll find you!” But I heard something move in the brush, and I could tell that it was moving in the wrong direction.

Kids. They never listen.

I called out to her and she called out to me, and we played Blind Man’s Bluff in the dark for a while. Finally, I caught up with her, just before she was about to go haring off in the wrong direction again. When she finally spotted me, she ran up and wrapped herself around me, like I was the Second Coming of Barney. Lord, Lady and Light, she was cold! I pulled out of her clutch and looked at her. Like I said, she was eight, maybe nine, just old enough to resent being called a little kid, just young enough for it to stick. She was a skinny little thing, with big gray eyes in a round solemn face and wispy fly away hair that I could be sure was light brown or dark blonde in the moonlight. She was wearing a thin red plastic hooded jacket - more than a windbreaker, less than a raincoat - over a sweater and a print dress, and she was wearing a pair of red high-top sneakers with laces that were too long, and had come undone.

I knelt down and helped her with the laces. “So, finally! What’s your name? I’m Jordan. What’s your name?”

“Sarah. Sarah Aubrey,” she said in a voice that was little more than a whisper.

“Sarah? That’s a pretty name.” Hold it. “Aubrey? Are you related to the local Aubreys?” Oh shit, this just got sticky. I sure as shooting couldn’t go to the freaking Aubreys’ looking like this, and I couldn’t change in front of Sarah.

“My parents are Pollard and Dinah Aubrey.”

I knew of Dinah Aubrey; she was one of Reece Aubrey’s aunts. She was the quiet sort of woman who didn’t say much. A nice change of pace from her loud-mouthed relations. Well, maybe this wouldn’t be too bad after all. Besides, as annoying and untrustworthy as they are, the Aubreys are still one of The Families. And Heck, there’s no way that I’m gonna leave a little kid all alone out here in the woods at night. “Oh? I know your mother, slightly. But I didn’t know that Dinah Aubrey had a daughter.”

At the mention of her mother, Sarah’s eyes grew big and teary. “I want my momma,” she whimpered. “I just wanna go home.”

I gave her a big hug, but didn’t seem to warm her up much. “Now, now, don’t cry. I’ll get you out of the spooky old woods and back to your momma.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” Sarah looked at me dubiously. Kids know that promises are important things and have to be kept. Which is strange, when you remember how often grown-ups break their promises. She looked like she was no stranger to broken promises. “Okay, let’s get you home!” I stood up, took her hand, and tried to get my bearings.

Damn, in all the poking about in the dark, I’d lost my sense of where I’d come from. But one of the things that you learn as a Witch is how to pick up that sense of direction that some people have naturally. I picked out North, and figured that I’d gone East into the woods, so if we went West, we should hit the road eventually. Maybe a little longer than something more complicated, but a lot surer.

I took a deep breath started walking. After a bit, Sarah asked me, “Why were you out hiking at night?”

“Hiking? Why would I be hiking? I was just going home from a movie!”

“Then why are you carrying a rucksack?”

“Rucksack? You mean my backpack? Why wouldn’t I have a backpack?”

“But you only use those when you’re camping!”

Oh well, it wasn’t like I didn’t already know that the Aubreys were weird.

We pushed through the woods, and they got darker and darker, instead of lighter. It was weird. Even with all the to-ing and fro-ing that we’d done, it only should have taken ten, fifteen minutes tops. Instead, we just kept walking on and one, until I lost track of the time.

We came to a small clearing with a large stump in the middle of it. Odd, the moonlight should have been brighter in the clearing, but it was just as dreary as the thicker part of the woods. I looked at the stump. It was rotten, worm-riddled and pocked with holes. But it was still better than sitting on the ground, so I made sure of my skirt and sat down. “So, Sarah, what are you doing out here in the woods at night?”

Sarah didn’t answer.

I looked around. Sarah was nowhere to be seen. I got to my feet and yelled, “SARAH! Sarah, where are you? Dammit, what are you doing?” I charged out after her.

Or at least, where I thought that she went. There was no sign of her. I resisted the urge to go further into the woods. No matter why Sarah went off, she had last seen me in the clearing, and she would eventually go back there. If I went after her, we’d just keep missing each other in the dark, and we’d be here all night.

I headed back to the clearing. Or at least, I TRIED to.

I swear, I only went ten, twenty, maybe thirty feet into the woods, but for some bizarre reason, I couldn’t find the clearing! I tried to get a sense of the direction that I’d been traveling in, but there was no sense of North! I stopped and focused on my directional sense, but there was nothing to work with! Suddenly, I was all alone in the middle of the woods, in the middle of the night, and I had absolutely NO idea of where I was.

Now I am Wycke, born and bred, and the woods are my friends. But right then and there, that sick feeling of panic curdled up in the pit of my stomach, and I knew, I just KNEW, that there was something right behind me.

And then, something reached out from where I couldn’t see and ran a hard, sharp finger across my cheek.

I RAN, as fast as my feet could take me. I didn’t think to put wings onto my feet, but pure adrenaline was just as good. I ran until I was about to cough up a lung, and I fell to my knees, gasping for air.

Then I saw the pale face of a child through the branches. “Sarah!” I wheezed. I struggled to my feet and tried to get to her.

But it wasn’t Sarah. I never saw the kid before. I was about to ask her who she was, where Sarah was, what was going on, that sort of thing, when the girl pulled back into the shadows.

Dammit, I do not have TIME to play tag with a bunch of poor witch trash kids in the dark! It is just like those Aubreys to let their little ’uns go off playing Keep Away in the middle of the night.

But just as I getting a good head of steam up under my Mad, I felt a foul breath that I knew wasn’t the wind go across my back. The hackles of my back went up, and my flesh crawled as I felt something scrape across the back of my neck.

I was already winded, but I shot out of there like a Kentucky Derby contender. This time, I didn’t even bother trying to steer clear of the branches, I just RAN.

I went barreling through the woods, with branches and thorns tearing at my clothing and face. On some level, I knew that the woods around here shouldn’t be this large, that even if I’d been going through them at the absolutely longest angle, that I should have gotten out eventually. But the woods just went on and on, and there was no end to them.

I ran, and kept running, until I ran into something that gave. I fell across it, and it turned out to be a man’s lap. He struggled to his feet, and before I could say anything, I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. “By the Graal, girl, what do you think that you are doing here?”

“Sarah,” I gasped, thankful for a chance to get my breath, “I’m looking for Sarah. Sarah Aubrey.”

“Sarah Aubrey? What would she be doing out here?”

“I dunno.” I took another deep breath. “I was- *wheeze!* I was walking home on the road, and I heard a little girl crying.”

“Little girl? I thought that you were looking for Sarah Aubrey!”

“I am! She can’t be more than Eight!”

“What are you talking about, chit? Sarah Aubrey’s a grandmother, and a more troublesome shrew as I never hope to meet again!”

“What the HELL are you talking about?”

“MIND YOUR TONGUE, WENCH! I am not accustomed to being spoken to thus!”

‘Mind you tongue, wench’? I broke off getting my breath back and looked up at him. He was tall, and he was wearing so much black that I could barely make him out in the gloom. I could make out the white of his shirt and the pale of his face, but that was sort of it. I could tell that he was a lot taller than I was, and judging by his voice, I’d say that he was in his prime, maybe well into his prime. But not out of his prime, not by any standard! His voice was deep and resonant, and just oozed authority. His face was long and narrow, with a strong chin. I could tell that he was carrying some kind of walking stick in one hand and an old fashioned bulls-eye lantern in the other. He sort of gave off this Old Testament Patriarch ‘large and in charge at all times’ vibe.

I got up. “Look, we really don’t have TIME to be fu- er, FUSSING around. There’s a little girl lost out here, and I think there’s something out there. I have NO idea of where I am, or which way is what. Two heads are better than one; if you help me find Sarah, I’ll help you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”

He gave a dissatisfied sigh. “Very well, as you’re out here from the first. I’m here to bring Hesper Cosgrove back to her parents. So, after a fashion, we’re after the same task.”

“Hesper Cosgrove?”

“She’s a local child, all of seven years old. She has ginger hair and is wearing a calico dress with a linen apron.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound like any of the Cosgroves that I know.”

He put down his lantern and reached into his vest. “Well, I can tell that you’re not from these parts; so, why should you?”

“‘Not from these parts’? Hey, Jack, I was born and raised around here!”

He pulled something out of this vest. It was a small metal box, out of which he pulled a match. He struck the match against the back of his watch. “I doubt it. I don’t know why you’re yarning, but your accent plays you a fool. I've never heard the likes of your tones, and I know everyone for thirty miles in any direction.”

He stuck the match into the lantern, and we finally had some light. I got a good look at him and he got a good look at me. He was wearing a long black overcoat, and a wide brimmed hat that couldn’t seem to quite up its mind whether it wanted to be a Stetson or not. The walking stick that he was carrying was dark wood, and the head was carved into a stylized cat’s head, with blue stones set for the eyes. But what really caught my attention was the old fashioned pistol stuck into his belt.

He held up the lantern and gave me a good look. “I thought so. I’ve never clapped eyes on you.”

Hey, I could say that same thing, but I have this rule against arguing with the heavily armed and possibly psychotic.

He looked me over and gave me a weird squint. “So, child, what’s your name?”

“aaaahhh...Winters. Jordan Winters.”

“Winters? The only Winters in this part of Massachusetts live out in Wooster.”

“aahhh...My mother’s one of the Walthers.”

“Oh. That explains it.” He didn’t take it any further. He took a deep breath. “Very well. Well, the sooner that we’re about it, the sooner that we get out of this accursed wood.”

We pushed on in silence for a while. He didn’t say anything, and I figured that it was probably safer to keep it that way. Then I saw a small figure run through the underbrush. “Hey! Sarah! What do you think that you’re DOING?” I charged after her. Hey, it’s been a long, hard night, and I figured that the guy with the lantern wouldn’t be quite so quick to go totally nutzo if there was a little kid around to watch.

The little brat was pretty damn slippery, and I really scratched up my clothes doing it, but I finally managed to get my hands on her. “Sarah! What the he- Heck is going on? Is that guy after-” Then I got a good look at her. “Hold on, you’re not Sarah!”

And she wasn’t. She was maybe ten or so, and she was wearing jeans and a striped long sleeved jersey. Her hair was brownish and cut in a page boy. She didn’t match Hesper Cosgrove’s description in the least. Wise Ones, Blessed and Bright, how many kids are there, running around in these stupid woods?

I must have pulled back in surprise, because she slipped out of my fingers and went running through the brush. I looked around for the guy’s lantern, but couldn’t see it anywhere in the dark.

Well, there I was again, lost and alone in the night.

There wasn’t anyone around to see me, so I willed up a small ball of witchfire to see by. I looked around and saw that I was in the same stupid clearing that I’d been in when I lost Sarah. At least I hoped it was the same clearing. I’d hate to think that these woods are riddled with creepy disgusting rotten stumps like that one in the middle of this one.

I halloo’d out to the guy with the lantern for a while. Nothing. I looked for the light from his lantern. Again, nothing. Jeez, in this darkness, that lantern should be like a freaking lighthouse!

I thought for a second about just sitting down and waiting for sunrise. Hey, getting lost in the woods was as good an excuse for being lost as any! But then I remembered that there was something out there. Suddenly, staying put and being a sitting duck didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

Well, maybe the guy with the lantern just took a wrong turn and is deeper in the woods. MAN, how deep ARE these stupid woods? I mean, I’ve lived nearly all my life in the Millbridge area, and I know that there aren’t any woods this thick or wide! I pushed out of the clearing, and halloo’d again.

Then I heard something. “Hello?”

“Sarah?”

“Hello?” She sounded on the verge of tears again.

“Sarah! It’s me, Jordan! The girl you talked to earlier! Where are you?”

“Over here-“

I followed the sound of her voice. Then I came to a thick bramble. “Sarah? Where are you?”

“I’m in here.”

“What the hell are you doing in there?”

“I can’t get out.” She sounded like a kitten up a tree. “I’m stuck!”

“HOW did you get in here?”

“I’m sorry...”

          Nnnrrrggg…I pushed through the brambles, and caught sight of her. “I’m sorry...” she said again, and somehow, she was sort of pulling back without moving. “I’m sorry...” And she was gone.

What the hell?

Then the bramble started grabbing at me. It’s branches took a hold of me and wouldn’t let go. They sank their thorns into me, and just wouldn’t let go. I felt the bramble pulling me deeper and deeper into it.

I let out a shriek that would have woken up Elvis, and summoned up a handful of witchfire. The bramble flinched from the pale blue fire, but didn’t let me go. I failed away at the bramble, burning whatever would burn. Now, keep in mind, witchfire doesn’t normally set things on fire, so the bramble’s reaction was a matter of magical reaction.

And apparently, its magic was more powerful than mine.

I screamed, I clawed, and I burned, but it was getting the better of me. Damn, what an embarrassing way to die! Shrubbed to death!

Then a powerful hand reached in, grabbed me and started to pull me out. Another hand, with a knife that looked like a short sword flashed, and hacked at the plant. I managed to burn and scrabble out of the bramble.

The hands that saved me belonged to the guy with the lantern. “What’s this? Balefire? Are you of The Craft?” He looked at me in the lantern’s light suspiciously. Not in shock, or in accusation, just suspiciously.

“Yeah, yeah- I’m of The Craft,” I replied once I had some of my composure back. “Born and bred to it. And who are YOU? How do you know about this? And what the FUCK is going on here?”

He gave me a sharp look for the language, but I guess that the cut me some slack, under the circumstances. “I know what is going on here, as I sit on the High Council for this area. I am Judge Gideon Ainsworth.”

I swear that I felt my jaw hit the mossy ground. Judge Ainsworth? It COULDN’T be!

Okay, a word of explanation is called for here. This guy saying that he was Judge Ainsworth is kind of like someone walking up to you and saying that they were Dan’l Boone, or Davy Crockett or Wild Bill Hickcock. To the Millbridge Witches, Judge Ainsworth is like Sam Houston, Wyatt Earp and Solomon, all rolled into one. Back in the mid 19th Century, Judge Aisnworth was not only the town Justice of the Peace, he was on the Town Council, he was a Deacon of the Unitarian Church, and he was the primary brake on the power of the Four Families that owned the Mills. And, most importantly, we was one of Ours. Like he said, he sat on the High Council. He was a Witch.

While the others in the Millbridge area have almost completely forgotten him, we Witches have been telling stories about him for over one hundred and fifty years. Judge Ainsworth was one of those backwoods monarchs that small towns had back then. The kind of individual who ruled by a combination of personal magnetism, sheer willpower, keen intellect and the occasional application of brute force. He was the kind of guy who could argue Law, Philosophy and History with professors, stare down a Robber Baron, have tea with genteel ladies, haggle with Yankee Traders, out-preach a Baptist, powwow with Indians, shoot it out with outlaws, tussle with roughnecks, and negotiate with hostile Spirits. The kept the Four Families that owned the Mills minding the Law and their manners, and he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Heck, from what they said about him, the only reason that he didn’t go to Boston to stand for the General Assembly was that he didn’t want to leave Millbridge to the mercies of the Four Families. He’s even supposed to have gone ---

-- into ---

         -- Hobb’s Woods---

--- to fight the Lurker---

--- and never come out.

“Oh, Lord, Lady and Light!” Suddenly, I think that I knew how Anne Frank must have felt when the Gestapo came busting down the door. “This is Hobb’s Woods!”

“Yes,” the Judge nodded brusquely, “where did you think you were?”

“But I didn’t go anywhere NEAR Hobb’s Woods!” I wrapped my arms around my head and tried not to freak. “I gotta get OUT of here! The Lurker’s SEEN me!”

“And I would help you, Child,” the Judge said, “but I have sworn a sacred oath to find Hesper Cosgrove and see her to her mother. I am Oathsworn.”

Oathsworn? “Oh, SHIT!” I yelled, no matter what this backwoods demigod thought. “I promised Sarah that I’d get her back to her mother!”

The Judge nodded in understanding. “So, you are trapped. If you stay, then you are at the Lurker’s mercy. If you try to leave, then you are Forsworn, and the Lurker has the power to keep you here.” He took a deep breath. “Very well then, Jordan Winters. Stay by my side, and try to stay out of harm’s way. If I can find the Lurker, then mayhaps I can force it to let both Hesper and your Sarah go.”

“Force it? How are you gonna force the Lurker to do anything? That creep eats witches alive!”

He hefted his cat’s head cane in his good hand and smirked superiorly. “I have my plan, all laid out. All that I need do is find the Lurker’s Heart, fix the Lurker itself and force it to give me its name. From there, the rest falls like a line of dominoes.”

“aaahhh...Judge, that’s gonna be a lot more easily said than done. There’s something really weird going on.”

He gave me an amused look. “Oh, you’ve noticed that, have you?”

“Judge, when I went haring off before, I was chasing a girl. I thought that she was Sarah, but it wasn’t.”

“That makes sense. The Lurker seems to enjoy the company of children. It lures them here into this wood and forces them to stay, as it feeds on them.”

“Your Honor, that wasn’t what I was talking about. The girl that I was chasing, I caught up with her. And she wasn’t dressed like a kid from the 1840’s.”

“Well then, how WAS she dressed? As a Puritan, maybe? Or from the Revolution? Or maybe she was an Indian? The Indians lost children to this wood as well as we. The Lurker seems to enjoy using the children to distract me. Every so often, it sends one of them across my path to send me on a wild goose chase. I nearly broke my neck a ways back, chasing one of the little devils!”

“No, I’d say that she looked like she was dressed maybe from the 1980’s or 1990’s.”

“Nineteen-Nineties?” The Judge almost burst out laughing. “The Lurker may be powerful and wiley, but it can’t reach into the far future!”

“ah- It doesn’t have to. The future came here, all on its own.”

“What are you talking about, Child?”

“I mean that you never made it out of these woods. Local legend has it that you went into these woods to face down the Lurker, and never came out again..”

“Are you MAD? I’ve only been here since sundown!”

“Well...maybe there’s never any sunrise in this place...”

“NO! The Lurker may be powerful in this place, it may be able to cry like a mockingbird and twist paths and play with the senses, but not even IT in THIS place can gainsay the SUN!”

“Judge, I’m telling you, you’ve been lost and mourned as dead for over ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS!”

The Judge’s face went from pale to beet red with rage. “What sort of idiot do you take me for? This is some sort of ploy, isn’t it? The twisting paths, the fleeting children, the sudden bizarre changes of wind and weather, the misleading sounds, the pitfalls, they weren’t working, were they? The Lurker realizes that its bag of tricks is getting empty, so it pulls out one last rotten lie! Do you honestly think that I’m stupid enough to think that I have failed? That’s what it wants, isn’t it? If I’ve failed, then I am forsworn, and I’m powerless! But if I were forsworn, then why am I still ALIVE, eh?”

Are you, Judge? We witch folk try to avoid Ghosts even more than normal folks do. We revere the natural cycles of Life and Death, so someone who hangs around in defiance of those cycles is someone we steer clear of. Ghosts are bound to this world by chains of passion, regret, and obligation, and normal people are all too likely to get tangled up in those chains. And it looked like the Judge was trying to wrap one of those chains around my neck.

“What did it offer you, whore?” he roared. “Did it offer you Money? Did it offer you Power? Or did it just offer to let you out of these woods?” He drew the revolver from his belt and pulled back the hammer.

And I lit out of there like a cat with its tail on fire. I don’t know if a ghost-gun can kill, and to be honest, that’s one experiment that I’d really prefer to put off as long as possible. Once again, I went crashing through the brush, not looking where I was going, crashing through until-

I came out into that SAME DAMN CLEARING!

Yes, the SAME DAMN CLEARING! What IS this? Is that bloodless freak of a Lurker running me around in circles? Yes, of course it is. Didn’t the Judge say that the Lurker seemed to enjoy playing fooly-fooly games? I was too tired and pissed to really give a damn anymore. I staggered over to the stump, planted my rear on it and tried my best to get my breath back.

Wouldn’t you know it? The second that the rales stopped, I heard a voice call out, “Hellooo?”

Oh, give me a break! I thought about telling whoever it was to go fuck themselves with a chainsaw. Then it occurred to me that I’d given my word to Sarah - if the Judge was forsworn for giving up on his pledge, then so was I. But that doesn’t mean that I have to let the traceless scum call the dance. “Sarah? Sarah Aubrey, is that you?”

“Hellooo?”

“Hey, listen up! I am NOT going to go running around like a chicken with its head cut off, just because some nameless voice calls! If you’re Sarah Aubrey, then say so! If not, then I’m not moving!”

There was no reply. I thought for a moment that maybe I could wait out the night in this clearing. The Lurker might be just as powerful in the day, but at least I could SEE in the sunlight. Then, of course, just as I was getting comfortable, I heard her again. “Hellooo?”

“Sarah, is that you?” I called back. It was possible, but I wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances.

“Yes! It’s me, Sarah! Is that you, Jordan?”

I perked up. “Sarah! Sarah, listen! Follow the sound of my voice! You come and find ME!”

We halloo’d back and forth for a while, until the sound of her voice was at the very edge of the clearing. Finally, I called out, “Sarah! Come into the clearing, where I can see you!”

“I can’t!”

“Why not?”

“I’m in the woods!”

“Oh, for pity’s sake! Of course you’re in the woods! So, come out of the woods, into the clearing!”

“I CAN’T!” she almost sobbed. “I WANT to, but I CAN’T!”

“Why not?”

“I’m IN the woods! The woods are in me! We’re all sort of mixed together, and I can’t get free!”

“What do you mean?” If I could keep her talking, then I could follow her voice. If I could get my hands on her, then I could anchor a Sorcery thread to her, and nothing that the Lurker could pull would be able to keep me from finding her again, if he managed to split us up again. And if I had Sarah, then I wouldn’t be forsworn, and I could get the Hell OUT of here!

I spun a Sorcery thread, and left it loose with a ‘barb’ at the end. Then I lit a ball of witchfire in the other hand. “Sarah? Sarah, are you still there?”

“Yes, I’m still here.” But her voice was fainter, further away.

“I’m not going to come running after you! Come as close to me as the Lurker will let you!”

“Okay.” This time, the voice was a little closer. I made my way to the edge of the clearing, step by step, coaxing Sarah closer and closer, but keeping the Sorcery thread as well hidden as I could. Finally, I could see her, or at least I could see her eyes glittering in the darkness.

I held the ball of witchfire higher, so that I could see her better. Sweet Lady, she was right! She really WAS a part of the woods! Somehow, she had melded into the brush, she was part and parcel of the plantlife. “Sarah? Is that you?”

Her pale tragic face screwed up, her eyes filled with tears, and she tried fitfully to keep from crying. “Please, I just wanna go HOME! I want my Momma!”

As quickly as I could, hopefully before the Lurker could pull her back or anything, I lunged forward and grabbed her, sinking the Sorcery thread deep into her cold flesh. I made sure that I’d hit flesh and not wood, and then I grabbed her hand and started to pull. “Please,” Sarah urged me, “get me OUT of here! I’m so cold! I just wanna go HOME!” Then she broke down and started to cry.

Then a THING came out of the woods, right out of the very essence of the forest, somehow combining all the worst properties of a wolf, a snake and a spider, smelling of rot and foulness. It leaned over, stuck out a long cold tongue and licked the tears from Sarah’s face with relish. Then it looked at me and GRINNED.

Okay, I admit it, I freaked. I bolted and ran - again - as fast as my feet could carry me.

And all around me, I could hear the Lurker, laughing a laugh that sounded like rotten wood creaking and breaking. And everywhere I looked, I could see eyes glittering in the dark, looking at me, accusing, fearful and desperate. I stopped, I could barely make out the rough images of children, but like Sarah, they were blurry and indistinct, more a part of the wood than separate beings of their own.

Forsworn, Witch-girl! The woods and the wind mocked me. You are forsworn and a fool, and all that you are, is Mine!

“NO!” I thundered back. “I am NOT forsworn! I WILL get Sarah out of these rotten woods, even if I have to DIE to make it happen!”

          That can be arranged. Suddenly, the Lurker loomed right out of the gloom, grinning the kind of grin that the Joker has when he has Batman chained and hanging upside down over a tank of piranhas.

I backpedaled, and found myself falling down a small ravine. Instinctively, I tucked myself into a ball and rolled with it. I came to rest with a thump against a tree. I slowly uncurled, making very sure that my spine wasn’t broken, and then any ribs. As I slowly, painfully got up, I put my hand down to get some leverage, and touched cloth.

Fighting an ever deepening dread curdling in my stomach, I lit a ball of witchfire and looked. It was the Judge, laying face down in the moss. “Judge? Judge Ainsworth, is that you?” I asked in a squeak, not wanting an answer, and REALLY not wanting an answer, either.

I gingerly reached over and pulled him over, so that I could see him. He was dead. He was beyond dead. He was some kind of freaking mummy, his skin all sunken in and leathery across his bones, but not decayed.

Hell, it seemed that he was the only thing in this entire rotten woods that wasn’t decayed!

His neck was at a very WRONG angle. Then I remembered what the Judge had said about ‘nearly breaking his neck a ways back’. Well, Judge, it looks like it was a lot nearer than you thought.

I found the Judge’s lantern laying a few feet away. I searched through his pockets and found that tin of matches and struck them against the back of his watch. With the lantern to see by - witchfire isn’t the best lighting, but it’s better than nothing - I looked him over. Odd, other than the wasting of the flesh, everything else looks like it could have fallen there a couple of hours ago! His mustache and the hair on his head were still firmly in the skin, and his clothes where rumpled but they certainly didn’t look like they’d been lying on a forest floor for over 150 years!

Come to think of it, his watch wasn’t tarnished in the least! And it was a silver watch, so there should have been some. The pistol tucked in his belt was clean and smelled of oil.

Then I noticed that his right hand was firmly clutching his cat’s head walking stick. Odd, a man falling down a ravine would empty his hands to try and protect himself. He’d dropped the lantern, but not his walking stick, which I think would have been the first thing that he’d let go of.

But then, this IS Judge Ainsworth we’re talking about here. I vaguely remembered something about the Judge having a walking stick with special powers. Well, of course! Even a man as sure of his powers as the Judge wouldn’t march into Hobb’s Wood without taking precautions.

Now, in D&D, taking stuff off of dead people is no big deal, you do it all the time. In real life, however? Whole different trip. I gingerly unwrapped his bone-shod-in-skin fingers from around the walking stick and tried to keep my own skin from crawling.

When I had the cane out from his hand, I felt something from it. There was a power that had been sleeping dormant - or at least otherwise committed - that was looking at me, taking my measure. A silent growl came from the cane, like from either a small tiger or the great-grand-daddy of all alley cats.

“Chill out!” I told the cane, "I’m not stealing you. I just need to borrow you for a while. I’ll get you back to the Judge, just as soon as I’ve finished his business.” The cane growled back at me, but it was a grudging, accepting growl. I got the impression that I’d better get it back to the Judge, ASAP, or it would make me wish that I’d dived down the Lurker’s gullet.

I patted down the Judge’s body, hoping to find any other amulets or protective trinkets. There was a gold amulet of some kind and a small leather pouch around his neck. I found that long knife with which he had cut me out of the bushes; it was what they used to call an ‘Arkansas toothpick’, the kind of knife upon which the Bowie Knife was based, but I think the blade was made of silver. I also found a long stiletto like knife tucked into one boot, and a derringer tucked into the other. Oh Yeah, the Judge was definitely a man who liked to be prepared.

The rest of the stuff must have been the sort of things that a man of the 1840’s must have carried on him as a matter of course. I didn’t recognize most of it. I was rather surprised to find a silver flask in one overcoat pocket. Strange, you wouldn’t think that a man going out to face one of the most feared threats in this region would risk taking a nip. I unscrewed the cap and took a whiff! *pfew!* 150 proof or better! I recapped it and put it back in his overcoat. I also found a leather-bound Bible, with a piece of paper tucked into it. I looked at the page - it was some kind of binding spell!

YES!

I KNEW that the Judge had something planned! What was it that the Judge said? ‘All that I need do is find the Lurker’s Heart, fix the Lurker itself and force it to give me its name.’ Yes! The reason that the Judge can’t find the Lurker’s heart is that he isn’t really carrying his cane! He’s carrying some kind of phantom copy! If I get the cane and this page to the Judge, then he can find the Lurker’s Heart! He may not be able to bind the Lurker, since he’s a ghost, but once he wraps his head around that, he’ll guide me through the ritual, and I’ll bind the Lurker, and we can all finally get the Hell OUT of here!

I started to stash the Bible into my backpack, but I suddenly realized that I’d dropped it somewhere. Fuck, this could cause problems. My Guy Clothes and stuff are in there. But, first things first - get the Hell out of here, then worry about my cover.  So, I stashed the Bible in my Levi jacket pocket as best I could. It struck me as a good idea that I be able to find the Judge’s body again. He might need something, if only a good jolt from that flask. I anchored another Sorcery thread to it, picked up the lantern, hefted the cane in my other hand, and went looking for the Judge.

As I went through the woods, halloo-ing for the Judge, I saw eyes glittering at me from the darkness. Forsworn, they whispered at me, you are forsworn and lost.

 “Awwww...Shaddap!” I growled back at them. Every so often, I saw the snarky, ‘I’m gonna get you’ grin of the Lurker, just out of the corner of my eye.

I halloo’d for a while, and finally caught sight of the Judge’s ghost lantern. I called him by name, but he didn’t answer. I chased after him, but suddenly, there were two lantern lights, going off in different directions. The Lurker, playing his bullshit little games again.

I heard the cat’s head growl again. Well, it’s not like I have a better plan! I pointed the cat’s eyes at one of the lights. “Is that the Judge?” There was a mild growl. “Is that the Lurker?” The cat’s head damn near spat. Well, I guess the Judge’s ghost doesn’t quite qualify as the Judge. I went hurrying after the second light.

Then I heard, “Hesper! Hesper Cosgrove!” The cat’s head didn’t react as if it were the Lurker, so I ran in that direction.

At last, I caught up with him. He blinked into the light of my lantern, and then recognized me. “YOU!” He pulled out his pistol, and let off a shot.

The bullet dissipated in a puff of mist.

“What sort of trickery is THIS?” The Judge looked at his gun like it had betrayed him. He let off round after round, all of which were just as ineffective.

After a bit of this, I held up my hand. “Judge, if you don’t mind, might I point out to you that you just got off EIGHT shots, and that shootin’ iron only holds SIX rounds? And that’s only if you don’t keep your hammer down on an empty chamber.”

The Judge threw down his gun, and pulled out his big knife. He came at me with a lightning fast underhand strike, but I blocked it with the cat’s head cane, and the knife just turned to vapor in his hands. As the knife dissipated, the Judge got a good look at the cane in my hands. “Where did you get that thing?”

“Judge,” I said in the Voice of Extreme Reason, “if you’ll stop freaking out for a second and listen, I’ll TELL you where I got it! I know why you can’t find the Lurker!”

“I KNOW why I can’t find the Lurker! Because he knows how to slip out of my gaze’s grasp and flow out of my will’s reach like the last pickle in the barrel!”

“NO, Judge, there’s more to it-”

The Judge pulled his ghost’s memory of the cat’s head staff out from the crook of the arm holding the lantern. “HAH! Let’s see your tricks turn THIS!” He brought the cane down in an arc that would have crushed my head, if I hadn’t blocked it with the real catshead staff. The shadow broke on the reality.

“What...IS...This?” the Judge looked flabbergasted at his empty hand.

“Will you LISTEN to me?” I grated through clenched teeth, barely keeping my temper in check. “Since you won’t listen to reason, just follow me, and I’ll show you!”

Not really caring whether he followed or not, I turned and followed the thread back to the ravine.

“This --- this is the ravine that I fell down earlier.”

“Oh, you did a lot more than just fall, Judge!” I shone the light of the lantern on his shriveled up corpse.

The Judge looked down in horror - well, who wouldn’t, looking at their own dead body? “Go ahead, touch it, make sure that it’s real.” I prodded him.

His breath coming in ragged gasps, the Judge felt the solidity of the body, and sensed the UN-solidity of what he was. “Wh- when did this happen?”

I took a deep breath. “I told you, Judge - it happened over a Hundred and Fifty Years ago. The Lurker knew that you’d never give up looking for Hesper Cosgrove, and that it was only a matter of time before you managed to track it down. It couldn’t affect you directly while you had this cane,” I held up the catshead staff, "so it sent that kid to distract you into falling down this ravine. As you can see, you broke your neck and died. You died so quickly that you didn’t realize that you’d even died! And you’re a man of your Word, Judge; you just kept looking for Hesper, no matter what.”

“But- I’m dead...that means that Hesper is dead, as well...”

“Well... In this place, who knows?  I mean, I’m really getting this ‘the normal rules don’t apply’ vibe here.”

He wasn’t listening. “Then I’ve failed... I gave my Word, and I Failed!” He looked up and the dark canopy of branches and howled “I AM FORSWORN!” Then, in a soft, broken voice that was little more than an echo of his former thunder, “I am forsworn...”

          Forsworn, forsworn... His voice melded into a creepy chorus of all the murmuring voices of the children trapped in the woods. As I watched, his body, now just a fading, blurring shadow of what I once took to be a living man, was sort of pulled into the woods, until he was just one more part of Hobb’s Wood. And the chorus kept on, forsworn, forsworn, forsworn...

“NO!” I screamed as the Judge faded into the woodwork. “You have to tell me what the Lurker’s heart is! How the hell do you ‘fix’ the Lurker? At least tell me how this stupid spell works!”

But it didn’t matter. All that came from the woods was, forsworn, forsworn, forsworn...

And then the wood rang with that splintering of rotten timber excuse for a laugh. A hundred and fifty years that fool has been stumbling around these woods! Scaring off his friends was a job and a half. But I don’t know why it never occurred to me to let him see his own body. A hundred and fifty years, he’s eluded me, but now he’s mine. Somehow, I doubt that you’ll last a hundred and fifty minutes...

I couldn’t help it. I fell to my knees and broke down crying. Sweet Mother, I practically killed him! He was doing fine, even if he was dead, and I had to come along and screw it up! And without the Judge, I’ve failed... I can’t keep my Word to Sarah...I’m foresworn...

          Forsworn, forsworn, forsworn... The wood rang with it. Forsworn, forsworn, forsworn...

Then I felt a cold clammy tongue sweep across my cheek. Tears, tears, lovely tears... Fading traces of Joy are better than nothing...

I gave a scream of rage and swung the cat's head staff around me in wild arcs. The Lurker pulled back, but I could still see that snarky grin out there in the wood, among all the others, pleading with me to help them. Forsworn, forsworn, forsworn...

DAMMIT, I want OUT of this loony bin! But how do I get out? I don’t even know I got IN!

Wait a minute --- How DID I get in here?

I mean, I was nowhere near Hobb’s Wood when I first ran into Sarah. So, how did she get to the woods that were off the road? And how did we get from that wood to Hobb’s Wood? I have to talk to Sarah...

Hey, it’s better than curling up into a ball and sucking my thumb!

I pulled out the Sorcery threads and tested them, one at a time. Sorcery isn’t my long suit, and I have to be very careful. But, thank you Wise Ones, all that I have to do is follow it to Sarah. And Sarah has to be somewhere.

Somewhere.

Is that what the Judge meant, when he said that he had to ‘fix’ the Lurker? The Lurker can seem to be everywhere and nowhere, and being a spirit, if it seems to be everywhere and no where, then it is. But, if the Judge could peg the Lurker in one place, if he could ‘fix’ it as being there and not anywhere else, then the Lurker could only be in one place, doing one thing. And that would put a serious crimp in its style...

What was it that the Judge said? ‘Because he knows how to slip out of my gaze’s grasp and flow out of my will’s reach like the last pickle in the barrel.’ The Lurker was avoiding the Judges gaze. But how?

Mulling all this over allowed me to follow the Sorcery thread and none of the decoys and distractions that the Lurker was throwing out. I followed it to one batch of bushes. “Sarah? Sarah, honey, are you in there?”

I heard sobbing. “Yes. Yes, I’m sorry!”

“Sorry for what?”

“I- I tricked you!”

“You tricked me? Why?”

“Because he said that he’d let me go!”

“Sarah, when we first met, we were in a woods that I KNOW is nowhere near Hobb’s Wood. Was that part of the trick?”

“Yes,” she sobbed, “he told me that if I got you to come here, that he’d let me go.”

“But Sarah, you told me that you couldn’t get out of the woods, and I know that the Lurker doesn’t have any power outside Hobb’s Wood. So, how did you get to where we met?”

“I don’t know! He just told me to walk that way and come back that way! He said that he could reach you, even past the edge of the woods! I walked out along his reach and back the same way, and you followed. I’m Sorry! I’m So SORRY! I just want to go HOME!”

It could reach me? Even outside Hobb’s Wood? But HOW? That ONE TIME that it saw me, when I was here in these woods with Griff, it tried to put its mark on me, and it failed! The Fools Cap...

The Fool’s Cap.

AGAIN, this damned cap screwed me over! The Lurker has a connection now to the Fool’s Cap and it used that to create a bridge of some sort that it let Sarah out of the woods on, sort of ‘on a leash’.

But why now? Why not before? Let’s see, before, I was either with friends as Jordan, or I was alone as Dan-

As a Boy!

It suddenly occurred to me that all the kids that I’d seen were either tykes, not more than Five, or they were girls! It chose now, because this was the first time since then that I’ve been in its range, when I was both alone and a girl!

Why a girl?

The only male of any kind of rational age was the Judge, who was hunting it- 

Who was seeking it.

That’s it! The Male Paradigm is linear and focused, concentrating on one thing. The Female Paradigm is radial and enveloping, taking in everything at once. The Female Paradigm allows the Lurker to be everywhere at once. If the Judge’s Male focus ever hit on it, then it would be stuck there, ‘fixed’, until the Judge’s attention was diverted. That’s why it kept skittering outside his field of vision, it didn’t want to be fixed.

Okay, I’ve got that figured out, at least. “Sarah, why are you still here? You held up your end of the bargain,” I said as mildly and uncritically as I could.

“I’m SORRY! I just wanted to GO HOME!”

“I’m not blaming you, honey - the Lurker would have just come up with another way of getting at me, and you were desperate. But why didn’t he let you go?”

“He Promised! He said that that he’d let me GO, but then when I brought you here, it wasn’t enough! He said that I had to STAY!”

Promised? I jumped on it like a hungry dog on bone. “Sarah, this is very important! Did he say anything like ‘I MIGHT let you go’? Or, did he just say, do this, and I’ll let you go.”

“He PROMISED!” All the pain and outrage of an eight-year-old at an Oath-breaker was packed into those two words.

“Yes, yes, but did say, ‘Yes, definitely,’ or ‘Maybe’?”

“He said definitely!” And I could tell from the Sorcery thread that she was telling the truth. Lurker, you lying greedy bastard, you just screwed the pooch with a jackhammer.

“Sarah, listen to me. I can get you out of here. The Lurker Promised. And then he broke that promise. Now, he OWES you. Sarah, you tricked me. Now, you owe ME. Sarah, you can repay that debt, right now.”

“How?” she said like mewling kitten.

“Pass the debt that the Lurker owes you over to me. Then we’re Even-Steven.”

“Will you still get me home?”

“I promised you that I would. The fact that you tricked me doesn’t change that. I’ll have to go and take care of a few things first, but I WILL come back and take you home. I promise, by the Lord, the Lady and the Light.” I stuck out my hand. “Deal?”

Slowly, like honey dripping on a cold morning, a small pale hand came out of the shrubbery and gripped my hand. “Deal. My debt is now your debt. What the Lurker owes me, he now owes you. Done deal?”

“Done and Done!” I shook her hand, and it was a done deal, indeed. I let go of her hand. “Don’t worry, Sarah. I have to go settle that double-crossing rat first, but I WILL come back for you!”

“Okay...” She said it as if she wanted to believe it, but couldn’t quite bring herself to.

I grabbed the Sorcery thread that I’d latched on the Judge’s body and followed it back. I had almost all the pieces that I needed, but one thing was still missing - the Lurker’s Heart. That baby-raping son of a bitch didn’t even HAVE a heart! He was just an evil spirit-

-Spirit-

Spirits, especially ‘Spirits of Place’ like the Lurker, have to have an anchor in the physical world, something that keeps them there and not drifting all over the landscape. Ghosts have things called ‘fetters’ or ‘cursed objects’. Spirits have things called ‘Hallows’. The Lurker’s ‘Heart’ must be its Hallow. A lot of times, a wood spirit’s hallow is one particular tree or spring or big rock. But in this entire wood, full of trees and bushes, how am I supposed to find the ONE rotten tree or bush that that rotten-

-rotten-

Of course! Where else? From the first, I thought that this place smelled rotten, and what place in the whole rotten Woods was more rotten?

I made it to the ravine and clambered down to where the Judge’s body was. If I was right, then I’d want to get Sarah as quickly as possible and get the hell out of here. But, at the same time, I knew that the Ainsworths would want to find his body and give it a proper burial. And in order to convince them that I knew where it was, I’d need some proof. Besides, he had things that I still needed. I took his hat off his head and placed as many of the personal items in it as I could, especially the flask.

Man, he carried a lot of junk on him!

With that done, I tucked the pistol and the sheathed knife into my belt. Well, it’s time to go to work.

‘Time to go to work’? Damn, that’s weak!

“It’s Party Time?’ Nah.

Man, I need a catch-phrase!

The hat full of junk in the crook of the arm holding the lantern and the cat's head staff in the other, I went hunting. After a bit, I came into that same damned clearing, with the stump in the middle. I marched up to the stump and ran a hand over it.

Yesss...this was it! If anything was the cold, nasty, rotten heart of this cold, nasty, rotten wood, it was this cold, nasty, rotten STUMP! That’s why the Judge never followed me into this clearing; the Lurker kept him out, because the Judge would know what it was in a heartbeat. I put the hat and lantern down, and bashed the stump three times with the cat's head staff. “LURKER! LURKER! LURRR—KERRRR! Where ARE you, you baby-raping bastard?”

And sure enough, it was there, flowing naturally into its place of power. It was laughing at me, thinking that I could never fix it. Wrong, Cecil B. DeCay! You think that you’ve got me on a leash, don’t you? Wrong! You think that the Fool’s Cap makes me everyone’s victim, and yours especially, don’t you? Wrong? You may have me on a leash, but you’ve forgotten what every owner of a big dog knows - there are two ends to a leash.

I cursed the Lurker in every way imaginable, as I felt for exactly where it was with the Fool’s Cap. And the Wise Ones know, I’ve had enough experience using the Fool’s Cap to suss out the location of those who would do me harm. It circled around me, laughing at my supposed helplessness. On the third time around, it was moving just slowly enough.

As it flickered right in front of where I was focusing, I dropped the Glamour that I’d kept up all this time, more out of habit than intent, and became for my purposes Male. My suddenly Male Paradigm pinned the Lurker to the spot like a moth to a board. WHAT? What trick is this? No glamour driven mock manhood will protect you, Girl!

“How DARE you?” I growled, using the cat's head staff to keep the Lurker at bay, like a Priest warding off a vampire with a crucifix.

You have me now - but can you KEEP me? the Lurker sneered, as it crouched, gathering up metaphorical power to leap. This is MY place. You can’t keep me forever, and then you will have failed. You will be forsworn, and then all that you’ll be is MINE!

“You broke your Word,” I continued, ignoring the snarling of trapped vermin. “You promised Sarah Aubrey that you’d let her go if she brought me here. She brought me here, and then you BROKE YOUR WORD!”

          It wasn’t enough! It wasn’t half enough! All that she brought me was ONE elderly pervert! What sort of payment for freedom is THAT?

“YOU cut the deal. She kept her end of the bargain. You IGNORED your end of the bargain. I’m not forsworn, YOU ARE! You broke your word to Sarah Aubrey, and she has passed the debt that you owe her over to me! Value for Value. I have forgiven her, and I will take her home, once you’re put down. So, I am keeping my word. So, I am not forsworn. YOU OWE ME! By the Lord, the Lady and the Light, I call on all the Powers for what I am Owed! What is the value of your Word? All that you have is this Wood! Hobb’s Wood, isn’t it? Hobb, another name for the Devil. The Devil’s Wood, then, and you are the devil in that wood. Well, as payment for your broken promise, I take this Wood! It is no longer Hobb’s Wood, it is Jordan’s Wood! This is MY Wood! You are in MY Place! You have NO POWER here!” By this time, I was shouting. Suddenly, there was a lurch in the very fabric of things, and indeed, it was no longer the Lurker’s Place.

But it wasn’t quite over yet. Things were still up in the air. The Lurker may not have been all-powerful here, but it still had power. A powerful wind rose up, and mist began to spray, promising a heavy rainfall.

And the Lurker looked like an angry panther, ready to strike.

Never taking my eyes off of it, I put the stump between the Lurker and me. I pulled the big not-quite-a Bowie Knife out of its sheath, and gouged out a hole in the wood.

Oh Yes, the Judge was a man who believed in being prepared. He never would have risked getting sloshed while out here. But, he would have foreseen that the Lurker’s Hallow would be a dead tree or stump. And he’d bring along something that would catch fire easily and burn, and keep burning, no matter how much rain or sleet the Lurker threw at it.

Then I pulled out the six-shooter and cocked the hammer. The Judge never would have trusted matches.

I carefully filled the hole that I’d carved with the contents of the flask, and then soaked the stump with it. One spark, and that thing would go up like the Fourth of July. I took the pistol in both hands, held the hammer with one thumb and pulled trigger. Holding the hammer back, I pointed the gun at the pool of inflammable stuff. “Now, Demon - Tell Me Your Name.”

What?

“Tell Me Your Name, Demon! Tell me your One True Name, that is the very core and essence of your being!”

Or what? it sneered.

“OR, I’ll let this hammer fall, and blow up your Hallow, your filthy, rotten excuse for a heart! And you’ll be deader than dead!”

You don’t have the guts to do it.

“Maybe Not, but I’m sure enough desperate enough! You haven’t exactly left me a lot of choices!”

Fool! Destroy me, and you’re cutting your own throat! Why do you think that your precious witches haven’t burned this wood to the ground? Because they are bound, by pacts and agreements that were old when your Nation hadn’t even been born! Destroy me, and the Council of Seven will demand that your coven hand them your head on a platter! And your own mother will do the cutting!  

“I’ll risk it! Now, TELL ME YOUR NAME! Even if the Seven DO punish me, YOU”LL never see it! You’ll be DEAD!”

No, I won’t. That old antique has been out in the cold and damp for over 150 years. It’ll blow up in your face!

“I’ll take that risk! And even if it does, your rotten wooden heart will STILL go up in a blaze! We’ll go together. I’m willing to chance it.” I grinned savagely. “Are you? No, you’re not. You’re a Coward. You pick on little children and drink their tears. Okay, let’s keep this simple. I’m going to count to Ten. On the Count of Ten, if you haven’t given me your True Name, I’ll let this hammer slip, and you’ll DIE. This, I promise You!”

The Lurker chittered in a near panic and I counted down. At the Count of Ten, I let the hammer slip, and THEN the Lurker finally told me its name. I jerked the barrel away from the stump. I needn’t have bothered. The kick from that old Mule’s Leg was powerful enough that I would have had to have put the end of the barrel right IN the stump in order to have hit it.

I almost had to put my fist in my mouth to keep from singing. I got it! I got it by the balls! I don’t Care if it has balls or not, I’ve got ‘em anyway! Right in the palm of my hand, and ripe for squeezing!

Grinning savagely, I rotated the cylinder, putting another round in the barrel and aimed at the stump again. “Okay, one more time - by your own True Name, I bind you! Submit-“ I pulled the hammer back, “-OR DIE.”

I submit. These are your Woods. I am your slave.

I lowered the hammer. I took a long relaxing breath. “Okay, first things first. Go, and bring my backpack here to me.”

What?

“I SAID, go get my backpack! You were watching and laughing when I lost it, so go GET IT!”

I am NOT a servant, to-

“You’re whatever I say you are! GO! Fetch!” It went, and before I was absolutely sure it had gone, it was back, with my backpack. I think that I won. I pulled out my guy clothes, took off my girl stuff, and put the things that I took off of the Judge into the backpack. Ack! My outfit was ruined! Hold it - how am I gonna convince Mom and Dad that I’ve been through the nearest thing that Millbridge has to Hell, when my clothes are fine? Admittedly, my face and hands looked like Hell, but that would only raise the question as to why I changed clothes in the first place. So, I had to wreck perfectly good clothes by rubbing them on that gawdawful stump and dump my wonderful girl clothes out in the middle of the woods.

When I finished changing, I told the Lurker, “Go, get Sarah Aubrey, and bring her here.”

I can’t.

“What are you talking about? GO! DO IT!”

I can’t. She’s In the Woods. And these are no longer MY Woods, to bring anyone into or bring them out of.

Spirits. They’re worse than bureaucrats. “Can _I_ bring her out of the woods?”

Yes.

“Well then. First - SIT. THERE. Don’t move!”

I will not-

“You’ll Sit there! Or I’ll tell you to go to Hell and stay there! And you’ll have to!” It sat, like the vilest Great Dane ever hatched. “Good. Now - STAY!”

I followed the Sorcery thread to the edge of the clearing. It was important that Sarah come out of the Woods of her own volition. “Sarah! Sarah! It’s Jordan! Are you there?”

“Yes... Jordan, is that really you?”

“Yes, it’s me. Sarah, I won! We can go now!”

There was no response. “Sarah, I want you to come out of the woods. Come out into the clearing.”

“I can’t.” Her voice was full of fear and uncertainty. She thought that she couldn’t. She was still deep in a bad dream, where she was stuck and couldn’t get out. She couldn’t believe that she could come out of the woods on her own.

I squatted down to Sarah’s level and looked for her. I found her face, all scrunched up in anxiety. I looked deep into her eyes.  Then I told her what every lost child wants to hear: “We’re going Home.”

Sarah wrapped her heart around those three simple words and tried. Slowly, as if she were pulling herself out of quicksand, one inch at a time, she came out of the woods. She pulled herself from the branches and brambles, holding in her screams of pain as the tendrils pulled out of her.

Finally, she was out. She threw herself into my arms and breathed heavily for several minutes. She was still cold, but getting warmer. She was finally coming out of the bad dream. Hopefully, she’d think that the Girl Jordan was a part of that dream, and the Boy Jordan was the reality. Then she looked up at me with teary eyes, and said, “Are we going?”

“Yeah, Honey. Let’s go.” I straightened up and took her hand. I looked at the Lurker. "You! I’m sick and tired of running around in these stupid woods. I want you to move us to EXACTLY the spot that I went in, when all this mess started.”

“But Jordan!” Sarah said, “What about THEM?” She pointed out into the woods. The edge of the woods was studded with eyes, all looking at me hopefully, anxiously, fearfully. They all wanted to go home.

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” I said sadly, “first things first. I’ve promised to get you Home. I am Oathbound. If I tried to do anything for them now, I’d be forsworn, and the Lurker would win after all. I have to get you home NOW. Don’t worry, I’ll come back when I can. These are my woods now, and I don’t want children wandering around them, lost and alone. But first - I think your Mother really wants to know where you are.”

The second that we hit the woods, we were out again on the other side. I recognized the place where Griff had taken me (the IDIOT!), where the Lurker first sunk its claws into me. Well, I suppose that was good enough for now. Then I saw Sarah looking up. “Wha’cha lookin’ at, Honey?”

“Stars,” she breathed.

I looked up. Yeah, it really does take something like maybe never seeing them again to make you appreciate how beautiful a starry night can be.

It’s a good walk from the edge of Hobb’s- or, should I say _Jordan’s_ Wood to the Winters homestead. But we barely noticed. It was too good just being FREE again!

I let Sarah in the back, into the kitchen. “Okay, I’m gonna let my folks know that we’re here, and they’ll call your Mom and Dad. This is the Home Stretch, Kiddo - you’re almost Home Free.”

Sarah was hungry, so I poured her a bowl of Pot-Boil soup. As she chowed down, I went into the living room. “Mooommm! Daaaddd!” I called up the stairs, “I’m Hooome!” There was a scrambling sound from upstairs, and the whole family came thundering down the stairs, without even bothering to put on bathrobes.

Mom threw herself at me and damn near crushed me in a hug. “Oh Jordan! Sweet Lady, thank you!” Then she pulled away. “Exactly WHERE have to been, young man?” she snapped, suddenly going from Overjoyed Mom to Angry Mom. She looked at the cat's head staff in my hand. “And what’s that?”

I took a deep breath. “Mom, Dad, I know that you’re gonna have a hard time believing this-”

“Oh, THAT’S a promising start!”

“But first things first-” I turned my head and called to the kitchen, “SARAH! Sarah, come and meet my folks!”

I had to go and get her. She was a bit too shy too come in by herself. Mom looked at her puzzled. “Dan, who IS this?”

“Mom, this is Sarah Aubrey. Her parents are Pollard and Dinah Aubrey. Before we do anything else, I think that we should call them. They oughta be near out of their minds with worry.”

“Dinah Aubrey? But Pol and Dinah don’t have any kids! The only daughter that they had got-” Mom stopped in mid-sentence. “SARAH Aubrey?” Mom’s eyes went wide as plates, and she went pale as a sheet. She kneeled down and asked Sarah in a real shaky voice, “Honey, what’s your middle name?”

“Hortense,” Sarah said. Even though she was still a little shook from all this attention, you could tell that she resented having to give her middle name. Hey, it’s ‘Hortense’; can you blame her?

Mom stood up straight, and she was shook. “Dear,” she told Dad, “go get Sarah and Danny something to eat. They must be starved. I have to call the Aubreys.”

“I could handle that, dear.”

“They’d never believe you.”

Sarah was watching wide eyed as my Dad popped a few of our home-made ‘instant’ egg rolls into the microwave as Mom made the phone call. “Hello? Dinah? This is Marsha Winters. Yes, I know what time it is. Yes, I KNOW that you have to get up early. Dinah, please, believe me, this is NOT a joke. You need to get over here ASAP. Yes, I KNOW what time it is! NO, I can’t tell you, you wouldn’t believe me. Yes, you really WANT to get over here, now. No, I don’t blame you. But I’m not worried. No, that isn’t a threat. Dinah, stop cussing, just get the hell over here.” With that, Mom put the phone back on the hook and sat down at the table with us. She gave a deep sigh. “Okay, Jordan, start from the top, and don’t leave anything out.”

I gave it to her, more or less as I have to you. Less the mentions of my *ahem!* ‘alternate identity’, of course. At the end of my story, Brett was looking at me wide-eyed. Trey the Annoying, however, made a rude noise.

“Oh Puh-Leeze! Do you really expect us to fall for that load of crap? What a Crock!” I held up Judge Ainsworth’s walking stick. “Oh, so what? You could have found that crappy old piece of junk anywhere! Am I supposed to believe that that funky old hunk of wood is really magic?”

I reached for my backpack, and pulled out in order: the pistol, the Arkansas toothpick, the derringer, the stiletto, Judge Ainsworth’s watch and chain, and the Bible. I opened the Bible and pointed out Judge Ainsworth’s name hand-written on the fly.

“Hey, that still doesn’t mean-”

“Trey, give it a rest,” Mom said rather sharply. “Your brother’s been exactly where he said he was, and he’s done exactly what he said he did.”

“You mean you really think that he escaped The Lurker?”

“I didn’t ‘escape’ the Lurker,” I said with all due satisfaction, “I conquered it!”

Dad had made some coffee. “Okay, Son, one more time, from the top-”

My repeat performance was cut short by the sound of a car horn out front. Dad went out and showed the Aubreys in. Mister Aubrey was the burly sort of man that Bob Hoskins tends to play in the movies, with a lot of gray in what hair he’s got on the fringe of his balding head. Missuz Aubrey was thin and sharp faced, the very image of the hard-working farmwife. And why not? That’s just what she was. Neither of them looked very happy to be hauled out of bed at- Lord and Lady! FOUR IN THE MORNING!

Mister Aubrey glowered at Dad. “This had better be DAMNED good, Winters! I’m gonna be-”

Mom cut him off. “It is, Pol, it is.” She turned to the kitchen. “Sarah! Sarah, come here!”

Sarah poked her head around of the door, and looked at the two new people, not knowing what to make of them. Mister and Missuz Aubrey weren’t so uncertain. Missuz Aubrey’s face dropped, and then twisted up, damn near torn in two by horror and painful hope. Mister Aubrey turned around and grabbed Dad by his pajama lapels. “Winters, what kind of sick, twisted JOKE-”

Then Missuz Aubrey let hope win out over fear. She crouched down and squeaked out, “Sarah?”

Sarah flinched at the sound of the voice. Then she looked at Missuz Aubrey real hard. Then her face lit up like the Sun rising, and she said the sweetest word in the English language: “MOMMA!”

Sarah ran into her mother’s arms, and it was hard to tell who was squeezing the other harder. Missuz Aubrey closed her eyes and let out a long rattling breath, like she’s been holding her breath for so long that she’d forgotten that she was doing it. Mister Aubrey let go of Dad, and he was looking at his wife and Sarah, holding out one hand, as if he wanted to touch them, but he was afraid that they’d pop like a bubble if he did. As if in sympathy, Mom was practically crushing Brett in her arms. Me? I was feeling relief. A mother’s arms are even better than home. All promises were kept, and I was finally free and clear.

Sarah pulled back a bit and looked her mother. “Momma, what happened to you?”

Missuz Aubrey looked back at her daughter, as if about to laugh, but her eyes full of tears. “Oh, I grew old, waiting for you. I always said that you were gonna make me old before my time.” And then she broke down into the kind of sobs that are half laughter, and I swear that I saw twenty years wash right off of her. Mister Aubrey worked up the nerve and touched his daughter, and seemed to be surprised that she was actually had mass and substance.

Missuz Aubrey handed Sarah over to her father, and he held her like she was a glass of cold water in the middle of a long, hot, dry summer. Missuz Aubrey looked at Mom, and said it all: “HOW?”

Mom gestured them toward the kitchen. “Dan, pour the Aubreys some coffee, and tell your story, one more time, from the top.”

Mom made breakfast for everyone - it was getting too far along to really go back to bed, at least for the rest of them - as I told my story again. This time, when I finished, Sarah told us that someone named Gilbert Kelton had dared her to go into Hobb’s Wood, and well, we all knew what happened after that.

Mister Aubrey thumped his fists on the kitchen table. “Gilbert Kelton! That sneaky little weasel...he never said a thing! I don’t care if he IS-” 

“Now, Pol,” Dad warned him, “remember, the Keltons aren’t one of The Families. As far as he was concerned, the Lurker was just a stupid local legend. He couldn’t have known.”

“Maybe,” Mister Aubrey grated, “but that asshole still has some major payback coming his way.” Remember folks, we Wycke-folk take revenge seriously. It doesn’t look good for Gilbert Kelton.

Then Mom looked at the clock. “Dinah, it’s getting late. It should be Sunrise in a bit. And, Dinah, remember where Sarah’s been all this time.”

Missuz Aubrey clutched Sarah to her, like someone was going to try and take her away. Then she focused. “Not to worry. I know just what to do.”

Mom gave Missuz Aubrey that ‘Conspiracy of Mothers’ look. “Good.”

With that Missuz Aubrey picked up Sarah and started to carry her to the door. Sarah was old enough that she should have resisted that, but she just clung to her mother, like she was afraid that someone might take her away. At the front door, Missuz Aubrey turned and looked at me. Now, Dinah Aubrey will never be accused of being some ethereal beauty, but that look on her face - the fashion magazines only wish that they could capture that look. “Jordan Winters - your and mine have never got along, ever. But I am beholden to you. You have returned to me that which is dearest to my heart, which I have mourned as lost, for longer than you have been alive. You went into the dread darkness, expecting nothing, and taking it as only right. I will remember that. I will always remember that. Should a time ever come that you need my help, I WILL come for you, no matter what it may mean.”

I nodded, in simple understanding. Dinah Aubrey is a simple, old-fashioned farmwife - she says what she means, and she means what she says.

The Aubreys left. Just as the sound of the Aubrey’s pickup died down, there was a yelp of pain from the kitchen. We went in the kitchen, and Trey was standing there, holding his hand, and the cat's head staff was on the floor at his feet. “It bit me!”

Rather smugly, I picked the cane up, and I stowed it in the hallway umbrella stand. “Stay!”

Then I trudged up to the bathroom and took a long, very much needed hot shower. After I dried off and got to my room, Mom came in with witch hazel for my cuts. As I flinched when she swabbed out the cuts and scrapes that seemed to be everywhere on my body, I needed something to talk about. “I didn’t know that Mister and Missuz Aubrey had a daughter. I thought that I knew everyone in The Families, at least to nod at.”

“That,” she responded as she carefully cleaned off the long scrape on my forearm, “is a very long story.”

“And who’s this ‘Gilbert Kelton’ kid? The only Keltons that I know are Jason and Casey Kelton, the insurance guy’s kids.”

“Danny, Gilbert Kelton is Jason and Casey’s father.”

“Father? Why would a grown man with kids make a little girl a dumb, little kid dare?” *owch!*

“Dan, Sarah Aubrey went missing in 1969. She’s been lost in those woods for some thirty-five years.”

“Thirty-Five YEARS! But, she’s just a little girl!”

“Dan, when you and Sarah and all those others entered Hobb’s Wood, you didn’t just enter the Lurker’s ‘turf’, you entered its Realm. The Lurker’s Realm is sort of like the Faerie Hills of the Old Country. Time doesn’t flow the same way there, as it does out here. Honey, it’s Wednesday morning. You were gone for Four Days. I was sick with worry. Pol and Dinah Aubrey have been waiting for their little girl to come home for thirty-five years.”

“Maybe. But Mister and Missuz Aubrey don’t look old enough to have a daughter who’s forty-three years old.”

Mom cleaned off the last cut and gave it a kiss. “That’s for another day. Now, you have four days worth of sleep to catch up on.”

I woke up feeling like a wet towel that’s been wrung out. My scrapes were healing quickly, and I was hungry enough to eat a bear. I pulled on my bathrobe and went downstairs to get something to eat. The light hurt my eyes, and I felt really tired the second that sunlight hit me. I managed to get a bowl of pot-boil soup and get it down while I still had energy. I flaked out on the couch for a bit, and when I had my wind back, I decided to check my e-mail. There were over a dozen e-mails, all from Jazz. But then, Jazz was the only one of my new friends who knew my e-mail address. There was one on Saturday, then another on Sunday, two on Monday, and so on. Lord and Lady, it’s was Friday! Two in the afternoon, on Friday!

Okay, Jazz was obviously worried. But then, if she just dropped out of sight with no trace, I’d register pretty highly on the freak-o-meter, too. I returned the e-mail: YES, I’M ALIVE. SORRY, HAD TO GO OUT OF TOWN SUDDENLY. (Well, technically out of this world into another plane of reality, so it’s not really a LIE.) VERY COMPLICATED. TRUST ME, YOU DON’T WANNA KNOW. STR-DAY, ONE PEE-EM, SODA FOUNTAINBLEU, ON ME, TO SAY I’M SORRY. Hey, I believe that if you’re going to say ‘I’m Sorry’, say it with Ice Cream.

I logged off and was debating with myself whether to flake out on the sofa or partake of quality daytime programming, when I felt a creepy feeling in the back of my head. You know, that feeling that you get when someone’s watching you closely?

I looked around. Maybe that stupid Lurker had followed me here. I knew that I should have told him to stay put! I carefully scanned the entire room, and then saw a pair of glittering sapphire blue eyes glaring at me. The cat's head cane! I forgot! I promised to return it to the Judge as soon as I was finished! I went over to the umbrella stand, picked up the cane and looked in its wooden face. It gave me a nasty growl. “Look, I have been busy being unconscious for two days! I just woke up! Just let me make a phone call - don’t ask what a phone call is, it’s important - and I’ll take care of it, ASAP!” The cane went quizzical. “That means ‘As Soon As Possible’.”

The growling continued, but it was more nagging than accusatory.

I marched over to the telephone and picked up the receiver. I pointed the cat’s head at the receiver. “Telephone. Really fancy telegraph. Watch and learn.” I tucked the cane under my arm and dialed Dad’s cell phone.

He picked up, and as usual, he sounded like he was out in his pickup. Why does he even bother having an office? “DAN! You’re Up! Sport, I gotta tell you, what you did is the talk of the town!”

“WHAT? You told everyone?”

“No, not everyone, just The Families.”

“Why did they have to know?”

“They have to know! Even if it weren’t any of their business, and even if the spirits weren’t buzzing like a hive, there are still kids that belong to Coven Families stuck in there.”

“Oh. Right. And I told Sarah that I’d do something about that. Still haven’t completely woken up. And I just remembered that I promised the cane that I’d get it back to Judge Ainsworth.”

“You promised the _Cane_?”

“Take my word for it, Dad, this is one piece of timber that you do NOT mess with. Besides, I promised.”

“But --- the Judge is dead.”

“I don’t think the cane really cares. Maybe it wants to be buried with him.” *Growl* “Anyway, I need to get out to Ho- Jordan’s Wood, ASAP.”

“Well, can Woody wait until Midnight tonight?”

“Lemme ask-” I turned to the cane. “So, is Midnight cool by you?” *fnf* “I think it can hold on - barely. Why Midnight?”

“Well, we’ve been waiting for you to wake up. Tonight, it’s Reunion Night in Jordan’s Wood.”

Normally, even mundane folks avoid Hobb’s Wood. So, we had to be careful about having a crowd being seen going in. So, we kept the party down to Twelve: Me, as the Master of Ceremonies, Mom, Dad, three members of the High Council, and six representatives of families involved, including the Ainsworths.

We walked through the wood, to the clearing at the center. This time, when the Lurker tried its nasty little tricks, I just thumped a tree with the cat's head cane and told it to knock it off. And it did. Score a big one for the Kid. Still, the glittering eyes in the darkness that watched us were still pretty damn creepy.

When we got to the clearing, I marched up to the stump and whacked it a few times with the cane. “YO, CREEPY! Front and Center!”

The Lurker did the whole big dramatic build up, materialized and prowled into the clearing. I am not a PET for you to-

“Oh, Yeah, Right - like I’d keep something like YOU as a pet! Listen Up, Creepy - we are here for those kids that you been keeping here against their will.”

They are mine. They belong here.

“No, they belong with their families.”

Their families are dead

“No, their families still live, and they want their children BACK! Y’know, Creepy, you really oughta watch the LIES. It’s a bad habit. Heck, the only reason I beat you is that you got so foxy with the truth that you wound up breaking your Word. But, first things first. You - SIT. THERE. STAY.  Don’t do anything.”

With the Lurker squatting on its spot, we followed my Sorcery cord to the Judge’s body. We arranged a stretcher of some blankets and two poles, and gingerly moved the body onto it. Mister Ainsworth knelt reverently by the body, and restored all the trinkets that I’d taken. As the capper, I put the cat's head cane in the Judge’s good hand and closed the fingers around it.

Then I looked out into the Wood, at all the nameless eyes shining in the night, and called the one name that I was sure would answer. “JUDGE! Judge Ainsworth! Come here! The Lurker has no power over you now! Come out of the woods!”

I heard the Judge’s baritone voice say, Forsworn, forsworn, forsworn...

“NO! You are NOT Forsworn! Dammit, I am Jordan Jesse Winters, and these are MY Woods, and I ORDER you to come forth!”

Then, slowly, a shape stepped out of the woods and came toward us. It was the Judge, but it wasn’t the Judge. It was a faded, shabby shell of the magnificent man that I’d taken for a living person. His shoulders drooped, his head was bent and his face was a sunken wreck with glassy eyes. His hands were empty, his pockets picked,  and his clothes worn and tattered. What would you have of me?

“Well, for one thing - snap out of it!”

          Forsworn, forsworn, for-

“Oh will you cut that out?”

Mister Ainsworth stepped forward. “Grandfather Gideon? I am Dylan Alden Ainsworth. I am your son Solomon’s three-times-Great Grandson. Sir, we remember you; your memory still brings our family great Honor.”

Then you honor a fraud and a failure

“NO!” I cut in, “You are NOT a failure! Okay, Judge, maybe you didn’t beat the Lurker with you own hands. But I couldn’t have beaten the Lurker, either! It was YOUR plan that beat the Lurker! You came in here with the right plan and the right tools. Even a Hundred and Fifty YEARS later, you were still out here, busting its chops, and a Hundred and Fifty years after your death, the Lurker was still afraid of you! Yeah, I finally put the Unclean thing down, but only because I figured out your plan. Judge, you swore that you’d beat the Lurker, and you did, because you gave me the means to do it. You are not forsworn.”

The Judge didn’t seem to buy it, but he stood up straighter and he seemed more solid.

Okay, I’m on a roll. “Judge, you can still keep your word. You can bring Hesper Cosgrove back to her mother.”

It is a Hundred and Fifty Years - Isabella Cosgrove is dead and dust.

“So? That doesn’t mean that she isn’t waiting? And Hesper, she’s still out there, cold and alone in the woods - she wants to go home. Will you leave her there, because you fell and hurt your pride?”

Then I got really nasty. I went over to the stretcher and took the cane from the body’s hand. I held the cane up to the shade’s face. “Judge, you tramped around these woods for a Hundred and Fifty Years, never giving up, no matter what the Lurker threw at you. Are you going to give up now, right at the Home Stretch? Or are you gonna be Judge Ainsworth, and keep your word?”

And suddenly, the Judge was his old self again, the man who could catch an outlaw on Friday, lead a Witches’ Circle on Saturday, preach Fire and Brimstone on Sunday, and pass sentence on the outlaw on Monday. He grabbed the cat's head cane from my hand.

And the cat bit him.

He looked at the cat, and then at me. He gave me back the cane. Then he held out his hand, this time, a mere man. I handed him the cane, and the cat accepted him. He turned to the woods and called out Hesper Cosgrove’s name. But he didn’t do it in the thundering voice of Undisputed Authority, but in the voice of a father, searching for his lost child.

And a red headed girl, maybe seven years old, wearing an old fashioned Calico dress with a linen apron and no shoes came out from the shrubbery. She looked up at the Judge, who smiled down at her and offered her a reassuring hand.

The Judge handed me the cane. You, call out the names of those who will return to the Land of Daylight, Laughter and Tears. I will call out for those who will pass on. It is time that I took the children home.

The Families’ representatives, many of whom looked like they were in their eighties at least, called out the names of those lost in living memory. And one by one, nine children, including Donna Aldrich, who I suddenly remembered had gone missing when I was six, came out of the woods. And the Judge, prompted by an assist from the Lorekeeper of the High Council, called out the names of those that went missing before anyone alive was born.

In the end, the Judge sort of looked like a Sunday School teacher with a mob of children in all sorts of dress gathered around him. He looked at those of us who still had time left in this world and said, And now to take care of final matters.

He emptied out his pockets, leaving his personal items to Dylan Ainsworth. How he did that, since they had been stashed on his mortal remains, I don’t know. Then he took the cat's head cane, looked at it, and thought. He turned to me and handed me the cane. This fetish stick comes from darkest Africa. It was said to have been carved by King Solomon the Wise himself, as a weapon against the Djinn. From Solomon’s hands it has passed from the hand of one brave man to another, to be a weapon against the Dark. In time, it passed to the hands of a Witch Doctor in Jamaica, who carried it here when he was sold as a slave. And he passed it down to his successor, who followed the Underground Railroad North, to freedom. I gave him and his followers shelter and protection from Slave-hunters. Just shy of Canada and freedom, a slave hunter caught up with his party and shot him. As Orlando lay dying, he passed this fetish wand to me, and told me to use it wisely, and to pass it on to a worthy hand, when I passed on. The hand that has earned this wand is yours, Jordan Winters. Be worthy of it.

The cane rested in my hand, and I had a sudden sense of a burden being laid on my shoulders.

Then he pulled his knife, sheath and all, from his belt. This is my Athame, my blood-knife and charm-carver. The wand, I give you in duty. This, I give you in gratitude. You saved my Honor. I will remember that.

Then he pulled the pistol from his belt and let the hammer down on an empty chamber. He spun the gun around and offered me the grip. And this, I leave you as a lesson - once in the air, neither a bullet nor a word can be recalled and undone. And both can ruin a life.

He finished with a nod. He gave his descendent a few words to carry back to the living Ainsworths, and then turned to the gathering of small shades. He leaned down and told them what every lost child longs to hear: We’re going Home. 

He had them link hands and led them off, not in any direction that leads North, or East, or South, or West, or any combination of those, but simply elsewhere. And as they left, I heard the Judge leading them in an old song:

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
a travelin’ through this world of woe
but there’s no sickness, toil or danger
in that bright world to which I go
I’m going HOME
 to see my Father
I’m going THERE
no more to roam
I’m just a-going over Jordan
I’m just a-going over Home

But, even as they left, I could tell that our work wasn’t completely done. There were still eyes out there in the darkness, shining with sorrow and loneliness. They are the children who have been forgotten, with no one who remembers their name or cried for their loss. They are the Indian children whom the Lurker preyed on first. They are the children of transients down through the ages. They are the runaways who wandered into the wrong wood. They are the Nameless, and there is no one to call them out of the woods. These are MY woods now, and I can do nothing to help them.

I see those eyes, and they haunt me. They will haunt me ‘till the day I die.

 

End
Read 726 times Last modified on Monday, 04 July 2022 23:59

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Oz1eye
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Oz1eye
1 month ago
A bitter-sweet ending there.
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