Seated near the docks behind one of the expansive hotels the woman’s gaze lit upon the endless whitecaps that had been stirred by the increasing winds that blew along the river’s surface, churning the water into the frothy mess it now was. She was not foolish enough to actually sit on the docks in such a gale, though this was not the only reason she did not dare to keep her balance on the wooden construction that formed an L shape within the water. She watched as the long, singular dock rose and fell with the agitated swells that rolled around and underneath its form, tossing it about as its boards and moorings creaked and moaned in protest. The several posts that were sunk deep into the soil of the river bottom quivered as they were forced to withstand not only the motion of the dock but whatever turbulence lay beneath the waves as well.
She had already seen the result of such turmoil within the deeper waters, watching as more than one large, heavily scaled form broke the surface only to disappear beneath the waves once more. The creatures were familiar, though she had only ever heard of specimens so large among the species, having only seen one in a picture long ago. Sturgeon were known to live for a very long time and grow to enormous proportions if left alone, there had been legends of some within the depths of the Columbia that had reached in excess of twenty or even thirty feet in length and weighing thousands of pounds. The picture she’d seen long ago had depicted a full team of horses harnessed in a fashion to a rather impressive specimen, a denizen of the deep waters that had somehow been caught from its dark haven. She had marveled to see something so large pulled from waters that were so far inland, thinking that such a leviathan should have been more at home out in the open waters of the ocean, not in the relatively confined spaces of the inland rivers.
What was even more amazing had been that the giant fish had been pulling the entire team, eight horses pulling as hard they could, back into the water with each torturous step. Eventually the fish had proven no match for the endurance and stamina of the horses, but apparently the fight to survive had been spectacular, land animal against water born, a test of wills more than strength it would seem. The horses had fought dearly to avoid being drug into the river, where thanks to their bindings they would have been lost, unable to be saved before the great fish would have taken them down to the depths.
She had no desired to pit her strength against one of the behemoths that had crested in the past hour, finding it easy to believe that even the monstrous fish in the picture she’d seen was small in comparison to these things. Looking upon them she could well believe that each fish was in its own way ancient, terrible, and unknown. Only one had surfaced enough for her to see its head, though what she’d seen had left her with little desire to even come near the edge of the river. It wasn’t fear that kept her away, but rather a sense that to tempt such creatures by coming so close to their territory would be worse than foolish. The woman knew enough about sturgeon to know that they were not inherently given to eating live prey, yet the glimpse she’d been given of the thing’s wide, fleshy mouth and the strange shark’s teeth that lay within was enough to disabuse her of such a notion. Those teeth had to be for more than show.
A faint memory, one she’d not brought to mind for many years now, pulled at her as she continued to stare at the spot where the swimming horrors had been surfacing only a short time ago, causing her to bring the thumb that bore the silver ring to her chin in thought. As though aiding in the memory the ring was cool against her skin as the winds continued to whip about her, threatening to tear the floppy hat from her head as they pulled at her clothing as well. Keeping her hand upon her chin the woman remembered back to a time that seemed as though it were only yesterday at times, finding that the memory came easily now as she continued to gaze upon the churning waters, remembering another time when the winds had been just as fierce.
* * *
There is a certain sense of serenity upon the open sea, a feeling of timelessness that cares not a wit for those that traverse its glassy surface. There is no future here, no past, only the widening horizons to each side that seem to beckon those who would see
what lies beyond. She has always enjoyed the openness of the wide ocean, finding in its cold embrace a haven apart from the life she has railed against for so long. There is peace here that she can seem to find nowhere else, a calm that is welcome in the maelstrom of her life. Here she can be at ease, basking in the attention of sun and the waves that rock gently beneath the wooden surface of the vessel she now sails upon.
The North Star is a little known clipper ship that has made many voyages from as far as Great Britain to as near as the original colonies that over a hundred years ago seceded from their home upon the British Isles. She’d still been inexperienced then, still finding her own way in life, but she had heard a great deal of the strife and trouble that had been caused over this secession, pointless violence that had laid waste to more than one countryside in its time. She had been a crewman and a journeyer in such times, taking not a single part in the war that had spread only a bit into her homeland, distancing herself in the manner of the few highlanders that had still existed back in that time. Those few men and women that had escaped the notice of the royal kingdom and had been left to live their lives on their own terms had been hard folk, but they had been free. Perhaps that was why she’d associated so well with them.
Eventually though it had come time to depart, to find her own path aside from the world she’d known. Armed only with a rusty sword, she held a strong dislike for the cruel ball-shooting pistols and rifles of this new age, Taegan Rimanere, formerly Caylin Mcullough, had gone on her way, stowing away aboard a leaky scow that had been bound for parts unknown. Only when the ship had reached its port within the depths of Italy had she realized just how far from home she’d traveled. If life had been hard before it had become only that much harder as she’d found no reprieve nor kindness in the new world she’d discovered, only harsh tongues she could not understand and the underside of as many boots that could reach her backside. No one understood her language, no one even tried, they simply shooed her away like the vagabond she’d appeared to be.
Years had passed before she’d even tasted her first decent meal or found that she had finally come to understand the language of the land. She’d been forced to survive on scraps, sleep in darkened alleyways and at times fight simply to see the next sunrise. No one cared for a lost waif, figuring that they were only good for throwing things at or perhaps using for the undesired menial tasks that were beneath so many others. Taegan had held onto her virtue and her honor through all, somehow managing to keep her head high despite the withering abuse that life had heaped upon her day after day, month after month.
“Pardon me young missus. May we have a moment in private?” Her thoughts are interrupted abruptly as she turns from where she is standing, forsaking the enticing aroma of the open sea to gaze at the man who stands behind her. He is an older gentleman and has indeed earned the title rightfully. Still she does not smile at his polite manner, she is not the type to feign any emotion she does not truly feel. The man is polite, generous and charming, yet such things are wasted on her. Life has hardened Taegan to a point where her edge is nearly as sharp as the blade she has carried now for almost two centuries of her unnaturally long life. Captain Erevin Tannen is a good man,
but he has already seen the hardness in her eyes and has undoubtedly convinced himself that although this woman is polite she is in no way weak, possessing a will strong enough to batter down mountains if she so chose. He is not afraid of her, but he knows enough to
respect such a ferocious passion for life, after all, he plies his trade upon a mistress that is no less demanding, no less treacherous for all her charms.
As she nods he turns to stride from the railing where he has so politely absconded her from, his gait sure and even as the pitch and roll of the deck beneath their feet continues its continual motion. He is a sailor born and true, his balance is such that Taegan cannot help but feel just a bit envious as she is forced to adjust her steps just enough so that she does not stumble. Looking upon his back as she walks behind the captain she fancies that in another life, perhaps if she were completely human, she might have found the man charming enough to be taken in by his polite ways and dashing looks. He appears to be many years her senior, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, yet is a fit and hale example of a man who has lived his life to the fullest and reaped the benefits of such a daring career.
Captain Tannen is still attractive in his advancing years, possessing a thick mane of dark brown hair that shows only a few streaks of gray within the dark mass of locks he keeps well brushed and out of his face. He is a proud man, though in his iron-gray eyes Taegan has seen a hint of a life that he laments, something he has never spoken of in all their time at sea. She has come to know the captain well, has indeed sailed with him more than once and aided his crew in their endeavors to make a living. Never has she tied herself to the man or the ship he sails, yet more often than not she has sought the North Star out when she is near any port they habitually visit. Still he calls her ‘missus’ as though speaking her name is taboo for some reason, a trespass he cannot bring himself to commit. It is almost enough to make her smile.
As she follows him into the lavish room that has been designated as the captain’s quarters for many a year Taegan shuts the heavy wooden double doors behind her, peering only once out the beveled glass windows that are inset into the top halves of the doors. Not a single crewman has tracked their passage with their eyes, keeping to their own business of minding the sails and other duties that keep them preoccupied. Each man aboard the ship, be they new or not, knew very well of the quiet relationship between Taegan and Captain Tannen and would not dare to presume that anything scandalous went on behind closed doors. She had beaten a man nearly to death only once to prove her virtue and the incident had not been forgotten by any.
As she turned the captain approached slowly, one silver-inlaid goblet in each hand as he extends his left towards her. His gentle smile is touching as she accepts the goblet, nodding her thanks without speaking as he raises his glass. She mimics the gesture before taking a polite swig of the brew she’s been offered, never taking her mismatched gaze from the good captain. He is no betrayer, no unkind wolf in sheep’s clothing, though life has taught her to be wary at all times, even of those who seek to offer her kindness. The captain knows this, has spoken to her of such things in the dark hours of the night and during discussions held in private. He knows just how hard the woman in front of him is, though he feels lucky to have her counted among his dearest of friends.
Taegan does not know to reciprocate such emotions, though she does her best, cleaving to the captain as though he were an ally more than friend, someone she can depend on but will not trust implicitly. If he has noticed such an attitude, and she is sure
he has, Captain Tannen has wisely said nothing. Her loyalty and sometimes fickle interest in his company are enough it seems. This day however she senses that he has pulled her aside for more than a simple conversation, the reason being that he does not often offer her rum, nor does he imbibe so freely in the middle of the day. Something troubles the man, she can see this in his eyes.
* * *
She was shaken from the memory suddenly by the sounds of clawed feet running across the hard surface of the balcony that sat above her, the disquieting howls that broke through her calm thoughts causing her to frown. The small refuge she’d taken in huddling close to the glass windows of the building behind her seemed to have been compromised, though for the moment she did not move. She’d wandered towards the large hotel more out of coincidence than design, seeing how it was close by the water, her true destination. The large windows that lay at her back had amazingly enough survived the destruction that had caused a good portion of the hotel’s wings to crumble inward, reduced to little more than rubble and broken bodies by the advance of the Darkfall. It was astounding how parts of the island had seemed almost untouched while the rest had been thoroughly ravaged, as though the tentacles that had unleashed such hell had been very discriminatory over what they had destroyed.
Listening to the pounding footsteps above she could well imagine that there were far more than just three creatures above, though she could hardly judge from the howl she had just heard what each of them were. More often than not the many different creatures that now existed upon the world would not congregate together, though she knew better than to think that the promise of prey would not tempt them to gather in the same spot. They would undoubtedly leave one another alone until their prey was revealed, at which time they would no doubt fight to see to whom the spoils would fall. She didn’t intend to be anything’s prize, though as she listened closely she could detect the sounds of clawed steps as they echoed along the small courtyard that lay not far to her left. The beasts were descending the staircases at a rapid pace, their claws clicking against the pebbled stone of the steps even as their talons glided along the metal railings that made up the body of the staircase, creating a horrid shrieking noise.
Her blade was already loosened in its scabbard, waiting to be plucked forth as it rode loosely upon her back. There would be only moments to loose the blade or to run if she continued to tarry, though neither prospect seemed appealing. She hated running from an enemy, yet she also knew from the continued footsteps that pounded upon the concrete above her head that she would be quickly overwhelmed if she stood and fought. No warrior, not even those of myth and legend, could hold back the surge of flesh and claws that even now descended to assault her. No matter how skilled or how terrible the wrath of the warrior, the mob always won. Of course, that was if they were allowed to win.
Turning to regard the windows behind her she quickly located the eight foot sections that were separated from the rest of the glass wall by steel beams, their wood-sheathed handles sticking out nearly six inches as she grasped them. She would flee inside rather than fight on the creatures’ terms, taking the battle into an arena where
rational thought and powers of deduction would stand a better chance against the numbers that had suddenly been arrayed against her. As she tugged on the door handles though her hopes crumbled just a bit as nothing happened.
* * *
They waited for nearly an hour after the monstrous group had faded from sight, still following a straight course towards Vancouver. Taking Michael’s word Terra had directed the rest of the group to stay close just in case there were any other things waiting to ambush them. The echoes were still foremost in her thoughts as she continued to wonder where the ghosts had gone and why they hadn’t seen a single sign of them since Shadow’s End. The day was rapidly drawing to a close as the six of them continued on, the darkness closing in as they continued on their forward course.
“We need to find a place to bed down for the night. If we keep on going we’ll only tire ourselves out. I don’t feel like running into anything when I’m too tired to keep my eyes open.” Terra nodded in acquiescence to Michael’s words, realizing he was right as they continued to walk on. She hadn’t wanted to admit as much but she too was growing tired, finding that her feet were growing increasingly sore with each passing step. They were almost to the fairgrounds, perhaps they could find some place there to bed down for the night, have a meal and relax for a time.
“Hey, look over there.” Despite their weariness each person in the group turned their heads at Annette’s words, following her pointing fingers to the left as they saw on the other side of the highway a sight that almost stopped them in their tracks. Four horses stood not far from the northbound lanes, three of them munching contentedly upon the grass while one of them seemed to be staring straight at them. Terra found their presence to be odd since they had seen no evidence of anything so large, in fact they hadn’t even seen a single cow, horse, or anything larger than a bird or a squirrel before almost running into the feral group that had passed beyond the horizon. To see the four equine animals now was rather odd.
Three of them were what Terra would have considered normal size for a horse, though the fourth was quite large, not unlike one of the famous Clydesdales that were featured in so many beer commercials. Their coloring was unique to each horse, though it was their eyes that truly drew her attention as she peered hard at the beasts, her breath catching in her throat she could have sworn that the eyes glowed just a bit.
“Come on, let’s find a place to rest. My feet are killing me.” Michael’s dismissive tone ruined the moment as the group each shook themselves lightly, continuing to walk forward as the one horse seemed to watch their progress, ignoring the fare that its companions were contentedly munching upon in favor of watching the six Tainted make their way south.
* * *
This was an odd jail, though Bear said nothing as he and the three women sat upon a collection of plastic milk crates that were the only furniture in the small area. He could see from the silvery walls and the shelves behind him that this had once been a cooler of sorts, most likely akin to the much smaller one he could remember back home
on the peninsula. Jack’s Country Store had one such as this though Bear imagined that the one they sat in now could have housed at least two or three of the smaller space. They weren’t the only ones currently being kept in the makeshift jail, there were ten other individuals that had barely glanced up when the four of them had been placed within, their filthy clothing and haggard faces suggesting that they had been there for some time. The oldest among them couldn’t have been any older than Bear, while the youngest was perhaps around Rebecca’s age.
None of them had deigned to speak, remaining huddled as they were on their own or in pairs. Bear hadn’t attempted to strike up a conversation with any of them, keeping to the young women that sat at his side.
“Did you see it Bear?” Rebecca’s voice was soft as she sat close to him, huddling against his side as though afraid to be apart from his warmth. The feel of her body evoked nothing more than a warm feeling of gratitude and relative safety, the woman was like a little sister to him in many ways.
“Did I see what?”
“The ghost, the one that was hovering over that woman.”
“Best not to speak of that.” Both of them turned their attention to one of the men that sat nearest the door, his features darkened further by the shadows that clung to the inside of the room. There were only two fluorescent lights that dimly lit the cooler, each of them running on either side of the room and looking as though they badly needed to be replaced. As Bear looked a little harder at the man he could see that the figure was perhaps close to him in age if not a little older. Even seated and hunched over as he was Bear could tell the stranger was quite tall, his legs were tucked in tightly as though he feared to expose any part of his body. Tattered jeans and a ragged sweater were his only garments, he was barefoot and quite unclean.
“Why not?” Rebecca spoke before Bear could think to, her blank white eyes scanning the room as she sought the source of the voice. Her small gasp startled Bear for a moment as he turned back to her, only to notice that she seemed fixated completely on the man he now turned to. Bear was doubly confused as he realized that there was nothing about the man that seemed extraordinary, he looked very much like a filthy, haggard prisoner, perhaps someone that had been kept in this place for far longer than he cared to think of. As the man raised his gaze towards them Bear still saw nothing dangerous or untoward in his manner, his unkempt dark hair and dull brown eyes were as unspectacular as he could conceive of.
“The more you notice it the more it will notice you. Trust someone who knows, you don’t want that thing noticing you.” The man continued to stare at Bear and Rebecca, his gaze becoming slightly haunted as he moistened his lips to speak again. The sound of the only door in or out of the room being unlocked silenced him though as in the next moment he withdrew into himself once more, folding his head down towards his knees as though to escape notice.
“Bear, he’s-“ Rebecca’s words were cut off as the grinding squeal of hinges that were in dire need of oil announced the presence of five heavily armed individuals and the woman that had ordered them brought to this place. Bear’s ire rose immediately upon seeing her, though he kept his place as he glared up at the woman. As she glided into the
room she didn’t spare a single glance for the other prisoners, keeping her gaze fixed solely upon Bear, Rebecca, and Jayden. She took no note of Brooke as the blonde woman lay cradled still in Bear’s arms, as though she were of little to no consequence. Bear had noted that Brooke’s fever had risen to a temperature that had seemed almost fatal along the road to this place, though it had broken thankfully even as his love had continued to draw breath, her heartbeat becoming far more regular. The sickly green and yellow cast to her veins had yet to fade away, though she seemed to be resting far more comfortably than she had been. He could only pray that she woke soon.
“I trust your accommodations are well enough? There will be food brought to you later and water so that you will not starve or dehydrate. The wretches you share this room with will be tended to as well.” The woman cast her eyes disdainfully over the rest of the prisoners, her eyes flashing with such disgust that Bear could not understand. He saw no sign of the strange, ghostly figure that had hovered over the woman on the road, though he could believe it was still there as he sensed something, maybe a feeling, maybe nothing, that wasn’t right about the female. She appeared human and he had no doubt she was, but there was something more, something he could not define that was not as it should be.
“You will be brought before our council to explain why you are in our territory shortly and to judge whether or not you are fit to remain here within Heretic’s Way. If they find that you are not, you will sit upon the boughs of the Scarring Willow to be purified. Pray you are worthy sinners, pray they accept you.” Her voice took on a decidedly menacing tone as she spoke, her eyes glittering dangerously as she then turned her back on them, walking away with a swirl of her robes as the armed men followed her. Bear couldn’t help but look confused at that moment.
As the door was slammed shut and the sound of the lock being reengaged reached them he shook his head, closing his eyes as he tried to push thoughts of crushing every bone in the woman’s body from his mind. As he opened them again he sat back in sudden shock as he noted that every eye in the place was now fixated on him, Rebecca, and Jayden. The prisoners, who had seemed so oblivious only moments before, now each looked at him with haunted gazes, their dirt-streaked features seeming slack as he looked from one to the next, not understanding what was suddenly so interesting.
“What?” A few of them huddled back into themselves at his question, though the rest continued to look at him with a sense of, what, pity?
“The Scarring Willow is a death sentence friend. They gave the name to the damned and blasted thing shortly after it was created by a dark stranger that was passing through. That was only a few months after the disaster that struck.” Bear frowned as he listened. He could well imagine who the dark stranger was but said nothing, thinking that in this day and age many could claim such a title. Yet upon hearing what the man had to say about the actual device he knew in his heart that the mysterious figure could only be
one person. “It’s shaped a lot like a weeping willow, though I’ve never seen one that’s pure marble like the one they’ve got. I’ve also never seen one that can do what it does.”
“What does it do?” Rebecca clung to Bear as though the explanation she sought might terrify her too greatly if she were to let go. He barely noticed her touch as he continued to listen.
“Well, it’s the strangest thing really, horrible but strange. I’ve seen it only once and God above I don’t ever want to see it again. The Scarring Willow sits at the top of the council chambers on the very top step, they’ve kept it there since no one can seem to move it the thing is so damned heavy. It looks as solid as can be, like nothing you could do could possibly break it, but when they put an unfortunate on the branches, lord almighty it moves. The tendrils, branches, whatever you want to call them, twine around an individual so tightly that the barbs you can’t see dig into the skin, not enough to do any serious, life-threatening damage at first but enough to make it painful. The screams of the woman I heard still give me nightmares.” The man was silent for a moment as he shuddered, no doubt remembering the scene as it had played out as he closed his eyes. As he opened them again Bear almost recoiled a bit as he saw the utter terror therein that had threatened to undo the man. “Once the tree’s got you, there’s no getting away. That woman I saw tried and tried to get out, tried to break free, but the thing just kept drawing her in until, until finally her screams just stopped.” The man remained silent after that, not saying another word. Rebecca and Bear each decided not to ask anything else, figuring that the explanation they’d received was more than enough.