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Darkling, I Listen

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Inspired by Darkling, I Listen by You_Light_The_Sky (Having rewatched The Hound of Baskervilles last night, I think it could also summarize that episode: you’ve got the hound, Sherlock who can’t trust his eyes and John searching for the truth.)

“The fog is coming!” One of the soldiers scream. But his cry is drowned out by the cacophony of gunfire, lines of explosions just sounding off in the air, scattering dust and sand in every direction.

He can hardly see anything beyond his own hands, struggling to stitch up a bloody tear in his comrade’s side. Blood is spilling from the wound, deep and almost as dark as black, onto his fingers and over his clothes. It soaks through the material in stains that will never really wash away and make the needle slippery in his grip. John curses as more sand slaps against his face, harsher than the coldest frost bite. He blocks out the sounds of battle from his ears.

Focus, Watson, focus. He weaves in the thread again through skin (it isn’t the same as mending clothes, flesh is so much softer, frailer, it haunts his dreams when he sits still enough to let it, so he has to keep moving, keep fighting, keep from remembering.) Just a bit more and the wound will be closed, he can drag Private Ryan towards the nearest truck and move on to the next soldier.

But he can feel the sudden dip in the air, as the harsh desert heat sinks into a rare night chill. He can see his breath forming in soft clouds of vapour, the goose bumps forming on his patient’s skin. It is getting cloudier by the second and there’s some numb feeling on his shoulder, draining his energy slowly...

“Fog is coming!” His friend Murray yells, while holding up one of their assault rifles (an L85A2, his memory recites calmly from training, with 5.56 calibre rounds, effective for close quarter combat, disadvantageous when reloading.) He is towering over Watson, blocking out what little light they are seeing from the dusty clouds. For some reason he is shaking John, trying to pry John away from his patient. “Leave him, you’re done!”

But John refuses to leave. There are only a few stitches left, can’t Murray see? Only a few stitches and then John can use his gift. “Buy me more time, Bill,” he is saying, babbling now, the loud triggers of rounds are echoing inside his skull and he can’t remember where his medical kit has gone. He can’t let go of Private Ryan. He was a nice bloke, just graduated from college, has a girl he wants to marry back home. John needs to get him home. “It’s fine. Its fine, I can save him!”

“John, we need to leave,” Murray is saying. The sky is darkening and John can see a wall of thick and black mist edging from the enemy lines towards their position. Their platoon is falling back. Bullets can do nothing against the fog.

“Wait, my patient...”

“It’s too late for him, just run, John!”

Murray grabs his arm, jerks him away from the patient. John wrestles his grip away and makes one last dash to close up the wound with his remaining thread. The rounds are growing louder, landing closer, blasting more bits of sand and stone in John’s face but he can’t feel it. Murray is shouting and John’s gloves nearly slip but then the wound is closed, John feels relief.

“Just one more moment—” He tells Murray.

But the soldier is shouting, “We don’t have another bloody moment!”

John closes his eyes, places a hand on his patient’s jagged wound and concentrates, tunes out all other distractions. He urges a calmness to run through his limbs, wills it down his shoulder and through his arm, to the tips of his fingers and into the broken flesh of the wound.

When he opens his eyes, the injury has vanished and Private Ryan is staring up at John in wonder. John feels dizzy, his vision blurs, but there’s no time to focus on that now because—

Everyone duck!

There is an explosion. John feels someone push him into the sand. Grits of it get stuck behind his eyelids and on his tongue. Some of it burns his cheeks. John begins to cough it all out, strains his muscles as he tries to get up and realizes that Murray had covered both him and Ryan with his body.

“Bill—” He attempts to say.

Murray gets up, grabbing John as well. “Not now... it’s—”

What is that?” Private Ryan yells from the ground, staring up in horror at the darkening sky (but it’s always dark, just not this dark, like God is painting the whole world in black and they are the dots of imperfection in the way.) They’ve read about this phenomenon, but they’ve never been this close to seeing it.

John can feel the desert heat drop dramatically into a colder night chill than any of them have ever experienced on this tour.

There are more shots. John jumps in front of Murray, taking the line of fire. He can hear them all calling his name and the fog is coming closer. Something has his shoulder, he is telling them to leave him here but hands are pulling at his torso nonetheless because they’re loyal idiots (“Leave no man behind.”) and they can’t see, like John can, how close the fog is coming.

“Leave them!” He hears someone else shout, “We’ll all die if we stay any longer.”

“Murray’s been shot,” Ryan is stuttering.

No, John thinks, not Murray. He needs to go to him, to sew his wounds back together and then heal him with his gift, just need to move...

“Where’s Watson? Get him to heal—”

“—No time, you idiot—”

“Watson is down!”

Shit! Grab him, leave the dead. Just run!”

No, no, take Bill instead, he wants to say, I can still use my gift. I can still heal. But they are not listening. They are running.

He hears more gunfire, frantic steps and yells. He stares in the distance at the wall of mist, rushing closer and closer to them, only the rush of the wind betraying just how close. There are whispers in his ear. Spells, he thinks, the spells of the witches (the voice of the fog.)

A curse on you, it whispers.

Then it all goes dark.

-

It is the fate of every human being to be blessed and burdened with one particular gift, no matter how great or small.

It is simply the way that it has been since the turn of the century, since the witches and demons came out of hiding and catalyzed the two (three, if you considered the cold war to be one) great wars that rained the planet with blood and patches of dead zones.

Since then the skies have always been perpetually grey. What little sunlight reaches the earth is barely enough to sustain plant life. Temperatures are colder and the fogs are things to be feared now rather than the phenomena of air patterns. They mark the coming of curses, sometimes they are the prelude to a new dead zone, a new place where none but demons and the cursed can walk.

Hardly anyone remembers what the sun looks like, though John has heard stories from the older ranking officers describing what it must be like, pure warmth on your face.

(He remembers asking his mother once, when he was very young, after reading a storybook together, “What is sunlight?” and then watching her fish helplessly for answers. He did not ask again.)

They’ve been fighting wars against each other, against the witches and demons for so long that they’ve forgotten what it means to be warm. It is only ever grey. It is only ever cold. John Watson only knows how to heal, how to kill and how to survive.

Gifts can vary from person to person. Some bitterly call them punishments for crimes in previous lives. Others refer to them as curses (like those that might be cast by witches.) John has met a man who could breathe fire out of his mouth but could never be kissed, lest he burn his lover’s face off. It was a useful power, he supposed, in combat or if you were in need of heat, but he can see how this power can be more of a curse than a gift.

His mother had the gift of empathy. She could tell what other people were feeling but couldn’t recognize her own emotions for the life of her. In the end, she went mad and resorted to drink, an example that Harry follows in later years. It broke John’s father to see her this way. His gift was, literally, his heart. Once he gave it away to one person, he couldn’t bring himself to love anyone else. Unable to watch Helen Watson waste away, Gordon Watson buried himself in his hospital work until one day, so absorbed in the work, he failed to register a fire alarm and died in the resulting fire.

Harry is a different matter entirely. Her gift is on the mental plane. One look at her eyes, and she can persuade you to do whatever she wishes (unless you are immune to such things, for which John is endlessly glad that he is, much to Harry’s disappointment.) But this makes Harry question herself more. Do people surround her because they genuinely like her or because she has compelled them to? Did Clara love her for herself or did Harry compel it? Once, John asked Harry why she didn’t just blindfold herself and see, but from the look in Harry’s eyes, John guessed that she was too afraid to, didn’t want to lose Clara.

It is ironic, that this fear is what drives Clara away, rather than the gift. But Harry blames her so-called gift anyways, turns to drink and withdraws from society. He rarely gets letters from her when he enlists in the army. Those that he does receive are Christmas cards mailed three months later, signed with a messy scrawl that shows how intoxicated she was when she wrote them.

Some gifts seem harmless. A child who can change the colours of flowers (amusing, adorable even, until John witnesses an incident where that same child changed the colours of the Taliban uniforms so that they resembled allies rather than enemies and he lost several comrades....) or an old lady whose every dish tastes heavenly no matter what it is made of (less appetizing to think of, when John encounters another man with the same power but told John that he had to use it for more disgusting ingredients like bugs or urine when he was starving alone in prison.)

John’s gift is healing.

A few stitches and one touch, then the wound is gone but John’s energy is depleted. The more serious the injury, the more of John’s energy (life force, his mentors had called it) is traded in exchange. He dies a little each time he saves a life, but he doesn’t mind. He can’t heal his own injuries either. Never could. He can brave a few cuts and bruises as long as he has the power to save others. What is his life to the lives of many?

He never calls his gift a curse or a blessing. It simply is. In this world of perpetual darkness, he must accept that or the doubts will swallow him up.

Then he gets shot.

His world becomes as bleak and grey as the one that he has lived in since the fog swallowed up the real one.

-

They tell him that he’s being sent back home to England. They tell him that his shoulder was shot, that he has a tremor in his left hand (the one he uses for stitching, not that it matters, he could heal things completely with his gift but it takes more energy from him.) He has a limp but he wasn’t shot in the leg. It only happened when John saw Murray’s body before being taken to the closest hospital, a body missing its head, littered bite marks and missing one leg.

The fog took it. You never know what the fog will leave behind when it comes. Sometimes it leaves nothing. Sometimes the beasts and demons that travel within it devour everything, leaving nothing but rubble and empty space. He’d never been so close to a fog until this mission.

It took his friend... and it took his spirit.

He is useless now. Every time he tries to heal, he can’t. The calm that he needs to wash over him is gone; instead he hears the echoing voices of his nurses and his superior officers. You are relieved of your duties. Another translation for you are useless to us now.

His dreams bring the sounds of his men shouting for him to heal them, only to be shot down when the fog swallows them. He sees their faces staring at him accusingly while the eyes are lined with red veins, bleeding red tears that fall on his hands. The fog is always there, and in it, John hears the whispers. The fog seems to reach for him, calling for him...

A curse on you... it says. A curse on you until you return...

They say he screams, thrashes in his sleep and that when he wakes up, he looks as if he is searching for something that isn’t there, asking for the fog to come and take him away too. They say he screams out a name they don’t recognize (not yet) but it’s so slurred that they can’t tell what name it is.

It’s no surprise that they send him to New London a week earlier than scheduled and that the first person he sees is his newly assigned therapist.

-

“Tell me something about yourself, Doctor Watson,” says Ella in a clipped and professional tone. Her gift lets her disconnect from emotional situations. Therapists that are hired often have this gift, “Anything that bothers you, any concerns, your nightmares, your leg, the war.”

“There’s nothing to say.”

John stares out the window at the (always) dreary sky, at the construction sites that are trying to build up new flats for people to live in. New London is full of construction since the dead zone appeared several years ago in what was once Central London. Most people call it Old London now... or Dead London. It’s a huge dome of black fog, encompassing the whole area in shadow.

No one who dares to enter the dead zone ever returns. If they do, it’s usually in pieces of flesh. Though, John has heard rumours of a powerful man in the government, who pays millions of pounds to finance expeditions into Dead London. The men and women who take that offer never return alive.

When his therapist continues to prod him for responses and then proceeds to lecture him for the rest of their booked appointment, John often takes in the details of the buildings. Absentmindedly, he wonders if Old London is still standing beyond the impenetrable black fog that surrounds it. He always wanted to live in London, before a major section of it became a dead zone.

Now the fog here seems to whisper to him too. It creeps into his head, sending images of badly lit streets, of the Big Ben and Parliament buildings, of rooftops and an eerie moon that still manages to shine through the mist. It shows him shadows of beats lurking within, of a figure in the center, calling for his name.

Come inside the fog, John Watson.

“—inform me of anything abnormal... John? Is there something bothering you? Your attention seems elsewhere,” Ella says in the same monotonous way.

I think I’m going insane, he thinks of saying, I think I’m going insane and that the fog is talking to me.

“I’m fine,” he lies, keeping his face blank.

He doesn’t tell his therapist.

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-

Harry lives in the grittier area of New London, the areas that are closest to the wall of black fog. The rent there is so ridiculously cheap that John could probably buy three flats for himself and not have to worry about his pension. No one wants to live so close to the borders of the dead zone, where they could accidentally wander in if they were intoxicated. There is something sinister about waking up in the morning and then having to look at the dead zone through your window. It frightens them.

Naturally, John seems to thrive on it.

At first he was reluctant to choose a flat so close to where his sister was residing. The rooms were hardly well-kept anymore. The wallpaper was stained from age, with traces of scratches and doodles which suggested that once a family with children had lived there. The furniture was still covered with plastic and heavy layers of dust. He saw cobwebs that still lingered in the corners despite a hasty sweep of the area.

But when he had looked out the window and saw the proximity of the fog, heard the whispers rumbling like the gunfire he heard in his dreams, John received a rush of something in his veins and replied that he would take the flat. The landlady, Mrs. Turner was overwhelmed with delight and immediately invited him downstairs for some tea.

(Her gift is in making the perfect clothes for whoever she doted on. The next day, when John moves in, Mrs. Turner gives him three newly knitted jumpers which were so comfortable that he wore them as often as possible.)

He spends his days wandering outside, walking close to the edges of New London, staring at the fog and wondering what might be hidden beyond it. Sometimes the fog’s whispers mute in and out like faded radio signals. Sometimes John can hear growls and groans on the other side.

At night, when he sleeps in his creaky bedroom, he can hear screams that carry on the wind. Mrs. Turner tells him that they occur every night and that they come from the fog. She always has a weary look in her eyes when she gives any information about the dead zone, as if she is expecting him to throw up his hands and walk out of the flat.

He doesn’t. Eventually Mrs. Turner loses her resigned outlook and begins to chatter on about all of the fog’s oddities. She finds John’s morbid interest in it endearing rather than concerning and doesn’t mind coming into his rooms to do the cleaning.

“Rest that leg, dear, I’ll take care of the dusting today,” she says when John protests.

When John ventures further into New London, looking for employment his spirit feels drained. Everything feels more dull and pointless away from the fog. The same dreary skies, the same streets and monotony of life. Nothing happens to him save for his strange dreams. He can’t connect to any of his old friends (not that he has many after Bill, and he can’t bear to speak to any of his old platoon.) He works at a clinic, healing what he can and trying to counteract any curses that are inflicted by witches (but it's difficult, when he's missing the calm necessary to use his gift, he heals the old fashioned way.)

New London is a city of lies. The buildings are modern and new. People smile, greet each other for work and bustle past each other with hidden grimaces. They do their best to ignore the black dome of fog that takes up the horizon. They pretend that it’s not there. They ignore the grey clouds that cover the sun. It’s like there is no such thing as demons or curses. It’s like there are no wars being fought all over the world to prevent the fog from swallowing them all.

They don’t know the fog, not in the way that John does now.

Come inside the fog, John Watson.

He wonders, sometimes, if he is really living or if he is wandering in some twisted nightmare.

-

His sister is not answering any of his phone calls. It’s been three days, and though Harry has told John to stop giving a damn about her, he can’t help but worry about his older sibling. She may be an irresponsible and crass alcoholic but she always answers his texts within a twenty four hour period, whether it’s with a butchered spelling of ‘piss off’ or a polite ‘yes, I’m fine, now go piss off.’

Something slithers down his spine and John just knows that something has gone wrong.

He rushes down the stairs and tells Mrs. Turner not to wait up. His cane clatters by his side, hitting his knee, but John can’t be bothered by it when his mind is screaming, don’t take Harry, don’t let it take Harry, please no, don’t be an idiot, Harry!

-

His mother had always whispered to him, in her rare bouts of sanity, that the gift was like a cancer that would choke the living out of you in the end, something that the fog brought on every living soul.

Seeing the fate of his parents, John Watson had to agree.

But despite everything that Harry had done to him, he couldn’t lose his sister too.

You won’t take her from me, he thinks towards the fog as he rushes to Harry’s flat and begins interrogating the poor gnarled landlord as if he is a terrorist.

He swears that he hears a deep chuckle, in a low baritone. He thinks that the fog is actually looking back at him but he sees nothing but the same black mist rising miles up into the clouds.

(But that isn’t possible... and yet...)

Harry’s landlord is glancing at him tentatively as John has paused in his fierce line of questions.

“Is there something wrong, lad?” The old man’s eyes are kind. “Don’t sorry. I’m sure your sister will turn up soon. She does... arrive home at different hours... intoxicated.”

John breaks his stare from the fog and gives a shaky smile. “Yes... I’m sure she does.”

He thinks that the fog’s ghostly laughter follows him all the way up the street as he steps into the main street of New London.

Come and find her if you wish. Come to me, John Watson, it says.

-

“Hello, this is Rogers and Davies Insurance Company, how can we help—ah, I see. Let me check the company directory here.”

The sound of leisurely typing. A pause.

“I’m sorry sir, but Ms. Harriet Watson hasn’t been in attendance at the office for the past few days. Are you a relative—?”

The long wail of the dial tone.

-

“Hi, you’ve reached the voice mail of John Watson. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you. Probably.”

Beep.

“John, it’s me. Clara. Harry was here the other night. She was... she was drunk, more than usual. She kept trying to come inside the house, muttering about voices in her mind. I was scared. She wanted me to come into the fog with her, whatever that meant, and when I didn’t open the door, she threw her bottle through the window and tried to break in! I called the police but by the time they showed up, she was gone. I just thought you might want to know—”

The shuffling of papers (contact information, a list of acquaintances that he thinks Harry might have had contact with, a list of places where she could have gone.) A mug smashes into pieces as it slips out of his fingers. He scrambles to the phone and puts it against his ear.

“John?” His former sister-in-law whispers on the other end of the line. Her voice is like a ghost come back to haunt him, a ghost of more hopeful times, when he had thought that Harry could be happy, that she could give up her vices.

She didn’t. And good, sweet Clara had had to pay the price with him.

He fights to keep his trembling hands still.

“Tell me everything you know, Clara. Did Harry really go into the fog?”

Several harsh breaths. It’s difficult to tell who is more terrified from the conversation and for what reason. Clara’s gift lets her know where the people she has met are at every moment of every day. She can give your coordinates exactly, better than any tracking device or satellite (but those never work in the fog, and John isn’t sure if Clara’s gift does.)

“...I don’t know, John...” she breathes, and he feels as if he’ll stop being right then, “but I think she did.”

The phone drops. He sinks to his knees, ignoring the spasm of pain that comes with his limp. He hears Clara’s tiny voice echoing through the emptiness of his flat, asking frantically if he’s alright, but that’s silly, because he’s anything but and...

He looks at the window, its glass now stained with condensation but unable to hide the picture of the black fog rising up beyond the buildings at the end of the street.

You can’t take away my sister away from me too, he thinks.

The fog seems to darken against the grey sky.

Then come inside, John.

-

He packs his pistol, puts it in a leather gun hoister that he kept from his army days, and several supplies of food, a medical kit, a few jumpers for warmth, a sleeping bag, rope, a knife, a compass (not that it would be of any use in a dead zone, but no one has returned alive to tell) and his phone. His bag is sturdy and will hold all the items as compactly as possible.

John is halfway down the stairs, cursing how his cane keeps bumping against his knee, when he almost bumps into Mrs. Turner. His landlady takes one look at him, before she ushers him to sit down at the sitting room, where she’s already made tea for two. Before he can protest, Mrs. Turner has shoved several biscuits into his hands and he can’t think of a polite way to refuse.

But Mrs. Turner has an iron grip on his wrist and there is an urgency to her movements that worries him.

“You’re going, aren’t you?”

John is unsure what to say.

“To the fog,” his landlady clarifies. “That’s where they all go eventually, people mad enough to live close to the dead zone’s borders. It speaks to them until they go insane or they surrender and walk into the black mist.”

His fingers crush the biscuits into broken pieces. “I’ve never heard of that before.”

Mrs. Turner’s gaze is all-knowing. “That’s because they don’t want you to know.”

His brow is wrinkled. “They? Who...?”

“The governments. Those in power. The witches. They’re all the same,” Mrs. Turner whispers.

John isn’t sure why he’s encouraging this, maybe because he’s lost his grip on reality or the fact that his landlady’s story rings true for the nightmares and strange obsession he has with the fog. But he has to know, more than he has to breathe.

“Does the fog whisper to you too?”

Her lips curve into a haunted shape that isn’t quite a smile anymore.

“It doesn’t want me... Not yet. I’m not interesting enough for it.... wasn’t then, and not now,” She hasn’t touched her tea yet, but she swirls her spoon into the liquid anyways. “I was there, in Old London, when the fog first came. It cast the city into complete darkness. People were screaming but I couldn’t tell if they were ten feet away or inches before me. There was no light. Electric lights simply didn’t work. I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face and then... then I was here, on the other side of the fog, along with hundreds of others. The fog didn’t want us. It said we were too boring for its game, and so it has been for the last few years.”

Her hands moved to grasp his tightly.

“You’re a good boy, John Watson. But heed my warning, if the fog wants you, and you walk in, there’s no coming out.”

-

The streets are empty of any other living presence. Only John, his cane and his backpack stand at the edge, where the road meets the smoky entrails of the great wall of mist. He looks back, only once, to survey the stained windows and broken rooftops, wondering what this section of the city must have looked like before the dead zone appeared. It was probably bustling with people and traffic, cabs winding in and out like blood cells on a circuit. Now it is a ghost town (the fog has taken all life from it.)

He turns his gaze back to the fog.

“Well then,” he says conversationally, “I suppose I should just invite myself in. Just going to pop in and find my sister Harry, and then leave, just so you know.”

It’s crazy, talking back to the black mist as if it is a person, but he feels that he has to. He can’t get rid of the strange feeling that perhaps the fog is staring back at him, that it watches him.

He should be trembling, shaking, and feeling anything right now. But John’s head is clear. He moves automatically, as if he is back in Afghanistan following orders when told to or reacting instinctively when he has to save a life.

There is no clear line to where the ‘wall’ begins, where New London becomes Dead London. Every step he takes feels ordinary, as if he is only walking through ordinary air. But he isn’t fooled. He can see how the area around him seems to darken. Slowly the mist gets thicker, blurring his vision further. The whispers in his head grow louder and more incoherent. Sometimes, John thinks that the fog is brushing against him softly.

Twenty steps in; John can still see New London behind him.

The next step, casts him in complete darkness.

-

It is exactly how Mrs. Turner had described the coming of the fog. He can see nothing, only black everywhere. The black has swallowed him whole, until the only proof John has that he is alive is the sound of his own breathing and the feel of his backpack still hung against his body.

Breathe Watson.

He keeps one hand outstretched in front of him in case he bumps into anything and takes medium sized steps that echo around him. The fog is silent for once, but he thinks, maybe, he can feel it shifting forward and back, like it is matching his own breaths. His other hand holds tightly to the cane.

For a long time, he walks. It seems like hours or forever. He isn’t sure. After a while, he thinks he might throw up his head and scream for something to happen, because he’s tired of walking blindly in the black.

“This is getting a bit ridiculous,” John speaks up. He hasn’t tired yet. They used to trek great distances when their caravan or trucks broke down, just to reach headquarters or a mission objective. “I heard that people appear out of Old London in pieces. I don’t think you tire them to death. I was expecting demons to pop up or something.”

He doesn’t expect an answer, which is why he is surprised when the black seems to lessen, so very slightly, so that John can see his hands are silhouettes against the grey. There seems to be the outline of trees, spread far apart from each other in the distance. The fog seems to vibrate around him, like the whirl of bees rushing angrily out of their smashed hive.

John takes out his gun with his free hand, aims it straight ahead, just in case.

The fog is chuckling at him, words swirling around him (“then let the games begin, John”) and then, he sees it.

Shadows, rushing out towards him, like fast brush strokes of ink in a Chinese painting. They resemble beasts of some sort, larger than any wolves John has ever seen. He can hear their snarls, more chilling than any of the wildlife he had encountered in the war.

Automatically, he shoots the first blurry creature, aiming for the heads in rapid succession.

The creatures let out pained yowls, worse than hearing his patients screaming in pain during an operation in the middle of battle. John doesn’t linger on that thought, only shoots again, feeling the familiar recoil of the gun as it shoots off its rounds in his hand. His left hand is shaky, he’s used to holding the pistol with both hands, but he needs the other for his cane and yet...

The creatures are getting closer, and John can see that they nearly tower over him. He hadn’t estimated their size well. One could probably swallow half of his small statue in one bite.

Despite this knowledge, John feels only a rush of adrenaline. He brings up his other hand to steady his hold on his gun and fires off more rounds, hitting each beast in the head, watching the shadows interplay with each other in various shades of grey.

Yet they keep storming towards him, even though John can see that their silhouettes are missing heads and limbs, the creatures are still pursuing him.

“Demons,” John whispers.

The fog is laughing.

They are gaining ground. John can hear their heavy steps, the growls and hungry rasping. He hears loud howls, like wolves but more dissonant and unearthly. He isn’t sure which direction he’s going or if it’s the right way, but he needs to get away if only to create a new plan.

There’s the outline of a tall and bare tree in the distance. The branches are spread down and symmetrical, like an awkward step ladder that’s been broken into two and realigned on opposite sides. It’s perfect. John increases his speed, the thump-thump of his heart keeping record of his steps.

The fog is still laughing and the creatures are getting closer, closer, closer... he thinks that everything is returning to complete black again when the tree’s shadow begins to blur with the surrounding area and—

John stumbles, over something large and heavy. He nearly falls flat on his face but is able to regain his footing, out of breath. He looks around wildly, seeing only shadows and hearing the things that are after him.

“Who’s there?” John asks, though he knows he shouldn’t. His voice will only attract attention, direct those shadowy things closer to him.

He hears a pained whine by his feet. He drops to his knees instantly, though his self-preservation is screaming for him to keep running, that those creatures are going to eat him alive if he stops.

But he can’t abandon whatever he tripped over. It’s alive. And it’s hurt.

John is groping around on the ground when his hand brushes against something wet. He knows instantly that it is blood, and, alarmed, moves closer. He realizes that the blood is stuck against lines of fur and as his hands move upwards, he feels the outline of furry, sharp and pointed ears, a wet and velvety nose, sharp canine teeth...

Eyes are glowing when he meets its gaze. Intelligent, grey-blue eyes that do not leave his.

It’s a wolf, a large black wolf whose species and size John has never seen before. It is large enough that John could ride on its back if it were at full health. But it’s also large enough to snap John into two if it wanted to.

“Beautiful,” he whispers, in spite of the situation.

The wolf lets out a little whine, but he feels it lean closer to his touch.

He tries to find the wound again, so that he can heal it with his gift. Just as he attempts to find his focus, the snarls from earlier are louder than before. John jumps up. He keeps one hand on the wolf’s head and points his gun forward.

The goose bumps on his spine are tingling. John doesn’t need any light to know that they are surrounded. He can see the eerie, yellow eyes in the dark, staring at him in a circle. His blood is rushing in his veins; he cannot possibly defend himself from a dozen of these things at once. They will rip him apart.

He moves instinctively in front of the wolf, hoping to protect it from the other beasts. He can feel its gaze on him, like the wolf is eating him with its eyes. He fights back a shiver. Since he’s going to die, he will die trying to protect this animal, he will die fighting.

“Well?” John says to the shadowy creatures around them. “Come on then. Attack me.

There is a hush, the moment when the fog stops laughing at him.

They leap for his throat from all sides. John throws himself over the wolf’s still body, tries to heal the canine’s wounds despite the fact that his gift has never worked when he is panicked (but please, god, let this work, let this being live) and he shoots blindly into the black.

-

“What are demons?” He remembers asking his father once, because his mother had relapsed into another bout of insanity. Gordon Watson hardly cared for much unless his wife was involved. John tried not be hurt by the indifference in his father’s gaze when he stared at him. It was the fault of the gift. He knew that.

Gordon answered things clinically, keeping his attention fixed on his drugged wife on the bed.

“Creatures of darkness. They came when the fog did. They’re often correlated with the fog phenomenon. It’s speculated that the fog is their natural breeding ground. Some hypothesize that the reason the dead zone exist is so that witches can summon the demons more easily to do their bidding.”

“Oh,” John had answered, pleased he could understand most of what his father had said. “Why do witches do that?”

“To curse people, to cause suffering.”

“But why?” John wrinkled his nose. He couldn’t understand how anyone could intentionally cause such things.

“It’s their nature. They don’t need a reason.”

-

He screams when he feels the creatures, several of them, claw at his front. It’s like being shot all over again, but all over his body and with more consciousness slipping away with skin. But before he can do anything, he is flipped over on the ground, the blood pooling in his wounds and slipping over.

There are pained growls and grunts. Something (or something) has jumped in front of him. John hears the sound of many bodies falling on the ground, the unmistakable ripping of flesh and squelching of blood. He holds himself still, squinting at the shadows and realize that there is only one left standing.

The wolf that had been by his feet is not there anymore. It is before him, eyes fixed on John’s next reaction. Apparently, his gift had worked. The wolf appears fully healed, if its confident strides have anything to do with it. It looks ferocious, the very picture of a demon from the storybooks he read to himself when his parents were slipping into madness.

He lets out a breath and begins to laugh, almost hysterically, but not quite. (His gift is working again. There is a beast in front of him, one that could tear him apart within seconds.) He can hardly believe it and he can’t look away from the wolf’s grey-blue orbs.

“You saved me.”

It has now inclined its head, as if John has done something very interesting. Then it rushes over to John, its teeth bared out in a low growl. He realizes that it is licking his wounds and when he tries to move, it barks at him with a sharp reprimand.

He slumps backwards, wheezing and wondering if he’s to die here in the fog after all. It is silent now, like a group of mourners when a coffin is buried. He hadn’t realized how nervous he’d been, caught up in the adrenaline of the moment and the thoughts of protectprotectprotect... He slowly raises his hand and brushes it against the wolf’s ears.

“Thank you...” He says weakly.

 He blacks out.