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Something's Strange at Camp Camp

Chapter Text

If Max had known that all he needed was a little help to make his plans work, he would’ve tried to win some of the other campers over long before this.

“Floor it, Nikki!” he called down to the green-haired girl in overalls who was currently manning the gas pedal.

Nikki’s grin widened and she chuckled as she leaned harder against the gas pedal with her elbow.

The bus picked up speed. Max checked the side mirror—the rearview being too high up for him to use even if he stood on tiptoes—and was satisfied to see that David was nowhere in sight. He wasn’t exactly sure what they’d do once they were well away, but they’d figure something out; just being away from David was a plus in Max’s book.

“Don’t you think we’re going a bit fast?” Neil—Max’s other accomplice—clung to the back of the driver’s seat as he watched the road. “It’s not like they can catch up now!”

“David is way faster than you think,” Max replied, tightening his grip on the wheel as the bus cleared a dip in the worn dirt road. Come to think of it, the fact that David hadn’t been able to catch up to him before he made it to the bus this time was pretty weird, considering how fast the bastard could usually move when he needed to. He checked the side view mirror again just in case.

Look out!” Neil shouted behind him, jumping forward to turn the wheel himself as something big and dark loomed up in front of the bus.

The momentum of the turn threw Nikki onto the brake pedal as Max tried to keep them on the road, swinging the back of the bus away from Camp Campbell when it finally skidded to a halt. Max tumbled out of the driver’s seat as the bus rocked back on its suspension after the sudden halt, Neil landing on top of him and Nikki rolling out from under the steering wheel.

“What the hell was that?” Max snapped as he pushed Neil off and got to his feet. He jumped back onto the driver’s seat to see if the thing they’d almost hit was still there and found that yes, it was.

And it was one of the strangest things Max had ever seen in his life.

At a glance it looked like an unusually large black bear, but once you got beyond that the reality was much more bizarre. A beak and large eyes, feathers, it looked like the result of a bear and an owl meeting on a dark night and somehow deciding to get it on.

Oh my god,” Neil whispered, having climbed up with Nikki to get a look when they noticed Max’s dumbfounded expression.

Cool, it’s like some kinda man-bird-bear!” Nikki cried, her grin back in full force as she jumped down and pulled the lever that opened the bus door. “I’m gonna go tame it!”

“No!” Max and Neil shouted in chorus as Nikki darted out the open door. They hurried after her, Max taking the stairs in one leap while Neil stumbled down them and nearly fell on his face in the process.

The creature, whatever it was, took one look at the young girl hurtling toward it at breakneck speed and dropped down on all fours to beat a hasty retreat into the forest. It disappeared into the gloom before Nikki could catch up, and Max and Neil grabbed her arms to stop her following it.

“Whoa whoa whoa Nikki you have no idea what that thing is!” Max said as Nikki started dragging them, their shoes leaving grooves in the dirt road as they pulled against her.

“You can’t just go running off after random cryptids you see on the road!” Neil added.


They looked up as David skidded to a halt next to them. Max braced himself for an annoying lecture but felt glad that David’s appearance had at least gotten Nikki to stop.

“Kids, are—” the rest was cut off as David braced his hands against his knees to get a few extra lung-fulls of air after running so long to catch up. “Are any of you hurt?”

“Physically? No,” Max replied, pleased to see how winded David was despite still feeling a bit rattled. “But mentally I’m going what the fuck because we just saw some crazy shit here.”

“What?” David asked, the confusion plain on his face as he straightened. It quickly turned to panic when he realized what Max might mean by that. “Did you hit someone?” He frantically scanned the surrounding road, as if he somehow could’ve missed a broken bleeding body before this.

“It was some fucking, cryptid shit!” Max replied, gesturing toward the forest. “It ran away when Nikki charged it.”

“I mean, there’s no way something like that could really exist,” Neil began with an uneasy chuckle, a bit of hope in his voice. “We could’ve just, hallucinated it, right?”

“Do not do this shit to me now, Neil. You know what we saw!” Max said, pointing an accusing finger.

David watched the exchange with no small amount of confusion. “So what did you see?” he asked, since it was clear he wouldn’t get a proper answer unless he addressed it directly.

Nikki turned to him, still grinning. “There was a big man-bear-bird that was standing in the road and Max almost hit it but then it ran away when I tried to tame it,” the answer came in a big excited rush as Nikki jumped up and down with eagerness. “And now I’m gonna go find it!”

No!” David scooped Nikki up before she could run off. “Campers are not allowed in the forest without supervision!”

“Well then supervise me cap’n cause I’m goin’ in!” Nikki started running while still in David’s arms, and he held her away from himself before he could get kicked.

“Look, what you saw was probably just a bear and besides! You two haven’t settled in yet!” David said, holding onto Nikki as her legs slowed. “Why don’t you go back to camp and we’ll see about planning a nature hike sometime soon!”

“Wait, you don’t believe us?” Max asked, giving David an indignant glare. “We all saw it, David! Look, I bet it left tracks.” He found them toward the center of the road and pointed at them. “See?”

“Those are bear tracks, Max,” David replied with that annoying, overly patient voice as he put Nikki down. “Bears live all over the place around Lake Lilac.”

“Holy shit, David,” Gwen said as she came to a stop beside him, out of breath from the jog it took to catch up. “Is everyone okay?”

“No harm done, Gwen!” David quipped, giving her a reassuring smile. “There’s a little confusion over a bear that wandered past but everyone’s safe and sound.”

“It was not a bear, David!” Max yelled, stomping his foot for emphasis. “Right, Neil?” he gave the other boy a pointed look.

Neil scratched his head, faced with a dilemma. “Yeah, it wasn’t,” he admitted, looking equal parts unsettled and intrigued.

“It had an owl face!” Nikki added, pointing at her own face to help reinforce the point.

Gwen let out a long sigh and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Okay kids, let’s get back to the campsite. I’m not in the mood to get mauled by a fuckin’ bear today.”

Max was still glaring daggers at David as he walked back over to Nikki and Neil. “You know what? Fine. If you won’t believe us, we’ll just have to prove it,” he said, putting his arms around Nikki and Neil’s shoulders and smirking up at David. “Then we’ll see how well you sleep at night.” Max started back toward the camp, towing Nikki and Neil along with him. “Come on guys, I’ll show you our tent.”

“This is gonna be awesome!” Nikki hopped with excitement as they walked, almost pulling Max off his feet.

“Great, like we needed two more hellspawn to deal with,” Gwen grumbled as she watched the trio go.

“Oh don’t be that way, Gwen! I’m sure everything will work out,” David said, his grin a touch smaller than usual.

“And thank god you were awake to catch up before they could get lost,” Gwen admitted. “Would’ve been a fucking nightmare otherwise.”

“Awake?” David asked, looking puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Gwen’s glare snapped to him with a suddenness that made him jump. “Don’t play dumb with me, I saw you hopping around like there was some fucking wasp out to kill you.”

David’s grin was more guilty than happy now. “Ah, right,” he said as he scratched his left forearm, where three marks from the tranquilizer darts were still visible. “Well I couldn’t just let Mr. Campbell get hit, and there was a chance one of the campers could be hit too.”

Christ, David. You could’ve at least let him take one or two, he’s the whole reason those guys were even here in the first place.”

“What?” David squeaked, looking shocked. “Gwen, that’s horrible!”

“Oh come on, he passes out and we just dump him in the attic until he wakes up, he likes it in there anyway.”

“But he could’ve been taken away while we weren’t looking!”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “So what? If Campbell goes to jail I can bet you he’ll be back out in three days tops.” She folded her arms over her chest and looked away. “Maybe it’d teach him not to hang around camp when he’s got people following him, too,” she grumbled.

“Either way,” David said brightly, eager to change the subject. “Max made two new friends today and I think that’s something worth celebrating!” There was a hopeful tilt to David’s eyebrows as he reached behind himself and drew his guitar from beneath the bottom hem of his vest.

Gwen gave him a tired scowl—the vest trick was something David only did when the campers weren’t looking, and the first time she actually witnessed him doing it had been amazing, like something straight out of one of her paranormal romance novels. Now, however, it was just status quo and about to unleash that despised camp jingle on her reluctant ears. “Hey David!” She snatched the guitar from David’s hand and held it over her head, turning toward the forest. “Fetch!”

David lunged toward the forest, but his feet didn’t stay under him. He fell face-first into the dirt before Gwen could even half-complete her throw.

“The hell?” Gwen took a step back and dropped the guitar. “David?” She knelt beside him and gave his shoulder a hard shake, receiving only a muddled groan in response. The movement shifted David’s yellow bandana, revealing a tranquilizer dart embedded in his shoulder near the neck that he must’ve missed. Gwen plucked up the tranquilizer dart and looked from it to David with a mix of horror and surprise. “Holy shit, David! How many of these did you take?” she asked, shaking the tranquilizer dart in front of David’s nose as if he could still keep his eyes open to see it.

Whatever reply David made was too garbled for Gwen to understand, and though the lids moved his eyes refused to open.

Gwen tossed the dart into the scrubby grass at the side of the road. “Well, guess a dozen-odd tranq darts will put even you to sleep,” she said humorlessly as she got to her feet. Gwen braced her palms against the small of her back as she looked up at the sky and took a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh. “Ugh, God, we gotta get more help around here,” she grumbled to herself with a glance down at David, who was now completely unconscious.

First things first, the bus had to be taken care of. Gwen walked over to it and hopped inside, turning it off and putting the key in a back pocket of her shorts. Now it wouldn’t get stolen on top of all the other crap that happened today, and she could pass the key to Quartermaster when she ran into him on the way back. She didn’t have the proper license to drive it, and felt that courting further disaster by taking that chance would only come back to bite her in the ass. With that taken care of, Gwen returned to where David still lay on the road.

After taking a few moments to savor a place where she wasn’t subjected to the constant noise of the campers, Gwen picked up David’s guitar, took her co-counselor by the collar of his shirt, and started dragging them both back to Camp Campbell. She was going to feel this workout tomorrow, that was for sure.

“Hah!” Nikki leaped through the tent flap and landed next to Max’s cot, feet wide and arms up as if she expected a fight. “The coast is clear,” she said with a grin, looking back at Max and Neil.

“Yeah good job jumping into the right tent this time,” Max said as he followed with Neil behind him. “Almost didn’t get away from Nerris and her stupid dice collection,” he added with a roll of his eyes.

“So who else here is doubting what we saw on the road?” Neil asked, looking nervous.

“Are you serious right now?” Max gave Neil a glare. “We all saw it, Neil. How the fuck would we all hallucinate the exact same thing?”

“I know, it’s just,” Neil paused and scratched his head, his eyes narrowed in thought, “Something like that shouldn’t even exist! Just, how? Are there more? How does no one else know?”

“Isn’t that like, what cryptids do, though?” Nikki asked. “They creep around and most people don’t know they exist?” She gasped when she came upon a realization, her eyes practically sparkling. “Does that mean we’ll find Bigfoot here too?”

“One weird thing at a time, Nikki,” Max said with a wave of his hand. He stuffed his hands in his sweatshirt pocket and walked over to his cot, where he hopped up and took a seat. “First we gotta prove these owl-bear things exist and watch David’s sense of security crumble... Then we can figure out Bigfoot.”

“What makes you so sure we can even find this thing again?” Neil asked. “Did you even hear anyone talk about it before we actually saw it? You know, urban legends and all that? They must’ve told a few around the campfire here.”

Max gave the question some thought, trying to remember if David or Gwen had mentioned anything like the owl beast during their inevitably-lame campfire scary stories. It was difficult, given that he usually only half-listened to them. “No, I don’t think they did,” he admitted with a frown. “But I know someone who might be able to tell us about it.”

Neil grimaced. “It’s the creepy bus driver, isn’t it?”

“Well yeah, Quartermaster’s like, the resident hillbilly. If anyone knows about all the weirdass urban legends and conspiracy shit around here, it’s gonna be him.”

“He still gives me the creeps,” Neil muttered.

“Aw don’t worry Neil, all we have to do is get him to share his old man wisdom with us and we’ll find Bigfoot in no time!” Nikki cut in, practically bouncing with excitement. “I can’t wait!”

Harrison was waiting for them when Gwen reached the door of the Counselors’ Cabin. He looked up with a grin when he spotted Gwen, only for it to fall to a frown around a second later when he noticed David. “What happened?” Harrison asked once Gwen drew level with him.

“Try around two dozen tranq darts to the everywhere,” Gwen replied humorlessly. Her back and arms were killing her, and right now she just wanted to be inside so she could sit down and rest for a bit. “And then a long jog after a bus,” she added, rolling her eyes.

“Aw man,” Harrison said, his shoulders drooping with disappointment. “But David was supposed to take me on a “nature hike” this afternoon,” he added in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Christ, Harrison. Don’t use air quotes, the other campers aren’t stupid,” Gwen said, her voice low in case any possible eavesdroppers were nearby. “Just go practice the safer magic for now. I’ll make David take you tomorrow, I promise.”

“Well, okay,” Harrison said, still disappointed. He scuffed a shoe in the dirt, then turned and walked off toward the Activities Field.

Gwen sighed, letting her head droop for a moment, then used the hand that still held the guitar to work the door handle and levered the door the rest of the way open with her foot. Before entering she reached in and set the guitar beside the door, then hauled David up and draped one of his arms over her shoulders so she could get him inside without the door swinging shut on his legs. She stopped on the mat once they were inside. It would be best to put him on his bed for now, but he was covered in dust from being dragged.

One more thing to do before being able to sit down, just great. David would thank her later for not getting his bed dusty but that didn’t take the edge off the ache in her muscles now. Regardless, Gwen set to work, taking care of what she could reach of David’s front first for convenience’s sake. Once there was at least less dust than before on what she could see of David, she turned him so that his chest leaned against her right shoulder and started swatting dust off his back.

David stayed asleep all throughout, giving Gwen an incoherent mumble or two at most. It made her wonder just how long he’d be out, and worry began to edge its way in. Kids she could handle, albeit grudgingly and with varying amounts of shouting, but they weren’t the only thing you had to keep an eye on around Lake Lilac. Hopefully the goddamn tranq darts wouldn’t keep David down for more than a night, she could hold down the fort for at least that long where special matters were concerned. Any longer than that, though... She didn’t want to think about. Sleeping would definitely be difficult if that was the case.

With her task done and the door mat covered in a new layer of dust, Gwen wrapped her arms around David’s waist, lifted him up with a quiet grunt, and crab walked as quickly as possible over to his bed. She dropped him face first on the covers—he was heavier than he looked, and the less she had to actually carry him the better—and took his boots off since there was no getting all the dust and dirt off of those. Gwen turned him over and lifted his legs up, then pushed him so he was laying on the bed rather than across it.

Gwen took a step back and scratched her head. Did you need to put someone who’d been hit by a bunch of tranq darts in the recovery position? Hard to say, since first aid camp had never covered such a situation before. And David was ridiculously hardy anyway so did it really matter?

The day was catching up with Gwen, she could tell. The anxiety attack prior to having to run headlong after the goddamn bus and then having to drag her coworker back to camp wasn’t helping anything either. And now the worry was back and sinking its teeth in a little deeper. Gwen decided to play it safe, rolling David onto his side so he was facing the room; legs bent, the bottom leg outstretched while the calf of the other was draped over its knee, bottom arm out in front with the other laying across the chest, chin up and mouth angled down.

There, that was the best she could do for the time being. Gwen crossed to her armchair and dropped into it, kicking up the dust that was left on her clothing. She gave the dust cloud a half-hearted swat, then sighed and slouched down in the chair as she looked at David again.

God, please don’t let Campbell’s stupid shit be what does him in. Please wake up tomorrow morning.

That damn worry was working in deeper, starting to trigger her anxiety. Gwen took a deep breath and tried to calm herself as her heart rate kicked up. She couldn’t sit here like this forever either, there were the campers to worry about and they were probably getting into some sort of trouble even now. Taking care of the camp was going to be hell with just her, and that was without the possibility of weird bullshit wandering in to make things worse.

More help was what they needed. Well, one of the things they needed, because Campbell was a goddamn skinflint when it came to everything but himself. Gwen rocked her boots side to side, tapping their sides together while she thought. There had to be a rule about the kid per counselor ratio, and they’d just added two more...

Gwen pushed herself up and got to her feet, hurrying to her desk where she was sure she’d stored the Counselor’s Handbook in a drawer. They never really referenced the damn thing and Campbell only cared about rules being enforced when the authorities were around to watch, but it was possible she could justify hiring on another counselor if there was a rule about it in here. She started thumbing through it as she crossed back to her chair and sat down again.

And there it was—a recommendation of four campers per counselor, with a note that five was doable but not ideal. Gwen smiled and slammed the book shut, then went to her bedside table to grab her laptop. Campbell had gotten her to make up custom advertisements for the camp some time ago, and it would only take a few adjustments to make it suitable for her purposes and send it off to the Sleepy Peak Times. Thankfully they used email—the town of Sleepy Peak looked so old fashioned that the fact had come as a pleasant surprise when Gwen found out—and there was a chance the ad would even make it into tomorrow morning’s paper if she hurried.

They wouldn’t be stuck herding five cats each for much longer.

Chapter Text

“Sooo... Why aren’t we doing the plan now?” Nikki whispered to Max as they watched Gwen herd Nurf out of the art camp area, where he’d been trying to make off with the red paint.

“Gwen’s too smart for it to work, you gotta use stuff like blackmail to get her to do what you want,” Max replied casually. He smirked with amusement when Dolph tripped over the hem of his oversized, much-taken-in painter’s smock and fell to the ground; the bucket of blue paint he’d been in the process of putting away flew up, turning over in midair and dumping its contents all over Dolph’s back and head before clattering to the ground beside him. “Once David finally gets here we can start.”

“Where is David anyway?” Neil asked, looking around. “You mentioned he was the kinda guy to get up super early in the morning.”

“Eh, who cares,” Max said with a shrug. “He’s probably out working on some stupid activity or something. He’ll show up eventually.”

There was an awful lot of sunlight for the time of morning he should’ve been waking up. That was the first thing wrong that David noticed as he swam up from the depths of sleep. His eyes snapped open as he jumped out of bed—and immediately landed on his face because his legs weren’t quite up to speed yet. After a few moments spent getting over the embarrassment of landing on one’s face—and hoping Gwen hadn’t been around to witness that—David rolled himself over and slid his legs off the bed to join the rest of him on the floor.

Still being in day clothes was, admittedly, not so off the norm as it should have been; he couldn’t count the number of times he’d fallen asleep in them because of staying up late planning activities or staying out late to take care of non-camp-related matters. Gwen was getting good at reminding him to change into nightclothes despite how tired he might be, why hadn’t she done that this time?

David frowned as he did his best to recall what happened before he fell asleep last night. He pushed himself upright, scratching the back of his head and starting to feel frustrated that he couldn’t even remember walking into the cabin. No, the last he could remember was around noon, Mr. Campbell had been visiting and those shady fellows had been trying to nab him using tranquilizer darts and David had been blocking every shot. He appreciated them not using real bullets around the campers, but trying to drag Campbell off was a no-go in his book. They left as soon as Campbell did, and then he’d run after Max and his new friends, had a little debate with Gwen and then—


His next unfortunate realization was that it was now midmorning, which meant that Gwen had been left alone to mind the campers for hours already, plus whatever she’d had to do to keep them in check after he passed out the previous day. David jumped to his feet, stumbled a few steps as his legs struggled to keep up, then froze in the middle of the room because he couldn’t figure out what to do first.

Well, he still had day clothes on, but they were a bit dusty from the events of yesterday and rumpled from being slept in. David returned to his bed, going to the trunk that sat at its foot to grab a fresh set of clothes. It was as he stood up after grabbing the fresh clothes that he noticed the covered plate on his desk, a folded piece of paper held down by a fork and knife sitting beside it.

David started toward his desk—and tripped over his boots, which had been left beside his bed. He caught himself before he could slam his face into the worn wood of the cabin floor, then pushed himself up to his elbows with an annoyed sigh. It seemed this morning was dead-set on making itself difficult for him. David grabbed his clothes and got to his feet, this time taking extra care not to rush since that seemed to be earning him potential faceplants at this point.

He made it to his desk without further mishap and lifted the cover, revealing that the plate beneath it had been piled high with the leftovers from breakfast: pancakes, fried eggs, bacon, sausages, and some apple and orange slices. David tucked his clothes under one arm and slipped the note out from under the utensils with his now-free hand, using his thumb and forefinger to open it:

Hope you wake up before this gets cold.


That got a smile out of him, his first on this off-kilter morning. It warmed his heart to know that Gwen was looking out for him even after he dropped the ball so badly. He had to make it up to her somehow once things were running smoothly again, and it would have to be something special.

Another piece of paper caught David’s eye as he looked down at the plate again, and he dropped the first on the desk and opened up this one as well:

By the way, put an ad in the paper for a new counselor. It’s supposed to be four kids per counselor, not five. Don’t think anyone will show up today but be on the lookout.


There was a split-second of panic before David got to the second sentence of the note, and he kicked himself mentally for ever thinking Gwen would try to replace him. The thought of having someone new around was both exciting and a bit disappointing; exciting because David enjoyed meeting new people and making friends, but disappointing because that would be one more person he’d have to dodge around to make sure certain things about the camp were kept secret. Either way there wasn’t much he could do about Gwen’s decision now, and she did have a point about the counselor-camper ratio.

David removed his bandana and turned away from the desk to shake the dust out of it, revealing that it was in fact an old camper shirt. He folded it carefully and set it beside the plate. His vest followed, the inner lining showing a stark night-black despite the sunlight in the room. A star-like glint shone on the dark fabric as David shook it out as well and set it beside the bandana. With his two most important articles of clothing taken care of, David changed into fresh clothes and tossed the dirty set onto his bed, then shook out the bandana and vest one last time before putting them on again. Last were the boots, which he retrieved from where they sat by the bed.

Feeling a little more put-together already, David pulled up his chair and sat down at his desk for a hurried breakfast. The sooner he got out there to help Gwen the better, and hopefully whatever residual effects the tranquilizers had put him under would be gone by then and he’d be able to stop tripping over things.

He almost choked on the last bit of his breakfast when someone knocked at the door. Gwen always just walked right in, so it had to be either a camper or someone from outside of camp. David jumped to his feet and hurried to the door, where he could see the shadow of a tall lanky figure on the other side.

“Good morning!” David said cheerily as he opened the door to find—


No, not quite. Though this newcomer looked exactly like David in most respects, his skin was paler, his eyes blue, and his hair a bright blonde. He looked quite formal in his white polo shirt and boots, with pale gray pants to match and a white suitcase held in his right hand. However the smile on his face was strained as if he was trying his very hardest to keep it there.

A small cough escaped David as he tried to get over the shock of running into this nearly-identical twin. David let go of the doorknob and straightened. “Ha-hah, well hello there friend, how can I help you on this fine morning?”

It took a few moments for the stranger to collect himself. “Ah, yes! Hello, my name is Daniel, and I’m here to apply for the camp counselor position.” His voice was a tad stiff, likely from lingering shock. “The ad said to ask for Gwen?”

“Yes, right! We can go find her now if you’ll follow me!” David replied, back up to his usual pep now. “The name’s David by the way, pleasure to meet you!” He offered a hand for Daniel to shake.

“Same to you, David!” Daniel replied, his voice sounding a little more natural as he exchanged a handshake with David. His grip was firm and his fingers a tad cold, though David had definitely touched colder before. They were warm enough for a normal human and something that could be chalked up to nerves; Gwen’s hands had been a bit clammy when he first met her and they exchanged their introductory handshake, after all.

“Let’s get going!” David said brightly as he dropped Daniel’s hand and turned toward the campers’ tents and the Mess Hall beyond.

Still, it never hurt to check that this was actually a legitimate human talking to him now and not one of the locals trying to mess with him or cause trouble. David opened his mouth slightly while Daniel was still unable to see his face and inhaled through both nose and mouth; there was no nonhuman scent around that was strong enough to indicate something like that was here. There was a lingering tinge of something he didn’t quite recognize, but it wasn’t strong enough to merit concern for now.

“So what made you interested in joining us here at Camp Campbell, Daniel?” David asked, glancing back as Daniel caught up with David’s quick, almost-bouncing pace.

“Well I’ve always loved working with kids and lately I’ve been wanting to work in a place that’s close to nature, so this job looked perfect!” Daniel replied, easily matching pace with David thanks to the identical length of their legs.

“That sounds wonderful!” David said, giving Daniel a grin. It wasn’t particularly a requirement that the new counselor have relevant experience—Gwen technically had none when she first joined, after all—but from the sound of it, Daniel actually wanted a job like this and that was always a bonus. “I, uh, do have to warn you that our kids can be a little bit... Abrasive at times,” he added with an apologetic smile as they passed the Mess Hall. Best to warn the poor guy before the initial surprise of meeting their campers.

“Oh I’m sure it’s nothing I can’t handle,” Daniel said with a confident wave of his free hand. “I’ve dealt with problem children before.”

David hid his doubt over whether or not Daniel would be able to handle these kids and braced himself for the inevitable freakout they’d have over him walking up with a nearly-identical counselor candidate. He knew Max would no doubt have some choice words over the matter and hoped that the reaction wouldn’t be enough to scare Daniel away—maybe an enthusiastic new counselor was just what the camp needed to keep things running smoothly, or at least cut down on the usual chaos.

They reached the Activities Field and found the campers crowded loosely around the area that was devoted to art camp. David spotted Gwen, her back turned to them and one hand on her hip, a split second before her voice reached them.

“I see you there, Nurf! Don’t—hey!”

It was unclear exactly what sent the bucket of red paint flying through the air—probably Nurf doing something, not that they could see—but what was clear was the fact that it was coming right toward them. David reached out to catch the bucket of paint a split second too late, succeeding only in keeping it from hitting Daniel.

That didn’t speak for the paint that used to be in it, however.

Daniel’s shirt would never be white again.

“Oh gosh, Daniel, I’m so sorry!” David said quickly, dropping the paint can and turning to Daniel. “Let’s just, uh—” He dropped the sentence when he couldn’t think of anything that would likely help at the moment.

“Ah-hah, hah hah, don’t worry about it, David. Accidents happen!” Daniel was trembling ever so slightly as he looked down at his utterly-ruined shirt. The smile was still there, but it had calcified since the last time David saw it and the fingers of Daniel’s free hand were arched like claws.

“Oh thank God you’re awake, David,” Gwen said as she jogged over to them. “I was worrie—” She stopped short when she got a good look at Daniel and took a step back. “Who the fuck is this?”

Language,” David pleaded. “Anyway, say hello to Daniel, our camp counselor applicant!” he added with a smile, gesturing to Daniel with both arms in a grand presentation. “I think we might owe him a new shirt already.”

“Yeeaah, probably,” Gwen mumbled, still taking in the fact that there was apparently a second, more lightly-colored David in existence. “And you’re still sure you want this job?” she asked, looking to Daniel.

“Gwen!” David squeaked, putting his hands on his hips.

“Whoa, an evil twin!” Preston yelled as the campers caught up with Gwen. “What a brilliant idea to add to my next play!”

Jesus Christ, the universe actually thought that one David wasn’t enough?!” Max said, recoiling in disgust once he got a good look at Daniel. “What the fuck?!”

“Oh my gosh, does this mean we have a real live axe murderer working here now?” Nikki asked as she stared up at the red paint splashed across Daniel’s front.

“No, Nikki! It’s just paint!” David said, distressed over how poorly things were going already. He picked up the now-empty paint can as proof.

“The paint was Dolph’s fault by the way,” Nurf said, pointing down at the small boy next to him. “This wouldn’t’ve happened if he hadn’t tackled me.”

“I wouldn’t have tackled you if you had left my studio alone!” Dolph snapped with a stamp of his small foot, glaring up at Nurf and rolling up the voluminous sleeves on his painter’s smock. “And I will do it again if you don’t stop!”

“Yeah yeah, I was getting bored over there anyway,” Nurf said, waving Dolph off and crossing his arms over his chest. “So who wants to take bets on how long the new guy’s gonna last?”

“Well that’s pointless,” Max said with a roll of his eyes. “It’s obvious he’s gonna walk out before even being hired.” He looked up at Daniel, a malicious grin on his face. “Hope you haven’t signed any contracts yet, buddy. You’ve still got a chance to escape.”

“My, what little comedians we have here!” Daniel said, his smile still fixed firmly in place and his fingers relaxed now. “I can’t wait to get started!”

This got Max to take a step back as he stared at Daniel with surprise, along with Gwen and all the other campers. “Holy shit this guy is fucking nuts!”

“Now Max, that’s enough,” David said, shaking a finger at him. “Someone doesn’t have to be nuts to want to work with you kids.”

“Sure helps to be, though,” Gwen mumbled under her breath as she crossed her arms over her chest.

“Why don’t you guys go back to your activities while I step out and help Daniel get cleaned up,” David said. He paused and looked up at Gwen. “Oh, unless you’d like to trade off, Gwen. I know I kinda let you down today.”

Gwen’s mouth twisted as she glanced at Daniel, who was busy looking at each of the camp zones of the Activities Field. “I think I’ll pass for now,” she said with a grimace. “Why don’t you get Daniel set up and then I’ll take care of finalizing stuff.”

“Sounds great!” David turned to lead Daniel away, but Gwen stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Gwen? What’s—” He stopped talking when Gwen turned and started speed walking toward the tree line, dragging him behind her.

“Okay,” Gwen said once they were out of earshot of Daniel and the campers. “What the fuck is that guy?” she asked, her hand twitching as she restrained herself from outright pointing at Daniel as she said this. “Why did you decide to entertain some weird thing that wandered into camp?”

“Don’t worry, Gwen. He’s human, I checked,” David replied.

“You’re sure?” Gwen asked, the doubt obvious on her face. She looked at Daniel again, then back to David. “He still creeps me the fuck out.”

“We all have our awkward quirks,” David said. “He looks nice enough to me.”

“He looks like a goddamn cultist,” Gwen said with a roll of her eyes. “Or some stupidass rich boy who’s more at home on a country club golf course than at a dirty camp like this.”

“Gwen, we shouldn’t judge people based on appearances.”

“Uugh,” Gwen groaned. “Just don’t leave me alone with him for the first couple weeks. Make sure he’s not as much of a freak as I think he is. And don’t let him supervise the kids by himself either.”

“Weeell that would be for both their sake and his,” David said with a humorless chuckle, a little embarrassed over how... Enthusiastic their campers could be.

“And just so we’re clear, you’ve also noticed that he looks like your off-color twin, right?” Gwen added.

“It takes all types?” David offered with a small shrug.

“I knew it, you’re freaked out about this too,” Gwen said, pointing a finger at him. “You only start misapplying turns of phrase like that when you’re flipping out and trying to hide it.”

“Okay okay but I’m not telling him to go away just because he looks weird,” David admitted, hands held palm-up in a placating gesture. “I’ll keep an eye on him, I promise.”

“God, if this camp didn’t have such an awful reputation around here I’d send him away myself and wait for someone else, but.” Gwen sighed. “Desperate times.”

Daniel had his free hand raised and appeared to be in the process of deciding whether trying to brush some of the paint off would help his shirt or not—most likely not, with the added bonus of possibly getting it on his pants too—when David and Gwen returned to him. “Welcome back, you two,” he said brightly as he turned to them. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah, just talking about who’s supervising what right now,” Gwen said casually, hiding her unease behind a mask of indifference. “You’ll be back once you get the paperwork started for him right?” she added, looking to David.

“Of course, Gwen!” David said, giving her a smile. “We’ll be back as soon as we can!”

“Well that was just fuckin’ bizarre,” Max said as he, Nikki, and Neil watched David and Daniel walk off. “Where the hell did David even find that guy? A goddamn cloning lab?”

“I mean, I doubt it,” Neil said, squinting after the two counselors while he considered the possibility. “The science isn’t advanced enough for cloning on that level.”

“I was only being half-serious, Neil,” Max said.

“Oh. Right.” Neil frowned, briefly scratching at the back of one hand as he looked down at them. “Well anyway, do you think this new guy will get in the way of the plan or what?”

“Nah,” Max said without hesitation. “He’s too new to know better, and David’s just gonna drag him along anyway if he doesn’t get paired with Gwen for today.”

“So how long did you bet he would last again?” Nikki asked, looking at Max.

“A month, tops,” Max replied. “He might be a happy freak like David who dresses like a fuckin’ weirdo, but he looks way too prissy to cut it here. Nurf’s gonna snap him like a toothpick the first time he tries to stop him from doing something.”

David and the new recruit returned soon enough, this time with Daniel wearing a polo version of the counselor shirt over his grey pants and white boots.

“God he looks even more like David now,” Max said with a smirk and a barely-restrained laugh as he looked on. He would have fun using that to torment this new guy in between the cryptid hunts, and it might end up being good practice for finally breaking David as well. “Come on, guys. Get ready.” Max led them toward the center of the Activities Field, where the three counselors now stood amid a growing crowd of campers.

“I’ll just leave you guys to it. See you at lunch,” Gwen said as she started toward the Mess Hall. Max swore he saw her whisper ‘good luck’ to the new guy as she passed him, though Daniel gave no indication that he’d heard anything.

“Alrighty kiddos, good job on your individual sessions!” David said, smiling and bouncy as ever. “And now we’re going to do a group activity, any suggestions?”

Max waited for the usual flood of stupid suggestions to subside before speaking up himself. “Hey David,” he began, hands shoved in his hoodie pocket as he pushed his way to the front of the crowd.

“Yes, Max?” David asked, his full attention on Max.

“Isn’t our camp supposed to have a mascot?” Max asked, unable to hide the sly tilt to his smile. “How come we don’t have one?”

David’s face fell. “Well Max, as you probably know already, hamsters actually have pretty short lifespans and I haven’t had the chance to find another since old Larry the eleventh passed away last week,” he said, his hands clasped before him. “But if it means so much to you, I’m sure I can find time very soon!” David added, his face brightening at the mistaken assumption that Max was interested in something about the camp for once.

“Actually I was thinking we should do it right now, look for something more long-lived,” Max said, tapping one finger against his chin.

“Yeah, and cooler!” Nikki added with a hop.

The idea got some excitement out of the other campers, who started chattering to each other or at David. Daniel watched silently from his place about a step back from David, a smile fixed on his face but his expression otherwise unreadable.

“We should get a unicorn!” Nerris yelled over them.

“Or maybe a badger!” Harrison added.

“Mascot hunt!” Max yelled, pumping his fists in the air. “Mascot hunt, mascot hunt!”

Nikki picked up the chant as well and scurried around to the other campers, nudging any who were still reluctant into joining in and getting the rest even more stirred up. Soon the whole crowd was chanting the phrase, each of them eager to pick the animal they felt was most suited to being the new camp mascot.

David’s smile widened with delight at the campers’ enthusiasm, and he started bouncing a little with excitement himself. “Alright, then! Sounds like today’s group activity will be finding our new mascot! I can’t wait!” He turned toward the Mess Hall. “Everyone follow me, we’ll pick up our hiking supplies before heading out.”

Such was David’s excitement that even Daniel had a hard time keeping pace with him at first, and the campers were forced to run if they wanted to make it to the Mess Hall just after he did. Max, Nikki, and Neil lagged at the back of the group, and Max pulled them close with a hand on each shoulder as they jogged along.

“Alright, ready for the next phase of the plan?” he asked.

“Yeah but what’ll we do if the Quartermaster isn’t around?” Neil kept his voice low as he asked the question, just in case one of the other campers was listening.

“Then we sneak off and look for creepy stuff anyway!” Nikki replied. “Oooo, can you imagine having a cryptid as a mascot? That would be so cool!

“C’mon Nikki, focus,” Max said as they crossed the boundary of the Activities Field. “That’s just a cover. We’re hunting for monsters, not mascots.”

“Yeah but we could totally just combine the two, I call dibs on having it sleep on my cot!”

David was already passing out bottled water and snack packs to each of the campers when the three caught up. Daniel followed him with the box that held the supplies in his arms, smiling and silent as he watched the proceedings; he hadn’t said a word since he came back with David, and while that was probably better than watching him get all enthusiastic it still gave Max the creeps. The smile too, for that matter. Max was starting to hate it the more that he looked at it, and considered getting Daniel to drop it as a potential new goal for this summer.

“You know,” Max said as David passed him his water and snacks. “I’ve been thinking, wouldn’t the Quartermaster be a big help with finding a mascot? Why don’t you have him take some of us?”

“Why Max, that’s a wonderful idea!” David was positively beaming at Max’s suggestion, and he almost felt sorry for the poor sap for being fooled so easily. Almost. “I’ll go see if he’s around, I’m sure you kids could all learn so much from him!” He turned to sprint off in search of the Quartermaster, and stopped himself when it happened to bring him face to face with Daniel. “Oh, Daniel. Since we’re done passing everything out you can just take that back to the store room, and don’t forget to grab your own before we head out,” David said, giving Daniel a friendly pat on the shoulder as he passed him.

Daniel lingered for a few moments, his eyes on Max and his thoughts hidden behind that stupid creepy smile.

“Hey don’t you know it’s fuckin’ rude to stare?” Max snapped, tucking his water and snacks into the pocket of his hoodie. “Freak.”

“You know, Max,” Daniel began, tilting his head to one side in thought. “Don’t you think you’d be happier if you weren’t weighed down by all that negativity?”

“I think that’s none of your business,” Max replied, glaring up at Daniel. He’d actually flinched a little when Daniel started talking, it had been so unexpected after his silence. “And don’t you have some shit to be putting away right about now?”

Daniel shrugged, and the smile began to look more like a smirk. “Whatever you say,” he said, that annoying ‘I know better’ inflection to his tone that Max hated so much when it came from any adult. Daniel turned and walked to the front of the Mess Hall, where he slipped the box under one arm and let himself in with his free hand.

“And the negativity’s there for a reason, asshole!” Max yelled just before Daniel disappeared into the Mess Hall. It felt good to get the last word in like that, but Max knew it was an empty victory regardless.

“You okay?” Neil asked, looking nervous after the exchange. “You seemed kind of upset...”

“I’m fine,” Max said, with a little more force than he meant to. “It’s just, he’s one of those adults, the ones that think they know you and what’s best when they actually don’t know shit about anything.”

“Look who I found!” David shouted triumphantly as he came around the corner of the Mess Hall with the Quartermaster slouching after him. “Now, is everyone ready to head out?”

“New guy’s still in the Mess Hall but we’re ready to go,” Max said before anyone else could reply. “Getting kinda bored of waiting.” He scowled to help carry the act, knowing that David would be reluctant to keep them waiting if it meant Max lost interest.

David’s smile wobbled a bit. “Oh, well I’m sure he’ll be back soon—”

“You should have the Quartermaster take us!” Nikki jumped in.

“It would help us cover more ground to have two groups,” Neil added.

There were a few moments of indecision while David looked from them to the Quartermaster. “You know what? That’s a great idea!” he said, getting his usual enthusiasm back. “So who else wants to be on Team Quartermaster?” David added, turning to the rest of the campers.

This was met with an overwhelming silence, which was an obvious enough answer.

“Alrighty then! Quartermaster, why don’t you head out now and we’ll wait around here for when Daniel gets back.”

The Quartermaster mumbled something unintelligible in reply, then started off into the forest without even hesitating to check his direction.

Nikki darted after him, a grin already on her face while Max did his best to keep up and Neil following the two of them with a little more reluctance. Soon they were immersed in the shade of the forest, and the Mess Hall was lost from sight. Birdsong surrounded them, the birds themselves occasionally darting here and there as they were startled by the group’s passing.

“So Quartermaster,” Max said, scurrying up to where the Quartermaster was at the front of their little party and matching pace with him. “What do you know about this place? Any strange goings-on around here?”

“Mmmm...” the Quartermaster grumbled, looking down at Max with his one good eye. “Y’sure you want the answer, kid? It’s ’n awful burden t’ know,” he said ominously.

“Omigosh, so is there really a Bigfoot around here?” Nikki asked, practically skipping up to walk with them in her excitement. “Can we meet it?”

“One thing at a time, Nikki,” Neil said, his hands held close to his chest and his eyes on the surrounding forest as he caught up with them. “You can protect us from whatever’s out here, right Mister Quartermaster?” he added, fear starting to edge its way into his voice.

“You really think someone like David is better equipped?” Max asked flatly.

“Good point,” Neil admitted, calming a little.

“I got ways of dealin’ with ‘em, yeah,” the Quartermaster replied as he turned his eye to the faint path before them. “Havn’t seen Bigfoot out here yet, but I seen plenty else in my time.”

“Things like, say, a bear with an owl’s head?” Max suggested, trying to play it cool; just five minutes with the guy and they were already getting places, it was hard to contain his glee over how well things were going.

“Aah, them’s the night-bears,” Quartermaster said thoughtfully. “Don’t usually come out like they did before.” He looked down at Max again. “Y’seen ‘em?”

“Not just seen one,” Max replied, feeling a little proud of himself. “We almost hit it with the bus yesterday.”

“Mm, too bad ya missed,” the Quartermaster said. “Woulda liked t’ get my hands on one, even if it was roadkill.”

That got some pause out of Max since killing these things wasn’t exactly on the agenda. “So what else is supposed to live around here?” he asked, deciding to push the subject in a slightly different direction.

“Lake monster,” the Quartermaster replied, gesturing to where the lake was beyond the trees with his hook. “Looks like that Nessie thing. And then there’s...” he paused, and Max got the sneaking suspicion that he was doing this purely for dramatic effect. “The wolfman.”

“You mean like a werewolf?” Neil asked.

“Probably,” the Quartermaster admitted. “Brute’s been lurkin’ around these parts for years. Came close to chatchin’ him dozens of times, but he always managed t’ get away.”

“Whoa, are you guys like, archenemies or something?” Nikki asked as she hopped along next to the Quartermaster. “Are you out for revenge? Did he kill your girlfriend? Did he eat your hand? ” She pointed dramatically at the Quartermaster’s hook at the last question, still smiling from all the excitement even now.

“Hmm?” The Quartermaster looked down at Nikki in surprise. “No, I got a totally different beef with that beast. He’s lurkin’ around in my territory and I won’t stand for it,” he growled, brandishing his hook menacingly.

“So lemme get this straight,” Max began, frowning. “You’re out to get this wolf guy just because he’s there?

“It ain’t that simple, boy,” the Quartermaster replied. “Also I saw him watchin’ me skinny dippin’ once and I ain’t gonna stand for that.”

Max grimaced, doing his best to keep his imagination from placing the Quartermaster in any situation remotely near skinny dipping. “So you got any idea how to find this thing?”

“Why d’you want to know?” the Quartermaster asked, looking at Max with suspicion.

“So we can use it to make David have a breakdown and not feel safe at camp anymore,” Max replied with a shrug.

“Well I guess there are worse reasons for huntin’ him,” the Quartermaster said thoughtfully.

Yeah, like yours. Max thought to himself as they walked along. While this chat was definitely proving informative, Max was quickly coming to the conclusion that the Quartermaster was, in fact, an annoying person to deal with and would be best to avoid when possible. And now that Max really thought about it, the Quartermaster seemed a little too eager to talk, like he was just waiting for the kids to ask about this sort of thing. Apparently rambling to the youth was a pretty universal old man passtime regardless of who they were.

“Ah-hah!” the Quartermaster cried suddenly, pointing at a dip in the trail as he picked up the pace. “Speakin’ of which,” he said as they came to it. “Lookie here.”

The dip was formed between a pair of large tree roots and covered with fairly deep, soft mud at its bottom. A trail of footprints tracked through it, all but one too smudged to have any distinguishable features. The one that was clear, however, definitely belonged to no normal animal: it looked like a bizarre cross between a wolf and a human, five-toed and with pads on the foot and a claw at the end of each toe.

Oh my God,” Neil whispered as he knelt down to get a better look. “Is this actually real? I wish I could make a plaster cast!”

Nikki squeaked with delight, and her excitement levels escalated to the point that Max was worried that she might actually explode. “We gotta meet him we gotta meet him we gotta meet him I’m gonna have him make me a werewolf too!” she yelled, pumping her fists in the air.

“Holy shit,” Max said as he looked down at the pawprint. It was wider than his own head including the toes and claws. “This thing must be huge.”

“Mmhmm.” The Quartermaster stepped over the tracks like they were no big deal and started off down the trail again.

“How the fuck does no one else know about this shit?” Max asked, jumping over the dip and hurrying after the Quartermaster with Nikki and Neil close behind him.

“Hmph. I try’n tell ‘em,” the Quartermaster said as he trudged along. “Davey-boy laughs it off, the other one doesn’t even listen to begin with. I just keep an eye out an’ do my best to keep ‘em at bay.”

It was at this point that Max became acutely aware of the fact that he had no idea where they were now in relation to the camp, and that the Quartermaster was their one way back in a forest that might even now be crawling with actual monsters. This was starting to feel like a bit of an ill-advised plan. “So uh,” Max began, noting that the shadows seemed to be even deeper in this area of the forest. “Where exactly are we now?”

“Said we were s’posed to be lookin’ for a mascot,” the Quartermaster mumbled. “Thought I’d grab a skunk or somethin’ jus’ to annoy him.”

That got a laugh out of Max, small and restrained though it was due to their predicament. The Quartermaster might be annoying in his own way but there was something about that give-no-fucks and give-David-shit attitude that Max had to admire.

“Oh nice!” Nikki said with a grin. “I wanna help wrangle it!”

“Juuust as long as we don’t get sprayed,” Neil added. “I don’t even want to imagine how awful that would smell.”

One of the bushes to the right side of the path rustled violently as they reached it, and something hidden inside its foliage hissed at them before scurrying off through the underbrush.

“After it!” the Quartermaster yelled, pointing at the retreating trail of thrashing bushes. He sprinted off, surprising Max with his speed, and the kids had no choice but to follow or be left behind.

After a few seconds of mad sprinting Max spotted light through the foliage ahead—thank God they were at least about to get out of the dark creepy part of the forest.

“Gotcha!” the Quartermaster yelled as he leaped over the last bush to pounce on whatever was on the other side.

He was rewarded with an awkward, very familiar squawk of surprise from whatever he landed on. Max, Nikki, and Neil hurried forward and pushed their way through the bush to find David and his party in a clearing on the other side. David was currently pinned under the Quartermaster while the other campers laughed and pointed at the little scene.

“Oh, it’s just you,” the Quartermaster said as he stood and stepped off David, looking rather disappointed that it was just the idiot camp counselor he’d caught. “Now where’d that critter get off to?”

“Glad to know you’re giving this your all, Quartermaster!” David said cheerfully as he got to his feet and brushed himself off. “Having fun, kids?” he added as he looked down at the three of them.

“You could say that,” Max said with a smirk.

“What the hell’s this thing?!”

They looked up at the sound of the Quartermaster yelling and found that he’d come face to face with Daniel.

“Well hello there,” Daniel said, showing the Quartermaster his usual smile. “I don’t believe we’ve met—” He fell silent and jumped back as the Quartermaster swung at him with his hook.

“Back off ya damn shapeshifter!” the Quartermaster yelled as he pursued Daniel around the clearing. “Y’ain’t gonna steal my face!”

“Whoa there, old timer,” Daniel said with suddenly-dry cheer as he sidestepped another swing of the hook. “I don’t appreciate that kind of behavior.”

“Quartermaster!” David yelled, hurrying over to the two of them. He caught hold of the Quartermaster’s arms and started pulling him away. “He’s not a shapeshifter, he’s just our new co-counselor!”

“Are y’blind, boy? He already stole yer face!” the Quartermaster yelled, struggling to get at Daniel again. “And I ain’t gonna let him steal mine too!”

It was at this moment, as Daniel neared the bushes behind him, that whatever the Quartermaster had been chasing in the first place decided to jump out and sink its teeth into Daniel’s right ankle.

“What the fuck is that?” Max said as he stared down at the creature on Daniel’s leg.

Whatever the thing was looked like a bad joke by some mad god whose reply to shit like kangaroos was “hold my beer”. It had the body and tail of a beaver, webbed feet, and a wide bill that was somehow chock full of sharp teeth, as evidenced by the fact that Daniel couldn’t shake it off even with a violent kick of his leg.

Daniel stared down at it, the smile still stuck relentlessly to his face but his hands balled so tightly into fists that his knuckles were showing white. He tried another kick of his leg, with the same failed result as before.

“A platypus?” Neil said, shocked. “What the hell is a platypus doing here?”

“Oh dear.” David let go of the Quartermaster, who had at least stopped trying to carve Daniel up with his hook for the time being, and knelt beside Daniel to get a better look at the situation. “Let me just...” He took the platypus’s beak in his hands and slowly pried it open, then lifted the platypus up by the scruff of its neck to avoid the thrashing feet and snapping beak. “There! All better!”

“Well, this has been an interesting hike!” Daniel said in that same dryly-cheerful voice. The places where the platypus’s teeth made it through his boot began to ooze blood as he stood there.

“It’s perfect!” Nikki cried as she rushed toward David, her arms outstretched to grab the platypus. “I vote platypus for mascot!”

“Nikki—” David stopped to lift the platypus out of Nikki’s reach, her hands missing its tail by a hair. “Nikki, no, it’s—” He stopped again, this time catching Nikki out of the air with his free arm and holding her away from the platypus. “We can’t have this as our mascot,” David said in a rush, raising his voice to be heard over the hissing of the platypus and Nikki’s playful growling as she tried to grab it.

“Y’know, she’s got the right idea. I’ll take the platypus,” Max said, a sly smile coming to his face as he watched. “I’m sure you can handle it either way, David.”

“I mean, it’ll be pretty unique as far as mascots go,” Neil added thoughtfully.

“Better’n the skunk I had planned, anyway,” the Quartermaster mumbled as he started off, having decided that he was no longer needed for the activity.

“I guess it’s almost like a magical creature,” Nerris mused, tapping one finger against her chin. “I like it!”

Nikki squirmed out of David’s grip and dropped to the ground. “Raise your hand if you want the platypus!” she cried, raising one hand with the other braced against her hip.

“Guys, no—” David began.

Every camper raised their hand—save for Space Kid, who was too busy examining rocks to really notice what everyone else was doing. The platypus was in, as voted for by an overwhelming majority.

“Um, well...” David looked down at the platypus, which had settled down a little bit but was still hissing furiously at him. He turned to Daniel. “We can handle it, right?”

For the first time that day Daniel’s grin looked well and truly strained. He abruptly tilted his head to one side, his neck making a sickening crack. “Oh, I’m sure we can manage,” he said, his voice downright frigid. Daniel took a deep breath through his teeth before continuing, “Don’t worry about it.”

The platypus chose this moment to thrash itself free and landed on the ground, teeth bared as it hissed up at David.

“I got this!” Nikki darted in before David could wrangle the platypus again, taking a strip of bacon from her overalls pocket. “Eat!” she cried, tossing it into the platypus’s open mouth.

After a moment of apparent surprise—inasmuch as a platypus could look surprised—the platypus opened and closed its beak a few times as it chewed the bacon into smaller pieces, then swallowed. “Muack!” It scurried up to Nikki, pulling at her pockets with its beak in search of more food.

“Ya want a sausage, girl?” Nikki said, beaming down at the platypus and reaching into her pocket again. “Here ya go!” She dropped one of the small skinless sausages that was typically served with their breakfasts into the platypus’s waiting beak, and was rewarded with another happy muack.

“Oh.” David stared down at Nikki in open disbelief, his arms hanging slack at his sides. “Okay, guess that takes care of that.”

“C’mon, Muack! Let’s head back to camp!” Nikki widened her stance and held her arms out, beckoning for the platypus to jump into them.

Muack obliged, jumping easily into Nikki’s arms and settling down for a nap.

“Alrighty, then! Time to head back to camp, kids!” David declared, getting a little of his pep back after the initial shock. “We can grab lunch and then start on our afternoon sessions!” He started off, leading them down a trail at the far end of the clearing—only to backtrack about ten seconds later so he could grab Space Kid, who was still so absorbed in examining rocks that he was oblivious to what was going on around him. Once Space Kid was safely trotting along with all the other campers, David fell back to where Daniel brought up the rear.

To his credit, Daniel wasn’t complaining about the sluggishly-bleeding bite marks and was doing his best to walk normally, but he was still slowed by the injury. Max had been watching him from the corner of one eye and considering whether he should try tripping Daniel up, a plan that would have to be put on hold as long as David was nearby to stop him. Eavesdropping could always be fun, though.

“I’m really sorry about the bite, Daniel. I can carry you if you—”

No,” Daniel stated. It was the closest he’d come to snapping at someone all day, and Max smirked inwardly at how quickly the job was getting to him.

It seemed this “new David” might be even easier to break than the original one.

Gwen met them by the Mess Hall, where she’d been setting up sandwich makings after putting the finishing touches on the hiring paperwork for Daniel. The platypus that Nikki was carrying like a beloved pet was honestly a surprise, but she decided to let it slide—she’d seen far weirder in this job, and if the thing was actually dangerous David would’ve gotten rid of it by now. Her next surprise arrived in the form of her fellow counselors; Daniel was limping badly and had dried blood from an animal bite on his right ankle, and David was hovering around him like a worried mother.

“What the hell happened to you?” Gwen asked before she could stop herself, looking down at Daniel’s bloodied boot.

“I was savaged by a platypus!” Daniel replied.

The sheer ridiculousness of the statement combined with Daniel’s plainly-forced grin and cheery tone made the entire thing funny in a twisted way, and Gwen had to put a lid on the laugh that it almost startled out of her. Daniel was in enough pain already, he didn’t need someone laughing at him on top of that.

“Gwen.” David hurried over to her, hands clasped before his chest in honest distress over what was happening. “Our special aid supplies are still fully stocked, right?” he whispered, leaning close and turning his back to Daniel.

“Yeah they’re still stocked,” Gwen replied. She grabbed his arm before he could leave and held on. “What the fuck, David. Why didn’t you at least stop the bleeding before making him walk all this way?”

“I tried but he wouldn’t let me touch it,” David whispered back. “He said he wanted to let it bleed to get the toxins out.”

Fuck’s sake,” Gwen grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose; the last thing they needed right now was to deal with an employee’s weird religious shit. “And you’re sure that thing doesn’t have rabies?”

“It doesn’t. I know what rabies smells like,” David replied, looking and sounding a little offended that she would suggest he hadn’t checked at all. “I think he’ll heal up alright as long as we can tend to it now.”

“Right, I’ll help you drag him back to the cabin if I have to,” Gwen said. “No way in hell I’m dealing with a case of fucking gangrene this week.” She straightened and turned to Daniel, who was still in the process of limping his way to the Mess Hall doors. “Alright Daniel, let’s get that leg looked at.”

Daniel didn’t protest as Gwen looped an arm behind his back and placed a hand on each upper arm, steering him toward the Counselors’ Cabin with David trailing behind her. He trudged along as quickly as possible with the limp, his pace quickened by Gwen’s assistance.

Gwen guided Daniel into the cabin’s bathroom when they arrived, David lingering at the door while she sat Daniel down on the toilet seat cover. “Get your boots off so we can clean this bite up.” She knelt by the sink and opened the cupboard beneath, selecting their “special” first aid kit from among the medical supplies stored there and setting it on the counter above. “David, grab an unopened bottle of water,” Gwen said as she stood and started washing her hands; the tap water here was supposed to be safe to drink, but she didn’t want to take any chances with this. The less medical drama they had to deal with the better.

David paused, raising a hand as he considered protesting, then decided against it and hurried off to get what she asked for, reappearing within seconds to hand it off to her. With that task done, David stayed in the doorway and waited for further instructions from Gwen.

“Alright, let’s have a look,” Gwen said as she turned to Daniel again, feeling tired already. She helped him hold his leg over the tub—which was located next to the toilet—then poured half of the bottle of water over the injury.

Daniel was lucky; as it turned out the teeth had only managed to just break the skin in most places, Daniel’s shoe having protected him from the worst of the platypus’s bite. That didn’t save him from the bruising, however, and she’d definitely be ordering him to stay off his feet for the rest of the day once this was taken care of.

Gwen finished cleaning the bite marks with soap, rinsed it off with the last of the water, then sat back to grab a fresh towel from the under-sink cupboard. She patted the injury dry, ignoring the blood that was even now staining the towel since they were already pretty off-color at this point anyway. Next came the antibacterial cream, which in the special aid kits had been fortified to help injuries heal faster on top of staving off infection. At last she wrapped Daniel’s ankle in gauze and bandage and allowed him to remove it from the tub. “There,” she said, standing up and stretching her back—things were a little cramped in the bathroom with two people present. “You’re gonna stay here for the rest of the day, keep off your feet and keep that elevated. We’ll take care of getting a bed moved in here for you later so just stick to one of the armchairs for now.”

“Thank you, Gwen,” Daniel said, the cheer in his voice sounding almost natural again. “I appreciate it.” He carefully got to his feet and followed Gwen out of the bathroom, taking a seat in the nearest armchair and settling back in it with a near-silent sigh.

“Alright, David,” Gwen said, turning to him. “Let’s go make sure the kids don’t burn down the Mess Hall or eat the platypus.”

“You got it, Gwen!” David said enthusiastically. He allowed her to leave first, then followed her out, closing the door behind them. Once they were past the campers’ tents he let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you so much for doing that, Gwen. I don’t know why he wouldn’t let me start treating him before we got here.”

“Yeah, that’s really weird,” Gwen said, scratching the back of her neck as her eyes wandered over the treeline. “Maybe it hurt too much for him to refuse it in the end?”


But something told Gwen that there was more to it than that, she just couldn’t put her finger on what it was. This new recruit might be human, but that didn’t make him any easier to figure out and like most things about this godforsaken camp, it looked like the decision to hire him would have its own share of complications to work through.

They would figure something out, sooner or later.

Chapter Text

Saturday had arrived, a day featuring no scheduled activities for the campers and the freedom to do as they pleased—within reason. It was meant to be a day of relaxation for the entire camp, counselors included, but that never stopped it from devolving into a special kind of chaos long before sunset. For David and Gwen, it was a day that was synonymous with “far more work than usual” and “can’t these goddamn kids just give it a rest”. As for their newest counselor, it was probably closer to something like “what fresh hell is this”.

It was barely noon and Nurf was already in the process of doling out the usual Saturday wedgies. He had Preston in a headlock as he ran through the tent area, David and Gwen in hot pursuit. Daniel jumped in front of Nurf in an attempt to block his passage, an effort that proved completely futile in the end when Nurf doubled down and bowled him over anyway.

Max howled with laughter as Nurf stepped over Daniel and plowed onward, David tripping over his fallen comrade and falling to the ground while Gwen jumped over both of them and continued after Nurf.

“Ooo, that looks like fun,” Nikki said as she watched Nurf circle back around the tents. “Kinda like bull fighting, or football!”

“Best not to get involved,” Neil said, watching as David climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. “That Nurf kid looks pretty tough.”

David turned and offered a hand up to Daniel, who ignored it and jumped to his feet himself, his smile fixed in place like a badge. After a bit of looking around two rushed off toward the Mess Hall, where Nurf was still running from Gwen.

“Alright, looks like the coast is clear,” Max said, turning toward the lake. “Let’s head out.”

The three of them trudged through the strip of forest that lay between them and the lake by way of a narrow trail, soon arriving on the shore where they turned to the right and followed the forest’s edge a ways. Max finally slowed as they drew close to a stream-fed inlet, the sounds of the camp now completely replaced by birdcalls and the buzzing of insects.

“So... Where exactly are we going?” Neil asked, scratching at the back of his neck as he looked around.

“Got a contact in the Wood Scouts who might be able to help us out,” Max replied as they trudged along, doing their best to stick to the shade at the edge of the forest in the growing heat of the day. “I was originally planning to get him to help me escape, but now I’m thinking this might be better.”

“The Wood Scouts?” Nikki asked, her smile fading somewhat. “So they’re like the Flower Scouts...?”

“Nah, the Wood Scouts are some of the most extreme militant campers on Lake Lilac, not some prissy little girls learning manners or whatever crap,” Max replied with a wave of his hand.

Max paused at a large tree that grew by the entrance of the inlet and looked up at its branches. “Looks like Billy’s been through here,” he said, going to the trunk and jumping up to the lowest branch. Max hung there a moment as he worked up the strength to pull himself up, only to find that Nikki had already scampered up to join him by the time he was sitting on it. Right, he’d almost forgotten that she was practically part monkey or something. “Hey Nikki, there’s a hand mirror on a chain up there, can you grab it?”

“Ooo, what’s that gonna be for?” Nikki asked, her smile returning in full force.

“It’s to let Billy know that I left a message,” Max replied, shifting on the branch to make himself more comfortable and knocking a bit of bark off in the process.

“Hey, watch where you’re moving up there!” Neil said. He batted bark bits out of his bushy hair and jumped out from under the branch.

Max decided to ignore Neil’s griping rather than giving some snarky comment in reply, and instead turned to Nikki. “It should be on the second big branch up.”

Nikki scaled the tree easily, and Max felt an unexpected stab of envy as he watched her—if he’d been able to move like that, escaping camp before this would’ve been way easier. She paused at one of the larger branches and retrieved a large hand mirror suspended from a chain. “This?” Nikki called down to him.

“Yeah that’s it,” Max replied.

It took mere moments for Nikki to scoot back down the trunk and drop the mirror in Max’s hand, and soon they were both dropping down to the ground.

“Alright, let’s keep going.” Max tucked the mirror into his hoodie pocket and led Nikki and Neil into the inlet.

Footing became a tad treacherous thanks to the slant of the banks. Pines and other trees near the shore grew at an angle, leaning over the water and covering most of it in shade. There was a splash followed by a ripple in the shallows as a large fish darted away, and Max had to grab the straps of Nikki’s overalls to keep her from jumping in after it.

Max stopped at a large dead tree near the creek that fed the inlet. There was a large hole in its trunk at around the level of Max’s head, a perfect place to hide messages despite the occasional visiting owl. He hopped up and reached inside, coming back up with a sealed canister and an eager grin. “Here we go,” Max said as he dropped back down and unscrewed the lid on the canister.

Can help you out with the monster hunt. Flash three times at Spooky Island after dark tonight, we’ll talk then.

Concise as ever, that was Billy. The guy was a tad too edgy for Max’s tastes but if he could get the job done he was more than willing to deal with him. Hopefully he’d pan out even better than their chat with the Quartermaster had.

“Alright, guys,” Max said, leading them back toward the mouth of the inlet. “We’re on for tonight, possible monster hunt.”

“Woohoo!” Nikki cheered, somehow keeping her footing as she jumped up and down on the slanted bank. “I can’t wait!”

“Just like that?” Neil asked, looking a bit nervous. “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to at least have the Quartermaster around for it? I mean I know he’s weird but at least he’s an adult...”

“Nah, the Wood Scouts are pretty nuts themselves,” Max replied with a shrug as he tossed the now-empty canister back into the hole. “I’m pretty sure Billy will be able to fight off whatever we run into just by himself.” He led them back out and paused by the tree that stood at the mouth of the inlet. “Nikki?” Max took the mirror from his pocket and passed it to her. “Hang this from that branch there.” He pointed at the branch he’d been sitting on earlier.

Nikki had it done in record time, the mirror catching the sunlight as it swung from the branch.

“That’ll tell Billy that we got the message,” Max said as Nikki hopped back down to them. “Now let’s get back to camp before David notices we’re gone. Hopefully Nurf’s got a second wind and is still keeping them busy.”

Max gave it ten minutes after David did the final camper check that night before slipping out of his tent with Neil in tow. Nikki met them behind Max’s tent, where they would be hidden from view if one of the counselors happened to look out the front windows of their cabin. There was still a light on inside, which meant at least one of them was awake; Max would have to make sure they were careful while sneaking away.

“You guys ready?” Max asked, keeping his voice to a whisper to avoid drawing the attention of one of the other campers.

“Kind of wishing we knew how to prepare for this better,” Neil said, a small frustrated frown on his face. “Like y’know, having traps or repellant or something?”

“Don’t worry, Neil. You’ve got me and the Wood Scout crazy to protect you. Also Muack!” Nikki said, presenting the platypus to them.

Muack blinked lazily at the two and gave a small ‘muack’, as if she too were aware of the need for quiet.

“Nikki, keep it down,” Max hissed, his eyes darting around to check that no one had found them. “We’re trying to be sneaky, remember?”

“Oh. Yeah. Sorry,” Nikki said, her volume level now down to the appropriate whisper. She dropped Muack and put her hands on her hips. “Should we head out?”

“Yeah, just keep behind the tents,” Max replied. “Make sure you can’t be seen from the Counselors’ Cabin.”

They made it past the rest of the tents without being noticed; most of the campers were tired from all the chaos earlier, especially those responsible for creating it, and were either asleep or in the process of getting there. Max, Nikki, and Neil had all been on their best behavior, to the point that they even earned a naive compliment on it from David. Little did he know they were merely saving their energy for something special later on. Sometimes Max marveled at how stupid David could be.

The sound of boots on the dirt path came a moment before they noticed a light approaching, and the three of them ducked into the nearest stand of bushes. They crouched behind their cover and waited to see who it was.

Daniel walked into view, a small book in his hand and a pen poised over one of the pages. A light shone from somewhere above his far shoulder, the illumination just bright enough for him to read the book. The usual smile had relaxed into a more neutral expression and Max found himself feeling a little surprised that it wasn’t somehow permanently glued to Daniel’s face. Apparently keeping it there took so much effort that once Daniel’s concentration was wholly focused on something else, he couldn’t keep it in place.

Neil braced a hand against Max’s shoulder as he tried to get a better look, almost startling Max into yelping with surprise and giving them away.

Max shot him a glare—an entirely futile gesture given that they couldn’t even see each other—then turned back to where Daniel was. Journaling out on the path at night? That was fishy as all hell. Max’s legs wobbled, unable to take the extra weight from Neil leaning on him while he was kneeling. He dropped to both knees and his head made contact with the bush in front of him.

Keen though his focus was on the book, Daniel was alert enough to pick up the sound. His head snapped up as the smile came back, and he made a quick swatting motion at the light over his shoulder, making it wink out without a sound. The book was snapped shut and Daniel turned toward their hiding place, long legs carrying him quickly over to it.

The three of them went rigid, and Max scrambled for something to do that would get Daniel to back off before he discovered them.

“Oh, it’s you again, ya face-stealin’ devil.” The Quartermaster’s voice came from somewhere to their left, close enough that it was a wonder he hadn’t tripped over them as he approached the path.

“My, you have quite the imagination, old timer,” Daniel said cheerfully as he turned to the Quartermaster. “You must be a champ at campfire stories!”

“Mmhmm.” The Quartermaster was still out of sight from where the three were hidden, but the suspicion in his voice was obvious. “Don’t go tryin’ anything funny, boy,” he warned. “I got my eye on you.” There was the sound of the Quartermaster’s boots walking off toward the Mess Hall, leaving them alone with Daniel again.

Daniel’s smile didn’t waver as he watched the Quartermaster go, and once the sound of his boots had faded entirely he turned to the bushes once again.

Muack started hissing as when Daniel got too close. Max had to stop himself from giving her a swat, and instead pushed her toward the front of the bush.

“Oh. It’s just you,” Daniel said, his voice like ice despite the maintenance of the smile as Muack emerged from the bushes. He backed away, then turned and continued on toward the tents and cabin once he had enough distance between himself and Muack.

The thought that Daniel was worried about Muack lunging at him was too funny, and a cruel smile came to his face as he watched Daniel walk out of sight.

They waited as the sound of Daniel’s footsteps grew fainter, then disappeared into the ambient noise of the evening. Max pushed his way out of the bush and found Muack lazing on the path where Daniel had left her.

Nikki leaped out of the bush and went straight to Muack. “Great job, girl,” Nikki said dotingly, scooping up Muack for a quick hug. “You sure showed that weirdo!”

Neil stumbled out of the bush and continued toward the middle of the path where Daniel had been walking, a thoughtful frown on his face as he scanned the dirt. “What was that light he was using?” he asked quietly, half-talking to himself. “I didn’t see him put any sort of device away, and we saw his shoulder once it was out...”

“Sleight of hand maybe?” Max suggested. He reached over and tugged at Neil’s arm when the taller boy refused to budge. “Come on, Neil. We don’t have all night.”

The rest of the walk to the docks held no further incident, which Max was grateful for; any more delays would just cut into their time with Billy, and he wanted to get as much information out of him as possible.

Max led them out onto the right hand dock and took a flashlight from his pocket as he scanned the shores of Spooky Island. There was a lone lamp shining near the left end of the visible shoreline, probably set up by Billy if Max had to make a guess. He turned on the flashlight—and felt grateful that they were always stocked with fresh batteries—and swept it back and forth three times across the lantern’s location. Hopefully he’d gotten the angle right, though he could always try again if not.

“Whoa, look at that!” Nikki said, pointing across the water at Spooky Island’s shore.

A dark shape detached itself from the dark mass that was Spooky Island as they watched and started toward them, the lantern briefly winking out as it passed between them and it. The sound of a boat motor reached their ears before long, and the shape began to gain some clarity: a small boat with a single, short figure manning the motor.

The noise from the motor was just beginning to worry Max—the counselors or Quartermaster might hear it if it was too loud for too long—when the motor was cut and the person in the boat used a pair of oars to guide it the rest of the way to the dock. Billy Nikssilp took the oars in as the boat drew close to the dock and tossed a mooring rope to them.

Nikki grabbed it before anyone else could move and yanked the boat in, bumping it against the dock with a dull clonk.

“Cool it, Nikki,” Max whispered. “Don’t wreck his boat.” He tucked the flashlight away in his pocket and straightened as Billy jumped onto the dock. “Guys, this is Billy Nikssilp, extreme camper and soon-to-be partner in monster hunting.”

“Call me Snake,” Billy corrected, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Awesome!” Nikki gushed as her excitement levels began to kick up again. “So are we gonna hunt cryptids some other night or are we gonna hunt them and monsters tonight?”

“They’re basically the same thing,” Snake said with a casual wave of his hand.

“Billy, meet Nikki and Neil. They’re pretty gung-ho about the paranormal stuff too,” Max continued.


The four of them looked down at Muack, who had situated herself at the center of their little huddle. She blinked up at Snake and opened her beak slightly, as if contemplating whether she should give him a hiss or not.

“This thing your pet?” Snake asked as he braced his hands against his knees and squinted down at Muack in plain confusion. “Is it some kinda... Beaver?”

“Platypus, actually,” Neil replied. “Don’t ask how it made it here all the way from Australia, cause we don’t know either.”

“We should get going,” Snake said, straightening. “The night won’t last forever.”

Nikki held the boat in place while the rest of them—including Muack—climbed in, then jumped aboard herself and settled down between Max and Neil on the bench across from Snake. She dropped the mooring line on the floor once she was seated and sat there grinning and kicking her legs with excitement.

Snake pushed them away from the dock and took up position between the oars again, moving the boat with surprising swiftness considering his height.

“So what kinda monsters are we gonna hunt tonight?” Nikki asked, bouncing with eagerness as Snake worked the oars. “Lake monsters? Werewolves? Sasquatch?”

“Lake monster,” Snake replied between oar strokes. “That’s why we’re heading out to Spooky Island. We’ll use that as our base of operations for tonight.”

“Guess that’ll be the end of swimming camp if we can get evidence of it tonight,” Max said with a smirk, imagining David’s horrified reaction at finding that a monster lived in the depths near his precious camp.

Snake used the oars until they were about halfway between Camp Campbell and Spooky Island, then started up the motor and used it to take them the rest of the way. He steered toward the lantern’s light and cut the motor as they came to the shore, allowing the lingering momentum to carry them onto the beach so smoothly that it must’ve been something he’d practiced. Snake jumped ashore before the boat could stop completely, mooring line in hand, and trotted over to a tree stump where he secured it.

“The deepest parts of the lake are found off the other side of the island,” Snake said, pointing along the shore to their left. “We’ll set up there.” He picked up the lantern from where it sat on the tree stump and started off.

They followed Snake along the shore, just two steps behind as they tried to stay close to him and pick out their footing in the banded shadows created by the lamp. A small cove came into view as they rounded the other side of the island, another boat moored in the calm waters.

“Excellent work, Snake.”

The nasally voice came from somewhere up ahead, startling the three. Something big loomed up behind them as a figure strolled down from the treeline before them. They looked behind to find a bald, broad-shouldered teen blocking the path back the way they’d come and glaring down at them as the speaker drew closer.

“In record time, too.” The Wood Scout who was speaking was a redhead like David but possessed none of whatever charm their camp counselor might have had; he sported buck teeth with braces, giant ears, and a sizeable collection of zits on top of an expression of smug malice as he came into the lantern light. “How’d you manage to lure them out in under a week?”

“Billy, what the fuck is this?” Max demanded, scowling at Snake and the newcomer. “You said you were gonna help us!”

“I told you to call me Snake!” he snapped with an angry glance back at Max. “They suddenly became interested in hunting monsters for some reason,” Snake added, turning back to the other Wood Scout. “All I had to do was tell them I could help and they came right along.”

The newcomer chuckled. “Wow, how embarrassing,” he said as he stepped past Snake and faced the three. “And as for who I am, the name’s Edward Pikeman, first class Cedar Scout and senior patrol leader of Wood Scout Troop 818. Remember it, because you’ll all be operating under my direction for the rest of the summer.”

“Wait, what?!” Max shouted, outraged. “Like hell we’re joining you!”

“This is not what I signed up for,” Neil said, doing his best to hide between Max and Nikki.

“Wood Scouts take girls now?” Nikki asked, tilting her head to one side.

“As a matter of fact, we do,” Pikeman said, somehow managing to look even more smug than he already did. “The decision was made by headquarters just this year, and you’ll be Troop 818’s first girl recruit.”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Nikki said with a shake of her head.

“What?” Pikeman said, thrown off by Nikki’s reply as well as her calm demeanor. “What do you mean, you don’t think so? You’re coming with us whether you like it or not. Petrol will see to that.”

The teen that stood at their backs grunted in agreement, clenching his fists a little tighter.

“Aww, that’s sweet of you guys to actually want me to join, but I like Camp Campbell so that just won’t work,” Nikki said, giving them a grateful smile. “Muack?” she said, scooping up the platypus. “Attack!” Nikki whirled and threw Muack at Petrol’s face.

As soon as Muack made contact with Petrol she went into attack mode, hissing and biting at everything she could get her beak on as she scrambled around his head and shoulders.

Petrol staggered back, trying in vain to swat the angry animal away and leaving the path open for the three to escape.

“Come on, guys!” Nikki yelled as she grabbed Max and Neil each by the arm and hurtled back the way they’d come.

Max and Neil struggled to keep their feet under them as Nikki dragged them along, but they’d managed to keep from tumbling over or falling in the water so far; Nikki possessed an almost uncanny ability to navigate in the semi darkness, and Max found himself wondering—not for the first time—if she might have a bit of monster to her already.

They rounded the bend and Camp Campbell came into view again. They were close, so close, they just had to get to the boat before the Wood Scouts caught up.

The stump still had the rope tied around it, but the boat itself was about twenty feet out on the water and drifting farther away by the minute. Nikki skidded to a halt by the stump and dropped Max and Neil, who struggled to catch their breath after the dead sprint.

“What—the hell,” Max said, panting heavily as he watched the boat. “Why’s the boat gone?”

“He must’ve—loosened the mooring line—at the boat end,” Neil replied between wheezes.

“Dang, they’ve thought of everything,” Nikki said with a snap of her fingers. “We gotta find a place to hide, then! No way I’m letting them catch me after I did that epic send-off!” She grabbed their arms again and forged inland, plowing through bushes and ground cover.

“Can you not— ” Max spluttered as a branch slapped across his face. “Run through every bush—” This time he deflected the branch with his free arm. “In the fuckin’ way?!”

“Nikki you’re just leaving a trail for them to follow!” Neil added, his turtleneck pulled up to cover the lower half of his face and his free arm shielding the rest. “You gotta be more careful!”

“Oh—You’re right!” Nikki slowed slightly, then started weaving between the plants that stood in their path and keeping to what non-grassy patches she could find. “Don’t worry guys, I’ll get us through this! Just leave it to me.”

The taller ground cover came to an end so abruptly that Nikki stumbled from lack of resistance and needed a few extra steps to steady herself. They’d come across an area that had been cleared of forest long ago, but thanks to lack of care was starting to become overgrown again. A large manor house stood before them, its windows dark and its outside as dilapidated and ill-kept as the yard that lay before it.

“Whoa, what is this place?” Neil asked as he looked up at the building, hands on his knees as he caught his breath.

Max looked around for something that might give them a clue, and found an overgrown mailbox that stood nearby. He walked over to it—no use hurrying after all that damn running had his legs feeling like jelly—and peeled some of the moss back to reveal the name written on it. “Guess this is Campbell’s old summer home,” Max said, letting the moss fall back into place.

“Pfft, did he need to get the mail out here by boat?” Nikki asked with a chuckle as she looked at the mailbox.

The three froze as the bushes to their right rustled, and Max hurried back over to where Neil and Nikki stood. He and Nikki dropped into wider stances while Neil scanned the ground for something to throw.

A boy around their age stepped out of the bushes. Rather than a Wood Scouts uniform as they expected, he wore a yellow t-shirt, blue shorts, and white sneakers. “Oh, hello there,” he said, brushing his olive-blonde hair out of his eyes in a nervous gesture. “Can you help me?”

“Did the Wood Scouts nab someone else?” Neil asked as the three began to relax.

“Who the hell are you?” Max asked, giving the new kid a suspicion-filled glare.

“Me? My name’s Jasper. Who are you?”

“I’m Max.”


“My name’s Neil.”

“So what’re you doing out here, kid?” Max asked as Jasper walked up to them. “Did the Wood Scouts get you too?”

Jasper’s brow wrinkled in confusion as he considered the question. “I’m not sure,” he said finally, looking distressed at the realization. “I just woke up here.”

“Do you remember anything before that?” Nikki asked, bouncing over to him.

“I was uh...” Jasper trailed off as he stared at the backs of his hands. “I think I was at my computer? I was programming something.”

“There’s a programming camp on this stupid lake? God I wish I’d known that,” Neil grumbled. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the ground, sulking over his bad luck.

“So wait, what’re you guys doing out here?” Jasper asked, looking up at them again.

“They went this way!”

The four of them froze at the sound of Pikeman’s voice coming through the trees; there was still some distance, but they were getting far too close for comfort.

“Running from those guys!” Max replied, sprinting up to the house and trying the front door. To his surprise the door swung open easily, though it creaked for lack of oiling. He looked back at the other three, who were just now joining him on the porch. “Come on, we’ll hide in here for now.” Max stood aside to let everyone through, including the new kid, then closed the door behind them.

They paused on the other side, unsure of what to do as the sounds from their pursuers drew closer. Max took his flashlight from his pocket, only for Neil to grab it with both hands.

“Don’t, they’ll see us for sure if you use it in here,” Neil whispered, head down to make sure no one could see him if they looked in the windows.

“Crap, you’re right,” Max said with a scowl as he put the flashlight away. “But we won’t get far if we can’t see.”

“I’ve been in here before, I can get us deeper into the house,” Jasper whispered, startling the two.

“Oh man, lucky,” Nikki said. “I bet this would be a cool place to hang out if the Wood Scouts weren’t after us.”

“So you know places we could hide?” Max asked, squinting to see Jasper’s face in the near-darkness. It was strange, but for some reason it was easier to see Jasper than it was to see Nikki or Neil.

Jasper paused as he considered it. “Yeah, I know some places. Follow me.”

“It’s too dark for that, silly. We gotta link up,” Nikki said, offering her hand to Jasper.

“Oh.” Jasper blinked with surprise. “Right.” He took Nikki’s hand and offered his free one to Max.

Rather than take Jasper’s hand, Max grabbed Neil’s hand and shoved the other in his hoodie pocket.

Neil gave Jasper an apologetic smile and took his hand instead. “Whoa, your hands are burning,” he said, looking down at Jasper’s hand.

The four of them crouched low as the beam of a flashlight strafed the front of the house; the Wood Scouts were almost upon them now. Without a word Jasper started off, towing the three of them behind him and navigating the near-darkness with uncanny ease.

Rooms and hallways rushed past, almost invisible thanks to lack of light. It was unnerving, the sensation of passing open space when you couldn’t see it. There was the creaking of hinges and the slam of a door behind them that meant the Wood Scouts had come inside as well, and Jasper picked up the pace.

Max was well and truly lost by the time Jasper stopped in what could only be the mansion’s library. Books lined every wall of the two-story room, with a large fireplace and a few tall windows forming the only breaks in the shelves. It was all dimly-lit by a few lamps placed on tables here and there, which was surprising since they’d figured no one was home. They’d seen and heard no one save for the Wood Scouts who were even now trying to find them in the maze of hallways and rooms.

“Just how big is this place?” Neil wondered aloud as he took his hand from Jasper.

“There must be tons of hidey-holes in here!” Nikki said, releasing Jasper’s hand and scampering over to one of the tables. “Looks like someone was here earlier, reading about the...” She paused to squint at the page of an old book that lay open on the table. “Spear of Destiny?”

“We don’t have time for reading right now, Nikki,” Max snapped as he scanned the shelves for a place they might be able to slip into.

Jasper wandered the shelves, eventually coming near one of the many columns that decorated the room. “I think there was something...” he muttered, moving a few books to touch the back of the nearest shelf.

The three looked up at the sound of a dull, mechanical click from behind the shelf Jasper was messing with. A column sunk into the wall behind the spiral staircase shuddered, the front drawing into itself a couple inches with the sound of straining gears. It swished to the side once it had sunk entirely past the thickness of the column’s outer shell, revealing a darkened passage beyond.

“Whoa,” Neil said, stepping toward the entrance. “This place even has secret passages?”

“Just how fucking bored is Campbell to put shit like this in his house?” Max asked no one in particular, though he was grateful that something like this existed if only because it would get them away from the Wood Scouts. He pulled out his flashlight as he approached the passage and Neil didn’t stop him this time, presumably because there would be no windows for the light to be visible from.

“Man this is cool!” Nikki darted over to the passage and reached it before the others did. “Let’s see where it leads!” she stepped inside, not even waiting for the others to catch up.

“Nikki wait,” Max hissed, picking up the pace and switching his flashlight on. He reached the passage just after Neil and before Jasper, who was hesitating by the entrance.

“Kid, no time to space out,” Max said, poking his head back out of the passage to glare at Jasper. “Are you coming or not?”

“Yeah, yeah, was just thinking about something,” Jasper replied quietly. He followed Max into the passage this time, his hand trailing along the wall to their right.

There was another dull click, and the column’s face slid back into place behind them.

Neil breathed a sigh of relief and took his own flashlight from his pocket as they were plunged into temporary darkness. “Good thing you found that switch,” he said offhandedly, only realizing the improbability of what he’d said after the full sentence was out. “Wait, how did you know that switch was there?” Neil asked, turning to look back at Jasper.

“Quit being slow, Neil. Nikki’s gonna get away,” Max groused, his own flashlight on and in his hand. He turned and hurried down the passage as Nikki disappeared around a corner.

“I’ve... Been here a lot of times before this,” Jasper replied. He rubbed one arm as he followed behind Neil, who was speed walking in an attempt to catch up with Max and Nikki.

“Hey—Nikki! Stop getting so far ahead of us,” Max called around the corner, reluctant to leave Neil and Jasper behind just yet.

“Oh, sorry,” Nikki turned back around and trotted back to Max. “I forgot you guys were so slow.”

“We should at least try to keep our voices down,” Neil reminded them once he caught up. “It’s a secret passage but they could still hear us.”

“Right, sorry,” Nikki said in a stage whisper, grinning despite herself. “I’m just so excited we’re in an actual secret passage this is so cool.”

“Hey Jasper, do you know where this passage leads?” Neil asked, looking back at Jasper again. “You knew it was here in the first place.”

“I don’t really remember,” Jasper replied. “Some kind of study, I think?”

“Seriously? You can’t remember?” Max asked, giving Jasper an incredulous look. “Could you be any less useful?”

“Hey don’t have a cow, man. I’m as annoyed about not remembering as you,” Jasper snapped, showing the first real signs of frustration. “Also I’m the one who found this secret passage in the first place, so I’ve done more than you have at this point.”

“Are there more cool places like this in here?” Nikki asked as they continued on.

“Not that I can think of off the top of my head,” Jasper replied. “I think I’ll know them if I get close to them, though.”

They hit a narrow set of spiral stairs and started to climb, Nikki always a few steps up from the rest thanks to her eagerness to see what lay at the end of the passage.

“Man your memory is inconvenient,” Max grumbled; the night was beginning to catch up with him, tiredness and stress making his already-grating personality even worse. “What, were things like secret passages just not cool enough to remember right?”

“Max, knock it off,” Neil said, before Jasper could reply. “It sucks that we’re in this mess and we’re all tired but you’re not helping anything by being rude.”

That was enough to get Max to shut up for the moment. Neil was right, though he hated to admit it; he was tired, dinner felt like it had been ages away at this point, and he was furious with himself for letting Snake trick him like this. He was grateful that Neil hadn’t brought up that it was his fault they were in this mess, probably because he knew he didn’t have to remind Max of that. Rather than say anything further—or apologize to Jasper—Max decided to keep his mouth shut for the time being as they followed Nikki’s ascent up the staircase.

At last the staircase let out onto a cramped, crescent-shaped landing with a single door on its opposite wall. There were still no windows in sight, and it could be assumed that this was still set within the actual walls of the mansion itself.

Nikki bounced forward, grabbing the doorknob with both hands and opening it. She peered into the room beyond while she waited for the others to catch up.

The room that the landing connected to was indeed some sort of study, located within one of the circular “towers” of the mansion and furnished with a grand desk, armchairs, small decorative tables piled high with books and various antiques, and shelves arranged between the grand windows that looked out over the lake and island. At the far end of the room the top of a spiral staircase was visible, but other than that and the door they’d just entered through, there were no other ways to get in.

“Wow it’s like a mini-library!” Nikki said as she strolled through the door and into the room, hitting the light switch on the wall as she moved.

“I guess it’s some kind of secret study?” Neil guessed, following her. He turned a slow circle in the center of the room, taking it all in as Max entered the room behind him.

“God, why do rich people do this weird shit?” Max grumbled to himself as he stood on tiptoe to look at the items on the desk’s surface. “They’ve got way too much fuckin’ time on their hands.” He walked around to the other side and hopped up into the chair to get a better look: shaped pieces of wood lay on the desktop, pieces to a crossbow that had yet to be fully assembled. Max frowned, narrowing his eyes as he considered the massive size of the components. “Holy shit, what the fuck is he gonna hunt with this thing?”

“That’s... Never been here before,” Jasper said slowly as he approached the desk. He eyed the crossbow pieces, looking worried.

“Maybe we should keep going?” Neil suggested, starting to look nervous as he stepped away from the desk. He paused, realizing something. “Wait, what was the plan once we found a hiding place, anyway?”

“Sit tight and hope David is smart enough to realize we’re gone,” Max replied with a shrug. The chair squeaked quietly as he jumped from it to the floor. “That or wait out the Wood Scouts and then try to signal for help in the morning.”

“Oh, great,” Neil said, clearly unimpressed.

“If you’ve got a better plan then I’m all ears,” Max said. “But I’m not in the mood to find out why the Wood Scouts have to kidnap other campers to get new recruits.”

“Well I guess we could stay in here for tonight,” Neil said with an annoyed sigh. “Just hope Campbell doesn’t come home and find us.”

There was a loud clang behind them, and the four whirled to face whatever made the sound, half-expecting to find that the Wood Scouts had somehow discovered the only other entrance to the study. To their surprise, the metallic noises were coming from a vent set in the wall just behind the spiral staircase at around floor level. Another clang caused the grating that covered the vent to shudder, and a familiar hiss announced that one of their former party members was attempting to bash her way into the room. The grating popped off with one more blow, the bolts that once held it in place rolling across the hardwood floor as Muack pulled herself out of the vent.

“You found us!” Nikki shouted, dashing over to Muack and scooping her up in her arms. “So you got away from those stinky ol’ Wood Scouts too, huh? Good girl!”

Muack!” the platypus said, as if in agreement. She settled into Nikki’s arms and allowed herself to be carried back over to the group.

“Nikki, you gotta keep it down,” Max hissed, giving her a glare of warning. “Those jackasses are probably still in the building.”

“Oh yeah, right,” Nikki said, turning to the spiral staircase again. “Should we check what’s down there, though? Just in case?”

“Just in case what?” Neil asked, giving Nikki a wary look.

“In case the Wood Scouts find the secret passage we came through,” Nikki replied. “Or if they find whatever connects to that staircase there. Shouldn’t we make sure we have an escape route?”

“Nah, I think we should just stay here. There’s no way they could find the route we came through,” Max cut in, turning from Nikki to look around the room again. He found Jasper reading one of the many books that had been placed on the assorted tables, a troubled look on his face. Without a word Max walked over to him and looked at the book from over his shoulder. It was strange, at this distance he could feel Jasper radiating heat like a small furnace even through the extra layer provided by his hoodie, but he ignored that little detail for now and focused on the book. “Hex of Vitality Drain?” he asked, reading the heading of the page. It had been bookmarked by a long ribbon draped across it, which meant it had to be important for something. “What the hell is Campbell even up to with this shit?”

“Uh, Max?”

“Wait lemme see that,” Max said, trying to take the book from Jasper’s hands and ignoring Neil’s attempt to get his attention.


“What? No, just go grab one off one of the tables,” Jasper said, pushing Max away with a hand to his face. “I’m looking at this one.”

“Jesus, are you running a fever or something?” Max asked, swatting Jasper’s hand away. “You better not get us sick.”


What, Neil?” Max snapped as he stepped away from Jasper.

“Nikki’s gone,” Neil stated, pointing to the spiral staircase.

“Goddammit.” Max gave up pestering Jasper and ran over to the staircase, where he could hear Nikki’s sneakers clanking down the last few steps. “Nikki get back here, I said we should stay put!” he yelled after her, for what little good it would do. “Come on, Neil.”

Max started down the metal steps, at times taking two at once in his hurry to catch up with Nikki. He found her at the bottom of the stairs, standing stock still while Muack hissed beside her.

A single halogen light lent illumination to the room, casting everything within it in a dirty, artificial light. The place looked like a menagerie gone horribly wrong; creatures that weren’t suspended in formaldehyde-filled jars were scuttling and screeching in their cages, and none of them looked even remotely normal. Max was sure that the creature two shelves up and third to the left had three heads. Beyond the shelves were various medical devices and a stretcher, suggesting the possibility of very... Human test subjects.

“Alright,” Max said, stuffing his hands in his pockets and wrinkling his nose with numb distaste. “So Campbell’s a supervillain or something. That’s just great.”

“Oh God,” Neil mumbled as he reached the bottom of the stairs, Jasper on his heels. “What in the fuck is this place even supposed to be?”

“Guys,” Nikki said, a look of determination on her face as she clenched her fists. “We gotta free these animals.”

Max stopped her with a hand to her shoulder as she started to march off. “Whoa whoa whoa, just wait a minute, Nikki. Campbell’s gonna know someone got in here if we do that, and I don’t wanna find out what he does to trespassers.” He paused and looked at the cages again. “Plus I think a few of these might have rabies and I don’t wanna deal with that right now.”

They were interrupted by chorus of moans coming from the single passageway on the other side of the lab. Unmistakably human moans, at that.

“That better not be—” Max began, only to be interrupted when Nikki jerked out of his grasp and ran toward the passageway. “Nikki, get back here!”

The passageway curved down and to the right, Max just barely able to keep Nikki in sight while Neil and Jasper followed on his heels.

“I heard something down there!”

That nasally voice was unmistakable; Pikeman and the Wood Scouts had managed to find their way down to the lab and were likely about to cut off their escape route. Now all they could do was hope there was a place to hide in the room below or a means to get back to the surface. Given the number of passages in this mansion, the odds were about fifty-fifty.

Nikki stopped so suddenly that her sneakers squeaked against the floor, having come to the end of the passage and into the room it led to.

If the room above belonged to a mad scientist, this one belonged to a medieval tyrant. Torture devices lined the walls, which were made from gray stone and sported splashes of blood both old and new. A stray moan escaped from a door on the other side of the room, which had been left ajar and allowed a single bar of yellow light to shine from it.

“I really want to get out of here,” Neil said, his voice strained from fear. He clutched at his own arms as if from cold as he looked around at the devices, Jasper doing the same beside him.

“This way!”

“Shit.” Max cast a glance back up the passage, knowing that the Wood Scouts would make it down to them soon enough. After a quick glance around the room he spotted a torture rack that sat with one end leaning against the ground. It would have to do. “Come on,” he hissed, grabbing Nikki and Neil each by the arm and dragging them over to the rack, where the three crouched behind it.

Jasper remained near the entrance to the room, apparently too shocked by everything to move toward a hiding place.

“Go hide!” Nikki called in a stage whisper before Max pulled her back behind their cover.

The sound of the Wood Scouts’ boots was echoing around the room now, and within moments they burst in as Max, Nikki, and Neil huddled behind the rack.

“Well well well, who do we have here?” Pikeman asked in that annoyingly smug tone of his. “Another new recruit? Grab him, Petrol.”

There was the sound of a brief scuffle, followed by silence.

“So, where have your little friends gone? They must be nearby,” Pikeman continued, no-doubt addressing a captive Jasper now.

Don’t you dare even look over here. Max thought as the three of them held still.

“Oho, behind the door? Well, let’s have a look then, shall we?”


Pikeman and his crew marched over to the door, their boots coming into view from Max’s hiding place as they approached it. Jasper’s shoes were nowhere in sight, which meant Petrol was probably holding the kid so high off the ground that they couldn’t see him.

“Found y—” Yellow light flooded the chamber as Pikeman swung the door wide and choked on the rest of his sentence. A pair of blood curdling screams reverberated off the walls, followed by a flurry of steps as the Wood Scouts fled whatever they’d found on the other side of the door.

“Damn chil’n,” said a grumbling, familiar voice. “Always gettin’ where they shouldn’t.” The Quartermaster’s bare feet padded across the stone floor as he walked out into the room, probably looking for more children lurking about. “Hey—you there! Yeah you three, I can see you!”

Max stood reluctantly, averting his eyes from the Quartermaster on pure instinct.

“What d’you think yer doin’ in here?” the Quartermaster asked.

“Uuuh.” Max briefly considered whether the truth would be better than making something up and chose to go with the easier option. “We got tricked into coming here by the Wood Scouts and then stranded on the island?”

The Quartermaster grumbled something unintelligible under his breath. “Wait here,” he said, then the sound of his footsteps went off into the room beyond the door. “Get on without me, I’ll be back soon.” The door swung shut and the Quartermaster returned to them. “Aight, let’s get a move on.”

Max, Nikki, and Neil opened their eyes and—to their immense relief—found the Quartermaster dressed in a bathrobe, though the fact that he had nothing else on was still disturbing for the suggestion of what they could’ve walked in on earlier. The Wood Scouts must’ve gotten a good eyefull to scream the way they did, and Max hoped it would haunt them for years to come.

“Wait, where’s Jasper?” Nikki asked, looking around as Muack trotted up to her.

Tonight was not going as planned.

Pikeman did what he could to erase the horrors he’d just witnessed from his mind as he and his comrades made for their boat at a dead sprint. He never wanted to go into that mansion ever again if that was the sort of gross shit that went on in there.

“Sir? My eyes are burning,” Snake said between breaths as they ran.

“Just keep running,” Pikeman replied. They were getting close to the shore now, he couldn’t wait to be back at camp where he could try to scrub the images from his brain with advanced training or something equally as rigorous. Anything to help him forget.

They skidded to a halt in the small cove where their boat was moored, and Pikeman took stock of what they still had. “Is Petrol still with us?” Pikeman asked once he caught his breath, looking behind to where Petrol would be; it was hard to tell otherwise since he was so quiet most of the time.

Petrol nodded with a grunt, though his face was pale. He held the boy they’d caught up for Pikeman to see.

“Excellent work, Petrol!” Pikeman said, getting a bit of his usual smug back as he straightened. “Let’s get our new recruit back to camp.”

“Um, actually,” the boy said, lifting an index finger in shy protest. “I can’t leave.”

“Nonsense,” Pikeman said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Bring him to the boat, Petrol.”

They got as far as the waterline when the boy slipped out of Petrol’s grasp—phased through Petrol’s grasp, to be more accurate. Petrol stared at the boy in horror for a few moments, holding a hand to where his body had made contact, then turned and scooped up Pikeman and Snake in his arms and jumped into the boat.

“Petrol!” Pikeman squirmed out of Petrol’s grip. “What’s wrong with you?” He reached out to grab the boy’s hand—only to have it pass straight through his own with the sensation of swiping his hand through a stream of boiling water. A few moments of stunned shock passed as disbelief clicked into sheer terror. “A ghost!” Pikeman shrieked, jumping back and colliding with Petrol as he pointed at the boy on the shore.

Snake darted to the motor, starting it up and pulling away from the island so fast that it knocked Pikeman and Petrol off their feet.

There was no sign of Jasper as the Quartermaster led Max, Neil, and Nikki out of the mansion and down to the shore. He took them toward the left, opposite of where the boat they came here with would’ve been moored had it not been so poorly secured. They found another motorboat among the waterweeds, and the three piled in with the Quartermaster climbing in after them.

The ride back to the dock felt mercifully short, and though he hated to admit it, the adventure was really starting to wear on Max. He stared out over the lake as the boat cut through the calm waters, his gaze sliding over the loose boat without really realizing what it was at first. Max focused on the craft, wondering if someone would have to go out and get it in the morning. It rocked slightly while he watched, then stopped dead and started drifting back toward Spooky Island.

Max blinked and sat up a little higher, still watching the boat. The water beneath it seemed darker than usual in the moonlight, as if there was something massive just under the surface.

They reached the dock before Max could get a better look, and his interest in it waned as the Quartermaster herded them out of the boat with the order that they get back to their tents—or else. Max was too tired to talk back at this point, all the running and staying up late were taking their toll on him. Now all he wanted to do was get back to his cot and fall asleep as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately the counselors were waiting for them at the tents, and David definitely had other plans for them. Namely, a lecture on the dangers of sneaking out after dark.

“I cannot believe you, Max,” David began, doing his best to look stern in his pine tree print pajamas. “What if you’d gotten hurt? Or lost? You can’t just wander off into the woods at night, it’s not safe—”

“Now now, David. I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson already,” Daniel said, dressed in bleak white pajamas and looking calm despite the fact that the search for the three had likely interrupted his precious beauty sleep. The fact that he was sticking up for them at all was strange enough to get Max to pay attention, and even Gwen looked surprised by the interruption. “They look like they’re ready to fall asleep on their feet. Why don’t you save the lecture for tomorrow and let them rest for now?”

“Well...” David looked from Daniel to the three, the worry still evident on his face. “Alright. But you three won’t be getting dessert for the next two days. I don’t want you doing this again.”

“Fine,” Max grumbled, more than ready to head to bed at this point. While Daniel’s intercession was appreciated, Max doubted it came from any place of genuine kindness—Daniel probably wanted to get back to bed as much as everyone else, and was willing to nudge David into dropping the matter for now because of that.

Max paused only to remove his shoes and hoodie once he reached his cot, then fell into it with a tired grumble. The night’s adventure had given them all some interesting things to think about, but for now it would have to wait until tomorrow.

Chapter Text

It took Gwen a few moments to realize what had woken her up. She blinked blearily at the room, her vision coming into focus after her rise from the depths of sleep. David was up and about, reading at his desk without a lamp so everyone else could keep sleeping. Gwen glanced at the nearest window and noted that it was still dark out, probably around an hour before sunrise. That wasn’t right. He was supposed to be out roving at this hour, why was he back in the cabin already?

Gwen sat up and ran a hand through her bed-mussed hair, then stood and tiptoed over to the desk, trying to make as little noise as possible for Daniel’s sake. The effort was made a little easier thanks to the fact that Daniel’s bed had been placed on David’s side of the room, which meant she didn’t have to walk past it. Once at the desk she placed a hand on David’s shoulder to get his attention. “Shouldn’t you be out?” she whispered when he looked up at her.

“Oh.” David glanced at Daniel, who was still asleep as far as Gwen knew, then gestured for them to talk outside with a nod of his head.

They crept out into the chill of predawn and took up a place near the tree line. A few birds sang here and there, but otherwise the forest and camp were still.

“Alright, why aren’t you out patrolling? Isn’t that part of your job?” Gwen asked, her voice just above a whisper.

“I would, but you made me promise not to leave you alone with Daniel,” David replied earnestly, leaning close to avoid being overheard.

Gwen paused, surprised—and more than a little touched—that he’d remembered the promise at all. She sighed. “Don’t worry about that, I don’t feel so unsettled around him anymore. Also QM’s been keeping a really close eye on him so I’m sure he’d come running the moment anything happened.” The last bit was said with a small smirk, since it was at least a little amusing to watch the Quartermaster pester Daniel. “I’ll be fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes. Now get out there and make sure everyone’s playing nice,” Gwen said. She gave David a playful push toward the woods, making him grin.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” David gave Gwen a smile and a wave of farewell, then set off into the trees.

Gwen lingered a few moments, rubbing her arms to ward off the chill. It was comforting, to know that David was looking out for her like that. The little things could be so much more important than you realized. She returned to the cabin and found that Daniel was still asleep. That was a relief, she didn’t have to worry that he might’ve overheard them talking about him. Gwen paused for a full-body stretch, then slipped back into bed and drifted off to sleep.

It felt good to be out and about again. David had already taken care of the morning preparations before returning to the cabin, so he was free to rove until sunrise, when he would be needed back at the camp to help look after the campers on their second weekly break day. Hopefully Nurf would still be a bit tired out from his antics the other day, but for now it was time to focus on the more secretive parts of David’s responsibilities.

David paused by a fallen tree, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air and savoring the temporary peace and quiet. He set off, falling into a jog that would take him toward the edge of the Lake Lilac territory and hopefully allow him to cross paths with a few locals on the way. They enjoyed gossip as much as humans did, which was helpful when he needed information on recent goings-on in a hurry.

The sounds of a large animal moving through the underbrush caught his attention as he crossed a stream. David kept moving—they would approach him if they wanted to talk. Sure enough, jet black stallion caught up with David, moving at a canter to keep pace with him.

“Mornin’ to ya, Davey-boy!” the horse said, giving David a goofy grin as they continued on. “Ya been busy lately? Haven’t seen ya about as much!”

“Good morning, Lenny!” David said cheerfully, giving the puca a grin of his own. It was actually odd that Lenny hadn’t tried to prank David in some way before revealing himself, but David did his best to brush it off and treat it as normal. “And it’s just the usual, had to keep a closer eye on things the last few days, though. What about you?”

“Aye those tykes like ta run ya ragged, don’t they?” Lenny asked with a horsey chuckle. “And as for me it’s, y’know, same ol’, same ol’...” The way Lenny said it—as if he were debating whether he would look a fool for adding something more—suggested that something was amok, or at least odd enough to get the puca’s attention. It seemed he hadn’t bothered with the opening prank because he had something on his mind.

They split to run on either side of a large boulder that blocked their immediate path and met up again on the other side. Lenny remained silent for a few moments as he collected his thoughts.

“Ya know, there’s been whispers of someone lurkin’ about the Outskirts of late. All I’ve caught a’ them is the scent, an’ I don’t recognize it,” Lenny said, his ears laid back. “So if ya could, y’know, give a second opinion on whether ya recognize it or not, I’d be very appreciative.”

“I’m headed that way right now, actually.” They hit a downward slope, and David shortened his steps accordingly to keep his feet under him. “You coming with?”

“Ah, no. I’ll let ya get a whiff yerself and then hear what ya got ta say on it after,” Lenny replied. He was already starting to drift off as his path began to diverge from David’s.

“Aw, okay.” David felt a pang of genuine disappointment at Lenny declining the offer. The puca might enjoy pranks a bit too much for David’s taste, but he definitely had a way of making things more fun. “Well, take care of yourself and I’ll see you around!”

“An’ you as well! Don’t trip!” The final sentence was punctuated by Lenny kicking a branch into David’s path, one that was round and short enough to roll perfectly under his boot.

“Lenny—!” David cried as he tried to change course, but too late—the branch was too close and David was moving too fast to step around it. One boot landed on the branch, which rolled as he carried through with the step and pitched him headfirst down the hill he was navigating. He curled up, landing on his shoulder and rolling onto his back—only to keep going because of his momentum. David rolled headlong down the entire slope, finally coming to a stop at the bottom where it leveled out and skidding to a halt on the left side of his face.

So it was a closing prank this time, he should’ve known. Typical Lenny to get one in even if he was feeling down. A horsey guffaw, followed by a few scattered giggles from hidden witnesses, echoed through the shallow valley as Lenny galloped away.

David rolled onto his back and waited for the world to stop spinning.

In all, he’d had worse, like that time he was hit by a big rig while in wolf form. That had been absolutely awful. David shuddered; the event—and the immense pain that followed—still made his stomach turn just from thinking about it. The most he’d gotten from this little tumble was a few bumps and bruises.

At last the world settled into its proper place and David sat up, taking stock of his surroundings. He wasn’t off-course at the very least, since he’d somehow managed to roll in a fairly straight path down the slope. David got to his feet and brushed the bits of dead leaves and dirt off his clothes, flicking a few errant insects off as well. He stretched and shook himself out, then continued on his way.

David reached the Outskirts after around ten minutes of running. They weren’t an obviously or officially-marked area per se, but instead represented the absolute limit to which the magical wards surrounding Lake Lilac could reach. The wards themselves were meant to keep the region safe from those who would exploit it, though no one ever told David exactly what that exploitation would be. They were very definite on the fact that it would be a truly horrifying event if it ever happened, however. He took their word for it and did what he could to keep the area safe. Better to be safe than sorry.

Nothing seemed amiss at first glance. More and more birds were beginning to start up their morning songs around him as he stepped over the boundary, the wards’ invisible presence rippling over his skin like a curtain of warm water. David paused on the other side and surveyed his surroundings, then opened his mouth slightly to sample the ambient scent.

It was difficult to pick out among the scents of the other creatures that had passed by recently, but as Lenny had said there was an odd one here that he didn’t recognize. And it was one that he’d smelled recently, at that. He couldn’t put his finger on where, though.

A mournful screech broke through his musings, and David whirled to face the direction the sound was coming from, back within the boundary of Lake Lilac’s wards. He cast one final glance toward the lands beyond, then hurried toward the source of the sound.

David found the creature just within the boundary; at first glance it looked like an ordinary black bear cub, but any observation beyond that revealed that its head possessed owl-like features, and its claws were curved like talons. The noctursa cub fell silent when they spotted David and stood on their hind feet, ears tilted back as they considered whether or not he was a threat.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” David said, his voice gentle as he slowly approached them. “Let’s see if your family’s around here, alright?” He knelt and offered his hand palm-up with the fingers slightly curled, in the most popular greeting style used by the noctursa.

The cub’s massive golden eyes widened further when they saw the gesture, and they clumsily returned the greeting by interlocking their own tiny fingers with David’s. Still learning, but they knew the greeting and was more at ease with David for having used it. They withdrew their paw as David straightened his fingers, then tottered closer and clung to David’s arm.

“Right,” David said, allowing the cub to climb onto his back and ignoring the places where their claws pierced his clothing. “Let’s see if anyone’s around.” He searched the surrounding area until he found where the cub’s scent trail led off into the trees and backtracked along their route; surely he’d find where their family was if he followed that, since the cub must’ve wandered off and gotten lost.

Back and forth across the Outskirts the trail led, at times going in circles or forming a large knot of scent where the cub lingered awhile on their wanderings. Poor thing must’ve been lost at least for a night to leave a trail like this. Hopefully he’d be able to get them back to their parents soon, noctursa cubs needed to eat constantly and this one would be needing food as soon as possible.

Dawn was starting to brighten the sky in the east when the trail suddenly stopped. David stared at the spot on the loam where the scent cut off, his brow wrinkled as he considered this new development. It was like the cub had been dropped here or suddenly appeared, which meant a slip-space or a large flying creature. There weren’t many creatures around that would be daring enough to even attempt stealing a noctursa’s cub, so they must’ve blundered into an unstable slip-space that sent them to a location far from where they started their journey. Either way, the cub’s family was nowhere to be found, and David would be needed back at camp soon on top of needing to find a good meal for the cub.

David rolled his shoulders, prompting the cub to reaffirm their grip on his back. He sighed, turning back toward Camp Campbell. “Guess I’ll look for your family later, little one. They’re not usually around here, are they?”

As if to answer the cub buried their face in David’s back and their claws dug in a little bit deeper. At least he had their trust and would be able to take care of them more easily because of that. It was going to be a chore keeping them away from the campers today, though.

“Well well, good to see that the wolf is on the prowl again. Finally finished chasing your tail?”

“Good morning, Mab!” David said cheerily as he turned to the newcomer.

She was tall and lythe, with long blonde hair that shone even in the dull light of early dawn and dazzling green eyes. Mab lounged nonchalantly on a low-hanging branch, her head resting on one hand as she watched him. Her facial features were sharp and predatory, though still with an element of beauty to them; looking at her long enough made one realize how right the people of old were to fear the fae, with warnings not to travel on certain nights and to only stay on the beaten path. Thankfully these days Mab and her kind showed a bit more restraint in what they considered fun, but they were still a potential source of problems all the same.

“What a fine morning it is,” Mab agreed with a nod. “And I see you have a little passenger there. Are you babysitting for the day?”

“They got lost near the Outskirts and couldn’t find their way back to their family,” David replied with a glance over his shoulder at the cub. “I’m going to head back to camp with them now and go looking later tonight.”

“Sounds like a bit of a bother, doesn’t it?” Mab said, her voice practically dripping with false sympathy. “I could take the cub off your hands, or maybe one of those troublesome children you’re so fond of.”

“No,” David replied as soon as Mab finished speaking, his smile gone. He turned and started to walk off. “I have to get going.”

“You visited the Outskirts today, and I take it you scented whatever’s been lurking around,” Mab said before he could leave. She continued as he turned to face her again, “It’s not one of ours, be vigilant.”

That got David’s attention; Mab didn’t drop the usual teasing for nothing. “Is there anything else I need to know?” he asked.

“The shift zones are becoming unstable again,” Mab replied, watching him carefully. “We’re expecting you to help keep things under control. Don’t disappoint us.”

Sunlight was coming through the fabric of their tent when Max opened his eyes. Thank goodness the counselors were never in a hurry to wake them up on the weekends—campers who were sleeping caused less trouble, and there was no need to get them to make an early start of it. He sat up to find that there was a new addition to their tent, in the form of a mobile cork board that already had a multitude of paper notes stuck to it. Neil paced in front of the board, a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other as he made up new notes to pin to the board.

Max jumped to the floor and put on his sweatshirt, then joined Neil by the board. “So what’s this supposed to be?”

Neil jumped with surprise, having been so absorbed in his work that he didn’t notice Max waking up. “Oh good, you’re awake!” he said once he recovered. “I was just trying to compile everything we learned and put it into a more easily-readable form!” Neil gestured at the board and its seemingly aimlessly-placed note clusters.

“So it’s like... One of those conspiracy board things? Where’s the string?” Max asked, squinting at it.

“Yes yes, it’s pretty much one of those conspiracy board things,” Neil grumbled, drooping somewhat at Max calling it such an informal name. “It’s not finished yet. I still need to find some decent pictures and apply the string.” He put the clipboard down for the moment to pick up a steaming mug of coffee from a low table nearby and took a drink. “I’m actually really excited to be able to make something like this, though. It’s, you know, the thrill of discovering something that might be completely new! We’ll get to the bottom of this place’s secrets one way or another!”

“You’re really excited about this,” Max said, surprised by Neil’s enthusiasm. “You sure this stuff isn’t too, y’know, fantasy-ish for you?”

“Not when the evidence was staring me in the face—and then ran off into the forest!” Neil replied, gesturing to the forest beyond the tent with one hand. He got to pacing again, the mug held in both hands now. “I saw it, I know it’s real, now I just need to get solid evidence so I can prove it to others! Oh man, can you imagine being the first to record actual scientific data on a species as bizarre as that? This could make my career before I even get to college, before I get to high school, even! Not to mention what we could learn from these creatures! The possibilities are practically endless, and I want to find out which ones are right.”

“Well as long as we can scare David with it you’ve got my support,” Max said with a smile and a shrug. The enthusiasm was admirable, though he’d never admit it aloud, and he couldn’t help but feel a small pinch of envy over Neil feeling so passionate about something. Max couldn’t remember the last time he felt unbridled excitement on the level that Neil was feeling it now. Must be nice. “I’m gonna go snag some breakfast. You want anything?”

“Nah, I already ate,” Neil replied, his attention already focused on the board once again. “You go ahead, I’m gonna keep working on this.”

Max hurried to the Mess Hall where he received a breakfast served by Gwen and the Quartermaster. David and Daniel were nowhere to be found, which was very odd in David’s case; as for Daniel, Max figured he’d already gotten to the point where he was actively trying to shirk his duties. The Quartermaster gave Max an in-the-know wink—Max assumed it was a wink because of how the rest of the Quartermaster’s face moved when he did it—as he put bacon on his tray; Max pretended not to notice since it was still too early in the morning to deal with the old man in his opinion. He met Nikki at the tables and gave her a brief description of what Neil was up to. Muack lurked under their table, occasionally accepting an offering of food from Nikki when she found choice morsels that the platypus would enjoy.

Neil had finished pinning what notes he had on the board and was surveying the result when Max and Nikki entered the tent—Muack had wandered off once breakfast was over. “Alright, I’ve got most of what I could recall compiled, but the board feels really cumbersome to take in at a glance. Maybe some pictures would help.”

“Dunno about photography camp after what happened to the cameras we’re supposed to use,” Max said as he too looked at the board. “I don’t think they ever got replaced.”

“We could draw the pictures,” Nikki suggested, getting a little excited.

“Oh, boy,” Neil said, running a hand through his curly hair in a gesture of forseen embarrassment. “We could give it a shot.”

“Dolph might have some stuff we can use since he’s the resident super-art-nerd,” Max suggested. “Would save us having to ask a counselor for supplies and getting annoying questions over it.”

“Let’s go!” Nikki bounced out of the tent before either Max or Neil could stop her.

The two looked at each other, then shrugged and followed her. They found Dolph seated outside his tent, his attention fixated on the open sketchbook that lay across his knees.

“Hi Dolph!” Nikki said as she landed in front of him, startling Dolph into dropping his pencil. “We wanna know if you got any paper.”

Extra paper,” Max clarified as he and Neil walked up.

“And maybe some pencils if you can spare any,” Neil added. “We’ve got a little project we’re working on.”

Despite the fact that no one had specifically said anything about drawing, Dolph caught on to what they needed the supplies for pretty much immediately and his eyes lit up as he got to his feet. “You are going to draw too? Can I join?”

There were a few moments of humming and hawing between Max and Neil while Nikki gave them a confused look.

“It’s kinda something we’re doing between the three of us so... Not sure how much you’d enjoy it,” Max replied with a shrug. It was a nicer answer than he normally would’ve given, but being rude to Dolph now would just lessen the chances of getting the supplies they wanted; best to play it nice for the time being.

“Yeah I’m not sure the subject matter would interest you,” Neil added. “Plus we’re not using references so you might not like it—”

“Oh! I need to practice drawing without references more often!” Dolph said brightly, hugging his sketchbook against his chest. “Please?”

“Yeah why can’t he come?” Nikki asked, putting her hands on her hips. “He’s the best artsy person in the camp, it would be fun!”

Max sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, then snagged Nikki and took her off to the side. “Nikki we can’t tell too many people about what we’re doing, we don’t want the counselors to find out,” he whispered.

“Yeah but David didn’t even believe us the first time,” Nikki whispered back. “He won’t believe us this time either.”

“But do you really think he’ll let us keep doing something that gets us wandering off in search of monsters and shit?”

Nikki thought about it for a few moments. “No,” she said, drooping a little.

They turned to Dolph, whose expression was considerably more somber. “If you want the art supplies then you have to let me join,” he said before Max had a chance to say anything.

“Aw what? Come on!” Max said, giving Dolph a glare.

“Art supplies are not cheap. Consider my participation as payment for them.”

“But you don’t even buy them yourself!” Max looked to Neil and Nikki, seeking their input.

Neil considered it, then gave Max a reluctant shrug and a nod.

Nikki hesitated, then started grinning and nodding when she saw Neil give his approval.

“Okay fine, you can join,” Max said grudgingly, still glaring at Dolph. “Get your stuff so we can get going.”

“Yes!” Dolph gave a little hop, then hurried into his tent and emerged mere seconds later with several drawing pads under one arm, loose paper under the other, and a toolbox full of art supplies in his free hand. Considering that the pads were almost as big as he was, it was a bit difficult for him to move with them.

“Uh, do you want us to help you carry some of that?” Neil asked as Dolph joined them.

“Oh no, I can carry this! Don’t worry about it.” Dolph started after them as they turned to leave and tripped on the hem of his painter’s smock.

Jesus, Dolph. Can’t you make that thing any shorter?” Max asked, glaring at Dolph over the drawing pads he’d caught when the fall sent them flying. “You’re gonna impale yourself on a fuckin’ pencil or something one of these days.”

“But this is as short as it goes,” Dolph said sadly, looking down at the new dirt smudges on his already paint-stained smock. “I’ll grow into it!”

They made it back to Max and Neil’s tent without further mishap, and Dolph settled himself on the floor with his sketchbook once again across his knees. Nikki put the box of supplies on the ground and opened it, peering into it as if it were a treasure chest.

“Alright, got the drawing stuff,” Neil mumbled to himself as he took a bundle of loose paper and a pencil. He secured the paper to his clipboard, sat on his cot, and got to work.

“So what are you drawing?” Dolph asked, still eager to be included.

“Um.” Max paused, still reluctant to tell Dolph exactly what they were doing. “Just dumb fantasy shit,” he said with a shrug.

Dolph stood and approached the board, his eyes flitting between the note clusters as he skimmed what was written on them. “Whoa,” he said when he realized what they were. “Are these things supposed to live here?”

“Look, you cannot tell anyone what we’re up to,” Max said. “Especially not David or Gwen. This is our little secret, okay?”

“Ooh, this is so exciting!” Dolph said, bouncing up and down a little with his sketchbook clutched against his chest. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”

Neil grumbled behind them, crumpling up the drawing he’d been working on and tossing it to the floor. “Didn’t like it,” he mumbled when they looked at him.

Dolph stared at the crumpled ball of paper for a few moments, then knelt and picked it up. He opened it and gave it a thorough appraisal while Neil tried desperately not to notice. “This is a difficult drawing subject, but you’re off to a good start,” Dolph said kindly, looking up at Neil. “Mixes of human and animal are never easy.” He took a seat on the floor and opened his sketchbook again.

Rather than make another attempt at the wolfman picture, Neil joined Nikki and Max in trying to watch Dolph work from over his shoulder. This went on for about a minute before Dolph leaned over his sketchbook so much that they couldn’t see it and looked back at them.

“Don’t watch me while I draw, it’s uncomfortable,” Dolph said as he frowned up at them.

“Sorry, jeeze,” Max said as they took a step back.

A few minutes passed, the loudest noise in the tent being the scratch of Dolph’s pencil while the other three found something to do. Finally Dolph leaned back to get a wider look at his sketchpad, smiled with approval, and turned it around to show to the others. It was a much better rendition of a werewolf than Neil’s had been, complete with an abundance of shaggy hair and a snarling mouth that showed long sharp fangs.

“Is this the sort of thing you wanted?” Dolph asked as they stared at it.

“This is really good,” Neil said, a hint of jealousy in his voice as he examined the picture.

“Wow, awesome!” Nikki added. “I wanna draw something, too!” She grabbed some paper and a pencil and settled down on the floor, scribbling away and apparently having already forgotten what they were doing.

“Hey Dolph,” Max said as an idea formed in his mind. “How would you like to draw the rest of the pictures for our board too?”

“Hmm,” Dolph hummed to himself as he considered the request, and Max got the sudden impression that he’d just walked into a trap. “I’ll do it if you three join me at art camp every day.”

“And there it is,” Max said with a sigh as he straightened. “What makes you think we’d join your crappy camp for that?”

“It’ll be fun, just give it a chance!” Dolph pleaded, getting to his feet. “How about three days a week?”

“Eh, still too much,” Max said with a shrug. “I don’t feel like wasting my time doing finger painting.”

“We don’t do finger painting,” Dolph corrected, a little annoyance coming through in his tone. “What about two days?”

“Two days a week at most,” Niel cut in, holding up two fingers.

“Neil—” Max started, but Niel put a hand on his shoulder.

“Look, art camp is probably one of the least annoying things to participate in for this godforsaken summer camp and you know it. Also maybe Dolph could cover for us if we have to attend to any monster hunting business during the day,” Neil said, giving Max a small smile.

“You’re just mad that you can’t draw and you want to stop sucking at it,” Max stated, giving Neil a look.

“Well what’s wrong with that, Max?” Neil asked, exasperated as he withdrew his hand. “Also if I’m gonna be making discoveries like this ‘night-bear’ thing without a camera, I need to be able to draw them accurately!”

“Ta-da!” Nikki cried, startling them. She presented them with a fairly well-drawn picture of herself riding on a giant Muack.

Dolph clapped excitedly. “Wonderful! I can’t wait!”

Max eyed Neil. “Nikki could draw the pictures.”

“You know very well that Nikki doesn’t follow directions,” Neil said, giving Max a half-lidded look of annoyance. “Most of them wouldn’t even be the right creature. Or person.”

“Yep!” Nikki agreed with a proud grin. “This girl doesn’t take requests!”

“Exactly,” Neil said. “But Dolph takes trades, and all we have to do is art camp for a couple days a week, and it doesn’t even last all day.”

“Uuugh, fine,” Max said, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like art is even hard anyway.” He caught Dolph giving him a cold stare and gave him a glare in return. “What’s your problem?”

“Oh, nothing,” Dolph said, turning to his sketchbook once again. “So what’s the list of things you want me to draw?”

“Okay so we need a lake monster, a werewolf, a bear with an owl face—honest to God it’s a thing, we saw it just a couple days ago—” Neil began.

“—Sasquatch!” Nikki added.

“Yeah yeah fine we’ll put it under the Undiscovered category,” Neil said with a wave of his hand. “Now where was I? Right, and we need the Quartermaster, David, Gwen, and Daniel for sure.”

“Daniel for sure?” Max asked, raising an eyebrow. “It’s the light thing, isn’t it?”

“That’s the main reason yes, but he also looks like David’s bleached clone,” Neil admitted. “And that’s just weird.”

Dolph looked up from the list he was writing in the top left corner of his current sketchbook page, tapping the end of the pencil against his chin. “Since this is magic stuff, what about Harrison?” he asked.

Max and Neil shared a glance, then the two of them each gave their own unique rendition of “Naaah,” in near-perfect unison.

“Harrison’s illusions are neat, but that’s not actual magic, if magic even does exist,” Neil explained. “Everyone knows that magicians use sleight of hand and special equipment to pull off their tricks.”

“Not even ruling out magic now, Neil?” Max asked with a smirk.

“Well who’s to say that it can’t be studied if it does?” Neil said slowly, as if he were still working through the problem himself. “Being the first to identify a new force of nature or a new type of energy? I can’t come up with anything that would be more exciting than that.”

The camp was buzzing with its usual weekend activity when David arrived. He stopped near a stand of tall rocks where the cub would be able to hide if need be and knelt so they could drop to the ground easier.

“Hey uh, David?”

David looked up at the sound of his name being called and found Harrison standing before him. It was an ability they’d discovered soon after Harrison arrived at Camp Campbell: Harrison was able to locate David if he happened to be nearby—even if David was trying to hide. They never quite figured out how it worked, but David took a bit of solace in the fact that Harrison would always be able to find him if he was in trouble.

“What can I help you with, Harrison?” David asked cheerfully as the cub hopped off his back and hid behind him.

“I was wondering if there would be any actual, you know, magic lessons soon?” Harrison asked, turning his top hat in his hands as he watched David.

“Oh, right,” David said, deflating at the realization. He scratched the back of his head, the guilt growing as he tried to think of the earliest opportunity that he’d be able to arrange one. “I’m so sorry, Harrison. Things have been a little crazy with the new hire and everything, but I promise I’ll get one set up as soon as I can.” The lessons were a hassle to set up simply because David couldn’t trust the teachers—local magical entities—not to take advantage of Harrison if he wasn’t around to watch, but that was no excuse to leave Harrison hanging like this.

“Okay,” Harrison said, in a tone that suggested he was settling for this because it was as good as he could get, driving the little pin of guilt in even deeper. “So is that a...” he paused to squint at the cub. “Noc—noc-tursa?”

“Why yes, it—” David paused to look at Harrison with surprise. “How did you know?”

“We ran into some bigger ones the day you took me to a lesson with Miss Mab,” Harrison replied, looking a tiny bit hurt that David didn’t remember the specifics. “And you said maybe they’d teach me a bit sometime?”

“Oh,” David said, feeling even more guilty for not remembering. “Well, this noctursa cub got separated from their family.” It was a relief to have the conversation go elsewhere, though David still felt bad for letting Harrison down. “So I decided to look after them for today, then go looking again after dark.”

“You’re planning on looking after it here?” Harrison asked, raising an eyebrow as he pointed at the ground.

David’s head drooped. “It was the only thing I could think of at such short notice,” he admitted.

“So what are you gonna do? Just hang out here for the whole day?”

“Well, I need to get some food for this little one, I’m sure they’ve been lost all night.” David patted the cub on the head, and they let out a trilling chuckle as they held it there. “Guess I’ll have to get them to stay here while I go to the Mess Hall,” he added with a frown.

“Or maybe I could watch them?” Harrison suggested, taking a step forward.

The cub took a step back, still holding David’s hand to their head with both paws as it watched Harrison.

“It’s okay,” David soothed, looking down at the cub. “Harrison’s nice.” He turned to Harrison, holding up his free hand. “Do this to greet them.” David held the hand palm-up, fingers slightly curled.

Harrison mimicked the gesture as best he could, holding his hand out to the cub. As before, the cub returned the greeting and calmed down, even dropping David’s hand to examine Harrison more closely.

“Aww, they like you,” David said, grinning as the cub took one of Harrison’s hands and placed it on their head. “You sure you’re okay with watching them while I grab food?”

“Yeah, I can handle it,” Harrison replied, grinning as the cub found one of the ribbon ropes in his sleeves and began to pull it free. “I should learn how to talk to these guys anyway.”

“Thanks Harrison, you’re the best!” David said as he stood. He trotted off in the direction of the Mess Hall, rounding the camp’s boundary to keep from bumping into anyone and being slowed down; the sooner he got back to the cub with food, the better.

The route to the Mess Hall was second nature to David by now—he knew the entire camp like the back of his hand, and could probably navigate it in his sleep if he had to—and he allowed his feet to carry him there while he mulled over what he’d learned that morning. Mab had warned that the lake was growing unstable and would start shifting more often, the cub hitting a temporary slip-space and ending up so lost had to be part of that. It would be a hassle if there happened to be a camp activity taking place on it during the shifts... He would have to schedule things around that. And speaking of the lake, it was about time to take a few watermelons to Lillie again; she was probably missing them right about now, and he could do with the simple happiness of watching her munch away on them.

A distant part of David’s mind noted that he was on the road leading to the Mess Hall, then he returned the whole of his attention to his thoughts.

Then there was the matter of whatever was lurking on the Outskirts. Mab told him that it wasn’t a local, and Lenny didn’t recognize its scent. A scent that David had noticed somewhere else but couldn’t recall the location of. The answer dangled just out of reach as he tried to grab at it. Where was it? He would remember it if he could just figure out a part of the context—

The yellow Hummer seemed to come out of nowhere. David let out an awkward squawk of surprise when it knocked him over, the driver stopping just in time to keep from running him over.

“Whoa there, Davey!” Mr. Campbell said through the open window. “Don’t dent the hood, now!”

“Sorry, Mr. Campbell!” David said, springing to his feet with a grin on his face. “I’ll do my best to watch where I’m going next time!” he added as he gave the Camp Campbell salute and stepped aside to let Mr. Campbell drive past. Just knowing that Mr. Campbell was around was enough to lift David’s mood, though that meant even more work was in order to make sure things were running smoothly.

Campbell parked in front of the Mess Hall and went inside ahead of David, who reached it moments after him.

Right, he still had to get food for the cub—and himself, since at this point he was quite hungry too—and make arrangements for the cub being looked after throughout the day as well. Now wasn’t the time to let Mr. Campbell distract him. That could always be saved for later once those two tasks had been seen to.

The ladder leading up to the main attic was down when David entered the Mess Hall, meaning that Mr. Campbell was up there. David forced himself to walk past it and into the kitchen, where he found breakfast leftovers put away and waiting for him with a note from Gwen. He smiled and tucked the note away in his vest, then took the box of leftovers from the fridge and checked its contents: pancakes, sausage, bacon, assorted fruits, and some toast. David grabbed maple syrup from a cupboard and dumped it over the pancakes, then fished a fork and knife out of the utensils drawer and hurried toward the mess hall door.

“Eating on the go, Davey?” Mr. Campbell said, grinning down at David from the attic entrance.

“Gotta stay on my toes, Mr. Campbell!” David replied with a sunny smile. He hurried from the Mess Hall and ran back to where Harrison and the cub were waiting, the breakfast box held under one arm. Having Mr. Campbell around would really complicate things, he couldn’t disappoint him now, just the thought of it made David’s heart race with unbridled anxiety. There had to be some way to balance looking after the cub and making sure the camp didn’t fall to chaos in the meantime.

Breakfast was a reasonably quick affair once David arrived. He picked out choice selections of meat and fruit for the cub to eat—noctursas were omnivores and ate a wide range of food types, much like normal bears—then finished the rest himself. David watched Harrison and the cub while he ate his breakfast, noting how the cub was more than willing to sit next to Harrison while they ate and even offered a piece of sausage to him as an idea formed in his mind.

“Hey Harrison, how would you like to watch the cub for today?” David asked as he set the breakfast box aside.

“Really?” Harrison asked, his face lighting up at the proposition. “Oh man, Nerris would be so jealous if she knew I got to babysit a magical creature!” he added with a mischievous tilt to his smile.

Well, Harrison’s eagerness was reassuring at least. “I need to help Gwen keep an eye on everyone, and Daniel’s still new so he can’t help as much, so I can’t stay here with the cub all day,” David began, doing his best to push the lingering guilt aside. The cub was well-behaved so Harrison wouldn’t have much trouble, and the other campers would need David more just to keep order in the camp. It would be fine. “Would you like to keep an eye on them for today while I take care of things? I’ll check in as often as I can and I’ll bring out lunch and snacks, too.”

“That sounds pretty good, actually,” Harrison said. He turned to the cub and placed a hand on their head again. “What do you think, little buddy? Wanna hang out with me today?”

The cub gave Harrison a mix between a purr and a trill and leaned against him.

David couldn’t help grinning at the adorable sight. “I’m so glad, you two are getting along so well already!” he said, hands clasped before his chest. “Okay, I’m going to go check on everyone. Don’t wander far from this spot, and come find me if there’s a problem.” David stood, sweeping up the box and tucking it under one arm. “Thanks, Harrison!” he added as he turned toward the camp and started off at a jog, only to stop short at the clearing’s margin when he remembered something. “Oh. Harrison?” David asked, looking back over his shoulder.


“Safe magic only, none of the big stuff.”

“Okay!” Harrison said, giving David a thumbs up.

With that done, David took his leave. Harrison would be fine, noctursa cubs weren’t terribly temperamental as a general rule and most locals knew better than to approach the camp, especially during the day. Now he could focus on making sure everything in camp ran smoothly in order to prove to Mr. Campbell that he was a capable counselor. Everything would be fine.

Harrison wasn’t sure what to do first once David was out of sight. Tag would probably be fun, hide and seek was a maybe, though that might make looking after the cub a bit tricky during the hiding part, and then of course doing a few safe magic tricks was always a good option. He started off with a few sleight of hand illusions, which the cub was amazed by and gestured for him to do over and over, much to Harrison’s own delight. This was certainly better feedback than he’d ever gotten from the other campers, that was for sure. In fact, the last time someone had reacted so positively to one of his tricks had been—

A bird abruptly took flight nearby, startling the two of them. Harrison watched the bushes it had flown away from for a few seconds, then relaxed and turned back to the cub when there was no further movement.

“Maybe I should give you a nickname for now,” Harrison proposed as the cub scribbled nonsensical patterns in the dirt with one talon. “I can’t keep calling you ‘cub’ or ‘little buddy’ all the time.” He paused to consider a name that might fit. “How about... Sage?”

The cub looked up with a quiet ‘bwip’ and fixed its big eyes on him.

“You like that? Can I call you Sage for now?”

A few moments passed in silence as the cub appeared to think it over, then they nodded with a screeching chirp and went back to doodling.

“Oh! How about I show you one of my best tricks?” Harrison asked, smiling as he retrieved a red handkerchief from his pants pocket.

Sage looked up at him, their eyes on the handkerchief and excited for the next new trick.

“Now you see it,” Harrison said as he laid the handkerchief over a fist-sized pebble nearby. “Now you don’t!” He jerked the cloth aside with both hands, revealing that the rock had disappeared.

Rather than the expected amazement, Sage blinked and tilted their head in what could only be disappointment, their tufted ears drooping as they did so. A beetle crawling by caught Sage’s attention and they followed it while Harrison looked on.

“But why didn’t you like that trick?” Harrison asked, the handkerchief held loosely in one hand. “That’s one of my best.”

“Because it saw how you did the trick,” said a familiar voice from behind a stand of bushes, making Harrison jump and turn toward it. Daniel stepped into the clearing and brushed a stray leaf off his shoulder, wearing the most genuine smile Harrison had ever seen on his face. “To a creature like that, magic is commonplace, so it wasn’t as impressive,” he added simply, coming to a stop before Harrison.

Harrison stared up at Daniel for a few shock-filled moments while the situation sank in; magical creatures were one thing, but he’d never met another human who could use legitimate magic until now. “But how do—what?” He sat down hard in the dirt as Sage came over to see who the newcomer was. “How do you know?”

“I happen to be an expert on the subject myself,” Daniel replied, kneeling to bring himself to Harrison’s standing height. A small globe of light appeared at a flourish of his fingers and hovered above his palm as he held it out to Harrison.

Sage leaned in to examine the globe, then quickly lost interest and wandered a short distance away again.

Harrison watched Sage a few moments longer, then reached out to take the globe from Daniel’s hand. It was surprisingly cool despite being bright enough to be visible in broad daylight, and hovered above his own hand just as it had with Daniel’s. “Whoa...” Harrison mumbled as he stared at it. This was nothing like he could do, he could only make things appear or disappear at this point. Would he be able to conjure light like this too someday? “I’ve never met someone like me,” Harrison said as he passed it back and got to his feet, brushing the dust off his pants.

Daniel dismissed the globe as easily as he had summoned it once it was back in his hand, with that same flourish of his fingers. “Oh we’re rare, but we do exist,” he said, looking to Harrison again. “The fact that you can use magic at all makes you very special, Harrison.”

“I guess so,” Harrison said, fiddling with the back of one glove as he spoke; he didn’t feel special for the way his parents acted around him, and David treated magic as if it were completely normal. “David says I have to use it responsibly.”

David said that. Hah. Well that much is obvious, so I suppose he would,” Daniel mused, getting to his feet so he could pace a bit. “Abuse of power by those who possess it is why our world has fallen into such a miserable state, isn’t it?” He looked back at Harrison and noted the confusion on his face. “Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. Don’t mind me.” Daniel circled back to Harrison and knelt so they were eye to eye again. “So, are you self-taught, or did you find yourself a tutor?”

“I figured some things out before I came here,” Harrison replied, feeling a small twinge of pride. “David takes me out to learn from the magical creatures that live around the lake,” Harrison replied with a glance at Sage, who was busy watching a train of ants on the ground. “But you’re the first person I’ve met who can use it.”

“So David can’t use it?” Daniel asked, a little confusion breaking through the smile. “How does he get the creatures to listen to him?”

“He can’t use magic, but it’s sorta like he is magic?” Harrison guessed with an apologetic shrug of his shoulders; David had explained a bit of it to Harrison when they first started to arrange the lessons, and it was certainly more complicated than the standard ‘just a werewolf’ deal so he didn’t want to get it wrong while telling someone else. “You should ask David about it, he’d explain it better.”

“That’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Daniel assured him. “What’s really important is that you probably need a more consistent teacher. Those lessons from different sources haven’t been getting you far, have they?”

Harrison scratched the back of his head, then took off his hat so he could fiddle with it in his hands. “No... I don’t think so,” he admitted, his eyes on the ground. “Everyone teaches it differently, and a lot of them don’t see magic the same way.” Harrison felt a little guilty for admitting it, all the same; David was trying to help him, he knew that and was grateful for it, but it just wasn’t getting the results he’d hoped for. “It’s been kinda hard.”

“Well how about this: I’ll teach you myself whenever I get the chance, and you can still do the lessons that David sets up,” Daniel suggested, raising his eyebrows. “That way you get the best of both.”

It almost seemed too good to be true, especially after the recent broken promises from David, but Harrison grinned at the thought of actually making progress. “You really mean it?” he asked, his hat clutched to his chest.

“Of course,” Daniel replied. “Figures David would be so unsuccessful in helping you,” he added quietly, his smile taking on a sudden, unmistakably angry edge.

“He tries his best,” Harrison said, his own smile disappearing. While it was true David hadn’t been a big help lately, Harrison still appreciated his attempts all the same and did his best to remember how hard David’s job was. His gaze settled on Daniel’s smile and the shadow of anger behind it. “You... Don’t really like David, do you?”

The hint of anger vanished so quickly that Harrison almost thought he’d imagined it. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Daniel said lightly. “It’s more that I don’t really agree with his methods.”

“Oh,” Harrison left it at that, not sure of what to say next.

“I’m sure David means well,” Daniel admitted as he got to his feet. “But now I should be getting back to camp, they'll probably need me to help corral Nurf, or something.”

“Okay.” Harrison paused, putting his hat back on and smiling again as he watched Daniel. “By the way, thanks for telling me my magic is special. I don’t hear that very often.”

“Which is a shame,” Daniel said. “Such gifts should be admired.”

“My brother used to tell me it was super cool,” Harrison reminisced as Sage wandered over again and grabbed his arm. His face fell, and he ruffled the feathers on their head with his free hand as he continued, “I miss him.”

“An accident?”

“What?” Harrison looked up with surprise at the notion and witnessed a rare moment when there was no smile on Daniel’s face. “What’s wrong?”

The smile snapped back on in an instant as Daniel returned to the present. “Just thinking is all, don’t mind me,” Daniel said, the cheer in his voice just a little bit forced. “Well I’d better get doing for real this time,” he added with a chuckle, passing Harrison but stopping short in front of the bushes at the edge of the clearing. “Ah, by the way, Harrison.” Daniel turned toward Harrison again. “I know it probably sounds silly but I want to tell David and Gwen about my magic on my own terms, so if you could just...” He held a single finger against his lips in a shushing gesture, the smile still in place beneath it.

“My lips are sealed,” Harrison said, mirroring the gesture.

“Excellent. See you around!”

Daniel took a detour before returning to the camp. He needed a few minutes to collect himself after being reminded of Abraham like that, thank goodness he’d been able to mask it during the rest of the conversation. The sadness that always presented itself whenever he thought of his older brother clawed at his throat, making him cough. It was to the point that he had to drop the smile simply because it hurt too much to keep on his face.

Even many years later the loss still hurt so much, perhaps he didn’t bind it well enough last time it came up. Yes, a good thing he’d gotten it under control so quickly—those sorts of emotions could be contagious, after all, no need to spread them to that poor boy.

More binding would be needed in any case, just to contain all the negativity swimming around inside him like a swarm of eels. It wouldn’t be too much, the last round of bindings had been the night before last, that was well within safe parameters. Just a little magic applied in the right place and he would be able to think and breathe unhindered again.

It was lucky that he’d chosen that spot to take a break from the needless chaos the campers liked to spawn on a constant basis. Harrison needed proper guidance to cultivate his power, and David was clearly failing when it came to that. Daniel would see to it that Harrison received the teaching he needed, and perhaps get a bit of help from the boy if he ever needed it. One never knew.

The forest floor dropped off, trailing into loose sand as it approached the lakeshore. Daniel hopped down the slope, doing what he could to keep the sand out of his boots—an endeavor that was only half-successful—and continuing along the shore toward the docks.

So David wasn’t a user, but was somehow magical himself. Daniel paused, using the toe of one boot to nudge a rock out of his path as he thought about it. He seemed human enough, so an augmentation of some sort, perhaps? A curse? Given how idiotic and soft David tended to be, a curse wouldn’t be terribly surprising. Probably something done to him by one of the creatures that lived around here, the poor sap.

There was an expensive-looking car parked in front of the docks, with what could only be its owner loading various items from its trunk into a boat. The man matched the pictures Daniel had seen in the employee handbook, so this had to be Cameron Campbell himself. He’d heard near-endless stories about the man’s exploits from David—because there was no polite way to shut him up and Daniel had been too tired to weather any actual confrontation—but hadn’t met him in person yet.

Daniel fixed his smile in place again as he continued forward. Apparently it was time to see if the man matched the legend.

“Ah, there you are, Davey!” Campbell said, grinning as he marched over to Daniel. One sturdy hand came down on Daniel’s shoulder so hard that it almost buckled his knees. “Everything ship-shape?” He paused to squint at Daniel’s face. “Did you... Dye your hair since I last saw you, Davey? Can’t say I’m a fan of the color.”

The realization that Campbell thought he was talking to David hit Daniel like a wave, leaving bubbling anger in its wake. “I’m afraid you have me confused with someone else, sir,” Daniel said, struggling to keep his voice level as tension built up in his neck and shoulders. “My name is Daniel, I was hired just last week.” It was annoying enough that Gwen couldn’t tell his and David’s voices apart when out of sight, and the campers were relentless with their clone and evil twin jokes, but this was getting ridiculous.

“Really?” Campbell raised an eyebrow as he looked Daniel over, apparently still not convinced. “Hmm. I don’t recall asking them to hire another counselor...”

“You’ll have to take it up with Gwen and David, then,” Daniel said curtly as he stepped back, Campbell’s hand falling from his shoulder. “For now, I should get back to camp.” He hurried away before Campbell could say anything more, his jaw and neck aching from strain and his smile downright painful from being forced to stay in place.

There was a flash of blue as Max disappeared behind a bush by the side of the dirt road, and Daniel briefly considered calling him out and telling him to get back to camp where it would be easier to keep an eye on him. No, he didn’t feel like dealing with the brat and his insults right now; he was already feeling drained, and like the anger held inside his chest was trying to bubble its way out of his mouth like burning lava. Let David figure out where Max was while Daniel watched the more well-behaved—albeit marginally so, in all cases except Space Kid—campers back at camp.

If Regis hadn’t told him to come here he wouldn’t be anywhere near this wretched camp with its rampant negativity, shady owner, idiot counselor, and cruel children. Daniel marched onward, bound for the tents to see who was actually being relatively reasonable today.

It was only mid morning by now, with the rest of the day and whatever grievances it might hold looming ahead. There would definitely be a lot of binding required once he got the chance. As always, he would just have to accept the suffering and make do.

“Alright, so we saw Campbell taking something long, thin, and wrapped in canvas out to Spooky Island,” Neil said as he applied this latest note to the board.

“Yeah, like a spear or something!” Nikki added, bouncing up and down on Max’s cot.

“Nikki can you not break my bed?” Max grumbled with a roll of his eyes.

“Ooo.” Nikki stopped as a realization came to her, too caught up in her thoughts to mind Max’s complaining. “What about that Jasper kid? He should be on there too since we met him on Spooky Island.”

“Hmmm,” Neil hummed as he considered it. “You know? You’re right. He was acting weird with the memory problems and stuff.” He started on the new note, glancing up at the board for a place where he could put it.

“Someone you met?” Dolph asked from his spot on the floor. He’d been working hard at the drawing for most of the day and had even tagged along for the little spying session when Campbell arrived; Max would never admit it aloud but Dolph wasn’t half bad when it came to being an accomplice, so maybe this little arrangement wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

“Yeah, out on Spooky Island last night,” Neil replied, placing the new note near the Spooky Island cluster. “I’m not the best at describing people though, so I guess he can go without a picture for now.”

Nikki hopped to the floor and snatched up a spare piece of paper and a pencil, then started scribbling while the others focused on the board.

Max took her place on his cot while he looked at it. “So how are we supposed to start connecting these things?” he asked, gaze roving over the clusters of notes.

“Different colors of string, each color denoting a type of connection,” Neil replied. He tapped the end of the pencil against his chin for a few moments. “Hmm, I think we’ll have to ask the counselors for something after all,” he said, disappointed.

“Well that’s gonna be an annoying conversation,” Max said. “Guess we could get some yarn by saying we wanna do knitting or something.”

“Boom!” Nikki cried, making them jump. She held up a passable picture of Jasper for them to see. “Jasper!” Nikki darted over to the board, grabbing a pin on the way, and secured the picture of Jasper next to his associated notes.

Getting the yarn ended up being easier than expected—David was more than happy to give it to them when Max explained that they wanted to do a bit of knitting today—and soon enough they were ready to finish off the board for now. Max hated when David got all sappy like that, but at least it made getting what they needed easier.

Neil picked through the colors they had: yellow, red, blue, and green. They would be more than enough for what he intended. He started with blue, pinning one end at the Quartermaster’s cluster and connecting it to the wolfman, lake monster, and noctursa notes. “The Quartermaster is the only one we know has knowledge of what lives around here,” Neil mumbled, cutting the end of the yarn and picking up the green. “Looks like Campbell has a lot of interest in the occult, but we don’t have definitive proof that he knows.”

“Come on, he’s gotta know what lives around here if he’s interested in that shit,” Max insisted from his seat on his cot. “Maybe that’s why he decided to build a house here in the first place.”

“Well, it’ll be easy to change out the string color when we get confirmation, then,” Neil said as he finished the ‘maybe’ connection between Campbell and the creatures. “But until then I’m leaving it on green.”

“Can’t believe David’s oblivious to all this while his role model peddles in the occult,” Max grumbled. “How fucking oblivious can you be?”

Twilight had come and gone, and stars covered the sky. David nodded to Gwen on his way toward the cub’s hiding place, where it was waiting alone for him in the deepening night; Harrison had been sent to dinner and then bed some time ago, and he’d been sad to leave the cub. Hopefully there would be future visits in store if the cub’s family allowed it.

The cub—Sage, as Harrison had nicknamed them—looked up at the sound of David’s approach and hurried over to him, scaling his back easily and clinging there while he got his bearings.

Ty’s glade would be the best bet for finding out information on where the cub’s family might be, especially if Ty herself happened to be there. David closed his eyes and oriented himself, feeling the glade’s direction like the warmth of a small sun, then opened his eyes again and set off into the night.

Creatures going about their nightly business fell silent as David approached, picking up on their activity again once he had passed. Even bears and boars gave him a wide berth these days, which he didn’t mind at all; it was always a shame when he ended up hurting them while trying to defend himself, so it was a relief to know he wouldn’t have to deal with that anymore.

David hopped over a fallen standing stone, one of the first indicators that he was getting close to the glade. Soon a wall of blue-gray rock covered in moss loomed ahead of him, the glade’s entrance hidden behind a curtain of leafy vines. He stepped through, bowing his head to avoid hitting it on the tunnel roof and his steps sure despite the uneven footing. This place was almost as familiar to him as Camp Campbell was, though not for the same reasons—somehow the wolf part of him knew the glade and its surrounding terrain as if it were a second home, like an inherited memory of sorts.

They emerged from the tunnel and into the glade. Tiny motes of light lent the scene a gentle illumination, and allowed even those with poor night vision to see within it. A waterfall cascaded down the distant wall, filling the lower parts of the glade with water and creating a network of lush, grassy islands where the ground was higher. The largest island, located at the center of the glade, sported a massive set of antlers sprouting from its top—the previous guardian’s grave, a few bright wildflowers wilting on its mound even now. David would have to pay his respects once this was over, as he always did when he came to visit.

Movement to David’s right caught his eye, and he turned his head to find an adult noctursa. Its attention was already on them, head craning to get a look at the cub and its large eyes reflecting the light of the motes.

Sage gave a clacking chirp and dropped off David’s back, landing on a patch of grass and hurrying toward the other noctursa, who was even now rushing over to meet them with its arms outstretched. The other noctursa swept Sage up in their arms when they reached each other, rocking them back and forth and uttering soothing trills.

“That’s a relief,” David said, smiling as he watched them. “I was hoping I’d find out where their family was.”

The noctursa paused and looked at David, then offered a paw in the typical greeting upon recognizing his face. “Thank you for bringing her here, guardian,” he said as David returned the greeting. “We were at our wits’ end trying to find her.”

“No problem at all,” David replied, trying to ignore the headache that was starting to build from the focus required to understand the noctursa’s voice. “So what happened? Did she wander off?”

The noctursa gave him a sad shake of the head in reply. “My sister was struck by one of the big movers the previous night.”

No,” David said, barely suppressing a shudder—‘big mover’ was the term noctursas used for big rigs, and he knew what getting hit by one of those was like. “Is she...?”

“She is recovering back at our family hollow,” the noctursa replied, hugging Tirik a little tighter. “Tirik was unharmed, but she ran off for some reason. We believe she hit a slip-space that disappeared once she went through it.”

“That would explain the scent trail I found,” David said. He paused as Tirik whispered something to her uncle.

“Hmm,” the noctursa hummed in a bird-like growl, his ears tilting back. “Something chased her. That’s why she ran off.” His large eyes flicked up to David’s in a silent question.

“I’m guessing this happened beyond the Outskirts, didn’t it?”

The noctursa nodded. “That is where we found my sister.”

“Something’s been lurking out there lately,” David said, briefly pressing the back of one curled first to his forehead in an attempt to relieve the ache. “I caught scent of it this morning but didn’t see it.”

“We will avoid leaving the wards’ safety until it has moved on, then,” the noctursa said. “But for now, we’d best be getting back to the hollow. Thank you again, guardian. Your help is deeply appreciated.” He gave David a deep nod of respect, which David returned.

“Happy to help,” David said. “You guys take care.”

Tirik waved at David from over her uncle’s shoulder as they left, the tunnel soon taking them from sight.

David waved until they were gone, then paused to massage his temples. Once the headache had receded somewhat, he turned to the mound at the center of the glade. It was time to pay his respects.

Chapter Text

“Should’ve known that getting to sleep in yesterday was too good to be true...” Max grumbled as he trudged along the forest trail, fishing pole slung over one shoulder while he tried to keep his sleep-laden eyes open in the semidarkness.

“Maybe we’ll catch a shark!” Nikki said, bouncing along as usual.

“Sharks don’t live in fresh—” Neil stopped himself before he could finish the sentence as he recalled something. “Well okay, bull sharks can, but they don’t live around here. We’ll probably just catch a trout or some other salmonid like that.”

“If we catch anything at all,” Max added with a roll of his eyes. He was of the opinion that fishing involved a lot of sitting around doing nothing and being bored, and he was probably going to be right; there was no way this group could ever be patient enough to catch anything before scaring it off.

David was in the lead, a weathered rod resting against his shoulder and a tackle box in his free hand as he led them to their morning fishing spot. Nikki dashed up to follow on his heels, the only person here with as much energy as David and definitely the most likely to scare the fish away once they got near the spot. The other campers followed, fighting off varying levels of lingering sleep and doing their best to keep their rods from getting caught on the bushes and trees near the trail. Gwen and Daniel brought up the rear to mind stragglers, both of them moving sluggishly as they continued the process of waking up; Max was sure that Gwen usually needed a cup of coffee or two before she was up to speed, and who the fuck even knew how Daniel got himself going in the mornings. Probably with some sort of weirdass New Age religious bullshit given how smiley he was all the goddamn time.

Finally David came to a halt as the trail began to slope downward and turned toward the line of campers as they jumbled into a loose, sleepy crowd. “Alright, the fish like to feed around here this time of morning, just spread out along the bank and be careful not to hit each other when you cast,” David said, his voice barely loud enough to be heard. “Try not to make noise or sudden movements, that’ll scare them off.”

“Even most birds aren’t awake at this hour,” Max growled as he and Neil followed Nikki to a spot farther into the inlet.

The other campers spread along the bank behind them, Dolph nearly falling into the lake after tripping on the hem of his smock again. David grabbed Dolph before he could hit the water, and he was certainly a lot more awake when David placed him back on the shore. It was getting to be a problem; Dolph tripped on that smock almost on the daily but refused to get a smaller one, Max was sure that he was going to break an arm one of these days.

Max rolled his eyes and struggled to unhook the lure from where he’d secured it on the middle guide of his fishing rod, squinting in the low light. Wasn’t as if he could do anything about Dolph’s tripping problem, the kid wasn’t about to listen to him. He managed to get it off without stabbing himself on the hook, then let the lure swing free as he eyed the water below and tried to remember if there were any specifics you had to go over for casting.

“Oh, do you need help, Max?”

Having David suddenly appear at his elbow made Max jump with surprise, and he gave him an annoyed glare once he recovered from the shock. “No, David. I’m perfectly capable of doing something as stupid and simple as fishing,” Max snapped. “You cast your line out and convince yourself that something’s gonna bite even though that’s never gonna fuckin’ happen and you’re just wasting your goddamn time.” He swung his rod back over one shoulder, narrowly missing David’s ear.

The lure whistled as it was cut through the air, arcing over Max and David’s heads and nearly hitting Daniel—who had been unfortunate enough to be walking behind them at that very moment—in the head. It was only by jerking back so quickly and so far that he toppled over that Daniel was able to avoid taking a hook to the face. He sat there for a few moments, resting on his elbows and his smile nearly deflated from the panic of almost being hit.

“Well, I’m awake now,” Daniel quipped as he watched Max’s rod. He scuttled back a ways—making Max snicker—before getting to his feet and brushing the dirt off his pants. “I’ll just leave you to it, then.” Daniel strode off, back toward the rest of the campers.

Max smirked at David. “See? I know what I’m doing.” He flicked the rod forward and cast the lure out into the inlet to prove his point, then reeling it back in as soon as it hit the water.

They were interrupted by the splash of a fishing rod landing in the shallows, followed by a hissed curse word from Neil.

“Alright, I’ll go help Neil, then,” David said, deflating a little. He stood and walked over to Neil, rescuing the rod from the water and putting it back in his hands.

Nikki ended up being the first person to get a bite, surprisingly enough. Max had figured she would be too bouncy and impatient to really catch anything, but Nikki did tend to be full of surprises. The fact that Nikki jumped into the water and grab the fish before David could even get it in the net, however, was par for the course.

“Maybe we should wait until it’s in the net next time,” David said with a chuckle as he looked down at Nikki.

“But I already did the fun part!” Nikki quipped, grinning at him from inside the net. “Besides, that fish knew he was beat anyway. I already won.”

David chuckled. “Well okay. But no more swimming for now, other people are still fishing.” He set Nikki down on the shore and let her climb out of the net.

Nikki followed him back down the line of campers, apparently bored with fishing herself and more interested in how the others were faring.

The next bit of excitement came from Preston, who had taken up a spot down at the other end of the line.

“Ahah! Yes, I caught something!” Preston declared as he reeled the fish in, ignoring the shushing from the campers who stood on either side of him. “Let it be known that I, Preston Goodplay, am the master of all fi—” He stopped as he yanked the fish from the water, only to be slapped full in the face by it. Preston let out an ear piercing shriek, swatting at the fish as he fell back. “No, no! It’s out for blood! Someone get it off me!

“I’m on it!” Nurf stepped in and punched the fish as it flopped away from Preston’s face, knocking it off the hook and into the air. It flopped wildly as it flew to the center of the inlet and hit the water with a loud splash; a lucky break for the fish, embarrassing departure aside. “Yeah! Suck a dick, fish!” Nurf yelled after it.

“Whoa, fish boxing!” Nikki bounced up and down with excitement. “I wanna try it too!”

“Sorry Nikki, I don’t think we’ll have any more luck at this spot,” David said with an apologetic smile. “We are going to go boat fishing later today, but for now it’s time to head back.”

Max smirked as he, Neil, and Nikki brought up the rear of the camper column. Boat fishing, eh? That sounded like the perfect opportunity to get a little lake monster hunting in, even better if David was around to witness it. He couldn’t wait to see the look on his face.

It was only after a few days of knowing him that Gwen was able to work out exactly why Daniel’s smile bothered her. For the first few glances it seemed real enough, and at that stage calling him “another David” felt somewhat accurate—they looked practically the same save for color, for Christ’s sake—but as one looked more often the similarity started to crumble like dried mud. David’s smile could be forced at times, but in the end it was always David’s choice to put on that happy face and save the hurt feelings for later. Daniel, however... He wore his smile as if it were an obligation rather than a choice, like it was just part of the uniform. It never quite reached his eyes, and those, well, they were observant as far as Gwen could tell, and that bothered her. She didn’t like the idea of Daniel watching them from behind that mask, using his cold smile as a shield. Hah, that was another difference between their smiles—David’s smile could practically radiate warmth while Daniel’s was cold, and felt brittle but somehow he kept it from cracking.

Gwen watched David and Daniel at the table the three of them shared for breakfast while she mulled it over. Only their second breakfast all together and they were already running into problems; David was doing the well meaning pestering and Daniel was becoming frustrated behind the smile.

“I know how to feed myself, David,” Daniel said as he put his fork down. He’d selected dry toast, unflavored scrambled eggs, and one of those god awful ‘red delicious’ apples that tasted like cardboard and dirty lies for his breakfast; not terrible in the way of nutritional content, but Gwen had no idea how Daniel was able to stomach the meal flavor-wise.

David, on the other hand, was more concerned about the quantity. “I’m just saying that you might want to get a few more calories in, this job takes more energy than you expect,” he said, his tone apologetic.

“For you, maybe. But I know my limits and this is enough,” Daniel replied.

Gwen wasn’t in the mood to watch much more of this. She sighed and twiddled her fork between her fingers. “David, if he passes out on the job then he’ll know he needs to eat more. If not then just leave him alone. Daniel’s a grownass man and he can take care of himself.”

“Thank you, Gwen,” Daniel said, his smile taking on a bit of a smug tilt. Thankfully he didn’t chide her for the choice of language this time, since he’d learned very quickly that doing so only annoyed her. “And until that happens you’re going to stop pestering me about it, David.”

“If you say so,” David said, though his expression and tone clearly stated that he still thought otherwise.

“So what’s the deal with your diet, anyway?” Gwen asked before she could stop herself.

Daniel tensed slightly at the question and his eyes snapped to Gwen, as if expecting her to ride him about it next.

“I’m not gonna bitch at you for it, I’m just curious is all,” Gwen assured him as she rested her chin in the palm of one hand.

“Oh, well, in that case,” Daniel began, the serene expression of one who is about to enlighten the ignorant coming upon his face. “As you know, food is necessary sustenance for the body, but spice only serves as a distraction. By avoiding unnecessary flavoring in food I’m able to maintain purity of both mind and body, as well as helping to safeguard myself from negative influences.”

Silence fell over the table as David and Gwen stared at him.

“So is this a religious thing, or...?” Gwen asked, raising an eyebrow. While it wasn’t the strangest thing she’d ever heard, it was definitely far from the norm.

“Yes, it is,” Daniel replied with a nod. “I eat according to my beliefs, and I would appreciate it if some people—” he cast a forceful glance at David “—wouldn’t pester me over it.”

“Okay, okay,” David said, hands raised in a gesture of defeat. “I won’t bug you about it anymore.” He turned back to the remnants of his usual massive breakfast, then broke out into a huge smile once he was finished. “Well, time to go get the boats ready! Let’s bring in some fresh fish for dinner tonight!”

For once Max was actually excited for the day’s main activity to get underway, but there was some important preparation that needed to be taken care of first. Namely, getting the Quartermaster to share what he knew about the lake monster. The talking part would be easy no doubt, it was finding the guy that would be hard since he tended to roam and the camp was pretty big. They didn’t even know whether he actually lived on the campgrounds or not.

Luckily the Quartermaster was just locking up the quartermaster store as Max, Nikki, and Neil approached the Mess Hall on their first pass to search for him.

“Hey there, Quartermaster,” Max said once they were within speaking distance. “We were wondering if you had any stories to tell us about the local lake monster.”

“Mmm, goin’ after the lake monster already, huh?” the Quartermaster said as he turned to them. “Well yer gonna need the right bait if y’ wanna try catchin’ it.”

“And that is?” Neil asked, a notebook and pen in his hands.

“Watermelons,” the Quartermaster replied. His bushy eyebrows came down at the incredulous looks on their faces. “Don’t believe me? Just you get out there an’ try it. Put watermelon in the water or in the boat and the beast’ll come for sure.”

“And where do we get watermelon here?” Neil asked, after jotting down the note—it was worth trying regardless of how ridiculous it sounded, after all. “Do you guys keep it stocked in the kitchen or...?”

Rather than reply, the Quartermaster started to walk off, bound for the back of the Mess Hall.

Max looked to Nikki and Neil, who both shrugged and hurried after the Quartermaster; it wasn’t as if he’d just walk off for no reason in the middle of their conversation, he was at least mentally present enough that he wouldn’t do that.

The Quartermaster led them into the forest behind the Mess Hall, trudging along a thin trail that cut between bushes and trees until they came to a clearing. Camp Campbell had a “farm camp”, a small—albeit productive—patch of tomatoes near the center of the Activities Field that got watered every other day, but what they came upon in the clearing matched what was expected far better: sturdy garden boxes filled with squashes, leafy greens, and lettuces lined one side of the clearing, with stands of tomatoes at the end of it all and half of the space dedicated completely to the growing of watermelons.

“Davey grows ‘em, dunno how he keeps the beasts off a’ this place,” the Quartermaster said, continuing toward the watermelon patch. “I swear he’s been feedin’ the thing fer years now but I never catch him at it,” he added with a wave of his hook.

“Wait, what?” Max asked as he looked up at the Quartermaster in disbelief. “David can’t even sit through scary stories without screaming like a total wuss, there’s no fuckin’ way he wouldn’t be scared shitless by a lake monster!”

“Well maybe he doesn’t think it’s a monster?” Neil suggested, tapping the tip of his pen against his chin. “Maybe he just thinks it’s a really big fish or something.”

“Or a giant turtle!” Nikki added with a grin.

“Anyway,” the Quartermaster said, apparently bored with the little discussion. He walked into the watermelon patch, selected a ripe melon, and sliced through its stem with a single swipe of his hook. “Throw pieces a’ this into the water and the beast’ll find ya for sure.”

“Alrighty, campers!” David said, smiling with eagerness as he addressed them. “It’s time to go fishing! Gwen and I will each take a group out onto the lake while the remaining campers stay here with Daniel. Now, who wants to get out on the water first?”

Without a word Max darted over to David, Nikki and Neil hot on his heels. “Ready to go, Davey,” Max said as he smirked up at David, his hands shoved in his hoodie pocket. David was going to be delighted that Max picked him, he just knew it.

Right on cue, David’s smile widened with delight and his eyes welled up a little as he looked down at Max. “So, who wants to go with Gwen?” he continued, gesturing to Gwen with an emphatic wave of his hands.

Nurf joined Gwen’s little crew first, followed by Nerris and Dolph. That left Preston, Ered, Harrison, and Space Kid on the shore with Daniel, where they would be free to try their luck fishing around the docks or return to one of their individual activities.

The boat groups suited up with life vests, then set out onto the lake.

“I can’t wait to show you kids my favorite fishing spots!” David said, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the sound of the motor. “We’ll have better chances fishing from a boat, oh you’ll love it! It’s so exciting when you bring a big one in!”

Max gave Nikki a small nod, and she stood and bounced back to sit next to David, where she immediately began to ask him about the best fishing spots on the lake or chatter at him about how exciting the fishing had been this morning. Neil settled on David’s other side while Max remained where he was near the center of the boat. Between answering Nikki’s incessant questions and navigating, it would be nearly impossible for David to focus on anything else, which meant Neil would be able to start leaving a watermelon trail without being noticed.

Behind them something big drifted beneath the waves, a gentle disturbance in the water the only sign of its invisible passing. It followed the boat, sucking down the trail of floating watermelon cubes without breaking the surface.

Neil kept an eye on the growing wake behind them, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Just waves and the occasional piece of driftwood, which were nothing to get excited about.

The boat finally slowed as they came into the cove David had set as their destination. David paused as they drifted in, as if having realized something. He looked to Neil, who froze in the act of taking a watermelon cube from the plastic bag in his hand, a somewhat guilty expression on his face.

“Snacks, what a great idea, Neil!” David said, giving Neil the usual enthusiastic smile. “I hope you brought enough for everyone!” he added with a wink and a light nudge with his elbow.

“Oh uh, yeah,” Neil said nervously as Max retrieved a big ziplock bag of watermelon chunks that had been hidden under one of the seats and showed it to David. “More than enough for everyone.”

Max couldn’t help but smirk, even though he knew it would probably give away that they were up to something. It was just too perfect with David being so unaware like this. Revealing that there was an actual legit monster living in Lake Lilac might even make David break down on the spot just from the sheer jarring shock of it all. Maybe the monster was already here.

Meanwhile a long, slow wave followed them into the cove and lapped against the surrounding shores.

“Alright, let’s just drop our anchor,” David said, moving to the bow to do so. “And now I’ll show you how to cast when you don’t have much room. Can’t have anyone getting hooked in the ear again, after all!”

“Again?” Neil asked, looking worried as David pushed a rod into his hands.

David instructed the three of them in the art of the side-cast—which required less room than the over the shoulder cast and allowed for more control at the cost of distance—then took up his own rod and settled in to let them try on their own for a while.

Max scanned the surrounding water and became a tad frustrated when he saw nothing there. He glanced at Neil, who shook his head; Nikki was pouting little, so that meant she hadn’t spotted anything worth talking about. Well, that was a disappointment. The way the Quartermaster talked up watermelon as bait, Max thought they’d be getting results by now. He scowled as he reeled in his line. That, and this spot was boring as hell. David said he was taking them to his favorite spots, he’d expected more fish than this.

“Huh, not getting much action here today,” David muttered to himself as he reeled in his line. “Guess we should try somewhere else.”

It was time for drastic measures.

“Actually,” Max said as David stowed his fishing rod beneath one of the seats. “Why don’t you take us to visit that special friend of yours?”

David’s eyes snapped up to Max. “Excuse me?” he asked, looking confused.

“The giant turtle you keep feeding when the Quartermaster’s not looking!” Nikki cut in, bouncing up and down so much that it rocked the boat.

Max shot her a glare; the last thing they needed was David figuring out who their source was and restricting access.

“I’m betting on it being a big sturgeon, personally,” Neil added, clinging to the side of the boat in terror as the rocking started to slow after Nikki sat down.

“I—oh,” David said, his expression already becoming apologetic. He paused to get Nikki to sit down. “I don’t know, it’s not exactly—”

“Wellp, should’ve seen that coming,” Max said as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Guess we’re not special enough for him to share it with us. So much for that.”

David flinched at the notion, and a look of indecision came upon his face. Max knew that David didn’t want to be like “other adults” who didn’t care enough, and was fully willing to use that to his advantage. “I guess it would be alright to visit its usual hideout... But under one condition,” the last sentence was added quickly, before any of the campers could cut in. “You have to promise me that you will not, under any circumstances try to catch this thing. It’s too dangerous.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” Max said, giving David the most innocent smile he could muster. This was it. They were gonna find this lake monster and watch as David got scared shitless at the mere sight of it. He couldn’t wait.

“We can do that,” Neil said. He was already becoming nervous, and it wasn’t just from the way the boat was rocking earlier.

“Okay fine but I still wanna see it!” Nikki added, kicking her legs as she sat on the bench.

This seemed to calm David down a bit. “Alright, we’ll see if it’s there,” he said. David pulled up the anchor and started the engine again, then took them out of the cove and farther down the lake.

Max had no idea Lake Lilac was this big, he’d assumed that the part he could see from the camp was all there was to it. A bit of a silly assumption but an easy one to make. The lake being bigger certainly made the presence of a lake monster more believable.

It occurred to Max, as he watched Nikki flick another watermelon cube into the water like a paper football, that David could take them to any obscure area of the lake and pass it off as being the monster’s lair and they wouldn’t know the difference. Maybe a bit of grilling would be in order if the monster didn’t turn up once they got there, just to be sure David wasn’t trying to pull one over on them; he probably told them not to fish for it cause he wanted to protect the thing too, the hippy. Well, screw that. He was going to have his monster, whether David liked it or not.

At last David took them into a bay and cut the motor. It was much larger than the cove they’d been in before, and was so deep that they couldn’t see the bottom from the boat. Well, it was certainly big enough for a lake monster to live in.

Nikki hopped to her feet and darted from one side of the boat to the other as she searched the water for the lake monster, causing the it to rock again. Neil clung to the side of the boat for dear life with a look of dull fear on his face, obviously unhappy with how Nikki was expressing her enthusiasm. It was uncomfortable but it was also the perfect distraction for Max to set up what he was about to do next.

David stood and moved to the center of the boat where Nikki was scampering about, trying to catch her while keeping his balance despite the rocking. “Nikki, stop. You need to pick a side and stick to it,” he said, taking a couple tries to actually grab the back of Nikki’s life vest and hold her up.

Max had his back to David as he fiddled with his fishing rod. Luckily the lure had enough hook exposed for what he wanted to do. He reached into the plastic bag in his hoodie pocket and took a chunk of watermelon out.

“Just sit here and—” the sudden pause was undoubtedly because David noticed Max doing something suspicious. “Max, what are—”

Rather than reply, Max released the watermelon-baited hook and drew back for a side cast, on the side of the boat that David wouldn’t be able to get to as easily.

“Max, no!” David reached out to grab the hook with his bare hand—but too late.

Max flicked his line out with one easy movement, the lure with its watermelon bait hitting the water with a small splash. Something hit the bait before the ripples could fade away. Something big. The reel screamed as the thing took line, and Max knew that he’d never be able to keep the rod if it was just in his hands. He jammed the handle into the plank reinforcements at the bow, then put both hands on the reel handle and pulled back.

The boat shot off as the line went taut, whatever was beneath the waves towing it with ease. There was a loud thump as David was thrown off his feet by the sudden movement, followed by Nikki tumbling toward the back of the boat with him.

“Max, let go!” David yelled over the rush of air from the boat’s movement. “Let go of the rod!”

For the first time genuine fear began to edge its way in. This thing was stronger than he expected, but—what exactly had he expected, again? Nessie was supposed to be the size of a goddamn bus, why the hell would this thing be any different if it was a legit lake monster? Max released the reel’s handle and tried to unwedge the rod from the bow. It started to come loose, until the reel reached the end and the line went taut, jerking the rod out of Max’s hands and wedging it firm on the bow again.

Whatever the thing was put on more speed, and Max fell back against the first row of seats on the boat. The sound of the line creaking reached his ears over the wind, and he hoped it would just snap already so they could get the hell off this ride. He looked up as a shadow fell over him; David had made his way up to the bow, clinging tightly to the boat with one hand as he looked at the rod.

David’s mouth tightened, and he reached into his vest to retrieve a sturdy knife from some inner pocket. With one quick swipe of the blade David cut the line, releasing them.

The boat bucked from the sudden loss of propulsion as David held firm to the bow, the knife still in one hand. At last they drifted to a halt and the boat stilled. The monster was long gone, having vanished back into the depths of the lake.

That grim look was still on David’s face as he stood and put the knife away. He didn’t really look at Max before turning to walk back to the motor, where Neil was still clinging to the side of the boat for dear life with a look of abject terror on his face while Nikki gnawed at the rope she’d been tied to the seat with.

After a moment of hesitation Max sat up and scooted back toward them, away from the bow—he didn’t really feel like sitting up front anymore. It was only as he settled on the seat facing the motor that he realized he was shaking. Max clenched his fists and tried to make it stop, telling himself that it was silly to freak out now that they were safe.

David started up the motor, the sudden noise startling Max and breaking his concentration, and took them out of the bay.

“Sooo...” Nikki began, not a single hint of fear in her voice, lingering or otherwise. “Are we gonna keep fishing?”

“We’re going back to camp,” David replied, his eyes on the water ahead and his tone the tiredest Max had ever heard it.

In any other situation Max would count it as a victory to be able to dim the normal enthusiasm, but he wasn’t in any position to do so after what happened. It was no victory if they’d both been scared shitless in the process. And while it was true Nikki seemed completely unfazed by nearly being shipwrecked by a lake monster, Neil looked like he might have to be pried off the boat with a crowbar when they got back.

David was silent throughout most of the trip, something that Max found to be—to his own surprise—distinctly unnerving. Spooky Island had just come into sight when he finally spoke: “I didn’t tell you not to try catching it because I was trying to protect the fish, Max.” David paused, his eyes still on the path ahead. “I told you that because it’s dangerous. Lots of fishermen have almost drowned trying to catch it, fishermen with far more experience and better equipment than you.”

Max didn’t reply. He couldn’t think of a proper comeback, and besides, David was right in this case. He would have to be a lot smarter when it came to hunting these things in the future. Scarring David for life wasn’t worth dying for, after all.

The Camp Campbell docks came into view as they rounded a bend. There were no campers lingering on the shoreline and no Daniel either, which meant they had all gone back up to the Activities Field rather than stick around and fish from the shore. David pulled up to the left-hand dock and secured the boat, then untied Nikki and stepped onto the dock.

“Alright, everyone off,” he said, with only a little bit of his usual pep.

Neil released his deathgrip on the boat and climbed out, using his hands to steady himself and his legs shaking. Nikki followed, hopping easily onto the dock as if the most interesting thing to happen on their fishing trip had been, well, catching a fish. Or almost catching a fish. A regular fish. A fish that wasn’t a goddamn lake monster that was probably the size of a bus. They would need to adjust their hunting strategy next time they tried something.

Max tried to ignore the wobble in his legs as he stood and climbed off the boat. The three of them trudged to the shore, where David told them they could go join the rest of the campers at the Activities Field or stay on the shore and fish from there, his voice still tired and his usual bouncing gestures mostly gone. Neil started off toward the Mess Hall without a word to either of them, and Max and Nikki followed him.

It was time to calm down and figure things out after a fishing trip like that.

Gwen wasn’t terribly surprised to find that no one was fishing on the shore as she guided the boat to the docks. What was surprising was that David’s boat was already tied off there, which meant there had probably been trouble. She grimaced; Max picking David himself had been suspicious, she should’ve known better and done something to warn David. Hopefully no one was hurt at the very least.

As for Gwen and her little “crew”, they’d actually managed to catch a few keepable-sized fish. That is, before Nurf snagging Dolph’s sketchbook and nearly casting it out into the lake told her it was time to quit while they were ahead. Nurf was pretty proud of himself for catching two of the three fish they were keeping, maybe he’d lay off on the bullying for the rest of the day since he was feeling so good. Gwen hoped so, anyway.

The campers climbed out of the boat, Nurf holding his two fish aloft like trophies and Nerris dragging hers—it was the biggest of the three and almost too heavy for her to carry. Dolph hopped off with a smile on his face despite the near-loss of his sketchbook, having caught some good pose and action sketches rather than any actual fish.

“Alright guys, let’s head up to the Mess Hall and put those fish away. David can show you how to clean them later,” Gwen said as she herded them up the path. She winced when Nerris decided it would be better to sling her fish over her shoulder like a knapsack, that was going to be annoying to clean.

In all, she counted it as a victory. The kids were satisfied, no one got hooked in the ear or face—close calls aside—and they even brought back some fresh fish to enjoy. It was nice to have a little success once in a while.

Gwen found the rest of the campers at the Activities Field once the fish were put away. Daniel was being his typical mildly-creepy smiley self while David was much more subdued than usual. That wasn’t a good sign. Gwen scanned the field and found Max, Nikki, and Neil attending art camp, of all things. Not... As horrific as she expected but David’s mood was still an indicator that something went wrong.

“So the camp didn’t burn down while I was away,” Gwen said as she came within speaking distance of David. “That’s always a plus.”

“Oh, Gwen!” David said, some of the melancholy lifting from his eyes. “We had a bit of a situation out on the lake, but we’re back safe and sound now!” He was trying his very best to get that jovial tone going, but he just couldn’t quite pull it off.

Must’ve been something serious. “Speaking of out on the lake, my group was able to get a few good fish. Should we take a look?”

“Of course!” David was working his way back up to his usual cheer, both in gesture and in tone. “Let’s have a look at your haul!”

Sure enough, the cheer dropped off somewhat once the campers could no longer see them.

“So what happened?” Gwen asked as she closed the Mess Hall door behind them. “This isn’t like you so it must’ve been something big.”

David inhaled sharply and paused as he put his thoughts in order, his hands clasped so tightly that his knuckles showed white. “Max tried to catch Lily today,” he said finally, looking down at the floor. What she could see of his face was drawn and several shades too pale. “Somehow they knew watermelon was her favorite and Max used a piece as bait. Lily could’ve capsized the boat if I hadn’t cut us loose in time.”

Damn,” Gwen said as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “And no one was hurt?”

David shook his head, though he still looked grim. “A few bruises when we were thrown back, maybe. Nikki’s okay but Neil got really scared, even Max was a bit shaken up afterward.”

“You too, by the looks of it,” Gwen said. She sighed. “Do you know who might’ve told them about it?”

“Nikki mentioned the Quartermaster during the trip, something about me feeding the ‘giant fish’ while he wasn’t looking.”

“Yeah that sounds about right,” Gwen grumbled with a roll of her eyes. “Of course he wouldn’t care enough to keep his damn mouth shut around kids who want to find this stuff.”

A few moments passed in silence as David thought further on it. He untangled his hands from each other and instead scrubbed at the short hair at the back of his skull with his fingertips, giving voice to a nasal half-growl of frustration. Once his fingers stilled he sighed and smoothed his hair down as he straightened. “It’s not just the Quartermaster,” he said slowly, as if still working things out even as he spoke. “Things are getting stirred up right now. It’s never been this...” David lifted a hand, waving it weakly in a silent plea for Gwen to help him put it into words.

“Exposed? Active?” Gwen guessed. It was true though, they’d never had a local seen so clearly by any of the kids before the noctursa incident. She sighed with annoyance when she couldn’t quite come up with the right word either. “They’re out there being seen and shit when they’re not fucking supposed to and making our jobs harder,” she finished, waving her hand toward the nearest window and the forest beyond.

“Yeah,” David said, wincing at Gwen’s animosity. “Exactly. Even all those, you know, bigfoot hunters, conspiracy people, they never found anything. The campers never found anything.” There was of course the elephant in the room, that being the fact that the Quartermaster knew a fair amount about what lived here. The difference was that all the locals avoided him like the plague and up until now the campers had never listened to him. They’d settled for just letting him do his thing with the hope that he wouldn’t piss off anything big.

“So what’s different? I mean, this feels like any other summer.” Gwen paused. “Okay, other than some of the weird weather shit that happens, but that’s been happening pretty much all year and it’s probably climate change anyway.” She rolled her eyes. “Nothing magic about that, unfortunately.”

“I...” David began, and Gwen could almost hear the ‘don’t know’ that would’ve followed had he not caught himself. “The lake’s gonna start shifting soon, and there’s been something prowling the Outskirts lately.” His eyes were still downcast, but they were darting about the floorboards as he thought. “A noctursa got hit by a big rig the other day, they’re usually a lot more careful than that. Something’s up, but I’m not sure what.”

Gwen walked to the nearest table and took a seat, crossing her arms over her chest. “Alright, the lake’s done the shifts before, even I remember that happening, but the thing on the Outskirts sounds new. Did you see it, or...?”

“I only ever got its scent,” David replied, and his eyebrows came together as he held a hand up to his nose. “I smelled something like it before that, recently, but I can’t remember where.”

“So that’s the only place it’s been that we know of,” Gwen said, glaring at the floorboards in front of her.

“It’s something that can’t get through the wards,” David said slowly.

“And that means it’s something that isn’t supposed to be allowed in,” Gwen finished for him. “Which means it’s probably dangerous. As if we didn’t have enough shit to deal with already.” She closed her eyes for a moment; as fun as being friends with what was basically a werewolf and going on the occasional magical adventure could be, there was always the risk of things getting annoyingly complicated back at camp because of it. This was one of those times.

There was no reply from David, but she knew he was still listening; even he could run out of things to say at times.

“Well, until that’s all figured out we’ll have to keep a closer eye on Max,” Gwen said, bracing her elbows against her knees. “And you need to stop giving him the benefit of the doubt.”

David flinched at that. “But Gwen, camp is supposed to be about learning, and having fun. I don’t want to miss out on a chance for Max to make good memories while he’s here.”

“Those memories are worth fuckall if he’s dead, David,” Gwen stated. She knew it was jumping to extremes a bit, and David looked absolutely horrified at the suggestion, but he needed to get the picture before their worst fears were realized. It was time to get serious, regardless of how unpleasant or exhausting it was going to be.

“Okay, I’ll... I’ll do what I can,” David said with a sigh, avoiding her gaze. It was a tall order for someone like David. He crossed to the table she was seated on and settled on its accompanying bench. “You’ll keep an eye out too, right?”

“As much as I can,” Gwen replied.

“Thank you, Gwen.”

“For what?”

“Well the advice, and helping around camp, and being so smart and nice, and...” David drifted off, and though he kept his face turned away from her she could see his ears turning red. “S-sorry, it’s just, I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t around.”

Gwen was grateful that David was looking away, because she could feel her own face heating up in a blush from the praise. “You’d manage,” she said quietly. That was the honest truth of it, really. David had managed before she got here, and he would manage after she was gone. That was just the way things were. “Anyway, why don’t you take some time away from the kids, maybe go out and catch some fish yourself like I know you’ve been wanting to. Daniel and I can hold down the fort while you’re gone.”

David chuckled. “Can’t keep anything from you, I just hope Daniel can’t see through me like that.”

“I mean, I doubt he likes you enough to pay that much attention,” Gwen said offhandedly. When there was no reply she looked at David and found him staring her with equal parts hurt and surprise. “You didn’t notice?”

“No! Why would I think he didn’t like me? I haven’t been mean to him or anything!”

“David, you do realize that people don’t need an actual reason to hate someone, right? Just look at Max.”

“Yes but Max is a kid, he’s still figuring stuff out. Daniel’s an adult.

Gwen pressed her lips together and raised her eyebrows at David, hoping that she wouldn’t actually have to spell out examples of adults doing stupid shit like that for no real reason.

“Well, dangit,” David said, deflating as he realized what he was saying. “But why though? Are you sure he doesn’t like me?”

“He actively avoids taking help from you, gets snippy with you way more quickly than he does with me, I see him tense up like he’s getting pissed when you get close sometimes. He’s got problems, no question, but one of those problems happens to be how he feels about you.”

“But, why, though?” David asked, looking desperate. It made Gwen regret bringing it up a little, since this was probably going to eat at him along with the close call earlier today.

“I don’t know. Cause you look like twins? He doesn’t like your personality? Actually it’s probably because he’s some freaky Scientologist creep, let’s be real, and who the fuck knows why those guys do what they do.”

David sighed and let his head fall forward. “Well, that’s disappointing,” he mumbled.

“No time to mope,” Gwen said, giving him a little push. “Go take a break and get those fish. I want something nice and fresh tonight.”

“And more for the smoker,” David added as his smile started to come back. “Bagels with cream cheese and smoked trout—oh! Maybe I’ll even get some landlocked salmon too, those are always good!”

“Get out there and stop making me hungry, then!” Gwen chuckled as she pushed him to his feet.

David joined in with a genuine laugh. “Okay okay, I’m going.” He paused at the end of the table, then swept her up in a quick hug. “Thanks, Gwen. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

While fishing was absolutely what David wanted to do right now, there was something much more important to take care of first.

David jogged to his small garden from the Mess Hall and found a ripe watermelon. He noticed very quickly that one of them was missing, which meant it had to be the Quartermaster who told the kids about Lily—the chances of them finding his garden were pretty slim otherwise. David sighed, tucking the watermelon under one arm. That was going to be annoying to take care of, since the Quartermaster listened to no one and definitely not to David. He would have to settle for keeping Max away from him and hope for the best.

He double checked that the Quartermaster wasn’t around to watch him as he emerged from the forest—Nikki’s comment had him worrying about just how much he was accidentally letting the man see—then hurried down to the docks. David took the boat Gwen had been using earlier, resolving to properly check the other for damage once he returned. For now, he had fish to catch and a certain big friend he needed to check up on.

Lake Lilac was far larger than one might realize just looking out from Camp Campbell. David took the boat to the left, bound for the most secluded sections of the lake past where he’d taken the kids earlier. He felt a small twinge of conscience over having lied to them about where Lily's home was earlier; it felt so wrong but it was necessary to keep them safe, he had to remember that. Even that hadn’t quite worked since Lily had been tailing them for almost the entire trip.

David came to the stretch of water in front of Lily's cove and started turning the boat in various circles and curves almost on instinct. There was a certain path required to get to Lily's home, a sort of... Well, movement-based spell you had to use in order to reach the phase that her home was on. It allowed her to hide out whenever there were conspiracy hunters afoot.

Contrary to popular depictions of the infamous lake monsters, Lily was less of a lost plesiosaur or overgrown snake, and more of a massive probably-a-tad-eldritch slug. She had siphons. And tendrils, which lended to the probably-eldritch bit, and she possessed a sort of synergy with the ambient magic of Lake Lilac and enough intelligence to avoid being found by the wrong people—though admittedly her thoughts crawled by much slower than those of humans. Both were handy for evasion though it did mean she could become a bit hard to recognize at times, and waiting for her to come to a decision sometimes required light reading and a lot of patience.

Lily was big. There was no official length because no scientist had ever managed to find her, but David knew just by looking at her that she was bigger than the camp’s bus. She lingered beneath the surface as David’s boat drifted in, a large gray shape in the water, then lifted her head and most of her neck above the surface. Her eyestalks drooped as she regarded him with wary tiredness, Max’s fishing line still dangling from her mouth.

David winced, hit hard by a pang of sympathy. “Oh Lily, I’m so sorry. Let me get the hook out for you.”

A pause as Lily processed David’s offer, then she lowered her massive head and allowed him to reach into her mouth.

“Oooh boy, you really went after it,” David muttered, needing to put his arm in up to the sleeve to reach the hook. “Just give me a second...”

There was a brief, pained gurgle from Lily and her eyestalks jerked back as David worked the hook loose.

“Got it!” David said as the hook came out. He removed his arm from Lily's mouth, unfazed by the slime that now covered it, and coiled up the fishing line that was still attached to the hook. “That’s a relief, bet you feel better now, huh?”

Lily shook her head out to resettle things, then gave him a nod after the usual required thought time.

“I brought a little something for you.” David put the fishing line away and held up the watermelon he’d brought with him. “No hooks, I promise.”

Another pause as Lily gave the melon a meticulous inspection. Finally she put her mouth over its top and sucked it out of David’s hands, then began chewing it to pieces.

David sat back in the boat and watched Lily eat her watermelon. She was a gentle creature as a general rule, but certain things could spook her very badly. Getting a sharp metal hook in her mouth was one of them, and when panic set in Lily tended to forget how fragile the smaller creatures around her could be.

There was a hollow splash as the bottom half of the watermelon fell into the lake. Lily bent to grab it once she was done chewing the top half and continued her contented munching.

“By the way, Lily,” David began as she finished her meal. “You need to stay away if there are other people with me, even if there’s watermelon around, okay? I’ll try to keep them from teasing you like that again.”

Lily stared at him awhile, then nodded her understanding. Hopefully that would be the end of it when it came to Max fishing for lake monsters.

“Max, I never want to do that again,” Neil stated as he looked up from his drawing. He’d been quiet ever since they got off the boat, probably due to lingering nerves. Max actually couldn’t blame him this time. “You could’ve killed us!”

“Yeah, I know,” Max snapped. His own drawing wasn’t going well; art was harder than he expected, as it turned out. “We’re not gonna do shit like that again.”

“I dunno, I thought it was fun,” Nikki cut in. Her own picture going quite well, though the subject wasn’t what they were supposed to be drawing. “We should do it again.”

No!” Max and Neil chorused as they both turned to her.

“We gotta be smarter about this,” Max said while Nikki pouted. “Having fun is great and all but not if we end up dead.” He sat back. “I’d like to be alive to see the look on David’s face when he realizes there are real monsters living around here.”

“Plus you can’t have fun anymore if you’re dead, Nikki,” Neil added diplomatically. “We’ll be better off if we’re more careful, and there’ll still be plenty of opportunities to have fun anyway.”

“Well, okay,” Nikki said with a shrug.

“For now though, let’s take it easy. I’m beat,” Max said, turning to his drawing again. What was supposed to be a cat head looked like a bear made of Play Dough, and it was starting to really piss him off. Apparently monster hunting wasn’t the only thing they should’ve thought twice on.

David returned about an hour before dinner, four large fish held in one hand as he hurried into the Mess Hall. He shooed Gwen back out when she tried to follow him in, saying that he wanted dinner to be a surprise for her and that he’d let her know when it was ready. Nurf barged in just moments after her and was allowed to stay while David cleaned the fish, and even got to try his hand at gutting one of them himself once he watched David do it.

Finally dinnertime rolled around, and Gwen recognized the delectable smell coming out of the Mess Hall before she even set foot through the doors: fresh fish tacos.

Even the campers had little to complain about as they filed in for dinner. The fishy taste that turned so many people away from seafood was absent in truly fresh fish, and this was about as fresh as it got. It helped that David knew a thing or two about how to season and cook it properly, of course, and soon everyone was served up and seated in their various friend groups.

Gwen settled at the councilor table first, ready to dig in. It had been a while since she was actually excited about eating a meal here, so the tacos were a godsend. She even managed a genuine smile as David sat down with his own food.

Daniel was last to enter the Mess Hall. He looked despondently at the food on offer—it was amazing how you could read him despite the smile if you paid attention—then turned to them. “Ah, guess I’ll find some leftover potatoes for tonight.”

“Actually I made some unseasoned fish for you too, I just had to keep it separate from the rest so nothing could get on it,” David said, giving Daniel his most winning smile as he stood. “Let me just get it out for you.”

“I—oh,” Daniel said, his movements a tad twitchy from surprise. “Of course.”

Gwen covered up her smirk by taking a bite of taco. Well, should’ve seen that coming. David just couldn’t settle for “this guy hates you” and would be on the lookout for opportunities to make nice with them until either he won them over or they left. He’d been trying the same with Max for a few summers now, with no real results. Perhaps it worked better on adults, though.

“There you go!” David said, setting the plate with the unseasoned fish on the table before Daniel, where he would be able to take as much as he pleased from it. “Enjoy!”

Daniel cut off a piece of the fish fillet and put it onto his plate, after which he took great care in examining it before he finally sampled a bite. He relaxed somewhat when he found nothing amiss, but didn’t look up from his plate. “Thank you,” he said stiffly, after the second bite. “It’s well-prepared.”

“Glad to hear it!” David said with near-explosive cheer.

This wouldn’t be the end of it, not by a longshot. Especially since Daniel almost seemed more unsettled by David’s genuinely kind gesture than by the little argument they’d had that morning. It was almost as if he’d been expecting David to do it wrong on purpose or something.

Either way, Daniel was probably going to be in for a hard time if he needed to look for genuine excuses to hate David.

A chill was already beginning to settle on Daniel’s skin by the time he stepped beyond Lake Lilac’s wards. He hadn’t expected the cold to be a potential problem, it being a fair summer night and all, but hopefully the meeting wouldn’t take too long either way. The slip-space he’d found had been very convenient, and stable enough that he could tweak it without worrying about accuracy when it came to where he ended up. Now he stood somewhere between Camp Campbell and the town of Sleepy Peak, the stars glittering above and civilization’s lights creating a dim yellow glow over the trees ahead of him. Regis would find him sure enough, hopefully before anything else happened upon him. He didn’t want to deal with any complications tonight.

Daniel was just beginning to rub his arms and wish he’d brought a coat when he felt a familiar presence approach. It was a coldness unlike what he was feeling from the night chill, vast and with the disconcerting sensation of infinity stretching in all directions; even in a diminished form that allowed him to walk the Earth without harming it, Xemüg’s avatar still possessed a remarkable sight that extended both through the eons and across countless light years. The sensation of Regis’s vast sight and knowledge were what Daniel was feeling now, and he knelt in the sparse grass to await the avatar’s arrival.

“Ah, Daniel. There you are,” the voice that echoed inside Daniel’s skull was smooth and regal, everything one would expect of a benevolent deity looking upon a favorite follower. “I take it you secured a place on the lake?”

“Yes, my lord,” Daniel replied, keeping his eyes on the ground. “I was hired on as a counselor at a summer camp.”

“You may stand. Tell me what you’ve discovered thus far.”

Daniel got to his feet and looked up at Regis, who floated before him at around head height, the purple diamond-shaped pupil of his singular eye focused upon him. It was said that the avatar took the shape of a crown to symbolize the coming reign of peace that would occur once the Ancient Ones made their return, a time when humans would at last live in harmony and abandon their primitive violent tendencies. It was this coming that Daniel and the Temple of the Eternal Crown were working to achieve, to save the world from itself before it was damaged beyond repair.

“Finding time to dedicate to study of the area has been difficult,” Daniel said after some hesitation, already apprehensive over whether Regis would be angry at the slow progress or not. “I have to keep up with the work in order to keep the job, but so far I’ve discovered the spatial instabilities you mentioned. I even used one to travel here.”

“So you’re giving me excuses for slow progress? How disappointing. I expected better from you, Daniel.”

The statement hit Daniel like a bucket of cold water, and he shuddered despite himself. “I—Apologies, I’ll do better,” he said, after a few moments spent frantically getting his tongue to work again.

“I should hope so.” Regis paused, then hovered closer. “Hmm, I see you’ve been slacking on the diet.”

“The food options here aren’t the best,” Daniel said hesitantly as his gaze drifted down to the ground, away from Regis’s appraising stare. “The camp’s been difficult, actually.”

“Do you feel it? Those vile emotions writhing inside you like parasites? Painful, isn’t it?”

Daniel nodded in silent misery; they had been troubling him almost from the very moment he arrived at Camp Campbell, and the only relief he found had been following his binding sessions. He’d been hoping Regis might be able to help with that, or at least give advice on how to handle it.

“Such things are a plague borne by the unenlightened, and are unfortunately just as contagious. It pains me to ask that you remain in their presence but this task is of such importance that we must make... Exceptions.”

“Yes, Regis,” Daniel said quietly, his eyes still on the ground before him and his hands clasped near his chest.

“I will have a pack of Pale Ingots sent, to ease the burden a bit,” Regis said magnanimously, after a few moments spent in apparent thought. “That should assist in throwing off the evil influences that plague you, give you a chance to recenter yourself.”

“Thank you, Regis,” Daniel said, heaving a deep sigh of relief. The Pale Ingots would solve the food situation for a while at least, as they were the standard fare back at the main temple. That was one less thing to worry about.

“Have you noted any entities of interest around the lake?” Regis asked, back to the primary topic of their meeting.

“A few,” Daniel replied. “There’s a promising boy with magical ability at the camp, his name’s Harrison. Another appears to be an Unburdened One. Nothing really stands out about the other children, save for their unpleasantness.” He paused, having at last come to the point where he would have to mention his least favorite person. “One of my coworkers is magical somehow, Harrison told me but he didn’t give details. He’s unable to directly use magic and he’s a gullible idiot either way, so I doubt he’s going to be much of a threat.”

“Your smile is slipping, Daniel,” Regis said, fixing Daniel with a penetrating stare. “It’s easy to see that you don’t like this fellow.”

Daniel snapped to attention, the smile reasserting itself once again. “Yes, being around him has a very... Unpleasant effect on me.” He paused, opened his mouth to say more, then shut it again.

“Go on,” Regis said, drifting closer.

“He looks exactly like me except for the colors! It’s weird!” Daniel stopped himself to check his volume, then continued. “And he lets the children walk all over him, lets chaos rule the entire camp on a daily basis. It’s frustrating.” He shoved down the final reason, the most bitter and treasonous one of all: that it felt as if David was better than him, that he was somehow Daniel but improved, a thought so shameful that Daniel didn’t dare speak it aloud even to Regis.

“An oaf he may appear, but it is best not to underestimate a potential obstacle,” Regis said smoothly. “Take care to bind that bitterness when you get the chance, it will only cloud your vision.”

“Yes, Regis,” Daniel said as he calmed. “Do you have any other orders?”

“Continue to map the instabilities as I instructed, and begin searching for the wardstones. There will likely be four, one for each cardinal direction. I want you to map their locations and record whatever markings they have,” Regis replied. “Other than that, I want you to acquire more information on your coworker. And remember, subtlety is key; there are many who would stand in our way, those who would see humanity rot rather than save it. The fate of this world may yet rest on your shoulders.”

David stopped mid-pace when his keen ears picked up the sound of Daniel’s footsteps approaching the cabin. He’d agreed to allow Daniel a walk for the sake of some time alone, but had protested the lateness and the fact that he would be alone; they’d agreed on a one-hour time limit, any longer than that and David would come looking.

Gwen looked up, having been roused from her reading by the sudden stop in David’s noise. “Told you he’d be fine,” she said, returning to her magazine.

Rather than make some quip in return, David hurried to the door and opened it right as Daniel arrived. “Welcome back, Da—!” the force of the door being opened pulled air into the cabin, carrying a familiar scent to David’s nose and the shock of it striking him silent.

“What?” Daniel asked, glancing over his shoulder into the woods to check if David had seen something.

“Oh! Sorry!” David said as he backed into the cabin to allow Daniel through. “I thought I heard something from the tents, I’ll just go check real quick!” He hurried out into the night, closing the door behind himself. After a pause to recover from the surprise, David walked to the campers’ tents as expected and only stopped once he was in the middle of the cluster.

It was the same. The same scent he’d found on the Outskirts, where that thing was lurking. The same trace of scent he’d detected on Daniel the day he showed up at camp.

David wanted to smack himself on the forehead, he should’ve been able to remember where he’d smelled it before, but there was no doubt about it now. Either that thing had managed to get inside the wards and had bumped into Daniel, or Daniel was somehow in direct contact with it. Neither option was good.

He could feel it weighing on him already, a certainty that he didn’t want to admit: this summer wasn’t going to be an easy one.

Chapter Text

It was another beautiful at Camp Campbell. The birds were singing, the sky was clear, and there was a starfish sitting on the sand of the lakeshore—

David stopped mid-stride and bent to pick it up.

Well, okay, that proved that the lake’s magic had shifted overnight and connected to a seashore somewhere, but that didn’t make the day any less beautiful. It was a strong shift too, given that physical signs were washing up on shore. Good thing he’d decided to take a walk along the lake when he smelled salt in the air; explaining a starfish might be a bit difficult, especially with Neil around to fact-check him.

The wind shifted over the lake, hitting David with a facefull of salt-laden air. Lily was probably sporting sea slug colors at the moment, he couldn’t wait to see that. For now though, he’d have to keep a lookout for any newcomers. They didn’t tend to know the rules of the area and could cause serious trouble as a result.

David tossed the starfish back into the water. Hopefully it would be taken back once the lake shifted away from the seashore, it would be a shame for it to get stranded so far away from home.

Either way, they wouldn’t be doing lake activities until the shift passed. David hurried back toward the camp to notify Gwen and make adjustments to the activities schedule.

“So run that by me again.”

“I would like you to take me to my friend David,” the woman said again, flicking her braided length of black hair over her shoulder. The glint of amusement in her brown eyes told Max that she wasn’t faking it, and that she was aware that he was giving her the runaround. She was a mere shade darker than Max and her accent was prominent enough to remind him of his favorite aunt, which possibly helped in his decision to go easy on her. That, and it was nice to find an adult who was willing to play along.

“See, it’s that last part that’s tripping me up,” Max said with a smirk. “David’s only friends with squirrels and bugs and shit, so I’m not sure you fit the criteria.”

“Oh dear, perhaps I have the wrong David, then,” she conceded, the amusement still there behind the false worry.

Nikki jumped up and grabbed the woman’s arm. “Whoa, your muscles are awesome!” she quipped, squeezing the woman’s arm as hard as she could.

“Why thank you.” The woman straightened, held her arm out, and flexed while Nikki clung on like an excited monkey. “I need them for my job.”

They turned at the sound of boots coming up the gravel road toward them.

“Kids, what’s going—” David stopped in front of the newcomer, and he broke out into a wide grin. “Karthi! What are you doing here?”

The woman—Karthi, apparently—chuckled as Nikki dropped to the ground. “I see your tail wagging, David,” she teased, the chuckle becoming a full-blown laugh.

David gasped with horror, covering his mouth with his hands as his eyes flicked to the campers and back to her. “Karthika!” he said, shocked.

“Fucking ew,” Max said, scowling with disgust. “Save the role play sex talk for when you’re in private.”

It was worth it just to see David’s entire face turn almost as red as his hair due to sheer embarrassment, but Karthi laughed even harder and Max grinned despite himself.

“Oh hey, it’s Karthika,” Gwen said as she joined them. “How’s it going? Haven’t seen you since last summer.”

“Just some business to attend to,” Karthika replied, still grinning. “I have some questions for David, in fact.”

David sobered immediately and the blush began to fade.

Max watched David slip into the passenger seat of the big black car Karthika had pulled up in. He looked up once they were gone and found Gwen still staring after the car as it drove away. “You jealous?” he asked with a cruel smirk.

“Nothing to be jealous of,” Gwen replied with a shrug. “She looks at David like a kid brother, no real chance of a relationship there,” she added nonchalantly and for all that Max could tell, she wasn’t lying.

“She seemed awfully friendly for being with the government,” Neil said as he continued into the Mess Hall with Nikki and Max. “Wonder what that was about.”

“I bet it’s about Mr. Campbell,” Max said as he got in the now very short breakfast line. “They should just check that crappy summer home of his, he’s got all kinds of illegal shit in there.”

Dolph scratched out the latest sketch, one of many that hadn’t been up to standard this morning. He was in the usual spot for morning drawing, just outside his tent where he would be able to sketch scenery and any campers who happened to amble past him during their own morning routine. Nothing seemed to be coming together, either the perspective was off, the proportion was wrong, or the shading too heavy or too light. Dolph jerked the current page up, flipping to the next.

The next drawing had some terrible flaw too. Dolph’s hands started to shake as he scribbled over it.

Not good enough.

That was why he came here, to improve, to show that he was good enough. But he felt so stagnant at times. The counselors left him to his own devices more often than not, and while the freedom was nice Dolph felt that he wasn’t really improving.

I have to get better.

So that when he got home his father would finally accept him.

The next sketch actually showed some promise, and Dolph’s mood began to improve a little. That is, until the tip of the pencil snapped and the jagged wood dug into the paper’s surface. The last bit of Dolph’s patience snapped along with it and he jumped to his feet, kicking the sketchbook aside and scattering pencils as he stomped off toward the Mess Hall.

Breakfast was still being served, but anger had driven Dolph’s appetite away and he instead veered to the right and continued toward the lake, stomping along a thin forest path toward the water beyond.

Once at the shore Dolph paused to choose the direction he wanted to walk. Not that it really mattered. On a whim he started toward the right, only to turn suddenly and backtrack when he decided left would be a better option. He stomped on through the sand of the shore, past the docks and toward the stretch of lake beyond them.

It was as he rounded a bend on the shore that Dolph stepped on the hem of his smock and tripped, falling flat on his face in the sand. He lifted his head and spat out a mouthful of sand, scowling as he pulled the smock off and lifted it to hurl to the ground. Dolph’s arm shuddered as he remembered who gave it to him, and instead he hugged it close to his chest while he waited for his anger to subside.

A shift in the wind brought the weedling cry of a seagull and the roar of waves to his ears. That wasn’t right. Dolph turned to the water and while there were waves today, they were far from being big enough to create the sort of marching roar he was hearing.

Dolph’s gaze wandered to the shore again, and this time he spotted a flat spiral shell the size of his palm, pale against the sand and still wet from being washed up. It looked like an ocean shell, though he had no idea how one might turn up here. He knelt and picked it up, turning it over in his hand as he wondered at where it might’ve come from.

The sound of a polite cough just in front of him cut through the wave roar, and Dolph jumped back with surprise, dropping the shell. He missed a step and fell to a sitting position on the sand, where he looked up at whoever had approached him: a girl his own age, with mousy brown hair and odd grey freckles spattered across her cheeks. She was dressed in blue overalls and a grey shirt, which was no uniform from any camp on the lake as far as Dolph could tell.

“Uh...” Dolph dithered on what to say, still surprised that the girl had snuck up on him so easily. “Hello?” He gave her a hesitant smile and a small wave.

Rather than reply, the girl stepped forward and carefully picked up Dolph’s smock from where it had fallen on the sand. “You dropped your coat,” the girl said as she offered it to him. There was the lilt of an Irish accent to her words, and Dolph wondered if she might be a tourist of some sort.

“Oh, thank you,” Dolph said, his smile becoming a little more relaxed as he accepted his smock and got to his feet. “It’s a painter’s smock, my Granmama gave it to me.”

“Is it magic?” the girl asked in a conspiratorial whisper, her hands cupped around her mouth as if to keep someone nearby from overhearing.

“No...?” Dolph replied uneasily. It was an odd question, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “I don’t think it’s magic, anyway.”

“I lost my coat,” the girl said, looking down at her feet and rubbing the toe of one sneaker into the sand. “Can you help me find it?”

“Oh, sure,” Dolph said with a shrug. “Where did you last see it?”

“I saw an old man walk away with it,” the girl replied, looking up at Dolph with fear in her eyes. “He went that way.” She pointed over Dolph’s shoulder, in the general direction of Camp Campbell.

“Did the old man have one eye and a hook?” Dolph asked, closing his left eye to help illustrate the question.

“Yeah!” The girl nodded. “You’ve seen him?”

“That’s just the Quartermaster, he works back at camp. We can ask David and Gwen and—”

“Who are they? Adults?”

“Yes, they’re the counselors, they can—”

“You can’t tell them!” the girl said, grabbing Dolph’s free arm. “Please just help me find it and I’ll go!”

“But why?” Dolph felt there was something big here that he was missing, something important. “What’s wrong?”

Again the girl looked around, as if they were being watched, then she leaned close and cupped her hands around her mouth. “I’m a selkie, I need my coat to go home. They’d steal it on purpose if they knew.”

“Ooooh.” Dolph paused. “What’s a selkie?” he asked, completely at a loss.

The girl looked troubled for a moment, then she replied, “I can turn into a seal, and use a little magic.”

“Really?” Dolph said with a hesitant smile. He wasn’t sure he bought the story, but with the stuff Max and the others had been talking about... Maybe this girl was part of that. “Like magic tricks, or...?”

She turned to the lake and put her hands out as if pushing against something, and the water in the shallows dipped and trickled back a bit before she released it.

“That’s amazing!” Dolph said, staring as the water sloshed back into place. “But what’s so special about the coat?” he asked, looking up at her.

“I need it to turn into a seal, and to use more of my magic.”

“Ooh, okay. I can help. I’m Dolph,” he added. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Maebh,” the girl replied, looking a little more at ease now that Dolph had agreed to help. “Can we go look now?”

“Yah, this way,” Dolph said, pointing back the way he’d come. “I think I know where to find it.”

All in all it was turning out to be a good chat with Karthika. Mr. Campbell wasn’t in trouble with the Department of Anomalous Incidents, for one—this was just a routine check-in on their part to make sure nothing was amiss on the lake. For another, it was just good to see her again after so long. She was the sort of person it was easy to get along with, which was exactly David’s type of friend.

“Do you recommend that we restrict access to the lake, since there will be higher danger of interaction between magicals and mundanes?” Karthika asked, the tablet that she was taking notes on in one hand. They were settled in the front two seats of her car, which was parked on a scenic overlook some distance from camp. “I’m sure we could create some believable reason for it.”

“N-no, no no, I can handle it!” David said quickly. “I’m getting the word out for the locals to lay low, and I haven’t heard of there being any incidents in the other camps.”

“Anything else to report?”

“We hired a new counselor who’s a bit odd,” David replied before he could stop himself. It wasn’t exactly polite to talk about someone like that. “I think he’s a Scientologist...?”

Karthika paused, raising an eyebrow. “A Scientologist? Has he done anything bad, or...?”

David shook his head. “No, I mean he’s a little unnerving sometimes, but not in a threatening way.”

“Scientologists haven’t been up to anything suspicious lately as far as we know, but...” Karthika said, watching him as she drummed her fingers against her knee. “Do you want me to meet him?”

“Well...” David paused to consider it. Scenting the lurker on Daniel was disturbing yes, but was hardly a reason to see him as guilty yet. Still, if Karthika decided he wasn’t dangerous... “If you have time,” he said finally.

The recovery attempt was not going as planned.

Dolph stepped back from the door to the Quartermaster Store and put his hands on his hips. It was locked, and he didn’t know where the Quartermaster was at the moment, so they would have to wait around until he came back and try to sneak in somehow. He had no idea how long that would take, and Maebh would need food and a place to sleep depending on how long this took.

If she was a camper then that would all be provided, but there was paperwork that was needed to prove that. Dolph considered it as he returned to where Maebh had hidden herself in a nearby cluster of bushes. If he could just get a blank copy of the paperwork, his penmanship could pass for an adult’s and convince the counselors that Maebh was supposed to be here.

“I have an idea,” Dolph said once he was close. He then took her by the hand and led her toward the tents and the Counselors’ Cabin beyond.

They passed the trip back with casual small-talk, David gushing about his campers as usual while Karthika shared details of her family’s trip to Yellowstone National Park—David had to admit that he was a bit jealous since it was a park he’d been meaning to visit for years. The area in front of the Mess Hall was empty by the time they arrived, everyone having gone to the Activities Field by now.

David hopped out of Karthika’s car and shut the door behind himself. “Oh by the way, Karthi, make sure you lock the car while we’re gone. We’ve had a bit of an incident last week and I’d hate to have a repeat.”

Karthika chuckled. “So they got the campmobile?”

“The bus,” David said with a grimace.

This was met with a barely-restrained laugh as Karthika imagined it. “It was Max, wasn’t it?” she asked as David led her toward the Activities Field.

“Yeah,” David replied. “It’s great he was dedicated enough to get it in the first place, I just wish he’d channel that energy into something less dangerous.”

“Only you could make out a kid stealing a bus as a partially good thing,” Karthika said, smiling. The smile faded to a look of shock when she laid eyes on Daniel, who was standing across the Activities Field from them. “That’s him?” she asked, pointing at at Daniel.

“Yes?” David replied with a forced smile. Hopefully Daniel wouldn’t mind talking to Karthika too much, he didn’t want to give him more reasons to dislike him.

“It looks like you could be brothers,” Karthika said as she lowered her hand.

Daniel caught sight of them and gave David a stiff wave. There was a cut to his smile that definitely wasn’t happy, and David’s heart sank.

“Not as far as I know,” David said weakly. “Maybe try not to bring that up, I think it makes him kinda mad.”

“Alright.” Karthika straightened and put on her most winning smile as she and David approached Daniel. “Good morning, Daniel,” she said once they were in speaking distance, her tone warm and welcoming. “I’d like to ask you a few questions, nothing big. Care to go for a walk?”

David fidgeted as he watched Daniel and Karthika walk toward one of the shorter trails that led away from the camp. It would be fine, either Karthika would reveal that Daniel was a threat or... Well, hopefully he wouldn’t be too mad that David asked someone from the government have a chat with him. This was feeling more painfully awkward by the second.

Gwen strolled off to the far side of the Activities Field, apparently to catch some shade in the summer heat. “Not sure how good an idea having Karthika talk to him out of the blue was,” Gwen muttered once he joined her, leaning close so the campers wouldn’t overhear. “He hasn’t really done anything so far anyway, other than be kinda weird.”

“About that...” David said hesitantly. “I smelled that thing on him last night, the one that’s been on the Outskirts.”

“Are you serious?” Gwen asked, her voice now devoid of what humor it had before. “Why didn’t you tell—”

“I didn’t want to make him suspicious,” David replied. “I don’t know how he ran into it, but I smelled it on him when he first got here too.”

Gwen sighed. “Well. That’s fucking great,” she grumbled.

“We don’t know how he ran into it,” David said. “Maybe he just bumped into it while he was out walking.”

“Which could mean it’s inside already,” Gwen finished. “Christ, this is gonna be a mess, isn’t it?” she added, covering her face with one hand.

“Now now, we don’t know that for sure,” David soothed her. “He might’ve bumped into something that ran into it, or he’s actually—” David paused for a worried sigh, “—possibly met it on purpose but that’s not likely either because how would he get to the Outskirts and back in under an hour?”

“Well if he’s meeting with something magic and dangerous then I’m sure he’d find a way,” Gwen replied as she dropped her hand, glancing toward the trail Karthika and Daniel had disappeared down. “So that’s why you had Karthika check him out?”

David nodded. “Guess we’ll have to keep a closer eye on him too from now on.”

Dolph and Maebh approached the Activities Field from the trees, Dolph spotting David and Gwen standing together across the way. Their backs were turned to them, which made this the perfect opportunity. “Come on,” he whispered to Maebh, and the two emerged from the trees to make their way over to the art camp area.

Surprisingly enough, Max, Nikki, and Neil were waiting for Dolph at art camp, and not-so-surprisingly Max was very close to losing all his patience. It seemed whatever good mood he’d been in had evaporated long before Dolph’s return to camp.

“Damn, you sure took your sweet time,” Max said, his arms crossed over his chest. “We’re gonna get our second art camp done today, so set us up.”

Any desire to ask Max for help promptly evaporated thanks to the attitude, and Dolph frowned as he went about setting supplies out and picking a subject for them to draw. Maebh shadowed him, watching with a great deal of interest.

“So who’s the new kid?” Neil asked as they sat down at the table and began to draw the still life Dolph had set up for them.

“Your freckles look super cool!” Nikki added with a big grin as she pointed at Maebh’s cheeks.

Maebh blushed and looked down.

“She arrived just this morning,” Dolph replied. “And she’s in art camp, like me!”

“Wow, so it turns out you don’t need us anymore right after you convince us to join,” Max grumbled, glaring down at his sheet of paper. Apparently his attempt wasn’t going well already. “Tragic. How about you let us drop out?”

“You still owe me for the drawings I already did,” Dolph said stiffly.

“Yeah yeah,” Max said, waving Dolph off. Regardless, he continued to work on drawing the still life before him, his face so close to table as he glared down at his work that his nose was almost touching the paper at times.

Dolph looked down at his own drawing. He had to admit that he shared a similar sentiment to Max when it came to art today, but he doubted it was for similar reasons; Max had a bit of an image obsession and probably hated being seen as inadequate in a required activity, while Dolph’s were more personal. All the same, his own rendition of the still life just didn’t seem to be good enough and frustration was starting to edge its way in again.

“Hey there, kiddos!” David said jovially as he bounded over to them. “How’s everyone enjoying art camp today?”

“It fucking sucks,” Max replied without skipping a beat, not even looking up at David. Apparently on some days Max was just angrier than usual, since Dolph didn’t know of any reason for him to be particularly pissy at present.

“And who do we have here?” David continued, turning to Maebh. “I wasn’t expecting a new camper already!”

“She arrived while you were away,” Dolph said helpfully. “And she’s in art camp like me!”

“Well that’s just—” there was a split-second where David’s smile became as stricken as Daniel’s usually was, a flicker so brief that Dolph wondered if he’d imagined it “—wonderful! I can’t wait to see what artistic creations you two whip up together!”

This was not good.

David hurried back toward Gwen, one ear still on the activity going on in art camp; the new girl wasn’t human, he could smell that much just by getting close to her. He needed to tell Gwen so they could come up with a plan, get the girl away from the other kids so he could make sure he was—

Daniel and Karthika came around the bend of the trail they’d gone down earlier and started toward him. Right. Time to deal with that too. It was fine. David just had to finish up with Karthika, hopefully not get yelled at by Daniel—the yelling part hadn’t happened before but David didn’t want to find out what it was like to get yelled at by Daniel either way—and then work out what to do about the newcomer.

Things were getting a little off-track but he could fix it. He’d always managed before.

Karthika split off from Daniel and walked toward the Mess Hall, gesturing for David to follow with a nod of her head.

Well, this way he would put off the possible confrontation for a bit, at least. David trotted after Karthika while Daniel returned to watching the campers with Gwen.

“Doesn’t seem to be a threat,” Karthika said thoughtfully, once they reached her car. “He’s a Scientologist, like you said. I’d still keep an eye on him if I were you, make sure he doesn’t stumble into anything.”

“Yeah, we were planning to do that if you said he checked out,” David said, giving Karthika a half-smile. “So are you heading out now?”

Karthika gave him a warm smile. “I just swung by to check up on things, but maybe I’ll be able to visit for longer sometime soon.”

David waved goodbye as Karthika drove away. That was taken care of, now to go back and hope that Daniel didn’t get... Snippy with his words the way he tended to when he was mad. As he walked back toward the Activities Field he focused his ears on the path ahead, sorting through the sounds coming from the campers to make sure nothing was amiss.

Everything sounded normal enough, now to sift through until he found the art camp group. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to focus like this too much, it always gave him a headache when he kept it up for too long. There, he could hear Max grumbling to himself, and the scratch of graphite on paper. Things sounded pretty normal, though there was no conversation to possibly glean hints about the new camper from.

Gwen gave David a small wave when she spotted him, and he hurried over to her. “I told Daniel that the check was normal because of Campbell,” she said as he reached her, glancing at magic camp where Daniel was talking to Harrison. “Pretty sure he bought it.”

“Oh good,” David said, letting out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Gwen.” He paused to figure out how to word the newest development. “By the way we might have a new problem,” David whispered.

“Great,” Gwen grumbled. “What is it?”

“A new camper arrived while I was away, but she’s not human,” David replied, gesturing as discreetly toward art camp as he could. “Can you see if there’s any paperwork on her at all?”

Gwen leaned around David to get a look at the new girl, then looked back to him. “You think there might be some?”

“If there is it might help me figure out what she is.”

“Alright, be right back.” Gwen jogged toward the Mess Hall, bound for the Counselors’ Cabin beyond.

Daniel kept himself busy with the two magic camps while Gwen was gone, leaving David to keep an eye on the rest. David filtered through the ambient noise and focused on the new girl and the campers immediately surrounding her. Art camp was going pretty, well, normally so far—no odd talk or odd events. That was a relief given how alert Max and his friends were to the paranormal stuff these days, the last thing David needed was for them to figure out there was a folkloric entity sharing an art table with them.

David reminded himself to sort through the rest of the camp’s noise and check on the other campers. Nothing to worry about as far as he could hear: there was the soft clack of Nerris sorting her dice collection yet again; an actual, genuine laugh out of Daniel—shocking, since that was the first time David had ever heard it—as he supervised Harrison’s magic show; the patter of their battered and dented watering can being used on the tomato patch—one of Nurf’s favorite kinds of ammunition—and some emphatic oration from Preston as he rehearsed lines from his next play—Preston would probably end up being Nurf’s first target if he decided to harvest today; the rough, sweeping sound of Ered skateboarding on her ramp; and finally the muffled scuffle of Space Kid tinkering with his cardboard rocket, punctuated by the occasional stritch of more tape being drawn.

Status quo for the time being. David focused on art camp again and found that nothing had changed. There was a minimum of chatter thanks to the focus required of the little artists, though David could definitely pick out Max’s grumbling and growling as his drawing refused to improve. David was just glad to see him engaged in a camp activity of his own volition, and even if he wasn’t enjoying it now his skill would surely improve with time.

Gwen returned soon enough and handed the girl’s papers off to him. The only paperwork present was the standard camp enrollment page, written in what could be passed off as a parent’s handwriting—the paper itself, however, smelled of graphite and acrylic paint. That meant Dolph had probably filled it in himself, so he was either working willingly with the new girl—Maebh, as the form stated—or she’d tricked him into helping.

Unfortunately the forms held no other clues than that. Maebh was signed up for art camp, which wasn’t surprising given that Dolph was assisting her. He’d have to wait and see or initiate something himself.

Dolph’s mind was drifting from the task at hand. It was hard not to think about what their mission was, but Max was doing a good job of inserting himself into the front of Dolph’s mind with his constant grumbling and far-too-forceful pencil work. And that reminded Dolph of a question he’d been meaning to ask Max ever since they brought him in on the monster hunting stuff. “Why do you hate David so much, Max?” Dolph asked, looking up from his drawing.

Max’s head snapped up, and for a few moment his baleful green glare did its best to bore through Dolph’s face. “Why do you want to know?” he asked, looking at Dolph suspiciously.

“Curious,” Dolph said with a shrug.

“I hate everyone,” Max replied flatly. “Except Nikki and Neil,” he admitted after a few seconds.

“But you hate David the most,” Dolph insisted. He’d grabbed the tiger’s tail already, might as well try to get an answer for it. “And it’s like you keep trying to get back at him for something.”

“I’ve kinda been wondering, too,” Neil admitted hesitantly. “This whole thing has been mostly fun but I feel like I’m missing out on a bit of context with him.”

“What is this, therapy hour?” Max’s scowl twisted into a pitying smirk and he started to twirl his pencil in his fingers. “Poor, poor Dolph. Hate to break it to you, but no one in existence is that happy. No one is looking forward to waking up every morning to take care of little shitheads like us, no one actually likes spending time with us—”

Dolph cut him off, “Why do you take it so personally, though?” Being talked down to was something he hated a great deal, especially coming from a kid only a year or so older than him.

Max glowered at Dolph, the interruption having derailed his rant. “Fine.” Hand and pencil came down hard enough to make the table shake. “I do hate David. I hate his stupid fake smile and that he’s a fucking idiot and the way he pretends to care so he doesn’t look bad like the other adults and that he somehow gets soooo excited about this shitty camp.” Each item on the list was punctuated by Max stabbing his paper with his pencil, leaving dark marks on his drawing. “Also he called me a liar when we tried to tell him about the owl bear thing and I’m not gonna let him get away with it,” he added, his grip on the pencil tightening enough to strangle a cracking noise out of it.

“But you lie to him about stuff all the time, though,” Nikki said, looking up from her drawing for the first time since the conversation started.

“Well, yeah, but I was telling the truth that time!” Max snapped, slamming his fists on the table. “And he treated me like some stupid kid! As if I’d ever lie about something so batshit crazy!”

Dolph was starting to regret having provoked an outburst like this from Max, since there was a chance that it might attract the counselors on top of it just being unpleasant to experience. He’d asked, though, and Max had answered. Now he’d have to ride things out and hope that Max didn’t end up breaking any of the art supplies in his anger.

Max wasn’t interested in continuing either it seemed, as he focused once more on his art and fell silent. The others returned to their work as well, the show apparently over.

Art camp officially ended when Max scrunched his picture into a ball and fed it to Muack—by means of hurling it at her face—and she in turn shredded it in record time and spat the resulting confetti back at him. Dolph was a bit disappointed that Max didn’t last longer, but that worked either way—he and Maebh needed to check the Quartermaster store again.

Max stomped off, Neil and Nikki flanking him as the three went in search of something “more interesting” to do with their day. Dolph counted himself lucky that they’d stuck around as long as they had, but it still hurt that they weren’t taking it very seriously. Admittedly he understood how Max felt, especially today after what happened this morning; it was easy to get frustrated over repeated failure, though Max at least didn’t have anything big riding on his skill at art. Either way, he had other things he needed to do now that were more important.

After a quick check that none of the counselors were looking, Dolph and Maebh ducked into the bushes near the edge of the Activities Field and made for the Mess Hall. No one called out to them when they left and there was no sound of pursuit, so Dolph figured they were in the clear as they emerged out onto the path again.

It turned out to be for nothing since the Quartermaster Store was still locked when they arrived.

Maebh stepped back from trying the door and looked to Dolph. “What do we do now?” she asked, looking gloomy.

“Hmm,” Dolph hummed as he thought. “Well, we can check to make sure the coat is there at all. If we don’t see it then maybe he put it in the Mess Hall somewhere.”

They hurried around to the side of the Quartermaster Store and found there were two windows to choose from. The first was completely blocked off, probably from something being placed in front of it, while the second had a gap in the block that Dolph could see from the ground below. Dolph jumped up, grabbing the window ledge with both hands and trying to haul himself up with little success until Maebh gave him a lift. He squinted into the gloom, cupping his hands around his eyes as he leaned against the glass.

“Do you see it?” Maebh asked, still supporting his weight quite easily.

“What does your coat look like?” Dolph asked as his eyes adjusted.

“Like a sealskin, and white with gray spots on it,” Maebh replied.

Dolph scanned the room, still squinting hard as he searched; while he wasn’t quite sure what a sealskin was supposed to look like, something as pale as that would stand out pretty well against everything else in the room. “Oh, I think I see it!” he said, having spotted something pale and freckled draped over the back of a chair. “Now we just need to get in—”

“Now what are you kiddos up to over here?”

The sound of David’s voice behind them was such a surprise that both Dolph and Maebh jumped—which resulted in them both tumbling to the ground when Dolph lost his balance and Maebh lost her grip. They untangled themselves while David waited patiently for them to stand up.

David gave them an expectant smile once they were on their feet.

“Uh...” Dolph hesitated, fishing for some sort of excuse that wouldn’t somehow get them into trouble. “We saw a rat run into the Quartermaster Store and wanted to check! It might get into all sorts of trouble in there!” It was possibly the lamest excuse Dolph could’ve possibly come up with, and he wanted to kick himself for it.

“Well that’s very sweet of you to be concerned, Dolph,” David said warmly. “And just to make sure, I’ll go in there and have a look myself once we get lunch going!”

“We?” Dolph asked.

“That’s right, it’ll be fun!” David said with his usual enthusiastic smile.

“Oh, actually we were—”

Someone’s stomach growling interrupted the rest of Dolph’s sentence, and Maebh looked down at the ground in embarrassment.

“Many hands make light work,” David added kindly. “We’ll get it done in no time with you helping!”

David almost breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped into the Mess Hall with Dolph and Maebh in tow. A selkie! Just a selkie! David had heard of those before, and on the whole they sounded nice as far as magical creatures went.

The poor girl had lost her coat though, and that just wouldn’t do. If what Dolph said was true then David would find it in the Quartermaster Store, after which he’d have to find a way to subtly pass it back to Maebh so she could get back home. But for now, they needed to get lunch going.

Once Dolph and Maebh washed their hands, David assigned them to combining salad ingredients while he handled the knives. Maebh kept staring at him, which was odd. Could she tell that he wasn’t quite human? If so then he needed to hurry before she outed him to Dolph, but he couldn’t just leave them unattended in the kitchen and taking them with him might reveal more than he wanted Dolph to know. He was halfway through slicing up the tomatoes for the sandwich makings when Gwen poked her head into the Mess Hall and spotted him. David waved her over and met her in the main area.

“Could you finish up here while I take care of something?” David asked, leaning close so the kids wouldn’t overhear.

“Sure,” Gwen said with a shrug. “Just make sure you check up on Daniel soon. I think Nurf’s been sizing him up today.”

“You got it, Gwen!” David said with a bounce. Nurf had been in for a surprise when he tried taking David down on his first day at camp—it was about as easy as tackling a boulder—but Daniel would undoubtedly be much easier to deal with. Best to get the coat taken care of and head out the the Activities Field to make sure Nurf wasn’t doing anything Wrestlemania-related on him.

David hurried out of the Mess Hall and over to the Quartermaster Store, where he let himself in with a key he kept on him. His eyes adjusted to the gloom almost instantly and he scanned the room for something that matched what Maebh described to Dolph.

There—something pale and freckled draped over the back of a chair. David knew this was it the moment he brushed the fur with his fingers and felt the magic it contained, flowing and powerful like the tide. Definitely didn’t want the Quartermaster messing with something like this.

The sound of the Quartermaster’s trudging but steady steps reached David’s ears, and he hurried out. Having the Quartermaster catch him poking around the Quartermaster Store was the last thing he wanted—it was best to avoid those sorts of uncomfortable questions.

David stowed the coat in his vest and hurried to the door. He would’ve gotten away and clear if he hadn’t fumbled and dropped the key just before getting it in the keyhole. And then fumbled it as he was picking it up. And then again as he was trying to put it in the keyhole and before he knew it the Quartermaster was lurking expectantly just behind him.

“Hah, hey there, Quartermaster!” David said cheerily, looking over his shoulder at the Quartermaster as he finally got the key in the lock.

“Whatcha doin’ there, Davey?” the Quartermaster growled, his expression unreadable—a common occurrence, though the circumstances made it seem more ominous than usual.

It was now of all moments that David’s excuses completely deserted him. “Oh well—uh—I—it was just—” David spluttered, trying to fish up a valid excuse as the Quartermaster stared him down.

“Aah, I think I getcha, Davey,” the Quartermaster said, after watching David do a bit of verbal flailing. “So you ‘n yer girl are finally gettin’ creative, huh? Well I won’t stand in the way of someone doin’ some good explorin’.” He leaned closer. “Also if y’pick anything, jus’ make sure it’s still in the wrappin’.”

David almost choked on his tongue when he realized what the Quartermaster was suggesting, and his face turned bright scarlet. “Nooooooo no no that’s not what this—we’re not—” David began, his voice breaking every few syllables from sheer unbridled embarrassment.

“Now now Davey, there’s no need t’ be a prude,” the Quartermaster chided him with a wave of his hook. “There’s no young’uns here, we’re just two men discussin’ our—”

I have to go make sure Daniel isn’t getting suplexed and Gwen and I aren’t together and that’s against the rules so anyway bye Quartermaster!” the words came out in a mad flood as David whirled and sprinted toward the Activities Field, desperate to get as much distance between himself and the Quartermaster’s ‘man talk’ as possible. Gwen would probably laugh it off when she heard about it but David had felt like he needed to curl up and faint from how embarrassed even the suggestion of what the Quartermaster thought he was looking for made him. He was lucky to get away and lucky that he’d remembered Daniel might need help as an excuse to leave.

And need help Daniel did. Nurf had him in a leg hold while the other kids looked on with varying amounts of concern, with Harrison even appearing to be on the verge of doing something about it. That was a surprise since the campers tended to avoid messing with Nurf on general principle. Max, on the other hand, was watching with an amused smirk and clearly enjoying the show.

“My, you’re quite strong, aren’t you, Nurf?” Daniel wheezed, the smile still on his face as his fingers clawed at the dirt below him. “I would appreciate it if you would stop bending my leg the wrong way.”

“Why thank you,” Nurf said sincerely, keeping a firm grip on Daniel’s leg. “This one is called the single leg Boston crab, I saw it on TV.” A shadow fell over him, and he looked up to find David.

“Now Nurf, what did we say about using leg holds outside of wrestling camp?” David asked, shaking a finger at him.

“Well maybe if we had wrestling camp more often I wouldn’t feel like doing it,” Nurf growled as he released Daniel’s leg and stood.

Daniel’s leg dropped to the ground and he lay there in the dirt a few seconds before starting to climb to his feet.

“And you’re not supposed to keep doing the hold after you’ve won,” David continued. “You could seriously injure someone like that!”

“Whatever,” Nurf said with a wave of his hand. “He wasn’t much of a challenge anyway.”

“Right, lunch is just about ready in the Mess Hall, so head on over for sandwiches!” David said, switching back to his usual cheery demeanor. He waited while the campers wandered off in the direction of the Mess Hall, leaving him alone with Daniel and Harrison.

David moved to help Daniel up at the same time Harrison did, and when faced with two hands up Daniel chose Harrison’s over David’s with little hesitation. The result was that Harrison was nearly pulled off his feet as he helped Daniel up, but they managed without anyone falling down again.

It was encouraging to see that Daniel was bonding with at least some of the campers, but still disappointing to see that Gwen was right on the mark with regards to Daniel’s feelings toward David. “Sorry about Nurf, Daniel. He can get a little over enthusiastic at times. It’s usually best to outrun him until he gets bored when that happens.”

“Yes, I figured as much,” Daniel replied icily. “I’ll keep that in mind next time.”

Dolph fidgeted in his seat and looked at the counselor table again. “I think David went into the Quartermaster Store while we were making the salad,” he whispered to Maebh.

“What should we do? Did he take my coat?” Maebh whispered back. She seemed somewhat less concerned with that possibility than Dolph expected. “He’s the one we met earlier, right?”

“Yah, with the red hair,” Dolph replied.

Maebh stared at David for a few moments, the knuckles of one hand resting against her chin. “I think he’s a wolf,” she said finally.

That struck Dolph as an odd thing to say since David was far from any sort of ferocious, and he was about to ask Maebh what she meant when David stood.

“I just remembered that I need to put something in the cabin!” he said cheerily.

Dolph watched David leave the Mess Hall, then took Maebh by the hand and followed him. They opened the door in time to spot David walking toward the Counselors’ Cabin and trailed behind him, keeping to the bushes where they could and doing their best to stay out of sight.

David entered the Counselors’ Cabin, Dolph and Maebh right behind him, and paused in front of his desk. Dolph peaked around the door and spotted the coat in David’s hand; he appeared to be wondering what he should do with it.

Suddenly David straightened, as if having heard something, and put the coat down on his desk. “Coming, Gwen!” he said cheerfully as he turned to leave.

Maebh pulled Dolph out of the doorway just before David had a chance to spot them, and they hid around the corner from the door as he left.

Dolph hurried into the cabin as soon as David was out of sight, snatched the coat from David’s desk, and sprinted back out to where Maebh was waiting. “I got it!” Dolph said as he handed it off to her.

Maebh accepted her coat and held it tight to her chest as she buried her face in the soft fur. She looked up at him with a big smile on her face. “Thank you so much! I can go home now!” Maebh then shook the coat out, revealing that it was shaped much like a lady’s long coat—albeit a small one—and draped it over her shoulders. Apparently even selkie magic couldn’t overcome the heat of a summer day. “Come on, let’s go to the lake!” she said as she grabbed Dolph’s hand.

Before Dolph could protest he was being towed along at breakneck speed as Maebh made a dash for the lake, plowing through underbrush that posed little obstacle for them. The lakeshore came into view, and Dolph was beginning to fear that Maebh might drag him into the water when she released him on the shore and dove in. Dolph stumbled to a halt just before hitting the water himself and looked out over the lake, searching for any sign of Maebh.

A long gray head appeared above the water to peer at him, blinking with big dark eyes once before disappearing beneath the surface again. Moments later the seal burst out of the waves and Maebh landed on the sand, giggling as she threw her hood back.

Dolph joined in as he helped Maebh to her feet. “I thought you left me!” he said as the giggling subsided.

“No, I just needed to cool off,” Maebh said as her giggles faded as well. “I wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye!”

They walked along the beach, bound for the docks. Maebh skipped or ran circles around Dolph every so often just from sheer happiness, and he couldn’t help but join in as they drew near their destination.

“Have you heard any selkie legends?” Maebh asked as they clonked on to the end of the nearest pier.

“No,” Dolph replied. He was about to say more but it was at that moment that he stepped on the hem of his smock and tripped—and nearly fell into the lake if not for Maebh grabbing him and slinging him back onto the dock just in time. Dolph sighed as Maebh helped him to his feet. “Maybe I really should get a smaller one,” he said sadly as he looked down at it.

“But it’s important to you,” Maebh said matter-of-factly as they continued to the end of the pier. “Isn’t it?”

“My Granmama gave it to me, it used to be hers back when she could paint,” Dolph replied, straightening the bottom half of the smock to show the now-faded paint stains. “I miss her.”

“Is she gone?” Maebh asked, her mood going somber.

“No, but she lives in a nursing home so we don’t see her very often, and I can’t visit at all while I’m here, so...” Dolph let the rest of the sentence hang, not really wanting to talk further on it.

The two sat on the end of the pier, silent as they looked out over the water.

“So what were you going to say about the selkie stories?” Dolph asked as he looked up at her.

“Oh, just that it was really good that you got my coat back, ‘cause in all the stories if you steal a selkie’s coat they have to marry you,” Maebh replied.

Ooooh... Uuurgh,” Dolph said, suddenly feeling more than a little ill over what the Quartermaster walking off with Maebh’s coat could’ve resulted in. “I’m glad we got it back,” he added once the sick feeling had subsided a bit.

“I had fun though,” Maebh said, her legs kicking over the water. “I liked art camp.”

“Max ruined it a bit,” Dolph said apologetically, as if he could ever have a say in what Max was doing. It didn’t help that he’d provoked Max a bit himself, though.

“Well, people are usually angry for a reason,” Maebh said thoughtfully. “Is that David guy really fake? Which one is he again? The blonde one?”

“The redhead,” Dolph replied. “And, I dunno. I don’t think he’s fake, and he seems to be a nice guy.”

Maebh considered Dolph’s answer. “I thought he was nice,” she said finally. For a moment it seemed she might say more, but instead she paused to cast a glance over her shoulder toward the forest. She searched the treeline, found nothing, then turned back to Dolph. “I almost forgot,” Maebh said as she retrieved a folded piece of paper from the front pocket of her overalls. With great care she unfolded the paper to reveal the drawing that Dolph had been working on in art camp. “I’m sorry. I thought it was really pretty and you left it on the table where it could get ruined so I picked it up.”

Dolph accepted the drawing and examined his work again. The still life was something he’d thrown together with supplies that theater camp wasn’t currently using: a fake skull—he hoped it was fake, anyway—and plastic roses with a length of rumpled cloth placed beneath the whole thing. The roses had turned out alright, but the skull’s shading was wrong and the cloth looked flatter than it was supposed to be. In all, it was a bit of a disappointment to him and for a moment he was surprised that Maebh would actually think it was a good picture.

Another detail altogether struck him. “It’s dry,” Dolph said with surprise.

“Our clothes don’t get wet when we transform,” Maebh said, smiling.

“Neat,” Dolph said, his attention already returned to his drawing. Maebh said it was pretty... Well, she didn’t have his eyes, couldn’t spot the flaws like he could. And he trusted her word, stranger though she was—he didn’t expect her to say it was nice just to get him to leave or tell him it sucked without even looking at it. “You really think this is pretty?” he asked, showing the picture to Maebh again.

“Yeah!” Maebh took the picture from him and pointed to the roses. “These are my favorite part! I like the way the light plays on them.”

That was the best part of the picture in his opinion too, but where Dolph still saw flaws, Maebh somehow saw beauty. She hadn’t spent years honing her artistic ability as he had and probably couldn’t see the flaws at all. And... What was wrong with that? If she thought it was pretty then who was he to tell her otherwise? He wasn’t about to go point out the flaws in a Van Gogh painting, after all.

Dolph looked up at the clouds. Perspective... He hadn’t been able to recognize flaws as well in the past, and a picture could always be made better by taking a step back to look at the whole.

“Do you want to keep it?” Dolph asked, looking back to Maebh. “Or I can find another from my sketchbook if you want—”

“I can really have it?” Maebh asked, her eyes lighting up. “I want this one, you drew it while I was visiting so that makes it special. Please sign it for me!”

Dolph fished around in one of his smock pockets and came up with a pencil stub—he used them down to the eraser usually, so he always had at least one with him. He signed the drawing and passed it back to her.

“Aww, your name’s Rudolph? That’s so cute!”

“Don’t tell the others, they’ll make fun of it,” Dolph said quickly.

“Don’t worry, I won’t,” Maebh replied, her good mood dampened slightly. “Someday you’re gonna be a famous artist, and this’ll be a family heirloom,” she said happily, her feet kicking above the water.

“You really think so?” Dolph asked, looking at her in surprise.

“Of course,” Maebh said confidently. “You already draw so good now, imagine how amazing you’ll be years from now!”

“My papa doesn’t like it,” Dolph mumbled as he looked down at the water. “He says it’s girly.”

The notion was a mystery to Maebh, as evidenced by her expression. “That’s a dumb thing to say about it,” she stated. “There’s tons of famous man artists, but what’s being girly got to do with anything?”

Dolph opened his mouth to try to explain it, only to find that he didn’t really understand the reasoning behind it either. “I don’t know...” he said finally, resting his head in his hands. “That’s just what he says.”

“Well I think he’s wrong,” Maebh said with a shrug. “He’s being silly, but you’ll show him one day.” She started to fold the paper, then stopped and gasped as she realized something. “Do you wanna be penpals?”

“Yes, of course,” Dolph said, his mood brightening a little at the change of subject. He started to search his pockets again, then realized that he didn’t know the camp’s address. “I’ll be right back,” Dolph said as he sprung to his feet. He turned and hurtled down the pier and back toward the tents, where he would find letters from his family that had both the camp address and his home address on them.

At the end of the pier Dolph stumbled after stepping on the hem of his smock, and he grabbed the front in both hands and held it up and away from his feet as he ran up the slope. Muack was the only obstacle that stood between him and the tents—he almost tripped over her as she ambled across his path, and she snapped at his heels as he leaped over her and kept running.

Maebh was waiting patiently for Dolph’s return when he arrived with used envelopes in hand. On the back of the drawing he’d given her he wrote his home address and the camp address so she could write to him as soon as she got home if she wished. Maebh then wrote her own address on the back of one of the envelopes so Dolph could write to her as well.

“All done,” Maebh said as she folded the drawing back up and tucked it away in her front overalls pocket. “I should probably go home now,” she added.

“What time is it where you live?” Dolph asked, checking the sun’s position.

“Nighttime,” Maebh replied. She raised her eyebrows at Dolph’s shocked expression. “What? Sometimes I go on night swims.”

“But won’t you get in trouble?”

“Only if I get caught, but I probably won’t do it again for a while after this...” Maebh fiddled with a lock of hair. “I should go.”

They stood and exchanged a hug.

“I’m glad I got the chance to meet you,” Dolph said as they stepped apart.

“Me too,” Maebh replied with a big grin. “It was a little scary, but also fun.” With that she drew her hood up, wrapped her coat more tightly around her shoulders, and jumped into the lake. A seal bobbed back up in her place, barked at Dolph once, then disappeared beneath the water’s surface.

Dolph remained on the pier for some time, content to sit alone with his thoughts for now.

Back on the shore and under the cover of the forest David let out a sigh of relief; the selkie was heading home, and as far as he could tell she hadn’t given his true nature away to Dolph. And to top it all off, it seemed Dolph may have learned a thing or two from the whole thing, which was always a bonus in David’s book. He seated himself on a large root, having decided to keep keep an eye on things until Dolph decided to return to camp.

With nothing much to occupy his mind in the present, David’s thoughts drifted back through the events of the day. In all it had been very eventful what with Karthika’s visit, the selkie turning up, Max saying some very unpleasant things about him, and then the Quartermaster suggesting that he and Gwen were together. Today was a mixed bag, all things considered.

But the situation with the selkie had ended well enough, and he was very glad for that. Lily would have escorted Maebh to the rift she’d come through, and she would be home safe and sound by now. Unfortunately he now had to deal with the added problem of Dolph being more aware of the strange happenings around the lake, since David had been listening in ever since the two left the Counselors’ Cabin.

David snapped to attention when Dolph stood and started back down the pier toward the shore. As he watched, Dolph paused on the sand to look out at the water one last time before turning and making his way up the slope toward the Mess Hall.

Chapter Text


David inspected the lake again just before daybreak. The shift was still going on, but the atmosphere felt different somehow. Oppressive, oddly cold and damp and bearing down on him like a stifling fog. Even the light was strange, diffused in the air like dust as if given a tiny corporeal form.

Today would be a day for watchfulness, and for keeping the kids away from the lake at all costs.

Max leaned against the science camp table, screwdriver in one hand while he held on to it for Neil. “So what’s all this supposed to do again?” he asked, gesturing to the various dismembered gadgets that were strewn across the table.

“We’re gonna try anomaly hunting my way,” Neil said, straightening to puff his chest out with pride. “With science!”

“Well yeah I got that much, I’m asking how you’re gonna detect this stuff to begin with.”

Neil fixed him with a long, intense stare. “Well if you really want to know—”

“Summarized version,” Max added quickly, not in the mood to feel stupid thanks to Neil’s inevitable long and in-depth explanation.

“Oh,” Neil said, deflating a little. “Right, so these things aren’t known by science yet, and this area seems to have a higher concentration of these sorts of creatures than normal. There must be a reason for that!” He was pacing now, his eyes focused on the ground ahead and waving an arm on occasion as he spoke. “I want to see if I can detect any environmental anomalies in the area: sudden or out of place temperature changes, shifts in the ambient light or electromagnetic field...” Neil paused. “Maybe we’ll even be able to prove the creepy stuff without having to directly go after it.”

“No complaints here, as long as I don’t have to carry it,” Max said with a shrug, casting a glance over the array of gadgets again.

“Yeah, weight is definitely a problem...” Neil conceded, his eyes narrowing in thought. “I’ll have to do something about that, but until then I’m settling for the thermometer and EMF meter for being on the go.” He returned to the table and got back to work, soon holding his hand out for the screwdriver Max was holding onto and receiving it.

“Can we use this stuff to find Bigfoot?” Nikki asked, bouncing up to the table to get a better look.

“Nikki, why are you so obsessed with Bigfoot anyway?” Max asked. “We don’t even know if they live around here.”

“Bigfoots are like, kings of the forest!” Nikki replied. “I gotta meet one, and then kick its butt so I can take its place as ruler of the wilds!” She struck a dramatic pose, grinning all the while.

“Why am I even surprised?” Max asked nobody in particular. “How are you even gonna beat a Bigfoot? It’s a fuckin’ Bigfoot, it’s like, nine feet tall or some shit.”

“What I lack in size I make up for in speed, agility, and ferocity, rarararargh!” Nikki replied, baring her teeth and arching her fingers like claws as she growled. “That Bigfoot’s not gonna stand a chance.”

Max chuckled. “Whatever you say, Nikki.”

David strolled up, and Max’s smile turned to a scowl. “Ten minute warning, kids! We’re going on a hike today!”

Neil and Max groaned in unison while Nikki got to a new level of excited—an excursion into the forest was just another chance to stumble across Bigfoot to her.

“Come on, you’ll love it! The trail I picked has some wonderful views!” David continued, his good mood unfazed by Max and Neil’s clear lack of enthusiasm. “Make sure you’re ready to head out soon!”

“Great, pointless walking,” Max grumbled. “Just what I wanted to do today.”

“Well at least I can test a few of my new instruments while we do it,” Neil said as he started to tidy up the table. “Doubt we’ll find anything, though.”

“Where’d Maebh go?” Nikki asked, grabbing David’s hand to stop him as he turned to leave. “I wanted to show her my dead bug collection today!”

“Unfortunately, Maebh’s parents decided that she would be happier in a different camp,” David said with a sigh. “She left yesterday afternoon.”

Awww.” Nikki drooped with disappointment and dropped David’s hand.

“Whoa, someone actually realized how shitty this place is and sent their kid somewhere else? Shocking,” Max said with a smirk. “About time we saw some grown ups with sense.”

David frowned at Max badmouthing the camp yet again but didn’t comment on it, instead striding off to alert the other campers to the impending camp activity.

As promised, David returned to collect them within ten minutes, a backpack loaded with supplies strapped to his shoulders and the usual idiotic grin on his face. The campers gathered in front of the Mess Hall, looking less than enthusiastic about the coming activity but not quite mutinous yet. After the list of rules that Max dutifully ignored, as always, David led them along the dirt road to the trailhead where he stopped to give a few closing words—still ignored by Max—and led them into the forest.

The hike was going well, all things considered. Max was lacking in enthusiasm, but several of the other campers were having a good time. Nikki was back up to her usual spunk despite the disappointment earlier and racing around—on all fours half the time—harassing every small animal they came across, which while not ideal meant she was fully engaged in the activity and having fun. Dolph was doing his best to sketch on the go, even kneeling down to copy the fine detail on a fallen leaf at one point and having to dash along to catch up with the group afterward. Nerris was looking under rocks and fallen trees “in search of treasure stashed by other adventurers”. Space Kid, his head among the stars as usual, was pretending that he was exploring an alien planet. Even Neil seemed to be enjoying himself to a degree, his attention focused on a device he held in one hand and with a few others hung on the outside of the small backpack he wore on his shoulders. It wasn’t exactly the appreciation of nature that David would have liked, but participation was participation, and that was what mattered.

Even Gwen seemed to enjoy the walk, occasionally pausing to stare out over the landscape when there was a gap in the trees. Daniel hung near the back with Harrison, listening as the boy talked about his upcoming magic act. It was good to know that most of the participants were having a good time.

David stopped them on an overlook for a water and snack break, where they could look out over the lake and the surrounding forest while they rested. Up here the oppressive feeling that seemed to loom over the lake had lessened until it was merely a faint presence at the back of David’s mind and he hoped—not for the first time—that whatever was causing it would simply go away on its own and leave them to have some proper uninterrupted fun. He flinched as Ered did a bit of parkour off a nearby rock formation and restrained himself from immediately running over and scolding her. She was skilled enough and the rocks weren’t near any cliffs, so no need to put a stop to it just yet.

They were just moving on when David felt it, a sensation like icy claws being dragged down his spine.

Something big just made it through and was on the lake at this very moment.

“Whoa!” Neil said, stopping dead to stare down at the device in his hands. “Is this thing malfunctioning?” He turned it over and started to open it up, holding up the line of campers behind him.

Right. Time to make an excuse. “Oh my gosh, I left the stove on back at the Mess Hall!” David said, channeling some of the very real worry he felt into an expression of horror. “I have to go turn it off!” He whirled, stopped short to ditch the backpack so they’d still have their snacks and water, then ran back down the trail at a dead sprint before anyone else could comment, cutting corners at breakneck speed and doing everything possible to shave off time.

Gwen felt her anxiety starting to work up as David disappeared down the trail. He told her what was going on that morning, and she knew what him suddenly running off meant: something ugly had arrived, and now David had to go deal with it.

“Alright kids, let’s keep going,” Gwen said, disguising her growing unease as grumpy lack of enthusiasm. She waved them along the trail, looking back to find that Daniel had stopped to stare down the route David had gone. “Daniel,” Gwen snapped, a little more forcefully than she meant to. She adjusted her tone, “Hey, I’m gonna need your help with David gone.”

“Yes, Gwen!” Daniel said as he spun to face her. “I’ll be right there!” He followed obediently as Gwen turned to lead the group farther along the trail.

A cold, biting wind hit them a few minutes later, chilling them to the bone as it cut through the warmth of the summer’s day and whipping the tree branches above their heads. It fell briefly, then rose again with an eerie howl that made Gwen’s skin crawl. Not a cloud in the sky and yet the light seemed to grow dimmer, as if night was falling early.

Not good. That was not good. Gwen pressed her bangs back to keep them out of her eyes as she looked back down toward the lake and tried to figure out what to do next. They wouldn’t be able to stay out here if the temperature kept dropping, and the Mess Hall had protections on it just in case something unpleasant and persistent decided to show up.

Nothing for it, then. Back to camp they would go so they could shelter in the Mess Hall until the threat passed.

“Alright campers, change of plans!” Gwen called over the wind. “Thanks to this freakyass weather, we’re heading back to camp to hang in the Mess Hall for now.”

“Thank God,” Neil said, his arms wrapped around himself and the device still clutched in one hand. “It’s freezing out here.”

“Where the fuck did this wind even come from?” Max growled, glaring into the wind as if that would somehow intimidate it.

“Don’t know, don’t care,” Gwen replied as she ushered them back down the trail. “The sooner we get back to camp the sooner we can warm up.”

Another gust of wind hit David head-on as he neared the lake, as if it were trying to slow his progress. Whatever the source, it was thankfully toward the less-used end of the lake. Less chance of being stumbled upon, but still closer to the camp than he would’ve liked. He would have to keep it from wandering.

A large shape loomed up in front of him and revealed itself to be a noctursa, down on all fours and running like its life depended on it. Other trails of sound, cracking branches and thrashing leaves, told him that it wasn’t just the noctursa fleeing from the lake; this was a big threat if it was even scaring the locals off, no normal visitor caused this level of panic.

Wolf form was going to be a requirement.

David winced when he thought of the pain he was guaranteed to feel in the near future, but forged ahead regardless. Once the lake was in sight he searched for an area of hard ground to avoid leaving obvious tracks. After locating one he paused to check his surroundings one last time, then reached into his vest and took a massive pair of shorts, a long thick belt, and a single-shoulder backpack from within.

After a quick check of his surroundings—for modesty’s sake, since this location was a little too close to camp for comfort—David threw off his clothes with speed given by years of practice, put on the massive pair of shorts instead, and pulled the belt tight. He then pinched the starry black inner lining of his vest and pulled, the mass forming into a feather once it was free of the fabric. Now that Ty’s feather was free he could transfer it to the backpack, where it filled the inside and gave it the appearance of a portal into the night sky.

In went the discarded clothes and boots, and his watch too, which he was glad he’d remembered this time—he’d lost a good number of them over the years doing this. The backpack’s apparent size didn’t change despite the full set of clothes stuffed into it; Nerris would’ve called it a Bag of Holding, it was a special property of Ty’s feathers and allowed David to keep almost an entire set of camping gear with him at all times. It was especially handy in these cases since he’d always have his regular clothes with him once he changed back.

Speaking of which.

David lowered himself to his hands and knees and set the belt to the last notch, letting the shorts hang loose below him so his other form could fill them out. There was no more delaying it now. He turned his mind inward and found the seed of power floating there just beneath the surface. It bubbled up the moment he touched it, instantly filling his body to the brim with a painful jolt.

He always likened it to his body trying to burst out of its skin, which thankfully was able to stretch and shift along with his growing shape as the thick coat of ginger fur came in. And it always started at the spine, worked down to the arms and legs from there. Bones cracked and muscles spasmed as they were forced into the new shape, and he soon collapsed as his stricken arms failed to hold his weight. A scream began to rise in his throat, starting as an agonized groan and building in volume.

The face was always the worst part. David slammed the top of his head into the ground as the muzzle and teeth came in, newly-formed claws expressing his pain by scratching frantically at the ground as his body writhed its way into wolf-shape. The scream was the only thing he could hear now, a strangely human quality to it despite the change to his vocal cords. It rang out across the lake as its owner temporarily forgot his need for silence.

At last the change stopped, his body settled into the new shape: half man, half wolf, most likely a monster by anyone’s measure. David drooped and lay there panting as the pain started to fade; that would last only as long as he stayed in this shape, and the pain would return in full force once he changed back, but best not to think about that for now. There were much more pressing matters to attend to.

David shook his head as his tongue got into the dirt, then sneezed when the dirt got into his nose. He rose, lifting himself on massive ginger-furred arms, and started to stretch as he checked that his pants were in the proper place—sometimes they fell down while he was shifting, and it was a pain trying to get them back on with hands that were far less dexterous than a human’s, presence of thumbs or no. Much to his relief, his pants were in their proper place and his tail had even hit the special hole he made for it in the back, no fiddling necessary to make himself more comfortable.

Senses that his human brain couldn’t use to their fullest extent snapped into vivid clarity, revealing his surroundings in fine, multi-layered detail. All locals had evacuated by now, judging from the lack of present scent and sound from them.

The roaring wind that had picked up soon after he left the campers rippled through his fur and lashed the trees overhead, leaving an unearthly chill in its wake. It had to be close now. The smell of the thing was obvious already—it stank like low tide and soggy rotten flesh, with unexpected earthy undertones that clung to the inside of his nose.

David shook himself and started toward the lake, long legs carrying him at an easy trot. No use wasting energy by sprinting at this point, something this big wouldn’t be able to get past unnoticed. He paused at the forest’s boundary when he reached it, staring out over the lake in shock.

Beyond the shore the water was dead still despite the wind that whipped over it, the surface made into a pool of mirror that was steadily growing. It reflected the blue sky above in dreary shades of gray, as if something below was leeching color from the surface.

“What the fuck was that scream?” Max asked as they rushed into the Mess Hall; he’d broken into a run when he heard it, and only now paused to catch his breath. “You guys heard it, right?”

“It’s just those goddamn wild boars again,” Gwen said, one hand on the door as she watched the campers jostle their way inside. It was a believable enough explanation; even she’d done a double take when she realized what wild boars could actually sound like when they were pissed. “They’re probably gonna start fighting soon too, so we’d better stay in here for now.”

“Wait,” Harrison said as he returned to the door and peered out. “Where’s Daniel?”

“He’s right behind—” Gwen stopped as she looked outside and found that Daniel was nowhere in sight. “Oh for fuck’s sake!” she yelled as she scanned the surrounding landscape one more time. “Where the fuck did he go?”

“He was right behind us when we left the trail,” Dolph offered, looking a little ragged as he clutched his sketchbook to his chest.

“Probably got scared shitless by that scream and ran off,” Max said with a shrug, getting back to his usual abrasive demeanor. He looked into the kitchen. “Where’s David, didn’t he say he left the stove on or some shit?”

“Tying down the tents probably,” Gwen replied, still scowling out into the wind. “And now I have to go put the shutters down so we don’t get any broken windows. By myself.” She lingered in the doorway for a moment, then turned back to the campers. “Don’t get into trouble while I do that or I will have your asses for it.” Gwen shook a fist at the campers to prove her point, then stomped back out into the wind.

The shutters on the Quartermaster Store would have to be secured first, since it had windows facing the lake and she didn’t want the kids to have any more opportunity than usual to get into the place if a window broke. Gwen pushed through the wind and started wrestling with the latches that held the shutters open, gritting her teeth from both chill and growing anger.

It wasn’t fair to get angry at David for the fact that she got stuck babysitting the kids whenever he had to go off and do magical shit in the woods. Someone always had to watch them because otherwise they’d get up to who-knew-what and probably destroy half the camp in the process, and it wasn’t like she could take David’s place. Not that she even really wanted to either. Hell, sometimes David was so tired from his second job that he might even agree to watching the kids for once but there was just nothing to be done about that. Either way, it was hard not to resent the times that it happened these days. Babysit kids and make excuses, that was what she was expected to do.

Gwen slammed the first shutter down and latched it, then went for the next. And Daniel, it was his fucking job to help her watch the kids, he had no goddamn excuse to not be here. Where the fuck was he? She wanted to give him a serious earful once she found him again, that was for sure.

At the back of her mind, mostly buried by the irritation at her predicament and the cold, was a small, biting thought that she didn’t want to acknowledge: that whatever thing was in the lake would be too strong for David, and that he wouldn’t come back this time.

The second shutter came down with a bang, nearly closing on Gwen’s fingers. She flinched away, keeping her hands clear for a few moments, then latched it and moved on to the front of the Mess Hall.

David can handle this, she told herself as she fought the wind for control of the next shutter. He always has.

The nasty little thought didn’t listen, and instead started to bleed anxiety into the rest of her mind. You’ve never seen anything like this happen, it said, not in all the years you’ve been here. What if it’s too strong? What if it’s the thing that finally kills him?

Gwen’s arms started to shake as she won out against the wind and brought the shutter down, telling herself that she was merely shivering from the rampant chill. She moved on to the next window, her movements somewhat sluggish.

David would come back. He had to. It was simply ridiculous to believe otherwise.

The fight wasn’t going well.

David pushed himself up with his right arm, his left currently useless thanks to the set of deep gashes that crossed the shoulder. He should’ve known that opening was too good to be true. No remotely smart creature would start off a fight by showing a weak spot, and he’d paid for underestimating it.

This thing was smart, and he should’ve known better.

Covered with masses of fleshy tendrils that hung long like hair, six legs with three wicked claws at each end, and a long writhing tail. The wretched stench that hung around it was almost overpowering, even at this distance. Its eyeless face trained on him as he pushed himself the rest of the way up, following his movements. The tendrils swayed as it rocked back and forth, judging the distance between them.

He leaped out of the way as it lunged at him, the sound of the air parting over its claws whistling in his ears as he moved. David continued on, using his one good arm to assist as he made a mad dash for the forest. The trees would give some cover, make direct lunges like that harder to do.

The creature watched a few moments, then scurried after him with an uncanny insect-like gait. It closed the distance just as David got into the forest.

A frustrated hiss just behind him told David that the creature was having trouble. He chanced a look over his shoulder and saw that its body was just a bit too big to maneuver easily among the trees, the long spindly limbs far too wide to fit between in their normal position. That was a relief. He needed time to figure out a way to beat this thing and heal up a bit from the first attack.

David put a half dozen more trees between himself and the monster before ducking out of sight to think. The still-healing skin around the gashes itched as he considered what he was up against: it was cunning, fast, with sharp claws, and it was difficult to see weak spots because of the tendrils.

Something rustled in the pine needles near David’s feet, unnoticed as he wracked his brain for some way to beat the creature.

Biting it wouldn’t do him any good when he couldn’t be sure of what he was aiming for, that would just give the thing an opening—

His thoughts were cut short when two masses of tendrils wrapped themselves around David’s feet and pulled taut. The claws swung around the trunk mere moments later, the two longest aimed for his stomach, and David only just got his hands up in time to catch and stop them from impaling him. His back slammed into the tree trunk behind him from the force of the swing, and for a few tense moments the two were locked in a test of strength. David’s left arm began to shake as the creature bore down on him; it wouldn’t last long in this condition.

It would be take both or take one. David shifted his weight and threw his torso to the side as his left arm gave, letting out an agonized shriek as the shorter claw was driven into the left side of his gut. The other claw dug into the tree trunk just beside him, having narrowly missed his body.

With the creature temporarily immobilized David lunged down, sinking a mouth full of teeth into the second joint of the claw impaling him now. Its blood filled his mouth, greasy and foul and making the creature’s overall stink even worse.

This time it was the creature that screamed, a scintillating shriek that made David’s skin crawl.

He wrenched his head back and forth, spit and blood flying as he worked his teeth into the joint. Sturdy though it was the spindly finger proved no match for his gnashing teeth; it came apart with a sickening snap, drawing another screech from the creature.

It brought the rest of its body around the tree now, so close that David could hear its ragged, hollow breathing. The creature was smoking now, accenting its normal scent with a strange chemical smell. The wards were working, however much good it was doing David at the moment.

More tendrils were wrapping themselves around his legs as the creature worked its remaining claw loose from the tree at David’s side.

No way to escape, a punctured gut, and another stabbing attack sure to come.

The claw came free and was drawn back for another strike.

David let instinct to take over.

A hollow, meaty crack rang out as the top of David’s skull connected with whatever served as the creature’s face under all those tendrils. It reeled back, the tendrils that gripped David’s legs loosening their hold on him and sliding away.

Rather than give it a chance to recover, David pressed the advantage and lined up another headbutt, hitting the thing in the same spot as its head wobbled back into range.

This time the creature was flung head-first into a neighboring tree, black blood that smoked as the rest of it did spattering onto the bark and forest floor when it landed. It twitched and made barely-coordinated swipes at David with its claws, struggling to stand all the while.

The claw that was still lodged in David’s gut ached horribly as his body attempted to repair itself around it, he would have to remove it soon to let himself heal. Still, he needed to take this chance, there was no telling when he’d get another like it.

David did his best to judge where the thing’s neck might be under the mass of twitching tendrils—a quick bite to the jugular would end it, not that he could really see anything to aim for. Blunt force was working so far though, so if he could get back in close and headbutt it again...

He wrapped the fingers of his left hand around the claw to keep it from moving around, then lowered his head in preparation for another headbutt.

The creature didn’t give him the chance to carry out his attack. It lashed out with its claws again, barely missing him as he jumped to the side. Its tail snaked around and tried to grab at him, distracting him long enough for the creature to land a backhanded blow on him.

Pain flared along David’s ribs as he was knocked flying, temporarily overwhelming the pain in his previous injury. That didn’t last for long. The force of his landing jolted the claw loose, and it slipped out completely as he rolled across the sand.

Blood poured from the wound as David came to a stop. It slowed to a trickle as he pushed himself up, then stopped. He needed to end this soon, he wouldn’t last much longer at this rate; even without the damage to his core muscles his stamina would run out eventually.

It seemed the creature had the same idea. Branches cracked and broke as it forced its way onto the shore, the smoke hanging even thicker around it than before. After pausing to focus on David it charged, front claws lifting to strike as hit hurled itself toward him.

He’d stand little chance in a direct fight at this point. David ducked to the side, successfully dodging the attack, then turned and made for a stand of rocks just ahead of them.

A glance behind told him the creature was having trouble. It was swiping as if he were still in range, then upon realizing that David was getting away it gave chase.

Impaired depth perception? That could be useful.

David stopped beneath the outcropping—which was a few feet taller than his considerable height—and faced the creature. The wound in his abdomen was still healing, but he would be strong enough to manage a high jump when the time came if he used his arms too.

The creature barreled toward him, again lifting its claws for the kill.

At the very last second David kicked off the ground, jumping clear just in time for the creature to slam headfirst into the outcropping. Success, but his muscles still couldn’t take the landing. David landed hard a few feet away while the rest of the creature’s lengthy body piled up against the rocks like some wretched organic trainwreck. His ribs promptly reminded him of their plight when he hit the ground, as did the gut injury.

Blunt force. Stick to blunt force.

David took a deep breath to steady himself and got to his feet. He was going to be feeling all of this for the next few days, but at least the fight was drawing to a close now. All he had to do was finish it.

The rock outcropping proved to be the perfect platform for what he wanted to do. David hopped and hauled himself to the highest part above the creature—which was still recovering from its headlong crash into solid stone—and leaped into the air, bringing his right elbow up as he descended on his target.

With a resounding crack David’s elbow connected with the creature’s spine just behind the second set of arms, and it buckled to the sand.

Unfortunately the creature wasn’t the only one to take damage in the drop. If his arm wasn’t broken, he’d done a good job of knocking the joints out of position. That was what David got for not doing more research on the move beforehand, but thank goodness he hadn’t let the kids try it yet. Either way, score one for wrestling camp.

David stepped back, free hand clamped over his injured right arm as he surveyed the damage; any movement the creature did now was the frantic, mindless twitch of the dying—or already dead.

Soon enough the creature stilled, even the tendrils falling limp. The smoke was thicker now, and the stink of the thing almost completely eaten up by the chemical odor of the wards breaking it down. Color seemed to creep back into the landscape, the world around him brightening as if from the rising sun. The wind gave one last defiant gust then turned to a gentle breeze, warm and friendly as one would expect from a fine summer’s day.

It was over.

David’s legs shook, then buckled, and he braced his good arm against the sand as he panted while the other hung limp at his side. A strange malaise settled over him in the absence of the adrenaline, and he hoped it wasn’t because the thing had been poisonous. His body was a mass of pain from the battering he’d received, and the foul taste of the creature’s blood still coated the inside of his mouth, but he’d won. Now to find somewhere safe and—

“Found you, beast!”

A gunshot rang out, immediately followed by sharp pain in David’s left shoulder and a corresponding spray of blood—right where the creature had flayed him earlier.

He would have to get away from the Quartermaster first.

David hauled himself to his feet and made for the outcropping while the Quartermaster reloaded his rifle. Just his luck that the Quartermaster would find him like this, right after a big fight. David admired his enthusiasm but wished he would channel it into something less, well, shooty. Specifically less shooty whenever David’s wolf form was involved.

“I ain’t finished with you yet!” the Quartermaster yelled behind him. A bullet ricocheted off of a nearby rock as David dropped to the other side of the outcropping. “Get back here!”

The injuries weren’t helping, both pain and weakness slowing him down. As a result the Quartermaster was able to tail David for a record ten minutes before he finally lost him.

It was only when he tripped over a large broken branch that David realized he was near the place he fought the creature again. That was fine, as long as the Quartermaster wasn’t nearby. He was running on fumes at this point and he needed to get back to camp to rest up. But first he needed to find hardened earth or stone again.

David found a suitable place just a few feet away, then fell to his knees and focused on changing back. The transformation was even more painful than before because of the just-healed injuries, but at last he was back to his original shape. He lay there a while, breathing heavily and overwhelmed by pain as his body settled.

Now to get dressed, come up with his cover story, and head back to camp. David took the single-strap backpack off and retrieved his regular clothes. Getting dressed was a struggle as David’s arms shook incessantly from exhaustion. He put Ty’s feather back into the lining of his vest last of all and tucked the shorts and backpack into it.

With his usual ensamble reassembled David got to his feet and checked the location of the sun, then set off toward Camp Campbell. It struck him just a few steps in that the bruises on his arms and legs didn’t match the pristine state of his clothes—jumping into the first mud puddle he found would probably fix that.

On the shore the creature continued its steady disintegration, the blood it had spilled earlier already gone. A figure appeared at the treeline and made its way over to it. They paused to look it over, then knelt to pick up a stray tendril from where it lay on the sand.

Daniel examined the tendril for a moment, then took a cloth from his pocket and folded it within. He’d learned some very interesting details today. Regis would need to know as soon as possible.

“Let me guess,” Gwen said when David pushed the door to the Mess Hall open. “The boars got you.”

David squinted at her while his tired brain struggled to register what she’d just said. Once he did he let his head droop as if in shame. “Yeah. I kinda fell off a cliff while running away,” he admitted. Having to lie still bothered him but thank God for Gwen being there to back him up whenever this happened.

There was a barely-restrained cackle from Max, who was no-doubt imagining the scenario at this very moment.

Gwen had the campers doing origami, which David was sad to have missed out on, but it was good to see a few well-folded pieces scattered here and there on the tables. A few others were crumpled up or charred from being set on fire but David chose to ignore them for now.

“Well, you made it back in one piece,” Gwen said with a roll of her eyes. For a moment David worried that she was actually mad at him, until he remembered that she was probably putting on an act in front of the kids. Probably. “Did you see Daniel out there? He ditched us before we got to the Mess Hall.”

“I haven’t seen him,” David said, worry starting to settle in. With the locals panicked one of them could have bumped into Daniel or even hurt him by accident, and that was the last thing they needed right now. “I’m gonna go get cleaned up. I’ll keep an eye out, though.”

David trudged off toward the Counselors' Cabin, slouching and weary while exhaustion dragged at him like a heavy blanket. His entire body ached, with the sites of his injuries providing even more pain than the rest. He just wanted to lay down and sleep for the rest of the day, he was too tired to do anything else.

Reaching the cabin barely registered and even the simple act of getting through the door was a struggle. He stopped by the closet to grab a towel for the shower and closed the door again before realizing who was huddled beneath the coats inside.

“Daniel...?” David asked no one in particular as he stood there, towel in hand. He turned back to the closet and opened it again to squint down at its lone human occupant. “Why are you in the closet?”

“Oh, thank goodness!” Daniel said as he jumped to his feet. “I ducked into the closet and the door got stuck so I couldn’t get out.”

“Gwen’s mad at you,” David said, too tired to go over normal pleasantries. “You need to apologize for leaving her alone like that.”

“Oh my, how right you are!” Daniel admitted. His smile then took on a certain sharpness that David just barely managed to notice. “But have you done the same?”

“I got chased by—”

“And I was trapped in the closet with no way to get out, which is apparently no real excuse, so shouldn’t the same apply to you regardless of your predicament?” Daniel swept past David before he could come up with a reply. “But I’ll go apologize, I owe Gwen that much at least.”

David stood by the closet and watched Daniel leave, trying to figure out what just happened. The conversation had gotten away from him right after it started, and it left him even more tired and feeling a sharp guilt over ditching Gwen earlier.

“—and that’s why I couldn’t make it to the Mess Hall earlier!” Daniel finished, giving Gwen the usual incessant grin.

Gwen pinched the bridge of her nose. “How the fuck did you get yourself trapped in a closet?” she asked.

“The door got stuck,” Daniel replied.

For a few moments it looked like Gwen might blow up on him, her fists clenched and shaking, then she took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes. “Fuck it, fine. But you’re not leaving again until the day’s over, got it?”

“You got it, Gwen!” Daniel said, bracing his hands against his hips as he straightened. “You can count on me!”

“Trying to fill in for David, are we?” Max asked with a sneer as he flattened a crease in his origami paper. He was a little disappointed that he didn’t get to watch Gwen go apeshit on Daniel, so prodding him over the ‘evil twin’ thing was the next best form of entertainment. “That sounded a little too much like him.”

As if on cue Daniel’s smile went rigid, and there was a slight tick going under his left eye. “Well perhaps if he wasn’t so careless,” Daniel punctuated the word by jerking his head to the side with an unnerving crack of his neck, “I wouldn’t have to.”

“Both of you shut up and get back to work,” Gwen snapped, barely looking up from helping Space Kid get the wad of paper he’d somehow shoved into the farthest reaches of his helmet. “Max, that frog isn’t gonna fold itself. Daniel, go make sure everyone has enough paper.”

“Yes, Gwen!” Daniel said, snapping his attention away from Max and marching off toward the craft table.

“Is it really necessary to antagonize the guy with serial killer vibes coming off him?” Neil asked as he fumbled with his third attempt at an origami frog. “I can’t be the only one who noticed that.”

“Calm down, he’s not gonna do anything. If he makes even one move like that he’ll get his shit wrecked by Nurf in five seconds tops,” Max replied with an apathetic shrug. “Plus we all know that if he did, he’d go after David first,” he added with a smirk.

“You think Nurf could teach me that crab attack too?” Nikki asked as she put the finishing touches on her origami beetle—which in true Nikki form had an actual beetle trapped inside just waiting to crawl out onto whoever was unlucky enough to handle it next. “Then when Daniel goes bonkers I can join in on the takedown!”

“I’d feel better if it never got that far,” Neil said, leaning away as Nikki’s arm brought the beetle dangerously close to his hair. “Do you think he was really stuck in a closet all that time?”

“He’s probably a chicken just like David, wouldn’t surprise me,” Max said. “The real question is whether all that screaming was just boars or not.”

“I’d have to find vocalizations for them just to be sure,” Neil said, tapping his chin with one finger. “But that weird reading I got just before the wind picked up? That’s definitely not normal. Something’s going on.”

“We should go out and check!” Nikki said, jumping onto the bench in her excitement.

“Nikki, settle down,” Max hissed as he yanked her back to a sitting position by her overall straps. “Don’t give us away.”

“Yeah but that’s dangerous. I don’t want this to be a repeat of that lake monster fiasco,” Neil whispered as Gwen walked past their table.

At that moment the door slammed open and the Quartermaster stomped in, wearing an expression that was more annoyed than usual and with a rifle still attached to his prosthetic. He grumbled an unintelligible greeting to the assembled campers and counselors as he passed through, bound for the supply rooms at the back of the Mess Hall.

“We can just get the Quartermaster to take us,” Max said with a cunning smile. “He’s always eager to show us the ropes when it comes to the weird shit around here.”

The rest of the day was, thankfully, uneventful for the most part. Gwen kept the campers to the Mess Hall to avoid the inevitable ‘stick-sword fights’ that pretty much every kid, troublemaker or not, was known to try at some point in life—too many potential weapons scattered on the ground thanks to the wind, all of which would have to be cleaned up by tomorrow morning. Max complained that lanyard making was “shitty and boring” but otherwise didn’t cause trouble, which had Gwen a little suspicious. She kept a closer eye on him than usual that evening, just to be sure.

Eventually though, it was time for bed. Gwen had taken a tray of dinner to David and gotten back to the Mess Hall as quickly as possible earlier, and this would be the first time to really check on how he was doing. She pushed open the cabin door and stepped inside, turning on the light and hurrying over to David’s bed when he didn’t stir.

Symmetrical bruising that was hard to notice under the coat of dirt and grime David had on him earlier was readily apparent now that he was clean, and his face was swollen as if he’d just had wisdom teeth and more pulled. Using his wolf form always knocked him on his ass for a while—which was why he only used it when absolutely necessary—but this was the worst she’d ever seen him.

David remained asleep as Gwen approached, and her anxiety grew when she noticed that his dinner was completely untouched, as was the bottle of water she’d filled for him. He hadn’t even woken up in the last few hours as far as she knew, and that was despite the fact that he had to eat a lot after using wolf form.

She gave his shoulder a shake and got nothing but a slight twitch of his eyes in return. “David!” she called as she shook him again, but still nothing more than a slight movement of the eyes. This close she could see that there was an unhealthy pallor to his skin, and deep shadows under his eyes that were more than just bruising.

Gwen stood and started to pace, trying to bleed off nervous energy so she could think clearly. This wasn’t a matter of some stupid tranq darts that would probably wear off overnight. She could call on Miya if things looked really bad, she’d be able to do something to help David if it came to that. But how long to wait. At what point would it be serious enough to summon her?

Focused as she was on possible options for the predicament, Gwen almost missed the sound of rustling fabric behind her. She turned and found that David was sitting up, dressed in his green tree print pajamas and blinking owlishly at her.

“You’re awake,” Gwen said as she rushed to the bed and took his hands in her own—they were clammy and cold, as if he’d just gotten out of the water after a swim. “What happened?”

David wobbled for a few moments, struggling to stay awake. “Gwen I’m...” His eyes rolled back, only to be forced frontward once more as David fought to focus on Gwen. “I’m sorry I left you earlier.”

“What?” Gwen blinked, confused by the sudden change of subject. “It’s fine, I don’t care,” she lied. “Just tell me what happened.”

“Big fight,” David mumbled as his eyes started to close again. “Got hurt.”

“Show me,” Gwen said, already dreading what she might find.

He took his left hand from her and slowly lifted the hem of his nightshirt, his arm shaking all the while. A rough circle of inflamed red skin marked the left side of his stomach, vein-like radiations winding their way across his skin and giving it a starburst-like appearance. It was almost burn-like, and Gwen could swear she caught some unpleasant smell coming off it. David wobbled again, dropped the hem, and returned his hand to Gwen’s for balance.

“Shoulder slashed. Then Quartermaster shot it,” David added, his eyes closing as he tipped forward. He jerked himself upright with a gasp and opened his eyes again. “Hurt my elbow pretty bad.” The shaking was worse now, but whether it was from fear or from raw exhaustion Gwen couldn’t tell. “Worried it might be poison.”

“What might? The thing you fought?” Gwen asked, the panic starting to rise again. She gave David a hard shake when he didn’t reply. “Answer me!”

David’s mouth started to move, but only a weak wimper made it past his lips. His eyes rolled back and the lids dropped, and he tipped forward onto Gwen as his body went limp.

Right, contact Miya, get her in here just to make sure everything was normal and to heal David up if need be. It would require extra caution to make sure no one at camp saw her while she was here, but at this point Gwen was fully willing to go so far as to lock Daniel in another closet and the kids with him if it meant getting Miya in to see David. Quartermaster she could probably keep away just by telling him she’d seen the wolfman somewhere down the lake, that would keep him busy for half a day, easy.

Gwen pushed David back onto his bed and laid him out, then pulled the sheets and comforter up to his chin. She rested the inside of her wrist across his forehead on a whim and found that it wasn’t just his hands that were abnormally cold. After dithering a moment on what to do first, Gwen dashed to the closet, grabbed a spare blanket, and draped that over David too. With that done she crossed to the desk and took a blank sheet of paper from their geriatric printer, then began writing out the request.

Hopefully there was a cupcake or two hidden away in the Mess Hall that she could leave along with the letter, that would get Miya’s attention real quick. Gwen folded the finished letter and tucked it away in her pocket. Thank God Miya was fluent in English, too. Having to badly translate her request into Japanese and risk it saying the wrong thing would’ve given Gwen enough anxiety to make her heart explode, she was sure.

Daniel was still washing dishes when Gwen reached the Mess Hall. “Getting a treat?” he asked as Gwen found the secret stash and retrieved a cupcake from it.

“It’s been a long day,” Gwen replied, rolling her eyes when Daniel couldn’t see. He’d been genuinely upbeat during the second half of the day and for some reason it was getting on her nerves almost as much as his usual false cheer did. “What about you? Want one?”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” Daniel replied, holding up a still-dripping hand. “Against my religion and all that.”

“Mmhmm,” Gwen hummed, already making for the door. She sprinted down the path toward the Counselors' Cabin, only slowing while she passed the cluster of tents.

A large dark shape reared up out of the shadows at her approach and barrelled away, disappearing into the forest. Had to be a noctursa, judging by the way it moved. Gwen made a detour to the cabin and found, sure enough, the usual token of thanks in its woven reed basket. She needed to hide this before Daniel spotted it.

Gwen hefted the basket with one arm and carried it around the corner of the cabin, where it would be hidden from anyone using the door. She’d hide it behind her bed—since Daniel had no real excuse to go over there and if she caught him doing it he would be in a heap of trouble—once she was done leaving the message.

After a quick check to make sure no campers were watching, Gwen jogged off into the forest, following the shape of the lake beyond the trees. Not far now, the little shrine that they used as a sort of mailbox was just ahead—

“Ooh, it’s Gwennie!”

There was a flurry of hoofbeats just behind her as the newcomer caught up.

“Lenny if you try anything I swear to God I will find a way to punt you into the lake,” Gwen said, trying her best to sound threatening while being out of breath.

The puca said nothing and instead glanced at the note and cupcake in her hand, easily keeping pace with her all the while. “Davey boy’s in that bad a’ shape?” he asked, sounding worried.

“I just need Miya to check,” Gwen replied.

At last the shrine came into view, a stack of ornate carved stones that made up a miniature tower covered in moss and worn from age and weather. Gwen knelt and set the note on the flat stone that lay before it, placing the cupcake on top.

Lenny was still right behind her when she stood, obviously waiting for more information on what happened. He shifted a bit, lifting a hoof and setting it down again. “At least let me give ya a ride back,” Lenny said finally. “No horseplay, I promise.”

Gwen eyed him, still wary given the puca’s history. “Promise?” she asked. It would be nice not having to run back, after all.

“Swear on my everlastin’ soul, I’ll get ya back to camp with no funny business,” Lenny replied.

“Alright,” Gwen said with a sigh. “Let’s head back to camp.”

Daniel was able to get away in the evening while Gwen was still caring for David, on the pretense that he was off to make sure the campers were alright after such a stressful day. Instead he walked straight toward the slipspace he’d used to get beyond the wards before. There was a lot to tell Regis after what he’d seen, and likely new orders for what to do about it.

“The coast is clear,” Max whispered at the entrance to Nikki’s tent, Neil standing at his elbow.

Nikki jumped out of her cot and tiptoed past Nerris, who had already fallen asleep, then broke into a run once she was out of the tent and did a small lap from excitement. “Where to first?” she asked as she came to a stop before Max and Neil.

“We’ll swing by the Mess Hall on our way down to the lake,” Max replied, keeping his voice low. “See if the Quartermaster’s around.”

The Mess Hall and Quartermaster Store were dark and deserted when the three reached them. Neil started to fidget with nervousness as they made their way down to the docks, only to find that the Quartermaster was there and had apparently been waiting for them.

“Figured you’d be comin’ out tonight,” the Quartermaster said as they reached him. “You wanna see the place they fought, don’t you?”

“They?” Neil asked, grip tightening on his makeshift EMF meter.

“Mmhmm. The wolfman an’ some tentacle beast,” the Quartermaster replied.

“Is it the lake monster?” Nikki asked, starting to bounce up and down with excitement.

“Nah, lake monster’s more sluglike,” the Quartermaster replied. He turned toward the length of shore that ran to the left of the camp and gestured for them to follow with his hook. “This way.”

A pale grey jacket helped keep off the chill while Daniel waited for Regis just beyond the ward boundary. Soon enough he felt the empty weight of infinity pressing down around him, a sure sign of Regis’s arrival. Daniel knelt as Regis appeared before him.

“This is unexpected. I take it you have learned something of importance,” Regis said as he stared down at Daniel. “You may stand.”

“I have new information on my coworker,” Daniel said as he stood. “He’s some kind of werewolf, and he was able to defeat this,” as he finished the sentence Daniel took a parcel from the small bag he wore over his shoulder and carefully unwrapped it, revealing a withered grey tendril.

Regis’s eye widened with surprise. “So one of them made it through, that is excellent news.” A set of four pale purple tentacles dropped from the crown’s underside, two of them picking the piece up with ease. “And you say your coworker, David, was it? He was able to fight one of them and win?”

“Yes,” Daniel replied, trying not to grit his teeth when he heard Regis say David’s name.

“Hmmm.” Regis stared over the top of Daniel’s head for a few moments. “That is troubling. No mere werewolf should be able to fight one of these so easily, even with the wards’ effect taken into account. I must know more.” He turned to Daniel again. “I will review your memories, to see what I myself may glean from them.”

“Yes, Regis,” Daniel said, giving an involuntary shudder as he looked down at the ground. He seated himself on his knees regardless. It was an honor to be touched by the Divine in such a way, but it had always felt extremely uncomfortable to Daniel, as if having Regis in his head was somehow wrong . He chalked it up to his own impurity and sought to always do better, though it never seemed to help.

With a flick of one tentacle the piece of the vanquished creature evaporated, and Regis drifted forward until he was hovering over Daniel’s head. He turned to face the same direction as Daniel, then lowered himself onto Daniel’s head. The tentacles phased through his skull, and Daniel could almost feel them wrapping around his brain as Regis prepared to examine his memories. Another shudder ran through him as his eyes began to roll back in his head and his breathing became more ragged.

Regis began his task, throwing Daniel’s consciousness into a dreamlike state as he sifted through the more recent memories. Images flickered by, sounds faded in and out, and emotions flowed past in a torrent. His body twitched and jerked while Regis continued his work, something that Daniel was always vaguely aware of but could never stop.

At last Regis was satisfied that he had found all the memories he was interested in and withdrew, leaving exhaustion and a growing headache in his wake. Daniel stood, at times having to pause to get his balance, while Regis took up his usual position before him.

Again Regis’s gaze wandered as he thought it over. “Yes, he is certainly more than a mere werewolf, and likely has a direct connection to the previous guardian of this place, and to... Her. The eye narrowed in a glare. “And he may already have some suspicion of our connection.”

“What? How?” Daniel asked, looking up at Regis in shock.

“Werewolves in general have a nose for magic, and given his abilities it’s likely that he would be able to tell that I’ve met you. He’s already been sniffing around the boundaries too so he could recognize it.”

“What do we do?” Daniel asked, his smile starting to slip from dismay.

Again Regis was silent as he considered it. “The source of whatever ‘scent’ he would pick up on comes from the mark I have placed on you. I will have to remove it for now—”

Daniel’s blood ran cold at the suggestion, and he began shaking uncontrollably as anxiety seized him. “Please,” he breathed, his face pale. “Anything but that. I can’t—”

“Calm yourself, Daniel,” Regis commanded, but Daniel barely heard him.

“I can do better, just tell me what I did wrong, please,” Daniel begged as he began to back away, his head held in his hands while tears started to stream from his eyes. “I can’t take their chatter again.” Their formless calls had been like nails scratching on the inside of his skull, over and over, relentless and unceasing until Regis had silenced them. He’d wanted to bash his brains out the last time he’d been subjected to their noise.

“You are being childish,” Regis began as he kept pace with him. “Stop this and listen to—”

There was a dull metallic sound, and the air in front of Regis rippled. Daniel had unthinkingly backpedaled over the ward boundary, leaving Regis stuck on the outside.

Daniel gasped with both shock and fear at the insult he’d unwittingly done to Regis, and for a few heart pounding moments Regis stared down at him; the pupil had shrunk to a mere pinprick, and his eye was narrowed with fury. Daniel leaped back over the boundary and prostrated himself beneath Regis. “I’m so sorry!” he cried as he cowered on the dry grass. “I didn’t mean—”

An aura flared around Regis, brilliant purple and deep black swirling as if blown about by a gale, and Daniel fell silent as he awaited punishment. After what felt like an eternity, Regis closed his eye and the aura vanished. When he opened it again the pupil was again the usual size.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please forgive me.” Daniel was whispering his apologies into the grass as Regis looked down at him, and the shaking hadn’t stopped.

“I will forgive you this time. On your feet,” Regis said graciously. “Compose yourself and we will continue our discussion.”

Daniel was still shaking as he stood, but the tears had slowed at least. He wiped his eyes on the back of one sleeve and then wiped his nose, fixing his smile back in place before finally looking up at Regis. “Yes, Regis.”

“As long as you remain within the wards’ boundary you will have no need for my mark anyway, since even low-level creeps cannot enter. You will be safe from their cacophony as long as you stay near Lake Lilac.”

The shaking died down to a mere tremor upon hearing that, and Daniel’s smile grew a bit stronger. “Okay. I can do this,” he said, still a little breathless from the lingering anxiety. Even so, he wrapped his arms around himself and clutched at the sleeves on his upper arms, as if trying to warm himself. “I’m ready.”

Regis drifted close, one tentacle lifting to Daniel’s chest where it phased through his sternum to fiddle with something within.

Daniel shuddered. The shape of the mark flashed in his mind as Regis’s tentacle closed around it, and then it was gone. Daniel couldn’t help but put a hand to his chest once Regis withdrew; without the mark he wouldn’t be able to travel outside Lake Lilac’s wards without being assaulted by maddening noise from the creeps. Now he could only hope to do a good enough job here that Regis would replace the mark once everything was finished.

“Done,” Regis said, sounding satisfied. “And another thing, have you been using concealment spells while doing your surveys?”

“I... I haven’t had time to start just yet,” Daniel said hesitantly, acutely aware of how often he’d been failing Regis as of late. And to top it off he would have to bind all these negative emotions before he got back to camp, they were too strong to resolve normally at this point. Yet another failure on his part.

“Hmph, I suppose it’s just as well,” Regis mused. “You will find the necessary enchantments on pages 15, 20, and 23 of your spellbook. That will be enough to keep you from being noticed by any other entities as long as you carry a piece of iron on your person.”

Daniel memorized the page numbers and nodded, resolving to look them up at the first opportunity when he got back to the cabin. “Yes, Regis.”

“And before you go, I have a warning,” Regis added, drifting closer. “Should you see anything that resembles a moving patch of night sky, drop all magic and move to cover immediately. We cannot afford having her catch on to our plans.”

“Her?” Daniel asked, his blood running cold at the thought of something powerful enough to make even Regis cautious.

“I won’t speak her name, she might hear,” Regis replied. “She is one of the Fallen, and she will stop at nothing to see humanity destroy itself. Be wary.”

“Holy shit,” Max said as they came across the first set of claw marks. “This thing is huge.”

“Was,” the Quartermaster said ominously as he trudged on.

Max, Nikki, and Neil scampered after him, struggling to keep up in the low light and among so much debris. At last they reached the shore and the Quartermaster took them to the right, toward an outcropping of rock. Large depressions in the sand told of a large body that once lay there, of which nothing remained.

“Saw the wolfman kill it right here,” the Quartermaster said, pointing to the impressions. “Big nasty thing, smelled like hell ‘n looked like it too.”

Neil dashed forward, tucking the EMF meter away to leave his hands free. “Judging by the marks, this thing wasn’t dragged away,” he said after doing a lap around the spot. “Evaporation? That can’t be right. Something heavy enough to leave impressions like this can’t just evaporate into nothing.”

“It’s a big monster, who the fuck even knows how its body works after it dies,” Max said, hands stuffed in his hoodie pocket as he approached to get a better look himself. “Damn, there’s one of those claws,” he added, scuffing at the mark with the toe of his sneaker; it was even longer than he was tall and wider than his foot at the base.

“Wonder what they were fighting over,” Nikki said as she poked at marks left by what appeared to be a mass of thick draping hair. “Maybe they were both trying to date the lake monster and it ended in a duel to the death!”

“You kids have fun theorizin’ while I go hunt the wolfman,” the Quartermaster said, the gun attachment already on his prosthetic. “Shot him just over there, but he got away,” he added, pointing to a spot on the sand that was marred with blood spatters.

The bushes near the forest side of the outcrop rustled, startling them. The Quartermaster trained his gun on them as Daniel emerged.

“I don’t believe we have any after dark activities going tonight,” Daniel said cooly as he walked over to them. “You kids are supposed to be in bed.”

“Ah, just the changeling,” the Quartermaster said as he lowered his rifle. “Sneakin’ around lookin’ for someone else t’ copy.”

“I am doing nothing of the sort,” Daniel replied, hands on his hips as he stood before them. “I merely discovered these three missing and lo and behold here you are endangering them. Guess I’ll have to let Gwen know.”

“They’re not in danger with me around,” the Quartermaster growled. “Nothin’ messes with me and gets away with it.”

“In any case I have to take them back to camp now,” Daniel said. “I’m sure it’ll be a relief for you to no longer have to watch them.”

The Quartermaster grumbled something under his breath but didn’t protest further, instead turning and walking toward the mass of broken branches that marked where the fight had entered the forest.

“Come on kiddos, let’s get back to camp!” Daniel said, making a broad sweeping motion with one arm to indicate that they should follow. He took them back the way they’d come, navigating the temporary trail created by the Quartermaster.

“You’re in a good mood tonight,” Max said, looking up at Daniel. It was actually getting on his nerves to tell the truth, who would’ve thought that Daniel being genuinely cheerful could be so grating. “Glad that the original isn’t doing so well today?”

Daniel didn’t rise to the bait as he usually would. “Not at all! It’s unfortunate that David was injured and I hope he has a speedy recovery,” he replied smoothly.

“Yeah, sure,” Max said. He didn’t buy Daniel’s sympathy for a second, no matter how convincing it sounded.

They reached the camp without mishap—save for Daniel grabbing Nikki before she could dive into a mud puddle—and Daniel led them to their tents.

“Now you kids go to sleep,” Daniel said as they dispersed. “We’ve got another full day of camp activities tomorrow!”

Gwen sprang to her feet at the sound of someone at the door, then tried to hide her disappointment when she found Daniel in the doorway. “That was way longer than a quick check,” she said flatly, attempting to cover it up with the expected grouchy attitude.

“We had a few escapees and I had to go out looking for them,” Daniel replied, his smile undimmed by her glare. “I found them down the lake with the Quartermaster.”

“Let me guess, Max, Nikki, and Neil,” Gwen said with a sigh.

“Yep! They’re back in their tents now.”

“Why can’t they give it a rest for once?” Gwen grumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose. She looked up to find Daniel staring at David, who still lay motionless in his bed. “Something wrong?”

“Oh, no,” Daniel replied, turning one eye on her. “Just wondering why you haven’t sent him to the hospital yet.”

“He’ll be fine, he just needs to sleep it off,” Gwen said with a wave of her hand. She was doing a good enough job of convincing Daniel it seemed, a shame that she couldn’t do the same for herself. The anxiety boiling in the pit of her stomach was almost enough to give her heartburn. “He’s had worse than this.”

“I see,” Daniel said thoughtfully. “Well then, I’ll take your word for it.”

Gwen watched him as he went to the chest at the end of his bed that held his belongings. “Hey, are you alright?” she asked while his back was still turned to her.

“Whatever do you mean? Of course I am,” Daniel said cheerfully, though he didn’t look her in the eye. “Why would you think otherwise?”

“You look like you’ve been crying,” Gwen said, crossing her arms over her chest.

Daniel froze, then slowly lifted a hand to his face, the movement barely visible from where Gwen was standing. “Oh, I took a branch across the eyes earlier, it hurt at the time but I’m fine now.”

“Whatever you say.” Gwen was willing to drop it for now but the fact that Daniel was so blatantly lying to her was making her angry. As if she didn’t know what the aftermath of crying looked like, after seeing it so many times in the mirror herself. “Just keep in mind that I’m here to talk if you need it.”

“Very kind of you, Gwen. I appreciate your support,” Daniel said as he stood, his pajamas draped over one arm. “But I assure you that everything is perfectly fine.”

Chapter Text

David looked even worse when Gwen woke up the next morning; several shades paler, and the shadows under his eyes were even more pronounced. The bruises looked as dark as the day before, when they should’ve been starting to fade by now. Even his cowlick had a miserable droop to it.

Gwen gave him a shake. “David, can you hear me? David!” she called, but no use. His face barely twitched despite being disturbed, and Gwen felt the knot of anxiety in her stomach draw even tighter.

“Oh dear, should we call the ambulance?”

Something—she wasn’t sure exactly what—about the way Daniel said the question made Gwen want to whirl around and slam her fist into his nose. Daniel’s usually-limited range of tones aside, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was genuinely happy to see David sick like this and it made her want to break that stupid smile of his as quickly and brutally as possible.

But that wouldn’t get her anywhere, and it wouldn’t do David any favors. Gwen took a deep breath through her nose, then released it. She needed Daniel’s help to get through the day without David around, so no decking him in the face for now.

“I already called someone, they’ll help him soon,” Gwen said, a slight edge of anger still in her voice. “Let’s get going.”

There was someone standing outside the Counselors’ Cabin when Gwen returned after breakfast, someone who was a relief to see. She picked up the pace, trying to catch up before they made it to the forest’s edge.

“Miya!” Gwen called when she was close enough.

The call got her attention, and Miya turned to face Gwen as she caught up. She had David held securely in two sets of her six arms, a blanket wrapped tightly around him to help keep off the cold. “Good morning, Gwen,” Miya said, the lower lids of all eight eyes lifting in time with the corners of her mouth. Despite the fact that this was absolutely one of Miya’s genuine smiles, it was still unnerving to see all the same. “You were right to call me, he’s in bad condition,” she said, dropping the smile as talk turned to more serious matters. “I don’t have the right reagents with me now, so I’m taking him back to my clinic.”

“He’s really that bad?” Gwen asked with more dismay leaking into her voice than she intended.

“It appears to be a type of toxin associated with Eldrikin creatures,” Miya replied gravely. “It would be best to start treatment as soon as possible.”

It wasn’t the greatest feeling to have her worst fear confirmed like that. She’d done the right thing calling Miya to begin with, but even now Gwen was kicking herself for not realizing something was wrong sooner than that.

Without thinking Gwen placed a hand on the top of David’s head and rested her forehead against his. “Get well soon,” she mumbled.

Miya lifted her bottom pair of hands to embrace Gwen’s free wrist, flourishing her middle right and summoning a single strand of gold-colored web. The strand wound itself around Gwen’s wrist on contact, making itself into a loose-fitting bracelet so thin it was barely noticeable. “When he wakes I’ll make the thread break. Farewell.”

There was a brief gust of wind, a rippling puff of pale grey smoke, and Miya was gone.

Gwen drooped, letting her arms swing listlessly at her sides. Hold down the fort and wait, that was about all she could do for now. Her right hand drifted to her opposite wrist there the web strand rested against her skin.

Just like she always did.

The remaining counselors were too busy cleaning up the aftermath of Neil’s automated tomato tosser—commissioned by Nurf, by payment of leaving Neil alone for the next few days—to notice much of what the other campers were doing. Nerris started preparation for her first big quest that summer, confident that Gwen and Daniel would be so occupied otherwise that they wouldn’t try to stop her. David being gone helped as well, Gwen had told them he’d been sent to a medical facility to get better after the boar attack. She was worried about that and had offered to cast a few healing spells on him, only for Gwen to turn her down.

Nerris looked up from packing as Daniel took a tomato to the face from Neil’s machine, which was not quite ready to give up the ghost just yet. She felt a little bad for him, creepy smile aside; he did his best to understand her magic when he was keeping an eye on her and she appreciated that.

Either way, it was best to get ready now so she could sneak off to Spooky Island once night fell and the counselors were asleep. She was sure the map would lead somewhere special once she got there. Now she just had to wait.

Daniel volunteered to do the final camper check for the night once they got back to the cabin; Gwen was exhausted and clearly showed it, which meant she would be sleeping soundly enough not to notice him leaving if he gave her a head start like this. He took his time checking the tents—drawing a few grumbles from some of the campers who were still drifting off—and sure enough Gwen was in bed and fast asleep by the time he returned.


The items he needed were already in a messenger bag and ready to be quickly retrieved, and Daniel took the bag from the trunk that held his belongings and eased it shut again. Getting out the door that was the most potentially-noisy part—even though he’d left it propped open to avoid excess squeaking it still did so when he eased it shut. There wasn’t even a mumble from Gwen, and Daniel released the handle and turned toward the lake.

Now, to find the first wardstone.

Daniel crept past the campers’ tents and continued onto the path that led to the Mess Hall, coming to a halt once he was far enough away from both to ensure that he wouldn’t be overheard. After a thorough check for the Quartermaster—the old man was far quieter than he had any right to be and already didn’t like Daniel on top of that—he took various reagents from his bag and started prepping the spellwork he would need for this outing.

He’d just reached the point that required incantations, spellbook open and held in one hand, when a voice called out to him.


He jumped and snapped the book shut, peering over one shoulder to see who had snuck up on him.

“Sorry,” Harrison said, having realized what a start he gave Daniel just a moment ago.

Daniel relaxed somewhat. Harrison was a good boy, eager to learn and agreeable toward Daniel at least. Harrison he could deal with.

“What can I do for you, Harrison?” Daniel asked as he turned to face Harrison completely, taking care not to damage the runes he’d scrawled in the dirt around his feet.

“Well, I saw you were doing magic and wanted to know what it was,” Harrison replied. “Can you teach me how to do it too?”

“Hah, oh...” Daniel said, relaxing further at such a simple request. “No, I’m afraid this is beyond your current skill level, and possibly not even right for the way you wield magic.”

“Oh.” Harrison scuffed the toe of one shoe at the dirt, looking disappointed. “So... What are you using it for?”

Ah, that was the question Daniel was hoping Harrison wouldn’t ask—much as he liked the boy and trusted him to keep things to himself there was always the worry of being compromised. “Something very important,” Daniel said. “I’m going to have to ask that you keep it to yourself for now, Harrison. It’s... Possibly world-saving in scope, but I don’t think the others will understand at this stage.”

“Whoa, really?” Harrison looked up at Daniel with a mix of awe and respect. “Can I help?”

“Well, if you could keep an eye on the other campers for me that would help tremendously,” Daniel considered the difficulty of his request even as he spoke; he’d seen the protections put on the camp himself and they would be more than enough to keep anything unpleasant in check while he was away. All Harrison had to do was make sure the campers stayed inside the camp. Everything would be fine. “Make sure they don’t wander off and all that, but not doubt they’re just as tired from today’s activities as Gwen is so I’m sure it won’t be much trouble.”

“I won’t let you down, Daniel!” Harrison said, drawing himself up with a confident look on his face.

“Now if you don’t mind going back to the tents. I’m not much of a showman myself and get a bit of stage fright when people watch me cast,” Daniel said with a nervous chuckle. “Oh, and Harrison,” he added as Harrison turned to leave. “No telling Gwen, alright? I don’t want her to get the wrong idea about me.”

“You got it, Daniel,” Harrison said, giving Daniel a thumbs up. With that he jogged back toward the tents, leaving Daniel alone on the path once again.

Back to business.

Daniel completed the spells he needed, wreathing himself in a shroud of magic that made him invisible to sight, sound, and scent. He put the materials away, dragged his boots through the spell circle to wipe it out, then started on his way, seeking the western wardstone off in the wilderness beyond the camp. It felt like walking under a thick, stifling blanket—albeit one you could see through—but as long as it kept him hidden he would bear it.

He couldn’t let Regis down. It was time to deliver some results.

Nerris strained her ears—sharp as they were, even she could miss things on occasion—and sat up when she heard nothing out of the ordinary. Her day clothes had been hidden by the covers when Daniel did the final check, and now she slipped out of her cot and retrieved her backpack from underneath it. She crept toward the entrance to the tent, doing her best to avoid waking Nikki.

“Whatcha doin’?”

Having Nikki suddenly appear just behind her made Nerris jump and drop her backpack.

“Whoops,” Nikki said, sweeping up Nerris’s backpack and handing it back to her. “Are you going on an adventure?”

“A quest to Spooky Island,” Nerris replied warily. She eyed Nikki for a moment. “Are you sure you’re not a rogue? Your stealth abilities are pretty impressive.”

“I have no idea what a rogue is but Spooky Island sounds fun!” Nikki replied. “Is anyone else going on your adventure? Can I come too?”

“Well...” Nerris paused to consider it; Nikki hadn’t shown much interest in questing before—well, pretty much no one did, now that she thought about it—but Nerris had seen a bit of what she could do. Strong for her size, fast, agile, brave... Nikki would be a welcome addition to any party, really. “Actually yeah, you can be our rogue!”

“Still don’t know what that is, but awesome!” Nikki said, her grin widening. “Can Max and Neil come too? We’re kind of a team with the whole adventuring thing.”

“A bigger party would increase our chances of success,” Nerris said thoughtfully, tapping her chin with one finger. In truth she was doing her best to stay on top of the general bewilderment at finding that there were people willing to adventure with her now. “They can join our party if they want. Meet me on the path to the Mess Hall when you’re done.”

Yes!” Nikki did a fist pump and sprinted over to the tent that Max and Neil shared, where she ducked inside. There a grumble from Max and a yelp of surprise from Neil, followed by a muffled conversation between the three as Nikki brought them up to speed.

Nerris did her best to sneak past the rest of the tents, then took up a faster pace once she hit the path. Once she was a good distance away—where their voices wouldn’t carry to the other campers so much—she stopped and turned back toward the tents.

Nikki appeared soon enough, Neil and a very grumpy-looking Max in tow.

Nerris’s smile widened when she noticed that Max and Neil had their own backpacks with them. “Perfect!” she said, barely able to contain her excitement. “Now we just have to assign classes to our party members. Hmmm...” Nerris paused as she considered their options. “Nikki, you’re the rogue because you’re good and sneaking and you’re super agile,” she said, pointing to Nikki. “Your job will be to look for traps and do stealth attacks.”

“Awww, I wanna be a warrior instead!” Nikki’s grin turned to a pout and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Roguing sounds dumb.”

“Well, I guess you do like fighting head to head now that I think about it...” Nerris admitted as she tapped her chin in thought. “How about barbarian instead?”

“That sounds awesome!” Nikki said, the pout vanishing in an instant.


They looked down to find that Muack had placed herself at the center of their little circle.

“And Muack can be my animal companion!” Nikki added as she scooped the platypus up and presented her to Nerris.

“Maybe multiclass with one level in druid, then,” Nerris said thoughtfully. She took a small notepad from one pocket and made a note on it. “Anyway, on to Neil. You’re an artificer with the alchemy specialization.”

“You can be one of those now? That’s pretty cool, actually,” Neil said, a small smile coming to his face.

“Yeah, and you even brought some of your wondrous inventions with you!” Nerris added, pointing to the device in Neil’s hand. “As for Max...” She turned to him. “Bard.”

What?!” Max cried. “I am not some shitty music man!” He stamped his foot for emphasis, kicking up a small puff of dust.

“Bards have access to the spell Vicious Mockery, among others,” Nerris said matter-of-factly, completely unfazed by Max’s reaction. “They also have very high charisma and are usually of a chaotic alignment.”

“Wow she really has you pegged, doesn’t she?” Neil said with a barely-restrained laugh, giving Max a nudge with his elbow.

“Shut up, let’s just get this shit on the road already,” Max growled. “I don’t have all night.”

“What’s going on?”

Nerris frowned as Harrison joined them; apparently moving away from the tents hadn’t kept him from noticing their meeting. As a general rule she was opposed to stage magic for being a hollow, soulless copy of the real thing, and the fact that she had to share the title of “magic kid” with someone who clearly had no ability annoyed her. “Important party preparation,” she replied. “We’re going to Spooky Island for a special quest.”

“What?” Harrison said, looking a bit panicky. “But we’re not supposed to leave the camp at night.”

“What’re you gonna do? Tattle on us?” Max asked with a sneer.

Harrison paused as he thought it over. “No... Can I come with you, though? I can be the mage.”

“Don’t be silly, Harrison. I’m already the mage because I know actual magic, you just do sleight of hand stuff,” Nerris said, waving a hand dismissively. “Though I guess that could be useful since Nikki isn’t the rogue...” It would be good to keep Harrison from going to the counselors after all, and rogues were quite important for a balanced party. “Fine, you can be our rogue and protect the party from traps and stuff like that. It’s an important job so don’t mess it up.”

“Oh, okay,” Harrison said, sounding a little unenthusiastic about the arrangement. “I guess I can do that.”

“Then the party’s set! Now we just have to find a way to get to Spooky Island,” Nerris said as she took the map from her bag. “Then once we’re there we just follow this map to the treasure!”

Neil leaned in to get a look at the map. “Nerris I don’t think this is a map of Spooky Island,” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“That’s because you don’t have the knowledge of arcane lore necessary to decipher the true nature of this map,” Nerris said as she rolled the map up again and put it away.

“Yeah whatever, can we go now?” Max cut in.

“Right! To the pier!” Nikki cried, striking a dramatic pose.

“Let’s go!” Nerris trotted off, eager to get started now that she had her party. She led them past the Mess Hall and down toward the pier, where she’d seen the Quartermaster repairing the boats earlier that day. Hopefully they would still be there when they arrived.

They were in luck; the two boats they’d used for fishing the other day were tied to the pier, ready and waiting. Nikki leaped in with her usual enthusiasm while the others followed at a more careful pace, Muack hopping in last and situating herself under Nikki’s bench.

The oars were used until the halfway point between the shore and Spooky Island—despite the difficulty in keeping the rowing coordinated at first—where Harrison and Neil worked together to start up the motor. After a few failed attempts at the pullcord, the motor was on and taking them the rest of the way with speed.

There was a bit of a mishap as they got to the shore, but the boat’s hull seemed intact enough despite the awful sound it had made when it ran aground. Max made sure the boat was properly secured while the rest of them jumped onto the sand.

“Well, have fun with your stupid quest,” Max said as he jumped down with the rope. He tied it off on a nearby tree, then stood back and tucked his hands into his hoodie pocket as he looked back at them. “We’re going to Campbell’s mansion to check something out.”

“The castle of the local lord? Perfect!” Nerris hurried over to him. “That’ll be a great place to start!”

Max scowled and rolled his eyes, taking a flashlight from his hoodie pocket. “Just don’t slow us down,” he said as he turned from the shore and stomped off.

“I hope we find a dinosaur, or a unicorn!” Nikki bounded after Max and passed him, disappearing behind a cluster of shrubs and then reappearing again in short order.

“Nikki slow down, we don’t want to get separated,” Neil called after her as he jogged to catch up.

“Aren’t you guys tired?” Harrison asked, hands held close to his chest as he followed them. “Maybe we should head back.”

“The quest’s barely even started, we can’t go back now!” Nerris said as she directed a glare at Harrison.

“So what’s this treasure thing we’re looking for, anyway?” Nikki asked, coming to a bouncing stop beside Nerris.

“We’re not here for treasure, Nikki,” Max cast a glance over his shoulder at her as he spoke. “We’re here so we can get info on the weird shit that lives around here so we don’t have to go in blind when we try to find it anymore.”

“Aww,” Nikki said, deflating a little. “That sounds boring.”

“A quest for knowledge, that’s a good idea. It’ll be better to know what we might be up against once we get into the dungeon proper,” Nerris said.

“Ooo, that sounds a little better,” Nikki admitted.

“As for me, I’m not really sure what the treasure I’m searching for looks like, but I’ll know it when I see it!”

“Lame,” Max grumbled from his place at the front.

“So do you actually remember how to get to the library?” Neil asked as the front of Campbell’s mansion came into view.

“Oh wow,” Nerris said as she looked up at the building. “This place looks promising, there’s bound to be treasure in there!”

“Yeah I wouldn’t take anything if I were you,” Max interrupted her as he walked over. “We saw some of the shit Campbell’s up to and it’s definitely not a good idea to piss him off.”

“We’re literally about to trespass in his house,” Neil cut in.

“Yeah but we’re just reading some books, it’s not like we’re here to steal or break his shit,” Max said, turning to Neil. “Besides, I’m pretty sure Quartermaster and his gross friends do more damage to it on the weekly than we ever could.”

Neil shuddered at the memory. “Oh God why did you have to remind me of that?”

“This feels like a really bad idea,” Harrison said as they drew near the front door. “Is anyone else like, getting that skin crawling feeling that happens when something creepy’s going on? Cause I’m really getting that right now.”

“Ooh, that’s your trap sense!” Nerris said brightly. “You should go in front so you can find and disarm them.” She grabbed Harrison’s arm and dragged him onto the porch ahead of the group.

Harrison hesitated as he stood in front of the door, hands held close as he stared at it with a stricken expression.

“Move it, Harrison!” Max said as he shoved past. “I told you we don’t have all night.” He opened the door and stomped over the threshold.

“Max you can’t just barge in like that,” Nerris said as she followed. “If this door had been trapped you could’ve wiped the whole party!”

“Boy wouldn’t that be a blessing,” Max grumbled. “Anyway, let’s head to the library, guys. Leave these two dweebs to their stupid games.”

“Alright, we’ll meet up with you guys later!” Nerris called after them. “Good luck on your sidequest!”

Max’s group rounded a corner, leaving Harrison and Nerris alone in the main hall.

Nerris took the map and a flashlight from her pack. “We can still make this work,” she said as she shined the flashlight beam onto the map. “As long as you do your job and make sure we don’t run into any traps, I can take care of any enemy threats we come across with my magic.”

“Yeah, sure,” Harrison said as he removed his top hat and took a flashlight from within. “Nerris, don’t you think there might be something... Wrong with this place?”

“You know...” Nerris began thoughtfully. “You might be right. It would be a good idea to do an arcana check just in case.” She took a d20—purple with metallic swirls, one of her favorites—from her dice bag and dropped it to the floor, where it rolled across the polish-worn wood and came to a stop in front of a large bust of Cameron Campbell. Nerris trotted after it and looked at the result. “Well, no magic in here at least!” she said brightly as she swept the die up.

“Goddamn I forgot what a fuckin’ maze this stupid place was,” Max grumbled as he opened a door and found yet another room filled with dusty unused furniture. “Why the fuck does he have a house this big when he doesn’t even use most of the space?! It’s stupid!”

“Most likely a statement of wealth,” Neil said as he checked the room across the way. “When you’re this rich you can afford to waste a ton of space.”

“I don’t think it’s a waste.” Nikki ducked into the room and dashed back out with a sizeable centipede in one hand. “This is the third one I’ve found tonight!”

“For fuck’s sake Nikki, those things are poisonous!” Max said as he jumped away. “Put that shit back and stop messing with them!”

“Fine, fine,” Nikki said, rolling her eyes as she tossed the centipede back into the room where she’d found it earlier, barely even noticing when Muack darted in and snapped it up before it could hit the ground. “Hey can I go explore while you guys read? It sounds boring.”

“Nope, you’re staying with us just in case,” Max replied as he continued down the hallway. “Plus you’d just get lost and I don’t wanna deal with that.”

“Max is right, Nikki. Maybe you can find something to do while we conduct our research,” Neil added. “Like play lookout, that’s pretty important.”

“Now that sounds more like it!” Nikki raced down the hall and checked the next room. “Nope, not here either!” she called as she slammed the door shut. Something made her skid to a halt just as she was about to leave, and she opened the door again to reveal Jasper standing on the other side. “Oh hey it’s you!” Nikki said with a grin. “You got away from the Wood Scouts after all!”

“What are you guys doing back here?” Jasper asked as he stepped out into the hallway. “It’s not safe here tonight, you need to leave.”

“Implying that it was safe the last time we were here,” Max said, grimacing at the memory of what they’d nearly witnessed.

“Hey you know this mansion pretty well, right? Why don’t you take us to the library,” Neil suggested as he reached them.

“You need to leave,” Jasper repeated. “There’s something bad in the mansion tonight.”

“Ooo, like a monster?” Nikki asked, her excitement starting to kick up again. “Maybe we can catch it after we do the library stuff.”

Muack!” said Muack, as if in agreement.

“See? Muack thinks that’s a good idea too!”

“You can’t beat it,” Jasper cut in before either Max or Neil could reply. “You guys have to get out of here before it finds you.”

Max and Neil shared a sidelong look at each other as they considered Jasper’s warning.

“So did Nerris talk him into joining her stupid game or what?” Max asked after a few seconds.

“It’s possible...” Neil admitted, already reaching for his backpack. “But we already know that weird phenomena appear on and around the lake. Maybe he’s talking about that.” He unclipped the EMF meter from where it hung on the right side of his backpack. “Let’s just check this really quick...” It took mere moments to turn it on, and Neil’s eyes widened when he saw the reading. “Whoa, the base readings here are way higher than back at the camp.”

“There’s no time for that!” Jasper said as he put a hand on the device and pushed it away as Neil panned it toward him. “You guys have to get out of here!”

“Better take that up with Nerris first,” Max said as he walked past Jasper with a roll of his eyes. “We’ll leave once you tell her to get out.”

“There’s someone else here?” Jasper asked, looking horrified.

Two someones!” Nikki chimed in, holding up two fingers. “Nerris and Harrison came too!”

“Guys come on, we still gotta find the library,” Max said as he turned to look back at them. “Unless you wanna tell us where it is. Would make us leave faster.”

Jasper fixed Max with a glare for a few moments, then pointed back down the way they’d come. “That way, second hallway on your left, then keep going until you hit the double doors on your right.”

“See? Was that so hard?” Max smiled smugly as he shoved one hand into his hoodie pocket, the other still holding his flashlight.

“And where did you last see the others?” Jasper asked, still none too happy about the arrangement.

“Back near the entrance,” Max replied. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a library to find.”

“Sure, fine. Suit yourself,” Jasper snapped with an exasperated shrug. He ran off, soon turning a corner and disappearing from view.

“Bye, Jasper!” Nikki called after him, waving a head over her head.

“Well let’s head out.” Max trudged toward where Jasper had pointed, only noticing Neil’s unusual silence as he passed him. “Neil?”

“Uh, guys,” Neil said uncertainly, his eyes fixed on the EMF meter’s gage. “I don’t think that kid was normal...”

“Hah!” Nerris jumped into the next room in a dramatic fashion, intending to surprise anything that might be hiding there.

It was empty save for sad dusty furniture and a collection of musty books.

“Well, nothing in here,” Nerris said with a shrug. She pulled out the map again and squinted at it. “I know we’re on the right track, we just need to keep going.”

“Nerris are you really sure you don’t feel anything weird about this place?” Harrison asked nervously, hands clutched tight at the opposite forearms as if from cold. “This place makes the insides of my head itch.”

“Fine, I’ll do another arcana check,” Nerris said with a sigh. The map was tucked away and the usual d20 produced in its place. She rolled it into the hallway, chasing after it until it came to a stop a few feet away. “Maybe...” Nerris began, tapping one finger to her chin. “I recognize a slight aura of arcane magic coming from that direction,” she said, pointing to the section of hallway they had yet to explore.

Harrison’s expression of worry turned to one of annoyance, but he followed regardless.

“Maybe instead of worrying about my job you should do yours,” Nerris chided as she continued on. “You’re supposed to be checking for traps, remember?”

“I did and there aren’t any,” Harrison growled, his shoulders held near his ears from raw tension. “How do you know you’re not reading the map wrong?” he added after a few moments of silence.

“I’m the mage, so obviously I’d be the one who can read the magic map—”

There you are!”

They turned to find a boy they’d never met before emerging from one of the rooms they just passed. He ran over to them and skidded to a halt once he reached speaking distance.

“You guys can’t be in here tonight, you have to leave right now,” the boy said, pointing back down the hallway.

“Who are you again?” Harrison asked, some of the tension dropping away due to confusion.

“I’m Jasper and I’m here to lead you back out,” the boy said again, this time gesturing toward the exit with both arms. “Now come on.”

“A local denizen?” Nerris asked curiously as she squinted at Jasper. “Do you call this area home?”

“What?” Jasper blinked with surprise. “I don’t know! I just end up here a lot, you have to go!”

“Hmm, that was a very flimsy attempt at persuasion,” Nerris said. “And how do I know you’re not a rival adventurer trying to beat me to the treasure?” She pointed an accusatory finger at him.

“There’s no treasure here, just dusty furniture and gross old people parties,” Jasper snapped as he gestured toward the house at large. “And for your own safety you guys have to leave because despite how disgusting they are, they’re still not the worst things wandering around this place.”

“So wait, what kind of things are we talking about here?” Harrison asked as he took a step forward. “Is it like some kind of monster or...?”

“Really, Harrison? He’s obviously bluffing to scare us off,” Nerris said with a roll of her eyes. “And besides, we’re more than equipped to handle monsters even as a two-person party.” With that she turned and marched off along the hall.

Harrison lingered until Nerris was just out of earshot. “I’ll try to talk her into leaving,” he whispered, one hand cupped around his mouth. A quick glance down the hall told him that Nerris was getting close to a corner, and he would have to follow if he wanted to keep an eye on her. “Thanks for the warning.” He turned and hurried off after Nerris, leaving Jasper alone in the hall.

Jasper let out an exasperated sigh and kicked at the floorboards, then turned and dashed back the way he’d come.

“That bastard!” Max exclaimed as he stomped into the front hallway. “He gave us directions that led us back to the goddamn entrance!”

“Well played,” Neil admitted as he stepped out after Max. “I actually wasn’t paying attention to the corners we took. Kind of a dangerous thing to ignore now that I think about it.”

“Now we can try again!” Nikki said triumphantly as she bounced out after them, Muack following on her heels. “Let’s try that hallway this time!” She pointed the one across the way.

“Fine, it’s as good an option as any I guess,” Max grumbled.

The floorboards creaked behind them, like something big had just shifted its weight, and all three whipped around to shine their flashlights on it—only to find that the hallway was empty.

Max was the first to speak. “You’d think Campbell would be able to afford some home maintenance or whatever,” he said, the hand that held his flashlight wavering slightly despite the firmness of his voice. “Place sounds like it’s falling apart.”

They were just passing the front door when a familiar voice called out to them.

“Oh good, you made it!” Jasper said as he ran up to them from across the front hall.

“You asshole, this isn’t the library!” Max snapped as he glowered at Jasper.

“Nope, it’s not,” Jasper admitted.

The front door opened of its own accord, but Max was too fixated on being angry at Jasper to notice.

“Uh, Max?” Neil said as he eyed the open doorway.

“Ooo, a magic door!” Nikki said as she turned to look.

“I don’t know what kind of stupid game you’re trying to play here, but we’re not leaving,” Max said, pointing a finger at Jasper.

“Yes, you are,” Jasper said flatly. He charged forward, scooping them up and carrying them to the open door where he tossed them out onto the porch. “This is for your own good and you’re not coming back inside!” Jasper stepped back and slammed the door shut before any of them could reach it. The lock clicked into place moments later, followed by the deadbolt.

“Dammit!” Max stomped on the porch boards, making them rattle.

“Got us again,” Neil said with a shrug; he wasn’t too keen on exploring the mansion anyway now that anxiety was starting to settle in. “Guess we can’t get in this way.”

The sound of frantic scratching sounded on the other side of the door as they started down the stairs.

“Okay okay, I’ll let you out too,” came Jasper’s voice, muffled by the door. “But don’t you come back in either.”

There was a series of clicks as Jasper undid the lock and deadbolt. The door opened and Muack hopped out, and the door closed again as soon as her tail was clear. Another series of clicks told them that the front door would be a no-go for now.

“There’s gotta be another way in,” Max said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “We gotta get to the library before Nerris finishes whatever dumb shit she came here to do.”

“There were windows in the library, right?” Neil suggested. “Maybe there’s a way in from the outside, with the added bonus of not getting lost in the interior.”

A nasty smile came to Max’s face. “You know what, Neil? That’s a great idea. Guess Jasper really did do us a favor in the end.”

They paused a moment to pick a side, then started walking toward the left, staying clustered together as they navigated the moon-cast shadows.

“Did either of you guys hear Jasper running up before he talked to us?” Neil asked as they rounded a corner.

“What are you getting at?” Max asked, eying Neil without turning to him.

“We should’ve been able to hear his footsteps a while before he reached us,” Neil continued. He fumbled with the EMF meter, keeping his hands busy as he thought it over. “And the weird readings I got when pointing the meter at him... Something’s up with that guy.”

“You’re right!” Nikki declared, a look of delighted surprise coming to her face. “I think I know what he is!”

“What?” Max and Neil asked, looking to her.

“He must be one of those rogue guys Nerris was talking about!”

“Nikki, no,” Max said, putting his free hand to his face. “Maybe a ghost or some shit? Goddammit I can’t believe I’m even considering that ghosts might be real but what other explanation do we have?”

“That doesn’t sound right...” Neil said thoughtfully as they rounded the corner. “I mean, I touched his hand, and we were pushed by him, but he wasn’t cold. Ghosts are supposed to be cold, right?”

“Yeah, you’re right...” Max said, seeming a little more at ease. “His hand was burning when he touched me that other time.”

“Maybe he’s a monster!” Nikki volunteered.


“See? Muack thinks so too!”

“Yeah but what kind of monster?” Neil asked, only to stop when they came upon the garden.

A hedge maze stretched away to the left, the bushes that made up its walls overgrown but still in a vaguely straight-edged shape. Crumbling, moss-covered statues took up the space between the maze and the mansion, each surrounded by overgrown cobbles and their near-featureless faces giving them an almost alien appearance.

“God damn that’s corny,” Max said after pausing to stare. “It’s gotta be close, come on guys.”

“Maybe he’s a heat ghost!”

“Nikki, stop.”

Harrison was not having a good time on this adventure.

Nerris plowed on regardless of Jasper’s warnings, dead set on discovering the treasure that she claimed was here. Any attempts at persuasion from him were ignored or brushed off, which would have been frustrating had he not been so on edge.

The feeling was still there, and it was getting stronger. It reached its peak as he passed a heavy single door made of dark ornately carved wood, and Harrison stopped to stare at it.

“You missed this one.” Harrison pointed up at it, a slight tremor running through his hand as he did.

“Stop fooling around, Harrison,” Nerris said, barely pausing to look back at him as she marched onward. “That’s just an empty wall.”

Harrison’s remaining fingers uncurled, and he reached for the door handle before he realized what he was doing. He froze as indecision seized him; he’d promised to look after everyone, even though he’d already mostly failed at that, and he couldn’t just leave Nerris to wander by herself. And yet... Repulsive as the power beyond this door felt, it called to him somehow, whispered something just beyond the edge of hearing, words that he couldn’t quite make out but was desperately curious to know.

His hand settled on the door knob. It was slightly warm to the touch and turned easily under his hand.

The door swung outward without a sound, an uncanny find in such a neglected house. The passageway beyond was lost in musty gloom.

Harrison panned his flashlight across the hallway before him and found that it went much farther than the illumination could reach. He took a single hesitant step inside, then another, eventually coming to a halt just beyond the door frame. There was no call from Nerris to hurry up, nothing save for his own choices to stop him from going farther in. Fingers tingling from anxiety, Harrison continued down the hallway.

As the glow of his flashlight faded from the main hallway, the door swung shut without a sound.

Jasper appeared from a closet this time, startling Nerris into dropping her flashlight.

“Are you some kind of rogue?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at him. “Or an assassin?” At this she took up a wider stance, ready for a fight.

“What? No,” Jasper said with a roll of his eyes. “I already put your friends outside, so leave.” He pointed to the door she’d just entered through.

“Ahah! So you are trying to interrupt our quest!” Nerris declared with an accusatory finger point. “Well eat this, assassin!” She reached into her pockets and retrieved two handfuls of various dice. “I cast Magic Missile! Hah!” Nerris hurled her dice at him.

Most of them missed and clattered to the floor behind Jasper. Those that did connect bounced right off and weren’t even enough to make him blink.

“Curses, he’s magic-resistant!” Nerris said as she took a step back.

Jasper crossed his arms over his chest. “Yes I’m very scary,” he said flatly. “Now follow me and I’ll lead you...” There was a pause as he realized who was missing, and he leaned to one side to check the room behind Nerris. “Where’s the other guy who was with you?”

Nerris looked behind her and noticed Harrison’s absence for the first time. “Of course Harrison wanders off during an important adventure. He’s so unfocused!” She put her hands on her hips and glared at the empty doorway for a few moments, then started collecting her dice. “And we’re so close to the end, too”

Jasper was gone when she looked to him again.

“Huh.” She looked around again just to double-check. “I guess I scared him off!” she declared triumphantly, hands on her hips.

Nerris took the map from her bag and checked it again. “Should be really close now...” She walked back out into the hall and paused when she noticed something amiss with the floor: drag marks running through the coating of dust, from something big if she was any judge. “Whoa...” Nerris said as she turned a slow circle to take the scene in. “Better roll an investigation check!”

The d20 clattered across the floorboards, landing on a 16.

“Nice,” Nerris said as she scooped it up again. She looked up and spotted a silver strand caught on a splintered section of floorboard. “A clue!” Nerris hopped over and carefully removed the strand from where it had been snared; it was hair, but thicker than what humans could produce. Maybe horse?

She looked down the hall and found a flight of stairs leading down into what would possibly be a basement, maybe even a dungeon if she was lucky. Either way she was about to find out.

Nerris took the stairs slowly, doing her best to be sneaky—no use alerting whatever had been doing the dragging to her presence, after all. If only Harrison were still around, he’d be better for scouting since he was supposed to be the rogue and all.

The stairway led into a laboratory of some sort. Shelves lined the walls and intruded into the rest of the room, lined with specimens both living and dead, in cages or in jars. Only half the lights were on, but even in such conditions the creature bound at the far corner of the room was impossible to miss: a unicorn. Silver mane and a lion-like tail, white coat, cloven hooves, flowing goatee, the spiral horn. A real live, honest to god unicorn.

There was no question of what she had to do now. Rescue was the only option.

Nerris dashed over, startling the unicorn as she drew close. “Fear not, fair hooved maiden!” She paused. “Or... Um... sir?” she added. “Anyway, I’m going to save you!”

The unicorn tossed its head a few times as if to agree, its eyes fixed on her.

“Let’s just...” she began, trying to work the knots loose on the unicorn’s front legs. “Darn, my Escape Artist skill isn’t high enough to undo these knots!” She stood back and looked around, searching for something to cut the ropes with, and found a set of decorative knives laid out on a metal tray nearby.

All the knives looked sharp enough, but only one on the very end of the row was the right size for her to use. Nerris picked it up off the tray and turned back to the unicorn, who eyed it with a great deal of fear.

“No no, I’m not gonna hurt you,” Nerris said, showing it her palms in a placating gesture. “I need it for the ropes.”

The unicorn stiffened as Nerris drew closer with the knife, its body shaking ever so slightly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here.” Nerris knelt by the unicorn’s front legs and considered how she was going to do this, turning the knife when she remembered learning not to cut toward herself from David. “Okay, I’m just gonna...” The knife split the rope easily, with the added bonus of not cutting herself or the unicorn. “Yes!” she said to herself, moving onto the next set of ropes.

On the final rope the unicorn, in its eagerness to be free at last, started to rise. The movement jostled Nerris’s hand, the knife blade slicing across the fingers of her opposite hand.

Nerris hissed from the pain and fell back as the unicorn shook the last of the ropes from its hind legs. “Ow, ow,” she said, trying to remember what to do about such big cuts as tears came to her eyes.

The unicorn turned to her and bumped her uninjured hand away with its muzzle, then traced the end of its horn across the line of cuts.

Nerris scooted away as the pain in her hand suddenly spiked. “Ah! Ow, ow!” Nerris yelped. “What did you do?” She looked up at the unicorn, feeling betrayed that it would hurt her after she helped it.

With a snort the unicorn gestured toward her hand with one hoof, and she looked down to find that despite her pain the cuts were closing. Soon the only evidence was the blood she’d already shed, with barely a scar to show where she’d been cut. The pain faded as well, and she flexed her fingers to check that they still worked.

“Oh wow, thank you!” Nerris said as she got to her feet. A sudden wave of dizziness hit her and she staggered, suddenly feeling tired, and she braced her hands against her knees to catch her breath.

The unicorn knelt down and made a beckoning gesture with its head, asking that she get on.

Nerris gasped with delight at the very idea of being able to ride a unicorn and hurried forward, climbing onto the unicorn’s back and holding tight to its mane.

After a check to make sure Nerris was properly seated, the unicorn rose and started toward the stairs, freezing at the sound of something slithering up the passage that led even deeper into the house. The unicorn picked up the pace, moving at a rapid trot that moved them with speed while not being enough to bounce Nerris off.

“What was that?” Nerris whispered once they were at the top of the stairs.

A fearful look from the unicorn was all she got in reply.

“Did a monster catch you?” Nerris asked as they continued on through the halls.

There was a pause as the unicorn considered her question, then it gave her a nod.

“What kind of monster?” Nerris asked, leaning forward a little. “A demon?”

The unicorn shook its head.

“Hmm... An undead?”

Another shake of its head.


A shiver ran over the unicorn’s hide, and it looked back to nod once at her.

Nerris looked over her shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed, feeling glad that they were getting farther and farther away from whatever was about to enter the lab. She didn’t know a lot about Eldritch horrors, but what she did know was that they were very powerful and had potentially sanity-breaking implications to them. It was all a little beyond her but she didn’t want to find out what that involved.

“Well, you’re safe now,” Nerris said, trying to convince herself as much as the unicorn. She glanced over her shoulder again, just to be sure. Hopefully the others wouldn’t go near the lab, she would have to find them once the unicorn was safe.

Something intensely magical lurked at the end of this hallway, Harrison could tell. Power permeated the very floorboards, hummed in the air around him. It had a disorienting, almost sickening quality about it that made his head spin, but curiosity drove him on.

There were no windows to speak of, though a few yellowing paintings hung from the walls, their frames tarnished with age and neglect. Old furniture covered in dust sheets loomed out of the shadows like gray phantoms and a fine coating of dust covered the floor, with a single set of near-covered bootprints tracking through and back. Little-used, but important if Harrison’s feel for the magic present was any indicator.

Footsteps were oddly muffled in the silence of the hallway, even the creaking of the floorboards beneath his weight having a subdued quality about them, and it wasn’t just because he was trying to tread lightly. The air itself seemed to eat up the sound, and it felt thick like an invisible fog pressing against his skin.

At last the beam of his flashlight found the end of the hall: another ornate door, this one carved from stark black wood and set with symbols that glowed faint blue once the light passed over them.

Harrison’s heartbeat thundered in his ears as he stared up at it. This was it. The epicenter of the power he’d felt the moment he got close to this house. Whatever produced the strange, almost sickening magic lay on the other side of this door.

He reached out to put his hand on the doorknob—

“What are you doing in here?!”

Harrison jumped with surprise, withdrawing his hand, and he turned to find Jasper standing behind him. “Oh, it’s you again,” he said sheepishly, giving Jasper a nervous smile.

“This is the worst possible place for you to be.” Jasper hurried over and grabbed Harrison by the hand. “Now come on, we’re gonna get you out of here, you’re gonna meet up with your friend, and then you’re both going to go outside before—”

The clear sound of footsteps echoed down the hallway, growing closer by the second. Big boots, worn by someone with weight who walked with a heavy confident stride.

Oh no,” Jasper whispered, the look of sheer terror on his face more than enough to shock some sense into Harrison. “You have to hide, if he finds you—” his lips kept moving, but no sound reached Harrison’s ears.

“Wait, I couldn’t—” Harrison began, but Jasper was already yanking him along.

“Quick, over here.” He pulled Harrison over to one of the covered pieces of furniture—a couch by the look of the outline—and gestured madly for Harrison to get underneath.

Harrison reached for the front of the cloth, only for Jasper to stop him.

“From the back so you don’t move as much dust, hurry.”

This time Jasper helped Harrison move the cloth—at the back of the couch where the disturbance would be less apparent—and settled it back into place once Harrison was tucked underneath.

All the while the footsteps grew louder, and it was all Harrison could to do keep himself from shaking and to make his breathing as quiet as possible. There was no sound from Jasper on the other side of the cloth, and Harrison was struck with the realization that if he didn’t hide too he’d be caught.

The footsteps reached them, walked past a few paces so the owner was between Harrison’s hiding place and the door.

“Ah, it’s just you.” The identity of the speaker was unmistakable, despite the seldomness that he actually showed himself at camp: Cameron Campbell. Harrison froze, straining his ears to pick up what was going on in the hallway. “Still limping along, eh? They must be downright determined to keep you around.”

“What do you mean?” came Jasper’s voice, the confusion and fear obvious even without being able to see his face.

“Oh nothing, just talking to myself,” Campbell said, his tone downright jovial. “But I must say... How much longer do you think they’ll be willing to keep it up?”

There was a dull thump, and Harrison almost gasped in shock, followed by the sound of Jasper sobbing a little ways down the hall.

Harrison relaxed somewhat—he’d been worried that Campbell might’ve killed Jasper right then and there from the way he was talking about him earlier—and in doing so accidentally shifted the dust sheet with one knee. He froze, hoping Campbell hadn’t noticed, but it was already too late.

“Did you invite a little friend over?” Campbell asked as the veneer of good humor in his voice thinned ever so slightly. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Harrison’s blood ran cold as the sound of heavy boots started toward him, but there was nothing he could do; the couch was too low to the ground for him to crawl under in a hurry, Campbell was blocking his one escape route, and it was unlikely he’d be able to outrun the man in any case. Trembling, Harrison lowered his head to his knees, his eyes screwed shut, and focused on a desperate chant in his head as he waited to be found.

You can’t see me, you can’t see me, you can’t see me, you can’t see me—

The sheet was lifted slowly at first, then was suddenly whipped away and Harrison picked up and thrown along with it. Darkness fluttered around him, empty and formless, and then he landed hard on his back in a library of some sort.

There was a surprised yelp, and the smack of a book hitting the floor after Neil dropped it.

“The fuck?” Max said as he turned to look at Harrison. “Quit screwing around on the balcony, Harrison. We’re trying to work here.”

Harrison’s heart continued to pound against his ribcage has his mind caught up with what just took place. Campbell noticing his hiding spot. The lifting sheet. Suddenly being in a different room entirely. How? The phrase he’d been repeating to himself? His mind suddenly connected the dots and he realized he’d managed to teleport himself this time instead of another object. He’d be patting himself on the back for such an accomplishment if he wasn’t so scared right now.

“That was so cool, Harrison!” Nikki said as she dashed over. “Do it again!”

“Okay we have to leave, now,” Harrison said, his voice wobbling as he climbed to his feet. “Campbell’s home right now and I don’t want to get caught by him.”

“Oh no,” Neil said weakly, his face going pale.

“Of course he’s fucking home tonight,” Max said with a scowl. “Dammit! We haven’t even found anything worth writing down yet.”

“Well save it for another night ‘cause we have to get moving,” Harrison said, starting toward the door and stopping short after a few steps. “Oh no, Nerris! She’s still deeper inside the house!”

They were interrupted by someone knocking on one of the windows.

“Hi, guys!” Nerris called, grinning and greeting them with a jolly wave as they turned to her. “Guess what I found!”

Harrison let out a sigh of relief as he and the others hurried to the window, pushed it open, and hopped out to join Nerris.

“Well tonight’s mission was a bust,” Max said with a frown. “Nothing but stupidass fairy tale books in there.”

“You’d think he would have more research on cryptids and such,” Neil added, looking disappointed. “Kind of a weird interest though.”

“I rescued a unicorn!” Nerris blurted out.

Nikki gasped. “Oh my gosh, a unicorn?!” She hopped up and down with excitement. “You gotta show us!”

“It dropped me off over there,” Nerris said, pointing toward the edge of the hedge maze. “Follow me!”

“Now this I gotta see,” Max said with a smirk as the rest followed.

Harrison kept silent, hoping that the unicorn had already left. They weren’t supposed to be seen by the regular campers and it was already bad enough that Nerris had encountered it.

“Behold! The—” Nerris stopped as she took in the empty clearing. “Where’d it go?”

“I knew it,” Max said as he rounded the corner and saw the distinct lack of unicorn. “She probably saw a horse or some shit. It’s just part of her stupid game.”

“Aww.” Nikki kicked at the sparse grass. “You got my hopes up.”

Harrison breathed a near-silent sigh of relief and relaxed a little.

“Are you sure Campbell’s home?” Max asked again, turning to Harrison.

“See for yourself,” Harrison said, giving Max a glare and pointing at an upper floor window that had just been lit.

“That’s just Jasper trying to fuck with—” Max shut his mouth when Campbell’s unmistakable silhouette appeared in the lit window. “Shit, get down,” he hissed, ducking behind the hedge maze.

The rest of them joined him, either dashing or outright diving toward the hiding place and turning off their flashlights as they moved. They stayed huddled behind the hedge for a while, but there was no way to check if Campbell was still there without potentially giving themselves away.

“Alright, let’s use the maze as cover and get into the woods,” Max whispered, pointing at the trees. “He won’t be able to see us in there.” He led them single file along the maze’s outside wall, breaking into a run once they reached the end and ducking behind a large tree.

“He can’t see us from there,” Neil said, keeping his voice low despite the distance. “I can’t even see the window anymore.”

Now that the immediate danger had passed, worries about his brief companion came rushing back to Harrison. “Jasper’s still in there. I think Campbell got him,” he said, looking back at the mansion.

“Kid’s an asshole, but I’m pretty sure he can take care of himself,” Max said with a shrug. “Serves him right for fuckin’ around with us.”

“Wait, you met him?” Harrison asked, looking at Max with surprise.

“Yeah, he told us to leave a couple times, pushed us out into the front yard eventually,” Neil replied.

“He was fun!” Nikki added with a grin.


“Muack thinks he was fun too!”

“So you guys ran into the assassin as well? I found that he was very stealthy and quite resilient, I’m sure he’ll be alright,” Nerris added.

Such assurances did little to decrease Harrison’s concern, but there wasn’t much he could do about it with Campbell around. “So I guess we go back to the boat?” he guessed.

“Yep, nothing else we can do here,” Max replied. “We’ll cut through the forest until we hit the shore, then follow it along to the boat.” He jerked a thumb toward the deeper part of the forest. “No use letting that rich fuck spot us by circling around the house.”

Daniel was exhausted by the time he dragged himself back to camp and dropped the enchantments that hung around him. Multiple concealment spells were extremely draining on the caster’s stamina, on top of the fact that he was missing out on much-needed sleep at the moment, but he was satisfied with his accomplishments for the night. Not only had he located the first ward, he’d managed to record its features in great detail without being spotted by any of the local magical entities, despite a few near misses.

Even the realization that they were missing no less than five campers wasn’t enough to dampen his good mood. He followed their trail down to the pier and looked up to spot a boat approaching from Spooky Island.

“Well hello there, kiddos,” Daniel said with icy cheer as the boat drew up beside the pier. “Having a good time breaking camp rules, are we?”

Harrison looked positively ashamed, his face beet red as he kept his attention glued to the wood of the pier and climbed out of the boat. Nerris seemed a little embarrassed as well, though she was able to at least look up at him. The three usual troublemakers, however, treated the entire thing like it was no big deal.

“Yeah yeah, you caught us, good job Sherlock,” Max grumbled with a roll of his eyes. “You can escort us back to our tents now.”

Daniel grit his teeth but didn’t rise to the bait. This night was a victory, after all. Plus the little brats gave him a reasonable alabi for why he was missing from the cabin. “Let’s get a move on,” he said, ushering them off the pier and up toward the Mess Hall.

He should’ve factored in Max’s willfulness when he made the request of Harrison earlier. The boy was sharp and had good intentions, but it wasn’t fair to expect him to contend with someone like Max and his cohorts. Daniel felt bad for putting what was—in hindsight—a bit of an impossible task on Harrison’s shoulders. He would have to find time to apologize for that part, and thank the Ancient Ones the boy was safe after whatever took place.

But all that would have to wait for now. Daniel was in no condition to be having any important conversations and he could see that the kids were fading fast too, nearly nodding off mid-stride as they neared the tents.

“Alright, everyone get to bed,” Daniel said as authoritatively as he could manage with his own eyelids—and smile—drooping as they were. “We’ll discuss repercussions in the morning.”

Gwen stirred when Daniel entered the cabin and lifted her head to squint at him. “Wha? What’re you doin’ up so late?” she asked, her speech slurred from sleep.

“Just rounded up a few escapees,” Daniel replied smoothly. “Oh no no, don’t worry,” he added when she pulled herself to a sitting position with a long sigh. “I took care of it, they’re all in bed and probably drifting off as we speak.”

“Oh, good,” Gwen said with a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Daniel. ‘Preciate it.” She dropped her head back onto her pillow and closed her eyes again, quickly dropping off to sleep once again.

“It appearss my unicorn is misssing.” The speaker dropped a length of severed rope from one long-fingered hand.

“All’s well that ends well, then,” Campbell said matter of factly. “And I believe I told you to leave the locals alone when I agreed to let you use my house,” he added, his voice dripping with false camaraderie.

The figure that lurked in the shadow of a shelf flinched. “It would not have been an isssue had your pesst problem been fixed,” she hissed, though her tone lacked conviction now.

“Well Xivrix, maybe it would be smart to actually check if Jasper’s around before you go about your business,” Campbell said. Even an Eldrikin like Xivrix, unfamiliar with human conventions as they were, could detect the dangerous edge to his smile and tone. “He’ll be gone by the end of the year in any case, so if it really bothers you that much you can wait until then.”

“I do not refer to the fragment,” Xivrix said delicately as she extracted herself from the shelf’s shadows. Though covered by a floor-length white lab coat it was easy to see that Xivrix was not of proper human shape—her body was tall and thick like the pillar of a tree trunk, the single forelimb that was out and visible thin and covered in dark grey skin. As for a head, there was none to speak of, her voice seeming to materialize out of thin air beneath the shadow of an empty hood. “I am sspeaking of a much more... Corporeal ssort of pesst.” She pointed to a few drops of blood that marked the floor where the unicorn once lay.

“Ah, I see,” Campbell said as he looked at it. “So that wasn’t unicorn blood?”

Xivrix shook her non-existent head. “Human child. It sseemss there were sseveral wandering your home thiss night.”

“Kids today, just can’t trust ‘em,” Campbell said with a sad shake of his head. “Well, not my problem, anyway. All the important stuff’s hidden away, but there’s still the matter of you poaching what should be left alone.” He turned to her, causing her to take a step back out of caution.

“It could have produssed a breakthrough for your... Life’ss quesst,” Xivrix said slowly, her unseen eyes focused on Campbell.

Could have,” Campbell repeated. He gave a short, humorless laugh. “If you needed a unicorn I could’ve gotten one for you—from outside this area. What I want is to keep the local herd from sticking its collective nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“Like thosse bratss have done,” Xivrix hissed.

“They’ll get what’s coming to them if they keep doing it,” Campbell said with a careless wave of his hand. “You’re very aware of that.”

“Yess,” Xivrix said coldly. “I am merely consserned with how they will meddle until that happenss.”

“Well I guess you’ll just have to follow my rules until then, won’t you? I’m sure you can handle that.”

Xivrix said nothing, her hood bowed in thought.

“So!” Campbell clapped his hands together. “To recap: tough break about the escapee, don’t touch the locals, and let nature take its course with the kids. Easy.”

He wandered the now-empty halls as dawn approached, his mind lost in a thick fog and his body starting to fade at the edges. It had been this way ever since Campbell spoke to him, and since then scattered memories had winked past like dull lights in the darkness, only to be snuffed when he reached for them.

The sharp prick of an IV being set on the inside of his elbow, something he was so used to by now that he barely batted an eyelid whenever it was done.

Jasper’s hand drifted to his left elbow, as if to check whether the IV was still there.

His mother’s hand resting over his own, one of the few genuinely warm things in any hospital room. She was a constant presence during the visits, despite the weight it laid on her.

“I’m sorry.” The tears started again as his guilt worsened.

Beautiful days spent indoors for fear of the smallest cold, watching the other kids play outside and wishing he could join in.

He stumbled, his arm phasing through the wall up to the shoulder before he righted himself.

The way a pit seemed to grow where his heart was whenever he realized how limiting his mere existence was for them, with vacations missed and even day outings put aside at times.

There was no escape. It kept him from telling others about it and even when he tried to figure out how to break it himself, the memories were always gone by the time he returned. The work was too much to accomplish in the limited time he had and he would forget all of this once he woke up.

Jasper fell to his knees as the weight of despair grew too heavy for him. All those stolen years... Sleepless nights spent keeping him going. They weren’t able to live their lives as long as he was around.

Dawn broke, and Jasper vanished like morning fog.