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Dangerous Games

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Daniel

A pinprick of light illuminated the darkness.

“...twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty!”

The rays were warm and comforting, and he made his way closer.

“...place pads…”

As he got closer, he could see that it wasn’t a single light source, but a hundred, a thousand, all burning brightly and obscuring the true source of the light.

“Three, two, one, clear!”

The light crackled and he paused, watching as the brightness began shifting into a figure.

“...analyzing…”

The writhing stopped and the figure began to pulse. With it, he heard - felt - understood a voice coming from within and without, speaking to him.

You will be the messenger, it said. You must warn the people: they are coming.

“Three, two, one, clear!”

A tugging sensation distracted he for a moment, causing him to fall prostrate in front of the figure of light. Who? He thought, staring at the interplay of light and dark on the ground before him as as he scrabbled desperately to understand even as he felt himself the pull becoming stronger.

“...stabilizing…!”

Them.

Beep!

He felt himself settle like a feather touching down to the ground.

Beep!

As awareness of his body seeped back in, he realized he knew exactly what the angel had been warning him about.

Beep!

Shadows.

***

Bob

The customer - Sommer? Simpson? Simmons? - shifted his weight from one foot to the other; impatient, nervous, trying to pull a scam and get paid but also needing to get rid of the merchandise. Bob observed quietly from over the rim of his appraiser’s toolkit, letting the customer squirm before giving his final verdict.

“It’s nice,” Bob said. “But I’ve seen a dozen brooches like it before. Costume jewelry with a cheap centerpiece, even if it is well maintained. I’ll give you twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars!”

“Twenty,” Bob confirmed, keeping his focus fixed on the customer.

In truth the brooch was anything but costume jewelry. The metalwork was clearly sterling silver and possessed a polished shine that Bob had only seen on the most carefully restored jewelry. That was to say, jewelry the owners took to the jewelers - not the pawn shop - to sell.

And that wasn’t even touching on the centerpiece. It was an unholy green color and Bob swore it glowed from within. He hadn’t been able to detect any imperfections or even if there was anything inside the opaque shell. It ought to have been disconcerting that Bob couldn’t figure out what the stone was, but for some reason he couldn’t put a finger on he was certain the brooch was both safe and valuable.

Very, very valuable.

Even without being able to figure out the type of stone set in it, the piece would be valued in the hundreds of dollars on the silver setting alone. Too bad the man who brought it in didn’t know that.

“Thirty.”

Oh he was trying to haggle, how quaint. Bob refrained from grinning; it would give away the game.

“Twenty.”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty-five?”

“Twenty.”

“Twenty-three…?”

“Twenty.”

“All right!” the man said, throwing his hands up in the air. “Twenty! Just give me my goddamn money.”

Bob hummed and pulled out his cash box, making a show of checking the lock to assure himself that it was still intact. Then he smiled at the customer, set it to the side, and got out his records book to write up the transaction. He took his time detailing the object before checking his watch to more accurately record the time and date of acquisition. He also made sure to write a very clear twenty in the blank left for the item’s value.

By the time he finished updating his records, the customer was nearly frothing at the mouth.

“And who should I make the check out to?” Bob watched as his unhurried demeanor made the man’s eyes show just the slightest bit more white around the edges and congratulated himself on his success. Reaching back into his desk, Bob drew out the checkbook and opened it, looking up expectantly at the customer.

“Smith,” the man ground out. “John Smith.”

Smith, no wonder Bob hadn’t remembered the man’s name. Ordinary things were infinitely forgettable. “Twenty dollars to Mr. John Smith for his brooch,” Bob repeated, writing in the details and holding out the check.

Mr. Smith snatched the check and stormed out the door in a huff. The bells over the entryway tinkled lightly and silence returned to the pawn shop.

Bob picked up the brooch and studied it in the musty light filtering through the old curtains on the window. Twenty dollars for this beauty had certainly been a deal, but he didn’t plan on turning a profit with this particular piece.

Humming quietly to himself, Bob picked up the brooch and made his way back to the safe he kept in the back for his own personal use. Opening it up his eyes raked over the other unusual trinkets he had begun seeing in town: an eerie looking doll, a sword with an evil aura emanating from it, and golden compass that the seller had sworn pointed him in the direction of his heart’s desire. He reached in and exchanged the brooch for the compass and felt a feeling of peace settle over him as he watched the green gem pulse softly beside the sword.

Smiling down at his prizes, Bob allowed himself a moment of pride before pocketing the compass and heading back to the front of the shop. If there were more artifacts out there he needed to find them and it never hurt to have a little luck on his side.

***

David

The bell above the pawn shop chimed softly as David pushed in the door, its ethereal sound at odds with the dingy interior of the shop. No matter how many times he visited - or how many people he knew Bob was cheating out of their well deserved money - the shop only ever seemed to get grungier and meaner.

A lot like its owner.

David’s eyes sought out the figure behind the counter on instinct, making sure that Bob stayed a safe distance away where where he couldn’t sidle up to David and empty his pockets under the guise of putting a friendly arm across his shoulders. There had been too many times David had come in to sell something he’d stumbled across while working at the graveyard only to find it being scrutinized on Bob’s counter before he even had a chance to think about how to make the find sound like it was worth more than Bob wanted to pay.

This time Bob was safely tucked away behind the counter, already entranced by a gold piece with carvings that reminded David of the crucifix hanging in the church. David cleared his throat as he approached and watched as Bob straightened up and slid the piece into his breast pocket.

Interesting.

In all his years of working with the man, David had never seen Bob come across something he wanted to keep rather than sell for obscene profits. Very interesting. David felt the silver rosary he had come in to sell bump gently against his chest and began to reconsider.

“What do you have for me today, my old friend?” Bob asked as his eyes raked over David, lingering as he got to the pockets.

“Just here to look.”

Bob snorted. “Come on now, we both know that’s not true. When do you not have a prize for me to sell.”

David ignored him and moved up to the counter, studying the contents through the grimy glass top. There was the usual array of junk: glass ashtrays, faux gold candle holders, and cheap wooden incense trays. He was about to turn and leave when he saw an empty crystalline container, too small to be a flask but too large to hold perfume.

“What is that?”

“The holy water container?” Bob asked. “Provenance says it belonged to Pope John Paul for holding holy water he’d blessed himself. Not that there’s any water left in it, but the blessings don’t wash out with the water. And it used to be the property of a Pope! Doesn’t get much better than that.”

“No, it doesn’t,” David murmured. He didn’t bother asking about the price; anything Bob could talk up that much he could sell for much more than David could afford. Still, it was an interesting bauble and got David thinking. “Have you seen anything else like it come through?”

Bob gave a nearly imperceptible jolt and his hand twitched toward his breast pocket before he answered. “No, nothing.”

David nodded, letting Bob think he was taking the lie at face value as he considered what that trinket Bob had hidden earlier might be. Leaning away from the counter David felt the rosary shift against his chest and made up his mind.

“Well I’ll let you know if I come across anything you might be interested in, but I don’t think I can afford any of your wares today.”

Bob waved him off, interest lost now that he knew David would not be buying or selling today. David let his eyes linger on the crystal jar for a moment before turning and leaving the shop, waiting until the bells above the door were no longer audible before reaching into his coat and pulling out the silver rosary.

A rosary, a flask of holy water, and - if he was right - a compass imbued with the holy sigils for guidance all appearing to him in a town small enough to have a hermit’s cabin within walking distance of the town store? It couldn’t be a coincidence.

And if God was trying to send him a message, didn’t he have a duty to listen?

***

Allie

Late summer flowers wilted along the sides of the path leading from the church to the graveyard. Allie stopped for a moment, bending down to collect a handful of asters that were only missing a few petals and adding a couple buttercups to make an impromptu bouquet. Frowning at the sad bundle of flowers, she added a few stalks of monkey grass to fill out the shape, nodding in satisfaction as the first headstone came into view.

It wouldn’t do to bring her mother a substandard bouquet.

Allie walked past the first row of headstones, the grass around them worn down from so many passing feet. Her mother was buried in the back of the graveyard with the other people who couldn’t afford the ostentatious statues that adorn the cemetery by day and loom over the graves by night.

Making her way through the rows, Allie let her fingers trail over several of the cool marble slabs belonging to acquaintances. She came here often enough that it was like acknowledging friendly neighbors, and she felt like she was neglecting them if she didn’t say hello when she visited.

Finally Allie reached the white limestone piece she was aiming for in the back plot. She knelt down in front of it and traced her fingers over the inscription. Here lies a beloved mother: blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The Beatitudes had always been her mother’s favorite passage. On her deathbed she’d held Allie’s hand and whispered to her blessed are those who mourn to her when she hadn’t been able to hold back the tears any longer.

She set the flowers down at the foot of the headstone and pulled out the red talisman Father Jones had given her after his sermon, worrying it between her fingers.

Father Jones always gave heartfelt sermons, but this week he’d given a wonderful series of insights about the Beatitudes and how they were a promise for those who had already departed. Allie had gone up to him after the sermon, and her face must have shown how much the sermon meant to her, because he’d taken her down to his office so they could talk more privately. Before she’d left, he’d given her the red talisman she had now, telling her to use it to help her focus on what really mattered.

She traced her thumb around the gilded edge, wondering what her mother would have thought of Father Jones handing out trinkets to his congregation. Allie imagines she would have been amused; her mother insisted on seeing the best in people and their quirks.

Leaves crunched behind her and Allie whirled around, startled by the sudden sound. She saw a dark brown trench coat and a fist swing, and then nothing.

***

Agnes

A sharp knock on the door startled Agnes away from her reading. She’d been trying to catch up with Game of Thrones so that she didn’t spoil herself for the books while watching the show. She was already three seasons behind and wanted to get caught up before the show moved too far beyond the books.

A quick glance at the clock revealed that it was after 9 at night, far later than Agnes usually expected any visitors. Not that she every really expected visitors, much preferring to keep to herself and her small circle of friends.

She briefly considered not answering and leaving whoever it was to wander off on their own. But if it were one of her friends and she didn’t answer… Agnes grudgingly hauled herself out of her reading chair and walked over to look through the peephole.

Her eyes widened and she scrabbled for the chain on the door, throwing it open and ushering a dazed looking Allie inside.

“What happened!” Agnes exclaimed, pulling Allie into the kitchen and reaching into the freezer for a pack of frozen peas. She wrapped it in a towel, handing it to Allie and moving her hand to hold it up against the rapidly swelling bruise under her left eye.

Allie turned her face into the bag of peas, resting her arm on the table and hiding herself from view. Agnes waited patiently, used to Allie’s need to be nice to everyone and avoid saying anything incriminating.

Because something incriminating had happened. And when Agnes caught the bastard responsible they were going to pay dearly.

“I’m not sure,” Allie said at length, shifting the bag of peas so that she could look Agnes in the eye as she spoke. “Someone hit me when I was visiting my mom, but I didn’t really see them.”

“Someone attacked you at the cemetery?” Agnes said incredulously. Sure graveyards got a bad rap in horror stories, but this was a quiet town. People went to visit the graveyard to feel closer to those they had lost or to spend time in a quiet, contemplative case. No one had ever been hurt there before.

All she got in response was a nod and a downcast look, and Agnes abruptly realized she probably sounded disbelieving. Not that there was anything to disbelieve with the giant welt forming on Allie’s face, but Allie could be sensitive about things like that. So Agnes ran a careful finger down the unbruised side of Allie’s face, making sure to meet her eyes. “I believe you. I definitely do. But… who would have attacked you in the cemetery. Why? It’s such a peaceful place.”

Allie swallowed, hand clenching and unclenching reflexively in her lap.

“Allie,” Agnes said, recognizing the movement from when they had been kids and Allie had given up her toy to someone she claimed needed it more, Agnes, really. “What did they take?”

Allie shook her head, but Agnes stared her down. This wasn’t her first time drawing a story out of Allie. She tried too hard to see the good in people and reason that it was her place in the world to do good by helping everyone she could. Someone had to look after her and make sure she thought of herself on occasion, and Agnes had appointed herself that person a long time ago.

Eventually Allie dropped her gaze. “They took the talisman Father Jones gave me after the sermon on Sunday.”

Agnes stared at her blankly. “They took a trinket you got from the priest.”

“The talisman,” Allie emphasized, nodding in agreement all the same. “He said it would help me stay focused on the important things.”

“Sounds like an awful small trinket to attack someone over,” Agnes said. But if the attack hadn’t been targeted at stealing something, that could only mean someone wanted to hurt Allie. Allie, the most congenial person in the entire damn town.

“I guess they needed it more than I did,” Allie said with a shrug, and Agnes wanted to pull out her hair because no that was not true and even if it was attacking someone was absolutely not the way to go about getting it.

“Maybe,” Agnes allowed, because she familiar with Allie’s arguments and knew that shutting her down now just meant she wouldn’t listen to Agnes’ arguments later. “Maybe you should be careful going places on your own for the next few weeks though. Just in case it wasn’t an isolated incident.”

“I don’t think I need to worry,” Allie said, and there was that hair-pulling urge again. “I’m fine now, and honestly it almost felt like my mother was helping put me back together. I don’t even have a headache.”

Agnes eyed the darkening bruise dubiously, but didn’t pursue the point.

“Even so,” she said. “It would make me feel better if you’d let me come with you for the next week or so. At least until we know if this was a one-off or a pattern.”

A moment passed in silence as Allie thought about the offer before she slowly nodded acceptance. “Okay, if it’ll make you feel better.”

“It will,” Agnes said, not bothering to keep the relief from her voice. “Thank you.”

***

Charles

Charles sat on a stump next to the wood pile, looking out from his house into the woods that stretched beyond. His hand automatically ran the whetstone over the blade of the axe. It had been rusted and covered in something that didn’t bear thinking about when he had started, but now it shown bright as any tool fresh off the assembly line. At this point the movement was more habit than necessity, but Charles found it calming, and he needed something calming.

Because there were strange things happening in his woods.

Not technically his, but his in the way the town was his, the house was his, and this strange rusty broad axe he’d found in the woods was his.

Shling!

The sound gave him a rhythm, slowing his heartbeat as he thought of everything that had changed in town. Bob hoarding merchandise, David clutching a rosary like he actually prayed to the Lord for the souls whose graves he desecrated before the dirt even had time to settle, Father Jones handing out trinkets and baubles and claiming they were blessed.

As if there were any such thing.

Charles held the axe aloft, studying its blade for any imperfections. Finding none he nodded in satisfaction and hefted it onto his shoulder, stalking silently toward the trees.

At the very least, there would be nothing suspicious in his woods.

He’d make sure of it.

***

Bob

The lock on the church door clicked open with a minimal amount of effort, and Bob slid his pick set back into his pocket.

He’d heard through the grapevine that Father Jones had been hiding some absolutely divine trinkets and tokens and, well. If he had enough of them to start the rumor mill, surely he wouldn’t mind if a few went missing.

Stillness filled the church as Bob strolled in, not bothering to hide the sound of his patent leather shoes smacking against the wood floor.

The sanctuary wouldn’t contain anything he was looking for, even Father Jones wasn’t trusting enough to store valuables right under the congregation’s nose, so Bob turned down the small hallway that led to the bathrooms and Father Jones’ office.

The lock on Father Jones’ office proved to be slightly more challenging than the lock on the front door, but only slightly. Bob huffed as he pushed the door open, stepping inside the office and taking it in. The room was small and made to feel even smaller by the number of cabinets and bookshelves Father Jones had shoved up against every available inch of wall space. Papers threatened to topple off the shelves and the desk was littered with open books and even more notes.

Snorting, Bob made his way over to a piece that might have been a coat closet in a previous life. Opening it, he found that it was in fact still a coat closet and it had exactly what he was looking for: a safe tucked away in the corner.

“Knew I’d find you,” Bob murmured, patting the safe genially before kneeling down and spinning the dial. At one point his predecessor had lectured him on the art of safecracking, but Bob had never really been interested in learning. At times he regretted his lack of knowledge, but other times he found the people of this town were so predictable it hardly mattered.

When the combination was not Father Jones’ birthday, his mother’s birthday, or his sister’s birthday, Bob sat back with a sigh of frustration. Looking around the room for inspiration, his eye caught on a sign hanging over the door that proclaimed For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

He stared. It couldn’t be that easy.

He spun the dial. 4-3-16. The lock clicked open.

Bob let out a low chuckle. Apparently the people of this godforsaken town really were that predictable. Pulling the door open Bob got out his flashlight and shown it inside to see what he had found.

Money.

He’d found money.

Frowning, Bob reached inside and moved the stacks of bills around. He was supposed to find talismans and holy water flasks and disenchanting mirrors, not something as mundane as money.

But no, there was nothing. Nothing.

Bob rearranged the stacks of bills back into a semblance of order and slammed the door to the safe closed. If there wasn’t anything interesting here he’d wasted the trip and wasted a good night’s sleep looking at nothing.

Groaning, Bob pushed himself to his feet and staggered a step back. He let his flashlight rove over the rest of the contents of the wardrobe before stopping abruptly on one of the coats.

It was an unassuming brown color, but had a brilliant white fur lining. Reaching out to touch, Bob noted that it also felt thick but somehow remained incredibly soft. Bob pulled it off its hanger, realizing it was roughly his size, and slid it on over his outer coat.

Almost immediately a feeling of peace and safety enveloped Bob. He shuddered and pulled the coat tighter around him stepping back from the wardrobe.

He’d keep this, but it would be enough for tonight.

Bob made his way out of the church much more quietly than he had come in, making sure to lock the doors behind him as he went. Once the outside door was locked and closed, Bob set out toward the woods. He’d come by the main road, but the shortcut through the woods would save him nearly two extra miles of walking, and he wanted to get this coat – robe – mantle – thing back to his shop as quickly as possible.

***

Catherine

The woods were lovely in the early morning, mist rising off the forest floor and wreathing the tree trunks in an ethereal blanket that would burn off later in the day only to reform just after the next sunrise.

Catherine appreciated the woods and walked through them slowly, taking her time to enjoy the scents and sounds of the world waking up as she headed along her usual path to the stone alter and surrounding art installations. Although they seemed to unsettle a large portion of the townspeople, Catherine had always found them comforting the same way going to the old abandoned cabin and leaving an offering of sage and pine for the spirits was comforting.

Catherine knew what the town whispered about her behind her back. Possessed. Uncanny. And now, since Daniel had started his proselytizing, shadow. It didn’t bother her. Maybe they would do something about it and she’d meet with an unfortunate accident. Or maybe they would try to do something and then they would meet with an unfortunate accident.

Until then though, Catherine was content to enjoy the ambiance of the woods.

She began humming to herself as she walked along, trusting her feet to keep her on the path and letting her attention drift through the trees. The woods were a little quiet for this time of morning, but fall was coming and Catherine supposed the slight chill in the air was working its magic.

Chittering sounded from her left and Catherine turned her attention to a pair of squirrels that were weaving around each other and posturing in dispute. She felt the corners of her mouth turn up in amusement at their antics; squirrels were the worst gossips if the woods.

Just as she reached the bend in the path that would take her to the base of the alter Catherine heard a raven caw loudly from a nearby branch. She slowed, knowing better than to ignore the call of a raven and listened. It called again, closer this time, and Catherine took a step toward it. The raven bobbed and hopped along the branch, looking back at her to make sure she was following.

Catherine followed.

The raven led her a short ways of the path, toward a large boulder that sat nestled in the trees. It stopped on top of the rock, hopping up and down and fluttering its wings as it called her to come look. She picked her way through the underbrush gingerly, not wanting to disturb whatever it was the raven was showing her. When she passed the side of the rock she stopped abruptly and gasped, eyes widening in shock.

That was a body. A dead body.

Someone had murdered Bob.

***

Bryan

Black was not a flattering color on a man Bryan’s size, but it was really the only acceptable color at a funeral. Even if it was a funeral for the town’s most notorious swindler and cheat.

It was just so infuriating. Everyone should be happy: half the town had been wanting to chase Bob out or kill him for years, but here they were crying over his body and saying God bless his soul as though he were a fine upstanding citizen.

It made Bryan’s blood boil.

The one saving grace to all of this was that they’d had to do a closed-casket funeral because no one wanted to touch the body. The bastard was being buried in the same damn clothes he’d been murdered in, bloodstains and all.

And it had been a murder. Bryan had checked with the first responders who had been called to the scene. Apparently there had been a suitably gruesome amount of blood around a slice wound in his neck. If Bryan had done it, he’d have cut out the lying scumbag’s tongue too.

Maybe he would. Or maybe he'd do it to someone else equally deserving.

Bryan directed his attentions away from Father Jones’ eulogy – and wasn’t that a kicker, the fucker was so unpopular that no one had any friendly remembrances to share about him in front of the town – and surveyed the gathered crowd. It was a small enough town that everyone had turned out; even if Bob was unpopular everyone knew him, or at least knew of him. Bryan was of the opinion that there was more than one person here who just wanted to make sure the asshole was really dead, but that still lent itself to a large number of people.

Most of the gathered people were paying rapt attention to Father Jones. Bryan didn’t get it; the man preached far too frequently about love and duty and caretaking for Bryan’s taste, but the regular churchgoers lapped it up. Of the people who weren’t hanging off of the Father’s every word, Charles stood out the most. The man was staring off into space like he hadn’t heard a word that was being said. A little creepy, but just like him. Charles kept to himself, which raised suspicions and gossip in a town like this, but he stopped by the general store often enough to satisfy the busybodies who talked too much.

On the other hand, Charles didn’t really have any friends. Or family. Or anyone who might miss him if he wandered off into the woods one day and never came back.

It wouldn’t quite make up for the fact that someone had beaten him to offing Bob, but it might be a start.

And if he got good enough at it, maybe Bryan could reshape the town into a better place.

***

David

The moon hung low overhead, bright and only a few days from full as David picked up his shovel and got to work.

He’d already dug one grave today, and he was a little put out at having to dig it again less than twelve hours after he’d filled it in.

He hadn’t expected so many people to turn up for Bob’s funeral. The man had no family and fewer friends. So few, in fact, that the police had been forced to call David to identify the body when they’d brought it in to the morgue.

He was glad it had been him though, because that was when he had seen it.

God’s holy robe.

Clearly it didn’t have the same protective properties his talisman had or Bob wouldn’t have been slaughtered while wearing it, but David couldn’t help the surge of want that had overtaken him as soon as he had seen it. It had almost been strong enough to make him forget what the police had asked him there for in the first place.

Almost.

So he’d had to identify the body and then dig the grave in preparation for the funeral. Then he’d had to sit through the funeral to make sure no one touched what was his before he could get his hands on it.

He’d expected to be able to take the robe before he filled in the grave. Surely, surely no one cared enough about one corrupt pawn shop broker to throw a handful of dirt onto his coffin. That was something done to honor people that had been cared about.

Apparently it was also something done to make sure con artists were properly buried six feet under and not pulling some elaborate hoax.

So here he was, in the graveyard at midnight with his shovel digging up a fresh grave to make sure he got his hands on that damn holy robe. The thought spurred him on, and David dug more frantically, not caring where the dirt was landing so long as he got closer to his goal. Once he had the robe, he’d have three holy items, one for each member of the Trinity.

He’d be complete.

David focused so thoroughly on his task that he only heard a quiet whoosh before there was an explosion of pain in his neck, and then nothing.

***

Catherine

Bob’s funeral had passed in a blur, and Catherine had found herself spending more and more time alone in the woods.

Despite finding Bob’s body there – or maybe because of it – Catherine found an odd sort of peace in wandering up and down the winding paths that wove in and out of the woods. She could get anywhere in town by walking through the woods, and the way the town was laid out it was usually faster to take the footpath through them than to go on the road that ran around the edges.

Maybe that was why they called out to her now. The woods connected the ancient alter to the church to the cemetery to the abandoned cabin to the houses the lined the edges of town. And now she couldn’t shake the feeling that it connected other things also: light and shadows, life and death.

Then again, maybe Daniel’s soap box ramblings had been getting to her. He’d been speaking at the church about the dangers of mysterious monsters he called Shadows when she’d passed by on her way to the woods. He seemed so insistent that the supernatural was real and that the people needed to band together and support the Hunters in their quest to eliminate the evil plague of Shadows from the world.

It was madness, but it was also a strangely seductive story.

If there were monsters among them, maybe they had killed Bob. Maybe they had struck down David when he had been finishing filling in Bob’s grave in the night. Maybe no one was to blame.

Catherine shook her head, stepping further along the path. Songbirds chirped and fluttered in the pine trees next to her and chipmunks scurried around in the underbrush. No forest with this many sounds of life harbored evil spirits intent on destroying people.

Sure, the woods could be dangerous, but anything could be dangerous if not given proper respect. Like tree roots. Utterly harmless, but tripping over one and landing wrong could end in a broken neck or concussion. Not the tree’s fault, but there would be someone somewhere calling for the removal of the tree and calling it an evil menace to the good hardworking townfolk.

Maybe the world would be better off without people like that. Maybe the world would be better off with people like Daniel, crying wolf and riling people up over a trick of the light.

There wasn’t much she could do about it though, Catherine mused. Especially not in this town where half of Daniel’s devotees were convinced she was one of the Shadows he talked about. So she shrugged it off, turning her mind to more pleasant avenues and continuing down the wooded path.

***

Daniel

“And when God speaks to His people, they must listen!” Daniel said from his place at the pulpit, looking out over the crowd seated in the pews.

Father Jones had allowed Daniel to come give his message in the church today. It was a good place; the people who attended church were very devoted and Daniel’s message spoke to them because it came from God. Daniel was just the messenger for a higher power, and he really felt like these people got it. These people were going to be on the lookout.

It was just a shame that people hadn’t started listening to him until Bob and David had already passed. If they’d listened earlier – really listened, not just treated him like the resident lunatic – maybe they could have been saved.

All that mattered now was getting as many people involved as possible. Strength in numbers; even the Shadows the angel had spoken of couldn’t stand up to the full might of the people once they became united in purpose, and Daniel meant to be the glue that held them together.

“He told me to warn you! That the Shadows were coming, and now they are here! They are going for the loners first. A man with few friends has no one to defend him when evil comes knocking on his door, and we will not stand for it happening to anyone else in our hometown. We must stand together and expose the Shadows. Fight them back. Be the light that burns them away!”

Daniel felt the energy in the crowd surging as he spoke, one or two in the back getting to their feet as he rallied them together. But even as a feeling of exhilaration surged through him, he felt a sharp pain in his jaw that kept him from opening his mouth. He broke out in a cold sweat, nausea rising as he realized what this meant.

They had come for him. They had heard him and knew he was a threat, and the shadows had come for him.

Gasping for breath, Daniel tried to grab on to the pulpit and finish his speech, but his arms hurt too much to hold him up. His knees crashed to the ground and his chest seized. He distantly heard people running toward him as a rushing sound filled his ears and overwhelmed him.

***

Charles

The woods chattered with the sound of birds and small mammals as Charles stalked his prey. He was a good hunter and knew better than to disturb the wildlife and cause a hush to fall over the forest that would alert anyone and everyone to the presence of a predator.

Her name was Catherine, and Charles had seen her in his woods many times before on her way to the alter or the cabin where she left small offerings to the witches or spirits or whatever it was she believed was taking them.

Normally he would let her go - she was almost as much a part of his forest as he was – but with the surge in religious fervor and strange artifacts showing up in his woods, Charles found himself uninclined to trust anyone or anything.

So she had to go.

She didn’t seem be walking with any particular goal in mind, taking the path toward the abandoned cottage and then turning on a whim to head toward the alter before starting down the path leading to the cemetery. An ambush would be the ideal, since Charles had both his broad axe and a butcher knife the woods had seen fit to gift him with, but for that he needed to be able to predict where she was going.

As he was contemplating changing plans Catherine changed directions yet again, this time heading back toward the cabin she had veered away from earlier.

Charles took a deep breath and reminded himself that the best hunter was a patient hunter, and followed.

***

Bryan

Afternoon sunlight filtered in through the trees as Bryan picked his way along the trail leading to the run down shack that stood in the depths of the woods. His grip tightened on his gun every time the leaves rustled in the underbrush, every nerve on edge as he fought to keep his excitement in check and his wits around him.

Because he was going to do it. He was finally going to do it.

He was going to rid the town of that creepy dead-eyed bastard.

He’d managed to finagle a deal with the man – Mr. Smith – who had come to clean up Bob’s pawn shop business. Turns out there had been a lot of back alley deals and off the books cash flow, and Mr. Smith was only too happy to have someone take the undocumented merchandise off his hands.

Especially the undocumented machine gun Bob kept fully loaded under the counter.

Machine guns made it so much easier to dispose of the riff raff.

But only if he could find him.

Bryan was willing to admit that Charles possibly knew the woods better than he did. It was a distinct possibility that he really should have considered before spending half his day tromping along the trails that had been beaten into the earth by generations of curious townsfolk.

On the other hand, he’d spent half the day in these damn trees looking for that fucking weirdo and he wasn’t going home until he was dead.

Kill the beast. Gaston was Disney’s most underappreciated hero.

The sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows as it hovered just above the treetops. Bryan swore under his breath. The bird were still chirping, the rodents hurrying frantically around through the detritus on the forest floor, and he was still no closer to finding another living soul in these woods. At this point, he’d settle for anyone who thought this was a good time to be out wandering around, not just Charles.

As if someone up above had heard his prayer, Bryan looked up and saw the edge of a dark dress round the bend on the trail in front of him.

Bryan hurried forward, trying to keep his steps as quiet as possible so as not to spook Catherine. Because who else would be out in the woods at this hour dolled up in her creepiest looking horror movie dress? If he couldn’t get Charles, she would be a fine consolation prize and the town would be better off for it.

He must not have been as silent as he had hoped, because as soon as he reached the turn of the path he came face to face with Catherine. She stared him down from less than ten feet away, eyes eerily blank as they flitted from the gun held in his hands to his face and back again.

“You don’t ha-“

Crack! Crackcrackcrack! Crackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrackcrack!    

Bryan’s body vibrated with the effort of holding the gun relatively still as he held the trigger and watched the bullets spray. Firing the gun felt better than he thought it would. Hell, killing felt better than he thought it would. He aimed the gun in a wide arc, shooting bullets into the trees on either side of the path just for the hell of it.

It felt powerful. Amazing.

A high pitched yelp and moan caught his attention, and Bryan frowned took his finger off the trigger. Catherine was dead on the trail, having been cut off in the middle of her sentence and left incapable of drawing breath ever again, so where had the sound come from.

A slight wheeze sounded to his left and Bryan whirled, gun coming up to point at the sound. Silence settled over the woods, and Bryan began to wonder if he’d been hearing things. Then it sounded again, the softest wheeze and he slammed his finger down on the trigger, releasing a barrage of bullets toward the sound.

This time when he stopped shooting there was no sound. He waited a minute to be sure then carefully stepped forward, checking the ground around his feet to see what he had shot.

About twenty feet into the trees he figured it out when he came across Charles’ body. It was riddled with bullet holes; one had probably hit his lung when Bryan had fired randomly into the trees.

A smile crept across Bryan’s face and he patted the gun fondly.

He waded back toward the path, leaving the bodies behind. No one came this way; no one would find them for days. And besides, what were they going to do, pin their deaths on a guy who didn’t even own a gun? Bryan smiled. He was untouchable.

The sun set as Bryan followed the meandering path back toward civilization. He’d just walked out of the trees when a bright light flashed into his eyes. He dropped the gun, trying to block the light.

“Freeze!” an authoritative voice said. “You’re under arrest.”

Shit, Bryan thought as the officer took the machine gun and pushed him up against the police cruiser to cuff him. How did they find me?

***

Allie

“You’re sure you need to be there?” Agnes asked for what must have been the tenth time. “The newspaper will publish an article or six about the trial after it happens. You can get closure then.”

Allie shook her head, hands clutched tightly in front of her. “You don’t get it. I need to see him, to understand that the person who did all this has been caught and won’t get to do it again.”

Agnes sighed, but didn’t say anything. Allie gave her five minutes before she brought it up again and tried to talk Allie out of going.

She wouldn’t be able to. Bryan was being sentenced at a public hearing after the cops had heard machine gun fire in the woods and raced to find the culprit. On further exploration they’d found Charles’ and Catherine’s bodies in the woods. The coroner hadn’t even needed 24 hours before releasing a report stating both of them had died of wounds related to machine gun fire. They’d also found a butchers knife and broad axe, which speculation said had been used by Bryan to kill David and Bob and, Allie was willing to bet, hit her on the head in the cemetery.

Why he hadn’t killed her when he’d been leaving a pile of bodies in his wake was a bit of a mystery, but Allie knew she’d been protected in that graveyard. Her mother had promised to always watch over her and she had made good on that promise.

Beside her, Allie heard Agnes draw in a breath.

“We’re only five minutes away from the courthouse,” Allie said, cutting off anything Agnes might have been about to say. “It would be a waste of time to turn back now.”

The look on Agnes’ face made it clear that she disagreed, but she didn’t say anything to the contrary either so Allie let herself consider it a win.

When they reached the courthouse it was packed, but everyone seemed to have filled in the back rows first. That seemed cowardly – what could a man in chains do to them now? - but it left the front row open for Allie so she couldn’t complain.

The proceedings started promptly, the audience silent as they watched Bryan’s lawyer try to formulate a solid defense out of straws. He wasn’t even doing a very good job of it, purposely leaving out things that might have helped Bryan like trying to shift some of the blame on how he acquired an unregistered machine gun or disputing that he had owned either the axe or knife found at the site of Charles’ and Catherine’s murders.

Bryan knew it too, Allie noted, judging by the ever increasing frown marring his face. She could practically hear him grinding his teeth.

The jury filed out to deliberate, but were only gone a handful of minutes before they came back. Unsurprising. Everyone on the jury was from the town and the town knew what Bryan had done, no two ways about it.

The head of the jury stood, facing the judge as she asked for their verdict.

“Guilty.”

The word barely finished leaving the man’s mouth before Bryan stood, flipping over the table in front of him and letting out a noise that was more of a roar than a shout.

“You’re what’s wrong with this town!” he yelled, wild eyes darting around the room before settling on Allie. “All of you! None of you care that Charles was a murderer! None of you care that Catherine was his lackey. None of you can see what I’ve done for you!”

Allie felt Agnes shrink back in the seat beside her, her hand coming to rest on Allie’s arm and tugging her toward the aisle.

But she couldn’t move.

She willed herself to follow Agnes, who was now desperately trying to drag Allie out of the courthouse. It was like she was watching in slow motion as Bryan splintered he bolts holding his handcuffs to the table and leapt over the rail, headed right toward her. She turned to Agnes, eyes wide as she felt a blow land on her head. Her vision faltered and she stumbled, then fell heavily to the floor.

***

Agnes

Agnes watched in horror as Bryan’s double fisted hands met Allie’s head with a sickening crack. For a moment, she thought Allie might be okay, but then she faltered and fell, her head hitting the stone floor hard.

A scream ripped itself from Agnes’ throat as she lurched forward, not sure what she was doing but absolutely sure that it was going to hurt and that she didn’t care.

She was stopped by a pair of strong arms, and she watched as a stun gun was pressed to Bryan’s neck and he convulsed as he fell to the ground beside Allie.

“Get her a medic!” Agnes heard herself yell. “Get her a medic, she needs a medic, a medic, a medic, a medic, a medic!

“We’ll help your friend,” the man holding her said in a soothing voice. “But I need you to calm down. Can you do that for me?”

Agnes nodded and took a few deep gulps of air. “Why-“ she tried. Then swallowed and tried again. “How did he get out? He was cuffed to the table!”

“He must have pulled the chain out of the table,” the man – a police officer – said in that same calm tone. “We’ll figure out how he did it and make sure it can’t be done again.”

Agnes felt like a bobble-head toy as she nodded again, and just kept nodding because the motion felt soothing. Far more soothing than looking at Allie’s motionless form on the ground beside her.

The policeman kept up a steady stream of words beside her, and in what felt like hours but must have only been minutes a worried looking pair of women with EMT emblems on their clothing pushed past her and the officer to get to Allie. They set the carrying board down on the ground beside her, and one of the women placed a brace on Allie’s neck. Agnes heard herself choke back a sob as she watched the other woman place her fingers on Allie’s neck to feel her pulse, then frown and try again, moving her fingers to the other side.

“Is she…” Agnes said softly, eyes fixed on the fingers pressed to Allie’s throat. “Does she have a pulse?”

The woman’s eyes were kind and her tone gentle as she replied. “I can’t feel one. We need to get her to the hospital and see what we can do for her.”

Agnes nodded jerkily, not letting herself fall into the movement this time. “Can I come with you?” she asked. “It’s just, Allie doesn’t have any family and I’m her closest friend since her mother died and I… I would like to be there with her.”

“Of course,” the woman said. “Let us get her into the ambulance and then we’ll get you settled too, okay?”

Time dilated again as Agnes trailed the two EMTs to the ambulance. The ride took both forever and no time at all, and before she knew it a nurse was ushering her into the waiting area as they took Allie into the trauma room in the ER.

It seemed like just a few breaths later when the doctor came out and sat next to her, a grim look on his face.

“I’ve just been with Allie,” he said, his voice just as gentle as the EMT’s, but this time it felt grating. “Her spinal cord has been severed, there’s nothing we can do for her.”

“But,” Agnes said. “But that paralyzes people. It doesn’t kill them.”

The doctor looked sad. “It can paralyze the heart and lungs if it’s severed high enough, and hers was. I’m sorry, Agnes. I know you were close but there’s nothing we can do for her. Would you like to come in and spend some time with her before she’s transported?”

To the morgue, Agnes realized. Allie would be transported to the morgue because that’s where dead bodies go.

“Yes, please,” she whispered.

She follows the doctor into the trauma room where Allie was laid out on the bed. They pulled a chair in next to the bed, and Agnes half-sat half-fell into it, hand reaching out automatically to hold Allie’s. She heard the door shut behind her as the doctor left to give her privacy.

“Why-“ did you have to go, Agnes thought desperately, voice failing her partway through. Why did you insist on getting your closure in person.

Agnes knew she couldn’t blame Allie. She wouldn’t. She'd never been capable of blaming Allie for anything. So instead she sat and let it out, crying into Allie’s hand as she released her frustration the only way she could.

At least this time, she thought, they’d finally caught the man who’d done it. And there was no way he could wiggle out of getting his just desserts.

At least it meant this wouldn’t happen again.

She clung to that thought, face pressed to Allie’s palm as the full moon rose and a wolf howl sounded from the woods.