Saturday, November 12, 2016

Maywitch Chapter 20: The Woods

Previous Chapter: Loyalties Lie
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Soon after, the sedan dropped them off at a dimly-lit wooded area. Yellow-tinted lampposts illuminated a sign reading “Moraine Park Campground,” but there were no tents or RVs in sight. “I’m dropping you here because I don’t want to arouse suspicion by coming any closer,” the driver said as he turned off his headlights and handed a flashlight to Tierra. “Your gear is in the trunk. Your camping spot is A18, about a quarter mile ahead. Try not to wake anyone up at this hour.”
Kay and Holly mumbled farewells to the driver before climbing out and helping Tierra with their supplies. In the trunk was a backpack, a duffel bag, and a tent in a giant, heavy bag. Kay shouldered the tent bag and followed Tierra down the road, and Holly followed a moment later, lugging the duffel bag from the trunk in addition to her own.
The sedan turned around and trundled off, and the trio of mages was plunged into darkness as its headlights disappeared. Then Tierra flicked on the flashlight and kept walking, pointing her flashlight toward the ground as much as possible. Kay and Holly silently followed, their footsteps shuffling as they navigated the uneven road.
There was a crackling sound somewhere behind Kay, and she froze, her stomach somersaulting. Tierra whirled around, her mouth open as if to cast a spell. Kay glanced over her shoulder, too terrified to turn around fully.
Holly turned around as well and let out a small shriek. A raccoon sat perched on the edge of the road, its tiny hands clasped to its mouth as if it was just as scared of them as they were of him.
Tierra sighed, and as Kay’s heart rate began to return to normal, the raccoon scampered off. Holly turned back around and began walking, her face flushed yet resolute.
Kay and Tierra followed, but as Kay lugged the duffel bag along, she wondered what they were getting themselves into.

They set up their tent and collapsed inside, sprawling out over their sleeping bags in the late summer haze. By the time Kay opened her eyes again, the sun was far overhead, and Holly had set up a small picnic outside. To the right of their tent, the land was engulfed by trees; to their left, other campers meandered about, in no particular hurry to be anywhere. It would be relaxing, if they weren’t in the middle of such a strange assignment, Kay thought as she waved to Holly.
“Morning,” Holly said. “How’re you feeling?”
Kay squinted in the sunlight. “Kinda stiff. You? And where’s Tierra?”
“I slept like shit. Tierra went for a walk. Should be back soon.” Holly glanced over her shoulder before striding toward the tent and squatting in front of Kay. “We’re gonna take turns patrolling this area. The guys who drowned were staying at campsite A28, not far from here. If we can find something…”
She trailed off, and Kay nodded. “Got it. Are we going anywhere as a group?” Kay asked.
“Nope.” Holly glanced over her shoulder again. “To be honest, I don’t know if I like the idea of going off alone. I think pairs would make sense, and then one person can stay behind and cover the campsite, but—”
She stopped as Tierra appeared at the edge of the campsite. “Morning,” Tierra said as she unshouldered her backpack. “The trail along the water looks lovely. Kay, wanna give it a go? I already took the trail directly north of here.”
Kay understood that as an order, not a suggestion. “Sure,” she said, grabbing her shoes from outside the tent. “We got maps somewhere?”
Tierra rummaged around in her backpack before handing a piece of paper to Kay. “Don’t lose it. I dunno where we’d get another one.”
“How long do you want me to go out for?” Kay asked softly.
“Maybe three hours or so. I’m gonna go snooze.” Tierra waved her away, and Kay stepped outside so she could enter the tent.
“Yeah, get some rest.” Kay finished putting her shoes on, grabbed her backpack, and nodded to Holly. “Later.”
“Aren’t you gonna eat breakfast?” Holly said, waving a granola bar at her.
“Not hungry.” Probably because of nerves, Kay admitted to herself as she headed toward the woods. “Later.”

The unpaved, leaf-strewn trail was packed with people, and Kay realized that any clues along the route could have been damaged already. She paused at the edge of the river where the campers had drowned, noting the makeshift memorial set up on some nearby stones.
She couldn’t sense any magic usage or weird auras - not that her senses were that attuned, she thought. The trail Tierra had checked was more likely to have clues or magical residue, though, since it was closer to where the stunning circle had been found.
She ambled along the path, trying to act uninterested in anything but the scenery, but stopped short at the sight of something metallic in the bushes. She crouched down to pick it up.
“Looking for something?”
She whirled around. A tall, blond-haired man with sunburned skin stood on the path, hands thrust into the pockets of his slacks. He wore a white button-down shirt that looked out-of-place among the plaid-wearing campers. “Not really, but I thought I saw something glimmer,” she said. “Maybe someone lost a bracelet or something.”
He stepped closer, and her heart leapt into her throat as he pulled his hand out of his pocket. “We’re investigating the drownings that happened early Sunday morning,” he said as he flashed a gold badge at her. “Were you here when those happened?”
She shook her head. “Just got here last night.”
“Gotcha. You here with friends?”
“Yeah, from college.”
He waved her away and walked over to the spot she had stopped by. She watched carefully as he knelt and picked up a shiny, flimsy object. “Looks like it’s just a granola bar wrapper,” he said, smiling. “No offense, but maybe you need glasses.”
She frowned. There was something about his tone that was far too casual. Why would law enforcement be running around there, if the area hadn’t even been cordoned off as a crime scene?
“I guess I got my hopes up,” she said as she took a step in the direction she had originally been heading. “Whatever. Good luck.”
She strode off, struggling to get her heart rate back to normal. As she rounded a bend in the trail further ahead, she glanced over her shoulder and noticed that he was still watching her.

She combed the rest of the riverside trail for another two hours, taking care to watch over her shoulder for the sunburned detective. After finding nothing else of interest, she turned back toward her campsite. Maybe she should’ve doubled back sooner to warn Holly and Tierra about the cops snooping around, she thought.
When she got back, though, Holly and Tierra seemed less concerned than she had expected. “I don’t blame them for keeping an eye on the area. Rumor has it that the LEOs here were really freaked out by the drownings happening the way they did,” Tierra whispered, shrugging. “I mean, the first guy disappeared, the second guy disappeared, then the first guy washed up on shore, and then a third guy went looking for the second guy…”
“And then they all ended up dead. Yeah, I guess I can’t blame them for having extra cops around, if they’re really short on clues.” And, Kay thought, she hoped that none of the local officers had any clue that magic was suspected - or that Maywitch had been called in.
“At any rate, I guess it’s my turn to go out, huh?” Holly said.
Tierra nodded. “Kay, do you mind going back out with her? I haven’t eaten yet.”
“That’s fine by me,” Kay said. “Where to?”
“There’s a trail northwest of here we haven’t looked at yet. Go look there.”
“Cool,” Kay said, waving her map at Holly. “Let’s go.”
Holly grinned as she grabbed her backpack, and as they headed out of camp, she whispered: “I think this feels safer, right? You think we’re going out in pairs because the cops are around?”
“Probably.” Deep down, though, Kay wondered if the decision was more because of Holly than the detective. Was it possible that Tierra really mistrusted Holly so much that Holly wouldn’t be allowed to go out alone?
But maybe she was reading too much into it, Kay thought as the ambled down the trail. If any mistrust was brewing, it was probably aimed at Kay just as much as it was at Holly - and Tierra wouldn’t dare send two mistrusted people out together in the middle of an important mission.
Right?

Thirty minutes later, they were rounding a corner in the trail when Kay’s satellite phone rang. “This is Kay,” she said softly as she answered.
“It’s me,” Tierra’s voice said. “Meet me back toward camp. There’s something—”
Tierra stopped, and Kay frowned. “Tierra, what’s up?”
“Head south of the latrines,” Tierra whispered.
“Wait, what’s going on?”
There was only silence in response. Kay stared at the phone in her hand, and the call ended a second later. “Let’s go,” she said, turning around. “I think Tierra’s in trouble.”
She sprinted up the trail, and Holly followed, struggling to keep up. “Where is she?” Holly hissed.
“South of the bathrooms by the campsite.” Kay ignored the suspicious stares from other hikers as she rummaged in her pocket for a vial of wormwood. “I don’t know what’s going on, but it sounds like she saw something.”
Her feet pounded the trail, straining her legs and winding her. By the time they reached the trailhead, adrenaline was the only thing keeping her moving.
She stopped suddenly as she spotted flashing lights a short distance ahead. “Shit,” she said. “That’s the…”
“Latrines,” Holly finished, barely audible. “She said she was south?”
“Heading south, yeah. Let’s not move too quick, though.” Kay started jogging again, hoping they would avoid the attention of the cops.
“You said that detective was blond and sunburned, right?” Holly whispered.
“Yeah. Nudge me if you see him.”
As they passed the latrines, though, there was no sign of him. Several uniformed cops milled about as an ambulance pulled up, its siren issuing sharp blasts to move bystanders away. An elderly woman stood crying next to a police officer, and Kay’s heart sank as she realized that whatever happened was likely serious.
“Come on,” she said to Holly as she increased her pace. “She said south, but I have no idea if she’s following someone or…”
There was a soft crack somewhere ahead of them, and dozens of birds rose from the trees into the air. Kay sprinted ahead, no longer concerned with avoiding stares and suspicion. Behind her, she could hear Holly uttering a spell between ragged breaths.
They darted between trees, struggling not to trip over vines and underbrush, and Tierra’s silhouette soon came into view. “Tierra!” Kay hissed, slowing her approach. “Tierra—”
Something in front of Tierra moved, and Tierra waved a hand, unleashing a furious onslaught of leaves and vines. The woman from the night before stumbled into view, her jacket shimmering in the late afternoon light.
Kay stood stunned for a moment. Tierra’s magical abilities were earth-based - which was an incredibly rare skill set. But she brought herself back to reality as she saw the woman in the sequined jacket move her lips. “The hell?” Kay said. “Tierra, who is she?”
Tierra glanced over her shoulder. “Leave it to me.”
The other woman raised her arm, and a gust of wind burst through the trees, sending twigs and leaves into Kay’s face. Holly began murmuring the words to a spell, but Kay raised a hand. “I dunno if it’s worth using our fire, here,” Kay said.
“Who said I’m using that?” Holly whispered.
Possession wasn’t a bad idea, Kay thought as she pulled a stick of charcoal from her pocket. “Good call. I’ll cover you.”
Tierra launched another attack, and one of her vines slammed into the woman’s neck. The woman fell backward, but not before a knife shot out from her hand, missing Tierra’s head by less than an inch.
Kay raised a hand and began to recite a spell under her breath as Tierra took several hesitant steps backward. “She’s probably got something else up her sleeves, if her magic is this half-assed,” Tierra said. “Let’s just—”
Something barreled down from the sky, sending a gust of wind ripping through the woods. Kay was forced to close her eyes, but opened them again as soon as she could, knowing that another attack was imminent.
It took a long moment for her to process the scene before her. Very little had changed, but the woman with the sequined jacket was now fully prone, blood gushing from her neck. A winged, gray-skinned beast stood over her, teeth glistening in the sunlight.

It had to be a demon, Kay knew, but it appeared so suddenly that the three mages stood motionless, unable to decide what to do next.
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