I was 7000 words into this thing when I realised that there was absolutely no way I'd be able to wrap this up in just one normal-sized instalment. I'd spent most of my time setting the mood and establishing the characters – anything I did to finish it quickly would be a huge anticlimax.
As such, this is the first chapter of the very first multi-chapter Catherine Faller story. A historic occasion? Doubtful…
Hope you enjoy it, either way. The continuation will follow.
The journal of Doctor Catherine Faller, entry # 17:
I effing hate nature.
I hate the bugs. I hate the plants that you get your legs tangled in. I hate the mud, and the branches that rip your face, and the way the pollen in the air makes your throat go thick.
And above all, I hate the sheer pointlessness of it. Every tree grows where it does for no better reason than that that was where the seed dropped, and it's the shape it is because, well, that was how it turned out. Nothing has meaning. Nothing has significance.
Now, how come other people don't feel that way? Oh, there's people who like cities, I suppose. But as far as I'm concerned, they like it in the wrong way. They enjoy the instant gratification of television and open-around-the-clock drugstores. And they enjoy the fact that something is always happening in a city, which means that there is always some distraction that they can use as an excuse to never stop and think, just to drift along and take in experiences without ever processing them.
Why is deep, careful, philosophical thinking always associated with nature? Cities, after all, are the product of intelligence, whereas nature is just what you call those parts of the world that intelligence hasn't bothered to do anything sensible with yet. Why does no one write poetry about buildings, only about forests? Why is it romantic to give someone a rose, and tacky to give them a pocket calculator?
This is a bothersome line of thought, because I know that there is a race of Anomalies who would applaud this line of thinking…
Catherine looked at Rick's friends. Rick's friends looked at Catherine. Neither side found the sight especially concerting.
Rick had three friends who had found the time to join him for this hunting trip. There was Harold Pointdexter, who was big, fat and morose, his wife Deborah, who was big, fat and cheerful, and Mel Holmes, who had a stupid black moustache and looked greasy even though he really wasn't. All three of them were carrying rifles and backpacks with a great deal of familiarity, and wore bright orange don't-shoot-me-I'm-not-a-moose jackets. Catherine immediately hated all three of them. Not because there was anything particularly hateful about them (well, except possibly the moustache) but because she tended to hate everyone she met. It saved time; they were just going to prove to be morons anyway.
The hunting trio, on the other hand, found themselves watching a tall, gaunt woman with long black hair, a long black coat that billowed around her as she moved and brought the thought, unpleasantly, to great, dark wings. Her pale face was locked in an expression that promised war to anyone involved in dragging her out here, and yes, people, that does mean you - I know it was all Rick's idea and you'd rather not have me here, but you're guilty by association. Deal with it.
"I'm sure you'll get along fine," said Rick Faller desperately, in direct denial of the evidence. He had just finished introducing everyone, and he looked like he wasn't as sure that this was a good idea as he had been when he had nagged his sister into agreeing with it.
Deborah gave Catherine a friendly grin, though it looked a little ragged around the edges. Catherine's scowl ate friendly grins alive.
"This is your first time hunting, sweetie?" she said.
Catherine considered the irony of that question for just long enough to make everyone uncomfortable.
"First time I've hunted deer," she then offered. Her normal choice of prey was of a somewhat more grotesque nature. It tended to walk on two legs, for starters. Or at least shamble.
"Well, you can ask me if you want any pointers," Mel said. His smile was greasy too, Catherine thought. "I've done this since I was a kid."
"Uh-huh," Catherine said. "If I feel especially stupid, I'll be sure to accept your help."
Mel's smile grew a bit more uncertain. He was smart enough to recognise the double meaning. It wasn't that hard, anyway. Catherine's entire body language radiated sarcasm.
"Cathy, can I talk to you for a second?" Rick said hurriedly. He smiled nervously at his friends. "You start up the trail, why don't you? We'll catch up."
The three hunters set off over the meadow separating the patch of road where the cars were parked from the forest proper.
"I know, I know," Catherine said once they were out of hearing range. "I'm no good at being sociable, okay?"
"I know, but couldn't you at least try?" he said. "These are my friends. They're not bad people, you know."
"That Mel guy keeps giving me you-know-you-want-it leers," Catherine complained.
"Yeah, I think his face is permanently locked in one of those," Rick said. "He doesn't mean anything by it, I promise."
"Well, I don't like him," Catherine said. "And I don't like being miles away from the closest pavement, and I don't understand why you're even making me carry a rifle, because I'm definitely not shooting any poor innocent animal just so you can have venison for dinner."
Rick gave her a kicked-puppy look, and Catherine started to feel a small, whimpering sensation inside. It was very familiar to her. It was the feeling of having pushed the 'cranky bitch' routine too far.
"I just wanted you to, you know, get away from… stuff… for a few days…" he said miserably.
"I know. I know." Catherine sighed. She knew what it was he wanted her to get away from. It wasn't like she could blame him, either.
The thing was this; she had been walking down the street one day, and something had clicked in her brain, and she had become aware that some of the people around her weren't people. Or at least not people in the traditional sense. Some of them were technically human, except that they were dead humans. Some of them were half human, half something else. And some of them were something else to one hundred percent, so alien that she didn't even know what to call them.
It seemed that someone needed to do something about it all. And while there were other people than Catherine who could see the Anomalies, those other people were uniformly idiots, which was natural enough, since most people other than Catherine were uniformly idiots. So if someone were to study the Anomalies, classify them, find scientifically explanations for them and bring them to the attention of the scientific community, well… that would have to be her, she supposed.
Rick didn't know all this, of course. He didn't want to know - he believed, probably very correctly, that knowing more than necessary it would complicate his blissfully uncomplicated life beyond repair. All he knew was that his little sister was involved in something pretty big and bad.
It must be very tempting for him to want to protect Catherine from the dangerous stuff she was mixed up in, even if it was only for a weekend. And she really shouldn't resent it.
But couldn't he have sent me to one of those luxurious spas or something?
"I'll try, okay?" she said. "I won't bite anyone's head off even if I think they're really asking for it. But I'm not shooting any deer, okay?"
"Fair enough," Rick said with a grateful smile. "Uh… there's one more thing, though…"
"Okay, I won't mention the fact that the rest of you are less intelligent than me," she said. "At least not for the next two days. Satisfied?"
"Uh, that wasn't it, actually," Rick said. He paused. "Though it'd be good if you didn't, of course… Uhm, no, what I meant was, you have to wear a jacket."
Catherine looked down on her black coat. She liked this coat. It looked nice and dramatic when she was moving around. And there were plenty of inner pockets for notepads, aspirins and emergency caffeine pills.
"I don't do bright colours," she said flatly.
"But it's for your own good," Rick said. "It's so everyone who sees you will know it's not okay to shoot at you."
"I'd rather get shot than go around looking like a flake!" Catherine complained.
Rick gave her a long, reflecting look.
"In your own weird way, you're really vain, aren't you?" he said. "Except for you vanity isn't about looking good. It's more kind of about looking like you refuse to take part in this stupid world, that kind of thing…"
"What? No I'm not!" Catherine said, though she was secretly impressed by her normally so dense brother's perception.
"Then wear the jacket, Cathy. Please?"
Catherine stuffed her black coat into her pack and changed into a colourful jacket. On the other hand, her expression was black enough to make up for it.
Catherine prided herself on being in fairly good shape. She ate right, when she remembered to eat at all, and she went for a jog every morning, if only to make sure that she was capable of running away from scary things should the need arise. So, she told herself, it couldn't be normal for her to feel this tired after just walking at a modest pace for a few hours. It must be the forest sucking her strength out of her.
Of course, she was carrying what felt like a ton of supplies on her back, which might explain something… or else it could, of course, be the life-sapping experience of having to listen to four, count them, four harebrained hunters yapping all around her. The only thing that was worse than listening to them talk among themselves was having one of them talk to her.
"… of course, it was only last year that things really started moving on the stock market," Mel was just saying. "I sold all my United Merchandise and invested in the entertainment sector, and since then, my portfolio has…"
"Does that actually work?" Catherine said.
"No, telling women how much money you've got," Catherine said flatly. "Does that actually make them want to sleep with you?"
Mel had the insolence not to get insulted by the question. Instead, he looked thoughtful.
"Well, not in and of itself," he said. "But look at it this way. Say you've got two sleazebags like me hitting on you. One has oodles of cash, and one doesn't. Which one would you rather sleep with?"
"If I pick the rich guy," Catherine said, "will he give me some of those oodles?"
Mel looked amused.
"I think we're moving dangerously close to solicitation here," he said. "No, you'd probably have to settle for expensive gifts and dinners and so on…"
"In that case, screw it," Catherine said. "I can make my own oodles."
"A bit mercenary, aren't you?"
"Not really." Catherine sighed. "I just like money. Or, I like what you can do with money. Get people to cook for you. Clean for you. Go out and get the newspaper for you." She tried to kill a mosquito, but it got away and bit her in the wrist. She growled. "Effing build a bug-free, air-conditioned house for you!"
"Aw, come on." Mel grinned. "Where's the fun in that? What's life if you don't get a little dirty sometimes?" He looked around at the rows of trees with obvious delight. "Suffer the rain and the sun and all the little challenges life has to offer, that's what makes it all worthwhile. All the best things in life are a little messy and hurt a bit."
"You're going to try and bring the conversation back to sex, aren't you?" Catherine said glumly.
"Well, that is an example, yeah…"
Catherine glared at his obnoxiously grinning face, stupid moustache and all.
"Don't you worry a tiny bit that my very big and over-protective brother will kick your ass for putting the moves on me?" she said.
"Nope. We talked about it when he first asked us if it was okay that he invited you along." He chuckled at the memory. "I think his exact words were, 'she won't be interested, she gets very definite about things, and she will be carrying a loaded rifle. Whatever you do is at your own risk.'"
Catherine wasn't entirely sure if she should be flattered by that rather accurate description of her or upset that Rick had washed his hands of the whole thing.
"Well, I'm not interested," she said. "I've got someone I'm interested in, as it happens."
"Ah." Mel nodded. "A fellow city person, I'm guessing."
Catherine thought about Kevin.
"Actually, he'd probably think this was a blast," she said. "Trudging through the wilderness and whatnot. And he's broke most of the time. No oodles there."
"So what's his redeeming features?" Mel said.
"He shaves," Catherine said flatly. Actually, she had no idea what it was she liked about Kevin. He was different from her (and therefore, of course, inferior) in just about every way; steady, honest and simple-hearted as opposed to high-strung, sneaky and ambitious. There was just something reassuringly solid about him, something that made Catherine feel like she could trust him to back her up if need be.
And trust him to stop her if she went too far, for that matter. Six months at Aesop had shown Catherine just how possible it was for her to go too far if no one stopped her, and the scariest thing was that it had taken her those six months to realise it. That raised a question that would have kept her up at night if caffeine and workaholism hadn't already done it - if I spend that much time doing something that was fucked up and not realising it, what am I doing right now that's fucked up without realising it?
"This is going to be a mighty long weekend if you're going to snap at me every chance you get," Mel said without malice.
Catherine sighed. She had promised Rick to be nice.
"You're right," she said. "I'm sorry. But can we rebel against the mores of Western society and pay an interest to anything except sex and money? Like, those two folks." She gestured to the Pointdexters, who were at the moment some twenty yards further down the path, at the heels of Rick. "What are they like?"
"I'm pretty sure they shave," Mel said, straight-faced.
"I like them already," Catherine responded, equally deadpan - among her good qualities she counted a complete refusal to act ashamed of her bad qualities. "Anything else?"
"Oh, I don't know." Mel counted down on his fingers. "Long-time married couple. Deb's your basic easy-going type, kind of like yours truly. Harry's a bit of a sourpuss, but he's really a good guy - give you the shirt off his back if you ask him, only he'll complain about having to do it for years afterwards. He had some boring, low-level, white-collar job when I met him, and now he's got some boring, high-level, white-collar job. That's about it."
Catherine opened her mouth to make some kind of dry comment, and then the world stopped.
Or at least, the world slowed down - every sound turned low and deep and drawn out, and Catherine's own motions turned sluggish, like she was moving through thick tar. And the colours - the colours were wrong, though she couldn't say how; she felt like she had walked into negative photo, even though the green and grey and yellow of the forest remained as her memory insisted they had always been.
She turned, startled - a motion that seemed to take forever - and caught a glimpse of something large and black standing on four legs among the threes, staring at the five wanderers with burning eyes in a face that would never belong in any sane world.
A voice thundered in her ears. The merciless conviction in it wouldn't have been so horrible if she hadn't recognised the voice as her own.
IT HAS YOUR SCENT NOW.
The ground. Why was she lying on the ground? Ridiculous. People had spent thousands of years inventing devices - floors, carpets, beds, shoes - to minimise their contact with the ground, so why would any sensible person lie down on it? She shouldn't be down here.
She tried to push herself up. Her arms felt like boiled spaghetti.
"Easy, Cathy. Are you okay?"
Rick. Catherine opened her eyes and squinted at him. His big, concerned face filled her field of vision. On the bright side, it seemed to be the normal colour - a kind of pinkish-red.
"I'm fine," she muttered. "Give me some space, would you?"
Rick withdrew slightly, and Catherine made a second - and more successful - attempt to get up. She was shaking in every limb, and that voice - her voice - was still ringing in her ears.
IT HAS YOUR SCENT NOW.
She remembered the creature… no, that wasn't true. She remembered seeing the creature; recalled quite vividly the fear and revulsion she had felt when she saw it. She just couldn't remember, exactly, what it had looked like, other than big, black and ugly.
"Are you all right, dear?" Deborah said. "You gave us quite a scare."
"Yeah, I'm inconsiderate like that," Catherine snapped. "When I pass out, I don't stop to think about people's tender nerves."
"I didn't mean it like that," Deborah said, taken aback.
Catherine knew perfectly well that she hadn't. She just felt like yelling at someone. God damn it, the Heralds had no right to pound her over the head with visions whenever they felt like it!
Hunter, she thought bitterly. Champion of the hapless human race. Sounds romantic, doesn't it? And with some people, like that moron Fred, maybe it is romantic. They can conjure flaming swords, become faster and stronger than anything human has any business being. They have superhuman abilities to use to scourge the wicked. What's not to like about that?
Me? I get magical seizures. Can't even take a walk in the woods anymore. I'm not superhuman, I'm subhuman…
But that was unfair, and she knew it. An Avenger - hah, they even shared their collective name with a group of superheroes! - wouldn't have known that anything was up with the woods until something big and malevolent pounced on his unguarded back.
"Does she usually do that?" Harold said. "Rick, you couldn't have been stupid enough to bring someone with epilepsy or something out into the wilderness, right? Right?"
"Never happened before," Rick said. He glanced at Catherine. "I think."
"She's probably gotten herself knocked up," Mel said sagely. "Pregnant chicks pass out under strain, right?"
Catherine glared. He grinned.
"They do, and I'm not," she said. She could be depressingly certain about that second part. For all that the Hunter experience were faintly Biblical in its subtexts, she doubted very much that the Heralds thought she had the making of a new Madonna - and that was really the only way it could happen, the way her love life looked at the moment. "I don't know what it is. But my professional opinion is that I should have a doctor check up on me."
Somewhere in the city. Somewhere far away from this forest and whatever it was that lived here.
She hadn't liked the forest since she got into it - heck, hadn't like any forest, ever. But now it was worse. Now she suspected the shadow of every tree, the shape of every mossy stone, to be the cloaked form of something old and sad and hungry.
And there was no defence - no way for her to protect herself or the others. This was the forest, not the city; there were no strings to pull, no deceptions to weave, no weapons to grasp. The city served her, when she understood its rules. The forest ignored her. And when the Anomaly came for her, her final scream would just be one more squeak of a captured prey…
"Yeah, but…" Rick said.
"But what?" Catherine growled. It was all she could do not to turn and run, run until the forest released her from its leafy clutches…
"But we're like half an hour from the camp site," Rick said. "We're three hours from the cars. And it's going to be dark soon. Wouldn't it be better for you to rest before we go back?"
Dark soon. To walk back all the way. Through the dark. With things out there waking up and getting ready to hunt…
Catherine wanted to scream. She was caught, caught, and every path just led her further into the Anomaly's power.
Rick and crew's traditional camp site was a nice enough clearing by a small brook. There was a ring of rocks on the ground, from old campfires, but otherwise Rick had obeyed the old adage about leaving nothing except your footprints - though he had taken a bit more than just pictures, Catherine supposed.
"You boys put up the tents," Deborah said as the party had settled down. She spoke with a kind of maternal, fussy authority that Catherine could only envy. "I'll cook up some nice tomato soup for our ailing girl here."
As the men set about their work, Deborah produced a spirit kitchen, a pot and a can of soup from her pack and went to work with producing dinner. Catherine managed to feel a touch of sarcastic amusement at the division of work. It seemed that the feministic ideals of western society stopped applying at the city borders. How appropriate.
"It's really a shame, you getting ill, dear," Deborah said as she carried a pot-full of water from the brook and put it on the heater. "I was rather hoping you'd end up enjoying yourself after all. It'd be nice to have another lady with us on these trips." She smiled cherubically. "It's hard not to feel a little outnumbered - though I do enjoy having three strapping men all to myself!" She giggled.
Catherine, who was sitting cross-legged a few steps away from Deborah's cooking endeavours, forced herself to be nice. One should not snap at people who could be dead in the morning. One should not snap at anyone at all, when oneself could be dead in the morning.
"I don't think that would have happened, no matter what," she said carefully. "You seem nice and all, don't get me wrong. I just don't think I have a lot in common with you. And wildlife gives me hives."
"Oh, it's not so bad." Deborah poured soup mixture into the water and stirred it with a wooden spoon. "I wasn't too fond of these trips to start with, either. I just went along with it because Harold was so adamant about it." She smiled fondly at her husband, who was pounding down a tent peg some twenty paces away, with his back to the women. "I think it's important for men to get back to their roots sometimes. You know? The whole noble savage thing?" She chuckled. "Take my Harold for example. He sits at a desk all day long, all week long, filling out forms and checking to make sure that other people filled out their forms right. He never gets a sense of accomplishment, do you see, dear? But once a year, he can come out here and prove himself against the wilds. It's been good for him."
"If you say so," Catherine said.
"Well… it might have something to do with that promotion he got after we'd been coming out here a couple of years," Deborah admitted. "These days, all he does is still sitting at a desk and checking that people fill out their forms, but at least now he can call people in if they haven't done it right and yell at them."
"Which is another guy thing, I suppose," Catherine said. She couldn't exactly argue against that. Certainly all her past boyfriends - well, all three of them - had been loud and opinionated, even more so than herself. "Well, what guys do to feel macho is their business, I suppose." More to have something to say than because she cared, she added, "You don't get that out of it, though? That whole return-to-your-roots thing?"
"Why, women don't need to return to our roots," she said. "We never lost them. Motherhood and nurturing is still a big part of the modern world, even if they're getting a little frayed around the edges, perhaps. No, it's men who haven't got a place in the world anymore, poor dears."
"For most parts, it was them who built the world," Catherine muttered. "They're effing welcome to it."
Deborah's ideas about what the core of womanhood was bothered her a bit. Catherine had thought about children, sometimes - certainly when things had gotten the most serious with Stefan. She just wasn't sure where, if anywhere, she fit into that maternal picture. Certainly she couldn't imagine herself fussing over someone the way her own mother did over Rick and her. It wasn't impossibly that there was some other parenting style that did suit her, by all means, but…
Oh, get real, Faller, she told herself. That question's moot, anyway. Or do you actually believe that you'll live long enough for it to matter? You're a Hunter - which is another way of saying that you're a dead woman, you just haven't stopped moving yet. It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how many freakish powers you manifest. Sooner or later, the night will come when you go out to face some critter, and never come back. Some night, the Anomaly's going to win.
Newsflash: it could be tonight.
She looked around. The forest was darkening. She felt very out of her element - very small, and exposed, and scared.
She tried to reassure herself. Five people, with five rifles. One Hunter, with psychic visions and the power to Deny. Surely that was formidable enough a force against a single creature, no matter how powerful, no matter if it was on its home field? Especially when they didn't need to kill it, just keep it away for one night?
But she couldn't quite bring herself to believe it. The trees clawed at the sky with their malformed branches, and the brook flowed by, licking greedily over slippery stones, chilly and impure. The forest itself seemed to mock her with its self-satisfied chaos, with its utter indifference to her plight.
Catherine was not a woman who was familiar with despair. The novelty of the sensation made it all the more bitter.
The journal of Doctor Catherine Faller, entry # 17 (continued):
One night not too long ago, I dreamt that I was standing on a high place - high as Mount Everest, a spire towering over all the countries of the Earth. And - because this was a dream, and dreams are freaky that way - I could see every single one of those countries clearly, like they were just a few steps away.
All over the world, the forests were burning. New land was rising out of the ocean, until the greater water expands were reduced to small lakes and narrow rivers. The deserts were blooming, not with wild flowers but with wheat and corn. The mountains were falling to dust, and cities sprawled in the flatlands that came in their place.
Rick was with me on the spire. He said: "Oh, Cathy, look what you've done."
And I said: "Yes, look what I've done."
When I woke up I was crying.
I was crying, because it had only been a dream.
THE CYCLE REPEATS.
"Go away…" Catherine mumbled, half-awake. She had spent hours tossing and turning in her sleeping bag, in her tent that she - alone among the five hunters - had all to herself. She was too scared to sleep, and too tired to stay awake. The compromise was not a pleasant one; a sort of marsh between sleep and wakefulness, when nightmares took on the urgency of reality, and harsh reality intruded upon dreams.
THE CYCLE REPEATS. The voice, her voice, slipped in through her foggy, half-dreaming thoughts like a knife through flesh. The sensation made an image form in Catherine's drowsy mind, oddly compelling; a taller, stronger and utterly merciless version of herself was standing over her, speaking in that commanding voice, and as soon as she opened her eyes she would see her superhuman self.
She squeezed her eyes shut; she didn't want to see a Catherine Faller that didn't share her weaknesses, a Catherine Faller that was cold, heartless purpose incarnate. Didn't want to see the Catherine Faller other people saw.
THE CYCLE REPEATS.
With a muffled scream, Catherine threw herself out of her sleeping bag, her knife slipping out of its hidden sheathe in her left sleeve and stabbing at the darkness. Die, you soulless bitch, die…!
But of course, she was alone in the tent. There was no super-Catherine. There was just a very un-super Catherine sitting up with a knife clutched in her hand, gasping and panting and feeling cold sweat on her forehead. Even the voice had gone silent. She could, in theory, go back to sleep.
But now she was fully awake, and she could no more turn her back on a clue to a mystery than she could… well, than she could stop being Catherine Faller. So she sheathed the knife, pulled on her boots and jacket, and stuck her head out of the tent.
The campfire Rick had lighted last night had burned down to embers, but in their faint light, she could just make out a dark, voluminous shape disappearing into the woods.
Someone answering a call of nature, her sensible side suggested.
But the voice in her head had woken her up just in time to see this person - either Harold or Deborah; it was too broad to be Mel and too short to be Rick - depart. That couldn't be a coincidence. And a fine seer she'd be, if she didn't trust her own prophesies.
She started walking in the direction the shape had disappeared. It only took her about three steps to find out that moving swiftly in a dark forest was risky, and that moving silently was impossible. Within five seconds she had made enough noise – what with breaking twigs, rustling bushes, and, of course, swearing furiously – that she was sure that the nightly deserter must have heard her. But if so, he didn't come back to see what all the commotion was about.
After a while, though, Catherine started feeling pretty stupid. She was fumbling around in the woods in the middle of the night, with only a limited idea about which way led back to camp, with no idea at all where the person she was looking for had gotten to, and with an unidentified Anomaly loose in the area.
Aw, shit. One of these days, curiosity will kill the Cat…
She fumbled for the flashlight she always wore in her inner pocket, remembered that she wasn't wearing her coat but instead a hunting jacket, and swore inventively. If she ever got her hands on uber-Catherine, she'd choke the uber-life out of her. She could at least have given her some idea what was going on, exactly. THE CYCLE REPEATS? Bah.
Oh, well. She wasn't getting anywhere with her wits. That meant that she would have to take the moron's way out, and rely on her very unreliable gifts. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, focused…
(Catherine wanders for several hours, but when dawn breaks she is forced to admit that she's irrevocably lost)
Catherine shuddered. Not much of a future. The vision hadn't shown what would happen after dawn broke, but it might very well include starving and freezing to death in the middle of the woods. Or getting eaten by an Anomaly.
She turned ninety degrees, focused…
(Catherine walks for a few minutes, then reaches the brook. Following it upstream, she eventually finds the camp again)
Catherine smiled faintly. So being a Hunter was good for something, at least. She drew an arrow on a mossy rock. There. That way, for when she wanted to go back. But for now, she still had a mystery to deal with.
Another ninety degrees. Focus.
(Catherine walks on until she hears sounds from close by; a human voice, and animal growls. She walks closer…)
The vision stopped, faded to nothing despite her best efforts to hold on to it. Her heart was beating much faster than what was comfortable, as if she'd run a mile. Had there been something more, at the end of the vision? Something she'd blacked out… or which had been blacked out for her, perhaps?
Damn it, I know zero about how this works. And every time I think I've got a decent theory together, something happens that disproves it. Hunterdom should come with an instruction manual…
She set off in the last direction. It was probably stupid, but she'd come this far, and she was much too irritable to be sensible at the moment.
And besides, it wasn't like she'd get any sleep tonight, anyway…
Soon, she heard the sounds from her vision; a human voice, gleeful and laughing, and animal growls, deep and furious. She drew her knife again – probably akin to running with scissors, carrying a knife when walking somewhere you were likely to stumble, but what the heck – and followed the sound.
There was another clearing. There was… was…
The world slowed down. Catherine struggled to move in air that felt like quicksand. The dark trees around her seemed to pulsate in the rhythm of her own heart, and all the colours were wrong again.
Harold was there. Catherine was absurdly sure it was him, though she couldn't tell how she knew; he looked nothing like he usually did. In fact, she wasn't quite sure what he looked like right now. The thing he had turned into had height, depth, breadth and a few other qualities that she could identify as normal, but otherwise, it seemed so alien that she didn't have the words to describe it. Except for one thing, that was. It carried a knife. A big one.
He was fighting against something. Something large – but still looking tiny compared to him – and black, and shapeless. When Catherine looked at it, she felt as if she had developed some twisted form of synesthesia. Instead of visual impressions, she got emotional impressions; anger, weariness, sadness, malice.
The battle… well, how could you describe a battle between two combatants with physical appearances that you couldn't even get straight in your head? All Catherine knew was that they were beating the shit out of each other, and that there was technicolour blood on the ground already.
"Stop!" she cried, and then again, with the power of the Heralds behind it, "STOP!"
The surreal scene collapsed, turned inwards on itself and was swallowed up. Catherine found herself on her knees on the moist ground, gasping for breath. Her mind was a whirlpool of impossible images. For the first time, she seriously contemplated the idea that she might have gone insane. Wasn't that the fate that lay in store for all Hunters? Insanity and death?
"Idiot!" Harold whimpered. He was lying on his belly on the ground, clawing feebly at the moss with both hands. "You've wrecked it! You've ruined everything! Do you have any idea what you've done?"
"No," Catherine said in a blank, empty voice. For the moment, her usual sarcasm seemed to have abandoned her. There just wasn't room for it in her flooded mind. "Sorry, no." The situation seemed to call for something more, so she settled for the old reliable. "I need to do more experiments, is it okay if I hand in my report on Monday…?"
The journal of Doctor Catherine Faller, entry # 17 (continued):
Why do we feel so guilty about doing damage to nature?
No, seriously. Why do we?
People whine about how nature has given us all we've got, and in return we've ravaged and polluted it. But that's just not true. Nature hasn't given us anything. Everything we got from it, we had to rip out of nature's greedy, clutching hands. The only thing nature gives freely is fruit and water. And those we have to compete over with all sorts of critters who have bigger teeth than we have.
Throughout our history, we've beaten predators, plagues, famines, draughts, floods… just about everything, in fact, that nature has ever felt like throwing at us. And we survived it, all of it. We suffered and we struggled and we despaired, but in the end we prevailed and built a civilisation where nature can't hurt us so much – though of course, we still hurt each other as much as ever, but that's another issue.
We did it. We won. We beat the bully.
How on earth did we end up feeling sorry for the bastard?
It's like something out there finally figured out that it wasn't going to win by attacking our bodies…
"So let me get this straight…" Catherine said.
She and Harold were walking back towards the camp. It was easier this time around, since Harold had brought both a flashlight and considerable familiarity with the area. This didn't stop him from fuming, though. Catherine had thought she was a good fumer, but Harold had a way of expressing his complete and utter hatred of her without saying a word.
"You come out here every year," Catherine said, "and you go to meet this Anomaly. The two of you fight, your knife against his claws. You always win. And then the next year, it all starts over again?"
"That's right. Yes." Harold scowled.
"Right, just checking." Catherine shook her head. "The obvious question is why…"
"You couldn't possible understand."
That raised Catherine's hackles. As far as she was concerned, she could understand everything that needed understanding. If there was something that went beyond her comprehension, then her working theory was that it was probably beyond the comprehension of every sensible person in the world.
Quite possibly per definition, since as far as Catherine could tell, she was the only sensible person in the world.
"And why is that, pray tell?" she said.
"You're a woman," Harold said.
"You don't say? Gee, I guess that would explain all the menstruating." She gave Harold a particularly nasty look. "The lack of male genitalia could also be a clue, but not a very conclusive one, because that's a condition you are going to share with me if you don't stop talking bullshit and answer my question right this minute! Okay?"
"I'm telling you, if you have to ask, then you wouldn't understand! I mean, it's all so easy for you. You grow up playing with dollies and stuff…"
"Never liked dollies," Catherine said. "Except the one my mom gave me for my fifth birthday. It was nice and heavy. I used it to hit Rick over the head with when he was bugging me."
"What did you use to play with?"
"My The Little Magician box. I wanted to be the next Houdini. Ironic, when you think about it." She had actual, factual magical powers now, and mostly they were just making her nervous. "And you're avoiding the question!"
"All right! The point is, I used to play with action figures. And now I spend my days shuffling papers. I need something to make me feel like I'm not some kind of non-person!"
Catherine sighed. This sounded suspiciously like a rather darker side of what Deborah had been telling her yesterday. Harold went into the woods to wrestle monsters once a year, so he could feel manly.
"So now what's going to happen?" Catherine said. "You fought the Anomaly, and for the first time, you didn't defeat it. It ended in a draw instead. What's going to come of that?"
Harold was silent.
"You have no idea?" Catherine said, taken aback. "You never tried to figure out how this thing worked?"
"Look, once a year I go to that clearing, the world goes all spooky, the monster shows up, we fight, I win, it flees," Harold said. "I stumbled on it by accident, and then I just kept coming back."
Catherine took a deep breath and bit her teeth together. She had promised Rick, hadn't she? No telling people how stupid they were. Even when that was very, very stupid indeed. Honestly, was she the only one in existence who took an interest in how things worked?
"Well, it's not like I don't have any ideas," Harold said defensively. "I think maybe it's some kind of never-ending battle. You know, like between Set and Apophis in Egyptian mythology?"
Catherine gave him a blank look. She had never felt the need to learn more about ancient superstitions.
"Okay, so you don't know," Harold said, exasperated. "Well, the short of it is, every night the warrior god Set fights Apophis, the serpent who wants to swallow the sun and plunge the world into eternal night. And every morning Set wins, and the sun rises. I think me and that monster… well, we're something like that."
"You think that if you don't come here once a year and defeat it, the sun won't rise?" Catherine said dubiously.
"Well, maybe not the sun!" Harold snapped. "But something bad would happen! I'm preventing it by standing up to that freak every year. There's probably been others before me, you just never hear of them." He nodded resolutely. "I'm the champion of mankind."
Catherine looked at Harold. Chubby little Harold, with his thinning hair and his bright orange jacket and his self-important expression. And laughed, a shrill, tittering laugh at the pure absurdity of the situation.
"What?" Harold said. "What's so damn funny, mind telling me that?"
"Maybe nothing." Catherine pulled her pendant out from under her shirt and held up the silver glyph for Harold to see. "What does this mean?"
"Mean? I don't know." Harold shook his head. "Is it supposed to mean something?"
Catherine glanced at the pendant, the lines of it translating in her mind, with the unthinking ease of a word written in normal letters, into Prophet.
He's not a Hunter. He just thinks he is.
Or maybe mankind had other guardians than Hunters? That was a new thought, and a disturbing one. Maybe for general missions, the Heralds created Hunters – people with special powers and insights, capable of communicating with each other and coordinating their activities, and generally able to fight a multitude of different battles. And maybe for very specific purposes, the Heralds made do with the likes of Harold – people capable of fighting only one exact battle, over and over again.
That wasn't the disturbing bit, of course. The disturbing bit was that if Harold did serve the Heralds as Catherine did, then she had messed up a vital operation here – and she had no idea what the consequences would be.
Mind you, she had done so after being prodded by the Heralds… but that meant nothing. Most of the time, Catherine figured the Heralds were just some sort of subconscious entities, some kind of genetic imperative – and as such, about as far from being perfect and omniscient as they could be.
"Never mind," she said and slipped the pendant back into her shirt. "So now you think we're going to find out if the Anomaly doesn't get defeated?"
"I suppose," Harold said. "Why do you keep calling it 'the Anomaly'?"
Catherine shrugged. She wasn't about to explain the real score to this moron, at least not until she had to.
"It seemed as good a name as any," she said, truthfully but incompletely.
The sun was rising when they came back to the camp site. The other three were already up, and having an animated discussion. As Catherine and Harold appeared out of the forest, it quickly ended. Rick and Deborah both got up and ran over to them, fiercely hugging Catherine and Harold, respectively.
"We were so worried!" Deborah said, at the verge of tears.
"There, there," Harold said, patting her back. His voice was a bit softer when he was talking to his wife.
"Get off me, you big baboon!" Catherine complained, pushing Rick away. "I'm fine!"
"Aw, come on, Cathy." Rick allowed her to slip out of his grasp, but he was grinning. "Your big brother has a right to be worried when you slip off in the middle of the night, doesn't he? What happened?"
"You don't want to know," Catherine said.
"Oooh, ooooh, I do want to know!" Mel hollered cheerfully. "Does it involve frenzied extramarital couplings? Because I'm very interested in that!"
"Mel!" Deborah snapped.
"Just kidding, Debs," Mel said, grinning insolently. "We all know Harry's much too boring and straight-laced to ever do anything interestingly sleazy."
"What kind of 'I don't want to know' is it?" Rick said, his expression suffering. "Is it the kind of 'I don't want to know' that I'm just not interested in, the kind that you just don't want to explain, or is it…"
"It's the bad kind of 'you don't want to know,' okay?" Catherine said.
"I knew it. I knew it would be."
"Oh, don't be a wuss," Catherine snapped and walked up to the centre of the camp. "Look, people, for the sake of this conversation, let's say there's an injured bear out there who's feeling particularly cranky. We need to break camp and get out of here, like fast."
"'For the sake of this conversation'?" Mel said, raising an eyebrow.
"For the sake of your life," Catherine said flatly, "assume that even if it isn't an injured bear per se, it's still big and nasty and wants to kill you."
"Works for me," Mel said, mellowly enough.
He went and started taking his tent down. The others quickly followed his example.
An hour later, they were standing around while Rick and Harold were fussing about at the edge of the clearing, trying to find the trail.
"This is impossible!" Rick complained. "It was here yesterday! It's been here every time we've gone here! It can't just disappear!"
"Maybe it's just been overgrown?" Deborah suggested.
"Over night?" Mel said.
Deborah shrugged unhappily. Catherine felt vaguely sorry for her. She knew what it was like to try to find reasonable explanations to all the crazy shit the universe dropped on you. And there was probably no mundane reason why, after a fairly calm and quiet night, there should not be a trail where a trail had always been.
"Hey, Rick." Unlike all the others except Catherine, Harold didn't look scared or confused. Instead he looked focused. "Do you remember that big rock that's on the left side of the path, just when you come into the campsite?"
"Yeah?" Rick said.
"And that crooked tree that's standing just about right next to it, on the other side?" Harold said.
"Oh, I remember those," Deborah said. "I've always thought it was a little like a gate, walking between those two."
"Yeah. Well…" Harold stepped aside and showed what he had been standing in front of.
It was a crooked tree growing right next to a big boulder. There was a space of perhaps two inches between them.
The journal of Doctor Catherine Faller, entry # 17 (concluded):
Heck with all this philosophy. I don't even know myself where I'm going with it.
The fact of the matter is this; the path back to our cars is gone. What's more, the very space it used to occupy is gone. It's like the world was just a picture, and now someone's cut a slice out of it and taped the two remaining pieces together.
Rick and Harold wants us to try to walk in the direction we came from and see if we run into the path again – or, at the very least, if we eventually leave the forest. We should, I suppose. Whatever this thing is, it can't just change the whole world at a whim.
So I'm going to put away the notebook and joined the others – I think they're just waiting for me by now, anyway. And then I'll see if I can get out of here, or if I have to stay and try to figure out this whole mess.
I effing hate nature. I may have mentioned that.