On the Devil's Left
"Sit at my right, and I may smite you; sit at my left and watch me rule the world."
"He is clever, witty, inventive and persuasive. People listen and agree with him…but it is important to remember that the Magician can as easily be clever as skillful, a trickster as well as a magician. – Most importantly, the Magician stands for the 'reveal.' The handkerchief is draped over an empty box; the Magician waves his wand, 'presto,' now there's a dove in the box."
-Thirteen, Aeclectic Tarot
A flash of silver beneath the blue.
A muscle jumped excitedly in my arm and the shaft almost flew through my fingers out of reflex. Almost. Grimly, I held on, blinking rapidly to refocus eyes that suddenly deemed now the appropriate time to sting and water.
Patience, Mooch. Don't take it just because it's there. You've all the time in the world, wait for a good one.
It was my father that taught me to shoot, and it was my father I heard now. Coaching me from beyond his early grave to offer help, as always, when I needed him most.
Don't forget the refraction.
Obediently, I lowered the arrowhead by a fraction, leveling it on the edge of the quicksilver streak I'd glimpsed a moment before.
If you'd have told me – before – that my weekend warrior hobby would save my life, I'd have laughed in your face. Then again, a lot of things have come to pass in the past few years I wouldn't have believed possible: the outbreak of a creepy ass plague, the dead coming back to walk amongst and attack the living, the end of the world….
Wrapped up in a bunch like that, a hunting permit and a compound bow as a pair of life-saving tools maybe wasn't so out there.
Another flick, accompanied this time by a splash and I almost tumbled head-first off the bank the anticipation was so much.
Those sleek, tubular shapes were gliding in and out, darting up and down. For what felt like hours, but was probably more like twenty-minutes, I'd been watching and soon, very soon, one of them would move close enough, would dare to swim far enough from the reedy haven they were playing in and it would be mine.
Just breathe and focus. You can do thi-!
The world suddenly exploded into noise and my quiet, riverside afternoon shattered like so much glass. It was the world's worst thunder, a bomb going off, and a plane crashing to earth all rolled into one at once. I almost pitched into the water again as I jerked, heart seizing, and the arrow in my hand snapped away with a twang of bowstring and embedded into the river bottom feet away. The water's surface broke into a cascade of frantic splashes and ripples (dinner beating a hasty getaway) and my pants erupted into a fit of hissing static.
Swearing out of frustration, surprise, fear or some possible combination of the three, I scrabbled to keep my perch, grabbing a fistful of dirt and grass even as my head started swiveling, eyes rolling. What was the source? Where was the danger? How did I get away?
Colors and shapes blurred together I turned my head so fast, trying to see everything at once, but I couldn't - spot – I couldn't find…there was….
No horde of undead howling for my blood, no monstrous salivating beast – just trees, water and hazy sunlight. Even the great, ungodly noise itself was beginning to recede, rumbling back on itself and leaving in its wake an uneasy silence broken only by the languid flow of water and the spitting from my pocket.
Somehow finding my feet on adrenaline shaky legs, I drew away from the water's edge, seeking some of the relative cover provided by the deeper trees. Just because I couldn't see the trouble didn't mean it couldn't see me standing out there on the open river bank.
Eyes and ears open, Mooch. Mind your feet. Be ready.
A fresh arrow was drawn from the quiver at my hip; the one lost to the river could stay there, and I sought something sturdy to put my back against. There were a lot of directions, a lot of ways some really bad thing could come barreling down on me; having one side covered, even minimally, would make me feel better. Safer.
Stepping up to a gnarled and dead looking tree I peered around the trunk, and when I was satisfied no bogey was waiting to have at me, planted my shoulder blades on the rough, scratchy bark. Flakes of gray-green lichen puffed into the air, dusting my shoulders as I twisted this way and that, but otherwise nothing moved.
There was neither scent nor sound of anything foul.
Other than, of course, the crackling coming out of my pocket. I was pretty sure, even though it was muffled by a layer of tough fabric, there were a few unhappy curses in there amidst the static. I would have smiled, but I was too busy being terrified.
The area's as secure as it's going to get. Check in. You don't want them being so distracted with fear for you that they stop paying attention to their own safety.
It took a few more deep, steadying breaths, but I did manage to heed the wisdom in the advice my fatherly head voice offered. Slipping my arm through my bow, the arrow still clamped between my fingers, I freed one hand to dig into my pocket.
The radios weren't much; small, an ugly fluorescent yellow, and useless after a range of three miles, but they, like my bow, had proved invaluable. Parties could separate, covering more ground quickly while still maintaining a line communication. It made for a less stressful trip. Even in these, the days of waking nightmares it was nice to know you were never really alone so long as you had your radio.
Right now a teeny, hollow voice was hollering my name through the channel; alternatively begging me to answer and cursing me when I didn't.
I pushed in the little button and cut off a particularly colorful expletive. "I'm here. Shaved three years off my life, but otherwise unharmed."
Static returned after the release of the button and after a beat so did the voice from the other end. "Don't friggin' do that," it said, somehow managing to sound exasperated even through this imperfect medium. "We were getting ready to set the hounds and mount a rescue party."
I did smile that time, one small ball of anxiety unraveling inside my chest. "Oh, you would have loved the chance to play my white knight, don't even try to pretend like you wouldn't."
"For a trouble-making bitch like you? Forget it. I like 'em sweeter and more inclined to swoon. I'd have come just to see if you'd gotten eyes on what happened."
I wanted to laugh, but we were down to business now and the rest of our relieved insults could wait. "Not so much as a damned eyelash. Just a helluva a clatter."
"Same here – Santa ain't got nothin' on that shit…" there was a moment of open air, then came the million dollar question. "…So what do you think? Get while the going's good? Or possibly risk life and limb to satisfy our curiosities?"
It might just have been thunder, or some other completely benign natural occurrence we had no reason to fear, and I did try for a moment to put together an argument along that vein. But I couldn't even get myself to believe it.
With a sigh, I clicked the transmit button again.
"And cats ain't got nothin' on us."
The rest of the hunting party, all two of them, were less than a mile south of my fishing spot, at a wide, slow moving bend in the river that was choked at the banks by clumps of thick reeds.
Sarah had been a member of her local girl-scout troop and had, so she said, won two different plant identification merit badges – one for naming all the poisonous plants indigenous to the area and one for being able to name and list the uses of wild growing medicinal plants and fungi. She, gasping and wide-eyed, had assured that there in the mud and muck there would be plants we could both eat and boil down to use as a low-level painkiller. Daryl, bless him, had deigned to stay with the youngster and help with the digging while I went on to search for meated game.
Meeting up with them now was a lot easier than leaving them had been. Not worried about scaring off our next meal, I was able to make better time and it wasn't long before I was coming up on the pair of them: Daryl, turning slowly where he stood, scanning, a handgun pointed loosely at the ground at his side; Sarah, pale and stiff, little hands clamped on the straps of the backpack she was wearing that held, by the looks of the dark green fronds sticking out about her head, the plants they'd managed to uproot.
I instantly felt worse about my decision to let her come along on this trip, and my subsequent choice to track down the source our frightening interruption, at the site of her chewing nervously at her lower lip.
Just because she's young doesn't mean she's without value, or courage. She wanted to come. She knew she could help.
The reminder didn't necessarily make me feel better, but it made it a little easier to find a friendly smile for her as I jogged up.
"Well, as least one us managed to do our jobs. Good job, guys."
Meryl's eyes softened a fraction. "We caught a few frogs too."
"My, we will be sitting pretty won't we, fresh salad and French food." I did my best to look excited by the prospect as I squeezed her shoulder, but was glad to turn my attention to Daryl. "Got a direction?"
He nodded. "South, I think. The bay, or close to it."
We both glanced up, simultaneously noting the position of the sun.
"Hell of a hike," I said, after doing the math. "We'll have to hustle if we wanna get down there and back to the mill by dark."
"It'll be tight, but I think-"
"I can keep up," Sarah suddenly interjected, guessing, perhaps not incorrectly, what Daryl and I would be thinking. "I promise - and wanna help…i-if I can." She lifted her pointed little chin and looked between us.
See? Stern stuff.
Daryl smiled. "Well, let's a get a move on ladies. Wouldn't want to chance those froggies goin' bad on us before we get'em home."
We smelled it long before we saw it.
Acidic, coating the insides of our mouths and the backs of our throats unpleasantly, it was a scent so primal even young Sarah knew it for what it was.
Somewhere, something was burning.
Daryl and I shifted together; making sure Sarah was squarely between us as we shared a nervous glance. Fire could be as dangerous, if not more so, than anything else we might have the misfortune of encountering. Fire wouldn't go down with a well placed shot, couldn't be outsmarted, and could, so easily, kill without even touching.
And insidiously, it was those very dangers that guaranteed now we wouldn't be able to turn and run. We would have to know where it was, whether it was contained or likely to spread, how soon its ravenous path of destruction might lead it to the mill...
The ground beneath our feet eventually turned into a gentle slope and the trees began to thin revealing, high above, a thick, dark plume curling into the sky.
The bay isn't far out, half-a-mile, a mile max. Maybe it's in the water and we'll get lucky...
A scream cut through the air, so unexpected it took me a moment's frantic head craning to realize it was actually coming from my immediate left - from Sarah.
Face slack, eyes wide she pointed a trembling hand at a tree kitty-corner to Daryl.
At first I couldn't tell what she was seeing, but once we drew closer, once we could see all the way around the trunk...
"Holy, shit!" Daryl exclaimed wildly, almost losing his balance in his haste to jump back, grabbing at Sarah in an effort to pull the girl behind him.
It was a sentiment I could agree with, and probably have echoed if I could have found the words.
Hanging in the tree, dangling by his torso from a tangle of lines and bright fabric, was a man.