FHoJ: Chapter 23 - Reaper

Cole was quite glad that  there was no mists tonight, partly for the break, but also so he could  dare check the trees on the north side of the forest.

After last night and  their clash, Cole was unsure of where, and if, he was to find Jane and  Marin up here in the fields. Cole also found it hard to watch the sunset  over the western tree line, it made him tense, edgy, unsettled as he  pushed Gale to keep in motion. They picked up a sort of patrol where the  farming land met the forest, starting from his preferred east path and  now coming upon the exit of the north path that let out near the  Martins' farm, further along was the Farrens'. This stretch Gale knew  well, trying to pull towards the farm and into their normal routine.

"Na ah, Gale, not tonight."

Soon after he heard his name called out by Marin and the two men he was waiting for came galloping along.

"Hey, Cole. Sorry we're run'n late, family stuffs," Marin said.

"That is fine." Cole  then looked to Jane, who just gave a nod before looking off elsewhere.  "Jane, did you hear about Kane?" The question drew the man's attention  back.

"I fucking did, and we just came from there," he replied. "That thing is fucking dead."

"How bad off is he?" Cole asked. "I spoke to Shelly today but only Rhymn was with her."

"He's getting around, but his black eye is still shut and he's torn up quite a bit."

"Kid's all emotional  too," Marin added. "Dun know what happened, feels bad d'at whatever it  was got away with weeks worth of food."

"Kane is a good kid, I  am glad it did not make off with him," Cole said, something everyone  could agree with. "I am glad you got to go visit."

"Thanks," Jane replied but it would seem he was distracted tonight, so Cold turned his attention to Marin.

"I was not sure you two would come tonight."

"Na, we said we would, n' ya been faithful ta yer word," Marin replied.

"Thank you. I have been  thinking, perhaps because the North Fields have been hit recently, we  should focus elsewhere, seeing as its habits show it does not return to  the same places for some time."

"About that," Jane interjected, he had a serious look to his face.

"Is something wrong, Jane?" Cole asked.

"Sure is." Jane looked  as if having trouble with going about what was on his mind, it wasn't  his strength to be rational, nor his nature so it made this time of him  not yelling and swearing a bit unnerving. "Thinking it's best you stop  this hunt with us. And it ain't got to do with the shit you said last  night." Cole could hear Jane mutter under his breath something about  being right.

"Then what is the problem?" Cole asked, he was looking to both the Bucks.

"I realized exactly why I  didn't want you to ride with us in the first place." Cole's look was  asking for more. "Because if we lost you."

"Because if you lost me," Cole repeated. "You are saying you do not want the responsibility."

"Eh- close," Jane said.  "More that..." Jane then sighed. "I realized that it was stupid to take  you out during the mists when you can't even find your way out of the  forest in daylight. I got no business teaching you anything more about  mists because that, THAT, would be on my head if you did something  stupid. And YES I got a fucking conscience, thank-you-very-much!"

Cole looked away from him as he thought about it all and what this meant.

"Yeah, Cole, yer good  people," Marin added. "N' dun deserve what's out d'ere cause of a couple  of dumb asses got ahead of um-selves. Yer help has really been, well,  helpful, but tiz true d'at we dun want ta see someth'n bad happen."

"And your help is  appreciated," Jane added. "You've heard me say it before, there ain't  many around here with the balls to do something. And you also worked a  full day."

"Shit, I don't do that!" Marin added looking at Jane.

Jane started laughing.  "Fucking farm hand shit. Nope, none of that again!" They then sobered  back up as they looked at Cole again with clearing of throats. "So, if  there ain't no hard feelings, we'll take you back home one last time and  let you get a decent night's sleep again." They then waited but looked  ready to leave.

He looked to them. There was a lot Cole was hearing come from this, the loudest one was freedom from these two.

"Jane, I think I get it," Cole said. They both looked confused.

"Um... well good. So, no hard feelings..?" Jane asked.

"No, about finding where  I am. I think I get it." It was obvious the men were not understanding.  "About north. How to know which way to go... You were right."

Jane started to puff up.  "Ya hear that? I was right, hah!" But there was certainly some concern  that were not being expressed. "So, alright... Westen then. Take us."

No better time to test this at night than with the two clowns to oversee.

Taking up the challenge,  Cole picked a location along the treeline that was easy enough to enter  and into the shadows they went. Jane and Marin hung back so to talk and  observe what all Cole was doing with skepticism, Cole ignored them and  kept focused. He was going the wrong way from the start, he was sure of  it, but he wasn't using his map and needed to find one of the trees.

Cole reached out to the  first one found, brushed it a few times around: Black, white, wide  green, then blue showed itself; Demon's Path, Batseye, the lake, and  finally Westen. Then, after a look around to mentally picture where he  was, the Bucks were surprised to see him take the right way. Of course  they said nothing to him about it.

"I d'ink he's actually get'n it..." Marin commented.

"What is this shit..." Jane grumbled with eyes narrowed.

But with each tree he paused at to check they were becoming convinced.

"Ehy, Cole," Jane called out. "Ya sure about this?"

"Why? Are we going in the wrong direction?" Cole asked back.

"Not if you want Batseye."

Cole furrowed his brow  with concern and looked back at the current tree. "Is Batseye not that  way?" he said pointing in a clear direction east.

Jane followed his point,  looking about more, then gave a shrug. Without anything else said Cole  checked once more and continued on towards Westen – he already confirmed  white was Batseye, time confirm where blue went. They eventually hit  the north side of the wall that surrounded the village.

"Well you fucking did it," Jane said, actually impressed. "You actually got it."

Cole's posture in the saddle grew a bit stronger, he actually felt a bit proud of this accomplishment.

"Does this mean will you  have me ride with you more? Until we resolve this creature business,"  he then asked. Seemed there was one less reason to say no now, and the  Bucks seemed happy for it.

The second thing Cole heard come out of Jane's speech was that there was  more to be learned about the mists. And now that he had this under his  belt he was that much more equipped and half as helpless if things went  awry. Little did any of the men know that all the while they were being  watched.

"So, what's da plan now?" Marin said after a bit.

"Guess we're stalking Westen," Jane said with a sigh. How he was looking forward to another few nights of waiting around.

"This should be easier," Cole said. "Seeing as there is only two ways in."

"Yeah true. N' how da  hell did anyth'n get in anyway?" Marin asked as they started walking  their horses around the perimeter for a while. It was a good question  seeing as there was gates put in place from the inside each evening, it  would take the three of them to hoist up an end from outside to get it  open enough to take their horses through. But for tonight without mists  they would just grow accustomed to the outside as they patrolled  together.

Eventually Cole would speak up. "Jane, if things are good between us, will you tell about what happened last night?"

Jane glanced over his shoulder a bit unsure. "What was it ya wanted to know?"

"You said something about being rejected."

"Eh, it happens," came the reply.

"That answers nothing," Cole said after nothing more was said.

"Yeah, yeah..." Jane  sighed. "Just the mists have a mind of their own, you could say.  Sometimes you get lost in them, sometimes they don't let ya. Especially  if you don't got... Eh... I don't know. Whatever the damn stuff wants."

"You are saying, it chooses?" Cole asked.

Jane gave an indecisive nod to his head. "Eh, I suppose that's one way to put it."

"So... you are saying,  the mist is alive?" Cole then asked. All he could get back was a shrug  with hands in the air. No one knew. "And how did you get behind us so  quickly?"

Jane held his hands in the air further. "Again, damn mists rejected me."

Then the serious question was needed to be asked. "Have you been in the mists before?"

There was a lack of  response, but Marin started to look at Jane. "Yeah, Jane," he said  smacking his friend. "Tell us, see'n as ya like charg'n in ta da stuff."

Jane looked angry  as-per-usual, biting his lip, holding back swearing. "Yeah, I have!" he  confessed. "But not the real thick stuff, you can't shit after a point."

Intrigued Cole tried to  get a little closer, he needed to take notes of all of this. "You  realize, that goes against everything I have hard."

"Is that such a surprise, Cole?" Jane said over his shoulder.

"And you came out just fine?" Cole asked.

"Million questions all of a sudden..." Jane muttered.

"That's da debatable  part," Marin threw in with a cheeky grin. He actually got shoved by Jane  that time and nearly fell over. The horses were not too happy.

"Jackass here is guilty too," Jane growled. They then started to bicker about the whole thing.

"How many times?" Cole asked to break them up. They then paused as they looked at each other.

"Dun know what ta tell ya, Cole. Only as needed."

He shifted his eyes back  and forth from them. "I have heard many different tales of what people  see," Cole said to break them up. "If you have been in the mists... What  should I expect?" Cole then realized Jane's expression was spooked by  something past him so he followed the gaze back over his shoulder.

"Cole, you won't expect anything because you won't be going in," Jane said in a serious tone.

Cole himself spooked  when his eyes finally made out the shape of the ranger people called  'Reaper' standing off silently in the trees and watching them.

"Your job in all of this won't involve going in, but to help watch from the outside."

Cole kept watching the ranger more, they urged their horse to keep a very slow pace and in step with them around the paddock.

Reaper. The most  intimidating of the known rangers, wearing the heaviest and darkest gear  it would seem, they and their large horse. The pair looked ready for  war with it was studded and layered hide, the horse had armor down the  thick legs, chest and head, rider with a heavy shield on back; it was  hard to tell what weapons they had stashed on their person. What else  Cole knew of this ranger was they had a shroud over their face beneath  the hood to mask any features. He was also convinced Reaper was the same  ranger that told him how to find the villages two years ago. Little  changed.

Cole then looked back at the Bucks with demand. "What is out there? Out in the mists?"

Jane started to shake his head, his eyes kept going back to Reaper.

"Monsters," he finally said. "And that," he added gesturing towards the ranger.

There was then a ring in  the air that Cole heard, the glint of a sword told that Reaper had  drawn one and now had their sights upon the men. Thoroughly spooked now  they were quick to go and leave Westen with speed. Each time Cole looked  back he would catch only flashes of the figure to show they were still  giving chase.

"Why are they after us??" Cole called out. "I thought rangers helped people like us!"

"Too many goddamn questions!" Jane barked back.

They didn't lose the  ranger until Reaper chose to show them self upon the actual road, versus  keeping hidden within the trees, and visibly stop their chase of the  men after a short while. But they kept on going until they reached  Batseye, there the horses were finally allowed rest.

"Too many goddamn  questions!" Jane repeated out of nowhere and Cole found himself grabbed  by the collar. "I don't know what your aim is, but now you're just  getting people in trouble!" Cole gave Jane enough time before forcing  himself free.

"Do not get angry at me for information I do not know," Cole defended with.

"There is a reason why people do not talk about this shit!"

Cole stood plain with his hands out to his sides and just looked at him.

"You trying to say you don't know what I'm talking about?" Jane asked.

"You are correct about  one thing, Jane, and that is that no one talks about any of this," Cole  said gesturing to the whole of the forest. "I came here a strange, and  this unspoken rule has never been passed on to me. I have heard warnings  but seen contradictions. Is it wrong to ask why?"

Jane looked hard for an answer. He then pointed back to the way they came. "Reaper sure thinks so."

"Let me ask you, what is the rangers job?" Cole asked. "What is their goal?"

Jane and Marin shared looks. "Why do you think we know the answer to that?" Jane asked back.

"It is to protect, is it not?" Cole then said going into logic. "If so, what is Reaper protecting?"

Again the men could not give an answer, who were they to know what it was the rangers did?

There then was a sudden shuffle from the forest nearby and they all shut up to see what was coming.

It was a shiertrusk that  came darting out of the shrubs, growling and springing away on its  short legs. It was a bit of a relief until they realized it was looking  back, towards sound coming after.

Then came Ferdin,  growling and following after the animal in a hunting fashion. An even  more welcomed sight and the men sighed. That was until Ferdin started  yipping out with fear when the ranger came out of the forest like a  spirit from water. It was time for the men to get back on their  reluctant horses.

Reaper started making  harsh sounds through their teeth and used their horse to herd the  delirious man back away from the forest, the giant horse moving in an  aggressive manner not unlike that of a sheep dog. Then as he ran to hide  between buildings there was a harsh whistle and to Marin's horror the  ranger pointed to him.

With a snap of their  fingers Reaper then pointed after Ferdin. "Uhghhhh... nooo... please  no..." The silent order came again like a the crack of a whip and Marin  had little choice but to run after the naked man to take him home.

Then to Jane's horror he  was next. But he was pointed towards the forest. "Oh fuck no..." he  whimpered. He decided to run for it.

Things grew way worse as  Cole saw a weapon come out like nothing he had ever seen before. At  first it looked like a rod, but as the ranger threw their arm out the  action made it extend into a dazzling staff of energy. It snapped and  crackled as ribbons of light danced over it like lightning. Even the  initial sound it made was like a lightning strike and their horses  reacted. Reaper then started after Jane.

"Wait! Wait! Wait!" Cole  yelled and jumped into the way, their horse barely curved to keep from  stamping him out when Reaper pulled back on the reins. Cole did jump  back a little as the horse reared and flailed out,, coming back down  even closer and forcing him to back away more as its teeth were bare.  What did he do? Reaper was looking down at him and up close this ranger  seemed larger than life with this strange weapon so close. "P-please...  th-this is my- my doing..." Was he actually stuttering? There seemed to  be a pause, a waiting for him to explain himself, and a sharp whistle  given out that put the hot-blooded horse to be still.

"I get it," Cole said,  he was still poised with his hands out defensively and occasionally his  eyes would look at the active staff. It hummed, and crackled like  static. "I get that- that you are trying to protect the people. That...  Mr. Deere. And Mr. Rindge, that things happened to them, and others.  L-leave them, this is my doing. And- and..." Reaper leaned close from  the saddle and Cole's eyes kept going to the end of the staff.

"Stay out of it."  It wasn't a voice or even a whisper that came from within the blackness  of the hood, but a deep, raspy hiss that caught him by surprise. The  chill was quickly replaced by the electrical sensation Cole felt as he  lost control of his arm when Reaper poked him with the staff.

Involuntarily Cole  leaped away, smart seeing as moments later the horse was spurred into  hot action and tore off with a thunderous sound. They vanished into the  night in search of Jane.

Marin came rushing back from hiding to help him. "Cole! Ya hurt?? Get yer arm in da dirt!"

Cole's left arm was  shaking and numb for some seconds, twitching occasionally as he remained  sitting on the ground just where he landed. He had to reach out with  his other hand to take a hold of Marin, to stop him for the time being  as the man tried to help him up. "Wait..."

"Cole? Cole what's wrong?"

"Just wait..." It was another dizzy spell, this one really took a hold of him.

In the distance he heard a sound and Cole lifted his head. "Jane?"

"Eh, Reaper went after him. But... dun worry, I doubt she'll hurt him. ...much..."

"I just heard him scream..." Cole said, his head lifting and looking around at his surroundings.

"Oh... well..."

"What have I done?" Cole asked a bit dazed. "His family..."

"Jane ain't dead," Marin assured and hoisted Cole to his feet. "He's just... I guess get'n what he deserves... I guess?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. Mostly."

"But what did Jane do?"

"That- is a good  question..." Marin chewed on his cheek. "I ain't real sure..." He then  looked back towards the village. "But we should get go'n. How well can  ya really get around?"

"What do you mean?" Cole asked, still a bit dazed as Marin started leading him back to their horses.

"I'll just take ya home."