"...As you chase me, I will find you..."
This was larger than Cole expected. Not just the beast but what the beast represented. Something dark was going on, something evil, and that thing was the start, Cole knew it. Cole also knew it may lead to his death if the dream was true.
How to stop it was a huge question, and how to not let anyone else get harmed was most important. There was also the question of whether he should announce to the people that the Shadow of Erithel was on the prowl. Again. No, no that would just incite a panic. That would mean he had to explain himself. No... He did it once before he could do it again, if Kailen was still on his side.
Only twice did the beast come out when the mists were nonexistent, and that was during the nine-day dry spell following the heavy mists, starting five days after its last raid. So it wasn't bound to the mists, but it preferred them. Greeny was too vast to watch out for but most common for raids, Cole wanted to bring in more people, but what surprised him was Bailey saying no when they reported all they saw the following day.
"Leave it to the rangers," he said. "It's too much for ya, an' those willin' to put out a neck are already out there doing the work." He also laughed hysterically at Jane for crossing Reaper.
"Bailey, we have weeks of information on this thing, how would we get this to the rangers?" Cole asked.
"They got smart people among them. They likely already know it all and are havin' just as much trouble cornerin' it." Cole never said exactly what he believed the thing to be, but Bailey was trying to discourage them from going any further. Because he knew what it was, Cole wasn't going to accept letting it be, and neither was Jane.
"I know he means well but I think we got this," Jane spat once they left the family farm. "For Kane! And ranger's get enough glory, I want to drag that thing in by its ass! And na! If you ain't ready to put your sword away, Cole, I say we finish this! We came a long way with your help."
"I am," Cole simply replied. Alas, Jane said they could not bring in any others, so they started formulating a plan against Bailey's advice. Westen was a great trapping point but too tight. To watch Greeny or the North Fields was too difficult, too stretched out. Hill country and the Voul's storehouses were too infrequent. So Batseye it was. Unless four days go by without, they would meet up there the next misty night and set up a trap for the beast, baiting it to draw the beast to them and exactly where they wanted it.
It felt like it had been some time since Cole last heard the cries in the night. It was the first time in two weeks he was allowed to stay home in the evening, to gain some much needed rest. But loud and clear they echoed through the night for a while. It was something to think about. Where was it hiding when the mists were not out? Why this call that lasted for as little as a minute to fifteen. He picked up his sword, put on his boots and went for a little walk while they still went on.
He was growing more confident in reading the trees, he was a long way off from knowing how to get anywhere of choice, but at the very least he would never be completely lost so long as he found a healthy tree. He wouldn't go too far from the grounds he knew anyway, just to see how the sound changed before it stopped. He would do this again the following night, going a different way to see if it got any louder and wrote down his findings. The third night after Westen was still showing to be a clear night but no cries came.
And for his dreams? They didn't seem all that important, not related. Although he did dream about Reaper again but under friendlier circumstances. What those circumstances were were lost to a typical morning haze. But he did still get the tingle down his arm when thinking about that frightful being. Jane and Marin talked like Reaper was human, and a woman, but Cole really was unsure by his in face experience. Only time would tell, but it was rangers like that that must have lead people to think they were specters. He honestly was unsure how untrue that was now.
By the fourth day Cole noticed the east side of the trees were finally damp when working, the signal that mists would come that night, and to ensure he was at his peak he excused himself early from working the Oolro farm. This let him have a chance to try navigating purely by knowing east, cutting through the forest to go straight towards his home. Then he discovered something: It wasn't east, not truly. He would need to be in the North Fields to ensure this, but the damp side of the trees all lined up with the green stripe that represented the lake. Well, that would be redundant... Or was it? It was too early to tell.
"This is not right..." Cole then muttered as he started to double check his surroundings. He over shot home because he had assumed east, he was not entirely lost, but certainly far from his intended destination. How anyone got around without a map was beyond him, right now it was invaluable as he was able to look at it and compare stripe directions to guesstimate where he was. It would seem he was north of his home and closer to the lake. Then he realized he was actually in the hunting grounds by how open it was. Looking at the map again, he saw the marks put down for the black meadow he found and a spark of curiosity put him into motion, just to see what had happened after all these weeks.
The way there was easy to find, as other people also had found it and cleared a path so to harvest all the charcoal. It was a stark change from what he saw that one day. All the ebony pillars had been cleared out to the roots, the sooty ground churned under by many heels and hooves, and all that really remained was the torched tops where people could not go. All of the open ground was now blanketed with new green shoots, grasses and flowers breaking ground as nature would soon make this a true meadow. It was still a curiosity. What caused this?
He needed to get going if he was to have any rest.
* * * * *
"Um... is this not a bit extensive?" Cole asked as he looked over what Jane and Marin had set up, keeping fifteen feet away and upwind of the pile of smoked fish they had in the back of a small cart.
"What do you mean? We know it liked that fish, so why not make it a meal it can't refuse!" Jane defended.
"Yeah, n' if I can smell it fifty yards away, heh, d'at d'ing fer sure will come a run'n!" Marin chimed.
Cole just looked at it, hand half over his face in both embarrassment and disgust. There was enough fillets to feed three families for a week and draw every predator of the forest here. Oh well, it was done, and Cole may not be able to stomach fish for a while.
"We also tossed a few small ones out there to draw it to that portion of the forest," Jane added.
"Alright, we should hide soon, so our scent goes away by the time it comes out," Cole said, and that was what they did.
They left the cart in the open turned to face the village on the southern end, right about where they had seen it that one night. Jane and Marin went out to either side, and their jobs were going to be flanking it, to force it away from the mists once out and in sight; also to kick Ferdin home if he got out. Cole was positioned directly behind of the cart, intermixed with the buildings and was given a bow to use with a special hunting arrow: the tip was much like a harpoon, made of iron and doubled barbed with a tie point for a heavy line, the line tied down so that the prey could not get away. Once embedded, the beast shouldn't be able to get away before they could gang up.
But again, it was a matter of waiting and watching the mists roll in, growing thicker as the stars drifted on with the slivered moon above. There was concern for how dark it was tonight, Cole could just see the edges of the mists, but that was about it. Cole really hoped this would work.
Occasionally Jane or Marin would check in on him, informing him that Batseye's naked beast was tucked back in for the night. Occasionally he would have to break stealth as foxes, shiertrusk and other types of scavengers would repeatedly try to raid or fuss over the treasure trove. If they had to do this again they needed to rig up something less accessible. And after what seemed like eternity the mists started to break up with the coming of the sun. Tonight was a bust and more than half the bait was left in ruin. Later on they would find that Greeny was hit instead.
The following two nights were dry but the mists were out after that– but it was too dark out as cloud cover hung like a storm, keeping them men tucked safely home. And alas, no longed for rains came to water the land. It was Tuesday, and at the end of Cole's work day it was announced that the Oolro project was finally completed.
The following day at market Cole was able to claim some of his payment with more to look forward to later on as the new fields were harvested, but this also meant he would need to find other work soon. For now though he felt set, and without commitment and the assurance he'd have enough food, he could dedicate more to the hunt. Cole spent most of his day in Batseye looking and planning, using the light of day to stage their trap for the next misty night, hopefully some days from now as tonight was the new moon.
Much to Cole's dismay, that night he was hit with yet another set of nightmares, the evil taunting him, getting ever closer and calling to him. He couldn't find any rest, each time he closed his eyes something struck him in his sleep and by morning he felt more tired than before. Something was very wrong. And then further wrong as mists came out way too early and too thick. Three days of mists would fill the forest like a fog again, trapping the poor people of the forest in their homes till Sunday. It was so thick that Cole could not get to Gale safely till the noon sun burnt down upon his clearing.
It was the first time Cole got to smell the mists directly. There was always a scent in the air that came with them, but stepping out his door into them he got a true whiff of the unique, woody scent. It was hard to describe even in his own mind: it was musty, strong of sap, of wood and something bitter; it smelled of the forest but not in a pleasant way, and after a short while he realized he felt strange, almost light headed. But that may have been one of the dizzy spells he had been having as of late. It also clung to him and his clothes, making him feel clammy and so kept inside as much as he could till they were gone.
By Sunday afternoon it was safe to travel again as the mists thinned and even their scent had changed to just that of water. He was met by Marin.
"Cole, glad ta see ya kept yer neck in!"
"I could not see the garden from my porch," Cole replied.
"Yeah, d'at was real thick shit! We don't get it up in da hills, but look'n down someth'n stood out! Another one a d'ose black meadows showed up!"
Cole's eyes went large. "What?"
"Yeah! Jane's headed d'ere now. Said ta come tell ya."
"I will gear up then."
It took a lot of effort to search out just where to go, Marin described as approximately north of them, somewhere between Batseye and Demon's Path. Cole pulled his map out to show Marin once, and not only got an impressed response but confirmed where they needed to go. Eventually they found the location, Jane and the sight of what was left behind.
It wasn't the same as when Cole found the first one. Everything was blackened yes, but because of the mists it all looked washed down, as if rained on. Much of the trees were soggy heaps or black had streaks running down the trunks of the survivors, even the ground felt like walking on mud.
"So, we could see it Friday," Jane explained. "The mist's don't reach us up in the hills but it does cause a stir and stops any and all that would be working down here. Looking out we saw it standing out like a black eye with the mists just pouring in."
"D'ey were also heaviest up in d'ese northern parts o' da forest," Marin added.
Cole wandered about the circular clearing a bit as he listened.
"Dis shit even good ta burn?" Marin asked as he investigated some of it.
"I don't even know," Jane answered. "It dries out, I think? I know some people got some of it recently to use, said it burned hot."
"Shit... d'is is some weird crap," Marin said. "Fuck'n eight foot monster, mists thicker d'an me mum's grits, now d'is... sludge."
Cole wandered towards the center of it all, looking too and fro – how different this looked compared to the first one he saw. "It did not look like this when it first happened," he said then finally looked back towards them. "When I discovered the one near the hunting grounds, it was the day before the mists rained for those three days, it was all bone dry."
"Interesting," Jane mused. "And now it's shit. But what caused this? That's one hell of a fire!"
"Bleh, if d'is looks like d'is after three days, I dun wanna know how bad da other sights look now!" Marin said.
Cole's brow furrowed at the thought. "Wait... Jane, you know everything that goes on, yes?"
"I sure fucking hope I do! This don't count though, I don't know what this shit is about, but I sure don't like it!"
"Who is in charge of harvesting all this charcoal?" Cole asked.
There was a blank look to Jane's face as he stared back for a long while. "The fuck you talking about, Cole?"
This grew serious. "You said, you knew people that were burning the charcoal collected from here, did you not?"
Jane looked to be in serious thought. "I don't think... where the fuck did they get it from..." He then looked at Marin. "You know?" But Marin just shrugged. "I don't think anyone is harvesting it per-say, Cole."
Cole went into furious thought just then, snapping fingers with gloves on while he tried to pull details together.
"I think you may be wrong," Cole said, getting the narrowed-eye glare from the man. "Just last week... Just last week I went by the one I saw, found it cleaned out."
Jane raised a brow. "Enlighten me..."
"It was... the day we tried bating for the creature to come to Batseye. I swear, it looks nothing like this now."
"Well, shit..." Marin muttered.
Jane was busy looking around at what was here. He then looked square at Cole. "Cole, I got to see that. Now."
Cole nodded and started walking towards them and back to the horses when something cracked loudly under his foot.
"The fuck was that?" Jane muttered. Cole stopped and looked down. He then sat down his heels to look at what it was. Jane and Marin walked over.
It was blackened glass that gave way to Cole's weight when he passed through the direct center of this false meadow. He first pressed at it with his hand, trying to pick up one of the large shards made before taking the knife from his side to dig at it. The Bucks hovered over him looking just as perplexed.
Cole had forgotten he saw something like this before at the previous site, but was interrupted when Bruno had shown up. He started flipping pieces over, flicking them to the side as they broke, and dug around to understand what this was about. What could have caused this much heat to melt the natural sand here?? A question all three were thinking. Then Cole stopped when he thought he found something.
"Jane, I'd not touch it," Marin warned when his friend started to reach out.
"I agree," Cole said sternly as he balanced the glass shard on edge, an odd purplish crystal, the size of a coin, remained trapped and ominous looking there.
"Well, what it is?" Jane asked pouting as he tucked his hands into his pits.
"This..." Cole started to say as he eyed it more. It looked familiar. Strangely familiar. But he could not place it. "This may not be good," he finally said.
"Fat load of help that is," Jane growled. It was true, it was not of help.
"We should not touch this," Cole said. "Is there a scrap of leather to use?"
After Marin retrieved a small pouch from one of the saddlebags, Cole carefully freed the stone and put it in for safety. What they would do with it was yet another question, but first they would rush over to the previous clearing so the Bucks could see for themselves what Cole was talking about.
"Wow... You ain't shitting," Jane said as he looked around. "Aside from those tips, I'd have not thought this was one of those burn sights."
First thing Cole did was go right for where the center was and started to toe, poke and stab at the ground in search of the glass. He found some shards mixed and crushed into the earth, but no stone.
"Cole, let me ask you this," Jane went on, still scanning the wide open space. "Was there as much charcoal remains here as we saw back there?"
"Maybe more," Cole said coming up alongside. "I want to say there was a whole tree, maybe two of us could hug it, and it was standing on its own as tall as the healthy ones."
Marin said what Jane was thinking. "Well where da fuck did it all go?!"
"Are you sure it is not possible one of the villages harvested it?" Cole asked.
"Na," Jane said while still a little bewildered. "There was talk about these meadows being found, but none of this shit's made it into trade! That I know of... Marin?"
"Na, not heard a lick. Not unless someone's put it right in ta storage, 'cause coal is important stuff 'round here!"
"All coal is important to everyone," Cole remarked.
Jane started laughing which spooked them.
"Wut's so funny, Jane?" Marin asked as he looked his friend over like something was wrong.
Jane had trouble talking at first. "For a moment there I thought you two were saying Cole was important."
"Well, it is," Marin said though feeling unsure. "Even I know ya can't work steel without it."
Jane was laughing more. "No! No no no..." He started pointing at Cole as he caught his breath. Cole suddenly rolled his eyes and his head back as it dawned on him. He did crack a smile however. "We're gonna need a new name fer ya if this goes on," Jane said through tears. "Cole's important, teeheehee... heehee- ow!" He got his ear flicked by Marin but continued on giggling for a bit.
Then Marin caught the giggles. "S'okay, d'at is funny."
"See?!" Jane exclaimed.
"Okay... have you two had enough yet?" Cole voiced after some time but seemed ignored as they chuckled on more. "We have a new problem," he then said, breaking away from the topic they were stuck on. "What is more important? This? Or the monster?"
"That..." Jane had to sniffle back some tears. "That is a good question. And I don't really know now. This is freaky shit."
"With d'at spring tribute tax, people's food rations are sacred," Marin said. "But... D'is effects da forest. We fell a lot each year, but d'is... seems a waste if ya ask me."
"Agreed," Jane said. "And this is only just starting, when will it end? We need the forest, hands down! If you ever talk to people that moved here, the forest is the only place with water for miles since the drought hit."
"Is it known how many of these black meadows exist?" Cole asked. There was no true answer to be decided on, possibly four that they each heard about. Four reported sites of forest rendered into charcoal, and only a minimal portion of it had been reported in use. That did not add up.
"Okay, okay," Jane said laughing again. "We either need to call it or YOU something else, teeheeeeee!"
Cole rolled his eyes again and ignored him. "Is it possible this is something to do with the bandits? It has been some time since I heard of any trouble by them, not counting the three that got Westen sick."
"Very fucking well could be," Jane said as he sobered up some. "Some new tactic maybe. But the ranger's have been doing well keeping them in check. Then again... how the hell is this getting past them..." Jane grumbled as he looked around more.
"Again, for us, what is more important," Cole pressed.
"Perhaps both," came the reply.
Cole shook his head. "That, maybe too much for us to do."
"Well as I see it, we don't know what this shit is about. It is possible I just ain't heard about it and come market day, a poke around Batseye might give an answer. And now that we know where the hell that new place is, any of us could just swing on by to see who the hell is working there. I mean, shit, it will take some days before anyone can touch that shit and days for a crew to clear it out like they did this place. So meanwhile, we can stick to the plan we got going. But if that saying is true, 'history repeats itself,' then we're looking at a dry spell of misty nights."
Cole was impressed with the logic in all that Jane said. "That is true. It went nearly ten days before there was mists."
"So, let's keep ready then," Jane said with a nod and looked to them both to get a confirmation. "But wait a sec! Let me ask you a question, Cole."
"I get that you want to offer help with the beast. But this... this... shit... SHIT! What the hell do we call this situation without getting all confused!"
Cole timidly held his hands up as he spoke in fact. "It is charcoal."
"Yeah, but Marin's now going to hear 'chard Cole' and think you were caught on fire!"
"I fuck'n wont, asshole!" Marin snapped. "YA started hear'n stuff, not me!"
"Oh you know it's gonna happen!"
Cole sighed and stepped back from them as the bickering started. It was not even close noon and he was at his wicks end with them.
"Alright, alright, alright. Let's just come up with a code name for this!" Jane finally offered out. "Cause when talking we really don't need people knowing what we know."
"Why is that, Jane?" Cole asked. "Why do not more people know about reading trees? Or why they cannot know we are actively trying to solve the thieving problem?"
"Seriously?" Jane asked. He was a bit off guard this time. "Cause they are all so... simple... dumb really. I mean, come on! You've been here long enough!"
"I think people are smarter than you give them credit for," Cole replied.
"NO! Really! Okay, yes, a great deal of people are tougher than average. But... people can't handle- this! THIS! All of this!" Jane said throwing his arms around. "They grew up with stories of fae, stories of people getting eaten by the scary forest, and yes, some people learned to navigate, like me and Marin. But most people can't fucking handle more than keeping to what they know. And that's fields. Roads. Houses. And fucking. Past that? They start pissing their pants! Do you even know how many people use the hunting grounds? They were setup to keep people from getting lost, but still hardly anyone goes bringing in deer anymore!"
"Okay, but why can we not teach otherwise? Break this cycle of fear they are in?" Cole started asking.
Jane eyes grew a little wild. "Oh... Ohhhh... now I see why she got all hot on my ass..."
Cole's brow furrowed. "Who? You mean Reaper?"
"Yeah... cause you're trouble..."
"I..." Cole's eyes went wide. "I am trouble? I just want to understand why nothing is done to help these people!"
"A lot is done to 'help these people!' " Jane snapped. "Problem there is a lot they DON'T want to do help themselves! Ohhh... You know what! No. I'm done! I back out!" Jane then said and put his hands in the air. "YOU just take this conversation up with Bailey, I'm not going to bother cause me and you may end up in real fight. YOU take this up with him, before someone else takes it up with you."
"Alright," Cole replied a bit unsure. "Fine. Then why not say what we are doing?"
"Oh, THAT I can answer," Jane replied. Cole watched him saunter over closer as he cleared his throat, changing his voice. "Yeh! Ya been after d'at thing? Why ain't ya caught it yet?" Cole looked at him odd and Jane stepped even closer with a different change to his posture and voice. "While ya boys been sleep'n, dat pests been nick'n ma eggs! If yer gonna get on it, d'en get on it!"
"Oh my babies!" Marin chimed in dramatically from where he was.
"Okay, okay... I get it," Cole said trying to take a step back but Jane went along with Marin's lead and switched up into a mock woman's voice.
"Our cellar! It raided our cellar! Sir! What am I too feed my children with now?? Why ain't anything been done??"
"Okay!" Cole said shrinking back and pushed Jane off as he had taken hold of him. "I understand!"
"Good!" Jane spat in his normal tone. "And even after we have its head on a spit you can bet your horse you will STILL hear shit about it."
"Then are you even going to say anything about it when it is dead?" Cole asked.
Jane suddenly groaned. "You and your fucking questions!"
"Fine!" Cole said in a stronger tone. "Fine, I am done. Just leave my name out of this."
"Fine. We will." There was a pause. "And yes, yes I sure will shout it from the roof, because goddamnit IIIII, Jane Sull, deserve a little recognition for the shit I do around here! And my name will be heard!" he shouted.
"You n' me both!" Marin said. "Who fuck'n cares if it's back-slapped with shit too! Credit due where credit due they say!"
They were becoming too much, and spooking every last animal around. "Very well, if that is settled then. Do we try for Batseye again next mists?"
"Yeah, seems best place. And no, we won't bring as many fish..." Jane said giving a tired look to Marin who acted as if he did not see or hear. "Rosy was not happy when I came home with that stench."
"Good, because I do not think the village will be happy with it again," Cole said. "Seeing as we do not want our actions known."
"Fair point," Jane said. "And this black meadow shit, you in on this too?"
"I am not too sure," Cole said. "Perhaps once it is known what is going on, but village matters are not an area I am strong in, I will have to leave the questioning for you two."
"Alright then," Jane grumbled. "I'll give ya that bone and let you know what comes of this black shit." Jane then snapped his fingers. "OH hey, there we go. Black Shit. That's what we'll call this mess."
"Black Shit?" Marin asked. They then both saw it fit and nodded proudly of their code name.
"Seriously?" Cole asked looking tired. "How about something I am willing to repeat."
"What's with you about that anyway? I think I heard all of three words come out of you Wendy MIGHT smack me for."
A bit of thought went into it before Cole answered. "As children we were taught to be pure, to live in the truth and know integrity. Though I suppose it was not much in my nature anyway to use words loosely. Still, it is something I try to uphold. Though keeping such loose tongued company does not help."
"Huh... Now I don't know whether that's an insult now," Jane remarked.
"What you said or I?" Cole asked and Jane cursed through a laugh, though still looking mixed between humored and miffed by what was said. There was then a bit more debate over what code-name to be used, and how most code-names or words differed. Eventually they settled upon "horse straw." The whole reasoning to even need a code-name was ridiculous but now they had it.
The men stood around a while longer, talking and musing over everything more, but eventually Cole found his chance to excuse himself to leave and finally get a chance to breath in silence. By the time he and Gale returned the day was half spent but they used this warm Sunday afternoon to refill his water stores.