Evening rolled around and the men came out of their hiding when the last of the villagers ventured indoors. Fortunately the pegs had gone unnoticed in the ground so the setup of Cole's snare went quickly but with other concerns. The mists were coming out exceptionally heavy tonight, swelling out into the road and drifting from the treeline towards the village and their trap. It was thick like stew and had a strange glow as the moon grew higher overhead in full glory. This all made Cole uneasy and the Bucks miffed. They were trapped here but everything was in place.
"You know, I have a good feeling about tonight," Jane commented as he took in the setting.
"Ya sure it ain't tingles cause Reaper might come d'rough?" Marin teased, there was a noticeable twitch to Jane's leg and Cole gave a bit of a flex to his arm. That staff was permanently memorable.
Cole had bad feeling about tonight and no amount of self-assurance was staving it. He could not just call it off or retreat to the village center, else he would seem like a coward. Nor could he explain any of it because he could hardly believe himself. He felt trapped. Trapped by his own uncertainty and a stubbornness that he would not be some puppet again by powers outside of their world. He was done. It was over. He did his job. Yet his eyes were gazing out at a trap to catch something as large as a Huewon man that was anything but human.
Cole was lookout at the trap site. He watched the shifting white plumes warp the nearest trees in and out of existence. There was hardly a breeze to be felt tonight but Cole curled up tightly and pulled his layers close as the cold moisture was sinking in. His head turned slightly with each sweep of the grounds, occasionally squinting to try and bring something into focus. His ears were open and waiting for sounds. But it felt like it just might be another dead night. Cole looked to the moon, seeing it hardly shifted in the sky. It was going to be a long night.
So far tonight only one fox followed its nose to the suspended bait, spooking when it learned it was not alone and ventured into the village, likely to find a chicken. The mists were so close and thick Cole could smell them more than the fish on his hands, they reflected so much moonlight his eyes had to adjust every time he looked away into darkness and visa versa. So strange. But something stranger was just how much quieter tonight was.
His eyes scanned again for the countless time, numbering each tree he could define just to keep his mind engaged. In the 150-foot stretch he could see from his post, there was 37 trees or large shrubs to note. Some had dominant features worth noting, like the 25th tree sweeping from the left was huge, or the 7th one from right had 7 branches.
Silently he sat there, only speaking in his mind as he went along. '...22...23...24...25...26...' Something seemed odd just then but he went on. '...34...35...36...37...38...' "What?" Perhaps he miscounted in a swoon of weariness. Cole started over from the left.
'...28...29...30...31...' He blinked. 30 should have been the 7 branched tree, but he counted it one off. Going on came to 38 again, but going backwards the 7th tree was 7-branches. His eyes went wider and made himself more awake and shifted forward. Again, he started over.
"...25...26." No. He stared at the largest tree as it too stood out of order. Backtracking from there Cole started eyeing each tree or shrub he was counting along the line. For the most part, because the mists were hovering and obscuring some 12 feet up, Cole was looking through the higher portion where it was thinner for trunks– but then his eyes refocused, fell upon something standing much closer and shorter than the towering trees. So still, and so broken up in shape, he was not sure what he was looking at till it shifted ever so slightly.
Cole just kept still and had his eyes locked on. How long had it been there? When did it show up?? He tried hard to keep calm breaths and waited to see what it would do. It looked like a black blob within the shifting haze, the glow a further detriment to the details, but there was a head looking around and a nose bobbing softly through the drafts. Cole needed to wait as the rope attached to the arrow would not reach that far. Slowly it shrank again and faded into the dense mists it came from.
Holding his breath Cole waited, praying the Bucks were not about to come through and mess this up. He could just track the thing going on the move. Thup. Thup. A gurgle or chirp could be heard over the distance, then another 'thup' sound as something heavy met earth. The form could be picked out of the mists again, then the head came up, details still unintelligible with the new angle. It was getting closer towards the trap.
Cole noted that it was moving like a rabbit. Putting weight down on its front limbs before hoping the rest of its bulk forward. This explained the strange rhythm, but not what it was. He waited longer to see just how close it would get, shifting only as it shifted to ready the shot.
He could hear it breathing now, a heavy breath, an unhealthy breath with occasional sniffing and snorting. The vocals were unnerving as it seemed to chitter to itself with cooing and chirping, intermixed with deep growls or brief snarls. It was very wary of the barn with the prize hanging there, it was also reluctant to leave the mists. The thinner the mists became the more it tucked itself down into their safety.
Finally! It was at the very edge of the snare, all focus upon the smelly meal as a greater portion of the body was visible above the haze. Spines jut out against the backdrop of mist, hair hanging around, it was broad shouldered and bulky and he could catch the glint of the bare teeth inside the open jaws. It sniffed and breathed through its mouth, it made a sound like hissing and growls, sniffed more. Then looked down and Cole watched with bated breath, putting tension on the bow string before horror struck as he realized it found the edge of the snare. Very curious it seemed, and he saw a large clawed hand come up out of the mists holding up the rope to be looked at. He felt his heart drop.
Then the nose went to work again, interest in the rope was lost quickly as the scent of food beckoned this hungry beast forward. So the rope was dropped but Cole could not see how it now lay. Reaching for the trigger cord, he wound it around his drawing hand a few times till all slack was gone so to set the snare at the same time he fired the arrow. Hopefully it did not mess with the placement too much, as both the snare and line should keep it in place. It shifted closer into the circle.
He then watched as it just sat in place while reaching up with the one arm, catching the lower bits of the bait and bringing a few down into its mouth. Cole could not release the snare as the large bottomed creature just sat there, he was sure it had to have legs for those large feet to make tracks, and he needed the snare to catch one. It was here, eventually it would have to stand up to get the higher portions of the food.
Then it stopped and became alert. No. Someone was coming, that had to be the reason. Cole prepared to fire just the arrow.
It did not move however. It looked off away from Cole for a long, still while, then looked his way with a gross licking of its teeth. Cole went as still as he could, not yet having pulled on the bow any further. Watching as it seemed to be staring right at him, cocking the head slightly to take a different look. Cole was only forty feet away behind crates. It was frustrating at how he could not make out details, but the stare seemed to deflect elsewhere before the beast relaxed and returned to eating.
The smell that came off the thing was enough of a defense to keep most danger away (live alone the size,) but it seemed to have no effect on the mad sleepwalker who surprised Cole by walking right in front of him. Cole's gasp and threw of himself against the building which spooked Ferdin. Now the beast was alerted. Ferdin shrieked like the beast he was in mind and started to run from Cole, running around in panicked circles in the open, on the edges of the mists. Cole looked, the beast was watching Ferdin, poised like a rock but Cole knew that lump was danger and hurried to ready his shot before it went on the move. Cole could only hear Ferdin who was running away into the night, Jane and Marin would soon come following that sound, maybe even the whole village. Cole needed to take the shot and now before it ran.
He hit. He was not sure where upon the monster he hit, but the arrow embedded and the shriek of pain it let out was so shatteringly loud and shrill, that Cole felt thrown back, covering his head and ears from the pain that came with it. It was crippling. And Cole lost his hearing for a time.
Finding himself upon the ground, Cole uncrumpled himself to see it fighting the line and felt the earth shake as two horses came racing around. Did the snare go off? He was not sure. He had to take another shot, a normal arrow shot was all he had. No– he needed to take up the sword he had at the ready, but Cole found himself disoriented from the ringing in his head.
The line broke when it turned and fled into the mists, more shrieking added to Cole's ringing, and he watched the Bucks go right after and into the mists. Cole staggered slightly as he stood, he could hear pounding now but it may have been his own beating heart in his head. He followed the line, bringing it in to find the bloodied, barbed head still attached. Blood. This meant it indeed was made of flesh. Meaning it could be killed. He could hear voices in the distance as the village was waking with panic, he could feel the beating of hooves in the ground leaving, and Cole rushed after, sword in hand, into the mists he was so diligently warned about.
He should have just backed out. The world around him was all to familiar now in an eerie sense, but oddly easier to see in than expected. Just trunks of tall standing trees, the ways clearer than normal and he could run on ahead without a catch. But where did they go? The Bucks and monster. He listened. His ears still rang but the world was quiet. He could hear his own breathing now and the crack of stems under boot. The light reflecting through the mists really played to his benefit now, from within they were not nearly as thick as they seemed, and that woody, musty smell so pungent he could taste it. Cole raced on more, surely they could not have gotten that far out of earshot. At normal talking levels he could still make out everything the Bucks said from across a field!
He then paused and tried to catch his breath, the sword tight in his grip, and Cole started to realize where he was. How wrong this all felt and why it felt familiar. He could just stop here. He should park himself in place, right here, and wait till morning else going any further would just evoke consequence.
He could just start to hear the men's voices, and the shrieks of the monster they were chasing. Cole gripped a tree and found it was a greenwood torch, it could lead him back to Batseye. But logic and reason left his tired mind, and was replaced with nobility. Jane and Marin could not kill something that large with just their crossbows, to get close enough with a blade could get one or both of them killed. He heard the sounds and went deeper in.
As the dream started to play out before him, Cole felt his heart harden.
"It's go'n east!"
A look to the trees and Cole instinctively knew where that was. The men were chasing it still and Cole made to try and cut it off. He was going to follow through with this whether he wanted to or not. One cannot change their destiny, he learned that through much pain, and all the dreams and signs making themselves known to him were pointing to this moment. He still wrestled with logic as there should be no cliffs ahead, but sadness did start to fill him, sadness and bitterness. The beast ran this way and that, his clothes were dragging him down as the mists penetrated but he would meet this monster and one of them was going to die.
Denial would paint what Cole felt in the moments to follow as another dizzy spell coming over him, but what he felt was surreal, filled with presence and power. He pushed ahead to where he saw and heard the beast go, the way ahead was aglow by the moon and he readied sword to strike out as he saw darkness ahead. He was truly done struggling with his past, with the fact he was ill and if this was it for him, it was far more merciful than living out the course of his father's disease passed down. He denied himself so much because of it, just to spare anyone else his tragedy.
You will stop.
There was no form to the words that could be described, just powerful, and Cole felt his eyes opened before his feet were caught.
Cole tripped on something and stumbled forward, falling onto his knee and side, felt the world vanish from under him. Cole had began to tumble right off the cliff's edge. He yelped and the violent urge to live put life into his limbs, lashing out to grab something, anything, and his eyes took in the void around. He would catch hold of old roots coming from the flaky stone, or the roots grabbed him, and slammed into the vertical wall. Cole's new focus now was to not fall any further and there he clung for dear life as reality sunk in. Above him, the mists were rolling down from the ledge he came from, dissipating into the void of the clear night. He dared to glance below, Jordaré Lake shimmered with the roar of the falls but were being drowned out by the ring in his ears and beat of his racing heart.
"HELP!" he shouted as he flailed in mid-air, feet trying to find purchase and support. He hung there for what felt like forever, breathing in the fresh mountain air and looking up at the moon in the sky.
Then, with some surge of strength, Cole managed dragging himself out of death's open arms. Up over the edge he came from, to where he scrambled upon belly, elbows and knees, clinging grasses which were griped tightly in fingers to keep from falling off the earth. He crawled back into the mists with much whimpering and panic. Then in the dark Cole found himself a cradle made of hard tree roots and old leaves to curl up in, into a tight ball like a child in terror. And it was there he remained as a broken mess till the dawn's rays removed the cold misty blanket he slept with and made the world real once more.
Cole felt extremely ill. A drunkenness made from terror, cold and lack of sleep. Birds sang over the twang he still heard, the morning air was sweet, but he felt weak to his core and trembling as he tried to move. He trembled so much he dared not to even stand. Cole crawled from the safety of his earthly bed on his hands and knees, beating the ground with his fist like a mad man every inch to ensure stability, until his burning eyes could take in the world around him. It was no dream. He could hardly bring himself to look at the view, but it was no dream he had. Here was the cliffs overlooking the lake below, just as he dreamed it would be.
How? How did he get here?? This was the southern cliffs! They left Batseye! Cole felt no incline during his traveling to bring him up the mountain sides! There was no way he could have run on foot all the way here! How??
Cole yelled. Cole screamed out at the drop with its turbulent waters and piles of stone below. He beat his hand against the ground as he did so. There was no words, no nothing to describe his emotions better than to let everything from his gut rise out through his lungs. To let it all ring out into the bowl of the mountains where it would be eaten up by the roar of the falls and heard by none.
* * * * *
It would take Cole the whole of the day to make the climb back down the cliffs and to reach home. Gale had found her way back after being forgotten in the open stables, saddle and bags were still upon her. And upon seeing her owner staggering into view, Gale rushed to him. It was a sweet reunion and he clung to her for a while when strength left him. Cole would then loosen her gear for the time being but did not remove it. They were not staying.
He was done. He was completely done with this accursed forest. With the plans and games laid out for him. He had a long time to think as he journeyed back, he was exhausted, his hearing was still not right and could feel the blisters formed upon his feet. But desperation and anger fueled each of Cole's actions to follow.
To start: he went to one of the posts that made up Gale's pen, and with his shovel he forced it up through the binding ropes to reveal a hollow; this alcove was where he stored his savings. Thieves knew to rip up floorboards or look under stones, but who would search posts partly rotted by a horse's muck?
Back and forth he moved from his home to Gale, packing up what belongings he care to bring, supplies needed to survive, and what food was good for travel. But he would leave most of everything he gained. He had no need for farming tools, the furniture he crafted could rot with this shack as well as any gear he did not need, and where he was planned to go he would not need a winter coat.
He was not even going to dare say goodbye to anyone lest he would be battled with a fight to stay, and to give in to like the weakling he was. No. He would just disappear and let whoever found what remained fill in the blanks. This was it. Two years would be left behind. It was three hours before sundown now and he had the confidence to travel at night. He was all packed with what Gale could be burdened with.
What should have been the last time to pass the shelves on the east side of the shack, was the time Cole finally stopped his bitter marching and stopped moving altogether. It had been weeks now since he gave up on the trays, he had just stacked all the empties there atop the last flat of soil and gave up checking the dead seeds. He did not even know if the lime green leaves he saw were real and he stood in place staring for some time. Finally, he found courage. It was only three steps away but Cole took five and pick up the empty, dry trays on top. He put them calmly down on the gravely ground and stared at what grew.
Gingerly he fingered the frail leaves of the seedling, desperately reaching out for sunlight alongside two siblings. The frilly, heart-shaped leaflet with its curly tendrils looking for support was not just some forest plant growing from the soil he used, but the unmistakable joojo melon from his youth. He just stared at them for a long time as the world stopped. Even the ringing seemed to subside. After being dormant for over ten-years and neglected, three of the seeds were growing.
They were weak. They needed light, water and room. So he carefully picked up the tray and carried them around into the growing garden, walking threw the tufts of surviving potatoes to a bare stretch of the fence that still stood strong. He did not even think about leaving them to get a tool to break the soil, he dug their holes with his bare and cut up hands. With great care he collected up the little individual root balls and tucked them into their freshly made beds. And from the water of the canteen strapped to his belt Cole gave them a much needed drink. Then when all was done he sat there on the cool earth of the garden and watched them. He watched them for a long time.
It was silent – the world around him and his numbed mind – but in that time he came to give them names. Three tiny plants. Three important names. His uncle Tarol, his cousin Eliees, and the littlest his niece Nayn. After doing this it was like how the mists lifted each morning, and Cole realized what all he had done. He began to weep and bitterly before them as his heart broke. He could not leave now, else they would die again, and be lost to history. He was not being allowed to leave.
It was becoming evening when Cole finally up got off the ground. From the patient Gale, he removed all that was laid upon her, fed and watered her. He then reburied his money in the post. Then after putting things away where they belonged, Cole remade his bed, changed his clothes, and went to bed in safety with a roof over his head, a pillow underneath, and four walls to keep out the mists.