Fiction Friday: World of Darkness: Ghost Hunters part 2

World of Darkness

This week for Fiction Friday, we’re pleased to offer Part Two of Catherine Lundoff’s story for the upcoming World of Darkness: Ghost Hunters,A Cry in the Night”. Catherine also wrote a story for the V20 Dark Ages anthology The Cainite Conspiracies, and we are thrilled to have her back for a new supplement. Missed part one? Catch up before you read part two!

He nodded and she shoved a CD into the car’s player as they drove away from the store. The park was deserted when they got there, not a jogger or a dog walker in sight. Bethany’s stomach twisted. What if that woman at the convenience store wasn’t nuts? Her feeling of dread got worse as they found a parking lot near the bend in the river where the woods started and Al pulled in.

She looked around, hoping to see campers or boaters or anyone who looked even halfway normal. Not a soul in sight, but there was one small bright spot. “Look,” Bethany pointed at a park sign. “We have to be out of here by 1 AM anyway.”  She hated how relieved she sounded, how glad she was that someone besides her was putting a firm time limit on this whole thing.

“Well, there we are then.” Al sounded the way he always did when he was trying not to sound nervous. “Let’s get this over with.” They piled out of the car and popped the trunk. The Specter Detector with its sensors and temperature gauge and records was there in all its homemade glory, not a wire out of place from the trip in, nothing to delay them or prevent them from lugging it into the woods with them.

Bethany looked at it and chewed her lower lip. Al tapped a couple of wires like he was hoping they were loose. But no such luck. They loaded it into the backpack. She grabbed the cameras and portable charger, then handed Al a water bottle and a flashlight. He picked up the pack and swung it onto his back with a grunt. “Ready?”

“I guess.” She turned on her flashlight, grabbed her bag and walked with Al up to where the park ended and the woods began. They clambered awkwardly over the wooden fence that separated the two and found a narrow trail that wound off into the underbrush. The moon was up now and almost full so they didn’t really need their flashlights yet, but the trees looked thicker up ahead so they kept them ready.

Under the trees, the woods were utterly silent, apart from the sound of their breathing and their footsteps on the pine needles and brush. The noise from the video suddenly echoed around them, bouncing off the trees and lifting the hairs on the back of Bethany’s neck. From the corner of her eye, she could see Al shiver and rub his bare arms. It had been a warm night when they left the park, but now there was a glacial chill all around them. Bethany thought she could see her breath in front of her. The noise faded as quickly as it had started and the woods fell silent around them.

It was still cold, though. She tapped Al on the shoulder and he turned around so she could reach into the backpack. Bethany flipped on the Detector and it started with a low, high-pitched whine. Immediately, the temperature gauge went to its upper limit and the box shook. Bethany tried tweaking the settings, her fingers freezing on the metal dials. “Shit, Al. I don’t know what’s going on here.” She gasped through chattering teeth and suddenly, as if her words had banished whatever it was, the chill disappeared.

“Well…” Al volunteered after a long pause. “That was weird.”

Bethany didn’t trust herself to respond. Instead, she pulled out one of the sensors from the backup and showed Al the recorded reading. The temperature had gone all the way up to freezing, then dropped just as suddenly. “If you’ve got any ideas…” she trailed off.

“One of those temperature inversion things? Giant refrigerator in the woods with the door open?”  He looked up like he expected to see a freezer suspended over their heads.

Now that Bethany had warmed up, she was starting to tremble again. Every instinct told her that there was something nearby, something that felt old and predatory. Part of her screamed that they should run or at least hide. The hush in the woods now was so intense it was as if no night birds or animals lived anywhere in these woods.

Maybe there weren’t. Maybe that’s what the cold was: the ghosts of a hundred owls and robins and whatever else used to live here. Al took off the pack and started fiddling with settings while Bethany watched the trees around them. For a moment, she almost thought she saw a face, pale and white and glowing under the moon, peering down at them from the treetops, but it disappeared at her strangled cry.  Al jumped and looked up at the branches, then back at Bethany. They both let out nervous giggles.

The quiet that descended after they stopped was even worse than before, if that was possible. Then, just like that, the cold was back, covering them like a blanket and seeping into their skin. Al pulled Bethany close to him in an involuntary gesture and they huddled together, looking around them with fingers too frozen to work their equipment.  This time, the cold came with bursts of air, yanking Bethany’s hair loose from its ponytail and making the straps on the back snap.

Something was watching them. Bethany could feel it now and she squinted into the wind, trying to see whatever or whoever it was.  Something howled long and low and otherworldly, then switched octaves to the sound they had heard on the video. It was somewhere between a howl and a shriek and both of them clapped their hands over their ears in a futile effort to shut it out.  

The wind picked up, knocking them to their knees with an icy breath and Al tore one hand loose from his ear to flip the switches on the monitors. The camera kicked in as well, just in time to pick up the sound. He smacked his free hand over his ear again and Bethany could feel his body tremble as they huddled together.

She tried hard not to scream, tried to think of bunnies and kittens or work or whatever would help her check out of this and stay sane. Instead, her mind kept returning to the video. What had happened to those people after their camera went dark?  Bethany really, really didn’t want to find out. Al’s low groan cut across her thoughts and she swiveled sideways to look at him, hands still clamped over her ears.

He convulsed, only the whites of his eyes showing and she grabbed at his shoulders, trying to hold him still. “Al! Al! What’s the matter?” He twitched under her hands and the noise intensified for a long moment, the woods shaking with unearthly wails. Bethany screamed, covering her ears again while Al suddenly floated upward, eyes still rolled back in his head. His body went rigid and he rose to about two feet off the forest floor. Bethany stared at him open-mouthed, frozen in cold and terror.

It was only when a white fog rose from the ground and started to move him forward into the trees that she snapped back to a version of reality where she controlled her body. Jumping to her feet, she scrambled after Al, trying to catch him. The fog struck her like a hand between her shoulders, knocking her back down to the ground.  She tried rolling away, but it reached out and wrapped around her like a sleeping bag. Then it rolled up and covered her face until she couldn’t see the trees anymore.

She flailed, punching and kicking out at the cloud of white that enveloped her, trying to see where they, whoever they were, had taken Al. Rolling and flailing, she dropped down into a hollow patch in the forest floor and the fog lifted a little so that she could see out again. Not that it did her much good, but at least she could see that the mist, fog, whatever it was, filled the forest around her now.

Then she saw the dim pale shapes moving around between the trees, hovering above her, rising from the ground like mist. Once she saw them, they saw her too. With a screech, a pale, bony face with eyes that were great black pits and a mouth that opened into something endless and horrible, shot up into hers. It made a sound like laughter when she screamed and struggled, trying to break free of the fog. It swung off into the mist, then another and another creature like it appeared. She could see an ornate knife in one skeletal hand, something that might have been a gun in another.

She screamed with everything she had in her. Al was out of sight in the mist and she could barely move, but she kicked and flailed and did her best to break free. The howling slowly died away but the fog stayed on, holding her, trapping her. The skeletal figures vanished into the mist, following Al, and she screamed and cursed at them, threatening them as they faded. Her brain kept rejecting what her eyes were seeing. This wasn’t happening, it was a hallucination or some kind of setup. If she just repeated that enough times, maybe it would be true.

From deep in the woods, she thought she heard an answering scream, then from much further away, sirens. The wind spun her around, lifting her off the ground and she flailed wildly, trying to catch hold of a tree to brace herself, to stop them from dragging her away to some netherworld or worse. A wave of icy cold struck her and an instant later, something else was looking out of her eyes.

Bethany could feel herself pushed aside in her own mind by something ancient and powerful. The fog bonds that immobilized her vanished but she was trapped in her own body now. Whatever it was that rode her opened her mouth in a screaming laugh. Then she found herself standing up and running after Al and the ghostly figures that followed him. She willed her legs to stop, willed her feet to stumble, willed herself to blunder into a tree, anything to slow down, to get herself back.

None of it worked. She could see Al through the fog now, still floating above the ground. He was stationary in a clearing in the trees and the two figures she had seen earlier were drifting around him, as if waiting for something. Whatever was in her head felt like it was eager, anticipating something that was going to happen. All of a sudden, the forest turned red, as if covered with blood. It oozed down the trunks and up from the ground. The sky began to rain red, soaking the world around her.

Bethany, squashed into a corner of her own mind, could feel the thing inside her mock her, even without words or coherent thoughts. She was still fighting it when everything went red again, this time clouding her vision. The sound was back and her head was full of it and red, so much red. She had no idea where she was or where Al was or if they’d make it out of here. With what little shreds of sanity she had left, she vowed that she would never do this again, that this time she would quit, no matter what Al said.

That last bit of her awareness drowned in a sea of otherworldly cold and red and noise. She didn’t see the misty figure press a spectral dagger into her cold hand, didn’t feel it turn solid. Didn’t feel her arm go up in the air or get guided down by icy, foggy hands. Didn’t see the look in Al’s eyes when they released him, just before the blade sank in.

Bethany had nothing to say when the police found them afterwards, following up on a tip from the convenience store clerk. She was crouched next to Al in the woods, rocking back and forth on her heels, the bloody knife a few steps away. She didn’t resist being restrained or tested for alcohol, didn’t respond to any of their questions or object to getting loaded into the back of their car. It was only when the ambulance stopped nearby and the paramedics came to pick up Al’s body that she seemed to come to life. She threw herself at the door as it closed, screaming, “He’s still out there! Why are you leaving him?”

The door closed and the only sound she heard was the howl from the video. But now it sounded like laughter.

  • • •

It was a very different Bethany who appeared at the convenience store in Cobb’s Center six months later. Her brown hair was cropped short and her eyes behind her glasses were still wide from the drugs that they’d given her at the psych ward. She was thinner and up until yesterday, she’d had a tremor. But her hands had stopped shaking today. They were steady enough to help her escape, help her find the Specter Detector in Al’s garage. His roommates had packed it away, maybe keeping it as a memento.

She made some adjustments to it before shoving it into the pack. She didn’t go in to the house to ask about it or anything else. After all, they thought she’d killed Al; they’d never help her. But one of his roommates still kept a spare car key hidden under the floor mat in the back of his car. She took the car and the pack with the Detector in it. There was an old jacket in the back of the car and she put that on as she drove down the snow-covered road.

The same clerk was working that night and her eyes got wide when she saw Bethany walk in. There were more faces, more names, on the board, but Bethany didn’t waste her time looking at them. They didn’t matter; Al was still out there, though, picture or no picture. She knew it, bone deep. She couldn’t have really killed him; those things had just messed with her mind.

So she was going to rescue him tonight, whatever it took. She was done with nightmares about howling and mist, blood and terror. Here, standing in front of her, and cringing away from her, was the answer to how she was going to do it. “I know you know what’s out there. You called the cops because you knew what kind of danger we were in.”

The clerk shook her head as if her tongue was frozen. Her fingers shook a little as she played with some kind of religious medallion on the chain around her neck. They stared at each other until the clerk choked out, “You shouldn’t have come back here. You were…the only one who got away. Get out of here, go!” She raised a trembling hand and pointed toward the door.

Bethany squinted at her. “You’re coming with me. I can’t do this by myself. We have to do it tonight, before they…look for me here.” The clerk shook her head, reaching behind the counter for an alarm or a weapon, Bethany didn’t know which. She lunged across the counter and grabbed the woman’s arm. “How long are you planning on just putting up flyers, knowing what you know?”

Leaning in this close, she noticed the woman’s nametag. “Ellen. You don’t want those things to go on doing what they’re doing, do you? Gives you nightmares, too, doesn’t it?”

“You’re nuts,” Ellen’s voice trembled. “Why do you want to go back?”

“Because I know Al’s still out in those woods and I’m going to bring him back. Now, are you going to let whatever’s out there kill me this time?” The clerk closed her eyes and clenched her necklace tighter with whitening fingers. Bethany crooned, her voice turning singsong, “You believe that they’re real.” She gestured her free hand at the posters. “We didn’t. They didn’t. But you do and that’s how we’re going to save him. I can fight what’s real. You make them real, I’ll do the rest.”

Ellen drew in a long and shuddering breath, then exhaled and opened her eyes. She stared deep into Bethany’s dilated pupils, then went limp and nodded. A few minutes later, they were in the car, a sign saying “Closed for Family Emergency” on the door of the darkened convenience store behind them. Bethany murmured, “There is something out there. There is. I’m coming for you, Al” like a prayer as they drove through the quiet town toward the dark woods.