I made it halfway back to Conroy before it occurred to me that I had no supplies. No boots, no backpack, nothing to defend myself with, not even a map to help find my way back to the old cabin. Knowing what might be waiting for me, I couldn’t go in so unprepared, so stupidly.
I turned into the first superstore I came across and went straight to the outdoor section.
Hiking boots for better footing, a waterproof jacket to keep me warm and dry, bug spray to ward off any lingering mosquitos, a knapsack for the water bottles and jerky I tossed in my cart on a whim, a tarp and a sleeping bag in case I managed to get myself lost and needed makeshift shelter, a map and compass. Everything that would make a trek through the woods bearable.
All that was left was something to defend myself with.
It had to be immediately available, something that wouldn’t draw too much attention, something I could carry. I strolled past the customer service desk, where hunting bows and shotguns were locked in secure cases, and considered a large knife that was in the glass top display before wandering slowly up and down the aisles. I found what I was looking for in the form of a red, 12 gauge flare gun.
When I pushed my cart through checkout, the cashier slid each item through with bored disinterest. He barely even glanced at what he was bagging. It was a little disappointing, really; I’d made up a whole cover story about accompanying a fictitious husband on an overnight fishing trip out at the lakes and how it was my first time and I was just being overly cautious to help ease my nerves, but I never got a chance to use it. He just told me my total, took my payment, and moved on to the next customer.
How nice would it have been to really have a husband and fishing trip to look forward to.
The flare gun had an instruction manual with it and I studied it once I was back in the car, careful to load it exactly as shown. With the six flares in place, I took a moment to load up the backpack and switch out my sneakers for the boots before I was off again.
The closer I got to the mountain, the faster my heart started to beat. Countless nightmares that I’d had over the years of this place and the things that lived upon it rushed forward at once and again I saw my father’s face, so twisted in fear in his final moments, and I saw that thing, that Woken Daughter’s, pale, milky eyes staring at me as she dragged him away. I was a child again, terrified, lost, alone, and by the time I pulled over at the foot of White Crow Mountain, I was shaking.
Twenty years had passed since I last visited that place and I was amazed by how little had actually changed. There was the same sun bleached sign ahead pointing me towards the dirt roadway that would take me up to the cabin, the same wooden fence, albeit more weathered and beaten, curving alongside it to keep people from going off trail, the same looming trees, except now they seemed ominous instead of whimsical and welcoming.
I was different, though, I reminded myself sternly. I was not that same terrified little girl. I had a better idea of what I was up against now, the Daughter’s element of surprise had been lost, and I was going to burn down the entire fucking mountain if it meant killing her.
When I glanced in my side mirror to check if it was safe to get back on the road, I was greeted by a tiny, indistinct shape, sometimes rodent like, sometimes not, sitting in the reflection. It seemed relaxed, unconcerned with being spotted, and stayed put in the middle of the pavement. A quick look over my shoulder revealed an empty road, but, when I looked back, the shapeless was still in the mirror.
That was what Marcus called them; shapeless, beings that lived in ideas of reality, like reflections. He’d said they were harmless, but seeing two in one day seemed a dark omen to me. I didn’t want to see the cracks in reality or be open to anything Gorrorum had to offer. I just had to hope that whatever answers I found would include a way to shut the door his nasty little Fingers had opened.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the shapeless shift between colors and features, never solidly one thing or another, never quite realized. I wished that I could run it over,
With the steering wheel squeezed in both hands, I stomped on the gas and sent my rental lurching up the mountainside. There were places where the roadway branched, parts that had been closed off either by design or by nature’s will, and I had to retrace my route a few times before I felt certain that I was heading towards the old cabin. It had been sold out of the family long before, too painful a reminder, and so I didn’t know what to expect when I finally found it.
Like everything else, though, it seemed unchanged except by time.
It was immediately clear that it had been uninhabited for many years. Moss stretched up one side, the front window was broken, and the door half-hung off its hinges. The inside was dark. Using my phone as a flashlight, I stepped tentatively forward and nudged it open to look within. Whoever bought it had cleared the place out, probably with plans to redecorate, but for whatever reason, it had never happened. Maybe they’d had a brush with a spider armed lady before they’d had a chance.
Before the nostalgia and pain became too much, I shut the door again as best I could and turned back towards the woods. White Crow was huge, the Daughters could have been anywhere, and it was already turning towards the late afternoon. If I wanted to find one of them, I’d have to get started. I steeled myself with a deep breath, grabbed my backpack and gear from the car, and set off along the same trail that my dad and I had taken the last time I’d been up there. I made sure to make a lot of noise, singing and stomping on twigs, anything I could do so that my passing couldn’t go unnoticed.
As the first hour passed, so, too, did my “enthusiasm” for the task at hand. The last mosquitos of the season attacked viciously even after I’d used the bug spray, the boots turned out to be cheaply made and uncomfortable, and I quickly discovered that using a map wasn’t quite as simple as picking it up and knowing how to read it. The mountain stretched endlessly on all sides, dark woods hiding darker secrets, and, despite my conscious attempts to walk in a straight line so I could get back to my car easily, I was pretty sure I’d veered at some point.
Still, I trudged on, shouting now for the damned Daughters to show themselves. I didn’t know if they spoke English or any other language and I was sure if anyone else heard me, they’d think I was a bit unhinged, but so be it. I’d made it this far, I was going to make it count.
The bend in the path took on a familiar quality, I must have found my way back to the original trail again, and a flurry of flashbacks mingled with the present. I remembered running along that very curve, I remembered my dad yelling for me to wait for him. I remembered rounding it completely to find that arm lying just off the path, buried up beyond the elbow in brush. I almost expected it to be there now, waiting for me then just as it had been before.
There was no Daughter lurking there that day, though, just more empty woodland.
I stared down at the ground where I thought the arm would have been, near the base of that tree with its gnarled trunk and protruding roots. The monster had popped up as if from beneath a hatch door. A hatch door that would still be there even if the Daughter wasn’t.
My nails dug into the ground, through dirt and leaves and debris, and I felt around. When it wasn’t immediately detectable, I shrugged out of my backpack, tossed my jacket aside, and crawled on my hands and knees, searching, searching, searching. This was the spot! I knew it was! Why, then, couldn’t I find any trace of a trap door? I went round and round, covering and re-covering the same ground and then expanding outward, until I was too far passed where my dad had disappeared.
No matter how much I looked, there simply just wasn’t any kind of opening in the ground.
A defeated howl escaped me and I shoved myself back to my feet. Dirt and sweat streaked in tandem down my arms and face and, when I tried to wipe it away, it just smeared into mud. I slung my things back over my shoulder and returned to the trail. It was getting too late to press onward, but I swore I’d be back the next day and the next and the next, until I could get my hands on one of those Daughters. It was a haphazard, barely formed plan that might have very well killed me, but I was determined to see it through. Knowing that Gorrorum was watching just made me more so.
I wasn’t going to go crazy or convert, screw what Charlie had said; I was going to try and get some kind of revenge.
I picked my way back down my trail, my eyes narrowed and my hands balled into fists around the straps of my bag. Up ahead, with only about a quarter mile left before I got back to my car, a sliver of pale white stood out against the wood floor just beside the path.
A Daughter had come calling after all.
I froze, my heart thrusting against my ribs, and all I could do for a time was stand there, reliving the last encounter I’d had with one; the way it had erupted from the ground, its reaching, grasping arms, elongated and spider like, my father’s screams.
Slowly, so slowly, I crouched and lowered my backpack to the ground. The flare gun I’d bought was lying on the folded up tarp. I kept my eyes locked on the arm ahead while I pulled it out and cocked its hammer. If the Daughter heard the sound, it either didn’t recognize it or it didn’t care, because it remained still, right up until I took aim and fired a flare at its exposed appendage.
The flare glowed a brilliant red as it soared through the air. It landed with a dull thud on the ground just passed the arm, where it sizzled and caused the brush, too damp to actually catch, beneath it to smoke.
It was still smoldering when the Daughter hurled itself upwards, out of its hole.
It was exactly as I remembered, thin and ghostly pale with the naked torso and head of a woman and a dozen spidery arms. It paused, hunched down on those too-long appendages, and its white eyes found me. It snapped its teeth, jagged and pointy, together and made a sound like a rumbling hiss. It had expected closer prey, I imagined.
I didn’t have time to think much else. It sprang towards me, two pairs of arms outstretched, and I stumbled back with a cry born of both fear and rage. I raised the flare gun again and fired twice more. One flare struck its chest, but bounced away, leaving a noticeable and nasty welt upon its flesh. The other tangled in its wild, dark hair like a fiery flower. It shrieked, whether from hurt or irritation that I wasn’t proving easy prey, I didn’t know, but it continued to rush towards me anyway.
I screamed and pulled the trigger again. That one ricocheted off one of its arms as it launched itself in a pounce. We went down hard, it on top, gnashing its teeth and wrapping me in a crushing embrace, me trying to get the gun up again. She smelled faintly of decay and of earth and of burning.
Smoke was starting to billow from the Daughter’s hair where the flare had made its nest.
It was getting harder to breathe; the monster was wrapping me so tightly in her grasp that color bursts edged my vision. My grip on the flare gun was becoming looser even as a voice in my head shouting at me to hold on to it. I could feel my kicks growing weaker, the world growing darker, all except for that one bright spot atop the Daughter’s head.
All at once, I was lying on the ground in a heap, sputtering and sucking in air in painful gulps. The Daughter was writhing and beating at its head with multiple hands, yowling and screaming and hissing. It staggered back, glaring at me accusingly, and felt out its hatch door. The burning glow of the flare was the last thing I saw as it ducked back into its hole.
Still coughing, I groped for the gun with its two remaining rounds and swayed unsteadily after it. This time, I found the opening to its lair and, with some difficulty, I forced it open. It led down into a long, long tunnel, painstakingly carved out and angled downward, deeper into the mountain. Ahead, I could just make out the spider armed woman skittering away.
“Bitch,” was all I could manage to say, and I lifted the flare gun and fired after her again.
It sailed down the tunnel and came to land far behind the monster.
Despite only having one flare left, I was ready to follow that thing down into the heart of White Crow. My phone ringing from my pocket, such a jarringly normal sound, stopped me and helped return me to my senses. Following it now would only get me killed; I had to come up with something less reckless before I went after it again.
I stepped back and let the hatch fall shut so I could answer the call.
“Did you talk to my mom?” A woman bordering on hysterical demanded.
“What? Who is this?”
“Janice Greer. Did you talk to my mom, Faith?”
“No, only you, why? What’s happened?”
A shuddering groan filled the phone and I had to pull it away from my ear until she had calmed enough to speak again. “I came home from work last night and…and I found my fiancé. Someone killed him, they stabbed him in his sleep! Oh god,” she burst into loud sobs. “My mom and son are gone! The cops think Mom did it!”
“Why?” It felt like a sick game of 20 questions.
Was this my fault? Had her mom found out she’d spoken to me? Was this her way of punishing Janice?
“T-they found a confirmation for tickets in her email for a flight to Florida. Why would she go there? We don’t know anyone in Florida! I know she didn’t really like Shane, but she wouldn’t kill him! She wouldn’t take my son!”
I was walking back to my car, careful to keep a wary eye on the ground behind me. “I think I can find out. Hang tight, I’ll call you back.”
I hung up before she could respond and scrolled down to the number that had called me earlier that day. Marcus picked up on the second ring.
“Hello again, Faith! What a nice surprise.”
“Do you know Josie Greer?” I cut straight to the point.
Marcus, who seemed to enjoy small talk, clicked his tongue in reproach, but answered. “Matron Greer, of course. She’s been a beloved member of our community since she was a child.”
I paused halfway through putting my seatbelt on. “You’re saying…she’s part of The Gathered?”
“Yes, for almost all her life, ever since Sister Pratt brought her to The Father’s side.”
A swirl of questions rose like a tornado in my head, but I forced them aside. “Do you know why she’d go to Florida?”
“Oh, well, hmm,” Marcus mulled noisily over the question, “I suppose she could be going to Passit, but that doesn’t make much sense. That sect fell from favor after the business in the 70s; it’s against the Father’s will to associate with them.”
“Why would she go there with her grandson?”
“I’m sorry, Faith, but we don’t discuss the fallen.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from shouting at him. A child was missing, it might have been because of me, I didn’t care about his beliefs! I bottled up my anger as best I could and just said, “The place in Florida is called Passit?”
“Yes, but —”
I ended the call and stared out of the car at the cabin. I’d come back for answers, for vengeance, and I could still have that, I would still have that.
But only after I helped Janice get her son back. Only after we figured out what was worth killing and kidnapping for in Passit, Florida.