Batya TOLD you the bad forest was bad! She was VERY CLEAR about that!
Previously: We briefly hit the brakes on the relentless plot to introduce the port city of Fort Hook, where all this takes place. Strikes me as a very sketchy and dangerous locale, albeit with nice ocean views and a thriving fishing industry.
Mina drags Batya away from the hazy lights of the dockside storefronts and toward the bad forest that runs along the southern edge of the bay. (The good forest is to the north. Plenty of timid woodland creatures and unscary places to camp.)
All too soon Bat feels cones and needles crunching under her feet. Towering craggy trees on all sides. A horrifyingly crisp piney freshness. These woods are the goddamn opposite of a nice safe corner.
“I know before I said don’t hold my hand, but you can hold it now if it makes you feel better.”
“Thanks,” Mina says. “I won’t let go.”
The reassuring ruckus of pie-eyed fistfights vanishes behind them. The sound of their breathing echoes weirdly through the air and Bat immediately feels disoriented and sick.
“We’ve been in here one second,” Mina says. “Just follow the trail.”
Bat can barely see her sister, for sure can’t see any trail. Nothing but moonless black in this wretched hellhole. She keeps stumbling over roots. She didn’t pack for this. She packed for the hotel job that now feels like a million years ago, a totally different loadout that did not include a flashlight or walking shoes or a warm hat or some kind of under-the-counter lozenge to blot out her anxiety.
A foghorn moans and she grips her sister’s hand tighter. She focuses on their arrhythmic footsteps, trying not to think about the stories:
And then a great roar rose up from the sea, and then a tidal wave burst through the woods. Most of the men died by having their heads crushed against tree trunks, and the rest drowned.
She clocks her shoulder against one of those trunks and is about to say dick ass tree when she hears a voice off in the distance, somewhere ahead of them, maybe a hundred feet but who can tell. It’s got a panicky tone. Repeating something over and over. Shrill and jagged.
Bat’s not real enthused about this. She stops, pulls her sister close. Dead quiet, can’t even hear the ocean anymore. And then the voice cries out again, closer now, close enough to make out what it’s saying:
“Where are you?”
Suddenly very sweaty in her pits and behind her knees. She thinks she recognizes the voice.
“Where are you!”
Yeah, very familiar, tip of her tongue—
“Batya! Where are you!”
Bat’s guts clench. It’s Mina. Calling out for her. Definitely somewhere far off and definitely not holding her hand right now.
With a howl, she thrashes away from the thing beside her but it’s got a good solid grip and yanks her back. In the gloom she can kind of see the thing’s hand in hers, a tangle of thorny bones, crackling like campfire, digging into her skin. Then it lifts her up, way up, her feet dangling in midair, and she gets a glimpse of what’s got her. It looks like a skinned stag carcass that’s somehow standing on its hind legs, impossibly tall and gaunt, veinlike antlers protruding from its eye sockets.
Bat tries to tear her wrist free but freezes when the thing stretches its mouth wide with a viscous creak. Then, in a whisper that reeks of bloody tobacco, it says:
batya where you
A scream ratchets up through her body, but at the last second she manages to turn it into a yawp of strength. She kicks the thing in its chest and it falls apart like a rotten log. She hits the forest floor and gets ready for a follow-up attack, but the thing just collapses onto its haunches, a jittery pile of bone and tendon, its voice like the groan of a swinging noose:
batya where you batya where you batya where
“Bat!” her sister cries and she bolts toward the sound, running through the woods toward open sky. She finds Mina standing on a sliver of beach, reaching out for her. “What the hell!”
“You what the hell!” Bat says, hugging her. “You said you wouldn’t let go of my hand!”
“You let go of my hand! You were gone!”
“Alls I know is you ditched me, again, and left me with this, this, I don’t even, some kind of deer demon.”
“I did no such…” She seems to forget what she was about to yell. “A deer demon.”
“I dunno, that’s my best guess.” Bat shows her the antler wounds along her fingers, already puffy and infected. “Honestly I think it just wanted to be friends.”
“Ni hao,” somebody says, and the sisters scream. Standing next to a beached dinghy—Bat’s pretty positive it wasn’t there five seconds ago—is a dark figure holding a harpoon like a walking stick. “Isn’t it an enchanting night?” An old woman’s voice, deep and gnarled.
Embarrassed by the screaming, Bat gives her a tough glare and Mina fires back, “Not really.”
“No?” The figure is sporting a black robe but, more importantly, an ebony mask which looks like an expressionless face with whitewashed tears streaming from each eyehole. “Ah, now I see,” she says, looking them over. “You have been visiting with the shui gui. You have been amongst the trees.”
“Yeah it sucked,” Bat says.
“I am the Invoker. Listen as I tell the tale of the Blackened Mother, and how she was abandoned by haidao on these shores, heavy with child, and how when she birthed that child she flooded this land, drowning all who dwelt here, and how a tree grew from the dead lungs of each corpse, and bore the skinless spirits you danced with this very night.”
“Sounds like a real humdinger,” Mina says, “but we’re on a tight schedule. Could you just direct us toward the lighthouse?”
The Invoker sighs, shifts the harpoon from one hand to the other. “A golden eye atop a great tower, singing to the sea?”
“That sounds right.”
She points just over their heads. Bat turns and sure enough there’s Hightail Lighthouse, not sure how she missed it.
“Thanks, nai nai,” Mina says, already on the move.
“We’ll stop by later for that fucked up story of yours!” Bat says with a wave.
“That’d be nice,” the Invoker says, clambering into the dinghy with a small grunt.
This has been Chapter 8 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: The Midnight Delight