The driveway led up a short drive which opened up, left or right, into a big circular loop that wound around the main grounds. Choosing to turn left, at random, Katie biked further into the graveyard. She’d never visited this cemetery, but as she left the open road and rode deeper into the open area, surrounded by headstones and crypts and their residents, deep in endless slumber, Katie felt instantly safer. As if nothing could touch her here. She was surrounded by peace and an eerie silence, and she could almost feel a warding presence surrounding the area that grew stronger the further into the interior she rode. She could hear the wind, but the dark pressure and the almost heard noises from the forest seemed far away, so distant as to be forgotten, convincing her that it had been nothing more than her imagination chasing her down the darkened street.
Soon enough though, she found herself on a section of the road that curved back around to the right and she realized that she must have met with one of the back corners of the lot. She couldn’t see the outer boundaries though. Back here it was much darker. If not for the moon peeking from the clouds it would be almost too dark to see at all. She stopped the bike and looked around. How was she supposed to find a hidden fence, in the dark, in a place that she’d never been before? This fence and hidden area might not exist at all. Standing still and quiet, kicking herself mentally for not planning this very well, or more precisely, not at all, she stared into the night.
Off to the right, that had to be the direction of the river, didn’t it? She didn’t want to go to the river. Unsure, she tried to recall images of maps she’d seen and she kept coming up completely blank. In the direction where she thought the river might be, an owl hooted. Three times its forlorn voice spoke to the night. Was that a sign? And then the wind picked up. The owl quieted, but then, from the left side of the cemetery, she heard the low and ominous mumblings that had so frightened her on the ride over. Filled with dread, she knew which direction she had to choose.
She propped Ms. Granger’s bike on the side of the road, leaning it against a small tree. Her dad would fuss at her, griping about rusty metal and dirt in the mechanisms, if she dropped her own bike in damp grass, so she took pains to protect her borrowed ride. Gathering what little of her courage remained, much of it tied up with the thought of a small boy in a yellow tee shirt and big dark eyes, she started walking resolutely towards the darkest group of trees to the left.
With the help of the scant moonlight, she saw the old fence before she actually got to it - surprisingly. On the edges of the graveyard, the grass was much longer and filled with rough brush. She had to slow down and pick her way carefully or risk tripping. One section of the fence looked a slightly bit off kilter compared to the rest, and she trudged over in that direction. As she drew nearer, she saw that it looked odd because part of the gate, and she had indeed found the gate, had fallen from its hinges and one side was hanging askew. She couldn’t see beyond the gate, but she knew she was going to go through no matter what. The remaining hinge looked wobble-y enough that a few good tugs should open it enough for her to squeeze through.
Grabbing the gate with both hands, she gave it an experimental tug. With a powdery crack, half of the wooden plank in her hands broke loose and crumbled into several pieces. Oh great… now, not only was she going to get in trouble for sneaking out, she was going to catch heck for vandalizing public property! Church property at that! It was an old gate though, and she comforted herself with the thought that even her small allowance should cover a new piece of wood. Promising to make amends, she steeled herself for what she might find on the other side, and one leg at a time, she squished herself through the widened gap.
Stepping through the broken wood gate was like stepping into another world. A world that she really didn’t want anything to do with! The gate had blocked all of the meager light from the cemetery behind her, and the heavy forest ahead blocked out the moon. Hesitating, Katie’s will left her. All of it. She felt like a pasta strainer and whatever bravery that she had thought she owned, poured out of her like water from a hundred tiny holes. She turned to slink back through the gap in the gate, and just as she reached for the nearest plank, she was stopped by a tiny cry. It was human. That was Jaxon. She spun back around and froze. Where? Where did it come from? She could not see anything!
Despairing and lost, she stayed still, straining her ears for some clue, some meager guide, anything, and again, in the distance, finally, she heard him. Quiet, but he was crying now. There. It had to be! She ran off toward the small noises, too terrified to call to him. Her mouth was so dry that she wasn’t sure that she could call even if she found the courage. She ran fifteen or twenty meters into the woods and listened again.
She was sure that she’d heard him. Again she froze in place and listened, but this time, all she could hear was the wind in the trees and her own frantically beating heart. She lifted her eyes looking for the moonlight, and saw only darkness above. The trees were old here, old and protected. No light shown down on her… but there… wait? Ahead.
There seemed to be a change in the light, high in the trees, directly in front of her. She forced herself to move again, one stiff step after another, eyes focused unblinking as if by will alone she could create the clearing that she desperately sought. Stumbling along, she could tell that yes, it was indeed getting brighter, but the wind too was noisier here, as if taking advantage of the merest openings among the tall trees to swoop down and test her will again. Glancing about her, she also noted wisps of ground fog among the great tree trunks surrounding her, snaking through the brush and writhing through the dark as if alive.
She kept herself moving by counting her steps and repeating Jaxon facts to herself. Facts that she’d learned from him as they sat behind their book and whispered together. Jaxon likes yellow. Jaxon likes macaroni and cheese. Jaxon like to sprinkle glitter, but doesn’t like to use the gluesticks. Every little Jaxon-fact that she could recall kept his little face up front in her mind, and gave her the strength to keep picking her feet up. One foot, and then the second, and then the first again.
Then she was there. One moment she was in the dark woods, and the next, she’d stepped into a moonlit circle of trees. The almost bare forest floor replaced with long flowing grasses, rippling like waves in the gusting winds. Bathed in the silver of the moonlight, and draped with wisps of mist and fog, the circle was incredibly, unworldly, beautiful.
And then she saw him. A tiny pile of child. Balled up into a pitiful parcel of jeans and red jacket, and he was crying so quietly that she almost couldn’t hear him.
“Oh! Jaxon!” she exclaimed, “oh no!” and she rushed to his side, dropped down to her knees and reached to touch his jacket. She’d not even laid a single finger on him, when he bolted upright and screamed! A small cry no more, he opened his throat and let loose a scream of terror as he jumped away from her, scrabbling through the grass to get away. Scared that he might dash into the woods, she caught him by his jacket and gathered him into a bear-hug, holding the little boy tight as he thrashed to get away. She kept repeating his name and repeating her name until, accompanied by a particularly strong gust of wind, a heavy cloud closed over the moon, dropping them into darkness. Jaxon’s little body went stiff and he immediately grew silent. Shaking.
“Jaxon! Jaxon!” Katie said to him, “It’s me, Katie!”
His eyes finally jumped to her face and widened in shock. His face was covered in dirt and tear streaks. “Katie? Katie!”
“Yes, it’s me! Oh my god! Let’s get…” but Jaxon reached out a grubby hand and clapped it over her mouth.
“Quiet Katie.” He whispered. “Quiet! And hide your face! We need to hide and not see. The wolves are coming” he said, as fresh tears started flowing.
“It’s ok, Jaxon, there are no wolves around here.” She tried to use a reassuring tone, but her voice refused to be anything but shaky. “We need to get…” and she was interrupted again. This time it was not the small dirty hand of a scared child, but savage howls that seemed to separate themselves from the very wind.
“Hide!” squeaked Jaxon, and he crouched on the ground beside her, with his head tucked into his arms.
Katie scanned the woods all around them. The winds thrashed the branches high above, and the fog near the ground drifted in odd patterns. She saw nothing, there was nothing there… but she felt it. The pressure. As if the very forest was breathing. The mad howling grew nearer and she could hear multiple guttural voices circling the tiny clearing.
“Please Katie!” whimpered Jaxon, “Don’t look! Please!”
She still saw nothing. The howling became barking and growling, and off to her side, always just out of her direct sight, shadows moved. Moved in ways that shadows should never move.
“Pleeeasssse Katie!” Jaxon begged, and finally, deep in her mind, something primal kicked in. Some ancient instinct from some primitive ancestor, one who managed to survive and pass down through his genes, or perhaps his soul, his own experiences of terror, life and death. Katie tapped into that… and hid. She dove to the ground, wrapped herself around Jaxon, and buried her head in his hair, hiding her eyes as she sheltered his little body with her own.
The wolves came.
The ground shook with the weight of these massive beasts and their howling and growls became deafening. She could hear each paw as it struck the ground, and when one drew too near, she could feel the harshness of its long fur as it raced past. Circling and circling, dashing out and then darting back in at them in a deadly tease. The temperature of the small clearing seemed to rise several degrees from the heat of their exertions, and she could smell them. It was not the nice stinky smell of a domesticated animal, no, these creatures smelled of earth, and trees, and blood and fear.
One of the beasts leapt towards Katie’s right leg and slammed to a stop. The dirt kicked up where its front paws dug into the ground, just inches from where she cowered, and she felt the clods of earth as they flew up and hit her body. Growling deeply, its hot breath washed over her leg, even through the thick denim of her jeans. She could feel the warmth and wetness. Jaxon’s feet were near too, and he tried to cringe away. She held him tighter. “Don’t look Jaxon! I’m here. Don’t move!” she whispered. The monstrosity galloped away.
After hearing the sound of her voice, the growling grew more excited and another one of the creatures drew nearer. She didn’t have to look to know that its mouth was agape, the monster slowly leaning in was about to wrap its jaws around her thigh. She huddled lower, whimpering, anticipating the moment those sharp teeth would tear through the denim fabric of her pants and into her leg. The wild antics and pacing of the other wolves grew more frantic. They wanted blood. Tears were running down her own face now, and she wrapped her arms more tightly around Jaxon. The breath of the beast beside them rasped wetly, and around them the winds and wolves howled. The blowing gales brought sudden darkness as the moon was shadowed, neatly hiding the slaughter to come in pitch blackness, when shockingly, a solid “THWACK!” rent the air beside her.
The unknown noise made her heart skip, and she shivered in the flowing cold darkness that accompanied the attack, but the wolf at her leg fell away. The remaining wolves yowled in anger and frustration. There was hesitation in their voices too. The beasts were suddenly less bold.
The gallop of the clawed paw-pads slowed and took on a new tempo. Their kill was no longer certain and they reverted to a hunting posture, they circled out further away, but did not abandon their quarry.
“Katie?” spoke an almost familiar voice. “Are you Katie? Get up! The time to hide is over. Now you must fight or die! Get up!”
With Jaxon still crying quietly beneath her, great shudders racking his small frame, Katie cried out “No! No! We can’t!”
“I’m sorry,” said their unknown companion “you fear is un-focused now and the shadows can get past. You have to stand. You have to focus, or you and the boy will be lost. Stand up and look these beasts in the eye. Know that you are shielded and you WILL be shielded. You must!”
Katie slowly raised her eyes, she determinedly looked away from the howling wolves and looked toward the owner of the voice. In the blackness, she could not see his legs, but she could sense where he stood. Glancing further up, she saw a billowing black jacket, and a long staff held in a defensive pose. Willing herself to raise her head further, she looked to his face, but it was hidden in the dark. However, familiar long blonde hair, whipping about in an errant gust of wind, caused her to cry out, “Mr. Lars!”
At that, even Jaxon quieted down. Katie felt a sudden ray of hope and she struggled to pull her legs underneath her in order to stand. It seemed that all her muscles had turned to useless mush. At first, she couldn’t move at all, but the harsh chuffing and growling of the wolves bolstered her will and her limbs began to function again. As she pulled herself up, she was aware of Jaxon rising too, thin arms around her waist and face buried into her stomach. She couldn’t tell which of them was shivering harder. Holding him tightly, she finally dared to move her gaze away from their protector, and slowly she looked out to the trees surrounding them.
She didn’t see the wolves. Not immediately. The light from the moon was completely blocked, and with the wind whipping the branches about, the night around them appeared to be nothing more than an ocean of flowing blackness, feral noises, and evil. Gradually, she became aware of individual shapes and she gasped in horror. The wolves were not wolves. These were nightmares that circled them now, nightmares as solid shadows, only occasionally adopting a wolf-like form as one leapt in the air and snapped, or another dodged around a bush and darted in, and then suddenly out, testing their boundaries. One turned toward her, and out of the black nothingness, it formed a face of gnashing white teeth and red glowing eyes. Sensing her fear, it lunged at her.