1.19: The Festival, part 3

“What the hell took you so long?” Clair spoke out of the corner of her mouth, all of her attention focused on the glimmering metal pipe in her hands, and the pair of wolves snapping at her heels. Neither of them looked away from her weapon, even as he stood exposed in the clearing.

She was the last person he expected to see, and for a moment Henry was dumbfounded. After her dramatic appearance at his apartment, she hadn’t shown herself again. Had she come straight here? Was she trying to help? His own trio of wolves hadn’t followed him into the clearing, but the angry red welts they left across his body still stung. Above, the sky was a still and uncompromising grey—one of the apparent effects of the growing storm which had engulfed the park, at the center of which he now stood. “How was I supposed to know to come here?”

“I told you,” she said. With every swing of the pipe, she took a single step backwards, and the wolves advanced. In this way, they slowly circled the old oak tree in the center of the clearing. “Through your window.”

“I couldn’t hear anything you said.”

Clair’s eyes flicked toward him, and her attention broke. The larger of the two wolves hooked its snout beneath the pipe and jerked it aside, allowing the second to close in on the opposing angle. She took several stumbling steps back, feigning kicks at the drooling set of teeth lunging for her abdomen.

Henry brought his foot down on a stick. The snap finally caught the wolves’ attention, and both of them turned. Clair swung forward hard, driving the pair back together, and their balance was restored. One swing, one step back. One swing, one step back. “It’s that charm around your neck,” she said. Her voice was strained. “Were you really that scared of me?”

“I don’t know how I feel.” He watched her swing wide—too wide—and be forced to kick out again to keep the wolves away. “I don’t think those things are exactly real.”

“Real enough to me.” She jerked her leg, exposing torn cloth and blood streaking down her calf.

“Okay. Real.” He swallowed. “How do I stop all of this?”

“You have to bring back Emmaline Cass’ locket.”

He held it up. “Ahead of you there.”

“Try putting it back in the ground.”

“Are you making this up as we go along?” Henry waited for Clair and the wolves to round the far side of the tree, then darted forward. How scared were they of her metal pipe?

“I found that locket buried here,” Clair said. She spoke loudly, almost screaming, and the wolves stayed focused on her. “It wasn’t part of my stash, and I had the good sense not to move it. I might have figured you were an idiot, or a thief, but it was my mistake to think you wouldn’t be both.”

Henry fell to his knees at the base of the tree, and dug his fingers into the dirt. Fire shot through the welts on his arms, and his shoulder screamed in protest, but he knew he had to move fast. There was no other option. Clair slowly came around the other side of the tree, her assailants desperate in their attempts to push her back. 

The hole grew. With an almighty effort he heaved aside fistful after fistful of earth, opening the space a foot deep, and dropped the locket inside. He held his breath. Nothing happened. “It didn’t work!”

“Go deeper.”

“What?”

You have to trust me,” she shouted, “dig down deeper!”

He threw everything of himself into digging. He clawed, scraped, and tore, until he was coated in mud and three of his nails hung loose from his fingers. Blood flowed freely from his hands and his shoulder, streaking up and down his arms with the muck.

Clair backed up to the edge of the rapidly deepening hole, and there held her ground. Her heels sunk in, and her body twisted left and right with her increasingly desperate deflections. The wolves fanned out, flanking her, striking out with less fear now for the glittering weapon.

Several feet down he ran into thick, twisting roots. He tore through them with the remainder of his fingernails, until they too peeled back off his fingers. Then he bit in with his teeth, whipping his neck back and forth like a dog, swallowing mouthfuls of damp and wormy earth. The roots gave way, and the bloody nubs of his fingers met rotted wood as Clair screamed above him.

There was no time for distraction. Henry peeled back the board like paper, uncovering a casket. He stared into the empty eyes of a flesh-less skull within. The tattered fabric of a decorative hat clung to her crown. Emmaline Cass. Buried beneath the tallest tree in the park which bore her name.

With another strangled cry, Clair fell. Her body crumpled into the hole beside him. Blood dotted across her shirt.

Henry reached forward with shaking hands, clasped the locket closed around the skeleton’s neck, and closed his eyes. Any second, he was sure the weight of a wolf would come crashing down on him. Its teeth would sink into his neck.

Nothing came. No weight, and no teeth. 

He opened his eyes to the full light of day, and the fresh scent of grass. The sky was clear. The storm was over. Clair crawled atop him, her body trembling and frail. Blood dribbled out of her mouth. 

She pressed her hand into his chest, and a bizarre look came over her weary face. Questioning, and then awed. The pressure of her hand increased, and then she was lifting off of him, raising into the open air like a feather caught in the breeze. “Thank you,” she said. She soared further into the air, finally disappearing into the obscuring treeline. 

***

Henry pulled himself out of the grave, and lay sprawled on the ground. He looked up at fluffy white clouds. His hands bled, pulsing with spasms of pain. His shoulder was cold. His legs twitched. In the distance, there was a siren. Much closer, a rustling in the leaves.

That’s it, he thought, they’ve come to finish me off. 

The rustling continued, but came no nearer to where he lay. Henry shifted his head, fighting fresh nausea at the movement, and looked across the way to a figure poking through the trees.

The man looked back. He was tall, and old, with receding hair and a plain grey suit. Despite the extra years of lines on his face, Mathas Bernard was unmistakable from his photo. There was nothing in his eyes, and nothing in the slight smile that lifted his lips. He stepped back into the foliage. 

Henry let his head loll there on its side, musing idly to himself that he should be having a greater reaction. The man was dead—yet there he was. And what of it? Perhaps it seemed blasé, compared with the other things he’d seen that day. Perhaps he was rapidly losing blood. There was no feeling in his hands. He listened to the sirens approach, and watched the flashing colors reflect on the bright green leaves.

“Don’t move him. We have to be careful. Call Teresa, and tell her what happened. Yes. Now!” Sheriff Leia Thao’s face materialized in front of him, coming together like a fuzzy jigsaw puzzle. Henry tried to turn his head, and a pool of black washed over his eyes.

“You’re going to be fine,” she continued. Her voice sounded confident, which he found soothing. It also sounded very far away. “But I wouldn’t look forward to it, if I were you. We have some questions that need answering, down at the station.”

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