CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: THE GIRDING
Nate burst from the woods at a dead run. The sky had gone completely dark and he couldn’t see ten feet ahead of himself. In the open space of the bean field, crickets were joining their voices in an insane sing-song chorus that accompanied his mad flight toward the tree line. The rhythmic susurration rang in his ears, ebbing and swelling along with his ragged breathing, and punctuated by the booming of his over-taxed heart. With each frantic stride, his legs made a loud swishing sound, driving their way through the dry, clinging plants.
The breeze was growing stronger, building as the storm approached. It sang in the trees, bending and tossing them wildly. He tried not to look behind, afraid of what he might see pursuing him, and concentrated, instead, on the line of trees he could just barely make out in the dark, standing against the blustery sky. They represented everything to him. They meant safety and freedom — the chance to regroup and, at long last, to do something to save his wife. All his hopes rested upon the chance that he could make those trees unmolested.
Alone and naked beneath this vast darkening sky, he began to wonder what chance there would be that Chirkah would allow this. Surely he was playing right into the wily beast’s plans. In the dim light, the trees seemed to dance farther and farther away, and his hopes swam farther out of reach with them. Every fiber of his being strained to reach this haven before Chirkah’s pack of wild dogs overtook him. Now that he’d left his sanctuary, he was certain that was their intention — to catch him off-guard and out in the open before he could make the tree line. As he ran, he half expected one of the hideous beasts to arise and leap upon him tooth and claw. After all, why would they leave this field unguarded? Amidst the rows of soybean plant, he could swear he saw their humped backs lurking and waiting for just the right moment to spring their heinous ambush.
He raced madly across the field, not bothering to follow the rows, but cutting a diagonal path directly toward the nearest tree. His breath was coming in great gulps, and his lungs burned with the effort. Dry as sandpaper, his throat was raw and scratchy, and each time he swallowed, it threatened to close up, leaving him choking and gasping for air. Nevertheless, his feet fairly flew, and in a very short time, he was nearing the fence row and the welcoming trees. As he approached, he did a very foolhardy thing. He slowed, somewhat, his head-long dash and looked around behind him. Had one of Chirkah’s pack been at his heels, as he suspected, he would have given up any chance of outdistancing them with this maneuver. As luck would have it, though, he was alone in the bean field — at least for the time being.
Wheezing, his aching chest nearly bursting, he leaned against one of the trees and tried to catch his breath. In the dark of the field, he buried his face in the crook of an arm and wrestled with fatigue and terror. At the same time, all he could think of was the fact that he had left Zelda in there, all alone, with those fiends. What terrors might she be experiencing at this very moment? Time was running away from him and he physically couldn’t move fast enough to suit himself.
Nate’s heart was hammering against his rib-cage and his head was light and out of control as he swiveled around and leaned his back against the tree, looking out across the open expanse of the fields. With a shrug, he lurched away from the tree and began staggering rapidly down the fence row toward the clearing. His numbed feet tangled in the weeds, growing there along the edge of the field. They refused to do his bidding, dragging along clumsily. It felt as though he had two wooden blocks strapped to his legs and he tripped repeatedly. Still, he persevered, and he kept moving along the fence row, toward their camp-sight. Looking up, he could see stars in a few clear patches of the night sky. But most of the sky was covered in fast-moving clouds. Dark and ominous looking, they blanked out a good sixty percent of the sky and he could see the vast shadows they cast sweeping in waves across the bean fields. He paid no attention to this, however, as his eyes constantly swept the surrounding night in search of danger. His nerves were dangerously close to overload, and panic had him jumping and cringing at shadows.
When, at last, he reached the clearing, he could see that everything was gone. The tent, the sleeping bags, even the campfire, all traces of their camp had been removed. Should someone come this way, there would be no evidence of the drama that had unfolded here. The Kophet-kur was very thorough indeed.
However, the beasts did have one failing working against them — their inability to climb trees. As Nate nervously gazed about the clearing, he saw the backpack hanging right where he had left it, amidst the branches of a sycamore tree; and it swayed and bobbed in the wind. With a little cry, he raced over and climbed up in the tree to retrieve it. The nylon strapping hung up in some small branches and he had a hard time shaking it loose, but eventually, he had it in his arms and he stood in the middle of the clearing, digging through the contents.
The first thing he removed from the pack was the brand-new canteen. It was practically full, and he took a long pull at its cold, soothing contents. Tossing aside his fear for the moment, he closed his eyes and relished the feeling of it replenishing his body. Suddenly, he sensed a luminescence beyond his closed lids and he flipped his eyes open. The entire clearing was flooded with light, approaching the clarity of daytime. For a moment, he was disoriented and his mind failed to comprehend the alien scene. Then, looking up, he saw that the clouds had blown on, leaving a full moon shining brightly from the cold heavens, and bathing the world in a ghostly white radiance. The moon stood almost at zenith, and a bright fairy ring encircled it, bestowing a magical effect on the night sky. At the limit of this lunar corona, a spray of stars was scattered about, reaching down to the horizon. This far from any lights, they appeared almost low enough to touch. Many twinkled steadily, their distant light flickering like tiny candles in a soft breeze. Others danced in bright bands, sending their steady glow from distant galaxies to swirl like sparkling dust in the blackness.
Normally, he would have appreciated the beauty of such a sky; but not on this night. He was beyond the capability for registering aesthetics. Thirst, hunger, fear, and fatigue had reduced him to his primal essence. He was a man stripped to aboriginal urges — the need to slake his thirst, satisfy his hunger and exact revenge upon those who had stolen his woman. The centuries of civilization that had shaped Nate Malone as the man he was had been peeled away, layer by layer, leaving him naked and alone, and seething with primitive fury. His primary concern was girding himself for the return to the forest that he might rescue Zelda from the clutches of these savage beasts.
With this thought in mind, he again plunged into the backpack, retrieving his flashlight and some matches. They were of the wooden variety — blue tip “Ohio” matches that would light when struck upon any rough surface. He bit his lip, grimly and shoved them into the pocket of his jeans. In the bottom of the pack, he found the remainder of their food. There was a chunk of a summer sausage, some cheese, and a few crackers. These he made short work of, gobbling huge bites of the sausage and cheese and stuffing his mouth full of the dry crackers. He washed it all down with the remainder of the water and tossed the canteen aside. One more glance into the backpack turned up a ripe red apple, which disappeared in just a few bites. After a time, Nate was rested sufficiently to begin preparing to return.
All during this time, he’d been keeping a vigilant eye, in case the Kophet-kur were sneaking up to surround him in the shadows of the nearby fields. The wind had died down considerably, and the night was relatively quiet, save for the buzzing of insects. In fact, except for the occasional distant flashes of “heat lightning” in the distance, almost all traces of the storm that had appeared imminent just a few moments before had blown away. Nate had spent enough time in Indiana, however, to know how fast its weather can change and he wouldn’t be surprised if the storm kicked up again, more fiercely than ever.
It was time to head back. He bent to tighten his boot-laces, gathered up his supplies, tossed the backpack aside and turned down the fence row toward the forest. Along the way, he picked up a branch about the thickness of his wrist and began paring limbs from it with his pocket knife. When he had stripped it pretty well clean, he broke it off by standing on one end and lifting the other. This left him with a staff that could be used to defend himself, somewhat. Acting upon a sudden inspiration, he stopped and lashed his knife to the staff, forming a spear, and his transformation to primitive hunter was virtually complete. He hefted the spear in his right hand and set his jaw, the warrior preparing to do battle in defense of his mate. His strength and determination were returning in direct proportion with his confidence. He tossed the hair back out of his eyes, squared his shoulders, and continued on.
As he approached the forest, he heard something that made him stop dead in his tracks; and all of this new-found courage drained from his spirit like water through a sieve. Dimly at first, and then louder and stronger, the sound of howling came drifting through the air. The eerie sound chilled him to his bones as he stood on the edge of the dark forest. The branches of the trees loomed above him, rustling and creaking ominously in the gentle breeze. Ghastly howls wafted from the forest and curled like the cold coils of a snake around his heart. In his mind, they recalled the negative images of canine lust and vicious, frothing jaws — ripping and tearing flesh with frenzied passion. His subconscious pictured dark, wolf-like shapes squatting on their haunches in some haunted, lonely, forsaken place, yellow eyes casting malevolent gleams while they wailed their hunting cries in the night. The dark, shadowy trees reached out and beckoned him in to meet his doom. In his mind’s eye he could imagine the horrid creatures, waiting just within the shadowy edge of the forest, their wicked little eyes trained upon him and gleaming, hungrily.
As he thought about this possibility, the spear in his hand became what it was — a broken limb with a pocket knife tied to one end. What kind of defense could it offer against the powerful jaws and huge hulking bodies of the Kophet-kur? He must be mad to even think of returning to the stygian gloom of this haunted forest. The image of Chirkah, bloody jaws agape and standing astraddle the vivisected body of the woman in the clearing flashed before his eyes. And he remembered the feeling of sharp canine teeth ripping their way into his skin — the excruciating pain as powerful jaws clamped down and jerked this way and that, lacerating his flesh and stripping it from his bones.
Suddenly Nate wanted nothing more than to turn around and run as fast as his legs would carry him. He was seized by the almost uncontrollable desire to forget everything and flee — leaving Zelda and the Kophet-kur and the farm — to run back down the path and jump in his Lexus and drive as fast and as far from this terrible place as he could. The unearthly howling called to him: “Come home… come… home…” But, rather than enticing him, it repulsed him and drove him nearly mad with fear. He shook with the effort to beat back the panic and regain control.
Clamping his hands ineffectively over his ears, Nate forced himself to think of Zelda and the unfortunate woman the monsters had devoured in the clearing. He concentrated on the thought that he may yet be able to spare Zelda from a similar fate if he could just bolster his courage enough to enter the forest and continue his plan. With a deep shuddering breath, he dragged himself closer to the forest edge. Once he’d crossed the threshold and was within the darkened interior, he felt a little better. Ignoring the maniacal wailing of the Kophet-kur, he forged ahead, following the sound, in hopes that it would lead him, at last, to their lair.
The interior to the deep woods was dark as death. The wind, as he had predicted was again picking up and it whooshed through the branches overhead, tossing the limbs about wildly. The trees themselves reminded hum of dancers in some ancient, macabre ceremony. They tossed their long, bony arms over their heads and shook them while staring through the eyes of dark, glowering death-masks. He pulled out the flashlight and flipped on the switch. The yellow beam seemed impossibly meager when compared to the vast black emptiness of the forest. He swung it about, frantically searching for a trail that he might follow through the underbrush.
At last, he saw what looked like an opening in the trees, and he forced his way through a patch of wild raspberry briars which clutched at his jeans. The brambles threatened to send him sprawling amongst them where their sharp little spines would rip and catch at his clothing and skin, but he maintained his footing long enough to reach the trail.
All kinds of night sounds accompanied him as he made his way along the trail, and he steeled himself for the moment when one of the Kophet-kur would spring from behind a tree. Amidst the gloom, he could see tiny eyes glowing, either reflecting the beam of his flashlight or with an inner phosphorescence of their own. Occasionally, he would swing the beam around to shine it upon a set of these sinister orbs. There would be nothing to see, but he could hear some denizen of the nocturnal forest go crashing off into the shadows faster than his eyes could adjust. For the most part, though, he forced himself to concentrate on the trail ahead and keep his mind on his mission.
Through it all, the ghastly howling continued, providing a nightmarish soundtrack to his quest. It began to ebb and flow, beginning in long, ululating wails which seemed to be issuing from one individual, and building to a horrendous, cacophony, as more and more voices, joined in. Each additional voice added its own particular lilt to the cries and together they swelled the howling to a vast symphony like one might expect to hear about the gates of perdition. Indeed, to Nate’s tortured mind, the caterwauling appeared to be emanating directly from the hosts of hell. Still, he continued on into the bowels of this vast, leafy citadel.
Suddenly, he froze as he heard something stirring in the brush to his left. He doused the light and held his breath, not daring to move. With the beam from his torch broken off, darkness pressed in from all sides, and he could almost feel it running its velvety soft hands over his face and eyes. He strained his ears to catch an indication of what had made the sounds, but all he heard was the gathering wind and the creaking of branches. After some time, he gathered up his nerve and flipped the light on again, casting it about defensively to his left. Immediately the sounds returned. There was definitely something running through the thicket; and whatever it was, it sounded larger than your typical woodland creature. This was no squirrel or opossum, out for an evening stroll. Whatever it was made a lot of noise (stealth was not its strong suit) and it was coming directly toward him at a very rapid pace.
Nate again extinguished his light, and the crashing continued for a little bit but then came to a halt. He thought for a moment, his heart flailing away in his chest. Whatever this thing was, it was definitely homing in on his beam of light. Feeling about in the dark, he found a small sapling beside the trail and wedged the flashlight into its branches. Backing away a pace, he leaned out and flipped on the switch, then retreated behind a nearby tree. There, he clutched his spear tightly, and peered into the dark to see what would appear. The noise began again, and there was no doubt, it was getting closer. Suddenly, the creature emerged into the light and for a time Nate’s befuddled mind could not bring it into cognizance. It was a wild-looking beast with large, flashing eyes and tangled, matted hair standing in a frizzled main about its head and shoulders. It stood upright on two legs and it cast its gaze this way and that, apparently extremely agitated.
With a small cry of shock, Nate stepped from behind the tree. This was no creature of the night, it was a badly frightened little girl. He strode rapidly toward her where she stood blinking in the glare of the light.
When she heard him, Susie cast a horrified glance in his direction and bolted off into the woods.
“Wait!” Nate called after her. “I won’t hurt you!… I promise.” She continued to flee. His mind cast about desperately for something to say that would bring her back. “My name is Nate… I’M HUMAN!”
The girl drew up short. Slowly, cautiously, she turned around, peering back in the direction of the light. Nate plucked it from its place in the sapling and held it high over his own head, illuminating his face. He smiled, trying gamely to produce a look that would convey confidence and friendship.
The howling continued.
Nate forced himself to move slowly as he dropped to one knee and held his arms out, invitingly, to the little girl. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he said soothingly. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Susie rushed to his arms and buried herself in his embrace. In the dim glow of the flashlight he looked very much like her father, and by this time, she was ready to trust anyone — as long as they were human. It felt wonderful to feel his strong arms go about her and crush her to his chest. She was enveloped in a sense of security she had come to believe she would never experience again. With it came the need to let everything out — all the fear and the torture and the pain.
Great wracking sobs swept through her tiny body as Nate held her close and patted her softly. He whispered reassurances and repeatedly kissed her forehead. He was somewhat surprised to feel tears coursing down his own cheeks as he thought of the hell this poor little girl must have endured. At last, her sobs began to subside somewhat, coming slower and less frequently, like the last few drops of water from a pitcher.
When he felt her grow silent in his embrace, Nate pulled back and looked at her. He offered the flashlight for her to hold and she took it with a brave little smile.
“Can you tell me your name?” he asked her.
Susie nodded and told him.
“Hi, Susie. My name is Nate Malone…”
“I know. You’re Zelda’s husband. She told me about you.”
Nate became suddenly excited. “You talked with Zelda? Where is she?… Is she all right?” He took Susie by the shoulders and looked anxiously into her face.
Susie wrinkled her brow. “You’re not dead. Zelda thought they ate you.”
Nate thought for a moment. He was going to have to get this little girl to safety, somehow. But, in order to do that, he would have to again delay his attempt to rescue Zelda. How was he going to work this one out? Susie interrupted his puzzling to ask a question.
“Are you here to help Zelda?”
Nate looked at this brave little girl and his heart melted. Zelda was right, they should have had children. “That’s right, sweetie. Can you tell me how to find her?”
Susie shook her head. “But I can take you to the cave where the monsters live. That’s where they all are right now.” She looked off into the darkness of the forest. “They’re the ones making that sound… hear it?”
Her voice took on a mysterious undertone, as though she were speaking with the experience of the ages, rather than the brashness of youth. A far-off, haunted look spread over her face and she intoned: “The Kophet-kur are singing to the moon… ‘for the moon is our pilot… we sing… we sing’…”
Gooseflesh broke out on Nate’s forearms and a shiver ran up his spine. He’d heard those words before, and to hear them coming from the lips of this innocent child seemed a type of unholy blasphemy that he could not abide. He shook her gently and she snapped back into focus, looking at him expectantly.
“I’ll take you to her,” she said simply, and she started down the trail into the darkness toward the howling of the Kophet-kur.