"Exactly. Get down to your office and make the calls. Get me a meat wagon up here while you're at it. I'll stay up here for now." He signed off, then quickly signed back on. "One more thing."
"There's a little black bag and a big green bag in the back of the truck. Leave them up here."
"Will do, son. Take care of yourself."
* * * *
With the rolled-up towel in his hand, Ryan approached the woman as she sat at the base of her tree. The blanket lay at her feet; she refused to be covered. Her intense green eyes were locked upon the approaching man.
"He has killed, hasn't he?" she asked knowingly. "I see it in your eyes."
He squatted and set the bundle upon the ground between them. Immediately, her attention was focused upon it, and she curled her legs closer to her body.
"I would really appreciate it if you told me what's really going on," Ryan said.
"I told you. It is Steven."
"'Steven,'" Ryan repeated. "Those men weren't killed by a man. They were mangled. Arms and legs were twisted and broken like some kid's doll. They have bite and claw marks that look like they were made by a bear. But bears don't kill like that. No animal does. They only fight to survive—"
She glared at him suddenly. "Have you not listened to anything I have said?"
"What you said doesn't make sense!" Ryan snapped. "According to you, you met a guy up here, had sex with him, then suddenly, he burns a couple of so-called runes into your wrists, which somehow gives him supernatural power. He chains you up, then runs off to go through some kind of 'transformation,' which, I'm expected to believe, turns him into some kind of monster that can only be killed by . . . this!"
Una recoiled even more as Ryan abruptly unrolled the towel, revealing the crudely-made knife. She stared at it fearfully, eyes quivering, lips trembling.
Ryan glared. "Now, I want to know what's really going on," he growled.
"I-I have told you," she stammered, then looked to him with real fear in her eyes. "Please, take that away from me."
He sighed deeply. "Look, Una," he said. "I'm not in the mood for your fantasies anymore. Three men are dead --"
"I have told you the truth!" she screeched, suddenly fierce once more, lurching forward as far as her chains would allow. Her face was mere inches from Ryan's. "Steven deceived me, stole my power, and it has turned him into a force of hatred and destruction! This bloodshed is just the beginning! He will slay you all, and his bloodlust will only increase with each kill! Every life he takes drains more and more of his humanity away until . . . ."
Ryan watched her throughout her outcry, then as she sagged back to the ground in despair. "Until what?" he asked at last.
Una gave him a plaintive look. "Until he comes for me," she said in a soft, frightened voice. "Eventually, he will realize that he will never truly be free so long as I live. Once he slays me, his transformation will be complete, and the most horrific monster the world has ever known will be free to roam where it wishes."
Ryan passed a hand over his face in frustration. But he remained composed. He took up the crude knife, holding it before her. Una shrank back immediately, eyes wide and anxious.
"And I suppose this is the 'magic weapon' that can kill him," he said.
Slowly, she nodded. "Yes."
He studied her face for a moment. "Can you at least understand why all this sounds crazy to me?"
For several moment, Una stared back, her own eyes searching Ryan's. Finally, she spoke. "I can only understand that, as of now, a true monster lurks somewhere near us," she said in a quivering tone. "And that, of all these men, only you have the potential to stop it."
Ryan lowered the knife. "Yeah. You said that before."
"You truly do not know," she mused, her voice hardly more than a passing of breath over her lips.
"Know what?" asked Ryan in annoyance.
"You have the blood of my kind within you. Not much, but . . . enough to be noticed. Enough to fortify you for the battle you must wage."
He exhaled tiredly, telling himself to not be angry with the woman for her delusions. Her disassociation was a powerful one, he realized, and the only thing keeping her sane -- relatively at least -- was the fantasy world into which she had fallen. If he needed her continued compliance, he would have to play along.
"Well, we'll see what happens," he said at last. He rolled up the knife once more, noting the expression of relief that flowed over Una's face, and stood. Glancing behind him to where his truck had previously been parked, he turned and walked toward the two duffels laying upon the dirt.
"What are you going to do?" Una asked.
"Well," he called back as he hefted the bags. He headed back toward her. "I'm going to pitch a tent and hope that the dehydrated food I've got doesn't taste like shit warmed over."
Una gave him a wry smile. "You mortals and your notions of sustenance," she remarked. "I sometimes wonder how you manage to live past the fourth decade."
Ryan chuckled. "Yeah, well, I guess we 'mortals' are a little bit tougher than you give us credit for being."
"In some cases," she agreed.
He unzipped the large green duffel, then paused. Might as well make conversation, he thought. "So what are you, really?"
She cocked her head. "What do you mean?"
Ryan shrugged. "Well, you're obviously not the same as me, right? You call me a 'mortal' like you're not one."
She dipped her eyes with a thin smile. "Perhaps I misspoke," she said. "We are all mortal in one way or another. In time, I will die, just as you will."
He nodded noncommittally. "Ah. Right."
She laughed softly under her breath. "Your skepticism is obvious. But I cannot blame you for that. You humans have your own way of looking at things. Believe it or not, I understand that. I am, after all, half human."
"So what's the other half?"
She regarded him a moment. "Fae," she said at last.
His brow furrowed. "'Fae?'" he asked. "What's that?"
She suddenly laughed. "How ironic!" she exclaimed, then shook her head in wonder. "Here you are, kindred blood to my kind, and yet you are ignorant to your hidden heritage."
He soured and returned his attention to the contents of the green duffel. "Well, if you know anything about us humans, you'd know that ignorance is one of our strong suits--"
Both he and Una were startled by the sudden eruption of Milton's voice from the communicator Ryan had clipped to his belt. In a swift move, Ryan snatched it up.
"Milton! What's going on?"
"Some serious God damned fucking shit, that's what!" snapped the man at the other end. "My whole trailer's been ransacked! Whoever it was tore out the phone and turned it into shrapnel! Not only that, but all the battery banks for the walkie-fucking-talkies were ripped out, too. I been walking around for half an hour looking for one that still works."
A dark look crossed Ryan's face. "What about your men?"
"They didn't see a fucking thing, the fucking morons. They were all down the road tossing a God damned football and having a circle jerk. Fucking chowderheads. Gonna dock them all a day. See how they like that on their fucking paycheck."
Ryan rolled his eyes. "Anyone missing?"
"No, I got everyone here."
Ryan allowed himself a moment's relief. "Good. Send someone out to the nearest town to call in the locals. Tell them we got three dead bodies and we need forensics on the scene. Then get everyone else up here."
"'Why?'" echoed Ryan. "Because there's a crazy son of a bitch out there who's already killed three of your men and obviously doesn't want anyone to contact the outside. This guy is doing a classic guerrilla run and the last thing we need is to spread ourselves out. So grab whatever you need to make a camp and get you and all your boys up here, pronto!"
Ryan could hear the irritation in Milton's voice when he came back. "Why don't you come down here, Mr. Army Ranger? We got everything we need here."
Ryan ground his teeth. "Because I'm not leaving my key witness, that's why. Everything revolves around her, and I don't much like the thought of leaving a helpless civilian out in the cold all night! Now get your ass up here!"
There was a long pause before Milton replied. "Whatever you say."
Ryan shook his head in annoyance and returned the communicator to his belt. "Your boyfriend is pretty God damned determined," he said aloud, then looked to Una with a grave expression.
She stared back. "As much as you do not wish for this, I wish it even less."
* * * *
The men arrived in their trucks less than half an hour later, having apparently scavenged whatever they could from the base camp. Ryan was pleasantly surprised that the logging company employees actually had a fair number of tents, which they pitched upon the relatively level ground to either side of the dirt road. They had also brought with them coolers full of food, water, and other items. All in all, Ryan saw no reason why the men would not be in relative comfort for at least a day or so.
"All this fucking shit because of one God damned hippie Rambo mother fucker wannabe?" queried Milton once the men had erected their makeshift camp. The sun was just gliding beneath the western horizon, bathing the world around them in shimmering twilight.
Ryan looked to Milton as the two of them stood upon the road between the two halves of the camp. "You swear more when you're scared, don't you?"
Milton glowered beneath the brim of his hat. "Not a fucking thing in this world scares me," he declared.
Ryan scoffed. "Right."
"Okay, tough guy," retorted the round-bodied man. "What the fuck scares you?"
"Lots of things," Ryan said easily. "But at least I recognize it."
The logging company owner breathed in and out through his nostrils for a few moments. "That your tent up there?" he asked, pointing.
"Pretty close to little miss naked princess."
Ryan leveled his gaze on the man. "And you and all your boys are camped a good hundred feet away," he remarked.
Milton's features seemed to soften a bit. For a brief moment, he actually appeared vulnerable. "Something about her just don't seem right," he said.
Ryan nodded. "I agree," he said. "Which is why I want to stay as close as I can."
The rotund man gave Ryan a grave look. "You really think this shit is that bad?"
"You didn't see the bodies," Ryan replied.
Milton swallowed thickly, then gave a slow nod. He became suddenly somber. "What are we gonna do about the . . . the bodies?" he asked skittishly.
Ryan shifted uncomfortably. "Mush as I hate to do it, but I gotta leave them there until a CSI team is able to get up here. Most I could do was cover them up and try not to disturb the scene."
"Son of a bitch," grumbled Milton, raising a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. He breathed in and out for a few seconds. "I don't like leaving them out there."
"Neither do I," agreed Ryan. He checked his watch, glanced toward the horizon where the sun had turned orange. "Hopefully, the locals will get up here soon and they'll be able to bag up the corpses. If not . . . ."
Milton waited, watching the younger man's face. Finally, he asked, "if not, what?"
Ryan pursed his lips. "Then we're gonna have to bring them in. Can't leave them out there all night where scavengers can get to them."
* * * *
The sun set, the world cooled. Campfires to either side of the dirt road cast orange-brown shadows upon the tents. The loggers sat about quietly, soberly nursing their meals and bottled water. A few of them men indulged in beer they had brought with them. There was no levity in the air; the fact that three of their comrades lay dead deeper in the forest was a constant weight upon all.
For his part, Ryan started a small fire and heated up some water before pouring it into one of his dehydrated meal pouches. The result was something that vaguely resembled beef stew. He devoured it out of necessity and practice; during his years in the Army, he had learned to subsist on such fare, to the point where eating it was an automatic act.
"I cannot believe you are eating that swill," Una commented as she watched him eat. She had turned down all offers of sustenance, from power bars to granola to what Ryan held in his hand.
"Man's gotta eat," he commented.
She scoffed. "You are surrounded by the bounty of nature, yet you choose . . . that."
He frowned. "'Bounty of nature?'" he echoed dubiously. "I'm not about to go foraging for berries."
"You would not have to. There are numerous small animals in this area. They would provide more than whatever is within that pouch of yours."
He cast a sidelong look at her. "I don't have much of a taste for squirrel," he said.
She cocked her head. "It can actually be quite succulent," she said.
He stood from the small folding chair before his tent and approached, then sat upon the ground before the woman. Even after an entire day of being exposed to the sun in her condition, she remained naturally beautiful. In the light of Ryan's campfire, her skin looked uniformly golden. He could not help but notice the way her breasts pointed upward, dark pink nipples slightly erect.
"Is that what you eat around here?"
She shrugged. "Occasionally," she said. "I gain my sustenance from the land and sun. To be honest, I do not need to eat. But the occasional treat is welcome."
Ryan laughed suddenly, a short, abrupt sound. Lady, as far as fantasies go, yours is pretty detailed. "You're something else."
Una's brow furrowed as she contemplated his words. "Indeed I am," she finally said. A sad look crossed her face. "And there are fewer and fewer of us as time moves on. I fear there may come a day when the world of the Earth Mother is no longer protected."
He shoveled another plastic forkful of food into his mouth, chewed for a moment. "What do you mean by that?"
Her green eyes bore into his. "You," she said. "Humanity. So much potential, but you followed the path of curiosity. Whatever you think you can do, you try. And that has led to . . . this. Stripping the world of all its bounties, instead of taking them as the need arose."
Ryan thought a moment, considering Una's words. "Humanity's just another species," he said. "We do what we can to propagate and survive."
"But you do so harmfully."
He gave her a wan look. "And other species don't?" he asked rhetorically. "You're the nature spirit. You should know more than me how violent and destructive animals are."
She stared back. "I have never seen a bear use a machine to tear down trees."
Ryan rolled his shoulders. "Guess you don't watch too many cartoons," he remarked.
"I have no idea what 'cartoons' are," she said, then sighed. "But I hardly doubt it matters. Either your kind will destroy the world, or you will awaken in time to stop yourselves. I hope for the latter."
Ryan studied Una's features a moment, noting a true sense of remorse and pain and loss there. "Hey, look," he said, setting his empty pouch upon the ground. "No one wants to destroy the world. And we're already doing a lot of things to heal the damage we've caused the last couple of hundred years. I mean, we even have a day set aside just for recognizing the environment. It's called Earth Day. Should be coming up pretty soon, in fact."
Jesus, he thought abruptly. What the hell am I saying? It's like I'm buying into her mother earth fantasy.
The sarcasm upon her face was obvious. "An entire day," she commented. "I must say, I am deeply moved."
He gave her a sheepish look. "It's a start. Don't be so hard on us mortals."
She managed a smile. "And there, one of your redeeming qualities," she said. "Humor. Even if it is bleak and morbid at times."
He winked. "Maybe when this is over, I'll show you my Monty Python collection."
She cocked her head quizzically. "You have a collection of serpents?"
He chuckled. "In a manner of speaking."
The communicator at his belt came alive with static before Milton's voice broke in. "Welch."
Ryan sighed and took up the device. "As always, your timing is impeccable," he said in response.
"Well, you may be getting cozy with the Pet of the Year, but I've been watching the clock."
"I know," Ryan said back. "I have, too. We need to get those bodies in."
"Gonna need six volunteers."
"I'll pick them out myself."
Ryan replaced the communicator on his belt and glanced to Una. "Time to go to work," he said, and stood, snatching up the empty food pouch.
For a moment, she looked up at him with eyes wide and anxious. "Be on your guard, Ryan."
He half smiled in response, then stepped away.
* * * *
Locating the site where the three men had been massacred was a bit tricky in the dark, despite the fact that Ryan had been there before. It took he and the six "volunteers" just over twenty minutes to find the bodies, during which time they ahd entertained him with all manner of questions regarding what had happened to their fellow loggers, who Una really was, where Ryan had come from, and so on. Ryan knew enough about human psychology to recognize anxiety when he heard it, and the men were practically overflowing with it. Their chatter was merely a way to keep their minds occupied.
But it all stopped once their flashlights revealed the three partially-covered bodies laying upon the ground. Ryan had gone back to Steven's camp for blankets and anything else to drape over the corpses, but bloodied hands and mangled legs were still revealed as the lights panned over them.
"Oh, sweet Jesus," remarked one of the men, crossing himself.
Ryan looked around, peering into the shadows of the forest. The lack of expected woodland noises put him on edge. "Okay, do this quick. Two men per body. One takes the shoulders, the other the feet."
"What are you going to do?"
Ryan hefted the shotgun. "Keep watch," he said darkly. "Come on, hurry up."
The men fell to the task amid curses, muttered prayers and the occasional dry heave as their curiosity compelled them to look at the disfigured bodies. Still, they found the fortitude to do as they were instructed.
Ryan switched off his flashlight and allowed his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The world around him was not pitch black, though it came close. His experiences in similar situations allowed him to make use of other senses to compensate for his limited eyesight, such as hearing . . . and smell.
He wrinkled his nose. There was an unusual aroma on the breeze, something not unlike that of a wet dog. But it was mingled with that of an almost human odor as well . . . sweat, he realized. Human sweat. Something he had discovered during years of deployment in a variety of environments was that humans exuded a unique smell which, while subject to variation, was always uniquely human.
And it came from deeper in the forest. Close by.
He licked a finger, tested the wind, then looked to the northeast, from where the breeze blew. Eyes penetrated the darkness, reading the shadows of trees, branches, and underbrush. He focused his hearing.
Rustling. Movement. Something that sounded almost like a contemplative growl.
The invisible hand of anxiety tickled the back of his neck. He raised the shotgun.
"Listen to me and don't say anything," he intoned in a low, deep voice, addressing the men behind him. "Stop what you're doing and head back to camp."
"What?" came an incredulous reply. "We ain't going back without--"
The man's words were cut off by a ferocious snarl and blur of movement from Ryan's left. He could see no details of what it was that suddenly pounced, save that it was as large as any man, possibly larger, and covered in coarse fur. In a blinding rush, one of the men was gone amid the sound of an impact, followed by a short cry and the sickening sound of something sharp slashing through flesh.