by C. D. Lee
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"Oppression, and sickness, and sorrow, and pain
Shall be to our true love as links to the chain. "
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
(Click on image for larger version)
Given the number of people we were dealing with, I suggested that a smaller planning council would be more productive than a mass meeting. I asked for a few volunteers to serve along with me and Erica and the more outspoken people immediately offered themselves, while the rest seemed to be dominated by the herd instinct, relieved that somebody else would be taking care of them. Thus without much time lost or acrimony created, Erica and I were soon consulting with five other parents.
"I have a map," offered the father of one of lads whom Gus had been playing with.
Muttering a terse "thanks," I took the AAA map and unfurled it across a picnic table, weighing down its corners with stones against the brisk sweep of the wind. I'd been over this region several times in the last couple hundred years; it didn't appear to have changed much. The map showed no development between our position and the town of Braddock located at the edge of the state forest. I doubted that we'd find any private dwellings or rangers' stations along the way, since I hadn't noticed any sign of such things during the last leg of our bus ride.
"Who's going to walk all that way?" Erica remarked dubiously while reading over my shoulder.
"I will," I asserted swiftly. "It has to be me. As far as I can see, Iíve got more wilderness survival experience than anybody else here."
Erica drew back, her face cloudy with misgivings. "Somebody should go with you, Eden. If something happened we'd never know it."
I shook my head. "A buddy would only slow me down. I can handle myself. Trust me."
Pioneering experience aside, I knew I had to be the one to go, and my desire for solitude was based on more than simple expediency. Mantra would be able to fly to Braddock in a fraction of the time, even faster than a land vehicle could travel the winding gravel roads of the high country. On the other hand, saddled with a partner, the trek would demand many a foot-sore hour. In fact, the only down side to my plan was that I might return too quickly. But I suppose I could say I hitched a ride into town, then beg off from accompanying the sheriff back up the mountain after I'd found him. After that I'd be free to fly back to the camp site as Mantra and lurk unseen to make sure that nobody got hurt. Probably the campers would be taken back to Braddock within a reasonable time, and I could rejoin them there. If there turned out to be a long delay for some reason, I could reappear at the camp whenever I chose, telling people that I'd hitched a ride back up the mountain.
A mutter of consent brought our council to a close and we went our separate ways to brief the rest of the group. Most people seemed to approve of our plan of action, glad that someone was doing something. Notwithstanding, one mother mused, "That will take all day, Mrs. Blake. I don't know what the kids will do with nothing to eat."
I shrugged in response, since there wasnít much of an alternative to our plan. Besides, it might be a learning experience for kids who had everything to get a taste of old-fashioned hunger for just one day of their lives. But then I chided myself for having such thoughts. A lot of the self-respect I'm accruing these days comes from providing for my new family and I'm sure most other parents feel the same way.
So it was with Gus in mind that I bustled back to our cabin, there to get my jacket and to exchange my shorts for jeans and my sneakers for boots. Finally, just to make the charade look good, I filled a discarded plastic pop bottle with lake water and jammed it into my back pocket. By the time I returned, Gus had meandered back into the cabin
"Can't I go with you, Mom?" he pleaded, his eyes urgent.
"You don't have to be scared," I teased. "I'll be back with the sheriff before midnight."
"I'm not scared," young Daniel Boone protested. "But you might get attacked by a bear!"
"If I did, would you miss me?"
I knelt down and clasped his shoulders. How frail and bony they felt Ė and how strange to think that in just a few years Gus Jr. would be a grown man, confident and independent. "Bears don't hunt people," I reassured him, "and other big animals won't bother me if I'm careful. I've -- I've had some survival training as part of my job, you know. Anyway, it's going to be a long, hot hike until we reach town and we might not have anything to eat or drink all day. The best thing you can do is stay here and help find food for the littler kids. If you catch a grouse or something like that, maybe Erica will cook it for lunch."
He looked puzzled. "How am I supposed to catch a grouse?"
I smiled. Kids these days! Well, it's not their fault if nobody teaches them anything useful. "It's not hard," I said. "You're good at throwing bean bags, aren't you? Grouses are silly birds that won't always fly away just because you throw a rock at them. They'll give you a second chance; maybe a third." I also briefed him on how to hunt rabbits without a gun. Gus listened attentively, which was a pleasant surprise. Of course, I didnít think he had a chance in hell of actually catching a grouse or a rabbit, but hunting would give keep him busy and out of trouble until I returned. Ironically, his efforts to help would probably go unappreciated, since this group would have to get a lot hungrier before the majority could countenance a boy throwing rocks at "poor defenseless wild creatures." But if Gus stayed true to form, I didn't think he'd care much about what other people thought once he set his mind to something. I had to suppress a smile; making his own choices was all part of growing up. I just had to make sure that he was capable of making sensible choices by the time he was grown.
Then I winced, suspecting that bringing off that rosy future would be harder than beating Boneyard.
"And just remember not to stray too far," I emphasized. "It's better to go hungry for a few hours than to get yourself lost and starve for days. If you do get out of sight of the cabins, be careful to stay near the lake shore. A lot of game comes down to the water to drink so you can hunt all you need to without going into the woods. Also, if you know where the lake is, you'll always be able to follow its shoreline back to the group. If you lose sight of the water, try to remember that the lake has to be downhill from wherever you are."
Gus nodded. "Okay, Mom."
I kissed him on the cheek and to my surprise he didn't scowl. He did, however, cast a belated glance toward the door, as if to reassure himself that nobody had witnessed his abject mortification.
I grinned. At Gus' age boys assume it's macho to refuse to be kissed by a woman. Yet the very same kids, when they become teenagers, often turn into hormonal terrors, or so I've read. To be perfectly honest, I've never had the opportunity to watch any individual boy mature into a man, not for more than a thousand years, anyway. It's surprising all the simple things I've missed.
"Blood! Blood!" somebody yelled.
I dashed outside with Gus in tow and encountered a crowd gathering around Mrs. Horton, who looked strained and pale.
"There's blood in Mr. Storch's cabin!" she bawled.
"No, there's not," I snapped impatiently. "I was in the cabin just an hour ago."
"There's blood in there now!"
This seemed highly unlikely, but in the interest of assuaging her fears (not to mention the fears of the people whom she had upset), we followed her back to the vice principal's cabin. One thing was certain: whatever Mrs. Horton had seen, it had genuinely frightened her. When we neared the lodge in question she sidled out of the way, letting me press on by with a couple of other brave souls.
Inside, I sniffed the blood before I could see it. Quickly my eyes adjusted to the light and I discovered that someone had splashed gore around the room like paint. Warily, I bent down to examine it while those behind me hung back and crowded the doorway, either because they were afraid of upsetting a crime scene or simply because they were as scared as hell. For my own part, the look and the smell of the blood didnít bother me, but it didn't tell me much, either. I'm a witch, not a forensic pathologist, and my particular brand of sorcery doesn't deal with blood sacrifice. As far as I can tell, all mammalian blood is about the same, so to identify its source, I touched the cruor with an index finger. By concentration I could form a link to the living animal whose life-force may not have entirely faded. All of a sudden I made out I a woodchuck-like rodent in my mind's eye.
More than a little relieved, I straightened up and turned to face my worried, whispering, companions, "It's probably from an animal," I said. "There's no sign of a struggle; it looks like somebody's bad joke. Could one of the kids be responsible?"
The people who heard me looked blankly at one another and offered nothing in way of advice. I admit I felt a bit puzzled myself. If the culprit was not a child, then I suppose one of the teachers might have sneaked back to spread the blood around. But even if someone could pull off such a stupid trick unseen, why should he bother? Why frighten a random group of anxiety-ridden people even more?
Just then Gus' voice pierced the buzz of muttering: "Mom, what happened?" Not wanting to let him see the grisly mess, I pushed through the others standing in my way and addressed my son from the threshold.
"Nothing," I told him, trying to maintain a firm and unexcited tone. "It looks like some screwball is having a bit of nasty fun with us, that's all." Then I glanced over his sandy scalp to address the camp as a whole: "This looks more and more like some sort of miserable prank. I've had my fill of this nonsense just like you have, so I'm heading out right away to get us some transportation home."
I felt a tug on my pants leg. "Can I go in and see the blood?" my ghoulish offspring importuned.
"Absolutely not!" I snapped, my voice taking on a surprisingly good approximation of the kind of motherly scolding I'd been hearing ten times an hour since this trip began. Then I remembered that it was Gus whom I was talking to. "You're going to sneak inside for a look the minute I leave, aren't you?" I sighed.
He shrugged shyly. "Well..." he answered, giving me all the answer I needed.
More and more I sensed a threat closing in on our camp like a storm cloud. Part of me wanted to stay in case of the group needed protection, but I also knew that I could be out and back in just a couple hours. Anyway, though we had been deliberately stressed for no good reason, nothing physically dangerous had so far occurred. The idea of this being someone's idea of a physiological experiment came again to mind, but whatever the ultimate purpose of our tormentors' actions, they were taking their sweet time about coming to the point. I didnít know what all they might do over the next two hours, but I realized that if I remained on watch and sent someone else out, we'd definitely have to stay where we were for at least another dozen hours. Meanwhile, people would be getting hungrier and hungrier and more and more scared.
I resolved to take the risk and depart. I said goodbye to Gus and Erica and then set out down the crushed-rock road at a brisk stride, making for a screen of foliage where the curving road disappeared from view. Once out of sight, I intended to change to Mantra and take to the air. Sheís a useful one to have around sometimes, I have to admit. Although having a secret life complicates things, being a suburban housewife and wage slave would be far worse without her. Whenever I need to exercise a little control, she's there to do it for me.
My jacket quickly grew hot and uncomfortable under the forenoon sun, but I didn't bother to take it off because I knew I'd be back in my metal swimsuit before too long.
Nonetheless, my anticipated flight would be a rather slow one, all things considered, and I envied Prime who could have made the same journey in just a minute or so. On the other hand, I'm discovering new ways to use the Mantra power every day. In a few years the "Golden Sorceress," as my fans call me, might not be the world's second-best ultra.
I couldn't help but look over my shoulder from time to time, making double-sure that no one had followed me -- as children sometimes will whenever adults go off to do something "exciting." To tell the truth, though, I was just being paranoid. I knew very well that I was alone since I possess the mystical instinct for detecting nearby biofields and my many-times-repeated scans told me that the woods behind me was devoid of human-sized life.
I'd been directing my sense back in the direction of camp, but now I registered something up ahead. Whatever was out there, there was more than one of them lurking just on the other side of the jack-pine screen. I paused, wondering if I had found the missing teachers. I even considered changing into what I jokingly call my "armor" and approaching the people whom I decided might be potential enemies. Then I thought better of it and simply went phantasmal, stealing as silently as a ghost through the evergreen thicket for a better look.
To my surprise, I espied a sheriff's-department car parked in the center of the road with three deputies lounging around it. They seemed to be just marking time, with one leaning back against the warm metal with his arms folded, another munching on donuts from a white bag, and the third helping himself to a big thermos of coffee. I let myself solidify.
The startled three swung my way upon hearing my footfalls on the gravel. The hand of one of them had lurched toward his holster and just as reflexively my force field went up, but not so much that it would start glowing, as it does when I have to repel howitzer shots. Confident behind my screen, I removed my sunglasses and smiled. Eden Blake could melt a canister of ice cream when her face lit up. I remember the way she smiled at me last New Year's Eve...
Don't think about her, Lukasz; you'll just go into another funk.
"Uh, hi, Lady," mumbled one of the trio. "You must have come down from that camp up the road. Didn't know anyone was using it this weekend."
"That's right, I did," I nodded, still smiling. "What are you boys up to?"
"A couple of convicts broke out of State Prison two days ago -- eco-terrorists who got it in for lumber men," said the pot-bellied one, who came across as the senior deputy. "The sheriff thought that a pair of tree-huggers like them might make for the big woods."
Was that so? Just how much manpower did the local sheriff have that he could afford to waste three officers on a random roadblock? I immediately suspected that the deputy was serving me up a cover story to hide some other sort of police operation, but I decided not to pry. I had more pressing problems.
"I'm glad I ran into you guys," I remarked. "I was afraid I'd have to walk all the way to Braddock."
"Why? What's wrong, Miss --?"
"Blake. Mrs. Blake." I stepped closer to the car. "Something very strange is going on."
"And what's that?" inquired the one with a red moustache.
I enumerated the confusing details, including the sudden disappearance of the teachers, the dead generator, the lack of provisions, and the blood.
"Maybe the teachers just went into Braddock to get more grub," the paunchy deputy suggested.
"Did you see them go by?" I asked dubiously.
Red Moustache shoved his hat back over his bald, sweating forehead. "Well, no, Mrs. Blake, ma'am. But then we've only been here a half-hour."
"City people wouldn't walk all that distance on a routine errand," I said. "The bus that brought us up the mountain drove off empty about sunset."
"That does sound strange," the senior deputy admitted. He turned to his companions. "Jack, why don't you call the sheriff about getting another bus to stand by in case we need it later, while I go check out the camp with this lady?"
I was glad to let the authorities take over; involving Mantra into matters which primarily concern Eden Blake always introduces unwanted complexities.
The short deputy went to the radio as instructed. Meanwhile, the paunchy one brought out a second thermos of java and filled a Styrofoam cup. "Help yourself, Maíam," he said, nodding to one of the donut bags. "From what you said, you didn't have breakfast."
That was true. I dropped my protective shield and obligingly drew a donut. At about the third sip of the coffee everything went dark.
I opened my eyes and winced with pain. Every joint of my body felt cramped and I had a pounding headache. With a start, I realized I was trapped and instantly a magical glow filled the tiny space about me. This convinced me that at least I hadn't gone blind, but what I saw sent a jolt through me. Somebody had stuffed me into a small box made of cement bricks! There was a small door, but it had no latch and my straining legs couldn't push it open.
I've come to in worse places, granted, but those situations have always tended not to end well -- and these days I couldnít count on a quick and painless reincarnation if things took their usual course. Living burial is one of the most terrifying things in human experience and I was only able to get hold of myself so quickly because my Mantra powers have given me confidence enough to dare the damnedest situations -- a luxury I never enjoyed as a mere soldier. Even so, it was all I could do not to make a magical break for it.
Despite the pain and my incipient panic, I tried hard to think. How had I come here? Had I been drugged?
Of course I had! Those deputies had drugged me. But why?
Oh, my God -- not that!
I checked and quickly satisfied myself that I probably hadn't been tampered with.
The closeness of the air was making my head spin, so I used magic to increase the oxygen content, allowing me to think a little more clearly. Wherever I was, for whatever reason I'd been deposited here, it didn't bode well. But I was more baffled than ever; this new piece of the puzzle made the picture a whole lot uglier, but no clearer. For the first time I wondered how long I had been locked up. I checked my watch and with some relief saw that I had only been "out" for about an hour. But I suddenly felt anxious about Gus and the people at camp. Anyone who would bury a person alive would stop at nothing!
Thus my animal brain had even more reason to urge escape, but my human half still cautioned against haste. Therefore I would listen for voices or movement outside the cell before trying anything. After all, I didn't want anyone to see plain old Eden Blake getting herself out of an escape-proof cell.
Just then I realized why the air was so hard to breathe. An obnoxious sewage-like odor permeated it. Since I already knew that I was dry fore and aft, the smell suggested to me that I hadn't been the first or only guest to be checked into this poor excuse for a roach motel. Likewise, the absence of any distinct carrion-odor seemed to say that no one had died in the chamber lately. Or, if they had, someone had to be around to take them out before they moldered.
Wanting to be rid of my headache, I used a bit more magic to eradicate the residual traces of the officers' knockout drops from my system. Sure enough, within a minute both sweats and headache vanished -- though my cramped position kept me in torture.
Why had those deputies done this? A lot of special-agenda people will tell you otherwise, but I've been every kind of person in every kind of life situation and I know that American police rarely commit casual crimes against respectable people. I would have given odds that the uniforms and equipment had been phony. Yet, if someone was willing to take on so much trouble and expense for himself -- and also break the law in a big way -- it stood to reason that his intention was to create trouble and expense for someone else -- and soon.
I didn't have a clue what was going on, but knew it would be a job for Mantra!
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