by C. D. Lee
Table of Contents
"A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood. "
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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"See what?" Erica asked with forced calm, trying not to excite the boy. She was wound too tightly herself to grasp the fact that Gus was the calmest person present.
"Look!" he declared, holding the gory weapon by its tip for all to see. "If Mr. Daschle used the knife, his big fingerprints would be on it, but they're all little ones!"
Erica saw at once that Gus was right; the pattern of prints on the handle was child-sized.
"Did one of the little kids hold the knife after you picked it up, Gus?" Erica asked hesitantly.
The boy shook his head. "This is just the way I found it, ma'am."
Mr. Hertz pressed in closer to stare at the blade. "Debbie's hands were bloody," he muttered just loud enough for the others to hear.
Erica glanced off into the shadows; no one was saying anything yet, but the sight of the fingerprints had created a tension thick enough to cut.
"The blood came from touching her parents, poor thing," Mrs. Arnold offered hopefully.
"Yes, she could have clenched the knife quite innocently in her state of mind," Erica ventured.
"Of course, that's it," Hertz affirmed weakly.
"I'll have to talk to her," Erica said with a grimace of resignation.
"Maybe we should all go," suggested Hertz.
Erica nodded gratefully and then looked back toward the young bearer of bad tidings. "Gus, take that white plastic bag out of the trash can over there and lay the knife on it gently; don't do anything that will smear those prints. The police have to see them just as they are."
Gus asked with a frown: "Do you think Debbie is like the girl in Bad Seed?"
Not replying, Erica pushed herself up with her arms and was surprised to discover how weak and shaky they felt. Her voice wavering, she said, "Let's find Debbie before -- well, just before."
Soon they discovered the Daschle child sitting alone at a table overlooking the lake, her wan face appearing to be pale with shock. When Debbie heard the adults coming, she turned her dazed eyes their way. For some reason, that stare warded off the grownups, and instead of clustering around her, they spread out in a row on the near side of the picnic table.
Mr. Hertz, spoke first. "Debbie, have you told us everything about - what happened? I mean, how your folks --" He trailed off, unwilling to speak of the terrible thing that had happened, especially not to the child most hurt by it. For a full half-minute silence reigned, then the latter's expression suddenly changed to a mask of grim resolve.
Instead of bursting into a fit of violent emotion as Erica expected, the little girl leaped from her bench and raced down the weedy slope toward the lake.
"Debbie! Come back!" Erica cried after her. "No one's going to hurt you --"
The unheeding youngster reached the water in seconds and leaped into it without breaking stride. While the others seemed to be frozen in panic, Erica dashed to the water's edge and thrust out an anxious arm toward the child, urging, "Give me your hand, Debbie!"
The Daschle girl grabbed Erica's hand as determinedly as a piranha. The stunned crowd heard Erica suddenly yelp with pain and saw her tear her limb out of the little girl's grasp. As she stumbled backwards and fell on the sand clutching her hand, the crowd realized that blood was welling from it. While the other parents pressed in close, Mrs. Arnold hurriedly knelt and examined Erica’s wound.
"Somebody who can swim, save her!" a woman urged desperately. The young Daschle was already more than twenty feet out, when she suddenly disappeared under the surface.
"She's drowning!" Hertz bawled and one of the other men, Mr. O'Brien, started stripping off his jacket and shoes. Before the would-be rescuer was ready to dive into the lake, Hertz poked him in the ribs and exclaimed: "Look!"
Something was breaking up through the surface -- not a little girl but a hideous brute whose wet, pasted-down fur looked slimy-black in the lowering shadows of the conifers.
"It's a dog!" a woman yelled.
"No! It's a wolf!" declared a man.
"The thing's got Debbie!" shrilled Mrs. Arnold.
O'Brien never began his rescue attempt, unwilling to go up against the deadly beast. As the people jabbered frantically about what they should do, the predator started paddling their way.
"Get back!" shouted Erica over the babble, the pain in her hand already forgotten in the enormity of the crisis. "Up the bank! Everyone -- back to your cabins! It might attack!" She didn’t realize it yet, but already she had given Debbie up for lost.
Slipping, sliding, the children and their parents routed, evacuating the lakefront even more rapidly than they had thronged to fill it. Gus, watching the panicked retreat from the high ground, realized for the first time how exciting the woods could be. Then it sank in that danger wasn't always a good thing if it wasn’t on a TV screen. That wolf looked like a horror movie come to life and, belatedly frightened, he started running, too.
Darting into the cabin, Gus bolted the door behind him and hurriedly latched all the windows. Then he darted from one window to another, stood on his tiptoes, and tried to see what was happening outside.
The more he thought about what had happened, the more scared he got. From where he'd stood, it hadn't seemed like the wolf had pulled Debbie under the water; it looked more like she had turned into a wolf herself, just like in The Howling. A shiver ran through his small, bony frame. He'd stood close to Debbie a couple times. What if she had turned into a werewolf then and gone after him? Now he knew why Debbie had stabbed her folks. Werewolves were always mean!
All of a sudden, Gus grasped that he was in danger and all alone. How he wished that Prime were there! Prime could make short work of any old werewolf, and maybe Evie's friend Mantra could, too. In fact, he would have given anything if even just his mother could have been there with him.
At that moment, the boy saw the wolf through the west window and ducked down fast, afraid that it would attack if it spotted him. Could it get in? A wooden lodge was sort of like a house of sticks, wasn't it, like in that dumb old story about the Three Little Pigs?
Hearing a howl on the east side, Gus ran to that window and stole another furtive peek. To his surprise, he saw not one wolf, but two. He dropped down on his knees and hid beneath the sill, afraid that both of them might be werewolves. Was there a big pack roaming the forest? That was it! A werewolf must have bitten Debbie when she'd been lost in the woods, and she had turned into one of them. Were there werewolves all over the mountain? Had they already eaten his mom?
More howling warned him of more monsters on every side, and for the first time Gus realized that he could die before this was over. His body shook, but he was afraid to cry because the wolves might hear and come for him.
Suddenly, Gus Jr. heard a thumping on his door and he squealed with fright. He knew there was only one thing left to do --
My flight from the hill where I'd left Kohler had taken only minutes. I didn't know exactly what form the attack on the camp would take, but expected some sort of Khmer Rouge-style massacre. Instead, as I came into sight of the cedar-shingled buildings, I saw that a huge pack of timber wolves had overrun the grounds!
It took me a second to realize that these beasts had to be the shape-shifting aliens in disguise. I'd been warned that their aim was to kill and duplicate only after subjecting their victims to physical agony and emotional terror.
I veered toward my own cabin, where I could see that wolves were already shouldering the door. But the lupines were assailing other lodges, too, and before my eyes one shaggy beast broke in the supports of a door and started tearing its way through the fragments. I heard the shrill screams of the lodge’s occupants, Mrs. Kiehl and her son, echoing off the mountain cliffs.
Going phantasmal, I dropped down through the Kiehls' roof to land between the trapped people and the lead wolf, a hulking brute with gray-brown fur. The creature startled at my sudden onset, but recovered in a flash and sprang from the threshold as quick as thought. I put my force field up just a little too late; the force of its hurtling weight slammed me against the cedar-board wall, knocking the wind out of me. At the same time, the forming field bounced the wolf back, stunned.
Dazed from the body slam, I couldn’t manage a follow-up blow before a second pseudo-wolf sprang in over the threshold. This time I let loose a magical-blast; it should have been lethal for normal humans and real wolves, but to my dismay it did no more than make the brute stumble to the pine-board floor. Even while I coughed on the stench of its burnt fur, it recovered swiftly and leapt at me.
Fortunately, the burst had rattled the creature, allowing me to dodge it easier than I might have otherwise. I snatched up a chair, though it was hardly my intention to brain the resilient alien with such a crude weapon. Instead, though the room reeled around me, I again made myself a phantom and thrust the immaterial chair midway through its body. At that instant, I let the wood solidify and gush of hot ichor splashed my boots and bare thighs.
Uchhth! This is no work for a lady, Lukasz!
With me thus occupied, the first wolf had time to recover. By raising my shield, I stopped its blindsiding attack, but it immediately started to circumnavigate me and make for the cowering mother and child. I seized the gold ring at my loins and willed it into its natural shape -- if anything as unusual and extraordinary as the Sword of Fangs can ever be called "natural."
It takes much longer to describe the action than to use the sword. The demon cutlass sliced through the monster's hindquarters as through soft butter. A leg and the piece of haunch fell away as if sheared off by a butcher's blade.
More of that filthy ichor splattered me and I could only trust to luck that the foulness flowing in its alien veins wasn't inimical to human flesh. But the continuing commotion gave me no time to worry about poisoning, for a third wolf had been drawn in by the noise. This one sprang for my head, but my defensive force blast upset its trajectory and my follow-up with the Sword dissected it.
"Lady! Look out!" Mrs. Kiehl shouted.
"That's no lady, Mom; that's Mantra!" her little boy cried out.
I saw what she saw. Despite its wound, the second wolf was rapidly pulling itself back together, taking the form of some kind of giant, gelatinous rat in the process. In fact, all the wounded "wolves" were changing into that same unearthly shape. I realized now that the Elite had no vital organs at all, and that the rat-shape was almost certainly their natural guise. Clearly, too, they possessed accelerated healing ability. Idiot! I thought. Why hadn't I asked Kohler how to kill the members of her race, instead of assuming that it would be easy?
Guided by dueling instincts honed over many centuries, I fell back into the corner where the Kiehls crouched, protecting them while forcing the alien rats to bunch up. As soon as they were close enough together, I sprayed them with a gust of near-interstellar cold, while at the same time insulating mother, child, and yours truly from what had to be terminal frostbite.
I'm glad the magic worked, since I'd only practiced making cold once before.
The Elite stiffened and fell over like statues. Though the three aliens were on ice, at least temporarily, I was in too much of a hurry to figure out how to finish them off. "Here, take hold of me!" I shouted to the others. "We're going to fly!"
Because of the noisy battle I had been waging for the last couple minutes, most of the other wolves had been drawn our way and now I could see them through the windows. That was all to the good, since it had temporarily stopped the attacks on the other cabins, especially the one where, I hoped, I would find Gus.
Levitating the Kiehls along with me, I phantasmally flew through the wall of their cabin and into my own cabin. Alighting on a rag rug, I let my passengers stagger free and quickly looked around the small room. There was no wolf inside yet, but I saw no son of mine, either!
"Gus!" I cried, forgetting to alter my natural tone.
"Mom!" a boy shouted. I swung in the direction of Gus' bed and saw a head poke out from underneath.
"Mantra?!" Gus muttered, with what I thought was confusion and awe.
"Gus!" I said, belatedly assuming a huskier voice. "I'm glad you're all right. I can't stay; people may be dying outside. Take care of the Kiehls like a good boy. I'll be back."
"Mantra!" the lad yelled. "My mom's in the woods all alone! The wolves'll get her!"
Did my ears deceive me? Had Gus Blake Jr.'s first words to Mantra really been to ask her to save his mother? Under all that emotional dysfunction, did my exasperating scamp really possess a beating heart?
"Your mother's all right," I assured him quickly. "I saved Mrs. Blake from the wolves and took her into Braddock. She'll be glad to find out you're not hurt."
And I was!
The chip off Gus Sr.'s old block just stared at me. In an older boy, I wouldn't have doubted that it was my minimalist, rock-video armor; in an eleven-year-old girl-hater, I assumed it was merely astonishment at meeting a celebrity. Regardless, I didn't have a moment to waste. Going phantom again, I catapulted out through the closed door -- into the fray that I knew waited for me outside.
God, but my shoulders still hurt!
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