For as long as she can remember, Danii has had her own personal superstition, a private charm that keeps her from thinking about how good her life is, because doing so, she knows, will result in her life immediately becoming less good.
She is thinking about her superstition right now, and trying to not think about the particulars of her life, because at this moment her life is very nice. The temperature is just this side of noticeable, made a shade cooler by a soft breeze. The wind also brings the perfume of jasmine that keeps taking her from now to then; to wherever she was this same time last year, or five before that. [No, she was in the Forest then, no jasmine, just spring pine; tar and spice.] In the background, the ebbing thrum of crickets; some from the tree right next to her porch and some from down the block. Almost in harmony.
She is deep in the music of the bugs when she hears the loud ‘pong’ of a tire popping a loose piece of gravel. She looks up to see - but she does not hear, because it is new and perfect - a dark grey car roll to a stop in front of her little house. No music inside, just the ‘chunk’ of the lock snapping and the sequence of other sounds that result in a brunette girl outside the car walking straight up to Danii's porch. Grey pleated skirt and jacket combo, glasses, shoes, gloves; all various shades of grey. All dark, as if she and the car are a matched set. The whole carbon-colored package offset by the particular yellow of the large envelope, the kind with the string closure, that the dark woman carries in her left hand.
It is still very quiet. The crickets have gone mute, as they always do when things happen. Just the little click, strong and even, of her heels. Louder as she takes the three porch steps one at a time.
Danii doesn't get up from her chair, but she looks up into the woman's amber-colored eyes. Almost the same color as her own.
Danii wonders if there is a real word for the feeling of simultaneous relief and fear when something you've been dreading for a long time finally happens. If there is, she doesn't know it.
She is wondering what she should say as the dark-haired woman hands her the envelope and, wordless herself, turns and begins walking back to her car. She stops, though, at the bottom of the three steps and turns back, ready to say something. She looks straight into Danii's eyes and whatever she sees there makes her keep her silence. She turns back and walks to her car, not even glancing at Danii as she slides into the seat and drives away.
Hardly any time passes before the crickets start up again.
Danii is left with a completely normal interoffice envelope in her hand. The string, she notices, is wrapped only once around the little circle of cardboard.
She doesn't open the envelope because she already knows what's in it. She has read many stories where the main character gets a telegram and is unable to open it, knowing that someone has died. She doesn't know if it is still possible to send a telegram these days, but she knows this is the same. Someone has died.
Looking at the string still looped around the disk of cardboard she thinks about that word again, the one she doesn't know. Pretty sure there isn't one in this language, but she wonders why there isn't. So many people waiting for the results of their MRIs. Or their child's MRI. Everyone who is in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. All the people every day who know it's coming. And then it does. ‘Dread' almost does it, but dread doesn't account for the extra punch of the happening, or the unmistakable relief that it has finally come.
Then, without thinking about it at all, she unloops the string and takes out the single black-and-white photograph and the single, hand-written piece of paper that tells her where and how someone has died. But not why.
She is through her living room and into her bedroom, on her knees, reaching under the bed for the Pelican case; all before she has decided what she will do. She sets the case on the bed and flips the sturdy plastic clasps. Even as she sees them in their individual cutouts, she is hoping that they are not there. Not real. But they are; Piiska and Sääksi. Their metal, as always, colder than she thinks it should be.
She snaps the Pelican's clasps shut and goes directly to the place in her closet where she keeps the jump bag. Packed and ready all these years.
No pets. No kids. A couple clients to put off for a few days, but she can call them from the car. Absolutely nothing in her life to keep her from walking directly out of her house, down the same three steps as the dark girl, and to her own car.
She sets her jump bag by the front door and places the Pelican on the end table. She wants to go, to be on her way, but she has to find the slow-running water first. If she's lucky she can do it from here on her computer. But these days, she knows, she has to be careful. A Google Maps search of the area could come back to haunt her. She has ways around that, ways that Jade has shown her, but hopefully she won't have to use those. She wakes her MacBook and launches the better-than-average mapping software. The note in the envelope said that a young woman (a wife, but no children yet) had been killed in a city in North Georgia that Danii has heard of, but she isn't sure exactly where it is. She enters the address, and the electronic map takes her there immediately. The mapping software brings it in at satellite altitude and she zooms in all the way, so that even though there are no pictures of the individual homes in the neighborhood she can make out the shapes of the lots by how the streets wind through the suburb. She sees the rigorously planned parks, the shopping districts, the schools, but all the water is tame; retention ponds and runoff canals and small lakes built just for the homeowners. She zooms out on the map. Now she can see the edge of the city proper below the large suburban area, and the undeveloped land and forest above. North of that the rolling hills start to climb into the lowest reaches of the Smoky Mountains. The river begins up there. Fast but small through the forest and steeper hills, cascading down sheer runs in some places, making beautiful falls, slowing as the hills roll into the farmland, winding and switching back several times before skirting the little outlying town where the woman was killed. Beyond there it becomes a substantial river, having been joined by several other smaller ones; slow and likely very polluted from the farms and towns.
So even though this is the very first time she has ever done this for real, now she knows where it is. There, at the edge of the forest, where the river still moves quickly but is wide and shallow, and the trees can hear the water on the rocks. A natural ford, far back in the rear of a closed-down state park.
She thinks she can be there in about 10 hours.
The bad ones, she has been told, are the ones that run immediately. They get in deep, without any fight. They get away from the scene and worm their way deeper in and, very soon, someone else dies. Then another. And another. Until, finally, the human part is so far gone that the police, or a lucky would-have-been victim, ends it. For the moment. The body dies, but the thing, the aave, goes back to wherever it is they go until the next time, the next body.
That's what Kari says anyway. That's why she is in her car right now. She has thought about it every single day for these past years and somewhere inside her, not too deep, she still doesn't believe it. Sometimes it is just a drug addict or a case of clinical depression gone off the scales. Occasionally, he (almost always a he) actually was kept chained in a box in the cellar, and when the police or the feds finally get him he's got the old cigarette burns on his arms or the lash scars across his back. Then everyone knows WHY.
But sometimes there are no scars; outside or inside. Sometimes he is a perfectly normal and happy husband and father; no addictions, no psychoses, no hidden evils. Sometimes there is truly no reason. Just chaos.
The drive has gone fast with mostly these thoughts, over and over, to keep her company for the past four hours. She is just over the Georgia border when she comes back to her role in all this, the absurdity of it. The irony that if this continues down the road it is going, if it is where she thinks it will be, if she gets to it first, and gets close enough to do the thing she is supposed to do, then she may get to know. Finally. And if she does get to know, she may only get to know for the couple seconds she is still alive. Because if all this is true, the aave is going to try very hard to kill her too.
She hits scan on the radio and the first stop is an NPR affiliate just starting O Fortuna from the Carmina Burana. That is just a little too much, so she pops in Brideshead Revisited read by Jeremy Irons. Two of her favorite things. That helps, for a little while.
She goes East around Atlanta.
Then she has to pay close attention to the directions because she is not at all familiar with this part of Georgia. She had been to Buckhead a couple times with her mom while her dad had business in Atlanta, but those were short trips and she was pretty young; 12 or 13, she thinks. She rode the metro for the first time on one of those trips; the Jaguar was back at the hotel, but her mom was like that. Still is, she realizes, and makes a mental note to call her as soon as she can. And this is the first moment since that woman handed her the envelope that Danii realizes she is very afraid. She uses absolutely everything in her to keep the tears from coming, because she knows that if she cries it is only a very small step to losing it completely, and maybe for good.
She fights it back down and concentrates on getting off I75 and over to back roads that will require a much greater level of concentration on her driving. By the time she finds a good road, and turns back North, and gets on with it, she realizes she is very close to where she needs to be.
Her plan, when she has forced all the other thoughts away and actually thinks about what she will do when she gets there, is to park the car at an unobtrusive little inn near the state park where she thinks It will be, get settled in, change, then make her way across country through the parkland to the ford. The software was pretty up-to-date and it showed two small hotels that might work. She'll have to see.
Before driving into the town she pulls off the road onto a dirt track that runs along a field of corn, the stalks just as high as the roof of her car. As soon as she is out of sight of the main road she stops the car, gets out, switches the car's plate for one she had in her jump bag, and, taking her real plate and her real ID, she caches them thirty yards into the wind break next to the corn field. She only laughs a little as she thinks about switching them back on the way out of here.
It turns out the first hotel is fine. It looks like a Swiss chalet built by someone who had only ever seen a postcard of one. She drives around it and finds only a couple cars in the lot, one of them, obviously, belonging to the owner or manager. She checks in and finds that the owner is the manager; a woman of sixty who introduces herself as Mrs. Emmi. One of those people who are deep into conversation with you before they even know your name. Danii introduces herself as Sarah, to match her false ID, and says she is here for a long, solitary hike. Mrs. Emmi says she likes a good hike herself, has ever since she was a girl, one of the reasons she came here in the first place. Likes it even better knowing there's a pistol in her day pack. She looks pleased when she hears that Danii couldn't agree more. Danii asks when breakfast is and explains that she will likely be out on the trails by then, but should be back from her hike in time for dinner. She says she'll only be staying for two nights at most and pays in advance with travelers checks since she doesn't really have credit anymore (Sarah doesn't, anyway), not since her bastard of an ex-boyfriend used her credit cards, all of them, to set himself up in high style with his new girl. Mrs. Emmi obviously understands all too well. They chat for a couple minutes more and Mrs. Emmi gives Danii some good advice about the trails across the street, because the big park behind the chalet is closed down until the end of summer. She either forgets or doesn't bother with the registration card that would have gotten the false plate number and the details from the fake ID.
The room is no more and no less than she expected, down to the beer stein on the end table and the poorly framed print of the blond boy in lederhosen. Everything else is pure Wal-Mart, maybe Target.
She unpacks, laying her gear out on the small writing desk, then takes a very long, very hot shower. If she were going to drive, she thinks, she could take the road through the park to a paved lot only about a mile from the ford; probably 40 minutes, tops. But she wouldn't drive in even if the park were open.
She lived in the Forest for two years. In that time she learned more about how to move and track and survive in the woods than all but the most experienced trappers or special operations types. The distance is close to five miles from where she stands right now, and she knows she can do it, cross country, even with no moon, in just about four hours - if nothing crazy happens.
She leaves the hotel room and walks straight to the closed trailhead 70 yards from the back of the hotel. The gear from her pack included moss green fatigue pants, not a camouflage pattern, but a color that blends well in various settings. She also wears a black t-shirt under a light jacket that is cut almost exactly like a karate gi. The jacket is a darker grey-green than her pants, splotchy shapes in the design, but still not an obvious camouflage pattern. She ties the jacket right over left and leaves it untucked. She can draw the knife at her right hip or the spike at the small of her back quickly. She carries a couple energy bars in one of the cargo pockets on her leg, but no map or compass, because that is all in her head.
She had no idea she could do this before the Forest; look at a good topo map of an area and visualize the view from the ground so well, memorize the landmarks in such detail, it's as if she had been raised in the area her whole life. Kari had mentioned at some point that Jade could do it too, but that Feyn could not, which she still chuckles over because she knows how that must piss him off. Right now, though, she would much rather be able to handle a blade like Feyn or Jade than be able to move like a deer through the woods.
But that's helpful, too. The crime didn't occur that far away, so she knows it is quite possible that right now law enforcement may be somewhere in these woods. And she knows she would hear and see them, and be gone, before they knew she was there. No moon, but lots of stars, more than enough light for her to follow close to the midlines of several successive ridges and end up just beyond the crest of the last hill, overlooking the ford. Coming around behind it, as she is planning to do, there are no improved trails - at least not according to the trail map Mrs. Emmi had. Not terribly hard, but taxing enough at night over terrain she has never seen in three dimensions. She is pretty sure she will get to the point overlooking the ford a little before sunup.
And she does.
She hears the ford before she either sees it or smells it. As she crests the ridge, high above the water, she catches the first white-noise burble. Not the full-on pounding of fast, deep water smashing into rocks; this is the sound of power spread thin. It slows, and wanders, and doubles back on itself, confused and searching. She thinks of Mandelbrot forms swirling in the little pools. The intensity of her mental reflection on these fractals tells her that she is indeed tired. Everything has gone very fast; only about 18 hours, right now, since she got the envelope.
The sky has not yet begun to lighten, and, being tired, she is closer to the cliff face than she realizes and she steps into air. Suddenly, she can smell the water directly below her. The crook of her right arm hooks a small tree growing up out of the very edge of the cliff, but her center of gravity is already over nothing. The tree is strong enough to hold her, and she swings full around, pivoting on her bent arm, before levering herself back over solid ground.
Very tired; the drive, the long hike, and now the adrenaline flowing away, leaving her weak and shaking. She sits, back from the edge of the cliff, and waits for morning.
It comes about 10 minutes later as she realizes she can see shapes around her. There is just a little wind, cooler than the one back home yesterday, and it carries the sound of the thing she has come for. The sound of a human voice, twisted and pulled to a pitch that human voices cannot reach. A rabbit's scream, if rabbits had human-sized lungs and could scream without end. At first so low that she only feels it, deep in her chest, then building so fast and so loud, ending high like fingernails on slate and feedback through a giant amplifier.
Then the silence. Almost silence; just the water far below.
The light has come just enough to show faint sparkles on the water, and to allow her to see that the cliff is as sheer as she had visualized. She waits for the scream to come again, but it doesn't. She wants, more than anything else she has ever felt, to go quietly back over the crest of this hill and move quickly through the woods back to the little fake chalet. Act normal, eat a late breakfast with Mrs. Emmi (because none of this has happened), get the rest of her gear and head the hell out of town. As she leaves (forever) she will call the police or the feds and tell them they would do well to make a sweep through the forest near the ford.
And as long as whatever is down there is just a sick or psychopathic human it will almost certainly end right here. Maybe there will be a fight. Maybe he (it is only ‘he’ now; the man who killed his wife for perfectly good and natural reasons) will get lucky and take out a cop or two before the sniper drops him. But that will be it. Over.
But if this has all been a lie, a delusion, how did she know that the perfectly normal killer was down there. Why would he be here? Its wail is still echoing through her head and she is closer now to believing than ever before. Closer than when she was in the Forest. If it is true, this thing that she is closer to believing, then it will not end here unless she ends it. Even if a couple cops die, even if the thing's body is killed; it will still BE. It will be whatever it is, back to what it was before it found this body. And it will find another one, and another one, and more than likely there won't be anyone around to know what it is and no beautiful woman in black will drive up and hand her envelope over to a girl who can do something about it. A girl who can confirm.
That thought takes her back to the Forest.
"What do you mean, ‘confirmation'?" she asked.
"You do not know for sure until you find it, and when you find it you have to make sure," he'd said. "You feel it, if you are lucky. Or someone feels it. So you know it is around, coming together, through the trees, like a patch of black cold. They are rare, but I have heard that they can be anywhere. I have heard of some that have felt them floating over the burning sand, but I have never felt one there. I have not been to many deserts, though. But the bad thing is that there is nothing even we can do about it until it is all together and has gotten into someone. Or something."
"Oh, they can get into animals, too. Sick animals, mostly. It is very rare that an animal that is not already sick can, how can I explain this, be in sync with it. Maybe harmonize with it is a good way to think about it. But people or animals, it does not really matter. Something with teeth or claws, or knives or guns. Once it harmonizes with something it just starts killing. Taking life. That is what an aave is, I guess, just anti-life."
"So, as I was saying, you feel it and then maybe not too much later things start getting killed. People report a wolf attacking the village (I'm talking about the old days, of course) or a news report of a postal worker taking out half the office. In the old days it was easier because there is something about those things, the way they act, or I should say the way creatures act when they have been taken. No one knows why, but they always try to do certain things." He stopped, as he often did, and just looked at something in his memory.
"You going to tell me?"
"I have to tell you. How else might you find it, if you ever need to?" he said.
She thinks, as she sits high above the ford, that that may have been the first time he had ever come right out and said what it was that he, and Jade, and Feyn and some others (she supposes), actually did. He didn't go into more detail at the time, just continued. "They always try to go to shallow, running water; a kahlauspaikka, a ford. In the evening and the early morning they wail with a scream straight from hell."
"Like a Banshee?" she asked.
"It is a Banshee," he replied. "This is what we are talking about. The thing that, all over the world, people have heard, occasionally encountered, and when they have heard that sound they have noticed that soon after something dies. Banshee. Aave. "Woman at the Ford". Whatever. All just names to describe something that has no name. I do not know what it is. I only know what it does. And how to make it stop."
"So anyway, you feel that it is near, then something dies, but you do not really know yet if it is an aave. You like aave better? Or banshee?"
"Doesn't matter. Aave's fine," Danii said.
"You do not know until you find it and touch it. Then you know. Or, more accurately, then we know. As far as I can tell, if a person touches an aave, the only thing they know is that they are now dead."
"This is one of the things we do. Some might have said it is the main thing that we do. We are the people who can tell about things like this. We are the people who are supposed to do something about it. If a human kills the host, the body, then the aave is just set free to wander, to find another host. Maybe dispersed again, but it still IS. If we get to it, we can destroy it."
"But how?" she asked.
"Magic," he said. She knew enough by that time to know that when he said "magic" it meant that he had no idea.
"OK, but how do you know that it is an aave?"
He didn't say anything for even longer than it usually took for him to say anything. He nudged at a log at the edge of the fire, then he looked around on the ground behind him at absolutely nothing and finally he said, "Have you ever been with a man? Made love?"
"It is the exact opposite. Just like you can't really describe the joy of love and the infinite good feelings that are tied up in that one feeling, I can't even begin to explain this except by negation. If you touch it, you will feel every cold, terrifying, hateful feeling there is. But just for as long as you touch. So try to keep it off you. For the host, I think, that is how it is all the time; from the time it takes him until he dies. It is surprising they do not kill themselves immediately."
"Why don't they?"
"My guess is that they cannot. But I do not know. Remember, there are no reasons in any of this, just actions. I have not had the benefit of several hundred years of rabid science to try to understand these things." He stopped again and watched the fire. "I do not think we could understand. Not anytime soon, anyway. I think they are all parts of an aspect of the universe that is currently, fundamentally, unknowable. I know real scientists would laugh at that, but I think it is true. Maybe someday, but then again this will all come to an end soon anyway."
"I told you on that first day in Tel Aviv that I would not lie to you. I can tell you the stories about why, about Ilma and Mielikki." He gestured toward her knife. "I can tell you about how Jalava was shattered by one of the Peikko and how the shards were taken and re-forged into that knife and that spike, and Jade's knife and the others. And I can tell you the parts of that story that are true. And I can tell you how Hietanen came to have Jalava in the first place. And of the other blades that were Jalava's brothers and sisters because they were all forged together. And which one sang which song. And so on. But at some point in history, probably just before your knives were re-forged, I think they are all just stories. I could be wrong, even about that; but I was there when those knives were made, I wasn't for the rest. Like all myths, through all times, I think these stories explain real things that neither we nor the humans understood. The difference, for the humans, is that they now understand most of what their myths tried to explain. My myths are still the only explanations I have."
"So, I do not know. I will tell you that straight out. I have no idea what most of these things really are. I do not know how I can feel them, or you for that matter, I only know that I can. I do not know why they go away if we can cut into them with one of those knives, only that when we do the killing stops. Just like that."
"Kari?" she said.
"What if it isn't an aave?"
"Much easier," he said. "Then you have only to deal with a very bad person or a very sick animal."
So she doesn't turn around. She looks to her left and to her right and sees in the growing light a fairly clear way on her left, to the North, down to the ford.
She is cautious, but she doesn't worry over much about silence. She is more concerned about seeing it before it sees her. Or smells her. Or whatever. As the ground levels out, the trees, thick and dense until now, open on to the wide clear area that is the ford. She stays inside the tree line. The rising sun, still low, shines hard into her eyes across the flat land east of the ford so at first she doesn't see him. Then she does; just a man, sitting on a large rock, face bright and golden.
She realizes that she has no idea what to do. She knows, now, that she has been expecting, hoping for, a bestial, bloodied monster; barely human, if at all. Something whose form would take the last part of the doubt away. But now the doubt hits her hard, and is immediately replaced by certainty. The stone assurance that this has all been a nightmare. A joke. A scam.
But why? To what purpose? What kind of joke engineers the murder of a simple little housewife. The wife. The husband. This is him.
It doesn't matter. He may be a psychopath or he may be something entirely else, but right now, as she remembers the dead wife, it doesn't matter.
She takes Piiska from its sheath.
She leaves the edge of the forest and walks to where the water meets the gravel, then on into the water. He realizes something by her second step into the stream. But the morning sun is full in his face and the water is hitting his rock with load force, so it is not until he turns his head (so slowly) and opens his eyes to just slits that he sees that she is something that is ALIVE.
Then her doubt doesn't matter any more because he launches himself, flailing, hurtling through the air. Landing, unbelievably, without his chaotic momentum tripping him over. Charging her.
She stops thinking and just moves.
He covers all the distance to her faster than he should, coming in strong and straight and she should be able to pivot and simply slide Piiska along his bare neck, but he doesn't move right and even as she spins away from his grasp he jerks and her right hand brushes his face.
She knows. Right now she knows.
It is like Kari said, but much worse.
Then her skin leaves his skin, and she gasps a breath and he is already around and on her again; flailing and trying to get to her eyes, her throat. She takes the blows, trying not to touch his skin, trying to get the knife to him.
But his body doesn't act like it should, and she misses, and then he slams his left hand into hers, missing the knife, and the black flash again, and Piiska flies off into the water near the rock where he sat.
She doesn't move well, but she moves enough to keep it mostly off her for a few seconds, until it has her by her hair and she grasps its wrist just before it gets to her throat; and even in the black hate - they are touching now - she knows it is over for her. Too strong. No interest in watching the life ebb out of her, or toying with her, or eating her fear. It has no concept of any of these things.
It just has to make her stop being alive.
In that eternal, black moment of hate and death and fear she hears, or sees, herself as a high, perfect, ordered note through the white-noise wail that is its universe. Same instant, over there by the big rock, she feels another, high and crystalline; Piiska. And one other note, clear and cold, very near.
She remembers Sääksi.
Before she even realizes that she remembers, her hand finds the cold metal spike at the small of her back, and draws it, and stabs it into the meat of the monster's left shoulder.
Because it is holding her up solely by the strength of its hand around her neck, she goes with it as it collapses into the water.
The hurricane of its wail is gone.
She rolls to her side in the shallow water and sees him lying there, face down. She still has Sääksi in her right hand. She sees the very small hole in his shirt sleeve, and the small amount of blood and knows that her stab shouldn't have done anything but annoy it.
It is still dead.
She pushes up and makes it to her knees. She wonders if she should say something, or think something, to mourn the person it had been. But she doesn't say anything. Or think anything. She just goes to the rock to get Piiska, then, without looking back, she goes back into the forest.