It was nearly dark when the travelers stopped for the night. There was just time to build a fire and rub down the horses, using Captain Decker’s rope to tie them off for the night. Everyone was tired, but excited about the horses. The women had all ridden before. Lincoln had ridden some during his time with the CIA, though he was not at liberty to say where or why. The elves, of course, were more than capable riders though they preferred their own two feet. Only Captain Decker and Lockhart had never ridden other than Lockhart’s one trip down the grand canyon on a donkey’s back.
“I expect we will all feel it tomorrow,” Lockhart said.
“Why wait for tomorrow?” Captain Decker asked and rubbed his backside.
Still, they were happy knowing they would not have to walk all the way back to the twenty-first century. All seemed well with the world, and though Lockhart insisted on the two man watch, they all felt they would get a good night’s sleep. Naturally, they got nothing of the sort.
It started about midnight when Alexis woke up to the sound of a baby crying. It was far away and faint, but she heard it clearly. She had just gone to sleep an hour earlier from first watch, so she knew it was not a dream. There it was again, and she shook Lincoln.
“What?” Lincoln was groggy. He was just falling into a deep sleep.
“Listen,” Alexis said. “Can you hear that?”
They listened but heard nothing. Just before Lincoln said, go back to sleep, you were dreaming, the sound came again. It was louder and still sounded like a baby’s cry, but there was something different about it – something off. Alexis jumped up and found the two on watch, Lockhart and Mingus had heard it too. They were side by side, staring at the line of trees in the distance.
“It’s coming from inside the forest,” Lockhart pointed as Katie and Boston came up from the horses and Roland jogged in from the dark.
“Night creatures,” Mingus named them. Roland only had to nod to confirm.
“They appear to be guarding the perimeter of the trees,” Roland reported. “But whether that is to keep people out or keep the slaves in I cannot say.”
“Let’s hope they don’t catch wind of us or the horses,” Katie spoke from behind. “So far the horses don’t appear spooked by them.”
“I don’t think they recognize that sound as a danger,” Boston suggested.
“Catching wind of us won’t matter,” Lincoln said. He read about them in the database earlier that evening. “I skimmed through their information when I was on watch. It appears they eat what is handy, like scavengers. I’m glad we did not camp near the trees. They only kill what is handy when they get hungry enough, but it also said they can go for a long time without eating. Mostly it said they get or are given a scent and then they hunt, and they don’t stop hunting that one thing until they catch it or die.” He looked up. “When they are on the hunt, they ignore everything else.”
“Given a scent?” Alexis had to ask.
“The text was unclear about that,” Lincoln admitted. “My guess is whichever god brings them here from wherever they come can lay out what or who they want hunted.”
“And god help the hunted,” Mingus concluded as the sound appeared to fade again in the distance and people returned to their beds.
It was two in the morning, just when Lockhart was waking Roland and Captain Decker to take their shift, the horses did get restless. Boston and Katie jumped right up. “Better than watchdogs,” Boston said as she started with her own horse and worked her way down the line.
“Something is moving around out there,” Mingus reported. Lockhart nodded and spoke.
“Decker, that side. Roland, this side. Mingus and I will watch from the camp. Don’t engage, just try to find out what it is and where it is headed.” He knew Decker, the marine ranger and Roland the hunter were the two best suited for the work. They nodded, both instantly wide awake, and headed out, silently.
There was quiet for a few minutes which felt like hours before something stood only a few feet from Lockhart. It was a bear, an exceptionally big one, and it looked like it wanted their leftovers. Lockhart had his shotgun and did not hesitate, but it only appeared to make the bear mad. It roared. Alexis shouted.
“Get out of there!”
Boston grabbed two horses to keep them from running off. Lincoln shrieked and shuffled away from the beast. Mingus ran back as several shots came from a marine rifle and put the beast down. Lockhart needed to empty another shotgun slug to finish the job. Then he looked around. Boston, Lincoln and Alexis had the horses. Katie Harper was right beside him with her rifle.
“Thanks,” Lockhart said.
“Anytime, Robert,” Katie responded with a look up at his face and in his eyes.
Roland and Captain Decker immediately came back, of course, but their reports brought no comfort.
“I guess this is what I heard,” Mingus pointed at the bear. Both Roland and Captain Decker shook their heads in response.
“I saw a man, essentially naked, who ran off into the distance at the sound of the gunfire. I could not catch him and come back here at the same time,” Roland said. “My guess is the wolfman.”
“I saw movement near the trees,” Decker said flatly. “It appeared to be human in shape but I could not get a good look.”
“Great!” Lincoln said once they dragged the bear carcass downwind and the horses were settled again. “Something to look forward to running into tomorrow.” Mostly, they ignored him.
Everyone went to bed after that, except Captain Decker and Roland who went on watch. The Captain headed to the tree side of the camp so he could keep an eye on the forest. He got out his night goggles just in case. Roland pulled his knife to skin the bear and cut what he could for the next day. The bear turned out to be a tough old beast, so they left most of it for whatever animals might stake a claim. Probably the night creatures, he imagined, if any of the bear was still there the following night.
It was four-thirty when the horses became unsettled again. Boston huffed, “Now what?”
Captain Decker was out on the perimeter. He felt something he felt before and growled silently, slammed on his night goggles and headed out toward what he believed was the source. Almost at once, he dropped to a knee and fired. He felt fairly sure he did not hit anything, and then it was gone. Naturally, when he got back to the camp he found everyone awake.
“Ghoul.” That was all he had to say.
“Good, that’s everybody,” Lincoln said. “Now I can get some sleep.”
“That’s the trouble with being so popular,” Alexis said.