A lone wolf stood in the shadow of the trees outside the circle of firelight. It panted and stomped its feet in a way that suggested it was not hostile, and might be looking to be invited to come closer. The sun was getting ready to set behind the cloud cover and the falling snow, but it still gave enough light to know this was not an illusion.
The bushes moved aside and a mountain lion stepped out of the brush. On the other side of the wolf, a big brown bear came to stop in that same line at the edge of the light. It looked like the animals might be judging the human intruders in some way.
Lincoln raised his handgun, but Decker spoke loud and clear. “Hold your fire.”
A bald eagle, one bigger than most imagined an eagle should be, settled in a tree branch over the wolf’s head. It turned one great eye on the travelers before it shocked them by speaking.
“They are coming. They are here.”
The bear and the lion turned and roared. They each dragged down something. It was hard to tell. A pack of wolves also caught something and dragged it to the snow. The eagle flew in the face of two somethings, before it lifted into the sky to reveal the ghouls. Katie and Decker riddled those two with bullets.
The animals vanished, having finished their work.
“That’s five, plus the scout means there are four still out there,” Lockhart gripped the shotgun, tight, right before he, Decker, Katie and Elder Stow all moaned and slammed their eyes shut. Alexis, Boston and Lincoln already had their eyes shut. They knew how a ghoul could invade the mind and cast illusions that seemed so real.
Mingus looked, but he could not see them. He cast a fireball in the direction of the trees, but it confused no one. He tried to set up a mental screen to block the mind control of the ghouls, but he did not have the strength. He saw three of them, anyway, as he shook Boston and Alexis.
“Wind and fire,” he told them. They opened their eyes to peek. “I see three, if they are really there.”
Boston thought, if they are not really there, magic is a good way to set the forest on fire, even in a snow storm.
“Will the magic go through Elder Stow’s screens?” Alexis asked.
A dozen spears came suddenly from the woods. Eight penetrated the three ghouls—two, two, and four in one ghoul who became a green and purple smudge on the snow faster than the others. Men came with stone axes, to make sure. The travelers all opened their eyes when they felt the pressure leave their minds.
“Lucky that…” Decker mumbled, as he watched.
“We have help,” Katie added as she stood beside Lockhart.
The travelers stared at their visitors, but they made no move toward the natives. The natives looked like cave men, dressed in deer skins and buffalo robes, and carrying spears and axes with stone heads. The men looked wary; until one young man, about sixteen-years-old or so, stepped out from the trees. He stopped short of Elder Stow’s screen, opened his arms, and yelled.
“I’m old enough,” he insisted. “And don’t say it too loud or my father may hear you.”
“Too late, son. I already heard.” An older man came up behind him. Two other old men walked toward the strangers with their arms open in a sign of peace. They bumped into Elder Stow’s screen and fell back, one on his rump in the snow.
“Good thing they were moving slow,” Taregan said, and Boston nodded. They heard Alexis tell Elder Stow to turn off the screen. Elder Stow looked at Lockhart and Katie. Katie agreed, so the Elder shut it down.
“Son,” the old man said. “You are going to make Huranti and Alawan jealous.” Taregan and Boston let go of each other as the man explained. “He already has two girls fighting over him.” The man tried to frown, but he was not entirely successful.
“Oh, I’m not a girl,” Boston said, before she realized how odd that sounded.
“One of your…?” the old man asked.
Taregan nodded. “My father, Megan,” Taregan introduced the old man. “This is Boston.” He turned to the two old men as Alexis was waving to them to come closer. “It’s okay now. The magic is removed so you can meet my friends.” The men looked at Megan much like Elder Stow looked to Katie a moment ago, but Megan nodded, so they stepped up to meet the travelers.
The three elders settled around the traveler’s fire. The rest of the war party made their own places at the edge of the trees.
Elder Stow griped about stretching the screens too far. “The more it stretches, the weaker it is and the more power it takes.”
“You once placed it around a whole Celtic village in the alps,” Katie reminded him.
“Yes, but there is no werewolf to be concerned about here,” he countered.
Alexis played hostess, and Lincoln helped. Mingus, Decker, and Elder Stow watched the fire and worried about the last ghoul, which was still out there. Taregan spoke to Boston and Katie. Lockhart listened in.
“Samoset is the wilderness walker,” Taregan explained. “He is what you might call the chief hunter of the group. Machachak means spirit man. He is the shaman, I suppose. My father, Megan is the chief. His name means wolf man. Maybe I should say, man of the wolf. He asked the wolf spirit to guide and protect us on this journey.”
“His totem?” Boston asked. Taregan nodded.
“How did you come to catch us so quickly?” Katie asked. “We just came into this time zone.” She looked at Boston, but Boston excused herself.
“I didn’t study the amulet while it was snowing.”
“I didn’t look at all,” Katie said. “Since we moved off the direct line. The prototype is not good for that sort of thing.”
“Simple…sort of. We were gathering the warriors to make this journey and a runner caught us. He said ghouls had moved through the time gate.” Teregan paused and added a touch of explanation. “We have been having ghouls come through since I was young…younger. We watch them, because, you know, they eat people and drain them of life. Anyway, they were a couple of days ahead of us, but we had help.”
“Help?” Boston asked.
Taregan nodded. “The wolf and the bear brought us to this place where the ghouls were about to attack you. It saved us three or four days of walking through the wilderness.”
“So you were coming in this direction?”
Taregan nodded. “The Oneda live on the other side of the lakes, that is George and Champlain, and they have been crossing over the ice. It hasn’t been to trade.”
“Are they hunting on your side?” Boston asked.
“They are hunting our tribes,” Megan leaned into the conversation. “I am giving you Pawau to guide you to the gate where the ghouls come in to our land. He will see to your safe passage. I don’t know why anyone would want to travel to the land of the ghouls, but if you can do something about them, to stop them from invading our land, we would be forever grateful.”
“No telling what we might do,” Lockhart answered. “But I suspect we are getting close to the home base of these ghouls, so we will have to do something.”
“Meanwhile, there is one of the ten still out there,” Katie said.
“Don’t remind me,” Lincoln spoke as Alexis shared around the elf bread.