Most of the time when I go on a mission, I come back from it either permanently scarred by the knowledge that some new horror I could never have previously comprehended exists, or just kind of bored by the routineness of it all. The fact that any of this shit could become routine should probably scare the balls off me, but that’s the lifestyle for you, I guess.
This time, though…this time was different. I actually feel some kind of hope for the future knowing what I do after our trip to Jericho Mills, TN. Finally, I’m getting the sense that what we’re doing is right. That I was meant to spend my life helping the helpless and righting wrongs, empty as that might ring in some ears. That we can beat the bad guys if we work together.
Jericho Mills seems like a small-town American paradise, one not yet marred by decay and capitalist shenanigans like Braxton Falls, MO had been when we traveled there last summer. It’s straight up suburban heaven, with some light industry hubs, a gorgeous state park, and lots of outlying areas dedicated to agriculture. Every store and restaurant boasts local produce and farm-to-table delicacies. I thought they only had this shit in Vermont. Alex and I check in at the motel and hit the lounge to wait for the others. Charles gets there first, which is a relief—at least I know if things go sideways we’ll have one person with us who can take care of the punchy-shooty work. Of all the newbies who hunted with us in Alexandria, we’d worked together the best—he might even make me think twice about my stance on dealing with law enforcement types. Charles says there’s a crazy woman yelling on the phone in the parking lot; I look out the window and see Mal and Eva getting out of a vintage sports car whose origin I’m pretty sure I want to be able to plausibly deny. Mal’s ranting into her phone about something; she hangs up abruptly when she sees us. Two more hunters join us within the hour: a guy named Wayne who dresses like a mechanic (which is because, as I later find out, he is one) and talks like a yokel, but seems savvier to all this than he’s letting on, and an attractive young woman I recognize from her byline portrait in the Washington Post, a political correspondent named Josephine Bennett. She tucks tail and goes cold when I mention that I’m familiar with her work. Guess I hit a nerve.
Alex says four dead bodies have turned up recently in the state park within the town’s ETJ, all of them with two-inch-diameter stab wounds through the torso. The park is right next to a large cosmetics plant, and my Spidey sense tingles when I start looking at the layout of the park—because it’s a lot like the woods I dreamed about before I left Philadelphia. We go our separate ways to do some investigation and decide to meet up for dinner later to debrief each other.
Mal uses our connection at the morgue to get access to the stiffs (like I even need to tell you that), and it quickly becomes clear that we aren’t looking at your average idiot vigilante vampire killer or psychopath. The four victims include a pair of male security guards from an organic cosmetic plant called NuStar, a female banker, and a local high school football star (also a male). The stab wounds are weird—no wood or metal fragments are left in the tissues, and the murder weapon seems perfectly conical and smooth. Josie and Wayne do some digging on their own at the town’s most popular watering hole and find out some more dirt: each of the The security guards are known for unnecessarily roughing people up (and one of them has a domestic assault record), the banker is apparently a former teller who slept her way up the ladder at the branch where she works, and the football player is a dick and gets into a lot of fights. Revenge killings spring to mind, but there’s no other discernible pattern or link between the deceased persons.
Alex’s research pulls up a few more gems: NuStar Cosmetics is apparently a subsidiary of Cloverleaf, the shale oil company that Jackson Carver backed in Braxton Falls. On top of that, some of the books she brought back from Prague indicate that there’s a convergence of two massive ley lines right in the middle of that park. Me, Charles, and Eva decide to stake out the place overnight since Mal says all the murders happened between 7pm and 4am. Alex, Mal, and Josie are planning to stay where it’s safe and let us handle the rough stuff; Wayne wants to scout out the street layout of the town to make sure we have a clear getaway route if things go to hell (a reasonable plan, considering our general track record and the mess his group got into in San Diego).
(Oh, I should also mention that we’re having this group dinner at this nice little log cabin-style restaurant recommended by the local medical examiner—who’s evidently sweet on Mal and hasn’t realized she doesn’t drive stick—and they’ve got some of the best damn apple pie I’ve ever eaten in my lifetime. Charles and I both order a second piece, and I end up buying a whole one to take back to Delaware with me. The stuff is downright invigorating. This is actually kinda important; I’ll tell you why later.)
We’re all getting along splendidly until the orders from headquarters start rolling in. Sharpe wants samples from any creature we happen to come across—blood, hair, ectoplasm, whatever we can grab. Adrian seems convinced that there’s a supernatural creature behind all of this and directs Mal to install a tracking device on the thing even if she can’t capture it (or convince the rest of us to). Josie’s obviously in this for any video footage she can get, probably because she got fired from the Post awhile back and has had trouble springing back into her career since then. Turns out she was writing a huge exposé on Cloverleaf’s dealings down in Missouri last year and someone wanted her gone, fast.
So off into the fucking woods we go. And it’s the exact location I dreamed about. More than that, it feels as if I’m walking into one of my dreams. This place defies reality. I’m no expert on Tennessee flora, but I don’t think some of the plants we see there belong in this universe, let alone the Appalachian Ridge. It’s the exact. Same. Fucking. Place. In my dream. I can’t let it go. I have to know who she is. Charles starts talking about old fairy stories when we spot a ring of mushrooms at the ley line convergence, and Alex doesn’t laugh at him, which worries me. I touch one of the mushrooms in awe and blisters ripple across the back of my right hand. Mal says it probably won’t fall off, likely to her disappointment, and then throws some ointment and bandages on it, because Mal’s good people.
North of our position, we hear screaming and gunfire. A couple of hired security mooks from NuStar run out from the treeline like they’ve got fucking Nazgul after them.
And that’s when we see it. A white horse the height of a mack truck with a half-meter ivory horn sticking out of its head. It skewers one guard like a fucking kabob and kicks the other one in the head, killing him instantly.
We try to rationalize what the hell it is we’re seeing. I think Wayne is the first person to use the ‘U’ word. I recall that only virgins can tame one of these things, supposedly, and simultaneously realize that also means we’re fucked.
It comes closer to us. Sniffs us one by one. Stops next to Charles for a second and gets a mean look in its eye.
And then it steps right in front of me, looks me in the eye, and gives a low whinny.
It doesn’t impale me, so I ask it if it’s her guardian. It nods in a stately equine fashion. Through yes-no questions, we figure out that its mistress, the woman in my dream, is being held captive at NuStar.
Now, I’m not really one for fairy tales. Heck, most fae scare the ever-loving shit out of me, and most people who tangle with one sure as hell don’t have a happy ending. But I’ve been a D&D player for a long time, and I know damn well that when you get a quest from a unicorn, you say yes.
I want to go in right then. I feel certain that my vision has brought me here to protect something pure, something that should have been left alone by the evil people who took it for their own gain.
Charles says we need a fucking plan or we’re gonna die trying. Charles is a smart guy. We promise the…you-know-what…that we’ll be back, and it runs back into the woods. We head back to the parking lot and there’s a woman there inspecting our license plates. Charles puts on his best cop voice for a “Can I help you, ma’am?” and it stops her in her tracks. Turns out she’s a botanist with NuStar and she can’t shake her conscience on the deaths and the weirdness she’s seeing in their labs. She’s willing to help us put a stop to it, but she has a kid to worry about. I reassure her that we can get her and her daughter to safety, and Mal FLIPS THE FUCK OUT, accusing us of sniping more people for Sharpe to exploit. She wants to call Adrian, which I say is a terrible idea, and Alex and Mal have it out. Maybe I shouldn’t tell her I gave Mal that HIPAA authorization…
Charles loses his patience with our bullshit, understandably, and tells the botanist to get in his Crown Vic, leaving us there looking like assholes. Wayne thinks we’re all batshit. I kind of agree.
We rendezvous back at the motel; Eva is nice enough not to steer the car off an overpass on the way. She gets a call from Kincaid, who says a portal to the fae world is gaping open in the middle of that mushroom ring and any Union members on deck need to shut it ASAP. He also offers asylum for Marcia in Denver, which I’m fine with—that lady and her little girl couldn’t be in a safer place than with Kincaid’s packs. It also shuts up Mal and Alex, which is an added bonus. We can’t afford to get this angry with each other over who we work for, as Charles points out very assertively, so we put aside our differences and pound out a plan while I scarf down some more of that delicious pie. The pie is apparently tainted with fae energy, and I wake up with movie star looks, which Alex attributes to a residual glamour effect that should wear off after a few days. In the meantime, though, even Eva and Mal are kinda checking me out, which is just creepy at this point.
Marcia gets Mal and me inside the facility the next day, posing as her visiting cousins Randy and Suzy, and we see the setup. There’s tons of fae-world plant specimens…and a beautiful apple tree in a massive grow pod, anchored into the soil by cold iron. Tubes drain sap from it into other parts of the plant. I start feeling sick, thinking about all the things that might have ended up in a batch of my serum, feeling for this abused creature. I vow then and there to myself that I’ll get her out or die trying. When we report back to the group, Alex identifies the creature as a dryad. Its presence supercharges plant life around it, which explains all the awesome local produce.
We decide to split into two teams: me, Eva, Charles, and Josie will hit the plant while Alex, Mal, and Wayne cover the fairy ring to keep anything else from escaping and line up a ritual to open it so we can send the dryad home.
Marcia says the facility only has three or four guards on duty at night with one guy working the door. I ask Josie to go honeypot the guy; she gives it her best shot, but he’s all business. Eva walks in and gives the dude an eyeful of Sapphic passion by facehugging Josie, which gives Charles the perfect opportunity to introduce the back of the guy’s skull to the butt of his shotgun. We check the security cams and catch the other two guards on duty having a Pop Tart break, so Eva and Josie trap them in that section of the building by bracing the fire doors shut with some janitor’s equipment. Between the four of us, we manage to pry up the cold iron holding down the dryad’s roots, and the tree turns into the woman from my dream. She’s very weak. I tell the others to cover me with their guns while I carry her out of there, since I’m not field-certified for firearms yet. Lucky for us, the guards don’t break through the doors before we hightail it out of harm’s way.
We get the fae woman back to the portal and Alex wrenches it open with a ritual from her new book. The dryad walks through it, and a dark shape appears in her place, then coalesces into the form of a little girl. She’s cute and creepy all at the same time, like a sociopathic doll in taffeta and ribbons, and she looks at me when she exits and says, “I know who you are. I don’t have business with you today.” The unicorn comes trotting out of the woods and joins the little girl. She says his name is Carfax, and she’s acting as his mouthpiece; she also insinuates that she’s normally a liar but he’s forcing her to be truthful with us. Carfax offers, through his proxy, to grant each of us a wish.
Like I said, I’ve played a lot of D&D, so I know how bad this shit could go. Charles keeps it simple and asks for a strand of Carfax’s mane. Eva nopes right out, proving that she’s probably the smartest person I know. Mal doesn’t watch her words carefully enough when she asks the creature to take the tracking collar Skaar overnighted to her, saying her wish is “knowledge”, but the unicorn seems to keep the little trickster just enough in line not to overload every neuron in Mal’s brilliant brain for a lark. Josie gets cute and wishes for Carver to be exposed to the world for his misdeeds, and Wayne adds a codicil to her wish that the Contingent not suffer any fallout from it. (That one gives me a really bad feeling, but I can’t do fuck-all about it, so why worry? Just let the record reflect that if it goes bad, it’s totally the reporter’s fault.)
I think long and hard while they give their answers. I can think of any number of wishes I’d make: things I’ve done that I’d take back, stuff I want to have or be able to do—heck, a lifetime supply of those movie-star glamour apples would be pretty awesome.
And then I realize why I’m here.
“I want to have control of when I open myself up to the visions,” I say, sealing my fate for good. I don’t want to wish them away; I’m not sure what kind of life I’d have if I wasn’t doing this any more. The visions are a part of me, the thing that’s given my life purpose. I don’t want to be rid of them. I want control over them.
Instantly I feel the change. Like having a room opened up in the back of your mind, a room that used to terrify you, that someone used to drag you into kicking and screaming. Until you realize, it’s just a room. You can walk out of it as easily as you walked into it.
Wishes having been granted all around, Carfax and his proxy head back through the hole in our reality and close the gate behind them. It’s then that Alex collapses to the ground, exhausted, blood dripping from her nose. Mal and I run to her; her vitals seem okay, but Mal says she needs rest and leaves behind some medications she says will help when Alex wakes up.
I take Alex back to our motel room and get her situated in bed, and then, for the first night in a very long time, without a single shot or pill or anything, I pass the fuck out.
So you see, sometimes fairy tales do have happy endings.