Autumn Fall: All Hallows World
Wood clattered as Alex dropped it to the ground. Wiping his brow, he looked up at Lock, who was putting the finishing touches on their fire arrangement.
"How's Evan?" he asked worriedly. Not waiting for an answer, he glanced over in the direction of the unconscious boy. He was lying on the ground, his head sitting on Mime's lap while she gently ran a hand through his hair, parting it just enough to reveal the ugly, angry-looking lump of flesh that rose from his forehead just above his left eyebrow. The boy shuddered at Mime's touch, but quickly stilled. His face had a pale, drawn look that made Alex swallow nauseously.
"No different from when you left," Lock replied with a grunt. He picked up one of Alex's chunks of wood and examined it closely. Making a disgusted face, he tossed it over towards a bush. "Go shake your clothes out. That had a neezle nest in it."
"A what?" Alex asked, suddenly alarmed.
"Biters. They like to drink blood. They're very small. Make sure you shake them out good, or else you'll have a nest starting up in you before you know it." He ran his eyes over Alex's body. "They don't mind where they set up camp, as long as there's a source of food nearby. You fit the bill."
Alex made a scared gasp and raced off into the woods. Lock watched him go for a moment before shaking his head, smirking a little. "Kid'll believe anything…"
Across from him he noticed that Mime, was watching him. He snorted in her direction.
"Don't give me that look," he said before turning his full attention back to the fire. Digging through his vest, he produced a piece of flint and steel to scrape it on. "All right. Let's get this sta-."
"Here," came the voice of Mother Grim from behind him, and at once the wood burst into flames, causing Lock to jump back in surprise. Growling behind his fangs, he turned a fearsome glare up at the woman as she approached the fire, arms folded beneath her breasts.
"A little more warning first?" he asked sardonically, but Mother Grim shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly.
"It's not your time yet. You have no need to worry."
"Oh like that's comforting. Fire still burns by the way." Lock approached the fire again and settled down. "Should she…?" he began, pointing at Mime, but Mother Grim shook her head.
"She's fine." She massaged her forehead. "She might benefit from knowing something about what happened."
"And what about Alex?" Lock asked. "We can wait a little bit."
"I'll leave that up to you for another time, if he remains in your company. For right now, this is too complicated for a child such as him."
Lock picked at a fang. "He seems to be doing well for a kid who just immigrated. Unlike this other one here." He pointed at Evan. "He thinks that this is all just a dream."
"And it may be well that he continues to think that this is the case." Mother Grim sighed. "He carries the blood of Jack after all. The rings on his hands confirm it."
Lock opened his mouth to protest, but a sharp look from Mother Grim silenced him. Looking over at Evan, he found himself becoming more convinced of the validity of Mother Grim's statement.
"I thought that he looked a little like him…" he mused out loud. "This…is not good." He scowled. In his mind's eye, the image of the man named Jack emerged. Comparing it with Evan, it seemed to be too good to be true. I wish that this was all just a coincidence. Jack…did you know this was coming? That this miserable excuse of a brat would be dumped here and that he would need to be rescued?
He scratched at his chin, trying to work things out, but quickly gave up.
Jack wasn't a mastermind, he decided. Maybe this was all just a coincidence. Maybe it was because of his blood, knowing how best to protect itself from Hadeus. Lock clenched one hand into a tight fist. "Damn it… If only there were more Embers around…"
"They might not be helpful even if they were," said Mother Grim, reaching out with one bare finger and poking at the fire. Lock winced reflexively despite knowing that the flames couldn't harm a being such as her. "Their agenda is—was—to simply topple the ruling body of Hadeus. Someone like Evan would just be a pawn in their war." She frowned. "More like a knight or a rook to be more precise. Maybe even a queen. The gateway provides many unique attributes. I cannot even begin to know where to begin. The Lost could be returned to this plane of existence. Perhaps even the devils. Or the Four Horsemen…" Mother Grim's voice trailed off and she shuddered. Lock looked at her disbelievingly.
"Those are all just legends."
"To you they are." Mother Grim reached up and coiled a finger around a lock of hair. "But you are a denizen of this realm, and therefore short lived. This place," she gestured around her, "was very different once upon a time." A sorrowful expression crossed her features. "I was different. If this child isn't returned home; if someone with enough power gets a hold of him, the Blight that tainted this land will be the least of your worries."
"Just mine?" snorted Lock.
Mother Grim offered him a sullen smile, continuing to twist her hair around her finger.
Lock ran his tongue over his lower lip, looking at Evan. "We could just kill him, you know. That would end whatever trouble he'd cause."
"You could. I am unable to, due to his nature. He'd only end up back here anyway, and in a different location than where you found him."
"That wouldn't stop him from getting killed again by me if I came across him." He paused. "I'm still a Lantern."
She shared a look with him for a moment before continuing.
"Could you do it?" she asked, changing her focus back to the fire. Lock scowled again.
"What does that mean? Do you know how many people I've killed? Some of them were people that you treated to the Mirror Water."
"I'm not speaking of sentiment or conscience, although I can't help but wonder about that as well, considering how close you were to Jack, once upon a time." She smiled again at Lock, causing the knot in the goblin's brow to deepen. "I am referring more strictly to Evan's nature as the gateway. I seem to recall that no matter what was done, Jack was never killed. Even without knowing what he was, he was protected. And when he did know…"
Lock got to his feet and pulled out the knife that Evan had lent to him once before. He flipped out the blade and turned in the direction of Evan's unconscious body. A small tremor crossed Mime's face just then, and Lock hesitated, remembering his battle with her. Mother Grim chuckled.
"You see? He has a protector now."
"Shut up," Lock growled, but he folded the blade back into its compartment anyway. "You could kill her, you know."
"No, I can't," Mother Grim sighed. "That's not my job."
"…are something else entirely," she interrupted. "I have power over them that is not granted over others, be they Guises or not."
Lock's hand tightened around the knife until the skin around his knuckles turned a sickly, pale green. "You'd better protect him day and night, sister," he grated at Mime. "Make that your top priority."
Making a disgusted sound, he plopped himself back down on the ground, pocketing the knife as he did so. The goblin's ears twitched as a twig snapped, announcing Alex's presence as he returned to the camp, his shirt held in his hands in front of him carefully, as though he were afraid to both be seen without it and wearing it.
"I shook my shirt out like you said, Lock," he spoke, a nervous, uncertain sound to his voice. He fingered the lower hem of his shirt. "I don't know if I got them all out though…"
"Dort," Lock scoffed derisively. "I was just making fun of you. You didn't need to do all that."
Alex stopped, his face working up into a confused expression before furrowing in irritation. Struggling to get it on, his head popped out through the top and he glared at the goblin. "Did you have to do that?" he demanded.
Lock shifted onto his side and traced a line in the dirt with his finger. "Seeing as how we're not making any more progress today, yeah. Unless you want me to bash your head in with a rock or something."
Lock dismissed Alex's frightened, horrified look to catch a glimpse of Mime's face. Therein lay another tremor in her gaze, and for a moment, he could have sworn that her eyes narrowed ever so slightly at him.
She's dangerous, but she can't be everywhere at once, he thought, smirking. He turned back to Alex. "Just kidding," he said, patting the ground. "Come on. Sit down, will ya?"
Alex nodded slowly as his features calmed, but he still eyed the goblin warily. Sitting himself down he looked back and forth between the group before finally settling on Evan.
"So…how's he doing?"
"Still asleep," Mother Grim replied. "I suspect that, thanks to Lock, he will be that way for a while."
As though in response, Evan shifted and moaned. The lump of flesh almost seemed to pulse, and Mime touched it gingerly with one finger.
"He looks sick," Alex noted. Mother Grim nodded.
"The body rarely does when it is trying to heal itself."
"Will he be all right?"
"Only time will tell." She leaned forward, observing the unconscious boy carefully. "If we had a healer with us, it wouldn't be a concern, however…"
"But you've got a lot of power, right?" asked Alex.
"I do, but not of the kind that can help him."
Alex became crestfallen at that, and looked away. He didn't know what to think or how he should feel in regards to this situation. He had only known Evan for a short time, during which the older boy thus far made himself a bit of annoyance. Even so, he didn't like the idea of someone being hurt while he felt helpless to do anything about it.
"Shouldn't we bandage his head or something?" he asked.
"With what?" replied Lock sardonically.
"Well…we've got clothes." Hope sprung in his chest. On TV they were always using clothes in place of bandages whenever they needed something quick.
"Tear up your own clothes then," said Lock. "I'm not going to ruin what little I've got."
"Ah…!" Alex's mouth fell open in shock at that. "But…but…" He looked down at himself for a moment and his expression hardened. "You rescued him."
Lock's eyes flashed at that remark. "Right. I did. But there's nothing I can do for him. A bandage? How's that going to help him? He's not bleeding, and we're too far from any source of water…"
"We've got the Mirror Water!" Desperation surged through his chest. Getting to his feet. "We soak the bandages in that, right?"
Lock rolled his eyes. "Kid… You saw what that stuff did to him when he just looked into it. Do you really want to try and see what happens if he touches it?"
Alex turned a pleading look to Mother Grim. "But…it's all we've got." He clenched and unclenched his hands. "I have to do something. He looks like he's going to die."
Lock dropped his eyes to the ground. It would be better for everyone if he did. Lock curled his fingers into a fist. By the Blight. It's just like Jack all over again. Only…only this time I know what I need to do.
He raised his eyes again, looking over at Mother Grim. Her gaze was presently locked with Alex's, and after a moment she nodded.
"If you feel so strongly about acting…then by all means."
Alex's shoulders sagged in relief. "Thank you," he breathed. "Thank you."
Lock sighed, and dug into his vest, once more producing Evan's pocket knife. Flipping open the blade, he cocked it and threw it in Evan's direction, and the blade landing hilt first perilously close and bouncing off the ground. "You'll need this," he said, getting to his feet. Drawing his slingshot, he went off into the forest. "I'm going to go get some food."
As he left their company, he passed near Mime, and she turned her head to follow him, her expression empty as always. Unnoticed, however, one finger was pressed to the ground, tracing three lines, one long standing straight up, a slightly smaller one hooking to its right, and an even smaller line descending back down where it met a circle. The image would have meant nothing to Lock, but had either Alex or Evan seen it, they would have been instantly reminded of a game that their teachers would play for studying.
A game called Hangman.
Mime took her finger and placed it at the bottom of the circle, where she began to draw the head's main body.
Just like Jack all over again…
Lock childishly kicked at a loose clod of dirt as he disappeared into the forest. He wasn't really expecting to find anything to eat around here, having found very little of anything the last time he had gone hunting. That wasn't what he was after though. Not exactly. More accurately he wanted the peace and quiet that the solitude brought him without everyone watching him or talking to him. He hated it when everyone's attention was on him.
Only I am now, aren't I? He thought back to his encounter with the Nevermore, just before they first met up with Alex and Mime. I didn't know back then, but now…? Shit! His eyes searched the skies, half-expecting to see another one of the ravens watching him. He almost wished that one would be around so that he could at least vent his frustrations on it courtesy of his slingshot.
That would piss off the high and mighty Queen, he thought, drawing his lips up into a sneer. And she would end up looking for us all the more.
He sighed. "What am I going to do?" he asked the stillness of the forest quietly. "Damn it, Jack. Is he your kid? Did you have to drop a brat into my lap when everything's been done and over with for so long?" He pulled his lips back, baring his fangs up at the red sky. "Damn you, Jack!" he hissed. "My life was peaceful again! You had to go and ruin it! Just like always. Just like my village! Just like…just like…"
Lock placed a hand over his face, covering his eyes. His shoulders heaved slightly as a half-choked sob escaped his mouth. He clenched his fangs together, trying to stay as quiet as possible. Even in solitude, he knew he wasn't alone. He always had himself to watch what he was doing. The thought filled him with shame.
Lowering his hand, he returned his gaze to the sky. "You know what I'm going to have to do, right? That kid? Mama Grim says that he's just like you. I can't…I can't let that happen again. Not again. We lost because of you. I don't want to think what might happen if this kid gets in the Queen's hands." He tightened his grip on his slingshot. "Like you did," he finished quietly. "I'm going to have to kill him. There's no two ways about it. No…two ways…about it."
He stood there for a moment, feeling for his resolve. Then, satisfied that he had it, he turned around, pausing only to look up at the sky one more time.
"You only have yourself to blame for this. Damn you for making me do it."
Alex pulled his shirt up and over his head, pausing for but a moment to glance at Mother Grim and Mime, the former simply getting up to retrieve the pale of Mirror Water while the latter was intent on something on the ground. Blushing a little, Alex hurriedly pulled the rest of the shirt off his large, slightly beefy arms, and then went over to where Lock had thrown the knife, lifting it up into the air. The blade glinted in the light of the fire as he set it against the sleeve of his shirt.
"Wouldn't it be better to cut off a piece from the bottom?" asked Mother Grim, setting the pale down next to the boy. Alex looked at her, a bit dumbfounded before stammering out an apology. He really had no idea what he was doing. He just…had a need to act, and bandaging up Alex's wound seemed to be the best thing to do, if for no other reason than to try and get that swelling to go down. The point of the knife punched through the lower end of his shirt and he began to saw through it. As he did so, he licked his lips.
"So…any idea about what happened to him?" he asked absently. His voice felt different for some reason. Distant, and detached from the question.
"A good question," Mother Grim replied, calmly watching Alex as he worked.
"Any answers?" he continued. The work continued well. The blade was sharp and sawed through the threads with ease in spite of the thickness of the sweater. Not at all what he expected from a plain old pocket knife. It was one of his mother's gifts—a birthday present rather than a Christmas one as one would normally expect such presents. The two were close enough in dates to not make a difference though. His mother was an overbearing sort of person who worried about him often, particularly in regards to weather and temperature, as if he would get sick from even the slightest rain drop or just walking around without shoes and socks on. In short, a younger grandmother.
She would flip her lid if she saw me cutting my shirt up with a knife. For a moment, Alex gave pause to wonder why an adult was letting him do this kind of work, with a knife no less, but he quickly dismissed it from his mind. He had more important things to focus on.
She would flip her lid about a lot of things in this world, he thought in bemusement. She wouldn't like Lock for the way he looks, never mind his dumb crack about breaking my head open. And Mime… I can just hear her going on now about how I shouldn't hang out with girls like her. He glanced up at Mother Grim. She might like her though.
Alex drew in a sharp hiss as the edge of the knife nicked his fingers, and he dropped both blade and shirt to the ground. One hand went straight to his hand, clasping around it to stop the bleeding.
"Are you all right?" Mother Grim asked, looking a bit worried.
"Just being stupid," he muttered. "I'm fine."
Something was going on… He felt different. It was more than just a sense of detachment. He felt…he felt…
He shook his head. It was that sort of distracted thinking that made him cut his finger in the first place. He pulled back his hand tentatively. There was a thin cut in his flesh, and a bit of red, but nothing special that warranted him having to tear up his shirt even more. Taking the blade back to the shirt, he finished the job and raised the strap, looking it over carefully.
"Okay," he said, more to himself than to anyone else. He pulled over the bucket and brought the strap of cloth over it. As he did so, he hesitated again.
"What…what would happen if I used this on Evan?" he asked. He wanted to kick himself for a dope. Lock had brought it up of course, but now the thought settled in, freezing him with uncertainty. Could what happened earlier happen again?
That strange feeling that he had earlier, that he was different, vanished, and all at once he felt like plain old Alex McCormick; a boy who wore baggy sweatshirts and had a bit of a weight problem.
"Here," Mother Grim said, appearing next to him. Taking the cut strand of sweater, she dipped it in the water. She rung it out and folded it up on Evan's forehead. "There," she smiled at Alex. "No problem."
Alex hung his head, feeling more than a little bit foolish now, and his cheeks flamed a bit.
"S-Sorry," he muttered. "I don't know anything about what I'm doing…"
"That's all right," Mother Grim chuckled. Reaching out, she touched him comfortingly on one arm. "You're young."
"Will he be all right?"
Mother Grim simply offered him a smile. "He will be, though he may be angry about the headache Lock gave him."
"Mmm…" Alex nodded. "What…that stuff he did. What was that all about anyway?"
"Alex…" A pause, and then she smiled again. "I wouldn't worry about it for right now."
Alex shifted a little as he pulled his shirt back on. "Why are you saying that?" he asked, as the remains of his sweater fell back into place.
"You're just saying all that to make me feel comfortable. Mom always used to do that whenever I'd ask about something bad that was going on in the news."
Mother Grim chuckled. "Growing up a bit fast, aren't we?" She sighed. "All right then. Evan is different from you and me. For right now, I can only guess as to what he's doing here. He's not supposed to be here, like you and I are…"
"Like I am?" His face scrunched up in confusion before finally melting in understanding. "Oh. Right. Because I'm dead."
"Yes," Mother Grim nodded. Alex pursed his lips together and swallowed, his heart aching from memory. "He's alive."
Alex was quiet for a moment before speaking again. "But…but what does that have to do with what happened?"
"As I said, I can only guess. However, I can say that he has what I suppose you could call a hitchhiker on his soul." She furrowed her brow. "Someone wants him for what he is." She reached out and placed a hand on Evan's, tapping on the rings, now dark, sitting on the tops of his hands. "I'd tell you a story about this, but Evan needs to be awake for it. And there's someone who knows the story better than I do."
Across from them, Mime was tapping a finger next to the hanged man drawing. It was almost complete, save for one leg. After a moment of contemplative tapping, she drew it in.
Lock got into a crouch and fitted the rock into the sling. He was hidden behind some brush with just enough of an opening to give him a clear view of the campsite. He took a deep breath and took aim, placing Evan's head in between the sights. It would be a difficult shot. Evan wasn't lying at an easy angle, but it was practically a sure thing at this distance.
I've got no choice. If he gets captured by Hadeus and its Queen, everyone loses. They already know that I rescued him. They've got to know where we're going by now. He ground his fangs against each other. By the Blight, I should have killed that Nevermore as soon as I saw it, laws be damned! At least my conscience could have lived with that.
He pulled tight and took a deep breath. All it would take was one, clean shot, and then it would be all over.
Then, quite unexpectedly, something wrapped itself tightly around his throat and pulled taught. Making a strangled choking sound, Lock dropped his slingshot and grabbed at his neck, finding nothing. His eyes bulged in their sockets as panic sunk in. The sensation of pulling increased and before he knew what was happening, he found his feet leaving the ground. His legs kicked and spittle flew from his mouth. His lungs burned and white spots sparked across his vision…
…and then the strangling sensation eased up, allowing just enough air to fill his lungs. The sparks flew from his eyes as he gasped and coughed.
"You will do nothing to him," whispered a voice in his ear, and Lock froze. He tried to turn towards its source, but his head refused to move. Something was holding him.
"If you try to harm him in any way," the voice smoothly interrupted, "I will kill you."
The invisible strangler pulled tight once more, and Lock gasped as air was unceremoniously cut off from his lungs. It eased up almost immediately, and he found himself being dumped onto the ground, bumping his hip against a hard tree root protruding from the ground.
"Remember what I said," the voice said. Lock, gasping, finally wrenched free and looked up, only to find nothing.
The fire flickered warmly as Mime ran a hand over Evan's bandage, and then dropped it down to her hangman drawing, washing it out with the palm of her hand.
A/N: This chapter surprised me a little. I never thought to use a main characters situation as an excuse for one of his allies to try and kill him before (while still being prevented from doing so), and it added a unique dimension to the group dynamic that allowed me to do more than what I have been up to this point. Nice to see some bits of this story begin to fill out. :)
Until next time.