Welcome wary traveler; if you've already been a fan of this story, than yes - your mailbox wasn't playing you an April's Fool joke on you and there really is a next chapter of this tale! I apologize for the lateness, but with all the madness going around, it has been much more demanding to to actually finish writing anything. But I've managed to complete the next installments of most of my tales and so I'm uploading them now.

I hope that you're in good health (which is the most pressing concern at this time) and that these, little entries will help you pass the time during the global quarantine. Please enjoy the newest installment of "Ghost Stories":

Chapter #5: Den of Wolves

Volume cover: Jack is crouching on one knee, holding his left arm out front horizontally, propping his other hand on it, aiming his pistol, while Astrid is dropping from the sky, her arms stretched to the sides – the right one holding her scythe - with the cape following her descent

Title page: Astrid is looking skyward, lifting her arm that is holding a bread crump, attempting to feed it to Poe, who is sitting atop her head

Solomon led them through the forest; the narrow path twisted and turn, swaying between the trees. The morning fog lingered in the air, wrapped around the trunks, covering the ground, yet the black-skinned teen seemed to know the way perfectly as he never slowed down, avoiding roots that reared above the surface, hidden by the mist. The atmosphere gave Astrid an eerie feeling as the usual sounds of nature were absent, replaced by profound silence.

The temperature was a bit on the low side, providing a chilly breeze that swept through the bush and branches, rustling the leaves with every blow to chase away the hush. The relatively early hour allowed the night's residue to remain a bit longer, making the passage darker than it should be given the sun has risen over the horizon already. Still they marched forward, eventually reaching the edge of the trees.

Walking out into the open, Jack noted they didn't leave the forest, but rather found a clearing with the path leading uphill to a collection of tents located at the center of the circular area. The camp seemed to lack any sort of defenses, which the Slayer found strange, especially given its location. As the trio climbed the mound, a pair of guards came into view, apparently keeping watch on newcomers.

"We seek an audience with chief Maska" Solomon announced calmly, rising his hands in surrender. "There is a matter we need to discuss; could you take us to him?" he asked politely, making the two Navari exchange glances; it was clear neither expected this, but whether this should be counted as proof of their involvement in last night's affair of the opposite Astrid couldn't decide.

After a moment of hesitation the guards lowered their weapons with one showing them to follow him. The trio complied, letting the sentry to lead them into the settlement. The whole place seemed fairly basic with tepee tents serving as buildings, all of them lined up in few circles with a large balefire located at the center, likely for meetings and celebration. Despite decorations on the fabric, there was little that allowed to distinguish one tent from the others, making the camp seemed rather monotone.

Jack scanned his surroundings closely, wandering only with his eyes, all the while keeping the same, emotionless expression on. At first glance there certainly didn't seem to be anything sinister about this place, but he knew all too well that appearances can be deceiving and the eerie feeling lingered since they approached the settlement. Once they reached the center of the camp, the guard presented them to his leader before taking a bow and returning to his post, leaving the three in front of Maska.

"This is somewhat... irregular" the chief of Navari noted, eying the arrival suspiciously. "We met with your father and town council just the other day Solomon" he recalled, not bothering to get up from the log he was sitting on. "What would warrant your visit so soon after the last, rather unsuccessful, parley?" he questioned, keeping a calm exterior.

"I apologize for intruding master Maska" the bald teen gave a slight bow of respect. "But there has been another breach in town – this time with casualties – and due to this tensions run high" he explained, making Zaltana, who stood on her father's right – alongside the muscular member of the other day's entourage - flinch at the announcement, to which Jack narrow his eyes. "As such, I felt it best to come and inform you of the situation" Solomon went on as if unaware of the girl's reaction.

"I fail to see how this... breach is of any concern to us" noted the elder Navari – the same one Jack and Astrid saw the other day – who stood on Maska's left, just next to the final member of the tribe's council. "We have given you constant warnings regarding your continuous lumber. Surrounding forest is not... ordinary as most would call it and carelessness that your people exhibit can carry consequences" he pointed out, this time making Zaltana look away.

"As I recall, your warnings weren't of particularly friendly nature, master Achak" the blackman replied, shifting his gaze to the man. He kept his voice calm and expression stoic, yet Astrid noted his right palm balling into a fist. "But – since you do seem to know more of this than we – I had hoped that you would shed some light on the whole thing to prevent more tragedy" he purposed, his gaze strong.

"Even if we really do know something – which I'm nt saying that we do – why should we tell you anything?" Maska questioned, seemingly finding some delight in the situation. "If there is a connection between this breach and our warnings, than it happened because you choose not to listen..."

"And we have explained that we cannot make a settlement without lumber" Solomon pointed out firmly.

"Than you could've chosen a different spot for your village" concluded the muscular Navari, crossing his arms.

"There is no, fertile soil for hundreds of miles; we had no choice than to settle here" the bald teen countered, his voice rising. This really wasn't getting him anywhere. "Either way I have not come here to return to that discussion as everything has already been said in that regard. I've only came to ask for your assistance in the current matter" he proclaimed, calming himself a bit. "What's past is past; whether we like it or not, we are 'neighbors' – what is the point of being at each other's throats? Wouldn't we all benefit from being on good terms?" he asked truthfully, making Zaltana gaze at him with someone akin to bewilderment.

Maska – on the other hand – had a very different reaction: "This forest has been our home long before you even showed up in these parts" he exclaimed, rising from his seat. "It used to be a serene place for the spirits until your people came along; one thing you do not seem to grasp is that neither you... nor your kind... is welcomed here" he warned, sending the youth a glare.

"I see" Solomon let out a sigh in defeat; clearly this was pointless. "Sorry for wasting your time, master Maska" he gave a quickly bow before turning on his foot and heading out the camp with both Jack and Astrid following him without a word. Zaltana watched them leave with a pained expression spread across her face as a heavy feeling slowly bloomed within her. She could hear her skinny companion with a long ponytail letting out a growl as he too traveled behind the visitors with his eyes, while the muscular one with a scar across the chest frowned:

"Humans really do act like they own everything" he noted with dismal, even though his tone felt heavy.

"You say that, but aren't we humans too, Taima?" the green-haired girl questioned, a hint of sadness in her voice.

"Don't compare us to the likes of them, Zaltana" Achak interjected strongly, showing disgust on his own face. "We are different, in more ways than one and you know that" he reminded her, giving her a glance before shifting it back to the three visitors. "But I think last night was a mistake. That wasn't what we agreed upon" he went on, now glancing over to Maska.

"Couldn't be helped, I suppose" the chief responded, holding back a frown. "We have allowed these people to do as they pleased long enough anyway..."

"What are you saying?" the elder Navari asked, sensing where this was going.

Maska merely turned to the skinny member of the council, his voice calm yet firm: "Prepare the tribe, Kajika. Upon nightfall... we're heading to Gloombury to end this once and for all..."

Meanwhile Solomon, Jack and Astrid walked downhill, leaving the Navari settlement behind, entering the forest without haste, the morning fog almost gone by this point.

"So what is your assessment?" the blackman questioned, glancing at the boy in black once they were out of earshot.

"Most certainly they are skinwalkers" the Slayer replied in his usual, emotionless monotone. "Every last one of them as far as I can tell, so a direct assault is not a good idea" he added, making Astrid rise her eyebrow at the comment. "If we fought them openly, they would likely rip us to shreds. For now, the most prudent course of action would be to fortify the town in preparation for the night..."

"You think the Navari will try something again?"

"Last night – as far as we know – there was just one lycanthrop" Jack pointed out simply. "Just imagine what damage a whole pack would be capable of. It's best to be prepared."

"Solomon, please wait!" they all heard a call, glancing over their shoulders to see Zaltana running towards them. "This... this is all wrong" she announced, panting lightly as she rested her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath. The trio waited patiently, allowing the girl to collect herself before continuing: "I... I'm sorry for my father, but this just... just seems to be getting out of hand! I... I can't... I..." she stumbled, lowering her eyes. "This is not how this was supposed to go. Everything..." she paused again, clearly unsure what she should do.

"It's alright Zaltana" the bald teen told her softly, gently lifting her head by the chin. "Just tell me what is so wrong."

The girl glanced at Jack and Astrid conflicted, a mixture of worry and confusion in her expression as she took a deep breath, letting out a sigh. This was not easy. She shifted her glance to Solomon again, adding a dose of fear to her river of emotions, but clenching her fists, she mustered the courage, giving the boy in black a firm gaze: "You're a Slayer, are you not?" she asked, getting a nod from the monster hunter. "Than I assume you already know... what we are?" she hesitated at the last words, again receiving confirmation from the brunette.

"Than, please, understand that we... I never thought that things will get this far" she corrected herself, realizing her own doubts. "This... state was bestowed upon my tribe by the spirits of the forest as means to protect the balance which humans constantly break" she explained, placing her arm on the chest. "We were meant to be guardians... those that would guide humanity to the right path. Something to scare people who would not listen into submission. But no-one died... until last night" she stated with regret.

"I see" Jack noted, narrowing his eyes while he grabbed his chin. "So that is the reason for the feeling I got when we entered the forest; these trees are anchors for the dryads" he concluded, getting a nod from Zaltana, yet Solomon seemed completely confused by that statement:

"Anchors? Dryads? What the heck are you talking about?"

To his surprise, it was Astrid that decided to explain: "To put it as simply as I can: there are two planes of existence that occupy the same space of our dimension – a physical one, sometimes referred to as the material plane, and the spiritual one. The former is where humans, werewolves, vampires and the like live; it's the world you see around you, one you can experience through the five senses. The spiritual one - on the other hand – lacks an actual, physical form. It's basically just energy and, as the name implies, is the home of spirits."

"Souls of the dead that – for whatever reason – didn't go to the afterlife and all sorts of spirits – such as dryads – reside there" she went on, making sure Solomon was still following. "Because they occupy the same space, one plane is a exact replica of the other; the mountain in the physical one is in the very same spot as the same mountain in the spiritual plane, but since nothing really has a solid form in the latter, only changes in the former have an effect on either plane's geography. Erecting a building or creating a crater in our world will immediately result in the same thing happening in the other."

"While material plane has a deep impact on the spiritual one, normally the latter cannot affect our world in any, real way" the redhead stated. "That is because spirits don't have a physical form. However spirits can have a more... profound presence in our plane by using anchors. For ghosts – that are souls of the dead – these are commonly things, places or people that were of great importance to them when they were alive; something or someone that still ties them to the physical world via strong emotions."

"All well and good, given that I understood all of that correctly" Solomon announced, crossing his arms. "But I still don't exactly get what that has to do with those... dryads or how does this relate to our, current situation..."

"Ghosts are basically visitors in the spiritual plane since they only go there after a person dies in a physical world and does not go to afterlife" Jack decided to step in, using his usual monotone. "However beings that were spirits to being with have a much deeper connection to their own plane; for them anchors are not just their gateway to the material plane but also their life source. If their anchor is destroyed, they basically die. Dryads – who are spirits of the forest – normally use monuments of nature as those anchors... such as trees" he underlined the last part, making the bald teen widen his eyes in shock.

"Wait; are you actually saying that by cutting down the trees for our town, we've been..." he choked, the words stuck in his throat at the very thought. He took a few, quick breaths, clenching his fist while his head lowered, forcing the next question out: "We've... killed those dryads?"

Zaltana also lowered her head at this, yet Jack remained unmoved as ever: "The whole thing is a bit more complex than that" he assured him calmly. "But – for the sake of simplicity – from what she told us" here he glanced at the young werewolf. "That is the outcome of your actions..."

"So it's not the Navari" Solomon said, his voice almost a whisper as he shook his head. "We're the ones in the wrong..." he admitted, his tightened fists shaking. "I recall chief Maska actually mention spirits when he first came to talk with my father, but we all just dismissed the notion as just some childish superstition... we never gave it a second thought, despite knowing how the world around us looks... we..." he froze, his lips trembling.

"As I said: the situation is a bit more complex than that" the Slayer repeated, keeping his cool. "Spirits aren't 'life' as we know it, so it could be argued they never were alive to begin with" he pointed out, making Zaltana flinch, yet the monster hunter either didn't catch that or elected to ignore her reaction. "Regardless, dryads have strong connection to nature, so it would stand to reason they actually can put a curse of lycanthropy on others... provided they have the power for the ritual, which should be a none-issue in a place filled with anchors. That would, at least, explain how Navari became werewolves in the first place..."

"One thing I don't understand though" Astrid announced, eying the green-haired girl. "Were you werewolves from the beginning?"

"Yes" Zaltana nodded. "The Navari lived in this forest for generations; the dryads bestowed their... gift on our ancestors to help them protect their home. Our transformation ability is passed through the family."

"Than why haven't you acted earlier?" the vampire questioned. "I mean you have allowed them to build an entire town! This must've taken weeks if not longer; if people of Gloomsbury didn't listen, why have you refrain from using these abilities until now?"

"I opted to give them time" the young lycanthrope answered. "I wanted to avoid senseless bloodshed and a lot of my tribesmen supported that notion, including some of members of the council. Sadly, when Leido passed away, I lost a lot of support... and now my father is free to do as he intended from the start" she proclaimed, shutting her eyes in shame. "He's going to lead the Navari to Gloomsbury by nightfall... he plans to wipe the whole town off the face of the earth!"

"What?!" the news struck Solomon like lighting, his eyes widen. "That's insane! Even if you are werewolves, there's no way your tribe will get out of such a skirmish unscratched! There'll be casualties on both sides! It'll be a massacre!"

"I know" Zaltana assured him, her internal conflict gone. "And I don't want any part of it! But I no longer have any impact my kinsmen; they're making preparations even as we speak!"

The blackman glanced sideways, his face twitching. Certainly he did not saw something like this coming. Now so fast anyway. Taking a deep breath, he shifted his eyes back on the girl, grabbing her arms as he pulled her closer: "Than maybe I can have some impact on mine! If we manage to convince my father to stop cutting the trees, there no longer will be a reason to fight! We might even be able to persuade everyone to leave, allowing the forest to recover! We need to get back to Gloomsbury! Come with us Zaltana – with you there, we should be able to talk some sense into my father" he stated, receiving a hesitant nod from the green-haired female.

The next instant they dashed down the path, leaving Astrid and Jack behind. The two exchanged glances and followed, shifting into a sprint to catch up: "Don't think I didn't notice" the redhead suddenly spoke as the ran through the forest, still a fair distance behind Solomon and Zaltana. "I don't know what was your reason for lying, but I certainly don't condole your behavior since we got involved into this. You really want to wipe the Navari out because they're werewolves and wish to use people of Gloomsbury to do that! Even if I accept your lack of concern for the lycanthrops, your job is to protect humans and you're just willingly putting them in the midst of this!"

The Slayer didn't respond; he just gazed at the vampire with his emotionless expression and than shifted back to the road ahead. Before long they reached the town gates and were greeted by Edgar and Simon, who instinctively aimed their crossbows at the arrivals, yet quickly lowered them seeing the leader of the guard leading the group: "Captain Solomon" the bowl-cut brunette began, confusion written all over his face. "Wha...?"

"There's no time to explain Simon" the bald teen interrupted him immediately. "We need to speak with my father. In the meantime I want you to gather all the men for guard duty. Have them be ready for a fight, but no-one is to act without my, direct order!" he commanded firmly.

Edgar narrowed his eyes at this, yet said nothing. Simon was visibly confused, but finally shook it off and salute, exclaiming 'at once' before spinning on his foot to proceed with given task. As he left, Solomon led his group to the town hall, pushing the doors to his father's office without knocking. William raised his head at the sudden commotion, just as shocked as the sentries at the gates at the sight, yet his surprise shifted to dismal upon spotting Zaltana among the entourage.

"What is going on here?" the mayor demanded without getting up from behind his desk. His elder advisor also watched the group curiously, a worried expression crossing his face.

"Trouble of colossal proportions" Solomon proclaimed immediately, walking closer to him. "The Slayer confirms that Navari are werewolves and Zaltana concurs with that assessment. Worse still: according to her they intend to attack the town by nightfall. I've already ordered the guards to make the necessary preparations, but – hopefully – we can turn all of this around before things get too far" he announced with a sense of urgency. "Dad; we need to comply with Navari guidelines..."

"What?!" William now bolted from his seat, surprisingly angry.

"Remember how chief Maska talked about spirits and that our cutting down the trees hurts them?" he asked rhetorically, not even giving his father a chance to react. "Well – according to the Slayer – they are not just folktales! Some... dryads or whatever actually use local trees as their life source. We are killing them by doing as we please and that is the reason the Navari antagonize us! But there might be a way for us to get what we need for survival without affecting the spirits, riding Navari from the reason they wish to fight us."

"You cannot be serious!" the mayor of Gloomsbury stated, his face twitching as he held back his rage. "I won't listen to some, stupid superstitions! Even if the whole concept of dryads is real, they're ghosts; what difference does it make is they live or not?!" he yelled, making Zaltana glance away as the man continued: "They're unnatural while we are flesh and blood! There's no way that I'll put some... make-belief beings above our own people! What's more – since the Navari are werewolves, that makes them little better than animals!" he proclaimed, getting a flinch from the green-haired girl this time. "They cannot tell us what to do!"

"William" the elder advisor interjected, trying to calm the man down. "If all Solomon said just now is true, than real or not, these spirits are pushing the Navari into battle. Nothing good can come out of that. I'm not saying we should blindly agree to everything, but if things really got this bad, than being stubborn isn't the best course of action here. If it will prevent carnage, shouldn't we at least consider making some concessions?"

"Stay out of this Edward!" William shot back, sending him a glare, coupled with pointed a finger. "This is unacceptable! But do not worry" he added, shifting his attention to the four youths. "We have a way to deal with the Navari without playing along with their delusions" he stated, settling his gaze at Zaltana: "After all, we have the daughter of their chief right here" he announced, motioning to the guard to grab the young werewolf.

The man with the short sword hesitated, glancing to Edward as if looking for support. The elder only let out a sigh of defeat as he gave the guard a nod, making the latter gaze back to the girl. Reaching for his weapon, he slowly moved towards the Navari female, but as he extended his arm forward, a large scythe cut through the air, the blade dropping merely inches in front of his fingers, making him freeze instantly.

"If you wish to harm her, you'll have to deal with me first" Astrid warned, rage building up. Her eyes narrowed, slowly turning red while the grimace made her flash her teeth, showing two fangs growing in length, immediately making all gathered – except Jack – take a step back at the realization.

"A vampire!" William exclaimed, visibly shaken. Edward tightened the grip on his cane nervously as well and even Solomon felt a drop of sweat running down his face as he stared at the redhead with widen eyes. Zaltana looked at the other girl surprised as well, not sure whether this revelation should be counted as a blessing or a bad omen. "She's a vampire!" the mayor of Gloomsbury repeated, turning to Jack: "What kind of a Slayer travels around with a vampire?! And you want us to believe you?! You should've killed her on principle!"

"She's been around your town for over a day now and has not done anything that would warrant being concerned over her presence" the monster hunter responded simply in his usual monotone. "Similarly, the werewolf girl has done nothing wrong, as far as we can tell. If you're unwilling to be rational, than using her as hostage – even in these, extreme circumstance – is not acceptable. In stead of losing your mind over things that are of no consequence, why don't you try finding an actual solution to the crisis, since you choose to disregard the option we provided?" he purposed, his voice and expression still lacking any emotion.

William's face twitched a few times at the sudden defiance; certainly he did not saw this conversation progressing as it did: What kind of a Slayer is this brat? he thought to himself, boiling inside.

Astrid herself flinched slightly, a familiar sensation striking her as she shifted her gaze out the window, seeing Poe land on the parapet. She walked slowly towards her companion as Solomon spoke, shaking off his surprise: "We can deal with the vampire later! Right now we have more pressing matter to attend, like finding a way to prevent this, pointless bloodshed!"

"I'm afraid we're out of time" the redhead announced, opening the window. "The Navari are already here" she added as her eyes traveled to Gloomsbury's main gate, beyond which a wall of people marched at the wooden palisade, all armed in hatchets, maces and spears, their treads steadily filling the evening air...

-welcome to the slaughter-