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Claremont Academy

Friday, December 9

3:42 PM

 

The trees were busy.

 

Lilly was still coming into her connection to the ephemeral to a certain degree. She had the basics down and knew her oak from her holly, but she was still trying to understand so much about spirits. Their language, their politics, their intricacies... it was a lot to take in. But she at least felt she knew something. 

 

Like how some tree spirits should be dormant in the winter. But here they were - the oak, the cedar - gathering on the grounds of Claremont and associating with their brethren. And they seemed to be knocking on the trunks of the sleeping trees, trying to get in.

 

---

Lincoln

Friday, December 9 

6:32 PM

 

It was already dark, but winter did that. It just meant more time to patrol. Unfortunately, while the cold never quite bothered her, nights of balancing crime fighting and finals prep did, which was why Temperance was feeling a bit reluctant to take to the sky this evening. After about 15 minutes on the ice sledge, she realized she'd need something hot and caffeinated if she wanted to avoid the world's most embarrassing - if unique - collision. She set the sledge down outside of a 7-Eleven, somehow managing to find a parking space that had not been claimed by a lawn chair in preparation of the oncoming snow. 

 

"Excuse me."

 

Temperance turned to find a man in a green Eisenhower jacket and Smokey hat lurking in the corner. "They say you're the water girl around her," he said. "Well, one of them. They didn't exactly have contact info, but the police said I might be able to find you around here."

 

"I'm one of the ones who deal with water, yes. But if the police sent you to me, I imagine it's a bit... stranger than that."

 

The man extended his hand. "Jack Perkins, National Parks Service," he said. He reached into his jacket, pulling out a folder and handing it to Temperance. "We had a... recent incident, and was wondering you might be able to bring your particular insight to it."

 

Temperance flipped open the folder, only to be hit with a crime scene. An SUV, covered in mud and wet leaves, lay on the edge of a snow-covered shore, a tow cable hitched to the back. The next photo showed the interior of the car, and the body sitting in the front seat. The man was dressed in winter woodsman gear, complete with watchman's cap, and had that particular coloration one might associate with a drowned man.

 

Hell of a way to start the evening. Still, Temperance had to maintain her composure to sell the mystique. She looked to Jack. "These photos are telling me a story, and I'm guessing it's not the obvious one."

 

"The deceased is Thomas Laurent. 29, former lineman working out of Barnegat. We found a chainsaw and pitons in his car - logging equipment. He was in the middle of Wharton."

 

Wharton. A picture was starting to come together in her mind. She knew it was the wrong one, but she didn't know just what she was looking for yet. "So, the theory is, he was engaged in illegal logging, drove out into a snowy glade, parked on a frozen lake, and went through the ice. But I'm guessing there's something wrong with that picture..."

 

Jack nodded. "The car was in park when it was extracted from the lake. But there were tire treads running 200 feet from the shore. And, according to our forensics guys, the tires were not running when the car make its trip. It's as if... something pushed it into the lake."

 

Temperance studied the photos again. She thought she might be seeing things, but the front bumper looked a little loose. 

 

"Or dragged it." 

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Spirits are weird.

 

That seemed like the main conclusion Lilly was coming to when it came to learning about them. The internet so far had given her information that was either too vauge to be helpful or trying to to sell new age self help books . School libary had some info but not enough to help explain what she was going to be dealing with. Still it was more than enough to tell something strange was happening on the school grounds.

Peering out from the window of her dorm room she saw them. They seemed to be looking for something, never mind the fact most spirits in the campus grounds have retreated inside the trees after the freak blizzard not too long ago. She turned from the window and got her black leather jacket and her mask. She had a feeling she was gonna need it.

 

She stumbled outside, struggling to walk through the snow and the biting cold. Lilly approached the pair of spirits. "Hello?"

Edited by Darksider42

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The spirit turned to Lilly. It looked like the classical dryad of lore, a nimble woman of fresh shoots and green leaves - which made her look quite out of place, standing barefoot in several inches of snow. The dryad said something in a tongue of wind through branches and falling leaves, something that Lilly could not understand. The spirit stared at her in silence - then, slowly, took on that strange sheen that Lilly had associated with materialization. 

 

"You see but do not speak?" asked the tree. "What sort of worker are you?"

 

"Never mind her." A head extended from a nearby pine tree, with a face like a grandmother and a voice to match. "She's new to the area. New in general, it seems. The youth of spring come early, I'd imagine. Far too early."

 

"It's not my fault I could not rest!" shot back the younger tree. "If you could just let me in --"

 

"I'm sorry, dear, this tree only has room for one, both physically and metaphysically. What happened to you is rotten apples, but it's nothing I can affect..."

 

---

 

"No criminal history for the deceased?" asked Temperance. 

 

"I'm, uh, not exactly the person who'd have access to that," said Jack. "But the Sheriff's office says he's clean, for the most part. Few drunk and disorderlies after a night of drinking at the local bar, but you're not looking at the criminal mastermind of the Pine Barrens." 

 

"No. I imagine that's someone else. On the logging matter..." 

 

"We don't know who's behind it. We started finding trees cut down a few months back - old growth, the kind that would fetch a pretty penny with the proper buyers. We haven't been able to find any trace of the leadership, though. Sheriff's office has been lending us what aid he can, but..."

 

"It's not a high priority matter?"

 

"There's a lot hinkier stuff that happens out there, both human and..." Jack paused, as if thinking he might be saying something foolish. "Look. Wharton's been my beat for years. You hear the stories, and every so often, you think you see something out of the corner of your eye. I think I know when something's strange, and when something's weird. And trust me. This one is weird."

 

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Rosethorn tilted her head, eyebrows furrowed. The speech of spirits was still something that she could not puzzle out. Even when they attempt to talk in a language she could speak it came off a bit off. "I was given a bunch of powers as a Champion of the court. Speaking the language was not one of them apparently." She told the dryad. She had never heard the term worker applied to her before.

 

"Anyway, you're clearly not from around here and you don't seem to have your own place. What happened?" She asked, burrowing her hands deeper into the jackets pockets in a vain attempt to find a bit more warmth.

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GM

 

"Interesting..." said the old growth spirit. "One would think they'd give the whole package to their Champion. Perhaps there was a rush job on..."

 

The younger dryad raised a hand to the old growth spirit, trying to get her to keep quiet. Under ordinary circumstances, that likely would have failed, but in this case, the aged tree knew when to pipe down. "I did have a home," she said. "But then the men came. With stabbing steel and whirring saws and great chains..."

 

"Ha!" said the old tree. "You must be new. They do that, you know. Surely you must have somewhere you can --"

 

The dryad stared daggers at her elder. "I know what men do to the homes of our kind. But they have not done it here in a long time. And... I've heard tales from my brothers and sisters about what to do when that happens. How to seek shelter until the new season of birth. But none of the other trees will let me in. They say that they cannot take someone so new. That they are... busy. And they're already doing too much to spare any charity."

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There were...Other things going on." She tried to plain before the dryad started to speak again. She nodded as she listened. "Loggers. Right." Somehow that should not have surprised Rosethorn. Especially considering the time of year and she had heard some people had a habit of wanting an 'authentic Christmas tree' without the hassle of the price tag. 

"I might not have every power I'm suppose to have, but I can probably grow you a new home near your old one if that is what you are after." It seemed better to have her back to wherever she was from rather than in some place she was not familiar with.

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"A new home..." The dryad fell quiet, as if frozen in wistful contemplation. Soon, she roused, smiling wide. "Yes! Yes, that sounds good."

 

"You know," said the crone, "if you give her one, everyone's going to want one."

 

As if to back up the crone's word, the other wandering dryads in the copse converged on Rosewood's point, listening intently. 

 

"Methinks you may have some work ahead of you..."

 

"And of course," said the younger dryad, "you'll be able to ensure the homes stay up, right? And that no one else is driven away?"

 

---

 

"And I don't suppose you can quantify the degree of weird?" asked Temperance. 

 

"Well, what scale are we using?" asked Jack. "One being 'I think I saw a ghost' and 10 being 'that time the sky bled red and the Terminus invaded'?"

 

"...I suppose that's an adequate scale."

 

"Let's say 3. But still. A man is dead, and while it's not exactly my department, I want to make sure he's the last one."

 

Suitably chastened, Temperance turned inward. She knew she tended to adopt the cold affect - it went well with the powers - but perhaps she'd gotten a little too hard-edged lately. "I understand that urge fully," she said. "I have some affairs to tend to tonight, but I'll set out for Barnegat tomorrow. Where should we meet?"

 

Jack handed Temperance a piece of paper. "Here's the address for the Ranger Station. I'll expect you around 10 AM. If that's not too early."

 

Temperance cracked a smile. "Not too early at all. Though I'd be happy to have some coffee. If just to keep the chill out..." 

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"I...Was not aware you brought friends with you." Rosethorn said, nervously eyeing the growing number of dryads appearing from the treeline. Suddenly her job seemed a lot more complicated that it first appeared. 

 

"I think we'll try to deal with things one at a time." She told the young dryad, trying not to suddenly feel overwhelmed in this situation. "First is to figure out where you are from first. I need an idea of what I'm doing first."

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The dryads looked to one another. "We do not quite know the human name," said the young one that led discussions. "We merely know that it is wide and green, with thousands of us. We got here through the Root Roads."

 

"She means the great network of trees," said the crone. "It's not quite a massive root structure, but it does allow for travel if need be."

 

"I... I can backtrace the path. Give you an idea."

 

Before Rosethorn could say anything, the young dryad took her hand. Suddenly, she was there, but not there. She was insubstantial, suspended in thin air. Then she was sucked into the ground, vanishing into a nearby root. From there, she felt herself traveling underground at high speed, jumping from root to root like a nerve signal crossing synapses. She felt herself traveling miles upon miles before erupting out of the ground, finding herself a large, gray forest, where snow blanketed both ground and bare branches. While she couldn't name it, she did gain a sense of place. It almost reminded her of photos she'd seen of Wharton State Forest.

 

Then, the vision was gone, as she was swiftly yanked back to her body. The young dryad stood before her. "You saw, yes? You know?"

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Rosethorn staggered back, mind racing as she desperately tried to regain some sense of balance and composure. "OK. That was a first." The chill in the air helped get her back to her senses. 

 

The light-headed sensation from her first out of body experience started to fade. She could focus once more on the Dryad. "Yeah, I sort of know the place. Wharton State Forest." Eyebrows furrowed, trying to pry what she could remember about the place. "I don't know for certain but I'm pretty sure no one is allowed to cut down trees there." Honestly a guess on her part but she was pretty sure the place was home to several nature preserves. To the best of her knowledge there were laws involved in cutting trees down in such places.

Edited by Darksider42

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"They aren't," said the crone from the back, "but then, when has that ever stopped humans? They see your home, and they think it might make a pleasant thing to sit on or store things. We tend to appreciate our homes as long as we have them - which is why, I'm guessing, some of us don't want to take in interlopers." 

 

"Those trees are large and old!" said the dryad. "So large to allow room for a season! But they are busy, they say. I --" She paused, catching her breath - if she could be said to have breath. "Anyway. You can make the trees. You can give us new shelter. And you can make sure that these men are driven out, so that nobody else loses their home to their greed. Yes?"

 

The crone gave Rosethorn a look. "Ah, the hope of the young. Just remember: Don't promise them the sun if you can't deliver a spark. First rule of spirits. Or, well, it's somewhere in the first ten."

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Rosethorn made a mental note to see the old spirit again after this was done. Books from the library and bits from the internet could not compare to an actual spirit after all. "I'll keep that in mind." She said with a nod to her.

 

Once again, she waited for the Dryad to finish talking and making assumptions. "Like I said before, One thing at a time. I'll try and get you a home somewhere closer to one of the nature preserves so you can...." She trailed off for a moment. The young plant controller suddenly felt like she was missing something from this whole situation. "Wait, what do they say?"

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"They say that they are busy," said the young dryad. "I don't know what with. They think it's not a matter for a young shoot such as I. But they say things like... 'We must grow deep.' 'We must keep together.' 'Our roots must stay strong.' But they will not let me in, and they will not say why. Perhaps they have become exclusive in their old age --"

 

"Oh, sure, flatter a girl," said the crone. 

 

" -- but I am not sure that it is... normal. But I haven't sensed anything wrong, besides the men and their tools... and my roots do not reach that deep..." The dryad shakes her head. "It is a matter for another time. When we are safe."

 

---

 

Temperance parted ways with Jack and headed back to her dorm. After buying supplies for the next day from the campus convenience store - a Thermos for coffee, a bag of jerky, some trail mix, and a couple of sandwiches - she retreated to her room to do a little Google search on Wharton. Apparently illegal logging was a new scourge for the area, one that dated back just a few months. Aside from that, there wasn't much in the way of folklore to explain why someone's SUV might have been dragged into a pond. So... wild territory.

 

Going in, asking questions... always great in an area where the spirits may be nervous. I'm... pretty sure I can do this with nothing exploding. 

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Rosethorn nodded, a small frown forming, It was not an answer that really satisfied. Then again the words 'When your older' still annoyed her, no matter the context or metaphor. The teenager paced around for a short time. Contemplating.

 

Finally, she spoke. "I'm gonna need some time to get ready. If I'm going to get any of you a new home I'll need to check on the locations of nature preserves in the forest and look into the illegal logging going on in the area." Also get properly dressed. Her costume could handle the winter weather better than just her jacket and regular black clothes could. She shivered a bit. "Once I'm ready, we'll get started. Unless you have anything else to share."

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Wharton State Forest

Saturday, December 10

10:32 AM

 

Temperance was trying to read the water. 

 

True to word, Jack Perkins had been waiting for her at the Ranger Station. She'd gotten there a few minutes early, realizing Google Maps didn't exactly have a suitable option for flying ice sledge. From there, it was just a matter of time until they were at the crime scene. The treads were still carved into the soil, even if the actual car was long gone. As Temperance was not one to read the history of death itself, she would have to rely on ephemeral witnesses.

 

Trouble was, she couldn't seem to find any. 

 

The pond that the car had seemingly been dragged into was absolutely still. No spirits swam in its depths. The ice was still broken and had yet to freeze over, but she could still perceive nothing floating under the surface. Nor was there much more in dry land. She could hear distant birdsong that sounded a little richer than the usual stuff - often the sign of bird spirits showing off - but for the most part, the woods were quiet. That was to be associated with winter, but...

 

If I say "too quiet," that will be a big honking cliche.

 

---

 

It had taken some time for Rosethorn to get to the forest. Being accompanied by a bevy of young dryads had made the journey rather interesting. But now, as they led her through the woods, she could see what they meant. She saw the ragged stumps that had been somewhat less than clearcut. She heard the quiet of the woods, feeling the general tranquility - or barrenness - of the spiritual landscape. 

 

"See?" said the youngest dryad. "They stay withdrawn. To themselves. We don't know why. We wish they would share..."

 

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Silence was often welcomed by Rosethorn. A welcomed respite from dealing with people more afraid of the colour black than what was considered rational. But this was different. It if was not for the distant sound of birdsong this silence would be crushing her. The lack of spirits made that feeling even worse. Even the school and city has more life in it. She though, a frown creeping onto her face as they went in deeper into the woods. She eyed one of the stumps and her frown deepened. 

 

She stopped in front of one of the still standing trees. Her knuckles rapped against the bark. "Hello?" Rosethorn called out. "Anyone here?" Part of her was hoping she did not need to speak the language of the spirits to get something out of them.

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The trees were absolutely quiet. No one came answering at Rosethorn's call. And yet... she could feel something thrumming through the trees. There was power here. Much more power than she'd felt off of any of the old growth trees on the grounds of Claremont. Hell, perhaps more power than she'd felt in any tree in Freedom City. Whatever the spirits were doing in their demesnes, it was clear they weren't just laying back and watching Netflix to get through the long winter. 

 

"It is the same with all of them," said the dryad. "They have this... project going. They won't speak on it, when you can get them to speak. I had to knock long and hard to hear from each of them, and I speak the tongue of roots. They don't want to speak."

---

Temperance, meanwhile, was taking in the scene. She found the roots that she had expected. It was clear the crime scene techs wouldn't have suspected these to have a role; they were dried, withered, signs of growth long gone. In all likelihood, a tree or plant spirit had brought them to life and pumped enough power into them to complete their purpose, then cut off the flow so that they could return to base earth. 

 

Of course, that raised the matter of which tree spirit. Temperance stepped towards the nearby trees. Still no spirits hanging around them; she knew it was winter and they'd be fairly docile, but she thought she might at least see a face in the trees. Nothing. And yet... there was vitality. Power. Flowing from root to branch. Something ran beneath.

 

Clearly, she needed to find someone who could spare a few words on the project...

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Her hand lingered on the tree trunk, getting a feel of the power underneath the bark. Lilly sighed as she backed away. "Not sure if thats a bad thing or not..." 

 

Frowning, she turned away from the tree and faced the Dryads again. "Not sure what I can do to get them to talk. All we can do is wait I suppose." Her phone came out of her pocket and she scrolled through a list of apps before opening the Maps app. A few seconds of checking it later she nodded and slipped it back into her pocket. "We're not far off from the Preserve though. C'mon. If we hurry we can get this done before lunch."

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It was several hours later, but Temperance was finding nothing.

 

Well, that wasn't entirely true. There were a few coyote spirits running about, and still the rich chirping of bird spirits on the distant wind. But the coyotes kept their distance, even when she called to them. All in all, Wharton seemed a very beautiful barrens.

 

They're not gone, she thought. They must be here. But where? I don't exactly have the license to go knocking on trees - a whole matter of cross-jurisdiction of the Courts - but there has to be something --

 

That's when she heard it, faint in the distance. Screaming.

---

The walk to the Preserve was not much more fruitful. The trees were just as silent as their brethren, and just as flush with power. 

 

"Nothing still," said the dryad, confirming Rosethorn's perceptions. "Why these ones? Why here? There has to --"

 

The dryad's reveries were cut off by the roaring of a chainsaw. Following by a cry that pierced Rosethorn's ears.

 

"Again!" The dryad grabbed Rosethorn's hand. "They're doing it again! This way!"

 

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"Well-" Rosethorn did not really have any answers about the forests silence but she would have answered why with the preserve. Would have been the key as her head whipped towards the sound of chainsaws running and screaming. It hurt in a way she did not think it was possible. She charged towards the sounds of destruction with all the haste she could. Not as planned at all. She thought as she broke through the foliage towards their target.

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Temperance flew through the woods towards the scream. As did Rosethorn, coming the other way. "Wait," said the dryad, as she and Rosethorn drew closer. "It's not them. Not a spirit. It's... flesh. It's --"

 

A vast barrage of angry words - Temperance couldn't quite make them out, but she had a very good idea - cut through the air, matched by just as angry, but less anguished, shouting.

 

"...out of the way!"

 

"He swung! He ****ing swung! I was right there!"

 

"You didn't hear him?"

 

"Couldn't hear **** over that damn saw! Christ, my hand..."

 

Temperance slowed down, trying to sneak up on the party. One man - looked like he was in his mid-thirties, fairly beefy - was clutching his hand, which was fountaining blood. He was joined by two friends, one of whom was still clutching the bloody chainsaw. Despite the injury, neither party seemed concerned. 

 

The man not holding the chainsaw shook his head. "You're useless to the project now. Go home and sleep it off."

 

"Sleep it off? They're my goddamn fingers!" 

 

"No..."

 

The man who seemed in charge picked the severed fingers up from the ground, clutching them in his fist. He lifted the fist to his mouth and - to Temperance's disbelief - bit down on the index finger, gnawing it off at the first knuckle.

 

"They're your idiot tax. Ray, keep going. We've got a lot further to go..."

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"Wait here." She told the Dryad as Rosethorn approached. Her movements started to slow down. As she reached some bushes, her body shimmered, as though one was seeing a mirage. Her body blended in seamlessly with the foliage. The teenager spied on the scene and winced when one of them started showing a casual interest in cannibalism. 

Don't think you'll be going any further. She thought as her hand touched the cold, hard ground. A system of roots started to form and burrowed forward towards the strange men, soil and dirt being disturbed by the sudden existence of plant life. As soon as it reached their feet, vines and fly traps erupted from the earth. Limbs were quickly bound. Lilly chose not to reveal herself yet, weary of what exactly these men were doing.

Or if they were reallly men at all.

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The workers cried out briefly as the roots started snaking up from the earth. Temperance stepped out ahead, ice gathered around her, not willing to wait to see what fresh hell this was. She didn't see any spirits snaking out of the darkness to extend their will, but she did see the traces of spirit magic on the roots. Perhaps this was one of those massive root structure spirits that dwelled deep and turned over in their sleep like an earthquake. 

 

"I am not even going to pretend I know what's happening here," she said, "so first one to answer gets to keep their fingers. Or at least gets to take them home to do up with barbecue sauce." 

 

She found it frightening how easily she was able to remain cool in these circumstances. Even with all the weird things she'd seen, autocannibalism was... definitely up there.

 

"We're just doing our jobs!" said the guy who'd lost his fingers. "Come on, we've got a schedule to meet!"

 

"I think you should consider worker's comp. And who hired you for this operation?" 

 

"Our boss," said the guy who'd been giving orders. "And if you think we're giving him up so easy, you've got another thing coming."

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OK that different. Thought Rosethorn as she observed behind the spirit magic that kept her veiled beyond sight. The latest edition to the scene had a touch of the strange aura she saw spirits gave off in the ice forming around her. The woman herself did give off a weaker version of that aura bit it was still different. At least she was not on the side of these intruders. Lilly steeled herself before acting.

"Considering you're not suppose to be here in the first place, I think it would be smart if you did." Rosethorn shimmered back into sight with a step forward. "Plus I think he's gonna have a problem with blood loss soon." She added with a nod in the mans direction. One of the fly traps was left wide open underneath the wound, blood dripping into its waiting maw. Lillian looked over to Temperance and gave her a small, awkward wave. "Um. Hi."

Edited by Darksider42

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Well. This was different. Temperance could see the spirit accompanying the woman in the biker jacket... and it seemed some of the essence of spirits licked off of her as well. Was she like her? Another child of the spirit courts? 

 

That's something to dig into another time. Right now, deal with weird cultist stuff. 

 

"My friend has the right of it," she said. "You can tell us what you know, or... well, I assume the local plants aren't going to happy with you." She gestured to the Venus fly trap that has blossomed to life beneath the bleeding man's hand. "Would you like to feed them? I imagine it'd go a bit faster than the usual way..." 

 

"We..." The bleeding man seemed to be fighting through the pain. "We don't... Look, we don't know. We just know we... have to. We got brought on for the work. Cut down the trees, get them out, make the cash. Soon, the boss started directing us to new groves. And then we started getting... hungry. He kept us fed, said it was part of the payment now."

 

Cannibal cults? Temperance had heard whispers of wendigos, but imagined those were concerns for further up north. There were spirits who dabbled in unsavory practices... but why would they try to worm their way into logging? Maybe it's the injury rate. Between that and the illegal activity, no one's quick to notice when a limb - or a body entire - goes missing...

 

"So. Where might we find your boss?"

 

"You tell him, Frank," said the seeming foreman, "I swear to God, I will eat you myself --"

 

"Shut it, Bill. They're capes. About four klicks north-north-east from here. Keep going 15 minutes, and you won't be able to miss the noise."

 

"Thank you." Temperance looked to the other elemental woman. "Not to be presumptuous, but... do you need a lift?" 

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