The longer they proceeded beneath the canopy of branches, the more movement that Molly detected above them, although it remained stealthy. She suspected that they were accompanied by many arboreal presences, not just a single creature.
When she glanced back at Neil, Abby, Johnny, and Virgil, she saw that they, too, were aware of the secretive travelers in the trees.
Neil held the shotgun in both hands, in a semi-relaxed grip, the muzzle pointed upward as he walked, ready to swivel left or right and fire into the branches at the first provocation. This lovely man had passed thirty-two years in gentle pursuits—scholar, shepherd, cabinetmaker—but this night he’d proved to be a courageous protector in a pinch.
“The thing in the attic,” Elric said, “might’ve got us if she hadn’t made it back off.”
“Would’ve gotten us for sure,” said Bethany.
“She just sort of shimmered out of thin air. She was like that guy in that old movie, that Star Wars guy,” Eric said, “but she wasn’t a guy, and she didn’t have a light sword—or any sword.”
Immediately ahead of Molly, though not stirred by a breeze, leaves spoke to leaves, moss trembled at this conversation, and a hand of one of their stalkers appeared, only the hand, gripping a branch for perch, for balance.
“Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Elric said.
“That’s the guy,” Bethany agreed. “An old guy.”
The revealed hand was approximately the size of one of Molly’s, perhaps with an extra digit, fiercely strong by the look of it, deep scarlet, scaly, reptilian.
“She wasn’t old though,” said Eric.
“Pretty old,” Bethany disagreed.
“Not as old as the Star Wars guy.”
“No, not that old.”
Four knuckles per finger, endowed with black claws as pointed as rose thorns, the scarlet hand released the limb and vanished into foliage as the nimble creature proceeded ahead of them.
Speaking of the menacing presence encountered in their attic, Elric said, “I don’t know how she made it stay away from us.”
“She spelled it away,” Bethany replied.
Molly wondered how something her size could move so swiftly from tree to tree, yet in near silence and with so little disturbance of the leaves and moss. And she wondered how many of them were swarming through the branches both below and above the dense fog.
“She didn’t spell it away,” Eric said impatiently.
“Magic words,” Bethany insisted. “‘The force be with you.’”
Molly counseled herself to keep moving. Intuition told her that any hesitation would be interpreted as weakness and that any sign of weakness would invite attack.
“That’s stupid,” Eric said. “She didn’t say ‘the force be with you’ or anything like that.”
“Yeah, so what did she say?”
They were just fifty feet from the next intersection. Ahead lay Main Street, with three generous lanes of pavement instead of two narrow ones; trees did not overhang the entire width of it, as they did here.
“I don’t remember what she said,” Eric admitted.
“Me neither,” his brother said.
“She said something,” Bethany declared.
Just three steps ahead of them, the scarlet hand or one like it appeared on another bareness of branch.
Molly considered firing her pistol into the tree. Even if she hit the creature and killed it, however, this might be reckless. Instinct—which, with intuition, was all she had to go on—told her that firing a shot might invite instant vicious assault by others in the wooden highways overhead.
Simultaneous with the appearance of the hand, an appendage, at least four feet long, red mottled with green, more than an inch in diameter at the shank but dwindling to a tasseled and barbed whip at the end, perhaps a tail, slid out of the leaves, drooped down before them in a lazy arc—then snapped up, shearing moss, and out of sight.
Bethany and her brothers had seen this sinuous display. They had been meant to see it. The exposed tail was intended to be a challenge and a prod to panic.
The kids halted, clutching at one another for reassurance.
“Keep moving,” Molly whispered, “but don’t run. Walk. Just like you were doing.”
Fear made the children cautious, but a slow pace was better than a sprint, which might, as with a tiger, invite pursuit. They would not win a chase.
They were thirty feet from the end of the canopy.
As if all these terrors were a mad composition, systemized in meter, orchestrated, out of the bleak morning came again the weeping of a woman, answered by the more distant but nonetheless miserable weeping of a man, and also ahead of Molly and to her right, an iron manhole cover rattled in the blacktop, knocked upon from below by some restless entity, perhaps by the headless body of Ken Halleck.
HUMAN WEEPING OF INHUMAN SOURCE, RED reptiles as big as cougars in the trees, a headless dead man or something worse knocking on the manhole cover, knocking to be released from the storm drain: Mere anarchy had been set loose upon the world, a blood-dimmed tide that threatened to wash sanity up by the roots, tangle it like weeds, and sweep it away.
Molly kept moving, although she doubted they would escape the canopy of trees. To her surprise, they reached the intersection with Main Street, where the only architecture overhead was the ceaselessly changing, frescoed purple vaults of fog on fog.
Before she could indulge in even a timid hope, one of those silent luminous craft appeared again in the overcast, racing toward them out of the west, one second glimpsed, six fast heartbeats later hovering overhead. Shape without form. Light that did not reveal its source. Its awesome power was suggested by the absolute stillness of its levitation.
As before, Molly felt physically scrutinized to a cellular level, every filament mapped in the rich braid of her emotions, every turning of her mind from its brightest to its darkest places explored in an instant and understood in finest detail. By analytic rays, by probing currents, by telepathic scans, by science and technology beyond the conception of the human mind, she was pored through, and known.
In the previous encounter, she had felt naked, terrified, and ashamed. She felt all those things now, and in no less measure than before.
The children appeared to be bedazzled, as might be expected, and afraid, as they should be, but she did not believe that any of them felt violated as profoundly as she did.
Glancing at Neil, in whose face and slightest gestures she could always read volumes, Molly saw more than raw fear; she recognized terror in all its subtleties from anguish and anxiety to incipient panic, but also what might have been piercing sorrow. Struggling with his sorrow was anger at this intrusive examination, to which no name could accurately be given except perhaps “psychological rape.”
Her heart flooded with anger, too, in a volume to rival blood, for it seemed to her that if their world was to be taken and if all of them were to be slaughtered sooner or later, then they were owed the minimal mercy of a swift and easy death. Instead she felt as if she were a living toy on a leash held by a vicious master: savagely teased, tormented, tortured.
She couldn’t explain to herself how an extraterrestrial species, a thousand years more advanced than humanity, with the wisdom to beat the limitations of the speed of light and cross galaxies in a clock tick, could be so barbarous, so pitiless. A civilization sufficiently sophisticated to construct ships larger than mountains and machines capable of transforming entire worlds in mere hours ought also to be a civilization exquisitely sensitive to suffering and injustice.
A species capable of the merciless destruction committed in the night just past, however, must be without conscience, without remorse, incurably sociopathic.
Surely, a civilization built by individuals motivated by pure self-interest, incapable of empathy, without pity for others, would attain no grand heights. Evil would turn upon itself, as it always did, and such a species would reduce itself to dust long before it could reach for the stars.
Unless perhaps it was a hive, in which every individual lacked a conscience, lacked even the concept of pity, reveled in cruelty, and had no personal identity different from those of all the other billions of its kind. Then each might direct its evil urges outward from the hive, bend its intellect to the creation of dark technologies, in the interest of furthering the evil of all. Their need to destroy, their implacable fury, would be brought to bear upon anything not of the hive or not of use to the hive. They would raze, ruin, and extirpate everything in their path.
If for a decade or a century they colonized Earth, they would eventually move on to some other world. They would leave behind a lifeless sphere, as barren as Mars, all sand and rock and ice and mournful wind.
The as yet unseen destroyers of worlds delighted in the havoc they unleashed, in the terror and the blood. Their driving need was the destruction of all that was Other to them, and their sole bliss was the suffering they administered. This truth could be confirmed by ample evidence everywhere in Black Lake.
These thoughts raced through Molly’s mind even as she kept the children moving along Main Street under the silently hovering craft. Luminous reflections of the fog-veiled vessel played on the pavement as it tracked them step by step to the tavern.
No guards were posted at the door.
As before, the neon beer-company logos in the windows, now all dark, were backdropped by lowered shades. Nothing of the interior could be seen.
The pact Molly had made with Neil—that henceforth they would go everywhere together, would die side by side if death found them, and would never leave each other to die alone—must be amended.
If the two of them went inside to persuade those in the tavern that one form of death or another was breeding in the basement beneath them, the five children would be left outside alone. Easy pickings.
On the other hand, if they took the children inside, they would be exposing them to perhaps the very horror from which they had saved them in the church—or to something worse, considering that something worse, hour after hour, was the specialty of the enemy.
In this instance and in other situations to come, she and Neil would have to split up. If they didn’t have the courage to act alone when necessary, they might as well go directly to the bank right now, with the five kids for whom they had made themselves responsible, and forget about the other children who might need them.
Like Cassie. In the tavern.
Neil wanted to go inside, but they agreed that whoever stayed with the kids ought to have the shotgun.
Indicating the luminous craft hovering in the shrouding fog, Molly said, “Shotgun won’t bring that down, but the spread pattern of buckshot ought to stop more big bugs and nasty animals than all the rounds in my pistol.”
Neil tried to give her the 12-gauge, but she wouldn’t take it. She had never fired a shotgun before. She suspected that the hard recoil would compromise her effectiveness at least until she learned how to compensate for it.
Only a fool or a suicidal depressive would choose to learn the proper handling of a new weapon while in the heat of battle.
Neil would stay in the street, guarding the kids.
Armed with the 9-mm pistol, Molly would go into the tavern, argue the wisdom of evacuation to those inside, and one way or another get Cassie out of there.
Along Main Street, nothing moved in the moody half-light except the thin violet mist, which eddied lazily in the breathless morning.
The silence of a fly in amber, of a fossil hidden in the heart of a stone, lay upon Black Lake.
Then in the distance a man wept in misery. A weeping woman answered him. And then another.
All three sounded as if they were torn with emotion, convincing, until you realized that the cadences of their grief were identical, one to another.
The morning had grown warmer. Molly took off her raincoat.
The red dragons of the trees might be watching from a distance. Maybe they only hunted in their arbors. Or maybe they came down to kill in the street; it didn’t really matter, she supposed, because if not them, something else would.
Fifteen feet overhead, the thick velvet fog was a curtain drawn between dying humanity—which was both the tragic protagonist and the audience—and the last act of Armageddon. Stagehands were moving into place the final scenery of doom.
The luminous craft hovered, attentive. Molly had not grown accustomed to the all-penetrating scrutiny of those aboard it. She felt humbled, curiously ashamed, frightened, and angry.
She nurtured the anger. Like hope, it staved off despair.
Virgil nuzzled her left hand, then returned to his watchful patrol between the children and the dead town.
Molly didn’t need to tell Neil that she loved him. He knew. And she knew what she meant to him. They said it as well as it could be said with just a meeting of the eyes, a touch of hands.
With the pistol and a flashlight, she went into the tavern.
FLAMES WORRIED WICKS IN SCORES OF AMBER glass globes, as before. The walls and ceiling of Russell Tewkes’s tavern appeared to tremble like painted curtains in the lambent candlelight.
The air itself seemed luminous, similar to the atmosphere in a dream of angels, and for a moment Molly was relieved to think that those who had been here when she’d left had later left themselves. No one sat in the booths or at the tables. No one stood at the bar, nor was Tewkes stationed behind it.
Derek and the drunks were gone. As were the peace lovers. And the fence-sitters, with Cassie.
Had she not studied the scene one second longer, had she turned and walked out, she might have thought that the lot of them had gone to the bank, after all, to assist in preparations for its defense. Lingering, however, she realized that her preferred scenario was not the one that had played out here.
First, the guns. Rifles, shotguns, and handguns had been left behind.
Neither the drunks nor the peace lovers had been armed, but many of the fence-sitters had been prepared to defend themselves if ultimately they made up their minds that self-defense was necessary or desirable. Not all of them would have gone out into this changed and changing world without weapons.
Second, the clothes. Coats and jackets had been left behind on chairs. Then she saw sweaters and shirts draped over some of the coats, and a pair of jeans.
Venturing farther from the front door, deeper into the tavern, she found drifts of discarded clothing on the floor. Slacks, khakis, more jeans, more shirts, blouses, socks, men’s and women’s underwear. Shoes and boots and belts and rain hats.
Implications of violence: All colors and styles of loose buttons littered the floor. Clothes had been torn off in such rage or frenzy that the buttons had popped loose. Numerous garments were ripped along the seams.
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