(30) Sleepwalker

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It takes only minutes for us to bound down the hillside again. I hate being back at Redding level. I don't know if its words are still echoing in my head, or whether I'm more attuned to the whole entity now, but I can still feel it. That hatred and hollowness are all around us, saturating the soil, creeping through the grass, curdling in the river. I can feel it watching us.

Patrick grabs my arm. "There. Coming around the hill."

The Sleepwalker isn't in view yet. "Which way's it going?"

"Right now? Towards..." He scrunches up his nose, focusing on something that is neither sight nor sound. "Not us. Towards the river, I think."

That's what I hoped he wouldn't say.

"Follow it," I say. "We need to confirm."

Patrick leads the way nervously through the forest. He's so jumpy, I eventually take the lead and let him direct me until we're close enough that I can also feel Psy's signature. It's concentrated, like the river. Dense, almost, as if there's more Redding packed into Psy's body than into a similar volume of grass or soil. That supports Ditzy's hypothesis that he's being controlled. Or that his corpse is, rather. I need to stop thinking of this thing as Psy.

We reach the road within minutes. Psy's signature is very close now. Close enough to buzz uncomfortably against my consciousness, a black hole of hunger and anger and intentionality. He moves with the same deliberate slowness as he emerges from the trees. Here he... it. Here the Sleepwalker that is no longer Psy pauses for a moment, like its internal GPS has found a faster route and needs a moment to recalibrate. It orients towards the river.

We follow from just inside the forest's cover. We're making enough noise that we're not actually hiding, and the Redding already knows where we are. But it helps maintain a feeling of control. The Sleepwalker approaches the bridge where the Redding attacked us. Our car is still here. It looks smaller than it once did, isolated in the middle of the road. Just a lifeless shell of metal.

Ditzy's hand brushes my shoulder. "Should we get our bags?" she whispers.

"If we get close enough and it doesn't attack again, yeah."

She nods acknowledgement. When I look back, the Sleepwalker has disappeared.

"Down the bank," says Patrick.

"Come on."

We break cover and sprint up the road. The Redding pulses at the edge of my senses, but it doesn't lunge for us again. Like it knows lunging won't do anything. We skid to a stop above the bank just in time to see the Sleepwalker wade up its waist in the blood-red river. The water's too deep. It won't make it across like this... but that's not the point. We can only watch in dismay as the Sleepwalker continues forward until the water swallows it completely. It does not emerge on the river's other side.

The car is fifty meters back, and the road is clear of Redding. I pull us all away from the river. "Let's get our bags."

Our stuff, when we reach it, is mercifully undamaged. I dig a new shirt from my bag and give Calico J his sweater back, then check that my phone is still alive. Small blessings. Ditzy tries to start the car again, but it's well and truly dead. That means we have neither a vehicle nor shelter, and a lot more questions than answers as the Redding moves into what may well be its final phase. We need backup.

"We need to go back," I say. "To the murder house."

My friends recoil.

"They have a vehicle," I say. "And supplies—more than we have left, if they're not contaminated. But Oreo was also working on something. I never got to ask, but Ember mentioned it twice—something about crackpot eldritch theories. I think he was theorizing where this stuff comes from."

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