25: Ghost

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Later on, Jared couldn't remember what happened first: Ever letting out a choked yell, or one of Sephine's black-clad rangers being thrown—as easily as Jared might throw a toddler—out of the trees and into the company's path.

Sephine already had her gun out and was barking orders by the time the man's body stopped tumbling. No closer inspection was necessary to determine that he was dead. His throat had been hollowed out as thoroughly as a pumpkin on Hallows Night.

"Wolves?" asked Acel, his rifle at the ready as he scanned the trees. More and more glowing blue eyes were appearing in the middle distance, wavering as they encroached on the trail. The darkness of the morning was disturbing. He ignored the whisper in his mind that said that no storm could cause this unnatural gloaming.

"No," said Ever. "Something else." As she spoke the underbrush rustled near where the ranger's body had emerged and a decidedly man-shaped creature lurched out of the trees at a stumbling run.

Jared's gun cleared leather as quickly as he'd ever drawn it, but Sephine had already put two rounds in the man before he'd finished cocking.

"Take her forward," Sephine said, standing down the trail from him. Whatever surprise she felt was clothed in rigid determination. Acel was firing into the woods as Rolan struggled to clear the breach on Chy's old rifle. "We'll hold them here. It isn't much farther."

"No," said Ever. "We—"

"Go, Jared," said Sephine, looking at him. "Once she reaches the summit, she'll be safe." He nodded, taking Ever by the arm.

"You two, you're with me," yelled Sephine, pointing at Acel and Rolan. She whistled strangely to call in her remaining rangers—though the nearby stuttering of the strange rifles they carried indicated they might already be engaged—and then the things were on them. Jared saw Acel shoot one in the head before battering another with his rifle butt before he started dragging Ever up the trail.

"Jared, no," snapped Ever, but Jared ignored her and continued up the trail.

"They're Thayne's, right?" he said. "Chances are they'll follow us anyway. They're here for you, not the rest of us."

Ever stumbled reluctantly alongside him as they made their way up the trail. He could hear movement in the trees all around them, but for the moment the things seemed to be concentrating their attack on Sephine and the others; as he watched, two more rangers appeared out of the woods to join them.

"They're Damned," Ever said, beside him. "Damned men...Thayne's taken control of them...." They were monstrous, hulking creatures, shaggy with hair and thick with bloated muscle.

"Sephine said it's not far to the top," Jared responded. "Let's hope we make it that far."

Farther on the trail suddenly broke out of the trees into the middle of a massive rock slide; Jared remembered seeing it from the Valley below, a large, open slash of bare granite in the dense green of the pine trees. The grade was just forgiving enough that they could scramble up it on all fours.

"We're close," he said. "The summit's only a few hundred yards." A few hundred yards over a precarious granite rock field, angled steeply up the side of the mountain, with nothing to arrest their slide if they fell but the trees and rocks far below.

Holding Ever's hand, he led her out onto the rock face and they began climbing the messy scree side by side. They were three-quarters of the way up the slide when the first raindrops began to fall. Within minutes it was pouring, and both of them were soaked through.

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