Blu Morgan’s hands quivered as he tried to lift his axe. It irritated him to no end that his once workin’ man’s muscular arms were now made of rubber and his swinging strength had gone from able to fell a tree in three blows to non-existent. Exhausted, he let the head of his axe fall to the ground.
“You win this time, you little shit.” He sighed at the malevolent timberling slowly creeping across the forest pathway’s line of demarcation.
The enchanted pathway wasn’t a guarantee of safety—it was just safer than crossing straight through the trees. Sometimes because of old mine shafts and even older “anti-revenuer” pits, but mostly because of nasty little timberlings and other malevolent forest beasties running rampant along the borderlands. Running rampant because he wasn’t strong enough to keep them at bay. It grieved Blu that he was so damned tired he couldn’t do his job—his self-appointed job, but one of unspoken necessity. His waning strength could hurt the community. If one timberling took root in town, it would be Little Shop of Horrors. Freakin’ zombie deputies wouldn’t have a clue how to defend the town. It’s my job. Mine alone. Those timberlings are ill-behaved. Not two cents of reason between the entire clan.
He heard rumbles from the forest. The various and sundry souls living in the woods were uneasy and fast becoming out of control. He couldn’t quite put his finger on the rebellious nature he felt from them. He felt strong desires and rage. Blind reactions instead of reason. Fringe folk had the same rights as those living within the township. As long as malevolence was not one’s intention, there was nothing stopping those living outside the border from crossing. Do they know this? It wasn’t always that way. Maybe they don’t know. The council banned haint blue years ago—at least where it would stop haunts from entry. Nah, something’s going on. The beasties are rallying against what they must believe is societal privilege. Benefits of non-wights to wights. I don’t know. Christ Jesus, in this day and age, everyone needs to pull together instead of apart. I need to get my act together and find a haunt willing to have a sit-down with me. Get to the bottom of their anger.
If he didn’t have such an aversion to being around people twenty-four seven, he’d have applied to be on the zombie goon squad—the settlement’s police force. Brainless and sometimes oozing, they had good hearts. To serve and protect. That was what he liked doing, and until he’d started feeling so tired all the time, that was what he’d done.
The timberling shuddered and whipped a branch at the tall woodsman.
Blu scoffed at the angry little haunted shrubbery. “You ain’t nothing to worry about. Look, if you can understand me, tell your family that there are no constructs here. No division by dead or undead or anywhere in between. Social class doesn’t exist in the hills, nor does any other perceived dividing factor like age, weight, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion. The only thing that matters in Servitude is intention.”
Intention. It’s all that matters.
Timberlings weren’t the worst he faced in the line of duty. Lately, more things had been going bump in the night than ever before. Parameter spells were failing, hex signs had lost their sway, and restless spirits—haints—were rising and wreaking havoc. Restless spirits with bad attitudes denied justice and a decent burial were far too common. The odd zombie mostly just stumbled around all lost-like. And things not quite dead or alive spirited about in search of warmth, but the damned timberlings were the worse.
Haints had been known to cause mayhem on forest folk before, but never so actively—or maliciously. They were frightening away even the toughest critters like the mountain cat and black bear. If beasts found it difficult to dwell with angry haints, then it was sure to be worse for the citizenry.
Blu stomped his foot at the timberling. “Don’t start your victory dance yet. When I’m feeling better, you’ll be the first one I come after,” he replied with a laugh. “What’s with y’all? You’re acting all entitled like you’re the only one with rights to the forest. That just ain’t so. All kinds of mortals and half-mortals, as well as a vast array of critters, need to call this place home too. It’s like y’all got a bad case of wight privilege. Damned misbehavin’ haints.”
A flickering light beckoned to him from deeper in the forest. He knew the woods like the back of his own hand. Fucking ghost lights. The will-o-wisp wanted him to take a stroll in the woods—to the old Double Jack coal mine. A dangerous area—especially after a big rainstorm.
He shook his head and called toward the flicker, “Be gone, haint. I’ll have no truck with the likes of you.”
He shouldered his axe and using the common American pronunciation for things that go bump in the night, shouted after the fleeing apparition a second time, “Damn haunts. I know better than to follow the likes of you.” We are equal in the holler. No one is superior. They’re acting up is so damned odd. And unexpected.
Blu Morgan wasn’t born to Appalachia. He was a transplant from far north; another time and place, but had fallen into the easy, slow speech patterns of his adopted home, Servitude Hollow. Hill folk weren’t illiterate as the media would have the rest of the world believe. They just had their own way, and their own language—a long unused, bastardized version of seventeenth century Queen’s English married into Cherokee, German, and Gaelic. It sounded funny to the ears of northerners—and sometimes even other southerners. Blu liked the dialect. He liked living outside the holler. He was Servitude’s first line of defense against the fringe beings inhabiting the forest on the outskirts of town. Overrunning the forest on the outskirts of town. There’d been so much activity the hardware store in town had run out of Haint Blue—a popular color in the South for porches due to its ability to ward off hauntings.
Sure ‘nough, Servitude was full of magical beings of one kind or another, but those living inside the city limits followed intentional rules. Those living outside the charmed barrier did not. Or could not. Not every sentient being understood the mores of polite society. If “polite” was a word that could be used to describe the area residents. More than likely not, actually. Beyond the hollow’s bespelled border, the forest was alive with beings and beasties. Some wanted in the enclave of Servitude, but they shied away from trying because they were told by the others they wouldn’t fit in. Blu had heard those tales and had dismissed them. Not so much now. Dissention of forest dwellers had him thinking. He knew all were welcome—it was a matter of heart and intention—not species.
He yelled into the forest, “Ya hear that, y’all? It’s a matter of heart and intention to live in this place. Quit acting like you’re entitled to anything you’re not willing to go the distance for. I tell ya—if you want into Servitude, all you gotta do is ask. This running around, making trouble in the forest isn’t helping. Quit now, ya damned haunts. We’s equal. All us misfits are equal. Just ‘cause you’re a product of abuse or mistrust, don’t mean you need to behave badly. Come talk to me. I can help.” I want to help.
Appalachian-dwelling humans and non-humans had been dancing to their own mountain jig for centuries. The Dance of Ignorance. Humans ignored the monsters until the monsters quit ignoring the humans. There was no symbiosis involved. Humans didn’t need monsters to survive and monsters didn’t need humans.
There were a few clever humans who wanted to make Servitude a sideshow attraction. The clues to the very existence of it were few and far between and cryptic at best. How the damned carpetbagger-like humans figured things out was beyond him, but he had a way of dealing with them too. He caught them scouting around the magical parameter more than once. Clairvoyants, trackers, surveyors, and hikers. They just couldn’t quite get beyond the line. They knew something special was just ahead of the dark edge of the forest, and damn, they wanted to know what it was. Determined sons of bitches. He’d find them casting their spells and using their electro-magnetic field detectors and GPS this and that, and they still couldn’t just walk into town. Never once had he denied them the truth.
“What is this?” they’d ask, pointing at an aerial photograph of a valley not shown on the GPS units or maps.
“Just a holler,” Blu would reply, doing his best mountain accent. “But ‘tis a special holler. I wouldn’t try to go there if I were you, however. See Deliverance or Southern Comfort or any other of those horror movies about the hidden agendas of southerners? It’s all true. You find the way through the forest and down into that valley you will lose your mind, brother. Hill folk don’t play fair or nice. You ready to come back with an appendage missing for your trouble?” It was a lie—but most geographically confused interlopers were too flustered to think straight.
Though Blu put on the best cornball act he could muster, most of the time it was more than enough to get the busybody to move on. When they didn’t, he let the timberlings chase ‘em away. At least he hoped they were being chased away. Timberlings might have eaten a tourist or two—but he didn’t want to think about that right now. To avoid such mishaps, Blu figured it was his job to keep everyone ignorant of everyone else—for their own good. The humans living in the mountains around Servitude didn’t need to know their little valley was chockfull of paranormal misfits, and curious visitors just needed to stay away. Keeping the forest pathways free of wicked creatures hellbent to suck down a little human brains for supper seemed to be the easiest way to keep things even and quiet. Kept the drama to a minimum.
There were a few mortal mountain residents who knew about the Hollow, and sometimes the two societies interacted. Mountain wives read the signs and wonders of the supercharged valley air on the updrafts or saw the subtle changes in the water as it meandered out of the holler and painted their hex signs and charms to keep the beasts at bay. Servitude folk respected the magics set out by the humans but weren’t really deterred by them.
It being nearly spring the hungry little beasties had begun waking up from their long winter naps. Cursing the coming warm weather, Blu was too tired to comprehend the amount of patrolling and peacekeeping he had ahead of him. He hadn’t been sleeping. Barely a wink in weeks. Not only was his body tired, his mind was so fatigued he had trouble forming sentences. His back creaked as if he was an old man and gray hair was coming in like a spring forest thicket on his head. He was growing old well before his time. Sleep loss could do that to a man. Even a preternatural man.
Blu had been born into a coven of witches, son of a passion shifter-demon, and the coven’s hierophant. Dear old Mom, was literally, Queen of the Damned.
His mother, Miranda Morgan, was a powerful holy woman. He had moved from home just as fast as he could to get away from all her sacred mysteries and arcane principals. He figured she’d been so cold to him as a child because he should have been born with the ability to shape-shift. It had been expected that he would be born with the ability to shift. It had been predicted, conjured, and manipulated.
He could not shift.
He was certain his parents’ marriage of convenience—for the sole purpose of producing a power-shifter—had grown into one of love and mutual respect, but that was not how it had started. Their union had been well-orchestrated by the ruling class of beasties and he was the largest disappointment to hit the ground running in centuries. Blu figured that was what happened when you put too much stock into one person. No expectations means no disappointments. He expected nothing from no one, and he liked it that way.
Though not able to shape-shift, he did, however, have the ability to discern threats no one else could detect. Where one might see dust particles in a stream of sunlight, he saw tiny spirituous creatures of malintent, waiting to be inhaled by a host to wreak havoc and bring disease. Seeing that which others could not gave him an edge in life that almost had his parents forgive him for not being born a shifter. Almost.
Apparently, his powers had monetary value to the coven, for his parents prostituted him at any early age—selling his services to warlords and politicians. How does a four-year-old behave when his parents send him away to live with smelly, unwashed barbarians in desert regions so vast the very world seemed to be made of nothing but sand and wind? Rotten. Whiney. Defiant. So what if there was an imposing army on the march? Blu had told the warmonger and his hoard their water had gone sour and it was too late for them to try to water-up anywhere else. Their enemy were too close—even to retreat. By the time the other faction showed up, Blu was gone and the bastards who had paid for his services got the ass-kicking they deserved for using a little boy as a divining rod.
His behavior at ages seven, twelve, and fourteen didn’t improve. Finally, as soon as he was of age, he bolted. At eighteen and two minutes, Blu had been out the door, out of the coven’s enclave, and on his way to becoming deeply lost in Appalachia. It still hurt that no one ever wanted him for him, but only for his precognitive abilities. Not his parents. Not his coven.
To make his way in the mortal world he had to live like one of them for a while. Get a driver’s license. Hold a job. Use a credit card. He hated living as a mortal more than he hated his childhood.
That was why he chose to live alone in the woods outside the community of Servitude. Lost in the Appalachian Mountains was an understatement. He wanted to be beyond lost. He wanted to be forgotten.
Twenty-plus years had passed with him living outside the Hollow. He and Harper, and the other town leaders, had an understanding. They needed him, but never once charged him with the duty. The city council didn’t appoint or control. They made suggestions and pretty much let the citizenry mind themselves. Blu was doing his civic duty by hacking away at renegade plant life and rebel beasties wanting only to glom onto the hotbed of misfits and outcasts in the haller. Folks had enough problems. They didn’t need to be further downtrodden by hellish plant life. Servitude was a place to be accepted, not consumed.
He’d made a few friends, and he had Eve. He was pretty sure he was in love with her, but thoughts of a committed relationship frightened the bejesus out of him. He wanted her all right—every way a man could want a woman. Except for making it permanent.
Truthfully, until he figured out how to go about getting his courage up to confront Eve about his feelings, all he wanted was to lift a stein in town every now and then, his hunting dog by his side, and Wi-Fi generator. What more did a man need, anyway? He answered his own question. Strength to swing my axe.
He turned to head home, dejected and mad from exhaustion. “Deil hae't ya, beastie. Stay there or I will hack you into pieces and use you to burn the crap at the stadium outhouse.”
The malevolent sapling again menacingly shook its silver branches at Blu’s wish for it to go to the devil, then displayed its magical roots in a rather obscene gesture before burrowing them into the loose soil.
Blu repositioned his shouldered axe and stomped to his thatch-roof cabin not too far off the main path through the forest. His dog looked up from her perch on the front porch with complete disinterest and rolled over. He figured his old Redbone hound was a shifter of some kind. A shifter too old, fat, and lazy to be bothered with making any changes.
Habit and custom had him put out food for the more friendly forest spooks each day. He looked at the little bowl of milk and cornbread he’d left for the wee folk that morning and kicked it aside. Spirit bowls of toenail clippings is what I need to leave out for all the wee folks’ help the past few months.
He collapsed into his overstuffed chair and pulled a knitted afghan around his legs to keep out the cold. He needed sleep. “Jest a li’l nap’s all I need. Twenty minutes,” he murmured, his body and mind urgently pulling him into slumber. He desperately needed a good night’s rest. He fantasized about waking up feeling refreshed instead of drained. Sleep was what he craved, but sleep was not bringing him relief from his nagging fatigue. Sleep came, nevertheless.
As it had been for so many weeks, sleep was a monster waiting in the dark. A black beast, feeding greedily. It fed upon the shadows though it was a shadow—an ethereal cannibal. It was a devouring beast, and it was killing him.
He felt its name penetrate him like a razor against his flesh. It called itself Blak. Mister Blak.