Into the Hollow
“They aren’t my beasts,” I countered.
Mitch just shrugged. “Ready to go?”
Dex and I exchanged a wordless glance. When were we ever ready?
We started out following the few spots of blood that had been left from the scene of the crime. Considering a llama body had been hauled off somewhere, I was surprised at how little there was to show for it. If it wasn’t for the occasional patter of red, we wouldn’t have a trail to follow.
The trail also happened to correspond with Rigby’s map, which Dex kept looking at every five minutes. I kept Christina’s map close to my chest. I mean, it was literally folded up in my inner coat pocket.
The hardest part of our journey came first, the steep, sliding trek down the slope toward the hollow of trees. Thankfully the snow provided better grip this time around and Tonto was extremely surefooted. The llama-less Dex was right behind me too, ready to catch me if I fell.
With the hard part out of the way, the most unnerving part was next – the hollow. Even the llamas stopped their constant chewing, looking nervous and on edge as we entered the thicket of trees. As before, a cold, neverending wind whistled through like we were walking through an underground tunnel. The light from above was blocked off, bathing us all in a dim, grey light and it was completely silent except for our boots and the occasional llama snort.
We had just passed the area where Rigby had found the footprint when I felt Dex at my side, squeezing up next to me in the narrow path. Branches scraped at his coat as we passed.
“How are you doing, kiddo?” he whispered, keeping his eyes on Mitch in front of us.
“Nervous,” I admitted in a low voice. “You?”
“I feel great,” he said. Then he grinned at me and patted his rifle.
I shook my head quickly, taking an involuntary step ahead of him. “That has to be the worst idea on earth.”
“What? You don’t trust me?”
“I don’t trust you with a shovel, Dex.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes, the path growing so narrow that he had to go back behind Tonto, who was raising his head higher than normal, nostrils flared wide. He didn’t like this any more than we did and who could blame him. We had to have been walking for at least an hour and there was still no sign that the path would ever end. It was just dark grey undergrowth and ominous tree-tops everywhere you looked.
I was about to panic, my claustrophobia finally settling in, when the path suddenly widened and the air around us grew brighter. A few happy minutes later and all of us spilled out into the open.
We stopped at the edge of the forest. I looked around me, blinking hard and taking it all in. I guess we had been walking gradually downhill that whole time because we were a lot lower in elevation. There was no snow around us, just a rolling landscape of mossy rocks and scatterings of trees beneath towering peaks that threatened to block out the low sun. It was very green, the air slightly warmer, and in the distance you could hear the growling rush of a river.
“Well if it ain’t Rivendell,” Dex commented, stretching his arms above his head. I was perplexed at his comment, considering I had just compared the hollow to the Mines of Moria the other day.
“Rivenwhat?” Mitch asked, turning to face us.
Dex gave him a dismissive wave and pulled out his map. “Nevermind, are we there yet?”
“The blood trail has stopped.”
“So now what?” I asked, feeling tired and impatient. I wanted to get to wherever the hell we were going so we could set up camp without being in darkness.
“Give me the map,” Mitch demanded. I saw Dex cluck his tongue, like he was catching himself from saying something “Dex-like”, but did as he asked.
Mitch brought the map up his face, his brows scrunched up as he looked it over. I had the impression that the dimwit needed glasses. Then I imagined a pair of Harry Potter ones on him and had to choke back a laugh. It was nice to not feel intimidated by the guy for one second.
Mitch put down the map and looked around him. Then he brought a compass out of his jacket pocket and raised it to his eyes.
“We ain’t too far from where we should camp. Don’t matter where the trail stopped, the animal has to be out here somewhere.”
He tugged on his llama and we began the arduous process of walking across rough – albeit beautiful – terrain. It was probably for the best that the blood trail had stopped. I wasn’t in the mood to follow it all the way to a feasting scene. Whether it was beast or bear or whatever, if we interrupted a meal, there was no doubt we’d be needing both of those guns.
I shuddered at the thought and continued. We walked past a flight of brown and grey birds that Mitch almost shot at but thankfully didn’t. We came across the river we had heard, a bright blue-green torrent of rushing water that looked too deep to cross. We followed it for a while until it veered off down a slope. We continued going straight, not up or down, just across the valley, picking our way through loose rocks and deep earth that had been thawed by the sun.
Mitch told us we were close to the campsite when we entered yet another thick patch of forest. The path here was a little bit wider than it had been in the hollow and it was nowhere near as dark, even though the sun had already disappeared behind one of the white mountain spires.
At this point I was dragging my feet and contemplating riding Tonto for the rest of the journey. Too bad Rigby had warned us that the llamas hadn’t been trained that way. Besides, as short as I was, I was no lightweight and would have broken the poor thing’s back.
Dex noticed and had just taken over llama leading duties as well as my backpack, when I heard a faint growling in the darkness behind me.
I stopped dead in my tracks and whipped around.
There was nothing behind us except the ominously gloomy forest. The birdsong that we had been hearing had suddenly stopped, like it was listening too.
“What is it?” Dex asked, bringing Tonto to a standstill.
I waited a few seconds, in case I heard the growl again, before telling him what I had heard.
He looked over to Mitch. “Hey, Mitch, wait up a second will you?”
I heard Mitch mumble something rude but I was in no frame of mind to care. Dex watched me carefully, then let his eyes roam over the forest, as if seeing would help with hearing.
Then I heard it again. A low, low growl, so low that it rolled through the forest like a bass chord, heavy sound in my bones. I sucked in my breath, trying to hear past the beating of my heart in my head.
“That was…something,” Dex said quietly. I took my eyes off the forest and regarded him. He was chewing gum, fast.
“I think we should keep going,” Mitch said blankly. But he still cocked his shotgun with one flick of his wrist.
As curious as I was to find out what the cause of the noise was, I also wasn’t stupid. I nodded quickly and, forgetting all about my sore feet, picked up the pace. Dex and Tonto followed and after a few harrowing minutes we were out of the forest and back into the falling twilight of another small valley.
We were higher up now than earlier and though there was still no trace of snow, the wind that seemed to sweep down the mountain sides and funnel toward us was as cold as ice. We paused to pile on a layer of scarves and it took another thirty minutes of walking at a quick clip before Mitch finally stopped and announced we were at our camping spot for the night.
I was relieved to see that it had been used several times before, the faint sign of civilization bringing a feeble sense of security. There was a wide, flattened grassy area where the tents were supposed to go, a bunch of logs gathered around an ash and charcoal-strewn fire pit and there were even roasting sticks propped up for marshmallows and hotdogs.
None of us wasted any time in getting ready. Mitch knew exactly how to get the tents out and ready and with Dex’s help it took no time at all. I took care of the llamas, which was basically getting the packs off them, brushing them down, feeding them and tying them up to a nearby tree, keeping the lead long and loose so they could graze around them. Mitch had insisted that if we let them loose they would still stick around, but I didn’t want to test that theory way out in the middle of nowhere.
And that we were. I had been to many remote places in my life. D’Arcy Island, Red Fox, but none of them felt as far away and isolated as this place did. It didn’t even have a freaking name that I knew of, we were just in some valley in the Canadian Rockies. The nearest town was miles and miles of mountainous cliffs and steep valleys away. Our walkie talkies still didn’t work, either, giving me that very terrifying feeling of being inconsequential. If I let myself dwell on it for too long, I’d start thinking about those stories where people go camping in the woods and are never heard from again until a hiker finds their frozen bodies twenty years later.
As if he picked up on that, Dex had me working extra hard and staying busy. At first I thought he was just bossing me around but he just wanted to keep my mind off things. And that’s why I didn’t mind preparing everyone’s dinner for them, even though Mitch could have been a little bit nicer about it.
At least the fire we had going was strong and hot and I made everyone tea to match. Mitch brought out the bourbon again and we all partook, making hot toddies to wash down the cardboard-tasting pasta.
“Is this the first time you been camping?” Mitch asked Dex.
Dex took a sip of his tea and looked at me briefly. “Perry and I were just camping on D’Arcy Island in November. Why? Am I lacking in the survival skills department?”
“What was on D’Arcy Island?” he asked. He sounded interested but his face looked stony and bored in the campfire glow.
“Ghosts,” I spoke up, watching for his reaction.
As expected he didn’t look too impressed.
In fact, he decided to take out a switchblade from his pocket and start stroking the blade. Yeah, because that didn’t scream psychopath or anything.
“Ghosts,” he repeated, sounding almost insulted. “You guys are fucked up, you know that?”
Dex’s gaze was a few squints shy of a full-on glare. “Is this going to turn into a pissing contest cuz I’m pretty sure I could outpiss you.”
I pulled my coat around me tighter and leaned in closer to the fire. The night was growing colder and possible confrontation between Mitch and Dex was drawing shivers down my shoulders.
“No one’s peeing anywhere,” I said. I gave Mitch a quick glance. “And yeah we’re fucked up. You would be too if you saw ghosts.”
He chuckled coldly. His cloud of breath bounced in the black air.
“So I’m guessing you believe what Rigby’s been spewing.”
Dex scratched at his chin thoughtfully as the flames danced on his face, making the hollows of his cheeks look sharp. His face was getting quite beardy again.
“Honestly, we don’t know what to believe,” he admitted. “Ghosts are one thing and Sasquatch is another. If it wasn’t for the decapitation of Twatwaffle – God rest his soul – I’d be ready to call this whole thing a hoax.”
“You don’t believe Rigby either?”