The Myth Hunters
The ground rumbled as entire corn plants grew from nothing and other crops pushed up from the island— wheat and barley and rye. A small tree grew in the midst of those farm crops and soon it was clear it was an apple tree. As the cherry-tree demon struggled and mewled pitifully and Oliver watched in astonishment, his injuries throbbing, the apple tree grew quickly to the height of a man.
It was a man.
Oliver saw that it had a face and its branches were arms and it pulled its trunk from the ground and had legs. It did not so much as look at Oliver, but walked past him, apples and leaves rustling on its branches, and stood staring at the corpse of Johnny Appleseed dangling from another tree.
It wept, and its tears smelled of fresh-cut apples.
The crops were so thick in the clearing of the orchard and around the bases of the trees that at first Oliver did not see the other things moving amongst them. Then the stalks and shafts moved with the passage of these new arrivals and he held his breath as the figures emerged. A wolf, a stag, and a creature built like a man, but whose entire body was formed from corn husks. Even his face was shaped like a human’s, right down to the indents where his eyes ought to have been, but there were only pale green corn husks.
And then he spoke in a voice that was the rustle of the wind across the corn rows.
“Behold the gods of the Harvest.”
Oliver could hardly draw breath as he stared at these things that called themselves gods. There had been a moment where he had thought he might be able to defeat Aerico. But now his stolen shotgun was empty and he was alone against the four new arrivals. The massive wolf lowered its head and sniffed the ground. The buck stood and regarded Oliver with clear, intelligent eyes, its huge, intricate antlers casting complex shadows. The apple-tree man paid little attention, his focus on the corpse of Johnny Appleseed. Yet the one that disturbed him the most was the thing— the god— that had spoken. It watched him as though it had a real face, and eyes to see with, but there were only corn husks indented as though they were eyes. The Kirata and the Falconer had terrified him, but this was something else entirely. Some ancient part of him at the base of his brain and the pit of his stomach shuddered at the alienness of it, and he wanted to scream.
On the ground that separated him from the gods of the Harvest— and the new crops that had grown up around the trees in the orchard— the demon from the cherry tree struggled against the corn and wheat stalks that seemed to be pulling it down into the soil. The air was sickly sweet with the smell of overripe cherries. Yet none of them bothered to even glance at Aerico as it was subsumed by the ground. Consumed. Its cries were muffled by the vegetation that grew over its mouth.
Oliver pretended not to notice, awaiting some word or action from the gods of the Harvest. Long seconds ticked by, perhaps more than a minute, as the corn-husk man stared at him and the wolf sniffed the ground.
Then the wolf raised its head. It made no sound, but some kind of signal had been given, for the stag trotted several steps closer and the man— or whatever it was— covered in corn husks emerged further from the crops.
“You are the Intruder all of the whispers are about?” said the corn-husk man in a sandpaper voice, his mouth a dark, toothless hole.
Oliver felt so obviously out of place that he saw no point in lying. “I am.”
With a ripple like the wind in the crops, the corn-husk man bowed. “We are well met, Oliver Bascombe. You fought bravely against the demon. But we must be going if you are to avoid the Myth Hunters. Aerico slew Appleseed for them. Undoubtedly they will come for his remains.”
Oliver was keenly aware of his own breathing. He stared at the corn-husk man as though he had no idea what the creature was talking about, yet he thought he had understood quite well. It was just difficult for him to believe.
“You’re . . . going to help me?”
The Harvest god glanced at the buck and then at the wolf, husk rasping against husk. “The demon could never have been trusted, but we understood that. It was his nature. We must all be true to our natures. Yet by murdering Appleseed, he betrayed us.”
He said the words as though they were an answer to Oliver’s question. And perhaps they were. When he had finished he turned and started through the new crops that had thrust up from the freshly turned earth and then into the thicker part of the orchard.
Oliver frowned in confusion. Where were they going? What was to become of him now? What of his friends?
Then the apple-tree man moved to the corpse of Johnny Appleseed and began tearing him loose from the tree where he had been killed. The smell of apple cider— or of fermented apples— filled the clearing, and Oliver decided he did not want to bear witness to this process. He set off after the other gods of the Harvest. Though he gave the apple-tree man and his slaughtered kin a wide berth, the creature did not even glance at him as he passed.
The deep rushing sound of the river filled the air. From above came the cawing of birds, but none of them soared down to roost in the trees on this strange island. There was just the wind in the trees and the gods of the Harvest moving through the wood ahead of him. He followed them by the sound of their passage amongst the branches and leaves, and also by the shoots that sprang up from the soil after their passing. Wheat and corn and rye had begun to grow up like sparse grass.
Oliver picked up his pace, both afraid to lose them and afraid that the apple-tree man would catch up to him with that cider-smelling corpse in its branches.
Only when he saw the buck stopped up ahead, its antlers indistinguishable from the branches of the trees above it, did he realize that the gods of the Harvest had paused . . . and that he could no longer hear the muffled, pained yelping of Kitsune the fox. Then Oliver ducked beneath the low-hanging limbs of a peach tree and realized he had come full circle, back to the trio of towering cherry trees in the shadow of the Atlantic Bridge. The river flowed nearby, the dark stonework of the bridge echoed its rushing voice into the trees, and the smell of cherries was overwhelming.
The buck once more stood silent, as though it were the sentinel on alert for any threat to present itself. On the rough ground in the triangle formed by the three trees, the Harvest wolf stood over Kitsune, who lay sprawled in a tangle of fur and limbs, no longer a fox.
As anxious as he was at the presence of these self-proclaimed deities, Oliver hurried past the buck and went to kneel by her side. The wolf inclined its head as though in invitation— or permission— and took a step back. Kitsune seemed to have been dropped to the ground like an abandoned marionette. Her ebon hair was feathered across her face and he reached out to brush it away, to see her eyes.
Kitsune growled and bared her teeth.
Oliver froze with his fingers only inches from her. That low growl continued for a moment and then abruptly ceased. Her nostrils flared and she sniffed the air. A kind of mewling sound came from her throat and she stirred, pulling herself up into a fetal curl on the ground just beside him. Her hair fell away from her face and as he watched, her jade eyes fluttered open.
“Hello, my friend.”
“Are you badly hurt?”
“It is passing,” she said, the perfect bow of her mouth offering amusement and irony. “We were foolish, ignoring our own warnings. We might have been better off taking our chances with the soldiers.”
Oliver shook his head. “I thought the trees were killing you.”
“As did I, at first. But no, these cherry trees are his and there is poison in the touch of their wood. He was holding us, but I do not know for what purpose.”
Poison in the touch. Oliver rubbed at his wrist. With Aerico’s death, the welts had begun to heal. Even his scraped fingers did not sting as much.
Oliver glanced over at the buck and then up at the wolf. “Actually, that makes sense. He was waiting for the Hunters to come. He must have intended to give you to them alive. And me as well. Apparently there’s a reward. He’s already killed—”
A frown creased his forehead. In his relief at finding Kitsune alive and recovering and disoriented by his melee with the cherry-tree demon and the arrival of the gods of the Harvest, he had been mentally adrift, just reacting to whatever came. Now he uttered a small laugh of mingled hope and disbelief.
“Wait a second,” he said, glancing around, and then upward.
The corn-husk man stood in the lee of the bridge, now twice as tall as he had been before. His torso had stretched so far that his chest and abdomen measured at least nine or ten feet. New stalks of corn grew from the island soil, wrapping around his ankles and legs and anchoring him to the ground. He reached into the branches of that cherry tree nearest the bridge and with the dry rustle of husks his arms lengthened as well.
Where spears of sunlight found their way through the canopy of the tree, ice glistened. Frost was still there, speared through by branches and with bunches of cherries growing from the wounds. The frozen form of the winter man did not move. As far as Oliver knew he had not moved since those branches had impaled him, cracking the ice of his body, branches growing inside of him.
He’s not dead, Oliver thought, as though trying to convince himself. Frost isn’t . . . he doesn’t have a body, really. He’s just ice. Winter. A walking blizzard. Poison couldn’t affect him.
He stood, and, smiling slightly, he moved nearer that tree, tilting his head and trying to get the best view up at Frost. As the corn-husk man grabbed hold of him, Frost shook and the icicles of his hair clinked together. That familiar winter chime caught Oliver’s breath in his throat.
Aerico was a demon. Any poison in him was demonic . . . magical. Perhaps it could affect Frost, after all.
Oliver watched, nodding as he silently urged the corn-husk man on. The creature grabbed hold of Frost and began to pull, exerting more and more force, attempting to tear him away from the branches that had been forced through him. A crack sounded, and then another, and Oliver held his breath, unsure if it was wood or ice that was cracking. Cherries dropped off Frost and fell to the ground below, ignored.
There came another loud crack. Oliver flinched and began to speak, to warn the corn-husk man to be careful.
And Frost shattered, practically exploding in a shower of chunks and shards of ice that rained down through the branches to the ground around the cherry tree. Several pieces struck Oliver, one of them stinging him as it made a tiny cut on his cheek.
“No!” he shouted. “What did you do? What the hell did you do? You idiot!”
He shoved a branch out of his face and started around the tree toward the corn-husk man. With a growl, the wolf leaped into his path, back arched and yellow teeth bared. It was as tall on four legs as he was on two and his heartbeat faltered with his step. Shaking his head in grief he stared up at the corn-husk man even as the creature— deity, whatever— began to shrink. Its torso contracted with a whisper and rattle of crops. But if he thought he might understand the thing, might see some emotion that would explain, he had forgotten for a moment about the blankness of its features, about those pale green husks across where its eyes might have been.
Defeated, his shoulders slumped and he stared around at the fragments of the winter man. Some of them were large enough to be recognizable— a forearm, a shoulder, a foot— but most were just chunks of ice.
Oliver lowered his head in sadness, staring now at nothing.
A familiar scent reached him and then he felt the soft brush of Kitsune’s fur against his hand. Her fingers touched his shoulder.
“You misunderstand,” she said.
It occurred to him, at those words, that maybe Frost had already been dead, after all. That was the only possibility that made any sense to him at all.
Until he felt the chill breeze that danced around the trees, caressing his face and ruffling his hair. Leaves fluttered to the ground as though it was autumn. A sprig of cherries fell from a branch and landed at his feet.
There was ice on them.
The wind picked up, whipping into a frenzy that focused on a place roughly at the center of that triangle amidst the cherry trees. The pieces of ice, the shards of the winter man, began to tumble toward that vortex, some of them sucked up into the air and drawn right into the midst of that miniature storm. At its heart there was snow.
Oliver laughed, covering his mouth in amazement as he watched the blizzard take form.
The wind died.
Frost stood in their midst, unharmed, as the gods of the Harvest began to gather around him.
“Hello, Frost,” said the corn-husk man.
“Konigen, I am in your debt,” the winter man replied.
Kitsune stepped toward them, glancing quickly back at Oliver with a playful grin before nodding in gratitude to the corn-husk man.
“We ought to be going,” she said.
Frost nodded. “Indeed.” Then he looked over to Oliver. “Coming? I would very much like to hear how it is you are still alive and Aerico is no longer with us.”
“Coming,” Oliver agreed, unable to stop smiling.
He joined them there, amidst the cherry trees, and he realized that he had never really believed there was a chance he might reach the end of this nightmare alive. Until now.
Frost and Kitsune had been his traveling companions, but this trial on an island in the middle of the Atlantic had made of them something more. They were bound in a way he did not entirely understand, though he felt the power of those ties.
A long journey still lay ahead, but he would not face it alone.
The terrain on the eastern side of the Atlantic Bridge was rough and inhospitable, as though once upon a time the land had been sown with salt like the ruins of ancient Carthage. Nothing grew there save low, twisted shrubs and scrub grass that looked to Oliver more like steel wool than something alive.
Ahren Konigen did not accompany the fugitives, but rather remained behind upon the island that had been the domain of the demon of the cherry tree. The apple-tree man— whom Oliver had learned actually was referred to, even in myth, as the Appletree Man— remained with Konigen. Nothing was said, but Oliver understood that they would travel back to their own lands in some way other than traversing this dead landscape, working their way along underground from root to root, perhaps.