The Woodjin: Chapter 7 by Lbilover

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Any parallels to Sam and Frodo in this chapter are probably intentional. :-) Note: the tender and touching illustration accompanying this chapter is by Aina Baggins.


He liked to bring his dates to the Pine Barrens, especially late at night and after a nice dinner and a couple of drinks. He’d discovered that the spooky atmosphere of the woods made them more inclined to put out. There was nothing like a little dose of horror-movie creepiness to turn a lady all soft and clingy, and once they got into that state, it was a hell of a lot easier to get into their pants. A little cuddle and kiss, and then it was wham-bam, thank you, ma’am.

He glanced over at the young woman occupying the passenger seat of his four-wheel drive Ford Ranger truck. He’d met her at a friend’s party in downtown Philly a few days earlier, and she’d caught his eye immediately. Crystal had great tits, shown now to full advantage in a low-cut aqua tank top, an even better ass encased in skin-tight designer jeans with a wide leather belt that emphasized her tiny waist, and legs that went on forever, the kind a guy liked to imagine wrapped around his waist or hooked over his shoulders while they had sex.

She claimed to be twenty years old, but beneath the artfully applied makeup was a face he’d be willing to bet was no more than eighteen. He mentally shrugged; her age made no difference to him, as long as she was willing, and she’d seemed more than willing when he’d asked her for a date at the party. In fact, she’d seemed downright flattered by his attention. She was sweet and kind of naïve-- exactly the way he liked his women.

“It’s awfully dark,” Crystal said in her breathy, childish-sounding voice, glancing nervously out the window at the snow-shrouded trees that lined the road. She sidled a fraction closer to him. “Are you sure it’s safe? I’ve heard that strange things live in these woods.”

He gave a low chuckle. “You mean like the Jersey Devil?”

Crystal tossed a strand of long platinum blonde hair back over her shoulder. “Yeah. You know, they-- they say it really exists.” Her voice was hushed, as if she thought the monster might overhear her and leap out at them from the bushes any second.

“I’ve driven through the Pine Barrens plenty of times, but it’s never bothered me,” he said, and then added smoothly, “Although I’ve heard some stories. I even met a guy at a bar a few years ago who swore he’d seen it with his own eyes.” He shrugged. “He might’ve been telling the truth. Hard to say.”

He suppressed a grin as she edged even closer. She’d started out sitting right by the window; now she was practically sitting on the console. Yeah, the horror-movie creepiness was paying dividends again.

Crystal shivered and hugged herself; gooseflesh stood out on her bare arms, despite the warm air blowing from the vents. She reached behind her to grab a pink mohair sweater she’d draped over the back of her seat and shrugged into it; the half dozen silver bangle bracelets she wore jangled a discordant accompaniment to the soft rock music that was playing on the car stereo.

“Maybe we should go back. What if your truck breaks down?” She looked uneasily around her again as the Ranger bounded along the deserted back road. The headlights revealed an untouched blanket of white from the snow earlier in the day, and to either side, densely clustered pitch pines and scrub oaks that felt uncomfortably close. “We could disappear and no one would ever know. You know, just like in Supernatural. It’s, like, totally creepy out here.”

He’d never heard of the show before this evening, when she’d told him over dinner that it was her favorite, and that his looks reminded her of one of the stars, some dude whose name began with ‘J’. He already knew a lot of things Crystal liked and didn’t like. She was a talker. Unfortunately. He preferred the ones who didn’t talk much, just moaned and panted while he was fucking them.

“The truck isn’t gonna break down, babe, and we aren’t gonna disappear. Stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life-- only on TV,” he said dismissively. “And even if something was to happen, you think I don’t know how to protect a lady?”

He reached down under the front seat, the truck swerving slightly from side to side as he steered it one handed, and came up holding a gun, black metal glinting dully in the red-orange light from the dashboard. He straightened and set the 9mm Beretta on the console between them. “Who needs those ghost hunter dudes? That Devil comes anywhere near us and I’ll blow his fucking head off.”

The expression on Crystal’s face did make him grin then: her heavily made-up brown eyes were open wide, and she looked both afraid and reluctantly impressed as she stared at the gun. The Beretta was always a nice touch. Made him seem like a total bad ass, although he’d never actually had occasion to fire it. Women liked badass men, even if they pretended not to. That was another thing he’d discovered.

He looped an arm around Crystal’s shoulders and pulled her closer, so that the gun was pressing cold and hard into his hip. “Now relax and enjoy the ride, baby. I’ve got everything under control.”

But Crystal felt anything but relaxed; her back and shoulders were tense beneath his encircling arm. “I don’t know. I still think maybe we-- we should go back.”

Jesus, he thought. What the fuck was her problem? He stroked the palm of his hand down her right arm then shifted to take her firm, full breast in a light grasp and squeeze it.

“Don’t,” she said sharply, and pushed his hand away. Hers felt cold and a little clammy.

“Sorry,” he apologized, trying to sound nonchalant, while his patience started to fray. Crystal was beginning to seem like more trouble than she was worth. The best tits and ass in the greater Philly area weren’t much good if their owner wouldn’t let you handle them. “I thought you could use a little distraction.”

“I don’t want to be distracted. I want to go home. It’s dark and scary in these woods, and I don’t like it.” She sounded stubborn and petulant, and if she was twenty years old then he was Bruce Springsteen.

“Look, it’s only a couple more miles to where we’re stopping,” he said, keeping tight hold of the reins of his temper. “It’s a real pretty spot, baby, right by the river. You’ll like it, I promise.”

“Well, all right,” Crystal agreed reluctantly. “If we’re almost there.”

He felt her body starting to relax against his shoulder, and decided that maybe she wouldn’t turn out to be a dead loss after all. He steered the Ranger around a bend in the road and accelerated, anxious to reach their stopping point before she could start whining again about going home. Once they were parked, he didn’t doubt for a second his ability to take her mind off that Jersey Devil shit. He had weed in the glove compartment, beer in a foam cooler in the back, and condoms in his wallet. He intended to make use of all three.

Up ahead about a mile, beyond the reach of the high beams, was a small bridge that spanned the Batsto River, and it was just on the other side of the bridge that he liked to park. There was a rise there that overlooked the water, and girls always oohed and aahed over how romantic the view was. Tonight, with the snow and the moonlight, it should be spectacular.

“We’re nearly there, babe,” he commented a couple of minutes later, and then let out a curse and abruptly hit the brakes. He grabbed the steering wheel with both hands as the four-wheel drive struggled valiantly to slow the skidding vehicle. Crystal let out a small cry of alarm, and held onto his arm as the truck slid to a stop. “Jesus.” His heart was pounding, a surge of adrenaline racing through his body. They’d almost hit a fucking deer.

It had appeared as if out of nowhere, right smack in the middle of the snow-covered road, a few yards from the near end of the bridge. There were plenty of deer in the Pine Barrens, and it wasn’t the first time he’d had a close encounter with one. But they usually got the hell out of the way and bolted for the safety of the trees. This one hadn’t moved a muscle, however; it just stood there with its antlered head held high and its dark eyes fixed on the truck, about twenty-five feet away. It didn’t act like a typical deer, and it sure as hell didn’t look like one either. It was larger than any deer he’d ever seen, and its coat was pure white, whiter than the snow even. It almost seemed to shine.

“Oh,” Crystal breathed, releasing his arm and leaning forward to peer through the windshield. “He’s beautiful. I’ve never seen a white deer before.”

He felt irrationally irritated by Crystal’s breathless reaction to the deer after all her bitching about how scared she was. The deer wasn’t beautiful; it was some kind of mutant freak. Its mother probably drank water polluted by toxic waste that someone had illegally dumped, or some crazy shit like that.

“For fuck’s sake, Crystal, it’s only a stupid deer,” he said. “They’re nothing more than oversized vermin. The woods are crawling with them.” Impatiently, he laid on the horn, and then lowered his window halfway. “Get out of the fucking road!” he shouted through the opening, and hit the horn again, but this time held it down for a good fifteen seconds. Crystal visibly cringed as the strident noise went on and on, and put her hands over her ears, but the deer didn’t so much as flinch. If it wasn’t for the thin wisps of white vapor trailing from its nostrils as it breathed, it might have been a statue, not a living being.

“Stop doing that! You’ll scare him!” Crystal’s voice could barely be heard over the sound of the horn.

“Fuckin’ A, I’ll scare him. He’s blocking the goddamn road.” Abandoning the horn, he shifted the truck into gear, his motions jerky with the anger that was starting to spill over, the inevitable result of an evening that wasn’t going according to plan.

“Are you crazy?” Crystal exclaimed as the truck began to creep forward, crunching over the snow. “You’ll hit him!” She grabbed at his coat sleeve, pink-lacquered nails digging into dark brown suede like the claws of a kitten, and with about as much effect.

He shook her hand off, and gave her an impatient look. “I’m not gonna hit him. You think I want to put a dent in my truck? But I’m gonna make the bastard move if it’s the last thing I do.”

But the deer didn’t move, even when the truck rolled to within ten feet of it. It tossed its head once or twice, but all four hooves remained firmly planted in the snow, as if it was determined not to let them pass.

“Shit.” He stopped the truck and put it in neutral, setting the emergency brake. He stared at the deer, and the deer stared back, and there was something uncannily human about its steady, impassive gaze. It seemed aware in a way no animal should be aware, and he was unnerved, even frightened, by its behavior. But he wasn’t about to let some fucking animal frighten him. “All right, that’s it. I’ve had enough.” He picked up the Beretta and undid the safety lock. Then he opened the door and got out of the truck.

“No!” Crystal cried. She scrambled after him on hands and knees, and half fell out of the truck. “Please,” she begged, clinging to the doorframe for support, “don’t shoot him. Please.”

He ignored her pleas, and quickly raised the gun, his forefinger resting lightly on the hairpin trigger. His intention was to fire over the deer’s head and scare it off, not really wanting to kill it if it could be avoided, but before he could take aim, Crystal let go of the car door and lunged for the Beretta. Her desperate fingers closed around his wrist like a vice; involuntarily, he squeezed the trigger.

The gun went off with a deafening report that echoed like thunder through the still night air, causing some roosting bird to flap away in panic, and his ears to ring as if he’d been clocked in the final round by Mike Tyson. There was a dull wet thud and a loud grunt. Crystal screamed, and released his wrist.

Time seemed to go into slow motion.

The white deer staggered, forelegs splaying and nearly buckling. A dark stain began to spread across its right shoulder at the base of its neck, blossoming like some obscene flower on the pristine whiteness of its fur. There was a look of almost human surprise in its eyes as they met his own, as if it couldn’t believe what had happened, and he could see now that those eyes weren’t brown like a typical deer’s, but a deep, fathomless blue. For a long moment they held him captive, and he couldn’t look away. A sense of shame filled him such as he’d never known in his life…

“No!” Crystal screamed, and time sped up again.

She began to run toward the deer, long legs flashing, but it moved finally, lurching into an awkward canter before she could reach it. In a few stumbling strides it had gained the shelter of the pines, and then it was gone, vanished, leaving behind in the snow a trail of hoof prints-- and spatters of blood. Crystal ran after it, sobbing, but halted when she reached the edge of the woods, her hands clenched at her sides while she tried to nerve herself to venture alone into the woods. She couldn’t do it, not with every story she’d ever heard or read about the Jersey Devil mocking her from the shadows.

Defeated, she turned back, and black tears of mascara were running down her face. “You’ve killed him,” she choked out between sobs, “killed him.”

But he didn’t even hear her. Now that the deer was out of the way, the truck’s headlights illumined the bridge over the river-- or rather, what remained of that bridge. For less than half the span was still intact; the rest had collapsed into the river, whether from the snow or cold or a combination of both, or perhaps from something else entirely, he had no idea. All he knew was that, by the time he’d have noticed, it would’ve been too late. As fast as he was driving, he could never have braked in time, and they would have plunged straight over the edge and into the icy embrace of the river. He didn’t have a particularly vivid imagination, but he didn’t need one to picture what would have happened next.

“Oh my god.” It was Crystal, arriving at his side and staring in horror at the gaping black hole between what was left of the bridge and the far side of the river. “Oh my god. We--" she hiccupped, “we w-would have fallen in the river and drowned. He s-saved our lives, and now he’s going to d-die alone in the w-woods and it’s all your f-fault…” She fumbled at the front of her jeans and unclipped a pink Razr cell phone, flipping it open with shaking fingers.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, snapping out of his near-trance and whirling to face her.

“I’m calling 911. Maybe-- maybe someone can find him… save him…” There was a shrill beep as she hit the first number.

“Are you out of your fucking mind? You can’t call the police.” His gun was unregistered, and it was illegal to shoot deer out of season. And then there was that weed in the glove compartment... He felt a frisson of fear that the near miss with the collapsed bridge hadn’t given him. Jesus, he’d be screwed ten ways to Sunday if the cops searched his truck, and Crystal-- shit, with her makeup smeared and her eyes swollen with tears, she looked about fifteen. Jailbait. They’d arrest him for consorting with a minor. Fuck that. He was sorry about the deer, but it was a freak anyway, probably better off dead. He shoved the gun in the waistband of his jeans, and said, “Gimme that phone, Crystal.”

“No!” she quickly stepped back, hand outstretched to fend him off, but her high-heeled boots slipped on the slick snow, and he easily overpowered her, despite her frantic struggles. He pried the phone out of her cold fingers, and heaved it overhand toward the river. It sailed through the air, glowing eerily, and disappeared from sight. There was a soft splash as it hit the water.

“I hate you!” she sobbed, hitting at him with her fists. “Hate you!”

“I don’t give a flying fuck what you think about me. Get in the truck,” he ordered.

“I’d rather crawl home on my hands and knees than get in that truck with you,” she spat, twisting in his grip like a wildcat.

“I should let you crawl, but you might get picked up by the police and start yakking.” He gave her a rough shove toward the Ranger then pulled out the Beretta. He pointed it straight at her. “Now be a good girl, and Get. In. The. Fucking. Truck.”

Before the implacable look in his eyes, her defiance wilted. Without another word she climbed in, and collapsed in a heap on the passenger seat, weeping helplessly.

He slammed the door behind her, and then climbed in himself. He hit the automatic door locks, stowed the gun back under the seat, and put the truck in gear. The ruined remains of the bridge showed starkly in the headlights, and the trampled snow where the deer had stood: the deer that had saved their lives. He clamped down on the memory of those almost-human blue eyes and the feeling of shame that had swept over him. It was coincidence, that’s all. The deer hadn’t been there on purpose. Leave it to a woman to come up with some fanciful shit like that. There was absolutely nothing for him to feel guilty about. Besides, it was Crystal’s fault anyway, stupid bitch, grabbing for the gun just as he was about to fire it.

He looked at Crystal, huddled defenselessly against the seat, her head bowed so that her bright hair fell in a curtain about her face, hiding it from view. Her body was wracked by convulsive shudders, but the sight roused no pity in him. “You say one word about this to anyone, one word, and I swear to god I’ll make you sorry you were ever born. Understand?”

She nodded slowly without looking up.

“Good. Now let’s get the fuck out of here.” And he didn’t plan on coming back again. Ever.

***

Pain. The stag had never experienced such pain in his entire life. His right shoulder was on fire, nerve endings screaming in protest with every labored step he took. There was a grinding sensation as he swung his right leg forward, as if bone was grating against metal; he thought the bullet must be lodged there. With every beat of his heart, pumping blood through his veins, he could feel a tiny pulse at the bullet hole as another trickle of blood emerged, running warm down his shoulder and leg. His sensitive nostrils, accustomed to the familiar, loved scents of the pines, were filled with the sharp coppery tang of his own blood. The wild animal’s panicked reaction to the scent-- a near overwhelming impulse to bolt mindlessly-- was difficult to tame. He had to remind himself over and over of whom he really was. Elijah. I’m Elijah.

And if he was Elijah, then he was the Woodjin, too, and he still had work to do this night. He had answered the call, and thankfully been in time to save those two people from the river that had claimed so many lives in the past. But the collapse of the bridge had to be reported as soon as possible, in case anyone else might be put at risk. If he was called a second time… The very idea that his injuries might prevent him from answering a call was intolerable, an agony nearly as great as the pain of his wounded shoulder.

His right front leg felt increasingly numb, as if it didn’t even belong to him; it buckled when he tried to put his full weight on it, and he could barely lift it clear of the ground. When the dragging tip of his hoof struck a rock concealed beneath the snow, he tripped and fell hard to his knees. The jolt sent shockwaves of white-hot pain searing through his body, and he nearly blacked out. He gathered his haunches under him, and struggled to his feet. He stood there, trembling and weak, and fought the temptation to sink back to the ground and rest. But he was afraid to stop, afraid to rest, because somewhere in the pines his ancient enemy was prowling, and he would be hungrier and angrier than ever after his defeat in the clearing four nights ago.

Elijah tried to concentrate, to focus that subliminal awareness he possessed of the Devil to pinpoint his current location, but his mind was too clouded with pain to sense him clearly. He couldn’t tell if his enemy was near enough to sense him-- or the scent of his blood. He had never yet lost a battle with the Devil, though he bore his share of scars from their encounters over the years, but if he came after Elijah now, there was little doubt what would happen.

It wasn’t that he was afraid for himself, though he had no wish to die, but who would safeguard the pines if he were killed? There was a superstitious belief among pineys that without their Woodjin, they would lose the homes and livelihoods their ancestors had carved from a wilderness of sand and scrub pines and fought so hard to preserve. So many people depended on him; he could not let them down. Elijah thought of his father, and of the other Woodjins who had guarded the pines. What would they think of Elijah, if he were the one who failed in his trust? He had the oddest sensation then of eyes on him, as if every Woodjin who came before him was gathered in the shadows in stag form, just beyond the edges of Elijah’s vision, watching and waiting.

He was becoming light-headed and confused, and he wondered how much blood he’d lost. The warm trickle from the bullet hole hadn’t stopped, though he thought it had slowed-- but perhaps that was only wishful thinking.

The light-headedness grew as he limped painfully along the paths that he usually traversed with effortless grace. As if his brain were a kaleidoscope, a series of images flashed through his mind: the faces of those he’d met as the stag-- the lost and weary and frightened-- ending with the face of the man he’d just rescued, the man who had shot him. How he’d looked at Elijah, with such fear and mistrust… It wasn’t the first time Elijah had seen such a look in someone’s eyes, and a pang from a different sort of pain hurt his heart then, but the pain was mixed with pity, pity for those who feared what they did not understand. And then one last image rose before him: green-gold eyes staring at him in the starlight with wonder and awe. The eyes belonged to Sean: Sean, who had seen the magic. Holding tight to that memory, Elijah found renewed strength and will to go on.

But his awareness of the world around him, almost preternaturally keen when he assumed his stag form, gradually dwindled and dissolved, even Sean’s image at last fading away until nothing existed except a red haze of pain through which he moved, slower and slower. All unknowing he wandered from the path he had been following, and into the trees. Confused, he floundered blindly forward until he emerged at last into a small clearing. He stopped, swaying, and then crumpled slowly to the ground. And this time he did not get up again.

***

“Maggie, wait,” Sean called after the cat’s retreating form. Only the trailing tip of her fluffy orange and black tail could be seen as she rounded a bend in front of him. Her smaller form allowed her to navigate the narrow deer paths they were following much more easily than he could, and Sean was desperately afraid of losing her in the maze of trails crisscrossing the woods.

If this were a cartoon, Sean thought, a tiny red devil with horns and a pitchfork would be perched on his shoulder, whispering in his ear that he was insane to put his faith in a cat. It was hard not to question his sanity, especially when Elijah’s footprints-- no, hoof prints-- veered away to the left, and Maggie, ignoring them, kept trotting straight ahead. His heart had nearly failed him then, but he had to trust that her bond with Elijah was strong enough to lead her, lead them both, to him.

Sean wasn’t finding it any easier to judge distances in the woods this time, even with Maggie’s unhesitating guidance and the blessedly bright flood of light from the mag to show the way. He had no more idea of what direction they were headed or how far they’d traveled than he had when the Devil was chasing him in the dark and he’d been running in a blind panic. The Pine Barrens weren’t anything like the city, with its streets and avenues neatly laid out at right angles to each other.

If you started setting pine trees side by side, how many would it take to equal a city block? Sean wondered. He concentrated on the ridiculous mental calculation, because it was better than dwelling on the nightmarish memory of his frantic flight through these same woods four nights earlier with the Devil chasing him. Still, he found himself bracing for the moment when that unearthly scream would shatter the quiet and the nightmare would begin again. Only this time, he vowed to himself, he would not run.

As for Elijah, and what might have happened to him… Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, Sean, his Grandma Astin, who liked to quote scripture, used to scold him, when he would fret about matters out of his control. Speculation was a fruitless waste of time and energy. He had to focus on finding Elijah first, and deal with whatever came after at the appropriate time. But his imagination wasn’t a faucet that he could simply turn off at will, especially when the stabbing pain that had woken him from sleep continued to manifest itself in prickling waves that radiated down his right arm to the very tips of his fingers. Sean switched the heavy flashlight to his left hand, afraid that he might drop it. He’d tugged the cuffs of the down jacket over his hands to protect them from the cold, but nothing could protect them from phantom pain.

Maggie did in fact slacken her pace, as if she’d understood his words, and waited until Sean caught her up. She glanced back at him, her amber eyes glowing green in the light from the mag, and voiced her displeasure before setting off again at a trot. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Sean might actually have laughed, for he’d just been told off in no uncertain terms, and by a cat.

“You’re right,” he said, ducking to avoid a low-hanging tree branch, “I’ve got to push harder.”

He did, and they hurried on, single-file, through the quiet woods. Minutes passed, and nothing happened. The night remained still and hushed; the only noticeable sound was Sean’s ragged breathing. He recalled a dream he’d once had, in which he’d wandered down long dim corridors without any doors, and every time he thought he’d finally found a way out, he’d turn a corner and be right back where he’d started. He began to worry that they were going in circles, and the tiny cartoon devil had been right after all.

He was on the verge of panicking in earnest when Maggie suddenly let out a loud yowl, startling Sean so badly he nearly dropped the flashlight. The cat veered off the path and into the trees on their right, bounding stiff-legged through the underbrush like a meerkat crossing the Kalahari. His heart pounding with a mixture of hope and apprehension, Sean followed her, raising his right arm to shield his face as he shouldered his way through the trees.

He aimed the flashlight’s beam straight ahead of him, rather than at the forest floor, and a gleam of white beyond the copse of scrub oaks into which Maggie had led him caught his eye. Sean recognized that gleam, like the luster of a pearl, for he’d seen it once before: four nights ago in a starlit clearing in these very woods. His heart gave a joyous leap. She’d found him. Maggie-- blessed, brilliant, wonderful Maggie-- had found Elijah. Maggie, Sean promised silently, you’re going to eat filet mignon and bathe in catnip every day for the rest of your life.

He broke into a run, vaulting a fallen tree like an Olympic hurdler, but the remaining yards seemed the longest of his entire life, so desperate was he to reach Elijah. Then Sean burst out of the trees and into a small clearing very much like the one where he’d first met the white stag, and nearly sobbed aloud with relief at the sight that met his eyes: the white stag, with Maggie standing protectively by his side. Strangely, at that moment, even though he now knew the stag’s true identity, Sean could only think of him that way.

But the euphoria of discovery vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

The white stag, whom Sean had been picturing in his mind’s eye as he’d first seen him, standing proudly in the starlight with his antlered head held high, was down, curled up on his left side with his legs bent beneath him. His head was bowed as though the weight of his own antlers was too much to bear; his soft muzzle rested wearily on his left foreleg, and his eyes were closed.

And then Sean’s gaze fell on a dark stain covering the stag’s right shoulder and chest and running down the leg. It took a few seconds for his brain to process what he was seeing. “Oh my god, no,” he breathed.

He’d expected any injuries to the stag to mirror the phantom pain he’d been experiencing, but the reality was far, far worse than anything he’d imagined. Horror at the sight held him frozen in place for the space of several heartbeats, and then he stumbled forward and fell to his knees by the stag’s head. Maggie, who had begun pacing in tiny circles, uttering short mewling cries of distress, now stared imploringly at Sean, her expression saying more clearly than words: “You’ve got to help him.”

“Maggie, I promise you--” Sean choked out, but he couldn’t finish the sentence, for fear had clamped his throat shut. The stag, roused by the sound of his voice, slowly lifted his head. His blue eyes-- Elijah’s eyes, and oh, it was Elijah looking at him-- were dull and clouded with pain, but Sean thought he saw a glimmer of recognition and gladness in their depths.

“Elijah, I’m here,” he said, and reaching out, gently cradled the stag’s bony head in his arms. He bent and kissed the soft fur between his eyes, and with a sort of shuddering sigh the stag relaxed in Sean’s hold.




It was only then that Sean became aware of the tears freezing on his face. He rested his icy-wet cheek against the warmth of the spot he had just kissed, and breathed in the scents of woodsmoke and pinesap and dried grasses, as he had the night the stag carried him to safety-- the safety of his own home, though Sean had been too blind to see that the compassionate young man and the magical white stag were one and the same. How he could have failed to make that connection? God, he had been such a fool. “Elijah,” he whispered again. “Oh Elijah.”

Sean might have stayed that way far longer than was wise, forgetting everything but the joy of finding Elijah; but the ever-practical Maggie, with one well aimed smack of paw on arm, called him back to the urgency of the situation.

“Sorry,” he apologized in a hoarse voice. He sat back on his heels, very, very carefully releasing his hold on Elijah, who had closed his eyes again as though utterly exhausted. “God, I’m so sorry,” he said again, and this time the words were meant for the stag, whose head was once more bowed upon his left foreleg.

The knees of Sean’s jeans were soaked through, as were the toes of his running shoes-- he had lost the feeling in his own toes some time ago. His exposed skin was numb, his nose was running and his eyes were burning with fatigue and cold. But he felt none of it, for his attention was entirely focused on Elijah.

He turned his mind to practical matters. He had to assess Elijah’s injuries first, before he could make any further decisions. But it was a daunting prospect; he couldn’t ever remember feeling so totally inadequate to a task. Feeding baby squirrels was child’s play compared to this.

Screw the negativity, Astin, he chided himself. You say you want to be a doctor? Then prove it.

Drawing a deep breath, Sean shifted carefully around on his knees until he was close enough to examine the bloody mess that was the stag’s right shoulder. He aimed the flashlight directly at it, and that’s when he received his second greatest shock in a night that had been full of them.

He’d assumed, naturally enough, that Elijah was wounded in a confrontation with the Jersey Devil; the intensity of their battle in the clearing four nights ago was not something easily forgotten, nor was the image of that droplet of blood falling from the white stag’s ebon antler to bead in the cold sand. But unless the Devil had taken to carrying firearms, his assumption couldn’t have been more wrong. Here were no gouges or skin tears made by razor sharp claws or bite wounds from equally sharp teeth-- only a small hole. What Sean knew about bullet wounds from personal experience was nil, but he’d watched plenty enough cop and doctor shows on television to recognize that small hole with its jagged edges for what it was.

Elijah had been shot. 


~*~
Don’t let yourself get distracted, Sean cautioned himself while anger unlike any he had ever felt in his life bubbled up inside him, and threatened to destroy his shaky self-control. Finding the sonuvabitch who did this can wait. Right now, Elijah needs you.

The bullet hole was oozing; scarlet fluid dripped slowly into the snow. How much blood had Elijah lost? Sean wondered. Jesus, it looked like so much. With difficulty, he put that worry aside, and searched for an exit wound. Using the sides of his fingers for lack of anything better, he gently wiped away the trickles of blood, but saw no sign of one. Presumably then, he thought as he cleaned his fingers in the snow, the bullet was still inside Elijah's shoulder. Was that good news or bad? He had no idea, only a vague memory of him and Mack watching an old western where a bullet had to be dug out of some gunslinger’s shoulder without anything to dull the pain except a hefty dose of rotgut whiskey poured down his throat. The poor guy had screamed in agony anyway, and then passed out cold. The thought of Elijah being put through an ordeal like that made him distinctly queasy.

But that sort of butchery didn’t go on in this day and age, he reminded himself as he searched for any other signs of injury. Elijah would go to a nice modern hospital, and Sean would make sure he had the most skilled surgeons and nurses that money could buy and all the painkillers he needed to keep him comfortable while he recovered.

And that’s when it hit him: his mental imagining and planning involved Elijah the man, not Elijah the stag, who was a very, very different proposition and who was the Elijah lying in front of him right now.

Finished with his assessment of Elijah’s injuries, shakily confident that he had only the bullet wound to deal with, Sean switched off the flashlight to conserve its batteries and considered this rather monumental dilemma.

He could do some quick and dirty triage, put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding-- even he knew that much rudimentary first aid-- but how on earth was he ever going to get Elijah home? As a man, Elijah was slight; he probably weighed in at 145 pounds or less. But as the stag? Sean guessed that he must weigh at least twice that much, possibly more. There was no conceivable way Sean could carry or even support such a weight for any distance, and Elijah was clearly incapable of making it back under his own power.

Aware that every passing second was desperately important, Sean debated his options. As far as he could tell, there were only two. The first option was to get the bleeding under control, leave Elijah here in the clearing, and go for help. Bill Jenkins, Sean felt certain, knew exactly who and what Elijah was, and it would be safe to confide in him. He recalled the significant look Elijah had shared with Bill when they met him out by the Quaker Bridge. Through the prism of hindsight, that exchange of glances took on new dimensions of meaning-- as did almost every conversation Sean had had with Elijah since meeting him.

But going for help meant walking away from Elijah, leaving him alone again in the cold and dark, vulnerable to dangers both known and unknown. Fuck that, Sean thought fiercely. I’m not leaving him, and that’s all there is to it.

Which left the second option, if Elijah was strong enough for it. Well, there was only one way to find out.

“Elijah.” Sean spoke with quiet urgency. “Elijah, I need you to listen to me. Please. It’s important.”

The stag’s head lifted again, and his blue eyes slowly blinked open. They were still hazy with pain, but aware and attentive.

“I can’t help you the way you are now-- as the stag, I mean. You’re going to have to…” He hesitated, unsure what was the correct word to use, or if there even was one, “transform, change back into yourself-- your human self. Can you do that?”

He had forgotten the communication barrier between them, and felt like an idiot when he realized he was waiting for Elijah to answer him in words. He was about to add, ‘Blink once for yes, twice for no’-- the only solution that presented itself, ridiculous as it sounded-- but it proved unnecessary, for the stag’s antlered head raised and lowered in what was unquestionably a nod of ‘yes’.

“Thank god,” Sean almost sagged with relief. “Elijah, is there anything I can do to help you?” And this time, the stag’s head moved from side to side in a decisive gesture of ‘no’.

Maggie, who had taken up a station close against the stag’s left shoulder, the steady rumble of her rasping purr making her sound like a tiny engine, now rose and padded to Sean’s side. He buried his blood-flecked fingers in her thick rust and black fur, not only for warmth but reassurance. He felt helpless, frustrated and very afraid. Maybe this was asking too much of Elijah, injured and exhausted as he was. He was sorry now he’d ever read those damned Harry Potter books, with their too vivid descriptions of spells gone awry, like those poor wizards who were splinched and left parts of their bodies behind... But this isn’t fiction, Sean. Which when you came right down to it wasn’t much consolation, considering what was about to take place in front of him any second now: something even stranger than fiction.

It occurred to Sean that Maggie must have witnessed these transformations before, and he glanced down at her. She didn’t appear worried, only watchful and alert. That was something, at least. Sean turned his attention back to Elijah.

His eyes were closed again. Sean sensed that it wasn’t from weariness or pain this time, however, but from concentration: Elijah was gathering himself, digging down deep for every scrap of strength and will he possessed. Sean held his breath, and then…

…the air moved. Sean blinked in surprise. It wasn’t the wind. The air was actually moving, melting and shifting above and around the white stag, and distorting Sean’s view, as if he was looking at the stag’s body in a funhouse mirror. The air crackled and hummed, not with sound, but with energy. A light sprang up, dazzlingly bright, as if a million fireflies had suddenly congregated in the clearing. Sean shielded his eyes with his hand, but the light continued to grow in intensity, burning brighter and brighter until he was forced to close his eyelids. Seconds ticked passed-- how many Sean couldn’t say-- and gradually the brilliant glow behind his eyelids dimmed, and the hum of energy faded. Cautiously, he opened his eyes.

Where the white stag had been curled in the snow, there now lay the slender naked body of a young man, his right shoulder, chest and arm covered in blood. At any other time, what had just occurred would have left Sean frozen in awestruck wonder, but he was already moving, stripping off his layers of clothing: scarf, down jacket, Goretex windbreaker, flannel shirt, sweatshirt and lastly tee shirt, until he was kneeling bare-chested in the frigid air. Sweet Jesus, it was cold. But how much worse was it for Elijah?

He quickly spread out the down jacket to serve as a blanket, and then, with the utmost care, gathered Elijah’s trembling body into his arms, heedless of the blood being smeared on him. He’d imagined holding Elijah, naked skin on naked skin, but not like this, never like this. Elijah’s skin was pale and cold as marble, and his teeth were chattering uncontrollably. Sean eased Elijah into a sitting position on the jacket, supporting him under his left shoulder.

“I’ve got you,” he said gently. “Everything’s going to be all right now.” He put as much conviction into his voice as he possibly could, and knew he was trying to convince himself as much as Elijah.

“Y-you c-came b-back,” Elijah finally spoke, and his eyes were swimming with tears. “S-Sean, y-you c-came b-back.”

“I had to, Elijah,” he said simply. "But there's no time to explain everything right now. I have to get that bleeding under control. We'll talk later, okay?”

Elijah nodded; his eyes were fixed on Sean’s face with a wondering expression that brought Sean perilously close to tears again.

Blinking them back, he folded the white tee shirt into a thick pad with quick, efficient movements, and placed it over the wound. He used the scarf to secure the makeshift bandage in place, winding it around Elijah’s shoulder. Elijah let out an involuntary gasp as Sean pulled the scarf as tight as he dared. He knotted the ends with some difficulty, as his fingertips were practically numb, and the wool was awkward to handle.

“God, I’m sorry,” he breathed, as his hands slipped and Elijah choked back a whimper of pain. “But look, I’m all done.”

“’Sokay,” Elijah replied. His lips were bloodless, and he was trembling violently. “B-better alr-ready.”

“Liar,” Sean said, and was relieved to see the tiniest of smiles appear on Elijah's face. He was able to fashion the sweatshirt into a rough and ready sling to support Elijah’s arm by tying the sleeves around his neck. Then he draped the flannel shirt over Elijah’s shoulders, and eased the young man’s left arm into the sleeve. The shirt was oversized: the hem reached halfway down the front of Elijah’s thighs, and completely covered his buttocks. A fleeting sense of regret for the beauties that were being concealed passed through Sean’s mind as he buttoned the shirt up as far as it would go, and he felt ashamed of himself. He picked up the windbreaker, intending to put that on Elijah, too, but Elijah protested.

“N-no… y-you,” he insisted through his chattering teeth. “C-catch c-cold.”

“Elijah--” But there was a stubborn set to Elijah’s chin, and Sean wasn't about to waste precious time arguing. It wasn’t easy to put the windbreaker on under the circumstances-- he was still supporting Elijah against his side-- but he managed it, and zipped it up to his chin. “All covered up. Are you happy now?” His voice was gently teasing, though privately he had to admit that Elijah had been right to insist on it.

Elijah gave a jerky nod. “Sh-shame, th-though.” He sounded genuinely regretful, and Sean realized he wasn’t the only one noticing things he probably shouldn’t be under the circumstances. He was surprised into genuine laughter, the sound dancing on the frosty air, and the laughter, even more than the windbreaker, warmed him. Maybe everything was going to be okay after all.

But they weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, and Elijah’s feet were a major concern to Sean. The young man had drawn his knees up toward his chest, and curled his bare toes into the down jacket in a vain attempt to warm them.

“Let’s get those feet covered up now,” Sean said. “You can wear my socks. They’re damp, but they should help a little at least.” It was a measure of his discomfort that Elijah made no protest at the suggestion. After easing Elijah down onto his side, Sean quickly removed his shoes and socks. He knelt to pull the thick white cotton over Elijah’s feet; it was like handling twin blocks of ice. The brief spurt of light-heartedness vanished, and worry returned, bringing with it self-disgust.

“I am the world’s greatest asshole,” Sean said bitterly, as he shoved his feet back into his running shoes, trying not to shudder at the unpleasant sensation of the clammy cold leather on his bare skin. “I ran out of your house without taking anything useful besides the flashlight. I should have brought a first-aid kit, extra clothes, boots, a thermos of coffee…”

From her spot warming the backs of Elijah’s knees, Maggie spoke up, and Sean had no doubt that it was in response to what he’d just said. She was an opinionated cat, and obviously not hesitant to share her opinions.

“You see? Maggie agrees with me.”

“H-hero,” Elijah stuttered unexpectedly.

Sean, fumbling at his shoelaces, glanced at Elijah. “What?”

“M-Maggie. S-says you’re a h-hero.” Elijah managed a shaky smile. “Sh-she’s r-right.”

It took an awful lot to render Sean speechless, but that did it. A hero? Him? He avoided looking at either of them while he hastily finished tying his shoelaces in sloppy, uneven bows. He was certainly no hero, far from it. He could think of a thousand things he should have done differently, starting with ever having left Elijah in the first place.

“You’re both crazy,” he muttered, cheeks burning with more than cold, and changed the topic. “All right. I think we’re ready to head back now.” He crouched by Elijah’s side. “How’re you doing?”

“G-great,” Elijah lied again, and managed to struggle up onto his elbow.

“Easy,” Sean cautioned. “You don’t have to prove anything.” And the only heroes around here are you and Maggie, he almost added, but he had a pretty strong notion that that might result in another argument.

Elijah looked anything but great when he was finally on his feet. If Sean hadn’t been holding him, he felt certain Elijah would have sunk straight back to the ground. He hung limply in Sean’s arms, even that small bit of exertion having knocked the stuffing out of him.

“S-sorry,” he whispered, lips shockingly cold against Sean’s throat. “G-give me a m-minute.”

“Take all the time you need,” Sean soothed, rubbing a hand in gentle circles between Elijah's shoulderblades, but inside he was a bundle of jittering nerves. Doubt about his half-assed attempt at playing an EMT was eating at him. He had little confidence in his makeshift bandage, and the sooner they got started, the better he’d feel.

When Elijah seemed more or less steady on his feet, Sean shuffled them to the side so he could rescue the down jacket that had belonged to Elijah’s dad. It would never be the same after tonight, Sean thought sadly, having been trampled underfoot and spattered with blood. Of course, every piece of clothing he and Elijah had on was beyond ruined, but the only thing that mattered was the blaze orange jacket, because it had sentimental value to Elijah. But it had served its purpose, and now would provide extra, desperately needed warmth-- and perhaps even lend Elijah some of his father’s strength. He helped Elijah into the jacket, and then last of all picked up the flashlight.

“Now it’s my turn to give you a ride,” Sean said lightly, bending on one knee like some courtier of old. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

With a weary sigh, Elijah rested his chest against Sean’s back, and wound his left arm around his neck. “R-ready,” he said, and Sean hooked his elbows under Elijah’s bare knees, and rose to his feet in one smooth motion. He kept his torso tilted forward; it wasn’t going to be easy for Elijah to hang on with only one arm in working order.

“You know, the last person I gave a piggyback ride to was Mack,” Sean commented as he started walking cautiously forward. “And he was three years old at the time.”

He fumbled one-handed with the mag’s on/off switch, doubting that he would ever use a flashlight again without a thrill of anticipatory dread. But a steady stream of light poured out when he turned it on, and one tiny worry was eased at least.

Maggie once again assumed the lead. She cut across the clearing into a side path that bypassed the stand of scrub oaks, and eventually connected with the path they had been following when she found Elijah.

“How far is it to the house from here?” Sean asked, the flashlight playing over the shadowy imprints of foot and paw prints that were pointing in the opposite direction.

“About t-two and a half m-miles as the c-crow flies,” Elijah replied. His chin was resting on Sean’s shoulder, so that he spoke almost directly into his ear. His voice was so thready that Sean would have had trouble hearing him otherwise, even though the woods were hushed, and their passing was nearly silent.

As the crow flies. Sean wondered what the hell that meant in real terms. The way these trails meandered through the woods, it could be closer to three miles. It seemed a daunting distance, and while his shorter stature was something with which Sean was truly comfortable, it would be a lot more helpful right now if he stood about 6’5” and was built like a tank.

“Two and a half miles-- is that all? Piece of cake,” Sean said aloud with a confidence that sounded patently false to his own ears. Who did he think he was kidding, anyway? His back was already protesting from the stooped posture he was forced to assume.

They kept on walking, and despite the silence around them, Sean had a strange sensation that they were not passing unnoticed. Glancing to his right, he was startled by the liquid gleam of a pair of eyes watching them from the shadows. And then he became aware of more and more pairs of eyes, some at his level, others lower, all around them. But oddly, these watchers, whomever they were, didn’t make him uneasy or fearful; nor did Maggie or Elijah give any indication that there was anything to fear. Rather, he had a strong impression of affection mixed with sadness. Elijah wasn’t only the guardian of the people who lived in the pines, Sean realized, but of the animals, too. He suspected that those animals-- deer, rabbits, opossums, foxes and who knew what else-- were the ones watching now, too timid to venture any closer, as their injured Woodjin was carried home.

As the minutes passed, Elijah's strength began to fade. Twice, his hold around Sean’s neck slackened, and he had to catch himself, while Sean, his sockless feet slipping inside his shoes, struggled not to lose his balance and send them both crashing to the ground. Maybe the best thing, Sean decided, was to keep talking, give Elijah something to focus on, and him something to take his mind off his fears, which were many and multiplying rapidly as roaches in a New York City dumpster.

“You know,” he said conversationally, as if they were sitting in the cabin’s sunny kitchen chatting over huckleberry pancakes-- and oh god, how he wished they were-- “you’ve told me the story behind the names of all your animals, except for Maggie. How’d you come up with hers?”

“D-didn’t,” Elijah said.

“Oh, you mean that doctor named her? The one who gave her to you?”

“N-no… n-not Dr. Holm. It w-was M-Maggie. Sh-she t-told me… her n-name.”

“Are you serious?” Maggie cast Sean an amused look over her shoulder. He wasn’t sure if he should be more worried or pleased about the fact that he could read the amusement in her amber eyes so easily.

“It’s t-true.” Elijah tightened his hold on Sean’s neck, and buried his face in the skin above the collar of the windbreaker. “You’re s-so w-warm, Sean,” he whispered, and the words sounded dreamy.

The tickle of Elijah’s breath on the sensitive skin beneath his ear sent a shiver running through Sean. “Chris complains that it’s like sleeping with a furnace,” he said without thinking. Oh Jesus, Astin. Sean mentally smacked himself in the forehead. Way to go. Bring up the woman in your life to the guy you’re in love with. Fucking brilliant.

“C-Chris,” Elijah said succinctly, “is an idiot,” and he pressed his cold lips against that sensitive skin. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning: every tiny hair on the back of Sean’s neck stood on end.

It might be only 20 degrees out, and he might be only half-dressed, but Sean had never felt more like a furnace in his life. This night just seemed to keep on throwing him curve ball after curve ball. How could he possibly be aroused under the circumstances? But his body obviously didn’t give a damn what the circumstances were. He swallowed hard, and said, “Maybe we should talk about something else.”

“’kay,” Elijah agreed. “K-kind of tired, though.”

“Elijah, I know it’s not easy, but you’ve got to try and stay awake,” Sean said as calmly as he could, trying to quell the niggling panic inside him. “Tell me what happened tonight,” he suggested, for there’d been no time yet to discuss it, and discovering how Elijah had been shot- and even more importantly who had shot him- was at the top of a very long list of questions he had. "The Reader's Digest version will do for now."

“I was c-called. Bridge w-was out.”

Sean wondered exactly what it meant for Elijah to be ‘called’, but an explanation could wait for another time. “The Quaker Bridge?” he asked instead, feeling a pang at the thought. It was there that Elijah had told him so much-- and so little-- about what it meant to be the Woodjin. It was there that he’d watched Elijah stretch, languid as a cat in the winter sunshine, and thought how very beautiful he was…

“Y-yes, the Quaker B-Bridge,” Elijah replied soberly. “There w-were two people-- a m-man and a woman-- in a truck. They w-would’ve gone into the river, Sean.”

“Dear god.” That afternoon on the bridge, Sean had stared down into the dark eddying waters of the Batsto and seen vividly in his mind's eye the fate of the stagecoach and its passengers if the white stag had not appeared and blocked their way. It was all too easy, therefore, to envision what would have happened to the couple in the truck without Elijah's help. It was a chilling scenario. But something didn't quite add up.

“I don’t understand, though," Sean asked, puzzled. "How did you end up getting shot?”

Elijah didn’t say anything for a moment, as if he was reluctant to answer the question. “The man… he didn’t realize w-why I was there. He w-wanted me to move but I c-couldn’t.”

There was a sudden buzzing sensation in Sean’s head, as if it might actually explode with rage. “Are you telling me that he’s the one who shot you? The man whose life you saved?” His voice rose, echoing through the trees. If he’d been angry when he first discovered that Elijah had been shot, his anger now was completely off the charts, somewhere up in the stratosphere. “That motherfucker. I’m going to find him and cut his balls off. And then--" But he couldn’t even come up with a punishment dire enough.

“Sean, no,” Elijah sounded distressed. “P-please. I s-saved them, and that’s all th-that matters.”

“Elijah, he might have killed you," Sean said, his voice trembling with the force of his emotions, unable to believe what he was hearing. "You can't possibly just dismiss that as if it's of no importance!”

And he might yet succeed in killing him... Sean forced the thought away. Elijah was going to survive. That bastard was not going to take a life so special, so precious, not only to Sean, but to this place and its people.

But Elijah was shaking his head emphatically in response to Sean’s words. “You have t-to understand. M-most outsiders, they’re afraid of what I-I am. He w-wasn’t like you. I told you once, y-you’re different. And the g-girl, she t-tried to stop him. L-let it go, Sean. F-forgive him. Please.”

Sean was silent, while his anger battled with the compassion that Elijah was asking him to show. He was beginning to comprehend now the depth of sacrifice the Woodjin was expected-- no, willing-- to make to fulfill his duty, even to the loss of his own life. Elijah didn’t care that he had been shot, as long as he had saved the lives he’d been called to save.

In that instant, any traces of doubt still lingering in Sean’s heart about how much he loved this man vanished forever. But if he wanted to share a life with Elijah-- and he did more than ever-- then he was going to have to accept Elijah as he was, accept that his duty as Woodjin would come before anything-- even Sean. He understood now, too, a little of what Elijah’s mother must have been up against, and why it had been so hard for her when her son became the Woodjin that she had chosen instead to leave the pines.

Sean let out a long sigh, and with it the anger tightly coiled inside him. “I can’t promise to be as forgiving a person as you are, but I’ll try,” Sean offered quietly. “I’m sorry for upsetting you, Elijah. Please forgive me.” Awkwardly, he turned his head and kissed the closest bit of Elijah he could reach, which was his chin, the skin slightly bristly and cool beneath lips.

“There’s nothing t-to forgive," Elijah whispered, and his arm hugged Sean closer. "But Sean, the b-bridge…”

“You just tell me who needs to be informed, and I’ll call them as soon as we get back,” Sean promised.

“Th-thank you.” As if that promise released some tension inside him, Elijah seemed to relax.

Anger had fueled a surge of energy in Sean, and he’d unconsciously started walking at a quicker pace. But when asked, Elijah said they had another mile and a half to go, and Sean was disappointed that they weren’t closer to home. He determined not to bring up any other upsetting topics, but instead kept up a running monologue of funny stories from his and Mack’s childhoods, and any amusing anecdotes, jokes, even silly songs, that popped into his brain. An occasional faint chuckle told him that Elijah was still awake and listening.

But Sean’s pace was starting to lag, and Elijah’s cheek pressed against his neck no longer felt icy cold but flushed and warm. Oh god, please don’t let him be running a fever. More and more Elijah felt like a dead weight on his back-- don’t use that word, Sean-- and Sean’s arms were aching and the muscles in his lower back screaming in protest. But he hadn’t been shot, had he? If Elijah could hang in there so bravely, without a single word of complaint, then Sean could bloody well keep walking.

He didn’t think they had all that much further to go when Elijah suddenly stiffened, his arm tightening convulsively around Sean’s neck. Sean instantly panicked, thinking Elijah must be having some kind of seizure.

“Elijah!” he exclaimed, his voice sharp with fear. “Elijah, talk to me.”

But before Elijah could reply, a sound rent the quiet night, a sound that made Sean’s blood run cold: an unearthly, inhuman scream of rage. Funny that. Sean had always thought it was just a euphemism, and that your blood couldn’t really run cold. But oh, it could-- when the Jersey Devil was pursuing you. He’d honestly forgotten about that threat, fool that he was. He’d thought they were home free, and now…

“How far-- Elijah, how far are we from the house?” Sean demanded, lengthening his stride. He’d run if he had to, though he’d sworn not to run from the Devil again. But all that mattered was getting Elijah to safety; meaningless heroics were for morons.

“About half a m-mile. Sean, I’m s-sorry.” Elijah sounded distraught. “He must’ve p-picked up the trail of my blood.”

And from that, Sean gathered that Elijah didn’t expect them to make it in time. Maggie’s fur was standing on end, as if she was a cartoon cat whose tail had been stuck in an electric socket. It was the first sign of fear she’d ever evinced, and it wasn’t an encouraging sight. The watching eyes in the shadows had all melted away. But goddamn it, Sean thought, they hadn’t come this far to fail so close to home.

“I’m going to have to run, Elijah. Hold on, please, hold on.” Sean broke into a jog, his heart breaking for the pain he knew it had to be causing Elijah, his injured shoulder banging against Sean’s back with every stride. But Elijah didn’t utter a sound, just held to Sean’s neck with grim determination.

It was no good, though. Sean couldn’t keep up the pace. His lungs seared by the bitter cold, and his leg muscles cramping, Sean had to drop back to a walk, afraid that he would stumble and fall. The sounds of pursuit, those gibbering shrieks and crashing noises that Sean recalled so vividly from the other night, were growing closer and closer. Any second now, Sean expected those vast bat wings and glowing red eyes to appear. His heart was hammering and he felt sick to his stomach. Some hero I am, he thought, hoping he wasn’t going to disgrace himself and wet his pants.

“Sean, you have to l-leave me. Put me d-down and go,” Elijah said, as it became clear that they were never going to reach the house in time. “You can m-make it to safety without me slowing you down. There’s a w-ward around the property he c-can’t cross. It’s only a few hundred yards away. P-please. Put me d-down and go.”

“That,” Sean gasped, turning to face their enemy, who from the sound of it would come into view any second, “is the first ridiculous thing you’ve ever said to me, Elijah. Are you trying to disillusion me so early in our relationship?”

“Sean,” Elijah pleaded, and Sean could feel hot tears burning on his neck. “Please.” But his arm tightened as if he couldn’t bear it if Sean actually did obey him, or perhaps he simply recognized the futility of even asking.

“’One for all, and all for one’, Elwood,” Sean said, for it was clear that Maggie wasn’t about to abandon Elijah either. She still looked like an electrified cat, and she was emitting a rumbling growl that would’ve scared the shit out of him if he didn’t know whose side she was on. “Although we’re the motliest looking Three Musketeers in history.” He gripped the flashlight with a palm that was definitely sweating, and then his mouth went dry. “Holy shit.”

Those pitiless red eyes had finally appeared, and were moving rapidly toward them, eerily disembodied, until the Devil drew near enough for Sean to see clearly the body to which they belonged. The first time he’d encountered the Devil, he’d had no light and no desire to get a closer look at the thing chasing him through the woods.

Close to seven feet tall, its vast bat wings must have spanned a good ten feet. Its long forked tail whipped angrily from side to side, and its hind legs ended in cloven hooves. Its face was like nothing Sean had ever seen before, vaguely human, as if someone without any knowledge of what a real human face should look like had created it. Its six-fingered hands ended in gleaming razor-tipped claws, and its skin was the scorched black of burned earth. Against it, the white fangs and red eyes glowed with obscene intensity.

Though every atom of Sean’s being was screaming at him to run, he stood his ground, and the Devil halted, as if puzzled by this unprecedented behavior; even his constant gibbering, which Sean had no trouble interpreting for himself as detailed descriptions of exactly what the Devil intended to do to them when it caught them, had ceased.

“Go ahead, make my day,” Sean growled defiantly into the silence, and then, out of nowhere, an idea came to him. Perhaps it was something he’d read in a book, but from desperation, and lack of anything better to try, he raised the flashlight and shone it full in the Devil’s red eyes.

The creature screamed in agony, and flung its arm up to cover its face, staggering back. Sean didn’t waste a nanosecond, he turned and ran like the devil was at his heels-- which, as a matter of fact, it was. Or soon would be.

“Hold on, Elijah,” he gasped, and Elijah clung to him like a limpet as Sean careened down the trail, Maggie keeping pace at his side. He prayed fervently to whatever deities might be listening that he’d gained them enough time to make it safely inside the ward around the property. Three hundred yards, two hundred yards-- he could hear the Devil crashing after them again-- one hundred yards... Sean could see the lights from the kitchen windows now, and with the finish line in sight, he gained the impetus for a final, desperate burst of speed.

The Devil let out a shriek of frustration so earsplitting and so close that it actually parted the hair on Sean’s head as he barreled out of the pine trees and into the yard.

They’d made it.

Sean didn’t stop running until he was halfway to the house, and well away from the spot where, just beyond the ward, the Devil continued to rant and rage over their narrow escape.

“Jesus, he sounds pissed,” Sean gasped on a sort of hysterical laugh, and then he heard, weak but clear, what had to be the best sound in the entire world: Elijah’s giggle.

And that’s when Sean knew for certain that they really were safe.