Bowing studied road rash with a hiss and trail of saliva hanging from her bloody lip. She did her best to keep her knee still while blood surfaced from the wide, deep scrape and ran down her calf.
It stung, in a numb way. And flexing felt like she was cracking her leg open, but on the other side of the road her bike was in the ditch.
And the elk that had run in front of her out of the woods was well on its way up the mountainside.
Pulling her bike from the ditch achieved a healthy coating of mud around her ankles; some slid away into a stream of diluted blood, while making use of her water bottle to get a clear look at rocks she’d have to clean out later.
What little, applicable supplies she had on her – a pair of gloves and her Metal Box on Rails shirt – were too valuable to clean or bandage with. Leaning against her muddied bike, she sighed fog and stared into the evergreen. The stag had crashed through the brush in its agitation, leaving a wide trail into the matted branches. Her ribs ached.
Sky overcast and darkening, Bowing recomposed and resigned to coast the last two miles of road standing on one side of her bike, slopping a trail of mud behind. Her grip on the handlebars was cold and wet, hands soaked through and stuck in their hold.
She was determined for nothing else to get in her way.
The lyrics to Child Size Bridges were belted out off-key and low, with missing verses and the remainder repeated until the cabin was in sight and she cursed her way up the gradual slope to the log structure emanating warmth and trailing smoke into the atmosphere. She left the bike against a tree to dry and hobbled through the cabin’s porch and into the large room of rugs upon rugs, upon rugs, upon probably wood flooring somewhere.
What consisted of the kitchen – stove, steel basin, cupboards, probably too many knives – was passed up for one of the two doors in the cabin. The bathroom was more akin a utility room and first aid centre than anything its name depicted. Its handsink was small and closely hugged by an old cup holding toothbrushes, sitting over enough toilet paper for months. Barring washing in the tub, the rest of the room was another collection of knives, and more medical supplies than any singular person should ever hope to avoid using in their entire life.
Bowing got down to her undershorts and top. Her shoes and socks were a mess of mud on the floor and abandoned for the warm air and then cold porcelain. She had gutted a lot of fish in that tub and was now watching her own blood swirl down the drain.
“Hey, you’re back, a–”
Bowing didn’t bother to look behind her, fixated on her cold toes that screamed against the barely warm water.
“That’s deep, and you got a hair cut.”
Bowing shrugged. The shoulder-wide aura of tight, black curls had been sheared for an ear-length version of its former self; it had become bothersome coming home with bits of bark and – unfortunately – burrs to pick out and toss into the fire.
She looked up when swampy fingers brought gauze to rub rock away from the scrape.
Qel’s softly glowing gaseous lights were fixed on her task at hand, asking out of the side of her mouth what had done this.
Bowing screwed her lips together and huffed. “Three-eyed stag crossing the road.”
Bowing’s friend, roommate, and occasional Guide didn’t frown. Qel’s lips were a collection of algae, thin and wrapped around the curved rabbit’s mouth attached to the gentle slope of her head. She didn’t frown, rather that portion of swamp flora dropped an inch.
“I’m pretty sure. I was startled and crashed when it came out, but it was black and,” she waved her hand over her forehead, “think I saw it.” Bowing took over picking out aggregate while Qel moved for salve and bandaging.
The spirit’s sigh was apparent in the steady deflation of her chest; a ribcage of tangled branches visible under moss and budding stems. Composed of animals lost to the swamp on the other side of the mountain’s ridge, Qel was bipedal with an additional set of hooved limbs under her arms that were reminiscent of fox forelegs, and vestigial wings moulded into her back a stainglass kaleidoscope of glistening insect membrane. Her every shift and move was the kind of quiet that could only be found in the wilderness: alive.
“Did you bleed the whole way to the cabin?” Qel asked, using more gauze to spread the salve. She was a living breathing cross-contamination; who was a stickler for first aid protocol and would wear gloves if they were the right shape for her hands.
“Of course I did,” Bowing hissed at the sting.
“Of course you did,” Qel repeated, moss-furred ears flicking. “We’ll have terrors tonight.”
Bowing would have argued with Qel that she knew that, that she hadn’t really been thinking after being run off the road by a three-eyed elk known for things worse than a scraped knee. That she hadn’t actually thought about it until asked but she’d spend some time strengthening wards if Qel would prepare dinner.
Except situations where terrors were doubly inclined to harass the cabin occurred so often that the swamp spirit was already ruminating on how much stew to bring out of cold storage.
Hobbling around the cabin in her undershorts, Bowing lit fire to cedar chips and favoured her right leg for the five minutes spent at each window, the front and porch doors, and even at the cellar for extra security. By the time she was done waving away smoke and squinting at the warm-orange glowing inscription over the front doorframe, Qel had heated stew, toasted bread, scrubbed down cookware and settled in front of the cast iron fireplace with Bowing’s steaming meal waiting for her.
Bowing limped her way into flannel pajamas before snuggling on the couch with Qel, dinner, and three days and four months of news.
Bowing had spent the “weekend” in coffee shops, book stores, getting sheared by the only
person in town who could handle her hair, wrangling snakes, and telling Aron to shut the fuck up or she was gonna bap him in the nose. “Which was when Chené said she was pregnant.”
“That is a lot of apple pie,” Qel agreed.
With a short snort, Bowing set down her empty bowl and settled back into Qel’s side. “My parents were in town.”
Qel stilled, what brow she had brought itself together.
“Yes, they were expecting conversation, no, they weren’t planning on coming up here.” She felt her friend return to supporting the functions of her carbon consuming, photosynthetic body. “No, I didn’t say much.”
The spirit would have laughed. Bowing talked when necessary, and previously only when absolutely required by dire circumstances. While having a roommate had perhaps opened her up for more casual conversation, having an intuitive Guide meant not nearly as much as average human interaction.
In average human considerations, Bowing’s parents were pedantic. In Bowing’s parents considerations, the fact that Bowing was no longer nonverbal, cued just as much, if not more attempts of tangents and chatter. Which made an already preferably avoided situation insufferable.
So when Bowing said she didn’t say much to the three, her words translated to the extreme least without being rude enough to get shouted out onto the street.
A situation of that exact sort had led, through years, to Bowing living alone in a cabin in the mountains in the first place. And subsequently Qel’s rising.
Qel made a strangled noise, Bowing had to laugh.
“Dyed her hair red again.”
“Nope, nope, don’t want to know, not going there, nope.” Qel spread her fingers across her propped up knees and tapped their black claws against the pinecone surface.
Bowing grinned, and needled the spirit with an elbow to her side.
“The long distance relationship already failed once.”
“Five hours is not that long of a distance.”
Qel crossed her arms. “Your closest partner is on the other side of the country, we’re not comparing.”
“Hey, Shannon’s gone on and Jessica is moving back to town next year.” Bowing sighed, “And I’m not going anywhere with either of them.”
“Hard to find a girlfriend when you live in the middle of nowhere.”
Bowing frowned. “Fuck that.”
A window was smacked, as though the biggest, thickest, highest velocity-est raindrop had made it through the tree cover. And again. And then tens of them. Then hundreds.
Because Bowing wasn’t leaving her station, even with the terrors spending the night pounding their hands on everything that looked like an entryway. So Qel closed the curtains and dampened the fire down before joining Bowing in the queen-size bed hauled up to the cabin by hands holding it to the roof of a friend’s car.
With the night of cacophony, Bowing had stayed up late reading – while Qel rested, as sleep wasn’t something she participated in – and subsequently slept in until near midday. Her omelet was more of a lunch and, in the very least, the bathroom floor wasn’t icy.
Qel had left a note, returned once while Bowing was wrestling into boots, and left again with buckets in tow.
Bowing’s bike was borderline ancient in the terms of bicycles one would want to ride over mountains with. Her possession of it was the third generation in her family, and any original distinguishing markings were long gone. Both tires were flat; she stood in front of it with her hands on her hips and her round lips screwed together.
A kick from her boot let down a shower of caked on mud.
She set out into the woods on foot.
Having repacked her pack, Bowing wore her Metal Box on Rails shirt, flannel tied around her hips, and had enough supplies to last her two days. A quick judge of the weather had told her she’d be heading back home well before nightfall.
As she walked she took careful stock of her surroundings, occasionally pausing in her caution long enough to shoot an arrow into whichever tree was some fifteen yards away. Upon retrieving the arrow, she pressed a kiss to the wound in the tree and left before she could watch it scar, heal, and cover with bark as though naught had happened.
She continued through the brush, where huckleberry bushes were well-foraged, and finally paused when her boots came to rock. Without a glance down to the river below, she drew her bow, focused well across the chasm and loosed on the exhale.
The arrow sunk deep into a pine, with a satisfying ‘thunk’ breaking the chill mountain air.
Bowing walked to retrieve it.
When she had started her role here in the woods, some months after moving to the mountainscape, she would throw a rock across whichever ravine or river blocked her path. The rest of the day would be spent working her way around the obstacle to get to the rock. She had barely started to master the technique when the bow and arrow were added to her repertoire; something a little more focused and direct.
Retrieval was a handy skill to have. Bowing particularly liked the part where it let her walk invisible paths over rivers that otherwise took hours to cross.
The arrow required effort to remove, but the tree healed all the same and the woman was on her way again.
There was a hill she had to use hands and feet to overcome; the view stunning and well worth the climb. Slopes cradled the expanse on all sides, heavily forested where bare rock wasn’t. She had climbed most faces of these mountains up to the near-permanent snow patches, maneuvering around ice-fed waterfalls that in turn kept the rivers hypothermia cold almost year-long.
Keeping in mind her time limit, she descended into the valley.
Her station gave her plenty of leeway in the forest – her duty to maintain its existence when and where it could not. This did not subsequently mean she could effortlessly pass through thick woods and dense brush.
It took nearly an hour to get to the other side of the valley, cursing along the way and her focus taxed.
So the three-eyed stag ahead wasn’t noticed until it was half a minute away from noticing her.
Easily eighteen hands at the shoulder, the glossy black elk was massive and terrifyingly powerful. Its antlers were wide and forked more times over than Bowing had been able to perceive yesterday, yet it somehow had no issue making its way through the mountain woods.
When it finally turned – a swing of the head that could fell a tree – its dark eyes fixed on Bowing with a clear, unmistakeable third eye in the centre of its forehead. All three blinked. And then it shot off into the brush.
Bowing kicked herself following it.
With as big as it was, she could hear it further and further away, regardless of how fast it was in comparison to her hiking boots stomping up the hill. Until she hit the fog and the distinct lack of ground anymore.
“And there’s no incline there – you know, the valley after the view, you picked through that area last week – and there’s certainly no nothing out of nowhere.”
The cabin smelled like baked goods and fruity fermentation. Qel had already collected enough huckleberries to start a winery, if she hadn’t divided them to dry, freeze, puree, and had a portion of today’s batch baked into clafoutis.
Bowing had done her best not to push Qel towards the dishes she liked the best, but the books she had borrowed from the library for the swamp spirit’s were a little obviously directed if carelessly assorted. There was a particularly well-thumbed sweet potato and pecan recipe in the artisan bread book.
For someone whose digestive system was physically based in flora and metaphysically by the health of the swamp, Qel enjoyed the culinary arts to a near gratuitous degree, but Bowing wasn’t complaining even when lugging twenty pounds of library books up the mountain. Not having to worry about preparing a meal after narrowly avoiding a downpour suited her fine.
She did, now, have to run out into the near-torrential rainfall to shove the bike under cover though.
“Did you try shooting an arrow after it?” Qel asked, a rash suggestion from someone so cautious, and so cautiously checking her wine carboy.
The towel around Bowing’s neck fell off when she sat up to look over the back of the couch.
“What?” She sounded more incredulous than anything else, arrows were weapons and shooting one at a living creature was generally well-conceived as a sign of aggression. “After a three-eyed stag? Hell no.”
She sat back, and tossed the towel at the laundry line strung above the fireplace. “And into nothing?” she speculated. “Not knowing if it made it anywhere, not able to see where it landed?”
Qel conceded to the logic, easily plucking up the full carboy with a single clawed demi-paw to put it away. She returned to Bowing’s worrisome visage, setting all four ‘hands’ on her hips until the woman took note to explain her thoughts.
“Why is it here?”
“It’s always here,” Qel teased, shooing Bowing over for space on the couch.
Bowing gave her a dull-eyed stare, eventually relenting a cushion’s worth.
“Okay, well, maybe it’s trudging around visibly because there’s something up.”
“That would be the sensible answer,” Bowing sighed, twisting to check the timer on the oven before settling into the couch. “Nothing’s come across to me.” And if anything had to Qel, she would have mentioned.
Bowing generally noticed if anything was different, and especially if something was wrong, with the mountain. It was her job.
The swamp spirit slumped a little. “Well maybe something is wrong that’s not in your responsibilities. And that I don’t know about. I am limited to my swamp, and chit chat has been a little mild lately.”
Both inhabitants of the little cabin identified as women, as queer, slept in the one bed, shied from pork, and both spent their days traversing the mountainside. They had very different reasons and variations as to why or how.
Bowing made sure everything was how it ought to be: no single animal population too disruptive or disrupted, nothing polluting water sources, nothing eating away trees, everything functioning as per the natural ebb and flow of the wild. Since this was nearly an entirely self-sufficient system, most of her time was spent honing skills as she observed, and remaining time was spent on chores for their livelihood.
In the reverse, Qel spent the majority of her time foraging for edibles, finding trees for firewood, collecting water in the event of rain shortage, and such sundries. She had herself – the swamp – to take care of, but otherwise spent leisure time conversing with the wild: creatures, woods, rocks, and spirits alike.
As a human with extremely limited communing abilities, Qel functioned as Bowing’s Guide where applicable.
“Should we talk to something?”
Qel blinked. This was an amazing feat, since she had neither eyelids nor eyes. The flora that made up her brow softened as the sunken impressions of eye sockets shifted. The white orbs of lit swamp gas in placement of eyes, didn’t blow out or dim in the least.
Bowing should hope not, she was quite attached to Qel being alive.
“I suppose. But with the rain, finding someone…” the spirit started.
The timer chimed, Bowing watched Qel go to attend tonight’s huckleberry creation. She was just deciding the bake was perfect when Bowing spoke up, “A terror.”
If Qel didn’t carefully manage how much strength she put into her manifestation always, she would have launched the oven through the wall of the cabin when her haunch made solid contact upon spinning around. Bouncing off instead, she fixed her face and glowing orbs towards Bowing. “Really?”
“Even with the rain, a few will come by tonight.”
They both knew that they both knew that.
Qel deadpanned, “I meant ‘really, you want to capture and question a terror’.”
“I want you to know that I disapprove of this plan.”
They both knew that meant Qel had already accepted that Bowing was going to do this.
Bowing spent twenty minutes in their storage under the countless rugs and whatever flooring they covered, sorting through mason jars. The shelf of absolutely edible – peaches, pickles, tomatoes – was skipped entirely for questionable – dried mushrooms mostly – and the absolutely do not consume. Some of the less obvious absolutely-do-not-consumes were missing direly needed labels.
She chose a particularly yellow, clumpy powder, and collected the bucket of ash from the fireplace and one of the too many knives from the bathroom – Qel stood defensively in front of the knives in the kitchen. A handful of mothballs were grabbed in the porch before the front door was toed open.
The relentless rain let the door smack closed while Bowing put down her assembly to don her most waterproof jacket. She shoved everything into a crate and toed the door open again to get a visual on the milking stool her property sported as a lawn ornament.
The cabin exterior was a simple rectangle, squat, with wooden siding and a lack of window shutters. The shutters had been torn down so long ago, any remaining hinges had removed themselves through time and age, and things that liked shiny objects. Logs protected the foundation and anything underground, treated for their environment and given additional protection where Bowing felt it was needed.
Carrying the crate on her hip, Bowing held the hunting knife in her left hand while rounding the side of the cabin. Anywhere she hadn’t given the cabin extra protection wasn’t so much an attraction to terrors as more likely to break if possible in any way – it extremely wasn’t.
In the thunderous rain, Bowing could stand unnoticed at the corner of the cabin for the moments it took to flip her knife to pinch the blade between her fingers. She raised her arm, inhaled, and threw on the exhale.
The terror didn’t flail in outrage, nor did it bolt away. Its body language was shocked and perhaps bemused, getting the best possible look at the knife in its chest.
Bowing marched forward, picked it up by the scruff – with an equal lack of flailing or attempt to flee – and headed for the woodshed with a detour to grab the milking stool.
Terrors could be any variety of shapes and sizes, depending on how and why they manifested. Most commonly spotted were the haunched ones, shuffling in a perpetual squat with arms so long they dragged their knuckles on the ground, some from the elbows. Second most common were those resembling the wildlife to some manner.
Anything truly reminiscent of the local inhabitants hid themselves in the brush as expertly as those local inhabitants. The third, surreal, otherly ones were hidden better.
Last night’s blood trail had brought the whole range of terrors upon the cabin in hundreds, including the amorphous-shaped nightmare fuel that almost needed a more grave moniker if the creature Bowing was currently trapping to the stool was called a terror. The feeble torso was left with the protruding knife imbedded, doing no damage to the creature but to restrain its ability for rash action. Its wedge-shaped head was perhaps eyeless – Bowing wasn’t going to assume – and the thick fingers were the pudgy equivalent of a salamander’s foot.
“Qel,” Bowing called, ash drawn around the stool and most of the jar of yellow powder spent.
The swamp spirit shifted weight from one rabbit’s foot to the other, keeping herself dry under the woodshed roof and reluctantly standing next to the other woman. She was not pleased about this undertaking.
As though sniffing or studying Qel, the terror’s flat face rose to imperceptibly maybe squint at her designation, and then performed the muted version of a scoff.
The sunken holes for Qel’s gaseous eyes pressed downwards into a glare.
The terror’s hands shuddered involuntarily.
Qel crossed her arms and leaned backwards, dropping her chin and curling her algae lips menacingly. She held the position while the terror rocked from side to side and appeared to deliberate its predicament.
Patiently, Bowing waited. There were no sounds, motions, nor smells that she could perceive that would indicate a conversation happening. Or an interrogation.
Given that she wasn’t partial to shifting – something she hadn’t bothered to include earlier during the three-eyed stag conversation – and that she was an extremely average human being, she relied entirely on Qel to hold this exchange. Most exchanges. She trusted that Qel could address the entirety of both of their concerns, and so didn’t give the swamp spirit reminders during the conversation’s course.
So, patiently, Bowing waited. Until Qel said they were done, and she retrieved her knife.
Just prior to dawn, in the thickest of flannel jackets and wool socks, Bowing could be found on the roof of the cabin. She had made her way up by swinging out a window when the peak of night and bothersome terrors had passed on. The last few terrors she watched the antics of until they moved off into the woods; slinking away silent and cumbersome after their night harassing the cabin.
Denim pants lined with further flannel and layered over long johns were ample padding for Bowing’s forearms hanging over her bent knees. Her roadrash still hurt, gauze changed by Qel while they conversed a debrief on the terror interrogation.
Bowing wasn’t partial to shifting. She sighed into the air, a foggy show of her lung capacity.
Just the idea of it was unappealing, but so had walking across ravines mid-air. That which the spirits sourced themselves from, and inhabited if they weren’t partial to the plane Bowing was home to, was not necessarily another world. But the woman understood it wasn’t necessarily here and there was a distinct difference between the two. There was a shift, and that included for her.
She hadn’t really brought it up with Qel, and none of their goings on had brought it up before. The two had been working off of their intuitive connection, to avoid the topic in their casual discussion.
A debrief was not casual discussion, even while over changing wound dressing and scraping a fork across a plate of clafoutis.
The three-eyed stag, that powerful entity, was portentous in its appearances and apparently a pretty straightforward, alright person all things considered.
Qel swore she wasn’t paraphrasing.
As much as they may have a matching colour palette, the stag and the terrors weren’t aligned in any particular way. Given the easy violence the elk could work, and the insignificance of terrors, many were vanquished underfoot the stag, as paltry leaves crushed by hoof.
The terror Bowing had nabbed was quite reasonable and considerate in its opinions of others.
Even in some small degree to Qel, as she had explained the terror’s abhorrence for her and the like’s existences.
Deft with the art of conversation, Qel had managed to segue from there into following the three-eyed stag.
On the roof, Bowing ducked her head between her shoulders and flexed her chilly fingers.
“Or talk to it at least,” Qel had followed up.
But Bowing didn’t commune, and her swamp spirit medium was easily spotted by a likewise individual. The stag gave breadth to several other spirits. Options were short at hand. Regardless, with Qel in the cabin, the three-eyed stag wouldn’t be in the area anytime soon.
After the scattering of the final terrors, Bowing stretched her stiff neck and clambered down the roof. An early start – the earliest – was required to the day if Bowing was going to make her way far enough from the cabin to catch sight of the stag without her bow and arrow for retrieval.
Because bringing a weapon to a conversation with a giant, antler’d beast was something Bowing insisted was not going to happen.
She headed out Northeast, passing the river at its most shallow point with the least climb on either side. Keeping to gorges of ice-fed streams, drenched in the night’s rain, she managed to avoid any large hills until after an early midday break for the meal stashed in her jacket pockets.
The next hours, with the sun at its highest, most excruciating point, were spent hiking over all those large and at times perilously steep hills she had spent the much cooler hours of the morning avoiding. Her extra layers were stashed in a tree cache, marked by the oddness of the copse of poplars in the midst of evergreens.
To any average outdoor enthusiast, the mountainside was exactly that – average outdoors. Someone well-versed in the local wilderness in a textbook sense, would notice the oddities.
Bowing herself hadn’t known much of anything when she had moved here, but she had learned the basics by those living in town, and just how incredibly not right the mountain was by its less ‘natural’ inhabitants. The fact that said inhabitants were the natural inhabitants spoke to how unnatural the mountainside was.
For example, Bowing was currently chasing down a three-eyed stag based off of the testimony of a terror gained by the physical manifestation of a swamp. Swamps that were incredibly uncommon in this part of the country.
So Bowing avoided the inexplicably high-contrast parts of the brush and started a search pattern once she had passed those steeper considerations. Here the air was crisp and noticeably thinner than the lower elevations – the elevation of not on the mountain, for example – something Bowing was extremely acclimatized to. She wasn’t quite sure when that had developed.
Today’s weather and geography made the encroaching mist unnatural. If Bowing was doing anything else, and was anyone else, she would have avoided it.
The gentle slope was spotted with trees but primarily covered in huckleberry bushes that Qel hadn’t reached yet, and short greenery. In places, the mist just covered the flora, but nowhere did it thicken or raise to a fog.
Apprehensive, and unsure how to read the signs, Bowing carefully picked her way across the slope until it occurred to her she hadn’t looked back in some minutes.
The three-eyed stag’s ribcage billowed with huffed breaths, hot in the air as though Bowing could feel it from the other side of the slope.
She could certainly feel the adrenaline pumping through her, faced with a massive beast capable of so much horror with so much ease. Her breathing kept steady, as orderly as in the face of any challenge brought to her by her station.
After achingly long, the stag declined its head, Bowing kept her eyes cautious on the great entity while doing the same; much akin to meeting Qel, except the three-eyed stag had the perception that Bowing didn’t commune and therefore fell short of rambling on in a form of communication unavailable to the other half of the conversation. That said, Bowing wasn’t talking either.
The eye in the centre of the stag’s forehead blinked, slow and sideways.
Bowing made a face. She didn’t want to do this but she was going to.