As the first flakes of snow landed on Jocelyn’s parka, the generator spluttered and died. ‘Shit,’ she spat. She tried to brush the flakes from her sleeves, but for every crystal she banished two more fell from above.
She kicked the generator once more. It replied with another gurgle, then silence. No fuel, no generator, no heat—a tactical failure. This far north time was hard to tell. Until the sun came back from R&R in January, her sole companion was eternal night and dark clouds pregnant with the oncoming blizzard. If only the clouds would leave her in peace, the stars and moon would’ve been fine company.
She walked to her old pickup truck. It was spruce green: the same colour as the Norwegian forest all around. Not that she could see the forest without the flickers of light from her cabin, or torch. Patches of visible nature were swallowed by gulfs of black, prickles of grey, pairs of yellow and the abyss of night. She got in the truck, dropped her torch on the passenger seat, and clicked the radio on. It was oh-one-hundred hours, and the fuel gauge had more disappointing news: Empty, or close enough.
She swore again.
A chill ran down her spine, a single finger of dispassionate terror. Could she last the night? She had food, but wood for the chimney was in scant supply. No, she decided, the storm could last a week or more. The nearest store was still open twenty-five minutes away. The blizzard would peak by five, so she could take the truck as far as possible, walk the delta, refuel, and come home. Simple enough, so long as the storm did not arrive ahead of schedule.
She revved the truck’s engine and bathed the road in the beams of the headlamps. The truck made a small swerve and kicked up stones and snow that cast long shadows across the road. The empty fuel canisters on the flatbed bounced as she left the gravel path from her private refuge.
As she drove, Jocelyn flicked open her phone which held a steady three bars of signal. The police on speed dial would be able to get to her sooner than later, and they had snow trucks if it came to it. She flicked through her text messages—mostly the cute, but too young, cop from the pub five klicks away who made her laugh, a few marketing emails, and some MFA codes for shopping. Still one unread message.
Her eyes lingered too long, fingers twitching, and she backed out of her inbox. Jocelyn didn’t want to know what that message held. She had lost that right, and now that job and life were behind her.
She flipped the phone shut. She shouldn’t be looking at her phone whilst driving anyway, especially as the roads slowly frosted over. Instead, she glanced out the windows to the forest. Reflections from the headlights illuminated a labyrinth of trees beside the road that appeared as unnaturally symmetrical rows, which created deep corridors that ate what small light shined into them. Rows of trees followed rows of trees with no interruptions – save the silhouetted child with yellow eyes.
Something hit the truck.
The front window shattered. The truck spun. Jocelyn grabbed the wheel, pushed back. She slammed the brakes. Treeline flashed ahead. Wheels spun on ice. Jocelyn whipped forward, head against the wheel.
– +++ –
The pinging of an alarm slowly dragged Jocelyn to the realm of the waking. She sat upright, her head pounding like a drum. At least the truck had not flipped over. Instinctively she checked herself for signs of damage or bleeding—no broken limbs, but a smear of red ran down her face.
She reached over and pulled her torch out of the adjacent footwell, shook it to life, and looked around. The truck had spun a minimum of 180 degrees, and now her truck’s one remaining headlight illuminated the way she had already come. She must have hit something—what was it?
She shivered then tried the accelerator, only for nothing to happen: no more gas. However, the radio still glowed oh-four-hundred-thirty-nine. She had been out over three hours. ‘Shit,’ she swore again then tried to take a breath to centre herself.
Still a fog clouded her mind and a creeping chill crawled through her coat. She looked to each window, and seeing that all was clear, she climbed out of the truck scanning the tree line for movement, and the road for bodies, as she avoided the remains of the shattered windscreen. The snow was coming in thick and fast, building sleek even layers across the road. Whatever she hit wasn’t on the road, just an empty highway between rows of trees. Could it have been a deer or a moose that limped away? Did Norway have moose? She should know this but couldn’t think clearly. When she moved here after Afghanistan, Jocelyn had done a comprehensive background on all the animals, plants, and people. No surprises and no more things in the dark unaccounted for. Now, something was shaking loose.
Then she remembered seeing the child with yellow eyes. She had seen creatures like that before, harmless tricksters normally, but if it had reached out to strike the truck she would be in more danger than she wanted to admit. She shivered, but not from the cold, and felt her whole body tremble. Claire would tell her to take stock, pick a priority, form a plan. Jocelyn took the advice, then pushed that memory down.
Store or home? Both were about the same distance away on foot, but each posed their own dangers. The store had better supplies, and it would be easier to get a snow truck too. However, home seemed more prudent as she could call someone to bring fuel to her instead of dying in the white out, plus she could set up her own wards. Home it was, and at pace.
Jocelyn took a final look at her truck, then moved to head home, when she saw a shadow cast by the one working headlight. Something was blocking the beam. She swiftly pointed her torch to the front of the bumper.
Crouching in front of the headlight, a child-sized Shade waited for her. It had shadow-like skin and yellow eyes that framed a dozen knife-sharp teeth, each as white as bone. It stared at her longingly, smiling.
‘Store,’ she decided, backed up, then broke into a run.
Slowed by the thick drifts of slow, Jocelyn called on old muscle memory to drive her forwards. The forest edge lost its symmetrical illusion and became a knotted, hungry mess of spruce and shadows. Within she could hide, a tantalising promise, yet fraught with unknown dangers. The storm howled at her back, and she refused to turn around. Moments came and went where she thought she heard footsteps mimicking her, only for them to fade into the rush of winds.
Each step: another deep breath, another tax on her body as the cold wormed its way in. A prank on the lonely forest woman, that’s all this was. Shades were harmless tricksters. With each step that lie felt less and less plausible. She had seen creatures like the Shades rip men apart, and creatures far more dreadful do much worse. Jocelyn and Claire had given their fair amount back however. Especially Jocelyn. Claire would spend more time planning and preparing a hunt while Jocelyn psyched herself up, training and then while away the hours lamenting how they could both just leave and give it all up.
Did Claire ever think Jocelyn was a coward for that? Would she think Jocelyn a coward for retiring? No, they were a team, sisters in arms, and they had spent over a decade moving from deployment to deployment, hunting and stalking the creatures of the night wherever they popped up. Together they neglected families of their own, fighting to do a little good in the world, and at the time Jocelyn felt she didn’t need anything else; they had each other. They were good at their job, the best and Jocelyn would kill for Claire to guide her now. But where was Claire now? Dead.
Her guilty reverie ended as the streetlights of the fuel station bled through the storm. Jocelyn ran past fuel pumps and threw open the doors to the convenience store, then hunched over and panted; the doors swung closed behind her. Even inside, the smell of petrol was thick and cloying.
No one commented on her arrival. The power was still on, and the hum of the refrigerators was barely audible over the rattling of the blizzard outside. Jocelyn looked around, scanning down the aisles of chips and drinks and found no staff or patrons. She fumbled her phone from her pocket and cursed herself for not checking sooner. Some luck, the hardly little thing was still in one piece and alive, and it even had signal.
‘Hello?’ She called out.
No reply. She walked over to the counter and rang the service bell thrice. She took a chance to look out the window across the road. Even in the storm the last fingers of light illuminated the edge of the forest. Standing half in shadow, three shades stood motionless, panting, teeth bared.
Jocelyn’s skin crawled.
She hoped the absent clerk may have left keys behind the counter, so she leaned over, intending to vault, when her eyes caught a slick of blood leaking from the dead clerk.
The body did not smell, the fingertips had only just started to yellow. This kill was recent, within the last ten minutes, fifteen at most. A sinking feeling swelled in Jocelyn’s core, and the facade of calm she had put up for herself trembled. She thumbed the phone to life and activated the speed dial.
‘Police: State your location and emergency.’
Jocelyn put the phone on speaker and vaulted beside the corpse. She fumbled with the man’s pockets looking for his keys, but only finding an empty wallet and some gum.
‘Found a body. Potential murder victim,’ she called out. She went through draw by draw, still no keys.
‘Where are you ma’am?’ said the operator, each syllable a metallic ring on the counter.
‘Circle K Station Tromsø, fifteen kilometres south by southeast.’ Jocelyn found a broom behind the counter. She wedged the head against the edge of the counter, angled her body, and stamped downwards, shattering the wooden handle at the base into an improvised spearhead.
‘Are you in danger?’
‘Not at the…’ She trailed off. From out of the storm, Jocelyn saw something new emerge from the white out. A feminine figure in desert camo fatigues, carved up by familiar bites and slashes, walked towards the shop. Even from a distance Jocelyn could see dead flesh through bullet holes in the woman’s chest; exactly where Jocelyn had put them.
Jocelyn’s heart seized up. Claire, or rather Claire’s body – back from the dead. Reborn. No, not reborn, she thinks. Stolen.
The operator called out, ‘Are you still there?’
Jocelyn snapped out of it. ‘Send no-one. You cant help.’ She ordered.
She clutched the remainder of the broom and, makeshift spear in hand, sprinted towards the far end of the store. Behind her she could see a wave of frost crawling across the store, drink bottles freezing in place and the pool of the clerks’ blood icing over. Her nightmares were realised. Something was using Claire, nothing random, this was personal and it was moments away from the building’s door. Jocelyn shoved the stands of food, causing a domino effect across the room. She pushed on past the overturned merchandise and made it to the back office. She kicked the door open and stepped through. To one side was an empty CCTV desk, the other an emergency exit door. Jocelyn pushed the exit handle down, and the door opened with a gust of frigid wind.
Then the door stopped.
Something heavy blocked the way. Through the crack she could see a freezer had toppled over blocking the exit, but beyond, gazing at her from the forest edge, a shade watched her with beady yellow eyes and a sadistic smile. She pressed her forehead to the door and exhaled. Claire’s corpse had enlisted the shades to its will. This whole night was a trap she ran right into.
A crash of metal came from the store behind her, and a glance to the CCTV showed Claire’s corpse lifting aisles and pushing them away effortlessly. With every aisle cleared reality came that much closer. Years in hiding, and this is where it all ended. She had pushed down that thirst for vengeance and drowned it in guilt. With no way out, trapped inside, her only remaining option was to engage.
Jocelyn stepped back into the store to see every surface coated in frost and snow. In the eye of the storm stood Claire, her old captain, her sister in arms. Her only change was a fleshy seam from her hairline through the bridge of her nose, and down her neck to below her uniform. Jocelyn had killed the woman as a mercy, and now it became a mockery.
‘You couldn’t hide, Jocelyn,’ it croaked.
‘I didn’t hide,’ Jocelyn said, ‘I retired.’
‘No, you ran.’ Claire’s lips did not move in sync with the words which rolled out from somewhere within her chest cavity. ‘And after you killed so many of us…’ Its neck snapped to an angle, ‘Did you think we would forget you? Let you live how we wished to live?’
‘I had hoped to let bygones be bygones. We both lost people, so I took the high road.’
‘You took the coward’s way out.’
The thing that wore Claire was right. When Claire died Jocelyn had hid. She did what she spent years threatening to do: She ran. She would not die a coward though. Jocelyn had already failed Claire enough. She could have fought harder to claw her back from the jaws of death, or hunted this creature long ago or done a hundred other things but hid in the distant and cold. She clenched the shaft of her weapon; she would run no longer.
Jocelyn smirked, ‘I suppose an apology wouldn’t help smooth this over?’
‘Shame.’ Jocelyn raised her makeshift spear up and braced to charge her dead friend.
The thing in Claire’s skin smiled then split the seam across her face. Flesh ripped as the halves of Jocelyn’s closest friend sloughed off. An unstable creature poured tendrils, fangs, and bone from within Claire’s gaping chest to form a writhing mass that dwarfed Jocelyn in its shadow. On the floor, little remained of the vivisected husk that had been Claire. It let loose a scream, and Jocelyn roared in reply. Then she charged to kill for the final time.
– +++ –
‘Abandoned pick-up truck about a half kilometre back,’ Officer Jørgen reported, then slurped his coffee while speeding towards the Circle K station. The roads were clear of traffic, but all Jørgen could do was listen to the game of whispers coming down from on high. A potential murder scene was disturbing enough, but some of the reports from the operators gave him goosebumps. Strange noises and nonsensical talk. The victim had never hung up her phone. Jørgen was on edge and kept thinking he saw strange glints of yellow out in the forest.
He neared the fuel station and slammed the brakes, swerving the truck to a stop. He almost didn’t see the lone bloodied woman sitting in the road. Snow gathered at her knees and started to bury her and the wooden shaft she clenched. Jørgen stepped out of the car and flared a torch at her. ‘Jocelyn! Is that you?’
The woman’s body swayed in the breeze, then spat drops of blood onto fresh snow. ‘Shit.’ Jocelyn said, then looked to Jørgen, ‘Help me up.’
About the Author
Harry Sillett is a UK based writer by night, network engineer by day, and a lifelong Warhammer fan who loves to dig deep into the dark and the cold to find that spark of humanity, then bury it deeper. He loves writing, irreverent trivia, video games and anything fantastical.