Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Keeper of Snow's End

by Michael Lejeune



In the mountainous cold wastes there is a town called Nerleth. It sits cradled in a crown of mountain peaks, in a beautiful valley fed by streams that flow from the snow caps that grow and shrink with the passing of the seasons. It isn't a well known place. In the nearest towns there is little talk of the few hundred that live there in isolation, and beyond those towns there isn't any talk of it at all. Maps neglect even to display the narrow valley between the peaks of the sharp-toothed mountain range where it lies, overlooking, as maps often do, a location seldom visited by the wide world.

Like other locales forcibly isolated from the wider world by geography, it has remained in antiquity. A hamlet without telephone connection, a place untouched by the sprawl of such modern amenities as plumbing and electricity. A place only recently marked by a single, weather-worn wooden sign driven into the dirt alongside the road that leads into the mountain pass, far removed from any place a driver might wander by accident. Nerleth is the sort of place no one goes without a reason.

And so it is that the folk of that town have to get by with what they have, and to define themselves within the circle of their limited number. The ladies' gossip never breaches city limits. The mayor's booming announcements are halted by the walls of the square. The latest news doesn't travel beyond Partridge Street, the farthest south that any street goes in town save the one that leads out. The schoolchildren play and yell but their voices do not travel out of the grove the schoolhouse sits upon. Even if every citizen in town were to scream at the top of their lungs in unison, their cries would only echo back from the mountains that surround, like ripples in the surface of a bowl of milk.

These are folk whose lives came and went without the knowledge of the world they lived in. The children grew up, worked all their lives, dwindled into old age and died in the valley of the mountains, never leaving, and never setting eyes upon the country in which they were situated, the society from which they were segregated. These are folk that know how to keep a secret, even if they never made an effort to learn how.

It's odd then that such a well known legend got its start there, in the little dirt-road farming town. Though the rest of the world doesn't remember, it was this place that birthed the first talk of the creature that later became a household name, a mirthful imagination that dances through children's heads each year. It was Nerleth that saw the birth of the story of the Easter Bunny.

The kind, gift-bearing, long-eared tuft that springs from house to house in common lore is the end result however, it is important to note that.

Human beings don't like to know certain things, or sometimes, even to think them. Unlike the popular version, the rumors and tales that begot the legend of the Easter Visitor were not the sort that conjured smiles and good dreams. They were made that way by those who would rather it were true. And so it is that as one travels toward the source of the myth, the town of Nerleth, the story of the creature changes, loses its charm and gains mystery, and eventually trades mirth for fear, even madness.

In the major city some several hundred miles south of the mountain range in which Nerleth is tucked and obscured, the peaks are but a picturesque image in the distance. There the legends are mixed. Egg-coloring kits cannot be found in the grocery stores, nor are the Easter time cartoons seen on the TVs of children-bearing homes. The churches go about the rituals of the holiday with care and diligence, and quickly look onward to the next. There the legend is referred to as the Rabbit of the Mountain, and sometimes as the Easter Rabbit, though the latter tends to invoke less solemnity than the citizens of that city would prefer to associate with the tale.

In the smaller trading and farming towns that line the river abutting the mountain range the tale ceases to be told to children and becomes a legend told only among the wise, across card tables or huddled before hearths. To them the myth of the Easter Harvester is fact. They lower their voices and speak of it only long after sundown, on nights when their courage has been bolstered by drink.

Once across the pass that leads into Nerleth, the name becomes The Keeper of Snow's End, though it is seldom spoken. This name is taken from the abandoned goldminer's terrace high in the mountain that it is said to reside at. There is no accident in the fact that all reference to the particulars of the creature are omitted in this name, as the townfolk of Nerleth prefer not to mention them, or even utter the words that carry those images on their backs.

The lore regarding the Keeper is not spoken in Nerleth for most of the year, and when it is, the conversations are short, truncated as if talk about the legend would somehow give it life in new ways. They keep quiet, but they dare not ever forget.

####

His mother named him November because it was infamously the hardest month for the folk of Nerleth to weather. This was the last month of the storms and blizzards, and the time that marked the beginning of the thaws. By late February there would be topsoil ready for planting. April would see a short harvest and by July they were covered again in snow. November was named after an end to struggle.

The Darling family had little to offer the town beside simple brute strength. In the fields the Darling men were tough as oxen, and the one trade that came naturally to them did so in the form of the plow. Though they were not skilled in the growing of crops, they were known for an aptness at tearing the soil in preparation for those who were.

Darrell Darling had a back that could lift a tractor, Old Elmer would say across the counter at the bait and tackle shack. His mute granddaughter Elmira would listen with wide eyes and shut mouth to his daily yammerings with his customers as she helped keep the shop clean, mostly hearing the same things over and over.

Betty Wilmington, who claimed yearly upon her birthday to have royalty in her blood, said that Darrell was twice the brute his father had been, and that she wouldn't associate with such folk. She lived less than forty feet from his home.

Gary Butlers and his family were the other neighbor to the Darlings, living next to Betty Wilmington. Butlers quietly resented the Darlings for their superior knack at the plow, and suffered no patience for their obtuse, angry demeanor.

Harold Muckner would purchase a large piece of the Darling yield each year, and couldn't be happier to deal with the man only the once every twelve months. "Got a chip on his shoulder, that one," he'd mutter to his daughter May, with whom he lived. "And it's eating him up inside and out. All that'll be left is a pile o' mean and nasty when it's done, and it's almost there."

Though no soul in Nerleth was unimportant to Mayor Hatchett, the Darlings were low on the list. When it came to town matters it could be taken for granted that Darrell wouldn't show to the meetings unless his own plot of land was to be discussed. In those cases he would appear with his wife, Carrie, her head down turned and obedient, his cocked sideways and arrogant. They'd sit in the back, and soon as the mayor called an adjournment they'd be on their way, back to the kingdom where Darrell ruled and Carrie obeyed, back to where wolves and sheep played their games unobserved.

November Boden Darling was born to Carrie in the dead of winter, at the very end of the month that was his namesake. His delivery was hard, made no easier by Darrell's insistence that Doc Wyatt never look at his wife "in a way that might make God angry, and thus I as well". In the end the child had been born incident free, and was soon suckling his way into bigger and bigger britches.

Novey was strong, like his papa, but the tempering of that sort of strength required discipline and hard labor. Darrell knew that, and he meant to cultivate the iron in his son even if it sapped his own strength in the process. At eight years the boy was running a large portion of the farm's chores. At twelve he was performing some of Darrell's work as though five years older, and at sixteen his six and a half foot frame could be seen hulking about the Darling fields, doing work that only Darrell had been seen at before.

The schoolhouse he attended was largely informal, the kids showed because their parents made them, and those that didn't, didn't. Darrell made damn sure his boy was in every class, not because he believed in the importance of an education, but because for some reason November Darling was born so slow it embarrassed him.

Carrie received all the blame. "Woman's seed is made stupid by God," Darrell boomed one night, on the verge of losing his temper. "That's why men gotta fill 'em up with his own. Gives the child brains. Best part of your son slid outta you and dried on the sheets!" As long as she agreed, she knew, she wouldn't be hurt. She knew how to avoid that, at least.

Carrie truly cared for her boy, though it was hard to show it in the Darling household. By Darrell's command he had been called Boden November Darling until the day Darrell realized he was dumb as a box of nails. "He's yours now, wife. You call him what you want, I'll do my best with him. But he ain't mine, not truly."

November grew with his mother's mild disposition but his father's anger was always just below the surface. Some part of him knew that he was different, that the other young folk didn't have him around often because he wasn't one of them. He acted as normal as possible but the secret rage inside boiled and bubbled beneath his dumb exterior, and for it he was ashamed and never blamed the others for disliking him. They had reason, he was sure. They feared his father, he could sense. Most people did. But if they knew the terrible things Novey thought about in his quiet time, he thought, they'd fear him more.

By nineteen, which was legally adulthood in Nerleth, November believed himself akin to the Keeper of Snow's End. His father's explanation of the creature was limited, but volumes compared to his silent mother's. "It's no business of yours, boy, but the Keeper is an ancient god that lives up in Snow's End, up in the mountain glen you can see in the north face. He keeps time. Keeps men on their toes. Gives purpose to us folk down here in Nerleth."

Novey's limited understanding of human reproduction allowed that more than one was necessary to make another, and that associations of kin were families. His mother, he knew, was in him somewhere, and his father too. But that strange darkness that crept in his heart at night, that could only come from one soul in Nerleth. Though it seemed impossible, he was certain that the Keeper was some kind of relative. A great grandfather perhaps; it was said to be very old. Whatever it was, some part of it was surely in him, the part that made the others fear it and stay away. Why else would they treat him the same?

He was twenty-one when his name was entered into the drawing for the journey up to the Keeper's home.

Each year a drawing was held at the beginning of summer, and it was decided who would participate in the hike up to Snow's End near Easter, there to perform the steps that Nerlethfolk had been performing for centuries. Once every year a team, led by someone who had gone the last year, would trek for two days up the mountainside, remain for a week, and return the way they came just after Easter. While they were in Snow's End they completed a special task. According to legend, this task would ensure another year of life and prosperity in Nerleth.

This was the price for living in the gorgeous valley, isolated from the fast-moving world of war and sickness, blasphemy and godlessness that the rest of mankind occupied. This was the price for their peaceful, tightly knit community, who put aside their differences to work toward a common goal: survival. The presence of the threat in the mountainside had a harmonizing effect. Nerleth was alive with it, it practically buzzed in the air when summer came around. And the town folk were grateful for their way of life. And so it was that all the families encouraged their sons to place their names in the old oaken barrel at town hall once they turned into adults. Names were drawn in January, and a group of seven would go up the mountain and come back down, signaling another year of peace for the small town.

Mayor Hatchett might have drawn November Darling's name that January anyway, even had he not been prompted to. Nobody in the town had a liking for the family, especially withdrawn, bizarre Novey. But what happened the night two weeks prior to that year's drawing made it necessary.

It was the Nerleth springtime ball and the whole town was gathered around the great barn in the commons where Harold Muckner's band was whipping out bluegrass and polka with remarkable precision. The town band had several functions to play each year, and they'd kept the art honed for generations now. Ladies twirled and their men scooted, the Mayor himself was seen high-stepping to an old Nerleth original folksong, one the outside world would never hear. There were grins to be seen everywhere, including the dark, empty stables next door. In classic style the more daring of the town's youth had slipped away and were experimenting in more carnal pleasures than could be found at the ball.

In the days when Novey's generation had gone through this phase (now they were pairing off and marrying), he'd never been invited. Instead he'd sat like a rock in the Darling barn with that look he often had, intent-seeming, but intent upon nothing.

Now, a few years later he was still around and still thinking like a boy, though his massive twenty-one year old frame more than belied his age. Nevertheless, the youths engaged in bad behavior at the time were unfamiliar with him, or were at least less so than his own classmates. That explained why Daisy Mollen had so easily taken a liking to him.

Word had it that she'd been at the stables on a few other summer nights as well, but with a short list of other boys who had seen fit to remain with the rest of the town folk in the great barn this year. She was there with November, blushed and flushed over his tall, dense, muscle bound body and willingness to explore. "Daisy Darling," she whispered playfully into his ear. It was his first time kissing, and the sensation was playing havoc on his stability. Her delicate eighteen-year-old frame lay on his, like a child's doll upon the child.

Most had been shocked and disgusted, but just a few weren't surprised at all when the news came roaring about town the next day, by word of mouth like all Nerleth news. November was beaten fairly well by his father over the incident, in ways that would be painful but not impede his ability to work.

The boy didn't understand. He'd seen the animals, he knew what was done when the two are ready to pair. It was no surprise that Daisy had protested, even violently, after all it was the same in the wilds. Why then did they call it rape? Was all pairing between wild animals rape then? Novey had taken care not to exceed what he'd witnessed with the deer, the cats, the sheep or the pigs, careful not to overstep his bounds. But afterward all had blamed him for doing so. Even Daisy.

She walked about town with her cast, crutches and bandage about her neck where he'd bitten her, an angry scowl upon her face, hiding the terrified girl beneath. The other boys left her alone after that. Though November couldn't walk through town without being scowled at, it was Daisy who paid most dearly for her encounter with him, in every way.

There was a touch of that inner blackness in what he'd done, he knew. He'd felt it come to the surface and turn his skin black as he listened to her muffled scream, as he held her down, and as he accidentally folded her leg the wrong way until it snapped. It felt good to let it out, but wrong too. After he'd finished and watched her crawling away, dragging the twisted, lamed leg, he thought that surely he'd put some of that blackness inside of her. Maybe that's what made her look so angry from that day on.

Mayor Hatchett slipped the card from his wrist during the drawing and pretended to draw it from the barrel. Novey's name was added to a list of seven who were to travel to the Keeper's home that year. More than a few in the front row of the meeting hall could see the fumbling Mayor produce the boy's card, but instead of interjecting and stopping the unfair proceedings, they all kept their mouths shut and thought it just. Some of those people had it in their heads that Novey might perish on the difficult journey. So did some of the people whose names were drawn to accompany him.

Among the others chosen were his father Darrell, who had participated twice before. He was still more than several years from being too old to make the journey, and your average healthy Nerleth male would be chosen four times in his life. Darrell considered it an honor. "The town has needs, and I'm glad to be a part of the solution," he said solemnly as his card was produced from the bingo barrel. Many thought his pious attitude sprang from embarrassment over the incident with November, and perhaps it did. Darrell was a cantankerous old bully, and a monster of a husband and father, and he didn't care to be looked down upon by anyone. Whether it meant bashing them in the face or pledging his duty to the town, he would show the others that there was honor, after a fashion, in the Darling house.

Bertram Holland the barber was called. His regulars, which was the whole town, called him Shears for his talent with the blades. He was a smooth talker, able to sit through and participate in both the nastiest bullshit sessions the men would bring to his shop, and the scathing gossip the girls traded. He knew a lot about everybody, and wasn't always keen on keeping it to himself. His name had never been drawn despite his forty years.

The twins Glen and Charles Underwood were drawn, their first time both of them. Both twenty-two years old, they were the youngest next to November. Rather than experience the trepidation usually felt by first-timers, the twins were simply grateful the mayor had allowed them to put both their names on a single card. Nothing, not even the Keeper, frightened them more than being separated.

After that, two volunteers who had been on the trek in prior years were called for by the Mayor, and they stood. Of the five that put in, Walt Friars and young Hallis Mollen were chosen. Walt was an older man, built well but getting on in years. He'd been on the trip more than twice as often as any other Nerleth man, and knew the ropes well. Hallis, the brother of Daisy Mollen, had been three times and was a friend to Friars. He was expected to become one of the men who led the annual trip, and thus would become as much a hero in the eyes of the town as Friars was, an honor shared with several other living men in Nerleth.

The fact that Hallis wanted November Darling dead more than any other citizen of Nerleth was not forgotten on the day of choosing. But it was not mentioned. He was half the giant oaf's size, but much craftier. None of the other men chosen cared to object to this obvious problem in the crew selected, nor did they talk to Hallis and his father before the trip--to set out in the open that a job was to be done and personal differences were to be set aside. It was obvious that November was being set up to have an accident up there, of the sort that prevented return.

When the time came the seven men packed their backpacks according to the lists that were given them. This trip had been made many times before by Nerleth folk, and it had been made by the people that lived in the valley before it was called Nerleth, and before them. The setup had been repeated from generation to generation, memorized along with the rules and procedure. They were well prepared for the task set before them. But for the trouble that would meet this year's sojourn, there could be no preparation.

####

"The first day's always the hardest," Walt Friars spoke on the morning of the first day up, spent on the mountain base among tall trees and grass. "Second day you're all warmed up and ready to haul across the rocks. Goes quicker. Your brain ain't turning on what you're leaving behind." It was a lie, of course, and Hallis and Darrell knew it. The second day was the hardest, because the slope would be impossibly steep and the steps ungainly, their legs would be rubber from the previous day and the packs would feel twice as heavy. The words were meant to steel the newcomers from the dread of the mountain face that stared back at them every time they looked ahead in the journey.

Once the sweat was pouring and breaths heaving on the afternoon of the first day, Darrell began to lay into his son.

"Didn't I teach you better than that, worthless pussy!" He'd give November a shove, and listen again for the boy's panting. The Darlings were both enormous and enormously strong, but over long, tedious tasks their endurance wore thin beneath the bulk of their bodies. Darrell was working hard but steady. His son needed hardening still and was struggling to keep up.

The twins Underwood were quiet, always as close to side by side as they could be. The two of them had shared their mother's womb and were born on the same day, and had almost never separated since then. As children they had finished each other's sentences, and attempted to fool others into mistaking them for one another. The only strong difference in appearance was a shock of red hair that Charles had developed as a teen, interrupting the normal, wavy brown that covered the rest of his head and all of Glen's. It shone in the sun as it hung in his eyes.

Hallis kept stealing glances back at November, watching his progress carefully and not without a measure of mistrust. Darrell caught him once and gave him such a look as to make him keep his eyes ahead for an hour. The second day he planned to get behind the Darlings in the single file line. That way he could watch all he liked. It wasn't until he was back there that he noticed Bert Holland had been keeping an eye out too. The man was good at listening and reading people, and now he was reading November Darling.

The second half of the first day was rough, the legs in the seven burned and pushed, the few clouds in the sky provided a little shade but all in all it was warm for a day in autumn. The trail they'd followed had been faint but present in the morning, growing more noticeable as the day went on. By mid-afternoon all trails going to Snow's End had coalesced into the single one, well-beaten and bold. They made camp at the same place it had been made many times before, under a rock outcropping in the stone face of the mountain. A fire lit, Friars began to speak of what was to be done once they reached their destination.

That was the way it always was; no one was to speak of the specifics of the task in the town of Nerleth, as if to do so would spoil their homes, soil their beds. It had to wait until the trip was underway, and after it was done the things that had happened would not be spoken of until one returned to the task again in a later year, if that ever happened.

They looked out beyond their campfire at the town in the valley below them, only visible by the firelight and lanterns of the homes. "Know why it's called Snow's End?" the old man asked. Everybody knew this one, so it was a good place to start.

Glen Underwood piped up. "The snow retreats up the mountain in summer, but never much past Snow's End. There's always snow on the mountain above it."

The older man nodded Glen's way. "And that's when we come, when the snow's not on the ground up there."

"Does that make it easier to face the Keeper?" asked Charles.

"No," replied Friars, "it's the Keeper that chooses when. Besides which, we do not face the Keeper, ever." This statement surprised the newcomers. The very little they knew about the yearly sojourn was that facing the thing was the purpose. This news was a shock to them. It took a few moments before one of them finally spoke up.

"Then what are we here for?" said Bertram.

Walt replied, "We come to stop the Keeper from making."

"Making?" Glen Underwood asked.

And on his tail his brother asked, "Making what?"

"Another of its kind," interjected Hallis Mollen. Walt had been designated to give this speech, and he looked sidelong at eager Mollen as he jumped in to the discussion uninvited. "We're gonna kill the new one so the old one gets older."

This sat strangely with the men. It would have been easier to digest had it come from Walt Friars, and the old man knew it. "You keep quiet now, Hallis Mollen. You know the rules, or at least your daddy told me you did."

Bertram looked confused. "So the beast up there is a real animal, and we're here to make sure it doesn't have a litter?"

"After a fashion, yes, Mr. Holland," Friars answered.

"Then why don't we just kill the thing and get it over with?"

"Can't be killed," Darrell Darling spoke. He looked at Friars. "I know what you're supposed to tell us, that the thing is important, its kind is ancient and it feeds life into the valley, it makes the years go around and keeps the seasons in line, but I don't think so. It's because the thing is so goddamned terrible you can't kill it, especially not when it's in its cave up in the mountain. That's why you never see it. Just its young."

"Is this true?" Bertram asked.

All eyes were on Walt. "I do not know if it is true," he replied solemnly. "And all of you are welcome to your own speculation, including Darrell Darling. But the fact remains that it is there, and each year it tries to make another like it. And if we don't stop it, death will come to Nerleth."

"Death?" the twins said simultaneously.

Bertram said, "You're saying the creature won't stay up there with its parent, it will come down into the valley just to kill people?"

"Eat them, to be more precise," Walt said.

"Sounds ludicrous," the barber said. "How do we know?"

"There is a book," Friars explained, "Old lady Greene holds it currently. It passes into the care of certain chosen people over the years. In it is a record kept for several hundred years of the journeys of the people of Nerleth. It begins with the settlers of the town, who knew of the legend and work to be done from the people that had lived there before, but were killed by the Keeper of Snow's End. For four hundred thirty-seven years we have successfully destroyed the offspring of the beast, and this year I mean to add another entry to that book. A successful one."

"Why does its young descend into the valley to feed?" Darrell Darling asked the speaker with some doubt in his voice.

"We do not know. Only that they do."

The Underwoods speculated at its nature. "Maybe it has to get strong so it can kill its mother and take its place, so it eats all the people first," Glen said.

"Maybe it wants to live in the valley since its mother already lives in the mountain," Charles said.

The barber asked, "When we return, may I see this book?"

"You are all welcome to see the book upon our return," Friars replied. "The caretaker will show it to you. Be careful, it is quite old and due for another transcription." The old man adopted a stern tone. "Now it is essential that all of you understand a few things. You must never speak of what is done on the mountain when you are in the village. It would cast a darkness over our happy people that cannot be lifted. Second, you must never deviate from the plan I am about to set before you, as it has worked for centuries and will work this very year, as long as all seven of us do as we're supposed to. And last, you must all work together, set aside any differences for the next week and complete the task we have set out to do. If you must fight amongst yourselves, wait until we have returned. Anything less will not be tolerated."

"What happens if somebody dies?" November Darling spoke for the first time. They all looked at him. "Then you don't have seven."

After a moment Walt averted his gaze. "The number is insignificant. The point is that all who are here must cooperate."

The foreboding words set forth in the conversation nearly killed their appetites, but they had all worked very hard to get to the first base camp and were starving. They slept hard too, but not without dreams. Unkind dreams of eggs and rabbits, and a deadly blackness that lives in the mountain behind Snow's End.

####

The first person November killed was Hallis Mollen. It was a simple matter, since the fire had gone to embers and the night was upon them, everyone was sleeping soundly, everyone but November. He felt the blackness inside of him, boiling and turning just beneath his skin. He believed wholeheartedly that it was the call of the Keeper that drew it out so. When Mollen crept away from camp to relieve himself, it was a simple matter for Novey to follow undetected.

Hallis simply had to urinate off the edge of a cliff, satisfying that strange boyish desire. November stealthily stepped up behind him until he was looking down upon the man's head, very light of foot as most overly large men are. With a blank, vapid expression on his face, he cupped one hand over Mollen's mouth and slowly drove his knife between the man's second and third ribs on the right side, silencing the screams with his powerful grip. Then he let go of the knife, placed his hand behind Mollen's head and gave a quick jerk to the right, snapping the neck before giving him a little push off the edge of the cliff. He could have just pushed him, but Hallis might have gotten out a scream, and that would have woken the camp.

November stole back to the fire and covered his oversized self with his sleeping bag as best he could. Sleep came a little better the second half of the night.

"Hallis!" beckoned Bertram Holland the next morning in all directions, echoed by the twin voices of the Underwoods always echoing each other, and the low, husky voice of Darrell Darling. "Mollen, where are you!?" But no answer came, not at sunup nor at near nine o'clock when they'd finally put aside the issue and moved on. Some had explored back down the trail a ways, thinking perhaps he'd dropped something and went back to retrieve it. Perhaps he'd turned back, ashamed because of the way Walt had shut him up at last night's talk.

These possibilities didn't make sense to any of them. Even just the sense of duty alone was enough to keep every member of the seven in place. Besides, Hallis was more than a tad ornery. He'd stick around, even if only to look for a way to even the score between his sister and November Darling. No one thought to look over the edge of the cliff some fifty meters south of camp, eyes peeled for a red spot on the rocks far below, decorated with a pair of jeans and mountain boots.

The old man was a bit harder for November to kill. Too wary for the stealthier type of advances, Walt Friars required extra attention.

####

The trail meandered up the incline to meet their steps, their chosen path winding all the way back down to the valley floor near the base of the mountains. On one side of the travelers there was a fall to a rising escarpment that jutted out of the chasm that separated the mountain from the spur on which they stood. On the other side the drop was steeper. A few meters south off the trail and a man would lose his footing and fall all the way off the mountain into the valley. In the distance the settlement of Nerleth could be seen basking in the sun in the richest part of the valley. Beyond that, the other side of the bowl-shaped valley coalesced in a blue haze.

The going was rough the second day, more so even than Darrell had remembered. The steep hill was unforgiving, and the heat of the day combined with chill winds sapped the strength of those six men laboring on the path to Snow's End. Excluding November, everyone was more than a little uneasy over the loss of Hallis Mollen.

November worked it so that he was ahead of Friars in the single file line up the trail. It just so happened that the old man ended up being last, which couldn't have played out better.

Friars had no idea it was coming. November waited until the perfect rock came along, and set it quickly off center on its shelf in the path as he walked on it, seeming to take no more trouble than one takes to get sure footing on a rough spot. Twenty seconds later he heard the cry. It had taken an act of will not to turn and watch, to see the man turn his ankle on the unbalanced stone and fall, but he would be seen, and Novey didn't have the luxury of being able to out himself as the predator on this journey. Not yet, anyway.

The fall had been worse on old Walt than November could have hoped. His ankle was broken, and he had rolled twice backward down the trail after hitting the ground, banging his body up sufficiently to take him down for the count. When the others came to his aid he was muttering to himself, eyes rolling in and out of consciousness under the strain of a concussion.

Some time later he was bandaged and his wits had returned, though he was in enough pain that it was clear he had to turn back. All seemed well, November thought. That was when the old man had said, "Was a rock back there, turned right beneath me. I stepped where any man would have stepped. Right in the middle of the trail. All five of you must have stepped over it, though it would take a giant step to do so. Makes little sense..." he looked at November sidelong for a moment, suspicion in his milky eyes. Then he shook it off and started back down the trail with his walking stick lashed to an armpit support to make a makeshift crutch. Glen Underwood was selected by Darrell to accompany him back down the slope, against the protests of both the twins.

"Darrell," Walt said before departing, "you know what has to be done up there. Tell them, show them. Make sure it's done." The elder Darling was none too happy about being the new team leader, but like all challenges that came to him in his life, he found a way to overcome. The first thing he did was call the next campsite, some three hundred meters higher altitude than where they'd parted ways with Walt Friars. There wasn't much time left in the day, and they'd have to make camp.

"No matter," he said to them. "We have time. As long as we make it there by Easter we'll be fine." Charles Underwood, noticeably uneasy without his twin brother, wouldn't stop fingering the buttonholes in his leather jacket.

"What do we do when we get up there?" he asked at the campfire, shortly after the dinner ritual, which was silent as it had been the night before.

"I'll tell you then," Darling replied.

Then Bertram said, "Maybe it'd be wise to tell what you know, Darrell, in case something happens to you between there and here." The statement hit Darling with full incendiary force, but quickly cooled in light of what had happened to Friars and Mollen. It was clear the barber had no wicked intentions, only safety on his mind.

"All right Shears. I'll give it up. But all of you remember your duties. Nobody turns back. Not unless you're dead or nearly so. Got it?" He looked hard at each member of the team, even his son. They all nodded, even meek Charles.

"I don't know the story behind the stories, but I do know what has to be done, and what you can expect. And the rule they don't tell you until you get there." He paused, as if reconsidering telling them.

"The Keeper does in fact live up there, you'll see its cave. And that's the rule you must remember. Never, ever go near the cave, and never let your comrades out of your sight. It's an invitation for the thing to snatch one of us. Always follow the rule. It's not just your own life you're saving.

"Things work delicately with the Keeper. You disturb one thing and everything's like to go wrong. It's on a cycle you see, you don't dare feed it at the wrong time, or wake it when it's sleeping. Same reason you time your harvest with the first frost. Same reason you shit at the same time every day if you eat right. The beast is older than men and most folks that know anything about it say that it's responsible for keeping more than just Snow's End. Some say it keeps the days and nights and puts them in order as they are. Some say it keeps the winter from coming all year long." The group took some time to swallow what he'd said.

"Anyway, the thing lays an egg Easter morning, hides it up there. You gotta find it and destroy it before it hatches that evening. Simple as that."

"An egg?" Bertram asked.

"Yes. Big, brown, ugly. Just about big enough to hold an eight-year old child. And there'll be more of them before."

"More eggs?"

"Yes, lots of them. Decoys. They don't look like the real one. Meant to throw us off track."

"That doesn't sound right," the barber said. "Obviously we're not going to fall for that. If it's some ancient power, why would it do something that silly?"

"I don't pretend to know, Shears," was Darrell's answer. "Just because it's important doesn't mean it's smart."

Charles Underwood spoke up. "Why doesn't it just kill us instead?"

Darrell Darling looked him square in the eyes. "I don't know. Maybe it's scared of us, Charles. It'll never let you get a gander of it, that's for sure. You'll never see it creeping around with eggs at night. You'll never see it leave its cave, but it does. You'll never see it watching you, but be damned well sure it does. That's why you always follow the rule."

"What if someone needs to sleep?" Underwood asked.

"As long as someone is awake to watch, it's okay. Someone must always be on the alert."

There wasn't much else said that night. The minds of Charles Underwood and Shears Holland spent it mulling over what sort of creature could lay an egg big enough to hold an eight-year old child. Darrell spent it worried that whatever luck had taken away three of their members wasn't done working its influence on the group.

The third day proved more difficult than the first two, not because of the difficulty of the trek, which should have finished that day, but because of endless sidetracking. A rockslide had occurred sometime between last year's trip and this one, and a large section of trail was obscured. There was no way over it, so the group had to hike around it. Only problem with that was the steep drop-off on either side of the trail, which required roping and climbing.

Charles Underwood almost met his fate on that rock wall when, against fervent advice, he looked down. The young man froze, seizing a death grip on his handholds. He had to be rescued by Shears Holland, who claimed afterward that the handholds Charles did have were precarious and ill-chosen. If he hadn't frozen there was a good chance he'd have fallen. And even when all are roped together, one member of a group falling can spell disaster for the whole team.

November was the second man across, and he helped haul the other two over by pulling on the rope. Once all four reached a safe landing beyond the impassable pile of stone they had to traverse over the top of the rest of the rockslide, which was a difficult bit of crawling, testing, and leaping which ended up costing Charles a twisted ankle. In the end the ordeal took all day, and the four made camp on the trail above the rockslide, using the overhang of a large boulder for some small shelter.

It was noticeably colder up here where the altitude was high. Bertram Holland's lined winter coat had torn across the shoulder seam during the climbing event and now he shivered, his left side closer to the fire than his right. All wore their caps and gloves, which had been packed away at the beginning of the trek.

That night November wished he still had his knife, the one he'd left in Hallis Mollen. It was a loud, windy night and all four slept hard except for him, making it a good night to make off with another man's life. They were getting close to the summit and he couldn't afford to let them live once they got there. If they touch that egg...

He could feel the creature beckoning him from just up beyond the next day's pass. The call was nearly audible, in fact if he listened he felt sure the wind was just barely covering up the shining whine of the beast waiting for him, calling after its lost kin. November looked at his hand in the moonlight and saw the skin swirl black across his own. He was glad it only happened at night. If the others saw him they'd call him crazy, maybe tie him up or send him away. At length he decided to wait the night out and make his move the next day. The swirling black was calling to him, begging him to keep it secret and safe.

The fourth day was the last day of ascent, and the last day November could eliminate any of the team while using the difficult climb as a tool for doing so. As it happened there were a series of vertical climbs to be made at the last of the journey, and hand and foot holds had been carved into the rock for just that purpose. The going was fine for a time, each climb broken every hundred feet or so by a small landing, but then the steps started getting wet. The small creek that flows through Snow's End had taken to meandering the last few years and a flow had dripped over the entrance for a time. Some of the carved holds were icy, some completely filled with ice and unusable. Those Darrell and Bertram chipped out rather than skipping. They'd have been fine to skip them if the group had been without Charles Underwood, but the boy's fear of heights was crippling to him and he needed every bit of help he could get.

The line up the walls consisted of Darrell first, Bertram second, then November and lastly Charles, so that if he lost his grip or froze at a time he couldn't be rescued they could haul him up with the rope between the three of them with little chance of accident. If it had been one of the Darlings bringing up the rear, it might have been impossible to drag him up by the rope, given their size.

Dropping Underwood was a simple matter for November, especially since he was responsible for checking the young man's knots at each landing. Petrified and shivering, Charles was completely unaware that November had loosened the rope's hold on him to near release before a particularly long ascent. Before they'd set off up the wall November grabbed a sizeable stone, about as large as a grapefruit, and tucked it in his jacket. When the time came, nearly at the top of the climb, he simply looked down and released it.

The stone fell the short ten feet in no time and struck home right on top of Underwood's head, at the spot where the shock of red hair began. There was an audible thok as if the stone had struck another, then it bounced a little, rolled down his shoulder and away into the long fall between they and the last landing, some ninety feet down. The victim didn't move for a few seconds. November braced himself against the stoneface to prepare for the jerk on the rope when Charles fell. He witnessed a small blossom of blood open on the top of the stricken skull, and then Underwood fell away from the wall slowly, hands still in place, simply teetering away from the vertical face and slipping down to death. The rope tugged on Darling for only a moment as it unwrapped itself from the fallen, twisting him into a spin as he fell.

"NO!" Bertram Holland screamed. November looked up to see both he and Darrell looking down over their shoulders. His father's eyes were calm and stern, like stones on a grey sea. They were always like this. Holland's eyes were on fire. "His knot! What happened!?" The red stain spread beneath the body, broken and tiny below them.

"Up to the top, then we talk," Darrell shouted. Shears was not happy to follow but had little choice. He hesitated, and shot Novey a fiery glance. November considered whether or not he could fight a man on this cliff face. He was by far the man's superior in strength and size, but those would do little here. Shears was older, and more coordinated. And what would Darrell do?

The three of them climbed to the top, Shears nearly losing his grip in the madness that took him as he climbed. He found himself surrounded by Darlings on the next, very small landing. November explained that his rope had been tied and checked, that there was no reason for the fall. He lied about the severity of the pull he'd felt, and said that nothing had occurred to make Charles go. Darrell was quiet for a time.

Then he said, "The boy tended to freeze up. Probably looked down, froze, and went. I tied his knot myself, it was good. No use in fighting about it, we have to go on before nightfall."

Bertram Holland turned on Darrell like a cornered wolverine. "Are you as blind as you are huge?!" He pointed at November. "That beast of yours is a killer! First Mollen goes missing, not a body to be found. Then Walt Friars stumbles on a faulty rock that could only have been placed by November. Then this. It wasn't you who checked Charles' knot the last few landings, Darrell, it was him. Ask him where his knife is, Darrell, ask him! It's been missing since Hallis disappeared. Maybe you didn't notice, but I did. I always notice."

Darrell and November were exchanging glances, huddled against the rock wall with the raving barber between them. November was nearly as calm as his father.

"Ask him!" Bertram screamed.

"Shears," Darrell said in a cool voice, "you listen to me. November Darling is a lot of things. He's an idiot. He raped Daisy Mollen. He'll never be a great man. I know it, he knows it. But I know that boy through and through. He's no murderer. I guarantee it, on my life." There was a long pause, and the barber's eyes darted between those of Darrell Darling, back and forth. Then the smaller man spoke.

"Alright Darling. I'll shut up and go through with this. But I'm not gonna be tied to that boy anymore..." he unsheathed his knife and cut the rope between he and November, then turned on the younger Darling to speak a threat of some kind, pointing the knife at him. Novey reacted as though threatened, and knocked the blade out of his hand and over the edge. Shears tried to catch it, and over the side he went.

Darrell reached for the length of rope between him and the falling man in an attempt to get a hold and arrest the man's fall, but a loop of it was wrapped around his lower leg and became taut before his quick hands could get a hold on it. The weight of the barber jerked that foot out from beneath him and sent him sprawling. His leg slid right out over the edge and stopped where the precipice dug into the side of his knee. The force of stopping the screaming man's fall snapped Darrell's leg at the knee sideways, pulling his ankle and foot down to rest against the side of the stoneface.

November's father howled in pain as his son stopped him from sliding off the landing out of instinct. The events were happening too fast, he wasn't sure what to do. In a moment Bertram was hollering at him to cut the rope, because he had a hold of the rockface. November did just that, and pulled his father away from the edge to sit against the wall, straightening his broken leg in the act. Then there was a shout from the edge, and November was there, reaching a hand out to help Holland. He took it, perhaps with fresh trust and hope for the boy.

But the hope was misplaced. Once young Darling had a grip on his hand, it was easy to lift him away from the wall and drop him. The look of shock on the man's face was brief, just before he began scrambling for a foothold or handhold. He didn't stop trying all the way down to the last landing, where he ended laying next to Charles Underwood, broken, bloody, and still.

####

It took the rest of the day to splint Darrell's leg and haul him up to the next landing, which wasn't far and thankfully was large enough to make a fire. He sent November on to the top to complete the task the seven were meant to do.

"And you'll be alone, nobody to watch you when you sleep, boy. So do not sleep. If you must, climb back down out of Snow's End, it's the best protection you can hope for. Even here we're not safe, and you have another couple hours of climbing to do, not counting chipping ice. And you come back for me on your way back. In the morning it will be Easter, and you have to find that egg. Don't let it survive, or else we all die."

"Why does everyone think we'll all die?" It hadn't been said out loud but it always seemed to November to lie just beneath the story.

"Four hundred and thirty-seven years since the last time men failed, November. That's when the book was made. Before that, everybody was erased, removed. That's what happens if that egg hatches. The valley, and who knows, maybe the world, is scoured. Many die." Darrell looked twice his age, pain riddled across his grizzly, unshaven face. He took hold of his son's arm. "Don't let the Darlings fail this time, boy. Not this time."

The next morning November set off carrying his father's knife. Some part of him was grateful that he didn't have to kill his father, and another was not. He tried to consider putting him out of his misery, but November had strange, damaged feelings about his proud, abusive father. Like most complex thoughts, it didn't settle long in his mind. He simply ignored it in favor of what was more important at the time.

When he reached the summit several hours later he poked his head over the ledge and looked into Snow's End before pushing himself up and onto it. It was a sight that took a few moments to take in. On either side were rock walls, perhaps thirty yards apart. The area between was reasonably flat, and a stream ran through it. Low lying vegetation followed it all the way to its mouth, in a culvert in the north rock wall. The whole place was about twice as deep as it was wide, and at the back was the unforgiving, cragged rock slope that led up to the peak of the lesser mountain, which clung to the tall mountains around it in the edge of the valley that cradled Nerleth.

Here and there were ancient homes, the tiny, short wooden shacks that squatters made many years ago. Apparently within the last century it had been decided to build shelter here, though the structures were long abandoned. There were some fifteen of these total, which made little sense. There wasn't enough food here to sustain that many people. Perhaps one or two, but certainly not fifteen, or more if the shacks were meant for families.

There was more. At the feet of some of these shacks were indeed eggs, left to fool the men who came to destroy the Keeper's child. He examined a group of three, all brightly colored in weaving, winding patterns. One was as big as an ostrich egg and was mostly yellow with purple bands. Another was nearly spherical and the size of a golf ball, spotted in orange and blue. The last was somewhere in between in size, and its shell was rough and cragged beneath a mixed design in green monochrome. The three sat in a basket crudely woven of bramble, and between them and the basket was a cushion of grass. The one he held bore dry, yellow grass. Some of the other baskets at the steps of other shanties were younger, still stuffed with green. He looked to the creek and saw where the grass came from--a solid green swath that curved across the ground, following the water.

He walked the length of the mini-village, and at the end he found the entrance to the cave, hidden in a crag between rock walls some ten feet up from the ground. As warned, he stayed away from it, though he felt the deepest fibers of his body drawn that way as though by a magnet. In this place the blackness inside of November Darling was at home, itchy and heavy but almost sated, serene. He was more aware of it than ever. Now he felt sure that not only was The Keeper of Snow's End some sort of relative of his, but something close, like a brother.

It took less than an hour to find the egg, tucked beneath the wreckage of a decaying shelter and beneath the roots of a short, gnarled evergreen. He dislodged it and brought it out where he could hold it, sitting on a pile of rocks in the center of Snow's End. The egg was plain, brown and unpainted. It was the shape of any bird's egg but far larger, as the men had said, about big enough to hold an eight-year old child if it were curled up snugly. There was something else though--the egg was hot. It could be held with only minimal discomfort, but for a living thing its temperature was quite high.

Novey cradled it in his arms and rocked slowly, waiting for dusk to come. A grey calm settled over him. He'd finally come home, to the place where he belonged. His mother and father seemed so far away, so alien to him. And his past seemed to be redeemed, too. The rape, the murders, they all made more sense when looked at from the perspective of something not entirely human, something perhaps, more than human.

Shortly after the sun set the egg began to move. Whatever was inside was shifting. November woke from his pleasant daze and realized he hadn't made a fire. He also felt on him the eyes of a hidden watcher. He'd never had that feeling of being watched before, always aloof to what was going on around him. But this time it was there, surely as his feet touched the ground.

When the egg began to hatch he set it down upon the ground and watched, standing ready. Some part of him feared what was happening, but this was the part of him he was trying to let go. His heart rang out in joy and anxiety over the spectacle he was seeing. The black within him was ecstatic.

The eggshell parted across the middle, its halves fell to, and the newborn struggled onto its feet immediately. It stood facing November, across whose face a rare giddiness spread, gleaming and strong. November realized from its appearance that he'd been right all along, the creature was indeed kin to him. Close kin, very close. It mimicked his smile in return, and redoubled the joy Darling was feeling.

Then its smile disappeared entirely.

####

Darrell Darling was more than glad to see his son return the next morning. It was just after sunup and he'd been in a torpid state of rest, the wound in his leg infecting the rest of him with secondary issues. His words were slurred and forehead hot, and he could barely move. Still, with much effort and copious assistance from his strapping son, the two of them made the descent to the end of the vertical portion of the climb in one day. The rockslide took two, and the rest of the journey another three, but by the time they were walking into Nerleth Darrell was still alive and upright, a stout man to the very last ounce of his strength.

Despite his weakness Darrell was still the first to speak as the two were assailed on the path into town.

"My boy did it! It was a treacherous journey, and it claimed the lives of three men, but November completed the task. The town is safe." His smile permeated the onlookers, who had rarely or in most cases never seen an expression of mirth on the faces of the oversized Darling clan. All but those close to the deceased, particularly Glen Underwood, for whom this was the first news of his twin brother's death. He broke down into sobs but quickly gained composure; he still had his mother to inform. Glen had always been the stronger of the twins.

The stories of the journey were told in boisterous voices about town that day, even as Doc Wyatt treated the senior Darling for fever and a badly healing leg. He'd never bend the knee again, the doctor informed him.

"I never was fond of it anyhow," he replied.

No one asked November about what happened on the plateau in the mountains. Those who had been before knew what had to have been done, and they knew that Darrell wouldn't say it was done unless it was. They did however, ask about the deaths of Charles Underwood and Bertram Holland. It was explained to them by Darrell, who showed them and assured them that the accidents were indeed accidents, that this trip was cursed somehow, and that they were lucky that any survived at all. The words were taken quietly for the most part, by all except old Walt Friars, hobbling about on a single crutch.

"We'll know more soon," he said. "When those two boys come back from the pass." He informed Darrell that he'd sent a couple of men to find Hallis Mollen's body after learning that he hadn't turned up in Nerleth. "They'll find him, and with any luck, figure out what happened to the boy." His trust of Darrell Darling had never wavered and it showed, but he regarded November as one regards a wild animal, even more so after the short time they spent together on the mountain.

November was silent, blank faced and calm as usual. When pressed about losing his grip on Holland, he simply stated, "He slipped." Services were held for the two newly deceased, and the Underwoods honored the kinless Holland along with their own at a double funeral. Charles' mother wept profusely, while Glen stood somber faced and silent. He had not wept yet for his brother; his mother was still doing it for them both.

####

The morning next brought a strange omen to Nerleth. The people had been reluctantly grateful to November Darling for completing the journey that was the responsibility of the town, and also suspicious over the deaths of the three sojourners that had accompanied him. It was no secret among gossip circles that Hallis Mollen had intended to exact revenge for the rape of his sister. Yet things had gone the other direction, and now the Mollen household was short a son. Their mistrust was galvanized when, the first morning after the Underwood and Holland funeral service, several tenants of the town woke to find crudely made baskets of brightly colored eggs on their doorsteps.

These post-Easter deliveries were exactly like the ones to be found each year at Snow's End, claimed those that had seen them there. The villagers who knew the legend and had been on the yearly journey before were frightened, and those who only partly understood the stories were horrified.

"The Keeper has come to Nerleth!" the ladies' bridge team squealed along with their team captain, the vain Betty Wilmington.

"No more summers!" cried Old Elmer across the counter at the bait/tackle and general store, his mute granddaughter Elmira clinging to his leg.

The eggs were broken to find them filled with black, oily filth that smelled strangely of an unwashed human body, repulsing man and woman alike.

Harold Muckner was the first to confirm that the eggs were exactly like the ones to be found at Snow's End. He was heard to say that the end of the world was coming, and this was the first sign.

It was the Darling's neighbors, the Butlers, who first cried out against November. "The dolt didn't do it!" became their well-repeated warcry. It echoed across the town that night, and each citizen that heard it understood what it meant: November Darling didn't complete the task up there at Snow's End. In their minds this spelled their own doom. This translated into a direct hatred for the Darling son.

Darrell was dumbfounded and had little to say. He had expected November to come to him when others rebuked him, the last person in the world that might trust him, or even his silent mother, but he did not. He simply stayed out in the barn as he'd done in the past when needing to be alone. The only strange part of this was the animals. Darrell couldn't figure out why they refused to go near the barn while November was in there.

The next morning more eggs were found, and it united the town's hate into a single force. A group gathered in the commons, some with multicolored eggs in their hands. Walt Friars was among them, with news from his men that were searching for Hallis Mollen's body. They had returned with November's knife, pulled from the back of Mollen's corpse.

The townsfolk marched, an angry, spitting mob, to the Darling farm.

"Out with him!" they screamed. "We want to see the murderer!" Darrell heard them, supposing that the mob's suspicion about his son's failure at Snow's End had led them to believe that he was responsible for the murders. Darrell didn't find out about the knife until much later.

He burst out the front door like an angry bear on his crutches, wildly shouting admonishments in his deep voice, roaring at the mob. If he had been ten years younger or perhaps if he hadn't been crippled, they might have listened longer. As it was they moved aside for him only for a moment, and then all were shouting back at the man with the courage of their fellows in each voice. For the first time in his life, Darling was overwhelmed by the passion of other men. His expression paled and then he was on his steps again, and then at the threshold of his door, and then on the floor, trying to protect his broken leg from being kicked by the flow of townsfolk washing over him and into his house.

They didn't find November there, of course, and upon exiting the home they milled around for a moment in the early morning sun before Daisy Mollen spoke up.

"In the barn, he's probably in the barn!" she yelled from somewhere in the crowd. Her only memories of him were in a barn, and they had been burned into her like a brand, never to be forgotten.

The screaming mob dragged him from the barn. Some threw stones. November did not lose his temper, however. His blank stares were only interrupted by an occasional flinch as a stone or fist came his way. His composure had always been calm, but now he seemed positively inhuman.

The mob reached the short distance back to the town common in a minute, and awaited their next move. Mayor Hackett was there, in his suit, along with Moose Carlton, the town sheriff and only lawkeeper in Nerleth.

"Quiet, all of you!" Carlton screeched. The mob turned to face the Mayor.

"Citizens of Nerleth," he spoke. "In the name of the law, I, your Mayor, demand you release the suspect into custody until such time as--" he was interrupted by a heavy rock that struck him square in the chest, knocking him aside and into the arms of the sheriff, who received a stone to the face shortly after. A hail of stones silenced the two. The mob paid no more heed to the order keepers of Nerleth.

It was Glen Underwood, short and fierce, who was the first to scream, "String him up!"

A hangman's noose was tied and Nerleth prepared for their first lynching in generations. November regarded the rope with casual wonder. Those not too busy shouting or finding other ways to incite the anger of the riot noticed his simple resignation, and wondered if it was guilt that drove him to so easily accept his imminent death. There were other things that went unnoticed. Like the smell of the black blood that trickled down from November's eyebrow and broken lips. Or like the heat that came off his body, nearly burning the hands of the men who held him.

The rope went about his neck and no bag was used to cover his face. It was passed over a tree limb that overhung the commons, and Darling was stood on a chair. His mother and father were there, screaming and shouting for them to stop. But it was too late. The chair was kicked, and the boy's ample weight dug the rope into his neck. He lost the ability to breathe immediately and couldn't undo his hands. Then he blacked out, and was no more.

What the townsfolk witnessed then was singular in its horrific nature. What they saw dangling from the rope in the middle of town started changing as it was finishing choking. Lungs gasped, mouths gaped, eyes widened and widened again in open stares at the thing hanging from the noose. The thing that changed its shape, the thing that had wriggled its life out a moment ago and now writhed through a transformation that dazzled and terrified eyes. Eyes that for all decent purposes should never have witnessed such a thing.

When the movement stopped and the body ceased to change, silence held the gaggle of voyeurs in thralldom for a moment that may as well have been eternity. November's parents were dumbstruck, and Carrie sobbed.

The lynch mob studied the body with morbid curiosity, but alike with guarded reservation. The strange, eerie similarity to a rabbit in its form did not escape them. Except this rabbit was not made for browsing vegetation and hiding in thickets. This monstrosity was made for killing. It could have hunted dinosaurs, and perhaps its kind did once. This one however, died before it could hunt. That is, if you didn't count Hallis Mollen, Charles Underwood or Shears Holland.

The dead thing wore a wicked grin, somehow mocking the onlookers with an expression of mirth at a moment of ultimate horror. The circle of people around the body grew tight and drew close to the thing. It took some time before they were satisfied it was dead, and longer still until they reconciled their minds to what they saw that day.

Later that night they would burn the body of November Darling, or that of the Keeper of Snow's End, or its child, or whatever it was. The stink of the oily blackness inside the corpse would drive people back to their homes to let the monster burn alone. They huddled beneath blankets and gathered around fireplaces, and in typical Nerleth fashion, chose not to speak of the events of that day. It was a quiet night, and to any outsider the town would have appeared perfectly peaceful, at ease, resting the night through just as the rest of Earth did.

So oblivious were they that evening that no one chanced to notice the large, brown egg only partially hidden under the jailhouse where a dog had dug a tunnel to rest in the shade. The dog did though; it was there when the egg had been hurriedly deposited the night before by an agent unseen. The company of the warm egg did not disturb the dog's rest until the evening, when the sun was setting and the people of the town were off the streets and behind locked doors. It started to move, then cracked open to produce a being so like the dog that it could have been born a pup from the same litter. At first it was kind and playful with the dog under the jailhouse.

Then its kindness disappeared entirely.

THE END


© 2011 Michael Lejeune

Bio: Michael Lejeune lives and works in New York. He has work published in Battered Suitcase, Death Head Grin, ShriekFreak Quarterly, and others. If he could choose his death, he'd be caught in some kind of Lovecraftian nightmare, and almost make it out.

E-mail: Michael Lejeune

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