Chapter 4- Making Camp
They retreated back into the woods, attempting to reach the water that way. By the time they clambered down the rocky bank beneath the cliff, it was dusk.
Adlef was waiting for them, looking bored. “How did it go?”
Gwethelyn sat down and took off her pack. “Hannel nearly got himself killed.”
The human agent looked up from his attempt of a fire. “I was completely justified in doing so!”
“Hasn’t it occurred to you what she’ll make of it?” She argued.
“I’m sorry-” Adlef floated back and waved a flipper at them. “What did you do?”
“Agent Hannel went for a little joyride and tried to turn the Sue into a crow’s road breakfast.” Jake told him.
“So I could see who was guarding her.” Hannel added, looking irritated. “If you’d just listen…”
Once he was sure he’d gotten their attention, he continued. “These things are like… spiders. And their bubbles are like their webs, get it?”
The three animals nodded.
“The thing is, the web is sort of built on… on the closest thing to a mind it has. The things it wants to serve it and help it are her main focus. Like her protector, and the girl you two saw following her around. However the things she wants to play against, like enemies, she gives a bit more freedom, if still under her conditions.”
“I’m not sure I’m getting this.” Said Gwethelyn.
“Some threads of the web have been left looser for the fun of a challenge. And that means her made-up opponents can be unpredictable- like a monster in a video game. You know what it’s trying to do- kill you- but it can be tricky and sly.”
“Wouldn’t that just put her in danger, then?” Asked Adlef. “Why risk yourself like that?”
“Well, if the monster beats you in a video game, you can always turn the thing off.” Shrugged Brian. “I heard that when they were first discovered, loitering around the edges of the universe, they didn’t do this so much. They weren’t so great at looking like us, either. Well, me.” He corrected. “There aren’t many files containing non-humanoid forms.”
“Mimicking.” Said Adlef. “They’re practicing. Playing a game.”
“Yeah.” Said Hannel. “That’s what we’re guessing. And Joan, as she’s called herself, will spend a good deal of time searching those funny little threads of the web for some time. It might give us an advantage.”
He bowed his head and went back to lighting the fire.
“You got a good look at the thing that stopped the bus.” Said Gwethelyn after a minute.
Jake exchanged a glance with Adlef.
“Vampire.” Repeated Gwethelyn.
“Yes, vampire.” He didn’t look up. “Pretty low-key, but easy to spot- pale, odd eye colour, small fangs but very sharp... I’ve dealt with vampires before.”
“Is that why they sent you in?” Asked Jake. “Besides the political... thing?”
“No.” Said Hannel. His tone was strangely bitter. “I’m just... useful.”
Unsure of what to say in response, the three quietly shifted away to set up camp properly. Jake had found a decent place to store the rations that would last them the week in a little hollow section of the cliff wall, which he leapt into to dig the dirt away and make more room.
Adlef snuck a glance back at Hannel. He was still working on lighting the fire. A spark finally escaped the two stones, reflecting in his eyes for a moment before catching onto the twigs.
The growing fire seemed to immediately brighten him again. Hannel looked up, stretching.
“You know, we can’t keep it burning all night, you know,” He said, reaching into his own pack. “Something might notice. Enjoy it while you can.”
“You think there’ll still be somethin’ out lookin’ for us?” Asked Jake.
“I don’t think so, but better safe than sorry. Listen,” All four paused. But apart from the lapping of water against stone, the crackle of the campfire, and the occasional breeze through the trees, there was nothing. “I... can’t hear anything.” Said Gwethelyn.
“Exactly. No birds, no insects, no... anything.” Hannel tilted his head upwards, brushing his hair away from his face. “A nearly empty world.”
They talked for a little while longer, sitting up and sharing food by the water’s edge until a moon, too round, too white, too perfect, rose high in the sky. Adlef put the fire out then, splashing out at it with a strike of his tail, and getting Jake wet in the process (Adlef protested that it was an accident, but his dolphin grin made it hard to believe).
“What will we be doing tomorrow, Hannel?” Asked Gwethelyn sleepily.
“More investigating. See what kind of place this is, exactly. Perhaps we’ll tail her.”
She didn’t reply, and he found himself suddenly wanting to fill the unnatural silence.
“You know... Brian’s okay.”
“Who’s okay?”
“I mean... you don’t have to call me Hannel all the time. You three don’t really get that formality, so...”
“Oh.” Came the reply. “Okay.”
“Night then, Brian.” Said Jake, apparently not very bothered about the change.
That was the last any of them spoke that night. But sleep took a long time coming, the eerie silence of the false forest almost as disruptive as a noisy real one might have been.
Only Brian got to sleep easily that night, something which surprised even him.
I’ve gotten used to this. Whispered a voice. The silence.
But he pushed the dark thought back into the river in his mind that was full of them, and drifted off into a dreamless slumber.


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