Here's the next installment of our Hundred Halls Metallum Nocturne story. If you need to catch up, all of the previous episodes can be found here.
The growl froze Claire in place. Her first thought was that she'd brought her best friend out to the Appalachians to die. Claire was cursed, there was no other way to see it. She took a step forward to place herself in the way of whatever was lurking on the other side of the bushes and prepared to use the Five Elements to defend herself. Her best element was fire, but given the soaking the woods had received, she wondered if it would be effective.
The leaves on the bushes shook and a figure moved through the gap, placing themselves on the path before them. A tall man wearing a rain jacket, camo hat, and carrying a shotgun appeared before them with a hulking shaggy dog at his side. The animal was massive, almost as tall as the man's hip with a head the size of a beach ball.
"Not safe out here," said the man in a thick Appalachian accent. "Especially not for two unarmed ladies."
"We're not defenseless," said Dawn angrily. "Touch either one of us and I'll blast your head off."
Claire put her arm out and gently pushed Dawn behind her while the guy chuckled. He was at least a foot taller than her and had gaunt cheeks, but there was something gloomy about his countenance as if he'd see far too much hardship in his life.
"It's not me you have to worry about. Some idiot in a nearby county had a pet elongated hellcat that escaped its cage. Got into my chickens last night and three nights before that, so I know it's in the area. Been hunting it while it prowls. Saw its tracks a few hours ago, but it slipped into the trees and I lost it. Hoping Carl here would pick up the scent, but the rain washed all signs away."
"Oh, thanks for the warning," said Claire. "Sorry about the misunderstanding."
"No worries. I'm Grayson, and as I said before, this is Carl."
"Is he friendly?" asked Claire.
"More than friendly, but warning, he's affectionate," said Grayson. He clucked his tongue. "Go on. You can say hi."
The big dog bounded forward, almost knocking Claire over. He immediately pushed his head against her chest and she obliged by digging her fingers into the thick fur.
"Part black Russian terrier and something else. He's nearly a hundred and fifty pounds if you're wondering."
"Merlin's tits," said Dawn, joining her to scratch the dogs head.
"Named him after my daughter's favorite muppet," said Grayson.
Claire detected a hint of sadness so she didn't ask the question that immediately came to mind. She glanced up through the gap in the trees to see a half moon shining silvery light while wispy clouds moved past in a hurry.
"It's a little easier to see now, but how'd you managed in the rain when it was completely dark. I don't see a headlamp," said Claire.
Grayson tapped the spot below his eyes. "There are spells if you have the know-how."
"Oh, which Hall?" asked Dawn brightly.
"It's not just Hall mages that can use it."
"But what about faez madness?" asked Dawn.
Claire put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "We shouldn't be so nosy."
"A wise suggestion." He hesitated, staring directly at Claire which made her feel like she was doing something wrong. "What are you ladies doing out here?"
"Looking for downy from an Appalachian ghost owl. We're in Metallum Nocturne. I need it for my fifth year project."
Grayson made a noise in the back of his throat as he sucked on his teeth. "I might have some back at my place. It's useful for warding charms and other things. I was heading back shortly. Been a long night and I've got a long day ahead of me tomorrow. You're welcome to come by and take any extra I might have."
Before Dawn could finish her thought, Claire said, "That would be awesome. Thank you."
Grayson checked around them as if he expected to find someone watching before nodding up the path. "We're headed up that ridge and into the valley. Keep up."
He turned and strode down the path forcing them to hurry to keep up. Carl went bounding ahead, moving silently despite his huge size. Dawn made faces at Claire and gestured towards Grayson. She knew what her friend was thinking. He was an unknown quantity in the middle of the deep West Virginia forest.
But Dawn was from the city. She didn't know what it was like growing up in a rural area. The Ozarks of southern Missouri where Claire had grown up were a lot like the Appalachians. People were proud, but would give you their shirt if you needed it and if they thought you weren't looking down on them. It didn't mean there weren't dangers, but nothing in the world was certain.
The path intercepted with an old gravel road with tufts of grass growing up through the raised center. The wider path gave Claire a chance to walk beside Grayson who seemed content to travel silently.
"I really appreciate your generosity. I was expecting to be out here a few days to find any downy."
Grayson clucked his tongue and nodded his head. "They're frightening beasts. Screech'll put the fear of eternal damnation in ya. Came upon one once many years ago, in the middle of a clearing. Taken down a small doe, no more than thirty pounds. The great bird perched on the fallen deer. We stared at each other for a long time, that owl and I."
"Do you know why?"
"They say ghost owls escort the dead into the afterlife. Creatures of the Veil they are."
"Psychopomp," said Claire, remembering the word.
"Yes, that's the one. Like the boatman Charon, or Anubis."
"You know your mythology."
Grayson snorted softly then fixed her with a frightening stare. "Some of it ain't mythology."
"My parents died in a car crash when I was fifteen. The police said when they arrived at the scene the crumpled car was covered in ravens even though the wreckage was still smoking. Strangest thing they'd ever seen."
"Psychopomps." Grayson turned his head. "My house is this way."
A side road pushed deeper into the forest along a high ridge. They'd been climbing for the last ten minutes. The air had grown colder as the winds picked up, rustling the trees and sending rain spit upon them at inopportune moments.
The structure of an old wooden gate remained at the head of the road. Small objects covered in feathers and wire had been nailed to the beams. Grayson made a gesture as they approached and Claire thought she saw a glistening of webbing across the entrance. When she passed through, a tingle formed on her flesh. Dawn gave her a worried glance, but kept following. Halfway towards the house see could buried in a nest of trees, Claire checked behind them out of instinct only to find she couldn't see the gate, even though they weren't fifty feet past it.
"Claire?" whispered Dawn. "We'll be fine," she told her friend, putting up a brave smile even though she was having doubts.