Zach turned on his heel and began to run but he could feel the angry presence right behind him all the way. He felt his feet struggling to grip the snowy road but he ran still. All the while, the feral voice seemed to bark at him. He could feel phantom hands tearing at his back and a few times he was convinced that something had really scratched at his skin. His breath caught in his throat as he found an ice patch beneath a thin layer of snow and went crashing into a nearby snowbank. Zach curled into a ball, waiting for the figure to strike when a loud sound echoed in his ears. Shaking, he looked up to see the sharp end of a cane had struck the sidewalk but it left no imprint on the snow or the ice. The silver tip was steady and parked firmly between Zach and the shadow that had been chasing him. The figure that had seemed so sinister only a few seconds before this hovered in the shadows and appeared to be cowering.
“That will be quite enough from you. Be gone with you,” a man’s commanding voice said, sharply. The figure seemed torn, both wanting to reach forward and wanting to skitter off. It made a pass for the edge of Zach’s boot when the man with the cane moved forward, his eyes blazing with anger. “I said be gone!”
The figure had barely retreated to the shadows before it faded away. The sound of a pathetic whimper echoed on the wind.
“Her power is limited but she is emboldened by fear,” the man said without looking at Zach. “Pay her no mind and she will lose her ability to harm you at all. You may still hear her cries but her frustration is her only reward for her life.”
“Who are you?” Zach said, shivering now. The light from dusk had faded almost entirely and the darkness of the streets was getting heavier. “You saw that thing! You know something is wrong here.”
Zach stopped speaking when he looked at the man’s stoic face and saw that the edges of his body were soft and as ephemeral as the others he’d seen since he left the library. The man with the cane looked down at Zach for the first time and his dark eyes shone even though it was clear that the was not physically standing there. Zach felt sheepish and wanted to scramble away from the man but there was something calming about seeing this figure. As much as he wanted to run away, he stayed and watched as the man with the cane slowly shifted in the light and stood before him. He sighed, looking the boy over.
“Wrong, I’m afraid, is a relative term here in this county,” he sighed. “There are many different things here. Things which, I am ashamed to admit, I should have accepted when I had the chance. Alas, vain regret is not something that is worth the weight we might give to it. I should hope that this is a lesson you will soon learn, young man.”
“I don’t understand,” Zach replied, looking at the snow.
“No, I don’t suppose you would yet,” the man said, gesturing for him to stand up. “Never the matter of it now. All things in time, I suppose. Come along, though. You’ve got the look of a boy frozen in time and this is not a proper way to greet your visitors.”
“But of course,” the man nodded, solemnly. Zach got up from the ground and the man with the can began to move. Zach followed at a safe distance. “You are expected, young sir. Someone has been waiting for you for a long time now.”
“That’s not possible,” Zach said, falling back a few steps now. The man with the cane paused and turned to look at him. “I’ve only been here a couple of weeks. Less than a month. No one knows me here. No one would be expecting me.”
“My young friend, the world around you is much bigger than you might imagine but here in this county, you will find that your world is a bit smaller,” the man said, his voice softening. “You said before you believe this place to be wrong. Will you not grant it the chance to show you a different side of it? There’s more to see here than simply snow and misery.”
“You wouldn’t know it if you looked around,” Zach muttered, bitterly. The man with the cane laughed and began to walk again.
“I assume that you speak to the lack of festivity in these hollow streets,” he said, the chipper tone carrying. Zach hurried to catch up to him.
“Why? You seem to know what the deal is with this place,” Zach said, insistently. “Why don’t they have lights anywhere here? Why is it so dark here all the time?”
“I am sure that there will be some here who will swear by it as a long lost tradition,” the man said, distastefully. “For some it may as well be. The older set here have their ways and they will not be convinced that they are wrong. They will give you all manner of rubbish for reasons but the truth is far more simple than this. This soil beneath the snow is thick with those who have come before us. We have come to live with you and you with us. It has been this way for many a year before the dawn of this township. Once, we accepted that this was the way. The ghostly shapes of the valleys and hills in this area were simply a part of life.”
“Fear,” the man said, slowing his steps. “The people here wish to deny what they already know. These are haunted streets and forests. These are very haunted people but they are determined to see otherwise. They think their shadows hide them but we are among you all.”