trolltooth

Of a sudden, the thunderous footsteps halted.  There was an enormous, effortful groaning accompanied by a vast, wet, sucking sound, as if a titan galosh had been pulled free of a correspondingly large quagmire.  Finch spun in outright panic toward Bane and the girls.

I

Atticus Bane, intrepid inquirer into the improbable and the explicable, peered at the digital image displayed on the tablet.

He rotated the device, fiddled with the magnification, and squinted.  After a final turn, he closed one eye, and held the tablet out to the limit of his reach.

Then he shook his head in resignation.  “I’m afraid,” he said with an apologetic shrug, “it still looks to me rather like someone stuck grandfather’s souvenir walrus tusk into the wet cement of someone else’s patio.”  He extended his arm, offering the iPad back to its owner.

“Tain’t no walurse tusk,” the first of his unexpected guests insisted, crossing thin arms over a flat, teenaged chest. 

“It’s a tro-wull’s tooth,” the second corrected.

“And that hain’t no see-ment,” the third assured him. “That there’s solid mountain granite!”

In attempting to transliterate certain significant speech patterns here, it is not the intent of this poor scrivener to ridicule the speakers of those patterns, nor their parent culture, past or present.  Rather, it is possible for the knowledgeable and observant to glean much from the close study of such regional intonations, and there is wisdom to be gained through such oracles that cannot always be conveyed in mere words.

In the case of the triple Gibbens sisters, their accents placed their home in the eon-shrouded, legend-haunted hills and hollows of West Virginia.

While it is often clumsy and embarrassing in social intercourse, the true scientific mindset does have one inherent advantage: it eschews such inaccuracies as racial, cultural and ethnic slurs, preferring instead more accurate – and coincidentally less inflammatory – terminology.  “Hillbilly” never crossed his mind but, from his intimate association with indigenous peoples throughout the world, Bane intuited – correctly, it might be added – that “mountain folk” would be acceptable.

Bane’s suspicion, therefore, was not founded in the stereotype of gullible mountain-dwelling rustics so much as the stereotype of excitable – and perhaps prank prone – high school girls.

Nelli, Melli and Kelli – it had taken a staggering amount of mental self-discipline on Bane’s part just to digest the names – had materialized on the doorstep of Runeharrow, Atticus’ home and base of operations in Loudoun Country, Virginia, after a six-hour road trip from their home in Fenton, WV.  The three were met by Maemy Bishop – newly-arrived wear-wolf late of Dunwich, Mass. and self-appointed receptionist – who promptly hollered for Atticus and his sidekick, Cullan Finch.

Finch, perhaps by virtue of his training in certain esoteric martial arts – but more likely owing to a lifetime of sisters, aunts, nieces and girlfriends – read the writing on the wall from afar, and suddenly remembered an alchemical experiment he’d left simmering in the alembic…

Atticus was outmaneuvered and abandoned before he knew anything was afoot.

In marked contrast to Finch, Atticus was one of three brothers whose mother had died when he was a lad, and whose farther had never remarried.  Add to that the all-male environment – during his day, at least – of academia, and one might say that Bane never had the proper education or training to deal with females on anything resembling an even footing.

Even so, die-hard adventurer that he was, Bane never gave up trying.

He may have been taken in by the fact that, precocious as they were – and quite capable of it when they had a mind to – the sisters had elected not to deploy one of the most devastating psychological weapons at the disposable of multiple simultaneous identical siblings: they chose, on the occasion of their visit to Runeharrow, not to dress alike.

That gave Atticus a kind of false hope, and he was subsequently in the weeds before he quite saw them coming.

The sisters, it developed, were attempting to capture a large hominid, which they referred to as a troll, that was known to haunt the less accessible vastnesses of the hill country around Fenton.  Their motivation was simple and pragmatic: the economy where they lived was, as Kelli so succinctly observed, “in the shee-itter,” and the only real money to be had was in tourism.  A real, live troll on exhibition, they reasoned, would be a sure-fire money-maker.

A reasonable enough conclusion, Bane thought, given an unreasonable premise.

“Ladies,” he began in an imploring whine.

“Well how aba-out this, then!” Melli fairly leaped at him, and almost sent the tablet spinning from his grasp as she swatted at the screen, trying to tap and advance to the next picture.  Bane flinched back, and was preparing to reprimand the teen, when he chanced to glance at the new image…

And froze.

The picture – downloaded from one of Mr. Gibbens’ trail cams, pressed into off-season service by the would-be troll hunters – was of poor quality, to be sure, but lacked the forced deficiency of a hoax.  A paw of some kind – and true, it might easily have been a Hollywood special-effects monster-hand for all that Bane could make it out in detail – covered most of the lens with splayed digits. Atticus got the impression of, rather than saw, leathery ocher skin, gnarled, knobby joints and the wicked hooks of claws that belonged to no phylum he was acquainted with.

But it was not the blurry appendage that caught and held Bane’s attention, nor the equally out of focus blob against the inky background that might have been a head – a head with a gaping, single-fanged maw.

What drew his eye was the object visible between the digits, below the head, where a neck might be.  Of the entire image, it was the only thing that could be seen with any clarity, a chance collaboration of subject and focal length.

It appeared to be a round bronze medallion, giving the impression of considerable weight and age, hanging from a thick, crudely braided leather thong, and bearing a complicated, angular design.

“Oh, my…” Bane whispered, missing Kelli’s triumphant we-told-you-so look.

“Now this…” he began, but had to stop to clear his throat.  He tried again.

“What I meant to say…” and he tripped over his uvula again, apparently unable to utter aloud that which his mind had already apprehended.

Nelli nodded with a knowing solemnity beyond her years.

“It’s a tro-wull, ain’t it, Mr. Bay-een?”

II

“That,” Cullan Finch said, with the utter and absolute confidence of a taxonomic expert pronouncing the genus of a lab rat, “is certainly as good a candidate for a troll’s tooth as anything I’ve ever examined.”

The Gibbens sisters fairly glowed with the combined aura of admiration for Finch and validation of their long-suffering assertions. But Bane screwed one eye shut, and turned the hairy eyeball of the other upon his companion.

“That’s a trifle…well…vague, don’t you think?”

Finch shrugged.  “If you want precision, switch to paleontology.  If you want bleeding-edge cryptozoology, then you have to accept a certain measure of ambiguity.  We’ve had this discussion before, Atticus.”

The triplets, well versed in diagnosing and treating perennial parental arguments, were galvanized into action by these words.

“It’s real, ain’t it?”  they crooned, in eerie, intimidating and one-hundred percent intentional chorus.  The psychic shock of the tripartite voice washed over the two men like a bucket of cold water thrown on squabbling tomcats.

Well, if it quacks like a duck and all that…

It should be noted here that this humble narrator will no longer beleaguer the good reader with transliterations of local accents.  It is felt that the reader has gotten the point – or should have by this point, at the very least.  Further, if said reader did not possess the imagination to extend the philologistic examples of the first chapter to the remainder of the narrative, it is doubtful that he or she would have read this far to begin with.

To put it more succinctly, perhaps: Except in the case of word-choices that are not necessarily limited to a particular vernacular, such as “ain’t”, this unworthy scrivener will no longer spell out the sounds for you.

Who do I look like anyway – Manly Wade Wellman?

But I digress.  Let us return to our narrative:

Although Finch exercised the better part of valor and dodged the sisters on the occasion of their initial visit to Runeharrow, he couldn’t very well refuse Atticus’ request for aid on the investigation, not to mention the chance to examine an authentic cryptozoological fossil.

For such Cullan believed the tooth to be – and nothing more – despite the evidence of the digital trail cam which, according to both the Gibbens sisters and the newly-convinced Atticus, showed the blurred image of a healthy, living troll crushing the ill-fated device.

Bane and Finch had examined a copy of the photo in minute detail, following the departure of the triplets from Runeharrow, bearing away with them a promise from Atticus to look into the matter.

“I can make one of those,” Finch had sniffed, when Bane pointed out the runic pendant hanging, it was to be assumed, around the neck of the cryptid, “from illustrations in one of Cousin Howard’s anthologies and a handful of Sculpey.”

“But in the backwoods of West Virginia?” Bane had countered. “And those runes are genuine, Finch – I’ll stake my reputation on it.  It all seems a bit too, well, elaborate and accurate for a hoax.”

Finch had shrugged, fatalistic and unconvinced.  “People will go to ridiculous lengths for verisimilitude these days.  Well, cryptid or not, I think what they’ve got there is a fossil of some kind, and I guess it wouldn’t be an utter waste of my time to take a look.  If it’s worthwhile, maybe we can get the girls a little cash honorific from the Smith…”

Two days and several hundred miles later, they stood with the sisters in a saddle between glowering, blue-black mountain summits, overlooking the tiny hamlet of Fenton, West Virginia.

A tumble of boulders – reminiscent of Finch’s so-called bunker, as described in an earlier Chronicle – created an elliptical clearing in the otherwise dense tree-cover just below the ridge line of the gap.  The huge, angular slabs of granite, as well as the humans moving among them, were quite warm in the direct rays of the late winter sun.

“Well, we could use a dash less cryptic and a bit more zoology, eh what?” Bane quipped, in perfect imitation of their mutual but annoying acquaintance, Burtie Wodehouse.  Bane didn’t need to see Finch’s face to know he was rolling his eyes.

“I think it’s time for a time-out, Atticus,” Finch sighed, “Unca Cullan needs to concentrate on his work now.”

Finch turned from his initial, cursory examination of the tooth, and opened the black medical bag that served as his toolkit.

Extravagant prose would be wasted here: Bane’s initial impression was as accurate a description of the displaced dentition as one could hope for.  To the casual observer, it looked very much like a walrus tusk, somehow thrust into the edge of a angular boulder – granite of course, rather than concrete.  The fang had then been snapped off, it appeared, leaving about eight inches of the shaft and a ragged, splintered terminus.

Extracting an odd pair of goggles from his bag, Finch activated tiny LED lights at the temples, donned the outrageous gear, and bent to examine the tooth.

While Finch’s eyewear resembled a prop in a mad scientist movie, they were in fact quiet ordinary watchmaker’s goggles, allowing exceptional hands-free magnification for various precision activities.  The LEDs, however, were anything but ordinary.

He is known now only by his patronymic: Ibn Ghazi, son of Ghazi.  In the Golden Age of Moorish metaphysical science, Ibn Ghazi discovered the peculiar refractive qualities of certain crystals.  In the proper proportions and combinations, these crystal had the power to make seen the Unseen.  It is a common, though understandable fallacy that Ibn Ghazi’s infamous Powder was (and is) an herbal or chemical concoction, when in fact it was a talcum or dust of powdered crystals.

Finch’s LEDs incorporated filters tuned to the Ibn Ghazi frequencies; he used them to located minute traces of the Unseen during investigations.

No sooner had Finch turned to peer through the goggles at the protruding specimen, then he jumped back with a blistering oath that singed Bane’s ear-hairs, while provoking only a squealing, mock-scandalized titter from the triplets.

“I owe you and the lasses an apology, Atticus,” Finch rumbled, stripping off his goggles and handing them to Bane, without taking his eyes from the tooth.

With a thrill of anticipation, Atticus held the goggles up to his eyes, and looked for himself.

Unabashed by the brilliant rays of the sun, the tooth was shining like a purple glow-stick.

III

The Gibbens sisters were no less comfortable with firearms than their pioneer foremothers.  They nonetheless expressed a marked degree of alarm and concern when Finch produced a heavy-caliber sidearm that, in some jurisdictions, might have qualified as field artillery.

“You ain’t gonna shoot our troll, Mr. Finch!” Nelli declared, the conglomerate admiration of the triplets for the stout arcanologist dimming by several orders of magnitude.  Their expressions were so resolute and fierce Bane wouldn’t have been surprised in the least had they produced machetes and hockey masks in defense of “their troll.”

Finch, on the other hand, was oblivious to the discouraging demeanor of the young damsels, trying in vain as he was to look everywhere at once.

“We have to get out of here, Atticus,” Finch said.  “Right the Hell now!”  He began backing toward their SUV like a character low-budget police show.

Bane looked at him in bemusement.  “Whatever are you blathering about, Finch?”

“That tooth is still alive,” Finch croaked.  “It’s still connected energetically to the troll.  If it’s coming back here on a regular basis, it’s trying to retrieve the tooth.  It’ll know we’re here, and it’ll think we’re trying to steal its ivory.  I repeat:  We need to get the holy scalding Hell out of here!”

Atticus had just opened his mouth again to admonish his querulous companion; as a result, the Gibbens sisters were treated to the momentary and unsettling illusion of the shrieking, inhuman ululation that followed emanating from Bane’s gaping maw.

Bane’s jaws snapped shut with an audible clack!

The howling bellow came from somewhere behind him, aways up toward the mountaintops, quite a bit higher than the saddle where Bane and his party stood.  The booming echoes of the cry soon blended into the unmistakeable concussions of footsteps.

Really big footsteps.  

Really big descending footsteps.

“I believe you may be correct, old boy,” Atticus said as he passed Finch at a run, fumbling for the SUV’s remote.  He was, in turn, left in the dust by the triplets, who were at that moment reappraising the feasibility – and advisability – of their nascent get-rich-quick scheme.

Of a sudden, the thunderous footsteps halted.  There was an enormous, effortful groaning accompanied by a vast, wet, sucking sound, as if a titan galosh had been pulled free of a correspondingly large quagmire.  Finch spun in outright panic toward Bane and the girls.

“No! Get away!” he screamed, in itself a terrifying sound, given the depth and power of his voice.  “Get away from the car!  Run!”

Bane glanced back at Finch’s frantic warnings, and his eyes were drawn skyward by a huge, round shadow; a shadow that rose rapidly to apogee and then began to descend with a faint, far away whistling sound.

Bane’s haste to reach the SUV should in no way be considered an indicator of cowardice.  He and Finch had worked together for decades, and each played to his respective strengths.  In a bug-out situation such as this, it was Finch’s role to man the guns and Bane’s to take the wheel.

So his apparent heroism in throwing himself under the onrushing asteroid to tackle the entire compliment of Gibbens gals and sweep them out of the path of certain death will not now seem contradictory to his character.

Bane and his squealing armful hit the ground concurrent with the impact of the boulder full upon the hapless SUV.  The results were about what one would expect, but only if one is divorced from the Hollywood stereo-hype of vehicular damage.  There was no explosion; no noisy, protracted, end-over-end tumble down the boulder-strewn mountainside; no fireworks display of shorting electronics.

The rock smashed into the cab of the vehicle, crushed it like the proverbial egg-carton, and settled there while the massive shocks of the SUV absorbed what remained of the collision. Even the tortured-metal shriek of the impact was gone in a millisecond.

The in-dash stereo did not, in its death-throes, even vomit forth its final CD.

A disinterested third party might have found the whole effect rather anticlimactic.

Not so those directly involved.

Bane and the Gibbenses scrambled to their feet, Finch shouting at them from upslope.

“Downslope!”  he bawled.  “Head downslope!  We need to get away from the tooth!  Oh, shit!  Incomingggggggggg!”

This last as another boulder arced up from the tree-line above, clearly intended for the vicinity of Cullan’s voice.

Finch dove for cover, not even attempting to run.  There just wasn’t time.

A boulder traveling at several hundred feet per second, colliding with a structure specifically designed and engineered to absorb g-forces by crumpling in upon itself is one thing.  A similar missile impacting another, larger, stationary mass of igneous rock is a party.

Cue Hollywood…

The inbound boulder hit the outcropping where Finch had been an instant before, and detonated with a thunderclap explosion.  Rock shrapnel stitched the remains of the SUV like a fusillade of machine-gun fire; Bane and the Gibbens sisters tried to claw their way into the earth in the best tradition of innocents under fire everywhere, as angry wasps of razor-edged flint whined over their terrified bodies, mere inches from their unprotected flesh.  Finch’s life was doubtless saved by his insistence on wearing heavy clothing in the field, but he cried out as a sizable flake, big and sharp as a Folsom point, lanced into the back of his thigh.

Then silence.  The silence of the shooting range when the last round has just been fired.

Gray rock dust drifted away in a shredded cloud, like smoke from an artillery strike.  The deafening report of the attack reverberated away over the hills into eventual silence; the cowering interlopers, as well as Nature Herself, held their breath.

The silence stretched, deepened and finally metamorphosed into the normal background symphony of evening-tide in the mountains.

Finch spat grit from his mouth, rolled onto his side, and ran a hand down the back of his leg until he found the shard protruding from his flesh.  It was in deep, and he could feel far too much warmth flowing over his exploring fingers.  He thumbed the spearhead of stone experimentally, and hissed at the dizzying wave of pain and nausea that swept through him.

Well…prairie shit, he thought.

“So much for my plan of un-assing the area,” he called to his companions, evoking yet another – though far more subdued – titter from the triplets.  “I’m hit pretty bad.  I don’t think I can hike out, but I don’t relish the thought of bivouacking up here overnight, either.”

As if in response, a distant, eerie hooting floated up from the darkening slopes above.

It was not an owl.

IV

Fortune favored Finch at Fenton that day.

(Oh, don’t start with me.  I’m just trying to make a living here.  I write what I’m told to, the way I’m told to.  Take it up with the boss.  Bosses.  Whatever.  Just leave me out of it, if you please.)

Whatever its antecedents, the statement is nonetheless accurate in its essentials.

The first airborne boulder destroyed the passenger compartment of the SUV, but left the majority of the cargo area untouched.  While the triplets kept watch across a wide panorama, Bane was able to retrieve their vehicular medical kit as well as his own bag of tricks.

Again, one must take into account the nature of Bane and Finch’s favorite pastime – inquiring intrepidly into the improbable and the inexplicable – to appreciate their idea of a first aid kit.  Small town ERs were often less well equipped.  In addition, Bane’s personal field kit included an assortment of medicinal poultices, powders and potions equal to anything but the most severe trauma.

Time was what they most needed, however, and neither of the adventurers into the arcane had a magical hat from which to pull that particular rabbit.

“Reception sucks,” Melli said, watching the upper slopes with one eye and the bars on her cell phone with the other.

“Shoulda brought the sat phone!” Finch said as Atticus moved to his side in a crouch.  Bane squatted, set his bag aside and opened the medical kit.

“Blood under the bridge,” Bane said, quoting one of their mutually favorite stage productions.

“That’s enough guff outta you, George,” Finch replied, in-character but off-script, and grunted in pain as Atticus probed the wound with a somewhat less than delicate finger.  “Steady on, you muppet!  How about a little morphine before you have your way with me?”

“I think you have an inordinate fondness for the poppy,” Bane scolded him, as he withdrew an auto-injector of painkiller from the med kit and stabbed it with undisguised glee into Finch’s buttock.

“Damn you!”  Finch bit back the roar, and the resulting backlash on his larynx was painful to hear.

“Quiet, you big girl’s blouse,” Bane said, knowing how much “Brit-wit,” as Finch called it, irritated his stalwart friend.  Finch groaned, but the groan melted into a humming sigh of relief as the painkiller took hold.

Bane donned an LED headlamp, and soaked his hand with disinfectant.  He had no fear of Finch’s blood, and in this environment, infection from Bane’s touch would be the least of their contamination worries; thus he ignored the elastic gloves.

Before commencing, Atticus half-turned to the Gibbenses.

“See anything, ladies?”

“Nuthin’,” came the simultaneous answer from three throats; unintended, if would seem, because the triplets then exchanged surprised looks and burst into laughter.

“Stay sharp,” he said, “I’m going to be rather busy here for the next few minutes.”

“We gotcher back, Mr. Bane,” Kelli said in a confident drawl.  “You go ‘head and take care of Mr. Finch.”

Bane nodded and turned to his work.

Once again, it would be easy to over-dramatize what followed, but the naked truth is that the entire procedure went pretty much by the numbers.

Bane wiggled the shard back and forth a bit with a pair of disposable forceps to test its tenacity, then grasped it firmly in the plastic jaws and removed it with a slow, steady pull.  He tossed it into the darkness; since emergency rooms and hospitals aren’t required to report rock shrapnel wounds to law enforcement, no evidence needed to be retained.

The exposed gash bled like the proverbial stuck pig – as mountain folk might say – but it was nothing Bane hadn’t expected, given the severity of the wound.  He cleaned and disinfected it, then applied an “Izzy,” an ingenious bandage developed by the Israeli military that applied its own direct pressure.  Bane forbore to suture the wound, since it still needed to be properly treated, preferably within the next few hours.

“That’s about all I can do here,” Atticus said, rousing Finch from his drugged-induced reverie with a comradely slap on the back.  Finch grunted, assessed Bane’s handiwork with his fingertips, and found it sufficient.

“I still don’t think I can walk on it,” Cullan said, and Atticus knew to trust that conclusion, despite the narcotics.  Finch had been exploring the frontiers of botanical pharmacology when he and Bane met; while the opiates certainly dulled the physical pain of his wound – and likely his reflexes as well – it had a long way to go yet to dull his wits.  If he didn’t think he could walk, it was not an estimation Atticus cared to test with his life.

“Any thoughts on Plan B?” he said, turning to stare past the Gibbenses, into a darkness grown impenetrable.

Bane realized with a start that, although the night beyond the girls was Stygian, he could see them quite clearly – in the beam of his headlamp, which even now must be shining up into the darkness much like the ruby pinpoint of a laser gunsight.

Atticus swallowed, but made no move to douse the light.

“I can’t be sure,” he said, “but I think we might be okay here for a while, provided we don’t do anything provocative.”  He sketched his suspicions about the headlamp, and Finch grunted his agreement.

“It’s a thought I could have slept without,” he admitted, “but you’re right:  If it wanted to smear us all over the hillside, its had the perfect target designator for half an hour or more.”

“So we dig in for the night?” Bane arched one eyebrow with the question.  Finch shrugged.

“Unless you have a better p…” he was cut off by the hooting roar from upslope, booming out once again in the boundless darkness.  The two men tensed, and Bane’s eyes shot to the backs of the young women, as he instantly began to calculate his chances of getting them to some kind of safety in the next few heartbeats.

But the bellowed challenge from the heights was answered by an equally guttural, growling roar from below; an iridescent beam of blue-white light stabbed through the darkness like an alien death ray, reaching all the way up the mountain to paint the trees that concealed the lurking threat.  The broad lozenge of light swept back and forth across the trees like a London searchlight during the Blitz, scouring the clouds for enemy aircraft.

Gunshots and rebel yells sounded from downslope, and the thundering footsteps were heard once again on that mountainside…

Retreating this time, back through the gap, fading into the even wilder mountain country beyond.

V

“Breckinridge Watkins?” Bane couldn’t keep the question – and the amusement – out of his voice.

The youngster, in baggy jeans with ball-cap turned backwards, blushed and grinned, revealing a significant investment in gold grillwork.  “My Dad was a Conan fan back ‘fore I was born.  Conan the Barbarian, right?  Not Conan O’Brien.  Anyway, the guy who wrote about him wrote about this other dude, who was like Conan, only he was some kinda cowboy or gunfighter.  His name was Breckinridge Elkins.  Watkins… Elkins… Get it?”

Breck related the story with the resigned air of someone who has done so on too many occasions that elicited not the slightest flicker of comprehension or recognition.  He was therefore delighted beyond the ability to speak when Bane seized his hand, grinning broadly, and said, “Oh yes – Robert E. Howard, A Gent From Bear Creek!  I know it well.  Great stuff – absolutely top-notch!”

From that moment forth, Atticus Bane could do no wrong in the eyes of Breckinridge “Breck” Watkins.

Breck, it developed, had been in another, man-made clearing elsewhere on the slopes above Fenton.  In the company of two cronies, he had been practicing three of his favorite hobbies: drinking beer, smoking weed and tinkering with radio telescopy.

Advances in satellite dish technology, resulting in smaller and smaller units over the years, had orphaned thousands of huge, bulky first-gen dishes in isolated, rural communities across the country.  After all, nobody keeps a hot-tub-sized dish in their side yard because they think it’s a charming alternative to lawn gnomes.  It was a necessity, not a landscaping statement.  When smaller, more robust and decidedly cheaper units became available, the older monsters got the old heave-ho.

Such discarded units, far from proving useless however, were excellent source material for the aspiring amateur radio astronomer.  Breck and his mates – “Z-String” Clampett and “Natty” Bodine – had assembled a dozen or so, salvaged from the Fenton area, in pursuit both of something to do with their hands while they slaughtered their young brain cells, and their online degrees at UWV.

The three were, in short, full-bore, card-carrying, take-no-prisoners nerds.

The Gibbens sisters, having already made the acquaintance of the nascent scientists and apparently being enamored of their peculiar combination of social awkwardness and technical acumen, exercised the right and privilege of females everywhere to swoon and giggle, despite the extremity of their circumstances.

In common with any number of teens in the area – adults being quite myopic on the matter of cryptids – the boys knew about the troll, and when holy scalding Hell, to quote the wounded Finch, had broken loose on the mountainside above them, Breck and his buds had recognized the ruckus for what it was: an attack by the beast on some unfortunate trespasser(s).

Being young men of the mountains, they saw no alternative but to charge to the rescue.

Their own “troll” now squatted like the metallic destrier it was, rumbling to itself as it blazed its effulgent challenge into the night from no less than four sets of supplemental headlights hanging from its superstructure.  Atticus had seen less tricked-out monster trucks in beer commercials, and began to wonder, with just the faintest of misgivings, how the youths managed to come by so much ready cash.

As Z-String and Natty charmed the cooing triples, shotguns slung with studied nonchalance over their shoulders – nerds, yes…but country nerds – Breck and Atticus helped Finch get situated in the bed of the pickup.  When he was as comfortable as he was likely to get, given the steep, uneven descent ahead, Atticus dusted his hands and turned to Breck.

“Once we get old Finch there patched up,” he said, ignoring a splendid gesture from the latter, “and I’ve had a chance to get some sleep, we’re coming back up here, you know.  We’re not quite done here yet.  Are you and your mates game to come along, Breck?”

Given the inordinate importance our society now places on liability and litigation, one might question Bane’s apparent casualness in recruiting three additional, underage hangers-on.  Bane and Finch, however, knew one of the inescapable truths of dealing with the Unseen: it would find you, regardless.  Regardless of laws, lawyers, courts and judges.  Regardless of parents, police, preachers and politicians.  Regardless of whether you, yourself, even really believed.

If it was meant to be, the Unseen would find you.

Bane and Co. knew, from long, bitter experience, that the only real protection from the worst the Unseen had to offer was knowing it was there.

Breck and Co., for their part, had sussed that out long ago, with the unerring intuition which only the truly nerdy possess.  “Hells yeah, Mr. Bane!  Count us in!” he yelled, and his “cru” added their ringing “Yee-haws!” of approbation.

As their shouts bounced back from the surrounding slopes, Atticus had to chuckle:

They sounded even weirder than the mournful, eldritch hootings of the elusive troll.

VI

“The real question,” Atticus said, meditating upon both the matter of the Fenton troll’s tooth, and a rather delicious, thin-crust double-pepperoni supreme, “is how to get the tooth free, without destroying it.  Doubtless the same puzzle that has kept our rather boisterous friend hanging around Fenton.”

Jostling down the mountainside in Breck’s monster truck, the decision was made to ignore the local firehouse.  Finch’s wound was significant enough that any fireman or EMS worth his or her salt would simply load him into an ambulance and convey him forthwith to the nearest hospital.  Breck got them there in far less time, with far less fuss, and saved Finch the discomfort of the inevitable transfer to a medical vehicle as well.

Even so, the wounded warrior was a complete brat about the whole operation.

To everyone’s amusement save his, Finch was soon put in his place by a head ER nurse who made it quite clear she had more important things to do – even on a week night – than hold the hand of a whiny-assed tourist who couldn’t hike straight in the first place.  The pugnacious caregiver’s assumption as to the origin of the wound, and the quality of Bane’s first aid in the field, conspired to get them in and out before the ink was dry on Finch’s admission forms.

The hospital was located at the intersection of two major highways, one north-south, the other east-west.  In any of those directions lay an assortment of ski slopes, golf courses, white-water rafting trips, trout steams, rock-climbing adventures and the like.  This, more than the local population density, accounted for the little cluster of businesses huddled around the hospital, including a motel with its light on, a car-rental depot and a regional chain pizza parlor.  Declaring this sufficient for their needs, Bane and Finch bid the young folks adieu.  Breck and the boys would see the Sisters Gibbens to their doorstep before going on their way; Bane promised to be in touch the next morning.

Given the time of year and the relative speed with which the troll encounter and the subsequent journey to the hospital had unfolded, it was early yet even for a weekday when the two investigators checked in to the motel.  While Finch treated himself to a piping hot sponge bath, Atticus fetched a pizza and, from the gas-station convenience store, a cold sixer of beer.  Despite his aching leg, Finch nearly threw himself to the carpet in front of Bane in worship when Atticus shouldered through the door juggling their evening meal.

Finch’s encounter with the Iron Nurse had resolved itself to the former’s advantage in the end.  Reading the writing on the wall, he’d done a complete about-face and turned on the old charm.  Ugly as a gallon of bad looks, Finch was a true Cyrano de Bergerac: he could charm the bloomers off a nun, despite the perceived deficiencies of his countenance, given sufficient motivation.  Such as his continued comfort once the IV drugs at the hospital wore off.  Now, glowing with the effects of a generous prescription of painkillers, courtesy of the finally flustered and flattered Iron Nurse, he still had the good sense to drool at, but then wave off, the beer.  Finch contented himself with the pizza, and did not consider that the lesser prize.

And too, there was always breakfast…

“Yep,” Finch said, easing another slice from the gooey embrace of its fellows. “Been thinking about that…”

He maneuvered the drooping ropes of cheese over his mouth, then lowered them screaming to their doom.  He chewed, looking thoughtful.

After a moment, the thoughtful look became somewhat glassy and defocused.  The chewing slowed to a stop.  A tendril of yellow deliciousness oozed from the waiting slice of pizza, settling on the front of his t-shirt.

After another moment, Bane leaned toward his friend and snapped his fingers under the other’s nose.  Finch started and blushed, looking sheepish as a cube-farmer caught snoring in front of his screensaver. He finished chewing, swallowed, sipped from the soda Bane had fetched when Finch declined the beer.  Then he noticed the yellow-red streak down his front, and cursed, fumbling around on the bed and nightstand for a clean napkin, a commodity in short supply at that moment.

When Finch had himself cleaned up and his dinner sorted out at long last, he squinted at Bane – because this was all his fault, after all – and continued his interrupted thought.

“I think the more urgent question,” he said, “is how we do anything on that mountainside without the troll raining death and destruction down on us.”

“And I now think,” Bane said, stroking his chin and the light stubble there, drawing inspiration, it would seem, from the faint rasping sound, “after watching you zone out, that there might be a way to answer both those questions, right from the comfort of our little love-nest here.”

Atticus wasn’t sure which caused Finch to first choke on, then expel through his nostrils, a mouthful of soda: “watching you zone out,” or “love-nest…”

VII

Atticus knew Finch was in the rapture of his medications when, after considering Bane’s plan, he shrugged and said, “It could work.”  In his present condition, Bane decided Finch would likely find the idea of carpet-bombing Fenton and its environs to resolve the matter of the cantankerous troll equally – if not more – acceptable.  He was in no condition to walk to the bathroom, let alone venture to the Dreamlands.

“But you’re right,” Finch agreed, keeping his eyelids open with obvious effort, yet evincing a thread of common sense.  “I’m in no shape.  I’d just slip over the brink into the Deeper Realms.  Or wander around, wasting time trying to remember why I was there.”

“There’s another consideration,” Bane said, “that’s at least as important in my mind.  Even if you managed to stay lucid and on task in the Dreamlands, it’s quite possible the troll would recognize you from the mountainside; your examination and – in its mind – molestation of the tooth, might well be enough to render you persona non grata.  While the beastie wouldn’t pose the same physical threat to you per se, it might very well reject any attempt on your part to converse with it, which would still net us a big steaming mug of nothing.”

“In that case,” Finch said, settling deeper into his pillows with a contended sigh, “I’ll leave you to it.  Maybe I’ll see you there, but I doubt it.  I’m exhausted.”

He closed his eyes, and his very next breath was a lusty snore.

Atticus smiled, as if at a beloved but erratic – and eccentric – offspring, and set about his preparations for the night’s festivities.

Bane was secretly pleased that Finch had excused himself from the coming expedition.  Volatile and hot-tempered at the best of times, an intoxicated Finch loose in the Dreamlands was something Bane did not care to witness – or deal with – ever again.  While Bane did, on occasion, utilize herbal concoctions to assist in his Dreaming, Finch had studied in traditions of shamanism that stressed the use of entheogen, or plant-based hallucinogens, such as peyote and ayahuasca.  His habit of showing up in the Dreamlands a near-raving madman had earned him the sobriquet “Wild Man of the Cold Waste,” in eerie echo of a similar nickname Finch had earned during the 60s, during his eccentric entheogenic experiments in rural Virginia.

The plan required a certain amount of restraint on the part of whomever undertook it, if only because their prospective quarry in the Dreamlands, the troll, would be skittish to begin with, being one fang down and in fear of losing the missing molar.  Diplomacy, any attempt at truce, mutual understanding or negotiation, would go out the window if the creature felt threatened.

The astute reader might wonder at the apparent assumption on the part of the Virginia arcanologists that communication with the troll would even be possible.  A long career of intrepid inquiries into the improbable and the inexplicable, however, had taught Bane and Finch much regarding the nature and habits of such denizens of the Unseen.  This might be their first direct encounter with such an entity, but there was never a question in their minds that it was anything but sentient.

The Unseen, which in part shares the physical universe with our reality, also overlaps and merges, to a great extent, with the Dreamlands.  Those who have traveled in all three modes of existence – the Seen and Waking World, the Unseen and the Dreamlands – are often of the opinion that the last frequently seems to be a synthesis of the first two; that is to say, if the Unseen could be seen in the Waking World, our world would be much as the Dreamlands are.

The mechanics of locating a lone individual, even one as distinct as a troll, in such a vast dimension are far too complicated to detail here; be assured again that Bane was confident enough in his ability to do so once he was in the Dreamlands, that it was the least of his concerns whilst preparing for the journey.

Indeed, his chief concern – for failure here would mean a wasted evening – lay in not sending himself so deeply into the realms of sleep that he bypassed the Dreamlands altogether and simply slept the night away.  Of course, the rest would do him a great deal of physical good, but a chance to wrap up the current investigation with no further muss nor fuss would be lost.  Finch of course, already well-sedated by the Iron Nurse’s painkillers, would plunge straight through the Dreamlands and into the true abyss of dreamless slumber.

With this in mind, Bane began to sort through his kit bag of potions, poultices and powders, making the kind of racket one usually associates with a blind drunk pilfering the minibar in a dark motel room.

And Finch snored on…