The Monster Society

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The year is 1635. The event known as the Ring of Fire is four years behind us, and yet, there are still strange occurences taking place. Enter the Gesellschaft der Ungethüme, The Monster Society, a Live Action Role-Playing group (LARPers) who have sworn an oath to protect Grantville and its shadowy surrounds from ghouls and goblins, vampires, villians, and scary monsters that lurk in your attic, your mind, or beneath your bed. These intrepid down-timers team up with up-timer Natalie Clinter to keep the citizenry safe from the evils of the real world. Fear not, desperate citizens… The Monster Society is on the case.

Writen by: Eric Brown, Robert Waters and Anna G. Carpenter

A town somewhere outside of Grantville, 1635

Henrietta was nervous as she crept her way down the street. Tonight would be her first time attending a real meeting of the Society. The leader behind it all preferred to remain anonymous.

She could understand why. The sort of “truths” he was teaching were dangerous. She knew him only as “John” and that he had learned the things he knew from an up-timer he had served with in the army.

At last she reached her destination. The alley behind the house was deserted. Its darkness brought her both comfort and fear. She didn’t want to think about what might happen to her If her parents ever found out she was here, much less a member of the Society.

Hurrying to the house’s rear door, she rapped her knuckles against it, a fast beat of three, followed by two loud thuds, and finally by a light tap. The door opened. Van stood in front of her.

“You made it, I see.” He grinned.  “I didn’t think you would.”

Her younger brother stepped aside to let her enter. Henrietta darted past him into the house.

Of course, Van wasn’t the name their parents had given him, but no one here dared use their real name.

The small room was lit by flickering candles.

Ray and John sat at the table in the center of the room. In its center rested a skull with a candle burning atop it. They both rose to their feet as she approached.

“It’s good to see you again, Red,” John nodded at her.

After making sure the door to the alley was locked, Van joined them at the table and all four took their seats.

“So, Red,” John watched her carefully as he spoke, “How much has Van told you about what we do here?”

John was older than the other members of the Society, and she had been told he was its founder.

“I know that we are the only ones who will be prepared should the creatures of the night rise up,” Henrietta said, trying to sound calm and confident. “None of the adults who came back through the Ring of Fire want to admit the truths that we know.”

Ray cracked a smile, leaning forward. “And what truths would those be, Red?”

“That the monsters in those books are much more than just stories.” Henrietta gestured at the tomes filling part of the top shelf of an otherwise empty bookcase. “And that we, the Society, have pledged our lives to stop them.”

“That’s all well and good,” John agreed, “but are you sure you are ready?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Henrietta challenged him.

“There are those of us who don’t believe a girl should be admitted to the Society,” John confessed.

Henrietta wondered if he meant himself when he said that, but she doubted it. His association with the up-timer who had taught him all he knew made him more inclined to be at ease with treating women as equals or even leaders. Her brother Van had pressed her to join, so she doubted very much John meant him. That left Ray. Of the four of them, only John was older. She placed him at around the age of twenty, at best.

“You’ve taken the name Red,” Ray commented, interrupting her thoughts. “That’s a very dangerous name to have. Wolves are not creatures to be trifled with.”

“All our names here are dangerous,” Van defended her choice.

Henrietta slipped a “silver” tipped arrow from underneath her cloak and placed it on the table.

“I choose the name Red because Van told me you have no one to deal with the wolves.”

“That is true,” John nodded. “I specialize in demons. Ray is best at dealing with spirits. And your brother, Van, he has a thing for the undead with pointy teeth.”

Van plopped a sharpened stake onto the table. “You bet I do.”

Her brother reeked of garlic and wore a wooden cross around his neck.

“This is pointless,” Ray grunted. “Let us test her and be done with this meeting.”

John and Van traded a look that made Henrietta even more nervous.

“Tell us then, Red, how do you kill a wolf?”  John demanded.

“With silver and fire,” Henrietta barked back at him.

“When does a wolf change?” Ray asked.

“Under a full moon or in times of great stress and anger.”

“Does a wolf need the moon to change?” Her brother asked.

“Some wolves can change at will,” she replied.

John stared at her for a moment then asked, “Are all wolves of the sort of which we speak: men?”

“No. A woman or a child can just as easily be a wolf as can a man. Anyone scratched or bitten by a wolf will undergo the change.” Henrietta felt relief wash over her as John smiled.

“She knows her lore,” John chuckled, “I’ll give her that.”

“I say we take a vote on her acceptance at once,” Van put forward the motion. “All those in favor, say Aye.”

“Aye,” John and Van chorused together.

Ray appeared angry as John extended his hand to her and said, “Welcome to the Monster Society, Red.”

“Thank you,” Henrietta accepted John’s hand, pumping it up and down in her excitement.

The rest of the meeting was spent in a discussion that John and Van led about the tactics of dealing with a vampire uprising in Grantville, followed by a reading from the holy works of H.P. Lovecraft.

“Hail Lovecraft, father of the truth!” the four saluted, lifting their hands towards the small section of books on the shelf as the meeting came to a close.

Henrietta and Van left together. As they walked down the dark alley towards the street, Van was beaming.

“I’m proud of you, sister,” he told her.

He fiddled with his stake as they walked, testing how sharp it was with the tip of his finger.

Henrietta shrugged. “I really think being a member is going to be fun.”

“Fun?” Van suddenly grew upset. “When the time comes, we’ll be the only ones ready to save the world!”

“You’re right Van,” she said, trying to calm him, “We will be.”

She could see that to her brother, everything the Monster Society taught and believed was as real as as Grantville itself. She knew it wasn’t but didn’t have the heart to tell him that in the real world, the only monsters wore clothes and looked as normal as anyone else. The Society was much more of a way to escape the real world. It was, what did the up-timers call it, a RPG that used costumes and acting more than dice. Besides, if it gave her brother a feeling of importance, who was she to judge? She had certainly joined up fast enough herself, hadn’t she?

“At the next meeting, I think John is going to talk about that hairy monster with the big feet and the monster that lives in a place called Loch Ness,” Van said excitedly.

Henrietta put her arm around his shoulders as they walked home.

“Trust me brother,” she said, “I can’t wait to hear about them.”

Somewhere outside of Grantville, 1635

The night was dark. A storm was brewing in the clouds hovering over the forest. Soon the heavens would break and the rain would pour down in waves. Red knew that time was short. She and Ray had to move quickly or everything would be over before it ever fully began.

They, all of the members of the Monster Society, had tracked the Sasquatch to these woods. The beast had already defeated John and dragged him, kicking and screaming, away in the shadows. Her brother, Van, had vanished as well. There was no way to know whether the beast had taken him, too, or he had left them of his own choosing. One minute, he was with them, the next . . . gone.

Red mourned the loss of her crossbow. Without it, she felt naked and vulnerable. In her desperate attempt to save John from the clutches of the giant beast, the creature had knocked it from her hands.

The fate of the Monster Society, perhaps the fate of all of Grantville, rested in their hands. It was up to them to find and stop the beast before it could it summon others of its kind. If the Sasquatch were allowed to do so, hundreds of the things would descend on Grantville. Not even the miraculous weapons of the up-timers would be enough to stop the creatures. With the element of surprise on their side, the beasts would rampage through the streets, leaving a trail of blood and carnage in their wake.

A flash of lightning lit the woods as it arced through the sky. Red saw Ray crouching in a patch of bushes not far from her. Clutched in his hands was a heavy mace. Arcane runes and other strange symbols were carved on every inch of its wood. The wood had been consecrated and blessed by the rituals of the Old Ones. It was perhaps the ultimate weapon for dealing with spirits. Red doubted it would do more than anger the Sasquatch, assuming that Ray even got the chance to use it. John was the strongest of them, and he had fallen easily to the beast. Ray was short and dumpy, and he became out of breath after even the shortest of sprints. She had little faith that his presence would matter at all when the beast showed itself again.

With her crossbow gone, Red had only a makeshift club to use as a weapon. She had to remind herself that the beast that waited on was not supernatural in its origin. It was a thing of flesh and blood, just as they were. It could bleed, and it could be stopped. How to stop it was another matter entirely. The thing seemed inhumanly strong, and it was fast, too. Worse still, it was smart. The ambush it had laid for them as they entered the woods had proved that. Not even John had seen the attack coming until it was too late. The beast came roaring from the shadows, flinging Van aside as if he were nothing. Red had jerked up her crossbow level with the beast’s chest but had no time to take her shot. By then, the beast already had John. The creature had ripped John’s sword from his hands, casting it aside as it yanked their leader to it. She rushed the beast, not daring to take a shot for fear of hitting John, and swung the butt of her crossbow at the monster. It deflected the blow with the thick hide covering its arm, and with a mighty shove sent her sprawling into the grass.

A cold feeling of dread settled over Red as something large moved through nearby trees. She noticed Ray watching her, and she gestured at him to be ready. They were only going to have one shot at catching the beast off guard. Ray stared back at her with wide eyes, his knuckles white from the tightness of his grip on his weapon.

The beast came lumbering by them just as she had hoped it would. Ray sprang from his hiding place. He gave a pathetic attempt at a battle cry as he swung his mace at the hulking figure. The giant’s hand moved like a striking snake. It caught Ray by his wrist before her short friend could bring the weapon completely around, stopping the incoming blow of the mace. She heard a “whomp” sound as the giant dove its fist into Ray’s rounded stomach, and the ghost breaker toppled to the forest floor.

Ray had bought her time. The Sasquatch never saw her coming until she was on it. Red’s club made contact with the beast’s bear-like head, sending it reeling. She swung her club again, but the monster recovered too quickly. One of its large hands caught her club and the other struck outward, hitting her in the chest so hard that she careened over backwards, landing painfully on her tail bone.

At that exact moment, Van dropped from the tree above the monster, landing on its back. Van was like an unleashed force of nature. His small hand stabbed at the beast with his trademark stake. The Sasquatch rolled its body with the blow, seeming to lift its own hide from its bones as Van struck again with his stake.

“Get off me!” it cried. “Get off!”

John burst into the small clearing. “Van! That’s enough!”

Van wasn’t listening, though. The Sasquatch shrugged off the hide covering its massive body. Van thudded to the ground with the hide half covering him.

Red could see that Jager, who had been playing the part of the Sasquatch, was bleeding. Ray, who had ceased pretending to be incapacitated, was looking up at Jager in shock and pure horror. She rushed over to where Jager stood, thankful to see that only one of Van’s repeated attempts to stab him had succeeded in getting through the tough, sewn-together hide Jager used as his costume. Jager was normally very kind and mature for his age, but right now he looked as if he wanted to rip Van apart with his bare hands.

“Your brother is a maniac! I get that this is live action role play but I’d like to stay alive to play again!” Jager shouted at her. “Who decided he could use a sharpened stake as a weapon? I don’t remember anything about that in the script John told us we were playing out!”

“I let him keep the stake,” John confessed, stepping between Van and Jager as he took charge of the situation. “It was my mistake to allow him to continue to be part of this group, and I will deal with it.”

“You’d better,” Jager growled. “He could have killed me with that thing!”

“I’m sorry,” Red sobbed at Jager. “He’s my brother. I thought by being here I could keep him under control. He loves all this so much. I just couldn’t see him get kicked out of the group without doing what I could to keep him in it.”

Van sat quietly, watching the group talk. The tip of his stake was slick with Jager’s blood, and it glistened in the small amount of starlight that seeped through the growing storm clouds. It surprised them all when he spoke up, saying, “It’s okay. I killed the Sasquatch.”

Van held up the animal hide Jager had been wearing. “See? We’re all safe now. We can go home.”

“Yes, Van,” Red told him, sadly. “We can go home.”

“Take him home Red,” John frowned. “Make sure he understands what the Monster Society is and why he can’t come back.”

“I will,” Red nodded and turned to help Van to his feet. If Van understood what was being said about him by her and the others, he showed no sign of it. He continued to hold tightly to Jager’s costume, refusing to leave it behind. Jager, still keeping a hand pressed firmly to the wound on his shoulder, made no move to take it from him.

“Oh, and Red,” John called after them as they started for town. “You are always welcome here. Please remember that.”

As Red led her brother through the woods towards their home, the heavens opened up. Rain fell from the sky in waves. It masked the tears running over Red’s cheeks as she tried to find the words to tell her brother that his days as a monster hunter were over.

Grantville, 1635

Natasha “Natalie” Clinter had seen her share of odd things since the Ring of Fire had picked up her little town of Grantville and deposited it smack-dab in the middle of Germany, 1631. The man standing at the end of the street had to be one of the oddest, though.

He wore a down-timer’s mockery of an up-time trench coat. A stick, painted to look like a cigarette, dangled from his lips. Its end was a glaring red and orange to represent the heat that should have been there. His hair was wild and unkempt. The way he stood–everything about him, really–reminded her of someone from the world she had known before. Natalie could tell he was older than she was. She was about to turn sixteen, so by the look of him he couldn’t be any older than twenty.

She had just gotten out of school for the day and was on her way home. As she drew closer to the end of the street where he stood, a girl about her age walked up to the trench coat. The girl wore a flaming red cloak. Its hood obscured the features of her face. The man plucked his fake cigarette from his lips and the two of them began talking excitedly.

It appeared as if the man were pleading with the girl in red. Maybe they are dating, Natalie thought. The man had an air of desperation about him as the girl shook her head in response to whatever he had asked her.

Natalie knew their business was none of hers, but her curiosity pulled her to them.

They stopped talking as she approached them.

“Hey,” Natalie said, casually waving after shuffling her textbooks about so that she cradled their weight under a single arm. “You guys new here?”

“”Hello, love,” the man said in a forced British accent. “I’m John, and my friend here is called Red. How can we help you?”

Red scowled at her as Natalie moved closer, offering John her hand.

He took it and raised it to his lips to plant a quick, light kiss on its backside.

“”I’m Natalie. Natalie Clinter,” she blurted out, stunned by John’s over-the-top gesture. “I . . .uh  . . . I go to the high school here and figured you guys must be new students?”

“Alas, no,” John winked at her, “though I am a student of many things.”

“”You talk funny,” Natalie laughed. “Are you part of some kind of new drama club?”

“”He just said we don’t go to your school,” Red growled.

Natalie blinked at the fierceness in Red’s tone. The girl looked like someone who could kick some major butt, but Natalie found the courage to stand her ground. “Now look,” she whirled on Red, nearly dropping her school books, “I don’t know what your problem is, but I’m just trying to be friendly, okay?”

Red only stared at her with burning, angry eyes.

“It’s okay, love,” John said. “Red here has had a hard time of late. You’ll forgive her, I’m sure. Now why don’t you tell us the real reason you decided to walk over here.”

Natalie felt her cheeks blushing. “Fine,” she huffed, no longer concerned with offending the two of them. “You’re holding a fake cigarette and dressed like a gumshoe, and she’s dressed like Little freaking Red Riding Hood. What in the heck are you guys doing dressed like all that?”

John smiled. He lifted his stick of wood and appraised it. “It really looks like a cigarette?” he asked. “I was worried that it didn’t. See, I can’t afford the hand rolled ones I hear you folks here in Grantville can get.”

“Come on John,” Red said, taking him by the arm. “I think it’s time we were going.”

“Hold on,” John said, shaking his arm free of Red’s hold. “Natalie here wants to know about us. Don’t you, love?”

Natalie nodded slowly, not really sure that she did anymore.

“You asked if we were part of a new drama club. In a sense, we are.” He looked left, then right, then said, “Do you like monsters?”

“Monsters?” Natalie frowned.

“Creatures of the night, demons, beasts of legend.” John moved close enough to her so he could speak in a whisper. “Great Old Ones and strange beasts that never die . . . but for eons lie.”

Natalie crinkled her nose at him. “Isn’t that last bit paraphrased Lovecraft?”

John jumped as if she had struck at him. “You know Lovecraft?”

“Sure,” Natalie said. “What self-respecting geek doesn’t?”

“What is a geek?” Red asked.

Natalie sighed. Some things just weren’t worth the effort when attempting to explain them to down-timers, and these two were certainly that.

“Forget it,” Natalie dismissed Red’s question. “Why do you want to know if I like monsters?”

“John, don’t you tell her,” Red glared at him. “It’s too dangerous to all of us and you know it.”

“”Have you ever heard of LARPing?” John asked.

Red punched him in the arm. John staggered sideways.

“Dammit it, Red!” he cried, rubbing at the spot where her fist had slammed into his arm.

“Oh!” Natalie giggled. “That explains why you’re dressed so funny! You guys are LARPERS!”

“Shhh . . . ” Red hissed. “Keep your voice down, or I’ll knock your teeth out.”

“”You really are Little Red Riding Hood,” Natalie said much more quietly. “And you, you’re . . .”

“”John,” John answered with a wicked grin. “You could say I dabble in the mystic arts.”

“Holy crap,” Natalie muttered. “I didn’t know there were any LARPERS in Grantville.”

“We’re not from here, but we live close by,” John said. “We call ourselves Gesellschaft der Ungethüme; or, what you would say . . . the Monster Society.”

Red was shaking her head furiously. “Great. That’s just great. Why don’t you tell her where we meet while you’re at it?”

“I’m getting to that,” John said, undeterred by Red’s anger and sarcasm. “At present, our membership is lacking up-timers, love. That’s why we’re here. I’ve been looking for someone like you. We’ve been carefully asking people about town, and your name came up more than once.”

“You’ve been approaching people in that get-up?” Natalie asked.

John shook his head. “No, no. We have been discreet, I can assure you. People in our line of work learn how to ask questions without drawing attention to ourselves. But once your name was repeated, we quickly donned our hunters’ attire, and here we are.” He leaned in close, letting the fake cigarette slip to the corner of his mouth. “Would you like to join me for a meeting this weekend and see if the Society is right for you?”

Natalie wasn’t sure if John was asking her out or just to come and check out his LARPING group, but either way, she was interested. John wasn’t strikingly handsome but his charisma was off the charts.

“I’d love to,” Natalie smiled.

Red spat on the ground. “I’m leaving, John. Stay if you want.”

John seemed torn between the two of them. Natalie watched as he pulled a card out of one of the pockets of his coat. He handed it to her as he said, “Meet us here as the sun goes down on Saturday. I can promise it will be an adventure, love.”

Natalie took the card as John raced away after Red.

Sure. Why not? Natalie thought as butterflies danced in her stomach.

∞∞∞

Outside Grantville, Monster Society Club House, 1635

Natalie could tell immediately that Ray was a jerk. A “rules lawyer” is what he would have been called up-time; that guy in any RPG or LARP group who thinks he knows everything and makes it a point to let everyone else know that he knows everything. She rolled her eyes with every word from his mouth. Red poked her in the side with a rigid index finger.

“Pay attention,” Red hissed, “he’s telling you important things.”

Perhaps it was important to Red, but Natalie was bored. To these down-timers, all of this was new and fresh and exciting–the candles, the hastily sketched Elder Signs, the skull. She could appreciate the effort, but she wanted her moniker, and then she wanted to play. For that is why they were here, wasn’t it?  to play the part of a monster hunter, or a witch hunter, or whatever persona they wanted to wear on their next hunt. As Natalie sat there in a mildewy-green cloak that John said he’d found in his mother’s gown closet, half listening to the rules and regulations of the club, she wondered if the famed “four horsemen”–Jeff Higgins, Larry Wild, Eddie Cantrell, Jimmy Andersen–ever wasted so much time with preamble before rolling dice in their D&D games. True, LARP was different than paper role-playing, but the end goal was the same: having fun.

Natalie wanted to get out of this stuffy old room and have some fun.

“Do you understand all the rules that I have just stated?” Ray asked, finally ending his interminable ramble.

Natalie cleared her throat and nodded. “Yes, and I accept them all. Now, can I pick my moniker?”

She knew none of their real German names other than the fact that she had overheard John call Red “Henrietta” earlier in the day. Also, the name “Van” had been mentioned a few times, and Natalie inferred that he had once been a member, but for some reason was no longer. When she had asked Red, she got the fish eye and a “none of your business” clench in the agitated girl’s jaw.

“”Yes,” John said, pretending to draw a long smoke out of his fake cigarette. “State the name that you wish to be known by in The Monster Society.”

She had given this much thought since the invite. “You can call me Dana.”

“”What kind of name is that?” Red asked.

“The best kind,” she snickered. “I’ll carry a gun and hunt whatever kind of monsters out there that need to be tracked down and stopped.”

“Very well, love,” John said. “You will be called Dana. And what is your specialty?”

Dana considered for a moment, then said with a grin, “I don’t have one. I can do it all: Demon hunting, Witch, Monster . . . whatever needs hunting and killing. Didn’t I just tell you that?”

It was Ray’s turn to roll his eyes. “Well, the rules of the club clearly state that–”

“I think we can overlook the rules,” John said. “For now, at least. Let’s let our newest member get accustomed to the rigors of the membership, and then perhaps a specialization will come to her.”

“So,” Dana said, not caring if she showed impatience, “what do we do now?”

From a leather binder, Ray produced a piece of parchment. There really was no other way to describe it. It could have been easily rolled onto a scroll for the purposes of a town crier. It had been burnt around its edges and crumpled so that it had that old, weathered look that Dana had seen a time or two in up-time D&D games. She was impressed. These guys were serious about their play.

Ray cleared his throat and flattened out the paper on the small table between them. “There is a werewolf disturbance just north of here. Killed some of the peasants in a fit of rage when its mate was accidentally killed on a hunt. And then there is a woman to the east claiming that her newborn daughter has been abducted by a nachzehrer. Oh, and perhaps this is the one we should investigate first: a man named Gunter, right here in town, in fact, is having his dreams invaded by a drude who seems intent on whispering to him in his late wife’s voice, and–”

“”Let Dana pick the next adventure. She’s a smart up-time girl. Surely she has fought all kinds of monsters in her time.”

Dana turned to see a smug little smirk on Red’s face. Twit! Why do you hate me so much?

“Fine,” she said, blurting out her response before she really gave it any thought. “I pick the nachze-whatever one.”

“No. Come up with a new one.”

“Red–” John said.

“”She’s our first up-timer, John,” Red said, her voice suddenly sounding innocent and non-threatening. “I’m just trying to welcome her to the group, give her some “agency”– isn’t that what the up-timers call it–in the Society. I’m sure she has lots of experience with this kind of thing . . . being able to fight any type of monster and all.”

Dana wanted to ball up her fist and punch Red right in the face. But she kept her cool and considered.

She glanced at her watch. Damn! Too late to start anything now. The sun was setting, and she had promised her parents that she would be home by sundown. In fact, she had lied to her parents, claiming that she was going to see a friend in Grantville, since the trip to the Society house was just a few miles by bike. She couldn’t push her luck. But she couldn’t just up and leave without coming up with something. What would Red and John think of her then, agreeing to come up with a mission and then bowing out?

She rubbed her chin and thought and thought. And then an idea came to her, a story that her grandmother used to tell her back in the days before the Ring of Fire, a terrifying, horrible story that would make her sleep with the light on and the covers pulled up to her face. Thinking about it again, Dana gave Red an evil little grin.

“Okay,” she said, “I’ve got one. We shall meet tomorrow at twilight in front of my high school. If you’re brave enough, that is.”

“What will we be doing?” John asked.

Dana stood and made for the door and her bike. “You’ll find out.”

∞∞∞

Natalie waited outside the high school for the others to arrive. The sun was sinking low in the sky. It had taken a lot of effort to convince her parents that she was going over to a friend’s house to cram for a Monday exam, but in the end they’d bought her tale. And she hoped that the members of the Monster Society would enjoy the tale she had cobbled together for them at the last minute.

John, Red, and Ray showed up as a group instead of drifting in one by one. Somehow, she had expected they would do that. They took this shared fantasy world of theirs very seriously.

“Well, here we are,” John flashed a smile at her. “What now?”

“”Now, we go hunting,” Natalie grinned. “There’s a Wampus stalking the outskirts of Grantville and we’re going to find it.”

“A what?” asked Red.

“”A Wampus,” Red repeated.

“You’re making that word up,” Ray protested.

John waved Red and Ray to silence. “I think the question is: what’s a Wampus?”

“It’s an Appalachian legend for the part of the up-time world that Grantville came from. A Wampus is half cat, half woman, and all blood and death for anyone who runs into it. It came through the Ring of Fire just like the rest of us, and it’s hopping mad,” Natalie explained.

“”Oh!” Red said, perking up. “It’s a werebeast!”

“”No,” Natalie shook her head as Red frowned at her. “Not exactly. Think of it more as a demonic shape-shifter of sorts. There are a lot of stories about what the Wampus is and how it was created. All you really need to know is that it’s fast, strong, and a cat-like thing that walks on two legs.”

“So” John asked, “how does one kill a Wampus?”

“I don’t think anyone ever has,” Natalie shrugged. “But between the magic you and Ray have at your disposal, and the weapons Red and I are carrying, we should be able to manage it.”

Natalie gestured at the crossbow, loaded with a silver-tipped dart, that Red was carrying. She was sure the silver wasn’t any more real than the gun Natalie pulled from the pocket of her coat. She flashed it at the others.

“You have a gun?” Ray blurted in amazement.

“”I always carry a gun,” Natalie pointed out.

“Enough,” John cut in, his British accent wavering in his impatience. “You said we were going hunting and we’re wasting daylight.”

“”Right,” Natalie nodded. “Let’s get on with it.”

“I hope it’s going to be good,” Red said.

Me too, Natalie thought as they started out. She had not had as much time to prepare as she would have liked. Too many chores and homework had gotten in the way. But a good LARP leader must improvise, and that’s what she planned to do. Natalie knew that the real Dana was brave and resourceful, so she had to act the part accordingly.

She took the lead and guided them through the outskirts of Grantville. The shadows were growing longer as night fell. Soon enough, they managed to leave the town and cut into the woods surrounding it.

The shadows of the woods were even darker and more ominous.

A few paces into the woods, Natalie knelt and studied a small, wet indentation in the pack of leaves on the ground. “You see this?”

John came up, crouched beside her. “Looks like a paw print,” he said in character. “Fresh one, too.”

“Yes,” Natalie agreed. “The Wampus is close.”

They walked roughly a hundred more feet, Natalie stopping on occasion to point out a scrape on a tree, a broken branch, another fake paw print, all signs of a passing monster. Everyone, she noticed, was on high alert, stooped and preparing for the worst.

She smiled, and was about to point out another set of paw prints, when a noise came from the brush up ahead of the group. Natalie motioned for the others to stop.

“What is it?” Ray asked.

“I don’t know,” Natalie answered, suddenly unsure of herself. Whatever it had been, it was real. It wasn’t part of the game.

“”I don’t like this,” Red said, lifting her crossbow, her finger on its trigger.

Something came bursting from the trees at the group. It was low to the ground and fast.

“”It’s the Wampus!” Natalie screamed reflexively and turned to run.

Ray was already moving, his portly body tearing its way back from which they had come.

“”Wait!” she heard John shout, just before she heard the twang of Red’s crossbow.

A high-pitched yelp rang out in the dark woods.

“”I got it! I got it!” Red shouted.

Ray had stopped abruptly and Natalie plowed into him. Ray’s breath left him in a sharp grunt, but he didn’t fall down. Natalie bounced right off him and went sprawling to the ground. Her head smacked the dirt. Her world went black.

When she woke up, John was kneeling over her, a fearful expression on his face.

“Are you okay?” he asked, helping her to sit up.

“”Fine,” Natalie said, trying to rub away the headache forming in the back of her head, “I’m fine.”

“Good,” John said, “because we have to get out of here. That thing that Red shot . . . it wasn’t a Wampus. It was a dog. She shot it.”

“A dog?” Natalie’s head was still spinning as John yanked her to her feet.

“”I told you we shouldn’t have come here like this, John,” Red growled. “This close to Grantville just isn’t safe.”

“We killed a dog?” Natalie muttered in disbelief.

“”No, we wounded a dog,” John corrected her.

Natalie realized she could hear the poor animal whimpering nearby. It wasn’t dead, thank God, but it was in pain.

“Don’t blame yourself,” John said, ditching his British accent. “Normally, we prepare a lot more before we go on a hunt. It’s not your fault. It’s . . . mine. I was too caught up in trying to impress you.”

“Why?”

“So, you would join the Society.”

Natalie let that go and whirled on Red. “What the heck are you doing playing with a real crossbow anyway?”

“I’ve always carried one!” Red shouted back at her. “You brought a gun!”

Natalie reached into her pocket and pulled it out again. “It isn’t real, you ninny! It’s a squirt gun.” She pulled the trigger a few times to prove it.

Ray picked it up and flipped it over a few times in his hand. “It sure looks real.”

“”Yeah, well, it isn’t.”

“Usually,” John said, ignoring the conversation about the gun, “Red is very level headed with her weapon. That’s why we’ve always let her carry it.”

“So now you’re saying it’s my fault?” Red snarled at John.

“”No, Red, I’m not. With all that happened with your brother, you just aren’t thinking clearly right now. I should have banned your weapon, too, after what happened with Van.”

“”Leave my brother out of this!” The anger in Red’s eyes grew even more intense.

“This is twice now that someone has gotten hurt, John,” Ray said. “Maybe it’s time we stopped all this.”

“”Really, Ray?” John met Ray’s eyes. “What else do you and I have in our lives except for the Society?”

“Stop it!” Natalie snapped, taking control of the situation. “Fighting isn’t getting us anywhere! We need to try to help the poor dog if we can and get out of here before someone finds out what we did.”

“I’m just a kid in a costume, not a doctor!” Ray protested.

“Then it’s a good thing I know something about tending to animals. Besides, we can’t just leave the poor thing here,” Natalie said. “It might belong to someone.”

“All the more reason to run while we can,” Ray shouted at her.

But they did not run. They walked over to the dog and looked at it. Natalie felt like crying. A German shepherd. A big one with a full, luxurious coat of fur and a large black-and-tan snout. A pet from one of the houses nearby most likely. It had obviously heard their shuffle through the woods and had come out to investigate the noise. The crossbow dart had hit the shoulder.

She could see a few porch lights begin to flicker on as the sun continued to set. She looked back at the dog, knelt, and studied the wound where the dart had struck. She breathed a sigh of relief. Luckily, the wound looked a lot worse than it really was. She tried removing the dart as gently as she could while John and Ray held the dog for her. It wouldn’t budge. It was lodged in there fairly tight.

This is my fault.

She stood again. “Okay, I’ll take care of this. You guys beat it.”

“What are you talking about?” John asked.

“”I mean, this is my fault. I led you out here. It was my mission, and I messed up.”

“But I’m the one who shot it,” Red said.

Natalie shook her head and put out her hand. “Here, give me your crossbow and go. I’ll find its owner and confess. If I have your crossbow, they’ll believe me.”

“No,” John said, putting his hand on Natalie’s shoulder and turning her to face him. “That’s not fair to you. You didn’t do anything. You can’t take the blame–”

“Look,” Natalie said, growing impatient with this useless line of discussion, “you’re down-timers. If you or Red confess to it, they may not let you come back. Plus, they may find out about the Society and shut us down.” She snatched the crossbow from Red’s hands. “Go. It’ll be alright.”

John looked at Red and then at Ray. They looked at each other for a long silent moment. Then John said, “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?”

No, she thought, but did not confess that truth aloud. Was it right for her to confess to a crime she did not commit? Like Ray said, they could just run away and no one would be the wiser. As long as no one was hiding out there in the growing dark, watching from a distance as they argued over a wounded animal, who would know? I would know, she said to herself, remembering an old story she’d read in school from Edgar Allen Poe, the one where the killer chops up the body of the old man with the filmy vulture eye, and the incessant tick-tick-tick of the corpse’s beating heart beneath dry floorboards. If she didn’t confess to it now and just left the dog to die, then she would confess eventually when the dog’s ticking heart called to her again and again and again through these dark woods, exposing her guilt. And then the punishment would be even greater.

A tear ran down her cheek. She feigned a confident smile. “I know my people, John. Let me confess. It’ll be better this way.”

They hesitated once more, then Ray took a step back, and then another, and he was gone. John and Red lingered a moment more, shared a quiet stare with her through the shadows. Then they too left, and she was alone.

Natalie gripped the spent crossbow and looked down again at the dog. She whipped away a tear, breathed deeply, turned toward the faint light leading a path through the wood, then said in John’s broken British accent, “Okay, love, it’s time for me to find your owner and confess to almost killing the Wampus of Grantville.”

∞∞∞

She confessed and was grounded for two weeks. Her meager allowance was whipped away as her father agreed to pay the dog’s owner for the altercation. She told them about how she had found the crossbow in the woods and that she wanted to give it a try, had notched the dart herself, and had accidentally pulled the trigger when the dog came up to her in the dark and frightened her. The part about her being curious and wanting to give the crossbow a try was believable; she had that kind of reputation around school. The story about finding the crossbow was less believable, strained credulity, in fact, but her father let it go, content to allow the grounding and the loss of money to be the punishment for her less than honest explanation. But Natalie knew that her daddy didn’t believe a word of it. He kept his mouth shut, nevertheless. He was a good daddy that way.

The owner of the dog accepted the money but wasn’t a very pleasant man, and, in fact, offered to give the dog to the Clinters just to be rid of it, not wanting the headache of having to deal with a wounded animal. Natalie’s father accepted on the condition that Natalie personally take care of it. Given the events that had led to the dog’s convalescence, she could hardly refuse. The shepherd was taken to the vet and patched up nicely, but it would be several weeks before it could move comfortably again. Natalie’s parents gave in to her request to keep the dog in her bedroom. Her mother would watch it while she was at school, but the rest of the time, taking care of it was her duty.

The dog growled at her when she treated its wound, but otherwise it didn’t seem to blame her at all. It was as if the whole accident had been forgotten and it had accepted her as its new master. That surprised her. She was a stranger to owning a dog and had always thought of herself as a cat person.

Their first night together was a rough one for her. The dog whined and whined. This only made Natalie feel guiltier. She could tell it was in pain but there was more to the whining than just that. It kept trying to climb into bed with her. She would shove it gently away, but the dog kept coming back. Finally, she relented and helped it into her bed. The dog’s whining stopped as it settled in beside her, nuzzling its nose into her body. Natalie gave up the battle of trying not to grow attached to the dog and put her arm around it in the middle of the night. She awoke the next morning to a wet tongue licking her face. Laughing, she pushed it back enough to sit up, being careful not to touch its wound. In that moment, Natalie knew she had fallen in love.

She took the dog’s face in her hands, holding it still, so she could look into its happy eyes. “You need a name,” she said aloud.

The dog barked as if in agreement.

Natalie’s gaze shifted to an up-time poster on the wall of her bedroom and smiled.

Ten days later, as she was walking home from school, Natalie rounded a corner, and there a young lady stood waiting patiently in a simple off-white down-time dress, her hair pinned up, clean and well groomed.

“I hardly recognize you without your patented red cloak,” she said as she approached Red. To her surprise, Natalie was glad to see her old nemesis.

Red smiled. “John thought it best that I come as myself.”

“He and Ray didn’t come with you?”

Red shook her head. “No, they’re still leery about coming back to the scene of the crime, as John calls it.”

“But you aren’t? The person that actually committed the crime?”

Natalie regretted her words immediately, for Red put her head down and the expression on her face told Natalie that the girl was sorrowful.

“I–I felt I needed to come back, regardless of the risk, and apologize for my behavior. It’s just that, when John took a liking to you so quickly, I thought, well, I thought–and the dog is still alive and recovering, isn’t he?”

“Me and John?” The idea had crossed her mind, in fact. He was charming, clever, and intelligent in his own way. But, “No, never. I like him as a friend, but he’s too old. My daddy would skin my hide if he caught me with a twenty-something. So, don’t worry about that. And yes, Fox is doing just fine. He’ll never walk right again, but he’ll be loved.”

She could almost feel the weight of the world lift from Red’s shoulders. The girl immediately had a new spring in her step, a more pleasant expression on her face.

“Fox?” Red asked.

“Don’t ask. But I will tell you one thing,” Natalie said as they continued to walk toward her home, “you ain’t getting your crossbow back. They took it away from me. You’ll have to find another weapon for our next adventure.”

“So, you’re going to stay a member? John wasn’t sure if you would.”

Natalie nodded. “Why not? What else are Fox and I going to do with our free time? Besides, once my punishment ends, we’ll have plenty of time for another go.”

“”We’re going to finish the Wampus hunt?”

Natalie scoffed and waved Red off as if she had said something absurd. “That’s so last week. No, the next adventure I have in mind is a doozy.” She looked left then right as if to ensure no one was listening. She put her arm around Red’s shoulder and pulled her close.

“Listen to this.  .  .”