Rescue Mission

Chapter 2: There's Problems

Chapter Notes:

Chapter warnings: heads-up for some plant-related body horror in the last few paragraphs. (this will be a thing with wirt in general for the next chapter or so, so uh. yeah. be warned.)

The town they arrived in was greyer than Mabel remembered. A lot of places looked that way on the surface, to be fair, but whatever was under the surface here had less a small-town charm so much as an unspoken tension. It wasn't right. Even just walking down the main street, the atmosphere smelled off. People hurried down the sidewalk without making eye contact, and children clung to their parents instead of dashing ahead or picking unripe blackberries off the brambles on the wooded side of the road. If she looked closely enough past the thickets and the thinner, more domestic greenery, the glint of something metal jumped out at her, hanging off of the tree trunks in a distant but regular pattern.

She hummed quietly to herself as she stepped over a thick dead branch, fallen onto the sidewalk. The oak tree at the edge of the neighboring yard looked crooked without it.

As they approached the crunching gravel driveway at the front of Jason's house, the looming forest's edge caught her eye through gaps in the wooden backyard fence. Wirt's friendly presence had vanished, and the trees seemed to cast shadows too long for the near-noon sunlight.

Henry followed her gaze and frowned.

“Yeah, it doesn't normally look like this,” she told him. “Trust me, this is weird. It's way creepier than usual.”

Dipper knocked on the front door of the house, prompting a startled noise from inside, followed by the patter of hurried footsteps and the scrape and thud of what sounded suspiciously like moving furniture. A moment later, Jason opened the door with a pale, startled expression, as well as the bike helmet promised earlier. A slightly battered hockey stick occupied his free hand, and he'd taken the liberty of adding gardening gloves and a pair of knee pads like improvised armor.

“Y-you're uh, back already. Oh. Okay then. That's... right. Teleporting. I forgot for a moment there.” Jason turned a wince into a faint but awkward smile, then straightened up a little and stepped outside, closing the door behind him.

Dipper shrugged. “Don't worry about it. Sometimes we forget too! Like, one time I teleported Henry home for lunchtime and Mabel thought something was wrong because he was home early and speed-baked him a consolation cake. That was hilarious.”

“I mean, only in hindsight,” said Henry.

“It was funny,” Dipper insisted. “The misunderstanding was half the joke! We even wrote 'sorry' on the cake and everything. And it was delicious.”

“Anyway!” Mabel said, steering the conversation back on topic. “To recap: Dipper and I are going to find Wirt, and you guys are going into the woods. Right?”

“It shouldn't be too hard,” explained Dipper, dropping the cake argument as quickly as it had started. “The wards shouldn't have any effect on normal humans, so it's really just the slayers you'll have to worry about. Also, the stuff you'll be using to break the wards -- speaking of which.”

Dipper dropped to stand on the ground as he pulled a pair of trinkets from his suit pockets, bundled loosely in cloth. He held them out for the others to see: one a blackened wrought-iron design of twisting geometric shapes, and the other a plain rusty nail with an aura of unadulterated malice.

“Uh, don't keep those on you for longer than you have to,” Dipper warned. “Even the safer stuff can still be corrupting after a while. It'll lose some potency un-consecrating the wards, but once you're done, you should still probably give them back to me or the Keeper.”

“Right,” said Henry, taking both artifacts and pocketing them, careful to re-wrap the handkerchiefs first.

Jason had a look like he was having second thoughts about helping, but pulled himself together with a serious nod. He looked a little silly, with his hair squashed under the helmet, but Mabel decided not to say anything.

“It might be possibly to slip in through a smaller gap, but I'd say it's best to have at least a quarter of the outer barrier removed to make sure the Keeper can actually get back in without trouble. And the inner circle will probably need to be removed completely to turn off the barrier effect, unless Wirt is able to undo that himself,” Dipper told them. “Jason, you know the way in without taking the obvious tourist route, right?”

“I've h-had some practice, with the volunteering, yeah. We can reach the border of the forest pretty easily from here,” Jason said, gesturing to a gap in the fence. “It's not too far of a walk, just past the graveyard and across the train tracks, i-if you don't take the official path. I even, uh, know a shortcut to get over there.”

Henry nodded, but a few years together pointed out all the signs of his unease now, even if he tried to hide it. “We'll see you in a few hours, then?”

“That sounds about right.” Dipper nodded. “We won't be able to meet up, most likely, but if you're still on the edges and you need to talk, you can try calling us, I guess?” He frowned, thinking a moment, and looked over at Jason. “Wait, do you have a cellphone?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jason fumbled in his pockets for a moment, before retrieving a clunky clamshell that looked like it had been dropped more times than cleaned. “The fringe areas of the Unknown don't have any c-cell service though, even when you're close enough, so I don't think it'll make a difference. Th-they even tried building a cell tower right next to it, once, but it still didn't work in there at all.”

“Well, not much I can do about that. I mean, if it's important, I could try and make it work, but I can't guarantee what state the phone would be in afterwards, so...” Dipper shrugged. “Let's call it plan B. Or C, maybe. Anyway, hopefully this shouldn't take too long to fix.”

Mabel grinned and elbowed him in the gut. “You're gonna jinx it, bro-bro.”

“See you in a bit, honey.” Henry leaned in for a quick kiss goodbye. When they pulled back, Mabel couldn't miss the worried crease in his brow. Still anxious, huh?

“Don't worry, I'm just kidding about the jinxing. It's all gonna work out fine!” she whispered. “I mean, probably. It has so far!”

“I know,” he said. “But also, have you seen our lives?”

"Yeah, okay, fair point. But even if it does go wrong, we'll make it through this! That's just what we do, y'know?" She squeezed his hand, and planted one last peck on his cheek before she let go, and the two of them split for real. “See you soon.”

Henry managed a smile at that. “Yeah.”

With that, he followed Jason around the side of the house. Mabel watched as the pair of them disappeared through a weed-filled gap in the backyard fence, leaving her and Dipper alone in the driveway. Past Jason's house, the forest loomed in front of them, awaiting the Keeper's return.

Welp. Time to get down to business.

Dipper stood stock-still for a moment next to her, and his form twisted and blackened into smoke around the edges as his feet left the ground again, relaxing his human disguise a little in favor of concentration. He returned with burning gold in his eyes.

“Alright. I've found him. Let's go.”


Jason's hands shook, and he gripped the hockey stick a little tighter. The air had turned colder on the far side of the train tracks, and the woods itself whispered something was wrong. He'd been around here before, a couple times, but it had never felt like this. Not since...

Since before Wirt and Greg disappeared.

Back in high school, those two had been the biggest news of the town in years. They'd already fallen into the pond the Halloween before, and ended up in the hospital, and they'd acted so weird afterward. When they vanished again without a trace on the same night, exactly one year after the last time, never to be found? People around town had muttered rhymes under their breath and thrown salt over their shoulders, and his parents had enforced a daylight curfew for months afterward, casting suspicious glances at the trees, in fear that whatever took the boys might not be satisfied with just two.

It was strange to look back, knowing the truth, and to think that Greg and Wirt had been so close to town all along. (It was terrifying to think his parents were nearly right.)

It didn't take long before Jason and Henry reached the outer layer of wards. A silvery-bright chain hung between the trees, strung on branches a good ten feet off the ground. The air beneath the chains all but shimmered up close, faintly iridescent, and Jason had no doubt that any demon trying to pass through, at least coming in, would hit a magic barrier like a solid brick wall.

They both stood there for a moment, before Henry, sizing up the whole arrangement, spoke. “These ones don't require the artifacts, I think. They just need to be pulled down.”

“... oh.” Jason adjusted his grip on the stick again, unsure what else to do.

With that, Henry walked over and began climbing the nearest tree with chains on it, shimmying up the trunk with surprising grace for someone of his size and pulling himself into a thick branch. “Keep an eye out, okay? Let me know if you see anyone approaching.”

Henry stood upright on the branch, one arm braced against the trunk, and started on the chain next to him. Jason watched for a moment, listening to the distant clinking of metal above him, then remembered what he was supposed to be doing. Keeping his back to the tree, he held the hockey stick in what he prayed was a ready stance, and scanned the surrounding forest for onlookers.

A squirrel sniffed at a nearby root, and scurried off. The muted jangling of chains continued. Some time later, the sound spiked, and Jason looked up with a jolt to see a length of chain hanging inches over his head.

“Sorry about that,” Henry said. “It was a bit longer than I realized. I'll try to warn you next time.”

He slid down the tree trunk like a fireman on a pole, and made a straight line for an elm a dozen feet away, followed by another line straight up through the branches. Jason shook his head, quietly marveling. He couldn't imagine doing that himself, at his age. Beside him, the section of the barrier between the previous tree and its neighbor fizzled out into nothing, like a trick of the light fading away.

The next twenty minutes or so passed in a quiet rhythm. Henry would pick a tree, climb freakishly fast, unravel the links and knots, and pull it off while Jason stood questionable watch with his hockey stick. When Henry was done, he'd scrape a shallow hole into the ground by the base of each tree to deposit the chain, on basis that they needed to go somewhere, and Jason reasonably pointing out (though Henry had probably already thought of it) that the chains should stay out of sight, in case anyone came by and tried to hang them up again. Jason himself had begun collecting leaves -- never letting go of the hockey stick, but trying to gather small piles to discreetly cover the holes.

Distant singing broke the mutual quiet -- a young man's voice, light and wandering. Jason stiffened, uncertain of how to deal with an actual encounter. He dropped the latest pile of leaves onto the chains, brushing them around a little with one foot in hopes of better disguising Henry's handiwork.

As the singing grew louder, a figure emerged in the distance, walking out of the wood. It occurred to Jason that the clinking of chains had gone silent, and he glanced up to see Henry standing frozen-still on the branch some ten feet above, legs bent as if considering a jump.

The figure drew close enough to identify a shape: short and stout, and carrying something heavy. Jason could begin to hear the faint words of the song.

Travelin' to the edges of the wood
Gonna beat some bad guys real good
Chase em out of here, la la la la la la
I will have no feeeaar, la la la la laaa...

Something seemed vaguely familiar. Deja vu? He couldn't say.

At the last moment, a brief flash of panic seized at him. He ducked behind the tree, the need for stealth and the desire to hyperventilate waging war in his chest.

The faint crackling of leaves that alerted him to the stranger's steps stopping, and the urge to exhale in relief joined the battle for control of his lungs. After a moment, Jason heard the stranger walk off, a short distance to the right. He considered moving, but decided to stay still -- maybe then, he wouldn't be noticed.

That hope was dashed by the unmistakeable sounds of the stranger scaling a neighboring tree.

Up. Further up. He could just about see Henry above, flat against the tree and unmoving. Too late. Chains clattered and clicked together in the other tree, then dropped to the ground with an unceremonious pomf.

“Hello there!” said the stranger, who Jason could now see waving in his peripheral vision. “You're getting rid of these, too?”

Henry shifted in the tree. “Yes.”

“Okay!” the stranger replied. “I'll deal with the birch there--” (the word was punctuated with the thunk of an axe burying itself in wood), “--and, uh. You can take that one I guess. Oh, also hi there person behind the tree!”

Jason flinched, as much at the stranger's acknowledgment as at several newer sounds from farther off: a sudden thump, like something airborne hitting the ground with unexpected weight, followed by heavy breathing and footsteps, and a feminine voice. “Really, Greg, I didn't actually mean-”

Jason gave up on hiding and stepped out from behind the tree just in time to see a red haired young woman shaking a few stray feathers off her skirts as she came to a stop. She stood there, eyes darting around for a moment before finally snapping into focus on Jason.

“Frog man?” she asked.

“Beatrice?” he replied, a little surprised. He hadn't thought they were already in the Unknown. Didn't it take longer, usually, to travel through?

“I know it hasn't been long, but I feel like you've gotten older,” Beatrice remarked, sharp as ever. “Maybe slower, too. Were you trying to hide from Greg?”

“I wasn't- don't you run on different time in here?” he protested. “Y-you know, years outside, months inside? Like The Tiger, the Warlock, and the Coat Closet?”

It took a long moment to register the implications of her question. Then it hit him -- the stranger was Greg, of all people, just all grown up. Still musical as ever, too.

“Ohhhh, Jason Funderberker!” Greg said, clearly having a moment of his own. “Yeah.” He looked at Jason and murmured something quieter and unintelligible.

“Is- is frog me still around?” Jason asked, trying to keep his voice down. He wasn't sure what else to say, but he still remembered Greg carrying around a pet frog by his name, in that last year before he'd disappeared again.

“Oh, nah, he passed on last year. He's probably reincarnated as a salamander now.” Greg tossed another length of chain to the ground and hopped down. “I miss him, but maybe I'll find him in the pond again next spring,” he whispered. “Say, it sounded like you had a chain hole, didn't you?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jason, glancing back at his pitiful attempts at camouflage with the leaves. “It's o-over there. We were a-adding new ones as we went along.”

“Cool beans,” Greg said, curling the chain into several loops and dropping it into the pile. He dashed off, and returned with an armful of rustling leaves which he promptly dropped on the chains at his feet. “There we go."

Jason watched how he spread the leaves over the hole, and tried to crouch down and imitate him. A centipede skittered across his hand, and he jerked back with a strangled yelp to shake it off. Beatrice stifled a laugh somewhere behind him as she shimmied her way up yet another tree a dozen yards away.

The woods was huge, but they must have cleared at least a decent portion of the wards by now, Jason thought, squinting into the distance to check for the gleam of metal on the trees behind. He couldn't see where they had started anymore. Despite the unchanged air of the woods, it felt like progress, emboldening him ever so slightly.

Twelve trees later, they heard the party of slayers approach.


Wirt was not having a good day.

The secluded alleyway was concrete and brick, no soil of the earth, with only a few paltry weeds clawing their way out of the cracks and surrounding a drainpipe, contrasting a short row of spindly potted flowers on someone's second floor window sill. Their leaves hung like lolling tongues, soaking up what they could of the meager March sunlight. He couldn't ask them for much in this state, exhausted and locked out of his own domain, but he could call on them to be his sentries, feeling out the shifts in the air and earth and murmuring to each others' roots.

He pressed his knees closer to his chin and shivered, trying to think. He was summoned, outside, and his attempt to return to the forest hit some barrier that set his wooden flesh afire like kindling, a pain only smothered by shedding the outer layers of bark and leaving it to turn itself to ash on the ground.

He'd fled. With so little power, and hunted, it only took a split second to run him out of options, disoriented and panicking like a wild animal -- a deer beset by hunters. He'd been lucky the trees outside would even take him. The bindings that tried to trap him there at the border hurt to cross, but whoever had summoned him hadn't expected him to cross them at all.

They were looking for him, though. He was sure of it.

For all that he'd grown up in it, the town around him was so familiar and foreign at the same time, and he didn't know what to make of it. Somehow, he'd imagined that his newer origins provided him some immunity to the changing times, but clearly the twentieth century was farther in the past than he realized.

How strange the streets had grown to him, in what felt like so short a time. Some days his upbringing outside felt like a lifetime ago, and yet sometimes he still woke up wondering why it wasn't spring.

In the cold and muddled period he spent curled against the wall, he pondered if the Beast had felt this way, once, or ever. Had he, too, left a life as a mortal to wander the wood? Had he been so alienated, so quickly, by the ceaseless aimless change of the Unknown's busy inhabitants, still trapped in the past like time capsules and yet constantly growing all at once?

The world greyed in and out, indistinctly. The roots tried to support him, but anchored him in the same breath, and whispered not to stand.

Footsteps echoed down the streets, faintly, with an aura that disturbed the roots growing beneath the stone. Something powerful, more than he'd ever been, and enough to make the tiny flame burning in his lantern shiver like a candle in the wind.

Voices reached him as if through a thick, watery filter. This, he thought, was something he knew. The voices, too, but from somewhere else.

“Why would he even hide here?” A higher voice, feminine. Bright, but hushed now, a sparkler fizzled down to nothing but smoke. “It's all stone and bricks.”

“There's a park past that building, and stuff growing out of the sidewalk. He's not quite there, but he's nearby. I can feel him.” The second voice, lower by a fraction but different in cadence, more even in tone. The source of the aura, a blue star's inferno behind smooth, dark walls, all business now.

Dipper. (No, Alcor, like this.) And Mabel. They were here. In town.

Despite himself, Wirt curled closer against the brick wall at his back, trying to retreat behind the broad metal shape of the dumpster. He needed to rest, to recover -- no, he needed to go back, and the forest-- it needed him. He couldn't be seen here, not by anyone else. Alcor and Mabel would find him. He had to trust that.

It felt like hours. It felt like seconds. Time had no meaning in his hazy awareness, but soon a shadow covered the weeds, outlining a human form over the cracks in the pavement. The voices, the footsteps, the aura, had all drawn near and clustered around him.

“Hey, Wirt,” Mabel whispered, if unvoiced shouting could be called that. Wirt worked to pull his face from the crook of his arm to look up at her. The green regrowing tips of his antlers brushed painfully against the bricks behind him as he moved, and he flinched, curling into himself more again.

Mabel continued, largely unfazed, but with a more considerate low whisper. “We're here to rescue you!”


"Name yourselves!" demanded one of the slayers, standing beside a tall, dark-haired man who must have been the group's leader. Greg couldn't tell if he was second in command, or just loud and proactive, but he already didn't like him. Greg looked up, kicking the most recent pile of chain into a hollow between the roots of a tree with nearly cartoonish nonchalance. Jason ducked behind him with a few uncertain steps.

“Harry Oak,” Henry replied, quickly. “My friends and I here are hikers. Is something the matter?”

The lead slayer stared back, nonplussed. While the others in the group wore black jackets, with silver badges too small to guess the details of at a distance, the leader's outfit looked like a cheap imitation of a park ranger's uniform, like he'd tried to disguise himself as one for credibility (albeit still with the same metal badge.) From Greg's few and brief encounters with the official forest management, he'd mostly missed the mark, but someone less knowledgeable might have been convinced.

“Hiking? In period costume?” the man asked, after a moment.

Greg glanced back at Beatrice. Her sour expression said she wasn't moving without a fight, but dressing like she'd walked straight out of a history textbook wasn't making it any easier to avoid that in the first place. Not that she could help it. Maybe they should have planned this part better, after all.

“My, um, sister really likes historical dresses,” Greg volunteered, adding a put-upon shrug for good measure. “We tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted she can hike in it just fine. I don't really get how, though.”

A third slayer turned to the other two, and nodded grimly. Greg strained to hear what he said next.

"The Beast is still afield. Best to get them out of the woods, for their safety."

The leader answered with something softer and indistinct. Jason started inching back towards the tree behind him and Greg, in a nervous sort of shuffle that tried to be discreet and only succeeded by the others not paying attention.

"I can't believe he bought that," Beatrice whispered, leaning in closer while the group was too distracted to notice. "Do we want to just keep going with this until they leave, or try and make a r--?"

Before she could finish, the slayers seemed to come to a consensus, breaking up their huddle. The leader turned to the three of them. "It's not yet safe here. You all need to leave. We'll escort you home."

Henry shook his head. “I think we'll be fine on our own, actually. We've got whistles and flares if we need them, but we're really just following along by the footpath here.”

“It's not safe here,” the leader repeated. “You must understand. There are demons about. The exorcism is close to complete, but until then, we can't risk hikers and civilians wandering off and into this forest's depths.”

Well, that would be more of a problem.

"Oh, I think I'm perfectly safe, thank you very much," Beatrice muttered, bunching up her skirt in her tightening fists as menace glimmered in her eyes. She turned her attention to the leader, her voice clear and level. "Listen, I know you're from out of town, but we know our way around this place. We weren't in any danger before, and we aren't in any danger now.”

"Ma'am, you do not understand what you are dealing with. There are forces in these woods darker than you can know," the leader warned.

"No, I really think I do." Beatrice took a step forward, full of tightly restrained fury. Greg winced, and readied himself to start running. “It's clear you amateurs don't know what you're talking about, if you think that the Keeper poses any harm to us. But you... gentlemen-- " she twitched here, forcing out the word like it left a foul taste in her mouth-- "would be safest to leave us be."

The lead hunter stared at her for a long, quiet moment, then sighed. “Ah. I see how it is,” he said, suddenly a little louder, as if acting on a stage. “You've been enthralled."

“What,” Jason croaked from behind Greg's shoulder.

“We should have expected that the Beast would ensnare the denizens of the wood in this way. Why else would they remain, in such a place?” The hunter's eyes were distant, as though observing a revelation only he could see, and if the slayers behind him were surprised, they weren't showing it. “Yes. I apologize, then.

“This is for your own good.”


"Can you stand?" Mabel asked. Dipper -- well, probably more Alcor at the moment, but it was just Mabel and Wirt in the alley, so there wasn't much difference -- stepped forward.

Wirt twitched a little, seeming trying to push himself up, but the gesture didn't quite finish before his legs gave under his weight like blades of grass. His face pulled into a grimace. He got as far as sitting a little straighter before going limp again, heavy breaths huffing from his chest into the cold morning air, the fingers on his free hand curled like claws on the pavement while the other clutched a guttering lantern (well, at least that solved one problem) to his chest. The shadow in his form had drained, leaving not much more than a boy behind. If not for the antlers and the unearthly glow behind his eyelids, Dipper almost could have mistaken him for human.

... Well, a dead human, anyway.

Dipper crouched in front of him, trying to meet his gaze. Wirt's skin was paler than he remembered, washed-out and drowned in its pallor. Wirt still didn't speak, but his eyes opened a crack, enough to slide over the scene and register Dipper's presence before they closed again, and he faintly shook his head.

It took Dipper a few seconds longer to see why.

“Wirt? What's-?” Mabel stopped short as her eyes traveled down to the green in the concrete gaps. Thin stems and vines twisted up from the stone and earth, running along Wirt's arms and under his clothes, meeting seamlessly where veins should be like intravenous lines. They tensed and thickened under force as she moved his arm, refusing to release, rooting him to the alley. Mabel gave the vines an experimental tug, and Wirt hissed, his eyes scrunching shut.

“Well,” said Dipper. “Crap.”