Rescue Mission

Chapter 3: And They Don't Stop Coming

“Go! Now!”

Beatrice spun to elbow the nearest slayer in the face as she stomped hard on the toes of the one already grabbing her. Their improvised little group was already outnumbered by the Blades, and even if they got the upper hand, she could only assume backup would follow.

She may not have had the whole story, but it was obvious this group was bad news. Any demon-slayers foolish enough to tangle with the Keeper of the Unknown, whether they were misguided would-be heroes or shameless seekers of fame, were already pointing their holy weapons in the wrong direction.

It really wasn't the Keeper that was dangerous.

The grab had turned into a wrestling match, and Beatrice knew she was playing with risky odds, but there wasn't exactly an advantage to cooperating. Another slayer reeled from a well-placed steel-toed kick (her sisters laughed at her sometimes, but even they appreciated the value of sturdy shoes), and she twisted to shove the one grabbing her into a tree and push off, forcing his knuckles hard against the bark. She just had to get free long enough to change back, and she'd be in the air, out of their reach.

Greg was holding his own quite well, keeping the nearest few idiots at a distance with his axe. He wouldn't attack any of them in earnest, she suspected, but the sharp edge and weight could intimidate on their own, and an aversion to actual maiming didn't put broken bones completely out of the picture. The blunt side of the axe still served as a decent weapon, and no weapon could ever really be called harmless.

Jason had taken her warning, hurrying on to the next tree as quick as his old legs would carry him. The other man, whose actual name she hadn't caught, followed suit as his guard. If they could get out quickly enough, she could lead them along a shortcut, and they could keep dismantling the wards elsewhere on the borders for a while longer before anyone caught up.

(That strategy wouldn't last long, though. They needed to take down at least half the circle, apparently, and there was a second ring to deal with deeper in before Wirt could re-enter. Too many things to fix and so little time. These idiots were digging their own graves.)

One last solid kick to someone's precious jewels bought her time to dart away, using an old stump to reach a branch above and swing herself up and out of reach, skirt flying up as she hugged close to the trunk and scrambled up into the leaves. Beatrice shut her eyes -- this was always the hardest part -- forced herself upright to stand tightrope-balanced on the branch, and jumped.

The solidity of climbing vanished beneath her in an instant as the world turned into a whirl of falling motion. She reached out her wings, already able to feel the wind ruffling her wing-feathers, let the air catch her, and flew.

Her eyes opened to a blur, color smearing with speed as she arced back up toward the leaves. The situation was far easier to survey from above, unfettered -- Greg had managed to push back the remaining slayers hounding him, and though the four of them were clearly outnumbered, the stranger had done well in fending off those trying to follow, using a hatchet to decent effect along with simple grappling.

Beatrice flew in a little closer, careful to keep out of the fray. (One of the downsides of a fragile bluebird form.)

Greg grinned at her as she passed, and hit one last slayer over the head with the flat of the axe blade. The slayer dropped like a sack of flour, faceplanting into the duff, but as Greg pulled a few steps back, Beatrice could see him panting with exertion.

The leader was still standing several trees away, yelling something furious and indistinct. The movement was so clearly telegraphed there was no mistaking it, yet Beatrice could only watch as he pulled out an orange whistle and blew.

The shrill intensity of the sound nearly startled her out of the air, even with warning.

Reinforcements. These lot were scouts, most likely, just spreading out their eyes to pin down the Keeper and trap him, and were only armed enough to stall for time. Beatrice hated to admit it, but they couldn't handle reinforcements -- not when she'd already been pressed enough to make a break for it, and Jason looked to be dead weight either way, fight or flight.

If this was the search party, she didn't want to tangle with the welcome wagon. Not here, and not now.

“Hey,” she shouted as she swooped by Greg's head, “go with Jason! If I don't follow, regroup at the mill, got it?!”

Greg flashed a thumbs-up, already moving. Jason and the stranger had shaken off the last of their pursuers, and were already making decent time down a narrow brush-covered trail. It seemed Jason knew enough to find his way to around most basic landmarks at the wood's edge, these days, so for all his age and nervous demeanor she trusted him to manage it.

Or she would have, in any other time.

Perhaps it would be better to stick together for now, with the woods in such disorder. She could already see roots of edelwoods by the path that had grown thicker since the night before. On the other hand, that left the scouting party's leader to deal with.

Beatrice considered her options for a very brief fraction of a second, and then chose.

“Oi, nitwit!” she squawked, swinging around toward the lead scout, who had stopped following in favor of blowing the whistle again. The sound grated at her ears. She channeled the irritation into her transformation, feeling the rush of increasing momentum as her human form returned.

The man's expression was priceless, as he looked up just in time to catch her boots between his eyes. He didn't even get the chance to balance himself, instead toppling like a surprised piece of timber, landing solidly on his back in the roots of a towering elm. Beatrice didn't stick around, hopping off to turn back and fly off into the trees, but the revenge filled her with a childish satisfaction.

Also, it stopped that godawful whistle.

A few moments, and she had caught up to keep pace alongside the others, flying around head-height. The stranger seemed hardly surprised by Beatrice's bluebird form -- or at least, if he was surprised, he didn't comment.

The four of them carried on down the path in a breathless sort of silence, full of sweat and nerves. Neither Jason nor the stranger had quite the energy to speak first, and nobody else cared enough to answer. Greg hummed a jaunty tune to himself, under his breath, but said nothing yet aloud, perhaps for some concept of stealth.

To her dismay, the scenery began to shift and rearrange as they traveled. The sturdy oaks and elms had become more nondescript, transitioning into a blend of edelwoods and something deciduous and withered she couldn't quite place, and the end of the path seemed hazy and uncertain.

Beatrice remembered a time, once, when she had been far less confident to wander the woods beyond her home. She did not often like to recall it. The Unknown had been a far darker place then, and even that place had been kept by a caretaker of sorts, however malevolent. She had never seen the woods untamed, but had little faith it would be any kinder than the Beast's version of it.

We're trying to help you, she thought to the trees, like this might make them understand. The ghoulish faces in the edelwood trunks did not reply, which was probably for the best.

At some point, Greg stopped for a moment, falling behind. Beatrice perched on a thin branch above as he turned around to squint at the path behind them. Beatrice couldn't make out the far end of it anymore, through the trees. No whistle sounded. Nothing followed them. Ahead, Jason and the stranger stopped as well.

“Is something there?” the stranger asked him. Beatrice was beginning to regret not asking the man's name. It was getting tedious to call him “the stranger” every time he did something.

Greg shook his head. “I think we're good for now.” He came back to the group, leading the way now, humming again.

“Is this about Wirt?” she asked in an undertone, flying close for some semblance of discretion.

The humming died down, half-hearted from the start. “Yeah,” he said, softly. “I know he's out there, but--”

Beatrice watched him bite back a sad sort of laugh. She could nearly hear Jason and the stranger behind them, trying not to act too interested.

“I guess it's kinda funny, that I still can't rescue him. Even though I'm bigger now, and he's a demon and he isn't supposed to need rescuing. He's out there somewhere, and I'm just still running around in the woods like a lost kid again.”

For a few seconds, she said nothing. Greg's gaze stayed fixed on the path ahead as they continued onward through the trees.

She was never very good at comforting people, but she couldn't just let this slide by either. What kind of friend would she be, to leave him unanswered?

"Hey," she began, forcing the uncertainty out of her voice. "He's going to be fine. We're already taking down the wards, aren't we? He's probably just waiting outside for us to finish up, so he can get in, and then-- bam! Problem solved. They surprised us last time, but that trick they pulled won't work twice."

Beatrice turned her head to get another look at Jason and the stranger, following behind them. He looked familiar, even if she'd never seen him in her life. "And if I'm right, we're not exactly in this alone."

Greg nodded, with a faint smile. "Yeah, I know." He shook his head, perking up a little, and the melancholy moment dissolved like ripples in a pond. "Anyway!"

He turned around, walking backwards to face the rest of the group. "It's been a while since anyone came here, so we should probably catch up! Tall dude, I don't think I got your name earlier? Or, I think the name you said was fake, but I could be wrong I guess." Greg looked thoughtful for a second. "Unless-- is it actually Harry?"

"It's Henry," the man supplied. At least he wasn't 'the stranger' anymore. "Henry, uh, Corduroy."

Ah. So that explained it.

"Mabel's boyfriend?" Beatrice asked. Not that she needed the confirmation -- what were the odds of any other absurdly tall bespectacled redheads who just happened to be on their side, least of all any she wasn't related to? -- but more out of simple, mindless surprise.

"Fiancee, actually," Henry corrected. “We're holding the wedding this summer.”

"Aww, man, and nobody told us?" Greg said, and Beatrice could pick out the genuine disappointment behind his tone. She scoffed, ignoring a little ache in her chest. She had long since gotten used to the rules of the Unknown. Those like herself and Greg, those who called the Unknown home, weren't meant to leave it any more than its Keeper was; less, even. Time could only be denied for so long, outside, and home did not always mean kind or free.

"It's not like we'll be able to attend, anyway," Beatrice pointed out. "Not unless they hold it on the borders of the woods, and I don't think there's any buildings still standing that can host a wedding out there."

"Mabel's got most of the plans," Henry admitted, shrugging. The shy gesture, like his glasses, felt out-of-place on someone his size. "I honestly didn't actually know about..." -- he gestured to the woods, and to Greg and Beatrice -- "this, at the time."

“I guess we don't meet up that often on your side, with the time stuff.” Greg shrugged, already moving on. “Anyway, congratulations! A friend of Mabel's is a friend of mine. I have a few ideas for a wedding gift, but with all this pickle going, they might have to wait.”

“Um, it's fine,” Henry declined. “Let's deal with this first, and maybe we can talk about that later.”

“Got it.” Greg spun on his heel to face the right way around again, and took a decisive step forward. “Onward we go!”


A few nudges and one very uncomfortable demon later, it was clear Wirt wasn't moving any time soon. The roots weren't especially strong themselves, but Wirt's pained expression told Mabel it would be a bad plan to just rip him out of the ground.

“So, is he just...” Mabel looked around for a word. “... Recharging? Or something?”

“Looks like it,” Dipper said, still staring intently at the vines.

Wirt, after a moment's delay, nodded. His eyes stayed shut. Mabel hoped that meant he was resting.

“Hey, Wirt?” she asked, softening her voice as she leaned in towards him. “How soon do you think you can move?”

Wirt mumbled something unintelligible and turned his head in her direction, eyes still shut. She waited patiently for a moment more, but when no response came, she turned to Dipper to see if his magic knowledge powers had anything to offer.

Dipper shrugged. “I'm not sure. I can't imagine this happens a lot to begin with.”

Mabel watched the flame of the lantern flare ever so slightly as Wirt's hands tightened around it. The roots seemed to pulse in time with the light, if she looked closely enough.

At least he had the lantern. That solved a lot of problems, right there.

“Maybe a few hours?” Dipper offered, after a moment of further thought. “Unless we can find some way to speed things up.” The air was quiet except for the sounds of the town carrying on around them, and the ragged breaths between.

The next several minutes passed in an uneasy quiet as they brainstormed solutions. After a few seconds, Dipper let his eyes unfocus into something golden and inhuman again for a long moment before returning to normal. He frowned for a split second before returning his attention to Wirt, who had barely moved, looking half-asleep on the pavement.

“It looks like Henry and the others ran into a little trouble at the border,” he reported. “I can't really see into the Unknown itself, but there are more scouting parties near the woods, now, so I'm assuming they left an impression. Guess we'll want to be careful on the way in.”

Mabel worried at the hem of her sweater as she watched the pulsing veins that clung to Wirt's skin. What did they connect to, anyway? She couldn't see anything but scraggly moss and weeds in the cracks of the pavement they grew from, though greenery was definitely thicker around his form than any other patch of ground.

Idly, she followed the thin trails of climbing vines with her eyes, tracking up the brick wall behind him. Moss intersected the path in springy patches along a line of thready stems that wandered all the way up to a window box of flowers, high enough on the wall that Mabel had to step back and crane her neck to see it.

She looked back down at Wirt again, and was all at once reminded of a scene from a hospital drama she had once wrangled Dipper into watching with her, years ago, where Buff McHunk smuggled his secret criminal lover out of the hospital by carrying them off out the window -- bed, IV stand and all. It was all super cheesy, and obviously she and Dipper weren't the protagonists of an emergency room soap opera, but the concept...

“Hey, Dipper?” she asked.

He hummed a reply, eyes still distant for a second before he looked up at her.

“I have an idea.” Mabel stood and surveyed the alley again, just to check that nobody was watching. The line of flowers on the window box caught the sunlight like a tiny row of solar panels, and she could swear they twitched in time with Wirt's breathing. “But I think we're going to need a few things to make it work.”


The path through the woods didn't lead directly to the far side, of course. The Unknown was funny like that -- it always liked to wander. It was the same when Greg and Wirt got lost as kids.

Greg stepped over an especially large vine snaking out onto the path, making a little game out of it, like skipping over sidewalk cracks. Sidewalk cracks weren't sticky with oil, and they didn't move or try to ensnare your legs if you stood on them for too long, but it had been a while since he last walked on an actual sidewalk, anyway. Maybe modern sidewalks moved now. Weren't there books about that? And those moving sidewalks at airports? Greg hadn't ever been to an airport before, but he remembered something about that, he was pretty sure.

He hummed another half-remembered tune to himself, hopping over another root almost as thick as the trunk it supported. This path was definitely more overgrown than usual.

It was because Wirt was gone, he knew. The Keeper was supposed to take care of the forest and keep it in check. Otherwise, it was a hungry thing, always wanting more souls. Wirt confided in him some nights about it, all the whispering roots and pollen in the air, begging to spread and grow and reach and consume. The anchors of those trees ran deeper into the soil than anyone could dig, linking together like telephone wires to talk to each other.

All tangled together below, the Edelwoods were the biggest living thing in the entire forest.

Greg wished, maybe a little unfairly, that Mabel and Alcor would hurry up.


After a time, the path led them by the edge of the old grist mill where Beatrice's family still lived. One of her little sisters waved from the porch, kicking her bare feet against the front step, and the friendly old dog barked a hello. Greg waved back, and so did Henry. Henry seemed a nice enough man, and the fact Mabel apparently liked him made him already as good as a friend.

Something moved behind a window, and a moment later, Beatrice's mother hurried out of the house, dusting a bit of flour from her apron. “Have you dealt with it, then? The trouble with those men, and your brother?” she called from the porch.

“Some of it!” Greg replied, smiling at her. “We've got help now, and a plan! There were some guys trying to give us trouble, so we're going around to work on the other side for now. They know enough about the woods not to follow us in, so I think we lost them.”

Her mother looked worried at that, but Beatrice interrupted before Greg could try reassuring her. “We'll be fine, Mother. There were only a few men out there, and they were barely armed. For all I know, we didn't even need to run. They were just more trouble than it was worth.”

“I'm glad you're well, but I wouldn't trust that they can't travel the woods, dear.” Beatrice's mother wrung her hands together, glancing at the woods like someone might jump out of the bushes at any moment. “They've already been here, earlier today.”

… what?

“They were searching for the lantern,” she continued, lowering her voice. “We told them we didn't know anything. They left, and we haven't seen them since, but I can't say if the woods finally caught them, or if they found a path back out again. Either way, it's worrisome.”

“You're all right, though?” Beatrice asked, and though she still held herself with confidence, Greg could hear the nerves in her voice. “They didn't threaten you, did they? Because if they did, I'll-”

Her mother shook her head. “Not us, no. But they weren't pleased to leave empty-handed either. The man leading them sounded about ready to light the whole wood on fire, if it meant defeating the Beast.” She frowned, adding a little more quietly, “There's a sort of fury to him I wouldn't like to test. A temper like that rarely bodes well.”

A breeze set the leaves around the mill shivering, a warning whisper in the quiet.

“Charming,” remarked Beatrice, to nobody in particular. Nobody replied. “Well, we need to get this over with quickly, then,” she added, standing up a little straighter and taking a sharp, deep breath. She narrowed her eyes at the horizon for a moment, thinking.

“Should we s-split up?” Jason asked from the back. He waved. “Also, hello, Beatrice's mother. Nice to meet you.”

Beatrice's mother waved back.

Beatrice scowled. “You know, normally, I would say splitting up sounds like it's going to get us killed, but we really do need to cover more ground. It might be worth it this time.”

She was probably right, if Greg was being honest -- which he was. He and Wirt had made it on their own for a solid week back when they first got lost on Halloween, and that was with the Beast still around. The woods didn't need to be hasty to ensnare people. (That probably should not have been as comforting as it was.)

“A vote?” Henry suggested. “All in favor?”

By unanimous decision, they agreed to split.

“We'll go in pairs,” Beatrice decided. “We should have one person who knows their way around in each group. I mean, not that it'll make a big difference if the woods actually wants us lost, but I'm not going to just leave the two of you--” (she gestured to Jason and Henry) “--wandering around alone.”

“Alcor lent us a pair of unholy artifacts for nullifying the inner wards,” Henry said, reaching for his pocket. “Whoever goes to deal with those should carry one.”

Jason raised his hands, open-palmed. “I, uh, can go on the border team.”

“That leaves one of you two.” Henry pulled out a bundle of cloth the size of a handkerchief, with a prong of twisted black metal poking out from the end. Something about it made Greg's hair stand on end.

It felt like the air when Wirt got angry.

“I'll go,” Beatrice volunteered, taking it before Greg could react. She tucked the trinket into some invisible fold in her skirts, probably one of her secret coin pockets.

The pairs split without further argument, aside from Beatrice's mother insisting they take some food for the road. Greg guessed it was the only way she felt she could help, when she was leaving them to wander off into the woods against threats unknown. He couldn't blame her. He knew that feeling, too, of facing something so far out of his league it seemed like there was nothing he could do about it that mattered. Wasn't that what this whole mission was, in a way?

Beatrice and Henry took a narrow footpath off the main trail which Beatrice swore she knew, and left Greg and Jason on the main trail, heading out into the brighter edge of the woods. Greg took a deep breath, and shook his head and wiggled his hands for a moment to chase off the strange sad mood that had begun to overshadow him.

“I guess it's just be the two of us, huh, Jason Funderberker?” Greg chuckled and tried to playfully elbow Jason in the ribs, but Jason was kind of old, and Greg didn't want to hurt him, so he stopped just shy of actually doing that. “Just like old times.”

“We never ac- actually hung out together,” Jason protested. “I barely even hung out with Wirt.”

“Just like new times, then,” Greg said. He settled for patting Jason on the back instead of elbowing him. “C'mon, not-so-Froggy Jason. We've got my brother to save!”


Samuel Vaughn did not consider himself a patient man.

He was an organizer and an action-taker, at heart, perfectly suited to the task of leader, if he did say so himself (and he did.) He made goals, and he worked to achieve them, and if he had to personally push and shove and show up uninvited to do it, then so be it. Just so long as things got done.

And if there was one thing he was going to do, it was to put himself on the map. His organization, however small, was the first stepping stone to something greater, and this challenge was the very first step. Earning a name for himself meant putting on a show, and Samuel and his guild were more than prepared to deliver.

Or they would have been, if the whole thing had actually gone to plan. But as the saying went, no plan survived contact with the enemy.

That, of course, was what backup plans were for. This wouldn't be hard to salvage. Some of the cameras were still intact, even. The fact the demon itself had escaped during what, once adjusted for circumstance, should have been only a moderately difficult exorcism, was ultimately nothing more than a delay in the production process. All he needed was the lantern.

“Vaughn? Sir?” His assistant, Katherine, looked up from her phone screen, tapping out correspondence to one of the scouting parties. “To be clear, you were definitely joking about trying to burn the woods down, right?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Samuel said. “It's too big to burn, anyway. And the damn things'd probably just grow back.”

She nodded and carried on typing, seemingly satisfied.

Samuel studied the picture on his phone again. The artist's rendering was imperfect, he imagined, and so was the photograph he had taken of it for reference, but the concept wasn't difficult to imagine. In his hands, all he would have to do was open that little metal door, and he would be able to snuff out that burning, writhing spirit inside it with no more than a careless breath. No more cursed forests, no more lost travelers, no more children who never came home -- he would vanquish the Beast of the Unknown for all to see, and no childlike disguises or long cons or time-tangled thralls would deny him that.

All the best demon slayers had blood on their hands. It only mattered what kind.