Rescue Mission

Chapter 4: These Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

Chapter Notes:

aaaand here's where the violence tag comes in (it's not anything super wild but there is some blood, so)

The footpath Beatrice led Henry along was about the width of a shoebox, and wobbled and wound through the underbrush like a drunken creek as it led deeper and deeper into the woods. Wherever they had split off from the better maintained “main” trail, he couldn't see it anymore. This path had nothing but dense gnarls of branches overhead, and the ground was occupied by roots as often as it was clear.

Beatrice made no effort to start a conversation, which he appreciated. It would have been incredibly awkward to make small talk in a time and place like this. Or in general, really. But the ominous trees with tortured face-like knots weeping tears of tar were absolutely not helping.

The wards, at least, were pretty obvious when they reached them. Another silvery chain, this one thinner than the last, hung at chest height between the trees like a rope barrier backed by a gossamer-thin shell of an ethereal wall. On one of the trees, a connection point had been hammered home with a bolt of something carved and gleaming, strung with protective trinkets. The bark behind it had blackened as if burnt, twisted around in some fierce battle of forces with an outcome Henry couldn't guess, but the tree still stood undaunted.

With how deep they’d traveled into the woods, it wasn’t clear exactly how or when the slayers had set the whole thing up. On closer inspection, the placement of the bolt did look a little crooked -- a rush job, maybe? Had they put this ring of wards in place after the Keeper was summoned, just banking on containing him long enough to lock him out of his own domain? That was… honestly, not the dumbest idea Henry had ever heard, but Mabel and Dipper usually dealt with cultists, who weren’t known for being bright or competent.

It wasn’t even clear if they’d had a backup plan. Demon slayers, of all people, should have probably known better. Henry privately lowered his appraisal of the company a few notches.

He took a deep breath, and took the kerchief-bundle of the nail out of his pocket. The menace surrounding it felt stronger, louder, when he uncovered the end to touch it, at arm's length, to the glowing bolt on the tree trunk.

It felt like a sort of reverse-tug-of-war, like pressing to wrong ends of two magnets together. The nail in his hands simply did not want to touch the bolt, and vice versa, but he forced them together nonetheless, touching metal to metal, holy to unholy, spraying out an arc of semi-sanctified sparks as they met.

He pressed on, though, and after a moment, it seemed to weaken. The resistance bled away as the force fizzled out and died. The malevolence of the nail didn't really fade, but the bolt turned dull and plain, whatever magic it carried undone. It fell easily from the tree trunk when he gave it a solid tug, leaving a length of chain snakelike along the ground, the other end connected a dozen yards away to a tree well off the path.

The section of the barrier behind it seemed to melt away into nothing, like a spiderweb at the wrong angle, but the rest on either side stood shining and strong.

“So, we need to do that with all of them?” Beatrice asked. It was first thing she'd said in about fifteen minutes.

“That's what D- uh, Alcor told us,” he confirmed.

“You don't need to dance around his name, you know,” Beatrice told him. “Already heard it. He wasn't exactly the best secret keeper when we first met. Or, Mabel wasn't, anyway.”

Henry didn't have much to respond with, so he just nodded. “Sure.”

She didn't say anything more, so the two carried on in silence, not uncomfortably. Henry watched a moment as she withdrew the iron-wrought trinket from the folds of her skirt, approaching the next ward and imitating what he'd done, then made his way over to the next tree after. The undergrowth and roots made it difficult to walk outside the confines of the narrow path, and he could see no sign he was following in any human's footsteps, save for maybe Beatrice's.

The next ward fizzled and crackled like a half-pulled electrical plug as the barrier charm dulled and darkened. He heard the same beside him, and they settled into an unspoken pattern of work.

Henry had found plenty of things about Mabel's life he needed time and effort to adjust to. That her brother was a literal demon had, in hindsight, been more the tip of the iceberg. He hadn't exactly signed up to desecrate holy wards in the middle of an extradimensional forest, but it was increasingly clear that events like this were a part of his normal life now, or they would be soon enough.

Sometimes it was easier not to think about it, and just get it over with. He didn't exactly like that, but he would live with it, if only for Mabel. (At least nobody had died. Yet.)

It still gave him a little contemplative pause, though, to consider that Mabel had yet even more parts to her life -- her magical, demon-filled adult life, at that -- that Henry had never even heard of. He could only guess why Greg and Beatrice (and presumably, the Keeper) hadn't been mentioned or come to visit before, but it was still an odd feeling. Like his world had flipped sideways, the day of the Transcendence, then upside-down after Mabel, and now it just kept rotating, an endless rolling log of revelations.

He wondered if he would ever learn to keep his balance. Probably -- this whole adventure, at least, struck him as less of a shock than meeting Dipper, or looking up one summer day to see the ordinary sky, blazing with unnatural light.

(He just hoped the next surprise wouldn't take that as a challenge.)

Another ward sputtered out. Henry let the chain fall, and something caught his eye.

He followed it up along the ground to a few yards away, where the glint of metal disappeared under bracken and leaves, and glanced ahead to Beatrice, who was busy with the next charm.

“Excuse me. Ms--?”

“Mill,” she absentmindedly filled in for him. “Call me Beatrice, though, it's less weird that way.”

“Beatrice? We might need to hurry up.”

“I'm already going quickly. Why? Is something else wrong? Possibly in some new and exciting way neither of us have the dimmest idea how to deal with?”

He didn't look up, but the volume of her voice and the crunching of dead leaves gave away her approach. She came to an audible stop beside him, then stepped around, too short to look over his shoulder.

“Oh,” she said, “Damn. I was hoping to use that.”

Before them lay six feet of chain, an unfamiliar stretch of twisted trees, and an expanse of roots and miscellaneous bracken, undisturbed and void of footprints. The sky overhead had darkened, so even the light filtering through the trees dimmed into a suggestion of early twilight. The barrier in that direction disappeared entirely into the scant empty space between the trunks.

Henry couldn't see anything resembling a path, no matter how hard he squinted and stared, as if the ground would simply rearrange itself into a more familiar well-trod pattern of stepped-on moss and broken twigs. His father had ground into him at least a passing understanding of how to find tracks on forest ground, and he could only say for certain there were none.

Beatrice took another step forward, crouched, and tugged along the chain until she reached the end of it. The last links disappeared directly into the earth at the foot of another tree, and stuck fast when she tried to dislodge them.

“Well, not much we can do about that part, all by ourselves.” She sighed. “Looks like we're hedging our bets on your friends and mine getting that idiot back safely and quickly, now.”

With one last futile yank on the chain, she stood, turned on her heel, and headed directly back to where she'd been working.

“You don't seem terribly surprised,” Henry observed, after watching her a moment.

She shrugged, gesturing a little carelessly with the metal trinket as she replied. “The woods likes to get people lost. Honestly, I'm impressed it waited this long to try.” Beatrice paused, and he could see her thinking for a moment. “I bet it's the wards.”

He finished the current charm and followed the chain past her to the next one. “You think the woods are getting stronger without them?”

Beatrice moved to step back from the tree and nearly tripped on a root. Henry had a sinking sense it hadn't been there before.

“It would make as much sense as anything else magic does,” she said. “It's like how the Unknown used to be, back when the Beast was still around. Except worse, which means apparently that monster was still half doing his job, back then. Who would have thought?”

“... the Beast?” Henry asked. “The slayers mentioned that, before, but I'm not entirely up to speed. He was here before the Keeper, though, right?”

Beatrice scoffed. “Pretty much. He was the boogeyman of the Unknown. The reason why people who wandered off into the woods didn't come back."

“And the Keeper is the reason they do?”

“Wirt is his successor, since that good-for-nothing woodpile finally died and left us alone. Turns out it wasn't all him, though -- the woods itself is just as bad. Half the job is just to keep the trees under control. He’s basically a magic groundskeeper.” She scoffed. “Not that the Beast cared. He sounded more interested in living forever than anything else.”

Henry found himself caught between wanting to ask more and not wanting to pry too deeply – both for Beatrice's sake, and for his own. Knowledge had its strengths, but there were things he really didn't need to know. He let the moment pass, and moved on, and tried not to think about the ground beneath his feet.


Jason shivered.

The far side of the woods looked like late autumn already, the leaves filling the path with a crackling brown carpet when they weren't slicked wet with whatever recent rain must have passed the pair of them by. Greg's running commentary soothed his nerves, at least -- and the leaves ahead were still clean and uncrushed, so this path probably hadn't seen traffic in a while.

The trail wound unpredictably through the trees, in broad detours and curves and loops, until the only reason Jason didn't consider himself lost was that Greg seemed to know where he was going, and Jason’s own sense of direction here had never quite existed in the first place. In time, though, the trees began to thin out into something better-kept (if still overgrown) and marginally more familiar.

Jason didn't try to make much further conversation, but Greg didn't seem to mind a lack of responses, content to chatter away to no one in particular, although he whispered more often than he spoke aloud, the farther they traveled along the trail. Still, once Greg got him answering questions, the topic meandered from the town (still mostly as it was, except for the slayers making everyone nervous) to Greg and Wirt's parents (not much news since they'd left town after the Transcendence, but Greg still had hope of correspondence by post -- Jason didn't quite have the heart to remind him why his letters had gone unanswered) to an entertaining retelling of that fateful Halloween night in the cemetery, which Jason found to be just another blurry memory from highschool, but Greg considered a formative experience, and recalled in vivid detail.

“So anyway, I guess Wirt was embarrassed about the tape because it had 'poetry and clarinet' on it, and he was all nervous that Sara would think he was a nerd. Which he is! But he's a good kind of nerd, so she probably would have liked him.”

Jason laughed weakly. “I can confirm, her partner nowadays is definitely a nerd. I think she likes those. I’m n-not sure if I counted, though.”

“Haha, yeah. I think his poetry is a lot better, now, too. I mean, he doesn't but he sometimes still shares them with us, and--”

Just shy of a bend in the path, Greg froze and gestured for Jason to stop. He tapped his ear and pointed ahead. It took a moment for Jason to work out what he meant, and another spent straining to hear whatever it was Greg had picked up on, before he realized why.

Squinting, Jason could make out the shapes of strangers through the trees, sporting now-familiar black jackets and badges. Voices filtered through the hushed woods:

“This is so stupid. How would it have even gotten here? We didn't even summon the damn thing on this side of the wood.”

A woman's voice, strong and clear, and not a small degree irritated: “We're searching the area, and that means the whole of it. The demon controls the woods. It's not unreasonable to assume it could have moved its soul-jar around before fleeing.”

A third voice, a little quieter than the other two, joined in offhand. “I mean, if I was him, I'd just put it in the middle of the woods or something. Way harder to find there.”

“Well, that's what the spiral search pattern is for,” the woman answered. “We're searching the perimeter for now, unless we get other leads. If you want to go complain to the boss or Ms. Li, be my guest, but you're not going to get a new answer.”

“I still believe we need to be on watch for sabotage,” a fourth voice added. Jason wondered if he had heard it before. “We saw the thralls about earlier, and they were loyal enough to put up a fight. It could have used them to hide the dark lantern somewhere, or carry it away. There's mythological precedent.”

The quiet one snorted. “There's a mythological precedent to you getting your ass kicked.”

“Thomas, shut it. Regardless, we'll get to the thrall issue if it comes up,” said the woman.

The first voice sighed. “Wish I'd gotten to be on one of the town teams. We're just going to spend all day looking through the damn dirt and they'll probably find the demon himself or something and get all the glory.”

“This isn't merely about glory,” objected the voice he nearly recognized. “This is an act of charity!”

“One that just so happens to bring a great deal of attention to the cause,” pointed out the quiet one.

“Guys?” A new voice interrupted, low and uncertain. “We've got company.”


Jason's eyes met a stranger's as the leader stared at him directly, though the undergrowth and saplings, as visible to him as he must have been to her. The sound of footsteps followed, quick and many.

Jason was not proud of what came next.

As the party of slayers spilled in from around the bend in the path, metal glinting off firearms and blades, he found himself paralyzed like a deer in the path of an oncoming train. He could only watch the scene play out, an observer in his own body, unable to interfere.

Greg raised his axe at first, but hesitated at the sight of the glinting pair of pistols holstered at the waist of the lead slayer, a tall blonde woman with a stern-eyed stare. His and Jason's chances were already hampered by being outnumbered again, this time three to one -- or six to one, Jason thought rather miserably, since he couldn't even work up the courage to do anything but stand there.

Six demon-slayers with guns and knives, for two intruders with a single axe and one focused mind between them. The narrow path let two or three stand abreast, but there was nowhere else to go, except back down the path, or into the trees. It wasn't a risk Jason would have taken, himself.

None of them moved to fight, though, instead gathering behind the invisible line of where their leader had stopped. Greg bit his lip and lowered the axe by a few inches, a frustrated set to his jaw -- unwilling to attack first, and wary of the odds, but equally unprepared to lay down his weapon.

“Those two -- those are the ones from earlier, the thralls,” said a hunter from the back of the group, stepping forward to point at them. Dimly, Jason recognized him as the leader of the previous scout party they'd run into an hour or so ago. A bruise bearing a suspect resemblance to the heel of Beatrice's boot marked the center of his forehead. “The old man, and the one with the axe. The other two must have split off.”

Greg tensed, all but rolling his eyes, but stood his ground, and Jason thought he saw him casting furtive glances into the woods as if already charting a footpath through the brush. “We're not thralls. We live here, and W-- the Keeper is our friend, and would be a lot better if you just gave him back and left us alone!”

“Sounds like what a thrall might say,” commented one of the hunters from the group -- Jason hazarded a guess this was “Thomas”.

“They could know something,” the hunter from before insisted, ignoring them both entirely. “They're familiar with the Beast. Came to try and disrupt the wards. They might even be able to lead us to the lantern, for all we know.”

“We'd get the half the credit for the kill, too,” mused the low-voiced slayer that had spotted them, clearly mulling it over.

“Or maybe you could stop trying to kill him!” Greg didn't seem quite able to contain himself, frustration spilling out into his words and his tightening grip on the axe.

The blonde woman sized up both Jason and Greg for a moment. “Unless you're here to help us finish that damned thing off, we're not interested in negotiating.” She nodded to the hunter from before, and to the others. “Tie them up. If they're this much trouble, we might as well keep them in arm's reach. It's not like magic woods folk will be running for law enforcement, either.”

“Wait, wh-- what?” Jason snapped back into motion as one of the Blades, a short woman with dark hair and a surprisingly strong grip, took him by the arm and shoved his hands behind his back. Another, a tall and imposing man with the buzz-cut and dull expression of a mall security guard, clamped a fist around the handle of Greg's axe. “Y-you can't just-- this, this is--”

“Kidnapping?” the dark-haired one asked. Jason recognized her by voice as the impatient one, who had been complaining earlier. “I mean, 'for your own good' and all, but sure. I'd just call it getting you out of the damn way.”

A howl of pain distracted them both, and Jason jerked sideways to see a scene of chaos break out beside him. Greg had swung, startled or furious or both, and scored a gash along the tall slayer's gut and sunk the axe into his forearm. The first streaks of red already stained the edges of the torn black cloth of the man's jacket.

Jason almost didn't move at first, but a moment later Greg had drawn back the axe, and, in the shock of the moment, grabbed Jason's other arm. “Come on!

The woman's grip on his arm slipped, but tightened a second later, and Jason found himself the sudden subject of a tug-of-war between her and Greg. Greg yanked again, and Jason cried out, half in surprise and half in pain. His old bones weren't meant to take this, not at all; he'd be paying for it too soon.

The narrow path worked in their favor, at least slightly, limiting the number of slayers that could engage them at once. Greg kicked the woman sharply in the knee, and her grip slackened enough as she staggered to release, sending Jason stumbling forward off the path.

“What do we--?” Jason couldn't quite pull together a complete thought, with too many fears to voice. Greg answered by dragging them both several steps into the bracken, shifting his arm around Jason's chest, and hoisting him over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.

The slayers had already moved into furious reaction by the time Greg got to running again, but the terrain tripped them up more than it did Greg, and the trees cut visibility to what little could be seen between them. Jason watched, slung over Greg's shoulder, as the slayers shrank into obscurity amid countless trunks and bushes.

The uneven roots beneath them finally caught Greg as well, a few minutes later, a narrowly averted fall punching the air from Jason's chest before Greg all but dropped him into a sprawling whorl of ferns, panting and shaking. “You're... way heavier... than a frog...” Greg managed, between heavy breaths.

“Y... yeah.” Greg's inane comment almost made sense in the middle of everything else. Or maybe he just didn't care, right now. Jason tried to sit more upright, but his back felt like it had a hot wire run through it from the landing, and his arms protested any effort to push himself up. “Oh, ow...”

“Hah... sorry.” Greg tilted his head toward the ferns. “I was hoping the leaves would help.”

Jason didn't have much to say on that, but grit his teeth and tried to sit up, leaning against the base of a tree behind him. “What do we do now?”

Greg sat against another tree, across from him, and stared at the dirt. “I guess we find somewhere else to start taking down the wards again. Or we come back later, once they've given up.”

“... I guess.” His back complained a little less now that he had stopped trying to stand, but the ache remained.

Greg had started to look worse for wear, too, since their last encounter on the path. He was good at keeping a cheerful face, but he'd gained a more solemn air now, his endless well of positive energy finally beginning to slip below the brim.

“Do you need a hand up?” Greg asked, after a minute of silence. His voice had gone low and quiet at some point since they'd left the path, but Jason couldn't entirely place when.

“I- I'll be fine,” Jason tried to assure him, but trying to prop himself upright again didn't go any better the second time around, and he wheezed and grimaced, trying to push off the ground onto his knees and elbows. The ground itself seemed to cling to him, like it didn't want him to leave. “Or, uh, not.”

Greg stood, brushing bracken off his pants, and then paused, raising one hand on front of him. Thin strands of wood and root ran along the side of his palm, winding around his arm and trailing like rope down to the forest floor. “Aw, poop.”

“Is that...?”

“Edelwood,” Greg confirmed. “Or it will be.” He frowned and used his free hand to pull the root free, leaving a line of sticky black oil behind, and kicked around to shake other roots loose from his legs and boots before stepping over to offer help.

Jason looked down to find still more lines of slender roots criss-crossing his own limbs and chest, like he'd been captured by Lilliputians. Had they really grown so quickly? They had only lingered for... how long had they been in this little spot, actually?

Greg joined him a moment later to peel the strings of wood from his clothes and hair, pulling him to stand. Third time was the charm, it seemed. He supposed not being tied down by demon trees helped.

“Alright,” Greg said, a determined look in his eye. “So, we'll--”

A click interrupted them both, the sharp, metallic sound at odds with the rustling leaves and brush.

“Neither of you move, understand?”

Greg turned his head, wide-eyed, and Jason slowly followed, both tracing the sound to its source. The lead slayer of the party stood twenty yards away from their little gap in the trees, framed by branches and brambles. In her hands, reflecting scraps of sunlight from above, a gleaming bright pistol sat leveled at them both.

“You've caused us more than enough trouble,” she told them both, in a voice that made it clear she expected no further argument. “Mark here has a bloody arm to patch up now, in the middle of the goddamn woods, and I have a report to make. Come quietly, this time, and maybe I'll feel like being nice.”

Chapter End Notes:

*frantically trying to plug my plot holes with bits of crumpled newspaper* PAY NO ATTENTION TO THIS

This was my last buffer chapter, and then I stopped updating for 2+ years lol. Hopefully you won't be waiting until 2025 this time?