For several seconds no one moved.
Jason looked around. He knew the opening had to be near here, but even he didn’t know its exact position. And they didn’t have much time. A part of him didn’t trust Sergeant Ross and her companions to not overreact if they saw the creature. Besides, he felt they owed her for protecting Julie.
There had to be a way to find the portal.
Just then he noticed Otto cupping his hands to his mouth. A second later, his friend let out an amazingly accurate imitation of the low bellow they had heard before.
Jason was impressed. He himself could imitate a great number of animal calls, but only after he’d heard them a number of times and had practice long hours. Otto, on the other hand, had done it perfectly after just hearing the call once.
In fact the call had been so accurate, even ‘Big Mama’, as Nathan referred to the animal, reacted. Luckily, the young man was still with her and began stroking her large muzzle to calm her down, while saying, “Easy, false alarm. We’re just trying to get our bearings.”
But just as the great beast settled down an answering cry, louder than the last one, came back.
Beaming Otto cried, “Got it! This way my friends, Nathaniel, get her to follow.”
However, the young man did not respond. Instead his eyes seemed fixed on the opening of the cave.
Jason followed his gaze and saw two figures watching them closely. “Ah,” sighed and went over to Nathan. “Come, we must get her home first. They will wait until we return.”
“Don’t worry, they aren’t going anywhere.”
“Who isn’t going anywhere?” called Otto staring at them and then at the cave. “I don’t see anyone. Now come, we have to get her home before the opening closes.”
Nathan sighed and shook his head. “Damn,” the young man murmured and turned away.
Quietly, Jason studied the boy and his dog then made a slight gesture in their direction. The two seemed to understand and headed back in the cave, while he followed his ‘three’ friends further into the woods.
‘Big Mama’ seemed to sense what was coming. She was becoming more and more excited as they moved forward, and it was getting a little harder for Nathan to control her. But every so often a stream of green mist seemed to snake out from beneath his coat and she’d calm down again.
Moving past them, Jason caught up with Otto who was leading the way and asked, “How will we know we’ve found the opening?”
“If we’re at the correct angle, we will see it,” his friend assured him. “Otherwise, we could literally walk right by it and just hear strange noises from among the trees.”
Hearing this, Jason peered deep into the forest ahead. After several moments, he spotted something that definitely did not belong. “There it is!” he whispered.
Otto looked at him, “You’ve spotted it already? What does it look like?”
“Something wondrous,” was all he could say.
Nathan had overheard everything his two friends were saying and smiled. He could now sense the opening himself, and so could his charge. She was becoming very excited, sniffing the air eagerly. Still he did not relinquish his control over her, for fear she might rush ahead and accidentally run his companions over.
But it was getting harder, so as one of her massive front paws came down in the snow, he scurried up her arm and onto her shoulders. She did not seem to mind in the least. Nor did she flinch when a couple of his fingers elongated into narrow sharp tips which slowly penetrated her thick skin.
However instead of drawing from her, he allowed a small amount of himself to pass into the creature. It was just enough to establish a link between them. Then he focused his eyes straight ahead.
The animal paused and shifted in wonder. He knew she was now seeing through his eyes and was amazed at what lay before her.
The opening was clearly visible now. It was like a scene from another time that had super-imposed itself over the dark forest landscape. Ice and snow seemed to stretch for miles, while in the sky ever shifting colors, similar to the northern lights glowed and danced. Amidst the white were moving shapes some of which resembled creatures who had walked the world he knew, while others were completely unknown.
But close to the opening were several beasts whose size and shape were very familiar to him.
Big Mama seemed to recognize them as she called out and they responded in kind.
Knowing the time had come he called out, “Uh guys… you might want to move to one side.”
Otto and Jason did as instructed, just as his mount lunged forward as quickly as her game leg would allow.
Within seconds Nathan found himself in that other version of Earth caught amidst a family reunion of sorts. The other sloth-like beings crowded around Big Mama, sniffing and rubbing against her in a most welcoming manner.
It soon became clear he wasn’t going to be able to get down easily. Not unless he wanted to be accidentally stepped on. But then he heard chanting from behind and turned see Jason and Otto had followed them into this place.
The other creatures seemed intrigued by their presence and in particular the shaman’s song. The moved away slightly, allowing Big Mama to lower herself into the snow.
Taking the hint, Nathan slid down and stroked her muzzle one last time. “Merry Christmas,” he murmured to her and then headed over to where his friends waited.
As soon as he joined them, Jason brought his song to an end.
A moment later, the ‘reunion’ started up once more as their charge was herded gently away from the opening and up the nearest hill. Towards the top she stopped and turned, sniffing the air once more and called back to them before heading off with her family.
For a moment the three men stood there staring at the wondrous sights around them. But then Jason said, “Sergeant Ross will be looking for us, and she’ll have others with her.”
“True,” Otto sighed and led the other two back out the way they’d entered.
“How long will the opening last?” Jason asked once they were back in the forest>
“Another day, maybe two,” Otto replied. “I’d like to come back here tomorrow and do a little exploring, if you don’t mind Nathan.”
“I can load up on the red stuff and join you,” his friend offered.
“We’ll see,” Otto told him, “We have no idea how much sun there might be, and remember it would reflect off all that snow and ice. It might be too much for your system even if it was well fed. Besides, the weather report for around here is more snow. I’d rather you deal with any remaining questions Sergeant Ross may have.”
“Indeed,” Jason smiled, “I have a feeling she’ll want to ‘see’ him alone.”
Otto couldn’t resist nudging his young friend and saying, “You dog, you.”
Before Nathan could respond, they came to the clearing near the rocks just as Veronica and several officers, including one who appeared to be her boss.
“There you are,” she cried upon spotting them. “Did the bear come back at all?”
Otto shook his head and turned to Jason who said, “No, she didn’t. I think she knew her work was done and has gone home. Black bears are rarely seen in these parts because they try to avoid humans, but a child in distress was enough for her to make an exception.”
“Huh? I’ve heard of wild animals protecting or adopting children, but never thought I’d see the day it actually happen,” commented the gruff-looking officer. Then the man looked at him and Nathaniel and said, “I’m Police Chief Roy Petersen, thanks for your help in finding the girl. We appreciate it.”
“We were happy to help,” Otto replied and then noticed the fellow looking at him curiously.
“Have we met before?” the man asked, “I could swear you seem familiar, especially with that accent.”
“I doubt it, this is my first time here in Connecticut,” Otto shook his head. “I don’t come over to America very often.”
Just then Veronica frowned and said, “But Nathan said the two of you investigate reports of strange creatures, like Bigfoot and whatnot.”
‘From now on Nathan does not get to do the talking,’ thought Otto as he quickly came up with a reply. “This is true. But we look into reports from various countries. There are legends rumors of unknown animals all over the world.”
This seemed to satisfy her as she shot a glance at Nathan who smiled back.
Otto quietly resigned himself to the fact that they would probably be sticking around at least for a few more days.
“How is Julianna?” asked Jason, anxious to know how his niece was doing. He would’ve dearly loved to have held and spoken to her for even just a few minutes, but circumstances being what they were had prevented it.
“She’s fine, in fact she’s doing really well,” Chief Petersen smiled. “Dispatch got a call from your wife just as we were heading out. Your brother and his family were found alive and well out at sea. Their ship took a pounding during the storm which drove them way off course and knocked out their radio equipment. But everyone’s fine and they’re being towed back to port even as we speak. With a little luck, they’ll be joining you on Christmas day. So it looks like our work is done here.”
“Indeed it does,” he smiled back and then noticed Nathan glancing back at the cave and thought, ‘Almost.’
As the clock struck midnight, Jason made his way through the snow once more. Julianna was safe and resting comfortably. He’d asked her many questions about her experience and her responses had both warmed his heart and troubled him slightly. She remembered things exactly as Nathan had instructed, but she had asked questions about things like how large the ‘bear’ had been. To her the animal that had protected her had seemed much larger than any black or even grizzly bear. And there had been something odd about the beast’s claws…
He sighed inwardly. She was going to follow the path, just as he and his brother had. He had hoped it would be one of his own children, but they had not shown any sign of interest or talent for it. In fact, they hardly showed any inclination to even really learn the stories or herbal remedies that had been passed down through the years. Whereas his niece, she could never get enough.
It was something he’d have to discuss with his brother, but after the holidays. There was no need to burden him with what may come to pass down the road.
Besides, there was another who needed his help right now.
He had just reached the area where the cliff face stood with its low narrow cave entrance. His ears could detect voices coming from inside. One of them he recognized and smiled. Yes, he had not been mistaken in placing his trust in his new friends, particularly this one.
Closing his eyes, he listened carefully, filtering out the sounds of the wind and trees until he could hear ‘them’.
“So you’re parent’s car flipped over and you were thrown from the wreck?” Nathan was saying to the twelve-year old boy before him. The lad was huddled up close to his dog.
He could clearly see the boy’s dog still seemed uncertain about what to make of him. But there was little he could do about it. Misting would not help in this particular case.
“That’s right,” Michael nodded. “I tried to reach the car to get at my parents, but I could see from all the blood they were dead. Then that big animal started roaring and stomping around and Riff and I took off running.”
“Looks like you hit your head pretty good,” Nathan remarked. “That’s quite a bump you got there.”
“Yeah,” the boy nodded, touching his head. “I must’ve hit the doorframe when I got thrown. I remember feeling really dizzy as me and Riff headed into the woods. He stayed with me the whole time, wouldn’t leave my side even once.”
“Then you found this cave and crawled inside, am I right?”
“We had to,” Michael told him. “That thing was still out there and it seemed to be following us. When Riff led me to the cave, I could see right away the thing wouldn’t be able to get inside, so I let him help me in and then we just curled up together and waited for the creature to go away.”
“Only it didn’t, it kept hanging around didn’t it?”
“Yeah,” the boy nodded and touched his head. “Dunno how long we’ve been in here. I kind of fell asleep and then I heard that girl crying and knew the creature would go after her so…”
“So you called out to her and tried to keep her safe?”
“Yeah, I didn’t want it to hurt her like it did my folks.”
Nathan frowned, “I thought you said the creature killed them.”
The boy hesitated, “I thought so too, but when I was asleep I dreamed I heard them calling to me. And then today, when I was watching you and the others dealing with the thing, I heard them again. Do you think they might be okay?”
Before he could answer, Nathan’s sharp ears detected chanting coming from outside the cave. He recognized the voice immediately, but the song was different than the one he’d heard earlier. Yet it filled him with a sense of longing.
Then he heard more voices calling as if from a distance, but getting nearer.
Both Michael and Riff heard them too and stood up. “That sounds like Mom and Dad… can you hear them? Or am I just dreaming again?”
“No,” Nathan assured him, “I hear them too.”
Michael started forward and then stopped, “What if the creature is still out there or comes back?”
“It won’t,” Nathan assured him. “She’s gone home and now it’s your turn.”
The boy hugged his dog and murmured, “I’m afraid.”
“I’ll carry you, both of you,” Nathan offered and removed the dark heavy cloak he’d changed into before coming back here. After wrapping both Michael and Riff in it, he lifted them up and headed for the opening.
“I hope we’re not too heavy for you,” the boy whispered as they drew closer to the entryway. “Riff’s pretty big.”
“You guys aren’t that heavy,” Nathan assured him and even felt a faint wagging of a tail as he stepped out into the clearing.
There off to his left he spotted Jason continuing his chant, while a man and a woman stood near the trees with their arms outstretched. “Michael!” they cried in unison.
“Mom! Dad!” the boy cried and rushed to meet them, with Riff following close behind.
Nathan stayed still, his arms still held out as the reunited family hugged and laughed, before slowly fading before his eyes.
Once they were gone, Jason finished his chant and approached him. “Do not look sad my friend, they’ve been searching for him all this time. And now they have all moved on, just as you have.”
“Is it that obvious?” Nathan asked, shifting the bundle in his arms ever so gently.
“How long have yours been gone?”
“Over a hundred and thirty years,” Nathan told him. “But I do have other family. It’s an extended family which is composed of many homes and people who know what I am, and that I’ll always watch over them.”
“My people belonged to the Iroquois, and we used to live in longhouses that were comprised of many families who lived together,” Jason remarked. “You’re extended family sounds much the same. I would honored if you would count my family among them.”
Nathan thought about it for a moment and then said, “I’d like that too. But, some of them are going to have to know the truth about me. I don’t age like normal people. If I keep coming back to visit, I’ll either have to wear make-up to look older or…”
“My wife and my eldest boys are fully aware of the other worlds,” Jason interrupted. “Remember, I told you before about that which my ancestors imprisoned so long ago. Well, that prison still exists and it is my job to keep watch over it and make sure the thing does not escape. After I’m gone one of my children, or possibly one of my brother’s, will take over the job.” Here the shaman paused and turned to him and said, “I would feel better knowing they had someone like you to help guard their back.”
Nathan smiled, touched by his friend’s words. “Of course I will.”
“Good, it would be nice to add to my family at Christmas. You and Otto will join us.”
Hearing the note of finality in his friend’s voice, Nathan nodded. “Of course,”
As those two words left his lips the beam of a flashlight appeared among the trees.
A moment later, the familiar form of Chief Petersen, followed by one of his male officers appeared. “Okay Jason, I’m back just like you asked. What did you find…? Oh no, please don’t tell me that’s Rachel?”
“No, it’s Michael Broughman,” the shaman replied.
“The boy who disappeared after his parent’s car crashed eight years ago?”
“I’m afraid so,” Nathan nodded.
“Where did you find him?”
“Inside the cave,” Jason answered. “Julianna told me about a boy she’d seen in there who’d helped her. We never saw anyone come out, so Nathan and I came back to see if he was still there.”
“And apparently he was,” Roy shook his head in disbelief. “But she said he ‘helped’ her? How? Are you telling me she saw a ghost?”
“Perhaps,” Jason shrugged.
“Or maybe she simply saw the shadow of the remains and imagined he was real,” suggested Nathan. “The mind can play tricks on people, especially when their stressed or upset.”
Chief Petersen took a closer look at the bundle and nodded. “Looks like the boy took a nasty blow to the head in the crash, probably a concussion. The dog knew he was hurt and wouldn’t leave him so it tried to keep him warm and they both froze to death,” he sighed. “Well, at least now they can reunited with his folks and rest in peace together.”
“They already are I’m sure,” Nathan heard Jason reply as they both stared into the woods, which gleamed like a frozen cathedral in the night.
THE END? OR WOULD YOU LIKE AN EPILOGUE? PLEASE LEAVE AN ANSWER IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. I HAVE A LITTLE MORE TO OFFER, BUT ONLY IF YOU ASK FOR IT MY FRIENDS…