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| 1 | IN PURSUIT OF THE LOST
greymoun ch1: Welcome
Jackson Carter loved a mystery—the kind that kept him up at night in fear the shadows might devour him. That was why he found himself in Ascela's bitter tundra as the sun set over the mountains.
With a huff of exertion, he dragged his shins through the knee-deep snow, trying to shake that sinister feeling of eyes examining his every move. He glanced to his left, gazing into the thick fir forest, but even if something was watching him beyond the trees, his cerulean eyes wouldn't be able to see it. The blizzard was picking up.
He focused on the warm glow of a village a hundred yards ahead. This was where his findings had led him.
It didn't look like much, a few brick houses, a post office, a single store and a bar. At least the roads had been cleared of snow—mostly.
His legs shuddered in relief as he broke free of the snow onto the slushy path, the weight of his luggage causing him to stumble a little—and when a pack of dogs raced past hauling their sled, Jackson haphazardly stepped aside, watching them as their master, who was wrapped in at least three different animal skins, headed towards the store.
As fast as his aching legs would carry him, Jackson hurried towards the bar. He hastily pulled the door open and stepped inside, battling with the door for a moment as the wind wrestled to keep it open. Once he finally won the conflict, he sighed and turned to face the room of silent, staring faces.
He smiled, but when he realized they couldn't see his face beneath the scarf he had wrapped around it, he lifted his stiff arm to wave. But all that ensued were quiet whispers and sceptical frowns.
Jackson wouldn't let that stop him, though. He made his way over to the bar, pulling off his gloves as the warmth of the room's fire began to melt the ice from his clothes. He let his rucksack fall off his back, and as it hit the floor with a thump, he rested his arms on the bar.
"Hey, could I get a coffee please?" he asked the bartender, but the gruffly man looked him up and down and scoffed. "Okay...cocoa? Tea?"
The bartender responded with a grunt and snatched a white mug.
Unsure of which beverage he was getting, Jackson watched the man closely. But the utters behind him drew his eyes to a group of bearded men sitting by a crate of firewood. They fell silent when he looked at them, as did the group by the window when he glanced over there, too. He had never felt so unwelcome somewhere before.
He reached into his puffy jacket and pulled out his phone, but the screen didn't respond to his several frustrated taps. He sighed, glancing around the room, but there was no sign of an outlet.
"Hey, uh...you got somewhere I can charge this?" he asked as the bartender placed a steaming cup of cocoa on the bar.
The man looked down at his phone as if he had never seen something quite like it before...and by the looks of this place, Jackson was almost convinced he might not have.
"Never mind," he mumbled, slipping his phone back into his coat.
Then, the bartender held out his hand.
Jackson nodded and reached into his pocket, locating one of his last bronze coins. He'd spent every ounce of his savings getting to this place...it better be worth it.
He handed the man the coin. "Do you know where I can find Greykin Mountain?" he asked him—even if his phone were charged, he was sure he'd not get a signal out here.
Looking him up and down, the bartender frowned sceptically. "What you want with that place?"
"Well, I'm here following a lead—I write for the Dawnward Times," he explained, but who out here would know that name? "It's uh...a big-city paper."
The man scoffed. "Go home," he dismissed.
Jackson frowned disappointedly. "What?"
"You're not the first guy to come out here asking about that godforsaken place," he grunted, wiping the bar down, "and if you don't wanna end up like the rest, I suggest you go back to your...Dawnward."
"That's actually one of the reasons I'm here," he said. "Seven people have gone missing from Dawnward over the last year and they all have one thing in common—this was the last place they came."
"It's a harsh place. People go missing all the time."
Shuffling into the seat beside him, Jackson wrapped his hands around his mug of cocoa and shrugged. "All those people came out here looking for the same thing."
"Oh?" the man muttered, clearly uninterested.
That name seemed to send a disgruntling shiver through the tense room. The whispers died down, the sound of shuffling bodies fell silent, and Jackson could feel everyone's eyes on him.
Throwing the rag he'd been cleaning the bar with over his shoulder, the bartender leaned closer to him. "The only thing up in Greykin are bears, wolves, and fanatics. They're probably what got the people you're looking for."
"Aye, fanatics," one of the men behind him called.
Jackson looked back over his shoulder.
"Beady eyes," the man said, pointing to his own eyes. "About ten teeth between 'em. Kill anything they see."
Unfazed, Jackson rested his arms on the bar and looked at the bartender. "Can you tell me how to get there?"
The man shook his head, a look of disbelief on his face. "Did you not hear what we said?"
"Yeah, I heard. But I can take care of myself," he said confidently.
With a heavy sigh, the man shook his head. "All right, if you insist." He pointed back over his shoulder. "Head up the hill. About thirty minutes up, you'll find an abandoned shack—used to belong to an old hermit," he mumbled. "Head west from there. 'Bout...fifteen miles, you'll reach Greykin River. Mountain's just across from it."
Jackson nodded. "Thanks."
"Don't thank me, kid—and wait 'til morning," the bartender mumbled, and then, he wandered away, disappearing into the room behind the bar before Jackson could ask him if he could get his cocoa to-go.
There were just about thirty minutes of daylight left—if he left now, he could probably make it to the shack before dark. He'd spend the night there and continue his journey to Greykin as soon as the morning came. Cutting thirty minutes off his journey tomorrow sounded like a great idea, and he'd rather camp out alone than try to find somewhere to stay here, where he evidently wasn't welcome.
He glanced out of the window, watching as the blizzard started to calm down. He wasn't going to waste any time.
Jackson eased his gloves back on, lifted his rucksack onto his back, and headed out the door, ignoring the stares and mumbles of everyone within.
For a moment, he stood there, shivering. In the short time he'd spent inside, the evening's glow had diminished, and that minacious feel of gawping eyes washed over him again. But he didn't have time to stand there and ask himself if he'd made a mistake—no, he was doing this. He had to.
"Up the hill, up the hill—hill..." he mumbled to himself, shivering as he danced around on the spot, his breath visible before him. He searched for the hill, his eyes scanning the long stretch of forest he'd followed to get here, and when he caught sight of the long, steep slope, he rubbed his hands over his puffy black jacket and headed towards it.
If there was anything he hated more than a dead phone, it was the cold, but neither of those things could stop him from getting answers. Out of everyone that had pursued this mystery, he would be the one to untangle it—if he did, he'd make his mark in the industry, and he'd be entitled to that juicy promotion—and an office...an office.
He quivered contently, heading up the hill—just the thought of that cosy little office on the fifth floor was enough to help him fight the cold. That was...until a harsh breeze swooped past, lifting snow up off the ground and launching it into his face.
With an irritated grunt, he stumbled to the side—the storm was picking up again.
Jackson picked up his pace. His struggled walk became something of a hurried waddle, climbing higher and higher. Utter relief swallowed him when his eyes located the small outline of what could only be the mentioned shack through the thickening snow. And as the whistling wind howled and screeched, he started running as best he could.
The moment he reached the shack, he burst through the door and immediately slammed it shut behind him, letting a deep sigh of relief escape his shivering breaths.
Once he'd calmed down, he slowly looked around the gloomy room he found himself in. Leaf litter was scattered across the wooden floor; cobwebs clung to every corner and crevasse, and a lump of old, charcoaled wood lay in the crumbling fireplace. The windows were boarded up, empty bottles that were probably responsible for that stench of old, dried alcohol lay here and there, and in the far-left corner atop the rusting stove, a pair of rats were staring at him, wriggling their noses.
He'd make it work—it was only for one night, after all.
As the wind whistled outside, shaking the shack's walls, he moved into the centre of the room, kicked away as much leaf litter and glass as he could, and pulled his roll mat from his rucksack. He laid it down, made sure it was flat, and placed his sleeping bag atop it. Then, with a tired huff, he slumped down onto it, pulled off his snow-covered boots, and slipped his legs into his bed.
That was when he heard it. That sound. Shuffling—rustling. He instinctively looked back over his shoulder for the rats, but they had disappeared.
The shack creaked—the wind howled, but it carried with it a shriek—something of a dying animal...a creature crying out. A fox?
Jackson stared at the door, watching through its cracks as the snow continued to fall.
Moments passed by without another sound, so he shook his head and laid down. Of course he was going to hear animals—he was out in the middle of nowhere, not to mention the miles of forest surrounding him.
He rested his head on his arm, staring over at the wall—
Something shrieked again—louder, closer. Jackson sat up and stared at the door again, his heart starting to thump in his chest. His breaths became unsteady as a shiver of anxiety shot through him, and when the sound of scurrying footsteps through the snow outside edged closer, his heart started to race.
In a panic, he reached into his rucksack and pulled out his hunting knife. His eyes then widened as he watched the shadow of whatever was outside dance under the door, a blur of something black moving around on the other side. A bear? A very large fox? He hoped for the latter, but he feared it might be something far worse.
He should have just found somewhere to stay in that creepy little village instead of acting upon his desperation to get to Greykin as soon as possible. What the hell was he doing out here?
His heart then dropped—had he locked that door?
The shadow outside crept closer.
Jackson gritted his teeth in trepidation—as fast as he could, he lunged forward, grabbed the door's handle, and desperately bolted it shut.
He stepped back, panting, his heart racing...he stared down at the shadow, and as he watched it slowly creep away, he exhaled in relief. But he didn't feel repose. He sat back down on his sleeping bag, holding his knife tightly, feeling the sweat on his palm.
It was just some animal out in the woods...scared by the sound of him locking the door. Just a fox or something.
greymoun ch1: Text
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