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The team stood on a rocky outcropping about thirty meters above the valley, admiring the view. Forest stretched before them, variegated autumnal hues alternating with tentacles of rusty red, an arc of river glistening silver in the distance.

A light sweat coated Agnet’s skin, despite the containment suit’s recycling fan. Jemin stood behind her, huffing and puffing. The trudge up the hill must’ve nearly killed him.

“Those towers near the river another old steel works?” The breeze rattling past Brandt’s microphone rendered his baritone tinny and intermittent.

“No. That’s Riverbend, the defunct nuclear power plant responsible for this stifling gear.” Jemin plucked at his containment suit.

“What caused the accident?” asked Brandt.

“Don't know.”

“Thought our smart man knew it all.”

“Nuclear power is Officially Forgotten technology. My chip doesn’t include the Officially Forgotten, and I’m not inclined to seek it out. But whatever happened was so bad, this area won’t be habitable for twenty-five thousand years.”

If anyone is around to move in.

“Tragic, given the stunning scenery.” Philip tilted his mask toward the sky, probably taking in the sun’s angle. “And a lovely spot for a picnic, but I’m thinking we conduct our business and head back as soon as possible.”

“Agreed. Nobody wants to camp overnight.” Except maybe Brandt, who might welcome a chance to fight more monsters. “The feral encampment should be close.”

“I believe this group refers to themselves as The Fold.” Jemin sounded schoolteacher prim, as if he took arcane subdivisions of rural kooks to heart.

Orl and Philip moved in the same direction, as if somebody was calling them. “This way.” Philip gestured, and a trail winding through yellowed bracken suddenly became obvious.

“Fantastic! You guys are better than a tracking dog.” Philip shot Brandt an icy stare, so he added, “I mean, much better, since you can talk, and everything. Mostly.”

Agnet hid her smile by checking the radiation level at the trailhead. Nothing beyond background with those ruined towers just over her shoulder. She glanced at Jemin; he looked surprised too.

“You sure the meter’s functional?”

“Yeah. I’m double sure, no thanks to Property. Could you check into the fallout pattern? Later, when we’re back at the farm and rested.”

“Definitely.”

They meandered single file, Philip at the lead, only the murmuring breeze audible over their footsteps. More mature forest at first, then a grove of young trees, their slender, pale trunks creaking in the wind. Spangled light fell through golden foliage, and silvery flowers dangled from branches. Weird, considering the season.

No.

Those weren’t flowers. Those were thumb-sized, white-clad figurines. A sudden breeze tossed the trees and leaves fluttered from the branches. Gooseflesh prickled up her arms. She should say something to render this weirdness inconsequential.

“Hmm. Dolls tied to branches with string. Could be religious or an—uh—art installation.” Nothing supernatural about dolls, not at all. Incredibly creepy, maybe, but not supernatural. Her gut didn’t agree; it felt heavy and cold, as if she’d eaten a bowl of dread.

The otherworldly figurines twirled in a macabre dance. She steeled herself and took a closer but not too close look. Glittering jet-black eyes stared from beneath halos of snowy hair. “Leave,” the thing seemed to say. But—oh. The hair was milkweed silk.

“Handcrafts using local materials, that’s all,” she said, trying to shoehorn her unease into something trivial for her own benefit, and for Orl’s. The girl’s eyes were showing too much white. “Look, the eyes are milkweed seeds, and the head’s a hazelnut.”

“A woodsy first grade art project.” Brandt dropped a doll and watched it swing. “Had a case of the heebie jeebies for a moment. With all that fluttering, I thought they were moths.”

Moths? They had creepy ghost dolls, and he was worried about moths?

Philip wrinkled his nose. “I’ve witnessed primitive tribal woo-woo, but not like this.”

Jemin murmured, “Pagan elements and affecting at a primal level… Fascinating, but not primitive. Nothing existing in the present can be considered primitive. Everything derives from antecedents.”

Brandt held a doll up to Jemin’s face shield. “Yeah. Well. This ain’t a Martian rover, now is it? But you understand these ferals. Why’d they make these dolls?”

“Not sure they did. The Fold descends from worshipers of Hanging Man. That religion would judge these effigies idolatrous.” Jemin frowned; he seemed to be taking the "sacrilege" personally.

Brandt signaled “stop” with his hands. “Whoa there, professor. Too many words above my pay grade.”

“Cultures change. Maybe they ditched hanging man for a new god,” said Philip.

A tap of Brandt’s finger set a doll twirling. “But these are hanging—or dangling at least—so they work with hanging man.”

Jemin shifted from side to side. “No, this…installation doesn’t mesh with the ancient teachings. I need to record these objects. Won’t take over five minutes.”

He wandered about, slashing notes and sketches into his pad, working like a machine with an occasional glance at Philip’s scowl.

Philip whispered, “This historian belongs in a museum, not on an investigative team. I remind you that the sun sets early this time of year, and religious studies aren’t on the agenda.”

“Not dying to camp out, are you?”

He pressed his lips, signaling disapproval. “I prefer to engage with nature briefly and within walking distance of a comfortable inn.”

His attention abruptly shifted to Orl, and he followed her to the clearing’s edge. They stared at the ground, their helmets moving back and forth in sync.

Now what?

Something weird, no doubt. But if she joined them, she’d at least be clear of these dolls’ beady black eyes. Regardless of milkweed and moths, they were still creepy. She strolled toward the perceivers, keeping her pace casual.

Orl pointed down as Agnet approached. In the leaf litter, something pale and random twitched—a pile of fine bones. The remains of a mouse, judging by the size.

“If those are bones, then what’s moving? Something underneath? Larvae? Grubs?”

“See what I mean about nature,” said Philip. “It’s one disgusting life cycle after the other.”

On cue, a brown clump rolled from under a leaf. She’d guess slug, but slugs didn’t roll. The goober wrapped around two tiny bones, and the mess twitched, resembling an awkward joint.

All right…well…self-assembly. Didn’t know that was an option.

More goo coated a third bone, which then fused to the first two. The ugly mess spasmed and flexed, a limb, but all wrong. Philip gasped and took a step away. Her throat knotted. She averted her eyes to Philip.

“I’m looking at a small version of one of those monsters; aren’t I?”

Philip, a shade green behind his visor, nodded. “Must be.”

She hazarded a quick glance. A little bone waggled. “Look. It’s waving hello.”

“I’m glad you can appreciate humor in this…abomination.” He wiped his gloves on his suit, meaningless reflex cleanliness in the face of revulsion. “I may be sick.”

“I may join you; my blood pressure took a dive. But at least it doesn’t smell beyond a whiff of—what—eau de decomposing log? You perceiving anything?”

“No. It’s organic matter with no animus.”

“Animus or not, glad I’m in a suit, in case that thing is microbial. Speaking of contamination—” She wrestled the counter out of her pack and aimed it at the mini-monster in situ.

Click. Click. Click. Unenthusiastic, but definitively above background.

To be confident, she tested the surrounds: a downed branch, rock, a sapling, finding the occasional random click. “Yucky bone-creature is mildly above background.”

Brandt, who’d come over to see what was so interesting, offered to squish the thing. But Agnet didn’t really see the point of smearing his boot sole with contaminated muck. She waved Jemin over to document the phenomenon.

“Could be a slime mold. Mold is a misnomer, mind you. The slime molds aren’t fungi; they’re protozoa, amoebas that congregate and form a motile slug-like creature which produces a fruiting body.”

“One disgusting life cycle after the other. Excuse me.” Philip stepped behind a tree. Orl gurgled a laugh.

Another brown lump rolled to the pile of bones. Jemin’s eyes bugged while his mouth formed a little “O”. A picture book character, the astronaut frog, flitted through her mind as he cried, “Oh, my! Slime molds don’t—”

She cut him off at the pass. “Why don’t you sketch it? Then we should move on. Time’s passing.”

Philip returned, his walk less wobbly.

“Feel better?” asked Brandt.

“Yes, thank you. There’s a habitation up ahead.” He indicated the continuation of the trail with a wave of his hand. “Right on the path. Doesn’t seem this feral pack worked hard to stay hidden.”

Brandt shrugged. “Why hide in the middle of nowhere?”

“This isn’t nowhere, it’s their homeland,” said Jemin. “If we encounter anybody up ahead, can we please be respectful? We’ll be visitors on their turf.”

“Then why are you holding that figurine? You gonna take it?” asked Brandt, sounding more curious than accusatory.

“Assuming the witness is alive, I’ll show the object and ask questions.” Jemin’s unspoken “obviously,” hung in the air.

Philip asked, “What if removing dolls is considered bad juju?”

Jemin tossed the macabre little effigy, shoved his notebook into his bag, and slung it over his shoulder. “FINE. So we don’t collect an example of the unique and entirely anomalous artifacts.” His voice sounded like a school kid about to kick the dust.

She’d be happy to abandon the freaky “artifact” to the squirrels. Plenty of tales about knife wielding dolls coming to life, chasing people around, death by a thousand cuts. And these dolls were hanging right above reanimating mobile goop. It was all too convenient— She really needed to stop reading so much trash.

“What about that?” Without looking down, Philip pointed at the roiling mass of bones and mud. “Should we collect that?”

Honestly, this pair.

“No,” she said in her firm-boss-lady voice. “Radioactive, self-assembling gunk calls for a biohazard crew, not an empty lunch container.” She wanded the doll; it was clean, then handed it to Jemin. “Take this to the village and make your inquiries, but don’t bring it back to the farm; it might be germy. Understood?”

He took it, shooting Philip a triumphant look. Philip ignored him and said, ”This place gives me the shivers. And that’s me, a perceiver talking, so let’s get out of here.”

“Onward. But first, I realize respect needs to be earned, and we’ve all come across stupid, undeserving of one atom of respect. So respect may be inaccessible to some. But we all can manage polite, can’t we?” She looked each team member in the eye, and each nodded agreement.

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About the author

stellajo

Bio: Writing about unusual people in unusual situations with works falling somewhere between science fiction and contemporary fantasy. Author of Harmony Lost and Discord and Harmony, available direct from website or multiple ebook retailers.

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