Five Nights

Ground Zero

Fields of rolling silver stretched across the horizon, an ocean seemingly made of liquid ice.

Rosslyn Cogan tapped an erratic beat against the steering wheel. Dark bags lined her eyes like that of an insomniac that had not slept in weeks. She fiddled with the knob of the radio, gaze shifting from the rolling forests and their canopies drooping under white crowns to the rearview mirror. In the backseat was Veruca, her young daughter immersed in an old story draped across her lap.

Ross noted the neon violet earpiece attached to an MP3, how it rose to hide within Ruca's thick, curling hair. Ross turned her gaze back to the road, exhaling as she drove through hills of mist and snow. It was almost as if the child sensed her, for Ross felt her daughter's gaze biting into the back of her head. A moment passed in silence, and then Ruca asked, "Are we almost there?"

A quick glance at the clock had Ross frowning, the numbers bright and green. Fifteen-after-nine. Ross shifted her attention to the rearview mirror, meeting her daughter's gaze with a tired smile as she said, "Nearly. Another forty or so minutes, I suspect."

They drove in silence, for a time. As they rounded another corner, Ross pressed on the breaks. The car slowed as she flipped on the blinker, easing onto a county road. The overhead sky was black by the arched canopies, almost as if the trees were bending over the road in some desperate attempt to warn her away. Foreboding, those trees. Ross felt a hint of a smile pull at her mouth.

'Some things never change,' Ross tapped out a rhythm on the steering wheel, her gaze set on the road before, and around, her. The hard, frozen ground was unforgiving; the car shuddered with every hole it hit, hissing and complaining as the hard gravel threatened to toss it aside. She felt a slow grin spread across her face as her gaze shifted to the dash, gaze on the screen as if waiting for some warning to flare, crimson, along the screen. Nothing jumped out.

"Aunt Jess will be there," Ross said, as the car rumbled down the road. The child in the backseat was silent, and a quick look showed Ruka to be clinging to the seat with white knuckles. Turning her gaze back to the road, Ross continued, "Uncle Dave, too. You haven't seen Jim in quite some time, and neither of us have seen Lila. You looking forward to it?"

Ruka didn't respond. Ross exhaled.

"It's been awhile, hasn't it?"

When her daughter remained silent, Ross gave up. 'Six years old, and still as stubborn now as she was then,' Ross muttered a few choice words under her breath as the car dragged along the rolling, mountainous terrain. On the passenger seat, several nondescript files jerked about, nearly coming out of the seat when the old, dark car hit a pothole.

Ross swore, grip tight on the steering wheel. The battered and old car jumped and shook, as if fighting both the road and its owner that was forcing it to go onto uneven ground. Ross didn't blame it; the side of the road was perilously close, and the slightest mistake would send them tumbling down the side of the mountain. As she steered the car around another bend, she exhaled.

Along the side of the rode, thick metal polls jutted out of the ground. Absently, Ross wondered where the railing had gone. The road was narrow, the trees looming over the path like some form of natural barricade blocking the world above from seeing the twisting pathways they kept.

"Are we almost there?" Ross shot a quick look into the rearview mirror. Her daughter was white, one hand wrapped tight around the seatbelt and the other clasping the handlebar above the window. Thick, long hair stood on edge, defying gravity as the girl asked, "Mom? Are we almost there?"

Ross grinned. "Not yet, no. We still have a ways to go."

"I have to pee," Ruka grit out, the small child shifting uncomfortably in her seat.

Ross tossed a look out the window, towards the winter wonderland surrounding them. There was nowhere to turn off the road. 'It's not like I can park in the middle of this fucking road, either,' Ross shot a look at her daughter, lips pressed in a line as Ruka shimmed in the seat. Her daughter caught her eye, voice low and rough as she said, "Mom, I have to pee. Now."

"There's nowhere to stop," Ross shot back as the car rounded a bend. Ruka let out a very unladylike noise in the back of her throat, but Ross pressed on before the younger could speak. "It's cold out, anyway. Hiding in a frozen bush to relieve yourself would be highly unpleasant."

"And peeing myself wouldn't be?" Ruka deadpanned. Ross had to hand that point to her child, but was unable to stay anything as the young girl continued, "I don't have to hide in a bush, ma. It's not like I have to squat to use the restroom, most days."

Ross drew in a breath, grip tightening on the steering wheel. 'Sometimes it's easy to forget about that,' the car swept around another bend, and then it was descending. The light of the headlights reflected off the iced roads, leaving the path glistening with an ethereal glow. She pressed on the breaks, exhaling as the car slowed.

"There's nowhere to pull over, Ruka," Ross came to a stop, eyeing the two paths in the road. She took the one on the left, following the curve. She cast a quick look out the widow, a slow smile spreading as she caught sight of the Belmont Aerial below. Resting on the edge of a cliff-face, it stood as a silent observer. Ross let out a pleased hum, voice light as she said, "We're almost to the station, honey. Just wait a bit longer."

"How long?" Ruka asked, knees pressed together. Ross could hear the thin bones knocking together, absently wondering why she let her daughter wear a pair of shorts when the mountains of Albara were known for their cold, unforgiving winters. 'Then again, I hadn't planned on coming this way,' Ross exhaled, sharply, as she answered, "Ten minutes, fifteen at the most."

The drive down the mountain was tense, the road buried in snow and ice. Ross gripped the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip, hyperaware of the sheer drop on her left. Ruka was very still, in the back. Quiet, MP3 tucked away. A quick glance at the clock showed it was nearing ten, the sky outside dark and endless.

Ross pulled into Belmont Aerial, kicked the door open and rounded the car. She opened Ruka's door, lifting her daughter right out of her seat without a moment's pause. Skinny legs clutched her sides, vanishing into the open folds of Ross's coat while thin arms wound around her neck. Curling her arms around her daughter, Ross shut the door with her hip and made her way across the parking lot to Belmont Aerial. Over the entrance, the words Belmont Aerial Tram Station watched silently.

The moment Ross had the door unlocked, Ruka was on the ground and across the foyer to the nearest bathroom. She watched the door swing shut before turning, making her way back to the car when her belongings rested. She made quick work of the car's contents, repacking bags with a sense of ease. She hefted them out of the car, locking the battered vehicle and then made her way inside the tram station.

"This place looks the same now as it did when I was a kid," Ross eyed a massive map stapled to an equally large bulletin board in the center of the room. She sat her bags down on either side of her, content to eye the map – gaze lingering on the cities on the edge of Albara, so far from them but yet unnervingly close – while she waited for Ruka to return. It wasn't long before her daughter was pressing into her side, one small hand slipping into hers. "How far does the tram go?"

"All the way across Alano Pass," Ross traced the tram lines on the map, eyeing the massive chasm that separated Albara from Norano with a frown. Her gaze shifted to Ruka's untamed mop of hair, voice light as she continued, "Jess and Dave should already be on the other side, waiting for us. It can be a bit of a long trip, so we'd best load the tram now or we'll never get there."

Ross grabbed the suitcases and backpacks, smiling as Ruka slipped her own pack over her shoulder with squared shoulders. She ran a hand through her daughter's tangled hair, fingers catching on each knot. Ruka swatted her hand away a moment later, eyes narrow and jaw tight. Ross laughed.

Once the glass-encased tram was loaded, and Ruka sitting on a padded cushion, Ross pulled out a keycard from her wallet and passed it over the tram's card reader. A moment later, the light turned green and the door closed. Ross plopped down a seat across from her daughter, reclining against the seat as the gears turned over. Just as it started to shift, a voice cut through the otherwise silent station.

"Wait! Please, wait!"

Ross hit the button above the card reader, rising to watch as a few people came racing towards the closed doors. She leaned against the wall next to the door, eyes narrowed. There was one person, a young man with a great deal of scruff on his face. He was panting on the other side of the door, hands on knees as Ross said, "Yes?"

"I'm glad I caught up," he straightened, popping his neck as he did so. He fished a badge, pressed it against the glass door. A name badge, she noted as she shot a quick look at it. Her hand brushed over the button on the wall, right beneath the first one she had pushed as he said, "Brian Walderon, ma'am. I work here. I was hoping you might let me ride with you."

She eyed the badge. His name was there, plain as day. His photo, too. The man in the picture was more clean shaven than the man in front of her, expression grave and eyes dark. She turned her gaze back to him, voice light as she asked, "Last I checked, no one worked her anymore."

"Last you checked, there wasn't a group of people gathering in the Manor either," Brian retorted.

"Indeed," Ross's eyes narrowed. Brian held her gaze. Behind her, Ruka hopped off her seat and came closer. Ross felt her daughter's hands grip the back of her shirt, fisting in the material as the man on the other side of the door said, "My job is to keep the grounds, and Belmont, clear. Private pay. Started about ten years ago. I have papers, if you would like to see them."

"You're the only one?"

"No," Brian crossed his arms over his chest. Ross eyed the gesture for a moment, the almost casual posture not quite matching the tightness in his jaw. Her gaze turned to his as he said, "There's two others, one in the mountains of Albara and other in the forests of Norano. As I said, I do have papers if you'd like to see them."

"Mom," Ross didn't look away from him, but she did turn her body towards her daughter. Ruka pressed against her front, a small hand resting on her stomach as her daughter continued, "I think we should let him in. He'll take the next tram, anyway."

Exhaling, Ross hit the lower button and the door slid open. Brian stepped through without pause, blinking as he caught sight of Ruka. He eyed her bare legs, and Ross's gaze narrowed as his gaze shifted to her. He plopped down on an open seat, careful of the luggage in the tram, and Ross sat across from him with Ruka beside her. Her daughter's side brushed against hers, and Ross wrapped an arm around Ruka's shoulders.

"Thanks for not going without me," Brian leaned forward, resting his elbows across his knees as he caught, and held, her gaze. One corner of his lip quirked up, and Ross leaned back in her seat as she drummed her fingers across his leg. Brian laced his fingers together, smirk firmly in place as he said, "The guys and I, we keep in touch. Haven't heard from either of them today, and I don't think you or your group would like to have the power cut in the middle of the night."

Ross frowned. "If you keep in touch, then why haven't they called?"

"Walkie-talkies and radios," Brian gestured to the glass windows of the tram, pausing mid-sentence as he sat upright. He tossed her the walkie-talkie a moment later, and Ross caught it as he said, "It isn't always easy to keep that thing charged. I'm bringing a few extras, to be safe. The radio might be cut out due to interference."

"Interference?" Ruka's voice came, then. Soft and even, almost hesitant.

Brain's gaze shifted to her, and then he said, "Yes, interference. The transmission could have a shot fuse, could have frozen over, or maybe the lines are down. Happens often enough."

The rest of the trip was done in silence, and it wasn't long before Norano's Aerial Station came into view. The tram glided inside, coming to a stop. As the door slid open, a group of people were waiting on the other side. Brain stepped out first, nodding sharply to the others gathered, and then he was gone. Ross carried Ruka out, stiffening as Jesse's eyes narrowed.

"Not here," Ross murmured once Jess was beside her, handing Ruka over to Dave with a light smile. He wrapped her in his coat, zipping them both in as Jess said, "I was thinking you weren't going to make it, Rossi. Glad you did, though. Who was that man?"

"Brian something," Ross answered as they made their way outside, a massive truck with chain-laden wheels waiting for them. Ross loaded the back with the luggage, then climbed into the warm, steady heat of the truck with a content sigh. "Apparently he and a few others are hired to keep an eye on the grounds around here. It was a rather...tense ride."

"I'd bet," Jess fiddled with the knobs on the radio, brow furrowed in thought. "They stopped by the house, a few times."

Ross hummed, quiet as Ruka cuddled against her side. Beside her, Jess exhaled. As Dave started the car, her sister said, "It's bad enough a storm's coming, but the old man thinking an old superstition will be an issue – I don't even know what to think, anymore."

Dave drove away from the station, the truck gliding soundlessly through the snow-laden grounds. Ross rested, head slumped against the back of the seat, but her mind twisted. Ruka twisted next to her, rising onto her knees to peer out the back window. In the whiteness of the winter, the dark shadows stood out like fire upon snow.

The curly-haired child rested her chin on the top of the seat, arms folded across the warm cloth, but her gaze did not turn away from the steadily vanishing station. There was something there, the girl knew. It was near the edge of the building, almost as if the shadows were peeking around the corner. A quick glance to the side showed that her mother was asleep.

She looked towards the lodge again, startled as a dark, unclear shape rose from the ground like black ink drawn from the earth. Then it turned, it's eyes like that of a twisting, unending black scrawl of lead and ink. Ruka stilled, eyes widening as its roar cut through the forest. Birds scattered, snow raining from the treetops. Dave cursed, slamming on the breaks the same time Ross twisted to catch her.

"Must have been a silent rumble," Dave muttered.

Her mother stroked her hair from her face, fingers brushing away the tears gliding down her cheeks. Ruka pressed herself against her mother's chest, burrowing her face against her neck as she drew in the comforting scent that was purely motherhood. Thin fingers fisted the worn fabric that was her mother's shirt, closing her eyes as a winter wonderland whirled around them.