Take an angler fish, cross it with the ugliest toad you ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on, and blow the whole thing up until it was about two meters in diameter. That particular… creature… was what James Arthur was eyeing up through his riflescope this not-at-all-bright-but-way-too-damned early Tuesday morning. Personally, he would have taken the old myths and stories about spectral women wandering around in their nightgowns, but those old wives’ tales did not pay the bills these days.
Instead, this particular will-o’-the-wisp was a pretty usual example of its supernatural species, but "cold, slimy, and squishy" never got attractive no matter the creature involved.
"Crap on a crutch, J.A., would ya look at the trail of slime that bastard’s leaving behind it?" Charles Dent always did have a way with words, but putting warheads on foreheads did not exactly require a certain tact.
Stretching from being cramped in the same position for the past night, James would have left it at nothing more than a nod, but then he remembered that Charles was another hundred yards down the shoreline, and keyed his mic, "Yeah, but that trail is pointing right at the killbox."
On account of their being scant more than a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from a supersized amoeba, will-o’-wisps were annoyingly difficult to kill – even the .308 rounds James’ M1A threw out, complete with their silver payload, barely would get the attention of the almost-amorphous blob shambling across the field; its body would just seal up over the new hole, and its vital organs were more distributed than the internet.
"Ayup, and then the fun starts!" James could see the childish grin plastered across Charles’ face even without actually being able to lay eyes on the man. You really could not work for MHI without being entertained by, or at least having a healthy respect for, high explosives.
And that form of back-country entertainment was about the only way to adequately take care of will-o’-wisps. Since their bodies were so uncaring about small, high-velocity shards of metal, one had to change tactics, and just go for massive explosive compression, coupled with a dose of gratuitous incendiaries, just to be sure. James and his team had been staking out the old, "abandoned" community of Calderwood, TN for the past week, getting a lay of the land and watching the hunting habits of their current target enough to know where it set up shop every morning. This time around, it would be greeted with a small flotilla of flashbangs strategically floating on concealed milk jugs out on Chilhowee Lake, a few more gasoline-laden milk jugs with strapped-on detonators, an overkillishly-large number of shaped C4 charges sitting on the shoreline, and, just in case, James’ favorite – two claymore mines. "Kill it with fire," has been a long-standing tradition at MHI.
Speaking with the only clearly-understood voice of the party, Amy McMillan piped up with, "Now, boys, don’t you go getting ahead of yourselves… My mother’s going to kill me when I tell her I lost her cast iron cooking set as it is, I don’t want it to be a complete waste."
"Real" shaped or directional charges required specially-crafted, specifically-engineered metal domes, cylinders, and whatnot else to put the maximum amount of hurt on the smallest amount of area. "Budget" shaped charges took cast iron cookware, an even stronger constitution, and more than a little creativity, the latter two of which Amy had in abundance. Her mother unknowingly provided the former.
"Yah, yah, yah, we know. ‘No boom ’til the blob is in the box.’ J.A. only went over that… how many times now?"
Charles’ voice was just as staticky and muffled as James knew his was over the communications net, no thanks to the breather masks and goggles they had to wear this morning. Will-o’-wisps were almost pathetically ungainly creatures, so to get their prey to their overly large and massively-toothed mouths, they had to get evolutionarily creative – the "mist" one always sees in their haunts is instead an aerosolized, mildly psychedelic compound that has much the same reaction on mammalian nervous systems as date-rape drugs. Likewise, those mystical, randomly floating "lights" are actually phosphorescent tentacles/appendages that the wisps seemed to keep aloft by some careful combination of blisters of methane gas coupled with some form of natural, low-level magic. The end result is that creatures great and small get fixated on the pretty lights and follow them to their toothy demise, with the solution being this ungainly facemask that, when coupled with night vision headset, makes the wearer resemble Sand People from Tatooine.
"And speaking of the box, it looks like our guest is about there. At least if that blob is the same blob I was watching a few seconds ago… Bloody natural camouflage…"
Really, Tennessee is so far outside of the natural haunts of will-o’-wisps that James initially had a hard time convincing the Monster Control Bureau to give up the appropriate PUFF payment, but this particular infestation comes courtesy of the Patron State of Shooting Stuff’s sordid governmental and corporate history. Typically wisps stick to marshes and swamps where their drugged mists blend in with the natural environments and do not spook their intended dinners, but courtesy of the Aluminum Company of America’s and Tennessee Valley Authority’s aggressive dam-building over the past half-century, all of the lakes in the state are remarkably calm, and brew up a storm of fog every morning… Which leads to three wet, bedraggled, and smelly adults skulking around the forest like kids playing "army".
"Uh, boss, we’ve got a problem." James knew from experience that "problems" for monster hunters ranged from "oh, look, a spider" to "oh, look, my leg isn’t attached", but Amy’s voice was remarkably calm, "It looks like we might have a few uninvited guests showing up for the party. Fishing boat, inbound, about a mile out. Three or four occupants."
One of the other side effects of dropping so many dams all over the state was that boating and fishing rapidly turned into the state’s primary form of recreation. James was hoping that the steady drizzle would convince people to stay warm in their homes, but he was all-too-familiar with the damned-near religious fervor that surrounded drowning worms in a lake, and Chilhowee Lake was one of the favorite holes.
Charles was not one to pass up on the chance to blow up something, but he knew the dangers of getting civilians involved. "Ya still wanna do this, James? We know where th’ bastard sleeps, and we can sort this later…"
The problem was that the town of Calderwood was not so much "abandoned" as "evacuated". No one knows how the first wisp got into the Little Tennessee River, but once there, they propagated like rabbits, preying on deer, ducks, fish, and the occasional, unfortunate ALCOA worker. The situation was mostly balanced with the wisps occasionally picking off a lone dam worker, and the Alcoa engineers responding by the careful application of dynamite (for "expansion work on the dams", of course), until about 1962, when there was an absolutely unprecedented "bloom" in the will-o’-wisp population, to the point where they started overrunning the small towns and settlements that had sprung up around the dams. The death toll started getting attention from local governments, the local Monster Hunter International branch was called in, the settlements, including Calderwood, were evacuated, and now James and his team, in addition to their responsibilities in the Smoky Mountains and certain glow-in-the-dark towns, have a standing contract with ALCOA to exterminate any wisp that comes near any of the dams on the lakes and rivers. The PUFF bounty is just icing on the cake.
"No, we take this slimer now – I sure as hell do not want some fishermen calling up the MCB because we goofed, or, worse, turning into this thing’s next snack." Ignoring Amy’s muttered comment of, "You sure you got that priority scale set right?" James waited until the will-o’-wisp made it past the first marker tuft of grass, checked the area to make sure no bystanders had wandered in, made a silent prayer to the gods of high explosives, and pushed the first clacker in front of him. The explosions were not that large, but the billowing ball of fire over them, and the half-circle sprays of burning gasoline was more than enough to elicit a respectful, "Oooh," out of Charles… Of course, the shrieking emanating from that light show pretty much drowned out his commentary.
The good news is that apparently human ears were not engineered to catch the full vocal range of will-o’-wisps. The bad news was that what they could pick up would put "nails on a chalkboard" to shame. All of the wisp’s tentacles – five, indicating it had been here a while – were out and flailing about (and periodically exploding as the methane blisters caught fire) while the creature sprinted… well… shambled towards the waterline in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flames that had all-but consumed it. James was not a particularly vicious individual, but he knew that if it made the water it would probably survive, so right before the wisp could place a flaccid appendage in the cool lake, he triggered the line of flashbangs.
On slightly more solid organisms, the general effect of stun grenades detonated in close proximity is blindness, short-term deafness, and disorientation. On the other hand, will-o’-wisps kind of react like the fluid in your ears does – SQUISH. Bits of floppy, flaming, fantastical flesh went flying all over the shoreline as the supernatural creature, finally inarticulate with pain, collapsed backwards away from the new hell it was presented with. Checking one more time that the range was clear, James pushed the final, and oldest-looking, clacker laying in front of him… about at the same time as the boaters cruised around the bend about half a mile away.
While they probably did not appreciate it at the time, the sight of some hundreds of 1/8 inch diameter steel balls impacting a flaming, phosphorescent creature at over half-a-mile-a-second was something that would probably remain with the fishermen for the rest of their lives. Most of the mines’ steel matrix missed the will-o’-wisp and burned themselves out into the lake, but those that struck home splattered the creature all over the grassy field, shoreline, and water, extinguishing its murderous existence. In an amusingly karmic turn of events, though, ending the will-o’-wisps life now threatened to catch that patch of Calderweood on fire. Calmly – but fluently – swearing as only an Appalachian can do, Charles slung his KRISS, grabbed the fire extinguisher James had forced him to lug around this little exercise, and took off for the killbox while his team boss removed his facemask and goggles to greet the unfortunate witnesses before heading down to render assistance.
James arrived, Charles got the fires out, and the wide-eyed onlookers disembarked about 50 feet down the beach in a jumbled mass all at about the same time, so putting on his best "shake the babies and kiss the hands" face, James gave them a hearty wave and yelled over, "Nothin’ to see folks, just tending to some errant wildlife." Of course, saying that while standing in a puddle of still phosphorescing, smoldering will-o’-wisp splatter was not as effective as he had liked… And the smell…
"You folks alright?!" shouted the older of the fishermen as they headed towards the slaughter… and then stopped once the growing glow of the day made the hardware James and Charles had slung across the backs and chests a little more obvious. The youngest occupant of the boat – no more than a teenager – grew some pretty wide eyes at that point.
Dent looked like he was about to hack up a lung, and James had to agree the odor was a bit much, but the answer was obvious, "Oh, yes sir, we’re fine, but y’all probably shouldn’t come any closer… Cleaning up a bit of a mess here."
Eyeing up the spray of faintly-luminous monster bits around the field, the middle fisherman looked more and more like he wanted to dive back into the boat. "No kidding… That stuff’s glowing. It radioactive?"
"Oh for the love of…" Working in Eastern Tennessee, you always got that question when it came to monsters, and with the area’s 60+ years of being a nuclear weapon and power test and construction facility, it is hardly surprising. Even after over a hundred years of monster hunting, MHI has yet to find one that has a Godzilla-like radioactive-birth history, but that did not stop James from ad libbing, from frustration alone. "You know what, yes, yes it is radioactive, and that’s why you should stay away. In fact, you probably shouldn’t mention this, to anyone, or someone is going to have to take you in for observation and Lord knows what else." Knowing the Monster Control Bureau’s track record, that part was not as much of a lie as James might have liked. "Y’all just head on down the lake, and forget this ever happened."
A whole herd of will-o’-wisps could not have kept the younger two fishermen from their boat as they broke personal speed records towards it, but the old-timer stuck around with a funny look in his eyes. "You sure you know what you’re doin’, son?"
James walked over to him, and, holding out a business card with a circular logo, a very private phone number, and the motto, "In God we trust, all others we nuke," emblazoned upon it, he said, "It’s what we do, sir."
A few hours later, after scraping together enough still-steaming pieces to qualify for a PUFF bounty and dumping the rest in the lake, the team was heading up to the nearby ALCOA service buildings to settle up accounts and Amy quipped, "Well, that wasn’t so bad, boss. With all those stories out of Ireland and whatever we had to read back in ‘Bama, I kinda expected more out of these ‘wisp’ things. It’s not like they’re dragons or anything…"
Casting a wry eye up to their road out of here – the inimitable US Route 129 – James had a funny smile on his face. "Let me tell you a story…"
This pathetic attempt at a "fanfic" takes place in the universe conceived by Larry Correia and described in Monster Hunter International, Monster Hunter Vendetta, and Monster Hunter Alpha. All appropriate copyrights remain his, and no infringement is intended.
Likewise, this post was originally intended to be put up before the end of the Monster Hunter International Patch Contest II, but I was accurately informed of its … substandard … quality, and back-burnered it. However, Miguel’s post about my E TN MHI patches prompted me to take it out of cryogenic storage. Your loss.
Speaking of patches, though, out of the original batch of 50, I am down to somewhere around 20 unclaimed – if you want one, you need to email me at "linoge (at) wallsofthecity (dot) net" in the very near future. By way of encouragement, they seem to be being received remarkably well, with folks saying such things as, "It’s more awesome in person,", "Look great and are bigger than I thought they’d be," and "Look great, definitely going on my range bag." (They are 3" in diameter, by the by.)
(Image borrowed from Tail of the Dragon.)