Agent Jolene Edwards looked at the photograph in her hand. It was fuzzy, not the best resolution, but she could tell it was legit from the creature’s feathers in the lower half of the frame. Despite being taken at night, the flash from the witness’s phone camera had captured enough for them to visit the area of the most recent sighting. They had completed plenty of cases with less evidence than the photograph she was holding; it was more than enough to appease their superiors.
“It’s not the best photograph, Edwards,” said Billings, her partner.
“If it weren’t for the witness’s testimony, even we could’ve mistaken it for another hoax,” he continued, leaning against the alley where they were standing with his arms crossed. “You know Dawkins hates unnecessary expense reports.”
“It’s still a photograph,” she replied, “better than witness testimony alone. I’ll file the expense report when we get back.”
“Good deal. So what now?” he asked. “Town is pretty vibrant for being so small. Witness didn’t know much.”
Edwards looked up at him finally, the photograph still in her hand. Dwayne Billings was 36 years old, six-foot three, his skin ruddier than pale, his brown hair close-cropped at the nape. He was wearing a charcoal suit with a white button-down underneath, like her own. They always wore suits on a case, unless they needed to enter the field. He had piercing blue eyes, sky-blue, the kind that Edwards knew were a weakness of hers, but she kept things as professional as possible.
Their hair wasn’t the exact same shade, but it was close enough that some people thought they were either related or married. Edwards wasn’t sure what was worse. She put that thought into a corner of her mind, where other, related thoughts stayed locked up while she was on a case.
“Witness doesn’t need to know much,” she said, holding up the photograph in front of him. “We both know a mothman when we see one.”
“Right, so why are we here?” he said, shrugging. “See one mothman, seen ’em all. Why’s this one so special that the local LEOs call us instead of the feds?”
She smiled back.
“You know the feds still don’t trust us,” she replied. “Circle agents are outside their control, but we serve the same jurisdictions. Besides, this one’s behavior is different.”
“The witness said it talked to him,” she said, “in his mind. Said he needed to get out of its territory. This is the first time that we have reports of a mothman directly communicating with human beings. You saw the A.D., he couldn’t wait for us to get out here.”
“I did,” he said. “Dawkins doesn’t typically get excited about the usual cryptids, but we both know telepathy isn’t unusual in this line of work.”
“It is for cryptids themselves,” she said.
“The lab techs at H.Q. have never isolated a subject that possessed verifiable telepathy,” she continued, “only humans with the same ability. If the mothman here can communicate, we need to try establishing informal communication. If only to ask it to leave the locals alone. I really don’t want to hurt it, Billings. Not if we can make it understand.”
Billings nodded, but his eyes were hooded with concern as he looked at her.
“And if we can’t?” he asked. “What then, Jolene?”
She sighed, looking at the dirty pavement. The adrenaline rush of the job took the edge off her words, but only slightly. Like most things, it was never enough; for their line of work, nothing ever would be.
“We do what we need to do, then?” she said. “For The Circle?”
She saw him nod out of the corner of her eye, with what looked like approval.
“For the Circle,” he said, satisfied with her resolve. “So, where to next, partner?”
“I have the last known location from the witness,” she said, holding up the back of the photograph, which had coordinates scrawled on the back in pencil.
“It was last seen in a local state park, near a small reservoir,” she continued. “Let’s eat back at the hotel, then scope it out there and wait. Oh, and we’ll need hiking boots, it’s really muddy out there.”
“Sounds good,” he said, dutifully following her as they wandered out of the alley and back towards the hotel on Main Street. “I could use a burger before chasing the mothman of the month.”
“And you call me an addict for the occasional cigarette,” she said, jostling him with her elbow. “You really shouldn’t eat so much red meat, Billings. Bad for your health and all that.”
“Better than smoking, probably,” he replied easily. “Just for that, you’re paying this time.”
“We both know The Circle is paying,” she said, “but I appreciate the effort. Now, what kind of hiking boots did you bring?”
* * *
The hills sloped sharply upward, dotted with oak, ash, and pine trees, and jagged rock formations at their peaks, a hallmark of the greater Catskill Mountain range of which they were a part. From the case brief, the agents knew that the witness had been packing up from a day of fishing at a local river when he encountered the mothman. They rounded the corner on the same trail, retracing his steps beneath a full moon and a sky studded with stars, visible from the lack of light pollution. Soon they came to the coordinates point on the photograph, a pile of rocks at the top of the hill, and waited.
It was only a few minutes before they both sighted the creature soaring downwards in a rush of air, towering over them as it landed with a blood-curdling screech. For an ordinary human, the piercing sound would have given them debilitating fear and sent them running far away, but Edwards and Billings weren’t exactly ordinary humans, at least not anymore. They wouldn’t have been able to work for The Circle otherwise.
The mothman snarled at the agents from its perch atop the rocky cliff, showing sharp fangs in a mouth that seemed too small for its wide face. There was an aura of palpable menace around the creature, a cloud of shadow that the agents now knew to be its latent psi or psionic field, which the species shared as a whole. The creature had two slit nostrils, similar to a snake’s, and glowing red eyes, wide and circular, with no apparent pupils to speak of.
The mothman also had no ears; the lab techs at H.Q. had told Edwards their latest theory was that they possessed an auditory canal similar to birds or lizards. However, unlike some of the other cryptids The Circle had documented, the mothmen had resisted all attempts at capture, and so they were still mostly unknown. The mothman was covered in dull brown-green feathers, so closely overlapping that they appeared to be scales. Its humanoid hands and feet were tipped in wicked sharp claws, and its wingspan was massive, draping behind its body like a cape.
All humans had an instinctual fear of and respect for fellow predators, and a mothman was no exception in that regard.
“So, the young human has sent warriors here,” said the mothman within their minds, speaking clearly with its telepathy.
Edwards took a moment to feel excited that the creature itself had confirmed the words from the witness the agents had interviewed a day prior. Telepathic contact had been achieved, if ever so briefly; she was hopeful they could perhaps continue to hold a conversation.
“We mean you no harm,” said Billings aloud, stepping forward until he was standing at his partner’s side. “We don’t want to fight you. We’re just here to talk.”
“Lies,” it said, snarling at the pair. “You are just like all humans! You know how to hunt, to take, to kill. Destroying your own kind is not enough for you, now you seek to destroy us, as well. My kin, and others, in the realms between.”
Her calmness kept Billings at bay, as well; from how tense he was beside her, she was grateful he hadn’t attacked the mothman right away. She could feel the nanites in her blood activating in the proximity of the cryptid before them, invigorating them both with the power of psi, the same extraordinary power that all cryptids possessed. It was an artificial version, with humans not having evolved psi as a consistent genetic trait, but the increased physical strength and sense perception the nanites gave them was enough to weather attacks from most members of the cryptid ecosystem, even the occasional chupacabra.
She shrugged, showing she wasn’t a threat, that she didn’t intend to attack.
“Sure, some of us are like that,” she said. “I can’t even deny that, and you’d be right about most people, but that’s not our way. We’re here to help.”
The mothman hissed in apparent scorn, drawing itself up and flapping its wings, buffeting the agents with a small gale. If they had been ordinary humans, they may have been knocked down by the blast, but the agents stood their ground, shielding themselves with their arms. The mothman stared at them, its eyes glowing, assessing them coldly, and snorted, folding its wings against its back.
“So, you are different, then,” it murmured, seemingly more to itself than to the agents. “I can smell no fear from either of you. Very well, humans. Tell me how you intend to help us. We, who never asked for your assistance.”
“I’m Jolene Edwards, and this,” she gestured to Billings, “is Dwayne Billings. We’re agents of a group called The Circle, a group of humans that want to understand you and your kin, and people like you. I promise you, all we want to do is talk.”
It flexed its sharp claws at its sides.
“Not just talk, Agent Edwards,” it said within her mind, sibilant like a snake. “Yet you do not lead with fighting, despite being warriors. The wrath of my wings does not knock you down, and my scream causes you no fear. Clearly you are not like the other humans. Speak, then, and be honest, for I will smell your lies, otherwise.”
Edwards swallowed but nodded. She walked a bit forward, causing Billings to startle, but she lifted her hands upward, showing her empty palms.
“You told the young man you saw here that you wanted them to leave,” she said, “this area, this town, but they can’t do that.”
“You claim this is your territory,” she continued, “but it’s also ours. The people of this town won’t just up and leave just because you demanded it. Most ordinary humans don’t even know you and your kind exist, but we do, we in The Circle. We want to start a dialogue with you, with your people. To establish understanding.”
“What is there to understand between us?” it said, glaring at her. “We live, hunt, find mates, have our young and die. We celebrate life, until our last breath. You humans do not have such peace, not even with all you have achieved. Your world is close to dying, the animals falling dead, the air poisoned, by your own hands. We did not cause such destruction, agents. You humans did that, all on your own. It may heal, in time, but with no thanks to you.”
“Maybe you can help us stop all of that,” she said, her voice growing desperate. “If we talk, if we try to understand each other, then that’s a start. We don’t have to fight! Can I please have your name, at least?”
“You humans cannot pronounce our language with your strange mouths,” it said, its wings flapping. “However, you conduct yourself with honor, and you have given me your names. I see no reason to deny you the same. I am called Shade.”
“Thank you, Shade,” she nodded. “You honor me with the gift of your name.”
The mothman growled at her.
“Feh! It is no gift, agent, not even a trade,” said Shade, its mental voice filled with disdain.
“It is merely courtesy,” it continued, “something a human would know nothing about. Though you do not attack me, you continue to make demands! Still.”
The mothman turned back towards them, considering.
“I suppose it is better than your metal weapons,” it said, “so I will allow you to indulge me, Edwards.”
“Tell me what your Circle will give me,” it said, “in return for leaving this place. This human town that slumbers in the mountains, ignorant of my kin. The hills here are fat with game, the waters mostly clean. It is easy enough for us to scare the few humans we encounter away. Why should we leave?”
Edwards squared her shoulders, walking even closer to Shade, who stood tall in the clearing, assessing her coldly as she approached.
“Jolene,” said Billings in a hiss, but she ignored him as she closed the distance between herself and the cryptid before her, until she stood only a few feet away.
“My leaders have authorized me to inform you of the following offer,” she said. “We can give you most of the Pine Barrens, the wilderness south of here. Very few humans go to that place. Most of us avoid it entirely. It’s too dangerous for us, but for you and your kin, it could be a better place. Less humans for you and your young to run into. More room for the people here in town.”
Edwards saw Billings also jolt in the corner of her eye; Dawkins hadn’t authorized her to tell him, and her partner was as shocked as Shade was. She’d have to apologize later; right then, Edwards didn’t allow herself to look away from Shade’s eyes.
“The expanse of pines,” it whispered. “My elders sang of it to me, once, before we came to these hills. A forest reaching as far as our wings could carry us. No scent of humans for miles, just the march of game, and cold rivers.”
Shade recovered, standing at its full height, proud and stern.
“You have it in your power to grant us such a gift?” it said, and its tone was one of cautious hope.
“I do,” she said, “but it will take time. At least a year, to work things out. Is that acceptable to you and your kin, Shade?”
They stared at each other then, the mothman and the human, neither looking away from the other. Finally, Shade nodded, and approached her.
“A fine bargain so far,” it said, “though whether a human can deliver on such a grand promise remains to be seen. Still, such a place would be better for my kin than even these hills, I cannot deny. I will consult with my kin and let them know of your offer. In one year I shall return here, with an answer. In the meantime, take this, agents, and let your leaders know that we, the kin-of-shadows, have witnessed your offer.”
It reached towards Edwards, offering her the feather, and she plucked it from its claws. As soon as she touched it, she could feel the otherworldly power of psi within it, and the brown strands gleamed beneath the moon with a strange glow.
Shade nodded at the agents, and Edwards nodded back.
“Thank you, Shade,” she said.
The mothman hissed, but it bent its head in an awkward bow.
“Good hunting, agents,” it said, walking up to the edge of the cliff and soaring off in a rush of wings.
The agents stared as the mothman soared off into the distance, until it was out of sight.
“Sorry I couldn’t tell you before, Dwayne,” she said, turning to him and giving him a regretful smile. “Dawkins wouldn’t let me, said the deal was hush-hush and still in progress with the military.”
Billings laughed, running a hand through his hair.
“Damn, Jolene,” he said, shaking his head in awe. “What a crazy night! I thought we were going to have to fight and get our asses kicked.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said.
She stared at the feather in her hand, the possibility in held: a world where humans and cryptids could possibly get along.
She held up the feather towards him.
“Hey, we got this, though,” she said, grinning in triumph. “It’s sure better proof than a photograph.”