Sorry for the wait! Big update for you!
No moonlight reached beneath the trees to guide the group through West Hill's woods. The footpath's edges, lush with summer growth, completely blocked the earthbound starscape that was Mayview's many street lamps and warm windows.
There was only darkness.
Darkness, and the shifting bubble of their flashlights' beams, which merely served to seed the black beyond with spooks and specters born of sounds they couldn't source. Far from a silent night, the air was alive with chirping insects, snapping twigs, water trickling unseen, and all the strange hisses, whistling, and distant screeches that only spectrals ever heard.
"Well, this is nice!" proclaimed a cheerful Spender, failing to read not just the room but all the wilderness within a mile radius. Any of his remaining suspicion about their task had been subsumed by his pure boy scout love of nature and sensible aerobic exercise.
Isabel, wide-eyed, was at the front of the group beside him. "Mm-hm," she answered, not wanting to signal weakness with her silence. The flashlight she held moved in a steady sweeping patrol, the better to disguise her trembling hands.
"Y'know, this is so like those three," said Jean. His face was fixed in an expression of above-it-all bemusement, ready to intercept any ambush with a no-sell nice try guys. "Fun little hazing ritual like this. I really ran the gauntlet when they started working here." Jean took a long, nostalgic drag from his latest cigarette. "Now, though. Now I wear the gauntlet. Rule this camp with a friggin' iron fist. Chill but firm, y'know?"
"Truly I do not," answered Mina. "Nor do I know why we're here or where here is supposed to be. Are you certain we're not lost?" It was starting to frustrate her that she was the only one creeped out besides the six year old, and that frustration was snowballing fast. If she could just find an opening to signal—
"We're fine. This trail's a straight shot to the hawk watch if you iron out its twists and turns and stuff." Jean traced a concerningly labyrinthine route through the air with his flashlight in a failed attempt to illustrate his point. "Trust me. I know this place like the back of my hand."
Spender smiled at him over his shoulder. "Is that the hand with the iron fist gauntlet?"
"Pff. Yeah," scoffed Jean, playfully teasing back, "I got a bunch of dark sigils carved in it. Got 'em memorized to cast my spells. Is that what you wanna hear, you little nerd?"
A grinning Jean ran up on Spender to repeatedly scuff his shoes. Spender laughed and jogged a few feet out of reach, which startled Isabel, causing her to shine her flashlight right into his eyes. Again, the low angle circumvented his sunglasses. Spender let out a yelp.
"Yeah, get 'im!" Jean took advantage of the still laughing Spender's momentary blindness and put him in a headlock. "All right, West Hill Horror, dinner's served!" he yelled into the silent, brisk night air.
Seeing her friends distracted, Mina tapped her forefinger against a patch of pink hidden amidst the brown hue of her hand. The reply came swiftly, matching Morse code drummed against the skin that she'd exchanged with her creation. Patchworm's power—swapping surfaces with just a touch—seemed simple, and in Patchworm's hands (or lack thereof) it had been... but Mina was always finding strange uses for it, including this form of communication. Sockpuppy, sadly to say, didn't have the head for dots and dashes. His "newborn baby sister," however, as he insisted on calling the doctor’s first lab-born spirit brainchild, had just the right amount of quiet cunning...
Ventrilobite darted out from the treeline and scuttled unseen up onto Mina's back, clasping her beneath her cardigan with countless sticky digits. The anxiety that had been pooling in Mina's chest since the hike began was muted in an instant by its power, as if the spirit had taken one great, minty, deep breath through her whole body.
This hadn't been Mina’s intended use for its control over emotions, keeping her calm in daily life like this. On the roadmap of her research, it was merely a stepping stone twelve paces from her goal. However, she had to admit... in these last few weeks before her planned departure from Mayview, Mina had come to rely on it.
An inquisitive wave of warm concern passed over her, causing Mina to jump. Settling herself back down, perhaps with help, she tapped out an embarrassed thank you and continued down the path.