Ghast hunting

It had taken forever for the humans to let him out. He had barked and whined until finally the man had stumbled to the front door in his bathrobe and opened it. As he trotted down the front stairs, he heard the sleepy steps of the man returning to bed.

“It’s a dog’s job to keep ghasts away from his people,” Aggy had told him. The battered, old cocker spaniel—Caesar Augustus Patton to his people, and Aggy to all the dogs in the neighborhood—wasn’t with him tonight, though. He missed the old dog’s presence.

The ghast he was hunting was small. It must have barely imagined itself into existence under the house before he smelled it. He and Aggy had tackled much rougher ones, ghasts which had imagined all kinds of interactions with the world before they drifted into the dogs’ territory. Aggy had blamed the old cat across the street for these articulated ghasts. “Fat old creature won’t bother killing them, though she’s perfectly capable of it. Just drives them out of her territory when they get old enough to be annoying,” Aggy had grumbled.

But Aggy was gone. The humans had said so when he went to the neighbors’ door and scratched at it as he had hundreds of times before. He was well able to handle this ghast—by its scent it wasn’t even a day old—but he’d never hunted alone before. As he wriggled through a hole in the foundation, he wished Aggy were here.

The ghast’s trail was easy to pick up. It criss-crossed under the living room for a while, then headed for the back of the house. It had paused under the doorway to the bathroom, and apparently imagined that it could rest on the ground, for the dirt was suddenly disturbed. This was the first sign of it interacting, though the trail then dead ended into the wall to the kitchen, so it hadn’t decided that walls were solid yet.

It took a while before ghasts imagined that they interacted with walls and pillars. Usually a young ghast just drifted in a straight line until it imagined itself drifting in some other direction, regardless of what material objects were in the way, though he and Aggy had once watched from the hedge for an hour as a ghast spun in circles by the front stoop, never seeming to imagine anything more. “Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Aggy had said at last. “I suppose we’d better get on with it, though.”

It took some scrambling and several sneezes before he found a hole through the wall. Fortunately the trail came out exactly opposite where it had gone in. Occasionally a young ghast would turn inside a wall, making it annoying to pick up the trail again. “You go left, and I’ll go right,” Aggy had always said when that happened.

From the kitchen wall, the trail zigzagged back into the living room a few times. With all the dust and spider webs he was picking up, the humans would probably give him a bath tomorrow. He allowed himself a small sigh, then scrambled to keep his feet as the trail suddenly veered left. It had gone to the mudroom, and the scent was strong. It was still there. This was the delicate part. He had to startle it.

The dissipating of ghasts was a simple matter: startle it. Ghasts imagined themselves, and if they lost focus, they simply ceased to exist. “Mind you, doesn’t always work,” Aggy had said. “Sometimes they notice you, and even imagine some kind of interaction with you. I had one imagine that it was swinging from my ears. Kept swinging it through a wall until it finally imagined interacting with the wall, then it let go. No help for it when they’ve noticed you. You’ve got to creep off, let them forget you, and try again.”

He peered around the corner. There it was. Apparently it had imagined that it could swing from the pipes, and was doing just that with great enthusiasm. He gave himself a shake, brushed his muzzle on his paws—it wouldn’t be long before the humans took him in to be clipped, he reflected—and ran skidding around the corner and at the ghast, barking as loudly as he could.

It was anticlimactic. Ghasts didn’t explode or shriek or run away, or any such satisfying thing. They just vanished, unimagined. Only its fading scent gave any indication that it had been there. This sudden end to a hunt had unnerved him at first. “You’re a terrier,” Aggy had told him indulgently. “You’re not happy unless you get to worry the prey in your teeth. Just go maul your chew toys when you’re done.”

It was a quick scramble back out of the house. He darted under the shrub by the front door where he kept a knotted rope. He felt some of the tension draining away as his teeth closed on it, and set about mauling it until the front door opened. “Ready to come back in?” the man asked.

He dropped the rope back in the shrub and bounded up the stairs. At the top he paused to look back into the night before running off to his bed in the corner of the kitchen. His humans were safe. But it wasn’t the same without Aggy.