Chapter 55: All Kinds
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I didn’t like Jacob. The entire time Seyari was haggling the price for a weeks’ worth of food, he stared at me across the fire pit. The sun set, negotiations finished, and he’d only looked away when Ned addressed him.

I tried to pay attention to how Seyari argued for a price, but wasn’t fully able to. She started with relative items for bartering, then used those items value to suggest a price.  I weighed in a few times, once to confirm that, yes, I do eat a lot, and the other times just to distract myself.

Once Ned and Seyari shook on a deal, I spoke up. “Hey, Jacob, was it? Everything alright?”

He jumped a bit as if startled, then quickly replied. “Yeah, fine. Great, actually. Lonely out here in the woods, though. Right?”

Seyari sat next to me and I wrapped an arm around her. “I’m sorry to hear that. Ned seems like a good friend though.” I looked to the other hunter. He at least had the ‘good grace’ to discreetly peek at my chest.

I felt anger rising from Jacob when I held Seyari close to my side and she leaned into it. Surprisingly, I also felt a pulse from Ned. My human transformation dulled my senses, and limited my magical and physical abilities, but my ability to sense anger felt no different. I wanted to let my mind wander and wonder about why that might be, but I couldn’t get comfortable enough.

Jacob frowned and glanced at the other trapper. “Ned’s a good friend. But there’s a certain kind of companionship we’re missing.”

“Shame about that.” Seyari replied tersely. “So, what’s for dinner?”

“And thanks for letting us join in,” I added quickly, looking at Ned.

“Sure thing!” Ned replied with a smile. “Don’t mind Jacob. We’ll be out here a while yet and he’s homesick.”

I did mind Jacob, but I minded the sharp anger hidden behind Ned’s smile even more. The more cordial of the two hunters had me worried. Not so much for what they might try to do, but more for what I should or shouldn’t do to them.

Best just to hope they’re lonely and creepy and don’t like that Seyari and I are a couple. I didn’t agree with what I assumed to be their views, but that was no reason on its own to get violent.

“I can understand that,” I nodded politely. “Val and I are eager to get home ourselves.”

“Where’re you two from?” Ned asked.

“I’m from Rochewood, and Lana’s from Linthel,” Seyari answered coolly.

I knew of Rochewood. Famous as the home of the imperial mint, the city was the largest in the Empire’s northeast. Most all of Ordia’s coins came from there, and the region was responsible for much of the Empire’s mineral wealth.

“How about you, Ned? Where are you and Jacob from?” I turned the question back on him in an attempt to get information.

“We’re both from Stansend,” Ned replied. “But we base ourselves out of Bramble Valley for the winter. If you folks are headed that way, you could let them know we’re going to come back with a few more furs than normal this season.”

I hadn’t heard of either town Ned mentioned. Aside from the major city of Rochewood, the mines in Coppervale, and Seyari’s former home in Pinewold, I didn’t know much about this part of Ordia. The Empire was a big place, and Edath was far to the southwest, across the Empire of Ordia’s central region.

“Maybe,” Seyari said carefully, leaning forward slightly. “We’ve business in Lockmoth, and I don’t remember the name of the nearest town southwest of here, but that’s where we’re headed.”

Lockmoth was to the southwest and Rochewood the southeast. Seyari’s reply made sense, but, strangely, I felt a spike of anger from Ned. Jacob broke his leer for a moment to give Ned a confused look. Ned gave him a side-eyed look and the other man looked down into the fire and away from me for a few blissful moments.

“That’s alright then.” Ned said with a smile. “I’m sure Bramble Valley won’t be too troubled if we bring in a few extra furs for trade.”

“The place we’re going to is pretty small. If we could get a caravan out of Bramblevale, we might want to go there instead.” Seyari remarked. She tried to seem offhanded, but I knew enough about her to see the tension in her posture as she leaned back and met Ned’s gaze.

“Bramblevale’s a decent-sized town, so they might have what you need. I can draw you up a rough map in the morning. The closest place southwest of here is barely a hamlet,” Ned offered. I felt his anger start to fade.

My empathic powers may have been limited to a single emotion with no indication of source or target, but I was finding them increasingly useful. I just had to pay attention and putting a picture together usually wasn’t hard. This time, however, I didn’t quite get it when Seyari’s anger flashed brightly before dulling into a hot smolder.

I thought about what had been said between Seyari and Ned, trying to find a connection to my partner’s anger.

Seyari’s lips drew into a thin line. “That sounds lovely.”

Wait a second. Bramble Valley. Bramblevale.

Seyari’d messed up the town name on purpose and Ned hadn’t caught it. What I didn’t understand yet, was why he’d given us a fake town name. To see if we were telling the truth? If we were lost? I wanted clarification, but I couldn’t exactly ask Seyari in front of the other two. By her anger alone, I could tell she thought something serious was going on.

My own intuition and empathy had been giving me the creeps over these two already. Now, I knew something was up. Seyari and Ned had broken eye contact, but neither spoke. Jacob stopped leering at me to look over the cookpot at Ned.

“Is the stew ready?” I asked with feigned innocence. “It smells great!”

“Should be.” Jacob broke his long silence. He leaned forward and checked under the lid, stirring a metal spoon around.

I hadn’t lied about the smell. Simple, but all I wanted was something warm and filling. Seyari and I had been traveling nonstop and I’d not had anything cooked since the fish by the ruins. Jacob dished the stew into bowls that Ned handed us. I was glad for the warm stew, because the night was shaping up to be bitterly cold. Ned and Jacob’s camp was out of the wind and I hoped ours was the same. 

Conversation over the shared meal continued to be awkward. Seyari and I gave away little of ourselves, and large Ned gave away even less about him and wiry Jacob. The latter rarely talked, but the food at least got him to stop staring. Jacob propositioned us again, this time more explicitly, but after a firm denial and a look from Ned, he kept quiet.

I could feel anger burning steadily in Jacob. Ned’s cooled anger only grew hotter and hotter as the evening went on.

I wanted to ask after the name of the town to the southwest, but I wouldn’t trust Ned anymore. Maybe it was an honest mistake, but I doubted it. I also wanted directions, which I wouldn’t trust. Ugh. I ended up eating a larger portion than was polite while I stewed in my thoughts.

The sun set and while we’d eaten and secured some additional food, I felt like we hadn’t made any progress. We had confirmation there was a small town of some sort to the southwest. Maybe. Ned could be lying about that, too. I couldn’t tell lies from truth.

But a certain half-angel could.

I waited until we were at our campsite. I shifted my ears back to normal to see if I could hear the two men. I heard enough movement to know they were still at their camp.

“Is there really a town to the southwest?” I asked quietly. “A close one anyway. Obviously, there’s a town somewhere southwest of us.”

Seyari nodded. I could see her eyes glowing very faintly in the dark. Like a cat with a thin veil over its eyes.

“What was with the fake town name?” I followed up my own question and shifted my ears to human. “Ned was lying to us, right?”

Seyari sighed softly and poked the coals with a stick. “Ned was definitely lying. I don’t know why he’d make up a fake town. Either they wanted us to go somewhere, or they wanted to see how lost we were. Both options suck.”

I remembered the wiry man’s surprised expression. “Jacob wasn’t in on the fake town part, I don’t think.”

“Ned’s the brains between the two.” Seyari looked up at me. “Not like that’s saying a lot.”

“You think he didn’t notice his own slip-up?” I tilted my head.

“We can hope.” Seyari frowned. “We definitely let them know we’re not totally sure where we are, though.”

I nodded.

Seyari glanced back at their camp. “Ned was looking at the sword. He probably thinks we’re hiding wealth.”

I followed my partner’s gaze. My eyes, even transformed, could see better than I remember being able to as a human. Probably not as well as the half-angel’s right now. I saw a vague figure sitting by the small, intermittent glow of cooling coals. From this distance, I couldn’t get a clear read on their anger. I felt something, that much was certain.

“What do you think they’ll do?” I turned back to look at our own tent.

I’d become an expert at putting up and taking down camp, but I wasn’t used to doing it quickly with only two arms. Winter was coming as well and while we’d avoided snow in the foothills, it was only a matter of time, and the cold night only made that clearer.

I didn’t want to lose our tent. I especially didn’t want to lose our tent because two trappers decided to do something they’d seriously regret.

Seyari shrugged “Not sure. I think they’ll either do nothing, try to rob us, or worse.”

Or worse.

I shuddered involuntarily. I thought back to Jacob’s leering gaze. No way he’d try anything, right? I remembered how the wiry man had jolted when I stood up after eating. He saw how much larger I was. Ned was bigger than Seyari, but barely came up to my shoulders. We were also armed and supplied; they had to know we were capable.

Despite the fact I knew the two men couldn’t overpower me; I still felt a twinge of fear.

Seyari reached over and squeezed my hand.

I squeezed back and smiled down at her. “Thanks.”

“You looked like you needed it.” Seyari returned the smile, but the expression was forlorn on a hard-set face. “Hopefully they won’t do anything stupid. We don’t look inexperienced.”

“Yeah, hopefully. Probably,” I replied distantly.

What if the only reason we aren’t robbed or worse is because they don’t think they can take us? What if someone more vulnerable runs into them?

“Hey Val?” I whispered as quietly as I could.

“Yeah, Lana?” Seyari studied my expression. “You have your ‘moral dilemma’ face on.”

“What if they don’t do anything to us, but do something later to someone more vulnerable than us? They’re suspicious and creepy, but that’s just a presumption and I don’t want to judge someone like that. I don’t want to be anywhere near those two, but I want to be sure. But I don’t want to slow us down, and I’m probably just—”

Seyari pressed a finger against my lips. “Stop. You can’t predict everything. You can’t stop every bad thing from happening.”

I frowned and took a breath, intending to cut Seyari off.

“But!” She interjected and stopped me, finger still on my lips. “You helped teach me that you can always choose to be the better person. And you can always try. We’ll try to find out tomorrow if they might rob others. We can give them a scare if we think so, and warn anyone we come across.”

I waited a moment to make sure Seyari was done. I assumed she was when she removed her finger from my lips.

I leaned down and whispered directly into her ear. “What if we are absolutely certain they’d do something much worse than robbery if given a chance?” I didn’t think those two would do anything like that, but my mind jumped to the scenario.

Seyari’s expression went dark and she turned to me, motioning for me to lean my ear toward her. “If we find that out, then we kill them.”

I shivered, but not from the cold. Slowly, I nodded.

I’d killed people before. But each of those times was in the heat of a moment. This time, similar though it may end up being, would be different if we fought. Ned and Jacob hadn’t done anything so far, at least not enough to warrant talking about hurting them, let alone acting on anything. Even if they did, I’d want conclusive evidence.

I really, fervently, hoped we’d clear everything up in the morning and leave the creepy pair on their own. I’d definitely tell Jacob off for leering at me before we left. Part of me, a part I’d conquered and made my own, wanted them to try something heinous.

***

I took first watch, and stayed in human guise. I longed for my full demon vision and hearing, but I couldn’t have either without changing my appearance. I tried changing my ears on the inside, but not the outside, and couldn’t make it work. My demonic eyes glowed softly, and I didn’t want to risk them being seen through the trees. So, I got to enjoy the faint sounds of the night mostly blind and mostly deaf. Stupid idea, in hindsight.

Our fire had died down to barely smoking ashes, and I could no longer make out the other camp. Sometime after Seyari had gone to sleep, clouds had moved in and taken the night from dark to pitch black.

Still, I focused my watch in the direction of the other camp. As my watch wore on, my thoughts drifted and I found myself stuck on other moral dilemmas. Looking where I was, distracted, and with dulled senses, I barely heard rapid footsteps behind me in time to react.

Were I not in human form, I would have had enough time to turn and face whoever it was. The figure that grabbed me was large. My body, even in human guise, was ready to react immediately. My mind, however, had a moment of shock that gave me pause. I really hadn’t expected those two to attack us.

A large hand dragged a sharp blade across my throat. The cut wasn’t as deep as it should have been given the force I was sure my opponent was trying to apply. Even still, the blade bit in and blood welled up.

My throat felt like it’d been crushed and my next breath wheezed. The man, wrapping one arm tightly around me, moved a rough hand over my mouth and tried to shove me to the ground.

I wasn’t going to let him.

I dropped my transformation and used my lower arms to pry his arm off me. I expected resistance, but the man was impossibly weak. I wrapped my tail around his legs and spun him to face me, pulling his hand off my mouth with my newly-freed upper arms.

With my night vision restored, I saw Ned’s face. His expression went from grim to shocked. I felt a spike of anger from him. I used my tail and two hands to pin his legs and arms.

“D-de—”

I clapped a third hand over his mouth. “Where’s Jacob?”

My words came out raspy, but I could already feel the slash across my throat healing. My blood sizzled as it dripped on his shirt.

He tried to speak.

I kept my hand on his mouth and shook my head. “Point.”

He pointed to the tent.

I flicked my eyes over to it and saw motion from inside.

Oh no.

I pushed myself to move as fast as I could, throwing Ned aside. He hit the ground hard. His scream reached the tent after me.

I tore open the flap and ducked inside. Jacob’s dark form was crouched low over Seyari. He had a knife in one hand and rope in the other. The wiry creep jolted at Ned’s scream, but didn’t even have time to look my way before I picked him up and threw him bodily out of the tent. He flew out of the torn flap and crashed somewhere outside.

I leaned over Seyari. The screams must have woken her because she was up in an instant. A burst of wind tore a hole in the tent, narrowly missing my head. Outside, Jacob shouted.

Seyari looked up and saw me, sans human transformation. “Fuck. What happened?”

“Ned and Jacob attacked.” I offered a hand to help her up.

She took the proffered hand and stood, still fully clothed. “You okay?” She looked to the blood burning into my clothes around my collar.

I felt the now-unmarked skin of my neck. “Yeah.”

Seyari nodded and we dashed outside. I could see Ned running with a limp in one direction and Jacob stumbling in another.

“I’ll take the thin creep,” Seyari stated, looking in Jacob’s direction.

“I’ll get Ned.” I turned and took off after the man who’d only managed to get a dozen or so meters away from our camp.

I expected Seyari to take off running. Instead, I heard a snap of air and a scream that cut itself off the same instant it started.

I reached Ned moments later. I grabbed his hand, but not with enough force to break his wrist.

He struggled, screaming ‘demon’ at the top of his lungs.

I pulled him closer. For all he looked to be straining, I felt hardly any resistance. I clapped a hand over his mouth again. He screamed into it.

“Shut. Up.” I shouted back at him. A command, not a request.

For a moment, that worked. His anger tried to rise up. I ripped it out. He resisted, but I didn’t care. Ned went limp in my arms for a moment before he sucked in a slow breath.

“Why did you try to kill me?” I asked with a growl.

“D-D-Demon,” Ned stuttered. “I-I won’t let you have my s-soul!”

“I don’t want your soul,” I answered honestly.

I wanted to say I’d let him live if he had a good reason. I didn’t. Jacob was dead, and Ned had tried to kill me for no good reason.

“Lies. You lying bitch.” Ned made an odd expression as I assumed he tried to feel anger and couldn’t. “Why else would you sluts tempt me and Jacob? Two beautiful women, rich and alone and far from home. I knew it was too good to be true. You acted queer just to tempt us further, didn’t you? It would’ve been so easy to—”

Ned’s babbling cut off when I snapped his neck. I didn’t need to hear the rest.

Holding the man’s body in the air with one hand, I called upon my magic, hot and furious. Flames roared over the corpse, bright light causing shadows between the trees to dance wildly. I turned up the heat until the flames turned white, with only a faint tinge of crimson.

I burned the bastard’s body to ash.

I walked part of the way back to camp and looked for Jacob’s body. I found it, headless, and burned it to ash as well. When I was done, I stomped back to our camp.

“How are you feeling?” Seyari’s voice was soft with concern. No remorse.

I thought a moment and realized I didn’t feel any either. I took a shuddering breath. “Bad.”

I knew neither of us would sleep tonight.

I wasn't 100% about how to write this chapter when I was both planning and writing it, and I'm still not totally certain I did it as well as I could have. I'm very excited for the parts coming up, though! We're ~10 chapters out from the end of Volume 1.

But, if you don't want to wait that long, there's also Patreon! There are even some sides stories on there, most of which won't make it to Royal Road or Scribble Hub. As for my current patrons? You're awesome and here's a shoutout!

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Adrian Vasquez
Akasha kruznik
Alyssa
AntiClimax she her
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Cordamo
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darkchimere 
dotAlice
Franananachi 
Grymmette
Hoe Destroyer of Bros
Jake Cantrell
Jessie
Kat Carr
Kylieth 
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Sarah Meigh
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