Chapter 58: Troubled Town
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The road south continued. Gradually, the path widened from a trail to something a particularly determined person might have been able to get a wagon down.

Our mood was bright against the dull gray day. There’d been a short rain in the morning. The petrichor and birdsong were a sharp relief against the last few days. I hummed a tune while we walked. Not something I remembered from my old life, but I’d heard the tune many times in Navanaea. Aretan’s mercenaries had put words I couldn’t recall to the melody. Vana, the co-owner of the inn we’d stayed at while hiding in Baetnal had hummed it while we cooked.

The style was distinct from the music I’d grown up hearing around the neighborhood and on streetcorners. Pleasant just the same.

I wondered how Vana was doing. Well, I hoped. My thoughts turned to Aretan. I truly didn’t know why he said he’d take Nelys and they’d wait for us in Lockmoth. He had his company and seemed invested in Navanaea. Certainly, he knew Nelys’s sailor background. They could have made it to Lockmoth themself.

A flash, and I remembered Nelys in Malich’s estate. The way they’d clung to me. I had a guess about their pendant and identity. If that’s what was true for them; human all the way! If I knew a way to make that permanent, or could find one, I’d tell them as soon as I could.

We’d see each other again in a month or so, if everything went well traveling through Ordia. Also, if everything went well when it came to dealing with Mordwell. My desire for revenge still burned, but the thought of the consequences put a wet blanket over the flames until only smoke of… something slipped out from under the frayed edges.

I lost control of the analogy, but wouldn’t lose control of what I cared about.

There, saved it!

Beside me, Seyari looked markedly less dour than she’d been. She’d finished healing herself, but was drained again today. With any luck we’d find a town and learn where on Varra, and in Ordia, we’d ended up.

Finding a town was a certainty. Probably. We found the ruins of a few long-abandoned homesteads and small farms toward evening. I wanted to push on through the night, but Seyari reminded me that two women showing up out of the forest in the direction of this abandonment was already suspicious. Do that at night? We’d have a problem for sure.

I checked the empty buildings. Some had collapsed. A few had signs of fire, but none had anything like the twisted wolves. This place also lacked the sort of stillness that burned like a breath held too long.

We spent the night behind a small hill near the road. I wondered aloud of the town had been destroyed, and whether we should light a fire or not. Seyari called the idea unlikely. We didn’t light a fire. Victory for me, I guess.

The next morning was thoroughly damp. The rain started and stopped, but the clouds stayed constant. Not dark enough to herald a late autumn storm, but gray and laden with rain. We made our way back out onto the road, and by afternoon, we saw the first signs of life. Animal paths, widened by hunters crossed the road, and soon after we saw our first inhabited building since we left Sandmeadow.

A modest, two-room wooden cabin sat back from the road, just visible through the trees. A thin trail of smoke drifted from the chimney and a small, dismal-looking farm surrounded it. We passed it and continued down the road. We weren’t desperate travelers, but explorers passing through on a return journey from the mountains. I hoped there was a bed and a proper bath in the town.

We continued on the road, and small farms and cabins began to dot the forest around us. Another road from the east joined ours. Hills rose to either side of the valley where we walked. A large stream had wound its way down to run alongside the road. From the empty fields, I guessed we’d missed autumn harvest.

The sight gave me hope for a proper town ahead. We met a man with his empty cart and tired-looking donkey soon after. He looked the part of a farmer, with a stubble-covered face, and well-worn work clothes.

“Good afternoon.” I started and winced at how formal I sounded. “We’re headed to the town ahead. Do you know whether there’s a decent inn?”

The man looked up, and up at me. “Fredrick has a couple of rooms above the tavern.” He scratched at his chin. “Don’t mind me askin’ girlie, but are you even human?”

“She has some ogre blood in her,” Seyari cut in before I could flub my words.

“Well, you didn’t get none o’ their ugly bits then.” The man smiled, and to me it looked genuine. “We don’t get many travelers around here, you know.”

“We’re explorers,” I answered. “Heading back from a trip up north.”

“Up north, you say?” He narrowed his eyes. “You run into any trouble?”

“No, why?” Seyari answered. “And we came to this valley from the east road anyway.” Her lie was smooth.

“Eh, bunch of nasty monsters come from up north sometimes.”

“Really? No one’s come to deal with them?” I asked.

The man shrugged. “People do, but more show up. I moved further down the valley a few years back to keep safe.” He looked back up the road, then to me. “But you probably don’t want to hear about my worries. Good luck on your trip back!”

“Thanks.” I replied with a smile. “Have a nice day!”

The man waved and pulled on the donkey’s lead. The animal hesitated a moment before starting again. I watched him for a few seconds before I turned back to Seyari.

“Glad you also realize something’s up.” The half angel was facing me, but her eyes looked the way we came.

“Kinda,” I answered. “I don’t think that man’s done anything. What makes you think something more’s going on?”

Seyari put a hand to her face in thought. “He wasn’t lying, but if the monsters were the same corrupted things we fought, then anyone who dealt with them would know a demon had made them. And that a demon could make more of them.”

“Maybe they just couldn’t deal with the demon?” I offered, then turned and starting walking toward the town.

“Probably. And I suppose it makes sense not to let everyone know, or there’d be a panic.” Seyari sighed. Maybe I’m too paranoid.

“Or maybe not,” I added with a shrug. “We can ask around town about the monsters. I wouldn’t mind being a sellsword as a side gig to my career as an explorer of Lost Era ruins.”

“You just want to find the demon responsible,” Seyari said. “I do too.”

“More than that,” I continued. “I want to find why the demon is here and what they want to do.”

Seyari nodded.

***

We arrived in the town itself shortly after speaking to the farmer. A carved wooden sign helpfully said ‘Harriston’. Not a town either of us had heard of. Larger than a hamlet, Harriston had a small dirt plaza with a well and a few businesses clustered around. The buildings were wood except a few which had stone walls for the ground floor. Tucked behind and to the side, stood a small stone church to Dhias. The main buildings weren’t in disrepair, but the town clearly was not a wealthy one.

The tavern, the only one in town, was easy to find. One of the mixed stone and wood buildings, the place had a small second floor above the business area. The sign out front simply read ‘Tavern’ in Ordian.

My eyes caught on the simple word. I was in Ordia. Reading a sign in Ordian. Linthel, and Tania if she stayed there, were still a long, long way away. Reading the sign and realizing how far I’d come, distance didn’t seem to matter anymore. I feel close. Tania feels close.

Seyari tugged impatiently on my hand. I shook my head, missing the weight of my horns, and turned to follow her inside the tavern, ducking as usual to avoid hitting the top of my head on the doorframe. We’d arrived in the middle of the day, so the place was nearly empty.

The few patrons looked up at us, then back down. One of them, a burly-looking fellow, did a double take, looking from me to the top of the doorframe I almost brushed against. In a good mood, I shrugged and gave the man a sheepish grin. He smiled and returned to nursing his drink.

The place was homey, but worn. A long counter was warped from age. Behind it, a man sat whittling something behind the bar. The farmer we’d spoken to on the road had called this Fredrick’s place, so I assumed this man was him. He had a thick mustache—an errant hair away from being unkempt—and intense eyes that were focused on the chunk of wood he was holding.

I let Seyari take the lead, and she waved to him.

The man set the person-shaped carving down, and brushed wood shavings off his legs before standing up. His eyes looked up at my height, but returned to Seyari. “You’re new in town. Lookin’ for a drink or a room?”

“Both,” Seyari replied.

“Ale okay?” Probably-Fredrick asked. “We still have some of the good stuff left over from the harvest festival this year.”

Seyari looked to me and I shrugged. “Sure,” she replied. “Do you have any food?”

The tavern keeper moved to a cask behind him with a pair of earthen mugs. “Sausage, bread, and pickled vegetables.”

We both took seats at the bar.

“Sounds great!” I replied with genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll take a double portion.”

“Sure thing! I’m Fredrick, by the way.” Fredrick replied, filling the second mug with ale.

“Z-Lana,” I replied, managing to not completely screw up my alias. The familiarity of this place had put me off guard. I’d bet the sausage was spiced differently here, though. “And this is Valerie.” I gestured to Seyari.

“Zlana?” Interesting name there, lass. “You sound a bit Edathan. Headed back south?”

Seyari gave me a side-eyed glare for a fraction of a second before smiling broadly at Fredrick. “We are.”

“Have a safe journey then. Roads have been getting worse of late.” Fredrick handed us the ale.

I took the mug, looked at the liquid within, and took a big gulp. Not bad at all.

“Why’s that?” I asked. “We heard from someone on the road into town that there’re monsters to the north. Are there problems to the south, too?”

Fredrick nodded. “Yeah, there are. Monsters and the like. You two girls might want to find someone to guard you if you’ve the coin. Or a caravan, but the last one’s already left for the year and snow’s coming soon.”

“What do the monsters look like?” I took another gulp of ale.

Fredrick leaned over, and his gray eyes met mine. “They’re like twisted animals from what I’ve heard. Some kind of fire magic, too. Nasty stuff.” He leaned back away and turned. “Anyway, let me grab your food.”

Seyari and I watched him walk away. “What do you think?” I asked my partner quietly.

The half-angel stared hard into her untouched ale. “I think I’m putting the pieces together.”

“Oh, what do you—” I cut myself off as Fredrick returned with two plates of food. My stomach growled in anticipation.

I tucked in as soon as the plate was set down. Like I thought, the sausage was wrong, or, well, different. I learned to enjoy it over the course of demolishing more food than human me would eat in a day. I would say I ate with decorum, but unless ‘using a fork’ is the base qualification for that, I’d be lying.

More customers trickled in while we ate and Fredrick alternated between whittling and helping them. A young woman arrived toward the end of our meal and began to take orders and serve customers. With all the ears in here, I’d need to follow up with Seyari in a more private setting.

Since we were sitting at the bar, Fredrick took our plates when we were done. He returned shortly with a key and handed it to Seyari who paid for us.

“Hey Fredrick?” I asked.

He gave a quick look down the bar then turned to me. “Yeah, lass? Meal alright?”

“Wonderful!” I smiled. “But what I actually wanted to say is that we might be able to help with Harriston’s monster problem.”

A patron next to us laughed.

Fredrick regarded me for a second. “Lass, I don’t doubt you’re capable, but these aren’t normal beasties.”

“I’m not a normal lass,” I replied with a smile. Sitting at the bar, I was almost eye-level with Fredrick, and I doubted he was a small man.

“We’re explorers and sellswords,” Seyari said coolly. “If you have anyone working on the monster problem already, we could at least help.”

I saw and felt several patrons look our way.

Fredrick stroked his mustache in thought. “The Church folks already cleared them this year, so you’d be alone. And they had trouble…”

“Fredrick!” a large man next to us said in a friendly tone. “You can’t possibly be thinking of letting these ladies go off on their own against dangerous monsters!”

My eyebrow twitched involuntarily.

Fredrick looked to us, then the man. “Ruston, I’m—”

“Not about to let those fine ladies go monster hunting without an expert!” Ruston interjected, putting his hands on the table.

I turned to look at him. He turned to me with smiling eyes. If only he knew I was using my body as a shield to protect him from Seyari’s death glare.

Ruston was a large young man with dark red hair, bright blue eyes, and a clean-shaven face. He was well-muscled, with a sheathed sword on his hip and a bow on his back. He looked the part of someone who knew his stuff, at least.

“You two want to go monster hunting?” Ruston asked me excitedly.

“Ruston!” Fredrick boomed. “It’s too dangerous for you too, boy.”

Ruston frowned. “Well, what if they’re capable like I am?”

I took a moment to glance around the room and sighed. Ruston’s enthusiasm had drawn all eyes not lost in the cups right onto us.

So much for laying low.

“What if we are?” I asked in a competitive tone.

I could feel Seyari’s disapproval from behind me. She kicked the back of me knee. “Don’t make a scene,” my partner hissed.

“Too late and not my fault,” I whispered back certain half the room had heard.

“How would you prove it?” Ruston’s cocky smile had a friendly edge to it that made me want to punch him and give him a chance in frustratingly equal measure.

“Arm wrestle me,” I deadpanned.

“What?” Ruston sputtered. “I couldn’t possibly arm wrestle a woman! It just…”

I stood up and towered over him.

“…wouldn’t be fair.” Ruston finished meekly.

From the peanut gallery, shouts of encouragement for both sides bounced around the room. I caught a glare from the server and mouthed ‘sorry’ back at her. She huffed and turned away.

We walked to a table that emptied just for us. Seyari wore a look of anticipation. She tried to turn it into a frown when I looked at her, but I caught the switch in time and stuck out my tongue. She groaned, but the sound was drowned out by the chattering of an excited crowd.

I sat down opposite Ruston and rolled my sleeve up. He put his arm up next to mine. Mine was longer by a margin, but his was definitely thicker. I had muscle definition and no small amount of mass, but Ruston beat me out in looks alone.

“Ready?” I asked with a smile.

“Ready,” Ruston replied seriously.

We clasped hands. His was rougher than mine and I could feel calluses. I worried for a moment if it was suspicious that mine had none.

That worry ended when someone shouted “Go!”

I wasn’t ready and slipped down a bit before my dulled reflexes kicked in. I pushed back against him. The young man was strong, but even in human form, my nature made me far, far stronger. I couldn’t show that, though.

But I wasn’t going to let him win either.

I pushed back and Ruston grunted with effort. I did my best to make a show of focus and clenched my arm to try to fake effort. I let Ruston stay slightly ahead for a count of ten before I started to push back. Our hands passed the middle and a shout went up.

I let myself waver for a moment before pushing Ruston’s arm down the other side in a slow, deliberate motion. His hand hit the table and there was a shout that turned into silence. I heard someone mutter ‘damn’.

I gave him a warm look, then cooled it off. “My name’s Zlana, and I’m sorry Ruston, but we don’t need your help.” I liked Zlana better than Lana anyway.

Ruston flexed his hand. “Point taken. But damn, girl. Are you even human?”

I shrugged. “Part ogre.” The anger I sense from Ruston was a dull murmur.

“No wonder,” Ruston muttered, nursing a bruised hand and ego. “But do you even know where the monsters come from?”

“You could tell us.” Seyari spoke up from the sideline. “And before you ask, I’m the mage in our duo and no I won’t show you my magic.”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you,” Ruston said, regaining some of his confidence.

Seyari looked like she was about to say no, so I intervened. “Sure!”

We walked back to the bar and sat back down. I fended off a few questions, but the server and Fredrick managed to bring things back under control in short order.

Ruston downed the mug of ale I’d bought him in one go. “So,” he set the mug back down hard. “People say they’re all out by the old sawmill, but I know better.”

Fredrick looked over at us. “Ruston—”

“Fredrick, I know I’m right!” Ruston’s face grew hard and he turned to the tavern keeper. “I know my father was right!”

“Ruston…” Fredrick sighed. “Please. I know it hurts, but you—”

I jumped as Ruston threw his mug at the wall behind Fredrick, shattering it. What actually startled me was the massive spike in the young man’s anger. There had been a simmer the first time Fredrick interjected, but the second time Ruston’s anger had exploded.

The young man glared at me with hard, wet eyes. “Meet me at my house next to the waterwheel if you want to know what’s really going on.”

Caught off-guard as I was, I didn’t think of a reply until Ruston had stormed out of the tavern and slammed the door behind him.

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