The whole tavern was stunned into silence.
Fredrick broke it. “Damnit, Ruston…”
“What happened?” I asked.
“His father… disappeared trying to chase down where the monsters are coming from,” Fredrick responded with some hesitation. “It’s not my place to talk about.”
I turned to Seyari who had narrowed her eyes at Fredrick. “I think we’ll talk to him in the morning,” she said.
“I think we should talk to him tonight,” I looked at Seyari as seriously as I could.
She stared right back at me. “Zlana, he’s going to be in a rage tonight.”
“I know.” I replied confidently.
“You think he’s going to do something stupid?” Seyari asked, then turned to Fredrick who swore. “Fine. We’ll go now.”
“Thanks for the food and room,” I told Fredrick. “Sorry about making a scene. We’ll try to be back tonight.”
“Good luck trying to get through that thick skull of his,” Fredrick said sadly.
“Thanks,” Seyari replied.
The two of us got up and quickly walked out of the tavern into the late evening.
As soon as we were away from prying ears, Seyari spoke up. “Now I really think there’s something going on.”
“Then why did you want to wait until morning?” I asked.
Seyari sighed. “Because I didn’t think Ruston would run off at first. I’m exhausted, and I want a bed as much as you do.”
Seyari waved my apology off. “Don’t be. We’re doing the right thing. But you’re going first in case he throws something at us.”
I gave a single short laugh to Seyari’s attempt at levity. “Something Fredrick said make you suspicious?”
“Yeah,” she responded. “I don’t know why, but he wasn’t totally truthful when he spoke about Ruston’s father. He knows something else.”
“Do you think he’s malicious?” I thought back to Fredrick’s kind demeanor, and Ned’s face flashed across my mind.
Seyari shook her head. “I don’t think so. Not to us at least. I felt like he left something out is all. I really do think he cares for the young man.”
I picked up the pace, forcing Seyari to jog to keep up with my longer stride. “All the more reason for us to hurry and find Ruston,” I called to her over my shoulder.
We hurried across the town square to the river. From the bank, we could see a waterwheel upstream turning slowly in the current. The wheel was a hundred or so meters away.
When we arrived, we found that the mill attached to the wheel was flanked by small houses on either side. Neither looked particularly distinct. Predictably, the first one Seyari and I tried was the wrong house. After apologizing profusely, we tried knocking on front door to the other one.
We heard shuffling inside and the door opened a crack. I could see a blue eye and a flash of red hair in the gap.
Ruston opened the door wider when he recognized us. He looked like he’d been trying hard not to cry and only barely succeeding. “You actually came?” He sounded disbelieving.
I gave him a half smile.
“Yeah, we did.” Seyari answered, and motioned toward the inside. “You want to talk out here, or inside?”
Ruston winced. “Inside. Come on in. Don’t mind the mess.”
I ducked and followed Seyari inside. Despite Ruston’s claim, the place wasn’t really that bad. Messy, but in a lived-in, cozy sort of way. We sat at a table in the main room. I took the sturdiest-looking chair, and it creaked in protest.
“What did Fredrick tell you?” Ruston demanded. His body language didn’t match the confidence he’d managed to put behind his voice.
“He told us your father disappeared trying to chase down the monsters around Harriston,” I answered honestly.
Ruston’s anger spiked. “Bullshit. He disappeared trying to find the source of the monsters.”
Seyari folded her hands under her chin. “So, you think he was silenced?”
Ruston’s rising anger surprised me by faltering. “What? N-no! I think whatever made the monsters killed him.”
I leaned forward in my seat. “You wouldn’t have gotten as angry as you did with Fredrick if you didn’t think the people here had something to do with it.”
There’s the spike of anger.
I felt bad for manipulating Ruston. But only a little.
Ruston glared at me. I met his gaze, and he broke first, looking to Seyari and then the table. “The monsters started showing up before I was born, but only after the people here killed my grandparents.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked in surprise.
Ruston, still furious, looked at me with smoldering eyes. “Why the fuck do you care?”
“I—” I tripped over my words and lost what I wanted to say.
Thankfully, just as the silence started to stretch, Seyari spoke up. “There’s a demon making these monsters, Ruston.” She slammed her palm on the table. “And we want to stop it.”
“How do you know that?” Ruston snapped, slamming both his hands down. The table tilted and clattered back on the floor, narrowly missing my foot.
Seyari leaned back in her chair, unfazed. “Just a hunch.”
I looked between the two, unsure if I wanted to jump in again.
“Do you two girls really think you could take on a demon? If there even is one?” Ruston seemed on the verge of tears. From anger or another reason, I couldn’t tell.
“It wouldn’t be the first one we’ve killed.” I crossed my arms and let the sentence hang.
Ruston studied both of us. The single oil lamp on the counter behind us flickered light across the room, playing with shadows.
Ruston broke the silence. “My grandparents old homestead was where my father disappeared,” he said in a resigned tone. “I’ve gone up there to look, but I didn’t find anything. People say the sawmill is the place just because of what happened there, but I’m not sure.”
“It’s not the sawmill,” I said. I didn’t say why I knew that.
Ruston sighed. “Fine. Let’s say I believe you. Let’s say there’s a demon and it killed my father and has been making monsters for thirty years. Why? Why us? Why Harriston?”
“What happened at the sawmill?” I asked, ignoring Ruston’s question. “Is it related to your grandparents’ murder?”
Ruston looked at the oil lamp, then back at us. “There was a cult in Harriston. Worshipped some dark thing. The town tried to get the Church’s help, but the Inquisition was busy. The people here eventually took it into their own hands. My grandparents were caught up in it all, but they were innocent!”
“Was the sawmill important to the cult?” Seyari asked.
Ruston fidgeted with his hands. “They used the basement for rituals. The place has been abandoned since that night.”
I thought back to the sawmill. The name ‘Hartidge’ had been on some of items in the ruined building.
The name gave me an idea. “Does the name ‘Hartidge’ mean anything?”
Ruston paused a moment and stared at the table to think. “My name is Ruston Hartidge. My grandparents owned the sawmill.” He looked up at me, staring intensely. “But they were innocent! I swear! My father knew nothing and I know they didn’t either!”
“I’ll believe you,” I replied. Ruston’s conviction was easy to tell, but I worried he might be wrong.
“We can go tomorrow,” Seyari offered. “We should all get some good rest tonight.”
“We should go tonight!” Ruston protested.
Seyari turned to him. “I’m not going after a demon when I can’t see properly.”
Her vision wasn’t as good as mine in the dark, but I knew she meant for Ruston’s safety. I almost wanted to try to talk him into giving us directions and staying behind. I worried if I did that, I’d erode the small amount of trust we’d built up. I didn’t particularly like him, but I did feel for his loss.
Not knowing can eat a person away. I thought of Tania. We all knew Ruston’s father had to be dead, but Tania could very well still be alive.
“Fine,” Ruston replied eventually. “Meet me here tomorrow just after dawn. If you’re late, I’m going myself.”
“We’ll be here,” I gave a half smile and stood up.
“Good. I still won’t wait if you’re not.” Ruston motioned for us to leave.
“We get it,” Seyari frowned at him. “Come on Zlana, let’s go get some sleep.”
We left Ruston’s house. Behind us, the light just visible through the shutters went out.
“Do you think he’s actually going to wait until dawn?” I asked.
Seyari nodded. “Yeah, I do. He knows we’re his best shot at this.”
Back at the tavern, we gave a wave to Fredrick and headed upstairs around behind the bar. He’d looked like he wanted to talk, but neither Seyari nor I were in the mood. Especially with the place packed full of locals.
Our room upstairs was small, and my legs hung off the straw-filled bed at the knee. Instead of a single larger bed, we had two smaller ones. I pushed them together. Even if the blankets didn’t fit, I wanted to cuddle at least a little bit.
Dawn came all too quickly. The bed wasn’t great, but having a bed at all was fantastic. To Seyari’s halfhearted protests, I stretched my all my arms and tail for a few moments before I transformed back into my human form and got dressed.
In a town like Harriston, we weren’t the only early risers. But Fredrick ran a tavern, not an inn, and we ended up eating from our own food just to be sure we’d be on time to meet Ruston.
Ruston met us at the door. This time, he was wearing hunting leathers. He took a pack, a moderately-sized hunting bow, and a large axe.
He looked us over. “No armor?” He gestured to me. “I figured you’d be all armored up.”
I rubbed the back of my head, feeling the base of the ponytail I’d tied my hair into this morning. “We were out exploring. Didn’t exactly intend to fight a demon.”
Ruston narrowed his eyes. “Wouldn’t exploring be dangerous enough for you to wear armor? Are you stupid?”
I glared at him. “You try walking for weeks and climbing mountains in full armor and tell me how that goes. We packed light so we could carry whatever we found.”
Ruston opened his mouth to complain, but Seyari cut him off. “Not the time to argue. Armor wouldn’t stop a demon, and you’re in leathers anyway.”
“Fine,” Ruston huffed. “Let’s just go already.”
We followed him through the town toward the north. We crossed a small bridge to a cluster of small farms across the river, then took a hunting trail northwest into the hills.
“How far is it?” I asked once we’d crested the first ridge.
“We’ll get there by late afternoon if you can keep up.” Ruston turned to look at me. “If you girls need to stop, we can.”
“That won’t be a problem for either of us,” I replied icily. “What can we expect when we get there?” I had no idea how Ruston could look at me and come up with ‘tires easily’.
Ruston frowned and turned back to the narrow path ahead. “My grandparents homestead was burned, so there’s not much I could find when I was here last.”
“When did you come here last?” Seyari asked from behind me.
“About four years ago, right after the last time the monsters were cleared out.” He shifted his pack.
I took few quick steps to move closer to Ruston. I had a feeling the place wouldn’t be so empty this time around.
We kept up a good pace, and by early afternoon, we’d crossed a small stream with an impressive waterfall. Ruston told us that meant we were close. I started to pay closer attention to the forest around us.
As we walked, I noticed all the bird calls I heard came from behind us. Around our group, the forest was silent. Ruston noticed as well. His hand rested on the handle of his axe, and our pace slowed considerably.
Quietly, we continued to approach the homestead. Soon, a clearing in the trees ahead came into view. We stopped at the tree line and observed. Seyari swirled wind around us gently. If Ruston noticed, he said nothing.
A smattering of small trees was growing up through what had once been a field. Some were dead. A burned mound that had probably been a building was being encroached upon by groundcover that seemed reticent to touch the pile itself. A nearly dry creek ran across the opposite end of the field.
We saw motion in the trees. From between two dead saplings, a deer, a buck, walked into the open. Immediately, we all tensed. This thing was burned, and malformed. Two does followed it, similarly twisted.
I looked to the burned pile. It was large enough for more creatures to be behind it, but unless we were going to go up against twisted rabbits, there was nothing inside the pile itself
Seyari and Ruston took out their bows. Ruston’s hand shook and he placed his other hand across the back of it to steady himself.
I had no ranged options that weren’t my magic, and I had a feeling fire magic wouldn’t work on these monsters. Especially not fire magic a human mage would have easy access to.
“I’ll take the buck,” Ruston whispered, nocking an arrow.
“Understood,” Seyari replied.
I readied my spear. We only saw the three, and they were a good bit away yet, but there could easily be more.
Ruston shot first. Seyari a moment later. Both hit their mark, but Ruston hit the flank. Seyari’s shot took the deer monster through the head and dropped it.
The buck put its warped, lopsided rack of horns and blackened bone down and charged the tree line. To my surprise, the doe followed suit.
I moved ahead, ready to intercept, but not in front of the archers.
Two more arrows fired out. The other doe dropped, but the buck was still charging.
I moved forward as quickly as I thought would look human, then ducked to a side and thrust the spear at the buck’s neck. I hit home and the magicked tip went clean through to the other side.
A bit too much strength there.
I let the weight of it help pull the spear off. Its charge stopped; the twisted deer turned to face me. I thrust as it moved to headbutt me, bleeding profusely.
My spear took it in the head this time and I used a bit more strength than I should have to stop the antlers from touching me. The point of the spear drove through its skull and out the base of its head, killing it instantly.
I shifted back and pulled the spear out quickly, looking for any other threats. There were none. The field was quiet.
“You two are pretty good,” Ruston spoke once a moment had passed and none of us had seen any motion.
“Thanks,” I replied evenly.
Seyari walked past us toward the burned pile. “Let’s hurry up and look around. If there’s nothing here, I want to get back tonight, and if there’s a demon close by, I don’t want to fight it in the dark.”
I looked up at the sky. The sun wasn’t starting to get low yet; it was midafternoon at the earliest.
The burned pile yielded no great secrets. A collapsed shed by the field, however, had a few interesting things in the wreckage. First, we found a half-rotted piece of a wooden something with Hartige written on it. I didn’t doubt Ruston was telling the truth, but a bit of proof was appreciated.
Aside from that, we thought the place was a bust until Seyari spoke up over a pile of junk we’d collected. “Is this a gold pan?” She took a round, flat dish out of the pile.
I couldn’t recall seeing one before, so I shrugged.
Ruston, however, nodded. “Yeah, it is. There’s no real gold up here, but there’s fool’s gold in some of the creeks.”
“Did people originally come up here to look for gold?” Seyari asked.
“I dunno.” Ruston shrugged. “I think so?”
I looked at the other junk. There was a pair of rusty pick heads. I pointed to them “Did your grandparents come to look for gold? Or to mine at all?”
Ruston followed my finger. “I don’t know. Maybe? Dad never mentioned a mine or anything.”
“Ruston, how big is this homestead?” Seyari asked.
“Goes up to the top of the ridge there.” Ruston pointed up the creek to a ridgeline a kilometer or so away.
Seyari set the pan back down in the pile of junk. “Then that’s where we’ll look. If they found something in the creek, they might have checked further upstream.”
“Dad never mentioned anything like this,” Ruston protested, but he looked up at the ridge. “But I think you might be on to something. Let’s go.”
We left the pile of junk where it was and started walking up the creek. There was no trail to speak of, but we made do around the rocky banks.
I looked up at the ridge ahead of us. Would we really find a demon up there? What would they be like if we did?
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