“All jokes aside,” Kaia said grimly. “We actually aren’t sure how dangerous he is.”
The wide worn path before them was broken by an overgrowth of random twigs and flowers jutting up through the aging trail. Someone had scattered stones and pebbles over the terrain at one point. Or perhaps a temporary surge in travel once had worn away the dirt down to the rocky underside. But despite the exposed stones, disuse over time allowed for plants and earth to start their return, swallowing parts of the road. Alongside the two explorers strange blue and pink tinted bush grew in strips across the landscape until broken by a deep, green forest to their left, rolling hills to their right, and a purple mountain range straight on.
“If you want to back out you better tell me now,” Rasmus told his sister, “because I won’t be screwed by indecision.”
“I’m not indecisive. I make very conclusive decisions in the moment. I just change my mind later.”
Kaia couldn’t determine why the path existed at all. The remote village they’d just fled didn’t seem so happy about visitors, and people were so scarce that the map was more or less blank around these parts. No cartographer had come back with details about what was past the mountains ahead. If the young blonde woman was honest with herself, a part of her hoped the dangerous and strange occurrences they’d seen these last few weeks had to do with where the Wyrd first formed—The true boundaries.
Common consensus believed the Wyrd appeared randomly, scholars considering it not to have any real location. Many speculated it was a realm that lived on top of theirs always, things just escaping through some sort of veil. But Kaia had charted it at times, and it became increasingly obvious that not only did the Wyrd avoid heavily populated areas (as everyone knew), but its frequency seemed to increase the farther west you went regardless. It was solely her belief that perhaps it wasn’t that humans had chased the Wyrd out, but the Wyrd that pushed the humans away.
Rasmus and Kaia walked, packs heavy and loaded, yet their purse suspiciously light. Rasmus had handed his sister the leather pouch, letting her in on the extent of their dire straits without saying a word. Their mission out in the wilds where humanity barely survived had them in low spirits. Kaia’s boots were too big, she had a giant hole in her baggy gray shirt, the scratch mark beneath it itching terribly. Her brother’s eyes were rimmed with black, a tiredness below his usual features of boyish glee. His light hair mussed, shirt yellow with the grime of the road, and jacket heavy on his stooped shoulders, he looked like he was going to pass out. And his limp from whatever had happened in the woods grew more and more evident with each step.
“I just think we should be prepared is all I’m saying,” Kaia explained. “If I had truly believed that the demon was an unstoppable force, I wouldn’t have released him. But if I didn’t think he was strong enough to save us, I wouldn’t have unchained him either.”
“We aren’t remotely prepared enough to even prepare,” Rasmus said. “Where the hell can we start?”
“You need a silver sword to kill a demon.”
“Well, sure. I’m positive that an Ornamental Blacksmith is lurking around these hovels, stealing from the rich and giving encrusted shovels to the needy. Luckily, as we don’t have any money, we’re needy too.”
“What do you suppose we do then?”
He searched the sky, leaning off his bad leg. “If he’s actually just some sprite, then silver wouldn’t have any effect on him anyway.”
“We’d use regular iron,” she agreed, biting on her thumb. Her face darkened as she began to contemplate. “If he’s a wizard, we’d want glass, and if he’s something else, then it probably would
be silver,” she said. “But I mean… do you really think those are options? The priest said the creature was a demon. The Vampire Hunters believe it too. Why else offer us so much to catch it?”
He searched her expression for her opinion, but didn’t understand the sad, almost pleading way she looked at him. “What do you
think he is?” Rasmus asked.
She diverted her gaze. “I don’t know. I just… The legends wrote of these massive creatures able to take out armies. He looked almost human. Plus, to have originally caught him because he was drunk?” Kaia sighed. “On the other hand, the silver shackles have worked on him… I saw the burn marks. I don’t see him faking that. So regardless of what he is…”
“We can’t afford even cheap iron right now.”
“I thought you had all kinds of money. What happened?”
“That innkeeper really stiffed us,” he said.
“You should’ve just started complaining about things. Like monster attacks. Isn’t there a discount for giant blobs threatening to kill us?”
“Should be, I imagine.”
The pathway was starting to elude its shape. To lose it would be hard. They weren’t great navigators and walking throughout bush or forest tended to add twice the amount of time and about ten times the number of stubbed toes.
“Even still, you sold our stuff, right?”
“I got what I could,” Rasmus said, not looking at her.
At sight of his expression, she changed the subject. “We need to start looking for signs that he’s gone this way. We can’t just wander aimlessly,” she said. “Allegedly, if he’s a sprite, trees he passed by should be slightly greener.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. She shrugged. What do you want from me?
“We need to keep ahead of the hunters,” her brother said. “Get to him first. Get money. So, get money, get him. We need to find a village… But not without deviating from his whereabouts too much. What are the signs we’d be on the right track?”
“Mostly internal,” Kaia admitted. “A demon’s presence can cause depression or a loss of self-control, it’s said. Sometimes massive amounts of death, but that is usually in terms of when they’ve been found and actively hunted. They get overtly destructive only during self-defense. It’s usually claimed they’re subtler when they first escape hell, causing problems without wanting to be found.”
Kaia strained her eyes for hints of the creature. But the truth was, no scholar had anything reliable to say about demons. The last one was seen over 200 years ago, and that was before books and records were considered valuable. Librarians stowed themselves away in isolated temples and fortresses that few had access to. They didn’t know what was going on outside their walls. Peasants had no need to read and write, aristocrats were busy at war, and few objects survived for more than a few decades, places getting destroyed before people decided to unite under one counsel. For all she knew, the demon could just vanish into thin air.
He nodded. “Great. Well, I say we head for the mountains. There’s a road out here anyway, so if we can at least find some sort of village…”
“Don’t you remember?”
He licked his lips. “No. Actually, none of this looks remotely familiar to me.”
“But you were ten years old when we left.”
“I know I said that was our hometown… and parts of it are familiar, but I don’t remember much. I don’t remember traveling through the wilderness like this. It all feels… wrong to me.”
Kaia’s heart clenched at that, but she didn’t dare say what she was thinking.
With the summit of the mountains in sight, it was easy to keep going straight even after the vegetation swallowed the road. Some rocks poked up here or there, but either the siblings lost the path or it had stopped all together. Up ahead, trees from the forest escaped their clump, spread out between the travelers and the peak. Goosebumps suddenly ran across her arms. She started to itch.
“Did you…” But her brother turned to her with his arms at his side and his skin perfectly ignorable, and she immediately clamped her mouth shut. She rubbed her elbow slowly, casting a glance around the peaceful plain before dismissing the chill as nothing more than the wind on a boney girl.
The land grew more difficult, rolling waves of earth prominent before them. Kaia almost fell into a ditch—a dry remnant of waterflow now covered in a blanket of foliage—while Rasmus ran up the following hill for a better look.
After a moment of surveying everything, he released his breath to bend down and cradle his knee. Kaia walked up and put her hand on his shoulder. He smiled faintly at her.
“I’m worried,” she said.
“It’ll be alright. I’ll be sore for a few days and then my leg will be fine.”
“Not everything is about you. I’m talking about how we’re going to find this thing. More to the point, what are we going to do once
we find him? Haul him back to the guild? Really?”
“What did you want to do with him?”
“I mean, what’s the end game here?”
His eyes turned to slits. “I am trying to get you out of the mess you
put yourself in. Maybe we get the money, but more importantly, you didn’t get hanged for letting a demon loose
She held up her hands. “I’m just saying… what if we find him and it’s not what we thought?”
Rasmus shrugged. “If things get out of hand, we’ll kill him. That’s what they want anyway. And the corpse won’t talk. Win-win.”
“I don’t think you’re listening.”
“I don’t think you’re planning on living until thirty, so…”
Her face hardened but she waved her tension away as if it was nothing more than a gnat.
Rasmus sighed. “Look, if we really wanted to be smart, we should find the nearest village and… uh… ‘stock up.’ My first concern is money, but we can talk more in depth about what to do once we settle.”
“But how well will we hear
He ignored her, heading down the hill with newfound determination. “I sold the fairy book,” he mentioned casually. “But it didn’t get much.”
“The fairy…? Really? Who the hell would…?”
“He was shocked and awed by its potential.”
Kaia let her disbelief fall into a shrug. “That’s a peasant for you.”
Her brother hesitated. “It was a Guild Member… actually.”
“I think I misled him.”
She dropped her head in dismay, but grinned while she shook it. “Why didn’t you haggle better then?”
He kept moving, limping hard. “Hey. If I left it up to you, we would have absolutely nothing and a lot of books to carry around.”
“I don’t keep them after I read them. They’re too heavy.”
“Knowledge is our substance!”
He didn’t even smirk.
“Also, if anyone’s going to slow us down…” She dropped a glance at his limp.
He jerked his head back in disgust. Spine straightening, Rasmus marched forward, but his leg did not work with his pride, and his step still lumbered. Kaia started to follow when something cold prickled at her neck. She peeked over her shoulder, having thought, just briefly, she’d heard a growling coming from the forest beside them, but the trees were sparse enough that it was clear nothing was in the sunlit woods. Her eyes narrowed, but in a moment, her nonplussed mask returned as she heeled at her brother’s side.
“Just a question,” she said, marching onward. “Do you think the guild is telling us the whole story? I think that Vampire Hunter has an agenda. Probably that involves his future finances and the alimony therein.”
Rasmus didn’t expect this, didn’t seem to know what she was talking about at first. “Why?”
“Because I’m pretty.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because I look like you and you’re
He sighed out his impatience.
“He saw me release the demon,” Kaia explained. “Why would he lie?”
Rasmus gave his sister a once over. She didn’t speak, but she felt her face go hot. She couldn’t pass off the hunter’s flirtation off as a joke now.
To her shock, he scowled. His eyes ran over her face in attempts to understand what thoughts flickered behind brown eyes. He went to say something then promptly shut his mouth.
“What?” she asked.
“Oh please. Whenever you’re actually saying nothing, I can’t get you to shut up. What is it?”
“You don’t seem too averse to the idea. I didn’t know…” He handpicked his words. “Do you want to get married?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal in most parts of the region.”
“Not to me, idiot. Do you want to get married ever
She shrugged. “Absolutely. Preferably to someone with money.”
“What I mean is, Kaia… What are your plans?”
“Realistically? Here. Doing the exact same thing.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Preferably I’d have a fireplace, but other than that… I’m not unhappy, Rasmus.”
He nodded rhythmically, eyes distant.
want to get married?” she asked.
“That’s not an answer, and I don’t believe you.”
He kept walking.
Bush gave away to grass, furnishing the air with the fresh scent of tangy greens. They trudged through it for some ways, feeling relieved at the ease in which their feet slid through, when the wind shifted direction.
The reek of sulfur carried on the breeze. Kaia hid her discomfort as she peered to the left, into the dark woods still lingering off in the distance, growing thick. Kaia kept her face from curling, her heart pounding loud enough to be heard across a stadium.
She quickened her pace. “You don’t not
know,” she said casually. “Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because I’m constantly changing my mind.”
“How about right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just at the moment.”
“I don’t know, Kaia.”
“Don’t even think about it. Just give the first response that comes to your mind.”
“I really don’t want to talk about this.”
“You’re so fickle.”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“You have no sense of fair play. I answer you with only a little bit of beating around the bush, and you completely refuse to comply.”
“When I make a decision, I’ll tell you. How about that?”
“I won’t care then. I have a very short attention span.”
“I’ll tell you anyway.”
The woods wrapped back in front of them at the hottest part of the day, a few hours after noon in which the heat readily started to settle in a mist of humidity and haziness. The trees, parted enough that claustrophobia had little effect, but shadows provided some relief. As Kaia bolted from one part of shade to another, her brother turned back to her.
“So, liches?” he asked.
“A liche? Liches rarely travel in groups.”
“Easy con though. Grab a skull, stick it on a broom, bam. Powerful sorcerer people will pay us big bucks to get rid of.”
She paused, considering.
“Imps,” she said.
“We’ve already done that.”
Kaia didn’t follow Rasmus who made a straight path through the sun. The short shadows moved in unison with the wind in the leaves, dancing about the grass and roots.
She stopped short. Off some distance before them, a long shadow extended from nothing, taller than the trees, darker than the others. She blinked, shaking out any possible blurry eyes, before rushing forward. There was nothing. Her jaw set. She considered her brother from a distance as he hobbled away, seeing the tired stoop in his back, the slowness of his step. She sucked in a breath and kept her mouth shut.
“A plague of imps,” she replied, chasing after.
They went over bushes and through many openings. The trees dwindled to sporadic markings on an open plane, then back to a thick maze. The mountain looked to be getting no closer to where they were.
Rasmus’s chest heaved with exhaustion, emotional as much as physical it seemed. Spinning around, he clasped his hand around his knee and let himself collapse near a tree.
He stared at her, arching his brow critically.
She dropped down beside him, taking out a jug from her bag. She gulped a large swig.
“If we’re going to get some money out of some villagers,” he said, “we need to do it quickly. Finding the demon is our first priority, and I want it done with. We’re not going to wait until we’re snowed in up there. It’s dangerous. I’m not stupid.”
“But you’re upset. Which is almost the same thing.”
Kaia scrutinized her brother’s face, digging for some semblance of understanding. His expression was grim, the placid tone of his cheeks whiter than normal. She hadn’t realized how much she was absorbed in watching him until he looked at her. She jerked back, alarmed.
“How long do you think it will be until this queasy feeling will leave?” she said.
“What queasy feeling?”
“The feeling we did something wrong.”
He saw the upset in her face. He put an arm around her.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
“We’ve done tons of things wrong. Don’t bullshit me.”
“We didn’t do anything wrong there. I mean yes, we were planning on
it, but after we found the real crisis, we did everything we could.”
He smiled at her.
She smiled back, but when she did, she noticed his insincerity around the eyes. They stared off into the open wilderness before them and she felt smaller than she had in a long, long time.
A shudder scampered across her shoulders. She tensed as the wind blew into her ear.
I’m coming for you,
the voice said.
All rights reserved. ©2017 Charley Daveler.