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(Chaining Nikodemos Part VII)

Kaia followed the blood trickling down her brother’s face.

“I defeated an ogre,” Rasmus said.

She pointedly redirected her gaze towards the child holding his hand. He and the young girl had appeared in the wake of the town’s destruction, not even letting the dust settle before he paraded through the streets with what could only be assumed was the missing child.

The girl’s eyes observed everything, face white, mouth grim. Her free hand grabbed tightly to Rasmus’s brown pantleg. Her expression looked just about to crack, on the bridge of tears.

“What happened?” Kaia asked.

“I’m fine.”

Cuts were bright red in his skin. His face was tired, blonde hair dull with dirt. His gray, plain tunic frayed with little slashes across the shoulders and wrists. The girl seemed vacant, yet afraid, eyes giant. The trio stood dumbly in front of the crushed church, minds too soft to take in it all. Little remains of ooze dripped from sharp boards. The men in the crimson cloaks collected themselves, knocked down into the bramble of the half-smashed building. The members of the Vampire Hunter Guild were just as taken aback by the random attack from the Wyrd as the peasants. It was eerily silent.

“Rasmus…” Kaia pressed.

Without a word, he pushed past her towards the men gathering themselves. They went slowly, stunned, casually getting to their feet while checking their bodies for injury.

The little girl barely moved with him as Rasmus rushed aimlessly forward, arm outstretched until she let herself jerk around.

“What happened here?” he asked his sister without looking back. She didn’t answer.

The empty streets astounded him. No villagers came out. He turned. Kaia had vanished from sight.

Two of the crimson cloaks headed back for the church, leaving only one to help the injured man to his feet. Rasmus dropped the little girl’s hand.

“Stay here,” he muttered.

Rasmus jogged to the fallen. He felt his limp dragging him down, wheeling him closer to the ground as he slammed his weight on it.

The child did as she was told, blonde hair floating in the breeze, uncertain eyes lingering on the timid people as they began to peek their heads from their shelters. Men appeared from the half-standing rooms, pouring down the temple steps. Monks and families filed from a house far down the street. The holy men went straight for the injured, propping them up.

People gaped at their church, the leaning tower now leaning more—much, much more—the panels molting off. A man wandered to the back and glanced at the side. His curious, emotionless demeanor snapped. He quaked with a gasp, biting onto his fist. Others pursued, and soon grim faces gaped at what had become of their beautiful building.

When Rasmus went to lift someone to his feet, his knee almost buckled. Blood oozed from his wounds at the pressure. His shirt was already drenched, though he couldn’t feel a wound that could cause so much red.

There was a cry.

With a loud, painful sob, a woman bolted from the crowd of approaching gawkers. She barreled forward, arms open, tears running into her laughing mouth. Before the little girl could move, she was swept up.

Kaia circumvented the wandering crowd, taking a good mental note of the father of the abandoned child. His face was not anywhere the same as the mother’s: a chagrined frown below his disbelieving eyes.

Kaia observed him unabashed. Even as his head rose up and his gaze rotated towards her, she waited a moment before turning briskly away.

Two injured crimson cloaks were carried across the church’s threshold, taken to the side that still stood easily, though the monks eyed their ceilings very carefully.

Rasmus stopped at the top of the steps as they left. Kaia walked up.

“Are they alright?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Where did you find her?”

“She was in the forest.”

She paused. “Just in the forest?”

“Protected by an ogre and a man-eating bush.”

She smiled. “Man-eating? I hadn’t seen one of those since that sick carnival.”

He smiled faintly. “Oh, you haven’t seen one like this at all. I said bush, not plant.”

“How does a bush eat someone?”

“Magic,” he said to irk her. “Did I mention the part about the ogre?”

She frowned. “How do you know it was an ogre?”

“What talks like one and bleeds like one must be one.”

“You’ve never seen one before.”

He shrugged, finally turning to spy the crowd forming around the child and the hysterical mother. He said nothing, just continued to watch.

It had taken some time for the horde to find curiosity in the mother’s hysteria, already lost in their own panic. Rasmus didn’t move, nothing fazing him as slowly more and more people began to realize the sobs were more than a response to the church.

“Rasmus,” Kaia said finally, touching his shoulder. “If that’s really the girl, then maybe we should…”

Rasmus shrugged her off. The father had his eyes on them. It was not a look of gratitude. Not even one of hatred. When Kaia stared into the gaze of the man who had found his long-lost daughter, all he could see was suspicion.

Well, at least that she could understand.

His rigid shoulders swayed like a bulldog as the father marched towards them. People hunched over and huddled around the mother-and-daughter-bond slightly lifted their heads to see where he was headed. Kaia noted their expressions and met some glossy grimness amongst the neighbors.

“You brought her back?” the man demanded.

Rasmus wasn’t stupid. The father held his expressions at bay, intentionally muddling his true feelings. If he wanted to come off as grateful, he was failing. But Rasmus tended to abide to one rule when it came to being intimated. He played dumb.

“It was nothing,” he said.

“Where did you find her?”

Kaia rarely saw her brother attempting to read people. It seemed he didn’t even care to. He could be struck dumb, could choose his words carefully or not trust his eyes, but to actually peer up into someone’s face like he did at that moment, squinting in attempts to understand, it was an odd look for him.

“In the middle of the woods. Where I was told, by a strange voice, that little girls disappeared into the forest frequently.”

The man’s scowl deepened. “There are no other missing girls.”

His voice was low, almost a catlike growl.

Rasmus cocked his head, prodding the man. “No other villages nearby?”

“Not close enough for these woods. What voices are talking to you?”

“You’ve never heard them?” Rasmus faced the crowd of now gaping people. “None of you? You’ve all been in the woods and you don’t know what goes on in there?”

“We know better than to be stupid enough to go alone. What the hell were you doing in there?”

“Looking for your daughter.”

“My daughter was long gone! She was taken by the woods. You had no right—”

“Well someone had to do it!”

The two men fumed, heat crashing between them and striking nearby onlookers until they had to turn away. Kaia bit her lip, struggling to come up with an interruption.

No one seemed willing to get involved. As Kaia searched their faces, she found their expressions muddled, conflicted. The attack had left them shaken, the girl’s return surprised and confused. Against her expectations, no one seemed mad, but only the mother showed a glimmer of relief.

“Aren’t you happy,” Rasmus whispered, “to have your daughter back? Maybe you should tell her that.”

The girl’s mother flinched, but the child herself just looked onward with glossed over eyes, fascinated in the exchange, no more hurt by it than she was the destruction of the church the two men stood on.

“You don’t have any idea what you’ve done,” the father said. “What if those things come after her? What if they bring more than just the ooze!”

“You can’t blame that on her!”

“I’m blaming it on you.”

Rasmus stepped back, jaw slack. He recovered.

“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? I saved your daughter. Something which none of you were willing to even try. I brought her back from the dead… your wife is sobbing with joy, and all you can do is claim I brought this on you?! Your village has been in danger since before we arrived. Our friend Henrick was destroyed by whatever it is that’s got you in its thrall. You claim to have brought a demon to your church, and you were stupid enough to think you could have kept it.”

“And we could have!” the man roared. “If your damn sister hadn’t led the ooze right to where he was!”

Rasmus sought Kaia’s denial. She raised her shoulders.

“We all saw it,” the father insisted. “We saw her running into the church. We know that she has an infatuation with that creature.”

Rasmus’s head snapped back. “Still. Your village is in danger. We came here to help you. If bringing back your daughter has doomed you, then maybe it’s even more important you tell us what’s going on.”

“Tell you what?” the father demanded.

“What happened to your children!”

A symphony came from the intake of air, several people gasping in disgust and shock. The man stiffened. His face had gone a bright shade of red. Fists clenched, jaw tight, he was incapable of speech.

No one stepped in to help. No one argued. Kaia scanned their faces, each pale and horrified. The mother stood still over her daughter, eyes flicking from the blonde stranger to her husband. She knelt, weight on the top of her toes, almost ready to run.

The large man finally managed words. “What are you saying? You saying I had something to do with this?”

“Something is going on,” Rasmus said. “And I think you know exactly what it is.”

“Get out.”

Rasmus stepped back. “What?”

“Leave town. Take that horrid sister of yours and leave. Go while we’re giving you a chance. You saved my girl and so I am giving you this one mercy. You two are not innocent in this, but I will let you go before the townspeople have their say. Run.”

Kaia launched forward, words on the tip of her tongue, when Rasmus’s hand seized her wrist. She jerked back in complete shock, but his face was serious. He did not look at her, but instead nodded once. He jerked her down the steps off towards the inn.

“Rasmus, wait a minute,” she whispered as they barreled out of earshot. “You can’t possibly want to go. We haven’t—”

“I got the girl back,” he said flatly. “Henrick is the Hunters’ problem now. If you really did release that demon…” He gave her a hard look. She raised her brows in affirmation. “Then we need to get out of here before they notice we’re gone.”

“Since when do you abandon people in need?” she demanded.

“Since the moment they stopped being people.”

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The Girl in the Woods Part I | The Girl in the Woods II | The Girl in the Woods III | The Girl in the Woods IV | The Girl in the Woods V | The Girl in the Woods VI | The Girl in the Woods VII | VIII | The Girl in the Woods IX
To Be Continued

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