Chapter 6

Dryden sat at the kitchen table, facing Monilia, with his parents on either side. Utensils scraped against plates while they ate in silence. Rain battered the roof as if the house were a drum played by the sky. The downpour hadn’t stopped in the three days since he had killed the monster in Bonial Woods.

His fork slipped from his grip, and dropped to the floor with a clang. He glanced at Monilia, who watched him with pursed lips. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“I’m fine.” Dryden leaned over to pick up the fork, but a deluge of pain expounded through his temples. A tightness seized his ribs. He sat up, nauseated by the sudden movement.

“You look pale,” noted Monilia.

Dryden tried shaking his head in denial, only to freeze as his brain rattled inside his skull. “It’s nothing.” He clutched the bandage wrapped around his forehead. The house seemed unbearably bright.

Flint stooped to reclaim the lost fork. Dryden took it from him, though his stiff fingers could barely hold on. The incident in Bonial Woods had prompted him to drape his hands in several layers of dense cloth. It left him with little dexterity, though clumsy fingers were far from his main concern. The gems in his palms hadn’t stopped glowing since he felled the monster, something he couldn’t help worrying about. He feared his hands might be entering another stage of development—a prospect that spelled more sleepless nights tormented by growing pains.

I don’t want to go through that again. Why can’t these scars just heal or disappear?

As he jabbed a piece of meat, he nearly lost grip on his fork again. He checked his parents’ reaction. Flint looked lost in thought; Liliana poked at her food with a stern line across her brow. The two had been strangely quiet ever since Flint stowed the monster’s head inside the shed. Even the livestock seemed unnerved by its presence. They kept as far away as possible, as if the carcass radiated a driving force akin to an evil spirit.

Janir’s words still hovered on the edge of Dryden’s mind. He had kept his promise so far, but the secret ate at his conscience without stop. Those foreign men were hiding in Byromar’s forests, just as he’d been told. No doubt, that was one of their monsters he killed. Had the foreigners watched from hiding as he tore its head off? Did they follow them out of the forest? If they killed Sargan, would he and Flint be next?

A knock came from outside, startling him from his thoughts. He forgot that Flint had invited Martron to look at the monster’s head tonight.

His father’s chair grated against the floor as he rushed to open the front door. Martron stepped in, dripping wet and shivering. “Good evening, everyone.”

Liliana leapt to her feet. “Martron, you’re soaked right through! Sit down by the fireplace. Monilia will make a fire to warm you up. Don’t worry about making a mess.”

Martron dismissed the offer with a trembling hand. “I appreciate your kindness, but there’s no need to bother yourself. I don’t have much time to spare today.”

Liliana stood with her back tensed, like a hostess awaiting orders. “Can I get you a dry cloak or something?”

Martron sucked air through his teeth and shivered. “Yes, I wouldn’t mind that. Thank you.”

As Liliana scurried by in search of spare clothes, Dryden eased away from the table, and joined Flint and Martron with slow, groggy steps. Once the mayor had been fitted, they ventured into the relentless downpour, where gusts of wind slapped Dryden’s hair against his face. Thick raindrops struck with a gelid force, seemingly augmented by Zaltoras’s melancholy, sea-foam girth.

They hurried to the shed, away from the chill of the rain. Flint unbolted the door, and as he flung it open, the stench of death assailed them with enough strength to knock a horse off its feet.

Dryden buried his nose beneath his shirt, nauseous once more. Flint lit a lantern before shutting the door behind them. The flames cast dancing reflections off the glossy sheen of the monster’s shell. Beneath it, the wooden boards had been drained of their colour, as if the creature had leaked poison rather than blood. As he scanned the surroundings, Dryden noticed the whole interior appeared rather languid. He didn’t recall the walls looking so ramshackle.

Hand cupped over his mouth, Martron neared the monster’s head, his brows knitted together as he examined it. “I’ve never seen something like this in my life. Where could it have come from?”

Flint slapped the head with an open palm. A cluster of flies leapt away from its rotting eye. “All I know is we look awfully naïve for mocking Herthrim. Dragons don’t seem like such a farfetched myth now.”

Martron ran a finger along the shell, then recoiled as if it had stung him. “It must’ve been colossal.”

“Much bigger than a horse,” replied Flint, “and claws about this long.”

He held out his hands in measurement. Martron looked between him and the monster, one hand now plugging his nose, the other scratching his scalp. “We have to do something. Most of the townsfolk couldn’t protect themselves against a fox. We’re in serious danger if there’s more than one of these.”

While the two discussed options, Dryden’s thoughts veered back to Janir. Why did he want to keep the monsters a secret? Martron ought to know those foreigners are plotting something. Despite the nagging guilt, Janir’s request had a strange certainty to it. His words carried their own indescribable sway, one with the weight of a prophet or judge.

“What do you think, Dryden?”

Flint’s voice pulled him from his thoughts. He looked at the two men, scrambling to decide whether he ought to keep his promise or not.

His father cast him a scrutinizing glance. “Well?”

Dryden’s face soured. Sorry, Janir. Martron needs to know. “I spoke to Janir after the meeting,” he said, his composure somewhat timorous. “He told me that foreigners are hiding all over Byromar’s forests, and the ones staying at the inn are only a decoy. He never mentioned what they were planning, but he says they’re responsible for Sargan’s death, and that they also have many more monsters with them.”

He felt a little disappointed with Flint and Martron’s reaction. Both stared at him with mild skepticism, and even milder intrigue.

“I’m not sure I can really trust what Janir says,” murmured Martron. “I don’t think his mind is—how do I say it—well-tended.”

A mix of embarrassment and irritation warmed Dryden’s cheeks. “Who else can we ask, then? I agree Janir is a little strange, but our only other source is Gravenir, and he won’t open his mouth. If we keep waiting, and if Janir is speaking the truth, someone else might get killed.”

“I know,” said Martron. “But remember, we can’t say the foreigners and this monster are related without evidence.”

Dryden’s shoulders drooped. “So you don’t believe Janir at all?”

Martron shook his head. “Did you see anything that would’ve proved he was right? Ashes from a campfire, footprints, anything of that sort?”

“We found Sargan’s hand near the perimeter of the forest, but the monster was far below, close to the ravine in the centre. It couldn’t have killed him then traveled as far as it did without leaving a trail.”

Flint nodded. “I noticed that as well.”

“But no signs of humans?” asked Martron.

Flint and Dryden both remained silent. The mayor looked them over, then let out a sigh. “I don’t mean to discredit either of you, but I can’t risk saying anything that’ll cause a stir. Nothing will frighten the people more than monsters and men working together. Besides, the foreigners—as of right now—haven’t done enough to deserve suspicion. If I try to remove them from Byromar, they could fight back, and it would turn into a real mess. I’d have to travel to Feldamor to have a trial, and with no clear proof they’re involved in anything, I’d never win. The best thing I can do is stay quiet and keep watch over them.”

Dryden looked at the monster’s head. The eye stared back at him, half-eaten by maggots, but still emanating with coarse energy. Even among the decay, it seemed ready to lunge at him any moment. He longed for Martron’s approval to burn it, so they could rid themselves of the gloomy aura it projected over the farm.

The mayor continued speaking, eyes pinched shut as if his own words frustrated him. “Nevertheless, I’m going to request a dozen soldiers from Feldamor. We need to check the other forests to see if there really are more monsters, but I’m not comfortable sending untrained men again. We don’t need more death.”

“I wouldn’t go anyway,” answered Flint. “One scare is enough for me.”

Martron gave a dry chuckle. “I don’t blame you.”

“Do we have to keep the head any longer?” asked Dryden.

Martron waved a hand. “Get rid of it as soon as possible. It looks like the blood is eating away your floor.”

He opened the door. A staunch breeze barged in, sending shivers down Dryden’s arms and throwing strands of hay into the air. The rain flew sideways now. It struck with the tenacity of barbed hooks. The house’s rickety shutters whirred open, then clapped shut with each gust. Old siding clung desperately to the frame.

They scampered inside, where Monilia had started a fire. Liliana approached them with three steaming mugs in her grip. “Can I get you something to eat?” she asked the mayor.

Martron held out a hand. “Thank you, but I must decline. I told my wife I’d race home as quickly as possible. It’d be thoughtless of me to keep her waiting.”

Liliana wrinkled her nose in protest. “Your cloak is still wet. You should stay until it’s dried a bit.”

“It’ll only get wet again. But thank you for your concern.”

Monilia took the cloak from a rack set up beside the fireplace. She brought it to Martron with an emphatic frown. “You really ought to stay. You’ll catch a cold wearing that.”

The mayor smiled. “It’s not too far of a ride.”

He moved for the exit before anyone could argue further. “Thank you for the hospitality, Liliana. And thank you for showing me the monster, Flint. It’s given me plenty to think about.”

“Let me know if you hear anything noteworthy,” said Flint.

Martron nodded. Rain slipped through the front door as he stepped outside and departed. Silence fell over the house with the click of the latch, interrupted only by the muffled howling of wind.

“What did he think?” Monilia asked after a time.

“I’m not too sure,” answered Flint. “He said he’s going to bring some soldiers from Feldamor to check the other forests.”

Liliana made a low, disgruntled noise. “He should’ve done that right away. I don’t know how you five managed to survive.”

Flint chuckled. “You had that little faith in us?”

Liliana crossed her arms. “I’m serious. You’re not warriors. Martron needs to deal with this properly before anyone else gets killed. Byromar isn’t capable of handling a monster infestation.”

Flint’s smile faded. “Soldiers will definitely bring some comfort, but for all we know, that could’ve been the only monster. We don’t need to worry too much.”

Liliana gave a quiet murmur. Her gaze fell to the steam rising from the mugs. “Do you think Sargan knew something?”

Flint tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

“Everyone knows to stay away from Bonial Woods, so why would he go there? Maybe he knew about the monster, and thought he could drive it out himself.”

“It’s hard to say,” mused Flint. “Nobody seems to know what convinced him to go in there, not even Bevera.”

Liliana took a long breath. “We’re dismissing his death too quickly. A monster may have eaten him, but it was no accident. I think he was chasing it. If only we knew what happened.”

Flint rested his hand on Liliana’s arm. “Speculating can only get us so far. But don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen. I’m going to work with Martron until this situation has blown over.”

Liliana looked up. Her expression softened. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”

Flint grinned. “I have one more stupid plan.” He turned to Dryden. “Tomorrow, we’re going to have a talk with Gravenir.”