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Wolf's Bane

Chapter Text

         “Take the next four months off. Go home before you have an aneurysm.”

 

         Well, that was one way to tell him to take time off—just shove it into his hands like some hot coal and expect him to know what to do with it.

         He growled, feeling his foot push harder onto the gas pedal. There was a jolt as the car sped.

         It didn’t matter—the faster he got to his destination the less time had to spend being angry at people hundreds of miles away.

         At the very least they’d tried lying to him—given him a half-assed assignment someone’s pulled out of the air because they knew he’d never take time off willingly. So they’d made some up some stuff about investigating a little town in the middle of fuck-all-nowhere for a fake case.

 

         He pushed the pedal a little harder.

 

         Whatever. He didn’t care.

 

         Yellow signs became fluorescent blurs in the dark, flying past. The line of trees against the night sky was a black haze, the bright full moon giving his surroundings a sort of blurred glow. The only thing that didn’t distort was his headlights.

         He drove in silence—he hadn’t been in this direction in a while, and though he knew the stations around there, the idea of listening to those same stations again hurt. He didn’t carry music on him either—he didn’t have time to peruse the music playlists and the mixtapes or whatever they were called now.

         His eyes flickered to the speedometer, whose needle danced cautiously past the middle of the gauge. He reduced the tension in his leg and frowned. He eventually let a long sigh out, reducing his speed further and further. He didn’t know the speed limit, having driven by all the markers too fast to read them, so he took a good guess as to what the crappy hill road would allow and hoped for the best.

         It was somewhere after midnight he saw the light from town, almost glowing with its streetlights and the moon’s reflected off the lake. Most of the approaching beams were neon signs from whatever was open, and the streetlights. The town still had orange lights that illuminated everything and nothing all at once, accomplishing the feeling of terror when you were home alone late at night, and the light from those eerie lamps drifted through the windows. The feeling of being able to see in the dark, but not really.

         He was exhausted from driving all day, but needed to find himself a place to park or break down and actually go home .

 

         “Go home, Sir.”

 

         Pah. Sir .

         It’d stopped being home a while ago.

 

         He settled for searching out a motel—things had changed since when he was young, but only a little. The motel he remembered, the one he passed by on hazy summer afternoons, was gone—in a way. Aged—chipped paint on the back mixed with fresh paint upfront, mismatched old and new roof tiles. The sign was still the same, though. Still a pale, powder blue and white.

         “Little late, ain’t it?” the owner said, raising an eyebrow. She seemed skeptical, but also like she was trying to figure out if she knew him. She was familiar; something about the face. Did he know her from somewhere or was he just that tired?

 

         He made a noise of confirmation, grunting something like a “yes” and then passed over his money. She handed him his key and he left without another word.

 

         When he got to his cot he’d thrown his stuff into a corner, kicked off his boots, slipped off his leg, and flopped into bed with a resounding thud. It was three in the morning.

         Despite his exhaustion, he had trouble falling asleep. The neon light outside his room bothered him, blaring and red. His room smelled like bleach and Windex. He was used to mostly poor sleeping conditions (if anything he was grateful the place was clean), but the situation was aggravated by the fact he was “home.”

         He wasn’t. He was just back where he’d been, and when they’d said “see you in four months Ornstein!” it felt like a slap in the face.

         He grumbled and flipped around the bed to stare at the ceiling. The paper was just like you’d expect from a cheap motel—peeling a little at the edges, and there were a few mysterious stains that made him wonder. Some sort of old floral pattern, while not unpleasant, but made him feel like he’d gone back in time.

         He tried to sleep, trying to find silence, but some machine flicked on next door or outside or somewhere and made a droning, low humming sound.

         It was going to be a long four months.

 

 

         He was up by ten, beams of sunlight through the cracks in the blinds and all: This was, for him, catastrophically late. When his eyes registered the time on the clock he’d leapt out of bed and scrambled to get ready.

         He may as well danced into a different pair of jeans the way he kicked his legs around while trying to button on a shirt, then landing right on his ass having forgotten in his morning daze he was kind of missing something, like his prosthetic for example.

 

         “Good lord!” he cursed, tied the laced of his boots and ran out the door after he had grabbed his jacket.

 

         Well, Breakfast was certainly over, so he’d have to go elsewhere. He grumbled and racked his brain—he hadn’t been in town in years for never more than a day, and he wasn’t sure where all the stores and diners were or if they’d be open (it being Sunday, because the town had aged a day since the thirties, apparently.) He could always buy some eggos’ and call it breakfast, but that seemed a poor way to start the day and the precedent for the next few months.

         He flicked through his wallet, making faces at it the entire time.

 

         “Well… I could have… less… money” he closed it swiftly. He’d just have to be careful until he could round up more cash.

 

         He would like to think that those back the station would value him enough to pay him more, but such was not the case.

         Eggos it was.

 

         He settled for walking towards the nearest store. Town wasn’t exactly big and he didn’t feel like driving.

         Part of him (most of him) wished that everything was still the same as when he was young, and that part was very disappointed as the store had been bought off and renamed.

         He puffed air out his nose, staring at the front door for a moment and walked in.

 

         He must have looked like a mess, because when he’d stepped in heads turned. Was he that messy? He hadn’t taken any time to groom because he wanted breakfast—was that too much to ask?

         He ignored the eyes, taking a basket. For some (stupid) reason it was opposite where it used to be. The store was still aligned in the same rows, but the things on the rows had changed, so he wandered around like an idiot for a few minutes before he picked up his box of eggos and an apple. A balanced breakfast, or something.

         He walked towards the register carefully, trying to avoid the “murder you” look but ended looking twice and stiff and anxious, so more “just murdered someone.” He wasn’t nervous, but it came down to Ornstein not knowing how to act normal. Too much had happened where he was to act ‘normal.’

 

         “Is that all you’re purchasing for today, sir? – oh, sorry, officer.” The cashier corrected with a smile.

 

         Officer? Oh, right. His jacket. It had the pin and patch and everything—his father’s jacket but his pin. His patches too, but he wasn’t the one who’d sewn them in.

         He paid for his breakfast and left, ready to walk back to his temporary station and warm up the eggos. He was starving , and all he wanted to do was rip his prosthetic off with all the tingly pain that was in his stump at the moment. He’d neglected to massage it like he was supposed to, and wear the compression bandages, but he was hungry.

 

         “Wait!” someone behind him called.

 

         Ornstein jumped, nearly tossing his food into the air, but instead was met by wide eyes, and a weird—almost confused—smile, “Are you Ornstein?”

 

         Ornstein stared at the woman, who was now in front of him—she must have been in her thirties, but young looking. She had long, bright red hair and a lot of makeup, with eyes that were bright like the sun and her clothes flow-y and angled towards the warmer color spectrum. She looked normal, if not tall—as tall as he was, and that was without the heels.

         Despite her otherwise normal appearance, something was strange. The way the sun’s early morning light interacted with her skin was odd, as though they hesitated to meet. It wasn’t setting off any alarms, but he noted it. It may have just been her makeup, not that he would really know.

 

         “Yes, who are you?’ he asked, perhaps a bit gruffly. He really wanted those eggos.

         “Oh, you probably don’t remember me,” she laughed, “my father? Gwyn?”

 

         A surge went through him for a moment—fear, curiosity. He did his best to stay neutral, but he was certain it showed.

 

         “Oh, yes I do know him. How is he?” he asked, trying to not act like a robot, but he wasn’t fully capable of right thought, focused on his swirling thoughts. It’d been so long since he’d talked about Gwyn, let alone seen him.

         “Oh he’s well. Nothing too terrible happens here, after all.” She laughed again, reaching out her hand, but she didn’t touch him.

 

         Ornstein laughed a little too, but not the same way.

 

         “Well, I won’t keep you from whatever you’re up to. If you ever want to get in contact then you know where to go!” She may as well have sung, then walked off with a wave.

 

         He did know where Gwyn lived, but it did feel weird he was being invited without actually being invited. He hadn’t even asked her name—he did know it of course, but he felt there was a lot of confidence in her presumption that hadn’t been evident last time he and she spoke.

         That was a while ago, though.

         Well, at least Gwynevere left him so he could go make breakfast, though upon reflection the eggos and the apple looked a bit pitiful.

 

         Eh. Oh well. Eggos were good and so were apples.

 


 

 

         Well, he’d done the first few things he set out for:

 

         First, he signed in with the local police station so that when he offered a warrant or was somewhere he probably shouldn’t have been, or performing weird burial rights, he wouldn’t get arrested (again.) Last time that happened he was stuck in jail for three days when his chief finally showed up laughing her ass off. He did not think it was funny.

         Second, he contacted his supervisor, discreetly. He found the nearest payphone, surprised that it was still on the corner between the gas station and the library, dialed and waited for someone to pick up. Once again, he got weird looks—not that he wasn’t aware he stuck out like a sore thumb.

         He decided to just leave a message, though he phrased it carefully.

         Third, he left to find his contacts. There were actually a few other agents there with him, though they were all retirees their experience was invaluable. That, and it’d be nice to talk to someone.

 

         He marked off his list, and left his leg back his room, pulling his crutches out of the trunk of his car. He tied the top of his pant leg off and started for the center of town. The ache went away, for a moment, and he did massage the stump like he was supposed to, or whatever.

         Ornstein made his way down the main boulevard—it was mostly businesses, with apartments on top. It was basically the same as he remembered, besides a few aesthetic changes—a few new things, a few old things with a new coat of paint, but mostly just old things. None of the buildings themselves really changed, just what showed in the windows and the exact what of what was being sold.

         He stopped by his favorite ice-cream store, though, which was on the corner of the intersection. It was old even when he was young, those hazy summer afternoons, but it was comfortable. There was no rot to it, and perhaps the imagery was a bit old and the colors faded now, but once garish. He liked it.

         Ornstein squinted at the list of ice-cream on the chalkboard, scratching his chin while he waited in line. Well, he could always get vanilla, but perhaps he was feeling a bit adventurous, and a treat sounded nice for as bad of a mood he was in to be in town for more than a day.

         The stuff with the chocolate crumble sounded good, maybe, but he was a sucker for cookie dough, but perhaps he should have tried something new—

         Some very tiny hand tugged on his pant leg and he turned his head.

 

         “Where’s your leg?”

 

         He blinked twice, “Excuse me?”

         “Oh my goodness!” some shrill voiced and embarrassed grandparent gasped, running over and pulling away the child, who maybe four or five, “I am so sorry!”

         “It’s fine, really—”

         “Apologize this instant!” they said to the child, who didn’t even know what they were apologizing for but did so anyway.

         “—No no its fine, really.”

 

         He decided to go with the cookie dough, after all, putting his crutches aside for the moment and taking a seat on a bench not so far away.

         He took the time to first, enjoy his ice-cream, and second, sort out his assignment. It certainly wasn’t to take four months to conclude his investigation—there were probably only going to be a few minor anomalies or perhaps evidence that something strange had been happening at one point in the past and had since been taken care of, died on its own, or left.

         It certainly seemed like it, though, sitting there. He could almost pass of as normal—missing a leg, sure, but plenty of people were missing legs.

         He was just some guy missing a leg, on a pleasant summer morning. Most of the kids were still in school, so it was only really young children around with their parents. Everyone was enjoying the sunshine—the sky was a vivid blue, dotted with puffy but solid clouds. Since spring had just ended, the air wasn’t stiff with heat nor damp with humidity, yet. Everything was colored with a flat sort of light, making the shadows seem plain, but everything else almost glow. It was a hazy sort of warm light, pleasant and fresh, almost like an old photo.

         He could imagine the jealous highschoolers and even more jealous middleschoolers because their seniors got out a week early. He could imagine the youngest ones staring out the windows starry eyed and waiting for the bell to ring in however many hours. He knew this, because he was familiar with it once a very long time ago.

         The sense of normalcy was almost pleasing, but there was something that made him feel like he was faking.

         Well, at least he was going to be here over the summer—not that there was much to do besides maybe get a job in the meantime, or something. He didn’t even know if this was a paid unofficial vacation.

         Grumbling to himself slightly, he threw out his napkins, crossed the street, and made his way to the apartment side of the boulevard, turning the corner down a one-way street that was riddled with pot holes.

         Getting up the stairs was a nightmare—they were almost too narrow for his crutches, so he had to pinch them under his armpits and hop up one step at a time and hope he didn’t fall backwards, until he finally reached the second floor to safety.

         He dug into his pocket, pulled out a slip of paper that’d gone soft from being crumpled and uncrumpled so many times, and made his way to 205. Ornstein waited at the door after buzzing, but he didn’t wait long.

         The door opened up to a chest—a very recognizable chest, but a chest indeed.

 

         “Hello?” Gough asked, pushing his dark sunglasses up a little bit to squint at him, “Oh my goodness! Ornstein, you’re here!”

 

         Before Ornstein could say much more, he was hooked around the neck and pulled in, while Gough’s other hand stretched out and navigated the wall.

         And then he was seated on Gough’s couch with a mug of coffee in his hands.

 

         Gough’s apartment felt awfully small for how big Gough was, but Gough didn’t seem to mind, as far as Ornstein knew. He supposed that made sense—being almost completely blind would make him wary of big rooms, but Ornstein wasn’t blind so he’d never be sure.

         It was a little space, reminding him of a college dorm in some ways—one half was the kitchen, the other half a small living room. The doorway leading out of the living room went to a small bathroom and Gough’s bedroom. There was a little divider between the kitchen, which had a decent sized fridge, a stove, and microwave, and old toaster, and a counter top, with a sink that had the trashcan under it: all the pots and pans and plates and such were in the cupboards above everything else, and the silverware was divided up with the plastic containers in three drawers of the countertop.

         The living room was a little bigger; with a table opposite the door, covered with things, and a couch against the divider between the kitchen. Across the couch was an old TV—big and boxy, and it still had a VHS player hooked up to boot. The TV was facing out diagonally, and there were two boxy chairs that were pushed together to make something like a second couch or like a tub with fabric on the inside.

         He noticed something sort of cute—on the divider were a few little plants, like tiny trees. Little cypresses, maybe.

 

         “What’re these, little trees?” he asked, looking at them.

         Gough looked up, “oh, they’re sort of like bonsai trees. I would’ve gotten a cactus but those hurt,” he laughed heartily.

         Ornstein didn’t know what the joke was, so instead of trying to fake laugh he took a sip from his mug.

         “How have you been?” he asked, after a little while.

         Gough hummed, considering. There was something like a smile on his face, but more contemplative. “Not bad, I don’t think. I get a nice check every five weeks, so most of my bills are taken care of. I sell wood carvings on the side if I feel like anything special, but otherwise it’s been pretty relaxed.”

         Ornstein hummed, nodding.

         “Did they assign you a new partner yet?” Gough asked thoughtfully.

         “Nope.” Ornstein answered a bit quick. They did, and it didn’t work out.

         Gough didn’t push though, and instead sort of nodded and closed his eyes behind his glasses, looking away.

         “They at least give you a new leg?” Gough scoffed.

         “Yeah, but it’s a pain in the ass.”

         “Pain in the knee, more like it.”

 

         Ornstein chuffed, smiling and taking another sip. He didn’t really like coffee, but he had been offered. That and Gough added a lot of sugar and milk, not needing to ask.

They both sat in silence for a while, trying to come up with things to say other than what wanted to be said.

         Gough knew why he was there. Gough knew why they’d given him a prosthetic. Gough knew why they’d retired him , Ornstein knew too. Gough probably knew Ornstein didn’t like being there, and that Gough was probably the only person he’d talk to the entire month, or however long he was going to be there.

         (What Ornstein did not know was that Gough did not plan this to be the case.)

 

         “So what are you going to do while you’re here? Besides mope?” Gough smiled a sort of sneaky smile, a little smug.

         “Tsh, I do not mope ,” Ornstein huffed.

         Gough hummed, “Not the Ornstein I knew, then—I remember when you moped for three weeks when your favorite radio series ended.”

         Ornstein scoffed, cheeks pinkening a little.

         “It was not moping. I was rightfully sad. The ending was miserable.”

         “I know, I was there.”

         Ornstein huffed again, taking another sip of the coffee that was mostly milk and sugar.

         The feeling washed over again. Lonely, but close. The feeling was almost tangible, between them.

 

         “I gotta start work soon, but would you mind if I came over every so often?”

         “Of course, you’re welcome to. Oh—before you leave,” Gough got up and took something from the pile of things on the table, flipping through papers and files and other things Gough didn’t know where to put.

         “This is my number here, if you need to call. I don’t know how much I can help you with your investigation or if you just want to talk…” Gough left out something—that much was obvious.

         Ornstein took the paper, folding it four times and slid it into his jacket. He smiled that sort of knowing smile, pushing his lips up and nodding. A thin smile, almost not one.

 

         “Thank you for the coffee. I’ll uh—I’ll be back this time.”

Chapter Text

            To an outside observer, he’d seem very hungover—which would warrant him a day off, or at least time to sleep in.

            But unfortunately the night prior was not the kind of night that would be spoken as a crazy, bacchanal experience he could remember fondly. In fact, he remembered nothing at all. It was like being black-out drunk, except with yet more dangerous uncertainty.

            This was typical, however. Expected, even.

            The bathroom floor was relaxingly cool, and he was glad that the early-morning-him had enough thought to lay down on the fuzzy mat.

            Artorias rubbed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was still in an enormous amount of aching pain—the last thing he needed to do was try and throw up.

            Not that that didn’t stop him from doing so.

 

            “Ugh, give me a warning next time Artorias, god” a familiar voice grimaced.

            He’d say something sassy were in not for his dry-heaving which stole whatever energy returned to him during the few hours he’d been asleep.         

            Something touched his back, and he figured it was a foot. “You done?”

            “For the month, yes” he replied blearily, flipping over onto his back again.

            A cloth fell on his face, damp, cold, and relieving. “Thanks, Ciaran.”

            She made some sort of sound in recognition, humming a reply, then walking away.

           

            “Just don’t forget you have work” she called, and the door opened and closed with a creak.

 

            After laying there for a while, he finally sat up. Well, at least this time he’d made it inside the house. There were a few times he’d woken up miles away with no clue as to where he was, or that one time he was on top of the library—or when he woke up in the middle of of the old baseball field. Both were very confusing.

            The morning routine was as usually followed—the post-lunar ritual, as it was known, where immediately after feeling physically and mentally terrible, he felt overall awful and then also starving.

            It was frustrating in much the way many mundane things were—like when the door got stuck in the little tube of pellets to keep the heat in, or when a pair of scissors is bought that requires being opened with a pair of scissors, or when the sock he was missing turned up right after he threw out the other one—but not mundane at all. Ordinary only for him, he supposed—and others like him.

            It was toast for the time being, buttered minimally as there was very little to go around. Ciaran had left the calendar on the table very purposefully—circled in red was the date, highlighted in blue to show it had been Artorias’s turn to do the shopping that week—which he had neglected to do.

            He’d pair breakfast, however pitiful, with coffee, but certain foods and drinks would not stay down for the next day or so. Also frustrating, but it was just a fact of life.

            After breakfast, he showered and put on clean clothes, throwing the half-torn and muddy pants into the bin that smelled very strongly of blood and pine.

            After cleaning up post-nightly excursion, he almost seemed ready for the day. The sun came through the windows pleasantly, un-blinding after a pure white winter. Sort of flat, a little pale, but nice. Summer was just almost there, through a few more cloudy days and rainstorms.

            He slid on his prosthetic hand, the laminated wood in need of a little attention, but in good condition. It always sort of made him feel like a pirate, with the hook at the end, but he wasn’t made of money, so he wasn’t going to buy anything fancy, and it served its purpose. Those realistic prosthetics looked nice, but there wasn’t much he could do with one besides stopped getting asked about when/how he lost his hand.

            He’d gotten quite good at tying up his hair with one hand, and with that he left; walking across the street, down the sidewalk just a building away to the restaurant.

            Well, restaurant seemed a little too fancy. Diner, more like it, but it served its purpose. Ciaran was in charge—she did a lot of greeting for when the place was serving an event, or she was prepping the more complex stuff. Ingward did a lot of cooking though, too. Dusk was one of two waiters, the other being someone new—a fellow named Oscar—and Artorias washed dishes. He liked to, because it meant he could listen to music, and not look at anyone besides those who were in the kitchen. There were a few other employees, but they tended to be more temporary, leaving within a year or so. Sometimes it was a bit saddening, other times he was glad, but mostly left him indifferent.

 

            “Er—Dusk is out today, so we’re down a server. Think you can handle waiting tables?” Oscar asked.

            “I suppose.”

            “You don’t look so good…”

            He shrugged, but the hand that returned to his side balled up. He held back the ‘No shit’ in his throat, but that didn’t stop his expression from darkening some.

            “Alright…” Oscar said, turning around.

            “Don’t scare away my new waiter, Artorias! Unless you want to keep waiting tables” Ciaran shouted, sticking her head through the window that separated the kitchen and the rest of the diner.

            Oscar laughed a little.

            “No, Ciaran” he answered.

            “And stop looking like you got hit by a car. Wake up and smell the roses, you’re at work!”

            “It’s May. Roses don’t bloom for a few more weeks”

            “Don’t get sassy with me.”

            He made a ‘psh’ sound with his lips and left the kitchen with Oscar not so far behind

 

            The day went fairly as expected—which was to say laid back, and a little boring. Travelers came through in the morning, ordering their coffee and breakfast and then heading out the door to wherever they may. A few regulars showed up—Siegmeyer and his daughter, to which he has a nice short chat about the weather, Laurentius, as expected, came around lunch and between coffees they made small talk.

            After lunch, things slowed down to almost a stop. Such was expected, if not boring. It did give the four of them there to talk in the kitchen, however.

            Ciaran dried her hands off her apron. Oscar tried to look like he was doing something, fiddling with the time sheets and the pens. Ingward came back inside from a smoke break, though he always took the time to chat with passersby. Whether or not he actually smoked was not important, as the gossip he brought back in brought a little flavor to an otherwise boring day.

 

            “So, did anyone else hear? There’s some sort of officer in town”

            Oscar looked up from the thing he was ‘occupied’ with, “An officer? Like a police officer or?” he let the question hang.

            Ingward tossed his head back and forth, “Mm, something like that. Checked in at the motel pretty late last night—after midnight.”

            “We were expecting him?” Ciaran asked, leaning back on the metal basin.

            “Can’t say for sure. He checked in at the police station though. Miss Gwynevere seemed to know him.”

            A few eyebrows raised.

            “Perhaps he’s family?” Oscar suggested.

            “I don’t think family would stay at a motel” Ciaran supposed.

            There was a collective nod of consideration.

 

            Artorias let the thought hang for a little while. It wasn’t like anything had happened that the local police couldn’t handle—petty theft probably didn’t warrant anything crazy, and few kids writing on the backs of old buildings didn’t either.

            So he’d probably just leave, and things would settle down. This had happened before—it always ended the same.

 

            About an hour passed before activity resumed.

 

            The bell at the door chimed as the door swung open. Before Artorias was quite aware, Oscar had already rushed over and held it open.

 

            “Thank you” the voice was firm, intimidating if Artorias was younger.

 

            Oscar mumbled something in response.

 

            When he finally reached his eyes he saw a man, perhaps around his age, stepping through—hopping? He had black arm crutches that he used to cross the floor, left pant leg tied off around the knee.

            But Artorias was only distracted for a moment when he looked up from the floor to the man’s face. He wore a very serious expression, with stormy eyes, but there was something pleasant about him. Something familiar, but that he didn’t quite recognize. He was also quite handsome, though that was only until he looked past the scowling—maybe that was just his face, though.

            Oscar walked back, through the door, face pale and gritting his teeth.

 

            “I think he’s going to kill me. Artorias, can you serve him?”

            “Course” he smiled and walked out.

 

            The man had seated himself at the window, flipping through the day menu. He flicked his eyes up only, face still.

            “Good afternoon, I’m Artorias, I’ll be your server for today, what can I get you?” he said, trying to be pleasant but also trying to get this over with.

            The man placed the glossy menu down, “Nice to meet you, and can I just have a cola for now?” he spoke with an unfamiliar accent—tight in the jaw, like he was holding back words with his mouth.

            “Sure, I’ll be back for your order soon.”

 

            The door swung closed, and he let out a sigh.

 

            “Ten out of ten, you looked like you weren’t going to vomit in his face” Ciaran’s face pulled into a smile.

            “Oh I think he did great with our officer friend there” Ingward said, a little sly but a little genuine too.

            “You think that’s him?” Artorias asked.

            “From what I hear” he confirmed.

            “Damn. I have the worst luck”

            “With officers or pretty men?” Ciaran asked from the window.

            “Both.”

            “Why don’t you just ask him?” Ingward said as if it were simple.

            “Well, because I’m at work, mostly—and I’m in my forties. It’s a little late to be asking people on dates.”

            Both Ciaran and Ingward made a ‘psh’ sound with the front of their mouth.

            “What? I’m not exactly in the club scene.”

            Ingward hushed a laugh, “we don’t have a club scene. We have a library and three boutiques. You wouldn’t be able to cut a rug around here even if you wanted to.”

            “I’m gonna be sounding like you soon, old man.”

            Ingward scoffed, “I’m making your food, young man.”

            Ciaran leaned back out the window, either because she was attending to someone or because she decided she was done talking.

            Ingward got a good glance while he pulled a pot of stew out of the oven, turning his head back, “It looks like he’s no spring chicken either there. Worst thing that’ll he’ll say is no.”

            “I’m still at work. Isn’t it a little weird to ask someone out at work?”

            Ingward shrugged with his shoulders, “People don’t have a problem asking Dusk out. Turn the tables a little.”

            Artorias scoffed, finished getting that drink and walked out.

                                               

            The man said nothing, even though Artorias had a feeling he’d been taking a while. He had to come up with something, “Sorry about the wait, just wanted to make sure you had enough time to decide.”

            “Oh—it’s fine.”

            Excellent.

            “Have you decided or do you need another minute?”

            “No, it’s alright.”

            Oh no, he was actually sort of nice—well, the bare minimum of nice. His body language made him think he may have just buried someone in a field, but he did just not throw a fit.

            He looked at his drink for a moment, but said nothing. It crossed Artorias’s mind that when he said “cola” he may have meant soda, and Artorias had left without asking him what he actually wanted.

            They both stood stone still for a second, when the man completed his order and Artorias shuffled away, gave it to Ingward, then dragged himself to another table to try and forget his awkwardness.

            He eventually had to return, however, with food in hand. The man’s glass was empty. They both stared it for a few moments, then at each other, then at it again.

            He put down the plate—a grilled cheese sandwich—and took the glass.

 

            “Do you want something else, it’s free” (it was not free.)

            He saw the first traces of a stutter on the man’s serious face. “A refill, please.”

            He nodded then walked away, pressing his lips flat.

            “I shouldn’t be in food service” he grumbled, waiting for the soda to top off.

            “Should anyone be?” Oscar sighed, balancing plates on his hands and walked through the door back first.

 

            After the man finished his food, Artorias set everything payment wise and hoped for the best. He expected a meager tip—if any at all. It didn’t hurt too bad, but it would cut into his wallet for a while in combination with those groceries he’d forgotten about.

            At least it brought him a little peace—not the money thing, that bummed him out—was that this person, the officer, would probably leave no impact at all. Just a story to tell for a few weeks and then have it soften in his memory, then wash away like every time beforehand. They would cross paths once and then not once again, and that was okay with him.

            He was partially telling the truth about his age—he didn’t believe entirely that he stopped being able to fall in love once he got past whatever arbitrary time was set in front of him, but there was more than just that in his way. There was the whole lycan thing.

 

            The diner closed early tonight, as it always did on that day of the week and that time of the year. When all was said, the three of them signed their timesheets, and Oscar and Ingward left. Artorias and Ciaran washed the dishes that had built up.

 

            “And another one slips through your fingers.”

            He smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile.

            “Don’t worry, you’ll just be stuck with me” Ciaran said, like a joke—but there was something about her words that told otherwise, if only he understood what.

            They stood in silence, washing and drying for a while. The radio had been turned off when Ingward and Oscar left, and neither went to turn it on. Something unspoken about leaving the silence be.

            Perhaps it was in preparation for tonight’s event, which never seemed to get easier.

            It was about nine when the doorbell jingled, and the first few came in. Everyone offered very quiet greetings, except for the small number of those that’d been coming a while who immediately went into asking how the other was doing.

            The tables were moved aside, the chairs put into a neat(ish) circle. It wasn’t really a professional organization, of course—it couldn’t be, the way they were, but they tried their best.

Ciaran wheeled out the white-board, standing in front of everyone. Written across the top, leaving a great amount of white space—

 

THIS WEEK:

How to Move On

 

            Technically this had been the topic for many weeks. It was no simple thing, after all, and more often than not they talked about other things. But never was it not the question.

 

            “Well, that seems helpfully vague” someone commented, bitter or sarcastic smile still hanging on their face.

            Ciaran chuffed, smiling her own smile which may have been either or, “that’s the name of the game.”

            There was the furrowing of eyebrows mixed with still plain faces.

            Ciaran stood, though. She always did—she was short, and since everyone was sitting down it made her feel taller.

 

            “I’ll be honest—things are different for you than when I got afflicted—or turned, whatever you feel like using. I wouldn’t say things were more relaxed or anything, but there was a lot less crap to monitor your existence—which made it easier to be forgotten by the system, but what I’ve learned as the years go by is this—you gotta move on.”

            She said simply. A hush went over the room—those who still needed to breathe stopped doing so, and those who did not remembered what it was like to hold their breath. Even those, like himself, who’d been like this for a while—the words may have softened with repetition, but they still came like a whip of wind to the face.

            She still smiled, but it faded some, “everything you knew beforehand—your friends, family, you have to let them go. If you try and combine the world you’re in and the one they’re in…” she sort of waved her hands and made a face, scrunching it some.

            It was still quiet. Someone—who’s name escaped him, probably because they’d just come into town—raised their hand. Ciaran nodded.

            “So now what?”

            Ciaran shrugged, “whatever the hell you want.”

            The newlies sort of blinked and stared. The ones who’d been coming a while smiled fanged smiles, knowing smiles. Not everyone was turned—a lot were just made like this, whatever this was, but it was always amusing to watch the eyes get big and confused.

            “Honest—I swear it. If this is your life, or after life, or whatever the hell you may happen to be now or have been for who knows how long, just do whatever you want. You want to play it safe? Do it. You wanna run wild? Do it. Just know that there’ll be consequences. We here like to play it safe, but you’re always welcome to come in. Just don’t cause trouble. This place is for those of us who just want to talk, or need help.”

            There was a murmur amongst the circle. Artorias was still counting those in attendance, but he smiled at Ciaran’s little spiel—it was his favorite part about the starting of the year’s meetings.

            “Alright, I’m done talking for now. Sign the little board Artorias has prepared and we can talk about anything pertaining to this” she snapped her finger, then pointed to the board.

            The board made the rounds and came back. Not as many lycans as there were last year, a few with different forms of vampirism (he could smell it), a siren, and a handful who didn’t know. Neither he nor Ciaran always knew either, but that was the beauty of the internet—and the big encyclopedia Ciaran kept in the back. Sometimes things got lost in translation, but they were both willing to try and sort things out.

            He mostly focused on the names, however, connecting who was who to what, but mostly faces to names.

            Everybody made their introductions differently—some were a bit shy, a bit nervous, others seemed a bit mournful, a bit sad, and there were the others who didn’t show much at all.

 

            “But what about my friends? My family? How do they move on?”

            Ciaran hummed, looking at Artorias. Artorias nodded, chose his words carefully, then spoke, “I’ve been missing for… over twenty years now, technically” he scratched his chin, thinking, “I was about eighteen when it happened. I think sometimes my name still shows in the papers back home, but I couldn’t tell you now. I simply just dropped off the face of the earth.”

            A few eyes lit up, “I think… the trick was the fact I’d disappeared so suddenly. For some of you, though, I bet you told someone you were going.”

            There was nodding and humming.

            “Yeah—it complicates things a little, but eventually people… they don’t forget, but it becomes background noise. They know you’re gone, and they see you in the places and things you left behind—but they move on. It’s not easy, but its honestly better that they think you’re dead or left them,” after his face dropped, he sort of laughed—a wheezy laugh, though. “I doubt my parents would want to know what I’m up to when the moon’s full, no more than when they thought I was out getting high.”

            “I’d like to see the look on my husband’s face if I told him I’m a ghoul now—then I’d be a real blood-sucker”

            There was a menagerie of snorts.

            “Can you imagine your wife’s face if you showed up, horns and fangs at all?”

            “I think she’d still slap me for not coming home with dinner.”

            A little more laughter.

            “Do you think they’ll still find a way to get after me for my college loans?”

            “Oh definitely.”

            Fanged smiles, but not dangerous smiles. Wiry, perfect smiles. Comfortable—perhaps the most comfortable they’d been since they’d first become whatever they were now, for some. For others it was a welcome reminder that there were others like them, even if different.

            It was the face he was looking for, however fleeting it was.

 


 

 

            “Well, I say that went well.”

            Ciaran smiled when she said that, but it wasn’t one of her smug ones.

            “Well, no one was fighting yet, so yeah—I’d say so.”

            She laughed through her teeth. “Can’t wait to getting how to alter diets—always fun.”

            They both sat down on the curb for a while. Ciaran didn’t really need to sleep, and he didn’t really want to. It was nice to be out and night by his own volition—maybe he’d drive out to the field sometime soon as do some more stargazing, if he got the chance.

            But Ciaran looked like she wanted to say something, and he wanted to listen.

            “Gwynevere came by yesterday while you were off on your lunar escapades.”

            Ciaran’s voice was cool, but he did not mistake it for ease.

            “What’d she say?”

            Ciaran frowned—it was a flat frown, one of distaste, “Oh, nothing with her mouth—nothing directly, anyway. But I knew what she meant—she’s checking up on our little meetings. Seeing if we were still having them.”

            “Not so little now that more are talking about em,” he nodded his head a little.

            “True—but I think she’s trying to determine how much more they’ll last. After what happened with her brother, I think she’s been relaying information to Gwyn.”

            Artorias nodded, “It’s either her or Gwyndolin.”

            Ciaran sighed. “It’s to be expected. It gave Gwyn a nice black eye for a while there.”

            Artorias let a sigh release from his chest, then he stood up. “Well, if they wanna check in on us, they can. We’re not doing anything worse than they are.”

            “If we’re talking about us weirdos, sure, but if you’re talking to a hunter…” he trailed off, letting it sort of sit there—like a dead animal in the middle of the road.

            “Hunters don’t know shit.”

            “Neither do most of the newlies. When are we gonna tell them?”

            “Next meeting. The sooner they know, the better.”

            He nodded.

            “Can you give me a hand?” she asked, raising her arm up for help.

            “Sure.”

            Now, he’d done this a handful of times before, and for whatever reason Ciaran never learned.

            So, he just slipped off his nice wooden prosthetic and handed it to her, trying to keep his face straight.

            Ciaran made a flat expression—in fact, the flattest expression—and she glared at him without furrowing her eyebrows, only putting across her exhausted disapproval with lidded, bored eyes.

            “I hate you.”

            He laughed.

Chapter Text

            “Nice day” Gough mused, turning his head to the breeze.

            “Yup.”

 

            It was a dry heat, everyone saved by only the breeze and those stuck indoors without fans and air conditioning slowly melting. Or rather, quickly melting as the temperature climbed.

            He could have said it was a nice day – and perhaps it was. But every day was a nice day. Every day was still and sun baked, filled with flat yellow light that slowly roasted his anxious and then bored mind. Restless, like the screams of cicadas in the highest point of the day, to the shrill openings and endings with birdsong. Time moved forward while staying still; the sidewalk cracked in familiar ways, the gas station’s windows were full of holes, the church steeple’s paint was chipped and the cross bent, the chimneys in buildings were wearing away, finches and sparrows making homes where bricks used to be. He felt disturbed, but only in the smallest of ways.

            The breeze rustled the trees, which stretched into power lines and roads, the roads whose paint was faded and cracks filled in with what looked like black rubber. Not a single thing had changed since the year he left and all those years prior.

            Restless, unable to stand still, not even for a moment.

            And every day was a nice day.

 

            “Think it’ll rain?” Gough said, before biting his ice-pop.

            “No, not yet.”

 

            Gough nodded. Ornstein didn’t get how he could sink his teeth into something so cold, though he didn’t feel like teasing him about it, then. He was still on the edge, trying to be friendly but not too comfortable.

 

            “You know, I think we should get lunch.”

            “We just had ice cream” Ornstein said, almost like a question, raising his eyebrow.

            “Is your mom going to get mad at you for spoiling dinner?” Gough scoffed.

            Ornstein felt a sting but made a ‘pfft’ noise with his lips. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.”

            Gough nodded, smiling a bit wirily. He had something planned, but Ornstein couldn’t tell what from behind his sunglasses.

 

            They did a fair bit of walking first, because the place Gough wanted to go was far-ish away, and that Gough liked the sun on his skin and the breeze in his hair, or something, or maybe he just liked having Ornstein death-grip his arm.

            Said death-grip came from the children who had just been released from school—who biked, scootered, ran, or whatever the hell that handle-less Segway thing was their way along the sidewalk like they had a mission. It was too damn hot for that and he’d already got ran over one time.

            But Gough was big and noticeable, so he tried to get as physically close as possible without somehow phasing through him.

            Ornstein recognized the place when they arrived, he’d been there not so long ago. There was an awkward encounter with a man with a hook for a hand, who had a small staring contest with him for what felt like an eternity.

            It didn’t look like he was working, wherever he was, which made Ornstein feel a little better.

 

            “There you are Gough,” someone raised a mug at him and smiled.

            “Nice day, in’nit?” Gough said, waving in person’s direction.

            “Yes indeed. Ciaran’ll be happy to see you.”

            “I will be too, I’ve got a friend for her to meet” Gough said, patting Ornstein rather strong on the back and pushing him towards the counter.

 

            It kind of felt like he’d walked into a trap of some sort—there he was, sitting on a bar stool while Gough ordered coffee and there she was.

            She was pale, with red around her eyes but not like she’d been crying. His mind already started guessing, but he tried to put hunters’ thoughts away for the moment. He wasn’t going to go to Gough and say ‘Hey I think your friend is some kind of monster, I’m probably going to kill her even though she may be very nice and also not a monster.’

 

            “Ah, so you’re Ciaran” Ornstein said, trying to be polite.

            She seemed to scrutinize him—but only for a second. She didn’t really smile but there was nothing that told him she didn’t like him. She extended her hand over the counter for a shake and found her hands were cold.

            “Yes, that’s me. I believe we’ve met before.”

            Ornstein pursed his lips for a moment, “Mhm.”

            Ciaran looked at Gough and they exchanged mischievous smiles. Ornstein felt like he was somehow walking further into a trap.

            “Is Artorias here today?”

            “Mhm,” Ciaran hummed, “probably hiding though. I’ll get him.”

            Despite being a bit short, Ciaran had no issue turning around and sticking her head through the window into the kitchen and shouting to whoever Artorias was. She turned back, looking at the door with a wiry smile that made him nervous.

            The kitchen door swung open and he watched a man’s face go from a wide, greeting smile to sort of just baring his teeth, not in a snarl – just sort of like he suddenly didn’t know what to do with his face once he realized who Ornstein was. He watched the realization take place in his eyes.

 

            “We’ve met before” Artorias finally said, extending his hand, expression stuck still not-quite smiling.

            “Yeah” Ornstein said, accepting the handshake.

            There was a moment of silence, “So how’d you meet Gough?” Artorias asked.

            “Work, we were partners” Gough said.

            Ciaran looked between him and Gough. Something about the way she looked – scrutinizing him, again, for a moment, recalling something while she looked at Gough – made him… nervous, again. Not extremely so, but there was a light panic that set below his heart.

            “So what brings you all the way out here?” Ciaran smiled kindly, like she was interested, but there was something dangerous about it.

            Ornstein tried to find something else to look at, but he only felt guilty when he looked at Gough and wildly, needlessly embarrassed when he looked at Artorias. He held his nerve, though, and nodded.

            “Job.”

            Ciaran and eyebrow exchanged glances, “There’s not exactly work out here for you to do” Artorias said, leaning forward a bit.

            “Mm, not like that. I got sent out here.”

            “So you are that trooper everyone’s been chatting about hm?” Ciaran said, turning away to take care of the next customer.

            “Yes” he answered, to which Artorias spun around to the window, almost surprising him.

            “Dusk! You owe me!” he called into the kitchen before turning back. Ornstein faintly heard a woman groan.

            “So what do you do besides work?” Artorias leaned on his elbow.

            “Psh, Ornstein doesn’t have the word ‘relax’ in his vocabulary” Gough teased, elbowing Ornstein a bit. He saw a smile flicker from Ciaran.

            “Perhaps if you’re not busy we can all go out then, not that there’s much to do” Artorias noted, swinging his legs to get off the bar stool.

            “Perhaps…” Ornstein said, slowly, like he was thinking about it.

            “Well, it was nice meeting you, hopefully I’ll see you again. For now there are dishes to wash though” it was then that he disappeared behind the kitchen doors.

            Ornstein hummed in response, turning back to Gough. “Interesting company.”

            “I know how to choose my friends.”

           

 

            It was later in the day, the sun hanging lower on the horizon casting an orange light onto the world, drawing long shadows.

            The beach wasn’t really picturesque – it was riddled with rocks and pebbles, not that anyone who wanted to go swimming cared. No one sat at the mouth of Ashen Lake because they were looking to get tan, and a lot of people just didn’t go there at all. Mostly for good reason.

 

            “When I was younger, the water used to look grey it full of so much shit”

            “Actual shit or just general shit?” Gough asked casually.

            “General shit. All kinds of stuff would flow in.”

            “What changed?”

            “Well, people didn’t like the smell mostly. So they stopped dumping stuff in, for a while. It’s supposed to be safe now.”

            Gough faced skeptically towards the lake. He couldn’t see how blue the water was, but he did try to sense if it still smelled bad. “Anyone swim in it though?”

            Ornstein hummed, “Doubt it.”

            “What about fishing?” Gough asked.

            “You want to go fishing?”

            Gough tossed his head back and forth, “Kind of. Haven’t had the chance to in a while.”

            Ornstein nodded and looked into the water. He remembered when he was young, he’d get only ever get as close to the lake as he dared. The smell of rotting fish and decaying plants combined with the sort of metallic, burning stench didn’t make him want stick a ten-foot pole in let alone anything else. Even though it’d been well over twenty years, he still didn’t trust the water. Perhaps some residual memories about the mess of the lake turning the water snakes into mutated monsters lasted long enough.

            The lake was blueish, now though. It’d always been sort of grey, as his father had told – hence being called Ashen Lake. But at the shallowest parts it did seem almost inviting, despite the razor sharp mussels on the rocks and in the sand and mud that he knew about because of the one time he got thrown in.

 

            “How’s your investigation going?”

            “Nowhere. There’s not much that I’ve noticed… well, except one thing, but I may just be on edge, or looking too hard.”

            “Like what?”

            “Mm… I’d rather not say, Gough.”

            Gough shook his head a little, “come on now, Ornstein, I’m not a delicate flower just yet.”

            Ornstein nodded, “that would be true. It was earlier – when I was speaking with Ciaran.”

            “Hm… yes, she is a little strange. I suppose I would not know the full extent of what you mean, but I doubt that she is… anything but human.”

            “You seem hesitant”

            “No, just considering. I’ve been here quite a few months now and have yet to notice anything, but as you know, well, these sorts of things lie under the surface.”

            “I won’t keep too close an eye on it, if it makes you feel better. She seems like a fine friend.”

            “She is, both of them are.”

            The sun was getting lower, bathing everything in gold.

            “What did you think of the two of them, by the way?”

            Ornstein squinted into the water, watching the little fish come closer in. “They both seem like fine people.”

            Gough sighed. Ornstein knew that he was hoping he would perhaps be a little more privy to the idea of having more than one friend, but Gough would be rather foolish to think that and believe it.

            “You’d be correct” Gough replied, voice flat.

 

            They both stayed quiet for a while, watching the sun sink lower and lower, the shadows distorting longer and longer, darkening.

            Eventually, the night was drawing close and the air was getting cool, and so Ornstein walked Gough home and by that time it was fully dark. They didn’t speak much on the way back, but Ornstein didn’t mind the quiet night, nor did he mind the moon’s soft light.

            He walked through the residential areas, back towards his motel room across town. Everything was a little different, but still the same. On telephone poles were signs about lost pets, yard sales, eggs, meetings. Nails that had yet to come out were coated in rust. He remembered which houses were whose when he was younger – whose houses he’d avoid and whose he’d walk and bike to when he didn’t feel like going home. The memories didn’t color him any different – there was no emotional tidal wave, no clawing nostalgia. He did wonder what happened to certain people, but not enough to find out and definitely not enough to feel anything for simply just being where they were once.

            At least, that’s what he tried for. Maybe there was a slight feeling in his chest, but nothing that indicated meaning and nothing he could really describe. The profound sadness of the early hours of the morning, or the latest hours of evening, were reserved for times between two and five AM, and it was not nearly that time. That was when it was when the quiet contemplation of the night could not be drowned out with noise – because there was no noise save the occasional sound of a car driving by, only serving to emphasize the stillness to him.

            While he thought, his legs remembered familiar pathways back home. He didn’t realize until he walked past the speed limit sign only a few houses away from his home. Normally he would turn on his heels and away, but for once in a very long time he felt the need to return home.

            The house was a little worse for wear – the rose bushes, untended, grew somewhat wildly, the windows gathered dust, and the lawn – once so meticulously cared for by his mother – was tall and dry. A pile of cards was set at the door, along with dried and dead flowers. Close to the cracked and weed-riddled driveway was a dead cat, the smell making him recoil.

            He walked up the stairs to the front porch, picked up the cards and fished a key from his pocket, unlocking the door and stepping inside. It smelled, well, dusty. Like an attic.

            It’d been gutted, but no one had broken in in a while at least. There wasn’t much to steal – unless a thief was looking to practice stealing from a museum. Everything was static and perfectly preserved, of course, tended only by him when there was enough guilt for him to finally dust. So the times he’d returned and found things disturbed had an odd mix of anger and detachment.

            But, the originally gutting of the house came from his relatives who he hadn’t talked to since he was… seventeen? Maybe? Then he’d been upset, but the feelings had since faded away.

            He flicked on the lights and sat the table, which creaked loudly. He decided to read these cards. Most were junk mail, but a few were addressed as such

 

            Dear Home Owner      

            Your lawn is making a bad image, please take care of it soon! It detracts the value of our nice neighborhood. Take care of it soon!

 

            They listed a number and signed themselves as ‘A concerned neighbor’, which made Ornstein laugh. There were a few more like that – similar blank tone that was also a little condescending, or the letters that expressed concern that the lights remained off for months on end and how they never saw the door open blah blah blah. At this point, anyone who didn’t know that the house was empty was clueless or new – or both.

            When he finished tossing the cards into the trash, he found himself alone at the table looking for something else to distract him from where he was.

            He left the kitchen and stepped into the living room. There was still a section of the floor that had been scrubbed over and over again, over and over again, leaving it too clean compared to everything else even though it was all covered in dust. He avoided the spot, but he could feel it gathering his gaze just like it did when he woke up to screaming a very, very long time ago.

            He passed by the couch and went up the stairs, not quite trusting them as they groaned and creaked. Still, he made it to the top of the stairs.

            There three rooms – his, his parent’s and then another that would have been for a sibling but had slowly been converted into a closet. He knew his room was empty for sure, as was the closet-not-a-closet so he only briefly checked to make sure no one died in there, or something. He unhitched the lock into his parent’s room and stepped in, expecting a wave of attic-smell but instead found that the window had been left open.

            Looking inside, he found that there were empty drawers left open, the mattress overturned and leaves blown in. He grumbled and closed the window, then started putting the mattress back. When he closed the drawer, he heard a tiny mew from inside. He almost didn’t believe it until he opened the drawer and there were tiny eyes looking up at him in the dark.

 

            “How the hell did you get in here?” he asked quietly, looking at the tiny kitten. It mewed back at him.

            “You’re too cute to leave alone” he extended his pointer finger for it to sniff cautiously. Very carefully did he scratch under its chin, with a little resistance at first.

            He lifted another hand, which made the tiny thing jump, but he kept it still while the other continued to pet. He tutted it quietly while the other hand came closer, and the quickly grabbed it by the scruff.

            It did not protest too much when being bundled it in his coat. It wasn’t too young – its eyes were open it seemed well fed, but he also had no idea how to take care of a cat.

 

 

            “What do you mean you found a cat?”

            “Exactly what I said. I went home, and found a cat”

            “Wait, you went to the motel and found a cat?”

            “No—I went home. To check… and stuff…”

            “You have a home, in town, and you instead paid for a motel room?”

            There was silence over the cellphone. Ornstein could hear Gough shifting in his chair.

            “It’s a long story. Anyway, can I drop it off with you in the meantime, because it’s a no pets kind of place.”

            “Why don’t you just… leave it where it is and stay in your house?”

            Gough sighed very heavily over the phone, Ornstein waiting quietly.

            “Alright, fine, but just for the night so you can move your stuff into your actual house.”

            “Thanks, Gough”

            “I can’t believe you”

 

            The conversation left a bit of a sour taste in his mouth, but it quickly left as he snuggled the kitten into the coat, like he was smuggling it. He did hope that Gough would appreciate how cute it was instead of staying mad at him, though.

Chapter Text

            He felt more like an animal, though at that point he was. Every day, any day, was a haze of ferocity, doing whatever it was commanded of him unless it was just what he decided to do for fun. Rip and tear, terrorize, try to fill an empty hole in his chest that was more or less bottomless.

            Except now he was running away and not after.

            Though his head pounded with the beat of his heart, and his vision was soaked red, he was thinking clearly for the first time in a long time. He needed to get out of there.

            Someone—not one he knew—ran up to him with a knife. Silver, already coated in blood. They stabbed in, he used the ridge of his hand to deflect their hand away. Their eyes met for a brief second – white, wide, shocked—before he hit them in the temple with his forearm. Something in him wanted to hesitate—a strange feeling after such a long time of wanton violence. Or maybe, it wasn’t really that long, but time stopped being relevant when every day was the same.

            No time to think about that. He ran past them, towards a chain link fence. Air rushed into his lungs and he leapt, scrambling up and over. The metal clanged and rung. He looked back once—chaos. Blood. Death. Electrifying his fraying senses. Then he heard it—the whir of machinery. The locks on the dam were coming undone.

            In that moment, he realized there was no one back there he wanted to save.

            He ran.

 

            Artorias tapped the tip of his thumb to the knuckle of his index finger. He realized he was frowning, eyebrows furrowed at the ground in front of his feet, and relaxed his face.

            Tonight was his least favorite session, but one of the more important ones.

            “Alright, so. What are hunters?” one asked—Lautrec, his name was. He was… interesting.

He glanced outside, into the late summer evening. Orange streetlights only sort-of illuminated the dark—though he could see well enough. At this time of night, most people had headed inside—for the best, really.

            Artorias turned back, letting a sigh escape him.

            Ciaran sat down, thinking on her words. “Exactly what it sounds like. They’re people who seek us out. Usually it doesn’t end well on our end or theirs when they find us, but here we’re more concerned on our half. Tonight we’ll just start on how not to get caught.”

            “There’s really two types—the loners, vigilantes. They’re pretty dangerous since they don’t need to follow rules but they tend to be loners. The other sort are feds, agents. They’re a lot more organized and often comes in duos or more. I’d argue they’re more dangerous, but that’s only when they’re around—apparently it’s hard to find people to cover the position, which is good for us.”

            They went over the methods to avoid attention—not doing anything obvious in public, not talking with anyone you weren’t one-hundred percent sure were monsters. Having a buddy or a group that you trusted to watch your back, but the trust had to be absolute. How to formulate a good secret code. When to know to move away—really just was when you felt unsafe or followed. Staying away from objects that gave you a reaction—mostly iron, or silver. That kind of stuff.

            “If you can die, they kill you, if you can’t die, they banish you or seal you away.”

             “What Ciaran and I will attest to, though, is not doing the thing that most gets people’s attention: Not killing anyone, if you can help it.”

            A hush fell over the group.

 


 

 

            “Well, you scared the shit out of some people.”

            “Sometimes that’s all you can do.”

            Ciaran nodded to the side, loosely. Not begrudgingly, just sort of half-assed agreement.

            “I think I’m gonna go to bed early.”

            She nodded again, following him only with her eyes. Before he was completely gone, he smelled cigarette smoke on the wind and wrinkled his nose.

            “Those are bad for you!” he called into the dark, feeling a smirk pull his lips apart. He sounded like he was twelve.

            “Aw piss off wolf boy!” Ciaran yelled back, though he heard her laugh. A little scratchy, but melodic.

 


 

            He had a very strange dream—he was washing dishes, plates, but when he looked to his right they were stacked above his head, and every time he took one it seemed the pile only grew higher.

            At first he had a minor heart attack, but it sort of sputtered out when he realized it was very clearly a dream.

            What a weird nightmare, he thought as he pulled himself out of bed. At the very least, he felt a little better rested than usual—though that also didn’t last long when he realized what time it was. Nearly noon.

            With a huff he changed out of his sweat pants, gathered up all his dirty clothes and started laundry, though realized quickly today was going to be a one hand down kind of day. The bones remaining in his left arm weren’t having it. Dull but deep pain spread up his arm, stopping at his elbow.

            He cracked his wrist, pushing his mouth to one side, then the other. Well, it’d certainly make grocery shopping trickier.

 

            He’d figured out how to push a cart with just one hand a while ago, but it still felt a little awkward. He couldn’t really push with the nub, because that hurt and also just plainly felt weird, so he pushed with the flat of his forearm.

            He dug through his pocket for the shopping list, once retrieved, scanned down the lines and made his way through the aisles. Fairly easy. Milk, butter, rice, orange juice.

            Since it was that time of year, some travelers were in town. It wasn’t uncommon nor unapparent since, firstly, they smelled like car and, secondly, they tended to stare at him. Grant it that Artorias was seven-something and missing a hand, but still. It made him rather unlike summer in that facet—so he scooted pretty fast after paying for his things and putting the cart back.

            After dropping groceries back at home, he folded his clothes and put Ciaran’s into the washing machine. Once that was finished, he chose on a whim how to spend the rest of his day, deciding it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to visit Gough.

            It’d take some walking, but he didn’t mind.

            Lordran was a bit of a mess, layout wise, since it’d started off as a tiny ass farming village, streets laid out to allow for cattle and horse drawn wagons, boomed briefly during the industrial era so they slapped down buildings like crazy without much thought, and had been in slow decline ever since, though now it always seemed to hover around the seventies/early eighties. There were plenty of buildings with wood paneling on the inside, and lots of green carpeting.

            There was the heart of town, Londo, which was where most of the stores were as well as the post office and school (the high school and middle school were together. The elementary school was on the other side of town, for some reason.) If you followed down the highway you’d quickly enter farm land, lots of it unused and so most of it was just field with POSTED signs on dilapidated wood & barbed wire fences. If you went up the highway you’d hit the residential area and park, and after that there was more fields and forests.

            If you left the highway on one side you’d hit the quarry—also long unused, since it’d turned Ashen Lake into a toxic dump, so it’d earned the name ‘Blight Town.’ Most people ended up throwing their unsavory trash in it.

            If you went on the other side of the highway, you’d go down a long unpaved road and hit the state land. Ashen Lake was on the opposite side of the highway to the stateland.

            Gough lived closer to the residential area—the light gradient between main town and suburbs was the apartment building, which was just on the other side of the shops.

 

            “I think this is the most company I’ve had in weeks” Gough laughed, good natured. Deep and hearty.

            “Yeah, sorry about that. I try to drag Ciaran with me but she’s allergic to the sun and hates the heat.”

            “Bah, I’m not reprimanding you. It’s nice.” He waved his hand, wrinkling his nose.

            He still felt a bit bad, though. Though, it was probably good that he and Gough hadn’t seen each other—it wasn’t like he’d forgotten or something. No, just… last moon wasn’t great. He didn’t feel good and the week right before he always turned into a pretty mean bitch. If it weren’t for Ciaran reminding him not to be such an ass, he’d probably gotten in a lot more needless arguments (even with someone as cool tempered as Gough.)

            “How are you doing?” he asked, resting his hand in his lap.

            Gough leaned back in his chair, humming for a moment. “Doing well, haven’t fallen down any stairs in a while and with all the out-of-towners I’ve sold some more of my wood craft.”

            “That’s good.”

            “Yes. So, how about you?”

            He thought for a moment. “I’m fine. Had a weird dream last night.”

            “About?”

            “Dish washing. I was washing plates but there were always more, all the way up to the ceiling.”

            Gough raised his eyebrows. “You should tell Ciaran she’s working you too much if you’re having nightmares about dish washing,” he then laughed.

            Artorias laughed too.

            “Well, I will say I lied a bit about company, actually. Ornstein—you remember him?—has visited quite a bit since he’d come home. Well, more than I’ve seen him in a while at least”

            “Oh?”

            He remembered the red head quite clearly, though he hadn’t seen him since Gough had introduced them. He’d prepped to just let him go, but it seemed such would not be the case if he was making an effort to hang out with Gough.

            “Yes, well… he and I were partners quite a long time ago, but after I lost my eyesight I had to retire. After that we didn’t see each other very often, as he absolutely detests this place” Gough explained, somewhat sadly, though he still had some lightness to him.

            Artorias thought for a moment, glancing around Gough’s house. “He doesn’t like your house?”

            “What?—oh no, he hates this town” he clarified.

            He squinted. What was wrong with Lordran?

            Gough must have known what he was thinking, because he answered his unvoiced question. “Some things happened here a long time that he’d rather leave in the past.”

            Artorias nodded. He understood the sentiment well.

            “What’s he doing here then?”

            Gough shrugged. “If you haven’t noticed, he’s a busy body. They probably told him to take a vacation, he refused, so they sent him off on an easy assignment.”

            “Ah.”

            Though he didn’t ask, he wondered what kind of job it was Ornstein exactly had. He’d never asked Gough—well, once, and Gough looked him straight in the eye and told him firmly he wasn’t allowed to say.

            He left sometime around four, after they’d done some conversing and ate a light midafternoon meal. He was always worried about Gough burning himself, since he had such a lax attitude when it came to cooking (“Shouldn’t you put on oven mitts?” “Why? My hands are callused as is, I won’t feel it”) so Artorias made them rice pilaf. After he washed the pan, he went down the road.

            It must have been the last day of school, judging by all the kids milling about. They whirled around in packs ranging from two to six, cramming their way down uneven sidewalks. And because he saw a menagerie of school supplies stuffed into trashcans—torn up work sheets, notebooks, binders. What a waste…

             He caught fragments of conversation—how glad they were to be done with finals, who had work when, and who was going to what college, when graduation parties were. Plans for the future, near and far.

            It reopened a wound that had never really healed right. It was like that every summer- year after year, the empty part would get opened up and there’d be a bucket he couldn’t fill so he’d just try to cover up. It made summer hard to enjoy, but he promised himself one day he’d stitch something so firmly over that gap he could revel in the season again.

            On a whim, he decided to sit down. The wood bench had a small memorial plaque on it, once copper now blueish green.

            The sun was getting towards sunset, the sky still blue, but sometime around eight, night would descend. Perhaps he’d go for a hike—something. There was something a little healing about being outside when the rest of the world had gone to sleep.

            The bench shifted. Someone sat next to him.

            He glanced to his side and felt his blood freeze.

            “Hello Gwyndolin” he said, though it felt more like he was swallowing it.

            “Afternoon.”

            He strummed his fingers against his knee. He twitched his toes inside his boots, trying to put his nervous energy out of his heart. The less able she was to hear the pitter patter of it, the better.

            “You don’t have your arm today” she observed.

            He felt the remaining bit of his ulna ache, so he closed his hand over it. “Yeah… I was a little mean to my arm yesterday at work.” It wasn’t a lie, but it felt like he was explaining to his mom why the sugar jar was broken.

            He flashed a glance her direction. She wore a white blouse that masked her thin frame, with grey dress pants with black boots, her dark wooden cane still in her hands. She caught his glance—soft grey-blue eyes examined him briefly. It was not a piercing gaze, but it felt like he was looking into a storm cloud.

            “Do you… need something from me?” he asked. Might as well cut to the chase.

            She hummed, turning her head away to look down the street, watching pedestrians and cars drive by. “Just checking up.”

            “Your sister already did.”

            “It helps to get more than one perspective on things. Ciaran was more combative, anyway.”

            He nodded, slowly, then looked away. Yeah, that sounded like her.

            “I know you’ve talked to our officer friend.”

            Ornstein? “Yes, briefly. Gough introduced us.”

            “Hm… yes,” she said, though it wasn’t directed at him. She was thinking. Then, she dismissed him, “that is all. Thank you.”

            With a tap of her cane, he rose and helped her up.

            Before she left, she said something that sat uneasily in his chest and seemed to linger in the air. She held onto his arm for a moment, looking deep into his eyes.

“Don’t trust him.”

            Once out of sight, he let out a sigh then scratched behind his ear. He felt a little ill. Maybe that hike would have to wait.

            Gwyn was moving his pieces about the chess board again. He wasn’t so certain if that meant anything good for him or his friends.

Chapter Text

            Good lord what was he going to do with his house? – “good lord” made him sound like his grandma.

            Ornstein grumbled and paced around the kitchen. He’d spent the past three days dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, cleaning windows, mopping, and scrubbing floors. It was the deepest deep clean the house had received in over a decade. The lack of fittings made it a little easier, at least. Searching out strange smells, scouring what furniture did remain. When he finished with that he started painting the outside.

            But now what? Did… did he even have any furniture to put in? The answer was no.

            He scratched his chin. He’d need to re-carpet the living room if he ever wanted to feel comfortable sitting in there, but that could wait, because carpet was expensive. For now he avoided the bleached spot of wood.

            What Ornstein needed to do was go on a garage sale spree. Luckily for him, it was early summer, which meant everyone was at the tail end of spring cleaning and were trying to dump their stuff as soon as possible. He knew what to expect, but also knew the competition—for every alumnus back home from graduation trying to make a buck off the sofa they stole from their dorm, there were three first-years vying for it.

            So he made himself look a little less like a newly escaped axe murderer—combed his hair, washed his face, yadda-yadda. It was more so people would make eye contact with him than anything else. He kind of looked like A Dad’s Friend, someone you’d grow up calling uncle only to find out at, like, twelve that you’re not related. It was the beige knee-length shorts.

            The issue with going out in the residential area was that people tried to figure out who he was. When they realized he lived in the empty house, they were all bewildered and inquired further.

            “Oh, did you buy it…?” they asked, knowing full well it’d never appeared on the market.

            “Nope” he said, flatly, as he inspected a dresser. Sturdy, old. When he opened up a drawer, it appeared that a kid had put their stickers on the inside at one point.

            “Oh…”

            “It was my parent’s house.”

            That shut them up. Good.

            By early day’s end, he hauled some chairs and a coffee table into his house at a reasonable price for stuff that obviously pretty old. The yet unnamed kitten already began investigating, sniffing.

            He’d have to get some aluminum foil and start wrapping the legs—he’d needed to get a bunch of things, actually. More toys for the cat, more furniture, food that wasn’t just TV dinners, a TV. All that would have to wait, though, since today was also the first day he’d head off to do the thing he was there for.

            As far as he knew, it was the only reason, or rather excuse, his superiors’ had to put him there.

            He shuffled through the box of evidence—which was, at the moment, a single folder with maybe ten or so pages in it. He plucked the folder out of the box, flipped through briefly, and changed into his uniform, which wasn’t altogether that different than the county sheriff’s other than the patch on his jacket.

            He backed out of the driveway and made his way towards the road.

 


 

            He parked his car on the side of the road, then made his way towards the farm, up the long gravel road. A sign on a large metal gate read “WATCH FOR DOG,” which he shortly heard yowling at him and charging down the long path.

            Ornstein steeled himself as the german-shepherd-malinois-collie mix of some kind was a few lengths away, but it stopped just short.

            “Bastard! No! bad dog!” a young woman shouted, and the dog came to a screeching halt.

            He out stretched his hand and after a skeptical sniff, the dog must have decided he was ok since he trotted off to join his owner. He felt puzzled as to if he’d just gotten called a bastard or if that was directed at the dog…

            The dog’s owner was a young woman—late twenties, perhaps, with orange hair. Her squishy cheeks made her look friendly, though the bear arms made it apparent she was a working woman and made him glad she seemed so welcoming (though he was still figuring out if she’d cursed at him.) He’d been in plenty of situations like this with less… amiable company, and after Gough retired he was a lot more mindful of that kind of stuff.

            She looked at him quizzically, raising her eyebrows. “Afternoon officer.” Skeptical, a bit apprehensive. Law enforcement usually didn’t mean anything good.

            He tipped his hat. “Afternoon. Apologies it’s taken so long to get here, had to get everything set up.”

            After staring at him blankly for a moment, she snapped her fingers. “Oh, right! The cattle. No worries about the wait, since you had to drive so far.”

            He nodded.

            She wiped the dirt of her rough hands and extended one out. “Sieglinde. Pleased to meet you. This is Bastard, he’s nice, just cautious.”

            The dog’s tongue lolled out of his mouth as he glanced between Ms. Sieglinde, who was stroking behind his ear, and Ornstein. Bastard was certainly a name…

            “Ornstein. Let’s see what I can do to help” he said.

            She gave him a polite smile, then turned around. “I guess I should bring you where we found it. Woke up one night to Bastard yowling bloody-murder, so I went to investigate.”

            They walked up the road, then turned to a separate gate. The pasture had been cleared, cattle moved to the opposite side, leaving a wide empty field before them.

            She brought him far into the grass, close to the tree line which was halted by a fence.

            There was nothing there now, but he saw evidence something big and heavy had been lying in the grass. There was an odd smell that was almost too faint to detect.

            “When I walked out, the cows were spooked. Never seen them so freaked out except during a bad thunderstorm when I was little, but it wasn’t raining that night.”

            He brought out his pencil and paper, licked his thumb and flipped to a new page, then wrote studiously. No rain, alarmed animals (cows and dog.)

            Sieglinde understood it as an indication to continue talking. “So I get out here, flashlight and pistol in hand, because I didn’t know if it was some kids trying to tip a cow or if it was a rabid coyote, and I see a cow on its side. Clearly dead, and I curse, and then uh... I saw something.”

            “Something?” he asked, looking up from his paper. Dead cow.

            She sighed but shushed herself by loosely pushing her lips together. Sieglinde shifted her weight on her feet, then stuck her hands in her jean pockets. “Alright, this is going to sound crazy, but it looked like a wolf. Now I know that’s ridiculous, because they’ve been extinct here for years, but I cross my heart that’s what it was…” she lingered, meaning there was more she wanted to say but was afraid he’d dismiss her entirely (call her a liar, think she was being irrational. Not uncommon.)

            “What’d this wolf look like?”

            She glanced at him, then back at the place the cow had been, seemingly relieved. “It was... Big. I’ve never seen a wolf with my own eyes, but I know they get big, but uh. It was scrawny, kind of weird looking—I didn’t really see that much, since it was behind the cow and looked over it at me, but from what I could tell it was like a golden coat color, almost more coyote but way too big. Its face was sorta weird, not quite canine looking. I just remember it had these big, white empty eyes… bottomless…”

            Silence hung. The braying of cattle was distant.

            “Oh, pardon me, just rambling. I’m still a bit shaken up.”

            Ornstein shook his head. “It’s fine. I’m glad you’re okay. Do you mind if we continue?”

            “Aw, nah, yeah, let me think… so we made eye contact, and then it dashed in the opposite direction, blew right through the fence like it wasn’t even there. Never seen something run that fast. Bastard ran after, and I was worried it’d tear him to pieces, but he came back fine the next day if not very muddy. Guess he made a friend?”

            Bastard sniffed the spot, then began rolling around. Laying with his belly up, he stopped to watch Ornstein.

            “Perhaps.”

            Sieglinde made a small smile that disappeared quickly. She looked into the forest.

            “I’m not going to lie… I’ve heard weird stuff moving around in the woods all my life, like… howling, I guess is what I’d call it, but once again: I always just figured they were coyotes, because they make some god-awful noises when they want, but that thing I saw…” She shivered, gritting her teeth.

            He nodded.

            “This may sound odd, Ms. Sieglinde, but your cattle should be fine for the next month or so. Next full moon, though, keep an eye on them.”

            She raised her eyebrow at him. “What, werewolves?”

            He laughed, then said, “No, not like that. I suspect that the light from the moon made your field stand out against the dark forest. Some sort of animal was feeling brave that night.”

            “Ohh,” she answered, scratching her chin, “Guess that makes sense. Usually my dad brings them into the other pasture—the one that’s closer—but he was out of town that night. I guess I forgot… well, I certainly won’t forget again.”

            Bastard got up and trotted away, satisfied that Ornstein had no ill will towards his owner.

            “Before you go, any interest in coffee? Just a thanks for coming out here.”

            “Much appreciated, but no thank you. It’s my job, after all.”

            She smiled. “Alright, well, I hope I won’t need to see you again officer. If something else happens I’ll call.”

            “Thank you, ma’am” he said, then flipped his notebook closed.

 


 

            He laid out his notes on the kitchen table and got to work organizing. To start off with, there was almost definitely a werewolf in town, though he’d have to wait until the next full moon to be sure. Or maybe a werecoyote, which he wouldn’t put at the top of his priorities list in terms of immediate threats, especially if it hadn’t mowed on a dog half its size.

            Contrary to popular belief, werebeasts would eat things even approximately similar to their own kind if they wanted to. Humans, dogs, wolves, foxes. Though, they’d eat pretty much anything so that wasn’t saying much.

            He hated werewolves, but all werebeasts were pretty nasty. Most other monsters weren’t as problematic for him—mostly because they had a helluva lot more control over their actions—but they were also some of the most difficult to find in disguise.

            They were just very skittish, usually, and if he wasn’t careful, would catch a whiff and hightail it to the next town over. Most other monsters would hang around to see if he’d left yet.

            Werebeasts also usually blended in easy enough—ghouls, for example, usually looked some kind of ill at all times. Vampires avoided sunlight, unless they were unusually powerful. Werewolves were completely human looking ninety-percent of the time.

            Because they were usually so normal, it was difficult to tell. The only way to find out for sure was if you slashed them with a silver knife, and he couldn’t exactly run around stabbing people. There were a few other ways, of course, but those were equally as strange—he wasn’t about to go hitting people with a switch made out of aconite or shining a UV-flashlight in their face to see if their eyes reflected the light back.

            Beyond being a little more difficult to uncover, the camouflage made his job difficult in a different aspect.

            Other monsters tended to be recluses, or did their best to fall in amongst a crowd—hiding in the dark corners of cities and mingling amongst their unwary prey, or deep in the woods, deserts, mountains where no one would find them. Werebeasts, though, tended to live relatively normal lives outside their lunar transformations. People asked questions if someone, a friend or family member, went missing. This wasn’t not the case with other monsters but werebeasts were in that camp much more often. He’d take the threat level into account in this case.

            So, what did he have so far? Well, the Catarina farm was on the north side of town. The stateland, being to the east, was fairly close, and the side of the pasture the cow had been gored on was closest to the stateland. He suspected the werewolf had probably went to the stateland to transform without gathering any attention, but had seen or caught the smell of the cattle and went after one that might have already been sick or injured.

            This was all speculation, but he’d been doing this a while, and his hunches were usually right. He’d definitely get Gough’s input, though.

            The issue was that the stateland was a massive area to cover, easily as big as Ashen Lake. A mixture of hundred-year old pines, marshland, tall grass prairie, dense mid-growing shrubs, wild rose bushes, all crisscrossed by streams and broken up by boulders, not to mention the various jumps in elevation. He’d need to search each area in quadrants. He’d start off during the day to see what he could find—transformations were a messy business, and werebeasts left tracks and traces just like any other animal, though it’d been a while.

            He started drawing out the quadrants when the kitten leapt onto the table, nearly knocked over his make-shift pencil holder (a mug) then decided the best place to sit was right on top of the map.

            Ornstein stared for a few moments. The little thing was too darling, staring up at him with its big blue eyes, expectantly.

            “Daww, well for you I guess I should take break” he said, scratching under its chin to which it leaned forward into.

            Ornstein hadn’t grown up with cats—both his parents and all his friends were dog people—but he felt an instant bond with the little thing. It couldn’t sit still for long unless it was sleeping, so he was coming up with ways to keep it occupied while he was gone. Right now its favorite toy was a small plastic ball with a bell inside it, that it batted around with glee up until the point it got stuck under something and it’d cry for him to free it.

            At the moment, though, it was just looking for scratches.

            Ornstein took it into one arm while he made himself dinner, scratching the top of its head by curling his fingers back. It snuggled up, watching him with some interest as he dumped water into the pot. After a few minutes of content sitting, it decided that it wanted down, so it wiggled and he let go. It then watched from the counter, jumping down to watch from the floor, then up again but now to watch from the opposite side of the counter.

            It wasn’t a fancy dinner—just ramen with eggs and chives. Though, he was glad to have a companion seeing as, sitting alone in the kitchen, in a mostly empty house, would have felt really sad.

            He blew in the kitten’s face to stop it from drinking any of the broth.

            “No, it’s too salty for you.”

            It stared at him, then looked at the soup, then tried again with no more success. He plucked it under its belly with one hand and placed it on the ground, and it then bounded off.

 

            He tucked his notes into a box that he left by the parlor room stairs. After that, he washed his bowl and fork and was in the midst of drying it when he heard a knock at the door. His eyes flickered to the clock at the wall, then at the door.

            “In a moment” he called. Who on earth came by at nine-o’clock at night?

            With a sigh, he dried off his hands and walked over to the door. A small moment of hesitation passed and he opened it.

            At first, he didn’t know who it was—she stuck a small bouquet of wildflowers in his hands.

            “Re-welcome to the neighborhood, kid” she said. A light switch turned on in his head—he did know her, time had just passed.

            “Long time no see, Velka. Thank you.” he said.

            She gave him a short smile, creasing the wrinkles in her face. “Mind if we sit?”

            “No, not at all…” he spoke softly, setting the flowers down and closing the door behind him.

            They sat on the porch. The old bench creaked under their weight, but he knew his mom had done a good job—even after so long, it’d be fine. Just needed a new coat of paint, perhaps red.

            At first, nothing was said. It wasn’t as though there was much that’d been held back—it was that neither had expected to see the other ever again, and now all the thoughts that had been let go slowly returned.

            So they watched. Fireflies flickered in the grass. Crickets chirped resounding love songs. Moths danced around the streetlights. The last wisps of the sun lit the horizon, a small halo of yellow light.

            “So, I take it you’re back here for him?”

            Ornstein paused, but not to think. “No. I didn’t want to come back.”

            “Then why’d you keep paying for the house?”

            He opened his mouth, then closed it. After deciding what he wanted to say, he said “Didn’t feel right to sell it off.”

            Velka hummed, looking away.

            A dog barked somewhere in the neighborhood.

            “Is it wrong of me to assume you came here to do more than give me some flowers?” he asked, finally.

            She knit her fingers together, glancing at him briefly. “No, not at all. I wanted to test you, first. Make sure you aren’t one of them.”

            Ornstein dipped his head to the side once. “Not yet.”

            She puffed a little air out her nose, like a very weak laugh. “Then hopefully my warning will do you some good. Don’t keep digging.”

            He squinted into the dark, furrowing his eyebrows. “It’s my job.” It felt like a rather weak defense.

            “Hm, true, but I don’t think that’s why you’re here. I’m sure if you wanted to you could have raised hell and gone to some other back water town.”

            He scowled, slightly.

            “What I’m saying is… you won’t find anything good here. All you’re going to do is dig yourself into a hole, like everyone else here, and the only thing that’s going to happen is people are going to keep throwing shovels down at you.”

            There were a lot of things he wanted to say—he couldn’t just not look because he was afraid. He’d already dug himself into a hole—that’s what his life was, this was not exactly a job that you hopped out of. He couldn’t turn back, and it didn’t look like it was that bad anyway. One possible werewolf… and an old witch.

            She watched him for a while, then sighed. “I doubt you’ll heed my warning, but don’t say I didn’t try.”

            “If you’re going to be cryptic about it, you’ll only goad curiosity”

            She laughed, sort of bitter but agreeing. “Unfortunately my tongue is tied. I said something I shouldn’t have before and now I’ve got to watch my back. You should too.”

            He twitched his mouth to the side and nodded once. “Fair enough… thank you for the flowers.”

            “Ah, no big deal. Just don’t toss them yet.”

            She stood up, slowly, and he heard a popping noise from her knee. He cringed. “Do you want some help?”

            “No thanks” Velka answered easily. She knocked on the porch’s post twice, then walked down the dark sidewalk.

            Ornstein turned and re-entered his house, locking the door behind him and picking up the flowers. He examined them for a moment, suspecting there was more to them than just being a gift, and took a used quart jug from the recycling bin and filled it with water.

            He rifled through the flowers briefly and a small blank slip of paper fell out. He stared at it for a moment and placed it on the table. Ornstein then remembered he had a cat who loved to knock things even remotely close to the edge of counters off, and placed the slip of paper on top of the fridge, then moved the makeshift flower vase to the corner between the wall and the fridge.

            After that, he decided it was time to take a shower and go to bed. He tried to let the cryptic warning go, but he knew that is wouldn't. Damn witch. 

Chapter Text

            Once he got out of work he immediately changed into jeans and hiking boots, grabbed a backpack and threw in some snacks, and headed off for the stateland.

            It wasn’t a bad walk. Waved hello at people he knew as he passed, took note of a few things – some kid had a minor fender-bender and was very clearly freaking out while pacing around a car (possibly his, possibly his parents) with the phone shaking in his hands. Drugstore had a sale (as it always did. At the moment it was on lawn ornaments, because for whatever reason the drugstore sold those). Farmer’s market dates were posted on the telephone poles.

            Artorias walked along the side of the road, flanked by forest and mowed field, until he came across the snow plow U-turn. At one time it was paved but had since not been given a damn about, and so the fading asphalt was mostly covered with gravel. He looked both ways, crossed the street to another, more gravelly road, which was blocked by an orange rusted gate with a big stop sign on it.

            He walked past it and started down the foot trail. The first mile or so was fairly clear of roots and new plant shoots. On either side were crab apple trees, some of whom were still flowering, but behind them was marsh area thick with ferns, swamp rose and tiger lily.

            Eventually the semi neat rows apple trees gave way to more unkempt forest. The foot trail became narrower and knotted with roots as he climbed over hills which were at times almost vertical and he pulled himself up using young trees. Tall pines whose lowest branches had not touched sunlight in years stuck their needleless arms into the path. Ferns who tolerated the low light grew in bunches between viburnum and various other plants whose names he didn’t know.

            By the time he got to the top of the millionth or so rocky-rooty-steep hill, he was winded. When he was younger going downhill always gave him some relief, but now it just made his knees ache.

            He leaned against a crooked cherry tree that overlooked the creek bed. It had always ran shallow and wide over shelves of stone, carved through the rock over a very very long time. It got deeper in some areas but, on this end of the stream, never above his waist.

            After he caught his breath, he made his way down the bank. Some sliding on his feet, some sliding on his butt, some near tripping and sliding on his face. There wasn’t really an easy way to get down.

            He walked across the stream bed and stopped in the middle, looking downstream. The bridge that used to cross it had been swept away during the spring. It didn’t seem like it was going to get fixed but it really didn’t need to. It was really, honestly, better that people stayed out of the deep forest.

            Feeling the water start to breach his boots, he crossed the rest of the way and emerged relatively dry on the other side.

            He found a shelf of rock mostly untouched by the stream and decided it was as good a place as any to sit. With that, he pulled out his snack—summer sausage, crackers and a little cheese and basically wolfed it down.

            As he ate his late lunch (dinner?), he took off his boots and rolled up his pants so he could lay his feet in the water. The water was blissfully cool and immediately pulled off the worst of the day’s heat.

            Coming to the creek unsurfaced a few mixed feelings. Not unheard of, it always happened.

            When he was young his dad would take him and whoever else amongst his siblings wanted to come with him to a small stream not unlike the one he sat in and they’d go ‘salamander hunting.’ Really it was just them flipping over rocks and when—if—they caught anything, they’re put it in a small Tupperware with holes poked in the top and watch it for a little while before letting it go. This went on for years—every summer, once out of school. He’d thought he’d perfected his technique by the time he was twelve and by fourteen he’d go down by himself even if he didn’t catch anything. Then fifteen rolled around and he stopped having the kind of time. Then when he was about to have the time, well.

            Now, beyond times like these, the only reason he came to the stream was because another side of him decided it was the place worth going to.

            He heard rocks tumble down the side of the bank and he nearly jumped. To his surprise, the red headed officer more or less fell into the creek with the sort of grace you had when you ran across a hard-wood floor with socks on and nearly wiped out going around a corner. More just amazed he stayed on his feet.

            “Afternoon. Am I caught?” he asked, lightly.

            Ornstein dusted off his pants and took notice when he regained his footing. “Huh? Oh, no. Though maybe since you nearly saw me eat earth.”

            He smiled wirily. “Its fine, I’ll keep it between us and the salamanders.”

            They stood side by side, overlooking the slow moving water. Inevitably, Artorias did ponder what the hell was Ornstein doing out there, in uniform, and he figured it wouldn’t hurt asking.

            “So, what’re you doing, bandying about in the woods? Catching kids smoking pot?”

            Ornstein scoffed, eyes wandering around before picking some point of interest in the water. “That’s not what I came out here for but I did scare the shit out of a few who may have been.”

            Artorias laughed.

            He made a motion like he was trying to get something out of his teeth with his tongue, nodding a little. “I just let them go but I was pretty sure one of them nearly peed themselves.”

            “Well, not that I’m speaking from experience, but it can make you very paranoid. I imagine there’s nothing worse than a cop actually busting you.”

            “Not a cop.”

            “Sure as hell look like one,” he tapped where the badge would be, “wearing a jacket like that on a hot day like this, and the hat. You look like a cowboy.”

            He scoffed, but it wasn’t bad humored.

            Artorias was beginning to like him, which wasn’t a good thing, but he’d allow it to continue for now. “Well then, what are you?”

            “Field officer.”

            “That sounds like another word for cop” he said, just to please himself.

            Ornstein scoffed again, then took off his hat to run his hand through his hair. “Like a ranger but different.”

            He nodded. “So are you getting after people for hunting licenses or…?”

            “No. More research based. Got a call about a disturbance. Fairly sure it’s a coyote or a coyo-wolf but who knows. I’m nearly done collecting evidence but I guess I got careless on the way back and forgot there was a whole cliff there. Kind of been in the woods the past few days and thought I knew where I was going.”

            “Oh, if you need help, I’ve been all over the place here.” He cringed and wanted to pull those words back in his mouth, curling his bottom lip back to bite it like that’d help.

            Ornstein seemed slightly surprised (and he wanted to slap himself) but said nothing else.

            He must have decided that Artorias was just overly friendly, or something. “Well, now that you mention it, I can’t for the life of me figure out how to get up this steep spot that’s down the creek, where it starts to run faster.”

            Artorias knew the exact spot he was talking about and the way. Well, two ways. The way a wolf monster got up and the way a human got up. Wolf monster just sort of pulled itself up, human way up required much more maneuvering and energy than he had left.

            “It’s not easy, but if tomorrow or some other day works for you then just, uh, I guess you know where to find me.”

            Ornstein turned his hat around in his hands then put it back on his head. “Yeah. Thank you, much appreciated.”

            They parted ways and Artorias felt a little like screaming.

 


 

            “He’s not even that charming. What is wrong with you?” Ciaran asked as she mixed her drink.

            He could smell the over powering smell of tangy, salty, coconut water and wrinkled his nose. He knew it was a substitute for blood and had basically everything in it that Ciaran needed so she wasn’t a zombie but god the combination of smells was damn near caustic. Actual blood didn’t smell that bad.

            “He’s polite and he’s got an accent” he answered from the couch.

            “He sounds like he’s trying to keep a frog from jumping out his mouth.”

            “You’re awfully rude to someone you’ve talked to maybe twice.”

            “You are awfully trusting.”

            “Oh no, the park ranger” he said, drawing out his vowels in a mocking tone. “Watch out, he might ask you if your fishing license expired.”

            “They do carry guns, wise-ass.”

            “Ciaran, I have wandered around in the woods for years in many a state park. I know.”

            She stuck out her tongue and made a fart sound. “You’re incredible. I don’t know how you’ve made it this far.”

            “It’s my charming attitude and darling smile” he said, flat and bored.

            He heard Ciaran scoff at him again and go downstairs. After the exchange, he didn’t feel like staying on the couch and the News was slow, so he got up and went into the kitchen to make himself a more substantial dinner.

            Rooting around the fridge, he parsed Ciaran’s blood mix stuff and grabbed leftovers. After a skeptical sniff he was disappointed and tossed out the very, very old lasagna and dug for something else to eat. Unfortunately unless he planned on eating a plain tortilla rolls then he’d be let down.

            “You ate my leftovers!” he yelled down the stairs, but it only had hints of irritation.

            “You weren’t eating them” Ciaran called back up.

            “Could have at least told me…” he grumbled, if only to himself. But Ciaran was Ciaran, so of course she heard it, though she said nothing.

            With not enough energy left to make anything more elaborate, he just scrambled some eggs.

 


 

            He finished work a little late, because a table of six decided right before closing was the perfect time to order dinner (it wanted him to strangle them.) But, Ornstein was patient and he’d stood outside the door.

            “Sorry about that.”

            “It’s fine.”

All at once, the bitterness boiling from the late customers dissipated.

            Ornstein turned around and walked over to a car. It was black and a little beat up, bumper had been tapped a few too many times. When he peered inside he was a little surprised to see it was a standard.

            “Well? You getting in?” he said as he opened the door, raising an eyebrow.

            “Oh—? Yeah, sure” he said, a little surprised and a little apprehensive.

            He climbed inside and figured out how to slide the seat back so his knees weren’t in his face. After that he tried to not look like he was scrutinizing his car. It was a fairly simple interior, nothing fancy. The radio had been replaced and there was a pine shaped air freshener but had lost all its scent a while ago, the upholstery was beige and clean. It had no particular smell except maybe air that’d been trapped inside the car, boiled by the sun.

            The vehicle jerked to life and instinctively he grabbed the passenger side handle above his head.

            It was a mercifully short drive, probably because Ornstein sped approximately ten miles over the speed limit once there were no pedestrians. Artorias already hated driving, being driven, and cars in general and this did nothing to endear him to the road.

            (He was pretty sure he hated cars because his other half got hit by a one once. Of course it was fine, but when he woke up the next day with bruised ribs and a very strong distaste for motor vehicles bigger than a golf cart, the contempt lasted ever since. Also because he didn’t have a license. He could drive, just not legally. Or well.)

            They parked in the U-turn and crossed the road. The walk went well and he didn’t have to slow down. They took a short break before climbing into the stream bed, then walked along the edge. The water built speed but it was still quite shallow and so the only thing in fear of being washed away was the leaves that fell off the trees.

            The stream started to deepen and they began to do more hopping across rocks until coming upon the river bend. On one side deeper, on the other side a mostly pebble beach with some tall grasses growing between the rocks. It was at the bend that a sizable plateau steep and treeless rose a good distance into the air

            The sun broke through the forest, parsing the trunks of trees now that it was lower, and he was near blinded when he looked downstream.

            “So, how does one climb a bare rock wall?” Ornstein asked, looking up the open rock face.

            There was another way up, but not really any easier—this would have included navigating a marsh with waist to neck high water and boot stealing mud, full of snapping turtles and leeches.

            Artorias scanned for a moment before locating the first hand hold. After a few test tugs, he figured it was safe and pulled himself up. The adrenaline rush associating with coming ever farther off the ground propelled him to the top, though did make his legs feel a little wobbly. No matter, though, as soon he was sitting on the edge.

            He gave a cheeky grin and waved to his far below companion.

            “Good lord” Ornstein mused, taking off his hat. “You make it look easy.”

            “Practice. If I can do it with one hand I think you can do it with two.”

            Ornstein made a face, frowning but agreeing, and began to pull himself up. He was a lot slower, but he’d rather him not fall onto the gravel beach below. As he neared the top, he offered him a hand and hoisted him up.

            He used a little too much strength and pulled the man close enough to feel his breath. He froze.

            Ornstein patted his arm and laughed, then walked past him to sit down away from the edge.

            Artorias let out a small sigh of relief. “See, you’re not dead yet.”

            “Eh, yeah. Not yet.”

            Dusk was beginning to fall upon the land, but it was still relatively light out if not for their being under the canopy of trees.

            They rested for a little bit before taking off. Ornstein took the lead, then. It felt natural.

            Ornstein seemed a well versed hunter. He was quiet, his footsteps light, and he knew where to look. Branches disturbed, bark scratched, clumps of fur hanging off brush. He took pictures and wrote down notes, even took a little of the fur and placed it in a small zip-lock bag.

            Though the blood was long gone, he could still smell it. Soaked up by pine needles. It wasn’t his spot to transform but it was certainly someone else’s. It made him want to leave, but seeing as he was the only one who knew the safe way down he couldn’t ditch.

            Plus, he didn’t mind having company.

            Ornstein stepped down a small ditch and then immediately jumped back out, frowning and gritting his teeth. Artorias walked over and felt his stomach twist.

            Leftovers. It was a little hard to tell if was bits of a lycan or something it’d dragged up the cliff. Whatever it was, it’d dried by this time, of course, and had been picked at by whatever was around, but the smell was still strong.

            Ornstein took a picture and swiftly turned around. He hesitated for a moment, then followed.

 

            After covering most of the plateau the sun was hardly above the horizon, turning the sky a blaze of colors.

            “So do we climb down the way we came?”

            “You could, but I found a better way.”

            He motioned for him to follow. They walked back towards the creek, just a different side. The plateau broke away into the brook in large pieces, which they slid and dropped down until the very last shelf which was embedded into about a foot of water. It was just tall enough that even he couldn’t pull himself up and there was no way to get a running start with the water.

            He landed with a loud splash, two feet meaning it only sent a weird tingle up his legs. Ornstein looked down skeptically.

            “What, afraid of some water?”

            “Uh, no, but it hurts like hell to land like that,” he kicked his prosthetic a little to show.

            “Oh, right. Uh… let me help.”

            Ornstein sat and leaned over, putting both hands on his shoulders while Artorias tried to find a not awkward way to hold him. After Ornstein sucked in a breath, he pushed himself off.

            “Safe landing?” he asked, then put a little distance between him.

            “Not bad, yeah.”

            “It’s not infected, is it?” Artorias said, feeling a very old begin to leak into his voice.

            “What? Oh, no, that’s not it. It’s just—it’s below the knee. You know, half your shin isn’t supposed to bear the weight of your whole body” he explained.

            "Makes sense."

            They walked the rest of the way in silence, but not bad silence. Just no need to say anything more. By the time they got back, there were only vestiges of sunlight. The car was still hot on the inside, so they waited and let the air out.

            “Get what you wanted done today, officer?” he asked.

            “I did,” Ornstein said, then hesitated before he continued, “Thank you, pretty sure I would have fallen and broken something if I’d tried doing that by myself.”

            “Well if you need someone to make sure you don’t fall and break your neck in the woods, call me.”

            It earned him a small laugh. It was softer, much less hoarse and anxiety filled than the one he’d gotten earlier.

            “The car should be alright now. Just tell me where to drop you off”

 

            He unlocked the door and stepped inside, then locked it behind himself. When he turned, he felt the air in his lungs still.

            “There you are, Artorias” Gwynevere said, smiling.

            He paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully then asked, “Am I late for something?”

            She stood up from the couch, setting down her glass. Ciaran glanced between the two of them, looking stiff as stone. “Oh, no, of course not. You weren’t expecting me.”

            “Right, right…” he agreed, looking between the floor and the door.

            She’d crossed to meet him, eye level. “So why don’t you tell me what you know about our new guest, hm?”