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There's a Beast in the Woods

Chapter Text

There's a beast in the woods.

There’s a beast in the woods and Roman has been sent to kill it.

It’s been three years since he had last been to this land, this forest, this village, and Roman feels conflicted in coming back. On one hand he grew up here, with these people and these trees. Running in this grass and in these fields. Learning and laughing and hurting.

But the hurting. Oh the hurting. It was this place and these woods that he learned love.

The same place where he learned loss.

So, he is conflicted about coming home. But there’s a beast in these woods, and he’s been sent to kill it.

It’s daytime currently, and Roman is dressed for it. Light, airy clothes that stand out against the lush greenery of his surroundings. His sword is sheathed on his back, bag full of clothes over top of it. He is not currently worried about being attacked by the beast. All sightings occur at night. He is not afraid.

No, not right now. Right now he is reminiscing.

He reaches out, brushes his hand against a tree trunk and sighs. He hears laughter ringing in his ears, sees flashes of purple out of the corner of his eye, smells pine and ink, tastes happiness and tears.

Bringing his hand back to his chest, he steels himself to walk into the forest, beyond the path. He used to do this all the time, with-

But he’s alone now. He’s alone now with a beast in the woods that he was brought in to kill.

He pushes his memories aside. There has not been a single spotting of the beast during the day. Not a single attack while sun dotted the forest floor, escaping the foliage above to light the way. A path forged by natural breaks in the leaves as opposed to trees felled by mankind.

A step. Another. Deeper and deeper into the woods, further and further from the relative safety the path provides. The woods get denser, the meager light dimming. There is danger in these woods, he knows. But he tells himself he is safe and pushes on.

He tells himself he is safe even as he sees the gouges in the trees. As the birdsong begins to quiet. As he sees the signs of struggle in the underbrush, broken and smashed.

He begins humming to himself, trying to fill the unnatural silence around his with music, trying to push back his unease.

It is obvious the creature he is hunting is large. The beast is large and dangerous and-

And it’s laying down right in front of him. Dark fur and sharp claws. Even lying down it’s obvious the beast is a hulking thing, would easily be as tall as Roman standing on its hind legs. Even on all fours, the beast seems as tall as Roman’s chest. Perhaps as tall as his shoulders.

Primal fear floods Roman’s veins, enters his heart, and freezes him in his place. He did not realize just how large the beast was going to be, how terrifying. How unsafe these woods are, truly, these days. Even knowing what all the beast has done has not prepared him.

He isn’t prepared for this, hadn’t thought he would stumble across the beast’s den quite so soon. He needs to leave.

He takes a step back and snaps a twig.

Instantly freezing once more, he gulps and stares at the beast and hopes against hope he doesn’t get to see what it’s jaws look up close.

It stirs, and Roman thinks he sees a flash of violet eyes before it settles once more.

A beat passes.

Two.

Three.

Time unfreezes and it seems the creature is still asleep. Taking care not to alert the beast once more, Roman begins backing up slowly.

When he feels he is a safe distance away, he turns and flees. His feet guide him towards the relative safety of the village he had been avoiding all day.

Green flashes past, song birds drowned out by the pounding of his heart. Not even the ghosts of laughter can catch up to him as he runs. Even when he hits the path, he still runs, fear pushing him ever faster. So this was-

But he can not dwell on this fear right now. It is not what a good bounty hunter would do, and so he can not do it either. He pauses just outside of the village, where the woods meet open air, and takes a deep breath.

There’s a beast in those woods, and if he is to kill it, he must gather more information. Even if the memories are painful, he will do what needs to be done.

Careless, he was careless. He knows better, has done far bigger hunts than this. His inability to face the village could have led to his immediate demise. He must get over this and now. If not for himself, then for these people he still dreams of.

His parents, who had died just months before he left. His best friends, who had come together in the strangest of ways.

His twin who had fled before their parents had died, who he hasn’t seen in years.

Memories swirl in his mind, painting the present, filling the cracks he can see in the gate that weren’t there before.

He steps into the village and is hit with an even bigger wave of nostalgia than before.

The woods, the path, those were all associated with him but the village? The village is everyone else.

He steels himself once more. This is different than going into a forest with a threat he wasn’t was aware of. This is facing people who he hasn’t seen in over three years. How much have they changed? How much has stayed the same?

He doesn’t know, and is almost afraid to ask.

Still, he was sent here for a reason, and he will see this job through, one way or another. And right now, he needs information. Pushing past his hesitance, sliding on the arrogance he wears like a second skin, he walks into the village.

The nostalgia only gets stronger as he steps through the gate, but it twists on itself. The same smell of freshly baked bread permeates the air, the streets look the same, worn as they are. But it’s different. Off.

There is no sound of children playing. The villagers, once so welcoming and kind towards strangers, merely glance at him and hurry on their way. It’s less lively, less friendly.

But then, they have been getting attacked by the beast since he’s been gone. And they’ve had people attempt to slay the creature, only to fail time and time again. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that this place is not as picture perfect as his memory makes it out to be. Still, he finds himself shocked in the face of their indifference.

Regardless, he pushes on, searching for someone he remembers, someone who will remember him.

He finds him in the library, of course. It has been three years but time has yet to affect him.

He doesn’t call out just yet. He simply takes in the library, letting the past and present mingle in his mind’s eye. The library always seemed like an otherworldly place, out of step with time. The books towered above him, the scent of dust and paper heavy in the air. It was a comfort he hadn’t realized he had missed so much.

He was here for business though, no matter how much his mind wanted to wander to simpler days. Happier days.

“Logan?” He calls out, careful not to startle him too much. Roman remembers the many times he would sling an arm around Logan’s shoulders while he read, only to nearly get his nose broken.

Logan whips his head up, eyes blown wide and lips slightly parted. He seems to notice this a moment later, snapping his jaw shut. “Roman?” he asks, voice straining.

In response, Roman can do nothing but wave. He isn’t surprised at the shock, doesn’t take offense to it. After all, he had left so soon after-

But he’s back, for now. And he is here for information, not for catching up.

“Yes, it is I, the great Roman, revel in my presence. While you do that, I have a few questions for you, if you wouldn’t mind?” He phrases it as a question, but it’s all for show. Roman could get him to answer any questions he had, it was like a gift.

Or at least, he used to be able to. The amount of changes around has him on edge and he can not help but wonder if that, too, has changed.

Logan’s face seems to go through many emotions at once, and Roman has never been so glad to be able to read those minute facial expressions. So small, if you hadn’t known him you would assume he wasn’t emoting at all.

But no. Wide eyes for shock, shifting into furrowed brows, his confusion. A slight smile, relief perhaps? But it twists again, mouth hard and unforgiving. It scares Roman, almost.

Then his expression smooths out, acceptance. He is ready to speak. “Of course. However, I would prefer to go somewhere for food, as well.”

Roman nods, understanding. He knew he would have to go there eventually, and it is no surprise that Logan is the one wanting to take him there. He wonders whether they have gotten together yet.

Logan stands, shutting his book as he does. The chair squeaks across the floor and Roman internally winces. Ah. It seems he is not forgiven for leaving without a word. He can not say he was not expecting this, too.

Then again, if he really wanted to be forgiven immediately, he would have gone to Patton first, would he not have? What does it say about him that he went to Logan first, he wonders.

The atmosphere is tense as he follows Logan through the village, made even worse by the fact that the other villagers are beginning to stare. Do they recognize him now, where they hadn’t before?

This sight isn’t exactly a rare one, or at least, it wasn’t. Logan and Roman didn’t always see eye to eye, and oftentimes Logan and Roman would march over to Patton and demand that he pick a side.

It’s different this time, of course. Logan is the only one upset, right now. Roman only feels the twist of guilt mingling with dread in his stomach. It is not a particularly enjoyable feeling, so he hides it behind a suave grin that feels like it’s cracking at the edges.

Logan opens the door to the inn, an impassive mask on his face. The anger and hurt lingers in his eyes, though, and it makes the guilt in his stomach spike and pierce his heart.

“Hi! Welcome to-” a large crash sounds, interrupting Patton’s sentence. When Roman looks over, it’s to see Patton in a much more exaggerated state of shock than Logan was. His jaw is hanging, and behind his spectacles, his eyes are as wide as the plates he just dropped on the floor.

It’s silent for a moment, the few people there ceasing all conversation. Roman gives a sheepish wave, arrogance leaving him in a flash. He can not bare to keep up the farce, not when he can clearly see tears gathering in Patton’s eyes.

Patton gives a watery smile and suddenly he’s launching himself into Roman’s arms, startlingly quick. Roman staggers back for a second before regaining his balance, clutching Patton to his chest.

Logan brushes past them, shoulders still obviously tense. A glance at his face shows that the hard line of his mouth has softened just slightly, so perhaps he has not burned that bridge to the ground.

Conversation between the people in the corner starts back up as Patton begins to pull back. It’s not loud, as it’s not very busy, but it provides a subtle hum that relaxes Roman slightly. He has never done well in absolute, eerie silence.

“Oh, Ro,” Patton murmurs, eyes darting all over his face. “What happened to you?”

And here is the thing. Roman is many things, but he is not stupid. He is aware of what is really being asked here. Patton is asking him why he left, what happened, why did he not mention that he was leaving to anyone?

He is not stupid, but he can not find it in himself to answer these questions. Tears burn at the back of his eyes seeing the concern on Patton’s face, but he can not put that concern to rest. So, he ignores the unspoken questions, and answers the most obvious interpretation of his question.

“Nothing I couldn’t handle!” He answers with gusto. Alright, so it’s not really an answer but it is all he can give right now.

Patton’s concern only grows, seeing through Roman’s mask as easily as he always does. He reaches an arm out, hand brushing against his cheek, on the scar that stretches down past Roman’s collar, coming to a stop right above his heart.

“What happened to you?” Patton repeats, softer this time.

“It’s a long story,” Roman returns, voice just as quiet.

Patton sighs, turning on his heel. “I’ve got time,” he says, leading Roman to the bar top, where Logan is already seated.

Roman sits, leaving a chair between himself and Logan. A physical gap that reflects the distance he has put between himself and these people that used to be his friends, his family.

Patton slides behind the bar, a question in his eyes. Roman shakes his head. He hasn’t drank since that day, and he will not start now. Patton smiles, sad but understanding, and Roman can not bare to look at it.

He looks down, instead, at the worn wood of the bar. There are stains there, new and old. A small heart carved into it, along the grain of it, so tiny you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t already know of its existence.

His eyes burn more, throat closing, keeping the sob from escaping him. Roman had carved that nearly four years ago, he remembers.

Remembering hurts, though. Best to stop now before he can turn into a mess.

This was why he didn’t want to return. The memories threaten to consume him and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

He hears someone clear their throat and his eyes snap to the side, where Logan is sitting.

Logan is still tense, still hurt, still angry, but there’s sympathy in his gaze. Understanding. Roman has to look away before the tears escape. He promised himself, said he was done with crying. It was time to move on.

“So, how have you been?” Logan asks, not meeting Roman’s eyes.

“I’ve been… Alright I suppose. And you guys?”

Logan shrugs, looking at Patton, who’s smiling softly. “We’ve been doing as well as you can expect,” Patton responds.

It’s quiet for a moment, tense. There’s a clinking of glasses as Patton rearranges them behind the bar. A laugh sounds from the corner of the room, where the other patrons are sitting.

“Did you know Joan and Talyn are getting married soon?” Patton throws out, desperate to break the silence. Roman latches onto the topic with relief.

They spend the next hour like that, talking and catching up. Carefully, avoiding any topics that may upset others.

He is struck with the desperate need to rebuild these bridges he so carelessly left behind three years ago. He can not have everyone back, but he may be able to get his best friends back. It would be enough.

It would be more than he, perhaps, deserved.

He tells stories of the people he has met, rescued, talked to on his travels. He tells them about leaving to become a knight only to be told he had to prove his merit. He tells them how he had needed funds, how he had stopped at an inn and saw the bounty board. How many people he’s helped since then.

“Is that what you’ve been doing these past few years? Hunting things? Is that where you got that,” Logan waves a hand at Roman’s face and chest, “from?”

“Yes. It seems that unicorns are rather wily and very territorial. Who knew?” Roman attempts to sound blase, unaffected by the encounter, but it was the closest he had come to death in the years since he had left.

In return, they tell him of what has been going on in the village. That the blacksmith’s daughter has taken over the forge and how her creations have already surpassed his. How he was so proud of her that they had a week long celebration where everyone got together to pitch in food and made music. How during that week Logan and Patton had gotten together, finally.

“You mean you guys finally got your lives together and made it official?” Roman exclaims, incredulous. Could you really blame him though? The two of them had been pining for years, before that point.

Logan responds with a huff, Patton a laugh, both of them looking so happy, even despite the hardship that they carry with them.

The hour passes mostly with ease. There are a couple stumbles here and there, where things go quiet and awkward, but someone always picks the conversation back up.

But Roman can not trick himself into thinking he’s back in the past, that nothing has changed.

Patton and Logan will sometimes exchange looks that Roman can not read. It scares him, to see something he does not understand in the faces of some of the most important people to him.

But what did he expect? That his friends would not change at all? That they would stay the same?

Of course they changed. He can see it in their eyes, the hardship that they had endured since he left. The pain.

Acknowledging that hurts. He may have needed to leave, maybe he could not stand this town and the memories he had with him haunting his every corner. Leaving took its toll on them, his friends, though. They lost two people in as many months. They carry that pain with them even now.

In those tense moments, he sees what leaving has done to his friends, has to face it. There are reasons why he had fought hard not to think and dwell on this place anymore, and it wasn’t just because of his personal losses.

The guilt threatens to consume him, so he does what he always does. Buries it deep in his heart and throws on a confident smile. Laughs and boasts and tries so hard not to let his own pain show.

They can not keep dancing around the topic though, and it’s no surprise to Roman that Patton is the one to bring it up.

“So, kiddo, what brought you back here?” Patton asks, as though the answer is not already obvious.

“I’ve heard you guys have had a… beastly problem, and I am something of an expert at getting rid of those problems.”

Patton and Logan share another one of those unreadable looks, and Roman starts to feel uneasy. “True. It started up about a week or so after you left…” Logan trails off, still looking at Patton.

“We can talk about it later, it’s about dinner time and we’re going to be getting people coming in soon. Do you know where you’re going to be sleeping tonight? Your parents’ house is still unoccupied.” Patton beams, but it’s strained. Roman notes this, notes how odd it is, but he’s too busy turning the question over in his mind to really question it.

He… has not thought about where he was to sleep

“I would… prefer not to. Say, Pat, do you happen to have a room open? I would, of course, pay-”

“Nonsense,” Patton interrupts. “You can sleep here, of course, but I’m not going to charge you for it. After all, you are here to rid the town of a problem, are you not?”

Roman suspects that his fellow hunters had not received their rooms for free, but Roman is too grateful to call Patton out on it.

The door to the inn opens and a group of teens walk in laughing. One of them has her arm slung around another girls shoulder and they’re holding hands. It’s such a familiarly strange scene and it brings forth a memory of him.

Of his laughter as Roman refuses to let go of his hand, even as they try to enter the library at the same time. Of times where they had curled together in the meadow under the stars, arms wound tight around each other.

A lump forms in his throat that he struggles to swallow around. Being here is bringing all these memories back faster than he can adjust, and he’s struggling.

Patton clears his throat and Roman snaps his gaze over to him. What he sees is no easier to bare. The look of sympathy and pain is a strange echo of the melancholy that covers every memory he has of him. It hurts in a different way than the cheerful ease the girls displayed.

“Logan, would you mind showing Ro here to a room upstairs? It’s about to start getting busy here.” Logan nods and gets up, leaning over the counter to brush his lips against Patton’s cheek. It fills Roman with pain, with jealousy, with guilt over being jealous.

Logan leads Roman upstairs, where all the rooms are. There are less memories contained in these rooms, as they had not really had a reason to visit them when he was younger. It is easier to pretend, here, that this is just another village. Another stop in his long journey of helping others. Doing for them what he failed to do for himself.

What he failed to do for-

“Here we are.” Logan opens a door with a key, produced from who knows where really. He stands aside, allowing Roman to pass by him.

The room is the nearly same as every other inn he has stayed in. Small, with only a bed, a small desk, and a couple unlit candles. What sets it apart is the window.

It takes up a large part of the back wall, large, deep violet curtains framing it. It juts out, creating a small nook. The ledge appears to be just large enough for Roman to sit upon it comfortably.

But more than that, it seems to have a perfect view of the sun setting over the forest. It is so beautiful that Roman forgets all his sadness, all the pain he has felt since he resigned himself to coming back here.

He just exists in this moment, drawing closer to the window. He reaches a hand out towards the window, a look of wonder on his face. He forgot how beautiful the sunset was. When was the last time he just stopped and took in the beauty of the world around him?

He knows when, but he feels too at peace to let the knowledge bother him. Yes, it has been over three years since he let himself stop and relax. For once, he lets the knowledge settle over him, and does not feel the familiar guiltshamepain that comes with the memory of his face.

He remembers dragging him out to the forest, to their meadow, to watch the sunrise. He had complained that it was too early, come on Ro can’t we go home? But the look of wonder on his face had been worth all the grumbling Roman endured to get him there.

They had spent all day talking and kissing and laughing. They had watched the sunset at the end of it all and Roman had thought that happiness would last forever.

But that was the last happy day before everything slipped through his fingers.

Roman lets the memory of that day wash over him with a strange sense of tranquility. He would have loved this window, this nook. He would have spent hours here, reading by sunlight, Roman just knows it.

He turns back to where Logan is standing, still in the doorway, and knows he is being forgiven. That even though there is still pain and tenseness, still questions Roman will have to answer, that they will be okay.

This is one of the few people in the world who knows him better than he knows himself, afterall.

Logan smiles, really smiles, and waves. “Dinner rush usually lasts an hour or two. Take time to get settled and join us when you’re ready.”

Roman nods, not wanting to interrupt this rare moment of peace within himself by speaking.

Logan leaves, closing the door as he does, and Roman turns back towards the window. The sword that has been sheathed on his back all afternoon weighs him down, so he reaches back to take it off.

As he twists to tug at it, unlooping it from around his shoulder and torso, he thinks he sees a flash at the treeline and freezes.

When a closer look reveals nothing, Roman shakes it off reluctantly. He does not wish to lose this tranquility, desperate to hold onto it as long as he can, the rarity of it sacred to him. After all, the beast will still be there tomorrow.

He heads over to the desk, laying his sword atop it. He only has that and a small bag filled with an additional set of clothes and the money he uses to pay for inns and whatever else he may come across in his travels. Everything else he had left behind when he left.

Perhaps he will enter his parent’s house, his house, once more while he is here. Perhaps he will reclaim the rest of his possessions, assuming they are still there.

For now, the calm urges him to lie down, so he does just that. On the bed, he twists his body until he can watch the sun as it slips down below the tree line.

He does not know when his eyes choose to mimic this action, slipping close. All he knows is the calm he feels and the dreams of laughter and smiles.

Chapter Text

Roman opens his eyes to complete and utter darkness, not even a drop of moonlight. At some point, someone must have come in and closed the curtains. Roman stumbles through the room, trying to get to the window to yank the curtains back open.

He fumbles with a curse, knocking his hip into the nightstand. A crash sounds as… whatever was on it falls to the floor. He hopes no one heard that.

Finally, he reaches the curtains and tugs them open. The moon is a pale sliver high in the sky, stars winking around it.

He struggles to figure out why he was awoken in the first place. He does not feel the need to go to the restroom. The only sounds he can hear are the crickets in the wind, neither loud nor quiet.

His stomach growls as he remembers he had slept without dinner and he figures that must have been the cause of his abrupt awakening. He casts one last glance outside before he turns to leave.

A shadow passes in the treeline, and he whips his head around to stare out into the woods, on edge. He waits and waits, but sees nothing else. His stomach sounds once more and he turns again, to leave the room in search of food.

He is intimately aware of the dangers the night brings. The creatures that step out to play their games, frightening and heart stopping and terrifying to behold. Still, he is confident in his ability to stop them if need be, three years of experience rapidly gained from his travels and bounties.

There was also the fact that he had survived a full week within the land of the fae. There are very few who can claim this achievement, and those who can have long passed due to the continuous march of time.

He glides towards the stairs, feet light upon the ground, ears straining for any noise that should not be there. As he crosses the threshold between the hall and the stairs, he’s taken aback by the loud noises that assault him.

Roman takes a step back, confused, and his world goes silent once more. Curious, he steps forward again, and is hit with a wave of noise again. He… had not realized that their little town had this particular ward added to the halls of its inn.

He takes a step towards the rail and finds the ward engraved upon its end, barely lit by the lanterns lining the hall. The light seems to flicker over it, giving it an otherworldly feel as it appears to move with the shadows.

It is not moving, of course. That is merely the way wards are. Only those adept in the arts are able to glean their meanings, able to discern their shapes, imbue them with power.

Roman frowns. It is not an uncommon practice to hire a Master to ward a town or inn. At least, not in the big cities. In small, rural villages such as his, the work is simply too expensive and unnecessary to find and hire a Master to carry out the work.

Then there is also the tendency to fear those who possess a talent in the arts. People tend to be afraid of things they can not understand, cower in fear or stand up to it with malicious hatred. And the arts are a mysterious force. If you are not of the few chosen to have a talent amongst it, you will never be able to understand its ways. That is simply its nature.

Roman has no such talent, can not hold the shape of the ward in his mind, does not truly understand how it works. But he has spent enough time in large inns to at least have a faint understanding of what, exactly, this ward is. A sound muffling one, a powerful one at that.

Who ever had laid it here, must have been very powerful indeed to have all noise eliminated once across its threshold.

He lays a hand upon it, feels the heat and spark of it, and bites his lip.

Another growl of his stomach shakes him out of his reverie. He can inquire about the ward later, but first he must get food, lest his stomach wake everyone who might be sleeping. Best not to use the gifts he had gained. They always lead him to more trouble than they are worth.

He glides down the stairs, curious as to how his inn has changed with time. How its people has changed. It used to be such a lively place, never going without uproarious laughter for too long.

It is still loud, far louder than it had been earlier. But it does not seem to hold a candle to the joy and liveliness of his memories. It is as though the joy has dwindled, leaving nothing but a shell of what this place used to be.

Has the beast really haunted this place that much?

He knows, of course, of the missing people. Children who stray too close to the woods and are never seen again. Worried parents who follow them and are swallowed up by the trees and branches. Has heard the tales of an unkillable thing, slaying every person who dares to hunt it.

But still, there have been no attacks within town. No one mysteriously disappearing from their homes. The fear, however, seems to linger in every crevice, every shadow. It is as though the people do not believe they are safe wherever they are.

He will kill this beast, if only to see peace in his home once more.

He allows his steps to grow louder now, not wishing to scare anyone. Not wishing to scare Patton, who he can see entering and exiting the bar area. His arm held aloft with a tray of drinks and glasses with every pass.

Roman calls out to him, then sits at a table that appears abandoned in the corner. These are not his people any more, and he does not know how to move around them. Better to get some distance and regroup. Tomorrow, or perhaps later today, he will talk to them. For now, he needs a plan.

Eventually, Patton is able to make his way over, a smile on his face. “Slept well?” he asks, teasing.

“Quite. The beds are rather lovely, and I’m afraid I simply could not help myself,” Roman returns.

“Oh, quiet you. I know those beds are far from comfortable, though I gave you the best we had. Still, you missed dinner. Everything alright?”

“Yes, my travels simply had drained me more than I had anticipated. Dinner would be nice though, late as it is.” Patton doesn’t reply, simply nodding and turning towards the back, where the food is prepared.

He does not have a quill or ink or even paper, but that is alright. He enjoys writing down his travels, the stories that he creates from them, but he has always been more content with planning in his own head. He thinks of the facts, gleaned from his time in the woods earlier, and his conversations with both Patton and Logan.

He knows the beast had first been sighted a week after he had left. When people had started going missing, he is not sure. All he knows is that the bounty had gone up nearly a year ago.

He had seen it then, of course, but he was not ready to face the town at the time. Still is not sure that he wants to be here even now. The memories threaten to overwhelm him and-

The bounty had been small then. Just a few gold pieces. Just what the town itself could offer. Then bounty hunters had started going missing. Small, unknown ones at first. Ones that had just started their careers. The reward had started to climb steadily as the townspeople, presumably, gotten desperate.

Then Hunter Valerian had gone missing shortly after taking the job.

She was a prominent hunter, known by nearly everyone. While Roman did not have a specialty, simply taking jobs that took him far from his home and helped people, Varian did. She was a Declared Hunter, part of the Bounty Hunter Association. She had Declared in the hunting of Savage Beasts.

Savage Beasts, like the name implies, were beasts or creatures that had at least five dozen missing persons, or kills, attached to their names. These were of the nastiest sort, the ones that could torment people for years before being slain. And Varian was a master at slaying them.

So for her to go missing was a big deal.

That was nearly a month ago, and she has since been declared missing. The BHA has since added to the reward, two hundred gold pieces for the pelt of the creature. Unfortunately, due to such a prominent a person going missing, not many wanted to take the job. No matter how high the reward.

Roman, however, began to feel guilty about leaving his village to such a fate, and knew he at least had to try.

So, this beast was a nasty one. Had killed people far more skilled than he, and was, from what he had seen, rather large. Just what was he going to do?

A plate appeared in his vision, interrupting his view of the table he had taken to staring at while thinking. He looks up to see Logan sliding into the seat across him, Patton leaning casually on his chair.

They were so casual around each other now. It is not as though they were tense before, but like the air around them had been heavy with unspoken confessions. Now, they are relaxed as Logan settles in and Patton gestures for him to eat.

He feels a pang of longing that surprises him. Not at the ease with which they have. No, that longing is still there but it is unsurprising, no matter how much he loathes it. What is surprising is the longing he feels for having wished he had witnessed their closeness.

He wishes he had not left.

It is a startling realization, one he does not know what to do with. So, he ignores it, buries it deep deep down, and he begins to eat.

The meal is as delicious as always. This must have been made by Patton himself, despite the fact that he must surely have had staff to do it for him. How long had Roman been thinking to himself?

He eats and compliments Patton, who smiles and laughs, saying it’s nothing. Roman just continues to thank him and compliment, perhaps overdoing it a bit. But he enjoys making his friends laugh and hopes they are still friends. That after this business is all well and done, he can talk and laugh with them. Even if one of their number is missing, he finds that he may be able to face it now.

As long as he has them, he may be able to face that yawning emptiness inside him.

Patton leaves eventually, leaving Roman with Logan who has been smiling at their antics. If anyone knows what, exactly, is going on, it is him. Logan always did hate not knowing things, always wanted to know all he could. An admirable trait, even if it lead to him practically living in the library during their teen years.

They talk, and Roman learns that the first disappearance had not occurred until nearly three months after they first spotted it. Even then, they had not thought it was the beast until later.

The child that had gone missing was Calamity. A strange name, but Calamity was a strange girl. She was loved by her parents, and though she was a bit eccentric, many were entranced by her rambling tales of the wildest dreams of hers.

Her disappearance distressed her parents. They had gone after her, a couple days after she had gone. No one has seen them since.

Since then, three more children have gone missing, along with ten other adults. And, of course, all the bounty hunter’s that have tried before. This brings the totals of deaths accredited to the beast to thirty.

“It is strange, however. The only bodies to have been found were those of the bounty hunter’s. I wonder why that may be?” Logan mutters to himself, looking as though he has been given a particularly difficult puzzle. Roman is not worried. If anyone could figure it out, it would be Logan.

Interesting though this information is, however, it does not give him any information as to how to slay the beast. All it does is tell him how dangerous the beast is.

That, and it makes him a bit uneasy. He can not shake the feeling that they’re missing something big. Something important.

Roman is about to inquire about the state of the bodies, to get a better idea of how the beast attacks, when the door to the inn slams open.

The inn goes utterly silent, as they all turn to stare at the man in the doorway. He looks panicked, terrified, but also overwhelmingly upset.

“Has anyone seen Darran?” He asks, no. He sobs. There are tears streaming down his face. “Have you seen my grandson? My daughter’s little boy?”

It took Roman a moment, memories slow to catch up to him in this moment of surprise and dread. Furan, the old blacksmith.

Somehow, without even looking at anyone else, he knows that no one here has seen the child. Knows, somehow, that the child must have wandered into the woods.

A woman comes up behind the man, looking just as pained and panicked as him. No, more so. It must be Felicity, the new blacksmith, his daughter. She looks so distraught, hair wild from where it has escaped her ponytail. She does not say anything, just sobs and collapses into her father’s arms.

It is quiet in the inn, pity and dread weighing the atmosphere down. Roman takes in the room, the people who can not look at the sobbing pair at the doorway, and makes up his mind.

He stands quickly, the chair crashing into the wall behind him in his haste. The sobbing pair don’t glance up, but the other patrons stare at him, eyes wide. He glances at Logan, who looks shocked at first. After a moment, however, understanding over takes his face, followed by fear.

Roman runs up the stairs, not even stopping to notice the silence that now seems eerie. He just goes to his room and grabs his weapons.

He runs downstairs, faster even with the sword weighing him down. He does not have a plan, he just knows that he can not stand there and do nothing.

The pair at the door have been joined by another woman, perhaps Felicity’s wife, Persephone. Named for her beauty, she looks ruined now, hair every which way and clothes torn. They’re all sobbing, clutching each other.

He is about to approach them, to tell them that he will make things right, when a hand reaches out to stop him. It’s Patton, peering up at him, fear in his eyes. “Be careful,” he whispers, Logan behind him.

They both look so sad, so scared. “I will come back,” Roman vows. He will not leave them again. Refuses to.

They both look at him, before nodding as one. “Very well,” Logan says. “See to it that you do.”

Roman nods back, then turns towards the group at the door. “I will be back,” he promises. “I will come back, and bring Darren with me. On my honor, I will be back.”

The group just stares blankly at him, tears in their eyes. Maybe they believe him, maybe they do not. Either way, he marches out into the woods, purpose in every silent step.

The woods look different at night, sinister. Whether it’s because Roman understands the danger now, or because he’s alone, he doesn’t know.

What he does know is that the forest would be calm, peaceful, even if it didn’t make him so tense.

There are crickets and frogs sounding, the sound of moving water. The moon lights his path, stars winking at him where the sky breaks through the trees above. All of this should culminate in a peaceful setting, but he just can't relax.

After all, there is a beast and these woods, and he is here to kill it.

He slinks through the undergrowth, eyes straining to pick up the path he stumbled upon when he first came to town. He has slept since then, however, and the woods look different at night. That may be why he has been wandering the woods for so long the moon is nearly at its peak.

His sword is held in front of him, ready as it has been since he stepped off the path. Though his arms are starting to burn, experience tells him that not being ready is far worse. He had let nostalgia cause him to be lax earlier. He would not make that mistake again.

He’s aware of every sound he makes, every twig snapping, every leaf crunching, every breath he takes.

Roman is very aware, so he notices immediately when there is breathing there that is not his.

He freezes for a moment, fear causing his heart to leap into his throat. Only a moment, though. Then he continues.

If the creature hasn’t attacked yet, for whatever reason, it is best to not stop and make himself a sitting target.

He walks forward, straining his ears this time. If he can pinpoint where the creature is, he may be able to attack first.

A snap sounds, but that’s from his own feet. A hoot and a woosh come from his left, and he struggles not to jump. He’s tense, anticipation and dread and a small bit of excitement rushing through his veins.

A few more steps and he hears another snap, this time from behind him and a little to the right. Heavy breathing mixed with a slight rustling sound.

As the sound continues, Roman hones in on it, becoming more and more sure of where it’s coming from.

Finally, he’s got it. The crickets have died down, there are no more frogs to be heard. It’s just him and the thing he’s hunting, the leaves crunching beneath their feet. Anticipation wins out over the dread, and his heart thrums in his chest.

Roman slows his pace down, listens as the sounds coming from the beast get closer.

Closer.

Closer.

Now!

He whirls around, bringing his sword around where he assumes the neck is. He thinks he has the timing right, is fast enough, but he just misses.

The beast leaps back, and it lowers into a defensive stance. Legs apart, mouth set in a snarl, terrifying and larger than he had anticipated. Time stands still for a minute, and then Roman brings his sword back up, ready to attack once more.

A hack, a slash, but he’s always one step behind, not quite fast enough.

And yet, it’s odd. The beast has not attacked him once. Rather, it seems to… relax almost.

The ears aren’t pressed to its skull, it’s tail swishing back and forth.The mouth, once snarling and vicious, closes. It confuses Roman, and while he does not stop attacking, he also starts retreating, wondering if perhaps this is a trick.

He backs up into a clearing, the beast following him, and suddenly it is bathed in light.

In the shade from before, Roman had mistaken the beasts coat for black, dark as it was. Now, in the moonlight, Roman sees that, while dark, it is more of a dark brown color, light reflecting off the coat. The eyes, he sees, are a deep violet color, and almost seem to glow. Like this, no longer aggressive and bathed in light, the beast doesn’t seem nearly as scary.

Even with the adrenaline thrumming through his veins, Roman knows that, logically, he should be terrified. He recalls that the beast has killed every bounty hunter that has tried to take its head.

The more he looks at the creature, however, the less scared he feels. Part of him still wants to freeze, wants to run, wants to fight, but that part of him is shrinking the more he looks.

He wonders if this is like the sirens he had encountered, the one time he had gone by boat to the other land. Charming, leading you in with its song.

No. It is not the same. This feeling, this curiosity, it is all his own. It is not something that is being implanted in his brain. It is a subtle feeling, a subtle difference, but it only serves to bring him in more.

Roman stops his fighting. It is not getting him anywhere to begin with, and the beast is not attacking him either, for whatever reason. For now, his curiosity pushes him to figure out why that is, why him?

Is this how Logan feels anytime he has a question he does not know the answer to? This need to figure it out, to answer the question, solve the mystery?

If that is so, Roman should try not to tease him so much about it. It is a compelling feeling, more a need than a want.

Still, he keeps his weapon out. Curiosity, when not tempered by caution, can kill. He has seen it happen, has heard the stories. Has nearly joined their numbers. He does not wish for tonight to be his last.

The beast looks at him, violet eyes flashing lavender in the moonlight. They are almost at eye level, tall as the beast is, so much larger than he had first thought. Both are still, calm in this clearing.

The beast takes a step forward, and Roman takes a step back, a spike of fear zipping up his spine.

In response, the beast freezes, stepping back. Roman relaxes, but it causes his confusion to rise.

While a lot of the beasts and creatures he has hunted before show some signs of intelligence, every one, every single one, attacked him relentlessly. They may have had intelligence, but they all were feral. Lacking humanity.

The only creatures who had not acted as such were the High Fae, but they also draped themselves in illusions, looked as human as anyone if not studied too closely. They, too, tried to kill him, however, when he stumbled into their domain.

This beast, however, is not like that. It is… curious, almost. Defensive. Perhaps it had only killed the others because they had tried killing it?

But that does not explain the other attacks, and why it had not tried killing Roman when he attacked it.

He has so many questions now. What is this creature? Why does it seem as though Roman is special?

Staring into the creatures eyes, he feels a strange calm over take him. The longer he stares, the safer he feels. Not safe enough to put away his weapon, not yet, but safer nonetheless.

He takes a step towards the beast, curious as to how it will react. It does not move, so he takes another.

And another.

Further and further until he’s standing right in front of it. They’re both frozen, staring at each other. Roman’s sword is hanging, forgotten at his side.

Roman reaches out a hand, not entirely sure what he’s doing, but knowing it just feels right.

Right when Roman is about to touch its snout, it startles. Its tail tucked between its legs, ears pressed flat to its head. It takes a step back then turns and dashes off, leaving Roman alone in the woods, and a child still missing.

Chapter Text

Roman stares at the empty spot where the beast had disappeared blankly. He does not know what it means, why it happened in the first place. For now, the beast in the woods will have to wait, first, he has a child to find.

He turns on his heel and continues, away from where the beast had disappeared. If the child was not with it, and was not along the path that Roman took, then the child is probably deeper in the woods.

He only hopes the boy is still alive.

The sound has returned. No, not returned. It had not truly stopped before, only, he had stopped paying attention. Now, straining his ears for any sign of a whimper, they almost deafen him.

The crickets are in his ears, the song of death from the owls above an ill omen of what is to come. The river that burbled so peacefully before seem like a torrent set to wash away any trace of a trail.

It isn’t true of course. Only, after a battle that gets his heart racing and his blood flowing, the crash is jarring. Uncomfortable.

Painful.

Regardless, Roman can not allow himself to linger on this pain. It is too common an occurrence, now, for him to be shocked. He only wishes he could get used to it.

He pushes past the pain, the pulsing of his head, and trudges forward. He is no less quiet, but he is less cautious. The beast is the most dangerous thing in these woods. With it gone, he should be able to carry on without problem.

The moon overhead is beginning its descent when he hears it. Crying. It is coming from down below him, to the side where the river bank is.

He steps to the edge of the bluff he is standing on, straining his eyes for any sign of the child making the sound. It hurts, the light is so low and he is not meant to see this well. He knows where this sight comes from and it makes his stomach turn even as he thanks it.

There, along the edge of the river, more a creek in the summer heat. The child is on his knees, sobbing into his hands. Roman is relieved to see that he is alive and appears to be unharmed.

(A small part of him, one he does not dare let distract him, feels as though he should never have doubted the fact that the child is alive. As though the beast would not harm him. It is an errant, naive thought, and one that Roman ignores.)

The drop from the bluff is steep, but not too much so. There does not seem to be any immediate danger to the boy, but time is of the essence.

Still, Roman does not want to startle Darran and set him running. He must think carefully about what he is going to do. He has to gain the boy’s trust, and get him home, before the beast returns. Just because it had spared Roman once, does not mean it will spare the child. The facts laid out before by the townspeople support that.

Roman has to be careful, must get him to trust Roman, and he must find a way out of the woods quickly. That means not rushing down the bluff without spotting a way back up.

Straining his eyes once more, ignoring the nausea that comes with it, he tries to find a safe path down.

There, a gap in the trees where he can see it leads up. Looking to his left, he sees a similar gap. He does not have time to question it, he feels anticipation and a creepy dread swirling in his head, and feels he must move quickly.

Swift and silent, he darts down the path, careful but sure. He stops, momentarily, at the bottom of the bluff, mere feet from the child. He looks down at his sword and deems it more important to come off as friendly than have a weapon on hand. He sheathes it.

Clearing his throat lightly, he steps harder than necessary, making it audible. The child, Darren, snaps his head up, his tears glinting in non-existent moonlight. Roman’s eyes hurt.

“Darren?” Roman asks, taking a careful, loud, step forward. Darren is frozen, staring at Roman. It makes sense, Darren can’t be much older than four, he would not remember Roman. He’s just a stranger.

It feels more uncomfortable, somehow, than it did in the village. Makes him feel like he does not belong here, in these woods, in that village.

He pushes the feeling back, however. It does not matter what he feels. Roman has a child to help, that is his duty. He will see it through.

Roman takes another step forward, bending his knees, trying to seem smaller. “Your mothers, Felicity and Persephone, they asked me to come get you. What do you say we go home, hm?”

Darren just stares at him, wide-eyed and terrified. Roman takes another step forward, and Darren scrambles to his feet. Roman freezes.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he says softly, kneeling down. He meets Darren’s terrified eyes and smiles as kindly as he can. The sit in relative silence for a few moments, only broken by the wildlife and Darren’s panicked breathing.

When Darren’s breathing begins to slow, Roman extends a hand. He wants to reassure, but it does not seem to work.

Darren darts into the woods, faster than any four year old Roman has ever seen. No wonder he managed to get this far with those quick legs of his.

He is frozen for a moment, uncertain what to do. If he chases after Darren, the child may think that, well, he is being chased. But still, Roman can not simply let the child run into who knows what danger.

Roman remembers the death omen of the owls, their cries and their warnings. Then he hears a yelp and a thump and Roman’s mind is made up. He jumps to his feet and chases after the child.

Roman is not sure how long they run, only that he should have caught up by now. Yes, the boy is quick, but he is quick for a four year old. He should not be able to outrun a full grown adult.

It’s like the very earth is against him. Trees that were not there before suddenly appear in his path. The meager light of the moon is shrouded by the clouds in the sky. Roman strains his eyes more, ignoring the stabbing pain in his head, but it does not seem to help. Rocks appear, tripping him. Roots and branches seem to block him.

He stops straining his eyes when he feels a trickle of blood run into his mouth from his nose.

Roman does not give up, however. He wipes the blood from his face and continues racing forward on shaky legs.

Finally, he reaches a clearing before a rundown cottage and stops. Darren is standing in the middle of the clearing, no sound coming from him. No sobs, no harsh breaths, nothing. In fact, there seems to be no sound at all.

The clearing is still. There must be a breeze, but Roman can not feel it, can not see it reflected in the trees, but he knows it must be there. Not even Roman is moving, he can not seem to make himself do so.

Instead, the only movement is Darren moving steadily towards the door of the cottage.

Roman panics inwardly. Whatever enchantment that is in this clearing can not be good. This whole excursions has been nothing but bad and confusing and wrong. But Roman can not move, no matter how much he screams at himself to do so.

Still, he refuses to give up. He can not give up, it simply is not in his nature. So he pushes, and pushes, and pushes. Past the pounding of his heart and head, beating as one. Past the ice freezing his legs. Past the feeling of blood dripping down his lips, his cheek, the side of his head. He pushes, and pushes, and-

A pop. Or something similar. Sound returns, and Roman can hear the blood flowing through his veins, quick as his heartbeat. He can hear the cries of warning and omen in the wind that is there but not.

He can hear the crunching of grass turning to the thump of wood as Darren reaches the steps to do the door of the cottage.

Everything is too loud, too much to handle. But handle it he must, he has to get to Darren before he reaches the door.

His legs still feel like frozen jelly, but he forces them forward. He will not fail this, refuses to fail this.

Step by agonizing step, he begins to move, faster and faster, but not fast enough. He works his throat, but nothing comes out. He tries to push again, but his strength is flagging and he can not afford that. So he stops and continues to step forward.

Darren’s hand is at the door, poised to knock, and Roman finally manages to start running. Acting quickly, he darts up the stairs and picks Darren up from behind. He knows this is not good for the kid, knows that this will terrify him, but what choice does Roman have? He does not know what is in that cottage, but he knows it is not good.

Darren does not scream. He does not cry. He does not make a sound. That is not good. Darren should be doing something, but he does not even make a peep. Whatever is going on, it is bigger than Roman can discern right now. He just has to get the child somewhere safe for now.

Roman turns on his heel and runs. There are pins and needles up and down his legs but he ignores it for now. Eventually, when he gets far enough away from the clearing he feels moderately safe, he stops, and looks at the boy in his arms.

He had, while running, shifted Darren into a princess carry. It made it easier to run and carry him at the same time. Looking at Darren now, as he sleeps, Roman is struck with how small Darren is. How helpless. He is just a child, just a little boy, and this night has been so hard on him.

There are little cuts on his face, dirt and tears staining it. His night clothes are dirty and ruined. How awful this night must have been for him. Evidence of his terror lingers on him even as he sleeps.

Looking him over, Roman lets the feelings of dread and triumph and panic and euphoria wash over him.

If he had been a little less quick, a little less stubborn, who knows what would have happened.

If he had been a little more patient, maybe that whole scene would not have happened at all.

No, he can not allow himself to linger on that. Learn from it, yes. Linger on it? Absolutely not.

He lets the feelings wash over him, but shakes himself before the tiredness in his bones. Now, out of the clearing, the moonlight is back, and Roman can see the footsteps he left behind in his dash to get to Darren. They’re all over the place, twisting in a path Roman had been sure was straight.

Something is not adding up, and Roman is intent to find out what is wrong with these woods. He walks forward, looking at the patches of dirt kicked up from when Roman tripped. See’s the little footprints that seem to go in one simple line destroyed by Roman’s larger, wandering ones and commits it to memory.

There is something more than a beast in the woods and Roman intends to find out what that something is.

First, however, he must get Darren back to his family.

Yawning, he treks ever forward. He does not know how much time has passed since he found Darren, how long he has been walking. He does, however, know that the horizon is beginning to lighten by the time he makes it back to the village. It was, certainly, longer than it took to find Darren in the first place.

At times, he finds himself crossing his path, like the forest is rearranging itself to keep them trapped. But that can not be possible. Only an absurdly powerful Master would be strong enough to do that. Even then, they are bound by their code of balance to not do so. An evil act must be countered by an equally good one. What reason would they have to keep Roman and this child trapped in these woods?

Still, the other option is a High Fae and Roman has had quite enough of them. If a High Fae has taken residence in these woods, they have a much bigger problem than that of a mere, albeit dangerous and confusing, beast.

Regardless, it is nearly sunrise before they make it back to the village. Persephone is the first to notice them, grabbing the attention of Felicity and Furan. They run over to greet him, or rather, to greet Darren.

“Darren! Darren! Oh my little boy what happened to you?” Felicity takes Darren into her arms, mummering to herself. Persophone litters his face with countless little kisses, comfort and relief and gratefulness wrapped in one hundred little gestures of familiarity.

It is moments like these, when Roman is exhausted and in pain but triumphant, he remembers why he does this. Why he does not simply keep pushing to become a knight. Because a knight does not get to see moments like these.

Yes, they keep the peace and rescue the prince, but they do not hand deliver kidnapped children back to their parents. They serve the people, yes, but more than that they serve the king. This job, this bounty hunting, he gets more than just money and glory. He gets to give people hope and the reconnection that he never got when-

He smiles, and pushes down any bitterness he feels. Three years and this is still the best and worst part of what he does.

“Thank you,” Persephone says, taking Roman out of his musings. “Thank you for bringing back our son. I was afraid you had changed when you left. But I see now you’re still the kind man that worked to keep us safe, even if it got you into trouble.”

“Yes, thank you Roman. We owe you.” Felicity’s eyes are filled with tears, but her smile is bright and grateful.

“It was my pleasure,” Roman says, less dramatically than he usually would. This night has been long and arduous and his mind is filled to the brim. It makes him more honest and less overdone than he usually is. But the family in front of him do not notice so it is alright.

He leaves them to their reunion, grateful that they are too preoccupied with the child to inquire about his appearance. They will ask for the story later. For now, he has time to bathe and get rid of the crusty feeling of blood drying on his face. Then he can plan his next steps.

This is interrupted the second Patton sees him.

The sound of glass shattering brings about a sense of deja vu. How odd that that exact sound had occurred not even a day ago. It feels like it has been longer.

“What happened? Are you alright?” Patton rushes over to him, a wash rag in hand.

“I’m fine, it was nothing. I got Darren back, though my outfit is a bit worse for wear for it,” Roman answers, gently pushing Patton away.

Patton crosses his arms, glaring. It is a truly terrifying sight. Roman can count on one hand how many times Patton has been truly angry and it was usually towards Virgil’s self deprecating thoughts.

Roman freezes. He is too tired to truly monitor his thoughts, to keep himself from thinking of him. Roman would really like to bathe and sleep now, anything to keep from remembering again. He can not do this now.

“-care about you. Are you even listening to me right now mister?”

“Yes,” Roman asks on autopilot. Patton simply huffs and glares harder. Then he relaxes, uncrossing his arms.

“I care for you, please, let me help you. I’m not as smart as Logan is or as strong as you are, but I can help if you just let me,” Patton pleads. His eyes are wide, staring up at Roman as he is.

“If you could get breakfast that would be wonderful.” He can not get Patton involved. Not until he knows just what, exactly, is going on. He has hurt Patton enough. He does not wish to add to that.

Patton looks at him for a moment longer, gaze flickering between Roman’s eyes. Then he deflates with a nod. “Alright. If that’s what you want.” Patton turns and starts to walk away and Roman feels a flash of guilt. He reaches out, catching Patton’s elbow.

“Thank you, Pat. For everything. It helps more than you know.” And there it is. That smile. Roman exhales with relief.

“Anything you need, kiddo, you hear me? Anything.”

“Of course.” With a smile of his own, Roman turns towards the stairs and begins the trudge towards the bathing room. Bath first. Everything else can wait until after.

And if he has to concentrate on the feeling of grit and blood on him to keep from thinking about something else? No one else has to know.

Chapter Text

While he was bathing, Roman had decided on an edited version of the story to tell Darren’s family. Roman wanted to figure out why the beast hadn’t attacked before telling anyone. It would not due to worry anyone unnecessarily, after all.

He had also decided that, perhaps, telling everyone what exactly happened at the cottage would not be beneficial, either. He just did not want to go into too much detail if at all possible.

Oh, he was going to tell them that it was there. He wanted to know if anyone had any knowledge of it. He himself had no memory of it, and he wanted to know if it was something he missed, or something new.

More than that, however, he did not wish to describe the events that lead him their. Did not want to describe how he had even managed to get there in the first place. The less they knew about Roman, about how much, exactly, he had changed, the better.

He does not want to have to explain the curse he has on him.

Well, curse is a negative way of looking at it. Technically, it was a gift. But a gift from the fae, especially a High Fae, is never really a good thing.

The less said, the better.

With a story in mind, he heads back downstairs, pausing to glance once more at the ward. He still has no idea what it looks like, or who put it there. Perhaps, if he has time, he will try and figure it out. For now, however, he has more pressing matters at hand.

He is enough of a wreck right now. Best not to add to the stabbing pain in his head.

He glides down the stairs, aching far more than he should. His legs and feet only seem to be in more pain, now that he has had time to rest them. Still, he should talk to everyone, explain what happened before he goes to rest. He has been awake all night, after all.

Logan is easy to spot, sitting at the bar top. From what Roman can see, he seems to be flexing his hands, over and over. He looks up and spots Roman, and his posture relaxes. Roman sends him what he hopes is a reassuring smile and a nod. Patton is nowhere to be found, but if he is getting food, so that is to be expected.

Roman keeps scanning the room, and he quickly finds who he’s looking for. In the back, at a table in the corner. Darren is fast asleep in Felicity’s arms, Persephone wrapped around her back. Furan is standing up as well, though he’s on the opposite side of the table. There are still tears in his eyes, but the grin on his face is unmistakable.

Roman makes his way over to them, making sure his steps are audible. They nearly lost someone, it’s best not to startle them, if possible.

“He must be exhausted to sleep through this noise.” Roman inclines his head towards Darren, keeping his voice soft. Furan lets out a quiet laugh, looking to his grandson.

“My son could sleep through a raid, regardless of how tired he is. He’s always been that way,” Felicity says, looking down to Darren. He twists to face her body more fully, looking peaceful.

“Thank you, again.”

“It was no trouble at all, fair lady. It is what I am here for after all, to help.” Roman smiles, looking down at the child, willing the memories of past failures away. Felicity laughs lightly, looking down at Darren as well.

“We really can not thank you enough. If there is anything you need, please, feel free to ask. My family will provide what we can.”

Roman looks up and sees all three looking at him. “Thank you,” he replies warmly. “I do not require anything right now, except perhaps an answer to a question that has been plaguing me.” He tells them the edited version of what transpired, ending with the question about the cottage.

The three trade confused looks, before shaking their heads.

“My sincerest apologies, Roman, but I’m afraid I’ve not heard of it.” Persephone shakes her head, sighing. “It was not there when I was a child. It may be recent, but how or why it is there I do not know. Ever since the beast,” she shudders. Roman made the right call, leaving out his encounter with the beast, it seems. She shakes her head once more. “We’ve not been in those woods in years, no one has.”

“Sorry we can not help more,” Furan reaches out, placing a hand on Roman’s shoulder. He glances over to Felicity, before turning back to him. “If you need anything else, however, simply ask. We are in your debt.”

“In debt? No, you are not indebted to me,” Roman contradicts gently, suppressing the instinctive flinch at the word “debt.” It does not carry the same weight here in this town. There is no reason to fear it. “I am merely helping, as I told your daughter here.”

Absently, he wonders at how much they are thanking him. They truly thought they were never going to see Darren again. Which, while understandable, is alarming. Most people hold onto at least some sliver of hope, but it is as though they did not have even that.

Is the beast truly that horrifying? For some reason, perhaps due to his own experience, that thought does not sit well with him. That, in combination with this mysterious cottage, makes him feel uneasy. Something larger is going on, that much is obvious.

Or, perhaps, he is becoming paranoid. It won’t due to make assumptions based on facts that may not even be true. Perhaps someone else has seen the cottage, and perhaps there is a reasonable explanation for the strange encounter he had.

He can not think of one right now, but that does not mean it does not exist.

He looks up and sees Patton waiting for him, tray in hand, by the bar. He’s chatting with Logan, but his eyes keep darting over to Roman every couple seconds. He catches Patton’s eye and stands, waving goodbye to the reunited family.

Patton pushes the food onto Roman before he can even sit down and it makes Roman laugh to himself. How nostalgic. Even the little glare, pout, thing Patton has on his face is familiar. Adventures that lead to Roman being sleep deprived, hurt, and happy always ended like this.

Looking at the food he sees that it’s strawberry pancakes, his favorite. So Patton is not mad, he is just worried. That is good to know.

“Eat, and then we’ll talk,” Patton says, crossing his arms. With a nod, Roman complies. Patton turns back to Logan to keep discussing whatever it is they were talking about before he came over. Roman could pay attention, but the lethargy is weighing him down. He does not really care to do so.

Before long, he has finished eating, and Patton and Logan turn to him as one. With a sigh, he pushes his plate forward and tells a slightly different story than he told Darren’s family, choosing to include his encounter with the beast.

“Wait,” Patton interrupts, while he’s telling this part. “It simply… stopped? That makes no sense.”

“I know,” Roman groans, dropping his head on his arms. “I can not seem to make sense of it. No amount of logic seems to apply.”

“There has to be some sort of reason,” Logan cuts in, “even if I can not figure it out myself.”

They sit in silence for a moment, trying and failing to come up with an explanation. Sitting back up, Roman continues his story. He nearly tells them all of it, about his power, about the things he can do, but he stops. Hesitates. He wants to tell them everything, but their friendship is so tenuous now. They can pretend that everything is as it was, but it is not. Not really.

So, he does not. Plays it off like it suddenly broke. When they inquire them about the blood that was on his face, he says it was from the tree branches. There are no scratches on his face to warrant that amount of blood, but they do not call him on his lie. Perhaps they simply do not know how much cuts bleed, do not have the ability to judge the severity of a wound based on a glance.

He wants to keep that knowledge from them as long as possible. Does not want them to learn as he had.

I will protect you, he vows silently, as he finishes the story. I will not let them harm you.

The beast, the enchanter, whoever or whatever is causing so much trouble. Whoever lives in that cabin. They will not lay a hand on the people near him. It is not the same as the last time they were here, but perhaps that is for the best. He had failed them last time, after all.

“There is no cabin in the woods,” Logan says, pulling Roman out of his thoughts. “We would have seen them by now.”

“Are you sure? With everything going on…” Roman trails off.

“With everything going on, there would be no reason for anyone to set up a cabin,” Logan responds.

“Even if they did,” Patton says, “then they would have still needed supplies to start, and that would require coming into town.”

“So, what?” Roman asks, exasperated. “A whole cabin either mysteriously appeared, or I managed to go to an entirely different set of woods?”

Patton and Logan glance at each other and Roman levels them with a deadpan look. “I did not walk all the way to a seperate set of woods and come back in the span of a night.”

They look away from each other guiltily. “It just doesn’t make sense,” Patton mutters, Logan nodding along with him. Roman sighs, tilting his head back.

“Maybe, maybe no one has run into it before?” Logan asks hesitantly. “You did mention that you kept going in circles trying to get there.”

“Yes, but why? And would we not have known such a powerful Master was nearby?”

“Maybe not,” Patton says, biting his lip. “I mean, it is not as though Master’s mingle with those without a talent for the arts. And who’s to say it was not an enchanter?”

“Too weak,” Roman counters. “Enchanter’s talents lend themselves towards inanimate objects, and they must use specific runes to carry out their wishes.”

Both Logan and Patton turn to look at him in disbelief. Roman shifts uncomfortably. “What do you mean,” Logan asks slowly.

“It is… Hard to explain,” he responds, uncomfortable. “I have no talent in the arts, or anything to do with it really,” he swallows past the lie. “The arts are a fickle thing, lending themselves over to certain people, and only in certain ways. To my knowledge, they are broken down into certain categories. That of ward, that of word, that of thought, and that of rune. Ward arts are the hardest to harness, with only the High Fae and Masters able to do so.

“The art of runes is a fairly easy one to harness, anyone with any proficiency in the arts is able to do so. Enchanter’s make their living out of doing so, however. They work well with inanimate objects, usually weapons, and can fortify any existing property. But that is all they can do. Strengthen. They can not add things that are not already there.”

Roman stays silent as the two take in that information, no doubt never having heard it before. There is so much misinformation about the arts, so much mystery surrounding it, especially in small villages such as this. If anyone does have the talent in this town, it would not be a surprise if they were unaware of that fact.

Actually, Roman could probably figure out if anyone here did have a talent in the arts, if he tried. If he was willing to suffer another headache, and perhaps bleed some more. Which he is not.

“So,” Patton says slowly, “There were no runes, then?”

Roman shakes his head. “Even if there were, it would not have the power to change the very woods they reside in.”

“No wards either?” Logan asks.

“Not that I saw, but that is no surprise. Wards are so powerful that without a talent in them, you can not actually discern what they are, which makes it hard to tell if they are even there at all.” Patton goes still, turning to stare directly at Roman.

“If Masters and the High Fae are the only ones able to use wards, would they also be the only ones able to see them?”

“Not necessarily,” Roman says, slightly confused. “If you have a talent, any talent, in the arts, you can see the ward. I’m not sure if you would recognize it and you certainly will not be able to use it, but to my knowledge even Enchanters can see wards.”

Patton stares at him a moment longer before nodding and smiling brightly. “That sounds pretty cool!” he enthuses. Roman and Logan share a look.

“Right,” Roman drawls, “why did you want to know?”

“Just seemed interesting. I’ve not heard of it before, and was curious.” The smile is firmly in place, and for all the world it seems to be the truth. Still, Roman can not shake the feeling that there is more to it than that.

Logan and Roman pause for a moment, before shrugging it off, albeit reluctantly. If Patton says that is all there is to it, then Roman believes him.

“So, we have no idea how the cottage got there at all, then,” Roman sighs. Logan sighs as well, and Roman looks over at him.

“I suppose I can look in the library, at the plans for the village,” he bites at his lip. “Perhaps there will be mention of it, and we simply managed to avoid it?” He sounds doubtful and Roman does not blame him. That does not really make sense, but none of this makes sense.

“I can ask the townsfolk,” Patton volunteers. “Maybe someone else has noticed it, and it is a recent thing? You get some rest kiddo, you look like you need it.” He smiles, teasing Roman good naturedly.

Roman grumbles but gets up. No doubt he still looks like hell, bath notwithstanding. If he looks even a quarter as exhausted as he feels, he can not argue with that statement.

He stumbles his way up the stairs and just barely remembers to undress before crashing onto the bed.