“Sorry about that!” Lid’s voice called over the airship’s intercom. “You know how it is, all of a sudden you need a bit of emergency maintenance… Unforeseen circumstances and all that. Anyway! We’re here now, so no griping! I’m setting us down just outside the town of Sian.”
Lasswell looked up, a faint smile tugging at his lips. It was well that someone could always be cheerful in the middle of emergency maintenance. Thank goodness Jake was elsewhere, helping out on another expedition. Things might have gone very differently if he was here, and their own quest might be even more delayed than it was. They'd had to temporarily land in western Olderion whilst repairs were carried out, but they were back on course soon enough.
He carefully folded the quest notice and put it in his pocket, the mission details already etched into his mind. “A local debutant is suspected of carrying out unspeakable acts in order to retain her youthful look,” it read. “Send a team to investigate what she’s really up to and be rewarded.”
The reward didn't particularly matter, but those unspeakable acts mentioned were concerning. The town of Sian was fairly traditional, or so Sakura had said, and people turned to their elders for advice. When that didn’t work they sometimes consulted the supernatural instead. She’d spoken of Onmyoujis, kitsune, and even tree demons when she explained about Sian's everyday business. Did Sakura know everything? Lasswell had raised his eyebrows at that, until he’d seen one in the flesh. Assuming these unspeakable acts were supernatural in nature, then he wanted to be ready.
A sudden lurch heralded the airship's arrival, and Lasswell blinked in surprise. Lost in his own thoughts again… He shook his head and made his way to the deck to disembark.
“Finally! Took you long enough.” Lid grumbled good-naturedly. Her toolbox was by her feet, and there was a small lantern in her hands. “It won’t be long before it’s dark, so you’d better hurry to the town. Unless you want to spend the night in a tent before you get there! I’ll be running a full systems check whilst you’re gone, but I’ll be here if you need me. Easy enough to send for backup, too. It might cost you, though.” Her smile said it all. Lid had been through a lot, but her personality hadn’t changed much.
“Thank you, Lid. We’ll make haste, and try not to trouble you too much,” Lasswell replied. “Hopefully we’ll get this resolved soon.”
“See you, Lassie!” Lid called, but she was already bending to pick up her tools and didn’t see him sigh or roll his eyes.
Night was beginning to fall when the town of Sian finally came into sight. It wasn’t much of a walk, but after the long - and interrupted - journey, Lasswell was quite eager to make a start. Now it seemed they’d have to begin their investigations in the morning. They finally made their way out of the forests surrounding Sian and stopped by the town entrance.
“I suggest we find an inn,” Lexa said, ever practical. The black mage was as interested as he was to see what was going on, and had specifically requested to go with them.
Aiden shrugged. “I slept enough in the airship. Besides, if anything’s going on overnight, then surely someone should keep watch for anything unusual.”
Lasswell privately agreed with the fiery white mage, although there was something tempting about stretching out in a proper bed. “What about you two? Do you have anything to add?” He asked the remaining members of their group.
“Well, I probably won’t be missed, and it’ll be good to scout the village and countryside at night,” Wadow sniffed. The wolflike Natura’s tail brushed at the dry, dusty path beneath them and he sniffed again. “Fewer people around.”
“I believe I will accompany you into the town,” Elephim said. “Whilst my appearance might be a little… unusual to humans, I don’t think my presence will be objected to.” Her wings fluttered slightly, and she smiled. “My magic may be needed, as well.”
Lasswell scrubbed at his face. “That seems fair, then. Wadow and Aiden, scout the area, but don't keep watch all night. Let me know if you find anything unusual or arcane, anything that might be connected. Lexa and Elephim, let’s find an inn to act as a temporary base of operations, and make sure we’re rested for the morning. We’ll make a start then.”
“Don’t forget to get two rooms!” Aiden called, leaning on his staff.
“We won’t!” Lexa replied lightly. “And for that, you three get to share.” She smiled at Elephim and the two of them set off for the town entrance.
"Do we know if they allow pets?" Aiden grinned, then yelped when Wadow scratched dirt up at his face. He stood there, rubbing at his eyes and swearing fiercely, then hurried to catch up as the Natura moved to start his explorations.
Lasswell wondered if everything would turn out all right with his current party. Shaking his head, he followed after the women and into the town.
Fortunately, the town’s inn still had some hot food ready to be served when they arrived, and the trio found a table where they could eat. Lasswell had just finished a bowl of rather good meat and potato stew when an elderly looking gentleman came over to their corner of the inn and inclined his head expectantly.
“Excuse me, but might you be the ones sent to take care of our little… problem?”
Lasswell took the notice out from his pocket and showed it to the man. Eyes adorned with many crow’s feet narrowed as he squinted to confirm the note, and then he beamed as he realised that help was here. “I’m sorry we’re a bit late. We had some airship troubles on our way here,” Lasswell explained.
“Oh, it is of no issue! You’re here now, and that’s what matters. Do you think you’ll be able to help us?”
“We hope so. I hope you don’t mind if we start our investigations tomorrow morning, though,” Lasswell paused, wanting to warn the elder of the other members of his group. It wouldn’t do to have them under suspicion. “We have some… specialists investigating what they can now, but there are questions we need to ask, and it would be wrong to inconvenience the townsfolk this late.”
“Perfectly understandable, my boy, and thank you for telling me about your companions. I’ll make sure the right people know about them. I assume they’re as… noticeable as your friends here?” The elder nodded towards Lexa and Elephim, who simply smiled and shifted her wings slightly.
“You could say that,” Lexa answered, giving him a winning smile. “One is a white mage with bright hair and a fiery temper, and the other is akin to a wolf, but very serious in his personality, even if he is a bit inconsiderate at times. You won’t be able to miss them.”
“Strange times invite strange folks, I suppose,” the elder mused. He gave his beard a thoughtful tug and smiled back. “But as long as you can help us with our problem, it’s no trouble at all.”
Lasswell pushed his bowl to one side before standing to offer the elder a seat. “Why don’t you give us some of the details now, so we can get to work first thing tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll do just that.”
Aiden yawned, scratching at his hair with one hand. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. For all his dozing on the airship earlier, he couldn’t quite turn off his internal clock’s sense of time.
He was about to suggest that he return to the inn to report their findings (and maybe grab an hour or two of sleep) when the ferns and shrubs next to him shivered slightly, and Wadow appeared. The Natura’s mouth opened in a lupine grin, and he swatted at Aiden with one paw.
“Not fallen asleep yet, have you?” Wadow asked.
“Not yet,” Aiden replied, trying to keep a lid on his temper. “Very tempted, though. Find anything?”
“You might say that. Over there,” and Wadow swung his head to look in the direction of a small clearing. It appeared to be a garden of sorts for a row of houses, and not the well-off sort, either. The light was getting worse, even with the lanterns he’d brought, but even he could see the big patch of discoloured soil at the foot of one of the trees.
“Is that what I think it is?” He asked warily.
Wadow nodded. “Blood. It’s more than a few days old and it’s been diluted by rain, so I can’t tell what sort of blood it is even with my nose, but it’s definitely blood.”
“So much of it,” Aiden murmured. He frowned. “All right. That definitely counts as odd. Anything else?”
“Tracks, human ones, leading away from here. They go in both directions, but the ones leading away from here are almost certainly running away. The ones coming back are a lot slower.”
Aiden absently put his hand on Wadow’s head and ruffled the fur gently, then yanked his hand away when Wadow snapped at it. “What was that for?!”
“Would you like it if I rubbed your belly? We may be allies, but don’t think you can just pet me. I’m not a dog,” came the reply. Wadow nudged against his leg with his shoulder, adding, “Come along. We’d best pass on this information, before we find ourselves locked out of the inn. Besides,” Now Aiden could swear Wadow was grinning at him again. “We can’t have you falling over from lack of sleep.”
Aiden ground his teeth together, trying not to snap at the Natura. Gripping both his staff and the lantern tightly, he nodded, and they melted away into the forest, heading back to the town.
Lasswell frowned. He’d heard from Aiden and Wadow late last night when they sneaked into the room, and what he’d heard was disturbing. Blood, and lots of it? Whilst it didn’t exactly match the 'unspeakable acts' mentioned in the quest notice, it still wasn’t good. Was it connected, though? He sighed. Not enough information yet. He could only hope they’d have more luck with talking to the townsfolk today.
He idly wondered what Rain would do in their situation. A beautiful local debutant… he’d probably offer himself as bait. Jake probably would, too. Heavens only knew what Nichol or Fina would suggest. Sakura would likely just tell them to get on with it.
A light tap on the door broke into his musings, and he looked up. “Come in,” he said, watching as Elephim drifted into the room. “Good morning, Elephim. Did you sleep well?”
“I did, thank you.” Lasswell watched as the fairy’s gaze drifted over to Aiden’s still-slumbering form. “I see that someone is still sleeping well. Wadow has already joined us in the inn’s main room, so would you like to join us? A breakfast has been prepared for us.”
Lasswell got up, stretching his back until it popped. “That would be great,” he said. Then he walked over to Aiden and prodded the white mage’s shoulder. “Breakfast?” He asked, ignoring the way Aiden's eyes were glaring at him as soon as they were open.
“I suppose I should,” came the grumbled reply. “Give me a minute.”
Five minutes later, and the group was seated around the same table as before, with plates of eggs and toast in front of them. Wadow sat nearby, with a massive plateful of thickly cut bacon. Aiden frequently tried to steal some from him, but the Natura simply growled and said, “Get your own.” So Aiden did, and persuaded one of the serving staff to add some to his plate.
“Wadow’s already told us about what he and Aiden found last night,” Lexa began. “That’s a good place to start. I can check the area with magic and see if there was anything arcane connected to this bloodstain.”
“Does it really leave a trace? You can track magic?” Wadow asked.
“Not always. There may be signs, though.” Lexa pursed her lips, frowning delicately. “I can’t know until I’m there, but there are definite signs… if these ‘unspeakable acts’ contained any kind of magic, that blood would be the first place I’d check.”
“And you, Elephim? Could you sense anything odd about this town?” Lasswell inquired.
The fairy put down her fork and wiped her mouth daintily on a napkin. “I can sense something, yes, though it’s not magic in the truest sense. There may be magic involved, but it feels more… supernatural.”
“There was a presence last night. I can still feel it, lingering, almost like a stray breeze.” Elephim looked thoughtful. “It feels… familiar. I could almost believe it was more than magic. A natural force.”
“A demon, then?” Aiden wondered, his fork still dipping into his breakfast.
“Perhaps, and perhaps not. I can say one thing, though. Whatever it was, it was not unspeakable.” Now Elephim looked down, her eyes unreadable. “It seemed sad.”
“And this was overnight?” When Elephim nodded, Lasswell continued. “Then perhaps we should wait for it tonight, and see what we can find. Aiden, Wadow, will you two be up to accompanying us today? We could always use your instincts and an extra pair of eyes.”
Wadow sniffed. “I’m fine. I don’t need as much rest as you’d think. I’d quite like to be there tonight, though, if we’re keeping a watch. Perhaps my instincts might be able to perceive what your eyes cannot.”
Aiden rolled his eyes. “Yes, because we pale in comparison to you beastfolk. I just need a bit of reinforcement and I’m good to go.” He folded a bit of egg onto a bit of bacon and brought it to his mouth. “I can always heal you if you get in trouble with those instincts…”
Sensing an argument brewing, Lasswell cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve got a busy day, so we’d better be prepared. I asked the elder we spoke to last night if we could talk to everyone, and he said it was fine. Lexa, if you and Elephim want to investigate the arcane side of this, Aiden, Wadow and I will talk to the townsfolk. We can meet back here later and discuss our findings.”
“Now that,” Aiden exclaimed, wiping the last of the eggs off his plate with a bit of toast, “sounds like a plan.”
The noon gong rang when the sun was at its zenith, and Lasswell rolled his shoulders, letting out the tension. He’d been talking to the townsfolk all morning, listening to their recollections of the incidents (because of course there was more than one), and he wished he’d brought something to drink. He was stubbornly still wearing his coat, too, although that might change. The weather had turned out to be much warmer than he'd thought.
Fortunately, Aiden returned from a brief trip to the poorer side of town with a tray full of glasses and a pitcher full of something with condensation glinting on the outside. Whatever it was, it was something cold, and Lasswell could’ve blessed the man for remembering such a thing.
“Here we go! Thought we could all use something to drink.” He set the tray down on the low wall behind them and started pouring. It looked like chilled fruit juice.
“Thank you! I was beginning to think I’d lose my voice from asking all these questions,” Lasswell said gratefully. “But… did you bring something for Wadow?”
At the question, the Natura snorted. “Probably not.”
“Don’t be so rude!” Aiden snapped, reaching behind him and producing a bottle of water from his bag. “And don’t even think that I’ll be treating you like a dog and fetching you a bowl, either. You can have a glass like the rest of us civilised creatures.” He paused, his eyes softening a little. “I didn’t know what kind of juices disagreed with you, though, so I got water instead. You can have either, if you like.”
“Well, well, I wasn’t expecting such courtesy! We might get along yet.” Wadow grinned.
Lasswell wasn’t sure how they kept avoiding arguments. He took one of the glasses after Aiden had filled them and took a long drink. “I should’ve thought of this,” he muttered.
“You’re only human,” Wadow joked. Aiden set a wide-bowled glass next to the Natura, a smirk on his face as he poured.
“Moving on,” Lasswell said. He looked around. “Oh, right, we should wait for Lexa and Elephim to come back. I wonder if they’ll be long.”
Aiden sipped at his juice, sitting down on the wall. “Shouldn’t be. I heard the locals saying that the ‘gorgeous blonde’ and ‘the fairy’ were heading back here. They were at the back of the poor part of town, not foo far from where we found the blood.”
“Might one of those glasses be for us?” A cultured voice called.
“Elephim,” Lasswell smiled. “Lexa. Have a seat?”
“Why, thank you.” The fairy elegantly seated herself next to Aiden and picked up a glass, as did Lexa. Lexa was giving Aiden a speculative look. “We’ve had quite the fruitful morning.”
“I’d like to put it in context with what you’ve heard, if that’s ok? There are some things that might make more sense once I’ve got a little more information.”
“Of course. Where to start?” Lasswell mused. “Well, for starters, there’s been several reports of horrible loud noises in the night. Shrieks of terror, and a cry that sounded like ‘the souls of the restless dead, all screaming in agony.’ Always around the same time, but that last one was last week.” He paused. “The other noises, the terrified cries, have been more or less every night for the past month.”
“It’s been going on that long?” Lexa wondered.
“Apparently so. There have been disappearances, too: always young men, and it always coincided with those cries of terror. These men always return, but they’re always either haunted, or completely mute.” Here Lasswell turned to Aiden. “You’ve got more knowledge of medical matters. What’s your opinion of their condition?”
Aiden set down his glass and folded his arms, his eyes going to the sky. “It sounds like a combination of things. Trauma. Shock. The kind of fright that renders you unable to speak or move. From what I heard, most of them had lost weight and had been physically sick when they returned. A lot of them won’t go outside at night any more.”
“Sounds like they’re definitely suffering from something,” Lexa murmured. She sighed and summoned a cool breeze to blow around them, strong enough to dissipate some of the summer heat. “I wonder if that’s magical in nature. Did they say anything? When they could, I mean.”
“A few did.” Now Wadow picked up the story. “They all said the same thing: they heard rumours of a beautiful girl that no-one in the town recognized. They thought she came from one of the surrounding settlements, when some of them came to stay here when they lost their homes. She was always seen coming from the poor side of town, so they thought she came from there, too.” He rested his muzzle on his forepaws. “I’ll never understand human concepts of beauty.”
“Obviously.” Aiden snorted. “Anyway, these men all said the same thing: ‘such gorgeous long hair’, ‘she’s a beauty’, ‘I hope she’ll be mine’, that sort of thing, and they all ended up fleeing in terror after experiencing… something. They don’t go into detail about what happened when they met, though.”
“Memory loss? Imposed upon them, or a simple denial of events?” Elephim took a quick drink, then continued. “I wish they’d been able to give answers… it would have made things much more simple.”
Lasswell shrugged. “Given time, perhaps they will. We can always ask again. We’ve still got half the town to interview, so we might get more information from there.”
“Oh yes, another thing. There have been reports of livestock going missing, too. Chickens, pigs, that sort of thing.” Wadow added, clearly enjoying the way Lexa’s light breeze was ruffling his fur.
“That… might explain some things, and complicate others,” Lexa said. “Go on.”
“Not much more to tell, really. It started off small, the odd chicken and such, and then it’s escalated to pigs and sheep. Just last week one of the merchant’s prize boars just disappeared.” Wadow huffed a laugh. "No way of knowing if it's all the same culprit, though. From what I've seen of humans, a few of you seem to like taking things that aren't yours."
“The timing of that is interesting as well.” Lasswell said.
“Do we know what this young lady looks like?” Lexa wondered. “Even if no-one knows her, then a description should be helpful, at least.”
“Extraordinarily beautiful. Very long, almost floor length black hair, dark eyes, in sort of old fashioned clothing,” Aiden counted each point off on his fingers. “Looks kind of dazed, like a sleepwalker, but awake. That’s what those who did see her have said. Plenty of people have seen her, too, not that anyone knows who she is. What happens to these men happens when they’re alone with her. She’s never seen in daylight, either.”
“So if we want to meet this woman, we’ll have to do so at night.” Elephim surmised.
“What about you two? What did you find?” Lasswell asked the two women.
Lexa looked to Elephim, who nodded. “There’s no evidence of any ritual activity, nor any use of anything arcane connected to that bloodstain. Not that we could ascertain, at any rate.”
“There was, however, a strong residual sense of something spiritual,” Elephim went on. “The sense of something not quite magical, but still beyond the abilities of humans was pervading that area. It lingers still, even around here, even in daylight.” She frowned, delicate brows drawing down. “What we’re dealing with is both human, and not.”
“Better be ready for anything, then,” Aiden sighed. He cracked his knuckles, then put his hands behind his back and stretched. “I’ll take these back to the place I got them from, and then we’ll start up again, I guess. Should we take a rest before this evening, and then wait for this… whatever it is?”
“It would probably be wise to rest up first, certainly,” Elephim agreed.
“Then let’s get whatever information we can, and hopefully we can wrap this up quickly.”
Lasswell wondered if it was that simple. But still, this would get them more information at least, and would ensure that hopefully some poor young man wouldn’t run off screaming tonight. Well, probably.
Speaking to the remainder of the townsfolk yielded little more information than they already had. There was a lot of rumour; that was probably how the tales of ‘unspeakable acts’ had come about in the first place. Some of the men gossiped more than the women, and those who sat in the tavern playing games were more chatty than most. Some had even sought Lasswell himself out to offer their version of events, wanting to be the first to share the town's news and apparent supernatural affairs.
Some of the witnesses had been drunk at the time and couldn’t recall properly if anything untoward was happening, whilst others clearly enjoyed the attention and embellished the tale for all they were worth. Alcohol coloured the accounts of more than a few.
Another proclaimed the woman a witch, although with no evidence whatsoever. Someone else tried to convince Lasswell that he was next. More than one scroll was produced showing some kind of supernatural procedure to improve the beauty of the one carrying out the ritual, complete with arcane requirements and components. Lexa shook her head at those and tried to sort out the actual witness statements from the fantastical, but in the end they gave up early and went back to the inn.
They ate a small meal and retired to their rooms for a rest, and waited for night to fall. Lasswell found that he couldn’t sleep, even though he was tired. He kept wondering how to best confront a spirit, or a demon. He wondered if he could even kill a harmless, misguided human who was just looking for company or affection, but using supernatural means to do so. He hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
Wadow’s rumbling snores eventually lulled him into a light doze, and he awoke later to Aiden shaking his shoulder. A quick glance out the window showed the moon fully up in a fully dark sky. “Just before midnight,” Aiden murmured as he poked Wadow awake, far less gently than he had for Lasswell.
“Right, then. We’d best be off,” Lasswell said, pulling on his coat and buttoning it up. “Lexa and Elephim should be waiting for us.”
They told no-one where they were going. Fortunately there were very few people about in the town, save for the occasional reveller going home from the tavern. It was a bit cooler now too, thank goodness, and the air was full of the kind of insects that always chirp on balmy summer nights. They had two objectives: to find out what kind of creature they were dealing with, and to find out where she came from, if possible. If she offered violence, then they’d deal with it. They had to.
Wadow’s keen senses told them that something was moving close to the poor side of town again, so that was where they headed. Apparently, their destination was the same area of town where they’d found the bloodstain. Elephim narrowed her eyes and, with a flick of her wings, she drifted upwards to sit on a high branch, watching the scene from above. After a while, she nodded to Lasswell, who drew in his breath sharply.
There, in front of one of the more shabby houses, was a young woman. She was beautiful: Rain would’ve been drawn to her in a heartbeat, and Jake would be halfway to getting Lid’s Mechabo Hammer to the back of the head. She had a delicate face, adorned with shapely plum lips and framed with sleek black hair that fell to the floor, and there was a distinctly otherworldly air to her. Elephim shook her head warningly. Take care, her gaze implied. Lasswell nodded, and he vaguely saw Aiden and Lexa do the same. Wadow’s ear flicked dismissively.
“What do we do?” Aiden’s voice was a mere whisper. Lasswell had never heard him so quiet.
“Let’s just watch for now,” Lexa said. “We need to see where she’s going.”
“Moreover, we need evidence that she’s actually committing these unspeakable acts,” Lasswell reminded them. His hand went to Purple Lightning, gripping the hilt tightly, then forcing his fingers to relax.
“I’m not going to wait until she’s committing one on you, Lasswell,” Aiden whispered wryly back.
Wadow let out a low laugh. The Natura had all but disappeared into the undergrowth, and Lasswell could barely see him. “I can tell you one thing,” he said then, his quiet tone serious. “There is no smell attached to that woman at all. Not human, not demon… nothing.”
“Nothing? She’s not human?” Lexa frowned, readying the Tempest Rod. A faint green glow appeared, and the wind picked up a little.
Lasswell looked back at the woman, who was slowly making her way towards the path that led to the centre of town. It seemed like she hadn’t noticed the slight change in the light, or the wind. In fact, it seemed like she was barely aware of anything. He made a decision. “Let’s follow her, rather than stopping her here. We’ll intervene if necessary, and hopefully we can keep any potential targets out of her way. We’ll see where she goes last. Once we're there, we'll discuss what we do next. How does that sound?"
“That sounds reasonable,” Elephim said softly drifting back down to join them. The woman still showed no signs of even noticing them. “Do we alert the town elder who contacted us about this problem, or do we deal with it ourselves?”
“Deal with it ourselves, for now. We can’t guarantee that the elders won’t jump to conclusions about everything and act in haste.”
“I doubt that old guy even could act in haste,” Aiden muttered.
“He might not, but I couldn’t speak for any angry mob with pitchforks,” Lexa replied. “Best to handle it ourselves until we know for certain.”
“Good point. So, should we go? She’s heading out of sight.”
“Yes, but quietly. We still don’t want to wake the townsfolk. And no fighting unless absolutely necessary,” Lasswell didn’t think that last part needed saying, but he said it anyway.
“You’d better take the rear,” Wadow said, nudging Aiden’s leg with his shoulder. “Since you couldn’t be quiet if you wanted to.”
Thankfully Aiden managed to keep his exclamation quiet. Lasswell winced and shook his head as they walked off, following the woman - or whatever she was - further into the town.
The woman found no target that night. She roamed the entire town, looking lost (on the occasion her face showed any kind of emotion at all) when she came across no young men. Her movements became slower and even Lasswell could feel that there was something not quite right with her. Wadow kept insisting that she had no scent, even after a night of wandering. Lexa remarked that the woman’s small feet had left no tracks on the dirt paths when they eventually returned to the poorer part of town again. Elephim’s face looked sad, as if she had reached some sort of melancholic conclusion, and Aiden just looked a bit irritated that they’d wasted time.
They hung back when she finally arrived at the doorstep of one particular house. Part of the roof was in desperate need of repair and one of the windows was boarded up, but it still retained some touches of having a careful owner, in spite of its problems. Dawn’s light touched on several pale pink flowers, planted in a tub near the front door, and patterned curtains hung from the other visible window.
“Doesn’t look like the sort of place where unspeakable acts take place,” Aiden whispered.
“Aiden,” Lexa hissed. “Hush.”
He raised his eyebrows at her, but kept quiet.
Elephim waved her hand to get their attention, and then gestured to the woman, who appeared to be fading into shimmering motes as the sun rose. Nothing was left. Wadow shuddered, putting his nose to the ground again and sniffing. “Still nothing from her, but there’s a strong smell of something in this area.”
“Something? Care to elaborate?” Aiden dropped to a squat near the Natura, absently putting a hand on his shoulder for balance. Wadow was so distracted that he didn’t even snap at the man.
“Something… diseased. There are two people in that house, but there’s a really strong stench of sickness in the air.”
“Finally, something I might be able to help with.” Aiden said. He cracked his knuckles. “I was worried that the only reason I’d been asked to come on this quest was to patch up Lasswell if he got too close to this woman and her unspeakable acts.”
Lasswell ignored him. He drew in a breath, closed his eyes, and then let it out again. “Let’s just see what we can find,” he said, walking over to the door. He knocked twice, then stepped back and waited to see if the owner was in. The others drifted over to stand a little way behind him, but still ready to act if they were needed.
Just before Lasswell could knock again, the door opened, revealing an elderly man who had clearly just woken up. His white hair was untidy, and it looked like his clothes hadn’t had a wash in a while. Lasswell nodded to him, and was about to go into his carefully prepared speech when the man spoke first.
“She’s done it again, hasn’t she?”
“I beg your pardon, Sir?” Lasswell frowned.
“My wife. Ahhh… it’s a long story. I know who you are. You’d best come inside. We can talk in private there.”
Lasswell looked to the others, who shrugged, and they followed the man inside. Once he’d closed the door again the man led them to a small kitchen, and he dragged out some chairs for his visitors. They seated themselves, Wadow settling to the floor, and waited for him to start talking.
“Well, as you can see, we don’t have much here. I can offer you water or something to drink, I’d be a poor host if I didn’t.” When they each declined, he continued. “My name is Rin, and my wife is Hana. We moved here a few months ago after my wife got sick and we couldn’t afford to keep our old house. These run-down houses here were all we could afford, but the folks have been kind to us.
Then Hana, she got worse. Her illness makes her spend a lot of time asleep, and I’ve been working hard to take care of her and make sure we’ve got food to eat. It’s not easy. Many times I’ve wanted to give up. But she kept me going. Then, three weeks ago… we ran out of food.” Here Rin paused, lowering his head. Lasswell wondered if he was crying. “I had to resort to stealing. I used to have my own lands and livestock, so I knew how to handle them. It started with chickens and then, when my wife’s condition took a turn, I took a boar. The noise it made when it died… it fought right up until the last. I was so sorry.”
“Ah,” Lexa murmured. “That explains the noises.”
“And the blood,” Wadow added.
“I hoped we could avoid going to the doctor here. We don’t have the money, and some of the cures are so expensive,” Rin continued. “I thought a bone broth might fortify her a bit, and she was even able to rouse enough to eat some lightly cooked meat. I was hopeful, for a time.
Then I heard the rumours. Someone was terrifying the young men of the town, and the descriptions I heard all sounded like my wife, when she was younger. She was proud of her hair. It nearly touched the floor. It didn’t matter how many times I told her to cut it, that it wasn’t practical…” He trailed off, lost in a memory for a moment. “I wondered what was happening.
She’s never left this house. Not once. I sat up all night and watched her, and Hana didn’t so much as twitch. I thought it must be someone else, and then, when I went to get some water from the well… I heard some people talking about her again. Someone with very long hair had approached the merchant’s son, and whatever she’d done, he’d fled in terror.”
“I’m not seeing any evidence of unspeakable acts here,” Aiden scratched his head.
“I can see why the elders would talk like that,” Rin admitted. “I still don’t know what my Hana did.”
Now Elephim stood, and she placed a gentle hand on the old man’s shoulder. “Mistress Hana may not have done anything at all,” she said softly.
“What do you mean, Elephim?” Lasswell asked curiously.
“That the rumours may be just that, and something else is occurring here. I don’t believe there ever were any unspeakable acts. Only rampant imaginations and the prevarications of people who might want to spare their own blushes.” Elephim looked towards one of the bedrooms, the door closed. “I mentioned earlier that I could feel a sense of sadness, and I can still feel it. It is at its strongest here. Master Rin, may I ask you a personal question?”
The old man nodded. “Go ahead. If it’ll help Hana, then I’ll do anything.”
“When your wife was younger, was she a carefree girl? Did she like to flirt with young men and try to woo them?” Elephim was obviously choosing her words carefully, but Lasswell suddenly knew where the fairy was going with her line of inquiry.
“Indeed she was, but I’m the one who won,” Rin smiled sadly. “Every night, she’d dress up and go looking for a boy to play with. Just harmless flirting, really. It was a game to her. She considered it a victory if she got a kiss from them.”
“And pray, did she have any talent for magic?” Elephim went on.
“She did, yes. She used to say she was blessed with strong mana, and that she could’ve been a Red Mage if she wanted to.”
Elephim stooped and took both Rin’s hands in hers. “Master Rin, I believe that your wife’s spirit has been wandering the town at night, just like she used to do. Her magic seems to be allowing her the freedom she thinks she’s lost due to her sick body, and her mind might be regressing as well.” She paused, and for the first time Lasswell had seen she seemed unable to continue. She somehow found the words, and they sounded heartbroken.
“Master Rin, I believe she may not have long left.”
Rin sagged, his body moving so fast that Lasswell half got to his feet to try and catch him. “I thought… I’d have more time.”
No-one could say anything. The old man’s sobs were the only noise in the room for a good while, and when they stopped Lexa stood and put her arms around him. “You gave her a good life, a best friend, and years of happiness. You should take comfort in that. You still have time, both of you."
“I may be able to help as well,” Aiden said, his voice rough with emotion. Lasswell was surprised that there were tears on the white mage’s face, too. “I will not lose another, and if I can heal someone, I will.”
“But… she’s not young any more. Neither of us are. Even if you cure her sickness, her mind…” Rin wiped his eyes with the back of his hand then rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Either way, I lose her…”
“Master Rin, we will make sure that you two have enough money, food, and medicine to last you for as long as you need, and that we’ll explain the incidents to the town elders,” Lasswell assured him. “We cannot fight time, but we can help you make the most of it.”
“I may never be able to thank you enough,” Rin said, in danger of crying again.
Aiden stood, his face suddenly brighter. “Let's see what I can do. I’ve got a fair amount of healing magic, and there are some items that might help, too. Will you show me to your wife?”
“I thank the gods that brought you to this town, I really do,” Rin said, pushing himself to his feet and taking Aiden’s hastily proffered arm. “I’m sure my wife would love you. She was always attracted to men with hair like yours. This way.”
Lasswell could hear Wadow’s wheezy laugh as Rin led them to where Hana lay.
In the end, Aiden wasn’t able to heal Hana completely, but he was able to drive the illness back enough that she was able to wake up for much longer periods. As Elephim had feared, Hana’s mind was wandering at times and she had frequent lapses of memory, but she remembered Rin, and she remembered that they were married and in love. That was more than enough for him, and he promised to take care of her until the very end. "Til death do us part,” he had murmured to her, gathering her into his arms.
Fortunately, the various merchants in town had plentiful supplies, and Lasswell bought enough for Rin to live comfortably for a year, including enough medicine for Hana. He also bought livestock to reimburse the townsfolk and others who’d lost theirs to Rin’s unfortunate situation. It might be a bit more expensive than he’d thought but he happily paid it from his own pocket. At least they’d been able to complete the task without conflict.
With the situation resolved, they reported back to the town elder who’d issued the notice. He was happy that things should be back to normal, and that there should be no more scares in the night for the young men of the town, and he said as much. He also gave Lexa the reward they’d been promised, with a little bit extra for good measure.
Lasswell did ask Rin to let them know if Hana's condition took a turn for the worse and she started wandering again. Nobody, not even Hana herself when she was aware, seemed to mind that Sian had picked up a new ghost story.
With Aiden all but pressuring the elder into checking up on Rin and Hana regularly, the group decided to leave. It was still early in the day, and since no-one had slept they decided to make their way back to the airship and rest up there. One foot in front of the other, Lasswell drifted along with the others, lost in thought again. Thankfully the forest was cool, keeping the worst of the morning sun off his shoulders, but the shifting shadows could be a bit hypnotic. More than once he had to shake himself back into a more wakeful state...
And then Lid’s cheerful voice roused him from his lassitude, cheerfully welcoming them back and asking how everything had gone. Whilst Elephim flew up to the deck to share all the details, Lasswell briefly envied her her wings. He almost said as much. He let the others go first and then climbed aboard, seeking his cabin and all but falling into his bunk. It was done. Rain couldn’t have handled it better, if he did say so himself.
As his eyes slid closed, the familiar rumbling of the airship’s engines carried him off to sleep.