There was another death.

Death wasn’t unusual for Meadlowlark. Especially with this beast haunting the woods. But what was unusual was finding a body. Usually Rusted Jowls never let anyone escape its clutches.

This time it got sloppy.

The townsfolk wheeled the man down the main street. Everyone saw its mangled arms, the gaping wound in its left side. Meadowlark wasn’t large, closer to what we were used to. There were no secrets once a town is below a certain size. When the calves are born, there will be a celebration. The magic flowing strong in one fountain causes all the kids to come running out of the fields to make some careful wishes. Everyone knows everything, especially when a body is involved.

Including three girls just passing through. Sela, Lana and I didn’t think we were going to find anything. The older duelist had made a point of ensuring that some days of travel were just that, traveling. Despite my protests.

But this one landed in our laps. We had to investigate.

“No, we really don’t.” Sela was tired. She wasn’t bored, never. We had given her and Sir Violet a chance to drive off all manner of darkness throughout the last month. Several goblin hordes, a giant, and even some wraiths had fallen beneath the duelist and her blade.

But it was all seeming so monotonous to her. Sela killed, killed often, and killed with gladness in her heart. It was really creepy. But it was what made her an effective heroine, and how she felt alive. She was doing good, despite herself.

Except now.

“Come on, Sela,” I said. “They’re talking about Rusted Jowls like it’s unkillable. Something that cannot be pierced by any conventional weapons. Magic just slides off of it. That has to be exciting, right?”

Sela poked the campfire for a while. It wasn’t the best fire, I was still having trouble with my spells. I could light up a forest, but keeping a couple of logs burning was the challenge. So part of Sela’s poking at the fire was to keep it going.

Another reason was to remind me that we were in the middle of the woods just outside of Meadowlark. It wasn’t my fault heroism didn’t pay well. We were working on it. And what money we did make usually went to food before bedding.

“We are going to find a way to make a living, I promise.” I said.

“You’ve said that for the last three towns,” Sela responded. It was actually five, but she didn’t need to know that.

“I’m all for heroics, Emelia,” She said. “But there also has to be something for us to work towards beyond the greater good. I can’t eat good feelings.”

“Me neither.” Lana murmured. Her wings were folded in close as she tried to huddle around the fire for warmth. She looked up at me, black eyes piercing my heart.

Dammit. Lana speaking meant that we truly were not okay. The sweet girl was huddled underneath a cloak, trying to keep warm and hidden. If anyone tried to look too closely, they might have took off running. I just looked at her and felt sorry for her.

“How are we, Mel?” Lana asked.

“We’re fine, Lana,” I said.

Sela cursed softly enough that only I heard her. Her hands ran over the hilt of Sir Violet. “We’re bored, Mel. Real jobs, not just heroism.”

“Working on it,” I said. “But first, Rusted Jowls…”

“Food!” Sela said.

“You’re way too insistent.” We had enough money, sheesh. The work in Leftarch had actually ended up paying. The sheriff had given us plenty of it for a reward. Sela and Lana had almost screamed when I had started to talk about giving the money away. We didn’t have to worry about dinner. It was everything else.

A man walked past us, and stopped. He looked at us, and sighed.

“What are three lovely young girls doing in Meadowlark at a time like this?”

I looked up from the fire to stare at the man.

“Just passing through,” Sela said.

“If you’re smart, you’re going to keep on going,” The man said. “As much as I’d like to say otherwise, the town just isn’t safe right now.”

“Is that about Rusted Jowls?” I asked.

The man looked around, and pointed down towards the body. “Did one of them tell you ladies about this?”

“We were just…”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” The man leaned against a tree. “This beast has already claimed too many lives. Don’t go poking into trouble just because it’s fun.”

“Why not?” Sela asked.

The man finally noticed Sela. Tall, calm, beautiful Sela. He smiled, and tried his best to nonchalantly flex. “Because that monster is something that none of you girls need to worry your little minds about.”

Sela set Sir Violet on the ground next to her, and met the man’s eyes. “Come again?”

I had wanted to say something. But Sela beat me to it.

The man laughed. “That’s not going to help you against that thing, missy. Rusted Jowls isn’t just a name. It will take that pretty sword of yours and snap it like a twig.”

Sela’s eyebrow rose. “You don’t say.” Yes, keep saying. Challenging Sela would only make her want to fight more ardently.

“Is there a reward for taking out Rusted Jowls?” I asked.

The man stopped laughing, and looked at us.

“Look,” He said. “We have sent nine of our best men to kill that blasted thing. It terrorized our children, and then started to kill us. That body that the rest of them are burying is the only thing Jowls has left us. You’re nothing more than a quick meal to it. Drop it.”

He turned on his heel and walked away. We sat in silence for a few minutes, Sela glaring after him while I tended the fire. At the sound of footsteps returning I looked up in surprise. The man came back, and threw some money on the ground in front of us. He looked at Sela.

“I was going to offer to buy you a meal, but maybe that money should go towards a fast horse out of town.”

Sela’s eyes turned ice-cold. The man took a hint and backed away quickly.

She looked at the coins. She took them up, and placed them in my hand.

“We’ve been paid. I’m in.”

Lana sent a prayer to anyone who might be listening. “Please don’t let Sela kill everybody.”

Sela ignored her and looked at me. “So what’s the plan?”

I smirked. “Time to make an entrance.”

There is a certain tempo to a town meeting. It starts off dull, uninspired. The reading of the minutes, the roll call. The first fifteen minutes of agenda stuck to with religious fervor. But Littlebrook taught the three of us that around minute seventeen…

“When are we going to nut up and just kill that thing?!?”

The powder keg was lit.

Lana crouched in the rafters, keeping watch. There wasn’t enough space for Sela and I to squirrel away, so we had to rely on her while we listened in through the cracks in the roof of the town hall.

It was the only way we would have gotten close to a look inside. Anyone and everyone that was within twenty miles of the village had turned up to voice their complaints. And now that someone had broken the ice, the flood was bursting.

Everyone had an idea on how to get rid of Rusted Jowls. Attacks were ignored. No one knew enough magic, or even where to look. Leaving was discussed, and quickly dissolved into a brawl between a farmer and his wife.

Sela nudged me. “You’re serious about this whole superhero thing.” She said.

I nodded, looking down.

“Saving people.” She pointed down. “People like them.”

“People like anyone, Sela,” I said. “Everyone deserves a helping hand.”

“Why?” She asked.

“Why not?”

She didn’t have an answer.

I looked back down at the villagers. They were good people. Just trying to make their way. Something out of their control happened, that’s all.

That’s where we step in.

I wriggled around until I found the right window. A tap sent Lana to the windowsill. The fight was so heated no one even noticed her. I gripped my staff, Lana opened the window.

“Ready?” I asked. She smirked.

I murmured a command. Green smoke billowed out of the staff, quickly filling the hall. Sela, Lana and I dropped down. I donned my mask, pulled up the hood as Lady Violet’s markings sprouted in. One of these days I was going to ask her about that sword.

I slammed my staff into the ground. The gas flew out the window in an instant. Lights flared. A hush settled over the crowd.

Lady Violet and Darkling looked stoic.

I nodded to the townsfolk. “I am the Green Witch,” I said. “We heard you were in need of heroes.”

They looked back at us. In awe of these girls, no, these women. They could not believe what had landed in their laps.

“What are you girls supposed to be?”

“This is Darkling,” I said. “The woman with the sword is Lady Violet. We’re heroines, and we’re here to help.”

Someone in the back laughed. I smiled, and nodded.

“It’s easy to laugh at someone trying to help. Especially since this is what, the seventh…”

“Ninth,” Darkling whispered.

“Not even, it is the ninth death you’ve had to contend with. This beast needs to answer for its crimes. Someone must make Rusted Jowls pay.”

“And it’s going to be some girls?” someone asked.

“Why?” Lady Violet muttered. The markings on her face swirled, an indigo light starting to glow more fiercely. “Are you volunteering to go instead?”

The hecklers quieted down. I took a deep breath.

“Let us take care of the beast,” I said.

“Seems you have enough beasts with you.” A woman behind us said.

A kick sent the woman to the floor. Lady Violet smiled, and pointed her sword down.

“Do you have any other options?” I asked. “All we want is food and water. Supplies and gear to go on to the next step in our journey west.”

The people started to cheer up. That wasn’t as hard to put together as coin. Everyone had some hand-me-down equipment they could never get rid of. I knew everything not food-related would have at least one hole where it wasn’t meant to.

It was a start.

We left out the front door to let them talk it over. I stood in the center of town, trying not to fidget. Needed to keep up an appearance of ominous power.

They agreed. We were off before the next morning.

I was whistling a merry tune in the late hours of the night.

“We’re off to kill the monster, the monster, the monster. We’re off to kill the monster, however that may go…”

“Really?” Lady Violet asked.

Really. We were back to saving people, being heroes! I could just feel the excitement in the night air.

Yes, I was being ridiculous. There was an extra skip to my step, swinging my glowing staff back and forth. If someone saw us, they wouldn’t see a valiant leader. I didn’t care, this was what we needed to do.

I was sure. There is a different feeling, a new sense that comes with that. You can be trying to do good, or living a life, and that’s okay. Making things make sense in your mind. And for other people, they could only have words to make sense.

“It’s for taxes.”

“It’s just a job.”

“It puts food on the table.”

Kids hear the words just as much as adults do. I hear them, and I hear the rumblings that Sela had for me. The balance between what was right and what would work usually was on a scale of madness.

But not tonight. Tonight we were going to kill the monster.

A swoosh, and a soft landing of claws upon soil. Darkling crouched in front of us, head cocked to one side.

“We’re close.” She said.

I stopped skipping. My staff dimmed. Lady Violet drew her sword, and planted her feet.

Darkling led us forward. Her wings were almost silent, soft velvet beats against the heavy air. She flew upwards, and gave a cry.

Something answered back. A wail, it almost grated. Lady Violet and I clutched our weapons tight.

Darkling swooped low, and nodded forward through a dense set of trees. “In there.”

Violet pushed the trees aside, and led the way. We broke through, and saw the cave. Cracking out of the earth, it looked like a beast’s mouth opened wide to swallow. Scatterd around the entrance was half eaten food. Plows, rakes, a few weapons. All were partially destroyed, rusted away to nothingness.

No sign of Rusted Jowls. Lady Violet glanced around, and sheathed Sir Violet. I didn’t blame her, but that would make things more difficult.

She leaned in close to me, voice low. “How are we supposed to find…”

Darkling let out another cry. Violet’s hand clamped over her mouth, eyes wide.

The call was answered, again. That same screech against my ears. And Rusted Jowls lumbered out of the cave.

It was hideous. A twisted mess of metals swirled across greasy skin. Set in a head too small for its body were two golden bleary eyes. It had a mottled beak that clacked as the beast lumbered forth on stubbed legs.

But its torso was terrifying. A mass of swords, knives, arrowheads, all stuck into this barrel-like body. They seemed to be getting digested.

Rusted Jowls called again. It stared at Darkling, and pawed the ground at her.

I let loose a blast of green fire. It rolled over the beast. It screamed, and rolled away.

And again!

Darkling shouted, egging me on. I stepped forward, and turned up the heat. The globes of flame were getting easier. The spells were almost automatic. I understood what was going on. And I knew what I was doing.

The beast rolled one way. My spells followed her. Lady Violet didn’t dare strike out with Sir Violet. And I didn’t want to risk sending Darkling straight at it. The beast seemed almost to want her. No, I had to take care of this.

I was going to have to kill the beast.

Darkling barreled into me, sending me sprawling. My staff went flying. I was up in an instant, looking around. Find the staff, find the staff.

Another call, angrier this time. I looked and saw Rusted Jowls. The beast wasn’t looking anywhere else. This time it was focused on me. all I could see was rage.

It bellowed, galloping forward. I was up in a flash, running for the trees. Start putting timber in between me and the beast. I leapt over a tree root, and darted behind another tree.

Rusted Jowls slammed into the woods. Trees shattered under the bulk, bark flew off like sawdust. Need to run faster.

I kept spinning around. The monster was fast, a lot faster than its legs made one think. But it couldn’t turn so well. I was able to keep some distance away from it, but there was always that sense of the beast’s breath on my back. Just keep moving.

Trip.

I stumbled, and somersaulted. My back slammed into the sod, ow.

I looked up. Rusted Jowls set its feet, and looked at me again. Oh, no.

Another call came out of the dark. Rusted Jowls looked up, confused.

Darkling flew next to me. She held her hands up at the beast.

“Don’t.”

It snorted, and pawed the ground.

I looked around. My staff was back in the clearing. I could see it nestled in some loam. Twenty, maybe thirty yards away? Not far, but maybe far enough?

It became farther when Darkling sat on me.

I whuffed at the weight. Darkling wasn’t skipping her meals. “Lana,” I gasped. “What are you doing?”

“She’s sorry. She didn’t mean it.”

Rusted Jowls looked at her prey, scrambling on the ground. I must have looked like a choice morsel. Something that would be fine.

“Lana,” I said. “Let me go before it kills me.”

“She’s not going to kill you.” Darkling said.

“It tried to…”

“You scared her!” Darkling shouted. “She didn’t do anything until you struck first, you moron.”

She hopped off of me and flew forward. She looked up at the beast’s eyes, and nodded.

“Lana.” I said.

Sela walked up with my staff. She looked at Darkling, and shrugged.

“The girl can talk to monsters. Interesting.”

“She’s going to get herself killed.” I snatched at the staff. Sela pulled it back, a smirk on her face.

“Doesn’t look like it.” She said.

“That thing…”

“Is terrified.” Sela nodded at it. “Look around here. Plows, swords, arrows. Do you think this stuff just wanders this deep in the woods?”

I stopped. And stared. “What?”

Sela crouched, and nodded. “Look at this beast. Sir Violet hasn’t seen anything like it. Doesn’t look like something that should be real. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s something that magic just decided needed to exist.

“It looks weird, it looks ugly, and for all we know it’s alone. Then kids find it. And some bastard decided to throw a rock at it. And another, and suddenly that’s a game. The poor beast takes the abuse until it can no longer, and lashes out. A kid is injured. Suddenly the whole town is up in arms, and tries to kill it. What’s the thing supposed to do, roll over and die?”

The beast nudged at Lana. She nestled back, giving a soft coo. The two settled into the dirt, muttering soft growls.

“I’m pretty sure she has no clue what that thing is saying,” I said.

“Agreed.” Sela said.

I frowned. “It’s a monster.”

“Yes.”

“It’s killed people.”

“So have we.”

This didn’t make sense. It’s a monster. And it tried to kill me.

“What do you think?” I asked.

Sela shrugged. “Don’t care. There are always sides to pick from. Each thinks it’s right. And you have to choose which one you agree with.”

She handed me the staff. “Personally, I think we’re under contract, but it could be under false pretense. Still, money.”

She looked at the two. “To get paid or feel good about yourself…the struggle…”

The swordswoman leaned back fell asleep. Right there in the middle of the field. I guess she decided that there was nothing to be afraid of.

I looked at my staff. Fire was hurting the beast. It could be taken care of. If Darkling would just get out of the way.

Its purr sounded like a grindstone being worked. It nuzzled Lana some more and settled down.

I sat and watched the two.

 

Morning came. And so did the villagers.

They came with pitchforks, and hammers, and anything that could possibly be thrown at Rusted Jowls. Men, women, and a lot of kids that managed to keep out of their parents’ sights.

They burst into the clearing, grim faced. They looked at the three heroes, sitting around the monstrous beast like old friends, and nodded. A man sneered.

“Befriending the monster,” He muttered. “Trust girls to take a murderer out for tea.”

“They buy me dinner, too.” Sela said. “Especially when I cut out a truly provocative tongue.”

Lana raised her hands. “There’s been a misunderstanding.” She said. “Rusted Jowls does not want to hurt anyone. It just wants to be left alone.”

“Tell that to my husband!” A woman screamed. “This thing tore him apart, left three children without a father.”

Rusted Jowls started to growl again. It took a step to the side, placing Lana out of the way. The villagers gripped their weapons tighter.

I picked up my staff and fired. A lance of power streamed between the two groups. The villagers screamed, turning away.

“Oh, give me a break.” I said. “Didn’t even come close to hitting any of you.”

The villagers looked at me. I glared back, challenging them. I’m not the best mage in the land. Probably not even close. But looking at this town, and the fact that they all came with farming tools and old weapons…I think I was the biggest bad around at the moment. This choice was mine.

I stood up. “I just wanted something simple. Good versus evil. We’d defeat the monster, the town would cheer, and we’d go on our way. But no!”

I stamped my foot. “Why can’t things just be simple? Why do you all have to fight and everyone have a point?”

I pointed at the villagers. “You don’t want to die. But you’re also being terrible neighbors.”

“That thing killed our kin!” Someone shrieked.

“Only when you left it no choice.” Sela said. “Want to know what that feels like?”

Silence.

The man shook his head. “Look, we need to respond to any threat. We’ve had a harder harvest. The trade routes are moving away from us. We have a damn Bandit King terrorizing us to the west. We heard our kids were terrified of a monster in the woods and we just reacted.”

He pointed a finger at Rusted Jowls. “But that thing is the only one with blood on its hands.”

Lana over to Rusted Jowls and held the beast’s head. “And if you just leave it alone, it won’t bother you again.”

The villagers grumbled. They wanted to argue, press the issue. But they didn’t seem to want to deal with Rusted Jowls and Lana, or have the two of us maybe thrown in. they quickly agreed.

Which brought me to the most important question.

“There’s a Bandit King?”

 

“MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!”

The Bandit King swept his hand forth in a grand arc. “Citizens of Meadowlark! You have defied me for the last time. Give of your bounteous wealth, or suffer the wrath of my forces.”

Beneath him were goblins and orcs. Dressed in clothes of red and gray, they gnashed their teeth and darted forward and back upon the hillside. They had plagued the area for weeks now, with little resistance. They were confident there would be none today.

Atop the hill he stood. The Bandit King was a man in black, carrying a rapier in his hand. A wide-brimmed hat obscured his face, but not his low voice. It resounded down the hill to the dirt road below.

“Who could dare to defy me?”

Sela looked at me, eyebrow cocked. “And we got paid? Actually paid?”

I shook the refilled pouch. A lot more bronze and wooden coins than Sela might have liked, but it should last a good long while.

“We got paid.”

“And they’re bad guys?” Lana asked.

It had been a tearful goodbye. Rusted Jowls seemed to want to leave. It strained against unseen bonds, desperate to move onwards. And when it couldn’t, Lana considered staying. She decided to stay with us. Said it was the right thing to do.

I smiled and looked up. “Are you bad guys?”

“The vilest!” The Bandit King shouted. “The most despicable, awe-inspiring villains!”

“Good enough for me.” Lana said. “You?”

“Finally.” I muttered.

copyright 2017 Jack Holder