After a few more twists and turns down the tunnels, we were led into a small side passage. This one was of a more reasonable size, only about ten feet tall and wide, and blocked by a simpler barricade. The acting mayor knocked on the door and it opened to admit all of at once.
Miss Orange’s office was strictly professional, which was only to be expected. There were some maps affixed to the walls and a thick red carpet on the ground, but other than that everything was extremely utilitarian. Even the furniture—about half a dozen wooden chairs in addition to the mayor’s desk—was simply polished wood, with no fanciful carvings or designs.
“Apologies for the mess,” she said, referencing the somewhat unorganized placement of the furniture. “We needed to get the chairs and the desk in here before we built the barricade, so they pretty much just threw them anywhere.”
I collected a chair and oriented it towards the desk. “Understandable.” I shrugged off my pack, placed it next to the chair, and sat down, resisting the urge to put my feet up and sigh in contentment. “Now. What else did you want to speak to us about?”
Everyone else quickly moved to their places, with the mayor sitting behind her desk and her bodyguards standing behind her.
“It is time to get you up to speed on what happened since you left,” she began, mostly addressing Harold and Jack. “There was nothing major for the first several weeks. Just a few sinheart attacks here and there. Hunter Hall was bitten by some new type of monster that we have not quite found a name for yet. The usual.”
The young hunters nodded politely.
“Six days ago, the sinhearts led a giant to attack the wall.”
Jack and Harold stiffened at that declaration. They had spent the last few days arguing about how that exact thing was impossible, so it was only to be expected that they would be a little uptight about it. They knew better than to interrupt their acting mayor, though.
“It was at night, as you would imagine. The sentries did not see it until it was too late. As far as we can tell, a couple dozen sinhearts were leading it around on a leash.” She sighed. “Thankfully, once we did notice, a few bloodfire arrows were enough to send it into a panic, breaking any rush at the walls that they might have planned.
“In the morning, we packed up and headed south—”
“Wait a moment,” I said, stalling her mid-sentence with a raised hand. “I am afraid I am still confused as to why you abandoned the town. I understand there was a hole in the wall, and that your livestock were gone. Why not stay and rebuild? You started with less.”
“The sinhearts have been more aggressive lately,” the plump woman explained. “As evidenced by this stunt with the giant. Tom and Don gathered all the town leaders together, and we decided that they would be rushing the gap in the wall by the next night. We would not have been able to hold them off, nor repair the wall before then. So, we left. The very next morning.”
“That seems like a sudden decision,” I pointed out.
“We had been discussing migrating to the Hellpit for months. Pretty much ever since the meteor fell, actually. It is a more defensible position, closer to some food and water supplies…the only reason not to was because we already had a defensible position.”
I nodded. “So when the wall came down…”
“It was only logical to move on,” she finished. She glanced around the room. “Any other questions?” Harold raised his hand tentatively. “About what I have already said, that is.” Harold lowered his hand.
When no one else spoke up, she nodded. “All right. Most of what happened next was simple enough. Tom decided to return to town to await your return.” She saw my skeptical look. “No one could dissuade that man when he had his mind set on something. Besides, he has always been good at hiding, and there are plenty of bolt-holes in town. Not to mention that the sinhearts would move on soon, once they realized there was no one to fight.”
“If it makes you feel any better, it did not look like he was killed by monsters,” Vale assured her. The acting mayor glared at him, but he just kept babbling. “As far as our detectives could tell, a man with a gauntlet ripped out his throat. Jack insists it is not a villager, but I think—”
“Vale,” I snapped. “Shush.”
His mouth clicked shut with an audible noise.
I nodded at the woman behind the desk. “Apologies.”
Miss Orange just raised an eyebrow. “Oh, no need. I would not have worked with livestock my entire life if I had an uneasy stomach. I think I may want more detail on all that later. But for now…where was I? Oh yes.
“The travel to the Hellpit was not particularly difficult. We pushed ourselves, and managed to make the journey in a little under three days. I imagine we were just settling in as your party reached the town.”
I did some quick math in my head. That sounded about right.
“Unfortunately, settling in was harder than expected. Bandits had claimed several caves.”
Vale chuckled. “Wait, you mean there really is a bandit problem? We thought—” He noticed my glare and sobered. “Ah, we thought nothing. Just…nothing at all. Bandits, eh? Interesting.”
The acting mayor glanced between the two of us, but did not say a word about our behavior. “Theo and Nathan were able to drive them out, but I fear they will be back. And they know this pit better than we do, at the moment.”
“That is the reason for the security checkpoints,” Norn grunted.
Miss Orange inclined her head. “It is already stopped one attack in its tracks.”
“One minor point,” I piped up. “Theo would be…?”
“Captain Gaven. Head of the town guard.”
“Ah, yes, I have heard of him.”
“Good.” She scrawled something on a piece of paper on her desk. “Because once you find your rooms, I want you to speak to him, and help him with taking action against the Hellwood bandits.”
“I am sorry, what?”
“The Hellwood is the forest to the south of the Hellpit,” she explained. “It is only an hour or so through the Stonefield. The bandits fled there once we chased them out. I suspect they will have settled in well enough by now. I want you to go and deal with them.”
There was a very long pause, as everyone looked to me, waiting for my answer.
“How…how many bandits?”
“A hundred or so. Likely less, now that they have been trying to survive in the forest.”
“Right. And will we be receiving any reinforcements?”
“That is up to Captain Gaven.”
I glared at the dour woman. “We both know that you know what he is going to say.”
She glared right back. “Fine. All our guards and hunters are assigned to other tasks at the moment, from scouting the area to sentry duty. You four—as well as Jacqueline and Harold—are the only ones we have to send.”
“Six cannot kill a hundred,” I said thickly. This woman was beginning to piss me off.
“You do not have to kill them, you have to deal with them,” she insisted, as if explaining something to a very small child. “Fight them each man to man, burn down the forest, or tell them there is easier prey a week south. I do not care, just get rid of them somehow.”
I sighed. We were supposed to be returning to the capital and reporting our findings…but the town would have a better chance of surviving if we took care of these bandits first. “Fine. Just one question. That war camp. What is the story behind that?”
“Sinhearts showed up at the Hellpit, almost a hundred. We fought them off. More showed up, and they started building that fortress. Nothing particularly unusual about it, it is a rather standard strategy.”
“For humans,” I noted.
“For humans,” she admitted. I saw a small flicker of uneasiness in her eyes. She knew how unspeakably dangerous it would be if these things had somehow learned how to build. She had just had a few extra days to get used to the idea.
“Thank you,” I said, rising from my chair. The rest of the party followed suit moments later. “This interview has been most enlightening. Just show us to our quarters, or rooms or what have you, and we will be on our way.”
Miss Orange handed me the paper she had been writing on, and official-looking document with her signature on the bottom. I did not even have time to glance over it. “Give that to the guard outside.”