Jack was not there when we got back, and in fact did not come back until the next morning.
It was strange, sleeping in a cave with no view of the outside, and I likely would have slept until noon if she had not closed the door a little bit too loudly as she skulked back in. I suppose I should have thanked her for that.
“Jack,” I said, once I had blinked enough sleep from my eyes to identify who was in front of me. I released my grip on my sword, which was lying in its sheathe on the floor next to my bed. “Where have you been?”
“With Emily,” she responded primly.
“That is—” I interrupted myself with a yawn. “That is fine. That is what I thought. Do you know what time it is? We need to meet Captain Gaven at ninth bell for more information on that…thing for today.”
“Half past seventh bell,” she admitted as she crept past the occupied beds towards her own, in the far corner of the room. I blinked when I realized she did not have her swords or armor with her, just a knife on her belt. Obviously, the caves were safe…but it just seemed odd for her to go anywhere without them.
Then I shook my head as I realized I had more important things to worry about.
I threw off my bedroll and strode over the large wooden bell placed at the front of the room for exactly this purpose. I struck it once, sending out clear note echoing around the small soldier’s barracks we were occupying.
My men were up and at attention in seconds, waiting for further orders. They might not always act like it, but they were soldiers. That being said, it was still obvious who had the most practical experience of all of them. Roark, Vale, and Norn jumped out of bed and stood with backs arrow-straight. Harold, on the other hand, was crouched behind what little cover his bed offered, bow up and ready with an arrow already notched.
I smiled. “At ease. All of you. Especially you, Harold.”
They all relaxed, and the young archer tossed his weapon onto the bed with a sigh. Jack continued dressing in the back of the cave. “What is the big deal? do not hit the emergency bell if there is no emergency.”
“Actually, there is one, of sorts,” I explained. “It is half past seventh bell.”
They all cursed themselves for sleeping in; I held up a hand to stall their protests. “This was a mistake we all made, including me. We are just not used to sleeping somewhere we cannot see the dawn. Now, everyone get dressed. We will just have to take a quick breakfast to make up for it.”
Everyone was ready in less than half an hour—Vale, as usual, taking the longest—and we were out just as the eighth bell was echoing through the caves. We found the same tavern as the night before, significantly calmer and less populated than it had been when we first got here.
“No funny business,” I informed Harold as we all sat down. He suppressed a grin, which made Jack raise an eyebrow at him. “What will they have for breakfast that does not come from an unnatural abomination that should never have been born?”
He thought seriously for a minute. “…the bread?”
“That is it?” I asked. “If we want to avoid monster food, all we can eat is buttered bread?”
“The butter is made from dire fox milk,” Jack noted mildly. “And most of the rations we brought from Grandsbriar, that you lot have been happily eating the past couple days, are also from monsters.” She shrugged. “This is the way our world works. Get used to it.”
I sighed. “Fine. Just…what is the equivalent of bacon and eggs?”
“Appearance-wise? Absolutely nothing. Taste? Same, though salted shriek gets close. But if you want something that fills you up the same way…” Harold shrugged. “Strips of whiterunner meat, with eggs on the side.”
“What kind of eggs?”
I knew better than to ask what the Hell that was. I waved over the waitress, a different one than last night. This one looked like she had just woken up five minutes ago. “Four sets of whiterunner meat with eggs on the side.”
“Six,” Jack corrected.
“Six,” I confirmed, nodding to the waitress. She stumbled off to inform the cook or pull them out of storage or however it was that these people got our food to us so fast.
“Anything you wanted to ask before we set out today?” Jack said after a few moments.
I thought about it. “How far away is the Hellwood?”
“About an hour, maybe two.”
“All right. And do you have any idea where the bandits are, precisely, in the forest?”
“None. Gaven might know, but I doubt it.” The swordswoman turned to Harold. “What about your dad? You asked him for intelligence yet?”
The archer shook his head. “Not yet.”
The girl frowned. “You should not put it off.”
He just laughed. “This from you? At least I have spoken to him, as short a conversation as it may have been. Do you even know if your parents are still alive?”
“Yes,” Jack responded instantly.
“Uh-huh. Did you see them, or did Emily just tell you?”
She looked away. “Whatever. They are alive, I do not need to bother them.”
I raised an eyebrow at Harold, but he shook his head. I could take a hint.
“Right. So, the Hellwood. Any particularly horrific beasts we need to know about?”
“Other than the bandits?” Harold asked, latching onto the subject change quickly. “Not that I know of. That is not to say they do not exist, though. I am sure they do. We just do not venture near there enough to know about them.”
“But it is a big forest, far from civilization—even considering the move to the Hellpit. That means that there will be lots of dire animals. And more than a few dire plants, as well.” She frowned at her companion. “What tree is the forest made of?”
“Oak, mostly,” he answered without hesitation. “With a scattering of apple and plum.”
I smiled ruefully. “Somehow, I expect dire apple and plum trees are not exactly friendly and cheerful. You already mentioned something about exploding pine cones with the oaks. What do the other ones do?”
Before he could answer, our bored waitress returned with out…food. For a certain definition of the word. It did not smell as appetizing as the bacon and eggs I was used to, but I supposed it would have to serve.