After breakfast, a quick meeting with Captain Gaven confirmed that we were not going to be given any assets other than a single out of date map. With no other choice, the six of us set off towards the Hellwood.
The forest was not too far from the pit, across about two hours of the gray wasteland that was the Stonefield. We did not run into any monsters on the way, which I found slightly suspicious, but put in the back of my mind.
Once we reached the Hellwood itself, I was surprised, but I should not have been. It looked perfectly normal, but then so had the Briarwood, Whisper’s Grasslands, and even Grandsbriar itself, to an extent. No matter what horrors lurked under these shaded boughs, we were not going to spot them while peering from a hundred yards away.
We were attacked the second we stepped under the trees.
I heard a strange, high-pitched animal yowl, and felt something small and furry land on my back, slipping its thin claws through my mail and digging them into my skin like needles. I grit my teeth and reached back and grabbed the thing before tossing it to the dirt in front of me.
My first thought was that it was a wild house cat, based on the size and the fur, but that quickly proved incorrect. It was slightly broader than a normal mongrel tom, and a bit longer as well, with a tail almost as long as the rest of its body.
It also had two heads.
Two identical heads on the same neck, hissing at me like any other angry cat would do in this situation. Other than having no whiskers and too many teeth, the heads looked about the same as you would expect on any normal cat.
It was still pretty hard to get past the fact that there were two of them, though.
The beast leaped at me again, and I barely managed to get my shield up in time. It scratched and clawed, but could not gain purchase on the dire steel bulwark. Rather than trying to scrape the thing off with my sword or get one of the others to do it, I just found the nearest tree and slammed my shield into it full-force.
The cat-thing yowled again, released my shield, and disappeared into the shadows before I could so much as blink. I stood there, panting for a moment until I was sure that it was not coming back any time soon, and then turned to the others.
“You seen something like that before?”
Harold and Jack both shook their heads, but did not otherwise seem all that surprised. My own subordinates, however, were still shocked speechless. Big wolves and strange men were one thing. Two-headed cats were something none of us had any experience with whatsoever.
“You discovered it,” Harold noted. “You get to name it.”
I frowned. “Is not it just a dire cat?”
The archer shrugged. “It looks like it should be, does not it? But no. Dire house cats are…” he glanced at Jack, who shook her head. “…different. Hard to describe. But no fur. Or, uh, skin. And more legs.”
“All right,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “I get to name it. I suppose…how about twincat?”
The swordswoman shrugged. “Seems good enough for me.”
Harold already had a journal out and was scribbling something in it. “One word or two?”
“All right.” He wrote a little bit more, then sprinkled some sand over the ink, blew on it, and returned the journal to his pack—a smaller day pack, that would not interfere with fighting like the big ones we had brought from Grandsbriar. “Everyone be on your toes. Obviously.”
While we saw signs of more monsters—chewed bark from dire squirrels, pits in the ground from the trees themselves, and so on—we did not see any actual monsters even after about an hour of exploring the forest.
As we walked, I was struck by how normal everything looked. True, I was not a ranger or a hunter, I could not see all the tiny little signs that something was wrong, but to a layman’s eyes there was nothing wrong with the forest. I was beginning to understand how these monsters could be so wide-ranging, and yet have remained undetected by the wider nation for over a year.
“Stop,” Roark said suddenly, holding up a fist to underline the command from his spot at the front of the party. He bent down to look at the dirt. “Tracks. Human tracks. Half a dozen men. We must be getting close.”
I did not bother asking him what he saw. It would not do any good even if he pointed it out; it was like his eyes saw a whole different world than mine. I just moved on to the matter at hand. “What direction are they headed?”
The ranger pointed off to the left. “That way.”
Harold frowned at the trail—which apparently he could see as well—with a critical eye. “Deeper into the forest. Odd. I would have assumed they were sticking to the outskirts, where there would not be as many monsters.”
“Maybe they are more worried about people than monsters,” Vale suggested.
“Captain Gaven did not mention anything about pursuing them. Why would they have any reason to suspect that the villagers would send people after them, and in enough force to be worried about? It does not make any sense.”
“And yet here we are,” the blond man noted.
I nodded, conceding the point. “All right, so they knew people were going to be hunting them, and decided to hide as deep in the Hellwood as they could to throw off pursuit. How would they deal with the monsters?”
“There is only two ways they would have had time for,” Harold noted. “Clear-cutting some space for their use and putting up a wall would take too long. Right now, we are going to find them either up or down.”
“Right,” I said with a nod. “Either in the trees or in caves, like the Hellpit.”
“Is hiding in the trees really a good idea?” Norn asked. “What with those twincats and dire squirrels and everything.”
“The caves would not be much better, and they survived just fine in the Hellpit,” I pointed out. “Besides, most of the things that would be in trees would be small, right? Easy to drive off, even for a relatively small party like theirs.”
“Except for the trees,” Jack snarked.
I frowned. “What do you—oh. The trees.” I nodded. “If the trees went dire, they would have problems. I read Father Mallern’s entry on dire beasts, you know. He suspected they did not appear close to areas of human habitation.”
“That was also just a theory. Not even a theory. A vague guess as to why nothing too close to Grandsbriar went dire.” The swordswoman shrugged. “Maybe he was right. Or maybe it was just something about the town.”
Norn gave her an odd look. “If that is true, then is not, uh, the Helltown or whatever—”
“The waitresses at the tavern called it New Grandsbriar,” Vale added helpfully.
“Yes. Is not the new town in danger, if it was something unique to…Old Grandsbriar?”
“That is what I think,” Jack noted dispassionately. “But apparently Miss Orange has faith in Father Mallern’s theories.”
“In fairness,” Harold pointed out. “So far, it seems like she is right. Nothing—dire or precipitate—has spawned in any of the caves that the villagers claimed the past few days. That is not saying too much, but still.”
“That might explain why the Hellpit seems so empty,” I mused.
The archer shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Whatever,” Jack muttered. “I am tired of standing around doing nothing.” She drew her swords. “Let us follow these tracks, find the bandits in their caves or trees or whatever, and kill enough of them to drive them off.”
“We do not have to kill them—” Vale started. I cut him off by clapping my hand on his shoulder.
“These are battle-hardened bandits who have been preying on travelers during some sort of apocalyptic monster invasion,” I pointed out as the rest of the party set off on the trail. “They are not going to listen to reason.”
“Maybe not,” the blond admitted. “But we can at least try to negotiate with them. Even if that negotiation is just ‘leave or die.’ That might actually work, considering they probably all want to leave anyway.”
“No,” I said with a sad shake of my head. “We cannot. We are outnumber twenty to one. Even with your new toys—” I tapped his dire-weight bracers. “—we cannot expect to fight that many without the element of surprise on our side.”
“Oh,” he murmured, deflated. “Well, I suppose that makes sense.”
I forced a smile and patted him on the back one last time. “Come on, we are falling behind.”