Belmont tired of seeing death up close.
He looked over at Orden, down on his haunches as he surveyed the body. The constable was a man in his late 50’s, red hair peppered with white. He was of stout stature, his best years clearly behind him. But despite appearances, Belmont had no doubt the constable was capable of defending himself. Based on stories he had heard, the sword sheathed at Orden’s side was more than just for show.
I wonder what it would be like to retire full-time.
“Another one,” Orden said, standing.
“You mean you had to get up close to the deep claw marks to verify?” Belmont said wryly.
Orden favored him with a look of disapproval, but Belmont knew better.
“I didn’t realize you wanted to be constable. You’re more than welcome to the job if you want, outsider.”
Belmont feigned hurt. “Still calling me that? I thought that we had moved past that!”
“Not when you’re criticizing my work.”
“I’ll make it up to you. Dinner?”
Orden chuckled. “No thanks. You have lousy tastes.” Orden turned his attention back to the body. “His name was Haswald. Lived out on the other side of town. Farmer. Bit of a drunk, lived alone.”
Belmont nodded. “He’s the fourth one in the past year.”
Orden sighed in frustration. “And still no damn closer to finding the truth.”
“Orden, everyone knows that you’ve been as diligent as possible in finding out who is responsible.”
Orden favored him with a glare. “Who or what, correct?”
Belmont looked back down at the body. “It’s still a legitimate theory.”
Orden scratched his head. “What did you call them? Na’Ald? Human-like wolf creatures? That shekta is the stuff of legends and fairy tales.”
Belmont looked at Orden. “I’ve shared my past with you. Who I really am. You know what I can do. Why would believing a Na’Ald is responsible be any more difficult?”
“Because I can see you. I know what you can do. I’ve seen evidence, of what you and those damned Saints can do. But you’re all an exception, a rarity in this world. I have trouble believing that there are more horrors out there that we have scarcely encountered.”
Belmont whistled. “You haven’t seen what I have.”
“I know. And I believe you, everything you’ve told me. But have you seen this Na’Ald?”
“Then until we catch it in the act, we’re dealing with some madman or animal.”
Belmont nodded. “Understood, constable.”
Orden looked aside. “Now, we don’t need to be getting all formal with other. I was just ribbing you a little with my ‘outsider’ comment. No need getting sensitive on me.”
Belmont laughed, and heard movement behind him. He turned and then stepped aside when he noticed some of the constable’s men approaching to remove the body. But then he sensed something, and looked beyond the men.
And he smiled more than he had in a long time.
“Excuse me, Constable,” Belmont said, walking past the men. He resisted the urge to run, mostly because he suddenly felt self-conscious.
I’m not that boy anymore, he reminded himself. I’m not the same plucky adventurer.
Did I really describe myself as “plucky”?
“It’s great to see you again, Belmont,” came Aedyn’s voice, firmly grasping his hand in a handshake that transformed into a hug.
Belmont warmly embraced his long-time friend, and then turned to the rest of the group. There was Akaja and Allana, and someone new.
Akaja had the same radiance in her eyes that she always carried, part of what made her easy to talk to. Allana stood no less prideful and lithe, but there was something deeper in her eyes. Some shadow dwelling there that Belmont found unfortunate but not unexpected.
She’s lost so much, he mused to himself.
And then there was a new face he had not seen in person, but Akaja had already filled him on the details. Khloe, newest member of the Vanguard and one who had somehow inherited Laurana’s powers.
A pang gripped Belmont’s heart, but he pushed it away.
Belmont greeted his old companions in kind, and welcomed Khloe with a handshake and bow of respect. He took a moment to take in the group.
There’s only five of us left.
“Where’s Veruk?” Belmont asked, the words escaping before he even knew it.
It was Aedyn’s turn to sigh. “Veruk decided not to join us.”
This caught Belmont by surprise. “What, is he too busy tinkering?”
Belmont saw a flicker of disappointment cross Aedyn’s face.
“He lives in the southern hills now. He said… he said he wanted to live a quiet life. That those days were behind him”
Belmont nodded, and then noticed Khloe peering past him. He followed her gaze, and found that it lead to Orden.
Oh yeah. The body.
“You know,” Akaja chimed in, “when you gave me the message to meet you here instead, I thought maybe you had a more… conventional… welcome for us.”
Belmont chuckled awkwardly, rubbing his neck. “Yeah. Well, about that… we can’t leave quite leave yet.”
Aedyn maintained a calm demeanor, but his tone betrayed concern. “What’s going on?”
“There’s been a series of murders over the past year. This is the fourth one.”
“And you think they’re related?” Allana asked.
“They all have a… unique cause of death.” He took a breath. “Like an animal attack. Sharp, deep claw marks to neck and chest.”
“A Na’Ald?” Allana asked immediately.
Belmont laughed. “It’s my current theory, but I’m having trouble convincing the Constable.”
“Did you tell him about that time in the Skycrags and the race-” Akaja began, but Belmont waved her off.
“Yes, I did. Orden is an investigator through and through. He needs evidence.”
“Did you show him the scar?” Akaja asked.
“No!” Belmont said, a little more defensive than he intended.
“Scar?” Khloe asked.
Akaja smiled impishly. “Once, when we were exploring the Skycrags, Belmont got… close… to one of the natives. All puppy dog eyes and little gifts.” Akaja stiffled a chuckle. “He used to be such a hopeless romantic, this guy. And, well, when she transformed-”
“Okay, okay, she doesn’t need to hear this story,” Belmont said quickly, then turned. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to Orden.” He walked off in a hurry.
Khloe looked back at Akaja. “You just can’t leave it at that.”
Akaja smiled, placing her arm around Khloe as they began to follow Belmont.
“Let’s start at the beginning…”
“I need to speak with you,” Khloe whispered to Aedyn.
Aedyn opened his mouth to respond, but the words failed to come. Instead, his mouth collapsed into a small frown and he nodded.
He turned to the others as they approached Belmont’s home. “Go on ahead. We’ll be in shortly.”
Allana favored them with a puzzled look, then nodded and the rest continued on inside.
When the rest were out of earshot, Khloe turned to Aedyn. “I’m happy to have met the rest of the gang, and I appreciate that helping solve murders is a part of my life now, but I need to remind you about my father.”
“I haven’t forgotten, Khloe,” Aedyn said, his voice a mixture of apology and weariness.
“Haven’t you?” she said, harsher than she intended. Khloe paused before continuing. “I don’t even know if it’s too late.”
“Akaja can reach out. She can likely get a sense of him… to know-”
“It’s not the same. I want to see him. I need to… tell him things.”
Aedyn gave a sympathetic look. “We don’t always get the closure we want.”
“So does that mean I just give up?”
“Not at all.”
“Then what do you want me to do?”
“Be patient. Trust that we will make it work.”
“I have been patient,” Khloe said. “And look… I’m grateful, okay? I’m very grateful that you saved me and have shown me this… this new path in my life. But I can’t commit to it fully with that hanging over me. I don’t… I don’t want to imagine if I’m not able to say goodbye.”
Khloe’s voice cracked a little as she bit back tears.
Aedyn nodded. “We’ll do everything we can. I promise.”
“And what if it’s not enough?” The words escaped Khloe before she realized, and inwardly she winced. That’s unfair, she told herself.
“That’s a fair question,” Aedyn said. “And I don’t know the answer. But we’ll try.”
Khloe nodded, and looked down before passing Aedyn and heading to the door to follow the others. Aedyn soon followed suit in equal silence.