Chelsea leaned against the wall of the haunt, Bentley at her feet, ears pricked and legs rigid; both stood ready to bolt.
I’ve been ready to bolt since my first day in Seattle.
The restaurant sat fuller than she’d ever seen it. Not only were a few dozen hunters gathered with thunderous expressions, but at least fifteen hedge doctors stood in a knot. All of them were focused on the tied-up monster hunter known as Jacob Romero.
The kindly hedge doctor with the glasses who had stitched up her arm and given her this rotten job seemed about to erupt as he turned to her. “Thank you for bringing him in alive.”
Chelsea shrugged. “Killing him would have been easy. He doesn’t deserve easy.”
Her hunting partner, Brian, nodded. “Heaven’s dead because of him.”
Jacob shook his head. “C’mon. You all know me. Tracey, tell them I’m not in league with nightlings.”
Tracey flushed brick red behind the bar. “Don’t even try to bring me into this.”
Chelsea sauntered, her axe held ready now, over to the bar, and put a hand on Tracey’s arm. The bartender flashed her a grim smile before glowering.
Jacob looked pleadingly around the room. “Are you really going to believe this girl over me? You only have her word that I’m in with nightlings.”
Brian’s hands clenched into fists. “And mine. Chelsea’s story makes sense. Yours doesn’t.” The young man took a step forward. “She hurried upstairs to help you and Heaven, overheard you and the nightling kill Heaven, then killed the nightling while you were trying to convince me to head upstairs. And you were terrified when I told you where Chelsea was. You knew, knew, she had heard you.”
“Calm down, Brian.” An older hunter, a woman with gray-streaked hair pulled back, stepped forward. “We believe you. Like you said, your story makes sense, and backs up Chelsea’s.” She studied Jacob. “The real question is what we do with the traitor.”
The hedge doctors stiffened and exchanged looks. Finally, one of them, a tall bronze-skinned woman with gray eyes and freckles, cleared her throat. “We’ll take care of him.”
The gray-streaked hunter sighed. “Sara, I don’t doubt you, but why?”
Sara glared at Jacob. “He used us to do his dirty work. Sent word out through us to get hunters to help him. And it’s not the first time we’ve given him that sort of help. Or the first-time folks have turned up dead on his hunts.”
Jacob’s face paled. “C’mon, we hunt monsters. Of course, people turn up dead!”
Tracey sneaked a scared look at Chelsea. A worm of annoyance wriggled through her. While she appreciated that Jacob’s argument was logical, she knew what she had heard. Tracey’s doubt might be understandable, but it was also aggravating.
The salt-and-pepper hunter was nodding. “Okay, Sara, he’s yours. Make sure he doesn’t bother us again.” She looked around the room. “Anybody got a problem with that?”
A chorus of hot and angry “nos” steamed in the haunt. Chelsea didn’t join in. Instead, she buried her fingers in Bentley’s soft fur as two of the younger hedge doctors carried a struggling Jacob out of the haunt.
Sara sauntered over to her. The hedge towered by a good four inches. “You’ve put us in an unusual position. We don’t normally owe hunters a favor.”
Despite her sky-high anxiety, Chelsea found a grin. “Doesn’t feel great, when the tables turn, does it?”
A rough chuckle escaped the hedge doctor as she raked thin fingers through waist-length hair. “Indeed, it does not. However…” She pulled a red string from around her neck. A wood and silver pendant swung in the air. “Next time you need to be patched up, you have a freebie.” She leaned over and placed the simple necklace over Chelsea’s head, before pressing her lips against her forehead. “Be well and stay safe. You have our thanks and gratitude.”
Chelsea watched the woman leave, something close to awe washing over her. Bentley’s whine shook her out of her head. Tracey’s worried frown replaced awe with more annoyance. “What?”
Tracey shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I liked Jacob.”
Chelsea shrugged, unsure what to say.
Pursed lips added lines to Tracey’s face. “Are you okay?”
“I saw what that nightling did to Heaven. It makes for a little less sympathy.”
“I know, but–”
“But what?” The last of Chelsea’s patience guttered out. “He fed Heaven to a nightling and would have done the same to me. I heard it.”
Tracey swallowed, eyes filling with tears. “I know, but he was my friend.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Chelsea caught the eye rolls and glares from the other hunters. Tracey had been fun the last few days, giving Chelsea a bed to sleep in and a sense of domesticity.
But I’m starting to get why hunters tend to cut and run the morning after.
Part of her wanted to talk it out, try to get Tracey on the same page. The rest of her had been ready to leave before this disaster of a hunt in the first place.
And that part of her rolled eyes at Tracey and spoke in a loud voice that echoed throughout the haunt. “Look, I get that it’s hard to reconcile your friend with the guy who fed hunters to a nightling, but you might want to keep that crap to yourself for now.”
Hunters nodded in the corner of her eye.
Tracey bit her lip before opening her mouth. Chelsea cut her off in the same voice. “Save it for the regulars you have to face. I’m out.”
A tear streaked down Tracey’s face. “Right now?”
“Right now. Should have been about two days ago, but I owed the hedge doctors a favor.”
Tracey winced. “You have clothes at my place.”
A grim smile stretched Chelsea’s face. “Nothing I can’t replace. C’mon, Bent.”
Clouds darkened the sky overhead as Chelsea unlocked her car. She had barely settled Bentley in the front seat when Brian called out, “Hey!”
Chelsea turned to him, hoping her annoyance was hidden. Brian wasn’t the source of her anger. “What?”
He sucked in a breath. “I was wondering if I could pay for a ride.”
She sighed. “Where to?”
“Home.” He cleared his throat. “Wentachee. It’s in the mountains to the east. Just a few hours away. But I need to get home.”
I want out of this state.
She shrugged. “Sure. Gas money is always appreciated.”
Brian swallowed and pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket. “I can handle that.”
She shooed Bentley to the back seat, ignoring his pleading eyes as Brian settled in beside her. The young hunter was silent as the darkness of the forests and mountains swallowed her car.
Eventually he sighed. “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hunter.”
Chelsea shook her head. “Neither did I.”
This ends Chapter 5 Chelsea Alone.
See you on September 3rd for Chapter Six: Chelsea and the Desert
Keep the Adventure going!
Any donations would be appreciated!