The impossible blue of the Columbia River called Chelsea, despite the reddening sky. While she knew the cold of night was coming, right that moment, it was still hot as hell.
She dabbled her toes in the water. Cold and refreshing in the heat, it was cleaner than anything she’d known on the east coast.
She whistled for Bentley, but her dog ignored her to splash around in the shallows. “Spoiled asshole.”
The epithet held no heat. If she’d really needed him, Bentley would have been at her feet. He knew she had no intention of moving yet. She’d been staring at the bare, desert mountains for the last thirty minutes, entranced by the play of the clouds across the expanse.
She hadn’t meant to stay in central Washington. In fact, she’d meant to be long gone from this part of the country well over a week ago. But circumstance had led to indecision, and the heat was welcome after a long winter in South Dakota.
So she’d camped along the river in her car, hunting the smaller monsters in the region. Nothing big enough to justify getting a hotel room. Not that Chelsea minded. The weather sat warm and dry, and even the night’s chill was eliminated by snuggling Bentley.
“They told me you’d be here.” The woman’s voice startled her. It belonged to someone about her own age, who very likely wasn’t a hunter. There was too much diffidence her stance.
Chelsea glanced at Bentley, but the big mutt was still paddling unconcerned. Since he wasn’t bothered by the stranger Chelsea decided not to pull her ax. “Who’s they?”
The woman shrugged, bumping the long, dark braid over her shoulder. “My family. My aunt and uncle from Seattle sent me to look you up. My family here said you spent a lot of time by this park.”
Rolling her eyes, Chelsea pulled herself to her feet. “How does your family know my habits so well?” Could this girl be a minion up from Seattle? Were the nightlings coming after her?
Bright red strawberries of embarrassment stained the pale cream of the girl’s cheeks. “Well, um. That is my aunt and uncle in Seattle knew you from… My cousins told me you’d be out here.”
“And who the hell are you and your family?” Chelsea found her hand on her ax.
The bright red on her cheeks deepened to wine. “I’m Linda and my family is… we’re hedge doctors.”
“Oh.” Fear gone in just that instant, Chelsea couldn’t stop her grin as she pulled a silver and wood leaf pendant out of her shirt. “I don’t owe you people anything. In fact, ya’ll owe me a favor.”
Linda looked about ready to pass out as the river of wine traveled down to her chest. “Oh no. It’s–” She took a deep breath. “We have a… problem, and they recommended you.”
Chelsea shook her head. “How many favors do you people want to owe me?”
The girl sucked in a shaking breath. “I’m just the messenger.”
Keegan’s voice echoed in Chelsea’s memory: Play nice.
She held in a sigh. “Well, Linda, what do the hedge doctors need from me now?”
The girl closed her eyes. “There’s a monster.”
“Of course there is.”
“It’s killed a hedge doctor, my brother.”
Shame filled Chelsea. “I’m so sorry.”
Linda shrugged. “I’m used to hunters.”
Well, shit, that makes me feel even worse.
Chelsea rose to her feet. “So what I am killing?”
“Not just you.” Linda waved her hands. “We’re calling on everyone to help.”
Linda gestured down stream. Chelsea swallowed at the crowd of people piling out of cars. Around twenty were milling about, setting food out at picnic tables, most with the cocky determination of hunters about to get in some kind of fight.
“So much for quiet camping and contemplation.”
Linda’s blush deepened once more. “Meeting out here, having a bite to eat… nobody will think about it twice.”
Chelsea shrugged, not really wanting to explain severe social anxiety to a complete stranger. She sucked in a deep breath before whistling. This time Bentley rushed out of the water, taking care to shake off well away from Chelsea and Linda. The three of them ambled over to the huge group of people.
A few seemed familiar. Chelsea thought she might have met them in Ocean Shores. They waved and smiled, so she returned both gestures, willing her unease away. Bentley leaned against her legs, dampening her from knee to hip.
She scratched at his pointed ears. “I’m okay, you big jerk.” He gave a yip and moved closer to the tables. “No begging!”
A few people laughed and called the dog over before handing Chelsea a beer. She accepted the beverage then scooted to the edge of the crowd.
As the night rolled in she wandered over to her car to grab her coat. A relic from her days in South Dakota. The black fringe danced in the wind off the river and the heavy leather banged against her knees.
Feeling protected from more than the chill, she headed back the picnic area sipping at her beer. Something about this gathering felt off to her. She leaned against the picnic table, studying the hunters, fully willing to lay her distaste for this event at Jackson and Amber’s feet. She’d been leery of people before either one had left her, but she’d been worse since they had.
I hope he’s okay.
Chelsea sighed and whistled for her dog. Bentley padded over, chomping away at whatever food he had begged off someone. She buried her fingers in his plush brown fur. He whined, low and worried, as his blue eyes studied her.
“I’m okay, Bent. I just want some sleep. We haven’t really been on hunter hours for a while now.”
Bentley cocked his head to one side, tongue lolling out, ears perked up.
“No, I’m not giving up the life. Just on hiatus, again. It’s not like the last few hunts went all that well.”
Bentley gave a yip before licking her hand. Chelsea found a smile for him. Ever since he’s crawled out of the prairie he’d been her shadow and emotional rock. She just wished she could keep him from hunting monsters with her.
Any further speculation was cut off by a man calling out, ‘If everybody has a full belly, we can get into the details.”
Chelsea turned towards the river. The man was older, with gray streaks in his long hair. He had the slightly arrogant bearing of someone used to authority. An authority that jeans and a t-shirt couldn’t erase. “Thank you for coming. We’re in desperate need of the kind of help only you folks can give.”
She chuckled along with the rest of the hunters.
The man continued. “About three weeks ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to reopen an old mine.” A rumble ran through the crowd. “As you can guess, this was the opposite of a good idea. We haven’t seen a rock troll in these mountains since the 1970s, but we have one now. And an angry one, woken from hibernation by drills and noise and people. We’ve seen him all over. From Chelan Falls to Leavenworth to Rock Island. So far we’ve been able to call his temper tantrums rock slides or even natural gas explosions, but sooner or later, he’s going to end up on the internet and then its government agents as far as the eye can see. And none of us want that.”
Chelsea nearly raised her hand to ask why, but there was a time and place, this wasn’t it.
The man continued. “We have a plan to stop him and we’ll be assigning positions tonight, but know now: everybody here is somebody who is trusted by hedge doctors. We’re asking that you continue to be trustworthy. There are some things that are too weird even for our world. Now, please line up and you’ll be assigned to a team.”
The hedge doctors’ obvious nerves bothered her more than she could say though. She filed away her unease while also wishing she had someone to share it with.
I wonder how Amber’s doing?
Sighing at her own folly, Chelsea joined the milling hunters. The hedge doctors were separating everyone into groups. The man who had been speaking called out her name twice before she heard it.
Bentley kept close to her as they joined the smallest crowd. “I’m Chelsea.”
The older man nodded and marked something on the paper he held. “I’m David. We’ll be meeting the rest of our team at my house tomorrow morning… well, late evening for you folks.” Chelsea chuckled, though she wasn’t remotely amused. “We have the most important task of this hunt. We’ll be the ones who put the troll back into the ground, with a little help on the heavy lifting.”
Unease, hot and heavy, escaped Chelsea’s hold to settle her stomach as David gave her his address. Something about this hunt was off, and she was going to find out what it was.
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