The sun baked her back as Chelsea studied the town. The butte rose high above the pretty mountain municipality, giving her a great view. She squinted, peering past the houses and shops to the green postage stamps of parks that grew along the lake. “This is all really settled. Where can we fight this thing?”
James sighed from behind her. “We aren’t here to fight, remember?”
Chelsea shrugged. “Fight, force to take a nap, what’s the difference? We still have to find a place to engage without people seeing a giant, anthropomorphic rock.”
Her hunting partner settled down beside her, dark red hair glinting orange and gold in the already hot mid-morning sun. “Keep your purpose and mission clear at all times. Especially in your own head.”
Chelsea rolled her eyes. James didn’t have much more experience hunting monsters than she did, but he was full of ‘wisdom’ and ‘advice’. She made an effort not to be too annoyed with his pontificating, because his advice was usually good. “We still have to plan for this not-fight.”
James snorted a laugh. “My vote is somewhere not on this mountain or in the valley. Too many people.”
“That was literally my point.”
He shrugged. “Occupational hazard. I’m used to being with the best. We tend to be–”
“Jerks to us peasants?”
“When you put it that way…”
She shook her head. “You know, I’ve met other people from old hunting families. They weren’t arrogant.”
James sighed. “I doubt their family was nearly as old as mine. But, for the record, I am sorry. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t a great hunter.”
Warmth spread across Chelsea’s face. “I don’t know about great. I’ve only been hunting for about a year now..”
And what a fucking year it’s been.
A laugh rang out in the air. “Make up your mind.”
“I wish it was that simple.”
She avoided his eyes. “And then some.”
A warm hand clasped her shoulder. “I don’t know how you people do it. Travel around with no friends or family, just fighting, all the time.”
Chelsea swallowed the lump in her throat. “I have family.” Her whistle was thin and strained, but Bentley rushed over, tail wagging. She giggled as he licked at her cheeks and buried her face his neck to hide her watering eyes. She hadn’t been lonely in weeks, but James’ words opened a pit in her stomach.
“Yeah, I guess you do have family.” The other hunter chuckled and scratched at Bentley’s upturned ear. “We still have to find a place to confront our Guardian.”
Chelsea slung an arm around Bentley as she renewed her study of the mountain town. “There isn’t much to the east, but we have to get it to follow us.”
James studied the area to the east. “Agreed on the place for a confrontation and the difficulty of getting it to follow us. Luckily, we’ll have some help there.”
“Really?” She couldn’t keep her voice clear of sarcasm. James and his crew weren’t just arrogant. She’d never met hunters so stingy with information before.
James shrugged on the other side of Bentley. “We always try to cover all our bases.”
Whoever you are…
He gained his feet and stretched. “It is gorgeous out here though.”
Chelsea nodded absently. She’d stayed in the Cascades much longer than she wanted or planned because of James and this hunt. The beauty of the mountains and glacier-fed lakes was waning. She wanted to be on the road. “So how do we get it to follow us?”
James held out a hand to her. “Our partner should be here by now. Let’s go find out.”
The sun rose high as they hiked down the butte. James stopped them twice for water, though he didn’t slurp it down like her and Bentley. In fact, he barely seemed to sweat at all.
He led them to a small, if busy coffee shop in town, where Bentley was as welcome as the other customers. Chelsea happily ordered her favorite drink. She had yet to have bad coffee in Washington and once again was thrilled to be given a perfectly roasted and sweetened triple shot.
James didn’t order, but beelined to the farthest table from the door. An older, motherly woman with long dark hair sat there alone, reading a book. She barely looked up as James and Chelsea joined her. “This won’t be easy.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t think it would be.”
The strange woman shook her head. “Do you have any real idea what you’re asking?”
James sighed. “No. This part of the fight is yours for a reason.”
Chelsea slammed into her chair. “Hi, I’m Chelsea. And you are?”
The woman blinked a few times, clearly taken aback before setting her book down. “I’m so sorry. I’m Karen Soto. You are the monster hunting helping us?”
“Yup.” Chelsea rested a hand on Bentley’s huge, soft head. “And what are you doing?”
Karen glanced at James, licking her lips. “We— I will lure the Guardian to…”
Chelsea nodded. “Whereever we decide?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that easy.”
Chelsea unclenched her jaw. “Look, I don’t care. Whatever this big secret is, whoever the hell you people are, I don’t care. I want to get out of this state. So tell me what to fight, and how, and when… and where…”
James chuckled and Chelsea had to join him, face burning a little. “My point is that you don’t have to dance around me. Leave me out of planning sessions if it’s easier, tell me what’s up later.”
Karen studied her for a long moment. “Okay, sounds fair.”
“Good. I’m going for a walk.” Chelsea stormed to her feet and stomped out the door, perfect coffee in hand. Bentley followed, pressing up against her leg, pushing her out to the street.
The tall, bare mountains encircled pale blue afternoon sky, with only the wisps of clouds to give definition to the emptiness. A sudden stab of longing for South Dakota washed over, there and gone before it had time to more than sting.
How did things get complicated again?
She chuckled to herself as she wandered towards the lake. A wooden sidewalk covered in shade called to her, winding down the river that fed the crystal blue expanse.
Bentley wandered in and out of the water along with the locals as they ambled down the path. The simple beauty of the place and the moment eased something in her. The town was utterly walkable, even in the heat. When it did get too hot, Chelsea waded into the river alongside Bentley.
When the first streaks of pink and orange lightened the sky, they headed for the coffee shop.
James met them along the wooden walk, an easy smile on his face. “We have a place to make our stand, but we have to prep it first.”
“Whatever. What do you need me to do?”
His smile flattened as he studied her for a beat. “You’ll protect Karen.”
“Cool. When and where?”
“Three days and give me your phone. I’ll program the co-ordinates.”
She handed it over without a word. James shook his head as he tapped at the keys. “I’m not used to no questions asked.”
Chelsea huffed a laugh that really wanted to be a sob. “I’m way used to no answers.”
He studied her face for a beat, before handing over the phone. “I’m assuming that you don’t want to talk about it.”
She snatched her phone out of his unresisting fingers. “Correct assumption. See you in three days.”
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