Chapter Forty-Three: The Missing

The country of Sylva changed rather abruptly as they traveled through it.

One day they were in a forest and the next it had transformed into miles of fields only to turn back into a forest the day after. All things considered, the terrain was greatly varied, and while Sofia found it fascinating, it was also tiring, and this was especially true when the forest ground they walked on began to slope upwards. There were, in her opinion, too many hills in the place, but she wasn't about to complain to Larus.

Fortunately for her, they came across a little village at the end of their fourth day in Sylva, and Larus decided to stop there for the night. It was a relief to be able to sleep in a bed and eat proper food, for Sofia, though she didn't always dislike traveling though the wild. That night she fell asleep rather quickly, tucked into bed and full from a nice warm dinner. Larus, however, wouldn't sleep.

He sat by the window the whole night, watching the village in the dark room. It was eerily quiet, not even the creatures from the surrounding wilderness making any sounds and Larus didn't like it. The demon watched with narrowed eyes, golden and glinting even in the dark night, waiting for anything to happen, but nothing seemed to stir that evening and when morning came, him and Sofia were ready to set off.

Sofia was able to enjoy a nice warm breakfast in the morning, while Larus sat and waited for her to be done so that they could leave. He didn't like the town and he didn't like the area around it. Larus could practically smell the apprehension and anxiety hanging over the village, and he knew it couldn't be good. There was definitely something wrong, but it wasn't his business, not as long as it didn't stand in his way. As far as he was concerned, he had dealt in human matters more than enough already.

"You two heading out already?" said the woman running the inn they had stayed in.

She stopped by their table, an empty tray held at her side. Her face was lined from age and a long life of work, but her eyes seemed sharp and she wasn't nearly as skittish as the rest of the villagers.

"Yes, we have a long way to travel," Larus answered with a nod.

"Well, you ought to be careful out in the wild," she told the demon.

"Some awful strange things have been going on around these parts."

Larus tried to look more interested than he was, if only because he thought it was the 'human' thing to do. Sofia, however, didn't have any trouble with this.

"What kind of things?" she asked thought a mouthful of food.

Larus shot her a look that clearly said she should swallow her food before speaking, but it went ignored.

"Well for one, the old farmer at the edge of town said he's been hearing things, seeing lights out in the forest too," the woman answered.

"Lights?" Sofia sounded really interested then, perhaps thinking it could be a forest spirit like the one Sven had showed her.

"Yeah, odd flashes and lightning when it isn't even storming. The real problem though, is the folks going missing."

And now Larus was vaguely interested.

"People have gone missing?" he asked.

"All around town there's people who knew someone who just went and disappeared. 'Course, it only happens to the folks who go into the forest at night. 'Lotta the young men around like to go as a show of bravery, most of them don't come back," she said ominously.

Sofia was now watching her with rapt attention, almost like she was being told a bedtime story. The woman, who had leaned closer to tell her tale, stood straight and regained her usual demeanor.

"Anyways, it looks like a storm's heading this way, should be about to rain any minute now. If you two really mean to leave, I'd suggest getting a move on soon before it gets too bad out there. Don't recommend being out in the forest too late either."

She left with that final piece of advise, and Larus glanced out the window across the room to the cloudy sky. He could smell the rain in the air and hear the wind blowing harshly through the trees and thought the woman was right about there being a storm. Even if he and Sofia left right that moment, he knew they'd be caught

"Sofia, finish your food and head back to the room," he told the girl, standing from his seat.

"Where are you going?" the little girl asked, curious and a little insulted at being left behind.

"Never mind that, just don't wander around," Larus said, before walking off.

Sofia stuck her tongue out, but did as told, deciding it wouldn't be such a bad thing to get some more rest.

Meanwhile, Larus arranged for them to stay at the inn for another night, and then headed out to the forest. He had a suspicion of what was going on, and if he was right, he would rather deal with it before passing through with Sofia.

The forest trail was silent and no one was even near the edge of the woods, probably out of fear. Even as he walked in, he could feel the villagers looking on, probably thinking he wouldn't be coming out. It was still daytime, though, and he didn't expect to find much, and if he did, it probably wouldn't be anything he couldn't handle.

He walked for some time, looking around carefully, but found nothing, to the point of it being odd. There were not even animal tracks to be found, or the sound of birds ringing through the trees. He narrowed his eyes, letting them turn their true golden color, but even then he could see nothing strange. It was still early, though, so he went on further down the road. The wind was picking up by the time he heard anything, and the clouds were dark enough that it felt like it was hours later than it really was. He stopped as he heard the sound of someone approaching, walking down the path and heading his way.

Larus didn't have his sword, he hadn't thought it necessary, but he did have his claws, and he let them grow even as he kept them hidden, in case it was just a human walking through the woods. He walked further down the path and saw a figure growing closer, but sensed no danger, though he did think their scent familiar. As he finally saw who it was, he knew why he felt this way.

"Ah, I didn't expect to see you again, demon," the woman said, an amused smirk on her face.

"Hilda," Larus said dully, letting his claws shrink back at the sight of the woman.

And to be honest, he hadn't expected to see her so soon either. He still remembered meeting her, of course, back when he had just set off for Ignis with Sofia. The letter she had given him to show Hakan had been of use, even if she herself was irritating.

"The very same," she said.

"So, what is a demon like yourself doing around these parts and where is your little companion?"

"That's really none of your concern," Larus answered, intent on leaving.

"Oh but it is, after all, the more I know the more I earn," she said, and it was true enough, considering she sold information amongst other things.

"I fail to see why anyone would care to know about me."

"Well, you never know," Hilda shrugged.

"Now, you wouldn't happen to be here because of the strange disappearances, would you?" she asked.

Larus quirked an eyebrow and Hildas smirk seemed to widen by a fraction.

"And how do you know about that?" Larus asked.

"News like that tend to get around awfully fast, and people like to know which places to stay out of," Hilda explained.

"So you go around to potentially dangerous places to sell warnings to travelers."

"Well, yes," Hilda answered, with no shame whatsoever.

"It's quite a profitable business. So, what is your excuse?"

"I don't need one," Larus said, and moved past the woman.

"Or you don't have one," she said, following after Larus.

The demon tried to ignore her, knowing she wouldn't go away even if he told her to. After a while of walking, he decided to make use of her after all, especially if she was just going to keep following him.

"What did you hear about this place?" he asked.

"Are you going to pay for the answer?"

Larus gave her a look that clearly said he wouldn't and she huffed in annoyance.

"All I heard was people have been going missing, and not just the usual drunken idiots, experienced travelers and men who've lived in the wild parts for some time. It didn't start out long ago, but rumors are spreading fast about the place, enough that the village is in danger of losing trade connections to the larger towns," Hilda explained.

"Let me guess, you mean to find the reason for the disappearances and sell the information to the village leader, who is no doubt desperate for answers and maybe a way to solve the problem."

Hilda smirked.

"I love a smart man," she said.

"Shame you're not my kind."

And Larus didn't even bother to respond to that, instead concentrating on their surroundings.

"Stop," he said, raising a hand and Hilda did as told, looking curiously at the demon.

Larus walked over to a tree on the side of the road and ran a hand over some scratch marks on the bark.

"An animal?" Hilda suggested, as the maker of the marks, but Larus shook his head.

"Something was written here," he could tell because the scratch marks were quick and dense and only on a small patch, about the height of a person.

"And someone didn't want anyone to see it," Hilda added, earning a nod from the demon.

Larus looked around and narrowed his eyes.

"There, that tree was marked as well," he said, pointing across the road, to a tree farther back.

Hilda frowned, looking thoughtful.

"Who would bother with that?" she muttered.

Larus had a good idea.

"How often do people go missing?" he asked.

Hilda shrugged, not really sure what the demon was thinking.

"A couple times a month, maybe two or three," she answered.

Larus frowned slightly, and looked further down the road. After a moment, he turned and headed back the way he'd come.

"Hey! Where are you going?" Hilda asked, catching up to him.

"Back to the village," the demon said simply.

"A storm is coming, I suggest you find a place to stay for the night."

Hilda seemed confused, something that didn't often happen to her.

"What about the disappearances? The strange happenings in the woods?"

"Not my problem," Larus answered, continuing down the road.

"And what about that girl you're traveling with, what if she disappears?" Hilda pressed.

"She won't," because Larus wouldn't let Sofia into the woods on her own.

Hilda stopped and stared, before narrowing her eyes.

"You know!" she accused.

"You know what's going on. What is it, what's taking the people from the village?"

Larus contemplated whether to tell her or not. He knew she probably wouldn't be able to do anything to fix the problem even if he told her the cause. But he did owe her for the letter she'd given him last time. If it hadn't been for that, meeting with Saga and Urdur would have been a lot more difficult. In the end he sighed faintly and nodded.

"I know what it is, but there is nothing you can do about it. Though I suppose the information might be useful enough that you might get something for it from the village leader," he conceded.

"Probably, so, what is it?" Hilda prodded.

"A witch," the demon said simply.

For moment, Hilda just stared, surprised, completely ignoring the light rain that had started to fall.

"You're not serious, are you?" she finally spoke.

The look Larus gave her was answer enough.

"You are," she realized.

"But what would a witch be doing here? I thought they were rare," she wondered.

"They are, which would make a forest surrounding a small village a good place to hide. A witch would run a great risk of being hunted and killed in a more populated area, but around these parts, one could do as they pleased," Larus replied.

"But why? And how did you even know?"

Larus continued down the road, Hilda following along.

"Witches never stay in one place for long, but they feed their powers every ten days or so. You said people go missing about three times a month and that it had all begun not long ago, sounds like a witch just settled into the forest."

Hilda nodded, looking thoughtful, recalling the scratch marks on the trees.

"The trees?" she asked.

"Most likely traps to catch their prey," Larus said.

"And witches only work at night, same as the time of the disappearances," Hilda voiced.

Larus nodded as the village came into view in the distance.

"Well, I suppose we'll have to come back after nightfall," Hilda said.

"We?" asked the demon at her side and Hilda smirked at him.

"You don't expect me to go in alone, do you?"

"I don't really care," Larus said honestly, walking away.

Hilda scowled and hurried after him.

"You owe me," she tried.

"I paid you last time," Larus pointed out.

"Not for the letter, you didn't."

"And I didn't ask for it either," Larus retorted.

Hilda glared at him, as she stopped and watched him walk off into the village. Larus had every intention of leaving the next day with Sofia, and he wasn't going to worry about any problems that weren't his. He reached the inn and saw the woman who owned it outside, looking rather nervous. In the back of his mind he felt as if something was off, and the feeling grew as the woman walked up to him.

The night was cold and rainy and Hilda was in a bad mood, mainly because the demon she'd met had been a complete bastard and had refused to help her go after the witch. It was a real shame, especially since the village would have paid handsomely to have the problem resolved. Either way, she would get a nice amount for the information she had, but that would have to wait until the next day when she could talk to the village leader. For the time being, she'd try to get some sleep and hope the storm cleared up enough the next day so she could leave.

Hilda was just about to get into bed when there was a knocking on her door. It surprised her, to have anyone call her at that hour, especially because she knew no one from the place, so she was cautious when answering the door. On the other side, however, was the demon from earlier, and though he didn't seem happy, she didn't think him much of a threat, so she opened the door properly.

"And what brings you here?" she asked, arms crossed.

"We're going to the forest, now," was the answer she got.

And Hilda could only grin and turn to get ready.

Hello everyone! As always, hope you've enjoyed this chapter, because it was rather fun to write. Pardon any typos, but I had it written and had to type it up in a hurry because school is keeping me busy. Anyways, we'll find out what's going on next time and I have some interesting stuff planned down the road so keep reading! Thanks to everyone who has reviewed and/or added me to their lists, I really appreciate it. If you have the chance, please review! Comments are much loved. Until next chapter!