By Chris Wright
The painted red sign inside the sheriff’s office helpfully informed Ryda that he was in Kelsa Tur. The name was familiar and he pondered upon it as he scratched at the irritated skin of his manacled wrist. He wasn’t manacled to anything, which was always nice when he found himself in these situations, but his wrists and ankles were chained together, forcing him to sit uncomfortably upright in the stiff wooden chair. The seat opposite, across the stark and creaking table, was vacant as the sheriff stood fiddling with files across the room. Kelsa Tur. No, it was no good. He’d barely been listening when the captain had told his crew of the colonies and he couldn’t be bothered to think deeper on it. Still, it was nice to know.
The sheriff seemed to find what he was looking for in his cabinet for, not a minute later, he was moseying over to where Ryda sat watching. Two pages of loose-leaf parchment plopped down on the table and the sheriff shrunk into the chair. He’d been unusually gentlemanly in Ryda’s arrest; he’d offered him some pipe tobacco, which he’d declined, and no beating, which he’d gratefully accepted. Ryda usually didn’t care for law enforcement, a mutual feeling, but that had risen the sheriff in his esteem. Nonetheless, he was not a man to be trifled with, that much was clear. The men of the Hollyheath Inn had scattered like pigeons from the sheriff’s path as he’d entered the bar, sword in his hand and wheellock at his belt. The man who had attacked Ryda had been in no condition to say anything, but his brother had managed to groan out an accusation his way. Ryda had been stood above the bloodied forms of both men at the time; he wasn’t really in a position to deny anything.
Sheriff Tadoro, as his placard announced him, ignored the parchment completely as he stared across the table at Ryda. He puffed acrid smoke from a small, black pipe beneath a bushy moustache, watching his guest in easy contemplation. He was an older man, pushing fifty, with thin, lank straw for hair and a face that looked like it had taken some beatings. His eyes squinted like he needed optics and he stroked his stubbled chin with a big, four-fingered hand. He wasn’t empowered, he wasn’t threatening, he wasn’t even particularly big, but every inch of him told of toughness, like a cragged old oak that would break your hand if you aimed a punch at it. He had the sort of easy manner that came with having nothing to prove; he didn’t want a fight, but he knew, if it came to it, he’d probably have you on your back before you could pull back a fist.
“Mr. Ryda,” he said. “How long have you been here in Amota?”
“That’s hard to say; I was out cold for most of it. Less than a day.”
The sheriff nodded and took another puff.
“Less than a day. You’ve been awake for about three hours. So why do I have two pages of parchment in my files dedicated to you?
Ryda suddenly felt like he was ten years old again, sitting in front of his tutor master. His old defiance riled up a little and he had to force it back down. He was not in Velda Durj anymore. Not that his new home was making him any more welcome than his old one had. Three hours was a new record even for him. He felt oddly proud of himself. It took talent to maintain such Gods-cursed bad luck across two continents and half a world.
“I’m afraid I can’t say, Sheriff,” he replied. “I’m not privy to your files. My mother did always tell me, though, that I had a habit of making a bad first impression. I was never too good at the second either, to be truthful.”
The sheriff cracked a thin smile before taking up the parchment. He held it at arm’s length, squinting to read the cursive hand.
“Ryda, male, mid-forties, real name unknown. Past unknown, probable felon. Ship brawler, armed with modern firearms and an attitude. Aggressive behaviour towards Healer Binto and Healer Preta. Did not register with the Colonial Council on arrival. Missing person, disappeared from medical care. Assaulted two colonial citizens and insulted High Judge Gammu as a…” he peered closer here and read directly from the parchment, “…simpering, crotchety old fart, when he tried to intervene.”
Ryda winced just a little at that. He hadn’t known the simpering, crotchety old fart had been a judge, much less a high judge. The last thing he needed was to fall foul of a favoured. That kind of thing got men like him killed and he had a habit of earning more blood feuds than the law of averages should allow as it was. Mortally offending the nobility was the sort of thing he preferred to save until at least his second day in a new home.
“That sums it up pretty nicely, Sheriff. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t right on all occasions though.”
Sheriff Tadora actually laughed at that, a harsh bark of a thing that cracked his rough face in two. He picked the parchment up from the table again and threw it carelessly at the desk behind him, before leaning closer to Ryda.
“I don’t care who you are,” he said, voice low and tough, without losing its amiability. “I don’t care what you’ve done or where you’ve come from or who you’re running from. I don’t care that you’re an empowered.”
This brought Ryda up short. He tensed, his fingers curling instinctively into fists as he braced for a fight.
“Yeah, I know. You didn’t think I’d speak to the new arrivals? Your sailing mates? I know and I don’t give a fuck. This is Amota; you get a new start here. I’m not saying everyone will feel this way, they won’t, but you’ll have no lawmen here after you for….past transgressions.”
He paused for a moment, allowing Ryda time to nod as he took another drag on his little, black pipe.
“The Berayata brothers needed punching and High Judge Gammu is a simpering, crotchety old fart.” Another puff, another cautious nod. “But all this don’t mean you got license to stroll into town, laying down beatings, flaunting the…. civility of my neighbourhood. If that is the path you’re starting down, you’ll find yourself running into me. That’d be a shame. I think we’re like-minded, in many ways. I would hate to have to bury you.”
Ryda smiled, not out of defiance, but of respect. Maybe the old man could bury him, maybe he couldn’t. It didn’t matter really – he liked the guy and he was starting to get tired of making enemies. Five per day was his usual preferred limit.
Sheriff Tadora looked at him for another long second, through the choking haze of his thick grey pipe smoke. He nodded. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, brass key, which he threw to Ryda.
“Good,” he said, as Ryda fiddled with his manacles until his limbs were free. “Now get the fuck down to the colonial office and get registered. Now.”
Things settled, as things tend to, into a new approximation of normality after that. Ryda remained at the inn through sheer apathy. Homes here were built, not bought, and he found he could never summon the energy to begin. So he stayed at the Hollyheath, having one syllable conversations with Donu, the owner, and picking up odd jobs to keep his belly full and a roof above his head. Every now and then, Sheriff Tadoro would call at his door with work to do. He was the only one in town who knew of his power, the sailors having disappeared upriver to Yorka Sti and employment, and the old lawman used it well. Ryda found himself deputised on occasion, helping to crack heads around the seedier parts of Kelsa Tur, or else lifting boxes and shifting crates. It was steady work – easy, boring. In fact, the colony was abjectly failing to live up to its dangerous and romantic reputation. With one glaring exception.
“Ya hear Joda Surano’s boy disappeared last night?” the sheriff said to him one morning over their customary glass of straight breakfast gin.
Ryda grew still, cup half-raised, and locked eyes with him. He thought for a moment then took a long gulp. There was nothing quite like gin to chase away last night’s insomnia. He found serial deaths and disappearances did a similarly good job.
“Surano? Do I know him?”
“You don’t remember? We brought his brother in last week. He spat in your face. You broke his arm.”
“Practically makes me an old family friend round these parts.”
“The boy was a nice kid, though. Gasto, his name was. He helped his mother tend the field on the outskirts. That’s six since you arrived. Almost one a week.”
Ryda nodded and finished his drink.
“Mostly children, right?”
“Four children, two old women. All disappeared. We’ve seen cases like this since we arrived on Amota – disappearances, usually no struggle, usually near the Forested Mountains, but six in two months?”
“Do you believe the stories? Demons in the forest?”
“Stories? They ain’t stories. They’re out there. But what kind of demon travels miles from its land? What kind of demon breaks into houses and takes people without a trace?”
“You think there’s more to it?”
“Mother Moon alone knows, but the answers are in the mountains. And people are going to keep disappearing until we find them.”
The old sheriff stared unflinchingly at Ryda with that way of his, his eyes piercing through the perpetual pipe smoke. He was challenging him to refute what he said, letting him come to his own conclusions. He was the only man Ryda had ever known who could win an argument without words or fists.
“You’re mad,” he said.
“And why’s that?” Tadoro asked.
“You want to go in, don’t you? Into the mountains. It’s lunacy. Only death awaits you there.”
“Me? I’m not going anywhere, Mr. Ryda.”
He paused at that. Had he misinterpreted? But no, of course. He laughed and the sheriff smiled along, though there was no jest about him.
“You want me to go into the mountains.”
Tadoro shrugged and downed the rest of his drink before knocking on the bar for another.
“It was a thought.”
“Probably,” the sheriff conceded. “For a man alone, almost certainly. But how about a posse? A team of strong men and women, armed and armoured. Maybe with an empowered to lead them. Ya think they might stand a chance? People are dying and what do we do? We sit and cower. We put useless Location Bonds on our children and have the fucking priest sprinkle Moon Water on our doorstep. And where does it get us? More and more people are disappearing. If we got some answers, maybe…”
“Go fuck yourself,” Ryda replied, tapping the bar himself for the barman’s attention. “Do I look like a Demon Guard? You want a hero? Send a letter to the Aurelians.”
Tadoro simply looked at him through his squinted eyes, pointed eyebrows creased in practiced observation. He smiled a gentle smile.
“Finish your drink. We better head over to the gaol.”
“That’s what I said, ain’t it?”
Ryda shook his head but threw down his drink regardless. Such an order from anyone else would have earned a good few weeks rest after a swift trip to a healer, but he couldn’t bring himself to dislike Tadoro. And besides, the activity was good for him. His unoccupied mind always brought him back to one thing. Her. And how it should have been them?
He gave himself a little knock to the head to bring him back to the present and found the sheriff looking at him again. His face was more solemn now, almost understanding. Gods, was he psychic? It would be just his Gods damned luck to stumble across the one true prophet on the face of Crea. But no, he wasn’t psychic. If he had been, Ryda would have found himself swinging from a tree within five minutes of meeting him, gentlemanly sheriff or not.
“Yes,” said Ryda. “Let us find distraction. A demon, perhaps, breaking into High Judge Gammu’s manor.”
Tadoro grunted but didn’t crack a smile.
“We could intervene just in time to save the rest of his family.”
The sheriff barked a rough laugh this time. He took his pipe from his mouth for the first time that morning, taking the opportunity to a run a sleeve over his damp moustache as he re-packed the tobacco. He was soon puffing away once more, like a dutiful smith’s ever-burning forge, and led the way out the door and into the street.
The morning air was brisk and salty, yet to turn to humid heat, and Ryda allowed himself to enjoy it for a moment. Resolutely, he kept his eyes from the leering black hole of the Forested Mountains, and looked out to the shimmering sea. Beautiful and deadly. The memories.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” a voice cut in.
It was a portly man, middle aged and well-dressed, with a balding head and haughty eyes. He didn’t spare a glance at Ryda, but Ryda looked him over well. An empowered. More than that – a favoured. His cane was by his hip but not fastened to a belt. Instead, the man kept it there through constant, low-level use of the power. A ridiculous affectation of the sort common to the favoured. Ryda found it almost as laughable as he found it infuriating. His magic sense was not as powerful or attuned as he would like, not like hers, but use of the power still told him much of the man. Not merely that he was empowered, but an idea of how powerful he was, of his level of magical finesse and control, of his favoured hand, even something of the character of his power. Invaluable things to know of an opponent in a fight – it was foolishness itself to reveal them as a boastful calling card.
“Good morning, sir,” Tadoro replied, removing his pipe from between his lips and saluting with it. “Fine day, we’re having.”
He didn’t introduce Ryda. If the favoured had wanted to know, he’d have asked.
“Rather fine,” he agreed. “Well, keep to it.”
“I will, sir.”
The favoured, Ryda had never caught his name, had barely broken stride through the exchange and carried on his way, heading towards the sea and the nicer part of town. Ryda had personally always thought nicer parts of town to be overrated; seedy and rough were far more interesting. And they provided far more opportunities to someone like him.
“That fine gentleman was Master Gora,” Tadoro supplied when Ryda didn’t ask. “He owns half the land on the colony. Heads up the Council too. He’s favoured.”
“Did you now? I didn’t know you could recognise each other like that. I guess that makes the question – did he recognise you?”
“And you’re sure of that, are you?” Tadoro asked, glancing across at Ryda like he was a puzzle just starting to pique his interest.
One of the things Ryda liked about Sheriff Tadoro was that he knew when to let things go. Most people he’d come across through his life had refused to drop a subject until Ryda personally and thoroughly ensured it was dropped. Usually at the end of a pistol.
They carried on their walk in silence, Ryda searching fruitlessly for the serenity that had briefly taken hold of him while the restless demons weren’t looking. Alas, they had recovered their sight. Storm clouds brewed beneath the clear blue skies and his gaze couldn’t help but turn to the mountains. Tadoro seemed to sense his mood and maintained his silence throughout their short walk until the gaol came into view and, with it, a boy.
The boy was possessed of that rare, raw energy that comes of panic. His need to do something was stalemated by the lack of anything to do and so he danced from foot to foot outside the gaol door, whipping his longish hair into his face with every turn of his worried, teenaged head. Ryda felt a familiar surge inside of him, battling back the storm; it was the call to action, of approaching diversion. The boy stopped as he saw them approach and set towards them at a sprint. He kicked dust on to their shoes as he pulled up in front of them, forcing them to stop before his continued anxious dance.
“Sheriff!” he cried, voice breaking. “Sheriff, he’s gone. He left a note. Gone into the mountains. He’s up there alone, said he wouldn’t be back until he found him.”
“Take a breath boy and tell me plain. Who’s gone?”
The boy took the sheriff at his word and, to Ryda’s amusement, gulped down a frantic breath of air before continuing.
“Joda Surrano, sir. He’s gone. Chased Gasto into the mountains.”
The sheriff cursed under his breath and traded looks with Ryda.
“Mr. Ryda, it appears I have a house call to make. Would you care to join me?” he asked, checking his wheellock at his hip and his sword at his belt.
Ryda nodded, checking his own weapons as the boy thanked them profusely and took off at a run.
“Where are we going?”
“Surrano residence of course,” said Tadoro, heading towards the small stables at the rear of the gaol.
“And where, exactly, is that?”
“It’s obvious, ain’t it? It’s on the outskirts, near the Forested Mountains.”
Ryda paused for just a moment at that, looking deeply at the sheriff. He sighed and continued forward. Why did he get the feeling that this man was going to get him killed? He’d have to be a madman to even consider entering the forest, but Ryda had been called worst before and, truth be told, he had done little to dispel that opinion of him. He followed Tadoro to the stables to take his first steps towards the Forested Mountains of Amota.
By Chris Wright.
Thank you for reading chapter 4 of The Demons’ Cry. Please like this story if you, well, like this story and leave a comment to tell us what you think; we really do appreciate all comments and feedback. If you want to be kept informed of when we post, follow us through WordPress or Email and, if you fancy a smaller taste of new fantasy worlds, check out Andy Wright’s The Walk of Shadows – Footsteps or Daniel Ward’s The Tale of Armless Tom.