Fog drenched the air moistening evergreen trunks, leafless bushes, and flowers. Sebastian marveled at the late autumn flowers blooming on the mountainside above Dunston. They seemed to relish the cold moist air. Everything was wet: his hat, his coat, his trousers. Wetness even crawled his skin beneath his clothing. The forest licked him constantly.
After the shotgun welcoming, Sebastian had only asked a few questions, enough to get him started. Thomas had assured him that Myrtle Ridge was the most likely location to find the Dunston Monster. Nobody hunted here. None of the Dunston residents ever came here. According to Thomas, the ridge was cursed and the best place to start searching for their missing Tabitha.
“Two dead and one missing,” said Sebastian, going over his mental notes. An apparent miscount stopped him in his tracks. The sheriff was also missing. The city of Jefferson was the county seat. He supposed Thomas had only included Dunston residents, and other matters likely occupied Sheriff Haas. Sebastian kept the missing count at one and prayed the dead count remained the same.
The game trail veered up over slick rocks into a tangle of branches clawing at Sebastian. Roots reached out snagging his boots.
Peering up the incline, he spotted something blue on the dirt wall. He dug his boot into the dirt, reached up, and grasped a root. Pulling himself up, he scaled higher. He reached, snatched the blue cloth tearing it from the roots. Splotches of dirt covered the wet rag that was once a long skirt.
The thought of the missing woman shot strength into him, and he scrambled up the hillside. He grasped at roots and rocks nearly running on all fours. Lungs burned, and he coughed a cloud of vapor.
At the top, Sebastian found a pale rocky ledge overlooking the clouds. Sunlight felt wonderful on his face. He stood peering down at the mountainside disappearing into the sea of fog, Myrtle Ridge an island. Dunston was somewhere down there buried within the fog. Beyond, another mountain broke the clouds.
A trail led from the ledge climbing higher. Clouds clawed at the side of Myrtle Ridge consuming trees. Sebastian shivered and pulled his coat closed. The monster appeared at night, Thomas had made clear with slow words. And with the fog, according to the boy. The ridge was quiet as a grave.
Marching into the woods he followed the worn trail up a gentle slope into the fog. His boots crunched needles and knocked on rocks. Nestled against a cluster of trees, covered in moss, a wood cabin sat at the end of the path. Before the open doorway, a young woman wearing a dark fur coat stood watching him.
“I see they sent a giant,” said the woman, scowling.
Sebastian stood silent. Surprise took his words. He was not expecting a quiet welcome on a cursed ridge, perhaps a grumpy man wielding a weapon, but not a young woman.
The woman folded her arms. “Are you dumb, giant?”
“Rhemus.” He coughed. “My name is Sebastian Rhemus.”
“Kettle’s on.” She disappeared inside leaving the door open.
It almost felt like a trap. Opening his coat, Sebastian uncovered the revolver—his father’s gun—resting in the holster at his hip. He removed his hat and ducked inside. He stood, head bumping ceiling, and hunched over. A single bed in disarray stood on the right, a square table consumed the left side of the cabin, and behind it a small stove burned wood. Rot ate at the log walls, webs clung to the corners, and the table leaned against the wall on two broken legs. The lamp on the table released a pungent oil, clouds of decay clung to the glass, the flame cast a sickly green.
The young woman removed a copper kettle from the stove and poured steaming water into two gleaming white cups. A flowery scent pushed aside the rot. Pressing down on the nearest chair, Sebastian tested its strength. The seat groaned but felt firm. The woman sat on the other chair.
“Thank you,” said Sebastian. Slowly, he sat down. The chair complained, creaking. He held out the blue skirt. “Tabitha?”
Nodding, she took the skirt and tossed it over her shoulder onto the bed next to a pile of clothes including undergarments. Watching the table, she sipped her tea.
“Thomas,” said Sebastian. He held the teacup warming his hands. “He tells me there’s a monster.”
Frowning, Tabitha set her cup down. Her eyes caught the light, glimmering a fractal-scape of various browns from golden to near black. “If you’re looking for monsters, I suggest you look in Dunston.”
“How do you mean?”
“The monster Thomas speaks of is not a monster at all.”
“I figured as much.”
Tabitha frowned. “You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
“Are all giants this stupid?”
Feeling like he missed something, Sebastian peered around the cabin, abandoned until recent activity. Her wet clothes discarded on the bed, Tabitha wore an old fur coat belonging to the previous occupant. The open door gave him a view of the fog drenched woods. No monsters.
“You’ll not find my brother’s killer here,” said Tabitha.
Sebastian saw her loss on her long face understanding her disposition at last, and he felt her sorrow. His mother’s funeral still gripped his thoughts. He felt his own face sag.
Tabitha sipped her tea while she stared at the table. Or through the table, her briliant brown eyes appeared unfocused. “Outside,” she said. “Father Young has been expecting you.”
Sebastian stared at Tabitha, uncertain if he heard the words correctly. He recalled the night Father Young had disappeared, the revelation of those strange gold eyes.
Lurching from the chair Sebastian stood, head banged a cross beam, and he stooped out the doorway throwing his hat on his head. He searched the tree consuming fog.
A shadow in the mist, the form took shape. First the balding head appeared and then the torso wrapped in black. Father Young peered through his round dark spectacles. A sneer cut his face.
Sebastian stood, gawking at the man in disbelief.
“Greetings, Sebastian,” said Father Young. “Shouldn’t you be at university?”