Chapter 8 Part 1: I've come with your refund for friendship.
Laura stood on the porch with a broom, sweeping the dust into little piles before pushing them off into the dirt. She continued to move about the porch methodically, working her way into every little corner. It had only been three weeks since the goblin and worm issue had been resolved, but it was already starting to show positive effects on their farm. Their crops were no longer disturbed, and neither were their cattle. The ranch seemed unusually peaceful, but the change was more than welcome. They were relieved that they had yet to see any sign of the worms coming back, or receive any hostility from the goblins.
Laura paused and wiped some of the hair sticking to her forehead out of her face. The sun was beating down hard - so much so that when she looked out onto the farm, there was a blurry haze that hung over the horizon. With a sigh, she leaned on the railing and set her broom beside her.
As she stared out over the land, she started to see a figure parting through the haze. It looked like someone was coming down the path on horseback, and for a moment, her heart lifted in her chest at the thought that it might've been Clandestine or Matt. She hurried inside and met Kaleb in the kitchen.
"Honey, it looks like we have a visitor!" she said with excitement in her voice. Kaleb looked out at her from behind a cabinet door and closed it with a grin.
"You reckon they're some wayward traveler?" he asked.
"I can't be sure," she said. "They're still a ways off."
Curiously, the two stepped out onto the porch and waited for the rider to reach them. They spoke softly between one another until they were finally able to make out a face from afar.
It was a tall man atop a bay colored horse, and they could tell he was a traveler by the packs on his saddle. It looked like he'd ditched his dark leather jacket on the hot day, draping it over the front of his saddle while his black cowboy hat shaded his face. When he slowed up in front of their home, he took off his hat and waved with it, revealing dark black hair with streaks of grey at his temples. Despite the grays, the man looked young and strong, and he smiled a warm smile.
Kaleb stepped off the porch into the sun with Laura's hand in his, and he waved back at the stranger.
"Howdy there, sir. Are ya lost?" Kaleb asked. "Lookin' for directions?"
"Actually no," the man said with a smile as he hopped off of his horse and walked towards the couple. He held his hat at his chest and shook Kaleb's hand. "The name's Alexander. I was directed here by Sheriff Mitchell from the town just a day east of here," he said, pointing back the way he came from. "I'm looking for my friend Matt. Worked with him on Hickman's ranch a few months ago, and told 'im I'd get back to him if Hickman was hiring again. The Sheriff said he came here to do... monster hunting? With some woman?" The man looked up at Kaleb and Laura's old blue farmhouse with an amused sort of confusion, as if looking for answers in their home. He scoffed. "Or something like that?"
Kaleb smirked as he looked back at his home but shook his head. "Aw man, I'm real sorry Alexander, but it looks like you just missed 'im. They left here a few days ago to go back into town. Dunno where they went after that. Helped us out with some sandworms that were tearin' up our farm. Nice folk."
Alexander's shoulders slouched in disappointment at the answer, and he let out a sigh. "Damn. So he's really doing monster hunting now? Of all things?" He scoffed again and shook his head. "I knew he picked up odd jobs and stuff but that's just- ha, well -" he ran his hand through his hair, pushing it back before he put his hat back on. "You know what, I'm not gonna waste your time," he said as he began to turn back to his horse. "Thank you, for letting me know."
Kaleb reached out a hand. "Wait - uh - I mean, you came all this way. It's a tirin' trip back, and I'm sure your horse needs a rest. It's really a shame you came all this way to see Matt and missed him by just a few days. We wouldn't mind you stepping in to get some water and shade."
Alexander turned back and looked back at Kaleb with a small smile. "Really, I don't want to be any trouble."
"No, no! No worries, Alexander," Laura assured him, coming up and grabbing his hand to lead him towards the porch. "It's no trouble at all. Any friend who's a friend of Matt's is a friend of ours. Without him and Clandestine, we'd be much worse off."
Matt had been lost before, and that wasn't new.
What was new was that he had a clearly troubled monster hunter in tow who seemed to know everything about tracking animals and monsters but nothing about navigating through a forest. And that would've been fine, because he had maps, a compass, and he knew how to navigate, but as soon as they ran blindly into the night his sense of direction became skewed. It was largely the fault of the sudden change in their environment. Were they still in the desert it would've been relatively simple. But at the moment, they were in a forest. By a stream.
Granted, it was a dry forest, which meant they weren't entirely out of the desert. They were lucky to find the stream when they did.
Matt sat with his bare feet by the water as the horses lapped up water a few yards down. The constant trickle of slow-moving water served as a suitable source of white noise as he flipped through a leather-bound journal in his lap, pulling out different hand-drawn maps and tediously searching them and editing them with a stick of a charcoal. He unfolded one large map and narrowed his eyes at the patch of uncharted forest that he had to assume they'd found themselves in.
It was at that moment that he'd become uncomfortably aware of Clandestine's presence as she inched closer and closer from behind, eventually looking over his shoulder. He glanced back with a look he knew looked as neutral as all his others, but he hoped she wasn't reading too closely.
Knowing her, though, she probably was.
"So where are we exactly?" she asked, moving to his side and plopping down in the dry grass, keeping her eyes on the map.
Matt pointed to the large patch of blank space marked with a few sketched-out trees. "Somewhere in this forest. I ain't been 'ere before. I've always gone around it."
"Oh. Well I know exactly where we are now," she said with an affirmative nod.
"Yeah!" Clandestine said, looking up at him with a smile. "We're in a forest! So much nicer than the desert, don't you think?"
Matt felt whatever brief moment of hope he'd had sink with his heart, but he kept his sighs to himself. Instead, he smiled and laughed. "Unfortunately, that doesn't really help us."
Clandestine hummed and laughed with him, leaning in a little to take what Matt felt was an unnecessarily close look at the map.
"I don't understand any of these markings. This isn't like a normal map," she commented.
Matt slowly pulled the map away and folded it, before slipping it between the pages of the journal and shutting it with a sigh. "It's not a normal map," he answered simply.
Unfortunately, that caught her interest, and to his annoyance, she perked up with curiosity. "Oh, what makes it so special, then? Are they special cowboy markings?"
Matt forced another laugh as he stood up, tucking the journal under his arm. "Sure," he said with a dismissive wave of his hand as he walked over to Elliot's saddle and his saddle-bag, putting his journal away. As he buckled it shut, he could hear Clandestine splashing around the stream with her feet. He felt a light splatter hit his back and he turned around.
"So what's the plan then, cowboy?" she asked.
Matt wore another smile, but felt something inside of him cringe at the question. Why did he have to have the plan? She was the one who asked him to be her partner in the first place and brought him out there. Sure. He'd agreed to come. That was on him. But she was not nearly as concerned as she needed to be about being lost in a forest with goblins coming after them, nor was she actively trying to help get them back anywhere recognizable.
More goblins would come. He knew they would find them again, especially if they didn't reach human civilization soon.
"We keep headin' south," he said. "We can follow the water, and there's a town down that way. I don't know for sure how far, but it can't be more than a week."
A week. A week more of traveling alone with Clandestine, if they didn't run into anything or anyone else first.
Clandestine only nodded at the information with a small smile.
"So it'll be a while before our next adventure," she concluded, before adding, "Probably."
Matt let his smile grow into one of amusement and he shrugged. "Seems so."