There was a weird stillness to the night forest.
With the last embers of sunlight eaten by a growing cover of clouds, not even the moon could peer through and cast the trees’ shapes out of its black veil. They had to make do with lamps and the rare fizz and sputter of electric light.
He sat on a ledge, Cloria standing next to him, playing with her gun.
“Word was you had retired or something,” she whispered.
“Words get cheaper every year.”
“I hoped it was true. I mean: more room for me.”
“Hunting does get old eventually. I’m sure you’ll learn as much one day.”
“Heh, as long as I-“
He lifted a hand, shushing her.
Something was coming.
It started as far-off tinkle. Likely the thin ropes they had pulled all around the trees’ outskirts. They did not work all the time as some Eerie were smart enough to pass over or around them.
Still, sometimes it was just enough.
Cloria put a step forward, ever eager. She cocked her gun and aimed for the dark forest, beyond the circles of lights from the lamps.
The Hunter waited. It was too far to clearly understand what it might be.
A quick look at the nearest guard posts showed no movement nor screams coming from them. All the lamps still burning bright.
Cloria turned her blue eyes at him, a frown on her youthful face.
“What are you waiting for?” She hissed.
“No need to stick your head out just yet.” He shifted his weight and checked the scratched rifle they had given him. It would probably work just as well as a bludgeoning weapon, which was another reason not to shoot in the dark. “Let it come to us.”
The girl shuffled her feet, impatient. Maybe it was how tel-made her equipment was, but she was far too eager to throw herself into the fray. No doubt, judging from her fit shoulders and the strong grip she had on her gun, she could manage herself in a fight. But that wasn’t the matter.
She huffed and sat down next to him.
“If someone else gets it, I’m having you pay for its bounty.”
“You’re out of luck,” he chuckled. “I gave all my money to Arguta just today. And I sold all my pelts for an old knife.”
The tinkle repeated.
At about one hundred paces away, maybe one hundred and fifty. Something slumbered about, its body making the roots and branches creak under its weight.
“It’s a big one,” Cloria said licking her lips. Her hands played with one of her firebombs. Unlike those given to him, it was a lean vial with black paste in it. Venexian manufacture, likely.
“One more reason to give it alone,” he replied taking her hand and putting it onto her lap.
“You just told me you spent all your money and you don’t want to hunt?”
“They already paid us for the shift. It’s not like you have an official bounty or a request. Leave it be.”
She shook her head.
“We could still parade it through town. Get some recognition for our hard job. Isn’t that… what you want to do as well?”
He shook his head. Coming back to a day a long time before, in Belacqua, while he used to do just that. Bring in misshapen bones and conjoined skulls, to show the populace his job was paying off.
But mostly to see that smile as he walked up to the temple. That smile reserved for him alone.
“You have already more than I’m ever going to get,” he shrugged. “What’s one more night? Also, this winter is going to be full of chances for you to shine.”
“I wonder if that will be enough… I just don’t get why you keep working alone. Wouldn’t you mind, you know, teaming up once or twice?”
“I don’t have good equipment and I don’t work well with other people. I’d just slow you down.”
The creaks repeated.
Something like a far-off echo of a crying child wavered from the trees.
He gripped his rifle.
Cloria’s hand reached for the firebombs once more.
But nothing came.
When noise came again, it seemed to be farther.
And farther still.
And then silence came back, but less oppressive than before. That lingering stillness that had appeared since sundown lifted. The Hunter relaxed.
“And with it our feast.”
“Cheer up. At least we saved up on bullets and bitumen.”
“If you hunted more, it wouldn’t be a problem,” she bit back.
“Not ever hunt is rewarded.”
“But this new one you are saddling up for is, isn’t it?” She grinned, rising her voice a bit now that the Eerie had seemingly left. “Don’t give me that face, Hunter. You said so yourself, giving all your money to this shanty town. By the way, why don’t you try coming south for your supplies once or twice, hm? I can show you around in Venexia, put in a good word for you.”
“I like it out here in the wilderness, thanks.”
“You are avoiding my question.”
“Yes. I have a job to do. I applaud you for putting two and two together.”
He wasn’t usually so rude with Cloria. She was likely just curious. But he had his own interests to protect, and maybe got a little too careless about this. Or maybe the wolf girl’s face kept appearing behind his eyes.
Just bring her back. And get everything he had always wanted.
“You are as sullen as always,” she huffed, standing up and walking away. “I’ll patrol the far side. See you around, Hunter.”
He watched her go, biting on his lip. He had half a mind to call her back.
Then again, maybe it was better like this, wasn’t it?
He would be alone for the next few weeks, proceeding up north through an increasingly-hostile forest.
Better get used to be alone.
When time came to give up his shift, she had not returned yet.
As a reward for his job he also got a place where to stay, and he slumbered back to the guard camp, slithering under one of the provided blankets, trying not to think too much about lice or how bad the place smelled. He put his head over his arm and shut his eyes.
It took a while for sleep to catch him.
Pic by Destructor