Patina – Chapter 10

The Hunter proceeded at a glacial pace. 

Second day of the twelve allotted to him, and though a part of him would have much preferred to pull on the reins, rev up the engine and fly through the bushes, the ever-present chorus of growls, hisses and far-off whispers through the woods was a compelling argument for doing this slow and steady. 

On the afternoon of that second day, he decided to take a stop close to a torrent. The huge shadow of a pre-war concrete bridge loomed through the trees, and its presence, together with the iron contained in its heart, would make it marginally safer than any other place. 

He stepped out of his sled, patted the reforged knife through his coat and unhooked his rifle. 

Nothing came out of the woods.

Yep. Maybe he could afford to relax a little. 

He stretched a bit, his mind wandering back to the time when his teachers used to bother him to tears if he didn’t do his mornings exercises. Back then he hated it. Now, with the muscles of his back aching from all those hours driving his sled, he was grateful for learning those patterns all those years before.
Still, his fingers couldn’t quite reach his boots anymore.

“I need to get less old,” he mused. If everything went well, he’d have all the time he wanted to exercise in just a few weeks. “Still… this place looks good.” He took a short walk towards the bridge, turning back to his sled from time to time. 

Through the withered grass and the grey willows sprouted crimson trails of fresh sap. The treetops swayed with the weight of the renewed Tide, and each day the Breath of the Queen became ever stronger. Soon those sacks would pop and spread their seeds and he’d actually find himself in the Old Country. 

Still, during summer this could be a relatively safe spot. Water nearby, well-protected by a wall of hills to the side, and the presence of human artifacts would keep at bay all but the nosiest of the Fae.

His boots crunched a handful of gravel and he soon found himself walking on the remains of an old highway. Beneath mounds of grass and grey leaves, the rounded shapes of cars could still be seen. He approached one and gave it a tap with the end of his rifle.

He carved a hole right through it. 

“Hmmm.” Either they did not make that good anymore, or someone had already taken all the good parts out of it. 

Past a group of red-spotted pines he found his answer.

The bridge bent to the ground like in a long-forgotten curtsey, leaving its innards spilled out and about. The concrete showed hundreds of dark holes, most of them still crying a trail of rust. 

So whoever came here before did try to pull out as much iron as they could.

He looked about. Strangely enough though there was no sign of carts, encampments or…

Ah, there it was.

Laying next to one of te moss-covered cars lay a corpse. It was an old thing, judging from the height of the thorny sprouts rising from its chest, pried open like an overcooked pie. They rose in the air maybe three paces over the Hunter’s head. More came out of the poor guy’s mouth and orbits. His arms lay at his side, and in his left he still held a useless gun. 

He picked it up.

Empty. As expected.

He put it back.

“That wasn’t respectful,” he frowned. “Could have at least performed some rites.”

He looked around. Now that he knew what to look for, more hooked grins sprouted from between the willows. As did the remains of a hastily-built barricade, its metal sheets corroded and full of misshapen holes. And right in the middle, three corpses lay on their knees as if in prayer. 

Looking up, their hands joined, their sprained necks trained at the tall tree of white brambles and vermillion thorns that grew from the saplings sprouting from each corpse’s still softly-thrumming heart. 

The Hunter gulped and took a step back. 

“My apologies,” he muttered, tracing a circle upon his eyes. “I did not want to intrude. May your justice be served now and forever.”

He swiftly backtracked putting a hand upon his throat, checking for any sudden pain. 

His breath came out as normal, no brambles rising from his throat to spread through his soft bones. Maybe his sacrifice a couple days before helped protecting him, or he did not get as close. 

Nothing could be done for those three.

He turned back to give a quick look at his sled. Still perfectly fine. 

“Can I officiate something for the others?” He asked the woods.

The wind rustled the tops of the pines. Some globs of red fell to the ground. 

Nothing else came, though. 

“I’ll take that as a yes. Thank you, o Queen.”

She must be in a good mood, he decided. Might as well take advantage of it. 

He crouched next to the farthest corpse from the three praying ones, produced a vial of oil and another of holy water.

“I hope you can appreciate my gesture. This is powerful, you know?” He untapped the vial and poured a single drop on his gloved finger. The water glistened like a diamond. “Consecrated by Elissa of Belacqua. The second-best Augur we’d ever had.” He put the tip of his finger on the corpse’s forehead. Then traced a square all around it, placing a kiss at every corner. After the water, he took out a small iron bowl and a pinch of dried herbs. Grinding them, he lit them up and blew the smoke against the corpse. 

“May your tether find your place in the peaceful halls of sleep, lest it be the Queen of Thorns who owns your chain. If She so allows, may you find rest.”

He traced another circle with the ashes upon the corpse’s left hand (its heart was a bit hard to reach at the moment), and he stood up.

Then he repeated the process four more times. 

Upon the sixth, he kept glancing nervously at the conjoined, praying trio. It was pretty close.

And in fact, as soon as he crouched and put a drop of Elissa’ sacred water upon his finger, it sizzled and burned like poured on a frying pan. It evaporated in a whiff of white vapor.

He licked his lips.

“Very well. I’ll take what was allowed of me. Thank you, o Heart of the Forest.” He bowed until his lips brushed against the grey earth and pulled everything back into its place. 

He sat against his sled, crossing his arms over his chest. 

His heart did feel a little lighter now. Yet, could he have done more? Maybe if he came back here in spring, with a couple power Augurs, he could try and clean up more of the place. Maybe he could ask Verna for another favor. Maybe Elissa herself. Leaving the town for a bit would do her good. Ever since she established there, the redhead set nary a foot beyond its borders. She was truly devoted, but also a young girl and taking a brief break would do her good. 

Verna knew her far better than he did, though. He’d ask for her counsel. 

And then something came. 

A long, drawn out wail, sounding like someone had taken a call for help and stretched like old rubber, filling it with pained holes. It passed between the trees and bit into his flesh, running up his spine as a pair of hooked hands. 

Haaaaaaalp,” it said.

He stood up, rifle at the ready.

Behind the curtain of trees came a soft sound, like many mouths panting in unison, drawing breath. 


He mounted on the sled, kicked the engine into overdrive and sped it ahead.

He’d wasted enough time. 

Pic by Peekay

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