Patina – Chapter 12

The Hunter swung with his knife. The reforged blade plunged into the small creature’s hide and it let out a pained shriek, its talons letting go of his arm. 

There’s no end to them, he thought, casting the nasty critter aside. It hit a tree and rolled on the ground, leaving a bloodied stain on the grey grass.

He panted heavily, checking his body for any more cuts or bruises, but as spirits would have it, he was mostly fine. Except for the bleeding cuts on his left wrist. And his right arm. 

He turned and walked back to the sled.

“Hhhnh,” he winced. And, apparently, both his thighs.

From all around tiny beady eyes flashed with the last light of the growing twilight. They did not blink, and chittered excitedly for the time when his wound would catch up with him. 

Not that he had any intention to make their lives any easier. 

He just miscalculated, that’s all. 

As his experience taught him, most Eerie were opportunistic, lazy and slaves to habits. Hungry and mindless, they’d chase their prey if they happened to spot one, but would relent if it proved too swift or too tough. 

Look at these critters.

“Here, take this back!” He reached the corpse of one he slayed a few moments before and gave the little black ball, with all sorts of hooked arms sprouting from every angle and a lamprey mouth just beneath its tree eyes, a good kick. It flew into bushes but the others did not seem particularly dismayed by his gesture. 

Soon came a crunching sound of eager teeth. 

In fact, might have just provided them with a snatch. 

Upon reaching it, he sat on his sled and uncorked a flask of cleaning water. Its vapors sizzled and burnt against his ruined skin, but they’d stop the worse of the infection. He could deal with the bleeding. 

“What’s that? Not so eager anymore, uh?”

The tiny Eerie from the bushes chittered and skittered about as their answer.

He made a mistake. He’d assumed the big one, the one that shrieked haaaalp when he had finished officiating his rites, would be just like any other Eerie. It’d have its fun chasing him for a while, then it’d grow tired and leave him alone. 

But maybe because of the growing Tide, maybe because he had spent all that time cleaning the lost souls of those iron prospectors, or possibly because it was just that stubborn, that thing had kept chasing him. 

And soon enough, he’d understood he’d have to face it, or it’d follow him all the way to the girl.

So he choose a nice big rock where he could have the high ground, secured his sled and waited for the Eerie to find him. 

Instead, these tiny fuzzball things with way too many legs and teeth swarmed out of the forest. Maybe they were its parasites, like bleakflies around a horse. Or maybe he inadvertently stepped in their territory. 

At any rate, he’d have to deal with them as well. 

“I know you would be mad at me,” he muttered, applying gauze to his cuts. He’d have to use something bigger for these. “But what did I know? I’m on a tight schedule here.”

She’d probably shake her beautiful head, making her deep dark locks wave. Then she’d scold him. Then she’d pray for him, and extort a promise he’d never, ever do something so stupid.

He grinned as an idea took form. 

What was it, the thirtieth time he broke that promise? He’d lost count long ago. 

His wounds looked nasty, but all things considered they were mostly superficial cuts. And their teeth could not get past the iron mail that covered his torso, courtesy of Arguta’s craftsmanship.

He opened up a compartment in his sled and took out a series of tiny metal vials shaped like bullets. Half the container was empty already. He’d have to ask Elissa to make more. 

Still… he took three of them out, loading his rifle with two of them. The other one he bit with his teeth, weakening the base. 

Around him, shadows diffused, spreading the upcoming darkness. Night was greedily approaching. And judging from the rustling and creaking all around him, and the chittering and clicking of many fanged mouths, night was not alone. 

Very well. He’d play their game. 

Going against anything logic might suggest, he took off his metal coat, carefully putting it into the compartment together with the rest of the bullets. 

He wrapped his coat around his midsection and used rags to cover his wrists and the base of his neck. This way, the only exposed part of his body was the scarred skin of his torso.

The smaller Eerie skittered closed, excited at the increased smell of their prey. He put his rifle behind him. Waiting with the knife in his right and and the bitten vial in his left, he sat next to the sled. 

From all around, the Eerie approached. A swarm of black creatures, some not larger than his head, some just as big as his fist, and a couple dog-sized. But every one slumbering ahead on its own uncertain gait, putting misshapen leg over misshapen leg, their mouths frothing with the joy of hunt. 

“Go on,” he goaded. “Come get a bite.”

One of the larger ones lunged, but he knew it was a feint. The other two behind him would be the ones to strike. 

He turned and slammed his knife into the Eerie that jumped for his torso. He grinned as the creature let out a breathy yowl – and then he broke the vial with his other hand. 

The black swarm seemed to find courage, or fury, all at the same time. They let out a shriek that rose like blades grating on sone – and then they lunged.

The Hunter grinned. 

Elissa’s purified water spilled all over his palm. He leaned forward and swung his fist against the closest creature. Water hit sticky, tar-like skin.

Droplets spilled.

And the Eerie exploded in a scream as it burnt upon contact, smoke rising from its cursed skin. The ones nearby did the same, falling on their back and skittering about like confused spiders. He turned again and hit those behind him, again and again. They tried to hit back, to overwhelm him with their numbers, but by now they were too close. And besides, if he’d been using any other kind of blessed waters, he would have been overwhelmed.

But each drop burnt like molten iron through their black hides, and each drop held the protection and blessing of the best Augur this side of the Alps. As the fumes spread, each of closest Eerie sizzled and hissed like a wet log of burning wood. One by one they popped in an explosion of tar-like gore. 

“Belacqua sends its regards!” The Hunter laughed, chopping off with his knife a big one that was trying to limp away.

The swarm dissipated. They left for the safety of the trees, away from this terrifying prey that could bite, and burn, and cut. The Hunter waited, panting, for them to return for a second assault. He had maybe taken out about thirty, their writhing bodies still smoking and popping on the ground, but that was just a chunk and they had numbers on their side. 

He’d be ready for them. 

And indeed, bit by bit those beady eyes turned back to glare at him, chittering their disappointment. They’d surely be much more pleased if he’d just roll by and die. 

“Not a chance,” he said. He still had to get the girl. 

Bring her back.

Perform the Rite.

And, at last he could…

The chittering and breathy calls died down. 

A deathly silence fell upon the forest like a bout of fresh snow. 

The swarm withdrew as one. Limping and stumbling, some quicker than other, but all of them as if answering one mysterious command, they skittered out of the way, disappearing into the wider forest. 

His breathing was the only sound. For a few moments, all he could do was stand next to his refuge, befuddled.

That meant…

Haaaalp,” came the call from the dark. 

Well, that was a bit of a blow to his ego, wasn’t it? He’d won, but only because something far worse came. 

The tips of the trees shivered. 

He did not even have the time to get ready and put on his mail. Poor Arguta, it seemed, would have to wait and see how much her work could protect him from a serious threat. 

Haaaalp!” Bellowed the strained voice from the dark.

The Hunter hooked the knife to his belt and raised his rifle.

He’d get one chance.

Pic by PeeKay

Author’s Notes: I’m far from happy with this chapter, but I consider it a little miracle I was able to write and upload at all. I guess the hard part of this challenge is some day lack of inspiration or self-doubt or zero sleep hit you all at once, and I’d prefer licking bricks than trying to sit down and write. Also, fighting scenes are never easy even at the best of time. I hope this chapter wasn’t too disappointing and to do better with the next. As always thanks for reading!

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