The Hunter groaned. This eye was killing him, and he was lucky this was a figure of speech yet.
The crimson string pulsated with vivid force now. He was getting closer. Pulling on the reins to steer his sled, he passed by a couple of catoblepi that did not seem fazed at all by their presence, contently grazing on the mangy, grey grass. The flowers on their deer horns were fading away, yet another sign he did not have much time before winter… in case he needed another one. Sometimes it felt like the world was just being petty.
Something lived here. It was too soon to call it a somebody, so he had his knife at the ready. At any rate, for dwelling so deep into the forest, it was a remarkably civilized outpost.
Even the house, though it might have seen better days, was still standing. Industrial? Maybe.
He let out a hiss of pain as his right eye twitched. No doubt. The girl was inside.
Part of him wanted to just jump out of his sled, guns ablaze, and pick up his quarry, tie her up to the sled and leave.
“Elissa better be ready to perform the best Rite of her life,” he muttered stopping the sled close to the house. Nobody was around, which was not very good news, all things considered.
He pressed two fingers over his pulsating eye and slowly twisted them inwards, muttering the final words to the spell.
If the girl managed to escape it’d be useful, but he was at his limit. As the spell fizzled and the blood stuck to his face evaporated in a whiff of crimson smoke, he let out a weary sigh. The red veil over the world lifted and his eye stopped pulsating, though it still felt like someone was trying to use it as a punching bag.
He’d seen worse. Would feel better in due time.
Now for the rest. He secured his rifle to his back (he wanted to make a good impression, not an easy-to-eat impression) and crossed the last few paces to the wooden door.
“Hello?” He knocked.
Shuffling sounds and chittering voices came from inside.
“Hello? I am a traveling merchant. You might be interested in my wares.”
He was telling the truth, in a way. Whoever caught the girl before him must have kept her alive, and in that house, which meant they did not know about Verna. Those who were looking for him to steal his prize must still be at large, but – Spirits! – a problem at a time, please.
Where was he? The spell and lack of sleep was getting to his head. Ah, yes, a traveling merchant. Those who lived so deep into the forest couldn’t do without a bit of holy water or some bullet. He’d get the girl for cheap.
The door opened a crack and that was when half his hopes died.
It was beginning to get old, truly.
For the person on the other side of the door had two huge lamp-like eyes, their body completely covered in the finest black hair, and the outline of two large wings, giving them a look like a huge moth. To complete the ensemble, the hands holding the door open had only three digits and segmented like those of an insect.
A swell of pity rose in his chest, even as cramped as it was with irritation and lack of sleep.
“Good morning Madam,” he said. The moth-person on the other side looked a bit more feminine? Something in the shape and color of her wings perhaps? “As I said I’m a traveling merchant. As the winter is right upon your door you might… be… interested…” his voice trailed off as another face peeked through the crack. A pale girl with silver skin, stark blue eyes, white hair and a pair of wolf-like ears atop her head. Judging from the two piles of blankets she was still covered with and the deep bags beneath her eyes, she did not sleep well.
They had at least one thing in common, then.
Her eyes fixated on him. He ignored her.
“Merchantsss with rifllle?” Said the moth-woman, her voice clearly feminine.
“I have to protect my wares from the Eerie, Madam. Comes with the job. Now… I usually trade in holy water and bullets, but perhaps there’s something else I can share with you?” He had a sudden idea.
He turned and came back to his sled, still ignoring the girl (she was so close! Could have caught her by her ears and squeezed her through the door, why was he being so maddeningly considerate?) and picking up the most mundane of tools: a few empty notebooks, fountain pens, a lighter, mail envelopes. He came back and held up these worldly treasures. The golden eyes of the moth-woman lit up.
She opened the door.
The wolfgirl walked back. She was clearly weary of him and his rifle, but did not seem ready to bolt out of the window just yet. Cranky, she walked back to a spot close to the fireplace, kneading her stomach. She was probably hungry.
The place indeed had seen better times. It was mostly clean, but ruin hung from the walls like drapes. And memories of better days, like ripped portraits, pieces of holy writings, ribbons, pieces of clothing. In other hands they might have been junk, but it was clear these people (the house was too packed for a single woman) had been caught right in the middle of the Tide.
Most of the times, it gnawed and bit and devoured.
But once in a while… it turned.
What could he say? That he was sorry?
Similar events were beyond the scope of human abilities to turn.
“It’s a beautiful home,” he said. The woman’s fingers twitched. He smiled, giving her one of the notebooks. She turned it with all four of her hands like a noblewoman of Venexia might have done with a new golden necklace. Stunned, she fell on the closest chair.
The wolfgirl, instead, was still scowling at him. Must be wary of newcomers. If half the things Verna had told him about her were true, he could not blame her.
Still… how to get her out of here?
His eye still ached even as he tried his very best to keep it shut, his head swam with weariness and his quarry was right at hand.
“What can yyyou give,” the woman asked.
“That depends on what you are most interested in.” Was he making a good impression? He was used to haggle, but he felt like this mask of a traveling merchant was slipping right off.
“Shhhow more,” she pleaded.
Oh, Spirits, he did not have time. Only a few days before his offering to the Queen of Thorns expired, and then… then he’d end up like the group he had seen by the abandoned outpost just a few hours before. He did not even have a tank.
So, naturally, he spread everything he got from the sled on the nearby table and, with a smile, showed the poor woman the small pieces of humanity she was desperately trying to recover.
Pic by hiveworkshop.comAuthor’s Note: Hardest chapter yet. Not for the content of the chapter itself, though that also has a role to play, but due to today’s news on Russia’s invasion. it has been a dreadful day – I truly did not have the heart to add more misery to the story, not now, hence why the chapter ends on a more human note. I wanted to explore this connection between this family’s life before and after the Tide. I hope, if nothing else, this chapter gave you a tiny sweet moment in the ocean of bad news that scoured today’s environment. Thanks for reading.