The Hunter had to find shelter. Though his heart seemed to know each minute by its name, counting down the remaining hours until the forest truly came out to devour them, he was also in pain, hollow with hunger, and each fiber of his muscles begged for relief. And the girl did not stop fighting.
She kicked and screamed and trashed so much he had to often stop and shift her back up, even though the ropes held. She was far from light and he had to carry pretty much all he could – his boots slipped often on the frozen ground. And from time to time, if he turned his head just right, he saw a tall figure with black horns and a smile of needles, laughing at his efforts from the comfort of the Tide.
But all that, save for the loss of his beloved sled, was more or less to be expected during winter, especially one as harsh as this. Already its frigid talons slipped beneath his coat and he had to take off his coat of mail lest it froze his skin – and again, he had seen worse.
What pushed him to keep walking against the wind and the snow was a worm-like doubt that had been gnawing at him since the last time he shared words with the horned Fae. It was likely some second-rate magician from the House of Autumn for trying to play with his fears like that, but if there was some glint of truth to its taunting… then they’d soon be in much deeper trouble than the Tide itself.
Just to pour more oil onto the fire.
He covered his eyes as a bout of wind spew dust snow in his face. Behind him, the girl shivered as well, which kept her still for a moment. Looking up to the rapidly-darkening sky, it seemed like they did not have much time before the end of their second-last day of protection. Maybe forty hours before his blood ritual failed them.
He stopped at a crossroad. Not one man-made, but a point where trees gave way in two different directions. The creatures of the forest now indistinct shapes between the mist and the snow, but they seemed to be a tad less present on his left. He muttered a few curses as the girl kicked his back again. He should have tied her better. Next day he’d make sure she couldn’t move a finger.
Then he took the less-travelled direction, approaching the geometric shapes of a fallen town. Or some kind of outpost during the last days of the war – it was hard to say. He was far from a historian, but knew people who were, and above them all Verna could start hours-long tirades on the heroic efforts of the human resistance during the Fae apocalypse. With each year it was harder to tell them apart. New trees broke through the surface of buildings, streets, remnants of the industrial civilization. The innate resistance of those place only lingered for so long.
And there were other threats as well.
The buildings around him were still covered with metal sheets, most of them rusted and hanging on from sheer habit, but there were a few that looked still relatively safe to be in. He spotted one that must have been a church of some kind once, though the entrance was barred by planks and boards and spikes.
He crouched to pass beneath it, making sure not to scrape the girl on the sharp edges, and took a look inside. Places like these were seldom empty. Eerie often used them to get some respite from heat and sun during spring. The dull ache from the ever-present memories of human activity would be a preferable alternative to the bite of the sun.
Thus he proceeded with utter caution, pointing his rifle ahead and straining his ears for any sound.
“Quiet,” he whispered to the wolf-girl. “Make too much noise and some beast will have us both for a snack.”
That seemed to convince, at least for the time being. Or maybe it was due to what they found inside.
The walls were covered from side to side with bones and old clothes. The remains of a thousand people, maybe more most of them cuddling each other. What would have been a comforting glimpse of the last few moments of mankind’s resistance turned sour as soon as the Hunter took a better look at thew twisted, fused bones. Most of them showed strange growths or bubbles or holes, like they had been in the process of boiling their flesh off as the curse took place.
Everything else was painted a black color, full of uneven scrapes that converged towards the upper row of windows. Which had been broken from the inside.
The Hunter couldn’t stifle a shiver. He was used to fight with composite Eerie, like the one he had destroyed a few days ago at the excavation site, or the other he had helped the moth-people get rid of. But there must have been a thousand refugees or more in this building… their cursed flesh running up the walls as it poured outside, congealing into some nightmarishly-large monster, its size only dwarfed by its hunger.
It did not happen that often, but in moments like these he wondered how mankind still managed to fight the Fae to a standstill.
At any rate, it seemed whatever other Eerie might sleep here had followed the call of the Tide and did as its ancient and much more massive cousin did. Only bad memories tarried.
And as if to remark that thought, in the centre rose a banner that still waved left and right even if wind remained out of the door. It depicted a wizened tree curling around a three-quarter moon. Sure, it did not seem to belong to the Queen of Thorns herself, but… he figured out he had attracted their gaze hard enough.
Giving the banner a wide berth, he walked to the cleanest corner he could find, kicked away some piece of rusty metal, and slowly sat down, letting the girl rest against the wall.
Now for the hard part.
He allowed himself the luxury of three breaths, then he unhooked his rucksack and his other, much more alive load from his shoulders. His shoulders popped with relief. At once he took the loose end of the girl’s rope and tied it to the closest column, somehow managing to ignore the clawmarks etched into the stone.
The girl gave him a death glare. He ignored those as well, and put himself to work.
He needed to sleep and recover, and even though his body was so worn-out a spell like that would be asking much, he really did not see any alternative. He took his knife and proceeded to carve out a series of symbols on his side, letting the crimson fluid kiss the dirty floor. After the first few drops he covered the wound with his hand and waited for a sign from their surroundings.
No bone creaked alive at his miscreant rites.
The banner kept lazing off its shaft.
At least this much, the forest would let him have, hm?
He let go of the wound and finished tracing warding signs in a circle. There. Together with the lingering protection from the outpost, they’d likely survive the night.
Then it was time to eat.
He wouldn’t lit a fire, so he divided the salted pork he carried in his sack in two, and pulled away the girl’s gag just enough to leave her room to eat.
She immediately tried to bite him, scraping against his glove.
“Stop being so childish. Eat.”
He tried to push the meat past her lips, but she growled and tried to bite him again.
“Very well. You’ll eat when you’re hungry.”
He put the other half away and finished his meagre lunch. A sip from the canteen was all he washed it with. Then he double-checked the knots and sat against the wall, trying to get a bit of relief to his poor back. What to do to distract himself when white death awaited outside and his mark shivered on the floor?
First things first, taking off his coat and rolling it on the floor, he covered her with it. Dead or frozen, she would be no use to Verna.
Speaking of which… their eyes met again and she glared at him with the same rage as ever.
It shouldn’t have bothered him at all. She was just prey. More importantly, his ticket to salvation, for him and for her.
He rummaged through his sack for the closest diary he could find, but something stopped him from taking refuge in her words.
The truth was – this was supposed to be a much easier job. Crazy enough going alone in the woods by winter, but he had everything he needed to make it out alive, and so far he had shown as much… but without his sled, with the girl fighting him at every step, and the growing weight in his chest at her gaunt, depilated condition…
He went back to think of Verna even as he closed his eyes, holding the notebook against his chest as if some of her warmth could seep through. What could the High Seer want with her, to the point of calling him and (as it was becoming increasingly clear) fetching other Venators to do the same? It was a bit of a blow to his pride, to be fair.
The wolf-girl probably had some drop of Fae blood in her veins given the tail and ears, but you could see weirder things looking out of a window.
Did he ever really know Mastra Verna? He had never given that much thought to her from the start. Since the very beginning, he’d fallen head over heels for Verna’s junior partner, and he had given the weird, revenge-obsessed blonde little more than a passing remark, even as she grew in power and influence beyond anything that could be expected at her age (or any age) and Lenora remained an admittedly-mediocre Vestal of a second-rate town lost amidst the woods. It was only thanks to Elissa that their town’s water became so sought-after…
So now why did she want this girl? She was scared, lonely, clearly traumatized and had escaped her grasp already once.
If he brought her back, she’d only have it worse…
His grip on the notebook tightened.
But this had nothing to do with him. With the horrors he had seen. With the encroaching tide.
With the horror that, if the Fae’s words had just an inkling of truth, was already marching to find him once again.
How many times would he have to kill it?
He opened his eyes and regarded the girl. With a bit of luck, this would be the last time…
It was then that her stomach audibly growled in the church-turned-graveyard. She just pulled her legs closer to her chest, trying to stifle it.
He shook his head, put out the meat strips and lay them close to her head. He then turned away and tried to get some sleep.
Sleep did not come fast, but the sound of her munching did.
Pic by hiveworkshop.comAuthor’s Note: we’re at almost one third of the whole challenge. Once again, it’s incredible how far we have come and I want to once again thank you all for reading and liking this silly little experiment of mine. Thank you for your support, it really means a lot to me. I hope I’ll always be able to earn it. See you tomorrow.