The girl was bleeding silver. She had been doing as much for hours by now. Her forehead shone with a faint glisten of fever, and he had foregone a bit of sleep to check on her. As the fire crackled and the last hour of night gave way into an uncertain morning, he rummaged through his ever-thinner provisions, looking for more healing herbs. It had come to that, once they had depleted almost all the holy water he still had. A few he had to save for emergencies, in case an Eerie decided to take another taste, but they did their job and the girl’s arms were now whole and showed almost no trace of wounds, except for the pale scars and pockmarks criss-crossing them.
“I still wonder why you went on this mad adventure of yours,” he muttered, starting to cut the herbs together, mixing them into a green and grey powder. He cut his palm and let them maroon in his blood. How much of it he had spilled already on this quest? He’d be on a diet of red meat for weeks to replenish his reserves. If he managed to get back. His nose did not lie, and between the chasing, the Tide and everything that happened, they were now off-path by at least fifty kilometers, according to his pre-war compass.
The one good thing in this disaster was the other group of hunters chasing them had likely been just as delayed. The Tide did not know mercy nor reason, even though the first few days were always the most violent. For the rest of the winter they’d have to deal with a more insidious encroaching (their food spoiled, their water turning thick and crimson, skin growing scale-like scabs… the usual), but if they could get to safety…
But he felt it in his bones.
They would not be safe.
The same thrumming, a deep-set ache that simmered outwards from his already worn-out marrow.
The one monster he feared above all was on their trail. It’d take three days, or thirty, but it would find them. How many times did he have to kill it?
Only Elissa’s arts would be able to save him, and that meant forcing her to perform the Rite – and that meant staying on Verna’s good side.
His mind wandered back in the years, back when he used to be a wandering patroller outside of Belacqua. It had been a beautiful morning in early winter, not unlike that very one, and he had caught two girls walking out of the temple. He had given little thought to the blonde one – she had already earned her blindfold and seemed stern and lost in her own mind. But the brunette next to her had shot right through his heart. There was something in her eyes, in the way she walked, in her wrists, the tip of her eyebrows… a thousand tiny details that punctured him like endless needles, forever sewing their fates together.
They had shared a look. And he had averted his gaze, for it was poor form to look an Augur in the face, even one evidently as young as she.
But that had been just the first step down the slope. And they had embraced together and joyfully rolled downhill.
Until one of them hit a sharp, protruding rock.
His hands moved through the girl’s white hair.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I have to do this. I’m sure Verna is not as bad as you think. You can work it out.”
He had known her for almost as long as he did Lenora, after all. She was as driven and focused as she had been when he first saw her, and most importantly, she had been with him when tragedy struck, sharing the sorrow. If it wasn’t for Mastra Verna, he wouldn’t have even known about the Sere Rite. He owed her much. As much as this girl was worth?
He let go of her hair and focused on the mixture of dried herbs and blood in his palm. He applied it to her neck, her forehead and her collarbone, murmuring half-words. Again, he felt so much less powerful than even a middling Augur. If she was still alive, it was very much thanks to Elissa. But he could do a little.
As soon as she recovered they might increase their speed just a little. Still, they had to cut the journey south short. Even as the clouds began to part and the first few streaks of blue sky came back to bless his sight, it was clear from the frigid wind that the Tide would not relent. It would just become more subtle, less eager for immediate compensation, but no less hungry.
He replayed their itinerary in his head – if they still had his sled, they could have already reached the Eridanus and met with Verna.
Instead, they’d have to take a shortcut.
They might have be forced to pass through a city.
The Hunter withdrew his hands and cleaned them off with a dash of fresh snow. He turned towards the fire and began to prepare a hearty breakfast. They’d need it.
For the family of moth-people, the last few days had been more miserable than usual. Even more so for the daughter. Her friendship with the strange girl – with Sadja – had left her with a bitter taste in her mouth now that she was gone forever. Her brother was dejected as well, trying to make himself short, going for long walks through the woods. He claimed to be looking for provisions, but she believed he was just searching for signs of the wolf-girl.
As for their parents… they had no been happy with their interference, but their anger could do little against the ever-present threats from the outside, so after a lost of scolding and a lot of fear on the first night when the Tide began in earnest and winter rushed in, bringing with itself scores of evil creatures howling in the dark, things more or less came back to the known pattern. Wait. Hide. Use daylight to scavenge what they could and pray for the spring to come.
It had been enough the past few years. But time and time again her thoughts swirled back to the strange girl. Where was she… what was happening to her.
Sure, she had been caught stealing, but had a quick change of heart and even tried her best to help them with their food.
Shaking her head, she approached a corner of their orchard where she hadn’t been in a while. It was the same her brother had caught the girl cleaning herself and she had barked at him to leave her alone. It had been just a couple days before…
And then she froze mid-step.
Downstream, the channel where Sadja got cleaned bathed another patch of freshly-tilled land. She had expected to pull the same few, mangy plants from the cruel soil.
But this time, she walked on unsteady feet towards a tall bush of strong, healthy vegetables, larger and fleshier than she had ever seen.
She put one of the leaves to her mouth and took a bite with her black teeth. Thick, juicy and full of life. It was as if the remains of the girl’s blood had washed the land clean of the Old Country’s curse.
Hissing alone in the afternoon light, lonely snowflakes getting entangled in the black hair covering her body and the two large wings on her back, she balled all four of her fists.
She pulled up a few of the plants and stomped back home.
Time to make this right.
Pic by Blood RavenAuthor’s Notes: forty chapters and counting! Once more I feel amazed at how far we managed to come. I hope I can keep earning your interest for the rest of the challenge and even more. Thanks for reading.