Throughout the whole expedition, Cloria had lost or broken many things. Her pride was one of those, notwithstanding her posturing with the crew. But as Spirits would have it, she had managed to save her spyglass.
She brought it up to her eye, scanning through kilometers of forest, through the air now finally clearing from mist and snow. Patches of blue sky even began to peek through the platinum curtain of clouds.
The Hunter and his pray had survived.
As with every year, the Tide did most of its violence in its first few days. Now, as two men already complained about itching and strange rashes grew over their exposed necks, the Breath of the Queen had other weapons to display. Her healing arts would keep it down for a bit.
Still, the Hunter and his charge, that wolf-like girl, were far too slippery for her taste. He was moving through a formerly-industrialized area, and though the land-leviathan had exceeded her expectations (especially in durability, the thing managed to withstand more than an encounter with many a dangerous Eerie) following him through the cities would only make a hellish ruckus and attract everything on them.
She followed those two as they appeared and disappeared through the old streets. They did not seem to be friendly, with the girl pulling on her chain at every step, trying to slow him down.
“Good,” she grinned. They had a chance. It was a bit of a gamble, but so had been leaving the Order. Cloria tapped on the spyglass, making up a scenario after the other. A good thing about having such a bad Second Sight was you had to rely so much on your first.
And if there was one thing she had picked up in her years of hunting, was how to corner her prey.
“You,” she said jumping down the tank in one fluid movement. The closest man turned to her. What was his name again? By now she remembered Orzono’s but the rest of the guys kept slipping her mind. Whatever.
She pulled up his sleeve, showing his growing rash where the leechspores were busy infecting his veins. Getting half her crew infected with the same crimson sap as the trees would probably be bad for morale. “Let me see that.” She detached a small vial with her blood mixed with healing herbs (at least those grew even in the middle of winter) and began to pour the contents over his arm. “And everyone else who also shows similar symptoms. I want you at peak performance. We are going in.”
It was weird to walk through walls while you could still see the outside. Sadja’s ears perked up at the soft creaks and hisses coming from all around, especially the deep dark places in the shade, below the roots or under a collapsed roof. She had pulled up her chain and was trying to move making as little noise as she could. Her breath lingered around her neck in a wispy cloud.
It might have been intriguing, maybe even beautiful, if not for the red sap flowing from the trees and the much more worrying black tar hanging from half-seen slumbering creatures in the dark.
The man turned to give her a look. She glared at him, but he just nodded and waited for her to come a little closer.
“You are moving well,” he said with a half smile. “Little noise, almost no footprints, in the direction of the wind.”
She did not reply. She did not want to talk, especially not with someone as bone-headed as her captor.
“Let’s check that,” he said, pointing at a low, stretched building surrounded by grey plants. It was right in the open at a crossroad with many streets of the once-city, and it struck her a place that must have been important. Not a temple of any sort, but something where people might come together. It smelled weird, more… metal-like compared to their surroundings.
The man led her through an entrance past the maze of grey branches. He carefully moved aside the columns of half-solidified sap. Something seemed to be inside them, something that looked a lot like a chicken – if chicken had six spindly legs. Sadja scuttled quickly next to him and the thing in its crimson prison did not seem to mind them.
The inside was dark, only a few blades of light peering through, casting their feverish glow over a cavernous entrance and many walls, broken-through by large roots and broken bones.
She followed the chain’s pull as the man walked through the labyrinth. It was full of people. Dead ones. Their misshapen skulls looked up at her, bones cracked and branching out in horns and other tubular growths. As they walked through the aisles Sadja noticed many of them were covered in some sort of weird metal sheets, rusted. Whatever they contained had grown over with moss.
One seemed to attract his attention and he began to carefully rip through the overgrowth, spitting away the clouds of spores that burst in a thousand brilliant sparks as light cut through them. She sneezed.
“It’s better if you don’t breathe this stuff,” he whispered, pulling up a few cylindrical containers, “though you’re likely immune, given your blood and everything.”
He kept talking about her blood like it was some sort of commodity. Insofar it had only helped her to get into a lot of problems.
He finished cleaning off dust and dirt from the cylinder and he scoffed at something he read over the painted surface.
“Best before… that’s a few decades ago. Want to give it a try?”
What was he talking about? He produced his knife and she flinched at the sight, but it wasn’t her skin to be pierced, it was the cylinder. And as he carefully pulled it apart, trying to make as little noise as possible, her nose twitched again.
What… what was this thing? Her mouth began to salivate as she leaned forward, peering past his shoulder. The small metal can held… food in it?
He scooped up a bit with his finger and put it in his mouth.
“Hmm. Nothing like a good mouthful of Eretimes preserves.” He winked and passed her the can. “You can try it. This was made with the war in mind, it’s still good.”
Her stomach decided before her brain.
She took another sniff and, finally, poured some in her palm. It smelled and – tasted! – just like the soup she ate with the moth-people, but it was… solid… and cold… and much richer in taste. She let out a surprised yowl of pleasure and the man quickly put his gloved hand over her lips.
They waited in silence for a few tense moments.
Far-off, through a few aisles, a distance voice growled something that reminded her of a crying child.
“Better pick up what we can for now,” he said, opening his sack and putting in as many cans as he could.
Sadja had to make do with her two arms.
Pic by NFWarAuthor’s Notes: it’s always nice when characters start to play off each other. I like these interactions between these two. I now wonder if reducing the time taken to build it up would work, but I feel like knowing our characters better makes this kind of interactions deeper and more meaningful when they do happen. A bit of a tradeoff. I’ll likely polish it in the future, though. In the meantime, as they say: today’s spam is tomorrow’s gourmet. And thanks for reading.