For the past few hours the Hunter had been on edge. More than usual. While the wolf-girl seemed to be more collaborative, he doubted he managed to come through to her. She was clearly scared, and a part of his heart scraped against his chest every time he looked at her tired, dejected eyes.
There was no two ways around it, the chain that went from his wrist to her ankle bothered him. Not just because they were out in the open.
The same pearl-white clouds that had gathered for the first days of the Tide were back in full, covering the sky in a reflective lid promised only more fresh snow. Everything beneath those was either grey or red or black.
And what was worse, not a hint of nearby Eerie. Oh, he spotted their oozing trails back into the dark deep places where they could shy away from danger and try not to heed the Queen’s call, but those tracks seemed far too fresh and panicked to be as answer to the Tide. No, if there was one thing that could send Eerie off in a panic like that…
Behind him the girl sniffed. She dried her nose with the back of her sleeve.
He turned, putting a finger upon his lips and she cringed, trying to hold it in.
They shared a look and she moved her gaze about, taking in the strange atmosphere. Her ears perked up and twisted this way and that, then fell flat on the sides of her head. She inched closer on uneasy steps.
She had felt it as well.
Something was not right.
He was used to things going bad, but it would be nice to enjoy more than two days of calm. Now that Eerie and beasts could actively hurt him, it was bound to become interesting.
And so many kilometers until the shore, or at the very least the closest unfrozen river… Spirits. What a pain.
He pulled the girl in, slowly so as not to alarm her. She frowned, but did not protest further, slowly coiling the chain to try and keep it silent. That earned a smile. Clever girl.
He pulled out his rifle and pointed it ahead, scanning their surroundings. They were now on the city’s outskirts, as the lower and more spaced-out buildings gave more room for the grey pines to grow and for the red sap to flow. On the other hand, a better environment for an ambush.
Nothing moved from the rooftops or from under the broken pipelines and carved asphalt. Weird how something like that could last so much time. He remembered something vague told him by Verna about Erepeople reinforcing their structures at the start of the war.
His right eye still stung. He could perform a quick spell to give him better eyesight, but he had almost lost it once…
He swung his rifle to the right. From behind a corner stepped in a young woman clad in Venatrix clothes, her belt full of firebombs, her coat of mail covered in holy symbols. They had been traced with blood, just like the thin crimson lines rising from her neck to her left eye, drawing a circle all around it. It drew out its stark blue color.
“Hello, Hunter,” Cloria whispered, cocking her hip.
“Oh, it’s just you.”
Her lip curled in annoyance.
“What’s that supposed to… nevermind, I’m not falling for your games.” She held out a hand. “The girl. Give it back and nobody will get hurt.”
“That’s a bold statement,” he replied. He put down his rifle and leaned on it like it was a staff. The girl, besides him, shifted her gaze between the two of them. He had to put on this little theatrical piece for her as well.
That meant she wasn’t alone. She was never alone.
Also, blood rituals on her face. If she had broken the last taboo of Vestals and began using vermillion magic like a true Venatrix, it meant she was beyond desperate. She was gaunt, dirty and did not look good at all. She’d probably been following him through the forest for a while… though judging from the traces of the fight he had seen close to the moth-people home, they must have fared worse than him.
They probably did not even try to make an offering to the Queen of Thorns.
Still, if she was cornered, that only made her more dangerous.
Pushing her to make a mistake was, for the time being, his best bet.
Cloria chuckled softly.
“It’s been a while since we met. I have a few throwing knives up my sleeve this time.”
“Cloria, silent and subtle has never been your style. Which is putting all of us in greater danger than you might think. I’m sure there’s a nice pre-war shell waiting for my head, but that would make a lot of noise. And if you have not lost your Venatrix training together with your good sense, you know there’s something coming.”
“That’s a good approximation. I did not plan to catch you unaware,” she retorted, pushing back her short black mane. It looked like she could use a shower and a good sleep. “It’s better if you know how bad your situation is. I have snipers trained at you, Hunter. And last time I checked a bullet is still a lot faster than an Eerie.”
He shared a look with the girl. She held onto her chains harder. The moment they put a bullet through his skull, they could easily collect her.
But something irked him.
It did not make sense… not with the way he believed Verna might have arranged it.
By now it was clear she had moved the tiles so that they could meet, so that he could accept, so that she’d have the highest chance to get her wolf-girl back.
And he had not betrayed that decision.
Not yet, for sure.
Plus, with the state Cloria was in, they would probably have to keep the girl knocked-out the entire time, which put all of them at greater risk… which put further pressure on Verna.
It just did not make sense.
The girl had a much higher chance of making it out alive with him as an escort. Cloria had her qualities, but she was too boisterous and green to face the forest on her own.
It… did not make any sense. Why now?
Were things not going the way Verna had dictated? He had known her for ten years and while she was somewhat cryptic with her plans, she had always been freezing-cold and logical. The most rational person he had ever known.
So why now? Why pull the strings of fate this way?
He couldn’t see a logic.
“Let’s try to calm down and think,” he replied. “Cloria, we both know your Second Sight is a bit dull. Are you sure there’s nothing else at play here?”
“Stop chatting and give me the girl!” She pulled out her gun and pointed at him. “I respect you as a Venator and a friend of Belacqua. Don’t make me do something we both would regret.”
“You sure would,” he replied. He still did not make a move.
It was in moments like these that he’d give half his heart to get a glimpse into the future like these women did. What would Lenora do? “Why don’t you ask her?” He tilted his head towards the wolf-girl. “Do you want to go with her?”
She took one look at Cloria and scooted a little closer to him.
“See? Not my fault. Sorry, but the dog is not for sale. Now why do-”
He did not have the Sight, but good reflexes could work well enough.
He threw himself and the girl to the ground as it exploded right next to them.
His ears ringing, the girl pressed her hands against her own set, squeezing her ears shut.
The world was reduced to a dull vibrating sensation and a tinnitus for a few heartbeats.
Cloria turned, rising her hand as if to stop something.
This one hit a building behind them.
It exploded in a blast of ancient concrete and tiles.
He stood. Pulled the girl up with him. Letting go of his rifle, he threw her behind a wall of trees as his ringing ears came back to normal-
“-erna’s tits! Rezzano! What in the Spirits’ name are you doing!” Cloria’s shrill scream pierced whatever remained of the silence.
And then from the north came another noise.
He felt it in his bones before it rose to his ears.
A rumbling like an underground thunder, a slumbering beast waking up.
In the distance, the ground exploded in a column of dust, bent metal, roots, branches and concrete. From beneath, rose a huge black mound, covered in the remains of nine spears.
And a bellow-like scream echoed through the lost city.
Cloria turned as well. When he saw her face lose all color at the sight of that particular Eerie, he made a quick dash for his rifle. Now that noise was not a problem anymore, he heard bullets biting on the ground nearby, rising tufts of snow.
He had his rifle. He still had most of his provisions. His diaries.
And his worst enemy on his tracks.
He looked at the girl.
She looked back up.
An unspoken question lingered between them.
This did not make any sense.
And he was probably going to regret it.
He tapped a combination on the inside of the clasp holding them together.
They both clicked open.
The girl looked down at her ankle in disbelief as it fell to the ground.
He pulled her to his side and away from Cloria, running south, even as the Gian Eerie scream and groaned, cutting through ground like water.
Pic by 67chromeAuthor’s Note: playtime’s over. It’s time for more chasing. I sure hope everything is fine. Thanks for reading.