This was going to be the end of his career. The Hunter limped forward, holding onto a cane, his knife, the only weapon he still had, sheathed in his belt. He had lost and burned enough blood for a month, and he’d need a long time to completely recover; no more spells and tricks for a while, unless it was truly a matter of life or death… and considering they were still stranded a hundred kilometers or more from the nearest shore, forced to walk on foot, it might happen far sooner than he had any hope to.
Admitted he still had any hope to spare.
“Thanks,” he muttered to the girl who, for some reason, was still accompanying him. She looked wary, and she had of course every right to be, but he was all out of his wit and all out of strength. Besides that… “What you did was good. Well, good for my old bones, at any rate.”
“Talk is useless,” she replied flipping her hair, “if you want to show your thanks you know how to do it.”
“Girl.” He put a hand over her shoulder. She stiffened, still holding the rocks she threw at the Eerie and that had so-far allowed them to walk unimpeded through the snowy forest. “Take a look at yourself.” He pointed at her ankle. “I am not restraining you anymore. You can go wherever.”
“Still better if I have someone pointing the way. Is that a good way to say thanks? Or are you still too scared by Verna to do it? Give help?”
He sighed and pulled away, leaning against a tree, trying to avoid the thick crimson sap running to the ground.
“I stand by what I said. I told you Verna must have foreseen what had happened and took her precaution. I stand by the fact I have known her for ten years and I don’t really believe she could do anything like that. I have been her friend for half the time you’ve been alive; it’s not easy to just erase that in one snap, don’t you think?”
“Then maybe I should have left you to die.”
“Let me finish. Hnnh.” He drew a long breathy sigh passing his hands over his side, where he hit the pillar. “That last fall did a number on me. I really need to go back for my sled. Or my notebooks.”
“I’m sorry for what happened to your… your wife.”
“Not your fault,” he waved it away. “It’s really sweet hearing that, anyway.” He let himself slide down against the trunk until he hit the snow. “There’s a lot of players in this world, almost all of them greater than I am. You pick up on things like that.”
“Greater than Verna?”
“Oh, don’t tell her I said it, but Verna is but a grain of sand on the shores where the Heart of the Forest goes to get her toes wet. She’s the one who… did all this. The war, the Fae, the Eerie. Pretty much all on her.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Hard to find someone who does. Going back to you… I stand by what I said because in that moment I could see not other way. It’s clear something has changed. Let’s see if we can find a good path out of the forest yet. Here, help me stand up.”
She did and he amazed at the pull in those dry muscles of hers.
“You’re very strong, given your size.”
“I escaped all the whizzy nets they threw at me!”
“Amazing. I have seen them in use, and they are really hard to slip past.”
They walked like that for a while. From time to time, the wolf-girl tied a silver strip to a stick and waved it about, filling the air with the small of her blood – then the small Eerie that chittered and skittered after them withdrew between the trees.
It wasn’t a friendship. Nary a partnership, and one built on the thinnest black ice.
And yet, with each step they took together, it seemed to hold. The girl looked behind her and made sure no beast or Eerie got a chance to jump on them, and the Hunter made sure to choose the best terrain and avoid the bad signs, such as bone-like roots growing out of a smooth patch of snow, low-hanging branches that moved against the wind, or wide arches of thorns around which sunlight seemed to bend and break.
“How long until the coast?”
“A week. Give and take a few days.”
“It’s the Tide, my dear. Everything from here to the Bittersea is covered in snow and Fae. We’ll be lucky to reach it in one piece. Or twenty.”
“Then we should go faster.”
“There’s no point in going there anymore…”
“Then where are we going?”
“Searching for a certain turn in the path. We are deep into the forest now and we need to be on the lookout for… oh, there!” He pointed his finger at a concrete tower sprouting out of the snow. It was a mangled ghost of time past, and for some reason, the snow around it was completely melted, showing the brown grass beneath. And the trees as well, brown and green instead of the usual grey and red.
“An anchor. There used to be a few around here, by the time of the War. Venexia was re-built as a floating anchor, and it’s one the reasons why it’s so well-protected. They are old things, from the Eretimes. Sturdy industrial constructions: they hold back the Queen of Thorns, at least for a bit.”
They walked towards it, following the increasingly-closer tower like a beacon. It was built like a series of squares, all deliberate angles and purposeful construction. Even after all this time, the stone seemed to hum.
“What’s this sound?” Her ears strained atop her head.
“A reactor of some kind. The Erepeople used to have the most amazing technology. Nowadays we have to make do with coal and oil! Would you believe that?”
He sat against the lowest cube, looking up at the rapidly-whitening sky. It seemed likely another bout of snow was to come. Looking past the girl, the scores of Eerie looked back with their hungry eyes, but they stayed well clear of the old tower.
“We can rest and recover for a bit, here.” They shared another look and she sat at the other end of the cube, holding her tail.
“And then? Did you find a solution?”
“I did. A couple hours ago, in fact.”
Her ears perked up at his tone.
He allowed himself a smile.
“We’re not going to the shore, girl. I am not bringing you to Verna.”
She looked at him, agape. Then stiffened, arched her back and her tail widened in anger.
“Is this another lie?”
“No no, please calm down… I don’t have the energy to sprint, I surely can’t lie. I am not giving you to Verna. She can send Cloria after you for all I care, or all the other Venators on this side of the Bittersea. But I’m not going to deliver you to her anymore.”
“It’s surely not the smartest choice I ever took. Besides, this just shows Verna was right to send another one after me and you. She probably knew I would cave.”
“But that means… I’m… I’m free to go? You’re not going to chase after me anymore?”
“You can do whatever you please. As far as I’m concerned, you are not my prey anymore.”
Silence fell between them. An actual, summer-like silence in the middle of the winter, the kind that was filled only with the rustling of leaves and the whisper of the wind. A silence worthy of the world of men.
“The Erepeople did have some nice things,” he commented.
“But then… where can I go? Is there some safe place?”
“There’s no such thing as safety during the Tide. And this is just the opening, you’ll see in the next weeks. But you told me you’d like me to offer some help. Give back what I was given, if you will.” He smiled and noticed she did seem to smile back, if only a little. She seemed a lot more human that way. A lost girl he had tried for the longest of times to lie himself into considering just a package.
She wouldn’t have been really proud, would she?
The thought gave him shame and he let it gnaw at his heart, bite into his neck.
He’d been a fool.
As for Verna… was she so bad as the girl depicted her? Did he really know her? He’d have to talk to her. She would explain herself… though she’d be furious, in all likeliness. The end of her friendship, maybe.
But the girl would be safe.
He felt that the moment he did free her all those hours before, he stopped himself from slipping on the last step down a dark and vile flight of stairs.
Perhaps something good could come from this.
“I’m bringing you to Belacqua.”
“It’s-” my town. No, not anymore, was it? “Maybe the safest place I know. There’s a very powerful…” he couldn’t mention Elissa. She was Verna’s personal apprentice. In fact, the redhead would probably do her best to turn her back to her Mastra, but she was also the most powerful Augur this side of the Alps. Perhaps he could reason with her… if she had not foreseen that as well. This line of thinking always gave him a headache and Lenora used to tell him not to worry so much. No matter how deep her Sight, no Vestal was omniscient.
He really hoped she was right.
“Very powerful protection,” he finished.
“Oh.” Her ears perked up and her tail waggled between her legs. “Will it be safe for me there?”
“You can surely spend the winter without having gnarly critters trying to bite your knees off every five minutes. After that, you can decide.”
“I would like that.”
“I think it’s ideal. By the way, if we have to spend the next four months together, I can’t keep calling you ‘girl’. Do you have a name?”
She hesitated again. She did not talk for a bit, just giving him a long look and a sniff from afar.
“Yes. I’m Sadja.” That ghost of a smile again. “What’s you name?”
“Oh, you can just call me Hunte-”
The rest of his line disappeared in a flash and a bang.
He recoiled against the concrete, fell on the brown grass.
The girl looked shocked, bared her teeth and threw a stone, but it did not hit an Eerie.
Up from above, peeking from the second cube, stood a familiar dark-haired face.
“Cl-cloria,” he gurgled through gritted teeth. His hands gripped his chest.
The bullet had bit into his protection.
The steel… broken.
Shattered inside his body.
Not enough… blood. To cast a spell.
To protect the girl.
To stay… awake… for long.
Verna. Verna always wins.
“I knew you’d come here,” she said. Jumped down on the grass. Her goons lunged at the girl. She fought, but as strong as she was, the worst she could do was claw at them and throw rocks before they had her immobilized on the ground.
Her voice wavered away from his ears.
“It did not have to come to this,” Cloria said, biting her lip. She threw her gun at the feet. “Goodnight, brother.”
Pic by VinzAuthor’s Notes: I really love turning points. It’s one of the reasons why I build everything around them, the mother-scenes where characters make their big decisions, fate takes a turn… and here you can see how Verna has always been right, in a way. I can safely say this is a chapter I enjoyed writing and I am, for the most part, happy with how it turned out. I hope it left a smile upon your face as well. If it did, make sure to enjoy it! More pain to come, for sure. And thanks for reading.