The Hunter pulled himself up. He coughed and spat out a wad of bloody bile. His head swam and his body felt like it had been shattered and haphazardly put back together, without much care about the final result. His bones ached and his tendons felt like they could snap off at any moment. But he was alive.
Looking around, only a few Eerie moved behind the bushes, which would leave him enough room to escape if he was quick. Even though the anchor might repel them, waiting too much there would only serve to attract them.
He crouched over the signs of the struggle and picked up Cloria’s weapon. He inspected it and sure enough, the handle and the metal had felt its previous owner’s touch. Turns out that blood and metal have quite the good memory, if you know how to coax it out of them.
“Thanks for the gift, sister,” he mused, pulling out his knife and cutting his palm. It felt… weird. It still required his own life force to work, but the spell now drank at the other source of strength that Elissa had given him. He guessed it would work, for a while. He let a few drops fall on the handle and then licked them over, mulling on the taste as he spread it all over the inside of his mouth.
He shut his eyes, leaving his sharpened senses do the work. The world around him began to tinge in different colors and feelings… not exactly a smell, or a sound, but a mixture of sensations he could feel in different places inside his body. Like a gut feeling focused on his fingertips, inside his nose, at the tip of his tongue.
It wasn’t as precise and definite as the spell he had used to find Sadja days before, but it would be good enough.
As he opened his eyes, he walked south with confidence. When the first Eerie critter jumped at him from a hidden branch, he swapped at the monster with the back of his hand and that was enough to send the little beast flying. He flexed his fingers.
Yes, good enough.
“When this is over I’ll have to buy you something sweet at the spring fair,” he promised thinking about Elissa.
For the time being, though, he really needed to close in on them. He started running through the forest, his steps leaving the brown grass for the fresh snow. And the chitter and moans of Eerie followed after him.
Cloria still couldn’t believe it.
She had done it.
She had beaten the Hunter.
No matter how tired, worn-out, weak and wobbly in the knees she was, she had done it.
An uneasy smile wobbled on her lips as she looked ahead, holding up a torch that burned oils and her own blood, leaving behind a crimson smoke that kept the Eerie somewhat at bay. Thanks to their sleds, they had made good progress. The girl lay on them, motionless. Sometimes she was just pretending, but they’d made sure to knock her out once again. She looked tired, sad and bruised, but she’d be all better very soon. After all, Verna would surely take good care of her.
Or wouldn’t. At any rate, she’d get what she had always wanted.
She could see herself making a glorious comeback to Venexia to receive all kinds of honors. They’d call her the Huntress, for she had braved the forest once and for all, and came back to tell the tale. Maybe they’d spin a few songs after all. They’d surely come from all around the Bittersea to beg for her services. She’d be able to bloat her rates even more.
A dark face floated amidst her daydreams: even Valeriana would stop being mad at her for leaving. She’d recognize she made the right choice.
It was worth it in the end. No matter how aching, tired and weak she felt at the moment, there was a sense of victory to it.
In fact, she was so happy she had neglected to peruse into any sort of future using her Sight. Besides, what would she see other than success, rewards and a good night of sleep? Things were definitely looking up.
And when she spotted the river downhill, she let out a shrill cry of relief.
“Look there!” She exclaimed pointing at the frozen waterway, which only grew wider as it flew southwards. “That’s our road! And even if the water is frozen, it would still prove uneasy for the Fae to follow us there. Once we make more sleds, we can even slide down the ice and hit the shore by tomorrow evening, Spirits willing!”
Cheers rose at her declaration. Rezzano, the younger man who had been with her from the start, approached her from behind with a satisfied smile.
“So we are at the end of our little foray into this blasted place, hm? Do you think we’ll get any more problems in the future? You know, with your powers as a Vestal, or whatever. You see any Eerie attacks on us? Beast…? Fae, perhaps?”
Cloria blushed a bit, as she was not exactly comfortable in revealing her past, but at this point… she closed her eyes and focused on the feeble threads she could see around her.
What could she tell them? Foresight wasn’t her strong suit, for sure. But she didn’t perceive anything like what Rezzano asked her.
“I think… I think we’re good,” she replied.
“You’ve heard her boys,” he said.
And maybe it was the clear sense of alarm coming from the threads whizzing past her all of a sudden, or just her natural instinct, but Cloria did open her eyes just about enough to see him hit her face with the kick of his rifle.
“Hnnh!” She groaned, falling on one knee. Her honed reflexes kicked in and she reached for her weapons, but the other man behind her kicked her in the guts. And the third lunged at her with his bare fists. She pulled back her arms to shield herself, but the blows were strong and her head pulsed with pain and surprise and shame at not seeing the attack.
And then another kick from behind pushed her downhill. She lost her footing, fell back with a shriek and hit a rock with the back of her head.
She tasted iron and breathed in short spurts through her bloody nose.
“Hnnhahh…” she gurgled, weakly rising her hand as the three men rushed at her. She began to murmur a spell and the blood coming out of her mouth started to boil, but Rezzano was quicker. He clamped his hands over her mouth. She bit, but his thick gloves protected his skin.
The other two took out clothing strips and pulled them over her mouth and her arms. She struggled, slashing out with her knife, only for Rezzano to twist her wrist as well and take it away.
“We got her,” the other man said, pulling her down against the rock. She tried to knock him off, but he was twice as heavy as her.
Rezzano roped her wrists to the rock and she groaned as the rope bit into her skin. Then he crouched next to her and slapped her.
“That’s for Donino.”
“That’s for Arturo.”
“And that’s for Celadi. Never known him as well as the other two, but he was a swell guy. And he’s dead and buried because you’re such a great commander.”
What were they talking about? They were mercenaries! They knew the risks! She couldn’t babysit them while they walked the forest during the Tide. If they died it surely wasn’t her fault.
“I suppose that’s the first time you actually hear their names. I’d love to spend more time to carve them into your flesh, but sadly we’re on a tight schedule.” He chuckled. “Thanks for the forecast, though. I suppose it’s all smooth sailing from now on, right boys?”
“Hey. The bitch got us good, but she looks nice from this angle. Don’t you think…”
“She’s a former Vestal, you’ve seen it. If you want to have your fun and have your dick fall off, be my guest,” Rezzano snickered. “No, I wouldn’t touch her with a stick. We’ll just leave her here for the Eerie to find. I’m sure the Wicked Fae is going to enjoy our little gift. Hey, your crazed Queen, you hear us?” He shouted at the nearby trees. “We’re leaving your fucking forest for good and we’ll never set foot here again, promise! Please let us have a safe passage, we offer this fresh meat in exchange!” He kicked her flank and Cloria groaned again.
They couldn’t… couldn’t leave her like that.
She was a Venatrix. She could make them pay.
If she could reach for her knife… which she hadn’t.
If she could cut the ropes… if she had enough strength to lift a finger.
If she could recite a spell… but all of her energy was spent keeping her conscious.
They spat at her, taking turns.
She would give them their due…
“It just wasn’t worth it,” she heard one of the men talk with the other one.
When she tried to recollect their names she came up with a blank.
Everything was going as Verna had forecast.
This couldn’t… couldn’t be part of her plan.
A fellow Vestal. Couldn’t leave her to turn into beast food.
She let out a muffled lament through her gag, but the men were already climbing back uphill. She saw their shadows getting even farther, stepping over the tracks left in the snow by her body.
And nobody turned.
Nobody came back.
“Hnnhghgh!” She tried with a final effort, only to go back sliding against the rock, her energies spent.
All about, snowflakes danced their eternal dance.
Soon enough, winter would swallow her for good.
Pic by hiveworkshopAuthor’s Notes: another of those important chapters. I am not completely satisfied with how Cloria’s defeat was handled. I think it’s one of the consequences of the challenge, being unable to plan ahead beyond a certain point. Alas, I am not an Augur myself. I do have the benefit of fixing it in future revision, though. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Next one will be extra special. Thanks again for reading.