The tracks lead downhill, through the widening trees. The Hunter panted softly, pulling his clothes tighter. He grimaced. He had missed them by just a few hours, judging from the state of the tracks.
“Spirits,” he groaned, leaning on a nearby tree. On the one hand, he now very well knew where they were headed. The river lead south, but among its course there was only one settlement worth of some note. The same Trefiumi he had left weeks ago. His mind wandered back to Arguta. She must be on the barricades right then, eager to fill Eerie and Fae full of holes; a smile spread over his features at the thought of the elderly woman pumping her fist as she drove hordes of Eerie back into the forest, the same way she had done for decades.
She would be of great help right then. He needed pretty much all of his equipment fixed. If he ever recovered from this winter Hunt, he’d be sure to go back to her.
But that was in the future. And the future required he’d catch Sadja, before anything else.
Thus he pushed himself upright and walked down to the river.
That was when he noticed it.
There was someone laying down on the snow.
Blood strewn the white coat, stretched in marks that surrounded the body like a halo. He recognized the symbols for rebuking, though they had been traced with such an unsteady hand they would barely be effective.
Around the body sat three small Eerie, sluggish creatures with extended limbs stretching over the signs and getting burned time and time again, like a fly trying to escape through glass. They let out shrill pained noises even as they tried to get past the meager defenses.
He walked downhill, trying to pay attention on the rough terrain. Whoever it was, it seemed they had been pushed off the cliff and rolled for a good one hundred meters until they hit a rock. Not the best position to find oneself in, even without the Tide.
“Hey,” he called and the Eerie turned to take a look at him, their beady eyes flashing with hunger. “Why don’t you pick up a fight with someone who’s still alive?”
Or back alive, if Elissa’s words were to be believed.
The smaller two hesitated, but the larger one let out a high-pitched whine and strolled forward. It was a small, mangy thing and when it predictably jumped at his neck, the Hunter slashed it through its abdomen.
It fell in two directions at once.
The other two fell.
Stomping on the still-twitching remains, he walked towards the body. Wasting more blood on final rites would weaken and delay him, but-
He picked up pace. The body laying on the snow, her right wrist bitten, her body covered in still-warm blood, had black hair and stark blue eyes. Crouching next to her, he took off his gloves and brought his palm against her neck.
Barely-there, but a pulse.
She was still tied up. Had bit through her bindings and then into her flesh to draw the protective sigil.
He clicked his tongue. This was the same woman who had shot him, left him for dead, and stolen Sadja.
What had happened? Surely not any kind of Eerie or Fae attack. No, she’d likely been betrayed by the same men she had brought with her.
“Not your proudest moment, hm?” He produced his canteen and put it against her trembling lips.
Cloria’s eyelids fluttered as she took a tiny sip.
“H-Hunn…?” She tried to say.
“Shut up. You are in no position to say anything.”
She did as he told, maybe for the first time showing some good sense since this goose-chase had begun.
Now, this put him in a bit of a bind, didn’t it? She was in no shape to fight or… well maybe even survive, alone in the wilderness. She had lost too much blood. But saddling himself with her would mean he’d likely lose Sadja.
And between the two of them, the Hunter knew very well where his priorities lay.
Her hand rose to cup his own. She shook her head, grimacing.
What a sad state of affair.
“You used to be a Vestal. Let’s see if you can make yourself useful. Heave-oh!” He picked her up. She was larger than Sadja, though not that much heavier. Not for the last time, he missed his sled. He slowly walked downhill. Now to reach the river. From there he’d work to restore her to some amount of health.
And them he’d make sure she repaid his kindness in spades.
Still, that was another thing that gave him pause.
If Verna had put Cloria on his tail to make sure Sadja was nevertheless captured, why didn’t she also make sure the Venatrix would bring her the wolfgirl? The group of men she was with didn’t strike him as particularly adept at surviving.
Another hole in her plans?
He had come to know unsavory things about Verna, a woman he used to consider a friend, but she had always been completely in control of the situation. Did this have something to do with Elissa’s involvement? She was powerful and skilled, for sure, but she likely did not have the experience to truly throw Verna in for a loop.
He stopped, Cloria heavy on his shoulders, to take a look at the nearby trees.
He took in a few deep breaths.
The smell of his sweat. The tinge of blood from Cloria’s wounds.
The pungent scent of pines.
And no trace of that too-sweet hint of overripe peaches.
“Is this your doing?” He asked the forest.
Of course, he did not expect a reply.
Wincing at his dwindling strength, he shook his head and kept walking downhill.
Whatever he did, he felt like swimming in dark and treacherous waters. And it would be a long time before he reached the shore.
Pic byAuthor’s Notes: quite the hard chapter to write, today. Been a hard couple of days. I hope this new piece finds you well. Thanks for reading.