Cloria did not like this. She stood by the Hunter, gun at the ready, even as he looked far too calm and relaxed for her tastes. These might not be Eerie, per se, but they did bear the scars of the forest. Transformed due to a curse, perhaps? Or passed too much time under the Tide unprotected by even a drop of holy water?
She did not want to meet them when she had first spotted their home, and she was not too keen on starting now.
The Hunter seemed friendlier.
“Do you know these?”
“I did a little job for them. In exchange for Sadja. Oh, don’t look at me like that.”
“I’m not,” she lied. One the one hand, he was admitting he used to think of the girl as a thing just as much as she did. On the other hand, saying it so casually… she bit her lip. She really should revise her priorities, and among those, staying truer to herself.
A thinner figure among the four stepped forward, holding her spear more like a staff than a weapon, but her golden eyes still shone with mistrust.
“Ffffoundhling,” she hissed. Peeking behind her back, filigree wings. If she had seen them from afar, she really couldn’t have told them apart from any sort of beast or monster hulking through the woods. “Wheerrre is ssshe. Shhhhe not wiiiith you?”
Another, slightly taller male moth-person aimed his spear at the Hunter, who just shook his head.
“Not anymore. Sadja had been taken away from me. We are trying to get her back.”
Cloria murmured a silent prayer he omitted the precise reason Sadja was not with them.
Also, at the mention of the name, the moth-girl turned to chitter and hiss in quick clicking language with her brother, while her parents (were they her parents?) stood guard, looking around for signs of incoming threats.
“Hhhhow?” The girl waved two of her arms, seemingly all out of patience. “Yyyyou are strronng. You fellled the hhhhowllerr in the darrrk! Whhhy?”
“Not strong enough.” He took a step forward, extending a hand. “I am working with my fellow Venator here, and another person. She’s a powerful Augur on our side. We can get her back. I suppose you want the same. Could we join our forces? For Sadja.”
It was the second time he had dropped her name and Cloria’s mind went to how easily he went under her skin when she had first approached him, cocky and with an entire tank at her disposal. He had managed to make her lose her composure in a matter of moments.
This guy… something shifted at the bottom of her stomach. She felt like slapping him. For some reason she couldn’t really pinpoint. Must be the tension of the moment.
“Shhhhe givvesss you nhhame,” the brother said, looking back between his family and the Hunter. “Hhhe trusted?”
Their father stepped in. He set down his spear, making the ice creak.
“Ffffault Wass minnnhe,” he admitted, his golden gaze low. “Yyyhet.” He hunched forward, tall and spindly, looming over Cloria. “Sshhhe I rememhhbherr.” He sniffed the air.
Something set over her arm.
Startled, she saw the Hunter’s hand pushing down her gun.
How could they remember her? She had never seen them before. Unless…
The attack in the forest. When they had to bury half their crowd. Did they find the bodies? How could this thing remember her smell from that accident? A shiver ran down her body.
“I don’t like this,” she hissed through a corner of her mouth.
“No need to,” he replied. “Yes, she used to be on the Hunt herself. She apologized for any inconvenience. Don’t you, Cloria?” He shot daggers through his eyes.
“Yes,” she admitted, gritting her teeth.
But he did have a point.
“Whhheere isss shhe?” The mother interjected, stepping in. She kept looking around, as if expecting another attack at any moment. She supposed that if they were also on some Eerie’s lunch schedule, crossing all those kilometers from their home to this crossing must not have been quick. Did they… pass through the blasted city? At any rate, the mother seemed dejected.
And a little part of Cloria understood her plight: they had taken her in, as it seemed. Fed her, gave her shelter, and then abandoned her to the Hunter.
It seemed like being the scum of the earth ran on both sides of the Tide. She balled her fists.
“We don’t really know,” Cloria began. “She’s somewhere south. Held hostage by three men, who will sell her to an Augur, if we don’t do something. Do you know what Augurs are?”
One by one, they nodded.
“Then you know they are not nice people. And every moment we wait chatting here she’s getting farther and farther. We want to free her. Are you with us?”
Bravado, after all, did come to her easily.
“Yyyou whant to hhhelp nnhow?” The daughter squared her, the same inkling of doubt in her huge golden orbs.
“I chhan underssthand,” the mother clicked her assent, setting two hands over her daughter’s shoulders. “Thhime to mhhake amhhennds fhhor alll offh uush.”
“It’s settled then. Six is surely better than two,” the Hunter chuckled. “But I have to warn you. The person we are going to fight against is a very dangerous individual. Probably more so than anything you will ever meet in the forest, unless you were to be brought before the Queen of Thorns herself.”
“Language,” Cloria huffed, signing herself once again. He used Her title so carelessly. As if simply mentioning her wasn’t enough to have you choke on brambles, if She woke up on a bad mood. Spirits, may they protect them all.
The family of four did not seem fazed by this warning.
“Whee ghaave her shelthheeer and fhood,” the father said.
“Bhhuuut shhhe ghhhave bacck so muuuhhhch mooorrrhe.” The daughter’s eyes grew dull with sorrow. “Whheee ooohwee herr.”
The gathered together and embraced, holding out their hands.
“Nhobodhyy leffht behhhind.”
The Hunter laughed. It was the first genuine laughter she had ever heard coming from him. Not an ironic chuckle or a clever comeback. A happy, relieved sound that was utterly at odd with their situation and with the place they were in.
And yet it was enough to light a small fire in her chest. She fastened her gun back onto her belt and felt the corners of her own mouth curl into a smile.
What a crazy, crazy situation. Two Venators and four preys, coming together to save a simple girl.
She did not know her for long. In fact, all she felt for her girl was greed and annoyance.
But these people knew her, and they all seemed bewitched by her presence.
She found herself quite curious to meet her.
Besides, as he said: six was better than two.
Not that it would make that much difference with Verna.
But it was a nice sentiment and it would send them all to their deaths with lighter hearts.
“I like that,” the Hunter replied at last, shaking all their hands. “Nobody left behind.”
Pic by AnachronAuthor’s Notes: another chapter I liked to work on. The last few have been quite hard to write, but I feel like I’m picking up pace. And at last all the subplots are gathering together. I hope you’re going to like the next few twists and turns. Thanks for reading.