The Hunter faced the hungry night. He set his rifle against his right shoulder, pointing it to his left. Gone were the days he could use his right eye – he was lucky he did not completely lose it, but the blood magic had run its course and the only thing he could look forward to with it was a long and steady decline. Cataract, most likely. His sniper days would be gone with next summer.
But for the time being he could still be useful. His eyes burned a gleaming gold in the restless dark, as the ocean of chittering, scratching limbs groaned from deep below. From time to time, a fire bomb cut through the dark and went up in a plume of flame.
Not many, because they wanted to avoid provoking the horde. But not fighting back at all would make them feel too confident.
It was a delicate balance.
Take the Eerie he was following with his scope: it was a lanky thing, scuttling about on its limbs, spewing acid on the snow as it let out a strange flute-like cry. Its eyes burned like embers and its gums showed long needle teeth.
It was likely one of the scouts sent forward to assess their defenses.
Also, he really creeped him out.
He shot and a dull thud resounded in the air as Arguta’s silencer took out most of the noise. The Eerie exploded in a whiff of burning cartridge, letting out a single shriek as the upper part of its body went up in flames.
The lower part quickly attracted the others.
“Impressive,” muttered the Vestal, looking at him from the relative safety of her mask.
He did not reply. Sadja, looking back at him, paced back and forth on the ramparts, holding her knife. Her eyes glistened gold like those of an actual wolf. He had to use a bit of cruoromancy to see in the dark, but the girl surely didn’t.
“Nothing much,” he shrugged. “Comes with the experience.”
Valeriana sighed, opening her arms as if to admit defeat.
“Will you tell me nothing?”
“I already told you everything I know. Mastra Verna went into the forest, hasn’t been seen for weeks, and everyone stupid enough to go towards the Old Country during the Tide, especially this Tide, deserves his fate.”
“That doesn’t help my plight.”
“With all due respect, Wise Mother… at this point I really do not particularly care.” He shifted the rifle back to the other shoulder. His muscles and his eye were starting to ache even worse. “We are all trying to survive here on the frontier. You can take your glide at any moment and fly back home. No Fae is going to harm you in your floating city, unless the Queen Herself decides to leave the Old Country to give you a slap.”
“I can’t go back empty-handed,” she groaned. “They’ll force me to be her replacement. I am not ready! I can’t be another Verna, I have only a shadow of her powers. I’ll make some mistake and I’ll bring the Order into darkness.”
“You just called what I did impressive,” he replied. “Would you be able to do the same?”
She pulled down her mask, for the first time that night actually giving him a look.
“Yes. They train us. Not in sniping, but striking true is one our basic disciplines.”
“And yet you praised it,” he chuckled. “We all try to do our best. I am no Vestal, and my arts are less powerful than one of your high rank. Yet I’m here…” he tossed a look at Sadja, “we are here to do our job. If the Spirits want you to do yours, why should you decline the call?”
Valeriana pursed her lips. She sat down, drawing her legs to her chest. She did not talk for a long while, peering into the darkness, looking as blank as her clothes.
“I have known my future ever since I was eight,” she whispered. “I have known what to do and how to do it for the best part of my life. But starting from this fall, I lost sight of Cloria, and now our High Seer as well. It’s like peering down a deep dark well, and it’s looking back at every moment. It’s paralyzing.”
“It’s how we all deal with it,” he replied, dry. “Sometimes surprises are a good thing.”
He stood up.
“I’ll move to another stop for my patrol, if you don’t mind. Sadja, could you please keep company to our friend? Make sure she doesn’t slip and fall down the wrong side of the wall? This way she can hope on her glider first thing in the morning.”
She nodded and when they passed besides each other, se got a quick scratch behind the ears. For luck.
Sadja watched him go. The Hunter had been on a very bad mood since the Vestal had come, but after all, judging from what she had picked up from their conversations, he had expected something similar to happen. Verna’s death wouldn’t be without consequences.
She looked at the dark-skinned woman peering into the dark, looking for answers that wouldn’t come. She had her legs close to her chest, and she believed that if she got a tail, she’d have stroked it.
In a way, they might have been quite similar. She looked like she must have done for weeks, with no help in sight, alone in the snow.
Like her friends likely were right now, shuddering from the bite of iron and man-made constructions. They had been trapped here by the winter and their own kindness.
And there was no way for them to get away.
This way she can hop on her glider first thing in the morning.
Sadja knotted her eyebrows as her heartbeat picked up pace.
She was a Vestal. She was the same kind of Elissa and Verna.
Sadja put a hand behind her right ear. She could still feel, in the freezing air, the warmth of the Hunter’s touch. He was looking through his scope, pointing his rifle into the dark.
She had a bit of time.
Not much, but she could make it count.
She sat next to the Vestal.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said with a tired smile. “How are you dealing with this cold so easily? I thought you were Fae-touched, maybe it’s that?”
“It’s not… not that simple,” she replied. Why did she had to make it so awkward.
“Also, the town is quite understanding. They like me, it seems. They like it when I bring them bread or write them a new board, or help them repair a pipeline. They also like my friends.”
“I see that. The Hunter is rough, but he’s fair. And I saw Cloria really flourish… even though it wasn’t thanks to me.”
Sadja hesitated. She sniffed a hint of the same chain-feeling she felt when dealing with Elissa.
“But I guess that’s how things are supposed to be,” she admitted, deflated. “I can’t protect her forever. I can’t hold her hand until the end of the road. And what about you, hm? You look like the energetic sort.”
“Thanks. I go on the Hunt.”
“So you are training with him.”
“Hm-hm,” she nodded. “And there’s something else,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper. “Some of my friends would like to go back home, but they can’t right now.”
“Are they refugees?”
“…of a sort. The Hunter told me you have a glider.”
Valeriana’s eyebrows knitted.
“… I do?”
“Then I have a little proposal for you.” And, feeling like one of the characters in the old novels she had been reading, she showed her a small victorious grin. “I’m sure you’ll find you can’t refuse.”
Pic by Hemske