A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 2, Line 5) A Different Kind of Hunt

“We had a name for those brave enough to enter the Dark Woods. We call them fools.”

Excerpt from ‘Gardara’s Deadlands.’

They didn’t approach Reeve until the day of the hunt. They knew him; if given any more notice, his conscience would get in the way and he’d think of all the reasons why it was a terrible idea to bring them.

So they had two days to kill. Esvian wanted to visit the ruins of Al Karesh to fulfil the second half of Yarvier’s deal, but Esther forbade it. The deadlands would be calmer on the new moon, limiting any nasty surprises while they were spying. They would go the day before the trials, as near to the new moon as possible. It wasn’t a perfect plan, since the new moon saw the heart of the ruins covered in mist and ice. But they didn’t need to go to the heart of the ruins, only the wall of the inner sanctum.

It was the safest option, but it came at a cost: she’d only have a single afternoon to convince the thirteenth to sponsor her.

When she told Yarvier, he laughed away her concerns. “Trust me, lass, that shan’t be a problem. After they see yer’ve been huntin’ in the Dark Woods, yer needn’t worry about ‘em sayin’ no.”

With their plans finalised, Esther and Esvian spent the next two days locked in an intense ritual of sleeping, training, and drinking. They were bound together by a secret purpose, and the only company they sought was each other.

But the exclusive nature of their companionship didn’t escape attention.

On the first day, they woke before dawn and met at the training quarters. Reeve arrived, but instead of joining in, he watched them work through their warm-up routine in stoic silence.

When they finished and took a water break, he announced in a flat tone that he and Ignacy were scouting for his upcoming hunt — their upcoming hunt, if Esther had her way — and would be back that evening.

His demeanour aroused suspicion. Reeve was usually jovial surrounding a departure as if he only felt alive while in the wilderness. In a sense, it was true; most huntsmen were addicted to the freedom the deadlands brought. He spoke as if the trip was an obstacle he wanted to clear as soon as possible.

Esther guessed Edyta had something to do with it. Reeve was enamoured and her pretty face seemed to blind him to her venomous fangs. Maybe he disliked the idea of leaving her so soon after her return?

It was rocky territory, so Esther wished him luck and went back to training. Esvian, who followed a similar train of thought, did the same. It wasn’t the response Reeve had wanted, because he walked off with a guarded expression. Esther didn’t have a name for it until hours after he left.

Reeve was worried.

They weren’t there upon his return. After a hard day of training, Esvian convinced Esther to spend the night in the city to “enjoy our last chance to get drunk on decent ale before we die a painful death in the Dark Woods.” Esther couldn’t stand the melodrama, so she relented. They had a good time, drinking and partying in the few taverns Esvian wasn’t banned from, but they had to spend the night in a cramped, expensive inn above a cowshed.

They returned to the Shack at huntsman’s dawn, tired, hung-over, and craving friendly company. They looked for Reeve, but he was nowhere to be found. According to Atta, he’d seen them returning from the city together and retreated into his rooms. An hour later, he was witnessed going into the city with Edyta.

So they trained alone and pretended the training dummies were Edyta. This is for blackmailing me, Esther thought as she sliced one across the chest. This is for threatening Jorin’s secret daughter, she thought as she slit its abdomen open. And this is for taking my friend, she thought as she cut into its throat.

They retired to bed before Reeve returned. Esther prayed that his mood would change after a good night’s sleep; after all, her chances of survival depended upon him saying yes to her request.

She awoke on the third day with a clear head and a heart laden with worry. It was the day of the hunt. If she couldn’t convince Reeve to bring her, she was out of options. The royal court would arrive for Lord Nazari’s inauguration, and she’d be recognised. Perhaps not immediately. Perhaps not for years. But if his plans to re-integrate Koryn City with the rest of society came into fruition, it would happen eventually.

I can do this… she thought, squaring her shoulders and striding into the Main Hall. As they’d planned, neither she nor Esvian would arrive wearing the gambeson or arming doublet huntsmen wore under their steel-plate-lined Kyverian leather armour. They thought it would be too presumptuous to arrive looking pre-prepared.

Esvian lingered by the doorway. With shifting eyes and tightly crossed arms, he looked as uncomfortable as she felt.

“You ready?” he said.

“No.” She rotated her shoulders, hoping to loosen the knot in her chest. “Where’s Reeve?”

“Over there.” He pointed at the common area on the eastern side of the room, where Reeve was fiddling with his knife and pretending not to watch them. “I tried sitting with him, but I had to escape. He kept asking what we were doing when he was gone. He had a mad look in his eyes. Maybe this isn’t a good idea.”

“Good idea or not, I don’t have a choice,” she said.

Reeve fidgeted as they closed in on him. Esther’s sight, which had recharged after its two day rest, flared into awareness. It wanted to pry into his mind, but she pulled it back gently, not wanting to tire it out before they’d entered the woods. She had a feeling she would need every last drop of its power to survive in the Dark Woods.

“Ah, Esther!” Reeve purred, deliberately not looking at Esvian. “Finally, some decent company. Esvian is a very parsimonious conversationalist.”

Maybe he’d intended the words to confuse them. Judging from the set of his shoulders, Esvian thought he’d been insulted, but didn’t know why. But Esther had grown up amongst the nobility and peerage and was accustomed to people who spoke with unnecessary grandiloquence.

“Reeve, my least favourite narcissist.” She tipped an imaginary hat. “I’m delighted at the inconvenience.” She let her tone include an edge of menace - it was a warning to back off, but it made Reeve grin even more madly.

“Watch out, Esvian,” Reeve said. “This one bites.” His face soured. “Though I’m sure you know that already.”

Esther and Esvian looked at each other nervously. Reeve narrowed his eyes and flipped his knife with more vigour.

Esther didn’t like where the conversation was going, so she tried to steer them back onto safe ground. “Alright,” she said. “Here goes nothing. Reeve, I need a favour.”

We need a favour,” Esvian corrected.

When Esvian said ‘we,’ Reeve’s fingers twitched. “I do so love favours,” he said through gritted teeth. “Though I don’t know what you need me for. You two seem to be taking care of each other well enough without me.”

Esther’s mouth dropped open and a flush broke out across Esvian’s nose. “Nothing to say?” Reeve barked with rancour. “I thought so.” He shot to his feet and strode off towards Yarvier’s station.

“Oh fuck,” Esther swore under her breath. She’d hoped her suspicions were wrong, but that proved it. “Wait!” She stumbled after him. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go, she thought. “It’s not like that!”

Reeve stopped and turned on his heel. “Not like what?” His posture was rigid and his eyes hard. The gears in Esther’s head worked overtime, searching for a reply that would pacify him.

Esvian had no patience for such mollycoddling. “We need to hunt with you,” he said calmly. “Edyta has blackmailed her into not approaching the twelve huntsmen about sponsorship. But she said nothing of the thirteenth. Yarvier will tell us who they are if we fulfil two conditions. Hunting with you is the first.”

Reeve was unnaturally still, betraying no outward emotion as Esvian spoke. But his reticence was a reaction in itself. “Yarvier made a big promise,” he said stiffly.

“Forget about her and Yarvier for a minute,” Esvian said, keeping his level composure. “You need help. Even Yarvier said you and Ignacy won’t be enough for this hunt. We’re here to help.”

Reeve shoved a hand through his hair. “You don’t know what you’re asking for,” he mumbled.

Esvian growled, low and deep in his throat. “Cut the crap, Reeve, and stop being a fool. We all need this. You’re not going to get anyone else as good as us on such short notice, and Esther needs this to impress my damned father.”

“He’s damned, all right,” Reeve muttered. “Just wait until I get my hands around his wrinkled neck.”

Ignacy appeared, looking mildly interested. With the extra bulk from the underlayers of his armour, he looked especially terrifying. “Who are you threatening to kill?”

“It’s nothing,” Reeve said quickly. “Esther and Esvian were just leaving-”

“No,” Esther said, “we were just staying to offer our assistance on your hunt. We heard you needed help. Yarvier recommended us.”

“No!” Reeve said quickly. “It’s too dangerous.”

Ignacy looked dubious. “That don’t track. Last month, you weren’t so opposed to their assistance when we discussed potential backup partners. What’s changed?”

“You really said that?” Esther murmured.

Reeve stepped back and crossed his arms. “Yes, I thought about requesting the pair of you. I’m no fool. I admire both of your skill and your ability to work as a team. Apart from Ignacy and our usual crew, you two are my top choices as partners.” Then, because he was still the Reeve they knew and loved, he shrugged and said: “Well, at least compared to the other pathetic excuses for hunters Yarvier employs these days.”

Esther let it slide, mostly because Edyta technically fell under that category. “Then why not bring us along?” she pushed.

“Because it’s too-”

“If you say it’s too dangerous one more damn time, I’m going to gag you!” Esvian growled.

Reeve raised an eyebrow. “Is that a challenge?”

“Back to the point: you have very little choice, Reeve,” Esther said, placing her hands on her hips. “You need extra manpower. We’re offering to supply said manpower. If not us, then who? Atta is an emotional mess, so she can’t do it. I’m sure Onder would volunteer, but he’d get himself killed. The only other option is Edyta, and something tells me you’d have asked her by now if you thought she was competent enough to do it.”

“Someone said my name?”

Huntsmen were hard to startle, but Edyta somehow managed it. The four of them spun around to the source of the noise and froze. Esther’s heart kicked up a notch as Edyta waltzed over, a pinched smile on her face. She narrowed her eyes at Esther then flounced into Reeve’s arms. He staggered back as she kissed him with so much fervour Esther worried she’d suck his face off by accident.

Mercifully, Yarvier saved them from the situation by stomping down the stairs from his office and striding over. “Are you fools going to sign on for his hunt, or do yer plan on leaving the farmsteads to fend for themselves while yer have yerselves an orgy in a public area?”

Red-faced, Reeve extricated himself from Edyta’s exuberant affection, but she still clung to his side like a leech. Everyone, other than Reeve and Edyta, frowned at the sight.

Out of nowhere, Esther’s conscience screamed: Tell her about the hymn. She’s right here. Just pull her aside and tell her!

Wait, another voice said. You need to convince Reeve to let you help him. If you tell her now, it could undo everything. This is your final chance to find a sponsor for the trials. Do you want to leave Gardara, or not?

Esther looked at Edyta then Reeve, and her stomach crunched with familiar indecision. But when Edyta caught her looking and sneered, the decision made itself.

“Well, Reeve? You have a choice to make,” she said.

He hesitated, his mouth hanging open. Esther’s sight swept across the back of her eyes, dancing with a desire to ease his conflict. He looked petrified at the prospect of putting any of them in harm’s way. But with her sight, Esther felt the moment reason overtook him. He couldn’t cancel because it put the deadlanders in their charge in mortal peril, and it was a huntsman’s duty to protect the vulnerable. He had to choose between them or Edyta.

And Esther couldn’t take another rejection.

“We’re coming, Yarvier,” he said, nodding solemnly at Esvian and Esther. Esther rubbed her eyes and shook her hands out, easing the tension that had piled up like a month’s worth of snow.

All five of them congregated in front of Yarvier’s desk. He slapped a form onto the wooden surface and Reeve signed it after making a few alterations indicating his new team members. Once he was done, the others did the same. It gave Yarvier permission to declare them dead without evidence if they failed to return within two days of their expected return date.

“What’s going on?” Edyta asked, pulling Reeve closer. Esvian almost snarled at the woman.

“There’s been a disturbance at a few of the farms on the outskirts of the Dark Woods,” Yarvier explained gruffly. “Something’s been getting at the chickens.”

“So?” Edyta asked.

Yarvier pressed his lips into a thin line. “So? That something has also been infecting the chickens.” He shook his head and took the form to file it.

While Yarvier was busy, Ignacy grinned and grabbed Esvian and Esther by the back of their necks. Despite appearances, it was supposedly a sign of respect and excitement on the far-off island Ignacy hailed from. “I’m excited to have you two aboard.”

Edyta narrowed her eyes. “What is going on?”

“It’s a bit damn obvious, woman,” Esvian growled.

For a second, Edyta cowered back and widened her eyes. Invigorated by her success, Esther took advantage of Edyta’s shock to slide closer and pat her on the back. “Edyta can’t help being a bit slow,” she drawled. “I’ll say it real clear, so you don’t miss it: Esvian and I are going hunting with your boyfriend. You’re staying behind.” Edyta’s lip curled in a snarl. “I wouldn’t do that with your face, by the way,” Esther added, unable to stop herself. “It makes you look like a troll.” After living in fear of the woman, it felt incredibly freeing to get some payback.

Esvian laughed, but it only added fuel to Edyta’s fire. Before Esther could react, Edyta screamed and jumped towards her, thrusting her claws at Esther’s face. Her attack took Esther entirely by surprise. All she could do was throw her hands up to defend her face and lower her centre of gravity to withstand the assault.

Edyta attacked like a wild animal with no regards for strategy. Usually, Esther would have used it to her advantage. But Edyta’s charge had been so unexpected, Esther’s thoughts were struggling to catch up to her actions.

Just as she prepared to fight back, a humongous ledger with metal-tipped corners sailed in their direction at considerable speed. Esther prioritised the oncoming projectile and deflected it with her forearm. Much to her delight, it flew towards Edyta and hit her square in the face.

“There will be no fightin’ in my ’ouse!” Yarvier bellowed. He had another heavy ledger at the ready. Edyta shied away while a drop of blood welled on her cheek. “Now, get out, you fire-headed she-demon!” When she hesitated, Yarvier threatened to throw his book. She yelped and ran off without looking back.

Girls,” Yarvier grumbled, slamming the ledger down on the desk. Both Reeve and Esvian rushed forward to check if he was okay. “I threw a damned book, I didn’t fight a bear. Get gone, the lotta ya, you’ve got a hunt to prep for.” He walked away, leaving them all in stunned silence.

In his usual fashion, Reeve was the first to recover. He plastered on a manufactured smile and took off towards the exit.

“Let’s go, partners,” he said, feigning confidence. “Daylight’s wasting.” Despite the bravado, Reeve flickered a cautious glance in the direction Edyta had fled.

Esther squeezed her eyes shut, trying to forestall an assault of immense regret. Reeve had warned her to be careful around Edyta, and he’d spoken so gravely the advice must have come from personal experience. Had she accidentally made things worse between them?

While they armed and armoured themselves, they met the fifth member of their expedition when she trotted into the armoury.

“Ramzi!” Esther cried, crouching down and extending her arms. The huge tortoiseshell cat rushed over and sat at Esther’s feet, closing her eyes to prepare for attention. “Oh, I’ve missed you!” Esther scratched her cheeks and chin, delighting in the rumble of her purr.

Esvian paused with one boot on and the other in his hand. “I told you she values the cat’s attention more than ours.”

Reeve snorted. Since entering the armoury—a sacred threshold all good huntsmen knew to leave their egos at before entering—he’d become a lot more amicable. “Ramzi cost me a fortune. Her attention is more valuable than ours in every conceivable sense.”

Domestic cats were immune to the blood-curse and could sense its presence. Since its formation, the huntsman’s guild had bred and trained domestic cats for hunting purposes. It gave rise to the hunting cat breed, thirteen-inch-tall moggys built for endurance, stealth, and their cooperative temperament. Ramzi was trained to follow Reeve, alert him when the blood-curse was near, and obey a few simple commands. She might not have been as strong or trainable as a canine, but dogs were a liability in the deadlands for various reasons.

Esther wanted a hunting cat badly, but due to the amount of training required to produce them, they were notoriously expensive. Reeve was one of the few huntsmen she’d known who always had one on hand. She didn’t know how he afforded it but she thought it rude to ask.

After they finished changing and were armed to the teeth, they turned their attention to packing their survival supplies. The hunt would take four days and three nights, a bit on the long side, but not unheard of. They distributed their overnight supplies depending on their body weight and carrying capacity, while also ensuring each had enough to survive should they become separated from the group.

Once they were done, Esvian and Ignacy attached rounded shields to the back of their packs. Unlike the Kareshian Plateau, who ripped shields away with a vengeance, the Dark Woods were indifferent. Probably because they know a shield has no hope against their wrath, Esther thought.

Dread pooled in her stomach as Reeve led them towards the Shack’s southern gate next to Yarvier’s hut. She’d never left through the southern gate, and she found herself casting a longing glance towards the Kareshian Plateau looming above the eastern horizon. As she watched, a large flurry of snow and ice got caught in the wind and flew towards the Farsea. Give me the frosts and the lure of Al Karesh, she thought. She knew how to resist and overcome such adversaries. Within the confines of the Plateau, she was undefeatable and always in control.

With great effort, she released such thoughts. They would be travailing in Reeve’s territory, an area famous for its unyielding wilderness. She couldn’t adapt to a place she’d never stepped foot in if her thoughts were located somewhere else.

The wild called to her even from a distance, whispering seductive taunts while snippets of fog reached out like fingers, beckoning them closer. Esther recalled the expansive fields of red on Reeve’s map and shuddered.

As Reeve walked confidently towards the tree line, the fog whipped up into an excited frenzy. Its fingers frisked the ground before them, leaving deep scores in the soil that repaired themselves in seconds. A low rumble resonated from the darkness behind it, and Ramzi answered with a growl of her own.

Esvian and Esther stopped.

“What are you hesitating for?” Reeve asked with a mischievous smile. “The hunt’s this-a-way.”

“That ain’t natural,” Esvian inhaled sharply as he watched the fog twist as if it had a mind of its own, which it most likely did.

Reeve cocked his head to the side, running his fingers through his hair. “Surely you’re not scared?” Esvian stiffened at the challenge and shook his head. “Good. Now, let’s go.” He smiled cooly as he strode out to meet the fog, Ramzi in his wake. They both seemed unperturbed as the claws closed around them, enveloping them in a cloud of brume.

“The woods are suspicious of strangers,” he said. “Give yourself willingly to the mists, or you’ll find it very hard to escape its clutches.”

They watched him disappear with twin expressions of dread. Ignacy chuckled at the pair of them. “It’s easier than it looks, Reeve just hypes it up because he’s a cruel bastard and an incorrigible showman. Just follow me and don’t fight it.”

Begrudgingly, they followed Ignacy, surrendering themselves to the mercy of the forest.

Up Next: The Dark Woods are waiting…

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