A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 2, Line 6) Deep in the Gloom

"The deadlands are deadly. May your huntsman be deadlier."

- Excerpt from ‘Life and Times of Gardara.’

As they slunk deeper into the gloom, every new sound made Esther jumpy, and the terrain felt wrong.

Reeve took Esther’s usual point position, and the deftness and ease at which he worked his way through the undergrowth set her at ease. But it was odd seeing him surrounded by the wilds. She’d spent her entire career two steps behind him, so even though she’d known him for five years, yet she’d never seen him hunt. Esther was strangely nervous about the prospect. Everyone else said he was a legend, but what if that was the hero worship talking?

Reeve set a gruelling pace. Travelling in the deadlands was only safe if everyone followed stringent rules, and most related to timeliness. No one moved before huntsman’s dawn or after huntsman’s dusk, an hour before and after the sun rose and set, respectively. In order to set up camp and eat, they would stop an hour before huntsman’s dusk. That gave them roughly seven and a half hours of travel time, and Reeve assured them they’d need every second to reach their campsite.

The trick to remaining unharmed in the deadlands was to keep moving, so their breaks were minimal. They only took three, a fifteen-minute one at midmorning, an hour for lunch at midday, and another fifteen-minute break in midafternoon.

They brought no water. Reeve explained that just how the Kareshian Plateau had a vendetta against shields, the Dark Woods have one about unnatural water sources. Esther worried about how they’d combat dehydration, but her question was answered during their first break.

While they rested and checked their gear, Ignacy collected water from a stream in a large canteen. After pouring it into a second canteen through a sieve to remove debris, he sealed it shut and placed it on the forest floor.

He used his finger to draw a triangle in the dirt with the canteen in the centre, followed by a larger circle connecting its three apexes. He placed a few matari leaves at one corner, a sprinkle of rurik powder at another, and a paste that smelled of sage, wormwood, salt, and cloves in the third.

Esther watched in sheer captivation as he took a pointed bone fragment from his hair and drew a rune for health by the matari leaves, a rune for banishing near the rurik powder, and a rune for protection by the paste. When he finished, he pushed the bone back into his hair, closed his eyes, and chanted while slapping his knees with the palms of his hands. The words stirred a primal feeling in Esther’s gut while the melody and his rhythmic slapping made her sight want to dance.

When his chanting reached a crescendo, the flowers, powder, and paste burst into flame and the canteen glowed with a faint blue light. When Ignacy fell silent and opened its eyes, the reaction stopped.

“There,” he said. “Pure water.”

Esther was in awe. Ignacy was a magician, a person who used material components and verbal incantations to create magic. Such a skill was exceedingly rare in the Natyran Archipelago, which was initially settled by mages fleeing the magicians.

She wondered if the Gardaran peoples’ hatred of mages would transfer to magicians. The original Gardaran settlers fled from Crematia while carrying a fear born from centuries of Crematian mages’ accruing and misusing power. If one went back far enough in history, the story repeated itself - Crematia was first settled by mages fleeing centuries of systematic discrimination by the Mainland’s magicians.

Esther guessed Ignacy wasn’t too interested in finding out, considering he only practised his art alone in the woods with Reeve.

“Neat trick,” Esvian said, utterly unphased. “But what happens if he dies?”

Ignacy chuckled deeply. “Anyone can become a magician. I taught Reeve the ritual. If it makes the pair of you feel safer, I’ll teach you too.”

“If anyone can learn it, why aren’t there more of you?” Esther asked.

“On the Mainland there is.” Ignacy tensed his jaw. “But they make it hard for people to learn. I’d rather not talk about it if it’s all the same to you.”

After hours of walking, they arrived at their campsite. It wasn’t like the reinforceable cabins Esther and Esvian used on the Kareshian Plateau.

The site was built amongst a copse of trees. In the place of a roof and walls, Reeve and Ignacy had manipulated the branches of the trees to form a lattice which they’d plugged with leaves, moss, and ferns. They’d left three doorways open, and each one had a large fire pit a few feet outside.

“Sorry about the holes in the walls,” Reeve said. “When you’re this far into the Dark Woods, the primal energies eat at solid structures. Thatch holds up well, so at least if it rains in the night we won’t get pissed on.”

He glanced at the canopy above. Hardly any light reached them, but somehow both Reeve and Ignacy could both tell the time exceptionally well. “Alright troop, let’s get the fires going so we can eat and talk strategy.”

Ignacy entered the hut and let out muffled a curse. “The damn rhyaira have made off with the firewood again.”

On queue, a stick fell from the canopy and landed in Ignacy’s dreaded hair while simian chattering came from high in the trees. A monkey covered in brown and green feathers watching them intently. It swung its tail, giving them an unrestricted view of the glistening stinger waiting at the end.

Esther was familiar with them through her research. A rhyaira’s sting killed painfully and slowly, leaving the victim conscious and mobile for hours. The rhyaira troop followed at a distance until the paralysis took over. Then they feasted, regardless of whether you were still alive.

A truly wonderful way to die.

Esther gently cast her sight towards the creature. It stiffened and sneezed in response to her light touch, and she pulled away when she didn’t detect the telltale metallic tinge. “It’s not infected,” she said.

Reeve raised an eyebrow. “Neat trick. You’ll have to teach me sometime.”

Esther cursed internally at her blunder and fought hard to keep her body relaxed. The rhyaira was too high up and shrouded in shadows to assess its condition visually. She had no other lies at her disposal, so she faked a mysterious smile and said nothing.

“She’s one of a kind,” Esvian said sarcastically, but the sarcastic part wasn’t very pronounced. It made Reeve tense up, and Esther wanted to throttle Esvian for making things worse.

It took them a long time to gather enough dry firewood and get the fires going. They bundled handfuls of rurik and matari onto the flames while Ignacy purified enough water to keep them going throughout the night and the following morning. They then ate their salted rations in silence, keeping a wary eye on the rhyaira until it gave up and disappeared into the dark embrace of the forests.

Things were going well, and tensions were minimal until it was time to sleep.

“We’ll split the night watch into two groups,” Reeve said. “I’ll take Esvian-”

Ignacy held out a hand to stop him. “I think you mean I’ll take Esvian. You and Esvian fight like old ladies. Everyone will be safer and more comfortable if Esvian and I sleep first.” Without another word, Ignacy pushed a confused Esvian into the makeshift hut.

Reeve watched them go with a blank face. “Let’s make the rounds,” he said, reluctantly leading Esther into the forests. Every few feet, he cast a nervous glance back at the shelter.

“Esvian’s not going to die,” she assured him.

Reeve sighed as they began circling in a westerly direction around the camp. “You’re right. Besides, we have things to discuss.”

Esther’s stomach cramped with worry as they established their perimeter, scent marking the area with blood they drew from the backs of their hands with the two-inch blade they carried for that very purpose. While on the Plateau, Esther and Esvian favoured stealth over scent marking. But as Reeve said: “When you’re not moving in the Dark Woods, everything knows exactly where you are. We may as well mark our territory.”

The routine nighttime ritual didn’t soothe Esther’s mind or her sight, which had roused itself after Reeve’s comment. Every time she heard a noise, it wriggled behind her eyes as it revelled in the primaeval soul of the deadlands. The more it woke after its two-day slumber, the more it wanted to come out and play. Esther worried that if she gave it too long a leash, it would cause her a forest full of problems.

She wanted to attribute its excitement to their change in location, especially after Vera assured her that the previous mishap occurred because of the sacanda moon. But the full moon was one week gone, so Esther couldn’t ignore the possibility that it was happening again.

You stay exactly where you are, she warned. It stretched, pressing against her eyes painfully before sinking down reluctantly. Yet it still simmered, excited and afraid at the same time. Like the energy of the Dark Woods, the conservator’s sight was an old power, and she didn’t know how well the two would mix.

After they created the outer perimeter and got to work on an inner one, Esther couldn’t take the silence anymore.

“What did we need to discuss?” she whispered.

He considered something for a moment. “It’s not a discussion, really. Just a warning.” He spoke at a normal volume, seeming unconcerned with the dangerous deadlands around them, but Esther’s heart started beating faster.

“A warning? What’s wrong?” she asked quickly.

A snarl echoed somewhere ahead, and they both paused. Then they heard the same snarl again several times, but each time it was quieter. They both released a pent up breath. It was only an echo.

When Reeve spoke again, he seemed distant, as if he was carefully masking his feelings. “Esther, I don’t want you to interfere with Edyta’s games.”

“What do you mean?”

Reeve tried to smile brilliantly, but something about it felt off. “This deal you have with Yarvier puts you in her warpath. You think she’s fixing the trials, and I agree, but what can be done about it?” A sad tint softened the skin around his eyes that were usually crinkled with mirth. “Trust me, it’s safer for us both if we let her win the trials and disappear.”

Esther stumbled to a stop. “Reeve,” she said, but he shook his head and glanced back towards the hut.

“Come on. Let’s get this done so we can get back to the others. The sun will set soon, and if we speak after that we’re as good as dead, braziers and perimeter be damned.”

The silence of their shift was disconcerting, especially since Esther could feel the tension radiating off of Reeve like a bonfire. When they swapped shifts, Reeve didn’t greet Ignacy or Esvian with the huntsman’s sign language, he just stalked into the hut, laid down facing the wall, and pretended to sleep. Ramzi sensed the tension and wisely joined Ignacy and Esvian for their shift instead of napping inside.

But by the following morning, his foul mood had evaporated, and he’d donned his huntsman persona. They threw more herbs onto the fires and gathered around the warmest pit, drinking and eating their fill. When they were finished, Reeve jumped up and took up a commanding stance before them.

“Everyone, listen up because we have important things to discuss,” he said, his tone containing something akin to reverence. He hopped onto a raised tree root, making him look more like a woodland prince than a huntsman.

Ignacy crossed his legs and focused so intently that not even the apocalypse could distract him. Esther and Esvian glanced at each other before settling in to listen. It was time to learn what horrors they’d inducted themselves into.

“First things first, this is serious business. This land ain’t called the Dark Woods for nothing. It got hit pretty hard during the Tears of Dealth, and it makes your normal stomping ground look tame. You’re in my house now, so I need you both to promise to obey my rules, or you’ll get yourselves killed. Agreed?” The glint in his eye and the firm set of his shoulders killed even the most stubborn thoughts of resistance.

So this is what Reeve is like as a huntsman, Esther thought.

“You want to know why we needed to take you two with us?” His lip twitched and his ordinary playfulness became a distant memory. “Apart from Ignacy, the rest of my team have let me down. They knew about this hunt for weeks, yet they made the stupid decision to get blind drunk last week in the city. They are currently in jail for pissing on a Ballif.” Esvian laughed. As a testimony to his professionalism, Reeve didn’t rise to the bait.

“I have high standards for those who I choose to work with. Those two imbeciles will never work with me again. And despite my earlier reluctance to take you two on, Esther was right: you’re the only other huntsmen I trust to help, even with no preparation.”

“So what are we hunting?” Esther asked.

“Dogs,” Ignacy said, a slow grin spreading across his face.

Ramzi recognised the word and hissed. Reeve leaned down and pet her head. “A pack of dogs from a nomadic tribe’s winter-holding became infected with the blood-curse.” The deadlands country-wide were less active in winter. The nomadic deadlanders took advantage of their partial slumber to settle in one place for a few months, and such places were called winter-holdings. “Because of the way things are out here, no one noticed until they started attacking the few winter-holdings capable of fending them off and sending word.”

It was a common enough story. Dogs were the most common vector for spreading the blood-curse to humans. Similar to rabies infections, when an animal or bird became infected, their first instinct was to flee from their group or habitat and seek isolation so they wouldn’t infect their family unit. Yet despite the instinct ruling so strong even solitary species fled, domesticated dogs resisted it. They remained loyal, glued to their master’s sides until they lost their mind to the disease.

Ignacy rubbed his arms in discomfort. “The pack slaughtered three nomadic deadlander families before anyone survived to report them. From what we’ve seen, they’ve grown large enough to form a horde.”

That wasn’t good. When a blood-cursed pack of the same species reached a certain size, their minds lumped together and formed a horde. They shared the same thoughts and saw through each other’s eyes, making them incredibly difficult to kill. The last horde Esther had fought against was with Esvian and Atta, and it had nearly killed them.

“They’re not a fully functional horde yet,” Ignacy continued, “so they’ll still exhibit some individualism.”

Reeve took over automatically. “We need to get them before they’re strong enough to sync up. Have you guys ever worked a horde case before?”

“A few times, but rarely,” Esther said. “They’re becoming less common on the Plateau the stronger Al Karesh’s frosts become.”

Reeve nodded. “Then get ready. The pack is synched enough to gain rudimentary access to the deadlands’ bioconsciousness. They’re not good at calling it to their aid yet, which is why we need to exterminate them now before they can refine their skill.”

Esther shuddered at the thought. “So we can’t engage them near anything organic.”

Reeve grinned. “Ten points to Esther. Here’s our plan.”

Huddling together around the protective fire, Reeve explained how the hunt would take place.

The pack wasn’t dumb. Even though they were learning how to bend the deadlands to their will, they knew they were still too small a unit to take on a huntsman party and win, so they’d always flee whenever Reeve’s team approached. However, the pack was too quick to chase down amongst the dense forest, leaving Reeve’s crew with only one option: Corner them.

They couldn’t corner them in the forested areas of the Dark Wood, because the foliage was too dense and warped, and the pack might use it against them. So instead, the huntsmen had spent weeks employing a rapid pursuit-and-retreat technique to deceive the pack into believing the hunters would never follow them across the tree line by the cliffs.

“There’s a narrow strip of land between the edge of the woods and the Farsea,” Reeve explained. “It’s rocky and exposed, so we’ll have the upper hand because they’ll struggle to traverse it and there’s no biological material they can influence. As long as we stay between them and the forest, we’ll have them cornered.”

But at the mention of the cliffs, Esther’s stomach cramped with fear.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked.

She thought he would tease her as he usually would, but he didn’t. “Nothing outside Koryn City is safe,” he said. “So don’t drop your guard, and for sky’s sake, don’t trust the terrain and keep your footing.”

They spent the rest of the second day scoping out the terrain between them and the cliffs, as well as getting close to the pack to desensitising them to Esther and Esvian’s scents. That way, on the day of the hunt, they wouldn’t think anything was amiss and alter their behaviour.

Esther also spent the day trying to reach an agreement with her sight. It was unruly, desperate to explode from her head and investigate every living thing within its reach.

If you behave, she told it, then I promise I won’t hold back during the hunt. We can test your limits and see what you can really do. She had no idea if it could understand her, but after her silent prayer, it settled down and stayed out of the way. But she was under no illusion of control. It still simmered behind her eyes, eagerly awaiting escape.

While they slept on the second night, Esther tried not to worry about her wayward powers exposing her, or worse, getting tangled up in the deadlands’ bioconsciousness and leaving her as their mindless slave. Such thoughts weren’t conducive for pleasant dreams, after all.

Up Next: The hunt is on, but how will the hunters handle the perils of the forest?

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