(Verse 2, Line 8) Deathly Assault
“There is no place for you and me in a horde, only us and we. ‘I am not me, but the horde’s hand; I am not me, but the horde’s mouth.’ The blood-curse leaches all individuality until the horde acts as an army with a single mind.
“A horde is impossible to defeat, so it’s a huntsman’s priority to destroy them before their minds can become one. The only feasible tactic is to scatter them. The further apart they are, the weaker their hording instinct and the easier they are to kill.”
- Excerpt from ‘A Huntsman’s Guide to Hunting.’
The eight dogs turned away and faced the Farsea, blinding them to the huntsmen’s initial approach.
But it couldn’t last forever. On the outskirts of the group, one evaded Esther’s control for a fraction of a second. It saw the huntsmen in its peripheral vision. It barked, and the bright sunlight reflected from its blood-soaked, cracked yellowed teeth.
Before they could make a move, Reeve and Esther released their first salvo of bolts. Reeve hit the alarm caller dead between the eyes and Esther’s found the chest of one of the stragglers. It wailed but didn’t go down. She’d missed its heart, but it was an acceptable miss at one hundred feet.
Reeve and Esther performed a manoeuvre dubbed the huntsmans reload. While running, they lowered their crossbows so the stirrup pointed towards the ground. With their next running step, they slipped their toes through the stirrup and stopped once that foot touched the ground. They pulled a bolt from their quivers at their right hips and attached it to the string without needing to look. Huntsman’s crossbows sacrificed some power for a faster reload by ditching the crank. But every second counted when facing the blood-curse, so the sacrifice was necessary. Once they noched the bolt in place, they prepared to fire.
It took five seconds, so while they reloaded, the seven remaining dogs closed together. But they were too scattered, and countless ravines and crevices slowed their progress. They would meet the huntsmen in three groups.
“Get into position,” Reeve yelled. Esther drifted to the left. Reeve and Ramzi moved to the right. Ignacy and Esvian stood their ground in the middle. They chose a flat plain visible from all directions, making them the obvious targets.
Esther jumped onto a slanted slab of granite that was grippy underfoot. Behind her was a six-foot drop leading into a bowl-shaped depression in the rock. If Esther needed to, she could kick an attacker down there.
The fragmented pack came closer. A wave of foreign rage hit her as they realised they’d been fooled and their safe haven had become a hunting ground. Good. Esther used her sight to fuel their ire. She directed it towards Ignacy and Esvian, hoping to turn them in that direction.
Esther aimed at the dog she’d hit earlier and pulled the trigger. But when it saw her aiming, it dodged.
That was the second reason domestic dogs had fallen out of favour with the rise of the blood-curse. Not only did they not flee and hide when they became infected, they also recognised subtle body language cues once infected. Aim a crossbow at a fox, and it wouldn’t know death was imminent. But hunting dogs that once belonged to a deadlander or wilding understood the relationship between the business end of a crossbow and death.
Esther wasn’t accustomed to quarry who could tell where she was aiming, so her bolt scraped the surface of its skin. Rotten, infected gore burst from the wound, but the creature didn’t slow or falter.
“Just die,” she muttered. She dropped her crossbow — she had no time to reload — and drew her second sword. She chose the shorter blade because the rocks were tightly packed and wouldn’t yield to metal.
The dog reached her and leapt. Jumping was a stupid decision because it couldn’t change direction. Esther darted aside and landed in a pirouette, striking out as it came in range. She cut the skin parallel to the crossbow bolt’s flesh wound, and the creature howled. Bleeding it out or delivering concussive force were her only options.
As it landed behind her, Esther skimmed its mind and detected an urge to flee to the trees. She crushed it and ordered it to engage with her. It slid to a stop and spun around, baring its teeth as it charged. That time, she kicked it aside and sent it flying into a jagged rock wall. It whined, and it left behind a trail of blood and pus as it slid to the floor.
Esther’s attacks had weakened it. Blood poured from around the crossbow bolt in its chest. For a heartbeat, Esther saw Guardian Kessila on the ground, blood flowing from the arrow in her chest.
The dog interrupted the flashback as it sprung to its feet and turned its muzzle towards her. Esther planted her feet and energised her sight, intending to send it towards Esvian and Ignacy. As she slipped a little deeper into its head, her sight pulsed, warning her that another pack member approached.
The warning interrupted her command. Her first assailant pounced before she had time to influence it. She swerved aside, feigning an upward diagonal strike from the left while keeping her sword elbow high. As she expected, the dog ducked to the right, keeping low to the ground. Using her raised elbow as a pivot, she twitched her lower arm upward and struck with a downward slash. She opened a cut above its eyes, partially blinding it with the infected blood pouring from the wound.
Esther disengaged as the second assailant approached. With her sight acting as a second pair of eyes, she turned and attacked without needing to look. She slashed in a wide flat arc from left to right, a move designed to give her some space. The tip of the blade hardly scratched the newcomer’s skin, but the exaggerated movement made it back away.
She’d earned some space from both assailants, but she’d become surrounded. If they attacked in a coordinated fashion, they would kill or infect her.
Surrounded and desperate, her sight simmered, begging for release.
Alright, let’s see what you can do….
For the first time in her life, she unchained it. Her sight flew outwards, doubling its grasp on their minds. It made a rush of power build within her skull. Both assailants yelped and sunk to the floor as she burrowed deeper into their heads.
There was a loud boom to the south, near Reeve’s position. Stone smashed against stone, and the ground convulsed beneath her feet. The shelf of rock Esther and her two assailants were fighting on tilted. The movement was so sudden, they all lost their balance and slid down the slope and into the bowl of rock.
Esther rolled to a stop and scrambled to her knees, whipping her head around to assess the new arena. The bowl was so deep on all sides, all she could see was sky and rock. Climbing out during combat would be impossible.
A two-foot wide crevasse in the floor spanned the entire length of the eastern wall. It looked too deep to use for cover. There was a thin vertical crack in the northern wall, forming a narrow corridor.
Before she could run for it, the dogs recovered their footing. They blocked her escape, putting her between them and the crevasse. She’d lost her connection with their minds in the fall, but she didn’t need it to know they planned to push her into the crevasse. Esther was grateful, in a way. She’d much rather die from the fall than from the blood-curse.
I’d rather not die at all, she thought. She was on her knees and the connection was broken, but she still had her sword. She readjusted her grip, preparing for the dogs to charge. If she took a direct hit, she’d fall into the crevasse. So she couldn’t take a direct hit.
They ran towards her and jumped, intending to push her back from two angles. Esther thrust herself sideways to avoid a direct hit. Only one dog barelled into her side. The force sent her spinning and flying off her knees.
She yelped as she slid across the rocks towards a crevasse at an angle. It was less than ideal, but at least she wasn’t falling headfirst into the abyss.
Mid-slide, she dropped her sword to free her hands. As her body slipped over the edge legs first, she grasped an outcropping of rock. Her lower body fell, but her hands held firm, leaving her dangling over the edge.
Esther chanced a quick look down. Below was a fall of at least twenty feet, and the bottom glinted in the light. Water. Esther couldn’t count on it being deep enough to break her fall but shallow enough to touch the bottom. Survival depended on her climbing out.
A canine growled above. Esther tracked the two red orbs of the dogs’ minds. They gathered together over the lip of the crevasse where she couldn’t see. One ventured towards the edge, following her scent. Esther searched for some form of a foothold, but the insides of the crevasse were slate and too slippery. Her heart raced in her chest. There was no escape. Her awareness expanded and sharpened in response to her peril.
So too did her sight. It filled her head, settling like mist through the cracks and crevices. For the first time, it felt clear, flexible, and boundless, instead of a liquid with a set barrier. Esther and her sight synchronised, working together with self-protective rage.
The dogs needed to pay.
A set of yellowed eyes peered over the rim. The dog growled, aiming its bloodied muzzle at Esther’s gloved hands. One bite, and it was the end. Even if she didn’t fall, she’d catch the blood-curse. Then the Ending Knife she kept strapped to her right calf would seem a very attractive option.
With a snarl, Esther dug into its head, burying her sight into the furthest recesses of its mind. She found the centre that controlled the fear response and squeezed. It flooded the creature with fear so primal it overpowered the blood-curse’s hold on its instincts.
The dog sunk to the ground, ears flat, eyes glassy. Esther’s sight revelled as she tightened the chokehold. Pressure bloomed behind her eyes, across her temples, and around the back of her skull. But she didn’t care. The pressure didn’t bring pain, but the promise of power. More, she thought. Give me more!
Esther dug further and further, deeper and deeper. She paused before conquering its mind completely, rejoicing at the feeling, until-
A wave of pain shattered her ribs into pieces, destroying her concentration. Esther growled like a monster deprived of its prey. Then she saw Reeve had appeared out of nowhere. He’d kicked the dog in the side. Even though Esther didn’t get hit, she was so deep in the dog’s mind that the force had knocked her breath away.
Her grip on the edge faltered.
“Got you!” Reeve grasped her arm and yanked her up.
Esther experienced a strange urge to kick him in retaliation. She buried the desire before it could take shape. She pushed away from him instead and retrieved her second sword from its resting place.
“Why aren’t you in position?” she growled as she reached out to register the pack’s positions. They were scattered as planned, with half fighting Ignacy and Esvian, and the other half converging on her and Reeve. The two she’d been fighting had fallen back at Reeve’s sudden entry. The one whose mind she’d broken was the furthest away, trying to scramble up a vertical cliff face. The other, the one half-blinded by blood, rubbed its face with its paws while sizing Reeve up. Through her sight, she felt two more closing in from the south, tracking Reeve’s scent.
“Cliff collapsed on my side, blocking the way,” he said. Keeping their eyes on the half-blinded dog, they inched away from the crevasse. “They all ran towards you to avoid the wall.” ‘The wall’ meant Esvian and Ignacy.
Reeve’s assailants were above them, creeping along the rim of the bowl. Esther couldn’t see them, but she felt them. They were going to leap over the edge and attack the huntsmen from the south, while the half-blind dog attacked from the east.
With no time to warn him, Esther threw her weight into him, pushing them away from the crevasse. The dogs landed where we’d been standing.
“Fucking dogs,” Reeve cursed, pushing Esther off him. As they sprung to their feet, Ramzi flew out of nowhere, hissing and spitting. The blood-curse backed away from the cat, pulling the dogs with it.
But the respite didn’t last long. Sensing the changing tides of battle, the blood-curse increased the hording instinct. Only half the pack were present, so the effect wasn’t spectacular. But it was strong enough to calm the terrified dog. The four pulled ranks and formed an impenetrable line.
Esther and her sight smouldered together. They must die, they thought.
After Esther pushed them away from the crevasse, the dogs were south of the huntsmen. The half-pack advanced, making the grave mistake of pushing the huntsmen towards the narrow corridor in the rock. Esther and Reeve backed up without resistance.
Esther’s sight wriggled and begged to dig into their fleshy minds and shred them. Not in front of Reeve, she warned. We’ll use the corridor. It wailed in disappointment, but it relented.
The dogs rushed towards them. Without instruct each other, Esther and Reeve backed into the opening of the corridor. It was effortless, like hunting with Esvian.
The half-pack ran side by side to outflank them. The dog on the far left skimmed the rocky wall of the bow, while the one on the far right skimmed the edge of the crevasse.
Esther grinned and grasped the minds of the two in the middle. Delving in was so easy they didn’t feel Esther’s tightening grip before it was too late.
She told the middle-right dog to trip and collide with the dog on the edge of the crevasse. It submitted with pleasure, pushing them both into the darkness. Esther felt their minds extinguish as they hit the bottom, and her sight swelled in victory. It danced, growing so large Esther struggled to contain it in her head.
The others! it screamed. Get the others, too!
The final two reached the mouth of their sanctuary. As Reeve moved to swipe at the one whose mind Esther held, it dodged. It would evade his blade no matter what, so Esther made it jump into its companion with more force than it intended. It crushed the other dog against a jagged rock that carved through the flesh on its flank. Esther’s vision faltered, and she almost threw up as she felt the pain as if it were her own.
That was a drawback she hadn’t expected.
Despite the injury, the pair recovered their charge without pause. But the huntsmen were ready. Esther and Reeve fought side by side, slashing and kicking in a flurry of deadly blows while Ramzi attacked from behind. The dogs didn’t stand a chance and soon lay dead.
Esther looked at her sword, covered in the blood of her prey. Her sight tasted the blood-curse and sung. More!
More, Esther agreed.
They heard a strained shout from Esvian’s and Ignacy’s position.
“Esvian!” Reeve cried, sprinting off. Esther sheathed her sword to climb out of the bowl. Her crossbow waited for her at the top, so she loaded it and raced after Reeve.
They converged on Esvian and Ignacy in seconds. When they came into view, Reeve raced ahead and Esther slowed down to cover him.
It gave her time to survey the battlefield. One dog lay dying at Esvian’s feet, twitching with a knife between its vertebrae. Ignacy engaged the pack’s leader, the dog with the largest viral load, and thus the most control. It was a humongous mastiff that resembled a bull. It was slamming its body against Ignacy’s shield with eye-watering force. Instead of blocking it, which would tire him and damage his shield arm, Ignacy parried the blows so the mastiff glanced off the shield.
The other attacked Esvian from two different flanks, leaving him vulnerable and desperate. Esvian see-sawed between the two, attacking one and pushing it away so he could turn on the other. He was falling into a predictable pattern, blocking an assault with his shield, slashing or kicking it away, then repeating the pattern on the second opponent. His strikes and kicks were savage, but the dogs were catching onto his rhythm. It wouldn’t be long until they realised all they needed to do was alter their timing, and he’d be defenceless.
Not on my watch! Esther growled mentally.
Reeve charged towards Esvian, and they took on an assailant each. Esther aimed at Reeve’s target, who seemed the least injured and most lively. But Reeve had no shield and had to keep moving, making an accurate shot impossible. Esther switched, aiming for Esvian’s. The dog saw her and slipped behind Esvian’s bulky frame.
Helpless, all she could do was watch. And it killed her to be helpless.
Ignacy’s mastiff caught the newcomers’ scents. Keen intellect flashed in its disease-ridden eyes. It barked, and Esther felt a wave of disgusting magery ripple and strengthened the bonds between their minds. It brought their thoughts and intentions into greater synchronicity.
The dog attacking Esvian circled him until Esvian’s back faced the mastiff. As Esther suppressed her panic so she could aim, the mastiff altered its angle of attack on Ignacy. It didn’t hit him dead on, but at the angle that Ignacy had been parrying at. The change made Ignacy stumble. He recovered fast, but not fast enough to stop the mastiff from charging at Esvian’s undefended back.
Esther’s body stiffened as the mastiff charged towards Esvian, too fast for Ignacy to chase.
Esther aimed. She pulled the trigger and her bolt landed in its thick haunch, jamming between the bones of its hip socket. It stumbled as its rear end buckled. She needed to slow it down so Ignacy could finish it.
As Ignacy caught up, the blood-curse surged and forced the mastiff to keep going. It would rip its teeth into Esvian’s calf before Ignacy could do a damned thing.
An animalistic snarl erupted from between Esther’s teeth. She snapped her sight in its direction. She cleaved her claws deep into its mind, but it wasn’t enough. There was a swirling centre of power around its heart space. It was out of reach.
If you let go, we can touch it, her sight whispered.
So she did. Her sight roared as she made the connection. Driven by rage, she screamed and tore it to pieces. The mastiff’s stride faltered. The light left its eyes.
Its heart stopped beating.
Pressure exploded in her head. Her vision exploded in a burst of crimson. Esther fell to her knees and slipped down the rock, landing in a lifeless heap at the bottom.
Pain. Pressure. Darkness.
Darkness. Pressure. Pain.
Shreds of light returned. As if in a dream, Esther watched Esvian stab his dog in the heart while Ignacy cleaved through the mastiff’s spine. But there was no need. It was already dead.
Esther had already killed it.
Her connection with the pack disappeared as Reeve dispatched the last target. It left Esther with an abundance of power and no way to discharge it. In the absence of connection, it tried to slither down Esther’s spine towards her heart.
With the limited control she had left, she grabbed it and pulled it upwards. The effort made her arms and legs shake. She went dizzy and broke out in a vengeful sweat. Her throat burned.
Her will won out, and her sight remained confined to her head.
When the power settled, reality hit her like a bolting horse.
She’d killed it.
She’d reached into the dog’s heart and broke it to pieces.
Esther threw up onto the ground.
The others gathered together and checked the dogs were all dead. Esther forced herself to stand up. Her limbs shook, her bones felt hollow, and her head pounded like a drum. She held onto consciousness with the tips of her fingers while two thoughts cut through her psyche.
I killed it. I killed it... and I liked it.
She fell against a nearby rock. Her body was unharmed, but she worried the act had mentally damaged her beyond repair. Her throat stung from where her sight had tried to force its way down her neck.
The others regrouped. Esther remembered she needed to look normal to waylay suspicion. She forced her body upright and dragged her feet across the ground. Clearing her throat, she croaked: “Is everyone unharmed?” Speaking hurt and made her head spin.
Esvian spat on the floor and nodded. Ignacy howled into the wind. Reeve took stock of his body, patting himself vigorously and without modesty.
“Everything important is still here, so I’ll say yes.” He stretched his arms overhead and twisted, cracking his back and shedding his professional mask. “Good work back there. I knew I could rely on you both, even if Esther tried to hide down a crevasse.”
Esvian stiffened. “She what?”
Summoning every ounce of strength she had left, Esther said: “I’ll tell you on the way back.”
Up Next: Esther returns home to an unwelcome surprise.