(Verse 2, Line 9) The Other Face
“The exercising of arcane power, like any other type of power, is addictive. Once you start, you never want to stop.”
- Excerpt from ‘Divine & Arcane.’
I killed the dog with my sight, and I liked it...
They spent an hour gathering the corpses they could retrieve without endangering themselves. After a day, the power of the blood-curse dimmed enough for carrion to become interested in the corpse. They burned them near the edge of the forest, keeping one specimen as evidence of their success.
I killed the dog, and I liked it...
Ignacy cut down a branch and tied the remaining body to it. Ignacy and Esvian carried the branch and the body. Reeve took point position with Ramzi. Esther protected the rear.
I killed it… and I fucking liked it.
As they walked back to camp, Esther tried to convince herself otherwise. She couldn’t have killed the dog. It was an impossible feat for a conservator’s sight. She dazed it and Ignacy finished it off.
Yet it was impossible to refute the evidence. She knew what it felt like when a creature she held died. She had definitely felt the mastiff die before Ignacy’s blade touched it.
Empty, she followed the motions. Routine was the only thing that propelled her forward.
They reached camp. They wrapped the carcass in waxed paper and sealed the gaps with wax and fire. They cleaned themselves with purified water and herb-infused sand. They ate. They drank. They prepared to sleep.
Esvian stayed close for the rest of the evening. He knew she could become distant after over-using her sight, and all the warning signs were there. He shared a discrete talk with Ignacy and they altered the night shift so Esvian and Esther were together.
Reeve noticed Esvian hovering and scrutinised them for the rest of the evening. His back and shoulders stiffened each time he saw Esvian steady Esther when she swayed. It got worse when they retreated into the hut to sleep.
Esther collapsed into the cold dirt and tried to face an uncomfortable truth. Reeve was jealous, there was no doubt about it. But Esther was too wrung out and exhausted to care. She fell asleep as soon as she shut her eyes.
That night, she dreamed of a golden amulet that had a burning pool of liquid embossed on it. In the dream, someone was trying to destroy it. No matter how hard she tried to keep the amulet safe, they kept striking from the shadows.
When Esvian woke her for our shift, Esther felt that a small slither of her sight had rejuvenated. Even though it was only a trickle, it was still as excited as it was before.
Letting it go during the fight had been a mistake. But at least the experiment taught her something was definitely wrong. The sacanda moon was a week gone and her sight was still misbehaving.
Not only misbehaving. It was growing.
At huntsman’s dawn, they set off for home in the same formation. Heavy exhaustion weighed Esther down. Every step was a struggle. If anything attacked them, Esther wouldn’t have the energy to resist.
They’d only been walking for an hour when a flutter of wings to their right startled them and made them pause.
“Ibiscular,” Reeve hummed. “It’s been following for a while.”
Esther spotted a black smudge perching on a tree in the distance. Despite the dim light, the bird’s midnight plumage gleamed like oil in the sun. Four long feathers the colour of smoke and coal erupted from the back of its head, but its face was a bald canvas of wrinkled grey skin and red eyes. It had a curved bill and jet-black tail feathers. Its legs were short, giving it little land speed. But when it unveiled its two-and-a-half foot wingspan and took flight, it could reach extraordinary speeds.
Ibiscular weren’t their own species, but the melanic form of a similar-looking bird called ibiso. Their mutation made them more prone to infection from the blood-curse, so huntsmen often shot them on sight.
The one who followed them was a fledgeling. There were traces of its baby feathers on its chest.
“Someone shoot it,” Esvian grumbled.
“No,” Esther murmured. There would be no more death on her watch.
I killed it, and I enjoyed it…
Oh, shut up, she ordered.
“It’s only a baby,” she said. “And it’s not infected.” Reeve’s head jerked as he suppressed a glance in her direction. She’d done it again. The ibiscular was too far away to assess its condition visually.
“Leave it,” Ignacy agreed. “We’ve disturbed the forest enough.”
Even though they nodded in agreement, all three men tensed as the bird swooped in front of them, moving to a tree on their left.
Esvian and Ignacy spat on the floor three times.
“What is it now?” Esther asked, exasperated.
“If one of those crosses your path, it means there’s a great change coming,” Esvian said with a shudder.
“They’re not wrong,” Reeve said.
Irrational heat travelled up the back of her next. “I once heard a myth. It said vexing a woman in the wilderness makes your manhood shrivel up and dry out. If anyone shoots that bird, I will be very vexed.”
The three men suddenly had no problem with letting the ibiscular live.
They travelled under the watchful eye of the bird, who hopped from tree to tree to keep up. Its proximity decreased the pressure of the deadland’s bioconsciousness. It cleared her head and lifted her unease. Under the ibiscular’s watchful eye, everything felt right.
“Thank you,” Esther whispered as they reached the edge of the Dark Woods. Its chilling farewell squawk was its only reply.
The late evening sun was cool and comforting when they arrived back at the Shack. Reeve remained professional while Yarvier confirmed their kill and checked them for infection. Esther enjoyed seeing his serious side, but it would be harder to tolerate him the next time he acted like an arse. And with him growing jealous of the time Esvian spent with her, she prepared for him to be more of an arse than usual.
Checked and paid, Ignacy disappeared without saying a word. Reeve assured them was a normal occurrence. Esvian left next to speak with Yarvier. Reeve headed outside. With nothing else to do, Esther followed.
“Well, this was fun.” Reeve stretched his arms overhead. It pulled up his jerkin, giving Esther an unintentional view of the bottom of his stomach. She was going to mock him — perhaps by saying he was getting fat — when he saw something and dropped his arms, guilt riddling his face.
Esther followed his gaze and saw Edyta marching towards them with a wobble in her stride. She looked furious. She had to come around the corner the moment Reeve accidentally flashed some skin, didn’t she?
“Your girlfriend approaches,” she said. She sniffed the air. “Drinking, too.”
Reeve stiffened as she staggered towards them. “She’s not my- you know what, never mind.” He leaned forward as if to walk towards her. But nothing happened.
“I don’t think she doesn’t like me and Esvian,” Esther said to fill the silence.
Reeve pressed his lips together. “It’s because she feels threatened by you both.” His tone was neutral.
Edyta continued marching for them, looming ever closer. Yet Reeve remained in place.
“Thank you for today,” Esther said. “I may have only tagged along to fulfil Yarvier’s deal, but I’m grateful for the experience.” She recalled the sensation of squashing the dog’s heart. It was possible that she’d gained too much experience.
Some of Reeve’s usual mirth returned. “I suppose I should say you did a good job of not dying.” He paused. “You two were good partners. I’m glad we had you with us.”
Esther chuckled. “Be still my heart, a compliment from the mighty Reeve! Onder will be so jealous.” Reeve didn’t laugh, so Esther immediately felt guilty. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. I’m not used to you being so… Sincere. You’re faultless at your job. I can see where you get your rep from.”
He loosened up and met her eyes, seeming to search for something yet struggling to find it. “So are you.” Esther felt, rather than saw, something dark shift behind his eyes. “I know Yarvier hand-selected you, which means something. But it’s still impressive how you’ve become a match for hunters like us, people who have been hunting all our lives, in five years. I wonder if you’re just a quick learner, or...” He looked over at the Dark Woods. Although Esther couldn’t see it, she could sense the ibiscular still perched there. “Or it could be something else.”
Her heart dropped. Did he suspect?
Edyta reached them, her petite features twisted into a gruesome snarl.
“What are you still doing with him?” she barked. Esther could smell the liquor on her breath and decided her chances of survival were better if she remained silent. She expected Reeve to turn on his usual bravado, as he usually did when someone confronts him. Instead, nothing happened.
“We were hunting, remember,” he said carefully.
“Well, I know that, since you’ve been gone for three days.” She stumbled to a stop. “What I meant was: what are you still doing together?”
Esther rubbed her face in despair and irritation. She’d died in the Dark Woods and reincarnated into a melodramatic romance novel. Reeve thought there was something going on between her Esvian, and he was jealous. Edyta thought there was something going on between Esther and Reeve, and she was jealous. If Esvian thought there was something going on between Esther and Edyta, they had the perfect premise for a romantic tragedy.
Esther needed to leave. But first, her exhausted, addled brain thought it would be a good idea to give Edyta a taste of her own medicine. She’d threatened Esther, threatened Jorin to get Onder a sponsor for the trials, and likely done the same to the other Senior Huntsmen. Esther craved to knock her down a peg.
“Thank you for today, Reeve.” Esther employed her most coy smile and squeezed his arm, careful to avoid the biggest splotches of blood. He flicked his eyes in Edyta’s direction. “You’re an amazing huntsman.” The lilt in her tone suggested she meant he was amazing at something else.
Edyta grew by one foot. “You’re going to pay,” she shrieked. “I have powerful friends in powerful places.” Her voice cracked halfway through and she hiccuped towards the end.
“Is that supposed to scare me?” Esther bounced on her toes. The rational part of her mind screamed at her to stop. But extensive use of her sight had triggered a minor case of derealisation. It was hard to take Edyta seriously when everything felt like a dream.
Edyta wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and shrugged her shoulders to loosen them. “I know you’re up to something, you gong farmer! I’ll find out what, I swear.”
Esther laughed hysterically. “Pulling out the mature insults, I see.” A gong farmer was a person who cleaned out the privee shoots in the richer houses. It was the type of insult young children called each other.
Edyta’s face reddened, and she jabbed a finger towards Esther. “You will stay away from my man, or I’ll tell everyone your dirty secret.”
With that, all the fun bled from the game. “I thought you’d only resort to that if I petitioned the twelve seniors for a sponsor,” she growled. “You can’t change the rules!”
Reeve tensed when Edyta mentioned her secret. Did Edyta also hold something against him?
“It’s my game! The rules are what I say they are, and I’ll do whatever the hell I want with the information I’ve collected,” she squeaked. “I hate you. I’ll destroy you. I’ll turn all your friends against you.”
A muscle in Esther’s cheek twitched. “Why do you hate me so much?” she growled. “We’ve known each other for two days!”
Esther had her suspicions, of course. Edyta was an insecure, ambitious person. She craved power, which she could only get through manipulating and threatening others. Esther had met dozens of people like her during her youth spent amongst the noble class. They were the people who ruined lives in their vain bid to get to the top.
Edyta felt threatened by the people she could only control through threats and fear. The trouble with threats was once she cashed them in, her power evaporated. Onder would follow her to the sun and back because he worshipped her. But once she told people Esther was a conservator, Esther became a free agent to fight Edyta as she pleased.
Esther doubted Edyta’s possessiveness over Reeve came from sentiment. She must have relied on his status to boost her hold over people like Onder. In Edyta’s eyes, Esther threatened that power. Unfortunately for her, she’d picked the wrong target if Reeve’s jealousy was anything to go by.
But there was more at play. How did Edyta have the resources to threaten the senior huntsmen into sponsoring her ‘friends?’ Also, why put so much effort into winning the trials and the position of grand champion? If her family were friends of Lord Nazari, they likely belonged amongst the peerage or nobility. Why want she to be a huntsman when she could marry a baron, count, earl, or duke?
Regardless, Edyta didn’t tell Esther why she hated her. Esther wasn’t sure if it was because of rage, her drunkenness, or because she didn’t know either. Whatever the reason, it was strong enough that Edyta screamed and hurled herself at Esther like a feral beast.
Esther’s eyes widened as she threw a badly disguised fist at her midsection. Esther moved to dodge it, wondering why Edyta would open with such an obvious move. She didn’t wonder for long, because it was a feint. Edyta jabbed her other fist towards Esther’s head and skimmed Esther’s jaw.
Thank the skies Edyta was drunk because if it had been a direct hit, Esther would have been sobbing on the ground. Even so, pain lanced across the side of Esther’s face, stupefying her and making her stumble back.
Edyta attacked with vigour. Esther’s head rang like a bell. All she could do was drop her centre of gravity and prepare for the inevitable strike.
But Edyta was drunk and sloppy. Somehow Esther threw the woman over her shoulder. Edyta landed in a heap in the mud.
“Stop it!” Reeve said, but Esther had overcome her daze, and the pair were too far gone to listen to reason. Edyta sabotaged Esther’s attempt to enter the trials, the only way she knew to save herself from Sassin. She needed to pay!
Esther charged at Edyta while she was down, only to receive a nasty kick to the stomach. Edyta lurched to her feet, and they locked together. They traded messy blows and grapples, both struggling to gain the upper hand. With one was half-drunk and the other half-stunned, they were evenly matched.
Desperate, Esther dived and thrust her shoulder into Edyta’s stomach. They crashed into the ground. Edyta swiped at Esther’s face with her nails, clawing through her cheek and drawing blood. Esther backed off, taken off-guard by such a desperate move. With a roar, Esther reached for Edyta’s stupidly beautiful hair.
Before she could take hold, Reeve stepped between them. He pushed Esther back and grabbed Edyta’s elbow. “Let’s go,” he said, dragging her off the ground.
Edyta hissed in response and pulled free, smacking his arm. Reeve flinched as if she’d stabbed him.
“Don’t be so pathetic!” Edyta spat. “Take it like a man.”
Reeve backed off, a wary look in his eyes.
Esther struggled to rise. “The only pathetic one here is you! You didn’t need to hit him. You have no right to treat him like that.”
“I have every right, you harvel!” she spat. She lunged at Esther, but Reeve was faster. He grabbed her from behind and pulled her back. When she gave up, he let go and stood well out of her way. “Fine!” She spat on the ground. “We’re not done, Esther! If I see you with Reeve one more time, I’ll tell everyone what I know. That’s a promise.”
Edyta stormed off, but Reeve was paralysed.
“You don’t have to follow her,” Esther said, getting to her feet with the help of the Main Hall’s wall. “Please don’t follow her.”
He looked between them, his dirt-clod hair whipping in the wind. Edyta glared at him and beckoned for him to follow. “I- I have to.” He glanced at Esther and then at the doors of the Main Hall where Esvian was. Then he followed her.
A dull ache settled in Esther’s chest as she was watching them go. One more motive for winning the trials took root in her unconscious. She wasn’t only doing it for survival, but to make Edyta pay for the suffering she’d caused Esther’s friends.
Esvian exploded outside, sending the door crashing into Esther’s arm. He wore a manic grin that could mean just about anything.
“What happened?” she asked, rubbing her arm. “Good news or bad?” Esvian punched her in the other arm and a wave of numbness spread through it. Two dead arms, she thought. Great.
“The best, but I can’t say anything until after the trials.” He strode off.
“Where are you going?” she called after him, but her voice was weak and tired. He carried on walking without turning back.
“Bloody boys,” she muttered. “And bloody girls too!”
Half-dead with fatigue, Esther went to the bathhouse. It took her three times longer than usual to wash and purify herself, her armour, her weapons, and her undergarments. When she finished, the water was cold.
Clean and dry, she stumbled into her room with a strange tingling sensation mounting in her head. She crawled under the sheets and sank into the straw-filled mattress.
What has my life become? she thought. One week ago, Esther was safe. Only those she trusted knew her secrets. Her sight was meek and quiet. There was no one at the conservator’s guild with the name of Esther’s greatest failure. A corrupt duke ran Koryn City, keeping the populace isolated from the rest of the Gardaran nobility. She was safe.
In a single week, everything had come undone. Edyta knew she was a conservator. Her sight was backfiring and growing. Sister Kessi had grown attached to her. A man who knew her had ascended to the dukedom and invited the entire royal court to the city. Her relationship with one of her closest friends was strained. And she’d predicted Edyta’s death.
Esther didn’t have the strength to face it, so she cried herself to sleep. It brought only nightmares.
Up Next in Verse 3:
Esther seeks answers Vera cannot give. Esther learns the truth about Esvian and Reeve’s past while Edyta plots something big. Esther breaks a moral boundary with her growing powers, and Kessi hears a hymn of her own.