(Verse 1, Line 3) Sun and Strangers - Part 2
With a dry crunch, Esther climbed over the broken remains of Mavias Undercroft’s weathered door. She probed for the buildup of pressure behind her eyes that usually accompanied the use of her conservator’s sight. A tingling remained, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which meant her sight had plenty of power left.
She left the street in a hurry with two destinations on her mind. The first was a meeting with Vera. Every sacanda — the unnecessarily fancy term they used to describe the finding and warning of their cynosures — ended with a debriefing where the conservator reported their success or failure to their guildmaster. The debriefing was also a safety measure. If a conservator didn’t show up within the expected time frame, chances were they’d been assaulted or were suffering a mental breakdown after failing to deliver their warning in time.
After that sordid affair, she was due to meet Esvian so she could drown herself in a flagon of the best ale in town. Nothing took her mind off of her sacandas’ more than a good drink, and Esvian was an excellent drinking companion.
She slipped down the first darkened alley she found and removed the empty satchel she kept hidden under her cloak. Once it was free, she wrestled with the layers of her habit and stuffed them in the bag. Once the weight of the last layer lifted from her shoulders, the last chains of pious pretension shattered.
The feeling was indescribably freeing.
She slung the bag over her shoulders and emerged, wearing the brown pair of hose and beige shirt she always wore as a base layer, plus the dagger she kept strapped to her right thigh. Free of the colours of her indentured service, Esther reversed her path through the city to an entirely different reception. No one looked away in fear or muttered curses in her direction. If they said anything at all, it was an apology if they jostled her, or ‘what ho! Aren’t you cold?’ when they noticed her lack of layers.
Esther was bitingly cold. Autumn was giving way to winter, but she’d rather freeze than be despised for wearing a red cloak. She longed for the warmth of a blazing hearth and the kind of fire only a strong spirit could kindle in her throat and stomach.
She tailored her route back to the guildhall so she’d pass by the inn where she would be meeting Esvian. When they drank after her sancandas’, he normally beat her to their meeting place. Esther had made a habit of popping in and telling him what to order for her so the food would be ready when she returned. The inn they’d chosen that time served the thickest stews in the city and she could smell it from two doors down. Her mouth watered and her steps quickened, drawn by the promise of food until an unpleasant and unnatural sensation crawled over her. A metallic taste flooded her mouth. The hairs on her arms rose.
She turned around, but the busy street was devoid of threats. It’s just your mind playing tricks, she told herself. Stop being paranoid.
She shelved her concerns and walked through the gate leading to the inn’s small street-facing garden. She dreamed of how heavenly the beef stew would taste, and how much she craved company to take her mind off of her former cynosure...
A pressure bloomed behind her eyes, pulling east. Whatever her sight was trying to warn her about, it wasn’t a hunger-induced hallucination and therefore deserved her undivided attention.
She stilled her body and turned her head, following the pull with her sight while letting her eyes go blank and unseeing. She loosely scanned the city for the disturbance, hoping it wasn’t anything that would distract her from the delicious smell of bread and broth drifting from the inn’s front door...
Someone screamed to the east, a single street over.
Esther dropped her knapsack to the floor and kicked it deep under one of the inn’s hedges where it wouldn’t be found. She took a deep breath and cast out her sight, pushing it as far as it could go. It stretched and strained under her command, struggling to find anything within its limit until an echo of metal and corruption on the periphery of its reach made it recoil.
Softening her focus, Esther probed the area around the source rather than the source itself. It was surrounded by a sickening miasma that strained to poison and infect the living beings around it. Esther knew that magic.
“Out upon it,” she swore. The blood-curse was in the city.
She used the biting cold to sharpen her focus. It was why when she charged through the front gate and back onto the street, she didn’t run headfirst into the man running towards her. Instead, leapt sideways, bounced off the gate, bounced into the man, and fell into a heap on the cold floor.
Really graceful, Esther, she scolded herself. Well done.
In a blindingly fast reaction, the man levelled the business end of an expensive-looking crossbow at her throat, but nothing was more lethal than the scowl on his face. Usually, it was a far more useful weapon for keeping ruffians at bay than his weapons. Unfortunately for him, the ruffian he’d collided with knew him too well to be intimidated by his show of force.
“Hello there, Esvian,” Esther said from the floor. “Just the person I wanted to run into.”
Esvian lowered his crossbow and arranged his crooked mouth into an even deeper scowl. “Where is it,” he growled. That was the Esvian she knew: Incorrigibly blunt, almost to the point of rudeness. To him, it didn’t matter that they had been nearly inseparable since he took on the task of training her. He still subjected her to the same treatment as he did everyone else.
“ ’Hello Esther, let me help you up, Esther’, ” she muttered as she jumped up off the floor. “You’re the one chasing it, man! Why don’t you tell me where it is?”
Esvian narrowed his eyes. “You know what I mean, so stop being smart. Hurry up and use your sight before we lose it.”
She sighed and smoothed her hair back, attempting to curb her irritation. “How about you shut up so I can tell you.” She loved Esvian like a brother, but sometimes his lack of etiquette made civility impossible.
Closing her eyes and readying her body for a fight, Esther took a deep, conscious breath. Like most things related to mind, body, and soul, the conservator’s sight responded to mindful breathing. She began by focusing on how the skin of her back stretched as her lungs expanded, and at the crest of the breath, she held it. As the familiar and comforting burning sensation rose, so too did the pressure behind her eyes.
She continued to breathe in the same fashion — in, hold, out, hold — until her sight buzzed and the energy spread across her forehead and temples. It was no longer a dull pressure, but a compass seeking its own north.
Time to find my north…
With her eyes shut, she turned her head until the metallic taste blossomed on the tip of her tongue. Esvian, who understood how essential her meditations were, remained utterly silent. It made it easier for Esther to block out the immediate smells and sounds of the city, giving her sight a chance to grasp onto the blood-curse’s vector. It was a small creature that scurried in the shadows, ducking under broken fences and rushing across empty roads. Decay followed in its wake as it travelled east towards the city centre.
“It’s small, and it’s heading towards the tollgate,” Esther said, snapping her eyes open. Not only was the city hemmed in by a large outer wall protecting them from the deadlands, but the city was also divided up into districts. The powers that be said the inner walls prevented the spread of plagues and that the money raised from tollhouses funded the upkeep of the outer wall. No one believed a word they said, especially since peasants, farmers, tradesmen, and lower merchants were charged significantly more than wealthier people.
With a grim yet determined expression on his face, Esvian unbuckled his short sword and gave it to Esther. “You’ll be needing this.”
Sword-using huntsmen always carried two, both with identical curved single-edged blades designed for slicing. The longest sword, called the first sword, was a huntsman’s first melee weapon of choice because it allowed them to put a greater distance between themselves and their highly infectious prey. The second sword was shorter, often wielded one-handed, and used in smaller spaces.
Esther accepted the weapon with the same stony resolve. Being in the city, Esvian would need his second sword. His second was roughly the size of Esther’s first. It would be an uncomfortable hunt for the pair of them, but they’d find a way to get through it.
As Esther attempted to position the sheath so the hilt was at the higher angle they carried their first swords, Esvian said: “Early morning queues… It’ll be carnage.”
Once the weapon was ready, Esther gave Esvian a wonky grin. “Then why not show it the meaning of carnage?” Esvian laughed, and the two took off running.
Ask anyone what they pictured when they thought of a huntsman, and they’d describe graceful hunters sneaking through the deadlands, jumping over the foliage trying to trip them, dancing around the mist trying to seduce them, and keeping an ever-present vigilance against the shadows that were sometimes more physical than they appeared.
They would not describe a mismatched pair, one not even wearing armour, jumping over horse flop and trying their damndest to avoid running into the armed watchmen, bailiffs, and private men-at-arms walking the streets. In the place of wild animals, Esther and Esvian wove around foot traffic and livestock, while the clattering of the horse-drawn carriages and ox-drawn carts blocked out any sounds their quarry might make.
Esther’s mind and sight soon settled until she barely saw the weathered buildings rising around her or the old ruins destroyed during the Tears of Dealth, occupied solely by vagabonds and homeless squatters. People leapt aside as the two huntsmen flew down the streets, focused entirely on the hunt, and it wasn’t long until Esther felt the blood-curse’s presence in more than just her mouth and mind. The pressure behind her eyes throbbed in recognition and her stomach responded to the ancient blood magery by cramping in instinctual fear.
They were three streets away from the tollgate and its long queues when the creature’s trail diverted to the edge of an overgrown paddock surrounded by an old wooden fence. Part of the fence was shattered. As they approached the suspiciously human-shaped hole, Esther’s sight writhed at the blood-curse’s proximity.
Using three signs from the huntsman’s sign language, Esther told Esvian: They’re ahead; not moving; prepare for battle.
Esvian pulled a pair of goggles over his eyes and a waxed piece of cloth over his lower face. If a single drop of a blood-cursed vector’s bodily fluid entered your eyes, mouth, nose, or an open wound, it was a death sentence.
Even after Esvian gave Esther a spare mask, she still felt naked with a sword that didn’t feel right, with no armour, and no goggles. But she was a huntsman, and by Dealth’s third teat, she would do everything in her power to kill the infected bastard dumb enough to enter her city.
They squeezed through the fence into the bushes. As she used her breath to further centre herself and attach her sight onto her prey, the world melted away until only three words of purpose governed her universe:
Silence. Shadows. Death.
Esvian crept beside her, his tread slow and silent as he followed the creature’s trail from its footprints while Esther followed with her sight.
We’re close, she signed as her sight hummed in excitement. Esvian nodded. Any other huntsman would be deeply disturbed that she used my conservator sight to hunt. But Esvian was a deadlander, someone born and raised outside a city wall. Deadlanders were more open-minded towards anything arcane, and after training and hunting together for five years, Esvian knew the value of Esther’s sight.
The bushes receded and they found themselves behind the remains of an old cowshed. The pressure behind Esther’s eyes increased and pushed against the skin of her forehead. Their prey was around the corner.
At her signal, they stopped. Esther held still as she cast out her senses and began the delicate process of convincing her sight to attach to her mark. Within moments, it honed in on the metallic twang of the plague. It fixed onto the felklein’s mind and a flood of information entered Esther’s awareness.
One creature; potentially a fox; not moving, she signed. Plan: I hold it still; we break cover; you shoot; I chase; you purify. On the surface, they were incredibly simple instructions, but they were packed with meaning.
Esvian gave her a curt nod, and so she hummed into the creature’s mind: Be still, be still, be still.
As one, they exploded around the shed, Esvian with his crossbows raised. The fox-like creature startled as it sensed the new threat, but remained still as Esther had commanded. Its body was black as the shadows of hell, and its golden eyes drank in the light. Dried blood clung to its fur, and the crusty sores on its skin emitted a yellow-red ooze through the cracks.
It was a felklein, and definitely a blood-cursed one at that.
Esvian’s bolt flew and landed in the felklein’s stomach. The sour stench of stomach acid cut through the usual city smells. The creature grunted and used the pain to rip out of the stupor Esther had induced. It jumped away and shot through the underbrush, pulling her sight with it.
Esvian cursed. It didn’t have long to live, but that could be enough time to infect someone. He also knew he couldn’t track it at a fleeing pace through the busy city.
But Esther could.
She took off after the injured felklein and vaulted the fence on the other side of the paddock. Her sight remained locked on its racing mind, full of rage and fear. That was another difference between a native animal and one plagued by the blood-curse; only the infected could feel the human emotion of anger, a pleasant gift to them and their ancestors from the Blood Queen herself.
“Out of the way! Out of the way!” she yelled as she rushed through the streets, instinctively using the felklein’s knowledge of the city’s darker crevices to navigate. She would never have reached that degree of hunting proficiency in the past five years without her sight.
The felklein was quick, but her sight had ensnared them. Her, she realised. The felklein was female. As she raced further away, Esther used her sight to pull the creature back. The felklein shook her head, disoriented and enraged at why her legs were slowing down despite her desire to go faster.
Esther used her confusion to catch up as they both approached a drain leading to the sewers. Safe, safe, safe! The felklein chanted. If she fled underground, Esther would have one hell of a time taking hold of her mind again.
But the creature was bleeding out, and Esther was close enough. As the felklein took her first steps towards the drain, Esther darted sideways and kicked her in the ribs. She flew into a wall and before she found the strength to rise, Esther dashed towards her, Esvian’s sword drawn and ready. It wasn’t designed for stabbing like her Ending Knife was, but the felklein was too conscious to justify drawing the shorter blade.
“Heads up!” a woman cried from behind. A crossbow bolt whistled past Esther’s cheek and landed in the felklein’s flank. It was a sloppy shot and missed the heart, but the felklein was too wounded to take advantage of it. She flopped to the ground with a feral grunt, too weak to resist the call of death. Esther felt the life draining from its mind and pulled her sight out of its head before the time came.
She sheathed Esvian’s unused sword with too much force and spun around to face the shooter. The woman perched on a wall above her fifteen feet away. The sun was at her back so Esther couldn’t see her face, but she noticed the woman had a long braid of fiery red hair.
“You stole my kill,” Esther hissed, but the waxed cloth over my mouth muted most of the anger.
The woman rested the crossbow on her shoulder and placed her other hand on her hip. “I saved you, more like,” the woman sang.
It made Esther’s anger burn hotter. “I’m a fully qualified huntsman. I had it handled,” she said. “But discharging a weapon like that without a license is dangerous-”
Esther stopped when the woman placed a hand on her stomach and laughed with such force she almost teetered off her wall. “Oh, my little mouse! You’re hardly dressed to wrestle the cork from a bottle of wine, let alone take on a blood-cursed creature. And you call yourself a huntsman.” She said the last part without a hint of mirth, and it set Esther’s blood to boiling.
Resisted the insane urge to throw her dagger at the woman, Esther settled on a taunt. “All this from someone who missed such an easy shot?” The woman’s posture stiffened, so Esther continued. “The felklein wasn’t moving, you’re only fifteen feet away with a crossbow, and you still missed its heart. I’m afraid you’re hardly skilled enough with that crossbow to hit the ground, let alone a blood-cursed creature.”
The woman shifted her weight and clenched her weapon. “Hm. Fine. But since I’m such a generous person, I’ll let you claim the kill. I’d bet you need the money and reputation since you’re such a lazy lout you can’t even be bothered to put on your armour before you hunt.” She spun around and disappeared, leaving Esther simmering in anger.
And after all that, Esther didn’t even get a good look at her face.
Up Next: Take a walk onto the wild side to see how the huntsmen live.