Somebody was going to die tonight. Of that much, Sheriden was certain. If she was quick enough, she’d be the one to pick who.
The forest was an inky black, the sky blocked by the closeness of the trees. She stalked with practiced care, testing the space under each footfall for uneven ground or snapping branches. As the woodland canopy shifted in the night wind, slivers of moonlight danced in fleeting ripples across the forest floor, a fickle light to guide her way. Her left hand hovered by the holster on her belt, her right held behind her back. Her fingers grazed the feathered ends of the arrows in her quiver.
A woman’s scream sliced through the night. Sheriden’s head snapped toward the sound.
It was close.
Changing direction, she ignored the cold lurch in her gut. Her fist curled around the clasp of her holster. As she wound her way through the woodland maze, a soft glow issued from up ahead and the voice sounded again.
“NO! N-no, please. Just let me be, I beg you. Just let me go.” The woman half-shrieked, half sobbed.
Sheriden reached the edge of a small open expanse and stopped short, staying hidden in the cover of shadow. Through the break in the trees, the cloud-cloaked moon hung low overhead. In the center of the clearing, the crying woman knelt, limbs bound. She appeared close in age to Sheriden herself, eighteen or nineteen at most. Three figures circled her in the ring of moonlight, tall pines swaying on all sides. Sheriden’s fear evaporated. In its place, a simmering rage began to boil.
“Will someone stop her damned squawking?” One of the figures barked over his shoulder. He didn’t bother looking up from his work.
The smallest of the three moved to answer him. They strode over, pulling a bit of loose fabric from their pocket. The bound woman searched the cloaked figure before her with wide, frantic eyes. She strained against her restraints, ropes rubbing her skin a raw and angry red. They crouched before the captive and appeared to be whispering something to her. They took the strip of cloth and looped it around her head, pulling it tight between her teeth like a bridle. The woman glared at them through her tears but did not fight it.
Sheriden took a steadying breath and willed herself to wait, tamping down on the roaring fury growing within.
At the clearing’s edge, the man rose, his hands on his hips as he admired his work.
“Yes,” he nodded to himself, “That will do.”
The hooded one sidled up beside him. They removed their hood, revealing a young woman with wispy brown hair. She handed him a flint and steel from her robes without looking at him. Her eyes washed over the ground at his feet. Sheriden followed her gaze and noticed powder like white sand swirled in intricate patterns forming a ring. The cloaked girl cocked an eyebrow.
“These glyphs,” She had crouched down to get a better look, “They substitute for the lack of sacrifices?”
The third figure, an older woman, came waddling over with arms flailing.
“Gabrielle! We do not question! I’m sorry,” She mewled to the man, “she doesn’t understand yet.”
He squinted at the girl. “You’ve seen this done before, then?”
The girl nodded, eyes trailing over to the bound maiden. “Once. But there were no glyphs, no runes. Just...more bodies.”
The old woman paled, her eyes flickering from the young woman to her master.
He smirked. “How many more?”
“Eight. And we had a crafter among us.”
He chewed his cheek.
Sheriden went stone still within the shadows, eyes narrowing.
The girl named Gabrielle appraised him for a moment. “You’ve never actually done this before.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Doesn’t matter, I’ve been assured it will work.”
Gabrielle looked back down at the sand, her lips pursed. “And how much did you pay for these ‘assurances’?”
His mouth curled into a snarl. “Don’t push your luck, girl. First and last warning.”
The older woman’s hands flew to Gabrielle’s shoulders, steering her roughly away from him.
“Forgive her!” she bleated. “I’ll set her straight. It won’t happen again!”
The man spit between his boots; narrow, hateful eyes watching as they skittered away. He pointed to the circle’s center.
“Move the village girl. And don’t you dare disturb my work. So help me, if I have to draw those again, my first test of the void will be snapping both your necks.”
He struck the flint and steel, igniting the white sand at his feet into a ring of fire.
Gabrielle looked away as the man drew a knife from his belt and turned toward their captive.
Sheriden could wait no longer.
She’d seen all she had to.
She pulled a black cylinder from the holster on her belt, thumb on a cluster of silver gears on one end. With a flick of the lowermost gear, the cylinder snapped outward forming an arched bow, bowstring pulling taught.
For those in the clearing, there came a slight whistle, barely audible above the wind and the crackling flames. There was no further warning before an arrow shot out from the shadows. It passed clear through the man’s neck and struck a tree on the far end of the grove. He sank to his knees as the knife slipped from his grasp, falling in the dirt. He clutched desperately at his throat as blood flowed between his fingers, a startled gurgle escaping his lips, and then nothing more. He fell backward into the flames.
The women stared, mouths hanging open. They whirled around in tandem, their bulging eyes searching the darkness between the trees.
Sheriden stepped into the moonlight, her bow drawn before her. Clad all in black, she was little more than a shadow against the night. The only color that marked her in the darkness was a single silver stripe, running from the top of her left shoulder to just below her waist. She held her bow out before her, another arrow nocked and ready.
“My name is Sheriden Krieger.” Her voice was calm but commanding, her predatory stare catching the fire light. “In the name of the Order, do not move. If you move, you will die.”
She had barely gotten the words from her lips when the old woman turned and ran, robes billowing out behind her. Sheriden sighed, raising her bow and drawing back on the string. The woman’s chest heaved as she ran, fists pumping. But she had no hope of outrunning Sheriden’s arrow. It caught her easily in the back, a small yelp sounding before she staggered and fell. She didn’t rise.
Gabrielle sank to her knees, placing her hands palm-down on the ground with deliberation. Sheriden assessed her, watching for any hint of threat before daring to lower her weapon. With a flick of the silver gears at the bow’s crown, it collapsed, shrinking in on itself in cascading sections till it was little more than the length of her hand. Sheriden stowed it in its holster.
She walked across the clearing, stepping around Gabrielle. Pulling a serrated knife from her belt, she stooped over the bound woman and cut her free. Sheriden extended her hand, helping her to her feet. With trembling fingers the girl removed the gag from her mouth.
Sheriden glanced her up and down. “Are you hurt? Can you walk?”
She blinked, staring down at her hands, “I-I think I’m all right. Thank you.” she managed, breathless.
Sheriden nodded. “What village are you from?”
“Greenwood.” she answered after a beat.
Sheriden pulled her hood off. Her long tangle of black hair was tethered back, her jagged bangs brushed away from her face.
“Good, Greenwood’s not far. I’ll escort you home.”
Sheriden gestured behind her, toward the darkness of the trees. “Just beyond this clearing is a small deer path. Follow it back a short way and it’ll lead you to the main road. Wait for me there. I’ll be right behind you. But first, I need to take care of this.”
She jerked her thumb backward, glancing over her shoulder at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle stiffened but did not look up.
Sheriden pulled a small, straight-bladed dagger from a sheath on her belt. She knew she found comfort in a bit of steel in her hand, and this woman needed comfort.
“Take this with you.” The woman took the blade, clasping it tightly to her chest.
“Y-yes. Right.” She glanced around the clearing, as though gathering herself. Then she turned and headed toward the trees, stepping between the trunks and out of sight. Sheriden watched her go, waiting until her footfalls blended into the night.
She turned back toward the kneeling girl, rolling her shoulders. She crossed the clearing and came to stand before Gabrielle, staring down at her. Gabrielle peered up through her stringy bangs.
“Do you have anything to profess?” Sheriden asked, her voice flat.
Gabrielle blinked. “Come again?”
“Are you an unbranded caster? Do you have any weapons?”
Gabrielle tilted her chin up. “I have a knife in my boot. But I’m not a caster.”
Sheriden nodded. “Didn’t think so. None of them were.” She gestured toward the now lifeless bodies of Gabrielle’s cohorts. Gabrielle nodded in return.
Sheriden paced back toward the charred remains of the man and his smoldering glyphs of sand. The foul stench of burning hair filled her nose. “He was trying to open the void?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle murmured.
Sheriden’s eyes narrowed. “Did you know it wouldn’t work?”
Gabrielle paused, biting her lower lip. “I, er, I had a hunch…”
“But you were going to let them kill that girl anyway.”
Gabrielle flared to life, cheeks flushing red, “What choice did I have?! You don’t know what it’s like! Out here on your own as a mortal! You Order casters just—”
Gabrielle froze mid-word. Her gaze had slipped to Sheriden’s hands and stuck there, eyes going wide. Where there should have been black circular brands which marked all registered casters, there was nothing.
“You’re not—?” Gabrielle shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Sheriden turned on her, fixing her with a hard stare. “No, you don’t. But you’re about to start. Listen very carefully.” Her voice cut through the still night air, her eyes catching the moonlight. “You always have a choice. You made one today and you chose wrong.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard, the fear fully surfacing in her face. Everyone knew the punishment for trying to pry open the door to the other realm.
Sheriden sighed, shaking her head. “You have another chance. You get to try again. Listen to me, we might be mere mortals, you and I, but we still choose our fate.” Sheriden turned her eyes up to the sky, her gaze far away. “Now get up and get out of here.”
Gabrielle blinked up at her, looking as though she must have misheard. “The Order doesn’t spare mortals.” She sounded suspicious, as though the moment she turned her back, she’d have a knife between her shoulder blades.
Sheriden frowned. “I am the Order and I’m not an assassin. We’re protectors. But that being said, choose this path again and the next agent who catches you will not be so lenient.”
Gabrielle staggered to her feet. “Y-yes, ma’am. I understand.” She turned to leave but glanced back at Sheriden, her gaze searching. “Thank you.” she whispered.
Sheriden didn’t respond. The slight gnaw in her gut that always accompanied directly disobeying Order protocol, combined with something in the girl’s words needled her in the back of her mind.
Gabrielle headed toward the trees, disappearing into the darkness.
The rain fell in sheets as Sheriden made her way down the dirt road, her hood pulled tight around her face. The storm had rolled in without much warning and Sheriden silently cursed herself for not staying in Greenwood when she had returned the village girl to her home. Her black boots sloshed through mud puddles, her eyes sweeping the trail ahead for any sign of light or life.
She trudged along, the rain beginning to soak into the bits of clothing not protected by her leather riding gear. And deep in her bones, her exhaustion started to creep to the surface, pulling on her legs like weights. This had been her longest stint in the field without a break and it was beginning to catch up with her. How long had it been? Three months? Maybe longer. She steeled her flagging mind and focused on the road ahead, leaving room for nothing else.
Sheriden wished she’d happen upon an inn but even if she did there was no guarantee they’d have her. That was one of the worst parts about missions in such isolated areas. The people here had no exposure to the Order. They couldn’t tell good from bad; it all terrified them. They’d forgo the protection of the Order altogether if they could. To most, it meant one less monster darkening their door. They had no idea what a real monster even looked like. Maybe it was better this way, better they did not know.
Sheriden shook her head as if to clear the thoughts like cobwebs. Her neck was stiff, her fingers ached. She hadn’t made it more than a mile when a sudden glimmer overhead caught her eye. She paused as the shimmering object circled like a sentient comet.
She widened her stance; bracing herself as she held up her hand, her forearm level. The shining light descended like a falling star, taking shape as it drew near. It transformed into a raven, translucent and iridescent, a glass lantern made bird. Its large talons wrapped carefully around her arm as it landed, fluttering without noise.
She looked into its eyes, two small lights hovering in the stained-pane made creature.
Her stomach lurched. Arcanist ravens meant trouble. Did they know she’d spared the girl? She swallowed, steadying herself.
“Out with it, then.” She said with more confidence than she felt.
It seemed to give the slightest nod before opening its beak. A lilting female voice floated out into the night air. “Hunter S-Class, Sheriden Krieger?”
“You’ve got me.”
“You are hereby summoned to return to Hallows. Immediately.”
Sheriden blanched. “Immediately? But I haven’t finished my work with the rogue covens in this area. And in any case, I’m not even past Clearwater yet and—”
“A summoning portal has been commissioned for your return.” The voice was simultaneously toneless and still somehow matter-of-fact.
Sheriden cocked a wary eyebrow. “A portal? And who gave clearance for that?”
The glowing bird bobbed its head. “You are requested by Hunter Captain Tammaryn Stone.”
Sheriden’s stomach flipped.
This must mean reassignment. Sheriden’s head swam with the possibilities and she forced herself to focus.
“Ah. Well. I guess I’m ready to receive the summons.” Sheriden steeled herself, sucking in a breath. “You may open the portal when ready.”
Another ever so subtle nod and the raven flapped its shimmering crystalline wings. It rose from her arm and circled ten feet up before shattering. Multiple beams of colored light raced to the ground, forming a ring around her feet. The ring opened, becoming a circle of violet light, white runes flashing and spinning around her.
There was a moment of gut-wrenching lift and then a split second of horrible nothingness. Sheriden grit her teeth, hands clenched into fists as the world twisted away into darkness.