Year: 2500 AHV
Age: The Late Industra Era
Country: The Kingdom of Camaria
Anargrin blinked as the cave was taken over by the calming, almost-dainty streams of midafternoon light filtered through the leaves and branches above. The stink of abundant pollen eclipsed the horrific stench of burned meat and fat. The crackling of flames was now the sweet singing of birds and the almost-constant chirping of the damnable cicadas. That cursed cave was only about fifteen kilometers northwest from here, but it was lifetimes ago. He wished he could forget, but the memory was just as clear as it was decades ago.
Anger, raw and powerful, sprouted through him. It caused him to clench his teeth and his fists. Did Kalthasin do that on purpose? Did he kill her like that because of the—he forced it inside, into hiding, as the sound of engines filtered through his enhanced ears. He doubted any of his companions would’ve heard it yet, as they wouldn’t be able to see him in the underbrush like he could see them.
So it was soon to begin. He’d done this countless times now: kidnapping children.
For two weeks, they planned for this, set up for this. No less time for preparation would have sufficed, and in fact, Raleas would have preferred more time—much more time.
Raleas shook away the lamentation as she knelt among the underbrush, her sniper rifle’s scope to her eye as she watched the truck bounce down the slick mud road, about half a kilometer away. The truck that contained the children was in the middle of a convoy of three others and five utes, all filled with soldiers. The groaning and grating of the engines was easily heard, even from here.
The truck was the primary target of what the Hunters called “The Kidnapping Convoy.”
Raleas couldn’t think of a more appropriate name, and the alliteration added irony to it.
They loved their irony.
She glanced about. Only about two meters to her left was the mage and apprentice Hunter, Wilom. His lack of skill in stealth was evident. Raleas just hoped they were far enough from the road. The redheaded young man knelt like her, his staff in hand, his brow furrowed over blue eyes, but she could easily see the sweat beading on his broad forehead and half-circle sweat stains in the armpits of his robes. It was humid but not hot. The country of Camaria was so far north it wasn’t known at all for being warm, even to Raleas’s sensibilities.
Two others were hiding around too, one of whom Raleas could somewhat see, a mere shadow of a tall, thin woman who held a large double-headed ax.
Of the third, there was no sign at all.
Raleas smiled. He was the best, after all.
“Raleas, concentrate,” Jelcine hissed from the shadows, making Raleas set her eyes back to her scope.
She was a sniper. Sentimental distractions were unbecoming of her.
The convoy came around the corner of the road.
It was almost time to act, and it needed to be to the exact second. It was on Wilom’s shoulders, and it was then Raleas realized it might not be the heat making the young Hunter-apprentice sweat so much.
“Wilom,” said Anargrin in a very familiar, soothing voice, although Raleas had no clue where it was coming from. “Are you ready?”
Wilom nodded, swallowed, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of a shaking hand. “I am master.”
Wilom had joined them two years ago as Anargrin’s apprentice. He was said to be among the best mages of his generation of Hunters, but little good at much else, especially everyday human interaction. Anargrin had been hesitant to allow such an inexperienced young man on their team. Still, he was eventually forced to, since Wilom had proven invaluable in assignments that called for little subtlety—assignments like this, when push came to shove.
“Okay, Wilom,” said the elf. “You seem . . . a little nervous, but we’ll be fine. Is everyone else ready?”
“Fuck yeah, you old fool,” said Jelcine. “I was ready the second I was promoted to Hunterhood. I am frankly offended you had to ask.”
Jelcine had been on the team for just over a year, having joined them, unofficially, when they were accidentally forced to work with her during an assignment. Hunters had been through the creatively called “ritual,” which lengthened their life spans. Despite being in her eighties, she had never been promoted from vampire-Hunter status, even though most Hunters her age were infiltrators or black-ops agents. The Hunters never gave her an apprentice, although she was skilled and extensively lucky. Her ritual hadn’t enhanced just her speed, agility, constitution, and regeneration factor, among many other things, but also her strength, far beyond the average Hunter. They said this was because of a one-in-a-million mutation. But everyone knew why she hadn’t been promoted: due to her black-and-white worldview, volatile temper, and immaturity. Frankly, Raleas would label her a “bitch,” but not to her face.
Jelcine had gotten sick of vampire hunting and saw joining them as a way out.
“I’ve got this, Anargrin,” said Raleas, fighting the urge to check her rifle’s load yet again.
“Good,” said the elf. “Alright, in three . . . two . . . one.”
The trio exploded into a sprint. The swishing of Wilom’s footfalls eclipsed those of Jelcine’s, but all three were nothing but blurs to Raleas’s human eyes while she watched them through her scope. She was used to the inhuman speed of Anargrin and Jelcine, but it was easy to forget that little young Wilom held such ability too.
It was also easy to forget that the Hunter-apprentice was only four years younger than Raleas.
They’d crossed about four hundred meters in only a few seconds before Wilom’s hands erupted in flames, and he slid to a stop and raised his palms. A giant ball of fire blasted out and flew straight for the leading ute.
The ute exploded and was flung up into the air, spinning and wheeling before crashing against the dirt road. It slid a few meters more before coming to a halt and blocking the way for the rest of the kidnapping convoy.
The convoy skidded to a stop, and Camarian soldiers poured from the trucks with a discipline that impressed even the ex-soldier Raleas. The heavy machine guns placed on top of the utes began to turn toward Anargrin and the others and opened fire, as did the other soldiers on the backs of the utes. The familiar barking, roaring crescendo of combined gunfire filled Raleas’s ears. But by then, Jelcine, Anargrin, and Wilom had already scattered—Anargrin toward the front of the convoy, Jelcine toward the back, and Wilom dashing sideways.
Raleas exhaled and placed a shot through the skull of a soldier on the emplacement as he tried to shoot for Jelcine and then through another’s as he went to take his comrade’s place.
Wilom slid to a stop as a priest of Jaroai and his soldiers ran from the truck’s back, following the one with the children inside.
Wilom threw another fireball, which hit the priest and the soldiers around him. It exploded and flung the soldiers screaming, writhing, and flipping like dolls. But the priest was untouched, protected by a shield of light.
The shield died away, and the priest raised his pole arm, which was layered in flames, but then Anargrin was on him. The priest, with impressive speed, managed to see Anargrin coming and swung out his staff. Anargrin evaded it, but how, Raleas couldn’t know. Then he opened the priest’s throat. Anargrin stopped, standing over the dying man as he dropped to his knees, and Raleas got a good look at him. Even for an elf, he was handsome, sharp featured, his skin as pale as the whitest Zatharian winter. His long brown hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he wore a brown leather jacket with blue jeans and had a bloody longsword in his right hand. The soldiers in a nearby ute switched their aim for him.
Then Anargrin stood in their midst. He’d just “blinked,” a short-range instantaneous teleportation ability all Hunters had. Still, Anargrin was better than anyone else in the organization, having a shorter cool-down time of five minutes instead of the standard ten minutes and a more extended range. How he’d become so good at it, Raleas didn’t know; she supposed it was because of his utter inability to use any magic whatsoever—as all other Hunters could, with magical ability being a prerequisite to becoming a Hunter.
In less than a split second, all the soldiers were slaughtered by his blade. Then he leapt off the back of the ute and was sprinting toward the end of the convoy.
Raleas tore her attention away from him and to Jelcine. She fought a priest of Jaroai and about a dozen soldiers. She smashed and whacked away shot after shot with her giant double-headed ax while the priest kept her at bay with blast after blast of fire from his hands. Jelcine reeled as a bullet managed to hit her arm, making her cry out.
Raleas blew out the side of the priest’s skull. Then Jelcine was on the soldiers who once had her pinned down. Raleas began to pick off the stray soldiers who were trying to flank Jelcine or re-man the heavy machine guns. She knew she didn’t need to look after Anargrin or Wilom.
Her sniper rifle clicked dry, and she was about to reload when her wristwatch beeped.
It was time to move in, so she stood and began running.
As she approached the truck, the sound of gunfire drifted away, replaced by children crying and Jelcine and Wilom moving the ruined ute, its metal bodywork shrieking across the muddy gravel road. The smell of blood mixed with smoke and gunpowder somehow penetrated through the pollen blocking her sinuses.
Anargrin stepped out from behind one of the trucks while whipping the blood off his sword. He was svelte and walked with the smooth confidence of the most seasoned of martial artists. He had to be, being about two hundred years old and among the longest-living Hunters. Like most elves, he stood at around 1.67 meters but was still quite a bit taller than Raleas.
“You alright?” he asked, placing a hand on her arm.
Raleas smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I’m fine. I wasn’t the one fighting on the front line. I just wish I could’ve done more.”
“This mission isn’t over yet. You are going to be invaluable soon,” he said and glanced over his shoulder as Jelcine approached, clutching at her shoulder while she muttered curses. “And I’m sure you saved Jelcine’s arse more than once.”
That made Raleas smile, and he smiled back before he turned toward the truck’s front. “All of you know the drill,” he said while he and Jelcine passed each other. Then he opened the truck’s driver’s door and leapt in. “Let’s move.”
Jelcine walked up to Raleas. The tall, slender redhead fixed Raleas with an almost-hateful glare like she blamed Raleas for her injury.
“You talk to the children,” said Jelcine.
“Look, my arm hurts like fuck right now. I’m not in the mood for dealing with kids.”
Raleas sighed. “Oh, alright.”
And together, they leapt into the back of the truck.
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