Arc Twelve: The Fear
Smoke rose above the rooftops, smoke that stank of charred flesh and, perhaps, a little like sickly sweet, rotten flowers. Hartavin pulled her shirt up over her nose, but it offered little relief. The stench was embedded in her clothes now, and she was sure no amount of washing would get it out. She'd carry it until she died, of that she was sure.
"Is this the last of them?"
"I believe so!" her companion shouted back.
"Good. Find the others, and tell them to be here. I'm going to do another look around."
She turned away from the stinking fire, and into the empty streets beyond. She'd seen plenty of abandoned towns, in her time. They stopped meaning anything, after a while. Sooner or later, they all blended into one, the same weed ridden streets, same shattered windows, same houses like empty skulls. They didn't matter, any more. People had lived there, people had died, people had fled, but it was all so long ago that their homes were mere pieces of the landscape.
And then, there was a place like this, a place where the streets were clean, where the walls were sturdy, where the widows were intact. A place where she could look inside and see meals set out on tables, toys strewn on the floor, maybe even a book or two waiting for a reader.
There was a click of claws on the road, and the hair on the back of her neck prickled.
She turned, and a red dog watched her, head held to one side, ears perked. Her hands twitched at the sight. They'd burnt them all, hadn't they? She'd watched them all burn, every last one...
"Cinn! What is it?"
Now a young woman rounded the corner, wearing a long, dull leather coat. Slung on her back, mostly obscured by her thick, black hair, was something that looked uncomfortably like a weapon to Hartavin's eyes. She laid a hand on the dog's harness.
"Who are you? You shouldn't be here."
"I didn't see a sign," said the stranger. And now there were two more of them, rounding the corner behind her. This time they were men, and probably Rhusavi from their pale hair. The taller one caught her eye first, but her gaze quickly fell to the slightly shorter of the two. His face was scarred, as if by gigantic claws raking over the flesh, and a blindfold was tied over his eyes - or where, she realised, his eyes ought to be.
"What is this?" said the blindfolded man. "Didn't expect a party here."
"If there was a party," Hartavin said, "it wouldn't be a party you'd want to be at. This is an investigation and cleansing mission to-"
"Oh, good," said the woman. "We like investigating, here. We're what you'd call investigating people. Hello. I'm Rosa, these are my boys-" she gestured backwards - "this is my dog, and this-" and now she patted the weapon slung across her shoulder - "is my gun. It has parts that go click."
"I don't think you grasp how serious this is."
"Oh, I don't know. My boys here seem to think its serious. I trust them." Rosa scratched the dog's neck. It was still watching her, and its eyes were wide and alert.
"What she means to say," said the tall one, "is that when you walk into an empty town that doesn't look like it was empty long, and when someone tells you to leave, some of us don't like leaving that alone."
"And not," said the blindfolded man, "when everything smells of burnt bodies."
Hartavin nodded, slowly. "I imagine it would look bad. Burning the bodies is the only way to be rid of them." In the distance, she saw movement. She didn't dare take her eyes from the newcomers, but she could see someone - Liavik, perhaps, look at her, and vanish into the streets. She felt her shoulders relax a tiny amount - as much as they could, with three strangers, a dog, and a gun in front of her.
"Rid of what?" hissed the blindfolded man.
"Very well," She held up her hands, to show she was unarmed. "Rid of the worms. Burn the bodies, they don't spread. Nobody said it was pretty but these things aren't." She looked at each of them in turn, taking in their faces. "Oh Rakaros. You don't know, do you?"
"I think well all be happy knowing we haven't walked into a mass slaughter," said the blindfolded man.
At last, there were footsteps behind her, and she relaxed a little more. "Where'd you find these?" said Liavik.
"They found me." She turned to see his welcome face. "You're good with words. Convince them we didn't murder everyone here."
"Ah well," he said, folding his arms. "best they come see for themselves. If they're here, they don't have much else they can do." He looked away from her, to the strangers. "Maybe you didn't know. This town is surrounded. The barrier lifts in three days. I don't know how you got in here, but I know one thing. None of us are leaving this place until we know for certain nobody's infected."
Rosa supposed she should blame Dhaymin. She and Jen had been the ones to spot the tracks that indicated heavy patrolling, but Dhaymin was the one who insisted on finding out what happened. But it was hard to blame him for anything after seeing piles of ash and blackened bones, heaped up in the town square.
Liavik, the younger one with the fast mouth, explained it, as they stood there. "They were dead and dying by the time we got here. Nothing else we could do. There's no other way to make sure they don't spread, you see. They grow fast, so three days clean and we can go. Sorry you got caught up in this. Beast-hunters, aren't you?"
"Yes," Rosa had said.
"I thought so. Better make yourselves comfortable."
"And I suppose we have to trust you," said Dhaymin.
"I don't think we get a choice," said Jen.
Liavik explained more after that, about how they'd been ordered to stop the spread. Even Dhaymin had to respect that. There was a certain honour between beast-hunters, no matter where they found one another. Trust might not come easily, but nobody was going to make any moves. Not yet.
Rosa scratched Cinn behind the ears, as much for her own benefit than the dog's, and found herself wondering if their food would stretch to three days. At least now, she could say she wasn't hungry. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. There was food on the tables, in the houses.
"We're burning that, too," Liavik said.
"And if we don't come back in three days?"
"I suppose we get burned too."
"As I thought," she said, and wondered if the others felt as alive as she did now.
Hartavin hated the underground. It smelled even worse than above. A few minutes with the newcomers, and she could feel the stench weaving its way into her clothes, her hair, her skin...
She called Liavik to her side, once he was done with them. She needed something a little more normal in her life, and there were few things in the world more normal than he was. He was young enough to be one of her sons, and had been a beast-hunter for a scant few years, but he had yet to fall prey to the coldness that gripped the breath of so many of their numbers. Liavik could make innards sound fascinating and exciting, for Rakaros' sake.
She was never sure if the world could use a few more people like Liavik, or a few less. But she also knew what she could use, right now.
"Where are we going?" he said, tugging on his heavy, waxed coat.
"East side. There's a few houses we haven't cleared." She pulled a scarf tight around her face, and picked up her hat from where it hung. "We've got a while before dark. May as well get on with it."
There was food on the table, and some of it might still be good. Hartavin pulled her scarf tighter, and tried not to breathe too much. Three days, and there'd be food just as good on tables far away from here, and water too.
"Sometimes wonder if we'd be better off burning the whole inside," she remarked, and realised she was taking to nobody. "Liavik? What have I told you?" Her voice was muffled, but sharp.
Nothing for a moment, and then the creak of a door, opened behind her. She turned, slowly, so as not to disturb the air. "Look at this," Liavik said, holding his find up to the light in gloved hands. It was a flute, she could see, made of finely carved bone, its white surface practically shining in the gold evening light. "Pretty, isn't it?"
"That it is," she said. "And someone's mouth will have touched it. You know the rules."
Liavik held the flute higher, staring at it. "Fwooooom," he said.
Liavik was gone again, into the back room. Hartavin could see him out of the corner of her eye, as she examined a stout, earthenware vase for anything that might be stashed inside.
The light was starting to fade. They'd fully cleared the whole house, and had moved on to the next. There'd not be time to finish this one, but a start was a start. Besides, the more time she spent in here, the more time she didn't have to think of the newcomers. She'd have to address them eventually, but they were better off kept where they were. Better there than outside.
Liavik was still staring out of the window.
The vase was empty. Hartavin placed it back where it had been, and continued to watch him, out of the corner of her eye.
She knew the rules.
The stink of burnt flesh was gone now, but the smell of dirt and ashes hung thick and heavy in the air. The floor and walls were blackened, coated with charcoal dust that clung to her hands and made her skin prickle at the dryness. She did not sit down, for there was nowhere clean to sit. She was trapped in a cellar, burnt out and lit only by a single fire by the door, turning the air harsh and smoky. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, all too aware of the difference now that her familiar gun was gone from her back. Hartavin had taken it away before herding them down here. She'd tried to take Cinn, too, but Rosa had insisted the dog stayed where she was. She was sitting beside her now, licking her paws like a cat.
"I wish I could have a coin for every time I've been stuffed into a room with nothing to do but talk about what happens next," said Jen. He was standing at the opposite end, almost in shadows at the far side of the fire, leaning against a seres of shallow alcoves.
"Yes, and that don't change things," said Dhaymin, who was standing beside him, one elbow resting on an empty shelf. They were all empty. Rosa had checked. Nothing had escaped this room untouched by the fire. "If they try anything, I'll kill them. Simple as that."
"Mhhhhmm. And whose fault is it that we're here?"
Rosa stroked Cinn, her fingers lightly brushing the fur between her ears. It was strange, when you looked at conversations, properly looked, not just listened to the words people said. On the outside they were talking about the circumstances that had led them to this place. But there were layers, just under the words. Layers that she didn't know, because they were a part of a world she'd never walked in. She stroked Cinn again, and stayed quiet.
"What was I supposed to do? Walk on?" Dhaymin stood upright again, his hands held outstretched. "We don't walk on! You know that! Walking on… isn't what we do!"
"What I'm saying," Jen said, "is maybe there's things we need to leave alone for once."
Cinn slunk closer to Rosa's feet.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Dhaymin turned, slowly, to face his brother. "I forgot about that, see, you have to be patient with me, since I couldn't see the piles of bodies outside!"
"And what good are we going to do if-"
"What are you going on about?" Dhaymin's voice echoed in the cellar, and, in the gloom, Rosa saw him step forwards...
The brothers froze, light dancing around their shadows.
Rosa felt down Cinn's back, and clung to the dog's harness with trembling fingers. "I don't know if you need someone to stop you killing one another lately," she went on, "but I didn't ask for it to be me!"
Dhaymin was the first to respond, his shoulders sagging in the firelight. "I... yes. Yes, you're right. Sorry, Jen, Rosa. I..." He stepped aside, resuming his place leaning against the empty alcoves. "I wonder, if we'd come here earlier..."
"Wasn't anything we could have done," said Jen.
"Suppose there was?" Dhaymin said.
"Doesn't change where we are."
"Maybe not. I remember you at midwinter. Remember how you always thought they'd come back, right to the day. Used to think you were being silly, having that much faith in them. Hah." Dhaymin tilted his head upwards, as though staring at a sky that was not there. Rosa relaxed a little, and let go of the harness. The conversation had gone back to those layers that she didn't know, but it was quiet again.
"Some of us became fed up with waiting," she said, to nobody in particular. A gnawing in her stomach brought her back to the present. "What's there to eat?" It had been a long time since she'd last eaten, and they'd been on the road at the time. It had been daylight then. There'd been no tracks...
"Oh, shit," Dhaymin immediately crouched down and began rummaging through his pack. "You're hungry? Both of you? Should have said." His hands vanished into the bag as he felt for the contents. "It's oatcakes again. I'm sorry."
"Anything to go with them?" said Jen.
"Yes," Dhaymin said. "More oatcakes."
"I think I'll leave them for later," Rosa said. She walked toward the door, tapping it in a few places, even though was nothing she could do. There was no more faint, secondhand daylight streaming from the gaps. "Do you believe her?" she said. "About why…"
"Think I'll believe anything at this stage," Jen said. "Looks like it's night outside."
"We should sleep," said Dhaymin. "If you're not interested in eating, anyway."
"I'm not-" Rosa was cut off by a noise from outside, a muffled thump. "Shh!" she hissed, and pressed her ear to the door. There were voices outside, but they were muffled too, blocked off by the door and the stairway beyond, and as quickly as they had arrived, they were gone again. The brothers moved closer, trying to listen in too, but there was no more.
"Maybe," Jen said, "we shouldn't."
They were sleeping, either side of him, curled up on blankets laid over the scorched floor. He could feel them, two comforting presences close by. Jen lay there with his eyes closed, and his mind drifted.
It wasn't so hard, now. It wasn't so hard when he knew what he was doing. He had seen what happened to Numbers. He remembered the crack that rang out as he snapped her ribs open to free her soul. He remembered smooth, wet bone in his hands, and the fresh butcher's shop smell, the buzz of flies in the air, and the fading tang of ice. And he remembered best on nights like this, when the lights were gone and the others had fallen asleep, and he lay beside them and pretended to sleep himself.
His mind went elsewhere. He felt dirt between claws, smelt smoke in the air.
She was close by, prowling the perimeter, but she did not dare approach any closer. She could smell tracks, crossing one another so that they were merged into one. Sometimes, she heard the patrols passing by, watching even now for anyone that might try to escape the nameless, burnt village. She would slink back into the trees then, silent and still, and they never noticed. They never noticed anything that was trying to get in.
Jen felt all this as though he stood under the moon himself, and he wondered. One swipe would be enough to clear the guards, to let them escape. She crept closer, ears pricked. The world ahead was overlaid with a thin trace of silver, but the sounds and smells of the forest were so much more than any of that. Here was the crack of twigs underfoot, and here was the unbroken ring of scent. She looked up as a pair of them approached.
And now there were voices, and a bolt firing into the undergrowth, and she turned and fled back into the woods.
Jen opened his eyes.
He sat up, shaking, his heart threatening to escape his ribs. As the jolt dissipated through his body, he looked around. Now there was only a thin trace of light around the door, so faint that only someone with eyes very accustomed to the dark could see it.
"Gnn... Jen?" It was Dhaymin. He stirred beside him, and Jen heard shuffling as he sat up too. "What's wrong? Dreams?"
"Dhaymin," Jen said. "It's fine."
"You sure of that?"
"I'm not five any more!" Jen hissed, trying to keep the noise down so as not to disturb Rosa. "You don't need to check on me every time I have a bad dream!"
"Ah well, you say so," Dhaymin said. "Not morning, is it?"
"I don't think so."
"Try to get some more sleep, then," Dhaymin said.
There was no arguing with Dhaymin, so Jen lay back down, and Dhaymin did likewise. Jen rolled over, so that he was pressed against Rosa's back, and laid an arm over her shoulders. She hadn't even woken, and he couldn't help but envy her as he closed his eyes again. Tired, he thought. But not tired enough. He should tell Dhaymin, some days. He wouldn't do anything, would he? They'd always had that agreement between each other, ever since they were children. Whatever one did, the other didn't tell, because they were supposed to trust one another. You didn't get the other in trouble. You didn't ever tell.
That had been all well and good when the only thing Jen had to hide was that he'd been sneaking books from his father's library again. Did it stretch this far? Maybe Dhaymin would understand if he knew why Jen had to do it. Dhaymin wouldn't want to hear of someone else being ripped open by those claws, surely?
He drew closer to Rosa, feeling her thick hair brush against his chin. She didn't move, but she did make a quiet, wordless sound at his touch.
Maybe he'd sleep tomorrow night.
He let time slip by him, endless dark moments, the beast still at the back of his mind. She had fled now, and she was agitated, enough that she pushed him aside when he tried to reach out, and he was left alone in the dark again. Quiet, deep breaths at his back told him Dhaymin had gone to sleep as well.
When he heard the sound, he thought it was the beast's ears, pricking up at the sound of prey in the woods. It was only after he listened some more that he realised he was hearing them himself. Soft sounds, like footsteps outside, just on the edge of hearing.
"Rosa," he hissed, sitting up and shaking her shoulder. "Dhaymin! Wake up and be quiet."
They were both awake in an instant, and neither of them spoke a word. They were listening too, waiting to hear what Jen had to say. "Do you hear that?"
"A little, yes," said Rosa. "Cinn, quiet." Jen heard a shuffling noise as the dog settled back down.
"It's louder now," Jen said. "Someone's coming closer."
"Hartavin, you mean?" Dhaymin said, but the name was shaky as he spoke it, and Jen knew it was a wistful hope, as a creak of stairs echoed through the cellar.
And Cinn, who had been content to sit and be quiet as commanded, scrambled to her feet and started barking, a deep sound infused with growls that shook through Jen's body. Above the noise he could hear Rosa calling for silence, but none of it mattered. A thump on the door caused it to shudder against the lock and hinges, and the three of them were on their feet in an instant. Jen felt a hand slip into his, and realised it was Dhaymin. He shuffled closer to him, as he let Rosa take his free hand. He could see nothing but the trace of light around the door, but to Dhaymin, that was perfectly normal.
"Anyone got a weapon?" he said, over Cinn's growls.
"Wish I could say yes," said Rosa.
"I can do some painful things with this cane," said Dhaymin.
"Good," Jen said. "We'll go for that, shall we?" His hands tightened around Dhaymin and Rosa's.
Another thump, punctuated by the sound of splintering wood, entered Jen's body by way of his feet. His hands gripped even tighter, and he felt nails digging into his own skin as Dhaymin and Rosa did the same. "Going to break," he said.
On the third try, the door swung open.
Jen had just enough time to see a figure, black against near black, standing in the doorway, before it moved, merging into the darkness again. The three of them moved as one, shuffling closer to the door. "Cinn, back! Don't touch!" Rosa called, and the dog obeyed. Jen caught a glimpse of motion as she ran back to Rosa's side, still growling.
"What's wrong?" came a voice from the dark.
"Liavik?" That had been his name, hadn't it? The one who'd sat down and, with more cheer in his voice than Jen could imagine in a place like this, had explained everything to them. Tall, wiry, smiling Liavik. Liavik, who'd just forced a door open, when before he had keys.
"Run!" Dhaymin hissed, and tugged at his hand. The three of them, Cinn in tow, made a dash for the exit, scrambling up hard stairs, running into one another in the dark, leaving Liavik behind. They emerged into the square, and Jen looked around to see the same silver tinted landscape as the beast had before. The three of them stood together on smooth stones, as Liavik emerged behind them. His form was a shadow against the dark, as was everything else.
"Is something wrong?" he said.
"Oh, nothing," Jen said, between clenched teeth. "Nothing at all, only-"
"You! What in the name of Kroakani are you doing out? Get back, all of you!"
It was Hartavin.
Nobody was willing to stand around, no matter what Hartavin's motivations might be. Still holding tight to Rosa and Dhaymin's hands, Jen ran forward, following the sound of her voice. He could hear Hartavin step forward, and, in the faint moonlight, he could make out enough of her form to see her raise something in front of her.
He felt a jolt run through his body as he realised what she was about to do, right as she loosed a bolt in Liavik's direction and a shrill cry rang out through the dark.
"What are you-"
"Quiet!" Hartavin snapped. "I can't hear him. Think I missed, no thanks to you." Now she was reloading, fumbling at the bow's mechanisms in the dark.
"What did you do that for?" Liavik's voice was clear now, with the questioning, nervous edge of someone who isn't sure if a joke's been played or not. "Hartavin? That you? It's me, it's Liavik!"
Jen strained to hear. He sounded like he'd moved, but in the dark he had no way of knowing. How long could it be until dawn? It was summer, so surely it couldn't be so long? Dawn always felt like it came late here, and he remembered books full of drawings, showing spheres and lines, explaining the tilt of the world and the seasons it brought with him. They took him away from the dark and the commotion, only for a moment.
And then another bolt fired into the dark, and Hartavin muttered to herself in frustration. "Could be gone now," she said. "Could have run. Don't know." Jen could hear her reloading again, but there was nothing else to hear now, no sign of Liavik.
He wondered if he'd slept at all this night. It was hard to tell, lying in the dark with his mind elsewhere. All he knew was how heavy his whole body felt, how he thought that it wouldn't matter if he closed his eyes, because what difference would it make?
Hartavin stood in silence, while Jen held tight to Rosa and Dhaymin's hands.
Eventually, she spoke. "He may be gone," she said. "But I'm not going to trust a thing until the sun comes up."
"Must be nice for you," Dhaymin said. "Must be nice to do what you do, come to think of it."
Ah. Now Dhaymin was getting in on the game. Jen opened his eyes, looking up at the stars scattered above. Was it his own wistful thinking, then, or was there a touch of pale light in the east?
"Do you think I would," Hartavin said, "if I didn't know what was happening? Tell me something about myself that I don't know. I have children, and I have grandchildren. Do not ask me how I can do this. Now come on. We've all of tonight to get through."
The night wore on, and Jen followed Hartavin's lead. They stopped and listened, and Hartavin fired bolts into the dark, while the stars turned overhead.
They were met not long afterwards by Hartavin's second companion, Otavik, who Jen remembered as a quiet, steady man, the complete opposite of the flighty Liavik. "He smashed the doors to the other cellar too," he said, and handed something large and heavy to Hartavin. Jen didn't recognise it, but Rosa did.
"That's my gun!" she said.
"I know," said Hartavin. "And I know you haven't got what it takes to pull the trigger, have you?" She let Otavik take her bow, and Jen felt himself slipping, so far away from Rosa's protests and Dhaymin's silent disapproval.
They ran, and they hid, and Jen felt that this town that had seemed so small during the day could go on forever during the night. He watched the stars, the only thing he could be sure of, and the slow, pale light in the east, and hoped. But his eyes would not stay open, and he found himself slipping again, unable to sleep, and reaching out to the forest where the beast lay.
But each time Cinn would howl, or Otavik would fire a bolt into the dark, and he would hear Liavik run, or cry out, and he found himself back in his own self, running again.
The worst of it, though, was the times when Liavik would call for them, his voice trembling. "Please," he would call out, "please, Hartavin, Otavik, it's me, please, I'm scared, please stop it, I'm scared!" His words turned to panicked cries, but whenever Dhaymin or Rosa tried to stop them, Hartavin held an arm out, and pushed them back, gently but firmly.
Jen didn't even try. He could only think of her earlier words, when he could think at all, when he wasn't running or hiding or thinking of how easy it would be to break through the perimeter and stop everything right now.
He felt like prey.
He hadn't felt like prey for a long time.
Liavik appeared at dawn.
Jen stumbled along on sore feet, too busy trying to keep his thoughts in one mind to pay attention, and it was only when everyone stopped, abruptly, that he looked up and saw him, shadowed against the gold eastern sky.
He remembered Liavik as a slim, wiry man, but now he appeared thinner than ever before. His clothes were torn, stained where the bolts had hit. Though he was still on his feet despite the onslaught, he stood hunched, his arms dangling, his head tilted to look up at them, staring with hollow eyes at the little group. At Jen's feet, Cinn began to growl, and Rosa laid a hand on her harness, whispering to her to stay where she was.
"Please," Liavik said. "Please… stop…"
Hartavin raised the gun.
"No!" Rosa tried to snatch it from her hands, but Otavik held her back. Liavik didn't even move.
The blast rang through Jen's ears.
Hands grabbed him as he turned and stumbled, trying to run. He crashed to the ground, kicking up dust, coughing as it filled his lungs. People were shouting… shouting his name, he realised. He looked up, to see Rosa and Otavik, now working together to hold on to his shoulders and help him back to his feet, while Dhaymin stood by his side.
"What's going on?" Dhaymin said. "Did she just- Jen?"
"Fine," Jen said. "I'm fine. Just tired." Rosa and Otavik let go, and he rubbed his shoulder, half expecting to find an open wound. That was what happened last time… no, that hadn't been him. Something cold and wet brushed his other hand, and he looked down to see Cinn nudging and licking it. Not knowing what else to do, he scratched her between the ears.
"This is yours," Hartavin said, offering the gun to Rosa. "My thanks for it."
Rosa said nothing, and Jen remembered. He turned around, and saw Hartavin walk away, to crouch at a respectable distance between herself and what had been Liavik. Perhaps it was the morning sun gleaming just right, perhaps it was his mind, but he could see pale shapes, writhing in the flesh, spilling onto the dry ground.
"You see, now," Hartavin said. "You see why." She stood up, and beckoned Otavik to join her. "You three should get some rest," she said. "We'll handle this from now on."
Jen had fallen asleep immediately. Dhaymin envied him a little, but not so much.
This was a different cellar, so he'd been told, because the old one was dangerous now. It was a small mercy that it had aired out more than the first, so the smell of burnt ashes was not so overpowering. Even so, Dhaymin was under no illusions he'd get it away from him soon. He sat in the dark, back to the wall, knees folded up in front of him, and listened. Hartavin had told them to rest, but Dhaymin had done that earlier in the night, and now he had better things to do.
"Rosa?" He'd assumed she'd gone to sleep too.
"I know you may not want me to," she said, "but would you mind if I sat with you for a while?"
"Course you can. Any time." What had he been doing to make her think she couldn't? "You've got Jen. You're family."
He heard shuffling, and footsteps, and felt her ease herself down beside him. The sound of claws scrabbling on the ash coated stone told him that Cinn had come along as well. He heard the dog sit down, and waited for her, unsure what to say, or what she wanted.
"Maybe I should have brought the gun with me," she said, and then her voice dropped to a whisper. "Hartavin's right. I couldn't do it. She could." She laughed, or Dhaymin assumed it was a laugh - it was a hollow sound, and the echo was unpleasant. "Does that make me a beast-hunter?"
"Don't know," he said. "Jen's the one with the pretty words." But Jen was also asleep, and Dhaymin was trying very hard not to think of how he'd bolted at the sound of the gun. They all knew what that meant, and nobody wanted to say it. He concentrated on Rosa. He could feel her leaning against him, looking for comfort. He'd always been good at that, but she felt stiff and tense beside him, so he shuffled a little closer, no more. "You're… you don't want to hurt people. That's good. Could use more people that way." Anything he might have felt about how necessary Hartavin's actions may or may not been could wait. Rosa didn't need to hear it.
She was quiet for a moment, and there was no sound but Jen's quiet snores. Dhaymin imagined Rosa sitting in the dark, stroking Cinn to calm herself. His thoughts meandered amid the silence, grasping at anything to keep the morning's events away from his mind. How strange it felt, to have a family member he'd never seen.
At last, she spoke. "Those things, have you ever… did you know…"
This was more than a simple confusion of native languages, and he understood what she was trying to say. "Have I seen them, you mean? It's fine, you know, you can say that. And no. Suppose we're getting far south now. Never did see anything like those. Glad I didn't."
"I read a little," Rosa said, her shoulders relaxing a little at his reassurance. "But not so much. We… there were things my family didn't like to stock books about. There's a lot in the world, it seems."
"Is it worse? Having to… see it?" He stressed the word, so she would understand.
"I don't think either of us is going to know," she said. "But I… I would like to forget."
"So would I," Dhaymin said. "I tell you one thing, though. Better us in here than Hartavin out there."
If there was one thing Hartavin could feel grateful for, and Rakaros himself knew that she needed one, it was that she did not need to worry about how she would snap open Liavik's chest and free him. The gun had done all that for her. It had left him unrecognisable too, but she had yet to decide if that made it easier, or harder.
She focused on the task before her, laying down dry grass and wood around the remains. Summer was here now, and there was plenty to burn. Already the morning sun shone hot upon the cracked stones, but she ignored it. She would not dare remove the scarf pulled over her nose and mouth, not her heavy, waxed coat, or her thick gloves. At her back, Otavik sat over a small fire, sending a signal to the perimeter. The count of days had returned to zero.
When he was done, he lit a torch and walked to her side. "Ready?" he said, his voice muffled a little by the scarf.
"In a moment, I will be," said Hartavin. The torch flame served to make the heat even more intense and stifling, but she ignored it.
"I am sorry about-"
"Do you think they had anything to do with it?"
Hartavin looked back at the remains. She could still see movement, if she looked hard enough. "Liavik… was in an advanced state. I don't know."
"None of us made any promises," Otavik said. Hartavin could hear the unspoken amendment. Especially not ones about getting out alive.
She nodded. "Go on, then."
They kept watch as the flames rose around Liavik and the sun climbed higher in the sky, and neither spoke a word about the heat.
Dhaymin did sleep, eventually, after nibbling on a few dry, tasteless oatcakes to calm his stomach. He slept because Jen and Rosa had seen fit to do the same, and because at last, after the battle rush had worn away, he could feel exhaustion spreading through his body. And he slept because there was nothing else for him to do.
The day wore on, punctuated by mundane affairs, a little food here, a little water there, as much as could be spared. He pulled Jen aside, to ask about his reactions, but his brother told him he was only tired and startled by the noise, in a voice that suggested he was smiling, but did not wish to be reminded a second time. Dhaymin didn't press the issue. He retreated back into himself, and wondered if he had become just like Jen had been, once.
He would have done something, he would, if only he'd known what would happen. But it had been a burst of noise, leaving him disorientated and lost, and the next thing he knew, Rosa was there beside Jen, who kept saying he was fine, and tired. But Dhaymin remembered the boy Jen had been long ago, stern faced as he held and fired a gun on Father's orders, and though his hands shook, he did not so much as flinch.
He was half asleep again when he heard a frantic hammering on the cellar door, and awake in an instant alongside the others "Who's there?"
"Me. You have to come out of there, now."
It was the other beast hunter, not Hartavin, or the one she'd shot. Otavik, was that his name?
"Why should we?" Rosa said.
Dhaymin heard a deep breath on the other side of the door. "Hartavin," Otavik said, at last. "It's got Hartavin."
It was another warm night, the air heavy with the smell of earth and ash, thick and still. Dhaymin felt enveloped in it, slowly drowning in all of its scents. In the distance he could hear what may have been movement, but closer by Otavik was pacing, muttering to the three of them. "Didn't get her in time," he said. "Didn't know…" His voice was low, punctuated by deep breaths. "You seen her today? Been near her?"
"Not since this morning," said Rosa.
"Good," Otavik said, and a strangled noise came from his throat. "That's good."
Dhaymin kicked at the hard, dusty ground beneath his feet. Stepping back, he felt something touch his spine, and reached behind himself to feel it. It was a woodpile, well stocked even though summer was only beginning. Of course, he remembered, they needed firewood here more than anything else…
The sound snapped Dhaymin out of his contemplation, but it was Otavik who responded first. "Hartavin," he hissed. "Don't talk, any of you…"
"I know you're there. Have you got the others with you?"
She sounded normal, but so had Liavik, when he started pleading. Dhaymin reached out his hand again, but he felt nothing. He edged closer to the sound of Otavik's voice, all the while keeping one hand on the woodpile behind his back. It wobbled a little when he lent too much weight on it, and he stepped away in response.
"Otavik." Hartavin's voice was clipped and stern. "There's no sense in this. The rest of you, if you're-"
Dhaymin had only enough time to hear Otavik's command. The next thing he knew, there was a thump, and a creaking above. He did as he was told, ducking and darting out of the way as the woodpile shook and fell, crashing to the ground all around him. He stood, coughing in the dust as it settled around him, and listened, but he could hear nothing more.
"Jen?" he hissed. "Rosa? Otavik?"
There was no reply.
Dhaymin had been a beast-hunter all his life. He had grown up believing that all mothers and fathers went into the woods to bring down fanged creatures as a matter of course, and he had dreamed, as a small child, of following them and battling a monster of his own.
When he finally let him come along, after Dhaymin spent years pleading to be allowed, his father had given him one piece of advice. Should he ever become lost and have no means of finding where he was, he must not wander, and he must not run, unless he was in danger. As long as he remained where he was, he had a chance of being found.
He stood as the dust cleared around him, and listened. How far had he run, and in which direction? He should have thought of those things, but he'd had the pressing matter of the collapsing woodpile around him. Now there was nothing but sawdust and silence. If the others had fled too, it had been far from here. And here he was, sitting and waiting like a lost child in the woods so long ago…
Jen stumbled, but kept on running. The crash echoed in his head, and at last he came to a halt, bent double under the pain. It came on with no warning, stabbing through his head like a blunt knife, and then it ebbed, the pressure in his skull subsiding. He blinked and drew himself to his full height, rubbing his forehead and glancing around. In the dim starlight, he could make out low buildings and walls.
A flash of light blinded him for a second, and before he could see who was there, he heard a voice. "It's the tall one, isn't it?"
"Hartavin." He stepped backwards. She'd seen him, and she was approaching, holding a lamp.
When Rosa ran, she followed Otavik. It was only when she came to a stumbling halt that she realised how alone she was.
"You fine?" The little circle of light that surrounded Otavik swayed, casting odd shadows as he turned to face her.
"Where've they gone?" She turned every way in hope of a glimpse of someone familiar, but her eyes were unaccustomed to the dark, and when she blinked she saw bright spots that the lamp had burned into her. "Cinn…" There was no familiar shape by her side, no cold nose nudging her hand. There was only the stifling air of a summer's night, wrapped thick and heavy around her skin.
"Ran the other way, most like," Otavik said.
"But Cinn wouldn't…" Rosa's voice trailed off. It felt as though someone had tilted the world sideways, and she was losing her footing.
"Quiet!" Otavik said, through the fog. "Got to be quiet. Please, for Rakaros' sake… you've got to be quiet, or she'll find us…"
No. Dhaymin remembered the sound of logs falling around him, feeling the thuds as they hit the ground through his feet. He could not have run far, and if the others had, then he could at least find his way back to the start. He had to do something better than this.
In the distance, he heard the click of claws, and spun to face where the sound was coming from. It grew louder, and then he felt hot breath on his hand, and a cold nose pressing against his skin. He pulled back, and then realised what had happened. "Cinn?"
There was silence. Dhaymin reached out and stroked the dog's thick fur, ruffling an ear. She was sitting as though waiting for orders. "Where's Rosa?" he whispered.
"Don't touch me," Hartavin said.
"Can't imagine I'm going to," said Jen. He could feel the familiar weight of his knife at his belt, but he remembered everything she'd told him. Don't draw blood, don't let them touch.
"Good," she said. "Now listen. I need to talk to you."
"Got to be quiet," Otavik repeated. "Got to be quiet or she'll find us." The lamplight swayed with his words, throwing the world around into disarray. Rosa closed her eyes, focusing on the ground beneath her feet. It was firm, baked hard in the early summer heat, dusty, but solid.
A cough broke through her thoughts.
She opened her eyes to see Otavik bent double, the light rocking with every movement. His back was turned to her, and she stepped forward out of instinct to steady him, but froze in place when he stopped. He drew himself up to his full height, and wiped a trail of spit from his mouth. In the lamplight, it gleamed, and writhed.
Cinn was gone, and Jen and Dhaymin were gone. But there was one more familiar thing in this world.
She hadn't wanted to bring the gun, not after what she'd seen Hartavin do with it when she took it from her hands. But she'd taken it along anyway, slung over her back, and now it was in her hands, the metal cold against her skin.
"No." Otavik stared at her, eyes widened. "You wouldn't."
"You're…" Otavik was interrupted by another cough. "Not… not…" He bent over again, his cough rising to a throaty hacking, and tiny wriggling shapes fell to the ground with each one.
"I'm so sorry," she said.
It turned out in the end, that she'd been wrong about one thing. The gun did not, in fact, click.
"It's not Otavik that's running from me," Hartavin had said. "It's me that's running from Otavik."
Here in the dark, Jen felt that the village had grown. In the daylight it was little more than a main street that merged into a forest trail. Houses and halls clustered around it, and little side streets grew up between their walls. In the dark they seemed to multiply. He and Hartavin peered around corners and into dead ends, she shining her lamp, he looking for any signs that someone might have been there.
Whatever happened, he told himself, he mustn't think of Dhaymin or Rosa. Both of them knew what they were doing. Both of them could evade Otavik. That was all he needed to know.
He was checking a narrow passage between two buildings, lit by what starlight managed to filter between the walls that pressed in on either side, when he heard the shot. Hartavin, much to his relief, held back this time, and she didn't have to see him shake and steady himself against the wall, as the seconds ticked back and he remembered where he was.
"Sounds like your girl listened to me," Hartavin said.
Jen composed himself as best he could, slipping the thoughts away again. Don't rush in, his parents had told him. You'll want to run, you'll want to find what happened. Don't. A panicked hunter helps nobody. With those words in his mind he stepped back out into the main street.
Eventually he stopped and sniffed the air. "Smell that?" he said.
"Don't smell anything." Hartavin drew up closer, but not too close. She wouldn't approach him if she could help it, Jen could see. She'd seen him stumble under the pressure in his head twice now. He wondered if she'd be relieved if she knew the real reason.
"Meat," he said. "Smells like a butcher's shop out…" He turned, and pointed down the street. "There."
If she suspected anything, she kept it to herself, and followed his directions.
The scent wound its way into his nose under the distant aroma of smoke and powder. He knew it from last night, and he knew it from endless hunts, from his time on the road with Dhaymin to trailing his mother and father when they made a kill. It was a smell as familiar to him as the musty pages of an old book. The pressure built up with each step he took, but he pressed on. It took his mind away from picturing what he might find at the end of it all, and for that, he was grateful.
He turned a corner, right at the end of the street, and saw Rosa.
She was standing in the dark, and he could make out little more than her outline by the light of the moon and stars. She stood motionless, her gun drawn and pointed ahead, but there was nothing for her to aim at. She didn't look up as he approached, keeping his distance. The smell was stronger here, and when Hartavin followed and her lamp revealed a shape before her, and dark red splashes in the dirt, he saw why.
"Otavik," Hartavin said. "Did you-"
"I'm sorry," Rosa whispered. She forced her gaze away from the remains, to look at the pair. To Jen's eyes she appeared changed, not the same Rosa who had run by his side barely an hour before. Her thick hair was tangled and wild, each curl traced in moonlight, her eyes were wide and staring, and the gun barrel shook in her trembling hands. "I'm so sorry, I didn't want to..."
"Rosa," Jen forced her name out, his throat strained, as if the pressure in his skull were tightening around his entire body. He didn't need to ask why. In the light from Hartavin's lamp, he could see movement as she crouched down to examine what had been Otavik.
"You did good." The old hunter looked up at the pair of them, and nodded.
"I don't..." Rosa said, but Jen could see her shoulders slump at Hartavin's words. With great deliberation, she laid the gun down at her feet. "I'm clean," she said, and even managed a smile.
Jen didn't need to ask any more. He ran to where she stood and placed a hand on her shoulder, and she grabbed him, her arms wrapped around his back. He closed his eyes and rested his chin on the top of her head. He could feel her warm breath now, feel the way she was still shaking, and for a moment he forgot all about the roaming creature at the back of his mind. He was shaking too, he realised, and there was a prickling at the corner of his eyes, all from the sheer relief of seeing her again.
"Is Dhaymin there?" she said. "Or Cinn?"
"He is now."
Jen opened his eyes.
"Sound you made over there, wasn't hard to find you," Dhaymin said. In one hand he held his cane, while the other was holding onto Cinn's harness while the dog trotted beside him. "You all there?"
Jen swallowed, a quick, nervous gesture. "Most of us," he admitted. "Don't get any closer. We've got a situation here."
"Oh. A situation. I hate situations."
"It was Otavik," Hartavin said, getting to her feet. "I don't suppose... no. You should all get some rest. I've got a few things to take care of."
And now it was morning again, and streaks of pink broke up a pale blue sky.
Jen had slept a little, curled up around Rosa, who in turn had refused to let go of Cinn once she had her back. Dhaymin had gone quiet once he'd found out what had happened. Jen, meanwhile, found that he hadn't the energy to think of what had happened, least of all to Otavik. Call it selfish if he must, but once it was over and his body remembered how exhausted it was, it was all he could do to stumble into a safe space and close his eyes.
Secretly, he liked it better this way. He didn't have to let his mind wander, and he didn't dream. If he did, he didn't remember, or even wake with a hint that he had been anywhere. He'd reached a point where his entire body and mind went out like a doused lamp, and there was nothing in between.
But Hartavin didn't let them rest for long, and at last she called them up to the surface to speak.
Jen, yet again, felt that the world around him was so much smaller in the day. At night, he could go anywhere, and anything might be waiting. During the day, the shadows and twisted shapes became streets and low buildings, and the pressure inside his skull subsided. She was still there, waiting, but she would always be there, and in the day, she seemed a little further away. There were birds singing, and the sun rising above the trees, and even the empty houses seemed a little more lived in.
Rosa and Jen walked either side of him. One of Rosa's hands was in his, the other held tight to Cinn's harness. She'd barely let go of the dog since last night. Jen remembered the last time she'd pointed a gun at someone. She'd held back from firing, but she'd come to him afterwards, asking him to put it out of her sight so she wouldn't have to think of it. But this morning, now she'd pulled the trigger, she was different, quieter, but stern, and Jen could not imagine what she was thinking. Dhaymin walked at his other side, but he'd refused to take Jen's arm for guidance.
Hartavin was waiting by the end of the street. She stood leaning against the door of a still uncleared house. Jen tried not to look through the window - he'd made that mistake once, and seen a table laid in wait for a hungry family, and he had no desire to see it again. She was gazing up at the sky as they approached, and for a moment he thought she hadn't seen them, until she looked him in the eye and nodded. "Glad you came," she said, and looked away to stare at her hand, palm raised and fingers flexed, as though holding something only she could see. "I dealt with Otavik," she went on, and she must have caught Rosa's wince at the name, because she smiled at that. "He was a good man," she said, "and whoever he is now, let's hope he does well this time. Now. I need you to do something for me."
"What?" Dhaymin said.
"The signal fire is at the other end of the town," Hartavin went on. "I need you to send the three day signal, and stay until the time's up. I'll not talk about what you'll need to do if it all goes wrong."
"What about you?" Dhaymin said.
Hartavin ignored the question. "I don't mean to pry, but who did you lose?"
"What makes you think-" Rosa said.
"Because you young hunters all did," she said. "A mother, a girl... it's always the same. Seen it too much. It never ends well."
Majiv, Jen wanted to say, as a spike of unease shot through his body, but he kept the name to himself. He wasn't thinking of his mother. And Numbers... Numbers didn't count, did she? She was just someone he'd let die. What was so wrong about feeling remorse over that?
Dhaymin took a step forward, his knuckles pale as his hand gripped his cane. "The fuck makes you think-"
He was interrupted when Hartavin bent double and coughed, her face to the ground and her body shaking with each movement. The three of them recoiled at the sight and sound of it, Rosa pulling Cinn back as she did so. Jen felt a spike of dread lance through his body at the sight of it. We were so close, he thought. We thought it was over. It's morning. The sky was still pink at the edges. Things like this weren't supposed to happen in the morning.
They won't happen, he told himself. Not again. Not ever.
"That was well timed." Hartavin composed herself, wiping her mouth as she stood back up. "I'd tell you I've got it under control, but Otavik fooled you so well, I'd hate to think I'd do the same to you." She pulled her shirt over her mouth, as if it were not too late to protect herself. "I'll be taking my leave, while I still do. And I hope you'll listen." She nodded toward the house.
It hadn't been burnt out yet.
"No." Rosa said.
All three of them turned to face her. She let her hand slip out of Jen's, while the other still held fast to Cinn's harness. "You can't!" she said. "Not again... Not even if we don't have to..."
"And fucked if I have to sit back and let this happen again," Dhaymin said. He tapped his cane on the ground in restrained frustration. "Not a third time. Fucked if I do nothing!"
Jen looked from Rosa to Dhaymin in quick succession. Above, the last tints of pink were draining from a clear blue sky. He could feel claws at the back of his mind. He could see Hartavin standing there, standing well back, her mouth covered, casually talking about dying at her own hand as if she were about to cook breakfast for all of them. Otavik and Liavik hadn't even had the chance to get this far. "How long have they been there?"
"I shouldn't imagine it matters."
"You wouldn't go near me," he said. "I asked you to give me some light and you wouldn't come closer. You wouldn't even give me the lamp. It wasn't about me, was it?"
"Sharp mind," she said. "Now if the three of you will stop being stubborn-"
"No." Jen clenched his hands into fists, and drew himself up to his full height, out of his usual half slouch. "You lasted, didn't you? And there's the three of us, and we're all..." He closed his eyes, lowering his head to let his chin rest against his collar.
"Sick of it," Rosa said.
"Sick of doing nothing," Dhaymin added.
"And," Jen said, "you don't know what I've had in the back of my head while I've been here! Not just here! For a whole year!" His eyes snapped open, and he leaned forward like a dog caught mid-lunge. "You don't know! You could do it too!"
That caught her. He saw her eyebrows raise, just for a split second. She knew what he was, too. Well then, he thought, let her. What do you care if she knows? There were things in the forest that bent to his will, now. And when it had been so long, suddenly claws and teeth didn't seem so frightening anymore...
But Hartavin's surprise lasted for only a moment. "All of you," she snapped, and her voice was clear even through the shirt wrapped around her mouth. "All three of you! Have you even listened to yourself?"
"We only..." Rosa began, but she was silenced under Hartavin's glare.
"I'm not finished," Hartavin said. "I brought you here because I thought I could trust you. Because you know what happens if I walk out of here, and if any of you walk out too. You've all been lucky I'm still here to talk to you!" She stepped away, and opened the door, and when Jen tried to move he found himself frozen by her words. "If you'll listen to one thing I say before I go, you'll listen to this. You're all young and you have things to be angry about, but for myself to walk out of here now is wrong. For any of you to walk out of here when you don't know if you've been touched is wrong. And if you all make it through this by whatever power protects you, then you need to know this isn't your fault. Not because I'm your grandmother who wants to hold you and tell you everything will be fine, because it won't, but because this is what you become when you think it is. And that, to all of you, is an order. Do you understand?"
"Y... yes," Rosa said.
"Can't say I don't," said Dhaymin.
Jen stared at the ground, tracing little circles in the dust with a foot. He could feel Hartavin's stare on him now, as if her eyes and her words could slice him open and look inside to see what he had become, and he could hear her, in his mind, sighing with disappointment. The claws were still there, but for a moment, he forgot about them. "Yes," he said.
"Good," she said. "I can't say it's been a pleasure, but I'll say I wish we could have hunted together on a better day, if a better day existed."
They watched, afterwards. As much as Jen wanted to leave, to pretend none of the rest happened, he could imagine what she would sat if he did. So he stayed, with Rosa and Dhaymin at his side, as the door closed behind Hartavin and she was gone from view. Rosa took his hand in hers again, silently stroking Cinn's thick fur with the other, and though Dhaymin still would not take his arm, he pressed closer to him, their shoulders touching.
The first thing Jen noticed was the acrid scent of smoke in the air, emanating from the door and window. He wondered if Dhaymin and Rosa could smell it too, or if it was like the stench of fresh meat, something for himself only. When the flames rose in the window, Rosa gripped his hand tight, and though Dhaymin could not see them, he drew closer as the warmth washed over them.
There were no sounds but the crackling flames and the occasional crash as a shelf or a beam collapsed in a shower of sparks. It would be a long time before the little house became a shell, the fire taking everything that had ever been there, but they would watch, and wait, until it was all over.
That evening, a signal rose above the nameless little town, the same that had gone up before. Stay away. Wait three days. Let nobody pass.
Three days slipped by, three days of careful counting. They marked the hours, the food that remained, the water that needed to be boiled.
At the end of three days, three hunters and a dog stood facing a barrier. The armed hunters that had patrolled the village borders now parted to let the group pass. Nobody spoke. The air was heavy with tension.
At last they reached the road, and as one, turned to leave.