Who's Hunting Who (Part 2)
Who's Hunting Who
Well nothing beat returning a failure. Sure, someone could argue the point that returning at all, after being left in freezing snow, with an epic battle lost. Waking up with all my limbs attached was a plus I suppose. Waking up with no bones broken was another. Waking up with hypothermia setting in despite the fires and Ivan's best efforts, with the townspeople looking on... not so much. They hadn't even bothered trying to put out the fires; those had guttered out on their own when the snow started falling.
Both Alicia and I not losing any fingers and toes to the cold was a plus.
Ivan had been stopped from running like the wind by a giant and angry dragon, that had been masquerading as a snow covered hill on our way in. The dragon had just swatted him like a noxious insect, then moved to support Olivia. That turned out to be a plus, since he was able to come to our assistance before the villagers could.
The villagers were not happy with us, for some reason. I couldn't really understand it; we hadn't even come close to winning, but the village was still standing. There wasn't even much property damage in the village proper, which was kind of a miracle. A few houses burned down from Olivia's massive area attacks' that was it.
That was hardly anything at all.
But still, I woke to Ivan holding off a village welcoming party. It seemed that we were not welcome in the frozen pest-hole anymore, if we ever were. That night I had regretted not having all those warming packs I'd used; the campsite was very cold after dark. I learned later the temperature that night had hit an all time low.
We had been forced to use Ivan's generator energy to stay warm on the hike back; none of us had been in great shape. And our generators were running on fumes. Any witch at all could have killed us on the way back, and most importantly, I couldn't get Ivan to part with his reserves to I could engage on my normal extra-curricular activities!
Hunting witches on the side when you have no power to shoot them was difficult at best.
We met our support team on the way out; they had a good reputation but they weren't anyone I had worked with before. Their leader was Deisel. That wasn't his real name of course; I knew that it was actually a type of fuel for engines. But apparently he didn't have a real name, and used that instead. I didn't get it.
He was big, as big as Ivan and even more top heavy. He was also bald as a cue ball and affected a gravelly sort of drawl that made me think he was trying to come off as an American. Instead he managed to sound like a yutz. He was the leader of the team, and my own rank within the hunters, though he had been active in the organization less than a year. His generator weapons were a pair of bracers that he used to punch faces in; one our approach at least, we agreed.
The second was a gray, some mouse by the name of Edith Myer. She was a brunette and smaller than I was. I knew nothing about her at all, mainly because she didn't know how to talk after stating her name. She did like staring at me and blushing however, so maybe there was some hope of some interaction. And I had to admit she was cute enough, with a pixie like face that wasn't entirely unlike mine. Her weapon was, of all things, a mirror. She had only been active for about six months, if memory served.
The last member was a tall cadaverous gray simply known as Kai. He was completely covered in gray from head to toe, so no one knew what he looked like, though I had started to hear some rumors about fearsome burns and such. His weapon was a sword as tall and thin as he was. He had been active for about eight months.
I was kind of glad they were late. Olivia would have eaten them alive in seconds. But if she thought her little speech was going to stop me, she was sorely mistaken. Me, I was just sore; having to hike down mountains and to what seemed like the only train station in Russia while healing from getting your ass kicked was a pain in more ways than one. At least they hadn't been chatty. Just a whining Alicia was enough.
If Olivia thought that a few little love taps were going to stop me, well, she would be the one sore... sorely mistaken. This was just a set back, that was all. Still, a promising lead shot was not going to make the Gloom happy.
The train ride back was just as bumpy as it was going in, which was a bit harder to ignore this time; broken ribs always sucked. But finally, we were back at Central, and it was time to enter those massive doors and report in; no doubt I'd be reporting directly to Gloom in less than an hour. I mean sure, I'd sent messages ahead, but this was different.
I really didn't want to go. I didn't, I didn't, I didn't!
"Sasha, quit throwing a tantrum.”
"Up yours Ivan. You aren't going to have to deal with the Gloom.”
Or maybe he was... I wonder.
"No, Sasha, you can't con me into reporting in your stead. You're healthy enough to go, and he'd bother you about it anyway, even if you were half dead.”
What the hell, was Ivan psychic or something?
"No Sasha, I'm not psychic; you're just really easy to read. The reason why you don't play poker with me, remember?”
Alicia spoke up, and I remembered there were three members of your team.
"Nothing to do, but to do it. And no Sasha, you can't throw me under the bus either.”
Sarah was in the lobby, as usual for the afternoon shift. She was looking resplendent in her blue uniform, as always, and I wasted no time in presenting myself.
She sighed, and I looked around for a certain gorilla thing, but nope it was only us. In fact, the lobby was nearly deserted, which was unusual.
I looked at the sign in sheet, signed it for all of us, and snagged the customary paperwork.
"The Gloom in?”
She shook her head.
"He should be back tonight. He had a mission to complete.”
That was also a little odd. The Gloom just didn't roll for any mission anymore; it had to be a big one. Possibly bigger than the one I just botched.
Sigh. Writing mission failed on the paperwork, in triplicate, was depressing. I turned the crap in, to find Alicia waiting on me; Ivan had already left to do whatever else, but Alicia was like me. She just didn't feel safe without a charge in her generator. The problem was, there may not be much of a charge banked for either of us. I knew I had enough to at least get started, but I wasn't sure about Alicia.
Those hunter who didn't hold at least a little charge in reserve, just in case, didn't live long if they lost, and much to my chagrin, this wasn't my first time tasting that bitter pill. Come to think of it, before Alicia had too.
"Alright Sasha, paperwork is done. Please turn your generators in to the science wing before proceeding.”
Standard operating procedure after a loss, in order to make sure they hadn't been broken in some way that would show up later... or tampered with. I couldn't help but feel the frown she sported was a type of scarlet letter. Then of course she got to who I'd been after; I could tell because her eyes threatened to pop out of her head and she made an 'eep' noise, glancing between the paper to me as if amazed I was still here.
Honestly, it was like she forgot who she was talking to, or something.
With a wave I headed to the dungeon. I could probably get away with hanging onto my generator since the Gloom was out, but with it on the red line there was little point. Luckily my weapons weren't entirely useless without them, so if Central was hit, I'd still be able to get my licks in. I doubted it would happen, since judging from the sign in sheet, we had precious few live witches in residence. There was little to draw a witch here at the moment.
The biometric lock scanned us both in turns, and then a short eternity later the vault door opened, just like normal. The large and drafty sloping corridor was dark as pitch, without even the lights from the lobby penetrating far; this also was normal. What wasn't quite normal was this time we made it all the way down before the head mental case noticed we were there.
A door opened to my left, a rectangle of light that forced me to squint. I could just make out a form in it.
"Ahh, Sasha, Alicia, come in please.”
Once my eyes adjusted, I noticed the door that we stepped through; it was a strange thing, darkened glass powered by some sort of air pump, and with a small decontamination chamber beyond. The other end of the decontamination chamber was open and the pump was clogged with congealed grease, so it wasn't being used. Beyond that were racks, containing empty and full slots. The full slots of course, contained generators by number.
Generators were at one point mass produced, though not anymore; the witches had destroyed much of the world's infrastructure. Most of the ones on those racks were no longer in use; the numbers were painted off when a hunter received the genny and added their own finishing touches, and painted back on again when the hunter died or retired.
It was odd to see the head scientist maintaining the generators themselves; normally a tech would do it. But judging from the parts scattered on one of the lab tables, Emil was indulging in one of the perks of his job; experimentation. I was pretty sure that even without a hat to feed it, generator experimentation should be conducted in a different lab. Namely one that wasn't storing them all, and better proofed against explosions and strange radioactive fallout.
Even worse, he was applying some electricity to the power core wires, as evidenced by the sparks and crotchety hum the thing was emitting.
"Just hang them up on the rack, I'll have someone get to them eventually.”
He went back to poking the generator with a metal probe; the sparks it made were multicolored. Alicia backed up a couple steps, but I forged ahead.
"Can't this time doc. Mission failure, ended in both of us getting knocked out. We need them checked, and a recharge.”
"Oh? Oh. Well crap. That means I have to do it. You both alright?”
The unhealthy gleam in his eyes was back.
"Nope. Need to go to medical after this.”
Medical was actually on the other side, but it could be accessed through a tunnel here. That is, if you were brave enough.
"You need to? I could probably handle it.”
We were brave enough. Looking at Emil's probe thingy, pulled from somewhere, we were brave enough right now. I all but knocked Alicia over.
"No thanks, you're busy, got to go bye!”
The hallway we needed was further into the labs. I headed back up instead, but I totally wasn't running from anyone, no sirree. I also didn't stop at the vault door; Alicia needed prompt medical attention now. When she was lagging behind, the wheeled chair of doom squeaking behind us, I grabbed her. She didn't even complain as we left a cloud of dust behind us.
The other side did not have a vault door, instead it had a pair of glass double doors. The hospital doubled as a community hospital, and for those brave enough to enter, it offered the best health care in the free world. But as usual, when I entered, the waiting room emptied. I didn't really get that; I was a nice guy!
Today was par for the course, though I tried using my best smile, they cleared out in seconds. There were even sheep like bleats of terror. The nurse, who could well be Sarah's sister, pasted a pleasant smile on her face and walked up to us.
"Good day Hunters, Do you need to see a doctor?”
What was it with people and asking obvious questions? Seemed like everyone in any kind of service job did it. Why else would I even be here?
"Yes we do. X-rays, MRI's, all the witchcraft.”
She lifted an eyebrow. She wanted to argue using the most esoteric and expensive tech we had wasn't necessary. But the unspoken rule is, if a hunter orders something, it's necessary; even from doctors and nurses, or other professionals. Of course it could have just been for how I referred to all her devices as hocus pocus too, but she should be used to that joke by now.
"Alright sir, ma'am. Please head along the back hall to room 4 and 5 respectively; I'll free a doctor immediately.”
Whistling, I made my way back. I let Alicia take room 4, and I took room 5. Both were the same anyway, a metal bed anchored in the middle of the floor, a sink, a counter with shelves under it, a desk, file cabinets. So what if my ribs still felt like they were going to go through my lungs? They hadn't so far.
I wanted to look for pain medication, now that I was here; most hunters knew most types used or they just weren't trying hard enough. But I also knew the doctors kept that stuff locked up tight and well away from the reach of us; it was just too easy to abuse.
So I hopped up on the bed and waited. I might have swung my feet around in boredom. I might also have played around with my guns in boredom, drawing at various things around the room; it was OK, they were only loaded with normal ammunition and weren't empowered. Worst they could do was maybe put a small hole in the wall; the walls around here were reinforced, like all of headquarters was.
And then I might have fallen asleep.
Or I might have been gassed, I wasn't sure. I had been threatened with such last time; the doctor didn't like me fidgeting. But then, everyone always complained about property damage. Really, I was doing my community a favor, because it gave people something to fix! I was doing my part to provide jobs. Besides, if I had to get into the mindset of avoiding property damage, even the most green of witches would kill me.
At any rate, I woke up strapped down, probably so I wouldn't move during the MRI, though they were loosened and I could move and free myself. I wasted no time on that front, and looked for my guns, which were in a bin on the nightstand. There was also a doctor waiting patiently in a chair in the corner, making no sudden moves. He was an older than myself, but not by much. Tall, dark haired, and handsome, he probably got his pick at the local bars.
I grabbed my guns and checked them; they certainly appeared loaded, but I started reloading them just in case. The anti-tampering measures taken over my ammunition were still in place, so I felt safe to assume it was OK.
"So what's the good word, doc?”
He spoke up immediately.
"Ribs cracked and healing, we put a compression bandage around you to help your breathing. Legs, arms and hands and spine all show evidence of recent fractures, since healed. Brainwaves match the ones you had at your last physical, so no evidence of tampering or mental control. Organs appear to be perfectly healthy, with no evidence of tampering. I'm willing to write you a clean bill of health.”
One time a witch had developed the power to turn people's organs into explosives... she then forced them to march into high priority targets, including hunter headquarters around the world, and detonated them. Since then the doctors had been on the look out for similar things; after all, if it could develop once, it could again.
"Excellent. How long was I out?”
I turned to my copy of the tests done, checking the date of the MRI. It was correct; I wasn't being fooled.
"Just under six hours. I do apologize; when we saw you had fallen asleep, well, we decided to just go on ahead.”
I'm sure it was in my file just how bad I was at taking certain tests, most notably the MRI. I'd had to be sedated before to avoid moving, so I just shrugged it off. The blood test I could do with effort (cause needles always sucked), but the spinal sample thing was something that gave me nightmares. All those test results were here, properly dated and with a doctor's signature at the bottom, as they should be. All the results showed me well within tolerances for active duty.
"Works for me doc, trying to stay still is a weakness of mine.”
I couldn't help but hear his sigh of relief as he slumped his shoulders. Hell, half the hospital probably heard it. I swear, people must be spreading rumors about me or something. I wasn't that bad!
"So how's Alicia?”
He looked surprised as he answered.
"Well she has a bit more recovering to do herself, but she should be fit for full duty in less than a week. She has many bones of her own still cracked, but less tissue damage overall than you must have had.”
True enough, probably. I did heal fast. In this case, too fast.
"Good deal. And doc, this should go without saying but, if asked I didn't ask about her, OK? Got a reputation to maintain.”
He hesitated, then nodded. Even in the deepening gloom he noticed where my hands were. At least the gloom was a normal one, but speaking of which....
"Is the Gloom back yet? Do you know?”
He nodded, finally standing up as I pushed myself fully upright.
"Yes, He returned and asked for you. Then he left orders that you were to meet with him as soon as possible.”
"Right; on the way.”
Still half drugged or wounded was no excuse when the Gloom wanted you.
With a wave I started off, rolling the stiffness out of my joints. On the way out of the lobby (which promptly emptied again) I snagged some coffee to help wake me up. I had it drained by the time I made it up to the Gloom's office. No time for anything stronger.
My soft knock on the door, not loud enough to disturb him if he was busy with something, was immediately answered.
"Come in, Sasha.”
Rats. I was kinda hoping he'd be asleep; it was something I had seen before. I entered, taking note of the other two people in the room. One was Emil, our resident head crazy. The other was some girl I didn't know.
She was smaller than I was, and younger. Perhaps 12 at best. Loose and long blonde hair framed her face, and wide disingenuous cornflower blue eyes took me in. She wore an easy grin that struck me as a twin for Emil's usual; that is to say, unhinged. She set me on edge at first sight; something was wrong here. They all had copies of my test results, too.
"Sasha, this is Merlin, head researcher for North sector.”
North sector? What had she done to be sent to that shit hole? At a glance it was easy to see that the gloom didn't like her, but just that alone wouldn't get her sentenced to that frosty hell. Head researcher? That meant she was the one in charge of... the more unsavory practices the hunters got up to. All of them.
So despite her appearance, this was no little girl in front of me. Good, at least that meant my instincts were still trustworthy.
Merlin shot her superior an annoyed glance then forged ahead with so much brightness forced into her tone that I swore I could feel my teeth decay just from exposure.
"Pleased to meet you, Sasha! I'm so happy to finally be able to be here in person!”
She grabbed my hand and started pumping it, trying to tear it off. Her own hands were cold and dry; reptilian.
"Um, Likewise, I'm sure. Listen, boss, if this is about Russia, I can find her again; I've been thinking, she still has to be there somewhere.”
Russia was a part of the north sector after all; at least where we had been was. And there had been no reports of Olivia on the move. Normally it IS kind of hard to hide a big freakin' dragon, after all. Though that begged the question how she managed to stay hidden before. The Gloom knew an excuse when he heard it, but I didn't care; I didn't fail often, and re-assigning me North was a mistake. I hated the cold.
"That's not what this is about. Sasha, Merlin here has made a request; he has requested we conduct an experiment involving building a better hunter. One who isn't physically tied to a generator. I'm sure you've heard the rumors.”
Another flicker of annoyance from the girl who wasn't. I remembered now, this girl was Merlin, the one responsible for attempting to graft the power of a witch into a hunter, by implanting the generator directly, or so the rumors went. Those same rumors had the body count of those experiments numbering in the hundreds.
"What does that have to do with me?”
The question had been directed to my boss, but the saccharine voice answered.
"It's simple Sasha. I have determined as part of my research into the genetics of witchcraft, that there appear to be those better suited for the process than others.”
Well I could see where this was going, and if not for the Gloom I'd already be out the door.
"My recent investigations into the genetic profiles of our hunter staff revealed you to be a perfect candidate for the process.”
Yep, I hated it when I was right. Like I'd let this demented thing anywhere near my hot bod. Emil was all but leering himself, and he could go walk off a bridge too. I turned to the Gloom, ready to walk if he said the wrong thing; respect or not, he couldn't demand this of me. He looked almost... sad? What the hell?
"It's your choice Sasha. The organization will not force you to do this.”
That was all I needed to hear.
"Then with all do respect, stuff it. Ain't no creepy chick going to mess with me, and that goes double for you, Emil.”
And I walked right out.
I heard some talking, and soon enough the Gloom joined me. But he was alone, at least.
"One more thing, Sasha.”
I waited. He didn't seem pissed off at least; that was a good thing. He slapped a mission folder in my hand.
"No rest for the wicked. You leave tomorrow.”
"Don't you have someone else you can send? I was hoping I could get a quick charge and head back to Russia.”
He was already back to his office door.
"I don't. Don't worry about Russia; I'm going.”
Oh wow. I almost pitied Olivia; if she was still there, well, the Gloom was unstoppable; the best hunter since my mentor Sniper died. With a shrug I walked back to my own room, a wing away. I read while I walked, trusting my instincts and reflexes to keep me from bumping into random people and things in my way. It had been a sort of game for me since I first arrived here, years ago. It was only in the last year however that I could manage it without hitting anyone. I wasn't sure if that was my skill coming along or the hunter's inner sanctuary being mostly deserted.
Hmm, looks like I was going to the French coast. Rumors of a... sea witch? Swimming, siren songs, and flying sea slugs? What the hell, they just kept getting crazier.
I threw the file onto my desk with the other old ones; I'd read enough. Name of the city, location, rumors of witchcraft, rumors of powers displayed. All I needed to know. I finally realized that I was still in the white pajamas the doctors had stuck me in for the tests. I was tired, they were clean, so they would work; I'd just repack and all that crap in the morning, when I cared.
This trip was already a cluster-fuck. Murphy had french kissed me at some point or something, because I wasn't just having a bad day, or even a bad week… I was having a bad year. Not sure what God I had pissed off, but they needed to get over it or something. Maybe it was pissing on that shrine in France….
You couldn't throw a stone without smacking a witch in the forehead with it, nowadays. This one was typical of the breed, all power and no sense.
Well, I take that back; she didn't really have much power either.
Most of them just had a bit over the average person, some sort of gimmick like fire generation or light control, usually restrained by some rules that humanity didn't know; the great mysteries of our time. Why could that witch turn invisible as a starting trick or spell, and not another? Why did some seem so much more powerful than others?
How did they get their hair to take impossible shapes like that without using any product?
The current witch du jour was an expert at throwing stones. Very large, very heavy stones, thrown at quite a distance – it seemed to be all that she could do based on what we had seen so far, but she did it very well. Which was probably why she took offense to my own stone throwing efforts, regardless of how good my aim was.
I couldn't help myself though; it was just so tacky. I mean, even if she could toss one ton boulders with her mind, it was still just tossing rocks. Ivan dodged one such rock without even looking at it, lunging and rolling as he locked eyes with me.
"Sasha, next time, can you please not provoke the witch by saying you can throw rocks as well as she can?”
Alicia peeked out from the boulder she was hiding behind, one she had already been forced to dodge herself. I wonder if the witch can pick them back up? If she was hiding that ability, Alicia could be in real trouble down the line.
"The real thing that pissed her off wasn't him saying it. It was him trying to do it by bouncing pebbles off her nose!”
I shot a good size rock, something the size of good bed, with my pistols; just enough force applied to knock the aim off. It almost knocked me off my feet when it plowed down ten feet away… it even skipped once. How had she even managed that? No matter really, the scathing comments of my peers were worth more attention.
"You're both philistines. How dare you step on my hobbies like this? I thought we knew each other!”
Alicia stopped, flat footed.
"You mean witch baiting is your hobby now?!? You're finally owning up to a practice that could kill us all?!?”
"You worry too much, Alicia. Oh, and rock above your head.”
She cussed and jumped; the catapult sized shot would have pulped her easily.
The witch herself finally hove back into view; she needed line of sight to improve her aim, just like a gunman would. Too bad for her, really.
She was unusual for a witch; oh she was young like most of them (if she was older than fifteen I'd eat her hat), with long hair that looked like she spent too much time in front of a mirror, and classic features no matter how distorted they were. Problem was, her hat was a hardhat, and she missed that cute as a button look she no doubt was supposed to have by a good two vertical feet. Not to mention her biceps alone were probably larger than my waist. She was larger than Alicia! Her clothes were expensive looking, but they were overalls, stained with streaks of dirt and mud. She looked like the very poster of adolescent roid rage, her physique as well suited to throwing rocks as her mind was.
Alicia still had her beat in the beard department though. Her bellow tore through the clearing we had baited her into.
"Hold still, vermin!”
Okay now that made me mad. Sure, I wasn't some fashion minded sparkly primpy clothes horse, but I didn't just roll out of bed looking like I had crawled through several sewers – often. I didn't need to be told I looked like a bum from a bum.
"That's my line! Do you even know how you look?”
She chucked another rock at me. Hm, it was curious, she didn't seem to have a familiar. That was yet another mark in the unusual column in her paperwork, if and when I ever decided to fill it out. I dodged idly.
I probably would eventually. In another six months or so. After all, I still had the witches of hunts long past to do. That paperwork had nothing at all to do with my motivation to spend as much time as possible out in the field; none whatsoever. I was a responsible adult, I was.
"Shut up! What does a tiny little cute bitch like you, playing with guns know!?! You probably have guys fawning all over you!”
Hold the phone.
Did that over-muscled blind bitch just say what I thought she said? I looked left, at Ivan, who had been trying to work on getting close, and who was now edging away with a wary eye my direction. To my right was Alicia, already running flat out without even a glance backwards; sloppy that, she could get hit that way, though I suppose she was aiming for speed.
Huh. So this stupid witch had actually said… that.
I looked over at her; she had two rocks floating on either side of her, ready to fling, and was staring at me. She looked a little nervous… a little scared. Couldn't imagine why.
I dropped the smaller pistols. I really wasn't interested in playing with this stupid bitch anymore. The eagle came out.
"Take these words with you to the afterlife… I am a man.”
The first two shots popped both her rocks as they zoomed in. I was able to see her widening eyes, her disbelief… before the third took her dead center.
I didn't want to damage the hat after all; we needed it. After the debacle in Russia, we were all low on power for our generators.
Alicia peeked out of the treeline while Ivan just shook his head.
"That was clearly overkill. Your expenses are not something I envy.”
True, desert eagle rounds were not cheap; especially the ones I used.
I stared down range, gauging the damage of the shot. It was just a small concave hole in the top of the tree line on the other side of the field. Just a little landscaping; we hadn't even blown up the turf this time. The witch had done more damage.
"I disagree, nothing important died. A witch, some old tree growth. I didn't even hit an innocent bystander or town or anything.”
I heard Alicia mutter something about a first time for everything; but I couldn't have heard that right, could I?
"I'm sorry Alicia, I don't think I heard you correctly. Could you tell me what you said, please?”
She went still, which was just silly. I wasn't a dinosaur. If I was this war would already be over.
"Um, I said I could see the rest of the tree line and everything.”
Hm… that COULD have been what she said; I didn't hear her that clearly. She sagged when I holstered my revolver. It wasn't really pointed at her – or at least not anything she couldn't live without.
"Well now that was a pleasant diversion, at least.”
It had been, but it was the second such diversion on our way to our mission objective. Cannes, a port and resort city, and the sea witch rumored to have taken up there recently. She was disrupting what little shipping was left, and supposedly feeding residents to octupi or slugs or something. What little of the file I'd read hadn't been too clear, other than to say sea slugs had been sighted.
But the second witch on the way to Cannes, and we were still miles away? It was either a set up, or the jack rabbits were breeding; maybe it meant both. This one had been a new one too, lacking in experience and knowledge; all she had done was throw stones. No invisibility, no fire, no actual spells of any kind cast… just throwing rocks with her massive arms and miniscule mind.
Oh well, the mystery wasn't for me to solve; I just stop 'em.
Alicia and Ivan both came close, proffering their generators as I picked up the pristine if dirty hard hat. The familiar hadn't even shown up when the witch was in danger; that was a little unusual. I linked our generators and fed the hat in; the machinery would do all the work of dividing the power equally. The hat itself would stay in my generator whole of course, in case it was needed for study. At least until it fully ran out of power and dissolved.
Lately that sort of thing didn't happen much anymore.
The process itself took a little time, so we all sat down and enjoyed the day; it was beautiful, sunny with a slight breeze coming in, with just a hint of the salt water on it. It wasn't even jacket weather. You could barely hear the train, if you tried hard enough to drown it out.
Either way you looked at things, it was a little odd to get word of a witch hanging out close to the train tracks; that was a good way to run into trains. Some of which would eventually be hunter trains. It really was one of the worst places to hang out and mine or whatever this witch was doing, rolling in the mud. So why was she here, and how had anyone gotten wind of her activities? This place was nice, but seemed mostly deserted; the kind of place frequented by idiots seeking to 'get away from it all for awhile' before going back to their cushy city life, free of stress.
Any witch found here, where there were miles to hide in, wanted to be. And found and radioed in with just enough time to stop our train in order to take her out, with her not a mile from the pristine tracks? I smelled a rat. I was smelling a lot of those, these days. This was something that had to go directly to the Gloom. I pulled out my field book, a small leather bound journal that was standard equipment to all hunters.
They looked like diaries and were written as such; some of them were even published occasionally as memoirs… but they all had code that other hunters were taught to decipher, in case of bad things happening. Mine was, as so many had mentioned to me before, depressingly empty… but that was all part of the plan! Real men didn't keep diaries, so of course mine was light on actual writing and details; that's how it should look! It was all to keep up appearances, and had nothing to do with creepy women who really should be focused on men closer to their own age looking through my stuff when I was asleep. Or acted asleep. Acted asleep with all my might.
Sometimes a journal went missing when a hunter died by incineration or something, but the witches had no idea we used them as back ups for secrets… or just didn't care, so most of the time they survived even if the hunter (or even the entire hunter party) didn't.
"Wait, you're writing this one down?”
"Yeah, it's unusual to find one so close to the tracks.”
I couldn't exactly spill all of my concerns where people might be listening, even if they had to be fools for staying near a hunter war zone. Ivan watched me; he would probably follow my lead when back on the train. I don't think Alicia knew how to write, despite her often vocal claims to the contrary.
At least we now had plenty of power for the trials ahead; my generator read out was… one third?
That was only slightly more than I entered the clearing with. I tapped the gauge with a finger. Ivan disapproved.
"It won't reset itself that way Sasha, it's digital.”
Then he looked at his own, and I saw his eyebrows climb. That confirmed it for me; she really had been weak. Too weak… and nothing of the body left. Despite the strident objections of my many jealous enemies, there often was at least something left to bury once I was done; the human body was notoriously hard to completely disintegrate.
Alicia was clueless as always, of course.
"What are you two idiots grinning about back there? Let's go to town, time's a wasting!”
Of course she did raise a good point; there was good booze in Cannes, and I'd never been there before; I'd never been allowed to go, even when other hunters were vacationing there. I'd always wanted to, but one did not simply out-stare the Gloom.
The train, being one of ours, had waited for us. It was an old steam engine, like most of ours, with one large gun that I could respect on each of the five armored cars. Each one had a gunner of course, and I waved at them as I got back on. The whole thing was over-engineered in my opinion, since any large impact could just derail the thing, no matter how massive the wheels were and how they overlapped the tracks.
At least the cars were comfortable, and air conditioned. Well that and the thing was faster than walking. The internal combustion engine was too risky anymore; there were too few people who even knew how to make fuel for it, and those people were better used in other industries, like mine. After all, fuel didn't really matter if some random hatted maniac killed you before you could burn it. The people who didn't see things that way usually died first.
But regardless of the questions raised, today was a win. We were an hour from good beer, had killed a scourge to humanity, and would likely kill another before the day was out; I just wanted lunch first.
I snoozed a bit on the final stretch, and woke just as the train screeched to a stop. It was no hard feat, the thing made enough noise to wake the dead.
The platform was empty of course; the train was very obvious, and people did not hang out near hunter trains unless they were desperate for hunter intervention. Hunters were avoided by the public at large whenever it was possible; we made ourselves targets simply by existing (on purpose) and some who wore the uniform were less than savory characters. Like that pee wee, Dustin. I needed to smack him down again, on general principles, next time I saw him.
In our uniforms, we were treated like the armed train, though it was much easier for us to vanish if we needed to. We were playing bait again, of course. There were those who would talk to us, here. The desperate did exist; along with those who had a tale to tell and wanted to tell it in exchange for a drink or some gold. Maybe even both at once. We needed to find those, they would connect us to the rumor mill, which in cities without some kind of hunter presence (often the first casualty to any enterprising witch, and so not worth trying to maintain) was our main information source.
The first corner booth that promised beer was where the journey of a thousand steps began.
And like many of the best journeys, it began with a nice dark German beer. If witches really wanted to destroy human society, all they really had to do was destroy booze production; we'd kill each other in seconds.
"So, where do we start here?”
Alicia eyed me, as if the very question were offensive.
"Sasha, why are you staring at everything like that? It's unnerving.”
"Never been here before; sue me.”
"Wait, what? You've never been to one of the best beach towns France has to offer?”
"Was never allowed any down time here.”
Ivan interrupted, probably so I didn't have to. A good thing, since it would have irritated me.
The light dawned for her.
"Ahhh... oh. Oh shit.”
Moron. I was surrounded by morons and people who thought witch hunting could be done without leveling real estate. Real hunters knew better. Come to think of it, why had the Gloom sent me here? Most large towns did not want to see me. Hell, there were even wanted posters some places, as if I were some kind of criminal.
In my darker moments, even I had to admit that the chance I'd offend someone in a position of power or influence was likely. I was not the most pleasant of individuals, and I knew it. Cannes was actually still large enough to have it's own army, and a small and elite trained force that styled themselves witch hunters (they hadn't actually killed a single witch that I knew of, their training was lackluster, and they didn't own a single generator). They insisted that they could take care of themselves, loudly and often.
It was almost like they were asking for a witch like Olivia to bump them all off.
But despite all the angry words, they didn't really have any modern or manufacturing facilities left to speak of, which did more to curb witch presence than anything else, and incidentally let them talk big… at least until a witch finally took offense.
That clearly wasn't what happened here, since the town was still standing. I couldn't figure out what the real objective was; I'd have to ask the witch when I found her.
My beer was empty. I ordered another and started in on the lunch of bread, cheese, and fruit. There was no meat, and I could really use some sausage or something, but to get some I'd have to get up and walk to another place, and buy it; I was far too lazy for that. And broke. Mostly it was the being broke thing.
I wasn't allowed direct access to the team expense account anymore. That was also due to Morocco, come to think of it.
Whatever, Morocco was a stupid city anyway.
The entire being obvious thing was our plan here; regardless of the reputation of individual hunters like myself, we could still move here in this large city openly. It was clean, heavily populated, and well controlled, all of which made it easier for the witch to hide, but harder to disappear us. Something was here; something that the witch wanted, or she wouldn't be here… so she won't just pick up and leave when she gets wind of us. No, she will try for the witches' normal plan B.
Lure us somewhere and kill us. And I was just fine with that. After all, if the witch didn't, then how would we find her in all this? This press of happy humanity? People somehow laughing, talking, forgetting about their troubles. How did that even work? Maybe Ivan knew; I could ask him later.
Sigh, I hated waiting.
"Eat your food Sasha. I know it isn't meat, but you're a growing boy, after all.”
Stupid bearded amazon. I decided to take the high road, and ignore her. I didn't really care for the décor, but I was pretty sure the Gloom would do worse than kill me if I failed another mission so soon after the last. Especially since he had to slog out to Russia himself after; he hated snow worse than I did.
After a pretty quiet lunch, at least for us, it was time to find an inn. They called them hotels here, and built them larger, which seemed rather silly to me… but people made up words for things all the time, and I guess this was no different. The hotel we were supposed to be staying at was the “Hotel Marriot”, which had been warned of our arrival and paid in advance. It also happened to be right next to the chapterhouse of the Cannes witch hunters.
Of course, they didn't know we knew that. Our intelligence network was pretty good, and theirs wasn't.
To the outside it simply looked like a combination police station and firehouse, with the firemen housed within, for rapid response or something. Our official contact within the city was supposed to be there, and we were supposed to contact them immediately upon arrival.
But unknown to them, Wisp and her team had managed to get inside, snoop around past half asleep sentries and blissfully slumbering special troops, and catalog all the different arms and armor in the 'firehouse'. She even took copies of every document in the place, including their training manuals. She was doubled over and in tears, describing it to me.
I REALLY wanted my own copy to laugh over.
Wisp and her team may not be much in a straight fight, but they usually managed to scout out more intel on witch movements and more general intelligence than anyone else. She was also the oldest witch hunter that I knew of; she might be the longest surviving one, but it was hard to tell when most people seemed to follow my advice when writing file updates. Not that I could throw stones for that… it was clear I had started a movement. Down with the Proletariat! Whatever that was!
The streets were by no means clear, but for us they might as well have been; one look at the weapons, at the uniforms, and we were given as wide a berth as the road and crowd allowed. A few stopped outright, hesitant. Those were the ones that might have something to tell us. Or just wanted to talk to us for some reason. Or at worst, possible groupies; Wild hunt groupies were weird.
In true team Marksman fashion, we decided to check into the hotel first. The official contact could wait. They might even have to wait until we had another beer or three. But no, if I tried to do that, Ivan would mother hen us; best just stick to checking in.
We hadn't crossed half the lobby before a porter met us, wheeling a cart.
"Right this way, sirs, madam. Your rooms are on the fourth floor, as requested, and I will show you to them. May I take your bags?”
A warning look from Ivan, and I stifled myself. Must be nice, and not cause an international incident.
"No thank you. I'll carry them myself.”
A step around him, and he interposed himself between me and the front desk again.
"Alright sir, please follow me to your rooms.”
He took two steps and looked back to see if I was following. I wasn't.
"Alright, I'll give you one chance. Prove it.”
He paled as he noticed where my hand was.
"P-prove what, sir?”
"Prove that you are, in fact, a bellhop or porter or whatever you call it, taking us to our rooms. It's pretty obvious you don't want us to go over to the front desk, and that's a bit unusual, wouldn't you agree?”
I didn't want to go over there either, really. That line was long. It was the middle of the day, for crap's sake!
He proved who he was the best way he could; he held up three keys so that we could clearly make out the hotel logo stamped on them. 408, 410, and 412. I eased my hand away from my pistol; people had tried to fool us before using plants, but it appeared today was not the day for it. Well, either that or the plot was more involved.
The nervous man led us through the halls and up the back stairs. This hotel did have an elevator, but I wasn't sure it worked. None of us would trust it anyway; not after Brussels. We traveled in silence, and people encountering us in the halls shrunk back against the walls. The rooms were right next to each other of course, and I snagged a key from the guy. It was for 408. I positioned myself next to the door and tried it; it worked.
Nothing immediately jumped out from the open door, and I saw no tripwires. That didn't preclude a trap in the other rooms, but it made it less likely at least.
The porter's hand wasn't any more closed the first time; I managed to swipe the other two keys and pass them out. Alicia and Ivan pulled my trick while I covered them; I didn't actually pull my pistols, but with my hands resting on them my draw time was fast enough not to matter. It was probably a good thing that not many people knew that for sure, come to think of it.
The entries came up clear, and Ivan went through the rooms one by one, while Alicia covered him inside and I kept an eye on our porter and the hall. We did all this silently, Ivan was best with traps, Alicia was best in close quarters combat, and I was best at range; we all knew our roles without needing to ask.
The rooms checked out on all counts. Ivan coughed, and pointed to the porter, who was oddly enough still waiting patiently.
"You're still here?”
"Uh, Sasha...he's waiting for a tip.”
A tip, huh? The time honored tradition of people in the service industry everywhere. Well, I wasn't heartless, I could help out a fellow wage-slave.
"Alright, a tip… don't drink any milk; stuff is nasty. Stick to beer.”
Slamming the door in his face so I wouldn't have to see it, I tossed my bag into a chair and went to the 'washroom', as it declared itself with a gold plated sign on the door. Giving out advice to those in need was one thing, but money? That stuff was costly!
I could probably do with a bath or something similar to wash the dirt off and crap, but I really didn't feel like it. So it was probably best to finally deal with our official contact so we could go see the sights, or swim at the beach, or whatever it was people did here. I trapped the windows, all two of them, and nodded approval over the view; there were no close buildings obstructing the view of the streets facing this side of the building.
I walked out, adjusting my pistol belt, to find the porter thankfully gone, and my team waiting, their own bags dropped off. I set my usual traps on the door, and so did they. Then we used the other advantage this room arrangement had for us; the back fire escape. From there it was a simple skip across a busy street to the 'fire house'.
Right inside the door, a tall thin man in a uniform was leaning against the wall, hands crossed in front of him, tapping his foot impatiently. I was pretty sure that was our contact in Cannes, since he looked so much like the picture I had been given when I was told to watch for a contact at the train station….
Let's see, I had been given a name too, what had it been… Natalie? No, it's a guy. Norton? No, didn't sound right. Nathan, yeah that was it! Nathan Bon-something. Bon bon?
He lurched off the wall upon spotting us, stalking over.
"You are late, hunters.”
"Yeah, sorry about that, the train got delayed when were tasked with finding a...”
He cut me off, the rude frog.
"I am not referring to that incident, which was called in by your conductor and duly cataloged. I refer to the train station, in which I waited by your train for over thirty minutes before….”
And he cut himself off after pulling himself up in front of us. He really was a rude frog. I started paying more attention, realizing he was staring directly at me with wide eyes and a lopsided grin. I decided to restart him, hoping it would prevent him from saying anything stupid.
"Thirty minutes before….”
"Thirty minutes before realizing that of course a beautiful young lady like yourself would want to remain unseen before refreshing herself at the deluxe hotel room provided. So I came here to wait for you….”
And he blew it.
"Sasha, no, you can't kill him!”
Alicia had my arms locked upwards; some sort of hold that kept me from drawing. I was getting careless, apparently. That and the team prediction thing we depended on was too good, at least for stuff like this. Well, I had more cards to play; I went limp.
"Come on Alicia, let me go. I'll only maim him a little, I swear.”
Alicia looked at Ivan while the frog paled.
"What is the matter? What is going on?”
Idiot didn't even realize. Not only did he need his eyes checked, but his accent was stupid.
"No Alicia, he is not to be trusted on this. Berlin, remember?”
Alicia nodded and tightened her grip, the traitor. I needed to start carrying boot guns or something; those would be much harder for her to restrain. Ivan turned to the idiot frog.
"As for you sir, you just insulted the Sasha Norre, the 'Marksman'.”
"The maniacal marksman…? But why would such a ravishing creature be insulted by compliments to her beauty?”
I snarled. Maybe if I lunged, I could bite him to death. The gorilla held firm, with gorilla strength.
"I'm a guy, you blind jackass.”
He blinked. Then blinked again.
"But how… no. I refuse to believe it; it cannot be!”
Ivan stepped in front of me, forcing a break in eye contact with my target. I tried to look past him, but he put his index finger on my nose. I HATED that, it made me look and go cross-eyed every time.
"Sasha… listen to me, Sasha. You absolutely cannot kill this man. We need him. So until we no longer need him, we need you to be the consummate professional we know you to be. Can you do that Sasha? The Gloom is counting on us to handle this.”
Right. Consummate professional, that's me, so of course I could do it. I relaxed and straightened up.
"Fine, no killing. I won't even maim him; happy?”
At least not yet. Ivan signaled the gorilla, and she let go. Ivan was watching my shoulders warily. It was the best way to tell if a trained gunslinger was going to draw in time to react, and Ivan knew he wouldn't be able to see my hands move unless I let him.
"Yes, I'm very happy. Alicia is happy too. Aren't you, Alicia?”
Even though I wasn't looking at her, I could sense her nod in the whiff of displaced air; it was that enthusiastic.
"Very happy. No sadness here, nope!”
The frog was trying to talk? That was fine, I was very interested in what it had to say. I profiled left and Ivan moved with me, staying in front while coincidentally stomping on a foot that wasn't his. Hm, I could probably put a shot through the toes, and blow that foot off without hurting Ivan at all, but… no, I was a consummate professional, and would not risk it. No killing or maiming… yet.
I put my hands in my coat pockets. It would lag my draw time by perhaps two-tenths of a second, so it was more for show than anything else, but both Ivan and Alicia knew what it meant; it meant I wouldn't be starting a war of extermination… yet.
It looked like the frog finally realized how close he had come to death; Ivan finally unveiled the fool and he his blood seemed to be pooled around his shoes. Maybe he was finally remembering that pissing off hunters was a bad idea. The first words from his mouth and the deep bow from the waist seemed to support that:
"I humbly apologize for offending you; it was not my intention, and I am deeply sorry.”
Well, apologies were good. I'd also taking pissing himself in fear, but this was almost as good as that.
"Apology accepted. So… tell us what you know.”
He straightened up and beckoned us back into the depths of the building. I guess the lobby really wasn't the best place to hold a debriefing like this. Especially a lobby filled with staring people; I snarled at them and they hurried back to whatever work they were busy with before, or at least made it look like they were. I didn't really care, as long as they weren't staring at me; staring at me led to other less savory things.
We made it to a conference room without further incident, and he gestured at us to sit down, so we each took a chair. He remained standing, pacing in front of us, which really wasn't the smartest thing he could have done, but I was a consummate professional, and could ignore it.
"The situation is this: two weeks ago, a girl came to the city, openly wearing a hat. She walked down Rue d'Antibes, taking in the sights like any tourist, until confronted by a team of our chasseurs. When asked if she was a witch, she responded in the affirmative, and was promptly engaged; she fled in response.”
We were still in Russia during these events. Speaking as a consummate professional, the decision to engage a witch in the middle of the city was a bad one; it could have easily turned into a bloodbath if she fought. We were trained to try and draw witches away from population centers if possible and they normally did their best to force as many casualties as possible. Having one go willingly was a welcome switch, and so was having one run.
Well, I mean, they ran from us, sometimes. From a second rater french national team? I didn't buy that it was from fear. I don't think the french did either; he looked too angry about this.
"The team followed the witch out to the beach, along the west. The spotter reported they followed her over two miles, whereupon the witch slaughtered the entire team.”
Well that would explain why he looked so constipated; he continued.
"Another three teams were dispatched, and the spotter reported they were waylaid by another witch while traveling to the site the first witch was last seen, and wiped out. The witch that performed the ambush rose from the sea, and a host of sea creatures rose with her, including giant slugs. Also with her were several witches. Once her grim work was done, she sought out the spotter and conversed with him, in order to make it clear that she knew he was there.”
"Two questions for you. What is a spotter, and what did she say?”
"A spotter is a lookout of sorts. Their job is to watch the battle from hiding, with as much distance away as possible, and report on events either missed by the team on the field, arrange reinforcements if needed, and report the fate of a team and how they were overcome if necessary.”
Well, their spotter had definitely not been a consummate professional, if arranging reinforcements was in the job description. The Hunt hadn't used anything similar in decades… we didn't have the manpower. We would if we could, but we didn't get too many recruits; stupid organizations like this tended to get all the manpower they wanted. Then of course they lost them doing stupid things, like sending small teams of poorly trained fools when they could flood a place with numbers.
Of course, flooding a place with numbers hadn't worked for the armies of the old countries, a few centuries ago. I was no historian, but the only time armies took the field against the witches, the witches won by cooperating. Then they picked off the world leaders responsible for the army, one at a time. The only good news from that was they weren't playing nice with each other anymore. Well that and those witches that had fallen in the battle had left hats. The first hats used in the first generators, which started The Wyld Hunt rolling.
It took awhile, but we had gotten our revenge.
"So the spotter is how you know so much, got it. Where is this spotter? I'd appreciate hearing the report first hand.”
The frog frowned.
"Spotter Lachance is currently on assignment, unfortunately. Perhaps if those duties allow it will be possible at a later date.”
Even more interesting; the spotter was being kept from us, perhaps? Did they intend this frog to be the only point of contact?
"Alright, anything else? Did your spotter positively identify the witch, or get a direction on where she went? Anything to point us in the right direction?”
Please tell me you aren't that incompetent as to have nothing. Please please please…. He frowned again.
"We did not positively identify the witch in question, though she both came from and returned to the sea. Of the first witch there has been no sign, though others have unfortunately 'popped up', as it were, occasionally. Like the one that made an appearance earlier today, harassing the rail lines.”
Well, if witches were beginning to cooperate again, that could be bad. This really was something we needed more than one team for, much as I didn't like it. Multiple witches in the area, working together? I was going to have to dust off my radio protocols. The frog unrolled a map of the area, which helpfully had little red dots marked on it.
"These are the sightings of witches in the days since, marked by position and date. As you can see, there are over ten of them, a different one and different place each day. The encounter is always the same; the witches either make an appearance just long enough to be seen, or appear and snatch a person seemingly at random, then make an escape. It is only a media blackout keeping the city from erupting in riots or a mass exodus of refugees; the population thinks all the attacks are attributed to the sea witch.”
I knew the answer, but I had to ask the question anyway.
"Alright, the times the witches didn't take people, what was different?”
"The suspect the difference was the number of people making the sighting. In the four cases the witch in question did not kidnap a person, only one or two people were present to witness the presence of the witch.”
Yep, I hate being right.
"So they are calling you out, specifically. Any link at all among the kidnapped people?”
Ten sightings, four without any visible goal, that left six people kidnapped, unless the witch took more people.
"None that we can determine. The files are there, but among the missing are a young shepherdess, an old man here to convalesce, and a merchant here to sell cheeses.”
There were files under the map, but reading that was for suckers… like Ivan. The map itself had three red marks with orange circles over them. I tapped one, while motioning Ivan to take up the files. He rolled his eyes, but picked one up anyway.
"What are these?”
"Positions where a team got lucky enough to be close when a witch appeared. Or rather unlucky enough; each time a team found a witch, they engaged her. All three times the witch managed to escape, and there were always… casualties.”
I read the map notations. Each site a witch had fought one of their teams, there had been a kidnapping. One of their own being kidnapped, and they were covering it up perhaps? That was likely; I wondered if they had tried a rescue. The red marks seemed to concentrate along the beach to the west, which was a sign even a blind man could follow.
In the end, it came down to the generators. There just weren't enough to go around, and they were hard to manufacture; especially now. It was almost like the witches could detect the places behind the generator's manufacture, but even for my paranoia that was a bit much. After all, if they could, they would just hit Central and wipe the Hunt out. We were behind most of that, now.
Come to think of it, the main reason they probably didn't was it would require a level of cooperation the witches no longer possessed to hit our stronghold. Those powers on the other side, the big four, hated each other more than us. Except now, some witch was showing it. Some random witch who had managed to inspire loyalty among their insane loner ranks.
Reporting in just became a priority, the more and more we heard. If I was right in this, if the data was correct, then Humanity was in imminent danger.
People would be surprised that I knew that word, imminent. But I was a consummate professional.
I really wanted to say screw it, and sleep in the train. While making the gunners stay up; they at least would give us warning. We would have next to none in the hotel. The numbers against us were bad; easily the worst, even if the witches all sucked… and I doubted that.
"Alright. Anything else?”
My voice was steady. Just another day at the office for us.
The frog gaped for a moment.
"No, that is all we have.”
"Alright, we'll take it from here. I need you to do two things for us. One, get your spotter here, I want to talk to them. I don't care what they are doing or why, just get them here. You have until we get back.”
We needed first hand accounts, as many as possible. We needed to know who and what we were actually dealing with; not knowing what a witch could do, or how experienced she was, would kill us as fast as any half-trained team. The frog nodded as we all stood up. Ivan snagged the files, and sensitive or not, the frog did not object when faced with us walking out with them; whatever we did now, the blame was on us.
"And the other thing?”
I worked hard to suppress a grin; necessary as it was, revenge was sweet. Especially petty revenge; but I was a consummate professional.
"I need to know how many personnel you have left that are combat capable. How many teams, what their training and fitness level is, their strengths and weaknesses. We may end up requisitioning them.”
"Requisi…. You can't! You can't just…!”
I stopped and held up a finger, stopping him just short of laying filthy hands on me.
"I can if you want our help. I do have the right to refuse jobs I feel are too dangerous to my team,' - even though I never had before – 'and this one could well qualify.”
We walked out and he didn't follow. He knew we had him by the balls. On the way out of the 'firehouse' we had quite the audience of whispering people, watching us leave; it seemed that word had gotten around amongst their version of us. I didn't mind, because that allowed us the chance to study them in turn. I wasn't all that impressed, but didn't say so; whatever else they didn't have (like proper training or common sense) they had guts.
Ivan leaned over as soon as we were out of the place, and whispered in my ear.
"So what's the plan, boss?”
Guess he was rattled by what I said back there; we'd never refused a job before. I grinned at him, and he somehow relaxed and tensed again at the same time.
"Same thing it always is. Come on, we got a call to make.”
No plan survives contact with the enemy – and boy did we ever have contact.
There were six witches here. Six! If asked yesterday on our chances of finding six witches in the same region and not murdering each other, I'd have said less than zero. Yet here they were, trying their absolute best to kick my team's ass in what could only be called a coordinated attack.
It was really too bad they were weak as hell.
One worked hard to cover the blind spot of her friend, using her rather silly water manipulation to try and make a shield. She was dark skinned and dark haired… and then she was painted red. Her shield had splattered a heartbeat before she did; it offered no resistance to my shot at all. The one she was covering was throwing stone, like the one we met yesterday. It looked like her, too.
Twins sharing the exact same power were unusual in the extreme.
Ivan managed to put a dagger in the eye of one, a rather hefty witch wearing a viking helmet of all things, and carrying a hammer. The helmet clearly needed better eye protection. As she went down (with an earthshaking thud) a thin twig of a girl who couldn't be over 12 fired some sort of liquid fire at him over the freshly made corpse.
He barely ducked it in time. Alicia was doing better, her whip latched onto one blonde in a dress that looked like it had been expensive before it was reduced to muddy rags, and she was using that witch to batter another witch into the turf; one of the witches we had seen in the files I had been forced to read yesterday.
They had numbers, and moved to cover each other like a hunter team did, but what they were lacking was strength. Other than the twin throwing rocks at us, the other witches were barely a problem; they couldn't hit us. It was almost funny, really.
"Sasha, to your left!”
I barely turned my head, just enough to confirm there were no kids in the line of fire, and put three shots into a slip of a girl with claw hands; she went down with a screech kind of like a teakettle's. Whether she would stay on the ground was anyone's guess. I fanned right with my right handed pistol and caught the witch in the muddy dress as she flew past; Alicia had either gotten sick of using her as a club, or she had gotten free on her own.
They weren't acting like witches in another way; they were fighting to the death rather than fleeing. I was more than happy to oblige, but something was off, here. I also intended to revisit the decision the Gloom had made regarding me not being allowed a mini-gun. At least you didn't have to reload a mini-gun as often, and the weight was a fair trade off for the firepower. Really, if he'd just let me have one, I'd find a way to carry it!
I reloaded while running right, away from the main melee; the rock thrower saw me, but missed. Then I was back in, snapping off head shots.
Honestly, with the forces arrayed against us, we really should have been pressed more; instead we just cleaned house. Oh, it took some effort, but compared to Russia? To her? On second thought, I probably shouldn't use Olivia as a benchmark for judging difficulty.
"Ivan, Alicia, New kid, you alright?”
Ivan and Alicia both gave me a yes, while the new kid – the much vaunted spotter we'd heard all about yesterday – gave me a glare.
"My name is Wendy, as you well know, Mr. Sasha.”
Wendy was younger than I was, which was unusual for people not in the hunt. It was almost like the French misunderstood why hunters were seldom over twenty. She looked like a little girl, a waif one might find on the streets or an orphanage asking for more porridge. She didn't wear a hat at all of course, even in full combat gear; no sense in tempting fate. I had taken one look at her and shaken her down for one, and she had gotten all huffy.
I didn't find one, and when Alicia had stripped her completely she hadn't blanked on us.
"Whatever.” If she could be backtalk, she was fine.
"Look, Mr Sasha, shouldn't we be getting in contact with the other teams? We were just attacked, they should know.”
"Just a moment, new kid.”
She also liked protocol, which was just adorable.
The bodies of the witches were doing something weird; they were melting. Old movies lied to us; witches corpses acted like normal human ones after they died. They decomposed, and stank, and made a mess. These were making the mess a little early by becoming some sort of green snot. I watched next to Ivan, a little bemused.
I turned to the new kid.
"This normal, here?”
She blushed and stammered.
"O-of course not! I've never seen anything like this before!”
I hadn't either, but witches were weird. All the slime seemed to be flowing in the same direction – towards the ocean. Even shooting it just made it reform and start out again. So I started following.
"Sasha, what are you doing? Shouldn't we, you know, not do something like that?”
I watched the mess bubble as it flowed uphill.
"Shouldn't we wait for reinforcements?”
I turned to look at Alicia. Was she stupid or something? She knew damn well that reinforcements weren't coming. I had made the call, and the nearest team currently on a job and days away. The nearest french team was currently being attacked; we had heard the panic in the radio chatter, even if I couldn't understand the words. Wendy didn't seem too torn up about it, so I wasn't worried yet.
So far, this early morning scouting expedition wasn't a success. I really think we needed to follow the slime. We could always go ahead and bail the french out later, but this was a clue now, clearly oozing away from us.
She zipped to my side so fast I could suspect her of using powers, if she had a hat, standing at attention and saluting. “Yes, Mr. Sasha?”
"Status on the other teams?”
"All engaged, Mr. Sasha, but fighting well. So far there are few casualties, and no deaths. It seems the highest number of witches was sent to us.”
And if I remembered the grid assignments correctly, the nearest french team was a bit over six kilometers that way. To the other side, the nearest team should be in between seven and eight… the fight caused us to drift a little from our course, as fights are wont to do. Still, it was the french.
"Have they called for help yet?”
Wendy, still standing at attention, shook her head. Well if they haven't called for help, then we should probably follow the slime. So I started off, my team right behind me. Wendy soon shook herself out of attention and started doing her job too, scouting ahead of us.
I had asked for Wendy; survivors of witch attacks, especially lone survivors, always made me nervous. Normal people didn't manage to escape often, unless they were allowed to. Plus, she was simply too perky to be normal.
We lost the goo very close to the beach. The beach wasn't a very nice one here, it was full of slick rocks and gull shit. You'd think green slime would stand out, but it didn't.
Wendy held up her radio; she had been looking for a way down. She ran back, eyes wide.
"Mr. Sasha, sir! There's a team not two kilometers away, they were chasing a witch they had routed, and they ran into another one! They are requesting reinforcements!”
Hm, there had to be a cave around here, or maybe a ship or something….
"Yeah, yeah, let's go. Lead on.”
She took off, and boy could she run.
Ivan jogged up as I picked up the pace myself, with a lopsided grin.
"I think she likes you, Sasha.”
"Please, she's like 14. Don't be a creeper.”
His grin just widened.
"She's older; your age, and you know it as well as I do. But still, she seems to have quite the crush on you, eh? Always looking at you, even during fights.”
Ah, so that was what this was about. Well, that and the chance to joke at my expense. He'd noticed her watching, more than she maybe should. Yeah, I could deal with that; I already had my suspicions. Lone people just didn't survive witch attacks.
And of course the French wanted to prove me wrong on that, not even ten minutes later. The sounds of combat drew us in to where a lone Frenchman in their special forces armor was trading shots with two older women, witches with actual lines etched into their beautiful faces. The first was using what appeared to be conjured wood as javelins, while the second looked familiar….
Oh come on! I call bullshit. No way this many witches had identical twins with similar or identical powers, not without the Hunt hearing about it. Something was clearly up. In this case it was the twin of one of the witches I knew well from an earlier hunt. She was blue eyed and blue haired, and always stood out in a crowd. Despite that and her obvious old style pilot's helmet hat, she had yet to be caught, because she had some form of air manipulation as her go-to power. Kasthir was her name, and she had gotten away from other hunters simply because her ability to fly was without peer.
The Gloom hadn't let me try; I had been busy with the blood witch in Bavaria when Kasthir had vanished, months ago. Right now, she was doing a fair impression of a natural disaster, spinning localized tornadoes up with her feet, then releasing them, but she looked OLD. I'd seen drawings and paintings of Kasthir, and even a rare picture, and she couldn't have been older than 25. Here she looked a solid mid 40's, for some reason.
She was also missing a lot more than normal for her, given the reports I'd made other people read to me. It could all be perfectly innocent… but something was up; I could smell it, and it only got more rank with each passing moment.
I rang us in, my shots on target, and wood javelins about to kill our new friend exploded, probably only horribly maiming him with splinters instead. The witches didn't even turn before moving; that kind of combat awareness was unusual, even in veterans, and it threw Ivan's aim off.
But instead of keep up the attack, the witches started to retreat, running flat out.
Which seemed to make sense at first glance, as they were now outnumbered and may even be outgunned. The problem was, they were against me. I had no issues shooting them in the back. The flying witch dodged of course, somehow either having eyes in the back of her head or a guardian devil watching her back. The wood conjuring one wasn't as lucky; she lost the use of both arms.
She went to goo as soon as her face hit the dirt; I didn't even get the chance to answer questions.
The slime was gone quickly; by the time I got to where I'd downed her, there wasn't even a drop to sample.
I had a sneaking suspicion tickling the back of my mind. If I uttered it loud now though I was pretty sure all kinds of shit would hit the fan.
"Any of the other teams in trouble?”
I checked. The guy we'd managed to reach was still alive and mostly in one piece. Wendy's face as she listened to him jabber didn't give me much hope for his team, however. I got back in hearing range and she came running up.
"Mr. Sasha, sir, Team 4 is wounded about a kilometer back that way. Marco was just telling me it's really bad, and we should go back and check on them! We are the closest team, and I have medical training, and….”
I had to cut her off. Just too excitable.
"Lead the way.”
She took off with a squee sound; even Alicia rolled her eyes as we moved to follow. I gestured to Ivan to help the French guy… Marco, I guess his name was. Normally I'd already be off chasing the witch, and Alicia or Ivan would be doing the first aid thing, but splitting up here would get us killed, and going after Kasthir would have us run headlong into an ambush; I was sure of it.
For a wonder, one of Marco's team, a tall statuesque blond, was still alive. Of course, she was alive with about a foot of wooden javelin in her guts, but it was something. Alicia lifted her a little bit while I cut the javelin so it wasn't pinning her; removing it would have her leaking things she'd rather keep. Ivan was making a stretcher.
I let Alicia do the bandage work while I cornered Wendy.
"So, where are the other teams now?”
"Pulling back. All the other teams have taken casualties.”
For once, she sounded less than chipper; it was refreshing in a way.
She nodded, cradling her earpiece.
"Three, with possibly two more expected, including Delilah.”
Delilah must be the blonde. Well I didn't think we'd lose her, but her fighting days were probably over. What that really meant was that all cohesion was gone; instead of a strike force sent in to surround our enemies in a wide net, we had been reduced to small teams trying to stay alive and get out of the hot zone.
If the witches were inclined, they could make this as bad a disaster as Paris had been. The only question was, how badly were they hurting?
"How many scored witch kills?”
"Five teams, Sasha sir. A total of Seven witches downed by the other teams in addition to ours, and no prisoners.”
That was pretty unusual too. When witches went up against teams that didn't have something like our generators, the fights that we had stacked in our favor generally became a slaughter. In some cases not even painstakingly manufactured high explosives were enough; so why were the numbers skewed more like a series of seasoned Hunt teams at work?
Again, I had a theory; it was the kind of theory that warmed the heart even as it left everything else cold.
We hiked Delilah out of there, and were not attacked on our way out, something that pointed at a hidden weakness somewhere, just out of sight. After all, I'd be doing it, if I could.
It didn't matter. I knew that whatever was going on, the witches involved feared a proper Hunt team getting past that beach. So that beach was where we had to go. Fighting a seeming army of witches for just the three of us wasn't really an option, which was annoying; our generators would probably run dry before we got anywhere. So we would have to get sneaky, somehow.
Alicia would throw a fit; she still refuses to talk about the last time we had to get sneaky. But just doing my normal thing was going to get us buried in witches, I was sure of it.
Delilah managed to hang on all the way back to the staging area, which was untouched. They had carts for the wounded and we dumped her in one, next to her groaning comrades.
Well, we were gentle about it.
Covering the wagon train on it's way out was boring; even then there wasn't an attack. I was counting minutes. When nothing showed up to jump us even with the city in view, I gave up any hope of more excitement. A signal and my team got close.
Alicia made a show of looking at hers. “Still good. 32 percent.”
Ivan didn't. “30 percent.”
I frowned. They had more than I did; I was sitting at 28 percent. With this many witches against us? Well, they hadn't left hats behind, so they weren't real witches. There, I admitted it, the French had been fooled; big surprise.
"We need to leave this mess behind, and get to the train.”
The train was the only place I was sure was clear of listening ears. Ivan knew something too, I could see it in his eyes. Alicia just looked like she wanted to raid the liquor cabinet. Which, come to think of it, was not a bad idea.
Of course, the moment we broke off from the very obvious procession that every citizen was staring at, Wendy noticed.
"Where are you going, Mr. Sasha sir?”
"Got to call in at headquarters. Radio in the train.”
I really didn't; hunter teams were always on their own in the field, but I'd requested the train stay, just in case, since we had no reinforcements. The Gloom had been off on some policy meeting with his peers, but I'd been promised the use of the train for 24 hours, barring an emergency. That time limit was running out.
Wendy was following us.
The train was right where we left it, and I waved to the gunners as I walked up, giving the signal to forbid entry as I went inside. The bar was right to one side of the door, and I didn't waste time. Still, Alicia almost knocked me out of the way with her fat self.
"Watch it, fatty.”
"Shut up, wimp.”
"Can't you two just stop? The bar is big enough for all three of us.”
I made a point of looking at the bar; it could fit ten people, easily.
"Maybe so, but Alicia takes up two stools, and hogs all the tequila.”
Alicia got in my face, probably to give me a taste of her toxic breath.
"Two stools?!?! I'll have you know I don't weigh a kilo over 70!”
She almost made two of me, so I told her so. Before we could really get going, a voice interrupted us.
"E-excuse me, Mr. Sasha, sir?”
It was Wendy. On the train; without holes in her. How in the hell did she get on the train? I pulled Wendy inside and she squawked. A quick glance outside revealed both gunners were still there, looking out at the cleared platform. They didn't notice me.
"How did you get on the train, Wendy?”
she looked confused.
Something was very wrong here.
"You should have been shot on approach.”
I had to put a finger in my ear to clear it after her screech.
"Because that's standard operating procedure for unknowns trying to get onboard our trains. That's why the people in the station are very careful about what platforms they get near. Didn't your buddies tell you?”
"No, I… I just thought everyone else was being superstitious or something.”
"Nope. Well, at least not entirely.”
"Ivan, Alicia, watch her.” I started through the car. Something was wrong here. I'd get Alicia to back me up, but she was still more interested in the tequila than anything else. I sipped my own beer as I strode along; rear gunner first.
There was someone in the final car. Someone else who wasn't my team.
It was Vivian Lachance, the spotter who we'd interviewed. The one we'd already vetted, and hadn't had a witch hat, the one who'd been on all the missions the French had lost before we'd got here. She was a bit bigger than me, (though not taller!) and well built. Her brown hair was short, and had highlights. She was pretty – but her grin was a little too wide, her blue eyes a little too flat, right now.
Vivian had also been inspected at my insistence, and bore the strip search under Alicia's watchful eye with pride. Then she had requested she be the spotter for my team as we went into the forest searching for the witches she'd seen. When I told her no, she tried to insist. I insisted back, and she was benched, left at the French firehouse/base under a few watchful eyes. Something about her had just rubbed me wrong.
So what was she doing here, alone? What exactly were the gunners doing?
"Vivian. Mind telling me how you're not dead, right now?”
She smiled; kind of like my smile when I'm drawing down on a witch.
"Silly Sasha, you know that already, don't you?”
I gave her my own grin and drew. She moved as if she were boneless, twisting around my (low power, I didn't want to get billed for another wrecked train) shots as if they were obvious. Maybe they were, to her; she was fast. She might even be faster than me.
Nah; the return slash from an arm that was now sporting a blade made of water was so slow I was able to just lean back. It was like she couldn't pull off the same speed on the attack… or she was toying with me.
I HATED being toyed with.
Water was spilling down from the gunners nest, dragging a uniform down the ladder. That kind of explained a few things.
The enclosed space wasn't really suited to my combat style. But then again, fire extinguishers were my friend, at least in this case. We had the chemical foam kind, which worked much better than simple compressed water for putting out fires. I put two shots in the one behind her, and it sprayed her in the back as I dodged another swipe.
Turns out she didn't like that.
The slashing sped up; I had to move my beer bottle out of range twice before I could drain it; I flipped the empty at her head, and she dodged that as easily as the shots that followed by twisting around me. Four shots left in my left gun, five in my right, and she was too close to get a good shot out of either. Some racket broke out behind me.
"Sasha, we got a problem!”
I shook my head as I threw myself backwards.
My back wasn't stopped by water Vivian; there was some resistance but I broke through it. I was honestly surprised I wasn't cut to ribbons, Hunt armor or not, but it seemed the foam had done more than slow her down; it had made her lose her edge. Heh.
I managed to get through the door and shut it in her face, buying me a second or two. There was a fire extinguisher in each car, so that was something; but the first one she took didn't seem to hurt her all that much.
"You okay up there, Ivan, Alicia? Fighting water or something else?”
The yell came back as the door in front of me was split in half.
"We're alright, and yes! Ivan, Wendy and I are fighting some sort of water person! It looks like Vivian!”
Good, Wendy didn't seem to actually be a part of this. Well, either that or she was biding her time. Water started to flow in between the door halves, and I shot it; she couldn't really dodge that. It didn't seem to inconvenience her at all but she took her sweet time reforming.
"The fire extinguishers work a little. Got one back here too, ate the gunners somehow.”
Probably dripped down from the ceiling and then ate them, or something.
Vivian reformed and sent a blade arm my way, sending the other when I was out of room; I ended up having to do a handstand on one of the seats to dodge that one. We needed to get off the train; any more damage to it and Gloom would bill me!
Vivian blocked the door with an arm that sprouted blades… so, next car over, taking care to duck under the other arm. Could she only use her arms to attack?
I shut the door on her bladed foot, so that was a no. Maybe it was mass involved somehow, she didn't seem to be pulling a watery puffer fish on me, which would kill just about anyone. I was now in the sleeper car, which was just a long hallway dividing small rooms with small beds. I picked up the fire extinguisher on my way, this time running straight for the dining car. I had an idea I was sure I'd curse myself for in the morning.
"Dining car, everyone!”
The fire extinguishers slowed Vivian down, allowing me to make it; She was pretty fast for a liquid. Ivan, Alicia, and Wendy were already facing off against the other Vivian. Their weapons didn't seem to be doing much either.
Alicia threw it with an eyeroll, eyes on her opponent. Instead of catching and drinking it (my first instinct) I booted it along and shot it.
The effect was pretty gratifying.
My Vivian shrieked and clawed at herself, giving me time to reach the bar. I started sending bottles downrange at both Vivians while my team and Wendy ducked. Well, Ivan was ducking; Alicia was standing there, sputtering.
"I know Alicia, I know, just throw some!”
She got into the act, throwing bottles with far more abandon (and tears) than I was. I did manage to save the bottle of my favorite rum she threw, curling around it and taking the hit.
I pointed as I got up; the water Vivians had finally finished screaming and dissolving. Seems alcohol was bad for them.
"Do you really want me waking up in the morning, asking where all the rum has gone, Alicia? Really?”
She growled at me.
"I didn't see you holding back when the tequila was on the line.”
Ivan got in between us with a weary sigh.
"Children, please. We need to make sure the train is secure, find the staff or the bodies, and make a call to Central. We can all bicker pointlessly later.”
He had a point.
"Fine, Dibbs on the back of the train, again.”
I took my bottle with me. Wendy acted like she wanted to follow, but I shoo'd her the other way and she followed Alicia and Ivan instead. I could see outside the windows that the entire train station was now clear – it was one hundred percent empty. I set tripwires so nothing could sneak past along the way.
At the back of the train I found rubbery bones mixed in with the clothes, and nothing else. Well, other than the massive mess I hoped Gloom wouldn't make me clean up. At least the sleeper car was mostly intact; just some extinguisher foam in the hall. Then I sighed, went back, and checked all the little rooms. It was all clear. Now we needed to call fro reinforcements just to get the train out; I kind of knew how to do it, but I doubted Gloom would trust us with the task.
Back up front I found my team in the radio room. The radio was, wonder of all wonders, intact and broadcasting; Ivan was relaying the situation. Central's reply was to tell us they already had a team routed to us, and would put out a priority call for all hunters in the area. None of which helped us now, of course.
I drained the rum; I was pretty tired, but I was even more pissed off.
"What say we try to go find ourselves a witch?”
Wendy looked nervous. “But our teams aren't in any shape to sortie again….”
I shook my head.
"Yeah and they won't just 'let us' go out alone, which is why we aren't telling them. The Vivian water proves we can't trust them anyway, so let's just go. We know there is something the witch doesn't want us to see, and we know where it is. We find it, we find her.”
But we'd have to go now; a response team was probably already on the way because of the shots. I grabbed one of the emergency bags from under the seat and threw it at Wendy. She actually managed to catch it, staggering in an amusing way as I pulled another bag for me. Ivan and Alicia followed suit. I waited for them all to file out, then raided what was left of the bar; we were gone and back on the street in under a minute.
There was no problem in getting outside the city; the real problem lay in not getting recognized on our way out. Luckily, Hunters through the years had developed some tricks to help that would see us through the crowds, and I was a master of them.
"I'm telling you Sasha, even if you take your coat off, you're still recognizable. You haven't even changed your pants! Your uniform pants!”
"Shut up Alicia.” Alicia was a non-believer. It wasn't like she'd changed anything at all. Then again, that beard of hers was probably easily marked anywhere.
"She's right, Sasha. We have at most ten minutes before this town's authorities start following our trail. We will need to get past the gate checkpoint quickly.”
At least the crowd, panicked by the gunfire, was still running around making life difficult. The sheep would help us, in this case, as the French would be unlikely to bulldoze them out of the way.
Even Wendy got in on the act: “You don't seem to know how to hide very well, Mr. Sasha, sir.”
Alicia muttered something about my guns… as if she expected me to take them off too, or something. That just sounded all kinds of stupid. We headed down an empty alley to the outer wall.
"You can talk about my guns when you take off your stupid whip.”
"My whip is not stupid, you half-pint troll!”
Alicia used her stupid whip to throw a grapple past the outer wall, and Ivan started scaling immediately. Wendy's eyes widened as I took up position to cover. Luckily it seemed no copies of Vivian or other people around; no one had followed us in the alley.
"You seem really good at this sort of town escaping, Mr. Sasha, sir.”
Alicia headed up. While Ivan gave the all clear; there were no trip wires or any sort of alarms on the top or sides of the wall. Amateurs.
"This isn't our first time out, Wendy. We are an experienced hunter team.”
Wendy hummed at that before starting up the rope. “I'm not sure skill in being able to leave towns while being chased is a skill that should be practiced, Mr. Sasha, sir.”
I was surrounded by doubters. “Just get up the rope before I end you. Oh, and are there any security measures we should be aware of on the wall here?”
I was a professional. At least I asked, right?
"Just that it's watched, Mr. Sasha, sir. The spotters will direct pursuit to the section of the wall we're going over, but with the panicked crowd I don't believe we will lose any time.”
So still in between five and ten minutes. More than enough time, considering. The French wouldn't chase us out of town too far; they wouldn't consider the risk worth it. Long experience told me so… any pursuit we had would be the kind we'd be free to annihilate.
I put my jacket back on as we cleared the wall. Niceties were to be observed, and the witches had a right to know who was coming for them. I led us left.
"Wendy, you can scout if you want, but not out of sight. Understand?”
She saluted smartly. “Yes, Mr. Sasha, sir!”
Then she took to the trees like a monkey, while we ran on the ground, but she waited from time to time.
We couldn't keep the pace; well I could, but Alicia was already blowing hard and we couldn't keep silent while running off trails in any case.
Back to the coast we went, slower now, because I had no doubt there were witch patrols out, whether we were expected or not. Of course slow for us was still a pretty quick by normal standards. Soon enough I was right, as Wendy stopped, hunching up in the tree with hand raised. I slowed with a shrug, walking up and positioning myself behind a bush.
There were two familiar witches on the other side of the bush and a bit further downrange, leaning up against each other back to back and watching the forest. Seriously, if we kept meeting them, or what had to be copies of them, I was going to walk up and ask for their names; this was getting ridiculous.
Much as I hated it, we would have to sneak past them, which would be pretty hard to do considering how they were set up. They had left one blind spot however, assuming it wasn't covered by someone else we couldn't see. I motioned Wendy back and she slithered out of the tree slowly, using the trunk as cover.
I couldn't just talk, so I used hunter sign to show where the sentries are. Then I had to use more normal signs to ask Wendy if she'd seen anyone I missed, which took forever before she got the point and shook her head no. So I then used sign to describe the route we needed to take… which was right above them. The only spot they hadn't thought to cover was directly above their heads.
Well or under them, but I wasn't a damned mole.
Ivan asked the million pound question (because pounds were worth more than euros, of course), again with sign: “How?” We weren't exactly birds, either. Alicia signed the kill order, which was what I'd normally go for, but I had a sneaking suspicion if we did that whoever had sent them here would know we were coming. And we'd probably end up fighting more of them again anyway, so it was kind of pointless.
We had to find the source, whatever that was.
We could also circle around and try from somewhere else, but that would take a thousand hours! Clearly, up and over was the way. I handed Wendy a rope, and made monkey motions. She looked a little green, but nodded and set off, going to the very tops of the trees before tying us humans a route across them. I made sure to keep her in sight, even while slowly climbing up after her.
Climbing trees made us a little more noisy than walking, but since we started far enough back, the witches didn't seem to notice.
Soon, and by soon I mean a small eternity later, we were all rope crossing over them. They didn't look up; even witches suffered that issue, though to be fair it was hard to see things like dragons or gargoyles or whatever in a forest like this.
Ivan tapped my arm and pointed to the rope, once we were down. If they looked up, it was easily visible, but I shrugged at him. Every great plan had a few flaws, and any move we made to recover the rope would probably backfire on us. We just had to not have them look up for a half an hour or so, and we'd be back where we had been baited away from this morning.
Turned out there was another pair of sentries – both Vivians. They were far more alert, looking around and even up constantly. There was no help for it, they would have to be worked around or taken out. And I voted on worked around, since I wasn't flinging my last bottle of rum at them no matter what; I'd drink it first. Alicia was with me, cradling her vodka like the fragile child it was.
Working carefully around them the only way we could led us to the cliff-side. There were witches under it, patrolling around. But we all had our mountain goat training, so I started climbing. We could work our way down a little, then across, then back up. Wendy had to have mountain goat training too, she kept up.
About fifty feet of this and there was a trail down, caused by a rock slide. It wasn't much of a trail, and if we weren't careful we could make a lot of noise going down (or just die), but We'd been down worse. And it wasn't patrolled, at all. The nearest witch was at the bottom. We got to the last bit of cover on it without sliding so much as a pebble, and I grabbed Ivan and stole his binoculars.
There was a cave down there, just above the tide line. Looked like in an hour or two, it would be half submerged. There were also some some sort of… things in the water near it. Dark green with black markings, large bloated forms just floating. A light was coming from the cave, showing off more witch guards that I thought I recognized.
This looked like the end of the tricky road though. The beach was crawling with them; the moment we rounded our little outcrop here we'd be seen, and then it'd be a running fight to the cave, just to see what was inside. At least this wasn't as bad as going by water would have been. That was my first thought, and with those things in the water, I no longer liked the idea of swimming.
There were some hunter teams that were good at fighting in water; mine wasn't one of them.
We couldn't even talk things over, which was more a blessing than anything. 'Thoughts?' I signed.
Ivan sighed. Alicia sighed. Even Wendy sighed. Alicia signed back: 'we're in for a fight, it seems. Escape plan? Maybe the ocean?'
We were all good swimmers, but we weren't dolphins. Even without the green things, that was a risky option. I handed over the binoculars and she took a look.
"Well, shit. I assume you're dead set on going through with this? That's enough witches to call out an entire branch on.”
She wasn't wrong. “Yeah but they're weak.”
If we had to, I had no doubt that we could go through them.
Alicia wasn't on board. “With that many, they don't need to be. Only takes one.”
The witches on the beach all turned their heads at once, looking inland but away from us, and all before I could say 'we need a distraction'. I tapped my team and rose, sprinting across the beach as the witches began shifting. In the distance I could hear the sounds of a fight that could rapidly become a war; The French had followed us after all, somehow. Maybe the rope had left enough of a trail?
Either way, the growing commotion worked for us as we worked our way around the edge of the beach.
The two witches at the cave entrance never saw us, and died without a sound. The real problem lay just inside the cave, and it saw us.
It was a gigantic sea slug, with eye-stalks zeroed in on us, and a double row of slick green pods squeezed in the limited space behind it – and several witches clearly displayed inside it, all being dissolved or eaten or something. A witch was leaning against it, uncaring of the slime rubbing off on her green robe and wicker hat, and perfectly safe.
She was small, even without the giant slug for contrast, and wore a sickle at her hip. She was blonde, with wide blue eyes and freckles dotting her cheeks. She looked young and innocent, but I knew better. She had collected witches, quite a few of them, and fed them to her familiar. Normally something I could give her a pass for, but I recognized a few people who weren't witches in there too.
What was she doing here? She levered herself up and touched her hat, even as two pods around her broke, disgorging perfect copies of witches in her slug; they even had the hats. I'd never heard of her before, but she'd heard of me.
"Sasha Norre, the maniacal marksman. The Hunter's send their best; I'm honored. Tell me, how's your mother?”
She knew. She was pretty well informed. Maybe they were meeting for tea on Sundays or something?
"Well, witch, my Mom, still a bitch. What are you even doing here? It's not like this city even has the usual stuff you look for.”
She grinned as the witch copies placed themselves in front of her. I recognized our resident air user, the one who had given us a bit of trouble earlier.
"Come now, a port town like this, filled with tourists and thriving industries, with all those happy people? How could I not want that? Some leg work, a few nights roughing it in a cave while Mr. happy did his thing, and an entire city is mine. I don't suppose you'd just go away, would you? After all, witches won't exactly be welcome in my city, so it's kind of a win for you.”
I wanted to make a show out of thinking about it, but more of those slime cocoons were breaking behind her, and I was pretty sure the witch clones behind us were coming back.
"Yeah, I think not, sluggy. I'm going to have to ask you and your pet to please either surrender or die now.”
Sometimes they did surrender. The powerful ones usually didn't though. She stayed true to form, stamping both feet as she yelled back.
"My name is Lima, not 'sluggy'! Honestly, I thought your mom raised you better; guess I was wrong.”
Time to be a professional. “So, I take it you aren't going to surrender then?”
Rule number 10; never give the witch more than three seconds to surrender. At least she answered.
"No, thank you for the courtesy though.”
Heh. Joke was on her; some witches you can't take prisoner, and she seemed to be one. I went straight for the eagle, and her eyes widened; her reflexes weren't above human, then. The first shot was full strength, and it straightened the tunnel and smoothed out the imperfections in the wall.
A full five percent charge used for it, and all it really did was excavate. Sure the slug looked a little more melted, and all the witch clones were gone, but the witch? Safely held in the slug's mouth, or whatever it had. It spit her out gently while I shook the smoke out of my face. She looked around, eyes wide, and I couldn't resist a grin.
"You're fault for being in a place you can't dodge.”
I shot again, this time seeing the slug actually swallow her again. She had her mouth open but whatever she said or yelled was lost in the roar of my strongest gun.
The slug was faster than I first thought; I actually had to roll out of the way.
"Sasha, we've got problems!” I caught a glimpse of Ivan dodging a burst of something, probably air, as he threw some of his special knives. Alicia was already tearing into a clone with her whip. I couldn't see Wendy, but I did hear the report of a .32 caliber to my right, so I had a pretty good idea where she was.
The slug slowed; maybe the earlier speed was a sprint of some kind? Either way, it was now making good speed towards the ocean, but nothing we couldn't outrun. Shots three and four went right up it's backside, and it was finally beginning to lose cohesion and bleed, or whatever it was slugs did.
There were witch clones near that jumped in the way; they were melting, dripping all over the sand. The slug even ate a few on it's way to the beach.
I had to dance my way through several attacks. I switched hands, and shot five tore through the makeshift clone wall and hit the slug again. It left it's ass behind this time, but made it to the water. From the top of it, I could hear Lima's voice ringing loud and clear.
"You deserve your reputation! See you later, Sasha! Have fun playing with my toys!”
I had to switch arms, which gave her enough time to submerge. I still took the shot, only to have a sand berm raise itself into place and absorb most of the shot. The water no doubt did the rest of the work.
There was a full army on the beach with us now, but at least there was nothing hostile at our backs.
The giant stone crabs chose that moment to burst from the sand and attack. “We need to get out of here!”
Ivan agreed. “Tell me something I don't know!”
Alicia dodged getting snipped in half only to eat a rock. Wendy took two steps to help her before she kipped up, spitting mad, beard bristling. Her jacket had stopped it. Several more rocks were headed our way when I took my next shot, obliterating the incoming.
I'd wanted to aim at the witch clones themselves, but we could probably kill more in the long run if we were alive.
Wendy yelled at me. “Mr. Sasha, sir! What if you turn that big gun of yours on the cave behind us? Blast us a way out?”
She had a decent idea, but… “It doesn't have the power for that! It just shoots enhanced explosive rounds!”
Sure, they were charged, and sure, they did more damage than normal, but the kind of landscaping she was talking about would take way too many shots. That rock was pretty dense; all my Eagle had really done was smooth out the protrusions in an otherwise straight cave, nothing that drastic. Wendy spared the time to send me a 'what the hell does that mean?' look before she had to dodge some water formed into throwing knives.
One more shot and I had to holster the Eagle; I couldn't afford to break another arm here, one was enough. I counted four taken by the blast, then it was back to the .45. Wendy glanced at my now bad arm with a wince and sidled close to it, her own small guns out.
"I'll get this side, Mr. Sasha, sir.”
I appreciated the sentiment, but it was misplaced – even if the thought of someone I barely knew on a weak side wasn't enough to make me a little twitchy. “Can't do that. You stay glued to me, you'll get nailed. Don't worry about me, I've dealt with this before.”
We managed to work our way around the cave and almost back up the cliff side by a trail even a goat probably wouldn't use before our luck ran out. There was another small army of clones waiting for us up top.
Somehow, we were still alive. Somehow, the witch's – Lima's – afterthought hadn't killed us all. We had managed to make it back to the forest before Alicia went down, and now we were all back to bark against a large tree, leaking more than a little blood. The witch clones had only half melted, and we had killed a lot of them. Too many. The fact that they seemed to forget all teamwork and tactics helped, but the sheer number ensured we weren't unmarked.
It was an insult, really, when Wendy, the only mobile one of us came back, leading the Hunt's reinforcement team. A reinforcement team consisting of Deisel, Koi, and Merlin along with a few extra scared lab coat types. What was the little freak even doing out in the field? I thought the Gloom had him safely locked away in the dungeon?
His first words didn't exactly fill me with confidence. “Good, you're still alive. Hm, not for long without medical attention, it seems.”
"Yeah, screw you too, weirdo.”
The only guy that could make a better case for being a girl than many guys and girls both (but not me, I was a man's man, despite the crap Alicia spewed) levered me up without a hint of effort, reaching out so one of the lab guys could slap a bottle of stuff that looked like water in his hand; I just knew it was going to sting when poured over places I'd rather not get wet.
I wasn't wrong.
Merlin's bedside manner sucked. “Oh, quit being a baby, Sasha. It only stings for a moment, and speeds healing greatly. With proper follow up, you may not even scar that beautiful body of yours.”
I had to ask. “You don't have a bear costume lying around anywhere, do you?”
If he wasn't a creeper, I was a witch.
He didn't get it. “No, why do you ask? Is there a reason for such a thing? Should I get one?”
Alicia almost choked on her blood laughing, before shooting me a dirty look. No self control, that woman.
"You really should, and wear it around as much as you can. It'll help smooth over many a social situation.”
Despite the acerbic tone and the expected sting, the freaks hands were feather-light and gentle as he bandaged me up. “I'll consider it. First that woman and now this; just running from one fire to the next isn't good for you.”
"Clearly.” He didn't even look at Ivan or Alicia, leaving them to his assistants and Deisel, who despite having the same first aid training all of us got didn't strike me as the nurse type. No, he only had eyes for me.
He tied the bandage around my torso off, one hand lingering just a bit longer than the other. “So, what happened here?”
I didn't want to tell him.
"Come on now, Sasha. I am your superior in the field, you can tell me.” Some clean vials were slapped into his hand and he started collecting my blood in them.
I turned to Koi. “He always do shit like this?”
Koi rolled his eyes and nodded. “Been escorting him for a week or forever now, and yes he does.”
Good to know, I guess. He was working on my legs now, or I'd already be running. But he wasn't wrong about the chain of command, and as many of the Hunt needed to know, as quickly as possible.
"New witch, no word of anyone like her on our network, and she seemed inexperienced. Didn't use any spells on us at all, and showed a distinct lack of proper planning.”
She did hole up in a cave while trying to take over the town, after all, and didn't target important people; instead she ate witches and military personnel. Of course, she could have been aiming for a military style take over, and it would likely be hard to hide a ten foot tall and 40 feet long or more slug, but I still wasn't ready to give her a pass on sound decision making.
"She relied heavily on her familiar, a 40 foot long slug that ate people, witches included. Whoever the slug ate, it could produce clones of, with matches to at least some memories, skills, and magic. Though the witch clones produced by her familiar were less powerful than the originals. I'm also willing to guess she can only do it while the people are still alive.”
Just a hunch of mine. Ivan signaled silently that he'd take that bet, and I signaled back that he was on.
Merlin did not bother to hide his interest. “Fascinating. Would you say she's a match for the four greats?”
The four great witch powers, with my Mom - no Olivia, being one. Adding another to that list would be the last thing we needed. My sister was close enough.
"No, she's not. Not yet, but she could grow to be one. Just needs some time to learn for that.”
Merlin helped me up, almost carrying me; freak was much stronger than he looked. It shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it did. “Is the train still here?”
"Was when we left, and mostly intact.”
There were a bunch of raised eyebrows aimed at me in the sudden silence.
"What? It got attacked while we were out, I didn't do anything!”
Ivan coughed as he levered himself up. “For once, Sasha's right. The train was compromised by clones that tried to kill us. We had to defend ourselves, and there was some collateral damage.”
Alicia had to be carted out, and she was giving the assistants to the weirdo manning the stretcher the hairy eyeball (which wasn't hard for her, really… she had hair to spare). “The bar is a total loss though.”
Deisel winced, but I was over it. I could just send him with some expense account money to get more.
Merlin made a hmm noise.
"And is there any reason you weren't leading the expedition the French sent? Your orders did say to cooperate.”
Merlin had just made it clear to me he had never been on a field op. “My orders said 'cooperate whenever possible' – it was not possible to cooperate; I simply didn't know who was a clone and who wasn't, aside from my team and the one person who hadn't left my sight since the concerted attack this morning. If I had roused the militia and organized a concerted attack, I'd have never found the witch.”
I was pretty sure that the only reason I'd seen the witch in question, was because she had been waiting on more clones to pop. If we hadn't gone immediately that cave would have been empty. It also implied there was a limit on how many clones she could have, possibly. All of which made her plans for conquest even more stupid than usual.
Merlin hmm'd again. “I suppose it was one of the better decisions to make. Still seems very risky however. For someone with the survival of all humanity on their shoulders, possibly the only person who can say such – well, you should take better care of yourself, Sasha. Speaking of which, have you given any further thought to my offer?”
On the one hand, doctors, each trying to outdo each other in creepy. On the other and more recent hand, I was getting sick of losing. I'd only done it three times, but twice in a row was a streak and this time my team's generator juice was clicking empty. Without juice, without the magic backing our weapons or reinforcing our coats, even a weak witch could kill us unless we got tricky. We could maybe convince another team to share, but that would could screw them over later, and I didn't wasn't exactly the most well liked person around.
And on the third hand, creepy as fuck doctors. I was sure that where there were creepy doctors, a third hand (and arm) wasn't far behind.
I realized too late that we weren't heading directly back to the train. I looked up when I heard the sing song tones of the frog language, to see Ivan staring at me with some concern. Wonder what his problem was; no doubt I'd find out later… after the French yelled at me, no doubt.
There he was, the chief frog, Mr. whocareswhathisnameis.
He stomped right up to me. If only my guns weren't empty.
"What were you doing, shooting up the station, assaulting civilians, and fleeing questioning! You nearly got us all killed!”
Well he did cover what I was doing pretty well; if he knew, why was he asking me?
"For the record, I never assaulted civilians. If they got hurt, it was their own damn fault.” I didn't really have time to clear my path of fire when fighting on the train, and any real hunter would know that. Hm, that was an interesting shade of purple he was turning. Merlin stepped in front of us a bit, and the frog finally paid attention and realized we weren't alone.
The he started speaking frog himself, quickly. I couldn't understand the language, but the cutesy act came through clear enough. The conversation ended with the jerk stalking off in disgust.
Merlin sighed. “Well, that could have gone better.”
"What was his problem? Not like we lost or anything.” If we had lost, he'd be saluting a witch or dead.
Merlin levered me up and plunked me in a wheelchair, alone. Did I mention he was strong for a little freak? “True, but in the heat of the moment sometimes people have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. Several people under his command died today, to a witch we failed to kill. I wish we had been more quick.”
Yeah, that made two of us.
"At any rate, I've decided to leave Koi's team here for now, in case the witch comes back. So, Sasha, you and your team are going to have to escort me back to central. Our mission to collect certain samples from the French countryside will just have to wait until the threat is passed.”
I looked at him. He had to know that my team wasn't really capable of escorting a puppy on a walk, let alone anything else. But the train should at least work, and that would make things easy. Failing anything else I could be propped up in a gunner's seat. If we steamed non-stop for central without taking on supplies… well we couldn't do that. But we could limit stops.
"Whatever. I'm going to sleep.”
I had some heavy thinking to do, after all.
To Be Continued