Who's Hunting Who (Part 3)
Who's Hunting Who
Let me tell you a little bit about train rides, mind of mine. They are long, bumpy, and mind-numbingly boring when you can't drink. And when you can't drink and you're in pain? They are a true exercise in torture.
I mean the only thing I could really do was listen to the radio, which was playing some French folk crap, and read a book. If it isn't a witch's obituary or a report on the latest known witch's (with an idea of using those reports to make the obituary later) then I didn't want to bother wasting my time.
And the books on this train were either trashy romance novels or in depth biology texts; neither one really lit my fire.
So here I was, cleaning my guns again (for the sixth time) while listening to Merlin giggle over a romance novel like the preteen I knew she couldn't be while Alicia snored.
On checking my generator this morning I'd found I still had a minor charge in it, which was suspect; yesterday I was pretty sure it was bone dry, and Alicia's too. Today, I had enough for a few standard shots, or maybe one large one. Granted, I wasn't in any shape to fight, but that was a pretty big thing to be wrong about; maybe I had been drugged? Slipped the good stuff at some point?
Maybe the vial filled with not water was it. If so, I needed more. For testing... yeah, testing.
Ivan hadn't let me check his generator, but I was willing to bet it had some juice too, somehow. Maybe the Witch fairy had given some up? Everyone always told me she didn't exist, but this was proof, right? Of course she hadn't taken anyone's teeth, so I had no idea what she had taken in payment, but the energy had to come from somewhere.
So I was pondering the problem, and the other problem (the lack of alcohol on board) when the train started breaking with an ear shattering squeal – dumping Alicia on her butt right before gravity lost it's hold on all of us.
The car stayed airborne for a good two seconds before slamming down. I seemed fine aside from the shooting pains, so I crawled over to check Alicia; she sat up, scowling dizzily and ignoring the blood pouring from the fresh dent in her head.
The car was on it's side; I crawled my way out of one of the now shattered windows once I was sure Ivan was alive; Merlin was moving too, towards the door that once led to the engine.
Our train hadn't just derailed; the engineer had tried to stop first. That meant that something had hit us.
I spotted her the moment I fully cleared cover, floating lower out of the sun. Marcy the malodorous, one of the four powers. She was older than Olivia but looked as young, with a fresh face bearing a tell-tale mole on her right cheek. She was above average height, thin and leggy. She also smoked, with one of those cigarette holder things that only snooty people used.
She was quite possibly the last person I wanted to see, aside from Olivia or my sister. Usually she had an entourage too, but I didn't see any of her known allies with her. Her known powers were control of gases, the creation of some gases, and a larger than normal variation in her spells. Her familiar was rumored to be an actual gas, and she was rumored to be almost as strong as Olivia; something that was known to rankle her something fierce.
The first words out of her mouth made it clear this was no mere coincidence. “Well my oh my! Sasha Norre, as I live and breathe! How have you been, Sasha? Still got that cute scar on your....”
That did not need to get out! “What do you want, Malodorous? You do realize there are easier ways to get my attention, right?”
Things like not blowing a hole in the train engine and knocking the entire thing off the tracks, for example.
She waved it off as two of her brat pack came out of the clouds.
The first was Marcy's right hand; Liar Luatta. She had an unassuming look, with dark hair and a plain face, but was anything but quiet unless you shut her up. Her special ability was that she was able to lie to anyone who didn't know who she was, along with some focus on mental spells. Her familiar was a giant mouth, spouting gibberish.
The second was Polyene. Pauline May was a shifter with a small blob for a familiar; her special trick was the ability to transform into any animal. Well, any normal animal, she couldn't mimic people or other familiars or anything, which was good because she was already powerful enough. She looked a bit like her familiar, like a mannequin with a blonde wig and painted features. I had no idea how she could pass as a normal human, or if she even tried.
They both floated there slightly behind their master, arms crossed in clearly disapproving stances. I drew myself up as best I could, and flicked my generator settings; normal wouldn't work for this confrontation.
"Well, Marksman, I heard you had a bit of trouble in Cannes, and I simply had to confirm it for myself.”
There wasn't a reason to lie, really. The slug witch would try to kill them if they met, and they would in turn kill her. Even if they didn't kill her it would start a feud among them, and they might be too busy trying to kill each other to do any damage to us. If they met amicably though, and teamed up... well that wouldn't be good at all.
Aside from all that I needed to play for time; my team wasn't very combat effective, but Merlin and his assistants were assets the Wyld Hunt needed to keep. I hadn't seen the assistants yet but Merlin was behind me; I needed to keep their attention on me. Even if they were all looking me over with predatory eyes right now.
"Yeah, a bit. Met a new witch that can eat other witches and gain their powers. You should totally go there and nose around. Cave on the coast, North of the city; maybe you'll be able to track her down and get eaten.”
she smirked. “Oh please. Your mother can't take me on, you really think some new blood is going to manage?”
That's right, stroke your own ego; better yet, how about I help that along?
"You, take Olivia? Don't make me laugh. She just hasn't gotten around to killing you yet.”
She did not like that at all. “Ah, poor Sasha. I had heard that you met your dear mother in Russia; no doubt it was a touching family reunion.”
She knew. How could she even know? Had she been watching somehow, or pieced it together after? No it had to be after; she wouldn't haven been able to pass up taking a shot at Olivia while I had her distracted.
If she knew, did others? Were more of them lining up even now, in order to take advantage of my teams weakness?
"Why are you here, Malodorous?”
"Well I heard about the touching reunion, as I said, and how your distraught mother left an entire hunter team alive. A very effective hunter team, with several kills to their credit, and I thought to myself, that had to be an oversight. So here I am.”
In other words, she heard that Olivia had left me alive, and since she couldn't attack Olivia directly, she decided to see if killing me would hurt her. Only after finding out where I was, of course, rather quickly. I knew there were spies in Cannes! It was probably that chief frog.
"Right.” I eased my hands downward. “Still probably not too late to catch slug girl you know, if you hurry.”
Malodorous grinned, showing needle teeth. “Oh, don't worry, she's my next stop. After all, this won't take long.”
Well, fuck her too. I pulled and moved, my leg protesting. Fire and bolts of light melted the car where I'd been; some made it inside but if anyone got hit, it was there fault. There had been plenty of warning.
My return fire did not miss. The Liar took it dead center, a shield flickering as the impact drove her back, while Polyene took the other in the face and fell out of the sky, smoking. Malodorous spared half a glance for her before she wound up another shot of her own with a dismissive sniff. Fog leaked out of her, eating my next two shots.
I ducked behind the train by sliding off it, something my ankle did not appreciate. I came to rest beside Ivan, who had crawled out of the bottom service hatch/secret escape hatch. He greeted me jovially.
"Well, it's been a good run, eh Sasha? Will she make drinking cups of our skulls, you think? I've heard she does that.”
I took the time to reload; she wasn't just going to peek on me. “You worry too much, old man. We aren't beat yet. Haven't you noticed your genny charge?”
If mine had juice, I was willing to bet his did too. I'd have won, too, judging by the look on his face.
"Don't know, and it might not be enough, but mine will click empty before she nails us.”
"And here I thought you were just in mourning, earlier!”
Ivan grinned as he sent two knives at malodorous; she ducked back and I levered up.
She came blazing over the top next, as I knew she would, and ate two to the face. Or her fog did at least. While I ate one to the leg. The same leg that was already pissed at me. Luckily with a generator charge, my clothes were armored enough so that my leg didn't actually walk away from me or something.
My generator was at less than five percent. Again.
More knives flew, these sank into the fog and exploded. Malodorous ducked back again.
"So, not entirely defenseless. Good, I'd hate for this to be too easy.”
The train car started lifting, tearing itself free from the other cars with a pretty annoying screech.
From one side, Polyene was sort of glide slithering over, a smoking hole still in her head. From the other side, the Liar was coming into view feet first.
And Merlin was on the ground under the car, Alicia laid out next to him. He also had her whip and generator in hand.
"That will be quite enough of that, thank you.” he stated boldly as the car cleared and daylight hit him.
Was he for real? The witches stopped, probably thinking the same thing.
Malodorous sent a stream of something that looked like fog but probably wasn't at him – and it broke up before it hit. Then he cracked the whip, and the sound lashed out in a glowing wave. A glowing physical wave that knocked Malodorous on her ass.
Polyene was going to the rescue when I shot her again. She tumbled a good twenty feet and looked at the smoking hole where her heart should be. It didn't seem to slow her down any as she stood back up, though.
Ivan had the same idea with the Liar, but all he could really do was pin her down; her shield was a bit more effective, and it seemed his knives weren't suited for much. He pulled one of his smoke pellets.
Hm, so far he was using things that didn't require much power. Perhaps he was being too conservative, given what we were facing. Alicia's whip managed to score, going through the fog surrounding Malodorous as if it wasn't there and latching onto her arm. She looked at it curiously for a second before the pain and anger hit.
Her next attack was a green gas belched loudly from her throat. Like the other, it broke up before it hit; Merlin waved a hand in front of his face lazily. “Phew! You must eat a lot of onions.”
Wow, Malodorous looked murderous - and that thought amused me, for some reason. But her look changed in an instant to calculating. “Who are you, and why are you working for the hunt?”
Merlin smiled - a light smile that made me cold – and replied. “Oh you have me all wrong, I'm not a witch. I'm just a concerned citizen.”
I threw split pistols, aiming one her way while the other stayed on Polyene. Emptying the clips on both kept them hopping, and kept both from thinking too hard about just what Merlin was. At least, if the train car tossed at me like a fastball was any indication.
Luckily enough it missed us all. Unluckily I got pegged by a random piece of something falling out of it.
The wonderful scent of hard liquor bloomed around me as I blearily looked for what hit me. I found it; two broken bottles of vodka, the good stuff, lying next to each other and broken the exact same way. Something was wring with that idea, but I didn't know what it was. There was also two Alicia's, two Ivan's, and another of each witch.
It had to be multiplication magic. Damn witches and their screwy powers.
The two Merlins looked back to me and asked. “Are you alright?”
I couldn't decide which one of them to answer, so I picked one by eenie meanie miney moe. “Yeah I'm fine. Been better, but everything is still attached.”
The Polyene's spoke up from my left; when had they gotten so close? Had they taken advantage of my miney moe? Probably, they were scum after all. “Here, let me fix that.”
They both turned their arms into large sickle hands or something and took their shot, but I managed to dodge them both. And my guns were empty, so I drew the Eagle. I probably had one shot with that though, and didn't want to waste it.
"Sasha!” Wow, Merlin actually sounded like he cared, there. Alicia's whip came out of nowhere and wrapped itself around both Polyene's throat. That actually caused them some issue as the whip discharged.
The Merlins on the other hand, stood fast in the face of the twin Malodorous attack, some weak fire snake thing that looked to be made of ash, protecting the Alicia's. Olivia would have been livid just from seeing such a weak fire attack. It was dispersed like the ones before it, but not before it lit both Merlin's left arms on fire.
A second attack, of battering force, knocked both Merlins to the ground. And then both Malodorous's (Malodori?) stopped, and started talking, giving us time to recover. (At least some of us; two Polyenes were pretty annoying.)
"I'll ask again, and only once more; who are you, and why are you working for the hunt?”
"The answer won't change even if you ask again. Malodorous.”
Merlin sent a bolt of something downrange at the enemy just as I got managed to maneuver the Polyene's into the shot. The Eagle barked and broke my wrist, but at this range even if my aim was off I couldn't miss. Both Polyenes vanished in the flash, splattering everywhere. The Malodori manged to block both shots, but I could tell how close it had been. She picked herself up, spitting dirt, and I couldn't resist.
"Rumors of my weakness have been greatly exaggerated.”
"So I see.' she replied. 'Come on Liar, Poly; we're leaving.”
I switched to the other wrist, but my generator was empty. Completely bone dry, showing zero percent. Probably just as well, since my other wrist probably wasn't up to firing the Eagle anyway. It didn't matter, since Malodorous had left; she was Cannes problem now.
"Well doc, I'm not sure that counts as a successful bodygaurding mission or not; this is one hell of a mess. I'm not cleaning that up, by the way.” 'That' was the train. I'd already had my community service for the year. Also we hadn't actually caught a witch; even Polyene was gone, somehow, and she hadn't left a hat behind.
The Merlins smiled. “Don't worry about it; I'll call it in and someone will be along. For now let's get you and your team to the next town. I'd call it a success, by the way, and will say as much to The Gloom.”
Well that was a relief, kind of. Much less relieving was the fact that I couldn't seem to get up, and the Merlins currently blocking out the sun had multiplied to four.
"Yes, she's fine. I'm more worried about you. Stan! Phil! Get out here!”
Stan and Phil huh? So those were the names of his assistants. I had more pressing concerns, but it was nice to know.
"So, you can do magic.”
Merlins nodded and held up a hand. “The process I'd like to use on you, I used on myself first. It was less effective than it should be with you. How many fingers am I holding up?”
"Twelve.' Each Merlin was holding up three fingers, and there were four of them. 'So what did you do, exactly?” I hadn't ever seen magic like that.
The Merlins all grinned. “It's simple; I have one trick. I can steal the magic behind a witch's spells, store some of it for a time, and use it for a variety of effects. Things like unraveling spells cast my way or channeling power into a generator or even hunter weapons directly are not beyond me. For all of that though, I am weak. I cannot take on a witch alone and hope to live.”
Maybe not, but he'd be one hell of a support for a team – if there were more of him. At least now I knew how our generators had a charge. But he was right about that; five percent of a charge a day (Or was it two days, now?) wasn't enough to do much; with just that, a team would have to sit idle for too long, and Merlin's time would probably be better spent doing sciency things.
But if he could repeat the effect he had, give it to more hunters? We could win the war inside of a year, probably. At the very least we'd stop losing.
Merlin was puttering over me, muttering about my wrist. “Merlin.”
"This thing of yours, I'm in.”
His eyebrows rose and a smile so wide it seemed to go around the back broke out on his face, but still he asked. “Are you sure? It isn't really the sort of thing one should decide when concussed.”
I met his gaze... all of them. “I'm sure.”
He shrugged. “Alright, but I'll have to get you healed first, or it might affect the procedure. You've been pretty ill-used already, and you need to recover to ensure survival.”
That could take weeks, even with my recovery being augmented.
Stan and Phil showed up, bearing a stretcher while Merlin fiddled with a generator – Alicia's. It had a charge still I guess. I could tell the way Ivan was looking at his own genny as he walked up that he was clicking empty. Merlin hooked Alicia's generator into my jacket then held out a pill.
"For the pain.”
Ivan stopped the hand before Merlin could deliver the pill. “Should you be handing him one of those, with a head injury?”
Merlin nodded. “Normally, no. But I deem it necessary. The generator will ensure he recovers, and the pill will keep him from aggravating his injuries.”
Ivan knew me, and let go. Merlin grabbed my head and held it steady while he stuck the pill in my face. I had no choice but to force it down, and I just knew it wasn't even the good stuff.
Sure enough everything just sort of broke apart and faded away, leaving me drifting; the last thing I could focus on was Ivan picking up my guns.
I woke briefly a few times, the sensation of floating in the air – of being carried – strong. Then again to the noise of a town; there was too much for it to be a village or hamlet. Then again as a train started up. Each time, Merlin would be there and I'd feel a pinch in my arm, and everything would fall away again. Finally when I woke, I was able to stop him from sticking the needle in; The train had stopped, and we were in Central. Ivan was beside Merlin, and Alicia was awake and grumpy looking on her own cot. It made her beard bristle.
They carried us side by side, though I probably could have walked. Maybe. Kind of. Almost. I used the time to write up my report, since I hadn't done it yet and whoever was at the front desk (maybe Sarah!) would want it.
Thanks to the jostling ride, my penmanship looked better than ever.
I shoved it in a folder as we went up the steps. It was complete enough, and clerical types loved folders for everything. Well, not the monastic kind of cleric, but the office worker kind.
And what do you know, it was Sarah behind the desk again. “Sarah! Good morning!”
She looked up and blinked, slowly. “Good morning, Sasha. You're looking... Well, you've looked better.”
I threw my folder at her desk. It landed perfectly of course, because I was just that good. “Yeah, Marcy the Malodorous dumped a train on my head. Nothing I couldn't handle, of course. That's my report of it.”
Alicia said something she thought was funny: “Sasha is just like a roach; witches can't stomp him.”
Sarah opened the folder and looked at the half a page in silence; why would she look so sad? The fight hadn't been that bad! Certainly not enough for the look of quiet despair stealing across her lovely face. What could cause such dawning horror?
She slammed the folder closed, panting, as Ivan delivered his own report (five pages, collated and stapled together, with no folder, almost like he wanted to make us look bad) and turned to him.
"Thank you Ivan, I'm sure your report will be a great help.”
He just waved at her. Merlin gestured with a grin. “Well now, let's get you to both to medical, shall we?”
I waved with my good hand. “Bye Sarah!”
She smiled back. “Goodbye Sasha.”
We split up; Alicia and I went to medical, with Ivan trailing. Merlin stayed behind, asking Sarah some questions I couldn't hear. I almost yelled for silence, but that would just make Merlin stop talking too. Perhaps not a bad plan, there....
I almost yelled for an entirely different reason when we hit the waiting room. Irene was working!
Irene “Icky” Green, a young doctor with degrees in holistic medicine, sporting a lab coat that was more brown than white. She had been on leave the last time we had rolled through – or suspension – and I hadn't seen her. She was still the same tall, thin, dark haired and pasty face girl I remembered though, with a hatchet face and thin lips set over a wide mouth. She also looked like she had rolled around in mud more than I had, recently.
"Oh hey, if it isn't the current bearer of the frequent visitor's card. Hey, Sasha, how are you doing?” she didn't wait to hear it from me, instead starting in with her poking, prodding, and moving me around.
"Oh, you know me, can't stay away.”
She took out a light and shined it in my eyes. “Head injury this time, huh? Well, it doesn't look too bad.”
How did she guess? No one had told her yet. “Yeah, got smacked in the head with a train car. Same old same old.”
She stopped, looking at Alicia's generator, which was still hooked up to my jacket. It had been altered a bit to ensure it worked for me, and cunning observer that she was, she picked up on it. “Well, that isn't yours.”
"Nah, it's Alicia's. Merlin messed with it some to help me heal.”
"Really? Looks like it saved your life. How is Alicia?”
I looked for her. She wasn't here; she'd been moved somewhere else, to another room? “Well she was fine five minutes ago, if not well enough to whine about me using her generator.”
Come to think of it, how had Merlin reworked the generator? They were supposed to be tamper proof in the field. I doubted even Emil could tinker with one outside his lab.
"How bad is he?” Merlin asked.
Irene responded as like I expected. “Well, Sasha is notoriously tough, even without a generator involved. With one? Maybe a week. Of course, the charge on Alicia's generator is about non-existent, so that might mean a few more days. But all in all, the worst is behind him, and nothing looks life threatening.”
It was true, my head was my hardest part. But even healed, our future was bleak. We would have to try and take a witch without any generator juice. I was out, Ivan was out, and Alicia was going to be out. Even a weak witch would probably kill us, and we couldn't rely on Merlin to feed us power like he had; he was essentially a living passive generator but needed something to work with... and I had no doubt he was clicking empty too.
So a week to get better, and then maybe a month to live. Especially with the Malodorous looking for me – unless Merlin did his thing. Oh well, I ain't no chicken.
"We're still on, Merlin. Will the recovery time be a problem?”
He looked down and smiled sunnily at me. “No, not at all. In fact, it's not an issue at all; I can start the procedure now, as long as I know you're stable.”
Irene butted in. “He's stable. But what procedure are you talking about? I know you're a doctor, but...”
"Oh, just a highly experimental procedure designed to create the next generation hunter.”
Irene opened her mouth again, and I closed it. “Mind your own business Irene. Genny's empty, and nothing saved. You know what that means.”
She looked away. “Fine, but as your doctor, I want in.”
Merlin bowed. “Of course. Shall we go?”
Irene looked surprised. “Right now?”
Merlin unhooked Alicia's generator. “Sure, no time like the present. Id have preferred to do this in my own lab, but here is fine. To the dungeon we go!”
He wheeled me off himself, a spring in his step, while I tried to stay awake without the generator's help. I failed.
I woke up strapped to a table; I could hear yelling, and it was making my head pound.
"Shut up, Gloom! Damn!”
Then my mind caught up to my mouth, and I realized how screwed I was. The Gloom leaned over me, a look I couldn't read on his face. I should be able to read it, really, since faces were like books. Then it occurred to me that I might be a little loopy.
"Sasha, are you alright?” Concern, that as the look! Well at least he wasn't going to pull my head off or something.
"M'fine, m'fine. The doc do his thing?” I could see Emil and Merlin both beside each other in the corner, and both wringing their hands in sync, oddly enough. Ivan was watching them, and Irene had her arms crossed on my other side.
"No, he hasn't. I stopped him. You're safe.”
Safe? Was he kidding me? Who was ever safe, now? “Don't. I said yes.”
"Sasha, you have a head injury.”
Merlin uncoiled his hands and produced a piece of paper. I could kind of tell from here that it had my signature, but I don't remember signing anything. “I have written permission and a waiver, Gloom, all legal. You just heard his verbal permission. You can't stop us anymore; you know what will happen.”
"Yeah, fuck that; try me.” He turned back to me as Merlin walked up. “You sure about this, Sasha?”
His hands were dug into the bed so tightly they were white. “M'sure. You know what happens.”
He shook his head. “If it's about that, I can help! I have a full generator....”
I cut him off, my blood hot. “No! Don't want yours, don't want others – our problem, I'll fix it.”
He stared into my eyes a long time; I didn't blink. Then with a shrug he backed off. “Alright Sasha. Just don't die on me, okay?”
I snorted. “You should know better; I'm tougher than I look. Took a train to the head, just last week....”
"That was only five days ago Sasha. See you on the flip side.”
He walked out, heading up, and the scientists closed in.
I laughed and stomped down, the little ants fleeing before me. Small witches, so small I could barely make out faces and their voices did that funny high-pitch thing scattered before me. I was a giant, a tough giant, and their spells were useless! I could use their bones to make my bread, or something.
Of course I knew it was a dream, but it was a nice one. Very restful, smashing people who weren't really people into gooey paste.
I woke up with a yawn and stretched; it felt good.
Well, a yawn anyway; the stretched part was hard, considering how strapped down I was. Still was. My freshly opened eyes revealed I was still on the bed, but it was cranked up to a semi-standing position somehow, I would be sliding off the bed if I wasn't strapped onto it. There was a tray of medical instruments, scalpels and probes and other nasty things next to me – that I was sure none of which were supposed to be used in the procedure, not that I was sure what was used, other than I had been assured it was not invasive – and I could see the lights on in the observation area above.
To my other side there was an old generator, one older than I'd ever seen. It's guts were splayed across the table it was sitting on, and looked to have been hacked apart. I knew part of the process had involved trying to repeat some of the older experiments regarding magic on record, but opening up what had to have been a first generation generator seemed over the top... they had been rumored to leak. A lot. At least that was the official response given for the insanity and clawing of eyeballs that happened after six months to a year of steady use.
All the usual suspects were here: Ivan, Alicia, Emil, Irene, Dustin (who probably needed to be somewhere else), the rest of his team (whose names I can't really be bothered to remember) and most worryingly, both the Gloom and Plague.
They all had their various weapons pointed right at me.
"Uh... hi?” I did my best to choke out. My throat was pretty raw for some reason.
Plague lowered her weapon first, a larger than normal flail. She looked very sad for a moment. “Oh Sasha...”
I tried to respond again when she trailed off; it took a couple tries. “What? I'm fine. Or at least I appear to be fine. I feel fine, at any rate. Why the hell are you all acting like this is a wake?”
I couldn't even look down at myself. Sure, I didn't feel any pain, and I seemed to feel all my limbs present and accounted for and I wasn't in any pain, but experiments sometimes did funny things.
"How about something to drink?”
Dustin and his team kept me covered while Ivan got me a glass – then put a straw in it. Alicia crowded close, her face stormy under her beard, but Ivan was acting on-the-job professional. He poured what smelled like water, which was a shame; I'd have preferred beer. I couldn't move my head; Ivan brought the straw close.
Alicia shook her said and muttered as I started drinking, the water a warm balm all the way down. “It's not fair. Not fair at all.”
"What,” I cleared my throat and tried again. “What isn't fair?”
The voice that responded, finally shaken free of the rust that had coated it, was a clear dulcet bell tone that straddled the line between tenor and soprano; it sounded as if it were singing when it wasn't. It also wasn't close to my own manly tones, and I looked around curiously for whoever was trying to imitate me – just for future reference, and not for any vengeance or anything.
Alicia just sighed. “Even the voice, damn it, it's not fair at all!”
Merlin stepped up. “So, Sasha. You're awake, right? Fully awake, and in control of your faculties? I'd be very interested in hearing of any side effects you may be experiencing.”
I tried again, and again the voice of an angel responded. “Well, other than my voice, I don't know. I don't think I feel any different.”
Yes, it was vague, but the way they were all looking at me (some of them still with weapons pointed; behavior I expect from Duncan but not anyone else) And other than the vague feeling of comforting, near stifling warmth, something which could be from the clothes I was wearing (I knew I was wearing something, I just couldn't see what it was with my head strapped down) I felt good. My senses seemed sharper than ever, and my body seemed sensitive. Judging from the muscle twitches, it felt more responsive than ever, and if the nerves felt slightly off, as if they were in the wrong place, what of it?
I felt alive.
Merlin persisted. “Do you hear any... voices?”
Idiot. “Of course I do, you're yapping at me after all, so I hear yours.” That came out as if it were sung, I'd need to work harder to roughen it up. Maybe I could deepen it a little if I tried?
The Gloom's lips turned upward slightly, and Plague snorted laughter; I winced, it wasn't a pleasant sound.
Merlin sighed behind a smile of his own. “I meant voices in your head.”
Voices like witches listened to, of course. “No, nothing of the sort.”
"And when you look at us, what do you see?”
Well that was a weird question. And a bit ominous. I thought about it a minute. “Comrades. One of whom I owe for fucking up my manly voice.”
Deepening my voice made it worse, more of a low but light tenor. There had to be a way.... At least Merlin had the good grace to look guilty. He spoke up again, holding up my guns – I was beginning to get a little angry – I was still strapped down.
"What do you think of these, Sasha?”
"I think I owe you a bit more for touching my guns. If you get your dirty fingerprints on them....”
Well, trying to scratch up the voice didn't work either.
Merlin looked to Gloom, and Gloom nodded. “That's normal.”
A chorus of nods rippled around the rest of the peanut gallery. Merlin set them down gently and eased his hands away, and pointed to the generator on the table. “And that?”
"I think Emil must be pissed you ripped up one of his generators. What did you even do to that thing, anyway?”
Emil nodded with a smile as Merlin answered nonchalantly “Oh, just used it to graft a magic matrix to your body.”
Well, that explained that... wait, what? That was his process? A magic matrix was a bit of a theoretical doublespeak meaning the unknown bit of something attached to the person of the witch somehow in order to give them special powers; the thing that made them different. I wasn't really as caught up on the science-y side of things, being far more involved in... practical applications.
"You grafted a magic matrix to my soul?”
Merlin started popping cuffs, and Dustin's team tensed. The Gloom and Plague were relaxed though, and – was Plague crying? “Yes. Only a few humans alive are capable of having such matrices applied, and fewer still are the males capable of undergoing the process. In all my testing I've only found two. And of course, it seems the process needs refined; there are side effects.”
I stretched languidly, and it felt as marvelous as I had suspected it would. I tried roughening up my voice again. “Things like my voice, right? I think I can deal with it. I'll just stop talking or something. Maybe take up smoking or something.”
Merlin Blushed, and Plague burst into noisy tears. “Ah, not quite. In your case the process worked a little too well, I'm afraid. Look down, please.”
I looked down. I was dressed in something weird; it was a robe that looked like a dress, or a dress that looked like a robe. It was black, hugged every curve gently, but covered everything and reached my ankles.
I also had curves to fill it out; I had boobs and flared hips. The boobs were a bit more small than I preferred, but since they were hanging off of me that was probably for the best. A flash of color caught my eye, and I pulled some hair forward, it was both longer and darker than I was used to; a strawberry blonde that reached my chin and was a bit too close to red for my taste.
My hands were even smaller than before, and my wrists were so small they would probably break if I tried to lift my travel pack or generator. Bending slightly, I could see small, delicate feet with perfectly cut nails.
"Merlin.” I was proud of how even my new voice was. The Gloom tensed in his seat, where he was patting Plague's shoulder awkwardly.
"Yes Sasha?” I looked; Merlin was in a dress, no doubt about what it was. A slight shuffle step towards my guns had everyone on edge, but he didn't notice.
"Who changed my clothes?”
"No one did, actually.” Merlin reached up and plucked something off my head; I felt cold instantly.
It was black and conical, with a wide brim and a top that was bent crooked. The stereotypical witch's or sorcerer's hat, such as was never actually seen on a witch. Merlin took a step back and I got even colder. The world began to recede, as if I were seeing it from the end of a tunnel which was rapidly growing longer. Sounds, smells, even colors were muted, and my field of vision started to shrink.
I reached out to try and get the warmth and light back, only to watch as my hand slowly rose and get avoided easily. Something was wrong – it was very hard to focus, to care. I was back on the bed without any idea how I'd gotten there, and everyone was watching me with cold eyes.
And then the hat was back, placed firmly upon my head at what had to be a jaunty angle, and the warmth, sight, and sound snapped back immediately. If I hadn't already been on the bed, I might have fallen.
"What the fuck was that?”
I knew what it was, it was a witch's hat, or the effect of one. I had just felt it from the other side, what happened when a witch was deprived of her hat; I had been reaching, and would have gleefully followed that hat into a fire or a gas chamber.
It was a witch's hat and it was clearly mine, which meant....
Plague bolted out of her chair, past the Gloom, and grabbed me to her. “It's true Sasha my love! We have been parted most cruelly, our love forbidden for all time!”
She paused mid sob. “Well, at the very least our lust has been forbidden for all time. After all, how would....”
Na na na na, not hearing this, not hearing this! I shoved her off with effort, and turned to the Gloom.
"So... I'm a witch.”
He nodded. I think he knew I had to ask.
"Fully a witch?”
"Fully a witch. Inside and outside.” Irene interrupted, answering for him.
Witches were female. There were no male witches. I wanted to double (and maybe triple) check, but Plague was creeping me out already, and I didn't want to give her any more ideas.
"So what happens now?”
Fall had come in with a vengeance. Most of that vengeance had been in the form of screams of pain and burning, so the reports said. I was on a train, headed to the Greek border. Riddle, the second of one of the more bloodthirsty of the four, one Suspira, had been spotted at a small town there. The town just so happened to be one of the places where train engines were still made, at a secret factory underground. So far Riddle hadn't found it yet, but she was jerking the entire populace around in one of her mazes, so it was only a matter of time before one of them cracked.
There was always one, after all, in any group.
I looked up from drumming my nails on the table in front of me... I had managed to cut them down, I didn't want them interfering with my trigger pulls, but the memory of the perfectly shaped nails was not one I could shake so easily. I still had the strawberry nail polish on them because Alicia wouldn't tell me how to remove it. I'd tried to ask Sylvie, but she hadn't said a word to me; not even a hello. Sarah just didn't see me at all. She said hello, but didn't even glance my direction when I tried to ask.
I'd find some way to get this paint off... even if it killed someone.
Speaking of Sylvie, she and the rest of Dustin's team were on the train, watching me. Diesel was off playing pool in the game car (which seemed like a dumb idea to me, I mean the train was moving) with Dustin, but Sylvie was right there, staring. The presence of Plague to my right at the bar was the only thing that kept me from going over there to ask her what her problem was. After all, I was pretty sure Plague had the remote to my collar, and well... it was Plague. I didn't want to move too much and attract her notice. Heck, I didn't dare ask her about the paint, for fear she take that as interest and start painting my face.
She'd already had her way with my clothes, I wasn't about to give her any other encouragement.
I was in plainclothes and not a Hunt uniform, but the pants were tight and hard to move in, the shirt was just small all over, and the boots went halfway up my knees. It all clashed with my hat, but I had no idea how to make the thing shrink or hide the way witches did. Or other witches did.
Because I was officially a witch; the announcement had been made while I'd been asleep. The Gloom hadn't lied at least, he'd said outright that it was because of a Wyld Hunt experiment gone wrong, and hadn't omitted his own blame. Though he hadn't thrown Emil or Merlin under the bus either. The results of the announcement were mixed.
On the one hand, some apparent sympathy had been generated; they could keep their pity. On the other hand, I'd received my fair share of 'the enemy among us' looks while gearing up and checking out for our current mission – as if they were waiting for me to snap. I couldn't really blame them for that either, but it was annoying.
It wouldn't be nearly as annoying if I actually knew how to do the things they suspected me of, oddly enough. As it was, all the stares and whispers had made me... uneasy.
"We're going to have to do something about that hat of yours when we arrive.” Plague said, idly rolling an empty shot glass across the bar.
"I'll handle it when I get in uniform.” Getting geared up was more serious now; some girls in the Hunt had been confused as witches before, and attacked while doing their duty. If I showed up in plainclothes next to a bunch of hunters, there would be talk. Such talk wouldn't be limited to whispers out here.
"Yeah, good plan. The seamstress should be done altering the uniform by the time we arrive.”
I felt a cold pit open in my gut. My danger sense was going off, with full dread. I turned to Plague and asked, as casually as I could. “You actually bought a seamstress on the train with us?”
"Of course. We can't have hunters looking bad, it reflects on all of us!”
I goggled. While she looked clean and kept, with only her wild hair betraying her, and Sylvie looked imma....immac... whatever that word was, many was the hunter that looked like a bum. In fact, bum was my favored look; it stuck out less, even when in uniform. Do it right, in fact, and you were wearing the uniform without looking like it.
Wait a minute... why did I care about having a uniform made to fit me? I could just pick up a stock one from somewhere, the main thing was the jacket anyway. And how did the seamstress know my sizes anyway? Wasn't stealing my clothes enough for Plague?
It wasn't. “Don't give me that look, us hunters on the other side of the fence have different considerations regarding image. Considerations that mean we can't just throw anything on and go in the morning. If you'd simply stayed on your side of the fence we wouldn't be having this conversation.”
Great, she was mad. I'd have to check my bed for fleas every night. And my drinks for a little extra. At least she can't rot certain things off, like she threatened once. One of the worst ways to be safe, but it was still safe.
"I don't think I'll really have that problem.” Sure I wouldn't; I didn't really look all that different – and I'd only been mistaken for a witch by people who didn't know me one – dozen or so times. Not that often, really.
At least it was fewer times than Alicia had on being confused for a girl.
The only thing I really needed to worry about were my guns anyway. It would be pretty hard to mistake me for a witch with those visible. I'd also be wearing a 'generator' – which was only a case; the Hunt didn't want to risk a real generator on me, and technically it should be useless for me anyway. I could feel the connection of my guns, after all – that connection they had to my old generator still there, and something I could feel out and push my new power down.
All it took was a touch. I was fairly sure that I could shoot my biggest toys, too. Well provided they didn't break my arms; A quick glance at my chicken-boned wrists showed how likely that was. If I had any bone in my arm bigger than a pencil I would be amazed. Shooting my normal guns hadn't been an issue so far at least, so I was able to contribute.
My ammunition had been returned and I was allowed to take a few shots at dummies before we left. The recoil had been enough to give me pause, but there was nothing wrong with my aim. Well, at least against stationary targets.
The power flowed from my hands, to the ammunition, converting it to the good stuff, and a full salvo from the colts barely caused a dip in the warmth I felt, the lava warming me from the inside like a liquid hug. It flowed like a trapped animal, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always pacing.
...And I was getting way too poetic. Next thing you know, I'd be writing books or something.
I could probably stuff my hat into the generator casing, next to the ammo I was keeping there (since my current clothes didn't have pockets for some stupid reason). I mean, it was armored and all, but the idea weirded me out for some reason. I needed skin contact, which meant the plan of just dropping it back down my uniform shirt and trusting my jacket to conceal it was still on.
Yeah, nothing could ever go wrong with that foolproof plan. At least I'd be able to do that with the uniform shirt; the one I had on now wouldn't even cover the full surface of the hat.
I stared out the window and watched the scenery roll by. Farmland and some gentle hills, mostly, rather dark even in the sunshine. It was kind of a regional thing or something. It made me want a drink. Then again, this whole situation seemed to signal happy hour for me.
The next thing that slid across the bar was a bottle, and it was full. A mojito, really?
Oh well, there was rum in it; that was something.
The next thing that slid down the bar was a book; an old one on police procedure and tactics? “What is this for?”
"To read, silly. You look bored. Go ahead, it won't bite you.” Plague replied.
I wasn't so sure of that; I'd seen what happened to people who read these things. It became like a drug addiction or something, and the next thing you knew you were like Emil, locked in a dark basement somewhere and cackling while you thought up your next evil plan.
"Go ahead, there are some useful tidbits for fighting witches in towns in there. Something better than the 'make a stink and hope she's arrogant and comes to you' plan you seem to favor.”
I saw no reason to reinvent the wheel. “That is what works best.”
"Only for witches with egos. Or ones that fear the hunt. When your prey is neither, what do you do?”
I turned to her, frowning, the liquor already warming, competing with the – other stuff. “I wouldn't know, it's never happened.”
"Well, that's probably true,” Plague stated with a frown, then saluted me with her bottle. “In that case, I'll tell you. You miss. Your prey goes underground, and gets away. Proper investigative techniques, more than just asking random people if they've seen anything odd, can be useful. So can the combat section. If nothing else, the section on hostage takers and negotiation is worth the read.”
I drained the bottle; another slid down the bar. “You think I don't know that stuff? You really think I don't know how useful observation is, real observation? You really think I don't know how to ask questions, the right questions? If I've gotten lazy at all, it's because the prey has to. They used to actually hide; they aren't doing that now. The last witch we tracked? She was just living in a cave outside of town, and leading anyone and everyone right to her with her stupid guards! Seriously, the modern witch is stupid. Doing all that investigative crap is a job for the scouts, and they are welcome to it.”
And if I didn't find the strongest witches, the truly old, doing things my way – well, they would come to me, or I'd find out what rock they'd crawled under. I had found Olivia, after all.
"Speaking of the scouts, have you ever given thought to joining them?”
I almost dropped my new bottle. What was she on?!? The scouts were amazing, I had nothing but respect for them. But basically they were glorified paid informants, people who tracked down the strange and unusual, and called in the tips to us. Many of them didn't even travel, just settling down in order to get a feel for a place, and then calling us when a new witch came to town.
None of them fought, their shield was their invisibility; they could be anyone. Their sword was a call to us. Weapons could out them as unusual after all, get them arrested... or 'encouraged' to move on, in some places. Not even the Hunters knew who they were, and mistakes could always happen. Being a scout was gutsy in the extreme.
That said, there was no way I could see a witch and not fight. I could tell, as I met Plague's eyes, that she knew it too.
She sighed. “Right, just not in you to give up the fight, retire to some out of the way place with a hot tub and mountain view, and charge our gennys when we stop by.”
That was oddly specific, and sounded more than a little wistful. And the way Plague was staring off into space was a little creepy.
Too much attention from Plague could be a very terrible thing. I opened the book to cover myself; if I appeared to be busy she would go back to spinning glasses around and leave me alone. It seemed to work, though she still stared at me.
What was really creepy was that Sylvie still hadn't said a word. As far as I could tell, she hadn't even moved. Her gaze was on the scenery outside the left of the train, but her focus was on me; I could feel it.
I didn't blame her really, if the view to the left matched my view to the right, only the things inside the train were worth looking at here.
The book was boring. Well, except for the combat section. Some of the way street to street was mentioned was very familiar. The tactics using high numbers of people were rather stupid, it was just asking a witch to notice and fireball a busy street, but they probably worked for the time.
And then I could stop torturing myself because the train was slowing. We were entering the town. What was the name of it again? Radish, radiation...Oh right, Radomsko. It didn't seem to be much, but was bigger than I expected; the sign said the population was just over twenty-six thousand. There could be more than that... but the entire place was empty. There wasn't even a dog barking in the distance to break the silence.
We slid to a stop smoothly, right in front of the station. A discarded piece of paper caught my attention briefly as the train's passing disturbed it. A newspaper from the looks of it, and it was yellow. It had taken us two days to get here, so very few should be dead. And just as important, the engine plant hadn't yet been found out, so no one had turned.
I got up, but Plague stopped me. “Uniform, Sasha, and your hat. Next car over, room 4.”
Oh, right. I took the hat of and started to the back. I wanted some fresh air and direct sunshine, but the rules said we should stay put and watch for ambush. Not that I cared about the rules, but if I couldn't be first off the train it was best to be seen following them.
It was scary how quickly I could forget about the hat. How natural it was. I found room number 4 and knocked.
"Get in here, Sasha.”
I knew that voice. Out of all the seamstresses in Central, Plague had to get her? She does good work and all, and worked fast when needed, but she was a mean old biddy. I plastered a smile on; best to get this over with.
"Auntie Adeline, how are you?”
She looked the same as ever, except maybe smaller. She seemed to shrink more every year. Now she was up to my shoulder. Her wrinkles had wrinkles, but her hair was tied in bun so tight it seemed to straighten her face out. Her gnarled hands were working on a dressmaker's dummy... a female one. The lower half of the uniform was a black skirt with white pinstripes, to match the jacket.
She looked up from the sleeve she was fondling, her eyes crystal clear and intense. “Cut the shit and get over here.”
I got over there. She gave me a once over, and started around. “Even more scrawny, aren't you? You need to eat more.”
The she groped my ass. I shook her hand off and gave her my best glare. “You still have good muscle tone at least. Good to see Plague was right about the measurements. I thought she was lying to me.”
"You should have known better.” Nobody lied to auntie Adeline.
She smacked me in the arm. “Well? Strip, we don't have all day. Try it on.”
I stripped while Auntie Adeline took a cigarette out of the silver case she always carried, and lit up.
Taking the skirt off the dummy gently, I put it on first. Skirts weren't exactly my choice in uniform code; they didn't protect anything, and didn't have pockets. With my old gear, my clothes would form a barrier; the generator would shunt power through them. But with the female hunters, skirts weren't exactly unpopular; how did they handle it?
"My legs are going to get shot off.”
Auntie Adeline took a drag, and blew a long smoke ring. “It was short notice. Deal.”
I was a bit less gentle with the shirt. “Thank you ever so much for your concern.”
Auntie snorted. “Just don't get hit. Rely more on that ridiculous speed of yours. Or wear long socks.”
Hm, she was right, I could do that. “You don't happen to have any of those handy, do you?”
She took another drag from her cigarette. “Nope. Didn't think to pack them. Here.”
There was a sort of sleeve in the white dress shirt, set on either side of my shoulder blades. Auntie snagged my hat and folded the top of it. Even though I felt the pull, the terrible feeling of my self contracting, I kept my twitching hands to my sides and watched.
Auntie Adeline settled the sides of my hat in the sleeves, leaving plenty of space to contract my shoulder blades. She handed the shirt back, and I put it on as fast as I could. Which was a bit slower than I could normally move; Auntie watched with open curiosity.
As soon as the shirt settled I felt better, and finished in no time.
I wasn't a judge of skirts, but the one I had on hugged my hips without clinging to them. The shirt fit perfectly, with just enough space to tuck in and not bind at all. Shrugging the black jacket on was a breeze, and it fit too. A glance in the full length mirror placed off to the side confirmed the guess that with the jacket buttoned I'd look like an undertaker or something. Well, if undertakers wore skirts.
Also, the shirt seemed to do something to my figure. Or maybe it was the jacket. I unbuttoned it.
Something cloth like slapped me in the face, and I caught it. “I did have time to pack some of those.” Auntie Adeline said, starting another cigarette.
I unfolded what appeared to be gray shorts. Very small stretchy gray shorts.
Auntie Adeline took a drag from the fresh cigarette. “Don't give me that look. That's your size. Put them on so you can kick without giving everyone a free show.”
Spoken like someone who had never been in a fight to the death before. I pulled them on to shut her up, and put my new boots back on, and I was done. I looked at Auntie, and she grunted.
"You'll do, I guess. Now get out of here. There are a few more uniforms just like that one, they will be in your room by the time you get back, but that's no excuse to roll in the dirt like you always do. Don't make more work for me.”
"Got it.” I was out the door before she could say anything else. That went well, really, she was downright pleasant today. She was probably in a good mood due to the suffering of others; like a vampire or ghost or demon, something like that.
I went out the nearest door, turning my face into the sun and closing my eyes. The breeze smelled fresh, and it wasn't too hot or cold. Even if it was a bit more breezy than I was used to in the leg region.
"Sasha?” Ivan asked. I turned to face him, to find him looking at my skirt.
He looked up and I shrugged when his eyes got far enough. “I had to look the part, Ivan.” Now more than ever went unsaid, but he understood it.
"But still, isn't that... impractical?”
I nodded. “Sure is, but Auntie Adeline was behind it.”
Ivan shuddered; he was even less of a fan of the old lady than I was... She liked him. And wasn't that all kinds of terror to think about? “I suppose that explains it.” He settled on, finally.
I knew how he felt. But looking past him I found a mystery. Alicia had seized up again, eyes wide, and was muttering. She hadn't bothered to find my eyes yet, her own eyes still on my clothes. Behind her, Dustin was doing much the same; I adjusted my holsters and drew.
"Alicia, am I going to have to shoot you?”
That snapped them both out of it, Alicia took a step back, hands out, even as Dustin's face hardened. “Save it for the witch Sasha.”
The or else was silent, but it was there. Dustin made it more clear, by almost raising his weapon. Which was pretty gutsy, since we both knew he wasn't fast enough. If anything, I was faster now. Whatever; I eased off and put my colt away.
"Sometimes you have to act to get Alicia's attention, Dustin. You of all people should know that.”
This scene, and these people were boring. I passed Diesel on my way to meet up with Plague, and he fell into step beside me easily, without a word to break the now easy silence. The only sour note there was how he had to hold back to match my stride. We all grouped up, split up into our groups again, and walked through the empty station. It looked to have been left in a hurry; there were bags and stuff everywhere; I could almost picture the milling, screaming crowd.
The town was a maze, but not Riddle's kind of maze. It was empty however, with the food in the market starting to rot. There was less stuff here, scattered around. Some small pools of blood. And in the town square there were four bodies, all headless, all cut in several places and bled out. No sounds at all, except for the flies.
As senior and more powerful hunter, Plague had command. “Diesel, Ivan. Cut them down and bury them. Sasha, North. Alicia, West. Dustin, East. Sylvie get South.
We settled into the cardinal points, watching for ambush as Plague double-checked the bodies for traps. I wasn't too worried. Sure, Riddle had done as much before, but she knew that we knew it. So if she were going to spring an ambush on us, she'd have done it before now.
Burying the fallen and giving last rights went without incident. More importantly it went fast; the wonders of all our practice. Plague recited the correct prayers herself.
Then she polled us. “Thoughts?”
Well the mission was still to find the townspeople. “The most likely place for one of Riddle's mazes is Northeast; just outside of town is a huge field and farmland she can take over. She doesn't like to walk too far out of her way after all; she's lazy.”
Everyone was frowning at me now. Plague had asked for opinions, and I'd given mine first. Clearly they didn't like that. I raised my hands and stretched; the sky was very blue, and very empty. It always paid to look up.
It took a moment, but the others stopped glaring and stepped up. Ivan was first: “I know standard procedure, but it would be a bad idea to split up. If we do, and find the maze, it will separate us.”
Dustin's response was immediate – and stupid. “Why? It's simple, whoever finds it you simply pop a flare and wait at the entrance for the rest of us.”
Plague answered before I could. “Because Riddle's maze can shift, and sometimes the entrance just swallows you. At least, that's what I've heard.”
I wondered who she heard that from; there weren't many to escape Riddle's mazes. None of us had met Riddle before, not even Plague. It would be interesting to see how those powers offset each other.
"Alright, everyone take a point. Stay within sight, go high, and scan for the maze.”
"Northeast.” I called and started off. No one objected, picking their own directions.
I ran to the edge of town, right where the buildings started doing that petering out thing they tended to do. I picked a bakery and entered, heading upstairs through the back with no hesitation. It was three stories, with a balcony. It was as empty as the rest of the town of course, and with luck the baker and his family – I spotted a stuffed lion and a wooden train set among the scattered stuff – would never know I was here.
The balcony was nice, if bare. There was a small rooftop garden, some vegetables and flowers. And pretty much right where I predicted was a large maze, made of plant matter. I pulled my mini-flare gun and set it off, just as I saw a flare streak through the sky just to the north of me.
My binoculars revealed the maze was made of wheat and vines, so that was a field after all; Riddle tended to use the local plants.
Regardless of what it was made of, it would be deadly to anyone inside it.
I really didn't want to walk down the stairs. I really hadn't thought this plan through enough. I had a grapple I could use, but that would mean leaving it behind. One of the houses near this one was a two-story, and one next to it was a single story. Screw it, that was my way down.
I took a running start and all but floated over the narrow street gap, hitting the other side easily with a soft thump; the roof didn't even give. It was an angled surface but it took less than a second to adjust my balance and stop the slide. Another small run and I hit the next roof over, making even less noise; a small adjustment and I was back on the ground with none the wiser. I gauged the jumps from this angle; they weren't anything I would have hesitated at before, and not bad at all. It was nice to know my body still worked.
I might have needed a little less effort to sling myself around, but it was hard to say. The run to Plague seemed faster too. I wasn't sure why that was, since I wasn't taller. Was I lighter? I wasn't smaller, so I shouldn't be lighter. But I felt lighter, somehow. I set off another flare, showing anyone coming to my last location that I was on the move to meet up with Plague.
It was probably a waste of a flare at this point, but it was standard procedure, drilled into hunter heads from childhood.
I reached Plague first; she was hanging out on top of a carriage house, of all things. Like everything else, it was silent; there were no horses. She was also farther away from the maze than I had been. I joined her on top to find her peering over the lightning rod. A good way to get hit in my opinion, but Plague was Plague.
Ivan was next, but he stayed off the roof and settled for scanning around the maze. Alicia was next, and joined Ivan silently, scanning closer to us.
Dustin, Diesel, and Sylvie showed up all at once, walking right down the road. Plague jumped down.
"Alright, are we ready? Food and water and relief bags all packed?”
"Same as a half-hour ago, Plague.” I stated as I landed easily next to her. “Let's go. Riddle already knows we're here.”
It was best to assume that, and for some reason I was sure I was right. Well, more sure than usual.
Plague stepped in front of us and turned on her heel, back to the maze. I wasn't sure I'd do that even from this distance, but I'd keep an eye on it anyway. “Alright, it shouldn't have to be said, but I'll say it anyway. The priority here is the hostages. We save as many as we can; and killing the witch is secondary. To that end, we're all going in; if Riddle feels her escape route is open, she's more likely to take it instead of killing everyone.”
Or she'd just kill everyone on her way out; it wasn't like she couldn't do both. I guess there was some doubt about how much control she had over the mazes she set up, but even if the answer wasn't total, it was close enough. Whatever, I wasn't in charge. But killing Riddle would save many lives, so if I saw the shot, I was taking it.
Nothing jumped out at us on the walk over. I belatedly realized our contact for this mission was missing when I spotted the crude wooden smiley faced welcome sign in front of the entrance to the normal looking topiary style maze. Perhaps he'd been smart and pulled out.
Plague didn't even hesitate. I was right behind her.
A few steps in and the maze was cool and dark. The sky was still visible above the ten foot walls, but the potential route to freedom was an illusion. Any attempt to scale the walls would be met with thorns. Very big thorns. Any attempt to use ladders or something similar would rapidly have the tools stolen by the same plants, and more thorns. The same happened if you tried to mark the walls or leave a trail; the maze absorbed it.
Riddle didn't like it when you cheated.
But Plague had to have a plan for that.
"Sasha, take point.”
That made a certain amount of sense; in here my range would be limited, unless I wanted to shoot through my allies. Putting me in front to deal with enemies coming, or behind to deal with enemies trying to back-stab were the only two options.
Behind me, Plague plunged a knife into the ground, carving an arrow into the dirt; observing the formalities, I supposed. At least it was better then the spray paint attempt. I covered the front and Plague tapped me the direction she wanted me to go. We didn't speak.
It didn't take long for us to be completely lost, even with the 'always left' trick. That was pretty much to be expected. What wasn't expected was the complete lack of any efforts to kill us. For hours. The only other motion beside us was leaves in the wind.
I had resorted to bubble gum, since there were no asses to kick. Dustin getting angry at my loudly popping blown bubbles was a nice bonus.
Even making noise, nothing jumped out to die.
There were birds here and there, perching on the vines. Too bad they were vultures.
It took hours to find the center, which told me Plague at least knew a little of what she was doing – or Riddle was bored and helping us.
The center was large; it had to be to hold all the townspeople we were searching for. They were huddling and gathered around a wooden stage. The wooden stage that Riddle was on, holding a blade to what could only be our informant. Behind the informant were five headless corpses, rotting in the sunlight while the vultures looked on.
Riddle was tall and very thin, with tangled brown hair that resembled her vines and some visible facial scars. She looked a bit like a model from the last century – after the drugs and a hundred miles of hard road. She was also spattered with mud and her dress was ripped in places.
"Ah, right on time, fearless hunters!” The informant opened his mouth, to yell probably, and Riddle slit his throat and kicked him off the stage in a spray of blood.
I guess her arm got tired while she waited on us.
For whatever reason though, it was a mistake because it left me clear. I drew and opened up, putting six shots toward her center of mass before she was even completely clear of the body.
They were all blocked by suddenly rampant plant growth, erupting from the stage itself. I cracked the gun and reloaded while Riddle laughed and the others charged. The good townsfolk ran as one away from the stage, but stopped short of the exits and walls.
"Let's play a game, mighty hunters!”
Riddle feinted left and dodged right, barely avoiding a javelin and a whip extended her direction.
"Escort the town back home. Succeed, and you get to keep them! Fail, and they are mine!” She floated back into the vines as our attacks converged, and vanished from sight.
So, the same game she always wanted to play, pretty much. Just with more people this time; usually she only took hunters hostage.
Usually she killed her victims outright, and we only found out later that it was her from the signs and dead vegetation she left behind.
The way we came closed itself off, of course, and grew thorns as long as my forearm. The other way out stayed open.
"Ivan, Sylvie, Alicia, Deisel, get the civilians up and moving.” Plague stated, turning her attention to the West wall as she motioned Dustin and I close. I faced East as I moved, and Dustin looked North, away from the rest of the team.
"What do you think?” Plague asked softly once we were close enough.
I replied first. “I think she's in her game mode. If she was at all serious, the hostages would have already been dead. This was something to draw hunters out.”
"She's going to play fair, at least as much as she ever plays fair. The way out was premade.” Dustin added.
Plague nodded slightly. “That's what I think too. We will have to split up though, to cover the hostages, if we decide to play her game. She can pick us off at will then.”
"If we don't split up, we will have to leave the hostages and try to corner her.” Dustin mused.
It was highly unlikely we could corner Riddle; none had before. She could simply vanish into her maze and cover more ground, trapping us with thorns, spikes, and pits all the while. I took a look at the hostages; I could tell at a glance they had been here days, even if I hadn't known from the briefing. Gaunt and with the beginnings of illness spreading through them, they had been waiting for us. It was unlikely they would wait and sit still while we left to track Riddle, even if Riddle would leave them alone while we tried.
"Be on your guard. Sasha, you'll be point. I'll be second, and Dustin you'll be behind me. I'll go give the rest their assignments.” I stopped Plague with a hand, and shoved my small bag at her.
"Food and water from the town. I just happened across the stuff. Give it to whoever you think is worst off; anyone too sick or dehydrated to keep up could kill us all.”
Plague gave me a searching look and I shrugged. I still had my own stuff; I wouldn't risk my own long term combat effectiveness.
Plague went to talk things out, while I took my position near the 'exit'. As point it was my job to watch this direction and the portal for threats. Dustin followed me a bit – he looked like he had something on his mind. Whatever it was, he didn't speak of it before Plague came back and took up position. The townspeople were slower at it, of course.
"Range?” I asked Plague, already dreading the answer as the broken scarecrows shuffled up behind me.
"Close.” She replied, confirming what I thought. Normally the job of point required me to range far ahead of my team, but with Riddle the past encounters were clear; we stuck very close, or we got very separated.
How any of us were supposed to just keep random thorns from skewering people as they walked past I didn't really know.
As we set off, the villagers in single file behind me close enough to touch, relying solely on Riddle's mercy seemed to be the plan – and it seemed to be working.
"And who are you, young lady? Which hunter?”
I didn't see any reason not to answer. “Sasha Norre.”
"The m..marksman?” the speaker stuttered out. He was an older gentleman, large and well built, balding and all the more worse for wear after having been starved for days. I could smell traces of oil on him, not too different than my own stuff.
"That's what they call me.” I told him. One little glance back was all he got; my eyes had to be front.
"So, Plague, the Trident, and you... all for us. We are in good hands, it seems.”
I couldn't deny that; Dustin Plague and I were a lot of named firepower in one place. “The best available. It may not help with Riddle; she's going to target you and your first I think.”
No real sense giving them false hope.
"I know,” He replied, quietly. “The mayor and the town council are back there. Supposedly the witch used their heads to mark the exits - after interrogating them of course. We don't think she got what she was after there. Plague wouldn't even let us bury them.”
I could understand his feelings, but now wasn't the time. “Honestly, no time to waste on that. Riddle will leave the bodies alone and go after the living. Assuming any of us survive, you can always come back; your friends have waited a few days, they can stand to wait a few more.”
He could come back for the five in the square, and whoever else we lost. We needed to get out or kill Riddle before we died of thirst.
Plague had already gone over the plan with me. Two lefts and a right, two lefts and a right; that way it would be easy of us to backtrack if we needed to. Sylvie was to write the turns down just in case. We would find out in a hurry if Riddle was playing this straight.
Nothing happened the first left, or the second; not so much as a twitch in the vegetation. The first right however, there were shouts behind us. I almost took that extra step; the one that would allow vines to shoot in behind me, cutting me off. They didn't so much as twitch.
Word came from up the line, whispered from one person to the next. The smith delivered the verdict to me, leaning over as if to mouth who he was crushing on. “One dead, impaled from by vines. Supposedly he stepped too close to the walls; far back of the line, but not the end of it.”
I nodded to show I understood and took the right.
A click and I was diving back; something flashed in front of me and cloth ripped.
Riddle had been busy; a blade trap had sprung up from perfectly normal looking ground, triggered by my foot on a pressure plate. The blade wobbled back and forth, glinting in the sun. The blade had missed my leg but cut a neat slit in the front of my skirt. I guess I couldn't just stroll along anymore.
I passed the word back. “Beware, traps are set in the paths.”
I'd only taken a few steps into the right hand path when the answer came back in the form of a collapsible rod that most hunters packed in order to probe for traps, magical or otherwise. I normally didn't bother, but I took it this time, unpacked it, and started in with my best blind guy impression.
I was pretty sure a real blind guy could do it better, but the next trap didn't make it to my clothes, so it was a bonus.
The little extra focus on making my clothes do what they were supposed to do was draining. But good practice I suppose. I still wasn't too keen on risking a leg though; sure the uniform worked for female hunters, but they had a generator powering theirs.
A whisper, and I was jumping back; I barely managed to get the smith to take that all important step back before the spiked log breezed by. It scraped my jacket but didn't damage it.
I hadn't hit a trigger or a trip line that time; I was willing to bet my life on it.
We both remained upright. “You're too solid for your own good, even after your diet. Next time I try to save our lives, have the decency to go down.”
He gave me a shaky ghost of a grin. “Sure, next time.”
I strode forward; there was no doubt that Riddle knew where we were. Where she was, was anyone's guess, but it was safe to say she knew everything going on inside the maze. Or at least, safe to assume it.
Left, left, and right. By the time I got to the second right the pole was more the size of a pencil, and I couldn't do my awesome tapping thing anymore.
I could still do the gun thing though.
"Sasha! What in hell are you doing?” Plague yelled, storming past the civilians behind me just as I put another shot into a likely place.
I tossed her pole at her; she caught it with ease. “Checking for traps. This thing is pretty useless now.”
Why was Plague scrubbing her face? This wasn't the time for a loss of vision! She looked to the heavens and ground out: “Checking for traps. With your guns.”
"Well, yeah. All life's problems can be solved with guns.”
She crossed her arms and stared. “What about being hungry, or cold?”
Pfft, easy stuff. “Shoot something and eat it. And if you're cold, shooting a gun makes it warm up.”
"Tired and thirsty?” She asked.
"Gunfire wakes you up like nothing else can; it gets the heart racing. And thirst? Dig a well.”
"Dig a well?” Plague questioned. “With guns?”
"My guns can dig wells just fine. I've done it before; Ivan can vouch for me there.”
Plague nodded slowly. “What about love? No, you know what, never mind.”
I pulled my two empties and reloaded. Plague strode back to her place, grumbling. How dare she question my awesome philosophy of life with her petty concerns. That's right baby, you and me against the world....
"Excuse me – are you hugging your gun?” The smith asked.
"No.” I replied, holstering it.
"Oh, that's good then.” He looked a little green, had he seen something sneaking up on me?
I whirled but there was nothing. Not a single leaf out of place. I saw Plague gave the signal to move from the corner of my eye. With a shrug I complied, trying to keep the gunfire down to a minimum by shooting out the traps I knew were there. I could only do so much after all, even if the citizens were all being babies about the noise.
Another series of turns, another right, and another curve thrown at us. The pit trap was almost laughably easy to spot, which made me wary; but there really was nothing around it. No tripwires, no pressure plates, no other weird triggers; just a pit with actual spikes at the bottom and covered up by fresh vegetation that matched the walls.
That was the real trap of course. Try to jump over that pit, the vines would come alive and drag you into it and the waiting spikes.
It wasn't too far to jump across, for someone who was fit. That left quite a few of the people behind me out, even if I was fast enough to make it, so I called a stop.
This time when Plague made her way up, she was all business. “What have we got?”
I waved a hand. “Take a look. I don't like it at all.”
She took the area in, clucking her tongue after only a second. “Yes, I see what you mean. What are our options?”
I didn't have any. After all we lacked a stone bridge, wood would be chancy, and this wasn't the sort of thing you threw a coat over. “I was kind of hoping you had some.”
"Going back. We can't risk the civilians.”
I wasn't a fan of going back.
"No Sasha, put the gun away.”
"But we can just climb past the hole and....”
"No. So far it's going well. If you damage the maze, you know what will happen.”
She turned to the smith and the quiet scarecrow behind him. “Spread the word, we are going back. Tell Sylvie she is now point and to lead us back and left once, then right again. Same order after that, left left right.”
Then she turned back to me. “Just watch our butts awhile Sasha. No need to take chances here yet.”
I nodded. She was right after all, we had a couple days at least before things went totally south.
I fell into step behind the smith and walked headfirst into a curtain of vines, with no thorns.
"So, who are you really and why are you helping them?”
I looked down to where Riddle was, laying down right on the trail coated in her own vines and liberally coated with dirt. It was a good look for her. I took a cautious step back, away from the new wall before I responded.
"Well, if you heard enough to ask with a really thrown in there, then you already know my name is Sasha.”
The dirty witch snorted at me. “Please. I may not be the most up to date, but even I know of Sasha Norre, the maniacal marksman. And while you look like a Norre, Sasha is just a guy that looks like a girl. Not a girl, and not a witch – and you honey, from this angle? It's clear you aren't a guy.”
Well, that was a little disconcerting. I shrugged at her to deflect. “Crap happened. If you want, I can prove it.”
I drew on her; guns solve every problem.
With a laugh she faded into the ground, the vines completely covering her before I could shoot more than once; she was fast. I looked up to find the vines in front of me gone, and everyone looking back at me.
Hm, how to play this... I shrugged again. “What? I thought I saw something.”
Plague hid her face again. “Damn it Sasha....”
I looked down again to inspect the damage. One of my least powerful shots, but the crater dug by the bullet was easily something that could blow a hole in a chest... or blow the entire torso off. It was almost a grave by itself, a hole about 2 feet deep and four to five feet around. That was very odd, and pushing it. Had I somehow put too much power into the rounds or something? No, too much power and the rounds would likely explode; not something I wanted to have happen while the bullets were on me.
And that was after impacting the vines Riddle used... something was clearly up.
I rushed back into place. Nope, nothing to see here, situation normal. But it did give me an idea... a brilliant idea. Something to fall back on if I had to. A slight backtrack, and we were off again; I wasn't so sure Sylvie should be point, but she was trained at least.
The slight backtrack led us to another square, somehow. The maze seemed bigger on the inside. There was a small burble of creek fed water here, and our charges rushed toward it. Dustin Ivan and Sylvie got in front and did what they could.
Another point to me; I shot my arrow in the air (so to speak) and nothing blocked it.
It stopped the stampede at least; everyone turned to me, wide eyed. Probably expecting me to be battling a witch.
"Let the Hunt check to see if the water is safe, first.”
The citizens reluctantly backed away from the small stream. Sylvie stepped up to it to do her job.
A simple test revealed so many different natural poisons laced into the water it was a surprise the stuff wasn't smoking... or actually on fire.
We gathered the civilians up in the center and huddled. Before Plague got started I made sure she understood one thing by tapping the grass below me with a foot.
"Assume she can hear anything we say. So, what's the plan?”
"I'll let you know. Daylight is fading, and I'm not sure we want to be fumbling around in the dark. See if you can spot anything questionable here, but don't get too close to the walls.”
I went off to check for traps like a good little soldier... but I wasn't fond of the idea of staying the night here. A prolonged stay meant a watch in an area where everything was all set to kill us, which meant a sleepless night. Then it meant the civilians, who had just hiked for a couple hours and who weren't in the best of shape, waiting and hopefully sleeping, but getting worse with a source of water they could hear right next to them.
Wait long enough and even a few of their dead surrounding that stream wouldn't be enough to deter them. And that's before they start seeing crap that ain't there. And after that little consideration there was the food issue. I wasn't sharing any more, not until I was certain we were out, and having such a stash might be hard for some starving people to understand.
Yeah, I didn't want to stay here anymore. It might be time for my idea, before I had to try and fight in the dark.
Plague would never go for it though, and neither would the rest of the hunters. Waiting until most were trying to sleep wasn't really an option, much as I wanted to. Anything I did would have an audience. I didn't really want to offer Plague a surprise, but with Riddle listening, I'd have to. Well, maybe not entirely.
I moved close, cutting off as much sight as possible while signaling I had a plan. “I have a plan.”
It was best to cover the real conversation with a fake one. I could switch back and forth and do some real planning with both, as long as Plague caught on.
I think she did. Plague closed in too, hands flashing. “Is it like your normal plans?”
Of course it was. She knew me, after all. “Nah, this one involves fewer explosions.”
"Alright, what is it?”
"I say we blast our way out using our dynamite. That stream has to come up from somewhere.” I was our dynamite, and I was suggesting going off with a short fuse.
"You do realize the stream is poisonous, right?”
"Only if you drink it, and only if you're a wimp.” Yes Plague, of course it was going to be big.
"I don't think the stream is the right approach.”
I nodded to Ivan. He would help me confirm where.
Ivan strode up. “What's this, another one of Sasha's plans? Can I just disapprove, on general principles?”
I gestured up with my left hand and his eyebrows lifted. “You can, if you're a wimp”
I had to gesture again, with both hands, before he finally did it. We'd be talking about this later, because if this was a trust issue, I'm putting on pointy boots just to kick him with.
Ivan lunged, and threw me up; I flew.
This close to the center of the clearing, the vines would take seconds to reach me if Riddle was watching, and that gave me seconds to determine where the maze was weakest. Not the true path; that would change on a whim – but the direction with the fewest walls between us and the outside. I had a good second of air time, Ivan had outdone himself.
And there it was; to the West there were only seven sets of walls between us and the outside. I hit the ground a second before the vines closed in, a rampant vaulted ceiling sealing us all in the dark. The rest of the hunt were already popping flares and scattering as the vines closed up, just in case. I hit the ground and rolled.
I oriented and drew my Eagle just as the first civilian screamed. Something made me switch to a section of wall two feet over, and I let fly, putting as much charge into the shot as I dared.
The world lit up with searing light, the blast spewing forth from my Eagle a white hot bar in reality that lasted several seconds. When it was done I blinked my eyes clear to look.
I could see daylight; the blast had gone through every wall. It might have even kept going. The vines around the holes made were twitching, but not growing back.
Plague took charge. “Everyone, go!” She led the way to the gap as I fired again, closing my eyes this time.
When I opened them there gap was twice as wide, and might even be safe – at least if Riddle was asleep or something.
Turns out she was. By the time the civilian train left the station, the vines hadn't even begun to grow back, which was a good thing. I would have been hard pressed to look for another shot that someone wasn't in the way of, even with everyone ducking off right in an attempt to give me one.
The civilians made it through in record time, and I moved to follow when finally Riddle made her move; the last wall moved to cut me off and I lost the race.
That was just fine with me, I didn't even need to switch hands; there was no pain at all.
I snapped the Eagle up and aimed away from the previous shots when a voice, plaintive and slightly pained, hit my ears.
"Don't go just yet.”
I stopped and turned; there, embedded in the wall, was riddle. She looked even more worse for wear than she did swimming in dirt – and people were probably going to be calling her “righty” as a new nickname. She raised her lone arm as I switched aim, profiling to make sure everyone else was out of the line of fire. There was just enough smoke to make it hard to see how well I'd done with that.
"Peace!” She yelled, or tried to. It came out barely above a hoarse whisper. Her eyes were glazing over... shock?
"What do you want, witch?”
She coughed; apparently smoke got to her too. “I accept now that you are Sasha Norre. No one else save the maniacal marksman could wield weapons like those in such a way. You cannot be an impostor; so what happened to you? How are you able to channel such power? How are your guns able to stop my vines? How were you able to see my familiar?”
Only one answer to that. “The dead don't need to know the secrets of the living.”
She sighed. “I see. So it's a race then?”
She was fast. I was faster; she didn't win.
I walked out as the vines that had just started to grow back into place began melting; the slime they were turning into was familiar from past scenes. However they didn't mention the smell. That was alright I guess – no one else would have to deal with it.
It took several minutes before I could fish the hat out of the mess. I handed it to Plague with a “Mission accomplished. Also, smith guy.”
"Derrick,” he answered.
Yeah whatever. “Fine, Derrick. The water around here is probably still poisonous. I wouldn't touch any of it that wasn't sealed, if I were you.”
I pointed to several of the civilians, who were even now, sneaking through the slime field in order to try the water.
"Right. Alright you lot, you heard the little lady! You want to drink, you want to eat?!? back to town, now!”
He had a good roar; I didn't know if he was actually in charge, or just yelled really loudly, but either way should work.
"You alright Sasha? Your eye is twitching.” Ivan asked. He was not amused, because if he was amused I'd have to kill him.
My eye wasn't twitching at being called a little lady. Nope, nothing like that had happened at all.
"Sasha, with me.” Plague was twisting Riddle's hat in her hands but she met my eyes.
I followed as she led the way out, along my Eagle's blast path.
It was interesting. Three shots, and wrist and arm weren't broken. The gun hadn't even kicked back. A glance showed why; the handle was empty of a magazine. When had that happened? It was loaded this morning. I knew I had been forcing my own power into the gun, but I thought it had ammo inside it at the time, when it was just my own power.
"You hit her.”
"I hit her.”
"How did you know she was there?”
Great, Plague thought I was sandbagging again. “I didn't. It was a lucky guess. She stopped me when we turned around, and asked me who I was. I noticed she was hanging out inside the vines, so I thought she could be inside the walls too, to listen to us.”
For all I knew she could have been listening to us by listening through the grass.
"Alright, and how did you fire the Eagle like that?”
I shrugged. “I just did. I pushed power into the gun the same way I did the bullets yesterday; I'm just glad it worked.”
Since I was my own generator now, instead of drawing a set amount of power to load into bullets, I did it all myself, and managed the process myself.
"You haven't been hearing anything?”
Oh, here we go. “No, I haven't. I've no desire to gun you down just because. Dustin is Dustin, so no promises there.”
"Alright. Let's go make sure the townsfolk don't kill themselves.”
We headed back; at least I hadn't hit anything important with the shots I fired... a swath through some fields, taking the top off a hill a mile or so away, a few power line poles, but no houses as far as I could see.
When we got back, most of the citizens were starting the hike – except the ones taking the heads and bodies of the fallen down to bury.
The couch was very comfortable; I didn't want to get up. I wasn't sure why I was on the couch, rather than my own bed in my own room in my own car, but I was.
"You need to get up, Sasha. It's morning, and we need to talk."
The train wasn't moving; we were probably still at the town we just liberated. I'd had to come back to the train for some booze though; the villagers had been very happy to be freed but we worried about me having a few celebratory drinks.
Bah their crap probably tasted bad anyway; nothing compared to this brandy I'd found.
"Shut up, Gray, you rat bastard. I'm sleeping off a drunk." I groaned. Why was the bastard bothering me?
"Alright Sasha, I guess we can talk later. But you should know Plague is on her way."
"Then shut up and let me sleep more." How hard was it to understand that sleep was golden?
Exactly three minutes and twenty-four seconds of golden time later, Plague slid into the barstool nearest my couch.
"Quite a party you missed last night, Sasha."
I answered her in the most intelligent way possible. "Mbergle."
"Why did you leave?" She asked, as if she didn't know. Maybe she didn't know?
"I had my own party."
Plague looked around at the empty brandy bottles. Fewer than I could have managed before, my tolerance had reset. But that was a win, it now cost less for me to get where I wanted to be when I drank. "So I see. And with my own private stash, too. You don't normally steal other people's booze unless you're angry at them, or they are named Alicia. So tell me, how did I piss you off?"
"You didn't do anything to piss me off. I just made my own party, and found this stuff. It's good."
Plague held up a bottle with a little amber liquid left in it, swished it around a bit, and then finished it off. "It should be, it's almost twice what you pay for your stash. Just one bottle of it."
A good thing I wasn't paying for it then.
Plague seemed to read my mind. "No worries there; it's no more than you deserve for yesterday. Do you know how long Riddle has been active?"
I didn't remember exactly how long, but it was a case of years.
Plague looked over. "Exactly. And you took her out in an afternoon. Made it look easy, even."
I had made it look easy, but it wasn't. Would I have been able to beat her before? Considering I'd pushed power directly into my Eagle and shot it four times, not a chance. We'd still be in the maze and cut off from all the glorious brandy.
"If you stay sane, you could turn this war we're in."
I snorted and shook my hat at her. Did it look different this morning? "I was never sane, Plague. Perhaps that's even what this thing needs."
Plague stilled. "Sasha, what is that?"
Well now that was irritating. "It's my hat, Plague. What did you think it was?"
"Why does it have spring antennae and a visor on it?"
I looked again. In my hand was a pointy witch hat with those novelty spring antennae worked in. A visor hung off the edges at an angle to go over my eyes, in a faint but pleasant shade of light blue. The visor would retract when not in use of course, though I wasn't sure what use it had.
"No, the only reason I want to kill you right now is you woke me up and seem absolutely determined to talk at me."
Seriously, it was a good drunk she was ruining.
She smirked. "Good. Let me know if that changes, alright? A warning is all I ask. I'll leave you to it; try and get up and ready for duty in the next hour. Also, nice pajamas."
Se left as I looked down. Ah, just small scraps of silk; I thought it felt a little cold in here. When had I undressed? Why had I undressed? Heck, how had I undressed? I doubted I could even load a gun last night.
I found my uniform; it was dirty. I had spares in my room... which wasn't in the train's bar/dining car.
The suspiciously empty train's bar, considering it was morning. Mid-morning, unless I missed my guess. The uniform was dirty, and smelled, but then again, so did I. I put it back on and tucked my hat under my arm (since with the visor, there was no way it was fitting in the pocket designed for it, and I didn't much feel like concentrating) and strode back to my room as if I owned the place.
Because of course I owned the place. Gray followed, looking around curiously, taking the environment in.
There were spare uniforms of course, made fresh just yesterday. And a washbasin, where I traded the water my dirt for it's clean-ness. It probably got the worst out of that trade, but it would just get thrown out anyway
I got changed; the new uniform fit as well as the old one, and stuffed the old one into my pack. Then with a sigh, I focused. The visor melted back into the hat. And the tradeoff for that was cheap - only a doubling of my headache.
I dry swallowed some aspirin as I stuffed the offending thing into it's pocket. The antennae were ignorable.
Gray looked on in disapproval. "That's very bad for you. Aspirin can have side effects."
"So can massive headaches."
Silence meant he conceded the point. Wait, if my hat had changed... I opened my small wardrobe.
The witch clothes had indeed changed, to a dress of black trimmed in blue that matched the visor. A very short dress with a dark blue bodice and criss crossed in leather belts around the hips. A set of high boots which would come to about mid-calf on me and also trimmed in blue lay under the dress. There were hints of lace involved in the whole thing.
I shut the door to the wardrobe. That had been right next to my uniforms, and I hadn't noticed. When had they changed? If Auntie Adeline had come in to deliver my uniforms and seen it changed, or worse, had seen it in the process of changing, there would be questions. Questions I had no answer for; it wasn't like any of this came with an owner's manual or how to.
Well, I'd know soon enough.
Now mostly clean and more or less presentable, it was time to get breakfast.
The dining car was packed, and all evidence of my party was now missing. There were large plates of bagels and a few full carafes of coffee on the bar. I sat down next to Plague and snagged one of each.
"So whats the news?" It wouldn't be like Plague to hide unpleasant news from me. Hell, she'd probably dance to dish out something clothing related.
"We move as soon as the engineers get us topped off. Got another rumored witch to hunt, in Scandinavia. And Dustin's team has another suspected witch to hunt in France."
Again, with France. Why was it always France? "Good; we can restock your stash along the way; best to keep busy."
I saluted Dustin with my carafe. "Good hunting."
He gaped at me. "You never wish me good anything."
"Well, part of good hunting implies good riddance." Honestly, the hunt was trusting me a lot here. Only one team, even if it was my former team and they were relying on sentiment to stay my hand a critical half a second or so (something that historically was known not to happen, since witches usually killed their family first) and Plague. I probably couldn't take Plague, and I couldn't run, but they just reduced the number of people who could be carrying the detonator by almost half, after a time where I'd just proven I could kill most of the people tasked to watch me with ease.
Ivan and Alicia were good, but they weren't fast enough to dodge the Eagle.
So yeah, a lot of trust. Dustin forced me to refocus on him: "Well, try not to murder anyone to make your bread while I'm gone."
"That's giants, you idiot."
"Good point," he admitted. "But then again, you could always go reverse giant on us, or something."
Every time I saw Dustin, he got stupider. Maybe I'd make a pie out of him later, or something. "Just get out of here. Even if you're supposed to be riding with us. Just get off and walk."
Dustin staggered back, a hand to his chest. "You wound me!"
His grin was insufferable. "Don't tempt me."
Plague put her foot down. "Yeah, Dustin, don't tempt her."
Dustin got going, his team already geared and behind him. He took a bottle on his way out of course, but it was nothing I'd miss. Slyvie actually waved on her way out. She still didn't say anything, but I think that was more due to the bagel in her mouth.
They were all freshly topped off, power wise. After all, they hadn't used anything yesterday. So they should be fine. At the very least they should be able to run away.
Plague slid up and hip bumped me. "Stop worrying about your boyfriend, Sasha. He's a big boy."
I admit when I threw up my half eaten bagel, I attempted to aim for her. She dodged. Luckily, Dustin hadn't heard.
"You better have brain bleach."
I considered drawing on her, but that wasn't likely to end well, so I just reached for another bagel instead.
"Uh, Sasha...." Plague was mincing around my puke.
"What? What are you even doing, there's nothing there."
She stared me down a moment, or tried to. "Alright, that's fair, I guess." She grabbed a rag.
Damn right; after all I didn't suggest she was getting it on with Auntie or Sinister, and if she threw up as a result of me saying something like that, I'd take my lumps.
"A masterful manipulation of the situation, Sasha." Gray complimented, and I nodded. Best to let that statement go though, Plague could be touchy about compliments made at her expense, and no one wanted to see an angry Plague.
Ivan strode up to the bar, a file in his hands. "What's that? Required reading?"
"The file on the rumored witch on the block next."
Well, that was fast. How did they even get it here? The train was faster than most messages - normally we'd find the file waiting for us, or more often, just go in blind, but to have a full file? I smelled something rotten.
On the other hand, I'd only been to Scandinavia once. I'd liked it at the time; the countryside was beautiful.
"Well you're not wrong. You guys have been bumped up as long as I'm with you, so we only go after the best targets."
I was fine with that. "So who is our victim?"
One of the four, and even better, one of the four that had targeted us specifically. Tasty tasty payback was tasty. Ivan paled but nodded like the trooper he was. Alicia would probably gripe, but screw her anyway.
"Works for me." I replied, stealing some of Ivan's vodka. Really, drinking the stuff this early in the morning; pretty shameful of him.
Of course, splitting up the teams this early made even less sense now. It wasn't as if Marcy didn't have a history of hitting our trains directly or anything, and we would make a tempting target. That was probably the point, come to think of it, to look weaker. Dustin in range to reply to distress call. Or maybe he wasn't, and we were just testing the spies in the other camp; that happened from time to time.
Plague stood up and threw the rag away. "So, it'll be a long trip, or long enough. How about we do something?"
"Like?" Ivan asked. He shifted his weight toward the door.
Plague noticed but didn't call him on it. "Like cards! With Alicia, we have four! And it doesn't even have to be poker, so we won't bilk Sasha!"
What? "Just what are you implying, Plague?"
"That you suck at poker, Sasha. No poker face at all, anyone can clean you out." Plague fired back immediately.
I did not suck at poker! I had the best nothing expression ever! "Bullshit! I'll show you!"
"Oh yeah? Well sit on down then. I'll go find Alicia!"
"Here we go again...." Ivan muttered, slamming down another shot.
"Screw you, Ivan."
The Scandinavian mountains were every bit as nice as I remember. Here we were, standing on top of mount Goldwhatever, on the trail of the rumored witch who had allegedly murdered the town of Bverdalkirk or however it's spelled. It wasn't really allegedly, as the people were very dead, and the library the hunt had maintained was very burned to the ground, but it could have just been a random nut-job with a desire to burn technical works - that an armed police force couldn't handle.
I was getting all too familiar with cold weather gear. I hated cold weather gear. It was confining and made my draw slower.
Now was the point where we got to hike around this cold hell for the next two to three days before finally getting jumped by the witch and her minions and killing them. I kind of wanted to skip all that... and maybe that hint of smoke would be the just the thing I needed. Smoke was visible from a long way out here.
"Plague, look." It was still hours away.
"Hm," Plague made a show of shading her eyes... even though she had goggles on. "Looks like a little one. Not a structure fire, and not dark enough for a vehicle fire."
"That's a campfire." Ivan stated firmly.
"Yeah, that's bull is what it is. I say we start a nice fire of our own. I brought hot dogs."
"Sasha, those hot dogs were probably made with real dog. No telling for sure."
I doubted that. That back alley butcher had an honest face!
"Where would we get fuel for it?"
Trees were kind of scarce where we were, come to think of it. Most of the wood was further down, on the other side of the mountain. Right where the fire was.
"Well Alicia always carries a lot of useless junk. We could burn that."
"No, Sasha. Let's just make the hike to the fire. Stop being difficult, we both don't want to be here any longer than we have to."
"It's just the principle of the thing, They are beginning to repeat themselves, and it pisses me off."
Plague patted me on the back. "I know. check your snow shoes; we're going."
My snowshoes were fine.
We walked carefully, Alicia broke the trail, and Ivan covered our backs. Plague was behind me, watching. We were all tied together, just in case; even though this mountain was nothing compared to the ones I'd scaled earlier.
The snow was new and loose; we could slide a good distance if we tried. Well, at least to the end of the tether.
"Stop trying to slide, Sasha."
People always wanted to ruin my fun.
Alicia decided to pile on. "Yeah Sasha, quit trying to pull us around."
"Alicia, when you repeat others it just makes you sound stupid."
"Poker loser says what?"
Oh, that.... "I did not lose! ....Much."
Alicia laughed. "Oh come on, Plague and Ivan both took almost a month's salary off you! The best part was the wooden face you tried to pull every time you thought you had a good hand."
"Hey, it was enough to beat you." And beat her I had; she owed me almost a full pound.
"I was too busy laughing to focus on the game," She replied loftily. "Just face it, you're too expressive Sasha. Actually, 'face it' is a good way to describe the problem!"
She had turned back to grin at me, and so missed the sudden eruption of the snow dune in front of her, sending her skidding away. I braced, but the differences in weight made the attempt hopeless; luckily the rope snapped after I ate snow, so I didn't go skidding too far.
I hated a face full of snow more than I hated cold weather gear.
I wasn't fooled by the white fur, or the roar. I spat out the snow (thankfully none of it yellow). "Poly, we have got to stop meeting like this."
The yeti actually paused and scratched her head. I couldn't resist: "That is a better look for you, however."
Poly's next roar was a little deafening; some of the snow actually shifted.
The gas tipped me off, and I found myself backflipping before the first whiff. In snow. I landed on my feet and did it again, adding a handspring this time to keep me ahead of the cloud.
"Little Sasha, is that you?"
If she and Poly were here, then the chances were they had backup this time. I started looking around for it. "Another ambush? Then who's down at the fire?"
"Oh, the fire? You don't need to worry about the fire, Sasha. I'll handle them after I deal with you."
Another gas cloud moving across the route of the first ambushed me; I sucked down a little before coming out the other side, coughing a bit. My arm was steady however, and I had her now.
The shot went straight through the gas, burning through the center of it. Malodorous performed a nice spinning dance step before face-planting in the snow. I coughed up a lung while she groaned and sat up; she wasn't built as weakly as riddle, it seemed.
Plague was on her way, sneaking up as well as one could in a snow-capped mountain to deliver a blow of her own, when the expected help materialized.
"The wyld hunter known as Plague tripped over her own shoelaces, and fell in the snow."
Zinger Zoe, another underling of Malodorous, had a special knack for manipulating any field of battle, just by talking. Reality would try to match her running dialogue. She had limits, but those were hard to work past when facing numbers like this.
I popped a shot off in her direction, and to her credit she moved... but the yeti tanked the shot. The only good news was it knocked them both off their feet, with the yeti on top of Zinger; that should shut her up for a little while. Knives sprouting from the fallen furball showed me that Ivan had finally caught up, and Alicia was beginning to stir.
Another cloud, this one not only caustic but reducing my vision, fell into place between us. I looked around; I was hemmed in.
"I am your opponent, Sasha."
"Bullshit; you're all my opponents."
This was a pretty good ambush; anywhere I went now I was eating gas.
"Let me help." Gray said.
Was he serious? "I'm not stopping you, idiot."
"Right!" Gray exclaimed, sounding all too annoyingly happy. But before he could get going something else happened.
The impact knocked me right off my feet, and half buried me in snow, but above the noise I heard it clearly.
"Oh, so you're going to deal with me, Marcy? Is that right?" Delivered in a sweet, saccharine voice that screamed fake.
Killer Cat had entered the building.
Catherine Ponder looked like a young girl... and proved the true-ism that young girls could be the scariest things on Earth. A young concert pianist, she had a promising career at an age when I was playing with toys. Then she got a hat and a familiar... and celebrated by taking out a country almost single-handedly.
The rumor was her power was to mimic the ability of other witches somehow, but no one had seen her in action and lived. Well, no one except my mentor, once. Even other witches feared her, above all others. She wasn't even considered one of the four.
She was considered above them.
Cat hadn't been seen since well before I'd become a hunter; the Hunt had considered her retired or dead. We had hoped for dead, but I knew that voice, just as well as I knew Olivia's.
The shadow that was malodorous stopped dead in her tracks. "C-Cat? That fire was you?"
Cat actually hummed in response. "Mmm-hmm! I was all set up, camping, and making smores, so imagine my surprise when I heard someone was planning to deal with me! You're very noisy, Marcy, with all this stomping around and yelling."
Criminy, she sounded younger than me, for all that she was three times my age. It set my teeth on edge.
But I knew where the voice was coming from, now. Visibility did not stop a true marksman.
I drew my other pistol; Malodorous got the right hand, and Cat got my left; only the best for her.
Malodorous tumbled away, but the answer from my left was immediate: "Oh, it's little Sasha. Hello little Sasha, how are you doing today? It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
Oh, that sound was my teeth grinding. "It's been a decade. And I'm not little, you sawed off runt! Try growing up, you underfed midget!"
And just like that, all my guns were empty. I started reloading... then realized I didn't need to.
"Now, don't be like that Sasha; how am I supposed to know that you've grown? The last time I saw you, you were smaller than me, and I can't exactly see you now. Marcy is ruining everything; I know, hold on and hold still, I'll help!"
A blast of air cleared the clouds of gas... all of them, all at once. I shielded my face, but it didn't move me.
Cat stood revealed, in all her glory. No cold weather gear on her; she was in a dress that was at least half lace and shoes with heels. Malodorous was down, her butt in the air. Cat took the three steps needed and planted a heel on her, shoving her down.
"That's a good look for you, Marcy. Stay right there, okay? I'm going to talk to my good friend Sasha, here."
Then she turned back to me. I was already tracking her; she leaned out of my shot.
"Oh, it's been awhile since I've seen that. You were on pop guns the last time; little itty bitty things." She scrunched up her hands. This time the shot was taken in full by a large suit of armor, easily twenty feet tall, that slammed down in front of her.
"But I've got one question for you, Sasha; why are you holding back?"
What was she on? I unloaded on the armor, which had to be her familiar. The eyes glowed, anyway.
I think I scratched it.
"You see Sasha, I came here because I felt a witch. A witch as strong as Marcy here, or stronger A witch with strength not seen since your mother." She ground her heel into Marcy's back. Marcy did not complain.
"So imagine my surprise," Cat continued. "When I came and found you here." Her gaze focused on me; it was almost painful.
Another blast of wind failed to move me, but it tore my cold weather gear right off. My uniform was underneath, but it wasn't all that was. How did that dress get there? I'd left it in the train. A quick blast of cold, of falling away from myself happened before I snapped back; my hat was on my head. Gray was right behind me; he must have done it.
"Would you care to explain, Sasha?" Cat asked.
The field had gone silent; all of us were standing, not daring to move. Plague had at least three of her concoctions out, Ivan had a full spread of knives ready, and Alicia was a statue. Only the Yeti fur moved, and Zoe was silent.
"Sasha, let me help." Gray said again.
"I'm not stopping you, Gray." I told him.
Plague spoke quietly. "Sasha, who are you talking to?"
The saucer came down from the clouds, followed it's brothers. All five, because this was serious.
What was Plague's problem? "Gray. You know, small guy, gray skin, big dark eyes, a friend of mine who's been with us for days, learning the hunter trade?"
Cat smiled. "She can't see Gray, Sasha. She's never seen him."
The saucers took up a holding pattern around me, revolving around my head in a dizzying fashion. Their shields would protect me, and their lasers would sear my enemies. Their cloaking devices were like Gray's, and would hide them until I needed them.
"Sasha, focus! It's okay, it's not a big deal!" I barely heard Plague's shout. All this time - how long? How had I not noticed?
"Come on Sasha, we knew it was likely to happen! Focus!"
Cat turned to Plague. "Be silent," she said with a smile, in that sugary voice of hers. Plague's teeth clicked together.
I took note that Plague's rot grenades were primed and ready.
Furthermore, she was right; this changed nothing. Gray was in my head, but he was mine. He hadn't blown apart any towns yet; WE hadn't blown apart any towns yet.
"So what happens now?" I asked the witch; Cat had to know how this would end by now.
"Now? Why, my dear Sasha, we talk a bit is all, and I send you on your way. After I chastise these naughty children, that is."
Her heel dug into Marcy's back again. Marcy cried out, but didn't move. Cat stepped off her, a little closer; the saucers shifted their formation, and the armor held it's hand out.
The armor pointed - but not at the saucers; those were ignored. Cat squinted. "Oh ho! So that's why. It's been awhile since I've seen one of those."
Was she talking about the collar? I could see Plague out of the corner of my eye; one hand was in a pocket.
Cat smiled and curtseyed. "Well, I'm sorry, Sasha. I'm afraid we'll have to have our talk later. See you then, ta ta!"
A bright flash seared my eyeballs; I blinked my eyes clear in a second, but Cat was gone, along with the other witches.
At least all of us had our parts still attached.
I turned to Plague and caught her gesture. "Oh, right. For the record, I didn't know." A thought sent the saucers away.
She sighed and slumped with a nod. "We need to talk."
To Be Continued