By all rights, the woods are too dark to be hunting demonlings.
Three years, eight hundred miles, and a half-dozen other hunts had promised worse, however, and none of them have stopped Mithmeia Rhyre yet.
She creeps through the trees, low to the ground, guard-less blade drawn in one hand. With the other she brushes aside the undergrowth, letting the leaves of younger trees run over her fingertips. A coolness lingers there from the demonling’s passing, and the scent leaves a sooty taste on her lips, like sitting downwind of a campfire. The first few birds are calling out from the tree tops, warily, but otherwise the forest is deathly silent.
There’s a harsh crack behind her, and Mithmeia rounds, sweeping her blade up to a proper two-handed grip, stopping a hair from a human neck – no, arm.
Mithmeia looks up, and up, meeting the wide eyes the color of a sea-storm waves, then another pair the shade of sun-dappled leaves. Her glance takes in a great axe, strapped to the larger woman’s back, but no drawn weapons.
“Whoa,” says the girl with green eyes, holding up two little hands from where she’s perched on the shoulder of the other. “Hi, um – nice sword.”
“Thanks,” Mithmeia says dryly, lowering it. As she does, she realizes that the girl isn’t actually young: she has crow’s-feet at the corners of both eyes, and smile lines pressed into her densely freckled cheeks. She looks to the other, who has to top out around seven and half, maybe eight feet; Affected, both of them. “Who are you, and what is your purpose out here?”
“Prueni Markle,” the half-giantess greets amiably.
“Dozie Loblolly,” the smaller one says, still wary. “We’re looking for a boy named Kithdove Merbage, goes by Kith.”
“His father, in Biallan, offered a small fortune for his finding,” Prueni summarizes. Both their eyes stray up from her face, and Mithmeia lets out a breath.
“Affected,” she says plainly, resisting the urge to run her free hand over the horns sprouting from her forehead, just above the temples. Her tail, two feet of wiry muscle and skin with a barb on the end, lashes behind her to demonstrate the extent to which her magic has warped her. Who hasn’t been, after all.
The two nod, then Dozie returns, “What are you doing out here?”
“Hunting a monster or two,” Mithmeia responds.
Both of their gazes turn serious. “What kind? Could it have taken him, or chased him out here?” they say all at once, and Mei holds up her free hand, grimacing.
“I don’t doubt that it could,” she answers, then pauses, mulling it over. She points her sword into the underbrush, the direction she had been heading initially. “If it did, it went through there. My name is Mithmeia.”
She turns then, returning to her own path and leaving the two to debate this decision themselves.
Ten paces through the brush, they break onto what had once been a well-worn path, now overgrown. The soot-scented trail veers left, and the three follow it.
“This must be the path to the quarry,” Prueni chirps. “It was founded around the time that Biallan was, but it flooded almost thirty years ago. Kith’s father was telling us that he almost died when it –”
Mithmeia shushes her with a hiss, stopping stiff on the path and sinks back into her guard.
Dozie and Prueni go still; the birds have gone quiet again.
There’s no sound to track or trace, just the distinct feeling of being watched from – there.
Mithmeia leaps, sword coming up in a sideways slash this time. She swings, halting the blade just short of hacking into a drawn bow, eye to arrowhead. When she looks up this time, it’s into eyes the color of unpolished jade, flat and unimpressed.
She flashes a smile that’s all teeth and no joy, and straightens. “Busy place, these woods.”
The man – barely older than a teenager, the way his cloak and great coat hang off him – doesn’t relax the draw, eyes flicking from Mithmeia, to her horns, then to her companions. A pair of half-moon glasses sits on the curve of his nose. “I heard you, earlier,” he says, and his voice is surprisingly soft, courteous even; “You’re looking for a boy, and a monster.”
“And you can help?” Mithmeia cocks a brow, swinging her blade in a full circle before pointing it down.
He nods. “Call me Darsk.”
The path to the quarry hasn’t been traversed by the masses in decades, but Mithmeia declares that someone had come through not long ago – the overgrowth was snapped and bent in a single line down the center. With the moon peeking through the leaves, she tracks the path in silence.
“So what brings you two to these marvelous woods tonight?” Dozie asks, voice bright in the darkness. “Other than monster hunting?”
Neither Mithmeia nor Darsk respond, twitching a bit as her voice rings out to continue.
“Prueni and I met up in Biallan about a week ago. I was helping one of the councilmen clear out the city hall of these horrid little cryptpests,” she says, and Mithmeia glances back to see her gesture her arms out wide. “They’re like rats, but they get Affected by cunningfolk burial grounds and, well, they get big. Prueni helped and –”
Darsk shushes her, and Mithmeia pauses, listening as well. The forest is filled with the low murmur of cricks and croaks. Unalarmed, she moves on. They continue down the path on slower, quiet feet.
“I was headed north, looking for –” she starts again, and Mithmeia hisses out a shush as a plaintive creak sounds down the path. Dozie ducks her head, and whispers, “Looking for a witch named Ah–”
Mithmeia and Darsk simultaneously draw a breath to shush her, just as a shadow bursts from the treeline twenty paces ahead, darting across the path. The two are off like a shot, Mithmeia taking the lead in mere heartbeats. Darsk starts to catch up, and she finds herself grinning as she lays on the speed, keeping the beast in sight and the archer in her peripheral. The forest opens up, and her grip on her blade tightens, charging ahead.
The beast leaps, and Mithmeia lunges, only to feel the scruff of her jacket snatched backwards.
She stumbles and whirls to break the grip, snarling. Prueni lets her go, raising both hands defensively. Her eyes are bright, however, panic fading into reassurance. Dozie’s eyes go bright too, and she hops down. On the ground, the top of her reddish-brown mop of curls only comes up to Mithmeia’s hip. She points beyond Mithmeia and murmurs, “That isn’t right.”
“What?” she asks, turning back, and her tail curls in on itself. The forest had opened onto the edge of a cliff, overlooking a circular lake some hundred feet below. That kind of fall… “It’s just a lake.”
“It’s too perfect,” Dozie responds, shaking her head. Then, she taps her palm with a fist, and says, “The quarry pit; Neric, Kith’s father, said it flooded twenty-some years ago. This must be –”
In the same moment, Mithmeia sees movement at the far edge of the quarry-lake and feels a tug at her bicep. She flinches away, turning a glare on Darsk, who returns it over the rim of his glasses. He swings his head towards the underbrush, then moves to duck beneath it and, with a snort, she follows. The others duck behind them, stilling as the figure at the far end of the lake moves again.
“He’s young,” Darsk mutters, eyes narrowed. “The boy you’re looking for?”
Before either could respond, the figure – Kith – steps into, no, onto the lake. He walks across the surface, his spine straight and his face slack, and Mithmeia thinks, entranced.
Twenty perfectly even paces bring him to the perfect center of the quarry-lake. The moon is nearly at its peak, the water still, and in its light they see two enormous shadows rise to the surface. As the shadows begin to circle around Kith beneath the surface, heavy dread turns Mithmeia’s gut to stone.
“Demons,” Darsk breathes, and she glances over to see his eyes bright. She studies him, seeing fear in the arch of his brows, and hate in tightening of jaw and lips. His eyes meet hers for a moment, and she looks away, steeling herself.
“We have to kill him,” Mithmeia hisses, brushing aside the low-hanging plants and taking aim. A soft, vibrantly purple light surrounds her fist, growing brighter. “Before the demon takes hold.”
On the lake, the two inky shadows circle tighter around the boy suspended on the surface, less shark-like than a tightening whirlpool, or noose. She raises her hand, and the light grows brighter, drawing the eyes of the others as well as the entranced gaze of the boy a split second before she fires.
“No!” Darsk snaps, snatching at her arm, and the spell fires off, flinging wide.
A bolt of purple, burning light whips across the flooded quarry, practically singing, and strikes the water with an ear-bursting splash. Illuminating the darkness beneath the water, it sinks into the side of one of the shadows like the head of an arrow, and the demon pauses in its path.
The moon shines down on the now rippling surface of the lake as the shadow rises, towering above Kith’s head, a black shepherd’s crook against a blacker sky. It sways, serpentine, eyes only visible by their reflective glint as they fall upon the four’s hiding spot.
“Oh, well done,” she sneers.
Спасибо за чтение!
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