Just another night in a horrible job the company of three didn't want.
|The creature fell hard on his back. Unmoving and reeking of rot, it was an emaciated body of tangled limbs and night-hued skin wearing nothing but ragged trousers. The almost human’s deep-black eyes were still, his stretched face frozen in terror and disbelief. A crossbow bolt lodged into its heart, thick blood of the darkest red slowly streaming down to the stone-tiled floor.
Then someone dowsed it with droplets of anointed oil that real, certified hunters and alchemists called Hunter’s Mercy. Truly a rare liquid, however, as every liter worth gold to a huntsman’s life. It was followed shortly by a sound of a match rubbing against a wood.
Panting, Lake relighted his half-burnt cigarette in his mouth first, then dropping the ignited match on the creature that was dead for now. As it touched its oil-soaked stomach, a tiny boom of sharp light went and gone in a matter of a second, setting the night creature on fire. The bloodied, one-eyed elf retrieved the hunting bolt from its bony chest like a swooping hawk. He looked behind and casually threw it over to a young dwarf wearing a pilot’s goggle and carrying a small mechanical crossbow in hand.
As the blue fire swiftly devoured its favorite prey, it crackled and roared with glorious satisfaction. It wasn’t the first victim, though. There are a couple more spread all over the ruined hallway, already charred as flames of the same color engulfed them unchallenged. Regardless, they were producing no smoke and little radiance, barely managing to illuminate a few feet. Only those from the high moon, a lamp on the floor, and a stray torch kept the hallway from utter darkness.
Nikos caught the bolt midair and examined it closely if it could still be use. Shortly, he gave a single, ambiguous nod to himself and to the one-eyed elf.
Forcing a smile, the elfin hunter said, “Great shot, kid.”
There was no reply from the dwarf, only tired yet controlled breathing. Nikos was simply dead set and determined. But his heart screamed of anger and sadness. He grabbed a white cloth from a small pocket under his coat and wrapped it around the bolt, deciding to clean it later once they thought it safe. He tucked it inside a belted pouch of boiled leather.
The elf’s eye wandered left and right and found what he was looking for. He picked up his bloody cavalry saber and hurriedly wiped off the tainted blood from the blade using the end of his cape. Satisfied, he gripped the handle tightly and clenched his teeth in frustration for a moment. Next, he aimed for the torch he dropped before and collected that too. Then he turned around, eyeing a wooden door behind Nikos.
The dwarf followed his stare at the same door. To them, it seemed it was covered in a dreadful fog, so far and out of reach. Aside from the rustling leaves from the trees outside and faint cries from specters past, there was only silence in this ruined estate.
Nikos picked up the lamp on the ground and flicked a glance at Lake, awaiting his consent. Hesitating, he frowned and shook his head. His mouth finally cracked and asked, “Ser Lake?”
“Let’s go,” the elf answered, his tone flat and serious. He spat his cigarette away.
Being nearest to the door, the dwarf swung it open with such a force that it collided with the wall, creating an excruciating crack. Without so much a reaction, he went downstairs, leaving the elf behind.
Having stronger hearing than him, Lake nearly jumped from his boots. He cringed, scowled, and shook his head, muttering something foul about his heritage. He sighed and tailed the youngster.
The two went down the spiral stairs. Their footsteps echoing loudly, with no apparent care of what could still be lurking around in the dark of the night. It took them sixty-four steps to reach the bottom. They stopped after seeing a few mounds consumed already by blue flames. At the far end of the hallway, a burning torch could be seen on the ground. Lake elbowed Nikos. The two started darting off across the dark, damp dungeon to a cell where they assumed where Gwyn was.
As they got near, Lake sheathed the cavalry saber back to its curved scabbard and grabbed Nikos’ collar to pull him to a stop. The two soon halted completely. Without a word, the elf took the crossbow away from the youngster’s grip, surprising him.
Nikos eyed him with contempt, fire in his eyes, but realization soon dawned his face. He simply limped and looked away. They began walking slowly until they caught view of Gwyn’s form kneeling on the ground.
The human hunter’s back was facing them. His plague doctor mask was resting on the ground within arm’s reach, exposing the eerie solar eye tattooed at the back of his head like it was alive and staring at them with ire. The man was quiet or so it seemed. If one would listen carefully however, whispers and sobs could be heard. He was rocking back and forth, clearly in despair and denial.
The dwarf’s eyes started watering like a dam nigh to burst. He forced himself to turn away from the painful scene, but he failed. He wanted to reverse time, but he failed. It must be done. There’s no cure. There’s nothing he could do. Tears flowed but were kept from running down his dirty cheeks by the very own goggles he was wearing, moistening the lenses that he could no longer see clearly.
Lake prepared himself and quietly entered the cell as not to disturb him. He swallowed a handful and aimed the crossbow at the head of the unconscious young woman Gwyn was embracing as her skin slowly turning into the color of the night sky. However, the elf couldn’t find enough courage to finish their business.
Then the young woman began to awaken. The whites of her eyes were gone entirely and were replaced with blackness so deep Lake shuddered upon seeing what she had become. She was far gone. She opened her mouth to bite, two fangs showing off. For a man who loved women, rage filled his heart. He fought to keep his emotion in line. But his hand gripping the weapon wavered. So, the elf forced himself to steadily pull the trigger before it’s too late and–
A gunshot rung their ears. Dark blood splattered on the cell wall on Gwyn’s left side. It left Lake wide-eyed and stunned, lowering the weapon and closing his eye. He hated to admit it but he was relieved it wasn’t him, though he feared for the states of their mind. How long until they break? He looked over his shoulder and caught sight of the kid sitting on the ground. The dwarf’s arms wound around his knees, back pressed against the rusty iron bars, and simply weeping. He returned his gaze back to Gwyn who had fallen silent. He wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, but he decided against it. He simply stood behind him. It offered little comfort this he knew. At least, it was better than no one at all.
It was Gwyn who ended the young woman’s short life, the one who gave her peace, the one who made a ghastly hole in her head. The huntsman gave her a final kiss so long it was painful to let go and carefully laid her body on the ground. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes to say a short prayer to whoever was listening. Holstering his revolver, he wiped his face using the sleeve of his duster. His dead fish eyes turned at his mask, picked it up, and put it back on to hide his off-putting tattoos. He took another deep breath and heaved, carrying the body up. He went back to his feet, turned around, and gestured to the two that he was going to get out of here.
They left the ruins with naught a single word.
After they had arrived at their destination, they burned her remains using the same oil and was buried beside the fresh graves of her family.
Her name was Melina. Hunter’s Mercy. Just another night in a hunter’s life.
“Food,” Gwyn muttered. His stomach was growling, and eyes heavy and lazy. He was lying on the grass not far from the river, spread-eagled as usual. He sat up, observing their horses that were eating like royalty not far. Then he shifted his focus at Lake and Nikos who were exchanging colorful words as always when they’re in the right mood while trying to fish at the river for hours to no avail. He sighed, lied down again, and stretched. He decided to closed his eyes, unknowingly falling asleep.
A bit later, he woke up after someone kept poking at him with something, though he refused to acknowledge it because of bad habit. He tried sinking deep to blackness again. But the poking never stopped, annoying the hell out of him. “I swear to gods. Keep poking me and I’ll poke your arse real good.”
That alone was enough to make Gwyn jumped to his feet in reflex. However, he stepped on his mantled duster, losing his balance, and stumbled down disgracefully. The horses whinnied, tossing their heads, that sounded more like an actual laugh than they normally did. He groaned and mumbled something painful and alien. Using his forearm, he shielded his eyes from the blinding sunlight until they properly adjusted themselves. Then he stared at the beautiful stranger beside, squinting his eyes.
The young woman was roaring with laughter, her hand covering her mouth. After seeing his staring eyes, she ceased and shrugged. “Sorry?” she apologized, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was so sincere he’d rather believed a doppelganger.
He glowered at her, but it wouldn’t make much of an impact because he was wearing his favorite plague doctor mask. He was thinking of actually breathing loudly to convey that expression. He imagined himself doing it, and changed his mind.
She gave a slight giggle and extended a hand that sent his hormones racing.
Take her now, dammit! Couldn’t you see she was offering herself? His inner caveman was screaming like an alpha gorilla who had been alone for all his life. He was, actually. His two male companions notwithstanding. The masked hunter hesitated. He curbed his excitement as soon as he possibly could. It had been so long since he fed his desires. After all, she was a ginger beauty to behold. He inhaled and exhaled and repeated. Now under control or so he thought, he gladly accepted her offer of assistance. However, she mostly did the heaving and the pulling. By the time he was standing, she was already panting, starved of air. Behind that mask, Gwyn couldn’t help but grin, satisfied of the sight. It was her turned to glower.
Gwyn simply shrugged in response. Revenge successful. I’m the beast, he thought. Take that, beauty. He almost gave himself a pat of recognition for another day’s hard work.
She rolled her eyes at this silliness. Eventually catching her breath, she straightened her dress out of habit and arranged her long hair to rest on her shoulder. Her bright smile was back to her freckled face. She said, “That’s a real funny-looking duck mask you’re wearing, ser.”
“Oi!’ He snapped, his face reddened from what he had heard, his pride aching somewhat. “This isn’t some funny-looking—!”
The young woman froze in place, trying to think what she had said wrong. “Umm…” Her lips were refusing to move. She was slowly panicking, gripping her skirt tight, teary-eyed. She was deciding whether to run away or apologize again to a well-armed stranger she just met today. Bad idea in the first place to simply approach his kind. “I…I…”
“This! This is the cool duck mask of justice!” yelled Gwyn, leaning closer to her face while pointing a finger at his own, eyes fiery with passion and spirit. “Men would die to be this badass!” After realizing what came out from his mouth, he straightened up, arms crossed, and then paused. His palm on his face. “Ah, crap—”
Then she burst to life, laughing so hard again, making her snort several times. It left Gwyn dumbfounded. Her eyes twinkling. “Really?”
“Hell yeah!” he said, “except for that duck part—”
“You’re funny, ser.” And she offered him a handshake. The color of her cheeks had brightened a lot more pink. “I like you already.”
Take her, dammit! His subconscious continued to howl.
Gods dammit, shut up me! he screamed at himself. Blushing behind his mask and partly embarrassed, Gwyn obliged, his eyes sparkling as well. He shook her hand softly, feeling every inch of it, savoring this moment of triumph since he wasn’t much of a ladies’ man. He was mostly a loner and so making a woman laughed was a Gods-given gift from the heavens. Confidence swelled in his heart. This was the reason why he signed up to be a hunter. Not because they were forced to by a particular control freak he would not name. “Hunter Gwyn’s the name. Now, off you go. Shoo.”
“Don’t wanna.” She puffed her cheeks.
Gwyn merely sighed.
“By the way, what’re you here for, Ser Gwyn?” she asked, grinning a flower-filled grin.
Like a dead man, he didn’t answer.
“So, what’s the badass duck hunter doing here anyway?”
“Vampires, milady. The lowest filth of its kind. Best leave us now ‘fore things get dark.”
“First time someone calls me that.”
“Please, call me Melina.”