It's chilly outside. I rub my bare arms and shiver slightly, sparing a quick glance above at the silver waxing moon that hovers above the clouds looking distant and detached from the world. Its beams creep like spiderweb between the trees and pool in speckled patterns on the forest floor. Even my body is turned grayish underneath its sinister cast. I hate going on a Hunt on nights like this one, but it is necessary. If I don't hunt every night, the Nightcrawlers will come. Out of the forest and into the villages. I'm not the only one who does the Hunts, but every person counts. If we lose one person, we may see as many as five-score of the creatures the next morning outside the gates.
“You can do this, Senka,” I say to myself. “Pretend they're the ones responsible for Mother and Father's deaths. You can do this.” It's my mantra, what I tell myself every time I do a Hunt. It gives me strength to fight the Nightcrawlers. They're hideous creatures, more twisted and warped than an old tree trunk. They reek of death and dried blood, and their teeth are stained brown from their past kills. They are covered in short, coarse, matted black fur, travel on all fours, and have strange feet that look like hooves split into the shapes of paws but are sharp enough to kill. Their tails are long and resemble those of rats, and their cry is comparable to that of a banshee. Just one of them is capable of completely decimating a small town, unless there is a bounty hunter who can kill it. I am one of these bounty hunters.
I wasn't planning to be a bounty hunter when I was still young, but after my parents died, I didn't have much of a choice. There was no one else to take me in. If it weren't for the Nightcrawlers, I would have been engaged now, or at the very least meeting prospective husbands. The demons destroyed my life, four years and nine months ago. They ruined everything.
I was twelve years old then, and a naïve child that still didn't understand the concept of death. I knew it was going to be a bad day right from that morning: there were gray thunderclouds hanging about the treetops, death waiting above us. Even the town's animals were spooked in the morning, baying and howling. Some even ran away. When I saw Tengfei's old cow, the one he had affectionately named Huiling after his late wife, barreling down the main road, I was certain that something horrific was going to happen. Huiling never left the safety of her pen. I hurried home, minding not to drop the day's scant groceries out of the wicker basket I carried and onto the ground.
“Mother, Father,” I called, the very minute I entered through the wooden front door. I slammed the door behind me and then glanced around nervously. Nothing seemed to be out of sorts, but that was, as I know well now, no guarantee of safety. “Mother? Father? Is anyone home?” Now dread sank into me and adrenaline took its toll on my system. My heart fluttered, flying frantically to escape my birdcage ribs; my breaths quickened in my lungs until I was certain I would hyperventilate and pass out; my palms began to sweat as though it was the heat of summer. I spoke louder, afraid to shout and yet too scared to keep my voice down. “Mother? Father? Hello? Where are you? Is anybody here?”
“Out back, dear,” my mother's voice replied, sounding much farther away than the backyard. Still, I felt relieved, heaving a thankful sigh. I ran outside after placing the basket of groceries on the broken table and hugged her tightly.
She laughed a little, obviously surprised by my rare gesture of affection. “What's gotten into you today, Senka? That old butcher at the market didn't say anything to you, did he?”
“No,” I answered honestly. “I just have this feeling, Mother. Something isn't right out here. Look at the clouds.”
She looked up obediently; I realize now that I'm older that she was humoring me. Then she focused her gaze on me again. “It should be fine,” she assured me with a smile. “A little rain never did anyone any harm. It's only thunderclouds, dear. Rest easy. We'll be fine.”
“But...” I hesitated to argue with her, but the feeling in the air was one of expectant and impatient death. “Can't you feel it, Mother? Something else isn't right. It's not the clouds I'm scared of.”
“Then what is it?” She seemed genuinely confused, and I tried to be patient with her and not get angry. Hysterics didn't ever do any good.
“I can't explain it. It's just this feeling I've got. Something's wrong. Really wrong.” It was imperative that she understand this, but she wasn't following my train of thought as well as I'd hoped she would. “Something's coming, Mother. I'm scared. And old Huiling was running down the street like hellhounds were after her.”
“Huiling? You mean Tengfei's cow? The old girl he won't get rid of even though she's aged too much to be any use to him? That cow?” Finally, my words were getting through to her. She looked concerned now. My heart sank at her next words, however. “He must've set her loose. He's getting a bit senile, wouldn't you say? He probably came at her with that bullwhip of his.”
“He'd never hurt old Huiling!” I denied. “He loves that cow! And Tengfei isn't that crazy. He's not mad enough to go after her with a whip.”
I doubt she believed me, since she started trying to calm me down then. “Senka, it was just a suggestion. I'm not saying that's exactly what happened, but it is the likely cause. Everything is fine. We'll be okay, you'll see.”
“If you insist.” It would do no good to argue with her once her mind was made up. “Where's Father?”
“Oh, he's out and about. My guess would be checking on the traps he set yesterday evening. He'll be back later.”
“How late?” Fear was mounting in my head like a dull roar, and I had to remind myself not to panic. Mother had said everything would be fine, so that's how it would be. It was that simple.
“He'll be back in time for dinner.” She began to shoo me towards the house, evidently trying to get rid of me so she could take care of the wet laundry that sat in a large wicker basket beside her. “Go inside, Senka. I have work to do.” Even though I was twelve then, she still treated me as though I were half that age.
I sighed. “Yes, Mother.” Obeying, I went inside and tried to find a way to get my mind off of the creeping sensation of doom, to no avail. My thoughts kept drifting back to the ominous feeling that I couldn't seem to shake. By mid-afternoon, I was as antsy as if I were sitting on pins and needles. Every sound made me leap out of my chair: the wind whistling through the broken window in the kitchen area, the creak of the house's panels as they were buffeted by the wind, even the howls of the town dogs. I wished Father would hurry back.
The feeling that something was wrong only worsened, however, and when Mother didn't come inside by dusk, I began to realize that something must have happened outside without me realizing it. I hurried outside, not bothering to shut the door properly behind me. I hadn't gone more than two feet when the unmistakable, sickening stench of dead bodies rolled over me. I pinched my nose involuntarily, but still felt my stomach swirling in nausea. I hurried on and tried to ignore the vertigo.
When I reached the place my mother had been standing in earlier, I very nearly lost all control of my stomach. The laundry was hung out to dry, but on all the fabric there were bloodstains – fresh ones. I ran away from the spot in panic, hoping blindly against hope that the blood was not my mother's. The rotting smell of death grew stronger as I ran farther, powerful enough that if it had been a solid object it would have knocked me over. Then I saw the Nightcrawlers.
I screamed out loud. I couldn't help it, couldn't control myself. I had never seen anything so horrifying in my life. The worst part about the monsters was that they were all looming over a corpse that was so bloodied it was nearly unrecognizable. I could barely make out my mother's once-beautiful features from the mess of gore the Nightcrawlers had turned her face into. At the sound of my screams, the beasts turned to look at me, fresh blood dripping down from their long, warped muzzles. I silenced myself quickly, but trying to escape unscathed would be impossible. I was going to be killed by these disgusting things, and they knew it. They looked as if they were getting a holiday picnic, drooling and snapping their jaws savagely at me.
My mind finally persuaded my feet to move when one of the Nightcrawlers leapt at me. I took off like a shot, unadulterated fear the only thing in my head. As I ran, I could hear them falling in behind me to hunt me down. Kill me. I was their prey and they knew it.
I'm still not quite sure what happened next. Everything seemed to happen both fast and in slow motion at the same time. I remember tripping, feeling the sharp bite of rosebush thorns in my arms when I raised them to break my fall. I'd reached the border of the woods, where Mother used to grow her flowers. I can recall thinking I was going to die, and hearing the Nightcrawlers closing in for the kill. The next thing I remember is my father, standing tall between the oak and maple trees, towering like some imposing sculpture come to life, armed with only his hunting rifle. For some reason, I felt certain that the rifle wouldn't work on the Nightcrawlers. The creatures weren't natural. They weren't from this world. A rifle would never kill them.
Gunshots rang out, I know. I know because I ducked instinctively, even though I wasn't in the direction of aim. All I remember after that is bits and pieces because I've locked the memory so tightly away. I don't want to remember how the creatures ripped his throat out and dismembered him. I don't want to remember the stink of fresh blood and the drip of it on my skin and clothes and hair. It's too painful to remember. But I will remember the hatred I felt for the creatures after they left, leaving me alive to suffer the agony of surviving with the memory of seeing my parents die in such a horrible way. I will remember the desire that overcame me, the desire to kill them in return for murdering my parents.
“You can do this, Senka,” I repeat to myself quietly. I know they are near. I don't want them to hear my voice. I can't afford to give away my location. They will kill me. I am older now. They won't hesitate anymore. Not like they did the night they first came. I finger one of my six daggers anxiously. “Pretend they're the ones that killed Mother and Father. You can do this.” I know I can do this. I have done it many times. It's strange, really, that the mind needs to be reminded of things it already knows for certain. Bizarre. Drawing my broadsword from its sheath, I sneak through the moonlit woods. Leaves rustle beneath my feet, and I pause with my heart hammering in my throat. I pray silently to the gods that the Nightcrawlers didn't hear me. It is a few minutes before I feel calm enough to move again.
The familiar reek permeates the air soon after I begin traveling again. They must be very near. I begin to crouch, in order to sneak up on them more easily. As stupid as they can act, they are smart enough to tell if a human is coming, if said human isn't being careful enough. Stealth is crucial. I part the leaves of the nearest bush and peek from behind them, squinting in order to see in the insufficient light. There is no sign of them. I sigh as quietly as I can manage, and then stand up and sneak deeper into the trees. My empty sheath snags on a branch, and I try not to curse aloud, instead tugging fiercely to snatch it free. I don't have time for tussling with my gear. It's the worst possible timing for this kind of thing. The sheath comes loose with a loud snapping of branches, causing me to fall backwards onto my hindquarters painfully. My heart flies into my throat again. The sound of the breaking branches must have been audible for miles.
I remind myself yet again not to panic. Snapping branches are something that the Nightcrawlers may dismiss as being caused by wild animals. Then the follow-up thought to that idea fills me with fear. If they think they hear a wild animal, they may come to hunt it down. I have to get away from this spot before they get here. I try to breathe slowly so I can relax and think logically. Once I've calmed down, I hurry back to the bush I hid behind earlier. When the Nightcrawlers come to investigate the noise, I can ambush them. It will make the Hunt much easier. All that's left to do is to sit quietly and wait for the opportunity to arise.
Minutes crawl by, and I wonder how many hours have passed since I left Gulzar, the village that had requested this Hunt tonight. It seems as if I've been here for many days, even though I know I only left the safety of Gulzar once dusk had come and gone. The Nightcrawlers only ever come out after the sun has set, and return to their lairs once the sun begins to rise. I have to hurry if I want to finish this Hunt before daybreak: the moon is far west, meaning it must be close to dawn by now. I wish the Nightcrawlers would come quickly so that I could get moving; my calves are beginning to cramp up like hell. My broadsword grows heavier by the second until I decide to let it droop rather than continue to hold it upright. Cold seeps into me from inertia, and I exercise all my willpower to keep from jumping about for warmth. I must be like the trees, still and silent. Quiet as the grave.
Finally, I can hear a rustling nearby. They've arrived. Through craggy twigs and delicate leaves I see them sniffing the place where I fell. Their ugly black snouts skirt the ground as if they were caressing it, but I know they are trying to discover where I went. Now that they have the scent, they know that it was a human that fell. It won't be long before they can find me. It's best to attack them now, while they're not expecting it. I sneak out from behind the bush, careful to stay downwind. When I'm in a position none of them can see me from, I break the cover I'd carefully maintained and run at them, my broadsword held in front of me with both arms.
The monsters whirl in confusion and surprise. They evidently hadn't realized that I was hiding near them the whole time. One charges at me with unseeing bloodlust; I hit it with the pommel of my sword and charge straight into the center of them. They somewhat organize themselves into a sloppy circle around me, snarling and flashing their lethal fangs at me. There are eight of them including the one I hit with my sword. I take out my throwing stars, aiming carefully for the more dangerous-looking ones. They are the ones I have to kill first. I throw the small weapons at the three that are directly in front of me, and they fall dead at my feet. Before I can draw any other arsenal from the pouch tied around my thigh, sharp pain pierces the back of my right leg. One of them has buried its teeth into my flesh, the warm blood streaming down both my leg and its face in rivulets and pooling in my crude deerskin shoes. When it realizes it hasn't yielded the usual scream of agony, it bites down harder. I allow myself to wince when I feel it nearly slice through a tendon, but I don't make a sound. Yells will only encourage it to bite deeper than it already has. Another one leaps on me when it sees that I've stopped attacking, choosing to attack my left arm. Through the stars of pain that burn across my vision, I recognize it as the one I thought I'd felled with my sword. I drop my broadsword, seeing that keeping hold of it will only slow me down. The Nightcrawlers loosen their hold in surprise when it falls to the ground with a loud thud, and I seize the opportunity to strike, pulling out one of the twin blades I carry that the people from the East call katanas. I twist at the waist and slice backwards, and the one behind me is beheaded as neatly as if it had gone through the guillotine. Its teeth are still sunk into my calf, its head hanging gruesomely like some kind of demented puppet skull. I wipe the blood off of my blade by running it across the matted fur on the top of the dismembered head, and then go for the one hanging on my arm. That one I hack only the muzzle off of, and it falls in a crumpled heap on the leaves below. Before it can rise, I run it through with my katana, making sure to pierce its heart so that it will die a painful death. I scan the remaining ones to double-check my odds of winning.
Five down, three to go.
The remaining three come charging at me, the very image of foolishness. I clean my blade quickly with a scrap of leather I hang from my belt, resheath it in its carrier strapped to my back, and draw my daggers from my thigh pouch. One comes up on my left, nearly behind me, and I pivot to meet it with a dagger in its throat. Another clamps down on the leg injury I was given by the first Nightcrawler to bite me, and the third takes hold of the loose fabric of my tanned hide shorts. I swing my right hand, my free hand, to stab the third one through the side of its skull, and it lets go, dropping dead. The one clinging to my leg releases me and begins to retreat.
“Oh, no, you don't,” I whisper, and put my daggers away once more so I can remove one of my pistols from the holster strapped to my belt next to the sheath of my broadsword. I lift the firearm and shoot, not bothering to aim because I don't have to. It rises into the air slightly, almost comically, when the bullet strikes it, and then flops dead in the brush.
I blow the smoke from the barrel of the pistol and return it to its holster. I've used far more ammunition than I wanted to for this Hunt. Not only that, but I've been injured. I must be having an off day, I decide, and examine the damage done to my arm and leg. Both are bleeding sluggishly, and my shoe is soggy from blood that's soaked into the material. I glance upward at the moon. The battle took only about two minutes. So, so fast. The Nightcrawlers die so easily. They're so dangerous, and yet so easy to kill. The problem is their numbers. There are vast amounts of them everywhere. There's nowhere safe from them without the help of bounty hunters.
I decide to bag the bodies before I attend to my wounds. The cut leg won't keep me from walking, and I need to return to Gulzar soon so I can collect my bounty and leave. While I visit Gulzar frequently, I like to travel so that I can spread word of myself. It's the simplest way to get more work. Eight Nightcrawler bodies won't pay well enough to feed me for more than two days, not including the price of staying in an inn. I'll be sleeping outdoors, it seems, which means no real sleep at all. I'll be spending the majority of the time laying there paranoid that I'm going to be attacked. I stand up slowly, so as to avoid stressing my leg injury, and slide a large body bag out of the bottom of my katanas' carrier. It is large enough to accommodate up to ten Nightcrawler bodies. These eight will fit quite nicely. I take hold of the nearest one and slide it carefully into the bag. Once it's all the way in, I proceed to do the same with the rest of them. I tie a knot at the top of the bag so that it doesn't fall open, and then tend to my wounds with the first aid kit tucked in my thigh pouch. It's hard to bandage your own arm, but I've had to do it before, so I don't have any difficulty.
I give myself a final once-over to make sure I didn't miss any minor injuries. Satisfied that I took care of everything in need of attention, I pick up my broadsword and the body bag and sheath the sword, then I sling the bag over my shoulder to carry back to Gulzar. It weighs much more than it appeared it would, but I don't complain. I've become accustomed to carrying the heavy bags after Hunts. I stumble through the familiar woods, set off balance slightly by the limp in my right leg. The usually short journey seems thousands of times longer in the moonlit night, what with the risk of more Nightcrawlers coming after the smell of fresh blood in the air. I curse my stupidity for letting myself get bitten. The beasts have a knack for tracking down things – and people – that carry the scent of blood. When I see the village gates begin to appear in the distance, I heave a sigh of immense relief and pick up the pace of my walk until I'm loping in my normal deceptively clumsy gait. There is no sense in hanging about the forest edge so I can be attacked.
When I reach the gates, I curse under my breath. The iron gates are locked fast to prevent anyone coming in during the night. There is still at least an hour until dawn, which means being stuck in the open for Nightcrawlers to murder for another hour.
“Think, Senka, think,” I tell myself softly. “How can you get over the gate with this body bag?” After a few minutes of fruitless pondering, I recall the length of rope coiled at the bottom of my thigh pouch and unearth it. I then loop one end through the knot in the top of the bag and the other end around my waist, tying it firmly to ensure that it wouldn't come loose. I look up at the top of the gate to gauge the distance. It will be an interesting climb, for sure. I back up several paces in order to get a running start, and inhale deeply before sprinting towards it, getting a foot up on the gate wall, and launching myself onto the narrow top. I almost fall back off, and catch my balance just in time by seizing the frigid edge of the wall in my fingers. I thank the gods that I did not fall off and end up as a two-dimensional object in front of the village gateway. I drop down carefully on the other side of the gate, making very sure that I will land on my feet. I do not want to break bones today, not after already being injured. The bag carrying the Nightcrawler corpses lands behind me with a thud that could wake the dead, and I jump out of sheer paranoia before I realize, feeling foolish, that it isn't live Nightcrawlers attacking.
I gather the bag up in my arms and try to find a place to rest before I meet the villager that requested the Hunt. I must get in some rest so that I don't collapse.
Calvagh eyes the body bag dubiously when I dump it on the counter of his streetside stall. “Am I to assume this has the corpses of the Nightcrawlers in it?” he asks me, raising an eyebrow. “It's rather smaller than I had anticipated.”
I hurry to reassure him. I need my pay desperately. “I promise, sir, all eight bodies are in there. I made sure I killed every last one of them. None escaped. The one that tried earned a bullet through it.”
He laughs in a booming voice, one that reminds me of my father. “You're every bit as merciless as I thought you were! I owe you, Miss Senka. Those monsters were killing everyone what came to do business here. Now I can rest at ease.”
“You don't owe me a thing,” I tell him honestly. “It was my pleasure. I hate the Nightcrawlers with a burning passion.”
“And don't we all know it, Senka,” a familiar voice remarks from behind me. When I turn around, I see the familiar face of Raz Arblaster, the blacksmith's outspoken reddish-brown-haired apprentice who is a mere two years older than me. He grins at me and continues. “The way your expression is when you talk about them, people'd think you detested them more than anything else on the planet.”
“I do,” I retort, and plant my fists on my hips as I sass him. “I don't just hate them, I loathe them. There is nothing I hate more than Nightcrawlers.”
“Or so you say,” he answers without batting an eyelash. He always has been good at coming up with responses at a moment's notice, at least when talking to me. I have never seen him falter while talking. He focuses his attention onto Calvagh briefly. “Shouldn't you get rid of that? The smell will chase all your customers away if you're not more careful, Calvagh. The customers don't want Nightcrawler meat.”
Calvagh nods in agreement. “You have a point there, boy. Well, Senka, thank you once again for your service.” He deposits a sack of coins on the counter and then picks up the body bag, throwing it over one shoulder. “There should be about...eighty seps in there. If there isn't, come by later and let me know, and I'll pay the rest off.”
I feel my eyes widen. “Eighty seps? But that's so much! I only killed eight of them! Don't tell me you paid ten per Nightcrawler? That's so pricey. I can't accept all of this.” I need the money, but I won't take it if I didn't earn it. I push the sack back across the counter to him.
“I won't take no for an answer, Senka. Take it. You need the money, right?”
I remain silent, because I cannot argue against him on that point.
He smiles at me and pushes the sack towards me a second time. “Keep it. Believe me, you earned it three times over by getting rid of these pests.”
“How many did you kill?” Raz asks, having obviously not overheard my remarks on the amount of money I've been paid. “Eighty seps for a group means there must have been an awful lot of them, right?”
“Normally, it would,” I answer slowly. I open the drawstring at the top of the petite sack and take a gold coin out of the heap inside. Spinning it, I finish my explanation. “Calvagh just wanted to pay me more than I deserve. There were only eight of them. I should have gotten twenty-four to thirty seps tops.” Seps are worth the most in our currency. Below the seps come the yuges, and then after those are jols. I typically charge thirty yuges per Nightcrawler, equivalent to three seps, but Calvagh always tries to pay me far more than I ask for. It's a habit of his that I sometimes think is the reason he can't afford to improve the condition of his haphazard, rickety stall.
Raz laughs a bit at my remarks, even though I had tried to remain serious. “You need to charge him more, then. He thinks your service is worth more than you think it's worth, that's all. That can be fixed quite easily. Just raise the price a notch or two. It doesn't have to be a giant alteration. Five seps per Nightcrawler is still reasonable.”
“I can't charge that much for my service,” I inform him, spinning the coin again. “The poorer villages wouldn't be able to pay.”
He looks thoughtful now and looks away in what may be embarrassment. “I hadn't thought of that. You're such a thoughtful person, Senka. You always have been.”
I shake my head. “Nonsense. I'm one of those poor people, so I know what it's like to not be able to afford things I need or want, that's all.” I stand up straight and cease leaning on the stall, then stretch tiredly. It's all I can do to resist yawning. “Is there a room open in the inn that I can use to get some rest? That Hunt really did a number on me.”
“I can check,” he offers eagerly. He's always so ready and willing to please the people around him. I wonder why I can't be the same way. He takes off at a jog in the direction of the only local inn for miles. While Gulzar is small, there are no neighboring towns for hundreds of miles, which allows its business to flourish when the Nightcrawlers aren't prowling as much. I plant myself down in the dirt beside Calvagh's stall and get comfortable; I may as well take a nap while I wait for him to come back. It isn't long at all before I drift off to sleep.
I'm awoken by someone shaking my shoulder, and I groan and try to fall back asleep. The one trying to wake me up, unfortunately, is not so easily deterred, and they shake me harder and lightly slap my cheek. “Senka, get up. The inn has a room open. If you want it, you need to get there quick before someone else takes it.” It's Raz's voice. He must have returned from his inquiry with the innkeeper. I sit up reluctantly and rub the sleep from my eyes.
“All right, I'm coming. Just wait a minute while I wake up all the way,” I say, rubbing my eyes as if that will get rid of the grogginess I feel. He listens to me and waits patiently for me to wake up completely. Once I stand up, he takes me by the wrist and starts to drag me in the direction of the inn. I allow him to do so, although mostly just to spare the effort of steering myself. I'm a very slow riser, which is the reason I can never go on an overnight Hunt that requires two days out in the forest. I'd be killed as soon as I laid down to sleep.
He makes conversation while he tows me down the street. “So, tell me about the Hunt. I'm curious. How did you kill all eight of them? They must have been able to attack while you were trying to kill them.”
“They did attack,” I admit. “For a while, I thought they were going to kill me. One got my leg.”
“I noticed the limp. So how...?”
“I took out one of my katanas and sliced its head off, of course. How did you think I got rid of it?”
He turns his head and stares at me as if I've sprouted another head. “Wouldn't there still be teeth stuck in your leg, then?”
“Well, I removed them so I could clean the wound, obviously. I wouldn't leave teeth in my leg. That's just asking to bleed to death or get some nasty infection.” I roll my eyes at his foolish question. He would never survive on a Hunt. He doesn't have any of the common sense necessary to stay alive. True, he's intelligent in the ways of the market and business, but he definitely isn't when it comes to the world outside of the gates.
He laughs in embarrassment. “Of course,” he agrees. “That didn't occur to me. I'd be a horrible bounty hunter, wouldn't I? It's a good thing I'm going into the blacksmith trade, eh?”
“Yeah,” I reply without a second thought. Maybe it's a little blunt or rude, but I won't lie just to stroke his ego. He'll get by just fine without flattery. “You wouldn't last a day in this career. Not with how clumsy you are with a weapon.”
Again he laughs. “The only thing I can do with a weapon is repair it. Speaking of which, do you have any weapons that got broken at any point during that Hunt? I'll be happy to mend them for you if you do.”
“Thanks for the offer, Raz, but I was careful this time. Nothing broke.” When I had first become a bounty hunter, I was constantly breaking my sword blades and snapping the handles off of my daggers – on accident, of course. Not anymore. With experience underneath my belt now, I was able to handle weapons with ease and professionalism.
“What a shame,” he jokes. “You used to be my main source of money. Five seps per repair, wasn't it?”
“You were the reason I was bankrupt and couldn't afford to eat,” I retort, wincing at the memory of constant starving just so that I could pay Raz back for all the repairs I needed done for my weapons. It had been horrible.
He laughs a third time, and I can't help but wonder what has him in such a good mood today. Usually he's quick to make jokes and to kid around, but rarely does he laugh at others' remarks. “I wound up buying things for you all the time, didn't I?” he reminds me. “Like a room at the inn to sleep in for a night or two so that you wouldn't have to sleep out where the Nightcrawlers could get you.”
I feel my face flush in humiliation when he brings up my old nyctohylophobia. My no longer existent nyctohylophobia. “Don't mention that,” I insist. “It's embarrassing to be reminded of that.”
“It's nothing to be ashamed of,” he tells me. “Everyone is scared of something when they're young. You just happened to be afraid of sleeping in the woods at night. There's no harm in that. It's understandable, considering what you've told me about your experiences with Nightcrawlers.”
I shudder. This is the second time in less than twenty-four hours that I've been reminded of the night that my parents were murdered. “Don't mention that to me either, Raz. Please don't. That's the last thing I want to think about. You know that.”
“Sorry, Senka,” he apologizes. “I keep upsetting you today, don't I? Maybe I should just stop talking. Would that be better? For, you know, you?”
I shrug as I answer. “I suppose you can do that if you want to. I don't mind if you talk; you can, just don't bring up the two taboo topics. That's all. I appreciate your effot to not upset me, though.” I try to smile in a somewhat genuine manner, even though it's nearly impossible after being reminded of the two things that most upset me.
He smiles. “I'm glad I haven't made you hate my guts with the way I keep bringing these things up. I don't know what I'd do. I'd lose a valuable customer.”
“You've lost me as a customer anyways,” I remind him. “I don't need my weapons repaired anymore. I've learned how to fight without breaking weapons in the process since I became a bounty hunter.”
“I'm going to laugh when your pistol gets jammed during a fight,” he says teasingly.
“That's why I carry three of them,” I reply.
He sighs good-naturedly. “There's no arguing with you, is there, Senka? Certainly no hope of changing your opinion of anything.”
“You have my personality down to a tee, it seems,” I observe. I'm impressed that he's learned to read me so well and know when to concede defeat in a debate.
Raz grins at me. “Well, I haven't known you for four years for nothing,” he replies. He glances ahead of us, away from me. “We're almost to the inn now.” He releases his grip on my wrist. “I'll let you go in. I already paid the expense for a night and six meals, so the innkeeper is expecting you. You're all right with me paying, aren't you?” He looks doubtful, as if he thinks he may have done something to offend me by paying.
I nod. “I'm perfectly fine with it. Even with eighty seps, I appreciate the offer of a free night at the inn.” Then I pause. “You don't have much money yourself, though, do you?”
“I'm better off than you are, Senka,” he reassures me. “You deserve a free stay there once in a while so you can afford to keep yourself alive when you need that money.”
“I'll pay you back when I have more...” I begin to offer, but he silences me with a gentle hand over my mouth.
“I don't want you to pay me back,” he insists. “And if you dare try to, I'll give the money back to you sevenfold, whether you like it or not. I'm doing this to be nice, not to make you indebted to me. Okay?”
I nod again. It's the only way to make him take his hand off my mouth. Once he's taken his hand off, I begin to protest. “I can't accept this offer and then not pay you back later! I'd never be able to rest with a clear conscience if I didn't!” His hand immediately sweeps back over my mouth, a little tighter than the previous time.
“Stop it,” he says firmly. “I won't take money from someone who can't afford to pay. Especially not a friend.”
I reach up and slide his fingers away from my mouth so I can speak. “I've gone from valued customer to friend now?” I tease, just for the sake of picking on him.
“I've considered you a friend since I first talked to you,” he affirms, evidently not taking my mocking for what it was and instead assuming it a harmless question. “Why do you ask?”
So, so clueless. So oblivious. So foolish.
“Just curious,” I mumble back, shoving his hand off entirely. “It's nothing important.” Just trying to pick on you a bit. Not that it worked much. “Thanks for paying for me. I appreciate it. And I'll pay you back somehow, even if not with money. I'll do something for you.” I head towards the small inn by myself, leaving him confused in the street behind me.
The innkeeper looks up from his registration book when I enter and ring the bells that hang beside the main desk. He gives me a once-over, taking in my bloodied and bandaged arm and my multiple weapons. “Miss Senka Quinlan, welcome back. Go ahead and sign in; Mr. Arblaster already paid for you. It's the first room to the left when you reach the top of the staircase.” He gestures towards the rickety steps that sit behind the desk and wind up to the second floor of the primarily stone building. “The key's tucked underneath the door, all right?”
“Thanks, sir. Much obliged,” I respond, and head up the steps two at a time. When I reach the top, I turn to the left and bend down outside the door to my room in order to scoop up the key. I turn the key in the hole, listening closely for the telltale click before trying to open the door. It swings open with a creak that tells me that it hasn't had its hinges oiled in quite some time. Everything seems to be falling into disrepair here in Gulzar. I enter the room and glance around to check in case an unexpected guest is hiding in the room. With everything in the situation that it is, it wouldn't be much of a surprise. Once I am satisfied that I am the only one in the room, I remove my carrier from my back, my holsters and sheath from my belt, and my thigh pouch from my leg and lay them out in a neat line on the somewhat moth-eaten bedsheets. I stretch briefly to loosen muscles that have been tense ever since I completed the Hunt, and then decide to take another quick nap before going down to the dining area for the first meal I'd been promised. I flop down onto the bed, taking care not to impale myself in the process, and fall asleep in my clothes on top of the sheets and blankets.
I snap my eyes open and sit up, wondering what time it is. I look out of the one small window in the room, but can't quite see the sun from my vantage point. I stumble out of the room, making sure I lock the door, and down the staircase. “What time is it, sir?”
The innkeeper seems surprised to see me. “Ah, Miss Quinlan. It's almost noon. Would you like to eat something? You must be quite hungry after that Hunt of yours last night.”
“I am,” I admit, placing my hand on my stomach when it growls embarrassingly loud. “Is the kitchen working right now?”
“It sure is, Miss. Food's provided all day long here, as you ought to know by now.”
“Just making sure nothing's changed, sir. I'll get something to eat, then, as long as I'm awake.” I head into the dining area, where I'm met by the innkeeper's wife, a short but slender woman with a sunny smile.
“Go ahead and sit wherever you want, Miss,” she tells me kindly. “I'll come by to see what you want in a few minutes. There's a paper at all the tables that lists what we've got, so you can take a look at that while you wait.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” I say. I want to be sure that I'm one hundred percent polite to them, since I really am getting all of this free of charge. When she goes into the kitchen, I sit down at the nearest table and pick up its paper. The word “menu” is written across the top in her swirly handwriting, and below is a thorough list of everything offered, even down to types of drinks. I can't help but be impressed. It must have taken several hours to write this many copies of the same exact list so fancily.
She walks up to me after a few minutes. “See anything that interests you, Miss Quinlan?” she asks cheerfully. She reminds me of my mother, except for her height. She is quite a bit shorter than my mother was.
I can't help but smile back as I answer; her cheerfulness is catching. “Yes, ma'am. Could I have one of these hare roasts, please? And some bread?”
“Hare roast for breakfast?” She looks nonplussed for all of two seconds before shaking her head and sighing good-naturedly. “You always were an odd one, 'least as long as I've known you. All right, I'll get you your hare roast. Do you want anything to drink? I'll tell you now, that roast'll make you plenty thirsty. And Mr. Arblaster paid enough that you can have one.”
“Anything non-alcoholic? I've still got a couple months before I'm old enough to drink liquor.” The legal drinking age is seventeen, and I turned sixteen ten months ago. Many people in my position would have jumped the gun, but I would have felt incredibly guilty about lying just in order to get drunk.
“We have water or pomegranate juice. Take your pick.”
“Pomegranate juice, then, please, ma'am.”
She writes down my requests on a slip of yellowed paper with an old pen she's had for at least as long as I've known her. “All right, then, Miss Quinlan, I'll be right back with that for you. Just make yourself comfortable while you wait. It shouldn't take that long, but you never know.”
“Thank you, ma'am.” I watch her retreat back into the kitchen and then look back down at the menu, just for something to read. I thank the gods that my parents were at least able to teach me to read before they died. I would have been much worse off than I am if they hadn't.
I catch a string of conversation from a nearby table, a man's voice. “Ol' Asgier can't run much longer. Them Nightcrawlers always follow 'im to 'is 'ideout. 'S only a matter o' time 'fore some 'un finds where 'e's 'idin'. 'E can't keep movin' from spot to spot, or people'll see 'im.”
I tune in to the two men's conversation now. The word “Nightcrawlers” has piqued my interest.
The first man's companion replies, “Well, 'e can't very well stay where 'e is now, can 'e? Nightcrawlers'll flock to 'im once they've wiped ever' one out 'round 'ere. There's too much risk if 'e don't move 'round.”
“But if some 'un sees 'im while 'e's movin' from point one to point two – ”
“They won't see 'im. 'E's got the black magic on 'is side, don't y' know? 'E can do anythin' 'e wants wi' that stuff on 'is side,” the second man interrupts.
“It won' save 'im when 'e's being 'unted down by them Ulquos,” the first man disagrees.
Ulquos. Half dog, half boar creatures that are used for only the most critical of Hunts. I haven't heard anyone mention them in months. The last time I'd heard of them being used was when another village had gone on a Hunt for over a hundred Nightcrawlers that had infested the forest which practically lined their gate. I listen even more intently. Whoever these men are, they know things I've heard nothing about. I can discover so much just by listening to this one discussion.
The second man begins to raise his voice. “They ain't gonna send out Ulquos just to follow a load o' Nightcrawlers! That's jus' idiocy! The bounty 'unters 'ave got more important things to be worryin' abou' than one band o' Nightcrawlers!”
I suspect he's drunk, even if it is the middle of the day. He's getting very indiscreet about the topic, and from the way the other man is trying to shush him, I'm guessing he's supposed to be talking much quieter.
“Quiet already, will you?!” the first man insists angrily, keeping his voice low. “You want ever' one to 'ear you?”
“'S a li'l too late to shut me up now, ain't it?” the other retorts. “Migh' as well tell the 'ole room 'bout Asgier now.”
“You want to get 'rrested, go righ' a'ead,” the first one says, even quieter than before. “The law won' be int'rested in excuses for 'ow you know all tha' stuff.”
“Let 'em try to catch me, they'll be in for a rotten surprise, won' they?” he drawls. “Ain't no one what can best me in a game o' cat 'n mouse.”
I'm about ready to stand up and approach them to find out more, but the innkeeper's wife comes up next to my table with the food I ordered. “Here you are, Miss Quinlan. Enjoy.”
“Oh, thank you, ma'am,” I say gratefully, although I would have liked to be able to listen in on the men's conversation a bit longer. I'll have to settle for what I've learned already.
I am a small child again, hurrying out of the forest near the house, a handful of flowers for Mother tucked under my arms. I want to give them to her before she goes back inside the house. I can see her from here now: I am near the rosebushes at the edge. When I burst through the rows of red flowers, I call out to her to get her attention. “Mother, Mother! I have a bouquet for you! It's the peonies you like! Come see!”
She turns around, and I stop running, coming to a complete stop in horror. Her face is torn to shreds, dripping blood that spatters on her white apron and practical blue dress. When she smiles, it looks as if a possessed demon is grinning at me morbidly.
“How sweet of you,” she says, and it sounds as if her voice is overlapped by snarling devils. “Here, let me take those inside and put them in a vase.” She reaches for me with a hand that's covered in scarlet blood.
“No!” I scream, terrified. “Stay away!” I pull away from her and run back towards the forest, but stop at the edge when I see Father standing in the trees waiting for me. His throat is a mess of blood and gore that has soaked into the stiff white collar of his shirt and darkened his crimson bowtie to an almost black shade.
“Now, now, Senka,” he admonishes, his voice sounding much the same as Mother's, “don't run away from your mother. That's not proper for a young lady.”
I back away, torn as to where to run. Eventually, panicked to the point where I can no longer think straight, I shriek, “No! Stay away from me, both of you! Don't touch me!
“Leave me alone!”
I lurch up in the bed, sweating and panting in fear. I hate the dream. It comes on some nights when I've done a Hunt recently. I wipe sweat from my forehead, where it's collected enough to make my hair cling to my forehead. Then I cross to the water basin that sits on the nightstand in the opposite corner, pick it up, and pour the water over my face. The cold is like a slap to the face and wakes me up enough to calm me down a bit.
Too bothered by the nightmare to even consider going back to sleep, I scoop up my weapons and day clothes from the floor, change out of my nightdress, and gear up. I decide to go back to the woods and leave the village for a while in order to work off my disturbance.
Silently, I open the door of the room, slip out, and close it, making sure to tuck the key beneath the door after locking it tight. I then sneak down the stairs, sign myself out in the registration book, and leave the building. It's almost unbelievable how much more ominous Gulzar appears at night with no lights on. It seems as if every shadow could leap to life and attack, as if every house is alive, as if the air itself is heavy with death. I try to hurry through the streets without raising a racket, and when I reach the gates I had just come over last night, I climb up the metal door portion of it and vault over the top, landing perfectly on the other side. For a minute, I feel guilty about leaving without saying goodbye to anyone or thanking Raz again for paying for me, but I shake it off and head into the woods for my temporary departure.
I have been walking for several minutes when the all-too familiar reek of death and dried blood hits me. Nightcrawlers. There must be scores of them if their smell is this extreme. It's all I can do to avoid vomiting at the stink. I follow the scent deeper into the woods, and it isn't long before I come across what must be five packs of the monsters. They are ripping up a carcass that presumably used to be a deer. I duck down into the bushes so that they won't see me, but move too fast and end up snapping a branch on the nearest bush. I can't move without being seen. I have to stay here and pray that they don't come after the source of the noise. I cross my fingers tightly and pray to the god of luck that I won't be caught.
My prayer apparently goes unanswered, because not five seconds have gone by before an unpleasant black-haired muzzle pokes around the edge of my bush. It opens and bites timidly at my arm, and I try not to scream. After many, many tense minutes of it just nibbling my forearm, it lets out a piercing wail that brings the rest of its group descending upon me.
I fumble blindly for my daggers, but only manage to grab one before the Nightcrawlers are all on top of me hungrily. They bite me on my arms, legs, and torso, and I desperately try to stab them all before they can manage to kill me. The attempt is in vain, however. I finally concede defeat and allow them to go about murdering me.
Just as one leaps for my throat for the death blow, an arrow comes soaring from the right and pierces straight through its neck, pinning it to a tree a few feet away. I can't help but stare in shock at the place where it was only a couple seconds ago. “How in the...” I start, and watch while a hailstorm of arrows slaughters the Nightcrawlers that would have ended my life. I search around for my rescuer, but see no one.
“Are you okay?” a voice from overhead in the trees asks. It is a young man's voice, and its owner drops down to the ground effortlessly a second later. “You shouldn't be out here so late at night, girl. The Nightcrawlers will go after anything with a pulse. Go home before more come.”
Well. A rude rescuer. I look him over. He's actually quite good-looking, with tousled raven-black hair that hangs to just beneath his chin and piercing dark brown eyes. His shoulders are broad and strong, and he carries himself with a powerful bearing that tells me he must be an incredibly skilled bounty hunter. No novice would dare to make himself seem so imposing and self-confident. “I'm fine,” I snap when he finally notices that I'm examining him. “And I'm not stupid. I know about the Nightcrawlers, thank you very much. I can handle myself just fine.” I show him the dagger in my hand, waving it as if I am showing it to a small child. “See?” I put the dagger away and take out my first aid kit so I can take care of my new injuries.
He sighs and looks up into the tree he dropped from. “We saved a bitch, Narkissa. Should I find another pack of Nightcrawlers that can dispose of her so we don't have to worry about getting rid of her body after killing her?”
A nimble, petite girl comes down from the same tree, much like how a squirrel would. She's a strawberry blonde, and glares at me with dislike gleaming in her dark green eyes. She gives me a once-over while I finish bandaging my torso. “She doesn't look like much. The hair's nice, but she's plain and has no muscle to speak of. Go ahead.”
I finger my hair, which is one of the few things I actually like about my appearance. It looks black at first glance, but when light hits it, there are hints of red and chestnut in it. I usually tie it back in a long braid that reaches my waist in order to keep it out of the way, but I'd been in such a hurry to leave the inn that I hadn't bothered. At least she hadn't insulted it when listing my physical grievances. All the same, I feel offended. “Excuse me? Did you just say I have no muscle?” That is the remark I have the most of an issue with. She can say that I'm plain-looking all day; I don't care much. “I'm a bounty hunter, same as you.”
The girl looks over me again and turns her nose up. “Some bounty hunter. What do you kill, the rabbits? You won't earn much killing those.”
“What did you just say?” I snarl angrily. She's irritating me severely. “Watch it, girl. I'm not in a good mood right now.”
“I don't care,” she retorts. “You don't look like a bounty hunter, so I refuse to believe that you are a bounty hunter. It's that simple. You got it? Now run on home like a good girl.”
“If I had a home to run to, don't you think I'd be there rather than here in this blasted forest?!” I demand. I'm sorely tempted to take out one of my pistols and shoot her, but I'm worried about how the boy would react to that. I decide to ask him and see whether it's permissible for me to shoot her or not. “Um, sir?”
He looks at me with what can only be interpreted as a glare. “What do you want?”
“Permission to shoot your little girlfriend here?” I ask bluntly, pointing to the girl with my left hand while reaching for my pistol with my gun hand.
“No. And she's not my girlfriend, she's my little sister. Don't touch her.” He lifts his bow from where it had been resting in the quiver with his arrows, only slightly, just enough to imply the threat of an arrow through my neck if I had the audacity to shoot his sister despite his warning.
“I wouldn't be touching her,” I can't help but respond. “The bullet would. So, technically...” I pull the gun from its holster, but don't raise it to shooting position.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you,” his sister remarks. “My brother can draw his bow, string it, draw an arrow, and fire a hell of a lot faster than you'd think.”
“Narkissa, stay out of it,” he admonishes her. She pouts and draws back so that he can continue speaking to me without having to lean around her. “Put the gun away, girl. I'm not going to warn you any more.”
“You two are mighty cocky,” I observe as I return the gun to its holster.
“You're mighty cocky, too, for someone who just got her life saved,” the boy replies smoothly. “You can't even be bothered to thank your rescuers. You'd be dead right now if it weren't for us.”
I groan: he has a good point there. “All right, you win on that account. But that's no reason for your sister to treat me like garbage. Didn't your parents teach her manners?”
“I save my manners for people that deserve them,” the girl interrupts rudely with a toss of her blond curls. “And so far, you don't warrant good manners.”
“Listen, you,” I growl, “I'm ready to shoot you, whether your brother is okay with it or not. Shut your trap before my hand slips and I accidentally shoot you. Got it?”
“Will you two please stop bickering like you're both five years old?” the boy demands irritably. He looks at me, and I can't help but be frozen by the depth in his gaze. It's as if I'm falling into the dark pools of his eyes. “You, stop threatening my sister. You owe her for saving your life, whether you like it or not.” He turns to face his sister now. “You, knock it off. I'm sick of you picking fights with everyone we come across. It's getting ridiculous, and one of the people we save might have information about how to destroy the Nightcrawlers.”
“You're trying to destroy them, too?” I blurt without thinking, and then slap my hand over my mouth in embarrassment, feeling my cheeks begin to burn when both of them stare at me like I grew a second head. “Sorry,” I murmer. “I guess I got a bit too excited there.”
“No, no, it's fine,” the boy replies. “I'm sorry if I look shocked. It's just that we haven't come across anyone else who's actually willing to try to destroy the Nightcrawlers entirely. Even most of the bounty hunters are content with just killing them off as they come. They don't have the nerve to try to actually destroy them.” He sighs heavily. “The only problem is that no one seems to have any idea of how to destroy them. They seem like they're indestructible, aside from getting killed by bounty hunters.”
“Well, I heard something about the Nightcrawlers earlier today,” I admit. They seem trustworthy, even if the girl is a bit snooty. “A couple of men in the village inn were talking about some guy named Asgier. It sounded like the Nightcrawlers tend to flock to him or something. They said something about black magic, too.”
The two siblings exchange glances that I can't quite understand, and then the boy speaks again. “We've heard rumors that the Nightcrawlers were created with black magic. Do you suppose it's possible that – ?”
“ – That this Asgier person might be the one that created them?” I finish for him. “I suppose. It's certainly a possibility.”
He nods. “You read my mind.” He glances at his sister. “I think we can trust her, Narkissa. She seems trustworthy enough.”
The girl scowls but doesn't protest. “Whatever you want,” she tells him, crossing her arms over her chest as if to say, I dare you to actually trust her. Don't you dare. “I don't give a damn.”
He groans. “Don't start with the attitude, Narkissa. Please don't. It's not helping.” She only turns her back to him in response, and he addresses me next. “Well, as you may have guessed, my sister's name is Narkissa Darnell. She's fifteen, so she's right at pain-in-the-ass age.”
I laugh as he continues.
“I'm her older brother, Kamau Darnell. We're bounty hunters like you, from a village a few hundred miles north of here.” He gestures in a vague northern direction to help illustrate his introduction. “And you are...?”
“Senka Quinlan, sixteen years old,” I supply, and offer my hand for him to shake. Now that I'm through with biting off Narkissa's head, I'm willing to try to be a bit more polite to them. “I'm from a village that's quite a ways east of Gulzar.”
“Gulzar?” Narkissa repeats as if unfamiliar with the village name.
I point in the direction of Gulzar. “The village that's just past this forest. Surely you've been there before. You can't miss it.”
Kamau shakes his head. “We've never gone to Gulzar before. Our village isn't exactly close by, so we're a bit unfamiliar with the area.”
“Oh. But you haven't taken any Hunt requests from any of the villages around here?” I press. I can't believe that these two have never been to Gulzar. “I don't mean to pry. It's just extremely unusual to come across someone who's never visited Gulzar or any of its neighboring villages.”
He shrugs. “We took most of our Hunt requests from our own village. You wouldn't believe how many Nightcrawlers there are farther up north. That batch we took care of for you was about average-sized for what we have where we come from.”
I feel my eyes widen. “You've got to be kidding me. That's ridiculous! No wonder you were able to handle them so well, then.”
Narkissa snickers. “If you thought that was a lot of Nightcrawlers, then you're worse than I thought,” she remarks, fully aiming to insult.
I can't help but bristle at the barbed comment. “You're just begging to get that smug smirk of yours punched inside out,” I warn her angrily. “I'd watch my comments if I were you.”
“Will you two please stop it?!” Kamau snaps loudly. Narkissa and I fall silent almost immediately. “Thank you,” he says, more calmly now. “Now don't start fighting again. Jeez, I tell you to quit bickering once and you just start all over again...” It's hard to tell whether his final remark is addressed to both of us or only his sister.
I clear my throat in order to get their attention. “Um, I don't mean to pry, but...why do you want to destroy the Nightcrawlers so bad? I know my reason, but you two are total strangers to me. Would you mind just explaining the basic incentive you guys have got? I'm just curious; you don't have to answer if it's something really personal.”
“Why should we tell you of all people – ” Narkissa begins to demand, but she is cut off when Kamau raises a hand to signal her to be quiet.
“Fine,” he relents easily, piercing my eyes with his own. “I'll tell you. I'll explain why we're seeking to destroy the Nightcrawlers for good.”