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The Sisters Dukhov in First Outing

[NOTE: The following text is the original story. Textual discrepancies will be present from this version to the audio version.]

The Sisters Dukhov in: First Outing

The Mayor detested the city. It was crowded, confusing, and most of all, he was simply scared to death of it. He thanked the land with every step he took that he was merely the head of a small hamlet, where affairs were simple and he knew everyone’s name. Here, the multitude of faces he passed blended together into a thick stew, and he nearly tripped over the uneven cobblestones many a time as he tried to make sense of it all. At least this street, with its thin road and narrow buildings, was a little quieter; though he did not like the look those youths in the alleyway were giving him. They appeared hungry and lean, like sharks. Sharks covered in scars and leather. Luckily, The Mayor had to cross the street then, and cross it he did. Very quickly. According to the address he’d been given, this was the right building. It leaned slightly downhill, the brown bricks weathered from the sun and rain. This was the establishment containing the Dukhov Agency? The best—for the price—Hunter in the south of Erin? But yes, according to the small plaque on the door, the office of this semi-known Hunter was here, located on the garden level. Even the Mayor, who was not all that familiar with the verbiage and customs of the city, knew that “garden level” was just a very nice way of saying “basement”, and was already shivering thinking about what sorts of molds and mildews could be lurking down there on the damp walls. Yet, descend he must, for the children. Think of the children. If he had to see one more child sprawled out on the forest floor, small, pale face covered in blood, well, he didn’t know how he’d react. He took a deep breath and followed the stone steps downward to the door below. Over the aperture was a small sign, which read, in an untidy scrawl: “Hunter of Fair Folk, Curses, Werebeasts, etc. Do not work for exposure. Shove off.” The small amount of coin in his pocket seemed lighter than it had been before. He hoped it would be enough. Before he could think about it too hard, the Mayor reached out and pushed on the door, thrusting his way inward. Inside it was dark, and slightly stuffy, with only a few oil lamps here or there to keep the room lit. A few small windows were perched high up on the walls, but these were small and dusty enough to be negligible. “Hello?” he called out, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “Can I help you?” asked a voice, and the Mayor realized—rather sheepishly—that there had been a woman standing behind the mahogany counter the entire time. “Or are you just here to gape like a fish?” She was short, but it wasn’t that noticeable due to the volume of her hair, which puffed out in orange ringlets around her face, except on the right side, where it was pulled back with a metal clip. “Uhh,” the Mayor began, suddenly feeling tongue-tied, “I’m here to see the Hunter.” “That would be me,” the woman smiled, and nodded. He spluttered, opening his mouth and closing it again several times. “Y-you?” he finally managed. “You’re the Hunter, Dukhov?” “Aye, that’s right, Maibe Dukhov. Problem with that?” She was so young, so... well-adjusted. Weren’t Hunters supposed to be grim, grizzled characters? Altered utterly by their line of work? “Uh, no, no, it’s... it’s just. I thought you would be...” he couldn’t quite get anything out, but as soon as she raised an eyebrow his tongue unstuck. “Taller.” “Well, I can stand on a chair if you’d like.” “No, that won’t be necessary,” he splayed out his hands as she reached for the stool besides her. She grinned lopsidedly, and as she tilted her head he noticed that she had a peculiar mark on her cheek, black and squiggly. A tattoo of some kind? It seemed to continue below onto her neck, but he couldn’t see because of her high collar. “I’m just messing with you, mate. You got a monster problem?” “Yes.” He felt so behind in this whole conversation. “I can pay!” “Why don’t you pop along with me into the back and we’ll discuss it.” “Thank you,” he said, relieved. She gestured him behind the counter, and opened the old, oak door into the back room. It was clear that this room was also used for visitors, though it wasn’t quite as done up, or mysterious. There was a round table in the center, with a simple, checkered tablecloth draped over its surface. An old, oil lamp hung from the wooden beam in the middle of the ceiling, casting amber shadows into the corners of the room. “Tea? Muffins?” Maibe asked, looking slightly concerned for his well-being. The Mayor was an anxious man by default, and now small beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. Here he was, in a small basement, in the presence of someone who hunted... things for a living, and now she was asking if he wanted some tea. Taking a deep gulp, the Mayor simply managed a small “please.” Maibe smiled encouragingly at him as he sat at the table. She whisked through another door in the back, presumably to where the kitchen was. “Oo, I want a muffin too!” The Mayor could have sworn that he heard a rather squeaky, muffled voice from somewhere in the room, but at this point, he wouldn’t have doubted if his ears were playing tricks on him. She came back in after a minute, with a cup of tea and two muffins. She set one down in front of the Mayor and one off to the side. Was she not going to eat it? Then who was the second muffin for? Was she waiting for someone else, or—? He quickly got his answer as something small and red flew out from behind Maibe’s ear and landed on the muffin plate. The Mayor blinked several times, staring down at the small thing, before he nearly fell backwards in his chair. It was a little person with bright red skin. Small, stubby horns emerged from its hairline, while two wings spread from its back. The creature looked up at him with its pupil-less, yellow eyes. “What the fuck are you looking at?” “That’s a... a Fey!” The Mayor felt very light-headed. The Fey were creatures only whispered of in the old tales. They kidnapped people—especially children—to take back to their mounds in the hills, to either entertain or eat, depending on who you asked. “You could’ve just staying hidden, Tep,” Maibe sighed. “It’s not like you should be surprised. Most of you don’t like to wander out in broad daylight. And didn’t we already talk about not scaring the customers?” “Ah, blow it out your arse,” the creature, Tep, waved her off. Conversation apparently ended, at least in his book, he turned his attention to his muffin, which was nearly bigger than he was. Opening his miniscule mouth as wide as he could, he bit down into the muffin, chewed on it for a moment, then gagged, spitting most of it out back onto the plate. “Bleeh, there’s nuts in these!” he sputtered. If he was going to be confused about everything else, the Mayor clung to the one question he felt he could actually ask without sounding like a total dunce. “What’s wrong with nuts?” Maibe groaned. “Here we go...” “What’s wrong with nuts?” Tep puffed up indignantly. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong. All I wanted was to take a bite of a delicious, gooey, moist muffin, and what do I get instead? A tough, chewy, crunchy rock that tastes like burnt ground-damned wood. It ruins the whole experience, and my entire day on top of that. So thanks nuts, for doing the world the service of being the epitome of everything terrible and bad.” “Well, why don’t you just eat around them?” The Mayor asked, a little bemused now. It was almost like talking to a child. Tep looked up at the Mayor like he was the dumbest man alive. “I’m four inches tall, fucknuts. Easier said than done when each one’s the size of a damn boulder.” “Tep,” Maibe interjected. “I’m trying to do business. Shut up and eat your muffin, or I won’t be able to afford any more.” Grumbling, the small pixie-thing went back to his noisy chewing, while Maibe turned back to the Mayor. “I apologize for my, um, assistant. Now, your problem?” “Uh, right,” the Mayor had issue turning away from Tep, but managed to pull his eyes away and looked back at Maibe. “My name is Mallie O’Connor, and I’m the Mayor of Banborrow, have you heard of it?” Maibe tilted her head, then nodded. “Small little hamlet, about a day from the city? I may’ve been through there once, on my way to another job. Got that really tall clocktower, right in the square.” “That’s the one,” the Mayor grinned, not a little proud. “Well, I come to you because lately, many townsmen have gone missing, especially children. They wander off to the woods to play and, well, in the last few weeks, several o’ them haven’t returned. Next day or so, we’d find their little bodies, cold as ice at the edge o’ the trees.” “The woods are dangerous,” Maibe leaned forward. “How do you know that it ain’t some predator snatching ‘em? Like a wolf or a bear?” “Because me brother Thomas ‘as seen it!” the Mayor was nearly pleading, clearly afraid that she didn’t believe him. “A shadow in the woods, right after we found the last body. Bigger than any bear you’ve ever seen.” Sighing, Maibe looked upwards for a moment. How many times had she heard this story? “Did you notice anything else about it? Any discerning features?” “It vanished beneath the heather before ‘e could see anything clearly,” the Mayor shook his head. “Please,” he added. “The townsfolk and I, we put together a collection. It’s not much, but we’re so afeared. We’re dying, Ms. Dukhov. Something’s hunting us, and I didn’t know where else to go but a Hunter.” “How much?” “One-hundred Jack, mum.” “And you’ve got transport?” “A carriage is set to take me back on the morrow.” Tep, who had been up until this point been occupied with the muffin, looked up at her in horror. “One-hundred Jack? That’s not enough to buy a week’s worth of whiskey! Maibe, are you really gonna—?” “Alright, I’ll come out to look. But if it really is a bear, you’re on your own, square?” The Mayor gulped, looking relieved. “Aye, square. Very square. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.” “You can repay us by giving me the window seat,” Tep scowled. “No way I’m sitting in between you cows on two legs.” The Mayor stood at Maibe’s suggestion. Like everyone, he had quickly learned to ignore the groans of the small imp on the table. He clutched his handkerchief, now covered in sweat from his brow and one or two stray tears from his cheeks. “I’ll bring the carriage around in the morning. 9 o’clock?” “That’ll be just fine,” Maibe led him out of the parlor, nodding as he blabbered further about his gratitude. When she returned, she tried her hardest to avoid meeting Tep’s gaze, before he cleared his throat very loudly. “Sorry, had a spare bit of nut stuck in my throat,” he grumbled. “Which is exactly what you are. The biggest nut I’ve ever met. We don’t do this out of the kindness of our hearts, ya know.” She sat back down at the table, running her finger over the checked patterns on its surface. “I’m well aware. But that last job brought us in enough to get by for a while, and those puppy eyes of his were making me wee heart ache. Besides, Ide would have killed me if I hadn’t agreed to help.” “Your sister is even more of a bleeding heart than you are,” Tep scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest. Maibe offered her hand, and reluctantly, Tep scrambled on top of it, holding tight to her finger as she lifted him up closer to her. “I wish she was here right now to talk some sense into you, ya blighter.” “What if she gets back before you do?” “I’ll leave her a note,” Maibe said. “Knowing her, she’ll probably catch up. Now let’s turn in early, eh? We’ve got a long couple of days ahead of us.” ~~ o ~~ The carriage had been bumping down the unkempt road for nearly ten hours now, and the Mayor was feeling a wee bit queasy. He gripped his handkerchief firmly, and raised it to his mouth whenever they passed over a large bump or rut. Maibe and Tep, who were sitting across from the Mayor, seemed less than bothered. The woman stared out the window at the darkened woods beyond, her curly hair bobbing along with the road. In contrast, the Imp had been staring at the Mayor from his perch on Maibe’s shoulder for the last ten minutes. It was making the said official very uncomfortable. “Hey, Maibe,” Tep said suddenly. “You wanna make bets? I say chubs here’ll puke in the next ten minutes. What about you?” “I beg your...” the Mayor had to pause as the carriage passed over a large root, “...your pardon?” Shaking her head, Maibe flicked Tep off of her shoulder with a gloved hand. “He can hear you, ya know, and it’s not polite to stare. But uh... I’ll say fifteen.” The Mayor started laughing suddenly, and Maibe and Tep paused to look over at him. “And just what the flaming ballsacks are you laughing at?” “Nothing,” the Mayor waved them off. “It’s just...” handkerchief to the mouth again, “...just hard to believe that you two are hunters at all, let alone the Dukhov I keep hearing about. I mean, he’s four inches small, and you look like you could be crushed by an overweight dog.” “Well,” Maibe crossed her arms over her chest, while Tep flopped back on the seat, cackling hysterically. “Overweight dog...” Well,” she continued. “It’s not all about brawn, you know, this hunting business. We don’t hunt simple animals—” “Wait, wait! What about that time with the possessed donkey?” For the most part, if you’ll let me finish,” she glared at Tep. “For us, it’s more about the cunning and the knowledge. Most of the beasties we deal with are more dangerous than a person, or a wolf or a bear, and most of them aren’t polite enough to knock on the door and announce themselves. So, it’s our job to figure out what we’re dealing with and how to make it go away.” “So, what do you think about our monster, then?” the Mayor asked, interested. The other two glanced at each other, hesitating. But Tep nodded, and Maibe turned back to the Mayor. “We haven’t been given much yet, but we’ve got a few ideas.” “Such as?” The Mayor perked up boyishly. “They’re taking women and children. Do you think it could be the Fey?” “Not a chance,” Tep frowned at the word. “You found bodies? Yeah, the Fey don’t leave those. Either you turn up alive several months later or you don’t turn up at all.” Putting a hand to his chin, the Mayor nodded in thought. “I suppose you’d know, hmm?” “Would you stop that?” Tep suddenly stood on the seat, the small, red glow he emitted growing brighter. “I beg your pardon?” “Calling me a Fey. I’m not one, you know.” The Mayor was taken aback. “I apologize, m’lad. I had no idea.” “It’s easy to get mixed up,” Maibe interjected. “Tep is what we call an Esprit. He’s what happens when a Fey leaves their, er... realm. So, as you can see, he’s a little bitter.” “No shit.” Tep sat down again, crossing his arms and legs. “Anyway,” Maibe cleared her throat as an awkwardness began to settle. “We know it’s not a Fey, or an Esprit for that matter. As I’m sure you can guess, they’re not the most subtle of creatures.” You’re not the most subtle of creatures.” “Tep, that’s not even an insult. Beyond that, there’s a couple o’ things we can cross off the list: vampires don’t usually hunt in the woods, and you don’t seem like the type to make enemies, so a curse is doubtful. Beyond that, we won’t really know until we examine the bodies, talk to some people.” Gulping, the Mayor pulled at his collar. “You look at th-the... the bodies?” “Aye, how else are you supposed to know what did it if’n you don’t know what it did?” “I suppose... it just feels disrespectful, that’s all.” “Using one body to prevent more isn’t disrespectful.” The Mayor opened his mouth to say something, but whether it was to agree or argue would never be known. For at that moment the carriage lurched to a stop, and the Mayor nearly had to go for the window. “Why’ve we stopped?” Maibe asked, trying to peer out into the darkness beyond the window. “Well, don’t look at me,” the Mayor said as the other two glanced over to him pointedly. “We’re not supposed to arrive till the morrow.” “Then why—?” Tep began, and quickly got his answer as the door burst open. The man looking into the carriage was extremely lumpy, with several large scars and a misshapen nose. His breath certainly wasn’t helping the Mayor’s queasy stomach. The three in the carriage, or rather two, as Tep hid somewhere under Maibe’s hair, stared. “Well, what’re you waiting for?” the man asked. “Get out of the carriage.” Confused, Maibe and the Mayor crawled out of the box. Their confusion didn’t last long. Just in front of the carriage, a large tree had fallen over, blocking the road. However, the perpetrators were quite dim if they’d wanted the travelers to believe it by accident, as the trunk was cut very cleanly. Whatever the intention, the lumpy man and his two friends look very pleased with themselves. “What’s all this, then?” the lumpy man asked. “A bloke and his daughter going out for a midnight ride?” “And just why are you so keen on knowing?” Maibe asked. From behind her, the Mayor could see her slowly pull the glove off of her left hand. She had more tattoos there on her pale flesh; strange, swirling patterns that almost seemed to pulse. That was probably just a trick of the darkness. “Well, you see lassie, the boys and I here like to know everyone who comes through these parts. We take a toll, you see.” At least, the Mayor had thought it was just a trick until the black tattoos started writhing down her hand and pooling at her fingertips. Gradually, they forced their way off her skin and formed something sharp and pointed. Normally, the Mayor would have begun blubbering by now, but he was already too horrified to do much of anything. Meanwhile, Maibe’s grip tightened on the thing that now very much resembled a knife. “And what happens if we don’t have the Jack to pay you?” “Well then, we have other ways to... extract payment,” the man’s eyes glittered evilly. He made a step to approach Maibe, then another. Her arm tensed... Suddenly, with a scream, one of the other men was abruptly yanked into the trees. The lumpy man turned drunkenly on his heel, caught off guard. “Nels?” he called, before turning again as the third man met the same fate. “Bloody hell...” he began, drawing a dagger from his belt. But before he could do much of anything, a pair of enormous arms emerged from the underbrush, and a sword wormed its way in front of his neck. “Don’t move.” Clearly, he wasn’t a very good listener, because as soon as he heard the voice he tried to turn, and his throat was abruptly slashed. He gurgled for a second as he attempted to breathe through the blood running through his mouth and down his front, and then collapsed. “You know, just once I’d like to threaten someone who isn’t an idiot.” Now that the Mayor was paying attention, he noticed that while the voice was deep and quiet, it was decidedly female. Maibe smiled to the trees. “Usually the smart ones don’t need threatening.” “A damn shame.” “Regardless, your timing was impeccable as always, Ide.” Stepping over the body, a woman emerged from the foliage. The Mayor almost panicked, for in the first second he thought with her pale skin and white hair she must be a ghost. But she was just a woman, one of the tallest and most intimidating the Mayor had ever seen, but a mortal woman nonetheless. “You got my note, I take it?” Maibe asked. “Note? I haven’t been home. I was just in the area. Pure coincidence,” Ide shook her head. “Who...?” the Mayor asked, still wary of her rather intense gaze. “Oh, my apologies, Mr. Mayor, sir,” Maibe cut in. “This is my sister, Ide.” He blinked. “Your... sis-sister?” “O’ course. What, you thought the Dukhov agency was jes one woman and a housefly?” “Excuse you,” Tep suddenly cut in, emerging from where he’d been hidden all along in a leather pouch at Maibe’s waist. Ide glared down at the small imp. “What’s there to excuse?” Clearly, even Tep was scared of her, for he zipped back into his pouch without another word. “So, what are we dealing with here, Maibe?” Ide turned to her sister. “Not sure yet, but it’s probably something hairy. I’ll fill you in on the way. Mr. Mayor, do you mind?” “If she can help fell this beast, the more the merrier,” he said, though internally he groaned about all the space in the already small carriage he was going to lose. ~~ o ~~ Dawn was just stretching tentative tendrils over the horizon when the carriage rolled into the outskirts of Banborrow. The first sign of civilization the travelers saw on the rocky road into town were a few cottages sprinkled here and there, some small, rocky fields eked out of the landscape, and the village graveyard, where a small gathering was taking place. Maibe looked particularly interested in the place, and after following her gaze, Tep scoffed. “Roadside graveyard, huh? That’s really welcoming.” “The founders wanted to give grieving families easy access to the dearly departed.” “And which dead man is being grieved today?” Ide asked, not seeming to notice her own bluntness. The Mayor grew squeamish at the harsh tone of her words and stare, but soldiered on. “That’s the grave of Fionn McLockley. He was a soldier stationed up to the North. Damned crazy bird-cultists attacked his regiment. We’re finally in peacetime, his poor wife din’t espect him to come home inna box.” Something in Ide’s face grew more stone-like at the mention. But the odd tension in the air dissipated as the carriage rolled up to the town square and stopped. The Mayor seemed much more confident here. His shoulders dropped an inch with a sigh, and he practically burst from the cabin. Tep climbed back into his little pouch and the sisters followed behind, Maibe flipping a coin up to the driver with a small wink. The Mayor seemed very proud of his little town, as he kept glancing back and forth from the square to Maibe and Ide, trying to gauge their reactions. It was a nice square, with an old, but well-maintained well in the center, and several stalls that must have been filled on market day. Above them stood a tall, rickety clocktower, and below them the ground was paved with rough cobblestones. “It’s... very quaint,” Maibe said, feeling as if the Mayor expected an opinion. “It is rather quaint, if I do say so myself. The church is there,” he pointed to one of the taller stone buildings in the square. “Our local doctor, a one Mr. Harris, has his office there, and there’s Mr. Flanagan’s tavern, he makes one of the best meat pies in the entire—” But before he could finish, the door of said tavern burst open. A slightly sunburned woman in patched clothes locked eyes with the Mayor and hurried over to him. “Mr. Mayor, sir,” she panted, out of breath. “Thank the earth you’re back.” “Ciara, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” the Mayor scrunched his bushy eyebrows in concern. “What’s happened?” “The... the attacks, sir. There’s been another.” “By the soil,” the Mayor put a hand to his already sweaty forehead. Ide took a step forward, and the woman, Ciara, almost squawked at the sight of her. “Where?” she asked. “The... the woods, mum,” she squeaked out. “Near the old mill.” “This is perfect!” Maibe clapped her hands together. “It’ll be much easier to examine a fresh corpse. Please, my good woman, take us there, if you’d be so kind.” The woman looked at Maibe for a moment, horrified. Then the Mayor cleared his throat and gestured for her to do as she’d been told. Ciara shook her head, but led the sisters off in the direction of the forest, her teeth chattering all the way. ~~ o ~~ “Well, it’s certainly a thing what did it,” Maibe said, hands on her knees as she near squatted over the corpse. Ide was nearby, examining some of the nearby foliage. She tilted her head slightly, as if listening for something. “That much is obvious,” she concurred. Meanwhile, the Mayor had no idea how they stood the smell, let alone the sight. He’d been kneeling in the bushes for the last few minutes. Now, he tried to look up, only to nearly have to double over again. The corpse was mangled almost beyond recognition. If not for the face, which was still relatively intact, he would have hardly been able to tell it was human at all. Thankfully, despite the features frozen in a final, desperate fear, the Mayor could tell that for once, it wasn’t one of his. “You said It twas usually chillins and lasses, aye?” Maibe asked, to which the Mayor nodded. “Oh, that’s not good,” she shook her head. “It’s escalating.” “This one’s probably a passing hunter, if it’s not one of the villagers,” Ide commented, taking a glance over at the body. “Probably got caught out in the middle of the night.” “How can you... how can you tell?” the Mayor interrupted, trying to get a hold of himself. “That it was a... a thing, I mean.” “Mere man wouldn’t thrash this much,” Ide explained, reaching upwards to a spot high in the forest canopy that only she could get to. “Especially not this high.” “Plus, the body tells a whole story all on its own,” Maibe beamed. “The wounds on his chest are too rough to be a weapon; twas either claws or talons.” “Perhaps a werewolf?” The Mayor asked, interested but still too nauseous to actually look. She shook her head. “Nay, they usually go for the liver. These are centered on his chest, specifically...” there was an audible squelching noise as she peeled back some of the shirt, which was congealed to his torso with blood. “Specifically, slightly to the left of center, which judging by the ribcage, is right where his heart should be.” “It’s gone, I take it?” Ide truly turned to the body for the first time. “Ripped right out.” “It’s strange...” Ide was looking at the ground now, kicking aside a few leaves. “There’s so many... feathers on the ground, black ones.” “Feathers?” Maibe repeated, frowning, turning back to the Mayor. “Mr. Mayor, sir, if you’d please: were there any great fighters dead around here recently? Em, a general or a skilled warrior?” He thought for a second. “Well, there was McLockley, the man they were mourning back at the graveyard.” Maibe and Ide’s eyes both widened as they locked gazes. They nodded to one another, before Maibe faced the Mayor once more. “Mr. Mayor, we know what your creature is.” “What?” he was astonished how sure they were this quickly. Ide looked grim. “It’s a Valravn.” ~~ o ~~ “So, what exactly is a Valravn?” The Mayor asked, glancing over Maibe’s shoulder as she read intently from an aging leather book. She’d placed it on the rough wood of the table in the far corner of Flanagan’s tavern, attempting to keep away from people, which hadn’t really mattered as the place was mostly empty. Maibe took a swig from the glass of whiskey next to her. Tep mirrored her motion from a thimble filled with the same, brown liquor, but he was having trouble lifting it. The Mayor wondered just how much he’d had. “Here.” Maibe pushed the book between them and pointed to a sketch in the corner of the page. It seemed to be of a very large, strong humanoid figure, but covered in a thick coat of feathers. The eyes were far too black and beady to belong to a human, and instead of a mouth, the creature possessed a short, thin beak. “It’s a raven that has eaten the heart of a warrior and now longs to become human,” she explained. “Your returned soldier was missing his heart, correct?” “Do you even need to ask?” the Mayor sighed. “We did think it strange, but figured it the barbarians’ doing from up north, where he was posted.” Maibe nodded grimly, turning back to the book. “A Valravn will continue to consume human hearts, and become more and more human itself.” “But will it ever... you know,” the Mayor shuddered, “actually do it? Become human?” “Who’s to say?” Maibe shrugged, her gaze oddly long and penetrating. “My guess is no, but I’ve never known one to get that far before it’s put down.” The Mayor took all this in. He knew there were horrible beasts and monsters out there, everyone did. But to actually see the work of and know about one was something else entirely. “So, how do you ‘put one down’, if you don’t mind me asking.” “We have to bait it first,” Tep hiccupped a little. “You’ve got pigs around here, right?” “You’re not going to...” the Mayor bristled. “Those pigs are the townfolks’ livelihood.” Maibe frowned at Tep, and yanked the thimble away from him. “He means wild pigs, out in the woods.” “Aw, I wanted to freak ‘im out.” “Pig hearts are similar to human ones,” Maibe continued, ignoring the diminutive imp who had just stumbled his way into a sitting position. “So we’re going to bait it to a secluded location. Most natural beasts have a weakness to silver, so if it hasn’t gotten too strong yet, Ide’s sword should do the job.” “And if it has? Gotten too strong, I mean,” the Mayor asked. “There are other ways,” Maibe admitted, “which we are keeping in mind, but I don’t want to say too much.” She glanced over at the dusty window, to the darkness outside. At her gaze, two or three sets of black wings fluttered away. “Ravens talk. “But don’t worry your head about it, Mr. Mayor, sir. I’m doing all the reading I can, and Ide’s out there putting everything together. It should all be over by daybreak. I promise.” ~~ o ~~ Ide took a deep breath. She was glad to be back in the forest, away from people. She didn’t like people. They were too noisy, and they did unpredictable things that rarely made sense. People could be terrifying sometimes, too. She liked the wilderness much better. It too could be terrifying, but if you followed its rules, you would stay out of trouble just fine. The pig was heading off towards the river. She could tell by the short distance between its hoofed prints. It wasn’t in any particular hurry, but she didn’t want to scare it off. With an unnatural ease, Ide worked her way through the thick undergrowth, failing to step on a single twig. She preceded thus for quite some time, the only sound the beating of her heart in her own ear. Finally, she heard the trickle of a stream, and then saw the water itself through the leaves. Sure enough, a stout, bristly boar was kneeling down to take a drink. It was too dark, it couldn’t see her, even as close as she was. But she could certainly see it. This could be her only opportunity. She readied her sword, prepared to make the first step out of the trees... But then a bird landed on a twig next to her face. It was small and black: a crow, and it stared right at her for a second before cawing loudly enough to wake the whole forest. The boar looked up. It still couldn’t really see her, but it saw the flapping of the crow’s wings as it took to the sky once again, and instinctively starting moving. “Shit,” Ide muttered, gliding forward, to which the pig began to pick up speed. “Oh no, you don’t.” Ide barreled out of the bushes, catching the boar around its middle, and rolling it over on top of her. The animal’s squeal pierced her eardrums, and its legs thrashed helplessly through the air, nearly crushing her with its weight. The sword was forced from her hand, but she managed to get a grip on the hunting knife at her belt and with a grunt of effort, ran it across the boar’s neck. Dark blood ran from the wound down onto her face as slowly, the pig stopped moving. Ide rolled it off of her and kneeled for a moment, putting her hands to the ground. “Thank you, Dana, the earth under my feet, and her daughter, the Lady, for this blessing.” After taking a moment to catch her breath, Ide stood, and hoisted the whole pig over her shoulders. With a sigh, she began to walk off through the trees. “Bait? Obtained. Time to go meet Maibe. I hope she hasn’t gotten herself lost again...” ~~ o ~~ “What took you so long?” Tep flew off of Maibe’s shoulder as soon as he saw Ide approach the old watermill. “Stop to smell the damn flowers?” To Ide, the pig didn’t weigh much, but she made a big show of hefting the animal off of her shoulders and dropping it to the ground with a hard thump. “Yes, right after I tracked, stabbed, and killed this dangerous wild animal, almost with my bare hands.” “It’s just a pig,” Tep grumbled. Maibe stood from the stump she’d been sitting on. “Alright Tep. Next time we’ll send you out against the boar and see how you fare.” “Ha ha, very funny.” The corners of Ide’s mouth raised half an inch. “Yeah, what’s he going to do, cuss it to death?” “You just watch!” Tep bristled. “That pig’ll be so embarrassed it’ll die right there.” Not one to waste food, Ide grabbed her hunting knife and began to butcher the pig while Maibe set about starting a fire. Tep “helped” by placing a few miniscule twigs on top of the pile, but the imp looked so proud of his work that the sisters didn’t comment. Ide had the whole animal carved and separated into its various cuts in the blink of an eye. Her knife seemed to slide through the flesh almost like butter, in the same way Maibe had seen many times. Some of it Ide left over the fire to smoke, while the three dug into their dinner. The heart sat skewered by a stick and shoved into the ground a short distance away. The drying blood glistened by the light of the campfire as Ide watched it, nearly mesmerized. “So, your business, down in the swamps, how did it go?” Maibe asked, breaking the silence. It took a moment for Ide to draw her eyes away from the heart. “Fine, I suppose. Handled a situation with a hag while I was down there.” “Meet anyone? See anything interesting?” Tep sighed impatiently, abandoning his small strip of fat to fly into Ide’s face. “Maibe’s too polite to say, but we’ve both been wondering what the fuck you’ve been doing down there. You keep wandering off without any damn warning.” “Tep...” Maibe frowned. “And I’ve just been wondering, you’ve been worried,” Tep wheeled around in midair. “You keep me up with your pacing, and I’m sick of it.” Ide blinked a few times. “You’ve been... worried about me?” “A little...” Maibe admitted, looking down. Glancing away as well, Ide’s face darkened in thought. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to tell you. I’ve been going down to the swamps to meet with the Lady of the Lake.” “The Lady of the—?” Maibe’s eyes widened. “Ide, isn’t that dangerous? She’s the daughter of the earth itself!” “Believe me, I’ve dealt with worse,” Ide looked off towards the forest. “There’s a lot you haven’t told me, isn’t there?” Maibe leaned closer, putting a hand on Ide’s knee. “About the Orphanage, and what happened afterwards?” “And before,” she admitted. Maibe scooted closer another inch. She opened her mouth to say something more, but before she could get anything out, Ide straightened, and held up a finger. Maibe followed her gaze. “You hear that?” Ide asked. After another second, Maibe nodded. “Rustling.” “It’s something big.” Ide reached for the sword on her back, and Maibe removed her glove. For a minute, there was only silence. Then they both heard it, a strange gibbering from the trees, accompanied by a rhythmic clicking. More, more. I need more. Feed. Feeeeed. There was another pause, and then something huge and black leapt from the trees. It pounced on the pig’s heart, spit dribbling from its sharp beak. In an instant, the heart was between the two halves of its enormous maw with a horrible squelching noise. Ide nearly moved in for the kill, pale sword glinting in the weak moonlight, but right before she could take the first step, the creature spat the remains of the heart onto the ground and growled. “Not human. Need human, need...“ It was at that instant that it noticed the sisters’ presence. It glanced back and forth between them, one on each side. Come... to kill?” it asked, beady, black eyes fixed on Ide’s blade. “Unfortunately, yes,” Ide said softly. “Sorry, mate,” Maibe added. “You’ve been killing folks, them’s the breaks.” The Valravn simply laughed, half a caw and half a gargle. “Will not. Have grown too strong. As if to demonstrate, it pounced to the right, seeing that Maibe was unarmed. But at the last second, she was gone, dodged to the side as if she had disappeared. Once again, the tattoos on her hand seemed to squirm, and from them emerged a long, thin blade, seemingly similar in composition to Ide’s. She stabbed it into the thing’s back, and the flesh around the wound smoked as it burned. The Valravn turned back to her, and despite the beak, somehow managed to grin as it flexed so hard it broke the blade clean off. It splintered away, turning oddly black before floating back over to Maibe. By this time, Ide had closed the distance between herself and the creature, and engaged the creature herself. “So, silver’s not working,” she grunted, narrowly avoiding a swipe from its talons. “Is there another plan?” “Well, there’s one.” “And what’s that?” Maibe danced on her feet nervously at the edge of the melee. “Run.” Managing to tear her eyes away from the beast for just a moment, sword clashing with claw, Ide scowled. “Maibe, don’t you dare.” Maibe’s eyes darted back and forth between her and the trees. “I’m sorry, sis.” “Don’t you run away! Not again!” There was an odd hint of desperation in her tone. But Ide blinked, and Maibe was already gone. “Shit,” she muttered. Her silver sword wasn’t working; the Valravn had already become too strong, too human. And it really was strong, almost more so than she was. If she had to fight for much longer, there was no way she would survive. “Shit!” she screamed, giving one last push at the monster. But it was no use. The distant whispering in Ide’s ears grew louder, more persistent. And behind it was laughter. Had she really thought that she could trust Maibe? After she’d left her to die once before? If she would have gotten a chance, she never would have made that mistake again. She could have lived with her fate if it had just ended right there. But unfortunately, right at that moment, a small boy with a dirty face scrambled out of the trees. He didn’t even see the monster until he had rammed right into it. The creature turned away from Ide, and, upon seeing the young boy frozen in terror, its beady eyes grew wide. “Human,” it muttered. “Feed.” It grabbed the child by his shoulders to pick him up. “No!” Ide screamed, stretching out a hand. But then something unusual happened. The child began to melt, drip away into a black goo that flew purposefully towards the trees, until all that was left was a tiny red imp clutching something to his chest. “Eat raven heart, you fugly bastard!” Tep shouted, throwing the small object into the Valravn’s gaping maw. The creature paused, then screamed out a horrific caw as its flesh burned. A cloud of steam rose up around it, and Ide shielded her eyes. “Well,” said a familiar voice. “I’m certainly glad that worked.” Blinking through the steam, Ide shook her head. “Maibe?” she asked. “And Tep? Was that... an illusion? How did you—?” “What, did you really think I was gonna run away? I already did that once, I don’t plan on doing it again.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” With a caw and a disgruntled fluttering of wings, a small raven emerged from the steam and flew off into the night. After watching it for a moment, Maibe sighed. “I hate to say it, but you’re not the best actress, and the Valravn needed to be convinced.” “I’m still mad you used me as the bait,” Tep huffed, crossing his arms from his place on Maibe’s shoulder. “That thing’s breath was like a leprechaun’s armpit.” “What was that?” Ide asked. Shaking her head, Maibe pulled her glove back on as she followed Ide’s gaze down to her arm. With a caw and a disgruntled fluttering of wings, a small raven emerged from the steam and flew off into the night. After watching it for a moment, Maibe finally met Ide’s gaze. “Just another one of the gifts the Orphanage gave me.” Ide’s chest tightened. “There’s a lot you haven’t told me, too, isn’t there?” Maibe smiled sadly. “There always is.” ~~ o ~~ The Mayor was nearly sobbing with gratitude. What might as well have been the whole village of Banborrow was filling the square as the sisters made to head back to the city. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you,” he said. “The money is more than enough,” Maibe winked. Ide claared her throat. “And the knowledge that your village should be safe now, of course.” “Nah, I’m just in it for the Jack,” Tep mumbled from his pouch at Maibe’s waist. “I wish there was more we could do for you,” the Mayor fussed. “Not even a carriage to send you back...” “The horses will be more than enough,” Ide nodded. “Thank you for your kindness.” “Will you girls be alright?” he insisted. “It’s a long way to Kilcara.” “We’ll be just fine, Mr. Mayor, sir,” Maibe winked again, and with that, she cracked the reigns of her mare and they were off, back over the worn, knotted road. After a few minutes, Maibe broke the silence. “Alright, lassie,” she looked over to Ide. “You were let off the hook last night, but now, I’d like some honesty, please.” “If you’ll give the same in return.” “Of course.” Ide sighed. “Alright then. I guess it all started before I came to the Orphanage...”

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