It was a cold world.
Thick snow seeped through his boots and turned his toes numb, and his breath steamed in the darkness of the night. Or the morning, Lorcan supposed. The morning of the new year, January the first. By anyone’s standards, it was a poor start. The celebrations had gone well, all the mystic creatures up in the field, ready to greet the new year, and then several dozen armed men appeared and began to mow them down. Just like before.
It was a cold world, but the brown haired teenager half wished it was snowing. Good thick snow, it was cold enough, but the sky was clear, so there was nothing to hide their tracks from the Hunters. And what tracks they were, he thought as he ran through the group in his head. Several of them had rather normal tracks, but then you had Maddie and her little sister, Bo, nagas slithering like great snakes. Hana, a giant spider with spindly legs. Alastair and Ollie, both gryphons now, on talon and paw, and in the darkness around them Lorcan could sense his three dragon hatchlings, Hex, Nessie and Shen, skittering through the forest.
“Where are we going?” He heard one of the little ones murmur, one of the little snake-haired gorgon girls he thought. There were four of them in total, and another three brothers without any powers. It was pretty impressive that gorgons of all creatures had managed to breed such a large family, given the risks any careless petrification carried.
“The cairn first,” Her older kin, Miranda, assured her warmly. Miranda had two years on Lorcan at seventeen, and he could nearly feel her eyes like daggers in his back, wondering what this wild goose chase was for.
“Then we’ll hide somewhere.” The mage whispered, hoping his voice carried to the others. “Hide somewhere till this blows over.”
“Then I can go see mommy?” The young girl asked again, voice wavering from weariness and chill. Lorcan bit his tongue as her big sister reassured her warmly. The gorgon clan was too large to keep track of, but he was near certain that most were dead. The hunters had been prepared, wearing sunglasses to protect them in case they caught sight of the petrifying snake-hair. They had been all sorts of prepared, had managed to give old Roberts a bomb disguised as a firework, and when he set it off… then the world had gone crazy again.
“We’re at the clearing. No sign of hunters.” Maddie breathed quietly from beside him, and Lorcan nodded and hurried forward, snow crunching under his feet. The naga’s had night vision, better than his own, and then there were the eyes they had sent above to warn them if the phoenixes or tengu saw any other humans closing in.
Or other survivors, he supposed, on that slight chance.
The stars and moon gave him a little light to see by, showing the wide round clearing that had once been covered in beautiful flowers. Now the cold snow rendered it a white flat disc, with a crude pyramid in the centre, the cairn.
“Nessie, Hex, Shen, stay around the outside will you? Make sure no one sneaks up on us.” He said quickly, approaching the piled stones.
“Fine.” A snarl came from the dragons, angry and feral sounding. Lorcan didn’t flinch, he understood draconic, there had been days where he had struggled to finish homework for the elder drakes squabbling over who was the better sibling. They were just kids, albeit kids able to tear adult bears apart within seconds.
He reached the cairn and swept a wad of snow off the top, remembering when the dragons had shown him it. For his dad, they had said, and for the others dead they had known: Nessie’s mother, and Jaromir the troll. There would be a lot more dead now, Magda, Roberts, probably Matt and Carpenter, Ethan… so many dead…
“Hey, give me a hand will you? We need to take it apart.” He said quietly, glancing at the others. They were all young, children and teens. The adults had fought to give them a chance to get away. Alastair the red gryphon came forward quickest, a small satyr Bull and the young naga Bo clinging on his back, and began to push stones and snow off of the pile.
“What are you doing?” Miranda gasped, “You’re not doing necromancy or something, are you?”
“There’s no bodies here. It’s just a monument.” He grunted as he lifted a stone off, it was heavy and he was cold and tired. “And necromancy’s nonsense.”
“Oh, well sorry, not all of us are mages.” She groaned and came over, moving rocks herself. “What is it then? Some magic?”
His fingers brushed off fabric, and he smiled and pulled on the strap. A misshapen rucksack came out in his grasp as more rocks were shifted, and he tossed it over to Maddie, “No, just bolt-bags. Bit of food, clothes, veil, supplies. Here, we’ve got four of them, you take one too Miranda, and… Bull, get this for Alastair alright?”
The bags were bulky and large, and the small furry satyr handled it with difficulty, not that the naga was much better. Lorcan swung one onto his back with a grunt, and Miranda followed suit after a moment.
“You had these made up, how long ago?” The accusation in her voice was clear.
“Two months. Old family tradition, always have a few bags of supplies ready in case you have to run.” He lied. It wasn’t that old, his dad had made them the previous year when the troubles started, and it had nearly worked. When gunmen had come to their house, they had run with the bags, they had worked in that regard at least, even if his father hadn’t made it…
“No! No! Not allowed, you can’t do that to mum’s grave!” A green scaly shape lunged out of the treeline, smoke and steam swirling around her. Nessie looked terrifying, her blue eyes were ablaze, she was the size of a wolf, armoured, horned, scaled, winged, and from the red blood covering her, she had evidently taken out a hunter or two already. “Noo! You broke it, you ruined it! Lorcan!”
She was ten, Lorcan remembered, ten, and she had less to remember her mother by than he did his father. There wasn’t time for this though. “We had to, to get the supplies out and make sure the rest of us live.”
“No! There weren’t supplies in it, we built it, it was rocks!” She snarled, tail writhing and claws tearing at the snow, melting it. “Why’d you put your bags in it!? You ruined it, you broke her grave… you broke her grave…”
“I’m sorry. Matt thought it would be somewhere no one would look inside.” He was too tired to manage a good apology, and that was all there was to it. She had two sensible brothers- “nestmates”- anyway. “Sorry Nessie, we have to go now, and find somewhere to hide.”
“Find? You mean it’s the middle of winter, pitch black, hunters are after us, and you don’t know where we’re going?” Miranda gasped. “Some plan!”
“My plan was just get some supplies, if you’re cold, put on a few layers.” He muttered, glancing around as the other two dragon hatchlings came out of the treeline, red older Hex and blue serpentine Shen. At least they didn’t rage at him, they just started to nuzzle and reassure Nessie before she burned him to a crisp. “We just need to keep moving and hope we lose the hunters.”
“Lorcan… but they’re exhausted, the little ones.” Whimpered the naga, Maddie, her long brown tail slithering through the snow silently, “I don’t know how long we can go on for…”
“Well, we can’t stop yet, we’ve got to keep moving guys. As soon as we find somewhere safe you can sleep for as long as you like, I promise.” Lorcan answered loudly and took a few steps forward, past the cairn, towards the treeline. “Diana, can you do anything about the cold?!”
A red bird dropped down from the dark sky with a screech, larger than an eagle with bright intelligent eyes. More intelligent than him anyway, Lorcan thought, and extended an arm for her to land on. He felt a little warmth from her almost instantly, and smiled before she flapped her wings and darted over to Hana, the huge black and gold spider. That was the best place he supposed, the arachnid seemed to be suffering the most from the cold and she was carrying one of Mirandas little brothers up there too.
“Dragons, sorry to ask…”
“Fine. We can help keep you warm too.” Hex snarled, looking at the cairn’s rubble sourly before he trotted beside Alastair and Shen and Nessie moved beside a couple of the others, steaming gently. “Keep going. I know a good hiding place, but it’s a long way away.”
“What? No, that’s secret” Nessie hissed from behind, and Hex wheeled around to snarl at her.
“We need to hide though, they’ll all freeze otherwise. ”
“Don’t ruin it though!”
They started moving again within a minute, the red dragon leading the way while the others tried to knot together for warmth. Lorcan sincerely wished the other gryphons and large creatures had made it. Karen had managed to carry both her little brother and Jess the small kitsune to them, she would have been able to carry two or three of the children, but she had vanished, just flown off into the darkness, screeching furiously after the pigeons…
The pigeons. As if the night hadn’t been bad enough, the Siren must have been nearby too, they had been ravaged by an entire storm of the little winged vermin, leaving all of them scratched and confused, although that had stopped now. Karen seemed to have attracted them when she disappeared into the air. Earlier they thought they had heard her again, but there was none of that now, just silence and the heavy crunching footsteps through the snow.
The walk burned his legs so that he was too hot and too cold at the same time, muscles protesting at every step. Snow was treacherous to walk on, they stumbled often, and the little ones… they tried hard, he knew that, but they still did terribly. There was always one whining, or crying, bawling, needing to be tugged along and encouraged.
Of course they would cry, he reminded himself, breathing hard. They might never see their families again, if it was as bad as he thought. Same with Matt of course, his cousin had taken care of him ever since his father died, put up with his antics, made sure he was safe and warm… No, he wiped his eyes and grimaced. No time to cry or worry, they just had to get away, get to somewhere safe and secret.
“Lorcan, guys, we’ve got to stop.” Miranda said eventually, her voice backed up by hissing from under the headscarf. “That’s been like three hours, we can’t go for much longer before we start losing toes.”
He looked at her wearily, she was carrying one girl and a boy was hugging her too, both nodding their heads in exhaustion, almost asleep. But… but they couldn’t, falling asleep out here, in the freezing cold? Insane. Just insane.
“How far left, Hex? Do you think we can make it?” He asked.
“About two thirds of the way.” The dragon growled in response and yawned. “We must have lost the hunters, we’re deep in the woods now.”
“He says another hour or two left.” Maddie translated the growl, her voice shaking. “But we must have lost them right? This is further than I’ve ever been.”
“Yeah, we can stop, get the rest of the way in the morning.” One of the teenage gorgon boys added hopefully, hugging close to Alastair’s side.
“If you stop you might die anyway, when we reach the hiding place we can probably have a fire.” Lorcan said firmly. “We have to keep going as long as we can, if you falter… if you falter, they’ll find us again.”
“Stubborn idiot, look at them! We can’t keep going!” Miranda snapped, gesturing to the dark shapes, the silhouettes of his friends. “We have to stop and warm up, or they’ll die on their feet!”
“You’d rather get a bullet through your skull?! It’s too risky to stop!” He gasped.
“It’s too risky to keep going, we’ll be in danger from the hunters either way.” She argued back. “This way, everyone lives okay? Just grab a few branches, dragons, can you start up a fire? Sara and the phoenixes will see it and come down.”
“A fire? You mean let everyone within ten miles see where we are?!” He couldn’t believe this, it was too reckless, why not phone up the hunters if they were going to do that.
“Need to keep moving! Hunters are too clever, they don’t give up, they followed us for an entire week during the summer!” Nessie hissed passionately, smoke flaring off her green scales, blue eyes bright. “And we didn’t lose them, mum had to fly off without us!”
“I’m tired though…” Shen growled and slumped down in the snow, breathing hard. “I want to sleep…”
“There!” Miranda’s little Amanda noticed the action and dropped down on the cold powder beside him. “Same here! Bedtime.”
Her twitching fingers rose up to untie her headscarf, and then Lorcan felt an immense calm settle on him. His pain was gone suddenly, his weariness and worry lifted straight away. He could still feel the cold, but it wasn’t unpleasant, it was just a sensation, like sight and hearing. He couldn’t feel himself well though… his body was stiff and unyielding, solid and heavy, and his lightened mind figured it out slowly. He was petrified, a statue, still standing, half doubled over in his jacket and jeans and soaked boots, but all his skin, muscle, bones, they were smooth granite now.
He should have felt outrage at it, just like Miranda was yelling at Amanda now, surrounded by statues of those who had been looking at the child gorgon. But, he just felt numb, relaxed, it was hard to even focus on the world around him when his body was so empty. It seemed almost pretty, the night, the stars above were bright and clear, through crisscrossing branches and twigs, and the snow was beautiful in its own right. Even the girls snake hair, for the split second he had seen it, it had looked pretty, brown serpents with bright eyes that framed her round face much more naturally than the flowery headsca- “Aaargh!”
The pain was back and he flopped into the snow, limbs relaxed and weak. The cold was horrible, chilling and terrifying, and it overwhelmed him, driving him away, into deep misty blackness.
* * * * *
”Very little is impossible.” The man declared, bending down to look into his eyes. He looked odd with these eyes, less saturate and dulled, and the spacing threw Lorcan off a little bit. Were they right? His field of vision was wide, but that was probably how wolfs saw the world, not a flaw in his veil. “Still, I didn’t expect you to manage it so quickly, that’s excellent Lorcan! Well done.”
His father had rough thick skin the colour of chest nuts, and oiled black hair tied back in a tail behind him. His face was kindly and wise at the same time, his nose was large and hooked, with black eyes and a dark heavy brow. The boy could smell his scent now though, as he moved his snout to sniff. It wasn’t the way you’d expect a shaman to smell, you’d expect leaves and nature, but Jerak stank of chemicals and soap like a pharmacist.
Then the smell vanished suddenly, and he was spinning around, whining, searching for his father. It was difficult to run on four legs and he fell as he ran through their old house. The kitchen, the living room, the lab, his bedroom, bathroom, other bedroom, spare room… empty empty empty empty. He wanted to shout and yell, but the muzzle only let him growl, snarl, bark and howl.
A knock came at the door, and he hurried towards it, struggling to open the heavy wooden barrier with his forepaws. The knocking and shouting came from the other side, and he wondered if it was so wise to open it, but there was no one there anyway, just cold empty night. He growled and stalked out, sniffing curiously as he went, his thick fur protecting him from the chill. The farm outside was familiar, the yard where he had played all these years, muddy and slippery. But empty, his mother wasn’t here to laugh and help him learn to walk. His father was gone, fallen in the field, his body devoured by flames. Once there had been another boy, older and moodier than him, but he didn’t know where Matt was now.
An orange light stirred from the barn, and Lorcan growled at the scent of smoke and fire. It was familiar, dragon fire, and he found his steps drawing towards it. Fires… fires meant his friends, dragons and phoenixes and campfires circled around with marshmallows on sticks. He licked his lips at the thought and tugged at the barn door, widening the gap enough to slip through, and look at the great space within.
The fire was in a circle, round and lonely in the darkness, a single golden-orange eye. Red scales surrounded it, and for a second he saw a huge red one eyed dragon, smoke swirling around it. Then the smoke was it, and the eye remained, drawing closer on a mouldering corpse on five decrepit wings of shadow. His breath caught in his throat, trying to see, trying to look, but then the Siren lunged forward, covered in dark grey feathers all of a sudden, with but two wings and four legs. Just a gryphon now, the orange eye blazing at him, and the talons swept up, diving towards his chest again.
* * * * *
A high pitched scream of terror stung his ears and wrenched him out of the dreams and into danger. He was freezing again, human, and he blinked a dozen times as sunlight streamed through the branches above from a blue sky. There was a shadow in front of him though, a dark dressed man in sunglasses with a small curved knife in his hand, a longer straight one in the other that he swung forward. It was silver, he noted blearily, before a long scaly appendage pulled him out of the way.
“Lorcan, move!” Maddie shouted as her brown snake tail tugged him, although the dagger still left a narrow slash over his shoulder that burned with pain. Lorcan landed with a gasp of pain and scrambled backwards, further and further away as the others began to wake up.
The Hunter noticed and switched his attack, the small curved flickering down and buried itself in her brown scales, then wrenched towards himself, pulling the naga along. She screamed in agony and then Hex lunged forward, a flash of blood red scales.
The hunter reacted quickly, pulling his bloodsoaked knife out of Maddie as the other daggers pommel smashed into the hatchling’s skull and horns and drove him into a snowbank.
“Leave my nestmate alone!” Nessie snarled as she dove forwards, jaw opening, fire rising and spewing from within. In response he kicked upwards, a flurry of snow sizzled with the flames in mid air. Nessie looked half shocked as her fire was stopped by mere snow, then the Hunter jumped through the fire and snow, quick as a flash, his daggers swinging down towards her head. The green hatchling barely toppled backwards away from the blow, snow melting and sizzling all around her.
“Get up! Hunter!” Maddie kept wailing, and Lorcan struggled to his feet, gaping at the man. He was so fast, now Alastair had dove into the fight, his yellow scaly forelegs outstretched to grab at the man, beak opening….
Lorcan doubled over, covering his ears against the hellish high pitched scream that turned into a shriek of pain. Alastair’s coat turned even redder from long cuts torn down his flank, the man had run around him. The gryphons thrashing tail barely glanced off his head, dazing him, but he kept moving nonetheless.
A few of the children screamed and cried out in fear, they were all covered in blankets and huddled near others, Hana and Miranda, and Sara with her huge dark wings on her back. They flapped and a burst of wind came out of nowhere. The man stumbled some more, the curved dagger fell from his grip, but the hand just swept down, pulling a pistol out of his pocket-
“Don’t let him shoot! They’ll hear” Miranda yelled, pulling two of the little gorgons to their feet. Their headscarves were messy, the snakes were fully awake beneath, hissing and writhing.
John swept down behind him with a screech, an orange phoenix near the size of a goose, and his legs swung forward and smacked him in the back of the head, coming away bloody. He gave out a grunt of pain and overbalanced, but the gun was going higher and higher, finger moving down on the trigger, just as his glasses fell down.
And then he was a statue, cold stone, toppling down to hit the snow with a sharp crack. His outstretched arm- the gun one- hit the ground first and snapped. The hand and wrist flew clean off, grey and smooth, and still gripping the gun in a vicelike frozen grip. The rest of him landed solidly on softer snow, completely still and immobile.
Lorcan diverted his eyes and looked down, breathing hard. Safe, safe now, safe for a while. In the background he was aware of the children screaming and crying again in terror, and he looked around to try and orientate himself. It was day at least, from the light sparkling on the snow, and the shadows, he guessed it was near noon, so they should have had enough sleep to keep going. “This is why we shouldn’t have stopped.”
“Don’t start that again, you were the one who fell asleep first.” Miranda reminded him sharply. He dared to look up at her features, able to see her in the light now. Coppery tanned skin framed hard green eyes under her headscarf, and her figure was tall and narrow, the exposed skin mixed in with light brown scales here and there, though her leather jacket covered most of her well.
“Fell asleep? I got petrified because you decided to stop! And you even went and built a fire, no wonder he found us, there’s probably others out there right now!” He argued, pulling himself to his feet and looking around at the woods. There was a circle of charred ash and wood that Diana was looking up from blearily, and all around the bags contents of clothes and blankets had been used to pad out the space a bit. Little Amanda was inside one rucksack from the look of things, built along the same lines as her big sister, although her green eyes turned abashed and tearful.
“That was an accident, don’t blame Amy!” Miranda snapped protectively, “And if you went down from one petrification so easily, you wouldn’t have made it for another hour, you would’ve collapsed within half that! If it wasn’t for us having the sense to stop and build a fire, you’d be an icecube by now, ungrateful conjurer....”
“SHUT UP! Shut up, shut up, shut up, the both of you!” Sara cried out furiously, her half red- half Asian face flush with rage, standing over Maddie, and Lorcan felt a gust of wind come from her with the words. “Maddie’s hurt, Alastair’s hurt, you’re hurt, there’s probably more of them around here, and you pair are squabbling like children!”
Lorcan gaped and looked at Maddie again, covering his mouth at the sight of the wound. Maddie wasn’t that big, her human half was pale and blond, paler now with cold and lack of blood, while the finned, eel-like tail from her waist stretched out a good ten foot. The rent in her brown scales was large regardless, at least six inches long, jagged, bloody and seeping even more. The naga’s face was screwed up and she was crying, her tail coiling around her in fright and terror. “Help… make it stop, make it stop, please! It hurts, please help!”
“Diana, can you change? You know more about medicine than me.” He groaned quickly, pulling a small green bottle from his pocket. The red phoenix squawked in agreement and swooped over, landing shivering in the snow. She opened her beak for him to pour the green potion down, and then hopped back as the changes began.
Her legs thickened and feet changed, the talons shifting and curling around into a human layout, fusing together up to the first joint to form toes. Her knees reversed as the legs thickened, and her entire body grew a fair bit, except for the wings which were thinning out, branching at the ends, losing the bold feathers all over her…
He turned away in embarrassment before she began to resemble her human form and grabbed a blanket off the ground to throw over her and hide her. Miranda was grabbing clothes for her and seeking to calm the sobbing children and others, although… he couldn’t see Ollie and Jess amid them all. “Sara, Hex, Nessie, John? Can you guys look around quickly, make sure there’s no other hunters nearby, I mean, working in a team with this one? Or see where Ollie and Jess got to.”
The phoenix nodded and squawked an affirmative, while the Tengu glanced at him with a worried expression. “If… yeah, Diana’ll get Maddie right? I’ll take a loo-“
“You can’t fly!” Miranda interrupted quickly, “You’re too obvious if you fly Sara, you can’t pass for a bird.”
“But I’m too slow on the ground, I can cover the air way quicker! I’m the fastest flyer out of all of us!”
“You’re too obvious, just stick close to the drago-“ Miranda began, then scowled as the red and green drakes vanished off through the trees. “Or not… argh, here Diana, clothes!”
She threw the wad of jumpers and pants over past Lorcan, although it took longer for the girl to dress and hide he dignity under the blanket than it did to shapeshift with the potion. Eventually she emerged and hurried over, a small eighteen year old with flawless smooth skin, long bright red hair and golden eyes.
She sat down beside Maddie quickly enough though, shivering, and took a red first aid box she had found in one bag to start dressing and cleaning the cut. Her small face was focused and hard, although not worried he noted with relief, and she moved over them all methodically. First Maddie received a number of plasters and instructions not to slither on that part of her tail, then Diana looked at Lorcans bloody shoulder, and then went to look at Alastair. The big red and brown gryphon tried to cover the long slices along his side with his wing and turned away from her moodily, while the phoenix-girl insisted on treating him. Within a few moments she lost patience and tried to lift his wing by force, although the gruesome wounds beneath quelled any mirth from watching her struggle.
The rest packed hurriedly and ate small grain bars from the bags, huddling together, or sobbing under the trees. Bull was panicking the most, he kept insisting they should leave as soon as possible, though they waited on the “scouts” return. Lorcan found himself pacing anxiously, looking through the trees with suspicion, in case more hunters appeared.
“We should move though, shouldn’t we?” Bull asked, a young furry satyr- a creature with the digitigrade, hooved legs of a goat, and a muzzle face were small horns were starting to sprout. “Before others come, that one guy nearly killed the dragons and you, and Maddie, and Sara, and Miranda. He’ll probably wake up soon and come after us again, and get the rest of the hunters after us, an-“
“He can’t wake up from being petrified.” Lorcan told him, to try and reassure the child, “Not unless he’s better at magic than Diana, and he wouldn’t be if he was hunting us, would he?”
The satyr kept wringing his hands and glancing around with rectangular pupils, whining and groaning no matter how much Lorcan explained they were waiting for the others to reappear. Eventually Miranda stepped in and threatened to petrify him too if he didn’t stop, and he closed his mouth with an audible clack and a look of terror.
John reappeared soon though, and then Sara who claimed the dragons were in tow with Ollie and Jess, and peered at the statue curiously. “What do we do about him then?”
“Do? He’s petrified, we don’t need to do anything.” Miranda answered wearily, from where she was sitting on top of Hana. The giant spider was black and gold, and strange looking; there was a sort of grace and elegance to her movements. Plus she was so shy he couldn’t fear her, she kept jumping in fear when one of Miranda’s little male cousins, Vincent snuck up on her.
“He might know something though.” Lorcan found himself saying, looking at the half buried statue. “We can find out who the hunters are, how he found us, how many there are… all of it.”
“And it took all of us just to petrify him, he almost beat the dragons and us.”
“He’s lost a hand.” Lorcan reminded her, and winced as Alastair yelped behind him, Diana was busy cleaning the wounds out properly.
“Don’t be such a big chick.” Diana chided him, “Why don’t you just tie him up? You can do that, right Hana?”
The jorogumo ducked down in embarrassment, and then clicked her huge mandibles once and swayed unsteadily as a nod. Miranda nodded and patted the thick dark fur on her back, “Fine, that should work, we can just talk for a while. I can always turn him back to stone.”
It took Maddie, him, and Miranda to get the statue upright and propped against a tree, the man was big and even heavier as stone. Then Hana skittered forward and tapped the statue curiously, before turning her huge body to the tree and attaching a thick sticky strand of silk. Lorcan watched with some fascination at the silvery strands emerged and trailed behind her as she walked around the tree again and again and again and again, until the statue was cocooned in thick web all the way up to his neck.
“That’ll do. Can you guys look out? With this guy, he might just tear his way out for all we know.” Miranda said and patted the enormous arachnid, then bent forward to the statue. Instantly red blood seeped through the web on his maimed arm, and he screwed up his face in a silent scream, panting and shifting desperately. The web held strong though, and Hana skittered off, and pulled a blanket over her to begin changing to her normal human self.
“Nicely done.” The Hunter said eventually, a grimace fixed on his face. He was nearly bald, short haired, and in his fifties maybe. His eyes were small blue marbles, and thick stubble covered his jaw. “Getting my glasses off, at least your phoenix knows what he’s doing, knows to surprise me.”
“Why were you trying to kill us?” Lorcan asked, and bent down to pick up the curved knife from the snow. There was still some blood on it, his or Maddie’s or whoevers.
“Ah, yeah, interrogation, here we go. You’re a bright kid, but, real question is, why should I tell you anything? What’s the threat? Extra pain before I die? Or letting me live, or go free, what is it? The carrot or the stick?” He smirked and shook his head, bending his neck a little to look at the web binding him.
“Because you lost, you’re still alive, and we’re not going to kill you. No reason to be a sore loser, you’re not a little kid are you? It seems fair to tell us what we want to know.” Sara said passionately, her wings rising on her back, black hair shifting in its own breeze.
“What, as a reward, miss Tengu? Your reward is living, that’s how the world works. You get in danger, and you survived one danger, that’s all. You don’t automatically get the answers you want for beating me, and you can’t take them.”
Lorcan stepped forward, blowing on his hands to warm them, and glared at him. “I can take them. It would hurt, but you just nearly killed five of us and I really want to know what happened to the camp, so I’m happy to try. How about that? I can take them by force painfully, or we can chat about it, we get the information either way.”
The Hunter laughed, a deep belly laugh like his father had had. “Ah, telepathy! Carrot and the stick in one, I like that, it’s clever, master wizard! Be good to give me a little taste too to show your victim how much it hurts, but you’re probably not quite on form just now.”
Lorcan tightened his grip on the knife, but stayed silent, and the man nodded and continued, “When I left, your camp was burning to the ground. The recruits killed almost everyone that wasn’t a hunter there, I’m pretty sure a couple of them were humans, but they were getting all fired up. We lost a few people, and got plenty of injuries, but overall it probably comes out in our favour. I’m fairly sure they mucked up killing the hydra, kept going for the same head, and we’ve got a few folk petrified so we need to find a live gorgon to sort them out. Might even survive that, they’d probably just chop off your hair and neuter you if they’re really grateful.”
“What!? No! I hope your stone men fall and smash!” Miranda cried and swung, punching him hard in the face, “Don’t say that!”
“See, that’s not a carrot or a stick, that’s just stupid.” He grunted and spat out a wad of blood. “I’m telling the truth to avoid harm, so you don’t harm your captives for obedience, that’s just poor form.”
“You’re talking about doing... that to my family? No! Don’t go on about that scum like they deserve freed.” She hissed, her headscarf writhing and wobbling.
“If it ends badly for you lot, remember it, you might be able to save one of your family that way, miss gorgon. Not much, but alive. I’m not saying the sods deserve freed, can’t know that either way, and there are worse ways to go than being petrified.”
Miranda glared at him, but Lorcan stepped in the way again, “And why are you attacking now? Who are you hunters, why did you wait this long, tell me.”
“Those are high thoughts for your final days, lad. I dunno if anyone’s really in charge, just all the people complaining and shouting and ready to take up arms, they managed to get coordination and weapons enough to strike at once at the right targets. The camps are perfect, no bystanders, no protection, and you’re eager to trust and make friends. You couldn’t get more vulnerable.” He frowned and blew out through his cheeks, wincing again, “Timing, it’s holidays, and it’s been a good long time since the emergence, since all you mystics came out of hiding. Now they figure most of you guys are in the camps, and on the lists, and even the reasonable people have figured out that if this goes on then the world will change. Most of the newbies were chaffing at the bit to attack, I reckon .”
“By the way, have any of you ever lost a hand? Cos this really hurts, and I got it from bloody falling over, stupid way to lose a hand!” He laughed again and scowled, “Gonna have to decide what to do soon, dunno how much blood I’ve got left.”
“What about you?” A quiet voice asked, and Lorcan looked at Hana curiously. She had changed completely now, she looked Asian and very pretty, the unnatural gold tints in her waist length black hair were the only hint of her other eight legged form. She bit her lip and stepped back behind Miranda a little, “You don’t sound like the others, you’re… you’re calm and not scared, not even of me...”
“Scared? Eh, you’re just some kids, I’m getting a bit rusty I guess, too proud to ask for help. No, my name’s Nick, I’ve been hunting mystics for decades. This hunt though, I’ve been waiting for this for the past few months, was always gonna happen. The others, the angry mobs, they haven’t got a clue and they need some experts, so it pays well, tracking you guys down.” He frowned, “Well, it was meant to anyway! Three dragons and two phoenixes, that’s some payoff!”
The spider-girl gasped and took a couple of steps back, eyes wide. “That’s it? You just want to kill us for money?!”
“A man’s got to eat and take care of his family. I’m not like all the zealots, I don’t hate you, I just don’t care and it seemed like a good idea. No offense to mystics, I’d do the same for humans if the fee was high enough, was going for your wizard after all.” He breathed in calmly, as Lorcan shuddered with fear. He was telling the truth, he realized, Nick really didn’t care, they were just… just like prey to him. “Now about this hand… I can’t get it back can I? How about ya petrify me again? Make sure I exist for years, by the time someone finds me and changes me back, you lot’ll be long gone.”
“Wait! Did you see my mum?” Jess yelled and danced forward, looking at him hopefully. Ollie came behind her, silent and black with bright yellow eyes.
“You’re a little kitsune aren’t you? I can’t remember really, it was chaos and I was meant to take runaways and the ones in the camp. Don’t think I saw anyone specifically looking like you. I did see dead gorgons, satyrs, a naga… saw that big grey gryphon run through it all, this wee one’s got a good mum.” He licked his lips and winced with pain again, “This hand, eh? Hurts like hell. I’ll give you a bit of advice, just presume they’re dead. The worst that can happe-“
His words were cut off as his body turned white and smooth, becoming a marble man beneath the web. Lorcan scowled and turned to look at Miranda, who shrugged, “I was getting fed up listening to his crap, we don’t need mocked any more. Aren’t we supposed to be heading to your secret cave or whatever?”
“Yes, but… just warn me…”
“Well that doesn’t matter if I made you jump, let’s just get moving.” She said impatiently and wiped her eyes, turning around so he couldn’t see clearly. He felt his own heart drop a bit, trying to forget about Matt for now. There would be time to worry later, so they hurried to pick the bags back up, and order the children to move by gentle encouragement in Maddie’s case, and weary dark thoughts in Lorcan’s. Sara was maybe the best liked, she seemed nearly as bright as ever, even if she dropped the smile when she thought no one looked.
It took ten or so minutes to get them all prepared and convince Hana to change back into her spider form so that the weakest ones could ride her furry abdomen again. She didn’t argue or complain much, but it was still some time before she stripped and crouched down again so that her body could swell and extend another four spindly limbs, while her arms and legs thinned, and her entire being altered itself. Al took nearly as much time to be reminded to go gentle with the ones on his back, and glared around sullenly for being used as a beast of burden.
“I don’t think he was being honest.” Jessie complained to Lorcan, sitting on Ollie’s back as the young gryphon-hybrid trod through the snow. “Mum would have tricked them and ran off, and Karen was flying. They’ll find us soon.”
“He thought Karen was Ollie’s mum, I guess he didn’t know quite as much as he thought.” Lorcan replied vaguely. Sometimes it was best to be vague, mages could get away with it, and he didn’t want to crush their hopes. Who even knew what had happened to Ollie and Karen’s parents? They were human, it was just poor luck that the old gryphon blood on their mother’s side had woken in this generation, at this time. He should have asked Nick. “Are you alright in there, Ollie? You’re doing great as a gryphon, looking really strong. I’ll veil you and talk a bit when we reach this place, okay?”
The juvenile nodded his black beaked head enthusiastically, tail waving. Jess petted his wings from her perch, “He’s way nicer than Karen, he shared his kill!”
“Huh? Did you hunt something?” That could explain what they had been doing off on their own, and now he looked… yes, there was a little blood there, on his talons and beak.
It was… strange. Karen had been stubbornly opposed to hunting anything except that monster, the siren, but Ollie on the other hand… he had killed a human, Caleb, by accident when he first changed, but that was a secret he had better pretend not to know. He couldn’t really mind much anyway, even little Shen delighted in hunting, and gentle Hana drank the dissolved innards of her prey out of necessity.
“Yeah! He hunted it down and let me have some. I’ll find you some worms when the snow goes.” She said solemnly, patting his head.
“What did he catch?”
“A pigeon.” She said fairly brightly, and then patted his pointed ears and sighed, “He doesn’t like pigeons.”