"Koryn City… it’s been troublesome from the start. Even before the Tears of Dealth and the Blood Queen’s reign, it was never content to suffer the rule of a far-off Guardian. The populace scorns the noble class and revolt for independence every few decades. One would think they’d be good at it by now, considering the number of times they’ve attempted a coup.
"The only Guardian the city ever tolerated was Kessila, possibly because she outlawed the practice of exiling the Realms murderous lunatics and criminally insane onto their streets. I suppose we’ll never get the truth now that she’s gone and the people of Koryn refuse to speak ill of the dead."
- Personal correspondence between an unknown Gardaran aristocrat and an unknown Crematian ambassador.
Time is a funny thing. Like the flow of a river, it appears continuous and uniform on the surface, but the deeps tell another story. Clear waterways breed swift and smooth currents, but rough beds littered with obstructions create eddies where the water slows and flows backwards.
The five years Esther had spent in Koryn City as a conservator and huntsman made her previous life feel short by comparison. She’d lived a lifetime in those five years, and she took solace in how time had shaped her into someone unrecognisable. At one-and-twenty, she hardly resembled the terrified girl whose visions ripped her away from courtly life.
However, not all were the natural changes in appearance that come with age.
Survival in Koryn City called upon having gall, guile, and grit in abundance, and the years of hardship had stamped the qualities into her features. A permanent crease rested between her brows from squinting at the sun and strangers. Her hands were roughened from fending off beggars and thieves. Seeing death and suffering daily had hardened her eyes.
The most shocking change concerned the way she dressed. Gone were the small ruff’s, petticoats, and gowns that were plain yet beautiful. In their place, she and her ‘sisters’ spent a lot of their time wearing the conspicuous crimson habit and hooded cloak conservators were famous for. Over the years, Esther had taken to wearing a red piece of cloth over her lower face to hide her identity. It was easy to make enemies as a conservator, and the people of Koryn had long memories.
The ensemble warned unsuspecting passers-by of her corrupted blood, and it did its job well. As much as she loathed wearing it, it deterred harassment while she performed what some believed was the most sacrilegious job in the world: saving someone’s life.
“We are the cure for death // And the conservators of life,” read the proverb inscribed upon the lid of her dowsing compass. The words were Esther’s sisters, dutiful shadows more familiar to her than the sound of her voice or the feel of her breath.
The proverb wasn’t etched into the brass casing of an ordinary compass. Instead of a dial pivoting on a brass pin over orienting lines and declination marks, the bone-white needle floated in a pool of Esther’s blood and pointed towards the person whose death she’d foreseen hours ago.
She strode down the street on steady legs, barely noticing the people eyeing her embellished crimson habit and cloak. Some held their breath as she passed and most looked away, but all stepped aside. Those few who dared to peek under her hood saw nothing more than a band of crimson cloth covering her lower face and the focused expression distinctive of an active conservator. Her cynosure’s life depended upon the swiftness of her warning, and the weight of their mortality branded her face.
Oriented by her dowsing compass and the magical pulling sensation behind her eyes, Esther slunk deeper into the west side of Koryn City. The houses became more dilapidated, the pedestrians more ragged, and the beggars more numerous, but she walked on without fear. While harming a conservator was a corporal offence few dared to risk, her confidence stemmed from the dagger sheathed at her hip and her willingness to use it.
She turned a corner that followed the dried-up river repurposed as an open sewer and there it was; the door from her vision. A ruined old mill lurking above the crumbling shantytown cast a thick shadow over her target, which was the same faded russet colour she’d seen hours ago. Her heart raced, and she stowed her dowsing compass away.
As she strode closer, the eye-watering stench of the sewer overwhelmed her senses and scrambled her stomach. The only thing forcing her forward was another of the conservators’ dutiful maxims: “Life is hard for those who prophesy death // But the burden must be bore // So none need fall into the dark.” It was the maxim Vessany told her after her first vision. It was the one she chanted to herself the most often.
Her body thrummed in excitement as she honed in on the door. Its hinges were soiled with rust and a thin layer of paint peeled around a deep crack running diagonally down the middle. Taking a deep breath, Esther knocked three times, hard and fast. She never liked to linger while delivering her warnings.
An elderly man pulled it open and the hinges creaked like old bones. He squinted at the visitor through the crack, and upon seeing the mass of crimson cloth, he gasped and slammed the door shut in her face.
Esther sighed. It wasn’t an unusual reaction; people feared the potential of death, so they often denied conservators entry. She understood the fear, but the old man’s haste to lock her out stoked the embers of her temper. Closing her eyes, she quietly recited another conservator prayer:
“When blood and death are in the air // And fate casts out her evil snare // Listen close to fate’s cruel whim // To bring silence to death’s great hymn.”
She had a duty to fulfil, and nobody would get in her way.
She knocked again and received no answer.
“Greetings. I’m here for Mavias Undercroft,” she said, keeping her voice soft and light. Unthreatening.
The old man whimpered and slid shut another lock. “Y-you have the wrong house.” He sounded desperate, like a cornered animal.
Gaining lawful entry wouldn’t be easy.
“Sir, I can assure you I have the correct house-”
“No! You don’t!” His voice rose in pitch as hysteria gripped him. “Leave, you daughter of death! You are not welcome here!”
Esther told herself to breathe. You can handle a stubborn old man…
“Sir, you are legally obliged to allow me entry. I have a duty to perform-” The clink of another lock slamming shut cut her off. As it clicked home, her temper evaporated. “Oh… Fuck it!”
With a roar, she kicked the side of the door where the locks were mounted. They burst apart and the door was so fragile, even the eroded hinges on the other side buckled. The rotten wood snapped as the dislocated door flew into the old man. He cried out and tumbled to the ground amid a rain of splinters and peeling paint.
“You should have opened the fucking door,” Esther hissed, dropping all priestly pretences.
“Please, leave,” the old man stammered from the floor. “You have the wrong house.”
Esther took a deep breath and focused on the pull of her conservator’s sight behind her eyes. It pulsed and hummed, excited by the proximity of the cynosure whose blood called to hers.
“No,” she said coldly, walking deeper into his home, uninvited and unwanted. The old man whimpered and cowered away as the hem of her robes brushed against his skin.
Esther followed the pull of her sight towards the kitchen where an elderly woman and a boy on the cusp of manhood prepared a meal by the hearth. The woman looked up from her baking and met Esther’s gaze defiantly, daring her to say the words, but Esther wasn’t here for her. Her sight cooed as her eyes scanned over the boy. He is the one, it whispered. He is the one who’ll die. As the vision foretold, he was of scrawny build with milky, blinded eyes.
As soon as Esther looked at the boy, the elderly woman cried out in despair. “No! Not him!” She pulled the boy close as if her embrace was enough to ward off death.
“Grams, what’s going on,” he asked, looking around wildly as if his eyes were still capable of sight. A pang of sympathy played on Esther’s nerves, but she buried it quickly. She was there to deliver her warning, nothing more.
“Mavias Undercroft?” she said.
He nodded while his grandmother clung to him. “Don’t you dare, you weeping woman, you sister of evil,” she spat.
Esther’s stomach cramped with guilt, but she forced herself to say the words she’d learned to hate. “Mavias Undercroft, I have foreseen your death. In three days, a wagon you didn’t hear coming will crush you while you cross the Harver-Whaymen bridge.” His face paled as he realised what was going on. “To turn the tide of blood and avoid this fate, cross the river on the south-side bridge. Take my advice and live. Ignore it, and you will perish.”
With her message delivered, Esther turned around to leave.
“Why,” the boy called after her. Esther should have ignored him, she should have kept on walking, but she didn’t. She knew what he was going to say, and some twisted part of her needed to face him when he said it. “Why tell me? Why tell any of us?”
Esther detected a trickle of bitter anger mounting within him, not with physical observation, but with another sense entirely. Her conservator’s sight was useful for more than tracking the location of her cynosure.
Mavias stood taller and fought to keep from flinching. “The neighbours will have seen you. They’ll know why you came here. Now they know the blood force targets me.” He dropped his head towards the floor as all resistance left his body. His voice became nothing more than a whisper. “I’d rather die than live with the shame.”
“Then die,” Esther sneered, her fury making her dispassionate. “Take the Harver-Whayman bridge and let the wagon crush you. The stigma of the blood force doesn’t follow you to the grave... Or so I’ve heard.”
She fled from the house, believing that by the end of the week, she’d read about his death in the newspaper. Because of the blood force fallacy, many cynosures preferred to waste their second chance at life in order to ‘die like a hero.’
It was utter bollocks, of course, but it was the harsh reality of her line of work. However, it wasn’t a conservator’s job to ensure their cynosures listened, only to deliver the warning in time. So as she left their house and disappeared down the winding streets of Koryn City, she tried to forget about Mavias Undercroft. But secretly, oh so secretly, she knew that if he died, his name would stain her soul forever.
As some said, ‘red be the colour of death, the devourer of souls, and the mark of the damned…’
She tried to ward off the pain, reminding herself that it was the nature of her job to dance with death. It’s unavoidable, she thought, and I don’t know why I expect things to change. After all, life is hard for those who prophesy death...
With a dry crunch, Esther climbed over the broken remains of Mavias Undercroft’s weathered door. She probed for the buildup of pressure behind her eyes that usually accompanied the use of her conservator's sight. A tingling remained, neither pleasant nor unpleasant, which meant her sight had plenty of power left.
She left the street in a hurry with two destinations on her mind. The first was a meeting with Vera. Every sacanda — the unnecessarily fancy term they used to describe the finding and warning of their cynosures — ended with a debriefing where the conservator reported their success or failure to their guildmaster. The debriefing was also a safety measure. If a conservator didn't show up within the expected time frame, chances were they’d been assaulted or were suffering a mental breakdown after failing to deliver their warning in time.
After that sordid affair, she was due to meet Esvian so she could drown herself in a flagon of the best ale in town. Nothing took her mind off of her sacandas' more than a good drink, and Esvian was an excellent drinking companion.
She slipped down the first darkened alley she found and removed the empty satchel she kept hidden under her cloak. Once it was free, she wrestled with the layers of her habit and stuffed them in the bag. Once the weight of the last layer lifted from her shoulders, the last chains of pious pretension shattered.
The feeling was indescribably freeing.
She slung the bag over her shoulders and emerged, wearing the brown pair of hose and beige shirt she always wore as a base layer, plus the dagger she kept strapped to her right thigh. Free of the colours of her indentured service, Esther reversed her path through the city to an entirely different reception. No one looked away in fear or muttered curses in her direction. If they said anything at all, it was an apology if they jostled her, or ‘what ho! Aren’t you cold?’ when they noticed her lack of layers.
Esther was bitingly cold. Autumn was giving way to winter, but she’d rather freeze than be despised for wearing a red cloak. She longed for the warmth of a blazing hearth and the kind of fire only a strong spirit could kindle in her throat and stomach.
She tailored her route back to the guildhall so she’d pass by the inn where she would be meeting Esvian. When they drank after her sancandas', he normally beat her to their meeting place. Esther had made a habit of popping in and telling him what to order for her so the food would be ready when she returned. The inn they’d chosen that time served the thickest stews in the city and she could smell it from two doors down. Her mouth watered and her steps quickened, drawn by the promise of food until an unpleasant and unnatural sensation crawled over her. A metallic taste flooded her mouth. The hairs on her arms rose.
She turned around, but the busy street was devoid of threats. It’s just your mind playing tricks, she told herself. Stop being paranoid.
She shelved her concerns and walked through the gate leading to the inn’s small street-facing garden. She dreamed of how heavenly the beef stew would taste, and how much she craved company to take her mind off of her former cynosure...
A pressure bloomed behind her eyes, pulling east. Whatever her sight was trying to warn her about, it wasn’t a hunger-induced hallucination and therefore deserved her undivided attention.
She stilled her body and turned her head, following the pull with her sight while letting her eyes go blank and unseeing. She loosely scanned the city for the disturbance, hoping it wasn’t anything that would distract her from the delicious smell of bread and broth drifting from the inn’s front door...
Someone screamed to the east, a single street over.
Esther dropped her knapsack to the floor and kicked it deep under one of the inn’s hedges where it wouldn’t be found. She took a deep breath and cast out her sight, pushing it as far as it could go. It stretched and strained under her command, struggling to find anything within its limit until an echo of metal and corruption on the periphery of its reach made it recoil.
Softening her focus, Esther probed the area around the source rather than the source itself. It was surrounded by a sickening miasma that strained to poison and infect the living beings around it. Esther knew that magic.
“Out upon it,” she swore. The blood-curse was in the city.
She used the biting cold to sharpen her focus. It was why when she charged through the front gate and back onto the street, she didn’t run headfirst into the man running towards her. Instead, leapt sideways, bounced off the gate, bounced into the man, and fell into a heap on the cold floor.
Really graceful, Esther, she scolded herself. Well done.
In a blindingly fast reaction, the man levelled the business end of an expensive-looking crossbow at her throat, but nothing was more lethal than the scowl on his face. Usually, it was a far more useful weapon for keeping ruffians at bay than his weapons. Unfortunately for him, the ruffian he’d collided with knew him too well to be intimidated by his show of force.
“Hello there, Esvian,” Esther said from the floor. “Just the person I wanted to run into.”
Esvian lowered his crossbow and arranged his crooked mouth into an even deeper scowl. “Where is it,” he growled. That was the Esvian she knew: Incorrigibly blunt, almost to the point of rudeness. To him, it didn’t matter that they had been nearly inseparable since he took on the task of training her. He still subjected her to the same treatment as he did everyone else.
“ ‘Hello Esther, let me help you up, Esther’, ” she muttered as she jumped up off the floor. “You’re the one chasing it, man! Why don’t you tell me where it is?”
Esvian narrowed his eyes. “You know what I mean, so stop being smart. Hurry up and use your sight before we lose it.”
She sighed and smoothed her hair back, attempting to curb her irritation. “How about you shut up so I can tell you.” She loved Esvian like a brother, but sometimes his lack of etiquette made civility impossible.
Closing her eyes and readying her body for a fight, Esther took a deep, conscious breath. Like most things related to mind, body, and soul, the conservator’s sight responded to mindful breathing. She began by focusing on how the skin of her back stretched as her lungs expanded, and at the crest of the breath, she held it. As the familiar and comforting burning sensation rose, so too did the pressure behind her eyes.
She continued to breathe in the same fashion — in, hold, out, hold — until her sight buzzed and the energy spread across her forehead and temples. It was no longer a dull pressure, but a compass seeking its own north.
Time to find my north…
With her eyes shut, she turned her head until the metallic taste blossomed on the tip of her tongue. Esvian, who understood how essential her meditations were, remained utterly silent. It made it easier for Esther to block out the immediate smells and sounds of the city, giving her sight a chance to grasp onto the blood-curse’s vector. It was a small creature that scurried in the shadows, ducking under broken fences and rushing across empty roads. Decay followed in its wake as it travelled east towards the city centre.
“It’s small, and it’s heading towards the tollgate,” Esther said, snapping her eyes open. Not only was the city hemmed in by a large outer wall protecting them from the deadlands, but the city was also divided up into districts. The powers that be said the inner walls prevented the spread of plagues and that the money raised from tollhouses funded the upkeep of the outer wall. No one believed a word they said, especially since peasants, farmers, tradesmen, and lower merchants were charged significantly more than wealthier people.
With a grim yet determined expression on his face, Esvian unbuckled his short sword and gave it to Esther. “You’ll be needing this.”
Sword-using huntsmen always carried two, both with identical curved single-edged blades designed for slicing. The longest sword, called the first sword, was a huntsman’s first melee weapon of choice because it allowed them to put a greater distance between themselves and their highly infectious prey. The second sword was shorter, often wielded one-handed, and used in smaller spaces.
Esther accepted the weapon with the same stony resolve. Being in the city, Esvian would need his second sword. His second was roughly the size of Esther’s first. It would be an uncomfortable hunt for the pair of them, but they’d find a way to get through it.
As Esther attempted to position the sheath so the hilt was at the higher angle they carried their first swords, Esvian said: “Early morning queues… It’ll be carnage.”
Once the weapon was ready, Esther gave Esvian a wonky grin. “Then why not show it the meaning of carnage?” Esvian laughed, and the two took off running.
Ask anyone what they pictured when they thought of a huntsman, and they’d describe graceful hunters sneaking through the deadlands, jumping over the foliage trying to trip them, dancing around the mist trying to seduce them, and keeping an ever-present vigilance against the shadows that were sometimes more physical than they appeared.
They would not describe a mismatched pair, one not even wearing armour, jumping over horse flop and trying their damndest to avoid running into the armed watchmen, bailiffs, and private men-at-arms walking the streets. In the place of wild animals, Esther and Esvian wove around foot traffic and livestock, while the clattering of the horse-drawn carriages and ox-drawn carts blocked out any sounds their quarry might make.
Esther’s mind and sight soon settled until she barely saw the weathered buildings rising around her or the old ruins destroyed during the Tears of Dealth, occupied solely by vagabonds and homeless squatters. People leapt aside as the two huntsmen flew down the streets, focused entirely on the hunt, and it wasn’t long until Esther felt the blood-curse’s presence in more than just her mouth and mind. The pressure behind her eyes throbbed in recognition and her stomach responded to the ancient blood magery by cramping in instinctual fear.
They were three streets away from the tollgate and its long queues when the creature’s trail diverted to the edge of an overgrown paddock surrounded by an old wooden fence. Part of the fence was shattered. As they approached the suspiciously human-shaped hole, Esther’s sight writhed at the blood-curse’s proximity.
Using three signs from the huntsman’s sign language, Esther told Esvian: They’re ahead; not moving; prepare for battle.
Esvian pulled a pair of goggles over his eyes and a waxed piece of cloth over his lower face. If a single drop of a blood-cursed vector’s bodily fluid entered your eyes, mouth, nose, or an open wound, it was a death sentence.
Even after Esvian gave Esther a spare mask, she still felt naked with a sword that didn’t feel right, with no armour, and no goggles. But she was a huntsman, and by Dealth’s third teat, she would do everything in her power to kill the infected bastard dumb enough to enter her city.
They squeezed through the fence into the bushes. As she used her breath to further centre herself and attach her sight onto her prey, the world melted away until only three words of purpose governed her universe:
Silence. Shadows. Death.
Esvian crept beside her, his tread slow and silent as he followed the creature’s trail from its footprints while Esther followed with her sight.
We’re close, she signed as her sight hummed in excitement. Esvian nodded. Any other huntsman would be deeply disturbed that she used my conservator sight to hunt. But Esvian was a deadlander, someone born and raised outside a city wall. Deadlanders were more open-minded towards anything arcane, and after training and hunting together for five years, Esvian knew the value of Esther’s sight.
The bushes receded and they found themselves behind the remains of an old cowshed. The pressure behind Esther’s eyes increased and pushed against the skin of her forehead. Their prey was around the corner.
At her signal, they stopped. Esther held still as she cast out her senses and began the delicate process of convincing her sight to attach to her mark. Within moments, it honed in on the metallic twang of the plague. It fixed onto the felklein’s mind and a flood of information entered Esther’s awareness.
One creature; potentially a fox; not moving, she signed. Plan: I hold it still; we break cover; you shoot; I chase; you purify. On the surface, they were incredibly simple instructions, but they were packed with meaning.
Esvian gave her a curt nod, and so she hummed into the creature’s mind: Be still, be still, be still.
As one, they exploded around the shed, Esvian with his crossbows raised. The fox-like creature startled as it sensed the new threat, but remained still as Esther had commanded. Its body was black as the shadows of hell, and its golden eyes drank in the light. Dried blood clung to its fur, and the crusty sores on its skin emitted a yellow-red ooze through the cracks.
It was a felklein, and definitely a blood-cursed one at that.
Esvian’s bolt flew and landed in the felklein’s stomach. The sour stench of stomach acid cut through the usual city smells. The creature grunted and used the pain to rip out of the stupor Esther had induced. It jumped away and shot through the underbrush, pulling her sight with it.
Esvian cursed. It didn’t have long to live, but that could be enough time to infect someone. He also knew he couldn’t track it at a fleeing pace through the busy city.
But Esther could.
She took off after the injured felklein and vaulted the fence on the other side of the paddock. Her sight remained locked on its racing mind, full of rage and fear. That was another difference between a native animal and one plagued by the blood-curse; only the infected could feel the human emotion of anger, a pleasant gift to them and their ancestors from the Blood Queen herself.
“Out of the way! Out of the way!” she yelled as she rushed through the streets, instinctively using the felklein's knowledge of the city’s darker crevices to navigate. She would never have reached that degree of hunting proficiency in the past five years without her sight.
The felklein was quick, but her sight had ensnared them. Her, she realised. The felklein was female. As she raced further away, Esther used her sight to pull the creature back. The felklein shook her head, disoriented and enraged at why her legs were slowing down despite her desire to go faster.
Esther used her confusion to catch up as they both approached a drain leading to the sewers. Safe, safe, safe! The felklein chanted. If she fled underground, Esther would have one hell of a time taking hold of her mind again.
But the creature was bleeding out, and Esther was close enough. As the felklein took her first steps towards the drain, Esther darted sideways and kicked her in the ribs. She flew into a wall and before she found the strength to rise, Esther dashed towards her, Esvian’s sword drawn and ready. It wasn’t designed for stabbing like her Ending Knife was, but the felklein was too conscious to justify drawing the shorter blade.
“Heads up!” a woman cried from behind. A crossbow bolt whistled past Esther’s cheek and landed in the felklein’s flank. It was a sloppy shot and missed the heart, but the felklein was too wounded to take advantage of it. She flopped to the ground with a feral grunt, too weak to resist the call of death. Esther felt the life draining from its mind and pulled her sight out of its head before the time came.
She sheathed Esvian’s unused sword with too much force and spun around to face the shooter. The woman perched on a wall above her fifteen feet away. The sun was at her back so Esther couldn’t see her face, but she noticed the woman had a long braid of fiery red hair.
“You stole my kill,” Esther hissed, but the waxed cloth over my mouth muted most of the anger.
The woman rested the crossbow on her shoulder and placed her other hand on her hip. “I saved you, more like,” the woman sang.
It made Esther’s anger burn hotter. “I’m a fully qualified huntsman. I had it handled,” she said. “But discharging a weapon like that without a license is dangerous-”
Esther stopped when the woman placed a hand on her stomach and laughed with such force she almost teetered off her wall. “Oh, my little mouse! You’re hardly dressed to wrestle the cork from a bottle of wine, let alone take on a blood-cursed creature. And you call yourself a huntsman.” She said the last part without a hint of mirth, and it set Esther’s blood to boiling.
Resisted the insane urge to throw her dagger at the woman, Esther settled on a taunt. “All this from someone who missed such an easy shot?” The woman’s posture stiffened, so Esther continued. “The felklein wasn’t moving, you’re only fifteen feet away with a crossbow, and you still missed its heart. I’m afraid you’re hardly skilled enough with that crossbow to hit the ground, let alone a blood-cursed creature.”
The woman shifted her weight and clenched her weapon. “Hm. Fine. But since I’m such a generous person, I’ll let you claim the kill. I’d bet you need the money and reputation since you’re such a lazy lout you can’t even be bothered to put on your armour before you hunt.” She spun around and disappeared, leaving Esther simmering in anger.
And after all that, Esther didn’t even get a good look at her face.
Take a walk onto the wild side to see how the huntsmen live.