Gulls screamed as they wheeled lazily through the salty morning breeze coming off of the dark, cold sea. Galyssa looked out across the crescent-shaped bay at the whitecapped waves crashing upon the blackened rocks and gray shingle. Fog slowly drained away from the wet and dreary walls of the slate-roofed structures that made up the village as though it had sucked out all the color, draining away what remained of life or joy or enthusiasm from the very walls of the place. Like most such old-timey fishing villages or touristy cottage-clusters, this village was dreary, mostly empty and depressing the way only these sorts of places could be.
“What a dump.” Galyssa spat on the still frosted rough-cut flagstones of the observation plaza where she had come to watch the suns rise. Chelmsford, the world of the nostalgic fishing village of Connlach-Exeter, orbited two close-paired suns and even then the place was unpleasantly dim, perpetually overcast and drearier than the moldy bog-woods of Badjeth.
“Even with two suns this place can’t ever get warm or stop drizzling.” She watched the Eastern horizon and all that was visible through the sea mist, fog and scudding clouds was a silvery haze behind the rain, a muffled light that remained indistinct, distant and diffuse. It was the kind of environment that would only appeal to the congenitally suicidal, the English or the Irish, those who still recalled the old ways of living off of the cold, capricious seas and the pursuit of schools of fish between storms. It was not a life that appealed to Galyssa at all. Her folk were hunters, not fishers. She came from deep green forests, not cold and rocky coastal regions best left to the gulls and flotsam. She could hardly wait to get clear of this damp, dismal place where even the suns couldn’t be bothered to look too closely at things probably best left forgotten like sleeping dogs.
But that wasn’t the way things worked. Not for Galyssa.
“Hunter. Do you seek some sign from the suns this morning?” wheezed the old fisherman who reeked of old guts and stagnant brine.
“Just a bit of warmth, maybe a spot of sunshine, if that isn’t asking too much of things.” Galyssa stood with her hands on her hips, not quite menacing, not immediately threatening.
“Ha! Not bloody likely lass. It’s the height of summer, just past the solstice; it only gets darker and colder from here on out until midwinter.”
“This is your summer?” she asked even though she already knew the answer from her briefing. The local datasphere provided a streaming record of the time, temperature, calendar and all the other essential pieces of information necessary to the day-to-day lives of civilized people like current exchange rates, weather forecasts, and what passed for news. Galyssa’s implants maintained an ongoing connection so that her software could sniff out potential leads and keep tabs on things back home.
“Aye. You're not enjoying the balminess of it then?” the old-timer laughed, then practically doubled over in a coughing fit until he hawked up a nasty bit of yellow-green phlegm onto the cobblestones of the viewing platform.
“I don’t know how anyone could stand to live in a place like this. It makes me want to drag a razor through my wrists and I’ve only been here two days.”
“To each their own lass. There’s those as love the land, even the bitter-dry deserts and bad lands as there are those who are loved by the seas, called out by the salty winds unto the bosom of the ocean-mother Herself.”
“Ah so you’re religious?”
“Hah! Practical more like. We don’t have any churches in this village, just a few decorative shrines for the handful of tourists we get every couple of years and our own traditions.”
“You people are oral traditionalists?”
“As good a description as any. Half the village is descended from Arcadianists or Greenlanders, the rest are one or another type of Irish, Welsh or Hebridean by way of Aegron, except for the three Danes and the one Orkney family that tends to keep to themselves.”
“I’ve already read the village’s genomic and cultural profiles.”
“The registered stuff, aye; but what about the living, breathing reality of the place, eh? What aboot that now?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“Books and records, database entries and all that are so much myth, legend and I suppose; what goes on day in and day out between real people isn’t clean, clear nor concise. You won’t really appreciate nor understand anything about a place from reading about it, especially not while you’re standing around in the middle of it like ye are. Open your eyes lass. Breath the salt air, let the mist chill you a bit, feel the wind; until you experience it for yourself you don’t know nothing about it and never will. Mark my words.” He tilted his ratty old fisherman’s cap beneath the grubby rainslicker hood and continued on his way. Galyssa could hear the oldtimer whistling some obscure folk tune as he made his way down the causeway past the lonely little shacks interspersed down the length of the jetty towards the sheltered moorings and the smaller, one or two-person row-boats, sailboats and the like that were kept there.
Gulls wheeled across the early morning sky swooping down to snag morsels and tid-bits from the surf. Galyssa leaned against the cold, wet stones of the low wall and watched the sea birds and the green-black waves. She missed the moons of her homeworld. This godsforsaken place was so perpetually overcast that even if it had a moon no one would ever see the thing. Scuttling brown-shelled robots dragged driftwood into artfully arranged piles either to dry for municipal beachfront fire pits or to keep the shoreline more aesthetically attractive to the few intermittent tourists who visited the village. With a rueful shaking of her head Galyssa realized that she was pretty much the only visitor in the place currently. But she was no tourist.
“Is it a good day for your hunting then?” yelled the old-timer from just outside his shack.
Galyssa turned away from her reverie and began to wave him off. There was work to do. Serious work. Deadly work.
“Fair enough for what I have to do, I guess.” She shouted back to the fisherman.
“As ye will then; I’d invite you to sit with me a spell. You ever met a selkie afore?”
“Selkie?” she yelled back in consternation. A flash download from her background datahandling software streamed a packet of images and vital details describing the selkies of Connlach-Exeter- -they were a mythopoetically oriented aesthetic offshoot of the Aquatics who’d taken up residence on Chelmsford three hundred years prior to the founding of the village and who occasionally traded with select individuals from time to time.
“I’m going to play a few tunes for my friends;” The old-timer yelled; “There’s a righteous storm coming in that’ll swamp my poor little boat, but the selkies’ll trade me a few buckets of mussels or some tasty redfin for my music. They do love the concertina.” He smiled broadly as the winds kicked up the waves and a frigid spray shot up over the retaining wall.
“Yoor welcome to pull up a seat; I’ll get a little coal-fire going in the shack. It’ll be cozy-like.” The fisherman bent forwards and busied himself unlocking the door to his shack.
“Thank you. That sounds nice.” Galyssa shouted across the distance and the crashing waves. “Maybe later. I have-“
“To get back on the hunt, eh? Well, good hunting to you lass.” He waved back to her and slipped into his little shack, out of the increasingly fierce winds.
“Time to get back to work, I suppose.” Galyssa muttered to herself as she pushed off from the slick wall. Her drones were still prowling around the village, each one tuned out of phase with the normal range of human visual perception so that they could scout things out without drawing any attention to her efforts. They were discrete and would allow her to track Vruekaczi down without having to run all over the place like a chicken with its head cut off. She took a good look around her, letting her gaze linger almost longingly on the promised warmth and camaraderie of the fisherman’s modest little shack. With a visible scrunching up of her resolve, Galyssa headed back along the jetty towards the tiny knot of slate-roofed buildings all huddled together against the near-perpetual drizzle. The stout, regularly spaced and tree-like lamp-posts glowed with hazy haloes in the chill mist, not so much illuminating anything as dispelling the worst of the darkness and contributing to the persistent, pervasive dimness that characterized the general ambiance of Connlach-Exeter more than anything else. It was almost as gloomy as Salonta, Oradea or Satu Mare had been. Ice-locked Odense with its eternal midnight was downright cheerful compared to the dim, wintry seas of Chelmsford. At least it’s not another inbred mountain village like Dundrajevo or Gornijo she reminded herself. Galyssa didn’t much care to remember her brief time in Gornijo. It had been colder there, darker too. Her left hand had needed three weeks to properly heal after…what had happened. She fumbled through her sleeve-pockets and counted the smooth, hard outlines of her personal wards; the sigillized chips of nanivory from Morokozz, the heavy-edged platinum trapezoid from Csurgo, and the delicately filigreed beryllium-bronze lozenge from Bjelovar that had been guaranteed to have been prayed over for a minimum of at least three hundred lunar months by a dedicated robot acolyte. Galyssa wore the usual gun-wards on her belt as well as a few more esoterically-oriented psi-wards, but those she took for granted. They were standard equipment. The other tokens were what she hoped would afford her some measure of protection that had been sorely lacking last time. Vruekaczi wasn’t going to leave her mutilated and bleeding to death in the middle of nowhere. Not this time.
//Query: Location and status of Alderman Dunleavy.// She accessed the Localnet.
//Green Lion.// The pub’s icon rotated slowly in the hallucinatory overlay of her implant commsystem.
“I should have known.” Galyssa shook out the cold droplets of sea spray that had accumulated in her exposed hair and set off back towards the village and its only pub.
She knew better than to try to call the Alderman- -if he’d been inclined to make himself available then she wouldn’t have gotten the pub’s icon, he’d have accepted her query. Since he was at the Green Lion and not at home or at his mistresses’ place meant that he was either drinking or meeting someone, probably over a steaming mess of cabbage, potatoes, sausage and eggs, the local breakfast specialty. Galyssa grinned ferally; she’d just have to interrupt hissoner’s breakfast. She was on the hunt and there was only so much time allotted to her before her quarry would find some form of sanctuary or escape. It’d be hard to escape from this forsaken village, but it could be done. Vruekraczi had managed to elude her on a world with three suns and only one hour of darkness during one third of the year. She knew better than to underestimate her one-time nemesis, her target, her prey. Her regrown left hand throbbed with the memory of the lesson she had learned the hard way back in Gornijo. She was not going to be the one left bleeding out their life onto the cold, hard rocks of some godsforsaken backwater world this time. Galyssa’s internal subsystems automatically ran a full-spectrum diagnostic of her weapons and defenses while she walked through the increasingly wild and erratic winds of the fast approaching storm. It reflected her mood perfectly.
The Green Lion was the only three-story structure in the entire village besides the central clock-tower. It was also the single oldest building on the world, according to the polished brass plaque just to the left of the main entrance. Galyssa didn’t even break stride as she kicked her heavy boot into the double doors, smashing them back upon their reinforced hinges with a loud crash as she continued along her trajectory right towards Alderman Dunleavy who sat in his chair next to the main fireplace, a forkful of sausage and eggs halfway to his gaping mouth.
“Now Miss Galyssa there be no need-“ started Moriarty the publican who froze in place under Galyssa’s glare. He’d been married to an Irish woman for the better part of half his life and knew better than to risk ending it all by needlessly incurring this woman’s wrath without having an escape planned.
“Good morning-“ smiled the Alderman as he sat down his still-loaded fork. Galyssa came to an abrupt stop directly in front of the bearded, paunchy elected leader of the little community.
She stared at him.
“Can I offer you some breakfast? You’re welcome to join me-“ the Alderman began to muster his wits and his voice began to take on the oily pseudo-brogue that he only used on tourists and visitors.
“No. I didn’t come here for breakfast. I’ve played by your rules and spent the night in this godsforsaken place. Now I have work to do.”
“Ah yes. Hunting. Who exactly is it that you’re looking for lass?”
Galyssa glared at him. He knew. They all knew. It was a matter of public record. They were stalling her.
“You know damn well who I hunt. Who and What.” She hissed the last in barely controlled anger.
“But you must forgive us our backwards ways lass; we’re not sophisticated urban-dwelling iconoclasts. We’re just simple fisherfolk who prefer to live and let live.”
“You’re a fucking hypocrite who’s harboring a dangerously Infected plague-bearer-“
“We harbor none but our own, except as the rules of comity and hospitality demand. We’re not savages here Lass. Not barbarians clutching at knives in the dark, tearing each other down into the wailing darkness like some folks are wont to do.”
Galyssa flinched at the obvious insult. The Alderman did not approve of her. No matter.
“Do you wish to file a formal objection to my hunt?” she challenged the politician. He was small-time and he knew it. All he could do was delay her hunt, not stop it. Within two hours of any objection he might raise she’d have it struck down by the magistrates back in Bournemouth, the so-called capital of this world. She’d already invested a day and a half setting her contingency plans up before setting off for Connlach-Exeter. Galyssa knew better than to trust the locals. Vruekaczi was nothing if not persuasive. He knew how to turn things around, twist them to his advantage and politicians were especially vulnerable to his wiles and charms.
The Alderman hesitated beneath Galyssa’s intense stare. His hand shook, spilling scrambled eggs off of the fork back onto his plate. Sweat beaded up on his splotchy and windburned forehead. He looked away in defeat.
“No. No, lass I cannot do that. Not that’d do any good, would it?”
“No. It wouldn’t.”
“You’re sharp as a fish knife, aren’t ye lass?”
“Better not to try me.”
“I imagine you speak truthfully.”
“Where is he hiding?”
“I cannot stop you, Huntress, but I do not have to help you, either.”
“You would put your people at risk to harbor this…this monster?”
“You judge him thusly, perhaps we do not. It’s a matter of perspective, surely you can appreciate that.”
“Apparently you can appreciate his sick predation, his unnatural appetites-“
“He is a guest here. We do not judge our guests unless they violate our laws. He respects our ways. He has our respect in return.”
“Respect? For that vermin? Don’t make me laugh.”
“You’d do well to learn a measure of respect for other folk, Huntress.”
“Don’t threaten me Alderman.”
“No threat lass. Just a few words to the wise.”
“I don’t need your respect. I need to find Vruekaczi and to kill him once and for all.”
“And by rule of law I cannot stop you, but can I dissuade you from this course of action? Can I not entreat you to abandon this pursuit of yours, to let him go free and in peace?”
“Are you insane? Do you have any idea what he’ll do to you all if I let him?”
“He has given his word-“
“The word of a confirmed mass murderer who’ll do far worse than just murder you all in your sleep if he’s left to his own devices. I’ve seen what this bastard can do when he sets his mind to it.”
“Thus you know why I wish to avoid any unfortunate repercussions from both your presences here in our village. He has given me his solemn and binding word that he will leave this village unspoiled and blameless if you agree to leave him in peace. Walk away from this place Huntress, walk away and we all live. Stay and we most assuredly shall all die in the most horrible ways imaginable.” He looked down at his breakfast.
Galyssa adjusted her stance uneasily. This was not how things were supposed to work.
“Please. Just walk away.” The Alderman looked up from his plate imploringly. She looked away from the Alderman’s pleading gaze. This was different than the usual gambit. Something out of the ordinary.
“A predator does not make deals with its prey any more than lions lie down with lambs.” She sneered. It made no sense for Vruekaczi to come all this way in order to just abandon the place, to surrender it as soon as she arrived. It was out of character. It did not fit his profile. It was unheard of, unnatural, so unlikely as to be impossible. And yet there it was; he had made a deal with the Alderman. It put her in an awkward position.
“Please. For all our sakes.”
Galyssa tried to contain her anger at the Alderman’s cowardly, foolish complicity. Hunters never backed down, not when they had their quarry cornered up against the wall like she had Vruekaczi right now. She saw the overlaid telemetry of her drones as they pin-pointed his hiding place. Predictably Vruekaczi was in the cellars. He seemed to prefer subterranean places, sewers rather than alleys, cisterns instead of towers, catacombs and crypts not manors or enclave-estates. He especially had a fondness for basements. The drones relayed their coordinates to Galyssa’s implants. Vruekaczi was beneath the Green Lion. The arrogant bastard was asleep immediately underneath where she stood. Directly below her feet.
She flexed her fingers and felt the alloyed blades slide quietly into place at the tips of her left hand even as her customized pyroneedler oozed into shape within the palm of her right hand. The blade-ward she had acquired back in Koblenz flickered with soft blue light along its artfully raised edges as it came online. Outside the wind began to batter the window shutters and howl through the chimneys. Inside Galyssa braced herself for violence.
“Lass, please, I implore ye- -let this one go. Walk away. You’ve been outmaneuvered. You can’t win this one.”
“Enjoy your breakfast Alderman. I won’t be long.” Galyssa smiled coldly then walked crisply, disconcertingly fast to the back of the pub and the stairs that went down into the storage cellars. Without a thought she tossed herself over the rim and landed cat-like in the dark, dusty cellar, blades extended like claws, her pyroneedler poised and ready to spew fiery hyper-actinic death wherever she pointed. In less than three seconds from leaving the Alderman she stood before the sleeping form of Vruekaczi. He was tall, dark, slender and as harshly featured as some Neo-Carpathian warlord. A thickly brocaded cloak draped down over the makeshift platform upon which he reclined. His boots gleamed like oil in firelight, his trousers and blouse were immaculate, spotless and the demi-cuirass he wore was heavily scarred and scorched by countless duels, battles and fights including several previous encounters with Galyssa. Pale, bloodless and excruciatingly well-groomed, he lay there silent and aloof like a corpse.
“Wake up before I kill you Vruekaczi.”
He ignored her.
“Wake up damn you!” She shouted at the pseudo-corpse.
“I’m tired, Huntress.” His yellowish eyes snapped open as he sat up without the slightest effort.
“I’m old, Huntress.”
“You’re a disease.”
“And you are the cure. I know. I’ve heard it from your predecessors. It’s not terribly original, but I suppose it is an apt analogy, as far as it goes.”
“Like you’re anyone to criticize someone else’s fucking originality! Over thirty-seven thousand kinds of undead out in the Known Worlds and you’re one of the most pathetic, a fucking Host leftover from the plagueyears. You’re not even all that scary-” Galyssa snorted derisively.
“Touché, Kitain.” Vruekaczi cut her off peremptorily.
“But you do have to admit that I have managed to lead you on a merry hunt. I’m so glad that your hand appears to have healed nicely.” He smiled wickedly at the memory of the taste of her flesh. He had eaten her hand in front of her, dragging out the biting and the chewing until she had fallen unconscious.
Galyssa went cold, hard, professional at the mention of her title. Kitain. It was the name she had earned during her trials and testing on Kuud itself. It meant hunter of the unlawful dead. She earned the title after having destroyed over one hundred undead minions and slaves in service to the Lamya Empress Herself. Galyssa scowled in anger over her previous mutilation, her past shame at the hands of this…unclean thing that masqueraded as a human being. Her eyes narrowed into slits and she brought her pyroneedler to bear. There was no escape for Vruekaczi this time, there would be no appeal to the Huntress' mercy, not after what had happened back on Gornijo. For a brief instant Galyssa could almost hear the wind sighing through the dark, heavy hemlocks overhanging the mountain pass where she had lost her left hand. Phantom pain stuttered through the regrown cloneflesh of her new fingers.
“We really do not have to do things like this-“ Vruekaczi began to make the expected offer, a negotiation that Galyssa had no intention of listening to whatsoever.
“Yes. We do.” Galyssa held out her left hand, the one with the delicate but lethal viblades protruding from her fingertips and made a simple, ancient gesture that triggered the nanoextraction routine that she hadn’t been able to use the last time. A throbbing hum rippled out from the air precisely halfway in-between the two figures. Vruekaczi screamed as his skin peeled, curled and cracked like curdling paint. A fine silver mist erupted from every surface of his body. A glinting, gleaming cloud surrounded the nobleman as he staggered, his skin going sallow and translucent, the very unlife leaving him, rejecting him, abandoning him.
The cloud coalesced down from a spherical mass into a slowly rotating silvery whirlpool that drained away into the receptor surfaces embedded in the palm of Galyssa’s left hand.
For a breathless, timeless moment Vruekaczi faced her in the dim cellar beneath the pub. Blood oozed from his nose, his eyes, his mouth. She glowered at him in his ruin, his final downfall, but felt no thrill of victory in watching his slow collapse into mortality as all his internal organs began to fail, his blood congealed into a scabrous mass within his veins. She kept vigilant watch as his heart stopped beating and his lungs collapsed into a wet mucousy mess within his chest with a hollow sounding wheeze. The once devilishly handsome features of his face drew back in a grotesque rictus.
Finally, once she was satisfied that he had been fully and completely drained of the nanological virux that had remade him into a second-rate monster and that he had suffered all that it was possible for him to experience Galyssa calmly triggered the pyroneedler and played the stream of hyper-accelerated femto-droplets of counter-antimony carried along a beam of spectrally-compressed ultraviolet radiation directly into Vruekaczi’s eleven hundred year old form. He didn’t even get the chance to scream before he was reduced to a small quantity of clingy ash and a fading afterimage.
He was destroyed.
Once and for all.
But somehow she still felt as though he was laughing at her.
It ony made her mood more foul.
Galyssa ordered her drones to examine the cellar.
They found nothing.
She had the drones run a complete analysis of Vruekaczi’s ashes before gathering them all up and bonding them into a polycarbonate ingot that would cure into a diamond-hard reliquary from which Vruekaczi’s viruxically tainted remains would never be recovered.
It was over as far as she was concerned.
It had to be over.
It had to be.
The old timer sat on his stool and played his concertina. It was a jaunty tune he played in contrast to the howling wind outside. The slicked black coats and stiffly bristling whiskers of his audience bobbed and rocked in time to the tune. Slowly, gently a fine silver viruxive mist played out from the old fisherman’s skin and enveloped the selkies.