The sun had set down low, leaving the murky dusk to fill the skies. Sirius had stopped attempting to make conversation and just kept walking beside Lianne. They would figure something out, probably. This woman piqued his interest, from her demeanor to her bandaged eye. He knew she was an experienced hunter, but that was about it. Even when they worked together she barely spoke and remained distant, staying in the shadows away from the rest of the hunters. Sirius just hoped that her attitude wouldn't be too much of a problem; a job this big needed some form of cohesion between them.
He shook his head as they neared the gate. Alastor gave them this contract so easily and with such confidence. No independent employer would promise that much gold to anyone, hell, no contractor would bring 200 gold with them, but here they were. While the red flags seemed to be way too abundant, there wasn't anything that said this was a bad decision just yet. Maybe it was just how fast he presented the offer, or maybe it was just his general demeanor, nonetheless, Sirius could use the money.
The gates creaked open as struggling guards pulled them open. He glanced at their decrepit state, these poor men, how long had they been out here? How many of their friends had been taken by gargoyles and ghouls? Lianne pushed past them and out into the wilderness, her walk turning into a quick stride. Quietly nodding to one of the guards, Sirius took off after Lianne, her cloak flowing in the soft wind behind her.
She made her way through the forest hastily, following a predetermined path. Her head turned at the slightest sounds, including Sirius's heavier footsteps. Each time she glanced back at him she averted her gaze almost instantly. Her hand lay on the handle of one of her swords at all times, fingers firmly wrapped around it. Sirius looked to their right, seeing a half broken signpost as Lianne turned through the undergrowth and off the path. He followed her, still hesitant of her judgement.
"Hey, aren't we-"
"It's a shortcut."
The undergrowth brushed against Sirius's shin guards as he followed behind Lianne through the ever darker forest around them. She picked up her speed, pushing past the vegetation quickly. Sirius hoped it was because she was unnerved by the surroundings as well and not just sheer recklessness. Whatever the reason, he still was running after her completely blind.
The leaves brushed out of Sirius's face as he slowed his pace to a walk behind Lianne, who now stood in a small clearing. The ground was littered with trampled leaves and dirt, worn unmistakable ghoul footprints present in the damp surface, their long and thin feet with their four claws dug deep into the soil, all stemming from a rough natural cave. Sirius gagged as he got what Alastor meant by the smell; the putrid scent of rotting flesh and decay permeated the air. Grimacing and shrugging off the discomfort, Sirius stood next to Lianne.
"So, what's the plan?"
She said nothing as she unsheathed her swords with a slight rasp.
She strode into the cave with her swords by her side, lighting a small broken lantern on her hip.
Sirius stammered as he unsheathed his blade and followed her. Sure, ghouls weren't the worst monster to fight, but walking directly into their nest would never end well. Lianne broke into a dash as a telltale screech of the monsters sang off the dirty walls, then another, and another. Soon, it was a terrible chorus of warbling shrieks, echoing off the cavernous rocks.
Lianne already had her sword in a ghouls stomach by the time Sirius arrived, it's thin pale limbs flailing in agony and trying to scratch at her with it's small claws. One tried to attack Sirius, it's putrid mouth opening to show dozens of serrated teeth. With a grunt, he buried his sword into its head, splitting its orange reptilian eyes away from each other. Lianne still was in the middle, moving in closer to the horde. The lantern light swayed back and forth illuminating what seemed to be more and more ghouls. Her blades flashed like lightning, messily chopping into one target and swinging to the next. There wasn't cohesion to her fighting style, it was just pure brutality.
A decapitated head hit the wall with a crack as Sirius watched her dance from dead body to the next. Blood flew through the air, thick and black. It covered everything, including Lianne's blades and clothing. Sirius barely had anything to kill, a few stragglers which she brushed by or didn't notice. Ghouls were brittle enough to snap in two, but had claws that could tear your face off, however, the only thing tearing things apart was Lianne. The light flickered again, and Sirius saw a flash of something; a smile stretched across her bloodstained face. He swore there were also bits of laughter within the constant screams.
He scanned the bloodbath, looking for alghouls. While killing ghouls would benefit everybody, they had a specific target. How large was this nest? How many alghouls were there to constitute this large of a horde? Sirius cleaved one in half as he searched for signs of their target. He spotted it out of the corner of his eye, a slight orange glow in the dark. Rushing forwards, he moved past the horde and towards the target.
The alghoul looked at him and roared, lighting up the multiple needles on its back and arms, priming them to attack. It rose to full height and swiped at Sirius with a set of claws. The muscular arm was blocked by his sword and then promptly cut off in a singular swift motion. Howling in pain, it swung it's other arm at him, spines extended. He backed away, avoiding the venomous needles as they swept past. Retaliating with a strike, he swung his sword and drew it through the beast's stomach, opening it up. One last blow to its neck stopped its frantic squirming.
Another screech came from behind him, followed by the sound of skin being cleaved open. Lianne had her sword stuck in an alghoul's hand, and its claws stuck into her arm. She grunted in pain and the snap of bone cracking echoed through the cavern as her other sword exited the back of the monster's mouth and neck. It shuddered and slumped down to Lianne's feet as she watched it with exuberant malice.
She ripped the sword out of it's head and brushed the claws out of her shoulder with a sickening squelch. Lianne winced from the pain while checking her surroundings for more target's, her breath heavy and body matted with splatters of red. Orange sparked from behind her and Sirius's eyes widened.
She turned with her blade swinging, barely missing the monster as it lunged at her. It charged towards her as she tried to swing with her injured arm. The beast grappled her to the ground, baring it's serrated teeth as it's claws dug into her skin. Sirius rushed forwards, swinging his sword towards its head. It avoided the blow and tried to retaliate with its claws, which Sirius blocked easily. He grabbed onto his blade and swung the hilt into its head, bone cracking as the crossguard of the sword buried into its skull. Its body went limp and fell on top of Lianne. She hastily pushed it off of her as she staggered to her feet, ignoring Sirius as he outstretched his hand to help her.
"I had it."
Sirius raised an eyebrow.
"Really? Didn't look like it to me.”
"Mind your own business."
"I was just trying to help."
"Shut up, there's still more of them."
He turned around, realizing she was right. There was scurrying in the darkness, two, maybe three more. They were probably wary after seeing the slaughter that just happened and were trying to catch them by surprise instead of head on. Sirius kept his ground and readied his blade, preparing to counter their attacks. Lianne pushed past him, charging into the darkness. Sirius cursed under his breath and followed her; she was going to get herself killed. Alghouls may not have had much in terms of protection, but if they were able to hit you with their needles you would be ripped apart in seconds. He had seen what that poison does to a person, hallucinations and disorientation were only the beginning of the pain yet to come. The worst part is that the poison didn’t kill you, it just makes you suffer as the alghouls ate you alive.
Lianne's charge didn't stop as she rushed blindly into the darkness. An alghoul screamed at her, to which she lunged at with her whole body. Another alghoul slinked out of the darkness behind her as she impaled the other. Sirius swung his sword into the alghoul, decapitating it quickly before it could attack Lianne. She didn't even notice as she repeatedly hacked into the one stuck on her sword. It's screams stopped as it started to go limp. Ripped flesh flew through the air as blood burst from each swing. She didn't stop swinging. Sirius watched in a mixture of confusion and concern.
"Hey, that's enough."
She didn't listen as bone cracked and flew outwards.
"Lianne, it's dead."
A final swing buried itself into the chopped up body and she turned towards Sirius, her breath seething through grit teeth. Taking one last look at the completely obliterated corpse, she tore both her blades from the flesh. Sirius watched her stumble backwards and hold her head.
"Are you alright?"
Her eyes became unfocused as she felt her stomach, where she ripped something out of her clothes. Holding it in her hand, she let out a groan.
Sirius rushed over as Lianne seized in pain and collapsed downwards, dropping the alghoul needle she held. He barely caught her before she hit the ground, her whole body shivering in agony. She slammed her hand against Sirius, pushing him away and causing him to drop her.
"Get away from me."
She pushed her body off the ground, letting out shaking breaths as she slowly rose. Sirius shook his head in frustration.
"You need help, that poison and those wounds aren't going to get better any time soon."
"I said get away."
Lianne tried to walk but only managed a stumble. Giving up, she sat back against the wall of the cave, slumping to the floor. Sirius walked over to her, trying to determine the severity of her wounds.
"Let me see."
Looking up at him annoyed, Lianne brushed him off and gestured to the corpses.
"Just get the damn needles, I don't need your help."
Sirius took another look at her. The wounds along with the poison probably felt like hell, but they didn't look fatal. While he could probably do something to ease the pain, she obviously wouldn't appreciate it. In all honesty, she was holding up better than he had expected; most people hit with alghoul needles could barely move through the pain, much less speak and think straight.
Walking over to the bodies, Sirius picked up the dead alghoul's arm, cutting off the needles and putting them into a thick leather bag on his belt. The needles were extremely dangerous when attached to the alghoul, but not so much when taken off. The poison they created ran on corrupted ether, and cutting off the supply by killing the monster left them as nothing more than sharp little silica spikes. The remnants of corrupted ether stung Sirius's hand as he pulled out more needles. Each alghoul maybe had twenty large spines with multiple tiny spines on its back. He continued corpse to corpse, stepping through the blood and gore that littered the floor.
With a sigh, he cut off the last few needles and gently stuffed them in the bag. Stepping back, he took a look at Lianne who still was sitting against the wall. Her breathing was calmer, controlled even. She was masking the pain extremely well. Sirius walked over to her, kneeling down to meet her eyes.
"Now can I treat your wounds?"
She just shook her head, and to Sirius's surprise, stood up.
"How many times do I have to tell you to mind your own business?"
"This is my business, we're working together, remember?"
Lianne didn't answer as she walked past him. She didn't limp and showed next to no signs of injury. Sure there may have not been much toxin injected into her, but the speed of her recovery was still astounding.
"How are you-"
"Let's just go."
Her pace quickened to a brisk march, and she made sure to slam her heel into a dead ghoul's head, flattening it with a crunch. Some of the bodies were already decaying, dissolving from the corrupted ether and ether blight. The lantern on her hip stayed lit, displaying the path towards the exit.
They walked through the forest once again, at a slower pace this time. Looking at Lianne, Sirius examined her now mostly red clothing. It was hard to differentiate what blood was hers and what was the ghoul’s. She kept scanning the area, quickly snapping her view around her. Her eye fell onto Sirius as he stared at her, and she spoke up with a scowl.
He shook his head as she let out a huff and continued walking down the darkened path, the moon peeking through the canopy overhead. It wasn't a good time to be travelling through the woods, but perhaps the stench of ghouls that stuck onto her clothes made them less conspicuous. The undergrowth lessened as they arrived back at the gates. It took a minute for the guards to notice them. One standing on the battlements turned around and then stared at Lianne.
"Um, the gate, yeah."
He hurried away as the gates slowly pushed open. Lianne promptly walked through them, moving past the stunned guards as they tracked her movements.
Sirius sighed and walked after her.
"Don't bother asking."
The guard just nodded and returned to closing the exit. The murmurs behind Sirius continued, and he overheard one of them asking “again?”. He let out a breath of exasperation, wondering how the hell she was still alive. Someone like this should've been noticed by the city; if she had that much ether the scouts would have found and conscripted her. Sirius's mind raced, what would happen if they found her now? In her state? With her way of... dealing with others? There was no way they would ignore her, but would they perceive her as a threat..? Was she a threat? He shook his head. There were too many questions with no answers.
The streets were as desolate as ever, but the sensation of wary eyes weighed on Sirius. Lianne kept walking ahead of him at her usual fast pace. She probably knew everyone was watching her, but maybe she just didn't care. Actually, maybe this was normal. They closed in on the tavern, the rowdy conversations audible from outside. Sirius ran up behind Lianne, catching up to her before she entered.
"Don't you want to take a moment?"
She whipped around, blood splattered hair brushing on her shoulder.
"You know, to wash the blood off."
She put a hand to her face, her fingers dragging on the stains. Taking a moment to quietly examine her clothing, she turned back around and entered the doorway. Sirius hurried behind her with a sigh.
Guess that's a no.
The door swung open violently as Lianne stepped through. The wood hit a man in the back, causing him to turn around with a bark. He stopped short as Lianne looked at him with a narrowed eye. Conversations turned to murmurs as the patrons looked at the red splattered woman standing before them.
Well, so much for not drawing more attention.
Sirius quickly stepped behind her, pulling his cloak tighter around his armour. Lianne walked forwards and people moved to the side, shrinking at least a meter away from her.
Whispers and murmurs filled the humid air, whether they were of fear or intrigue Sirius didn't know. It felt uncomfortable walking with her, even if none of the attention was on him. They neared Alastor who was still sitting at the same table, slowly sipping from a cup. He set it down quietly as Lianne stopped by the edge of the table. Alastor took a look around at everyone in the tavern, putting on a smile.
"Please, everyone, this is just for a bounty, relax."
Slurred murmurs filled the air as people slowly turned away. Sirius expected them to be more hesitant given the look and smell, but maybe these people were used to this, maybe they just didn't care as much as he had thought they would. What even was 'normal' in this town? It didn't matter, he was here to do a job and then get out. Lianne stared down at Alastor.
"Where are they?"
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
Sirius moved forwards, setting the pouch of alghoul needles on the table. Alastor smiled as he opened it and examined them. Sirius took back his bag back as Alastor took the needles and placed them in a heavily padded satchel.
"What are you going to use those for?"
"Oh you know, the usual."
Sirius raised his eyebrow at the comment.
"Let's not get sidetracked, here's the promised amount."
He slid bags across the table, the coins shifting inside them. Sirius grabbed one and checked inside it. This was a lot even for a normal contract, he would be fine with just this. However, the extra 400 sounded enticing, and the target admittedly had him interested. Whether that interest was worth risking his life for he didn't know, but there was only one way to find out. Sirius looked over to Lianne, who hadn't picked up her share yet. Alastor took a look at her and motioned to the small bag in front of her.
"That one's for you."
"The target, where are they?"
Alastor chuckled and rummaged through the pockets on the inside of his robes.
"Hasty are we? Alright, fine."
He flipped out a parchment of paper and put it down in front of him. Lianne picked it up first and then the bag. Flipping the paper open, she took a second to examine it.
"What the hell is this?"
"It's a map."
"Yeah, I can see."
Alastor smirked and beckoned Lianne over to him. She slowly walked over, looking through the paper with her eyes darting along its surface. Sirius made his way around the table as well. The map was small and faded, its lines blurring into each other. There were scratchy marks over the weathered details, forming an intricate web of mangled shapes. Alastor sat up straight and traced his fingers over the lines.
"This is a map of their movements."
Sirius took another look at the map. How long had this map been used? The amount of lines, the multitude of markings and little dots were staggering to be tracking one target. Lianne stared at it intently.
"How does this even help?"
Alastor pointed to a small area on the map where multiple lines originated from and came back to.
"The target comes here often but doesn't stay long. They arrived there a small while ago and I was able to track their movements to right here."
He gestured towards a small circle over a marked town with three dotted lines emitting from it.
"The target should be there, and if they aren't they would have fled to one of these locations."
The towns he pointed to weren't far from the marked location. Lianne folded the map and put it away in her pocket. She was already leaving before Sirius got a chance to start asking questions. He shook his head and got up as he talked to Alastor.
"How should we hand this in?"
Alastor moved back in his seat and picked his cup back up.
"Bring me the body of the target, I don't care about the other one. Come back to town, I'll find you with your reward."
Sirius nodded and hurried after Lianne as Alastor called to him from behind.
"Good luck, you'll need it with her."
Lianne had already made her way halfway across the floor, the crowd parting for her as she reached the exit. She practically smashed the door open and walked into the night. Sirius lightly jogged up to her side.
"What are you planning to do?"
She looked over at him, her eye slowly blinking. Her posture slouched as she made her way through the street, feet lazily dragging on the floor. Sirius quickened his pace to move ahead of her, turning around to get a better look.
"Are you okay?"
"You should get some rest."
"That's the plan."
Sirius was taken aback, how did she become so tired so quickly? He just hoped that she wouldn't collapse here and now, it wouldn't be fun if he had to carry her. Following her stumbles, he trailed behind as she entered a run down building. The doorway was half destroyed and the door creaked open on rusty latches. The inside wasn't much better, just a beat up counter lit by a single candle. It was so cramped inside, barely any space for the two of them. There was a man at the counter who eyed Lianne as she walked through a small corridor and into a room on the far end.
"You with her?"
Sirius looked up to see the man. He was small and had rough brown hairs that lined his chin and neck.
"Yeah, er, no, I'll need a room."
The man reached under the counter and pulled out a key which he dropped onto the table with a thud.
"How many nights?"
Sirius raised his eyebrow, now he got why Lianne was staying here. Putting the gold on the counter, he picked up the small iron key.
"Second room from the end."
The hallway was lit by bits of moonlight which peered through the roughly hewn ceiling. Hopefully the building wouldn't collapse when he opened his room's door. Ribbons of blue fell through the cloudy window on the end of the room. It illuminated a decrepit straw bed and a dresser with a drawer missing. Honestly, it was better than Sirius expected. A small room to his left seemed to be a bathroom, with a large bucket of water and a partially cracked mirror sitting in the cramped space. He heard faint splashing water from the other room through the wall on his right. Good to know she had enough sense to wash off.
Placing his sword next to the bed, he sat down on it as it groaned under his weight. This was not how he expected today to turn out. A peculiar bounty with a huge payout as well as an ... interesting partner. This whole thing might play out terribly, but that would be a problem for tomorrow. Right now, all he wanted to do was rest. His armour shifted as he lay down, resting firmly on his body. While it would take less than a minute to take it all off due to it's design, it felt more comfortable to sleep with it on. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, listening to the slight whisper of a breeze through the room’s loose window.
Lianne shoved the cold water onto her face once again, scrubbing the dried blood off. She hadn't noticed the putrid scent of it until now, but at this point she didn't care. Her coat soaked in a large trough that she had set aside, and she hoped it would get rid of most of the blood. Wincing in pain, she dragged her hands through her matted hair, attempting to get the dried mess out of it. Luckily this time it wasn't her blood, mostly at least. However, despite all the blood visible on her, the wounds on her stomach and arm were almost all gone, barely leaving a faint trace upon her skin.
Her body ached all over, a familiar tingle of pain echoing in her veins. Maybe it was the poison, maybe it was the ether blight. None of it mattered, all of it would be gone by morning. Her hands shook as she felt the icy water rinse down her arms. The blood had been stuck on for too long, leaving a stain that didn't want to disappear. God, it would be so nice if she had an actual bath with warm water, but that was a distant dream. She couldn't even remember the last time she had something remotely close to that.
She wanted to fall down right now, be able to sleep without interruption. A futile hope, but a hope nonetheless. If she could punch the thought, she would. Picking up the coat from the water, she examined the damage. Luckily there wasn't much this time and it could probably be sewn shut easily. She let out a sigh, reminding herself that she would probably benefit from some lightweight chainmail; the armour wouldn't help with the more serious wounds really, just the tedious repair.
She let out a small yawn while scrubbing the coat vigorously, attempting to clean what she could see. Did it really matter in the end? It would just get dirty again and again. Her mind wandered as she kept cleaning. This whole thing, it appeared out of nowhere. Of course she was suspicious, doubtful even, but if this Alastor person had information, she would take it. That raised another question though, how did he know about her? More precisely, how much did he know? Judging off the intricacy of the map, he'd been on the hunt for a while, maybe even before she came into contact with that... thing. There was no way to tell, but she definitely recognized some of the areas which were marked.
If Lianne had learned anything, it was to not trust people with too much knowledge, but knowledge like this was too valuable to ignore. If anything she wanted to question him more, to find what they had been doing, how much havoc they had wrought, how many people she would need to avenge. Her heart beat faster at the thought, the feeling of their flesh being ripped with her swords, the look of fear as life left its eyes. While she wasn't proud of it, a surge of ecstasy rushed through her when she envisioned the image.
Setting the mostly clean coat to the side, Lianne made her way into the room. She sat on the bed, rubbing her face with her hands. There was a problem with this whole thing though, Sirius. Why was he requested as well? What connection did he have to the target? Why was he doing this? Something as trivial as money? Whatever the case, he was here for a reason, and the fact that reason was hidden from her was a problem. Lianne groaned, she was too tired to think of this right now. Collapsing backwards, she let her body stretch out. She shivered as the cold air brushed against her bare skin and curled herself in response. Laying her hand on her leg, exhaustion slowly took over.
A brisk wind rushed against Lianne's skin as she slowly opened her eyes with a small groan. It was dark, pitch black almost with only small parts of the derelict wood visible beside her. That was odd, there wasn't anything that should be blocking the moonlight. Moving to get up, she put a hand against the bed she was sleeping on as it sunk downwards softly. Lianne removed her hand, taking another look at the unusually comfortable bedding. Moving her gaze onto her surroundings once again, she noticed the floor once more. It wasn't as broken as she first thought, instead it was neatly put together, barely scratched.
Slowly getting to her feet, Lianne walked around the dark room. Her hand brushed against a small desk, a familiar desk. Counting her steps, Lianne continued forwards. She stopped on the eighth and turned to her left. Reaching her hand out, she felt a door handle in front of her, it's cold metal pressing on her palm. She wasn't imagining things, she was back. The darkness around her cleared more, the dusk giving way to a dim blue light.
It was all here, the little desk with her books, the dresser with the drawer that didn't want to open, the shelf that squeaked every time she used it. Footsteps sounded from beyond the door, causing Lianne to freeze. They moved away from her, growing distant. Waiting for a moment, she turned the door handle, only to find it didn't move. An echo of a scream sounded and Lianne's eyes widened.
"No, no no no."
She slammed her body against the door with a grunt of exertion, only to feel as if she was slamming herself against stone. Hitting it again, she screamed out and slammed her fist against the immovable blockade. Lianne turned around searching for something to pry the door open, only to see stairs leading down into blackness. Her breath caught in her throat and her legs shook underneath her as she backed herself away.
This can't be happening, not again.
Everything closed in as Lianne fell backwards, hitting the door. The room closed in on her, forcing her into a smaller and smaller box. All she could hear was her own breath and the pounding heartbeat in her chest.
Lianne tried to stop the whimpers of fear that escaped her mouth as she grasped at her chest. She couldn't see anything through the darkness that encroached the air. A sudden slam from behind the door made Lianne shudder. She knew all too well what was waiting for her. Reaching for her knife, she kept her body as still as possible. A hand grabbed onto her shoulder, and she lashed out at it with a scream. Her body slammed through the door and she hit the ground, staring up at two red eyes.
She took a gasp of breath and quickly unsheathed her knife and swung. Her hand was caught and firmly held in place.
"Could you not try to kill me?"
Lianne looked up to see Sirius overtop her, holding onto the knife which was inches from his neck. He slowly let go, and she rushed upwards, slamming him to the floor with the blade pressed onto his throat.
"Why the hell are you here?"
"Agh! You sounded like you were in pain, I came to check on you!"
"I never asked for you to."
"You didn't want to wake up from that?"
Lianne pushed the knife harder against his throat but not enough to break the skin.
"How did you get in?"
"You left the door unlocked, now can you please put the knife away?"
She hesitated for a moment before releasing him. Of all the things to forget, she chose the literal front door. Lianne got off the floor and leaned against the wall, sheathing her knife and putting a hand to her chest. Her heart rate slowly stabilized as she controlled her breathing. Sirius got up behind her and started moving towards her. She averted her gaze from him, grumbling under her breath.
"I said get out."
He stood in the middle of the room as the ambience of the night surrounded them. Lianne listened to his footsteps as he slowly walked away and shut the door. Quickly grabbing her key, she locked the door behind him. The room was quiet now, uncomfortably silent. Lianne took a seat on the bed, hands clasped on top of her knees.
What the hell was Sirius thinking? What type of idiot would walk into a stranger's room? She let out a winded sigh and collapsed back onto the bed. The adrenaline was wearing off, and she was still tired. Waking up from those never left her feeling refreshed. She wanted to forget it all, to be able to sleep soundly. Her eye shut as she clutched her hand and curled it close to her body, the other brushing across the hair clip on her head before it went limp onto the pillow.