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The Hunter

Tobin hated the rain. He hated the squish his socks made when they invariably got wet. He hated the smell of petrichor, and he certainly hated the need to wear any more clothes than was necessary.

So, he wasn’t too thrilled that his next mission took place in the city of Dawn— known specifically for its frequent, sudden rains.

Of all the cities in Ard, it had to be here. Tobin suppressed the urge to curse and popped his coat’s collar in the vain hopes of avoiding at least a little bit of the water.

The bar he was about to hit up looked dingier than the last time he’d been here. Grimy windows, brown paint peeling off of the gray walls, graffiti; the place had seen better days.

The bar’s red neon sign stood out in contrast to everything else, stating the place’s name in big, bold letters:

THE HORNET’S NEST

Tobin rested his hand on the flimsy door and eyed the flickering ‘R’ for a moment before pushing lightly; he winced at the tortured squeal of the hinges.

Stepping in past the threshold, Tobin was hit by a wall of noise. Half a dozen loud conversations competed with the jukebox, which was playing a familiar, merry song— one whose title he’d never cared to learn.

Unpleasant.

The smell was worse; an unholy mixture of mold, alcohol, smoke, and a hint of sick.

This job had better be worth it.

Looking around, he acclimated himself to the environment and made his way to the bar counter, the only well-kept piece of furniture in the entire place.

He kept an ear out. So far, nothing useful.

A balding, overweight sea elf was sat with his mates around a flimsy table, bragging about the usual topics; money, drugs and sex. One of his buddies was staring at Tobin— no, at the girl next to him, Tobin realized with a shake of his head.

“What can I get you, sir?” The bartender came around the counter, looking harried; a new hire, from the looks of it.

He barely looks old enough to drink, let alone serve… Tobin suppressed the grimace threatening to spread over his face and asked for a cold beer.

Tobin received the ice-cold bottle with a nod of thanks, took a sip and leaned on the smooth, mahogany counter with a world-weary sigh.

“Bad day?” Someone asked from Tobin’s right side.

Oh, great.

“That obvious, huh?” Tobin plastered on a fake smile and turned to see a lady eyeing him with interest. I can see why that other fellow was staring.

The woman was at just the right height, with a body fit to be on the front cover of a magazine; a lovely sight. Smiling wider under his gaze, she tucked a cherry-red lock of hair behind her ear. Her green eyes glittered with anticipation.

“Let’s just say I have an eye for this sort of thing,” she replied, and Tobin noticed the slow way her carefully tinted, red lips moved. “So, stranger, what ails you?”

No time for distraction.

Let’s just say I don’t like the rain, and leave it at that,” Tobin’s expression tightened before he went back to his beer without another word.

There was a long moment of silence. Tobin didn’t look her way, but he imagined the woman’s previously flawless visage had shifted into something angry, ugly.

“Asshole,” came the expected reply, but he didn’t dignify it with a response.

It was a shame, really. At any other time, Tobin might have played the lady’s game, but he was on a job— and while on the job, there is no room for any shenanigans.

The man lived by a set of rules— a code of conduct, if you will.

Focus on nothing but the mission. The mantra, repeated so often over so many years, suffused into Tobin’s essence.

It was supposed to be a simple enough rule to follow, but Tobin had seen many men and women fall prey to distractions of all kinds, whether they were physical or mental.

When the bartender came back to ask him whether he wanted another beer, the woman beside him had already moved towards the fellow who’d been staring at her earlier.

She certainly works fast. Tobin thought as a man sat himself on the spot which the lady had occupied previously.

Tobin slid his second, untouched bottle to the right, watching as the man took it with a nod. “Tobin.”

Tobin nodded back, watching him drink. “Time hasn’t been kind to you, old man.”

“I wish I could say the same about you,” the old man cleared his throat while he glared without heat, gesturing at Tobin with a stubby hand. “If anything, you look younger than you did a few years back! What’s your secret?”

“If I told you…”

“You’d have to kill me?” The older man chortled, his large belly visibly straining against the tight red shirt he was wearing. He scratched the grey stubble on his cheek.

“No, Bird,” Tobin scoffed and rolled his eyes. “You just wouldn’t believe me. That’s all.”

The old man’s previously jovial face was marred with something ugly, his stress wrinkles making him age years in a matter of moments.

“The things I’ve seen, lately,” a dark look crossed the now-named Bird’s eyes. “I’d believe more than you think, Tobin.”

Tobin frowned. “The disappearances?”

Bird barked out a laugh— a bitter, sour noise which did not suit him.

“One mess in a long list of messes over the past few months,” Bird grumbled and took another swig. “Ever since the shit hitting the fan over at Bellmead, things have gone tits up. Everywhere.”

Ah, yes. Clan Alo-Ra’s resurgence to power. Tobin thought with a sneer. That Clan had almost been wiped off of the face of Ard, but they’d bounced back with a vengeance, almost completely annihilating Saint-Morning’s Phage problem overnight.

It would have been impressive had Tobin considered any of the existing Clans worthy of respect.

All of the Clans are the same, through and through. Greedy and power hungry. Willing to sacrifice others for their own gain. He thought before shaking his head.

“Tell me about the disappearances, Bird,” Tobin insisted, banishing thoughts of Clans and injustices out of his mind. Nothing but the mission.

“Would it kill you to call me by my real name?” Bird let out an explosive breath. “I know you’ve got your ‘obsession with the mission’ thing going on, but we’ve known each other long enough, no?”

Tobin responded with a flat stare.

“You’re damn creepy when you do that,” Bird waved as if warding off his previous request. “Bird, it is.”

Bird took a long swig of his bottle, before finally answering Tobin’s initial question. “The disappearances— it all started a few weeks back. A college student went missing, mysterious circumstances. No one batted an eye.”

Tobin nodded. People disappeared all the time, after all. “But it didn’t stop there.”

“Wish it did,” Bird shrugged with a sigh and set the bottle on the counter. “Three more disappeared last week, and two a few days ago.”

“And the police aren’t handling this, because…?”

Bird pulled a folder from his satchel and handed it to Tobin.

“You need to join us in the modern age, Bird,” Tobin groused, but still pulled a document out of the folder. He began to examine it. “What am I looking at?”

“Police report from last week,” Bird explained as Tobin read through the file.

“Witness claims the kidnapper leapt twenty feet up in the air, carrying his screaming girlfriend away,” Tobin read the file out loud, throwing his informant a dubious look. “Disconcerting, but he could have been on something. People see all sorts of things while under the influence. You have anything else?”

Without a word, Bird procured a few more folders from his satchel and held them out.

Tobin blinked, placed the file on the counter and went through the provided items. They all seemed to tell the same story; a monstrous creature able to snatch people and escape with them, leaping incredible distances. All of the victims were women between the ages of 20 and 30.

This is starting to paint a not-so-pretty picture.

“I see.”

“You think this is from your side of the yard?” Bird’s mood shifted from somber to excited in the blink of an eye.

Tobin held up a hand, forestalling any further questions. “Perhaps. Let’s talk rates.”

“Of course,” Bird pinched the bridge of his nose, before waving it off. “Same as usual, plus danger pay in case things go south— which, I’m guessing they just might. Need any backup for this one?”

Tobin snatched the most recent folder, pushed off of the bar counter and left without another word.

“Typical,” he heard Bird say a few feet behind him, but Tobin’s focus was already shifting as he exited the bar.

It at least smells better than the shithole behind me. Tobin decided, breathing a little easier now. The rain had thankfully subsided, but there was no telling when it’d be back with a vengeance.

He entered his car— a cheap, unimpressive hunk of junk he’d purchased a number of years back— and fiddled with the GPS module, throwing a few looks at the file he’d snatched earlier.

Hopefully there’s something to go on from the scene of the kidnapping. Tobin double checked the address and began to drive.

The trip barely took a dozen minutes before he arrived at his destination.

Exiting his car, Tobin noted the torn police tape with distaste even as he slowly walked past it, eyes alert and file in hand. He stopped and leafed through the report while standing in what he gathered was the witness’ spot.

The file had said that the creature leapt twenty feet onto the building across the street from the deli to his right.

Tobin graced the deli in question with a gaze. His blue eyes met those of the front-desk clerk. She stared at him with suspicion through the window, looking like she was a few moments away from calling the police.

I suppose anyone would be antsy after having had a kidnapping directly in front of their place of work. He thought, giving her some slack.

Tobin moved forward in the direction the creature had taken, keeping his attention on the asphalt beneath his feet.

There was nothing to be found.

Perhaps the top of the building? Tobin mused and moved further ahead, towards a tight alley next to his target. The fire escape was a tricky climb, the metal slippery from all the rain and, judging by the abundant rust, in dire need of maintenance.

Up on the roof, Tobin took a moment to rest and stared across the cityscape for a moment before focusing back on the job. He searched for half a minute until he found a lead— a wet, red, leather handbag.

He gave it a few shakes to get some of the water off and pulled the zipper open. A quick check through the identification within showed that this bag was indeed the property of the missing woman in the report; a Hannah Stanley.

So the monster is real, at least. Tobin stopped for a moment to consider the implications. And it’s taking humans in public? A brazen beast.

What a strange case this was; he hadn’t seen anything like this since…

A flash of white, and then red. Crimson mist— no, not mist. This was her blood.

Tobin trembled, forcefully shook his head of past memories and continued to rifle through the woman’s belongings, looking for anything he could use— there; a thin strand of blonde hair.

Tobin made his way back down the fire escape, and back to the car. Seating himself, he pulled a short, silver chain from the compartment beneath his arm and tied the strand of hair around its silver spear-tip, before tying the other end of the chain around his index.

The spear-tip lit up with a bright orange runic script, floating behind Tobin and tugging at his hand as it moved. Without a word, Tobin started the car and began to follow the path the chain laid out for him.

Tobin quickly realized where the chain was leading him— the western outskirts, with the old, abandoned warehouse. He drove a few loops around the property just to make sure. Yep. It’s pointing straight at it.

The sun had already set when Tobin reached his destination. He parked less than a block away from the warehouse and exited the vehicle, glaring at the abandoned structure. A quick check showed that all of his various weapons and doohickeys were on his person.

Steeling his resolve, Tobin headed towards the warehouse, passing through one of the many holes cut into the property’s rusted, ancient fence.

Handere,” he held out his hand and muttered an incantation over the chain. The runes flared to life once more, the speartip morphing into a small sphere and glowing with a faint, silver light.

Tobin entered the building through the smashed open front door, the blond strand of hair unwrapped from the chain and already blown away with the wind.

It smells just as wet in here. Tobin grimaced, looking up at the many holes in the abandoned warehouse’s ceiling, before shaking his head and focusing himself once again. He held tightly onto the chain, taking care to walk as silently as he could manage.

The deeper he delved into the building, the more sure he was that he was not alone.

A shiver went down his spine, but Tobin ignored it as best as he could, continuing his search of the building. He would have maintained the tracking spell on the chain, but there was no real need.

The stench of rot, the sickly sweet scent of carrion, Tobin knew what gave off that kind of smell.

Too late. Tobin thought, his eyes hardening into steel chips. Always too late.

Moving deeper in, he finally found Hannah— and the others, as well.

Tobin stopped and looked down at the familiar face from the report. Hannah had met a grisly end. Her face was set in a rictus, capturing the pain and terror of her last moments.

Tobin stared into her glassy eyes for a moment before focusing on her cause of death: the mangled mess that had been her abdomen.

All of the women had another thing in common in the reports, aside from the leaping monstrous creature; they had been pregnant.

Tobin had drawn his conclusions from there and had left the bar without another word. Bird may have taken offense at the dismissal, but he wasn’t ready to deal with whatever was behind this string of disappearances— no matter what he’d claimed. Words were light, easy to throw around. Tobin did not trust words.

Facing down a monster of this caliber…

Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t right.

Tobin suppressed his rising anger and let his eyes slowly take in the remaining corpses. He recognized a few from the reports, but there was at least triple the number of women, here.

Unreported cases.

The chain tightened around his finger, he noted but didn’t move an inch, even as his muscles tensed in preparation for a fight.

It’s watching me. Waiting for the right moment. It’s a good thing I switched the tracking spell with one of detection, instead.

The sphere at the end of the chain twitched, and Tobin dove to the left, feeling the air shift in the spot he’d just occupied. The falling creature hit the ground with a heavy smack, crying out in pain at its failed ambush.

Tobin rolled into a crouch and stared at the offending creature. It’s as I thought; a Suiline.

It was a hairless, pale skinned creature, with a cat’s face, ears, and long arms and legs, tipped with vicious claws meant to tear and rend. Even while it was crouched, it was still more than seven feet tall.

Hideous.

This was what those women saw in their final moments. It was a bitter and grim sort of realization, one which Tobin suppressed with all his being— no distractions!

The ugly thing yowled in pain and pawed at its face, careful to not hurt itself with its own claws, displaying an intelligence Tobin was hoping it didn’t have. He stood back up, shifting into a fighting position as its yellow, slitted eyes flitted to him with laser focus.

He had less than a handful of seconds to plan his next move as the Suiline dashed to his location, its front-left claws moving in a straight stab that was sure to run him through.

Gram!” Tobin took a hurried step back, cried out the incantation and swung the small chain forward all at the same time— except, the chain was no longer small. As soon as the word had left his mouth, the chain grew in length until it became several times as long as he was tall, and twice as thick.

The chain caught the creature’s paw, stopping it mere inches away from Tobin’s face, but it did nothing to stop the Suiline’s mad charge. The two flailed, carried by their own momentum. Tobin clenched at his chain and pulled hard, forcing the Suiline to crash into one of the many steel columns of the warehouse, claws first.

The cracks and snaps of the monster’s bones shattering would have been music to Tobin’s ears, had the Suiline not begun to thrash in panic, sending him tumbling over the unforgiving concrete.

Every impact felt like a death knell, the stress to his body making itself known with every roll. Tobin’s world became pain until he finally skidded to a stop, his side smashing into another beam with a disturbing snap.

Tobin got back to his feet with some difficulty, ignoring his own injuries with an ease born from experience. Left shoulder, dislocated. Ribs, cracked. Left wrist may be broken. Friction burns all over.

His opponent’s injuries, on the other hand, were much worse.

Tobin approached the monster, dragging the chain behind him and filling the air with the sound of metal scraping against concrete. The Suiline didn’t pay him any mind, too busy wailing and flailing in place.

He doubted this thing had ever experienced pain before now. What a wretched creature. I’ll put you out of your misery.

He was not going to take any chances. Tobin took hold of the chain and swung his arm down, ignoring the flaring pain in his left shoulder and crying, “Gram Sin!”

The chainlinks clinked and clanged together as the chain flew in an arc towards the Suiline’s head, the sphere at its end growing to the size of a bowling ball midway through its trajectory.

A loud crunch, and the beast’s head was crushed, spraying its surroundings with blood, brain matter, bone and flesh.

Tobin stared at the dead Suiline’s twitching form for a few moments before the adrenaline rush faded and the pain made its true self known, settling itself on his shoulders like the weight of a mountain.

Tobin staggered away from the Suiline, the chain shrinking and returning to its former size with a tired mutter of, “Ingram.”

He pressed his back against a steel beam to hold himself up and reached into his coat with his bloodied palm, pulling out a vial full of green liquid. He popped the cork and downed it all in one go, grimacing at the awful taste. Tobin felt himself sink to the floor as the pleasant sensation of numbness began to pervade his body.

Mission accomplished. A job well done.

Tobin sighed, staring up at the ceiling for a few moments before his eyes fell on Hannah Stanley’s corpse once again.

He scoffed and tore his gaze away, hearing the sound of droplets hitting the ceiling and feeling misty air caress his tired face.

It was raining again.

“A job well done… Hah!” Tobin laughed.

“What am I even thinking?” He turned back to Hannah’s corpse.

No answer came.

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