The Hunt

 Title:
 The Hunt
 Author:
 V.L. Dreyer
Genre:
Science Fiction
Words:
5,614
Released:
Originally released 28/05/2004.
Re-released 26/05/2013.
Description:
On a far-away planet, a bounty hunter pursues her prey… but that prey turns out to be far more dangerous than she ever imagined.
Downloads:
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The Hunt

By V. L. Dreyer

The bounty hunter slid through the crowds, gently shoving aside the lords and matrons that blocked her path without regard for their pompous costumes and enormous egos.  Each of them rounded on her in outrage, but she was long gone before they could see her face.  The parade was in full swing, and had just rounded the corner onto the Palace Way; the throngs filled the square to bursting, and lined both sides of the streets along the parade route so densely that it was impossible for them to keep track of who – or what – had jostled them.

She could see another person on the move, a black-clad figure that dodged through the packed ranks like a shark through a school of multicoloured fish.  Her side of the street was elevated slightly higher than the rest of the square, and it offered an excellent vantage point of the proceedings below.  Unlike herself, the hooded stranger made no real attempt at stealth, nor did he make even a token gesture of apology to his victims.  He shoved aside both highborn and low with nary a word, his shoulders hunched and head held low so that his hood effectively hid his face from view.

Her prey cleared the crowds a few moments before she did, and took off at a run across the palace grounds towards the meadows beyond. With one last shove, the bounty hunter sprang out of the press of people, and into the street directly in the path of the oncoming parade.  She ignored the startled looks and shouts of shock as she broke into a run and raced across the cobbles with all the speed that gave her the identity she traded under.

Her hunting name was Fleetfoot, and it was not just a moniker.

Marching girls and magicians cried out in surprise as she sprinted past them, but she paid them no heed.  Her long legs flashed in the late-morning sun as she closed the distance between herself and the palace, caught in a race between herself and her shrinking shadow.

She bounded across the low, ornate fence that separated public property from royal without breaking stride, and cleared the corner of the palace just in time to see her quarry’s back less than three strides in front of her.  With speed that bordered on the supernatural, she leapt into a flying tackle; her momentum brought them both down in a messy tangle of limbs.

The stink of him nearly overwhelmed her, an alien stench that drifted somewhere along the unpleasant line between rotten meat and bodily waste.  The creature was not human, nor any species that she knew.  The hood slid back as he went down, and revealed that his nose and upper lip joined in a ridge, and dark, ragged hair covered his head, neck, and half of his face.  The inch-long fangs that filled his mouth were revealed in the worst sort of way when he peeled back his lips and hissed at her like a wild animal.  His breath was so rank that it made her reel back, gagging – and that momentary distraction was enough for the creature to escape her clutches.

The ape-thing was up and away before Fleetfoot could recover, his movements astonishingly swift even compared to someone well-known for her speed.  With a grunt of distaste, she hauled herself back up to her feet, intending to resume her pursuit – but she only managed to take a single step before a wave of overwhelming psionic force struck her hard, and forced her right back to her knees again.

Do not go after it.

The voice was a whisper in the back of her mind, not as painful as the initial psychic shock but just as disconcerting for its soft-spoken menace.  Fleetfoot gasped in pain but couldn’t answer, her mind stuck in the clutches of some horrid thing that she couldn’t see.

Then a voice in the real world intruded and the pain vanished as swiftly as it had begun.

“Well, fancy seeing you here.”

A powerful arm hooked itself around her and hauled her back to her feet without so much as a by-your-leave.  The owner of the arm grinned at her; she knew that rakish smile far too well.  His name was Ravenseye, and he was a bounty hunter just as she was.  Sometimes an enemy, sometimes an ally, sometimes even a friend, but always a competitor.  He was dark-skinned and ruggedly handsome, with intense green eyes that contrasted vividly against his skin.  Just like her, he was outfitted in light body armour and wore the crimson bandana that was the mark of the hunter’s trade over his short-cropped hair.

“Raven.”  She greeted the other hunter grudgingly, neither particularly pleased to see him nor entirely annoyed.  Ravenseye rarely went anywhere without his hulking, psionically-gifted brother, and they could be useful in the hunt.  “I should have known you two would show up.”

“What, you didn’t miss us?”  Sure enough, Mindseye stepped around his brother’s lean frame and into her line of sight, where he gave her a playful, broken-toothed leer.  Bald as a bowling ball and naked from the waist up, the huge man was covered with the glowing blue tattoos that marked a member of the psionicist sect.  Despite the fact that he was a scion of the mental arts, he bulked in at well over two hundred pounds, and stood almost seven feet tall.

“Was that you in my head?” Fleetfoot eyed the larger of the two brothers suspiciously – she knew the brothers well, and had felt the wrath of the psion’s arts in the past.  She knew exactly how dangerous he was.

“Not me.”  Mindseye lofted a shaved brow at her accusation.  “Are you hearing voices now, Fleet?  Maybe it’s time to retire.”

“Enough.”  Ravenseye interrupted them before an argument could break out.  “We’re here to join the fun.  The bounty on this one is big enough for us to split three ways and still earn a year’s wages.  You and I both know that they only place a bounty that big on the extremely high-risk ones.  Let’s work together.”

“Alright, fine.”  Fleetfoot extracted herself from Ravenseye’s ever-so-helpful grip, and drew her gun from its holster at the base of her spine.  With an expert thumb, she swirled the dial on the base of the weapon around to the highest setting.  “If you two are here then I may as well make use of you.  The posting said the bounty is payable whether it’s dead or alive – I’ve tried the alive, so let’s just go for dead.”

“Sounds good to me.”  Ravenseye grinned toothily and unshouldered the heavy plasma cannon strapped across his back.  “Let’s go before it gets too far ahead.”

Fleetfoot nodded her agreement.  The three hunters turned and took off at a run after their distant prey, with Ravenseye in the lead so that he could track the creature with the enhanced vision that gave him his name.  The other two hunters automatically fell into a wedge formation behind him and matched his long, loping strides as they moved across the open meadows towards the distant hedge line.

Tall grass rustled softly around their legs, while each of them using their abilities to be assured that they were on the right track.  In addition to Ravenseye’s vision, Fleetfoot relied on her training in the hunting and tracking skills of the ancients and Mindseye followed the echo that the creature’s mind left on the ether with its passing.

“He’s gone,” Ravenseye announced suddenly, though he didn’t break stride until they were a half-dozen paces away from the hedges, still close enough to the palace that they were officially on royal grounds but far enough away that the plants were wild and untended.

“He can’t have just vanished into thin air.  If he had a teleportation device, my gear would have picked it up.”  Fleetfoot approached the tree line warily, her pistol at the ready.  As she drew closer, something strange caught her eye.  She reached out with her free hand and touched the branch of a nearby tree; the sap that dripped from the broken sprig was still fresh.  Someone passed by there recently.  Carefully, she moved the branches aside and stared into the underbrush beyond.  “Look, here.”

“Are you kidding?  A fox couldn’t get through that.”  Ravenseye squatted down beside her to examining the dark hole into the ground, which was no more than a few inches across.  “Our little friend was almost as large as I am.”

“And yet, he did get through here.”  She reached down to touch the grass below the entrance.  “See, here?  The blades are broken.  He got down on his belly and crawled inside.”  Something caught her eye and made her lean a little closer.  “This is very strange.  Look around the edges of the hole – that looks like puckered flesh.  It seems very moist.”   She trailed off, and cast a curious glance at Mindseye.

“I sense a dimensional distortion here.  I have a very ill feeling about this.”  The psionicist frowned deeply, and rubbed his hand across his chin in a thoughtful manner.

“You always have an ill feeling, brother.”  Ravenseye snorted and shook his head.  He jostled past Fleetfoot and reached forward with one gloved hand to touch the strange, fleshy entrance.  It didn’t move until he gave it a firm shove, at which point the edge of the hole widened just enough that a human-sized creature could pass through at a crawl.  “That explains how the target got inside.  Fleet, home your emergency porter to our recall point.  We’re going in.”

Ravenseye reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, flat device, a piece of technology that would act as a homing signal for the emergency teleporters that they all wore as a matter of course.  In the instance that something happened to them and their armour detected a loss of consciousness or a drastic drop in bio-signs, it would teleport them back to that point automatically.

Fleet took the moment to connect her emergency porter to the recall point, while Ravenseye dropped to his belly, and slithered forwards, gun-first, into the dark hole in the ground.  She glanced towards Mindseye and saw him preparing to do the same.  At the last moment, he paused and glanced back at her, a dubious expression on his big, dark face.

“You know, I think this is an anus.”

“I think you’re right.”  Fleetfoot nodded.  “I’m going to tie my hair up; I’ll be right behind you.”

Mindseye grunted his agreement and shoved his way into the hole as well, leaving her behind.  She wrinkled her nose in distaste, but swept her long, blue-white hair up into a messy knot and followed suit regardless.

The orifice expanded easily as she manoeuvred her slim shoulders through it, though the stench only reinforced the idea that it was the rear end of some kind of enormous, alien creature.  After a few metres, the fleshy passage ended in another puckered orifice, which she squeezed her way through.  Beyond, she saw what appeared to be a tiny room.

Although from her perspective the room looked like it was only about half as tall as she was, she could clearly see both Mindseye and Ravenseye standing easily in front of her; the big men looked smaller than they should be compared to her, as if there were a field between them that distorted her vision.  Curious, Fleetfoot grabbed a handhold on the moist, throbbing wall beneath the orifice, and twisted to pull herself clear of the opening…

…and then she fell.  It was only a few metres, but it was still a fair drop.  Her survival instincts kicked in just in time for her to twist around, cat-like, and land lightly on her feet.  When she straightened up again, she found herself standing in an antechamber easily large enough to accommodate her.

Although the change in perspective was disconcerting, she buried her concerns and approached the door where the two men were waiting.  It seemed to be a simple enough wooden door, just the way the floor appeared to be of rough-hewn dirt, but she doubted it was what is seemed.  The floor seemed to pulse softly beneath her feet and every step sank in like the ground was a little bit spongy.

And then there was the stench.  The closer she got to that door, the worse it became, until it was so strong that it felt like a living, breathing entity clawing at her nostrils.  It was like every latrine she’d ever been forced to clean back in her military days compounded into a single, horrific reek.  Fleetfoot swallowed hard to keep her lunch down and squared her shoulders, determined not to show one iota of weakness in front of the competition.

Ravenseye glanced at her and his brother for a moment, then shrugged and unleashed a kick on the door with enough force to break the lock.  It swung open to reveal total darkness beyond, and the horrific stink redoubled.

The two male hunters moved into the darkness and odour beyond and she followed after them without hesitation.  She heard Ravenseye muttering as he groped around for a light source, but then she sensed movement behind her that distracted her.  She started to turn, but it was a moment too late; something struck her so hard that she stumbled forward into Mindseye’s broad back, and a wave of blinding pain followed.

Fleetfoot tried to speak, to warn the brothers that they were under attack, but she couldn’t get a word out before darkness overcame her and she slipped into unconsciousness.

#

Water dripped nearby, just beyond the grasp of her awareness.

Her body ached.  Every muscle and limb hurt unbearably, blending into a miasma of misery that seemed to consume her entire existence.  A voice whispered in the darkness, but she couldn’t tell where it came from.

You were warned.  You were warned.

For a long time, she wrestled with images of terrible, overwhelming darkness.  Flickers of pain and pleasure passed through her mind: the first time she’d been stabbed, the first time she’d been loved.  She felt a moment of victory as she stood over her very first kill and a moment of warmth in her mother’s arms; then, a moment of pain when she remembered that her mother had died a very long time ago.

It was strange, and she could not work out what was happening.

Am I dead?  Her mind sought an answer that it couldn’t provide.  Is this Heaven? Or is it Hell?  Is this what death feels like?

The haze gripped her so thoroughly that she couldn’t tell how long she lay in that state, let alone whether it was a state of fever, or her final passage from the world of the living.

If I’m dead, then why isn’t Mother here to greet me?

There was a soft click somewhere behind her right ear, and a soft, metallic whir.  Fleetfoot gasped in surprise and her eyes flew wide as lucidity returned to her in a heartbeat.  Her body was shaking, quivering, and it took a moment before her vision came back under her control.  When it did, she saw Ravenseye leaning over her with his hands firmly on her shoulders to prevent her from sitting up.

“Welcome back.”  Ravenseye’s voice was gruff and harsh, and she saw that he was wearing one of the pins upon the base of his skull that injected healing particles directly into his lymph system, to accelerate his body’s natural ability to repair itself.  “That was a close call.”

Fleetfoot lifted a hand and touched the base of her own skull, where she felt the familiar hardness of another healing knob through her hair.  Confused and still in shock, she looked at him with eyes full of unasked questions.

Raven sat down on a thermal sleeping bag spread on the ground beside her; behind him, she could see Mindseye’s unconscious bulk sprawled out on another.  She realised suddenly where the sound of water dripping had come from:  a summer rainstorm had arrived, and that was the sound of the droplets falling through the leaves of the trees above them.

“I don’t know what happened.”  Ravenseye shook his head, a look that spoke of uncertainty written on his handsome face.  “Something… something bad, as useless as that is. It got us from behind.”

“It was a worm.”  Fleetfoot finally managed to find her voice again.  “I heard its rasp. I’ve just never heard one so large before.  Or a snake, perhaps. It was too dark to see.”

With some difficulty, she managed to lever her aching body up into a sitting position; her proto-plastic body armour was supple and bent easily to accommodate the movement.  Never one to let an opportunity past him, Ravenseye leaned over to put an arm around her shoulders for either support or comfort.  She didn’t know which, so she deftly ignored it.

“You think that might have been our ape-man?”  Ravenseye glanced warily back towards the hedge line a dozen paces away from the place where the recall beacon had deposited them.  “The posting didn’t list his species.  He might be a shape-shifter.”

“I don’t know.”  Fleetfoot shrugged.  “You’ll have to ask your brother when he wakes up.”

“Could be a while,” Ravenseye said, his expression shifting to one of annoyance.  “He took a bad hit.  Almost killed him, the goddamn crazy bastard.  I’ve told him time and again to wear his armour, but does he?  No, of course not!”

Fleetfoot couldn’t help but smile.  “You sound like a worried old nurse.”

“That’s what he said.”  Raven scowled.  “But someone has to watch out for our survival.  If I hadn’t invested in that new recall unit with the built in med-bot, then we’d all be dead right now.”

“That is a good thing, I guess,” Fleetfoot agreed, too tired from the drugs that coursed through her system to bother arguing, even if he was the competition.  More often than not, they’d been friendly rivals more than enemies, and when the bounty was big enough and the good cheer flowed freely they did make a formidable team – and sometimes more.

“That’s putting it mildly.”  Ravenseye’s voice was grim, but he set his face into a carefully neutral expression.  “I was still semi-conscious when it pulled us out – you were a mess, Fleet.  If it weren’t for that dinky little ‘bot, I think all three of us would have been worm fodder.”

“There’s a pleasant image.”  Fleetfoot frowned and shook her head slightly.  “If we manage to reel this one in, then I might have to invest in one of those, myself.”

When we reel this one in, I’ll buy you one myself.”  Ravenseye gave her a smile, and gently ran a knuckle along her tanned cheek; it was a gesture that was familiar and a little affectionate.  After a moment of indecision, she gave in to impulse and returned the affection in kind.  Their lips met in the briefest of kisses, but before anything more could happen, a groggy voice nearby interrupted them.

“I don’t care what you two do, as long as you do it more than three feet away from me.”

Ravenseye jerked away from her at the sound of his brother’s chiding voice, with an embarrassed look on his face; Fleetfoot busied herself pretending that nothing happened, while blushing furiously all the while.

Mindseye just laughed at them both and flopped back down to rest and recover from his wounds.

#

The next morning, as the rain cleared and the clouds parted to reveal the bright lilac of the summer sky, the three bounty hunters prepared for another shot at their prize.  It took very little effort to convince Mindseye to don his proto-plastic armour vest this time, though he still refused to join the others in decompressing the rest of their suits from their equipment pouches.

Though she always felt strange in a full set of armour, Fleetfoot and Ravenseye agreed that it was necessary to bring out everything that would give them an advantage in combat.  She was a cautious person by nature, so she had no trouble trying to convince herself that it really was better to be safe than sorry.

The heavy weapons came out of compression storage as well: bigger, badder, and far more lethal than was necessary against any human or semi-human target.  Now that he was fully recovered, Mindseye was back in command of his abilities and assured them that he could still sense their quarry in that vicinity.  Unfortunately, he could not pinpoint its location.  After a frank discussion between the three of them, it was decided that their prey most likely was a shape-shifter, and that meant they had to be prepared to make war.

Armed with plasma cannons, infrared facemasks, and breathing apparatus, Fleetfoot felt far more confident when they finally passed through that orifice again.  Despite the added bulk of the equipment, by the time the three of them came to stand in the antechamber in front of the wooden door, she was focused and ready to take on the enemy.

Through the rasp of his breathing equipment, Ravenseye spoke clearly and commandingly.  “Lanterns coming on.”

He gave the others just long enough to switch their masks from infrared to regular vision and avert their eyes before he activated the powerful lantern he carried.  It flared up like a miniature sun and chased back the shadows of the tiny antechamber with ruthless efficiency.  Ravenseye took a couple of quick steps through the doorway and cast the dodecahedral lantern underarm to the centre of the big room beyond.  It struck the ground lightly and rolled along its facets, illuminating the vast chamber almost completely.

The chamber loomed high above their heads, so high that the shadows still clung to its deepest recesses at the apex and edges.  It seemed impossible for such a massive chamber to exist so close to the surface, and yet remain underground.  They were distracted enough by the warped logic of the chamber that, for a moment, they failed to notice the thing that squatted on the far side of the room, startled and blinded by the sudden light.

It didn’t take long for that to change: a serpentine creature easily two hundred metres in length wasn’t exactly stealthy

Fleetfoot swore beneath her breath.  “So our little friend is a shape shifter.  Harasbacian.  I fought one of these in the military – I hate these things.”

“Great; I’ve read about them, too.  So, how do we kill it?”  Ravenseye hoisted his cannon and took aim as the massive creature began to recover.

It pulsed silver as it squirmed towards them, its wormlike coils set with heavy scales glinting in the lantern light.  High above their heads, a tiny humanoid torso squatted atop the vast mass of flesh, complete with a sleek, reptilian head and shoulders, and relatively small arms ending in arcing talons.

“The same way we kill anything else,” Fleetfoot answered calmly as she took careful aim with her own plasma cannon.  “Aim for anything that looks squishy, and give it hell.”

The flashes of blue-hot molten metal competed with the bright white light of the lantern as the three bounty hunters unleashed the burning horror of their cannons upon the beast; it shrieked with pain as the blasts tore through its shining silver hide.  Then it howled with rage and lunged towards, sweeping a coil of its massive tail across the room.

“Down!” Ravenseye commanded without hesitation.  The three hunters ducked beneath the span of thick muscle and glimmering flesh as it whizzed by no more than three feet above their heads, then rolled out of the way when it reversed directions suddenly and came crashing down on the spot where they stood a second before.

Separated from Mindseye by a vast wall of living meat, Ravenseye and Fleetfoot ducked away and retreated down into a rocky alcove nearby as the beast slithered back towards the shadows at the far end of the cavern and vanished out of sight.

“Mindseye?  Sound off!”  Ravenseye’s voice echoed off the arched ceiling, loud enough to be audible even over the sound of slithering.  Silence answered him, penetrated only by the distant drip of water, and the rasp of their breathing apparatus filtering out the stink.

Then suddenly, the powerful slope of Mindseye’s tattooed back parted from the shadows that clung tenaciously to the ground.  The massive psionicist made an unhappy sound and rose slowly to his feet, then limped back over towards Ravenseye and Fleetfoot.

“What happened?” Ravenseye offered his brother a shoulder for support, and Mindseye made as though to take it.  He still wasn’t speaking though, and there was something peculiar about the way he moved, but Fleet couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.

However, when the big man lifted a hand, and touched two fingers against his brother’s cheek, Ravenseye’s eyes widened in shock.

In a sudden flurry of movement, Ravenseye shoved the thing that resembled his brother away from him, and drew the long blade from his hip.  In a single, smooth motion, he struck a powerful high-angle blow that sliced through the creature’s neck before it could react.  A shower of silver blood followed the blow, and the shape shifter sagged to the ground.

“Oh, damn.”  Fleetfoot grabbed Ravenseye by the arm, and hauled him clear of the creature a moment before it began to return to its true form.  Massive lengths of silver coils exploded out of the split skin like a pile of metallic intestines and almost bowled the two hunters off their feet.

The moment that her ally was clear, Fleetfoot bounded back into the fray and took a flying leap up onto the back of the beast while it was still expanding.  She whipped a knife out of her belt for leverage, and drove it into the creature’s back for support as she struggled to keep her balance against the seething mass.  Even though it writhed and expanded beneath her, she fought her way upwards along the massive, shimmering coils with steadfast determination.

Ravenseye’s expression changed when he realised what she was doing.  He took a suicidal leap into the beast’s field of vision, and unleashed a careful shot at the furthest point of its huge body from where Fleet clung on, to distract the creature from her.  It spun right around with surprising speed for something so large, and opened its serpentine maw to unleash a blast of something green and noxious at him.

The man dived aside just barely in time to avoid joining the stone floor in a bubbling puddle of acid.

“I wish you’d warned me about that!” He yelled across the room.

“I didn’t know!” She screamed back, as she struggled to keep her grip.  She was almost there, though.  Just a few more steps…

Suddenly, she was at the top, standing directly behind the relatively tiny humanoid torso.  She was just inches beyond the reach of its flailing claws, so she didn’t waste a second.  With lightning quickness, the bounty hunter drew her sword from over her shoulder and drove it into the beast’s back all the way to the hilt.

The blade jarred against whatever passed for the creature’s spine, and stuck there for a long, dangerous moment, while the thing thrashed frantically and screamed in terrible pain. Fleetfoot struggled to keep her grip, working the weapon back and forth, worrying the wound in search of a gap in the bone.

Suddenly, the blade slid sideways through a groove in the cartilage and severed the spinal column within; the massive creature collapsed beneath her like a sack of wet entrails.

Fleetfoot clung to her blade for dear life and rode the slippery coils back down to the ground.  Like so much huge, wet rope, the creature thundered down and landed so heavily that dust rained down from the ceiling – at least, she hoped it was dust.  When she was safely back at ground level, Fleet yanked her blade out of the limp flesh, and accepted Ravenseye’s help to climb down.

“Brother?”  Ravenseye called out to his sibling and looked around, but it took a few minutes before they finally spotted a shadow slumped against the far wall.  They hurried over to him and found him semi-conscious but more or less uninjured.  He stirred while they were checking on him, and mumbled incoherently as they helped him to his feet.

“Get him out of here.”  Fleet ushered the brothers of the Eye back towards the exit.  “It’s not dead yet, and we need to take back proof to claim the bounty.  This is going to get messy.”

Ravenseye nodded grimly and helped his brother away, while she turned her back on them and picked her way through the masses of limp coils towards the beast’s head.  She pulled out an indestructible poly-fibre mesh sack out of her gear pouch, and waited until the brothers were clear of the wooden doorway and out of sight.  Then she turned back to the creature and with a single, powerful blow, she brought her razor-sharp blade down upon the creature’s slender neck, and severed its head with a splash of acidic silver-black blood.

Fleet scooped the head up with the sack, and clipped it onto her belt just as the coils beneath her sagged with finality.  She knew what was going to happen, so she leapt from the shape shifter’s carcass and ran for her life; behind her, the long coils began to rupture and split, spilling their acidic contents across the floor of the chamber.  With every ounce of speed that she had, Fleetfoot raced back towards exit.  Even with all her speed, she was only a step ahead of the wave of bubbling, steaming liquid when she passed through the doorway into the original antechamber.

Mindseye was already safely out of the chamber, but Ravenseye was only just climbing back up to the orifice that was their means of escape.

“Hurry!” She screamed as she sprinted across the room and leapt up behind him; a second later, the wave of acid lapped against the wall inches beneath her feet. Ravenseye’s powerful hand closed around her forearm to help her, made to seem disproportionately massive by the dimensional slip in the area.

With scant seconds to spare, she scrambled up the fleshy wall and dove into the orifice; a moment later, she and Ravenseye tumbled out the other end onto the safety of the grass beyond, with their prize firmly in hand.

#

Later, over drinks at the Royal Tavern, Ravenseye re-enacted the entire battle to a dozen off-duty members of the city guard, complete with dramatic storytelling and expansive gestures.  Beside him, Mindseye was brooding silently over his beer.  Fleet sat quietly on the other side, only paying a little attention to Ravenseye’s tale; she was busy watching the psionicist, acutely aware that he knew something that she did not.

“Whoosh!  Then she cuts off the head, and the whole damn thing explodes in acid. We only just got out, by the hairs of our teeth.”  Ravenseye finished his tale to gales of laughter and cheers from the recruits and their captain; one of them rewarded Fleetfoot with a painfully hearty slap on the back for her heroics, which distracted her for a moment.

“How did you know that the thing wasn’t your brother?”  One of the recruits asked, waving the bartender over for another round.

“Oh, that was easy.”  Ravenseye was always pleased at the opportunity to boast about his feats, a fact that both amused and annoyed Fleet.  “It was the way he touched me – it was almost covetous. That’s how Harasbacian shape-shifters claim their new forms, by touching the faces of their victims.”  He grinned wickedly and waggled his brows.  “Besides, my brother knows that the only ones who are allowed to touch me like that are the ladies – and then only with their lips.  Isn’t that right, Fleet?”

The laughter redoubled.  Fleetfoot had the good grace to blush, and fixed Ravenseye with the sort of look usually reserved for finding a rodent of particular size and ferocity in one’s larder.

“It was alive.”

Mindseye’s deep, rumbling voice suddenly interrupted the festivities.

Ravenseye peered at him oddly, then grinned and slapped him on the shoulder.  “Of course it was alive, brother.  But it’s not now; we killed it and passed its head on to the proper authorities.”

“No, not like that.”  Mindseye scowled and shook his head.  “There was something else there, something enormous.  The… hall.  It felt like it was alive.  As if it were…”

“…the lower intestine of some massive, extra-dimensional creature.  The shape-shifter was just its tapeworm.”  With an unexpected flash of insight, Fleetfoot finished the sentence for him.  Mindseye stared at her for a moment, then nodded his agreement.

“Well, if that’s the case, we might have reason to work together again.  I doubt the Queen wants any extra-dimensional monsters in her back yard.”  Ravenseye drew a toast and winked at Fleetfoot.  “Sounds like fun to me.”

Fleetfoot couldn’t really disagree.  That was why she was a bounty hunter, after all; there were more things within the bounds of the empire than she ever imagined could possibly exist, and they paid her generously to catch them or kill them in the name of Queen and Empire.

It was not an easy life, but it certainly was exciting.

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