Who's hunting who? Chapter 21.

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My life was a series of backs. Back down another mountain, back to the train, back to Central... or back to some other random village when our train gets flagged down.

Flagging down a Hunt train was a risky business; we tended not to stop unless there was an obstruction on the tracks. The old portly man waving fireworks around frantically from the side would normally be very hard to see until it was time for the warning shots... or the closer shots.

But Ivan ordered the engineer to slow, as soon as we saw what was going on.

We weren't that far from the mountain, as the train moved. Surely we were still in France. It still looked like France - as if the very land itself was too arrogant, too consumed with being pretty and better than everything else, that it became annoying.

This old man didn't have arrogance on the mind, as far as I could tell. It was probably the blood spatters on his clothes distracting him. Or the burning fireworks that he was holding in his bare hands; those burns had to be painful.

He was also slightly too close to the tracks; our engineer managed to stop a few feet before the old man became wheel grease. Still, the way the brakes worked, I doubted he'd be able to hear us for awhile.

Still, the smoke in the distance spoke volumes. It was enough smoke for an entire town, not just a simple village, and even as we jumped off and the old guy started yammering in French, we all knew what he was trying to say.

No fire that large could be natural - not in these old and well tended lands.

Ivan and Alicia both turned back to get their generators and gear.

I didn't really have that problem; not when I didn't want to. "Gray, get my pack and meet me. I'll be going on ahead."

Gray nodded once, gravely. "Be careful Sasha."

I grinned. "Careful is my middle name."

Gray stopped and cocked his head. "No it isn't."

Sigh. "Gray, pack. now, please."

"Right."

The old guy was watching me now, his mouth open. When my eyes met his, he crossed himself. Well, I couldn't tell him he was wrong; that was a thing people did around witches, and I was one. I could argue I was on the side of angels, but only a fool would believe that.

Instead I just waved and set off. I could be fast when I wanted to be.

I could probably have waited and squeezed myself into one of Gray's saucers, but the image of being all cramped up in that thing with a witch taking pot shots at me was not a pleasant one.

Yep, that was a town in flames, complete with people fleeing from it. At least they weren't getting picked off as they ran. there was no place to hide; no safe approach to be unseen taking. The place was surrounded by pastoral fields and flatter than the pancakes I really wanted right now.

There were four large trails of smoke,. three of which were very black, and the fourth was more normal, like a house fire. Or judging from the size, a few houses. Or a block.

All told it looked like about half the town, instead of the entire thing, and the trail of destruction was spreading. Too bad I couldn't see who was causing it. I probably could if I put my visor on, but that came with it's own problems.

Namely that I wanted to end the bloodshed, not cause more from panic as everyone in my general vicinity stops and runs back into town away from me.

Ivan would be surprised I was thinking things through so clearly, and working the problem. He might even be impressed I hadn't drawn yet, but I didn't want to risk getting recognized; for some reason, not too many people were ever happy to see me.

The crowd was beginning to piss me off. It was hard to run to the source of the purple fire when everyone else was either trying to knock me down or grab me.

But again, I resisted pulling my guns. I was responsible and in control.

There was a wall, an old crumbly thing which was easily climbed when I finally reached it. No one bothered to maintain things anymore, not that walls did much against witches, really, but it was best to make them work for it.

It clearly didn't do much in this case, there were at least two large holes I could see in the wall from on top of it, and that was just one side. At least no one was going to try and knock me down here in a mad panic, now if I could just see over the buildings....

Oh, nevermind. No more buildings to interfere, just debris to dodge and plaster powder to choke on. And on the other side, the witch.

She wasn't anyone I recognized; there was no wanted poster; no file with her face on it back at Central. Her hair matched the fire she threw, but her eyes were blue. She was a little thin, a little lanky, and a little too edged to look strictly normal. Her hat was a stereotypical one, perched at an angle atop her head and bent just so.

She was smiling, the firelight reflecting off her perfect teeth as she watched people burn alive. Then her eyes met mine, and the grin widened.She floated up, making herself a perfect target.

"She told me that if I did this, the Hunt would show up - but I didn't expect you this quickly."

My first shot hit her right in the face, not that it was easy to tell, since the beam was wide enough to engulf her.

She sat up, smoking. "I actually felt that. You're strong."

"You survived. So are you. Care to tell me who told you to kill until the Hunt showed up?" Right, there were stronger shots I could take.

"Beat me and find out." Purple hair replied.

I shot her again. She tried to dodge, which was beyond amusing. How was a person going to dodge light? Even a witch?

"So, what did the Hunt offer you, traitor? All the grimoires you could steal? All the witch blood you could drink?"

Traitor? That was also amusing, considering witches were traitors to their species almost the minute they were born. Still, she got up again, so there was that.

"All the real traitors I could kill, actually."

This time flame met my shot, and stopped it entirely; how did that happen? Did this scums flame have substance or weight somehow?

So the flames flew everywhere, and my own shot shattered, and all that energy had to go somewhere. There were screams.

That was it, no matter the cost, she had to die here. I couldn't let her escape.

She blocked the next three shots the same way. It was some serious bullshit. "Gray, how is she doing this?"

"Her magic, of course." Gray deadpanned. "And by magic I mean the form her power has taken. Those flames are plasma, which carries a charge and...."

I could feel it; my eyes started to glaze.

"Nevermind, the how is not important," Gray continued. "What is important, is that you need more firepower in order to beat this enemy."

Alicia and Ivan still weren't in range, as far as I knew. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Use the fleet."

Gray had a point, each ship in the fleet had as much firepower as my guns. Any two had more firepower than my guns. Five all at once would be overkill. Wait, did five ships count as a fleet? That seemed too small to count. No, focus.

"Do it."

"Understood."

I ducked as flames flew, failing to do more than singe the air; I was protected from heat of all forms, and barely felt the air heat up.

I did feel the force that was my return fire however, as the first two saucers drove the witch into the ground like the hammer of an angry God. First came the targeting laser, then riding that wave down came the real danger, the full power coaxial combat laser. I wasn't sure what one of those was, but I couldn't deny the results.

Yet, the witch sat up, looking around for the source. "What the hell was that?"

I held up a hand. An empty hand, since I no longer needed my own guns for this. "Take a guess."

Those blue eyes narrowed. Then she jumped up from the crater I'd put her in and exploded.

Maybe I shouldn't have attacked so soon. It was my turn to pick myself up, and when I did I was staring a fire snake with legs in the face.

"Meet Jake, my fire salamander." Purple said.

"Pleased to meet you, Jake." I told him as he opened his mouth wide.

I still didn't need to draw. Gray slammed the familiar away from me, and pounded Purple back into the dirt. Both spewed more fire in response.

"Sasha, I need more time to charge up the main batteries, or more ships focused on one target. Can you distract the familiar please?"

"I don't think I need to," I told him. "He seems pretty focused on me already. Just shoot the witch, I'll be fine."

The lizard tried to make me a liar by eating me, but I managed to keep one step ahead; the rubble was my friend. In return I ate some fire, but my uniform was potent enough for me to ignore it when backed by my own power. Were we evenly matched, somehow?

Gray's next shot was a pretty definitive 'no.' I felt the drain, and began to feel the heat, and then the entire town vaporized in an instant. somehow I didn't get touched at all by the light, the blast, and any debris that survived the initial blast. Even the dust blew by without touching me.

I reached behind my back and brought out my visor. A simple scan revealed nothing. There were no life signs of any kind, witch or otherwise, in front of me. Not even a mouse or rat.

A patch of purple hair caught my scanning eye... and the smoking remains of a hat. There wasn't much left, it seemed. Of anything.

I'd been in this situation before, but I didn't have pockets to stick my hands in any more, and my whistling sounded weird. A life sign popped up, then another; somehow I was getting a reading of them even when both were behind me. They were... familiar. I let them approach.

"Sasha, you didn't."

I pointed slowly to the hat. "She did it. Well, most of it anyway, the town was well on it's way to frying before I got here, and when she saw me... well there wasn't any left for me to kill. Not that i wanted to! I'm fine; perfectly sane, here."

Alicia poked Ivan in the ribs. "Come on, this is Sasha we're talking about. This sort of thing is normal. don't pretend you didn't see what I saw."

Ivan holstered his knives and approached the hat. "I wasn't going to. But you have to admit, even for Sasha, the level of destruction is high. How many shots was this, Sasha?"

okay, they didn't see all of the fight, but they should have seen that much. "One - from Gray's saucers. All five of them, but just a single concentrated shot. She had some sort of shield above and beyond the normal which was blocking my guns with no problem. Also, she specifically set out to attack here to draw either a Hunt response or us. She said some words to that effect, and admitted she'd been given the idea by someone else. I'm willing to bet another witch."

Alicia kicked a piece of wood out of her way. "Perfect. Just perfect. It never just rains, does it?"

"Let them hunt us. It makes hunting them easier." Ivan said,. feeding the hat into his generator.

Something about the way he said it made me uneasy. "I don't know, Ivan. She was strong. Too strong; something is up, here."

He didn't dismiss it. "What are you thinking?"

I told him: "A witch that strong, she'd have pasted Riddle. She might even have been able to beat...her. So why haven't we heard of her before now? She was a new face, and purple hair is a dead giveaway. But I didn't know her, and she seemed new. So why was she so strong? the timing seems too good to me."

If I hadn't been here, if it had been any other team, this town would still be ash, and the team would be too. Instead I was here when she was here, or she was here because I was here, and I was able to easily take her down. Well, for a certain amount of easy.

Someone had told her to attack the town, and do it while our train was passing by. Someone was keeping close tabs on us, and had access to witches, even fresh witches, that had power enough to take on one of the four; you didn't just throw away power like that unless you had more of it.

"Don't worry about it," Ivan told me. "We can't do anything about it now."

"Yeah, worry about the town you just wiped off the map!" Alicia yelled out, already halfway down what used to be the main street.

I shrugged. "If I hadn't, the witch would have."

Ivan's eye turned to the small group of shell shocked people walking back into range. "We can offer some evidence to that effect, but...."

"You didn't see everything, I know." there would have been an inquiry before; there was no doubt of it now. My every action, every breath, was going to get taken apart like a body on a slab. I was pretty sure I knew how it would go too, even when everyone knew I didn't do anything different than before I gained my hat.

I should have waited, even if more were likely to die.

"You! What did you do!?!"

The old codger committee had gotten into shouting range. Joy. At least they were speaking English. The one who flagged us down was third from the front, trying to hide with his face down.

I looked to Ivan. Did he want me to answer? He shook his head and stepped up.

"What do you mean, sir?"

"You blew up the town!" The old codger screamed, finally ambling to a stop right in front of us, looking up at Ivan. At least that ploy worked, for now.

The one guy knew who had gotten here first, and I'm sure others had taken notice of the crazy person... girl headed to the attack rather than away from it. The natives would turn to me soon.

And my visor was still on. Whatever, it was too late to take it off now, and too much to hope for that the villagers wouldn't realize what it was.

"The witch blew up the town, after hunter Norre engaged her. Unless any here can gainsay her testimony."

The old codger looked at me and paled as I gave him the biggest grin I could manage. How had a guy like this survived? He probably was the first to cut and run. "Go ahead, call me a liar."

He had the nerve to point a bony finger at me. "But that's...!"

"Hunter Norre, the Marksman." Ivan finished for him.

The old guy's eyes rolled up in his head, and he fainted dead away. His posse scrambled to save his life.

"Elder!"

"Back up! Give him some air!"

"Someone get some water!"

Boring.

The old guy who flagged us down had something to say as I passed. "If I'd known, I'd have let you go by."

He wasn't even nursing his burned hands, which I could respect. The old guy could take some pain. "Then you'd all surely be dead. The witch came to kill; not harass, not play around - just to kill."

He eyed my guns. "The witch wasn't the only one, was she?"

No fool, this man. "Are we going to have a problem?"

"None today," he answered. "The hunt will hear from us as soon as the message can be sent."

"A success then; people are alive to complain. I could deliver it myself if you like."

"I'd prefer to have someone I trust do the job."

I shrugged; life was too short to get offended over who didn't trust you. "It was just an offer to speed up the process."

The old guy's teeth creaked, and blood dripped from between his lips. "Do you really think you're above the law? You're no better than the rest of them."

Okay, now that was something to challenge my calm. My own blood roared in my ears. "I'm not above the law, and I meant exactly what I said. Sometimes you have good luck, and sometimes you don't. Your town today got visited by a witch that was perfectly willing to burn it all down and kill everyone inside. You really think running would save you? It was a game to her, she was taking her time. She could fly.

You were all dead. Anyone in your town was dead. I acted not to save the dead, but to save future victims; if I hold back, if I let her escape, she just does it again somewhere else. So yes, people died. Probably great, if unlucky people. But because those people died, another thousand or so the next town over won't."

That actually gave the old man pause - for a bit. "Who are you, to decide such things?"

"I'm a hunter. The hard choice is what we do." Hmm, my cheeks were wet. Was my visor causing me to sweat or something? Had I gotten hit and not noticed?

The old guy backed off without another word. That was fine, I didn't want to deal with his bull. Unless or until Ivan triggered his remote, my place was as far away from here as possible. But I couldn't go back to the train, the mob could turn ugly and my team would be forced to defend themselves; it had happened before.

I didn't want them dying for something they didn't even do. That also had happened before.

There was a hill in my visor's range. At least when combined with one of Gray's saucers. I wasn't sure how that worked, but with one of gray's ships in the air, I could see around hills and towns and had a better range for all of it.

So I took a bit of cover behind an old shack, put my back into holding the wall up, and waited. Out of sight, out of mind and all that.

Gray amused me by flying interesting patterns with his ships, extending my range even further while I most pointedly did not look at the time spent.

Ivan found me first. "Ready for a beer? I know I am."

If any time was beer time, it was now. That went without saying. "How bad is it?"

"Morocco bad. Maybe a bit worse."

I winced. Well, if I got kicked out of France it wouldn't be all bad; after all I wouldn't have to go back to France. Silver linings, and all that.

"Don't worry about it," Alicia told me. "Nothing's going to happen. Just a bunch of peasants speaking out of grief."

That didn't mean nothing was going to happen, but at least Alicia was making the effort.

I was more worried about next time; and there would be a next time.

The train was right where we left it and none the worse for wear. I entered first, trying and failing to resist scratching my neck. I was beginning to think I was developing one of those weird habits or giveaways I always used to laugh at other people for, like Dustin's fondling of his stick when he's trying to act confident.

I beat them both to the bar, but this time they followed me in. I grabbed the first thing in front of me right as Gray walked in, and downed it.

Gray surprised me by climbing onto a stool himself and grabbing the nearest liquid in his range; he downed it like a champion.

If my other two drinking companions noticed Gray's lapse, they didn't say anything.



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