Pryde: One

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“Did you lace your weapons with the stunning poison?”

“For the umpteenth time, yes.”

“No need to be rude. I’m just making sure.”

Kai rolled her eyes. She stared out of the car window as they flew down the quiet highway. She tried to keep her body still, but the anxiety rose in her stomach every time Lavanya spoke.

It had been years since the woman became her guardian. For the most part, Kai didn’t mind. She even liked spending time with Lavanya. Even if the woman wore too much perfume for her taste; or strutted around in high heels too outlandish for hunters like themselves. Even if Kai was slightly envious of how Lavanya could look so perfect after a fight, but Kai’s own light brown skin would be riddled with cuts and bruises. But tonight was different. This was her big chance to prove herself – her skills and smarts as a hunter. And Lavanya was nagging on and on like an older sister. It was sweet, but more than Kai wanted to handle at the moment.

“You’ve memorized the layout of the street, correct?” Lavanya asked. Again.

“As much as I’ve memorized the hunters’ code.”

“And you know the plan?”

“Yes. We sneak down the street to the house, enter it from the back and front-”

“And you enter?”

“The back. I enter from the back.”

“Good. And?”

“And I distract any baddies while you get the artifact we need. After that, we hightail it out of there and get back to the guildhall in time for some morning dinner.”

“Excellent. Now, remember the backup plan, just in case we-”

“Lavanya.”

“Alright. I just want to make sure you’re safe tonight. It is your first real mission, after all.”

And Kai knew it.

She had been training for years for this night. Through weapons training, hand to hand combat classes, and even the dreadful academics tutoring. Just a few months ago, she had passed the first hunters exam with ease, showing her agility and knife-wielding skills. She proved she could handle anything inside the ring.  And now she would be able to prove to the guild leader, Lavanya, and the rest of them that she was as capable of hunting in the real world as they were. Possibly even better. As long as the butterflies in her stomach would calm down!

Kai glanced over to Lavanya. She was wearing another one of her stylish outfits, her flaming waves of hair sealed up in a tight bun. Kai always wondered how she was able to do that. But it wasn’t like she could ask Lavanya for hair tips anyway. Her own choppy mess looked more like tar and was too short for even clips. Sometimes she hated herself for cutting it all off. Then again, it’s not like she had a choice.

Kai saw the faint purplish glow under Lavanya’s shirt and imagined the woman’s energy flowing into the small stone she constantly wore around her neck. She scratched the faint scar on her left wrist and wish she could do the same. Having any kind of extra energy supplies was better than not. Kai was once like that – back when she had access to her shapeshifter abilities – but could only dream of power now.

Right after Lavanya had saved her as a child, she had sealed up her powers along with the Black Ink, a curse given to traitors of her tribe. Kai deserved that curse, and the slow, painful death that came with it. Yet, she still fought to keep living. She hoped one day that she could redeem herself and become part of her tribe again. And this mission was another stepping stone to get there.

In the meantime, she kept who and what she really was a secret, even from Lavanya. With her shapeshifter abilities sealed alongside the curse, everyone at the guild believed she was only human. And they could keep thinking that until she broke the curse and reclaimed her honor-

“We’re here.” Lavanya shut off the car.

Kai’s eyes glided over the street, not realizing when they had gotten off the highway. She took in as much as she could. The setting was exactly like the layout she had seen printed off for her and Lavanya by the guild’s tech center – a basic cul-de-sac with simple two-story homes lining each side. Nothing out of the ordinary in suburbia. That is until Kai stepped out of the car. Even the thick sleeves of her jacket could not stop the goosebumps as they swooped down her arms.

She slammed the car door shut.

“Kai!” Lavanya whispered. “Don’t be mean to Fritz!”

Kai shrugged. “It’s a car.”

“Correction. It’s my car.” The woman softly shut her door, eying Kai over the hood in that irritating disappointed look she tended to have when Kai screwed up. “We also don’t want to alert our prey.”

Kai rolled her eyes but she knew Lavanya was right. From the stories she had heard between senior hunters, Trade members were territorial. Even with her limited powers, she could still feel the blood thirst. It caused the butterflies in her stomach to rampage rather than flutter about.

“Few humans can sense it like you. They’re usually numb to it until it’s too late.”

Kai looked back at Lavanya. The woman was checking her knives one more time.

Kai checked her own. One at the small of her back, one on each hip, and one hidden in her jacket. All of them obsidian blades; gifts from Lavanya when she took the title of junior hunter.

“That bloodthirst is normal for their bashes,” Lavanya said. “Whether they’re vampires, shapeshifters, or anything else. As long as Traders think they’re on top, they’ll defend their territory with extreme prejudice.”

“Just at their bashes?” Kai asked.

“Usually formal events are much more sophisticated. Barely any bloodshed. But bashes are another thing. Traders don’t like to kill their slaves. But they don’t mind hurting them to put them in their place . . . or to have a good show.”

Kai cringed at the idea. If it wasn’t for Lavanya saving her, she would have been one of those slaves.

“Can’t they hear us from out here?” Kai asked, more than willing to change the subject.

“As long as we keep our voices down, no. Most non-humans do have animal-like powers, but they still have human-like bodies. As long as we’re quiet around the house, they won’t know we’re around.”

“Until we break in.”

“Precisely.”

“Sounds fun.”

They made their way down the street. It was funny in a way. They were two hunters about to crash a party filled with Traders and their slaves, yet they were strolling along as if they lived on this street.

A shadow crept into the corner of Kai’s eye. Her shoulders went rigid as she glanced over. It was him again. Her brother, Mateo.

Kai scratched her wrist again. The scar acted up whenever he was around. And he visited more and more frequently. Kai reminded herself that he was a mere shadow – a vengeful spirit of the man he represented. He was a side-effect of the Black Ink and would haunt her until she died or broke the curse. Like she didn’t have enough to deal with already.

Of course, he was the reason why she was doing this in the first place. But that didn’t make the jittery feeling leave her stomach. The only good was that her left hand – her dominant hand – wasn’t ever hindered by the scar reacting to him.

Kai ignored it the best she could as she followed Lavanya down the street.

Said woman patted her shoulder before her voice reverberated through her mind. Remind me to get you some new shoes.

Kai blinked. She was used to Lavanya linking minds with her – apparently, it was a thing witches did very regularly. But she hated Lavanya’s fashion advice. She looked up at the woman – nose wrinkled – then down at her combat boots. What’s wrong with these?

Lavanya pointed a manicured nail at them. They’re falling apart.

No, they’re not. At least not completely, Kai thought to herself.

Yes. They are. As a hunter, you need to maintain your equipment. Including attire.

Kai nudged Lavanya’s side. Like you, queen of fashion?

Why yes. Exactly.

I don’t think anyone in their right mind would be like you-

Lavanya’s hand slapped down on her shoulder. Kai protested until she saw the woman’s eyes.

Instead of the bright green Kai loved, Lavanya’s eyes were now shimmering like purple plumeria flowers. She was reading the targets’ auras.

Lavanya lowered her hand, her voice ringing through Kai’s mind again. A few vampires. Mainly shifters and humans.

How many?

There’s a dozen at least. That’s all I can see through the windows.

And the humans. Are they magi?

Can’t tell. Humans are difficult to figure out. Powers or no. Lavanya patted Kai’s head.

Kai swatted her away.

It shouldn’t matter. Most of them are probably property. They won’t attack if we take out their owners first.

Kai wrinkled her nose. Disgusting.

Lavanya laughter rang through her head. And to think, you could have been one of them.

I would never be like one of them.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll never be.

They were only two houses away now. The air was frigid. Not the friendliest invitation, Kai thought.

Take these. Lavanya placed three powdered balls in her hand.

What are they?

Instant smoke bombs. Surprise them and attack. Simple.

Kai nodded and put them in her jacket’s hidden pocket.

Lavanya tapped her shoulder and pointed to the side of the house. Take the back.

Kai’s eye twitched at the odd feeling linking minds always gave her. I know.

Silence fell between them as they walked the rest of the street. Once to the house, they split up. Kai was now on her own. She stepped through the bushes as quietly as possible.

Ready? Lavanya asked.

Kai slid a knife out of its sheath and leaned around the corner. No one was in the backyard. Ready.

The doorbell rang as Kai slipped out of the bushes. She was thankful to be so short. No one would be able to see her from the sliding doors even as she stood.

Now!

Kai raced to the doors and sliced the glass open with her knife. She kicked it in and threw down a smoke bomb. Cries and yells surrounded her.

A Trader launched himself at her and her fighting instincts took over. She grabbed him and threw him against the wall. He crumbled to the ground as Kai sliced at another one. Some slaves ran towards the kitchen as a third Trader came at her with a lamp. Kai ducked and sliced at the woman’s legs. The woman yelped and Kai swung a leg, knocking her down. Kai jumped up and readied for more.

The smoke cleared. Kai kept her guard up, her knife taut in her fist. Some slaves cowered in the corners. The three Traders she took down were barely twitching. They didn’t look like vampires. She couldn’t sense the ones Lavanya had seen. They must have teleported away. Too weak to fight, she guessed.

Something moved and she swung her knife-

She caught herself, staring into the eyes of a small girl. She was frail but appeared to be Kai’s age. The young woman held onto one of the Traders bodies, guarding him from Kai. Her pleading eyes met Kai’s as her body trembled. Kai sheathed the knife and turned away.

The young hunter crept into the kitchen. One small boy held up a knife and pointed it straight at her. It shook along with his whole body. Kai felt those butterflies rage around in her stomach. He didn’t look any older than she had been when Lavanya had saved her.

She knocked the knife out of his hands before he could react. He gasped and slumped down to the floor. Kai steadied her breath.

She reached out for Lavanya’s mind. I’m done down here.

Kai eyed the slaves. They were too skinny, too pale. They must have been made daily bloodletters for vampires. Or poorly fed by their masters. Those monsters.

What are we to do with these slaves, Lavanya?

Kai knew the guild usually took any willing slaves to safe houses or hospitals that knew about the Trade. Only a special few, like her, ever came back to the guild.

Hey. Are you there?

Lavanya didn’t answer.

Are you done or not-

Kai! Lavanya’s voice screamed in her mind. Run! Get away!

Kai sucked in air. Lavanya.

Run now!

Kai raced past the slaves and up the stairs. Lavanya! Her feet thudded upon each step. She was not going to lose Lavanya. She was not going to lose another –

She froze.

A looming figure blocked Kai’s view, but she could tell it had Lavanya pinned against the wall. The woman whimpered the monster’s fangs pierced her shoulder. Kai’s muscles tightened. It was a vampire.

Before she could think, Kai launched herself and swung at the bloodsucker. She focused all the energy she could muster into her hand and forced her knife into its back. It hissed. She had stunned it.

Kai wrenched out her knife and shoved the vampire away. She threw the last smoke bomb and grabbed Lavanya’s arm with her right hand, her left dangling beside her. And then they ran. Down the stairs. Out of the house. Down the street. They ran as Kai prayed that the vampire wasn’t following them.

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© E.N. Chaffin 2019. All rights reserved. Any reproduction without author permission is against the copyright laws of the United States of America.


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