It was nearly dawn when the orc stirred. Quiet sobs brought him out of his slumber, blinking awake in the deep darkness leading to the sun’s rise. With a grunt, he sat up and looked towards the source. The last traces of the campfire flickered weakly. Still, it offered some small touch of illumination against the pale coat that shook as its owner choked back a sob that would have woken their companion if he hadn’t already risen.
Grimluk frowned, fuzzy brows creasing in worry. He reached over and placed one large, green-skinned hand on a shaking leg, giving it a start before it relaxed. Slowly, a face turned to look at him, dark hair falling across it to hide one eye, a flicker of dying firelight reflecting off a tear as it rolled down a delicate chin.
“Gwen,” the orc said, “you’re crying again.” She nodded. “Do you want to talk about it, little one?”
The child turned her head away for a moment before pushing the coat from herself and the fire. She rose on her hands and knees and crawled towards him, sniffling, and crawled into his lap to lean against him.
“I miss Momma and Daddy,” she whispered as new tears streaked down her cheeks.
Grimluk sighed. “I know.” He ran a hand through her hair that almost swallowed her head. “It’s okay, little one. Cry as much as you need to.”
She shook with more sobs as he held her, rocking gently as the sun began to rise, its dim light spilling into the sky with a gentle push. A little while later, he felt her grow still, her breath evening out as sleep claimed her once more. For a time, he sat there, quietly rocking the little girl.
They’d been traveling for a little over a month, heading east from the Borderlands and into the province of New Gilead. Their destination was Hunter’s Hollow, the semi-hidden base of operations for most of New Gilead’s demon hunters. Not quite a town but not quite a fort, it merged both into one for utility and comfort.
Gwen had been born in the Wastelands, the ruined and cursed lands of central Ornesea. More specifically, in the mining town of Greenreach Bluffs. Grimluk had adopted her as his sister prior to leaving the town, doing his best to keep the promise he’d made to her, at the time, very undead parents. He thought about how easy it was to protect her from thieves or even trolls. It was much, much harder to protect a child from the pain that came from such a traumatic event. He wished there was some way to make it easier. For now, that meant letting her sleep while he wrestled with the reality of not being prepared for any of this. A measure of guilt swirled in the back of his mind.
To prepare her for the journey, Grimluk began to tutor Gwen in certain aspects of living as a demon hunter and life outside of her protected village. Her first lesson, before they’d even set out, involved a small blood magic spell that offered protection from losing one’s way. A spell both important in his line of work and one of the most immediate means of safety he could think of. He’d hated having to show it to her so soon. The spell hurt, requiring the user’s own freely given blood. She’d born the ritual though and guaranteed she couldn’t get lost as they traveled so long as she had a location or person in mind. After that, he’d taught her about the leshy, deep forest spirits that sometimes came near the roads to lead travelers astray. They also loved to abduct wayward children. She could avoid the former, at least.
The first few days out from the town of Border Rest, she’d been curious, even talkative. Gwen hadn’t ever seen anything outside of Greenreach Bluffs, as it sat in the back end of a long dry lake bed surrounded by sheer cliffs. The farther they got from the only home she’d ever known, the more sullen she’d grown. Fits of tears would take her suddenly and she would wake Grimluk as she called out in her sleep from nightmares. Other nights, Gwen would crawl over and curl up, clinging tightly to him.
This morning, he decided to lay her down and break camp, smothering the campfire in dirt and gathering their things. He strapped a plain, brown leather gun belt to his waist, the matching holster laying against his right hip. The revolver within was massive, with a grip of reddish sandalwood. He slid into his long, black coat, the tails covered in the patina of a nomad, a soft tinkling sound coming from around his neck from the lead slug necklace he wore. A black wide-brimmed hat, wrapped by a leather band holding thirteen canine teeth, cast his face in shadow. An elk-skin bag went over his head to hang at his side, waterskins dangling from its strap. Grimluk tucked Gwen’s coat over the bag. Everything gathered, he knelt down and scooped the girl up in one arm, looping her hat’s drawstring over her head. She stirred for a moment, wrapping her arms around his neck but settled back to sleep without another sound. Hunter and ward set off, making for the road once more.
As the sun crept higher, shining through the blue-green canopy of leaves covering that section of road, Gwen’s body shivered. “I will walk for her, Hunter.” The voice was Gwen’s but not.
“Let her body rest, Spirit.” Grimluk’s throat rumbled for a moment. “And I thought we agreed you wouldn’t come out any more.” The girl leaned away from his shoulder, eyes like polished onyx regarding him silently. Those eyes were unsettling. He imagined that’s how some folks felt looking at him. Orc eyes had large irises to begin with, and his were more of a charcoal color. Though, in the shadow of his hat they might as well have been black.
“You said to avoid speaking through the girl while around others. As I can see and sense, we are quite alone right now. Besides, I would speak with you about Gwen.”
Grimluk ran his tongue across one of his tusks in thought before stopping and setting the little girl down. “Speak. Quickly.” As they continued, the Spirit clasped its hands behind its back, walking as if it were in the body of an elder. Grimluk wondered for a moment how old the Spirit actually was. Likely several centuries at the very least.
“I know you are quite aware of Gwen’s state of mind. As aware as you can be living beyond her mind,” it began. “At the least, she finds comfort with you.”
“But she’s not doing well,” Grimluk finished.
“No. And it will only get worse before it can get better.”
Grimluk took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Maybe he should begin the lessons again. Something simpler than basic demonology and how to properly hold a knife. “Spirit?”
He frowned. It was still just as disconcerting to speak to the thing inhabiting Gwen’s body as it had been the first time back in Greenreach Bluffs. “Would it help if I started new lessons? Nothing about demons or monsters. And definitely no more blood magic. Maybe teach her the campfire spell and which plants are safe to eat so she can help me gather food?”
The Spirit seemed to think about the question for a moment. It was hard to read, even with Gwen’s face. “Perhaps. I would offer assistance with this but she prefers to keep me from speaking. I believe that she blames me somewhat for her parents’ deaths.”
Grimluk snorted. “You can hardly blame her.”
“I have told you, the demon Priskus’s presence restrained me,” the Spirit said dejectedly.
“It influenced me, used me to spread its fear. I did what I could, directed you as much as I was able. But I could not stop what was meant to happen in that town.”
Grimluk sneered at that. “So you’ve said. I can believe you were hindered but I don’t rightly believe for a second any of that was meant to happen.”
Gwen’s face looked up at him, the black eyes studying him for a moment. “Would you say… No, never mind it.” The Spirit looked ahead again. “Yes, I think it might help if you taught her something. Perhaps teach her of our location.”
Grimluk’s throat rumbled in thought. That would be a helpful lesson indeed. They were traveling through the Sapphire Plains. The right hillside, when you could find one, offered beautiful views of the surrounding lands. “I reckon there are a few things I could show her here on the Plains. I think there’s a herd of buffalo that roam nearby this time of the year. Beautiful creatures.” He grinned to himself. “And damn good eatin’.”
“Very well, Hunter. I suppose I should recede once more. I would appreciate if you did not tell her I spoke while she slept.”
“If she asks,” he replied as he bent down to pick Gwen’s body back up, “I will not lie to her.”
“Very well. I understand,” the Spirit said with a sigh as it laid Gwen’s head back where it had been. The little body shivered and returned to its natural state. Gwen sighed in her sleep.
A heavy breeze caught Gwen’s hat, jostling it against the cord that held it around her neck. Brown locks whirled in the wind for a moment before it died away. Grimluk, cradling her still-sleeping form, dropped to his butt with a grunt. The hill was fairly tall, somewhat of a marker of the end of the forest for some ways, guiding travelers headed into the Sapphire Plains. The top of the hill was mostly level, curving gently to the land below.
Grimluk looked out across the miles of pale-green grass that seemed to stretch forever. He smiled. The sun was high now, nearing noon, the bright mid-day light filling the Plains with a deep heat cut in soft moments by the wind. Wisps of clouds floated low, casting soft shadows here and there. He rubbed Gwen’s back lightly and whispered her name. She stirred, groaning for a moment, but buried her head in his shoulder.
“Wake up, little one,” he said with an obvious grin. “I have something to show you.”
“What is it? Where are we?” she asked, yawning as she leaned back and rubbed the crust from her eyes.
“We’re in the Sapphire Plains. Have you ever seen a buffalo?”
“Bufflow? What’s that?” She looked up at him, delicate brows scrunched with thought.
“See for yourself,” he said, still smiling at her. He turned her around without much effort.
The lake bed Greenreach Bluffs sat in was nothing but hard pan that stretched out for ages. It had grass and a few trees inside the town’s borders, thanks to the touch of an alchemist, but nothing like this. The journey so far had passed through forests but now the sky and horizon were clear. All along the rolling carpet of grass, thousands of furry creatures with great, dark humps grazed and snorted.
Gwen climbed to her feet, another stiff gust catching her hat, dangling by its cord. “Bufflow?” She looked back at him to confirm.
Grimluk nodded, pleased at her excitement.
She looked out again, taking it all in. “Bufflow!” There was so much new to take in. “They’re so big! Like you!”
“There are some that are even bigger than me,” Grimluk said.
“It’s true. Especially the cows.”
“But those aren’t cows.”
Grimluk let out a laugh, “That’s right, cows are a different animal but the buffalo that give birth to babies are called cows too.”
“That’s weird,” she replied with a child’s confidence.
“I guess it might be.” He shook his head, the grin still in place.
As they watched the herd, a clear calmness washed over Gwen that had been absent for some time. Grimluk let out a sigh, glad for the momentary respite from worry. Even in the hot sun, the view was still gorgeous and worth the heat. He laughed to himself as a thought hit him.
“What?” Gwen asked, still staring out at the herd.
“Sometimes I forget how nice it is to just sit and enjoy the world. I spend so much time focused on jobs.” Gwen looked at him and gave a big smile. He smiled back.
“What’s a sapphire?” she asked after a moment.
“It’s a type of jewel. A crystal. They’re usually blue.”
“Oh.” Her face scrunched up as she looked back out across the Plains. She frowned. “I don’t see any blue. Why is it called the Sapphire Plains?”
“Don’t rightly know. Maybe the explorer who named it couldn’t see colors right so the grass looked blue. Maybe their name was Sapphire. Maybe it was a misunderstood word from one of the tribes in the region. Reckon you could look it up one day.”
Satisfied, she finally sat down in the grass to continue her buffalo watching. A heavy cloud rolled overhead, covering the hill and a large swath of land in shadow. Another swift breeze rolled down the hill, tossing Gwen’s hair across her face. Grimluk took out a roll of paper from his bag that held a pile of venison jerky. He pulled a few pieces out and offered some of the meat to her.
“We still have some ways to go yet, little one. Reckon it’s time to give you some new lessons. No more about demons and no more spells except for one. This one won’t hurt.”
“What lessons?” She looked at him cautiously, clearly a touch uneasy about lessons.
“First, I’ll teach you the campfire spell, the way I learned it. Then I’ll teach you how to track animals for hunting and about what plants are and are not safe to eat.”
“No more blood magic?” she asked.
“No more blood magic. Just you helping us get to Hunter’s Hollow and,” he reached into his bag again and produced a small, folding knife, offering it to her, “how to use a knife.”
She nodded and took it gingerly, looking it over as she chewed on her jerky. After a moment, she slipped it into her coat pocket and went back to watching the herd as it began to move away from them, heading towards the north at a lazy pace. Later that night, many hours down the plains’ road, now growing over from disuse, Grimluk found a low line of trees to make camp against.
Gwen’s first job was to find rocks to create a small pit with. It took her an hour to find enough good-sized stones but she returned with the last one just as twilight folded over them. While she’d done that, he’d gathered up kindling and enough wood to make a small fire. Enough to teach her the little spell. With everything ready, he sat down with her.
“The first thing you need to know, even for spells like this, is to focus your willpower. Do you know what willpower is?”
“It’s control and focus. You could say your will is your desire. In this case, your desire, your will, would be creating sparks to start the campfire. Your willpower would be your focus and control of that desire. Do you understand?”
Gwen looked at the small pile of materials. “I think so.”
Grimluk nodded. “Now, spells, all spells, big or small or weak or powerful, require strong willpower, not just for the purpose of the spell but also to gather the magical energy needed for it.”
“Will it be hard?”
“It might be. I’ll show it to you.” Grimluk held his hand up. “Spark-a-dark, what’s my desire? To lay, to stay, bless this camp with fire.”
With the word fire, a small shower of sparks blinked out from his fingertips into the air, pushing the growing darkness away for the briefest moment. Gwen looked on, mouth slightly agape.
“Would you like to try it now?” the hunter asked. She nodded her affirmation solemnly. “Hold your hand out towards the kindling there and focus on your fingertips. Picture sparks coming away from them, maybe even a touch of flame. You might have the affinity for it. All I can do is sparks. Can you see it in your mind?”
Gwen scrunched her eyes shut and focused, her hand out and ready. “Sparks,” she muttered to herself. “Sparks like Grimluk.” She took a deep breath and finally answered. “I see it.”
“Hold that thought. Willpower. Control and focus. Now say the spell.”
Gwen swallowed and began. “Sparky-dark, what’s my desire? To lay, to stay, bless this camp with fire.”
A strong shower of sparks, backed by a tiny flame, erupted from her fingertips, pushing away the dark. Fire came immediately, licking away at the kindling and building itself up into the rest of the wood.
“I did it!” Gwen shouted.
A gruff laugh escaped his throat as Grimluk beamed at the girl with pride. “Wonderful job, little one. It took me a few days of trying before I could even make a few pitiful sparks. Reckon you’ve got quite the aptitude for the magical arts.”
For the next few days, Grimluk showed Gwen how to spot plants that were safe to eat and even how to snare a rabbit, though she hadn’t the heart to eat her first successful catch. She told Grimluk she wanted to let that one go and that they could eat the next one. When it came to tracking, she took to it fairly easily. Despite trouble telling some tracks apart, an aspect of the skill that would take years to hone for anyone, Gwen’s eyes were sharp and seemed to focus in on the signs of an animal’s passing. On occasion, she would get a little too excited about finding those signs and end up flitting between them before remembering they were looking for food. Grimluk, ever patient, would just smile and calmly redirect her with a gentle reminder. The lessons seemed to serve the other side of their purpose. Gwen’s mood seemed to improve quite a bit, though the night was still difficult for her. The nightmares seemed to lessen.
As the sun began to sink one evening, casting their shadows far out in front of them, they passed a road sign, faded and scarred from lack of upkeep. Or maybe the one who’d planted it had simply forgotten about it. “Should be a town soon. Not the nicest place but better than Border Rest. Passed through it once. Don’t remember the name,” Grimluk said with a nod.
Gwen said nothing. She looked distracted, fidgeting with the buttons on her coat while she looked around nervously.
“What is it, little one?”
“I don’t know. I think I hear something but…” She seemed to strain her ears for whatever it was. “I guess it’s nothing.”
Grimluk frowned and listened as well. All he could hear was their footsteps and the buzz of cicadas. Nothing out of the ordinary. “I don’t hear anything either. Reckon we could stop for the night unless you feel up to trying to make it to the town.”
She seemed to give it some thought and shrugged, continuing to fidget with her buttons. They walked on, the evening redness trailing behind them. As the pair continued on, Gwen slowed a few times, looking around in vain for whatever kept pricking her ears. Grimluk still heard nothing but slowed each time, waiting for her to catch up. Then she stopped altogether, trailing behind, bringing him to a halt as well.
“Are you okay?” he asked as he turned towards her. She stood stock still, shivering, eyes wide and fingers clenched at the hem of her coat. He took a step forward just as the temperature fell away in a rush, revealing their breath in steamy puffs.
“It’s so mad,” Gwen whispered. Her voice was high and breathy, practically a squeak.
A cold scream split the evening air as she spoke. Something unseen slammed down a few yards behind Grimluk, followed by another scream, just as cold but now filled with fury. He spun towards the impact, gun drawn, hammer cocked, eyes searching for whatever it was as the sun sank and cast the world into night.
“Hunter, behind—” the dual-voice of the Spirit started to shout before something silenced it.
Grimluk whirled, twirling the gun around in his hand as he did to use the butt as a club. He swung but met nothing but chill air. Gwen fell back as the thing pushed her away, loosing another furious howl. The hunter grunted a moment later. Something had climbed his back. It was heavy. Impossibly heavy.