Who's hunting who? Chapter 17.

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I was really beginning to hate the phrase 'we need to talk'.

"Go ahead, Gray."

"You should sit down, first. While I check for listening devices."

I sat down on the bed. "We don't use listening devices unless you mean a cup held to the wall. Too high tech and low priority to waste resources on."

He continued searching anyway. "I know they're your friends but I'll feel better if I check."

I rolled my eyes but waited. As expected, Gray didn't find anything. Finally, he turned to face me.

"Alright, there is no easy way to say this... but humanity is under attack."

Wow, how revealing. "You think?!?"

"No, Sasha. I mean under attack by an outside enemy. My people specifically; aliens."

"You're the only alien I've seen." Really, he would have to try harder.

"Quit being obtuse, Sasha. The familiars are aliens, all of them. We come from another dimension. A long time ago by your standards, humanity was far more technologically advanced than now."

"Obtuse?" What did that mean? 

"Please, let me finish. Then you can ask whatever you want. So, technologically advanced humans - however, you were all still the same primitive and violent people you are now. So when your scientists opened a dimensional gateway into our realm, we watched. 

My leaders came to the conclusion that you were dangerous as a people; and decided to end the threat. But we couldn't just visit to share our concerns or even make war upon you. The difference in dimensions and environments were prohibitive. However, we could send... a sort of shadow of ourselves across the gate, and a small measure of the power our own dimension has in abundance. 

The plan was not to destroy your people, as mine are merciful, but to destroy your planet's infrastructure. We would anchor a shadow of ourselves to people who were... compatible, and carry out our war in that manner."

It made a twisted kind of sense. "So the first witch was born."

Gray nodded. "And humanity has been at war with itself since."

But that made no sense. Family bonds could not be torn apart so easily. "There has to be more to it."

Gray nodded again. "There is. Those deemed witches do as they do because of the alternative. We s a people may not be capable of waging war directly upon your people Sasha, but it is an easy matter to send a device through - a device capable of destroying your planet in its entirety. If the witches do not succeed in their mission to retard your technological abilities, my people have threatened to end all of humanity."

"You said the witches; you didn't include me in that."

Gray smiled. "As smart as ever, Sasha. No, I'm not proud of my people and what they have done. I wish to stop this senseless war and undo what my people have done. For that, I need your help. You and I were compatible; I have been searching for a friend like you for a long time."

Hang on, if the familiars were all one people, why were they so different? "Then why do you all look and act so different?"

"Because we aren't actually here, Sasha. I am a shadow of a self, an echo of a soul, sent here to guide what you call a witch. I am seen through a specific prism, that of the point of view, experiences, innermost thoughts and subconscious of my witch, which is to say you."

I didn't really get it. "So you're saying you're an alien because of me?"

"No, I'm an alien because I am. How I look, and to an extent how I act, are a result of how your mind perceives our link. As is the manifestation of your power. The same is true for all witches."

"So the fact that I use guns is because I like guns?"

Gray nodded.

"So Olivia likes dragons?"

"Likes or fears them; Some strong emotion."

There was no doubt that Ana loved her bear. And fire.

"But wait, what about the witch hat?" The witch hat just formed when the witch was made and contained the witch's soul.

"The physical manifestation of our link, formed by the process we use to maintain our meld with our partner. Yes, your kind is correct; it does house the soul of the witch. Such a practice is another repugnant offense perpetuated against your kind by mine."

Right, so no forgetting where I left the cursed thing. "And the clothes? The conjured stuff?"

"Formed from the subconscious desires of the witch in question."

Uh...ha ha ha, no. "Gray do me a favor?"

"Sure Sasha, what is it?"

"Don't ever say that again. To me or anyone else."

"Sure, if that is what you desire. Though I admit to some confusion as to why."

Confused was good. "Being confused is fine."

Gray widened his eyes. "You aren't going to explain, Sasha?"

I wasn't buying it. "Not this time."

"All right. I suppose I'll understand why in time."

Next question time: "So how do you plan to stop the others? What's your plan for stopping the war?"

Maybe if I tried, I could save lives.

Gray shot those hopes down. "I don't have one. Our best bet is to do what you're best at - killing witches to slow down their spread. I suspect the witches themselves have become corrupted, and their mission lost; humanity has lost too much of what they once possessed, and those you term witches were only meant to guide, not turn violent."

"But won't that get your bomb dropped on us?"

"It is possible," Gray admitted. "but I will know if my people try, and doing something is vastly superior to the slow death your people are experiencing now. But should my people try, there are steps I can take on my end to prevent such."

"Like?"

Gray turned back to my drawers, folding my clothes and putting them back.

"Like talking, Sasha. Boring stuff."

I wasn't a fan, and Gray knew it. "Chances that it'll work?"

"Well, I'm already using talk, and I'm making progress."

'Making progress' was usually bullshit speak for 'nothing will change.'

"In either case, that is my concern, partner. If you do nothing, my best estimate is human civilization will collapse inside five years. We can't just ignore the more immediate problem."

Yeah, I'd never been good at ignoring things. Not even the most important question raised before bedtime.

"Gray, what's obtuse?"

Gray turned, almost throwing a dress that I would never wear. "You mean you were serious?!? Oh, Sasha...."

Well if he was going to be a jerk about it... "Fine, never mind. I'm going to bed. Don't wander, or some gung-ho hunter will put a bullet in you."

Of course, it was likely to be me, if he survived the gauntlet of my comrades, but he didn't need to know that.

Gray picked up one of my few books. "I can amuse myself here. Good night, Sasha."

"Good night, Gray."

After a moment of settling in, something occurred to me. "Gray, does the hunt know? About any of this? Aliens and invasions and the like?"

"I'm not certain, but it isn't likely. There are some events in your species' recent history which suggests the truth, but the responses of your organization suggest to me that they still believe the witches are the real threat, and have missed the true significance of those events. It is certain the rank and file do not know."

....Right. "Okay. Good night Gray."

 

......

 

"Alright, how bad is it?" Gloom asked.

"Well, pretty bad, if you consider Killer Cat," Plague answered. "But Sasha remains committed. The familiar took awhile to show itself, but it's here now, and Sasha hasn't wavered."

"Maybe not, but we have no idea what lies the thing might be telling it. Her mother lasted weeks before succumbing, after all."

"You're going to have to trust her again sometime." Plague said.

"Maybe," Gloom repeated. "But I still want you there monitoring things, for a while yet. Just a few missions, until we can learn more."

"Of course. What I can tell you is that Cat is interested."

Gloom snorted. "I gathered that already; she's actually appeared after all."

"No, I mean think about it. This is the first time she's moved in recent years, that we can confirm, because she left witnesses. Not only did she not kill the witch she was interested in, but she left us alive; she didn't come out of hiding to fight. Or at least not fight us, not directly."

Gloom stroked his jaw, wincing at the stubble he found there. "An interesting theory. One I'm not willing to test at the moment. If she shows again, drop everything and run, and call me. She might be able to handle you or me, but she can't handle us both."

Plague poured herself a drink. "You don't even have to tell me. I'll run if she lets me. But I wouldn't be too sure about her combat strength if I were you. I felt her strength."

"She was stronger before. God only knows how she got crippled in the first place."

"I don't know - maybe I'll ask if the opportunity presents itself." Plague's smile was brittle, and the joke fell flat.

Gloom stood up and swiped Plague's drink. "Well, sounds like I need to go do some damage control. Calm the masses, stop any potential hysteria."

Plague looked at her empty hand sourly. "Good luck with that, boss-man."

"Oh no Plague, you're coming too," Gloom replied with a humorless smile of his own. "I need all the eyewitness details, and the rest of your team has already fled after dropping this bomb on my lap."

Plague sighed and gave him the finger.

 

......

 

I woke up to some disturbance downstairs. Gray was sleeping, having burrowed himself into my arms. 

He was cute, sleeping. There, I said it, and nothing bad happened.

I untangled myself from him, but he came awake the moment I stopped touching him.

"Good morning Sasha."

"Good morning Gray." It wasn't actually morning yet, I hadn't slept that long. The noise downstairs sounded vaguely like a fight, but who could be attacking us here?

"Sasha, get dressed before you go downstairs please."

Oh, right. Wait, hadn't I been dressed when I went to bed? I was in pajamas now... pajamas with little green spaceships on them. My hat had been in my hand of course and was now missing though it had to be on my person somewhere.

A touch on my head confirmed my stupid hat was there - as a hair band, complete with some sort of cloth ear. I pulled that out pretty quickly and turned to Gray.

"Your doing, I suppose?" 

How Gray had managed it without waking me was a matter of some worry. If it had been anyone else except Ivan, I would be freaking out right now. Or having a short talk at one end of a long barrel; freaking out was something the Dustin's of the world did.

"Your clothing was soiled and fragrant; how you can sleep in that state is beyond my understanding," Gray answered, and despite having no nose as I understood the term, I could actually feel him turning his up at the smell.

Right. I chose to take him seriously. "Long practice eating garbage, sleeping in low end dives or ditches by the side of the road, and eating things that would make a rat puke. So why the pajamas?"

"I didn't want you getting cold, Sasha."

That.. actually made some sense. "Fine."

I went to the dresser and grabbed some pants and a shirt. I turned around and Gray had another pair of pants and a shirt; the only difference were the colors. What was wrong with green?

"Come on Sasha; Just try mine."

"Fine." I grabbed the clothes and went into the bathroom.

Gray had snuck underwear into a shirt - whatever, I put those on too. The clothes fit and were comfortable, and they matched the hairband. Or the hairband matched the clothes; it had been a different color itself a few minutes ago.

Whatever, don't question it, Sasha.

My new guns went around my hips, and I took the time to put my old guns in pride of place. I should probably take them as backups, but I just couldn't work out where to strap them on where they wouldn't get in the way.

There was no one at my door, which actually surprised me a bit. I would have suspected a watcher.

The halls were empty; even more empty than usual. For all that the sound increased, Gray and I didn't see anyone until we hit the stairs. And then we saw everyone.

There was an honest to goodness party going on downstairs in the lobby. Tables of food were set up, tables of booze were set up across from the food, and at least a few hundred people, hunter and civilian alike, were chatting, mingling, and dancing to music I could barely make out over the roar of the crowd. There were actual sounds of merriment that didn't sound forced.

Well, not all of it anyway.

As soon as I was noticed, the sound dimmed and the music stuttered to a halt. 

Gray pushed me from behind, and it was go forward or fall. "Go ahead, Sasha."

The Gloom met me at the bottom of the stairs; I hadn't seen him from the top or seen him move. "Welcome to the party, Sasha."

Close up the party looked a little slapdash, a little thrown together at the last minute, with the brand new decorations hanging on a prayer and the food looking more like someone ran out and bought as much as possible rather than ordering it.

"What's the occasion?"

"Beating Riddle. I wanted to have something like this before, but circumstances conspired against us."

Was beating Riddle such a big deal? She was considered one of the great powers, sure, but a B-lister among them. She had managed to pull her shit in several cities and get away, but she'd never depopulated entire regions.

Huh, kind of said a lot about me there, that I had the bar set so high for major threats.

"Well, guess we can party now. No new fires to put out?"

The Gloom shook his head. "Not a single one; nothing that can't wait a day. Go ahead and relax; grab a drink, eat something tasty. Try not to shoot anything."

I smelled a rat, but he was the boss. "You're the boss. As usual, no promises, but I'll try to contain myself."

"Good," the Gloom's hand clapped down on my shoulder to stop me cold. "One last thing - is Gray here?"

"Yeah, he is."

The Gloom let up. "Good. He's invited too, but keep him invisible and keep him out of trouble."

I risked a glance to Gray; he was saluting both the Gloom and me with all seriousness.

"Will do." The Gloom didn't have to tell me that Gray would make people... twitchy. Things were bad enough as it was, though looking around there were fewer daggers in the stares I was getting.

Must be my imagination.

Oh well, priorities; I started off to the booze... and my train was promptly derailed by Ivan.

"Not on an empty stomach Sasha," He said and steered me away and toward the food. "You'll be able to drink more."

That was a good point, and I conceded it silently.

The buzz of conversation didn't stop, but it did grow in our wake. I was beginning to catch snatches of it here and there, and the tone at least wasn't 'burn the witch'. I relaxed a bit, now at least a little more sure I wouldn't turn a corner and see a stake with a bonfire set under it.

One of the tables was filled with my favorites; all of them, all at once. The table next to it was filled with food inspired from Ivan's home, and past that was some hoity-toity French food; the expensive stuff that Alicia liked.

I grabbed one of the little cheese and cracker sandwiches and took a bite; that was enough to guess what store it was from... Miles's, which was across town on eighth.

Sarah walked up and snagged a little bacon wrapped bundle; I knew of those from Bacon Barn, which was only four streets away. "Good evening, Sasha."

Hey, wait. Had she just talked to me? Just walked right up and talked to me, without me talking first or cornering her? She was smiling at me even, and it looked different.

"Hi, Sarah. Are you responsible for getting all this together?"

"Hah, no. There was too much for me to organize on my own. I did do some of it, however." Her glance upward at the decorations told me which part she had done.

She was soon joined by someone I didn't recognize; a cute brunette girl a few years younger than Sarah in a matching uniform. "Hello, Sarah! Hello, Miss Sasha, I'm Vivian, and I'm new at the office. Sarah is teaching me the ropes."

Oh, had the new recruits graduated already? How time flies. "Just Sasha, Vivian. Hello and good evening."

Vivian snagged one of my cheese and cracker sandwiches and bit into it daintily. "Oh, this is good. Cheddar from Switzerland?"

Hell if I know. I shrugged, just as another guy so new he squeaked walked up. He was in a gray uniform that still had the creases in it. "Hello Vivian, Sarah. And hello Sasha - I'm a big fan, I've wanted to meet you for some time."

"And you are?"

"Pearson, newly graduated hunter." He held out a clammy hand to shake.

I didn't want to shake; if this guy lasted a week, I'd be surprised."Pleased to meet you."

Everyone in range stopped and looked at me.

"What?"

Ivan made a show of looking around. "I don't see any of the horseman, false alarm."

"What?"

"You were polite. Not only that, but you were polite to a fellow hunter. We thought the world was ending."

"Oh, ha. Ha." I was surrounded by assholes.

Pearson looked lost. "Take a good look, this is what real hunters are like in the field."

He took a good look... then took another one. At me. Now I was fine with him doublechecking Sarah, because who wouldn't? But his eyes crawling up my form were weird.

It was almost worth a sigh when he turned to study Vivian. Almost.

The sigh caught in my throat when we started getting crowded. A bunch of other hunters new and old were closing, walling us in. If a hand strayed near a weapon here things would go very badly for someone.

But instead, it was: "About time you woke up! For a guest of honor, you sure are lazy."

"Yeah, screw you, Steve." I think I needed to wake up more; my amazing wit was less amazing.

Another: "Hey, anyone who can finally kill Riddle can sleep as long as she wants; that witch killed Armand a few months ago. I wanted the payback myself, but never could catch up to her - well done Sasha, at least one of us got her."

"You're welcome Gunther, but to be fair I wasn't thinking about any of that." Mostly I'd just been thinking about how I'd failed to catch up to her myself, and how annoying she was.

Gunther shrugged that off. "That's fair."

As if that opened the can of worms, everyone gathered pushed a little closer and started talking all at once, flashing smiles and clapping me with ready hands. A flash or two of a time a few years ago tensed me up, but I relaxed. There had been worse times than those. from those times I knew what was coming next.

"Story, story, story." And there it was, the dreaded chant.

"Get Plague to tell it," I answered; she was much better at telling these kinds of things than I was.

They just kept chanting. 

"Fine, fine. But I'm not going to tell it sober. Get out of my way and we can reconvene at the beer."

As the newer hunters started moving, Plague foiled my perfect getaway. "Don't do that; Sasha will run. Steve, you're beer slave. Bring it here, and we'll wait."

Steve walked off muttering, but the other hunters closed ranks.

I turned to Plague. "I'm going to owe you for this one."

She grinned back. "I owed you for earlier. start talking."

With no option other than talk or shoot them all (something I considered until Gray gave me the look) I talked.



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