Villavic thanked the waif for her pains and she responded with but a vacant stare and together they bound Gunter at the wrists and ankles with the twine from the flour sacks as half the party moved into the cave. The waif wanted to go with Villavic but he insisted she stay and he and sixty of the men strode from the minor shelter of the cave entrance, which was too small and narrow to sleep within and trekked out into the snowy wasted forest.

*

The men slept in hollows and some burrowed half under the ground, covered over with leaves and what dirt could be dislodged from the frigid and clay-rich earth. When Villavic awoke at sunrise and rose from the hollow which he had chosen to sleep in, some hundred feet from the cave, fifty of his companions lay dead, frozen to their resting place like grotesque statues, strangely tranquil. Villavic stood a long while, shocked and mind-blank and then moved from body to body, staring down at each and every face as the survivors from the cave and the hollows emerged and swirled about the corpses.

He wondered at their names and stories so swift snatched by nature’s ceaseless savagery as a woman dropped to her knees and let up a scream and began to weep. Villavic asked the waif why the woman wept. The waif replied that they had been lovers, Carmine and Ericka, whose wedding ceremony had been interrupted by The Regime upon their discovery of Carmine’s mechanical proclivities which had been found heretical by the Cultural Ministry, whereupon they had been given the choice of execution or exile. They chose the latter.

Villavic nodded sadly and moved to Ericka’s side and comforted the woman who collapsed against him, squeezing his arms with her small, frail hands, blood-cracked by the wind. Moments later a howl let out from the direction of the cavern.

Gunter.

*

Keen eyes watched the survivors of the storm bury the dead and remove themselves to the cave beneath the tors, eyes that ranged over teeth slick with human blood and bladed hands that tensed with feral excitement.

The excitement, a prelude to the hunt.

 

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