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The Hunter and the Beast.


Enoch

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Ever clouded skies began to darken over the great City of Steam. Stray cats and dogs, along with mice and insects instinctively sought shelter. The people of Joki, however, were far too busy with their day to notice the oncoming storm. Naturally, as the rain began to fall, those that had not carried an umbrella began to scatter for shelter or hurry along to their destinations. As was typical of the region, the storm only intensified, though it seemed to spare the city its usual typhoons. Even so, heavy rain began to pelt the industrial powerhouse, only the wind staying mild. Thunder warned the populous as lightning danced across the sky, the midday sun all but lost to the tumultuous display. Before long, only a handful of covered wagons, cloaked guardsmen, and desperate travelers remained in the streets.  

Amongst the downpour, a set of paws splashed and scraped the pavement beneath them as a black wolf ran through the streets. In spite of the pouring rain, the beast moved undaunted, his coat allowing him to move relatively unscathed. On dryer day, such a sight might cause a spectacle in the streets, but none of the scurrying residents of this rainy city paid the wolf any mind, trotting through the rain as if it were a light drizzle. Unlike the other animals residing in the industrial district, colloquially known as the 'Steam Quarter', the black beast showed no inclination towards whatever could serve as quick shelter. Instead, he honed in on a pub, its lights still on in defiance of the storm. The wolf shook the bulk of the water from its fur as it stepped into the shade just at the entrance. 

The woman behind the simple wooden bar looked just shy of middle age, hair a dark auburn and skin an olive tan. She wore a simple burgundy shirt with one seam folded over the other and held together with a brown sash, with a pair of baggy, grey trousers just visible behind the counter. Hazel eyes darted to the entrance as the door opened, a light jingle of the bell announcing the arrival of her latest patron. 

"Was wondering when you'd show." She said, her voice a calm, smoky echo in the dimly lit pub. "You always pick the gloomiest days to waltz in, Enoch."

The young, brown skinned mans she spoke to regarded her with cold, silver eyes as he brushed his black hair from his scarred face. His typical head band was now in his hand, completely soaked. A few of the other patrons briefly acknowledged them before returning to their post shift drinks. 

"Well, a dark, depressing day like this always reminds me of you, Yena." Enoch said in a raspy tone as he made his way to the bar, taking a seat on one of the many barrels serving as stools, paper lamps hanging overhead. "I'll take the usual, yeah." Yena smirked and raised an eyebrow. 

"...Oh please, you know what I mean." He said before she could make a remark.

@The Hummingbird

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Though cold and cutting, the torrential downpour did nothing to sour Kaige’s mood as he quietly made his way through the dour streets. Unfamiliar with this particular city, he nevertheless felt at home, comfortable with the gloom the clouds brought and the odors of steam, smoke, and soot-stained steel. It was not so different from the sewers, ruins, and forgotten wastelands where he often hunted his quarry. Often, even, it was in just this kind of unpleasant weather that he made his living.

Today, however, he was not on duty, but rather on convalescence. His last assignment had left him terribly wounded, and the nearest infirmary not near at all. When he had reached it at last they thought it too late, and only the healers’ compassion and unequaled skill had saved his life. That was several days ago, and Kaige had received the letter wishing him well and to take some time to recover fully.

Still aching, he planned to take all the time he wanted.

The City of Steam caught his attention with rumors of its evolution into a powerhouse of industrial revolution and fantastic inventions, with shining stars of technological amazement, so he thought to spend his vacation there. So far, he had been unimpressed only with the climate He preferred the sunnier environment of Ozan, but understood sacrifices of comfort had to be made.

He saw the light shining through the wooden doors of a tavern and realized he had not eaten all day… or much for the past week. The medicinal broth the healers had forced down his throat failed to quench his thirst or sate his hunger, and it came back to him in a rush. Wasting no time, he stepped up into the shelter and pushed the doors open.

Inside, a few patrons looked up, with some waving tiredly at the man with the spear squeezing moisture from his tunic. Having abandoned his armor for the time being the bandages he wore over body were quite visible, and looked a sorry sight, dripping wet. Still, Kaige gave them a bright, contagious smile and was rewarded with smiles returned. He stepped jauntily to the counter, sliding next to the youth he already recognized from afar.

“Hello, boyo,” he grinned. “I hope you stopped smoking. It’s bad for your lungs, you know.”

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“Huh?” Enoch grunted as he turned towards the jolly hunter, a cigarette already between his lips as he struck a match. “Severos, eh? Surprised you’re still in town.” The familiar put the match out after taking a drag, holding the lit cigarette between his fingers. 
 

Shortly after, Yena returned with a steaming bowl of noodles, a tall bottle, and a glass. “Would it kill you to tell me if you wanna smoke?” She said as she set the items down, reaching under the counter for an ash tray. She turned towards Kaige as Enoch tapped his cigarette in the small glass container. 
 

“What can I get you, honey?” She asked, resting on the bar.

 

@The Hummingbird

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Nothing. Not even a smile. Not even a proper greeting from the young man he’d so recently fought beside. Kaige’s own smile faltered a bit as he processed the message this gave – it was clear Enoch thought nothing more of him than some fighter who was good at killing things. And it really shouldn’t have surprised the hunter. Most people he met had the same flat disinterest in his personality, likes or dislikes, things that lay beneath the violent surface.

And Enoch still smoked! Kaige didn’t know what perturbed him more – the lack of friendship or the dangerous habit.

“Doing well, thanks,” he muttered, so softly it may as well have been but a thought. He raised his voice as the lady behind the bar offered her service. “Hmm, that lamb stew you have,” he said as his eyes scanned the items written on a menu hanging at the back near the ceiling. ”And… small glass of your Shineberry Wine, would be lovely, milady. And if you could have the cooks go light on the soup… I can’t have anything too heavy right now, you understand.”

Kaige cast a glance at Enoch as a whiff of the noxious cigarette smoke hit his senses. He hated the things.  “You really shouldn’t smoke in here, Enoch. Could give someone a reaction. Be polite, at least.”

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The lycan shot the hunter an irritated look before relenting with a sigh, taking one last drag and putting out his cigarrette in the ashtray. Normally, he wouldn't paid the opinions of others any mind, but Kaige was a friend, maybe even his only true friend. 

"Still a boy scout, eh hunter?" He said, before coughing a few times. Yena seemed shocked at the display, but shook off the feeling and began pouring Kaige's wine. 

"Never seen anyone make this fella heel like that." She said, placing the drink in front of her patron. "Gonna have to teach me that sometime." With a wink, she headed back into the kitchen for the stew.

An air of silence hung between the two as Enoch poured his first drink, the odor of strong rice liquor reaching over to Kaige, until Yena soon returned with a bowl of hot stew. Its presentation was simple, a mix of shredded lamb, carrots, and potatoes. However, the spices and herbs used to season it released a powerful aroma and the hunter would find the lamb soft and tender. 

"That'll be 5 bronze, honey." She said, looking over to find Enoch already placing a roll of ten coins for his own meal and drink. After downing his glass, he began to greedily devour the noodles he'd ordered, drinking the broth like a man dying of thirst. Yena shook her head with a grin and turned back to Kaige. 

"Was he always like this?" She asked as Enoch filled his glass again, a chuckle rattling out of him and ending in a cough. 

"Oh, Severos has seen me at my lowest." He said with a glib tone. "Back when I was just a scared kid. What was it, 5, 6 years ago?"

"Hah! I'd pay good money to see that." Yena said with a laugh. 

@The Hummingbird

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Though he was surprised Enoch had actually heeded his words, Kaige smiled in satisfaction. Enoch was a lycan, perhaps even a powerful one, but the effects of smoking damaged the lungs no matter what the body. The youth’s persistent cough only served to assure Kaige of the detrimental effect of cigarettes, and he cast a worried look at the werewolf. Common folk said it was never too late to correct a mistake… but that myth was, as with most things, false.

“It’s in your best interest.” Kaige said as he picked up the filled wine glass. He took a slight sip, letting the taste settle in his mouth before swallowing. The unfamiliar vintage was surprisingly good, smooth and fruity with hints of aged oak and cherries. He took a deeper swig, careful not to overdo it. While he was normally able to handle even the strongest of drinks quite well, his stomach was still sensitive from his recovery and he had no wish to end up heaving it up.

He winked at the barmaid as Yena returned with the stew, sliding a silver coin over the counter. Like the wine, the stew was delicious, but light, as he requested. The tantalizing smell reminded Kaige how starved he was for something more palatable than medicinal tea and medicines. He took a mouthful and sighed in contentment, smiling again as Enoch appeared just as famished, if not more so.

“Take it easy, boyo,” Kaige grinned. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

He paused, ruminating over the past. Those 5 or 6 years seemed a long time ago. “I wouldn’t necessarily call you scared,” he decided. “But you were a kid.”

He took another bite of the stew, letting the fresh taste and scent fill his senses. His stomach was already pleased with the food, uncertain but delighted at the solid substances. And while Enoch seemed distant, Kaige attempted to initiate friendly conversation.

“You can call me Kaige, okay, Enoch? So, what’ve you been up to? I’m surprised you decided to stick around here too. I had work, but you seem more of a freelancer. Kinda envious,” he admitted, “I go where they tell me to, but you can just go wherever you want.”

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  • 2 weeks later...

A ragged chuckle escaped the young man's scarred mug, followed by a short cough.

"I'm pretty sure my best interest took off long ago." Enoch said as he poured another glass. "As far as sick goes, well, that doesn't seem to be an issue anymore."

Yena grinned at Kaige's wink, letting out a whistle at the fine tip. "Lemme know if you need anything else, honey." She said as she took the coin. "I'll leave you boy's to catch up." With that, Yena went back to tidying up the bar and serving the few other patrons in the tavern, though she made a point of staying nearby. 

"Joki's more or less my home these days." Enoch said as he threw back his drink, wasting no time in pouring another. "You'd be shocked how much work a familiar can get in a city like this. Plenty of side work to keep the silver and gold coming in too." With a few coughs, he raised his glass towards the hunter. "To good men and bad business." He said with a sarcastic tone and a crooked grin, not waiting for a response before downing the glass. His posture began to relax a little, though his eyes kept most of their focus. "Speaking of...We got anymore of those, what was it, hydras to worry about?" The familiar's tone became a bit more serious as he changed the subject. "My client's more or less satisfied, but I gotta know if I'm gonna run into those things again."

@The Hummingbird

 

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Smiling halfheartedly, Kaige raised his glass to Enoch’s, taking another sip. He sighed contentedly as the wine and food circulated through his system; he felt better already. His concern for Enoch’s health, however, didn’t cease as he glanced at the drink the young werewolf partook in, and hoped alcoholism wasn’t another bad habit the youth had picked up.

Despite his worries, Kaige still chuckled at Enoch’s faulty memory. “If I could only fight hydras,” he grinned ruefully. “That would be the dream. Those are pretty different from the demons we took out, boyo.” He shook his head as he stirred the stew, releasing more of the fragrant aroma. He breathed it in and took another bite, savoring the rich flavor.

“It’s hard to say, kid. Demons show up anywhere and everywhere, with no pattern established or able to be theorized. It can be rare to see them one season and common the next.” He sighed and look into the stew. He frowned. “But… seems they have become a bigger problem lately. Helps fill my accounts, but all my wealth won’t follow me beyond my grave.”

He looked again at Enoch, with a sterner gaze than perhaps the werewolf was used to seeing. “I wouldn’t go actively seeking those things out, boyo. I’m specially trained for it, but you aren’t. You also don’t have the spells I do to lock them up. So no, you don’t have to worry.”

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  • 2 weeks later...

Enoch let out another ragged chuckle, ending in a cough as he poured another glass. Unfortunately, the bottle spit out its last few drops as the glass became about half full, prompting a frown from the lycan as he attempted to shake a bit more liquor out. 

"Contrary to appearances, I don't go looking for trouble." He said as he looked into the bottle to be sure. "At least when its not the paying kind. Just need to know what to look out for."

With a groan, he set the bottle down in defeat. "Not like I ain't got enough of either kind as is. Don't know if you noticed, but this town ain't short on crazy."

Enoch sat silent for a time, seemingly contemplating something. With a sigh and a roll of his eyes, he seemingly relented to his own mental argument and reached for something in his coat. A slight panic flashed in his eyes as he began to wonder if he had the item, before he finally produced a wax cylinder and placed if before Kaige on the counter. An axle ran through the object and various, minuscule etchings covered its surface in intricate patterns. 

"You'll need to get a player for it." The familiar said as he shifted on his seat, leaning against the bar. "You know, one of them sound machines. I'm sure you got the money for it, assuming you don't know anyone that owns one." His expression darkened a bit as his gaze became a bit distant. "It sums up just about everything I found on those documents. You know, the ones we found in that basement? I don't got the files anymore, so you'll just have to make do with that." Without thinking, Enoch began to reach for a cigarette, before he remembered Kaige's request and stopped, face soured. 

Wrapping his fingers on the counter for a moment, Enoch seemed to wrestle with something for a time, as if he wanted to ask about something and the indecision only served to irritate the young man.

@The Hummingbird

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Kaige blinked in surprise as Enoch produced the small cylinder. It was part of a system that produced a scratchy, but still clearly comprehensible recording of sound. It was a rare item; in fact, it was still advertised as experimental, constantly being improved upon. Nor was it cheap, and Kaige did not ask how Enoch had acquired one. He picked the device up, turning it his way and that as he examined it, for it was not something he saw often.

“I’ll look into it soon, boyo. Thanks.” Kaige slipped the cylinder into a side pocket stitched into the tunic he wore. Kage ran through the list of contacts he had acquired in Jinth. The second half of the sound system was not easy to find any more than the first. Kaige considered contacting his employers, but shook his head slightly. Though they might be able to procure the item for him free of charge, it was not Kaige’s habit to involve them in cases they didn’t need to know of. Not until enough information, facts, and evidence were at hand.

He returned to his wine, glancing at the young werewolf and smiled ruefully. “It’s for your own good, boyo. You don’t want black lungs, right? Take my advice and quit the smoking habit. It’ll stop the cough, at least. Knew someone who wouldn’t quit and he died. I’d prefer it if you stuck around a while,” he sighed, taking another swig.

He set the empty glass down. “I used to know a lot of people,” he said softly, almost to himself. “Now, I try not to. Do me favor and don’t be part of a past I’d rather forget, kid.”

He dug into the stew again, drinking the broth until the last drop of the savory soup was gone. Again he glanced at Enoch, noticing the queer expression of a struggle on the young man’s face.

“Is something bothering you, boyo? Come on, you can tell me,” Kaige coaxed.

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  • 2 weeks later...

A dry chuckle rumbled out of Enoch at the mention of his health. 

“No offense, old man, but I believe I’ll be outliving you.” He said with a grin. “At the very least, it’s gonna take more than a bad habit to put me down. Comes with the territory. As for the cough, well…” The young man trailed off, deciding not to elaborate on that story.

”Anyway, I wanted to pick your brain on something.” He said, changing the subject. “Bit of a long shot, but I figure you see some strange things in your line of work. And you’ve been doing that sort of thing longer than I have, so…” Enoch hesitated again, mulling over the subject in his head before looking Kaige in the eyes and taking a more serious tone.

”What do you know about ghosts?” His expression was sharper, less relaxed. “And not the usual hocus pocus either. I mean the kind that like to follow after you.” His eyes drifted back to the downpour outside. “I get some info from my job, it works for payment. But you’re someone I can trust. Someone I can talk to face to face.”

As he spoke, his eyes appeared to focus on something. Of course, nothing lay before him but the entrance to the pub. Yet he seemed nonchalantly transfixed. As if acknowledging someone else as he conversed with Kaige.

 

@The Hummingbird

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