Fellowship of Hunters

By Kelly Hall

Chapter 1

 

No matter how many times Rebekah walked into the Great Cathedral in Rome, she was underwhelmed. The beauty of the place was a given, but it would never compare to the way it had been in her day. The windows were not as ornate anymore, and even the newer glass had dulled to an ugly finish. The stone and marble had chipped, and only parts of it were still being used, most of it sold off in renovations and replaced with wood. Something about seeing the progression, the way it had changed through time, made it stale; commonplace.

Ignis marched by her side, their footsteps echoing in the space as if they were an army instead of two mismatched people on a mission. He wished he’d worn better shoes; his biker boots and tight jeans always seemed to anger people and this crowd was angry enough. Of course, if he hadn’t gotten laid in decades, he’d be angry too.

Rebekah wore her shorter boots, which Ignis thought was an attempt to make herself look less feminine, even though there was nothing that could hide that from even the celibate monks who lined the walls, all chanting their afternoon prayers. Strangely, her curves were only accentuated by the two daggers she had strapped to her hips, and the gentle sway of them as she approached could only be pulled off by her strong gait.

Rebekah was fiercely made, and while Ignis had to give most of the credit to the big guy upstairs, he himself was responsible for at least a little of what had the roomful of men dropping their jaws. Or maybe it was Rebekah’s low-cut tank and the bounce of her ample breasts. Not even the long leather coat could hide those babies. He was sure the entire audience of elders in attendance had noticed, men of God or not. He wanted to poke out their eyes, each and every one, because Rebekah was not only his closest friend, but like a little sister to him.

Rebekah stared straight ahead, feeling their eyes upon her, but it was never the same feeling as when she was being admired by her hunters. This ogling was of such mixed emotion, it made the hair on her neck stand up.

She was exhausted enough as it was, with the long trip, and trying to hold her head up, her back straight, stick out the chest, but not too much was making it worse. She felt like she could shatter to the ground with a strong wind, but she couldn’t let a single man in the room know it.

Things had happened so fast once the hospital had called about Estelle. Father Timms had gone to be with her, and once Michael and Elder John had left, she’d gone down and, thankfully, made it in time to see the feeble woman take her last few breaths.

It had been a somber moment, and then later, when they returned to the academy, she had helped Ignis who was having a hard time convincing Sister Frankie not to scratch his eyes out and run away. Ignis had always put her on edge, and Rebekah should have considered the decision to send him of all people after her.

She’d given the sister a little information and promised her that when she got back from Rome, she’d sit down and talk with her in detail, but she had asked her to please stay put. Frankie agreed, but Rebekah wasn’t sure that the former nun wouldn’t bail by the time she made it back. She had left Father Timms in charge, hoping that he’d hold down the fort.

“Rebekah Ward, I see you’ve brought your man of magic.” The voice of the head of the elders was steeped with surprise as they approached.

Ignis gave a cheeky smile. “We call ourselves mages for short. You know kids these days. Everything is abbreviated.” He shot a finger in the man’s direction, and Ignis made sure it was his index and not the middle one, at least on this occasion. He was in enough trouble as it was, which was why Rebekah gave him the stink eye. She hadn’t liked his bit of sarcasm.

“You called us both here, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, Elder Wick. Besides, you know I never conduct business without my friend, Ignis.” Rebekah stopped at the end of the aisle and Ignis with her.

Elder Wick was sitting in a big chair on the other side of a great table, which was sparsely filled with a few fruit and cheese platters, as well as a few pitchers of wine, and to each side of him, the other high-ranking elders were sitting, whispering to one another and looking like a poor depiction of the Last Supper.

“Leonardo would be appalled,” mumbled Ignis, earning a smile from Rebekah as well as a nudge.

Elder Wick cleared his throat. “You have been called forth for going on a mission without proper clearance from your assigned Elder.”

“With all due respect, Elder Wick, since when does the mother of the race need permission to fight anyone?” The Fellowship of the Hunters, which was comprised of all her marked hunters, did not need special permission to do their jobs after they were free from the academy and out of training.

He leaned forward, plucking a grape from the bowl before him. The provisions were more for show than a meal, but he popped it into his mouth and smacked as he chewed. “Perhaps you forget the agreement made with the Church?”

“Indeed, I remember it well, and long before you were even a dream in your mother’s heart and a gleam in your father’s eye.” Rebekah stood a little taller, her voice taking on a tone that Ignis knew she reserved for pompous assholes. He was certain she was addressing the entire room, sans himself, of course.

“Then you would know that commanders from the academy are to have all of their missions approved before acting. This is a standard rule of each and every academy across the world.” The man looked down his nose at her, and Rebekah stepped forward, walking up the few steps between them before leaning on the table as she took Stella from the scabbard on her hip.

The men at the table inhaled, some backing up their chairs, but she didn’t change her course, stabbing a piece of cheese from one of the platters and bringing it to her mouth.

Rebekah bit the square of cheese, letting the others know she was just as at ease as the man in charge of the Church. “I am no ordinary commander. Is that not why you sent me? You knew it would take me, the Immortal Huntress, to figure out what happened to my blooded kin, Merik Riley, and I did. I also defeated a very powerful dark mage and killed more wolves than any other hunter in Nevada has over the past year.” The record for hunting in the area had been well below average for some time, and the stationary units were not pulling their weight in accordance with the FBI, but how could they with so few assigned? Another thing she’d have to take into her own hands.

“You put newly marked hunters in harm’s way, with insufficient training.” The man poured himself a sip of wine.

“The only reason their training was insufficient is because of your constant regulations and the fact that someone is siphoning money from their funds. I found the academy lacking proper uniforms, equipment, and even their food provisions are deficient, causing them to have unhealthy diets; while you eat the finest cheeses in Rome.”

Voices rose around the large room, murmurs and whispers, all full of shock and awe. “Are you accusing the Church or a member of Merik’s staff of embezzlement?”

“I’m not accusing anyone, yet.” She turned and looked to the audience, her eyes meeting Elder John’s directly as the noise level lowered. The possum-faced elder who was assigned to her district blanched at her attention and turned his head to the men around him, smiling smugly as she took a step closer. “When you call on me to do a job, expect me to do it my way.”

The man to Elder Wick’s right leaned over and whispered into the his ear as if they were schoolyard pals. After a moment of consultation, Elder Wick sat up straight in his chair. “Are you saying that you’re staying on permanently at the Nevada Academy?”

“Yes, and I’m taking the seat of commander. And by my rights, I’m appointing Father Timms as my second in command. Together, we’ll make sure that the academy, which has been grossly neglected by your staff, Elder Wick, is up to date.”

“We will look into your funding issues. I’m sure it’s just a matter of checks and balances. Human error.” The man looked to the crowd behind her. “Elder John, have you had anything reported to you about funding?”

Elder John got to his feet, his posture straight, his nose higher than normal which would make it dangerous to walk in the rain. “I have not, Elder.”

Rebekah knew it was a lie. “I find that hard to believe.”

Elder John didn’t waver. “Whatever had been taken from the funding of the Nevada academy is solely on Merik Riley, God have mercy.”

Rebekah spun around, sheathing Stella as she stepped down from the riser and crossed the room to the front row where he sat. “Are you accusing Merik of embezzling funds?”

The man put up his hands and recoiled. “I’m only saying he didn’t report it. I’m sure there are a lot of things that happen—”

“On your watch? Is that what you were going to say, Elder John?” She wasn’t going to stand there and listen to the bag of wind insult Merik or any of her hunters. Even if Merik had technically died during a party night out with his second in command and the highest ranked squad of trainees, it didn’t mean he had been a bad leader.

“I might point out that the mission Merik Riley was on was not sanctioned. And while again, I might point out that Rebekah is his kin, perhaps this type of entitlement runs in the family.” There were chuckles around the room, all silencing as Rebekah turned to stare at them.

She turned and glared at Elder Wick, her eyes as sharp as Stella, whose blade did not dull. “Are you done? I have an academy to run.”

“No, I’m afraid there is more. You have also been called here today to answer for a grave sin against God.”

Rebekah laughed. “And just what kind of sin are you referring to, Elder?” She’d seen sin up close and personal, and she hadn’t knowingly committed any.

“You took an unsanctioned hunter, an angel from the Warrior Program, into battle without the permission of the Church as well as his commander, Michael. You also used his light to defeat the mage; light that was given to the angel Aziel by God himself.”

Rebekah shrugged. She hadn’t done anything. She hadn’t twisted Aziel’s arm. In fact, he’d bargained himself a way into the battle and onto her special operations squad, which she hadn’t wanted him to be a part of, in exchange for a small sample of his blood. But she wasn’t about to throw him under the bus and explain all of that. The less she shared, the better, because a true hunter didn’t show all of their cards, nor did they snitch on a fellow hunter. “I did not use anything but the opportunity given to me to defeat the mage. If it had not been for Aziel’s light being drawn from him in that manner, there would have been mass casualties. The light was taken from Aziel by the mage who was mimicking the crucifixion. Aziel suffered wounds like those of the stigmata.”

“Stigmata are not real.” He shook his head.

“Wrong, Elder.” Rebekah crossed her arms and began to pace.

This took him by surprise. “I beg your pardon, but every instance I’ve ever heard of is fake; proven by the Church.” He waved his hand dismissively and gained a chuckle from his peers.

She stopped mid-step and pivoted. “And I’ve been on this earth a hell of a lot longer than any of you.” She wondered if the assholes at the table would ever get that through their thick heads. Or perhaps they needed to be reminded why she was who she was. “There were known stigmata by the Church in ancient Rome. Tell them Ignis.”

Ignis had been staring at the cheese platter a few feet away, wondering how freaked out they’d all get if they saw a piece of it fly across the room and land in his mouth when she got his attention. “Oh, yes. There were many cases, as it were, and though most of those were hoaxes, there was one case in particular that was not. It is documented with the Church. Try 381 AD in your research.” Ignis didn’t want to give more than that, for fear that he’d expose Rebekah’s own mother, which might not be so great since even Rebekah didn’t know that little part of her past. Ignis had not bothered to tell her because her father had made him vow not to, and so far, he’d managed not to be so specific when he talked about it. “Regardless of their existence, it doesn’t change the fact that this dark mage was responsible for the deaths of Merik and his crew by such means. I’d think that would be a much better focus for the Church.”

More grumbles from the others filled the room, and Rebekah could tell that they didn’t like Ignis giving them suggestions. They didn’t look at him as their equal like she did, and rightly so. He was so much more dignified and of a much higher importance, though they would never see it that way.

“I’ve told you all that happened, and the angel’s light was simply the casualty of war. Aziel knew what he was getting into, and if it’s possible, I’d like for him to return to the academy to continue his training. He has proven himself as a great warrior and an asset to the academy and its hunters.” She also knew a certain cherry-haired girl who would be disappointed if her new, angelic friend didn’t return. But then, the handsome blond hunter might have a different opinion.

“I’m afraid that’s not up to us. We have requested Michael join us, and he’s the one you’ll have to make your case to. I might add that it’s very embarrassing that the Immortal Huntress has to be called down and disciplined by one of God’s very own angels, but you’ve certainly stuck your foot in it this time, Rebekah.”

“I’m prepared to face Michael again if I have to. I’m sure that like yourselves, he’s reasonable.” She knew that the angel was going to be just as harsh as he’d been a day ago back at the academy. He wasn’t anyone she couldn’t handle, either.

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Fellowship of Hunters

By Kelly Hall