Rise Of The Hunters
By Kelly Hall
The day had dawned with fog, and the salt from the sea hung heavy in the air over Rebekah’s castle home. Standing in front of her north tower window, she stared out at the rubble—what was left of the south tower—as though any minute, Ignis could poke his head from the fallen stones and yell out April Fools.
Only it wasn’t April, and what had happened just hours earlier as dawn broke over the horizon was no joke or laughing matter.
Katie Kelly, the bright-eyed better half of Canter Jackson was dead. Her body rested in the chapel on a slab of marble as if the cold of the stone could preserve her forever.
There was a commotion from down below, and Rebekah made her way to the stairs to find Frankie and Timms in a heated discussion.
“I’m going, Mary Frances! Now you can either help me, or I’ll stagger down, but I must say a blessing over the girl as soon as possible.”
“I’m not arguing with you, Randall. I’m simply telling you that this could wait until after your medicine wears off and you’re not as dizzy and nauseous.”
Rebekah walked down and knocked on the wall beside their open door.
Frankie lifted her head with surprise. “I’m sorry, Rebekah. Did we disturb you?”
“Not at all. But you waste your time arguing with this man, Frankie. He’s going to go to her. I should have prepared you for that, and I’m sorry.” She had a feeling duty would call to the priest, and he’d feel the need to step in where Katie’s soul was concerned.
Frankie waved her hand dismissively as she steadied him with the other. “Make no apologies. I had a pretty good idea of it myself. And I would like to cleanse Katie’s body and prepare her in something more fitting for her final travel.”
“I’m sure that Canter would appreciate that.” Rebekah hated to see the young man losing his mind and prayed that once the services were complete, he’d start to heal.
“He’s been with her since I’ve heard,” said Frankie, who knew the pain of that loss firsthand. It had been difficult not to think of Merik at a time like this, with so much mourning around her.
Rebekah nodded. “Yes, he’s not left her side. He has to be exhausted, but he won’t sleep. And while we hunters have incredible endurance, he still needs to rest.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Timms. “He just needs to get it out of his system. And speaking of.” He reached for the pills that Frankie was trying to tuck into her pocket. “I’m done with this medicine. I’m healing just fine, and the pain is not anything I haven’t been able to withstand from battle.”
“I just wish the doctor could have given you something that didn’t make you sick.” Frankie turned toward Rebekah to explain. “This is the second prescription, and he’s not tolerating it any better.”
“It doesn’t stop you from making me take one when I wince a little. I’m fine, so promise me you’ll stop nagging me about it?” He knew she cared, but she was going to care him to death.
“Only if you stop calling me a nag,” she said. “I’m concerned for you. There is a difference.” Frankie was worried that they were growing tired of one another during his convalescence. They had been stuck in a room together for days. She offered support and administered medicine while he was dealing with a bum arm, a concussion, and a lot of frustration. It proved trying, to say the least.
“I’m sorry, love.” He took her hand, and then they followed Rebekah down the hall to the stairs where they remained quiet until they walked out into the courtyard.
Father Timms turned toward the ladies. “Could you two give me a moment?”
Rebekah turned and stood near a bench where Jarreth and Delilah sat looking at the dreary sky.
“It’s like the weather knows how we feel,” said Delilah, whose face was still soaked with tears. “I can’t even believe this is happening.”
“I know,” said Jarreth, planting a soft kiss to her temple. “It’s a nightmare for us all, and I can’t imagine how it must be for Canter. I want to do something for him. I just don’t know what.”
“All we can do is give him space and time,” said Rebekah. “You know, this is the one thing about immortality that doesn’t ever get any easier.”
“It makes all of our strengths seem rather useless as well,” said Jarreth.
Rebekah looked toward the church, and while Frankie had followed Timms to the door, she had waited outside, filling a pail of water from the outdoor spigot. Now, as he stepped out and waved her in, she walked over to the chapel to join him. “They will take care of them now.”
“I’m glad those two are here. They should know what to do. I keep feeling like I’m going to say or do something to make it all worse.” Delilah wrapped her arms around her middle. “I still can’t believe Aziel is gone too. I’m not sure he will come back this time.”
Jarreth cleared his throat. He had known about Aziel making a deal, and he had a feeling this was precisely what the angel had been talking about. “I don’t expect him to.”
“It’s just not fair losing him too.” She leaned closer to Jarreth, taking comfort in his warmth.
Rebekah had a sinking feeling. She’d lost not one, but three people in a matter of hours. Four if she counted Liam, who had gone with Kayne the night before. “I don’t think it’s about what’s fair, Delilah. Death is never fair.”
“What will happen to Katie now?” asked Delilah. “Are we going to lay her to rest here?” She figured that Canter would want to keep her close. But then it might not be up to him, since they were not yet married.
She looked at Jarreth, thinking of how horrifying it would be if she ever lost him. A breakup was tough, but when something like that happened, there was always hope of getting back together if you wanted to torture yourself with it. With death, there was no hope.
Rebekah took a deep breath, feeling her nerves rattle as she tried not to think on the phone call she’d had to make or the sound of Katie’s mother when the reality that her little girl would not be returning hit her. The wail that had come from the woman’s throat broke Rebekah, and she was certain it would haunt her until her dying day.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t spoken to Canter, but she had a family back in the states. I called them about an hour ago, and they want her there with them. She’ll be taken to the nearby academy after we say our goodbyes, and then they’ll handle the transfer for me. I’ve already spoken to their commander. He’s going to make sure she’s shown the utmost respect and receives proper services.”
Delilah wiped her tears. “This sucks. We should be planning her wedding, not her funeral. She and Canter were perfect together and so in love. He’s never going to be the same again.” Her voice cracked as more tears slipped from her eyes. She sniffled and then wiped her nose on her sleeve. “You can see it in his eyes. It’s like a part of him died with her.”
Jarreth couldn’t help feeling responsible, and he pulled Delilah closer. “He’s had it rough enough in life without all of this. In a way, I wish I’d never encouraged him to go for it. I should have left well enough alone with him and let him be miserable. At least she was alive.”
Delilah nudged him. “Don’t say that. If she had to go, I’m glad it was while she was in love and happy.”
Rebekah felt the emotions building up inside of her to the point that she had tears in her eyes again. She quickly wiped them away and tried to keep her composure. It wasn’t that she thought her tears were weak, but she felt she needed to stay strong for her hunters.
“Are you okay, Rebekah?” Jarreth reached out and placed his hand on her arm. “You don’t have to be strong for us. We’re all a mess, and I’m sure it’s okay for you to join us.”
She gave him a half-hearted smile to put him at ease. “Yeah, I know. It’s just been a long morning.”
“Yeah,” said Jarreth. “It can’t be easy with Ignis turning on you like that.”
The tears came so quickly from Rebekah’s eyes that she didn’t have time to wipe them before they rolled down her cheek. Ignis had been her family, best friend, and confidant, and while she mourned the loss of Katie, she mourned the loss of him as well.
“Forgive me,” she said. “It’s come as a great shock to me that he would betray me after all of this time.” How could someone who had been with her since birth do her that way? And while she had never thought he’d be so vile and wicked, she had seen it with her own eyes. And all because of what? That she let Canter go digging into the library? Was that so unforgivable?
There had to be more. What other lies had he told or secrets had he kept? She realized that she had only had his stories from his past to rely on, and suddenly, she wondered why a mage had sought refuge on Earth in the first place.
Ignis had told her the story of he and Talia, how they had come to the Earthly realm together. He’d also explained how they had been unable to stay together here once they had learned that his magic was not going to work the same as it had back home, and Talia’s life depended on her being in her habitat.
“I don’t think she wants to talk about it,” mumbled Delilah.
Jarreth met Rebekah’s eyes with a look of sympathy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”
The look only made her feel like a fool. She should have known better than to trust anyone. Even her own father, a man she loved and respected had borne her out of secrets and lies, and she had come into the world unclaimed, though not unwanted, and was forced to live a lie in order to keep her family safe.
What had been in it for Ignis, other than refuge?
“It’s okay,” she said, knowing that it was so much worse than they could know. Especially if she couldn’t try and work out some kind of deal with the mage.
“Well, not really,” said Jarreth. “I hope we’re going after him, is all I’m saying.”
“Stop it,” said Delilah. “Now is not the time to talk about revenge.”
Rebekah couldn’t believe that it was Ignis they were talking about getting revenge on. It just couldn’t be so. It was too much of a nightmare. She took a deep breath and felt like a part of her chest had cracked open with a burning pain. Her heart was breaking, but more than that, she knew she could lose everything.
Just then, Frankie stuck her head out and waved Rebekah over. “I should go and help,” she said as she stepped away. She had to make herself useful, or she’d fall apart. She didn’t want to do that in front of Canter. By the time she made her way across the courtyard to the chapel entrance, she made sure her face was free of tears, and she had squared her shoulders and stiffened her jaw. She couldn’t let him see her cry. She didn’t deserve to cry when Ignis was her friend, and she had been the one to bring him into Canter and Katie’s lives.
As she walked into the room, Canter did not look up at her. He busied himself brushing back Katie’s hair, and then he planted a kiss on her forehead. Then he stood with Father Timms, who led them to the back room of the church.
“They were going to give us a little privacy,” said Frankie as she knelt down and undid Katie’s top. “I had hoped you could help me dress her. I don’t want to lift anything too heavy, and it’s simply not decent for the men to help.”
Rebekah had not helped prepare a body in ages. And then, her hunters did not get bathed or redressed for burial. Many were lucky to get their own hole when Ethan was around. He’d have the remaining hunters dig a huge pit and toss the men in like they were nothing. As for after he’d gone, she’d usually had others do that sort of thing for her, making sure each hunter had the proper respect they deserved and their own private burial.
She saw that Frankie was having trouble with Katie’s top as she struggled with the buttons which only went halfway down the front. Rebekah took Stella out of the scabbard on her hip and knelt down to cut the buttons away.
“This might make things go a little faster,” she said, moving the blade gently. She didn’t think that Katie would mind.
Frankie’s eyes widened. “Yes, it does. Thank you, Rebekah. I didn’t want to send her to the other academy or home in these blood-soiled clothes. And we should probably bandage her wound.”
“I’m sure her family will appreciate you doing this.” She had never seen how strong Frankie was until this moment when Katie’s soiled clothing was removed, and Frankie dipped the washcloth into the water and gently washed away the dirt and blood from Katie’s face.
Frankie shrugged. “It’s all I can do.” She was careful to mind the wound, and soon, the water was reddish brown, and Katie was clean. Her skin had a pale, greenish tone, and her lips were turning blue.
“Do you think that will do?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m sure it will.”
“I found her ceremony robe,” said Frankie. “She had it packed up. Canter said she had planned on having her wedding dress made from it.”
“So many huntresses do,” said Rebekah. “I think she’d like that.”
Frankie nodded. “And there I was certain the next death would be Liam’s. I wonder how he is doing?” Her face twisted as if she were about to break down.
Rebekah placed her hand on the woman’s back. “I’ll go and check on him soon. When things settle down. I promise.”
“It’s just too much loss. Liam, Aziel, Katie, and I know you’re hurting about Ignis. I’ll keep you in my prayers, Huntress.”
She wasn’t sure how much of a comfort the words were, but she gave an appreciative look all the same. “Thank you, Frankie.”
She turned her eyes down to Katie, and they rolled her on her side and slipped the toga around behind her. One more turn in the opposite direction and they had Katie dressed. Frankie pulled the robe around her and cinched it tight. Rebekah helped to straighten the fabric and then got to her feet.
That was one deed down, caring for the dead. Next was the aftermath. The reality of it all wasn’t getting any better.
She was going to have to hunt Ignis.
Rebekah sat at her desk staring across the room at a drab painting of a bouquet of sunflowers she’d received on her birthday decades earlier. It had been a gift from Ignis and a way to remind her that she wasn’t always right.
Decades before that, Ignis had tried his hand at painting when they were in Arles, France, and even though he was convinced that his friend had given him great lessons, Rebekah knew the two spent most of their days drunk and bickering, their redheaded tempers clashing horribly. Thankfully, the man—Vincent if she recalled correctly—wasn’t around long. He had gone crazy, and apparently, cutting off his ear was the last straw for Ignis, who still claimed the man had stolen his ideas. “Relax,” she’d told him. “It’s not like anyone will remember the drunkard. Let it go, Ignis.”
He’d shown up years later with an I told you so and ranting about the fact that the man had become famous. When he’d given her the painting as a birthday gift months later, she was reminded of how Ignis could hold a grudge when he wanted to.
She missed her friend but couldn’t help the contempt she had in her heart that grew increasingly worse as each minute passed. How had it come to this? She would have to go after him, and he would have to face punishment. Killing him was not an option, but she wasn’t sure where to keep him. Perhaps she should make him run and become part of the hunt. She could make a decree that no one speak his name to her again.
Tears filled her eyes, and she quickly wiped them away. How could she be thinking such things about a man who had raised her? He’d been her rock in times of troubles, and strangely, she needed him now. She didn’t know how to be herself without him. He’d made her, after all.
She put her head on her desk, and it was at that unfortunate moment that Canter walked into the room. She looked up through her hair and quickly sat up.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes and gesturing toward the chair across the desk from hers.
“For what? My uncle told me once that tears were nothing to apologize for.” Canter took a seat. His dark skin had taken an almost gray tone, and his eyes were puffy and bloodshot. He knew what he had to say was going to be tough, and he figured sitting would at least put her at ease a bit.
“I’m your Huntress; I should be strong for you.” She reached across the desk for a tissue.
“You are. And your tears show me your heart. I know you care about me and Katie and that what happened was hard for you too. And that makes it hard for me to come to you like this. But I wanted to prepare you. I owe it to you to say the things I have to say.”
Rebekah shook her head. “No, you don’t owe me anything, Canter. But did you remember something? From when you and Katie were in the library?”
“No, nothing. It’s still all a blur. I remember thinking Grady had found us. That the shadowy figure I caught a glimpse of was the stigmata. Only now, I know it was Ignis, which makes sense. He had probably returned for his phone.”
“What were you doing there with her in the first place?” Rebekah had meant for him to keep Ignis’s library a secret, along with his mission.
“I had blindfolded her. I knew she couldn’t see the library, but I wanted her to see the stars from the upper level. It’s amazing up there. It’s where I proposed to her. It’s all I can remember right now. I guess it’s all I want to remember.”
Rebekah felt horrible for questioning him about taking her there, but she needed to be absolutely sure if something had happened to trigger Ignis to the level of anger he’d used to kill Katie.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not important. As I said, you owe me nothing.” She waved her hand dismissively.
“No, I vowed my life to you. And while I will still honor that, I can’t do it from here. I have to leave. I hope you understand.” His words came quickly as if he didn’t want her to try and say anything to stop him.
Rebekah’s heart dropped to her toes. She hadn’t expected him to leave his friends in his time of need. “Canter, I need you here, but I understand. If you want to make this decision, I should let you go. I could arrange for you to join another team of hunters. You could take your choice.” She couldn’t see him wandering around alone, steeping in his misery. It wasn’t healthy.
“I think I need to be alone for a while, if that’s okay? Besides, what I have to do, I don’t want to give anyone else the chance to do.”
Her blood turned to ice water in her veins. “You are talking about revenge, aren’t you?” She narrowed her eyes in concern and wondered if he really knew what that would mean.
“I have to go after him.” He met her eyes directly, as if he wanted her to know he meant business. “I’m going to kill Ignis, and while I want you to know that, I don’t want you to have to watch it happen.”
The words stung Rebekah’s chest like they had set it ablaze. “I’m already working on how to handle this, Canter. Ignis’s life is too important to waste by killing him.”
Canter sat forward and slammed his fist down on the desk. “And my Katie’s life is not important enough? That’s bullshit, and you know it. I need to honor her by making this right, and the only way to do that is to hunt and kill Ignis.” He gave her a sideward look, his eyes filled with accusation. “You’d let the bastard go? Knowing what he’s done to her? You heard him. He said he’s always been in control. You never meant anything to him, Rebekah. The Ignis we knew was a lie, and he’s dead to me. He may as well be dead for real.”
Rebekah’s entire life had been built on lies, and she knew that was why it was so easy for her to believe Ignis had been part of one too. Especially with everything he’d been keeping hidden. “Forgive me if I’m having a hard time accepting that. He is my closest and oldest friend.”
“Who never was a friend. Have you ever wondered why he took on this task of creating you? Or why he’s made it his mission to be in your life all these years? Does he even tell you those things? You were just a tool to him. A means to an end. He’s got Talia. He could go live in the swamp with her. Why doesn’t he?”
“Because the naiads’ camp is no place for a man of any kind,” she defended. “Besides, he knows I need him. He brought me into this world. He concealed my mother’s pregnancy to help her and my father. He is an honorable man.”
“And what did he get out of it?”
Asylum. It had given him a place to hide where no vampire could come after him. That, she knew. Did he have his own agenda the entire time? Rebekah took a deep breath and tried to focus. “I don’t care if you want to trap him or if you feel the need to kick his ass, but you have to understand my position on this.”
Canter waved his hand dramatically. “I understand. He’s your weakness.”
“No, he’s the Fellowship’s.” She covered her mouth, hating that the words were coming out. “He is the one who can make new hunters with my blood, Canter. I can’t do it without the spell that he created when he created me. This would be the end of the hunters.”
The words came as a shock to him, but it didn’t change his next mission. “I’ll give you time to figure it out, but until then, I’m leaving. I’ll try to keep in touch with you and Jarreth. Delilah is going to need a friend. She might need someone to talk to, you know, about Jarreth. She lost Katie and Aziel, and with me gone, you’re all she’s got. I know there’s always some tension with you two. I’m asking you to let it go. Support each other. For Katie’s sake. She’d have wanted it that way.”
“I will. I respect Delilah, even if she doesn’t always respect me.” She could tell that he was saying his final piece and making his final requests.
“She loves you. Or else she’d have stayed behind with Brock. She didn’t just come back for Jarreth. She’s here for all of us. She knows this is her family. Take care of them.” He got to his feet and headed to the door.
“Canter, promise me you won’t act before I can figure this out.” Every instinct inside of her was firing sparks that said she had to stop him. She hated that feeling.
“I’m not making any promises if I happen across him, but I won’t search right away. I can’t tell you how long I’ll be able to hold off. If I had my way, I’d go after him right now, and I’ll respect you enough to not tell you what I’d do to him.” He was gone before she could tell him how dangerous it was to cross the mage.
Rebekah closed her eyes and saw Ignis back in the days of her childhood. He reached out for her as she was about to jump down from her father’s horse. “Come now, Bexy. It’s time for your nap. You have to get plenty of rest so you can attend the celebration later. There will be cake with sweet frosting.”
“Is it a special occasion?” she’d asked.
“Of course, it is. It’s your birthday.” He’d smiled and reached over to tug her braid as he gave her a wink.
“What’s a birthday?”
Ignis had laughed. He was always so happy when she was little, and she never remembered a time when he was angry or cross with her. “It’s the day you were born. And I’ve celebrated it every year. This year, you’re old enough to celebrate it too.”
She looked up to the painting and gave a sigh. Canter was right. The Ignis she knew and loved was gone.
Canter hurried up the stairs to his room. He would have to finish packing and see if Lulu could make him something to take along to eat. As he was rounding the top of the stairs to his room, Jarreth stepped out of his.
“Hey, how are you holding up?” he asked.
His look of concern was nearly more than Canter could take. He didn’t think he could stand too many more days of everyone’s awkwardness. No one knew how to talk to him anymore without the tone of pity in their voices, and all he wanted to do was not think about what he’d seen. If he had to relive it over and over in his mind, he’d go crazy.
“I’m fine, really. It’s okay to stop asking.”
“Hey, I care about you. Of course, I’m going to ask how you’re holding up.”
“I’m not even sure how to answer that. But thanks. I know you and everyone else mean well, but I just can’t take it. Which is why I’m going to leave just after Katie’s service at sundown.”
“Hey, at least wait until morning.” Jarreth hoped that if he got past the funeral, he might be okay. “If you could just get through the hard part.”
“The hard part?” Canter narrowed his eyes and wanted to ask Jarreth if he was for real. “The hard part is going to be waking up every morning and realizing that this fucked-up nightmare isn’t a goddamned dream. It’s reality. And I have to live in it every fucking day.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. I just know this is all very hard, and the funeral is going to be hard too.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry too. I know it’s not easy trying to figure out what to say. But that brings me to my other point. It’s okay not to ask.”
“I don’t want you to go.” Jarreth hoped he could change his mind.
“I’ve got to. Don’t try and talk me out of it, okay? I’m going to hunt Ignis. I’m going to kill him and make sure he can’t hurt anyone else.”
“I’ll go with you then. I don’t want you to end up dead too.”
“I’m not afraid to die, Jarreth. I’ll be with Katie then.”
“That sounds like you’ve got a death wish.” He didn’t like what was happening to his friend. Canter had always been so strong.
“No, not a death wish. I’m not going to do anything stupid to myself. But I’m making it my personal mission to end Ignis. I don’t care if it’s tomorrow or a month from now. As soon as I see him, he’s dead.” He knew he’d promised the Huntress differently, but he also knew the pain in his heart would not allow him to let Ignis go if he was put in his path. He would take it as fate and let the cards fall where they may, even if it cost him his life.
“I understand. I really do. If it was Delilah, I’d do the same thing, man. But Rebekah’s not going to take it well.”
“I’ve already warned the Huntress.” He decided not to go into detail. “She knows what I have to do. She’s not happy with it, but she understands.”
“I still think I should go with you.”
“No, you shouldn’t. Grady is still on his way. He’s bringing hell with him, so you’re going to be needed here. If he and that stigmata come and this place is unprotected, you’ll all be dead. And I’d really like to see you again, my friend. Besides, you need to stay with Delilah.” He didn’t want to think about the happy couple, although he knew that was what Jarreth needed to focus on.
He just couldn’t help but be jealous, and another reason he was leaving was because he couldn’t stand to see them happy together. He was ashamed to admit it, but it was just too much for him to handle.
He clapped Jarreth on the shoulder. “I’ll see you at sundown. I have to get ready.”