It should not be necessary to be out a second time in search of a sensitive to fulfil a contract, Elena reflected in disgust. She would have given quite a lot to find out how that little bitch had vanished out of the park in the middle of the night. That one had been strong, too, would have gotten them a good price and won them points with the Gauthier Patriarch; it was deplorable that they had to concern themselves with the opinion of the Elders, but that was a reality of life these days.
Now, having wasted days on the hunt and a couple more on top of that trying to unravel the mystery, with no success, they had to start all over again.
They simply walked down the main street of the city, watching, their own sensitives left behind as unnecessary for this. Any number of sensitives were likely to be out during the nice weather, begging for spare change. The odds of finding another female that age who had no children was low, and besides, Elena doubted Brock was any more willing than she was to spend a day watching to make sure. So, it would be a male this time.
Elena spotted one sweeping the walkway in front of a building whose front window advertised pitas and wraps; he paled, and vanished back inside. Hm, no, not worth hanging around waiting for him to get off work, and it would create too much of a scene to follow him in. They kept looking. A block ahead, a panhandler, perhaps more perceptive than usual, perhaps just lucky, chose that moment to get up and leave; from here, Elena couldn't see where he'd gone, though he was definitely a sensitive. A female, with one child in a stroller and a slightly older one toddling along beside her, froze, eyes wide with fear, and hauled both children inside the first business that came to hand, a bookstore—as though a sensitive would have any idea what to do in there, Elena thought scornfully. Cowards, running even when they knew they were safe, that they'd be spared to breed more.
“Park to the right?” Brock suggested, and they turned at the next corner.
In the park, two male sensitives, both hovering around twenty or so, had settled themselves comfortably on the grass to share what appeared to be lunch for one: sandwich, apple, a can of pop, a couple of things less easily identified. Both looked up at the same instant, saw the approaching hunters. Traded despairing glances, and Elena saw hands clasp, just for a heartbeat. In the next, both were up and running, in different directions.
“They both look strong enough to run for a while,” Brock said thoughtfully. “Which one, since we'll have to choose one or the other?”
“The one on the left,” Elena said at random, and they veered in that direction, following the sensitive. Now that the hunt had begun, she felt much more relaxed, more focused. Hunting was challenging, it meant they had to be in much better condition than their prey, able to alternate wolf-like lope with steady walk all day, while maintaining the subtle glamour that prevented mundanes from taking any notice of what was happening. Of course, it became easier with each passing day, as the sensitive began to suffer from fatigue and hunger.
“Maybe we should've let him eat first,” Brock mused. “He might've lasted longer.”
“Oh well,” Elena shrugged. “He's getting a little far ahead.”
They settled into the familiar routine of maintaining a more or less constant distance between them and the sensitive, just close enough to make certain he'd be aware of them every instant. That should be all the goading necessary to keep him moving.
As sunset approached, they herded him in the direction of a vacant lot overgrown with tall brush, and left him there, turning towards the home of one of their allies. Supper always tasted so wonderful, while they were on a hunt, and sleep was so sweet.
Elena woke immediately, just before sunrise, alert and eager to get on with the day. A brief shower, breakfast provided by a silent terrified sensitive, and they went in search of their prey again.
He'd moved, not that it mattered. Once fixed on a single aura, they could track it indefinitely. They found him sleeping in a back doorway, down an alley. Not for long. He roused as they neared, sleepy confusion turning to fear, and he fled again.
This one was only moderately creative: he tried losing them by weaving through a department store in the direction of another door and then doubling back to the one he'd come in. He even tried to steal a rest, in a different, busy store, where any disturbance would be noticed, but his nerve broke before they were in range to touch and he bolted. He'd been well-conditioned, he made no attempt to seek help from mundane authorities of any kind.
They left him for the night, of course.
On the sixth day, in the middle of the afternoon, he stumbled, went to one knee; he lurched to his feet, made it a couple more strides before he fell again, this time to both knees. The hunters waited a moment to see whether he'd get up or not.
Elena always found this moment a mixture of satisfaction and disappointment: satisfaction that they'd succeeded in their job, disappointment that the chase was over. She wouldn't mind if the sensitive managed to make it a little farther, on sheer willpower.
He wouldn't. He collapsed where he was and curled into a tight ball, half-sobbing for breath.
“Whose turn is it to go get the van?” Brock asked.
“Yours,” Elena said, as they closed the last few yards, unhurriedly. She crouched, laid a hand against the sensitive's shoulder, too experienced to wince from the dirt and sweat, and shoved him into sleep.
“I'll be here,” she said, unnecessarily.
Brock nodded and left; Elena sat on the curb to wait, a glamour wrapped around her and the unconscious sensitive to keep mundane eyes from landing on them. She'd need to recharge from her own sensitive when they got back, but she had enough energy stored to take care of it. Occasional passersby stepped around them, without ever registering their presence. Skills other mages might learn casually, if at all, the hunters had refined and mastered; illusion and weather-sensing and tracking were high on that list.
Another hunt successful. Tomorrow they could deliver him to the Gauthier Patriarch for his favourite grand-nephew, and complete the contract. There remained time before bad weather came, they had almost three weeks left before it turned, enough for another hunt with no risk of it running too late. If no one in this city wanted that one, they could ask around for anyone interested. There was always someone wanting a second sensitive to play nanny or housekeeper or sex-toy, if no one needed one for magical uses.
As much as she loved the sheer wild joy of the hunt, the sense of power it gave her, she knew it was inefficient to be able to hunt only a few weeks twice a year. Anyone who needed a sensitive between those times had to wait. More and more, she could see the advantages of the euphemistically-named “reservations,” where healthy sensitives could be raised and trained right from birth, available any time of year. The Donovans' madness might be spreading and growing stronger, but so was the faction that supported the future construction of the reservations.
And there was no law to prevent a group of mages from collecting and breeding sensitives, unlike the laws against the Donovan obscenities.
The familiar red mini-van pulled up in front of them and Brock got out; together they hefted the limp sensitive, tossing him onto the rearmost seat and the thick blanket draped over it to keep it clean. Elena hopped up to get him arranged so he wouldn't roll off, while Brock slid the door closed and circled to the front.
“We could hunt a lot of them at once,” she murmured. “Build a place to keep them, three buildings and a lot of high fencing, one for each sex and one for the children. Hunt them fast and dirty, take the females with children as long as they're still young enough to breed more...”
“It'll take a few years to establish,” Brock said, though it was more a continuation of her thought than disagreement. “And close to two decades before the first bunch are ready to go. But if we get a few friends to do the everyday part, with it made very clear that we still own the sensitives, we can keep up our usual job while that happens.” He sighed. “That is, if we really want to personally kill the hunt, and turn hunters into farmers forever.”
“That's where it breaks down,” Elena sighed, too. “I don't know that any mage really wants to have anything to do with sensitives who are too young to be of any use, and if we want them properly conditioned, we wouldn't be able to leave them too completely with the adults. But I don't know that we're going to have much choice. There are fewer of them wild all the time, and we get complaints because we don't always have half a dozen ready to choose from at any given moment.” Her fists clenched. “And it would keep sensitives we've invested time in from simply disappearing into thin air.”
“That would be a big plus.” He was still annoyed, she knew; in a family known for magical skills, he'd broken records through much of his youth, and resented his inability to unravel this particular mystery. How one clear strong aura could simply vanish, with no trail and no sign of it anywhere, even the lingering traces left after death... that a sensitive could escape was a disturbing idea. “All set?”
Elena moved forward to the passenger seat. “Let's go.”
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