It had been a week since his last collection. His pockets were empty, and so was his stomach. His fingers brushed the row of bare glass vials secured to the bandoleer strapped across his chest. All because of the Leviathan Pirates. Phoenix char and burn those seafaring vipers. Since the attack on the western coast of Roanfire, it was nearly impossible to find Watersprites.
He resisted the urge to stretch his cramped legs. Blending into the woods was essential, sitting motionless for hours, no matter the discomfort. Clouds built like the spires of Meldron castle, rising over the swaying treetops. The sharp, fresh scent of the storm was tinged with the sage and thyme soap on his skin. Few Dust Hunters knew that trick. It was neigh impossible to startle a sprite when they smelled you first. Human body odor was an instant guarantee of failure. The fresh tree-sap on his thin cotton shirt— though sticky—was a welcome addition.
A summer storm like this should bring out the Watersprites.
But in the past two hours he’d seen a single streak of blue dash from one flowering hobblebush to another. And it may have been a dragonfly.
Maybe he could search the woods near the Keep of Oldshore, closer to the sea? That was Guildmaster Dungan’s territory. He always had fresh dust. Feathers, was he that desperate? The last thing he needed was that man’s meaty fist to his face.
A distant rumble vibrated against his chest. It would rain soon, and that would decrease his chances of finding a watersprite. They may be born of water, but their wings were not immune to damage.
His eyes ached from scanning the woods for the slightest movement—the twisting of a leaf counter to the wind, a colored glow not in harmony with the fading light under the brewing storm.
A blue glimmer sparked to his left. He blinked, his heartrate picking up as hope filled the gnawing emptiness in his belly. It was faint, like sunlight hitting dewdrops on a spiderweb. It flickered again.
He slid from the rock, his soft leather boots soundlessly touching the earth. All he needed was a little bit, just enough to buy a loaf of bread. Feathers, he’d settle for a slice right now.
Taking a step, he set the side of his foot on the ground, rolled his ankle until centered, then put weight on his heel. Each tread was a practiced whisper, swept away by the wind and rustling leaves. Training kept his breath even and steady, despite the thundering of his heartbeat.
A flash of light soared through the clouds. Three, two, one. The deep boom vibrated through his chest. He took five quick steps, the sound of grass crunching under his boots masked by the thunder.
By the flaming feathers of the Phoenix, it was a watersprite. Her tiny body glowed blue, the dragonfly-like wings twitching at her back shimmering like ripples in a pond. She perched on a leaf, her hands spinning, actively forging sprite dust. His heart skipped a little. This was good fortune. Startling a sprite in the act of creating dust typically doubled the amount. He may be able to fill his belly for a week.
He moved closer, now able to see the individual strands of her long blue hair flowing between the transparent wings down her back. A cold drop hit his head, and another his cheek. Rain struck the leaves with a soft pitter-patter, growing louder and faster. He was out of time.
Thunder cracked the sky. He roared, leaping at her like a cat.
Her scream was a high pitched flute-like trill, more musical than earsplitting. Her wings flashed. She streaked away, leaving a mound of glowing blue sprite dust on the leaf like a platter of pure gold. It was more than enough to fill his belly and pay his fee to the Dust Hunter’s Guild.
“Thank you, little sprite,” he whispered, pulling a vial from his bandoleer. Turning up the corners of the leaf, he tipped the dust into the vial like a miniature waterfall. He tucked the vial into his pocket. No need to advertise his success to the other hunters. Rain fell in thick sheets through the trees, a mist rising, stirring the scent of earth. His thin shirt clung to him like another layer of skin. He brushed his hair back, looking to the sky, smiling. He wouldn’t go hungry tonight.
The sound of a flute cut through the rain.
Was he hearing things now? He shook the rain from his hair. Maybe the cold was getting to him. He’d best get home and into dry clothes.
The flute cried again, the pitch higher.
This wasn’t a startled cry. It was a cry of pure terror.
He spun to the trees, pushing through the rain-soaked branches. He paused, listening. The rain roared in his ears. Blue light flashed, igniting every rain-soaked leaf in light, each one resembling the glow of a sprite. Thunder cracked through the woods. The very things he relied on to hide his presence working against him. Where was she?
A series of melodic whimpers drew him right.
She hung in the threads of a spider’s web, one arm flailing as she struck at the massive eight-legged creature standing over her.
He sprinted. This was not supposed to happen.
The spider shot forward, its legs catching the sprite in a deadly hug. Her flute-like scream was shrill, burrowing into his chest like a knife. He struck at the arachnid, destroying a corner of it’s massive web. It recoiled, releasing the limp sprite. Her head lulled against her chest, her blue glow fading dangerously.
Great Phoenix, no. This was his fault. The sprite’s long blue hair fell across her shoulders. It was the same sprite he’d just startled. In her fright, she must have raced right into the web. His hand shook as he pulled her from the sticky threads, trying desperately to keep her wings intact. Her body was soft and cool, like he was cradling water. He cupped her against his heart, wishing he had a tunic or cloak. Anything to keep the rain from hurting her.
His boots squished in the mud, growing heavier as he ran back to Oldshore.