It’s two in the morning and the storm is howling beyond the door. The Partisan kneels on a mat in a narrow box, staring into the curtain. A frantic voice rasps at his right ear. There’s no face to it; that’s policy, no face, just a dark screened window. But then again, the Partisan knows the voice. He can picture the face in his head well enough, the rugged beard and dull eyes of a union miner.

The talker’s rambling, all ‘what if they know, what if they find him, what if they’ve already found him…’

‘They haven’t.’ The Partisan replies with artful reassurance, but his knees shift on the quilted cloth, and his gloved hands are clasped.

‘But if they do…’

‘That’s why I need your help.’ The Partisan’s eyes are closed. ‘You had a location on his cell?’

‘Lost it. But he doesn’t always keep it on, and you know how he joyrides…’


‘What if he turned it off? He could be miles away…’


There’s a half-choked breath in the silence.

‘Sonamju Preserve.’

The Partisan nods instinctively, though there’s no one to see it.

‘Please…’ The man breaks the silence again, only half aimed through the screen. ‘The king’s men. If they find him…’

Both men know the answer, but he’s saying it anyway, just to hear the words.

‘Save my son,’ he says at last.

‘I won’t let them take him.’ 

The Partisan doesn’t nod this time.


The door bursts open with a shuddering groan as the Ranger steps into the room. He’s cloaked in a stark white greatcoat, a broad-brimmed hat throwing deep black over his eyes, and beneath the shadow a slight smile peeks through thin facial hair. At his back the wind is howling. The storm’s been settled for a few hours — the ice on the gale’s just water now — but it’s still shaking the beams and walls, and crying at the door.

Hushed hisses and suspicious glances meet the Ranger as he gracefully doffs his hat and saunters to the counter. There’s maybe eight men hanging around the gloom, but only a few dare look at him. The rest retreat into their drinks, clumsily concealing themselves under heavy jackets. 

A wry grin splits the Daqshini bartender’s square face as the white-clad man approaches. ‘The usual?’  

The Ranger raises an eyebrow, confused.

Soju,’ the bartender jabs, gesturing at the newcomer’s sand-brown complexion. There’s a snicker or two, but the Ranger still offers a gracious smirk.

‘I wouldn’t trust the water down here,’ he retorts.

The bartender shrugs. ‘Well, you gotta buy something.’

‘Fifteen minutes, and I’m gone.’

The Ranger flicks a couple coins through the air, glinting one after the other before landing plink-plink onto the countertop. The square-faced man snatches them up greedily and nods, curiosity lighting up his beady eyes.

‘Fair enough.’ The bartender flourishes his arm in welcome. ‘Make yourself at home. Time’s ticking.’

The Ranger smiles and ambles his way over to a table. Four Daqshinis warily make way, inching awkwardly on creaky chairs as the Ranger drops into his seat. A couple of them shoot suspicious glares, their swarthy southern faces broken up by pink scars and silver piercings.

‘You the ones after the bounty?’

One nod speaks for all of them.

He sighs. ‘No offence, but don’t you think you’re all a bit… dark?’

‘Excuse me?’ The thin man at the back glares needles from half-closed eyes. The Ranger shrugs in mock indignation.

‘It’s a Juuninh boy, from a Juuninh town, in a Juuninh district. They’re rebel-lovers and shit out there. You think they’d help a bunch of gun-toting Daqshinis from the cities?’

The thin man’s gaze drops, and from the awkward shifting and creaking of the chairs the Ranger guesses the others have a similar answer.

‘Shit, you really were just gonna waltz in.’ The Ranger scans the arrayed faces to no avail. ‘Right. Just let me do the talking, then.’

‘And who are you, halfie?’ another man snarls, and his pierced lip curls like some kind of serpent.

‘Your handler.’ There’s another flash of silver, this time from the Ranger’s royal badge. ‘Yeonju district ranger. His Highness doesn’t want you tramping around unsupervised.’

‘Please.’ A third man scoffs. ‘We’re professionals.’

‘You’re killers.’ The Ranger lifts a pencil-thin eyebrow. ‘Ain’t much use killing a sixteen-year-old fuckup.’

‘Some big unionist’s kid, innit?’ The hunter seems unconvinced. ‘Not like the crown ever needed more reason to go after someone.’

‘Professionals!’ The Ranger’s eyes bug out in melodramatic shock. ‘Crown’s spiting him, is he? Dangling the little bastard in his face for a laugh? Shit.’

The man holds his sneer but doesn’t reply.

‘I mean, come on.’ The Ranger sighs. ‘You know how it is up there. Everyone with any suction’s got a few insurgents on speed-dial. This guy just happens to have one too many of ‘em, so…’

‘Take his kid alive,’ the thin man growls, ‘and your people make him flip.’

‘Congratulations!’ The Ranger throws up his hands in a caricature of relief. ‘You all hear him? Good.’ He sends a nod to the bartender with a couple more coins. ‘Now get yourselves something white. You’ll stick out like pimples in the snow.’


It’s midday now and the Partisan finds himself wrapped up in a slim parka, prodding knee-deep in snow through the smoked-out wreckage of a vintage car. If the harsh icy wind was carrying any more than a biting chill, the Partisan reckons there’d be no way to track his target down. There’s even a bit of frozen blood still visible. The boy got lucky crashing on the tail end of the storm. 

Well, maybe not that lucky, he thinks with a grimace. His gloved fingers run over his silver-grey pistol, as if to make sure it’s still there. Then the Partisan pulls up his cloth mask and trudges step-for-step down the tracks.

The wind is picking up again, and the Partisan can hear the patter of ice against his jacket. He wonders if the paranoid old man was right, if the marshals or the rangers or even some good Samaritan type already turned him in. Well, not so much the latter. No civilian would be out on the Preserve in this weather. 

When the Partisan spots the cave, snow is coming down in sheets, whirling white offset by the yawning black ahead. He nods, to no one in particular. Looks like the boy got lucky twice.

He stalks down the tunnel, grateful to be out of the wind. Damnable sound just gets louder, though, the lost-soul wailing bouncing from stone to stone all the way down. Even so he hears the faint whimper, the ragged breath, the scritch-scratch of nails on gravel he’d been trained to hear. So when the Partisan slips around the corner and locks eyes with a shuddering heap on the floor, he’s not the one surprised.

The boy gasps weakly, but the Partisan holds up a hand and offers a quick, calculated reassurance: ‘I’m with the Liberators, your father sent me.’ But the last four words just hit him like gut punches. The boy’s shuddering gets more violent.

‘Don’t tell him,’ is all he says.

‘Of course.’ There’s no hesitation, no pause. Anything to get the kid out of the cave. It’s still frigid, and he can still hear the hollow baying of the gale bouncing off the tunnel walls. But those tracks are wide and deep.

And then again, dead in a snowstorm is better than captured.

He passes the boy his canteen, tips it up to his mouth a couple times. Then they’re off back up the tunnel, the kid hoisted up on the Partisan’s shoulder. His right leg’s broken, maybe shattered, but it won’t matter til they get back home. He shakes his head, and keeps dragging the limp body up to the light.


It bursts in first, before the snow or the biting air. The Partisan shields his eyes, crouches to the cold rock. He lets the world come into focus before crawling forward, bearing the boy from the cave into the maze of tall blackish trunks.

That’s when he sees the first one.

Someone’s out in the track, prodding around. Not a bright one, by the way he’s moving, acting like he doesn’t know where it leads. He stands out, head to toe in black in the white vortex. Most striking, though, is the dark Daqshini face. The Partisan sighs. So it’s not a good Samaritan. 

At least he made himself obvious.

‘Stay here,’ he hisses, and past the kid’s ear the wind eats it up. Then he slinks into the treeline.


The Daqshini can’t see him, and sure as hell can’t hear with the whipping at his ears. He’s still poking dumbly at snow, checking out bloodstains like a critic at a museum. He lifts his head, starts to say something unintelligible – 

The Partisan slithers out of the wood and shoots him through the head. The body drops limp to the ground, new blood mingling with the old.

The gunshot vanishes into the howling of the storm. But the Partisan’s already moving past him, into the trees, into the whirling cloak of white. That hunter was trying to talk to someone, and that someone isn’t dumb enough to wear black in a snowstorm. Or if he is, he’s a damn sight better at hiding – 

There’s shouting, and it’s getting less faint by the second. The Partisan hovers at the treeline a moment longer. There? That might be a mask, a coat. A cloak. A pair of eyes? No.

Another shout, thirty-degree-angle or thereabout, he wheels and gets a glimpse. A white shape flitting through the trees. He keels forward catlike and moves in after it, pistol at his hip. The voices are silent, just the storm remains, but he catches another glimpse –

He miscalculated.

A bulky shape emerges from the nothingness at his left, unheard and unseen. All in white and grey, a long-gun in his hands. Probably thought he was more of a surprise than he was, though, and the Partisan manages to whirl around and fire his gun.

It goes wide.

The hunter levels his rifle, but it’s clumsy up close. The shot’s deafening, but not deadly. The man drops it and rushes him. 

The Partisan stumbles backward. The bodies strike. He tumbles over, the white-clad hunter bearing down on him, crunch of snow, arms on arms on throats, staring up into a silver-pierced snarl. The Partisan struggles for breath. The hunter’s grip tightens.

The fog of the gunshot fades.

The Partisan’s half-flailing now, hurling blows wherever he can. His eyes search the snow. The hunter’s breath is on him, the hunter’s grunts and snarls, like some wolf, but the Partisan’s only after the silver-grey glint in the snow, trying for an opening to reach it. 

His knee strikes home. The hunter’s grip loosens for an instant. The Partisan writhes free one second and is grasping at the pistol the next. The hunter makes that half-foot lunge for his free hand, his eyes flaring behind the white balaclava.

The Partisan pulls the pistol up and fires straight into the man’s sleeve, leaving just two neat holes, one in, one out, deep red on white. The hunter howls and rolls backward, his other hand groping left and right for the rifle. The Partisan lifts his head just enough to make the angle.

He shoots right through the throat, cuts the man’s yowling short. All he hears is the storm again. The Partisan slithers to his feet. This one’s a Daqshini, too. He knew it from the eyes. How many…

Instinctive dread pierces him to the bone.

The boy.


The kid’s shivering madly, but which is cold and which is fear no one can say. He’s staring up, eyes into eyes, hawkish Juuninh black, opened before him like they came right out of a snowdrift. But it’s no snowdrift, and it’s no cryptid, either.

The Ranger emerges quicksilver-smooth from the storm and grasps his shoulder. The boy barely reacts, paralysed. Fearful? Frozen? Either way, he submits, and the Ranger hauls him upright, one hand on his shoulder, the other half-heartedly twirling a pistol. Two hunters emerge beside him, white-clad figures fading hazy out of the thick snowfall.

A second gunshot, then, moments later, a third.

The Ranger winces a bit, more mocking than genuine.

‘That sound like a rifle to you?’

The hunters catch the idea pretty quick, nervously clutch at their weapons.

‘Fuckin’ warned him.’ The Ranger shrugs. ‘Well, bigger cut for you two, eh? Oh, lighten up. I wish I could be a contract man right now. Up in the arctic north, with four Daqshini for partners? Shit, it’s like extra lives.’ He laughs alone.

‘Where is he?’ The hunter’s growl can’t hide the quaver.

‘He’ll show.’

Whimpering boy in hand, the Ranger steps carefully into the small clearing before the cave mouth. Those hawk-eyes dart across the treeline, up and down and left and right, tracing from the sound. 

He smiles.

‘Haven’t fired yet, eh?’ The Ranger points his pistol into the trees, and the kid winces as the metal breezes by. ‘Not sure you can make it count? I wouldn’t be either.’

There’s no answer but the wind.

‘God-damn!’ The Ranger shakes his head, too emphatic to be genuine. ‘Are all Juuninh really this uppity about their woodcraft? Shit, I’d have seen you without that bloodstain.’

Across the clearing, the Partisan struggles to keep still, pistol pointed outward from the waist.

‘Well then,’ the Ranger says. ‘Law requires I tell you I’m a Yeonju Ranger, legal jurisdiction in this district, and Kaja and Gori here are sanctioned – ’ he drops the boy to flash his badge – ‘but something tells me you don’t give a shit.’

‘So let’s review your options,’ he continues. ‘You’re one man – God knows why you people thought that was enough – and behind me are two trained Daqshini hunters. They might not be the most observant people, but they know I’m looking right at you, and if you try anything they’ll panic and light up everything within five metres of you. On the other hand, if you come out and surrender, no one dies. You, me, or the kid. I know you people love your martyrdom, but consider that.’

The Partisan hesitates, calculates .

‘I’m no martyr,’ he calls out, and calmly steps forward from the treeline, hands held up.

‘How about the kid?’ The Ranger flicks a finger at the silver-grey gun and shrugs. ‘Drop it, and he lives.’

The boy winces, shaken and shaking, wide eyes pleading with his rescuer. But the Partisan just smiles invisible behind the mask.

The Ranger’s hand shifts quickly, levelling a pistol.

‘My friends are getting twitchy.’ His tone darkens. ‘Put it down.’

It all happens in an instant. The Partisan’s wrist flourishes, perfectly calculated, pistol pointed, just fast enough to aim, just slow enough to give them time to react. To reply before they realise who his real target is. Who the real martyr is.

The boy cries out, his first sound since leaving the cave.

A gunshot rings out, swallowed by eleven more.

Then only silence, beneath the wailing of the wind.

About the Author

Alex Gentem is an aspiring software engineer and borderline cryptid from the eastern U.S. When not involved in those activities, he also occasionally writes stories, and even more occasionally finishes them.