The Trail – Chapter 3

The storm beat at the old masonry of the ruined watchtower. Within its crumbling walls the man finished skinning his deer after gutting it outside. He worked with the mechanical efficiency of an experienced craftsman. As his hands moved of their own accord, his mind reeled with the recent developments.

          He had been presented with two facts of great import; people are most likely nearby, and something out there is killing for fun. As he cut open the sternum and removed the heart of the doe, he was reminded of the human corpse with its chest ripped open.

          Though he didn’t want to admit it, the most likely perpetrator was a demon. The foul denizens of Gaul would cut a man open like that, he mused. He paused in his work as this thought returned to haunt him.

          He leaned against the deer carcass, strung up from the elm tree and angled so as to stay out of the rain. He was covered in blood up to his elbows. His grip on the knife was starting to grow slick. Looking out into the grey rainfall, he tried his best to argue against the demon hypothesis.

It could be…what about a…., he racked his brain for another answer.

These lands have no shortage of curses, guardians, and other such phenomena left over from the Dominus Era. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve faced something like it. Although this time around I won’t have anyone’s help. And it won’t be a test.

The best strategy would be to avoid this creature at all costs. The faster he escaped its hunting grounds, the better.

          The night lit up with lightning and clashed with thunder a moment later.

Everything hinges on this storm. I can’t go anywhere in it without becoming lost.

He finished picking apart the carcass, careful to cut away from the deer to avoid pushing the fur into the meat with his knife. The fire crackled merrily and spouted sparks into the cold air. Above it the tenderloins of the doe sizzled. The vaporizing juices of the meat set his stomach rumbling. He ate his fill of venison that night as he buffed the steel of his hatchet against his whetstone.

          The lightning ceased in the dead of night, leaving only the steady drumming of rainfall in its wake. Some of the animals huddled in their dens, nests, and burrows while the nocturnal beasts snooped through the undergrowth in complete darkness. The scruffy man lay huddled next to the fire under the partially-collapsed roof. His pack was tucked under his head as he breathed in a slow rhythm, deep in sleep.

          He was awakened suddenly by a shiver that ran up his spine. He quickly became aware of his surroundings as his intelligence struggled to come online. The rain was now a low droning drizzle. The toads and peepers still croaked and cheeped in a dual chorus. The fire crackled weakly and offered minimal light and heat. Something felt off.

          Fear shot through him in a successful attempt to rush the waking process. He propped himself up on one elbow and peered warily into the darkness. Just on the edge of the fire’s dim light – where shadow meets the void – a form shifted ominously.

          The man froze, his heart tripping over itself. The ambiguous shape slunk closer. Slowly it stalked into the edge of the firelight with an insidiousness that made the his skin crawl.

          His eyes could barely make out its features. Clearly it was neither man nor beast. It’s head was a thing out of a sick nightmare. It looked like a living skull of a horned goat that ended in hideous square teeth. It’s eyes were hollow black voids. The creature appeared vaguely quadrupedal; it crawled on all fours in a crouch. A tail lashed behind it, and something was draped over it like a cloak.

          Some strange pointed appendages grew out of the monster’s back, though whether they were a fabrication of his own terror he could not say.

          It stared at him with hollow eye sockets. The man’s throat went dry and his testicles shrunk closer to his body in revulsion. Still frozen there on his bedroll, he groped around in the dark for a weapon. His couldn’t break the gaze of the monster. The skull of its head bobbed rhythmically as the space where its eyes should be stared into his soul. The man’s hand came to rest on the haft of his hatchet behind his back.

          The monster’s hand reached out and dropped something on the ground in front of it. Breaking his gaze from the demon’s skull face for a moment, the man looked down. Two severed human fingers lay before him.

The message was clear; you’re next.

He returned his gaze to the monster, and just like that, it was gone.

          The man now realized he had been holding his breath the entire time. He gasped for air and slumped against the wall, too stunned to process what he had just seen. His knuckles ached from gripping the hatchet too tightly.

          This much was clear: he had just been issued a deathmatch. Only one of them was going to leave these woods alive.

Lords above…what the fuck was that? Why is it after me?! Am I going to be butchered like that corpse?? I need to get out of here! I need to run!!

          In the back of his mind the man realized he was starting to panic. He hyperventilated and trembled from head to toe. His thoughts blended into a whirlpool of basic survival instincts.

Calm down! I have to calm down or I’ve already lost!

          He steadied his breathing and eased his white-knuckled grip on the hatchet. His heartbeat slowed, allowing his mind to recover its rationality. He managed to gather his wits and formulate a plan.

Food is no longer my top priority, self-defense is. I’m no longer safe here. As long as it knows where I am….

He struggled to his feet and rapidly began stringing his hunting bow with trembling fingers. His mind raced ahead of his body.

I can’t afford to be rummaging through my pack to retrieve a weapon. I need to have everything necessary on my person.

He slung his quiver over his shoulder after drawing a fresh arrow from it. He nocked it to the bowstring and lay it close by on the ground. On his belt he had rigged his hunting knife and hatchet. He scooped up some charcoal from the dying fire and stowed it into a pouch.

A grey dawn crawled out from the east.

Any appetite he might have awoken with had soured and vanished. He regarded the remaining venison. It would weigh him down slightly, but relying on only foraged food might not provide the energy he would need to survive in the coming days. With no time to salt or preserve the meat, it would most likely spoil within the week.

He wrapped roughly five pounds of venison (enough to feed him for a week with skillful rationing) in a clean cloth and packed it away. He took close stock of the rest of his gear; A collapsible shovel and bow saw, needle and thread, two extra socks and undergarments, fur-lined hat and gloves, wire and snare for trapping, flint and tinder, two canteens, tin mess kit, stick of wax, small tarp, tin of salt, eight metal stakes, bedroll, cloak, coil of rope, small whetstone, two handkerchiefs, and roughly a week of canned army rations.

          This did not include his hatchet, knife, hunting bow, quiver of thirty arrows, money, and various components stowed in his belt pouches.

All of this gear will slow me down and make me an easy target. On the other hand, I can utilize most of it as a means of self-preservation. Especially if I have to improvise.

He was suddenly struck with the absurdity of it all. Here, in the depths of the wild frontier, hundreds of miles from civilization, a murderous demon happens to come after him of all creatures. And here he was just trying to get by.

What did I do to deserve this? Nothing! I have done nothing to deserve this! Haven’t the gods shat on my life enough? How much more of this must I endure??

He let out a strangled sigh and dropped to his knees. A hard lump grew in his throat. He ran his hands through his dirty hair in frustration and anguish. Nothing made sense. Nothing made sense and nothing he did seemed to matter. Fate always had a way of rending the joy from his heart.

…..fuck. I don’t think I can do this….

There he sat in silent pause born of his own hopelessness. The first rumor of daybreak cast a gentle silver through the soft drizzle of spring rain. The songbirds had awakened and taken up their cheery tune, oblivious of the well of despair emanating from the slumped form in the ruined watchtower.

          Emotional exhaustion left his mind numb and empty. But after a few minutes of dead stillness, he rose to his feet and mindlessly finished preparing his gear as though physically compelled.

          Hefting his pack upon his back, he took up his hunting bow and scanned his surroundings for any signs of the demonic predator. Only thirty minutes had passed since he had been awakened. The rising sun now drove off the lingering twilight with an orange halo that stretched across the eastern horizon.

          Maple, oak, elm, and birch trees poured the collected rainfall from their leaves like wine from a ewer. Deceptively deep puddles had formed in depressions amid the undergrowth, obscuring slick mud beneath. Everything seemed to have the fresh green blush of spring about it.

          The man was far too on-edge to notice. To his mind, every bush had become a potential hiding place for evil – every noise the shuffling of demonic feet. But nothing happened. Tensed and wound-up though he was, nothing sprang out at him or tried to harm him in any way.

          So it was that he left the confines of the ruined watchtower with reluctance out into the soft drizzle. He moved with a haste that perfectly reflected his state of mind.

It was kill or be killed now. The endless expanse of the frontier would serve as the arena for a deathmatch between the two hunters.

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