The Trail – Chapter 9

He stoked the flames of the fire with what dry tinder he had, but was careful not to look into it. Instead, he huddled with his back to it – perhaps not the safest practice – but he could not afford to ruin his meager night vision by looking into the bright flames. 

The fire crackled and popped quietly behind him, and the vaporous black smoke rose up high into the heavens and was carried off in the wind. It would attract the predator and lead it right into the man’s ambush, if all went according to plan.

He peered into the darkness at the vague form of the aqueduct standing tall in the near distance. Its presence felt alien and out of place set against its barren surroundings, and did nothing to reassure him.

At least it makes an interesting backdrop. The Battle of the Lost Aqueduct. He chuckled at his morose humor. How stupid.

He had been waiting in the darkness like this for what seemed like a lifetime, but was only two hours. He had fully expected to have to find ways of keeping himself awake, but for some reason sleep was far away. Instead he huddled there, wide awake, awaiting what would come.

The wind had abated for a time, leaving only a chilling breeze in its wake. The snowy haze shifted about the mountain’s shoulder like a silver veil.

Nothing stirred. It seemed to the man like he was the only living creature up there in the darkness. He began to wonder if this were actually true. If he listened very closely, he could hear the mountain grasses and hardy bushes shuffle and hiss in the lonely breeze. This reassured him somehow – further affirming his belief that he had chosen the correct location to make a last stand. There was nowhere to run, no one to save him, and nothing to do but fight to the death.

Anticipation nearly drove him over the edge. He couldn’t help asking the same questions over and over again: Will I live or will I die? If I die, how painful will it be? Will my last thought be of regret? Or will I die satisfied that I tried? 

Six hours until sunrise. In the distance, something crunched into snow. The man froze – not daring to even breathe.

Silence. His fingers curled tighter about the hunting bow.

Is this it? Is it finally happening?!  

Suddenly he was afraid. But he would not be paralyzed by it. He ignored the voice telling him to run far away. Careful not to make a sound, he shifted such that his legs were beneath him and ready to spring. 

Through a clever crack in the cover he peaked with one eye closed. The fire popped and sparked behind him, but he was too focused to take notice. So dark were his surroundings that everything looked more or less the same. A block of aqueduct ruin could very well be a bush as it could a monster. Through the crack he could see the small field of rubble and snow drifts, his strategic cover positions, and nothing beyond that. A vague black shape caught his attention, motionless out in the open, but he disregarded it as a boulder.

He scanned left and right, and as he did so the black shape moved. He locked onto it and watched with a racing pulse. The shape slunk quietly past what could have been a bush, then disappeared out of sight. 

It’s here.

The fear grew within his mind and the blood ran hot through his veins.  

Can I do this? Can I really do this? 

Suddenly he was sweating. I’ve made it this far, but it means nothing if I…. A lump formed in his throat. I have to live through this! I have to survive! 

The doubts and anxieties were dizzying. 

 He brought himself back to reality. He had a strategy and would just have to follow through.

Beneath him his legs burned from staying in a motionless crouch for so long, and suddenly he became aware of an overwhelming urge to pee. He didn’t dare take his eye off the crack. The fingers of his right hand clenched and unclenched to stay warm. Lightly they played across the fletching of the arrow knocked to the bow.

Movement again. The form doubled back out into the open with patient stealth, but the frigid ground crunched loudly beneath its feet. The man’s eyes had become better accustomed to the patterns of movement the ambiguous shape made. Now he could see its two curling horns, its trailing tail, and a long weapon made of something like antlers in its grasp. It was wearing clothing, that much he could tell, but the form and nature of it he could not make out. It moved stooped to the ground as though it were not fully bipedal, tailing flicking behind it.  

The tension built within him to a breaking point, and although the fear, hesitation, regret, and dread told him to forever remain crouched behind cover where he might stall a little longer, still he drew fletching to cheek, stood, and let fly the first shot. 

The limbs of the bow snapped forward in the release, and the arrow vanished from his grip. The shot went wide and the dark form sprang immediately into a counter-attack. Returning fire came before the man’s arrow had struck an obstacle in the distance. He ducked back down just as the incoming projectile ricocheted off his cover and shattered into two pieces.

From deep within his chest flushed a rush of adrenaline. He drew three arrows at a time out of the ground and fired back in rapid succession as he advanced to the next position. The creature had taken cover behind a boulder, but the man didn’t care. He fired three arrows into the corner of the boulder without expecting to land a hit, and had advanced successfully to the next position by his fourth.  

He ducked down and plucked more arrows from the next supply. His breath came just as quickly as his pulse. His fingers had warmed up and his shoulders had loosened with the previous volley.  

The man loaded a fresh arrow and paused. Something didn’t seem right, and he had learned a long time ago to listen to his instincts when they warned him like this.

The wind picked up across the barren rocks. As quickly as he could the man dropped the bow and drew forth his sling, loading a round stone into the leather pouch from the small pile of rocks beside him. Back pressed up against cover, he looked left and right while keeping his wits about him.

From his left side burst the predator in full view, its long antler bow drawn to full aim.

Although the man was fully expecting such a surprise attack, still he flinched at the sight of the horned skull no more than twenty feet from him. He shouted in alarm as the arrow leaped at him, while at the same time he let fly a stone from his sling with all the force his arm could muster. 

His aim was true. The stone struck the predator’s left hand with full force, clacking loudly against the bone of its knuckles. It growled and dropped its longbow.

The man glanced down to see that the predator’s arrow had missed by a slim margin – piercing his cloak rather than his bowels. A sickening feeling of mixed relief and horror caused panic to overwhelm him. Desperately he tried to retreat, but his cloak was solidly pinned to the frozen ground by the arrow.

The predator seized the advantage. With a howl it drew forth a curved sickle-looking weapon made of bone and charged at the prostrated man, leaping wildly over a snowbank to do so.  

He did the first thing he could think of – snatch another stone and loose.

His assailant was within ten feet as he lashed another stone from his sling at it. The creature predicted the attack and scrambled out of the way to the left, but its leg broke through the snowbank and caused it to stumble. 

The man wasted no time. He had unpinned the clasp of his cloak from his neck and scrambled back on his feet in the blink of an eye, knocking over the arrow supply and bashing his knee against a piece of rubble in the process. 

The renewed wind peppered his face and eyes with snow crystals, blinding him just as he went for his hatchet at his hip. It didn’t stop his momentum. He swung blindly out in front of him with the weapon, but the steel only cut the cold air. 

Heart pounding, he ran his sleeve over his face to clear his eyes and looked around, just as the predator reached its fallen antler bow. 

“Shit!” 

He sprang for his own bow lying on the ground and groped about in the snow for an arrow. The predator was faster – it had leveled the longbow at the man and knocked an arrow before he could arm himself.

But the man had broken several of the predator’s fingers with the last shot from his sling and the creature’s arrow flew wide as a result. It burrowed into the frozen soil in the distance with frightening speed. The hunter had thrown himself to the side in a desperate dodge.

In the heat of the moment the man had given up on recovering his bow and arrow and charged his enemy head-on with a roar.

In four strides he closed the distance with knife and axe akimbo. His foe back-peddled in an attempt to gain distance, but it backed right into a massive hunk of rubble, with nowhere to run. It dropped its bow and the man was upon it with a steel fury.

It dodged the axe and barely caught the wrist wielding the knife. 

With its powerful legs it kicked the hunter in the chest. The man wasn’t expecting it, and went tumbling onto his back. The pain was not so great, but the blow had knocked the wind out of him.

He scrambled back on the ground in a panic, struggling to regain his breath. The creature closed the gap again, scooping up its bone weapon in the process. 

The primitive blade came screaming at the man’s head just as he was regaining his feet. He gave a grunt and ducked – a fraction of a second too slow. 

Stars exploded across his dimming vision like flickering sparks. He staggered to the side and felt the world swim and spin. He broke the fall with his hands, and some deep instinct within him, like a wild animal, took over and drove him to flee without his permission or knowledge. 

He scrambled over the nearest piece of cover. His vision cleared, leaving him with a crippling headache that struck the insides of his skull like a gong. Hot blood ran down his face in rivulets. Somehow he was alive.

But he was far from safe. The predator was on him in seconds, its bone hook freshly wetted with his blood. 

“Fuckin…dammit!!” He groped about on the ground for a stone. 

The predator leaped and landed upon his cover with unnatural agility. With a howl it slashed at his head again, the weapon screaming through the air, casting his already spilled blood upon the frozen ground.

The man leaned back as the bone hook passed harmlessly by his head (splattering his face with more of his own blood in the process) and threw himself into his foe in a full-body tackle.

His body weight and the exploding force of his coiled legs were more than enough to take the predator off its feet. They both hit the ground with the man on top, crushing the horned creature beneath. 

The two fell into a frenzied grapple. They tumbled over each other like wild animals; punching, kicking, slashing, choking, and doing anything in their power to be the last one standing.

The man struggled to hold his own against an opponent with four grasping appendages. It’s prehensile feet choked him by the throat while its clawed hands rent the hatchet from his grasp, sending the gleaming weapon spinning off into the darkness.  

There on his back beneath his opponent the man squirmed in a panic, kicking out his legs on the ground in an attempt to gain leverage. His left boot found purchase.

With a powerful burst of strength he arced his back, threw his hips, and sent both of them tumbling over, putting him on top. The predator’s grip loosened for a split second – enough for him to break its hold and strike back. 

The man gouged at the creature with a knife. The creature tore at the man with its claws. Across the snowy ground their blood mixed together in dark red. They screamed at each other – never understanding or even listening to what was being said. 

Somewhere in the epileptic melee the knife was lost along with the sanity of the two combatants. The frenzy of battle drove reason and rational from them – or perhaps it was a condition of their own doing. They clashed like something possessed.

The man smashed at his enemy’s head with a bloodied stone. The creature tore open the man’s face with its claws. Neither would back down. So furiously bloody was the struggle that the snows around them had melted into water, so the two hunters fought tooth and claw in a gory sludge of their own making. Steam rose from their bodies and sweat ran down their skin.

In the heat of the moment the grapple broke. The man threw the creature off and both went tumbling away from each other, right back to where they started.  

Both bloodied forms staggered in the cold darkness. Their breath came in ragged gasps and pained groans. The man’s left eye wasn’t working, he couldn’t feel his scalp, and he was seeing double. The predator, some twenty feet away, wheezed with each breath. The man’s knife remained lodged in its shoulder, and it could not stand up straight anymore with the number of ribs he had shattered. It’s skull head looked cracked and splintered.  

But the man did not notice or care for either of their pains. In the depth of battle he had lost himself to a mindless bloodlust. The creature – the thing he called the predator – was not really there in his eyes. All he could see was an anomaly – the aspect of all of his hatred, anger, and bitterness manifest in reality. The predator instead became everything and everyone that had hurt, angered, or otherwise wronged the man in some way. And here he had a chance to enact retribution – an enemy that had unknowingly taken on all of his repressed animosity.  

The stress, the pain, the bitterness and suffering that the man had pushed deeper and deeper down into the pits of his psyche had finally erupted after years of repression and self-mutilation. And any thoughts of kindness or goodwill, love or compassion, understanding or forgiveness, were vaporized in the process. He would kill this enemy of his and sacrifice anything to do it – no matter the cost. 

But then something happened.

The horned goat skull fell apart in pieces onto the ground like shards of porcelain, and the façade of delusion peeled back and the man’s eyes could finally see clearly again. 

Beneath the skull mask was a face – browned by sunlight and heavy with sorrow. Its amber eyes gleamed golden with intelligence and anger. Upon its face grew tufted brown fur like an ape, with an upturned velvety nose above. Its stout teeth were sharp and ridged, flashing white in a scowl. On either side of its head were long, pointed ears, and the man immediately knew what it was.  

“An Elf…,” He gasped under his breath. “A Wood Elf…” 

All of the malice and ill-will that lay piled inside his mind smoldered to ash and was scattered on the wind. This was no demon, nor even a monster. The enemy before him was a breathing, feeling, intelligent being. He could read the look on the Wood Elf’s face. It glowered with enmity – a look hell-bend on vengeance. 

“Why…,” was all the man could say. 

Lying there on the ground before the Elf was the man’s hunting bow, and before the man was the Wood Elf’s antler bow.

Both were loaded with an arrow.

The Elf glanced down at the weapon, and the man noticed.  

“Don’t…,” he quietly pleaded, too late. The Elf sprang for the weapon.

“NO!!” 

The Elf snatched up the hunting bow. The man snatched up the longbow. Both drew to cheek and fired. 

The winged arrows flew from the two hunters in perfect synchronization. Faster than the eye can observe they passed each other in midair – one black and steel-tipped, the other grey and bone-tipped. 

Both shots found their targets.

A force like a sledgehammer slammed into the hunter and the world spun. 

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