The Hunter

The woods were silent as death. The tired sun lay sullenly against the far horizon, casting a pale, vacuous light on the midsummer snow. In the trees small animals skittered nervously like flies on a corpse, freezing at the ghost of a sound.

In the long shadows the Hunter lurked, quieter than death. Clothed in the skins of Wraiths, her ancestral garb long decayed, only the shrewdest of skittering animals could discern her shape from the silent snow. How long she had lurked, listening for the prey, neither she nor the shy stars could recall. But she waited with perfect alertness, for the Prey she had tracked for longer than she could remember, her dexterous hand with its strange bronze ring and all five fingers never strayed far from her gun.

With it smooth walnut stock and dull steel finish, her gun was not a thing of beauty. The oldest memory she had was of the gun, sitting at the feet of her grandfather as he cleaned it with practiced hands and told her tales of the Beckoning. She had carried that gun since before she passed beyond the veil of mortal things, caring for it with a hand nearly as practiced as her grandfather's. It was her constant companion in The Hunt, always within grasp of her dexterous hand, barrel hacked short to avoid her sinister hand. Never within reach of her sinister hand, oh never never.

The last time she fired the gun was a few hands of days ago, before the stars gave way to the sullen midsummer sun. In the brief blink of night she had heard a sound and suddenly it was upon her, some kind of small but vicious northern beast. She had thrown it off and kicked at it, but it refused to capitulate; so her hands worked their magic dance and in seconds the beast was dead. A vicious, hungry thing, it made poor eating. She deeply regretted having spent a valuable bullet on it, for she feared that her 13 remaining rounds may not be enough to quell the Prey.

The Hunter did not remember what she sought or what it looked like, only that it was of the utmost importance that it be killed. A desire to kill it drove her with the coldest and most impersonal of passions, any kind of fiery emotion had been quenched by the quiet cold of the north and the tremendous importance that the Prey be killed. It needed to die. The Hunter would follow it to the very edge of the world to make it so. There was simply no alternative.

With an unspoken sigh, she stood up, emerging from the long midsummer shadow, and stretching out her long frozen muscles. She had lurked here for long enough, it was clear now from the Bones that the Prey would not show itself. She oft suspected that the Spirits that guided the Bones were laying tricks on her. Or perhaps she had no real talent at interpreting their patterns.

So the Hunter took her first deep breath since she had sat down and continued on the northwardly course she had been following for as long as she could remember. This course was reliable, she knew in her bones that it would only be a matter of time before she caught up with the Prey.

Days past and she journeyed north along the familiar path, a timeless instinct guiding her by her bones. Gradually the sullen sun lost ground as the stars turned their bash full faces towards the land once again, if only for a few breaths. She walked day and night, stopping only occasionally to sup on a handful of nuts or the flesh of a small skittering thing.

The Hunter did not need sustenance like normal mortals, her Mission had drawn her far beyond the veil of the mortal, but the consummation of food still gave a small satisfaction to that small kernel of her that still thought about other such unimportant things.

As she traveled the day gradually gave way to the night and the cold grew sharp and sucking as a leech. She paused now and again at the advice of the Bones, but never stopped her unwavering progress northward. During the long, dead nights of winter the Hunter gradually became aware of a new feeling, which she did not immediately recognize. It had been so long since she had allowed herself to experience any kind of emotion, that at first she was unable to identify it. After much contemplation she hesitantly labeled it as dread. Empowered by this realization, she stopped every day when the sun dipped above the horizon to consult the Bones.

One day, as lights danced in the sky over a barren white plane, the Hunter saw something in the snow. She crouched down, compressing her muscles, over the small glimmering form. It was a small chain, draped in all manner of things. Lifting it from the snow with the stained fingers of her sinister hand, she examined it more closely. It was made of a patinad copper that danced like fire in the light of the aurora. The charms that hung from it – for she recognized them as such – appeared to have been crafted by a careful, determined hand. Though she could tell from her experiences with the arcane that the items were charms, she did not know enough about such things to discern their purpose.

Though she did not know for certain, she believed that the charms were likely related the the Prey, how else would such a familiar item be present in this strange land?

Pensively, the Hunter reached into her wallet, retrieving the Bones. She settled down and prepared the casting ritual, smoothing off a landing area and whispering prayers to her ancestors for success. It was a habit that refused to die, after all, she could not imagine how this barren plane could be within the dominion of her ancestors.

Cast after cast, the Hunter was met by chaotic, seemingly random patterns, juxtapositions of incompatible runes, and the most frustration she had experienced since leaving the land of the mortal. What could the Bones be trying to say? Was she just bad at reading them? Were the Spirits playing her for a fool? With a sinking feeling, she realized that the Spirits might be ignoring her, or worse, that they might not even be present at all.

A sudden, unexpected smell made her snap her head up. Smoke. She could smell smoke, the fragrance of burning cedar. It drew to mind old memories – NO. She peered through the gloom until she could make out a small spark of light in the far northern distance. She packed the bones and stashed the charm into her wallet, setting off at a trot. She knew, as deeply as she knew anything, that this was the Prey. That today was the day – or night – she might finally overtake it.

As she ran, the Hunter's frozen heart began to pump cold, sluggish blood through her body, warming her and readying her for anything that might come. Her dexterous hand checked her gun, ensuring that everything was how it should be. Hours passed and the Hunter's feet made holes in the snow, her eyes never leaving her quarry, a speck of fire light that, as she approached it, could be seen to hang above the plane, perhaps on an unseen mountain. Sure enough, her approach began to level up and grow treacherous with the unseen rocks and lichens. Her blood once again flowed hot and vital, she could smell the smoke strongly again, she could feel a path to it deep in her bones.

Her heart pounding with anticipation for the first time in memory, the Hunter crested a the summit of the hill and beheld the Prey. At the center of the summit was the fire she had seen and behind that sat a figure, facing her. She knew deep in her bones that this figure was the Prey.

Through the flames she could see that it had the outline of the man, but she knew that the Prey could not be a man. The Hunter's dexterous hand unslung the gun and raised it to ready, the weathered brown skin and faded blue tattoos of her wrist gleaming in the light of the fire.

The Hunter pulled the trigger and a deafening thunder shattered the quiet serenity of the ice, a stiffing cloud of sulfurous smoke obscuring her vision of the Prey. She circled the fire to find it had keeled over, moaning like an injured animal. The sounds struck a chord within her and she paused, her dexterous hand in the process of cocking the hammer to finish it. They reminded her of the sounds she had heard in a different age, when a child, soft and fleshy with mortality and youth, had fallen from a tree and broken its leg.

She listened, really listened to the animistic squeals of the Prey, and understood them. It was human speech. She could not remember the last time she had heard human speech.

The Hunter lowered the gun and warily crouched down over the Prey. Her body no longer obscuring the light of the fire, she saw, really saw the Prey's face. He, for his squealing were undoubtedly those of a man, had thick brown skin adorned with blue tattoos pulled tight over a sunken face. Vital eyes stared brightly, full of fear from sunken sockets.

He opened his cracked lips and spoke, urgently, fearfully, his words coming out in hoarse gasps. She mulled over his words for a moment, trying to decipher them, before letting out a brief, hoarse sound. It bore no relation to the human sounds uttered by the Prey, for she could not recall when last she had spoken aloud.

The man tried to speak to the Hunter, but she could not understand his utterances. She crouched like a rock over him, her eyes affixed on his face as his speech grew steadily weaker.

She could not say when her brother's life past out through his lips, but in time the warm blood pooling around grew cold and he grew limp in her arms. The Hunter howled and the frozen death of the ice wastes was rent by the sound of memories let forth.

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