Medievia Mudslinger
April 1, 1999

The Hunt--By Malknar

My quarry's trail lead on ahead of me. A broken twig here, the slightest indent there, a bit of fabric caught on one of the hundreds of trees that surrounded me. Each sign would have escaped the eye of an untrained observer, but I was not an untrained observer. My quarry was a man, a murderer who had robbed and killed an unarmed merchant in the village behind me. They had placed a bounty on his head, and that is what attracted me. The foliage ahead of me became too thick to pass, and the trail bent off to the east. I had arrived in the village soon after the summons, and had caught his trail soon after. Even so the rogue had a several hour lead on me, and I had to follow a cold trail. I set out rapidly, more rapidly than any ordinary man, even one being hunted for murder could possibly hope to travel at for any length of time. However, I was no ordinary man, for this is what I did to survive. Since that moment I had decreased his lead on me considerably, the signs at my feet were fresh and the way they were slanted showed the murderer's weariness. Soon I would be able to hear the sounds of his travel, if not see him through the thick woods. He would never hear me, for I traveled with the silence of an evening breeze. As I suspected, the vague sounds of a man crashing through the undergrowth came to my ears. I quickened my pace, bending low to the ground to shield myself from his vision. I prowled up right behind him, making no sound louder than my breathing, and that was repressed down to the slightest murmur. I slowly, and silently, drew my blade from its well-oiled sheath preparing myself to attack. Suddenly, from a bush to my right, a bird started with a great flutter of wings. The alerted thief spun around, saw me, and took off with great speed. But even his great speed was not so great as mine. I was after him less than a second after he took off. I quickly gained the ground between us and raised my sword, hilt first, to strike him down. Without warning, the ground ahead of me crumbled inward, and the thief plunged in. I desperately tried to stop, but my momentum was too great and I too tumbled forward into the depths of the pit.

When I regained consciousness I was immersed in darkness. Far above me, at such a height that I could hardly believe I fell from, I could see the edges of the pit barely illuminated by a sliver of a moon. My prey was nowhere to be seen, but I could see his tracks in the dust of the passage. I pulled myself slowly to my feet, groaning at the innumerable bruises that undoubtedly covered my body. An echo passed through the passage, and I instinctively slapped my hand to my scabbard, to a sword that wasn't there. Realizing that I could see nothing in the darkness, I felt for a pouch that I kept strapped to my side. From it I withdrew a small ball of glass, miraculously intact, which grew bright as I held it. Surveying my surroundings I found myself in the midst of an interweaving maze of tunnels, and to my right I also noticed an almost perfect imprint of my sword, its form ruined only by a footprint that went right over it. I scowled deeply to myself and drew a small silver dirk from my boot. Even if the man wasn't a murderer he would pay for taking my sword. I began to hunt him, the ball held high to illuminate my surroundings better. Its luminous glow showed long walls, scattered with colorful paintings of horses. Every once in a while I would sense the presence of something, but when I looked toward it I would only catch a glimpse of something scurrying into the darkness. Before me the passage opened up into a larger room, and the footsteps lead right into it. I hid the ball under my hand, and glanced around the corner. No one was to be seen. I uncovered the ball and stepped lightly into the cavern. Before I could move a whizzing projectile flew by my ear imbedding itself into the wall behind me. I rolled forward, my dirk held tightly, my eyes searching for any sign of the enemy. There were none. The cavern remained empty. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement, a small spike was beginning to grow from the wall. I watched it curiously, my danger forgotten for a moment. Without warning the projectile was launched. Quickly noticing my mistake I dove to the side, but too late. Though the spike missed me it crashed through my ball, shattering it into a thousand pieces with a flare of light. The cavern was immersed in darkness. I ran the way I knew the trail to lead, and leaned against the wall, my heart pounding against my chest.

"Even the walls of this place seek my destruction." I thought to myself. The track led before me, and I realized that I could not return the way I had come. I had to continue, even though I no longer desired to. Even in the darkness of the tunnels my eyes could still pick up some hint of the trail, and my ears were doubly alert. Far ahead I could hear the sound of leather shoes slapping against the stone floor. I quickened my pace, and the noise grew louder. Soon I could hear the sound of ragged breathing, he must have taken some hurt in the fall as well, I realized. Still the black of the tunnel foiled my vision. Suddenly, an exclamation of dismay sounded from in front of me. Out of nowhere a fire leapt. Within its core I could see its source, a wolf of extraordinary size. Behind it, illuminated by its flickering light I could see segmented centipedes, lined up like some kind of diabolical army. The wolf snarled and from behind us came an answering howl. I touched the thief lightly on his shoulder, and he spun around as if anticipating some new horror.

"Peace, for now. We have bigger problems." I spoke, and as if to reinforce my statement the wolf crept closer. He nodded and turned to face the threat. Down the tunnel from which we had just come another flame appeared wolf like th first, with the same type of centipedes following it. We stood back to back; the hunter turned prey, and the prey hunted by all. Once again the wolf snarled and the centipedes raced forward. I placed my dirk in the head of the first one and turned to face the next. The corpse fell to the ground, and before my eyes split into two and rose again.

"They don't die!" I shouted wildly. Behind me I could feel my ally fighting hard. One of the fragments of the centipede threw itself at me. Bringing my blade up rapidly I caught the beast it midair, splitting it down the very center. The two pieces struck me, immediately re-grew, and attacked. I fell to the ground, desperately trying to keep them from my face. They raked and tore at me leaving long scratches on my body. Suddenly, one was swept from my body in a burst of green blood; the other had only time to look up before it too was killed by a stroke from my friend's sword.

"We cannot hold them here, let's go!" He grabbed my hand, pulling me to my feet. His statement was true, but there was no way out. However, back along the trail we came from only one creature remained, a wolf of fire. I reached back and flung my dagger with full strength, striking the ceiling just above the monster, right at the base of a stalactite. The stalactite crumbled with the force of the blow and fell. It dropped straight onto the wolf, piercing clean through the beast's torso and pinning it to the ground. Its fire went out with a whoosh of air and a puff of smoke.

"Come on!" I shouted. Turning I raced from the enemy and past the impaled wolf, pausing only to retrieve my dagger. The man I had hunted was right behind me, and right behind him leaped the remaining fire-wolf. The remaining centipedes were left behind with the swiftness of the pursuit. My comrade drew even with me, and from behind I could feel the licking flames. I ventured a look, only to see the wolf gaining swiftly on us, its saliva dripping from its mouth in boiling droplets. As we ran I could see the area of the caves from which the dreaded cave corral had shot at me before. Before I could stop him, my companion sprinted right in.

"No!" I dove forward, catching him by his legs and bringing him to the ground just as I heard the first spike launch. Behind me the fire-wolf began tearing wildly at its side, trying to pull the projectile out. Another flew through the air, and another, and another. Soon the wolf was studded with rock, blood dripping down its sides into a crimson puddle. It lunged forward, maddened by pain, its jaws wide open. I could past its rows of sharp teeth down into its cavernous maw, blazing with fire. I held my arms out to ward it off, but it was a futile gesture. Suddenly, a shard of rock hit the side of its head, piecing through to the other side. The wolf staggered and fell on its side, its flames extinguished.

"Only a little further." I gasped to my companion who lay panting in the dust. We forced ourselves to our feet and stumbled forward until we reached the chamber that we had entered through. A single strand of light lit this area, coming from the newly risen sun beaming through the small hole, illuminating the long and dangerous climb that we had to do.

"Give me your knife." I ordered. He looked sharply at me, as if suspecting me of treachery.

"I'll use it to climb up, and I'll drop down a rope for you." His eyes flickered, but he handed over his thin blade.

"Good luck." He said. I looked upward and realized I would need as much of it as I could get. I jammed my silver dirk into a crack between the rocks, as high up as I could reach, and pulled myself up to it. Then I wedged his weapon between two loosely held bricks, my feet scrambling for a foothold. Inch by inch I scaled the wall, my fear growing as rapidly as the distance to the floor did. Finally, I reached up over the rim and grabbed a thick and strong root. I began to pull myself out into the sun when I felt a movement at my leg. I glanced down just in time to see a pale green tentacle finish wrapping itself around my foot. It pulled sharply and my legs flew from the wall, leaving me nearly horizontal, my arms just barely holding onto the root. I let go with one hand, grabbed a knife and desperately tried to slash at it, but it was too far away. Still I continued, the weed beginning to overwhelm the hold I had on the root. I swung once more and the blade wedged itself in the leather of my boot. I pulled it free, but that had given me an idea. I placed the blade against my boot and in one swift stroke severed all the laces. The boot came away with a jerk, and I was free for the moment. I quickly pulled myself up with the last of my strength and rolled behind a tree of tremendous girth. I waited for a moment to make sure the weed was gone, then crawled back to the hole. From my pouch I pulled a length of thin, but strong rope and lowered it down.

"Hurry! They are coming!" I heard him shout from below, and indeed I could see the flames of many more wolves flickering in the passage. The rope hit the bottom and he grabbed hold of it.

"Pull! Pull!" He shouted, fear clouding his voice. I pulled with all my might and the rope began to steadily climb. Suddenly, it stopped with a jerk; the weight upon it increased many-fold. It began to pull back into the hole, my best effort useless, and I was nearly pulled with it. At the very edge I was forced to let go, and the remaining rope slid with a sigh into the darkness. From below came the sounds of battle, which was soon replaced by screams of pain, and then silence. I turned grief-stricken from the hole, where a man who I had hunted, a man whose name I did never knew, a man who had saved my life, died.

Later, much later, I limped back into the town. My clothes were shredded into rags, long scratches trailed down my chest, my scabbard was empty, and my left foot was derifit of footwear. I stopped only to replace my clothing and weapon, and then moved on, the townspeople whispering behind my back. The bounty on my ally's, nay, my friend's head was never collected. Nor shall it ever be.