“To the trees!”
The voice of Timance bellowed out as the marksman led the way into the Ichean. But his cohort didn’t even have to say the words aloud. Landron’s sprint was already faster than his seven hunters could follow. He took up position beside the archer in pursuit of their prey. None could hope to match his ardent pace.
The rhythm of his breath harmonized with the march of his boots as he descended the rocky hillside to enter the forest outskirts. This was his purpose. He was a chosen warrior of his revered master, and this was the bounty that would propel him into her eternal esteem. Every clansman in Aggedon would remember his name. He dared not let his bleeding prize out of his sight as his entourage trailed.
The Wyldenar elvan known as Ryleohk had been a prime nuisance to the western clans for several cycles. An elusive assassin, the rogue was recognized for working alongside the Westwalker, a dangerous foreigner who had been commissioned by the soldiers of Northaven. The two had been the nemeses of Landron’s ambition for countless seasons.
Wyldenar and Terollar were the native elvan races of Aggedon’s regional borders. Both species remained unique in their unnatural abilities. Ryleohk would gain ground as they entered the thickening brush. Nature’s hindrances did not slow or obstruct the Wyldenar elven.
Landron’s breath pounded with each step taken as his endurance prepared to be tested. He and his men had long ago transcended into qindrid, beyond the mediocrities of the average human. Through the Transcendence, they had become the stoneborne of Aggedon, enhanced by impowers to the tairan and shadow element. Their grey skin was as thick as hide armor, and their strength was far superior to that of their human enemies. They were ageless, sleepless warriors. And he refused to allow fatigue to creep in.
“Clear through the brush! The rogue gains no ground!” he roared to his bloodthirsty hunters.
Timance clearly had the elvan bleeding from his initial arrow, finding its mark in the Wyldenar’s side. The fresh crimson could be seen on every piece of high underbrush Ryleohk grazed as he desperately fled the inevitable doom at his heels.
Landron had hoped the wound would hinder the Wyldenar’s momentum, but he was surprisingly incorrect. The foliage before the elvan’s feet simply parted as he fled. He watched as Ryleohk’s feet did tricks, finding the sides of trees at the bottom and jumping from trunk to trunk, where there appeared to be nowhere to gain traction. The elvan’s leaps took him higher into the copse, between branches that seemed to bend in his favor. Landron shouted to his bowman. “Timance!”
His archer stopped and knelt. Landron halted beside the marksman to watch the kill Timance was about to take from him. The anticipation must have been an hour’s worth of a few seconds as the arrow was nocked and aimed at its condemned target.
That was when the voice of Aldor cursed it all to the Vist. Landron’s eyes grew in fury and curiosity as his henchman called, “Where’s your Westwalker now, wylde?” As if a sudden jinx of fate were there to curse him, Aldor’s ill-timed remark prompted a trap to be set off.
Landron looked back to see Brom wailing as his left leg fell through a thin veil of ground into a small spike trap, designed to impale the ankle upon attempting to retract it from the snare. If that wasn’t enough to put Brom out of the pursuit, the swinging scythe blade that sprang rapidly from around the nearest tree, cleaving through his neck, surely ended the job.
Time had seemingly paused, and everyone forgot about the chase as they watched the blood sputtering from their gurgling comrade. Only Brom’s brother, Eredis, screaming in garbled rage, could be heard over the man’s dying sounds. And the sound of Ryleohk still running.
Eredis was the first to push past everyone, taking point just behind Timance. They pressed on, seven strong now, nearing the clearing. The elvan hit the meadow and never slowed one bit. Landron’s eyes must have deceived him, however. The Wyldenar dived to the ground for cover, obscured by the waist-high, thin-bladed grass. Eredis darted straight into the clearing, hacking away at loose vegetation beneath him to carve a path, intending to shear off the enemy’s head in the same manner that had taken his brother’s life. Timance skulked behind him into the meadow with his bow drawn, seeking its death mark.
Landron held up his hand for his remaining men to stay within the cover of the trees. He felt a slight pang of guilt from intuitively knowing he was about to witness Eredis take the next trap. It wasn’t just about Ryleohk now. The Westwalker was undoubtedly present as well. This prize was too unreal to be true. The elvan already wounded, and one of the foreigner’s traps already triggered. How many traps could the Westwalker have had time to set? And there were still seven of his men versus the two of them. Was he really willing to just sit and watch Eredis die so that he could claim this unparalleled victory, instead of devising a more tactical plan? He knew it was against his mercurial code of honor, yet he stood as silent as a corpse and watched the predictable fate of Brom’s brother.
“Step into the demise,” came a ghostly whisper on the wind, the thrown voice of the Westwalker in the Civil tongue upon each of their ears. And it was Timance who took the blow instead.
Timance dropped with a thud into the undergrowth with a crossbow bolt to the side of the head from the east of the clearing. Before Landron could make a sound to shout, the mechanical clang of a turret crossbow clicked again. Just as Eredis turned about to look back at his dead companion, both qindrid in the meadow fell to the Westwalker’s precision.
Ryleohk appeared again, rising from the tall grass to sprint into the trees. As a shadowy glimpse in the day’s break of clouds cast, the shrouded figure, which could be none other than the Westwalker, backtracked into the woods as well, leaving his preset turret, built with two crossbows mounted atop a swivel platform. Landron had to choose quickly. “Michayle, Yalen, Thuros—on the Westwalker! Stick to the tree line, but do not be lured by the trapmaster! Aldor, to the wylde, on me!”
He and Aldor raced across the vulnerable meadow, keeping as low as possible to the grass with their senses tuned to the left for any signs of the marksman assassin. He would claim Ryleohk’s life today, even if it meant all his men saw the grave. He prayed to his matriarch, Lilealah, for the forgiveness of ill thoughts toward the fate of his men and for the good fortune this destined hunt presented to him.
They reached the trees once more and took after the rogue-elvan, still in sight. Ryleohk was guiding them back in the direction of the Westwalker now. Landron knew he had to close in on his kill. The elvan took a methodical trek through the skirt of the tree line, all the while barely touching the ground. A low branch here, the side of a tree there, even when it seemed his weight couldn’t possibly be supported. Nature bent to him as if he were its king. It was an awe-inspiring feat to behold, one that he would retell in his saga to his people after he returned with the elvan’s and trapmaster’s heads. Aldor’s labored gasps of pursuit beat with his own as they dared forward to make history.
The death wails of one, or maybe two, of the others broadcasted throughout the unseen vicinity. Michayle, Thuros, Yalen … which of you? Someone stall the Westwalker until I finish the wylde. Ryleohk would taste his blade soon, and they could take the Westwalker by numbers. His men were on their chosen ground. This was their stage. What a fitting place to bury them.
And there, the opportunity. The elvan leaped impossibly far from the base of a tree, but no cushioned ground was there to save his stunt this time. Ryleohk tumbled and collapsed awkwardly, lying there at the edge of the mantle of leaves over the soft soil. Six more steps, and Landron’s sword would cleave through the Wyldenar’s neck. The head of Ryleohk was his.
But there were no fallen leaves during the Dawning season. This wasn’t natural. The leaves had been placed here for a purpose. And Wyldenar elven never landed in any way but gracefully. Even if he could have commanded his own defiant feet from the thrust of the pursuit, his misfortune would have remained the same. Aldor came blazing onward for the glory blow, and their weight together plunged them into the depths of the sinkhole trap.
Landron saw the ground around him become rising walls as he fell helplessly. His hands frantically searched for loose roots to save him from the lengthy wooden pikes reaching to take his life. One of the stakes found its home deep inside his right thigh, piercing through, even though his augmented stoneborne skin was far thicker than that of the human northmen. It was one of the skinnier branch pikes fashioned in the pit, and as it skewered his leg, the upper tip snapped completely off, with femur and branch perpendicular to each other. He landed, bizarrely, still standing, face planted against the side wall of the cold dirt. Rage kept him from collapsing, and either fear or defiance kept him from looking down at his leg or back at Aldor. He paused only for an instant, not even enough time to curse. He didn’t have time to curse death. He had two lives to claim yet.
His hands found a root system in the soil wall, and his enhanced strength dragged him to the rim of the ditch. His sword was found at the edge before the fall, replaced back in his readied grasp.
Landron peered down into the pit, into the dead eyes of Aldor staring back up at him. Aldor’s body was impaled through the lower spine on one of the many pikes driven into the sinkhole trap. Landron clutched at his crippled right leg, avoiding looking at the piece of wood protruding from his thigh for fear that the mere sight of it would amplify the pain.
His back found a large boulder next to the pit, and his eyes frantically probed the woods before him for any sign of movement or form that would prove to be the elvan or the Westwalker. Nothing came. His breathing pattern and heartbeat were heavier than a war drum. And still nothing came. Blood drained freely from his leg. His hand that clamped the wound was now drenched in red.
His intuition levels were rising. The crows overhead were evaluating their feast below. His ears heeded the cold wind whistling through the thin-leafed canopy above him. He could smell his own sweat slowly freezing to his grey skin. He could see every detail of this pressing woodland tomb that was attempting to claim him. He could feel himself rising to his feet, challenging the pain in his leg and rebelling against all logic to remain hidden. Landron was a hunter of Clan Thalbear, of the original stoneborne qindrid of Aggedon. He did not hide from death.
“Step into the demise.” Again came the whisper on the wind of the Westwalker’s famous line.
“Coward!” he heard himself blaring to the unseen ghost, resorting to the Civil tongue to match his enemy’s. He now stood several paces away from the pit and the massive rock, in a small brushless clearing between several trees. “The legend is true! The Westwalker is a coward!” He bellowed his taunts as he slowly spun in a limping circle, hoping to provoke the nefarious strategist into a one-on-one advantage. “Come, Westwalker! To my face! To this ground in front of me! I challenge you!” Landron’s sword stayed drawn, pointing it to each tree and then the next.
“I played your game. Now play mine, cowa—” A small crossbow bolt thudded into the back of his left hamstring, buckling his leg and forcing him to his knees. The sudden surprise forced him to look at the new wound, and then impulsively at his right thigh. It was worse than he had expected. All his brave nerve retreated inside him. He allowed himself a second to hope that at least Michayle, Thuros, or Yalen had survived, a futile idea that maybe a hero would rise. Instead of fear or tears, he found himself looking to the sky of crows, and involuntarily he began to chuckle at his inevitable dismay.
“Survivalist,” came an unknown stern voice behind him. He would have turned to look at whom it came from if he could have, but he didn’t need to. He could hear its owner slowly circling around in front of him.
Landron grunted as he tried to turn and see his attacker. He thought on the lone word, utterly confused. “Eh?” was all he could intelligently manage, however.
Again came the firm foreign voice, thick with an accent not of this country. “You said ‘coward.’ It’s ‘survivalist.’ You see?” And finally he could see him. The Westwalker was before him, at a safe distance, near the trees. “Valiance and honor are for heroes, but heroes simply die. I am no such hero.”
Landron stared down his executioner, taking in every detail as time itself seemed to slow in his last moments. Even if he lived to survive this encounter, none of his clan would believe that he had come face-to-face with the Westwalker, living to tell the tale.
The Westwalker was armed with two exotic handheld crossbows, both built with a clip of sorts above the stock, which had been engineered in such a way as to allow him to repeat several shots, though as to how many per weapon, the gossips varied.
Across his back was his infamous bow, crafted of the white wraithwood of his eastern homeland. It was the most outlandish machinery Landron had ever seen on a weapon. The longbow held some form of perpendicular centric magazine that extended long enough for a full draw of the string. The narrow compartment was known to fit special-sized long-bolts, not arrows, that allowed the Westwalker to release shots repeatedly. The unique contraption acted as a barrel for the bolts to accurately project from, as well as aiding as a sight guide for improved precision. The master engineer had a name for himself that he was the one who designed and constructed his own weaponry, including his traps.
Not much could be seen of the small foreigner, since he was covered from head to toe in camouflage garb. He decked himself out in thickly layered clothes, blended into the contours of the many wooded terrains of Aggedon’s stretch. His face was hidden by faded woolen wraps, leaving only his mouth, nose, and sky-blue eyes open to the elements.
His barely exposed skin shared the same grey hue as that of Landron and his doomed entourage. The Westwalker was indeed also a qindrid. But while Landron was from the local Aggedon region and of the stoneborne Transcendence, the Westwalker was known to be of the eastern skyborne, hailing from half a world away. His pale blue-washed eyes were altogether alien to look into, more of a squint and slant than the northmen’s, with a different intent in his resolve far from loyal to the Aggedonians.
His enemy stared into Landron’s transparently glass-glazed eyes, crystalline-clear, like those of all stoneborne. The skyborne engineer was a being of unwavering confidence and impeccable calculations, having played this game before, time and time again. He and Ryleohk were not the prey; they were “the hunters of hunters,” just as the saying went.
The dismal quiet seemed to last an age. The Westwalker was allowing the defeat to sink in, and the psychological sport began.
“What do you want with me, foreigner?” Landron growled lividly. “You have already baited my men to their deaths!”
“Should have taken heed of the tales of your camps, then, Landron Thalbear. It is we who hunt the hunters. And you know what I came for.” The trapmaster revealed that he even knew his actual name. Of course he knew. The Westwalker always studied his prey before he brought them “into the demise.”
The Westwalker whistled a signal into the trees, and immediately his obedient steed came into view, striding up beside him. His exotic horse was just as foreign as he was, nothing like the breeds of Aggedon or Barredom: piebald, with black dominance and white splotches throughout, and an extravagant faded-blond mane that matched its lavishly long tail. Around its fetlocks and hooves it sported the feathering aspect seen only on the stallions of the eastern realms. Most bizarre, however, was the otherworldly semblance the horse possessed in its eyes, wisp-like orbs that faintly glowed green. There was a story of another life within them. This was no normal animal, but something more.
Landron could have described the Westwalker and his horse in the finest detail on the yestermorn, even though it wasn’t until just this instant that he had seen the famous two so close. Every qindrid and human in the wide north knew the tall tale of the Westwalker and those he companioned with.
“The missive. You want answers, and you must have learned I had it on me. Should have known Northaven would be sending their submissive pets to strip it from me,” Landron fervidly taunted. “You kill your own kind, Westwalker, and side with those who use you like a dog. They’ll dispose of you as soon as this war is over!”
His disciplined rival ignored the provocation and instead simply cocked his head curiously, as if he were a professor schooling an inept child. “I am qindrid through and through, but you stoneborne of Aggedon are not my kind,” the skyborne contended winningly with no sense of pride in his defense. “This war is over. I already know that the entirety of the Aggedonian army has mysteriously vanished, and I have an idea how so. The humans of Barredom just paid me to find out why, and where to. Everything I need to know is on that scroll you carry. I am nothing more than a glorified bounty hunter, just like you, Landron.”
Nothing more than a privileged prisoner, more like a fool. I am a chosen of my maker, while you are a deserter of yours! Landron kept his hostile thoughts to himself. He could no longer feel the pain from the bolt that had struck his leg, nor the excruciating throb from his injured thigh. He felt paralyzed from his waist down, yet somehow he was still poised on his knees. The Westwalker’s bolt was undoubtedly tipped with some sort of numbing toxin that had already taken effect. He decided to enjoy the euphoric numbing while it briefly lasted.
Landron stammered for an avenue to survive this encounter, as some had before him. “Wait.” He tried to shout it, but it came out much quieter than intended, and much softer. The hemorrhage from his thigh and poison in his veins had made him weak. But poison did not last long in stoneborne blood, and he knew he would gain his resolve back any moment. He removed his helm of rank among his clan, revealing his bald head and bare face.
“Negotiations, then? I have heard the Westwalker is reasonable in a parley,” Landron murmured, tentative of the rumor. Landron knew that the wise trapmaster had already deduced the answer behind the disappearance of the Aggedonian qindrid army the human northmen so desperately desired clarification of. The Westwalker did not need to read the missive to know the truth. The purpose of the skyborne acquiring the scroll was to plainly prove validity to the General of Barredom, the Guardian of Northaven, Randon Roth.
“Negotiate?” The Westwalker sounded curious, pulling down his cowl, which had hidden half of his face. He was definitely no northman, an obvious product of his people, who hailed from the far east, never seen in the regions of Aggedon or Barredom. “I have been known to do so.”
“Am I to become your prisoner now?” Landron demanded, ready to be done with the charade of false diplomacy. “To be tortured? To Northaven or the Frostdale Deeps, then?”
“Prisoners and torture? That is just not my way. As I said, we both know the war is now over. You have nothing more of value,” his enemy divulged. Landron’s eyes went mad for reasoning, but his throat caught the words as the Westwalker resumed his sentencing. “You see, there is just one larger concern for you.”
The Westwalker moved from his position, pulling his steed by the reins. There, at the tree base behind him, stood Ryleohk, covered in blood on his left side, from arm to leg, and as feral-looking as ever, seeming more beast than elvan at the core of his soul.
Ryleohk’s skin was grey, like his own, with ashen-colored feral eyes. His knotted hair frayed down across his upper back in a mesh of various stone hues, twisted into random tresses throughout. Ever wild as he was, his mane looked as if it had never known a wash. The young elvan’s beard ended in a small braid on his chin. His pointed elvan ears were longer than the norm, turning outward instead of lying flat against his head. Though of Wyldenar descent, Ryleohk had been born a rogue-elvan, imbuing him with certain cosmetic alterations, including the grey features, like those of the qindrid.
The shirtless rogue was unarmored above his waist. Tattered leathers of off-white furs covered his legs down to his bare feet, Wyldenar being as near-immune to the cold as stoneborne and skyborne were. One hand held his prominent oversized throwing axe, while the other held the carcass of a dead tundra rat, and his dark eyes were seething with dedicated hate.
Landron’s visage grew just as malign as Ryleohk’s, now realizing the entirety of the ploy. Timance had never struck Ryleohk on the hill. The elvan had never been injured. He had cut open a fresh rodent kill and covered himself in its blood to bait them into the Westwalker’s forest-trapped gauntlet. With his anger consuming him, he switched his aversion to the Westwalker to slay him with one final oath.
But it was the Westwalker who spoke instead. “Ryleohk never negotiates.”
The last sound Landron heard was the ear-piercing whistle of the elvan’s axe cutting through the air.