“The Hunter and the Prey”
The air was damp and chilly. Sunlight filtered down through the treetops, piercing my still sleepy eyes. As they began to adjust, they were assaulted by the waves of green: leaves, moss, and vines. All around me I could hear the morning birds chirping playful little songs, while a few crickets buzzed in the background. Before long they would return to their holes for the day, waiting till nightfall to come back out.
It was another beautiful day, a good day for the hunt.
Getting to my feet, I reached out for my familiar companion, a long weathered slug rifle. My fingers slipped into the familiar grooves of the wooden stock. At two meters in length, it made a good walking stick, and today was no different. I eased my body weight onto the trusty old rifle and peered across the woods.
Trees, both crooked, straight, and fallen, filled most of the landscape. A few rock shelves, overgrown with moss, popped up here and there in tiny clearings. But for the most part, underneath the canopy, the ground was flat and open. A few low shrubs and some spotty thickets, but nothing impassable. It was good country for making tracks. A being could travel upwards of ten kilometers per day if they pushed themselves.
Yet this way day four.
I brought my canteen up and took a swig of the cool, refreshing water. My mind wandered to my prey. They would need water too.
I hunched down to take a closer look at the ground. The last sign I’d found had been a spot of blood on a broken stump about two feet from where I’d decided to make camp. It was always a good idea to end the day on the last marker.
Upon closer inspection I confirmed what I’d suspected last night. One of them had tripped on a large root, stumbled forward and landed on a small broken sapling. The jagged stump had done some damage, leaving behind a small spurt of blood, with some droplets leading away. In the early morning sun, the little crimson pools glistened in the light. It made spotting them that much easier.
Unfortunately the blood trail dried up after a half hour’s march. The wound probably clotted over by now. That meant it wasn’t too serious either. At least they seemed to still be in a hurry. Their trail was earmarked by telltale twigs snapped in half, muddy prints in the soft dirt, and broken spider webs. In fact, the spider webs were the biggest give away. The nasty little things were everywhere. All except where my prey had gone.
Four hours passed by. The endless trekking was taking its toll on my calves, so I had to take a break. I made myself comfortable on a fallen tree, using it as a bench. I pulled out a sandwich from my pack and scanned my surroundings. The woods had shifted into constant rolling hills with dry wooded valleys between them now. A few dry creek beds but no water. Though the ground was soft with dew in the mornings, it dried out to a crisp at noon. From the looks of things it hadn’t rained for a week or two in this area. That boded well for me, bad for them.
A branch snapped in the distance.
My head darted in that direction, my eyes zooming through the area, trying to detect anything out of place. For any hint of movement. My heart raced, adrenaline beginning to spurt through my system. Instinctively my ears tuned in for the slightest sound.
Patiently I waited.
My entire body eased as I saw a tiny rodent scurrying up a tree. Just a critter, nothing more. Slowly I relaxed and returned to my sandwich. It was going to be a long day.
Three more hours down the trail and I began to worry. The webs were getting less frequent and I was having to rely more and more on scattered tracks and a few broken or bent over limbs. If this kept up, I might lose the trail.
I decided to mark my spot, tying a bright red piece of synthcloth onto a branch. From here I could branch off, and if I lost the trail I could return and try again. I knew I was close. Each day I was gaining on them. Yet now that the trail was thinning out, I needed to embolden my advance if I wanted to keep my advantage. That meant charging ahead in a likely direction in hope of catching up. It also meant going off on a goose chase if I chose wrong.
Oh well, it was a gamble I’d decided to take.
Two hours later and I was rewarded. The shrill scream of my prey could be heard in a valley not too far off. The wounded one had probably tripped again and reopened its wound. I hastened my pace, my adrenaline kicking in as I closed in for the kill. Hopping over logs and bouncing off rocks, I made my way forward. Going over the crest of the tree covered hill, I slowed down, catching my breath. Slurking through the underbrush, I eased my way into view of the next valley. The hill I was standing on dipped down into a winding creek bed, butting up to the next hill. I couldn’t see any water nor could I hear its trickling flow. Carefully scanning through the trees, I searched for movement.
Another scream shattered the silence.
This time my eyes were able to lock on to the source of the scream. A long, hunch backed beast reeled back as some unseen predator struck at its shaggy hide. The ravaged creature, spurred on by a five day chase, was not willing to back down. With its jaws opened wide, it lunged forward. Ordinarily it was a simple predatory move. Any semi intelligent creature could’ve predicted it. Yet this was only a feint. The real attack came from behind. The furry beast’s partner darted in for the kill, maximizing its advantage of surprise.
I watched as the dark furred creature sprinted out from its cover to leap down into the gully where the unseen prey was cornered. The other shaggy beast, with its teeth in a wild gleaming grin, now joined in the attack, pressing the onslaught. From my position I didn’t have a vantage for the shot. I’d need to circle around, down toward the creek bed to get a better angle.
Moving slowly but steadily, I slipped across the landscape. Keeping to the soft dirt and silent rocks as much as possible, and avoiding the dead leaves and rigid twigs. I twisted through the branches, narrowly gliding off of them to keep them from moving. Anything to minimize my presence. The shallow drop in the gully was beginning to come into view now. I could see the hind quarters on one of the beasts. I could also see what they were attacking.
A pale, flesh colored arm jutted up into the air, flailing for life. Streams of blood flowed down the tattered forearm. It was a human.
Instantly I brought my rifle up for the shot. Elbow resting on my knee, hand wrapped around the sling, my aim steadied. The crosshairs slid to a stop. They would stay there for only a second. As that second began, my finger automatically began the squeeze. Slowly, with the tender care of a mother holding her newborn child, the finger brought the firing stud back until the earsplitting crack of the rifle shattered all calm.
As my body recoiled with the kick, I struggled to reorient myself for a follow up shot. Quickly my eyes returned to the gully where now one large harry lump lay still. More of the bloodied human could be seen. Yet there was no sign of the other beast.
I lowered my rifle and scanned the terrain in front of me. Simultaneously I reached for my blaster, bringing it out of its nerf hide holster and into my right hand. Just as seamlessly, I brought it up into the ready position, waiting for my prey to reveal itself.
Seconds passed like minutes. The silence strained my ears as a struggled to pick up the slightest sound. Ever constantly my eyes darted over every image. Nothing moved.
It wasn’t good. During the first few seconds after the shot, the other beast must have broken off for distance. Now it was circling in at its leisure, all surprise lost. The advantage, again, his for the taking.
I grew nervous. My right hand began to shake in anxiousness. Eyes blurring from the strain of relentless focus. Thoughts betraying my nerves.
What if he is behind me? What if I miss? What if I’m too slow?
I shake the thoughts as quickly as they enter, knowing that not only do they not matter, but their very presence could distract my attention. And just as I toss away another useless fear, a blur creeps into the corner of my vision. A dark hairy blur, leaping for me, not three meters away.
The rifle falls from my left hand in slow motion as my right snaps forward. I fall back, leveling the pistol’s sights as my body reels backwards. I can feel the breath of the creature against my face as its 160 kilo body flies through the air. A giant mouthful of crooked yellow teeth are stretched apart as the creature sets its jaws like a spring loaded trap. The snarling mouth eclipses everything else.
I didn’t get to see the soulless green eyes of the beast as it sprang upon me, nor the razor sharp claws on its feet. But I did have time enough, for it seemed time came to a standstill as it flew through the air, to see it wiggling pink tongue drooling in eagerness. No doubt predicting the delicious raptures of my tender flesh and warm blood flowing across its taste budded surface.
And my finger, steady as always, serenely pulled back on the firing stud. A short crack was muffled as the hefty beast fell on me, smashing me against the earthen ground. My back bolted in pain as it collided with the sharp edge of a rock. One of my thighs felt warm and sticky, a cold gouge running along its center. My chest heaved as I struggled to breath. Lungs crushed by the weight of the creature on top of me.
With one last surge of adrenaline, I heaved the beast off to the side, wriggling out the rest of the way. My left leg felt numb so I simply slid backwards on my rump, keeping my pistol in my lap and my eyes on the beast. So far it had not moved an inch.
Not taking any chances, I took aim at the creature’s temple and put two more bolts into its brain. Its head merely lurched to the side, all life having already left it. Now I felt assured that I could tend to my wounds.
Beyond a bruise on my back, some scratch marks here and there, the only real injury was my thigh. A single talon had managed to shred through my pant leg and into the flesh. It wasn’t significantly deep, but it was bleeding steadily. First things first, I cut the cloth of the pant leg back then washed out the wound with water and disinfectant. Sterilizing a small crooked needle, I began to stitch the wound close. It took 18 loops to seal it shut, but the work was done. I tied it up with a clean bandage, then gingerly rose to my feet. The pain swelled a bit, but I managed to keep most of my weight off of it by leaning on the rifle.
Now that that was taken care of, my mind wandered to the other beast and the human that they had attacked. Bit by bit I made the tedious journey down into the gulley. I had to be careful of branches scraping my wound but luckily I didn’t have much trouble. As I neared the first creature, I prepared myself for finishing it off. Keeping my rifle as a crutch in my left hand, I drew up my pistol with the right. Easing my way over, I jabbed the beast in the eye. Not a twitch.
Again I relaxed. Both beasts were dead. Now I could check on the human.
Slumping my way forward, I could see a shredded cloak draped over a bloodied, battered form. Parts of it looked liked chewed hamburger, mangled beyond recognition. Leaning in closer, I pulled the form back by the shoulder, rolling them over to see its face.
It was a man.
He had dim, gray eyes, glazed over with a milky film. His cheeks were lined with deep wrinkles, crisscrossed by three or four visible scars. His hair was dark, a deep brown, but it was receding with age. A few white hairs here and there along the edges. But beyond that, he looked normal. Two eyes, two ears, full cheeks and a strong chin. His face was spared from the beasts.
I put a hand to the side of his throat. To my surprise, there was a pulse. Strong and steady.
For two days I stood watch over him. I’d dressed his wounds as best I could and scared off any would be predators. On the evening of the second day he woke
“Did…you kill them?”
It was a harsh, ragged whisper.
“Here, drink some water.” I handed him a fresh canteen and waited for him to take a sip. “There were two of them. The locals call them shraydons. They’re both dead now.”
A weary smile crossed the man’s face. “Good.”
I watched him nurse the canteen for about twenty minutes. He didn’t speak another word until he’d drained the canteen dry. Only then did he begin speaking, this time with a rejuvenated voice.
“Thank you. I owe you my life.”
I took the thanks in silent passing.
“These shraydons, did the locals hire you to kill them?”
“Yes, they’d been preying upon the farmers for several months now. After scraping together some credits, they posted a bounty for off world hunters.”
The man sat up from his bed, an old knapsack that I kept as a spare. He looked at me with those murky gray eyes. “Were there other hunters that answered the call?”
“No. Not that I know of.”
I could see that he was reading in between the lines. He was crafty and smart. Very smart.
He didn’t ask any more questions. Instead, he laid back down, resting his eyes. I decided to let him be and go for a short walk.
As I strolled through the woods, my mind kept thinking of the man and his unasked questions. He’d asked if I’d killed them, the shraydons, knowing full well that the creatures were dead. Of course I couldn’t know that for certain, but that’s what my gut told me. He knew they were dead. What he really wanted to know was how.
Then he’d asked if the locals hired me to kill them. Another stupid question, something you would expect of someone making idle chit chat. Yet this was not the kind of man to waste words. He had that sort of edge to him that made it clear. The real question was aimed at me, at my origins. He was trying to determine just who I was and where from.
The third question was very subtle. Were there other hunters that answered the call? There had to be something about the question, some deeper meaning. All the other questions did. Yet for the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. For ten minutes I struggled, looking for the answer. Finally I found it. He knew the locals could not afford to attract the attention of anyone with the measly cash they had on hand. The only reason someone would’ve come was for the challenge. Shraydons were deadly game. Too deadly. That was the reason no one else came. No one else but me.
He was after something. Slowly but surely his questions had prodded around at it, and still I couldn’t see it. Yet beyond all those silly questions, and hidden meanings, one thing still tore at me. He’d thanked me for saving his life.
It seemed genuine enough, but now after thinking about the other things he’d said, it made me wonder if he really knew the truth of the matter. When it came down to it, his life had come second to killing the shraydons. I could’ve gotten off that first shot sooner, but I waited. I wanted to make sure that the first shot killed one. Knowing all along that with its mate dead, the other one wouldn’t run off. It made my job easier, ending the chase. And though I hadn’t paid it much thought at the time, the man’s life never really entered the equation. He was just bait for the trap. Something to keep my prey tied down for the moment so I could make the kill.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow he knew that.
As I walked back to my make shift camp, I paid special attention to my new guest. Even as I lay down for the night, I still tried to keep an eye on him or at least an open ear. But as hard as I tried, the sweet darkness of sleep quickly put me under.
* * *
Again, the bright rays of sunlight filtered down through the tree tops, shattering my sleepy eyes. The cold dampness in the ground made it easier to wake up. Within a few moments, my senses were sharp and in action, sweeping the world around me for anything of interest. The first thing I noticed was that the old knapsack was empty.
The man was gone.
Wrapping my things together, I packed camp and took after the man’s trail. It wasn’t hard to follow in the soft morning soil. Before long I found him, standing with his eyes closed in the middle of a small clearing in the woods.
“Thought you were going to leave without saying goodbye.” The words came out with a half smile and a light hearted grin. Even as I spoke the words, I questioned my curiosity.
“I can see why you like the woods. There is great power here. It must aide you greatly in your hunts.”
I paused a moment as I pondered what he meant by power.
“You long for something, I can tell.” The man turned slowly to face me. His eyes were wide open now. “If you want, I can awaken that gift in you. It will open up a brand new world for your eyes to see. It will bring power to your finger tips, to your very command.” The man raised his head to the sky, his voice lowering an octave. “But you must want it.”
I couldn’t help myself, I was intrigued. “This power you speak of, can it bring the dead to life, can it make the real invisible and the invisible real?”
The man lowered his head with a grim smile. His milky eyes glistened in the sunlight. “Oh yes, these things are quite possible.”
My blood rushed as my eagerness got the best of me. I’d heard of spacers talk about shamans who could do things like that, but I’d always thought them to be tall tales. Now I began to wonder if there might be some truth to them after all. “Prove it.”
“Very well.” The man raised his arms out in front of him, his fingers drawing out as if he were controlling some invisible puppet, pulling its strings to put on a show. Suddenly the earth began to tremble before me. I noticed the dirt spilling out of the ground like a natural spring. As I looked closer, I saw something crawling out of the flowing dirt. A pair of antlers jutted out, then a head and body. Before I knew it, the remains of a decaying deer were struggling to free itself from it earthen tomb. As the thing freed itself, I noticed that the flesh was reappearing on its bones. First tendons and sinew, then clumps of fur.
The reborn stag limped towards me, not completely reborn, but well enough to be considered alive. It was but a shadow of it once proud form. Halfway between worlds. Part dead, part live.
I was so caught up in the reanimated deer that I’d completely lost track of the man. He was nowhere to be seen.
Then I heard a growl. I turned slowly in the direction of the noise. About ten meters away was a bear. His big brown head looked off to my right. When I looked over, I saw the fleeting image of the undead deer bolting through the woods. Facing back towards the bear, I realized that I’d now become his new interest. He began lumbering forward with measured care, content that I would be easy pickings.
My brain kicked in with all that facts I knew about this species of animal. Sprinting for a short distance, they couldn’t be beat. Climbing didn’t work either. In a pure hand to hand match, their strength could easily overwhelm a human. Most hunters used overpowered blasters or super powered slug loads to take them down, though a few nut jobs still used spears. For them it was all about the sport.
Right now the only weapon on hand was my blaster. My rifle was tucked firmly away in the assortment of my backpack, too tied down to wrestle free in time.
I deftly cranked up the power on my blaster and took aim. Gently squeezing the trigger, I let the blaster bolt fly true and straight. It careened right into the bears massive head then disappeared. Undeterred, the bear came on.
My mind couldn’t register what happened, so I fired again. And still the bear charged on, not a scratch on him. I dropped the pistol and began jerking my rifle out of my pack. Yanking it free of the straps, I slid it out, but it was too late. The bear was on me. Reflexively I curled up, the pain in my leg reawakening. I closed my eyes, waiting for the end to come.
After about thirty seconds, I opened my eyes. The bear was gone.
I got back to my feet, shrugging off the pain in my leg, and tried to make sense of what happened. Then the man reappeared in front of me.
Make the real invisible, the invisible real, and bring the dead to life.
Of course! It was what I asked for. I nearly kicked myself for my stupidity.
“So, are you satisfied?” The man asked, a coy smile on his feral lips.
“You said you could awaken this power in me. Is that true?”
“As true as the powers you saw before you. These things I can teach you and much more.”
At that point I was already in, but there was one last question I had to ask. “Why me?”
“That’s simple. You have the qualities I’ve been looking for.” He raised a fist and began counting off fingers. “First you have patience. It allows you to sit in wait of your prey and to take careful aim for the kill. Second, you have cunning. It’s what allowed you to catch the shraydon’s off guard. Third, you have stealth. A key for any good hunter.” He paused to emphasize his final point. “Most importantly you know sacrifice. You were willing to give my life in order to achieve the success of your hunt. It was necessary that I suffer so that the shraydon’s could be killed. Only when you could confirm their deaths’ did you turn to look after me.”
I felt warm inside, burdened by my shame. So he did know, he knew all along.
“That is why I chose you.”
Even if it didn’t bother him, it bothered me. Not entirely, but partially. Enough that it was apparent.
The man reached into a worn black leather satchel and pulled out a shiny metallic cylinder. “I once made this to protect myself. One day, I thought I’d even use it to strike down my master. Alas, I found it was not needed. One never stops learning.” Those last words were spoken more to himself than anything. He turned his attention back to me. “Take this and your journey will begin. You’ll become my apprentice, and I, your master.”
Hesitantly, I reached out my arm and took the weapon. They called it a lightsaber. A weapon of the Jedi.
It felt cold in my hands. Yet its weight gave me strength.
“Go ahead, activate it.” The man urged with an eager smile.
I pushed forward on a long crystalline switch. The lightsaber thrummed to life. A brilliant gold blade hummed in the air.
Carefully I waved it around a few times to get the feel for the weapon.
“In time I will teach you how to use it. You will find that there are many lessons ahead of you. We will find time for all of them.”
At that moment I realized that the shraydons couldn’t possibly of ever ambushed such a man. With a simple flick of his wrist he could have severed them into pieces with his lightsaber. Better yet, he could have used some of his powers and probably snapped their necks with a mere thought.
And yet he had let them sink their claws and teeth into him. Without hesitation, he let himself be mauled so he could draw me in.
The thought of a being with that sort of resolve made me beam with respect. One day, I thought, I would have that sort of power. The power to cast the frailties of my body aside, and to pursue the whims of my mind alone.
According to my master, it was inevitable.