Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
The trail of blood wasn’t hard to see anymore; thick red stains covered the leaves, flowers, and grass as Kelten followed the monster down into the ravine. The rest of the woods seemed still and silent, with even the fog hanging thick in the air and only moving when the mercenary pushed through it. Kelten, though, barely noticed during the chase.
He could go home, he thought. The harpy’s wing was ruined enough Daragal probably wouldn’t pay for it anymore, and besides, it wasn’t like he needed the money or cared enough about his team to avenge their deaths. He’d come out here because he’d wanted something to do, but he hadn’t wanted to die doing it, and that was looking like an increasingly likely scenario. So he could go back to his nice house in Viscosa and take comfort in the fact the harpy would surely bleed out within the hour.
But the notion held no appeal. He’d never cared overmuch about his hunts before, only taking the jobs because there was nothing more interesting to do at home. But when he thought of the harpy, he realized his heart was beating faster and his hands were growing sweaty on his sword, just as they had forty years ago when he first marched into battle. For the first time in what felt like years, he realized, he was going up against an opponent that was challenging him. That he might not be able to defeat.
And, for the first time in years, he really felt alive.
The harpy was lying at the bottom of the ravine. Her wounded wing was tucked under her body, and her breath was coming in short, harsh gasps. She looked like she was almost dead already, and Kelten lifted his sword in preparation to cut off her head.
But he stopped.
It had been about twenty years ago, he thought, when he’d come upon a badly wounded minotaur in the field who had been lying like the harpy was now. His then-commander, a brash idiot named Pergan, had pushed all the other soldiers out of the way and hurried to claim the kill himself. Then Pergan had screamed as he stepped on dwarf-made caltrops the minotaur had dropped that sliced through his steel boots, lacerated his feet, and dropped him to his knees in agony. And then the minotaur had rolled over, revealing a massive repeating crossbow in one hand, and wiped out Pergan as well as four other soldiers before Kelten brought him down.
So rather than charge forward, Kelten knelt and studied the environment as best he could in the misty woods. It only took him a few moments to note the razor-thin threads stretched between the nearest trees. “What’s that go to?” he mused aloud. “Another knife on a vine? Deadfall dropping on my head? Some kind of explosive?” He chuckled and carefully stepped over the threads, raising his buckler in front of him in case she rolled over and started shooting a concealed weapon. “I—”
The harpy pushed herself upright, and Kelten saw she was holding a thin, golden lasso that looked elven-made. She flung it, and the loop on its end flew around Kelten’s head while he tried to dodge without setting off the threads. He swung his sword, but the elfish rope didn’t break. She hauled on the rope and sent him stumbling in her direction. He had just enough time to see her hand glowing silver as he crashed into her—
And then his mind went blank.
He realized he was lying on the ground, and he saw the badly wounded harpy lying next to him, but no sooner had he noticed this than the thoughts vanished into what felt like a thick fog. Even though he was dimly aware there were things he should be doing and something had gone wrong, none of it seemed important. So he simply remained still, unable even to think of moving.
“You bastard,” hissed the harpy, and the words pounded into Kelten’s mind like divine commands. “Just stay there, and don’t move. My friends’ll find us soon enough.”
Kelten thought to himself that he really should move, but this was a faint notion that quickly vanished into the fog that was his mind. He was supposed to obey, so he did, and he stayed as still as possible while the harpy cursed on the ground beside him.
Eventually, he heard wings, and he turned in time to see six armored harpies flying down around him. Four immediately rushed to their companion, including one who looked younger than the others. “Sis!” cried the little harpy. “Are you okay? Did you win? Did you stop those mean humans who are hunting us?”
“’Course I won, Rose,” said the wounded harpy, cracking a smile. The little harpy beamed. “Yay!” she shouted. “You’re—”
Then the older harpies moved Rose aside and began murmuring something and running their hands over their injured companion’s wounds. “I’m sorry,” said one at last. “We’ll heal you as best we can, Lavender, but the damage to your wing is extensive.” She paused. “You may not be able to fly again.”
“Your sacrifice will be remembered,” said another harpy, this one with medals pinned to her breastplate. “You defeated those who were hunting us. And because you left one alive, as planned…” Her eyes flashed. “We’ll get the rest. Have you asked him already?”
“No, but I’m about to.” Lavender hauled herself upright, supported by the officer and her little sister, and stomped over to Kelten. “So,” she said, a cruel smile on her face. “If you’re wondering how we knew you were coming, that idiot porter you hired got drunk at that trading post you stopped in on the edge of the valley and told the other customers about your brilliant plan to catch a harpy and sell her wings to some rich guy. One of ‘em, not being a total monster, got a message to us, and…Well, that’s when they sent me to hunt you down.” She grinned. “Yeah, you got a lucky shot on me when I was trying to lure you in here, and yeah, this was a lot harder than I thought it would, but I knew I’d beat you bastards in the end. Now…Who hired you to kill one of us?”
Kelten wondered if he should really tell her, but he couldn’t muster up the mental energy to hold out. “A merchant named Daragal,” he murmured. “Has big holdings in Viscosa. Wanted harpy wings for his mantle.”
The harpies growled, but Lavender held up her hand. “You seem pretty experienced,” she continued. “Have you hunted harpies before?”
“Other magical creatures?”
Lavender’s eyes flashed. “Tell me the names of everyone you ever sold one of us to and anyone else you ever worked with on those hunts that I didn’t kill today.”
And Kelten did, listing former partners who were no longer working with him, as well as nobles, merchants, and groups who had wanted some magical creature or other killed. As he spoke, he noticed something was digging into his side and realized it was his holdout knife, but he didn’t draw it. There didn’t seem to be any reason to bother.
“All right,” said the officer when Kelten was done. “You can deal with him, Lavender.”
Lavender approached Kelten and took the knife the harpy officer offered her. Before she stabbed him, though, Kelten felt a question forming in his head. The mist dragged at it, but this was a question he’d been asking himself for years, and it held on despite the harpy’s magic. “Why are you doing this?” he asked in a tone of open curiosity. “Were you bored too?”
The harpy gave him a long look, and it seemed to Kelten like there was rage burning in her eyes. But instead of answering, she slowly raised the knife to cut his throat.
Well, dying’s also something to do, thought Kelten as the blade pierced his skin.