Read Part One
Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
Another hour of tracking brought them past four more traps, all of which Kelten disarmed without difficulty. The blood trail grew more distinct until it was clearly visible to the full group despite the omnipresent mist, and Kelten said, “She’s probably already bled out. We should find her body soon.”
Before anyone could respond, something growled in the thick forest to their left. Kelten drew his sword again as Malcolm readied his axe, Sarassa her pike, and Chrys the crossbow from her belt. “What was that?” asked Chrys.
“Mountain lion, likely,” said Kelten. “There’s a lot of them in the valley. We’ll stay together and—”
The lion burst out of the forest and leapt at the group. Kelten had just enough time to look into the creature’s eyes and note their odd, silvery color before he grabbed Chrys and hauled her to one side. Malcolm and Sarassa dodged as well, and the lion missed them as it hit the path. Chrys drew her crossbow and shot a bolt directly into the creature’s back right leg. “Hah!”
Instead of fleeing like Kelten expected, the wounded beast roared and turned around for another attack. Kelten had barely opened his mouth to shout before the animal leapt directly at Chrys while the mercenary struggled to load a fresh bolt into her crossbow. She screamed and managed to fire a bolt into the mountain lion’s shoulder, but again the monster didn’t notice. It tackled her and bit down at her neck.
“No!” shouted Sarassa. “Get away!”
As the beast crouched to pounce again, Kelten rolled to his feet and jumped onto its back. It immediately tried to buck him off, but he held on, and when it ran forward, Malcolm and Sarassa blocked the way with their long weapons. For a single moment, it stopped as if thinking through its next move—and Kelten whipped his sword under its head. Its next bite was too slow to dislodge him, and he slashed its throat with one clean cut.
The mountain lion staggered for a few paces before collapsing in a heap. Kelten climbed off its body and glanced back at Chrys long enough to confirm the rookie was dead, her throat completely ripped out, before telling the others, “That wasn’t normal.”
“No kidding.” Malcom was scowling. “That harpy did something to it.”
“I’ve heard some of them have magic,” said Sarassa. She moved to Chrys’ body and gently closed the corpse’s eyes. “Maybe she cast some spell on it…”
She trailed off, and the three remaining mercenaries looked at each other. Malcolm was the first to speak. “Look, I’m not giving up. This ain’t about money anymore. We owe her some payback now.” He grinned as he hefted his axe. “And delivering that payback’ll make all this worth it.”
“Hold on.” Sarassa raised a hand. “Tark was one thing, but Chrys was trained and got killed anyway. I mean, we haven’t taken a loss in, what, six months before this?” She let out a long breath. “We should head back.”
“Thought you wanted that payday?” asked Malcolm.
“I also want to spend the gold I already have.” Sarassa scowled. “We’ve all got nice, full accounts back in Viscosa. I’d like to actually do something with my money before I die.”
The two glared at each other before looking at Kelten, who let out a soft sigh. He’d never understood Sarassa’s greed; they already had more than enough money to last them their lives even if they lived as exorbitantly as possible. And he couldn’t comprehend how Malcolm could still be dripping with bloodlust after all the hunts they’d been on. But then again, he thought, it wasn’t like he had any better reason to be there than they did, so who was he to judge?
He realized he’d fallen silent and the other two were staring. “We’re already here,” he said. “Might as well keep going. It’s…” Something to do, he thought but did not say. “A point of pride.”
After a moment more, he turned on his heel and resumed making his way down the path.
* * * * *
They caught up to the harpy thirty minutes later.
The path led Kelten to a small clearing, the other end of which was hidden behind the omnipresent mist, and in the center their target. The harpy’s left wing was bent at a bad angle and partially covered by an improvised bandage of leaves already soaked through with blood. A nasty bruise covered half her head, and the rest of her body was covered in scratches Kelten guessed she’d picked up while crawling through the woods. A campfire blazed in front of her, but she didn’t seem to notice as she shivered. Nor did she look at the small open satchel by her talons, which was spilling a few apples into the damp grass.
Kelten glanced back at the others, put a finger over his lips, and gestured for them to climb into the trees on either side of him. Normally he would have sent them to flank the harpy, but the monster’s penchant for setting traps made that dangerous. The harpy couldn’t seem to get off the ground, though, so the treetops would likely be safe enough to spring an ambush. They’d be able to take her head with ease.
Once Malcolm and Sarassa had climbed into the trees, Kelten crept to the very edge of the clearing and removed his longbow from his back. He nocked an arrow and pointed it at the monster, then took a deep breath to steady himself. Sarassa, who had Chrys’ crossbow, would take the shot first, and he and Malcolm would take their own if the monster dodged away. Take the shot, Sarassa, he thought to himself. Let’s finish this.
The bolt blasted into the clearing a moment later, but the harpy threw herself to one side as soon as the twang of the crossbow echoed through the woods, and Sarassa’s missile hit the monster in her injured wing instead of her heart. The harpy screeched and thrust her good arm into the bag. Kelten and Malcolm fired their own shots at the same time the monster thrust the bag upwards, resulting in their arrows tearing through the bag instead of the harpy. The monster withdrew her arm to reveal a crude crossbow of her own and fired it into the trees. Kelten quickly nocked a new arrow—
Then he heard a cry above him and looked up in time to see Sarassa fall to the ground, an arrow through her throat. Kelten’s mouth dropped. Between the foliage and the mist, Sarassa should have been completely obscured from the harpy’s sight. She aimed that precisely by the sound of Sarassa’s bow?
“Die!” Malcolm fired his next shot, which went wide, then leapt down and charged instead of reloading. The harpy tripped and fell over when trying to dodge away from Malcolm’s axe but then threw herself into her opponent’s legs, succeeding at knocking him to the grass. They grappled for a few seconds, Malcolm drawing a short sword from his belt and the harpy seizing a knife, and Kelten briefly saw her hand glow silver as she reached up and grabbed Malcolm’s chin.
Malcolm stiffened and fell back as his eyes flashed the same silver as the mountain lion’s. He smiled dreamily before the harpy stabbed him in the throat.
Kelten was already moving to shoot at the monster, but she rolled to one side as soon as he fired and shot a single return bolt. It punched through the bow in Kelten’s hands and would have hit Kelten himself if he hadn’t twisted out of the way in time. He rushed to Sarassa’s body to grab her crossbow before catching himself. That beast’s a better shot than I am, he thought. I can’t win like this.
So he drew his broadsword and raced toward the harpy as she loaded yet another bolt. He reached her before she finished and swept his blade out to knock her weapon away and send her tumbling to the grass, but when she tried to tackle him like she had Malcolm, Kelten skipped out of the way and struck again with a slash that barely missed her neck. She screeched, then forced herself to her feet and swept a glowing silver hand at his face.
But Kelten knew better than to risk letting her make contact. He ducked under the blow, drove the hilt of his sword into the monster’s chest, and slashed her wing hard enough he almost cut it off. The monster howled before turning and stumbling towards the edge of the clearing.
Kelten raced after her, pushing into the trees only seconds behind his quarry, and swept his blade at her back. He scored a light hit, and she cried out again before suddenly dropping out of sight. Kelten grabbed a tree and stopped himself, then looked down and realized he was at the edge of a deep ravine.
And somewhere within it was the harpy.