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Hunt in the Valley of Mist, Part Three

Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

 

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?”

“Yes.”

“Other magical creatures?”

“Yes.”

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.

Hunt in the Valley of Mist, Part Two

Read Part One

 

Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

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.

Hunt in the Valley of Mist, Part One

Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

 

Kelten was kneeling to examine faint bloodstains on the forest floor when he heard a cry behind him.

The mercenary whipped around and drew his broadsword before running back around a bend in the path to see the rest of his party. Tark, the porter, was holding his shoulder and crying as a trickle of blood flowed from it, but Kelten’s partners Malcolm and Sarassa were laughing at him instead of moving to help. Only Chrysanthemum ‘Chrys’ Valmour, the newest member of Kelten’s team, had gone to his side. “Are you all right?”

“Damn it!” whimpered Tark. He lifted a shaking hand and pointed it at a tree that stood next to the narrow path taking them through the Valley of Mist. The fog that gave the region its name made it hard to see, but Kelten could make out a thin blade jammed hilt-first into the bark. Tark had undoubtedly walked too close to it and been stabbed. “Damn harpy!”

“I thought we said to stay in the middle of the path,” taunted Malcolm as he smirked at Tark. He was a big, broad-shouldered man with a thick beard and a massive battle axe on his back. “You know. The part Kelten cleared. What, didn’t you listen?”

Tark groaned and said nothing. Chrys helped wipe his wound clean, then swept her blond hair out of her eyes and gave the others an uneasy look. “That knife could be poisoned. Maybe we should go back to Caledos.” She dropped one hand to the repeating crossbow on her belt as if worried about an ambush. “Just in case.”

“Then the harpy gets away,” snapped Sarassa, a bulky and muscular woman who carried a long pike in her left hand. “And the ten thousand gold coins we’re being paid for this job.”

“We can find another harpy. The merchant said he wants one, but he didn’t say it had to be a specific—”

Kelten cut her off with a shake of his head. “Harpies are rare in these parts. We were lucky to see one so soon, and even luckier I brought her down with one shot.” He tapped the longbow on his back. “She’s clearly hurt too badly to fly away, or she’d have done it already. We just have to get past these makeshift traps she’s made, find her, and bag her. We’re too close to give up now.”

Chrys looked hesitant, but Malcolm slung a big arm over her shoulder. “Hey. We’ve been doing this for years. Anyone who wants a monster for their mantle, we bring one back for ‘em. We know what we’re doing.” Sarassa flashed a grin in Chrys’ direction as Malcolm went on. “We’ve taken down minotaurs, elves, even rhinotaurs in full armor. Ain’t no harpy that can stand up to us.”

“Besides,” added Sarassa, “Daragal’s one of the most prominent merchants in Western Raleigh. We close a deal with him, we could get some major contracts.”

Chrys’ worried expression faded slightly, but Tark snapped, “Don’t I get a say? I’m hurt! We should go back! We—”

“You aren’t part of this group,” said Kelten in a tired voice, wishing he was dealing with the harpy’s traps instead of the whining man in front of him. “We hired you to carry our supplies through the valley. But seeing as how you’ve complained, wasted time, and been generally useless—”

“I am not useless!” roared Tark. “I’m as good as any of you!”

“Then prove it,” said Sarassa. Kelten paused, seeing a smirk on his partner’s face, which he knew meant she was up to something. “Why don’t you take the lead for the next hour? If you’re really that good, you should be able to track a dying harpy and dodge a few traps, right?”

Tark hesitated. For a moment, Kelten wondered if the porter considered running away and abandoning his twenty percent of the ten thousand gold coins the group would be paid for bringing Daragal a pair of genuine harpy wings. But Tark jerked his head in a fast nod. “Fine!” he shouted, storming down the path. “You’ll see you need me!”

The mercenaries watched him go before Chrys asked hesitantly, “Is he good at finding traps?”

“Probably not,” said Sarassa.

“But he—”

Another scream echoed through the woods, and when the group rushed ahead, they saw Tark lying on the ground with his throat cut. Next to the path was a tree with a long branch that had a knife tied to its end. Kelten could see at a glance how the branch had been pulled back and secured with a tripwire and how Tark had blundered through the tripwire, released the branch, and been practically decapitated by the knife.

Chrys gasped, but Kelten only looked at the body dispassionately. Though he’d been choked up by such things a long time ago, now that his face was lined and his hair had gone grey with age, he’d seen too many partners die to particularly care about one he barely knew. “We’ll leave the supplies,” he said. “Get them on the way back.”

“Sounds good.” Malcolm tested the edge of his axe on his hand. “Can’t be long now, right?”

Chrys still looked anguished, so Sarassa moved to her side and said, “Any ideas how you’ll spend your extra five hundred gold?” She winked. “Clothes? Wine? A nice horse?”

The rookie mercenary was silent for a few seconds but slowly relaxed as a smile crept over her face. “You know, I have wanted a good horse for a while.”

“There we go.” Sarassa looked at Kelten. “Tark was useless anyways. Ready to move on?”

Kelten’s only response was to wave them forwards.