Hunt in the Valley of Mist
A Story by Aaron Canton
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.
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.
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