Ugh, my head is killing me…
I slowly push off the ground and hold my face, only to feel the sting of a deep gash starting between my eyes and running up my left eyebrow.
My thoughts are foggy and jumbled.
Did we kill the beast for him?
Did I get hit by the monster’s claws?
Is he safe?
How long ago did that happen?
My eyes need a moment to adjust to the glow of the forest, and I blindly paw around the dirt. Fallen, dry leaves, sticks, a few exposed roots here and there. It hasn’t rained in a few days, so the dirt is dry. Then I feel something squishy and warm, it’s a little wet.
Giving my eyes a second longer to adjust, I turn to whatever this squishy thing is.
A mass of flesh, mostly red with small bits of white mixed in, bleeding slightly. At the end of its long tail is a ball which still glows.
The disgusting sight takes me off guard, and my body recoils instinctively.
“This… is the latarniak we killed. So then, where’s..?” I look around the nearby forest, searching for Zenon, but then the memory comes flooding back. ‘I’ll take care of the fur’, he said before bashing me in the face.
My hand reaches up to the gash between my eyes, and I glance to the corpse once more.
“Tsk, I’ve been had.” He wasn’t the best hunter in his village sent to complete a task, his village was never attacked, this latarniak was innocent. Zenon is just a poacher, that’s it. He came into Dubawin to skin a latarniak and display its fur like a trophy.
I coil my hands into fists, crunching a few sticks and leaves. How’d I let myself be tricked? I didn’t even question him about it, I just took him at his word and now an innocent creature is dead!
Rising to my feet, I take a deep breath.
There’s nothing for it, I have to hunt him down. I can’t let that fur escape this forest. If it does, that would just invite more poachers to test their skills, it would endanger Dubawin to all sorts of issues.
I turn to the corpse and give a small prayer, I’ll return later to make use of all the parts, but I need to get the fur back.
For now, my target is Zenon!
I jump onto the nearest tree and scale my way up the bark. My headache is gone, every bone and muscle in my body is devoted to this task. Not a hand out of place, and I don’t stumble or slip even once. When I reach my home, up on the branches, I can finally focus on tracking the foreigner.
Zenon should still be stomping around in those boots of his, and I see signs of him immediately. Cracked sticks, bent branches, scuffmarks on exposed roots. He’s a fool, put simply, and I charge after him.
Running through the fog of glowing, pale white leaves all around me, I make great time as I speed through the forest. Jumping from branch to branch, I occasionally see splashes of color flicker by from the various animals who make their homes within the trees. At one point, a wave of red-light washes over the forest as a flock of large red birds fly overhead, casting their glow on the world beneath them like spotlights. If their red spotlights mix with the light given off by certain animals or plants, they’ll immediately dive beneath the tree line for a snack.
The beauty of Dubawin is unquestionable, but it doesn’t distract me from the obvious trail Zenon left in his wake. It’s impossible for a hunter like me to miss all the signs. Footprints, ripped branches, fallen bullets, there’re even sections of dirt where it looked like he tripped and dragged his feet, swiping all the fallen leaves and sticks. I see no evidence he was being chased, so it seems he was just in a panic to escape, which makes sense. My authority to defend Dubawin does not extend beyond its borders. All he has to do is exit the forest, and he’s safe.
But he’s not that quick.
I catch up to Zenon as he steps into a small clearing. An old, rotten tree had fallen and opened up the sky above him, and he sits on the log to rest. Latarniaks are big, their pelts heavy, he’s sweating and panting from carrying such weight for so long. I silently jump on one of the branches to observe him. Rifle in his arms, ready for action, ears wiggling, eyes shifting back and forth. The white and black latarniak pelt is rolled up and set on the ground before him.
There’s no point talking to him, or convincing him to leave the pelt. Even if he would, he doesn’t deserve it. I take the bow from my back, careful not to tap the wood against the tree, then I silently pull an arrow from my quiver. Putting it on the bow, I pull back the drawstring-
Zenon jumps from the log, rifle moving towards me faster than I can aim. Fear runs through my body, that rifle will kill me in an instant. I throw myself behind the thick trunk, and a fraction of a second later, a bullet rips through the air where I was standing, and smashes into a tree beyond it. The force of the impact is so great that bark and wood fibers explode from the tree after a violent crunch.
“Ha!” Zenon yells with a smile as I hear him quickly dump another bullet into his gun. “I heard you that time, didn’t I? You won’t be able to sneak up on me again, I can assure you of that.” His booming voice echoes through the forest, I hear a few small critters turn and run, or hide.
I lean my back against the trunk and breathe for a second. “So that’s it? You lie to me, bash me in the face, and now you want to kill me?”
“No, not particularly. Whether you live or die means nothing to me, really. I was hoping you’d let me go, but now I realize you won’t turn around and walk away.”
I climb further up the trunk, back away deeper into the forest, then circle around the clearing. “Was anything you said true?” I project my voice so it’s harder for him to tell where I am. “No dead kid? No village attacked?”
“I was right when I said I was the best hunter in my village, if that counts.”
I peak around the tree I’m standing behind. Zenon’s eyes are closed, his ears are wiggling, he’s waiting to hear the subtle sound of the drawstring.
Taking another arrow, I try to be even quieter as I pull the string back, but there’s only so much I can do. Over 200 lbs of force are needed to pull it back, of course at least a little noise will be made. It’s a distinct noise, not natural to Dubawin, so Zenon hones in on me, swings his rifle around, then shoots before I get a chance to loose the arrow.
I dive into cover before he can aim at me, of course, and he ends up missing. My next idea is to poke out and pull the string back before Zenon can put in another bullet, but he’s surprisingly adept at it. He cracks the back of the rifle, the spent shell pops out, he slams another one down, then he closes the rifle. It takes about two seconds. I have to dive back behind the tree before he fires. This time, the bullet scrapes the side of the trunk, and a large chunk is ripped out, with fragments of wooden shrapnel creating a small mist.
I pull back again to circle around the clearing to a new location. With the small bit of wind gently rustling the trees, my footsteps are completely hidden from his ears. It’s just the subtle twang of the bowstring that’s the issue.
I throw a rock and time it so that, when the rock bangs against a tree, I pull the string. But he sees through my deception and almost shoots my arm off.
I try pulling the string while behind cover. My intention is that he’ll waste his bullet and I’ll have two seconds to move from cover, aim, and loose the arrow. But Zenon isn’t impatient like that. He detects where I am, but doesn’t fire or waste a bullet if he doesn’t see me.
I’m running out of ideas.
If the problem is that he recognizes the string, then I can’t use my bow. What if I throw something at him?
Digging into my pouch, I pull the blute I stored earlier. I peak out of cover and see Zenon standing there, waiting, gun at the ready.
After a heavy gulp to steady my nerves, I step out on the branch, reel back my arm, then launch the fruit on a collision course for his head! Then, I immediately raise my bow and pull an arrow back on the drawstring. His eyes shoot open and he turns to me, but he first notices the blue, shell-covered fruit heading his way.
As a reflex, he aims and blasts the fruit out of the sky, showering him and the surrounding forest in shell pieces, and sticky, sweet fruit guts. Even from here, I see the faintly glowing bits of blue covering his face and clothes.
To his credit, he isn’t distracted for a moment by the substance all over him. With expert efficiency, he cracks the gun open and the spent bullet pops out, then he slams another one in the chamber.
But it’s too late. I loose the arrow before he can aim, and while Zenon tries to dodge to the left, he isn’t fast enough. The arrow pierces straight through his right bicep and gets stuck halfway in.
“Argh!” He clenches his teeth as he screams, and he looses his balance, falling onto his side.
In retaliation, with his left arm only, he flicks the rifle to snap it back into place, then aims in my general direction. I’m so taken off guard by his resilience that I don’t even think to move. The bullet smashes through my bow, right by my head. The wood explodes violently and small splinters dig into my face and neck, “kugh!”
I drop the now useless bow and dive behind a tree. My neck and face bleed only slightly, the real damage is my lack of a weapon. I brush the splinters off and peak around the tree. Even with Zenon’s bloody, shredded bicep, he holds the butt of his rifle under his chin as he manages to reload.
“Not so tough without a bow, are you?” He winces, and I can see him sweat from the pain. “You think I can’t aim with just one arm? Try it, Alfons! Poke your head around the corner and I’ll show you what I can do. Or, just walk away now and let me leave this Godforsaken forest!”
He’s got me. I have no weapon, I can’t do anything. There are no branches overhead so I can’t jump down on top of him, I can’t throw my arrows hard enough to hurt him, and I doubt I could run home, grab a new bow, then find him again before he leaves the forest. My best bet might be to just hope he passes out from bloodloss, but I doubt that would happen. He won.
But then, rainbow lights start creeping closer.
From my position, I see them clearly. A pack of young latarniaks, attracted by the smell of their favorite snack.
Zenon’s so preoccupied by me, that he doesn’t notice them at all.
“Hey!” I yell with a smile, “look behind you!”
His ears wiggle, and then he hears the rustling.
He turns around just in time to see the largest latarniak of the pack reel back and pounce. He doesn’t even have time to pull the trigger before he’s pinned to the ground, the fully grown beast putting its heavy paw down on his chest. It tries to chomp down on his neck to end it instantly, but Zenon puts up just enough of a struggle to bring his left arm up to take the vicious bite. Of course, this just means both of his arms are shredded and useless. Even though he kicks his feet and tries to escape, he can’t. When the younger latarniaks come out, one tries to go for his neck again, but he swings his head forward and bashes the cub in the snout, causing it to yelp and flee to a nearby bush. But this only buys him a few more seconds of life. The blood loss makes his movements too sluggish, and as the remaining latarniaks begin to go in for their meal. The poacher expires before long.
A rough way to go, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel bad for him.
“Haaa,” I sigh, sliding down the tree trunk and resting on a branch. “It’s over.” I put a hand over my chest and say a quick prayer for Zenon. I’ll wait long enough to collect his bones and whatever’s left of him, then I’ll make sure everything gets put to good use. There’s a lake on the edge of Dubawin, with fish that can chomp through bones no problem. I’ll take them there, I think.
Then I have to figure out what to do with that latarniak corpse I left behind.
There’s always something to do in this forest, but hopefully poachers won’t be an issue for a while.