This night was not unlike any other at The Pig Head Tavern- loud, obnoxious, and no place for womenfolk. Tonight’s hunt had been a success and the men were celebrating and cooking their lot. The tavern was between the villages of Noird and Broek, and the villagers who had gathered there were warm with each other’s company in the wee hours of the night. With each passing minute and pouring beer, they seemed to have forgotten all about the petty rivalries that the villagers had carried with them for generations. The sounds of clinking glasses, laughter, and singing replaced the begrudged mumbling that a man would typically hear during an exchange of these villagers.
Amongst the camaraderie were also the Chela folk, farm men from the Southern Fields. By nature, they are more reserved than their more impulsive counterparts in Noird and in Broek. They were hard-working folk and did not like to speak. However, they did have a love of drinking beer and casting lots when the work was done. Tonight’s celebration was a chance for them to break from their harvest, and the usually recluse Chela men could be seen sharing stories and playing dice with the village men.
The iron stove was glowing hot and travelers from miles away could see the lights and sounds of the party through the light snowfall. The world within the tavern was a warm place. The world within one man at the tavern, however, was not. For the skulking figure seated at the bar, the world was a cold place. The Hunter had wished for nothing more than to brood, to be left alone with his thoughts as he withered away. The only thing he wished for more than that was revenge, but he was not even sure of that anymore.
The Hunter’s silent wishes to be left alone were rudely interrupted by an exaggerated pat on the back and laughter that reeked of booze. It had to be none other than Jacob Mann, a local rancher, a drinker, and a notorious welcher. Amongst his faults was loyalty, however. The townsfolk would say that even though he would drink all of your wine, he’d always be there to help you find more. The Hunter had kept predators from Jacob’s flocks in the past, and even though Jacob was late paying him most of the time he had always come through.
Jacob slid up to The Hunter at the bar and withdrew a small wooden pipe from his ragged coat.
“You got any of that Golden Import on you, brother?”
The Hunter replied with a disdained grunt.
“Fair enough,” said the rancher as he conjured a small leather pouch of tobacco and filled his pipe to the brim. After quickly packing it with a match he ignited the bowl and savored his first draw as his pipe bellowed strings of earthy haze.
“You still on about that Wolf, brother?”
The Hunter glared at the rancher, “Yes. I am still ‘on about’ that Wolf.”
Jacob was a small man, but never let the world intimidate him. The full wrath of The Hunter would make most men of the Noird rethink their next words, but not Jacob. He scratched his beard and drew another puff of his pipe, his bowl ablaze with char and smoke.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, lad. You’re as mad as a werewolf about this whole business, and for what? So you can stew here, doin’ nothin’ all day and all night? When was the last time that you even went hunting, Mr. Huntsman?”
The Hunter was annoyed but knew that the rancher had a point.
“I am to depart tomorrow morning. It is time to hunt again.”
Jacob shook his head slowly and tapped his pipe, “I wish the best of luck to you then, brother. If you’re heading up the Mispons, be wary. I lost close to a dozen sheep there a few weeks ago to those sharp peaks.”
He stood up and gave The Hunter a reaffirming smile, he looked upon The Hunter as if he were saying goodbye to an old friend.
“Just remember, lad, I will be here to drink with you when you return. And it’s here you should be drinking with me and celebrating life with the boys, not out moping in the mountain tops over death.” He paused for a moment and put his hand on The Hunter’s shoulder both for reassurance and to regain his balance. His words would have been sagacious had it not been for the drunken hiccuping between every second of them.
“Going after that Wolf isn’t going to bring her back.”
After he had said his piece, the rancher jaunted to a nearby table to play cards and tell embellished stories of his fishing and romantic conquests. The Hunter withdrew his pipe and his Golden Import. He sat at the bar and thought as he smoked. Perhaps the rancher was right. Either way, The Wolf must die.
It was well before dawn when The Hunter arose from his straw bed in The Pig’s Head. After bathing and eating a small breakfast, The Hunter packed his horse with his provisions and his weapons. It was to be an enduring journey but his broadsword given to him by his father and his bow was all that he would need in the Mispons. His plan was to catch The Wolf in his slumber and slay the wretched creature in his sleep. He was a humble man but was given his name for a reason. If anybody could track down the animal and kill it, it was The Hunter.
He rode from the tavern towards the Northwestern Mispon Mountains. According to Wanderers and other huntsmen in the region, it was there that the Wolf had taken up residence in one of the high peaks. He had only come down from his slumber during the winter sporadically to raid cattle caravans or ragdoll hapless travelers. That was to soon come to an end, for The Hunter rode hard and rode fast. He rode through the howling winds of the prairies. He rode with conviction.
After a few days of relentless travel, The Hunter had made it to the HorseEye River just a few miles south of the Mispons. Plains had changed to ridges as him and his horse had changed from tireless warriors to weary campers. He pitched a tent on the Western coast of the HorseEye River where the Great Trade Route crosses the river. As night fell, the roaring of the river and the crackling of the fire put him at ease while he rested with his pipe.
He could not help but think of Mila, and how he had never taken her camping riverside at the mountains. How he was always too busy out on his hunts to make time for her. Being out here in the forest at the steps of the mountains with him would have made her so happy.
Although he was at rest, he was not completely on his laurels. The Hunter was always listening to the Earth and to the winds. Both were bringing a traveler and an ass, the sounds of clanking pans and crunching snow became progressively louder as the traveler approached the campsite. The Hunter had his broadsword cloaked, but was now grasping its hilt.
“State your business,” said The Hunter.
“I’m just passing through. On my way to Shyayn,” replied the traveler, “I saw your flame and thought that I would stop by to let you know that there is a fire ban in effect in the HorseEye District.”
“I do not see what concern that is to me, nor to you.”
The traveler had come to a complete stop at the foot of The Hunter’s camp.
“Well, for starters my boy, you are in HorseEye, you know? If The Riders caught wind of this then you will be subject to prosecution.”
The Hunter clutched his sword harder, “And how will they know?”
“I will put it to you this way. Put out that fire now or I will inform The Riders. They will find you and you will be penalized as they see fit.”
The traveler was now close enough to The Hunter that he could run him through in an instant. No one would ever know. He unclutched his sword and kept it hidden under his cloak.
“It’s getting late, be on your way, traveler. I will put this fire out posthaste. There is no need to get The Riders involved.”
“Thank you for understanding,” replied the traveler. “The Barrier Forest is drier than it has ever been. Not even the snow of the Mispons can protect it from even a single getting way out of hand.”
The Hunter gave the traveler a compliant nod and he was on his way. He disappeared into the darkness as the clanking of his wares became a distant whisper. The Hunter was disappointed that he could not have the warmth of his fire near his tent but knew that reports to The Riders would slow his mission. A man has to pick his battles, and this one was not worth fighting. He snuffed out the flames with a few handfuls of snow and settled in his tent for the night.
It had been a treacherous path up the mountains the next morning. Several hours and a little sleep had passed since The Hunter’s run-in with the traveler. The morning sun could only manage to get momentary peeks in between the thick fog rolling over the mountainside. The Hunter remained undeterred as he trudged through the snow. He had sent his horse home and was now relying on his mocassins to carry him the rest of the way. His sword on his back, his bow around his shoulder and a hunting knife and a lantern on his belt now being the only supplies that he was carrying.
While The Hunter walked he reviewed his plan to slay The Wolf. He knew that for the next few miles he must tread lightly, move slowly and stay low. The Wolf could hear and smell far better than any man could imagine. Legend has it that The Wolf could even ambush approaching prey in his sleep. The Hunter knew that he only has one shot to bring the beast down, and even in its slumber it would not be easy.
The fog was growing thicker but The Hunter pressed on. He could barely see past his feet, but that’s all he needed. Just below him was the first paw print. The Hunter crouched down to inspect the gaping holes in the snow. One print alone was enough to fit a child inside of, and The Hunter knew that many children and other innocent people had met their end under those paws. He followed the tracks diligently for about a mile on the treacherous peaks. With frost on his face and rage in his heart, he continued up the mountainside.
On the rocky cliffs of the Mispons, he had found what he had been looking for. It felt like he had been searching forever, and now that he found it he was not sure that he wanted to go inside. The Wolf’s cave was finally in his sight. It was a dark and curved entrance that almost looked like a twisted perversion of a smile. The Hunter could not help but think that The Wolf took some kind of twisted pleasure in that. The Hunter struck a match, lit up his lantern, and stepped inside.
The interior of the cave somehow seemed colder than the unforgiving peaks of the Mispons. The light of his lantern flickered as he stepped over the bloodstained stones and old bones that cluttered the cave’s floor. For many of his steps, The Hunter could only feel discarded ribcages and limbs under his moccasins. The stench was unbearable. The scents of wet fur, carcasses, and urine forcibly entered his nostrils. It only got worse as he pressed on through the catacombs.
The Hunter had noticed that the bones he was stepping on were parts of complete skeletons, many of them still wearing the clothes or armor that they died in. There was no sign of The Wolf caching gold or weapons, there was not a glimmer of silver to be seen in the caves. Judging by some of the positions that the deceased were in, it seemed that these poor souls died in the cavern. The Ravens had a love of human treasures and are known for stealing all that shines. The Wolf did not. The Wolf detests men above all else, he despises their treasures and their greed. His treasure was suffering. The Wolf would thrash men within an inch of their lives, and drag them to the caves to watch them die. He rarely showed mercy to women and children either, tearing their skin off alive and eating it in front of the men as a cruel way to inflict pain on them. To inflict the cruelty that The Wolf had seen men so easily give out. The wrath of The Wolf was insatiable. He carried it with him since he was just a cub and now knows no other way.
Even though his crimes against nature and The Hunter were unforgivable, The Hunter felt a small sense of pity for The Wolf. The Wolf had lost his way, but so had the men of late. Men were now more concerned with building treasuries and fueling industry than living with dignity and freedom, living as subservient hoarders instead of proud men in living off of nature. There was a time when men protected all on the Earth, and would proudly ride with Wolves for grand hunts and to deliver justice. The Hunter’s Fathers rode with Wolves. Perhaps, if they were in another time, The Hunter and The Wolf would have ridden together.
There was no time to reminisce about the Old Ages now. A flicker of his lantern revealed a large, hirsute mass sprawled across the cavern’s floor. Had it not been for The Hunter’s sharp eye he would not have seen it, for it was as black as night. The Hunter held his breath and quickly sought refuge behind one of the cave’s walls. He crept his head around the stone and focused his light on the creature carefully as not to wake it. He inspected the seemingly lifeless body and knew that this was his chance. This was what he was waiting for. He – well – he and Mila would finally get their revenge. He smothered his lantern and drew in the dank, frosty air through his nose. He stepped around the stone and began to stalk the beast. The hunter had become the hunted. Each step was taken with more caution than the last as he got closer to the sleeping giant. He stepped breathlessly to not crunch bone or kick pebbles. After the longest few yards that he had ever walked were done, he was at the neck of the wolf. It was dark as Hell, but he could see the fur and the curves of his body. The wolf had been in such a slumber that it appeared dead, not making a sound. This was it. The Hunter slowly withdrew his sword from its sheath. His cold hands wrapped around hard leather, the gleam of the blade shone even in the deepest pits of the cave. He lifted the hilt above his head and drove the blade through the fur and into the bone. The wolf did not respond. The Hunter took the opportunity and ran the wolf through several more times. His sword driving deeper and deeper with each strike. The Hunter left his sword in the wolf after piercing it deep as the hilt and dashed back, drawing his knife and readying himself for a fight.
A fight did not come.
“What in Ariel’s name?”
He grasped his sword and withdrew the blade from the fur. After a few seconds of silence, he relit his lantern. The carcass below him was certainly large enough to be The Wolf, and it looked strikingly like The Wolf. However, there was something incomplete about it, as if it were a sum of many parts rather than one body. The Hunter brushed his hand against the coarse fur and lowered it to the ground. The fur had a bottom as if it were a massive rug. The Hunter pulled from the bottom with a long stroke and flipped the rug over to the side, revealing the contents underneath. Laying under the fur were ten or eleven large sheep carcasses, arranged to appear as the bulk of The Wolf. The remainder of the rug was stitched together with another wolf skull, paws, and bear claws. These caves were ancient and powerful, a strong enough wielder could create illusions to convince even the savviest of hunters. The Hunter knew that he was in danger.
Before he could finish his words, The Hunter felt the weight of one thousand knives enter his ribcage and his back. He released a bloodcurdling cry as he felt his body lift off the ground and move with impossible speed. It had taken him about ten minutes to get as deep into the Mispons as he was, and now he could see the light of the grinning entryway within a matter of seconds.
The frigid wind slapped him with impossible force as he felt his attacker fling his body weightlessly. He braced himself for a crash landing and hit the snow. The seeping crimson of The Hunter’s wounds was a stark contrast to the pure white blanket of the Mispons. His ears were ringing, but The Hunter could make out the sound of deep, guttural laughter. It had sounded like the Earth itself shaking, and it possibly was. The Hunter lifted his face out of the snow and then his whole body. There he stood in front of The Wolf.
“Well, if it isn’t the mighty hunter? Did you come to show the ‘Big, Bad Wolf’ the meaning of justice? You should have stayed in that rat’s nest near Noird, boy.”
The Hunter stood firm despite the searing pain in his ribs.
“Yeah, after this I will end up doing exactly that. But they needed a few ashtrays and a chamber pot. Thought I’d run up here for your paws and your skull to help them out.”
The Wolf bellowed his unholy laughter, “Is that right? For such a small fellow you do have courage, you do have that. Your words aren’t enough to cut me, Huntsman, and neither will those infantile blades. Men greater than you have tried to fell the Beast of the Mispons, and all have failed.”
To be fair, The Wolf towered over The Hunter. The Wolf stood twofold the size as one of the Grand Bisons of the Chela Plains. The Hunter could not see the entrance to the cave behind The Wolf as he swallowed the area with his massive stature. The Wolf began to circle The Hunter, preparing for an attack.
The Hunter grimaced and put his hand on the garments over his wound. His hand now covered in frozen blood.
“Enjoy this bloodshed, monster. It will be the last that you ever see.”
The Wolf lunged at The Hunter faster than lightning, the Hunter drew his bow and drove two arrows into The Wolf’s neck. The Wolf did not feel them and was instantly within striking range of The Hunter. He was close enough to The Hunter that he could smell The Wolf’s rancid breath, The Hunter evaded the beast’s jaws with a lateral dive. The Wolf snapped his neck back and caught The Hunter’s leg with his mighty jaws. Once again, The Hunter was flung into the snow.
The Wolf laughed so hard that he began to cough.
“You are no different than all of your men-kind. You mistake arrogance for conviction, greed for justice.”
The Hunter rolled to his back and slashed The Wolf across the face with his broadsword. The strike opened a gaping wound in the Beast of the Mispons’ face as he fell back and bellowed, but it also served to anger him. He bared his teeth and snapped them at The Hunter’s shoulder, lifting him off of the ground. The Hunter withdrew his knife and repeatedly stabbed The Wolf behind the ears and in the neck, as the teeth of The Wolf drove deeper into The Hunter’s shoulder. The knife was enough to subdue The Wolf after a dozen strikes and he relinquished. The Hunter had the upper hand for the first time and seized the opportunity, he drove his broadsword into The Wolf’s ribs. The Wolf cried as The Hunter continued to hack at the beast. Each strike gnashed fur, snow, and blood. For the first time since the Wolf was a cub, he was vulnerable. He retreated to the cliffside and laid across the rocky peaks. He was beaten.
The Hunter was breathing heavy and bleeding heavier. He looked down at the mighty creature, now a dying wretch. The Wolf seemed to enjoy watching his prey die, but The Hunter would not give him the satisfaction of partaking in the cruelty that he was expecting. The Hunter began his journey home to let The Wolf’s tyranny become a thing of the past.
But The Wolf had different plans, he smiled through his bloodstained teeth.
“That’s just like you to leave me here to die, Huntsman. You seemed to have no problem doing the same to that wife of yours. What was her name, again? Mila?”
The Hunter stopped dead in his tracks. The sound of her name coming from that degenerate’s mouth made his blood boil. He clenched his fists.
“Yes, that was it,” The Wolf continued, “Mila. Her last words were your name, you know? She begged you to save her. She cried in vain for something that was never strong enough to save her as I snapped her pathetic bones in half.”
The Wolf laughed as he sputtered blood onto the stones. The Hunter was shaking with rage, but The Wolf was as deceitful as he was cruel, The Hunter stood strong to ignore his taunts. He wanted to walk away, but his feet felt as if they were one thousand pounds.
“As a matter of fact, go into my cave before you leave. I left you her spine. She could never be protected with a spineless man, borrow hers so that you can try again with another harlot daughter of a drunkard.”
The Hunter screamed a warcry loud enough to be heard from the Nabi Desert. He pounced at The Wolf with his hunting knife in hand. The Wolf bore his final grin and in an anticipated swoop, he snapped his powerful jaws around The Hunter’s wrist and slid them both into the darkness below.