Shadow of the Hunter CompletebyThistlethorn©
He stepped backwards and sized up this other opponent. He was tall for a goblin, which made him about as tall as Chad. He wore no hat or face covering, markedly different from other goblins Chad had seen. His dark, stringy hair hung on the side of his head, and in the available light his complexion looked grayish. A sneer spread across his unpleasant features and the creature tossed the rifle away. Chad could see the musculature move under the rough cut clothes the creature wore. He was brawny, and not just for a goblin. Chad had to end this quickly. He could brawl, and had done so often in his life, but with humans not supernatural creatures.
The goblin closed quickly, cuffing Chad hard on the side of the head. Chad stumbled, but returned a blow by slamming his fist into what would be the solar plexus on a human. The creature seemed to share a similar anatomy and his breath left in a sudden reeking exhale. The creature fell back and Chad shook his head to clear it.
The creature recovered and was back on Chad, reaching for his throat. Chad spared a look down, then went into a controlled fall, raising his hands to about eye level. The creature followed him down and Chad caught the forehead in his hands. Instantly, he was at the inner corners of the eyes with his thumbs. Realizing the mistake, the creature tried to pull back. Chad only gouged the left eye. The thumb at the right eye penetrated into the socket, eliciting a loud shriek from the goblin. Chad gripped the right side of the head by hooking his thumb into the socket and curling his fingers around the ear. He pulled the creature down to the ground by the side of his head.
Chad grasped the left shoulder and forced the goblin onto the ground. He straddled the goblin's chest and located a broken glass bottle. Without hesitation, he slit the throat and the goblin expired with a gurgled last breath. Chad rose up, gore splattered on him, and turned to face the one with the woman. It fled.
"You should go. Do you have anyplace safe to stay?"
"Good. Go there and stay there."
She nodded again and stumbled away. Chad heard applause. He looked up to see the weather elemental from earlier looking at him from the top of a dumpster.
"Were you going to help me there?" he asked.
"Should you have needed it. But you handled it quite efficiently."
Chad gave him a sour look as he gathered his gun. "The Snow Miser would have helped."
"If he existed."
Chad shook his head. "Whatever," he muttered as he exited the alley. The entity hopped down from the dumpster and followed him.
"You know, if you have something to say, I wish you'd just say it," Chad snapped.
"Well, you're a little testy. I think I should wait until you're not in as foul a mood."
Chad traveled in the silent company of the winter elemental. He walked for what felt like hours, though he wondered if the cold wasn't making the time feel longer then it was. He was about ready to call it a night when he felt another spike.
The feeling was different this time, not quite like the goblins. He let his senses lead him and wound up in an industrial area. There were figures crouched and hunched around in a tight circle. Though their backs were to him, he knew they were not human. They were emaciated and huddled close together. Their heads were down and their attention tightly focused on whatever was in the center of the group. It somehow reminded Chad of a communal meal. Chad shouted at them.
They looked up. The features were too feral to be human, yet too human to be animals. They were pinched and drawn, with a hungry look about them, but they didn't move like predators. Hunched and ground clinging, they seemed more like scavengers, like stray dogs picking over the refuse from garbage cans. They shifted for a moment, wanting to run but not wanting to leave what was between them. As they shifted about in indecision, Chad glimpsed a body at the center of the mass. A human body. He screamed at them as he charged.
The scavengers scattered into the night, fear giving them unexpected speed and agility. When Chad reached the body, he realized the man had been dead long before the scavengers had arrived.
The man was cyanotic. His body was dusted with frost, his eyes wide open and staring, and his clothes partially removed. When Chad touched the body, it was completely cold. The places where he'd been chewed weren't bleeding. While Chad couldn't be certain, the man appeared to have frozen to death before he became a meal. Chad sat on the ground next to the man and wondered what to do. He sensed the elemental approach.
"What the fuck was he doing way out here?" Chad asked.
"I don't know, but I suppose he was trying to find shelter."
"Out here? How fucking dumb was he, looking for shelter out here?"
The elemental shrugged, sadness filling his eyes. "I don't know. Maybe this was how far he was forced to go. There's not a lot of shelter in the city, either."
Chad sensed the rebuke. "Well, there's not a lot I can do about that, now is there? Maybe if you didn't make it so damn cold, they wouldn't freeze to death."
"I can't control that."
"Well, I can't make people give a damn, either."
"I wasn't talking to 'people'. I was talking to you."
Chad felt as though he'd been struck in the chest. He remembered something his roommate once said to him: "Giving a damn isn't really your thing." He stared at the elemental and wanted to say something but nothing would come. He watched as the elemental faded into snow and blew away. Chad pulled out his cell phone and called 911, not that there was anything that could be done for the man now.
Chad dragged himself back to his flop. Exhausted both physically and emotionally, and frozen nearly to the core, he piled extra blankets on the bed and crawled in. His thoughts chased each other around his mind until sleep claimed him. He soon fell into a deep slumber.
Sometime after Chad surrendered to sleep, shadows congealed into a form in the sitting area of his room. The figure appeared in a crouch and carefully straightened to a full height of five feet. He tugged his broad brimmed hat about his face, a habitual motion that accomplished nothing in the almost empty room. The goblin narrowed his eyes, scanning the area to make sure nothing and no one was present save the prey. He could see nothing. Anxious to be done with the work, he headed over to the bed.
So this is the new hunter causing so much fuss. The entity made a once over of the sleeping form. Fairly young for a hunter. Still, best not to underestimate. Grabble lies dead because of him, and I thought that bastard would never die. Best to be done with the work. He chuckled grimly. Perhaps I should thank the hunter for the favor before I kill him.
Nog sensed the approach seconds before the attack. He spun out of the way as a dagger ghosted towards him. He was not fast enough, however. A sharp pain in his side told him the dagger had struck home. He turned and faced his assailant. A gray-white rat in a patchwork cloak and head covering stood baring a bloody dagger. Nog snarled.
"Blasted vermin," he hissed. "I'll finish you and then make an end of the hunter."
Nog felt cold metal pressed against the back of his head and suspected a gun.
"You may want to rethink that," said a voice behind him. "Two against one are really shitty odds."
Nog didn't miss a beat. "You won't find that works on me," he said, confident. "The others, yes, but I'm a different breed."
He heard something metallic click into place behind him. "Then you won't mind if I test the theory." Discretion being the better part of valor, Nog vanished. Chad clicked the safety back into place.
"How did you know he was lying?" Ambrose asked as he folded his arms in front of himself, careful to hold the dagger away.
"Why tell me? Why not just let me waste the round? It would have more of an impact if I shot him and it didn't have any effect."
"Then why didn't you just pull the trigger rather than warn him?"
Chad held up the handgun. "No silencer. I'm in enough trouble with the law without discharging an unlicensed and unregistered handgun in a hotel."
Ambrose nodded, causing the tassels weighing down his head covering to sway gently. "I see. Very sage."
"If you say so." Chad looked over his visitor. He looked the same as their first meeting. A three-foot-tall rat standing on his hind quarters. The patchwork cloak with its belled sleeves and matching head covering were in vibrant jewel tones, and complemented his simpler fur color. The cloak was slit up the sides and he could partially make out the legs, long and largely furless lower legs with short and heavy thighs. A hairless tail curled out from the back of the cloak. The head covering had eye holes sewn into it, and the jewel tones also highlighted how intelligent, and gentle, his eyes were. If not for the bloodied dagger, Chad wouldn't have believed Ambrose was capable of violence.
"Not that I mind the assist," Chad said as he got up to grab some napkins, "but why have you been staying here?"
Ambrose took the proffered napkins and cleaned off his knife. "To offer assistance. I knew they would track you down, eventually. I'm glad I was able to help. Thank you, by-the-by, for the food."
"Yeah." Chad sat down on the bed. "No problem."
Chad considered his next question when a skittering sensation of dread ran down his back. He sat up stiffly and rolled his shoulders. Ambrose's head shot up and he sniffed the air. Chad rose from the bed and quickly dressed.
"You felt that also?" the rat asked as Chad pulled on his shoes and grabbed the rifle from the closet.
"Yes. And I think it's time to blow this place."
Chad shrugged into his duster and hoodie and looked at the clock. Four in the morning. Still early enough for the streets to be largely empty. He made his way to the window and opened it onto the fire escape.
Ambrose scurried over and climbed out the window, followed by Chad. As he closed the window he saw the first of the invading group appear. He turned to the stairs. Ambrose was already at the bottom.
"Catch," Chad called as he tossed the rifle bag.
Ambrose caught the parcel and rested it across his shoulder. Chad grabbed the hand rails and found them frozen. He looked down the rails on both sides and saw both were encased in ice. He gripped the rails with his bare hands, locked his elbows, and slid down the steps to the ground level. He retrieved the gun from Ambrose and considered where to go. It was late, towards the end of when these creatures tended to be most active. While Chad had seen small parties during the day, it was the exception rather than the rule.
He started to run towards downtown, unsure if he should find a defensible position for a stand or keep moving until the forces gave up. "Will they stop at dawn?" he asked Ambrose.
Ambrose kept pace; Chad wondered why the robe didn't get in his way.
"Hard to say. Large groups during the day are rare. But limited time isn't necessarily a good thing."
"Why do you say that?"
"Desperation is an ugly thing and will lead to even uglier acts."
Great, Chad thought. Bad to worse in point two seconds. "OK," he said aloud. "Downtown is probably a bad idea. So where to?"
"The park may afford some cover. The industrial area could give some advantages."
Out of the corner of his eye, Chad saw something coming at him. He removed the rifle from and then discarded the sack. As he stopped to aim something large and heavy slammed into him. He went down.
The moment he hit ground it was on him. He brought up the rifle lengthwise to protect his face and throat. He saw a canid snout and sharp-looking teeth snapping at his face. Chad spun the gun against the animal's neck and pulled the trigger. A burst of automatic gun fire tore through the neck and struck something else from the sounds of two cries.
Chad pushed the body off as he crawled out from under it. He scrambled upright in time to see Ambrose slit the throat of the goblin mounted on an animal something like a wolf. It was massively, almost grotesquely, muscled, with thick fur, huge paws, and fangs that jutted out from its jaws. It wasn't so much a wolf, Chad decided, as a nightmarish perversion of a wolf. Every fairy tale big-bad-wolf ever written about. Ambrose looked up from cleaning his knife.
"You've made quite an impression on them, if they've brought these out."
"Great, I'm flattered. Let's motor." Chad took off running towards the industrial area from the night before. Ambrose followed him. They made it a little further, but not far enough.
Two of the enormous wolf-like animals charged in from the sides, herding them to the left. More were bringing up the rear. It became clear they were being directed to a desolate area under a bridge. Chad felt the danger sending warning flares along his spine. He saw only one way out.
He pulled up short and blocked Ambrose with his arm. "You can become like a regular-sized rat, right?"
Ambrose looked around as the mounted hunting party closed in. "Yes, but that doesn't seem terribly helpful at this moment."
"Just do it."
Ambrose shrank down; his coat and head covering faded. Chad maneuvered his foot over him, tightened his grip on the rifle, and called up the hawk. Feathers covered him as his form became smaller. The rifle tumbled from his grip. He gingerly hooked his talons around Ambrose and took flight as the wolves closed in. The closest one snapped at his retreating form, but only caught an errant tail feather.
Chad pumped his wings, the cold air making his flight more difficult. The city fell below them, the lights and streets a pastiche beneath them. An arrow whizzing by him reminded him of the dangers below. His white underside reflected the ambient light, making him a clearer target. Chad banked and headed towards the darker areas of the city, hoping to lose some of the pack before he headed for his final destination.
Chad enjoyed flight. Even now, fleeing for his life from a hunting pack of goblins, he thrilled to feel of the wind over his feathers, the power inherent in the hawk form, and the sense of freedom it gave him. The weight in his talons spoke of other responsibilities, however. As soon as he thought he'd lost the party, he adjusted his course.
The lead goblin loosed a series of curses as his mount captured nothing but a lone tail feather. He leaned forward and snatched the feather from the vargr's mouth, tucking it into his belt. The blasted hunter can shape-shift now? Quarrel shook his head. Was there nothing normal about this one?
With a snarl, Quarrel tightened his grip on his pole arm and urged his vargr forward. His hunt-mate, Nargle, followed behind in well-practiced unison. He pulled up next to Quarrel.
"You can track him?"
Quarrel rolled his eyes by way of reply.
He pushed his mount through the chill night air, following the bird's erratic course. As the trail lead into darkened areas the hawk became much more difficult to track, and the pack began to fall off.
Nargle pushed as close as the loping beasts would allow. "Still got the track?" he yelled.
"Shouldn't we signal the others?"
Nargle sighed. His natural tendency was to defer to Quarrel. Even at times such as this, when he considered it a bad course.
Quarrel's eyes never left the hawk. The hawk began his descent, heading for a detached building in a shopping plaza. Quarrel decided approach it indirectly. The path they took went wide, taking them into undeveloped land with a scraggly woods growing on it. He guided Death Dealer, his vargr, with his legs and free hand. The mount followed his directions while dodging around the terrain. Nargle kept close behind. As it became clear the hawk was heading for a particular building, Quarrel pushed harder and Nargle felt the first twinges of concern. When the hawk came in at the back of the building, Nargle recognized it and the twinges of concern bloomed into fear.
Soon, the Dragon's Garden was in sight. Chad soared over the building and banked inward to land in the back. He spread his wings wide and braked. He deposited Ambrose on the ground and landed just past him. He shifted back to human, the clothes he had been wearing before reappeared.
"Clothes, but not the rifle," he groused as he gathered up Ambrose and placed him the pocket of the duster. "What the hell is the logic of that?"
He felt the rat scramble out of his pocket. Ambrose resumed his more human form as he tumbled down. He took a look around, as if confirming something, then took hold of Chad's coat and pulled on it.
"No." There trepidation in his voice. "We cannot stay here."
Chad spared him a look then returned his attention to the surrounding land behind the restaurant. He scanned it for signs of any of the hunting party that may have kept up.
"Don't worry, it's cool." He pounded on the wall behind him.
"No, it is not cool," Ambrose insisted as he grabbed Chad's arm and pulled it down. "This is the territory of a very testy dragon and we don't want to be caught on it."
"I know," Chad explained, shaking off his arm. "We have an...arrangement."
Ambrose looked at Chad with amazement. "With this dragon?"
Chad nodded. "Yes, this dragon." He resumed pounding the wall.
"You are a man of many surprises."
The conversation stopped as two lupine forms loped towards them across the thinly wooded no-man's-land in back of the building. Chad ceased pounding the wall and bereft of any weapon, took up a defensive posture slightly in front of Ambrose. The two mounted goblins rode up, the lead goblin keen on his catch while the second goblin looked around with trepidation. He urged his mount from behind to beside the lead pair.
"We should not be here."
Wow, thought Chad, what does he do to them that makes them so scared?
The lead goblin looked over to his companion, his features twisted into a sneer. In a voice like grating iron he said, "The dragon here isn't any more fond of them," he indicated Chad with the point of a pole arm, "then he is of us. Particularly dislikes the Euro-descended." He looked back to Chad. "He'll probably thank us for removing him."
"I'm not so sure..." hedged his companion as he gave the building a long, concerned look. The other goblin, the larger of the two, shook his head and nudged his mount closer.
"Now this ends, boy."
Qiang appeared as a human behind the goblins. Chad considered the look on his face and decided he'd probably be afraid of that, too. The smaller goblin saw him arrive and withered against his mount.
"You know, I think he may have attended some diversity training recently."
The lead goblin looked over his shoulder, then turned his mount around to face Qiang. He bowed from the saddle.
"Noble dragon," he intoned. "We, my companion and I, are most regretful to have crossed your boundary lines. We were chasing this hunter and he crossed over them first. We merely followed. So, without any further disturbance to you, great one, we will remove both of these trespassers from your lands."
"You will?" Qiang asked, his tone almost sounded amused. The lead goblin nodded, quite certain of Qiang's agreement. The smaller one wasn't sure. Something felt off.
Qiang crossed his arms. "Well, the problem I see is that he's here with my permission. You're not."
The goblin shifted in his saddle. "Your permission?"
"Hmm-mm," Qiang confirmed with a nod of his head and a humorless smile. "So, you may take your leave now."
The lead goblin swallowed hard and continued. "But he's a hunter, and has been decimating our ranks. We have the right to vengeance."