The Hunter - Part 3

in fiction •  10 months ago

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He rounded a corner, coming into the town square. The fountain burbled with water clear enough to drink from the artesian well this town had been built around. He smelled death, with a slight undertone of cinnamon. In the middle of the square he saw a tall, gaunt figure dressed in a cloak and top hat, the stove-pipe of the hat unnaturally long, looming over the crouching, tiny figure almost abasing itself in front of the demon.

The hunter snarled. He could see another tiny body near the two figures, this one not moving. Had he been conscious, his anger would've doubled. While his morality was flexible, and sometimes nonexistent, harming children was, to him, a fundamentally despicable act. He would've also known what this creature was, and why it had abducted these poor young souls. It was a Nelminth, and it replenished its considerable store of magical power by draining the life from children. Children have an innate magical power that disappears with age as the world beats them down and they stop believing in the mystical and fanciful things in this world. Much like the average process of the removal of this childlike wonder kills the inner child in most people, the Nelminth's method killed the child outright, and didn't take so damned long.

The creature in the square, gangly, its limbs too long, its fingers like pale daggers in the torchlight, turned to regard him. It didn't quite know what to make of him. One eye held a corkscrew pupil, and it cocked its head to the side and screwed up its face in a grotesque parody of human confusion. Then, disturbingly, it began to laugh. Its laugh was high pitched, yet low at the same time. It seemed to speak with two voices. One was the voice of a young woman, the other the voice of a man. Both were horribly distorted, yet the words it spoke were clear.

"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" It leaned over to get a closer look at him, though it didn't need to. Every movement this creature made to interact with mortals was merely for macabre show. "I think I have heard of your kind, yes yes! A Hunter, are you? And you think to rob me of my meal? If you think you are able, then come! Your feeble gift is no match for the strength of one of my kind!"

It ran at him then, seeming to glide over the cobblestones. It made no noise whatsoever, and grinned with a too-large mouth filled with razor-sharp fangs. The Hunter, The Beast, responded in kind. As soon as the creature moved towards him, he dashed in its direction, building up momentum in no time whatsoever. The thing laughed hideously, stretching out its abnormally long arms to receive what it thought would be its new meal.

The Nelminth was sorely mistaken.

At five paces The Beast leapt forward and tucked himself into a ball, aimed at the monster's chest. He connected, and the Nelminth let out a very mortal breath as the wind was knocked out of it. Then it screamed as it felt The Beast's claws ripping at its torso, getting a good grip in the unearthly flesh, and bearing it to the cobblestones of the square. They bounced and rolled, each unable to launch an attack as their momentum carried them over the surviving child and into the fountain. They splashed into the water, and The Beast landed on top. He wasted no time getting to work, and drew back his clawed fist. He punched forward into the chest of the Nelminth, where its heart would be. The monster shifted at the last moment, but screamed in pain as it felt The Beast's claws in its guts.

The Beast took a good handful and pulled, ripping free the coat and revealing the emaciated body of the creature, large rents in its flesh. The smell of cinnamon permeated the air of the square. The Beast spared one glance over his shoulder and saw the child, still sitting in the square, too terrified to move, and The Hunter spared one word, spat out in irritation, rage, and most likely futility, "Run!"

Without checking to see if the child had obeyed him, The Beast reared back and, his black fangs glinting in the torchlight, dove in for a killing blow. Unfortunately for him the Nelminth had recovered by that time, and expended its unnatural strength to thrown him across the cobblestones. Water flying from his spinning form, The Beast crashed into a cart full of fruit. The cart was destroyed by the impact, one of the split planks burying itself in The Beast's leg. He gasped in pain; he wasn't used to being hurt in this state; and turned his rage on the monster in the fountain. He stood, though shakily, and faced his opponent. The monster laughed.

"You think you can get away with that, you filthy human?" it asked in anger. "I think it's time to teach you some respect!"

The monster brought its hands together in a gesture of magical conjuring and threw them at The Beast. From the monster's long fingers appeared a globe of green gel, magical acid that could eat through to the heart of the world if given enough time.

The Beast raised its claws in a defensive gesture and caught the green globe. Where it touched his skin it smoked and burned, but The Beast wasn't aware. This magical attack couldn't stop him, his curse ensured he was more resilient to Faerie magic than your average man. He threw the globe to the ground where it contented itself in making a hole in the cobblestones and, eventually, the dirt below. The Beast roared and, ignoring the pain in his thigh, ran at this outsider who had dared to invade the world of men. Using his good leg, he leapt at the creature. The monster grabbed him by his outstretched arms, careful to avoid the claws, and swung him around by the wrists to connect with the fountain, shattering the stonework with his relatively unprotected torso.

The Beast felt several things snap in his body. Breathing became a chore as he rolled to a stop on the dusty causeway. Moving hurt. This wasn't a feeling The Beast was used to, but in this state he didn't know how to be injured. He leapt to his feet and ran again at the thing, claws outstretched. But cunning was apart of the plan this time, and as the creature reached out to again swing him like a cudgel, he tucked inside the creature's arms and stretched out his claws towards its torso. He connected this time, driving them into its chest.

The monster screamed, a piercing shriek that woke the denizens of the farthest houses. The Beast tightened his grip, and the creature's scream became higher, and it raised its arms in pain, its face crying out towards a moon that would not show itself.

The Beast ripped out his arm, pulling the Nelminth's dried up, desiccated heart with it. The scream reached a crescendo, and The Beast felt long fingers around his neck, though there was no strength in them. The monster was dying, and they both knew it. The Beast stood as his opponent slowly began to turn to cinnamon dust. It sniffed the black lump of bitumen in its claw, and flung it to the ground, well away from the fountain.

The spell began to recede. His teeth morphed back to their normal pearly white, his fingers grew back to their normal dimensions. The sound of his bones cracking as this process completed echoed across the square.

With the return of his normal physical form came that form’s weaknesses. The pain in his thigh welled suddenly in him, and his leg gave way. Artemis collapsed into the fountain, just barely able to keep his head above water. He also felt what had been broken within him when that thing had used him to break the fountain. Several ribs were broken, at best. At worst he had punctured organs. One of his lungs had a bit of rib in it, most certainly. He could tell by the red he was wiping away from his mouth and the hitch in his breath. He tasted copper, and knew that he wouldn't be able to stay conscious for much longer.

As he was contemplating whether the people in this village were worth his life, he saw a tiny face poke up above the rim of the fountain. It was the child he'd saved. Thankfully it seemed unhurt. He thought it was a boy, but he couldn't tell. At least that had worked out, he thought. The child was safe. That was all that really mattered. He settled back on the cold, wet stone, ready to die.

Unfortunately for him, the universe didn't seem ready to let him go as easy as all that. People had begun to crowd around the square, awoken by the fight. The child climbed into the fountain and grabbed him by the cloak, struggling to keep his head above water. The Hunter thought he heard, "He saved me, mummy! He saved me from that thing!" but he couldn't be sure. The last thing he saw was people crowding around the fountain, and then he descended into what he assumed would be his death sleep.

Picture credit: https://pixabay.com/en/sunset-veszpr%C3%A9m-castle-clouds-2783095/

This story was featured in the DimensionBucket Media anthology, Darkest of Dreams: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B073WPKMDC/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=jimfear138-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&linkCode=as2&creativeASIN=B073WPKMDC&linkId=0ef22a21e890a33c5fc0a8711774d068
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(Part 1 here: https://steemit.com/fiction/@jimfear138/the-hunter-part-1)
(Part 2 here: https://steemit.com/fiction/@jimfear138/the-hunter-part-2)

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Apologies, I forgot to link to part 4 here, so here's the link so it's easy to find for everyone.

Part 4