March 11, 2019
The young man settled on a sturdy limb, leaning back against the thick trunk of a majestic oak. He was as still as the forest around him, even moreso as a breeze set branches to swaying. Sapphire-blue eyes peered into the surrounding forest, seeking a sign through the foliage, some hint of his elusive prey.
Then, at last, he spotted a flash of white amid the trees. Afternoon sunbeams slanted through the canopy to shine upon one of the wood's regal, many-antlered white stags. Inching forward, the youth gauged distance, watching the stag as it made his way into a clearing. Dipping its head, the deer nibbled at some leaves, then looked up slowly, as if sensing eyes upon it, yet not threatened. The watcher waited until his target moved a bit further into the little meadow, until it presented itself in full display, turning it's head towards him. He raised his arms, took aim, and....
The shutter flashed open and shut, then again and again, the sound too faint to carry the distance. Doran smiled as he lowered his camera, and checked the viewer to see what images he'd captured. "Perfect," he muttered, almost breathlessly. "Azure will love this one, she might even make a pattern of it." Tucking the camera into his belt pouch, he looked up at the stag once more, admiring its majesty. It did not surprise him that the great deer were held in so many cultures as kings of the forest.
Suddenly the stag's head jerked, startled, and Doran narrowed his eyes as he reached out with his gifted perceptions. His lips curled downwards into a frown as he picked up an impression of ugly reality.
Hunter. Not for food or warmth, not for necessity; that, he could understand and accept. This was a man seeking nothing more than a trophy to claim. "We'll see about that."
* * * * *
Nergan Trueshot had traveled all across the wilds of Rhy'din and into world beyond, always hunting for new and exciting prey. He had earned his sobriquet by his skill with the bow, and his home was bedecked with many a beast's head, pelt, or other reminders of past hunts. When he heard of the Guild's rewards, he knew he had to come back to the city and the woods beyond its walls. Perhaps this would be his time to add one Rhy'din's great white stags to his collection?
He crept through the underbrush, swift and silent, taking care not to disturb leaf or twig with his passing. Dropping to one knee, he reached down to examine the tracks before him. Fresh, he determined, looking up to peer into the trees ahead, not far ahead of me and moving at an easy pace. He hasn't realized that I'm tracking him. Good. Standing once more, the hunter moved forward, not so quickly now, but with deliberation and stealth. It wouldn't do to spook the stag when he was so close.
Finally he spotted it! There, in that clearing, the great deer stood, grazing calmly without a care. Excellent. As the stag grazed, Nergan edged closer to the tree line. He froze when the prey's head rose and it looked around, checking for threats. For a moment, it turned to look off in the distance, and he crept forward. Then a squirrel dashed, chittering, through the underbrush,startled by his unexpected nearness, and he froze in place, ducking his head as the stag's head jerked towards him, letting his camouflaged hood shield his presence. Did it see me?
After a long moment, he slowly lifted his gaze until he could spy the stag once more. It had closer to the far edge of the clearing, but was no longer looking about, having returned to its grazing. With a self-satisfied smirk, Nergan slowly stood, hiding behind a thick trunk as he nocked an arrow in his bow. The wind rustled the leaves above him, but he paid it no mind, leaning forward to find his target. He lifted his bow, taking careful aim.
Ducking back out of sight, Nergan frowned and glanced around him, into the surrounding trees. Had he really heard a voice just then, whispering? It had sounded as though it were coming from someone leaning close into his ear, but there was nobody there. He peeked back to see if the stag had reacted, but no, it simply stood there, looking away from him, heedless of any danger. Clearing his mind, the hunter once more took aim.
Gasping, he froze in place, bow lifted but unable to let the arrow fly.
"....i'm here... i see you...."
Now that had definitely been a voice, soft but edged with menace. Someone was watching him, and he felt a tingling in the skin of his neck. Who was out there? Who spied on him from the wooded boughs and branches? "Enough!" he hissed under his breath. "You're imagining things." Taking a slow breath to gather his wits, the hunter looked back out into the clearing.
The stag was calmly looking his way. More than that, he knew with certainty that it was staring. Right. At. Him. Frozen in place, Nergan could hear his pulse pounding in his temples. He couldn't tear his gaze away from it as the stag took one step towards him, then another, and as it approached, its bright pelt seemed almost to burn with a white-hot fire. Surely, he thought in a panic, his doom was fast approaching, but he could only stand there, transfixed as awe blended with terror in his mind. My heart, pounding as if about to burst from my chest!
Suddenly the great deer snorted, almost contemptuously, and stamped at the ground. The spell broken, Nergan dropped his bow and arrow heedlessly and spun around, not caring about anything except getting away from there, as far and fast as he could.
A figure stood there, a young man, practically a lad, his sapphire-blue eyes shining with a faint, eerie glow. "Hello there," yhe youth said, and in that moment Nergan recognized the whispering, unseen voice that menaced him so recently. There was a blur of motion, and then something struck hard against his temple, sending the hunter reeling as he fell to the forest floor.
* * * * *
Dropping his staff, Doran reached down to grab the man by his tunic and haul him roughly upwards, stronger than his lean frame would suggest. He shook the hunter, his smile an almost-malicious grin as the other groggily met his gaze. "Let's see how you handle being hunted."
* * * * *
Nergan's eyes blinked once, then again before locking on the young man's face with a gaping, slack-jawed stare. Those blue eyes seemed to swell, filling his vision with a sapphire haze... and within that haze, images arose, a sense of something ever behind him, stalking, toying with him as he ran, endlessly through a nightmare forest. All around him, roars of anguish and bleating, helpless calls rang out, and beyond them were the raucous baying of hounds in chase. No! He had to escape! Had to get out, but the trees, the trees closing in all around him, and then the arrows, the spears, cutting deep into his flesh! It hurt! So much! Gods above... the pain!
He stumbled, exhausted and bloody, and then the pack was upon him, nipping and tearing his flesh to bring him down. A wordless scream erupted from his lips as he collapsed, only to have his head yanked back and something cruel and hard pressed against his throat. Cold, it slid across, and then the chill was washed away by a wet heat that flowed down his body as his vision faded to black.
* * * * *
The next day, a pair of riders came up to the Hunters Guild hall. Behind one of them rode another man, clad as a hunter, bow and quiver slung across his back, his eyes wide in a sightless stare. The two men helped their mindless companion down, leading him inside as they spoke in hushed tones.
"Maybe the Guild will be able to find someone to help him."
"The way he is? Not likely! I'll tell you, though, I sure don't want to run into whatever fell spirit did this to someone like Nergan!"
Across the street, sapphire-blue eyes watched for a moment, until the trio had disappeared inside. Then Doran smiled and, raising a flute to his lips, began to play a jaunty tune as he strolled off into the mid-day crowd.