Without a second thought I thrust my arm back, hurling the rest of my body forward. My arm wrenched backwards as the boar caught it on his tusk, but my initial momentum carried me far enough to move out of his path. I prayed the injury wasn’t as bad as I feared.


But I didn’t have time to check. I poured every ounce of my will into the simple mission of getting to that tree. My body was numb. My mind was blank. It was years of playing in the forest that had my body moving without the need for my mind’s commands.


As I hoped, the boar wasn’t able to pivot fast enough and must have skidded past me, buying me valuable seconds. In a few swift movements I was up the tree as high as I could go, and only then did I dare to look down. It was a good thing I traveled up as far as I did – the beast hadn’t forgotten about me and managed to hook his front legs onto the lower branches, heaving himself momentarily up off the ground. The tree groaned under his weight.


I looked down to see the boar staring up at me with his cold, black eyes. Jets of steam poured from his nostrils, expressing his primal annoyance. From somewhere above him, drops of red liquid fell and splashed onto his snout. I had a moment of confusion before realizing that my arm was the source. A huge gash ran from my wrist to my elbow. There was no pain yet. Good. I needed to use that to my advantage. There was still a chance I could shoot an arrow into this damned boar and retain at least a shred of honour.


I pulled out my bow and grabbed an iron arrow. But as soon as I notched it I knew I was in trouble. Even though I couldn’t feel anything, my right arm was in shock, the muscles weak and uncooperative. There was no way I’d be able to pull the arrow back far enough to pierce through the great boar’s thick hide.


Now I understood why my master insisted I try to learn how to shoot with my less dominant arm. I hated the training. It was awkward and miserable and I loathed anything that didn’t come easy to me. But I was sure thankful for it now, even if it pained me to admit my master was right.


It was far from elegant, but I shifted my position on the tree, hugging the branch between my legs and planting my feet on the trunk to steady myself. Nobody but the boar would see how artless I looked and I needed every advantage I could get. Carefully I moved the bow to my right hand and nocked the arrow with my left, pulling it back and aiming down at the boar that was still thinking I’d come down and let myself become his dinner.


My right arm trembled a little, but I forced it into position, locking my joints so my bones were doing most of the work. All I needed was my arm to stay stiff, that was it.


I breathed in slowly, then exhaled, taking my time to line up my shot. Patience. There was no rush. I was safe up here.


The beast reared back then slammed its weight back onto the tree.


I let out a choked gasp as my chest collided with branch below me. Had I not locked my legs around it I might have been knocked to the ground. I’d have cursed if I had the breath to do so. Since when could old boars learn new tricks?


I couldn’t let this rattle me. Take another breath. Focus. My goal hadn’t changed.


The wind gently brushed against my skin and I smelled the sweet, thick scent of decaying leaves. The world slowed. My panic subsided. There was only me, the boar, and my intent.


With one last exhale I loosed my arrow.


There was a moment of stunned silence before the boar let out a piercing squeal that I was sure would be heard deep into the forest. The shot wasn’t perfect, but it was damned near close enough. If I was lucky, the tip might have reached his heart or lungs. If not, it was still a damaging blow.


The boar frantically bashed into the tree once more before tearing off to the northeast. From my vantage point I was able to watch it until it reached an area where the trees thickened once more.


Only when I lost sight of it did I let out a long, relieved breath. I put my bow away and reached into my pouch for the bandages I kept there. It had been a long time since I needed to use them.


I tried to wiggle my fingers and was pleased when they moved exactly as they should. It was a superficial wound then. Deep, and dangerous if infected, but I’d still be able to shoot once it had time to heal. For now I simply wanted to put pressure on it and dampen the smell of blood. I didn’t want my injury to attract any opportunistic predators.


Once I bandaged myself up and thoroughly scanned the area for any sign of danger, I climbed down the tree and followed the trail of the great boar.


For a moment I hesitated, my master’s voice echoing in the back of mind. “Once the hunter is injured, the hunt is over, for the hunter’s pride can be just as dangerous as the beast itself.” Damned old man. The boar caught me by surprise, but that wouldn’t happen again. I could definitely get another shot or two in. Besides, I was perfectly fine setting my pride aside and shooting from the safety of the higher ground, so it wasn’t as if I was totally ignoring my master’s lecture.


I stuck close to the trees, making sure I had access to quick escapes if need be. It was also a hell of a lot easier without that stupid net slowing me down. Spirits, I hated that thing. I had been a fool to rely on it.


My arm was starting to throb, but the pain hadn’t set in yet. I didn’t even want to know how bad it was going to hurt later, but I put it out of my mind for now. That boar wasn’t going to get the best of me again.


The trail was easy to follow. The broken twigs, scattered leaves, and occasional drop of blood made his direction all too obvious. The closely packed trees made me feel calmer. More places to hide. More opportunities to climb. I felt in control again.


I only paused when I saw a familiar marker on one of the huge oak trees. It was one of the priestess’ wards, painted in white and black.


With a soft sigh I put my hand on the tree. “Forgive me, priestess, but I have no time for this nonsense today.” I gave the tree a pat and stepped past it.


My gut churned uncomfortably. I’d never gone past the wards without my master by my side. And every time we did he was on edge. Everyone in the village was swayed by superstition, and I convinced myself this was the only reason I felt ill at ease.


With a resolute shake of my head I pressed on, ignoring the gnawing worries that clawed at my insides. The only difference between this part of the woods and what lied beyond the wards was unfamiliar terrain. And I was confident in my navigation skills, so the chances of me getting lost were next to none. I had absolutely no reason to acknowledge the irrational fears buzzing around me like a cloud of gnats.


Still, there were real threats to keep in mind, namely the boar I was tracking. There would be no room for mistakes. By the spirits, I was lucky I didn’t injure one of my legs, and that the wound to my arm wasn’t the slightest bit deeper.


Eventually I heard the sound of water. There must be another stream here. It was a good landmark to note. I only hoped I wouldn’t lose the trail of the boar if it decided to wade in the water.


As I passed through a thick clump of trees and bushes I finally caught sight of the stream. Yes! My prey was here as well. He was standing at the edge, looking as if he was trying to find a way to cross, when suddenly he froze.


Did he smell me?


I ducked down low and shifted behind the nearby bushes. No. That couldn’t be it. I was definitely downwind. Not that there was much wind in this area to begin with.


“Looks like we found dinner.”


The sound of the voice made me jump. Who in the hells would be coming from that direction? Another hunting party?


From the other side of the stream a number of dark figures emerged from the trees. I hated that I couldn’t see them clearly, but I wasn’t about to give away my position, not when I had no idea who they were.


Suddenly, the largest figure bolted towards the river, leaping it in a single bound. He slammed down in front of the giant boar like a strike of lightning, spraying dirt everywhere. As the cloud of dust settled, I had to blink twice to believe what I was seeing. Had my own arrow not been sticking out of that damned great boar, I could have sworn it was just a regular-sized boar standing in front of that towering figure.


“Goin’ somewhere, piggy?” the man asked. His words were thick, as if he didn’t quite know how to speak the language, but I understood him well enough.


The great boar squealed in reply and lunged forward, chomping down onto the man’s leg with his giant, terrifying maw.


My hand leapt to my mouth, muffling my gasp.


The man threw back his head and let out a horrible, savage laugh, just standing there as if this beast that nearly killed me was no more a threat than a bothersome child. He then bent over the boar and with inhuman strength started prying open the beast’s mouth with his bare hands. And he kept prying it back. He didn’t stop until he ripped the boar’s lower jaw clear off then slammed the remains its head back into the ground, the creature’s bones crunching in tandem with the most sickening, wet sound I’d ever heard.


Only when he crouched down to inspect the kill did I understand that what I was seeing wasn’t a man at all.


It was a demon.


Skin the colour of stone. Tusks protruding prominently from his mouth. Two horns, one broken, growing proudly out of his sloped forehead.


For a moment I wondered if I was hallucinating. Dreaming. Caught in a strange nightmare. I’d heard the stories enough times that my mind could easily conjure this creature up.


A few more jumped across the stream to join him.


“Set up camp. We’ll rest and eat,” ordered the demon who killed the boar. He must be their leader.


Two others grabbed the jawless carcass and lifted it effortlessly off the ground, taking it back to the other side of the stream where there was a larger clearing.


The leader paused for a moment, sniffing the air.


Don’t smell me, I prayed. Don’t hear me. Don’t see me. If there are any spirits watching out for me, don’t let him find me. Not now, I beg of you.


But my prayers were not out of a fear of death. Instead, they were a desperate wish to stay alive just a little longer and bask in this new, indescribable feeling that was washing over me. This was nothing like my encounter with the great boar. Here, before me, was a creature I had no hope of ever defeating. A being that, until a few moments ago, I believed to only exist in faerie tales. Even my first hunt as a young girl could not compare to the fire that was coursing through me. I’d never felt more alive.


He stood. Either he didn’t notice my presence or chose to ignore it. Then he tilted his head down towards his leg, and I watched in awe as the punctured skin started to close, stitching itself back together as if handled by an invisible seamstress. I knew I should be horrified, but I was frozen in a state of childlike wonder.


As the demon waded back across the water to join his companions, I could feel a war rage within me. My survival instincts were screaming at me to leave. Now. Before any of them realized I was here. But these instincts were being drowned out by a brazen desire to satisfy my curiosity. I couldn’t stand the thought of never being able to see him again. To never have this chance to observe what was once only myth to me.


With my mind made up there were only two options left to me. Both were nearly suicidal, but I was too far gone to listen to reason. I could climb up a nearby tree to get a better view of the demons, but I wouldn’t be able to hear them well. Or I could move forward in the bushes in order to hear them better, but I’d have to forgo any chance of getting a good look.

Should Anneka:

1) Climb up a tree to see the demons better.

2) Move forward in the bushes to hear the demons better. (Winner!)

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