TRAIL OF MYTH - CHAPTER 6

At the next fork in the path I turned left. I’d go to the waterfall. The shame of being caught and dragged in front of Zaijin was far worse than the shame of returning to my village stark naked.

 

The temptation to look back over my shoulder was mounting, but I couldn’t risk it. My pace would slow, and in these incredibly narrow paths I could easily run right into a tree if I didn’t keep my eyes on where I was going. At least I couldn’t hear anything behind me, but I wasn’t sure if that meant anything at all. That Kujo was a damned shadow! I still couldn’t believe how close he was to me when he surprised me back at the clearing. If only I had someone like him to show me how to move like that. My master was skilled, or at least he had been before his injury, but in many ways I had caught up to him already, and we both knew that he was running out of things to teach me.

 

My lungs were burning, but I couldn’t let up. I’d have time to rest once I was sure I’d lost Kujo.

 

Through the trees I could briefly see the outline of three giant oaks that as a child I had named the three grumps – Benny, Roga, and Amos. They had grown so big they wouldn’t allow any other tree or shrub to grow near them, much like a couple of the surly elders in the village who would sooner shoo away the children than stop and play with them. But thanks to these three old oaks, I knew exactly where I was.

 

I had spent most of my childhood roaming around in the forest by myself, making friends with trees and animals instead of other children. The girls wanted to pick berries and make dolls, and the boys wanted to play in the mud and fight with sticks. Nobody wanted to shoot arrows and get lost in the woods with me. I wasn’t sure if it was funny or sad that I knew the names of the trees better than the names of the boys and girls my age, but my lonely childhood was now paying off as I ran for my life.

 

My vision swayed as I gasped for air. Just a bit further. I was almost there.

 

The trees suddenly cleared and I nearly fell right into the wide stream, but I managed to stop myself at the last moment, my toes hitting the edge of the water. The last thing I needed was to get this far and then stupidly reveal my position by making a loud splash.

 

Without giving myself a chance to catch my breath, I rushed along the edge of the stream towards the waterfall. It wasn’t particularly tall, not even twice my height, and at the base the water pooled into a small, shallow lake that glistened under the setting sun. The trees enclosing the area swayed, gently shedding golden leaves that danced in the wind and landed on the water below. It was beautiful.

 

I made quick work of dropping my gear and yanking off my boots, tunic, and pants, tossing them on the grass beside the lake. Once everything was removed, I approached the waterfall and stepped into rushing water, wincing for a moment as the blast of cold hit my skin, soaking me from head to toe. I firmly rubbed at any patches of dirt I could see, and carefully massaged the blood off my right arm. There wasn’t anything I could do about the wound, but at least it stopped actively bleeding.

 

With my washing nearly done I turned my attention downstream and peered into the dense forest. No Kujo.

 

A wave of relief washed over me. Had I truly lost him? It was still too early to call it a victory, but I couldn’t stop a gleeful, triumphant feeling from bubbling to the surface. I did it. I actually beat a demon. Or escaped one anyways. A smile crept up in the corners of my mouth. I was shaking, not from the cold of the water, but from how thrilling the past hour was.

 

I stepped out of the waterfall and into the setting sun, the last of autumn’s warmth pricking my skin as I stretched my arms upward. Spirits, I was going to be sore tomorrow. But I shouldn’t waste any more time. Even if I had lost him in the chase, he still might be able to pick up my scent and follow it to this waterfall.

 

Something bright caught the corner of my eye. I turned my head to look, but it was gone. It hadn’t been much, just a little flicker of light. Probably just the glimmering reflection of sun on a patch of water.

 

It flashed again, but this time I was ready for it.

 

I tilted my head, confused about what I was looking at. It seemed to be a long piece of white thread? Web?

 

Gently I reached out to touch it and was surprised at the texture and strength. It reminded me more of hair the closer I studied it. I followed the thread with my eyes. One end stretched out into the forest and the other–

 

My stomach lurched. It was attached to my quiver.

 

I hadn’t escaped at all.

 

Was this Kujo’s doing? But how? When would he have had the chance to attach the thread? I was sure he never got that close to me!

 

I ran towards my equipment pile and grabbed my knife. After a frantic moment of searching, I found the thin thread again and folded it over the sharp end of the blade in an attempt to cut through it. But it wouldn’t cut. What the hell was this damned hair made of?!

 

I cursed under my breath and released the thread. Calm down. This was bad, but it wasn’t the end of the world. They may have an easy way to track me to this location, but I could run now and they wouldn’t be able to follow my scent. I still had a chance to get away.

 

My stomach dropped. Something black and white was moving through the trees where I had originally come from. I watched in horror as a tall, slender figure emerged from the forest. This wasn’t Kujo.

 

I needed to run. Now! But my feet were frozen in place. I really did feel like a rabbit now, caught in the piercing gaze of a predator. All I could do was watch as the figure slowly glided across the grass, closing the distance between us.

 

It was a demon. Female. Wearing all black from head to toe. Her only ornament was a pair of skeletal hands weaved into her silvery, white hair. There were no weapons that I could see on her, and she carried nothing in her long, spider-like fingers. But the truly unnerving feature was the two extra pairs of eyes trailing up her forehead. Or at least I assumed that’s what they were. They were pure white and shaped in a way that resembled her real eyes, though they didn’t have lids or lashes.

 

She was beautiful. And terrifying.

 

“Iseya,” I said, almost whispering it. I couldn’t be entirely sure it was her, but that chilling aura was all too familiar.

 

The corner of her dark grey lips curled upwards for a moment. “I had thought our curious little hunter would be a man,” she said. My hunch was confirmed. Her icy voice was unmistakable.

 

“Disappointed?”

 

Her eyes trailed over my naked body. “Surprised.” It sent a shiver down my spine.

 

I gripped my knife in my left hand and crouched low, like a cat ready to strike. I had missed my chance to run, but that didn’t mean I was out of options. Iseya terrified me, but she didn’t look like much of a fighter with her slender, fragile frame, and she was only half a head taller than me. I had a chance. Or at least I wanted to believe I did.

 

Iseya let out a cold laugh, chilling me to the bone.

 

“I’m not here to fight,” Iseya said as she twirled her finger around the hair that was attached to my quiver. She gave it a quick tug and it unattached itself and returned to her, shrinking in length as it did so. “I simply wanted you to know, without any doubt, that you were being spared.”

 

My eyes narrowed. Was this a trick?

 

“Now put down the knife, before someone gets hurt,” Iseya continued. She raised her other hand and pointed it towards my knife.

 

In the space between us I saw another silvery strand of hair, glinting in the low, red sun. My eyes followed the length of it to my hand and spiralling upwards. A sinking feeling of dread spread over me as I realized it was wrapped around my arm.

 

Iseya pointed her finger down, and the string constricted, causing beads of blood to appear all around my forearm.

 

I let out a cry and fell to one knee. The constricting power of the thread was unbelievable. My arm felt like it was being squeezed by the jaws of a dire wolf. I struggled desperately to keep my grip on the knife, but sheer willpower was not enough to keep it from slipping out of my fingers and landing with a dull thud on the grass below.

  

“There’s a good girl,” Iseya said. “Now run along back to your village and forget everything you saw. Do not follow us. Do not attempt to track us. We’re letting you go, just this once, but you will not get this treatment a second time.”

 

I looked up to her, tears stinging my eyes. A part of me wished she would just kill me right here and spare me the humiliation.

 

“Why?” The words stuck in my throat. “Why are you doing this? Why spare me?”

 

“Because you are no threat to us,” Iseya said with a callous smile. “And Zaijin was mildly amused at your bravery – or perhaps stupidity – and decided to reward you with a second chance. But it won’t happen again. Besides, we have more than enough meat from the boar to last us for a while. You’re awfully scrawny, even for a human.”

 

Her eyes lingered on me for a moment longer before she turned back towards the forest.

 

The way she said human enraged me. I wanted to retort. Get the final word in. But I couldn’t. I was utterly defeated. All I could do was watch Iseya slowly disappear into the dark forest, leaving me alone with the indifferent fluttering of golden leaves falling around me.

 

***

 

The walk back to the village was a blur. I was tired, injured, confused, angry, terrified, and bloody cold. Paranoid, too. Every few minutes I was checking my clothes and gear for any more of those damned threads.

As I saw the campfires burning in the distance I slowed my pace. What was I going to say to them? Did I even tell them about the demons? Would they believe me? Spirits, would I have to admit that Jashni was right all along? Well, partially. Those wards did absolutely nothing, that was for certain. Iseya in particular was deep in our territory when she confronted me at the waterfall.

 

My mind and stomach were both twisting themselves into knots. It should be an easy decision. There should be absolutely no problem in telling my master and the chieftain the truth. But I couldn’t help but feel that doing so could be a grave mistake.

 

Iseya made it very clear I wasn’t to follow them, and back at their camp Wushi had said they weren’t going to bother with us humans. What if I told the chieftain and he got it into his head we should pursue them in an attempt to defend the village? I’d seen with my own eyes what these demons were capable of, and I didn’t want any of the villagers getting anywhere near these monsters. They wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

But perhaps it was stupid to trust the word of a demon. They hadn’t promised me anything directly after all. They had only implied they’d leave me and my people well enough alone if we extended the same courtesy. Maybe they were liars.

 

I shook my head to myself. If the folktales had any truth to them, demons did many terrible things, but they didn’t lie like faeries did. Besides, Iseya had no reason to deceive me. I was confident she could have easily tracked me back to the village instead of revealing herself at the waterfall. And I truly believed they were far more interested in finding this Nheo than wasting time looting and pillaging human villages. I wasn’t about to tell everyone to uproot their lives over something I didn’t believe was actually going to happen.

 

Spirits, I needed to decide. I was running out of time. The fires were getting brighter and brighter, yet I still wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Somehow this was worse than running away from Kujo.

 

“Anneka!”

 

My time was up.

 

My master came running towards me. He must have been pacing along the edge of the village. “Thank the spirits,” he said then looked me over. “Your arm, it’s injured. And why is your hair all wet?”

 

“Long story,” I replied, trying to keep my voice light.

 

“And the boar?”

 

“Dead.”

 

His eyes lit up. “You killed it?”

 

Slowly I shook my head and as I did so my chin started to tremble. What in the hells? What was going on? Why was I on the verge of tears?

 

My master did not hesitate to wrap his arms around me, pulling me tight to his warm chest.

 

I grabbed onto his tunic as I tried to fight back the tears, but there was no stopping them. The dam had broken as soon as he hugged me.

 

“It’s all right,” my master said soothingly, running his hand over my hair. “Take your time.”

 

It was a deluge. I couldn’t keep up with the emotions. It was like everything from the day was hitting me all at once. The anger of having the boar best me. The fear and awe of seeing the demons. The shame of coming home empty handed. The humiliation of being toyed with.

 

And that was the big one, wasn’t it? The humiliation of it all. I was small. Pathetic. A fly, as Zaijin had said. Not even a bee. Somewhere along the way I had gotten it into my head that I was somehow better, special, just because I was the best hunter in this neck of the woods.

 

The truth was I knew nothing. Nothing of hunting. Nothing of the world. I was a tiny fish in an embarrassingly small pond.

 

Slowly I pulled away, wiping at my face before looking up into my master’s eyes. I sometimes wondered why I’d never called him father. He was the closest thing I had to one, but he never asked me to call him father and I never did so. Did we both know, somewhere deep down, that this was going to happen? That at the end of the day, he was simply my master, and at some point we all outgrow our teachers?

 

I swallowed hard, knowing now what I had to say to him.

 

“Master, I’m not strong enough,” I said, my voice still quivering.

 

“Don’t say such things. Most people die attempting to hunt a great boar! The fact that you lived and are barely even injured speaks volumes. You should not be ashamed.”

 

“But I am,” I replied. “It’s not enough for me that I simply didn’t die. I know I can’t be like that Oro the chieftain spoke of, but I know I can be more than I am now.”

 

I stopped as my chin trembled again. I’d never cried like this in front of him before. I was pretty sure I’d never cried like this ever. How horrible it was that only when I was about to leave did I realize how much I loved this man.

 

“Master,” I said, nearly losing the word as I stifled back a sob. I took his hands in mine. “I have to leave. If I stay here I’ll never grow past this point. I’m sorry, master. I’m sorry I have to leave you,” I said and started to cry again.

 

He pulled me to him again, hugging me so tight it hurt.

 

“I know. And I knew one day you’d say these words to me. I’m just thankful it took as long as it did. But where will you go, Anneka? I don’t want you leaving without a plan. You are an archer, a hunter, and need a target. Aimless wandering will only poison your spirit.”

 

“I know, but I’m not sure where to go,” I said. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.

 

“I think I might.”

 

I sniffed and pulled back so I could look at him again.

 

There were tears pooling in his eyes as well.

 

“When Lakor went to town, he crossed paths with Quen of White Rivers and traded many tales. One of them was about an archer hunter named Vishnar who has brought back the corpses of nearly every fearsome beast he’s laid his eyes on,” my master said and bowed his head to me for a moment. “Forgive me. I was selfish and didn’t want you running off on me yet. I was worried if you heard of such a man you’d immediately want to seek him out.”

 

I let out a pathetic little chuckle. “I forgive you,” I said. Spirits knew I was keeping things from him. And at least he wasn’t hiding it from me now when I needed to hear it most. “Where can I find this Vishnar?”

 

“Head south, past the Sunken Valley. He wanders in a large area, but not past there. I’m sure there will be people who will know how to find him if you ask.”

 

“Then that’s what I shall do.”

 

My master kissed my forehead, something he hadn’t done since I was a child. “And I shall support you in your quest. But for now let’s get you cleaned up and figure out what story we tell the others about the boar.”

 

“Story?” I asked.

 

He smirked fondly. “You still haven’t told me what killed the boar. I know you’re keeping something from me, Anneka, but I trust you have your reasons. You may not be my daughter, but I’ve been watching over you your whole life. There’s not much you can hide from me.”

 

I smiled sheepishly, but didn’t disagree.

 

He let out a sigh and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Spirits, you grew up so fast. At this point I can only hope I did my best in raising you.”

 

“You did,” I said, grabbing his hand again and squeezing it tight. “You did, master.”

The End

 

***

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