There is no sound to carry through the bitter frost here. A smothering blanket of snow wrapped these pines in solitude long ago and the pines never escaped that frozen embrace.
Even now, as the shadows begin their moonlit march, their trudging footsteps are muffled by the suffocating snow. Numbering approximately three dozen in total, the line of shadows slips through the pine trees much like flowing water might whorl and ebb around stones in a stream.
The shadows have no words to share with one another and communicate only with hand gestures. There seems to be an unspoken agreement here – ‘Do not disturb the silence.’ This is the pact that bound them together on this evening. As the journey continues, their movements become more careful and deliberate.
After several hours, the march of shadows comes to a halt as they find themselves approaching the edge of a massive clearing. For the first time since they had set out, one of the shadows breaks the silence.
“Monster…” The grizzled man’s voice quakes with barely contained anger. He shook his head as he grabbed his unruly, wild beard and yanked his fingers through it, grinding his teeth in clear vexation.
His gaze remains affixed to the horrible effigy in front of him.
The rays of the waxing moon, at home in the cloudy night sky, selectively pierce the miasma and offer the raiders a surreal image of horror; stakes and spears propping up decaying cadavers to form a sort of grotesque perimeter wall. The clearing is a mass burial site – or rather, a literal forest of corpses framed by a backdrop of pure white snow. These cruel scarecrows form a circle around the large, ruined stone structure in the clearing’s center. In the darkness, the man cannot not make out the details, but he is certain he will meet the lifeless gaze of his former comrades if he squints hard enough.
The raid leader reminds himself that now is not the time to mourn the fallen. He steels his resolve before raising his hand over his head and then chopping it down towards the ruined structure. In response, the shadows fan out and then begin their advance.
These decorations left by their host are merely the exposition. After all, the cadavers serve multiple purposes; they are dismal harbingers, markers of territory, psychological weapons, and most importantly, distractions. The raiders continue their advance, still focused on the cruel epitaph of their former comrades.
One of the adjacent shadows suddenly disappears as he places his full body weight onto a canvas tarp buried beneath the snow. A devious pitfall, this tarp concealed a six-foot-deep grave filled with sharpened tree limbs. These makeshift spikes were not long enough to kill their victim outright – at least, not right away. The shadow’s eyes widen as the tips of these spikes rush up to enthusiastically greet his flesh, perhaps too much so as several of the tips erupted from multiple exit wounds.
The trapped shadow screams incomprehensibly as it writhes in pain, bleeding profusely from several gaping puncture wounds to the abdomen and torso. It takes the victim a moment to process the searing flash of white-hot pain before their brain can process the next sensation – the rancid smell of urine and excrement rising from the bottom of the pit. He gags on the smell as blood enters his lungs through his punctured rib cage. The shadow’s screams devolve into choked gurgles. Before the victim can realize that he is already doomed – his thrashing is silenced by the thud of a small tomahawk forcefully burying itself deep into the back of his neck.
The grizzled leader of the troop releases another axe from his belt and casts his gaze upwards, towards the stone structure. He raises his hand again, forming a fist – the advance halts. His thought here is to avoid playing into his enemy’s hand if he can. After all, he is no stranger to the cruelty of their foe.
“It knows we’re here now.” He mutters to himself. Soon enough, his observation is confirmed.
From the top of one of the ruined walls, a single globe of fire materializes within the darkness as if it were summoned by the wail of the fallen. There it sputters and flickers for a moment before sailing high into the night sky. As it reaches the peak of its ascent, it floats weightlessly for a moment before gravity takes over.
Truth be told, the mysterious fire was a flaming arrow fired from a longbow.
The arrow sails clear over the raiding party, instead burying itself into the trunk of a dead tree at the edge of the clearing. Before the grizzled leader of the troop can ponder the significance of this action – the bitter-smelling liquid that the dead tree had been liberally doused with causes it to erupt in flames.
As the burning tree crumples in the reflection of the raid leader’s widening eyes, the grizzled man instinctively realizes that his role as the hunter is no longer guaranteed here.With the raiders momentarily distracted again, their advance halts as they ponder the significance of this action. Meanwhile, the blaze quickly consumes the dead oak tree in its entirety.
It was no coincidence that the base of this particular tree had been hollowed out ahead of time so that it could store a small metal chest. This chest was completely sealed shut and contained a mixture of animal fat and the same foul-smelling liquid that coated the tree.
The contest now begins in earnest.
A rapid succession of sound announces the start of the battle: the hiss of the metal container puncturing as its heated contents expand, the thunder crack of the dead tree splintering into hundreds of sharp, flaming fragments and exploding outwards is immediately followed by the deep roar of a newly born inferno.
The raiders feel the effect of this sound deep within their hearts and they feel their fight-or-flight response teeter perilously towards ‘flight’. It is then at this most opportune moment that the raiders realize they no longer have a reliable means of escape.
The propulsion force of the explosion combined with highly flammable animal fat quickly creates a literal wall of flames at their back. Not only this, but the depth of the snow makes it difficult for the raiders to move quickly whether they want to advance or retreat. The grizzled raid leader finds himself hesitating again – and he does not have the luxury of time here as he can see the morale of his raiding party is now diminishing.
Of course, this is all in line with the machinations of their gracious host. After all, the wall of fire offers another advantage against the raiders: it is now easy to discern the shadowy silhouettes of the raiding party against the pluming red backdrop of fire gradually devouring the tree line. Meanwhile, try as they may, the raid party cannot see into the darkness well enough to discern the location of their quarry. In fact, the swirling smoke and flickering flames now make it more difficult to see in front of them, as the dancing licks of fire cause the shadows to seemingly contort and throb.
A steady rhythm begins – the blistering hiss of an arrow ripping through the cold air, followed by a scream, and then the thud of another corpse landing in the snow. Another arrow, another candle snuffed out. Every wail and howl signified the death of another member of the raiding party. Their quarry did not miss a single shot and only a single shot was needed to end a life. The raiders found themselves being whittled down to nothing by their foe with no obvious means of launching a counterattack.
The raid leader now finds himself incensed as he rails against the realization that he has been bested in a battle of wits. He unwittingly continues to play into his enemy’s hand by letting his pride take over.
“Forward!” He roars, leading the pack towards the ruined stone structure. After some hesitation, his comrades begin to follow him forward. Several of them fall to their death, skewered by more spike pits, and their howls create a cacophonous symphony to orchestrate the struggle. As their numbers dwindle, the desperation and ferocity of the raiders begins to increase. They stomp and flail their way through the snow, staggering through an ocean of the slain in a desperate bid for survival.
The raiders, their numbers now halved, arrive at the perimeter of the stone ruins. The merciless hail of iron ceases as the shadows press away from the light and merge with the darkness.
The survivors soon find themselves gathered before a large break in the stone walls of the ruins. Several of the more experienced raiders feel the hair on their forearms and the napes of their neck stand and shiver as their instincts try in vain to warn them that this is a natural choke point.
The raid leader himself feels too uneasy to command his troops now. An experienced survivor, he has developed a sort of sixth sense over time. Right now, this sense is warning him of a menacing presence, like an unseen predator.
A minute of unbearable tension follows as the raiders lie in wait for the next ambush.
The raiders, knowing well that death lay behind them, begin to approach the break in the stone wall, gradually venturing towards the beckoning darkness within.
Before the raiding party can actually breach the stone wall and enter the ruins, an audible click echoes out from across the threshold. The raiders freeze once more. The raid leader thinks he hears some sort of hissing sound for a moment.
Those are his last thoughts.
Moments later, the ground seemingly erupts in front of the raiders and they are utterly eviscerated by a hail of fire, sulfur, and metal. The sudden eruption leaves no survivors: only bloody viscera and the haze of smoke remain in its wake.
Silence resumes its reign over the cold, snowy pines. A single break in the cloudy sky allows the moonlight to dispel the mist once more and reveal an imposing figure. Only the sound of heavy footsteps in the snow can be heard now as the forest’s warden emerges from the ruins.
This could only be the threat that our raiders had come to remove. Standing nearly two meters tall and possessing a substantial, imposing frame, this figure is distinctly humanoid in the sense that it stands upright and walks on two legs. Glittering feral eyes carefully survey the carnage for survivors as the figure gradually approaches the choke point from within the gloom.
At first glance, the warden appears distinctly bestial. Covered from head to toe in thick hide, its head resembles that of a wolf or a wild dog, sporting a long snout and a set of permanently exposed fangs. Yet, despite this, the warden carries very human implements such as the hefty longbow it had so effectively used to pick apart the raiding party from relative safety. Further study reveals that the warden’s fur is not its own – it wears the pelts and hides of other animals and its head is actually just a headdress made from a slain dire wolf.
The warden stands in silence for a moment, observing the carnage. A set of impossibly bright and dangerous sapphire eyes shine with malevolence from inside the primitive wolf skull headdress. The warden, satisfied that tonight’s work has been finished, raises its hands and begins to remove its gloves, revealing strong, yet slender hands covered not in fur, but porcelain flesh.
Wild, unkempt locks of hair resembling a splash of dawn sunlight escape their prison as the warden removes its helmet next. Running one of those slender, pale hands through those tousled and dirty locks of hair, the warden reveals itself not as a beast… but as a woman. A bitter breeze picks up, causing her flowing, windblown hair to whip back and forth past the small of her back.
The Huntress continues to observe the fire at the edge of the clearing. The fire’s reflection dances around the icy prison of her feral blue eyes – eyes that are perhaps as frigid as the disdainful expression etched onto her porcelain visage. Saying nothing, she only stands in silence, as the light of the flickering fire tattoos her fierce and fair countenance. Her only thought is toward the fire that continued to burn on the edge of the clearing: yet another threat to her home. In contrast, she spares hardly a thought for her vanquished foes.
It is at this opportune moment that snow, soft and merciful, begins to fall from above. The Huntress casts her gaze towards the sky, offering a small nod of thanks before turning to disappear into the gloom once more.
The Huntress would spend the coming days preparing for what was sure to follow this most recent incident.
Now our story returns to the dark sea of pines where it began. The sun has risen and set many times since we last visited here and yet the snow’s embrace remains, persistent and unwelcome. The winter wind, like some relentless rogue, casts about the distant snow-topped hills and its wailing echoes can be heard by two travelers. Two men, both middle-aged, survey the hills before them. A distant peak leers down at them from behind its cloudy veil. Both men are tired, grizzled, and cold in every sense of the word.
“Why do you think it does it?” The first man asks to the second, reaching up to scratch the itchy stubble on the underside of his jaw. His encrusted fingernail leaves a bit of dirt and grime to mark its visit.
“Hell if I know. Maybe it wants to keep them all to itself?” The second man responds with a slow, drawling tongue that seems to know only a single dissonant tone. As if to elucidate the source of his inquiry, his stomach releases a low grumble in protest. The second man unwittingly clenches his stomach for a moment. As if to commiserate, the first man’s stomach now begins to rumble as well.
“Seems kind of greedy to me.” The first man snorts his response in a derisive tone. His fellow is quick to nod in agreement. The speaker’s teeth clench as he feels a pang of hunger in his own gut, but he silences it for the moment. He knows he must be patient. The two of them continue to observe the distant peak in silence, as if they are waiting for something like a signal.
In the next moment these same two men who had been idly conversing in the cold simply ceased to exist altogether. An unseen predator, far too small and far too fast for the naked eye to even begin tracking, decimates the still air and slams into the huddled hunters with the force of a charging rhinoceros. Their fragile, mortal bodies simply cannot endure this sudden explosive trauma nor the invisible tidal wave that follows in its wake. In a logical chain of events, they are simply liquefied; what was once two hunters is now a thick, fresh coat of crimson marring the snow’s former naivete. Less than two seconds later, the resounding rapport of a lone thunderclap rolls past the scene and off into the surrounding hillsides. A faint haze rises from the bloodstained snow before the winter wind steals away with it into the night. Silence resumes its reign over the snowy pines once more.
Further up the hill, approximately six-hundred yards from where the two hunters once stood, a pair of feral, sapphire eyes glitter in the darkness. The Huntress was keenly aware of the two helpless invaders trapped in her lair. After all, the Huntress does not sleep, she merely waits. These dull-witted invaders met the same end as their predecessors; swift, sudden, and violent. Although her methods remained as calculating as ever, they were born of necessity. After all, there is only one law of the jungle: survive. She, the Huntress, knows this as well as her predictable invaders. The many denizens of the forest, her amicable neighbors and confidants, are also aware of this and so they their natural instincts drove them to find her, the true leader of the pack. Together they coexist in the snowy pines – an enclave of solitude in an otherwise cruel and violent world. She, the Huntress, is its warden, and bearing that responsibility affords her no opportunity to be anything less than ruthless. After all, she knows that this cycle of struggle will never end and that is simply the way of the wild.
Written by “Jungle” (N.F.N.)
(C) 2020 All Rights Reserved.