The Hunt

by Chris O'kane

Misha picked his way carefully among the wreckage. The smoke from burning debris stung his nostrils and made him choke. Worse was the smell of rotting flesh that seemed to hover everywhere. The fox stooped next to a charred mass. It took him several moments to recognize that the blackened lump had once been two lutins in a tent. He turned and looked around him, a dozen similarly charred piles lay nearby. Everything within forty yards was burnt, even the grass under his feet. He methodically checked every corpse and piece of wreckage. The destruction had been complete, not a single lutin had escaped. Misha stood next to the body of one of the sentries. The lutin's tunic was drenched in blood, but he could still make out the image of a sword with blood dripping from it. The Dripping Blades were one of the toughest lutin tribes around. Yet an entire raiding party had been completely wiped out.

In his mind he reconstructed what had happened. The first to die had been the sentries. Someone had crept up behind them and driven a blade completely through the lutin's neck. The vocal cords, the windpipe and all the arteries were severed instantly. The poor creature, unable to even cry out, had drowned in it's own blood. All fifteen guards had been killed that way, one by one. Not a single person in the main camp, a scant thirty feet away, heard anything.

With the sentries out of the way the attackers had gone after the main body. Lightening and fire spells killed most before they even had a chance to wake up. Any lutin left alive had been quickly put to the sword. None of the lutin raiding party had gotten away.

The sudden death of fifty lutins didn't bother Misha. What did, was that he couldn't find any trace of the attackers. Plenty of lutin tracks going back and forth, but nothing from their killers. There should have been some sign, a footprint, bent grass, something, but there wasn't.

Misha searched the entire camp again, but still couldn't find anything. He moved to the perimeter of the camp, past the murdered sentries and into the brush beyond. Twenty yards outside the camp he began searching. Moving slowly Misha moved in a giant circle all the way around the camp. Forty-five minutes of careful searching turned up nothing.

He moved ten feet further out and began looking again. An hour later he had circled around the camp and still had no clues. "This is eerie, not a trace of the identity of the people responsible for this destruction!" He decided to continue looking. He stepped ten feet farther from the wrecked camp and started the search again.

Misha was halfway through the third circuit when he finally found what he was looking for. Kneeling next to a small tree he examined one of the limbs. It was bent, almost to the point of breaking. Searching the ground nearby turned up no other traces, not even the faintest whiff of a scent. "This has to have been done by the attackers. If a lutin had done it there would be footprints, and an animal would leave a scent behind," the fox thought to himself.

For over a week something had been spooking the regular patrols sent by Metamor. Six patrols had each reported something tracking them. None of them had caught more then a brief glimpse. George's idea was they were testing the keep's defenses for weak spots. That meant another attack was coming. Every bit of information these scouts got would cost Metamor in blood when the assault came. Which is why Misha was out here in the woods tracking them down.

Taking out his canteen Misha sipped some water to cool off. His chain mail armor was becoming stifling hot in the June heat. As he swished the water around in his mouth he considered where his quarry was going. "Which way did they go? east would take them away from the Keep. West would take them into more heavily patrolled territory." He shook his head no "They would surely be caught then. That left north or south. The last time they had been spotted was ten miles south of here. The time before that was fifteen miles south." The fox pondered for a moment, "If I was scouting out Metamor I would make a complete circle of the castle, testing the defenses on all sides. They've already tested the east and south sides," he thought to himself. "North," the fox decided, "these phantoms are headed north, then west."

Tracking something is never easy, especially if it doesn't want to be tracked. Usually Misha could follow the scent that all living things give off. With his sensitive nose it was easy to pick up all but the faintest smells. Following lutins was child's play. The stench from those monsters lasted for days. These opponents left no scent that he could find. So he had to look for the unusual, a bent branch, crushed grass, or disturbed earth.

Once he deduced the direction they were going, more traces came to light. The first clue led to a second a few yards to the south. That one led to another, and then another. Each one took time to locate so Misha worked his way south at a snails pace. Noon came and went without him stopping. As the miles slowly rolled by it got easier to track them. After seven days of easily eluding the regular patrols, his opponents were getting lax and making mistakes. Not obvious mistakes. The normal scouts would never have found them, but Misha did.

Slowly the gap between the two of them closed. The camp had been destroyed twelve hours before he got there. Dusk found him examining grass crushed eight hours before. With his excellent night vision the coming of darkness didn't stop him. It did slow him down though. Determined to catch them, the fox didn't give up until it was very late.

When it got light enough to see, Misha started tracking again. It took only a few minutes to find the trail. Three hours of tracking his quarry brought him to the edge of a small clearing. In the clearing he found traces of a camp for about ten people. He picked up the faint scent of humans, two of whom he recognized. He realized one of the patrols from Metamor Keep must have bedded down there for the night.

About thirty yards from the clearing Misha found an area where the grass was crushed. The area was roughly man-shaped. To his shock he realized that his target had spent the night less that thirty yards from a patrol! He carefully searched the surrounding area but didn't find any other bedding areas. "One person," Misha thought to himself. "I'm chasing one person. A single person wiped out an entire war party of lutins. This isn't good, someone that powerful is very dangerous." He shook his head in confusion "Who is this phantom and what are is his motives. He wipes out fifty lutins but leaves a ten person patrol from the keep alone. Why? If he's hostile to the keep, why attack the lutins? If he's a friendly to Metamor why is he harassing the patrols," the fox asked himself.

The sound of voices carried to Misha's ears. Someone was headed this way. He quickly found a hiding spot in some bracken and waited. In a few moments a group of people moved into the clearing. The fox relaxed, it was one of the patrols from the keep. He was tempted to stand up and reveal himself, but an idea occurred to him. Instead he lay still in his hiding place and watched as they moved through the clearing. It was about a minute after the last soldier had passed that he saw it. There was a flash a movement in the rocks to his left, less than twenty feet away.

He watched as a shadowy figure floated behind the patrol, moving from hiding place to hiding place. Misha took the longbow from off his back and nocked an arrow. After a moment he slowly released the tension on the bow. He put the arrow back in the quiver and reslung the bow across his back. "No fighting, not until I find out what this person wants," Misha decided. Stepping quietly he moved after the shadowy figure.

He trailed the figure through the woods. Moving slowly from place to place choosing each step carefully. No matter how hard he tried Misha couldn't get a clear view of his quarry. It remained a moving shadow, and a flash of movement in the distance. He slowly closed the distance between them.

It happened suddenly. After trailing the person for over an hour, he lost him. There was a small bit of motion near a tree and brief flash of light, then nothing. Barely twenty feet away he stopped instantly and crouched low. He waited for the figure to move again.

The fox reached down and grasped the hilt of his sword with his left hand. "I should have brought Grandpa's axe," he thought to himself. The sword had magic, but it was nothing like what was in the axe.

Misha held stock-still listening and watching for his quarry. In a situation like this, his target could do only one thing; hide and wait for the fox to get tired and leave. It was a waiting game, the first one to loose their patience and move, lost.

Time seemed to drag on interminably. He could hear flies buzzing around and a field mouse scampering around in the dead leaves. As he crouched there listening and watching the heat of the June day started to rise. Being covered in fur made the heat even worse. Foxes don't sweat, they pant, and panting makes lots of noise. He tried to repress the urge to pant by holding his muzzle shut. Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. He pulled out his canteen and took huge gulps of water.

Refreshed, he began searching for the stranger by the large tree, where he had last seen it. Misha searched the ground around the tree first. Then he started to widen the search moving slowly farther and farther from the tree. Two hours of searching turned up nothing, not a solitary clue, no footprints, scuffed earth, or broken branches.

He searched the entire area a second time, then a third and fourth time, growing more frustrated with each passing minute. It was dusk before he finally stopped. Angry he banged his fist against the tree. He pulled an arrow out of his quiver and held it up in front of him, "I should have used you when I had the chance. This is impossible, he can't have just disappeared. He has to have left some trace left behind. I WAS TWENTY FEET AWAY AND I LOST HIM!" he shouted in frustration.