Hunters

“On your guard.” Captain Dart Foranger sat ready on the saddle of his lean warhorse, staring intently at the trees at the edge of the forest clearing with left hand lightly caressing the pommel of his longsword. His ride, Rose, trotted on the spot in excited anticipation, forcing Dart to keep a strong grip on her reins.

His gruff voice resounded and was that of a general’s, commanding respect and built for authority, only serving to match his defined jaw and stern face which sported a well kempt, greying beard. Long, brown, hair parted through the middle of his creased forehead with whispers of white and greys trailing through, bounded together at his neck with a neat knot from a navy band. He boasted a rigid physique with hard, bulky arms made by the Three Divine for the swinging of greater blades surely.

His ward, the youth Reese Ailborn, nocked a stonehead arrow in his curved, oaken bow, needing only a glimpse of movement before loosing it into the hearts of his enemies. Eyes as sharp as a taloned great-bird’s and blood as hot as the Pits of Ember. His nose too resembled the beaks of the long-wings, hooked sharply at the end yet bearing nostrils that seemed to be flared at all times. His short cropped hair was red, somewhere between the flames that drove him and the blood he had spilled. As loyal as a house-dog and as rabid as a wolf, Dart had kept him close like family but could never quite whip him into strict discipline; some men could not be tamed quite as so, and the captain had thought better of trying.

The ground before them trembled beneath the heavy footsteps ahead, the thunderous noise growing louder with each step, deafening him almost as it reached the last few auburn-leaved trees before the clearing they stood in. Rose reared her front legs as a threat and neighed in retort fearlessly. Suddenly, there was silence. The calm before the storm.

“Steady now girl. Keep your wits.” He pat her long, black neck, easing her mind with a few soft spoken words. As she settled down, Captain Foranger drew his behemoth-of-battered-steel from its leather scabbard and tossed the case aside, brandishing his weapon above his head, taking the stance of RockFall.
“Show yourself demon,” Reese whispered to himself, his pale skin flushed vividly scarlet as his thirst for battle took over.

He poised himself expertly and dug his remaining arrows into the soft mud – wet from rain the night before  – below him, placing them for swift loosing through covenience of position.
“Don’t dig them all in fool! You will scarcely have moment to breathe in one spot, let alone aim.” Dart kept his eyes forward, though his attention was partially divided as he adopted the two-fold gaze. His vigilance was unparalleled.
“I can handle the beast Captain.” His ward spoke casually. Reese’s lust for the hunt and kill was glazing over his eyes leaving the pounding-through of logic a difficult task.
“You know not what I. You have never faced a great tusked cat. Keep some arrows on you. Stay on your feet, and loose only at my command.” He spoke far too bluntly, even for his liking when addressing the young ward, but it still seemed to have no lasting effect as the boy mouthed a wordless reply. Anger flared through Dart at the insolence of him.
“Ailborn! You are commanded by your Captain to follow orders! You will follow them or face the consequences!” He shouted quietly, aggression without the volume, so as not to alert the fiend in cover. The youth twisted his mouth sourly as he mumbled “understood” with huge annoyance.

Still as green as a breast suckling child. Dart watched him from the corner of his eyes a moment longer to check that his orders were being followed and then directed all of his attention in front of him once he saw that they were.

Rustle.

“Do not be deceived by its size. It may look nimble and thin, but many a good men have been crushed through, beneath a single paw. It is made dense. Some sorcery of the Wretched for sure. Pray. Pray the Trinity favours us.” Reese’s face tinged with annoyance at the words, but he managed to keep himself together. This time anyways.

Rustle.

“Duck!” A dark blur shot out of the forest ahead, ripping through the air above them as they both barely managed to hit the floor in time. The gust of wind from its speed came delayed and hit them hard as they struggled to steady their footing once more. Reese was on his feet already and spinning to face the majestic enemy circulating the other side of the clearing slowly now; step by step, paw by clawed paw.

It was unlike anything the ward had ever seen before. A great cat, with the leanest muscles he had seen, so tight that the skin around them looked ready to tear. But on the side of its menacing black furred head were two ivory horns curving forwards, the size of half its body and more in front of it. The boy was surprised momentarily, perhaps even scared for a second, but then drew a smile more sickening than the beast in front of them.

“Rose! To the sides now!” The captain regained his composure and gave his orders. The horse whinnied at the prospect of being left out but then skirted away, leaving him, his ward and the beast in the playing field. Before he could formulate a plan, Reese had nocked an arrow and released it at their adversary; one, two, three and four, in the glimpse of an eye. Thud. The sound repeated three times more as the arrows found the trees behind the target, the great cat jumping left and right and forward to avoid them with ease.

“Don’t let it get close! Watch the legs. It’s movement is obvious so a dodge should be possible, even with its speed.” It snarled horribly, an ugly sound producing, loud and obnoxious. I’ll need to be fast. Pin point accurate.

“Boy! Can you lead him to me?” Dart voiced above the hideous noises the beast made.
“What do you mean?” Reese was irritated clearly, due to the fact that his arrows would not reach it.
“I mean can you force it to me?” A curved smile took hold of Reese’s face.
“Of course captain. What do you take me for?”

He grinned almost humanly at his captain though Dart had already entered his own zone. The ThunderStrike was no move of folly. Calm flooded over him as he closed his eyes, blocking them out to enhance his other, stronger senses.

Meanwhile Reese edged closer to the arrows he placed earlier and cautiously picked them up, holding ten arrows between the fingers of his right hand now. He had to wait for his captain to give the order whilst staring death in its face, as it strolled towards him. The distance was closing faster than he had anticipated and Reese nocked an arrow for defence, what pitiful defence it was. “Come on old man!” Reese thought anxiously. A little close for comfort now, it rocked the ground with each step, its small frame betraying its weight. The great-tusked-cat’s horns went past either side of Reese, brushing past his cheeks, its face edging ever closer. He could feel the stench of its boiling breath, burning his skin almost as its face reached a handspan away from his own.
“Hello friend.” The ward smiled.

“NOW!” The orders had arrived. The beast’s legs twitched and Reese jumped high, his booted feet missing the crushing stampede by an inch as the fiend launched itself at where he stood moments ago. He spun beautifully in the air, his overcloak flapping theatrically in the wind. The arrows rained down on the beast, each one systematically shot, laying down a path for it. A trap. As the tenth arrow hit true, Reese landed on the ground with a self pleased smirk.
The beast had dodged them all, straight into the path of the captain, at a momentum it could not stop in time. Swish. The sword was brought down and the beast lay in two perfect halves, either side of Dart. The sound of the cleave came seconds after.

Dart opened his eyes slowly and called for Rose, who trot back to him happily enough, a little annoyed still.
“Good work Reese. You’ve been practicing. A bowman for the Divine perhaps?” The ward stayed quiet and retrieved his arrows in a trance like manner: it took him time to leave the thrill of battle, more so than normal men.

Three more hours on this shift. The forests have been full of all sorts lately. I must let the king know.

Harris

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The Inner Struggle

Just a little longer…
Janus writhed in pain on the floor of the abandoned station platform, gritting his teeth and trying his utmost best to stay conscious, locked in the Inner Struggle to stay alive.

His hands and legs twitched and contorted to angles that stretched his flexibility to the limit. Tears fell down his anguished features as he prayed it would all stop; that one day he would subdue it completely. That one day, he would triumph over what was within him, and within almost every other human on Earth.

The Wave is almost… Just a bit more.
And like that, it was gone. The pounding in his ears and unbearable burn throughout his body, all at once stopped. His broken, demented bones fixed themselves routinely as his frayed, dying skin, stitched itself up. The blood lost was recovered along with all other physical pain, however, the mental torment remained as it always did. Surviving the wordly torture was only the beginning; what came next was where the real struggle began.

“Well that wasn’t so bad ye wee guy? An here i was finkin it’d be a lot worse. Up ye get naw. Don’t wanna be makin a scene.” Stevie; a filthy-looking homeless man with long, uncombed, greasy hair, and a nearly toothless grin. Homeless well before the epidemic took place, and going about his life without a care in the world. Janus wasn’t sure he even realised what was going on at the moment, living in the moment and forgetting the past in an instant. For Stevie, the ‘struggle’ began long before; every day was a scrounge for food, a battle for survival in the cold streets. Perhaps that was why the Strain simply bypassed him.

Well there’s no way to know for sure. Up you get Janus.

Janus tenderly applied weight to his hands and knees to test their stability and found them to be acceptable, launching himself up and dusting off. He recently began to feel extremely nimble and agile straight after a Wave.

Well… What doesn’t kill you…

“There ye go laddy. Much better naw huh? Like yer a new lad.” Stevie happily mused to himself, mumbling random words, barely forming coherent sentences. Janus ignored him as usual, he was used to it by now. He swiftly moved towards the platform walls and scratched a line next to many others, with a key he produced from his long overcoat.
“That’s the fifth Wave this week. They’re getting closer in number, and more powerful. You hear that Stevie? We might be on to a trend.” Janus shouted it casually, not really expecting an answer. Talking to someone, even someone who was a bit ‘Stevie’, helped keep him sane.
“Oooh that’s a good thing eh? Trends are good. Trends. Trends. Trends.” The homeless man continued his chant rhythmically and Janus soon began to wish that he hadn’t said anything.

But there is something here. I’m sure I’m getting stronger. The Waves are seeming to tend to one final point. What would happen if I survived that?

The truth was that after every episode, Janus’ physical abilities and senses exceeded that of an ordinary human and remained that way. Not enough time had passed for him to deem it permanent, but the evidence was strong.

A virus that makes you stronger? But too many have died from it. It can’t be based on physical strength to overcome it then. And going by Stevie and the Homeless Network, it doesn’t affect them. People of a certain mindset then? The virus can be overcome through the mind? It seems farfetched. How could it read your personality, or your mental fortitude? Though, there have been stranger things…

Janus was in the zone. Before the outbreak three years ago, he had been a Biologist, and an exceptional doctor too. World renowned; on the cover pages for more than just one scientific journal and on a regular occurence. He had the knack to just think things through and come to the answer, no matter the problem. A modern day genius he was labelled. A ‘genius’, who finally met his match with a problem, letting ninety five percent of the population die.

All he could tell from the virus, was that it had a motive of sorts, or perhaps a code that controlled its actions. The more he delved into it, the more he realised that this was not man made. This was nature, with its raw, animalistic side on show. It felt almost as if…

“Survival of the Fittest.” He stood there, the colour draining from his face. Shocked, confused and bewildered; his conclusion had to be right, but what did that mean for humanity?
“Stevie. Stevie! It’s Darwinian, it’s – How could I not see it before? It keeps the strongest alive! Not physically, but mentally! Or consciousness perhaps? In any case, this ‘thing’ is evolving us! It’s like Noah’s Ark, it’s -”

In his fervent display, he did not realise that Stevie was standing right in front of him, dagger in hand, plunged through his heart. His eyes met the homeless man’s and he did not see the clueless tramp from before. He saw something more menacing and calculated, something premeditated.
“Stevie?..” He stuttered the words out.
“You interfere with God’s work. The knowledge you have cannot and will not spread.” Cold, harsh, and to the point, he yanked his blade out ruthlessly and spun, walking towards the station exit.

Janus lay in a pool of his own blood, fading in and out of consciousness, the sounds of Stevie’s footsteps slowly fading.

I – I almost… I.

His thoughts would not formulate. There was no pain like he had felt through the virus, nothing scary at all. Just the feeling of death consuming him, comforting in some odd way. Darkness clouded his eyes from the edges, edging closer to the centre. He knew that when they reached there, he would be dead. Everything moved in slow motion, the black fog inched ever closer for what seemed to be an eternity. He could still use his mind, sort of; it was clearer without the panic. Perhaps this was his acceptance?

But. I don’t want to die.

Thump – thump.

… No. I wan’t to live.

Thump – thump.

Dammit. I WILL LIVE.

Thump – thump – thump.

His body twitched, his heart pumped furiously and for once in his life, he was glad for the pain he was about to experience. Another Wave had come and Janus was evolving.

Harris