Hunters

by L Young

The wooden sign was old, faded and buried under several layers of vines, but even if you couldn’t understand the words the discolored painted skull gave a clear indication of its meaning – Danger.

“It’s a bloody disgrace.  A place this hazardous should have a sign that’s easily seen. How else are you to know where it starts?”

Larn Black warily eyed the speaker, a ruddy-faced man with long black hair tied behind his head.  He couldn’t help but feel slightly intimidated by the man’s broad shouldered muscularity.  It didn’t help that he had a broadsword hanging at his side, was at least six inches taller and had a dozen troopers standing behind him – all equally tall and well built.

In normal circumstances Larn would have agreed, but the warrior’s accent set him on edge.  He’d never liked southerners.  He spat on the ground and said, “Most everyone in these parts knows not to head into Death Valley, Captain Veric.  I’m surprised no one in town mentioned it.”

“Of course they mentioned it!” snapped Veric.  “That’s why Elrif wanted to have a look.  We thought the mist was typical superstitious peasant prattle.”

“Then you can hardly complain about the sign,” Larn replied.

Veric crossed his arms. “Don’t push me.”

Larn remembered it not prudent to poke a bear. Running a hand through his straggly brown hair, he asked, “How long’s the lad been missing?”

“He went riding yesterday morning with some friends to look at this valley. I told him to return by midday.” He shook his head. “I told him specifically to be careful.”

“The young never are,” replied Larn.

“When he didn’t come back I ordered some of my men to find him.  They did a thorough search of the outskirts, then against my orders went in looking for him, leaving one man behind.  When they didn’t return, he came back to tell me.”  Veric sighed, “That’s when I came for you.  You’re supposed to be the best hunter and tracker in these mountains.”

Taught forest craft by his grandfather, Larn had been hunting and tracking since he was a boy. He generally kept to himself, but guiding inept nobles had proved a good way to earn coin. But he had limits.

Larn stroked his stubbly chin.  “I go in.  There’s a good chance I ain’t coming out.  What’s it worth to you?”

Veric frowned.  “That’s the Duke of Docas’s son in there.   Name any price, but I need him back!”

Larn tried to ignore his sudden feeling of queasiness. Docas had a reputation for barbarity.  The man responsible for losing his son wouldn’t be breathing long.  He named an impossibly high price in an attempt to extricate himself from this mess. “Alright, a hundred gold pieces, right now.”

Veric didn’t even blink. He stomped across to his horses and pulled a bag free.  He paused before handing it to Larn. “I’m coming with you.”

Larn tried hard not to frown.  “You’ll only slow me down.”

“It’s not negotiable,” said Veric.  “I want to be sure you’re actually looking for him.”

Larn tensed up. “I don’t care who your lord is, don’t be insulting my honor again.”

Veric’s bluster suddenly faded. “Do you have children, Black?”

Larn shook his head. “Just a niece and a nephew.”

“Neither do I,” replied Veric. “But Elrif is like a son to me. A great lad. As far from his father as you can get. I have to be there.”

However much he wanted to, Larn couldn’t argue with that. Glancing at the soldiers lined up behind Veric. He also knew that refusing to do the job could make life difficult. He could hide in the woods, but his brother’s family lived nearby and he couldn’t let them face the wrath of an angry Duke. However while he couldn’t back out without consequences he could at least try to go in on his own terms. “You can come, but you do what I say.  No arguments.”

Veric looked like he’d bit into a lemon.  But after several seconds he finally handed over the money sack.  “Very well.”

He extended his hand and the two shook on it.

Larn took a look inside.  That was a lot of money. “I’ll be back in an hour.  Be ready.”

“Where are you going?” said Veric grabbing his shoulder.

“I’m not leaving my money here,” replied Larn, jerking his thumb at the troops.

Veric looked outraged. “Those are the Duke’s men. They will not touch your gold.”

“Then they’d be the first.”

Taking care to make sure he wasn’t being followed; Larn took his gold to an old hiding place he shared with his brother, Luther. It contained a small cache of arrows and supplies.  He pondered what to take with him.  He already had his old hunting bow, plus a small well crafted sword he’d been gifted by a wealthy noble whom he’d helped bag a bear. He decided to include a few throwing daggers and stuck them in his belt. He wrote a quick message for Luther in the all too unlikely event that he didn’t return.

Satisfied he headed back to Veric’s campsite.

When Larn arrived back, Veric was strapping on thick pieces of plate armour to his body and was armed with a massive battleaxe, making him feel underdressed in his hooded tunic and leather jerkin.  Shaking his head, Larn said, “We need to be fast and stealthy, Veric. You look as stealthy as an ox. Lose the armour and the axe.”

“This armour,” replied Veric stiffly,  “has seen me through many campaigns.”

“We’re not going to war,” said Larn.  “And this place has eaten up plenty of men dressed just like that.  Lose it.”

“Fine,” replied Veric, “but watch your tone.”

As he set off Larn asked “You any good with a bow?” .

Veric nodded.  “I can hit a deer at 40 paces.”

“Good, bring one and as many arrows as you can carry.”

Veric returned several minutes later in a set of leather armour, armed with a crossbow and a bag full of crossbow bolts.  “Now can we depart?”

Larn smiled.  “Just waiting for you.”

Leading the way, Larn paused before entering the mist. “The road’s too obvious.  We’ll go into the forest lining the road and work our way in.  I can make out the tracks from here.”

“It’ll be hard enough to see where we’re going with out adding trees to the mix,” complained Veric.

“Those trees will also make it harder for anything to sneak up on us,” replied Larn.  He raised an eyebrow. “You have actually hunted before right?”

Veric patted his crossbow.  “Many times.  Bears, wolves.” He arched an eyebrow. “Peasants.”

“Careful, replied Larn, “I’m not as thick skinned as I appear.”

“Duly noted. Shall we go?”

Notching an arrow, he took a deep breath and walked into fog – nothing jumped out at them. After several steps he turned around and saw that Veric’s men had completely disappeared. Now they were on their own.

There was no movement from the mist as they advanced – it just hanged there as stilted and lifeless as the valley they were entering. Larn didn’t see a single living creature, not even an insect. It felt unnatural not to hear any animal noises. Though the trees were still thick with leaves, Larn suspected they were as dead as the valley itself.

He could hear Veric breathing loudly behind him, fumbling his way through the undergrowth. Whatever hunting he had done, it obviously wasn’t the kind that involved creeping up on prey. He could only hope Veric didn’t give away their position too much. He advanced to the road, but his plan to follow the tracks made by Veric’s men further into town vanished when they disappeared as if cleared away by someone.

“Wait here,” he whispered.

He crept forward to examine the road in greater detail. He spotted a tiny red patch on the dirt and rubbed it between his fingers.

“What is it?” asked Veric kneeling beside him.

“I told you to wait.”

“Too bad. What did you find?”

“Dried blood, but with how strange things are in here. There’s no way to know how old.”

“So let’s keep moving.”

Typical soldier, thought Larn. “Hold on. We need a plan.”

“Well?”

“We search building by building.”

“That could take forever. I thought you were a tracker?”

“I need to have a track first,” replied Larn, “and the best place to start is the buildings.”

“Very well.”

Larn wiped the dirt from his hands. “Then we’d best get started.”

Death Valley had been a large settlement -rich in resources from the surrounding woods and farmland. Dozens of building were visible through gaps in the mist. The most prominent was the Great Hall – a massive stone and wood edifice at least sixty feet tall.  It would have been the heart of local life.  What amazed Larn was that apart from being dirty, all the buildings looked in perfect condition, as if waiting for their owners to return. Still he hoped any recent activity would still be noticeable.

He headed towards the nearest building, a modest stone dwelling with a thatched roof.  He moved to the door.  Veric nodded, then flung open the door.  Larn advanced, arrow at the ready.

Larn wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but the normality of it surprised him. tables, chairs, a bed in the corner, blankets pulled aside like someone had just left.

“What the hell happened here?” asked Veric.

“No one knows,” replied Larn.  “One day a hundred years ago the mist descended and never left. Lots of people went in to investigate at first. Explorers, wizards, priests, soldiers, but none ever came out. Though some say if you listen carefully you can still hear their screams. Eventually people stopped trying. Its old name has been forgotten, now people just call it Death Valley. Since then most just know well enough to leave it alone.”

Veric studied him. “Yet you came.”

“I’ve always been curious to come here,” replied Larn shrugging, “Besides it’s not like I really had a choice did I?”

“Not if you cared about your brother and his family.”

“I didn’t take you for the malicious sort.”

“I’m not,” replied Veric, “But if you’d refused to come. I would have been forced to tell the duke and he’s not as forgiving as I am.”

They repeated the process several times, each building as empty as the last.  Larn knew this wasn’t working. He felt a sudden urge to search a large two-story dwelling across from them. “Let’s try that one.”

Veric frowned.  “Any reason?”

Larn scratched his head. “I don’t know, but we have to start somewhere.”

Veric responded with a snort. “For this I’m paying you a hundred gold pieces.”

When they came within several feet of the entrance, Larn pointed the ground – the dirt by the door had been recently disturbed. The pair shared a glance, then made for the door. It creaked open, the noise sounding impossibly loud in the deserted town.  Larn stepped inside, ducking just as something swung at his head.  He heard Veric curse as it smacked into him.

He got a quick look at his attacker. A slender hooded figure armed with a wooden pole. Larn sprang forward, knocking the attacker him to the ground, sending his pole rolling across the ground. Their assailant struggled to flee, till Larn smacked him on the side of the head. As the attacker fell back dazed, Larn rammed him against the wall and put his blade to his throat. “Don’t move.”

“Leave him alone,” groaned Veric, “that’s Master Elrif.”

Larn loosened his grip.  Elrif was skinny youth with short blonde hair. Two days here had left him unkempt with the faint beginnings of a beard. His clothing was dishevelled and covered in patches of blood.

Elrif pointed outside. “We have to help them!”

Anxious to avoid notice, Larn cuffed him on the side of the head. “Quiet.”

Elrif stopped shaking as Veric appeared at Larn’s side. “Captain Veric is that you?”

Rubbing his head, Veric replied, “It’s me, my lord.”

Elrif gripped Veric’s tunic. “Some of the others are still alive in the Great Hall. We have to get to them before she kills them.”

Larn moved to block the door. “And who is she?”

Elrif looked around as if expecting her to materialise - which for all Larn knew she could. “Aleris,” he whispered, “she came and took them.”

A strange smile came over him. “But we can get them back.”

Larn looked over at Veric, but saw only indecision.  Hardly surprising, Veric had the thing he wanted.  Going after the others would only put that at risk.

“We need to leave while we have the chance,” said Veric.

Larn frowned, not surprised, but disappointed. “And to hell with everyone else?”

“They’re soldiers. Death is a part of the job.”

Elrif grabbed Veric’s. “Please, Captain, if there’s a chance they’re still alive, we have to be sure.”

“They’re supposed to give their lives for their lord,” replied Veric.

“Would you say that if it was you?” asked Elrif.

With the eyes of his young protégé upon him, Veric sighed and turned to Larn. “You have a plan?”

“We’ll scout around. Once I’m sure it’s safe I’ll go in and check the hall. The two of you can wait outside.”

“A good plan,” said Veric staring at Elrif. “A sensible plan.”

“Let me go with you,” said Elrif eagerly.

Veric raised his hand.  “We came for you.  No point risking your life anymore than necessary.”

“But…”

Larn raised his hand. “You’re a brave one, but you should stay with Veric.”

Elrif frowned, but finally nodded.  “You’re right. I have cost enough good men their lives.”

Happy that that was settled, Larn said, “Now tell me. What is Aleris?”

“I don’t know,” replied Elrif. “She came out of nowhere, red hair, pale skin, and a laugh to set your nerves on end. She took them down one by one, till there was only me. I ran and hid. Then I heard others arrive but before I could get to them, she took them too.”

He looked down. “I’m a coward.”

Veric patted him on the shoulder. “You did the right thing, my lord.”

Elrif didn’t look so sure. “What do you think she is?” he asked.

“Sounds like a witch,” muttered Veric.

“She’s more than that,” said Larn.

“What do you mean?” asked Veric.

“Stories my grandfather used to tell me about demons who lure men to their deaths. But I’m never heard of one taking over an entire valley.”  He checked his bow. “Well let’s get this over with.”

“You still want to go?” asked Veric raising an eyebrow.

“This changes nothing,” replied Larn.  “We always knew there was something here. Maybe not a crazy man-eating demon, but something.”  He drew a dagger and handed it to Elrif. “You’ll find this more useful than a stick.”

Elrif took it, gazing at the shiny blade.  Something in that look told Larn that Elrif would need more than a mug of ale to get over this. “Let’s go.”

Larn had spent his life traversing the northern forests and he’d seen some strange things.  But he’d never gone up against a full-scale demon, nor one that had set itself up in a Great Hall of all places.

In small settlements like this they served both a religious and administrative function. Larn hadn’t visited one in years. As a boy he’d quickly tired of the weekly lectures about right and wrong. As an man he believed if you didn’t know the difference between right and wrong after one lecture, then no amount of visits was going to help you.

Still a Great Hall was supposed represent purity and compassion, so he found the idea of a demon living inside one slightly perverse. He led them on slow circuit of the hall, his eyes roaming every inch of the stone and woodwork. Finally he signalled a halt. “Place looks dead.”

An anguished expression came over Elrif and Larn said, “Sorry.”

Larn pointed to a small set of horizontal wooden doors that led to the Great Hall’s cellar. “I’ll go in through there and see if there are any survivors. Now be ready. If I’m running it’s because something is chasing me.”

Veric nodded, “We’ll be waiting.  I’m a fine shot.”  He patted his sword.  “And if she gets any closer I’ll finish her with this.”

Larn just hoped Veric meant what he said and didn’t use the opportunity to make a run for it. But one bridge at a time. He had to survive the hall first.  The sun was already beginning to set on the horizon, he knew he’d have to do this fast, he didn’t want to be here after dark.

Larn sprinted across the open courtyard, crouching down when he reached the side of the Great Hall. Lifting open the door, he made his way down into the cellar. The passageway was narrow and the smell of mildew was all encompassing as the damp stonewalls closed in on him.  e normally felt calm during a hunt but as he made his way down the stairs he felt his chest tight and a single bead of sweat run down his face.

Larn came out into the main area of the cellar. It was filled to the brim with barrels of ale, wine, lamp oil and sacks of grain kept by the Church to help feed the town’s poor during winter. He stuck his hand in a sack and let the grain slid through his fingers. The food had not rotted or even been touched in the hundred years it had been down here.

Larn had hoped the others might be down here, but by now he knew things were never that easy. Swallowing his fear, he ascended the creaky looking wooden staircase, wincing at every crack it made. When he reached the top, he steadied himself and carefully opened the door.

Larn walked out into a small, undecorated vestibule – a simple black curtain separating it from the Great Hall itself. The cellar’s mildew was replaced with a sickly sweet smell. Tightening the grip on his bow, he advanced towards the curtain. Taking a deep breath he pulled it across, Larn felt his jaw drop.  Bile rose to the top of his throat.

The Great Hall was covered in flesh – men, women, and children.  Some were still whole, others in pieces.  Some had been skinned or mutilated in other ways.  But it was the completely untouched ones that disturbed him the most.  Their unmoving eyes open and staring back at him.  The bodies lined the walls and ceiling in grotesque decoration.  “By the Gods,” he whispered.

Something dropped from the ceiling. He fired instinctively – a lash of red hair caught the arrow and snapped it. Larn instantly had another arrow strung and fired. The hair snatched that one too. Useless though it appeared Larn strung yet another arrow.

The red hair slowly retreated until it was merely waist length and he got a good look at his attacker. She was looked young, with cold blue eyes, and pale white skin. At first glance he thought she was naked, but a closer look revealed she was clad in a dress made up of layers of flayed skin. She smiled at him warmly. “What a day! Nothing for a decade, then a dozen visitors at once.  Aren’t I a lucky girl?

“Hold your place,” he growled.

She raised her hands in apparent gesture of submission. “Is that anyway to greet your host?  What do you think, Elrif?”

“Very lucky, Mistress.”

Larn spun around to see Elrif appear from behind the curtain.  He lifted his hand bearing Veric’s decapitated head, blood still dripping from the wound in the other hand was the dagger he had given him.

Larn felt numb.  “Elrif.  What have you done?”

“Don’t blame him,” said Aleris,  “he was here a long time, all alone.  Long enough for me to break him.”

His arm straining from keeping the bow taunt, Larn studied the boy. The twitchy determination he’d shown earlier was gone; replaced with simpering obedience. He looked at her like she was his mother, lover and goddess rolled in one.

“So you’re Aleris?”

“Guilty,” She giggled girlishly.

His looked her over. “What are you?”

She got a dazed look on her face and she started tapping her chin. “What am I? I don’t really remember anymore.”

She smiled at him. “Does it really matter?”

“I suppose not.”

“I must give you credit the others never came this far.” She pointed to several bodies lining the wall. “Not willingly anyway.”

Larn worked hard to keep his expression unmoving. “Well, I’ve always been one to do my own thing.

She smiled at him and said as if talking to a small child. “Not really. How do you think you knew where to find Elrif?” She twirled a lock of hair in her fingers. “I guided you there with my mind touch.”

He cocked any eyebrow. “Mind touch?”

“Just a tiny power of mine, I can slightly influence people into doing things without them being aware of it.”

Larn gestured to Elrif. “You influencing him now?”

She shook her head throwing around a mass of red curls. “Sadly that’s beyond my abilities. I broke him the old fashioned way – fear, love, desire. All those messy human emotions.”

“You made him a monster in two days?”

She slumped down slightly and Larn thought she looked fatigued. “Time passes differently here. For him it’s been far more then two days.”

That didn’t make Larn feel much better.  He hastily changed the subject.  “So what happened here?”

Aleris’s hair flared up, then slunk back down. “It’s a sad story,” she sighed,  “about a thousand years ago a wizard, Allocias, or Allos.” She shrugged. “Something with an A. He found me here after I had introduced myself to some woodsmen.  He cruelly trapped me in a crypt.”  She swirled around him on her hair laughing. “A lesser being might have gone mad. But I’m made of sterner stuff, so when those hunters found my crypt and opened it a hundred years ago. I didn’t overreact at all.”

Unable to hold his tongue, Larn replied, “These people might say different.”

Her face darkened. “That’s the Wizard’s fault, he shouldn’t have let them build a village here.  When I tried to leave I discovered he’d put up a barrier spell and that damn mist to prevent me from leaving.” She laughed softly, lifting her hands to the ceiling.  “I went a bit mad.”

She let out an ear-piercing scream that put Larn’s nerves on edge even more.  His ears ringing she finally stopped.  Taking a deep breath she turned to him. “As you can tell I’m still a little upset.” She swept her hand theatrically across. “But I try to keep myself occupied with decorating.  When I’m not entertaining visitors such as yourself of course.”

She licked a finger and ran it along the creepily smiling face of a young man. “Beautiful aren’t they? A little saliva keeps them fresh.I ‘m constantly rearranging them, but it never feels quite right.”

She smiled at him and extended a pale white hand.  “Maybe you can help me with that.”

Larn tightened his grip. “Just try it.”

She raised a red gold eyebrow. “You think you can?”

“You wouldn’t dare harm the mistress!” growled Elrif.

“Try me,” replied Larn warily eyeing them both. “I only came in for him. He wants to stay, fine. But you’re not getting me.”

After several seconds of silence, she giggled, “Get out of the way, Elrif.  Let him leave.”

Furrowing his brow, Larn said, “You’re letting me go?”

All amusement vanished from her face. “Hardly.  If I can’t leave, no one else can either. If you don’t want to be my friend, you can perform one last function and provide some sport.  So run, run as fast as your little legs will carry you.”

His hands shaking from the strain, he fired off his arrow and sprinted back to the cellar. As he passed a scowling Elrif, he elbowed him in the face.

“That’s for Veric!”

Elrif went down with a groan and Larn allowed himself a tiny smile. He flew down the stairs, through the cellar and back outside. The sun was almost completely set, but through the twilight and the mist he saw Veric’s headless corpse, lying in a large pool of blood. He might not have liked the man, but he deserved better than that.

His heart beating loudly in his chest, he considered his options. Aleris had taken out at least a dozen warriors on horseback. If they couldn’t escape, what were his odds? Then it occurred to him, they had gone down fighting. With her that was a mistake. She enjoyed the bloodshed, the mayhem. To take her down that way, you’d need at least a hundred men.

Fortunately he wasn’t a warrior, he was a hunter and that was how he was going to put her down – or die trying. The first thing he had to do was set up a false trail. Kicking open the door to the nearest hut, he ran to the window. He ripped open the shutters and dived outside. Looking around wildly, he scrambled up the wall to the roof.

He gingerly tested the roof’s central beam. It felt firm beneath his weight.  He sprinted along then leapt across to the next building. His foot slipped on landing and he flailed about wildly for several seconds before recovering his footing.

Taking a deep breath, Larn steadied himself then leapt for the next building. He repeated this process several times until he was satisfied that he had put enough distance between him and the original hut. He dropped down and lay on the thatched roof trying to blend in as much as possible while he waited.

As a hunter he was used to waiting sometimes hours, sometimes days for his prey to appear, but usually he wasn’t worried about it killing him. The demon was agile, he’d seen that, but the all-encompassing mist would hamper her as well, not much, but hopefully enough for him to survive.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, but his chest tightened when through a gap in the mist he saw her serenely gliding along, as if she didn’t have a care in the world – her red hair shining out, despite the dark. Trailing her like a little dog was Elrif.

He drew back on his bow but the mist obscured her again. Still now he had some idea of where she was. Easing himself off the roof, he went inside the house. It took only a few seconds to find what he needed. Within moments he had a brisk fire going. Grabbing a torch, he lit the interior. He ran outside and tossed the torch onto the roof of another hut. When both houses were well a flame, he ran off into the darkness to make his way back to the Great Hall.

He caught movement from the corner of his eyes and dived behinds a pile of kindling. Peering over the side he saw Aleris glide past. She stopped and swung her head in his direction. He dropped down praying to every God he knew that she hadn’t seen him. When he was still breathing after several seconds, he dared to look up and saw them disappear back into the mist heading towards the fire.

Sweat running down his face, he made his way back into the cellar and grabbed several pots of lamp oil.  He carried them inside the Great Hall, where he began splashing lamp oil all over the Great Hall’s furnishings wooden – or otherwise.

When Larn finished smashing the last pot, he took out his tinderbox and lit the contents. Flames shot up around him, giving it an even more hellish appearance. This’ll get her attention, thought Larn. Making his way out he grabbed another pot of lamp oil and prayed Aleris was not outside. Pausing at the door he looked around carefully. His prayers were answered. She was nowhere in sight and he ran into the mist to await her arrival.

It didn’t take long. Aleris’s screams filled the night as she saw her shrine engulfed in flame. “My art, my work!” She wailed.

Behind her, Elrif fidgeted nervously, no doubt uncomfortable at seeing his goddess in pain. Well, thought Larn get used to it.  Elrif heard nothing as Larn snatched him from behind and dragged him into the mist.

Where they were out of sight of Aleris, he whispered in Elrif’s ear. “I’m sorry, lad. You’re broken and I don’t have time to fix you.”

He punched Elrif in the kidneys. As the boy keeled over, Larn sliced his tendons so he couldn’t walk. Elrif screeched in pain, just as Larn wanted. He grabbed the lamp oil pot from his tunic, splashing it over Elrif. “Goodbye, lad.  I’m…I’m sorry.”

Then he eased back into the darkness, Elrif’s scream’s echoing into the night. It was not long before Aleris appeared. The light from the fire making her hair appear even shinier.  Her eyes scanned the darkness and Larn felt himself unconsciously ease further into the dark.

Elrif raised his hand. “Help me, mistress.”

Aleris looked down at him with a mixture of pity and contempt. “What good is a broken pet?”  She lifted him off his feet and a kindly expression came over her face. “But you have been of some service to me. I will give you a quick death.”

Her eyes went red and some sort of yellow light began flowing out of Elrif. The worst thing was Elrif didn’t seem to care. He just hung there limply smiling.

“Goodbye, monster.”

Larn fired off a flaming arrow. It struck Elrif and he went up in flames. Her hair a blaze, Aleris jerked back in surprise. A surprise Larn used to his advantage. He loosed several arrows – one after the other thudding into her back. Still, she refused to go down.

Her hair flailed wildly as she tried to put out the flames – her eyes glowing ever more brightly in the darkness. Shrieking, she tossed Elrif aside and spun around, searching for her attacker.

Larn had no intention of letting her come after him. His bow shaking in his hands, he advanced towards her firing as he went. When the last of his arrows thudded into her chest, he tossed his bow aside and drew his sword.

Her hair lashed out, Larn ducked out of the way, but the hair’s razor sharp edges slashed his chest. Fighting through the pain, Larn dived forward. Rolling back up he sliced through her leg. Blood splurted out and she tumbled to the ground. Jumping up, Larn raised his sword. She looked up at him with a passable impression of a real woman in pain.

“Go on then,” she muttered,  “finish it.”

“I intend to.”

A strand of hair flicked out, lancing into his shoulder. As he cried in pain another strand grabbed his ankle and he fell to the ground with a thud. Wincing he looked up to see her bearing down on him. Her hair pulling her forward. “You think I would die so easy?”

“I’d hoped,” replied Larn scurrying back to his sword several feet away. Just as he grabbed it, Aleris snatched him from behind, dragging him towards her. With one final burst of energy he swung around – bringing the blade down upon her head and cracking it open like a watermelon – her brain spilling out in front of him. Smoke began rising from her corpse.

Larn backed away as it burst into flame.  After several seconds there was nothing left, but a black scorch mark.

Larn fell to the ground and let out a big sigh. Slowly his heartbeat returned to normal and his hands stopped shaking. He ran his fingers along the wound on his chest, then the one in his shoulder. They both felt deep. He would need stitches from the local healer when he got out.

A sudden groaning reminded Larn that he was not alone. Elrif was still alive – rolling on the ground in pain. Larn frowned, the whole idea of this trip had been to save the boy and Larn had ended up doing more damage to him than Aleris.  Elrif had killed Veric and possibly done the same to the others, but it wasn’t entirely his fault.

As Larn made his way over, Elrif looked around wild eyed. “Where am I?”

Larn leaned down. “You’re in Death Valley, lad.”

Elrif’s face wrinkled in thought. “There were others with me.”

He replied with a sigh. “They’re dead, I’m sorry.”

Elrif groaned weakly. “I’m dying aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

Elrif grabbed his hand. “Will you stay with me?”

“I’m not going anywhere, lad.”

It was already light when Larn approached the valley entrance, pushing Elfrif in a small handcart he’d found.  The mist that had carpeted the valley for a century was starting to thin out and birds had already started making the forest home once again. Despite its reputation he wondered how long it would be before people did the same.

In the distance he saw Veric’s men huddled around a fire. They had probably stood there silently since Larn and Veric had vanished into the mist a day before. Given the Duke’s reputation he had no doubt they would have stayed in that spot for quite a while longer before taking him the news.

One bent down to pick up another piece of wood. As he did so he saw Larn approach. “He’s back!”

He pushed the cart to the closest man.

“Captain Veric and the others?” one asked hopefully.

“Dead,” replied Larn.  “But they died fighting.”

The trooper winced at Elrif’s injuries.  “What do we tell the Duke?”

Larn stared down at the body. “Tell he was a a brave lad who died fighting a demon.”

The End