The Hunter in Black: The Well

 

The hunter lamented. His quarry had gone over the horizon. He knew in what direction it lay, he always knew. Though the creature might be out of his extraordinary vision, the hunter’s feelings could always tell him in which direction to go.

On this bright day, those feelings told him to go north, by northwest. The hunter’s faithful black mare had those same feelings, and needn’t be told by him where to run. They were nearly flying now, moving so fast that the human eye would barely have perceived them.

The sun was falling below the treetops of the thick forest, its bright rays bouncing from one leaf to another. The edge of the forest was damp. The musty smell of moist earth hovered above the path. Soon, horse and rider emerged into the waiting arms of the prairie beyond the forest.

The pair slowed as a village came into sight. The hunter knew his quarry was not there, but he might find some bit of information about where it went, or even its intentions. His mount slowed to a walk as the hunter regarded the broken and fading wooden sign near the road, ‘Ostracar’.

The hunter began to fear the worst as they passed the first few houses that comprised the homes and shops of the little town. He saw not one sign of life. No people, no animals, no sounds of habitation or nature, nothing. Often, this meant the destroyer had come through with grave intentions. The creature was full of hatred and loathing, and would often kill out of that malice, though sometimes it seemed to kill for nothing more than its own amusement.

Apprehension gave way to relief soon enough. Sounds began to reach his ears, hurried and excited. His mare unconsciously increased her steps. The pair wound around homes and shops until they came to the village square, where every member of the town had gathered, or so it seemed. A few people at the perimeter of the gathering cast frightened glances at the hunter and his mount, each of the intruders dressed so hauntingly in black.

The hunter stopped and dismounted, one hand on the mane of his companion as he moved into the crowd. People with wide and frantic eyes parted as though he’d threatened their very lives with his presence. The crowd became thicker with villagers as he neared the cause for the inadvertent gathering.

A stone well stood at the center of the town, and the crowd’s attention. Several old and large men stood near, peering into its depths. Most looked up at the approach of the hunter in black, though none spoke until the hunter drew near the well. One of the oldest of the humans finally spoke to him, the firmness of the old man’s voice giving away his fateful disposition.

“So who are you to come prowling through here all high and mighty? We have big problems here, and no time to spare for interlopers like you. Just get back on your horse and be on your way.”

Something in the old man’s harsh tone of voice belied a feeling besides irritation. Fear, or warning? The hunter couldn’t be sure. Humans were so hard to understand sometimes.

The problem, the hunter surmised, had to be something trapped in the well. A rope had been attached to a nearby tree, and two younger men were busy uncoiling it, and then gently lowering it into the well. The hunter approached the opening, coming close enough to look down into it. Blackness obscured even his exceptional sight from seeing the distant bottom. He looked deep into the old man’s eyes, silently informing the elder that he wasn’t going anywhere. The old man’s shoulder’s slumped, his head slowly shaking.

“We’ve lost a little girl down this well.” The old man answered the hunter’s silent question. The hunter peered down again into the well, trying to push his vision through the darkness beneath. His sight failed him.

When the rope was tight against the tree, the two young men grabbed hold and began to lower themselves down, hand over hand, one at a time. The hunter marveled at their bravery, and shook his head at their foolhardiness.

“That rope might not hold two men at once. Perhaps only one of them should go.” The hunter offered.

“When we need the advice of outsiders,” the old man snapped, “we’ll ask for it. No one’s asked for your help anyway. Be off.”

The hunter ignored the old man’s indignity and his warning, watching the young men slowly disappear into the blackness of the well. Suddenly the rope began to stretch, its twines snapping in unison. The sound grew louder, threatening to give at any moment. The old man, and the others gathered near the well, seemed to not hear the ominous sound. The hunter began to offer his advice again, but closed his mouth instead. These people had already decided to close their minds.

And then the rope gave. The snap was loud, and the rope whipped across the lip of the well, smacking the edge soundly before disappearing into the black along with the cries of the two men it had held aloft. The villagers did not alarm. Instead they simply turned to the elderly man who seemed to be their leader. After considering the well for a moment longer, he looked up at the nearest man.

“Fetch another rope.”

The man nodded and ran off as fast as he could. The hunter shook his head inwardly at these strange people. This was no concern of his. The hunter was merely chasing his quarry. But something made him suddenly jump into that well. Compassion, most likely. If the destroyer had indeed paid this quaint little village a visit, it might very well have thrown this child down the well. Of course, were that the case, it would have stayed to reap the benefits of its malice. Whatever the reason, the hunter suddenly found himself falling into the gloom of the well after the two men who’d gone before him, and the little girl who ostensibly lay at its bottom.

The hunter fell like most men, until he threw his arms out. Through his powers and force of will, the hunter slowed his descent. A split second earlier, he’d heard the two men below him hit the bottom, somewhere far below. Their anguished cries came up to his ears, then disappeared, leaving the hunter to assume the worst. The men may not have survived their fall.

The fading light of the sun had not penetrated far down into the well, and the hunter’s vision was still unable to penetrate the blackness. This was profoundly strange, and disturbing. He’d always been able to see through the darkest nights, the blackest caves. Now he could barely make out the black boots on his feet. Most unnerving indeed.

Moments passed in silence both above and below him as the hunter floated down. The strange behavior of the villagers gave him pause as he thought about the companion he’d left alone with them. His concern fell away though; she was quite capable of defending herself when the need arose.

At last a shape appeared beneath him. Again the darkness and his lack of vision surprised him. The hunter did not see the two young men, crumpled into silent, unmoving heaps until he was almost on top of them. The well was not large, and the bodies of the two young men splayed out at the bottom took up most of the available space. As the hunter arrived, he chose to stand near the edge so as not to step on the men.

The hunter knelt, though he needn’t have to know that these two men were most assuredly dead. Their heads were in ghastly, unnatural turns, their eyes and mouths open and frightened in death. It was only after the hunter was busy considering the states of the two men that it occurred to him that two things were missing from the well. Water, and a little girl.

The hunter looked up, as if to question the darkness above him, when a shape loomed suddenly near his head. He moved in just enough time to avoid a rather large rock. The stone struck one of the dead men in the arm, smashing it with a disgusting sound into the soft ground of the well.

Another stone fell, this time striking the hunter on a shoulder as he was looking down. Another fell, then two and three at a time began to rain down on him at once. He managed to dodge a few stones, but with limited room to move, many more found their mark. The hunter held his hand up, summoning an invisible barrier just large enough to shield him from the rain of stone.

The rocks continued to fall, and began to gather upon one another, and on the two bodies lying on the ground. If this storm of stone continues, the hunter thought, I’ll be buried alive. What was going on?

The hunter knew the answer just as soon as he asked. A heavy sigh escaped him.

The shower of stone stopped just as suddenly as it began. The hunter wasted no time managing his escape. Leaping from one side of the narrow well to the next, the hunter made his way up, and up, and up. His keen eyes found the fading sunlight as he neared the top of the well, and he pushed himself into a strong leap at the last second, sailing high into the air. An uncharacteristic gasp escaped his lips as he viewed the sight from on high.

All around the village square, the villagers lay dead. Their frightening visages told that they’d died with anger in their hearts. Melancholy overtook the hunter as his fears were confirmed by what he saw around him. He landed softly, sadly considering the scene before him.

The hunter looked up where he’d left his dark horse before setting out on his mission of mercy. The black mare was gone. Standing in its place was a mysterious woman. She was tall and slender, dark hair flowing down around small yet muscular shoulders. She was lithe, yet powerful. Though outwardly she seemed unclothed, her figure bore only the resemblance of femininity. The shapes were there, but the most distinguishing aspects of the female body were obscured by a dark kind of fabric that seemed to drink in the light. She shimmered slightly as she walked, resembling the hunter’s dark armor when he moved.

The two stood opposite one another. Images of the previous few moments suddenly leapt into the hunter’s mind. The villagers suddenly bending down to pick up the large stones they’d been standing over. Some proceeding toward the well, while others turned on the hunter’s mount, descending upon her in a wild frenzy. She’d wanted to run, to avoid hurting these pitiful people who’d ultimately had no choice in the unjust fate that had been imposed upon them. But what of her friend, her companion, her love? She couldn’t leave him. The transformation was swift, and should have itself served as a deterrent. But the poor villagers had been set upon their course by the destroyer itself, and once that had happened there was no turning back, for them or her. If only there had been some way to know.

The first stones had been easy to avoid, but as more people joined the fight against her, the rocks got nearly impossible to escape. She’d had no choice, and as the villagers came at her, mouths open in rage and fists closed in anger, she’d laid them down to their eternal rest.

As her nearest opponents fell, the people near the well had turned to join the fight against the dark woman, running past their fallen comrades as if they weren’t there. These too she’d had to kill, sensing the destroyer’s dark work within them. She’d lamented every death.

The hunter held his companion’s eyes with his own. He alone could see the despair within those deep black pools. He mourned the villagers with her in the moments of silence that followed.

“It killed them,” the hunter began at last, “using us as the weapons. I’m so sorry I didn’t see this trap sooner. I should have, after all. I know it better than anyone. What it’s capable of, and why.”

The hunter could sense Stallia’s misery. He shared it as the two of them looked around the village in the dying light of the sun. He knew of humanity’s custom of burying the dead, but they had no time for that. Such a ritual was probably what his quarry had in mind, should the villagers fail to put him off the trail forever. No, they had to continue the hunt, and be successful, so that the deaths of these poor souls would not be in vain.

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