Summers were always so hot in Lestmarsh. The air hung about Jesri like a cloud of mosquitos. No wait, those were mosquitos. He swatted at them absentmindedly as he waited for the officiator. It was three hours past noon now, and the officiator was supposed to have arrived at one hour past. The hot sun was stinging Jesri’s neck as he noticed a small, squat man walking up the road toward him.
“Jesri?” The small man shouted. Jesri nodded. The man smiled broadly and waved for him to approach. Jesri obliged.
“Are you the officiator?” Jesri said curtly.
“I am,” The old fellow said. His face was deeply wrinkled, like a carven marble statue weathered through heavy winters and ice. He was blind in one eye, a broad scar running down the left side of his face. The milky iris unsettled Jesri.
“My name is Tolm,” The old man continued. “I’ve been an officiator for the guild for, oh, fifty years now.”
“I am glad to have this meeting,” Jesri replied mechanically. He wanted to make a good impression, but his frustrations were high, having had to wait so long and all.
“Don’t interrupt,” Tolm said evenly. His tone was kind, but his rebuke left Jesri feeling all the more hot. “The guild is an ancient society. No one joins it lightly. This process will be difficult. It could kill you. Or leave you terribly wounded.”
Jesri found himself staring at the scar again.
“Tell me,” Tolm continued, “Why do you seek to join the guild?”
Jesri straightened. He recalled the many hunts he’d embarked on throughout his young life. The loss of his father to the grok war parties, the hunger he felt to be in the wood, one with nature, combined with the beasts who sought also for their prey.
“I am a hunter,” Jesri said firmly. Tolm smiled and nodded.
“And do you know whom you serve?” Tolm asked.
“Our guild serves Grukscava,” Jesri said. “God of the hunt.”
“The guild?” Tolm said, “Or you?”
Jesri didn’t respond.
Grukscava. The god of the hunt. God and father of the groks. Jesri wanted to join the society, to be with those who thought and lived as he did. But to serve the god, would that be an acceptance of the death of his father? Could he do so lightly?
“Your thoughts are clear,” Tolm said. “Perhaps you are not ready.”
“No!” Jesri replied. “No. I am ready. I desire to join the guild. I serve the hunt.”
“Then you serve the god,” Tolm said heavily. “This is no small matter. Grukscava is father to the hunt, to the grok, and to the dragons. And dragons are father to man. We are brothers, all of us, connected through the lineage of the hunter-god who created us. The hunt is more than the kill. It is the true way of life. To seek out and claim your own part of this world, on your skill and hunger. Just as Grukscava did, in the age of gods.”
“But do we not also hunt the groks?” Jesri asked.
“Our guild seeks the hunt wherever it takes us,” Tolm replied. “The groks are our skin-brethren. They represent one of the great hunts for our people. To hunt the grok is to hunt a hunter. But remember, the hunt is not driven by anger, or revenge. If you are here to exact revenge on the grok, you are not welcome.”
Jesri was quiet for a while. Tolm regarded his silence with silence, and allowed the man to ponder how he would proceed. It was nearly evening before either of them spoke again.
“My father was taken from me,” Jesri said, “By a grok hunting party as we sought mastodon for our celebration of Sun Return. Since then, the hunt has been my only relief. He was my only family.”
“A difficult experience,” Tolm said. “And one not unfamiliar to our brothers in the guild. So long as the hunt is your desire, your one true desire, then you will be welcome here.”
“I am a hunter,” Jesri said once more. Tolm nodded slowly.
“Then you shall hunt,” Tolm said. “The trial begins now.”
Tolm removed a satchel from his belt. The leather of it was as ancient as his face, wrinkled and thin like an old paper bag. He held it out to Jesri.
“Within is what you will need for the hunt,” Tolm said.
Jesri opened the old pouch. Inside was a cap of fungus, violet and black, streaked with red spores.
“This is the bait?” Jesri said.
“No,” Tolm replied. “This is for you. You must eat it.”
Jesri chuckled. Tolm did not.
“You’re serious?” Jesri said.
“You will not die,” Tolm replied. “But the beast you hunt will seek out those who have eaten this toadstool.”
“What am I hunting?” Jesri asked.
“You will know when it comes to you.”
Jesri’s mouth felt like sand as he walked in the dark of the Lestmarsh forests. The fungus had raised his heartrate, and even in the cool of the encroaching night he sweat freely. His breath came and went in ragged spurts, even though he walked slowly and without great exertion. Occasionally a biting pain errupted in his gut, but it would subside quickly. Jesri stopped and sat on a large, flat stone. He didn’t know where he was going, or what he was hunting; only that it would come to him. He examined his gear has he tried to calm his blood with a drink of cool water from his flask.
He carried with him two hunting weapons: a bow and a spear. Since he knew the beast would come to him, and would likely come upon him without him seeing it first, he knew the bow would prove ineffective. So he readied his spear. He also carried a third weapon, a sword. It was his fathers, the one he’d used to defend their home many times from groks and men and beasts. Aside from his weapons, he carried a small amount of food, a bed roll, twenty feet of fine rope, and a folding knife which he used to fashion snares and traps when hunting smaller game.
Whatever he was going to face, Jersi knew it wouldn’t be small. It couldn’t be. The Guild of the Hunter-God was known throughout all Silg, even the whole world, for their daring and skill in hunting the most dangerous creatures the world over. So where was this beast? He’d been walking for what felt like hours, but his perception of time was hard to be certain of; the fungus was playing tricks on his mind as it continued to digest, lights and spots materializing in his vision as he closed his eyes. But he knew he mustn’t sleep. The beast would be here, soon.
He stood once more, finding it harder than he’d anticipated, and moved deeper into the woods. There were many things he could be facing in those dark woods. A bulkan, with its razor horns and brute power. Or an arachnin, quiet and slithering, its faint whispering language on the still cold air as the pungent smell of its venom wafted on the night breeze. He shuddered. His fingers tightened along the shaft of his spear, hoping to see the beast before it saw him.
And there it was. At first he thought it was an illusion. A faint black smudge on the dark of the night air. But it moved toward him unlike any shadow should have; it was a creature, alive. Jersi aimed his spear, leveled, with his hips turned parallel to the creature. It was smaller than he’d expected; and it was unfamiliar. He’d never seen anything quite like it. The creautre was about the size of a mountain cat, but covered in thick skin, almost like armor. The plates lay across one another, forming a sort of mail that rose to points facing toward the aft of the creature. It had no visible eyes, no mouth, only claws and spikes and horns.
Jersi shouted at the beast, brandishing his spear. But it didn’t move. Jersi drew a deep, labored breath. The hunt had begun, and he would claim his prey.
He lunged with his spear, the bronze blade glowing like fire in the starlight. Jersi aimed his blow to strike between the plates of the beasts armor, where it should be weakest. The blade shattered like glass, and the spear splintered as though it had met with an immovable object. The force of the blow resonated through his body, and the bones in his arms ached. As he staggered back, the beast came forward. Its head opened, revealing rows upon rows of crooked teeth. Jersi fell back, rolling head over teakettle through the leaves as the beast bucked and roared past him like a bull.
Jesri rose once more, uneven but undaunted. He drew his bow and nocked and arrow. The beast turned, as if to make another charge, but it paused. He let fly an arrow, but it, too erupted gloriously as it met the hide of this terrible beast. The creature charged, Jesri quickly loosing more arrows, but to no affect. The beast gored him with its horns, tossing him to the ground. The wound in Jesri’s leg seeped as he turned over in the loose soil. The beast reared on it’s hind legs, pawing at the air toward him as a horrid hiss escaped its nostrils. He looked about himself; his spear was broken, his bow missing, and his sword had fallen from his hip as he’d tumbled through the air. He reached into his pocket, pulling out his hunters knife and flipping the blade into position. Jesri winced as he pulled himself to his knees, but the beast was already upon him again. Its weight was colossal. His body buried into the soft peat soil under the pressure as he struggled in vain against the immovable creature. It raised its forepaw, the claws and spikes there still glistening with Jesri’s lifeblood. There was nothing he could do. He jutted the hunters knife forward and held it there, a final defense against the end.
As the creature swatted its mighty paw toward him, the hunters knife cut through the digits like cheese. black blood oozed from the opened knuckles of the creatures paw as more violent, breathy hisses roiled from its nostrils. it writhed and withdrew, the enormous weight lifting from Jesri as it went, his breath returning in hungry gulps.
Jesri rose and found himself alone. The creature had fled. What had happened? He was certain it had him, yet somehow it was wounded. He hobbled to a nearby stump, where he quickly bandaged his leg with staunching moss and velvet leaves. After the bleeding had stopped, Jesri stood and went to the site of the tussle. The creatures claws still lay in the mixed blood and soil, splayed out like silverware at a macabre table. Jesri picked up one of the claws, and found it deceptively lightweight. He took his hunter knife and scrapped at the claw. The blade chipped. Confused, he lowered his hands together, the claw grazing against the blade. The claw was cut. Jesri looked on in wonder.
He placed the blade between his feet, the edge facing up toward him, and he dropped the claw onto the blade. It split in two, as if it were soap. It became clear to him. The creature, for whatever reason, could only be harmed if its own force was used against it.
He pocketed the claws and his hunter knife, and rose. His sword was not far off, laying in the soil where it had fallen from his belt. He took it up, and removed the sheath. The long steel blade glimmered in the now risen moon. But how to use the blade? One wrong move could leave it shattered and broken, like his spear. No, he couldn’t risk the blade moving at all, if he wanted it to strike true through the creatures thick skin. A trap was in order.
Jesri selected the spot for his trap: a stone outcropping with an incline. It would serve his idea well. And with any luck, it should provide a good escape path for him. He quickly set up his snare, as time was already against him if he wanted to take the prey.
He returned to the site of the scuffle, and searched for tracks. They were faint, as if the creature left almost no mark on the world, but there was one thing it couldn’t hide: the blood. ribbons of oily blood trailed off to the east, and Jesri set to the work of tracking the beast.
No more than twenty minutes had passed since the creature attacked. It couldn’t be that far off. As he walked, his stomach churned. The fungus rose in throat, and he vomited the partially digested toxin onto the forest floor before him. The process took him back to the quickened heart beat, and his sweat began to flow once more. As his eyes cleared, he could no longer find the trail of blood. Cursing under his breath, he turned himself about, trying to regain his direction. As he about-faced, he found the creature once more. He didn’t know how long it had been following him, but it was there, and close, within twenty paces.
His adrenaline rushed. The quickening of his heartbeat was now a boon, the rushing of his sweat a cooling anticipation of the moment to come. His body screamed for him to run. But his mind fought against it. He clutched his short knife in his white knuckled hand, between him and the creature. So long as the blade was still, he was a threat to this creature, and the slow and measured movements of the beast showed it understood this as well. Carefully it sidestepped around Jesri, regarding him with its eyeless head, the black and blue sheen of its scales glinting in the light of the setting moon. Slowly it moved, paw over paw, until it was just to Jesri’s right.
Jesri burst into a sprint. The bandages on his leg came loose. The staunching moss slowed the blood, but the flow started once more. He followed his footsteps, back to where his trap lay. The creature huffed behind him, gaining faster and faster as it gave chase. Jesri pushed himself all the harder, his lungs alive with the frigid air of the Silgen night. He could see the trap ahead of him, the stone outcropping he’d picked for the snare. Up the incline he heaved himself, the beast not far behind. At the crest, he took the rope he’d hung and swung out over the small ravine. The beast jumped after him, its final mistake.
It caught hold of his pantleg, which tore away at the weight of the creature, and cloth and creature together fell into the stones below, where Jesri had placed his father’s sword. The beast fell onto the blade, which split its hide like a wire through hot butter. The creature shuddered, releasing a final, long hiss, and went still.
Jesri dropped down from the rope with a thud. His legs gave out beneath him as he hit the earth. He managed a weak chuckle as he examined his trophy, and drifted from consciousness like a dry leaf on a stream.
Jesri awoke in a soft bed, laid beneath a sheepskin. The room was unfamiliar to him, until he noticed the insignia embossed on the curtains of the window beside him. He was in the Hall of the Hunter-God. A sense of relief washed over him. His trial was passed.
He found his leg bound with a fine bandage, and it was healing quite well. He found beside his bed on the nightstand a pitcher of water, and his thirst became apparent to him. He drank deeply from the pitcher, his dry throat singing with gulps as the water refreshed his parched flesh. The door to the room where he lay opened, and Tolm entered.
“You’re awake,” Tolm said jollily. “The guild will be pleased to see you.”
“And I will be pleased to see them,” Jesri replied, rising from beneath the sheepskin. He felt sure, confident. He felt like he was home.