Hunter of the Masks: Part 1
I got a chance to go out hiking today and while I have had this story in the "concept phase" for quite awhile, being able to get out and be in the wilderness really got the juices flowing. I am not sure how many parts this will be, but I will post a part a day until it's done. Hope you enjoy! Leave me a comment and let me know what you think so far!
Chatan of Red-Deer Clan unconsciously shivered as he plucked the simple wooden mask from the floor. It had been carven simply but with care, crafted from wood, bark, and untanned hide. The eye holes were small and narrow, adorned with white rings signifying hollow, soulless eyes. A larger hole had been bored where the mouth should have been. A black strip was painted across the breadth of the decoration, jagged peaks of white symbolizing the fangs of a flesh eater painted upon the black.
He promptly threw the mask to the earthen floor and smashed it with his heel.
“What does it mean?” whispered the quavering voice of a woman, huddled at the door. She was young, shapely and beautiful, though her face was now marred by the stains of tears running down her face.
“He has been here,” replied Chatan, hiding the anger welling up within him.
“Who?” The woman’s voice grew shrill. “Tell me, Chatan! Who killed my husband?”
“I do not know his name, Rain-Cloud. I only recognize him from the sign he leaves behind.”
Both of their eyes darted to the splintered remnants of the mask upon the floor.
“If not who, then why?” Rain-Cloud’s voice was desperate. “Why here of all places? And why my poor White-Sand? Why Chatan? Why?”
The woman dropped to her knees, sobbing deeply into the cupped hands that hid her face. Chatan made no move to comfort her, he did not help her from the floor, nor could he answer her question. His eyes moved cautiously to the corpse of White-Sand slumped in the corner of the simple, single room farmhouse. Blood, still warm, was splashed across the man’s simple cotton robe. The attack had likely been a surprise, but something had alerted White-Sand to the presence of another. Judging from the deep gashes running along the man’s arms, he had tried to defend himself or at least stave off the attack. He had been forced hard against the back wall, so hard that his skull had cracked, leaving a smear of red on the wall of baked mud, but that had not killed him. Where White-Sand’s throat should have been, only a ragged hole remained, his neck having been ripped out not by knife, but tooth or claw.
Just like the others.
Chatan had been tracking the man – for it was indeed a man - responsible for White-Sand’s slaying for nearly a full turn of the moon. There had be two occasions where he had been within bow shot of the killer but had not had enough time to nock and draw. The nameless man had been responsible for five deaths along the Great Serpent River, normally striking upon isolated farms such at this, but he had killed twice within the bounds of the Pueblo cities.
While Chatan was a barbarian, hailing from the Sea of Grass far to the east, he had lived among the desert tribes long enough to understand their customs, although they were strange to him. They were a superstitious people, believing ghosts and spirits dwelt within every piece of creation. A violent death such as this could bring about sickness, or bad harvest, but there was little chance for White-Sand to haunt this place. Cannibalism was a grievous offense, for a man to be consumed as White-Sand had been, meant his soul was bound to the one who partook. If what these people believed were true, White-Sand would never reach the next world, and never find peace.
At least until his slayer had been slain.
“Rain-Cloud, you must go from here.”
“I-I can’t leave him, Chatan. I can’t.”
“There is nothing left for you here. Your husband is dead. Go south. Follow the slopes downward until you reach a village or town. Tell them what happened, and they will find work for you to do.”
“What about White-Sand?”
“He dwells here no longer. His spirit is gone. Be thankful you were out, or you too would suffer his fate.”
“At least then would be together,” whispered the girl, sullenly.
Chatan had no argument.
“We will seal this house, and let it lie.”
Rain-Cloud cried out in pain, her heart barely able to withstand the torment.
Chatan moved to put a firm hand on her shoulder, to give what little comfort he could in that moment, knowing full well that time was all that could heal the young woman.
Just as he knelt, the hard crack of a twig announced the presence of another.
At once, Rain-Cloud ceased her crying at met Chatan’s eyes with a shot of stark, living fear.
Chatan bounded past the weeping girl, snatching up his bow and placing a flint tipped arrow at the ready.
He would not miss this time.
Rain-Cloud’s farm sat upon the eastern slope of a cluster of ancient mountains where they subsisted on maize, beans, and squash. Many such farms peppered the slopes, taking advantage of the rain-bearing winds that blew in from the plains. With the rains, great forests of towering pine cloaked the crags in a shroud of deep green. As the summer faded, so did the vibrant emerald of the corn stalks that rustled in the wind not a stone’s throw from where Chatan stood.
Silent as stone, he listened.
A woodpecker sought greedily for its next meal high up in the pines.
A pair of bushy eared squirrels darted through the duff not far off, unaware or unconcerned with the human drama at hand.
The man-high stalks of maize rustled again, but not in tune with any mountain breeze.
Squinting, the hunter thought he could make out the shape of a man hiding, standing still while buried in the swaying stalks. The figure was tall, and broad shouldered – not unlike the man-killer he had glimpsed on the run. There was no doubt that whoever it was had seen Chatan, but like an ancient statue, they refused to move.
With the speed of a striking snake, Chatan dropped to one knee, drawing his bowstring back toward his cheek.
The arrow shot true, tearing a path through the stalks of corn.
Where there should have been howls of pain, perhaps even fury, there arose a cold, unearthly laugh. It was not the laugh of a man, but hollow and bitter like the howl of a winter wind.
Behind him there was another snap of a twig and the frantic padding of footfalls on the dirt.
Chatan turned suddenly to see the familiar shape of a man as he frantically crested a small ridge.
He nocked a second arrow and loosed.
The arrow grazed the man across the thigh, cutting a deep line through muscle and bare skin.
Faltering, the runaway ducked behind the trunk of a tree and disappeared.
Suddenly, from where the strange figure had hidden in the patch of maize, a furious, painful cry bellowed despite there being no one there at all.
Rain-Cloud leapt from the safety of her desecrated home and ran to Chatan’s side.
“What was that?” she asked, a wild fear upon her face.
“I am not sure, but you cannot stay any longer. Take what food and water you can carry, then leave.”
“Did you get him, Chatan?”
“No. But my arrow grazed him, I watched him stumble before he disappeared into the woods. He is wounded and bleeding, easy enough to track.”
“Are you going to kill him?”
“Yes," growled Chatan. "I will find him, and I will kill him.”