Hunter of the Masks: Part 2
Chatan knelt at the bloodstained Earth and spat.
The ground was dusty and soft, littered with dried pine needles which made the tracking of his quarry all the more difficult. Despite the murder’s efforts to disguise his trail, there was no mistaking the spatter of crimson upon the ground before him. Whoever the man was, he was certainly illusive, having out maneuvered Chatan at nearly every step. At some point, he had undoubtably found the time and refuge to bandage his wound, making the trail all the more difficult. Fortunately, he was desperate and knew Chatan was biting at his heels.
However, there was still something amiss.
Instead of taking to the rocks – leaving no track in the process – he had stuck to the low areas. What little was left of his footprints showed a man weakened and verging on exhaustion. Then, inexplicably, the man quickened his pace. He was limping, that was for sure, and then at some point his wound had reopened, spilling the blood that now coated Chatan’s fingertips. It was no longer warm, but thick and sticky, having already started to coagulate in the fresh mountain air.
Why though, had the man started to run?
Had he seen Chatan not far behind?
Given the craggy terrain, littered with ancient boulders and dense tree cover, there was little chance of either hunter or hunted spotting each other. Chatan was simply following suit till the other could go no further.
Just up ahead, the trail grew more erratic.
The man had fallen, struggled to right himself, but had fallen again.
Chatan scanned the area about him, looking for any sign or signal that he had the man-killer trapped, knowing full well a trapped beast was still deadly. Upon the wild plains of his youth, his tribe had hunted vast bison herds, separating them, driving them to stampede and then off the edge of a high cliff. When all was said and done, the rest of the tribe would go about skinning and butchering the massive beasts where they fell. The annual hunt brought enough food to feed every family for a season, and then some. He recalled a time in his youth when a great bull had turned at the last instant, just before the fatal dive from the cliff’s edge, and turned to face his attackers. The buffalo hunt was a sacred act, a gift to all the Plains tribes from the Four Winds high above, but that did not mean the creatures would go willingly. Enraged, the behemoth bellowed and charged, goring brave warriors upon hooked horn or trampling them beneath its bulk. Blood ran in red rivers from nose and mouth, and a score of lance wounds in its hide.
It fought to the last breath.
Chatan expected the same from this killer.
Then, his eyes grew wide as new evidence was brought to light. Still incredulous at what he was seeing, he knelt down to get a closer look. Faint in the dust and debris was the outline of another track. At first glance, Chatan mistook the print for that of a cougar or mountain cat, perhaps stalking wounded prey. It would not be the first time a bleeding man became a meal for such a predator.
But the shape, it wasn’t quite right.
Moving closer, Chatan studied the outline in sand, tracing it with a quivering finger.
He cursed to himself.
There was no mistaking anymore – this was a human’s print.
Standing again, he looked about and suddenly he could do nothing but see them. They were everywhere, the faint, barely noticeable imprints of bare human feet. They did not wear moccasins as he and many hunters did, nor were they the fiber sandals of the Desert Farmers. Whoever they were, they walked as animals, with gaping bestial strides. By the look of it, there were at least four of them, but probably more.
In that moment, Chatan understood the desperate killer’s actions to this point.
There was no doubt that he had seen someone, some thing, up in the rocks. He kept to the lowlands, likely followed from above, the pursuers keeping high upon the granite outcrops and ledges of basalt. The more he struggled to get away, the worse his wound grew, eventually splitting the bandage and spilling his blood upon the ground. Shortly after that moment, he had been set upon. There was a struggle, albeit brief. The killer was in no shape to fight back a small band of attackers. There were no drag marks, or signs of the man being carried away, leading Chatan to believe he had been taken up into the rocks.
The mountains here were a lonesome place, haunted only by wild cats, bears, and the occasional bandit. There had been no such talk of raids or killings, other than the grisly scenes left from the man with the masks. Chatan had not anticipated that anyone else might cross his path.
Suddenly, the warrior felt a growing paranoia tugging at him from the depths of his mind. The world around him cared little for what took place here, or Chatan’s part in it. Birds still sang their love song upon the high branches, and rodents danced through the undergrowth, somewhere far and away a hawk cried. Chatan had spent most of his life a wandering man, rarely did he have company for any longer than was necessary, but in that moment, he had never felt so alone. From the time he left his home, he had followed a path of people who he thought had needed him, whether that be on the dark trail, the high seas, or the blood-soaked battlefield.
If his trail were to end here, would anyone know?
Would there be someone to grieve for him as Rain-Cloud grieved for White-Sand?
What would people say of him when he was gone, or would he even be remembered at all?
High in the rocks, something moved. It was subtle, but Chatan’s wild bred instinct alerted him to it.
Slowly, Chatan turned toward the movement, reaching for is bow.
Something else moved.
In no time at all, Chatan found himself surrounded by six shadow-veiled figures high up in the rocks. Each one was stocky and short, not rising any higher than his chest. Their faces were hidden beneath cowls of ragged pelt, but Chatan could just make out black, beady orbits watching from beneath the cloaks. Whoever they were, they moved like ghosts, more silent than any man Chantan had hunted before.
Realizing the precarious situation, he lowered his weapon to the dirt and raised a single hand in greeting.
“My name is Chatan. Of Red-Deer,” he said, speaking Puebloan with a thick Plains accent.
There was no reply, only curious glances and a low hooting from a pair of the men.
“There was a man. A killer of men.” Chatan gestured to the area around him, pointing to the blood upon the ground. “I am hunting him.”
More of the strange men hooted to each other.
“I believe you have him. I can offer you trade.”
Chatan reached toward a small pouch at his side, nestled near a long flint knife tucked neatly into a buckskin sheath. The men in the rocks began to holler, clearly recognizing the weapon, but Chatan raised a hand to help calm them.
Plucking the bag from his belt, he emptied the contents into his palm. A small collection of turquoise, amethyst, and beads of Aztlan jade tumbled into his cupped hand.
“Will you trade with me? The man for these riches?”
The creatures howled, some of them hopping up and down on muscular legs, brandishing bone clubs in clenched fists.
“Do we have a deal?”
Suddenly, a heavy weight fell upon Chatan from behind. He hit the dirt face down, scattering the modest riches over the ground. He struggled to right himself as the strangers bellowed wildly from the rocks above. Thick fingered hands groped at his neck and hair, thumbs gouging at his eyes.
Violently, Chatan twisted himself out of the man’s grip, kicking hard toward his face.
His foot struck the man hard in the mouth, cracking teeth. The man’s head snapped back, flinging off the filthy hood in the process.
Chatan scrambled back at the site, skittering backwards on all fours.
The face that snarled back at him was not that of a man, nor was it a beast’s, locked horrifically between the two. A heavy brow furrowed over dark eyes and broad nose. Slavering lips hid teeth more human than they should have been.
Just as Chatan drew his knife, the creature was upon him again, clawing and scratching at his face with pointed nails.
Chatan slashed at the creature’s eyes, and then its throat. Red life blood flowed free down a barrel chest.
The others screamed and roared from the rocks.
He tried to stand but was instantly set upon from every side.
The beast-men fell from above like boulders, the weight too much for him to hold back.
Chatan screamed; not in pain or fear, but in anger.
A club shot high in the air, and then fell.
That concludes the second chapter of "Hunter of the Masks". I hope you are enjoying the read, and I encourage you to leave a comment whether you like it or not. I am always open to constructive criticism!
That being said, I wanted to take this opportunity to announce that my Sci-Fi Thriller novel "Existence" has been picked up by fledgling indie publisher Primal Publishing. It is currently undergoing another review process, a cover redesign, and a title change to better reflect its nature as a "creature feature". Primal Publishing will specialize in publishing works that focus on Prehistoric monsters like dinosaurs, saber tooth cats, etc. They publish the quarterly "Prehistoric Magazine" and have already released three books in a series by author Mike Esola. I look forward to being the next writer on their roster.
That being said, "Existence" as it is remains up for grabs on Amazon until the new version is done.
I also want to give out a shout out to Rogue Blades Entertainment, who just released "Death's Sting", a Sword and Sorcery anthology that features a story of mine! They will also release "Reach for the Sky", and anthology of western/alien tales that also features a story be me, as well as a cover designed by me.
Lastly, Rogues in the House podcast has had a rough go of it as of late. Life has taken a lot of our free time away, but we are hoping to record an episode tomorrow, so finger's crossed that happens. Our little sampler of Sword and Sorcery poetry is still on sale as well. Those proceeds go straight into the podcast! It's also the only place right now that you can read more about Chatan of Red-Deer Clan, although he is featured in a story to be published later this year in Weirdbook Magazine!
Thanks for reading!
Death's Sting: https://www.amazon.com/Deaths-Sting-Where-Art-Thou-Protagonists-ebook/dp/B084VGSVPX/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1UMIB8C3SIM8H&keywords=death%27s+sting+where+art+thou&qid=1585761888&s=digital-text&sprefix=death%27s+sting%2Cdigital-text%2C199&sr=1-1
Prehistoric Magazine: http://www.prehistoricmagazine.com/
Mike Esola (Primal Publishing): https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Esola/e/B004DSWL4S?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1585762001&sr=1-1