Hunter of the Masks: Part 3
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
“You. Hunter, wake up.”
The words were distant, whispered as though brought to Chatan on ancient winds.
“Wake up or we will both die here.”
No longer a whisper, but the hiss of a snake.
Something struck Chatan; at first a soft nudge, but then a sharp kick. Slowly, consciousness began to trickle back into his addled brain. His mouth was dry as the desert wastes, and he could feel dried blood caked to the side of his skull where he had been struck. It was a pain to open his eyes, and when he finally forced them open, he saw nothing but darkness both natural and human. While he did not recognize the face that stared back at him, he instantly knew he had finally found the man he had been hunting all this time. Chatan rattled his limbs, but they had been tied fast behind him, binding him to the trunk of a dead tree. The other beside him was bound just the same.
“How long have I been out?”
“I am not sure, it was night when I awoke and you were still limp.”
Chatan shook his head, pain throbbing as he did so, but the fog inside his skull began to clear.
“My name is Ashkii” said the killer.
“I do not care to know your name,” answered Chatan bluntly.
“We will both die to these things if we do not find a way out of this.”
The more Chatan studied the features of Ashkii, the more he felt that the man did not look like a killer. He was rail thin, lithe muscle rippling beneath taught, copper hued skin. His hair was black, and his eyes glowed a deep, natural brown in the flicker of a nearby campfire. That he had belonged to one of the nomad tribes of the desert plateau was apparent in his garb, particularly the red cotton band about his forehead. He was younger than Chatan had expected him to be, barely more than a child.
“Where was it that someone so young learned of killing men?” asked Chatan.
“I am no killer.”
“You are a slayer. A taker of innocent lives. I have seen your handy work. I am of half a mind to let these beast-men do what they will with you. There was hunger in their eyes, and I suspect they have a fitting fate in mind.”
“They will kill you as well, Chatan of Red-Deer”.
Chatan glowered at Ashkii, angered at the thought a murderer should know his name.
“How did you know it was I who followed you?”
“I didn’t at first. But I heard from an old woman in Kuras village that you were hunting a man who took the lives of others.”
“I thought you have killed no one, Ashkii.”
“I have not,” the man grew to anger.
“The evidence tells a different tale.”
Ashkii sighed, a deep sorrow reflecting in his eyes.
“They tell stories of you, you know. The hunters and warriors about their fires. A trader from Aztlan spoke of you, how you defy gods. Even the Aesir who travel the mountains and barter in furs sing songs of you. They claim you are a hero.”
Chatan had heard many stories in his travels, but he had never heard one about himself.
“All greatly exaggerated, I am sure.”
“Thought what, boy?”
“I thought you might help me.”
“Why would I help a killer? Besides, what of that friend of yours? The one in the corn.
Where is he hiding and why has he not helped?”
Ashkii hung his head solemnly, seemingly ashamed. For a moment, Chatan thought perhaps his assumptions had be wrong. Perhaps Ashkii was not the man-eater, but someone else.
“There is no help there,” said Ashkii, clearly resigned to his fate.
From just outside of view, Chatan heard the soft hooting speech of the strange men who had taken them captive. Their manner of speaking was indecipherable to him, mere animal calls uttered by inhuman lips.
“They are coming.”
“Yes. And there are many.”
“What are they, Chatan?”
“I do not know,” he replied, shaking his head slightly. “I have seen many strange things, but nothing like these.”
“Perhaps they are men only half-made? Like a potter’s imperfect creation? Or maybe they have escaped from the world beneath?”
Chatan knew all things to be possible, the dark corners of the Earth held many secrets. While his own tribe revered the natural world, the cults of Aztlan venerated gods given human shape, and the Desert Tribes often spoke of ancestor spirits. Even then, nature itself had its own ways, often creating inexplicable things.
“What they are matters little. I am not going to die at their hand,” growled Chatan.
“What is your plan?”
“Silence. Just wait.”
From out of the gloom waddled three squat men, their footsteps barely audible. Their haggard shapes were stunted, twisted and deformed. Their hair was unwashed and matted, and grime covered their skin in scaly patches. There was no mistaking the humanity in them, but as Ashkii had said, they looked incomplete, discarded experiments meant to mimic humanity.
Drawing near they grew silent, standing at the edge of firelight to study their captives. One of the men reached out the shaft of a crudely carved spear and poked at Ashkii while the other two glared silently at Chatan. Then, one of them stepped forward, club in hand. He took hold of Chatan’s bindings and with a wrenching pull, he tore the lashings free. Chatan slumped forward suddenly, unaccustomed to his own weight after being unconscious for so long.
Ashkii fought against the cords, but the effort was futile.
The boy began to curse in his native tongue, drawing the attention of the three creatures.
They hooted angrily.
The man with the club waved the weapon threateningly toward Ashkii, but the boy was alight with rage.
The spear-man jabbed at him threateningly.
The club swung, smacking Ashkii across the skull, blunting the boy’s resolve.
Chatan saw his opportunity and pounced.
Reaching out for the closest man, he wrapped a muscular arm about a thickly corded throat and squeezed like a vice. The creature hooted in frantic gasps as it struggled beneath Chatan’s grasp. As the others turned to see the commotion, Chatan’s free hand wrapped about a dagger of bleached bone at the monster’s hip. Yanking it free, he drove the blade deep into the beast’s throat. Blood gurgled as the beast-thing gulped desperately for air before falling to the dirt.
The other two creatures howled in frightened rage.
Their call was echoed by others far off.
The spear lurched forward, but Chatan moved cat-like to the side. Still, in such close quarters, the tip scraped along his bare midsection, drawing blood.
Chatan gripped the spear shaft with both hands and yanked it free from the creature’s hands. He drove the wooden point deep into the man's gut and tore it free.
The last of the beastmen turned to flee Chatan’s wrath, their strange gait no match for the speed of the plainsman.
Chatan leveled the spear, heaving it outward.
The spear point slammed into the fleeing beast, cutting off a barking howl.
Chatan strode swiftly to the fallen creature, hefting the war club from the blood wet ground.
Raising it above his head, Chatan forced it downward, driving it into the back of the beast’s skull.
“Chatan!” called Ashkii, still tied to the trunk of the tree. “There is no time, let me free!”
The boy was right. The sounds of the other half-men were growing closer. By the sound of it, there were more than just those who had taken Chatan captive earlier that day. Yet, Chatan stood still, contemplating the weight of his options.
If he were to run, the creatures would surely kill Ashkii, completing Chatan’s mission for him.
If Chatan were to let Ashkii go, there was a possibility that the boy would elude him and continue his killing spree.
But there was something in Ashkii’s pleading eyes that gave Chatan pause. They boy had claimed that he was not the killer.
And there was still the question of the other figure that had hidden within the corn stalks.
Chatan moved to the tree, hands deftly untying the crude knots that still bound the boy.
“We have to hurry. They will be on our trail any moment,” said Chatan, hoping that his choices would not come back to haunt him.
Thanks for reading part 3 of "Hunter of the Masks", this time I'd like to give a quick shout out to Niko over at High Tea Comics. Niko approached me at the end of last year asking if I would be interested in writing a script for a couple of comics. Of course I said yes! While the comics themselves are yet to be released, I am excited to to be a part of the headline Sword and Sorcery project. While I can't show anything, I have seen the artwork and it is bomb as hell. It's a trip to see images put next you words.
Anyway, if you haven't done so yet, follow them on Twitter @highteacomics. Once they hit 3,000 followers they are going to do some artwork reveals!
Trust me, you want to see this stuff.