Hunter of the Masks: Part 4
Chatan and Ashkii raced through the darkened forest, weaving through columns of giant pine and broken boulders. Soft, silver moonlight filtered down through the multitude of needle covered branches that acted as a canopy for the undergrowth below. Not knowing where their desperate race had begun, there was no real way to tell which way they should go. All Chatan knew was they needed to find some place to hide. With each frantic footfall, the whooping cries of the enraged half-men grew closer, the ease at which they navigated atop the rocks was seemingly supernatural and no doubt one of the reasons their existence in these mountains had gone unnoticed for so long. Even then, the slow but steady encroachment of the civilized world would have rooted them out sooner or later.
“How much farther, Chatan?” gasped Ashkii.
“Farther to where?” Chatan managed to wheeze.
Ashkii now realized for the first time that there was no plan, only to run.
Out of the dim world rose suddenly a massive misshapen pile of rock, no doubt deposited by some ancient landslide or tumultuous winter avalanche.
“There,” said Ashkii, nearing the end of his rope. The boy’s stride had started strong, but the wound from Chatan’s arrow had once again reopened. Pain lanced through his leg with each desperate footfall and thick red blood flowed freely down his calf. Chatan faired little better, the blow to his skull a throbbing reminder that he had not yet recovered from the violence of his capture.
“We cannot climb it,” said Chatan, slowing to a stop before the natural monument. “We are outmatched in that regard. Besides, you are in no shape to climb.”
“No. Look there.”
Following Ashkii’s pointed finger, Chatan’s eyes were drawn to a slight crevice within the boulders and he understood the boy’s suggestion.
“It might just be large enough. Go!”
Ashkii scrambled inward, pulling himself tightly into the crevice and disappearing into the shadows.
Chatan looked over his shoulder, now able to see the ghostly illumination of the beast-men’s torches.
Following suit, the plainsman slid roughly into the small space, scraping his arms and back against the rough stone as he did. He was larger than Askii, both in height and berth,
making the crack all the more suffocating.
“If they spot us, we are dead men,” whispered Chatan. “There is no escape from this place.”
“Then let us hope they do not.”
“Quiet. They are nearly upon us.”
A rush of muffled footfalls flooded over the stone and scattered detritus about the forest floor. There was no way for Chatan to see from where they hid, but from the sound of it, there were easily a dozen of the strange creatures, maybe more. They stopped briefly, sniffing the air with their broad noses and mumbling incoherently to each other. Chatan’s heart beat in his throat like a drum; so loud was the thrumming that he thought the beasts
Something bellowed out a guttural command, and suddenly there was movement again.
Chatan moved ever so slightly to peek around the lip of their refuge, holding his breath.
There, not a stone’s throw away from where they hid, was one of the strange men of the mountains, evidently refusing to follow the rest of the band. The creature held high a crude torch in one hand as he knelt, inspecting the earth. Instantly, Chatan recognized what had given the creature pause.
“What? What is it?”
“Quiet,” whispered Chatan, harshly.
The half-man stood, again sniffing the air about him. It turned toward the crevice but did not appear to see the pair in hiding. It was not much different than the others in shape or size, although it appeared broader across the shoulder. Whether it was an illusion created by the ragged black bear skin draped like a cowl over the thing or a reflection of the man’s strength, Chatan could not say for sure. In the hand opposite the torch, was a bone club fashioned from the jawbone of some animal, not unlike the one Chatan held in his. Across the malformed face of the creature was a splash of chalk colored mud, a war paint of sorts, causing Chatan to wonder what the beast had done to deserve a marking like that.
The beast laid its black eyes upon the crevice.
Chatan held his breath, fingers wrapping tighter about the haft of his scavenged club.
It took a wavering step towards them, then another.
Bracing himself for the inevitable attack, Chatan swore under his breath.
Suddenly, a loud, barking call echoed from somewhere in the distance, catching the creature’s attention. It snorted in something akin to annoyance, and leapt on spring muscles into the rocks, disappearing into the night.
“Are we in the clear?” asked Ashkii, hesitantly.
“I believe so but wait just a moment.”
Chatan pulled himself out of the crevice ever so slightly, watching the darkness intently for the sign of any more of their pursuers. Taking a deep breath, he slowed his heart and listened. No longer did he hear the hoops and hollers of the beast-men, leaving only the night sounds of the mountainside to fill the void. Satisfied that that were alone, he pulled himself out of the crack ever so slowly, doing his best to remain as silent as possible. Freeing himself from the grip of stone, he winced, feeling fresh blood trickle warm down the muscles on his back. He turned to Ashkii, now peeking out from within the hiding spot and gestured him onward.
“It is safe. Come out, but slowly. Quietly.”
Askii nodded, beginning to inch forward.
From out of the darkness came a vicious growl.
Chatan’s eyes darted about the scene, his wild senses ablaze, but there was nothing. Then suddenly, it dawned on him. Turning around ever so slowly, he looked upward to the pinnacle of the boulders in which they had hidden.
He had been tricked.
With the force of a falling tree, the beast-man fell upon Chatan, knocking him to the ground.
Ashkii yelled out, forcing himself from the rock, but the stone would not let him go. The more he tugged, the faster he was stuck, his cotton tunic snagged on some rocky protrusion within the crack.
Chatan planted a foot firmly into the creature’s chest, kicking him backward just far enough to be able to find his footing, but the beast would not relent.
It lunged at Chatan, swinging its club wildly.
The warrior swerved, the club glancing from his shoulder, sending a resounding pang through his bones. Bringing his own weapon around, Chatan lashed out but the creature had been prepared for the retaliation. Both weapons cracked together, sending splinters of bone raking across bare skin. The force of the impact sent vibrations rippling through Chatan’s arm, chasing away whatever feeling remained. A surge of desperate rage welled up within him, driving him forward like a wild thing.
A clubbed fist smashed the beast-man across the jaw.
While the creature staggered from the blow, Chatan drove the jagged stump of the sundered weapon deep into the wild man’s shoulder.
Hot crimson gushed from the grievous wound, but still the creature came.
It fell again upon Chatan, beating him downward and back onto the ground. Thick hands wrapped about Chatan’s neck as the two tumbled in the dirt. Driving a knee upward, Chatan attempted to beat back the creature, but it only grimaced and snarled, tightening his grip about the warrior’s throat. Shooting forward like a dart, Chatan smashed his forehead into the beast-man’s nose. Brilliant stars bloomed in his head and Chatan’s vision swam. The creature’s nose had broken, sending a torrent of blood running down the brutish visage, but the beast appeared to hardly notice.
With monstrous force, Chatan was slammed backward, his head pounding against the dirt.
He struggled to find something to grab ahold of, anything that he could use as a weapon, but suddenly his limbs refused to listen.
The half-man slammed Chatan down again.
Ashkii, screamed in fury, but was still stuck fast.
Chatan felt the creature let go of him, but the world had gone black. He hadn’t even been able to feel the hard thud of his head coming to rest on the earth.
“Chatan!” screamed Ashkii. “Chatan, get up!”
Giving it as much effort as he could muster, Chatan attempted to appease the boy’s request, but to no avail.
The creature turned toward the trapped boy, snarling with bloodlust. Wavering slightly from the struggle, it glowered cruelly at Ashkii, made all the more grotesque from the sheets of red that drenched its bestial form.
There was another scream, but not that of the boy. It was a horrifying cry of animal fear, cut off sharply by a thick, wet burble.
Chatan struggled against gravity to push himself upright. His head was a thunderous riot of pain, but he knew the night was not done. Willing his eyes to open again, adrenaline flooded into his veins as he struggled to understand the scene set out before him.
Ashkii was frozen in fear, still wedged within the crevice.
The beast-man lay flat upon his back, a pool of spreading blood beneath him, eyes open in unblinking horror.
Atop the man’s chest was something else, something that Chatan had few words to describe. It was man-like, but the resemblance ended there. Its limbs were long and slender, stretched to hideous proportions. It was perched upon the half-man’s chest like a carrion bird upon a carcass, and hunched unnaturally low, lapping freed blood from a torn gash in the throat of its prey.
Ashkii’s eyes met Chatan’s and he recognized a look of apology in the boy’s eyes.
The creature ceased its wet feeding and looked up at Ashkii, cocking its shaggy head like a dog. Its neck stretched and turned backward with horrifying abnormality, looking Chatan directly in the eyes. Hollow, unblinking orbits sat deep within the sunken sockets of a featureless face, a long tongue slipping from a mouth lined with ragged teeth. Thick, matted hair hung sickly from atop a curiously domed skull.
Chatan was sure he had seen that face before.
It was a face that had haunted his dreams.
A face that would haunt the dreams of too many others, following them even into the great beyond.
The face both distant and all too familiar, was the face Chatan had found in Ashkii’s masks.
Phew. This one was a doozy. If you hadn't noticed, I have been posting each part immediately after I finish writing them. I give them a quick edit, but I don't focus on it too much (although I probably should). I am what the writing community calls a "Pantster", meaning I write from the seat of pants. I'll admit that it does come back to bite when I aim for longer works where outlining is required, but I often look at the writing process as an adventure in and of itself. I am along for the ride just as much as you are. I typically start out with a little seed of inspiration and then let it flow.
Anyways, I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am.
And prepare for tomorrow for what is setting up to be a blood drenched climax!