Kerrik stumbled as the guardsman prodded him with his baton, urging him to move more quickly with a liberal application of foul language and unflattering remarks about the kobold’s mother. He might have taken offense if everything the elf said wasn’t true. Well, except for that last bit about lying with pigs. His mother didn’t care at all for pork. He would have pointed out the fact that the brush underfoot was making it even more difficult to walk in leg irons than usual, but he thought that would have just won him a jab to his other kidney. So he trudged along in silence, doing his best to keep pace with the much longer strides of the elf guardsman. The other five prisoners all showed similar mixed emotions. He supposed second thoughts were bound to arise when faced with the imminent reality of a life or death run through an unfamiliar forest with a pack of slavering hounds on your heels. The executioner’s blade seemed almost inviting compared to the thought of dismemberment. Still, long odds for freedom sounded better to Kerrik than the surety of his head rolling across the flagstones in the prison yard at dawn. He’d never been a morning person.
His doubts about the wisdom of throwing in his bid to run in the wild hunt returned with gut wrenching intensity as he watched the Dark Huntsman ride into the clearing on the fringe of the Huntsman’s Forest, followed closely by his nine Riders and a pack of lean, ghost white hounds that pooled around his horse like mist. A dozen black braids cascaded over the midnight cloak that flowed like mist around his unmarked, black hunting leathers. The Huntsman made a small gesture and the hounds sat in a ring around him, watching their master in silent expectation. He looked from one to another of the assembled riders until his gaze fell on the Winter Queen and her party, something in his yellow eyed gaze hinted at satisfaction with their presence. The Huntsman bowed solemnly to the Winter Queen, welcoming her and her retinue as witnesses to the ancient rite of the wild hunt.
The Huntsman called for the runners to be brought forth. Kerrik and the others were herded into line before the Huntsman, sparks from their spellcrafted shackles hovering around them like fireflies in the deepening dusk.
One of the riders nudged his horse forward and addressed the prisoners. “You, the condemned have drawn lots and six have been granted the right to run before the wild hunt. Some will fall to the hounds, but the first one to touch the blessed stone on Huntsman’s Hill shall win pardon. Any survivors who remain will join the Huntsman’s company. His lordship, the Dark Huntsman will now confirm that the runners are fit for the honor of running before the hunt.”
The Dark Huntsman dismounted and walked the line of prisoners, his pitiless golden eyes searching for any sign of weakness. He looked Kerrik up and down and asked, “Do you choose the trial of the Hunt over the frozen blade wielded by the Queen’s headsman?”
“I do,” Kerrik replied, forcing himself to meet the Huntsman’s gaze.
One by one, they all accepted the last, desperate bid for life. Some put on a show of bravado to hide fear. The two red caps licked their lips in anticipation of the run, just as Kerrik expected. He’d heard that these two were fine examples of the murderous species of lesser goblins, their caps soaked in the blood of many victims. The amanojaku bared his tusks as he looked around at his fellows, obviously calculating ways he might shift the odds in his favor. Kerrik knew he’d have to keep an eye on that one. The lone elf stood apart from the others, his wary gaze focused on the pack of hounds. The raksha mage regarded the others with undisguised disdain. Kerrik’s lip curled and he spat. Just his luck the bastard who’d landed him in jail had been chosen to run. Perhaps the hounds would tear out his liver. Kerrik turned his attention back to the Huntsman, watching him closely as one of the riders removed his shackles.
“You will run in two groups of three,” The Huntsman said. He pointed to the elf and the pair of red caps. “You three shall run at the first sounding of the horn. The rest of you shall run at the second peal.”
“Begging pardon, milord,” the amanojaku said, bowing deeply, “but won’t that give these others unfair advantage over us?”
The Huntsman looked down at the small ogre. His eyes gleamed gold and his voice scraped Kerrik’s nerves like a razor. “The Huntsman chooses the order of the run. You dare question the Huntsman’s wisdom?”
“Certainly not, milord.” The amanojaku’s obsequious bow did not move the Huntsman. “This poor fellow only seeks to understand the mind of the great one who holds this one’s pitiful fate in his hands.”
“You are incorrect. The Huntsman wields no power over the runners. Each one weaves his own fate through his choices and actions.” The Huntsman looked directly at each of the runners. “You are here by choice. You will live or die tonight as you choose. The hunt is but the instrument of destiny, giving form to the choices you make.” His disturbing gaze returned to the amanojaku. “A bit of advice, trickster. The Huntsman and those who ride to the hunt are immune to your mind tricks. Don’t try them on us.”
Raw power rolled off the Huntsman in waves as he flicked his fingers and the amanojaku recoiled as if he had been struck. The Huntsman turned away and leapt into his saddle in a single, fluid motion. He raised his hunting horn to his lips and blew a note that echoed across the plain for a full minute before fading. Looking down at the elf and red caps, he hissed, “Run! Run for your lives!”
Kerrik and the others grew restless as the minutes passed, awaiting their signal. At last, one of the Huntsman’s riders thumped the ground with his lance. The Huntsman raised his horn for the second time. Kerrik sprinted into the gloomy forest with all the agility and speed of a master thief, leaving the others far behind.
At last, the Huntsman raised his hunting horn for the third time and let loose a long, wailing tone. Fair warning to the runners. The hounds joined in, their howls an eerie counterpoint to the horn’s cry. They looked to their master and then they were gone, chasing the scent of their prey in the darkening forest. Seizing the reins, the Huntsman turned his horse’s head and cried, “Ride! To the Hunt we ride!”
The Huntsman and his riders led the way, followed closely by the Fey riders. They wound through the forest, close on the trail of the baying hounds. Every so often, a rider would glimpse one of the white, skeletal creatures and then it would be gone, obscured by the dense patches of undergrowth. Their mounts leapt over downed logs sprouting crops of moss and dodged saplings eager to take their place among the giants that lifted their limbs to form the canopy far overhead, running with unerring certainty of their link to the pack running ahead of them. The horses became the Huntsman’s creatures, their eyes flashing red and nostrils flaring as they fairly flew through the forest. The riders were only passengers and witnesses to the unfolding contest between the runners and fate.
The baying of the hounds suddenly took on the note of urgency signaling that they had sight of their prey. The Huntsman sounded his horn again and the Hunt increased its breakneck pace. They burst into a clearing where the nine hounds surrounded the hapless elf. The man had his back against an ancient oak. Magic flared around his hands and the hounds danced back, out of range of the weak bolts he threw to keep them at bay. When he looked up and saw the Huntsman and his riders, his shoulders sagged in defeat and he fell to his knees.
Emboldened at the sight of their master, the slavering hounds closed in, surrounding their prey. Then the Huntsman launched himself from his saddle, transforming in mid-air into a huge black hound. He touched down and padded forward as the pack made way for him. Straddling the fallen prisoner, the hound looked into the man’s eyes and something seemed to pass between them. The elf nodded once and closed his eyes, turning his head to expose his neck. The black hound sank his fangs into the man’s throat and blood fountained from the wound. Then the hound raised his head and howled a mournful tone reminiscent of the Huntsman’s horn. He turned and walked away while the rest of the pack closed in for their frenzied feast.
The riders watched with satisfaction as the hounds savaged the elf’s corpse. The Huntsman resumed his other form from one step to the next and mounted his horse. As soon as he did so, the hounds backed away from their victim, turning to watch their master. The sound of the horn set them running again.
The red caps crawled through the underbrush and emerged in a small clearing that was completely surrounded by sharp-barbed briars. A spreading oak stood at the center of the clearing. Bedhric rose to his feet and swiped at the leaves and dirt that covered his hands and clothes. Ledhric chuckled at his brother’s fastidious ways, though he could not really criticize him since he was the one who kept their blades sharp and clean, ever ready to slit the throats of their prey. For his part, Ledhric thought he did quite well at finding them ready quarry that wouldn’t leave a trail to their door.
Except that last one. The old woman had marked them before she died and he hadn’t seen it. The mark had led the Queen’s guards right to them, landing them on the headsman’s list until the Hunt had come their way. Others counted them lucky to have made the short list but Bedhric had had a hand in that, trading an inmate’s life for a spot on the list. That guard had wanted revenge and they delivered it for him. Bedhric licked his lips and fingered his cap to better recall the moment. Tasty, bloody revenge it was, too.
“We fooled that elf, didn’t we, Ledhric?” Bedhric asked, grinning.
“Like a babe led to slaughter,” Ledhric replied, grinning. “I still can’t believe he was so gullible to think we’d send him on a track that led him away from the Hunt. What a fool.”
“I heard them closing in. The hounds made short work of him, I’ll warrant. Still, we must thank him for buying us time to find this spot.”
“True, Brother. I think this a good place for an ambush,” Ledhric looked around. “What do you think, the bait and blade?”
Bedhric looked up at the tree. He was a fair climber and it looked to be an easy one to scale. “I think that gambit will do, Brother. I’ll climb, you go to ground.”
Bedhric scrambled up the tree, sinking his hooked claws into the soft bark and pulling himself high enough that the hounds couldn’t jump and reach him. By the time he settled on a branch and looked down, his brother had made himself a fine nest of rotting leaves and dirt that looked undisturbed. He couldn’t mask his scent but they were betting on Bedhric’s loud and obvious distraction to give them the few moments needed to turn the tables on the dogs. They didn’t have long to wait.
The lead hound followed their carefully laid track, scrambled out from under the brambles and made for the red cap he saw clinging to the branch ten feet up the tree, cringing in apparent fear. The hound howled and leapt at the tree, falling far short of Bedhric’s perch. While the hound shifted from foot to foot, trying to puzzle a way up, Ledhric emerged from his hiding place and struck. Their blades had been taken from them when they were imprisoned but no red cap worth the blood on his head needed a weapon other than his claws to finish a hound. Ledhric gutted the cur in two swift strikes and sank back into his hiding place, gathering the camouflage about him again.
Two more hounds clawed their way into the clearing and rushed the tree. One suffered the same fate as the first hound as Ledhric attacked and rolled around with him, claws sinking deep while the hound snapped at his face. Bedhric dropped from his perch, breaking the third hound’s back as he reached around to spill its entrails on the forest floor. Dipping their long fingers in the blood of the hounds, they pulled off their caps and smeared the blood on them to mark their kills.
The rest of the hound pack emerged from beneath the brambles, spread out and surrounded the red caps. Snarling, they closed in. Bedhric raised his head, drunk on the scent of blood. He looked over at his brother and saw blood madness that matched his own. Bellowing his battle cry, he launched himself at the nearest hound. Focused as he was, he didn’t sense the other two hounds closing ranks behind him. He gasped when one of them sank its fangs into the back of his neck, severing his spinal cord. He barely felt it when they tore him apart, though it seemed to take a long time to die.
The Huntsman’s horse cleared the brambles and landed lightly in the clearing, closely followed by the rest of the hunt. They held their horses in check, waiting respectfully as the Huntsman bowed his head. There was blood everywhere, the dismembered bodies of the red caps and three dead hounds surrounded by the rest of the pack. Two of their number were wounded. A rider dismounted and cast a healing net over the two injured beasts.
“These red caps were worthy adversaries, cunning and swift. A pity they could not control their blood madness, for it ended them. It is the curse of their species.” The Huntsman looked down at the remains of the red caps and his hounds for a long moment. Then he lifted his face to the sky and howled in mourning. The remaining hounds joined him in a chorus for their fallen mates. The earth beneath the dead beasts opened up, swallowing the hounds’ corpses, and closed again. Then the Huntsman opened the bramble wall with a gesture and the hounds ran. He spurred his horse and followed.
Kerrik ducked under a low-hanging branch and rolled, coming to his feet without losing pace. He could hear the raksha mage gasping and cursing as he struggled to keep up. Kerrik snorted. The day a raksha could outrun a kobold, he’d resign from the thieves’ guild. He’d been dodging the city guard since he was old enough to snitch blood apples off the fruit vendor’s cart. Of course, the forest offered more challenging terrain than the back streets of Liethar, he thought, pushing his way through a tangled mess of brush that snatched at his clothes and scratched his bare arms. He swore creatively as he emerged on an unexpected open patch of ground at the base of a massive tree. He could see the reason for the absence of underbrush. The ancient tree’s dense, tangled branches shaded the area so completely that the only thing growing under it was a fine crop of fungus. The ground was slippery with the spongy stuff, forcing him to move with care.
He crouched and turned to look back at the rustling noise behind him, relaxing when he saw it was only the amanojaku pushing his way into the clearing. He spat and continued picking a path around the tree. If he had his way, he’d rather have run with the red caps than the lesser oni. He didn’t have anything against greater oni as long as they weren’t trying to kill him. And he made sure never to give one of the huge, red-skinned ogres a reason to take his kanabō out of its sheath. He rather liked the brutes. You knew where you stood with oni warriors, who followed a rigid code that made them as predictable as sunrise. By contrast, an amanojaku was night to the oni’s day. It was as if the gods took all the traits the red giants lacked and poured them into their smaller kin in a concentrated stew of treachery, chicanery and contrariness for its own sake. He had learned early to give them a wide berth and never to believe a word they said.
“Good kobold, wait up,” the amanojaku said, scuttling across the slimy fungus to walk beside Kerrik. “I must speak with you.”
Kerrik sighed and gave the amanojaku an unfriendly look. He didn’t expect to scare him off but he hoped to cut off pointless conversation. “We’ve got nothing to talk about.”
“Ah, but Ando only means to help you, good kobold.” He pressed his hands to his breast with an expression of fatuous sincerity. “You need to know that the raksha mage means you harm.”
The amanojaku’s obsequious posture did nothing to endear him to Kerrik. It just confirmed his already low opinion of the fellow. Kerrik scoffed and kept walking.
“Did you not understand me?”
“I understood well enough.” Kerrik cast a look of utter contempt over his shoulder at Ando. “I don’t see why you think that’s news to me.”
Ando affected an air of amazement at Kerrik’s perspicacity. “I should have known a great thief such as yourself would be one step ahead of a traitorous raksha. Truly, you are a man of wisdom.”
Kerrik stopped and turned toward Ando, his hands on his hips. “What do you want, ehrtherich?”
Ando blinked at the epithet and his eyes narrowed for a moment before he resumed his air of foolish adoration. Kerrick was impressed with Ando’s self-control. He’d have gone for the throat if someone called him a demon-sucking slime worm. “I cannot quarrel with your skepticism, good kobold. I must admit to selfish motivation, since I am ill-fitted to defend myself from the likes of the raksha mage. But if we work together, I am sure we can beat him to the stone.”
“Really? And how will we decide who will touch it when we get there? There’s only one winner in this race and I don’t fancy the consolation prize. Are you volunteering to be bound in servitude to the Huntsman? Personally, I have no intention of letting him turn me into a dog, despite the convenience of being able to lick my own balls. I rather prefer this form.”
“Life in any form is better than death at the raksha’s hands,” Ando said.
“Great. You distract him and I’ll run for the hill. If he doesn’t kill you, you get a master who suits your nature. I’m sure the Huntsman will enjoy your company.”
“No, you must listen!” Ando grabbed at Kerrik’s sleeve, a desperate note in his voice.
Survival instincts honed over a lifetime spent on the streets kicked in and Kerrik threw himself into a forward roll just as a bolt of flame incinerated the patch of fungus where he had been standing. Kerrik rolled to his feet and looked across the clearing. The raksha mage scowled as he conjured a larger ball of fire. Having lost the element of surprise, the mage was going for a wide area destruction spell that would undoubtedly cook him and the treacherous amanojaku both.
He turned and ran toward the looming hedge on the other side of the clearing, slipping and sliding on the slimy surface. He wasn’t going to make it; his footing was too unsure. His only chance was a leap of faith. Offering a hasty prayer to all the gods, Kerrik threw himself down and slid the remaining distance on his belly. He covered his head with his arms, crashing into the base of the hedge and scrambling to get under it. He squirmed and wriggled along, heedless of the damage the sharp spines of the hedge were doing to his back. It seemed an eternity but was only a few seconds before he emerged on the other side, where he lay panting for a moment while he caught his breath.
He heard the amanojaku cry out and then a sweeping curtain of intense flame began eating through the hedge. Damned mage was willing to burn the forest down to get him. Kerrik found his feet and ran like six demon lords were on his tail. He’d run half a mile before he stopped long enough to put his back against an oak and catch a few gasping breaths. It was that or fall on his arse. The Winter Queen’s dungeon masters didn’t waste much food on the condemned, so his stamina was at a low ebb. Looking back he could see that the fire had crawled through the wood until it reached a dryad’s copse about a hundred yards from his position. Three dryads stood in a line, holding back the flames with their magic. Kerrik wondered how long they’d be able to hold an enchanted fire. He decided not to wait around to find out, sucked in a lungful of air and stumbled on his way toward the hill and freedom.
The trees thinned out and the ground began to slope upward, so he knew he was closing in on the hill. That was when the stinking midget oni struck. Between one step and the next, Kerrik hit the ground, trussed up like a winter feast hog in glowing bonds. He thrashed around to no avail as Ando approached him and bowed.
“So good to see you again, my friend. I regret that you will not be with us when we reach the hilltop, though I take comfort in the thought that you would not wish to be bound to the Huntsman in any case. It is my great joy to fulfill your last wish. But don’t despair, you shall dine with the thieves of legend this night.” Ando bowed deeply. “Regrettably, I was forced to choose between you. My lord mage promises to deliver me from the Huntsman’s clutches.”
“Nice work, Ando,” the raksha said. He kicked Kerrik in the side, eliciting a grunted curse. The raksha smiled with satisfaction as the thief thrashed about ineffectually. “You see, little thief? I win. I would have taken care of you myself, but the Huntsman bound my talent so I can’t raise a proper matrix. I’m limited to minor magics only marginally stronger than a Brùnaidh’s hearth magic. So glad to finally remove your thorn from my side. If you had just died like I expected you to do back in Liethar, none of this would have happened. Ah well, better late than never. Come, Ando, let us go.”
“As you wish, lord mage,” Ando said, trotting after the raksha.
Kerrik watched with perverse interest as the amanojaku surreptitiously began to weave a spell. The little bastard was certainly living down to his expectations. The raksha had better watch his back with that one. They walked out of Kerrik’s range of vision and he fell back, taking stock of his situation. The spellbonds were really solid. No matter how he tested them, they remained as immovable as steel. He was pretty much good as dead, unless he could somehow elude the Hunt until the raksha touched the stone. He didn’t like the idea of spending eternity as a mutt but he was rather fond of living. Staring up at the stars winking through the dappled canopy overhead, he considered his options.
Kobolds weren’t particularly gifted with general magic, their abilities tending to run along the lines of thievery and elusiveness. There was nothing to steal and he didn’t see how he could elude anyone in his current condition. Inspiration struck and he rolled his eyes at his own thick-headedness. If he’d had a free hand, he’d have slapped his head like his old da used to do. A few feet from his position, the ground sloped down to the stream he’d run along on the way up the hill. The Huntsman’s hounds were great trackers but he was willing to bet they were no better than dogs at tracking someone in the water.
He took a deep breath and dug into the ground with his heels, pushing himself onto his belly. He began inching like a worm toward the crest of the slope. He paused to catch his breath, thinking it wasn’t as easy as it had seemed in his head. Since his legs were bound, he couldn’t push in a straight line because his knees didn’t bend like an inchworm’s body. He was forced to correct course with each move in a painstaking zigzag toward his goal. By the time he reached the crest of the hill, he was exhausted but the distant baying of hounds motivated him to keep moving. He took a look over the edge of the slope. Funny, it hadn’t looked that steep on the way up and he’d forgotten about all the rocks embedded in the hillside. Ah well. The only way to get to the bottom was to roll like a log and hope he didn’t break anything on the way down. Gritting his teeth, he rocked back and forth until he toppled over the edge.
The trip down the hillside was everything he’d expected. By the time he reached the bottom of the hill, he felt like a well tenderized cherein loin, having hit every rock and exposed root along the way. Slamming his head against a rock near the bottom of the slope was the final indignity. He was thankful he hadn’t lost consciousness since his momentum carried him straight into the frigid stream, face down. He barrel-rolled and jerked his head above the surface, spitting and coughing. He’d made it. Now all he had to do was push himself into the middle of the current and let it carry him far enough downstream to confuse the dogs when they came looking for him. If they thought they’d lost the scent, they’d give up on him and go after the amanojaku and the raksha.
Then he heard the long, wailing howl of the lead hound from somewhere near the top of the slope. He held himself very still, terror lending him strength to control his shivering body. If the hounds followed his trail down to the stream, they’d have him. He’d run out of time. Twisting his head around, Kerrik searched desperately for another option. The stream was fairly deep and it widened a little way downstream, flowing around a clutch of boulders that crouched like a gang of mineral trolls around a pool. He might be able to wedge himself between two rocks and hope the water masked his scent until the dogs passed.
He kicked and rolled until the current caught him and carried him along like so much flotsam, taking him directly toward the rocks. He hadn’t taken into account the fact that flotsam didn’t need to breathe. He caught a quick breath as the current rolled him over again. He didn’t dare try to right himself for fear his actions would throw him off course. So he held his breath and tried to ignore his screaming lungs.
Luck was with him as the current pushed him into the rocks. Undulating like a mermaid, he maneuvered between two boulders into the middle of the relatively calm pool, put his back against a rock and rolled into a somewhat upright position. He was too buoyant to sink without his hands to aid him. He needed to anchor his body but how? Inspiration carried him between two of the boulders. Pressing his back against one, he used his drawn up knees to inch down until he was submerged. He confirmed that he could poke his nose up to catch a breath of air without too much trouble. It wouldn’t save him from turning furry when the raksha touched the stone but he wouldn’t end the night as dog food. Lesser of evils. And as long as he lived, he could try to figure a way to dodge the Huntsman, he thought, feeling hopeful. Then a weed covered head broke the surface of the pool and hope popped like a foam bubble. The creature smiled at the sight of him, showing a row of very sharp, black teeth. She squealed with pleasure.
“Oooh, a gift for me. It isn’t even my birthday.” She turned her head and brushed at the slimy weeds draping her bald scalp as she peered at him with pouting lips. “Do you like what you see? I can make your dreams come true.”
“Nightmares more like,” Kerrik grumbled. “You can drop the act, Nix.”
“How did you recognize me?” The nix pressed a knobby green hand against her chest in outrage. “No one can see me until I let them.”
Kerrik raised an eyebrow. “Surprise. Joke’s on you this time, Nix.”
“Don’t call me that!” She rolled her shoulder up to her ear, offended. Then she gave him a narrow look, leaning in close enough that he could smell the fish and rotting vegetation on her breath. “How did you see me?”
“Maybe you’re losing your touch.”
“No, that’s not it.” She continued to stare at him and then her too large eyes widened and she nodded with a look of smug satisfaction. “Oh, you belong to my lord.” She chittered and sighed. “I should have seen his mark on you.”
“Mark?” Kerrik asked.
“My lord marks all his runners so he doesn’t lose them.” She preened, pleased to show off her knowledge.
“He knows where I am?” he said, sagging back against the rock as a wave of despair came over him. If he knew the runners’ locations, he could run until Marabh’s Hell froze and the Huntsman could come pluck him up any time. This entire run was a sham and the Huntsman was having a great laugh at the runners’ expense.
“What would be the fun in that?” she asked. A feral parody of lust colored her cheeks viridian and brightened her eyes as she spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s the chase that’s so much fun, after all. Wondering if this one or that one will manage to escape makes it all worthwhile. That and the kisses.” She paused and Kerrik knew she wasn’t speaking of the wild hunt. “And the eating isn’t bad either.”
She laughed, a throaty sound like water tumbling over rocks. He shuddered, thinking he would never hear that sound again with innocent pleasure. She didn’t seem to notice and stroked his cheek again.
“But you can’t play with one bearing your lord’s mark,” he said, realizing he might be able to turn this to his advantage. He affected a look of disappointment. “Such a pity. We could have had some fun together before I go to my inevitable fate. Maybe we still could.” Holding his breath against the stench of fish and rot, he leaned close to her ear and murmured, “As long as I’m going to die, I might as well go out with a smile on my face.”
She framed her face with her hands, lust warring with the Huntsman’s prohibition. A wistful expression softened her eyes and then she shook her head. “No. I must not go against his wishes.” She ran a finger along Kerrik’s jaw and sighed. “Though I admit it would be so enjoyable to take one who knows what I am.”
“I do and I find you compelling,” he replied in a husky tone that masked the gibbering horror that clawed at his guts. She was one large, hideous package. It was no wonder she had to cloak herself in glamour and lure unwary fishermen and hunters to her pond. He wondered for a moment if a male nix would have her. The thought was enough to make a man swear off sex permanently. “I don’t think the Huntsman would begrudge us this small pleasure.”
“Perhaps my lord intended you as a gift for me. He did present you all wrapped up in a neat package.” She ran a long, bony finger down his chest and sighed. “It would be so easy to carry you under the water to my nest. You could meet all my other lovers. They aren’t too talkative but they are steadfast in their devotion. I do treasure them but after a while, one does long for a warm embrace.” The Nix draped her arms across his shoulders. “Now, about that kiss—”
Kerrik swallowed hard, picturing himself lying among the skeletons of her victims in her watery lair. Life as a hound suddenly became far more appealing. Focus. He had to keep her entertained until the Huntsman caught up to him. The blood-sucking hounds must be getting close by now. Even a blind athach could follow such an obvious trail. It wouldn’t take them long to realize he had floated downstream.
She clutched him to her breast and kissed him, running her fingers through his hair. Wonder of wonders, he held still when she playfully ran her tongue over his lower tusks. He involuntarily let his jaw drop and she seized the invitation, invading his mouth with enthusiasm. The taste of rotten fish mixed with foul mud overwhelmed his control and he jerked away, gagging and coughing.
“Liar,” she shrieked, eyes narrowing. “You said you desired me. You’re just like all the other traitorous, faithless men! I’ll show you no one toys with me!” And with that, she dove beneath the surface, caught his fettered legs and dragged him under.
Kerrik closed his mouth, thrashing in an effort to break her hold. He had no more luck with that than he’d had breaking his spellbindings. She was strong and swimming fast, taking him deep into the pool. Then she changed direction, hauling him into a narrow tunnel that must lead to her lair. His heart sank. Bound as he was, even if she released him, he couldn’t make it back to the surface before he drowned. He locked his jaw, holding his mouth shut against his body’s increasing demand to breathe. She swam on, drawing him along until the tunnel widened into a flooded chamber, lit by a faint glow from above. She pushed him up under the domed ceiling and he gasped, gulping air as his head broke the surface of the water. The light came from a sort of chimney of tumbled rocks that let in a little air as well. By some trick of magic, it carried the baying of the hounds quite clearly into her lair. He realized that the nix must listen for unsuspecting passersby here.
“That’s right, take a good, deep breath,” she swam close to him and hissed, “It’s the last one you’ll take.”
She towed him back under water and maneuvered him into a position against the wall. Swimming backward, she looked at him with satisfaction. Something sharp poked him in the ribs and he moved away, looking to see what it was. He almost opened his mouth when he saw the row of skeletons arranged along the wall, still wearing tattered bits of clothing and rusted armor, their empty eye sockets staring at nothing. No, not nothing, he thought with horror. He turned and looked across the room, where the nix reclined on a flat rock in a perverse parody of sensual allure. He had joined the ranks of her worshipful suitors, all arrayed for her everlasting enjoyment. Thanks to that scum amanojaku, he wouldn’t even be able to fight her off when she began to eat him.
No matter. He’d drown himself before he’d give her the satisfaction of live prey. Her gaze fixed on him like some delicious morsel. She swam over to him and looked him over, then she opened her mouth, flashing a lot of very sharp teeth and proceeded to tear his shirt open. He struggled involuntarily against the touch of her fingers on his skin, though he knew it was futile. He was about to suck in a large lungful of water to end to his life when he realized that his hands and legs were no longer bound.
He was so surprised, he almost inhaled. Instead, he pushed the nix away and turned to swim for the exit. He felt her fingers close around his right ankle and she pulled him back. He rolled over, caught the look of murder in her eyes and knew he had to do something fast. He was no match for her in water. She could outswim him and hold him down until he drowned. She dragged him back to the place she’d chosen for him and pinned him against her trophy wall, clearly intending to go with drowning before dining.
He lashed out but his blow lacked momentum and she brushed it aside. It was hopeless to fight her underwater. Then his fingers brushed a familiar shape on the floor beside him. Seizing the dagger, he swung it up and buried it deep in the nix’s chest. Her mouth opened in surprise and blood flowed out, mixing with the water as her grip on him relaxed. He kicked off the wall and swam up to catch a breath under the dome. Then he dove for the tunnel and swam as fast as he could.
He hauled himself up on a flat rock among the cluster of boulders and lay panting, his heart pounding in the aftermath of terror and near drowning. He sat up and listened for the pack but the forest was quiet. Evidently, the hounds had lost his scent and gone in search of the others. Small favor. Kerrik ran the back of his hand across his mouth and spat in an effort to rid himself of the foul taste of the nix’s kiss. He might end this night as a hound but before he did, he had a bone to pick with that stinking amanojaku. He shoved the dagger he’d taken from the corpse in the nix’s lair into his belt and dove off the rock, swimming upstream.
By the time he crawled up on shore and began trudging up the slope, he was plotting his next move. He couldn’t figure out why the amanojaku would have released the binding spell. He had to know that Kerrik would come after him. It made no sense but he was never one to spit in Pielith’s eye. The patron of thieves had done him a few good turns this night, a comforting thought in light of the odds stacked against him. He’d been swearing earlier while he waded through the icy stream and scrambled up the steep incline. Remarkable how a man’s perspective changed when a barghest was hunting him. That stream had just become his favorite feature in this whole Vanad cursed forest. Even the nix had served his purpose, for all that she tried to gut him like a carp. By dragging him down to her lair, she’d neatly covered his tracks, leaving the hounds to chase different prey.
He found the tracks of his fellow prisoners and followed them. He’d only gone a few hundred yards when he heard the unmistakable sound of the Huntsman’s rally horn and froze. It sounded from some little way ahead of him, followed by the baying of hounds and then the sounds receded into the distance. He relaxed. They were running ahead of him, hot on the others’ trail. He followed, figuring he might as well let the Hunt lead him to them. He was so caught up in contemplating the way he was going to fillet the amanojaku that he almost tripped over his corpse. The hounds had made short work of him. The oni lay on his back, mouth slack and eyes fixed on nothing in the way of the dead. Looking more closely, he realized that Ando had been staked out for the hounds, his hands and feet pinned to the ground by thick vines. The Hunt didn’t go in for this kind of thing. The Huntsman liked a straight up chase and catch, no trickery. However, it was just the sort of thing that stinking raksha mage would do. After he used Ando to take Kerrik out of the race, he turned on his minion and left him to the dogs. Kerrik’s fingers closed around the hilt of his dagger and he swore with sincerity and creativity. He had really wanted to gut the little oni but staking him out for the hounds was a cheap, puppet master’s ploy.
The raksha had manipulated the amanojaku and discarded him. Just like he’d used Kerrik as his foil for that disastrous job. It had landed him in the Queen’s dungeon on deathwatch because the raksha decided to kill a couple of guardsmen. Any thief worth his lockpicks knew you didn’t hurt people if you wanted to live a long life. Get in, get the goods, get out. That was the way it was done, for the very reason that the Queen’s guards took a very dim view of murder. It rankled even more that he’d been duped by the raksha like an eight-year-old pickpocket. The mage had promised him a fat purse for an easy job; just slip into the high mage’s house, snatch an empowered artifact and get out. It was the sort of job Kerrik could do in his sleep. He hadn’t counted on the raksha showing up right after he snagged the item, demanding he turn it over before he even got out of the mansion. The mage no sooner had it in his hand than he hit Kerrik with a knockout charm and disappeared like a wraith, leaving the thief snoozing in the hallway while half the city guard broke the door down. The slime-sucking raksha had set him up, killed the guardsmen and left him to take the blame.
The fact that he had no idea where the mage had taken the artifact didn’t help his case. The questioners hadn’t believed his story and they were about to start in on him in earnest when the high mage showed up with the raksha in tow. It turned out the high mage had marked the artifact against thievery and his private guard followed its trail right to the raksha’s door. The magistrate still sentenced Kerrik to death as an accomplice to thievery and murder, though he avoided the torturer’s knives.
And now the conniving bastard was going to walk away free as lark while he howled at the moon. Kerrik decided it was about time he evened the score with the raksha and this was his last chance to do it. Breaking into a run, he sprinted after the Hunt. Luckily, kobolds could go places the Hunt couldn’t, allowing him to cut a nearly direct path through the sort of brush and brambles that devoured the unwary. Still, he was surprised to emerge from beneath a sticky hedge to find himself nearly face-to-face with the raksha mage, who had become enmeshed in its gooey branches. Kerrik stopped and stared. Oh, he owed Pielith a very large donation for this bit of good fortune. Kerrik leaned against a nearby tree and grinned while he watched the raksha struggle, only making matters worse as he did so.
“So we meet again,” he said.
The raksha jerked around, barely able to move in the bush’s aggressive snare. “You. I can’t believe it.”
“Try. I swear I am not a specter here to haunt you.” Kerrik drew the long, tarnished knife from his belt and cleaned his claws casually. “Seems you are in a bit of a predicament, old boy. How do you plan to extricate yourself?”
The raksha’s eyes narrowed. “I presume you aren’t suggesting you would be willing to help me escape.”
“I’ve already seen how that works out. The hounds opened your little friend up like a cherein sausage, you know.”
“He betrayed me, tried to cast a binding spell on me when my back was turned.”
“Ah, traitors make such poor company,” Kerrik said with pious sincerity. “You taught me that.”
“I had no choice. The high mage would have known it was me if I took the artifact. I had to employ a thief to steal it.”
“Too bad you didn’t realize he had set his mark on it.”
“Don’t remind me.” The raksha grumbled, looking hard at Kerrik. “You have no idea how important that artifact is to the cause. Losing it set us back considerably.”
It took a moment for the implications of that remark to hit Kerrik. The he struck his forehead with the heel of his hand and groaned. “Oh no, you’re one of those idiot rebels.”
The raksha laughed bitterly. “Rebels are nothing more than tools. They have no vision. I am pledged to the one who will set us free. He is the mightiest sorcerer who ever lived, heir to the great Goblin King’s legacy.”
“Right. How’s that working for you so far?” Kerrik nodded to the sticky branches that bound the raksha. “Is he going to show up here and cut you loose?”
“You fool, you have no concept of the forces at play,” the raksha sneered. “My lord need not appear to save me. Even in my weakened state, I can call upon the magic he has gifted to me and siphon yours to serve my purpose.”
Kerrik gasped as the wind was sucked out of his lungs. Falling to his knees, he felt his power draining like water from a broken cup. A moment later, the raksha stood over him and laughed.
“Once again, you prove useful, thief. Now it’s time for me to finish you as I should have done.” He raised his hand and Kerrik felt his energy draining away as the mage drew his life force from his body. He knew in a few moments, he would be dead. A long, wailing cry rose nearby and the pressure broke off. The mage turned, listening and then looked down at Kerrik with thinly veiled disgust. “It seems you will serve me yet again. I’ll leave you to the hounds. I wouldn’t want them to catch me when I’m this close to the monolith. As they rend you limb from limb, you may take comfort in the fact that your death serves a great and noble purpose.”
The raksha stumbled up the hill, leaving Kerrik gasping for breath. The Hunt was near. He felt their presence like a weight on his chest. In moments, the hounds would break through the underbrush, tearing him to shreds while that mad raksha used his stolen vitality to gain his freedom. Kerrik knew he needed to move but his leaden limbs refused to respond. Another howl rang through the forest and he summoned the will to roll onto his stomach and push himself up to his knees. Growling, he summoned up the last of his strength and regained his feet. Swaying as he tried to keep his balance, his hand brushed the hilt of his found dagger and he felt inexplicably rejuvenated. He looked at the dagger in wonder and saw that the blade glowed blue. A vengeance blade, he thought. Filled with a sense of purpose, he staggered up the hill after the raksha.
He burst from the forest into a clearing. He’d been closer to the summit than he had thought. The monolith stood at the apex of the hill, surrounded by a perfect circle of bare earth more than fifty feet across. Not so much as a blade of grass grew within its boundary, as if the power of the Huntsman’s stone repelled all life around it. Intent on his goal, the raksha mage didn’t see the thief. Kerrik heard a bestial roar and realized as he sprinted toward his quarry that it had come from his own throat. He tackled the raksha and dragged him to the ground, pummeling him with his fists as he screamed in incomprehensible rage. The raksha responded in kind and the two of them grappled and rolled around on the ground, attacking with teeth and tusks like a pair of ravening beasts. They were so caught up in their battle that they didn’t notice as the Hunt arrived.
Hounds and riders arrayed themselves around the perimeter of the circle, waiting as the combatants fought to determine the outcome of the night’s run. Both of them were bloodied but neither gave any quarter as they rolled closer to the monolith. Lost in their rage, they took no notice of the proximity of their goal. Kerrik straddled the raksha, pounding him in the face with his fists as the mage closed his hands around Kerrik’s throat, trying to throttle him. All Kerrik could see was his enemy’s death. He wanted to taste his enemy’s blood, tear his throat out with this tusks. Suddenly, he saw a woman sitting astride a flame-eyed, sable mount at the edge of the circle. The elf shone like the sun, burning the film of rage from his eyes and mind. He wrenched free of the mage’s grasp and threw himself toward the monolith. The raksha realized what he was doing and clutched at him, trying to drag him back. Kerrik stretched his arm out and brushed the stone with the tip of one finger.
The stone pealed like a bell and fell silent. It was the most beautiful sound Kerrik had ever heard. He fell on his back and stared up at the full moon, feeling lighter than he had in a long time. He had done it. He was free.
He heard someone weeping and realized it was the raksha. Looking over, he watched the Huntsman dismount and walk toward the kneeling man. As he passed the circle’s invisible boundary, the monolith hummed and crystalline frost bloomed across the bare ground. He laid his hand on the weeping raksha’s shoulder and the man looked up at the Huntsman, his face suffused with terror.
“Please, lord, have mercy,” the raksha begged. “I will make you a poor servant.”
“On the contrary,” The Huntsman said, “you will do quite well. You have shown yourself to be treacherous, conniving, and merciless. You lack imagination, so you need a master to focus your talents. The one you serve now will only lead you to your destruction. I can promise you better. Those in my service live long, indulge their special skills, and find a place awaiting them in Vanad’s hall. Swear fealty to me and live or die now. It is your choice.”
The raksha contemplated the offer. Raising his head, he looked the Huntsman in the eyes and spoke clearly, though his voice quavered at the end. “I swear to serve you until the end of my days.”
The Huntsman nodded and passed his hand over the mage’s head. The raksha’s form flickered and then a large, snow white hound stood in his place. The only indication of his origin were the silver plated runes on his fangs and spellcrafted earrings running up his left ear. The newly made hound threw back his head and howled, whether in joy or misery, Kerrik couldn’t tell. The monolith rang nine times and all the hounds joined in a chorus of howls, signaling the end of the hunt.
Kerrik scrambled to his feet, ready to run. The Huntsman turned that unsettling gaze on him. Looking into his eyes, the thief could see the barghest assessing him. Kerrrik tensed, certain the Huntsman was about to set the pack on him. The Huntsman frowned, his words emerging in something akin to a growl. “You are free, little thief, though your disrespect tempts me sorely. The Hunt is sacred and its ancient pact with the condemned may not be broken.”
“Sorry, milord. I’ve been double-crossed so many times lately, I’ve begun to question my own luck.” Kerrik released a breath and bowed to the Huntsman. “By the Queen’s justice, I was a dead man. I thank you for the hunt and for my freedom.”
“A second chance is rare, indeed, though you may have cause to curse me for it. Put it to good use,” The Huntsman paused, eyeing Kerrik thoughtfully. “Remember the lady of your vision. Allies will be hard to come by in the dark times to come. Trustworthy allies even more so.”
The Huntsman turned on his heel, crossed the circle and leapt into the saddle. Raising his horn, he blew a long note and cried, “The Hunt is finished. To the feast!”
He turned his mount and rode off, the baying hounds running ahead. The riders galloped after him, melting into the forest like wisps. That was a fine bit of drama, Kerrik thought. You had to give the Huntsman points for showmanship.
He was suddenly struck by the thought of his freedom. Overcome by giddiness, he grinned up at the moon and danced about, singing a slightly off-key thief’s ballad. His slate was clean, even the Queen couldn’t touch him. By Vanad, she’d been sitting right there when the Huntsman paroled him. Yes, this was a very good night. And now it was time to get back to the city and pick up the pieces of his life. He had been out of circulation for several months, so he was quite sure his family had ransacked his place and sold his belongings. Kobolds didn’t waste time mourning the condemned when there was profit to be made. He’d tucked a bit aside against need, someplace his greedy relatives couldn’t find it. He could get by for a little while with that. He would need to find work quickly, though, or he’d find himself sleeping under a bridge and fighting off trolls. Turning opportunity to coin had never been a problem for him and shortage of cash was a great motivator. Ah well, time to go.
He looked around. He was alone in the northern forest at the ass-end of nowhere with no transport, a rusty knife, and no supplies. The Queen’s highway was a thirty league hike over rough terrain populated with hostile flora and fauna.
He shrugged. At least he’d be walking it a free man. Whistling the off-key ballad, he grinned and started down the hill.