The Hunt

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Summary

Aesha wants to prove himself to his father during his first hunt. As they explore the woods he learns more about his people - the Admeri, and discovers some of the secrets hidden in Tascea’s Frost. He also learns of the dangers humans pose to him, his people, and the natural world at large.

Genre:
Fantasy
Author:
Caleb Clark
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
13+

The Hunt - Complete

Tascea’s Frost was still that day, even by its own standards. Nothing stirred in the endless expanse of ice and snow. The early sun peeked over the horizon, setting the packed white ablaze with dawn’s orange glow. That first light stretched across the barren landscape, at last touching the edge of the forest. The old pines stood guard there, their deep green needles the only other brush of color in this place.

As the sunlight pushed its way through the woods, the forest stirred with it. What was once still began to move once more. Birds chirped and fluttered from their perches. A mound of packed snow rustled. It rattled again, displacing some of the white powder atop it.

A black nose pushed its way out of the pack and twitched in the crisp morning air. Then a snout. The mound dissolved, and the snow fox beneath rose to greet the new day. The fox stretched its narrow limbs and shook the remaining flakes from its fur. The pelt was white like the snow, with traces of blue throughout. The fox yawned, its mouth expanding in an almost unnatural reach.

The arrow whistled through the air, its iron edge lancing the fox through the neck and pinning it to the tree it rested beneath moments before. The snow fox let out a weak yelp, but nothing else. The blood was bright and vibrant against the stark white of its fur and the snow surrounding.

Tequoia stepped out from behind another tree and pulled down the white cloth masking his face. The cloth matched the rest of his outfit, and to a colorblind fox he would be near invisible in the barren white of Tascea’s Frost. The only color on him was reddened skin at the tip of his pointed ears.

He crouched beside the snow fox and brushed his hand along its head and behind its ear, as if comforting it. There was nothing to comfort, though. The thing’s black eyes were cold now, casting nothing but emptiness.

“It was a clean shot,” Teqouia said, turning back to where he had come from.

Aesha came out from behind the tree, the bow still in his hand. He stepped closer to the fox, fixated on the wash of blood staining its fur and the snow all around.

“You should be proud,” Tequoia said, “It felt nothing, and that is what we wanted.”

“It cried out,” Aesha said, now standing beside his father.

“The last cry of life,” Tequoia replied, “It is normal.”

He stood and put a firm hand on his son’s shoulder. He looked at the boy and smiled.

“The first is always the hardest,” he said, “It will always be hard, and it should be. Taking life is no small thing. It does get easier, though.”

The words didn’t make Aesha feel any better. What gave him the right to decide what lives and what dies?

Tequoia pulled a knife from his pouch. The blade gleamed in the morning light.

“This is the hard part,” he said, “Don’t look away. You’ll do the next one on your own.”

Tequoia leaned over the animal once more. He yanked the arrow from the fox’s neck, and the creature slid down the tree and laid in the blood-drenched snow. Tequoia brandished the knife and plunged it deep into its belly.

Aesha wasn’t sure what he expected the field dressing to sound like. He expected the body to squelch and splash, like something wet. The sound of his father skinning the fox was more akin to sawing, though, like stripping bark off a tree.

The squelch came after Tequoia removed the pelt. He pushed his hand into the fox’s belly, where he had initially cut. He squeezed another hand in after and pulled the ribs apart. The animal’s tiny frame popped and out flowed its intestines. Aesha expected a rush of red gore, but - while there was certainly blood - there came a wider palette of color. The yellowish small intestine, the purple kidneys, the blue liver. It was all far more vibrant than Aesha could have ever expected.

The smell was particularly horrible, though.

“It’s worse when you knick the stomach,” Tequoia said, reading his son’s mind. “Or the colon. That’s an awful stench.”

When the gruesome work was finished, Tequoia held up their prize, now stripped of all that made it a living being. Now the snow fox was just a dripping hunk of flesh.

“Dinner,” Tequoia said. He raised the pelt in his other hand and examined it. “The pelt is fine too. We can trade it for supplies at one of the villages.”

Tequoia looked at his son, who was now transfixed on the pile of guts on the ground, enshrined by the blood now sinking into the melting snow.

“Do you regret it?” Tequoia asked.

“No,” Aesha said, “I mean…I just…I just wish I didn’t have to kill it.”

“That is the way of it,” Tequoia said, “The fox is dead, yes. But it feeds us another day, and soon it will feed the earth. We will feed it one day too. That is life, my son. The endless give and take of existence. It is gone, but it lives on through us and we through the world and so on and so on.”

Tequoia reached out a bloodied hand, wrapped his fingers around Aesha’s chin, and lifted his head so their eyes could meet.

“The pain you feel shows respect for life,” he said to his son, “and that is something you must never lose. If we do not respect the land and the creatures that inhabit it, we will take advantage of them. We will abuse this place until there is nothing else.”

“We can’t be like the humans?” Aesha asked.

The softness in Tequoia’s eyes was replaced by something Aesha didn’t recognize. His father’s eyes grew dark with something hard. Dangerous.

“We must never be like them,” he said, and the dangerous dark disappeared once more.

The two hunted a while longer, catching and skinning foxes all through the morning. Tequoia stopped to rest while Aesha scouted ahead. The boy’s lungs burned hot, but he pressed forward. His time to rest would come soon enough.

Seeing the foxes’ innards and stripping their furs still made his stomach churn, but it was becoming easier, as his father said it would. His hand was still shaky in the work, but his technique was improving and each repeated process was smoother than the one before. Tequoia told him this hunt would focus on foxes, but in the coming weeks they would focus on larger game. Possibly deer.

Aesha came upon a grove encircled by trees. In the middle of the tight empty space was something large and lumbering. Aesha dashed behind a tree. When nothing came for him, though, he peeked his head around from his hiding place, and looked at the massive thing standing in the grove. The creature’s legs were thick and corded with tight muscles. Its shaggy chestnut fur turned darker at the neck, leading up its head and ending at its short snout.

It was an elk, Aesha knew, but it was unlike any he had ever seen. This one stood nearly seven feet high - not accounting for the massive antlers that reached back in a crescent arc, threatening to brush against the limbs of the highest trees. The antlers shimmered in the morning light. They even gave off a glow of their own.

Aesha pulled the bow from his shoulder, nocked an arrow and pulled back. He wasn’t sure he could bring the animal down, but even striking it may prove his aptitude as a hunter to his father. That would guarantee his spot on larger hunts and further prove he was steeling himself against the initial shock of killing.

Aesha pulled back on the string more. The wood of the bow groaned in harmony with the burning of his muscles. As if on cue, the elk turned to look at Aesha, and he could feel the thing’s dark eyes looking into his. In that moment, before Aesha loosed his arrow, they would be one.

“No,” Tequoia said from behind him. He put one hand on the boy’s shoulder and the other lowered the bow. “Not that one.”

Aesha eased the tension in his arm, letting the nocked arrow slide harmlessly forward.

“Why not?” He asked his father, “I wanted to show you-”

“This one is sacred,” Tequoia said. He pointed his finger, tracing an arc signifying the antlers, “You see the way they shimmer?”
Aesha nodded.

“This is no ordinary elk,” Tequoia continued, “This is the Lumos Elken. The guardian of this place.”

Aesha had heard the name before, but could not recall its significance.

“In all the great forests,” Tequoia said, seeing the confusion on his son’s face, “there are great beasts who dwell there. They protect all that lives in those places. We must respect them, and in turn protect them ourselves.”

The pair looked at the Lumos Elken, who still stared at them. Tequoia raised a hand to it and stepped forward.

“Peace, Great One,” he said, “You live and guard, as we live and guard.”

The great beast held its gaze a moment longer. Behind its dark eyes, Aesha could feel something intelligent. The great beast moved forward on its massive haunches and came face-to-face with the pair. The elk lowered its head, bringing itself eye level with Aesha. It snorted, its breath hot and wispy in the cold air.

“It’s asking you to reach out, son,” Tequoia told him, “Touch it.”

Aesha didn’t move at first, but the Lumos Elken refused to break its gaze with him. He pulled his glove off, reached his hand out, and placed it on the creature’s massive leathery snout. The elk snorted again, and in its eyes Aesha saw the wealth of generations. He saw ages of wisdom and reflection. He saw the history of Tascea’s Frost and his people: the elves of the Admeri.

The massive animal flared its nostrils again and launched forward, disappearing into the thicket of trees behind them.

“Who are the three Gods?” Tequoia asked Aesha some time later as they marched through the woods again.

Aesha looked up at his father, but Tequoia did not look down at him. His father had quizzed him dozens if not hundreds of times on the Gods, so why now? Something had changed in Tequoia’s demeanor. It had changed when Aesha asked about the humans, and his father’s behavior had not been the same since. The exception being their time with the Lumos Elken.

“Tascea, the God of Earth and Sea,” Aesha answered, “Dimoor, the God of Sky and Stars.”

“And the last?” Tequoia asked.

“Grijan, the God of Beyond.”

“Tascea and Dimoor keep the mortal plane,” Tequoia said, “But it is Grijan that takes us away from here, in death. It takes us beyond this plane of existence and into the afterlife.”

Aesha thought of the snow fox pinned to the tree by his arrow. He imagined Grijan in ethereal black, lifting the snow fox from the ground and taking it somewhere beyond pain, beyond death, and beyond his arrow’s reach.

The thought was comforting in a way, but it also terrified him.

“Why are you telling me this? You have taught me about the Gods before.”

Tequoia stopped in his tracks. He swung a hand out and blocked Aesha’s path forward.

“Be still,” he snapped, “Do you hear that?”

Aesha perked his ears and listened. At first he heard nothing, but as his ears grew accustomed to the silence, he began to hear it. Footsteps, loud and heavy in the snow. Laughter.

“Humans,” Tequoia said, his voice icy.

“What do we do?” Aesha asked.

Tequoia listened. The voices were coming closer. The two could hide among the trees, but in the barren white the humans would spot them eventually.

“I will speak to them,” he said, “They have no reason to bother us. If we make our presence known, they won’t fear us.”

“Why would humans be scared of us? We’ve done nothing to harm them.”

“The humans have…difficult perceptions of us,” was all Tequoia said.

He spun around to Aesha and pushed something into his hand. He looked down to see his father’s knife, still gleaming bright in the sun.

“Hide it in your pouch,” Tequoia said, “If anything goes wrong, use it to get away. Don’t try to kill them. They’ll overpower you. Cut and slash. Hurt them, and get away. Do you understand?”

Aesha nodded, but he didn’t have time to fully comprehend what his father had told him. Would the humans hurt them? Even if they had done nothing wrong?

“Don’t say a word,” Tequoia said, “I will talk to them.”

A voice called out from behind them.

The two turned and saw three humans standing there. They stood on a hill looking down at them. The first one, the one farthest down the hill, was short with a swelling belly hanging over his furred breeches. The taller two stood back on the hill. One had a bow in one hand, an arrow nocked and ready to pull. The other had a scar cutting across his face, and he held tight to the sword sheathed at his side.

The fat one barked at them, but neither Tequoia or Aesha understood what he said. The man repeated the phrase, louder and more aggressive this time. When the two elves didn’t respond, he turned back and said something to the others in their throaty, guttural language. All three laughed.

The man turned back and looked at Tequoia.

“You boys Admeri?” He spoke in the common tongue.

“Admeri? No, no,” Tequoia lied. He held his hands up, showing he held nothing in them. “Just hunters, earning life with sacks we scavenge.”
The fat one turned back and raised an eyebrow to his comrades.

“Don’t speak our language or common too well, do ya?” His tone was sharp.

“Ah, no,” Tequoia stammered, “The language…it is…copper-potted.”

The humans erupted in laughter.

“Copper-potted,” the fat one said, red-faced, “Real copper-potted.”

Tequoia forced a laugh, though he wasn’t sure what they found funny. The other two humans came down the hill and flanked them. Aesha clenched at his pouch and felt the knife within. The scarred one watched him.

“Get on with it, Dresher,” the bowman said to the heavy man.

“Here’s the thing,” Dresher said, “We’re stayin’ at a village a little east of here, and the elves there know both languages in and out. If it weren’t for their fuckin’ knife ears and their women’s flat tits, you’d almost think they was human.”

He took a step towards Tequoia, who was still trying to smile but the facade was slipping.

“So either you’re dumber than the rest of your fey-folk, or you’re a liar. Which is it, knife-ear?”

Tequoia tried to laugh, but the men weren’t jovial now. Their expressions were stern, dangerous. Aesha tried to reach for the knife, but Scar called him out.

“I wouldn’t move, little one. Not unless you want that hand to be gone.”

“So,” Dresher asked again, “You a simpleton? Or you one of those Admeri savages?”

Tequoia didn’t answer immediately. That annoyed him.

“Today, knife-ear, before the Waste freezes our balls off.”

Tequoia stammered. Sweat formed on his brow, even in the icy cold of Tascea’s Frost - or the Waste as Dresher referred to it. The man stepped closer, but then his face broke. His sour look twisted into a smile and a laugh.

“Aye, mate, lighten up,” he howled, “Xara’s tits, it’s a joke.”

The other men laughed too, but Tequoia didn’t return it.

“I couldn’t give a fuck if you’re one of them domesticated elves or them tree-humpers. I was just givin’ you the rundown.”
The tension in Tequoia’s muscles eased, and at last he began to smile.

“There is one thing, though,” Dresher asked, “You paid your taxes this year?”

“Taxes?” Tequoia asked.

“Why, to the Mage King himself. The Holy Empire, the one true goddess Xara and her buxom golden tits?”
The man smiled, but it was twisted and vicious thing.

“Have you paid your dues?”

“Are you representatives of the Holy Empire?” Tequoia asked.

“More-so than you, knife-ear,” the bowman snapped, “Now answer the question.”

Tequoia looked down at Aesha then back at the men.

“No,” he said, “I haven’t paid any taxes.”

“That’s a real shame,” Dresher said, “Cause now we gotta work something out.”

“Will you arrest us?”

“No,” the large man replied, “We just need to take something valuable.”

Scar pointed at Aesha.

“That one a boy or girl?” he asked.

“What?” Aesha asked.

“You got a cock, or not?!” Scar shouted.

“Easy, Tuscan,” the fat man said, “We aren’t taking the child.”

“Then what, Dresher?” the scarred man named Tuscan snapped, obviously disappointed.

Dresher looked down at the pelts strung around Tequoia’s belt.

“Those look like they may fetch a good price,” he said.

Tequoia looked down at the pelts. He was pale now, and the sweat rolled down his face.

“Yes, of course,” he said, “The Mash King reminds taxes.”

He unstrung the pelts and held them out to Dresher. The fat man snatched them out of his hand and counted them.

“These should do,” he said, placing the pelts in the pack strung on his back.

More shouting came from over the hill. Another human, younger than the others appeared at the top, and shouted down to the group.

“Dresher!” he shouted, “You gotta see this thing!”

Just as the words came, another pair of humans appeared over the hill. They pulled a cart behind them with something massive lying in it. They barreled down the hill, nearly tipping the cart as they came down. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon them that Aesha and Tequoia recognized the chestnut fur and massive glittering antlers.

Dresher made his way to the cart, swaying on his thick legs in the packed snow.

“Xara’s tits!” he cried out, “Look at this beast!”

“What do you think it is?” the younger man asked.

The scarred man, Tuscan, still stood by the elves. He looked down at Aesha, his eyes icy and dangerous.

“Ask the knife-ears,” he said, burning his gaze into Aesha.

Dresher wrapped a hand around the base of one of the animal’s antlers and yanked on it. The elk’s head twisted at an awkward angle.

“Aye,” he said, “What’s this big fucker called?” the man shouted to Tequoia.

Aesha looked up at his father. He stood rigid, staring at the dead sacred animal. His hand shook terribly, but only Aesha seemed to notice. His eyes were watery and reamed red.

“Lumos Elken,” he said after a long stretch of silence.

“Here that boys!” Dresher called to his men, “We got ourselves a Lamas Elkskin!”

The men cheered and laughed. Tequoia remained where he was.

Dresher yanked a knife from his belt. The edge was crooked and dangerous looking, like the man wielding it. He plunged down on the beast and began sawing part of it away. Aesha couldn’t see what because the man was blocked by the large bulk of the beast.

“Aye, Brandon,” Dresher shouted. The younger man turned toward the man as he shouted, “I think you’ll be needing your own of these.”
The man lobbed something through the air, and it struck the boyish man in the face. It fell to the ground, leaving a small splash of dark blood in the snow around it. Brandon laughed at first, but when he realized what the thing was he blanched.

“That’s not funny,” he said.

“I didn’t say it was,” Dresher and the men laughed anyway, “You’ll have to come get the balls yourself, though.”

Tequoia and Aesha watched as the men butchered the Lumos Elken, lobbing similar vulgarities as they stripped it down to its bones. One man, after decapitating the animal and sawing off its beautiful crescent antlers, danced around with its head over his. Another imitated having sex with it, saying it reminded him of Brandon’s mother.

Aesha turned to his father. The older man was stoic, frozen in horror. He mumbled something under his breath, but Aesha couldn’t hear. His eyes glistened, half between agony and madness.

When it was all done, the humans packed up and went on, paying no mind to the elves as they watched. After the men disappeared over the hill, their voices now just echoes on the wind, Tequoia dropped to his knees and wept.

The snow all around now was soaked with dark blood. The Lumos Elken’s oversized intestines were splayed on the ground, steam still rolling off the newly exposed gore. Tequoia raised a fistful of the bloody snow to his face and screamed at it. Birds fluttered at the sudden sound, and in the distance something could be heard in response. Something akin to laughing.

Aesha was unsure what to do. In all his years, he had never seen his father like this. No tragedy had ever struck him like this before.
When the man was able to compose himself, he turned to his son. Hot tears streaking down his face, now blotched red from sobbing and the blood-smeared snow.

“All across this realm are sacred beasts like the Lumos Elken,” he reminded Aesha, “They are the guardians of the forests, the rivers, and the mountains.”

Aesha knew all this, and he knew what his father was leading too.

“When those things are gone,” Tequoia continued, “The Great Hunt will begin, and our Gods will come to this plane and wreak unimaginable havoc on those who slaughtered their creation.”

Aesha nodded. He imagined Grijan laying waste to human cities, butchering human children the way those men had butchered their guardian. The God of Beyond would reach into their chests, popping their ribs and letting their guts spill out for all the world to see.
Grijan would lead them all to the Beyond, and he hoped there was nothing but pain there for humans and their ilk.

“One day,” Tequoia finished, echoing his sons thoughts, “Humans will bring that Great Hunt on themselves. It is sad really. They do not understand the things they do. They will find themselves drowning in their own blood, and there will be nothing we can do but weep for them.”

Aesha didn’t think so. Seeing Dresher and his thugs, the way they savaged the Lumos Elken and everything around them, he couldn’t feel anything but disgust. He hoped that one day he could witness that Great Hunt and see the slaughter of these filthy creatures. He didn’t know it then, but he would one day be a catalyst for that great destruction.

The two marched home. The woods were still and silent once more as the sun sank over the frozen horizon. The silence was heavy now, and Aesha knew it would remain that way without the Lumos Elken. The song of the woods, the song of his people, would never be sung again. Not as long as humans walked the earth.
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