Sunday, May 24, 2009

Chapter Twenty-Three

The Wildlands are no place for men, but the Hunter has adapted himself well. He’s gone several days without shaving and he hasn’t eaten since he chanced upon that papaya tree, but he’s never felt better.

These creatures, whatever they may be, are easy to hunt. They make no pretense of camouflage or deception, so he always hears them coming. Most are slow and clumsy, no longer a match for a predator such as himself.

But, he reminds himself, they’re far from harmless. The damn things never sleep, never give up chasing him. And he’s fairly certain that more and more are following after him every day. He hears them crashing through the woods, sees the footprints, even catches glimpses of them from time to time during his steady retreat to the Doorway.

It’d be a simple matter to settle into the fork of a tree and blast them back to Hell, but the Hunter doesn’t care for such a strategy. It isn’t a matter of bullets – he has hundreds left – but he’s quite sure that the sound will attract the rest. Shooting one, though satisfying, would guarantee that dozens more would take up the hunt.

It’s quite strange, being both predator and prey at the same time.

Thank heavens for the machete. It’s made cutting a path to the Doorway ever so much easier, and these stupid monsters don’t ever realize they’re being attacked.

They always come towards him, hoping to eat, some of them performing a parody of their own hunting methods, but even that panther was no match for the Hunter. That had been a bullet well worth firing, though – it still seemed too agile to take on in hand-to-hand combat.

He stops short at the wet banks of the river and regrets that the canoe was left behind at the camp. Had to be done, unfortunately. Not much time to pack when you’re running for your life.

Crossing the river is a risk - it won’t do to get his rifle or bullets wet, and who knows what threats lurk in those dark waters - but the Hunter decides it’s one worth taking. The water might mask his scent, and if he can cross over - which shouldn’t be too hard, this being the dry season - his pursuers should turn back once his smell fades away. He is quite sure they don’t have the wits to investigate both riverbanks.

It’s a well-played move, and the Hunter is right. Nothing crosses the river, and that night is the first time he finds himself alone in the Wildlands in quite some time. There aren’t even any birds anymore. Probably driven away by a brushfire, he supposes. There is smoke in the air, after all.

It takes another three days for him to finally reach the Doorway, carved into the side of a great, ancient tree. Beyond it lies the civilized world. Safety.

Only, and this is odd, there’s a hyena standing in front of the Doorway. It pants and giggles to itself, behavior not unlike normal hyenas, and it’s a welcome change from the somber monsters that have trailed him for so long.

The Hunter wonders what it’s doing there, but decides it’s easier to just put the thing out of its misery – if it isn’t dead now, it will be eventually. He’s slightly disappointed that the first real animal he’s seen in ages is one without a valuable pelt. Still, a bullet to the brain is the easiest way to go, what with times being the way they are.

As he brings the rifle to his shoulder, the Hunter doesn’t notice the silent creature stepping behind him, the one that’s been watching him for a few hours now, following him to this great and special Doorway.

Unlike the monsters, this lion is very much alive. And hungry. And stealthy. He decides to wait until the man uses his gun to kill the hyena, so he won’t have to share the meal.

The Hunter fires and feels that momentary satisfaction that comes with a bullet well shot, but his victory is short-lived. He senses the lion as it pounces upon him, forcing all its great weight upon his back and neck, and the Hunter is dead before he hits the ground.

For the first time, the Lion eats the flesh of man. He finds it to be a most exquisite delicacy, if lacking in quantity. Much better, he decides later as he crosses through the Doorway, than the taste of his loyal hyena.