Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a wonderful story from Lord Tachys al`Fahn, entitled
Ripped from the Web
Although this is not an Ultima or Shroud related story, I thought was so well written and compelling it deserved to be brought to the community.
Background music by Smartsound.
Runner had always been the best hunter in the clan. He always caught his prey, and they were invariably the largest beasts brought back to the meeting-place by any one hunter. This did nothing for him in regards to standing, however… he was ever the outcast, and if he were completely honest with himself, that was the way he preferred it. Even tonight as he gathered with the others to bring in the meat needed by the clan, Runner knew he would soon be silently coursing through the forest alone. Whether it was from envy at his prowess, or some unseen signal they responded to, he knew not, but the result was always the same. They would head off together to find and bring down their prey, and Runner would drag home his singular, and very nearly equivalent, kill on his own. Sure, he still earned the grudging respect of the others, but it was one tinged with uneasiness and fear. There were whispers of something darker, that he was touched by gods, and not for the better.
“Let them whisper”, he thought. “The results will be the same.”
And so it went that under the bloody moon, the hunters surged silently forth into the night, catching prey-spoor on the night breezes. Runner caught the mix mid-stride, holding it in while he sorted through the traces mentally. He knew which one the others would follow, the strength of the musk indicating it was large and virile, yet not the strongest specimen present. Strong, but not enough to present the challenge Runner craved. Another loping stride, another lungful of air rich with scents, and he found the challenge he sought. This scent was from the male that would vie for control soon, young and strong enough to pose a challenge to run down, and a threat if cornered. It was then the hunters sprang upon the herd, scattering the hapless animals to the winds to separate them from the intended prey. Runner helped spring the trap, of course, but that was the end of his involvement with the group: his prey had bolted with the rest of the herd. While his clan mates herded the older and weaker animal off to the eventual slaughter, Runner took off in pursuit of his own quarry.
Through brush and brambles, down established trails and off, the animal led him a merry chase. It tried every trick in its repertoire, but to no avail, as Runner was every bit as experienced as the creature was wily. Then it tried one last trick that few contemplated, and fewer still dared.
It crossed the Black River.
He saw it from his hilltop vantage point, peering out from the edge of the woods a mere stone’s fall away from the cursed concourse of emptiness. It had marked the southern-most border of his clan’s holding for time out of memory with a thick black line of evil and emptiness. Some darker rumors held that it was a haunted thing, as nothing living was ever seen within a hundred long strides of its undulating banks. Desperate indeed must his prey be, then, to have braved its crossing. Well, Runner had never come back unladen, and would not start now. Nor would he return with lesser prey, even could he find it now that the herd had been scattered. His chosen prey was close, and weak unto death, he knew. His decision made long before he ever stepped out of the woods, Runner dashed down the hillside, certain of both safety and success.
Certain he was, until a wailing cry split the night, and the eyes of a river beast suddenly appeared from nowhere, their unnerving corona ripping the certainty, and the courage, from his breast. Before Runner could react, the thing was on him, screaming and rending and tearing at him, transforming his world into light and pain before the darkness swallowed him once more.
Runner opened his eyes to a blanket of darkness.
He sampled the air, only to find nothing. He tried again, and this time it registered that he was getting so much less than the mere absence of a few scents… he could smell nothing.
Confused, he stood, and began to explore this darkness, expecting to be able to find an edge to it. “Maybe I am simply inside of something,” he thought, “and just need to find my way back to the clan.”
He walked in a few experimental circuits, trying desperately to find some indication that he could go back to where he had been before the river beast attacked. He could detect nothing.
Not the slightest of flickering stars.
No scents to tell him about the things he could not see.
No wind or breeze blew by him.
Not even the faintest echo of sound from his movements.
In a panic now, desperate to find his way back, he ran straight out in the direction he thought would take him home. As fast as his legs would take him and heedless of any dangers he might stumble across, he charged through the unnatural night. All that mattered was finding the others, finding home.
The darkness did not lift or change in the slightest.
He changed direction and ran further, his legs pumping so hard they should have been burning from the exertion. Between the panic and running, the strain on his heart and lungs should have had him near collapse.
Despite the knowledge that his legs should have carried him hundreds, perhaps thousands, of strides from where he began, it felt as if he had not moved a single inch. The panic deepened into a yawning chasm within him then, threatening to swallow him whole. He could not get back, he could not even figure out where he was…
That was when the river beasts returned.
As before they appeared without warning, their terrible eyes rooting him to the spot as the weird, rumbling scream ripping through his soul. Then they tore through him with black curved claws and flashing, rending silver teeth. And as suddenly as each appeared, they vanished.
Unlike the last time, these encounters did not render him unconscious, and though the attacks were frightening and debilitating, they somehow did not… hurt. Confusing as this was, he did not have time to ponder it, as more beasts appeared. After a few attacks, he found he could dodge some if he tried, but not all. It was as if they were not really even trying to strike at him, but rather he were simply in the way. The problem he faced now was each one left him feeling somehow less than he was before, as if each beast took the smallest part of him away with it. Soon, he could not even manage to evade the beasts, and the continued strikes left him too weak to even move in this strange nightmare world.
It was when he felt all but completely shredded and dissipated, that a different beast came to him. This one did not come screaming out of the darkness, eyes shining with the cold, indifferent glare of the others. It’s gaze beamed down on him with purpose and intent, the cold white glare softened somewhat by a warm, pulsing yellow light. Something about this warmed Runner, like waking to the first tentative rays of dawn. He struggled weakly to rise, to face this new encounter with the strength and determination he had faced nearly every other challenge in his life, but he could not.
Sharp popping noises heralded the appearance of several brilliant points of shimmering red fire, the purpose of which puzzled Runner, but not for long. Another of this creature’s vicious brethren appeared, and had it continued along its path Runner would have been struck once again. Instead, the river- beast encountered the wall of shimmering fire and veered to the side, screaming past both Runner and this new beast.
Continuing to regard Runner with that strangely soothing gaze, the beast reached forth with a pair of odd appendages, and for the first time, he could see something in this place besides darkness and the beasts. As the appendages came closer and grasped his limp and nearly lifeless form, Runner saw the first glimmerings of dawn crest the horizon beyond the beast. Brilliant rays of sunshine blinded him for a moment, and when his vision cleared, he could see the lush green grass covering rolling hills, and felt the stirrings of a warm summer breeze upon his face. He felt himself being lifted, and carried over to the edge of the grass that lay near the beast. Then the arms gently placed him down so that his body touched the grass…
Energy surged forth through his limbs, cutting through the fog and pulling the scattered remnants of his being together. Runner was so caught up in this new upwelling of life and renewal that he found himself several dozen strides across the pasture before he stopped to look back. There, at the edge of the grassland, stood the beast. Covered in shining, golden scales, it sat atop great feet with circular bone-white protrusions and black curved claws that clutched at the ground. While Runner had bolted directly off one of its flanks, it had not moved to pursue him, but instead fixed its bright white gaze directly ahead. The warm, pulsing glow he had seen emanated from two strange horns atop the beast’s head. The darkness lay just beyond the creature but was receding with every passing moment. The beast spat out a sharp bark, and then roared to life, surging away from the grassland to disappear from sight. As it did so, the cold, frightening darkness disappeared, and with it Runner knew the river beasts would never again roam this land.
No longer worried about the lost prey, the Black River, or any of what had happened, Runner turned to face the dawning sun. On the wind, he heard the call of clansmen that he never thought to see again, calling him to the hunt.
This was more than just better, it was right… it was home.
A call had come in saying that something huge had been hit, and lay blocking the road. Dispatch, choosing the closest officer, gave the call to John to come out and clear it. When he had arrived on the scene, he parked the truck some distance back from the animal, and with a series of hollow, hissing pops, set out the flares. He had scarcely finished placing the last one when he spotted the headlights of an oncoming car crest the hill some distance down the road. After waiting a few minutes to ensure the incoming driver steered clear, John turned to survey the job before him, and could scarcely believe his eyes. There, in the middle of the road, was the biggest damned wolf he had ever seen. “To think I had believed it was a deer,” he muttered, still somewhat awestruck.
A low whistle of amazement escaped his lips as he surveyed the poor beast. The coat, despite the blood, was a beautiful black and silver-white pattern reminiscent of a Damascus steel blade, with thick black patches at the well-muscled shoulders and hips. The overall effect of the markings conveyed a sense of speed, as if the wolf were in motion even as it lay still at his feet. Knowing he could not lift an animal this size on his own, he brought over a pallet jack from the back of the truck and began to shove it under the body.
The whimper of pain almost made John wish he were wearing something more absorbent than simple undergarments. The damned thing was still alive! When he had control of himself, he examined the wolf more closely. Multiple compound fractures all over the animal’s body spoke volumes of the animal’s inability to harm him, even if it might want to do so. The blood in its coat and on the road, along with the weak and very labored breathing, told him this poor creature didn’t have long at all. Wanting nothing more than to put the poor thing to rest, he shoved straps under the body just behind the forelegs and another set just in front of the hindquarters and secured them around the body. That done, he very carefully pulled it onto the pallet jack’s forks, lifted it and pulled it to the edge of the grass at the side of the road.
Once there, he managed to deposit the magnificent beast on the ground with a minimum of pain, if the few faint whimpers were any indication. It may have been a figment of his imagination, but the wolf’s breathing seemed to ease when he put it in the grass, and the paws seemed to fidget as if the wolf were running in a dream.
He sat with it for a little while, watching and waiting, paying silent witness to this creature’s passing. As he watched the beast breathe its last, he wiped at tears he had not realized he’d shed. He gazed at the peacefully resting beast one last time, then turned and walked away.
Having mounted the truck and taken his seat, he gave the old truck some gas. With a slam of the door, John drove off into the night, knowing he would never see its like, not if he lived to see his hundredth birthday.