The curved yew creaks as I pull on my bowstring. The feathers of the arrow brush my cheek as I stare down the shaft at my prey.
A stag, standing twenty paces away in a clearing, dips its antlered head into the grass and begins severing stalks with its teeth. For a moment, I marvel at its muscled frame, the way it remains alert even while grazing in the forest.
And yet, I think, watching the deer with one eye closed, it is not even aware that it’s about to die.
I exhale softly and let the arrow loose, the bowstring launching it forward with a snap. At the last second, the stag takes a step forward, and the arrow embeds itself deep into the animal’s flank. It jerks with the force of the impact and immediately bolts, running away with the reckless gait of a wounded animal.
“You missed the heart,” Elias murmurs from his spot in the bushes next to me. The observation, delivered so candidly, makes my own heart sink.
“It moved,” I mutter in reply, knowing it’s a lame excuse for a ranger’s apprentice. I lower the bow and turn to look at my master. “What do we do now?”
Elias frowns as if the answer is obvious. “We follow it.”
He stands up from the ferns and shoulders his bow. His gray-green mottled cloak allows his broad frame to blend in perfectly with the foliage around him.
I shoulder my own bow and follow Elias out of our hiding place, trying hard to mimic his every movement. My master has been a woodsman since before I was even born, and his skills are the stuff of legend. As his apprentice, I strive to learn everything I can from him.
We make our way to the spot where I shot the stag, and sure enough, we find a trail of blood leading us deeper into the forest. Wordlessly, we backtrack to our horses and begin our pursuit through the shady trees of the Emberwood.
I can’t believe I missed, I think glumly to myself as I gaze at the quiet woods around me.
The golden light of the sun filters through the branches above and casts everything in a warm, emerald glow. My eyes find it difficult to follow the blood trail; however, Elias knows the woods the way a hawk knows the sky. For him, tracking game is as natural as breathing.
Moving at a steady pace, we weave our way around trees and wade effortlessly through the light undergrowth. As we ride, I hold the reins of our pack mule, the placid beast plodding easily beside me.
Before long, Elias guides us to the stag. We find it in an open clearing, quivering in a growing pool of blood.
I dismount, eyeing the stag uneasily as we approach. Despite my training, I cannot help but feel sorry for the animal. It makes no move to flee from our presence as we draw near. Its hind legs have given out, and it lifts its head pitifully to regard us, mewling in pain.
It knows that it is dying.
Elias reaches to his belt and pulls out his knife, a long-bladed, slightly curved weapon, which he hands to me. “Here,” he says gruffly. “It’s time to put it out of its misery. A clean cut across the jugular should do the trick.”
I take the knife in my numb fingers and stare at it. The cold steel glints imperiously in the sunlight. “You want me to kill it with this?”
Elias nods grimly. “You failed to kill it with your arrow. Now you must finish the job with the blade.” He walks over to the stag and crouches, pointing to a spot on its neck. “Start here and guide the knife down. This will sever the main artery and kill it quickly. A good, clean death.”
He moves out of the way as I approach, watching me with an appraising eye. I barely register his gaze. My eyes are focused on the stag lying in front of me, noticing the way it strains to keep its head up, its breaths coming in labored, huffing gasps.
I’ve trapped animals before, even shot them with my bow, but I’ve never had to kill them with the blade. It seems barbaric, something a butcher would do, not a ranger.
Kneeling down, I quickly locate the spot Elias indicated. The knife feels as heavy as an anvil in my hand. Raising the unforgiving steel to its neck, my eyes flicker down and meet the stag’s. They are deep pools of black fear. The animal knows what I am about to do. My stomach twists as the knife quivers in my hand.
I suddenly feel very ill.
“I don’t think I can do this, master,” I say shakily as I sit back, feeling a profound sense of shame at my admission. “I’m sorry.”
“You must,” Elias says, cool and unmoving. “It is part of being a ranger. There will be times you will find an animal in the wilderness that needs to be put down. Better to kill it quickly rather than allow it to suffer. It would be a crime to let it go on living like this.”
I take a breath and look back at the stag. This time, I am careful to avoid looking into its eyes. Leaning forward, I place my hand under its neck and grab a fistful of skin. I raise the knife. Squeezing my eyes shut, I plunge the blade deep into the stag’s flesh and begin to cut downwards, gritting my teeth in disgust. The hide is much tougher than I anticipated, and I can feel the knife catching on rubbery tendons as I saw through it. Its body goes rigid, and I feel it start to shudder, warm, wet blood spilling over my hands.
After one final spasm, it lays perfectly still.
Grunting, I open my eyes and stand up on wobbly legs, looking from the stag’s lifeless body to my own bloodstained hands. They appear garishly red in the afternoon sun.
“Take this,” Elias says, handing me a clean rag. “For the blood.”
I do my best to wipe off my hands and clean the knife before giving it back to my master. The rag removes most of the blood, but my fingernails and the cracks in my skin are still stained a deep red.
Elias takes the knife back but does not return it to his belt. “You did well today, Owyn,” he says, putting a hand on my shoulder. “It is one thing to shoot an arrow from a distance, but something else entirely to take a life when you are close enough to look it in the eyes. Remember this feeling. Killing only gets easier the more you do it.”
I nod but do not reply. I still feel a little queasy.
Squatting down, Elias wastes no time in opening the stag’s belly and pulling out its entrails, placing them in a neat pile in the dirt. The squelching sound makes my skin crawl, but I force myself to watch him finish the task. I never know when I may be expected to do this myself.
When it is all done, Elias calls me over. “Help me get the carcass up on the mule,” he says, stepping around the corpse and grabbing it by its hind legs. “It’s time we start heading back to town.”
Together, we hoist the dead animal up onto the placid grey mule and strap it down with leather ties so it remains secure during the ride back. Despite my disgust, I am surprised at how light the body is without any of its guts. And yet, a slight pang of guilt still grips me as I see its proud head lolling like a rag doll.
Once we finish, we mount our horses and begin riding due east for Forest Hill, a journey that will likely take us a full day to complete. This will mean spending one more night beneath the trees of the Emberwood.
As we ride, my eyes keep catching glimpses of the stag bouncing limply at my side. I avert my gaze and look out at the forest around me.
The Emberwood is the largest forest in Tarsynium, growing along the western border of the Arc of Radiance. It is known for its beauty and diverse plant and animal life. For the last few months, it has been my refuge, my home.
When I started this apprenticeship with Elias, I knew nothing of forestry. I was just an orphan who needed a purpose in life, searching for a place to belong. Now, under his constant instruction on the harsh realities of nature, I am learning everything involved in tracking, hunting, and wilderness survival. Today was my first time butchering an animal up close. My stomach churns at the thought as I am reminded of the dried blood caked beneath my fingernails.
But most important of all, I think to myself, reassuringly, I am training to be a fighter. Aside from being expert woodsmen, rangers are skilled warriors. They are the protectors of the kingdom’s borders and have been for a thousand years.
Or so the legends say.
As we continue our ride, I lose myself in my memories, idly watching the oak and ash trees as they pass by. I think of when I took the ranger’s oath and everything in my life that has brought me to this point. My thoughts carry me back to my childhood in Edenshire, and the idyllic summers I had spent there, playing with the other children and pretending that we were gallant knights.
Consequently, those thoughts eventually bring me back to my mother’s death, so I quickly shift my mind to other things. It pains me to think of her, but I have found that the longer I’ve lived here in the Emberwood, the more I feel a kinship with the rangers. They are my family, now. And the wilderness is where I belong.
I continue to study the forested land surrounding me. Every so often, I catch a glimpse to my left of the Ironback Mountains rising up in the distance. At the base of the mountains, the lowland trees give way to the mighty pines of the north, the landscape becoming more rugged and varied. I have never been to the mountains, but I have heard that they are as dangerous as they are beautiful, replete with savage beasts and rebel fighters.
I am shaken from these thoughts as Elias abruptly pulls his horse to a stop, raising his fist as a signal for me to do the same. I pull on the reins, bringing my horse to a halt and the mule as well.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Elias does not reply. He merely dismounts and walks into a clearing that lies just ahead.
Frowning, I hop out of my saddle and jog to his side. Why have we stopped? I wonder silently. We can’t actually be making camp now. Usually, Elias wants to get as much riding out of the way as possible before the sun goes down.
I open my mouth to voice my question, but the words die on my tongue when I see what has caught Elias’ attention.
The clearing in front of us is littered with lifeless bodies.
I realize, in half-relief and half-horror, that the bloody limbs strewn about are not human but animals. Though it is only a herd of deer, it is still a grisly sight to behold. The clearing, probably no more than twenty paces across, is akin to the floor of a slaughterhouse. A dozen or so carcasses lie scattered about, but it is hard to tell since most of them have been shredded to pieces, gore staining the grass everywhere.
Judging by the smell, they have been out in the sun for more than a few days.
“What happened here?” I ask, my voice barely above a whisper.
“I’m not sure,” Elias replies, sounding genuinely disturbed. For the first time since I’ve known him, he looks shaken. He continues to study the scene in front of us, unease painted plainly on his weathered face. “A predator of some kind would be my guess,” he says after a moment. “Perhaps there is a rabid wolf about.”
I suppress a shiver. “I’ve never seen a wolf do anything like this.”
We move into the clearing to get a closer look at the carnage. The smell is almost unbearable. I choose to breathe through my mouth, but even then, I can barely tolerate it. The rot in the air is so thick I can almost taste it. It takes everything in me to keep from covering my face with my sleeve to block out the stench; the urge to retch almost overwhelms me.
It appears as if an entire army of wolves attacked this herd of deer, only these wolves had no interest in food but simply tearing the animals apart. We walk past the stinking corpses, and I can’t help but wonder if the stag I killed had been a part of this group. Maybe some of these deer were even his family.
That thought sickens me further.
“I need to mark this spot on the map,” Elias says after a few minutes. “The other rangers should be informed about events like these. If there is a rabid animal roaming these woods, we’ll need to be extra careful.”
I watch him go back to the horses as I stay where I am to continue surveying the clearing. Once Elias is gone; however, I quickly cover my mouth and nose with the edge of my cloak.
I notice that some of the deer have long claw marks raking their skin. I crouch down to inspect a particularly ravaged body. These gashes are far too deep to be from common wolves or cougars. And why has most of the meat been left behind to rot? Looking around, I realize that there are also no carrion eaters feasting or even flies buzzing around my head. Where are the buzzards? Where are the crows and the maggots?
Suddenly, I get the feeling I am being watched, an uneasy sensation that prickles my skin and makes me forget about the horrid stench of the corpses.
I turn and look around, scanning for any signs of life.
A branch rustles off to my left, and I spin, trying to locate the source of the disturbance. Again, I see nothing.
But a few seconds later, something emerges from the shadows.
It is a hulking creature resembling a great wolf, only it is unlike any wolf I have ever seen. The figure is as black as midnight with thick, matted fur covering its body from head to tail. Despite its size, it moves through the undergrowth with an easy grace, reminding me of a prowling mountain lion. Great scythe-like claws adorn its feet, and a whip like tail trails behind it, dark and sinewy. Its long, toothy snout lifts up and sniffs the air, revealing a glowing red eye on the side of its monstrous head, and I feel my heart begin to thunder loudly in my chest.
I remember the stories people would whisper when I was a child, tales of monsters that could devour whole villages and fight with the strength of a hundred men. The red eyes of R’Laar are all too common in campfire tales.
Only, this is not a campfire tale.
My breath catches in my throat as I realize exactly what this creature is.
I take a step back and wince as a twig cracks under my foot. Instantly, the demon turns its gaze on me, its eyes like two burning coals smoldering in its skull.
I immediately feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
Pulse pounding, I take a step behind me and nearly trip over the rotting corpse of a deer. I barely manage to catch myself before I start to run, pumping my legs as fast as I can toward Elias and the horses.
“What’s wrong?” my master asks urgently, his eyes darting up from the map he is holding.
“A demon,” I breathe, all pretenses of bravery gone. “Over there, in the trees.” I turn and point, but when I look at the spot where the monster had been, there is nothing there.
It has completely vanished.