Carlin had been given five different orders in the past two hours to stay back at the camp. Of course, he didn’t listen. The Horseman had taken his face, so in return Carlin would take his life, or something as equally precious. He hadn’t decided yet. Steven had told Carlin (very carefully) that his upper lip would never fully heal. A piece was missing. Carlin would forever be scowling in disgust and baring his top teeth at whoever had the displeasure of looking at him. To make matters worse, he would never be able to smile again without putting himself in considerable pain. Even if he did manage it, he was sure that any smile would make him look like a psychopath.
Despite the feeling of despair that had washed over him upon hearing this news, he’d just laughed thinly at Steven and said, “I was never much for smiling anyways. If it had to be anyone, it’s good that it happened to me.”
Steven had smiled back, but Carlin could tell that the General was worried about his mental state. It didn’t matter to Carlin though. He couldn’t care less what worried Steven Celerius. His mouth still bled despite the stitches, and was irritated by the cold forest air. He tried to ignore it. There was business to be done. The Horseman had to be taken out.
Carlin walked with Steven through the woods towards a gorge that Paul had told them about. Ideally the Horseman would sniff them out and follow them in pursuit of the final kill. The best sniper’s position was at the edge of the gorge looking down on the two of them, and with any luck that’s the position that the Horseman would take. Anthony was fast enough to corner the Horseman and; hopefully, he was fast enough to make sure the bastard didn’t escape. The plan wasn’t perfect, but Anthony was a good soldier and could probably adapt to a change in circumstances if needed.
The terrain changed beneath their feet and Carlin saw the land around him begin to stretch upward. They were entering the gorge. He was hoping that the Horseman would be able to smell his blood even from high above him. “I’ll be sensing to see if he’s there,” Steven said.
“At least if he shoots me dead you’ll have a good sense of his location,” Carlin mumbled. Steven seemed to comprehend despite Carlin’s butchered attempt to form words with his damaged lip.
They kept their voices low. Even lower than a whisper, just in case he was near enough to hear them. Carlin thought he saw a figure at the top of the steep walls of the gorge and his heart began to pump. That probably wasn’t good for the amount of blood that he was leaking, but he was thankful for the adrenaline. They reached the deepest point in the gorge and Carlin stared at the cliffs around him. He was an athletic man, and given a few minutes he could certainly climb his way out, but that would certainly not be a wise decision. The Horseman could shoot him off of the gorge walls without an ounce of effort.
Eventually Steven stiffened. “He’s lining up his shot,” he said almost too quietly for Carlin to hear.
“Where?” It was little more than a breath.
“To your upper right.”
In one instant there was nothing, and in the next Steven Celerius had caught an arrow, inches from Carlin’s eye. The two of them exhaled in relief and Carlin resisted the urge to collapse in the dirt. He squinted and could see the Horseman far above them, notching another arrow to his bow. He turned suddenly and fired it in a direction that Carlin couldn’t see. Presumably the arrow had been fired at Anthony. Carlin saw this as an opportunity to bolt up a path that led through the rock and toward the top of the gorge. Every step was harder than the last but he pushed himself without relent until he reached the top.
He took a moment to find the two Lightborns dueling there. Anthony had lost his sword and the two of them were resorting to hand to hand combat. Anthony was quicker, but the Venator was twice as precise. Eventually he caught Anthony in a hold and hurled him right off the edge of the gorge. Carlin bit his tongue to keep from gasping. The Celerius had the ability to heal from injuries that didn’t involve his heart or head. If Anthony’s head hadn’t cracked open, he was probably still alive.
The Horseman notched an arrow and aimed it down at the bottom of the gorge. Carlin was there with his sword drawn before the Venator could let it fly. Apparently distraction was the key to getting the jump on their kind. Carlin held the sword to the Horseman’s neck. “All this for a damn deer?” Carlin asked.
“Hunting for sport cannot go unpunished,” the Horseman said. “You killed that deer just to beat its body. You never planned to eat it.”
“How do you know?” Carlin asked. “Maybe I was just tenderizing it.”
The Horseman pulled his bow a little tighter and Carlin pressed the blade to his throat. A small drop of blood dripped onto his scarf. “How many have died over this?” Carlin asked. “Your bear and spider weren’t killed for sport. They were killed because you sent them after me. You made me fight for my life.”
“If you truly understood the value of life, you would be the first member of the Empire to do so.”
His bowstring was still held tight and aimed right down at Anthony Celerius. He was rising, but badly injured. His Uncle was surveying his wounds. A villainous thought appeared in Carlin’s mind and he tried to crush it. If this arrow were to pierce Anthony’s heart, Carlin would no doubt be promoted to Lieutenant. The Horseman noticed his hesitation and narrowed his eyes. Carlin tried not to notice that the Horseman was still in perfect position to execute his comrades. Anthony already looked to be in bad shape. At least he would die for a purpose. He wouldn’t be “killed for sport” as it were.
The Horseman fired off the arrow without warning and Carlin knocked the bow off course at the last second. The arrow did not fly true and instead it imbedded itself in Anthony’s hand. He screamed loudly enough for them both to hear it, but at least he would live. Carlin tried to decapitate the Venator but he’d lost his chance by shifting the bow from its aim. The Horseman rolled out of reach and stepped back a few feet. Carlin advanced but something in the Horseman’s eye told him that he was in danger. This was the “advanced ability” look that Lightborns had when they were summoning power. He’d seen it in Steven Celerius and also in Anthony. The Horseman was summoning something.
Carlin heard the hoof beats far off in the distance and he drew his sword. “Didn’t you wonder why they call me the Horseman?”
The Venator tried to run but Carlin tackled him. They were away from the gorge and near the forest again. Carlin knew that if his enemy reached the trees he’d be gone. He delivered a few solid punches before the Horseman kicked him off. Carlin reclaimed his sword and swung it at his enemy. The Horseman pulled an arrow from his quiver and fired it without aiming. It landed in Carlin’s leg. He howled in pain and the Venator turned to run. Carlin broke off the shaft and left the arrowhead in his leg to stop the bleeding.
He heard the hoof beats coming closer, but by the time he realized exactly how close they were, it was too late.
The grey stallion trampled him and then retreated to the Horseman’s side. Carlin, inexplicitly, was alive and didn’t seem to have any broken bones. He was battered though. The Horseman fired another arrow and Carlin managed to dodge it. He pulled a knife from his belt and launched it into the Horseman’s side. The Horseman suppressed a scream, but the agony showed in the veins that bulged from his neck.
Carlin was not an avid appreciator of beauty, but the Horseman’s stallion was captivating. It was the largest horse that Carlin had ever seen, and was worth more than ten Imperial horses, no contest. Its well-kept mane even matched the Venator’s deep brown hair. Even at first glance it was completely understandable why the Horseman had chosen that name. If it were Carlin’s horse he would have named himself after it as well. It trotted back and forth behind its master, prepared to answer any order, and Carlin knew that his odds of living were narrowing.
The Horseman notched an arrow and the horse charged at the same time. They were in perfect sync, as Carlin expected. He had one more knife stashed away and he figured he’d have to use it soon, but pulling it too early would be a mistake. He blocked the arrow by reflecting it off of his metal gauntlet and somersaulted out of the horse’s way. He knew that he had to make a decision quickly; use his knife on the horse, or the Horseman.