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The Imperial Hunting Squadron trekked through the woods with swords out. Carlin wasn’t particularly nervous on this hunt. It’s not like they were hunting a Venator; Nikolai Taurlum was nearly seven feet tall and couldn’t exactly hide in the underbrush. If he were in this forest, they’d find him. Paul led the way; he was their guide after all. Steven hadn’t allowed Paul to drink today and it showed. There were deep bags under his eyes and every inconvenience frustrated him beyond reason. At one point in the day, he’d stubbed his toe on a rock and then had thrown a massive temper tantrum. This kind of weakness annoyed Carlin, but Paul Blackmore knew the outside world intimately and they needed his expertise.
The squadron came to a clearing and Steven ordered them to rest for a while. Carlin leaned against a rock and drank from his canteen. Anthony came and sat with him. “Think we’ll find him?”
Carlin shook his head while he drank deeply and drops of water spilled down his chin. “This happens every time. Someone claims to have seen him; we search for a week and find nothing. Either Nikolai Taurlum is a genius,” the unlikelihood of that was apparent to both of them, “or we’re chasing ghost stories.”
Anthony drank from his canteen in silent agreement. Further away Steven Celerius was pacing uncomfortably. He had his hands outstretched and creases had appeared on his forehead. Something was worrying him. His advanced Celerius ability allowed him to send vibrations through the air and picture the land around him. When he felt something in the distance, it was reason for them all to be concerned. “Stand,” he told Carlin and Anthony. They did.
“Is it Nikolai?” Anthony asked.
Steven shook his head. “Someone’s in the trees.”
“Venator,” Paul said. He cleared his throat and then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello up there! We mean you no harm.”
Carlin heard rustling in the trees and eventually in the bushes. The Venator entered the clearing warily, with a bow in hand and a quiver of arrows at his back. He was almost a head taller than anyone else in the clearing and Carlin noticed that he wasn’t wearing any armor. Instead, his clothing was tight fitting and efficient looking, except for the green and black scarf wrapped around his neck. He had long brown hair tied into a bun and the sharp hazel eyes for which the Venator were famous. His attire didn’t hide his age, despite his obvious efforts. The Venator was a teenager, barely on the cusp of manhood. He was as still as the trees around him, even though he had an arrow notched and pulled tight. “I assume you are the Horseman?” Paul Blackmore asked.
“I am,” he said. His fingers didn’t loosen their grip around the bow. “May I ask what you’re doing in this forest?”
Steven chose to assert his dominance as leader of the Imperial Hunting Squadron by speaking for the group. “We are hunting a fugitive of the Empire. His name is Nikolai Taurlum.”
The Horseman shook his head vacantly. “Taurlum have very loud footsteps. If he were in the area, I’d be able to hear him.”
“We appreciate that information,” Steven said.
It was clear by the sound of Steven’s voice that he was tense. Making a Venator angry was a death sentence, Carlin was sure. They were born to be perfect killing machines with their super powered senses and flat affect. “Maybe you can help me with something,” the Venator said as he lowered his bow. “I’m looking for a very special animal. Maybe you’ve seen him.”
The blood rushed out of Carlin’s face and he was sure that every loose eye in the clearing was on him. The Horseman noticed the disturbance and locked eyes with Carlin. “Perhaps you know the animal. He is a buck. Weighs roughly three-hundred and eighteen pounds.”
Steven looked trapped. Carlin knew the General was weighing his two options: turn over Carlin, or lie to the Lightborn that controlled this forest. “What makes this animal so special?” Paul asked, saving them all from the treacherous silence.
“You are Paul Blackmore,” the Horseman said. “You should know why.”
Paul smiled. “My reputation proceeds me in these parts, I guess.” Paul puffed out his chest a bit.
“You’ve been walking these paths and setting up camps. Your smell precedes you,” the Horseman replied, without malice.
Carlin was almost certain that this “Horseman” just wanted to boast his super human senses to the group. “So why’s the buck important to him?” Carlin asked Paul.
A little dejected, Paul replied, “It’s his advanced ability. He can talk to animals.”
“I don’t speak with them. I train them by sending thoughts into their minds. We create a relationship over the course of thousands of interactions.” The Venator was patient, but Carlin assumed he’d be less patient when he saw his deer.
“There are many deer in this forest,” Carlin said.
“Not many like this one,” the Horseman said. “This one is not indigenous to this area. I asked him to wait here for me, but when I stopped feeling his connection, I expected the worst.”
Carlin wanted to scoff. This kid was a nut job. He’d seen a lot of Lightborns do a lot of impressive things, but controlling animals with one’s mind seemed a little far-fetched. “We haven’t seen your friend,” Carlin said. “I’d start training another deer.” He crossed his arms to emphasize his point and the Venator stared intensely at him.
“Then I suppose I’ll be on my way,” the Venator said, without releasing Carlin from his icy stare. As he retreated, backwards, into the woods they heard something in the trees above them.
Steven turned to glare at Carlin. He beckoned the sergeant to him. Carlin approached, trying not to shake with fear, or maybe it was rage. Steven pulled a map from his pack and silently signaled for someone to bring him a writing instrument. Once the quill and ink were produced, he scribbled a message. “Go back to camp. Cut down the deer and throw it on the pyre.”
It wasn’t clear to Carlin why he was writing at first, but then he remembered the Venator’s fine-tuned ability to hear. There were no secret conversations in this forest. Carlin packed his things as silently as he could and hurried back down the path. Every couple moments he heard the branches above his head rustle and his heart began pounding harder than before. It could be squirrels, or even just the wind, but it could also be the Horseman. And the savage could be lining up a shot straight through his skull with an arrow.
The trek somehow seemed longer when he was running alone and he bolted down the wrong path a few times. The thickening foliage was enough to inform him that he was going the wrong way. Eventually he could see the tents in the distance and he blew past the guards standing out front. When he reached his tent, he exhaled with relief. The flap was closed, just as he’d left it. He pulled it open and his breath caught in his throat. The deer, which had once been hanging in the center of the tent, was now lying on the floor, using Carlin’s bed sheet as a makeshift funeral shroud.
Carlin entered and drew his broadsword. Blood from where the hooks had been removed stained the sheet and Carlin approached the fallen deer with the upmost tact and precision. The Horseman could be in the tent somewhere. It was also possible that he was being watched with the Venator’s super human sight. Carlin exited the tent and looked around the camp. He’d ran right back here, aside from a few wrong turns, so it wasn’t possible that the Venator had been there long before him. It was also a possibility that he was still here. “Men!” Carlin roared. “Come here. Now.”
The men close enough to hear him lined up in front of him, hands on their weapons. “Our camp may have been infiltrated by a Venator. I want him found and I want him captured.”
“Are we able to use lethal force?”
Carlin gritted his teeth. “If you can kill him, do it.”
He knew that he was giving useless orders, but maybe his men would at least spot the infiltrator. They’d never be able to kill him though. A Venator could squash a group of newly trained cadets one by one like they were a bushel of grapes. Carlin made a perimeter around the camp a few times and even searched the other tents, but he found no savages lurking there. Eventually he did find the Horseman. He was about a mile off at the tree line, watching Carlin scramble. At least Carlin thought it might be the Horseman. It was hard to see him from that far away. To the sergeant’s frustration, if it really were the Horseman, he’d be able to see Carlin in perfect detail thanks to his super human sight.
He kept up this staring contest for until the figure vanished into the trees. Carlin then immediately rounded up the men. “We are conducting watches all night tonight. I will have five men awake and patrolling at all times.” Before anyone could protest, he added. “I will stand guard with them. Sharpen your swords and load what rifles we have. Tonight I fear that we will face a powerful Lightborn. While I understand that he is very well trained, I also believe in my men and their ability to work together. No Lightborn is a match for the raw power of a squadron working in harmony.”
He wanted to sound inspiring with his speech, but the looks on their faces told him that he’d come off as demanding and harsh. They could probably sense the fear and exasperation bubbling underneath his skin. “Now!” he commanded.
The men hurried off, and Carlin strolled to the center of the camp. He sat by the pyre and sharpened his broadsword. When Steven and his men returned at dusk they gathered around. No questions were asked. There was no need. Everyone knew what was about to happen. Paul went to his tent and later came back with a drink in hand. Steven and Anthony joined Carlin by the pyre to sharpen their swords. They’d need them tonight.
They’d arrived in this land as hunters. How incredibly foolish of them. The real hunter was coming, and the Imperial Hunting Squadron had turned from a gang of warriors into a frightened herd of cattle, primed and prepped for slaughter. No amount of armor or weaponry could hide what they really were as the sun fell. In the darkness with the Horseman, they were not hunters. They were prey.