The men lined up in an orderly row with hands on their hilts and faces grim. Carlin watched from afar as Paul Blackmore tried to prepare them for what was probably coming. “He usually has about three or four animal friends per region. Since we know the deer isn’t coming to help him, we can look forward to facing two or three animals from this forest. Plus they don’t call him the Horseman for nothing. There’s a wild stallion that follows him most places. He didn’t have it when we saw him today, but that doesn’t mean it’s not here.”
Carlin turned away from Paul’s lessons and glared off into the night. If something was coming, it was coming for him, no doubt. He heard crickets chirping in the distance, as if they were laughing at him in cadence. You are surrounded, they cackled. You can’t defy nature. It is everywhere. If he had the time for it, Carlin would have crushed every cricket within a one-mile radius, maybe a two-mile radius if he were feeling energetic. He reminded himself that hunting for sport was what caused this mess in the first place. That was Paul’s theory anyway. Apparently, killing any creature for sport was an affront to the Venator code of ethics and always required punishment. Especially from anyone wearing Imperial Colors. It would have been nice if Paul would have shared this information the night before, but their guide had been too drunk to explain anything.
This wasn’t the first time they’d had problems with the Venator, and Carlin made a mental note to query his father, The Emperor, about possibly wiping out their kind. They had a mysterious hidden “Lodge” somewhere, but Carlin was sure that Paul could locate it with enough research. Maybe that would put the IHS on the offensive next time.
A branch cracked in the distance and Carlin gripped his sword. At any moment an assailant could come storming out of the woods. They were already hours into the night and the moon was high above them, midway across its journey through the sky. Could it be possible that this Venator wasn’t coming for him? Maybe they’d overreacted.
Suddenly a scream pierced the silence and Carlin turned. It was coming from the other side of the camp. Carlin charged headlong through the camp in the direction of the poor man who had screamed out. On his way there, he heard a roar that could have shaken the earth. A small cadet ran straight past him, in utter terror and Carlin caught the man. “What’s happened?” he asked.
The Cadet, panicked, lashed out at Carlin. Carlin caught his fist and then promptly knocked the man unconscious with his elbow. What an idiot. What could possibly be so terrifying? He bolted past the last tents and suddenly understood the soldier’s fear. Standing at the entrance to the camp was a massive bear with bloodied lips. Its brown hair glistened in the torchlight and it’s muscles rippled under its thick fur.
The thing must have weighed a full ton, and Carlin couldn’t believe that something that large could sustain itself. The beast roared in fury and slammed its massive paws down on an attacking soldier. The man was crushed instantly and impaled on the bear’s claws for good measure. Another man charged it, but the bear operated with stunning speed and agility. It dodged the first swing of the sword and clawed the man to death before the second landed.
Carlin tried to study its movements, but it didn’t move like a normal bear. It didn’t lumber slowly or act confused. It seemed intelligent and even aware of its surroundings in a way that Carlin had never seen before. Whenever a soldier charged at it, it bobbed and weaved its massive body to avoid sustaining injury and then it would exploit any weakness it detected. Carlin noticed that every time someone tried to go for a rifle, the bear would strike him down immediately. This was clearly one of the Horseman’s carnal family. When the bear saw Carlin it’s eyes widened in what could have been recognition. With a mighty roar it charged at him, beastly fury in its eyes.
Carlin was ashamed, but he bolted and ran for his life. The bear gained on him quickly, only to be deterred by a lashing from Anthony Celerius’s sword. The bear lost course momentarily, but corrected itself and continued its attack, even with the deep wound of Anthony’s sword in its flank. It caught one of Carlin’s legs with a savage blow and he toppled to the ground. The bear didn’t hesitate in trying to decapitate Carlin. Carlin weaved out of the way of the first strike, but the second clawed his upper lip in two and he felt warm blood rush into his mouth. Anthony Celerius again drove his sword into the beast’s side and it roared in pain. Carlin took this opportunity to stab it straight through its chest. It collapsed over top of him, dead, and still heavy as ever.
Carlin howled for help until a group of soldiers finally managed to roll the bear off of him. Even then he remained collapsed on the ground, screaming. He didn’t dare use his tongue to assess the damage to his upper lip. He knew that it was either gone or flapping in the wind. Steven eventually carried him to the nearest tent for medical attention. Carlin wanted to protest but he couldn’t form a word to save his life. Not with his mouth full of blood. “Be calm, Carlin,” Steven said. “It’s not that bad.”
Paul entered the tent and gasped out loud. “Did he decide to kiss the damn thing?” he asked.
Steven and Anthony gave him a look. “I’m sorry,” Paul said. “Carlin, it’s not that bad. It looks like you’re smiling.”
Carlin roared in fury. Paul Blackmore couldn’t take anything seriously. At least not when he’d been drinking. Carlin saw Steven reaching for the needle and thread from the medical aid pack and he tried not to whimper. This would not be painless—that much he knew. He’d been stitched up many times, and in many places, but never on his face. Carlin gestured wildly at Paul, and Steven finally nodded in understanding.
“Paul, give him a drink.”
Paul reluctantly pulled a flask out of his jacket and passed it to Steven, who carefully tried to pour it down the back of Carlin’s throat. Carlin gulped and tried not to gasp as the alcohol splashed on his wound and pain seared through him. The heat of the alcohol burned his throat but Carlin knew it would help dull the pain as it coursed through his veins. “A bit more,” Steven said as he continued to pour the liquor in his mouth.
After waiting a few moments to let the alcohol take effect, Steven sewed through his lip and Carlin gripped the bed sheets around him. With the anesthetizing effect of the alcohol, Carlin willed himself to stay calm. Luckily the thread was made of silk this time, and not animal tendon, which was an accepted medical practice when stitching up common men.
Carlin’s eyes settled above him and he realized that a small spider was lowering itself slowly on a tiny strand. It crawled down towards him at an amazing speed and as it crawled closer he could see the red hourglass marking on its back. It was a black widow spider. Carlin screamed and Steven almost jumped, which would have torn Carlin’s lip right off. “I know it hurts. But you don’t want to lose the lip.”
Carlin pointed vaguely above his head. The alcohol, adrenaline and blood loss was making him dizzy. The spider fell; ready to sink its fangs into Carlin’s bloody face and finish the Horseman’s plan. Luckily Anthony Celerius caught it between his gloved fingers just before it could accomplish its assassination. He crushed it instantly, saving them all from its vicious bite. Carlin exhaled through his bloody lips and allowed Steven to finish the stitches. When he was done, Carlin rested his head on the pillow and tried not to move a single muscle in his face. “We have to pull out. Tonight.” Steven said to his men.
Normally Carlin wouldn’t support running from a fight, but this was different. He had lost all confidence in their ability to defeat the Horseman even though his two animal servants, the bear and the spider, were dead. “You can leave whenever. Just leave me some men to help remove and pack the tents,” Paul said.
“I say we leave the tents,” Anthony said. “We can’t lose any more men over this.”
“The Horseman could be waiting for us in the woods,” Paul noted.
“He doesn’t want all of us,” Anthony said quietly. “Just Carlin.”
Everyone tried not to look at their damaged comrade. “We can’t just put him right in the Horseman’s crosshairs,” Steven said.
Carlin heaved as he turned over in the bed. “That’s exactly what we should do.” Talking burned his lips but he managed. “Spring a trap on him.”
“Did you have something in mind?” Steven asked.
“It’s all I can think about,” Carlin hissed as blood streamed down his chin.