The tracks I followed were certainly feline, yet my patrons had neglected to inform me that my quarry walked upright on two legs. While the large cat I pursued was nimble, its claws left easy-to-follow imprints in the soil. The ever-shifting Wilds was quick to wash away disturbances, but the path of this hunting cat left a distinctly harmful trail. It was as if the plush soil had suffered a drought within the sharp talon imprints.
I didn’t have any spell craft to harness, but I recognized magic’s effect on the environment. This big cat radiated arcane power, which explained how it managed to pierce the faerie veil and strike down creatures I had assumed were immortal.
When my patrons showed me the bodies, it was my first time seeing the faerie lords without their illusory disguises. Some of them had protruding bones emerging from their skin like antlers. Leathery wings bound the arms and legs of another. A few of them had skin peeling off like dried leaves.
These royal victims were torn apart in the woods and executed deep within the security of their castles. All attempts to magically locate this predator had failed, which was why my patrons needed a low-to-the-ground tracker to give chase.
I finally found a patch of its fur after tracking it through the night. As I bent down to examine its shade and texture, my foot slipped into a snare. A branch hidden by a touch of illusion snapped up. I bounced against the tree that tossed me and fell with the rope bounding taut against my ankle, leaving me hanging upside down out of reach from the ground.
My bow was still clutched firmly in my grasp. I reached back and plucked a single arrow from the tumbling cascade falling from my quiver. While swinging upside down with a quarter inch of rope rocking me back and forth, I notched an arrow and pulled the string back. Before I could shoot for the snare bound to my ankle, an ice-cold claw wedged beneath my jawbone.
“Ease off your bowstring, or I’ll bleed you out here,” he said, catching me off guard since I hadn’t expected the predator to speak. His words were Faeren, and thankfully I understood the language from the company I kept.
His threat was gruff like a man’s yet trailed with an accenting purr of a cat. Gold irises, split by a vertical pupil, steadily stared back at me. His fur was a sleek black texture like a panther’s, except for a patch of stark white fur lining his nose and rounding his eyes like an imprint of a skull. His regal leather armor looked well-made but hung loose on him. From the dried blood stains, I assumed he had taken the closest fitting size off a corpse.
I slowly released the tension of my arrow as I followed his command. With the clarity of hindsight, I realized the entire trail had been a trap. From the claw imprints to the intentionally left behind clump of fur, every track had been intentional, and I fell for each step.
“Drop the bow and the arrow.”
I tossed my bow, which landed sideways beside the trail while the arrow fell with its head planted into the soil. With the cat man’s claw still wedged under my jaw, I kept my mouth shut.
“What’s your name, huntsman?” he asked.
“I, I don’t really remember anymore. I gave it up in a deal.”
“You’re one of their middlemen. In exchange for your name, did they at least give you a boon of permission to leave this cursed place?”
“You are going to get me out of here!” It was the first time the cat man lost his collected composure. I could tell he wanted passage more than he wanted to kill me, and it was the only leverage I had.
“I can take you to the border. Just a head’s up, I’ve never seen a cat person in the Civilized Realms. You might be jumping out of a frying pan just to land in the fire.”
His claw pressed further into my neck as a sharp pain poked through my skin. I felt the warm trickle of blood flow down my cheek and dampen my hair before dripping onto the forest floor below. A miniature feeding frenzy broke out beneath me as vines constricted around shrubs and foliage. Larger bushes and plants uprooted themselves to scurry away from the bloodshed.
“I’m not asking for your advice. I just need you to lead the way out of this awful place.”
“And I need assurances that you won’t disembowel me the moment we leave the Wilds. You’re smart enough to know I can lead you the wrong way if I think I have a better chance of surviving.”
“I could just kill you and take your stuff. You work for those monsters. Anything to make their lives harder will help me.”
“Then you’ll still be stuck in their forest. My terms and simple. Cut me down, let me walk with my weapons aimed at the ground, and once we get out of here, we go our separate ways. It’s the only way we both get out of here.”
He raised his clawed hand and swiped at the rope above my ankle. I dropped to the ground and landed hard on my shoulder. I got up and dusted myself off while retrieving my scattered arrows.
“The journey will likely take somewhere between two days and two weeks. It’s part of why it’s so easy to get lost here. Either way, we’re going to be spending some time together. You can call me Huntsman if you need to get my attention. Is there anything I should call you?”
There was a thought-out pause as he weighed giving me his name. The faerie drew power from names, both given and assumed. The more weight someone gave to a particular title, the more pull it had over them. The most cautious route dictated that we remain strangers during our time together, but distrust bred ill omens in the Wilds. Just as spilled blood twisted the nearby nature towards violence, emotions had the power to bend these enchanted woods.
“My name’s Reaper.”
“Follow me, Reaper.”
We studied each other for the first few hours while pretending we weren’t. Reaper stalked through the woods with hunched shoulders and spread claws at the ready for an ambush. His tail swept the ground behind him, smoothing our tracks as we went. When the trail got tough, he was comfortable crawling low on all fours and could leap to higher branches with a single bound.
After a half day of silence between us, Reaper spoke up first. “Do you remember anything from your life before you lost your mind working for them?”
“I had parents, at least for a little while. My dad was conscripted for some distant king’s cause. I don’t know what the Civilized Realms were fighting for, but my dad died over it. Then my mother got sick. I was supposed to take care of her, but I went farther into the Wilds than I should have in search of food. I made a deal with the locals to return home, but decades had passed during the afternoon I was lost.”
“And your mother?”
“Gone. A whole town was built over the cottage we lived in. There were a lot of people there, and very few of them spoke the same language as me.”
“How’d you end up back in the service of the faeries?”
“It wasn’t long before the Civilized Realms were gearing up for their next war. I fled to the Wilds, which at least I understood. Any time an army drew near, I could slip out of time for a while and keep my peace.”
“So, you fled your kind to be a servant far from home?”
“Sometimes it’s easier to forget than be around what hurts to remember.”
“I’d rather lose my life than my memories.” Reaper stretched his mouth wide, and I saw how sharp his teeth were.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why were you hunting the faerie lords? I saw the bodies. What you did to them seemed personal.”
“They have huntsmen too. It’s a hobby amongst their nobility, but they got bored hunting simple prey. They crafted the catkin, my kind, to make their sport a bit more challenging. We’re born running from their hunting parties, and only the fastest grow up at all. We’re lucky to get a couple of hours of sleep each night, and the screams of the first to fall alert the rest of us that it’s time to run again.”
The Wilds had become tougher to pass through as we hiked. It looked like a storm had rolled through the area and knocked down all the old trees. I considered hunkering down and waiting for calmer terrain to trek through, but I felt in my gut that we had to push through the debris to make any progress.
“What about the rest of your kind? It looks to me like you’re leaving them behind.”
“When the hunting parties learned what I was capable of, they stopped hunting and began slaughtering the catkin. I’m all that’s left.”
“I’m sorry for your losses. What they’ve done to you is cruel.”
“Keep your focus on getting us out of here. I need to survive for the memories of my people to endure.”
We marched through soggy and damp terrain with mud riding up our trousers and specking everything above our waists. Reaper never complained, but he shivered through his wet fur. I kept my eye out for dry lodgings, and just before nightfall, I found us a cave. Together we approached and found the space abandoned. We were of the same mind that a fire would do more harm by attracting the wrong kind of attention, and we could both handle being cold.
Reaper took the first watch, and when I awoke, my bow was in his possession. He didn’t hide the gesture and simply curled up on top of it when it was his turn to sleep. His tail constantly swayed back and forth, ever alert even while the rest of his body lightly slumbered.
I had my knife, but I would have to get close to use it. I still didn’t know what Reaper intended to do once we made it out of the Wilds, and my patrons did not react kindly to failed jobs. If I were ever to betray him, this would be the moment.
While watching Reaper sleep, I thought about what each night of his must have felt like during the endless hunting seasons. Despite all the risks it entailed, I kept watch against the night should anything try to surprise us. When morning came, Reaper arched his back in a long stretch and left my bow on the ground for me to retrieve so we could continue our journey as promised.
The way back was never the same as the way there, and it took much longer to get out than venture in. Our journey took us the long way around basilisk dens and siren waters. We crossed vast tallgrass prairies on our bellies to avoid being seen by strolling giants. By the end of three days, we found ourselves at the border between the Wilds and the Civilized Realms.
I pointed toward the setting sun. “If you’re looking to lay low, the land to the West of here is sparsely populated. To the North and South are more cities than I can name. Sadly, they don’t take kindly to anything from the Wilds. They won’t see you as a victim with a shared enemy. They’ll just see a cat face and think you’re one of them.”
“Thank you for the help, Huntsman. You were true to your word.” Reaper grew still as his standing legs dug into the soft ground.
“Do you intend to honor our arrangement?” I already had an arrow notched. I had one ready throughout our journey, just in case. My fingers grew tense as I waited for his next move.
“Faeries treat minds like open doors. If they learn I’m free, they’ll come looking. Killing you would do no good either since they'd still realize I made it out. There is one thing that may protect us both.”
“And what’s that?”
“I could alter your memory in our favor by convincing you that you killed me. You’ll probably earn a large reward if the faerie lords believe you.”
“How generous of you.”
“Would you try to stop me?”
I slipped my arrow back into its quiver and rested my bow over my shoulder. “I’ve been charmed and hypnotized more times than I remember. Maybe this time, it might do some good. It was nice knowing you, Reaper. Do what you need to do.”
Reaper took a step forward, then hissed as he turned away. “I don’t think I can anymore. Not without hating myself. That’s their trick, not mine. Your life is yours. I don’t want to change it for you.”
“I don’t know what to do with it,” I stammered.
“Not my problem. Good luck, Huntsman.”
Reaper walked toward the path beside the forest clearing and lowered himself on all fours. With every step, his body shrunk until he was the size of a house cat. He wiggled free of his now oversized leather cuirass and left the faerie armor in a clump by the side of the road.
“Hey, Reaper, wait up!” I said while chasing after him. I picked up the armor and threw it over my shoulder while running.
The black cat with the white-skull imprint on his face turned back to me. He opened his little mouth, and I heard the same voice as the man I had spent the last few days conversing with. “Yes, Huntsman?”
“This is fine armor. You can sell it in the next town you visit. Make sure they give you a good price for it. It’ll be much easier to start a new life with some extra coin in your pocket.”
Reaper tilted his head as if perplexed. If anyone were passing by, they too would likely find it odd that a human was handing a cat a bloody set of armor.
“Do you understand what money is?” I asked.
“Is it something you eat?”
“You can exchange it for food. I might as well accompany you for a while. At least until the next town. Just to make sure you don’t get lost.”
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Max: Your ability to draw in and simultaneously entertain your reader is well developed. Your careful maneuvering of description and word choice display a natural focus for adding detail without wordiness. Great job on the fantasy aspect and easy explanations about the treachery of the fae. You've create a powerful story. I enjoyed the read.
Thank you, Deb! That is really nice to hear. 😁
Max, I loved your warrior cat, well trained in both combat and magic, at the same time never missing a good stretch. This sold me on Reaper: 'an ice-cold claw wedged beneath my jawbone.' The ruthless faeries and their oppressive ruling–and especially their gruesome, graphic deaths!–are a fresh and fascinating take on these (usually diaphanous) magical creatures. I liked how you built the friendship that sealed the quest on which Reaper and his friend embark on. Also liked how you introduced a subtly hostile nature, mirroring the malicio...
Thank you so much, Alina! I'm glad you liked the story. Thanks for reading!