(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
All day we had followed the beast, over the rocky heights
of the pass, and now, in the late afternoon light, its spoor was so clear that
I knew it could be only a short distance ahead. And once or twice I even
fancied I could hear it, a moaning call like a trumpet echoing faintly in the
"It is very close," the
guide confirmed, his voice shaking.
I scarcely bothered
glancing at him. He was one of the villagers of the mountains, short of
stature, broad of shoulder, uncouth of speech, and utterly in awe of the beast,
which of course he had never seen. I knew well enough that but for the enormous
amount I had already paid his chief, and promised more, he would never have
agreed to guide me.
"Are you afraid?" I asked
quietly, my eyes on the path. Up ahead, where the walls of rock reached higher
still, there was a hint of movement, as though something had just passed. But
surely we couldn't be so close, not yet; it must have been my imagination.
"It will kill us," he
said. "When we catch up with it, it will kill us both."
"At most," I replied
mildly, "it will kill me, only. You can make a run
for it." We spoke quietly, but there wasn't much of a point of maintaining
silence. The creature was aware that we were on its trail. It had been aware
"I've been chasing it for
many years," I had told the chief in the village, while trying to persuade him
to give me a guide. He had been obdurate at first, maintaining that he would
not send any of his men to certain death, no matter how much I was willing to
pay. "Ever since I was a young man, I have been determined to hunt it down. And
I have a commission to destroy it, from the king."
He had looked at me
queerly, his wispy white beard waggling over the cup of greenish tea. "You have
been so?" he had asked, in his thick accented dialect, which I still could not
manage to understand completely despite the years I spent hunting in these
hills. "You tell me something. Why?"
"Why?" I'd paused at the
question. In all the years of my quest, it was the first time anyone had asked
it. Down in the cities, the answer might be assumed to be self-evident. "It's
an evil beast," I'd responded, "a cruel, devouring monster. It has devastated
whole provinces, and must be destroyed."
"Hunters have tried
before," the chief had said, surprisingly clearly, and not for the first time
I'd wondered if his thick rustic accent weren't partly assumed. "Over the years
– the decades – many hunters have tried. Some had commissions too. You know
what happened to them."
I'd nodded in
acknowledgement. "I know. But I am prepared, as they were not. I have hunted
down the creature for years, and I am still alive. And you can see that the
beast flees before me, until I am only a short way behind it. A few days only,
and I shall have it in my power."
He'd glanced at my great crossbow, leaning
against the wall. "And you will kill it then – with that?"
"Yes, my bolts are treated
with the warlocks' poison," I'd informed him. I remembered the warlocks' hall
in the capital, where the black-robed mages had hovered over ancient grimoires
and bubbling cauldrons, quenching the ivory-tipped bolts in nameless potions
until the heads were dark as pitch. Ivory, they had told me, was the only way
to break the beast's skin; metal would do it no harm whatsoever. They had also
done other magic, which they said would keep me from harm until I had found the
beast. Once I'd caught up with it, though, I'd be on my own – except for their
poison bolts. "You know the poison will melt flesh off bone, even such flesh as
the creature has."
"Aye," he'd acknowledged.
"So it is said. But do ye know that even if ye kill the beast, there will be
another to take its place?"
I'd noticed that he was
slipping back into the dialect. "There's but the one," I'd told him. "Once
there were many, but they were all killed, and this is the very last. Only one
in the whole wide world, and when it's slain, there will never be any more."
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