The Long Hunter

It was too hot for this, he thought. Kaichin, he could use a drink. A cloud of dust billowed up around him every time he took a step. He was large, impossibly large—a small army moving in one man.

Kaichin, it was hot! Seven years of slowly rotting in an underground cell was not helping the situation, either. It was too bright, too hot, too dry for him. A shame, really, that the Walking Death was withering in the light.

Oh, but it was time for revenge. They would pay for the time he'd spent atrophying under the dark forest. They would come to face the facts this time. He was powerful—so powerful that had it taken every member of their order to imprison him. The mortals around him would learn to fear and revere him. Power was his. He would keep it, this time.

He could feel the air changing as he moved. The sky was growing grey; the air became damp and chilly. Fog had begun curling around his feet in place of the dust. He knew what was happening—their order specialized in elemental magic. It was a trick to frighten him. And she, in the middle of the path, had obviously been sent by them.

She was a slender thing, and not half his height. She was staring at him with wide eyes, but didn't seem frightened. She carried a halberd with a ragged red ribbon tied near the top.

"Girl, what are you doing?"

She made a show of looking around her. "It seems I am standing here," she said.

"In my way," he said, trying not to laugh. Had they really sent just her? He was Walking Death. He would crush her before she could scream. "With your weapon drawn. To prohibit me from going."

"Am I really," she intoned.

"Move, little girl."

"I am only standing."

"Whore-girl," he said. "You know who I am?"

"You are the Walking Death," she said. "You slaughtered Igena and Sareka in the same day."

"Very good," he said. "Now move. I have revenge to make. I am late."

"I am only standing."

He narrowed his eyes. He knew this game. "I confess, whore-girl, I don't know what your order is thinking."

"Don't you." Nothing she said was a question; nothing she said indicated surprise, fear, or even contempt.

"Are you the one they sent to deal with me? They can't have forgotten me in seven years, or think that I've weakened in any way." He considered her. She really was just a slender slip of a thing, pleasant to look at, at least. Her skin was pale and smooth, untouched by battle. What were they thinking, in their high alabaster towers? "Are you the decoy? Yes, you must be. You are sent here to detain me. I cannot make a move against you without starting war again, and they must think I wouldn't want that. Perhaps they think I have reformed? Yes. You are here to make me wait, at least until your masters have cleaned up their cowardly piss." He looked at her halberd. Untouched, like her. "Do they think we will wait forever, here? I, unable to move forward; you, unable to leave?"

"We will wait here."

"How frustrating that must be for you," he said. "I know that people like you are drafted forcefully into their ranks. Don't you have something waiting for you, away from me?"

"I have things," she said. "They are here."

He snorted. "You won't react to me, I see. Training, no doubt. I must make the first move. I touch you and it is an act of war, and your order can move against me. I do nothing, and your order rests easy."

"I will wait."

"I won't, little whore-girl," he said. "It is my turn now. I will rain death over your order and its towers. And I will not start war, because I will go around you."

He moved to the side and began moving forward. She watched him for a moment before saying, "Well done. You have won the game."

He stopped. "What do you mean?" He looked at her again. She didn't really look like anyone in their order, he thought. Too little. "Ah. You are sent from somewhere else, to the south, perhaps? An amusing little game."

"You have the won the game," she repeated. She pointed her halberd at him. "And now the battle begins."

He was taken aback for a moment. "I have not started war."

"I have."

"So that is your game!" he cried, suddenly delighted. "Yes, little girl, I will play! Come, if you know me so well. I will be your death."

"No," she said. The halberd began to glow faintly blue. He felt a force hit his chest, like the earth was moving against him, and was flung back. With a wild roar, he picked himself up. He pounded his giant fists into the ground, and the earth erupted underneath. Her wide eyes never leaving him, she rose into the air as the halberd glowed.

"Little witch," he snarled. He punched the air hard, and felt the wind try to resist his power. But the halberd glowed, and the force of his blow meant nothing. She swung the halberd in a wide arc, missing him by full yards. A line of blood slashed across his stomach anyway.

"What is this?" he growled. When he wasn't attacking, she only watched him. "You—what are you?" He watched her, floating in the air, resting against a cushion of magic. An enchanted halberd? Magic was not wielded this way! It was a function of self, not a vessel. "Ah, that's it. You yourself are a vessel, so your halberd is a part of you." Her eyebrows rose, though her eyes said nothing, as if the suggestion was ludicrous, but not the first time it had been made. "Are you a golem, little girl? Do the magic words in your head make you move?"

"Will that help you to sleep better in the darkness when you die?" she asked.

"What?"

"If it will help your death be better, I will be it," she said.

"No, I don't think it would."

"Then I am not."

"It's all just words anyway!" he snarled, punching the air between them again.

"If I say I am, I am. If I am not, I am not."

"You are a golem!"

"I suppose not."

He closed the distance between them, enraged. He snatched the halberd from her hands, and it—either it or she—did not react. The glow faded as it left her hand. Then both his fists connected with her stomach, and she was sent flying.

He nudged the halberd with his boot. "You don't mess with Death, whore-girl."

"A lesson it would do you well to learn."

He felt his breath catch. Nothing could survive his fists. Nothing. He had stripped her of her magic. He had felt her body break beneath him. But she was rising out of the fog anyway, her halberd glowing again as it flew to meet her hand. "Come and meet me again, Walking Death. Let us fight."

Time whiled by—how much, he could not say. The girl could dodge every swing he took, while there seemed to be no end to the reach of her halberd. She remained impassive, whether dodging or striking.

"Do you toy with me, girl?" he howled. "Why don't you kill me? Isn't that your purpose?"

"Yes," she said. Before he could blink she was standing just in front of him. "Very well. Die now." He was surprised as the halberd burst through his back. It seemed so brutal for her.

The ground was cool as he collapsed, a welcome change from the scorching dry earth he'd marched over. The girl had not moved, and stood watching him with her bloody halberd. "You are a golem," he rasped.

"I am not," she said.

"Aren't you supposed to ask me if it'll be better for me?"

"I am not," she said again. "It will do you no harm to know. I have a job to do and I do it, but I am no golem."

"Then it is all just words," he said, a painful laugh bubbling in his throat. "You little whore, it's all just words."

She moved closer to him, peering down at his face. "No," she said quietly.

"Who are you?" he demanded, letting out a rasping cough. "I must know." There was no answer, and he thought he was going to die without knowing the name of the thing that killed him. But realization dawned, as slow and bright as the wound in his gut. "You—You're the Long Hunter, aren't you?"

Her brow furrowed minutely. She didn't think his suggestion was ridiculous, she just couldn't place the words. Then her face smoothed and she said, "Will it help you sleep better in the darkness when you die?" She paused as he coughed and blood trickled from his lips. "Will it help you to die better to know you died at the hands of the Long Hunter, not the hands of a little girl?"

He closed his eyes. It was no use keeping them open anymore. "No," he said. "It was the will of Kaichin. It is my time." His eyes snapped open. "And that will help me die better," he snarled.

Again, her eyebrows raised and her eyes said nothing, like the simple vehemence of his statement puzzled her more than what he'd said. "Then for your sake, Kaichin keep you." she said.

"You're not the Long Hunter, then?"

"No," she said. "I am not."

"Did the order send you to stop me?"

"I had a job to do."

He nodded a little to himself. The pain was fading away now. Every craftsman ought to know his work firsthand, he thought, so now I will know death.

She watched him die, impassive. She stood up when she was sure he wouldn't ever. The clouds were parting, far off to the west, to reveal the setting sun. Her halberd glinted in the twilight.

She touched the ragged red ribbon on her halberd absently. She took something from every one of them, after they had been killed. Long Hunter—yes, she liked the sound of that. She would take that from him.

The Long Hunter.

By the time the sun had set, she was gone.