THRILL OF THE HUNT

The smell of smoke and death was rampant in the air and the soldier was careful to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn't choke. He ran through the maze of fires and debris typical of a battlefield, hunting the lone enemy gunman.

By some strange hand of fate, the soldier and the enemy gunman were the only ones left alive. The ground was littered with the dead bodies of adversaries and comrades alike, their eyes glazed over and sightless. It saddened the soldier to see so many young men on both sides who would never return to their respective homelands, leaving friends and families to grieve.

The soldier swept the area with the barrel of his M-16, the butt pressed firmly against his shoulder. Seeing no signs of life, he quickly ran to the next point and sought shelter against the burnt-out remains of a Humvee. The soldier peeked out from behind his cover, scanning the area again, listening and looking for anything suspicious. Nothing. There wasn't any more cover for at least another hundred meters. No cover meant he'd be exposed to an attack. He scanned the area another two times, weighing up his options. Deciding to take his chances, the soldier ran….

Fifty meters out and he saw the glint of polished metal as it reflected the moonlight. The experienced soldier immediately knew his mistake. He was in between covers and there was no way he would survive long enough to run to either. Knowing this, the man made another decision.

If he went down at all, it would be fighting.

Training kicked in and the soldier feigned right, and then rolled on his shoulder to the left, the first sniper round barely missing his head. Adrenaline raced through his body and his heart pounded in his chest as he positioned himself and prepared to fire.

It was then that the second round tore through his left shoulder, his whole body twisting with the momentum. A third shot entered his stomach, and the soldier crumbled to the ground, dropping his rifle as he fell.

Although the pain dulled his senses, the man could hear the gunman. He slowly looked up so not to draw unwanted attention, and saw the enemy with his sniper raised proudly above his head, singing and yelling into the night in some foreign language.

Ever watchful, the soldier reached down to the holster at his waist and drew the Colt automatic pistol. Ignoring the pain that gripped him, the soldier took careful aim at his target and fired. This time it was the enemy who fell, dead from a bullet to head before he'd even hit the ground. That done, the man groaned and rolled over onto his back, looking at the night sky.

Dark clouds drifted leisurely in the equally dark sky. Occasionally one of them would pass over the hazy red moon, obscuring it for what seemed like an age, and then freeing it from its grasp. Thunder rolled ominously in the distance and black smoke filtered up into the sky from the hundreds of fires, concealing all but the brightest stars.

Tiring of watching the stars that only reminded him of home, the dying soldier watched as his blood lazily soaked into the already blood-stained ground around him. Every breath was agony and he could feel the life being slowly, painfully siphoned out of his battered body. Drop by precious drop.

Closing his eyes, the soldier quietly contemplated himself. Why was he here? Why were his once clean desert fatigues stained with dirt and blood? Why did he stick his neck out? That was simple. He fought for the freedom of his country and over all; he fought to keep his family safe and so the generations of men and women that followed him wouldn't have to witness the horrors of war.

Suddenly the soldier heard something over the crackling and whooshing of violent, angry flames. A sound that didn't belong on a battlefield. Something that chilled him to the bone and left him feeling cold….

It was laughter.

As the soldier listened, the laughter changed to singing. It was a tune that made the hair on the back of his neck tingle, yet the man continued to listen as the sound came closer, getting louder with every passing second.

Out of the corner of his eye, the soldier saw something but it disappeared a nanosecond later. Had be imagined it? The man highly doubted the idea. The soldier prepared to turn his head, readying himself for anything he might see. Hallucination or not.

He looked.

His eyes squinting against the tremendous heat radiating from a near-by fire, he saw the form of a young girl silhouetted against the glowing orange flames. Warning alarms sounded loudly in his ears. Something about a young girl wandering alone in a sea of death and destruction unnerved him more than any mission had.

The girl stopped roughly ten meters away. It was then that the dying soldier noticed the golden ball of fur running around her legs. There was something wrong with the puppy as well. Sharp ivory teeth and a gleam in its eyes that no dog he'd ever seen had ever possessed. It was almost…demonic.

The man was about to call out to the girl, to tell her to run away. A battlefield was no place for a child, but she abruptly stopped singing and reached for something hanging around her neck. The soldier was confused when the girl pulled a simple wooden flute from beneath the collar of her white dress.

Foreboding swept through the man's body like tidal waves as the girl put the musical instrument to her lips. What in the name of God was she doing?

Agony gripped the soldier's body before the first note had barely left he instrument. His limbs were on fire and it felt as though white hot knives were being drawn slowly across every inch of his skin.

As the girl played on, the pain intensified. His head felt as though someone had clawed their way inside his skull and were trying to rip it open. The same was true for his chest. The music was squeezing what little life he had left, while at the same time it felt as though something was being agonizingly sucked out of him.

Then, as abruptly as it had started, the music stopped.

The soldier felt wearier than he ever had before. His eye lids were heavy and his limbs felt almost non-existent, the uncomfortable ache and the pain of being shot twice being the only reminder that they were. The man could sense the end was near, nearer than it had been anyway. Death was coming for him.

The man jerked sharply as the puppy leapt onto his chest. It growled and barked, its eyes glowing red. Saliva dripped down onto him as the small canine snapped its jaws centimeters from his face.

"Get off him!" the little girl ordered and the puppy grudgingly obeyed.

The scuffling of shoes alerted the soldier to the little girl's approach. She stood over him like some kind of saint all dressed in white with a blue sash and a white ribbon in her hair. He flinched as she looked him over. It wouldn't be a pretty picture. Her, the symbol of innocence with her blonde hair and blue eyes. Him, a soldier covered in blood, not all his, with his insides spilled out on the ground.

"You're alive" it was more of a statement than a question.

"Barely, "the man managed to rasp. The girl continued to look at him.

"Where are your parents?" the man asked.

No answer.

The soldier was about to ask again but the girl crouched down next to him. She reached out, her little hand clasping the chain that hung from around his neck. It was a silver locket necklace, once worn by his wife, but given to him as a good-luck charm while he was overseas. Inside, it housed a photo of his beloved wife and son, the most precious things in his world.

The soldier vaguely felt the piece of jewelry fall back in its place, his mind drifting through memories of family and friends. Reunions, parties, days at the local park playing catch, holidays-all cherished and happy memories. Constant reminders of what he was fighting for. Unseen by him, a look of disgust crossed the young girl's face at his thoughts.

By the time the man's mind had returned, the girl had once again taken to standing over him, but this time was different from the last. The curious twinkle had disappeared from her eyes, leaving them cold, dark and emotionless.

"It should be illegal for a child to look so serious" the man said humorlessly. He laughed at little too, a small nervous laugh. The one people used when they know something's wrong.

"I think you've lived long enough. 45 years is a long time after all, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Preston" the girl stated bluntly in a cold, British accent and the soldier stared dumbfounded at her words. Icy cold chills traveled up and down the soldier's spine and once again the metallic taste of fear slid down his throat as he swallowed. How the hell had she known his name and rank, let alone his age?

The child gave a flick of her delicate wrist, her eyes never leaving his face. Then, from out of nowhere, the demonic golden fur-ball leapt at the man. He screamed, his voice echoing out over the battlefield, until it was cut short by the strong, predatorily sharp ivory teeth that closed around his throat, crushing his wind pipe instantly. In his weak and dying state, the soldier barely put up a fight. The complete opposite of what he'd wanted.

Above him, the girl continued to watch, her face expressionless even as the puppy gave a final jerk of its head, tearing the soldier's throat out and sending large droplets of blood splattering across the ground and on her white dress. She continued to watch as his eye's glazed over and his chest stilled. Only then did she allow herself to smile.

As she blood drained out of the soldier's cooling body, the girl stepped forward. Still smiling, she leant down and closed her small around the silver locket. Ignoring the blood that seeped through her fingers, and over her hand, she ripped the locket, chain and all, off what remained of the man's neck.

"Such a pretty memento" he girl-child exclaimed happily as she held the necklace up to the moonlight. The puppy barked in reply. The girl's smile widened as she pocketed the locket, staining her dress as she wiped her hand on it, and then patted her pet's head.

And from its prestigious place on its victim's chest, the puppy followed its mistress and smiled an unmistakable canine smile as it licked the blood off its muzzle.

"Looks like Hermes won't have anyone to guide and the ferryman won't be earning his pay today" the girl giggled as she turned and skipped back towards the point of her mysterious appearance. The puppy leapt off the dead soldier and trotted behind her, its tail wagging happily as his enormous black shadow reflected his true form, that of a giant three-headed dog.

For the second time that night, the notes of the wooden flute drifted across the battlefield. As the girl continued to play, a bluish-white mist like substance was drawn out of the dead bodies through any orifice available, mouths, noses, anything. It collected itself into a glowing ball above the blood-bathed field before steadily floating towards the strange girl, the notes of the haunting music drawing it closer until it surrounded the child.

The light faded slowly and the demon-puppy watched his mistress, his head cocked to the sided in a mock curious expression. After a few minutes, the girl opened her eyes, which now glowed with the souls she had collected. She grinned devilishly, spun on her heels and disappeared into the fire, the puppy following her obediently.