The Hunter of Westwood

He sat there gazing at the pale night sky. The small campfire flame crackled before him, and he soon turned his attention back to it. His mind wandered. It would typically be but a fleeting thought, something that could never hold his attention for long. The noises of the woods were now steadily becoming apparent to him, during a slight drought in his thought. Once again he could smell the light and lush scent of his surroundings, the cold wind moving about him, the sharp grass he held under his palm above the doughy earth. He had returned to Westwood.

His camp was at the edge of the woods, for they were dangerous during the dark hours. Indeed he would never venture into them at night, and even now after all the years that he had know Westwood, he would occasionally glance behind him, as though the woods were creeping closer, daring to pull him in. He leaned forward, groping around in the grass, until his hand hit what he had been searching for. From a small bag he began to withdraw a small but precious commodity, a cracker. These were no ordinary crackers though, as they had been made by his skillful wife, a treat that had lasted him for days. He ate them with pleasure, having had little to eat on this fruitless day. He had yet to have any luck in finding something to bring home. He washed the few he had eaten down with a swig of sweetwater, a delicious concoction also devised by his loving wife.

As the night continued his mind wandered onto Westwood. The Forest behind him was one steeped in a rich and mysterious history; it had once been sparsely inhabited by an ancient Elven people. However, as many legends go of such terrible places, a horrible curse had engulfed it, and it was abandoned. No one knows how it came to be cursed or why, However some speculated that it was due to the presence of a timeless one, a semi-mortal creature who where neither benevolent nor evil, however they had the capacity for both. As the old tales go, every night after the terrible curse had come upon the forest, someone from the ancient Elvish village would disappear into the darkness of the forest. Some told the tale simply as a cautionary story to the children of Greenford, The village of our stalwart Hunter.

Even now however, the stories ring true, as there are accounts of people who had ventured into the forest at night and had never returned. As the Hunter grew tired and the fire began to wane, his eyes grew heavy and he fell into a deep slumber. The next morning the Hunter woke later than usual, the sun already risen out of the horizon. Determined to bring something home on this day, he had a quick breakfast, and once done he began to prepare for an incursion into the forest. He gathered his short sword that had kept him company throughout the night, and made sure he had his knife on him as well. He strapped a light pack to his back with some provisions and slung a leather pouch with more than a dozen arrows within. He picked up his trusty hunting bow and set into the forest.

As he made his way deeper and deeper into the land of green moss and trees, the noises of the forest began to eerily drop, until only the soft crunching sound of dead leaves under his rugged boots could be heard. Not soon after did he find evidence of prey, and he picked up his pace considerably, no longer daunted by the uncanny silence of the forest. After some intense tracking, he came upon what he sought, a deer. His body shot up with adrenaline, he knew that this may be his only chance on this day. He quickly raised his bow and arrow to shoot, however just as quickly the deer began to sprint away. It did not appear to be very quick however, and it would stop and look back at the Hunter, and the Hunter also stared into its eyes, which would shine, unnerving him.

Still he gave chase, as he felt that soon it would stop moving and give him the perfect shot. In the back of his mind however, he felt his excitement become somewhat overshadowed by a tinge of fear, as though he himself where the hunted. No sooner than when the thought crossed his mind he realized he had lost track of time chasing after his prize, and it was already sundown. The deer had disappeared and he was extremely deep in the wood. He suddenly raced back the way he came, but by now he had become exhausted and could only move at a sluggish pace. Still he managed to cover quite a bit of ground. His head was now beginning to spin, his heart pushed against his ribcage, and his lungs burned. He knew the forest quite well and he knew he was nearing its edge, however by now his vision had grown dim and he had only precious minutes before nightfall.

As he continued to move through the forest, a wispy fog began to rise, and alarm took hold of the Hunter. He reached the point to where he thought its exit should be, but by now the darkness had become pervasive and it seemed that there was no end to it. Absolute terror filled every fiber of his being, but he did not allow it to control him. Overcome by exhaustion, he had no choice but to sit and rest.

After taking a swig from his canteen, he also quickly ate a bit from his provisions, all the while darting his eyes to and fro, wary of the dangerous forest. After the short rest he decided he had to continue, he had to find a way out. Amazingly, it was not so dark, even though the moon nor the stars could be seen above the thick canopy of the forest. It was as if the Westwood itself was guiding his way. Still, as he continued, he felt strange eyes upon him, his hunter instinct ever wary of his surroundings.

A low groan suddenly came from his right, coming from a truly dark direction of the woodland. He readied his bow, as he knew he was about to meet the night citizens of Westwood. His breathing was heavy and jagged, his bow heaving with breath. Without warning, he heard twigs snap and dead leaves crackle as the dark thing charged at him. At that very moment his Hunter instinct took over, his heavy breathing stopped, and he released a powerful arrow that let loose a death song, hitting its target to its right breast. The beast let out a terrible howl as it fell dead, and just as suddenly a few more creatures poured from behind the trees.

As they came into the light, he suddenly saw them for what they were, terrible demons of legend. They were about the size of a man, scaly with a low green tint in the cracks of their leathery skin. In their heads there were wild eyes, static in placement, bulging from their sockets. Their heads were covered in hair, and below their thin nasally snout there was a large and terrible mouth, sharp nail like teeth twisted and gnarled in all directions, populating their large exposed gums. It was as if they came from a nightmare.

However terrible they were, he did not allow their malign appearance to freeze him, and, spurred by their mortality, he let loose two more arrows in quick succession, one piercing a demon in the throat, the other lodging itself deep in it's belly. Two were now upon him, and where howling and shrieking like devils. He slung his bow around him and then withdrew his sword with his right hand and his knife with his left. The two healthy demons lunged at him first, and as they did he swung wide with his sword. They stopped short and avoided the blow, however, the Hunter, now filled to the brim with horror and adrenaline, brazenly attacked the demons, and cleaved one's head in two with a quick and powerful strike to the skull.

At this moment the other seized its chance and tackled the Hunter to the floor, and jumped upon him. Here on the ground and at such close range his sword was useless, and he stared in horror as the demon's mouth swung open, to an unthinkable size, jagged fangs all pointed at him. He only had moments to react, and with a quick burst of strength he buried the knife deep into the creatures neck. Dark stinking blood blasted onto the ground to his left when he unsheathed the knife from the creature's neck, like sap from a tree. Quickly he pushed the horrid creature off of himself. There he stood tense, awaiting another attack, but none came. Deciding to move on, he began to jog in the direction of the lighted parts of the forest, constantly looking over his shoulder, fearing the demons to be only steps behind him.

The lit path led on and on, a twisting surreal mess. He was now much calmer, fear of attack subsiding in his mind. His eyes scanned continuously, left to right, while he moved on. He found that he could no longer recognize the forest, but as he continued he also found that the forest seemed to remain static, as if in a loop. His eyes turned skyward, but there was not a single star in the darkness.

The path soon turned rocky and tough to traverse, and he stumbled along as best he could. He had placed his complete faith in the path, and hoped that it would lead him to a way out. A few hours passed before he realized eyes were upon him. His exhausting journey had dulled his senses, but with this terrible realization they flared up, suddenly alerting him to the strange presence all around him. He peered deeply into the dark forest, and saw specks of light, like eyes, peering back. At first there were not many, and they stayed in place. But as he continued they became more and more numerous.

Up ahead he realized that they were stepping out of the shadows. They moved slowly, and the Hunter broke into a heavy stride, hoping to break through before they cut into his path. Further ahead however there were even more of the creatures, and they had stepped into the light. He now saw them for what they were, the lost spirits of past dwellers of the forest. They were now all about him and where outstretching their hands to him.

As they stepped into the light they closed their eyes, and he could see their faces where that of Elf folk, who must have lived long before. Fear welled up inside of him as they began to crowd around the Hunter, their translucent being daring to crush him in the middle, but before they came too close they stopped. The Hunter was now thoroughly surrounded by the pale half visible Elf spirits.

Strangely, he no longer felt afraid. For a while they did nothing, but before long they began to point in unison into the darkness to his right. The light that had been guiding him forward suddenly grew dim and evil. A new brighter path then began to shine in the direction that the Elf spirits had pointed toward. Then they cleared the way to the new path, and the old.

In the pit of his stomach he knew he had no reason to trust the Elf spirits, but just as well his instincts told him the old path was growing with evil intent. He stood their contemplating his predicament for a short time. He took one last hard gaze into the old path, first seeing nothing, then seeing distant figures moving about, making no effort to mask their movement. He could tell there were many on the dim path, and then he saw the rows of teeth within their ugly furry heads and the Hunter then realized what they were.

With his mind made up he took off into the new path, with a somewhat renewed sense of confidence that he may yet make it out alive. The path steered far away from the old path, in a new direction. The terrain soon became smooth and grassy, and the trees grew less. In the distance he could see a what seemed like a moving darkness on the floor. Alarmed, he began to move cautiously toward it. As he came closer he saw that upon the darkness the reflection of the moon shone brightly and alone, and he realized it was a small lake that he had been seeing.

Finally, he came upon the water's edge, but he also realized that the path ended there as well. At that instant a feeling of unease once again took hold of him. He turned his head and peered behind toward the path he had just come from, and saw the light that had been guiding his way was slowly fading, until there was nothing left but complete darkness, save for the moon upon the still lake.

From the corner of his eye he detected movement. He turned and met the gaze of the deer that had brought him to the wretched forest in the first place. Silently, it walked onto the black waters, ripples forming at every step, until it stood upon the reflection of the crescent moon. The Hunter could not believe what he saw, but quickly regained his composure after he remembered the events of the night.

Soon, the ripples emanating from the moon under the deer began to increase in frequency, suddenly becoming violent, thrashing the water all around the strange creature. In only moments it was consumed completely in white foam, then without warning, the waters fell and remained completely still. To Hunter's amazement, what now stood on the water was no creature of the forest, but a man.

"It is strange one such as your self could come so far." mused the mysterious being. In the pitch darkness, his form seemed to give off a gentle glow, and about him he wore a loose Elven garb of another era, one long past. It was hard to focus on him, but the Hunter could tell that his hair was long and fair, but at the same time he knew that it was no Elf. The being continued its approach.

"You wonder what I am, no doubt. Yes I am that of which you hear in legend, I am the master of this forest. Or should I say, it becomes my domain when night falls. It is well that this forest favors you, or death would have claimed you long ago." He stopped his speech as he stepped onto land, and looked inquisitively at the Hunter. "Peculiar as to why the dead think you can save them..." as the words rolled from his mouth the stunned Hunter's sense of danger shot up his very being, and instinctively began his reach for his bow.

As he drew it from his back, the light around the fair creature began to dull, and the lower the light became the taller he seemed to become, until he was nearly double the height of the Hunter.

The next words that where muttered by the magnificent creature came like grave thunder. "I will show the dead what power a lowly man of the east has over me!" With surprising speed the giant reached and plucked a heavy, thorny branch and brandished it as a club. As the Hunter fitted an arrow onto his prized long bow, the Giant leaped into the air like a tiger on the hunt, club in hand ready to pulverize the unprepared Man.

The Hunter stepped back to avoid the blow, releasing the arrow at the same time, however, as he moved he stumbled on a pit in the ground, and his aim was thrown off. The arrow flew past the Giant harmlessly, landing in the lake behind him. As the creature landed, it swung the heavy branch, only just missing the Hunter's temple but knocking the bow out of his hand.

"When you fall, you will serve me for the rest of eternity!" the Giant shouted, swinging wildly about, splintering bark off of the trees when he struck them in blind fury. The Hunter remained stoic, withdrawing his short sword quickly in order to face the threat that loomed upon him.

"Creature! I do not know how mortal you are, but with this blade I will strike and sting until you are vanquished!" cried the Hunter in defiance.

"Bold words for one who faces the King of Westwood!" Bellowed the Giant, now thoroughly enraged by the Man's battle cry. "When I came to the forest I took those who inhabited it, for they all became my servants for living upon my land. I proclaim all intruders violators of my realm, and for such violations the punishment is death!"

In the dark wood they battled, the Hunter's sword clashing against the Giant's thick branch, unable to cleave the ancient bark. At first only the moon bore witness to the fighting. Soon however, eyes crept from the shadows, and fangs glistened in the dark. The Hunter's keen senses alerted him to the fact that he was now surrounded by demons.

The wicked expression upon the Giant's face was clearly visible. "Sheriffs of the forest, rend him meatless and gnaw his bones! Visit upon him the fate of intruders!" With those words the incensed demons that waited behind the trees sprang up and lunged toward the weakening Hunter. Moments before they reached him however, they were stopped in their tracks by strange lights coming down from the sky. Raining down upon them like hope to wash away despair, the spirits of the forest that had once guided the Hunter now came to his rescue.

They entered the bodies of the nearest demons and, with a blinding flash, erupted them. Frightened by the display of power, the rest of the abominations ran for their lives, howling like sick wolves. Other spirits attacked the Giant, but his power proved to be too great for them. As they approached they were struck by an invisible barrier, and dissipated into the air like a gentle haze.

"You incite them Hunter. But the Peasants of my Kingdom cannot rise against me." said the Giant, a mocking smile upon his lips. With a powerful blow he knocked the Hunter to ground. Drunk with confidence, the Giant raised the club above his head, ready to deliver the final blow. But just as the final strike was to be delivered, the Hunter jumped to his feet and struck outwards with his sword, severing the Giant's arm at mid-bicep.

The Giant took a few steps back in shock. Even though it was a devastating wound, he only seemed angered by it, and it did not bleed. With his left arm he pried the branch from his fallen right, which still gripped the club tightly.

For a few moments they faced each other, planning their next move carefully. Then, without warning, the Giant let out a deafening war cry, so powerful it shook the trees and even reverberated within the Hunter's ribcage. The attack was so sudden and brutal he had no time to react.

The blow caught him behind the right shoulder as he turned to shield himself. He was knocked against a tree, but managed to duck a second blow that destroyed the part of the tree were his head had just been moments before. Quickly he went on the offensive. The Hunter charged at the giant, but was unable to raise his sword due to his injury. In a final attempt to end the fighting, he ducked a third blow and then finally drove his sword into surprised Giant's abdomen to the hilt.

The glowing, dying creature stumbled backwards, then turned and began to walk, with the Hunter in pursuit. Soon it was at the shores of the lake, and with a final gasp of breath it collapsed into the dark cold waters, where it's corpse sank to the very deepest depths. Clutching his aching shoulder, and with a final sigh of relief, he knew it was over.

As dawn was approaching, hundreds of lights began to appear all around him. In only moments, they began to take the shape of long forgotten Elf people who had once thrived in Westwood. In front of him, one prominent light stood out, taking the form of a much older looking Elf, a sincere smile playing across his face, something that he had not done in centuries.

"Thank you for defeating the tyrant of Westwood, and for releasing our souls from this place we once called home. For too long have these lands been cursed by the timeless one, and now they are released from his iron grip. Please take this, as a token and symbol that you are always welcome in these lands." as he finished, he produced a seed, and before his eyes, it sprung thin branches and leaves, and formed a crown. In the crown were embedded beautiful gems of different colors. It was then laid upon the head of the Hunter.

"As a final gesture of our gratitude, allow me to heal your wounds, you may need the use of this arm yet." the spirit said, and placed a hand upon the Hunter's hurt shoulder. As soon as the hand was upon him, the pain was completely erased, and felt as though it had never felt the thorny branch at all. "Farewell!" it said at last, and just as they had suddenly visited him, so too did they disappear forever.

At once a great fatigue came over him, and he laid his back upon the base of a large and sturdy tree and fell silently into a momentary slumber. As the sun once again fell to dusk, he looked back at the slowly shrinking Westwood as he wheeled his cart back to the village of Greenford. Among the many things in his cart was his prize, a large deer taken only hours after he awoke in the forest. He moved his shoulder about, the Elf spirit's prediction had come true.

In a special wooden box seated next to him laid the crown of Westwood, as if it where waiting for something. Although before him lay the comfort of his village and his home, down a well trotted dirt road, in the back of his mind he could not ignore the feeling that his destiny did not lie in Greenford, but rather back in the forest of Westwood, A timeless woodland that had made him a hero to a people long thought to be lost.