The Hunt

She hated this bow. Even though it was hers, she hated it.

To someone else, it would have looked quite nice. It was clear a lot of work was put into the weapon. The candlelight, simply a wink in the darkness of the night, gleamed on the polished wood. It had a nice weight to it. A good, taut bowstring, about as fresh and new as anyone could ask for.

But Elaya hated it. She had gotten it as a gift for her sixteenth year, and she thought she would love it. She had been so excited, getting her bow a full year before most families deigned it prudent to gift their children with such responsibility. But after a few days of practice with it, Elaya was only discouraged. It was hers, but it felt like it was meant for someone else.

Her father's bow, now...that was the bow she loved. That was the bow she had grown up with, trained with, fired thousands of arrows from. It felt as natural to her as the air she breathed. After so many years, it felt like a part of her. And now she had to get used to this new, unfamiliar part, with its lighter weight and unusual string pressure.

She tapped her foot on the wooden floor of her room, sitting on the edge of her bed. She would be leaving for the hunt tomorrow morning, early. And this journey was an unusual one for the village. With her expertise, her training, her natural ability with a bow, and her small size and quick wits, she had no qualms with volunteering two days before. It was only later that she remembered she would have to go on this hunt with...this bow.

It was very late. She was the only one awake in the whole house; maybe in the whole village. If she was quiet and careful, as she knew she could be, it would be a simple matter to take her father's bow from its cabinet and hang hers in its place. He would know, but not until after she was long gone and deep into her hunt.

Elaya started to get up and head toward the door of her room, but she stopped.

No, no, no. She couldn't steal from her father, even if she meant to return the bow unharmed. And how would her parents feel if she left behind the gift they had gotten for her to mark her ascent into adulthood? Getting yelled at, she could accept. But hurting them like that... Her bow was just fine. And if she was going to be using it for years to come, she couldn't be afraid of it.

Elaya gripped the bow in her hands.

"All right," she whispered to the silent wood. "I'm trusting you with my life."

She blew out the candle and followed suit, drifting to sleep with the bow on her chest.

"Psst. Elaya. Elaya!"

Hazy, ill-lit, very early morning. Elaya blinked and raised up on her elbows, not sure if the voice she was hearing was a dream. Her internal clock told her it was still too early to wake, and she didn't hear her parents moving around.

"Finally. You sleep like a boring rock."

Ah. It was Callie.

Elaya rolled her eyes and smiled, turning her head so she could look toward the window. Normally the round hole in the wood had a tarpaulin hanging over it, but she saw that Callie had managed to roll it up from the outside, and was now peeking through, her golden-brown hair falling in her face.

"Callie!" Elaya admonished as seriously as she could muster, hopping out of bed and stepping over to the window. "What are you doing? I'm supposed to be resting for the hunt! You've cost me an hour of sleep, probably."

Callie got down off her tiptoes. "When you're a little older, you'll need the sleep. You're just a kid. You have tons of energy!"

Elaya made a dismissing noise. "Stop it with that. You're two months older than I am. It's not funny any more." But she smiled. Callie had been her closest friend for as long as she could remember. She had been right behind her to volunteer for today's hunt, but of course only one person could be granted the honor, and Elaya had been first, by just a little. Just enough to tease Callie about it. "That's why you're so slow, grandma."

Callie grinned, but the smile fell away. "Listen, Elaya. I'm coming with you."

"What?" Elaya almost laughed, the statement was so unexpected.

"Come on, you know that I can help. And, and," she continued, before Elaya could interrupt, "it's allowed. I spoke with Hierach Lowell. A hunter is allowed a party, no matter the hunt. Even this hunt."

Elaya knew that already. She just hadn't considered that anyone would want to come with her, since no one had approached her. And she wanted to do this herself.

"How are you going manage this with that new bow of yours?" Callie asked.

Elaya groaned. She had told Callie all about the bow, of course. And if something were to go wrong...if she were to miss at some crucial moment, things could get bad, fast. Very fast. It would be nice to have support.

"All right," Elaya said, "it's a party." She grinned. "Party of two."

Callie nodded, and then picked her bow up off the ground where she had laid it behind her.

Elaya hadn't seen that at first. "You brought your bow! You knew I was going to say yes."

"Hardly," Callie said, tapping the bow against the side of the house. "This was to threaten you in case you said no."

"You're unbelievable. Get in here and have breakfast with us."

The noise had stirred her parents by now, and Elaya heard them get out of bed. She hurried into her hunting outfit-also a gift from her parents, except this was one that she loved dearly. It made her feel like a ghost moving through the woods. A powerful ghost.

She had thought she would be more nervous waking up this morning, but there was no doubt in her mind, especially not with Callie at her side. This was going to be simple.

Elaya went to the kitchen, where her parents already were. They weren't surprised to see Callie, when Elaya filled them in. Her mother, with her long, long hair tied back, said, "When are you two ever apart? Your father and I expected Callie here even earlier. If anything, she's late."

It made Elaya feel foolish. "Anything else I should know about?" she grumbled as they sat down with their food, Callie next to her, her parents across the table. "Are you coming, too?"

Her father was more serious. "I know they told you what you were up against, Elaya. And you, Callie," he said. "And this is not a hunt. This is a mission. It will be deadly, and everyone is depending on you."

Elaya swallowed her mouthful of food, hard.

"What is out there in the forest is a threat none of us is equipped to deal with. None except you." He paused and looked at them both. His eyes were steel-grey, matching the streaks through his dark brown hair.

"Because we're small," Callie said.

"Because you're young," he corrected. "The machine was made to kill men. Adults. It will not see you as a threat. Not at first. But once you engage it, it will not stop until it has killed you both."

"I know," Elaya said. He was looking right at her.

"Or you have killed it." That was her mother, and she was giving them both the same cool stare that her father had affixed them with.

"I know," Elaya repeated.

Her father replied, "But I would tell you again, Elaya, so that you won't dare forget."

It was a war machine. It had been found by a faraway village, a village she hadn't heard of until very recently, when the news reached them. News of destruction, fire, and almost complete loss of life. The few who had escaped spoke of some shining mechanical beast. Through much effort and time, the people of Elaya's village had managed to get the story pieced together.

It had been dug from the ground, discovered in a nearby quarry. They had found things like it before, trinkets and such, but this was by far the largest. And it showed signs of creaking life. There were a few villagers who had gotten familiar with these sorts of relics, and understood a little about how they worked. They had managed to revive it, in a way. Get it moving, walking, and hissing smoke and sparks.

It had killed them all.

"The machine has four legs," her father said. "It's like an...alligator. Made of steel, but much larger. Twenty times that size. And taller."

The beast had begun its rampage four villages over, a span of many miles, perhaps two weeks away on horseback. It had razed each one to the ground. On the path it was taking, this village was next.

"We know what we know because of very brave warriors," her mother said. "Men and women who gave their lives trying to fight. The ones who escaped told us about the machine. How it attacked men without mercy. How when a child threw rocks at it, it snapped it up in its jaws. And how those children, even young adults like you, who hid alone, without the company of their older family, survived. It ignored them, and moved on."

The survivors were those few children, Elaya's age and younger. They had fled, shared their stories with another on the road, and come to an understanding. All of this was only a few days' past. And now the beast was moving towards their home.

"This is all we have," her father said. "All we know. That's why it has to be you. You have a chance to surprise it, and to deal a killing blow before it can kill you. This will not be a fight. You will track it, you will find its weakness while hidden safely, and you will strike before it reaches our village."

Elaya knew all of this. This was the plan she had been told when she volunteered. She understood it. She also understood that the village council could be wrong. The survivors could be wrong. And she might be killed-Callie, too-for nothing.

But it was the only chance for all of them. The barest hope, and it had to be pursued. There was no other choice.

"With my new bow, I can't miss," Elaya said, injecting as much confidence into her words as she could. "Callie and I will be the ones to take the machine down."

Callie nodded. "There's no need to worry."

"There's plenty of need to worry," Elaya's father snapped, and then withdrew, sighing. "I love you both. But it's time to go."

They stood, and they said their farewells. It wouldn't do to linger over that ritual; they all knew that. Besides, that sorrowful time had already been spent. This morning was meant for purpose.

They spoke to no one else. After gathering their supplies for the trip (Callie had brought and stashed hers the previous night, of course), the two of them left the village. It was customary not to distract yourself any more than necessary before a hunt, and it wouldn't do to suffer through any more farewells.

It was early, and the morning was misty and damp. Chill air greeted them as the ventured into the woods, compact packs and bows slung on their shoulders. If this were any other situation, the pair of them would have been laughing and joking the moment they were shoulder-to-shoulder on the path, but they were quiet.

They had to listen. They had to be aware.

They knew what direction to head in, but no one knew how far away the creature was. It might be days of travel, or just hours. The machine moved fast.

They had walked for two hours. The mist, frightened of the sun, dissipated, leaving them with dryer air. Elaya was cool; Callie was jumpy, ready to spear any squirrel that rustled the leaves.

"If we hear it, we'll know," Elaya said to her. "There won't be any question of whether it's some woodland creature."

Callie, who had been walking with her bow out, slid it back into place on her pack. "I guess you're right."

It turned out that the fight was much closer than either of them had thought.

An hour later there came a faraway thundering. A deep thudding that made Elaya's heart jerk to a halt. She froze, then at the same time, she and Callie leapt behind two trees opposite each other, shielding themselves from sight.

"It's coming," Callie breathed. "It's so close. I can't believe it's this close. What do we do? Do we wait? Should we head it off before it gets closer?"

Elaya sucked in a lungful of the still-warming air. She wrapped her fingers around her bow. She closed her eyes for a brief moment, then came to a decision. It was time to act.

"Let's move," she said. "Now!"

They slipped through the trees, moving as quickly and quietly as possible toward the sound that grew louder and louder, until they could hear the crunch of splintering wood. It was tearing through the forest.

"I'll be ahead," she whispered back to Callie. "You hang back, ten feet." They had to be near enough to each other to communicate, but they had a better chance of finding something useful if they spread out a little.

Hurrying ahead, it was Elaya who saw it first. Three times as tall as her, it looked like a shining, four-legged monster with a humped back. It had a long head and snout, and an even longer tail. It shone in the sun, knocking down trees like they were stalks of corn. If it had been a living thing, it wouldn't have had skin; Elaya could see the artificial muscles and innards moving, powering the creature forward. She watched it swipe at a tree with one of its thick legs and break it in half like a twig. The forest hardly even slowed it down.

Callie gasped behind her, but that was it. They both knew that they had to maintain their composure now.

We are the first people to hunt this, Elaya told herself. We are the first people to look for a weakness. It has one. It has to have one. We will be the ones to find it.

But its eyes were shiny like metal. Its mouth was filled with steel, tearing teeth with no soft tissue. Its underbelly was the same mass of tightly coiled strings and metal muscles as its sides. And now it was only a few hundred feet away. It was heading towards their right, not in a line toward them. It hadn't noticed them yet.

"The legs," Callie said with hushed urgency. "I can see a's like a door hinge. There's a lot of them, but if we can hit that see? Where the knee bends?"

"Yes." Elaya watched the mysterious leg work. It would be enrapturing if it wasn't so deadly. "Take the shot when it gets close enough. I'll go for the rear right leg." They drew their bows and waited.



Two shots flew. Elaya forgot her doubt and her troubles with the bow. She let her body do what it knew, and that was shoot.

Two hits! Sparks flew, amazingly bright even in the sun. The monster let loose a haunting screech, scrabbling to turn itself, but Callie had been right. With nothing protecting the outside, the vulnerable spot had been easily exposed and visible. The monster was partially crippled. But still, it moved. Slower now, but it turned and it saw them both.

Now it was angry. Now it was coming.

And there, under its neck...

"Your lamp!" Elaya cried. "Give it here!" Even as she yelled, she ripped her own pack from her back. This would be a much harder shot; she needed to have the pack off. There was a steel canister on its neck; it seemed to bulge out when the beast opened its mouth to roar. It had a seal she recognized. The same seal that her own village used to mark dangerous barrels full of kerosene. It was fresh, and it must have been put there by the fools who dug it up. They had filled it with fuel.

Callie tossed her the lantern that had been attached to her pack. Elaya snatched it out of the air and smashed the glass on a tree. She poured the kerosene from the shattered lamp onto her arrow and lit it with a flint. In seconds, she had nocked a flaming arrow.

"Callie! Make it roar!"

Flit! Callie fired. She hit its right eye, making the mechanical monster open its maw to release its strange cry.

The heat from Elaya's arrow singed her left hand where it held the bow, but she didn't feel a thing. She exhaled, aimed, and let the shot fly.

The explosion was magnificent. At least, that's what the two of them heard when they awoke. A light in the sky so brilliant that later, there were reports of it being seen from villages many days away.

The concussive blast had knocked them both out cold. A search party had found them not much later; it was easy to locate the site of the encounter. Elaya had awoken that night in the long infirmary. Her skin burned like she had lain out in the sun for days, but a cool medicinal salve soothed that. It was still a few days before she could move out of the bed, though. It was okay. Callie was there in the next bed to keep her company.

Her bow, she learned, had not survived the blast. When they told her, she laughed, even though it hurt like absolute hell to do it.

And she thought, Thank the heavens I didn't bring my father's bow.

This story is a submission fo Labyrinth's June 3k short story writing competition. I may have planned a story arc that did not fit within 3000 words very well, so apologies if that is...obvious in the story. O_O The prompt:

Do you have dice? A book of answers? A Magic Eight Ball? Runes? Tarot cards? This month, we're infusing your story with chance and divination. Will the gnome side with justice or evil? Should the dystopian dictator let the rebel live? Write anything you want, but when you reach a choice point, let fate decide. Remember to include a footnote telling us what you based your choice points on.

All yes/no choice points were decided via a random number generator!