Nanuk moved like a shadow through the forest, weaving between trees and shrubs as he tracked his prey. His eyes scanned the ground beneath his muddy feet, searching for signs that his quarry had come this way. Nanuk’s muscles tensed every time he saw movement to the side, his bow coming up instinctively. Each time the weapon lowered he exhaled, the tension departing from his body.
Nanuk had been on the trail for a few hours. He was getting closer, moving across the terrain with greater ease than his quarry. Today he would complete his rite of passage and become a full-fledged Juichun tribe member.
This was not his first hunt, but this time he would be successful in bringing the trophy home to his tribe. Three times he had attempted to complete the rite of passage, each time narrowly escaping with his own life. Nanuk’s father reassured him after every failure that it had taken him five hunts before he found success. He knew he was lucky to still be alive after three hunts, but the pressure was rising. Already the other boys his age had either completed the rite or died trying. Two younger boys had surpassed him, too. Another failure was not an option.
The sweat running down Nanuk’s face caused his warpaint to smear, leaving red and white streaks trailing down his cheek. He gnawed on a piece of dried meat while he ran, savoring the smoked flavor mingled with choice herbs. A stream cut across the ground ahead, the tracks leading straight into the water. He frowned as he slowed, surveying the bank of the water carefully for signs of travel on the other side. He had to be sure his prey didn’t continue down the stream to mask its scent and trail. He didn’t have the time to try and rediscover a new trail.
Nanuk knew that luck was on his side today when he found a wet print on the surface of a large stone. It had kept running straight ahead, leaping over the soft sand to attempt to throw him off its track. Not good enough, he thought as he sprinted into the trees beyond the stream.
He ran without sound, skirting around twigs and leaves on the ground that would give away his pursuit. Nanuk’s breathing was calm and rhythmic as he dashed through the woods. His ears were alert for the slightest sound that would indicate danger. He held the string taut, an arrow notched at all times as he traveled. A clearing opened ahead of him, revealing a large pond where animals had gathered to drink. He had a feeling this was where his hunt would come to an end.
Nanuk slowed his pace, walking upon his toes in a low crouch. A sound came from the bushes to his left. He spun to the sound, bow raised at the source, and watched a squirrel leap from the bushes into a tree. He lowered his weapon and turned back toward the clearing, creeping along once more.
A loud crack echoed in the air, scattering the animals around the water. It was there and had given itself away. Nanuk wondered what had provoked it to attack so suddenly. Could one of the other young men from the tribe have reached it first? He frowned, saying a silent prayer for protection.
He pulled a small pouch from his belt and dumped a handful of the crushed herbs into his palm. He sniffed the herbs, allowing the aromatic vapors to sooth his mind and calm his spirit. He tucked the pouch back in his belt and then took a pinch of the herbs, releasing it into the wind in front of him. He then stuck the rest of the herbs into his mouth and started to chew them. The bitter juices filled his mouth, causing him to retch involuntarily. This was the part that he would never get used to, the worst part about the entire hunt. He would rather track for weeks through snow and ice than suffer the herbs, but he know that they were necessary for his survival. He had seen enough of his peers die because they trusted themselves to be safe without the herbs.
Nanuk allowed his stomach a few minutes to settle from the herbs before pressing on. Everything had become silent up ahead. His quarry had scared everything away. Perhaps he would catch it bathing in the water or stooping for a drink, unaware of the danger he presented.
He stopped behind a tree at the edge of the clearing, glancing around the trunk. Several deer were huddled together, taking deep drinks of the water. Several birds were perched in the trees above, waiting and watching. Off to one side lay the body of Quidel, one of the younger boys from the tribe. Quidel’s head was turned toward him, the glassy eyes staring at him in warning.
Down by the lake was his prey. His white hair was frazzled in disarray, bits of twigs and grass tangled in the unruly mess. Brown robes covered his body, dragging along the ground as he walked. In one frail hand he held a gnarled staff that absorbed the light from his surroundings. The grass around his feet had become withered and brown, signs that he had used his magic to slay Quidel. The earth killer would pay.
Nanuk inhaled deeply and took aim. He watched the earth killer standing across the clearing, unaware of the danger he was in. A life for a life. He prayed to God that his arrow would avenge Quidel’s death and find its mark. He shifted his weight slightly, bending to get a better angle, when a twig snapped under his foot.
The old man’s head snapped up immediately, looking directly at Nanuk. He slammed the butt of his staff into the ground and a golden aura roped its way around the gnarled wood. Nanuk dove to the ground behind the tree as a flash of blinding light was released by the wizard, cutting through the trunk of the trees in its path. The tree began to topple and Nanuk scrambled away, narrowly escaping its crushing weight. He got to his feet and spun in time to see half a dozen deer charging toward him, fleeing from the wizard.
Nanuk dove aside, rolling along the ground. He dropped his arrow in the process and quickly drew another. He popped to his feet and fired off a hasty shot toward the wizard. The gold glow surrounded the wizard now, sucking the life from the earth around him. A raging inferno flew from the tip of the old man’s staff, the flames crackling and hissing as it crossed through the air. Nanuk ducked, able to feel the heat from the fireball as it passed over his head and exploded into the forest behind him.
Nanuk knew that he needed to end this quickly, before the wizard killed him and the earth surrounding them. The herb he took was supposed to protect him from the earth killer’s magic. He had never believed in that myth, which is how the other three earth killers had escaped him on past hunts. They distracted him with their powerful magic, keeping him distant and hidden. He needed to have faith.
Better to die than to go back without succeeding this time.
Nanuk notched another arrow and darted into the clearing. The wizard’s white eyes focused on Nanuk. A bolt of lightning burst from his staff, sparks flying in every direction as it raced toward the hunter. Nanuk dropped to one knee and fired his arrow as the lightning pierced his chest. His eyes closed in anticipation of pain but instead felt warmth channeling into his body.
He opened his eyes to see his arrow arcing through the lightning, speeding toward the wizard. He pulled his dagger and got to his feet, walking into the magical storm. Bolts of light flared and crackled around him and he could feel the heat from its presence, but there was no pain. The wizard’s eyes grew wide as the arrow pierced his heart. The lightning and the glow around the wizard ceased as the old man fell to the ground.
Nanuk knelt before his fallen body, staring into the milky eyes of his fallen adversary as he gave thanks in his prayers for the protection granted and for a successful hunt. His rites of passage were now complete. He would finally become a full member of the Juichun tribe and a defender of the land.
This is a story from the Scriptic writing prompt exchange. It turned out this week that SAM and I were the only ones who signed up, so we ended up trading prompts. The image referenced as my writing prompt can be seen at the beginning of this post.
For the Scriptic.org prompt exchange this week, SAM at http://frommywriteside.wordpress.com gave me this prompt: This picture: http://heirloomartist.tumblr.com/post/37151614476/0rient-express-summer-fairytale-by-alex
I gave SAM at http://frommywriteside.wordpress.com this prompt: The magic was gone.