I had been tracking the beast for five days when I reached the edge of Laberdine Forest. Its tall, ancient trees stood high and imposing like giant pillars to heaven. Beyond the veil of trees was darkness. He was in there, hiding in that forbidden forest, hiding from me and my gun. I could smell his fear, he knew what was coming for him; he knew the end was near.
The sun was starting to set over the distant dunes of Washer Desert. The forest lied on the outskirt of the wasteland. I had tracked my hunt through that dry hell. I had almost caught up to him at the Wargoria Oasis at the heart of the desert. There, I saw him by the water. Perhaps it was an illusion, perhaps all of this was. I saw it there though, I know I did. I followed the tracks all the way here. They seemed to drag a bit as I got closer, like his feet got heavy. He knew it was coming; he knew I was coming. Death, like the sun, was always over his shoulder.
I thought of my horse and how he died. I thought of the struggle to find the beast and of the people who hired me to do it. My thoughts were the only anchor to reality I felt anymore. I knew the madness of chasing the beast, but I took the job anyways. I only lived for the hunt, only lived to do my job. To kill evil and bring light to this dreary world once more was the divine task bestowed to me. The burden of my journey had brought me here, to this place. Beyond a wall of ancient trees, into a place of blackness lies salvation. Thats where the freedom of the world must be born, where evil must be buried.
I caressed my gun, feeling its weight in my hand. It was old but precise. I pulled an oily rag from my sack and polished the barrel. The old cloth squeaked as it glided over the pitch black of my weapon. It was a squeal, a squeal that told me it was hungry. My gun needed a cessation to its yearning. It needed to kill and its moan told me that. I assured it that its hunger would be vanquished; its stomach full with righteousness and justice. I smiled thinking how happy my gun would soon be. I smiled as I drifted off to sleep by that fire next to the old forest.
In my sleep, I dreamed. In my dreams I saw a man dressed in all black. He stood opposite of me in a wide open field. There was no wind or sun, just light. A brightness I could explain or source. There in that field, my fingertip caressed the stalk of my gun. It was slung over my back, resting for the kill. We circled for a while, observing each others actions. His face was hidden by a dark, old hat. It was worn with age, but shrouded his face enough that I could not make his appearance out. We circled and a rage started to build inside me.
My hands itched to have the gun in them, to hold it and point it at my enemy. He had two six shooters on his hip and his fingers played with the same urgency that mine did. At one moment he stopped and stood tense like he was ready. I tried to peer into his face, to see his eyes before I took the light from them, but there was nothing. There was a blackness a face should be. My eyes couldnt focus every time I attempted to look at his face. A screaming echoed in my brain. Who was this man? Where was I? He flinched and my hand went for my rifle.
The weapon swung easily around my back and soon it was sitting in my hands, my finger teasing the black trigger. In what seemed like a blink of the eye, he had both his guns pointed at me. I put the rifle to my shoulder and peered through the scope. Before me was a man with the face of a jackal. What was once a black blur was now a clear face through the scope of my gun. It seemed to shift around while never really changing, a trick of the eyes perhaps. Whatever it was, it was unsettling. My finger seemed to seize up on the trigger, like I couldnt move it.
Like slow motion, I saw his hands squeeze off the trigger of the guns he held. I heard the bullets explode as I dove to the side. The first bullet miss, whizzing past my shoulder. The second one connected with my thigh. My finger squeezed off the trigger but I watched as my bullet missed by inches. Pain seared through my left thigh; I could feel the warm blood soaking my pants. I hot bullet lay lodged in my femur, pumping pain through me as my body collided with the ground.
The stranger let out an unholy laugh. It felt as though someone had just thrown me into a pool of ice. My blood felt as if it were ice; my muscles freezing in reaction. I tried to pull my gun up to shoot again, but I couldnt move. This ungodly laughter was paralyzing me. I watched as his guns rose, the cold dark barrels both pointing at my face. I tried so hard to move, but I couldnt. I tried to close my eyes, so I didnt have to watch that final moment, but they wouldnt oblige. It all happened in slow motion, the crack of the pistols, the bullets travelling faster than sound through the air. I could see every moment as they travelled closer and closer until they struck me in the eyes. I could feel the hot bullets tearing through my skull and then blackness. Blackness and his laugh, slowly fading until there was nothing but lonely darkness.
Something jarred me from my awful dream. There was some movement just beyond the trees of the forest. He was watching me sleep. He could have attacked me but he didnt. He doesnt want to face me here; he wants me to come after him, into the dark forest. Into a void of danger where he has control, thats where he will wait for me. I gave him a grunt and a smile then tipped my hat back down for slumber. The dream did not haunt me again. This time I dreamt of the warmth of a bed and the company of a large woman. It was a restful sleep. The last one I would have before the end.
I woke before the sun crept over the forest. Light shone through and I could see an outline of the maze that waited for me. Tress older than man twisted up in darkness, warning all who enter that they will not be leaving. I could hear the rustling, the anticipation of the beast. He knew I was coming, he knew I didnt care about escaping, just killing. I pulled my gun to my shoulder and looked through the scope at the eternal blackness, hoping the catch a glimpse of the monster. It was useless, but I squeezed off a few rounds just to get our party started.
When the sun came up fully, I stood to stretch then collapsed my camp. I rolled up my sleeping bag and shoved it onto the pack I was carrying. I slung the rifle over my shoulder and prepared for the final journey. Somehow I always knew it would come to this, to chasing this foul beast into its dark home. To chase it to where it sleeps and kill it. To bring justice to the people who so desperately need it. My bones ached as I stood; the pack was heavy on my back. I looked deep into the sunlit sky one last time then made my way to the edge of the forest.
As I got closer, I noticed the darkness beyond the trees did not become clearer. It was as if a fence of shadows was placed around the forest, protecting it form the sunlit world. I stood right on the border, the place where the dark met the light; the place where the light could not escape. I inhaled the clean air one last time and took that step. As I passed through the border of the forest, the outside light grew dim. Within the confines of the trees, the outside world became black.
Noises exploded all around me. Scurries and footsteps of beast I could not see. A twig snapped and I spun around but nothing was there. My heart pounded with a mixture of fear and anticipation. I was no longer in the safe world; I was now in the place where evil is born. Suddenly I heard a sound that reminded me of a baby crying. There was something strange about the way sounds echoed through the woods, like they had no source. I couldnt hear where it was coming from, just like it was everywhere. It echoed in my skull like that was where it was coming from. I couldnt focus and the world started to get shaky. I grasped my gun and closed my eyes.
Suddenly there was peace. I could no longer hear the awful scream, instead there was pure silence. The only sound I could hear was my heart pounding away in my chest. Once again I opened my eyes to see I was in a different part of the forest. I jumped a bit but accepted that I would have to endure many tricks like this. The beast knew I was here and he was going to stop me. I travelled in a direction for a good amount of time, but never found anything. I couldnt tell if I was actually even moving in a straight line, the forest had no end. There was no way to tell how deep into it I had gone or if I was ever going to escape. None of that was consequential anyways.
Hours passed and I walked along slowly, listening for anything that would tell me where he was. He would be near, he wanted to watch me. I could feel his cold, black eyes staring into me as I hunted him. My stomach started to growl with hunger, but I ignored it. Eating was a luxury for the happy and the living. I was tantamount to a dead man, but I was not going to let that stop my quest. It tugged at me, but I continued.
I moved through a very thick enclosure of trees to come out in a clearing. Unlike the rest of the forest, this place was lit. There was no obvious source of the light, but I could see everything clearly. I dropped my pack by a tree and explored the area. There were remains here, the kill of the hunt. He was near; he was going to be back. This must be his camp.
I climbed a tree close by and set up my rifle. My stomach burned again but I pushed on, letting the hunger fuel my drive. Hours passed in that tree and no sign of my kill. My fingers started twitching over the trigger, wanting to play. They wanted to kill but I had to control them. It would be here soon. I knew it. I knew it like I knew I would never escape this place. This was my salvation and my tomb.
I felt the world start to get fuzzy sitting in that tree. My eyes started to burn like I had been staring into a bright light and my body started to let go of control. I was tired, that had to be it. I let my eyes go heavy and close. I wanted to let sleep take me from this pain and burden. I wanted to escape and for the first time, true fear was gripping me. The finality of the moment started to consume me. My finger twitched over the trigger again and I almost pull off a shot. A mistake that could have cost me my life if the beast was close, a mistake I would not make.
Just as I felt I could not win the battle of sleep, something jarred me fast awake. The sound of footsteps scurrying across the ice cold ground made me come to full awareness. It would be done soon, the beast would be dead. I sat up, thinking about my hunt. Thinking about the how much sorrow this monster had caused. I thought of the final satisfaction I would gain from killing it, and the hope my sacrifice would bring the people that hired me. Both of us knew what the eventuality of it was, but I accepted anyways. No one escapes this forest except the beast. No one knows how to get out of here but it, and soon he will be gone. Maybe the forest will go with him, who knows.
Just beyond the far trees, something moved. It moved swiftly across the ground toward the trap I had laid out. It looked at my offering of peace and smelled it. Its cold black eyes darted around and it picked it up in its tiny hand. It brought the acorn to its nose and smelled deeply. Its tiny grey body tense with distrust, its bushy tail taught with fear. I pulled the scope to my eye and starred at the squirrel. I thought of the rows of acorn trees destroyed, the farmers angry, the children crying. Rage and finality built in me as I caressed the black trigger of my riffle.
The tiny head filled the frame of my scope, the tiny crosshairs pointing between its black eyes. I said a quick prayer and squeezed off the shot. There was an explosion that seemed to stretch on for eternity. The bullet traveled through the air, striking the monster in the tiny head. It exploded in glorious justice. Its tiny body limped instinctively for a second, the fell headless to the ground. Satisfaction washed over me as the tiny grey body twitched on the ground, blood pumping from its open neck. The acorn lay at its side, its lifeless fingers no longer able to reach for it.
It was done. The beast was dead and my journey was over. I walked over to the tiny body and bowed my head to my adversary. I said a small prayer for its honor and walked toward the edge of the clearing. I walked deep into the dark forest, knowing full well it was the end. I found a small pond to sit and drink by. I thought of my kill, I thought of the farmers, I thought of my dead horse. I bent down to take a sip from the stream, looking at my sun burnt face wobbling in the watery reflection. I looked tired and defeated, but satisfied. I drifted off to sleep by that pond, dreaming of my kill. Dreaming of the impossible: I dreamt of being home. Home was gone, and trapped in the forest, so was I.