The twin tracks of a four-footed creature, glistening a bright fresh red in the holy light, lead deeper into the bellows of the cave. Before the hunter, the bloody smears transform. With every step they grow smaller. There is a break, after which the fore-prints disappear as the hind-prints change to a flatter, longer shape. Still shrinking, they go on. The toes grow fatter, shorter, and less claw like, till they are unmistakably the toes of a man.
The transformation seems complete, and the bloody tracks continue without further change into the subterranean night. The hunter’s light footfalls steadily break the noiselessness of the cavern like a soft trickling stream. Without the jabbering of the canopy, above or the compressible earth beneath to hide his approach, the hunter feels himself naked, a bright spot in the never-ending darkness.
He presses on in solitude, following the fading footprints as they give way to smears, the smears waning to splotches, and the splotches terminating in nothing. The hunter stands in the darkness at the end of the trail, staring into the unfathomable void before him. Borderless, lost in utter silence, the man waits.
In the timeless underworld, the hunter holds still as a statue, his crossbow armed and pointed into the night. No more howls sound, no more ghastly faces surround, no more tracks lead. Only the priestess’s blessing remains, holding back the suffocating blackness. In the quiet, he hears it, a moaning sobbing cry, a pitiable sighing.
“No,” the voice wails. After the sound Richard flies, running into the featureless depths. The weeping halts. “Light? Oh by the sun, is that light? Is someone out there besides those pale haunting fiends? This way, no, you’re growing dim, this way. Yes, yes! I’ve been in the darkness so long. Oh, be you friend or fiend, bless you, life or death I welcome thee.
“Just a face, a light to see, a rescue from this pit. Come, come, you’re growing brighter and I can see your form. What are you then, a priest? No, I see you now. Welcome, welcome, hunter. How come you down into this hell? What are you after? one of those accursed under-dwellers?”
Groveling on his knees the stranger holds up his hands before his face. They are covered in dried brown blood. Richard slows his approach to a walk, stopping a good span before the supplicating figure. “I can see, bless you, I can see,” the man keeps muttering.
Lowering his hands, he gazes up at this crossbow wielding savior. He looks down at his open palms. “Then it is death that comes for me,” he sighs. “By the sun, what have I become? What says that badge of yours which mutes you? They don’t call hunters after murderers. What am I? How have I found myself lost in darkness for this long eternity with nothing but spooks for company?
“They come, you know. I hear their squawking laughing voices, and the pitter-patter of their feet. They lay hands on me, and beat me, and throw me out. But I always wake up back in the darkness with them, a never-ending cycle.”
The hunter raises his weapon, lining the sight up with the stranger’s heart. The man sits back, and lets his arms fall limp to his sides. He turns his head up. “I killed the monster,” he says, “It got my son. I took an ax and chopped off its head. I thought I killed the monster, but now, I think it ate me, swallowed me all up in one gulp, and this is its belly I’m in, its black belly.”
The shaft flies through him like lightning, racing into the darkness. And, as the arrow pierces his heart, the sun’s blessing left Richard. A squawking, chirping, chorus begins to build all around in the darkness, as the leathery footed creatures close their ranks about the helpless hunter.