If an elf could ever look old, it was the Nentyarch. Hundreds upon hundreds of years of ruling the forests surrounding the Great Dale had worn on him. Elves lived long lives, but the Nentyarch had lived even longer than that. The strength and power of the ancient forests gave life and determination to the old druid, but now at the end of his life, his forces were thin and he was tired.
He sat in the center of the stone hall of Yeshelmaar. He sat on his throne of living oak while the druids of the Circle of Leth surrounded him on stone benches in a half circle. Before him knelt a ranger with head bowed. The ranger was ugly… deformed. His skin was green and smooth, framed by thick and greasy black hair. He was human, yet not quite.
The elf druid spoke softly and quietly. "Badmunster Westfallen, son of our dear and departed Badkrefeld, what do you ask of the Circle assembled here?"
Badmunster the ranger replied in gruff yet humble voice. "I ask to become a Hunter in your service, Nentyarch, like my father was before I was born. I have vanquished my father's killer Rulloff, the blightlord, and have been cursed with my present appearance. I have fought in the West and have become skilled in the ways of the forest and of the bow. But the West was not my home." Badmunster lifted his eyes to the Nentyarch, who noticed that they were moist. "To be a Hunter is where a Westfallen belongs."
The elf let a rare smile touch his lips. "We would be most pleased to accept your service in these troubled times. The blightlords of Talona have corrupted all of Rawlinswood to the north. Scores of demons roam everywhere that the Circle places under its protection. We need warriors to fight these evils. Yet you must prove your valor and dedication to us."
"Name the task, my lord."
The Nentyarch stood and descended the steps of the dais and lifted Badmunster gently to his feet. "There is a hag, come from the eastern land of Rashemen, who has settled in the northeastern portion of the Lethyr Forrest. She surprised a Hunter a ten-day ago. She killed him and his canine, Noser. She consumed him and carried away the dog, presumably to do the same. This report was brought to us by his partner, who witnessed all of this." The Nentyarch swallowed hard. "He is no longer sound enough of mind to avenge the Hunter's death and cleanse the forest of this evil. The druids of Talona and the demons are two evils too many for these lands. It cannot abide a third.
"She's been here."
The whisper was more of a hiss through the thin wingsquirrel mask. Badmunster was hunched over the footprints in a rare spot of soft, bare earth on the forest floor.
He stood up, making no noise as his oiled leather armor and pouches and sheathes adjusted to his movements. There was not a patch of old leather creaking on his person. Badmunster had made sure of that.
Gripping the back of the nearest large tree, he clattered forty feet up the ancient yew about as quickly as a normal man could walk the same distance on the ground. Walking out on a thick limb, he looked out in the direction that the prints pointed. Tracking this hag had had proven difficult. He had been hard on her trail for a ten-day now. The beginnings of autumn were in the wind. The air was comfortable and crisp, the rains more frequent. Leaves would fall, branches would become brittle, and the earth would become even softer. Finding her was only a matter of time. And find her, Badmunster must.
He looked at his hands and clinched them. Greenish-black. Hard like spider-skin. Small gripping hairs on his fingers. Acceptance. Unquenchable vengeance against the evils of Toril. That was what he sought even more than the hag. Unclenching his fists, he jumped downwards from branch to branch until he was on the ground again.
Badmunster moved quickly on his way. Undergrowth did not bother him. He did not slow to follow the slight signs of her passage. He didn't need to. This was old hand, and she was only a day ahead of him. He would end this, and soon.
For miles he walked. It didn't bother him. He'd been walking for years, it seemed. He'd journeyed from the Great Dale to the Dalelands and back. He'd been through portals to far off deserts and into other planes. Mounts never had stayed beneath him; his boots had been his main mode of travel.
But his mind was weary. Whether amidst armies or in small bands, he'd always been alone. Only his companion Weisheit, the smallest of owls, had seemed to understand him. Yet after all these, after finally achieving silence, that same silence pounded his ears. The frustration built inside him daily. It needed to rest inside true companionship.
Badmunster stopped at the patch of undergrowth. The freshest print he'd seen yet showed some fallen leaves pressed underneath to oh-so-familiar hag print. He had been wrong earlier. This was only a few hours old. And even better: the feet were very close, showing that she was slowing down, growing weary. He could almost see her in his mind, a shriveled old woman, blue of skin, charms hanging from her neck and arms. Her eyes would be… haggard, her gait slow and forced.
The masked hunter quickened his pace. He began to hardly notice the trees passing by him. He must be careful not to be hasty. Once he found her she would be cornered and would fight hard, and with magic. Badmunster had few defenses against sorcery, if any. He would have to make every shot, make every blow count. But despite the warnings of his mind, his legs betrayed him and he drove on.
The trees thickened and his eyes darted around more quickly. She could be leading him to a place where the fight would be to her advantage. The ground began to decline as he went. He knew what was coming before he got there. If Badmunster had been a "jolly fellow" as the Dalelanders called it, he would've laughed when he found the stream. It was too predictable. The trail did not pick up on the other side. Almost without thinking, he followed it downstream. If she was as tired as he though she was, the hag would have gone downstream.
He followed the water from the hedges to the side of it. No need to expose himself. He rounded a bend in he water and stopped. The stream tumbled in a waterfall down a cliff that must have been a hundred feet high.
Badmunster sat down on a rock, took off his mask, and put his head in his hands. A wave of negativity and desolation swept over him. "Failure!" accused a voice from deep inside of him. All those people from his past had been right. Success was never to be his. He knew she did not go upstream. He just knew it. Every woodsman instinct in him screamed that she had moved downstream. But there was no way she, as old as she was, had just jumped down.
With nothing left to do, Badmunster began to search the stream banks for signs of the hag's movement back into the woods. Badmunster searched for a single broken twig, the slightest footprint. Nothing. He climbed the tallest tree he could find and tried to read the terrain that might give him a decent clue as to her direction. The dips and bends of the land, the possible clearings, it all added up to north… the direction of the waterfall.
He scaled down the tree until there was a limb that could properly support his full weight, and sat down looking north. He sighed. He just couldn't give up. He had to get this right… he had to prove all of those voices wrong. Staring blankly, his mind began to wander, weighing whether to commit to a northerly direction and trying to figure how much time it would potentially waste if he was wrong. And when would he decide that he had taken the wrong path?
Without warning a fluttering breeze touch his face and a familiar weight bore on his right shoulder.
"Weisheit! You came back at last. I thought you had abandoned me." The tiny screech owl cocked his head and let out a soft, high pitched cooing sound. He was a deformed creature; the feathers on his head were spotty and showed off some bare skin in places. His beak was chipped, giving him the odd appearance of sneering at whatever he was looking at. Lastly, one leg was shorter than the other, causing the owl to hobble whenever it chose to walk. But none of that mattered to Badmunster. Weisheit was the most loyal creature he knew. No human, elf, or even angel had been as loyal. He reached into his pouch, took out a sugar cube he had been saving, and poured some liquid from a flask over it. The owl made it disappear in no time. Badmunster allowed himself a rare smile. "So now that I have you loosened up, you fluff ball, did you find what I sent you to look for five days ago?"
The little owl hobbled crookedly up and down Badmunster's arm, nodding his head and cooing as his did so. It was like a little dance, and Weisheit only did it when he knew he would please his master. The bird tucked his beak under his wing and pulled out a tooth from the small leather pouch that hung on a girdle-like harness. Badmunster had made it for him for just such occasions. The ranger took the tooth and looked it over. While he was no expert on teeth, he'd wager it was Elven. It was similar to a human tooth, but more perfect and definitely cleaner, not to mention smaller. He placed it in his pouch. He wasn't sure if "hags" were truly human or not, but they looked close enough. And there were few crimes against nature greater than cannibalism. This witch had to die.
Weisheit flew a short distance north and came back to his master's shoulder. With no more hesitation, Badmunster clattered down through the branches, worked his way to the cliff-side near the waterfall and spider-climbed his way down. He had to admit, being cursed wasn't so bad sometimes. Once at the bottom, he pulled off his mask put it in his pocket. "Let's go meet ugliness with ugliness, Weisheit. Lead the way."
Badmunster pulled himself up quickly and quietly to a stout branch a few body-lengths above the ground. There was enough headroom for him to kneel in relative comfort. A few hundred feet away he watched two monsters, deformities really, mill around in a clearing in the forest. He watched them in the early dawn hour. They had both been sleeping outside of a little hut made of mud and sticks. The first one to wake up – the biggest one – kicked the second smaller one almost playfully, who promptly rolled over and fell back asleep. Big stepped over Little and made water just a few feet away. When he was finished he scratched himself and kicked Little again, more forcefully and less playfully. Little slapped at Big's legs and Big kicked again. Within a few moments the two were rolling on the ground in a fight of fists and grapple holds, muddying and bloodying themselves on the clearing's ground.
"If they fight with half that fervor and with weapons against me," Badmunster whispered to the tiny owl on his shoulder, "you may have to find another meal ticket."
Badmunster reached into the quiver on his back. The Elven symbols and letters on it glowed briefly as he pulled a white longbow from inside. It too was carved with the long and flowing art of the elves. Its abilities would also be used today. As he did before every battle he read the words inscribed just above the handle grip. His Elven was poor, but he knew this phrase well enough: "The Righteous Kill." He closed his eyes in quiet communion with the earth around him. It was only in these moments that he felt peace: the moments before a crisis.
His reverie was interrupted by a loud shriek from down below. Loud was an understatement. Shriek was not. He winced and barely kept himself from cursing aloud. And there she was. Small and shrunken looking, her white, straggling hair almost hid her face. She leaned on her staff with one hand and scolded the two deformities with a crooked and pointed finger of the other hand. Gods, she was ugly. The two monsters looked ashamed. Little even looked like he was going to cry. Cry? They were humanoid, but clearly not human. At least not very. Badmunster cocked his head. "What are they?" he whispered. Weisheit shuffled his feet and made no sound.
"Swift deaths to those who've wrong me," he whispered. He thought of the hag in front of him, putting every ounce of her as object into his words. He thought of what the Nentyarch had told him before he left for this journey. That a hag was trying to carve out a niche for herself in a northeastern portion Forest of Lethyr. That she had taken one of the Circle's Hunters by surprise. That she had picked that same Hunter's bones dry, slurping them down as if she had been a beast herself. Badmunster nocked an arrow and pulled back. He thought of the dog Noser. Badmunster felt his lip go into a snarl. Now was the time.
Just as he was about let loose his arrow, Badmunster saw the hag reach up to the face of Little and wipe his cheek dry from his tears. The look of gentleness on her face surprised him enough to jolt his aim ever so slightly.
Little's body jerked facedown spasmodically on the ground, Badmunster's arrow sticking out of man-thing's neck. Both the hag and Big stared open-mouthed at the body at their feet. They looked up at each other, and then to the wood line in Badmunster's direction. The silence hung in the air, but only for a moment. Big bellowed deeply and in long syllables, she in rapid and high-pitched shrieks. There was rage in her eyes, a very particular rage reserved for mothers of the slain.
"Shit." Badmunster slowly assumed a lying position on the branch to blend in better. His browns and greens did a fine job of hiding him. It's not that he wasn't expecting the hag to know his location after the first shot. But he had to process this whole family concept in front of him, and quickly. Did it change anything? Did this make her… them… more human or less evil?
These were wordless thoughts in his mind. These, as well as thoughts of the slain Hunter, the innocent Noser, and the future victims of such creature as this hag and her spawn. The words of the Nentyarch echoed in his mind. She consumed him. The thoughts that caused hesitation gave way to conviction in his mission. She had to die.
The hag pointed to the wood line and commanded something to Big, who, after pulling a sword from a basket, took off lumbering into the woods. He ran directly below Badmunster's tree and never looked up. That was fine by Badmunster. He'd deal with that thing later, if at all. His mission was to bring an end to this man-eating hag.
She was following the direction of her spawn now, walking with a limping yet determined gait. Her toothless mouth was screwed in determination. Her staff thrust firmly into the ground with each step of her left foot. Badmunster slowly lifted himself into his former position. He had one more shot before she saw him. Once again, he pressed the white yew bow to his lips and muttered his prayer of vengeance on behalf of the hag's victims. He nocked, he drew, he fired.
The hag yelped like a hound from the underworld when the arrow struck her in the right shoulder. He watched as she looked around, searching for him. He tried to retrieve another arrow from the quiver before she sighted him. Just as he laid another arrow across the side of the bow, her gaze found him. She immediately spread her arms and hissed something in her stunted, eastern-sounding language. Only, it wasn't really a hiss. It was more like a breeze that built very quickly into a gust that went straight toward him. And it was cold. Small chunks of ice struck his face and body, knocking him off balance. He tried to brace himself, but with one hand holding his bow and his knees resting on nothing but a branch that only was about a span and a half wide, he had no hope.
Before he knew it, he was staring up at the tree canopy above. Picking up his bow, he staggered to his feet and picked up his bow and turned around to get his bearings. And there she was, her ugly blue self bearing down on him more quickly than he thought her capable of. The cold gust came again. Badmunster tried to move out of the way, but the attack covered more area than expected. The ice chunks beat on his face and thudded against his chest. He felt himself bleeding underneath his mask and fired off three shots in rapid succession. Only one missed.
The hag screamed in pain. Badmunster watched as she rose slowly off the ground. Then, in a blur, she flew away in the opposite direction. She glided easily around any tree in her way.
So that's how that old woman got down that cliff. As quickly as he could, the ranger climbed up the nearest tree, and began to run along the branches. The gaps between trees were relatively small, and he had no trouble leaping from branch to branch in pursuit. He ran as fast as he could until she came into sight. With even the small height of the low, thick branches, he felt he had a tactical advantage. He was slowly overtaking her, but had to do so enough to get another couple of shots off. Once he did, he let loose another two arrows. One found its mark. The hag screamed again and tumbled to the ground. This allowed Badmunster to close the gap before she began to fly again.
Badmunster was breathing hard now. I can't keep this up all day, he thought. I have to get closer. Little by little, he gained. He slid his bow back into the magical quiver as he ran. Doubling his efforts caused him to almost fall twice, but he recovered without losing too much distance. Finally, he was where he wanted to be: directly over her. He drew his shortsword, holding it with a downward grip. Now!
The ranger leapt off the branch, the glistening point of his shortsword gleaming in a beam of morning sun that was poking through the forest canopy. His battle cry rose from his throat.
The hag turned her head in mid-flight to look above her. Her eyes filled with a palpable fear that, in his battle lust, Badmunster found to be delicious. His sword sunk deeply into her back, all the way to the hilt.
She hit the ground hard and rolled like a rag doll as the earth broke her momentum. Badmunster grunted with pain as he rolled over her and hit root after root. He came to rest on his side, feeling the wind slightly knocked out of him. He let out a groan as he slowly rose to his feet. He looked around and found her lying face down in a clump of ferns, his sword still sticking out of her back. His glance shifted to his glove, sticky and slick with her blood.
He went over to the body and took off his mask to get a clear view of the creature he had just killed. His sword made a slurping, sucking noise as he pulled it out of her. A sigh escaped her as he did so, and Badmunster involuntarily shuddered. He looked closely. She was still breathing, though barely. Using the toe of his boot, he turned her over.
The hag's eyes were in slits but were holding on to life. She turned her head slightly and fixed her old eyes on the ranger standing over her. Badmunster noticed that her eyes were bright blue.
"Why?" The question came out as a whimper trying desperately to hold on to its pride.
"So you speak Damaran, do you? I'll tell you why, witch. The forest has no room for cannibals like you."
The hag closed her eyes and a tear streamed out. "I only wanted to find somewhere to live as me and mine were meant to." And with that, her spirit left her.
Badmunster could do nothing but grunt. He wiped his sword off on the still-dewed ferns next to the hag's head. Then, his ear caught the sound of breaking branches behind him. He whirled around, sword at the ready. Big was standing in front of him. Badmunster tightened his grip on the blade, ready for a charge.
But the hagspawn just stood there. It looked at Badmunster and looked at the dead hag. Shoulders drooping, it walked over to the body and knelt down. Its chest heaved; its voice sobbed. Badmunster let his arm drop and sheathed his sword. As he walked away, Weisheit swooped down to his shoulder.
"Hey, fluff ball. Guess we're not the only ones trying to fit in."