Shots echoed amongst the evergreens. Barking resounded in the distance. The forest- the twisting branches- looked eerie in the dark. A girl, no older than fourteen, held a rifle in her arms, the press of the wooden stock cold against her cheek as she aimed into the endless night. Her hot breath puffed out clouds as she exhaled. Her mind was calm. Her stance was firm. She peered out, the light from the truck bright behind her back; it showed the bark of the trees and highlighted the shifting shadows behind them. But there was a limit to its reach. A limit to where the darkness could not be touched. Could not be held back.
“Stupid girl. Doesn’t even know how to fire a gun!” A man cursed. His boots crunched in the snow as he paced.
I haven’t even made a shot yet. The girl thought. When I do, I wonder if it would be with the muzzle of my barrel pointed right in between your eyes.
“Everyone, stay focused!” Said another. “Dekaros, stop bothering the girl.”
“What did I say?!”
The man called Dekaros cursed again. He held a short sword in his hands, his grip tight on the black handle. “Damned girl.” He mumbled. “I should have the gun. Not this. This. This knife. How am I supposed to protect myself with this thing?! Damn it!”
“Dekaros!” The other yelled again, silencing the man. That other was the group leader. He held his rifle up, searching the surrounding forest. They had waited in a small clearing that barely went in deep, coming off a road that veered from the main one that laid on a nearby hill.
Alaina1AlainaWow's paid no heed to the drivel and curses at her ear. There was much to consider at the moment. There were ten of them. Seven men. Three women, if you could include her as one. She had yet to shed her first blood, but the leader chose her to come along anyway. She had to prove her worth. Be an essential gear in the machine.
Alaina aimed her barrel out to the forest. Her sights were in the trees. If it comes, it would be from the top. They like to attack from above. Her thoughts came quickly as she aimed. Waiting. The night was not a quiet one. The branches creaked in the wind, the tops of the fallen snowflaking off like dust, bustling in the air like the embers of a rising white flame. I need to kill this one. I can’t go back empty-handed. Not this time!
It was then that something tapped Alaina’s shoulder. A shock ran through. She twisted in a flurry, her gun whirling about, but her barrel shuddered to a stop. Her hands shook from the stun. She looked upon the leering shadows, her eyes wide… But she did not scream.
“It’s you.” She breathed.
“It’s me.” The woman was tall. A woolen cap, stuffed with cotton, covered her head, but her red hair still managed to poke out. The silky mane was rosy and fine, and it glimmered against the light. “You’re too tense. You could end up killing one of us by accident.”
“I was not tense. I was calm. You just surprised me is all.” Alaina immediately denounced. She believed in her words. She felt it true, but the woman just shook her head.
“If you truly were calm, my approach wouldn’t have frightened you so. You would have gone back to your training with instinct, dashing forward at an angle, and turning to aim the gun once you’ve gained some distance. The fact that your training did not kick in shows you either lack it, or you were too tense or too out of it for anything to register. Of any of those, I sure hope it’s the second. The first means you won’t survive the night. The third means it will happen again and soon. And that never does you any good. But tension. Tension can be good. Once it is broken, morphed, and used to its fullest, can it be something that is turned from a detriment to a block in your foundation to a higher level of mastery.”
Alaina’s mouth twitched, but she said nothing. The woman was much older, much keener on the throngs of battle. The scars on her face and the ones that occasionally popped out from beneath her sleeve and above her gloves from an outstretched arm were a display of experience, and the life still beating through her chest was the display of her survival.
Alaina knew the woman. She had seen her around; spoken a few words. It was this woman who introduced her to the group. Alaina was not the only new one this night. There were three other additions. All new to the hunt. All meeting each other for the first time. I do this out of need.
More shots were fired. “It’s here! It’s coming. Prepare. Prepare!” The barking of the dog grew harried. And then a squeal. A whimper. Silence.
“That’s from the east. Azure Formation!” The group leader called. “Azure formation!” The nine or so group members changed their stance. Dekaros in the middle area- just in front of the truck, four behind, and the rest some ways ahead, paces past Dekaros. Alaina rushed out towards her position. She had no time to look back, only hearing the rushing footsteps of the redheaded woman going the other way.
Azure formation. It was something they told them of along with two more as they were leaving to go on the hunt. They never put it into practice. The leader said they did not have the time. But Alaina had learned it well. She did her best; she needed a group to stay in. She needed them to take her on more hunts.
“I loved that dog.” She heard someone sigh, but she did not know who.
She looked around the short statures of the girl at her side, and the other two, clearly boys of an age no older than she. They are all children. They’re all like me. I didn’t notice when I climbed into the truck… And all of us are in front?
“Damn it! Why am I here?” Dekaros yelled out. “This. This is not how it’s supposed to be. How am I holding this toothpick? Girl, give me back my gun! That’s mine! I can’t die like this!” He roared.
Alaina did not look back. She heard the boots crunch in the snow, over the whistling winds, closing in on her. But she did not pay it head. She could not. The danger was just ahead. She had to focus her mind, keep it clear. It was not the first time that Dekaros had done his rant this very night, feigning his displeasure and roving his presence behind her. He never acted on it. So she listened not to what laid behind, but to what came before her. The sounds of running, the panting of a ragged breath.
“Get ready guys. It’s coming!” A man broke from the forest and into the small clearing the group was in. A metal crossbow was slung over his shoulders as he swished past the first four, a single gun in hand. Alaina took her eyes off of him. She shifted her gaze back towards the outside. The prey lies out there. It lies in wait. Laying for me to come and devour it.
The wind went silent, even though it still rushed past on occasion, the snow dancing within the currents. Alaina waited. She waited and waited and then… Dekaraos grabbed her from behind.
This is the second time. Alaina had ignored Dekaros. She had his gun, but she believed he would not take it back, not at this time, at least. Not when the danger was so close. But maybe she should have been even more wary since it was that close. He had many chances to have taken it before after she won it off of him in a betting card game two nights ago. It was then that she was first introduced to him and the leader. They were the only two of the group she met that night.
She had bet her life. He had bet his gun. An even trade in the eyes of the many. Ever since then, Dekaros would yell and carry on; and the leader would put him back in line. But he never tried to take the gun back. He was all talk. What a mistake I’ve made.
Alaina fought. She held onto the gun, but Dekaros was much stronger. With one quick pull, he snatched the gun from her gloved hands and kicked her in her chest, tossing her back.
“Dekaros!” The group leader called. “You stupid fool! You and your games. You’re going to ruin our chance. Get into position!”
Dekaros smiled. A crooked smile; lips thin; teeth mashed. His eyes were dark and imperceptible with the shadow formed from the light behind him. Alaina struggled to get up. Dekaros kicked her down again.
“Jole, how much time do we have?”
The man with the crossbow cackled. “I’ve laid a trail. I would give you another ten seconds.”
Dekaros frowned. “Ten seconds? Damn it, Jole. I told you to give me more time. I wanted to enjoy that one.” Dekaros cursed. “Here. This will help you survive.” He tossed his short sword towards Alaina. It fell into the snow with a soft thud. “Aren’t I a genteel man, huh, Jole?” He laughed and turned his back on the four that had looks of bewilderment on their faces; and ran to the truck. He hopped inside and pointed his long, barrel out the window.
“What’s going on? Dekaros taking her gun is one thing, but…Why are we so far ahead? If Dekaros isn’t covering the middle, then…”
“Ha! Did you really think there was really a good thing called the azure formation?” Dekaros called out.
Alaina slowly managed to get up. Her chest hurt. But her mind remained calm. Calmer than it could ever be. The leader. He wasn’t holding Dekaros back for me. He was holding him back so I wouldn’t figure it out. As she rose to her full height, she uttered a single word…
The three heard her, and if struck with a realization, they dashed in different directions. There was a reason why they had not met each other until they were in the truck. A reason why they were only informed of the formation, but never put it into practice. The preyed on her. Preyed on her emotions and she licked it up nicely.
Alaina tried to hurry. But it was too late…
A wail broke the air. Its wail so strong, so mighty, that everyone froze. The ones behind the truck were the first to come out of it. They had faced the spell of the wail for years. Its hold on them was exceedingly weak. But that was not so for the four in front.
What is that? Just what are they trying to hunt? That wail. That thing. That’s not a normal one!
“It was said that back then, when knights still wore metal armor and men roamed the land on horseback, that the azure formation was used as a stalling tactic.” The leader called out. His voice was calm and cool. “For a group of our size, four knights would fight at the forefront, risking their lives as the archers and spellmasters formed their attacks, trapping the enemy within a powerful, deadly snare. It was an ingenious plan, an ingenious formation.”
Boom. Crack. A tree canopy in the distance exploded.
“But there was a trifling problem. A tiny one. Apparently, those four knights never survived. Many tried and tweaked the formation for years. But still, not one of the four ever lived. Not with our numbers, anyway.”
“Thank you, you four. For choosing the side of honor. For dying with glory.”
And the leader smiled.