A man sat beneath the willow tree, silent, brooding, his face hidden in the deep shadow of his rain soaked jade cloak. His mouth furrowed in a deep frown, replaced gradually by tranquility. The man rocked back and forth where he sat, following the drum beat of thunder as it roiled angrily above. Faster he rocked; gaining strength from each movement until he sprang up, wolf skin boots alighting silently on the wet moss.
From against the tree he pulled forth a massive bow, etched with runes that caught the rain. The man plucked the bowstring, and it hummed with a power that struck the rain itself, thinning it around him for a brief moment. Satisfied, he knelt, examining the hoof prints in the mud encrusted moss.
Slipping off into the trees with bow in hand, the man was a wraith, invisible, silent, moving to the rhythm of the wind and rain as if he too were a thing of the wood. Gradually the tracks became clearer, each deep cloven print less tarnished by the rain, and with each mark the man lengthened his stride, heartbeat quickening to the chase inside his trunk-like chest.
He came upon more prints coming from the north, all converging into a single jumbled trail of beaten moss and spattered mud. Finally the tracks formed a single line, and he smiled at the thought of the imminent slaughter.
Nearly sprinting over the familiar hunting trails of his youth, the man quickly gained on his query, the acrid smell of the beasts growing stronger in his nostrils with each stride. As each step brought him closer he no longer needed the trail of hooves, instinct guiding him over the wet ground. Less thought reached him, replaced slowly by an overpowering rage hidden beneath his cool visage, a sea of hatred covered in ice, ready to crack.
A flash of lightning rent the air, illuminating the fleeing fiends, and the man stood tall, bow taught. The bow hummed a low note as he let fly, the arrow slamming into the back of a red skinned fiend, reducing it to a pile of ash in a scream of agony. The other fiends thundered ahead, bursting into a grove open to the dark, stormy sky. The remaining five formed a circle, blades clutched, spiked tails twitching nervously behind them, black shields raised in fear of another arrow.
The man quickly ducked behind a tree, unable to get a shot. Dropping the bow, he scrambled up the tree, shuffling along the lowest boughs without a whisper. Slowly he approached the clearing, hidden in the smothering embrace of the leaves. From his vigil directly above the fiends, he pulled from his belt two long knives, leaving four there.
Holding the knives reverse-grip, he pounced, landing with hardly a sound in the circle of fiends, except the cry of the closest fiend and he slashed it, turning it to a heap of ash. The other four fiends scrambled, the largest of the group growling a frantic order. As one, the fiends faced the man, cowering behind their shields, advancing to encircle him.
The man crouched ready, his blades menacing in the twilight, dripping with rain and black blood. A noise behind him set him into action, slashing his knives through the air. A spiked tail fell severed to the moss, and the fiends quickly stepped back, one with a face contorted in pain.
Impatiently the leader snorted and charged ahead, spiked shield leading. The man nimbly stepped aside, slashing at the back of the fiend as he rushed past, the knife torn from his grasp by the fiend’s nimble tail. Quickly drawing another knife, the man chased after the fiend, ducking under one lumbering sword swipe of a lesser fiend and quickly slashing its throat.
By this time, the leader composed himself, the three remaining fiends standing shoulder to shoulder, the one with the severed tail on the arc’s rightmost edge. They advanced; the man stood his ground. The right fiend advanced ahead of his comrades, and the man pounced, planting a foot between the thing’s curved horns and leaping high, twisting as he went to throw his knife at the left most fiend, before landing in a crouch and thrusting his other knife into the back of the fiend with half a tail. As both fiends crumbled to ash, the man turned and saw the largest of the fiends drop his sword to the ground and flee, tail releasing the knife.
As the beast ran past an oak the man let loose his remaining knife, the blade sheering through its shoulder slamming into the tree, pinning it face first to the oak. It bellowed in pain as the man slowly approached, breathing heavily beneath his cowl, fire burning behind his eyes.
The man moved behind the creature and roughly pulled the knife from the tree, his gloved hand snapping forward and gripping the fiend by the nape of his neck. The heat given off by its otherworldly body reduced the rain to steam as it touched his crimson skin.
Sheathing the blade, the man pulled off the cowl, and slowly moved his face next to the fiends. In a cold, deep voice that was unnaturally calm, the man spoke.
“Tell your master that I live,” said the man, his voice even and steady. “Tell him that I wait.” The man squeezed the fiend’s neck, pulling the beast from the tree trunk and tossing him into the woods, where the thing scrambled away, clutching its wounded shoulder.
The man sighed and collected his knives, plucking the bow from the ground and pulling forth his cowl. The man trudged back along the fading trail of hooves, disappearing into the curtain of falling rain as the thunder echoed above.
Kneeling by the tree, water soaked through his pants, head bowed, hair glistening. The boughs of the willow thinned the rain about him, yet still his soul felt damp and chill.
The surface of the pond danced like a flame as the water struck, the willow leaning over it, boughs slumped in defeat. The man lifted his head, eyes rimmed red but face etched in stone, and gazed at the base of the tree. There, written in runic, intertwining with each other, were two lines of text carved in the gnarled bark. Above the text was a knot, supporting a thin silver chain leading down into a medallion etched with the rune of matrimony.
The man’s eyes glazed as his mind wandered down that past avenue. That sunny day so long ago, beneath the willow, carving those very runes into the bark, guiding his knife, while below it a delicate hand, porcelain white, carved the other line. His deep timbre boomed the words of marriage as her melodic voice echoed them, making the birds stop their constant chatter to listen to her song.
The memory put his mind at ease, and he thought of when he carried her into the cabin, her pale forehead nuzzling his chest, her piercing green eyes never leaving his. He smiled a sad smile as he remembered laying her down for the first time, his hazel orbs locked with her jade. That trail of memories led him down a darker road, one that ended in thoughts too terrible for him to bear, and tears swelled in his eyes.
Clearing his throat, he stood, etching an incomplete rune below the inscription, and removed the necklace. Walking away, two images burned in his mind, one of peace in a woman’s form, the other in the form of a giant red fiend, with ram’s horns and glowing runes on his skin. He gripped the necklace a little tighter, hazel eyes blazing behind tears.
“I will give you one chance to rephrase that,” the guttural voice said, deathly calm. “Speak wisely.”
The fiend trembled with fear, his height nothing in comparison to the demon before him. “He... slayed them, my lord,” Said the fiend “all five. He said he wai-”
The fiend’s next words never escaped him as the demon turned about, a massive, blood red hand clamping his neck and hoisting him off the ground with terrible strength.
The demon brought his face to the fiends, letting him absorb its horror. Empty white eyes blazed behind a lupine snout dripping with saliva. Fangs as long as forearms hung below, razor sharp, bloodstained. From atop his head sprouted two horns, curling back on themselves like a ram’s, going full circle to point forward once more. The demon wore a loincloth, of rotting and fetid flesh. On it hung a mace, four blunt faces red hot from contact with his body. Along the entirety of his body were scars, each one meshing with the next to form one gruesome scene or another, pulsating violet with each beat of his black heart.
“You failed!” he snarled
The fiend tried to choke out an apology, but was silenced as the demon clenched his fist with a smile, and the fiend dissolved into ash, sifting through the demon’s claws.
Pacing about the cave, he calculated. How could the human, so fragile and weak, possibly defy him? What amazed the demon even more was that the man had made it this far. A grim smile touched his lips as he thought of that night, tossing that weakling against the wall, chaining him to watch as he ravaged his wife, burning her, making her scream in an ecstasy filled agony. The scream she howled filled even his black heart with a bit of pity.
But not enough to end her suffering, never that.
With an evil smile, the demon had left the house, feeling the comfort of its heat behind him as it burned down. As he passed the willow, the demon launched a puff of flame. But to his surprise, the willow tree endured, withstanding his fire, his mace, his claws, his teeth, not shedding a single lace-like branch.
With a snarl, the demon snapped back to his senses, and smiled as he realized where the human would make his stand. With a howl that shook the very core of the forest, the demon sprang away, burning everything in his wake.
The man sat beneath the willow tree, the ground beneath it dry from its protection in the pre-dawn glow. Cross legged, he did not stir, eyes closed and face hidden beneath the cowl. A light fog fell, making him invisible. Slowly he attuned himself with the wood, gently rocking as the willow lent its power to him. He felt pain, heat, and outrage course through his veins as he sensed the demon’s blazing charge.
Thoughts of that long ago night flooded into him. The screams, the pain, the torment of it all racked his very soul, opening scars that had never fully healed. His mind slowly drew blank as he concentrated only on his breathing, and waited.
He heard the demon approach from some distance, alerted by the flight of birds and the fleeing of squirrels. A blaze crackled in the distance, and the smell of smoke was heavy.
The man turned from the tree and opened his eyes, senses sharpened. Slowly, the fog became red; brightening with each second, until a form, tall and with curved horns could be seen beyond it.
That was all he needed.
In a fluid motion, he knocked an arrow, and fired, the arrow slamming the hulking figure in the chest.
But as the fog cleared, the demon still stood, that lupine face twisted in a smile, a clawed hand grasping the arrow an inch from his chest. The demon glowed a deeper red, and the arrow burned into nothingness.
“Your wooden weapons hold no power over fire, human” the demon said derisively, blank white eyes glaring with amusement, “the very forest trembles before my inferno, and you think a sharpened stick will stop me? You humans have always been foolish.”
With a shrug, the man tossed the bow aside and drew his blades, touching the silver about his neck in reassurance.
The demon smiled deviously, drawing his mace, fueling it until the metal was nearly molten, white hot. The scars along his body pulsed a deeper purple, showing a scene of the demon holding the corpse of a man, and, for just a second, showing a scene of the demon with a woman.
The man’s face hardened into a glare of hatred so pure it impressed even the demon; he charged.
The demon crouched, mace held high as the man closed. As the demon swung, the man rolled under the blow, rising at the demon’s extended shoulder, lashing out with his blades. The demon issued a backhand, and the man scrambled away. What he saw unnerved him. The demon’s shoulder was not injured at all, but glowed with a series of new purple scars, pulsing in sequence to depict a man burning alive.
The demon simply chuckled.
The man charged again, barreling towards the demons chest. The demon offered no resistance, and the man closed in, leaping high. Just as his blade neared the creature’s neck, the demon roared, issuing forth a wave of searing heat and the man stumbled back, face singed. He prepared to throw his blade when he found that all that remained was the handle, the blade itself lying in a pool of molten metal at the demon’s feet.
“You have fought hard to reach this pitiful pinnacle, but now, realize that it was all for nothing!” the demon shouted
The man stubbornly drew another knife and advanced. The demon responded with short jabs of the mace, the man awkwardly dancing to avoid. With one such jab, the mace issued a burst of fire, pushing the man back, off balance.
The demon lunged, grabbing the man’s neck, hoisting him off the ground, bringing his face level with the demon’s own.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, my friend,” he said, “she was with child.”
The man, charred and choking, gathered his remaining strength and spat, the liquid sizzling against the demon’s eye.
The demon growled, and squeezed harder on the man’s neck. In doing this, a finger brushed against the silver chain. The demon dropped him, howling in pain, now short one finger.
The man scrambled away, gasping, the demon trembling in agony. The man unclasped the necklace, it’s rune glowing a deep jade, and held it aloft, advancing on the demon.
The demon took a wary step back, eyes glowing in hatred. As the man approached, the beast issued a blast of fire, turning the surrounding trees to tinder, save the willow. When the smoke cleared, the man stood, unscathed, the rune now shining a green hue on their surroundings.
In the demon’s stunned silence, the man spoke, calm and collected, and with a voice that promised death’s cold embrace.
“You have burned my home. You have burned my forest. You have burned my love. And now, I will burn you.”
“No man can defeat the flames of hell!” cried the demon, blank eyes wild with fear
The man charged, silver amulet leading. The demon frantically blasted fire, again with no effect. As the silver drew closer, the demon swung his mace, slamming it down on the man’s head with terrible power.
The mace slammed home like a thunderbolt, shattering into a thousand molten pieces, and driving the man down to one knee. When the man arose once more, the demon issued wave after wave of fire, burning the moss, boiling the lake, but not touching the willow tree or the man, a testament to the power of two intertwined lovers, two intertwined lines of runes.
The man stood tall and advanced towards the demon, too stunned to move. With the jade silver raised high, the knife in his other hand, the demon hunter bore down on his enemy, impervious and untouchable as his prey frantically tried to defend himself. The demon retreated until his scarred back thumped against the gnarled trunk of the willow tree. Even there, he felt the runes of the tree burn into his back, two intertwined lines of ice that shook his whole being as even the tree attacked him, exacting revenge for that long ago barrage. As the demon sank to his knees in agony, the man stood before him, godlike and terrible, no longer the pup that had once been whipped.
“I find my peace, demon. But you will not.” Said the man, striking the demon with the amulet. It flared brightly and shattered, burning its rune onto the demon as he fell, lifeless, to crumble to ash.
In the following stillness, the mist of the amulet’s remains began to stir, forming a shape, until the apparition of a woman, beautiful and curved, with piercing eyes and a warm smile, stood before him. With a ghostly hand, she reached out and touched his tear covered cheek, smiling sadly. She turned around, ghostly hair blowing in the breeze as she walked towards the tree with silent, intangible steps. There, she drew with her finger the final line of the incomplete rune, which flared a bright blue, before she faded away, absorbed into the mighty willow.
As the rune flared, the fires of the forest were silenced, the trees relieved of their wounds as the rune of peace did its purpose. The willow’s gnarled bark began to melt, melding into a single, flawless sheet, marked only by the runes carved therein.
The man stayed beneath the willow for some time, the ash of the demon’s foul body long scattered in the wind. When he stood once more, it was without the bow, without the knives.
With a final backwards glance, the hunter vanished into the wood, blending with the trees and the moss as the storm picked up once more, the dreary lullaby of the dying rain soothing the forest as the thunder echoed a tone of finality.