A cool breeze was not enough to stir the reflection of the clouded night sky upon the waters of Lake Saffron. The sun had not shown itself for days and even the multitude of surrounding flowers had forgotten their once purple colors. The slight chill in the air and the complete silence that prevailed imposed an impending sense of urgency. It was as though the forest itself was desperate to be disturbed for the sake of its own awakening.
The largest pine tree north of the lakebed received the zephyr first. Its branches gently caressed the moving air although the occupant among them remained still. The shores of the lake were empty save for several large boulders that lay partially submerged in the soft earth. They appeared to be in slow progression towards the water.
A slight, barely noticeable scraping sound vibrated across the lake from the western shore. It could have been mistaken for a woodpecker by day, but was strangely misplaced in a dark world. Though it cut through the serenity for but an instant, the sound did nothing to ease the tension of the stillness. Rather, the sudden disturbance emanated its own insignificance. The figure among the pine boughs shifted slightly in the direction of the noise, but remained otherwise inanimate.
Presently, a dim shape separated from the tree line surrounding the waters. Its movements were awkward and slow, as though strings rather than its own will were directing it. Its body gleamed despite the covered moon with the sinewy skin barely covering its four long, dangerously narrow legs. Though it walked as a beast, no forest resident would have recognized it. Its two luminous eyes seared through the darkness as it rotated its head slowly to drink in the shadows of the earth.
A second noise interrupted the stillness of Lake Saffron in the form of a fleeting gleam across the water. The tremors of feathers were audible as it sawed through the air. The creature gasped and crouched into the soft ground as the object disappeared into its poorly covered ribs. It stared back at the lake, wild fury building as it sought the source of its fleeting pain. A sudden hissing then escaped from the creature's body as flesh began to sear and fall from the wound. The rising discomfort turned swiftly to agony, driving all instinct but fury from its owner.
The assailant was carefully preparing a second volley as the colorless flowers turned their heads toward her. However, she did not take note of the sudden change in circumstance until she felt the crimson orbs bring their gaze directly upon her.
The creature surged towards its stalker, its ungainly legs betraying none of its tremendous speed. Across the shores it raced, its movements becoming ever more those of a predator rather than prey. The Hunter at first raised her bow, but then tossed both arc and fletch aside. Shrugging away her cloak, she drew forth a sword, just as the creature reached her blind. It dug into the earth with all four legs before launching itself skyward, opening its serrated snout as it did so, burning eyes never leaving its assailant.
The Hunter bested her own impossible shot by leaping to the next swaying pine and rebounding off of it harshly to the ground below. Raking in a moment's worth of air before her adversary could land, the woman readied herself. The monster seemed to lull briefly upon the air itself before spidering down to the earth on invisible threads. Turning to face her, it thrust forth one of its abhorrent legs, the shaft of which lengthened from its loose connection and raced towards her as though sentient.
Rotating her body, she followed the limb with her shoulder and completed the spin with her sword, completely hewing off the base of the hoofed appendage. Bright jets of dark fluid erupted from the limb as its owner's howl ripped through the awakened night. Without a moment's hesitation, the warrior rushed forward in an attempt to finish her maimed opponent. However, the creature had already recovered. The enraged eyes narrowed at her as its injured leg retracted back to its former length. The monster knelt gingerly upon it for support before suddenly thrusting its other extendable front limb at her. The woman was unable to dodge the bludgeon for a second time and the blow impacted solidly upon her right shoulder. Though the location was protected by a galerus, a sharp crack exploded through her being and her hand reflexively released its weapon. Thrown backwards, she fell into the pine straw of the forest, fighting to stay lucid. The red-eyed shadow leered through the trees at the Hunter as it staggered slowly but triumphantly towards her. The woods seemed to suddenly side with the dark victor as they bowed in reverence to its oncoming form.
Braving the pounding ache of her injury, the female warrior drew herself up, letting her right arm hang limply to avoid moving the shoulder further. Gritting her teeth, she clutched her left hand into a fist. A sudden sensation passed through the air as she did so, detectable to only the keenest of senses. The monster cautiously paused in its advance. It too could feel the gathering presence of another.
Drawing into itself, the dark being crouched, hesitating briefly as it examined its hewn forelimb. The Hunter drew breath in short, uncharacteristic rasps while her fist remained solid. Each foe continued to hold the gaze of the other, thusly creating a turbulent stalemate within the calm.
An impatient roarfilled the darkness as the nightmare suddenly rushed forward. It left the ground as it sprang with its dark mane whipping along the back of its long, angular head. Throwing her stance forward, the warrior faced her now open left palm forwards and a ripple charged through the air before her. Branches were thrown roughly aside and pinecones cast wildly amid the unnatural effect. The space between the two combatants was enveloped by a transparent, rectangular distortion. The monster was halted as the craft came upon it, suspending the being momentarily in air, much as before. But then the nightmarish entity was hurled backwards with incredible force. The crash of its impact upon a nearby tree showered the ground with pine needles.
The caster too remained momentarily frozen before falling to her knees and then upon her hands. Her injured shoulder suddenly gave way and the Hunter rolled sideways onto the ground and into a new garden of agony. Blinking, she could see several stars framing the edge of a cloud through the trees. The soft straw of the pines beckoned to her invitingly with hints of sleep and forgetfulness. Their scent distantly reminded her of the past.
A scuttling of bone and flesh tore her from the renewed calm. It signified the survival of her nemesis. Fresh adrenaline raged as the warrior stood unsteadily and sought her enemy. She saw that the nightmare was facing her still, but no longer a threat. Its four, gangly appendages were splayed out towards her. The creature's head was barely supported above the ground by the upper pair. It lay at an unnatural angle directly over its hind legs. The impact had evidently broken what passed for its spine. Its attempts at pulling itself towards her in such a posture were as pathetic as they were feeble.
Striding forward to pick up her sword, the warrior circled to the creature's side, testing the weight of the spatha's blade in her shaking left hand.
With cold finality, the Hunter sliced through the monster's thick neck before it was able to bite her in turn with its ebony fangs. Blackness bloomed anew from the stump of its torso as the head fell deftly to the soil. Its fiery eyes, however, never left the warrior, even as they slowly dimmed to the color of their bearer's skin.
Breathing heavily, the victor departed the scene. She retrieved the separated section of the creature, trading her weapon for the severed limb. The warrior returned to the monster and tossed its remainder to the whole. She then produced a vial from her belt and began pouring a trail of white powder around it. The Hunter grimaced as she did so; her quivering left hand making the task far more difficult. The substance eventually formed a jagged ring that surrounded both corpse and tree, its end carefully mated to the beginning. A soft sizzle erupted from the onyx body as it began to char and disintegrate, much like wood being consumed by invisible flames.
The Hunter watched for a moment before turning and walking unsteadily away. The pain in her right shoulder was growing worse even though the tremors in her left hand were beginning to cease. She stumbled once along the way, but managed to return to the lakeshore. As it appeared amid a gap in the clouds, the warrior noticed that the moon was full. Its light illuminated the pale violet flowers that surrounded the reflective waters of the lake. Lulled by the beauty, the woman stopped to gaze out upon the stillness of the forest mere. But then she looked away, suddenly regretful. The mirrored waters were not at all soothing. At least not while her glowing, crimson eyes leered back from their surface.