A scream broke the night. It was loud and full of unfamiliar terror, yet it unmistakably belonged to a woman. Mason flung himself through the door, his hunter instincts working to their fullest potential. The sound echoed and reverberated in his ears, its distant memory becoming a trail he could follow. He raced down the steps of the hut, dancing across the fresh snow lightly.
The snow melted beneath Mason’s feet, as he reached into his affinity with fire, burning heat to speed up his every step. Mason knew of no other hunter with such talents, hunters were all physically and mentally enhanced men and women, true. They were stronger, faster and capable of healing from mortal wounds in hours. Each possessed the same superhuman senses and inhuman eyes as Mason. Yet Mason alone could use heat and flame as if it were another limb. It was this gift with flames that made Mason unique – he was peerless.
Not, his thoughtful tone echoed in a wry smile as he ran, that I am arrogant. There really is no one other hunter like me.
It was that very reason he had been summoned to the provincial town of Hollow Falls. His reputation among his fellow hunters was beyond any reproach, and his services were cheaper than they had any right to be. So when a town had a problem that could not be solved by military force, police investigation or normal magicians, that was when they called in Mason Hex.
Mason raced past the twelve other huts that made up the scattered town centre, speeding quickly towards the town’s outskirts where the first scream had sounded. A sharper scream broke the air with bloodcurdling violence as he moved, the sound now very close.
A new type of were-beast? Mason considered silently, the scream bringing back memories. Vampyres? He could think of nothing else that caused such pain and terror in victims, particularly female victims. But at the same time, none of the other signs – the murder, the empty hut, the poison – made sense in the light of such a possibility. What is this monster?
The stench of freshly-spilled blood burst through Mason’s nostrils as he passed through the town gates in a desperate hurry. A puddle of soft red snow caught his eye immediately, then his eyes were diverted to a second puddle, and then another; part of a series of small droplets leading off into the forest. The trail led up over a single snowbank, ending at the base of a solid oak tree.
The scent of death washed over Mason, and he slowly rounded the tree to see a grisly scene. A young woman lay twisted, her long black hair soaking in a pool of blood that had poured from a small incision in her neck – a clumsy imitation of a vampyre’s bite. If it was not for the blood stream Mason would have assumed the woman had frozen to death, due to the pale blue colour of her skin. Yet the mark on her neck and the blue skin of her body were identical to the description of the murder that had drawn him to Hollow Falls.
“What happened to you,” Mason murmured, running his eyes along the simple woolen tunic and pants that were scattered with blood – staining the brown material. The wound had clearly been trickling down and across her body rapidly; whatever the reason this woman had died, it was not because the killer needed her blood.
“Mr Mason!” the sudden voice broke the hunter from his musings, “I thought I saw you leaving the town sir!” The stumbling figure of Officer Hopkins emerged from the dark night, still clutching his rifle clumsily, “Did you find the bloody killer sir?” The town watchman stopped in his tracks as he saw the dead female figure. He leveled his rifle hurriedly at Mason, his eyes wild with fear, “You…you killed her. You’re no monster hunter! You are the monster.”
Mason stood slowly from where he had been hunched over the body. He held up his hands in a friendly gesture as Hopkins’ fingers tightened over the trigger. “Officer Hopkins,” he started, as the watchman shook the barrel of the gun at him, “There is no need to be hasty. I did not kill this woman. But whatever did kill her is still out there and it is deadly.”
The officer squinted with obvious suspicion at the monster hunter, “How do I know you didn’t kill the woman?”
Mason shrugged, raising his hands outwards, “You have nothing but my word. But ask yourself Officer Hopkins. Would you still be standing if I had killed her?”
The question passed across the officer’s face as he slowly considered the thought. Then in a show of agreeance he slowly lowered his weapon. He took a step forwards, so he could see the body more clearly. “If I’m not mistaken, that poor lass is Sara Millsmith, such a shame to lose such a pretty and vibrant life.” A tear slid down the man’s rough cheek. Slowly he raised his eyes to the meet the hunter’s, “Tell me, do you have any leads on the poisoner?”
A sudden stunning silence greeted his question. Mason’s eyes narrowed dangerously, “I never mentioned anything about poison.”
No one moved, then each man moved at the same time. Hopkin’s gun rose and fired in the one motion, directed at where Mason stood. Yet as the rifle emptied its payload, Mason was moving, freeing and firing his own pistol as he rolled to his left.
The rifle bullet exploded against tree-filled scenery, ripping a hole in one tree’s trunk and sending branches and wood chips flying from another. The squawk of disturbed crows broke the air as Mason rose from his crouched position, watching with satisfaction as Hopkins clutched his right shoulder with his left hand. Hopkins looked at the wound, lifting his hand to briefly display the silver tipped bullet, lodged deep into the shoulder. Mason’s mouth raised in the smallest of silent gasps, Impossible, that should have gone clean through him!
Hopkins shuddered with jerky spasms, his body wobbling and his eyes rolling back. His voice came from unmoving lips, “Let me cast off this body and deal with you worm.” A shadow burst from Hopkins, and the watchman’s body fell forwards, lifeless and empty. It hit the snow and burst, pooling into a putrid black liquid. The shadow rose upwards, hovering a metre above the ground, and solidified into a humanoid shape roughly Hopkins’ height and weight. But where Hopkins’ human features – his unkempt hair and build had been highly detailed, the shadow figure was a dark void – an empty space against the night air.
Two burning eyes blinked into existence on the figure, and a jagged smile cut itself across the rough silhouette of a face as a wild laugh launched forward. “Ah,” satisfaction dripped from the being as it spoke, “Too long have I been bound in that human vessel.”
Mason raised his pistol and fired two quick shots without second thought. Each bullet found their mark, slamming into the left and the right shoulder simultaneously. Yet each bullet turned to smoke as they connected, transformed into harmless ash.
The creature expressed a loud sigh, “Your mortal weapons, silver or otherwise, cannot touch me foolish child.” A shadowy left arm extended in a pointing gesture and Mason gasped as invisible hands tightened around his shoulders, forcing him down to his knees.
Fire burst from the hunter’s arms as he knelt, launching at the shadow and wrapping around it. The flames licked the creature passionately, changing colour from red to blue to white, transforming into a long serpent, coiled around the dark figure in a friendly manner.
“You may have tamed the fire, little man,” the shadow commented idly as it stroked the `head of its new pet, “But I was birthed of it.”
The serpent leapt from his arms, whipping forward and lengthening into a bar of white-hot flame. It struck Mason on his forehead, absorbing into his skin and he gasped as a sudden pain raced across his entire body, echoed by the voice of the creature inside his very mind. You are strong, hunter. You will feed us for an eternity.
“Get out of my head,” Mason groaned, arching his back. The pain intensified, the invisible crushing force pushing him further downwards. You will submit to our will.
“What are you?” Mason spat against the snow, “What type of monster?”
The silence was broken by another laugh and the shadowy creature stood next to Mason within the next breath, whispering in his ear, “Monster? I am a god.”
The cold sincerity of that voice froze Mason to his core. “There is no god but the One,” he struggled to return the words as the god pushed him deeper into the snow.
“Maybe not in your world,” the god-beast purred, “But in mine I am a god among gods,” it crowed in triumph. Then the world twisted in on itself, changing all over again.
A flash of light, brighter than the sunrise flared into reality, the pressure suddenly easing on Mason’s body. A voice boomed out, deep and yet muffled at the same time, “Back away from him Daemon!”
The god-beast roared in reply as it moved with a flurry, and there was another flash of light, followed by a blast of scorching air that sent Mason. He landed a metre away, flipped onto his back, his eyes blinking rapidly – not purely from the shock of the blast, but also because of the sight before him.
The air was split by a three metre crack, glowing with a bright white glow. In front of that crack, facing off against the god-creature, was a knight. The knight stood, hovering in the air, their armour glowing the same bright colour as the rift in the air. A lengthy sword was firm within their grip, the end of its blade embedded within Daemon’s lower torso. The godling let out a weak, gurgling cough, then the shadowy torso turned to small particles of ash as it burst around the blade’s outline. The knight looked at Mason, nodded then turned walking back across the air towards the rift.
“Wait,” Mason coughed, feeling the strain of internal injuries healing, “Who are you? What was that?”
The knight half-turned, the visor vanishing without a trace. To Mason’s shock the knight was a young woman, her tanned skin and narrow eyes emphasised within the outline of her bright helm. She brushed away a loose fringe of light-brown hair, her voice gentle but filled with a depth of authority, “I am Lina, Knight of the Word. You have a touch of the Word within you Mason Hex, but you are not one of us. You do not deserve answers you could not comprehend.”
She turned again, then paused considerately, “Let it suffice to be said that the creature you fought will no longer bother you. The Shadowkin shall have no presence in the Outerworlds while we are at work.”
With that, the knight stepped into the gash burning through the air. As she touched the empty space she vanished instantly. Mason struggled to his feet slowly, “Wait, come back…” he groaned as a wave of pain washed his body and he drunkenly stumbled forward, falling into the snow.
He moved forwards, heading for the open rift, desperate to travel through its unknown entrance. Mason took another slow step, and the jagged crack vanished. One minute it was there, burning against the cold night sky, and then it ceased out of existence without a trace.
Mason collapsed to his knees again, rolling onto his side in defeat. He had caught the murderer, seen its demise, and yet… His eyes flickered, extreme weariness battering his body. He still had so many more questions than answers. And as his eyes shut fast against the night, he held onto that one thought – I will not rest until I have the answers.