Rain. From the turbulent Eastern seas came torrents of it, casting storms on Warren that scarce could be found elsewhere. Few within the settlement would complain, however: the rain brought fertile fields, clean drinking water, and water for clothes-washing. Yet, for the Hunter, rain only muddied the tracks.
Damon Tardif's work saw him all across Candak, meeting - and hunting - men and women from all walks of life. Some prey were well-off, wealthy even; others had barely a coin to their name. Some acted out of desperation, while others relished in their wickedness. Motive mattered not to him, only the chase.
But now, he was close to home, the closest he'd been in months. Through all his travels, the work that had taken him halfway across the country into Aigeovarth, he couldn't forget home. The people, both old and young, could barely tolerate his presence. Even those who'd known him as a whelp had nothing for him but scorn and disdain. Warren had enough hunters, one Tardif wouldn't send the settlement into ruin.
The trail he followed, smeared as it was, led in pursuit of a murderer, a man named Caulfield. Farmhand-turned-fugitive after a quarrel over payment left the farmer dead in his own homestead. He had come from one of the smaller villages, several leagues north from Warren. Unwalled hamlets like that could spare only a few guards, making a skilled bounty hunter an invaluable asset in tracking down lawbreakers.
The surrounding forests past civilization were dense and uncharted, but familiar to Damon, who spent his earliest years tracking beast and creature alike through the maze of woods and trees. It was familiar land to him, and that was all the advantage he needed.
After walking at least an hour, crouched and cautious to avoid detection, Damon spotted a small clearing in the distance, marked by the sight and stench of smoke.
Approaching from the fringe of the treeline, Damon caught clearer sight of the pitiful campfire, doused by the rain, a wispy smoking mockery. And before it, his prey. Caulfield was broad and well-built, no doubt a result of his occupation. But his expression was anything but confident. Fearful, on-edge, like a deer caught scent of wolves. And indeed, the wolf had come.
On bended knee, Damon drew a light crossbow from his back, loading a single quarrel from his belt, and locking it into place with an ominous click. Mounting the crossbow on his shoulder, Damon zoned in on his target, pausing to wipe the droplets collecting on his helmet.
There was a lull - silence, preparation. Then he pulled the lever. The quarrel cut through the air like a well-aimed dart, landing its mark straight in the farmhand's upper thigh. With a choked cry, Caulfield sprawled to the ground, hands reflexively grabbing at his leg, mind still trying to process what had just happened.
Through grit teeth and agonized breath as the pain started to overwhelm him, pain quickly turned to panic as he realized someone was pursuing him. Adrenaline kicked in, and the runaway criminal attempted to desperately crawl away from his makeshift campsite. It was a futile but determined gesture, that even as his fight-or-flight instinct prodded him forward, Damon caught up to him in only a few strides.
Wordlessly, the Hunter grabbed the farmhand by the locks of his hair in a single gauntleted hand, forcefully lifting his head aloft. The last thing the farmhand saw was Damon's other hand, clenched in a fist and flying towards his face.
Caulfield awoke some minutes later, head pounding as he tried to take in his surroundings - all from an upside-down perspective. It took only seconds to realize that he had been tied by his feet around a low branch, hovering a foot-or-so off the forest floor. The next thing he saw was Damon seated before him upon a rock, sharpening a large deer-antler hunting knife against a whetstone. Through steel half-helm and navy-colored bandana, the Hunter's expression was utterly unreadable. But unmistakable was the slight motion as Damon looked up, seeing his prey conscious and confused.
"Hrrm, 'bout time you woke up." The Hunter's voice was gruff and menacing, slightly muffled through the fabric of his face-covering. Rising from his makeshift seat, Damon in long strides, moved towards his captive, who wriggled, terrified, in response, mouth flapping trying to conjure a cry, a call for help.
"No point in screaming. No one to hear you but the beasts that live here, and..." Pausing, Damon grabbed Caulfield by the arm, holding it in place as he suddenly slashed his dagger across it, leaving a crimson-red gash that immediately started bleeding. As the runaway cried out in pain, Damon roughly clamped a hand over his mouth. "And they know the smell of blood, the sound of wounded prey. So keep your mouth shut, or I'll leave you here for them to find." Waiting for what felt like an eternity, Damon freed the farmhand's mouth, disdainfully wiping his gauntlet against his leg.
"You know why I'm here, same reason you're on the run. The only question now, is whether I'm gonna flay you or scalp you." Letting his words hang in the air, the murderer coughed out a sob, flailing futilely against his bindings. At this, the Hunter started to laugh: a harsh, snorting laugh that boomed across the woods, quickly devolving into raspy, coughing chortles as he found amusement in his prey's fear. "Don't worry, I'm not that heartless. You'll be dead first." Surprisingly, the farmhand found little solace in this reassurance.
Once more stepping closer to his captive, Damon drew from his hip a menacing war-axe, chipped and scarred from use, but still as sharp and deadly as when he first bought it. "It's only nature. The strength..." Damon readied his axe, ignoring the pleas of his prey. "To survive."
And the Hunt was complete.