Peter sat down heavily, panting. He had been climbing for what felt like days, his arms were sore and weak. He didn’t know if he could continue. He looked up, there was a gently rolling hill in front of him, at the top of that another cliff face. The Hills of the Dead were about half way up, he still had a long, long way to go. He opened his pack and took out a bottle of water, he unscrewed it and took a sip, resisting the desire to down it all in one go. As he sipped the water he dug out a container of food. He picked a few bits from it, he wasn’t that hungry but he knew he should eat. He had expected to see something up here, corpses, rotting in the sun, skeletons half buried in soil and grass, but there was nothing so grim. No, the mountain removed the evidence of those who came before. It would be another hours climb before he reached somewhere relatively safe. The hills were calm today, he had expected as much, but he couldn’t rest too long should that change. Either way he needed to be gone from here before night fell. With night the cold winds would come, the winds that would grab and tug and push until he was sent over the edge. If the wind didn’t get him the Hunters would. They roamed the entire mountain. He was as safe from them here as anywhere. If not more so. He hoped they wouldn’t brave the hills themselves. Groaning he stood, then after taking another sip of water he packed his bag and started moving up the hill.
He had expected the hills to be a peaceful break, a relaxed walk up a short incline and he would continue on, but that wasn’t the case. He found himself panting and leaning forward so he wouldn’t fall backwards or slip. The hills were much steeper than they first appeared. Every time a gust of wind blew past Peter froze fearing that it would throw him off balance and send him rolling off the edge of the cliff.
When he finally reached the cliff face he leaned against it, trying to catch his breath. He looked back over the hills, now he could see how steep they really were. He could barely believe he managed to climb it at all. Peter took a deep breath, soon he would be in the cave and he would be safe, for a short while at least. A shadow rippled across the grass, he looked up, squinting against the sun. He couldn’t see anything. He heart started to beat faster. He needed to move. Now. Without hesitation he began to climb, moving as fast as his tired body would allow. A Hunter had picked up his trail. If he didn’t make it to the cave he would die.
He could hear the Hunter below him, scraping against the wall as it climbed. Slowly getting louder and louder. The cave was just above him, so very close. Peter hadn’t looked down, hadn’t paused, to do so would be death. He had never seen a Hunter, but he had heard the stories, creatures so terrifying that any man who saw them would freeze in fear until it was too late to run. He could hear the rasping hiss of its breath. Once or twice he even imagined a breath of warm air going across his foot. He pulled himself over the lip of the cave, dragging himself in. He collapsed onto the ground, unable to move. He heard the creature move passed the cave, mere seconds after he had entered.
He lay there for almost twenty minutes before he finally moved. He stood up slowly, worried that if he did it too fast he’d collapse again or fall over backwards and out the mouth of the cave. He shrugged off his bag and moved deeper into the cave. There was a small fire pit with a large woodpile nearby, a shelf with some non-perishable’s on it and a small cot. He had been told that he would find these things here but he had not really believed it. He didn’t know who kept it stocked, it almost certainly was not the Hunters. From the stories that he had heard, even from the sounds the one below him had been making, they would not be able to pass as human. Perhaps someone delivered the goods and the Hunters just restocked everything. Maybe taken out of the food that was delivered to her. Peter started the fire and when that was done he sat on the cot. He was tired and already starting to doze off, but he wanted some food before he slept. He knew he would be sore when he woke again and he needed to keep his strength up.
He woke once or twice during the night, when the storm outside became particularly bad, wind screaming past the cave entrance, but none of it seemed to touch him. The cave stayed warm and still. When he woke the next morning he ate a small breakfast and stretched out his muscles, loosening them as much as possible. His arms were tired and sore, but he knew he could make it the rest of the way. He was almost there. So very, very close. It was still early, he would make it by noon. The Hunter that had almost gotten him yesterday would be long gone.
The climb the rest of the way was uneventful, when he reached the top he took a short break to drink and eat a little. Before him was a forest, a thin path wound through the tree trunks. There were many ways up the mountain, many safe spots. Every disagreed over which one was the safest, but Peter had decided on this one. Now that he had reached the forest the Hunters would not bother him. There were things in the woods though. Dangerous things.
He stood on the path and started to walk. At first it was a pleasant stroll, but the deeper he moved underneath the trees the darker it became. The air was heavy here, thick with the intoxicating aroma of the trees. It made him feel faint, light headed. He froze as someone started screaming to his left. A woman, high and terrified. She was in pain, so much pain. Maybe he could help. He turned and started to walk, he stopped himself just as his foot reached the edge of the path. He shook his head to try and clear it then he turned and started to follow the path again. After the second step the screams stopped. His skin rippled with goose pimples. They didn’t wind down, didn’t fall away, they just stopped. If it had been a person they were dead now, if not, it had been some creature trying to lure him off the path.
The path twisted and winded around itself, going forward and back. A few times he could clearly see the path ten feet away as it curved back into veiw. He marked one and counted off how long it took. It was another hour before he saw his marker. He knew that if he stepped off the path he would be in trouble. There would be no protection. He avoided the temptation of moving across the small distance each time. He would get there eventually. He just needed to be patient.
The trees started to thin out, ahead of him he could see the outline of a building. It was her temple. His heart thudded heavily in his chest with each step. Candles lined the path, giving off a heady smoke.
The temple was large, with huge columns that reached into the sky. It was open on every side. In the centre was a large chair and there she was. Sitting there calmly. A long, white flowing dress covered her legs and feet, trailing down and pooling onto the floor. Her arms were white and thin, but he knew she was strong. Her fingers were long and sharp, the nails painted a deep, dark black. Her cheekbones were high, her skin held tight against them, her eyes were a bright orange, almost glowing in the candlelight. Her long dark hair poured over her shoulders, cascading over her chest and there, at the top of her forehead, wound with flowers, were her horns. Long and white and deadly sharp. He had made it to her, he had made it to the Horned Woman. She gestured at him to approach, he hadn’t realised he stopped moving. Slowly, he moved closer, then when he was only five feet away he stopped and bowed deeply. There was another scent in the air now. Deep and pungent, alluring and animalistic. His heart beat harder.
“Why have you sought me out?” Her voice was smoky and lyrical.
He started to speak, but no sound came out.
She smiled at him, he felt his knees go weak.
“You have come a very long way, would you like a drink?”
His head started to nod.
She gestured to the left of him, a small table was there, along with a glass of water. Peter jumped slightly, he hadn’t noticed it when he entered. He picked up the glass and took a drink. The water was cold, sweet and pure, the best water he had ever drank.
“Is that better?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Now, tell me.”
“Well, you see, it’s about my love. She is the greatest woman I have ever seen, she is so beautiful. I would do anything for her, anything at all.”
The horned woman nodded, “Is she sick? Dying?”
“No, she barely knows I exist. I have tried, many times, but each time I have been rejected. We are soul mates, I know it, I can feel it with every single part of my being.”
She smiled at him, revealing sharp teeth and blood red gums.
“I understand. I have exactly what you need.” She reached behind herself and brought out a necklace, a small blue diamond on a thin chain.
“Once she wears this she will love you and only you for the rest of her life.”
“Yes, that is perfect.”
“Now. What do you have as payment?”
“I don’t have much, I’m a poor man, I brought you some things though. I spent everything I have for this.” He pulled items out of his pack, jewels, pieces of gold and a small bundle of fine fabric.
“Yes, those will do very nicely. I will exchange this necklace for the items you brought and one other thing.”
“Yes? Anything, please.”
“A single kiss.”
She held out a hand, showing a ring.
Peter moved forward and took her hand, her skin was ice cold. He bent and kissed the ring. It burned and froze his lips but before he could react, it stopped. He stepped back, feeling dizzy again.
The horned woman smiled down at her ring, then at him.
“Perfect.” She tossed the necklace at him, Peter caught it.
“Take the path down. My Hunters will not harm you. You will be safe. Follow the path out of the forest though and do not stray. The forest dwellers care little for what I say.”
Peter gripped the necklace tight to his chest. He grabbed his bag with one hand and slung it over his shoulder, “Thank you, thank you so very, very much.”
She waved once hand at him, Peter bowed again, turned and left.