William envied hunters whose wives allowed them to decorate the family home with their trophies. He sometimes even envied hunters who didn't have wives to complain, like Teddy, who'd just sent him a photograph of his latest trophy, hanging in his living room.
“Did you get the pictures?” Teddy asked when William called.
“They're right here on my screen.”
“Not bad. A little sloppy with the cutting.”
Teddy only laughed. “Yes, I'm not at your level yet. But I'm working on it. So, have you given any more thought to that hunting trip?”
“I've done my research. It's kosher. Zero risk. Zero responsibility. We pay our money, show up and hunt. A real English hunt. Horses, hounds, the whole works. Like nothing we've ever done before.”
That was the kicker, the reason William was even considering it. Novelty. There'd been a time when he'd counted the days between his hunting trips. Not any more. He was bored.
“Okay,” he said.
Teddy paused so long William prodded, “You there?”
“Sure, I just … You said okay?”
“Yeah. Go ahead. Set it up.”
Teddy babbled away after that, making plans. William half listened as he admired Teddy's trophy – a necklace hanging from a picture frame – before flipping back to the ones he liked best, those of the woman herself, lying dead on her apartment floor.
William stood in the middle of the forest clearing and stamped his feet.
“Little chilly, huh?” Teddy said, blowing into his hands.
Teddy glanced over. “You aren't worried, are you? It's risk-free, like I said. We're just along for the ride.”
That wasn't the problem. The forest … it just wasn't what he'd expected.
When Teddy first suggested this excursion, William's pulse had quickened. Like most of his kind, he was an urban hunter. Born and raised in the city. Stalked his prey through back alleys. Took them down in abandoned buildings. There was, however, an allure to the forest. The domain of hunters like Dayton Rogers and Ivan Milat and the Larsens. Raw and feral, primitive and wild.
Except … this was a little more wild than William liked. Around them, gnarled trees shot up and slammed together overhead, blocking the moon and stars. The wind didn't bluster and blow like city wind. Here it whispered and moaned and shrieked. And it smelled like death. Not good death – bright coppery blood and fear. This was dank, dark death. Rot and decay.
He glanced at Teddy. “Are you sure –?”
The bay of a hound cut him off. Hooves pounded along the hard path.
The hounds appeared first. Six beagles, noses to the ground, long ears dragging. Four horses followed. Ordinary-looking horses with ordinary-looking riders – guys between 30 and 50, wearing hunting jackets and jeans and boots.
Just regular guys. Except they weren't regular at all. William could tell by the way their eyes took in everything and gave away nothing. Hunters, like them.
“Sorry we're late,” said the bearded man in front. “Had some trouble with the fox.”
A fifth horse stepped into the clearing. The rider led a sixth. A bound woman lay draped over the saddle. When he yanked the rope, she tumbled to the ground. A leather mask obscured her face, but William could see her eyes, rolling in terror.
“Looks good,” Teddy said. “Young. Strong. Healthy. Scared.”
The men chuckled, and the leader motioned for William to mount.
“Where's mine?” Teddy asked.
William swung onto his horse, remembering how from summers at his grandmother's farm. As his boots found the stirrups, he caught a flicker, like fire, to the left, and he looked over, startled, but it was only a lantern held by a rider.
“Release the fox,” the leader said.
The man holding her rope yanked again and, with a snap, her bound hands and feet came free. She pushed to all fours and started to run, still hunched over, so blinded by the mask that she headed for Teddy, who laughed and backed up.
As she ran, her skin seemed to blacken, as if swallowed by the shadows. William gave his head a shake and blinked. When he opened his eyes, the girl was gone. In her place was a massive black dog, running straight for Teddy.
As the beast sprang, Teddy wheeled and ran. The hounds ran too – not beagles now, but huge black dogs with blazing red eyes, tearing after Teddy so fast their paws never seemed to touch the ground.
The leader shouted, “Ride!” and William turned to see five figures in black cloaks, hoods pulled up. Beneath them, their steeds had become great ebony horses with manes and hooves of flame.
The Wild Hunt.
William heard his grandmother's voice from all those years ago, when she'd seen what he'd done to the barn cats. “The riders will come for you, boy. Mark my words. The Wild Hunt will come.”
William's horse plunged after its brethren. He tried to stop it. Tried to scramble off. But he was trapped, watching his friend run headlong through the forest as the hounds pursued, the riders pursued, he pursued.
As they rode, more hunters joined, coming from all sides, silent wraiths atop fiery steeds. Ahead, the hounds bellowed and roared, jaws snapping so loud William could hear them.
Teddy ran, but he did not run far. The beasts took him down. William tried to look away, but he couldn't move his head, couldn't shut his eyes. He was forced to watch as the hounds tore his friend to pieces.
When he couldn't turn his horse around, he tried to dismount, but the stirrups snapped like traps, iron teeth chomping into his feet. As he screamed, the reins leaped up, like snakes, wrapping around his hands, tightening until the leather was embedded in his flesh.
The leader's empty cowl turned toward him. “Ride!”
As the group shot forward, William's steed joined them, with a blaze of fire that seared him to the bone and bound him to his mount, and he understood what his grandmother meant. The riders had come for him and now he would hunt … forever.