A scale-draped figure crouched close to the ground, peering intently upon the muddy track. The long tawny hair upon the back of his neck and beard bristled like the mane of a lion.
The splayed, three toed print was the first good sign Ansgar had cut all day. His booted foot easily fit inside its center. A feral grin touched his lips. It was a big predator. The depth was perhaps two inches. Weighed two tons maybe? Two and a half? Ansgar guessed it would be around 22 feet in length and nine feet high. A formidable predator. A horned jakura. Or bull jakura as the white men called it. The hunter's pulse quickened in his veins at the thought of it.
The sign was only a few hours old. The beast might be within only a few miles. Ansgar lifted his head and began following. His tread was swift and silent. The weight of his rifle was reassuring in his hands. The hunt had begun.
The fronds of innumerable ferns brushed against his legs like an ocean of green while sunlight trickled through the branches of the towering conifers. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the smell of living wood and damp earth. It wasn't at all like the musty stink of towns and cities with cobbled stone streets and oily buildings. No, this was the smell of a vibrant landscape filled with life. Ansgar smiled.
The sun rose high and beat down upon the lone hunter. A single bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face and into his tawny beard. The sign led him to the crest of a hill, the ferns gently bowing towards him in the wind. Good. The wind was in his favor. If the animal was near it wouldn't scent him. He walked in a crouch up to the hills, the trees thinning out and gazed upon a meadow of sorts. The ferns glittered radiantly like emeralds now that they were no longer shut out by the trees. Lizards skittered through the underbrush as they foraged for insects.
To the left of his position he saw a thicket, and beyond that the curve of a creek snaking it's way through the landscape. Taking a brass telescope from one of his pouches, the kenwari examined the thicket closely. In this heat most animals took to the cool shade. He noticed that many of the dwarls fluttered about in the upper branches. None were occupying the convenient lower ones. Keeping out of bite range most likely. It was a safe bet that the big lizard was taking a nap in there at that very moment.
The Finn closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose slowly, letting the wind bring him it's subtle messages. He had a snout that put most hounds to shame. He smelled damp leaves. Fecal matter from the flying reptiles. And the acrid scent of a jakura.
"Ahhhh, there you are," he whispered. Sure enough, the creature was in that thicket, enjoying the shade during the midday heat. Now to coax him out into shooting range. He estimated his position to be around a hundred and fifty yards away from the thicket. He crept to a nearby tree and settled behind it, still peering at the shady tangle beyond. He worked the lever of his gun until the ejection port was half way open. A finger-sized brass cartridge lay nestled inside. Loaded. He closed the action with a solid clack of metal.
He reached into another pouch and pulled out his ocarina, a ruddy brown instrument of curious craftsmanship. Touching it to his lips he covered the proper holes and seemed to cough into it, producing an awkward, throaty squawk. He made the sound twice more at short intervals. It was the sound of a wounded katatonda. It was a trick he'd used many times to lure predators from their hiding places. The promise of easy meat was often too much to resist.
He put the instrument away and watched the treeline with breathless anticipation. For a minute nothing happened. Then the dwarls began squawking and shrieking, taking flight from their perches and gliding away. Ansgar felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle with excitement. And then he saw it, the blunt snout of the predator poking out from the foliage, looking around. The scaly upper lip hid all but the very tips of its sharp knife-shaped teeth. Above each eye was a thick horn.
Ansgar sucked in his breath as he saw the size of them. He'd seen plenty in his day, but these were among the largest horns he had ever seen on such an animal! His heart began beating faster, the adrenaline slipping into his blood. He took a breath to calm himself. A fast heart would spoil his aim. The jakura warily looked this way and that, trying to detect the source of the cry it had heard. It lifted its snout into the air and sniffed deeply, trying to catch the tell-tale scent of blood.
But the wind was against it. It cautiously began to emerge from the thicket, revealing the rest of its carnivorous bulk. Ansgar's blood grew hot with excitement. No matter how many times he beheld these animals, these dragons, they always took his breath away. He watched as its lizard torso became exposed, its back and flanks studded with bony ostoderms. Its body was held horizontally, balanced upon a pair of muscular legs and a stiff tail that bobbed with each step. Its body was ivy green with rivers of creamy yellow running between its scales. At its chest dangled a pair of pathetically tiny arms. They reminded Ansgar of the limbs of a newborn child, underdeveloped and useless. A swarm of insects buzzed about its mouth, trying to get at the pieces of rotting flesh stuck between its teeth.
The beast began heading towards the hill, swinging its great head back and forth as it sought to spot the supposedly wounded animal. The Finn licked his lips. Placing his left hand upon the trunk of the tree and extending his thumb he rested the barrel of his rifle and took aim. It was a remarkably sturdy shooting rest. His body and brain became flooded with ice-water as his shooting instincts took over. He placed the brass bead of the front sight onto the barrel-chest of the jakura where he knew the vulnerable heart and lungs were. It was an awkward angle, but he knew that his hardened 56 caliber bullets would find their mark. They always did.
The rifle cracked like a peal of thunder. Five hundred grains of hardened lead slammed into the jakura's torso, bullying through muscles and ribs and boring through the blood-filled organs inside. The animal staggered and let loose a terrific roar of surprise and pain. The head swung around, searching for the source of its torment. Ansgar worked the action of his rifle and sent another bullet crashing into it. Blood oozed from the pair of thumb-sized holes in its chest, less than a hand's breadth apart. Shrieking with pain the bull-headed beast whirled around and thundered back into the safety of the thicket. A third bullet followed it, striking it at the base of the tail.
And then it was gone, swallowed up by the thick tangle. Ansgar ejected the spent shell and began feeding fresh rounds through the loading gate. All his shots hit home, but it looked like this jakura wouldn't be going down so easily. Some dragons had astonishing vitality. But that made it all the more fun. He sat for a minute, thinking over his options. Ideally he would wait for the blood loss to do its work. His bullets had cut deep and it would inevitably die from its wounds. But that might take hours. Dragons bled slowly. Besides, waiting wasn't as sporting.
No, he would follow it up. It was dangerous to go into such close quarters after a wounded animal, where it could rush him from only a few yards away, but that was part of the appeal. Facing a deadly predator on its own terms? The thought made Ansgar's skin tingle. He slunk down the slope of the hill, the butt of the rifle tight against his shoulder as he watched the fringe of the thicket. The wind was still in his favor. At forty yards he halted, rifle at the ready. At any moment he expected the horned devil to burst from the foliage. But it didn't. He gave a shout, hoping to coax the animal into charging and giving him a clear shot.
The hunter grunted in mild surprise. Horned jakuras were prone to blindly charging threats. Perhaps it didn't see him, but surely it had heard him. Had it bled out already? Or was it hiding ? His keen hazel eyes struggled to penetrate the woven branches and leaves before him. He couldn't see anything. He then began to follow the blood trail inside.
Ansgar weaved his way through the grabbing branches, moving as silently as a wraith. His eyes continued to fall upon the ruby droplets. Oh yes, it was hard it. At any moment he expected to come upon its lifeless body. Then the wind shifted. Instead of blowing into his face, it now came at his back, blowing his scent forward.
A bone-chilling roar rocked the air as the jakura began thundering towards the hunter. Its muscular legs propelled it with irresistible force, the blunt snout held down as if it intended to gore the hunter. It was only eight yards away, tearing through the foliage. Instinct took over. Ansgar's rifle seemed to raise of its own accord. The brass bead settled upon the serpentine neck, seeking the throat. The gun snapped. A blue-edged hole suddenly appeared in the animal's windpipe. A strangled wail of agony oozed from its mouth, staggering and losing its forward momentum.
The silver barrel swung downwards and lined up with the knee. Another crack and a fat bullet annihilated the jakura's kneecap. Like a tree it began to topple forward. Ansgar dove and rolled out of the way as the horned head thudded where he had been crouching. Droplets of blood spattered on his back. The Finn spun around and pumped another round into the writhing creature's skull, just below the eye. The head bucked under the impact. Chunks of red mixed with white sprinkled across the foliage, but the beast moved no more.
With a gurgle it lay still. It's reptilian eyes glazed over and stared without seeing. Ansgar took slow steady breaths, still watching the animal, unblinking. Dragons died slow. The scars on his wrist had taught him a long time ago to be cautious even with dead dragons. He worked the action of his rifle and put one last round in the neck where he knew the spine lay, severing it. A spasm rolled through the hulk. The muscles quivered violently and then went still. One of the tiny arms vibrated as death reflexes kicked in.
The hunter's heart began to slow its war-drum beat until it returned to normal. He calmly began reloading his gun. One never knew if another predator might show up. He then drew his hunting knife and set to work skinning his latest kill. It was time to add another trophy to his already heavy necklace.