THE END OF YOUTH by Michael Button

Five Black Bolts
Michael Button

We thought the manticore hunt would an in-out job, a few hours there, a few hours back. But we’re professionals. Thorough. We came equipped for an over-nighter. Still. Three days was pushing it. By the end of the second night in that miserable, mosquito-ridden forest, even the most experienced of us – to wit, myself – were starting to suffer. A weird combination of boredom and tension.
Some poxy village elders had hired us to do the job after the beast had been spotted on the outskirts of their town, and one of their own had gone missing. We’d tracked our quarry to a cave, on a woody hillside. Sleeping in shifts, we watched the cave entrance. Restless sleep that did nothing to relieve our fatigue, knowing the kick in the ribs could come at any time. We argued and argued again whether the money was worth it. But we are men of our word. When we say we’re going to do a job, we do it.
On day three, she emerged.
Chokewater saw her first. The old rascal seemed to survive on air alone, so seldom did he leave his post, wedged between two boulders on an outcrop not twenty yards from the cave. I was whittling away at my nails with an old knife. Just happened to look up to see Chokewater raise his hand. Three fingers held aloft.
Time to work.
I alerted the rest. Silent, we took our positions.
There’s a knack to manticore hunting. The beasts, despite their fearsome reputation, are skittish and wary. Rush in, and you risk enraging the creature. That’s when they’re most dangerous. Six-inch sting that strikes like lightning from a clear sky. Ten-inch claws that rip a man to ribbon in two swipes. I’ve seen it happen. No, instead you want it to think it is the hunter. Let it call it shots. Until it’s too late. That means, you need bait. Live bait.
That unpleasant job, the boss had assigned to Theodore. He was the smallest of the five of us. Probably the fastest in a straight sprint. More to the point, he was the youngest, and the newest. Our merry band had picked him up in some stinking sheep village, desperate to escape the life his father had mapped out for him. He begged us to let him join, and we needed someone to do all the grunt work. He never complained. Nor, to my surprise, did he seem to mind being the bait. Indeed, he gave the impression of being up for it.
‘Give that critter run for its money I will,’ he said. ‘It’ll have to get up early in the morning to catch me.’ Only, the corner of his eye twitched. Perhaps only I saw it, but he weren’t as brave as he was making out. I felt some kind of avuncular feeling toward the lad. Unlike me. Going soft in my old age.
‘Armour,’ I told him, more than once. ‘Thick padded leather armour.’
‘Nah mate,’ said Theodore. ‘Slows you down. I’m a nippy little thing when I’m un-en-cum-bered. No flies on me.’ He wiggled his arse.
‘True,’ I said. ‘And if were a wyvern, or a vozhden, I’d agree. And, leather won’t help against the claws. But the sting – it’ll stop the sting. That’s what’ll save your bacon.’
‘I’ll swerve it.’
‘You won’t. Fast as a whip it is. And no antidote. Takes a week to kill, and it’s not pleasant.’
Theodore’s brow folded in rare thought. ‘That how it got the villager then?’
‘Almost certainly.’
Now, I was halfway up a tree, nestled between two boughs. I could see her as she waddled out of the cave. The size of her belly – big round, hanging low – told us what had happened to the peasant it she had taken. A three-day slumber to recover from that meal. Her jaw pulled back into an abyss of a yawn. Yellowed teeth thrust unto view. Lolling raspberry tongue. Two paws in front, she stretched off her feast. She padded forward, raised her wet black nose to the air. Behind, her sting hovered high on a tail of segmented chitin.
She didn’t impress me. I’d seen bigger.
But as soon as that thought came, another took its place.
Don’t get cocky, lad, I told myself. How many have you seen fall in the last twelve years? More buddies dead in the Hunter’s Guild than all those years in Baron Bastard’s militia. Unbidden, faces appeared in my mind’s eye, a procession of the dead. Acne-scarred Erebus Thornwhistle. The long and gaunt visage of that expert archer Rendlesham. Other blokes. I stopped those memories there, dragged my focus back to the hulking beast, fifty yards across the slope from me. Distraction’ll kill ya just as quick as cockiness.
She scented the air again, seemed to linger in my direction. As far as I could from my perch, I slid back, using the trunk of the tree to obscure my body. Knobbly twigs pressed into my face. But a manticore’s eyesight is not its strong suit. I was too far away to be seen.
Branches snapped somewhere below. Something moved, large but unseen. It was Theodore. Making a thicket rustle. From where I was I could see all the way from the cave to the clearing where we’d planned to surround the beast. But here was the tricky bit. Well, it was all tricky. But if Theo startled her – or if she sensed there were more of us – she might run back and hide, where quarters would be too close for hunting. No, we had to get her out in the open.
The thicket rustled again. This time Theo got the manticore’s attention. Her eyes – black and shiny and large as fists – glared at the bush.
You could almost see her grin. Mouth pulled back, revealing black gums, an inch of those jaundiced fangs. Unbelievably softly for a creature of her size, she padded in Theo’s direction. I held my breath.
Theo had fed the beast a dummy, emerged twenty paces from the thicket in the other direction, scrabbling to his feet in a flurry of copper leaves. He was just wearing his breeches and doublet, unlaced at the front.
‘Oi!’ he yelled, grinning excitedly. ‘This way!’
He flicked a couple of Vs at the beast for our benefit, then the great shaggy head fixed him. She snarled. Pawed the ground. Pebbles skittered down the slope. Theo had her attention. That excited grin wilted. She wasn’t the biggest I’d seen – but she was tall as a horse and twice as wide.
Theo stepped back, his eyes darting from side to side, looking for cover. It wasn’t far to the clearing – but you could see Theo calculating. How far. How fast.
The beast waited, her nostrils flaring.
Theo broke first. With surprising suddenness, he ended the face-off. Pivoted on his tippy-toes and dashed back, weaving through a clutch of pine trees.
The chase was on.
In the blink on an eye the beast had covered half the distance. Theo wound his way through the trees, swerving like a hare chased by hounds. The creature was forced to follow, slowed by the trunks but still sickeningly fast. Theo dared a half-turn of his head back. Saw the beast was near upon him. He legged it. His legs pumped. Clods of earth sprayed up. A clutch of waist-high ferns stood between him and the clearing, and he dived for it just as the manticore pushed between the pines.
She skidded to a stop. But she had seen where he went. She stared at the ferns, as if pure malevolence could force them to part. 
Then – she roared.
The sound seemed not to come from the beast itself. It encompassed everything. A titanic squall of noise, building, building, even when it seemed it could build no more. Echoing in the forest, flattening the leaves. A sound that seemed to say: Me. I am predator. You are prey.
I once saw a man lose control of his bladder hearing that sound over a mile away.
Poor Theo, I thought. Only ten paces from the beast, somewhere in that flimsy patch of green.
The roar did its job. Flushed Theo out like a mouse before a kittiwake, sprinting like the devil himself was on his heels.
And it was.
Fast as Theo could run the beast was faster.
I just had time to see Theo make the clearing before it barreled right over him, sending the lad sprawling on the hard earth.
I skinned down my tree like a rat down a table leg. When I reached the clearing, the beast was standing over Theo. Somehow, the lad had got himself to his feet in a crouching position, cornered by a thicket of brambles. The manticore loomed over him. He’d pissed her off.
Her sting swung on that segmented tail, a teasing deadly figure-of-eight. She had won, and she knew it. She would not go hungry tonight, nor the night after that.
Theo – brave Theo – held her stare, though the temptation to look around for his mates must have been awful indeed.
But we were there. Me, the boss, Chokewater, Gwilt. Shadows in the foliage. Black shapes, old hands.
The beast was too distracted, too wound up to notice us, quiet as we were. She pawed at Theo, a lazy, almost uncaring swipe. The lad leaned back, tottered on his heels and fell sprawled on his back.
Now she had him. A string to paralyze, then drag Theo back to her lair. A warm meal for days. More than most get.
Now was the time for us to reveal our presence. Her nasty barb swung high, curved and gleaming and loaded with a pale pink dripping venom. The plan was, whoever was the furthest away was supposed to get its attention. Try and draw it into the centre of the clearing.
Furthest away was Gwilt.
Only problem was, Gwilt was keeping mum.
Dozy Gwilt.
Now was the time to shout, to act. But Gwilt stayed quiet. I watched it happen, slow like a dream, though it was quicker than a heartbeat. The stinger came down, right into Theo’s chest.
I told him to wear his leathers.
‘Ahoy-oy-oy!’ came Gwilt’s bellow. Too late. ‘Ahoy! Over here! Ahoy!’ The beast turned to see where this new noise was coming from, satisfied it had dealt with Theo. I spared the lad a glance. You could barely see the wound, just a small dark mark through his doublet. He reached his hand to it, his face drawn and pale.
I had more pressing matters to deal with.
A manticore – a full-grown manticore at that – was rushing past my face. It’s one thing to know you’ve seen bigger; another to feel the air buffet you, smell her animal stink. It She was searching for the sound.
Gwilt had melted back into the undergrowth.
My turn.
I stepped out and unfolded the object I had over my left arm. My trusty net. An old friend, made from fishing ropes by a weaver woman I had once laid with in Riverside. The net was two and a half yards by two when fully unfolded. Lead balls stitched into the edges, larger at the corners, to give the proper weighting. 
The manticore saw me as I broke cover, but puzzled that I was not where the sound had come from, she paused. Did a flicker cross her face, a hunch of her fate? Her head tilted. An ear flopped.
The net had a knack to her, a way to throw her just so. I had practiced. I spun the net twice in my right hand and threw. It turned counter-clockwise in the air, unfolded, a spider’s web in flight. The manticore saw it. Her reactions were devilish quick. She raised a paw to bat it away. Wrong move.
The net connected with the beast at its moment of maximum spread. The raised paw was entangled. The net reached backwards, over its face and – yes – the stinger itself was caught as well. Feeling the trap settle around it, the beast’s first reaction was to push hard and struggle. But all that did was further entangle her. Off-balance, she thrashed. Fell in a mess of furred limb, woven net and stinger.
‘Crossbows!’ yelled the boss.
We emerged, green-clad shadows. Gwilt, the boss, Chokewater and me. My crossbow was strapped to my back, so the rest had an edge on me, but race we did, pulling our wooden weapons out, a foot to wedge the stock back, a rehearsed motion to set the bolt in the notch.
Four – no, five – somehow Theo was firing too, the idiot – feathered black bolts flew across the clearing. 
A startled look on the manticore’s face. Three bolts thumped into its flank, one in her hindquarter’s and one in the eye. She slumped down, green blood matting its her fur black.
She was dead.
‘That one,’ said Chokewater, ‘was mine.’
‘Bull,’ said Gwilt. ‘That one’s yours.’ He pointed at the bolt sticking out of the right thigh.
‘That, my honoured friend, is where you are wrong,’ said Chokewater, ‘I got her in the eye.’
‘Nah,’ said Gwilt. ‘That was mine.’
They stepped closer to verify their claims. 
They were both wrong. 
It had been my bolt that had found that huge black eye.
But I wasn’t listening to their chatter. 
I went to Theo.
He had found his feet, and he was leant against a tree, his face flushed. He was grinning and laughing when I approached.
‘It She didn’t get me,’ he said, ‘sheit didn’t get me.’ He punched the air with his fist.
‘Let me see.’
He pulled down on his doublet. On his right breastbone, a small wound pierced the skin. Already the edges of it were greying. The creature’s ichor was in the wound.
Theo was a dead man. He’d slow within hours. Lose the ability to speak. Terrible pain, so they said. He wouldn’t be able to move. One of us would have to finish him off. I think he knew it. The mad grin on his face wavered for a second, on the edge of both laughter and tears, but I held his smile, and nodded. He couldn’t be older than twenty.
The others were still arguing about who killed the manticore. They’d found the killing bolt, and were each claiming it as their own. 
I spoke.
‘I know whose bolt it was.’ I turned to Theo. ‘He’s the one who killed it.’