The crunching of snow beneath the heel of boots was the only sound within the blanketed woods surrounding the two hunters. Jeff, tall and lean with tribal tattoos hidden beneath a thick jacket, held up a hand to stop his friend, Chris. The two had come down from the frigid reaches of Canada to hunt in the infamous Worley Woods of Alaska, where local superstition stated that mythical creatures roamed during the darkened night.
So far, all they’d seen were deer tracks and snow. The dying sun on the western horizon brought hope to the young hunters that they could encounter something strange. Between the two of them, they’d hunted on every continent. Big game hunting in Africa and Europe to trapping in Asia and Australia, along with scouring the New World for challenges… these two had seen it all. They littered their home in Halifax with stuffed heads and pelts from their various kills, along with a rather impressive collection of high-end hunting rifles.
They afforded their wild ventures through their internet channel, which streamed live through Chris’s state-of-the-art glasses to their web page, where people could watch them as they tracked down their quarry. They even had a store where you could buy trophies from their past kills, all for a considerable price.
“What do you see?” Chris whispered, looking around at the snow-covered bushes and white Poplar trees.
“Blood,” Jeff said, pointing with his rifle ahead of them. Some twenty feet away, on a barren shrub, was a smear of red snow, with droplets leading away from the plant, heading up a northern slope that the two had been avoiding for the better part of two days.
The rocks were slippery, and the paths treacherous; the natives that lived near the woods warned the two that going up the rocky hills within the forest would be most unwise, as the high ground belonged to the spirits of the forest.
“You want to follow it?” Chris asked, scratching at his chin with his leather-clad hand. The messy haired man was rail thin, and while he was a good deal taller than Jeff, he was hardly what one would picture when the term “Big Game Hunter” came to mind. Not to say he wasn’t handy to have around, as he was a crack shot, and an excellent skinner to boot, it’s just his blonde hair and brown eyes came with an innocent face that didn’t seem capable of killing. He usually allowed Jeff to lead them, as he was the more adventurous of the two guiding them into situations that Chris would have to figure a way out of.
“It’s the first real sign of any predators in the woods we’ve found, and if we can kill the wounded animal, we can measure the injury and try to figure out what could have caused it.”
Jeff reasoned, slowly edging closer to the blood, eyeing the snow around the bush. “From the surrounding tracks, I’d say whatever is bleeding is likely a deer and a big one at that.”
“I could go for some venison…” Chris grinned, holding his rifle up to his shoulder. Pointing out the trail of droplets fading into the snow leading away from the bush, Chris whistled. “Whatever got hurt was moving fast… look how far apart the blood splatter is.”
“I know,” Jeff said, dropping into a crouch next to the bush. “The blood here hasn’t even frozen, so it must have been here less than ten minutes ago.”
“Let’s go!” Chris said, pulling back the lever of his bolt-action rifle, loading the bullet fully into the chamber. “You find it, I’ll drop it.”
Chris stood up and began following the trail, taking careful steps as his feet went from crunching in the soft snow to clicking on the icy rocks of the hill. The blood grew in quantity as they slowly made their way of the steep slope, with great puddles slowly freezing over here and there, rivulets of crimson running down rocks like molasses. Chris furrowed his brow as he pulled himself around a narrow bend over a fifteen-foot drop; the tracks were becoming erratic as if the animal was frantically trying to get away from something. But try as he might, Jeff couldn’t find any other tracks to go with the deer.
After nearly an hour of following the hoof prints, slowly climbing the rocky hill steady bursts, Jeff stepped up a rise to find a grisly scene he hadn’t expected.
Jeff had been right in saying the deer had been big; at least a sixteen-point buck lay on the ground, backed up against the base of a cliff, lying on its side. A great pool of blood surrounded it, twinkling in the dying light that the last few rays of sunlight were providing. Its side had been torn open, and as Jeff grew closer, he could see the tear had been done in one fell swoop by something that huge.
Chris whistled as he caught sight of the carcass, stepping up close and pulling one of the strong flashlights from his side. “So, what do you think? A bear maybe?”
Jeff squatted down, his boots just barely touching the edge of the pool of blood. Elbows on knees with his rifle in his lap, Jeff studied the body. They broke the neck, with the entire side of the animal torn free from one massive bite. He could see in the reflective red meat no spare teeth left behind, nor signs that anything had bothered to stop and eat the deer. That its neck was broken told Jeff that the creature had died suddenly, and by something tall and strong enough to take down a two-hundred-pound injured mammal.
“No bear did this...” Jeff said, reaching forward with the barrel of his rifle to poke at the side of the deer, pushing the flank soon. “The ribs are broken…”
“No shit!” Chris laughed, going silent when Jeff shook his head.
“No, you don’t understand. Here, shine the light directly in the hole… that’s it. Now tell me what you see.” Jeff said, pointing at the corpse.
Chris shrugged and moved the solid beam of light from the ground into the opened hole in the side of the deer. Chris stared for a moment before furrowing his brow. “All the ribs on this side are broken…”
“… in a straight line. Almost as if whatever hit this deer in the first place had a jaw that was three feet wide.” Jeff concluded, looking up at Chris and into his glasses and, indirectly, whatever audience was watching them. “Looks like we found what we came here for!”
Chris kept the light on the carcass, slowly studying the body and pressing a button on the side of his glasses, zooming in to study certain parts. He gasped after a moment, nudging Jeff with his knee while pointing into the hole. “Okay, you want to talk weird, check this out: the heart is missing.”
“Missing? You mean something ate the heart?” Jeff asked, standing to peer down into the hole like Chris. Sadly, he couldn’t make it out as he did not zoom in. Chris shook his head.
“No, I mean like someone cut it out! The arteries and valves leading to where the heart is at are clean, and there are no remnants of the heart in the chest cavity. Add to that the lungs look untouched…”
“And we have an even stranger death on our hands.” Jeff nodded, pulling a camera from his side satchel and taking a picture of the corpse. “We gotta look this over when we go home, see if we can’t find what did this.”
Before Chris could reply, a long mournful cry echoed across the forest, deep and guttural, yet strangely hollow. Several wolf howls joined it from other directions, their own cries drowned out by the volume of the first call. Chris and Jeff looked at each other, their faces breaking into matching grins.
“There’s our mystery hunter…” Chris whispered, scanning the darkened tree line below with his flashlight. “Wonder what it is?”
“Must be a wolf if it howls like that,” Jeff reasoned, dropping to one knee and sliding his pack off. He looked up at Chris and tossed him a bottle. “Here, start a fire and we’ll make camp here, we can cook the deer.”
“You sure it’s safe?” Chris asked, looking at the mangled corpse with a hint of trepidation.
“Of course! We’ll just cook our venison well done tonight, that should clean it out.” Jeff replied, pulling out a bundle of gathered branches they’d been gathering throughout the day.
“These should be plenty dry by now, set ‘em up while I check on the feed.”