The clack of steel-on-steel rang through the forest as I adjusted the crossbow on my back, the steel shaft sliding over my shoulder plate like children skate on frozen lakes. I drop into a crouched position, hoping that it didn’t see me. I can hear the gravelly noise of its breath and the stale stench of ozone that pervades the very air around it. The sound of gravel on gravel grind as I can imagine its cat-like ears turning on its head to better pinpoint the source of the noise. The sound is coming from about ten meters ahead of me, and fifteen meters off the ground. It’s a big Beast, and I’ve only seen partial glimpses of it through the bottle-top scope I’d purchased a few years ago. It must be getting close to home if it’s letting me get this close.
That or hungry.
Beasts have always hunted my people for as long as we’d been settled in the Greengrass Hills, just south of the Frozen Wood. Every autumn to spring, the Beasts would come and steal our sheep and goats, injuring countless people in the process. The only thing that could drive them back were the dogged hunts that were performed by our men (or in my case women) who patrolled the wood. The Beasts teeth and claws had become currency, the horns the pinnacle of wealth. Many people were proud of their collection of horn fragments they’d gathered from the Frozen Wood during the summer months, but not me.
I wanted the real thing.
In the three weeks I’ve spent tracking the great Beast, I haven’t seen it hunt. Eat certainly, but not hunt. I saw it chase a bear away from a downed moose, and scatter a pack of wolves for an injured elk. The predators didn’t even try and challenge it, nor risk being around it for long… they’d run while it gorged on the stolen meat.
From what I’ve been able to tell, this is a male. The crest only comes up along the creature’s spine when angry or it detects a threat. The females don’t have crests and are typically much larger, which means I’ve grossly misjudged the Beasts age. It must be a century older than I thought if he’s this large. I hope my poisoned bolts will be enough to bring it down when the time calls for it.
A few days ago we reached open tundra, the creature pausing at the forests edge to shake off the ice that had developed on his ridged underbelly. I’d tried counting the rings before, but I can never get a good enough look to be able to tell. I know he’s an old with rings on his stomach and sides, large hind limbs and wide padded feet to allow it to sprint over short distances.
Now as I sit with my crossbow out behind a snow embankment, I wonder if the Beast is just leading me deeper into the wilderness to die, or if he is just as curious as I am. He must know I’m here by now.
I slowly, quietly, load the first bolt into my crossbow. I haven’t heard the gravely sound of its skin moving back into the upright position. He’s listening for me… we must be close to his lair.
The bolt is your standard fifty centimeter hollow point wooden shaft, filled to the brim with chlorine beneath a glass seal. Chlorine is a nasty poison to use and makes most of the meat on these creatures unusable, but all I’m after are one of its horns. If I can bring it back I can offer it to Mary’s parents as a dowry, in hopes that we could one day wed. The fact that this Beast has six horns brings a savage smile to my face.
I’ll be able to become the wealthiest woman in the countryside with that much horn to barter with, not to mention claws and teeth! I’ll be able to wed Mary, barter for a small herd of goats and sheep to call my own, and have my own home built before the chill from the north settles in over us. Maybe I could even make my home big enough for children, as the orphans of our town are rarely taken in.
I’m brought back to the here and now as I hear the crunching of snow coming even closer… close enough that he’s going to be on top of me!
Shit! I dive for cover to avoid a five hundred kilo leg smashing down where I’d been, sinking into the snow and cracking the icy dirt beneath. I roll into a crouching position, staring up at the great Beast for the first time since I’d begun tracking it. My eyes meet an unwavering yellow as he stares down at me, his feline head framed by curling ram horns, with a mane of bristling horns running down the nape of its neck. It stands perhaps fifteen meters tall, give or take, and regards me with a casual amount of curiosity. His scales are bright white and gleam in the late afternoon sun; perfect for hunting in the cold reaches of the North. He yawns, baring twin saber sized fangs at me, along with rows of smaller, dagger sized teeth. I can hear him kneading the ground with his paws, can see the leathery underside of the creature well enough to count its rings.
This Beast is nine hundred years old.
Awestruck, I keep my crossbow pointed at him and stare at him in his glory. He doesn’t move as he sits on his hind legs, ready to pounce, every muscle tensed like that of a copperhead viper. Slowly, I right my leg beneath me to get a better stance, and stand up. The yellow eyes track my every movement, his breathing so shallow at this point I can’t even see the fog of his breath anymore. His triangular ears are both facing me, listening for any sudden movement.
“We haven’t been hunted by multiple Beasts,” I muttered to it in quiet tones, looking over the monster, examining it. “It’s all been you, hasn’t it?”
He seems to almost smile at my assumption, mostly with its eyes, as he slowly lowers into a crouch, covering up the armored belly to bare his equally armored back to me. Yes, I can see the frill beginning to unfold, the brilliant crimson and purple splotches on the spines and the membranes between them a dire warning towards anything that would dare challenge him. His tail rears up, swishing back and forth in the snow as he shakes loose gathered ice from the thick limb.
I decide in a split second to fire, apparently just as the creature lunges forward for me. My arrow sinks into his shoulder, breaking in half as it twists before the head rams me solid, throwing me back some twenty meters, tumbling through the snow. I do my best to keep a grip on my crossbow, failing as the weapon goes sailing towards the end of my impromptu flight.
I’m bleeding from a few spots that my armor wasn’t thick enough to protect me, mostly injuries I received while skidding along the ice. The real pain comes when I try and breathe and realize that one of my ribs, if not more, must have been broken by the ramming attack the Beast started out the fight with. I cough, sputtering as I roll over and rise to my feet, pulling out a long metal blade from my back.
A hundred-folded sword from the Southern Isles, this blade has been in my family for generations. The straight edge is razor sharp, and the point is tapered in to allow it to sink through armor all that much easier.
The Beast is where I last saw him, standing triumphantly where I’d been standing and its ears flat against its head as it had barreled into me. A light snowfall begins to come in, blowing in from the east on frigid winds. He sniffs once before both ears snap up, turning towards the howling wind, his head swiveling on its neck to look in that direction.
I too look to the east, though not for the same reasons. I can smell the ozone coming off of the Beast, the a faint scent of chlorine lingering in the air. When I get a face full of ozone scented snow, I know that can only mean one thing.
Another Beast is lurking nearby.
The Beast I’m facing begins to growl, a low rumbling noise coming from deep in his chest, a sound that echoes out over the howling plateau. His eyes squint as he stares eastward, his ears rotating in their sockets to try and triangulate the new threat. I merely sheath my sword and gather my crossbow before diving behind a snowdrift, dying for a lung full of air at the moment.
The Beast ignores me as he stomps the ground, hard. Three times it creates thunderous tremors, his fat tail swinging back and forth madly. In the distance, I feel two tremors shake the icy earth, and from my vantage point I can see a vague outline of another beast, this one a little smaller than my Beast.
My Beast lets loose a keening roar that forces me to hold my padded hands over my ears for several long seconds, a feat I must do again when the challenger responds in kind. Looking over my snow mound at the roiling fog coming in with the wind, I see the lithe form of the Interloper, running on two powerful legs, it’s thick tail bobbing up and down as it charges towards my Beast. It looks similar to the Beast, feline ears and horns a plenty, but it’s smaller, no longer than ten meters, and much darker in color. The white scales have a blue tinge to them, making it appear sky blue as opposed to the Beast’s milky leather hide
The Beast waits for the Interloper until the last second, slamming down with his head in a savage motion as he brings his thinner forearms in to bear. The skulls collide with a resounding crack and a dual set of roars, one made all the louder as the Interloper gets to feel claws slash at its exposed neck., The horns shatter beneath the Beasts blows, a trickle of blood spattering out from the broken armament. It responds by twisting its neck and biting up into the Beast’s belly. It’s twin fangs pierce the rough hide, bringing out a stream of steaming blood to warm the frigid air around them.
As the two titans grapple and do battle, I can only watch in amazement as I watch the Interloper move. He fights like a Viking of old gone berserk, with swift strikes and decisive blows. My memories of when the Beast has attacked have always been of the attack being heralded by a loud call, then thunderous footsteps as it attacked a farmstead. This new one, no more than two rings, must be here to try and take over the older Beast’s territory.
Why not? That was how bears worked and we had to deal with them as well. The largest bear would control the largest amount of territory until overthrown by a younger, stronger rival.
The Interloper might just be that rival.
Leaning over the snowbank, I bring my crossbow to bear and load another chlorine bolt, this time taking aim at the Interloper. His side was wide open and judging from the way the ribs moved beneath the scales, it hadn’t developed any kind of thick armor like the Beast had. I fire once and stay above the snowdrift long enough to watch the bolt sink into the creatures side with the sound of a bursting tomato, snapping in half when it flinched from the blow. Looking at the Beast, I can still see my bolt sticking out of its shoulder plates, never having made enough of a strike to hit anything vital.
The Interloper pulls its jaws away from the Beast to cast a baleful gaze my way, before being slammed into the ground by one of the Beast’s hind legs, the thick curving talons sinking deep into the Interloper’s back, the crack of plates and bone echoing out. My bolt must have made an amazing hit as the black blood gushing from the wound is pooling around its body now. The chlorine is having the desired effect of slowing the creatures movements and dulling its senses; it feebly scratches at the broad chest of the Beast as he presses down with his full weight, crushing more dermal bone as well as some of the softer tissue inside the body. Blood is sluicing out of its side like fast flowing stream, staining the white tundra black with steaming fluids.
The Beast moves his jaws down and sniffs at the Interloper, before opening his jaws and slowly taking the Interloper’s neck between teeth. With a slow crunching of bone and hide, the Beast silences the Interloper, killing it in one long bite that serves to sever the head. The Beast is injured slightly; two puncture marks in his armored stomach seem to be bleeding slowly, along with a dozen or so scrapes and scratches that mar its pristine white hide. He brings his head up and, after swallowing a mouthful of meat, lets out another keening roar. This time I listen to it, the long and loud cry of a primal hunter challenging any and all to come and take his throne.
There are no takers.
He looks at me with tired eyes and then looks off into the distance. I follow its gaze and see a glacier rising in the mist of the north. He looks at me with yellow eyes, blinking slowly, breathing heavily.
“You live out there then, far from us?” I ask him, knowing he can’t understand me.
He merely pants, before turning to the body of the Interloper and ripping open its side with his hind claws, bringing all of the meat out to shine and glisten in the hazy sun hanging high above us. I watch as he begins to eat, taking intestines and large gray organs without reserve and choking them down as he rips away at the exposed flesh. I move forward, wary of the Beast's one gravelly ear aimed at me at all times, and move over to the head of the Interloper. Easily half my size, I examine it carefully. The fangs and teeth are intact, as is most of the skulls structure.
I pull out my knife, slowly so as not to draw attention of the Beast and slowly begin the grizzly work of removing the horns and teeth, setting them next to me on the snowy field of the tundra. For twenty minutes we both consume the Interloper, the Beast growing comfortable enough with my presence as to turn his ear back towards its original position. A further ten die before the Beast rises up from his haunches, blood and chunks of pale meat sticking to its jaws as it chews on a last gobbet of meat. He turns to regard me, looking over me as I remove the fifth horn from the creatures mane of them. It’s bloody work, and my hands are aching, but I need every horn and tooth I can get.
I suddenly feel hot breath over my shoulder. Slowly, I turn to regard the Beast as he sniffs me, slowly taking in my scent. I don’t move, instead choosing to focus on the flap of meat stuck to the top of his wet nose by sticky blood. I try not to be afraid as the Beast takes in my scent, knowing that fear or panic will only get me killed.
After several seconds he pulls his head away and regards me with a calm eye, before turning and beginning his long trek home. I feel as if I should follow him, maybe learn where his lair is… but no. He’s the last of his brood most likely, and all that is keeping younger versions of him from ripping through the countryside every year. He most likely controls this entire region, might even have a mate that he brings food to. Who knows?
I got what I came for. For a woman of my village, this will be more than enough to set up a life as a shepherd. I might even be as fortunate as to see the Beast again by leaving a lone sheep out during the colder months. I feel as if I've been judged by the god of the wilds, and it deemed me worthy to move on.
The least I can do is offer it a meal when it pays a visit...