The Skeleton Throne

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The Black Swamp Huntsman (Ch 2)

Belmius stuck to the main roads as he continued eastward on Ms. Feeney’s recommendation. He was able to flag down a wagon and hitched a ride to the nearest small town, chatting easily with the driver who was quite clearly caught off guard by the outward friendliness of the large young hunter. Belmius asked openly about monster troubles in the area and the driver confirmed Ms. Feeney’s recommendation, telling him about some of the troubles her town and its outlying homesteads had been experiencing.

“We’ve been getting attacks from deer, if you could believe it,” she told him as they rode, “but not like any normal deer. These ones walk on two legs, all hunched over, and they sound horrible, like no noise I’ve ever heard before.”

Belmius hummed thoughtfully as he listened to her talk, describing cabins that had been assaulted in the woods by the unnatural beasts and the slaughter of the local wildlife.

“Nedran’s Curse?” He ventured to ask. The driver shrugged.

“I don’t have a better explanation for it, myself. These things, they aren’t right. They gotta come from something powerful, and I think an angry Aylon could do the trick.”

“I was told a hunter angered the beast a few years back?”

“Over in Bulmar, yessir. Local town hero of a hunter was trying to stop whatever creature was destroying livelihoods out there. Sounds like he just managed to rile it up, though. Don’t know why an Aylon needs to go around troubling simple folk just trying to make a living.” She frowned as they drove on, wagon bumping gently along the well-worn road.

“I was told once that they resent not being worshiped like their God-Father,” Belmius mused, his voice a deep rumble. “That they attack places that give honor to Omed’ra but refuse to recognize them as Divine as well.”

“Well I never met many myself,” the driver halfheartedly joked. “But seems every time I hear about one it’s always around some attack or other disaster. I heard of one roaming around in the south several years back. Set fire to more than one home before it vanished without a trace.” She grimaced. “Never heard what happened to the families.”

“Tragic,” Belmius agreed softly and did not press the matter further.

They arrived at the little settlement late in the evening and the wagon driver directed him to a place he could stay for the night.

“I hear there has been deer problems,” the young hunter told the owner of the small hostel as he slide some coin over for his stay. “If you have any information, I would appreciate it.”

The hostel owner, a squat man with a large beard and mustache but a shiny bald head, looked Belmius up and down. His brow furrowed at the man practically twice his size in height and width.

“You take care of those abominations and you can stay here free of charge for as long as you’d like,” he responded as he pointed the hunter toward his room. Belmius thanked him graciously before he settled in to rest after his long day of travel.

He was up early the next morning to speak to more of the town’s residents as he gathered information about sightings and attacks. He swung by the local fletcher to restock his quiver and then headed out into the nearby woods to search for signs of the disturbing beasts while the sun was still up.

He found trees with deep gouges in them, stripped of bark in large sections, and cabins left abandoned with doors and windows broken in. The woodland showed far fewer traces of the typical wildlife he would expect in such an area. Despite all this, no immediate signs of dens or dugouts could be found, not like the one he’d traced the boars back to. The hunter cut his losses for the time and headed back into town as the sun dipped low on the horizon.

Belmius decided not to spend that night in his room. Instead he walked the quiet streets after nightfall, keeping watch under the light of Sabyr’s full form. The hostel owner’s reluctance at Belmius’ plans for the evening was apparent on his round face, but he did not voice his dissent. He did not think there was any way he could convince a man who looked like the broad hunter to not do what he was set on doing, so he offered to sleep near the front door for the night in case the young man returned late and needed to be let in. Belmius dismissed his offer with a shake of his head.

“You get your sleep,” he told the man. “I will be fine. I will be back for the morning meal.”

The night was uneventful, much to the hunter’s quiet frustration, and once again he spent the next day asking for information before heading out to search the expansive woods around the little town. His search rewarded more evidence of the rumored beasts but still did not relent any clue as to where to find them. Belmius was stubborn, however, and had no interest in leaving until the monsters were taken care of. His routine continued for several more days before a night finally rewarded his patience.

An awful noise hung in the cold night breeze as it carried from the woods into town. Horrible huffs and brays of beasts in the distance.

The nights were much darker now as Sabyr waned over the past week. Though its sibling bodies, the smaller forms of Miragh and Lassah, had been steadily waxing themselves, the illumination they brought was in no way comparable to the brightness of the large Strength moon. The sky was cloudy and clusters of stars peeked through the inky sky here and there, but the dimness did not hinder Belmius on his patrol.

He forwent the use of a lantern, feeling any sort of torch would only serve to make him a beacon to the very creatures he was hunting for and blind his own sight. The dark was as much his ally as it was the monsters’, and his benefit now was that the town was downwind from the woods and the noises of the beasts within it. Belmius turned himself to the distant brays and hurried through the sleeping settlement as their noises grew louder with each following call.

A figure lumbered hurriedly from the edge of the woods into the open grassland that bordered the town. Belmius watched it with a knitted brow. The motions of the creature did not at all match what he was expecting to see given the descriptions from the townsfolk. It took him a moment to register that this was not one of the deer beasts he was looking for but a large black bear tearing across the field.

Not too far behind it, bursting from the cover of the trees, several shadows loped into view. They bounded like rabbits, hind legs too long for what a proper run should look like, and their gait was unnatural and disturbing. One of them stopped in its chase, reared up on tall hind legs as a person might stand, and threw its head back, unleashing a haunting cry to the night. Then it lunged forward with the others and the pack closed in on the fleeing predator, overtaking it quickly in a vicious swarm.

Belmius could hear the distant squabble clearly. A terrible ruckus of gnashing teeth and pained cries resounded through the night before the struggle stopped and the pack of gangly monstrosities huddled around their fallen prey. They were only there for several minutes as the air filled with a low, distant ferment of disturbing noises. When they pulled away and loped back into the woods there was no sign of the bear remaining.

“Huh,” Belmius mused to himself as he watched the scene play out, his forehead creased in wonder. For all his brashness he had to admit to himself that perhaps an approach in the night was not going to play out in his favor for the moment, but at least he had found what he was looking for.

The next day he headed out of town toward the field where he witnessed the attack. The ground was torn up where hooves had beaten and kicked during their ravenous feasting, and bone and fur lay scattered about the area that was stained dark from gore. With a bit of searching, the hunter managed to find cloven tracks and followed them back into the woods.

The forest was still and quiet. Birds did not sing, critters did not run up and down trees or shuffle among their branches, and bushes sat undisturbed by the passing of any small game. The trail was fresh and easy to follow, the ground ripped in patches by the unnatural movements of sharp hoofed feet. This was an area of woods Belmius had yet to track through, and it was here that he finally found what he was looking for; a den deep in the forest that descended into darkness.

It was a broad dugout, certainly large enough for a man of his size to fit through, and the area around it was stamped and gouged from the creatures as they came and went. A mess of bones were strewn about in the dirt and foliage. Belmius held his breath as he moved in close and listened, straining to hear signs of life from within the black hole. For the moment the den was silent. Either its occupants were away, asleep, or too deep in the darkness for his ears to catch.

The hunter’s eyes scanned his surroundings as his mind calculated and planned. From what little he’d seen of the loping creatures, he knew he would need to be well beyond their reach to keep from being quickly swarmed and overwhelmed.

Tall pine trees stood all around, their branches high and thick, well above his own head. He estimated a few to be roughly thirty feet from the ground, a height that gave him a small sense of confidence. At least he was certain the average deer would have difficulty reaching him from that distance, though he admitted to himself that he had no experience with what these twisted ones could do.

With a plan in mind, the hunter made note of the den’s location and headed back into town. He purchased rope and a large slab of meat from the butcher’s which he wrapped several times in paper and then leather before he headed back into the forest, returning to the silent den.

Tossing the rope around the trunk of one of the pines and wrapping the ends around his thick forearms, Belmius was able to pull himself up the tall tree until he could reach the lowest branches. The day was growing later and the woods darker as he rested high above the ground, catching his breath after the exertion, and he watched the den below him for signs of life.

It took quite a bit of hacking and snapping away twigs to keep his bow and quiver from becoming tangled in the branches around him, but finally the hunter felt he’d given himself an advantage where could settle and actively fire down at the den below. It was not the most comfortable or exciting approach, but he knew it was better than leaving himself open to a rabid herd of monsters. He would be nothing if he could not manage to be resourceful and clever.

When he was ready he pulled the raw meat from his pack, unwrapped it, and tossed it to the ground below. Then he drew an arrow, nocked it, and waited.

The hunter sat in silence for over twenty minutes, surprised that the scent of the meat was not drawing attention sooner. When the den had stayed quiet and still through his raucous trimming, he’d considered himself lucky, assuming the beasts were too deep in sleep or tucked away to come explore the noise. Now he was growing concerned, wondering if there might be a different opening to the dugout, some place for the twisted creatures to slip out that he’d not noticed. The tracks were certainly fresh, he had no doubt that he’d followed them to the correct lair, but as the deep hole remained unresponsive, Belmius began to mentally walk through his options.

If night fell and the beasts remained absent, he might need to stay tree-bound. He was not keen on moving through the dark woods with the possibility of the whole herd stalking him. Belmius was something of a bear of a man himself, and he’d seen how a literal bear had held out against the deformed creatures. He did not picture his fate turning out much better. He was contemplating climbing down and trying again earlier on the morrow when a scuffle from below caught his attention, halting the broad hunter and alarming him.

He didn’t know if he’d been too lost in thought to notice their arrival or if the creatures had lurked in quietly, but regardless they were there now, two of them, squabbling over the scrap of meat just below his high tree perch.

They were tawny brown with broad, sharp antlers, and in concept alone they might pass as deer if coloration and antlers were all one used to distinguish what a deer was. Beyond that they were wrong in every sense of the word. Gaunt and deformed, the monsters resembled deer hide pulled over an elongated skeleton. They looked more like a mockery of a person than any sort of animal, their shoulders set to the sides and their back legs long so that they hunched forward with their chest pressed close to the ground when they moved on all fours. Cloven hooves were splayed and disturbingly long, looking more like rigid fingers as the beasts awkwardly grasped and clawed at each other in the fight for their food.

Belmius held his breath as he settled back down into the boughs around him, moving slowly to not gain their attention. The abominations below were much too focused on fighting each other to notice the slight shuffle high above. From this angle Belmius could only fire down upon clashing antlers, and he grimaced as he rethought his plan of attack. At this point he was committed. The hunter drew his bow taut and waited for an opening.

Down below the squabble turned more aggressive. One of the tawny beasts relented its hold on the meat after suffering a swat to the face from the sharp hooves of its kin. Blood marking its stretched muzzle, the travesty of a deer retreated back several paces, then crouched, bunching its over-sized legs behind it. With a horrible jabber it dove forward, ramming into its opponent with enough force to send it careening back.

Its body struck the tree Belmius crouched in and the great pine shuddered and quavered from the impact. Belmius’ stomach lurched as he swayed in the high branches, every muscle tensing as he worked to maintain his balance without relinquishing the pull on his bow.

The thrown creature staggered up and reared, letting out an angered rattle. Then it dropped and charged headlong, barreling into its adversary. The deer rolled from the blow and Belmius saw his opening. Before it could scramble back up he fired, his arrow striking square between the beast’s eyes. It jolted and lurched but never recovered from its kin’s attack as it lay collapsed on its side, leg kicking briefly before it stilled in a splay of limbs.

The remaining deer did not notice, transfixed solely on its prize, but as Belmius drew another arrow he heard a deep snuffling and spotted another crown of antlers emerging from the den. The current champion of the meat craned its head as it regarded this newest contender, but before it could react Belmius let a second arrow fly, the missile embedding itself through the hunched thing’s long neck. It coughed and hacked, pink froth foaming at its mouth before it staggered and collapsed, wheezing awfully as it tongue lolled out.

The newest monster did not lunge for the meat as Belmius had hoped. Instead it started as it witnessed its fallen kin, approached the dying buck, and snuffed at the arrow lodged in its neck.

In a motion that implied understanding, it stood upright and turned its head skyward. High above Belmius was hurriedly readying another shot when the thing spotted him in his perch. The frightful deer let forth a horrendous bray and dropped to all fours, charging the tree in a hard rush. Broad antlers and a sturdy neck rammed the pine with such force that the tree swayed and rocked violently. Belmius was pitched from his balance and his arrow fell to the ground uselessly as he scrambled to grab the thick boughs around him to keep from following down after it.

More disfigured creatures poured from the den at the cry of their brethren. A few stopped and sniffed at the wounded and fallen, jabbering awfully to each other before the herd as a whole swarmed the base of his tree. The air was filled with rabid snarls and awful grunts and wheezes as sharp hooves scraped and clawed, rending wood and bark as the stretched things clambered for the hunter high above them.

Though they could not gain any leverage with their misshapen hooves, their motions tore open the trunk of the pine with thoughtless effort and the great tree creaked and groaned in protest. Belmius tangled himself between thick branches in attempt to gain balance without sacrificing the use of his hands. He knew he needed to act. The longer he delayed, the closer the herd grew to toppling his structure. Despite the broad sway of the tree, the huntsman took aim and steadied himself before his careful shot pierced a tawny forehead and sent another sprawling back from the swarm.

This was the tipping point for the herd and the remaining abominations enraged. They drew back from their maddened scramble, dropped their heads, and slammed the wounded tree with sharp racks of bone. The pine shuddered and groaned in foreboding warning and the next volley of arrows rained down in a panicked haste as the cornered hunter worked to cull their numbers before they dislodged him entirely.

Several shafts embedded themselves uselessly into the ground or shattered against hard antlers, but many struck true and more beasts fell as their backs were riddled with the thin projectiles.

Belmius felt his stomach lurch and then sink as the tree beneath him finally gave way to the battering assault. It lurched violently, snapped, then toppled backward. The hunter threw himself against the trunk of the great pine, gripping tightly as he rode it in its fall.

The tree slammed into a pair of others that towered nearby and halted, the impact nearly throwing Belmius from his cover. All three groaned and squealed under the stress, but for the moment its swift descent ceased and the young hunter struggled to disentangle himself. Drawing his hatchet, he hacked his way through snapped branches and pulled himself onto one of the sturdier pines, eager for the feeling of a more stoic foundation.

Two monsters still stood healthy and mobile after the hunter’s rain of arrows, and with the fallen pine now wedged at a steep angle, the creatures found themselves finally able to reach their tree-borne target. They scrambled up the felled timber, chunks of bark flying as their awkward hooves grasped and pulled themselves along.

The first leaped from the leaning pine and landed among the branches with Belmius. With a wheezing rattle it lunged for the large hunter, but tall antlers tangled within the thick arms of the tree, holding it at bay with a tenuous grasp. It snapped and snarled as it stretched for its quarry, wood creaking and splintering with every thrash of its head as it attempted to wrench itself free.

Belmius bared his teeth at the monstrosity and answered its snarls with a challenging cry of his own. He hacked at the creature with his hatchet, each hard chop drawing forth an ear-piercing squeal, but the hunter did not let up on his assault even as needles and wood flew all around him, thrashing horns raking across his skin as he drew in close for his strikes.

Finally a last swing severed the terrible thing from its unnatural body and the gangly creature slumped over the branches, slipped between thick boughs, and crashed to the ground below. The head remained, hanging gruesomely by tangled antlers as its tongue dangled from a crookedly gaping maw, and it stared blankly toward the hunter.

The final beast hesitated, uncertain how to approach, and its aggressive mannerisms pacified as it found itself alone. It wobbled on the felled pine, standing upright and bobbing its head around as it appeared to reconsider its quarry. With a flare of its nostrils it turned and began to lumber awkwardly back down the tree trunk, hind legs slipping with every few steps as it navigated itself down the suspended ramp.

“Get back here, you damned beast!” Belmius belted out gruffly. With furious swings he hacked away the branches that held the dismembered head, managing to break it free, and shucked the heavy thing down to the ground. Its absence gave him a clear shot at the final retreating deer and he drew another arrow, one of the few remaining in his quiver.

When the tawny beast returned to the ground, it was not of its own volition.

Belmius slumped down on his branch, pressing back against the thick trunk as he took a moment to breathe. He was less beaten up than he’d been after his fight with the boars but he wasn’t certain where to rank ‘caught in a falling tree’ on the scale of ‘better or worse’ when compared to his scuffle at the ranch.

Another loud creak and a shift in the trees around him inspired the great man to return to land before the dead weight of the defeated pine could cause any more trouble for him. He followed suit of the retreating monster as he picked through chopped and snapped branches and scaled down the steep incline of the toppled wood.

Back on the ground he scanned for any unbroken arrows before he cautiously approached the yawning den. The woods were growing darker by the minute, the day now late into the evening, and he wanted to be back in town before true nightfall, but the hunter was determined to be thorough before he left. He clutched his axe tensely as he descended slowly into the darkness but graciously found the dugout empty save for scattered bones and waste. The hunter climbed back out, collected the severed head, and returned to town with proof of his victory.

The townsfolk were cautiously elated at the sight of the bloodied hunter and his nightmarish trophy. Belmius was treated to drinks at the local pub as people listened to his retelling of the fight in the woods. They were eager to believe the trouble was finally passed and the proof the man brought was enough for most. Many still held on to their reservations, worried that the moment they showed relief would be the moment when trouble would rise anew. Belmius agreed to stay for several nights more to see if anything else came up, and as promised the owner of the hostel refunded his charge and welcomed him for free.

The days that followed showed no sign of resurgence of the awful creatures and Belmius finally stated it was time for him to move on.

“I am continuing east,” Belmius told the man who’d been housing him for nearly a fortnight. “I understand there’s trouble through the area and I plan to make my way to Bulmar, but I wish to stop and help where I can.” He placed his broad hand flat on the counter as he gave the owner a genuine look. “If something comes up here, you send word for me. I will come back.”

“Omed’ra bless you, sir.” The owner thanked him graciously and sent the young hunter away with extra food for his trip. Belmius continued his travel along the roads as he’d done before.

His next stop also proved to be eventful. He came upon a homestead alone in the woods, told the family there his story about his travels since the Feeney Ranch, and asked if he could stay for the night before continuing on the next day. The couple who lived there agreed and allowed him in. They spent the dinner describing to him rats the size of hounds that stalked the woods and left them feeling trapped in their own home, unable to head out to town without threat of being accosted. Belmius agreed to stay as he hunted the woodlands in search of the massive rodents and gradually he cleared them out, returning with their carcasses as proof of extermination.

“You’re a godsend since Quinn stopped coming around,” one of the men told him. The three were enjoying an evening meal together, as they’d done so every night for nearly a week now. There was clear relief on his and his partner’s face as they thanked the hunter for his services. Belmius gave them a curious look.

“Quinn?”

“Local hunter over in Bulmar,” the man explained. “He used to come ’round here to deal with issues like this til his run-in with the Nedran left him lamed.”

“So he’s the one who began the Curse?” Belmius questioned, his brow knotting. The two men exchanged looks and shrugged.

“I suppose one could say that. Quinn was just trying to put a stop to all the trouble ’round his home when he found the Nedran’s lair. Said it took his dog, ruined his leg, and he’s been forced out of hunting ever since. Attacks all got worse, too. So yeah, I guess one could say he must have been the start of it. But don’t get the wrong thoughts about him, Quinn is a good man. He was just trying to help, like you’ve been. It’s that damned dragon that’s decided to punish us all for it.”

“I understand, I did not think otherwise.” Belmius nodded. “I am just trying to put together everything as I hear it. Quinn is still up in Bulmar?”

“Yessir. Still lives there, though people say he’s more of a shut-in now since the incident.”

“Then when I get to Bulmar I will know who to look for,” Belmius said with a broad smile as they finished dinner.

Belmius was offered a ride to the nearest settlement eastward, speeding his journey along as he arrived at the small village in the evening. He thanked the man for assisting him and assured him he would be around if any more trouble came up. The young hunter then turned his attention to seeking out lodging and information.

People here watched him as he passed and talked among themselves. Belmius was a clear outsider to the area, so their looks did not surprise him. He acknowledged their stares with broad smiles and nods, and a few of them raised cautious hands in greeting. He stepped inside the local tavern and the owner behind the bar looked up at the sound of the door. Their face lit up as they saw him, hazel eyes widening brightly.

“You’re Belmius, aren’t you?” They asked, their voice high and fair. They had long, willowy, light brown hair, pulled back in a lose ponytail, and wore an apron over a plain dress. They were thin and tall, a little paler than most but tanned from the sun. Belmius gave them a curious smile.

“I am. You know me?”

“Not like you’re hard to make out by description. Word of you travels fast around here. Faster than you’ve been, I reckon.” They beckoned for him to approach, already pulling out a mug and filling it with amber liquid.

“You’ve been expecting me?” He asked, his tone quizzical but pleasant as he looked to the drink the owner set before him with a flourish.

“We’ve got trouble and thought you could help,” they answered, drumming long fingers anxiously on the counter top. After a beat they pointed down at the drink, clarifying. “It’s a bribe.”

Belmius laughed and finally accepted the lager. He took a seat and a deep drink, setting the mug down with a heavy thud as he let out a breath and turned his attention to the tavern owner.

“Alright. Tell me about your trouble.”

The tavern owner placed their hands on the counter and leaned forward. The room was empty for the moment but their eyes glinted conspiratorially and they cast a glance around before dropping their voice and saying one word.

“Bear.”

“Bear?” Belmius repeated, taking another long pull of his drink.

“Not a normal bear though, right? Nothing ’round here is normal anymore, is it?” They drew back again as they talked quickly, their tone excited and eager. “Holdendotters got a lumber business further into the woods, right? Everyone’s quit on account of an awful bear they’ve seen around. Now you go talk to the Holdendotters and they’ll rightly set you up with a reward for the beast, but!” They drummed their hands quickly on the counter before leaning in again. “I want the bear!”

“Not alive?” Belmius clarified with a frown. The tavern keep drew back and raised their hands up as they shook their head.

“Gods, no! Not alive! But I want the body!” Their fingers rapped excitedly and they bounced on the balls of their feet. “My cousin’s a taxidermist. I get that body and he fixes it up for me, I could have that beast’s head mounted up over the fireplace or it’s fur stretched out on my wall. Can you imagine the sort of sight that would be? Get actual tourists showing up to see the thing! Business would boom!”

Belmius drew back, laughing heartily. The owner frowned.

“What? You think it’s a daft idea?”

“No, I think it’s a brilliant one,” the hunter admitted, shaking his head. “I like the idea. Make up for some of the grief its been causing by putting it to use.”

A smile crossed their face again and they clasped their hands together eagerly.

“So you’ll help?”

“I will see about speaking to the Holdendotters about their bear problem,” Belmius said with a sniff. “And I will do my best to leave it in one piece so your cousin has enough to work with,” he added with a smirk. The tavern keeper gave a bright laugh as they drummed their hands excitedly. They drew back, biting their lower lip as they turned to step away from the drinking hunter and brushed a few strands of loose hair out of their face.

“I’m Shiloh, by the way,” they stated as they turned back to Belmius. He nodded his acknowledgment and smiled as he took another drink. “You come back for free drinks while you’re here, alright?”

“I will be certain to take you up on that, Shiloh,” Belmius agreed.

The Holdendotters’ house and business rested deeper in the woods than much of the settlement but was easy enough for Belmius to find as he followed the well-worn wagon road that led out to them. The hunter could hear sounds of running water and smelled it in the air before he fully saw the creek that the lumber mill was built beside. The forest thinned out and he could see plenty of stumps and collected logs waiting to be transported for processing, all signs that the place had been rather busy before the workers all up left.

The Holdendotters were two sisters who ran the mill, Renan and Matilda. Renan was in her forties, her sister only a few years younger than her. Both women were broad shouldered and thickly built, and looked like they could handle their job completely on their own. Their thick, black hair was twisted and braided into updos, and Renan pursed her full lips thoughtfully as she listened to Belmius explain himself and his reason for coming.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.” Renan nodded. “Word travels pretty fast. It’d be a lie if I said I wasn’t praying to Omed’ra that He might send up someone to help us with this awful beast.”

“Well I am here to help,” Belmius assured. “Do you have somewhere on the property I could stay? I do not want to impose but it would be much easier to not have to travel back and forth every day.”

“We’ve got a cabin set up for our workers, back when we had any. You can stay there til the deed is done.”

The sisters showed the young hunter the building on their property and Belmius set himself up comfortably in it. It had a stove for cooking and offered him plenty of space and privacy, and more time to himself than had been available to him so far in his travel. The hunter made himself some dinner and enjoyed the night as he sat by the fire, quietly musing over his recent accomplishments. Each hunt felt a little easier as Belmius grew more accustomed to the oddities he was facing, but still, a regular bear could be a bit much. A monstrous one would prove to be interesting. A good night’s rest would be in order before heading out into the woods the next morning.

But a good night’s rest was not interested in visiting Belmius that night. Something else, drawn by the smell of the wood fire from the chimney, came to pay a visit instead.

Belmius awoke to a deep, steady scratching noise, like the sound of an axe blade being pulled along the exterior of the cabin. He lay still in his bed as he listened, the sound steadily growing louder, coming closer. Then it reached the window that looked into his room and stopped abruptly.

Belmius waited as he lay there, expecting something more to occur, but heard nothing. Slowly he pushed himself up into a seated position, waited again, then turned to stand. The wooden floorboards creaked beneath his weight and he paused and looked toward the window. He could not make out anything in the dark night beyond the glass. Carefully he headed over to it, grabbing his hatchet from beside his bed as he went.

Peering out he still saw nothing, but not a nothing as in a lack of something outside, an empty landscape beyond his room. What he saw was a nothing as in a darkness absolute. Not even faint silhouettes in the moonlight. Just void. He narrowed his eyes, brow furrowing as he looked, trying to make sense of what he did not see.

Then the darkness moved. It shifted. Belmius drew back as realization dawned that what he saw was nothing because something was there, blocking his view entirely.

The great bear was so wide that it filled the entire window with its broad chest. Standing on its hind legs it was as tall as the one-story cabin itself and it rested its forepaws on the slanted roof as it sniffed toward the chimney and the faint curls of smoke still drifting from it. The massive creature pressed its weight onto the building as it tried to lean forward and the structure creaked and groaned. With a low growl it lowered itself back down to the ground and peered into the window, glass fogging as it huffed.

There was no one in the room for it to see.

The huge beast continued to lumber along the side of the building. Large bone-like protrusions jutted from its shoulder and neck, scraping across the thick stacked logs of the cabin’s frame as it moved slowly. They squealed horribly as they dragged across panes of glass, leaving gouges in their wake. They tore deep scratches in the dense wood as the beast sniffed at the ground. Something had been here recently, it could tell. Perhaps it was still here. It paced slowly around the corner of the building, following the scent to the locked wooden door of the cabin.

Belmius stood by the wood-burning stove, poker in hand. He was expecting the creature’s persistence and was not at all surprised when the front door rattled from a curious blow, padlock and bolt clattering as they were tested, but that expectation did not stop the way his heart hammered. He let out a low breath, keeping his nerves steady. This one was a big one. Height would not help him here. He knew he may end up cornered inside the cabin if he remained, but he surmised that the smaller area might restrict the beast and give him advantage.

The door rattled again, more forcefully this time. He tightened his grip on the sharp poker. If he could aim for the heart he might have a chance to make this quick.

The door banged even harder, the wood professing sounds that foretold its weakening. Belmius tensed himself for the next blow, knowing it would be the last, and then his barrier would be gone.

That blow did not come.

His head snapped up as the young hunter heard loud creaking overhead. The ceiling was sagging as it groaned. Belmius barely had time to dart out of the room when the roof collapsed inward, sending bear and wooden debris crashing down.

The monster stood, towering over the room, the now collapsed roof being the only reason it could manage such an action within the building, and its jaw hung open as it let out a terrible roar. It was a deep, awful noise that rattled the cabin, but at the same time there was a higher, airy wail that echoed beneath it. As though a person were shrieking out from within the monster.

Lesions covered its nose and the area around its eyes, giving it a diseased and scarred look. It had a second set of teeth further inside its mouth that more resembled that of a horse, and its lower fangs were large and disproportionate, growing out like tusks. When it closed its great maw they jutted up sharply around a torn upper lip.

As the bear dropped back to the ground the cabin floor splintered and cracked beneath its great bulk, a part of it breaking as one of its hind legs shoved straight through the planks. The massive beast barely noticed, simply stepping out of the shallow hole and back onto firmer wood.

Belmius was backing down the hallway, retreating toward the bedroom; his only viable egress for the moment. Poker still brandished in his hands, he did not risk turning away from the horrible predator even as his eyes darted about, evaluating what options he had.

The bear spotted him instantly, drawn by the movement, and lumbered quickly after him in a large lope. Its great bulk crashed into the walls of the narrow hallway as boney protrusions wedged into wood on either side, forcing the beast to halt. With a roar of frustration, it pulled itself back, swung a massive paw, and began to tear at the walls, ripping away chunks and widening the passage that blocked it.

Belmius let out another low, steadying breath, forcing himself to focus and remain calm as he thought through the moment. To say this was not ideal would be a crime of an understatement, and the hunter frowned as he considered his bow and quiver. He didn’t imagine the small arrows would do much against the monster’s thick hide.

More importantly, he needed more room. The beast would only be held back for so long, and at this rate it was liable to tear the cabin apart around them both. Belmius was willing to bet that, between the two of them, he would not fair so well under the collapsing structure. The hunter grabbed his hatchet and headed for the bedroom window.

He smashed out the glass with a few hard jabs of the poker and hacked apart the sash bars quickly. His bow and quiver were launched from the room before Belmius grabbed his blanket and threw it over the glass fragments still jutting along the bottom of the windowsill.

There was the sound of breaking wood and the entire cabin shuddered as the monster managed to reach the bedroom door. It extended a long limb into the area, swiping a massive paw into the room before it drew back to tear at the offending door frame. Belmius was quick to vault through the window, landing easily on the ground below, and snatched up his weapons.

He raced around to the front of the cabin, the nightmarish roars of the beast following him. For the moment the creature was stuck within the comparably small confines of the structure. He wanted to keep his quarry there, if at all possible. A caged bear was still better to fight than a freed one. He could see the battered door of the cabin, buckled inward but still standing as he reached the front of the lodging.

Above it was the collapsed roof, a gaping hole that showed several broken rafters on the sloped structure. The log ridge beam, the main beam that supported the peak of the structure where the slanted sides met at the center, was bowed from all the strain, and Belmius could see signs of it fracturing. If much more of the cabin was torn apart, the roof would give away completely.

The hunter made a jump for the roof’s overhang. He caught the edge of it and pulled himself up, hands grabbing at splintered beams for leverage that bent and protested at their burden. Down in the cabin below the bear was backing its way out into the main room, the only place it could comfortably turn and move about. Belmius hurried himself past the huge hole and further up the more intact slant of the roof, fully aware that the beast could still reach him just by standing if he was not careful.

The monster lifted its muzzle and huffed loudly, scenting the air as it caught wind of the young man, then reared up and roared angrily. The horrific underlying wheeze assaulted Belmius’ ears like a pained shriek, causing him to wince. As it came back down it slammed its forepaws against the inner wall of the cabin that separated the main room from the bedroom, and Belmius could feel the entire structure shift, rafters beneath his feet creaking and groaning. Belmius knelt at the peak of the roof, wedging his boots to gain as much traction as he could on the rough slates as he gripped the rooftop with one hand, and began hacking away at the thick ridge beam with his hatchet.

Another slam from inside the cabin tested Belmius’ balance and grip as the roof quaked beneath him. He continued chopping quickly, stubbornly ignoring memories of pine trees as he sent chunks of wood flying with each strike. Another slam. The thick beam groaned and creaked, its body splintering and buckling. Belmius wedged his hand axe hard into the wood, then stood up and drew his bow.

“Hey!” He shouted down at the beast before letting a shot fly. The projectile wedged into the creature’s back and it roared angrily, rearing again to shriek and bellow at the hunter. Several more arrows followed, embedding into thick shoulders and neck as each one pulled another enraged noise from the waking nightmare.

The beast reached up, grabbing the height of the roof with its broad paws, and pressed its weight onto the weakened structure, rafters and slates cracking and giving way under the force of the monster’s might. The ridge beam cracked and bent threateningly. Belmius stomped hard on his hatchet, driving it into the wooden log like a wedge. A couple of hard hits and the log broke completely.

The entirety of the roof buckled inward toward the bear and fell forward heavily, the fractured ridge beam catching the great beast in its broad chest with full force as it knocked it back into the cabin wall behind it, and though the monster stayed pinned, the structure drove on through thick flesh and muscle before the beam finally halted in its descent. Belmius grabbed for a few collapsing rafters to try and slow his own fall but still hit the ground hard on his back, his head slamming painfully against floor as the breath was knocked from him.

The hunter was dazed, his ears rang, and his head throbbed as he tried to sit up. Breathing hurt. Moving hurt. Existing hurt. Yet by some grace, nothing seemed broken.

As he staggered to his feet he could hear the beast wheezing, the underlying cry in its voice sounding like a distant cursed howl. His hatchet dislodged from the beam when it snapped and his bow was cast aside during his plummet. Belmius searched for where his weapons fell, combating the daze that clouded his mind. Gingerly he reached to touch the back of his head where it struck the ground. It was slick and warm, and he winced before letting out a groan.

“I have to admit,” he said, still struggling to catch his breath as he stepped through the rubble and approached the pinned bear. He could see where the wide log had it impaled and knew Shiloh would be displeased with the damage. “You have definitely given me the hardest time.”

The bear groaned again, its body growing limp as the fight faded from it.

“But still you die like all the others...” Belmius stated slowly, his deep voice trailing and fading in time with the monster’s last few breaths.

The hunter waited silently until finally the bear slumped and moved no more.

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