[A Hunter’s Tale] Chapter 1 – The Underflesh

It was cold. It was very, very cold.

Each gentle snowflake drifting down from the clouded sky carried with it some of that cold. Cold that clumped together, thick and frozen, all across the long dead ground. A blanket, smothering whatever life might have grown out from under it.

Not the trees though. The trees still stood tall, their pines as evergreen as ever there was green, for the cold could not touch them. Not in any way that mattered.

The cold did affect the dozen deer that trudged along the snowfields. Not as harshly as it would affect furless creatures, but the chill did drive their coats to grow thicker, darker, more suited for the weather. No one ever asked if a deer was cold, but would a deer even think to complain of it? It was a curious question to consider while watching the ungulates move along through the scope of a rifle.

Ungulate. What a word. Three syllables, each carrying with them a strange cadence. Un-, meaning not or unlike; then gu-, a gelatinous sound at best; and finally late, arriving as it always did. Unless it was “lately”, then it came first.

There were probably more words were late came early, but not in ungulate, which sounded so much like undulate that the coincidence had to be considered, if it even was one. Ungulate, undulate. Just one letter off, and what a difference that letter meant.

Du- instead of gu-, signifying a wave instead of a hoof, if the hunter remembered that lesson right. It was difficult to keep track, veering every so often. She’d been tracking this herd for a week now, because she knew that ungulate and undulate were far too close together. 

For example, the flesh of the ungulate trailing behind the herd just so happened to undulate just as she was considering that exact difference. Maybe it was just the fur. Deer had hollow fur, didn’t they? For insulation. Something could have gotten in there, couldn’t it? Slipped right into the space they left. But that wouldn’t change the circumstances, now would it?

Through the scope of her rifle, she watched the straggler make its way closer. The twitching in its limbs became clearer. Steps that shouldn’t have let it walk properly still landed with a precision it should not have. Its breath was ragged, steaming into the air at an inconsistent pace as its lungs attempted to fulfill demand it no longer needed.

Wolfsbane was the name of the rifle. The brand, not the gun itself. Naming a gun created undue attachment. It was enough that it was hers. And it could still kill whatever the deer-thing was.

The sound of the shot echoed after the bullet had already ripped through the twitching deer’s chest and out the other side in a spray of blood, bone, and strips of blackened flesh. A gasp like relief sounded out as the carcass collapsed, blackened and oozing.

The second bullet caught the doe nearest to the first “deer” just slightly off the mark as it turned and howled, its jaw ripping open in a warning cry to the rest. Two cartridges hit the snow as the third bullet fired, hit, and ripped straight through.

It was important to shoot the runners first. The false does would try to escape while the false bucks would charge instead, aiming their antlers that looked so much more like tree brambles up close towards whatever threat approached. That made them easier targets, because they didn’t matter in the end; even for monsters, there was a desire to continue to propagate. The things pretending to be deer though, with their black fangs and gaps behind their eyes, were particularly annoying for that trait. If even one made it to a new herd, the whole thing would collapse as the stags and does were converted and the fawns were eaten. It would be worse if they made it to a village.

In the back of her mind, as she fired again and again, Bonnie Mercadi remembered a story she’d been told. One about a man who caught a deer in the woods. A lucky shot, one he almost thought he missed at first, but the hole was there for evidence, so he brought it home. And the thing under the flesh burrowed into his horse’s back as he carried it, then found its way into the bellies of his hungry family.

She didn’t care to remember every detail, but the ending line, “and so they ate their fill”, still stuck with her in a strange way as the buck in the lead tore its own face open in a screaming maw of black teeth and pulsating flesh. Undulating…

One more rifle bullet ripped through its head in scattered gore as her hand went to the revolver at her hip and drew it in one swift motion. Beastbane, general purpose, with more than enough bullets to kill anything that moved, or so the slogan went.

It took one bullet to pierce through the next monster’s head, but the third took two and that let the fourth get close enough that Bonnie pulled her knife.

Its antlers were like hands, reaching, grasping, trying to tear as she braced, keeping anything vulnerable away from the gnashing maw in front of her. A fourth shot was nowhere near the head, but it did get a branch to fall, crashing on the beast’s back before it could stab its stretching antlers into her sides. A bullet blew through its teeth and it started to choke before the second went through its heart.

One more for a second heart, the final for a third. The last, she took her knife and stabbed in, past the mouths that opened in one last gasp. Though, not a gasp, there was no breath, it was just one more attempt to eat. To bite down and rip. 

But it needed to be done. An animal would die without its head. A monster would live with only its heart.

Black blood oozed into the snow in the points between life and dust. A pierced heart spurted blood, thick and dark, staining the snow. Yet it was a temporary stain, barely worth mentioning, as the falling snow covered what was once there, and Bonnie Mercadi in her deep black coat moved about the field, gathering what remained. Jewels, glittering black in the white field.

The snow would bury the scraps left. The cold ate its fill.

(A Just God’s Angel is on a bit of a hiatus right now. Here’s something else. It’s basically a horror thing that I’m planning to do for the 31 days of October, with one chapter up each day. I hope you all enjoy.)

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