29 – Ebony

Bonnie needed something simple. She’d been dealing with a number of beings both fair and foul, and she honestly just wanted something simple and vicious to deal with. No fae, no demons, no vengeance quests. Just a monster that needed dealing with.

There were always monsters that needed dealing with.

Blackwood, a hanging tree with empty nooses and a chest at its base. The ropes looped around the unwary, yanking them into the air and choking them amid the branches. There they hanged, eaten by symbiotic crows until their cracked bones, emptied of marrow, crumbled to the ground so the ropes could wait for the next meal to arrive.

It burned easily enough though, even as the crows tried to swarm and peck. Bullets broke the wood and flame consumed the ropes. The crows collapsed into gore, and the hunt continued.

Ghouls were famous corpse-eaters. They weren’t often considered problems, aside from the issue of them eating the bodies of the hallowed dead and bringing forth vengeful spirits. They were rotted things, born of famine, made to consume, and easily to shoot. The real problem came with the Plaguebearer.

The Plaguebearer, spreading the monstrous consumption of death, stood taller than its fellows. Its head was held in a sack, tied tight to keep the sodden flesh from spilling out. Blackened and seething with green boils, it carried pestilence, and no one wanted another Age of Rats. 

A shot through the sack was not enough to put it down. Heavier calibers were needed, for though it was soaking in bile, it had a solidity to it. Annoyingly unnatural, defying physics in an unpleasant way. Nothing that gooey should be so solid.

With the plaguebearer came questions of if there was, perhaps, something worse out there. Ghouls followed in the wake of devastation, born from a cannibalistic need to feed on rotting, decaying flesh. A monstrous way of removing rot from the world by adding more into it, until the ghouls were bloated with meat from their feeding and began to sprout the warts and boils that marked the transformation from creatures of famine to beasts of plague.

Yet ghouls were still a symptom, not a cause, and investigation brought Bonnie to a glade of corpseflowers, with petals like pink flesh and the scent of rotted meat. Parasitic, they clung among the decaying greenery and fed through their roots, yet they were not the source of the ruin. That honored belong to the black flower in their midst, the pitch black petals marking the place of a murder and the body it grew from mimicking the corpse.

Alraune were tragic things, in a way. Born from innocence defiled and murder most foul, they exised only to spread further death to whatever crossed their path. They were pathogens in humanoid form, things of malice with flowers growing from the face of a rotted maiden. Its presence explained the ghouls, attracted by the corpse scent, and the maws extending from its body showed how it fed. 

Even now, one of the planty mouths gnawed on half-dissolved bones, all while giving off a sweet scent that brought forth images of desserts and confectionaries, delicious and smelling of home. To inhale the scent was to be brought into a state of bliss, and its smell easily overwhelmed the reek of the corpseflowers. Anyone not warded off by the initial smell of rotting meat would fall prey to the allure of the alraune, and it would kill them with thorned hands and eager gusto.

Bonnie had pulled a half mask over her face once she noticed the corpseflowers, and it was easy enough to approach and fire. The alraune’s head burst into bloody sap, mimicking a corpse yet still a plant in truth. 

It burned just as easily as any dry plant as well, and Bonnie would have considered that a job well done, were it not for the bullet that found purchase in her shoulder.

Pain bloomed as she grit her teeth, no yelp escaping her mouth. She clutched the wound and ducked behind cover, ignoring the reek of rotted meat as she looked through the woods.

“Terato! We know you’re out there!”

Her eyes widened and she bit back a curse.

“You really thought a beast could be allowed to play as a hunter? That’s not how things work.”

The Hunters Union represented all official hunters under its charter. Anyone looking to join the profession could join up with them, easily, and they would be outfitted with the resources available in exchange for allowing the Union a cut of their profit.

Some people did not take to that idea. Some people considered the act of paying for a service tantamount to the deepest violations imaginable, and would rather go it on their own and immediately die due to lacking the training and support commonly given in an extremely deadly profession.

Some idiots, however, did not die. There were circumstances where there were those outside of the Union who became hunters and found success. Not as independents, no, that was a death sentence without experience and even then, support was incredibly necessary to remain independent.

No, instead these supposed independents formed their own groups. Clans, outside the purview of the Union, though to ask any professional hunter, these clans would be considered more of clubs or gangs, and these hunters were little more than poachers.

And one such group were the Ivories.

‘Those who hunt monsters should take care that they themselves do not become monsters in the process.’ A common idea, and one the Ivory Hunting Lodge rejected in its entirety.

The only way to hunt a monster properly was to become a monster. That was why they wore steel masks to hide their features. It was why they hid their bodies in hooded white coats that never stained despite the blood they spilled. It was why they drank the blood of monsters and ate their meat.

They considered themselves hunters in the truest sense of the word. And they made a sharp distinction between what they were, and the “beasts” they hunted.

Attacking a true hunter should have been beyond the pale for them. Something that would guarantee the Union treat them not as aggravating scabs attempting to steal work for lower wages, but as active threats to be culled entirely.

“You’re a beast, Terato. Nobody’s going to blame a hunter for killing a beast!”

There was silver in her shoulder and it stung. She could feel her hands trying to form claws as she moved to dig it out. The pain was bringing her other side out, the silver awakening it in the same vein as a full moon. It was fighting to fix the wound and that just drew on the heat running beneath her skin all the more.

Another shot burst into the wood by her side. They weren’t aiming to kill her in one hit. The Ivories wanted a monster to put down. The thought rankled.

The tree, the ghouls, and the alraune were all costly on ammunition. Bonnie still had some bullets to spare though.

One went into an ivory’s eye. The poacher jerked back, a hiss of pain escaping through his metal mask as white blood ran like milk down the steel. 

“I’m fine,” he hissed to his fellows. None looked at him with concern, just caution, in case their guns would need to be turned on him.

The leader of the band didn’t wait.

“That’s one man dead at your claws, mongrel!” the ivory captain called out. The officer’s sword he carried was slick with white blood. The wounded poacher twitched before his scalp slid free of the rest of his skull and his bleached brains spilled onto the forest floor. “Good of you to show just what kind of monster you are.”

Bonnie took a breath and loaded her rifle up. It wasn’t often that she had to kill humans, but she wasn’t a complete novice.

Besides, these poachers were barely human at this point. She wouldn’t lose any sleep putting them down.

The hypocrisy wasn’t lost on her.

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