by Noah Lemelson
The man in the black cloak came in from the forest. I did not know then he was a monster hunter, though I did have a familiar dread in my stomach. It was clear enough that he was not from the village; no peasant had a crossbow that grand. When he spoke his words sounded like mountain winds, an accent of a distant land. I wish now that I had asked him from whence he came, for his voice was pleasant on my ears.
He asked for food and warmth for the night. I hadn’t a guest since the lost days when my children brought in friends from the village, but I still remembered the laws of hospitality.
As we entered I apologized for my meager dwelling. One room, one wood bed with ragged furs, one weak fire in the hearth, where my stew of lamb cooked.
The man smiled. “I expected to find nothing in the middle of a woods; what you can offer is far better than a bed of dirt.”
I nodded; it was true. I had slept many nights beneath those trees.
He put his bag down and took his crossbow off his back. It was of a fine ebony wood, with silver engravings of dragons and harpies and other rare creatures. I turned my head to hide my fear of it.
“Are you a hunter?” I asked, as I added spice to the stew.
“Of a sort,” he admitted. “You are a hermit?”
“I am old, as you can see. My family is dead, and I do not wish to burden others. So I live in the woods.”
He nodded, tasting my words for their truth. I was honest with him, even if I did not say all. I knew the full truth would only breed hate in him.
“So what sort of hunter are you?” I asked, his eyes following mine to his ornate weapon.
“The sort that hunts monsters.”
I gave a laugh and said that I had not seen any monsters in my woods.
He told me, over the soft keening of the night wind, that the peasants, for whose service he had been hired, had complained of a great furred beast from the woods. One who hunted their sheep in the night.
The smell of the soup told me it was ready, and I poured some into my one wood bowl, giving it to the man. I would eat after.
He slurped the soup, then asked if these wolves often bothered me. I shook my head, for I kept no animals for them to hunt.
The man finished his soup and shouted strange words. “A prayer,” he explained. Then he reached into his bag and pulled out a long bottle.
“Wine from my land,” he said, giving it to me. “Please.”
I pushed back, and told him I could not take such a gift.
He insisted. “You have been too kind to a stranger; in my land it would be a great dishonor if I gave nothing in return.”
I took the bottle; it was heavy in my hand. I lifted it up and drank. Memories flowed from that bottle. Memories of a time when the land around this forest was filled with many travelers. When the rotting forts were grand castles. When there were no petty kingdoms but one grand empire. When beast and fairy walked in peace with man. When my children would run and play and hunt. A time before fire and war had run hand and hand through the lands. A time before priests had chanted fear and hate into the ears of men. I closed my eyes and tried to hide my tears from the stranger. When I opened them I saw his crossbow pointed at my chest.
“Why?” I asked.
“There is a flower in my land,” he said. “Its sap is tasteless and odorless. Beasts eat in large numbers; men use it as poison. A large dose brings immediate death, a small dose, immediate sickness.”
“You enjoyed my wine,” he said, and shot.
I moved, driven by instinct, though not as fast as I once could have. The silver bolt burned across my shoulder. The scent of blood brought hair to my arms, and claws to my fingers. The man slashed at me with a knife in one hand as he slotted a bolt with the other. I bounded backward, but for half a second he glanced down to the bow, and that was enough. I pounced, my teeth tearing into man-flesh for the first time in centuries.
When the rage left my heart, and the blood satisfied my thirst, I sat myself on my bed, and felt my fur recede, my nails return. Bits of the stranger decorated all corners of my hut, half a skeleton remained where he sat, my bowl by his side.
I was sad. Not just for his death, though in another age we could have been friends. I was sad because I knew now what I must do. The peasants had either forgotten their forefathers’ deal with me, or decided to ignore it. They would no longer let me take my small tax of meat in peace. I would have to hunt men again, until their fear outweighed their hate.
The smell of the wine still hung in the air. I tried to focus on it over the blood. Let myself close my eyes and pretend that my children were outside, climbing as humans and hunting as wolves. That they would come in any minute and tell me that it was market day. Then I would walk with them and see men of all colors and beasts of all forms, talking and haggling. If I could, I would have held my children, felt their skin and fur, and told them that it would be like this forever.
About the Creators
Noah Lemelson is an ex-biologist turned “professionally unemployed” writer. He is working on a MFA, enjoys long walks on the beach, and is largely composed of carbon and water. If encountered in the wild, Noah Lemelson can be distracted by lengthy conversations on monkey social dynamics or Mongolian invasions of the 13th century. This is his first publication.
World's Shortest Creator Interview
Who's your favorite imaginary companion, and what makes he/she/it distinctive?
That would be Clarence, my capuchin monkey private eye. He is a heavy drinker and found of Latin Jazz. He dreamed of cleaning up the streets of Los Angeles and proving his father wrong, but instead must do odd jobs as a organ grinder’s assistant to make ends meet as the world is not yet ready to accept a monkey detective. He can cook a mean frittata.
The robot overlords have gifted you with the choice of one cybernetic module that will make one of your existing skills or traits all bionic and stuff. What do you choose to buff up, and what would be the unexpected plot twist?
If I could have a cybernetic upgrade, it would be a third arm on the back of my head that would automatically apply sunglasses to my face whenever I make a sick burn. The unfortunate twist is that I could never think of a clever comeback in time to actually activate it.
About the Artists
Our very own D Chang is a designer and game writer from Austin, Texas. His short fiction has appeared in Avast, Ye Airships! and the Cryptopolis science fiction anthology. He does the Space Squid cover designs and other squid stuff.