Down the Frosted Path

Down the Frosted Path

Jan 15, 2023

Small Preamble, this is the first thing I have written since my delay, so it might be a bit rough

The wind was a constant beast trying to tear into him with its icy teeth. He could feel the pinpricks at it found purchase between layers of cloth. Leeching warmth steadily from him as the fiery pain in his fingers and toes faded to dull throbbing numbness. The pale blue etchings of his tattoos barely visible in the flurry of snow pouring from the sky kept the worst of the cold from being fatal. Marvelous magic that would keep his body from being damaged by the cold, too bad he could still feel it. He took another labored step forward muscles screaming for him to stop, not that he would ever listen. Squinting forward he finally realized that there was no point in attempting to make headway in this weather. He was more likely to get turned around, fall off a cliff, or get lost never to find the village again.

Best to stay put, he swung his pack down and quickly got to work. First plunging several stakes into the ground then stretching a canvas over them. Not the full tent but enough to allow a layer of snow to form above him securing his makeshift shelter. He dug down until he hit dirt packing what snow he could in a compact circle around himself to set up a base for the shelter. Soon the wind had faded as the snow grew deeper over his head. Gathering what wood he could reach soon a fire was lit. A small one but enough to cook the rabbit he had managed to trap this morning and boil some snow into a hastily conceived tea. The small shelter of snow and ice pressed in on him. To take his mind off the confining but lifesaving walls and the storm that raged beyond them he concentrated on the hunt.

The tracks that had led him up the mountain would be all but destroyed the moment the storm passed. So he would need a new way of tracking the beast. What he knew from personal experience the beast seemed to be a lanky and half-starved dire wolf. At least that is what it seemed to be. Normally dire wolves didn't come that small, and he would have considered it a werewolf. But the pure feral look in its yellow eyes, the very clear lack of intelligence had convinced him this was indeed a beast. A beast running on pure instinct, but gauging by the faint blue light I had been a warbeast of some sort enhanced by magic. Whoever had been stupid enough to allow their pet beast to escape would be the next name on his list. Someone would have to pay for the thing slaughtering his family.

The Wolf had come in the middle of a moonless night. He had woken up in the pitch black to screams and banging from the cottage down the way. Quickly dressing and arming himself he was out the door before good sense could catch up. By the time he had gotten to the Bakers front door, it was very much too late. He had once as a child come upon a deer that had been mauled by a bear during a hunt, it was much like this, body parts were thrown around, guts pulled out. This was much the same, except the sheer rage that was on display was disturbing. Not gnawed on meat but bits of victims thrown with enough force to break furniture. The nice oak table that he had once broken bread over split in half with Mr. Baker implied on the supporting strut. The sight had turned his stomach instantly, driving him from the house as fast as his feet could carry him to empty his stomach in the garden. 

He stood there bent over for ages. His body shook in the effort it took to empty every morsel from his stomach. Lightheaded he almost didn't hear the screams start up again. This time to his horror the sounds of the beast and its victims came from his own home. With unsteady feet, he stumbled as fast as he could back home. From the state of the Bakers it was plain as day he was no match for the thing. But that would not stop him from trying, by the Gods he would go down fighting. At the very least he would die defending those he loved. He could still hear a rhythmic beat from just inside the door as he launched himself through the broken door.

It was too late, the creature stood there bashing what remained of the family's dog into the table. The poor thing whimpered as the beast howled and smashed it into the table snapping it in half. The creature grinned as they locked eyes, throwing the poor dog against the wall with a sickening thud. In the darkness all that could be seen were its teeth, blunt white-yellow things coated in blood, filling a muscle that was warped into an unnaturally large smile. He had never stood a chance, it had him on the floor pinned before he could comprehend what was going on around him. Its breath on his neck was damp, thick with the smell of death and pain. The thing shuddered with effort, and he thought his life was over. The killing bite never came, the thing reared up in frustration and hit him in the head with a sickening wet thud. 

When he finally woke up two months later, everything was already over. His family and the Bakers had been buried and mourned. Both their houses had been burned to the ground to keep whatever cursed beast had laid waste to them away. In fact on the Bakers side, a new house was being constructed for a new healer that had rolled into town claiming to be on the hunt for the creature that had ended so many lives. Feeling displaced, grieving the loss of his loved ones he found himself among the charred remains of his home. He felt numb, rage, grief, confusion, relief, guilt, a maelstrom tearing away at his mind. 

One foot in front of the other, moving forward. Barley aware of the world around him moved in a trance. It no longer mattered if his decisions meant anything at all, the need to move was all-consuming, and thankfully so. He dug into the soot and grime, clearing burnt lumber, broken toys, and charred iron, clearing what had been his life. Layer by layer burnt debris gave way to this slogging madness. Fresh clean dirt spread from the center and slowly grew outwards until all that remained was a fresh patch of untouched dirt. What was left of his life burned, a spire of flame reaching to the clouds. So hot the metal dripped molten into the shapes he had carved into casts he had dug himself into the ground. As he set the gravestones his sanity slowly returned.

He stood in front of the empty graves, as the villagers had cremated what had remained of his loved ones. The pain returned as an unwelcome companion to his mind and he fell to his knees. The silent screams of pain shook his body as he finally let himself feel it. His fingers and toes burnt from the cold, His stomach ached, and his lips dry desperately for a drop of water. He had worked himself for three full days, without rest, food, or water, filled with grief and rage. The state of his body finally took hold of him and darkness overtook him.

He woke up, within his shelter the fire had gone dead long ago, and his tattoos burned wildly in the dark staving off the worst of the cold. The silence was maddening after his reverie. Looking carefully he found a wall that seemed lighter than the rest, which he reasoned must be up, and started digging. A couple of minutes later he stood upon the fresh snow getting his bearings. The storm had been unkind to him in his mission. Judging from the treetop and the mountain to his right it seemed that he was a little turned around. The most frustrating part was the snow itself. The icy white powder had whitewashed the mountainside as far as the eye could see. Destroying the trail of fur in the underbrush, the telltale prints in the mud, and even the faint scent of blood in the air had been dulled.

However, he had planned for this occasion, on his palm was a pale blue rose. What was it the old man had said again, this rose represents your love frozen in time, cut into it and it shall reveal to you who or what took it away. Poetic he supposed but not exactly to his taste. The hunting knife cut into the stem, and several drops of blood fell before the wound closed behind the blade. The ruby-red liquid slowed, coming to a stop in front of his eyes, forming into a jagged arrow that froze in place. Slinging his pack over his shoulder once again he fixed the direction in mind. as he walked past the arrow shot past nicking his ear on its way into the forest. Hopefully, that meant that he was close to this beast.

Several more cuts later he was trudging through a small patch of forest above his village, going down a small game trail. The trail weaved its way in and out of the undergrowth, at one point along a cliff he could make out the village in the distance. The Townhall, church, inn, granary, and bakers all sat in a small cluster in the center of a spiderweb of trails leading to cottages sitting at the edge of their fields. From this distance, the Farguts prized cow seemed almost like one of his daughter's wooden toys. A painful thought that set him back on the trail. 

This was always the hardest part of any hunt. Getting close to your quarry had its dangers. For a small game it was the possibility of spooking it, the hunt would have to begin again, and of course, retracing your steps means your prey moves further onward more than likely never to be seen again. For a predator, there were different worries, scaring the creature away would be enraging. Failing to sneak up on it could cause it to attack in a panic. But the biggest worry was if the creature caught wind of him before he could figure out where it was. Then he would become unbeknownst to himself the hunted, well until it was too late. Hunting was a strange experience but one that gave him a strange comfort. All things were equal in the frozen wilderness.

Seeing a clearing at the end of the trail he slowed, creeping forward as quietly as possible. He was close, the faint smell of old blood in the air highlighted a small break in the shrubbery that encircled the small area. In the middle of the area was a clear pond frozen in the harsh winter weather, he could barely make out fish moving lazily under the Ice. Carefully moving so as not to make a single noise he crept forward against the wind towards the break in the underbrush. Closer he could see tufts of its hair, shock white with strange pale blue streaks that had gotten caught as the creature had passed by. He stepped quietly, flinching at the sounds of cracking ice as the sun set and the pond settled. Finally, at the break, he sat on his haunches to observe what he could.

It was clear from where he crouched there was a trail of fur and blood leading down a small trail into a cave. The cave entrance was smaller than what he thought the creature was capable of passing through. Hopefully, this meant the creature was more fur than muscle, making his job that much easier. Dipping his fingers into a small puddle of blood at the entrance let him know the creature had managed to get itself wounded. Hmm, this would mean the creature would be more cautious but also more prone to violent blind outbursts. This could be used to his advantage. He ran through everything that he knew about his quarry in preparation for the confrontation.

The beast had come to slaughter his neighbors and his family in the night. So more than likely it slept during the day and awoken at night. Looking above himself at the setting sun he sighed. It would have been ideal to kill the thing in its sleep but if he hurried it would hopefully still be groggy. The thing probably was sleeping deeply judging by the wound he assumed the blood came from. But the fur that he had picked out of the underbrush had strong fibers that twisted easily into strings. It would be hard to penetrate, however, a clever hunter could use its fir to immobilize the thing. Or He could easily attach things to the beast, in his pack was everything he needed for constructing a torch including some very sticky pitch. While the creature was unbelievably strong and agile, no beast could attack without getting close to their prey. He would have to lure the beast to a point where he could easily reach it, but once he did it would be a simple matter to dispatch this beast back to the hell from which it came. Fire would be a poetic end he supposed. 

Plan firm in his mind the man stalked forward, preparations complete ready to confront the hated thing that had killed everyone he had ever loved. Soon vengeance would be his and nothing could have tasted sweeter. Reaching into his pack he grabbed hold of one of the last bottles of hunters nerve. A sweet tasting brew that was his family's secret recipe, the reason behind their most successful hunts. His senses grew sharper, the cave seeming to grow brighter as his eyes dilated, the whispers of the night becoming shouts. Completely still waiting for the full effects to kick in he could finally hear the beast. Faintly just above the sounds of mice in the underbrush was the sound of a wounded beast sleeping fitfully further into the cave. The Old man had wanted him to exclusively use his magic tools for only magic could defeat magic. But the hunt was what his family excelled at, and magic was a poor substitute for a hunter and his knife. 

Knife in hand he crept forward toward the source of the ragged breathing. The sound of breathing became his entire world, muscles straining bones creaking from the effort of moving forward in silence. This was the hunt and his prey would soon feel the sharp cold of the hunter's blade. He wrapped his hand in the pitch-soaked cloth as he came ever closer the blue rose glowing brighter under the cloth. Finally, he was able to peer into the darkness and see the things nest. Bones were scattered around the entrance as a primitive alarm, they were easy to pass through silently. In the center of the cave was a pile of cloth, branches, mud, and pelts vaguely in the shape of a nest. The beast lay in the center in fitful rest. Ragged breathing and sweat shining on its snout gave away that the thing was clearly ill, a ragged wound across its flank was the cause he reasoned. Bits of hair were matted around it, puss oozing out. Violent red flesh could be seen around the edges, and through the hair, he could make out strange blue tattoos that shone in a familiar light.

He unwrapped his hand just enough to see his rose tattoo. The linework and blue glow were identical to what he now suspected was his fellow victim. So that was the old man's game he thought to himself studying the creature. The creature was covered head to toe in shock white fur, the runes tattooed on its skin shone through in a ghostly blue light. It resembled a Werewolf from the legends but wrong. For one its snout was too short, and it was way too small, smaller than he remembered anyways. The limbs that in the legends were rippling with muscle, meant for the most savage of violence were too skinny. Almost like someone had tried to pull on a straw doll's limbs stretching them to unnatural lengths.

He guessed that the old man had been attempting some sort of experiment with this poor creature and it had escaped. A beast stretched beyond its given form twisted into something new not accepted by nature mind broken beyond repair. The thing had most likely been attracted to the smell of a homemade meal, then startled by the presence of others had followed its instincts. A wild animal lashing out in pain and hunger slaughtering all in its path. An act of nature in most cases but the presence of magic made it clear that the fault lay exclusively at the Old Man's feet. He had lost control of his abomination and his family had to bear the price of the Old Man's incompetence.

He could feel his anger rage then focus into cold determination. His path was clear the abomination needed to be put down and the Old Man needed to be stopped, most likely with cold steel. Luckily the thing hadn't managed to notice him in its painful slumber. Carefully he wrapped the Pitch soaked rag around the branch closest to the entrance. He poured the rest in a line from one side of the cave to the other. Pulling branches and cloth closer making a small wall of tinder. He was not certain that his hunter's weapons could kill the thing but one thing always worked magic or no magic. Fire as always was the great equalizer. He pulled out his runestone and whispered an arcane command causing several small rivulets of fire to spring from the stone to several places along the fireline he had created. 

It didn't take long for the whole thing to burst into a violent fire, the wet wood creaked and spat but the intensity of the blaze would not be denied. Too late he heard the beast stir in its nest as its bed slowly caught turning it into an oven. The creature started to whimper attempting to run, but the entrance was covered in fire. The air thick with smoke would soon take care of the creature, depriving it of the air it needed to live. Satisfied but not wanting to stay, as witnessing the thing's last breath would probably give him nightmares, the hunter headed back to the entrance. 

Outside the cave, he made for the thicker brush close by, finding a sufficiently thick part hidden from the path he dug into the snow. He quickly pulled dead brush and snow around his new base attempting to create a hunter blind. If he was correct the Old Man had sent him here after his experiment in an attempt to neutralize the threat. But nothing stopped madmen from continuing on their path, he was betting if he stayed close to the thing eventually his new prey would fall right into his trap. He would have liked to have made a deadfall or some other trap but he doubted he had the time. But with the Hunters Blind, the advantage would be his.

The night was for the most part peaceful, a full moon rose to illuminate the narrow path that led to the cave. If he squinted he could make out a thin trail of smoke escaping the cave as the fire raged inside. Several hours later the shape of a too-thin beast crawled out from the cave to collapse in the snow unmoving. The hunter tensed up readying his hunter's knife, but he needn't have been worried. After a good while it was clear the beast wasn't even breathing. It was finally well and truly dead. He felt sorry for the beast, it may have committed unforgivable crimes but he doubted that it had the presence of mind to understand what it had done. It was just running on instinct and didn't deserve its fiery death. If there was an alternative he probably should have taken it, but what was done was done.

The night dragged on, and the hunter stayed still ever watching, waiting. Streaks of grey invaded the world as the moonset began. That is when the Old Man just appeared. One moment the snow shone under the fading moonlight, not a single creature to be heard, the unnatural stillness of the morning. Next, he was there, standing over the beast as a carrion bird, his elongated shadow enveloping the twisted, broken body. The Old Mans's body shook and shivered in the rising light. As the first rays of the sun hit his wizened face the hunter could make out a demented grin. The Old Man was chuckling to himself, wizened hands moving at preternatural speeds, pulling apart flesh here reattaching it there. The wet sounds of bones snapping in the morning air were chilling.

The Hunter steeled his nerves creeping forward in the twilight keeping within the glare of the snow. He grew ever closer, placing himself behind his new quarry well inside the Old Man's blind spot. Pulling his knife carefully he tensed ready to sprint forward, driving the short blade home into the Old Man's neck. Finally, all the ends of this tragedy would be cut, he would finally be able to rest. He hesitated for a moment as a small thought of how weirdly easy this whole thing had been crossed his mind. Then he pushed forward with all his might sprinting through the snow towards his quarry. The cold morning air stung from the speed, and the arm swung forward towards the Old Man, 7 inches of metallic death firmly in hand. 

Inches from the Old Man's throat the knife came to an abrupt halt. Slowly he turned to meet the hunter's eyes face stretched into a maniacal grin. The rose on the hunter's hand wriggled under his skin, he could feel thorny tendrils running down his arm through to the rest of his body. They tore their way through him but held him absolutely still unable to resist. The Old Man stood eyes glowing the same blue as the Rose on the Hunter's hand and looked him over.

“Kneel” came the whispered command.

The Rose Puppeted the hunter's bones forcing him against his muscles to kneel before the old man, tearing into flesh. He could hear the magical tendrils scrape against his bones as his head was forced to look up at his tormentor. The smile that had been plastered upon the Old Mans face slowly fell, then he sighed apparently making up his mind about hells knew what.

“Do you have any idea of what you have been swept up in yet?”

“I know you have created some kind of abomination, and used me a survivor of your stupidity to cover your tracks” He spat impressively managing to hit the Old Mans cheek.

The Old Man flinched away for a moment wiping his cheek.

“I suppose it would seem that way to you, and no chance of you following me I suppose?”

The Old Man seemed to be mostly talking to himself, as he turned again to the beast on the ground. With a couple of hand waves from the old man the remains of the beast seemed to shiver, then collapse into a liquid that streamed through the air toward the hunter. The rose forced his mouth open and the liquefied remains of the beast forced their way in. The Hunter tried to scream tried to gag, but he was no longer the master of his own body. The Old Man looked on curiously as the magic reshaped the hunter, elongating bones, and reshaping sinew. Until the hunter was no more, and a duplicate of the Beast stood before him. It swayed as if drunk in its newborn form, the Old Man patted its head fondly.

“Ah, why does no one ever do the smart thing? As if their petty grievances would actually factor into our plans” He sighed again.

Pulling out a map he crossed out the Huntsman's village, tracing along the river up toward the next settlement on the map. Ah, a Fortress this would be a much more entertaining trip, he thought to himself. Tracing a couple of runes a small blue rose sprouted out of the map. The Beast’s glossy eyes focused as it sniffed in the air blue runes glowing through its thickening fur. Deep in the recesses of the former Huntsman's now twisted mind, a single thought shouted reverberating in his skull.


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