North Country by Lyman Graves

North Country by Lyman Graves

Glen Cartwright looks the wilderness in the eye and realizes he has no business here. Despite the cold, a sensation like flies or sweat bees dances up his arms. His chest tightens. His lower half goes slack. On a mountainside fifteen hundred miles from home, he hears eight hundred pounds of Wyoming bull elk bugling from a ridge above him, knowing if it wanders down close he will have less than a minute to kill it. His weapon is a lightweight Scanlon compound bow with five Keller Knockdown carbon fiber arrows, each tipped in carbon steel fit to shave the fuzz off a caterpillar’s nuts. He has practiced shots for a year with this afternoon in mind. Now he feels defenseless and marooned.

Not for the first time in his life Glen feels the lack of some personal quality essential for survival. His coaches and his old man talked of the fighter’s edge, pushing at one hundred twenty percent no matter what. To Glen it was always fear, not anxiety about choking but actual dread of being doomed to fuck up.

The first bugle makes fine-caliber hair stand up all the way to the crack of Glen’s ass. His heart pauses. He feels the sudden urge to shit. He thinks he might have a hard-on.

Patrick the hunting guide, who placed him here an hour ago, explained the hollow ivory teeth bull elk use to produce territorial calls. The sound is like a Hollywood invention, shrill piping tangled with a throaty rasp, a leaf blower low on gas. The two tones meet in a squeal like a nail yanked from treated lumber. The bugle of the bull elk brings a hunter to attention.

A second bull answers and they trade insults, two jocks in rut waving their pricks. As Glen listens, their individual bellows grow more distinct. The second bull’s pitch drops into a guttural yowl. Glen, who has not has not seen either animal, is transfixed. The bugling stops, replaced by a crunch of retreating hooves. Bull One leaves the fight, with Bull Two in pursuit. Glen cranes his neck but the black timber shows nothing. Patrick said if a bull came from there, he should let it emerge as far as possible before drawing, lest it run it back up into darkness where tracking is next to impossible. Antlers clatter, bodies collide in fleshy thuds. Once he saw a pair of whitetail bucks fight South Texas. This is the big league version. He guesses Bull Two has charged Bull One. He would give anything to see it. The noise moves away but the encounter gets wilder. One bull pants, the other grunts, then vents its rage in a foamy snarl.

Shit, Glen thinks. There’s black bears out here! Patrick told him the local bears were nocturnal and shy, no comfort near sunset with blood in the air. Glen does not care to meet any hungry bear, especially one kicked in its bearmaker by a desperate elk.

He considers running, but a third bull bugles behind him. He blinks the sparring match away. Holding stone still, he cannot see the new bull. Unless it’s hunkered down out of sight, he will soon. For a count of ninety-seven he scans, not daring to shift his weight. His left arm, holding the bow, is half-cocked on his knee. Moisture pops on his forehead despite the dropping temperature. Before it can run down and blind him, he swivels his head one degree right.

The bull stands in the open less than forty yards away. It moved in behind a fallen whitebark pine with no more noise than a ghost. Glen cannot tell whether it sees him. His heart sprints lopsided, his skin a clammy mess.

The elk, wapiti to the Shawnee, cervus canadensis to biologists, is an elemental force on hooves. Its jaw sits at a man’s eye level. Two long arms could barely encircle its powerful shaggy neck. Behind the shoulders its coarse hair grows short, lightening from umber to tawny or golden depending on the age. Quarters bulge with hard muscle for running over uneven terrain. On its head the Rocky Mountain variety carries forty pounds of solid antlers, the largest of their kind. A well-grown bull may sport six tines on either side, most a foot long. This bull is well-grown, well able to fight, forage and rut. It carries three hundred pounds of pure meat. Glen’s world goes fuzzy at the edges; he has forgotten to breathe for half a minute.

Fear and unworthiness flood away. This is combat. The bull’s placid eyes glisten with challenge. It looks through Glen’s camouflage at two hundred pounds of trifling man. Not this one, it says, not a chance.

Glen’s back and arm ache. If his hand falls asleep and cannot steady the bow he is finished, but he cannot let this bull escape. To hope for another like it would ask too much. If he passes on the shot, the woods may offer a second-rate consolation animal tomorrow. Or none.

The bull takes its eye off Glen, dismissing him as no more threat than scrub cactus. Glen’s heart finds rhythm again as the bull noses a lonesome little shoot of green and purple flowers. A benevolent miracle of nature.

Draw! Glen’s insides roar.

He takes it like a dive into cold water, pulling the nocked arrow back smooth as duckshit and twice as quiet. At full draw, he takes half a second to place the sights. Thirty-six yards. Not daring to second-guess, he inhales through his nose and holds it. His finger finds the bowstring release. Before he can squeeze, the elk’s head whips upright. Glen is too zeroed in to hear the distant shuddering roar that spooked it.

FUCK FUCK FUCK! he chews his tongue to keep from shouting. His shoulder locks up with lactic acid. His arm will wobble soon. Easing the sight a fraction to the left, certain of a lung shot, he hopes to catch the heart for a clean finish.

Several things happen, small in a cosmic sense but each one crucial. The bull scents him and snorts. To the animal, Glen’s blood rage is a spicy odor. The bull stomps, withdrawing. Glen triggers the release as smoothly as he can. By holding for an extra heartbeat he let his window start to close. He wills his arm steady until the arrow clears, not dropping the bow to watch the shot like a rookie. No gut shot, he prays. No gut, no spine.

The arrow clops like a hoof in mud. The fletching winks out of sight, rippling the hairy shoulder. The arrow passed through, at least partway. Glen flushes hot, certain the shot was good. He waits for the bull to topple forward but the bull runs. Favoring one quivering side it makes thirty more yards on the hoof, headed for cover. Glen keeps burning, but the fire is cold now. Nocking a fresh arrow will not help. No time to shoot again, even straight up the asshole. The arrow may have been slowed by shoulder blade, still fatal but not enough to drop the animal on the spot. Glen reassures himself that it will not be long, even as the bull’s bucking rump crashes through brush and vanishes among the big trees.

#

Jorik’s gullet labors over the gobbet of meat he shoves down his throat, hanging bone and all. He no longer has to try. His arms move with compulsory vigor, routing and stripping. His throat enlarges with dull discomfort to take more massive chunks. Fleshy pouches expand beneath his chin. The torn beast is larger than the last, yet he broke it with ease. He is stronger, not only growing but growing faster. His rising body heat in the frosty air enfolds him with a miasma of steam. Blood sails through his veins like fleets of longships, guide-fires burning a direct heading for Valhalla.

Crushing bones to jelly, he is conscious of a word. Reinsdyr, a dirt-caked relic of the reason slipping farther from him every hour. He grabs at the familiar sound but cannot muster its meaning. He once knew such creatures, in another place. He dares not probe his memory, or the PAIN will stampede through him. The PAIN is the only thing left with the power to subdue his might. When Jorik thinks of what Jorik wants or what Jorik ought to do, fails to watch and serve in silence, the PAIN stirs from its black den and tears him to shreds once more. Eventually nothing will remain of Jorik. In visions beyond sleep he sees his residue, swallowed by snow and forgotten. The terrible tree, the Ash, pushes up through frozen soil, the raw wound shrieking. In seconds the Ash towers against the sky, casting slender shadows across the kingdom. Creatures gather in worship, eating of its bounty. Dynasties rise and wither; the tree stands eternal.

Jorik separates the animal’s chest cavity, pushing the contents into his face. His throat dilates further to choke it down. Through the trees come small trotting footsteps and a bark of human distress. For a frozen instant the PAIN is made to kneel before two of Jorik’s old masters, anxiety and shame. He feels no fear when hunting. He is not permitted to fear. Yet when taken by surprise, remnants of him still have power to seize control. A stranger, his mind groans, what will it think? Defying the command to feed, his hands roam the swollen ruins of his features. Knotty, elongated digits probe open wounds and sores. Their clawed tips, grown to shred meat, poke infected sores. Wiping at the deluge of mucus and blood across his face, he scores the tortured flesh around his eyes. Horrid weight drags his legs. Clawing patches of fur and flesh across his belly, he dreads being seen. Sheets of half-molted skin fall away. Raw tissue stings in the dropping temperature. The fresh kill piled in his gullet strangles his howl of pain. He strains, and with a violent hitch the blockage erupts, cascading down his face and chest.

The disgorging spasm snaps his brittle spine, making way for something stronger to grow. A new structure juts in sharp ridges from his bleeding back. Jorik twists away from the carcass with new agility. Unable to crouch as before, he shears off low limbs as he runs, meaning to hide. No more than a hundred meters on, he smashes headlong into the trunk of the Ash. It rises unbidden in his path, no feeble native of the strange mountainous country. It is more ancient and cunning, its fearsome height too certain to mistake. The impact spins Jorik, landing him on all fours in a shadow blackening other shadows.

The tree speaks a single word. Jorik’s bones push him upright as if a rope were drawn taut about his neck. His glassy eyes are near-sightless as he turns back whence he came. Soon he will have fitter eyes. His ears grow keen already, listening for little footfalls. Soon the frail interloper will soon bother him no more. Once more, the PAIN is awake.

#

Nobody bullied Glen into bowhunting. He saw the appeal right away. After two decades of rifle hunting he could drop a whitetail or feral hog with a .270 while half-asleep, and still take his morning shit before sunrise. Meat on the table, his dad and granddad intoned. Something worth hanging on the wall is a bonus. Learning archery was a welcome change, and the sound of an arrow striking on target drops a surge of pleasure into the ancient lizard parts of the brain. Hogs are low-pressure starter game. No hunter worth his salt loses a wounded animal with impunity, but bleeding unprotected pests like hogs and coyotes is more pardonable than goofing a shot on a deer. Part of Glen wishes his dad, three years lost to emphysema and pure cussedness, could see him today, drawing down on a by-God bull of the woods. If the shot is good. He was brought up to make every hunt a worthy hunt. Whether he comes home empty or with a freezer full, good effort shows respect. That goes double with big ticket game like Rocky Mountain elk. For any feeling of being out of his depth, Glen has himself to thank. Failure to make a clean kill, even with a guide on hand for tracking, means not just facing his fellow hunters at suppertime but shelling out full forfeit whether or not they find the meat still edible. Walking into the black timber, Glen suppresses the notion that in the balance hangs the glory of Gilgamesh, Grizzly Adams and Conan the Destroyer against dishonor that would make a veteran samurai spill guts on the spot.

Even with a solid hit in the vitals, thirty minutes is the minimum to let prey rest. This allows all wounds to bleed out. A hunter coming up on a kill should not be surprised by the animal jumping to its feet. An hour or more is preferable when the animal does not fall within sight, or the shot placement is in doubt. Blood loss wears down mighty things, given time. Wounded animals pressed too hard can heal and survive. Glen has all this field wisdom baked into him. He also knows himself enough to realize he will not wait.

He notices the dropping temperature as he shoulders his bow, four arrows left in the field quiver, and stretches his legs to hike. His pack has water and a flask of something cheap and Irish. He forgets about his emergency radio, which he took out to set the channel and left on a rock near his feet. Until he can give a confident report, he is not ready to call in the shot as he should have already. Prime dusk is coming on, when trophies move in the fading light. The other hunters would not appreciate undue commotion.

Inside, the black timber is darker and a hell of a lot bigger. Glen tries to see as his guide would. Patrick is the real deal, not only seasoned but cured and smoked for the cellar. The skin on his wiry frame was burned brown and cracked by the sun. Thick crow-black hair fell across his face, making his age hard to judge. He might be half-Spanish or Lakota Indian, or just a gringo weathered down to grit. He could pass for the wilderness edition of the guitar player from The Band, Robbie Robertson.

The mountainside rises from brush-covered valley to a thorny, windy slope in mere minutes. Glen reflects once a minute how far he is from sea level and home. A few extra weeks of running and swimming would have helped. Good thing he quit smoking, mostly, or else holy hell. A chilly breeze kneads through his fleece and up against his thermals. He no longer sweats, but the damp fabric grows cold. Because of the prey’s acute senses in tight quarters, bowhunting does not allow the same bulky attire as a rifle hunt. Soft lightweight layers are encouraged to minimize noise and visible movement.

Dying deer tend to run in wide arcs. Glen realizes in here, the passages are too limited for that. It amazes him that any animal could navigate the evergreen tangle strewn with boulders and ravines, let alone a half-tonner at full gallop. He wishes for elk-shaped holes in the foliage, like a Bullwinkle cartoon. Instead, the forest appears to have parted, let the big bastard pass, then closed up again.

The first gout of blood is less than ten paces further, a fan-shaped spatter on pale stone. This is promising evidence of a good exit wound, no major cartilage or bone halting the arrow. The shoulder blades on an elk are like shovel heads. The ribs often break under high-velocity impact, but they can glance arrows in unhelpful directions. Thirty yards on, Glen finds the splintered back half of his arrow. He is not woodsman enough to tell whether it passed through or was torn loose by brush as the bull ran. It is good to see the shaft slick with blood all the way back to the fletching. The more blood drawn, the better.

At a gap in the trees he finds a half-dollar droplet of blood. His body converts panic to exhilaration. He savors the thought of a lazy breakfast tomorrow, taking extra eggs and coffee while the other hunters rise early to chase their own bulls. He casts about for more traces, feeling anxiety rush back when they elude him. It is easier to lose a trail than to pick it up. In the heat of pursuit a hunter may walk right past a kill. What he spots next is not blood but a curious fallen limb at the foot of an aspen, down a shallow ravine. The thick beam sprouts one, three, six branches or seven. It is barkless and smooth, with a sheen on the smaller tips. This is no blown-down aspen. This is an antler.

Hot damn.

The excitement of knowing the elk’s head is down makes Glen go less carefully than he should. The ground drops away, steep without warning. He half runs, half skates a few dozen feet, leaning back to avoid a neck-breaking somersault. He lands on both knees and a bleeding forearm, holding his bow straight ahead in one trembling hand. He kneels there for a minute, wheezing wind back into his body, ignoring the dull throb of his left knee which caught most of his weight. He is alive, has not shattered the bow or fallen on a broadhead. Glen’s arrows remain safe in their field quiver. He will write the Scanlon corporation a nice note.

The tip of one antler is just above his head, poking from behind an aspen trunk at least two men wide. Glen cannot see the head or the other antler, but he spots a hoofed foreleg. The elk must have done a tumble itself and scooted to the far side of the tree. Even if Patrick or the outfitter breaks his chops about straying into the timber alone, Glen has a trophy rack and something like two hundred-odd pounds in good lean steak to justify himself. Let them squawk. He is Daniel dick-swinging Boone. Dark sky through the canopy tells him shooting time is over. He can hail Patrick, who should have no trouble finding him. Together they can figure the best way to field-dress the big boy, quarter him and haul him out.

Now Glen remembers his radio. Remembers he forgot it. Shit. From the side pocket of his coat he fishes a narrow strap of canvas that snaps to the limbs of the bow, slinging it across his back so he can push up with both hands. Coming around the tree, he discerns the hairy bulk of body against the ground. He cannot find the second antler, half his trophy. Could it have lodged in a low tree fork and wrenched loose? At top speed that could break a strong neck but as far as Glen knows, antlers do not pull free like lizard tails. Not off a healthy rutting bull. Not without a fight.

Glen’s throat makes a low sound without his brain’s permission. The elk’s head is half torn away. Blood-matted fur from the crown hangs in a limp tatter, showing Glen a ghostly glow of skull and gray shredded brain. Most of the hard socket that held the missing antler is also gone, stripped away by force. The broadhead and forward arrow shaft poke from the sticky exit wound, kept in place by some miracle. The shot is high but not bad. The double lung puncture would have choked the bull on blood. Instead, something has cored the heart, ribs and breastbone out of the chest. Heaps of black offal, ground underfoot and stinking like summertime dogshit, smear the slack rug of belly skin. One lung remains pinned in place by the arrow, poking from the gutted hulk like an obscene tongue. A pearly nub of spine splinters off behind the ridge of the back. One hindquarter lies to the side, trampled in dirt and leaves, while the other ham is missing right down to the hoof. Glen hurt this animal good, but something bigger than Glen, bigger than any bear he can picture, got first pick of the carcass and left it a ruin. Glen is too busy working this out to notice piss dribbling down his left leg.

Something, not far off in the timber, makes itself known with a thundering howl.

An instant later, Glen has newfound awe for a wounded animal’s ability to flee. The gaps narrow as he goes. Pine bark scrapes neck. Needles flail his face. He does not care about his swollen knee. There will be time for pain, later.

#

The shout was Jorik’s final act of defiance. Jorik meant it as a warning, perhaps even a foolish plea for help. The PAIN makes it a menacing roar. Jorik is disappearing down the gullet of darkness, beyond all help, by the time the erupted flesh of his legs contracts to spring forward. Horny soles on his new-grown feet, wide as cut stumps, pound in time to the rhythm underground, the pulse of the worm. Níðhöggr. At the world’s root, its jaws bite hard enough to shake the Ash. Yggdrasill. The roots grow between the corrupted world and its end. PAIN assaults the flayed skin of his heart, soothing his cries by drowning them in blood. The hunter now flees as terrified prey. Jorik need not repent for having stolen a kill from such a trifle. His feeding is beyond questions of honor. The morsel will suffice, adding what strength it possesses to Jorik’s evolution, fueling the search for more.

Jorik’s grunts mimic the sleek black binne, the sow-bear that challenged him days ago. Devouring it and its young allowed the PAIN to mimic its lethal paw, sprouting thorny spurs of bone to between the knuckles of his left hand. The hand has been swelling ever since, forming a weighty club. A new wedge of powerful shoulder, gift of the reinsdyr, lances from his oozing back as he gives chase. Now he can better wield the killing arm.

His old eyes perish in the rush of frigid wind. The PAIN commands him to catch and consume more, grow better eyes and keener senses. He relies on hearing for now, blinded in the decay before transformation. His dull nose offers only stale odors of blood and excrement. He will take more until he ruptures. The PAIN, kindling itself by mortifying Jorik’s faculties, lashes him in waves. He is driven onward like a dog, obeying what is no longer inside or outside him. He is becoming the PAIN.

He senses the quarry running too near the nest, where the PAIN found him and grew him. It will not do. He charges with renewed ferocity, compelled to hound the quarry to death away from the sacred place where it is not fit to be consumed. After, he will scour the far side of the mountain for more. He is unfit to return before he quells and absorbs and masters the PAIN, and may look upon his destiny with restored sight.

#

Glen knows better than to think a bear is after him. The living, able-bodied elk that Glen shot less than an hour ago was ripped apart in minutes like a baked chicken. Only if black bears hunted in packs would the devastated carcass make sense. The possibility of mountain lions, bad as they can be, is no more realistic. He cannot imagine a single animal tough enough for that job. Maybe a polar bear, a rogue psycho Eskimo-killer a mere thousand miles off his range. So much for natural order. Whatever Glen might have spooked off his kill, he is lucky to be alive.

He lands on his fragile knee, running an electric jolt from toes to crotch. He warbles. Instead of rolling sideways off the main path he tumble-gallops forward several times before hitching up against a big tamarack fallen across the way. Wheezing, blinking away static, he huddles against the tree for what poor shelter it gives.

Lying on his back, he gets a partial glimpse of his pursuer. It leaps heedless over him and the tree with splayed legs, floating with such power and grace Glen expects it to take flight. Its gross, outsized feet do not match. One is patchy with hair in the accepted Bigfoot style. The other erupts in tumorous lumps and nodes like a massive half-melted candle. Both shanks terminate in a crude, jagged interpretation of a hoof. Glen sees it all between blinks, a photograph he will be developing for a long time.

The feet make a thunderous landing and charge on, leaving Glen to shudder with relief. Copper fire burns his chest. His knee pulses with anger. Then the thing stops. It has lost the trail and may have guessed why. Glen suppresses a moan as the shambling horror returns, roaring fit to make the skin slide loose off Glen’s bones. He should have fled up the embankment toward the open shooting ground, but something in him sought the direct path, driving him far into the timber. He has heard plenty about trusting instinct in the outdoors, but every impulse digs him deeper into danger. Without a windbreaker, the heat leaving his body meets night air through the weave of his soft jacket. Cold will win. Running kept his circulation up, but now the skin tightens on his arms. His teeth chatter, the frail sound seeming to wake the monster. It runs eight steps in the wrong direction, snuffling, then about twelve in the right one. Glen does not dare turn his head. At the edge of his right eye a black shape looms. His peripheral vision cannot define it, except for the massive size. Mucus or saliva, or Christ alone knows what, falls from it in heavy ropes. With wet snarls and grunts it searches for the reek of fear and exertion coming off Glen, but Glen doubts any human musk would overpower the giant’s own stench. It crashes hard as the Galveston surf against Glen’s face and presents him with a new danger, the threat of explosive retching.

A teenage memory jars Glen, from when learned to butcher hogs. Once, in the company of his elders, he made the beginner’s mistake of puncturing the dead animal’s bowels, adding the funk of pigshit to the already oppressive blood-and-fat smell. This earned him the privilege of toting hauling the gut buckets to the rot pile several hundred yards away. Here the buzzards and coyotes could enjoy their share without encroaching on the camp. All the time Glen was afraid to open his mouth for fear of puking. Everything unpleasant in the memory, shit and rot and disappointment, lurks in the dark thing’s odor. Glen holds his breath, mouth agape, watery eyes half-squinted. They wait. Just when Glen worries he will lose consciousness, the thing rears as if wounded, turns and runs away again. Its rumbling gait fades and vanishes.

A cold needle burns the center of Glen’s forehead. He wonders how long snow has been falling. In the sky between the timber canopy, stars wink. Their light breaks in rays through trees to his left, across a snowy field smooth as milk.

When Glen emerges from the timber into a small open area, the world has changed. eThe wind Wind moans gently. Snow whirs against itself, its crisp aroma dampening the memory of animal stink. The stars illuminate the snow, a white-frosted dawn hours too early. Glen has no trouble spotting the wrecked airplane at the center of the clearing, its fuselage twisted and molded in a peculiar oval shape like a jagged steel egg. At the sound of ragged breathing from inside it, Glen feels not panic but curiosity. He trudges forward, careful of his leg, keeping a hand near his arrows in case quick self-defense becomes necessary. Chased like a rabbit to the edge of his endurance he has found someone, wounded and sick-sounding, but alive and human.

#

What wonders to tell of the mighty Ash?

Gliding over snow-slick rocks, the devourer feels the stars upon him. He recognizes a lingering scent, from where the little hunter sat waiting for its kill. Down the slope more blood awaits his new-kindled sense of smell, more flayed meat. Even in the dark of full night the Ash lays a shadow on the snow, pointing his way.

The PAIN uncoils along rough-hewn backbone, holding his skull in its tender mouth, guiding him. His stride is longer, his foot surer.

Much is yet to be told.

In the valley where two ridges converge, melting like the torpid spines of new-mated beasts, a cluster of wood huts. Tiny man-shouts and warm blood aromas tease his hunger again, despite the soreness of his churning tract. Hot gluttony nibbles him into frenzy. His new raw mechanisms interlock. The mortification of what he was, will not much longer be, is a paltry shadow of the transforming world. He is a mere parable.

The Ash tree suffers beyond man’s knowing. Bark rots down one side. Stags gnaw it from above, while the dreadful lord of worms Níðhöggr works below. Its brood of serpents lie beneath in the springwater Hverlgemir more numerous than common-ape things roaming above could imagine.

Four stags are said to caper among the limbs of the Ash, tearing greenery. What no skald or holy poet foresaw: the stags of this country are long dead. They could not outlast the worm-fang venom borne up through the roots. No creature of this land, however hardy, proves fit to stand in the shade of the Ash, let alone be called by the names Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr, Durathrór. Dozens of their antlered kind stampeded the mountain once. All were run to ground. Approaching the fire-lit settlement where puny ape-things in the garb of true hunters take their ease, he sees the last of the stags, one of those he took for reinsdyr, quartered and hung, an offering for his pilgrimage.

Perhaps he will deal the small men dignified death for their offering. He could give them the blood-eagle rite, as he gave the pilot in the woods for returning him to the snowlands. The PAIN answers. The PAIN thinks not. The worm-lord may feast on the corrupted dead. In the infancy of his transfiguration, he-who-was-Jorik must nourish himself on fresh kills. He has no time for burial rites.

The secret, what legends fail to tell: not every serpent dwells in the bosom of Níðhöggr. The devourer is the worm’s earthly emissary. At least he will be, once the PAIN sloughs off his feeble remnant. He shall supplant the stag, tearing limbs from Ash while his brethren hasten its death at the root. Consuming its essence, they perform the last true worship left in the world. When the Ash falls, he alone will have strength to wield it, a cudgel for the cowering earth. His will be the first song of the new Edda, his coming to subjugate and restore the world’s proper form. He shall inhabit his own true form, long promised but still unrevealed.

#

The man with the rattling breath nestles at the heart of the mangled fuselage. All Glen can see through the gap is a face. Loose canvas and packing are tucked around his body. The man is black, but his bloodless pallor shows gray. In contrast, his blinking eyes have a keen light.

“Did you bring another plane?” the man whispers. A joke?

Glen shakes his head. “Can you move?”

“I can, but I don’t care to. I got some busted ribs and my legs aren’t working.”

Glen whistles. “Maybe I can help. I got a little first aid…”

“Buddy, unless you brought me new legs in your new airplane, I’d just as soon you don’t go touching me or looking under my bedclothes.” He suppresses a cough, wincing. “You don’t mind me asking, how’d you get here?”

“I was tracking an elk. Hunting it.”

“I mean how’d you get past him?”

Glen does not have to ask him who? The man smiles with his eyes.

“Oberst.”

Glen blinks. “Oberst? What’s that?”

“Jorik Oberst. His name. I heard him running you this way. You must be quick. Time was I’d put a runner like you on my payroll. Got you on the…” he wheezes long and low, “…cereal boxes.”

“Is there a radio in the plane?” Glen asks, hoping to focus the man’s attention. “Black box? Emergency beacon? Whatever the shit they have in these little craft.”

“You’d have to ask the pilot,” said the gray man. “He’s over on the far side, but I wouldn’t bother him if I was you. You got anything to drink?”

Glen withdraws his head and steps around the side of the wreckage, nearly tripping on four or five smashed crates. Inside are round plastic tubs labeled in ornate script, torn open and spilling trails of fine purplish powder. The tubs look familiar to Glen, but he has no time to inspect their large warning labels.

At first he sees nobody. “Hello?” he calls, and then his ankle catches a jagged strip of airplane metal and he falls forward on something buried in the snow. The object yields, breaking his fall, but rough points jab him.

Cursing, Glen pushes up to find himself kneeling in the hollow torso of a dead man. Muscle, sinew and organs have been scraped away. Brushing away snow, fighting an urge to be sick, he finds limbs carved of meat and skin, splayed like compass points. The ribcage is separated, wrenched off at the spine. The lungs, the only organs left intact, have been pulled through the gaps and spread like wings.

Glen’s trembling hand retrieves the flask from his pack. He downs the contents without stopping. A minute later he squirms back into the wreckage and sits face to face with the stranger. He takes a plastic bottle from his pack, uncaps it, and waits for a hand to appear from under the pile. Handing over the water, he leans forward to make his expression plain in the dark.

“Look, man. I know you didn’t do… that… because I’ve seen what did. Now if you can, suppose you tell me what the fuck it is.”

The man grins with one side of his mouth, inclining his head. “See that pocket on my coat? Unzip it and have a look.”

Glen clutches the zipper pull.

“Gently, now. I’m hurting.” The man’s breath rancid, not like the monster outside but not completely unlike. Glen opens the pocket and finds a damp wad inside.

“Just one. Take it out.”

Glen draws a single blood-and-snow-soaked business card.

Raymond Duke

Senior Account Manager

IronMax Lakeshore Athletic Representatives, LLC

Chicago, Illinois

“Bully for you, Mr. Duke,” says Glen, dropping the card. “I’m Glen Cartwright. I suppose you’ve got your reasons for being stranded on a mountain with your legs broken. What I want to know is what’s with … that out there?”

Raymond takes a deep swallow from the water bottle, closes his eyes for a minute.

“He’s my client. Call me Raymond.”

“He… that’s a man?”

“No, Glen. You’re a man. Me, I’m a man. Him over there with no skin on, poor son of a bitch was a man. But him out there, Mr. Jorik Týr Oberst, he was the man.”

#

I’m in business, Glen. I go where there’s action. You’re a hunter. You understand, always tracking the warm blood.

Muscle’s my line. Strength athletics, you know, Toughest Motherfucker in the Universe like on the sports channels. When I got with IronMax, that’s my firm, they wanted to get Americans interested in soccer. Big damn snooze. I was a business school intern with this European import firm, did two semesters in a branch office in Oslo. That’s Norway. Wasn’t much to do, so we’d liquor up and go bet on strongman matches. Damned if I didn’t have a knack. Never could pick a horse or baseball team, but I could pick out a lifter. Couple thousand years ago I’d have made my bones buying gladiators for the Colosseum.

Back in the States looking for work, I never forgot that. Promoted my cousin’s gym on the South Side, real throwback stuff. Apollo Creed for the Windy City. Second coming of Ernie Terrell, you know. Then suddenly I’m pitching the new age of international strength athletics to a middle-shelf sports agency. Somebody bit. Success through determination, my true religion.

I had a fraternity brother on the totem pole at one of the big research labs. Won’t say which one, but outside Grand Rapids if that means anything to you. No? Heavy-duty biotech. Non-disclosure paperwork out the asshole. I reached out with my proposal and they got going on what would become the Black Mass product line. Heard of it? Ought to be ads on TV by now. Next-level weight gain and strength training system. All-natural, that’s the hook. Supplements, not drugs. Too good to be true, sure, with a market ready to snap for it. I needed a body to slap the label on. Everyone in America had their own branding angle, but Black Mass was my last chip on the table and it was mine. A finished concept. Old World meets New. Why be a regular jock when you can be your own homegrown berserker?

Germany, Holland, Iceland… the best candidates had representation already, didn’t want the United States of Big Drug exploiting them. I made an all-night call to the last guy in Norway who owed me a favor, begging him to brainstorm for me. Just when I’m sure he’ll hang up, he mentions a name. Jorik Oberst. A real beast, everything I’d described. So how come it took him so long to bring the guy up?

Turns out Oberst had been competitive in his teens, but he was a farmboy and about three quarters bugshit lunatic. Wouldn’t move to the city, lived on the family farm alone. Didn’t give a damn about making money, I guess. Changing his mind was my new job. Sold my car for next to nothing, just enough to package with some moldy air miles and budget one scouting trip. Ten days later I drove a rented VW Micro Machine from the Oslo airport all the way up to Nordkapp, then east into real Norskie hillbilly country, all in on slaying the dragon.

I don’t have time to do it justice, but I found him. Oh yes. Chopping down groves of trees to keep in shape. When trees were scarce, he chopped out his cabin walls and built them again. Lived off what he trapped, and he trapped everything. Paul damn Bunyan from Viking hell. Thought he might knock me on the head and cook me the first night. He papered his house with black-ink pictures he’d painted. Mostly snakes and intestines and tits. Nothing but candles lighting the house, but he had a Cold War worth of stereo batteries to drive himself deaf on that black heavy metal they got in Scandinavia. Real pagan world’s-end shit, that’s what gave him hard-ons. He made his art on torn-out pages of the Sagas or the Eddas or whatever kind of poetry they got, not what I learned in Business Norwegian for Junior Executives. But I picked up on it, got him talking. Here I was offering the chance to be a real-life Nordic champion, and he preached all this Beowulf noise at me but he started shaking my hand and signing my papers too. Later on I greased a few gears, got him front row center at the Oslo Spektrum when one of his doombanger bands came through town. A group called Slangeblod, his favorite. Not my scene, but who doesn’t enjoy watching twelve hundred bleach-white teen Satanists whip the shit out of each other? My man Oberst, he just stood there quiet, eyes shut, like he was in church. And that’s just where he was, getting religion his way. Good thing he didn’t get the urge to flail around, even with all the skinny kids in their cloaks tugging and bumping on him. He thanked me later, not his style at all, and afterwards we were a package deal.

On the way home, we stopped at every peewee strength tournament or two-cent European gym would let us do a photo op, told them to hang the pictures on the wall for later. Once we hit America, our boy went on the Black Mass workout diet, and shit if I didn’t let myself get excited. We made a strange pair, the brother in the new Brioni suit and his Incredible Edible Hulk in custom athletic duds. Both of us talking low in Viking. You ever hear a black man speak Norwegian? See, what we were was distinctive.

I had stars in my eyes like a damn fool, but it wasn’t all for me. I got a son, see, been looking for a way to set him up in the world a little better than I was. He’d be… what, six? Good kid. Don’t take shit, likes going to the zoo with me when his mama lets him.

I knew questions were coming from FDA, Strength Athletes Federation, all the watchdogs. But serving-size, nutritional-content bullshit wasn’t my line. I didn’t have time to read my copies of those emails. I was hustling. If the science end couldn’t keep up, I knew they’d tell me. Except I knew they wouldn’t say a damn word with all the contracts and funding deadlines pressing on them. IronMax had a shot at greatness, thanks to me and my boy, and they weren’t apt to fuck around. We had two months to build a campaign for the BodyFit Expo, the fitness trade show you don’t fucking miss. It’s in Vegas this year, Caesar’s Palace. Give you an idea? They hold the Strongest Man on Earth finals over the last two days, and I fast-tracked my man to a spot in the open category. I’m damn sorry I won’t get him there. They must be looking for us by now.

All this don’t fit with traveling by bush plane, I know. I sent the product team on the big charter flight, roadies and sound techs and big-titty hype girls. I worried last minute about getting roadblocked at the airport by some investigative reporter, or the men in black from World Health in Switzerland, so I talked Oberst into flying light, making a low-profile arrival at an airstrip outside the city. Him, the pilot, me and some backup cases of our product, in case anything got lost or confiscated from the company plane. I had money on the brain and I got paranoid. Now I guess you’ve got me to thank for what’s running loose out here. Oberst always jabbered about destiny and prophecy and what have you. I laughed it off. Now I ain’t sure. Ain’t sure our pilot wasn’t drinking more than he let on, ain’t sure some pissed-off god didn’t get mad with my greedy ass and send a headwind and a flock of geese to slam our plane out of the sky.

I don’t remember going down, wasn’t in shape to recall much for a few days. The crash messed my eyes up so I couldn’t see at first, but somebody was bringing me raw meat once in a while. It didn’t smell any too clean but I had to eat. Wasn’t til a bright sunny day I saw what we’d been eating. Oberst dressed that pilot out real neat, don’t you think? They say a man’s put together about like a deer. I guess you know. I got pretty sick and told Oberst to keep away from me, but he kept leaving me scraps, knowing I’d wise up and take them. I reckon it was animals by then anyway, anything he could trap or tackle. He was getting better all the time. How come he took care of me and didn’t eat me too, I can’t say for sure, except I’m somebody who can talk to him. He meant to survive, and he didn’t want to be lonesome in the meantime. I think he’s planning something.

I guess you figured it out from those busted crates. I didn’t know he was eating the product, all the raw Black Mass powder, until he’d almost finished it. My eyesight came back and I could see he was changing, but mostly in the last day or two. You can say all you want about needing more clinical trials, nobody’s supposed to eat a jar of that shit in a day. Let alone… well, you can see how much. We haven’t been here long.

I thank you for coming to look for me, but whenever Oberst gets done eating he’s gonna come back here, I think, and I don’t know what he has in mind. I guess I’m better off facing what comes. He’s kept me alive this long. I’m not worried anymore. Only time I let myself get worried is when I got into trouble. You, unless you want to end up like that pilot in a week or a day or an hour, I suggest you get back in your truck or your tent or wherever you come from. I’ll leave it to you whether you come back with all the firepower you have or keep moving the other way, fast as you can. No hard feelings either way.

#

Glen reels with the shock of impossible things he has heard, weighing them against the unspeakable things he has witnessed. It checks out with a kind of ludicrous logic. All during Raymond’s rambling tale, Glen assumed he had bashed his head on a rock while tracking his elk, and this battle of wills against a roving monster is his oxygen-starved brain grasping at lifelines. Too many sensations, far smaller than burning lungs or a knee sprain, convince him he is neither dreaming nor dying. Hunger comes first. Then when he pauses to piss, the chill bites his pecker despite its attempt to shrivel away. A few irritating drops run down his thigh as he closes up shop.

Those details are too real, too specific for his dull imagination to invent. This is why he accepts the vision of Patrick tramping at him through a low tangle of branches, even though the guide appears to move in slow motion.

“Hell alfuckin’mighty!” cries Patrick, “You drop your radio down a gopher hole or what? I been stalking the whole south ridge looking for you. My boss and them at camp are gonna wake the damn state police in another twenty minutes on your account.” Words run from him, not angry exactly, but his nut-brown face flushes purple with anxiety and unplanned exertion. Patrick is used to absorbing life’s feelings and petty irritations for days at a time, having no reason to say them out loud in the woods. He continues his tirade for fifty more yards. “I reckon you’d best shot a bear or something. Boss Man Pete’s gonna chew both our butts in the morning.”

Glen has his mouth open, ready to present his version, when the trees open like an old wound. The towering thing, Oberst, drives a bulbous clawed fist into Patrick’s back, then clamps a red sucking maw down over the man’s astonished head. Glen hits the dirt, gets lower than low, would melt into the filthy gray snow if he could, thankful he has just taken a leak.

No telling whose blood is whose. A tattered hook of jawbone hangs free on one side of Oberst’s head. The monster makes wet sounds of effort, trying to compress Patrick with the intact side of its blood-foaming mouth. Glen watches with numb fascination as the formless head tilts backward and gargles the body like a pelican with a stubborn fish. Patrick’s upturned legs perform a sickening death-jig as they slide, with horrid slowness, out of sight.

Glen stays put, relying on his strategy from the last encounter. Now he has a better picture of his enemy. Stunned by torpor after wolfing down a tall man, the Oberst-thing stretches its limbs. Tendons hum and snap like ship riggings in a storm. Glen counts the seconds as it grows taller. He gets tired of counting. He is on the verge of risking a move when a hiss of indrawn breath halts him. Two asymmetrical eyes catch the starlight as they focus on Glen.

Glen stops breathing. He braces for death as elongated feet clump in his direction. He smells, then feels, a pint of bile slopping from the thing’s ruined mouth onto the back of his neck. It burns like ammonia, with a stench to clear hell’s drains. Glen vomits into the snow. Sharp claws or antler points rake brutal furrows down his back, but instead of being jerked upward and crushed alive he feels the earthquake subside. The glutted abomination has passed him over, literally, stalking back toward where he first encountered it.

Glen has no idea which hunters are still on the mountain or who is at camp to receive the alert, but he does not plan to test his luck alone anymore. Miniature pits blacken the snow at regular distances, running down the main slope to the valley. He starts there, figuring Oberst is unlikely to double back to where he, it, has just been. A mile and a half on, he sees the feeble golden wink of a dying campfire. The hunting lodge. Following the monstrous footprints toward the fire, he wonders why, in God’s name, no other lights are burning.

Two hundred yards out he finds an overturned four-wheeler, one heavy-treaded tire torn halfway off its rim. Oberst’s appetite may have limits after all. The vehicle belongs to the surly hired hand who carried their gear in the cabins when they arrived. The rider’s lower half is still astride the seat, one leg pinned underneath. Glen recognizes the surplus fatigue pants, retro camo now washed in gore. The lower spine juts from a meaty mass torn loose above the pelvis. Never again will Glen eat an Italian veal shank. He might have driven out to fill water jugs at the cistern, or bring dressed-out guts to the rot pile, or just get away and smoke a joint in peace. He brought a rifle, only a .22, probably for shooting ground squirrels. It lies within easy reach for anyone still possessing a torso. It would be worth salvaging, a nice custom piece he spent some time and pocket money on, if it were not bent at right angles where the chamber meets the barrel.

The hunting camp’s massive skinning tree is half-uprooted, the heavy winching rigs that circle its trunk pulled down, most of a hanging elk carcass devoured. Several other trees have been used to smash, pin, and otherwise incapacitate vehicles. One truck is missing. Some guide or hunter escaped. Glen has no time to wonder whether they might return.

Two men he recognizes as guides are sprawled in the dirt. One clutches a skinning knife in the hand still attached to his trampled body. The other has a cored-out middle, organ meat scooped away without the ritual arrangement of the cannibalized pilot.

Inside the lodge, the odor of spent gunpowder is cloying. Glen recalls the giant’s loose jawbone. It must have eaten at least one shotgun, in the literary sense. Furniture barricades the main living space, all in vain. Someone appears to have shaken a barrelful of severed limbs. Parts are scattered like dice from wall to wall. No intact bodies. Half a dozen high-powered rifles and shotguns, all from a smashed glass cabinet along the decimated trophy wall, are as badly splintered as the human remains. Oberst had the presence of mind to break the guns before dealing with potential shooters. So much for firepower. He searches for an emergency landline or satellite phone, but amid the ruins he finds none.

Something stronger than a flight response wakes in Glen. He came to the woods to prove something. A thing with a bottomless appetite for carnage looked him square in the eye and left him untouched. If that Raymond was kept alive for something, so was Glen. Witness to the end of Oberst’s hunger, maybe the beginning of something else.

He does not bother checking the guest cabins up the hill, stomped to matchwood. He can bear no more. No voice breaks the silence. Glen’s bow is on his back. Anything else useful he left in his pack with Raymond. He finds a can of beer sitting in an empty bait bucket, kept cool by the weather. He downs it, settling the whiskey, before returning to the night.

#

The snow returns. Tramping for a third time across upsloping prairie grass below the treeline, Glen no longer aches with weariness or cold. The wind pelts his face with high-velocity crystal flakes. He has little experience of snow, never imagined it could sting.

The stars vanish. He does not miss them, has no need to check his bearings. He moves at a confident but careful pace, knowing another injury could strand him in a blizzard. No need to hurry. Those marked to die are dead. The quarry will appear. If he arrives first, he will wait. He has learned the patience of the hunt.

He crosses the ridge of flat rocks, guided by a blood-halo of fire at treetop level, mocking dawn. The sun will not rise for hours. The red glow shows clear path among the black timber. Trees arch away, blown back by dreadful force. Glen makes the clearing in half an hour, a massive bonfire drawing him in. Wind flays his face, the true blizzard beginning. He nocks an arrow. He will not be baited. He comes as the hunter.

Approaching the airplane, he finds neither Raymond nor the dead pilot among the debris. For a moment, they might never have existed. As Glen’s vision adjusts to the dazzle of flames, dreadful shapes appear. The pyre is easily ten feet high and sixty feet across. The timbers must have made hellish thunder coming down. From the burning summit a lone timber pokes askew. The disemboweled pilot hangs there, rudely crucified. His head burns as if dipped in tar, or aviation fuel. Beneath his dangling feet, laid out with more dignity, is the wrapped body of Raymond Duke. Alive or dead Glen cannot tell, but flames are slowly engulfing him. Oberst is motionless before the pyre, prayerful arms open. No songs, no oaths, only the rage of fire.

Glen kneels, not to worship but to draw his bow. He has not practiced this firing position, but amid gusts of thickening snow he cannot shoot without swaying. At fifty-five or sixty yards, any extra movement will destroy the shot. Through quivering sights he chooses the vicinity of the heart. Whatever pumps the poison. His finger strokes the release.

Too late, he sees the woven plate of broken antlers protecting the shoulders and back like an exoskeleton. Glen’s hand twitches, pulling off the shot instinctively. The arrow sails wide, striking the pyre with a burst of sparks. Missed a fucking ogre by eighteen inches! He curses fiercely before driving his teeth into his tongue. The blood taste calms him. He should never have fired. Let the bow down, save the arrow. Oberst continues meditating, undisturbed.

Glen draws again. Fatigue creeps up his arms. For all he knows the thing is plated under the skin too, petrified to its vile core. Even braided with leathery muscle, the neck is the softest target. If Oberst has a heart and a brain left, Glen can sever the connection. More weary than he imagined possible, he recites the fundamentals. Check yardage. Find the gap. Smallest kill spot possible. Halt the sight. Breathe. Hold, hold, hold the bow steady until the arrow strikes. Release. Kill the goddamned devil.

The arrow’s flight is unbearably long. Glen fears the wind has fucked him. At closer ranges, impact seems instantaneous. Beyond fifty yards there is a visible arc, apex, and descent. The arrow sticks true. The broadhead punches out the far side of the neck. Slimy flesh-folds hang from the wound. A hero shot, exceeding his best.

Oberst remains still. Glen’s soaring heart drops into nausea. Wrong.  Glen hears his father, his cousin, his guide demanding patience, whether the shot is good or not. Give it time to bleed. Never lose quarry, never die for quarry. He considers, has no time for wisdom. He sprints, ten seconds after shooting, toward the towering figure of Oberst.

He veers around the giant’s blind side, the pyre scorching hair off him. Airborne sheets of snow hiss against walls of flame. The arrow divides the monster’s throat, but the rift runs from a twice-cloven hoof to a patch of dark fur between vacant eye sockets. Oberst’s body has split from the heat of the fire, its hollow interior dried black and crumbling. No longer a ravenous patchwork colossus, this is a gigantic molt cast off for some new naked horror to emerge.

Ace killshot on a fucking decoy. Doubling back to the clearing’s edge, Glen scans the timber for his next move. He has nearly covered a full circle when the fire illuminates a patch of strange color, obscured by foliage. Glen wades twenty yards in.

The new-molted thing ripples in bonfire light, coiled against a deadfall. It no longer bears any reflection of human origin. Stepping into view, Glen registers a venomous hiss. The texture is wet and membranous, a raw pork loin with the size and temperament of a saltwater crocodile. Leaves and earth cling to its writhing flanks. The glimmer of its lone eye gives Glen a shudder of revulsion ancient as Adam.

Ancient as Askr, the wind corrects him.

The craven sinuous thing cannot help studying him. Glen is ready, raising his bow as it rears up. The range is negligible. The instant he feels full draw tension, he lets go.

The creature twists aside, throwing up a spurred coil to take the shot. An appendage flutters. A wing? Despite the defensive flinch, Glen is sure he struck the hateful eye, or near it. A shriek of agony, shivering Glen from bowels to brain, confirms the hit. The foul target speeds away to deeper cover with alarming speed. Glen prays for a fatal hit, but hears the scrape of the retreating thing over the dwindling fire and screaming wind.

Fingering the carbon shaft of his last arrow, Glen sees one fletching torn partway loose. It might still fly true, or not, depending on what comes next. Either way it will be his final shot. Away from the fire, the lethal cold invites him to lie down and rest. No sunrise will deliver him. In the black timber it comes late.

A stray noise reaches Glen. It could be a nighthawk. A hurt rabbit. A bleeding thing in the dark drying its wings, heavy with abhorrent offspring. Glen wills it to die, to give a clear sign of its death, but nothing on earth, in hell or elsewhere owes him a favor like that. The kill belongs to the hunter. Sooner or later Glen must go and search, to discover the end for himself.

He will wait, but not long.

 

 

 

About the Author: Hailing from the pine country of East Texas, Lyman Graves views occult principles through lenses of stark mundanity and ecological perversion. He has recently had work featured in Swamp Ape Review, and his story “When the Owls Call” appeared in the Red Room Press anthology Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Volume 4. He lives alone, coexisting with the odd urban pest.

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