The Beast

The sky is the colour of ochre as day slowly gives way to night. Zeke kneels down on one knee at the sight of something on the ground. Towering trees surround him – tall sentinels standing watch. Beneath him is a carpet of moss, deadwood, and leaves. It is the seventh day of the great hunt and a lot is expected of him. He will not fail. He must not. He places his palm on the ground and brushes aside dead leaves and deadwood to reveal paw prints beneath. He then closes his eyes and sniffs at the air. He catches the metallic smell of blood not far from where he is. The beast had gone this way. Zeke stands up and runs towards the direction of his prey.

***

It was hot inside the tent as the braziers burned brightly in each of the four corners. Zeke sat cross-legged on the floor. In front of him stood the village shaman waving his staff and uttering words of prayer to the gods. The shaman’s body was painted with the runes of the names of the gods. Running down his arms was the name of Akka, the god of war and fire and the one who lifts up the sun. On his feet was Palu’s name, painted in blue, the god of all bodies of water and all who reside in it. Zirka’s name was written on his chest, in yellow, the goddess of the sky and lightning and thunder. Last of the four gods was Lawin, painted green on his bald head, the goddess of all the earth and all that grows from it. On the shaman’s forehead was the sigil of the village. He pointed his staff towards Zeke, eyes wide, he uttered words of blessing and protection. Zeke sat unmoving throughout the ritual of preparation. After the utterance of prayers, the shaman knelt down and picked up a bowl containing a clear liquid with crushed herbs. He offered it to Zeke who took it with both hands. The young hunter brought the bowl to his lips and drank down its contents – forcing down the bitter tasting liquid down his throat. The liquid felt warm inside him. The shaman nodded his approval.

“Tell me what you are feeling,” the shaman asked.

“Calm. Focused,” answered Zeke.

The shaman smiled. “You are not a good liar, young hunter.” The shaman stared at him, face void of emotions. Zeke knew of the tales told by the villagers that the shaman has the ability to read one’s mind, to delve into a man’s heart, and see his deepest longings…or learn of his darkest secrets. Zeke felt uncomfortable at the thought. Finally, the shaman spoke again. “Fear is good,” he said. “Embrace it. All men grow afraid at some point in their life. What matters is what you do once you are face to face with your fear.”

Zeke nodded.

“Before I send you away, there is one last thing I need to do.” The shaman reached for a lacquered box and placed it in front of Zeke. “Open it, young hunter.”

Zeke lifted the box’s lid and was amazed at its contents. A sword with a hilt in the shape of a dragon and beside it lay a pouch made of ox skin. He knew what these items were.

“These are yours,” the shaman said. “Passed down from the ones before you. They will help you with your final test. I am sure you know what these two are?”

“Yes,” Zeke answered. “The dragon blade, forged from within the heart of the last dragon, and beside it is the pouch of silver flame made from the crushed bones of the fire demi-god, Karuta.”

“Powerful artefacts that will surely aid you in battle…but with powers such as these there will always be consequences. Use them wisely, young hunter.”

Zeke closed the box.

“Rest well, Zeke, and may you find favour tomorrow in the eyes of the gods.”

***

He wraps the leftover bread and cheese and packs them inside his bag. Not far from where he sits is the carcass of a deer, its innards all but gone and the ground surrounding it is stained dark with blood. The beast fed on it, Zeke is sure of it. Huge prints lead away from the carcass into the darkness of the forest. He looks up, at the host of stars ceaselessly blinking at him, and closes his eyes. He relaxes his breathing and allows himself to blend in with the forest around him, an act of worship to the gods of the land. He listens to the forest – the flapping of wings of some nocturnal bird, the crunching of leaves beneath the paws of wolves, the sighing of the wind as it brushes against the treetops – Zeke opens himself up and absorbs it all. When Zeke opens his eyes his hand unconsciously touches the large wound on his chest. Three large gashes from when he first encountered the beast. The wound has slightly healed thanks to an ointment he brought but the pain still remains. He allowed himself to get careless. It will not happen again. Zeke stands up and walks into the darkness of the forest.

***

It was on the second day of the hunt when Zeke first encountered the beast. At that time he thought himself very fortunate. He was able to track down the beast on the second day! A feat done by no one prior him. He was filled with the surge of adrenaline at the sight of his prey. He found the beast in a clearing west of Hardon’s Lake. It had just finished feeding, its fur still drenched with blood. The beast noticed him and bared its blood stained teeth.

Zeke remembered feeling the disappointment at the sight of the beast. It was much smaller than what he imagined – only slightly larger than that of a wolf. He felt he did not even need to use the dragon blade. Zeke withdrew both of his daggers and crouched low, positioning himself for battle. The beast lunged without warning, bloodlust showing in its eyes. Zeke let out a yell as he parried the beast’s attack. Steel met teeth and claw. Zeke swung his daggers and was able to wound the beast’s side. He smiled as his prey cried out and retreated a couple of feet away. Just as Zeke thought the beast would retreat deeper into the forest, it charged again and once more Zeke was able to successfully counter all of its attacks.

Zeke laughed at the ease of it all. It did not feel like a fair fight! He imagined all the praises he’d be getting once he returns victorious. “Time to finish this dance of ours,” he said.

Then something unexpected happened.

A noise seemed to come from the beast’s throat. It sounded like…laughter. The beast’s body started to convulse violently. Its body started to change. Zeke watched in horror and amazement as the beast grew in size until it was as large as he is and still it continued to grow larger. It took only a moment of hesitation, a moment of carelessness, and the beast was upon him. Faster, stronger, larger, Zeke futilely attempted to parry its fierce blows. A swipe of its large paw struck Zeke across the chest and sent him flying to a tree. Zeke shakily got on his feet. The beast stared at him with blood red eyes. Zeke can still remember the fear he felt that day, he can still taste it in his mouth. What he did next was something he never imagined himself doing. Zeke ran. He ran into the forest and away from the beast.

***

By the morning of the fifth day, Zeke sees a cave and leading to the cave is a trail of fresh blood. He knows that the hunt is almost at its end. He pulls out his daggers and walks into the mouth of the cave. The darkness is thick and he can barely see anything more than two feet in front of him. From somewhere he can hear the sound of running water. The ground slopes downward gradually and the air starts to get colder. About an hour of walking the path ends with a set of stone steps spiralling downwards into some unknown place. The walls that line the stone staircase is lit by torches. From beneath, Zeke can hear crunching sounds. He feels it – the increasing speed of his heartbeat, the sweating of his palms, and the taste of blood on his tongue. He sheathes his daggers. He knows they are useless against the beast’s true form. He unsheathes the dragon blade and cuts his palm with it. He lets his blood fall on the sword. As his blood runs down the length of the blade, the sword starts to glow. The true power of the dragon blade manifesting itself. After the light subsides, the blade has turned into a golden colour. A contract has been signed. Zeke is now one with the dragon blade. He can feel its fire burning in him, the power of the sword’s spirit. The blade can cut through anything and is near unbreakable. But its power comes with a great price – the longer it is used, the more it burns the soul of its user. He knows though he will never win against the beast without it. He starts to make his descent.

***

Zeke stumbled to the ground, his foot tripping over an exposed root. He lay unmoving beside a tree. He did not know how long he had been running. His mouth felt dry and his legs burned. The wound on his chest was bad. If he didn’t do anything about it he knew he’d die of blood loss. The forest was silent. He was sure the beast would catch him, would finally devour him. Zeke steadied his breathing. He lost. He let himself be ruled by pride. He closed his eyes and prepared for the death that would come.

But nothing came. He still breathed, still lived. Zeke started to cry.

When he woke, sunlight poured in from the gaps in the canopy of leaves above. He tried to move but the wounds on his chest sent daggers of pain throughout his body. Zeke thanked the gods for letting him live. He closed his eyes as consciousness left him once more.

Zeke woke up to the stars. His throat felt like sandpaper. He forced himself to sit up, propped himself up on a tree. He got his bag and took out his waterskin. Zeke thirstily gulped down each drop. He then reached inside the bag and took out a jar. He removed the lid and grabbed a handful of its content – a foul smelling, ointment – and rubbed it all over his wound. Relief washed over his face. He used up all the ointment and covered the wound with bandages. Zeke then reached for some of the food he had packed and started to eat. As he chewed and swallowed he started to strategize.

Tomorrow, he would hunt once more.

***

The stone steps lead Zeke to a doorway which opens up to a massive cavern. The ceiling is so high it is no longer visible to the eye. The ground is littered with the bones from all sorts of creatures – and Zeke is sure some are human. Standing at the far end of the cavern is the beast itself, waiting. The beast is in the form when Zeke first encountered it – small, wolfish. Zeke points his sword at it and shouts, “Let us not waste any more time! Show me your true self!”

Again, the beast starts to laugh. Its body starts to convulse signalling the start of its horrifying transformation. It sheds its fur and its skin starts to break. It cries out in pain as its muscles expands into three times their original size. Horns sprout from its head like a crown. The beast’s front paws changes into humanlike hands with each finger ending in hooked claws. Zeke fights hard to control the fear blossoming from deep within him. He holds his sword in both hands, its sharp blade directed towards his horrifying foe. When, at last, the transformation has finished Zeke finds himself face to face with his strongest opponent yet – the beast is now standing upright, a smile spread across its demonic face.

“Now, little man, it is time for you to die,” the beast says before sprinting towards Zeke.

The hunter is not prepared for the insane speed of the beast. Within seconds the distance between them disappeared and the beast is standing right before him, hand raised high to deliver the killing blow. Zeke fortunately is able to raise his sword in time to parry the attack. The claws come down and they land on the blade. He feels the power of the sword flowing in him, helping him withstand the mighty blow. The beast then delivers a barrage of attacks. Zeke sees each one coming and blocks them all but the beast seems tireless and Zeke is not. As the fight goes on, some of the beast’s attacks are able to slip past Zeke’s defenses until finally he becomes a step too slow and the beast is able to deliver a ferocious punch to the gut which sends Zeke flying to the cavern wall, hitting his back hard.

Zeke slowly stands up. His body is a canvas of wounds and his face shows intense pain. The fire within him is getting stronger with each use of the sword and he knows it will not be long until the spirit of the sword has fully consumed him from the inside. The beast watches him, arms folded across its chest.

“This fight is at its end, young hunter. I admit that I did not expect you would last this long. Because of that, I will show you an act of mercy. Your death will be swift and painless.”

Zeke refuses to give up. He still has a chance. He knows it. He has trained for this his entire life and he will not allow failure. Zeke unties the pouch from his belt and pours its contents in his palm. Dust the colour of silver fills his hand. The beast watches with curious eyes.

“You are right. We are almost at the end and I will claim what is mine. This is my birthright.” Zeke then eats the dust and swallows them. He can fill it scratching his throat. In an instant a burst of energy exploded from within him, engulfing him, empowering him.

***

Morning came and Zeke woke up in his tent. It was the day of the great hunt. He got up, put on his clothes, and collected his pack. When he stepped out of the tent, he found the village shaman waiting for him.

“How was your sleep?” The shaman asked.

“I wasn’t able to get any,” Zeke answered with a smile.

The shaman, too, smiled and nodded. “Come, they’re all waiting.”

The shaman led Zeke past huts made of clay with thatched roofs. Some huts had small vegetable gardens located at the back while some had animals penned with wooden fences. The two of them stopped near the entrance to the forest where a crowd stood waiting. Standing in front of the crowd was the village chief. Zeke steadied himself as he stood in front of their leader.
The village chief started to speak. “Today is a momentous day. You have been chosen by the gods out of all the young men who volunteered to be part of the ritual. Today, you will be part of the great hunt. Are you ready to grab hold of your destiny, young hunter?”

“I am,” Zeke replied.

“Very well,” the village chief walked towards the forest, the crowd parting to give him way. Zeke followed. “Once the sun breaks free from the peak of the mountains, the great hunt shall begin. You will have as many days as you would need to track and kill the beast. Once you have done so, the ritual would finally be completed and you shall be the new guardian of the village. Failure…would result in your death.”

“I will not fail,” Zeke said.

The chief nodded. “I will see you soon, Zeke.” The chief turned to face Zeke. “May you find favor in the eyes of the gods.”

Zeke looked straight in the village chief’s eyes and said, “Thank you, father.”

Zeke watched as his father start to walk away.

Zeke waited for the hunt to begin.

***

The beast attacks but Zeke is able to dodge each one. It is as if the beast suddenly became a step too slow but Zeke knows it is him who became faster. It is the effect of the silver dust – the crushed bones of Karuta. Now, some of the power of the demi-god dwells in him…even if for just a moment. Zeke sends a flurry of sword strikes and the beast is unable to block each one. Frustration mounting, the beast slams his hands on the ground which forces Zeke to leap backwards putting a stop to the hunter’s attacks.

The beast looks at him with fury filled eyes. Blood soaks its fur and one of its horns had been cut down. Both fighters know that the next exchange of blows would be the last. Zeke goes into his fighting stance, knees bent a little and sword held in front of him with both hands, as the beast goes down on all fours. Then, without warning, both charge at each other. The beast tries to stab Zeke with his claws but the hunter is able to slip past the attack. Zeke steps up the beast’s arms and runs on it up to the shoulder. The beast swipes at him but the hunter somersaults into the air, twists his body so he lands facing the beast’s back. As the beast turns he thrusts his sword deep into the beast’s chest. The beast looks down in surprise at the sword before falling on its knees then on its side.

Zeke watches as the beast transforms back to its wolf form then transforming to a man. Zeke approaches the dying man and kneels down beside him.

The man looks at Zeke and says, “You’ve succeeded. The ritual is now complete.”

Zeke nods, eyes filled with tears.

“You are now the new guardian of the village. Protect it well. You have what it takes to control the spirit of the Orgado. It flows into you now.” And with those words, Zeke’s father dies. Zeke remains on his knees as he grieves the death of his father. After some minutes pass, he stands up and retrieves his sword. He can feel it inside of him, pacing within him, waiting to be released. He lays a hand on his chest. The transference is successful. The beast now resides in him. Zeke starts his journey back home.