Victor H. Wolfe, Monster Hunter for Hire, adjusted his scarf. He hated the damn thing, but it was beginning to snow and he wasn’t particularly interested in freezing off the tip of his nose. He looked at his watch (8:27 AM) and then over to the mottled gray-brown granite mountains that rose on either side of him. The creeping line of morning sunlight was getting closer. He patted his horse on the flank.
“Shifty, girl, it’s even colder out here than it was when we started.”
Shifty bobbed her head and continued trodding up the narrow pass.
“Sun should be over that ridge before too long though.”
“Listen, horse. Don’t get testy with me. You signed up for this. You’re being paid well enough. Had a fat sack of oats before we left and it’s only 8:30.”
They trod on over the narrow dirt-and-gravel path, surrounded by snow-capped boulders. Scrappy mountain weeds poked their skeletal limbs up from under the light blanket of fresh snow that was beginning to accumulate. They were high enough now that the occasional fir tree was short and stumpy. The sky was dirty corpse gray though locals had suggested the snow wasn’t supposed to start until tomorrow. Lying idiots, he thought, couldn’t stand for me to wait until it passed. Just had to kill their boogeyman today. Won’t do them much good if I freeze to the side of the mountain before we even get there.
Shifty snorted again.
“That’s right, girl. We’re charging extra this time.”
Their trek up the mountain was uneventful and boring. Somewhere up here was the mysterious and terrifying beast that he had been hired specifically to deal with. “Those who go up there never return!” they said. “Our sheep and horses are disappearing leaving only trails of blood and tufts of hair!” Of course, none of them had ever seen the thing.
Truthfully, it was likely just an overzealous bear or smilodon–maybe a band of robbers trying to scare the villagers into leaving them alone. It didn’t matter though. If the mayor would sign the check, he’d gladly shoot a bear and take their money.
Victor checked his guns, he had several. At his hips, he carried two Luger pistols, dark metal, long thin barrels, and full magazines. They were strange-looking foreign things but were clearly superior to the old revolvers he still kept in saddlebags. He also carried two rifles. One within easy reach in a scabbard attached to his saddle, the other tucked away under one of his saddlebags. Despite his doubts about the villager’s claims, he was always prepared for the worst. He had encountered some incredible beasts over the last 30 years. They were more rare than people liked to think, but they did exist.
“Maybe we will find something exciting to shoot at up here.” He placed his rifle back in its saddle scabbard.
Shifty did not reply.
Time passed slowly. At some point, the sun had finally risen over the mountains, but it remained shrouded in the dirty gray clouds. Victor had no clear idea of where the supposed monster was, and he didn’t have a real map, just a vague indication that it was ‘up the mountain’ and the rumor that there might be a haunted cave. He was experienced enough to see the signs, but there had been none. No tracks in the snow beside his own. He checked his watch again.
At 11:13 AM the snow stopped. It was sudden and it was strange. Victor had long since stopped paying much attention to his surroundings. He had been in a cycle of checking his watch and fiddling with his guns, conversing vaguely with Shifty (who only occasionally responded with a nicker or snort), but something about the environment felt immediately off. He pulled the reins and hopped down.
The snow stopping was the first indication that something had changed, but as he looked it was obvious it wasn’t the only change. It didn’t look like it had snowed here for quite some time. What snow was there was crunchy and old. The path he had been walking on was trampled and worn with footprints. He knelt. Some of them were quite fresh, a man and a horse had passed through here recently.
“What is going on here, now?” Shifty looked at him but said nothing. Victor took a few steps forward. The clouds had disappeared and the sun was beaming brightly in a rich blue sky. When did that happen? He thought.
Something about the environment felt distinctly wrong, but Victor had no idea what it was. He looked around, and explored just a bit on foot but didn’t see anything that seemed out of place. He went back for Shifty who was waiting right where he left her.
“Keep your eyes peeled, girl.” He gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and pulled on her reins gently, leading her on foot. “There’s something interesting going on up here.”
They stepped forward slowly, straining to pick out any movement, listening for any sound, but there was only the faint whisper of the wind. The path was less clear up here, but the sudden appearance of footprints gave them a clear trajectory. They continued up the mountain.
Nothing happened, really. There was something strange here. Something that raised the hair on the back of Victor’s neck, but it was not obvious to him what it was. Everything looked normal, and then, they found the cave.
“Well, that’s interesting timing.”
The cave’s entrance was wide but low. A long, craggy mouth carved into the side of the mountain. The snow leading into it was trampled and dirty like the path leading this way had been, but there was a new detail. Blood. Signs of struggle, and smeared blood leading into the cave.
“Foreboding.” Victor looked back at Shifty, who bobbed her head in agreement. “Probably best you stay out here. If things go south, take off. I can make it down without you.” Shifty snorted.
Victor grabbed his rifle from its saddle scabbard and dug his wooden torch from a saddlebag. He had a gas lantern, but there was something familiar and useful about the torch. You could smack a monster with a lantern, but he never trusted the thing not to explode in his hands. Besides, the open flame of the torch often gave predators pause when he waved it at them, the split second he gained by doing that had saved his life more than once.
He placed his hand on Shifty’s nose. “Hey.. Lemme know if you see anything weird, right?” Shifty leaned into his hand gently. “I’m not thinking it’s just a bear anymore.” Victor shook his head gently. “Be right back, then.” He turned and ducked into the cave.
Inside it was damp and dark, like any other cave he’d ever seen. A few steps in, the ceiling opened up into a larger cavern so he was able to stand. It was much warmer in here. He loosened his scarf and hung the rifle by its strap across his back. He pulled out his lighter and lit the torch. Shadows sprang to life doing their macabre torchlight-jig.
The floor of the cave was damp and littered with bones. A few dark patches looked like the continuation of the blood path left by whatever had been dragged in here. There was only one way forward. No reason to wait around.
“Ok then,” he said. “Here we go!” Torch in one hand, the other hovering near his pistol, he stepped deeper into the cave.
He walked slowly, listening after each step. He didn’t know what he was hunting, but chances were pretty good that he was going to alert whatever-it-was long before he saw it.
A sound. Coughing? He froze in his tracks and held his torch high above his head, peering into the darkness and saw a figure leaning against the wall of the cave. The figure, a man, doubled over and made another coughing retching sound.
Victor took a couple more slow steps.
“You OK up there?” he said. As he moved closer the man held up a hand as if to tell him to stop and then vomited on the ground. “Oh, jeez man…” Victor said and took another step closer.
“No!” choked the man on the floor. “No no no! Get out of here!” The man raised his head. Victor was looking at… Himself.
“What the…” Victor murmured under his breath. His mind was racing. Was it some sort of mimic? He knew of a monster that could mimic a person’s voice, but he was looking into his own eyes. The man was covered in blood, it was soaking his beard, and shirt front, but he was dressed identically to Victor. The shirt was torn, and bloody, but it was the same shirt. The same pants too for that matter, and boots. Victor reached for his gun and pulled it out, slowly.
The man on the ground seemed as confused as Victor felt. His face was tied in a knot, brows furrowed, mouth gaping sideways. “You…” He said. “I…” He vomited again.
Victor held his gun steady, pointed at the man, and stepped slowly toward him. “Not sure what’s going on here, but you need to stand up, slowly and come with me. Any sudden movements and I’ll shoot.” The man on the ground looked back up, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. He stared at Victor blankly for a second but suddenly clamped his eyes shut and grabbed the side of his head.
He began to scream. Is that what my voice really sounds like? Victor thought and then shook that stupidity out of his head.
“Come on now!” Victor shouted. “We have to go!” The man kept screaming, but his voice began to change. It got deeper, more resonant. It got louder. The other man opened his eyes. They were glowing a dull amber. Then, he transformed.
It happened quickly. His skin changed color, darkening like a bruise, a sickening mottled purple. His shoulders widened, filling in the ripped shirt. His arms stretched almost to the ground. Its face was recognizably human, but elongated strangely, mouth gaping.
Victor fired his gun. The pistol held 8 rounds and he unloaded the whole thing, firing until the gun clicked empty. The beast in front of him took the bullets better than it should have. Each one that slammed into its chest or head caused it to stumble, but it did not fall. Its blood-sausage flesh seemed tough, but it was not impenetrable.
“That’s how it’s going to be, then, is it?” Victor said. He threw his empty gun at the beast and unslung the rifle. He pointed it at the beast’s head and fired. And again. That did something. The beast stumbled again and then fell backward.
Victor dropped the rifle and pulled out his other pistol. He held it in front of him then stepped back to pick up the torch where it lay on the floor behind him, keeping his eyes on the fallen beast.
It wasn’t dead yet. Victor could see its chest rising and falling, its limbs moving subtly, it didn’t seem to be much of a threat. Victor approached carefully, gun ready.
It still looked like him, in a way. Its clothes were ruined, but it was uncanny. They didn’t just look like his clothes; as far as he could tell they were exact copies. An exact replica of his watch adorned the beast’s wrist. The beast lie still, breathing heavily, its one remaining eye tracking Victor as he approached.
“Weird.” Said Victor.
The beast nodded, then closed its eyes.
Victor shot it again. Unloaded the whole magazine into its head. It was messy business. By the time he was done, there wasn’t much left above its neck. It didn’t move.
Victor reloaded and then reholstered his pistol and found the one he had thrown at the beast. He picked up his rifle and slung it over his shoulder. Then he leaned against the cavern wall and took a moment to catch his breath.
“Damn weird.” He said. “I’ve seen some crazy things, but… damn.” He stood, and walked back toward the body. He needed some kind of proof that he had accomplished what he had been paid to do. Mountain villagers liked the classic head-on-a-pike, but there wasn’t much head left in this case. Besides, it might not look great for him to march into town carrying his own head.
He reached down and unfastened the beast’s watch holding it on his wrist right next to his own. It was truly identical. His watch had a scratch on the face, right over 4 o’clock, and so did the beast’s. The band was faded and worn leather, a distinctive patina, the beast’s had the same pattern. The only difference was the time. His watch said it was 12:43, the beast’s said 3:15.
Victor shook his head and shoved the watch into his pocket. He held the torch high and took a couple of steps deeper into the cave.
He almost dropped the torch. Just beyond where the beast’s body lay were several bodies, in various states of having been eaten. There was a horse, relatively fresh. There were people–or, what he assumed were people… It was hard to tell. Victor had seen more horrors than most, but this was as much as he could handle.
He turned to leave, feeling sick to his stomach. That was unusual. He normally had a strong stomach. He had been a monster hunter for his entire adult life and had seen enough gore to….
He vomited. His whole body ached. He stumbled forward a few steps and fell to his knees, retching.
His head hurt. His whole body hurt. His arms and legs burned pins-and-needles. He grabbed his head and…
He woke up, lying face down. His arms and legs ached. His breathing was ragged. He rolled onto his back, looking around, trying to get his bearings, but it was dark.
“Where…” His voice croaked from his throat, ragged and painful. He dragged himself up to a seated position and rubbed his eyes. He was wet, but not with water, something more viscous smelled like blood. Oh. The cave. The monster.
His mind was clearing, but he still couldn’t see anything, the last thing he could remember was feeling ill. Had he been holding the torch? Surely it was around here somewhere.
He began to crawl around slowly, feeling the ground, trying to find his torch. He ran into a large, soft something. A body. Was that the monster? No, too big. He reached a hand down for a gun but found that his holsters were empty.
He was keenly aware of the danger of the situation he was in. In the dark of a cave, he could easily get turned around and find himself wandering in the darkness until he died of thirst, or found another beast. He closed his eyes. Focus. Slow breathing. Listen. Think.
The lighter. He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out the lighter, flicking it to life. Oh god.
He was surrounded by gore and carnage. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. He looked down, he was practically standing on one. It was Shifty–or, part of Shifty. What was happening?
He began to feel ill again. The same strange pins-and-needles sensation as before. He looked down at his arms in the dim flickering light of the lighter. His shirt was ripped and covered in blood, but through all that he could see that they were bruising, turning a sickening dark color.
He woke up in the darkness again. Immediately alert. Lighter gone. Guns gone. He felt his body. Covered in… That was probably blood. He had to get out of this cave. He had to get out quickly.
He began to crawl. He dragged himself over what were obviously bodies, gritting his teeth, steeling himself. Just get out. He soon found the wall of the cave. Which way? Doesn’t matter. Just Pick one and go. He stood to his feet and began to stumble his way forward, following the wall.
He moved as quickly as he could manage in the darkness, keeping one hand on the wall the whole time. He had no sense of time. He could have been walking for hours, or minutes when he saw the torchlight flickering on the walls.
He stumbled toward the light but was stopped by another wave of nausea. The pins and needles. Not again.
A voice from in front of him. “You OK up there?”
He coughed and retched, the contents of his stomach spilling on the cave floor.
“Oh, jeez man,” The voice said.
Victor looked up, already knowing what he would see. “No!” he shouted. “No no no! Get out of here!”