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The Manticore
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)

Page 1

All day we had followed the beast, over the rocky heights of the pass, and now, in the late afternoon light, its spoor was so clear that I knew it could be only a short distance ahead. And once or twice I even fancied I could hear it, a moaning call like a trumpet echoing faintly in the surrounding hills.

"It is very close," the guide confirmed, his voice shaking.

I scarcely bothered glancing at him. He was one of the villagers of the mountains, short of stature, broad of shoulder, uncouth of speech, and utterly in awe of the beast, which of course he had never seen. I knew well enough that but for the enormous amount I had already paid his chief, and promised more, he would never have agreed to guide me.

"Are you afraid?" I asked quietly, my eyes on the path. Up ahead, where the walls of rock reached higher still, there was a hint of movement, as though something had just passed. But surely we couldn't be so close, not yet; it must have been my imagination.

"It will kill us," he said. "When we catch up with it, it will kill us both."

"At most," I replied mildly, "it will kill me, only. You can make a run for it." We spoke quietly, but there wasn't much of a point of maintaining silence. The creature was aware that we were on its trail. It had been aware for years.

"I've been chasing it for many years," I had told the chief in the village, while trying to persuade him to give me a guide. He had been obdurate at first, maintaining that he would not send any of his men to certain death, no matter how much I was willing to pay. "Ever since I was a young man, I have been determined to hunt it down. And I have a commission to destroy it, from the king."

He had looked at me queerly, his wispy white beard waggling over the cup of greenish tea. "You have been so?" he had asked, in his thick accented dialect, which I still could not manage to understand completely despite the years I spent hunting in these hills. "You tell me something. Why?"

"Why?" I'd paused at the question. In all the years of my quest, it was the first time anyone had asked it. Down in the cities, the answer might be assumed to be self-evident. "It's an evil beast," I'd responded, "a cruel, devouring monster. It has devastated whole provinces, and must be destroyed."

"Hunters have tried before," the chief had said, surprisingly clearly, and not for the first time I'd wondered if his thick rustic accent weren't partly assumed. "Over the years – the decades – many hunters have tried. Some had commissions too. You know what happened to them."

I'd nodded in acknowledgement. "I know. But I am prepared, as they were not. I have hunted down the creature for years, and I am still alive. And you can see that the beast flees before me, until I am only a short way behind it. A few days only, and I shall have it in my power."

He'd glanced at my great crossbow, leaning against the wall. "And you will kill it then – with that?"

"Yes, my bolts are treated with the warlocks' poison," I'd informed him. I remembered the warlocks' hall in the capital, where the black-robed mages had hovered over ancient grimoires and bubbling cauldrons, quenching the ivory-tipped bolts in nameless potions until the heads were dark as pitch. Ivory, they had told me, was the only way to break the beast's skin; metal would do it no harm whatsoever. They had also done other magic, which they said would keep me from harm until I had found the beast. Once I'd caught up with it, though, I'd be on my own – except for their poison bolts. "You know the poison will melt flesh off bone, even such flesh as the creature has."

"Aye," he'd acknowledged. "So it is said. But do ye know that even if ye kill the beast, there will be another to take its place?"

I'd noticed that he was slipping back into the dialect. "There's but the one," I'd told him. "Once there were many, but they were all killed, and this is the very last. Only one in the whole wide world, and when it's slain, there will never be any more."

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Genre:General Horror
Type:Short story
Rating:7.18 / 10
Rated By:15 users
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