The emperor of beasts v2

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  1. The Emperor of Beasts
  3. I sat down on a fallen log and unbuckled my ruck, letting it thump heavily onto the forest floor. I felt surprisingly calm, as if my mind had flipped on autopilot. Without thinking, I produced a pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket, brought one up to my lips, and lit it. I replaced the lighter and the rest of the pack and drew deeply. I hunched over as I exhaled, resting my elbows on my knees. I watched the cig in my hand shake, and it seemed to bring me back to reality.
  5. I sat there and cried for hours. Not that soft, dignified sobbing either. I mean the kind of sobbing that makes your entire body ache and soaks your moustache with tears and mucus.
  7. You'd think someone in that state would be at their absolute limit. That if the situation got anymore dire they would simply keel over and die of shock. I guess I didn't. Abruptly, I sniveled and felt calm again. I mentally took stock of the situation.
  9. I was miles into the forest, and I did not know the way out. I had about a day's worth of water, but I had no food. I had my cell phone, but no battery. I had two knives, a small folder and a larger fixed-blade. I had my rifle and six loaded magazines, most of which were stuffed into my ruck along with a change of clothes.
  11. The fear crept back in as I sat and pondered exactly how fucked I was. I did what anyone would do. I picked up my rifle, lit another cigarette, and began walking in what I guessed was the direction I'd come from that morning. I had snapped branches and left boot-prints and depressions where I'd stumbled and fallen in the mud on my mad run away from camp, so it was not difficult to retrace my steps. Time-consuming given the distance adrenaline had carried me, but not difficult.
  13. As soon as I caught a glimpse of my green tent a chill ran down my spine. Rifle shouldered, I crept up to camp as quietly as I could and looked around. Everything seemed to be as I'd left it. My green tent stood upright with a single large gash down one of the sides where I'd cut it open to make my escape. Ash, dead coals, cookware, and firewood were scattered all over the camp. Ben's orange tent was torn to shreds, the canvas in tatters and the poles snapped everywhere and in every-which-way. And it was empty, which came as a surprise.
  15. I had been expecting a body, or at least some blood, but there was no trace of Ben anywhere. The destroyed tent and sleeping bag were the only evidence that I hadn't come out here alone. Even his gun, ruck, and boots were gone. I let out an awkward, choked laugh and fell to my knees, relieved that my friend might still be alive out there, somewhere.
  17. But where the hell had he gone? The only obvious tracks I could find were my own blunders from the previous night, and if he'd gone to find me he certainly would've succeeded. He was the one that actually knew what he was doing out here, and even I'd managed to follow those tracks.
  19. I searched for a lead until sunset, careful not to stray too far from camp, and came up with nothing. I certainly didn't want to be wandering through the woods at night again, so I set about starting a fire. I dug a few fuel tabs out of the ammo can we'd been storing our odds and ends in and warmed up a can of beans. My stomach was tied up by nerves, but I forced myself to eat a bit before I crawled into my tent for the night.
  21. It was very difficult to fall asleep, what with the circumstances and the hole in my tent, but I managed it eventually. I dreamt that I was wandering through the forest, naked. I felt a deep warmth in my gut and a sort of mindless euphoria. The trees were singing to me in soft, soothing tones, and the branches bent before me to clear a path deeper into the wood. I eventually came to a giant tree, carved into the likeness of a man. Great branches sprouted from his head, formed into magnificent curved horns. The roots at the base of the tree were in the shape of a rough throne, upon which sat a tall beast. Broadly human in shape, but with the head of a goat.
  23. The beast opened its eyes when I approached and stared at me, still as stone, without so much as a twitch of the nose. I knelt before it and found myself speaking, "Ave imperator, morituri te salutant." The beast's clawed hand came to rest atop my head, and with that everything went black. It felt as though I was falling and suddenly, as if from all directions at once, I heard a woman's voice. "You, my favored son, must not succumb to the Beast's call. Have no fear on this night, for I am watching over you."
  25. I was awoken by the call of an owl. It jolted me upright in bed, immediately alert, and within moments I was outside of the tent, rifle at the ready. The owl sat on a branch at eye level, on the other side of camp. It took flight the moment I looked at it, wings beating silently in the night. I thought for a moment about how bad of an idea it was to begin looking for Ben before first light, but I lit a cigarette and began walking anyways.
  27. I walked to the owl's perch, and continued straight from there, my path lit only by the light mounted on the barrel of my rifle. I had no idea where I was going or what I was looking for, but something was urging me forward. After an hour of walking, I heard the baying of wolves break out closeby.
  29. I rushed towards the sound to find Ben sitting motionless against a massive tree, which I immediately recognized as the one from my dream, where the great Emperor of Beasts had sat upon his throne of roots. Two wolves circled him, hunched down with ears lowered. As I stood and watched, they began to approach him, slowly but surely closing their circle. One of them finally darted in, and time seemed to slow to a crawl. I brought my rifle up to bear but hesitated for a moment. I very clearly remember thinking, "I'll hit Ben if I miss," to which I heard the woman's voice replied, "You won't." I pulled the trigger only once and the pouncing wolf crumpled into the mud as the rifle's thunderous report echoed through the woods. I blinked at the sound, and when my eyes opened the other wolf was gone.
  31. I rushed over to Ben to find his head and face caked in dried blood. I reached out and touched his shoulder, causing him to jolt awake. I had to hold hold him down as he thrashed and raved, shouting in a language I didn't recognize. We struggled for a few minutes before I heard something large and hooved running towards us. A large deer crashed into the small clearing and darted through to the other side, quickly vanishing in the thick brush. The sight of it calmed Ben immediately. I had released him in fright at the animal's sudden appearance, but he simply lay there staring towards the sky.
  33. His voice came in a breathy whisper before trailing off, "High on a stag the Goddess held her seat…"
  35. I looked at him, breathing heavily, and asked, "Fucking what?"
  37. He broke down sobbing, and we just sat there together for a while. Eventually he sat up, the tears slowed, and finally stopped. He wiped his face, smearing dirt through the dried blood on his face. He took a few steps to stand next to me, raised his rifle to the monstrous tree, and nodded at me. I nodded back and raised my rifle. No words had to be spoken; what was there to say?
  39. We opened fire, each emptying our thirty-round magazines. Something black oozed from each fresh wound on the tree, and we stepped back and watched the leaves wither and fall before our eyes. Ben turned towards me and spoke, "Hell of a first hunt, hey?"
  41. "Yeah," I replied, "Now let's get out of here."
  43. The hike back out was uneventful. We walked through our campsite, but didn't bother to take anything with us aside from the ammo can. We marched dutifully and silently back to the more well-established trails, and finally reached the trailhead at midday. We climbed into Ben's truck, still without a word exchanged between us, and I fell asleep nearly immediately.
  45. I dreamt of myself and Ben in a wondrous temple. I watched from afar as Ben knelt before a marble statue of a maiden clad in a green mantle. He stayed perfectly still save for his lips, which were mouthing a silent prayer. I watched him for a few moments before approaching a statue, this one a muscular woman holding a shield and spear. I threw my arms around her, buried my face in the nape of her neck, and wept softly. The marble grew soft and warm, and I felt strong arms embrace me and a hand gently run through my hair.
  47. Ben woke me with a slap on the chest. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked around groggily. "Right, here's your place," he said.
  49. He had clearly cleaned up his face somewhat, but his forehead was still smeared with blood and dirt. "Are you sure you're alright?"
  51. Ben smiled warmly and said, "It's nothing. I'll call you in a few days, alright brother?"
  53. "Yeah, I'll see you."
  55. I went into my apartment and unbuckled my ruck, letting it thump heavily on the carpet. I felt safe back in my own home, but I was preoccupied. Lost in thought, I produced a pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket, brought one to my lips, and lit it. I replaced the lighter and the rest of the pack, and that was that. My first hunt had been a success, and I would spend the next few days resting and waiting to be called again. Ben had warned me that the first hunt would be the hardest, and I hoped he was right.
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