Walkabout Chapter 17
In the mountains to the east of Kohlingen, far back in the caves and canyons where humans seldom went, there lived a creature who had been unaffected by the changes of the world, great and small, for well over a hundred years. Occasionally he would come down from the hills to terrorize the villagers, smashing fences and killing livestock as he went, and sometimes when too many chocobo herds had been affected the men would send a hunter up into the creatures domain to try to kill him. His cave was decorated with the skulls of these hunters, scattered and smashed to bits under the weight of claws the size and thickness of railroad spikes. He did not fear man, but man feared him, him and all his kind.
Then the world changed. One by one the eldests brethren began to sicken and die, for they were one of the breeds that relied heavily on magic and when it left the world, so too did they. In massive numbers the golden bears dropped, until the mountains that had once rung with the sound of roars became empty and silent. Their bones joined the bones of the hunters their chieftain had killed over the years, mixed and scattered until one set couldnt be told apart from another. Men said the golden bears were extinct at last, and in celebration and defiance of their old foes they built settlements closer and closer to the foot of the mountains where once they had feared to tread.
But the great golden bear, the eldest chieftain, did not die. He was so great and old and held onto life with such a stubborn persistence not even the end of magic could cease the beating of his mighty heart. The old bear was well over twelve feet tall when he stood on his hind legs, and the weight of his paws rivalled the sturdiest sledgehammer; not for him the quiet end, stretching out in a hidden place as life meekly and silently slipped away. As long as there was breath left within his barrel-chest, the bear would fight for it, and just to hammer this fact home one night he slipped down into the settlements and killed a good half of their chocobos, rending and destroying anything within reach before fleeing back into the mountains with the dawn. The taste of fresh blood was sweet on his tongue, and for a week the bear ventured into the valley each evening to feed, as unafraid of humans as he had ever been in his youth.
A call went out up and down the valley: the great bear had returned, and if someone did not stop him soon, every chocobo in the Kohlingen vicinity would be dead and wasted by the next full moon. There was a great hunter of monsters who lived in the village, and it was he the council sent out when the next attack occurred, although in truth none of them genuinely expected to ever see the man alive again. He had appeared three years ago looking for work and had since proven to be as fine a monster-killer as you could want there were few monsters left, but the ones that remained needed some clearing out but not even the oldest and wisest trackers had ever come back from following the bear. It was a death sentence, but they hoped that perhaps a human sacrifice would pacify the old creature, and to this aim sent the hunter onward with words of cheerful praise.
The golden fled into the mountains with the rising sun as he always did, but this time the monster-killer followed, hot on his heels and heavily armed. It was a long chase that went deep into the bears lair, and at the end of it the man did not die a surprise to both the hunter and his quarry, who had fully expected to smash this apes head in with a single blow just as had always happened in the past. But this ape was fast; he moved like a blur, and before the old one could bring his claws and teeth to bear on the stinking creature it was always somewhere else, slashing at the heavy hide with a poisoned sword and throwing knives until the golden could take no more and fled with all his speed and quickness into the highest upreaches of the mountains where men did not dare follow. The human turned and went home without his prize, apparently satisfied that his ursine adversary would die from the poisoned wounds.
He obviously did not know his opponent as well as he thought. The golden was horribly sick from his cuts, true, but he hadnt died. He staggered aimlessly through the mountains in a blind stupor, suffering but unwilling to let go of the life he had clung so tenaciously to for over a century.
His wounds dripped pus and seeped blood. One eye had been put out by a throwing knife, and there was a great gash down to the bone on one of his hind legs where infection was beginning to set in. Half of an ear had been lopped off and the shredded tissue dangled uselessly from a narrow strip of flesh no wider than a mans pinky. The bears world was composed of pain and confusion and anger; he shuffled through it completely unaware of his surroundings. Eventually his tortured wandering took him back down into the valley, farther south than he had been wont to go when in his right senses. No men saw the golden he had emerged from the pass in a fairly unsettled area, several miles from the outskirts of Kohlingen and the old monster might have stumbled onward to the coast and eventually died there without ever bothering another human soul, had it not been for a warking chocobo and its rider who bumbled right into his path.
The eldest had never been equipped with superlative eyesight, even when healthy. Bears were notoriously short-sighted and this one was no different; he operated by scent and hearing, not vision. But even with one eye gone and the other in bad shape he saw the chocobo when it passed nearby, a bright dot of yellow trotting through the evening shadows towards the village. The hot smell of the rider burned the bears nostrils and stirred the last dying embers of his hatred into a blazing fire of wrath. It was because of creatures like this that he hurt so badly, and it was because of them that he would most probably die. A tiny red eye full of rage settled on the galloping figure, and without warning the bear charged, his final burst of energy devoted to snuffing out the nettling smell and sound of this enemy of his tribe.
Relm had no idea she was under attack until the creature was almost upon them, a towering mass of muscle moving at an unbelievable rate through the twilight towards her and the chocobo steed. There was no time to react and no time to prepare; before the girl could reach for a weapon or turn her mount out of the way, the bear had slammed into them and she was flying through the air, knocked several feet away by the force of the sudden unexpected impact.
The screams of the dying chocobo and the roars of the maddened bear eventually brought her back to consciousness. It couldnt have been more than a minute since the fall, perhaps two, but in those scant moments Relms life had come under serious threat. Feather-Duster was being ripped to bloody shreds by the golden bear and it wouldnt be long until it turned its attention to finding Relm as well; she couldnt outrun this crazed beast on foot and there was little to no chance of her fighting it one-on-one and coming out of things unscathed. Hiding would merely prolong the hunt, as bears could smell as well as any trained bloodhound her only chance of survival rested on slipping away while it was distracted with the chocobo, moving with stealth and speed until she reached the village or an outlying settlement and could get help.
Luck was not with Relm on this day. The first step she took was right onto a dry branch, and the sound of it cracking under her foot rang out like a gun firing through the evening air. The bears gore-smeared head shot up, as big around as three rainbarrels lashed together, and slowly and deliberately it sniffed the air and peered into the gloaming, trying to see what had made the noise with its one good eye. It left the strewn pile of intestines and reddened feathers that had been Feather-Duster and shuffled closer, until Relm could smell the musty rank odour of it, hot blood and stale breath and old old age.
Then it stood on its hind legs, each dangling forearm almost the size of a mans body, and she finally got a good look at just how big this creature was.
The bears great head swivelled towards her hiding place and Relm realized too late that she had said it aloud. Fuck fuck FUCK. It dropped back to all fours and as the girl prepared to make a last-ditch effort at running it swung its head and charged the brush.
She stumbled and fell, and as the golden loomed over her all she could think of was her mother. Then a black shape came hurtling out of the darkness and flew into the bears face, and every thought in Relms head was wiped clean as shock took over at what she was seeing.
Somehow, against all odds, Interceptor had found her.
They were whirling and flashing faster than the eye could follow, two wild beasts locked together in deadly warfare. The bear, for his part, was confused and unnerved by this new development; there had been a chocobo, and he had destroyed it easily, and there had been a human, and he had been well on the way to snuffing its life out as well. Then without warning this sharp-toothed wolf had come from nowhere to attack his already injured body, and things had suddenly become a lot more complicated. He would kill the wolf before it tore open his wounds any further, and then he would kill the man-creature as had been the original plan. The world would make much more sense once the wolf was dead and the human crushed between his jaws.
But it was much easier to try and kill the snarling thing than it was to actually hit it. Unlike a decent opponent it wouldnt stand still long enough for the goldens raking claws to find a purchase. Instead it danced and darted and slashed and was well away before he could retaliate, a slipping shadow that never stayed in one place for long before moving onward to the next. The bears tough old hide was soon bleeding from a dozen cuts, mostly around his neck, where the wolf seemed to focus the brunt of its attacks.
If Interceptor had merely been fighting for his own life, or to drive the creature away, it would have been a simple task of keeping his adversary occupied until either the chance to escape arose or the bear backed down and fled. As it was he was fighting for the life of the girl. This transformed him from an angry dog into a raging demon hell-bent on annihilating the threat to his godhead, with little to no concern for his own welfare or well-being. Once the golden caught him in the ribs with a claw-studded paw, and the blow threw him a good ten feet through the air. Almost before the wolf-dogs body had touched the ground he was in the bears face again, lips wrinkling back in a snarl.
The battle went on and on until the ground around the two was torn and spattered with blood. Interceptor never ceased moving and the golden began to tire, already weakened by old wounds and advanced age. It lifted its head to bellow at him and in doing so exposed a spot on its neck where the jugular vein ran perilously close to the surface. Interceptor instinctively saw his chance and lunged, but was a fraction of a second too slow - jaws that could crush steel clamped shut on the dogs pelvis and there was a loud crunch as the bear shook him about like a rag-doll. Interceptors body went limp and still, dangling lifelessly from the bears mouth.
His enemy vanquished, the golden tossed the insensate form to one side and once again turned his attention to the human. It was trying to get away, scrabbling helplessly in the dirt, but even wounded there was no doubt the old bear could catch up with his prey whenever he wanted. The bear rumbled a growl and limped ponderously towards the object of his fury, more determined than ever to cave this mewling things head in before it and its kind did him any more harm. In his dim-working mind the golden had connected all pains to this vector of man, and never had he hurt so badly as he did at that moment. He lowered his jaws and prepared to rip the hairless worm-animal limb from limb, the rank smell of it egging him on in his rage.
There was a sudden scissoring pain in one of his back legs, a hot slash like someone had struck him with a man-blade. The bear felt his leg give way as if it were made of wet timber and tried to turn to face this new threat, only to have the other leg assaulted in much the same fashion. His back end went crashing down to earth in a cloud of dust, all attempts to put weight back on the useless limbs coming to nothing. What fresh trickery was this? With an effort the golden dragged himself around, back limbs trailing ineffectually in the dirt.
Interceptor lay crumpled in the grass before the bear, gravely injured but still snarling weakly. The wolf-dog knew he was dying, could feel the bones grating together deep inside, but with his last ounce of strength he had attacked the goldens hindquarters, hamstringing the great bear before it could bring any harm to the girl. Those final slashes to the bears legs had cost him dearly in energy and blood, but it had been worth it. The bear would never run again; with this advantage the girl could surely get away from the grave danger nature had directed at her that day. He collapsed back onto the crimson-stained ground and growled his challenge to the golden chieftain, ready to die in battle.
The bear fell upon his prone form and Interceptor knew no more.
Relm had been watching with mounting horror as the battle progressed. She knew Interceptor was protective, and also knew him to be a formidable fighter when pressed, but this was a bit too much to handle. He had just tackled a bear for her. Never in her wildest fantasies of what could possibly go wrong on this final stretch had she jotted down bear attack in her mental checklist, for bears, goldens especially, were supposed to be extinct. Obviously she had been misinformed, because this one was most definitely not. She had no idea what to do, although the crazy notion of pulling Interceptor off and subsequently running like hell popped into her head more than a few times during her stunned observation of the fight. Running without him never crossed her mind.
Interceptor went down in a crushed heap and once again the bear turned to her. Once again she had prayed to the Goddesses, and once again Interceptor had saved her at the last moment. The bears back legs looked right and truly fucked, not at all fit for sprinting, and Relm knew that this was as good a time as any to run for it, but try as she might she couldnt seem to move. That was her friend being ripped to shreds there on the grass, the friend that had just saved her from a horrible death. There seemed no way to save him from the wrathful mountain of teeth and claws that had fallen upon his broken body, but Relm Arrowny was stubborn and had been since the day she was born. She began wracking her shell-shocked mind for a way to save him, only to come up against a brick wall at every single juncture.
Painting the bear might have worked for a moment, but this monster was far out of her solitary league and she had only thought to bring smaller brushes, nothing heavy duty. Would distracting and leading it away work? Relm had just begun to formulate a plan involving running up and yelling in the bears face when Interceptor emitted the first noise of pain she had ever heard him make. It was a terrible screaming-yelping sound, a cry of utter anguish, and when Relm heard it her blood changed first to ice and then to fire. Red-hot fury swept over her. All thoughts of escape fled from her brain.
Relms hand went to her pack. Almost of their own volition her fingers grasped the hilt of Sally MacDonalds blade, the parting gift the tough old bandit-woman had graced her with on that cold March morning so long ago. Relm had completely forgotten she had it, but her subconscious hadnt. A senseless, blind rage fell on her, and without really realizing what she was doing Relm charged the bear, who was meanwhile distracted completely with the annihilation of her dog.
When Relm thought back to this day later on, she could never remember exactly how she did what she did. From the moment her charge began the girls mind was a blank, moving and acting on instinct and rage alone. She never remembered darting up the animals shaggy back like a circus performer, couldnt recall what it was like to clamber towards the burly neck with only handfuls of fur to keep her aboard, and could never again evoke the memory of what exactly urged her to stab the shining blade down again and again at that particular point on the bears spine, right where its neck connected to the skull. The spirit of the ninja overtook her body, and when she finally came to the bear was dead, the knife was buried hilt-deep between its vertebrae, and all was silent and still.
There was blood everywhere. It was in her hair and all over her hands and the copper taste of it was sharp on her tongue. She managed to tug the dagger loose from the animals corpse and stared at it blankly for a good minute, unsure of what had happened, before it settled on her just what she had done. Her sticky fingers curled around the handle tightly.
You were right, Sally, she whispered, awestruck. It did come in handy.
The shock of the attack and the smell of the bears rank body were too much. Relm rolled onto the ground with a thud and proceeded to retch heavily into the dirt, until her eyes and nose were streaming. It hurt like hell, but the bile tang in her mouth afterwards was much preferable to the coppery aftertaste that had been there previously. She lay there staring up at the night sky in a stupor for some time before the sharp memory of Interceptor screaming tore through her mind and she scrambled to her feet, terrified of what she might find but determined to look anyway.
He was half-buried underneath the bears immense corpse, its massive forearms almost completely hiding the wolf-dogs body from view. Relm struggled to lift them away from her injured comrade; each one was three times as long and thick as her body and it took a lot of straining and sweating to pull the dead weight off by herself. When she finally managed to remove both of them and got a good look at Interceptor, another wave of nausea overtook her and once again she knelt in the grass and dry-heaved, fresh tears running down her cheeks.
Interceptor was not in good shape. His pelt was matted with blood and saliva, one eye had been put out during the battle, and both back legs were shattered, reddened messes of flesh, the bones sticking out at odd angles that nature had never intended. There were deep cuts and gashes all over the dogs body, but one, a low claw-rake across the belly, had slit his stomach open, letting the insides bulge dangerously outwards into the open air. It made Relm ill just looking at it. And when had he gotten so thin? What had he gone through to find her?
She sat down beside the battered body of her best friend and pulled his maimed head into her lap as best she could. Relm was not a crier, no, but this this there was no resisting it now. The girl wrapped her arms around Interceptors neck and sobbed. When he somehow managed to awaken and began weakly licking at her face, she just cried harder.
He was weak, very weak, and a red film kept closing over his vision. It felt much easier to let the warm red mist close over his consciousness, but the girl was very sad and so he struggled against the pull, lifting his head as best he could to lick the tears from her cheeks. It had always made her laugh and push him away protestingly in the past, but on this night she merely pulled him closer. He did not understand but was glad for the closeness, for he hurt terribly and hoped his mistress would somehow make the hurt go away. Interceptor had been a good dog he could hear the girl telling him so faintly, somewhere far above and good dogs were always rewarded in the end. He laid his head back in the girls lap and with an effort wagged his tail, showing her that he understood her words and was pleased. He had found her again, and that was all that mattered.
The red tide pulled him under, and this time he let it.
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