By Robert Currer

Part 3 of 3 – 1200 Words

This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.

Embers danced high into the starry sky as Merlin eased back into his Adirondack chair.  A darkened smile lurked at the corners of his lips.  Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat gaped in a stunned hush.

“You—You killed him?” asked Sunshine, her horror slowly clearing the cannabis fog.

Merlin only grinned a smile that might have been a grimace and lifted his chin to look at the sky.  Ursa Major could still be seen high among the stars.

“Dude,” said Goat.  His lips flapped like a fish unable to put his thoughts into words.

“Bullshit,” said Lynx.  Merlin lowered his gaze to the young hiker across the frolicking flame.  The grandfatherly warmth had left him.  Lynx hesitated, rattled his head, and then doubled down.  “That’s a load of bullshit.  Merlin, you tell some of the best stories, man, but no way in hell you turned into a bear and ate a cop.”

Sunshine held her breath and watched Merlin from the corner of her eyes.  “Think I’m telling tall tales, do you?” asked Merlin, his eyes glowed in the firelight like a predator in the deep wood.  Lynx held his stare.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.  His hands were balled into white knuckled fists. 

There was a foreboding in Merlin’s eyes like gathering thunder clouds that made the small hairs on Sunshine’s neck stand on end.  She could feel mounting pressure as the storm grew ready to burst upon them at any moment.  Sunshine no longer questioned that Merlin could kill.

Then Merlin blinked and leaned back with a chuckle.  He scratched the back of his head and through a stoner simper said, “Ha, you got me.  I was pulling your leg.  Sorry about that but I just couldn’t help myself.  I really did shoot that bear though.  Still got the bearskin in the house.  Want to see it?”  He did not wait for an answer before staggering into the hostel.  Sunshine looked to the others, unsure what to do.  A few moments later, Merlin returned with the pelt of a tremendous bear draped over his arms.  The head was posed into a ferocious snarl and the eyes were too dark for ocean green. 

Merlin stepped into the ring of firelight and held up the fur so that the others could see it clearly.  “It’s my prized possession,” he said with a dopey grin made more comical by his shaggy beard. 

Then he lowered his chin so that his eyes flashed in the light of the flames and his smile spread into a wolfish sneer.  “And when I hunt as a bear, I put it on like this,” he said with a growl.  As he spoke, he whipped the heavy fur over his shoulders so that the head lay atop his own.  There was a terrible sound like rending flesh and crunching bones followed by a scream that became a roar.  The old man was gone and, in his place, loomed an enormous black bear. 

Goat swore and Sunshine shrieked so loud that a flock of birds erupted from the trees.  But Lynx just stared with wide-eyed, slack jawed surprise.  Merlin bowed his square head toward them and bellowed a roar so deep and primal that Sunshine and Goat leapt to their feet.  Lynx sat frozen, shorts soaked with urine.  Merlin charged, bowling Lynx over as claws and teeth tore meat and life from the young hiker.  Lynx gurgled something through the gash in his throat and spoke no more. 

Sunshine and Goat sprinted into the darkened forest.  They rocketed around trees and crashed through underbrush.  Branches, thorns, and vines tore at the exposed flesh of Sunshine’s arms and legs.  Her toes were bleeding from repeated bludgeoning against stones and roots.  She paid no notice to these torments.  Thorns no matter how wicked were nothing compared to what hunted them. 

Somewhere behind in the night, another roar shredded the forest air.  In the gloaming, she could just barely make out Goat and mostly his eyes, so wide that that they were all whites.  Another roar, much closer than the last, erupted from only a few hundred yards away.  Sunshine ran harder, pushing her body to the limit until her legs filled with battery acid and her heart detonated with every beat.  She could hear a crashing through the underbrush hurdling toward them.

The moon pierced the canopy allowing shards of silver light to fall upon the forest floor.  For a flash, light spilled onto the tapestry of terror that was Goat’s face until it was torn from view by the swipe of a giant paw.  Goat’s braying screech was cut short so close at hand that steaming blood spattered across the bridge of Sunshine’s nose. 

Her lungs flapped like a moth trapped in a jar, battering against the walls of her ribcage.  But still she ran.  Her thighs melted under the searing acid burn that spread all through her until her limbs prayed for something so sweet as a cramp.  But she did not stop.  She pushed herself beyond endurance until a euphoria rose like an updraft within her.  Her body shed its weariness, and she soared from step to step nimbler than a sprinting doe.  Sunshine pushed harder and she flew down the mountain slope, pulling away from the monster that murdered her friends.

A bulge of granite reached out and grabbed her toe.  She stumbled, and grace fell from Sunshine like glasses from a tray.  The ground rose up and slammed into her outstretched arm with an agonizing crunch.  She screamed and bounced and tumbled ass over kettle down the mountain side.  When at last she stopped falling, Sunshine’s vision whirled, and she blinked hard trying to recalibrate.  She felt nothing of her body, her senses still rebooting, but she could see the angle of her forearm and knew it to be unnatural.

Sunshine tried to move, and her senses came back online with a blaring siren of agony.  Short panting breaths pressed against the pain struggling in vain to keep it at bay.  With great effort, she pushed herself to hands and knees but, before she could stand, two predatory eyes shone from the surrounding night.  Sunshine’s breath caught in her chest.  A low hunting growl came from the darkened trees and the black bear bled from the shadow like a woodland wraith.

She tried to stand, tried to flee once more to the town in the valley.  But as she pushed against the rocky earth, a coarse-haired paw the size of a catcher’s mitt swatted her to the ground.  Merlin’s ocean eyes loomed above her.  Sunshine screamed.  She tried to scramble away but Merlin’s paw crushed her to the earth like a hydraulic press.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said choking out the words with what little air was left in her chest.  Deep rivers ran from her bulging tea-colored eyes.  Ursa Major watched from on high.

Merlin’s snout sniffed its way to the nape of her neck and along the curve until she could feel his rancid breath in her ear.  In a well deep voice, Merlin whispered through ropes of hot drool, “Once you have a taste, you can never stop.” 

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