by Robert Currer

Complete Text – 5500 Words

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

In my youth, I wandered mountains wishing I was a bear.”  This was said by an elderly man known only as Merlin as he passed a joint to his left, the yellow smoke still hanging like morning fog on his lips.  He and his audience of three sat around a modest fire pit near the hikers’ hostel that he owned and operated deep in the mountain wood.  The fullness of the day had passed and, as they four basked in the evening glow, Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat grinned like conspiring children. 

The three companions were no strangers to this trail.  Years ago, on their first long hike together, they had discovered Merlin and his hostel.  It did not take them long to figure out how he had earned the name.  The man was magic.  There was no doubt about it.  Partially, it was because he grew the finest cannabis any one of the three had ever sampled.  But mostly, it was his stories.  He was a wizard in the lost art of campfire tales and more than anything that was what kept them coming back.  There was a fickleness to him though.  Merlin never pushed his art on others, and he did not perform on demand.  His magic yarns had to be teased out of the unusual old man.

Sunshine examined her nails, carving away the dirt from beneath with a stick, and asked, “Did your wish ever come true?”  Her tea-colored eyes prodded their periphery trying to catch a clue in Merlin’s craggy features.

“It did,” said Merlin accepting the joint from Goat on his right.  Holding it carefully between finger and thumb to avoid igniting his thick grey beard, he breathed deeply of the acrid smoke letting it roll from his mouth like a storm cloud before drawing it up into his nostrils and then finally blowing it out like a spring breeze.  He said with ocean eyes growing distant, “That it did but I paid a price.”

“What happened?” asked Lynx sounding more retriever than cat.  It was a clumsy maneuver and he winced as he heard himself say it.  Sunshine shot daggers through her thin eyes at him while Goat only sighed and shook his head.

Sunshine made a small show of savoring her pull from the joint.  “Did you have to pay a lot?” she asked hoping to recover Lynx’s fumble.  Lynx’s reddened blue eyes, plead their thanks.  Sometimes she felt he was the idiot brother she never had. 

Merlin smiled a slow, indulgent grin, the kind a doting grandfather might wear.  “Do you want to hear the story?”  The three companions inched closer and nodded vigorously in unison, a movement which caused Goat’s curly black beard to bounce comically.  “Alright, then.  I’ll tell you.  It all started many years ago when I wasn’t much older than you three.”

A decades younger Merlin awoke in the cool of the morning, stretching with all four limbs and a wide yawn.  He sniffed, blinked the sleep from his eyes, and rolled his legs over the side of his hammock.  The mountain air smelled sweet this summer day as he munched a quick breakfast and repacked his pack.  He had a long trek ahead and he was very much looking forward to putting some miles in beneath the sunshine. 

After only a handful of minutes on the trail, there came the rustling of something large from the brush.  The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grew closer.  Merlin pulled himself to the shadow of a tree and waited to see which of the mountain’s denizens would emerge.  He was somewhat surprised when the bushes parted, and a woman stumbled out.  She was dressed as a through hiker but carried the smallest, lightest pack Merlin had ever seen.  He blushed, feeling self-conscious beneath the heft of his own supplies.  The woman took two steps on the trail and then caught her boot on a root.  She fell to all fours with a grunted fuck.

Merlin stepped from the tree to the trail and jogged to her.  “Are you okay?” he asked, offering a hand.

Holding him for support, she gingerly tested her gait.  Then satisfied nothing was amiss, she said, “Yeah, I’m okay.  Just a little clumsy this morning.”  Her voice was smokey and low in a way that drew him a half-step closer.  She dusted off her knees and then pushed an errant strand of ebony hair behind her ear.  With a smile that was slightly abashed, she said, “Thanks, by the way.”  They shook hands and her fingers lingered on the release.  “I’m called Ursula ‘cause I’m all legs and I can’t sing worth shit.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Merlin… for other reasons.”

They fell into a light banter and somewhere along the path to acquaintance they continued their trek.  As the sun climbed, they ascended the mountain.  The weather grew sweltering beneath a sky so blue and so humid that it might have been a sea.  Leagues fell away beneath their boots and the pair continued to walk side by side exchanging parcels of words and the hidden feelings inside.  Their banter did not slacken as the day grew.  Instead, it deepened until it was no longer banter and was transformed into conversation. 

As the shadows came to dance in the twilight, Merlin and Ursula stopped to camp.  By this time, their conversation had blossomed into confession and Merlin found himself telling Ursula secrets he had never shared with another living soul.  There was an ease about her that was as unjudging as the wilds themselves.  He couldn’t remember who kissed who first, but he never forgot the night that followed.  In the end, they fell asleep wrapped in each other and clothed only in the gossamer of the starry night air.

A bone deep chill woke Merlin with a shiver in the first rays of dawn.  He was naked and alone, lying on the bare dirt.  He scrambled to his feet, spinning around in a groggy panic before realizing he was still in camp.  His pack was packed and laid patiently against a tree with his clothes from the night before folded neatly on top.  Ursula and her gear had gone. 

Merlin dressed in a hurry and then hunted around for some sign of her.  The ground was soft loam, prime for tracking.  Their trail shoes left distinct tread marks where they had entered camp, tangled together, and then laid down for the night.  But there were no other imprints from her shoes.  The only other tracks were those of a bear that must have wandered in as they slept.

Merlin slid down the trunk of a tree, his head spinning.  It was no dream.  The sour musk of their tryst woven into his clothes and beard dispelled all disbelief.  He wondered where she had gone and then realized it made no difference.  All that mattered was that she had slipped away without so much as a good-bye.  He raked his fingers through his tangled hair and could think of nothing, but the fist clenched around his heart.  It was not helpful to remind himself that he had only known her a day.  There was something singular about Ursula that he had understood instinctively and as surely as he knew that she was now lost to him forever.  The fist squeezed and burst his heart.  Merlin huddled against the tree and wept.

“Did you ever see her again?” asked Sunshine with a hint of hopeful pleading.  All three were leaning in closer to Merlin now.  The crackling fire sent their towering shadows dancing behind them like specters.

Merlin shook his head with care as if easing through an old injury that never quite healed.  “I never did see her again.” 

Sunshine could still hear a tinge of longing in his voice.  Her own heart swelled to aching for the lost lovers.  “Is that why you came up here?  So, you might find her again?” she asked, her voice warmed with romance.  Tears collected like dew at the rim of her smoke-reddened eyes.

But Merlin chuckled.  “No, no, I didn’t build this place for many more years after that.”  Sunshine’s tears sublimated without falling and she sunk back into her chair, disappointed.

Goat’s brow knotted.  “Wait.  So, what does that have to do with getting to be a bear?” he asked tugging his own curly black beard. 

Lynx rolled his glassy eyes dramatically.  “Weren’t you listening?  She transformed him into a bear before they—you know—did it.  Then she wandered off when they were done.  Duh.”  He looked at the assembled company as if speaking to a group of particularly dense and annoying teenagers.  In slow unison, Sunshine and Goat pivoted their heads to stare with open, confused derision.  There was a long pause.  Lynx looked at his friends, puzzled.  “What?”

Goat reached across and pulled the joint from Lynx’s fingers.  “No more of this for you,” he said and flicked the roach into the fire.

Merlin held up an ancient, knobby hand and the three youngsters grew still.  “I’m getting to all that,” he said settling back into his weathered Adirondack chair.  He pulled a fresh joint from the pocket of his sweater and lit it, savoring several deep pulls before passing it to Sunshine.  The smoke still clung to his voice when he began again.  “It was a sixteen years later when I became a bear.”

The steamy summer air hung thick with the buzzing of bloated flies so large Merlin could see the rainbow sheen of their bulbous eyes.  He swatted them away with his hat, his face held in a tight grimace. 

The county sheriff at his side held a handkerchief over his mouth and nose.  “Never get used to seeing this sort of thing,” he said.  His voice was subdued, the kind of quiet that people use at funerals.  At their feet was the body of a hiker, a woman by the look of her mangled face.  Her ribs were exposed and peeled back.  Her torso was only a fly-ridden cavity, hollowed out by the claws of some great predator.

“Bear, you think?”  The sheriff phrased it as a question but the lead in his voice said he already knew the answer.

Merlin nodded.  “Count on it.  No other tracks about but hers and the bears.  And the claws were too big for anything else.  Big for a black bear too.”

“Just like the others,” said the sheriff.

“Just like the others,” concurred Merlin.  As they drifted into silence, the weight of a great loss settled on his heart, both for the woman at his feet cut down in her prime and for what would come next.

“Merlin, do think you could gather up some of the other guides and meet me at the station in a couple of hours?  Don’t want to lose any time.”

Merlin nodded with a sigh.  Heartache sunk deeper into his ocean eyes and the whole of his being felt suddenly weary.  “I can make some calls.”

As the sun dipped low on the western horizon, Merlin slung his thirty-aught-six and joined the other hunters.  They fanned out along the slope in a wide line, stalking through the brush.  A light breeze rattled the leaves and Merlin felt it chill his cheeks.  A cold front was cresting the summit and pushing wind down the mountain side.  That would put them downwind of their prey, favorable conditions for the hunters.  Merlin dreamed it was not so. 

As the twilight waned, the hunt waxed.  To a man, they had each walked these mountain forests more than any could near guess.  The line moved steadily and quietly over the sodden leaf litter.  Here and there a message carried by hand signs would trickle down the line.  It would tell of scat or scratch marks or some other clue to guide their path like a road map through the unfettered wilderness.  Merlin wished he had thought to contact only green guides who could not read scat and would crash through the foliage louder than a rutting buck.  But he was no good at sabotage. 

Near the edge of full dark, just as the call to head back had been sounded, something thrashed in the brush ahead.  Merlin froze, praying to every god had ever heard of that the sound was only his imagination.  Out of the deep shadow, the lumbering bulk of a huge male shuffled into sight.  It was bigger than any Merlin had ever seen on the mountain, and he knew without question this was the beast they hunted.  His heart sank.  The thought of killing any bear filled him with a disgust that he could never quite wash off, but the evil had to be done.  It had already killed three hikers, including one little boy.  It would not stop hunting now that it had a taste for human prey.

Merlin lifted his rifle and took aim.  His lungs filled with a steadying breath.  At the bottom of his exhale, he squeezed the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the night air.  The bear staggered with a pained grunt and turned toward Merlin.  Its massive bulk tensed to charge with more fury than a raging bull.  With practiced fluidity, the hunter chambered another round and fired again.  The bullet struck with the shock of a sledgehammer.  There was a wet moan and the bear stumbled and fell.  Merlin paced a few steps closer and then fired one more shot into the still creature’s head.  He couldn’t be too safe when approaching a downed bear.

Headlamp beams popped with the dazzling light of flashbulbs as shouts suddenly filled the forest.  Merlin called out the kill and the lights converged on him.  He crept closer to the inert mass of shadowy fur.  Its giant chest did not even tremble and black blood began to pool on the leaves.  Satisfied the poor beast would never rise again, Merlin slung his rifle and pulled his own headlamp from his pocket.  He clicked on the beam.  Then his heart shattered.  The bear had his ocean eyes.

The campfire was silent save for the hissing, popping flame. 

Then Lynx said, “That bear was your son.”  A stoniness had solidified in his features giving them a grim neutrality like a sphynx or a justiciar.  “And you killed him?”

Merlin bobbed his head, still staring deep into the cracking fire.  His ocean eyes were wet and far away.

Sunshine felt a gouge in her chest like a melon baller to the heart.  Tears ran straight tracks down her cheeks.  She bit her lip but did not wipe them way.

“Fuck,” said Goat with the puffed-cheeked exhale of a man overwhelmed.

Sunshine studied the desolation etched into the fissures of Merlin’s features.  His face was like the mountain, a cluster of ravines and ridges that gathered to create something more evocative than any would be alone.  There was a depth of soul there and, perhaps because she was very high, Sunshine thought she could see what Ursula had seen in him.

She reached over and laid a hand on his arthritic knuckles.  Then gently, in a tone she used to sooth her kindergarteners, she asked, “And then what happened?”

For a week after, Merlin wandered the mountain.  It was a stormy week where tempests seemed to sit upon the mountain shoulders pouring endless oceans of rain into the valley.  Merlin did not care.  He gave no thought to the perpetual damp nor did he care that his softened skin chaffed until he was red and rashy all over.  The wheels of his mind had many miles of revolutions to make, and they could not turn in town. 

At last, the gales abated, and Merlin limped back down the mountain.  His mind was still wracked by squalls of guilt and duty, but his personal storms had petered out into a perpetual gloomy drizzle.  He expected those clouds would not leave him anytime soon. 

Home was a rundown trailer that sat on the edge of both the town and the long acres of mountain that he had inherited from his grandfather.  The sky was still gray and laden when Merlin pushed in through the front door.  He eased his sodden pack onto the peeling kitchen linoleum, opened a beer from the fridge, and went to take a hot shower. 

A damp but noticeably cleaner Merlin was holding a towel around his waist with one hand and cracking open another beer with the other when there came a knock.  He licked the thin foam from his top lip and shuffled to the front door.

“Hey Merlin.  Welcome back,” said the sheriff brightly.  He was dressed in uniform—he was always in uniform—but carried a cumbersome cardboard box.  “Mind if I step inside for a moment?”  He gestured to the box with a tip of the head.

Merlin stepped out of the door, holding it wide open.  “Come on in, Sheriff.  Do you mind waiting here until I’m dressed?”  He indicated a small square space of uncoordinated, found furniture.  The sheriff nodded, set his box on the counter, and reluctantly took a seat on a sagging, stained couch.  His face was the tight mask people wear when they are politely trying not to call a place a shit hole.

When Merlin re-emerged, he was bare foot still but dressed in jeans and a much-worn t-shirt with a faded design that once upon a time had been a stylized tree.  He eyed the box on the counter.  “Now what can I do for you, Sheriff,” he asked.

“Well, the town is just so grateful for what you did, Merlin, putting down that old boar like that,” started the sheriff, dusting off his uniform pants.  He walked over to the box.  “We—the whole town wanted to show you our appreciation.”  He unfolded the carboard flaps.  “So, we thought, what better way to commemorate your service than with this.”  Out from the box, he lifted the head of a snarling black bear.  It bared its fangs through squinting glass eyes that were not quite ocean colored but near enough.  The head was attached to a pelt, tanned and taxidermized into a fine bearskin rug.  The sheriff presented it as proudly as if he had shot the beast himself.  Merlin’s ocean eyes turned watery. 

Extending his hands, he accepted the creature’s caricaturized head and then winced when he touched it.  There was no memory of life in the thing.  A familiar squeeze gripped his chest.  A tear broke the levies and trailed down Merlin’s face.  The sheriff coughed into his fist uncomfortably, cuffed Merlin on the shoulder, and looked down at his feet. 

“Look, I’ve got to run but we’re all real grateful to have you in these parts,” said the sheriff backing towards the door.  Merlin did not stir.  The sheriff let himself out.

That night, the clouds burst.  Rain poured down in great unending sheets and lightning tore through the sky in violent purples.  Merlin huddled on the floor of his trailer, drunk and sobbing.  The bearskin rug that had been his only son lay folded in front, glaring at him through rage-filled, false eyes.  A patch of fur stood up from its snout like scuffed suede and through his choking tears, Merlin clumsily smoothed it with his thumb. 

His fingers lingered and trailed towards the creature’s brow, rubbing it soothingly as if to say “everything will be alright” which of course was not true.  But it was a comforting lie between father and son.

Merlin pulled the rug closer, hugging it to his chest and nuzzling a tear-stained cheek into the coarse black fur.  He sat swaying and clutching the rug to himself.  After some time, his tears were depleted which was worse because there was no longer anything to distract him from the black hollowness that pierced his gut.  Looking his son in the wrong eyes, he wondered what life must have been like for him as a bear.  He could not have been more than fifteen years old, mature for a bear but not yet a man.  Merlin wondered if his son was always a bear or if he could change back and forth like his mother.  Maybe because Merlin was always human and Ursula could be either, the son was forever a bear to maintain some sort of cosmic balance.

Merlin blinked and wished he could cry again.  What did he know of shape-changers and the bear-children of women?  He was none of those things.  He only knew that his son was dead, and it was his fault.  He drew the pelt to his chest.  The rug wrapped around Merlin, swaddling him in warm fur so tight it was like a second skin.

No, not like a second skin.  It was a second skin.  Merlin’s vision blurred and he felt suddenly farther from the floor.  He looked down.  His hands had widened and coarsened into massive paws with great hooked claws.  Fur covered his round belly all the way down to his short legs and pawed feet.  He was a bear, a colossal black bear as big as an Alaskan grizzly.  Merlin reached a claw back and scratched behind his triangular ear.  His furry brow furrowed.  He thought that this was a strange development and would have puzzled further had not a gust of wind blown in from the kitchen window.

The air was a riot of screaming odors and Merlin’s prodigious gut growled.  Tantalizing scents tugged him in all different directions.  Thick ropes of saliva formed on his ursine lips.  With some difficulty caused by his size, Merlin negotiated the path to the kitchen.  Fumbling at first, he managed to pry open the refrigerator door with his claws.  Inside there were only a few morsels of bread, deli meats and cheese, and a pot of yellow mustard.  Merlin devoured each.

The rumbling of his belly had not abated when he licked the last of the mustard from his snout.  He lifted nose to the air and drank deeply of the blustering night.  The wind brought stories of forage to be found beyond these rooms.  Merlin lumbered back toward the front door.  He paused, grasping at the memory of how such contraptions worked but the knowledge wriggled from his grip.  He bumped the door with a stout shoulder, rattling it in the frame.  He tried again.  When that did not work, he pushed himself to standing and then, paws out, fell against the door with all his bulk.  The cheap, weathered wood cracked off the hinges and fell beneath him.

Outside, the wind howled, and rain pounded his face.  He took a shuffling step back, considering retreating to the protection of his den, but the hunger gnawed all the way through him.  Merlin the black bear stalked into the night guided by the siren song of food.  Though his nose led him along the gravel road toward town, it was nearly twenty minutes before the first home came into view.  It was a long, low boxy place, only a little larger than his den, but the smell of forage was strong here. 

He followed the scents to a pair of trash cans, each ripe with toothsome delights.  Merlin struggled to pull the lid free, but it was stuck fast.  His gut tore at itself as he puzzled the riddle of the cans.  There was a trick to opening this type of bin designed to keep creatures like himself out.  He could remember that much but the secrets of his human life seemed so arcane, so eldritch, that Merlin struggled to call them into focus.  The howling of his belly made thinking no easier.

A sound like the clattering of a screen door cut through the wind and rain.  On the wet air, there came a smell so rich and succulent that drool frothed on Merlin’s jowls.  In the dark, the odor took shape, growing legs and arms and a large black bag.  It ambled closer with a lopsided gait.  Merlin crouched in the shadow of the cans and waited.  The scent was nearly within reach.  Only a few steps closer…

Merlin sprang with a roar that rattled bone.  He fell atop his prey with the full weight of his bulk, grasping it between rending claws and ravaging it with tearing teeth.  Its scream became a gurgle and then became silence.  Merlin licked the hot blood from his snout.  He bent low, gripped the body by the shoulder, and dragged it into the darkness.

When dawn broke, heavy and golden like a cracked egg, Merlin groaned and threw a fleshy arm over his eyes.  His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like stamp glue, and he was wet.  He shivered.  Why was he wet?  Carefully, Merlin pried open his eyes.  The sunlight was needles stabbing his brain.  He grimaced through the pain.  When finally, he could focus again, he was naked and lying on a bear pelt in the shelter of a large tree.  How did he get here?  He had dreamed that he had been a bear.  His hands were wet and tacky with blood.  Merlin’s heart pounded against his ribs.  He touched his face and found his lips wet and tasting of pennies.  Only then did he see it.  A few feet away, half buried in the damp leaves was the sheriff’s corpse.  His chest was torn open, and his innards had been eaten. 

Merlin licked his lips and cocked his head.  “Huh.”

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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